VI. The Path Not Taken
Moments later, as the remaining clerics were healing the few Amnish left alive and Nalia and Imoen were running across the battlefield to the site of the imprisonments, Solar teleported down near the archmages with Onyx and Kan. As Nalia read a freedom spell from a scroll, Imoen saw her brother and happily leapt over to him.
"Ya missed it brother, ya big slowpoke!" she giggled, giving him a hug.
"Dear sister, I don't suppose you remember - I believe you stole her favorite necklace once - Araschel?" Onyx asked.
Imoen looked puzzled, but responded "Sure I do, it was just a joke to get to stop being such a prissy lil' stick-in-the-mud. And as I recall, you heroically stole it back. You two sure were sweet on each other, I remember that for sure!" Only time - until prissy Aerie showed up - that you ever put another gal before me, Imoen's darker side realized.
"You remember well," Onyx chuckled. "But I gave her more than her necklace back." Imoen's bright eyes started to dart back and forth between the faces of the two men. "I gave her a son. Your nephew. And now, a monk of Kara-Tur, he has returned, and fought the cloud giants above most valiantly."
"He is much more than that," Solar stated, as Keldorn, Minsc and Valygar reappeared and gasped for fresh air. "If Cyran nears his mad goal, it will be Kan and Kan alone who can stop him. He does not fight for gold or slaves or conquest of Amn. He fights for lust of blood, for enough blood to be able to obtain that which you forsook, Onyx."
All gasped except Onyx, who had become increasingly certain such was the case, and Kan, who was beginning to understand his purpose.
"As you did so, Onyx, Tymora and Beshaba flipped a coin, one side good and one evil, do determine who would ascend to it. Cyran seeks to influence the flip of this coin, and has just gained the power to. Kan now has the power and the opportunity to influence it as well. They have become the two faces of the coin. You must go now to Mouth Ith, where I can not, and seek Cyran. All will be decided there." With that, she was gone.
The party ran back to the keep, gathering horses and a group of rangers to accompany them. They set out riding hard to Mouth Ith. Onyx detailed the battle between the cloud giants and the avariel, as well as the story of Kan. Imoen told her brother and nephew of the outcome of the battle at de'Arnise Keep, of how Cyran had not taken the keep but losses on both sides had been very heavy. As they were above, thought Onyx, letting his sister hear his thoughts. Exactly what Cyran wanted. Gaining strongholds was a ruse from the beginning. He knew this day would bring him enough kills. What he did not know was that it has done the same for my son. Nalia mentioned her bewilderment at the absence of the druids, and the party concurred. Either they had not sided against evil this day, or already been wiped out by Cyran.
As they rode through a valley crisscrossed with streams and gulleys, they found the answer as they came upon the missing druids. They made a line across the valley, along with animals that had been summoned, charmed, or shapeshifted into. Brandishing spears and scimitars, the still-humanoid ones jeered at the force of good approaching them. Onyx noticed Jaheira among them, and could feel her sensing him. A werewolf ran out before them and shapeshifted into Cernd.
"Dear friends," he began, "my heart falls as a leaf in autumn to see you confronting us so. You have sanctimoniously crushed the Cyricsts without mercy. Is it no longer acceptable in Amn for those whom you call evil to worship their own gods or live outside your strict laws?"
"...or burn down homes and farms, take thousands of slaves, and torture and kill indiscriminantly? Not acceptable at all," stated Onyx firmly.
"But you have destroyed their army now," countered the shapeshifter. "Surely you do not need to pursue the few survivors back to their own hearth and home and destroy them completely. Even the most ferocious lion has a limit to his appetite. Ah, but I suppose that is not your way of things, tireless paladin."
"Stand aside. You know nothing. They are led by a madman with an unquenchable thirst for blood, and he wishes to become a god. If such a wave of death as will be his wake fits your idea of balance," asked Onyx rhetorically but truthfully, "then perhaps you had best reevaluate the balance of your own head."
"Dear Bhaalspawn," cajoled Cernd, "I know of what you speak. I know this Cyran would ascend the throne you ceded. But I realize the throne is that of murder. Bhaal's portfolio belongs, by nature, in his hands of an evil god. That is balanced. As the wolf feasts upon the lamb, so the murder of some innocents is the unalterable course of nature." The good force dismounted and stepped forward. Minsc and Valygar could see things were going to get ugly, and charmed the horses into running back a ways to wait things out.
"Only one thing is unalterable," stated Onyx. "My path this day. Make way or you will be made to." The druids took a step forward.
"As the mother bird who pushes her young from her nest, I see now that I must teach you the difficult way. For the greater balance, I'm afraid you will have to be destroyed," Cernd sighed.
Onyx drew out The Axe of the Unyielding and also Blackrazor. It had been unconventional enough that he was a dual-wielding paladin, but as word had spread of his obtaining and use of the evil, vampiric Blackrazor, he had become a controversial cavalier indeed. He had obtained the blade in hell itself, and then had to yield it to a djinni to pass, not daring the ignoble act of killing it. But he had hungered for Blackrazor still, and bade Imoen pickpocket it back again. Since then, a paladin wielding the evil blade had been the cause of much gossip. Onyx in fact enjoyed capitalizing on this, giving speeches before the Order of the Radiant Heart as well as Athkatla and Paradise at large about the careful manipulation of evil in order to destroy further evil. Anomen, though once a neutral himself, had been Onyx's fierce opponent in this and the two had divided the Order in this matter even as both had risen through its ranks. And now he would dual-wield it and the holy Axe of the Unyielding against the druids, showing them that neither good nor evil was truly their ally this day.
The druids gasped as Blackrazor's dark aura glimmered. Cernd gave a fierce cheer and the druids began casting spells as the animals charged. The druids grew barkskins, conjured fire elementals, and called entangling vines and bolts of lightning upon the party. The rangers had quickly drawn their bows and began shooting druids rapidly, disrupting and injuring them. Kan joined in with telekinetic fists and feet. Minsc drew out the Wave halberd and began charging towards the fire elementals. Valygar fired arrows with his elven court bow in between charming animals that ran at him. Keldorn ran forward and began dispelling druidic enchantments and slashing druids themselves with Hallowed Redeemer. Onyx cut them apart and stole their strength as he hacked through them with the dark blade and the vorpal axe.
Nalia weakened the druid's resistances with greater malison and Imoen followed it up with chaos. Druids began attacking one another as ranger arrows and Valygar's katanas flew into them. Minsc was snuffing out fire elementals left and right with the Wave, and Keldorn was slicing druids and animals open with Hallowed Redeemer as did Onyx now with Blackrazor and the Axe of the Unyielding drawn. Cernd and Jaheira began summoning elemental princes to their aid and causing mighty storms of acid, fire and lightning to rain down upon their enemies. Rangers began taking casualties and Imoen and Nalia backed out of them after taking light damage and having their spells disrupted.
The animals, charmed for various sides, were attacking each other, and some ran at the rangers, who swung at them with melee weapons or charmed some more of them. After dowsing the last of the fire elementals, Minsc confronted their Prince, Zaamal Rul, and put him out as easily. Nalia summoned a demon at the toes of Sunnis, and the prince of earth engaged the hellish beast in a struggle to the death of them both.
Running faster than all around him, Kan slashed through druids, making a beeline for Cernd. The archdruid summoned creeping doom at the monk in the forms of thousands of insects, arachnids and reptiles. The monk plowed into them, taking out hundreds at a time with fast and powerful swings of his legs, arms and blades, moving so fast he crushed or slashed through them at a touch. As Kan spun around, Cernd shapeshifted into a werewolf and leapt onto his back, biting at his throat. Kan simply fell back, trying to crush the wolf beneath him, but he scampered out from under him and leapt onto the monk, still going for his throat. With lightning reflects, Kan pushed his chin towards his chest just as the wolf's hungry jaws moved between them. He thus muzzled the canine, and while it clawed at his chest, struggling to break free, Kan ran the shape- and allegiance-shifting situational ethicist through with Truth and Clarity. He pushed the body off himself as it metamorphisized back into Cernd, and slid the lifeless archdruid off his katanas onto the muddy ground.
Onyx, running through Jaheira's conjured cloud of insects, came upon her. He paused, not exactly wanting to slay her with his deadly armaments, and she took the chance to smite him with nature's beauty, blinding him for a moment. He heard her running away, and hacked apart a few animals he heard growling at leaping at him as his sight returned. He saw her disappear and followed.
Jaheira leapt down into a gully out of sight of the battlefield. Onyx chased after her and leapt in himself, to find the druid evoking an entangling mass of vines in his way. Wearing a ring of free action, he leapt through them harmlessly and came face to face with her. Wishing to charm her rather than harm her, he sheathed the Axe of the Unyielding and drew out the Blade of Roses. He sheathed Blackrazor and whipped out the Flail of Ages, planning to slow her down with its magical effects and hoping the druid would mostly resist its elemental damage.
"It doesn't have to be this way, Jaheira," Onyx coaxed as she drew out the speedy scimitars Belm and the Water's Edge. "No one has to get hurt," he continued as she infused her weapons with harming magic.
"No, Onyx, it has come to this. I take no pleasure from this but a sacrifice must be made for the greater balance." Long used to and now ignoring his charismatic ways, she swung at him from both sides and he parried with his weapons. She continued to slash rapidly. Onyx tried to deflect her blows and gain a chance to slow her down with the flail, but she was faster and making more blows than he. Finally he consigned to bear a swipe from her on each side to gain the inside advantage, and his armor deflected her scimitars as he raked the flail heads across her stomach, doing slight elemental damage but not slowing her. Shielding Water's Edge with the Blade of Roses, he raked across her chest again as she gained a hit on his shoulder with Belm, but then she began to slow down. Now swinging at a more reasonable pace, he began incanting a hold person spell. He managed to get it off before she hit him again but she resisted it. She began chanting a spell of her own and a swarm of insects emerged from the gully walls and surrounded him, making his next attempt to cast infeasible. He made a stunning blow with the flail across her stomach and managed to stun her. As she stood there, still lucid but unable to move, he gently put his weapons away and tried to reason with her as the insects cleared.
"Jaheira, please listen to me. Despite our differences, you have been my steadfast ally and my closest friend. I have never met a braver woman and surely would have never come this far without your powers and companionship. I truly regret not giving more time to you throughout our many adventures. I have promised myself to make it up to you as soon as I could push the world back from the brink of destruction, but that has not yet come to pass. This Cyran seeks far more than to be part of the natural cycle of life and death. He does not kill to gain the power to become a god, but rather wished to become a god only to kill. If he is not stopped, a new reign of murder and death will fall over Faerun. Not just upon the humanoid races, but over all life large and small, flora and fauna. I have seen the wake of destruction his army leaves. I have come with a monk - Kan - my son, of a long lost love in Candlekeep - and I tell you he would rule the throne with a fair and even hand. He is good and pure but no puritan, lawful and firm but no tyrant. Cyran seeks to unbalance the coin toss of my gamble, and Kan and Kan alone can counterbalance him. I would have you stand with me in this, as I have held you in esteem, companionship,...and love."
Jaheira's muscles unfroze and she let her scimitars fall into the moss. "You speak true to me, as you always have and always would," she began, solemnly. "I see now how the scales weigh and oppose you no more. It was a grave error for the druids to stand in your way, but they have paid for it with their lives, and as always you have prevailed. You shall have my blessings for your quest which is so important to all life, and I know you and your son will emerge victorious. As he ascends to godhood I know you will have in store great things for your new unborn son, and your daughter to follow."
Onyx gasped at her foresight - the sight of the only the most powerful druids in the history of Faerun - and she, smiling at his respect for her, continued.
"I am glad to hear you tell how you bore such concern for me and regret of some things - your words of consolation throughout our quests, few though the were, lifted me always - and I sensed your feelings, but it means much to hear you finally say it. You and I, though we would always have our differences, could have mutually devoted ourselves together to vanquishing the most destructive and unbalanced of evils - the only quests worthy of such experienced and powerful adventurers. I understand the path - and the woman - you chose. You were true to your heart as you should have been, but now see, as I know you have wondered, what might have been."
The druid gently put her hand to Onyx's cheek, delicate fingers splayed out, and led him down a road. Down a road she had been on many times and would many more, more times than all the other roads of time and mortal choice as well as the physical roads over the land that she would spend the rest of her life endlessly walking. Back to a fork in the road.
Back to their emergence from the dungeon of Irenicus. After Imoen was tragically snatched away in the breaking dawn, and as the first sunlight and fresh air in weeks cast itself upon them, the nature-loving Jaheira seemed rejuvenated from her deathly pallor of loss and torture and was more alive and more beautiful than ever Onyx had seen her before. As their eyes caught, the mutual loss of their closest companions was briefly forgotten and it seemed as though they would find soulmates in each other.
From here they took the path not traveled. The left the crumbling Waukeen's Promenade, the cages and bazaars and the huge circus tent loomed unimportant behind them, its illusions never to be trifled with. The party found their cleric in the upstanding young Anomen and they braved across Amn, through Spellhold, the Underdark, and Suldanesellar, and hell, their love blossoming as they sought Irenicus and revenge. As they bravely rid the world of the other, evil Bhaalspawn and the nefarious Melissan and rebalanced things, Onyx chose to pursue justice with a mortal life and a mortal wife. He and Jaheira would travel throughout Faerun, sometimes doing good together, and sometimes through different means and apart for months at a time. Always in love but in conflict, with each other in spirit always and body sometimes, not always together but never truly apart.
So it was not to come to pass. Not in this universe, not in the path it took. Perhaps, far, far off, great leagues and eons away in the measurement of universes, in which the tiniest of increments is beyond the reckoning of a single universe, perhaps there will be another universe, made likely to be by the sheer numbers outweighing this tiniest of probabilities, which is like their own, save one divergence, save for a single mortal choice.
But in this universe, they hugged and stoically let slip the tiniest of tears, and Jaheira picked up her weapons as she turned to walk away, to disappear in to the forest and pursue a new life. She would have many great adventures, traveling thrice back and forth across Faerun yet never returning to Tethyr or the Sword Coast, but no path she took would bring her within sight of Onyx ever again, and she saw this. Their eyes met one final time as she turned away to dash into the thick brush, resembling a look of newfound and yet unclaimed love they had once shared long
ago, but veiled now by sadness and the new beginning of bittersweet memories. And then Jaheira was gone.
As Onyx climbed back up out of the gully and onto the battlefield, his friends were slaying the last of the scattering druids and animals with arrows, bolts, and magic missiles. "Jaheira ran away. She is gone," said Onyx sadly. Nalia and Imoen, who had been witness to the party strife and occasional confidants for Aerie and Jaheira, sensed much of what had just transpired. Keldorn and Valygar nodded, knowing well what Onyx meant despite lacking extrasensory perception or many hours with the party.
Even Minsc, and perhaps Boo, grasped the finality of this incident. In his own unappreciated understanding of things, he knew Jaheira would wander the earth for the rest of her days, a lonely and bitter sole. Minsc himself would in time leave their company, and though returning to Rasheman a hero of the Ice Dragon berserker lodge and starting his own adventuring company, would eventually himself wander out into the wilds and disappear.
VI. The Path Not Taken
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