They arrived back in Baldur's Gate the next evening, tired from their journey, but much more at ease in spirit than when they had first left. And though they were reluctant to throw themselves once again into the hubbub and chaos of life in one of the largest cities along the Sword Coast, they were eager, yes, even Jaheira, to see their companions again.
The Elfsong tavern was busy as always, when they arrived, but there was no sight of any of their friends.
"Hmmm..." Jaheira looked around. "Minsc and Dynaheir don't appear to have returned either."
"They could be upstairs," Khalid suggested. "Why d-don't we check at the bar to see if they might have left a note?"
"Ah, here you are," said the barkeep, who by now recognized members of Alyndria's group as regulars. The young mage priestess had, in fact, chosen this particular inn as an unofficial base of operations since her arrival, and continued to make it home despite offers to stay at the Duchal palace. The reason for her choice picked this moment to make itself heard, the mournfully beautiful song of the elven ghost who haunted the establishment sending shivers down the spines of new patrons, and gentle, nostalgic smiles to those who had grown accustomed to the unearthly presence.
Khalid, for one, fervently hoped that no one ever got wind of Alyndria's true purpose for setting up in the Elfsong. In the course of their adventuring life they'd had the opportunity to assist numerous ghosts, from the spectral knights haunting the Firewine ruins, to the crotchety old spirit of the mage Ulcaster, to even the tortured phantom of the ancient Dwarven hero Durlag Trollkiller himself. Gorion's kind ward definitely seemed to take the suffering of others to heart, whether they resided among the living or the dead, but he was sure the owner of the tavern, Alyth, would probably have a fit of apoplexy if she realized the young cleric's intention was none other than to liberate the troubled soul of the Elfsong's namesake, and property values be damned!
"Do you have any messages for us?" Jaheira asked the barkeep, interrupting Khalid's thoughts.
The man checked underneath the counter. "Hmmmm, nope, nope... ah yes, here we are!" He passed the couple a parchment addressed in Alyndria's spare yet flowery script.
Jaheira opened the note. "'Having tea with Ragefast,'" she read. "'Don't wait up. A. & I.' That will be how many times they've gone to have tea with that old wizard?"
"Twelve, no, f-fourteen," Khalid said.
"I still don't think he is an entirely savoury character," Jaheira groused. "Imagine, holding a nymph captive for that long simply because she had the lack of judgement to lie with him one night under the stars. For a wizard of such training and advanced age, he was very na´ve about such things."
"Alyndria did convince him to release Abela, without resorting to force," Khalid pointed out. "So he can't be that bad, I think he was just lonely, and I'm sure he appreciates the company of two l-lively young girls who share his interest in the arcane arts."
"Just as long as he exhibits only the right sort of appreciation," Jaheira answered dangerously. "Because if I have to go storming that house again it won't be to negotiate."
"The feeling is m-mutual," Khalid agreed, patting her elbow. "Well, since it looks like we're on our own for a while longer, how about dinner, followed by an early night..."
"Just how early?" Jaheira murmured.
"We could s-start right now?" Khalid suggested, only to be interrupted by a discreet rumble of complaint from a very neglected stomach.
"Dinner first, I think," the Druid answered with a chuckle, and the two grabbed a table in a corner, looking forward to a hot meal, and the continued pleasure of each other's company.
Khalid awoke late the next day, a usual occurrence for him after a night of Jaheira's wonderfully demanding passions. He rolled over, expecting to embrace his beloved, only to get a face full of parchment instead.
Sitting up, he unfolded the note.
"I tried to wake you, but you were snoring like a ghast with a headcold," it began, in Jaheira's forthright, balanced hand.
"I do not snore," he muttered, reading on.
"And yes, you do snore!" The letter continued, making him chuckle. "Alyndria and Imoen got back late last night, but that blasted wizard has invited them for still more tea, and the opportunity to look through some new scrolls he ordered from Waterdeep. I think they need a chaperone, so that's where I will be. Maybe if I glare enough, the wizard will know I mean business.
We will be back before the evening meal. Stay out of trouble.
Khalid smiled and refolded the letter, setting it on the nightstand. /Now, what could I do to get myself in trouble today?/ he wondered. /Not much,/ he finally concluded, and laughed to himself, /Jaheira's going to be disappointed if she has nothing to scold me for. Ah well, I'm sure she'll think of something./
The bed really was quite comfortable, comfortable enough to make him seriously contemplate staying there until Jaheira returned. *That* would certainly get a reaction. Unfortunately his stomach took that moment to remind him that dinner had been many hours before.
/Breakfast, then,/ the warrior decided, getting out of bed and padding towards the washstand to complete his morning ablutions. Looking in the mirror he blushed as he took stock of the latest round of scratches and marks he had acquired at the hands, and lips, and teeth of his dear wife. He'd been through a great deal of combat in his life, but there was no question that these were his favourite 'battle scars', as much for the person who had made them as for the method in which they had been acquired. Even after all these years, Jaheira could still look so adorably, and unexpectedly, embarrassed, when she saw the 'damage' she had inflicted in the heat of the moment. Then there were the 'apologies' that began the whole cycle once more.
Khalid was a lucky, lucky man, and he definitely knew it.
Humming to himself, he quickly got dressed and left the room, locking the door behind him.
Once downstairs he found the table he and Jaheira had shared last night was again unoccupied, and so he claimed it again. Judging by the amount of patrons, it was shortly before the noon rush, and it was fortunate he'd gotten out of bed when he did. Sure, there were plenty of taverns and inns in the Gate, but he rather preferred to have a good breakfast, or, as it would appear, lunch in him before he started wandering too far afield.
A few coins to one of the attentive wenches soon had him supplied with an assortment of meat, bread, and cheese, and a mug of steaming hot tea. After having been with Jaheira so long, he did feel a little awkward and out of place sitting down to breakfast alone, but she would be back soon enough.
Meanwhile, in that very same inn, another man sat alone, nursing the latest in a long series of drinks. He had been alone for a very long time, but, until recently, his solitude hadn't mattered much to him. It was a brief state of affairs, a relatively short stop on the journey he had mapped out himself, a journey in which life itself was but a single, lonely waypoint leading to a far greater destination. The living itself had ceased to matter, all that Kivan lived for was revenge.
And when he had taken his revenge, or so he thought, then he found that he had no more use for life. He had done his penance in the decades of living upon this forsaken plane without Her, She, whom he loved, his wife, his life, his true life, without which he was but an empty shell, his Deheriana, who had been taken so cruelly from him.
The moment of his vengeance had come, barely a month before, standing at the side of a noble young half elf and her companions. His nemesis, the half-ogre Tazok, who had brutally tortured and killed his love, stood by the side of hers: Sarevok Anchev, the man who had murdered her father in cold blood.
While Alyndria and her friends tackled the others, he and Tazok had been locked in a dance of death, but the outcome was the one he had foreseen, the one that had filled both his sweetest dreams and his darkest nightmares. The brutal, grunting beast had never stood a chance, for if he killed Kivan, then the young elf's soul would soon find its way winging towards Arvandor, and the heart it had left there, in Deheriana's keeping, and if he fell by Kivan's sword, then it still would not be much time before the long-awaited reunion took place. Without Deheriana, and without vengeance, there was nothing that could hold the elven Ranger to this plane of sorrows any more.
Or so he had thought.
After the battle, he had bidden his companions farewell with a light heart, but though his state of mind was so drastically changed, they suspected nothing, not even when he refused his share of the spoils they had gathered in their travels: forty thousand gold coins, a kingly sum, that he had told them to split again and share amongst themselves. "What need do I have for gold amidst the creatures of the woodlands?" he had told them. "What will I have for gold when I am in Arvandor?" he had said, in his heart.
Late at night he had departed this very inn, only pausing to divest himself of the expensive enchanted chain mail, the powerful magical broadsword, and the magnificent longbow, all of which had been gifts from his kind young benefactor. Gifts he had done nothing to deserve, but which she had given with a glad heart nonetheless. He had left the package with the innkeeper, along with a small note in appreciation to her for 'lending' him these fine things. Doubtless she would be hurt, but it was far better that she should have the powerful items to dispose of as she wished, rather than to risk that they find their way into the hands of the bandits and brigands he despised with every fibre of his being.
Wearing nothing but the clothes on his back, and with but a few coins for the journey, Kivan had set out from Baldur's Gate, intending never to return.
It didn't take long, but paradoxically took an eternity for him to reach that barren clearing in the forest, where the bandits had come upon him, and his beloved Deheriana, making love for what they didn't know would be the last time of their lives. How he had loved to see the expressions of passion passing over her exquisite features... He remembered what it felt like, moving above her, his eyes locked with hers, seeing her face flush with excitement, feeling his heart soar with the knowledge that he was about to please her yet again, bracing himself for the sweet onslaught of her body... but it had never come, and the look on her face had changed from delight to terror as a shadow had fallen over them both.
He'd had no other lovers since that fateful day, but for Deheriana there had been more, unwanted, not lovers, rapists. He'd lost count at somewhere around twenty, his heart breaking into pieces so small he was sure they had winked from existence altogether.
But now was not the time to think of that. She was free, and at peace, and soon, at long last, he would be too.
The sun went down, and the night grew colder, and as the moon rose into the sky, the first snowfall of the winter began, tiny flakes of white that grew larger and larger, until they filled the blackness of the sky like stars.
He had brought a knife with him, but it seemed such a shame to spoil such a beautiful night with violence. In a dreamlike state he found himself undressing, and he lay down naked in the middle of the clearing, exposing himself to the cold and the gentle storm, watching the flurries as they danced against the velvet backdrop of the heavens, until it seemed that they had formed the picture of his beloved's face.
Shivering soon stopped as hypothermia set in, and he felt a wonderful lethargy steal over him. And as his eyes drifted shut for what he thought would be the last time in this miserable, empty world, Kivan realized that this would be the first untroubled sleep he'd had since his beloved passed away from him. The first, and the last, for tomorrow night he would lie in Deheriana's arms, and nothing else would matter to him ever again.
Kivan awoke in a beautiful garden, redolent with the scent of rose and the heady bloom of hibiscus. He was still as naked as he had entered, and now left, the world, but in this place the sun was warm on his shoulders, and the grass soft under his tired feet. A gentle breeze ruffled the branches of the trees, carrying still more sweet aromas to his nose, lilac and rosemary, lavender and carnation, while making the leaves whisper like a lover's breathy secrets.
He looked around, but he was alone, alone in this beautiful paradise. Where was Deheriana?
Suddenly his ears picked up a new sound in the distance, a woman's voice, singing. He'd heard many songs in his life, from bard songs, to the haunting wail of the Siren, luring the unwary to their deaths, but never had he heard anything so beautiful.
Enchanted, he followed the enticing music deeper into the garden.
Gradually, a new sound wove itself into the aural tapestry of the place, the sound of splashing water, and as he stepped through a gateway formed of tall hedges, the reason for the splashing became apparent.
She had her back to him, but there was no question that she was the source of the exquisite singing. She was immersed in a steaming pool of dancing water, fed by a little waterfall that spilled every colour of the rainbow. Her skin was creamy white, and her hair was dark, as Deheriana's had been, bound up high on her head by a circlet of white roses, revealing the lyrical points of her delicate elven ears.
Kivan felt his mouth go dry. "Beloved?"
Silvery laughter came from the pool, and the woman stood, giving him an unobstructed view of the many, seemingly never ending aspects of her loveliness, making his body respond whether he wished it to or not.
His response discomfited him still more as she turned around, and he saw that while he was looking upon an elf of heartbreaking beauty, it was not his Deheriana.
"No, Ranger," the woman said, wagging a finger teasingly at him. "I am not your love. Though perhaps I would be, if I thought it might help."
"No, do not speak," though still spoken gently, her words carried indisputable authority. As he watched, her aspect seemed to morph slightly, and now she looked a little like Jaheira, a little like Alyndria, her hair changing from dark brown, to golden auburn, to strawberry, to copper red, to any hair colour he had ever seen sported by an elven female. Her features changed too, first she was a young girl, and then a woman in her prime, and then a venerable elder, but there was beauty in every form, every shade of skin, every feature, every inch of nude flesh whether slender and willowy, or voluptuously well-fed. "I am not your love. I simply am. Love."
Kivan dropped to his knees, something he had meant to do, but would most likely have had to do regardless, for his legs could no longer support him. "Lady Goldheart," he whispered, reverently, for it was none other than Hanali Celanil, elven goddess of love and beauty, who stood before him.
"Kivan of Shilmista," the exquisite elven beauty before him intoned gravely, "I am surprised you still remember who I am."
"My lady, have I not worshipped you? I am here now, for the influence you have brought into my life... The love of my Deheriana."
"Oh, you knew me once, perhaps..." the deity replied, her eyes now an icy blue. "But for a long time now you have lain far from my bowers, in the cold, joyless embrace of Shevarash."
"But, lady... she was taken from me..."
"And I am not insensible to that fact, truly, it grieves me, what you have lost... but you knew it would be found again, at the end of your time..."
"Yes, my lady," Kivan said eagerly. "When may I see her?"
"Ask yourself that question, Kivan, but I warn you that you will not like the answer."
A terrified drumbeat of foreboding began in Kivan's heart. "What are you saying?"
"Kivan, ah my poor Kivan," the goddess crooned sadly. "You truly do not know what you have done to yourself, have you?"
"Yes I do, I've sacrificed my whole life to bring justice to Deheriana's killers, so that I could be reunited with her."
"You sacrificed a great deal more than that. You did not die that day in the bandit's camp, Kivan, but from that day forward you lived as though you had."
"But what was I to do? My love, my life, she was gone... I had nothing..."
"Do you think so little of the world the gods have crafted for their children?" the goddess demanded, suddenly harsh. "Did you think that my hand was upon Deheriana and nothing else?"
"You truly do not know. Let me put this in simple terms. Your reward was waiting here, never to fade, never to grow cold, but you faded and grew cold, Kivan. Once you were filled with light, and love, and hope, but now you are twisted and bitter with hatred. Think of your Deheriana for me, what do you see? Her emerald eyes, her dark hair... oh you see all that, yes, along with the hands of the bandits as they forced her before your eyes, as they killed her. In her mind she has become as married to your pain as she was once married to you, and with your anger and your hatred, you have killed a part of yourself Kivan, and without that part you will never get into Arvandor... I will see to it."
Kivan was aghast, first shocked then angry, and he shot to his feet, heedless of the disrespect. "You cannot do that! Yours alone is not the will of the Seldarine, I will petition, my lord Shevarash..."
"Yes, Kivan?" came the sudden voice of none other than the Black Archer himself, leaning against a tree. A deep, penetrating darkness seemed to surround him, radiating from within, a darkness that pulled and tore at the vibrant colours of Hanali's garden, dulling them, draining their light until it seemed the god stood in a grey sort of limbo that kept him separate from his surroundings.
Kivan fell to his knees again, "My lord, do you know what she proposes?"
"Yes, I do."
"And it is true, what you have said," the unsmiling elf told his devotee. "She cannot keep you from Arvandor by her will alone, and no one will support her in this decision. You may stay."
Kivan bowed. "Thank you, my lord."
"I suggest you listen to the rest of what our Winsome Rose," Shevarash coughed, "has to say about your situation before your gratitude becomes too profound." And with that, he faded away.
"What your sour old master said was entirely true," Hanali confirmed, sticking her tongue out towards the place where Shevarash had stood, the colours there still a little faded, a little less glorious than they had been, though they were gradually returning to normal. "I have no control over who may find admittance to Arvandor, but here, in my crystal palace," an airy wave of her hand indicated her garden, and the faint gleam of rainbow quartz walls far in the distance, "the rules are my own, and I may give sanctuary, and refuse admittance, to whomever I wish."
"Why should I want to be here?" he asked. "It is very beautiful, but the rest of Arvandor no doubt has its charms."
"Oh yes, but there is one thing it shall never have if you dare to remain there without my sanction."
"And what is that?" he asked in a bored tone. Security in the favour of his Lord had given Kivan an assurance that was probably most unwise, and the look he gave the goddess was frankly cocky. He had finished the last earthly task he had set himself, and had come to Arvandor, and soon he would be with Deheriana, and nothing could get in his way.
"That is where you are wrong," the goddess answered his unspoken thoughts. "For if you dare remain, after you have audaciously shortened the gods-given gift of your wasted life, this palace will hold one thing that Arvandor shall never have for as long as you dwell there. Deheriana."
All colour drained from Kivan's face, as if he had been exposed to Lord Shevarash's strange aura. "But you cannot imprison her here, no one would allow..."
"But I would not be a prisoner, Kivan." That voice, that voice he had longed to hear for so long!
Clad in a long, white gown, her dark hair loose around her shoulders, his beloved, his Deheriana stepped from behind the goddess, staring at him, a mixture of love, and sadness in the woodland green of her eyes.
But when he would have rushed towards her, gathered her in his arms, she stepped back, hiding behind the divinity as a child might hide from a terrifying stranger.
"Come no closer, Ranger," the goddess warned.
"What have you done to her?!" he demanded.
"She has done nothing to me, Kivan," Deheriana replied. "But what you have done to yourself, you have done to me, for I am still the other half of your soul. You are a broken man, my Kivan," she told him, a single tear escaping down her cheek, "and the fact that you have broken yourself in my name makes it all the more painful."
"Deheriana," Kivan asked, feeling his own eyes fill. "*Why?*"
"I would have waited for you, my love," she told him. "You needn't have hastened your time for me, when we would have had the rest of eternity together."
"Would have? But we still can... Please..."
"No... Your life was a gift, Kivan, and though I no longer had mine, it was still precious to me, the gift of your life, which you shared with me, and would have continued to share, if you had lived. But you didn't live... you died with me that day, in the bandit camp, or at least, all the parts of you that I loved died... I had looked forward to coming to our Lady's pool, and watching you with her, here, seeing your adventures, your triumphs, your friendships... but there were none, Kivan, there was nothing, and after awhile I stopped watching because I could no longer bear the sorrow of what you were doing to yourself. I tried, again and again to tell you, but though your heart was filled with me, it was still too empty to listen."
"So..." Kivan struggled to find words, his heart tearing itself apart in his chest. "That's how it's to be, is it?"
"It doesn't have to..." Deheriana whispered. "Please tell him," she begged the goddess. "Tell him and send him on his way, I cannot stand it much longer."
Hearing the worlds from his beloved's lips, hearing her importuning the goddess to send him away as if he were no more than a wastrel, he, the man who had been her husband and her lover... At that moment Kivan wished he could kill himself again, and bring about an even deeper and more final death.
"There is a way for you to be reunited," the love goddess told him, a stray tear escaping down her beautiful face, evidence that she was clearly moved, in spite of the implacability of her countenance. "You must return to the life you left."
"To actually live this time, Kivan."
"But there is no one..."
The goddess shook her head. "You are wrong, there are many. My gifts, life's gifts are many for those who would embrace the living of it. I offered you many things, but you did not see them, perhaps because you felt that you did not deserve them, because you had failed your love. How ironic that in punishing yourself so, you delivered to yourself the one punishment you could not abide... My poor Kivan..."
"If you pity me so much, then let me stay," he begged.
"It is your choice," she acknowledged, "but my terms, or should I say Deheriana's, stand. I will not have her look upon you as long as the sight of you does to her what it is doing now." She turned and pressed a quick kiss to Deheriana's cheek, brushing away her tears. "Go child... do not torment yourself further."
Kivan stared after his departing love, feeling like he was losing her all over again. "Deheriana!" he cried, but all he succeeded in doing was pushing her into a run, and she disappeared all the more quickly from his sight. "So what am I to do, then?"
"As I said," the goddess told him, "the choice is yours."
"I have nothing to live for," Kivan murmured, hollowly, "and now it appears I had nothing to die for. Send me back, if you wish... it does not matter where I suffer."
The goddess nodded. "I know this was a difficult choice that I have set before you, but my actions are out of love - I am, after all, the goddess of love, so you must know I cannot do otherwise. And Deheriana's actions, as difficult as they may be for you to accept, are the same, or I would not value her company so. I know you still love her, and I hope, with time, that love will help to heal you at last. Think of her here, sitting by my pool, and give her something to see that will bring a smile to her face..."
"How can I?" Kivan whispered brokenly. "When I have forgotten how to smile myself?"
"Everything forgotten is a knowledge you once had, Kivan. Life, laughter, love... you will remember in time. For now, I would suggest you seek out your most recent companions. Despite the hatred you feel for yourself, they see only a trusted brother in arms who has supported them in their time of need; they will welcome you back amongst them, and, though I see in your heart that you cannot possibly imagine it, they will do the same for you. Let them, Kivan," the goddess pleaded and commanded at once, "let the healing begin."
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