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Choices - Chapter II


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Old debts





Sarevok lifted the blade up, over his head.




The blade cut a path to the left, a soft hiss of metal on the downward swing. A cut to the right followed, the blade at a sharper angle. Then, a sudden turn and a counter-swing, continued by a forward thrust. Muscles coiled and relaxed, again and again – after one more thrust and parry, Sarevok stopped, frozen mid-motion, and took a deep breath.


Eyes closed, he rolled his shoulders, his free hand giving his neck a brief squeeze. The hand lingered there, applying more pressure, when the sensation turned pleasant. Pleasure-pain… He’d forgotten. A bead of sweat tickled its way down his cheek, before it fell to the floor, next to a discarded shirt, worn and stained. Heated skin prickled at a cooler touch, a whisper of air. Goose-bumps rose on his arms – a smile tugged at his lips.




An overhead swing, then a fast crouch, followed by a kick at an imaginary ankle - one that had broken through bone and armor in the past. Sarevok straightened, the blade in his hand sweeping down in a wide arch. Muscles exerted for long hours ached and groaned, but he would not stop. Not yet. Pain, he welcomed, this stretching of limbs, the feel of blood pumping through his veins. Life.




Another overhead swing, arms pausing mid-air, holding the weapon there. The strain on his shoulders and arms, feeling the muscles there bunch and bulge – he reveled in the sensation. Much lighter than his old sword, this new blade. The feel to it, the altered balance – it all took some getting used to, but he would master it in the end. Allowing the blade to cut down, sharply to the right, he stopped. Truly stopped, for the first time in hours.


Dropping into a crouch, he reached for the shirt, bunched it up and wiped at his face, chest and arms. Rough cloth scratched against skin, made it itch and tingle. His tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth. Thirst – a need he could finally sate. Heated, sweaty…




Smiling still, he lifted a full water-skin to his lips and gulped down the lukewarm liquid, then emptied half of the remaining content over his head. Rivulets of water ran down his shoulders, over his back, forming a puddle on the floor beneath him. The chill did nothing to dampen his mood. Hah! As if anything could, now.


Idle a moment, fingers traced the swirling inscription on the blade’s hilt. Dark, old blood coated the sharp steel, where yet more symbols spiraled over the reflective surface. Kara-Turan. Sarevok would recognize the intricate letters anywhere. Raesa had used it in battle, before coming here – that much he could tell. The stains proved it. Just as well - that spatter of blood on the blade, the evidence of a kill, gave his exercise an added thrill.


As well as… Sarevok examined his hands, an expression neither a smile nor a frown on his face, and turned them over to catch the light. He hadn’t washed them yet. Brighter, dried stains covered them – his sweat intermixed with Raesa’s blood.


Sarevok darted a glance behind him. Next to a massive sculpture, she slept, wrapped in a blanket. A healing sleep, one he envied her for. He hadn’t slept yet – hadn’t slept in months. Sinking into the lulling darkness of dreams… The Tanaari hadn’t seen it fit to gift him with that.


Memories welled up, sharp and intense – a knife in the gut. All those never-ending months in the Abyss… Hunger, thirst, pain… ghosts of feelings, needs of the body that should have dissipated and faded into nothing – should have! – but remained sharp instead, urgent in their intensity.


A specter with a man’s desires – the Taanari’s idea of a joke. Made each day as long as a century.


And she sent me there.


All too familiar rage filled him at the thought. Teeth clenching, Sarevok’s hand reached towards the hilt of the Kara-Turan sword, only to pause mid-air.




He shook his head to clear it. This… place – it was one of her making, that will last as long as she draws breath, no more. The reminder set his teeth on edge. Killing her now, here, had never been an option. The rage left him, quicker and easier than ever before in his memory. No whispers in his ear, no promises of power, or visions of carnage. Just silence, and the stirring of his own temper, easily quenched. Sarevok let his hand fall, limp against his side, fingers spread. As much as he wished for the taint back, there were things he did not, could not miss.


Raesa groaned in her sleep and turned again. A flash of annoyance filled him. Fool. The wound would re-open. In five long strides Sarevok closed the distance between them and knelt down, next to the edge of the blanket. As he leaned in to wake her, Raesa’s eyelids fluttered open, her fevered gaze locking on his. A hand touched his arm, trailed down, fingers trying to clasp his – Sarevok frowned – her lips curled up in a gentle smile. She tried to raise herself up on her elbows.


“Anomen…†The warmth in her shaky voice made his insides clench. Tamoko… She used to say his name in much the same way.


Sarevok pushed her down, firmly. “Do not move. You will reopen the wound.†His gaze dropped down to his hands – her blood still stained them. Shifting into a crouch, he rested one hand against his knee. “And there are no more healing potions.†A lie, if ever there was one. But he would keep her weak, manageable, for as long as he could.


Raesa frowned, her face a mask of confusion. “Anomen?â€Â


The Helmite. Sarevok had seen him in his Tanaari gifted walking dreams; a choice they had given him, one that Sarevok grasped with both hands, greedy for even that second-hand taste of life. A brief window into her days, every now and then – escape and torment both, in equal measure.


A beat, then a whisper, “Not Anomen…†Her eyes cleared and focused. “Sarevok.†Steel carried in her voice, now. Contempt, he could hear it, underlined with a sweeter sprinkling of fear. Muscles visibly coiled, hands clenched and relaxed, grasping air.


Afraid and still too weak to move – that suited him just fine. A real smile stretched his lips. “Unlike your cleric friend,†he said, “I have no divine spells at my disposal. I suggest you move as little as possible.†Sarevok cocked his head to the side. “Unless you changed your mind and now wish to see the depths of the Abyss firsthand.â€Â


One eye still on him, Raesa looked down on herself. With an anxious expression, she moved her arms, one at a time, spread her fingers, and lifted one leg an inch from the ground. Heaving a sigh of relief, she breathed out, “I can move.â€Â


“How perceptive of you,†Sarevok said, pushing her back down again.


“You…†She coughed into her palm. “You healed me.†A fast glance followed, to the left, then to the right – searching for the nearest weapon, no doubt. As if he’d leave any within reach. Raesa turned back to him. “Why?â€Â


The uncertainty in her voice made him bite back another smile. “We are of the same blood, sister.†Her eyes narrowed. “Need I a reason to do right by family?†Laughter, something he thought long gone and buried, bubbled up inside him when her fist connected with his collarbone – the blow as weak as a kitten’s. Sarevok caught her hand and pressed down on her shoulder, holding her still. Such a thrill – to have her helpless like this, to see the darkness fill her eyes when his skin touched hers. Oh, how she hated him.


Raesa tried to bite his forearm, and, this time, Sarevok did laugh.




Leaning towards the ground, Sarevok held her pinned down. “I haven’t yet thanked you.â€Â


Suddenly still beneath him, Raesa interrupted him, “Don’t.†An edge of desperation sneaked into her voice. “Don’t dare thank me for this.â€Â


Still going on about her precious Gorion – sadly predictable. “You berate yourself, yet?†Her fevered skin burned against his palm. “If you had refused a chance at life for an old man’s memory, long dead, long avenged, I would have called you a fool not worthy of drawing breath.â€Â


"There is only one person not worthy of drawing breath here." Raesa's voice hitched. "And it's not me."


Bold words – Sarevok expected as much. But there was fear there; she would not meet his eyes. Her hand gripped his wrist in a weak hold, tried to pry it away – with little success.


“Worthy or not,†he said, “you’ve made your choice.†Anger rolled off her in heated waves – the fact that she could muster up enough energy for it earned her some of his grudging respect. Sarevok lowered his voice. “A choice you may yet live with. Be thankful for that.â€Â


Her eyes lit up with golden sparks, the irises black and dilated – the taint surfaced. He recognized it, with a sinking feeling in his gut. For a moment, the grip on his wrist turned iron. New strength, he knew, taint-borrowed – a remembered fire that drew him in. Fingers reached out to touch, to connect. Some things, Sarevok would always miss.


He felt her stop breathing when he touched her cheek, traced a slow path down her jaw. Warm, soft skin… with the taint coiled underneath it. A serpent ready to strike, as tightly wound as she was, just now, underneath his fingertips. Over her collarbone, to the hollow of her throat, his thumb painted that shadowy outline – an imagined manifestation of the divine. If only he could draw it out, and into himself.


A muttered curse later, Raesa shifted away, stiff and slow.


Coming to his senses, Sarevok pulled back, straightening. The taint had left him, long ago; gone – there could be no changing that. The sooner he’d face that, the better.


Raesa bit out another curse, pulling the blanket up over her naked skin. Amused despite himself, Sarevok set his mouth in a firm line. A seasoned wh*re would have blushed and gawked at the spat line. She swore like a sailor, this woman – a particularly foul-mouthed sailor at that.


Raesa drew the blanked around her, tighter. “You…†Hesitation. “You dressed the wound.†A cautious question hid behind the matter-of-fact tone.


You undressed me, she meant to say. How much would that unnerve her?


“It had to be cleaned and stitched.†A statement of fact, not an excuse.


She shook her head, once. Interrupted him. “I know that.†Oh, but it did rattle her. Her hand moved under the blanket, then over it. Raesa looked at the crusted blood beneath her nails, the spatter of dried patches on her palm. The sight seemed to bring her some measure of relief. “Just the wound, then.†Her eyes flashed with something that could have been humor. “I suppose I should be thankful for small mercies.†She regained her balance; outwardly, at least.


His eyes narrowed. Dried blood still covered her back, stomach and legs – Sarevok had seen it, when he dressed the wound. He had only cleaned the area around it, to ward of infection. “Do you take me for a man-servant?†he said. “You can bathe yourself when you regain your strength.â€Â


She nodded and tried raising herself up on her elbows. “That’s something we can agree on.†Her arms shook.


What was the fool girl trying to prove? “Lie back, woman.†His patience started running out. “You are no good to me dead.†Sarevok glanced back, over his shoulder. An unnervingly lifelike statue of a Tanaari stood there, claws fused with the wall, wings spread. His first impulse had been to shatter the thrice-damned thing into a thousand pieces. Instead, he used a hole at the base of the right wing to hide the remaining potion bottles. This new restraint… it was something he could get used to.


The blanked rustled and bunched as her back touched the ground. “Is that so? And why is that, exactly?†Raesa kept her eyes on him, sharp and intense.


Because I do not know how to leave this place. But he couldn’t very well tell her so. “You did bring me back.†There was truth in that.


Her mouth set itself in a firm, unkind line. “You are not here by my will.†Fingers gripped the edge of the blanket, knuckles turning white. “You can be sure of that.â€Â


Back to that discussion again – predictable. Sarevok shrugged. “Death was also an option, woman.†A muscle in her cheek twitched. “And if you hated me as much as you say, you would have grasped it with both hands.â€Â


Raesa turned half-away. “Coward…†she muttered.


She’d dare call him that to his face? “What did you say?†He saw her swallow, her hand reaching up to rest at the base of her throat. The expression she wore made his anger dull and shift. It wasn’t him she’d just called a coward.


The words came unbidden. “Only a fool would have done othervise.†Why he spoke, Sarevok did not know himself.


She shook her head and refused to look at him. His hands curled into fists. Let her drown in her self-pity, then. It was no concern of his.


Minutes passed in silence, and, gradually, Raesa’s breathing evened out – lulled back to sleep. Sarevok hovered over her, undecided. Should he feel insulted by the implied lack of fear or grateful for the respite? A moment’s thought, and he opted for gratitude. Trading words with her had exhausted him more than all those hours of sword play. Shaking off a cramp in his leg, he pushed away from the ground, straightening. Curious, he walked towards the statues.


The statues… How many of them were there? The assembly seemed to stretch on, forever – row after grotesque row.


A few steps amidst the stone, and Sarevok turned right, behind a likeness of a sneering orc, maw wide open, sharp teeth showing. A wooden statue of an elf-woman caught his eye, some distance away; the lines of it, the delicate carving, all stood in stark contrast with the rest of the vast mausoleum. The ugliness around it heightened its beauty. He lengthened his stride, without thinking.


By the Abyss! He jumped back, naked steel in hand. That elf-woman – he had seen her before! A mongrel druid that trailed on Reasa’s heals, from the beginning. Jaheira, they called her. Relentless b*tch was more like it. Her likeness stood before him, scant steps away, right hand gripping a hilt of a blade, the left holding up a shield in defense. But that gleam in her eyes… far too lifelike for any artist to achieve. Careful, quiet, Sarevok eased forward, blade still in hand. When his fingers touched its cold shoulder, it remained motionless. A lifeless carving or the bark-skin of a druid?


Only one way to tell.


The blade cut into the wood, deeper than he’d intended. Sarevok shifted, still watching for that tell-tell glint of steel.


Nothing. He relaxed. If that didn’t earn him a fast knife in the gut, nothing would. Just a statue, then, magnificently carved. But what was it doing there, alone among all the denizens of the lower planes?


Not alone. A quick search revealed yet more statues like it, more faces lost in the crowded halls, some familiar, others not. An elf with a bow almost as tall as he was, an easy smile on his face, hand extended, inviting. A dwarf stood in the shadows, fifty paces later, counting gold coins, axe within reach. Then stone statues of two mages emerged, seated on large marble chairs, leaning towards one another, as if frozen in the midst of a discussion. A reddish hue colored the first statue, while a gleam of purple adorned the other. He found a dozen more besides.


Raesa’s many companions, throughout her journeys. That much he could tell. Sarevok leaned against the wall, narrowed eyes trained on the nearest figure – an armored knight he recognized. He took a deep breath and allowed his eyes to drift shut. This place… From the air that filled his lungs, to the ground beneath his feet – all existed because Raesa willed it so, to serve a purpose, to fulfill a need, conscious or not. Sarevok knew it to be so, even if she was blind to it.


The hellish statues that cluttered the place… he could guess at their purpose – a reminder from whence her power came. To caution against its use. And she would be tempted, yes. Everything he learned about her told him that. His fingers absently trailed a path over the wall, following carved lines. That glimpse into her soul…


A voice resonated, “Greetings, child.†The vibration seeped out of the stone and into his bones.


Sarevok pushed away from the wall suddenly come to life, heart-beat thundering in his ears, and fell into a fighting stance. Hells! What was that?


The slow pulsing continued. He could feel it, even from a distance. The voice turned thoughtful. “You are not the one that called me.†Teeth clenched at the words. A Child no longer… He needed no reminder. “But you carry a piece of her within.†A carving inside the wall, a woman with flowing hair… its mouth moved, forming slow words. “Bring her to me. She will have need of the threads, soon.â€Â


“The threads?†One more cautious step away.


“Life-threads.†As if that explained anything. “Bonds are forged in a course of a mortal life. Whether by chance need, whether for companionship or love – it matters not. She has gathered all such bonds here, intertwined the threads with hers. They await her call.â€Â


The statues. “You can bring her companions here?†Ice flowed through his veins at the thought. “Wherever they are now?â€Â


A shake of the head, inside the wall. “I am the Keeper. The conduit.†The lines blurred, then sharpened when the movement stopped. “I can do nothing on my own.â€Â


Good. Relieved, Sarevok lowered the Kara-Turan blade. “I will bring her here when time permits.†Lying to a wall decoration. His hands tightened on the hilt.


A nod blurred the carving again. “I will wait.†A moment, and the lines withdrew, softened, and the wall returned to motionless stone.


Sarevok started back to the small clearing, casting a glance behind him. Raesa’s companions, here! No, he hadn’t clawed his way out of the grave to return there so soon. For once, the odds were in his favor. He’d keep them that way. He maneuvered between rows of stone demons on his left and rows of devils on his right, both snarling, poised for a fight. The sight did not bring back fond memories. With a violent shake of his head, he walked on.


In the clearing, Raesa slept still, concealed by the blankets. Good. He was in no mood to deal with her, now. After a few more steps, he froze. Those blankets… Wait.


He registered movement from the corner of his eye, but too late. Pain exploded from the backs of his knees, forcing him down. His hand flew to grasp a blade, but a knife pressed against his throat before he could reach the hilt.


A growl sounded out. “Have a nice stroll?†Raesa. He’d underestimated her yet again – a mistake he’d sworn not to repeat. “I thought you’d never get back.†The strain in her voice sang to him; there was weakness there yet. With all his weight, Sarevok rammed back into her, hand grabbing a hold of her wrist. Off balance, he pulled the knife away from his throat easily enough, but not before it cut a thin line across the skin. Few warm drops of blood seeped out, no more. A moment, and he held her down, breathless, at knife point.


Sarevok concentrated on slowing down his heart-beat, one at a time. He looked down on her. She’d put on his oversized shirt – better than confronting him naked, he supposed. “You could have killed me, just now.†She could have, at that. The thought gave him pause. “Why stay your hand?â€Â


Her breath came in short, violent bursts. “Rotten, stinking luck.†Pain contorted her features, but she didn’t cry out. “That knife is dull, you know,†she choked out.


It was sharp enough. More pressure, and it would have opened his throat, just like any other blade. No. She’d chosen not to kill him – a weakness he could explore at a later date. Right now, he said, “A warrior’s duty is to keep his weapons sharp.â€Â


“Gods,†she said. “You just sounded like Anomen.†Her head lolled to the side.


He didn’t appreciate the comparison. “We can test the blade, if you’d like.†They stared at each other for a long moment before he looked away. Too much feverish challenge in her eyes for his comfort.


A quick glance revealed that blood had spread onto the sides of her… his oversized shirt. The stitches had given out. “Do not move, “he said and rose, tucking the knife into his belt. He needed her, still.


Her answer trailed behind him, pain in her voice thinly disguised. “The thought never crossed my mind.â€Â









Sarevok leaned towards the small fire, palms forward, and rubbed his hands together. Warmth, instead of the burning, blistering heat of the Abyss. He had missed it, this feeling of sleepy, misty comfort.


The feeling left him when he turned his head sideways to face the woman beside him. After having drained two potion bottles, color had returned to her cheeks. She had nearly died on him again. Irritation welled up. “Tell me, was there any point to this exercise in futility?â€Â


“Besides ending your miserable life?†Raesa pulled the blanket up. “No.â€Â


Who was she trying to fool? But he’d allow her the comfort of the lie, for now. “We can sit here and trade barbs until we both wither and die of old age.†The words trailed off. “But that does not change the fact that you do not how to leave this place.â€Â


She didn’t bother denying it. Her hands fisted the blanket, then relaxed. “This place… It’s Hell, isn’t it?†Her eyes bore into him. “Or a hell of my making.â€Â


So, not as ignorant as he’d assumed. That surprised him a little. “This is an Abyssal plane you created for yourself, a pocket plane of sorts inside of a larger realm.â€Â


She bit out a curse. Charming. “Bhaal’s realm.†A frown settled on her face. “How do I leave?â€Â


If he only knew. “We leave once you are ready.†Did she sense his hesitation?


Her eyes narrowed. “Aren’t you a well of knowledge.†The sarcasm in her tone was hard to miss.


Hands twitched, eager to wrap around her insolent throat. What she knew couldn’t fill a used chamber pot. A door, previously locked, had swung open, right after she’d breathed life into him. As if caused by it. So, he could venture a guess. “I suspect you will have knowledge enough once we defeat whatever lies inside that room.†A finger pointed to a gateway to the right.


“Defeat?†She turned back, to glance at the door. “You know what’s inside?â€Â


“No.†Truth be told, he didn’t care much. A smile tugged at his lips. “But I think it safe to say a measure of carnage will be involved.†Something he looked forward to.


Before she could answer, a sound caught both their attention. Something moved amidst the statues, then stepped out, into the clearing. Sarevok felt his brow wrinkle. An… imp?


It gave them a little wave. “Um… Hello.â€Â


By the Abyss. He’d seen everything now. Jumping to his feet, with long strides Sarevok closed the distance between them. The creature made an pitiful noise when he came at it with naked steel. Sarevok barred his teeth in feral smile – his very first kill in this new life – a pathetic kill, but one that would bleed just as well.


Before he could thrust the blade home, Raesa’s voice sounded out. “Don’t kill it!†He almost laughed – as if her will alone would stay his hand. But the next words stopped him in his tracks. “It may know something.â€Â


True. Sarevok cursed himself for not remembering it first. He dragged the imp across the clearing by a wing, and dropped it to next to the fire. The creature yelped and squealed, all the way there.


Raesa straightened. “How did it get here?â€Â


The imp hesitated too long for Sarevok’s liking – he kicked him in the stomach, fast and sharp.


That got a reaction. “Ow! Don’t hurt Cespenar. Me here to help.†Leathery wings flattened against the imp’s hunched back. “Master called me. Little butler for the Master, is I.â€Â


Sarevok raised an eyebrow, but reconsidered when he saw Raesa do the same. “The Master?†A vague suspicion formed in his mind.


“Little butler for the great Bhaal, yes?†It peeked up, an uncertain grin starting on its face.


Sarevok rubbed the bridge of his nose, feeling his very first headache coming on. This was one of Bhaal’s minions?


It pointed, straight ahead. “Me see her, right there.†A frown followed. “Master is smaller, now. Err… That is…†Eyes wide, the imp tried to back up a step. “Master huge, that’s what me meant. Bigger than rude demon Lord, bigger than Cyric and Bane combined!†A sigh escaped it. “Me stupid.â€Â


Raesa sank back into the blankets with a smile. The first he’d seen on her. “So, in essence, you’re saying I’m fat?â€Â


Could the woman ever be serious? This… thing disrespected her, by its words, by its very presence, and all she could do was crack jokes. He’d have its head by now.


The creature looked even more panicked. “Noooo!†“The Master is…†The wheels in the thing’s head practically creaked and groaned from disuse. Cobwebs flew from all the internal dusting. “Um… slim? Very… err… pretty?â€Â


How much of this idiocy would he have to bear? Sarevok’s grip on the blade’s hilt tightened. One swing and he could be rid of its annoying presence once and for all.


Its face fell. “Groveling hard with Master being girl, now.†One claw scratched behind its ear. “Me is confused.â€Â


Was that laughter coming from her? “Oh, I’m not that hard to please.†She cocked her head to the side. “So, you’re here to serve me, right?â€Â


That made the cretin perk right up. “Little butler am I. Oh, yes.†Energetic nodding followed.


“Wonderful.†Something about her tone made Sarevok’s eyebrows knit closer together. “Can you kill this man for me?†A gesture his way followed.


A growl escaped him – his patience for her particular brand of humor had run out. He took a step forward.


The imp seemed to shrink before his eyes. “Err… me don’t think so.â€Â


"Shame, that."


The blade cut through air -- the thing shimmered and dissapeared from sight. Words trailed behind, “Me come back when Master’s friend in better mood.â€Â


Raesa raised an eyebrow at him. “This is all an elaborate nightmare, right?†A tired sigh escaped her. â€ÂNow what?â€Â


The thought of knocking her unconscious crossed his mind. Sarevok quenched the stirring of his temper and crouched beside her. “Sleep.†A command, not a request.


She didn’t take orders well – he should have remembered that. “Just like that?†Palpable distrust hung in the air. One deep breath, and he could suck it in, right into his lungs. He’d give her something to distrust.


A knife pressed at the base of her throat before she could draw her next breath. “If I wanted you dead, fool,†he kept his tone even, “you would have been dead and rotting by now.†Their faces were inches apart. “Whether you were awake or asleep would matter little.â€Â


She held his gaze, unflinching. Her lips stretched into a slow smile. “My, my… You do know how to sweet-talk a girl.†A hand touched his wrist, lightly, and led the knife away.


Sarevok allowed it, and drew back. “Sleep,†he repeated. He would need an able, rested fighter by his side on the morrow. She would not turn on him until they left this prison plane – he was sure of that.


Warry eyes watched him in the darkness for a long time, before they drifted shut.


Once asleep, Sarevok watched her instead. Saw her roll over in her fitful sleep, blanket falling down to reveal one pale, muscled arm and the curve of a shoulder. Dark hair spread over a pillow.... long limbs tangled beneeth the wool.




Feeling an unwanted stirring down below, he looked away, angry and uncomfortable… angry to be uncomfortable. His hands curled into fists. The needs of the body -- the Tanaari's idea of a joke.


She sent me there.


There and back again... But a score unsettled remained, yet.


And Sarevok always payed his debts.





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