A Visit From St. Nicholas

I'll have ye know, I have nothing to do with yer Earthly saint, regardless of what ye may have been told about my appearance. Furthermore, I don't approve of the way ye encourage yer little ones to behave around him. Positively unsanitary, if you ask me.
— E

"So what do you think?" I asked, after Imoen had had a chance to taste dinner. Today, I'd decided to fix baked chicken leg quarters, marinated in a mixture of lime juice, olive oil, minced garlic, and a few herbs I had laying around the kitchen. Lada wasn't a big fan of chicken in general, so she ate it just because it was food, but I tried to make it interesting and flavorful despite her lack of interest.

Imoen took a bite, chewed it thoughtfully, then smiled up at me. "I think you've got it right with this mix," she said. "Can you remember what you used, in case I ask you for this chicken recipe again?"

"I should be able to," I said. "I supposed I'd better write it down before I forget it, if it's that good."

"I suppose you should," Imoen laughed. "Seriously, this really is good. I wouldn't mind eating chicken more often, if it were this good every time."

"Hello, the house!" a voice called from outside the front door.

Imoen and I looked at each other, while Lada jumped in surprise, nearly knocking her plate off her table. Imoen nodded to me, slipped a dagger out of its forearm sheath and held it in her left hand, and began preparing a spell with her right hand. I stopped at the coat rack by the door, opened my carry vest, and slipped one of my 1911A1s out of its holster before opening the door.

"About time," the old man on the front step grumbled. He was dressed in well-worn black robes, leaning on a gnarled staff, and had a nice-looking dark, shiny pipe in his mouth. His hair and beard were gray, and both were long enough to cover any number of things he might have wanted to hide, although the thick, greenish-gray smoke from his pipe did a good enough job of hiding things on its own. Despite the grumbling, his eyes had a gleam of amusement and curiosity in them.

"I wondered how long it would take you to get here," I said, as I stepped back to let him in. "Imoen's in the living room. Did Mystra give you any details?"

"It's nice to know I won't have to explain myself," Elminster said. "Thank you for the ready welcome."

"We were just sitting down to dinner," I said. "Would you like to join us?"

"No, no, you go on," Elminster said. "I won't be but a few minutes."

"Who is it?" Imoen called, as Elminster stepped through the door. Seeing who it was, she squealed happily, put her dagger back in its sheath, and ran to embrace him. "Elminster!"

"What is it with you and pretty young ladies?" I laughed, as Elminster half-halfheartedly grumbled about wrinkles in his robes.

"Ye'll have to ask them, won't you?" Elminster chuckled in response to my question. He returned Imoen's embrace, then rested his hands on her shoulders and held her at arm's length while he examined her critically.

"I didn't mean to be trouble," Imoen said softly, fidgeting under Elminster's gaze.

"Little one," Elminster said, the gentleness of his tone far more genuine than the grumbling of a few moments before, "if there's one thing ye've not been, it's trouble. Our Lady is right pleased with ye at the moment, I'll have ye know."

"She ...," Imoen asked, a look of surprise on her face, "Mystra is pleased with me?"

"That she is, child," Elminster said. "Ye've taken to this new world with grace and will, and She's right proud of ye."

"I'm no child," Imoen growled. "I haven't been one since the day I was taken to Candlekeep."

"Whoa, there," Elminster said. "What brings this on?"

"Penelope," I said, as I squeezed past Elminster to hold Imoen in my arms. "Gorion failed in raising her. And neither Gorion nor Winthrop, nor any of the monks of Candlekeep, noticed – for if they did notice, they chose to not act, and I find that positively unconscionable – the horrors Penelope was visiting on Imoen."

"Hello?" Lada said, pushing her table away from the sofa and standing. She took one of Imoen's hands and squeezed it as she walked past us to face Elminster. "From what they're saying, I take it that you're Elminster? My name is Lada."

"Aye," Elminster said, looking from Lada to Imoen curiously. "I am Elminster. Perhaps you can enlighten me regarding the lass' strong reaction to my words?"

"It's really simple," Lada said. "From the time Penelope entered her life, Imoen has been living in Hell. She didn't escape that hell until she was sent here. She's suffered more in the last six years than anyone else could have in sixty. If she weren't a basically good person, what Penelope did to her would have made her an evil, bitter hag."

"But ...." Elminster started.

"Leave it be, Old Mage," I said. "Imoen's right. She's not a child, and hasn't been since she was ten years old. If your people had been paying her half the attention they should have, what happened to her wouldn't have happened. But, what's done is done, and can't be undone. So just accept that she's a woman, and let's move on, shall we?"

"Oh, there was never any question of that," Elminster said. "Tis part of why I'm here. Our Lady has choices to offer Imoen – and the two of ye as well. And, I've a message for ye, from another."

"Mystra has choices to offer me?" Imoen asked, while roughly wiping tears from her cheeks. "What do you mean?"

"A message for me?" I asked, surprised.

"Aye," Elminster said. He looked at Lada and said, "And ye, I believe, are a part of what is to come, lass, so any decision made should take thy desires into account as well."

"Oh," Lada said softly, "I'll do whatever they want. I'm just grateful to be with them."

"Oh," Elminster chuckled. "Now I understand why I was given a message for ye, as well. Normally, I try to avoid carrying messages for Gods, but the three of ye have the attention of three different Gods." He looked at Imoen and added, "Although, in thy case, the attention is far more than that of Our Lady. Ye are the only remaining child of Bhaal, lass, and so ye have the attention of many Gods, all of whom wish to know what ye intend to do with thy power and position."

"I don't want to be a God," Imoen said. "I just want to be with Fred and Lada. I love them. I want to stay with them."

"Ye'll be happy to know, that will make many people sleep more easily, lass," Elminster said. "To stay with them, though, ye'll have to give up that taint of thy father."

"Gladly!" Imoen said, almost shouting. "I never wanted it in the first place!"

"Easy, lass," Elminster said. "I'm not thy enemy. I'm merely an old man who's seen too much and done too much, and stepped on too many toes," he chuckled ruefully, "including thine, it would seem."

"I'm sorry, Elminster," Imoen said. "I just ... after learning what the rulers of this place consider a child, I was too sensitive."

"No need to worry, lass," Elminster said. "Thy friends clearly understand the reason, and stand by ye as true friends should."

"I love her," I said. "It's as simple as that. I love her as I love Lada."

"She's one of us," Lada said. "I would be sad without her."

I pulled Lada's wheelchair out from under the living room computer desk, turned it around so it was facing into the room, and sat in it. Imoen and Lada returned to their places on the sofa, and Elminster sat in the recliner. I pointed to the top of the entertainment center, where one of my ash trays was sitting. Elminster nodded and summoned it to his hand, then tapped his pipe over it before speaking.

"I will start with the message from Our Lady," Elminster said. "Imoen, it is safe for ye to return home. With thy brothers and sisters all dead, and the last of Bhaal's power removed from the Realms, the only enemies ye have are the ones any person of good will has. Thy taint can be removed from ye as ye pass from this world to our own, and ye'll never notice the removal."

"And if I choose to remain here?" Imoen asked.

"Then, thy taint will be with ye for the rest of thy life," Elminster said, "and ye'll find ye'll only be able to use what magic ye can wrest from this world, with the sweat and tears of thine own research. Our Lady is not of this world, and so She cannot affect the Weave of this world, such as it is."

"Such as it is?" I asked. "So, my suspicion that the mana level of this world is far lower than that of Toril is correct?"

"Aye, lad, it is," Elminster said. "Ye'll find that yer places of greatest mana, such as yer Giza, Avebury, and such, are but a fraction of the mana even an ordinary farm has in Faerun."

"So," Imoen said softly, "I'll never be able to learn the great magics, like you or Khelben?"

"Not on this world, lass," Elminster said. "And I'm sure ye've already learned that yer talent for finding things others don't want found is not as welcome on this world as it is back home."

"Other than the slavery," Imoen said softly, "the rulers of this nation remind me of what I've heard about Zhentil Keep."

"Oh, we have slavery, too," I muttered. "We just dress it up as military service and prison employment opportunities."

"In other words," Elminster said, "the only thieves they allow are the ones that work for them. So, if ye want to ply yer old trade, ye'll have to find a way to convince them to hire ye."

"I think I'll pass," Imoen said. "But, if I can't do magic, and I can't do thievery, what can I do?"

"That, lass, is why I was sent," Elminster said. "And, why I was sent with messages for those ye love, as well as yerself." He looked at me. "For ye, lad, a message from Kelemvor. While he appreciates the devotion ye offer him, he, like Mystra, has no place in this world. Yer devotion would mark ye as one of his priests, were ye in our world, but does little for ye in this world."

"So, it's about as effective as worshiping one of the Gods that belongs to this world, then?" I asked.

"We don't know," Elminster admitted. "No one – not human nor God – has been able to find any of the Gods of this world, so ye may be right, but they may merely be too well-hidden for any to find them."

"Or, for all we know, the lack of magic may prevent any meaningful traffic between the mortal and divine realms," I suggested.

"Aye," Elminster agreed, nodding slowly. "In any case, yer devotion to Kelemvor marks ye as an eccentric in this world, at best, while it marks ye as a faithful servant in our own." He looked at Lada and said, "As for ye, lass, Ilmater has seen yer ways, and counts ye as one of his."

"Umm ...," Lada asked, clearly uncertain, "who is Ilmater?"

"Ilmater?" Imoen asked, surprised. "Ilmater is impressed by you? Wow!"

"Ilmater is best-known as the god of healing," I said. "He takes on all kinds of pain, both physical and mental, to ease the suffering of mortals. And he doesn't care who the mortals are, or what they've done. If they are in pain, they can turn to him for help."

"Aye," Elminster said, "the lad has the right of it. Ilmater takes on the pains of the world, and his servants act as his hands, healing, tending to the sick and sick-hearted, making medicines, defending the poor and defenseless, accepting all manner of things for the sake of their charges. Of course, they can also be some of the most ruthless of warriors, when those they protect are harmed. The Monks of the Yellow Rose are servants of Ilmater, and a more dedicated order you're not likely to find."

"And when he says 'monks'," I said, "think Brother Murphy, not St. Francis."

"So, like D&D monks, then?" Lada asked.

"Aye, lass," Elminster chuckled. "Like the monks in that silly game. The message I have, for all three of ye, is that ye're welcome in our world, and places are available for each of ye."

"As long as they're together," I said, "I'm game. But I'll only go if I'm going with both Lada and Imoen."

"I was going to say the same thing," Imoen said. She looked at Lada and said, "Oh, please come with us, Lada? There's so much I want to show you."

"My eyes?" Lada asked, looking from Imoen to me.

"There are spells more powerful than the wish Imoen used," I said. "Your glaucoma could be cured, and you'd never have to deal with those eye drops again."

"But ...," Lada started, a look of fear on her face. "I don't know how to see! I've always been blind. You wouldn't make me see, would you?"

"Does it really scare you that much?" Imoen asked, reaching out to take Lada's hand.

"Lada, you don't have an iris, remember?" I said, as gently as I could. "Even without your glaucoma, you're not going to have clear vision without an iris. The best that will happen is you'll never have to worry about your pressure or the pain any more. Besides, remember what that MRI of your brain showed?"

"Lass," Elminster said, "some of the most powerful monks I've known were blind, as the average person counts blindness. They claimed that the lack of sight meant they never had to fear being deceived by illusions."

Lada broke into tears, and Imoen held her in a tight embrace, while crooning softly to her. I moved from the wheelchair to kneel beside the sofa and join Imoen in holding her close.

"Does it really mean that much to you?" Lada asked, when she finally caught her breath.

"I would never leave you," Imoen said. "If you want to stay, I'll stay, too, but I really want to show you how wonderful it is in Faerun."

"We were going to have to move anyway," I said, then laughed softly. "This would solve our problem of where to go."

"But what about all our stuff?" Lada asked. "What would we do with it?"

"I don't know about you," Imoen said, "but I want to take my clothes with me!" She giggled and squeezed Lada cheerfully. "It's the first time ever that I've had clothes that I liked, and weren't just there to make Penny happy."

"Do we get to leave bodies behind?" Lada asked. "A missing persons investigation would hurt a whole lot of people, but everyone who knows us wouldn't be surprised if we died in our sleep."

"Aye, she's one of his, all right," Elminster chuckled. "Yes, lass, we can arrange bodies for those who care about ye to find."

"Hm," I said, considering the suggestion, "we'd better make sure the bodies look as if they died of one of our old medical conditions, then. Otherwise, the investigations into our deaths will keep our families fighting for years. And despite the satisfaction I'd get from inflicting that kind of petty revenge on my family, I'm pretty sure Lada wouldn't want to do that to hers."

"I take it you have suggestions, then?" Elminster asked, giving me a curious look, as if I'd just surprised him.

"I do," I said. "It's pretty clear Lada still has EDS – that's Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome – and so she'd most naturally die from something like an aortic aneurysm. That's where her aorta blows up like a balloon, until it ruptures because it can't blow up any further. It's a fairly common cause of death for people with EDS."

"I see," Elminster said. "And what about you?"

"That's easy," I said. "I used to use a machine to help me breathe while I sleep. All it would take for me would be if I took the wrong mixture of sleeping medications, and then the electricity failed so that the machine was no longer helping me breathe. With the wrong mixture of sleeping medications, I'd sleep right through a power failure, and with the mask on my face, I'd suffocate."

"How can you be so calm about that?" Imoen asked, while hugging both me and Lada. "Dying like that sounds awful!"

"I suppose so," I said, while stroking her hair gently, "but it's better than a whole lot of other ways I can think of that I could have died if you hadn't come along."

"It may be," Elminster said, "but the set-up may just be a bit too coincidental for some suspicious people, if ye catch my meaning. Now, if yer health was as bad as ye suggest, would ye not have suffered a heart attack or stroke upon finding yer lady-love lying dead on the floor?"

"Oh yeah," I said, distracted by the worry that I hadn't managed to banish from Imoen. "In a heartbeat."

"It will be OK," Lada said. "They're just talking about how to best set up the bodies. They're not talking about us, right?"

"I know," Imoen said, "and I know Fred said you were both dying slowly, but you were sick enough for things like that to happen to you?"

"Yes," Lada said. "We were. Until you came along and made your wish." She kissed Imoen and whispered, "And loved us."

"All right, then," Elminster said, "we'll do that. I'd suggest the three of ye gather whatever ye plan to take with ye – do any of ye have bags of holding? – and I'll see what I can do about arranging yer transport and distractions."

"Eh," I said, "None of us have bags of holding. So it's strictly what we can carry with us, ne?"

"Ne, ne," Elminster said, distracted by whatever it was he was doing with a book that hadn't been there a moment before. He stopped, looked up, and considered for a few moments, then snapped out a series of words I didn't understand. Three heavy cloth bags appeared out of nowhere and fell to the floor in front of him. "There ye go. One for each of ye. Try not to damage them, will ye?"

"Definitely," I said. "Thank you." I looked at the shipment from Walmart that we hadn't even had a chance to open yet, and groaned softly.

Elminster, already back to work with his book, just grunted – kind of like, I suspect, the way I grunt when I'm busy writing and someone tries to get my attention. I picked up the bags and joined Lada and Imoen in picking through our stuff to decide what to take with us.