She stood before a memory. The gates of Candlekeep, her childhood home, yawned wide before her. The twin crimson standards of the great library hung limply on either side of the entrance, but the doors were gone. The guards were gone. The sights and sounds and smells of childhood were gone, from Hull’s good-natured shouting to the stink of Dreppin’s cows. The great keep was empty and hollow.
Cassandra reflexively tapped her palms against her hips, chest, and face. The sheath of her sword, heavy with its steel, clanked against the hardened leather cuisse and greave which protected her leg. A chainmail shirt protected her breasts, but the metal of her glove was cool against her bare cheek. No helm. Partially armored, then, and partially armed.
She glanced around. She was alone. She’d had dreams like this before, but this one seemed different. A stale wind struggled to lift the red-gold strands of her hair, and she tucked them back with a faint expression of distaste. The scent of decay was in the air.
“Do not fight.”
Cassie whipped around, yanking her sword from its sheath despite the trembling fear in the words, and then nearly dropped it in shock. Imoen stood before her, frail and shivering against the empty backdrop of the keep’s outer grounds. Imoen, whom she’d spent the last month struggling, clawing, and ripping her way through Faerûn to find again – Imoen was here. Tears of joy and relief blurred the figure before her into a palette of pastel, threatening to wash the vision away as suddenly as it’d come.
“Imoen…” She sunk to her knees, the sound of her armor echoing against the walls, and took her sister’s hand in hers. “Imoen, I’m here.”
She was ignored. Imoen continued speaking in the same halting, far-away voice. “Do not fight. To fight is to lose. Come to me.”
“I’m here.” Cassie held the younger woman’s hand to her cheek, letting her feel the wetness there. “I’m here, I promise. I won’t leave again.”
“You cannot fight alone. Find me within.”
The faded watercolors of Imoen’s form began to disintegrate. The tips of her hair broke into multi-colored dust, stolen away in the decay-laden wind along with her clothing, her skin, and her voice. Cassandra clutched the hand she held tighter, only to feel it fracture and shatter under the pressure. It, too, began to slip through her fingers like so much sand, and the blue-eyed warrior grasped at the grains in disbelief.
“No! Don’t leave me!”
Her sister’s form wavered, shimmered, and then tumbled into nothingness as the wind greedily stole the last precious shards.
“Imoen!” Cassandra threw the sword into the dirt and screamed her name into hateful silence of the keep. No answer was forthcoming. Her eyes burned as fresh tears spilled down her cheeks and spattered into the lifeless dust below. She struggled to control the heaving and shaking in her chest.
Control. It wouldn’t stop the pain, but it would push it aside and make it manageable. Control would blunt the edge of despair’s teeth until another time. Her body trembled and breath caught in half-choked sobs as her mind repeated its mantra. Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in.
The mantra continued, and somewhere in the darkness of her soul a spark ignited. Rage was kindled, fueled by frustration and stoked by helplessness. Now each breath brought a hot flame of anger, each higher and hotter than the last. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair to be so close, to have come so far, and be denied. It wasn’t fair to have sacrificed so much and so many only to again fall short. It was not fair, and she was not going to have spilled so much blood for nothing.
She grasped the hilt of the sword and levered herself to her feet. Her eyes still stung, but she used it as motivation. She hurt, and she knew why. She knew who to blame. Her blood tingled throughout her veins and she advanced through the gates with grim determination. She’d find Imoen. And after that, she’d find Irenicus.
The courtyard was as she remembered it, with the flowers springing forth in full glory of spring despite the timelessness of the dream. The familiar paths led to and fro, trailing off into pockets of nothingness where the fabric of the landscape disintegrated. ‘Within’ could only refer to the great library itself, housed within the formidable walls, and it was there she went, blade drawn and mind seething. And it was there that the dream became even more surreal.
Cassandra stopped, half-raising her sword into a ready position, unsure of how to react. A massive, barrel-chested demon stood before her at the top of the library’s entrance stairs. It was red-skinned and sported black bat-like wings easily twenty feet in span. The demon towered above her, well beyond seven feet tall, and massed as much as warhorse. Feral yellow eyes regarded her from above a short, canine muzzle filled with cruel and wicked teeth.
“This path is to the core, to the depths of your soul,” it said, the words clear and spoken with a polished accent despite the devilish face. “You must give of yourself to know yourself. Enlightenment requires—“ the fangs clicked together sharply, and the demon seemed to smile “—sacrifice.”
She tilted her head to the side, frowning as she studied him. He seemed solid enough, real enough. It’d be a very tight squeeze to get past him, though. “You can’t kill me,” she said at length. “I’m the dreamer here, not you.”
“I can’t kill you,” it agreed, clicking its teeth together again. The wings flexed as it inhaled deeply, seeming to scent the air. “And demons do not dream.”
Her frown deepened, and she advanced forward up the steps. The beast made no move towards her; its gaze on her blade was more amused than cautious.
“Step aside,” she ordered.
It laughed, a low rich sound interspersed with jackal-like yips and barks, then abruptly unfurled its wings with a rush of air and whip of leathery skin drawn taught. The body lengthened, the hunched legs straightening, and the demon leaned forward with a disturbing leer. “Sacrifice. Then you may gain entrance.”
It’d admitted it couldn’t kill her, but could a demon hurt her? Even in a dream? What kind of sacrifice to dream-demons need? It was ridiculous to contemplate — giving something to her own imagination, in order to continue her own dream. Nonetheless, Cassandra’s many brushes with magic made her suspect it was wise to comply.
“What do you want, then, as this… sacrifice?”
It seemed to settle down when faced with cooperation, and slowly returned to its former, less-threatening position. “It’s not what I want, Bhaalspawn. It’s what you want.”
“What I want is for you to let me into the library,” she growled irritably.
It laughed again, a short chuckle, and then shook its head with an animal smile. “You do not understand, Child of Bhaal, and that is why you have brought me here. You don’t want that at all.”
She tightened her grip on the hilt of her sword. “I think I know what I want, devil.”
“Yes,” it agreed. “You do think… but you don’t really know.”
“Then how about you enlighten me before I tire of your games?” she said, raising the sword once more.
“Idle threats are unbecoming, Child,” it rumbled, lowering itself further and twisting its snout into a grin. “Especially from one like you. But do you truly wish to be enlightened?”
“If it gets you out of my way.”
The yellow eyes narrowed, and the demon let out its bizarre laugh once more. “Very well. I take of your wits, and the wisdom you have learned. Thus you shall know yourself through your mistakes, when you undoubtedly falter with foolishness. Embrace your doubts and insecurities, Cassandra of Bhaal – they are what give you strength.”
A gust of air and wind-blow grit swirled into being around the demon and forced the fighter to shield her eyes. She staggered backwards, nearly stumbling off the stairs entirely, and then it was gone. The stairway lay open, accessible, and blessedly demon-free.
She approached the door cautiously as she eyed the surroundings for any further surprises, but none came forth. The door opened easily and revealed the dimly-lit interior of the famed Candlekeep library.
“Imoen!” Her voice resounded off the shelves of books and vault-like walls, booming like thunder. “Imoen!”
“Here.” Cassandra turned her head towards the direction of the voice, and spotted a familiar figure in the northeast quarter of the library’s main foyer. “Over here…”
She resheathed her sword and steadied it with her hand as she jogged over to where the figure stood, then slowed to a confused halt as Imoen gestured for her to stay back.
“I… I can see you there,” her sister said, her voice soft and without echo even in the empty chamber.
“I’m here, Im. What’s wrong?”
The girl held a finger to her lips. “Shhhh. Before the shadows return to me. I’ve seen…. I’ve seen…” Her voice trembled and quavered. “Lead the creature here. Lead it to me, and we shall fight it together. He does not expect us together.”
Cassandra shook her head. “No. I’ll do it. Tell me how, and I’ll do it.”
“One alone cannot win.” Imoen closed her eyes and turned her head away. “Alone you would fall, win or lose.”
“I will not risk you,” she retorted, voice rising. “I’ve done that too often!”
The grey eyes opened, and the trembling voice was now strong. “Go. Lead the beast here.”
“Go, Cassie. For us both.”
Cassandra stood still for several moments, struggling between her emotions, then with a growl she turned on her heel and stalked out of the library. This was stupid. It was a dream. Why did she even care? It wasn’t the real Imoen. It wasn’t a real demon. None of it was real. Whatever imaginary beast that she was to face would also be no more than the smoke and mirrors of her own mind. Was this how she soothed her conscience at night, by torturing herself in her dreams?
The stairs of the library were clear again; the demon had taken its leave. What other creature was there, then? She cast her eye about the courtyard and saw nothing beyond the flowers planted there. She quickened into a jog once more, again steadying the sheath of her sword, and exited to the outer grounds. Left and right she scanned the horizon… and on the left stood a figure where none had stood before.
To Hell with this, she spat mentally, then raised her voice to carry across the dead air. “You there! Hey!”
The figure’s head turned in her direction, and the body quickly followed. He or she strode forward at a quick, confident pace. As the person drew nearer, details became clear. A horned helmet with a visor made of sharpened metal tines, fashioned to resemble a monster’s gaping maw; spiked metal armor tinted jet black, which encased a massive humanoid form. The dark warrior held what by all rights should have been a two-handed sword, but such was his size and power that he carried it easily with only one.
She knew him. She’d met him many times before, in dreams fouled with fear and in more nightmares than she could recall.
“Fall to your knees!” the warrior thundered.
She drew her sword. Imposing or not, it was still her dream. “Fall to yours.”
It provoked the reaction she’d expected. The dark warrior surged forward, raising the immense sword high overhead, and swung at her in massive arc. She ducked under the blow and moved inside of his range, limiting the effectiveness of the huge weapon, and drove her sword into the open faceplate of the helmet. The blade shattered teeth and bone as it pierced the roof of his mouth and skewered his brain, stopping with a dull metallic sound as the steel and the iron helmet collided.
Cassandra held it there for a moment, then yanked the blade backwards, freeing it from the corpse. The body teetered as if unsure which way to fall… and then the gaping wound drew together, re-knitting itself, teeth sprouting from the gums and settling as if nothing had occurred. The warrior looked down on her, raising an arm, and drove a spike-covered gauntlet towards her head.
Cassie dodged out of reflex and hissed in surprise as the weapon ripped a shallow furrow through the shoulder of her mail shirt and the flesh underneath. That hurt. A lot more than she’d expect from a dream. Her foe’s armored foot lashed out and caught her squarely in the right shin. Pain lashed through her leg from the impact and she fell hard to the ground, barely keeping her grip around the hilt of her blade.
“You cannot run from yourself,” the warrior warned as he advanced, once again raising the giant sword. “You cannot defeat yourself. I am the blood! I am the instinct!”
She rolled out of the way as the blade bit deep into the earth where she’d lain and tore loose clots of dirt when it was yanked free. Suddenly she wasn’t so positive that it wouldn’t do the same to her head, dream or not. She got to her feet with difficulty, pain still lancing through her right leg, and she limped out of his range, dragging her blade behind her.
Aerie used to tell her that if someone died in a dream, they died in life as well. Normally Cassie scoffed at such superstitions, but now she wasn’t so eager to put the avariel’s words to the test.
Thankfully the constant of encumbrance worked in fantasy as well as reality. Laden down with gods-only-knew how many pounds of armor and metal, the dark warrior was fierce but slow. Cassandra kept ahead of him, half-limping, half-walking, and grimaced with each painful step. She’d given the man a face full of steel and he’d not even blinked. He’d kicked her and nearly broken her leg.
One alone cannot win. She was entering the courtyard, heading towards the library, where she hoped that Imoen’s dream image knew what she was doing. She glanced behind her every few steps, partially to reassure herself he was still following and partially to reassure that he hadn’t caught up. Going up the stairs was torture, and by the time she entered the main foyer, he was already at mounting the steps.
“Imoen!” She made her way over to the figure at the back of the library. “What do I do?” When she reached her younger sister, she turned once more to check on the warrior’s progress. He was heading towards the pair unerringly, with murder in his eyes.
“Now!” Imoen pointed at the advancing swordsman. “It is within my sight. I will add my will to yours!”
Cassandra shouted and threw herself forward in a flurry of blows, the clash of sword against armor ringing through the halls of the library. She focused on being faster than her opponent, knowing she could not be stronger, and somehow here in the library, her strikes made wounds. Blood flowed, and it kept flowing, enraging the dark warrior more with every slice.
“How do you stand?” he demanded, reeling backwards. “I should devour you!” The blade of her sword slid off his chestplate with a shower of sparks and the screech of metal against metal.
“I have help,” she informed him, and shifted to strike again. Once again the blade dove into the gap of the helmet’s face plate, and this time she knew the wound would kill. She left the sword there, buried inside the man’s head, and released the hilt as she backed away.
“Help?” Somehow he managed to talk nonetheless, despite the blade protruding from his face. He laughed, bubbles of blood and gore frothing in his destroyed visage. “You are empty inside. There is nothing left. Nothing but me.”
Imoen pulled on her arm. Cassie turned around and found her sister frantically looking at herself, at her hands, her clothing, her legs, as if they’d all betrayed her. “Something’s wrong,” she breathed. “Something’s wrong!”
Imoen’s breath started coming harder and faster as panic enveloped her, and she pushed Cassie violently away. “I- no- Not again! Not again!” She held her head in her hands and clenched her eyes shut. Her scream of terror reverberated through the entire keep, growing in volume and intensity as each and every echo added its voice to the fear, until Cassandra was forced to cover her ears and fall to her knees. The scream pierced her regardless, like a soul crying out in agony, until Cassie added her own voice to the chorus.
Then abruptly it was silent, and she was alone.
She awoke with the bile thick in her throat as her legs gave way beneath her. She fell forward, instinctively thrusting her hands forward to break her fall, and found herself somehow braced against empty air. She collapsed against the invisible barrier and fought back the urge to vomit.
“Well, you are a strong one indeed!”
The voice raised the bile once more, and Cassandra gagged when the bitter gall entered her mouth. The red-haired woman fought it back once more and spit out the foul taste, wiping her mouth with her hand.
“You resist beyond all reason.” The pride in his voice dipped into smug satisfaction. “A pity you are dead inside.”
Cassie got to her feet. She was encased in some manner of glass container, a jar, and slowly her memory returned to her. She vaguely remembered the journey to the island; the struggle to find entrance to the asylum was slightly more clear. What she remembered best was the betrayal, when Irenicus had revealed that he now controlled the asylum, and that the ship’s captain Saemon had been in his employ. When she’d been locked in this damnable jar to begin with, before the mage’s ritual had begun. Now it was over, and his disfigured, corpse-like face stared at her from the other side of the glass.
She spat at him, ineffectively, and glared at him with icy eyes. “Dead inside? I defeated your creature. Imoen and I defeated it, together.”
“I don’t know what you faced while mired within the spell, but here in the world of the living my plans have gone just as I wished.” Irenicus smiled. It was a tight and ugly sight. “I have drained you — drained you of the very thing that made you special. It is the worst of curses, and I should know.”
“Drained me of my Taint? You consider that a curse?”
“Hardly. I have taken your very divinity, and drained you of your soul. The curse that was wrought against Bodhi and I has now ceased and yours has begun. You will wither, you will wane, and you will die.”
“You’re not the first to underestimate me, Irenicus.”
“Oh really?” He approached the glass, the cold amusement clear in his dead black eyes. “Imoen has also been stripped of her soul. She has withered, and she is dying. I think you would agree.”
Her mind flashed back to how Imoen had seemed when they had discovered her in Spellhold. She’d been empty. Shattered. Like the broken toy of a too-rough child, too battered to do anything but await the next abuse. The memory brought the hot spark of rage back to her heart.
“If you’ve hurt her, I will kill you,” she hissed.
“I have no doubt you would,” he agreed, “but you are no longer a living threat. Bodhi!”
The svelte, pale form of the vampire materialized from the shadows of the room and crossed to the mage’s side.
“Remove this nothing,” he instructed, gesturing to the captive woman. “And Imoen as well. We no longer need them.”
Bodhi smiled sweetly at Cassandra, no doubt enjoying the reversal of fortunes since her last defeat. “As you would have it, brother.”
He turned his attention to her once more and made a small, elegant gesture of departure. “Farewell, Child of Bhaal. We shall not meet again.”
“Irenicus!” He strode out of the room, ignoring her call. “Irenicus!” She slammed her fists ineffectively against her prison walls. “I WILL HAVE YOUR HEAD, MAGE!”
The dark-haired vampiress sighed and lazily drew her clawed fingernail across the glass. It etched a fine line into its surface. “Such bravado. Such fire. Such a waste.”
She clapped her hands sharply and within seconds two more vampiric minions appeared. Cassandra tried to follow Bodhi’s motions as she manipulated the jar’s locking mechanism. There was a click, then one of the servants pulled open half of the container while the other rushed in and delivered a punch to the human’s midsection with unnatural strength and speed. Cassie doubled over, unable to hold back the bile this time, and emptied her stomach on the cage floor.
Bodhi’s nose wrinkled in distaste, and a brief gesture from her had Cassandra dragged from the glass container and thrown like a children’s doll from the platform to the room’s floor. The impact kicked the breath from her lungs and another swift punch to her stomach brought tears to her eyes.
“Don’t kill her. Not yet.”
The two lesser vampires hauled her to her feet and drug her forward between them, each one holding an arm, as Bodhi guided the way. Cassie was vaguely aware that she was being transported down a hallway and up a flight of stairs. Two large doors swung open in front of them, blinding her with a momentary wash of light. They threw her forward into some manner of large open chamber where she landed painfully on a cold tile floor. Several unmarked sacks were tossed in after her, impacting with the floor with heavy, metallic sounds, and then the doors were closed.
“Are you alright?”
Two hands helped her as she rolled onto her back. She teeth gritted against the pain of motion and fumbled for the hands. Two small, warm fingers curl around hers. A breath, another, and she opened her eyes.
The girl smiled shakily. She was kneeling over her fallen friend, clothed in a simple smock of rough green cloth. Several small scars marred her face where none had been before, but her eyes were clearer now. “Yeah, it’s me. You’re a sight for sore eyes, I tell ya.”
Cassie reached up and took her arm, pulling the young woman into a prone embrace. Imoen went willingly, wrapping her arms around her as best she could, and buried her face in flame-red waves of Cassandra’s hair. The wetness of tears touched her neck.
“Cass, I thought I’d never see you again.”
She hugged her tighter and rested her cheek against her sister’s. Her own tears threatened to make words impossible. “I came as fast as I could, I swear.”
“I know.” Imoen returned the squeeze. “I knew you’d find me.”
“Are you alright? Did he hurt you?”
Imoen pulled away slowly, a weak, forced smile barely curving her lips. “Don’t worry about me. Look at you!” The smile vanished as Imoen really did look at her, and took count of the cuts, slashes, and scars. “Holy crap, Cass, are you alright?”
She levered herself into a sitting position, grimacing again as bones shifted in ways they shouldn’t have. “I’m fine. Help me up.”
Imoen did so to the best of her abilities, despite her smaller stature. Her hands steadied the fighter from behind. Cassie’s stomach twisted again as the world tilted and spun from a wave of nausea.
“Cassie…” Imoen cupped her sister’s face in her hands, fixating her with stormy grey eyes. “You are not fine.”
“I will be. Just help me, like in the dream.”
“That– that ritual he just did. The dream. You helped me kill the warrior in the library.”
“What?” Confusion and concern furrowed her brow. “I had no dream in my ritual. The whole thing was an unbearable nightmare… but I had no dreams at all. It was just blackness, all around me, and this pain like I was being ripped apart. I … I—“
She shook her head, clearing away the dark memories which had spawned, and dropped her hands from Cassandra’s face. “I’m sorry. The things he showed me. They were… they were so black and horrid. And the feelings he evoked in me were even worse.”
Cassie’s jaw tightened. Her eyes flickered back to the doorway, beyond which the ritual had taken place. Beyond which was Irenicus. “He tortured you.”
She shuddered, a tremble running visibly through her body. “‘Torture’ doesn’t even come close. …you know, he– he said he took my soul…”
Cassandra hugged her close again, offering what comfort she could. “I don’t think that’s possible.”
“I’m not so sure…” She looked down at her hands, curling her fingers experimentally. “I’ve been getting a lot weaker, Cass. I don’t know how much time has passed since he… since he did whatever he did. But the effects are real.”
“Then we’ll find a way to stop it.”
“I hope so. He did the same to you, you know.” She sighed, flexing her hands one last time. “If we don’t reverse what was done, we’ll probably both die.”
An amused feminine voice spoke from above. “Oh, beyond a doubt.”
Both sets of eyes lifted. Bodhi stood on a second-floor balcony, overlooking the chamber in which they stood, and leaned against the railing with a casual smile. “Family reunion — so touching.”
“What do you want?” Imoen demanded. “Haven’t you done enough?”
“And she still has a spark.” Bodhi’s smile widened, her eyes focused on Imoen with a perverse hunger. “Fading so quickly, though. It’s a pity; you’ve proven resilient beyond all expectations. It is… appealing… to me.”
“We aren’t here to entertain you!”
“Oh, but you are,” she corrected. “My amusement is all that is keeping you alive. Irenicus wishes you dead, and he is very rarely denied his wishes.”
“Irenicus this, Irenicus that – you think too highly of him,” Cassandra spit back at her. “Get down here and do it, if that’s his demand.”
The unearthly beauty of her face darkened in a frown. “It is his demand, but I am not his lapdog, and now you are subject to my whim, not his.”
“Oh joy.” Imoen rolled her eyes.
Bodhi ignored her. She adjusted her position on the railing. “Your abilities have piqued my interest, and since you are to die I would have you do it in an entertaining fashion. Irenicus can be so dour when he wishes. He is set on revenge for his banishment and can think of nothing else. A failing of his mind remaining flesh, I suppose. But undeath has given me focus, and an interest in the abilities of powerful creatures. An interest in you.” Her smile returned. “I will make your death glorious, as well as entertaining.”
“If you want to kill me, kill me. I will not play this game.”
“Oh, but you will, Cassandra. You have no choice. You’ll run my maze like the good little mice you are.” She stepped away from the balcony and retreated into the blackness of Spellhold’s walls. “The hunt begins.”
Cassandra sighed heavily, running her left hand through her hair. “You know, I’d love to go just one god-damned week without someone trying to kill me. Just one.”
“I think she meant it,” Imoen said, voice serious. “Spellhold is one big maze designed to separate the insane from the ‘merely deviant’. We’ll be lucky to survive running from her, much less fighting her.”
Another sigh, and another reflexive run of her fingers through the crimson waves. “I need time to think, then, time to plan. We should get moving. Maybe we can find some make-shift weapons or –“ Her eyes caught the two sackcloth bags which had been thrown in after her. “What’s in those sacks?”
“Sacks? What—oh.” Imoen crouched down next to the nearest one and quickly untied the clasp with nimble fingers. One pale hand slipped in and withdrew a blood-spattered metal gauntlet. “Huh?”
“That’s my armor.” Cassandra knelt beside her and quickly helped her empty the contents of the bag. Her chain shirt, greaves, boots — dirty and bloody, but functional. “It’s all here,” she breathed in amazement. “All of it, even my sword.”
Imoen’s tone was doubtful. “I guess she wants us to have a fighting chance.”
“Check the other one.” Cassandra started buckling on what of the protective leather and metal she could by herself as Imoen rummaged through the other container.
“Uh…cloth? A robe, I think. Couple of rations – at least we won’t starve – no water though. A key. A teddy bear? What the Hell?”
Cass looked up from fastening her knee guards and blushed slightly as Imoen waved the small brown animal at her with a questioning arch of her eyebrow. “I found it,” she muttered. “Thought it might be important.”
“Oh, so it’s not for me?”
“Umm.. sure. I guess.”
The fiery eyebrow arched higher.
“Er… of course it’s for you. That’s why I got it in the first place. Cheer you up.”
Imoen’s lips curved into a mischievous smile. “Thanks. I appreciate it.” She dragged the bag over to her warrior sibling and let it loose as she helped fasten the armor. When she got to the pauldrons which protected her shoulders, she leaned in close with a giggling whisper. “Nice recovery, by the way.”
Cassandra stiffened at the warm touch of breath against her ear. Visions from her dreams flooded back, bringing with them a faint blush of heat. She turned her head away. “You should– We should go.”
“Okay. I’ll get the bag, you’re carrying enough as is.” She shouldered the pack, oblivious to the reaction to her teasing. “Door number one, door number two, or door number three?”
The fighter studied the archways which led into the heart of Spellhold, each one light by simple flickering torchlight. Nothing seemed especially inviting or special about any of them.
“Number two, I guess.”
“North it is. Ah Hell… wait…” Imoen put down the sack and glanced over her shoulder at the three small objects which had fallen out during her rifling through the bag. “Just a sec.”
She crossed back over to the doorway through which Cassandra had so indelicately entered and knelt to scoop up the objects. A small tin container which smelled slightly of ash, one of the handful of rations which she’d discovered, and a small book.
A spellbook? That’d be useful. She flipped it open to the first page.
I failed her. I failed her completely. I promised I’d take care of her, never leave her side, get her free of that madman; she trusted me to do it.
She closed the book instantly and glanced over her shoulder at Cassandra. Her foster sister was adjusting one of the straps on her greaves.
Imoen pursed her lips in a moment’s hesitation. It was Cassie’s handwriting. She’d stolen her share of diaries in Candlekeep and read them all with giggling enjoyment, but they were adults now, and with all that had happened she was sure that they both had thoughts they’d prefer to keep private. But with all that had happened, all that could happen… they might not have time to catch up on ‘old times.’ Bodhi hadn’t said how long her hunt would last.
“Imoen, come on.”
“Coming, coming!” She slipped the book into her pocket, mentally cursing herself as she did so. She gathered the other two items in her hands and rushed back over to the sack, stuffing them inside.
“Okay, I’m ready.” She ensured the sack was firmly closed this time and hefted it over her shoulder. “Point the way, fearless leader.”
Cassandra glanced at her with a small frown and sighed as she turned towards the northern arch. “I wish you weren’t so confident in me.”
“Hey, it’s all I’ve got.”
They’d explored for nearly two hours before increasingly frequent bouts of nausea had doubled Cassie over twice in ten minutes. Imoen had declared it time to stop for the night. The young mage had scouted out an empty room, some manner of fabric storeroom it seemed, and they’d decided that sleep was worth the risk. As Imoen had pointed out over her foster-sister’s objections, sleeping might get them killed – exhaustion would get them killed.
“Do you think we’ll make it?”
Cassandra glanced back from the door as she levered the make-shift bar into place. She gave the door a hard, experimental tug. “I don’t know.” It rattled but remained in place. “Guess it depends on how good a hunter Bodhi is.”
“Y’know, if she weren’t such a bitch, she’d be beautiful.”
She cast back another questioning glance. “Who, Bodhi? Beautiful?”
“Yeah, y’know, good-looking.” Imoen was seated next to the far wall, in the space between two large rolls of colorful cloth, digging through the pack of supplies which had accompanied Cassandra into Spellhold. She didn’t look up as she spoke. “Believe me, both their faces are permanently etched into my head. Bodhi’s got this look, y’know? She’s really gorgeous, like some gothic Sunite priestess almost, but she’s such a bitch.”
“Ever tell her that?”
“Umm… once. After that I dropped the ‘beautiful’ part and just went straight to ‘bitch.’”
“And why are you telling me this?”
She pulled out a tubular leather case and eyed it with curiosity. “What’s this?”
“Scroll case, I think.”
“Scrolls?” Her eyes lit up and she immediately unclasped the lock to get at the parchments within. “And I’m just trying to make conversation. I don’t really know what to talk about, I guess,” she admitted. “This isn’t exactly a normal reunion.”
“Yeah, I know what you mean.”
Pale pink lips pursed together in a low whistle of appreciation as she flipped through the scrolls. “You’re a life-saver, Cass. Where’d you get these?” She glanced up at last, and her eyes flashed when she saw the fighter still adjusting the barricade. “And what are you still doing standing up? Sit down already!”
Cassandra gave the door one last tug. It was as sturdy as it would ever be. Hopefully it’d be enough. Whatever came to get them would have to bust down the door to get in.
She crossed the twelve feet to her companion and began the laborious process of unbuckling and untying the pounds of armor which she’d put on a few hours earlier. “Just ran across them on the way. I had Nalia – mage I met on the way, nice girl, you’d’ve liked her – look them over and tell me which ones were the best. I figured they’d come in handy.”
“Definitely! If we can get a good night’s sleep – well, a good week’s sleep – then between your sword and my magic we could give Bodhi a run for her money.” Imoen’s eyes flickered upward from the scrolls again. “Don’t take that off! We just got it on you.”
“What do you want me to do, sleep in it?”
“Yes! What if we’re attacked?”
“Do you have any idea how much this weighs? There’s no possible way I can sleep in it.”
“Sure you can. Just find a comfortable position.”
Cassie sighed. “Imoen—“
“Sit!” Her hand snuck up and grasped the redhead’s wrist, giving her an insistent pull. She smiled in satisfaction when the her sibling complied. “Good girl.”
“I really can’t sleep in this,” Cassandra objected, wincing slightly at the sound of stone-against-metal as she wriggled to find even a decent way to sit in eighty pounds of armor. “It’s impossible.”
“Would you just hush?” Imoen said. “I’m going to have to study these scrolls all night to get them memorized by morning.”
“I thought you needed sleep?”
She shrugged, brushing her own red waves back behind her ear. The two friends shared a similar coloring, though Cassie’s hair was shot through with strands of blond which gave it a fire-like look, while Imoen’s was a rich, dark auburn. “One of us will have to keep watch, and you’ve been through a Hell of a lot more than me. Today, at least.”
“I told you, I can’t sleep—“
“Geez, I heard you the first time!” Imoen placed aside the scrolls with an annoyed sigh and shot her foster-sister a dark look. The anger dissipated immediately and with an apologetic smile she scooted closer to the seated woman and patted the leather on her leg.
“Hey, I’m sorry. I just—well, you’re here, right? Because you came, I’m free tonight. And maybe it’s just for tonight, but it’s something. I just want to make the best of it, y’know?”
“Fine. Let’s talk then.”
Cassandra shrugged. “Anything. Pick a subject.” Anything would be better than sitting and dwelling on just how bad the situation was.
Imoen pursed her lips thoughtfully, going silent for several minutes. When she finally spoke her voice had become soft and her expression completely serious. “You really took your time coming to rescue me, didn’t you?”
Her eyebrow shot up in surprise. “What?”
“I mean– don’t get me wrong, Cass, I’m incredibly grateful.” Imoen tucked her hair back behind her ears, a nervous gesture she’d had since childhood. “But it felt like an eternity just waiting, wondering if you’d arrive.”
Cassandra’s lips drew together as well, her defensive ire slowly subsiding. That hadn’t been a topic she’d expected. She turned several possible answers over in her mind, discarding most of them. Imoen didn’t need to know everything. Not even most of it. Especially after what’d she’d been through.
“I didn’t really know where to start looking for you.” She spoke slowly and stuck to the basics. “I had to pay twenty-thousand gold just to find out you were in Spellhold, then I had to charter a boat to the island and figure out how to get into the damn place.”
Grey eyes widened. “Twenty thousand gold? Where’d you get all that cash?”
More memories better left buried. Cassie faked a smile. “C’mon, you don’t need to concern yourself about those things. Just know that I got all of it.”
She looked dubious, but let the subject fall. “Okay… but then, how did you get into Spellhold?”
This time her smile was genuine, as was the blush of embarrassment. “I– ah– I dunno if– yeah…”
The blush grew by leaps and bounds. “I, umm, acted completely nuts so the Pirate Lord would send me here.”
“Hah! I’d’ve loved to see you in that situation. C’mon, give me details!”
“Way! C’mon, Cass, tell me!” Imoen giggled. “Judging from how red you are, it’s gotta be juicy. Please?”
“Awww, don’t be such a spoil sport. It’s me, remember? You can tell me anything.”
“And you’ll tell half of Faerûn.”
She held up her hand, one finger raised. “Pinkie swear; I won’t tell a soul. You can even whisper it to me; not even the walls’ll hear. C’mon, pleeeeease?”
“Damn you and your silver tongue. Fine— You come over here, since I’m the one encased in metal.”
Imoen let out a whoop of joy, then scooted close when Cassandra beckoned her. “C’mon, tell, tell!”
“Brat.” She leaned forward, cupping her hands around the redhead’s eager ear and somehow managed to stammer out each increasingly awkward detail.
“Oh…my…gods. You didn’t!” Imoen stared at her with wide-eyed astonishment. “Are you serious?”
The furious heat in her cheeks was answer enough.
“Oh…my…” The astonishment gave way to delighted laughter. “I don’t believe you! I mean – wow – that would be a stretch even for me! No wonder Desharik thought you were crazy!”
The giggles gradually subsided, and as they did Imoen’s expression slowly melted into a mixture of affection, surprise, and gratitude. “You know… I can’t believe you did all that just to rescue me. I mean, I knew you cared for me… but all this? I– I didn’t know I was so…appreciated.”
“I couldn’t leave you,” Cassie admitted softly. “I–” I failed you too often already. She took a deep breath and banished the thought. “You mean too much to me.” The next three words were barely voiced. “Way too much.”
“You… you really mean that?” The joy in her smile and brightness in her eyes was heartbreakingly genuine. Imoen took her hand and squeezed it tightly, mindless that the metal gauntlet ruined the gesture.
“Thank you, Cassandra. Thank you for coming, and for your kind words. I really needed something like that.”
“I guess everyone needs something like that sometimes.”
A comfortable silence fell over them, and for several minutes nothing could be heard but the gentle rhythm of their breath. Imoen laid her head against Cassandra’s shoulder, seemingly unbothered by the rigid riveted steel. Cassie rested her cheek against her hair and drew in a slow, deep breath. Her scent was a mixture of dust and sweat from their trek through the halls, but it wasn’t unpleasant at all.
So here we are. Cassandra bit her lower lip pensively. All the effort, all the pain, the struggle, the death, the loss: it’d all led up to this.
And now what? Here she’d come, the knight in battered armor, charging in to save the day – and here they were. Surely it wouldn’t end like this. After sacrificing so much, only to die as some twisted entertainment? A simple barred door wouldn’t stop a vampire. Swords and armor wouldn’t stop a vampire. Imoen had magic, but… it was a long shot. A very long shot.
And even if they escaped the undead, there was still the matter of Irenicus and his unholy ritual. If what he said was true, they were dying anyways.
So what do you talk about when you’re dying?
Cassandra shook her head. “Not yet.”
“You should be. Yeah, yeah, I know – the armor.” Imoen straightened, stretching her arms overhead. “Fortunately, that’s why you have me. Here, lay down.”
Cassie eyed Imoen’s proffered lap dubiously. “On you?”
“But how are you—“
“Let me worry about me,” she said. “You just lay down.”
She awkwardly maneuvered herself into a prone position, trying to find a comfortable compromise between crushing herself and crushing her sister in fourscore pounds of metal. When she finally seemed to have found a tolerable spot, she found her head in Imoen’s lap, looking up at her sister’s watchful grey eyes.
“Eh.” Imoen shrugged, smilingly slightly. “Can’t win’em all. Any last words before I put you to sleep?”
“Put me to sleep?”
Her fingertip touched Cassie’s lips. “I’m a sorceress, remember? We get cool tricks like that.”
“So, any last words?”
I’m sorry. Forgive me. The dreams sprung to mind again: Imoen’s image holding her and weeping against her chest, begging her to make the pain stop. The hollowness that lived in her eyes now, so visible when her thoughts were far away. And the damnable desire to hold her, to caress her, and take it all away.
“No last words,” she murmured.
“Well I have some. I missed you, Cassie. I can’t even begin to tell you how much. And I know things aren’t going all that well, but being with you again is worth it.” Imoen smiled again, but this time it spoke of sadness instead of joy. Teardrops glittered unshed in her eyes. “Y’know… If I’m gonna die, I’d rather die with you.”
Cassandra raised her hand and laid it against the redhead’s cheek. “I don’t want you to die, Im.”
She reached out her hand to Cassie’s face. “Close your eyes.”
She did as bidden, and the touch of unseen fingertips on her eyelids brought on a sudden lethargy. She managed only a few more words before the arcane slumber overtook her.
“I missed you too.”
The night’s sleep had proved a wise decision. The second day in Spellhold’s maze had proven thus far more interesting than the first. The friends had run afoul of several small skirmishes with the building’s inhabitants, most of which were of the six- or eight-legged variety, and most of which were three to five feet long.
The giant spiders and quick-moving sword-spiders were not much of a problem for Cassandra; large as they were, their fangs were incapable of piercing metal. One bite had punctured the leather of her cuisse, leaving two bloody holes in her lower thigh, but the wound did not seemed to be poisoned.
Beyond the vermin, though, the exploration had proven almost routine. Bodhi had apparently lain no traps and was in no hurry to end her little game. Cassandra wagered, though, that once there had been considerably more creatures inhabiting the maze. Spiders simply could not grow so large without some manner of ample prey. Perhaps they’d done the women a favor by being such ravenous eaters.
“So I guess we’re really related, huh?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, other than being adopted.”
Imoen fell silent for a moment, gesturing for Cassandra to do the same, as she crept ahead to the end of the hallway and cautiously peered around the corner. The next chamber was unoccupied, just as the last three had been. She waited for Cassie to catch up and then continued her train of thought.
“I mean, Gorion adopted us, right? So we were always kinda related, I guess. We’ve always acted liked sisters, and we’ve always looked like sisters – Hell, we could almost be twins – but now… if we’re both Bhaalspawn, then we really are sisters, right?”
Cassandra’s brow furrowed slightly. “I guess so. But I don’t think that Bhaal was exactly your normal everyday dad. Gods only know – literally – how our mothers got pregnant.”
“True– oh!” She bounced excitedly. “Maybe we have the same mom, too!”
“I really doubt that.”
“It’s possible! Maybe that’s why we look so alike.” Her tone became a sing-song list of similarities. “I’ve got red hair, you’ve got red hair; I’ve got grey eyes, you’ve got blue eyes; I’m bubbly and good-looking, you’re…. well, I’m bubbly and good-looking.” She giggled happily. “Kidding, ‘course. I guess you’re kinda bubbly.”
Cassie arched an eyebrow.
“I’m kidding!” Imoen stuck her tongue out at her sibling. “Anyways – So I’m short, you’re not quite as short, blah blah blah…” Her hands pantomimed a mouth opening and closing. “You really think that’s all coincidence?”
If not… Cassandra winced slightly. She’d been able to wriggle, squirm, and squeeze her way around the queasy moral sickness which had haunted her for the past month by rationalizing that they weren’t really related. Adopted sisters… adopted sisters, that wasn’t so bad, was it? No family ties forsaken, no bloodline made impure. If they just grew up together—
And here she was trying to justify it. She shuddered. Be they adopted or be they blood-twins, it didn’t make a difference. It was sick.
“I– I don’t know,” she responded. A frown crept onto her lips, and with a sudden resolve of determination she forced herself to continue the thought. Imoen deserved to know. “I hope we aren’t.”
Imoen glanced over her shoulder surprisedly as she rounded the next corner. “You do?”
“Why do ya say that?”
“Just–” What’re you going to do, Cass? Admit it? the voice in her head sneered. “I just– I don’t know,” she sighed. The resolve was gone. Coward! “Just ignore me.”
Confusion and hurt replaced the surprise in her words. “…you wish you weren’t—Cass, look out!”
Imoen lunged towards her, but whatever she’d seen behind the warrior got there first. Something latched onto her and pulled her backwards, off-balance, and threw her against the northern wall. A scream of rage echoed through the hallway: a human-sounding scream.
Cassandra let herself slip to the floor, figuring that it was the last thing an opponent would expect her to do. A normal defender’s reaction would be to stay standing, to draw a sword and fight. A normal aggressor’s response would be to grab onto the shoulders for leverage while they drove a blade into your belly.
“Back off, freak!” Imoen stretched forth her hands and bright lances of reddish energy shot forth, each one striking its target unerringly. A sizzling sound and the smell of burnt flesh began to fill the air.
Cass finally got a good look at her attacker. He was of average size, with pale, whitish skin and a bald head. Definitely human – or used to be. His reddish eyes and long, pointed canines could have signalled a werewolf, but coupled with his corpse-like pallor, his true nature was clear: a vampire.
Another volley of magic bolts sprung from Imoen’s hands. They burnt into his flesh, eating holes as large as apples, but he paid it no mind. His expression was crazed and rabid, and she doubted he could feel the pain at all. He wasn’t fooled by her misdirection; one clawed hand seized her shoulder and lifted her up from the floor, while the other raked across her chest. The sheer force behind the blow took her breath away, even though the protective gear kept her skin intact.
Cassandra brought her free arm up and slammed her elbow into the creature’s face. She delivered three quick, hard blows before his grip relented. She tried to maneuver away from the wall, to get some space so that she could draw her blade, but he was upon her again in a heartbeat. His hand closed around hers on the hilt of the sword and squeezed with inhuman strength. She felt the metal of the gauntlet crumple under the pressure and knew her bones would soon do the same.
He opened his mouth, exposing the yellowed fangs, and went for her neck: the one move you could always count on a vampire to try. Cassie growled and shoved her other hand between his teeth before he found his target. Her thumb remained outside and hooked under his lower jaw. She tightened her grip and hung on when he reflexively jerked backwards to free himself, letting his own momentum pull them away from the wall and using his flesh as rein and bit to turn him and slam him into the bricks.
The sound of cracking bone rewarded her, and the grip on her sword hand was gone. She unsheathed the blade and yanked her hand free of his mouth, breaking off several teeth along the knuckle rivets. She drew the blade across his stomach from right to left, slicing open a gaping, bloodless wound where the intestines should have been. He tried to push away from the wall, but Cassie had another plan. She’d already shifted the blade to chest-height and angled it so that the flat lay parallel to the floor. A quick thrust and it slid forward, easily passing between the ribs, and skewered the creature’s heart.
There was a moment of silence, and then the body disintegrated in a shower of ash and bone.
“Cass…” Imoen’s footsteps approached from behind, then a low whistle of appreciation. “You made that look almost easy.”
“Lots of practice.” She lowered the sword slowly, eyeing the remains lest some unexpected surprise appear. When she was satisfied he was truly dead, she placed it back in her sheath.
“Guess the hunt’s over.” Grey eyes scanned the surroundings. “What now?”
Her armor had done its duty well, but the vampire’s claws had rent the chainmail shirt with four parallel gouges, slicing through the metal and leaving the strips dangling unconnected. It was useless now. Her hand in the damaged gauntlet had begun to tingle and throb. She gingerly rocked her hand and fingers free of the warped glove and then pulled the shirt over her head, letting them both drop to the ground with a loud rattle.
“My armor’s ruined. Upper body, at least.”
Imoen looked her over, tapping experimentally on the pieces which were left. “You’ve still got your leg coverings, and your shoulder plates.”
“I don’t think a vampire’s going to go for my knees.”
“Hey, it’s better than nothing. C’mon, let’s go. Bodhi can’t be very far, she wouldn’t let us die without a chance to watch.”
“Wait…” Cassandra frowned. “I’m not sure he was one of Bodhi’s. He wasn’t either of the ones that I saw.”
She shook her head. “I only saw two, though. Did you recognize him?”
Imoen pursed her lips thoughtfully for a moment.. “Bodhi only had four lackeys that I saw around, and only one of them was bald. I don’t think that was him, but I dunno for sure. Didn’t get a good enough look.”
She toed the ashes, crushing a half-charred bone underfoot as she glanced down the hall. “We keep moving, then. Keep alert, just in case.”
The younger mage fell back into step immediately. “Always do.”
“I half hope he was one of Bodhi’s spawn. If we have to deal with her, her minions, and some resident enclave of Spellhold vampires, we are so screwed.”
“Eh, we’ll deal,” Imoen responded. “I’m just glad it wasn’t another puzzle. If I have to talk to one more statue, wall, hat-stand, or whatever idiotic animated object, I swear I’ll scream. It’s like some fucked-up fairytale.”
“You’d rather face a horde of vampires than answer a few riddles?”
“Well, normally, no,” she admitted. “But honestly, Cass, they’re really bad riddles.”
No further attacks were encountered as they wandered the halls for a second day. When it came time to rest Imoen again located a suitably defensible room, this one larger than the last. It was empty of all belongings save a few dust-covered chairs; whatever function it had once served was lost to the years. The door did not lock nor was there a way to bar it, but the younger sister’s magic came to the rescue once again. She set up a warded area just outside in the hallway, an alarm which would sound whenever the site was disturbed. They couldn’t keep their captors out, but they could at least have warning if they were on the way in.
They shared the last two rations from the equipment sack and some of the water they’d collected from a marble basin. They weren’t sure how safe it was, but they needed water badly enough to take the risk. There was no means to make fire, but Imoen’s small magic lights were a godsend. One glowed merrily not far away as they prepared to bed down for the night.
Imoen watched Cassie as the latter unbuckled her remaining armor and moved it to the floor. She’d refused outright to sleep in it a second night, citing a myriad of aches and pains that she swore was not from recent struggles.
“Y’know, there’s a spell called mage armor that would really be good for you.”
“Got it memorized?”
“Yeah, but you can’t cast it on other people. It’s a self-targeting spell,” she explained. “I was thinking more that I maybe I could try teaching you some magic.”
“Im, I don’t know the first thing about magical theory. All I know is you say some words, wiggle your pinky, and suddenly it’s raining frogs.”
“I know that, silly, but everyone starts off knowing nothing. It’s just like wielding a sword, right? I betcha the first time you picked up a sword you didn’t know how to use it either.”
Cass wrinkled her nose. “I’ll leave the magic to you. I have enough on my mind right now. No offense, sis.”
She shrugged. “None taken, just an offer.”
Cassandra tossed the last of the armor into the corner and sat down cross-legged, pulling the equipment sack over to herself. The sight jogged Imoen’s memory. She’d been debating what to do with the diary for most of the last day. Normally the lure of mischief would have been prize enough to just keep it, with Cassie none the wiser, but things had changed in the last year. Especially in the last month.
“Hey, uh, Cass.”
Imoen sat down next to her, also crossing her legs, and adjusted the hem of the green smock around her knees. “I kinda borrowed something. Your diary.”
Blue eyes shot up, her hands on the sack abruptly still. “You what?”
“Hey, hear me out. I only read the first entry. I was gonna read more, yeah, but… that’s your personal stuff, I know, and I felt bad about it.” Imoen drew the journal out of her pocket and laid it on Cassandra’s leg. “So I figured I’d ask permission.”
The older girl laid her hand on the book, fingering its spine. “You want permission to read my diary?” Her tone indicated it was unlikely.
“No. I want you to read it to me.”
Cassie’s eyebrows furrowed together in confusion. Imoen tried to explain.
“We’ve both been through so much, Cass. And changed so much. I know you’re not the little freckle-faced girl I grew up with, and I’m sure as Hell not the same person I was two months ago.”
She brushed the hair out of her face, her voice slowly becoming increasingly soft. “I—I don’t know how to really bridge that gap, y’know? How do you talk about things like that? How do you– how do you share something like that? But here it is, all written down—“ she tapped the cover of the journal “—everything you went through. Everything that kept us apart. Maybe this is a way for me to get to know who you are now… you know what I mean?”
“And,“ she continued before Cassandra could answer, “I’m not asking for you to lay bare your soul for nothing.” Her finger now tapped her own forehead. “I don’t have a diary, but I got everything locked away up here. You asked me what he did to me.”
“And if I show you mine, you’ll show me yours.”
A weak smile. “Something like that. Believe me, it’s not something I’m looking forward to talking about…but fair is fair.” She winked, the smile strengthening into something more sincere. “Plus I’m dying to know what you wrote about me.”
Cassie’s eyes went to the worn and damaged cover of the book on her leg. Thirty-odd days of thoughts and emotions, condensed into as many pages. She knew without looking which pages bore bloody fingerprints and teardrop stains. She knew how few did not.
“I don’t think you’ll like what you hear, Im.”
“That’s okay. Neither will you.”
She bit her lip and glanced at the diary again. “Imoen– Im, there’s stuff in there… I don’t think you realize—“
She leaned forward, placing her hand on Cassie’s own, and stared into her eyes. “There is nothing you can tell me, nothing you could have written, that is any worse than what I have already been through. Trust me.”
“You don’t understand.”
“I want to. That’s why I’m asking this.”
The fighter sighed and rested her forehead in her hands. “Im… I don’t want you to hate me.”
“Cass.” Imoen gently touched beneath her chin and lifted the red-head’s gaze to hers. “Don’t you think I’m afraid of that, too?”
Their gazes held for several moments as Cassandra weighed the request. At length she gave in and picked up the journal, hands trembling as she opened to the first page.
“Where do we start?”
“You sure you’re okay with this?” Imoen queried, scooting closer.
”No,” she answered honestly, then repeated her question. “Where do we start?”
She squeezed Cassie’s hand reassuringly. “I already read the first entry.”
She slowly turned the pages until the next section appeared. “So… you just want me to read it out loud?”
The mage shrugged slightly, now shoulder to shoulder with her sibling. “Well… read it, then tell me what really happened. I’m sure there’s lots of stuff you remember that you didn’t write down.”
“Okay…” She scanned the page to refresh her memory and gave a mental sigh of relief. This one was innocent enough.
She cast a glance at Imoen, who gave her fingers another squeeze, and then started to read.