This was bad.
Inolin sat on one side of the room’s double bed, trying to control the ever-growing agitation inside her. Phaere and Veldrin had been gone nearly two hours, and the more time that ticked by, the more nervous she became. The Despana guards, in contrast, were as calm as a frozen lake. They’d spoken just enough to inform her that they weren’t to be spoken to, before taking up residence in the various corners of the room. They were as still as wax sculptures and just about as interesting. A little conversation would have helped take her mind off things. She’d tried, of course; being told to shut up didn’t mean that she was going to shut up. The soldiers were true to their word, though, and her repeated queries about where Veldrin was being taken and what Phaere had planned had been ignored.
Hopefully Cassie—Veldrin—was being just as tight-lipped. If he let one wrong word slip, if he forgot just one minor detail of their charade, the whole house of cards would come crashing down. She could only imagine what he’d done or said last night in his drunken stupor, and that imagination filled her with dread. She cursed herself for not keeping him awake, not pressing him for details, but even if she had the night to play over again, she wouldn’t have done it any differently. Veldrin had needed her, and that always took first priority. She just prayed that it wouldn’t backfire into something worse.
A sharp rap at the door made her jump. Even the guards started. One of them intercepted her with a scowl of warning as she reflexively stood up from the bed. She was suddenly seized by the decidedly non-drowish urge to stick her tongue out at him.
“Open the door,” Phaere’s voice, tense and irate, demanded from the other side.
The soldier nearest the portal immediately moved to comply. He had barely managed to disengage the lock when the stone slab was flung inwards. His involuntary shout of surprise was cut short with a grotesque crunch as his body forcibly stopped the door’s motion. He slumped to the ground, his chest and face smashed flat, blood frothing from his nose and mouth.
Imoen jumped to her feet, only to duck down in pure reflex as something large and humanoid hurtled towards her. Phaere crashed into the stone dresser, shattering the mirrored back-panel and likely several of her bones as well.
Veldrin stepped into the room. His armor from earlier was gone, replaced by a simple pair of dark red leather breeches. His body shined with sweat and his eyes were wide and wild as they darted around the room.
The two remaining guards had recovered from the initial shock and now charged the unwelcome intruder with weapons drawn. Veldrin intercepted the first by sidestepping and lashing out with a vicious punch to the face that connected with an audible crack of bone. The second guard thrust his blade forward; Imoen let out an involuntary squeak of terror as it bit into Veldrin’s side. The Bhaalspawn warrior grimaced, grabbing the drow’s sword arm and wrenching him forward. It took only one small step for the male to come within Veldrin’s reach, and the speed and strength of divine blood was impossible to counter. Veldrin’s hands closed around the drow’s head and snapped his neck with a single, lightning-quick twist.
“Veldrin!” Inolin darted forward. “What in the Nine Hells are you doing!?”
He turned towards the door and quickly shut it again. “Get your stuff,” he ordered. “We need to leave.”
“Well, we sure as Hell have to now!” she retorted angrily. “What the Hell is wrong with you? You just—Gods, you just killed the First Daughter of Despana! Not to mention three of her guards!”
He was already moving, shoving Phaere’s body aside and ripping open the drawers of the dresser, throwing items apparently at random onto the bed. “She knew!” He grabbed their packs and threw them on the bed as well. “She knew your name! She—they—know who we are! We have to get out of here. Here.” An armful of arcane scrolls landed on the bed, scattering in every direction. “Pick the best. Move!”
Inolin automatically scooped up the scrolls, but her rage was focused entirely on her brother. “Great! Just fucking great, Cass! You had to go drink yourself into a stupor and say something, didn’t you? What the Hell are we supposed to do now? We can’t fight an entire drow city, and if you think for one second they’re just going to let you walk out after killing Phaere—”
“They don’t know that yet.”
“Well they’ll sure as Hell figure it out!”
“I’m sorry, okay?” he shouted back. Inolin rolled her eyes. “Scream at me later; right now just pack your stuff and go!”
She gave him a dark glare, but the words had the desired effect. She quickly glanced through the scrolls and stuffed a half-dozen of them into the bag, along with a set of clothing and any odds and ends that seemed useful. Within two minutes their bags were crammed full and ready to go. Veldrin had shrugged on a shirt before shouldering his pack; now the small, dark stain of blood leaked through it from the wound in his side.
“Are you okay?” Imoen asked, slipping on her pack as well. “And what about your armor?”
“I’m fine.” His eyes tracked to the set of drow scalemail next to the bed, and Veldrin bit his lip indecisively. Going out in the Underdark without protection—assuming they got out of the city without any problems—was crazy, but it would take a good ten minutes to have the armor properly fitted, even with Imoen’s help. The quicker they were out of Ust Natha, the less the chance that someone would suspect the Phaere’s departure from her chamber had been under duress. And if someone came to check on them or found the bodies…
“Leave it,” he said finally, picking up his sword and buckling it and its protective sheath around his hips. He would risk going unarmored, but there was no way he was going unarmed. “We don’t have time.”
Inolin nodded. She opened the door and peeked quickly outside. The coast was clear. She jerked her chin towards the world outside, gesturing for Veldrin to follow. Within seconds they were both on their way down the stairs, the door firmly closed behind them.
“What’s the plan?” Inolin queried softly as they descended the staircase. They walked quickly but purposefully, trying not to make their haste too obvious. Her earlier anger was now muted, shoved aside by the necessity of keeping focused and calm. She could indeed scream at Veldrin later—and she fully planned on doing just that.
“Get out of the gates,” he answered. He glanced around, registering the environment, watching for any signs of pursuit. So far there were none. He wasn’t sure how many people were aware of Phaere’s plan to seduce him, but the servants had seen him leave with her in tow, as had a few house guards. Only his hand on Phaere’s waist and the numbing tendrils of Taint he’d threaded into her had ensured her cooperation. “Solufein mentioned a tunnel to the surface by the kuo-toa caves.”
“Which requires going through the kuo-toa,” Imoen pointed out.
“Maybe, but they’re pretty easy kills.”
“If there’s less than five, sure, but if we walk into a nest of two hundred, we’re screwed.”
“Let’s hope we don’t.”
Inolin arched an eyebrow but kept her silence. Veldrin seemed to have his head back on straight: clear-thinking and calm. Well, as calm as one could expect considering he’d just killed the second most important woman in a city full of drow. The chaos and crying of the night before was gone, although likely not forgotten. Hopefully he would stay stable until they reached the surface. Speaking of surface…
“What do we do when we get out?”
“What do you mean?”
They were almost to the bazaar. The wide, circular market was always filled to the brim with customers—or more usually, the customer’s slaves. The merchants and craftsman were already in full swing: shouting, selling, haggling, and cursing as the tide of money ebbed and flowed. Drow, humans, elves, and goblins mixed and mingled, all with an air of vague sadness and fear that seemed so ever-present among the servantile class. Beyond the bazaar were the city gates; beyond that, freedom.
“Irenicus and Bodhi,” Inolin reminded him. “We still have to find them, and right now Adalon’s our only lead. She sure isn’t going to help us if we skip town without her eggs.”
He frowned, deftly sidestepping an overburdened kobold slave who was trudging home with a year’s worth of embroidered fabrics strapped to his back. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “We’ll find something.”
“They aren’t stupid, Vel. If they don’t want to be found, they aren’t going to found.”
“I know where Bodhi’s lair is—”
“Was,” Imoen corrected. “If she’s smart, she’s not there anymore.”
“Was,” Veldrin said distractedly, accepting the correction. “I can check there. I have contacts in Athkatla. He’s an elf; maybe the elves know—”
A loud, piercing chime broke through the air. Both siblings stopped in sudden confusion, then turned to each other with panicked understanding as they identified the sound. They’d heard it once before, when a cadre of mindflayers had teleported within the walls: a city-wide alarm.
Veldrin grabbed Inolin’s arm and pulled her forward, but the mage was already moving. Something, somewhere, had been discovered. Whether or not the blame had been placed on them was unknown, but they couldn’t risk sticking around to find out. Once the alarm sounded, the city went into lockdown: a defensive reaction against the threat of invasion. They had to reach the gates before they were closed and barred.
They sprinted through the crowd, eliciting scores of curses and yelled protests as they knocked aside sellers and shoppers alike. The resulting chaos, coupled with the alarm, quickly made the fleeing pair the focus of attention. A few brave bystanders tried to intercept them, but Veldrin was not inclined to heed their demands: a stiff arm or well-placed elbow sent them back into the crowd, howling in pain.
Spirals of blue-white energy swirled into existence near the gates as no less than five dimension doors materialized. The vague, shadowy forms within quickly solidified into a drow war party: a priestess of Lolth with short-cropped hair and rich purple robes, braced by four male fighters armed to the teeth with swords, hand crossbows, and polished platemail armor. Two of the males immediately split off, running to the gate’s enormous stone pillars and running their hands over its surface. Intricate patterns of runes and icons lit up under their touch; the magic activation raced over the surface of the columns like cracks spiking across a frozen pond. Soon the entire gate glowed with arcane energy. The massive gates began to close.
The priestess raised her whip; the three viper-like heads hissed and writhed. “Stop!”
The fleeing pair didn’t slow. The remaining two drow soldiers readied their weapons and charged forward with a cry of war. Veldrin growled and launched himself forward with all his strength, dodging around the first attacker’s blade and slamming his fist into the man’s chest. The metal of the armor groaned and distorted under the impact, leaving a grapefruit-sized dent. The force of the blow sent him sprawling on his back on the polished granite pavilion. The second male advanced as Inolin caught up from behind.
“Keep going,” Veldrin ordered her, pushing her forward as she passed. “I’ll catch up!”
“No! You come, too!” she yelled, grabbing his arm. The two guards who had activated the gates had turned their attention back to the fugitives, and now had their hand crossbows loaded and knocked. The Lolthian priestess was chanting, but amidst the chaos of the interrupted bazaar and the shouts of the drow fighters, it was impossible for Imoen to identify what spell was being cast. When dealing with unknown magic, getting out of the way was the best defense. “Releuch stash teni!“
A glimmer of white light enveloped them as Inolin’s dimension door took hold. There was a flicker of movement, a slowing of time, as the arcane weave shifted them into the Ethereal Plane and transported them some five hundred feet before shifting them back again. She was running before the spell had even completed, her feet becoming solid and gaining traction again as their forms became firm once more.
Veldrin wasn’t as quick to realize what had happened. Instead of a snarling drow opponent he now faced a familiar spiderweb bridge. The gates were gone; the sound of the marketplace dislocated and faint. He glanced reflexively over his shoulder. Ust Natha lay behind him, the mighty gates slowly but surely sealing it off from the world beyond. The drow war party had adjusted quickly and now their shouts announced that the chase was on.
His sister’s voice yanked his attention back to the bridge. She was poised at its mouth, gesturing at him frantically to follow. He was wasting the small, precious lead that she’d given them.
He ran forward. Even if he were to stop and fight, doing it in front of Ust Natha was suicide. One war party would be joined by a second; soon five opponents would be replaced by fifteen, then by thirty. They had to get out of range of the reinforcements and fight the battle on their own terms, if at all.
Inolin started running against as soon as he reached her. Together they sprinted across the bridge, heading deeper into the wilderness of the Underdark. The terrain just outside the city itself was familiar and safe, warded by protective glyphs and marked with wayrunes from centuries of use. They had traveled the paths a half-dozen times in their service to House Despana, and now they covered the ground in record time. They ran as quickly as possible; there was no time to think, no time to speak, no time to look back for signs of pursuit. The kuo-toa caverns were far to the west, through nearly four miles of increasingly hostile territory. If Soulafein was right—and if he was to be trusted—it was the only exit to the surface within a week’s journey in any direction.
The path split in three as they neared the edge of Ust Natha territory. Inolin broke to the right, following Veldrin’s form. The smoothed and worn rock of the drow paths gave way to jagged outcropping and fungus-covered ledges. The waysigns fell away as well, leaving the trail unmarked and unrecognizable save in the vague patterns of memory.
Something darted out of the darkness in a flurry of wings and leathery skin. Veldrin jerked back instinctively and tried to guard his face. Bats were a common nuisance—and common snack—in the underground caverns and grottos, but this one was nearly twice the size of any he’d seen before. It flapped around erratically, making high-pitched noises that he suddenly realized were speech.
“Where you go!” it demanded, looping around in the air once more and coming to a rough, awkward hover in front of him. The rough-scaled skin was a dull brick red, and the shape that of a miniature dragon, no more than a foot and a half in length. A long, whip-like tail lashed back and forth in agitation. “Where you go!”
“What the Hell?” Veldrin scowled and tried to bat it away, but the thing kept circling and looping back, darting in front of him no matter which way he turned.
“Why you run away!” it screeched angrily. “Lady Adalon watch you! You no run until she has eggs back!”
Inolin had closed the distance again and now stood just behind her brother, her chest heaving from exertion. “Pseudodragon,” she gasped between ragged breaths.
Veldrin tried to dodge around it again, but the flurry of wings and stinging strike of the tail drove him back. A growl and a quick, vicious backhand, connecting with the sound of flesh against old leather, sent the creature hurtling back into the shadows with an ear-piercing shriek.
“Go!” He pushed Inolin forward, casting a glance over his shoulder as he did. The blurry, heat-red forms of their pursuers were entirely too close for his liking.
“I can’t,” she protested, shaking her head. Her physical condition had improved somewhat with three weeks of regular meals and nightly sleep, but the damage of her earlier starvation was not so easily undone. “Need to catch my breath.”
“I’ll carry you.”
Her objection was cut off as Veldrin scooped her up and slung her over his shoulder. He was off again, starting off at a quick jog and quickly gaining speed as he adjusted to Inolin’s additional weight. Behind them the shrill, angry screams of the pseudodragon drowned out the sounds of pursuit.
“Not comfy!” Inolin squeaked between oofs as the repeated up-and-down jostling forced the air from her lungs.
“Sorry; need my sword hand free.”
A long, low rumble rolled through the cavern. It grew quickly, transforming from a background growl into an earth-shaking roar of rage. Somewhere in the darkness, Lady Adalon was displeased.
“Cassie! Run faster!”
“Is there a dragon behind me?”
“Not yet.” She didn’t bother commenting that half a dozen drow were behind them. Although the Ust Natha guards were still chasing them, they were steadily falling further and further behind. They must have ran at least half a mile before Veldrin had picked her up, and even the best conditioned soldiers couldn’t run indefinitely weighted down with swords and metal armor. Veldrin was less encumbered—well, except for a hundred-odd pounds of little sister—and had the advantage of Bhaalspawn strength and speed. Never in Imoen’s life had she been so thankful that Cassie was half-divine.
Veldrin didn’t slow as they passed the junction near the svirfneblin village. Two breachgnomes on patrol near the northern bridge watched them pass with small, suspicious eyes. They passed through a thick, overgrown field of fungi, smashing and toppling them rudely over in a cloud of spores and dust. Cave lizards darted out of the way; spiders big and small kept their distance. Veldrin’s hot, labored breath and the rapid pounding of his footsteps formed the background of their flight. His lips had drawn back in a grimace of effort; his heart thundered and his muscles burnt in protest. Abruptly, with no warning, something in his system overloaded, and the entire world went black as his vision failed.
He skidded to a stop, extending his free hand out in front of him. There was nothing. Darkness as thick and palpable as soup surrounded him in a sea of void.
“Whoa! What happened?” Imoen demanded from over his shoulder. “Can you see anything, Cass?”
“Shit,” the mage hissed. “They blinded us. No, wait.” Her thoughts raced, calling up formulas, numbers, and tables. Blindness had a far too limited range; darkness required touch. The drow weren’t anywhere near close enough to have cast either of them. Was it Adalon? Had the silver dragon come to avenge their betrayal? “Put me down.”
Veldrin did so, and somewhere in the darkness he could hear Inolin rustling through her pockets. She cursed, muttering under her breath, as she searched frantically for the right components. Seconds ticked past, each one stealing with it precious time.
Leave her. The Bhaal essence unfurled slowly, with serpentine grace, and whispered the suggestion in his mind. The mental image of him running easily and free, while Imoen disappeared in the darkness.
She is weak; leave her.
I need her. I can’t even see.
You don’t want to see, it corrected with a hiss.
A small light blinked into existence, held by a small, pale human hand. Veldrin’s eyes raced up: a cream-hued arm, cloaked by the deep, scarlet folds of a mage’s robe; a youthful, familiar face framed by shoulder-length auburn hair. Her gray-green eyes stared at him with shock.
“This is so not-good,” Imoen moaned in dismay.
The older sibling looked down at his—her—own hands. They were Sword Coast white, not drow black. Her chest once again filled out her shirt. Adalon’s spell was gone—and with it, apparently, their drowish eyesight as well. Getting out of the Underdark had just gotten a lot more complicated.
There was no point in giving Adalon—or the drow—a chance to make things even worse. Cassie picked Imoen up again, over her squeal of protest.
“Hey! I can run!”
“Not as fast as I can,” the fighter pointed out.
The kuo-toa caverns loomed ahead. Small spiked poles appeared, jammed into the more earthy areas of ground, and were topped with heads of a dozen different species. Half-decayed goblins, mummified drow, and skeletal humans stared at the intruders in silent warning. There was no clear line, no absolute border that separated the kuo-toa land from the rest of the Underdark, but the scattered heads made the message clear: don’t come any further.
Cassie ignored it; she had no other choice. The path ascended sharply, rising into the blackness towards an unknown end. She gritted her teeth, digging her feet in for traction and forcing them both upwards. After nearly two hundred yards of climb the path leveled out again, splitting off into a dozen tiny footpaths marked by scores of webbed feet.
The faster they were through here, the less chance they had of being spotted. Cassie broke back into a run, following the main way: a flat, gradually rising expanse of earth scattered with broken stones and pebbles. As the path continued, it grew steadily steeper once more. Soon her muscles were burning from the effort of scaling the rocky trail and her lungs laboring in vain to draw enough air. After nearly three miles of running at top speed, even her enhanced stamina was being pushed to the limit.
Her steps faltered; she stumbled, catching herself against a nearby stalagmite. She braced herself against it, gasping for breath; her vision flickered and swum as the thunder in her chest threatened to explode. She had to slow down, stop, and recover.
“Put me down, Cass,” Imoen demanded. “What’s wrong? Are you okay?”
“Fine.” They had to keep going. Stopping meant death. She pushed herself away from the rock and forced her legs to move. “I’m fine.”
Leave her, the Voice hissed again. She is useless.
You can go faster without her.
“Shut the Hell up.”
Cassie shook her head. “Nothing.” She was almost to the top of the rise; at the edges of the light, the floor leveled out once more. She bared her teeth and focused on the point. Another fifteen steps brought her to the top, and there she finally collapsed. Imoen wriggled off her shoulder as Cassie rolled over on her back to catch her breath. “Is there anyone behind us?”
Imoen glanced down the crooked, stone-strewn incline. There was nothing, save the endless wasteland of cold, gray rock. “No.”
“Then maybe you should look in front,” said an angry feminine voice.
Cassandra’s eyes flashed forward, locking on the sight of a huge metallic object, easily twice as wide as she was, rushing down towards her head. She instinctively rolled to the side, doubting even as she did so that she would be able to gain the clearance necessary to avoid being crushed. The tail crashed into the ground, sending up an explosion of dust and vibrating the entire cavern to its very core. A numbing pain shot through both of Cassie’s legs; she bit her lips against the urge to scream and tasted blood as her teeth pierced her own flesh.
“Cassie!” Imoen had avoided the impact by letting herself slide down the path; now she scrambled back to the top.
The tail was rising again; its thick, silver length snaked out from behind an equally massive body. Adalon was hunkered down in the narrow confines of the passage, her wings folded tight against her body in order to fit. The dragon’s emerald eyes glittered with rage.
“Run!” Cassandra shouted. Imoen darted over to her, but the warrior pushed her away. “Run!”
“Run!” The tail was poised. Cassie grabbed Imoen with both hands and shoved her as hard as she could. It launched her forward nearly fifty feet and sent her sprawling to the floor between Adalon’s muscular, clawed forelegs just as the tail crashed down again.
“Cassie!” Imoen scrambled to her feet. Nothing could be seen through the cloud of dirt and debris and the mass of draconic flesh. She held the sleeve of her robe over her mouth and nose to filter out the dust as she screamed Cassie’s name again. “Cassie!“
There was no answer.
Adalon’s massive body shifted as the dragon tried to turn herself in the narrow tunnel. Imoen jerked backwards as the huge, taloned foot next to her lifted and flexed. A low rumble filled the cavern once more, mixed with an ominous chorus of cracking and groaning stone. A chunk of shale sheered off from the wall and shattered into dozen pieces. Another quickly followed, then a third; each block larger than the last. The cavern was collapsing.
Imoen ran. It was the only thing she could do. She tore herself away and sprinted between Adalon’s legs, relying on the dragon’s bulk to protect her from the falling rocks, and the rocks to protect her from the dragon. She cast as she ran, fumbling for components in her robe and trying desperately to keep ahold of them with her sweat-slicked fingers. Stoneskins and true sight were followed by obscuring mist, and hopefully a few extra seconds’ lead.
The path remained blessedly level as she fled onwards. Here and there in the shadows stood small mud huts next to pools of putrid, foul-smelling water, but their kuo-toan occupants—if there were any—left her unmolested. The fish-men were cowards at the best of times, and no doubt Adalon’s appearance and the subsequent cave-in had sent them scattering in all directions.
The main path turned north, and she followed it blindly. Behind her, the sound of falling rock had subsided, and Adalon had gone ominously quiet. No roars of anger, no thrashing or scraping of scale against stone. Was she dead? Was Cassie dead?
No. Don’t think about that! The image refused to be shaken, and Imoen couldn’t resist the need to glance behind her. Maybe, just maybe—
There was nothing. No Cassie, no Adalon.
Run. Cassie’s final words echoed in her mind, and Imoen tore her eyes away. She had to reach the surface. There she could plan; she could find help, mount a rescue mission, come back and—and something. She’d think of something.
The tunnel curved once more to the west, opening into a large, hollow chamber that was alive with chaos. Shouts and explosions echoed off the walls; torches, mage lights, and the crackle of spellfire spawned demonic shadows that leapt from place to place. Fighting figures: some dressed in green-tinted armor and flowing white robes; others the familiar black skin, white hair, and purple armor. Swords flashed, spraying blood across the rocks; enchantments flickered; military commands and divine chants filled the air. Imoen ducked behind a boulder, her heart pounding. Had the Ust Natha patrol somehow gotten in front of them?
No. The figures were fighting each other.
Realization dawned, and Imoen darted forward again. Elves. Wild elves. If there were wild elves in the Underdark, then the tunnel to the surface must be nearby.
The conflict was focused around one central point: a shadow-shrouded passageway leading further to the north. She ran for it, weaving around dead and dying bodies, dodging blood- and sweat-soaked warriors. Booms of thunder rocked the cavern as lightening bolt and flame strike arced through the air.
The elves were losing. Too many of the fallen bodies had pale skin and blond hair; little by little, the survivors were forced to yield ground. Imoen ducked, stumbled, and fell to her knees as the crackle of arcane energy split the air above her head. She hissed a curse as jagged rocks and pebbles cut into her knees and the palms of her hands.
A hand seized her arm and hauled her to her feet. She whirled around and came face to face with a grim-faced elven soldier, his eyes wide in shock as he registered that the person he’d grabbed was human, not drow. He recovered quickly; the sword in his hand, aimed for her throat, went back to his side instead.
“Get out!” he shouted in Elvish over the roar of war. “We’re retreating!”
She didn’t need to be told twice. Most of the elves were breaking away as well, relying on the mages and cleric to slow down pursuit as they fled back to the surface. The drow warriors closed in, but a steady barrage of slow, acid fog, and move earth held them, temporarily, at a distance. Imoen fled with the rest, running into the tunnel and merging with the mass of armored, bloody bodies.
Ahead there was sunlight. The tiny, almost imperceptible glow of light grew larger and brighter with every footstep. The scent of fresh air and smoke wafted down the tunnel from the surface world up above. A series of soldiers manned the sides of the tunnel, shouting directions, pulling those who stumbled back to their feet and pushing them towards safety.
“Go! Go! Go!”
The tunnel curved sharply, and the pure, sharp sunlight suddenly struck Imoen blind. She stumbled, only to be grabbed by firm hands and pulled the rest of the way. The touch of sun on her skin was burning hot after being so long confined in cells and caverns. The hands released her without warning; she stumbled, falling to hands and knees. Beneath her hands were long, cool blades of grass.
Her eyesight returned gradually. She was outside: an alien landscape of blue sky and towering trees. The wide, yawning mouth of a cave gaped behind, vomiting up scores of battered and beaten elves, their elegant green armor fouled with blood and gore. Around the cave stood a half-circle of elven war-mages, chanting and casting in unison. Each syllable, each motion, was perfectly synchronized; the air stank of magic and crackled with gathered energy.
A tall, blond man, his tabard bearing a commander’s insignia, grabbed hold of one of the soldiers who had just exited the cave. “How many are still in there?”
“Thirty,” he gasped. “At least thirty.”
“Shit. Three minutes!” the commander bellowed. “Three minutes and we collapse the tunnel! Get everyone out!”
The flow of fleeing soldiers continued, but groups of four or five now became a trickle of one or two. Imoen counted as they came out. Five. Seven. Eight. Ten.
“Two minutes!” The thirteenth found his way out. Over fifteen of his comrades were still mired in the depths.
Her head jerked up as her heart leapt into her throat. “Cassie?”
At the bottom of the tunnel was a small, faint figure, lacking the metallic glitter of armor. They struggled, trying to scale the incline.
“Cassie!” Imoen raced forward, but a score of gauntleted hands grabbed her and hauled her back. “Let me go! That’s my sister!”
“You can’t go back in there!”
“No!” Imoen yelled. “Don’t collapse it! Not yet!”
The mages continued chanting; the dull monotone of the holding pattern now rose in pitch and volume. They were casting. Cassie was on her feet, running towards the surface. She wouldn’t be fast enough.
“Cassie!” She yelled the name as loud as she could, throwing herself forward against the prison of hands. Tears of fear and panic traced hot, saline paths down her cheeks. “Cassie, run!”
The red-headed warrior was nearly half way, darting around obstacles with impossible speed and agility. There was no way a human could move that fast, not even Cassandra.
“What the Hell is that thing?” someone demanded.
She’s changing, Imoen realized. She lacked elven eyes to see into the darkness, but she could imagine what they saw. Cassie was changing, tapping into the power of the Taint in a race against time.
“Now! Kill the tunnel!”
“No! No, you can’t!”
The chant completed; the mouth of the cave groaned and rumbled as the greater stoneshape warped the very fabric of the earth. Chunks of the tunnel ceiling crashed the ground as the entire passageway shrank and folded in on itself. The figure within dodged around them, still over a hundred yards from freedom.
“Cassie!” Imoen struggled wildly, kicking and clawing, but the soldiers held her firm. The structural integrity of the rock finally gave way, and the entire system collapsed in a landslide of stone and earth. The ground continued to reverberate as shockwaves echoed into the caverns underneath.
It was done. The cave—and everything inside it—was gone.