A faint glow of reddish light manifested in the darkness. It grew slowly, gradually absorbing the blackness until there was nothing else left. In the middle of the red appeared a sliver of white. She blinked; the sliver expanded into a round globe for a split-second before winking out of existence entirely. Another blink and it returned, this time muddied with colors of green, red, and brown. The vague blurs became smudges; smudges became lines; lines became shapes. The world around her came into slow, inevitable focus and revealed a smiling, familiar face.
“Hey,” Imoen smiled, leaning forward over her. “You’re awake.”
Her head felt like it’d been cracked open and stuffed full of cotton. “Am I?”
Cassandra closed her eyes again. The world disappeared, leaving her with a vague feeling of nausea as the blackness rushed in to replace it. She forced them back open before the sensation of sickness could rise into her throat. “Where are we?”
“In a tent, in the Forest of Tethir.”
Cassie tried to lever herself up on her elbows to look around, but Imoen gently yet firmly pushed her back down. “A tent?”
“Yup.” The sorceress shook her head as Cassie tried once more to rise; her steady hand on the warrior’s chest again forbade the movement. “Nuh-uh. Stay put.”
It seemed a reasonable enough suggestion, considering the sluggish fog in her head. Cassie lay back down and breathed in slowly. The air was fresh and cool, smelling of faint rain and greenery – a strange, foreign odor after so long underground. Around her were pale linen walls, propped up on tall wooden staves, lashed together by leather cording: an actual physical tent, not one crafted by Imoen’s magery. Sunlight shone through from outside, flooding the shelter with soft beige light. It hurt her eyes.
“How long have I been unconscious?” she asked, looking over at her sibling. “The last thing I remember is—” Her mind flashed backwards, filling her thoughts with screams and scenes of violence. The fighting pits, the argument with Imoen, the red-headed servant girl crying and begging to be left alone. Phaere smiling seductively and leading him – her – to the bedroom. Panic. Running. Thunder. Blackness. The sound of the end of the world. “—screaming,” she finished softly. “Just screaming.”
Imoen reached out, smoothing the red waves of Cassie’s hair out of her eyes. Her lips bore a small, sad smile. “Four days.”
“Four?” She sighed. “Damn.”
“The elves collapsed the tunnel after they dragged me out,” Imoen explained. “Had to; it was the only way to seal off the drow. You were still inside.” She brushed back another rogue strand. “The leader—Elhan—he wanted to just leave you there, but apparently I’m pretty convincing when I’m hysterical. I think I invented more Elven curses in that one hour than Elhan had heard in his whole life.”
The corner of Cassie’s mouth tilted in a knowing smile.
“So they dug you out. It took until noon the next day. You were about halfway through the Slayer change when it collapsed; I’m guessing that’s why you survived at all. The battle mages slapped every restraint spell they had on you, even though you were barely breathing and had lost enough blood to feed every vampire in Faerun. I went into hysterics again, and Elhan set his healers on you mostly just to shut me up.”
The gray-eyed sorceress smiled. “Hush. I’m not that bad.”
“I beg to differ. So does Elhan.”
“Hush,” she repeated, giving Cassie a light tap on the cheek. “I’m telling a story. Anyways, so yeah: they spend the next two days chanting and rubbing you with gods only know how many types of poultices and herbs. Yesterday morning Elhan said he couldn’t delay anymore and called them off. The elves packed up and left to go back to Suldanessellar. They let me keep the tent, and I stayed here with you.”
“And then you woke up. The end.”
“I love happy endings.”
“Dork.” Imoen curled her fingers around Cassandra’s hand and squeezed tightly. Her smile widened as Cassie squeezed back. “How do you feel?”
The fog had receded; the light had somehow dimmed to a bearable intensity. “Decent, all things considered.”
Cassie studied Imoen’s face. She was human again, now that Adalon’s spell had been broken: dark auburn hair grown down to her shoulders; the pale, cream-colored skin dappled with freckles here and there. Gray-green eyes danced with vitality, but the shadow of sadness dimmed their shine. A lack of sleep and excess of worry were clearly visible in the faint, dark circles underneath, even through her happiness.
“What’s wrong, Im?”
“Huh? Who said something’s wrong?”
“You don’t have to say it; I can see it.”
Imoen’s smile slowly faded. “My aura?”
Cassie shook her head. “No, just sisterly insight.”
Her hand withdrew from Cassandra’s as she breathed in deeply and sighed. “You always could see right through me.” She rubbed her eyes, then ran her fingers through her hair, sighing again. “Wanna go to the lake?”
“There’s a lake nearby,” Imoen repeated, tilting her chin towards the world beyond the tent walls. “Y’know, sunshine and fresh air.”
That was a change of subject. “Sounds nice, I guess.”
“Good. ‘Cause we need to talk.”
The lake was tucked away next to an aspen grove, shadowed by the thin, towering trees and glittering under leaves of yellow, orange, and gold. The white-dappled trunks were reflected almost perfectly in the clear, still water, broken only occasionally by the ripple of a hungry fish darting to the surface. The landscape smelled of life: rich, fertile earth and the subtle sharpness of autumn grass. The sun hovered bright and high in the western sky, offsetting the chill of the gentle northern breeze. Birds called forth to each other in melodious, trilling songs: leafbirds, sparrows, and warblers.
They sat in silence near the edge of the bank. Imoen sat between Cassie’s legs, leaning back against her sister for support while the latter’s arms rested around her waist. The mage was still clad in the drowish clothing she’d worn on their last day in the Underdark, as was Cassandra. Somewhere in the four missing days, though, the clothing had been cleaned and restored to something near its former finery.
It’d been so long since they’d been among nature – for Imoen even more so than Cassandra – that for the first half-hour they simply sat there, mesmerized by the simple majesty of it all. Serene, tranquil, calm: they were words strange words nowadays, words that they’d had far too little cause to use in the chaos of their lives. Here, though, it was almost perfect. Perfectly peaceful, perfectly relaxing… almost.
“Your eyes are black, you know,” Imoen informed her softly. Her voice was so muted, so gentle, that it seemed she was almost afraid of breaking the lake’s hypnotic beauty.
Cassie tilted her head. “Black?”
“From the Slayer change.” She didn’t turn around, made no attempt to move away. “Your eyes turn black, then your body starts changing. Your skin turns kinda gray, you grow horns and all that stuff. The first time you changed, you changed back pretty quick. The second time you did, but your eyes didn’t—it took a few hours. This time, though, they’re black. Completely.” A small pause. “I think it’s permanent.”
Cassie pursed her lips. “I don’t feel any different.”
“Do you see any different?”
A quick glance around. All the colors were right; the shapes were right. Shadows fell where they were supposed to. “Not that I’ve noticed.”
Imoen gave a small shrug of her shoulders. “I dunno, Cass. I’m no priest; give me a spellbook and some components and I’ll knock your socks off, but demons, devils, and dead gods aren’t my thing.” She sighed, instinctively taking the warrior’s hand in hers and lacing their fingers together. “I’m worried about you, you know. I really am.”
“I know,” Cassie responded quietly. “I’m worried, too.”
“You can’t keep this up. You’re losing control.”
“I’m not even sure who you are anymore,” Imoen admitted. “I mean, are you Cassie, or are you Veldrin? Are you you or are you Bhaal? And if you’re okay today, then what about tonight? Or tomorrow, or next week?” She bit her lip; in the past four days she’d turned the thoughts over and over again in her mind, but now they jostled and crammed into one another, fighting for the chance to be expressed. “You scare me, Cass. Sometimes you really scare me.”
“I know.” Cassie sighed, squeezing Imoen’s fingers. “Maybe… maybe you should leave. Maybe I should leave.”
“What??” Imoen half-turned in surprise, fixing Cassandra with a shocked glance. “Are you nuts? No way.”
“None of this would have happened to you if you’d have stayed in Candlekeep,” she pointed out. “I’m a walking death sentence, Im, whether I mean to be or not. Gorion’s dead, Jaheira, Xan–everyone. You’d be better off alone.”
Imoen shook her head. “It wouldn’t solve anything.”
“But you could go back to Nashkel—”
She rolled her eyes. “Even worse.”
“—or Baldur’s Gate,” Cassandra persisted stubbornly. “Start over. You’d be safe.” Safe from me.
“No, I wouldn’t,” Imoen argued. “I’m Bhaalspawn, too, Cassie: as soon as someone figures that out, they’ll be after me with pitchforks and torches. And I don’t blame them. If you weren’t my sister, I wouldn’t’ve thought twice about killing you.”
A faint, wry smile ghosted across her lips. “I appreciate your restraint.”
Imoen glanced over her shoulder and gave Cassie a dark look. “That Slayer thing? Seriously freaky, Cass.”
“I was just joking.”
She turned back around, her attention returning to the scenery. “You shouldn’t laugh about it.”
“It’s either that or cry.”
Imoen didn’t answer, at least not immediately. Her typically carefree, devil-may-care attitude was absent, as it was all too often in the last months. The events of Baldur’s Gate, the darkness and bloody struggles they’d been through — they were taking their toll. It’d always seemed impossible that Imoen would ever grow up, but now it was happening. Perhaps it was inevitable, but Cassie a pang of loss nonetheless. If Imoen had to grow up, she would have wished it in a more pleasant way than this.
“You remember what I said in Spellhold?” the sorceress asked.
“You said a lot of things in Spellhold.”
“When I said that if I was gonna to die, I’d rather die with you.”
She remembered. The simple poignancy of the statement was impossible to forget. “Yes.”
“I meant it.”
“I know you did.”
“No, you don’t know. I mean it,” Imoen said with quiet determination. “I know you wanna protect me. I know you’re all ‘big sister’ and ‘hero’ and all that. But you can’t protect me, not anymore. And I don’t want you to.”
Cassie bit her lip, an uncomfortable tightness gripping her chest. “Imoen—“
“No, Cass. Listen to me. Things have happened. Things have changed.”
“Because of me.”
“Because of life,” Imoen corrected. “Because of what we are.” She squeezed Cassandra’s hand reassuringly, offering a small smile. “It doesn’t mean you’re a failure. It just means that there’s things out there that are bigger than you. ”
“I have to try, though,” Cassie countered. “I know I can’t protect you against everything, but I have to try. I hate seeing you get hurt. I hate even the thought that it might happen.”
“It’s not your decision, Cass,” Imoen informed her firmly. “How do you think I feel, when some monster rips you open? I meant what I said: if I’m going to die, I want to do it with you. Not before you, not after you: with you. I don’t want you to sacrifice yourself for me, Cassie,” she said. “You’re all I’ve got. Where you go, I go. We’re a pair.”
Cassie tried once more to argue some sense into her sister. “The only reason you’re in any of this is because where I go, you go! You’d be safer without me. You’d be happy—“
Imoen shook her head. “Uh-uh. I’d be miserable.”
“I’d be miserable,” Imoen repeated. Her hand rose and cupped Cassandra’s cheek as she stared into the Bhaal-tainted depths Cassie’s eyes. “You’re sweet, Cass, but this isn’t your choice. Where you go, I go.” A smile quirked the corner of her lips. “Deal with it.”
Cassie sighed. Imoen was determined not to listen to reason. “You’re stubborn,” she accused.
“You’re one to talk. ‘Sides, you know I’m right.”
“Do so.” Imoen stuck out her tongue and turned back around, settling back up against her with a pointed thump. “I’m always right.”
A small smile quirked her lips. Imoen would never grow up completely.
The brief glimpse of frivolity didn’t last. The silence thickened nearly as soon as it fell, bordering somewhere awkwardly between comfortable and not. There was a slight tenseness to Imoen’s body, and her smile had faded away with unnatural quickness. Whatever weighed on her mind was still there, exerting its inexorable pressure. Cassie pursed her lips, now unseen behind Imoen’s back, and debated whether to say anything. After a moment she decided against it: pushing Imoen usually just resulted in her shutting down further.
They sat together, watching the sun slowly and steadily descend towards the horizon. One minute stretched into five, then five into ten. Finally a soft sigh escaped the mage’s lips, along with a quiet confession. “I’ve been seeing things, Cass.”
The older girl tilted her head. “‘Things’? What do you mean?”
“Auras. Emotions. Anger. Hate.”
The words made Cassandra’s blood go cold.
“It started a few days ago,” Imoen continued. “Suddenly the elves were glowing like you wouldn’t believe. Red, black, some yellow here and there. I couldn’t figure it out until I remembered what you’d said about seeing colors and all.”
“Are you sure it’s the same?”
Imoen had never shown any symptoms that Bhaal had sired her: no nightmares, no rages… nothing to suggest that she was anything other than a normal, healthy girl. No one–not even Cassandra–had even suspected that Imoen was Tainted. Irenicus had changed all that. Through his experiments and torture, he’d unlocked the darkness in both of them: bringing Imoen’s to the surface, and making Cassandra’s all the more virulent. Even then, though, Imoen had seemed so…normal. Somewhere deep inside had been the not-so-secret hope that Bhaal’s blood, if it did run inside her veins, was somehow too diluted to take hold.
Cassandra tightened her arms around her and pressed her cheek against her sister’s. She could imagine what must be going through Imoen’s mind. Would she too become a Slayer? Would she lose herself to the evil in her blood? The Taint had always been stronger in Cassie, but whether that was a blessing or a curse remained to be seen. Perhaps dealing with it for so long had made her more resistant. Perhaps Imoen could learn from her sibling’s struggles and slow her own descent. Or perhaps it would attack her in an different way entirely.
There were no answers, no comforting words. Cassie knew the Taint too well to offer empty platitudes and false promises that things would be okay; Imoen was too intelligent to accept them, if she had tried. They had to find Irenicus and make him reverse the ritual. They had to regain their souls. If there was a chance to survive the darkness, it lay there.
The breeze tugged at Imoen’s hair. Small strands of dark, shimmering red fluttered back only to be caught, tamed, and teased into the air once more. Her eyes were focused on the lake, on the reflected reality within. It shimmered almost imperceptibly as tiny ripples from insects and fish crawled across the surface.
The previous four days had been a whirlwind of emotion. The first few hours after the cave-in had inspired the purest, most terrifying fear she’d ever experienced: that Cassie was gone. Even after Elhan’s men had recovered her body…just the thought of the words was enough to make Imoen shudder. Her body. Lifeless, blood-smeared, and broken. Black despair had gripped her heart tight, and she’d almost not dared to believe it when her trembling fingers had pressed against Cassie’s throat and found the barest flutter of life.
She stayed by Cassie’s side constantly, illogically convinced that should she leave, even for a moment, the warrior would slip away forever. The emotions that had roused, the strength of her feelings, had surprised her as much as the elves. Even the sunlight and the trees, the promise of fresh air and a return to normal life—it had all been empty. She would have stayed there, in the tent, for the rest of her life if it had been necessary. She wouldn’t have thought twice.
“I had a dream like this once,” Imoen murmured. “In Spellhold. That we were by a lake – that one a little east of the ‘Keep – laying in the grass like this.” Cassie could see a faint, sad smile tug at the corner of Imoen’s lips. “The trees, the air, the birds, the smells… it’s almost perfect.”
It was another change of topic, but this time Cassandra didn’t mind. “What would make it perfect?”
Imoen breathed in slowly, leaning back into the fighter’s embrace. Now that she had Cassie back, now that Cassie was herself again, she didn’t want to let that dream slip through her fingers. Life had become too precious in its uncertainty. Today, tomorrow, the day after: at any moment, it could all be over. “In my dream, you kissed me.”
It was silent. Cassandra’s touch was soft and hesitant as she tucked the rebellious strands of hair back behind Imoen’s ear and pressed her lips to her sister’s cheek.
Imoen turned toward Cassie as the fighter’s lips withdrew, smoky gray eyes fixing her with soft warmth. “No,” she murmured. “Not like that.”
The world fell still. Cassandra returned the gaze, her mind suddenly stunned into silence. Her own dreams, so long suppressed and kept hidden, flickered in the shadows of her thoughts. She’d admitted to the fantasized kisses, but Imoen didn’t—couldn’t—know how far those dreams had truly gone.
Her entire life, from her earliest memories, Imoen had been the center of Cassandra’s world. Playmates as children; best friends growing up. It hadn’t been until the confused fumblings of puberty that Cassandra had realized that the attraction was more than what sisters were meant to feel. A single flashed smile was enough to ignite her soul with joy; the sound of impish laughter made her heart soar. A touch here, a hug there; a trick, an apology, a fight–Cassie had treasured it all. A secret hoard of memories, cherished more dearly than any amount of gold.
Her hand rose instinctively, almost of its own accord, and came to rest against Imoen’s cheek, her fingers gently cupping the mage’s jaw. Imoen watched her, silent and expectant, her lips barely parted, the faintest shimmer of moisture visible in the sun. She didn’t move away as Cassie drew closer, almost not daring to breathe. She didn’t move away as their lips met in a first, delicate touch.
For a few precious seconds the whole of reality existed within that single act. The rhythm of breath, the shared heat of contact: the entirety of being compressed into a half-dozen heartbeats. It was only with great difficulty that Cassandra pulled herself back from the edge and let the kiss come to an end.
Imoen’s eyes had drifted close; now they again fluttered open. The two women were less than a hand’s-length apart, and now the sorceress studied Cassie’s face, her gaze searching for some unknown sign or token. Cassandra neither moved nor spoke, trapped by the irrational, frightened certainty that should a single word be uttered, the moment would shatter like so much glass.
Imoen leaned towards her, linking their lips once more in a tentative embrace. Her fingers brushed against Cassandra’s cheek. Their mouths moved together slowly, experimentally, seeking out and exploring a multitude of new sensations. Imoen’s touch on her skin grew more confident as Cassie’s fingers slid into her hair. The auburn waves felt like sun-warmed silk.
Time was no longer measured in heartbeats, but in eons. Imoen pressed closer; Cassandra’s arm tightened around her waist. With their eyes closed, their senses attuned only to each other, the world beyond their small patch of grass faded into obscurity. The only scent was that of soft femininity; the only sound that of quickening breath. The tip of Imoen’s tongue traced Cassie’s lower lip in a series of shy, curious touches, gaining a subtle boldness when the redhead responded in kind. Soon the hesitancy was gone: there could be no more uncertainty, no doubting that the desire was one-sided.
Imoen shifted, guided by Cassie’s hands, turning to face her sibling more directly. One hand caressed Cassie’s cheek, cupping her jaw, pulling her deeper into the kiss; the other trailed over the fighter’s shoulders and upper arms, left bare by the tunic’s sleeveless design. A shiver of warmth ran over Cassie’s skin; her fingers sought out Imoen’s waist, brushing over her hips, following the curves of her body beneath the barrier of the mage’s robe. A small sound of pleasure escaped Imoen’s throat; she shifted again as she tried to increase the contact between their bodies. The kiss ended with a startled squeak as the movement tilted Cassandra’s center of balance and toppled them backwards into the grass.
“Sorry,” Imoen whispered with a small, self-conscious smile.
Cassie grinned. “No problem,” she whispered back.
The sorceress’ eyes searched hers. They both lay still, exquisitely aware of the tingling warmth between them, the proximity of their lips. Cassie’s hands rested lightly on the mage’s hips; she inhaled deeply, trying to steel herself against the desire to re-ignite the kiss. The tide of warmth inside her was nearly unbearable: the aching need to touch, embrace, protect, and please. Should Imoen have asked for the stars themselves, Cassie would have torn them from the sky just to please her.
“I’m not really sure what to do,” the younger girl admitted.
Cassandra’s fingers smoothed back a wayward lock of hair. “We don’t have to do anything.”
Imoen wet her lips, gently biting the lower one. “I want to. I just—I don’t know if— if I can, you know? After—”
Cassie cut off the sentence with a finger against her lips. There was no need to give voice to what had happened. “You don’t have to,” she repeated simply. “We don’t have to.”
Silence. A myriad of emotions flickered through Imoen’s eyes: affection, desire, uncertainty. Cassandra stroked her cheek, brushing her fingers gently over her chin, her jaw, her lips. Imoen leaned into the touch, the hypnotic warmth of it, the unspoken promise that it held.
It was Cassie. Despite everything that had happened, despite everything still to come, it was Cassie. When Gorion had separated them, taking Cassandra away, Imoen had followed. They had always been inseparable, and the chaos of his death had only strengthened that bond. Time and trial had transformed friendship into something more: a deep devotion, an overriding love, before which everything else was expendable. Their trust in each other, that unquestioned, immutable connection, had been their solace in the worst of times, a bright beacon in the stormy seas of Fate. It had kept Imoen alive in Spellhold: the certainty that, somehow, Cassandra would come. It had been the single diamond thread that kept her hope from failing.
The caress trailed down her throat, eliciting a small tremble of pleasure. When the finger returned to her mouth, Imoen met it with a kiss. She wrapped her hand around her sister’s and squeezed it, pressing it against her face and bestowing upon it a dozen small touches of her lips. Every thought, every worry, slowly dissolved in a cascade of joy. Let the storm howl, let the gods rage—as long as she was with Cassie, she could never be afraid.
“I want to.”
She leaned down and cupped Cassandra’s face in her hands, transferring her kisses to the warrior’s mouth. This time there was no hesitation. She tasted like heaven; like seven different kinds of divine. One of Cassie’s hands curled deep in her hair, pulling her closer; the other slid over Imoen’s back, provoking a rustle of protest from the embroidered lines of her robe.
“Soch enroni,” Imoen whispered, running her fingertip down the front of Cassandra’s tunic. The cream-colored fabric unraveled under her touch, the threads releasing their hold on each other and shrinking away from her flesh. Cassandra raised an eyebrow in inquisitive challenge, to which Imoen responded with a mischievous grin. “I’ll fix it later.”
Cassie’s hands traveled up her chest, seeking out the small buttons that held the robe closed. “Useful trick.”
Rapid-fire pops of protest filled the air as Cassie gave one strong tug and ripped the buttons apart. “You can fix it later,” she smirked.
“Brat,” Imoen accused with a kiss.
“You’re one to talk.”
Imoen rolled her eyes with a playful smile. Her hands slid slowly over Cassie’s stomach, exploring the smooth, taut surface. Small scars from old wounds gave it texture and realism that her dreams could never match. She bit her lip, her smile taking on an impish edge, as her fingers discovered the bottom swell of Cassie’s breasts. They were small — a perfect match for the fighter’s boyish, athletic body – but well-formed and soft. Each one fit perfectly in her hands, and Cassie drew in a sharp breath as Imoen’s touch grazed her nipples.
“Sensitive?” she murmured.
A small pinch of the hardening nubs elicited another gasp as Cassie answered. “A little.”
Gray eyes twinkled. “Good.”
Her hands drifted down Cassie’s chest and came to rest on the curves of her hips. She leaned down, gently running her tongue over the tips of Cassandra’s breasts. Cassie’s fingers explored her body with a feather-light caress, slowly pushing the torn robe off her shoulders and down her arms. Their touches were soft, a strange mix of familiar and exciting. They’d seen each other’s bodies before — massages and embraces were nothing new. What was new was the tingling heat and small, sudden breaths; the coyish smiles and tensing muscles; the slow blossoming of desire. Soon the laughter gave way to sighs and moans; the playful teasing to a more earnest caress as the need between them grew.
Imoen’s robe had been cast aside; Cassandra’s tunic now lay somewhere forgotten in the grass, thrown in the opposite direction of her breeches. Imoen sat atop her, her pale thighs astride Cassie’s hips. Her eyes were closed, her expression enraptured, her lips delicately parted as she sighed in pleasure. Her hips had somehow begun to move of their own accord, rolling in slow, firm motion against Cassie’s center. It was instinctive and unconscious; a primal response to an animal need. Cassandra’s hands held her hips, anchoring her and steadying her; the warrior’s quickened breath and matching motions confirmed that she shared the fire.
One of Imoen’s hands slid along Cassandra’s arm, coming to rest on top of her fingers. Wordlessly she guided their hands lower. Over the curve of her hip, across the soft skin of her abdomen, slowly, eyes still closed, drawing out the exquisite sensation inch by inch. She arched up, allowing access to the small patch of dark curls between her thighs, and now moaned as Cassie’s fingers slid between her woman’s lips.
“Oh, gods,” she whispered, voice aimed towards the heavens above.
Cassie could only agree. The feeling of Imoen’s desire was indescribable: slick, wet wanting; the seductive feminine nectar of sex. The motion of the mage’s hips now pressed her center firmly against Cassandra’s hand as she moved; the rock of her body became slower, more demanding, as Imoen now clenched her sister’s shoulders for support. Her chin dropped down, spilling her hair across her chest in a cascade of rich, dark red. Her eyes remained shut as she rode Cassie’s hips with strong, rhythmic rolls.
“Not inside me, Cass,” she murmured. “Please.”
Cassie moved her finger back up, stroking instead over the small, hidden nub. “Better?”
“Yeah—oh…oh my.” A grin curved her lips and her eyes opened, fixing on Cassie with a pleased gleam. “That’s—” She gasped, her entire body jerking, and the grin turned into a surprised, joyous laugh. “Oh, gods. You are evil.”
“You like it,” Cassie smiled.
“I love it,” Imoen affirmed with a playful kiss.
The evilness continued. Imoen’s delighted laughter echoed over the lake, interspersed with soft sighs of pleasure and whispers of encouragement. They rocked together, giggling and teasing, their bodies slick with sweat and glowing with energy. Gradually the laughter faded, replaced more and more with hot, quickened breath, and the teasing words transformed into breathless moans. Imoen squeezed Cassie tight, taking hold of her shoulders and pulling her up against her body. Cassie’s lips sought out Imoen’s nipples, now exquisitely stiff and responsive in the afternoon air.
“Cassie… Cass… Cassandra.” Imoen whispered her name in a dozen variations, savoring the taste of it on her tongue. The whispers became cries of passion, pleas not to stop, as Cassandra’s fingers brought her closer and closer to climax. Imoen’s hands grasped her hair and tightened almost painfully as a deep shudder ran through her body. She came without restraint, without shame, voicing her release for the world to hear. Her entire being trembled, her hips still rolling in long, delicious waves, until gradually her body slowed and she collapsed, shivering, on top of Cassie’s prone form.
“Wow,” she whispered. “That was… wow.”
Cassandra smoothed back the sweat-damp strands of Imoen’s hair. Her own need wasn’t sated yet, but it could wait. Imoen was more important. “Are you okay?”
A glowing smile. “I’m great.”
“I’m sure, silly.” She laid her head on Cassie’s chest, letting her body recover. Small, pleasant shocks still rippled through her muscles, making her smile grow even more. “Gods…”
“Was…was it good enough?”
“Good enough?” She laughed. “Gods, Cassie, that was amazing.”
Cassie’s smile of relief was genuine. “Thank Sune.”
Imoen looked up at her with surprised curiosity. “You mean you haven’t… well, you know… before?”
She had, but the awkward advances of teenage girls paled in comparison. “Not with someone who mattered.”
Imoen grinned and tapped the tip of Cassie’s nose wit her finger. “Flatterer. Don’t worry, though; I definitely have no complaints.” The smile faded slightly as a different train of thought occurred to her. “Do you? Did I—“
“No,” Cassie assured her. “No complaints, absolutely none. I just—I just—“ I’ve just dreamt about this so long. “You’re important to me, Imoen,” she said, matching her gaze. “I want to make you happy.”
Imoen’s lips touched Cassandra’s once more, this time lingering with pleasant warmth. “You have, Cassie. You do. You make me happier than anything else in Faerûn.”
“Really. And I want to make you happy, too.”
“You do, Im.”
“No, I want to make you happy,” she said meaningfully, her voice taking on a low, sultry tone. One finger slid down Cassandra’s stomach, and Cassie’s heart—and certain other parts of her body—suddenly tightened in excitement. “After I catch my breath, I want to make you very, very happy.”
And as the sun descended behind the aspen grove, amidst the giggling, stroking, kissing, and laughter, that was exactly what she did.
“How long’ve you known?”
“How I feel about you?”
The first few stars were visible in the sky above them as they lay, now clothed once more, next to the aspen lake. The twilight palette of indigo, pink, and violet was slowly fading into a uniform wash of deep, dark blue. Somewhere behind one of the scattered clouds, the first-quarter moon was hidden. They lay next to each other, Imoen nestled into the crook of Cassie’s arm, as they listened to the night birds call out in the darkness.
“Since forever,” Cassie answered.
“That it wasn’t just as sisters?”
“A little later. Since I was fourteen or fifteen.”
Imoen’s fingers were tracing small circles on the back of Cassandra’s hand. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Because I was afraid,” she said quietly. “Because it wasn’t—isn’t—normal. Those romantic epics and tales of love in books and bards’ songs? None of them are brother and sister, or sister and sister. I only found a few that even had two women in it at all.”
One auburn eyebrow arched up. “You looked?”
A wry smile. “Obsessively.”
Imoen chuckled. “And here I thought you were just being an egghead.”
“Nah. You read for fun; I read when I have to.”
“So why aren’t you afraid anymore?”
Cassie drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Good question. I don’t know. I guess—Maybe—” She shook her head. “I don’t know.”
“Because you lost your soul?”
“I don’t think so. I know I was still worried about it in Spellhold.”
“Later I was less afraid.”
“So it could be ’cause you lost your soul.”
“I guess so,” Cassie responded. “I’m not sure. Why?”
A shrug was her only answer. Cassie turned her head towards her, arching an eyebrow questioningly. “Why does it matter?” she asked again.
Another shrug. “It doesn’t, I guess.”
“You guess? C’mon, Im.”
“Just—” Imoen sighed and looked away. “I just— Well, what about when we get our souls back?”
“What about it?”
“How will you feel then?”
Understanding dawned. “You think I only feel this way because my soul is gone?”
A third shrug, this one more defensive. “It’s a possibility.”
“Imoen.” She touched the mage’s cheek, guiding the girl’s gaze back to her own. “It has nothing to do with the Taint. It has to do with you. I lo—I like you because you’re you. Whether or not I have a soul doesn’t change that.”
“But we never would’ve done this before,” Imoen protested softly, her eyes searching Cassandra’s. Her sibling’s jet-black gaze was unreadable, and a harsh contrast to the tenderness of her touch. “What if it does change?”
“Do you want it to?” Cassie asked quietly.
She bit her lip and fell silent. “I don’t know,” she admitted after a moment. “I don’t know.”
More silence; Cassandra wasn’t sure how to respond to that. She’d dreamt about Imoen—loved Imoen—long before any symptoms of Taint had manifested, long before she’d ever heard the word ‘Bhaalspawn.’ But the darkness had always been there, lurking inside her. Who was to say that Imoen wasn’t right? Perhaps the only reason she felt this way was because of that Taint. Perhaps if it went away…
“Do you love me?” Imoen asked. “Like… really love me?”
Cassie looked away, trying to quell the sudden bitterness in her stomach. “Does it matter?”
“Because it does.”
“Dammit, Cassie, don’t be like that. It matters. I—You’re the first—” A quaver of emotion made her voice tremble. She cut herself off, collecting herself before continuing. “You’re the first person that I’ve with, Cass. So it matters to me.”
Her sister’s gaze returned, the black eyes foreign and strange. “You shouldn’t even need to ask that.”
“Do you?” she pressed.
The ghost of a smile drifted across Cassie’s lips, but it was a sad, sorrowful wisp. “Of course I do.”
“As more than a sister?”
“Yes.” When Imoen didn’t say anything, Cassandra turned the question around. “Do you love me?”
“As more than a sister?”
“I think so. Yes.” She let out a huff of breath, blowing a lock of auburn hair out of her eyes. “I don’t know. Things are crazy. I mean, c’mon. We’re sisters—” she held up one hand, raising her fingers as she counted things off “—we’re Bhaalspawn, there’s some crazy elf mage and his crazy vampire sister trying to kill us, you’ve been going all Slayer-y, and Spellhold and Ust Natha aren’t exactly great places for a family reunion or a romantic getaway. In fact, tell me just one thing about the last year that’s been remotely normal.”
Cassie’s lips tilted in a wry smile. “I thought today was pretty nice.”
Imoen shook her head emphatically. “Doesn’t count.”
“‘Cause it’s still part of the whole Irenicus mess.”
“So,” Imoen explained, giving Cassie a dark look, “we’re soulless, you’re still all Slayer-y, and you said yourself that you never found a single love story between two women in all of Candlekeep.”
“Oh, I found some,” Cassandra corrected. “Just not where they… you know.”
“Were sisters? Had sex with each other?”
“Okay, okay, I get the point.” Cassandra sighed and laid her head back. “It’s not normal. But still,” she continued, her voice taking on a more stubborn, argumentative edge, “so what if it’s not normal? If we love each other—if–“ she stressed “—then who cares if we’re sisters, or if we’re women, or whatever? Fate didn’t give us the choice to be normal or lead normal lives. It just said, ‘Hey, you’re a Child of Murder, deal with it.’”
Imoen arched an eyebrow. “Point. But no one else realizes that. You know what people are gonna think?”
Cassie shrugged. “I’m Bhaalspawn; people assume the worst no matter what I do.”
Another good point. Imoen sighed as well. “That’s not fair. You’re a great person.” She glanced over. “But I like you better with blue eyes.”
A huff of amused breath. “Yeah, me too.”
A comfortable silence drifted down between them as they gazed up at the now-inky night sky. A host of constellations glittered above: the five stars of Belnimbra’s Belt, Mystra’s Circle, and the proud, upright V-shape of the Horn. A tiny blue-green dot marked the position of Karpri, one of Toril’s four sister planets. Imoen snuggled closer, letting herself be drawn in as Cassie’s arm tightened around her shoulders. A quick swim and playful water fight had washed away the smell of sweat and sex, leaving behind only the soft, natural scent of skin.
“What d’ya think Gorion would think?”
Imoen gave a small shrug of her shoulders. “Us. Everything.”
Cassandra pursed her lips thoughtfully. Gorion had been the closest thing she’d had to a real family, to a real father. His guidance had been her foundation as she grew; his approval the one thing she’d always sought. He, like all the inhabitants of Candlekeep, had been reserved and quite in demeanor, but his pride, happiness, and love for his adopted daughter had been evident in small glances and gentle words. Imoen had been a bit more standoffish, a bit more rebellious and self-assured, but Gorion—”Mister G”—held a special place in her heart as well. His death had left them alone and lost far too young in a hostile world.
“I think he’d be heartbroken to see what’s happened,” she answered slowly, choosing her words with care. “He gave his life trying to protect us, trying to make sure we never heard the word ‘Bhaalspawn’ or what it meant. He wanted us to be normal. But we’re not, Im, and we can’t be. Gorion knew that—he had to, he knew everything.” She fell silent again for a few moments as she gathered her thoughts. Imoen stayed silent, listening. “And I think that—I hope that—he’d be okay with things. Yeah, this probably wasn’t what he—what anyone—had in mind, but he wanted us to be happy. He died to give us that chance.”
“Mmm. Hope you’re right.”
Imoen stifled a yawn with the back of her hand as she curled even closer. Her fingers wandered once more under the torn fabric of Cassandra’s tunic, seeking out the warmth of skin against skin. Despite whatever uncertainty she had, she’d still enjoyed it—something she hadn’t been sure was even possible. If Cassie had been a man, she couldn’t have gone through with it with the memory of the rape still there, lurking underneath her skin. She traced the soft flesh of Cassandra’s stomach, giving a silent prayer of thanks that Adalon’s spell had worn off. “I’m tired.”
Cassie pulled her closer. “Then go to sleep.”
“You should carry me back to the tent.”
“So am I,” Cassie rejoined.
“Yeah, but you’ve got that Bhaalspawn super-strength thing going on,” she said, covering another yawn. “You could carry me to Amn and barely break a sweat. All I got are those stupid auras.”
She chuckled. “True. Fine; get up.”
“Get up?” Imoen protested indignantly. “But…I’m tired!”
“Up.” Cassandra gave her a small push. “Up!”
The mage grumbled in displeasure, but now that her nap had been disturbed there didn’t seem to be that much to lose. She got to her feet and brushed the small bits of grass and leaves from her robe. The front of it was ruined; even a thorough search hadn’t located all of the missing buttons. The mending spell would likely need some tweaking to make it whole again.
“Sometimes you are such a pain in the butt,” Imoen complained as Cassie got to her feet.
Cassandra scooped her off the ground in one fluid movement, hefting Imoen into her arms and cradling her against her chest. “All part of my charm.”
Imoen giggled, looping her arms around Cassie’s neck as they began the trek back to the tent. “Yeah, I guess it is.”