Darkness. The stale scent of dust and cold stone walls, undercut by the subtle rankness of age-old death. Rats chittered in the blackness, scurrying away from the intruders in their quiet domain. The rasping click of tiny claws echoed through the tombs. It was exactly as she remembered it, down to the decaying brickwork and silent spiders watching them suspiciously from the safety of their webs.
Cassandra held up her hand, motioning the group to stop. Imoen’s stoneskins-grey form hovered in the edge of her peripheral vision as the sorceress crept silently forward. The rest of the group lingered a meter behind: the four paladins, now outfitted with platemail and holy symbols, and the solitary cleric in their midst. The Dawnseeker’s body glowed with a faint light: a gift from Lathlander, and the sole source of illumination to ward off the dark.
“Here,” Cassie whispered, pointing to a section of the floor. Nalia’s ghost rose out of her memory, mouthing the words even as Cassie spoke them. The noble was smiling; a bloody necklace of severed flesh ringed her neck. “Pressure plate. Don’t step on this row of stones.”
Scattered nods. The group advanced again, passing one by one over the section as Cassie knelt before it. Imoen, leading the point beyond the light’s range, using her darkvision to pierce the blackness; the two older paladins, Firecam and Wildorn; Dawnseeker Messanai. The two younger paladins brought up the rear. Cassie took up the vanguard position once more after all six had cleared the trapped stone. Like Imoen, she worked beyond the range of the light. Unlike Imoen, she needed no magic to do it.
“The hallway should be clear after this,” she said softly. “Up ahead there’s a large chamber with no floor. There’s a path of magic stones leading upwards. Last time they were safe, but be careful: if I were going to set an ambush, I’d set it there.”
More nods. Cassandra adjusted her grip on her sword as she advanced. Buying new gear had required money – money that she didn’t have. Fortunately her previous business with Ribald had been profitable, and he knew a good business risk when he saw one. If she lost, he’d lose perhaps a thousand gold. If she won, he’d recoup his loss. Either way, he’d have secured the patronage of a powerful warrior: word of mouth alone would be enough to draw in customers from every corner of Amn.
The hallway remained clear, and soon the cavern blossomed open into a black, bottomless pit. Cassandra positioned herself to one side of the door; Imoen went automatically to the other. After traveling together so long, their coordinated movements had become second nature: an ingrained, subconscious reflex. Their eyes scanned the darkness. The path of floating stones stood surreal and silent over the drop-away, winding up to the chambers above.
Their eyes locked, and Imoen gave a small nod. Cassie returned it, then turned to the paladins and motioned them forward. They moved with a fair degree of silence, especially considering the four score pounds of metal strapped to their bodies. The armor could have been specially crafted, but she’d considered and quickly dismissed the possibility. Holy warriors rarely deigned to sneak around in the shadows, and would have little need or desire for armor designed to do so. More likely the cleric had enchanted it somehow to quell the clang of metal.
“Is that stable?” Ajantis queried, his eyes traveling up the floating stairs.
“It was last time.”
“I’ll go first,” Imoen offered, stepping towards the stones. Her gaze fixed Cassandra with a challenge. “I’m the lightest.”
The warrior held her tongue. After their argument in the Copper Coronet, Cassie had taken pains to reign in her protective impulses. Imoen was no stranger to risk and danger, and more importantly, she was certainly no fool. The sorceress wouldn’t charge into peril unprepared. Imoen could take care of herself. Cassie’s mind knew it, even if her heart didn’t.
She nodded. “We’ll follow you up. No more than two people on the stairs at a time: minimal casualties if we get a surprise.”
Theodorus frowned. “How are we going to handle the lights? If we can’t see, we can’t climb.”
“I can cast light,” Messanai assured him. “Twice, if needed.”
Cassie’s eyes turned to her sister. “Imoen?”
A shake of her head. “Once, if I have to. I took darkvision instead.”
“Okay. Messanai, make your lights,” the warrior instructed. “Imoen will test the way; after that, Wildorn and Theodorus with the first light, Firecam and Messanai, and Ajantis and me with the second.”
There were no objections. The group stayed in place, gathered loosely around the bottom of the floating staircase, as Imoen made her ascent. The narrow surfaces and heights were nothing new to the former thief; she made her way nimbly from stone to stone, pausing briefly with each step as she checked her footing and balance. Soon she was at the top. Imoen disappeared over the edge of the upper level; a second later her upper body popped back into view. She waved an ‘all-clear’ to the companions below.
Wildorn accepted the first of the summoned lights from Messanai and hoisted himself onto the first stone. Theodorus followed. They made their way to the top, as did Firecam and Messanai, with neither interruption nor unwelcome surprise. No ambush, no explosion of spells. The crypt remained eerily silent save for the brush of cloth against cloth and the faint creak of armor.
Cassie frowned as she moved up behind Ajantis. Bodhi had to know they were in Athkatla; even if she didn’t, surely she wouldn’t be so inattentive as to leave her crypt unguarded. Of all the corners of the tomb, this was by far the best place to arrange an attack: a single shove or a single missed step would send any of them plummeting into the darkness. If Bodhi was here, and was expecting them, what was she waiting for?
The small frown on Imoen’s lips when she reached the top told her that her sister shared her thoughts. The mage’s troubled grey eyes found hers. “Bodhi’s not stupid.”
“No, she’s not,” Cassandra agreed.
“She’s up to something.”
“Or she’s not here.”
“She’s here,” Imoen insisted. “I can feel it.”
Keldorn Firecam approached from the side. “Is there something wrong?”
Imoen’s lips pursed. “Bodhi should have taken at least two of us out back there.”
One aged eyebrow arched up. “Perhaps you should be thankful that she did not.”
“You don’t know Bodhi,” the younger girl countered. “That’s an awesome ambush point. She should’ve done something.”
“We have the advantage of surprise,” Firecam stated.
“I wouldn’t bet on that,” Cassie said with a shake of her head.
“What makes you believe otherwise?”
Imoen nodded at Cassandra’s words. “When you know Bodhi as well as we do, you learn to expect the worst.”
Firecam glanced back at the others. Four sets of eyes watched them expectantly. His attention returned to Cassandra. “We’ll stay alert,” he promised.
She nodded. It was all any of them could do. She raised her arm, motioning for the others to gather around. “Short hallway,” she explained, tilting her head towards the darkness ahead. “We removed the doors last time. Past that, a small chamber. There were grimwarders there earlier, but unless Bodhi’s replaced them, they should be gone.” Her mind traveled through the events of the last assault: Piotr and his golem, the undead archers, and the thwunk of arrows into flesh. “The inner doors are gone as well. After that, we’re in the crypt proper.”
Theodorus tipped his chin at her. “Anything we should expect?
A small, humorless smile curled her lips. “Trouble.”
A frown. “Anything more specific?” he asked sourly.
Hidden door, hidden lock. Nalia smiled and stepped through the faux wall. Cassandra clenched her jaw and shoved the memory away. “Traps. Keep me in front. I know where they are.”
They didn’t need to be told twice. Cassie took up point again; Imoen behind and to her left, Firecam behind and right. The Dawnseeker’s escorts surrounded her in a ring of steel. Step by step they advanced down the hallway, but Cassie’s sense of unease didn’t diminish. It was too quiet. Far too quiet.
The hallway ended at the set of ancient doors, just as she remembered. They stood undisturbed: silent guardians unmoved by chaos of mortal beings. Someone had closed them again, after Cassandra’s last incursion, but the massive metal bar still lay where Piotr’s golem had cast it. Perhaps it had proven too heavy, even for a vampire’s supernatural strength.
“This was open,” she whispered as she drew closer. “When I left, this was open.”
“Told you she was here,” Imoen said, glancing pointedly at Firecam.
Firecam ignored the jab and focused his attention on the obstacle at hand. The doors rose easily twelve feet high and were at least half that in width; the reinforced metal bands and trimming only added to their weight. “Then we open it again.”
Cassandra studied the portals with a skeptical eye. It’d taken a golem to force the doors last time, but last time they’d been barred. Now that the crossbar had been removed, perhaps human muscle could move them. Human muscle and Bhaalspawn strength.
Theodorus and Firecam were already positioning themselves against one of the doors. Cassie placed herself against the other. Ajantis started forward, only to be waved away. “Keep your sword out,” she instructed.
“Wildorn will help you—”
“No. Both of you keep your swords out. I don’t need help.”
The young paladin retreated, brow furrowed in displeasure and confusion. His gaze lit upon Imoen. “How…?”
“She’s stronger than she looks.”
He was interrupted by the creak and groan of ancient wood. The fighters had set their feet and dug their toes into the dirt; now, in tandem, they pushed forward. The doors protested with deep, woody voices, but remained unmoved. Another shove and grunt of effort garnered a similar lack of result. Cassie gritted her teeth and adjusted her footing. Ajantis, despite her command, darted over to his fellows and lent his strength to the battle. Now faced with three challengers, the door slowly began to give way. A groan. A slow, scraping inch of ground gained. Cassie flexed her knees and anchored the balls of her feet against the rough stone floor. The sound of metal scraping over rock rewarded her as the portal reluctantly retreated.
After the initial resistance was overcome, the doors opened considerably faster. With Wildorn and the two women keeping a sharp eye on the surroundings, the remaining four warriors slowly pushed the portal open. The room beyond was shrouded in shadows that danced on the periphery of the Dawnseeker’s lights.
Imoen tapped Ajantis on his pauldrons. His inquisitive brown eyes flicked over. “Don’t leave her alone.”
“Sorry. But they—”
“Uh-uh.” The redhead shook her head. “No ‘but’. Never leave her alone. Bodhi’ll take out the biggest threat first, and you aren’t nearly as scary to a vampire as a priestess of the sun god.”
“What about her?” His gaze traveled to Cassandra, who had redrawn her blade and was advancing slowly into the room. “Won’t the vampires take her first?”
She would. If Bodhi had any sense at all, Cassie would be her top priority. Even knowing that both sisters were Tainted, it was obvious which one was more dangerous. Messanai was only human, even with her bond with the Morninglord. It was one thing to challenge a cleric; it was another thing entirely to take on a demi-god spawn of Bhaal.
Cassie was still Cassie. Despite the freaky eyes, despite Imoen’s discomfort over what had happened, that hadn’t changed. They’d killed for each other; they’d die for each other. That hadn’t changed.
“Not if I can help it,” she vowed.
“Hey. Stay with the group.” Cassie’s voice drew them both to attention. The others were advancing into the chamber beyond, holding the magelights aloft as they examined the surroundings. Imoen hiked her robe up and jogged over. The soft clink of Ajantis’ armored form followed her.
The chamber was empty. What few belongings had once been here were now smashed beyond recognition. A second set of doors, this one badly damaged and patched, blocked the exit at the other end. It looked as if a small tornado had struck them: bits and pieces of wood had been ripped away; jagged splinters ringed the edges. Even the wood that was intact showed signs of heavy damage: dents and gashes from some unknown assailant who had tried to force their way inside.
The crypt’s inhabitants had done their best to repair it. Pieces of wood, ranging from rough, newly hewn elm to soft, half-rotted beech, had been nailed in place over the worst of the damage. It was a patchwork of colors and grains: a ramshackle attempt to make the door once again bar the path. Despite – or because of – the shoddy repair work, the door wouldn’t be nearly as hard to move as the twin colossuses behind them.
Imoen quirked an eyebrow. “Do you see that?”
Cassie returned her look with confusion. “Flashes?”
Small, scintillating flashes of metallic grey moved across the door. A flash here, a glint there – it was far too random to be the reflection of the Dawnseeker’s light. Light reflections would remain constant, moving only when the source did; these jumped around sporadically, like steel fireflies darting back and forth.
“Sec. I’m gonna check it out.”
She approached it cautiously, studying both it and its surroundings with a practiced and skeptical eye. The last thing she wanted to do was walk into some sort of arcane or necromantic field. There were no other signs of magic: no runes, no tale-tell scent of components, no spilled powder or dust. The flickers of grey continued; the closer she came, the larger they seemed to become. Soon they had grown from fireflies to oranges. Small points of detail were visible: line, dots, textures, all of which vanished too quickly to make out a pattern. Perhaps a malfunctioning illusion?
She glanced back. Cassie hadn’t moved – none of them had – but the tight press of Cassie’s lips betrayed her concern. “I’m fine. Just gimme a sec.”
Her gaze returned to the door, focusing on the flashes. Her mind automatically fetched out repeating pieces and tried to fit the puzzle together. No one cast an illusion just for the fun of it. At least, she’d never met anyone else who had. If she could figure out what it was supposed to be, perhaps she could figure out what Bodhi had planned.
Rivets. The small dots were rivets, set against dark grey. Imoen’s brows furrowed. Metal. Rivets in metal. The surrounding walls were stone; the illusion wasn’t meant to hide the exit. Her fingers reached out automatically, almost unconsciously, as she tried to put her finger on it. Perhaps just an iron door? Seeing metal instead of old wood would certain discourage intruders from just barging through like a herd of cows.
The door was cold. Cold, hard, and smooth. Her eyes widened as she jerked away.
The warning was drowned out by the abrupt scream of grating metal. The group whirled as a whole, only to see the giant doors swing close with impossible speed. Theodorus and Wildorn sprinted forward, despite the obvious futility of stopping the behemoths. The portal slammed shut with a deafening thud; it echoed through the chamber and shook loose gravel and sand from the stonework ceiling overhead. Dawnseeker Messanai swiftly stepped backwards as a rock the size of a grown man’s fist tumbled to the ground in front of her, but no wider collapse came. All swords were drawn now; Imoen’s hands were already busy, tracing the runes necessary to gather rudimentary magical energies. Whatever spell she needed, she wanted to get it off quick.
“What in Torm’s name—”
“Ssh.” Cassandra cut Theodorus off with a sharp motion of her hand. Her eyes glistened with reflected light: twin orbs of polished onyx framed by a human face. “Be quiet. Imoen; Messanai.” She directed the spellcasters to opposite sides, just as she had Aerie and Nalia. Aerie and Nalia, who had died because of her. No. Stay focused. “Get ready.”
Silence settled over them, cut by the sound of anxious breath. Their eyes darted back and forth: to the doors, to the walls, to each other, back again. Seconds drifted by. A minute. No screaming hoard of undead burst through the walls. No distant moans of hunger and hate.
Ajantis’ cautious whisper broke the silence. “Where are they?”
Firecam shook his head slightly, but said nothing.
“What happened?” Messanai’s question was directed towards her red-headed counterpart.
“It’s an illusion.” Imoen pointed accusatorily at the broken and patched up door. “I—you guys don’t see it?” A chorus of negative answers; the sorceress frowned and continued on. “It’s malfunctioning; got miscast, I guess. I thought they were trying to mask a wooden door with the illusion of a metal one. But the door is metal – the wood’s an illusion.”
“Are you sure?” Wildorn asked.
“Of course I’m sure,” Imoen responded with an annoyed huff of breath. “I’m a mage, aren’t I?”
“A good way to seal someone in,” Firecam observed grimly.
“But why aren’t they attacking?” Messanai asked, her eyes darting back and forth between the two exits.
“It’s probably automatic,” Imoen answered. “A spell or something on the door. You touch it, it slams shut.”
“So it’s your fault,” Theodorus accused. Despite the large sword and showy armor, his frustration with the situation was evident. The flicker of fear in his aura leapt forth in chaotic yellow flames.
“Theo.” Firecam turned on him with a disapproving frown.
Imoen bit back a retort of several choice, colorful words. “Yeah, it is.”
“But why aren’t they attacking?” Ajantis said, repeating the Dawnseeker’s question.
“Because they aren’t here yet,” Imoen answered. “As long as we’re trapped, they don’t need to hurry. Show up, scout us out a little, let the fear shake us up. But you can bet that if they’ve set a trap, someone’s going to show up and check when it’s sprung.”
“Maybe they didn’t hear it,” Ajantis offered hopefully.
Wildorn shook his head. “They heard it.”
“Wildorn is right.” It was Firecam again. “That was far too loud to go unnoticed. We should prepare for the worst.”
“No.” Cassie grasped her sheath with one hand and slide her blade home; if Imoen was right, she’d have time and warning enough to draw it out again. “We should get out of here. The trap’s been sprung: they know where we are. Or they think they do.”
“And how exactly do you propose we do that?” Theodorus challenged.
“Going back the way we came is no option,” Firecam agreed. “Bodhi knows we’re here: retreating will just give her the opportunity to plan and reinforce her position. We have to keep going.”
“Then we force the door.”
“Betcha fifty gold it’s barred. What’s the point of setting a trap if your victim can just walk out?”
“We forced the first ones,” Cassie pointed out. “Bodhi might be expecting us, but she doesn’t know we’ve got help. And she doesn’t know how my Taint’s changed me.”
The help in question was already at the door. It was smaller – single instead of double – and set to pull open rather than to push. The knights had managed two and a half men on the door’s single handle, each straining to make the portal move. So far their efforts had yielded no result.
Imoen’s lips quirked in a lopsided smile as she saw Cassie thoughtfully regarding the door. “Seriously. If those buffed up guys can’t move it? You aren’t that strong.” A thoughtful pause. “Are you?”
“Got a better idea?”
“Mm.” One slim finger tapped against her chin. “I stocked up on ‘kill stuff’ spells, not ‘open stuff’ spells.”
“What about that teleport thing you used in Ust Natha?”
“Dimension door. Yeah, I’ve got it. But,” she stressed, holding up a finger as Cassandra started to speak again. “I really need to be able to know where I’m going – see it, preferably. Shifting into rock tends to hurt.”
Cassie blinked. “That’s possible?”
“It’s magic. Of course it’s possible.”
Messanai had caught the thread of conversation and now stepped subtly closer, silently listening in.
“Can’t you just decide to pop up on the other side of the door?” Cassie persisted.
Imoen sighed. “I can try,” she admitted. “But seriously, Cass – if I end up slamming into a brick wall, you owe me.”
“At least. And dinner.”
“And a good dinner! Not some crappy ham sandwich or something.”
“Fine, fine.” A half-hidden grin tugged the corners of her mouth despite the gravity of the situation. “Dinner from Matilda. Promise.”
Messanai could hold herself in no longer. “You’re teleporting out?”
“That’s the plan.”
“And the rest of us?”
Imoen frowned thoughtfully. “I can carry like three or four people with me – probably three, better safe than sorry.”
“That’s four out, three in,” Messanai noted. “Can you cast it twice?”
A shake of her head. “Just once. I can rememorize it tomorrow, but that isn’t gonna help us now.”
Cassie motioned to the paladins, who had finally given up on opening the door with brute force. “If we can’t open it from one side, maybe we can open it from two.”
Wildorn had only caught the end of the sentence. “From two what?”
“Two sides. Imoen can teleport three of us out—”
“Four, counting me,” the sorceress piped.
Cassandra nodded. “—four of us out. If we push with two from the inside and pull with two on the outside, maybe we could get it open.”
“Maybe.” Theodorus didn’t sound convinced. “Can’t she just come back and get the rest of us?”
Imoen shook her head again. “I can only cast it once.”
“And if we can’t get it open?”
“Then we come up with something else,” Cassie responded, snapping back at the paladin’s irate tone. “Would you rather wait in here until a vampire shows up?”
“We have a defensible position here,” he argued. “They only have two ways in.”
“And if they enter both ways at once, you’ve put yourself in a death trap. Guess what Bodhi’s going to do?”
“Enough!” Firecam’s strong, sturdy voice drove both warriors into silence. “An army divided is no army at all. We will not fight among ourselves!” His steely eyes fixed Cassandra with a disapproving stare. “From you, Bhaalspawn, I expect such behavior.” The gaze moved to Theodorus. “You, Tormwine, are a squire of the Order of the Radiant Heart. You have no excuse.”
Theodorus’ cheeks reddened as his jaw clenched in anger. “Yes, sir.”
“Good. Cassandra? Who do you suggest stay behind?”
The black eyes drifted over the gathered troop. Imoen would have to teleport out, that was a given. They’d have to have enough muscle on both sides to force the door, if it could be forced. Tormwine and Ilvastarr, being the youngest of the knights, were also likely the strongest. Whatever might be coming would be coming from inside the crypt: the Dawnseeker would do no good entombed behind the doors.
“Imoen, Messanai, myself, and Wildorn. We’ll teleport out. Theodorus, Ajantis, and Firecam stay behind.”
Theodorus’ objection was already on the tip of his tongue, but Firecam simply nodded.
“The quicker the better,” Imoen pointed out, already lacing fingers with the two other women. “You guys ready? Wildorn, grab something.”
He lay his hand on top of her shoulder. “Is this suitable?”
“Perfect.” She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and mentally calculated how far she would need to place the spell’s anchor. Assuming the door was only a few feet thick, no walls behind it, and a steady, solid surface to land on… “Okay. Releuch stash teni.”
The world disappeared in a glow of white light and lurch of sudden weightlessness. A moment later gravity took hold and the darkness closed in again.
“Well, great.” Imoen placed her hands on her hips. “That didn’t work.”
They were in a room. A different room: larger and longer, with three different doors set into the walls. The décor here was Mulhorandish, gilded in lapis lazuli and polish gold, the walls covered in carvings of humans with animal heads.
Messanai frowned, looking around as well. “It didn’t?”
“We went from one room to another.”
“But it’s still a different room,” Cassie pointed out. The doorway they’d circumvented was there, set into the wall behind them. The illusion was cast on one side only, and from this angle the egress was clearly metal: cold, hard, and unyielding. A large iron crossbar had been levered across its width. “Come on; let’s get this open.”
Wildorn came up next to her; Imoen and Messanai spread out in flank positions, eyes and ears sharp for any evidence that Bodhi’s welcoming committee was on its way. Cassandra hefted the bar out of its sockets and set it aside, then rapped sharply on the portal itself. A moment later a muffled response came from the other side.
She glanced over at the moustached paladin. “Ready?”
Wildorn nodded. “At your signal.”
A nod. They set themselves in position, each bracing a shoulder against the door. “One… two… three!”
Both warriors threw their weight forward. The smooth, polished stonework of the chamber floor proved to be less than ideal footing. They adjusted between breaths to gain better leverage, but the door seemed unmoved. A low creak of protest was its only response.
“Again,” Cassie gritted, and once again Wildorn nodded. Another shove; this time the answering groan was louder. The door slid inwards a fraction of an inch, and exclamations of excitement could be heard on the other side.
Another groan. This one not from the door.
“Messanai!” Imoen’s alarmed voice shot an octave higher. “Cassie!”
Cassie reflexively turned her head. Imoen was already casting, bringing flickering fields of magic into existence around her body. Messanai gripped her holy symbol tight in one hand, her face set in a stern mask of determination. A third moan echoed into the room, and a swirl of writhing, moving darkness flowed through a distant door. It whirled in on itself, reorienting, and then focused on the four with a hellish scream.
“Down!” Cassandra grabbed Wildorn’s shoulder and pushed him aside as the blackness rushed towards them. Imoen dove reflexively for the cover of one of the many pillars. Only Messanai seemed unfazed: she held her ground resolutely, still glowing with divinely-bestowed light. The darkness flowed straight at her, only to arc away at the last moment. Cassie caught a glimpse of gaunt, decaying faces with gaping mouths and rotted death. They flashed past her; her breath fogged in the dimness as the very air around her was leeched of living warmth. The shrouded beings raced to the door, and just as quickly disappeared into it.
“What the—“ Cassie’s head jerked back around. The sounds of elation from Firecam and the others had abruptly transformed into a din of fright and confusion. Her stomach clenched. “Get the door open! Get it open now!”
Wildorn was back on his feet and by her side before the words were even spoken. They slammed their bodies against the iron with renewed urgency. Inside the paladins’ cries had been rejoined with unearthly screams and moans.
“Undead.” She knew what Cassie wanted: intelligence on the enemy. “Non-corporeal. A shadow or something.”
“Wraiths,” Messanai corrected grimly. “Two of them. Armor won’t protect you.”
The warriors didn’t answer. Each shove against the door, each slam of steel to iron, forced the door open another inch. The cacophony on the other side grew louder with every attempt. Behind them the Dawnseeker was praying, her words almost swallowed among the screams of both mortal and undead.
Each second was a second too long. Now there was enough space to fit an arm through; now a leg; finally a chest. Cassandra wedged her back against the doorframe as best she could and raised her leg to brace against the door. Her grunt of effort and surge of strength was rewarded with a sudden release of tension. The door growled against the uneven stone floor of the other chamber and slid open nearly two more feet. It was enough to fit a grown man through, and that was all she needed.
The twin doors on the far side of the chamber flung open; the screams of the wraiths were joined by shouts of fury and hatred as a dozen new foes stampeded into the room. These were corporeal: pale and wiry humanoids, some still wearing bloodstained clothing, running forward in full charge. One leapt forward with inhuman strength, covering nearly twenty feet in a single bound. Imoen targeted him with a volley of magic missiles in mid-air; the impact of the glowing orbs sent him flying backwards.
“Vampires!” she shouted.
“Hold them off!”
Cassie squeezed into the room. Tormwine, Ilvastarr, and Firecam had abandoned their attempts to open the door and now stood back to back, each with his sword drawn and bared. The smoky black forms of the wraiths swirled around them in a menacing fog of howling hate; they darted forward, lashing out with skeletal fingers, fell back, and attacked again. The knights were on the defensive, and Ilvastarr’s arms were visibly trembling. His face was pale and drawn.
One of the creatures surged to attack. Firecam raised his blade to meet it; the contact of steel to soul gave off a plume of grey ash and a sizzling hiss. The ghost wrenched itself backwards, but its companion had already moved in. It targeted Ajantis, who likewise tried to intercept it with his blade. The wraith passed through it cleanly, utterly ignoring the cold steel. Its skeletal hand whipped out and sank through his chest, through the armor and steel platemail. The paladin gasped and sank to one knee as the bony fingers withdrew, trailing after them thin, translucent threads of light that instantly blackened and rotted away.
“Get out!” Cassie dashed forward, dodging between the wraiths’ whispy forms. She yanked her sword free of its sheath and slashed through one of the wraiths as it moved to intercept her. The hissing sound of contact greeted her ears. “Get outside! Now!”
Firecam moved immediately. He knelt and slung his young companion’s body over his shoulders as he moved towards the exit. Theodorus moved as well, trying to guard Keldorn’s retreat, but his sword was no deterrent. The monsters flew past him, dragging their claws through his form. He froze in place, his face contorted in sudden, agonized horror.
Cassandra’s hand flashed out and hooked into the top of his breastplate. She hurled him forward, catapulting him several stumbling steps towards the door, as the wraith whirled on her with a mouthful of rotting, skeletal teeth. She bared hers back in a feral snarl. A cold chill ripped through her flesh as the claw lashed out and passed cleanly through her instinctive attempt to block it. The wraith’s deaths-head grin split in scream of anger.
Outside, the screams and sounds of chaos echoed like howls from the Nine Hells themselves. A dozen vampires had manifested from the darkness, each homing in on the intruders with a frenzied, hate-driven blood lust. Maws wide and fangs bared, they attacked with neither strategy nor thought. Their superior numbers and raw, overwhelming strength served as advantage enough.
Messanai stood her ground resolutely. With Lathlander’s symbol held high and no trace of fear in her voice, the steady chant of her prayers warded her against the worst of the undead attacks. Her body still glowed with divine light, now stronger and brighter than before. Any vampire unfortunate enough to come too close quickly retreated again, his skin burnt and bubbled from the proximity. Imoen stayed behind her, using flame arrow and chain lightning to keep the creatures at bay. Her fingers itched for the chance to throw acid fog or fireball, but in the close quarters of the chamber there was no way to separate friend from foe.
The vampires were smartening up. The Dawnseeker’s light made it impossible to get at the sorceress behind her, and Wildorn’s sword was quick and sure. Blinded and driven back by the glow, the vampires were easy – if resilient – targets for his strikes. Only two had been felled so far: a former elf who had been foolish enough to grab Lathlander’s Chosen and been reduced to ash for his trouble; and a bearded, disfigured human who’d fallen in two pieces thanks to the paladin’s blade. The odds were still ten-against-three, though, and now the vampires were circling, striking, and retreating with a new, malicious determination.
One of the undead hefted a broken piece of stonework and hurled it forward at the cleric. All three humans scattered out of its path; it slammed into the far wall with force enough to break the chunk in two. Imoen felt a nauseous tightening in her stomach as several more vampires knelt and lifted similar debris. A rock was just a rock, but with supernatural strength behind it, it was transformed into a deadly missile.
“Leureua ve ostanesh.” The force barrier of the arcane shield shimmered and solidified even as she darted in front of Messanai. The first rock was too fast—it whistled through the air and struck Imoen in the shoulder just before the shield was in place. The impact knocked her backwards and sent her stumbling into Messanai’s form, but the abjurational weave of her stoneskins prevented any real harm.
A hailstorm of jagged rock and stonework exploded around them. The vampires concentrated on the Dawnseeker as their target, hoping to achieve at a distance what their frontal assault had not. Ajantis and Tormwine stumbled into the room, only to nearly by sent to the grave by a stonework arm from a broken statue. It exploded in a shower of jagged fragments against the wall, opening a score of tiny lacerations on the men’s faces.
Messanai’s steady, rhythmic chant had turned into a fevered, whispered prayer. Imoen was casting as well, trying not to flinch as the stones flew towards her, only to be deflected at the last moment by the invisible barrier. If she couldn’t take them all at once, she could damn well take one at a time. She knelt, grabbing a pinch of dust from the floor, and deftly retrieved a small lodestone from her beltpouch. She had three of them, but she’d wanted to keep one especially for Bodhi.
A strangled cry sounded from her left. Her eyes flickered up as she whispered the first words of the incantation. Three vampires had broken off from the group and focused in on the paladins like lions on a herd of deer. One had Ajantis Ilvastarr in his grasp, fangs sunk deep into the knight’s pale, sweat-soaked neck. Wildorn had been knocked prone by a flying chunk of stone and now struggled to get to his feet; Theodorus screamed in anger as he tried to each his friend, but the vampire’s companions kept him easily at bay.
She’d start there, then. Imoen surged to her feet, aiming a single finger at the vampire closest to Tormwine, and unleashed disintegration. A small, single spark flew from her fingertip and exploded with crackling black energy against the undead’s head. The flesh sizzled and burnt away, followed by muscle and bone, until the entire skull had been eaten away by the necromantic weave. There was no blood, no gore, no struggle. The body toppled over, cleanly decapitated, onto the cold stone floor.
Wildorn was back on his feet, and now the vampire facing Tormwine realized that the tables had turned. Imoen allowed herself no time to celebrate. Three down. Nine to go.
The wraiths had not given up their assault, even with two of their prey having escaped. Cassandra was surrounded by a whirlwind of cold, decaying wind and black mist as they swirled around her, over her, and through her. The din of their screams was so loud that even the battle raging in the over room was faint and far away. Somewhere in the distance she could hear Firecam’s strident shouting, calling her to retreat.
She lashed out with a vicious thrust of her sword; it hit, spawning forth a hissing cloud of greyish mist. The wraith howled and dove straight at her. The icy, sick sensation of rotting death lanced through her as the corruption passed through her armor and into her flesh. For a moment she couldn’t breath, couldn’t move, couldn’t think – then the ghost flowed out of her, rejoining the whirlwind of chaos, only to dart forward towards her once more.
An abrupt flash of light exploded from the other room. It poured in through the open doorway, bright enough to burn. Cassie threw one arm across her eyes and hissed in pain. The wraiths screeched in horror, fleeing from the light and vanishing into the crypt’s stone walls. A chorus of screams sounded from the adjoining chamber, abruptly replaced by omnious silence. She stumbled towards the doorway, her sight slowly returning as the sudden light faded away. Firecam was gone. The room was empty.
The door slammed shut just as her fingers brushed the handle. Something closed around her neck and yanked her backwards – something powerful and cold. She was hurled to the floor; a dark shape followed her, blurry and indistinct. More pressure against her throat; she was hefted off the floor and shoved against the wall with the rasping grate of armor against stone. She blinked rapidly, bringing the world back into focus as her eyes re-adjusted to the darkness.
“I am so fucking sick of you.”
Bodhi’s pale alabaster visage solidified before her. The vampiress’ hand was locked like iron around the warrior’s throat, the other securing Cassandra’s sword against the wall. The damage the Slayer had done to her at their last meeting was gone but clearly not forgotten. Her full red lips, usually so quick with a sly comment, were contorted in rage; her dark seductress eyes showed nothing but hate.
She pulled her foe away from the wall and then slammed her into it again. The impact jarred Cassie hard enough to rob her of both thought and breath. She tried to lift her sword: it rose a trembling few inches before Bodhi forced it down again.
“I don’t know which is more annoying,” the vampiress hissed. “The fact that you keep showing up, or the fact that you just won’t die.”
There was no point in having a sword if you suffocated before you could use it. It tumbled in the ground with a metallic clang as Cassandra switched her grip to the vise around her throat.
“I should thank Irenicus for ruining my little surprise with the wraiths, though,” she continued. “My fault, really. They can’t rot a soul that’s not there.”
“One on one this time?” Cassie grated between clenched teeth.
One slim, dark eyebrow arched. “Hardly. You brought friends, and so did I. I’ve spent the last month turning every tramp, vagabond, and whore into servants of my will. Weak, but they’re still more than a match for your tin-can paladins.”
“The light? You mean your cleric’s little glow?” Bitter amusement curved the rich scarlet lips. “So I lost ten or twelve. I have more. And if you think that wraiths are the worst thing I have in store for you, Cassandra, then you are very, very wrong.”
Bodhi was strong – very strong. Irenicus had lamented the ‘long years’ of his punishment, and Cassie could only imagine how many decades, if not centuries, must have passed for even an elf to chafe under their weight. Where Irenicus had languished, though, Bodhi had flourished. The older a vampire was, the most powerful it became. Even with all of her Bhaalspawn strength, Cassie was barely making an impact.
She tried again, wrapping her fingers around Bodhi’s wrist and trying once more to force it away from her throat. Her muscles trembled and quivered under the strain — a stark contrast against the unnaturally perfect calm of the vampire. She gained a half-inch, then another, until finally she could breathe free.
The respite was short-lived. Bodhi moved like a striking snake; her elbow flashed up and slammed into Cassie’s nose. Blood exploded over her cheeks and mouth as the warrior let out a howl of pain. Both hands rose instinctively in an attempt to cover the broken bone, and the vampiress’ hands locked back around her throat.
“You can’t fight me. Your father could be Ao Himself for all it’s worth. You’re still just human. One pathetic, ignorant human.”
“You’ve ran from me twice.”
“Your transformation was…disconcerting,” Bodhi admitted. She had leaned in closer, her body shifting against Cassie’s own. The heat in her eyes had taken on a subtle, hungry edge. “I know how to pick my battles, Cassandra. But I’ve been doing some research on your kind. You aren’t the first avatar of Bhaal to walk this land, you know. There have been others. As far back in time as you can imagine, there are stories of half-gods like you. Transforming, like you.” Now the hate in her voice had transformed into a soft, seductive purr. “How many times have you changed, Cassandra? Three? Four?”
Cassie glared at her. “Go to Hell.”
“No one’s ever lasted more than five,” Bodhi informed her. Her tongue traced a slow, sensual path across the red-head’s blood-covered lips. “Neither will you.”
The reaction was intense and immediate. Cassie’s hands flashed back up, closing around Bodhi’s shoulders, but the serpent was back for another strike just as quickly. The vampire twisted and slid out of the way as if made from mist itself; Cassie found herself facing empty air for a split second before her feet were swept out from under her. She landed face first on the ground with a grunt of pain. She rolled over instinctively to get to her feet, but Bodhi was already on top of her. The warrior reached to throw her off, but the vampiress deftly caught her hands. They struggled, teeth bared and muscles clenched. At first Bodhi gained ground, slowly and surely pushing Cassandra’s arms back to the ground, but as the human struggled and fought, the steady descent slowed and stopped. Beads of sweat had broken out across her skin from the effort; every fiber in her body was clenched.
Bodhi’s serene countenance was shaken as well. The vampire’s arms trembled as she bore down; her short, choppy black hair fell across her eyes. Her gaze flickered down to Cassie’s fingers and a jagged smile split her lips. “Now that’s just cheating,” she whispered.
Cassie looked down as well. The skin of fingertips was blackened and leathery; the color leeched down the flesh of her hand, fading into a pale greyish pink. Her nails had darkened and lengthened into short, thick claws.
“Looks like I bring out the worst in you,” Bodhi grinned.
The black hue crept slowly and steadily down Cassandra’s arms as she brought everything she had against the vampire’s supernatural strength. Bodhi’s smile was shaking: a wild, half-crazed expression, a mixture of excitement and fear. The deadlock of their grasp shifted a single inch – an inch in Cassie’s favor.
“You don’t scare me, Cassie.” The vampiress leaned forward, and Cassandra’s hands retreated an inch once more. “I know you. I know all about you.”
Cassie gritted her teeth as she tried to lever herself into a better position. “You don’t know anything.”
“Oh, but I do. I have Imoen’s soul,” Bodhi reminded her. “I have her feelings. Her knowledge. And she knows you very, very well.”
The thought of Imoen’s essence inside such a soiled vessel brought new rage boiling to the surface. The advantage shifted once more to Cassie as Bodhi was forced back. “Fuck you.”
“You would like that, wouldn’t you?” Her long, filed fingernails dug into the black flesh of Cassandra’s hands, piercing through flesh and tendons. Fine trickles of dark red blood leaked from around the sculpted nails. “Oh, Imoen might be too stupid to realize it, but I have her memories. And I know pathetic, pining teenage lust when I see it.”
The snarl that accompanied the demand was a bestial sound of hate. The bones of Cassie’s hands lengthened and thickened, snapping and reknitting as she struggled. The Taint inside struck like a viper, lashing out and sinking its fangs into her opponent’s lifeforce. Bodhi gasped – a surprised, almost seductive sound of pleasure – and made no attempt to move away. The first threads of soul dissolved in the Taint’s maw, and Cassie recoiled as if struck by hot iron. It tasted like Imoen.
“Do it,” Bodhi urged, baring her fangs in a hate-filled smile. “Kill me. Kill Imoen. Save me the trouble of doing it myself.”
The smile was abruptly gone. The undead’s pale features contorted in sudden surprise as a crackling black energy spread across her torso, wrapping around her like a pulsing, living spiderweb. She looked down; the web contracted with a sizzling, acidic hiss before flashing out of existence. It vanished with a loud crack, like lightning splitting the air. When it was gone, the majority of Bodhi’s chest disappeared with it.
The body above her began to dissolve, and within seconds had become nothing more than cool, insubstantial mist. It settled around Cassie’s form and disappeared into the myriad of cracks and crevices in the floor. Just inside the doorway to the other room, no longer blocked from sight by Bodhi’s form, stood Imoen. She wiped the powdered residue of the loadstone off onto her robe.
“Ya think, technically speaking, I just committed suicide?”
Cassandra inhaled sharply as the bones in her hands and arms continued their transformation. The Slayer flesh now extended into the sleeves of her armor, and the short, black fingernails had lengthened into long, demonic claws. Her teeth were bared in a vicious grimace. She forced her breath to slow. She couldn’t risk another change.
“You didn’t kill her,” she managed to answer at last. “Just pissed her off.”
“Yeah, well – it’s mutual.” Imoen approached cautiously, stopping a safe distance away. That she approached at all, given her previous experiences with the Slayer, was shocking. “You got it under control, Cass?”
“Not yet.” Another deep breath. The Taint flickered inside her like a thousand-tongued flame, testing her defenses for a weakness. She closed her eyes, teeth clenched, and concentrated. I’m Cassie.
A deep, mocking laughter was the only response.
“We need to— Merciful Torm! Is she alright?”
Imoen turned at the sound of a male voice. Firecam had poked his head inside the chamber and now stood staring at Cassie’s prone form. In his hand he held his trustworthy blade; it quivered, held in check only by his years of training. A lesser man might have stabbed first and asked question later.
The younger sister held up a warning hand, motioning him to stay back. “Give her a minute.”
“Ilvastarr isn’t going to make it; Tormwine is injured. We need to find the coffins before another wave of assault.”
“What about the wraiths?”
“Dawnseeker Messanai says that they will no longer be a threat.” His gaze flickered back to Cassandra. “If she becomes a danger—”
Imoen shot him a dark glare. “She isn’t. She won’t.” Her gaze went back to her sister, whose face was still clenched in a battle with her own will. Back to Firecam. “I’ll handle it.”
She expected an argument – at very least a comment about the danger – but he merely nodded. “We will wait for your signal.”
He retreated into the adjoining chamber once more. The sound of Firecam’s strong voice was reassuring, even if the news it carried was not. Imoen picked up only bits and pieces of the conversation: Ilvastarr was too wounded to continue; Tormwine offered to stay behind and protect him. Firecam refused.
“We need to get moving, Cass.” She stepped a few feet closer, crouching down to better see her sister’s face. “You okay?”
A sharp, jerky nod. The Slayer hadn’t retreated, but she’d managed to halt its advance. Her muscles throbbed with a thick, fiery discomfort, trapped somewhere between god and man. “I think so.”
Cassandra extended one arm; Imoen grasped it and helped pull her to her feet. The thick, black skin of Cassie’s forearms was ice-cold to the touch.
“You sure?” the mage asked skeptically. “Are you really, really sure?”
Another nod. “I’ll be fine. Just—we need to find Bodhi. I’ll be fine.”
There wasn’t time to argue. The Dawnseeker’s false dawn had all but annihilated the weaker vampire spawn, reducing nine of them to a handful of ash. The remaining three, though, as well as Bodhi, had taken refuge in their mist forms and likely retreated to the safety of their coffins. If given time enough they’d heal themselves – or escape as soon as darkness fell.
Imoen slipped her arm around Cassie’s waist, using it to support the warrior’s wobbly walk. All eyes were on them as they entered the next room. Keldorn and Wildorn stood alert and ready with their swords still drawn, as Messanai knelt next to Theodorus. The younger paladin was bleeding profusely from three long, parallel gashes that a vampire’s strike had carved across his face. One eye was glued shut with half-dried blood as the cleric tended his wounds. Ajantis lay propped against a wall.
“Cassandra.” Firecam nodded as she entered the room. Both Theodorus and Messanai looked up, the former’s eyes narrowing in anger and the latter gasping in shock.
Tormwine struggled to his feet even as the Dawnseeker tried in vain to keep him still. He pointed a gauntleted hand at the red-headed warrior. “Get out!”
“Theo.” Firecam placed a restraining hand on the younger man’s arm. “Calm down.”
“No. She left us in there! She knew it! Look at her!”
“Shut up!” Theodorus cut off Cassie’s attempt to defend herself. “Don’t even try it.” Now both of the senior knights ringed him, but Tormwine paid them no notice. He gestured towards Cassandra with a broad sweep of his arm. “Look at her! Look at her! She’s one of them!”
“No, I’m not!”
“She’s safe,” Imoen assured him. “She is.”
“Tormwine!” Firecam wrenched the younger man towards him, bringing him face to face with the steely, uncompromising gaze. The sharp, barked sound of his name was enough to jar Theodorus out of his tirade. When Firecam spoke again it was calm and authoritative. “We will discuss this later.”
The young knight’s jaw clenched and unclenched as he fought to hold his tongue. “If she gets us all killed, I warned you.”
“If,” Firecam responded simply.
“Let’s just go,” Cassandra interrupted. Her head was throbbing; her body thrummed in response. “We can’t let them escape.”
“Bodhi was in there,” Imoen informed the others, jerking a thumb over her shoulder towards the room they’d just left. “I nailed her with disintegrate, but we still need to find her coffin and stake her.”
“And the other three.” Wildorn nodded and glanced around the room to get his bearings. They’d all memorized the route, just in case. “That should be the way,” he said, pointing towards the now-open door that the vampire spawn had come through.
“Figures.” Imoen rolled her eyes. “So, who wants to go down the creepy crypt tunnel first?”
“We already discussed this,” Cassie reminded her. “I go first.”
There were no objections from the men of the group, nor from Dawnseeker Messanai. Cassie adjusted her hold on her sword, making sure she could still hold it firm in the strange new grip of her hand. It felt secure enough. Left, left, straight through, right. She wetted her lips as she stepped into the passageway. They were almost done. She’d said those words before. Almost done.
Imoen cast a withering glare at the knights as she passed by them as second. “And they say chivalry is dead.”
Cassandra’s form moved ahead of her in the hallway, painted a dim, washed-out grey by the darkvision spell. The warrior moved at a wary, steady pace as she tried to balance caution and the need for haste. Imoen glanced behind her now and then: the remaining four brought up the rear, led by Messanai’s glowing light.
Cassie was picking up speed. In her mind the past arose again, playing through her mind in a surreal loop, layered over reality. The vampire mage had been here. Fireball. Lightning bolt. Now the hallway was empty. She’d staked the body on her way back through the crypt and left it to rot. It wasn’t here anymore.
The last corner. She slowed her step as she approached, even as her breathing sped up with nervous energy. The façade came slowly into view: ancient, decaying stones, riddled with moss and cobwebs. Just as she remembered it.
“Cassie?” Imoen laid a gentle hand on her shoulder. “You okay?”
“Fine. Fine.” Was Nalia still there? Just her body? Just her head? “There’s a false wall here. Hidden door. There’s a spring-loaded blade on the other side.”
A nod. Imoen relayed the information back through the group.
The hallway was wide enough for three people side by side, if just barely. It was safer two-by-two. Cassie slid her blade back into its sheath to free her hands. Her fingers traveled over the wall, but whatever key or hint the De’Arnise heir had found remained hidden. The occasional scrape of claws against stone made her wince and her companions shiver.
Imoen was checking the other side, and it was to no one’s surprise that the former thief found it first. She motioned Cassandra away from the wall as she pressed the brick firmly inwards. It slid an inch inwards and clicked against an unseen lock.
“Don’t step through,” Cassandra instructed as she braced herself to slide the façade aside.
The wall groaned and retreated, allowing passage into the chamber beyond. No body. No severed head. The thick splatters of dried blood across the walls, nearly invisible in the dimness of the crypt, were the only indications of what had transpired.
The main burial chamber yawned before them with rows of stone sarcophagi lain out in perfect symmetry. The stone lids had all been replaced, leaving no sign of Cassandra’s previous passage. The three surviving vampire spawn were likely hidden somewhere among the dozen-odd coffins. Whether Bodhi was as well, was debatable.
Cassie jerked her head at Imoen; the younger sister nodded. At time like these, with blood pounding and every nerve alert, they shared a tactical understanding that bordered on telepathic. Imoen stepped cautiously into the entrance, scanning the walls and floor for possible triggers. Her stoneskins would deflect the blade easily enough, but that wouldn’t help the others. When it came to blade versus armor, she wasn’t sure which one would win.
She let out a low whistle of surprise. “Here,” she said, pointing towards one of the stones. “And here.” Another one. “And here.” A thin, dull metal wire stretched across the opening some three feet further. “They really don’t want visitors. Probably always bypass this by flying or something.”
“Three traps?” Cassie frowned in confusion. “We only hit one last time. Just one.”
“You said it took a few seconds to reset itself. You probably hit one of the triggers and happened to get out of range of the other two before the mechanism was back in place. What’d you do on your way back out?”
“Same way, I think. More careful.” The memories of her retreat were vague and piecemeal. The shock had numbed her mind so thoroughly that what little information had been retained, consisted only of chaotic flashes. “I’m not sure.”
“Well… only one way to be sure. Get back.”
Imoen waited until everyone was a safe distance away, then, staying crouched low, placed her foot on the first trigger plate. It activated with a surprisingly light touch, and the scythe-like blade lanced out of the wall with a whoosh of sliced air. It stopped a good two feet above her head, paused for a moment, and then began to retreat again.
Cassandra motioned the rest of the group to advance. Firecam, Messanai, and Theodorus all crossed the threshold before the blade reset. With the trap already triggered, they paid no mind to the tripwire, nor to its quiet death against metal-clad feet. It was a mistake.
A second wall slid away, this one in the burial chamber. A sudden rush of dry, hollow click-click-clack echoed through the room. Two additional scythes, each as tall as a full-grown man, extended out of the recessed opening. They were the color of old ivory, a dingy yellow-white, and stained a dark crimson red for nearly half the length. The points slammed into the floor, gouging loose chunks of stone and earth, and pulled their owner forward.
If you think wraiths are the worst thing I have in store for you….
The bones continued coming. Attached to the enormous bloodied appendages were equally massive skeletal arms, which in turn connected to shoulders, ribs, and legs. A skeleton the size of an ogre lurched out of the hidden recess. The empty eye sockets glittered with a malevolent yellow light.
The sorceress slammed her foot down on the trigger plate again. The blade whooshed out, and the remaining party members sprinted through to the other side.
“Move quick!” Cassie shouted, dashing over to the first coffin. “Get them open!”
“Are you insane?” Tormwine shouted. “Do you see that thing?”
Wildorn saw immediately where Cassandra was going. “Keep the coffins between you and it,” Wildorn instructed. “Open, stake, and move.” He followed his own advice even as he spoke.
“Messanai.” It was Imoen this time, stepping close to the cleric’s side. “Got anything that’ll slow that down?”
The blond-haired woman answered without hesitation. “I have Lathlander. That is more than enough.”
“Great.” She pulled out her component pouch. She only had a few protective spells that could target other people, but anything would help. “You take care of it, I’ll take care of you.”
Cassandra hefted up the third of the stone coffin lids and sent it crashing to the floor. What had been difficult as a normal person was now only moderately troublesome with her Taint unleashed. The hundreds of pounds of marble and granite presented as much trouble as a large sack of grain, and she made her way around the chamber as quickly as possible. Behind her the knights had dropped their packs and fished out their supplies of stakes and holy water. Firecam took the latter; Wildorn and Theodorus the former. They followed behind Cassandra, peering into the sarcophagi and putting any inhabitants to permanent rest.
The bone golem was now completely free of the hidden chamber. It scanned the room; the six potential targets were scattered in every direction. The two magic-users were the closest by far – easy targets, save for the Dawnseeker’s loud and strident chanting. The golem took two steps forward, lashing out with its sharpened, deadly arms. As soon as the creature came within the radius of the cleric’s divine light, it began to smoke and sizzle as if dipped in acid. It recoiled with a screech of pain.
“Here!” Cassie levered yet another coffin open: the seventh of the twelve. The body inside was badly burnt, with char marks and boils on the unnaturally pale skin. Five more boxes; two more vampires. Bodhi and her spawn.
Firecam was right behind her. A sprinkle of blessed water across the body transformed into sparks of fire against the unholy flesh. He nodded to Theodorus on his right. The young knight grasped a stake and his mallet, driving the wood into the vampire’s heart with a single, powerful strike.
The bone golem was re-orienting. Even though dead, it was intelligent enough not to strike the cleric twice. It now lurched forward on long, crouched legs, down the central aisle of the sarcophagi. With its enormous reach, it wouldn’t have to be close to be dangerous.
Cassandra opened the eighth tomb. This time she hefted the lid overhead, gritting her teeth as she struggled to hold her balance. Swords wouldn’t help against bone, especially not bones as thick as small trees. Bones, though, could always be broken. “Duck!”
The paladins went down instinctively in response to the command. She hurled the slab forward; it flew through the air and crashed into the golem’s legs. One of them shattered on impact; the other cracked but held firm. The golem shrieked and lashed out in response; the whistle of passing air was far too close for comfort as Cassandra dove to the floor for cover.
She kept low, scrambling along the polished tiles to the next sarcophagus. Find Bodhi. The goal looped through her thoughts in single-minded determination. Find Bodhi. Find Bodhi.
She risked a glance over the edge and ducked immediately back down. The tip of one skeletal scythe slammed down on top of the coffin. The granite cracked violently into three pieces and collapsed in on itself. Cassie took a deep breath. Timing. It was all about timing.
She surged to her feet. The bone golem was raising its arm for another strike. The warrior grabbed the first chunk of stone and aimed for its head. The throw was good, but her aim was off; she was used to throwing spears, not fifty-pound chunks of stone. It crashed into the creature’s chest, breaking off one enormous rib before tumbling back to the ground.
The second stone. She glanced into the now-exposed tomb. “Clear!” Another crack of breaking bone rewarded her throw.
“You need to keep in front!” Wildorn called to her from his cover some two coffins distant. “You can lift the lids the fastest!”
“I’ll distract it.” Theodorus was on his feet. “Keep going!”
“Tormwine!” Messanai finished her chant; a large, glittering gold and silver war hammer appeared in her hands. Despite her frail frame and thin arms, she seemed to hold it effortlessly. “Here!”
She crouched and cast the weapon across the floor; it slid directly to its target, and Theodorus scooped it up. With a shout to Tyr he chambered it over his shoulder and swung with all his might. The golem’s hip exploded in a shower of shards and fragments. The head and empty, yellow eyes swung around. He’d definitely gotten its attention.
Cassie didn’t hesitate. The ninth coffin was open within seconds; inside lay a half-blackened male body. “Here!” She moved on to the tenth.
Inside was Bodhi.
“Found her! Wait!” She held off Firecam and his holy water with extended arm. Imoen’s soul was still inside there, or tied to it, somehow. “Imoen, come here. Everyone else, start heading out!”
“What?” Firecam regarded her incredulously. “What are you planning?”
“We’ll take care of her,” Cassandra promised. “Get to safety. You’ve done your job.”
“My job is to ensure her destruction,” he informed her.
Imoen dashed over, keeping as low as possible to shield her movements from the golem’s glowing eyes. Tormwine was still its focus, as the Dawnseeker’s weapon dealt blow after blow, and her enchantments kept the beast at bay.
“Here.” She popped up underneath Keldorn’s arm. “What? Is—“ Her eyes spotted the sarcophagus’ owner. “You found her!”
Neither Firecam nor Wildorn had moved, despite Cassandra’s command to flee. She snatched the wooden stake and mallet out of Wildorn’s hand. “You two help Theo! Go on!” She pressed them into Imoen’s grasp. “Here. Stake her.”
The mage’s small pink tongue wet dry, nervous lips. “Will it work?”
“I hope so.”
“What if it doesn’t?”
“We don’t have any other options.”
A nod. The younger sister positioned the stake over Bodhi’s chest. Her heart was pounding. Firecam and Wildorn had moved off; the din of battle drowned out all other sound. Bodhi’s half-disintegrated body lay oddly serene. Her face was unmarred: calm, sensual, and beautiful.
The mallet came down, and the stake sank into Bodhi’s heart with surprising ease. A second passed. Two. A foul, hissing stench began to rise from the corpse as the flesh rotted and fell away. Hair dried out and broke into brittle pieces; bone crumbled into ash. In the midst of it all was a small, silver-white sphere of light, no larger than grapefruit. It rose up tentatively, floating slowly towards the ceiling. Imoen regarded it with a sudden sense of fear and wonder.
She reached out hesitantly. She was no priest; she didn’t know what a soul looked like, or what do to with one that happened to be floating around. Would it just…re-absorb? Disappear? Would she have to carry it back to a temple to reunite the pieces into a whole?
Her fingertip grazed the top of the orb. A sensation of impossible warmth spread through her hand as the sphere flashed and disappeared. The silver-white glow extended across her entire body, surrounding her in an odd, weightless mist. A moment later it was gone. The glow faded. The warmth flowed away. Imoen looked at her hand in surprised shock.
“Im? Are you okay?”
“Huh?” She glanced up. Cassie. Of course it was Cassie. Who else would it be? “I’m fine. I think.”
“Let’s go.” The warrior grasped her arm. “Everyone out! Fall back!”
The shout drew immediate results. Wildorn and Firecam broke off first, running towards the door as fast as their armor would allow. The bone golem slammed its scythes down, narrow missing Keldorn’s slightly-slower form. It raked backwards, ripping tiles and stone from the floor and toppling Tormwine over as the ground was literally yanked out from under him.
“Move! Keep moving!”
Cassandra shoved Imoen towards the door before darting between the rows of coffins and sprinting towards the paladin’s fallen form. She launched herself over the mound of tangled and toppled stone with a single strong leap. She landed almost six feet beyond her start, rolling with the impact and coming up instinctively to her knees. Her eyes flashed up; the scythe whistled downwards. She grabbed Theodorus’ fallen hammer and swung with a shout. The shock of impact threw her backwards and knocked the weapon from her hand. It skidded to a stop against a broken marble lid, amid a shower of tiny bone fragments. Three chunks of bone crashed into the opposite wall: the remnants of the golem’s arm.
“Up!” She grabbed Tormwine by his breastplate and hauled him to his feet, throwing him forward. He caught himself with one arm just short of slamming face first into the doorway. The others were already on the way out: Imoen had triggered the pressure plate to ensure a few precious seconds of safety.
“Keep going!” she shouted, but the encouragement wasn’t needed. With Bodhi dead, there was no more need for bravery.
All they needed now was an exit.