“…into the company of his father and forefather before him. For as Sir Ilvastarr leaves this world, he joins another: one where battles are fought not by sinew but by spirit, and where his courage and devotion will serve to strengthen us all.”
The Temple of Helm was oddly quiet. Even during normal services, there was always the sound of life: shifting bodies, low whispers, passing footsteps. Now, though, despite being filled with nearly a hundred people, it was still. The high priest’s voice carried full and clear over the gathered mourners – a deep, mellow voice whose mellow timbre and well-crafted words brough an almost magical peace over its listeners. Even Ajantis’ family, who had spent the first part of the service choking back their grief, had now fallen silent. The images of strength and hope that the priest described seemed to take the worst edge from their sorrow.
Imoen stood at the forefront of the chapel, dressed in a robe more suited for a princess than a mage. It was borrowed – a gift from a squire’s young bride, since Imoen had no fine clothing of her own. Keldorn, Wildorn, and Theodorus were likewise clad in finery. They’d donned their ceremonial armor and polished it to perfection, and now looked the part of the noble knights in shining armor. They stood at rigid attention, while Imoen stood straight and still. They were the honor guard: the companions who had been with Ajantis in his last hours.
“…stand and join us in the singing of Ever Watchful.”
The crowd rose as one as the deep, powerful voice of the drum set the rhythm. It was slower than normal, and sung without the usual string and flute accompaniment. Imoen knew the words; she knew most of the basic hymns of the Faerûnean gods, having little other musical exposure within the walls of Candlekeep. She raised her voice along with the rest, but her attention was elsewhere. Her grey eyes were steadfast on the distant chapel doors, and her mind on the person outside them.
Cassandra wasn’t present. Although as much a part of Bodhi’s downfall and Ilvastarr’s death as anyone, she hadn’t been invited. Her black eyes and ashen-grey forearms unsettled people. You understand, the Helmite priests had said. Ajantis had died fighting evil; it would hardly be appropriate to invite it to the funeral. You understand.
Cassie had simply nodded. She understood, but Imoen didn’t. She didn’t understand why people focused on Cassie’s Taint instead of Cassie. Sure, the eyes were freaky. Sure, the slow creep of change was unsettling to say the least. But Cassie’s blood ran as red as anyone’s, and she’d shed more than her fair share of it fighting the forces of darkness. Who else could say that they’d single-handedly ended the Sword Coast iron shortage? Who else had saved Baldur’s Gate from Sarevok and his shapeshifters? No one else had had the guts to stand up to Bodhi – not once, but three times. Cassie had been stripped of her family, her friends, and finally her very soul, but she still kept fighting. She kept fighting, even when the people she helped abandoned her. Imoen didn’t understand that at all.
And so Cassie had just nodded. I understand. She understood that it was just how things were: people loved you when they needed you, and forgot you when they didn’t. The crowd that cheered you one day would burn you the next. The tired resignation in her voice as she’d agreed had upset Imoen more than anything. The way she’d been as they walked back to the Coppor Coronet: silent, tired, and withdrawn. Another person dead, another job done, and in the end nothing had truly changed. She was still Bhaalspawn; she always would be. You’re a Child of Murder — deal with it.
The hymn ended, and silence once again descended over the chapel as the mourners lowered their heads in prayer. Imoen shot a glance over to the paladins. They, too, followed the ritual. The sorceress pursed her lips, struck by the sudden realization that she didn’t want to be there. She didn’t belong here. She was Bhaalspawn, too.
The service came to a close some twenty minutes later. Ilvastarr’s body exited first, completely swathed in thick white wrappings and born atop a platform of woven willow saplings. The Order of the Radiant Heart served as pallbearers. Immediately after followed Imoen and the others, then the family itself. Only these would be given the honor of accompanying Ajantis to his cremation. The assorted dignitaries and well-wishers that crowded the temple would now have to pay their respects and depart.
Imoen followed the procession as it exited the temple’s large double doors. It was near midday, and the autumn sun shone pure and strong. She inhaled deeply; even after several weeks back on the surface, she still wasn’t quite accustomed to just how fresh and crisp the air could be. Spellhold and the Underdark had given her a deep new appreciation for the outdoors.
“Hey.” She made a small gesture with her hand, trying to get Theodore’s attention. He walked beside her, behind the elder and higher-ranking knights. “Theo.”
His head turned towards her a fraction of an inch. A frown curved his lips.
“I need to go,” she whispered. “Give the family my regards.”
A small nod was all the acknowledgement that she received, but it was also all that she needed. As the funeral procession continued its slow march towards the Graveyard District, Imoen quietly broke away.
A robed figure watched the events from the safety and obscurity of tree-cast shadows some two hundred feet away. Imoen headed towards it. Despite the fact that the person hadn’t moved and their face was shielded by the shadow of their hood, she knew who it was. You didn’t live with someone nearly your entire life without getting a sixth sense for that kind of thing.
The figure stood and straightened as she drew nearer. Stray strands of red-gold hair flickered and fluttered underneath the heavy wool cowl.
“Aren’t you supposed to go with them?” Cassandra asked, tipping her chin in the direction of the procession.
“Changed my mind.”
“How was the service?”
The younger sister shrugged. “Nice enough. Really nice, actually. Everyone’s all dressed up, the music was pretty.”
“You don’t sound too enthusiastic.”
Another shrug. “Guess funerals aren’t my thing. Can we leave? I’d really like to be somewhere else.”
“Sure. Anywhere in particular?”
“The Promenade. There’s a magic shop I want to visit.”
Cassie nodded, and without another word they were off. The streets of the Temple District were largely empty, with most people having more practical things to do during the daylight hours than simply pray. Nonetheless, faith was something that every Faerûnean had – at least nominally. Even those who wouldn’t be caught dead in a temple would pause to drop a coin in Lady Luck’s right hand, and everyone came to the yearly Sunite festivals, whether to gawk at the scantily-clad priestesses or to condemn them.
“Y’know, I’ve been thinking,” Imoen mused aloud as they neared the Compound Bridge.
Cassie gave a small, dry smile. “Gods forbid.”
“Hush. I’m serious. And put your hood down,” she instructed, tugging it away herself without waiting for Cassie’s compliance. “You look like some freaky monk.”
“Not my choice. I wanted to wear my armor.”
“Which is still covered in blood. You’ll have it back tomorrow.”
“If Cromwell’s finished with it.”
“He will be. He’s the best in Athkatla, so they say.” She studied her sister a moment, then reached out and gave a quick, firm ruffle to the older girl’s hair. “There. Better.”
Cassandra ran her fingers back through the strands, smoothing them into something resembling normalcy. The ruffling had done its job, though, and Imoen looked pleased with the result.
“So what were you thinking about?”
“The Taint,” Imoen answered. “And the auras especially. I think I figured them out.”
Cassie’s brows furrowed slightly over the onyx eyes. “Figured what out? We already know that it’s emotions, and we already know what the colors mean.”
“Yeah, but that’s just it,” the mage insisted. “It’s not all emotions. Like, have you ever noticed that we’ve never seen ‘happy’? Or ‘satisifed’ or ‘in love’?”
“Maybe there’s not a lot of happy or in love people in the Underdark?” Cassie reasoned.
“C’mon, Cass.” She spread her arms wide, gesturing at the city around them. “Where’s the love? Where’s the happy? We’re not in Ust Natha anymore.”
“Mm. Then what’s your theory?”
“Glad you asked. I think that we only see negative emotions – and only some negative emotions. Like…” she fished through her memory for a suitable example. “We’ve never seen ‘sad’ or ‘in pain.'”
“Is fear really a negative emotion, though? Or lust?”
“Might depend on how you argue it. But what I’m trying to say is that, under all the weird colors and such, it actually makes sense.” Imoen was getting excited now, and warming up to her topic. The small, excited bounce in her step was a dead giveaway. “See, we’re Bhaalspawn, right? Children of Murder. So what we’re seeing are emotions that inspire people to kill. Anger: you get mad enough, and you run someone through. Lust: c’mon, half of Candlekeep was filled with tragedies about how X wanted Y but Y loved Z, so X killed Z instead.”
Cassandra’s confused expression only deepened, but she nodded as Imoen continued.
“So I’m thinking that we see things related to Bhaal’s portfolio: emotions that inspire murder. If we were Sunespawn we’d be seeing happy things, or if we were descended from some nature deity, maybe we could talk to animals or something.”
“You think so?”
“Yup. Makes sense, at least.”
It did make sense – at least, in an Imoen-ish kind of way. Cassandra turned the explanation over in her mind as they walked. Beneath their feet the clean, perfectly-maintained cobblestone streets were slowly transforming into rough, filth-littered roads. Outside of the Temple District life turned once more to the Material realm, and all the mundane mud and refuse that came with it. The way to the Promenade avoided the worst of it by giving the Slums a wide berth.
“What about my super-strength, then?” Cassie asked after a moment. “How does that fit in? Or the dreams?”
“I’ve got a theory on that, too.”
“And that is?”
“Well… that’s why I wanted to go to the magic shop.”
They were there some ten minutes later. Allunak’s Magic and Enchantments was a modest building: small, plain, and nondescript among the various stalls and merchants. Part of its particular lack of style was due to Allunak himself: an average man with no distinguishing traits save a thin grey moustache and a pair of extraordinarily thick spectacles. The other reason for its drab exterior was protective camouflage. Selling magical wares in a city renowned for its strict anti-magic policies, was a delicate and often dangerous venture. Avoiding the attention of the Cowled Wizards was a prudent course of business.
A small silver chime above the door twinkled and sang out the sisters’ arrival. Imoen gave the proprietor a small nod and friendly smile but didn’t stop to chat. Her attention was on the rows of book- and scroll-laden shelves crammed in the rear of the shop. Dusty, dense, and disorganized, it harkened back to memories of the long hours between Candlekeep’s countless tomes.
“Pick something,” Imoen said, gesturing towards the shelves.
Cassandra glanced at her in confusion. “Like what? I don’t know anything about magic.”
“Just pick something. Doesn’t matter what. I just wanna show you something.”
“Okay.” Cassie’s eyes roamed over the seemingly haphazard collection of texts, parchments, and scrolls. There weren’t any identifying marks on the outside save for, every so often along the rows of shelves, a single rune of unknown meaning. Whether it was organized by author, type, power, language, or some other system, she had no idea. She reached out and placed her finger on the first book that caught her eye: a thin, aged journal bound in bright red leather. “This one.”
“Abjuration,” Imoen said immediately, not bothering to remove the text and examine it. “Weak abjuration. Pick another one.”
“Uh…. this one.” She pointed this time towards a tightly curled scroll bound shut with a strand of yellow cord.
“Medium divination. Another.”
Cassie’s brows furrowed, but she dutifully selected a third. This time it was a tome as thick as her arm, bound with wooden planks in either side and heavy braided cording along the spine. “This one.”
“Abjuration again, in the front. The middle section has a mix of necromancy, enchantment, and evocation. The last section is focused primarily on summoning.”
“Okay. And what does this have to do with Bhaal?”
“How do you think I know what’s in there, Cass?”
“I don’t know. You’re the mage. I figure mages know how to identify magic texts.”
“Well, we do,” Imoen admitted, shifting her stance and studying the bookshelf more critically. “But these are alphabetically shelved by author, if available, and then by spell name. I didn’t give you author or spell name. I gave you magical school and strength.”
“Spit it out, Im. I’m bad at riddles.”
“You asked me what super-strength had to do with the Taint? Well, we’re both Tainted. We both see the emotional auras. But only you have super-strength. Why is that?”
Cassie shifted her weight to her other leg, trying to maintain a measure of patience. “I don’t know.”
“Because the Taint is smart. How do you make a great fighter even better? Super-strength. Make her really dish out the damage, right? But for a mage like me, that’d be useless.” She smiled triumphantly, poking one slim finger against Cassie’s chest. “That’s why I don’t have it.”
“Uh… okay. You’re saying that the Taint knows what I do for a living, and adjusts accordingly?”
“Something like that.” Imoen gave her a stern look when Cassie couldn’t hold back a sound of disbelief. “Hey, you forget: the Taint isn’t just some weird inanimate thing. It’s a remnant of a god. Of Bhaal. It’s sentient, and it has a goal. It wants you to give in to what its offering – to seduce you with power. So yeah, it gives you what you find most attractive.”
“What will it give you, then?”
Imoen gestured to the stacks of texts. “It gave me this. Abjuration. Necromancy. Divination.” She pointed one by one at seemingly random texts. “Abjuration is silver. Necromancy is black – go figure – and divination is gold. Red is evocation, etc.”
“You see magic?” Cassie asked dubiously.
Her sister flashed her a smile and clapped her solidly on the shoulder. “Finally! You sure are slow sometimes, y’know.”
“Wait. When’d that happen? Why didn’t you tell me?”
“When I got my soul back. Weird, huh?”
The small discontentment on Cassandra’s lips deepened into a full-blow frown. “I thought when you got your soul back that the auras and stuff would go away.”
“I wondered about that,” the sorceress admitted, “but I still see them.” Another motion towards the bookcase. “And now this.”
“Then the Taint hasn’t gone away.”
She shook her head. “No.”
Cassie sighed and closed her eyes. “Then this isn’t ever going to end.”
“Of course it will.”
“No, it won’t,” Cassie argued, her voice hardened with frustration. “Don’t you get it? We killed Bodhi, we got your soul back, and what did it change? Nothing. And if we find Irenicus and kill him – nothing. Even if I get my soul back, I’m not going to get better. The Taint isn’t going to go away.”
Imoen bit her lip. She cupped Cassandra’s face in her hands and met her eyes with soft determination. “Things will get better. They will. I promise.”
Cassie tried to turn her head away. Imoen resisted the movement. “You don’t know that. You can’t say that.”
“I can, and I am,” Imoen repeated firmly. “We’ll get through this.”
She sighed. “Im—”
“Uh-uh! No arguing. The Marvelous Miss Im has spoken.”
That tugged a small smile to the edges of Cassie’s lips. “You’re impossible,” she accused.
“I try.” She switched her touch to Cassie’s hands, taking them in her own and squeezing softly. “C’mon. There is something I wanted to buy. I think you’ll like it – should cheer you up.”
Cassandra accepted both the change of topic and the gentle tug on her hand as Imoen led the way. “Where’d you get money? Last I checked we were both broke.”
“Don’t ask; you don’t want to know.”
“You didn’t steal from the Keep, did you?” Cassie asked in sudden alarm.
“Of course not! What kind of person do you think I am?”
“I snitched it from the Temple of Helm.”
“You stole from paladins??”
A carefree shrug – the kind only Imoen could give. “They give alms to the poor, right? We’re poor.”
“They didn’t exactly give you alms,” Cassie pointed out.
“Well, then, we’re proactive poor,” Imoen responded with a grin and a wink.
A few hours later – after Imoen had purchased her surprise, bought four different kinds of sweetrolls from a passing vendor, spent a full ten minutes giggling and playing with a litter of kittens for sale outside a petshop, and then begged Cassandra for half an hour to buy one – they arrived back at the Copper Coronet. The short autumn day was almost over, and the slowly sinking sun cast long shadows over the alley. Inside, the standard crowd of patrons had already found their seats, and the merriment and chaos were in full swing.
The portly bartender paused in his cleaning and polishing long enough to wave a hello back to the jolly young mage. He, like most people, had taken an instinctive liking to Imoen. Unlike most people, his pocketbook had yet to suffer for it.
“What’ll it be, lass?” he asked, leaning over the bar.
“Just sayin’ hi. Hey, if I asked real nice, ya think one of the waitresses would bring us some food up to our room?”
“I’d think it right likely. Bird, beef, or broth?”
Having already made the mistake of ordering the soup the day before, Imoen played it safe. “Bird. Definitely bird.”
“And for yer silent sis, there?” he asked, tilting his chin towards Cassandra’s hooded and cloaked form. Her odd vestements had stopped drawing quite so much attention after Bernard had personally thrown several hecklers out the front door.
Imoen glanced back at her. “Cass? Bird or beef?”
The auburn girl wrinkled her nose. “Ew. Why’s it got to be all bloody?”
“Because I like it that way.”
“Well, you’re gross.”
“One bird and one slab of red meat,” Bernard noted. “I’ll have Missy bring up to you.”
A small, pleased pink blush crept into the barman’s cheeks. “Name’s Bernard,” he barked gruffly before turning away. Imoen’s impish smile stayed in place. Every bear’s got his soft spot, she used to say.
“So, ready for your surprise?” she asked Cassie as they headed up the stairs.
“How can I know that if I don’t know what it is?” the older girl responded.
“You’ll like it,” Imoen repeated for the fifth time, this time sticking out her tongue in defiance. “Don’t you trust me?”
“I trust you about as far as I can throw you.”
“Which,” Imoen pointed out, raising a finger, “is pretty damn far.”
Cassandra had to smile. Somehow Imoen always seemed to win. “Point.”
Once they were actually in the bedroom and the door was safely close, Imoen produced the surprise in question with a dramatic flourish of her hands. It was a small scroll of lambskin, perhaps as six inches wide and twice that in length, tightly curled and secured by a simple wax seal.
“This,” the mage said, holding it up, “is a scroll of seeming. Ta-dah!”
“And… it does what, exactly?” Cassie prompted.
The triumphant smile turned into a frustrated pout. “Illusion spell. It makes you look different. Or, in this particular case, it’s gonna give you back those baby blues of yours.”
“Really?” That did sound interesting. Cassie leaned forward slightly, reaching out to take it. “You can change my eyes back?”
Now that Cassie had shown some interest, Imoen’s enthusiasm was back in full. “Yup! Not permanently, of course,” she explained, plopping down on the bed with a small bounce. “Twelve hour duration. And it’s just an illusion, but it’s not like anyone’s going to feel up your eyes or something.” A thoughtful pause, quickly followed by her nose wrinkling in distaste. “At least I hope not.”
“What about my hands?” Cassie held them up automatically, despite the fact that both she and Imoen already knew the warped appearance. While Cassandra had succeeded in fighting back the Taint, her flesh had never returned completely to normal. Her fingernails had retained their short, thick, clawlike form, and while her hands had regained human proportions, the skin was still cold and ashen grey.
Imoen nodded. “I can mask those, too. Same rules.”
“Great. Let’s do it, then.”
“Wait a sec.” Imoen deftly snatched the scroll away. “I wanna copy it into my spellbook first.”
When it came to magic, Imoen knew best. Cassandra kept silent and simply watched as the younger girl fetched out one of her several spellbooks, readied a plumed quill and pot of ink, and began carefully copying over the arcane inscription line by line. The way that her demeanor could change from light-hearted frivolity to such serious study never ceased to be amazing. The rosy glow of health had returned to her cheeks since Bodhi’s demise, and a bit more joy was back in her step. To Cassandra’s black eyes, she glowed with soft inner light.
“How do you feel?” Cassie queried softly.
Grey eyes glanced over. “About what?”
“Your soul. How do you feel?”
Imoen pursed her lips, the quill pausing above the page. Her answer was slow and thoughtful. “Good. Or better. I feel warm inside again.”
“Bodhi didn’t… corrupt it? Damage it?”
Another few characters; another pause. “No. I mean, I don’t think so. I’m not sure how I’d tell anyways.” Imoen glanced up again. She dipped the plume’s nub back in the inkpot, gently wiped off the excess, and began transcribing again. “I don’t have any sudden lust for blood or anything.”
Imoen as a vampire: a thought almost too surreal to even fathom. “Do you remember anything about Bodhi? She said she had your memories.”
“Mmm. Yeah. They’re kind of vague and fuzzy, but they’re there. It’s weird. Kinda like reading a book, only I’m the star…except I’m not, y’know?” She gave Cassandra an apologetic smile. “Sorry, not the best explanation. I’m almost done, by the way.”
Cassie shrugged. “No hurry. I’m not going anywhere.”
“Yeah, but I’d like to get this copied and cast before the food gets here. Why do you ask about Bodhi, anyways?”
“Morbid curiosity, I suppose.”
“Sure it’s not a bit of your protective streak?” Imoen challenged with playful eyes.
“Maybe,” Cassie answered defensively. “I mean, you’ve got a hundred years of Bodhi in your head. That can’t be good.”
“It’s not a hundred,” Imoen corrected. “I think it’s only from the time where she actually had my soul. Like, I don’t remember anything from her before she started hunting us down in Spellhold. And other than being her generally bitchy self, she didn’t do anything that incredibly bad in the last month.”
“Really?” Cassandra’s doubtful tone made it clear that she didn’t give Bodhi the benefit of the doubt. “She killed a ton of people making her little vampire-spawn army.”
“She killed like fifteen or twenty. We probably killed about that many while we were in Ust Natha.”
“I know it is; I’m not defending her. But as far as ‘horrible memories’ go, Bodhi’s definitely not the worst thing in my head. That’s all I’m saying.”
Cassie fell silent. That was one answer she hadn’t expected. The reminder was sobering.
Imoen blew gently over the last few inked characters, then set the arcane tome aside. “There. Done. Now, let’s get you prettied up.”
She stood up and straightened her robe with a few sweeps of her hands. She stepped over in front of her sister, cupping Cassandra’s face once more in her hands and tilting her chin slightly upwards. Lips pursed, she studied the fighter’s countenance with a calm and critical eye.
“Okay. Stay like this. And I need to see your arms,” she instructed, bending to loosen and roll back the robe’s heavy sleeves. “I need to have a perfect mental image in my mind of what I want, otherwise it’s gonna be off,” she explained.
“Just tell me what to do.”
“Do nothing.” Imoen rose again and poked Cassie in the nose with her fingertip. “Just stay put.” She rolled up her own sleeves, flashing her sister a brilliant smile. “Ready?”
“Does this hurt?”
“Only if you want it to.” Imoen scooped the seeming scroll off the bed and flicked it open with one wrist. After studying it a few more moments, she closed her eyes and traced a slow, serpentine motion in the air between them. “Eni lwech shani enu – aranda o shana.”
A delicate shiver of energy passed over Cassie’s skin, raising in its wake a score of goosebumps. It faded almost as soon as it began. Her eyes went reflexively down to her hands. The flesh was pale and pink, tipped with thin and glossy nails.
Imoen’s eyes slowly opened, and with them grew a contented smile. “Oh, that’s better. That’s a lot better!”
“Blue eyes?” Cassie queried, unable to keep the note of hopefulness out of her voice.
“Blue eyes,” Imoen confirmed, still beaming. “Beautiful blue eyes.”
“Do we have a mirror?”
“There’s one hanging above the bar downstairs.” She gave her sister a playful wink. “You’re not gonna recognize yourself.”
“That’d be a good thing, I think.” Cassie was on her feet and half-way to the door when a loud and brusque knock nearly made her jump out of her skin.
“That’s probably our food,” Imoen explained, jumping up and heading for the door. The heady scents of freshly grilled meat were already filtering in. She pressed the latch and opened it wide for the curly-haired waitress and the two large platters that filled her hands.
“Go on, go!” she said, motioning for Cassandra to squeeze past. Imoen’s ear-to-ear grin was contagious. “Go check yourself out. I’ll keep an eye on the food.”
It was all the encouragement she needed. Cassandra bounded down the stairs with barely disguised excitement, as Imoen bit back her laughter and tried to help Missy with the trays.
Night had long since descended over Athkatla, and Imoen and Cassandra were tucked in under three second-hand blankets that had all seen better days. All three together, tucked in around the edges to trap the warmth of their skin, managed to fend off the room’s drafty chill. Sleeping alone was simply far too cold – or, at least, that was Imoen’s latest justification to herself for creeping into her sibling’s bedroom. Despite the fact that her own room was bought and paid for, she still ended up spending most of the nights next to Cassie.
Imoen was curled up on Cassandra’s shoulder, her eyes open and thoughtful in the darkness. Underneath her cheek was a slow, steady heartbeat and the soft weave of Cassie’s shirt. The warrior’s chest rose and fell in a deep and peaceful rhythm.
“Y’asleep?” Imoen queried softly.
There wasn’t any answer, and she hadn’t really expected one. The weeks without sleep had exhausted Cassie’s spirit, if not her body. A few hours earlier the fighter had finally given in and asked, almost apologetically, if Imoen could bewitch her. Short of shaking her half-to-death or hiring a dwarven chorus, Cassie would sleep until morning.
Tomorrow would bring change, and that change was gnawing away at Imoen’s stomach. After dinner they’d discussed the options and reviewed their plans of action. They knew where Irenicus was going: a single word, buried among Bodhi’s memories, and now embedded in Imoen’s head. Suldanesselar. Elhan had mentioned it in passing as well. The elven army was small: the wild elves that inhabited the city did so only during the autumn and winter seasons, and even then not all tribes were willing to give up their nomadic life. Repelling the drow assault had demanded nearly every available man. Elhan had been all too aware of Suldanesselar’s vulnerability. So had Irenicus.
What exactly the madman was planning, wasn’t present in the memories. Why he was so set upon the elves’ destruction likewise escaped her. His conversations with Bodhi during her possession of Imoen’s soul had been infrequent and vague, relying on an unspoken context that the siblings shared and that needed no overt discussion. Irenicus’ hatred was directed at Ellesime, a name he spat with disgust. Bodhi had found this amusing, that Joneleth – the name she knew him by — let his heart be twisted so easily. Love’s flame had not only burnt Joneleth, but charred him to the core. Irenicus was no name, but a title. The Shattered One.
Even Bodhi had feared Irenicus. That thought, more than any other, kept Imoen awake.
Cassie shifted next to her. A small, meaningless mutter and a soft sigh of breath as she turned her head towards Imoen. Her hair had grown quite a bit since they’d left Baldur’s Gate, and now the long layers of bangs fell across Imoen’s cheek and into her eyes.
She let out a small puff of breath. The hairs fluttered upwards and then settled back again, with the only significant change being that now they tickled even more. Clearing them away with her fingers garnered somewhat more success. Imoen drew the offending strands back and tucked them behind her sister’s ear. Cassie slept on none the wiser.
Cassie had beautiful eyes. The thought struck Imoen at random as she studied the older girl’s face. The seeming had been a great idea. Cassie had bounded back upstairs with a grin as big as her head. The intensity of the bright blue gaze had taken Imoen by surprise – apparently she’d become accustomed to the black, as odd as it might have been. Blue was better, though. Cassie looked human again. Like Cassie again.
She brushed her thumb over Cassie’s cheek, careful to avoid her nose. The crushed bone had been set and healed within divine magic. There was no outward sign of damage – no swelling, no misalignment – but the area was still tender to the touch. It was cute to watch Cassie try to get in and out of her clothing without pulling her shirt too tightly over her face. Her skin was paler than normal, even with the assistance of the seeming. Whether or not a night’s rest would refresh her, Imoen wasn’t sure. Probably not. Sleep couldn’t heal a missing soul.
Getting back her soul had definitely improved Imoen’s mood, as well as her health. The nagging tiredness, the bouts of impatience, the slow ebbing away of warmth inside – they’d all stopped. Even her cheeks were rosier. But, like Cassandra, she’d assumed the Taint would fade away once her essence was restored. Maybe it still would. Maybe it just took time. But if not… She bit her lip, worrying it lightly between her teeth. She needed to do some research. Bodhi had found records of demi-gods of old, but there had to be more. There had to be stories with happy endings. Imoen made a mental note to visit the Temple of Oghma.
We’ll make it, she promised Cassandra silently. We’ll make it.
On sudden impulse, she leaned in and gently kissed Cassie’s lips. They were soft, slightly parted, and still tinged with the faintest hint of wine. Cassie didn’t stir – not to the hand cupping her cheek, nor to the touch of Imoen’s mouth to her own. The gesture only lasted a second before she pulled away again and traced Cassie’s lips with her fingers.
The closeness she felt to Cassie hadn’t faded away with the return of her soul. If anything, the flower of warmth in her heart had grown from bud to bloom, now nourished by the sunlight inside her. Her fear of what she would feel – regret, disgust, or sadness – had proven empty.
I love you.
What kind of love it was, she still didn’t know. But now, she wasn’t sure she cared.
“C’mon! You promised!”
“We don’t have time. The faster we get to Suldanesselar, the better.”
“You promised!” Imoen repeated stubbornly. “And we’re passing that way anyways. C’mon, please?” She fluttered her eyelashes, giving Cassie her best puppy-dog eyes.
Cassandra sighed. “Im—”
“I’ll memorize haste like three times and we’ll make up the time tomorrow.”
They’d been on horseback since dawn – or, since Imoen’s sleep spell had worn off enough for Cassie to drag herself out of bed. By that time Imoen had already been up and about, eaten breakfast, and run a few last-minute errands. She’d re-appeared at the breakfast table with at least three new books and a small collection of rolled up parchments, all likely magical in nature. After a quick breakfast and wash-up, they’d fetched Bushfire and Blackfoot from the stables and headed out.
The promise in question was dinner: specifically, dinner at the De’Arnise Keep. It’d slipped Cassie’s mind entirely after their adventure in Bodhi’s lair, but Imoen certainly hadn’t forgotten. After dining a few nights at the Copper Coronet, getting back to Matilda’s kitchen was her new life’s goal.
Imoen let out a whoop of joy. Blackfoot jumped nervously and whinnied in response, but a few pats and soothing words from his rider calmed him down again. Imoen’s grin was fixed from ear to ear. “Oh, this is gonna be great! How long ’til we get there, you think?”
Cassie glanced skywards, judging the position of the sun. “Another two hours or so. How long does that seeming thing last?”
“Twelve hours.” Imoen nudged Blackfoot a little closer, reached out, and patted Cassandra’s leg. “You’ll be fine. Relax!”
A small snort. “‘Relax,’ she says.”
“Yes, she does,” Imoen rejoined haughtily. “We’re not even in Suldanesselar yet. We’re not even close. Worry tomorrow.”
“How can you say that?” Cassie asked in exasperation. “We’re going to go head to head with an insane elf mage, and you want me to worry about it tomorrow.”
“First off, who said we’re going head to head with him? We haven’t come up with any plans yet.” Imoen flicked her hair back with a toss of her head. “And secondly, you’re gonna give yourself an ulcer if you don’t relax.”
“An ulcer versus the Taint. I can’t imagine which one I’m more worried about.”
“Look, Irenicus is a mage, right? We’ve fought tons of mages – even psycho scary ones. Remember Xzar?”
“You’re comparing Xzar to Irenicus?” Cassie asked incredulously. “Are you serious?”
“Hey, on the scale of psycho, Xzar was up there.”
“On the scale of scary, not so much.”
Imoen’s lips pursed together. “Maybe not,” she said grudgingly. “So, if we’re gonna worry about it now – what’s the plan?”
“Well… you’re the witch. Suggestions?”
“You know I hate that word.”
“Hmph. Anyways… honestly, from what I saw of Irenicus? The guy’s got mad skills. I mean, I know a lot about magic, and he was doing stuff that I’d never heard of,” she admitted. “Stuff I didn’t even know was possible.”
Normally Cassie would have a quip ready about ‘Imoen the Modest’, but today the joke was bittersweet on her tongue. “Are you sure it wasn’t just some sort of specialized elven magic?” Cassie asked hopefully.
“Heh.” She shook her head with a small, wistful smile. “Cass, babe, you’re cute, but no. I mean, there’s a chance, sure, but… yeah.”
“You’ve got the Taint. You can see magic. Can’t you… I don’t know. Do something to him?”
“I dunno,” Imoen answered honestly. “I don’t think there’s an arcane spellslinger version of the Slayer. At least I hope not.”
“It’d be useful.”
Imoen shot her a dark look. “No thanks. I’ve seen enough of what it does to you.”
“If we can just get close to him, I can take him out. I haven’t met a mage yet that can stand up to me in a fistfight, with or without the Taint.”
“That’s a big ‘if’. No mage in his – or her – right mind is gonna let you get within a hundred feet. And okay, sure, I can run some interference and screw up their magic and such, but like I said: Irenicus isn’t some garden-variety hedge wizard. If I can hold him—” Imoen held up hehr forefinger, stressing the conditional – “then it’ll be for a few seconds at best. And I wouldn’t count on getting a second chance.”
“Tell me about it. But unless you have your own personal army, that’s reality.”
Cassie pursed her lips thoughtfully. “Well, the De’Arnise Keep does have a standing militia.”
“Says the woman who was in such a hurry she didn’t want to stop and have lunch.”
“Dinner,” the warrior corrected automatically.
“I don’t think I could mobilize them fast enough,” Cassie continued, thinking outloud as her gaze focused on the distant horizon. “And if I left the Keep unprotected, the Roenalls would be there in a heartbeat. I owe Nalia and the Major Domo more than that.”
“Use the taxes to hire some muscle?” Imoen suggested.
“I’d have to send out messengers, wait for the candidates to arrive, screen them, etc. We don’t have time for that.”
“Taking a few days to prepare might not be such a bad idea, y’know.”
“A few days, maybe. A few weeks, no. And I really want to get to Irenicus as soon as possible,” Cassandra repeated. “The quicker we get there, the less chance that Irenicus knows we’re on our way—”
“You kidding? We staked his sister. I guarantee you he’s got some sort of scrying or ward or something set up on her that tipped him off the moment she bit the dust.”
“—or at least, the less time he has to prepare against us.”
“Mm. Maybe. I’d still feel better with an army.”
A somber silence descended over them, and lasted a full five minutes before Imoen decided it was time for a happier subject. The next hour was spent playing “Somewhere I See,” with Imoen doing most of the seeing. ‘Something that’s blue’ turned out to be a bluejay chirping loudly from the foliage of a brightly-colored maple tree. ‘Something with two legs’ was not Cassie, as first suspected, but a wild pheasant hunting for food among the tall grasses. By the time the De’Arnise Keep emerged in the distance, Imoen had a firm lead of twenty-eight points to Cassie’s seventeen.
A stablehand took the horses as they dismounted inside the main courtyard, and a bevy of excited maids scattered in all directions as word spread that the Lord of the Keep had returned. Within half an hour their beds were ready, Matilda had the stoves stoked to full flame, and both sisters were relaxing in the main hall with a glass of sweet warmed wine.
“Gods, I could get used to this,” Imoen sighed contentedly. “After this is all over, I am totally retiring.”
“I could get you a job in the kitchen,” Cassie noted between sips.
“Who said anything about working?” Imoen sniffed indignantly. “I’m the lady of the Keep; I don’t have to work.”
“I’m the lady of the Keep,” Cassandra pointed out. “You’re just my sidekick. Besides, someone should teach you how to cook.”
“I can cook.”
“Boiling potatoes does not count as cooking.”
“I make a great grilled cheese!”
“The point stands.”
“Hush. ‘Sides, who would you rather have cooking for you – me or Matilda?”
“Matilda,” Cassie answered without hesitation. “But she’s already a grandmother; she can’t work forever.” A wink and a playful smile. “And I kind of like the idea of you being my personal maid.”
“Maid? Psht. I’ll poison your tea.”
Imoen’s gave her a dangerous grin. “Try me.”
Cassandra had learned very young that giving Imoen a challenge usually bore painful results. She decided to switch to a safer subject. “Shouldn’t you recast that seeming thing on me before dinner?”
“I will, don’t worry. It hasn’t worn off yet.”
“Do you really need to wait for it to wear off first?”
“Well, no.” The diversion seemed to have worked: Imoen’s attention was back on magic instead of on poisoning Cassie’s tea. “Do you really want me to re-cast it right now?”
“It doesn’t have to be right now, just before we go downstairs. Or do you need bat wings or lizard guts or something weird like that?”
She shook her head, taking another sip of her wine. “It’s a verbal-somatic spell. Although if you really want lizard guts, I can go with that.”
Cassie’s nose winkled. “If it’s not required – no thanks.”
“Coward,” Imoen accused with a small wink.
A knock on the far door interrupted Cassandra’s less-than-snappy response. “Come in,” she called instead.
The door to the main hall cracked open, and the upper half of Chantelle’s body popped into view. The lower half, heavily rounded with her pregnancy, was probably stuck on the other side.
“Lord Cassandra, Lady Imoen? Dinner will be served in ten minutes. Where will you be dining this evening?”
Imoen rolled her eyes and leaned over until she got the young maid in view. “Chan! We don’t bite, y’know.”
The slightest, softest giggle just barely reached Cassie’s ears. “Yes, Miss Imoen.”
“Here?” Cassie suggested, glancing over at her sister.
“Are you nuts? Us two in this freakin’ huge hall?”
“You want to eat in a library?”
“It’s small, cozy, and it has a fireplace. It’s perfect.”
“You wish is my command.” She raised her voice, pitching it for Chantelle’s waiting ears. “Milady Imoen would like to dine in the upstairs library this evening.”
Another soft giggle before Chantelle left to relay the news. “Of course, Milord.”
Imoen was already on her feet. Her laughing grey eyes sparkled as she reached out and patted Cassandra’s cheek. “‘Milord!'”
“Hush. I said it’s ceremonial.”
“Still funny as all heck. Hey, you remember that time you had a penis?”
Cassie reached out to swat her, but Imoen was already skipping ahead, well out of her reach. The sound of her laughter echoing through the halls had Cassie smiling long after dinner was done.
“It’s gonna storm,” Imoen commented some hours later, as they sat in the library and watched the dwindling evening sun.
“When did you become a druid?”
She tilted her chin up at the landscape outside the second-story window. “Look at the clouds.”
Cassie’s gaze rose slightly, changing focus from the horizon to the sky above. Thick, dark masses gathered in the heavens, crowding together like wrathful giants. Distant flickers of lightning lit up their insides. Cassie sighed. “Maybe it’ll pass. I hate riding in rain.”
“Tell me about it. How long’s it to Sudanesselar again?”
“Two days. One if you haste us a few times.”
“Great.” Imoen pulled her knees up to her chest and laid her head on Cassandra’s shoulder. The sofa was the only piece of furniture in the library with room for more than one butt, and seated the two of them side by side with a fair bit of room to spare. Her eyes flickered over the stacks of books in the vague, futile hope that the De’Arnise mages had a few texts on natural magic. Various colors flickered back at her: a mix of all possible arcane schools. A fair majority of them were gold. “Nalia have an obsession with divination?”
“Y’know: scrying, locate whatever, detect whatever. Divination spells.” Imoen gestured at the rows of books. “I swear a good third of these are divination.”
Cassie’s bright blue gaze had turned back to her. The fighter gave a small shrug. “Must be useful.”
“Psht. Divination? Useful? Divination’s only useful if you—” Imoen abruptly stopped. Her eyes widened with sudden inspiration. “Oh! Oh, oh, oh!” She bounced up and down on the couch cushions in excitement. “That’s it!”
One red-gold eyebrow arched up. “What’s what?”
“That’s the answer! Divination!”
“The answer to what?”
Imoen shifted into her you’ve-got-to-hear-this position, bursting with explanation. “Okay, so: we need to get to Suldanesselar, right? And the faster the better, and we don’t wanna get rained on, right?”
Cassie nodded. So far, she was following.
“So, we can ride. We can even use haste. But we’re still gonna get rained on, and–! There’s a way that’s even faster! Divination!”
“Like we teleport there or something?” Cassie asked.
“Teleport is a conjuration spell.”
“Of course not, silly.”
The thread was gone; she wasn’t following. “Then…uh…”
“Scrying is divination,” Imoen said. Cassie looked at her blankly, which in return gained a frustrated scowl. “You can’t teleport to an unknown location,” the young mage tried again. “You gotta know where you’re going. But we don’t.”
“Sure we do. Sudanesselar.”
“No, no. We know the name of where we’re going. But we don’t know it. Like, we’ve never walked the streets. Never seen the decor. We’ve heard of it, that’s all.”
“But we can see it if I use scrying. And then we can use teleport to zap ourselves over there!” A sudden frown creased her lips as she realized a flaw in her plan. “Shit. But you can’t scry a place. Has to be a person. Someone who’s actually in Sudanesselar.”
“Irenicus?” Cassie offered. “You can bet he’s in the neighborhood.”
“True. And he’d be a good target as far as personal familiarity goes. On the other hand, he’s a mage, he’s paranoid, and he’s powerful. He’s gonna have wards up and detect spells, and if he feels the tickle then the whole surprise is blown.”
Cassandra didn’t understand what it meant, but she didn’t bother asking. Imoen was thinking outloud, and it was easier to just let her figure out the ultimate solution.
“Bodhi’s dead – not that she’d be in Suldanesselar anyways – and all I have from that Ellesime chick is her name… Oh! Elthan!”
“The elf commander?”
“Yeah! He was going back to Sudanesselar. He’s gotta be there by now — he’s got like a six day lead on us, and he knows where he’s going. He’s not the best bet as far as familiarity, but I did have some chitchats with him and he’s not gonna be warded like Mr. Psycho.” Imoen beamed a smile. “This is gonna work!”
“And the short form for the less intelligent in the room?”
“Meaning you?” she winked as she snuggled closer.
Cassie smiled and wrapped one arm around her sister’s shoulders. “Who else?”
“Coulda meant one of the houseplants.”
“Well, them too.”
“I’ll use small words. Basically, I spy on Elthan and look around to get an idea of what Sudanesselar is like. Based on that, I can use teleport to get us within a stone’s throw of the city. Cool, huh?”
“Sounds easy,” Cassie said with slightly more skepticism than intended. “And you can pull that off in one day?”
“Definitely. Give me a good night’s sleep and four solid hours tomorrow morning, and we’re there.”
“Maybe we should get to bed then.”
“Probably. Mind if I sleep with you tonight?”
“You don’t have to.”
“I know that,” Imoen answered, getting to her feet as Cassandra did the same. “But I sleep better if I know you’re there. If you don’t mind, of course.”
“Of course I don’t mind. But…uh…” Cassandra stumbled over her words, not sure exactly how to phrase her concern. “…you won’t feel…uncomfortable?”
“Nah,” Imoen said. She shrugged and straightened her robe. “I’m over it.”
“You are? When did that happen?”
“Well don’t pester me over it; then I will feel uncomfortable.”
That was enough to shut Cassie up until they were both back in the master bedroom. The fireplace, lit earlier in the evening to ease the chill of the air, had dwindled down to warm embers. Thick down-filled blankets covered the bed, and a thoughtfully-placed bearskin rug served as a welcoming alternative to the cold stone floor. Once under the covers, the combined heat of their bodies quickly transformed the bed into a comfortable cocoon of warmth.
“Aren’t you gonna say goodnight?” Imoen whispered a few minutes after they’d crawled into bed.
“Is that allowed?” Cassie answered back jokingly.
“Only if you call me Mistress Imoen.”
“Psht. Forget it, then.”
“No way. I spoil you too much already.”
“That’s true. How about just a ‘goodnight’ then?”
“No ‘Mistress Imoen’ ?”
“I’ll let it go just this once.”
“Goodnight, then. Sweet dreams.”
There was a small brush of warmth against her cheek as Imoen pressed her lips against it. “Goodnight, Cassie. Thanks for everything.”