Imoen had seen a lot of forests in her day, and this was certainly no forest. It had some superficial similarities: the tall, densely packed trees that blocked out most of the sunlight; the musty, shadowy undergrowth that was almost eerily bare of grass and shrubbery. But these were towering verdant giants, not trees; the undergrowth was a carpet of tangled, knotted roots ranging from finger-thin cords to immense, meter-thick monsters. The canopy of interlaced branches was so thick that they blotted out all but the most determined sunbeams. Despite it being near midday, it was as dark as twilight. The hairs on her arms prickled in response to the instinctive unease. This was no forest – it was an ancient, primeval jungle as old as Silvanus himself.
In the corner of her eye, Cassandra was also taking stock of the situation. When she spoke, her tone was less than pleased.
“This isn’t Suldanessellar.”
Imoen rolled her eyes. “Duh.”
“You said we’d be in the city.”
“Teleport isn’t one hundred procent accurate. I said I’d get us within a stone’s throw of it.”
Cassie knelt and plucked an acorn from the ground. A single, sharp throw sent it hurtling into the air with velocity that only Bhaalspawn strength could achieve. Both of them fell silent as it vanished into the air. It fell to the earth somewhere in the jungle, but the eventual sound of impact was lost in the distance. Cassandra turned her accusatory gaze on her sister.
Imoen bristled defensively. “Pessimist.” Her hand went into her spell components pouch and sought out the small tufts of hair tucked within. “Fortunately for you, I have a backup plan.”
“Which is?” Cassie demanded, crossing her arms across her chest.
She separated out a tuft of bloodhound fur roughly as thick as her thumb and tucked the rest back into her pouch. “Locate creature.”
“Elhan Now hush and give me some space.”
“Elhan isn’t a crea—”
Grey eyes turned on her. “Cassie.”
“Okay, okay. I’m hushing.”
Imoen kept her eyes on her until the red-head had retreated a good two yards away and kept her silence for a whole minute. Once satisfied, she turned her attention back to the small bit of fur that would soon be the key finding the elven city.
The first threads of magical energy began to congeal around her fingers as she rhythmically went through the motions for the somatic part of the formula. The strands were weightless – more illusionary than real – having no texture, temperature, or tactile sensation against her flesh. She watched them in skeptical fascination as they looped, knotted, tied, and twisted. Normally the material of the Weave was invisible, even to a mage’s eyes. Since her encounter with Bodhi and the return of her soul, however, she seemed to see more than most.
“Lach Elhane shani enu.”
The arcane words ignited the threads with sudden luminescence. They twisted into a thick cord of energy in the center of her palm and then leapt out and closed around the ball of fur. It exploded with a small flash of heat and smoke, disintegrating into so much ash as the magic consumed it. A ghostly radiance expanded around her – a mesh of thousands of fine hairs as the Weave closed around her in a golden divination cage.
Okay… She closed her eyes concentrated on the energy surrounding her. The cocoon was a steady, uniform static charge that tickled across her skin now that the spell was active. She rotated slowly in place, stopping with each fraction of a turn to re-orient herself and give the Weave time to adjust. Where are you?
The tingle turned to a tug as she completed a quarter-turn and faced the southeast. Imoen’s eyes flashed open. The golden strands of magic had bulged into a sort of warped cone, drawn and stretched in the direction of her quarry.
“This way,” she announced, pointing a finger towards one section of the endless expanse of woods. “He’s within a mile of us.” Her lips quirked in a smile as she shot Cassie a mischevious glance. “You just threw the stone in the wrong direction.”
It was Cassie’s turn to roll her eyes. “How do you know he’s within a mile?” she asked, ignoring the jab.
“‘Cause it’s magic and I’m a mage. Why do you always ask silly questions?”
“Because being around you has damaged my brain.”
“It was a good retort!”
“You’re still a jackass.”
“Come on. You never let me win,” Cassie complained.
Imoen hid her smile under the pretense of stalking away into the forest. “Duh.”
Normally a mile didn’t take too long to walk, but normally they weren’t walking through a rainforest. The thick tangle of roots and low-hanging branches slowed their speed to a crawl. Every few minutes they were forced to stop and unhook Imoen’s robe from an over-eager thorn, or retrace their steps and find another way around a particularly impassable section.
It was nearly an hour later that the first flicker of color was visible through the tightly-packed trees. At first it was a flicker of purple, joined by pale strands of pearl and hues of brilliant sapphire, ruby, and jade as the sisters drew nearer. The wall of crystalline color rose nearly as high as the trees themselves and as wide as a full-grown dragon. Imoen’s breath caught in her chest as the last few trees disappeared behind them and the object was revealed in full. It glittered and danced in rhythm with the shadows of the surrounding forest – a living, pulsating barrier of interwoven jewels, impossibly melded together into a complete and seamless whole.
“Wow.” The word was barely breathed across her lips.
Cassandra stopped next to her, looking up at it as well. “That is a really big tree.”
“What?” Imoen’s mouth dropped open in disbelief, and her hand flashed out to land a solid smack upside Cassie’s head. “Gods, you are such a barbarian!”
“Ow! What?” The older sister rubbed her head, directing a dark scowl at her younger counterpart. “What the Hell was that for?”
“A tree?” Imoen retorted, returning the scowl. She pointed at the huge crystalline wall. “You ignore that and comment on a tree??”
“What do you want then? Big oak? Big white oak?”
Imoen’s scowl melted away as she realized that Cassandra wasn’t kidding. “You don’t see it, do you?” she asked slowly, her eyes going back to the multicolored wall. She didn’t see any flicker or miscoloration that would point to a broken illusion. “You see a tree.”
“You don’t? What do you see?”
That was a good question. Imoen pursed her lips, studying the structure. The colors weren’t quite the same as the auras of the arcane schools. Those had been pure colors, soft in tone, like the hues of fresh bloomed flowers. These colors were deeper, sharper, glistening and shimmering like jewels. And the manner in which they were interwoven with each other – a literal magical weave – defied any theory of magic she’d ever heard of. Combining of schools was theoretically possible: conjuration and necromancy for a ranged version of vampiric touch. But such combinations were more legend than fact, and Elminster himself would have been hard pressed to combine three schools, much less the six she saw here. And the entire thing was swathed in a brilliant cascade of abjuration-silver.
Wait. Her eyes narrowed. Abjuration, multiple colors… Suddenly it hit her. “It’s a prismatic wall,” she said aloud. “This must be the way to Suldanessellar.”
“So they hid the door with an illusion of a tree?”
“More or less.”
“Then we just open it up and walk through it,” Cassie reasoned, and stepped forward to do just that.
“No!” Imoen’s hands flashed out and shoved Cassandra forcefully backwards. “You don’t just walk through a prismatic wall! Do you have any idea what that thing will do to you?”
“You don’t. Of course you don’t.” Imoen sighed. “What am I gonna do with you?”
“Protect me from myself?”
“Someone has to. Sorry for shoving,” Imoen apologized.
“It’s okay.” Cassie tilted her chin up at the illusionary tree. “So can you dispel it?”
“I dunno,” she admitted reluctantly. “I mean, you can’t actually dispel it, but you can negate the individual colors. It takes seven different spells to counter the whole thing, though, and I don’t have all of them memorized. I could negate a few today, memorize the ones I don’t have tonight, and cast them tomorrow.”
“That’s a lot of lost time.”
“Well… we’d be about back where we would have been, if we hadn’t used teleport.”
“Still. I’d rather not lose a day if we don’t have to. What about just casting the spells without memorizing them?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, like you did with that seeming scroll,” Cassie said. “You copied it to your spellbook, and then you cast it. You didn’t need to memorize it first. Can’t you do that with the ones you don’t already have memorized?”
Imoen wrinkled her nose. “I hate doing that.”
Cassandra didn’t take the hint. “Can you or can’t you?” she pressed.
“I dunno. I’ll need to check and see what I have and what I need and all that jazz.”
“I’ll get your books.”
It was nearly three hours later before Imoen, seated amidst a slew of scrolls, texts, and parchments, slammed the tome on her lap shut with a resounding clap. Cassandra looked up from the sharpening of her sword, narrowly avoiding slicing her own fingers as she started.
“Got it,” the mage announced with satisfaction. “I’ve already got four of the necessary spells memorized; the other three I have in texts. I’m gonna lose cone of cold and gust of wind… don’t mind the latter, but losing cone of cold is kinda sucky.”
“Hopefully we won’t need it.”
“Let’s hope.” She got to her feet, brushing the clinging leaves and bits of dirt from her robe. “This and this I need,” she said, pointing to two of the assorted texts. “The rest you can stick back in the bags.”
Cassie started gathering up the books as Imoen began digging through her various belt pounches. By the time Cassandra managed to cram the various scrolls and parchments back into the backpacks in some rough approximation of order, Imoen had assembled an odd hodge-podge of various components. A small piece of glass lay next to a thumb-sized piece of blackish stone, followed by a carefully-positioned pinch of small, gold-white seeds.
“Do I need to do anything?” Cassie asked cautiously, holding a safe distance from the materials just in case.
“Nah. Actually—yes.” She pointed to the sole book still open on the ground. “Hold that for me so I can read it.”
“Like this?” Cassie lifted it up and held it outstretched between her hands, positioning it more or less at Imoen’s eye-level.
“Left. And….little up.” She peered over at the pages and flipped forward until she found the necessary spell. “Perfect.”
Imoen rolled up her sleeves, knelt, and picked up the glass pellet. It was cool and smooth between her fingers – a comforting reminder of how her mind needed to be. Each color of the prismatic wall could only be negated by the appropriate counterspell, and only when cast in the appropriate order. Only when all seven colors were dispelled would the abjurational field finally fail and collapse in on itself.
“Soch janlani,” she intoned, cupping the glass in her palms as she began sculpting the cone-shaped point of origin for the spell. The pellet quivered with sympathic vibrations which quickly became so intense that the structure itself began to liquify and dissolve. The molten glass melded with the arcane currents and transformed into a grain of ice. Cassie was smart enough to move out of the way as a howling rush of snow and ice manifested out of Imoen’s hands and assaulted the wall with gale-force winds. The ruby-red threads of magic frosted over with white rime, quickly freezing in the super-cooled blast. A second later they shattered with the sound of a thousand tiny chimes. The remaining rainbow of colors pulsed and expanded, sealing the gaps almost immediately.
“Scroll,” Imoen ordered, pointing to the loose sheet of parchment next to Cassandra’s feet. The fighter dutifully fetched it, setting the spellbook carefully aside. She unfurled it and positioned herself once more to Imoen’s left. The mage adjusted Cassie’s position slightly before taking a deep breath and preparing for the second casting.
Gust of wind required no material components, but as soon as the necessary words and gestures were spoken, the scroll itself began to shiver and quake. The magical writing vaporized in small whisps of white smoke, leaving behind a perfectly blank sheet of parchment. Another color disappeared, and once again the prismatic wall adjusted, healing itself with the remaining hues and shutting the intruders firmly out.
The yellow veins of citrine fell to disintegrate, drawn directly from Imoen’s memory. Emerald-green crumbled under passwall. The small, sizzling arcane orbs of magic missile negated a fifth color, and by then beads of sweat had dampened and darkened the strands of hair that fell across her forehead. Channeling so much magical energy and so many different manners of Weave in such a short time was exhausting. A steady thrum of ambient energy coursed through her body, slowly building up a latent charge. It was a natural high that the rush of adrenaline and pinpoint concentration only accentuated.
Indigo and violet were the only colors left. Imoen nodded to Cassandra, signaling her to get ready. Once all the colors were negated, the barrier would drop and allow them passage to whatever lay beyond. She’d have bet all the gold in Faerûn, though, that it wouldn’t stay that way. No one barred the entrance to an elven city with a single spell, even one as powerful as prismatic wall. If you wanted to block people out and keep people out, you needed something stronger. Something that would bounce back quickly should a particularly stubborn sorceress force her way through.
Neither daylight nor dispel magic required any material components, and she could cast them both from memory. She chained the spells as closely as possible. The barrier flickered, melting away from indigo into deep, rich purple, before flickering once more and disappearing entirely. Beyond lay an archway of trees bowed together with knotted branches, forming a living, breathing passage into the city of Suldanessellar. Sunlight filtered in intermittently through the interwoven boughs, but most of the illumination came from the glowing, phosphorescent mosses that coated the trunks of the trees.
The thick stench of death rolled over them. Both sisters reflexively pressed their sleeves to their noses and exchanged worried glances. They stepped gingerly into the archway. Cassandra handed Imoen her pack. The ground was littered with bodies and body parts. Elven warriors, male and female, lay with death’s grimace frozen on their faces. Cracked and blackened flesh; bubbled and melted muscles – the tell-tale aftermath of fire and acid. The majority of the bodies were clustered around the entrance; the majority of the dismembered hands, arms, and chunks of flesh slightly further away.
“Someone really didn’t want them getting in,” Cassandra muttered, carefully stepping over a woman’s charred corpse. Her fingers curled reflexively around the hilt of her sword.
“No,” Imoen whispered. A prismatic wall could kill easily enough, but crossing through the wall was impossible until it was dispelled. You died where you were – not after you passed through. “They were trying to get out.”
“Maybe both. They sealed the city, Irenicus breached it, and the wall blocked their retreat?”
That would mean that Irenicus had routed the entire elven army. Imoen wasn’t prepared to accept that scenario. “Maybe. Maybe not.”
They advanced in silence down the silent forest corridor. It slanted upwards as it progressed, first gently but then with increasing grade, rising up into the treetops themselves. Both sisters were on alert, instinctively moving together in tandem, each one pressed close to the tunnel’s side. They kept to opposite sides, maximizing their field of vision and minimizing the chances of an unpleasant surprise.
The number of bodies lessened as they crept further away from the entrance, as did the odor of decay. What lay above, though, was hardly fresh air. The passage leveled out some two or three stories above the forest floor, revealing what had once been a scene of beauty. Now the broad, circular platforms of living wood, sculpted by hundreds of years of delicate care and stewardship, were broken and splintered, charred and scarred, by the cruelty of unknown hands. Rope bridges dangled severed, their defenders now lifeless husks thrown haphazardly among the branches. At least three dozen elven bodies lay crushed, cut, and mangled in pools of their own blood and entrails. Small houses molded into the trees themselves now lay shattered and burnt. Plumes of smoke curled into the sky from their remains.
“Irenicus,” Imoen murmurred. Her hands clenched and unclenched with nervous energy as she took in the sight. Residual magical auras glowed faintly in her vision from nearly every hook and angle. Whatever had happened here had had enough force to warp the arcane Weave for days to come. There was only one person in Suldanessellar who wielded that sort of wizardry.
“He’s here,” Cassandra confirmed in a low tone. “Something’s pulling me.”
Imoen nodded. She’d felt the same when they’d entered Bodhi’s lair: a subtle tugging, a tingling, a calling-out inside her towards her stolen soul. Cassie was incomplete, and the disconnected parts ached to be whole. Hopefully the connection didn’t work both ways.
“He won’t be here alone,” Imoen thought aloud. Any mage on a warpath would need muscle to back up his magic – summoned creatures, conjured servants, enthralled foes. Shock troops to wear down any resistance while Irenicus did damage from afar. “You can bet he’s gonna have helpers.”
“Where do you think the elves are?”
“Dunno.” Imoen glanced around again, but amidst the explosion of chaos, it was impossible to see who might have went where. “Locate creature only works on living things, so Elhan must still be alive – or at least, he was a few hours ago. You’d think they’d be out fighting, but—”
“But it’s quiet,” Cassie noted.
“Too quiet,” Imoen agreed.
“Laying low,” the warrior suggested. “The battle went bad; they tried to retreat and regroup, but that wall sealed them in. If you can’t run, hide.”
“We should find them. They’ll know more about what’s happened and what we can expect.”
“If they’re still alive. I don’t think Irenicus would voluntarily leave his enemies alive.”
“Not after the brilliant success that was with us, no.” Imoen pursed her lips together. A sudden chill and reflexive shudder rippled down her back as Irenicus’ taut, warped face floated out of her memory. She shoved it back down into the mire where it belonged. “He might keep some alive,” she said reluctantly, tasting bile on every word. “For his experiments.”
“Then let’s hope he hasn’t found them yet.”
“And how are we going to find them?”
“Well, you’re a mage. If Irenicus were after you, where would you go?”
“Another country,” Imoen quipped, but her smile was strained. “No, seriously… they would have been prepared. Elves and magic, that’s like ducks and water. They’d have a… a building or something. They’d have to. Something with strong walls. Anti-magic fields. Big enough to hold people, small enough to defend.”
Cassie searched the surrounding area, but there was no such structure – or anything resembling it – anywhere in sight. “No cellars in the treetops, I’m guessing.”
“Nope. But really, a building big enough… there can’t be that many. I’m guessing a temple, or maybe the royal palace itself. Or maybe both.”
“What are the chances that Irenicus hasn’t breached their protections yet?”
Imoen let out a slow, uncomfortable breath. “I dunno. It’d just be a matter of time.”
“Then we’d better hurry.”
Following the main path was impossible. The rope-and-wood skyways that connected the rounded platforms had been cut and burnt away more often than not, and neither sibling was willing to risk their footing on the few that still hung tenaciously to their moorings. The exploration of the elven city proved slow and frustrating – creeping forward, ever alert, hiding behind rubble and plums of smoke, only to realize that the way was a dead end and that they would need to double-back and find a new route.
The assault on the city had been severe and abrupt. Very little had escaped Irenicus’ wrath. Elven soldiers lay strewn like leaves, scattered by a hurricane of rage. Here and there was evidence of the mage’s foot soldiers: an immense statue of clay or packed sand, now toppled to the ground and shattered into pieces. Golems, Imoen knew instinctively. Irenicus was fond of the constructs, fond of their mindless, unquestioning obedience. They had been a frequent sight in his dungeon.
“He’ll have more,” Imoen informed Cassandra quietly as they moved around it, and a few minutes later she was proven right.
The goliath’s thundering footsteps announced its coming long before it came into sight. The resounding boom…boom…boom of its tread shook the trees itself, causing leaves to rustle and break off in protest before fluttering weakly to the ground. Imoen and Cassandra ducked for cover behind the nearest item: the remnants of burnt-out house, where the silent occupants stared at them with dead, white-filmed eyes. A woman and her daughter. Imoen turned her head away.
The golem that strode out of the branches was a giant among giants. A stone or clay golem could stand easily twice the height of a man, and yet they would have stood merely shoulder-high to this one. Although also crafted of stone, it was larger and broader than any she’d seen before. Imoen worried her lower lip between her teeth as she watched it pass with long, lumbering strides.
“Should we follow it?” Cassie asked, leaning slightly closer to direct the whispered words to her sister’s ear.
Golems didn’t think. They were artifices, constructed for a purpose, and when that purpose was done, they fell still. If this one was active, it was likely doing one of two things: seeking out survivors, or returning to Irenicus for its next command. Either way, it’d lead them to a goal.
“Follow,” Imoen confirmed, moving out from her cover. She activated her stoneskins before crouching low and slowly moving forward. “Be careful.”
Tailing the behemoth was easy; lacking the intellect to suspect pursuers, it didn’t bother to look around. Keeping up with it was harder. It walked with a purpose, single-mindedly, with its immense legs covering yards with every step. The sisters sprinted from object to object, trying to balance the necessity of speed against that of secrecy. Fortunately there was no need to be hot on its heels. Keeping it in sight – an easy task, given its massive dimensions – was more than enough.
“Cass – look.” Imoen pointed to something between the broken branches. A perfectly curved dome, barely visible among clouds of dust and smoke. The golem was heading straight for it.
The din of battle was the first clue. Tremors of impact ripped through the canopy long before details were visible. Then came the screams. Cries of terror, panic, and despair carried through the air, only to be drowned out and silenced by another thunderous crash.
Screams meant survivors. Imoen glanced over to Cassandra, who gave a brief nod. They broke from cover, favoring speed over security, to try to close the distance and figure out what was going on. The distant dome and gleaming head of the polished stone giant were their targets.
At last the scene came into view. The dome capped a building easily three times as large as any they’d seen so far. Unlike the walkways, bridges, and houses of Suldanessellar, this structure was built of stone. White marble, flecked here and there with natural veins, rose up in an impossible whole, scored neither with axe nor chisel. The structure was seamless and smooth, and had once been adorned by a dozen different statues of elven gods and goddesses – statues which now lay battered and broken on the ground. The temple was surrounded by constructs: three large clay golems that hammered away at the rock with their fists, while a smaller sandstone version attempted to right itself where it had fallen. The stone golem they’d been following waded in without hesitation. The fallen gods cracked and shattered under its feet.
There was no way of knowing how long the golems had been there, but the result of their work was clear. A section of the wall had collapsed under the assault, and now the survivors who had entrusted their lives to their gods scrambled to get out. Some fled through the doors, now flung open wide; some fled through the crumbled wall itself, willing to risk an escape into the path of the golems themselves.
“That’s Elhan,” Imoen said, pointing towards the temple’s doors. Two blond elven warriors braced the portals open, gesturing and shouting for their companions to flee. “The one on the right.”
“Think we can slow those things down?” Cassie asked, tilting her chin towards the golems.
Imoen grinned. “Oh, absolutely.”
When it came to causing chaos, Imoen was a master. After seeing the effects of disintegrate on Bodhi, it’d quickly become one of her favorite spells. Now she directed it at the thigh of a clay golem. The material evaporated, leaving the remaining ton of weight suddenly unsupported. The creature wavered unsteadily for a second as gravity took hold, before collapsing to the ground with a crash and cloud of debris.
Cassandra was on it in an instant. Although smaller and frailer than the artificial warriors, she was both faster and more agile. By the time a golem registered her presence and lifted its foot to squash her, she was already out of its way. She dodged through the stream of fleeing elves, around the fallen bodies of those crushed by rock and stone. Sword drawn, she leapt upon the fallen golem. There was no heart to cleave out; no brain to destroy; no vitals to rend. Strictly speaking, she couldn’t kill it. It didn’t stop her from trying.
The magical enchantments on the blade let it sink easily into the hardened clay. She brought it down in a vicious arc, slicing into the construct’s neck. It stopped nearly six inches in – a gaping cut, but nowhere close to severing the thing’s head. She wrenched the blade lose and struck again, this time from the other side. Again the sword cut true, but it wasn’t enough.
She abandoned the sword and rolled off the golem’s chest in automatic response to the warning. A giant hand smashed down where she had been. The impact threw her to the ground, but she was up again a second later. The prone golem now lay unmoving. The force of the blow had snapped what little support material remained, and the head now rocked slowly back and forth, disconnected from the rest.
Cassie fetched her sword out of the rubble and knelt next to the golem’s body. It provided ample cover, at least for the time being. The second golem was re-adjusting, unaware and uncaring that it had just killed its companion.
A wide, powerful swing bit into its ankle and lodged nearly half-way through the hardened clay flesh. Before Cassandra could yank it free, the foot rose into the air. Cassie stumbled backwards as the sword was ripped out of her hands. A chunk of fallen debris caught her foot as she tried to retreat and brought her down hard. She didn’t have time to react as the foot hurtled down at her. Her arms flashed up in an instinctive attempt to block the impact, even as she realized the futility of the attempt.
A ripple of compressed energy sped past her. It connected with the golem’s torso with a loud, lightning-like crack of sound and blasted the construct sharply to the side. Balanced on only one leg, it was impossible for the golem to adjust to the sudden shift in balance. The foot never connected against Cassie’s arms; it wavered, hanging unsteadily in the air, and then slowly began to tilt away. The fighter needed no other encouragement. She rolled away from danger, getting to her feet in a single smooth movement, and sprinted away from the tumbling giant. It collapsed like a fallen building, crushing everything beneath it with tons of hardened, fired clay.
The majority of the elves had successfully fled the temple. Those that remained were the warriors and soldiers who stayed behind to shepherd the weaker to safety. The sudden shift in the struggle did not go unnoticed, nor did the presence of the two human women in its midst. As the last few civilians disappeared along the skyways, Elhan’s voice rose above the din in an elven battle cry.
Cassandra had retrieved her sword by the time the elves joined the battle, and was more than happy to accept the extra help. The remaining clay and sandstone golems fell quickly to a combination of magic and muscle. Each fallen construct littered the battlefield with obstacles the size of boulders, but the hindrances worked for them as well as against them. They traded decreased mobility for the safety of cover, using the massive bodies to shield themselves from further attack. The polished marble of the largest golem proved harder and more resistant than the clay and sandstone of its kin, but even it could not hold up to the assault of two Bhaalspawn sisters and a score of trained soldiers. A second, well-aimed disintegrate from an elven mage left a gaping hole in the middle of its face and destroyed both eyes. Unable to see, it was only minutes before the combined might brought it down for good with the force and tumult of a full-fledged earthquake.
When the final tremors had died and the cloud of dust and dirt began to clear, it was over. The golems lay in pieces, large and small, scattered across the platform and toppled into the forest below. What had once been a magnificent temple had been reduced to a pile of rubble barely recognizable as a building. Only the two still-standing walls, one leaning precariously towards collapse, bore witness to the truth.
A hand appeared abruptly before Cassandra’s face. She grasped it automatically and pulled herself to her feet. Imoen’s face was smeared with pale dust, and her once-fine robes stained with flecks of blood. She was smiling though, and gave a small shake of her head at the sudden alarm in her sister’s eyes.
“Not mine. Don’t worry.” The mage’s grey eyes flickered over Cassie’s body in quick, careful assessment, and seemed pleased to find the fighter still intact. “Any injuries?”
She shook her head. “I’m fine. Few bruises, nothing crushed.”
A slim, green-clad formed emerged out of the still-settling chaos: an elven man with stern blue eyes and short blond hair that was heavily matted by clots of dark red-brown blood. His sword was unsheathed and held at the ready. Despite his cautious posture, it was clear that he – like so many others – had not come out unscathed. He limped on his left leg where it had been clawed open by some unknown assailant, and there was no way of knowing how much of the blood on his uniform was his own.
“Elhan.” Imoen greeted him with an outstretched hand and a small, warm smile.
The smile wasn’t returned, nor was the proffered hand. More figures fumbled their way out of the debris and gradually gathered around as the elven commander regarded the human intruders. His expression was a strained mix of sour gratitude.
“You are the human from the Underdark,” he said at last in Common. His cold blue gaze turned to Cassandra. “And you are that… thing.”
“My name’s Imoen,” the mage reminded him, her smile vanishing and her hands going to her hips. “And that ‘thing’ is Cassandra – my sister. We just saved your ass.”
“How did you get into Suldanessellar?” Elhan demanded. “The city is sealed.”
The authoritative tone didn’t make Imoen back down. “Yeah, it is. We unsealed it.”
“It’s just a prismatic wall. Difficult, but not impossible. If you wanna keep people out, you should pick something a little stronger.”
The nine remaining soldiers were now exchanging glances and uneasy whispers. Elhan silenced them with a razor-sharp glance.
“The barrier is removed, then?” he asked, directing his eyes back to the human mage.
“No. The negation is only for a few minutes.” One eyebrow arched up, gaining an even deeper scowl from the commander. “You didn’t seal it, did you?” she asked. “Irenicus locked you in.”
The name evoked an immediate and violent reaction. Elhan’s hand flashed out, his finger jabbing the mage’s chest. “Do not speak that name!” he growled. “You have no right!”
Cassandra’s hand was on his in an instant. Her arctic tone served as warning. “We aren’t your enemies, Elhan.”
“You have no business here,” he spat again. “This is not your problem!”
“Like Hell it’s not,” Cassie growled, to which Imoen nodded her assent. “We have a score to settle with him.”
“A ‘score’.” Elhan’s voice dripped with contempt. “Our city burns, and you bewail petty grievances.”
“Petty?” Cassandra’s eyes narrowed. “You have no idea what he’s done to us.”
“No worse than he’s done to others,” Elhan responded sharply. “The Exile’s path is one of ruin and pain. But you’ll excuse me if the suffering of two women does not move me compared to the destruction of my people and my home.”
“Maybe it should,” Imoen suggested. “We might be able to help you.”
A snort of disbelief. “What could you possibly do that the united power of Suldanessellar’s army could not?”
Cassie’s answer was dry. “You’d be surprised.”
“Look, maybe we can argue this somewhere where we aren’t standing around where Irenicus can slap us silly,” Imoen suggested. “And we need to talk to Ellesime, if she’s still alive.”
The commander stiffened. “You will address Queen Ellesime by her proper title while within her realm.”
“Queen?” Imoen’s eyebrows rose sky-high, and she directed a surprised glance at her sister. “Then we definitely need to speak to her.”
“One does not simply speak to the Queen.”
“Well, we do,” the mage insisted. “It’s her fault all this is happening. Irenicus hates her, y’know. Like, really hates her.”
Elhan’s aloofness vanished, replaced with a dark and mistrusting frown. “How do you know that?”
“Because we found Irenicus’ diary,” Cassie answered. “And we killed Bodhi.”
“I’ve got her memories,” Imoen added, tapping her fingertip against her temple. A wicked smile curved her lips. “Now… can we talk to Ellesime or not?”
The elves had been, contrary to appearances, surprisingly well prepared. The Temple of Rillifane was not the only safehouse in the city, although it had been one of the largest. Suspicious by nature, the wood elves had a dozen different ways to escape. Tree stride and transport via plants were fashioned into random, innocent objects, serving as teleportation nexuses hiding in plain view. Where they led, Elhan wasn’t willing to divulge. At least one – the one they’d taken, set into an unassuming elm tree – lead to the royal palace.
Calling it a “palace” was overgenerous. Humans built palaces, Elhan said, to fit their sense of self-importance: overly large, jutting from the landscape with spires of stone and steel. The elven palace was a small building, perhaps the size of a moderate country villa or slightly larger than the De’Arnise Keep itself. Where it excelled, though, was the beauty of its construction. It was molded from a perfect combination of living wood and natural stone, seeming to rise out of the forest like an organic creature. To Imoen’s magic-sensitive eyes it glowed like a beacon, enchanted by generations of powerful elven mages and clerics. The spells were layered upon each other with impossible precision, like the folded layers of steel in a fine blade. It hadn’t helped those trapped outside it.
Imoen stood next to one of the walls, running her fingers absent-mindedly through the soft glow of a magelight torch. The strands of arcane Weave caught her fingers; the light stretched and distorted as her touched tugged it back and forth. Around her was a cacophony of crying, screaming, moaning, and harshly barked commands. The palace’s main hall was filled with survivors: nearly a hundred people. They were burnt, bleeding, weak, and confused. Missing arms, mangled legs, fathers sitting stunned and mothers screaming their children’s name and begging for someone – anyone – to find their babies. Elhan and his men could do nothing to help. No one could.
Imoen looked away. It was an all-too-real reminder of the damage Irenicus could do. Hopefully no one else had survived. She couldn’t imagine what he’d do to his prisoners.
The memory of Spellhold leapt to mind unbidden. The knives. The blood. The sound of Irenicus’ footsteps, the door creeping open, his shadow crawling across the floor. Her stomach clenched as a sudden cold sweat moistened her palms. She shoved the memory back into the darkness and fought down the instinctive surge of fear. She could imagine what’d he do.
“O’si! L’osi!” A small elven girl wandered amongst the chaos, crying out for her family. The girl herself was unharmed, save for a few raw, red scratches on her light brown arms, but none of the adults paid her attention. If she were human, Imoen would have guessed her age at five or six. The dust of destroyed homes painted her face like a delicate porcelain doll, with streaks of tan where hours of tears had washed the filth away. “Kerrad o’si!”
“Etriel.” Imoen knelt down as the girl wandered closer and stretched out her hand. “Alet kesh, etriel. N’wutheh o’si?”
The girl’s lips quivered with half-checked sobs, but the sound of a friendly voice was enough to catapult her into the human’s arms. Imoen whispered to her soothingly in Elven as she hugged her tight. “Kye te, kweshtaje,” she promised. “Shh. It’ll be okay.”
“Unarihe,” the girl cried. That’s not true.
Imoen scooped her up into her arms and cradled her against her chest, fighting back the urge to join with tears of her own. “Kaweh wahir.” Yes, it is. “De thor.” I promise.
The sorceress turned around, protectively wrapping her arms tighter around the child. Cassandra had manifested out of the teeming mass of people, with Elhan by her side. Both had the tell-tale dark circles of exhaustion under their eyes, and Elhan’s sour temperament had not improved for it.
Cassie gave a small jerk of her head. “Audience with Ellesime.”
The younger sister nodded, quickly trying to mask her upset. “‘Kay. Just a sec.” She crouched down once more and set the small, dark-haired girl back on the ground. The move ignited a new wave of protesting sobs. “Kweshtaje, sssh. I’ll be back soon.” She brushed the tears away with a gentle stroke of her thumb and gave the girl what she hoped was a brave smile. “Alet rinnam n’kyed. De thor.”
The words didn’t help, and the girl’s screaming, high-pitched pleas for her to stay pieced Imoen’s ears all the way to the Queen’s chamber.
Cassandra’s hand found hers as they followed Elhan down the hall. Their fingers intertwined, and the red-haired warrior gave a gentle squeeze. “Are you okay?”
“No,” Imoen answered honestly, squeezing hard back. Her stomach still ached with sick sorrow. “I hate it,” she said softly. “I hate what he does.”
“It’ll be over soon.”
“Not for her. Not for them.” Not for us, but she bit back the words before they escaped, swallowing them along with the first few tears. “That girl… and the one in Spellhold… it’s just–” Her voice broke despite her resolve, and her lower lip began to tremble. “How could someone do that to a child?”
Cassandra didn’t have an answer. All she could offer was another supportive squeeze.
The hallway ended before a modest wooden door. From the outside it certainly gave no indication that it guarded the residence of an elven Queen. Of course, there was no guarantee that this was actually Ellesime’s chamber, rather than that of a servant, a guard, or a visiting dignitary. The last place any sovereign would want to be was in the throne room; very likely, Ellesime had retreated to more private and better protected part of her palace.
Elhan halted before the door, glancing over his shoulder at the two women behind him. Once assured that they were still following, he rapped twice on the wooden portal to announce their presence. There was no need to wait for a response; the audience had already been arranged. The commander opened the door slowly and bowed to the occupant within before stepping aside. “Cassandra and Imoen of Candlekeep, Your Highness.”
The room inside was spacious by any standard, although surprisingly simple in decor. Large and circular, it was easily twenty feet in diameter. A modest bed rested against one wall, cloaked with a lush red bedspread. Hand-woven rugs softened the smooth wooden floor. A bookcase had somehow been grown into the wall itself and housed a collection of thick, leather-bound tomes. The only other furniture was a modest desk, atop which were a handful of papers and an inkpot.
“Cassandra and Imoen, may I introduce you to Queen Ellesime of Suldanessellar.”
Ellesime was beautiful, to say the least. She was clothed in a long sky-blue robe that accentuated her pale skin and golden-blond hair. Her face had a typical elven sharpness and dignity, combined with the softness and wisdom of impossibly long years of life. Gentle lines of crow’s feet around her eyes and corners of her mouth combined with the first few strands of grey hair to give her a matronly, almost motherly appearance. It was a familiar face – one that spoke to Cassie’s memories. She’d seen it before, months before, in a time that seemed like another life. Dozens of identical faces, trapped behind jars of glass, frozen in liquid suspension in Irenicus’ dungeon. Clones of Queen Ellesime. He’d even cloned the bedroom – a personal shrine to his hatred of his Queen.
“Your Highness.” Cassandra recovered herself enough to remember her manners. She bowed low, but out of the corner of her eye she saw that Imoen did not do the same. The sorceress was frozen in place, her mouth and eyes wide with shock.
“Cassandra.” Ellesime gave a small nod in return. “Imoen.”
The word shattered Imoen’s trance. She whirled around, shoving past Cassandra and Elhan alike in sudden panic. Elhan let out a curse; Cassandra tried to grab her, but her stunned reaction was far too late to catch the fleeing mage. She was lost from sight a moment later as the twisting corridors swallowed her footsteps.
Cassie started reflexively towards the door, then realized that she was still standing in front of the Queen of Suldanessellar. It was hardly etiquette to literally run away from the local monarch. She stopped short, casting a glance back at Ellesime, then back towards where Imoen had disappeared. Back to the queen.
“Sorry.” She gave a hurried, shallow bow and turned to follow her sister. Elhan made a strangled noise of frustration and indignation which she ignored. She’d apologize later.
Imoen was already gone. Cassie jogged through down the hall, following the direction she’d gone. The majority of the rooms were shut and presumably locked; she hadn’t heard the sound of any slamming door. She slowed as she turned the second corner.
Silence. Cassandra continued down the hall. The lights here had been extinguished; her vision shifted to greyscale as the darkness enveloped her. A small sound caught her ears from somewhere ahead: the soft rustle of cloth against stone.
The rustle stopped, but not before Cassandra had found the source. A small open archway led into a small rectangular storage room. It was empty save for a few bags of flour and potatoes stacked against one wall. At the far end, huddled into a corner and with her knees drawn up to her chest, sat Imoen’s familiar robed form.
The mage nodded shakily but didn’t look up. One slim arm rose to wipe her eyes. “Yeah. Here.”
“Yeah. Yeah. I just—” Her voice quivered with barely contained emotion. She drew her legs tighter to her and let out a trembling sigh. “Sorry. I’m sorry.”
Cassandra approached slowly, kneeling down next to her sibling and gently raising her chin. The playful grey eyes were now filled with tears, and Imoen’s chest rose and fell unevenly with unseen sobs.
“Hey…” Cassie pulled Imoen into her arms. “There’s nothing to be sorry about. Nothing at all.”
“I just—just that room, that woman—” Imoen buried her face against Cassandra’s shoulder, drawing in long, ragged breaths to try and quell the tears. “And that little girl… Suddenly I was back in that cage and I could just see him, y’know? I could see him and the knives and…and…”
“Sssh.” Cassie pressed her lips to Imoen’s forehead and rocked her gently in her arms. The mage’s small frame had begun to shiver with a mixture of fear and despair. “It’s okay. He’s not here; he’ll never touch you again. I swear it.”
The tears were flowing freely now, soaking through the cotton of Cassandra’s tunic and staining her skin with hot, bitter saline. “I don’t know if I can do this, Cass,” Imoen whimpered. “If—If I see him… if I really see him… I can’t do this. I can’t.”
“Yes you can. You’re strong, Im. You’re stronger than anyone I know.”
“You’re strong. You’re the knight in shining armor.”
“If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t have made it past the Friendly Arm Inn.” Cassie pressed their cheeks together and smoothed the tears away. “You’re my fair maiden. My inspiration. My courage.”
“Liar,” Imoen accused with a soft hic.
“Gods’ honest truth.”
Tears still stung her eyes, but Cassie’s strong arms had stilled her trembling. Imoen tried to blot her face with the sleeve of her robe. It didn’t help. “I’m sorry,” she repeated with a sigh.
“Don’t be.” She bestowed another small kiss, this one on Imoen’s nose.
“Gods, I’m such a moron. I just ran away from the freakin’ queen.”
“I’m sure she’ll understand.”
“And you came after me!” She moaned. “Cassie!”
“Relax; I’ll go back. But you’re just slightly more important to me.”
“Ssh. I’ll take care of it,” she assured her. “Go back and rest a bit.”
Imoen bit her lower lip, her eyes thick with self-doubt. “Y’sure?”
She sighed again, wrapping her arms tightly around her sister. “I’m sorry. I really am.”
“Don’t apologize.” Cassie gently disentangled herself, rose to her feet, and helped Imoen do the same. “Just relax.”
She nodded. Her lips carried a soft, sad smile. “I’ll try.”
Nearly two hours later, Cassandra was on her way back to the central hall. She walked in silence, her lips curved in a deep frown and her brows knitted together. Queen Ellesime had been forgiving of the sisters’ abrupt departure, but her news upon Cassie’s return hadn’t been encouraging. That the elves possessed artifacts of incredible power, was no secret. She hadn’t heard of the Tree of Life before, but its existence was hardly surprising. It maintained the divine connection between the elves of Tethir and the natural world around them; it made possible their centuries of long and fruitful life. Millennia of elves had worshipped and prayed among its branches; they had lived, fought, and died upon its roots. The Tree of Life was the elves – the soul of their very race.
Joneleth – Irenicus – attempted to pervert that bond, Ellesime had explained in her soft, rich voice. He sought power beyond the realms of mortals – power even beyond the reach of elves. He grafted a magical weave to the Tree of Life and tapped into its essence directly. His ambition nearly killed the Tree…and the elves with it.
Cassie’s simple question – why hadn’t they executed him? – had been met with a sad smile.
We thought exile a harsh enough punishment. We elves do not kill lightly, Cassandra. He would have time to reflect upon his error. Time to reflect upon what he had lost by his actions. His homeland, his family… his beloved.
The sorrow in her eyes, still palpable after centuries, spoke volumes that her words did not: Ellesime had loved him. On some level, she still did.
Time had not mellowed the Exile, however. Time had only served to pour salt into raw and festering wounds. Stripped of his divine connection with the Tree, Joneleth would age and wither just as mortal being. Infirmity would rack his body; dementia would sear his brain. To ascend to impossible heights, only to be cast down among life’s refuse, had not sat well with the mage. Time had stoked his anger and fueled his desire for revenge with an all-too-human earnestness. His life’s candle would dwindle and fade until it winked out entirely… unless he found a way to stop it.
In Cassie, he had.
Uniting his fading soul with that of a Child of Murder had granted him a new lease on life – and a new thirst for vengeance. Suldanessellar had fallen to that vengeance with surprising ease. The elves hadn’t expected their long-lost brother to return after so many years. They certainly hadn’t expected the powerful, rage-filled archmage who had descended upon them with the wrath of the Nine Hells themselves. A single man, driven mad by anger and desperation, had brought the elven city to its knees. Even that, though, had not satisfied him. Irenicus wanted the ultimate revenge — a way to teach each and every kinsman who had shunned him a terrible and permanent lesson.
He had gone back to the Tree of Life. He’d renewed the rituals that had first led to his exile so long ago. This time, however, the goal was not so mundane as mere power. This time, the goal was to kill them all.
Cassandra had stood in stunned silence when Queen Ellesime had finished speaking. Imoen had placed Irenicus among the most powerful mages in Faerûn; it was already doubtful how – and whether – they could best him. But if he could humble an entire city… if he could access an unlimited store of power… maybe retreat was a better option.
Don’t think that way, she scolded herself, but the rebuke was hollow. All she could think about was Imoen. What if Irenicus captured them? Killed them? Imoen had her soul back. She could live a long and happy life, far away from Tethir and its troubles. They both could… until Cassie’s Taint overwhelmed her. But a few good years were better than nothing, weren’t they?
Years? Months. Weeks.
And when the Taint was victorious… what about Imoen then?
She’s a strong girl. She’d be okay.
The sight of Imoen’s tear-streaked face appeared before her mind’s eye. She was strong, but she wasn’t invincible. She needed someone to be there for her.
Her thoughts were abruptly interrupted as she realized that a particular shadow in the corner of the hall wasn’t a shadow at all, but a person. Someone had snuck out of the chaos of the main chamber and into the quieter, calmer corridors before curling up with a blanket and trying to sleep. Cassie slowed her step cautiously. The greyscale nightvision made it difficult to identify things such as hair or clothing color, but the shrouded form seemed very familiar.
The figure lifted their head at the sound of her footsteps. “Cass?”
“What are you doing here? Why aren’t you with the others?”
“They’re loud.” The mage got to her feet, stretching out the muscles in her back and neck as she rose. “I asked Elhan for a separate room so I could study my spellbooks, but then I realized you wouldn’t know where I’d gone.”
“You’ve been waiting for me for two hours?”
“Maybe,” Imoen answered a touch defensively. She had crossed her arms across her body, hugging herself against the chill. When Cassandra reached her and pulled her into her arms, the sorceress yielded willingly. “I can’t sleep without you, y’know,” she admitted softly.
Cassie stroked her hair gently. Imoen was shivering from emotion and exhaustion. The fighter tightened her arms around her. “I’m back now. Let’s get you in bed.”
The room was down a small hallway that branched off just before the reception hall. Small and plain, it had obviously been the lodging of some nameless servant rather than a guestroom for visitors. Still, it had the necessities: a small bed for a single occupant, a chamberpot, and a pair of sturdy shelves that bore neatly folded shirts, trousers, and aprons. There was no wash basin, but Cassandra’s habit of throwing on clothes and leaving didn’t require one. Imoen always had create water handy for an emergency bath – or a particularly rude awakening.
“One-person bed. They didn’t have anything else.”
“It’s fine.” Cassie guided Imoen to sit on the edge of the thin mattress. “We’ve made do with worse.”
Imoen smiled faintly. “True.”
“Have you finished studying?”
“Yeah. I had most of it prepared yesterday, just had to freshen up a few spells.”
A nod as Cassie lifted Imoen’s feet and tugged off the mage’s boots. “Good. Did you get something to eat?”
“Yup. Trail rations and some fruit. There wasn’t much to go around with all the refugees, but I snagged you an apple. ‘S in my backpack.”
Another nod. The boots were set next to the bed, and Cassandra set both their packs against the wall before returning to the bed. She sat down next to her sister with a soft, tired sigh. Although it was still early in the evening, extra rest never hurt. Imoen could sleep and recover; Cassie could nibble on the rations while she figured out some semblance of a plan of action.
“You take the bed, Im. I’m not going to sleep anyways, and I still have to—”
Imoen held a single finger to the warrior’s lips. “Sshh. Relax. Please.”
Relax. It was easy for her to say; she hadn’t heard Ellesime’s dire news. Nevertheless, Cassie tried. She fell silent, drew in a long and deep breath through her nose and let it escape slowly again from between her lips. Imoen watched her with attentive grey eyes, and after three such breaths and no further speech, she seemed satisfied. The smile that graced her lips was all the reward Cassie needed.
“Thank you.” The mage rested her head against Cassandra’s shoulder, more than willing to accept Cassie’s arms as they once more surrounded her. “I’m sorry. I just don’t want to think right now.”
Imoen laid her hand over Cassie’s where the warrior’s arms encircled her. The soft play of her fingertips up and over Cassandra’s hand, wrist, and forearm tingled with warmth. Cassie pulled her reflexively tighter, nuzzling into the waves of her hair. She still smelled faintly of soap and perfume from their stay in the Keep the night before. Fresh violet: the smallest splash, just enough to tease the senses. Cassandra resolved to plant a whole field of them the next time she had the chance.
“You’re tickling,” Imoen said, tilting her head slightly to the side. It wasn’t enough to get her out of range. The mage’s hand rose and rested lightly against Cassie’s face.
“I like your perfume.”
A pleased smile. “You do?”
Imoen settled back into place, apparently reassured that the tickling would not resume. The palm pressed to Cassie’s cheek gradually drifted lower, trailing along the curve of her jaw. The flesh of her hands was soft with the barest hints of callouses on her fingertips. They traveled across Cassandra’s lip, gently exploring the soft pink flesh.
The touch was abruptly gone as Imoen withdrew her hand and turned to face her. Now both hands rose, cupping Cassie’s cheeks. Imoen’s eyes searched hers with a sudden, uncertain intensity. Just as suddenly it vanished, hidden from view as her eyes drifted close and she linked their lips in a kiss.
Cassie’s mind froze, too stunned to react, but her body had no such trouble. The warm pressure of Imoen’s mouth against hers coaxed an automatic response. Her hands tightened where they rested on Imoen’s hips; her arms pulled her closer. The gentle touch of skin to skin hid a barely-disguised urgency – a need for contact and connection. It wasn’t until she felt Imoen’s hands slip beneath her shirt that Cassie’s rational self snapped to attention and she tried to pull away.
“Ssh.” Imoen touched her finger to Cassandra’s lower lip. Her cheeks were flushed a delicate pink. “Make love to me, Cassie.”
“We should talk—”
“I don’t want to talk,” Imoen whispered. “I don’t want to think. I just—I need this, Cass.” Her hands had gone to her own robe, and now slowly unfastened the buttons at her neck. Each release revealed a glimpse of smooth porcelain skin. “Make love to me. Please.”
“You won’t regret it?” Cassie asked quietly.
She shook her head. “No.”
The fourth button surrendered to Imoen’s fingers. Her eyes searched Cassandra’s as she took the warrior’s hand and guided it to the edge of the cloth. The small swell of Imoen’s breast peeked out from underneath. Cassie’s breath threatened to stop completely as the fifth
button gave way and Imoen pressed their bodies together.
Their first love-making had been tentative, almost hesitant, as they’d explored the unknown territory of their emotions. Now that hesitation was gone. Imoen’s lips were hot and insistent as she curled her free hand in Cassie’s hair and pulled her into the kiss. The sudden rush of sensation washed away any semblance of thought. Cassie’s hands slid to Imoen’s waist, lifting her up and bringing the mage to a sitting position astride her hips. Imoen’s tongue traced her lips, darting and teasing with light touches, and then willingly surrendered when Cassie turned the tables.
The fighter’s fingers roamed upwards and inwards. The sheer fabric of Imoen’s robe was cool and smooth under her touch. The small round buttons that closed it formed a chain of tiny nubs extending from waist to neck. Now half-undone, the fabric lay open to any assault and the skin beneath lay bare and vulnerable. Cassie eased the cloth aside and lowered her lips to Imoen’s neck. The mage drew in a soft rush of breath, tilting her head to the side in silent encouragement.
The scent of perfume lured her onwards. Cassandra followed its siren song down the side of Imoen’s neck and the slope of her shoulder. One arm braced the mage’s back and held her firm as the brush of Cassie’s mouth reached her collar. She followed the line of the fabric with her tongue, tracing a hot line along Imoen’s cleavage. The barest hint of sweat gave her skin a salty tang.
Imoen’s head was bowed, her breath soft and urgent in Cassie’s ear. Her hands tugged impatiently at the lacing of Cassie’s tunic, but the knots proved surprisingly resilient. She gave up as the older girl’s hand slipped inside her robe and cupped her breast. The gentle touch quickly became more insistent – a kneading, squeezing pressure, a heady mix of pleasure and pain. Cassandra’s mouth closed around the rosy bud of her nipple, eliciting a wordless, breathless moan.
When Cassie lowered her to the bed, Imoen was all too glad to comply. It was narrow and small – far too cramped for the two of them side by side. Cassandra eased her sister back onto the mattress, never breaking the contact between their bodies, and settled herself on top of her. Now relieved of the need to support Imoen’s form, her other hand was free to seek out the remaining buttons of the sorceress’ robe. Each one that opened exposed a new patch of pale skin; each one was greeted in turn by Cassie’s lips as she followed the trail.
A score of goosebumps shivered to life across Imoen’s arms. She bit her lip and arched her back as Cassie’s mouth explored the sensitive plane of her stomach. The buttons stopped there, arrested by the sash around her waist. The moist heat of Cassandra’s kisses evoked another kind of wetness just a hand’s-length below. Every nerve in her body seemed focused on that one touch, even as Cassie’s hands slid over her breasts, down her sides, caressing her hips. Her back arched again as the calloused fingers drew the hem upwards and grazed the edge of her thigh. The intensity of her want – of her need – made every touch electric.
Suddenly Cassandra sat up, wrapping one arm around Imoen’s back and pulling her up as well. The warrior was panting, her muscles trembling with subtle energy, as her other hand pulled the cream-hued robe down Imoen’s shoulders. It slid down her arms with the delicate kiss of silk, exposing her entire upper body to Cassie’s attentions. Imoen curled her arms around Cassie’s neck, seizing her lips with a hard, demanding kiss. It was returned in equal measure as the robe slid lower. Urged on by Cassandra’s fingers, it fell from her arms, only to be caught by the sash’s weak protest. A quick tug removed the resistance. Cassandra pressed her down to the mattress once more, never breaking their embrace. The robe lay tangled around Imoen’s hips – a subtle breath of coolness against the lustful warmth of her skin.
“I want to taste you.” Cassie’s whispered words made Imoen’s heart redouble its frantic beat. The fighter’s hands journeyed lower in a trail of slow, liquid want, until they just brushed first few auburn curls. “I want to kiss you here.” Her fingers inched lower, bringing a sudden gasp to Imoen’s lips.
There was nothing she could do but nod. The fire of Cassandra’s skin against hers melted every word before it found her tongue and every thought before it became clear. Cassie’s kisses burnt their way over her lips, down her throat, pausing to torture her as they reached her breasts. She levered herself up on smooth, muscular arms and slid one knee between Imoen’s own. They parted, allowing Cassandra access to the secret center within. Her other knee… Cassie shifted position, drawing Imoen’s legs up around her own waist, urging the mage’s thighs still wider. Imoen’s hips responded with a slow, instinctive roll.
The molten heat of Cassie’s tongue had reached her stomach, following in the wake of her hands’ caress. Imoen was panting now as well, her head thrown back against the pillow, her fingers curling and uncurling in the thick waves of Cassie’s hair. She urged her still lower, guiding her sister to the center of her need. Every touch – be it lip, tongue, or hand – send a new spike of delight racing through her veins. She groaned softly in frustration as Cassie’s mouth slid another inch down her stomach, only to stop once more.
Cassie’s hands were on her hips. The warrior was now laying prone between Imoen’s thighs, holding her steady under the assault of sensation. The scent of Imoen’s sex was heady and heavy – her lips were swollen and eager, glistening with arousal. Cassandra brushed her nose over the short, damp curls. It smelled like heaven. A kiss to Imoen’s inner thigh evoked a gasp and whimper of pleasure. The mage’s hands tried to pull her to the center, but Cassie wasn’t yet ready to give in. Her tongue stroked the juncture of inner thigh and hip, along the delicate line of hair that marked Imoen’s womanhood. Imoen’s hips rose again, desperate for contact. She held them down, tracing another warm, moist line on the other side. Imoen moaned, breathing out a faint curse and biting down hard on her lower lip as she watched through half-lidded eyes.
Finally she pressed her tongue between the slick, hot folds and heard Imoen’s low, primal groan in response. The taste was intoxicating: sweet, musky, and salty all at once, infused with the raw scent of desire. She tightened her hands on Imoen’s hips as she slowly ran her tongue from the bottom of her slit to the top. Imoen gasped and clenched her hands in Cassandra’s hair as she passed over the small, sensitive nub. Each lick ran from Imoen’s center to her hidden pearl, and each motion brought a whimper of pleasure and instinctive rock of her hips. Cassie matched her, keeping time with the unconscious motions, letting Imoen set the tempo.
A kiss, a stroke, drawing the pearl between her lips as Imoen’s body took control. Cassie slipped one hand forward, teasing her with her touch even as her mouth was busy. Imoen’s grip in her hair was almost painful as she pulled Cassie so close that it threatened rob her of air. The tips of two fingers circled Imoen’s center; each thrust of her hips urged them further. She eased them slowly forward, pressing in a fraction of an inch, releasing, then again, then again. She let the roll of Imoen’s body draw her inwards as she flicked the tip of her tongue over her clit. Only when her fingers were nearly half-way inside her did Cassandra finish the motion with a slow, deep thrust. Imoen cried out, her voice trembling with pleasure.
“Oh gods… yes…yes…” Imoen whispered the words over and over again in rapturous prayer. Cassie’s fingers slid out of her only to fill her again, taking her over and over again with strong, powerful strokes. It was a sensation unlike she’d ever experienced – a raw flood of emotion and feeling that flooded through her body and threatened to overwhelm her in a deluge of warmth. Feeling Cassie inside her was indescribable. A fullness, a rightness, a strange, aching vulnerability that their joining both accentuated and fulfilled. A need to have more, feel more; a mix of pleasure-laced pain as her muscles, unaccustomed to the motions, clenched and released.
It was an assault impossible to withstand. The soft, wet warmth of Cassandra’s lips and tongue over her clit and the deep, sure thrusts of her fingers brought Imoen to the edge of climax after only seconds. She cried out Cassie’s name as she came, throwing her head back against the pillow and every muscle in her body straining for release. The waves ripped through her like a tsunami, destroying everything in a pure, unadulterated flood of emotion. When it passed she was left gasping and exhausted, clinging to Cassandra like a rock in the storm as the fighter rose and returned her kisses to Imoen’s cheeks.
“Cassie…” Imoen’s arms curled tightly around her sister’s body, holding her as close as she possibly could. Her muscles trembled with weakness, robbed of all strength. “Oh, Cassie…” Tears gathered in her eyes and began spilling down her cheeks as she began to cry.
Cassandra’s blissful, satisfied smile transformed into worried concern. “Im? Did I hurt you?”
She pulled Cassie down on her chest and buried her face in the red-gold waves. “I can’t lose you,” she whispered, her voice quivering. “I can’t lose you. Gods, I can’t lose you.” The tears came freely now, falling one by one onto Cassandra’s skin. “I love you, Cassie,” she breathed, barely voicing the words against her sister’s neck. “I love you so much it hurts.”