Fifty-three elves stood ringed around the Tree of Life: all that remained of Suldanessellar’s defenders. Eleven of them were Elhan and the few of his men who were still sound enough to fight. The rest were able-bodied men and women drawn from the crowd of survivors. They were clad in the blood-stained armor of the fallen, grasping swords and bows with desperate strength. There were no smiles. All that could be seen was the silent and grim determination of those who knew their end had come.
Cassandra tried to ignore the knot in her stomach as she surveyed the elven ranks. It was her first time at the forefront of an army, and the feeling was not a pleasant one. To see a friend die – that she had learned to accept. But to send four dozen people to their deaths…
She glanced reflexively over to Imoen. The sorceress had begun the day with a smile, but it’d quickly disappeared. The air was different. The trees were different. Some strange, malevolent energy pervaded the surroundings, and everyone could feel it. It was as if the Gods themselves were watching. History would be written today, and each letter would be stamped in blood.
“How are you holding up?” she murmured.
“Fine. I’m fine.” Imoen’s rigid back and trembling fingers gave away the lie. She noticed Cassie looking and quickly stuffed her hands inside her robe. “Just nervous, that’s all.”
“Do you see anything?” she asked, her gaze rising to the Tree itself. They stood in the palace garden: a large atrium, now half-collapsed, that ringed one of the main branches. The thick, gnarled limb was easily fifty feet thick. Ellesime’s scrying had brought them here. Somewhere above them, in the labyrinthine canopy, was Irenicus.
Imoen’s grey eyes flickered upwards, then just as quickly away. “Magic,” she said simply, unconsciously wrapping herself in a protective hug. “A lot of magic.”
“Im…” Cassie tried to take Imoen in her arms, but the mage shook her head. She ignored the refusal, cupped her sister’s face gently in her hands, and held her gaze fast. “Im, he’s not going to hurt you. You aren’t in a cage now; you aren’t alone; you aren’t outnumbered. You have your spellbooks, you have the elves, and you have me.”
Imoen’s lower lip began to tremble, but she stilled it with stubborn force of will. “I know.”
The fear in Imoen’s eyes didn’t go away. Cassandra drew her closer, pressing their foreheads together before bestowing a kiss upon her lips. “I swear by every god in Faerûn, by every friend who has fallen, by every drop of blood in my veins: he will never touch you again.”
They were interrupted by Elhan’s familiar voice. “We are ready, Cassandra.”
His slanted elven eyes flickered from one sister to the other, and he frowned slightly as he took in their embrace. Most of the elves had been giving them stranger-than-usual looks this morning – somewhere between hostile and fascinated. Part of it, Cassandra was certain, was her appearance. Imoen hadn’t memorized the seeming spell, electing instead to replace it with cloudkill. As such, the fighter’s blue eyes had once again turned black, and the sickly ashen-grey of her skin was visible for all to see.
“Everyone?” she queried, her eyes scanning the assembled elves.
She gently disengaged from her sister. Imoen had turned her head away from Elhan’s piercing stare, and now crossed her arms over her chest once more as she tried her best to be brave.
“Have you told them?” Cassandra asked Elhan in a low voice.
He gave her a cold, scathing look. “Of course I have.”
She pushed further. She wouldn’t let this battle begin unless all the cards lay bare. “And are they willing to die for Suldanessellar?”
His jaw clenched, and he lifted his chin in defiant pride. “To the last man.”
Elhan’s plan was a desperate one, designed not to win but to delay the inevitable. The elves would be a distraction: they would storm the center of the city, where the main trunk of the Tree of Life stood. It was there that the majority of the Exile’s guardians stood, and it was there that they would try to draw his attention. It was a mad scheme that pitted fifty-odd elves against a dozen iron golems and their archmage master. When the fight was joined, Cassandra and Imoen would begin their journey up this branch of the Tree and work their way closer to Irenicus. If Elhan and his people were successful, the Bhaalspawn sisters would reach him before the last of the elves fell. Then the real battle would begin.
Cassie nodded. A sudden surge of empathy seized her, and she laid one hand on the man’s shoulder, giving it a firm and thankful squeeze. Elhan’s lips tightened, but his eyes registered a shocked appreciation. A moment later he returned the gesture, and the two warriors silently bade each other farewell.
“Arakhora!” Elhan’s voice rang loud and sharp through the air. The elves looked up, their attention immediately held fast. As a single people they rose, grasped their weapons, and faced their commander. He raised his sword towards the heavens. “Tel kerym!”
“Tel kerym!” They shouted it back, thrusting their weapons high. The soldiers shouted out orders to the civilians in the group, and within seconds the elves were on their way. The soft, echoing rustle of elven chainmail kept time to their steps as they exited the palace and went to meet their foe.
Elhan paused as he neared the portal and glanced back at the two lone humans who remained behind. He raised one hand in final acknowledgement, and then he too was gone.
Cassie drew in a deep breath as she watched him go. It was up to her now – her and Imoen – to ensure that the sacrifice was not in vain.
“Im.” She turned to face her sister, her hands reflexively tapping against her hips for the fifth time that morning. The sword was still there, as were the two emergency daggers. Her heart had already quickened.
Imoen lifted her chin, inhaled deeply, and nodded. Her hands were steady, even if her voice was not. “I’m ready.”
They’d planned in advance. Imoen had fallen asleep after their lovemaking, but Cassandra had lain awake until dawn, turning over endless scenarios in her head. She’d shared her ideas with Imoen in the morning; together, they’d spoken to Elhan and Ellesime. Protections, attacks, distractions, weaknesses, strengths – as much information as their minds could hold, all carefully noted in minute detail.
Scaling the Tree was the first obstacle. Irenicus would be too involved in his ritual to take an active hand in scrying or attacking, or so Imoen and Ellesime believed. The elves would keep his creations and minions at bay. But human hands and feet were not as home in the forest as elven agility, and climbing some hundred feet among the swaying limbs was no small task. To that end, Imoen had memorized cat’s grace, and now she cast it upon them both.
Cassie scaled it first. The short, thick nails – almost claws – that Bhaal had given her easily pierced the thick bark. She anchored her feet against rough knots and protuberances, found her balance, dug her fingers in, and pulled herself up. After every few feet she paused and extended her hands down to Imoen. The former thief had climbed more than her fair share of trees in her youth, but a helping hand was always useful. Together they made impressive progress, and in under ten minutes they had left the tree-top town far below. Had the canopy – a mass of lush leaves, each one as broad as a house’s window – not been so thick, they would have been able to see the entire city from a bird’s eye point of view.
The sounds of distant screams reached Cassandra’s ears. She grasped Imoen’s hand and pulled her up to the next branch. Their eyes locked, and from the startled fear in the mage’s eyes, it was clear that she’d heard it too. The elves were under attack.
They had to hurry. Both sisters redoubled their pace, sharing an unspoken urgency. Another three minutes pushed them nearly fifty feet higher. Cassandra was already reaching for the next limb when Imoen’s voice called her name.
Cassandra stopped and swung herself back down to Imoen’s level. The younger girl had paused next to a wide split in the massive branches. One side curved slowly away into the thickness of the forest.
“It’s here,” Imoen repeated, tipping her chin towards the pathway.
Cassie peered into the dark, verdant shadows. “How can you tell?”
“Magic,” she whispered. Thick, pulsating cords of it writhed and heaved in the distance. The incandescent tentacles wove in and out of the Tree of Life’s branches, here and there disappearing into the wood itself. Somewhere close by, Irenicus had to be controlling them. “I can see it.”
“A few hundred feet. I can’t see the end.”
Cassie moved in front of her, instinctively drawing forth her blade. Whatever Bhaal’s Taint had done to Imoen’s sight had granted her the vision to see what Cassie could not. She saw nothing but a maze of tangled leaves and limbs.
“Anything dangerous?” she asked, her free hand instinctively brushing Imoen’s own.
She shook her head. “Not yet.”
Imoen’s fingers curled tightly around hers. “Not yet.”
Cassandra squeezed her reassuringly. “Okay.”
Imoen’s magic-sight guided them, but nonetheless Cassie stayed in front. It was a habit far too ingrained to leave behind: the instinct to shield Imoen from the danger ahead. They moved swiftly, silently, their steps supernaturally sure thanks to Imoen’s sorcery. Both women kept low, advancing in a stealthy half-crouch. Imoen’s whispered directions and warning touches served as a constant guide through the knotted and looping branches. Even as high as they were, the limbs were still thick and wide enough to support them easily side by side.
Imoen’s steps slowed, and the resulting resistance on Cassandra’s hand halted her as well. The thief-mage’s eyes had gone wide in the dappled shadows. “Mystra, Mother of Magic…” The words were barely breathed, tinged with equal parts awe and fear.
Cassie crouched down next to her, following her sister’s gaze. Nearly fifty feet below them, half-obscured by branches and foliage, was an immense blue-white glow. Perfectly circular, it crackled and danced like icy fire around the man who stood unharmed in its center. His arms were raised high in the air as if rapt in prayer, and his hands traced a series of intricate motions through the space before him. Jagged bolts of energy rippled along the branches at irregular intervals, racing for unknown destinations. It was too far to see him clearly, but even at this distance and seeing nothing but his turned back, Cassandra knew who it was.
Imoen gave a short, jerky nod.
“What do you see, Im? What’s he doing?”
“He’s—“ Her voice caught, and she swallowed hard. The sight of him so close awoke a raw, primal emotion. She pushed it down. Fear paralyzed, and paralyzation would get them both killed. Stay focused.
A network of thick, glowing cables of energy flowed out from the central spoke – the cocoon of radiance surrounding Irenicus. They moved and writhed as if alive, crawling across the Tree like giant vines. Their destinations were many: at least five distinct nodes, half-embedded in the flesh of the Tree of Life. The nodes were small in comparison, each one perhaps ten feet in diameter and feeding anywhere from three to five of the pulsating veins. The divine meta-essence of the Tree was being siphoned out by the parasitic nodes, and then the lifeforce funneled back into the arch-mage himself.
“He’s connected to the Tree,” she whispered, briefly describing what she saw. “Magical centers, all connected to him. They’re feeding him. That’s how he’s drawing his power.”
Cassie pursed her lips in displeasure. “Can you interrupt it?”
“Not from here.” She pursed her lips as well. “I’d have to get closer. I don’t know if I can—“
“You can.” Cassie caught her gaze and laid one gauntleted hand against Imoen’s cheek. “You have to. We have to cut him off.”
Cassie’s black eyes traveled back to the scene below. Her mind raced. As long as he didn’t notice what they were doing, everything would be fine. But as soon as Imoen started breaking his connections…
“I’m going down,” she announced as a plan formed in her mind. Imoen’s eyes widened, but Cassandra cut her off before the mage could object. “I’m going to get in striking distance. He’s going to notice you breaking his connections, but every time you do, you’ll make him weaker. If he’s weak enough, I can bury a sword in him.”
“That’s crazy! He’ll kill you!”
“Not if we’re careful. If he’s focused on you, he won’t be expecting me.”
“That’s—he’ll kill me!”
“No, he won’t.” Cassandra squeezed Imoen’s hand in her own. “I made you a promise. Trust me.”
The objection was cut short as Cassie pressed their lips together in a soft, loving kiss. “Trust me,” she repeated. “And I’ll trust you.”
Imoen nodded, and Cassandra broke away to seek a path to the wizard below. The moment for fear and sentimentality was past – now there was no time for hesitation. If Irenicus broke concentration from his ritual and noticed them, even for a moment, their biggest advantage would be lost.
She headed for the first of the arcane nodes. The rivers of power that flowed into it – or rather out of it – were sweeping currents of energy that thrummed and charged the air with an electric tingle. The fine hairs on her arm rose and quivered in uneasy response. Cassie’s armored form was already lost in the cover of the Tree and the glow of magic ambiance. Imoen whispered a prayer to Mystra that she’d be okay.
Below her, the cocoon of energy still encased Irenicus. His attention was still help rapt by the concentration necessary to maintain the ritual’s Weave. She crept forward, keeping to the deeper shadows as best she could without sacrificing the sureness of her footing. Her heart was thundering so loud she could barely hear her own thoughts, but her mind was oddly calm. Just focus. She knew what she had to do.
She reached the first node. Immense hooks, woven together of every possible magical school, pierced through the Tree of Life like ethereal knives. Beads of divine essence leaked out of the otherworldly wounds, only to be caught up in the undulating strands and sucked into the arcane siphon. The meta-essence was drained away, drop by drop, into the power-hungry soul of a madman.
Imoen crouched next to it and studied the intricate dance of energy with careful eyes. Thin threads of aburation, conjuration, and transmutation were braided together, looped and curled, in impossibly complex patterns. Irenicus had already crafted a basic version of the ritual before his exile from Suldanessellar; he must have spent the decades since slowly and steadily refining it to perfection. In another situation she would have marveled, but now she only sought to understand. Every Weave had a weak point; a place where the threads unraveled. Every spell had a counterspell. She just had to find it.
First she had to figure out the pattern. She bit her lip in concentration as she studied the tentacles of energy, her eyes flickering constantly up, to Irenicus, then back down again. He hadn’t moved, hadn’t noticed the intruders closing in. Each tightly-wrapped cord of energy was made up a dozen or more fine hairs; the cords themselves braided together to form a still thicker and more powerful weave. Some of the layers of arcana were built of three or four such plaits, interacting and feeding from each other in an impossibly complex dance. She’d never seen anything like it. Irenicus wasn’t just an arch-mage…. He was practically a god.
Focus. There had to be a way.
Cancelling the Weave wasn’t an option. Doing so would require a carefully crafted counterweave – an orchestrated harmonic, to cancel out the energy and revert it to a null state. That would take an intimate knowledge of the spell and its workings – and that would take months of dedicated study. She had a handful of minutes, and those were rapidly slipping away.
The anchors, then. The ritual was a huge siphon, transferring power from one source to another. If she couldn’t block the pipes, maybe she could re-route them. Her eyes flashed up again. Irenicus hadn’t moved. He was the source of the spell, the primary anchor. But as long as he fed from the Tree of Life, taking him down would require a miracle.
She took a deep breath and wrapped her hand around one of the smaller cords of magic. The threads warped as they clung like honey to her fingers. It shouldn’t have. Raw magic was intangible, invisible – she shouldn’t be seeing it, she shouldn’t be feeling it. She shivered as the tingle of energy pass through her hand and into her body, and something inside her smiled. Suddenly she was all too aware that what she was doing was humanly impossible.
Let go! Her mind screamed it, but she pushed the surge of fear down and wrapped her fingers tighter. She had to stop the ritual. She had to weaken him. Otherwise Cassie wouldn’t stand a chance.
The threads began to unravel their death grip on the Tree. One by one the fine hairs drew back, reoriented, and closed instead around her flesh. She pulled it back. It came free reluctantly, lethargically, clinging and sticking like thick molasses. The tingle grew stronger. This was no simple magelight that danced under her touch – this was raw arcane energy, gilded with the might of the Gods themselves. It stole her breath and flushed her cheeks with delicate red. Liquid power.
The tendrils began to dig into her skin. She watched in fascinated horror. Each pinprick brought a sharp, sweet pain followed by a rush of pleasure. Her heartbeat doubled as an almost erotic warmth spread through her body.
The voice wasn’t Irenicus. It whispered like a snake in her subconscious, slowly unfurling dark, shadowy wings. It was inside her, deep inside her, sipping the power like fine wine.
Imagine what you could do, Imoen, it whispered. Visions swam out of the darkness: visions of Spellhold, of the knives slicing through her skin, of her screaming for mercy – and then the screams deepened as they transformed into his voice, and suddenly she was the one who held the knives. She thrust it into his chest over and over again, and the sticky sweet warmth of Irenicus’ blood spurted over her fingers. Just imagine…
No! She jerked backwards, yanking her hand free of the Weave. The cord extended, stretching out into a thin line, before finally releasing her and snapping back into place. A ripple of repercussive energy flashed down its length like a recoiling bow string. She watched in horror as it sped back towards the other anchor point. Towards Irenicus.
The impact of the wave stuck the cocoon of blue-white energy that surrounded him. Don’t let him notice, she prayed. Mystra, Torm, Tyr, Gods of Goodness, Gods of Law – please!
His outstretched hands, still tracing the intricate motions of his spell, fell still. Imoen’s heart sank to her feet in despair. He turned in seeming slow-motion. His shoulders. His neck. His head—
Cassandra’s voice rang loud in defiant challenge as she stepped out of the protective cover of the shadows. Her blade was bare, held waist-high in a cautious state of ready. Imoen’s heart jumped back up, this time sticking in her throat. Oh, gods, Cass, what are you doing??
“What?” The Exile’s head snapped back around. His voice thundered with indignant rage. “Who— who dares!”
“I dare!” Cassandra black eyes glittered with diabolical hatred. “Your plans are ruined, Irenicus. You will die here!”
“You?” The surprise in his voice echoed clearly, even though Imoen could not see his face. “You live yet?” The shock quickly turned to anger and transformed his question into cruel mockery. “You have less than a fraction of your soul, and yet you somehow continue to oppose me? The power of the Tree sustains me. Do you really think that you, drained as you are, hold even a meager candle in comparison to my might?”
Cassie must have seen Irenicus’ reaction, seen that he had been alerted. She was stalling for time. She was counting on Imoen.
Imoen seized the cords of power again, now with both hands. She had to break the ritual. There was no other choice.
The arcane wrapped around her hands once more. The warm prickle of energy flowed into her, racing over her nerves and igniting them with liquid fire. She drew it inwards, opening herself to its caress. Inch by inch the tentacles shifted. The siphoning hooks withdrew from the Tree of Life and curled around her body instead. They tightened, feeding into her, filling her with swirling eddies of hot and cold. The ritual was meant to tap divine essence, and it did so now from its new target. The tendrils sought out the spark within her. She gasped, wide-eyed, as she felt them dig in.
The serpentine slither hissed in displeasure. Something cold and clammy wrapped around her heart. The chill of death. There was simply too much energy coursing through the Weave. She couldn’t control it.
Reverse it, the whisper urged. Use him like he used you.
I can’t! I don’t know how!
Shall I show you?
“And where is Imoen, Child of Bhaal? I would not expect you here without her.”
Cassie’s lips drew back in a feral growl. “Don’t even say her name, you monster.”
His dry, lich-like skin split in a sick parody of a smile. “She was never as strong as you. An accident of forture, that the Cowled Wizards put her within my grasp. She was the perfect bait for my ultimate quarry: you.”
“She was innocent! You wanted me; you should have come for me!”
“They are all innocent,” Irenicus responded dismissively. “You should be thankful to me, Child of Bhaal. I unlocked your potential. It is a pity I could not unlock Imoen’s.”
“Don’t say her name!” Cassandra raised her sword high, taking a threatening step forward. Irenicus was unimpressed by the display. “You tortured her. You raped her! You—“
“I did what was necessary,” the mage shot back. “She refused to acknowledge the strength within. She refused to embrace her divine heritage. And thus did she wither and die while you prospered and grew strong!”
In the treetops, behind Irenicus’ form, a small figure darted across one of the branches. The creamed colored robe gave away its identity: Imoen was moving.
“You know nothing of strength,” Cassandra spit.
“I see its mark on your flesh,” Irenicus observed. “Bodhi told me of your… developments… in Spellhold.”
“She’s dead. I killed her.”
“A pity, but hardly as dramatic as you say. I do not mourn her passing.”
“And the elves?” Cassandra challenged. “Ellesime? Will you mourn her passing?”
Irenicus’ eyes widened in surprise, then quickly narrowed once more in suspicion. “How do you know that name?”
“I’ve spoken to her.” Cassie risked a step closer. “She told me what you did.”
“And did she tell you what they did – the elves?” His voice had grown cold again. “Did she tell you of the curse they laid upon Bodhi and myself?”
“Yes. But she also told me that they never meant for it to come this far. She is not your enemy. You are still Joneleth to her.”
The sound of his name made him wince. “Do not call me that.”
“I don’t. But she does.”
“And she should not!” he thundered. “I lost all right to that name when the Seldarine stripped me of everything that was elven, as she well knows.”
“And what should she call you instead?” Cassie demanded. “Irenicus? The Exile? They punished you, but you brought it on yourself. You nearly destroyed them all, and now you repeat the same mistake!”
Above her in the trees, the glimpse of white moved again.
“Do not point the blame at me! What I do I do because it is necessary!”
“You do it because you want power,” the fighter shot back. “You torture and you kill because they hurt you. It isn’t necessary – it’s petty revenge.”
“I have nothing else!” he shouted. His cold façade of superiority was unraveling, revealing the boiling emotions underneath. “They have taken it all from me. Everything which I held dear, they ripped from my hands.”
“Like you did to me? To Imoen?”
“That is no comparison.”
“You’re right; it’s not. Imoen and I were innocent. We didn’t wrong you; we didn’t even know you. You were punished because of crimes you committed, because of laws that you chose to break! They exiled you to punish you, but Ellesime wanted you to come back! She loves you!”
“Silence!” Irenicus’ corpse-like face was livid with rage. “You speak of things that you do not understand!”
“I speak of things that Ellesime has told me! Your revenge has poisoned your mind. Tell me I’m wrong!” Cassandra demanded. “Tell me that you don’t remember! She loves you, and you love her. You kept copies of her in your dungeon. You built her bedroom as a shrine!”
“I—I—“ The mage was choked for words – something that Cassandra had never seen. The emotions that warred across his scarred visage were a mix of every possible feeling in every conceivable combination. What it settled on was a cold emptiness in his dead eyes that chilled Cassandra to the bone.
“I do not remember her love. I have tried. I have tried to recreate it, to spark it anew in my memory, but it is gone – a hollow, dead thing.” As he spoke the tinge of anger returned to his voice, a slow ember that grew to flame with the breath of each passing word.
“For years I clung to the memory of it. Then the memory of the memory, and then nothing. The Seldarine took that from me, too. I think of her and I feel nothing. I remember nothing but her turning her back on me, along with all the others.”
The sphere of glowing energy that surrounded him began to flicker as if fed by his dark passions. It pulsated, gathering speed and intensity, until the power formed a vortex so great that it lifted the hair from her shoulders and charged the air with promise. Cassandra took an instinctive step back. A sudden fear blossomed inside her. Run. Run!
“I no longer feel ‘love’. Passion no longer stirs me. Now I hunger only for revenge. And I… will… have it!”
The sphere exploded outwards with a roar of light and sound. The shockwave knocked Cassie off her feet and sent her sprawling nearly ten feet away. The slope of the limb curved sharply downwards, and gravity took hold as soon as she hit the ground. She managed to keep her grip on her sword, but at the cost of securing herself to the tree. Her short claws dug into the Tree’s bark and ripped a row of shallow furrows as she tried to slow her descent. She was half over the edge before she managed to slam the tip of the blade into the wood and stop the fall.
She gritted her teeth and flexed her arms. Gravity was no match for Bhaalspawn strength, and a moment later she had succeeded in pulling herself back to level ground.
A cloud of sickly yellow-brown gas surrounded her before she’d regained her feet. The cloud turned into a swirl, and the swirl into a hurricane force gale of parched, screaming wind. Her mouth went dry in the blink of an eye. Her lips cracked and bled as the moisture was sucked out of her flesh. Cassandra threw her arm over her eyes in an attempt to shield them from the blast, but it was a futile gesture. There was no option not to breathe – the wind swept through her like she was nothing but air, and stole the very water from her blood. Agony ripped through her as her muscles cramped and withered; her skin shriveled and drew taut. She opened her mouth to scream, but the sound evaporated before it could escape.
“I see you are not acquainted with the necromaners of the East. Abi Dalzim was a master of his Art.” Irenicus extended his hand, and a single spoken word enveloped his fingers in a writhing mass of black shadows. “Shall I show you another?”
Abruptly his smug satisfaction was wiped from his face, and his expression contorted with genuine surprise. The shadows dissipated into weak whisps of grey smoke. “How did you—” Enlightenment dawned; the mage was no fool. “Ah. Of course it was not you who severed the link.” He spoke the arcane commands again, and once more the black tentacles wrapped themselves around his fingers. “No matter; I will dispose of you first, and then I will deal with Imoen.”
Cassandra had surreptitiously drawn one of daggers from her belt; now she launched it forward, straight towards his face. It flashed through the air with perfect aim, but she had no hope that it would strike. As she suspected, it was deflected away by Irenicus’ magical protections a full hand’s length from his skin. What she had hoped for was his instinctive reaction to the sight of eight inches of sharpened steel flying towards his eyes: he jerked backwards, his basic animal self forgetting, if only for a moment, that the invisible barrier was in place.
Cassie lunged forward, bringing her sword to bear with a scream of war and a vicious thrust. The enchanted blade had no chance to penetrate his defenses, nor the opportunity to sheer off. Irenicus possessed the elven grace and presence of mind of his forefathers, and recovered from his surprise far too quickly. He stepped deftly aside, pivoting out of her path, and brought the shadow-shrouded hand down on the back of her neck. An explosion of pain ripped through her – an agony so intense that it wiped the world away in a sheet of solid blackness. Her sword tumbled from her hand as her muscles gave way. If she fell, her mind was too stunned to feel it. She tried to gasp for breath, but her nerves were too overloaded to issue the command. Her chest remained still. Even her heart seemed to have stopped.
A burst of white light flashed into being next to the elven mage, and abruptly the black glow around his hand was gone. The death-grip which enveloped Cassandra relented, and with a choked rasp she finally drew in air. She gagged on her own bile as her body came back under her control and her heart resumed a chaotic, irregular beat.
“Fool!” Irenicus spun to one side, trying to dislodge the attacker at his back. Imoen clung to him with one arm wrapped around his neck as she slammed her other fist over and over again into his face. Whatever spell he’d used to deflect Cassie’s weapons had not been designed to fend off an angry girl. Her nails opened small cuts on his face and made him livid with anger.
He reached over his shoulder and grabbed a fist full of Imoen’s robe. With a single hard yank she was catapulted over his shoulder and hard against the sturdy limbs of the Tree. She caught herself like a cat, rolling with the landing and instinctively coming up in a defensive crouch.
“You surprise me, mageling,” he spat, already reaching into his robes to retrieve the components for his next spell. “I expected more of you than a simpering display of so-called force. Did I break your mind as well as your soul?”
Cassie reached for her sword, but her trembling arms were still too weak to lift it. She gritted her teeth and tried again. Imoen needed her. Her fingers wrapped around the handle and the blade rose a single, quivering inch.
“Imoen—” Cassie looked over to her sister and her voice died on her lips. The young mage couldn’t hear her. Imoen’s hate-filled gaze saw only Irenicus, and her eyes were red from top to bottom, side to side.
“Naduisha vei sa’e. Naduisha he’e. Sa o’aralech va sa.” A bright red glow manifested around Imoen’s hands where she braced herself against the Tree. Matching pools of light, each one as red as blood, swirled to life on either side of her.
Irenicus’ dark eyes narrowed. “You cannot cast that without a—”
The pools of light exploded upwards. Each one expanded into an oblong arc, like the massive oval doors of an ancient castle. The ruby strands of energy solidified and darkened into a visceral mass of gore. The center of the doorways flooded with a rippling, crackling energy.
The arch-mage’s lips tightened, but the faint aura of his soul was now tinged with dirty yellow. The customary quip that was he was so quick to cast, didn’t come. Instead, he began chanting.
Cassandra finally managed to get to her feet. Her legs wobbled unsteadily and her head throbbed with residual pain. She stumbled forward, only to collapse once again to her knees. “Imoen!”
“Veya va shansan lei sha. Roch aso reni! Naduisha! Vei sa’e!”
Each syllable coaxed the boiling surface of the blood-doors to new heights of chaos and power. As Imoen shouted the last words into the air, a sudden crack of black lightning leapt from the red pool around her and pierced the first of the doors. Where it struck a ripple of dark energy spread outwards, like an oil slick on a stormy lake. Then it, too, parted, and made way for a massive, clawed hand that reached out from the arcane portal.
The lightning leapt from one door to the other, piercing each one in turn. Once the catalyst made contact, the effect was instantaneous. Out of now-black center extended arms and legs, purplish-grey in hue and covered in hardened leathery flesh. The creatures were identical, all of the same kind: they towered over their human summoner, standing nearly seven feet tall, with a thick, round body like a beetle’s carapace and four spider-like arms. The upper pair of arms grasped an enormous trident; the lower were tipped not with hands but flesh-rending hooks of bone. A pair of wide-set legs supported them as they passed through the dimensional barrier; chitinous cloven hooves clicked against the bark of the Tree. The insect-like appearance was strengthened by a small head dominated by massive, scissor-like jaws that opened and closed with a disturbing click click clack of sound. The demons’ yellow eyes were huge and bulbous, lacking pupils, whites, or lids.
“Kill him,” Imoen whispered. Her Tainted gaze never left Irenicus. “Rip him to shreds.”
“Tsaqash!” Irenicus shouted the command word and extended his hand – not at the demons that approached, but at the crouching girl who controlled them. A blast of blue-white energy exploded from his palm. There was no time to react before it hit its target; it struck Imoen full-on with a burst of heat and sound. She was hurled backwards, crashing through the leaves and thin branches, and into the empty spaces between the massive limbs. It was a fall of several hundred feet to the forest floor below.
Cassie threw herself forward. Her outstretched arms and fingers caught the fabric of Imoen’s robe as the mage’s form flew past. Her short claws shredded through the cloth like it was paper. She grasped again with her other hand, and this time the grip held. The weight of her body combined with the momentum of the blast; the resulting jolt of impact ripped through Cassie’s arm and yanked her shoulder roughly out of it socket. She gritted her teeth against a scream of pain and forced herself to hold on.
Imoen’s hands flashed up and locked around her wrist. The red eyes stared back at her, framed by an all too familiar, all too human face of fear. The Taint inside her was fighting its way out, fueled by hatred and desperation. The tips of her fingertips lengthened into sharp and thin red needles, each one digging painfully into her sister’s flesh. Thin rivulets of blood leaked down over their hands and dripped onto Imoen’s face below.
Behind her she could hear chanting, and the heavy, dull clicking sounds of the summoned yugoloth demons. Cassandra tried to pull Imoen up, but her arm refused to function. The muscles and tendons that bound the bones together screamed in agony as they shifted against the dislocated shoulder.
“Drop me,” Imoen pleaded.
Cassie shifted, bringing her good arm to bear over the edge of the limb. The motion shifted her center of balance and suddenly both of them were sliding forward. She slammed her claws into the wood as hard as she could; they punched through the thick bark like it was cardboard and dug into the heartwood below. The decent stopped with another torturous jerk.
“Drop me! You’ll get us both killed!”
A cold, icy sensation began creeping into her body where Imoen’s needle-like fingertips had pierced her flesh. It was as if frozen seawater leaked into her veins. The Taint inside her curled in on itself like a viper, hissing its displeasure at this new, foreign thing. Drop her, it urged.
Do you not see what she is becoming? You are not the only Child of Bhaal.
If she becomes the Slayer, so be it. I will handle it.
The Slayer? The hissing whisper of words transformed into a soft, serpentine chuckle. The Slayer is not the only avatar of Bhaal…
She growled her displeasure. I will not drop her!
The condescending amusement faded away, replaced by hot flames of anger. They spread through her body like a flash flood, only to violently recoil when they encountered the strange arctic chill. Weakling! Then you deserve to die.
If I die, you die with me.
Bhaal will live on. Imoen will consume you.
The frozen chill had inched its way to her elbow, numbing both flesh and muscle. The red-black hue of Imoen’s transformed flesh had extended over her entire arm and vanished into the folds of her robe.
If I die, she falls, Cassandra informed it coldly. Then both your avatars are dead.
The heated rage withdrew into a dark, smoldering ember… and then a cold, calculating chill. Submit to me.
No. We work together. Help me save her, and you have us both.
The muscles in her shoulder began to twitch and shift. Cassie gritted her teeth against the pain as they thickened and lengthened, pushing the bones apart from one another before knitting them together once more. The cords of strengthened tendons began to bulge and ripped under her skin and extend down to her hand. Where the essence of the Slayer met Imoen’s bitter chill, it turned into the fire of molten lava. Imoen’s face contorted in surprise, but her grip didn’t relent. If anything, the claws dug deeper into Cassie’s veins.
The fighter hissed in a sharp breath as the shoulder was yanked back into its socket. She hauled Imoen upwards with a massive surge of strength, rolling them both back onto the expanse of the Tree’s limb. Imoen landed on top of her; her other hand closed around Cassandra’s upper arm with the same icy stab of energy. Cassie grunted and rolled them over once more, pinning her sister beneath her. Imoen’s face was flat and cold, her red eyes narrowed in concentration. Cassandra wrested the claws out of her arm and forced Imoen’s arms to the ground. The claws dug into her wrist held fast.
“Let go,” she growled. When the younger girl didn’t respond, Cassie tightened her own grasp around the mage’s fingers and brought her Bhaalspawn strength to bear. “Imoen! Let go!”
A thunderous crack of sound exploded nearby. Both women reflexively turned their heads towards the source. Irenicus had launched one of the demons airborn, and now the purple-grey carapace hurtled towards them like a boulder. Imoen gasped – and suddenly disappeared. Cassie’s form dropped into the space where her body had been, thudding down onto the now-unoccupied branch. The yugoloth flew over her head with only inches to spare. The wind of its passage scorched her skin with the heat of whatever spell had struck it.
She was on her feet as soon as it had passed. Imoen had re-appeared on another branch some fifteen yards away, and for a moment their gazes locked. Cassandra’s blood, spattered in thick droplets across the mage’s face and robe, combined with the Tainted eyes and reddened skin to give her the visage of a murderous demon. Cassie’s gaze shifted to Irenicus, still ringed by two of the yugoloths. Both looked badly hurt and leaked a yellow-brown ichor from multiple wounds. The Exile was winning. And if he won, what happened to Imoen wouldn’t matter.
She crouched and sprang like a cat. The movement launched her across the empty gap between the Tree’s limbs. Her claws dug into the side of the branch a level higher, and she pulled herself up with the Taint now singing inside her. The entire world focused down to a single, pinpoint goal: she had to kill him.
The clicking, clattering jaws of the demons were clearly audible now. Irenicus moved with the grace of a battlefield veteran, moving between his opponents and using the one as cover from the other. All the while he cast – chanting, gesturing, shouting – and unleashed wave after wave of arcane energy. Black blades of shimmering energy sliced through flesh; exploding spheres of light charred the air; sickly green gasses surrounded him and blinded enemy eyes.
Cassandra dashed forward. Her hand went to her sword sheath only to find it empty. Somewhere in the struggle of battle, the blade had been lost. Her heart was pounding and her breath thundered like that of a herd of wild horses. Every nerve and muscle in her body now sang with Bhaal’s dark song. Muscles and bones shifted and transformed even as she moved.
The enormous bodies of the yugoloth moved in front of her. The demons were surprisingly agile for their impressive girth, but they paid no attention to her. They had been given their target, and now each flurry of blows from the multiple arms sought to crush him. Cassandra darted around their bulk. Irenicus’ shimmering, magic-shrouded form was visible in flashes and glimpses. His back was to her.
She leapt at him, trusting her claws to do what her sword had not. She collided with the magical abjuration field that surrounded him. It slowed her, but the black energy that thrummed through her body was not so easily halted. He spun around as she screamed and brought down a long, taloned hand in a vicious swipe. Irenicus reacted with amazing speed. He pivoted away, grasped her wrist with both hands, and pulled her forward as he stepped out of her path. She stumbled past, but the Slayer was remarkably sure-footed. Cassie felt the vague, dull pain of her knees breaking and inverting, of her feet breaking out of frail leather boots.
She leapt again, and this time Irenicus wasn’t fast enough to dodge. She knocked him prone and tried to lock her hands around his throat. The magical barrier held them at bay. The rage inside her snarled with frustration. She wanted to pin him down, bury her teeth in his jugular, and rip the delicate flesh free. The hot spray of blood, the taste of ebbing life, the beauty of ever-nearing death…
A sudden lance of heat ripped through her midsection, and Cassandra shrieked in pain. It was so abrupt, so intense, that for a moment it blocked out everything else, even the chaotic howls of the Taint inside. A similar surprise was painted on Irenicus’ lich-like face. She tried to move, but a sick ripping sensation halted the effort as soon as it’d begun. Blood dripped from her lips; the droplet splattered on Irenicus’ cheek. She looked down, down between their bodies. The three-pronged head of a yugoloth trident protruded from her stomach, the glittering adamantite now fouled with gore. The tines had sunken through Irenicus’ protections as well. Blood welled out of his pierced midsection and mingled with her own.
A shadow fell over them. Cassandra raised her head and saw the backlit form of the second yugoloth towering above them with its trident raised with all four arms. She recoiled, trying desperately to draw herself out of the path despite the metal pinning her fast. It wasn’t enough. A second cry of anguish ripped free of her throat as the weapon was thrust downwards and one long, sharp tooth speared her shoulder. The other two slammed into Irenicus’ chest.
The tridents were yanked free and raised again. Cassie rolled free before they could descend once more. The wet sounds of impact and dull crunch of bone told her all that she needed to know: Irenicus would not rise again. Whatever the power of the demonic weapons, his magic had not been strong enough to stop them.
New pain racked her body as she extended her hands and tried to crawl away. The ashen grey flesh had turned solid, glossy black; the limbs no longer recognizable as human.
A leg appeared in front of her. Two legs, clad in leather riding boots that disappeared into a dirty and blood-smeared cream-hued robe. Cassie followed the cloth upwards with her gaze even as its owner crouched down next to her. Imoen’s regarded Cassie with red, alien eyes, but the hands that grasped hers were once again human.
“Get up,” she commanded, trying to pull the warrior to her feet. “Get up!”
“Call them off,” Cassie muttered weakly.
“I can’t. They’re out of—”
Abruptly the thief-mage jumped backwards. A flash of metal as a trident narrowly missed her. The hulking forms of the yugoloth passed over her, their shadows chilling Cassandra with sudden cold. They advanced past her, towards their newest quarry.
Imoen once again blinked out of existence, only to re-appear a moment later on a different branch of the Tree. A jagged bolt of lightning leapt from her hands and struck the first of the demons in the center of its chest. It ricocheted away, reflected by the creature’s carapace.
Get up. The Taint snarled at her in displeasure. A chorus of ten thousand voices howled at her, repeating the order in an endless echo. Get up!
Her muscles responded, but it wasn’t Cassie who moved them. Her body rose to its feet and found its balance on the Slayer’s strange inverted legs.
Stop. Her command was barely a whisper amidst the screams and roar of the Taint. You said we’d work together.
The Bhaal essence ignored her. Her body functioned like a rough puppet, pulled here and there by unfamiliar hands on its strings. It learned quickly, though, and soon the motions were smooth and quick. The two yugoloths were moving steadily towards Imoen’s new location. One of them hefted its trident as it prepared to throw.
Stop it! Grab him!
The echo of mocking laughter answered her.
The demon launched its weapon forward. Its bloody length spiraled through the air with deadly aim. Imoen flashed out of existence a moment before impact, and the trident struck the Tree of Life with a sharp crack of sound. Sizzling, acidic smoke arose where the divine essence leaked over unholy metal.
Imoen reappeared again next to now-unarmed yugoloth. Her hands crackled with dark green electricity. She thrust them forward onto the creature’s rigid flesh. Its entire body went rigid as the jagged arcs surrounded it in a net of thick, luminescent energy. The lines spread over it with alarming speed; when they connected, they glowed once with a pulse of light before contracting in to a singular point. They sliced through demonic flesh and shredded the protective carapace. The yugoloth fell to the ground in heap of smoking, fist-sized chunks.
The remaining one was already behind the Bhaalspawn mage. Its trident was grasped with all four hands and chambered for the thrust.
The voice was an animal growl on Cassandra’s lips, but the word was nonetheless spoken. The Taint reacted with a surge of hatred; the chorus of chaos screamed at her, trying to drive her into silence. Cassandra tried to shake it off and rise to the surface of the cacophony inside her. Her body lurched forward again, now pulled by two different masters. The yugoloth turned its head – and its weapon – towards her.
“Stop,” she repeated. Her voice sounded hollow and far away. Every ounce of concentration was focused on wrestling the control of her body away from the Bhaal essence inside. The demon’s insect jaws scissored open and closed as it regarded her with round, unblinking eyes.
The strike came so quickly that she didn’t even see it. A sudden impact and thrust of pressure stole her breath, only to be released a moment later as the foot-long tines pierced through bone, muscle, and lung to exit the back of her rib cage. There was no pain – only the shocked, oddly-calm realization that there should have been. The sticky warmth of her blood leaked down her body – from her chest, from her shoulder, from her stomach. The yugoloth yanked the weapon free, and Cassie dazedly sunk to her knees.
It struck again. Cassie’s half-raised hand was no obstacle. The teeth passed through tendon and bone and lodged once more in her chest.
The trident withdrew. She fell forward. The babbling chaos of voices inside her had fallen eerily silent. The hiss of the Taint had fallen still. The edges of her vision shrank in on themselves, slowly enveloping the world in a veil of blackness.
I am the heir to the Throne of Blood. I am the Lord of the Grey Waste of Hades.
The words sunk into the darkness with her, echoing in the Void.
The denizens of Gehenna tremble before Me. Behold: the Dead Master of the Barrens of Despair.