Tenthday, ere Eleint (Day 3)
The City of Coin indeed. I have been made an offer of assistance. Some grand, unknown benefactor will help me to locate and rescue Imoen…for twenty thousand gold. How I’m supposed to raise such an amount I’ve no idea. Given a few years, doubtlessly I could. But I do not have years! I have days, maybe weeks. And short of robbing everyone I come across, I see no way to raise such an amount so quickly.
It galls me still that a price has been laid upon her life, even a high one. Jaheira and I discovered a nest of slavers in the grand City of Coin, and I am all too aware that Imoen could be destined for such a fate. I swear, if so much as one finger is laid on her, if so much as a single copper trades hands with her in the balance…
But enough talk, and enough worriful thinking. We have some leads, Jaheira and I. Doubtlessly breaking the slave ring is worth a healthy reward, and an insufferable noble girl has asked us to help liberate her lands from invading bandits. Where there are the rich, there are their riches.
“This is hopeless. Where in Faerûn am I supposed to find twenty thousand gold? There are kings who lack that much!”
Jaheira’s exotic elven eyes glanced over. “We will find a way.”
A small snort of frustration. “It’s hopeless,” she repeated.
“Only if you insist on such negativity.”
“Easy for you to say. You didn’t lose—“ Cassandra bit the words off with an audible click of her jaw. Didn’t lose someone you love, she’d been about to say.
One honey-brown eyebrow arched as Jaheira turned to face her. The druid’s lightly-accented words were casual enough, but Cass could hear her infamous temper gathering underneath. “Would you like to finish your sentence, Cassandra?”
“Ah… no. Sorry.”
Jaheira had lost someone. They’d found Khalid, her husband, when escaping from Irenicus’ underground lair. His body had been mutilated almost beyond recognition, dissected as if he were nothing more than a frog or toad. It wasn’t easy for her say, and doubtlessly she knew a much deeper pain than Cassandra did. At least Imoen was alive, for now. At least there was that hope. Jaheira had only memories.
“Good,” she responded sharply. “Let’s finish here.”
Cassandra followed the advice and returned her attention as best she could to the weapons rack before her. Several different sizes and shapes of swords rested against the oaken stand, points dug into the earthen floor; spears were propped against the wall; maces and flails hung from pinions. She could use most of them adequately – well enough not to injure herself, at least. The swords and spears were gaining most of her consideration, though.
It just wasn’t fair. Her mind kept coming back to that. Imoen hadn’t even known that magic was illegal; what right did they have to arrest her? She’d been defending herself! It wasn’t fair of her to be taken, and it wasn’t fair that Gaelen Bayle and his mysterious employer were demanding a king’s ransom to reveal her location.
But Jaheira was right – she usually was, despite her quarrelsome and demanding ways. They’d find a way. They had to.
“Finding everything you need?” The proprietor of the Adventure Mart had ambled over to check on the two women. Ribald, he’d introduced himself as. He wasn’t quite as vulgar as his name suggested.
“Quite, Mr. Barterman.”
“If you need any help—“
Jaheira turned on him, her muffled ire from earlier leaping at a chance to be expressed. “If we need help, we will ask — which we did not. Understood?”
“Ah… yes. Understood. My apologies.”
The druid snorted her disdain as he quickly made his retreat. “I swear, this city is insufferable.” Her eyes flicked back to Cassandra, who wondered if she was included in the judgment.
The redhead sighed softly. “Let’s just buy the gear and get out of here.”
“I am waiting on you.” The banded mail armor Jaheira had chosen was already at the front desk, and she held both a scimitar and a medium-sized wooden shield in her hands.
Cassandra glanced at her selection so far: a suit of hardened leather, strengthened by hundreds of small brass studs, and a basic but functional longsword. She’d been playing for the last several minutes with the idea of a secondary weapon, one with a bit of reach, but hadn’t been able to decide. Now she plucked the steel-tipped spear from the rack. It wasn’t like they were paying for it anyways. “I’m ready.”
“It is about time.” She turned sharply and walked away with her firm, confident stride, and called out to the young woman standing nervously at the front of the store. “Lady De’Arnise. We are ready.”
The girl’s elaborate green silken skirt twirled as she turned and approached the merchant’s counter at Jaheira’s call. She pursed her lips as she looked over the various items the two women had gathered.
Cassandra hefted the leather armor onto the counter with a loud, dull thunk. “Yes.”
Nalia De’Arnise regarded both the collection of gear and the two women with a growing air of doubt. Two sets of armor and two weapons each hardly looked sufficient for the task that lay ahead. “What if your shields should break or your armor be damaged? Don’t you need reserves? Or transport? Money is no object.”
“We already have horses,” Cassie reminded her. “And this is enough; we can’t carry the entire store.”
The young woman studied her for a moment before giving in. “Fine. Whatever you want, so long as you get those brutes off my lands. I’ll meet you back at the Copper Coronet and we’ll leave in the morning.”
“Okay, fine.” Cassie had already moved over to where Jaheira stood speaking with the storekeep, and barely registered Nalia as she left the store.
“Everything okay, Jah?”
“Everything is bought and paid for.”
That didn’t quite answer Cassandra’s question, and she noted with amusement the dark glare with which the woman eyed the merchant. Apparently this particular round of haggling had not gone in Jaheira’s favor.
“Good. Let’s get going, then.”
Barterman’s ears perked up. “To the circus?”
“Ah, I thought you might be buying equipment to check on the circus troubles.”
“No.” Jaheira’s response was flat and to the point.
Cassandra, however, was not so eager to dismiss a potential lead. “What circus troubles? If we can help, I’m sure we’ll try,” she added quickly, silencing the druid’s objection with a sharp look.
“Well, I don’t know for sure, miss,” he said slowly. “I overheard a customer earlier this evening say that the animal trainer had run away and that a few people who’d gone into the tent hadn’t come back out. The city guard had to block off the entrance.”
“Really? Is it the animals?”
“Couldn’t say. You might ask the guardsmen, if you’re interested.” He smiled broadly. “And of course feel free to recommend them to my store. Professional military get a discount!”
“Do they?” Jaheira’s eyebrow nearly shot into her hairline. “And we did not?”
“Well, you aren’t—“
“Is that why you charge such outrageous prices? Do you assume that because we are women that we cannot be ‘professional’?”
“Well, no, but—“
“If so, I am more than willing to correct your ignorance.”
The shopkeep attempted to stammer out a reply under the druid’s piercing stare and was saved the necessity of it by Cassandra’s interruption.
“Just keep it in mind for next time we’re in,” she informed him, gathering up Jaheira’s new belongings and shoving them into her arms. She grabbed her own and headed for the door with a quick stride.
“Next time? I have no patience with a man who insults his customers with his ill-considered—“
Cassie’s hand pushed her forward slightly, interrupting the woman’s tirade. “Just walk.”
Narrowed green eyes were cast back to the human with ire. “I suggest you not do that again, lest—“
“Gods and minions, Jaheira, just walk!”
The older woman immediately went silent – an icy silence that promised Cassie would get an earful about the issue later. Nevertheless the fighter was grateful when the Adventurer’s Mart door closed behind them. Anything was better than watching some poor soul get eviscerated by Jaheira’s razor-sharp tongue.
The silence persisted until the brightly yellow and white stripes of the main circus tent became visible as they crossed Waukeen’s Promenade. It was Cassandra who finally spoke.
“Want to?” she asked, tilting her head towards the tent and the lone watchman who warded off the passers-by.
“Obviously you are in charge here,” came the response.
“C’mon, Jah, lighten up. You just don’t need to rip into people every time they make a mistake.”
“I do no so such thing.”
“You do too, and you know you do.”
Silence again. Whatever her opinion, she was keeping it to herself. For now, at least; Cassandra knew she’d speak her mind about it sooner or later, and may the gods protect whoever was in earshot at the time.
Well, if I’m in charge here… Cassandra walked over to the guardsman, who immediately held out his pike to bar her approach.
“Halt! This tent has been closed off for your own safety, citizen. The circus is closed until this matter is resolved.”
“What matter, exactly?”
“We’re not exactly sure. There was no problem until a show was scheduled earlier in the morning. Apparently the show began well enough, and then something occurred.” He glanced reflexively over his shoulder at the tightly-shut curtains of the tent. “Nobody has come out of the tent who went in for the show… and no one we have sent in to investigate has come out, either. Foul magic is, no doubt, involved here. We are waiting for the Cowled Wizards to arrive. They will be able to solve this, I am sure.”
“Doubtlessly by arresting all involved.”
Cassandra shot Jaheira a warning look. It was probably true, though. “Nobody at all has gotten out?”
“Well…we have been told that one of the animal trainers darted out after the show began, but we have not been able to find him as of yet.”
Barterman had mentioned the animal trainer as well, and this corroboration gave her a pretty firm idea of what had gone wrong. Jaheira’s knowledge of nature and its creatures would make this an easy job.
“We can handle ourselves,” she informed him. “Mind if we take a look?”
He looked doubtful. “I can’t guarantee your safety if you enter the tent, citizen.”
“You don’t need to.” She motioned to Jaheira. “Let’s go.”
“Is this really worth our time, Cassandra?”
Cass smiled and made an elaborate flourish with her new sword. “I have to test it sometime. Besides, it’s a circus tent with some wild animals and a few freaks inside. We’ll be in and out in fifteen minutes.”
Jaheira followed the human’s lead and began to suit up. “If you think it is wise…” Her expression indicated she thought otherwise, as her pale green eyes studied the tent.
“I do. C’mon.”
Cassandra pushed open the flap of the tent and stepped inside. She stopped abruptly just inside the entrance and heard Jaheira’s footsteps do the same.
The interior of the tent wasn’t a tent at all. It was a vast, wide-open chamber – which, from all appearances, lay beneath a clear night sky. Pinpoint stars slowly became visible as her eyes adjusted from the afternoon sun outside the tent to the darkness of this new realm. A building stood a few hundred feet ahead on the other side of a thin bridge of land. The white stone walls were pristine and crisp in appearance, fit for a palace or a temple. The land around it was clean and manicured.
She looked behind them. The doorway they’d just entered was gone. Behind them lay nothing but an endless stretch of void. Jaheira was watching her with a cool, accusatory gaze.
“Fifteen minutes, you said?”
“Well…” By all rights they should have been inside the tent; granted, a large tent, but a tent nonetheless. What she saw was physically impossible. “Fifteen minutes might have been too optimistic.”
“Really?” She couldn’t tell whether Jaheira was annoyed or amused. Possibly both.
Cassie looked towards the large palace building, then back to the emptiness behind them, then back to the palace once more. “I guess we go forward.”
The two approached the strange bridge of earth with a mixture of caution and curiosity. It seemed solid enough, and while Cassie’s eyes could make out little in the darkness, Jaheira’s elvensight detected no obstructions. Cassandra kept her sword out regardless. She’d learned a lot about survival in the last year and a half, after leaving Candlekeep – including that it was wiser to expect trouble than not to.
They had barely reached the halfway point when a small whirlwind of dust arose from the empty earth and formed itself into the semblance of a man.
“Aha! I see a wayfarer has come to amuse Kalah!” It addressed Cassandra. “You must answer a riddle, naturally, before I will allow you to pass this bridge. Are you ready to hear it?”
Jaheira was more interested in the name. “Kalah?”
“Yes, a riddle. And yes, Kalah. Are you hard of hearing, humans?”
The druidess bristled slightly. “I am half-elven. Are you blind of vision, spirit?”
“Whatever. Are you ready for the riddle?”
“I’d prefer to know who this Kalah is, before I play any of your games,” Cassie responded.
“Kalah does not reveal himself to those who are not worthy.”
“I do not answer riddles for those who are unseen. And I’m tired of random genies meddling in my affairs.”
“Regardless, you must answer the riddle. Here it is: A princess is as old as the prince will be, when the princess is twice as old as the prince was, when the princess’ age was half the sum of their present age. How old are the prince and the princess now?”
“Twice as old as…” Her lips creased into a frown. “Bloody Hell! I am not going to answer that; I can’t even understand it!”
“Kalah does not speak to the stupid,” the dust-man responded. “Perhaps your companion has an inkling of intelligence…?” The odd, sunken eyeholes turned to Jaheira.
“Spirit.” Cassandra drew his attention back to her. “Do you know who I am?”
“Not at all.”
She narrowed her eyes slightly, leaning a bit closer to the creature. “Do you know what I am?”
The question gave him pause. He studied her, seemingly looking her over with the odd, empty eyes, and after a moment gave a slow and reluctant answer. “I can feel the darkness in your blood, godchild. But nothing beyond that.”
When it came to intimidation, being a Bhaalspawn had its advantages. “Then would you like to move aside?”
“Even if I did, I could not. The magic which binds me is strong.”
“Stronger than your sense of self-preservation?”
The spirit chuckled. “You are not that strong yet – although doubtlessly some day you will be.”
Dammit. So much for her fearsome reputation. “Fine,” she growled. “Repeat the riddle.”
He did so. She still didn’t understand it. “Jaheira? Ideas?”
The blond fighter shook her head and shrugged slightly.
Great. So… if the prince was twice as old as the princess—no, it was the princess who was twice as old as the prince, when the princess was half as old… no… Well, shit. She couldn’t even get the riddle right, much less figure out how to solve it. What did this Kalah expect, a troupe of sages knocking on his door?
“Twenty-five and forty,” she blurted, tossing out the first numbers that came to mind. “Prince and princess, respectively.”
“Good guess, godchild. Wrong, but a good guess.” It slowly began to dissolve back into the earth from which it had come, and within moments was nothing more than a small lump of inert grains of sand.
Cassie’s forehead wrinkled in utter confusion. “That’s it?” she asked, to no one in particular. “All that trouble, just so it could tell me I was wrong?”
“Apparently.” Jaheira nudged the dirt where it had disappeared. “Rather anticlimatic, I think.”
The human warrior huffed her annoyance and strode forward, pointedly kicking the mound of sand. She muttered obscenities as she walked. “I hate genies. Fucking hate them.”
The palace itself was apparently unguarded, and Cassandra pushed the doors with enough force to make her frustration perfectly clear. They flew open, but without the expected creaks and whoosh of air, and revealed an inner chamber easily the size of a small house. Pure white marble tile served as the floor, with sculpted and elegant columns ringing the outer edge and supporting the roof. In the middle of the room was an indoor pond, over which passed another, much smaller bridge. A decidedly non-genie-ish ogre guarded the path.
“Who are you?” it demanded in a high, almost childish feminine voice. “Oh, whoever you are, you must flee this place at once! He–he’s killed everyone else who has come into this place, almost! Oh, please run!”
The two fighters exchanged baffled glances. Cassandra leaned over and pitched her voice so that only the half-elf could hear. “…this is…different…”
“Talk to it,” Jaheira whispered.
“Talk to it? Are you mad?”
“It’s obviously intelligent,” she insisted.
“It’s an ogre. You talk to it.”
“You—“ Jaheira bit her lip, forcibly cutting off the sharp retort. She gave Cassie a withering glare, then resumed a normal tone of voice, now directing her words to the hulking monster before them. “Who has killed everyone?”
“I don’t know what he’s done, exactly, or how… but everything here is an illusion! But it’s magic that can hurt you, if you believe in it. Oh, you probably don’t understand, do you?”
This had to be the most eloquent ogre on the face of Faerûn. Cassie edged closer and studied the room as she did so. Was it being controlled by someone? An elaborate ruse? Ventriloquism somehow?
“Just who are you?” Jaheira queried. “How is it a monster has the voice of a young woman?”
It reared up to its full height, the lips drawing back in anger, but the voice was still that of a frightened girl. “I-I’m not a monster! I’m an elf, a winged elf… or at least I was. This–this covering you see is some kind of illusion! P-please believe me!”
Jaheira stepped backwards reflexively when the ogre bared its fangs. Her scimitar was unsheathed, but she so far kept it in a low and non-threatening position. She wasn’t sure what to make of the situation either.
“Please!” the ogre continued. “If—if you could just unlock these chains? They prevent me from using my own spells, and they keep this hideous illusion over me!”
“Chains?” Cassandra saw no such things. “What chains?”
“The chains are invisible, covered by the illusion. Y-you need the key… but it won’t look like a key!” The beast pointed one massive arm to the north. “There is a man– Don’t be fooled by the illusion, though—he’s a monster! He has a sword which is actually my key. But please be careful! Y-you can’t trust anything you see!”
Jaheira gestured to the other woman with a toss of her head, and Cassandra quickly crossed over to her, giving the ogre a wide berth. When she was close enough not to be overhead, the half-elf spoke.
“Illusions… That does make more sense,” she said. “The tent disappearing, an ogre who speaks like a child. Perhaps the other people who entered are here as well, just hidden by this enchantment.”
“Perhaps.” Cassandra looked back at the ogre. “What about this key it – she – mentioned?”
“I think it is wise to find it.”
“And give that beast a sword? What if that part isn’t an illusion?”
“True ogres can barely form a sentence, much less stammer on about illusionary threats,” the druid countered. “Besides, were she a monster, would she not have already attacked? Or if a monster, why not take a fairer form? It could have easily appeared to us as a child, or remained invisible until it struck.”
“Forget it. This was supposed to be a quick in-and-out with some thug in a clown suit, not going up against a high-power illusionist. We need to keep whatever advantage of surprise we have.”
“Cassandra, I am just a few years older than you,” Jaheira pointed out dryly, “and I have more experience in such matters. I suggest we get the sword.”
As much as the woman’s personality grated against her nerves, Cassandra knew she was right. Jaheira had been adventuring for longer than Cassie had been alive, and her knowledge of the natural world was formidable. Gorion had trusted Jaheira and Khalid more than any other people, and through countless battles and trials, she’d come to realize why. If Jaheira believed this was no natural beast, then it certainly wasn’t. Haughty and acerbic she could be, but her pride was often justified. They went to fetch the sword.
The commoner was where the ogre had said he’d be, to the northern side of the chamber, and he did indeed have the sword strapped to his thigh. The two warriors approached with confident stride, blades held low, and Cassandra offered a smile as she drew near.
“Could I borrow your blade a moment, sir?”
He lunged forward, an inhuman growl roaring from his throat. The attack was amateurish at best, and Cassie easily avoided it. She side-stepped his grab, lifted her sword, and brought the blade down across the nape of his neck. The head fell to the floor with a wet thunk, and she scooped the sword out of the body’s grasp before it too could clatter to the ground.
“Cassandra! Decapitating him was not necessary.”
She shrugged. “You trust the ogre, so I trust the ogre. The ogre said this is a monster.” She kicked the man’s head, which rolled to a stop several feet away. “Let’s hope it – she – is right.”
Green eyes narrowed. “For your sake, or else you’ve just become a murderer.”
“We’re warriors, Jaheira. Murder is what we do.”
“Cleansing the land of aberrations is not ‘murder’,” she stated flatly, falling into step behind her companion as they returned to where the ogre stood.
“Every monster we slay has a family. Do you ever stop to think of how many goblin children you have orphaned in your lifetime?”
“That is not the same.”
It was the same. She might not have been able to explain it as eloquently as a priest or philosopher, but murder was one thing Cassandra understood in a most intimate fashion. It was part of her essence, part of her very soul. She didn’t feel like debating it, though; now was not the time. They could argue morality later.
She called out to the creature as they approached. “Ogre!”
“You–you have the key! Or, rather, the sword! Please– please give it to me and I can be rid of this illusionary form at last!”
Well, here goes… She switched her grip to the blade of the sword and lay the flat of it across her forearm, hilt facing the beast in the traditional manner. It reached for the blade with more restraint than she’d expected. As the massive fingers enveloped it, a ripple of distortion flowed outwards, causing the entire scene to shake and tremble as if viewed through a film of water.
“My–my hands… my skin, it’s real again! Thank Baervar!” The ogre’s form wavered in the strange ripple and slowly dissolved into a faint mist of color. Beneath the facade was indeed a young woman, with long blond hair and vivid blue eyes. An elf, judging from the ears. “Oh, we must find Quayle! And stop Kalah before he does any more harm!”
“We?” Cassandra caught the girl’s shoulder as she started to turn towards the marble bridge. The last thing they needed as some wide-eyed innocent stumbling around in a sword fight. “You can wait outside. Or, um, where ‘outside’ used to be. We’ll take care of the rest.”
“Are—are you sure? I do know some magic, and—“
“We’re sure.” The redhead gave her a light push back towards the entrance of the building. “Wait outside.”
The girl obediently exited the room, leaving the two fighters free to approach the chamber’s man-made lake. A second person stood upon the ornate walkway, near the exit of the room: an extremely well-endowed woman in extremely revealing clothing.
“Welcome to Kalah’s realm,” she greeted them. “Be thee not of impure mind for surely Lord Kalah shall destroy thee. Kalah is the one Ruler, the One True Being.”
Jaheira snorted her disdain. Cassandra rolled her eyes. “Really, now?” the half-elf asked. “Where can we find this Kalah?”
“Worry not, Lady, for Kalah has already found thee. Continue on thy path and if thou shouldst find favor in Kalah’s eyes then thou shalt surely be granted an audience.”
Cassie edged past the woman with a displeased scowl. Jaheira followed close behind.
“Apparently Kalah has quite an ego,” Jaheira noted. “Almost as large as yours.”
Cassandra gave her a rude gesture, which only served to make the druid smile. “Anyone who needs some half-dressed tart to sing their praises is more self-absorbed than me.” She paused before the entrance to the next chamber. “Hey, Jah, maybe you should do some of that nature magic on us. There could be just about anything in there.”
“Yes, there could — which is why I will wait and see what we are facing before I go idly wasting magic.”
“Eh… well, any ideas on how to fight illusions?”
“You could close your eyes.”
Cassie blinked in surprise. “Really?”
Jaheira fixed her with an icy glare. “Surely even you can’t be that naive.”
Jaheria threw the curtain open before Cassandra could finish her sentence. The next room was exposed; a lush den of finery, covered in rich, plush carpet. Bookcases lined the walls, filled to the brim with tomes of all sorts, but the large couches in the middle of the room were better suited for sleeping rather than reading. Pillows of all shape and size were piled upon them, soft and inviting – quite unlike the denizens which stood nearby.
Half a score of large, feral beasts leap up from their resting places. Cassandra recognized them instantly as werewolves; she’d dealt with enough of their kind before. Mixed in among the beasts were a number of slim, almost shadow-like forms which seemed to have no matching bodies. The shadows moved independently of the werewolves, independently of the light in the room, in ways that no natural shadow ever could. These, too, made their way towards the women.
A hand on her shoulder pulled her to her left. Jaheira had spotted the staircase which she had not, and now was mounting the steps. It was the only visible exit from the room other than the way they’d come. Cassandra looked back at the approaching foes, taking a quick and cursory count. Twelve against two; running was the better option. She darted up the stairs.
Halfway up the stairs, a familiar swirl of color and wind manifested, solidifying into the form of a muscular human man. “Kalah awaits—“
Cassandra shoved past him and knocked him hard against the rail as she raced for the exit. “Fucking genie,” she hissed under her breath.
Jaheira slammed into the door with her shoulder and burst it open easily. The next room appeared to be a study of some sort or a private office. Just in front of the large table by the far wall stood a tall, blueish-skinned creature. Its body was heavily muscled, its lower jaw protruding slightly with pointed canine-like teeth. It resembled the ogre-illusion they’d encountered downstairs, but taller and much less primitive in appearance. Around it stood a menagerie of the same lycanthropes and shadow-beasts that they’d encountered moments ago.
“You dare invade my realm?” it bellowed.
“You must be Kalah,” Cassie said.
“Indeed. And I am god in this world!” The ogrekin raised an accusing finger towards them. “At them, my shadows! Rip them apart!”
The legion of beasts advanced in a maelstrom of howls and screams. Cassie had to shout to be heard over the chaos. “Jah, get Kalah! I’ll take care of these!”
The woman gave the briefest of nods to signal that she had heard. The red-haired fighter raised her sword to ready position and screamed a war cry at the approaching horde. A few of them split away to follow the half-elf, but the shout drew the majority of the attention to Cassie. They descended on her en masse.
Some of the beasts were doubtlessly illusions, she knew – but Kalah would not be so foolish as to employ non-existant bodyguards. Some of them had to be real. As the flurry of snarls and claws closed in, Cass tried desperately to pick out some visual signal, some clue or flaw in the illusion, which would reveal which were the actual threats and which were merely distractions.
The first blow passed cleanly through her. The clawed hand struck and sunk into her chest, eliciting a reflexive attempt for her to yank away. Cassie’s heart stopped and her breath froze for a split second as she waited for the agony of rent flesh to burn through her nerves… but the hand withdrew again, unbloodied. The monster lashed out again, and again the attack was nothing but air. No pain. Her heart started beating again.
Something lashed across her cheek, and this time it hurt. She whirled around to face her attacker, but the throng of forms around her made it impossible to tell which one had struck her. So some of them were real – real enough to rip flesh. The fighter could feel a thin trickle of blood trailing down her neck. Another lunged at her with wide-open jaws, only to vanish when the teeth closed around her arm; another flash of pain raced up her thigh as one of the seething beasts tore through the armor there.
Jaheira’s form was blocked from view by the whirlwind of snarling and snapping beasts; Cassandra had no way to tell if the situation would last seconds or minutes more. A third gash opened across the left side of her ribs and she swung her sword at the area where the attacker should have been. It whistled through empty air.
Even if only one of the creatures was real, if she could not defend herself from it this would be a very short fight. How did you fight an enemy you couldn’t see? Or rather, too many enemies that you could see? She closed her eyes, trying to block out the chaos and gather some measure of control. There had to be a way. Something dug into her chest, sharp points blunted by the protective mail, and with a snarl she drove her blade to where the opponent should be. This time her blade struck home.
Cass opened her eyes in surprise and then clenched them closed once more. Keep your eyes closed, Cass. Jaheira had said it in jest, but it could work. The warrior could not fight by sight or sound, but the sense of touch could still serve. She pulled the sword out of her attacker and instantly thrust it forward again, again meeting resistance as it bit into flesh. With a rough twist she withdrew it, eyes still shut, and crouched into a ready position as she tried to determine the now-unseen world around her.
A hoarse masculine scream sounded from the forward-left. She turned to face it, sword still at the ready, but no attack came. Instead there was a fit of coughing and wheezing, followed by a higher-pitched male voice.
“No! This isn’t what was supposed to happen!”
Cassandra cracked one eye open, risking a glimpse. The office chamber and its creatures were gone, replaced instead by the mundane interior of the old circus tent. Dazed and bewildered patrons stood scattered about the area amid gambling tables and cheap trinkets. On the floor lay the speaker, a small dwarfish-looking man with bloody froth around his lips and a large bloodstain on his chest. Jaheira stood over him with the scimitar pointed at his throat.
“You’ve– you’ve killed me,” he gasped. “Destroyed Kalah with your misplaced morals and beastly greed for adventure…”
“What has passed here?” asked Jaheira angrily. “You replaced the circus with your personal playground?” The tip of the blade pressed against the flesh of his throat.
“In this tent– in my world– Kalah was the master, where none would dare to laugh…”
“Fool,” she spat. “Nothing gives you the right to decide others’ lives.”
“I don’t think he can hear you anymore, Jaheira.” Cassandra approached and prodded Kalah with the tip of her blade. He didn’t move.
“All the better.” She looked the human fighter over, frowning displeasedly at the multiple fresh wounds. “You must be more careful, Cassandra. Fortunate for you that I am a healer.”
“Fighting things that don’t exist was harder than I thought it would be.”
“I’m fortunate for the distraction you gave those illusions. How did you fare?”
She shrugged. “Kept my eyes closed. It didn’t work just perfectly, but it worked.”
Elven eyes widened. “Kept your eyes– Cassandra, are you mad?” the druid exploded. “You idiot! If you cannot see, you cannot fight! What if one of these wounds had pierced the heart, or slit your throat?”
“Hey, you gave me the advice.”
“I—you—“ She took a deep breath and tried to calm her tone. “Child, if you were not already injured, I would hurt you.”
“Good thing I’m bleeding then.”
The young blond elven girl they’d rescued from the illusion had crouched down to wrap her arms around an elderly, spectacled gnome. “Uncle Quayle, you’re okay!”
“Ha!” he replied. “I knew Kalah would trip over himself, eventually. I’m just pleased he despised me enough to play with me rather than dispose of me like some of the others!”
“Oh, Quayle!” the girl smiled, “what would I ever do without you? Oh!” She stood as she noticed the two warriors regarding her. “Uncle Quayle, th-these are the women who saved us!”
“Ah!” He held out his hand to each of them in turn. “Pleased to meet our saviors. My name is Quayle.”
“Cassandra,” she replied, accepting the handshake. “Say, umm… do you know if there was a reward for this?”
“No, I’m sorry, I don’t know… You might ask the circus owner?” The gnome glanced around the tent. “Oh dear. He must have been …disposed of.”
“We are just happy to have helped,” Jaheira assured him, taking Cassie’s hand and leading her from the tent at a rapid pace. Once outside the druid’s hand flashed up and knocked her firmly upside the head.
She hissed her disapproval. “Have you no manners, asking those people for a reward for their lives?”
Cassie glowered at her. “In case you forgot, I’m twenty-thousand short of what I need. If saving Imoen means being rude, then by the gods I’ll be rude!”
“You will attract far more flies with honey than with vinegar.”
“I need to attract coins, not bugs.”
“You know what I mean.”
The human rubbed her head for a few more moments as they walked. Dusk had started to descend while they were within the illusion, and by the time they had crossed the Promenade and re-entered the slums district, night had taken hold. The two stayed close together, posture straight and steps sure, keeping an eye out for any would-be bandits.
The Copper Coronet was still abuzz with activity when they arrived. Jaheira paid the barkeep for a room and both women retired for the night.
“Rise and shine.”
A blinding wash of light flooded over Cassandra’s face. “What the—“ She flung her arm over her eyes. “Bloody Hell, Jaheira. Close the curtains!”
The light stayed where it was. The druid’s characteristic accent answered her from somewhere in the room. “It is well past dawn, and our noble employer is growing impatient.”
“Fine, fine, FINE!” Cassie threw off the blanket and swung her feet onto the cold wooden planks of the floor. “I’m up.”
“You are sitting.”
She rose to her feet, giving the woman an icy glare from behind her still-shielded eyes. “See? Happy?”
Jaheira smiled. And gods damn her, she honestly looked pleased. Maybe druids rose and shone at dawn every morning, but Cassie, like most civilized folk, liked to sleep an extra hour or two. One of these days, she’d get up in the middle of the night and wake Jaheira up with a splash of cold water – just to do it. Then they’d see how happy she was when it was her sleep that was interrupted.
The mental tirade continued through the entirety of Cassandra’s morning routine. Only after she’d finished washing, combed her hair, and gotten dressed did the foul mood begin to subside. With two sets of hands the packing went swiftly, and within the hour they were ready to go — but not without a good meal first.
The two women descended the stairs together, each carrying their pack of belongings. The common room was mostly empty, with the majority of patrons having wandered back to their homes the night before, or still sleeping off their ale in a rented room. A young elven man was leaning up against the bar counter. His eyes brightened as Jaheira approached.
“Ah, I sense you have an earthy wisdom about you, my sweet elf.” He smiled at her, taking her hand in his and raising it to his lips. “I find that most sensual.”
Jaheira pulled her hand away with a scowl before his kiss could land. “Do you also find sensual my disdain for your disgusting manner?”
The rebuff didn’t damper his ardor. “Ah, such passion! You set me on fire with your words…” His gaze traveled appreciatively over the half-elf’s slim and muscular form. “And with your lovely body, as well.”
The druidess held up her hand, palm towards the ceiling, and a moment later a small flame burst to life in the center. She held it in front of the would-be suitor, making sure his widening eyes got a good look at it.
“I could set you on fire with more than that, if you truly wish.”
His jaw opened and closed several times before a stuttering voice finally emerged. “Well…er, no, not really…”
“The first thing of sense you have said.” She closed her fist, snuffing the flame out of existance. “Now stay out of my way.”
Cassandra chuckled and took a seat next to Lady De’Arnise at one of the almost-empty tables. “Good morning.”
“Good morning. Are you ready to go?”
“Almost. Breakfast first.”
The noble sighed. “Can’t you eat on the road? Or eat when we get there? Every moment we delay decreases our chances of success!”
“We’ll get there; don’t worry. An hour is not going to spell the difference between doom and glory.”
The brunette woman sighed again and began drumming her fingers against the surface of the table impatiently.
Jaheira returned a few minutes later and took a seat next to them. “Berard will have our food momentarily,” she said.
“Good, I’m starving.”
“People are dying while you are ‘starving!’”
Cassie arched an eyebrow, as did Jaheira. “Lady De’Arnise–” The noblewoman’s own eyebrow went up. “Nalia,” Cassie corrected with a roll of her eyes. “Stop being so damn overdramatic. We. Will. Be. There. Soon.”
The nervous drumming stopped, but the noble looked anything but pleased. “I should have hired someone else,” she muttered.
“Well feel free.”
“There’s no time,” she snapped back at the redhead. “Unfortunately, you’ll have to do.”
A soft sound of someone clearing their throat raised all three sets of eyes to a newcomer at the table. A human male stood dressed in shining and obviously-unused armor, smiling genteelly at the women.
“Fair ladies—“ he began, but got no further.
“Oh, by the horns of Silvanus!” Jaheira slammed her hands down on the table, causing all three onlookers to jump. “Did you not just hear what I said to that foppish elf over there? It is not even noon and yet you rut like a wild boar. We are not interested in your amateur advances!”
Nalia cleared her throat, casting the woman a cool, reproachful look. “I’m sorry, sir,” she said to the befuddled bearded man. “Please excuse her outburst. Can I help you?”
“Rut like…? Ah…yes, well…” He somehow managed to collect himself and started the entire spiel over again, now specifically addressing the noblewoman. “Milady, what brings you to this cesspool of filth and corruption?”
Cassie rolled her eyes. Paladin. Had to be.
“I try to help those less fortunate than myself,” the noble explained. “The Copper Coronet offers plenty of opportunities. We are about to leave on a quest to retake my lands from unwelcome invaders.”
“Fortune smiles upon our meeting, then, for I am Anomen, Warrior Priest of Helm, and a force dedicated to serving justice and righteousness.”
Jaheira choked and sputtered on her drink. Cassie slapped her back sympathetically to clear her throat. “Oh—oh by the gods—“
“Should you desire to walk the path of virtue,” he continued, still addressing the noble, “then my virtuous and strong arm will be lent to your protection.”
“I would be extremely honored, Sir Anomen,” Nalia gushed. “This expedition needs a fighting man like yourself at the head. Would you be able to leave today? Within the hour?”
“What—wait a minute!” Cassandra objected. “A fighting man at the head? I can tell you right now that Jaheira and I have more battle experience than this man, and you’re not only going to hire him, but put him in charge?”
“That’s precisely what I’m doing,” the brunette responded coldly. “He at least understands the importance of helping people in an expedient and punctual manner!”
“I will be in charge here,” Cassie informed her. “That is how it is.”
“I am in charge here! You seem to forget who hired whom!”
“Gentlewomen, if I may… if the matter is urgent perhaps we should discuss this on our way to the Lady’s lands?”
Jaheira shook her head. “Our breakfast has not arrived.”
He made a sound of dismissive disgust. “A true warrior is not a glutton to be led around by his stomach! We can eat on the way; time is of the essence when dealing with evil-doers!”
Nalia rose from the table, and her stern gaze informed the two women that it was time for them to do the same. They did so unwillingly, trading conspiratory glances.
“He’s right,” she said. “Finally somebody understands. We need to leave now before the situation gets any worse!”
Anomen hoisted his pack onto his shoulder. If he had any other belongings he made no mention of it. He walked past the two female fighters with a slight sniff of disdain.
Cass swore the most vile curse she knew. “She can’t be serious. He has probably never seen a battle more serious than a practice duel.”
“Doubtlessly,” Jaheira agreed. “Still – she did hire us, and if you wish to save Imoen it might be wise to coddle her wishes. He may prove useful.”
“As a talking packhorse. Maybe if we play the part of frail maidens, we can get him to carry our stuff.”
The honey-blond elf smiled and winked at her. “Now you are on the correct train of thought.”