The third morning came, and again they were alive. Imoen became aware of the world around her slowly as she stretched her arms overhead and stifled a yawn with the back of one hand. Cassandra stirred slightly as her ‘pillow’ moved. Imoen smiled and gently laid her hand on her sister’s red-gold hair. It was rough and oily, fouled with days — if not weeks — of sweat, blood, and dirt. She didn’t mind though. It was Cassie, and that was worth its weight in gold.
“Yo, sleepyhead.” Imoen poked the tip of her nose. “Time to wake up.”
The eyes cracked open, revealing a sliver of arctic blue. They regarded Imoen drowsily for a moment and then drifted closed again.
“Hey.” She tried again, this time gently shaking her shoulder. “Seriously, we should go.”
The eyes opened again, a little wider this time. “I’m tired.”
“You slept all night!”
Cassie arched her back slightly and stretched, but made no move to get up. “Still exhausted. I feel like I barely slept at all.”
“No. Just– I feel…weird.”
Imoen frowned and laid her hand against Cassie’s forehead, then her cheeks. “You don’t have a fever.”
“No, it’s not that. It’s more…” She bit her lower lip in concentration as she sought an appropriate word. “More… I don’t know. Just… strange. Wrong, maybe? Did you feel that way after your ritual?”
She shook her head softly. “I always felt okay – well, as okay as I could, I guess. I feel weak, but it’s more like I’m just gradually wasting away, y’know? I was never sick or anything.”
Cassandra lay where she was for a minute, sampling the odd hollowness she felt, trying to understand what it was. ‘Sick’ wasn’t the right word. It didn’t feel bad, it felt… different. Unusual. Uncomfortable from the utter strangeness of it. It didn’t feel ‘wrong’ in the way that illness or disease usually did. It felt… well, maybe it didn’t feel like anything. Maybe lack of feeling was the better term.
“Has this affected you differently than me?” Imoen wondered aloud. “You’ve been dealing with the Bhaal essence longer; perhaps you’re more focused on it. Or maybe it’s more focused on you.”
“That sounds dire. What do you mean?”
“Well… I dunno, exactly. But you had nightmares and stuff and manifested your weird abilities well over a year ago, so you’ve got a head start on me as far as that stuff goes. So maybe when Irenicus– maybe when he took our souls– Maybe that sped up the process? Or changed it somehow?”
Maybe, Cassandra thought. There’d always been a feeling of energy there, like a liquid heat that she had learned from trial and error how to manipulate. Small things, which had grown larger as her mastery increased: healing minor wounds, bolstering strength when it flagged, harming others if she needed to. She didn’t care for the last one, but it’d come in handy more than once. But she’d lost her Bhaalspawn abilities after the ritual; the flow of energy she was accustomed to was gone. There was nothing there to draw upon, nothing there to tap and twist like she used to. Maybe that was what was missing.
Or maybe that ‘nothingness’ was where her soul used to be. But then, wouldn’t Imoen feel it too?
“Just be careful, Cass,” her sister warned in a stern voice. “Don’t push yourself too hard. I dunno what’s wrong with you, but it’s really weird that you’re sick.”
“Hey, don’t worry.” She offered a smile and reached up to ruffle the other girl’s red waves. “I’m half-god, remember? I’m invincible.”
“Psht.” Imoen slapped her hand away playfully. “You wish. You bleed as red as I do, Miss Almighty Bhaalspawn. Speaking of which, I’m half-god too now, remember?”
“Eh. Well, I made it this far, and I don’t plan on stopping now, so you have nothing to worry about.” Lack of soul or not, she still had to get them out of here. And after that, there was a certain mage to disembowel.
“Well, good.” Imoen gave the fighter a small push. “Now get up.”
This time the older sibling obediently got to her feet and stretched out her limbs as she did so. She’d elected to sleep in what little armor she had left, minus the pauldrons; it took only a few minutes to strap and buckle the shoulder plates back into place. There would be no breakfast this morning; the few rations in the equipment bag had only lasted a day and a half between them.
Cassie hoisted the bag over her shoulder and tossed a question back to Imoen. “How far do you think we are from the exit?”
“Hell if I know. I’m not even sure there is an exit.”
“Well aren’t you a little ray of sunshine.”
She rolled her eyes and reached for the door handle. “Don’t blame me. You shouldn’t ask questions ya don’t want the answer to.”
Cass chuckled drily. “Yeah. You’d think I would’ve learned that lesson by now.”
Imoen’s lips pursed into a small circle. She’d cracked the door open perhaps two inches and now stood studying something on the other side, outside Cassandra’s range of vision. “Cass… We have a problem.”
“What kind of problem?” She advanced slightly, only to be waved back by an abrupt motion of her sister’s hand.
“Don’t,” Imoen ordered. “Stay there.”
She stayed in place, but her hand reflexively went to the hilt of her sword. “What is it?”
“Someone rigged the door.” She blew a sharp breath from between her lips, lifting her bangs from her eyes. “Dammit, that means Bodhi was right outside last night and we didn’t even know it. Dammit, dammit, dammit.”
Cassie leaned to the side, trying to get a look whatever Imoen had noticed, but could see nothing. It was either too subtle for untrained eyes, or blocked by the woman’s body.
“Are you sure it as Bodhi?” she asked.
“Dunno. Can’t tell just from the trap.” Imoen had slipped two of her fingers into the gap of the open door and was now feeling around gingerly on the other side. “I’m just assuming on the basis of her general bitchitude.”
“Anything I can do?”
“Nah, just hold on a sec.”
She bit her lip and closed her eyes, shifting position slightly to give her a longer reach through the door without opening it any wider. After a minute of effort and a few more adjustments of her angle, she sighed and withdrew her arm.
“’Kay, we’re screwed.” She motioned Cassandra over and pointed to a spot on the door where a thin, almost invisible strand of metallic fiber had been attached. “That’s attached to the door and the wall using some sort of putty. Judging from the smell on my fingers, it’s heartwood sap, which means the wire is probably platinum.”
“Which means we’re screwed. That’s the material components necessary for lightning bolt. If we break that wire – or dislodge the putty – we’re gonna end up lit up like a Talosian parade.”
Cassie eyed the wire and the door it had effectively barred. “Can’t you disarm it? Or dispel it, or whatever you do to magic when you don’t want it around?”
“Not that easy, sis.” She pursed her lips again, eyeing the wire with annoyance. “I mean, yeah, I can disarm a trap, but I gotta have the proper tools, y’know? And I can dispel magic, but that assumes that it’s a fixed-state magical effect, not a trigger effect. Plus you gotta know the oppositional school of the flux – which in this case I do – and select the appropriate counter-weave to cancel it out. Which normally I could do, but anyways – like I said, it’s a trigger-effect spell.”
“Whoa, Im. Too many words.” Cassie tapped her temple. “Me dumb warrior, remember? You lost me at ‘fixed-state’ whatever-it-was.”
“See, this is why you should let me teach you magic,” she countered. “You could pick this up; you’re not stupid, Cass.”
“Yeah, and would I be able to do all this fluxing counter-triggering stuff?”
“Not right away, no.”
“So I’d still be useless in this situation. I’ll stick with the grunt work.”
“You might not be stupid, but you sure are stubborn, y’know that?” She tapped her fingers against her chin and resumed studying the door. “So I can’t disarm it, unless you happen to have a bishop’s flick on you.”
“Nevermind. And I can’t dispel it. So… we can either open the door and take a lightning bolt to the face, or we can find another way out of this room.”
Cassandra went to the nearest wall and examined it more closely. She already knew from last night’s scouting of the room that there wasn’t an obvious secondary exit, but that didn’t rule out the slim possibility of a hidden door. Unusual cracks in the masonry; mismatches in the color of the bricks or mortar; scratches along the floor – she checked for all of it, with Imoen doing the same along the opposite wall. The investigation took nearly 10 minutes, even working as a team, but when they both announced their lack of findings, they shared a pensive look.
“Well,” Cassie said reluctantly, “I guess we open the door.”
Imoen nodded, her face now somber. “Looks like.”
“Is there anything that could make this easier, Im? Like…” She racked her brain for examples. “Like protective shielding? Or… or could we open the door without standing in front of it? Would that help?”
The red-head considered for a moment, casting her gaze once more around the room. “Nothing protective in here,” she said after a moment. “The width of the energy channel is determined by the caster when he – or she, of course – sets up the spell. Although…”
She trailed off and approached the door again, crouching down to study the metallic wire more closely. “Y’know,” she said, pitching her voice so that Cassandra could hear her without turning around. “Theoretically the thickness of the wire determines the maximum diameter of the energy channel the bolt passes through. I say ‘theoretically’ ‘cause platinum wire only comes in two sizes unless you specially make it yourself, and the difference between fine-wire and hair-wire isn’t all that much.”
Cassandra nodded, forgetting for a moment that her sibling couldn’t see the gesture. It was mostly for encouragement anyways; she didn’t have even a fraction of the knowledge Imoen did when it came to the arcane and occult, and the entire explanation was quickly passing her by.
“This, however,” Imoen continued, barely grazing the wire with her fingertip, “is pretty thick. So the bolt generated by this should be wider than normal… and of shorter duration. Same amount of energy, broader plane, lesser scope.”
“So it won’t bounce as much,” she concluded, rising to her feet again. “Normally you get a lightning bolt and it’ll ricochet around ‘til the charge is spent. So if I’m right, if we can avoid the initial shock, we should be okay.”
“If you’re right,” Cassie repeated dubiously.
“Hey, you doubt the Marvelous Miss Im?”
It was wiser not to answer that. She motioned to the door with a lift of her chin. “So what do we do? Just push it open and stand to one side?”
“Yup, pretty much.”
“That’s the plan?”
She placed her hands on her hips, arching her eyebrows questioningly. “Got a better one?”
She sighed her resignation. “No. Okay then… You get in the corner, and I’ll open the door.”
“What?? I’m the one who knows how this—“
“Imoen.“ The sharpness of her tone silenced the mage’s protest. “I’m the hero here, remember? If anyone’s gonna take stupid, needless risks, it’s going to be me.”
That almost got a smile. “It’s more of a needed risk,” she corrected.
“Either way. Get in the corner. I’m not going to get you killed if this goes wrong.”
“Like getting yourself killed’ll be so much better?” she muttered.
“I’m going, I’m going.” She positioned herself in far corner on the same wall as the booby-trapped door and crouched down. “Ready.”
Cassandra drew her sword from its sheath and flattened herself against that same wall as best she could, trying to position herself so that she was close enough to push it with the tip but no closer than absolutely necessary. All I have to do is avoid the first burst, she reminded herself with a deep breath. Of course, which way that burst would go was unknown. Or exactly how big it’d be.
She chambered her arm and roughly shoved the point of the sword into the door. She felt a split-second of resistance, then the wire snapped and the door swung up from the strength of her push. A loud crack of sound was the only warning she had before the room was illuminated in a flash of white-blue fire and the sharp smell of burnt air. The impact of the spell flung her backwards against the wall and ripped the breath from her lungs. Her sword clattered uselessly to the floor as Cassie sunk down to her knees and doubled over.
“G-g-gods and fucking minions!“ She wheezed between coughs and gasped attempts at breath. Her teeth were chattering uncontrollably and the muscles of her right arm refused to respond. They trembled and quivered with a life of their own. “—th-that really h-h-hurts.”
Imoen’s hands were on her in an instant as the girl knelt down in front of her and quickly and efficiently checked her pulse and eyes. The pulse was rapid but steady, the eyes glazed but focused.
“Metal conducts lightning, you dolt,” she informed her, hands now going to the limp arm. “Your sword acted like a storm rod.”
“Sh-sh-should tell me th-that.”
“Sorry; thought you were going to use your hand.” She massaged the trembling muscles, using long, even strokes and pressure to try to restore balance to damaged nerves.
“Probably b-b-b—“ Cassie clenched her teeth together with an irate glare and fell silent. Her chest rose and fell unevenly with deep, ragged breaths as Imoen watched her with concern.
“You’ll be okay, Cass,” she promised.
A shadow drifted across the floor, barely visible in the edge of Imoen’s peripheral vision. She stiffened reflexively and then immediately forced her muscles to relax again and her hands to keep moving in the same patterns. Don’t show them that you know they’re there. She had several spells memorized, but without turning around she couldn’t tell exactly what had cast the shadow to pick the best one. Still, it was moving… and the timing was too damn convenient. She had a pretty good idea of what – and who – it was.
“Ochu azheif ranif rai.” The words were mouthed more than said, with just enough breath to stir the air. She kept one eye on the shadow and kept her hands moving on Cassandra’s shoulder as she cast the spell. The soft whisper drew the fighter’s attention; blue eyes opened and gradually widened in shock. Imoen rushed to finish the chant before Cassie’s movement ruined the element of surprise. “Roch felen seich talaashim jani!”
She whirled around as she shouted the final word of the incantation and extended her hand towards the figure in the doorway. An arc of black, crackling energy shot forth from each fingertip. It snapped and hissed as it leapt through the air… and charred a foot-wide section of the hallway wall as it passed through the empty door frame. The person was gone.
“Imoen, my dear,” said a soft, seductive voice on her left. “That was so predictable.”
A hand was planted firmly in her back and shoved the mage forward. She stumbled a few steps and tried to catch herself against the frame of the door, when two sets of hands reached out from either side and seized her upper arms. The vampiric minions hurled her forward into the hallway, slamming her face-first into the far wall hard enough to draw blood.
“Bodhi!” Cassie’s voice rang out from inside the room.
Imoen managed to keep herself upright and turned around only to have a slim, cold hand clamped around her throat. Bodhi smiled at her, her lips a dark and carnal red. The vampiress tightened her grip and lifted her up, off the floor, until the human’s feet struggled vainly in search of something solid. The redhead’s fingers scrabbled at the cold, dead hand which now choked out her life.
“I was hoping that you’d survive my little surprise,” Bodhi purred, leaning in closer. “It would have been so… disappointing not to end the hunt myself.”
A figure appeared in the doorway of the room. Cassie was on her feet, but unsteadily so, and her sword arm still dangled limply. She held her blade in her other hand and braced herself against the doorway with her shoulder. Her lips drew back in a growl as she found her target.
“Bodhi! Get the Hell away from her!”
The undead’s expression was amused as she stepped to Imoen’s side, still holding her aloft, and regarded the would-be rescuer. “Ah, the hero,” she breathed, lips tilting in a sardonic smile. “Come to save the day. Tell me, Imoen, which would be worse: for her to watch you die, or you to watch her?”
The last sentence was purposefully pitched for Cassie’s hears to ear. The warrior surged forward, lifting the sword with her left hand. The vampire spawn who stood beside the doorway caught her before she’d taken even three steps. One of them bit viciously into the redhead’s wrist, and the sword clattered to the ground from the now-numbed hand.
Imoen’s struggles intensified, but Bodhi’s supernaturally strong grip did not waiver. The pull of gravity and the iron-like hand around her throat made breathing almost impossible; each gasp brought only the smallest relief. Already her lungs were burning and her muscles screaming in protest.
“Get off me!” Cassandra yelled and yanked her arm away from the vampire spawn. Flesh tore and pain lanced through her as the canines buried in her wrist ripped free. The second one grabbed her immediately, followed by the first, and they were both upon her, snarling like animals, and the fangs pierced her again.
And not fifty feet away stood Bodhi, smiling contently, as Imoen fought vainly for air.
Cassie saw it and the scene expanded in her mind. Everything became focused on that razor sharp smile: the smile that mocked her, belittled her, and challenged her to do something – anything – before the hunt was through.
A tempest of rage ignited, and suddenly her vision went black.
“LET HER GO!”
The roar echoed throughout Spellhold’s halls like thunder from Talos himself. It was followed by a howl of mixed fury and pain as Cassandra screamed and grabbed one of the vampiric minions by his neck. She ripped him away from her, mindless of the holes and gouges that his teeth and claws left behind, and hurled him towards the object of her hate.
Bodhi dropped Imoen with a hiss of surprise and leapt swiftly to the side, narrowly avoiding being crushed by her own servant. Imoen collided painfully with the stone floor and reflexively covered herself as the stunned spawn crumpled to the ground. She gasped in several deep, instinctive breaths as her lungs fought to regain the oxygen they’d been denied. And through the haze of deprivation, she saw Cassie.
The redheaded warrior had the second vampire in her hands, both holding him by the front of his pale grey tunic. Her teeth were bared in a growl of pure hateful rage as she held him aloft. He struggled, raking his claws across her face and arms with a power and viciousness that would have felled any normal mortal. But Cassie didn’t seem ‘normal’ any more.
With a gutteral shout she threw him down the hallway, launching him nearly fifteen feet before he crashed to the ground. The first one she’d detached was on his feet again and with a snarl launched himself back at her. The fighter whipped around at the sound, and Imoen saw that her eyes had changed. Instead of bright, exotic blue the orbs were now black as oil from top to bottom and side to side. Cassie caught him in mid-air with hands that now were large and jointed in ways they should not have been, tipped with two-inch claws on each finger.
The leather of Cassandra’s armor creaked and groaned in complaint as her form shifted. Sharp snapping sounds echoed through the chambers and Imoen flinched in revulsion as she saw bones break and reknit themselves under elastic flesh. Cassie’s knees cracked and bent backwards, inverting the joint, and the bones and muscles knotted and extended, growing longer and thicker, until she stood easily seven feet in height. Long spikes erupted from her now-blackish-grey skin; from her shoulders, from the joint of her elbows and legs, even from her head. Her face distorted and warped as her jaws lengthened and thickened into a wolf-like snout.
The leather of her remaining armor gave way and clattered to the floor, shredded and useless. Bodhi’s serene smile faltered and gave way as well.
The trapped vampire spawn abruptly stopped struggling as the creature’s head snapped forward and clamped its jaws around his neck. One swift yank ripped out his throat. The monstrous head whipped forward again and this time the jaws crushed his skull. It released him with another unearthly scream and flung the remains to the ground.
It turned to face the remaining minion, who was circling this new development with caution. In a flash of movement, supernaturally fast, the beast lunged forward, closed the distance, and buried one massive clawed hand in his stomach. The tips of all five claws exited his back and then withdrew, stringing the blue-grey lines of his intestines out onto the floor. The other hand easily pierced flesh and bone and lodged inside his rib cage. One arm swung left, the other right, and the vampire’s body seemed to explode as it was ripped apart.
“What is this?” Bodhi hissed softly. She’d crept several feet further down the hallway as her servants were torn apart. Imoen was on her feet now and wondered the same thing as the creature turned around once more. Its alien black eyes found the vampiress and a third howl shook the asylum.
Bodhi ducked the first clawed attack, but the second ripped wide gashes across her shoulder and upper arm. She danced backwards, spitting her ire like a cat, but the emotion in her eyes was all-too human fear.
A second rake of the claws connected and flayed open the undead’s chest. Again her agility and speed saved her from a more dire fate; the wound was flesh-level and the now-exposed bones beneath remained intact.
Bodhi growled and launched herself backwards down the hall in an acrobatic series of leaps and springs. She landed on her feet nearly thirty feet further down, and her form instantly began to dissolve into a greyish-white mist. The beast charged down the hall to re-enter the fray, but the fog dissipated unharmed even as it slashed and flailed.
“This isn’t over, Child of Bhaal,” her disembodied voice warned as the last of the mist disappeared. “Irenicus will know of this.”
The creature snapped its jaws in frustration and cast its gaze around to find the speaker. It turned. And it saw Imoen.
The lupine mouth opened, revealing glistening razor-sharp teeth. It screamed and began advancing towards her, the mis-jointed legs causing it to bob and sink in a most disturbing manner.
“Stay back!” Imoen’s hands lit up with an aquamarine glow as she immediately summoned forth a shield of arcane protection. The glow darkened to lurid purple as she began to weave together streams of evocation magic. “Don’t come any closer!”
It continued to advance with no indication that it understood. The claws flexed and twitched as it drew nearer. Unlike the speed and hatred with which it had attacked the vampires, the creature now came forward in a slow stalk, sizing up its prey at leisure.
Imoen backed away as her hands continued through the weave of the spell. Keep calm, Imoen, keep calm. She mentally repeated the mantra as she struggled to pay attention to the creature -– Cassie, that’s Cassie –, to the world around her, and still manipulate the magical streams. Abruptly her retreat stopped against the cold stone surface of one of the hallway walls; a corner, which might as well have been a dead end. Her heartrate spiked and the slow, steady motion of her fingers faltered. The purple light flickered and threatened to disappear.
“Cassie—“ An adjustment of her hands and the violet glow leapt to life once more. She didn’t know if the spell would stop something like this, though. “C’mon, you won; they’re gone. Come out of there, Cass.”
The sight of its quarry cornered spurred the creature into motion. It leapt forward and swung at her with both taloned hands; Imoen reflexively ducked and triggered the spell. Otiluke’s Resilient Sphere enveloped her, encasing her in a shimmering globe of arcane magic. The claws descended in a massive arc, impacted the sphere, and bounced harmlessly away. The interference only served to incite it further; with a howl of anger it began lashing out and assaulting the barrier in a flurry of talons, fangs, and spike-like protrusions.
“Cassie, stop!” she yelled. “It’s me, you dumbass; it’s Imoen!”
The attacks continued, and the magical weave strained and buckled as she crouched within its protective confines. The sphere would not last for long. The beast’s roar of frustration nearly drowned out her own cries.
“Stop it! Cass! Cassandra!”
She shouted out every variation of her name she could think of, trying anything to break through to what of her sister still lie beneath the demonic exterior. The first weave of the sphere shattered under dark energy of the creature’s attacks, and the sphere began to collapse. Imoen braced the shrinking globe with her hands and tried to reinforce it, but the damage spread like cracks across a frozen lake; each concussion to the spell fractured it somewhere new, and she could not mend the breaks fast enough. It buckled inwards further, forcing her to her knees.
“Stop it, Cassie!” she screamed. Another rake of the claws shook the protective barrier, and tears began to trickle down her cheeks. “Please don’t, Cass… please don’t…”
The creature paused for a moment. It reached out one hand and laid it atop the sphere experimentally, feeling it rather than attacking. The energies swirled and twisted under its blackish-grey skin. The legs folded downwards and the face lowered until it looked Imoen eye-to-eye. Its fangs were still bared within the wolfish face, but it tilted its head and studied her with abyssal eyes through the shimmer of the spell.
“Cassandra.” The maw which had so easily crushed the vampire’s skull was less than a foot away from her, blocked only by a translucent film of magic. Her heart thundered in her veins as it leaned still closer. “Cass, you’re scaring me,” she said in a trembling voice. “Please stop.”
It snarled at her and backed away a step. The taloned hand came up and this time went to its own face as it growled and hunched over. Imoen watched through the flicker of the sphere even as she continued to reinforce it. There was a snap and a harsh yelp, then another, then several more in quick succession. The creature snarled once more and lashed out, this time at empty air, and fell back another few feet.
Another crack, and the left knee dislocated, inverting itself to a more human arrangement before setting once more. The pained cries continued as the bones once more seemed to break, shrink, and return to their original forms. The horns and spikes retreated and were re-absorbed into the body and the healthy pink of Cassandra’s skin slowly replaced the ashen black. Soon the animalistic growls were replaced by all-too-human screams as her form became normal once more.
Imoen dispelled the sphere and rushed over to where Cassandra now knelt and panted heavily on the tiled stone floor. She was nude now; the cloth and leather shredded and cast off during the transformation.
Her fingers went to her sister’s throat and found a rapid but regular pulse there. The whites of Cassandra’s eyes were visible beneath fluttering lids. “Can you hear me?” She didn’t respond. “C’mon, sis, speak to me.”
Her eyes flickered once more, then opened and focused on the worried mage. Her expression was glazed, as if she’d just awoken from a deep sleep. “Im…”
“Are you okay? How do you feel?” Imoen began checking her over for the worst of the wounds. The combat with the vampires had been short and brutal, but she’d taken several attacks before the transformation had taken place.
“I feel…” She trailed off for a moment, then smiled crookedly. “…good, I think.”
Imoen’s brows knit together in confusion and concern. “Good? That’s it?”
“That was… amazing.” Cassandra’s smile brightened. “Just this—this raw power… I’ve never felt anything like it. You should have been there.”
“I was there, you dork,” she reminded her, frowning as she continued to examine the fighter’s body. It was scored a dozen times over with scars of various sizes, but they were all old and healed wounds. The gashes and gouges she’d seen inflicted by the vampiric minions were gone, as if they’d never occurred. Her hands, wrists, face, and shoulders were intact and showed no sign of the assault just moments ago.
“That was just… wow.” Cassie let out a soft breath of amazement. “Everything was just there, Imoen. I could see and smell and hear everything – everything! It was so sharp and perfect… What was that, you think?”
“That was the Slayer.”
“Y’know, as in the avatar of Bhaal? During the Time of Troubles, Bhaal walked the earth, et cetera, et cetera?”
“Really? Huh.” She looked down at her human hands and flexed them. The small fleshy fingers seemed so inadequate now, next to the memory of godlike talons. “It was so– so powerful. Do you think it’ll happen again?”
“Dammit, Cass, don’t act so nonchalant about it!” Imoen surged to her feet and balled her fists at her sides.
Cassie’s brows drew together in confusion as she looked upwards at her sister. “Nonchalant? As opposed to what?”
“You just transformed into the Lord of Murder. Doesn’t that bother you? It sure as fuck bothers me — you nearly killed me!”
The older sibling fell silent. Put that way, it certainly did sound disturbing. It didn’t feel disturbing, though. It felt… euphoric. Wonderful. Like all the power in the world had been at her fingertips for those brief few minutes; like she could do anything. Even the pain of the physical transformation seemed miles distant when faced with the dark elation that it had brought.
As the giddy intoxication of power faded, reality began to re-emerge. She shook her head. Of course it was disturbing. Something had reached up and wrested her body away from her, out of her control. Possession. Demonic possession, or something even worse. And all she’d done was let it take over, and then admired how good a job it’d done.
Is it still here? Inside me still? The Bhaal-creature from the dream, was it in her now? Controlling her? Was the odd euphoria some manner of trick? Cassie turned her gaze to the floor, brows knit once more, this time from worry and a spike of fear. She felt along the corners and crevices of her mind, but found no lurking monsters. She didn’t feel any different. The odd nothingness was still there, deep inside and seemingly unchanged.
A bundle of cloth hit her in the face. She reflexively caught it; the spare robe which Imoen had found in her pack. Her gaze returned to her sister.
“Get dressed,” Imoen ordered.
Cassandra looked down at herself and for the first time realized her nakedness. Damn, Cass. How drugged to you have to be to not notice that?
She rose with a rising blush in her cheeks and quickly drew the robe around her shoulders, fastening it closed with the small embroidered hooks. Imoen’s gaze never left her, but neither it was really ‘there.’ She seemed to stare straight through her, arms folded tight across her chest and shoulders trembling slightly.
“Are you okay, Im?”
“I’m fine,” she answered coldly. Her brow was still knit and eyes dark. “Let’s get out of here. And by Tyr’s eyes, don’t do that again.”
“I couldn’t help it; it just happened,” Cassie explained. “It was like something snapped. I—“
“Don’t do it again!” Imoen’s voice was suddenly as hard and unyielding as steel and the vehemence in her glare could have halted Bhaal himself. The quaver of her shoulders had spread, and now her entire body trembled with emotion. “That’s not a request, Cassandra,” she said flatly. “Don’t you ever do that again.”
What in the Nine Hells? She’d never seen Imoen this upset over anything. In the last ten years the girl had raised her voice perhaps thrice, and never had it held the cold promise of consequence it held now. Fear she would understand – seeing the impossible, faced by a monster which had once been your friend. But Imoen wasn’t afraid; the emotion in her eyes was far too dark for that.
Cassie stood in shocked silence for several seconds before she managed a jerky nod. “Okay… I’ll try.”
“Do better than ‘try,’” she snapped, then without waiting for a reply: “Let’s go.”
They walked for another half hour before they located the stairwell back to the asylum’s main level. It was hidden behind a large statue of a minotaur whose horns had been been broken off. A closer inspection revealed that the horns were actually detachable; the sockets were threaded like carpenter’s screws, and it didn’t take much to put two and two together.
Finding the horns had been more difficult. They hadn’t dared split up, even with Bodhi’s retreat and the slaying of her two lackeys. Gods only knew what else lived in this Hellhole, or when Bodhi might choose to take some opportune revenge. Searching the rooms one by one had taken nearly two hours before both horns were located and returned to the marble minotaur. Once in place, though, the door had clicked and swung open, finally allowing passage from the maze.
“Sune’s crabs and pubic lice,” Imoen swore. “It’s about freakin’ time.”
“That’s some pretty foul language you’ve got there, little sis.”
“Yeah, well, it’s been a pretty foul month.”
“Still, if you’re going to swear, could you do it without pissing off a god?”
“I kinda doubt Lady Firehair is listening in.”
Cassie shrugged. “Weirder things have happened. And I really doubt she has crabs.”
“What? C’mon, Cass, she’s the goddess of sex and love. Of course she has crabs.”
One fire-gold eyebrow went up. “Since when did being in love and having sex doom one to pubic lice?” Suddenly her eyes widened as a thought occured to her. “And since when in the Nine Hells do you even know about sex and pubic lice?”
Imoen rolled her eyes. “Jeez, Cass, I’m seventeen for cryin’ out loud.”
“Yeah, so? When we left Candlekeep you were still giggling over boys trying to kiss you.”
“When we left Candlekeep I was still a kid.”
“You were fifteen!”
“Two years makes a difference!” She stuck out her tongue at the older girl. “’Sides, I’ve learned a few things since then. I’ve grown up quite a bit since Candlekeep.”
The abrupt image of Imoen in a tavern-boy’s arms flooded Cassie’s mind: her sister laughingly protesting as his lips sought out the curves of her neck. A spike of jealousy flared up and was instantly quashed as Cassandra slammed an iron grip down on her emotions. Stop it, Cass, just stop it.
Imoen glared at her as she started up the stairs. “And so’ve you, so don’t you give me that shocked look.”
Shock? Better than envy, at least. She crossed her arms and played up the part of the over-protective older sister. “Well, you better still be a virgin, that’s for damn sure.”
The younger sibling froze in mid-step. Every line in her body went rigid as she slowly turned her head. Her face had drained of color and her eyes were narrowed dangerously. “What is that supposed to mean?”
“That if any second-hand stable boy had his way with you, I’m going to kick his ass, that’s what.”
Her lips pressed together in a tight frown, and she turned to continue up the stairs. “Shut up, Cass.”
She returned the frown. The small flame of jealousy rekindled, and now she really did feel the part of the protective sister. Imoen never took such teasing seriously – not until now. “What, you have some secret lover I don’t know about?”
“Shut the Hell up!”
“I’m just teasing, but damn, if you’re going to make a scene out of it, maybe I’m right!”
Imoen turned around with rage in her eyes and made a sharp, twisting gesture with her right hand. A shimmering snake of pale white energy leapt out and wound itself around Cassandra’s throat as the fighter instinctively jerked backwards and nearly fell to the floor. It tightened; there was a brief sensation of suffocation, as if it had stuffed her throat with cotton, and then it was gone.
She glared at her sister and demanded an explanation — or tried to. Her mouth opened, but the words failed to come. Cassie stopped and reflexively put one hand to her neck. It felt normal enough; there was no sensation of tightness, no unusual texture. She tried the question again, but again the sound refused to come forth. Her vocal cords did not vibrate beneath her inquisitive fingertips.
“That,” Imoen said angrily, “is a silence spell. Maybe next time I tell you to drop it, you’ll drop it.” She turned once more and continued to the top of the stairs, making no move to cancel the enchantment.
Cassandra waited for a moment, but the mage didn’t even look back. The fighter gritted her teeth, quelled her mounting anger, and ascended the stairs in silence – the only way she could.
She’s right, she told herself. She told you to shut up and you didn’t. You let your damn emotions get the better of you.
Who does she think she is? another part responded. You’re the rescuer; you’re the one who risked everything to save her, and this is her thanks? To order you around like a dog?
Cassie’s lips pursed as she followed the back of the mage’s green smock. Imoen wasn’t acting very thankful, that was for damn sure — silencing her for some innocent teasing, her unreasonable reaction to the Slayer change.
She’s afraid, the inner voice assured her.
Of what, though? Me? The Slayer – Cassie – had attacked her, just as it had Bodhi. It hadn’t cared. That would definitely explain it.
Afraid of you – afraid of your power. And ashamed… The thought trailed off uncertainly, then rose again like a faint whisp of smoke. Ashamed.
Her brows furrowed together. In front of her, Imoen had reached the top of the staircase and now listened intently to whatever lay on the other side of the door. She’d tucked her auburn waves back behind her ears and her youthful face was beautiful in its concentration.
The voice didn’t have an answer.
“I think it’s clear,” Imoen whispered, turning her head from the door. “If I remember, this is the same floor as the ritual chamber, before we got thrown into the maze. We gotta be careful. But if we can find the stairs, the next level up is the exit.”
Imoen gently pushed on the door’s wooden surface, and it glided open with an almost eerie lack of noise. A thin sliver of dim blue light shone on her face as she looked through the opening into the space beyond. After a moment she nodded and motioned to her sister. “Clear.”
The warrior slipped through the opening and into the next chamber. It was a long hallway, bathed in an ambient teal-blue light which originated from small glowing glass bowls stationed at even intervals along the wall. Every twenty to thirty feet was a large, ominous metal door covered by rivets and reinforced bars. The air was deathly quiet, giving no clue as to what was sealed within.
We should— Cassie growled in frustration as her mouth opened and closed mutely. Or tried to growl. She reached out and touched Imoen’s shoulder, then gestured to her own throat. Fat lot of good it would be if they ran into trouble and she couldn’t even yell a warning.
Imoen shrugged her hand away and gave her an annoyed look. “It’ll wear off in half an hour.”
Take it off now, she mouthed.
“Sorry, can’t hear you.” She turned with a flippant toss of her hair and headed down the hallway to see what lie ahead.
Oh, this little prank was going to far. Cassie jogged to catch up with her, absently noting that even the sword belted around her waist and the fabric of the robe she was clad in made no noise. She reached out and caught Imoen’s elbow. It was safer for them both if she undid the spell.
Again the young woman pulled away. The annoyance in her eyes became more pronounced. “Don’t touch me.”
This was no time for games. They were still not to safety and there were still dangers out there. They were both tired, hungry, and physically drained from the fighting earlier; a surprise could be deadly. Cassie refused to compromise. She grasped her sister’s wrist as she turned away and halted her departure.
Imoen’s free hand flashed up and struck her swift and hard across the cheek. The sharp snap of impact echoed down the empty hall. Her grey eyes were bright with rage. “I said don’t touch me!”
Cassie’s hand went to cover the vicious sting of her cheek as the mage once more turned and ignored her. Her eyes widened; suddenly a wave of heat flooded her and the entire world was narrowed down to the girl who now was walking away.
How dare she!
The black fury hit her like a tidal wave; it crashed down and nearly washed her away in its turbulent swell. She had the sword raised to strike and lips drawn back in a mute snarl before she realized what she was about to do. The rage was wiped from her face by shock, and she dropped the blade as if it were white-hot in her hands. Though it’d been silent when held, the enchantment was apparently restricted to Cassandra herself — it clanged and clattered harshly against the cold stone floor.
Imoen jumped, startled, and turned around. Her expression slowly changed from exasperation to confusion and finally concern as she saw Cassandra bent over, holding her hands to her temples, eyes clenched shut and face harsh with pain.
She deserves it. An image flashed through the warrior’s mind: Imoen’s face, bloodied and bruised, as she screamed and pleaded for mercy. Her blood quickened in excitement even as she tried to shake the image out of her head.
Stop it. Get out of my head.
She deserves it, it repeated, and the image expanded. The phantasmal sounds of fist meeting flesh resounded in her mind, the wet smack of bloodied knuckles, the screams of terror. No one uses you.
Dammit, get out of my head!
“Cassie?” Imoen approached her cautiously, leaning slightly to the side to better see her sister. “Y’okay?”
She shook her head and tried to back away and keep distance between them. She was definitely not okay. Her heartbeat pounded in her temples like a herd of wild horses and the sensation of fire within her stole the air from her lungs. It doubled her over, gasping for breath, as the burning expanded outwards and lunged towards the surface. Definitely not okay.
“C’mon, Cass, cut it out.” The redhead’s voice was nervous and uncertain. She took a few hesitant steps forward.
Cassandra shook her head more vehemently and motioned for her to stay back. Words reflexively came to her lips as she tried to speak through the arcane silence. Run. Stay back. Stay back!
Imoen paused in her approach, face now thick with doubt and worry.
The other voice now cut in, its volume and intensity amplified in her mind by the rising tide of unnatural rage. She never listens, it growled. Ungrateful, selfish, manipulative…
The green-clad mage began whispering under her breath and extended her hand towards her sister. A soft bluish light appeared on the tips of her fingers.
Dammit, Im! The frustration from both voices combined and the resulting scream echoed inside her skull. For the gods’ sake for once in your pathetic life will you just listen– “–to me and RUN!”
Cassie’s head snapped upwards at the unexpected sound of her own voice, and Imoen jolted backwards. The harsh panting of her breath now rasped through the still air, and the faint sound of cracking and breaking was no longer masked by the spell. The fighter winced as an especially loud snap dislocated her shoulder. Black, alien eyes regarded Imoen from the face of a friend.
“Run, damn you,” Cassandra whispered, but the soft words soon escalated to a scream. “Run before I rip your god-damned head off, you bitch!”
The warrior lunged forward and Imoen reflexively responded with a hail of searing magical darts. The tiny white lances of energy cut into her skin and made the woman stagger backwards, but she remained on her feet. Cassandra snarled and crouched down as she steadied herself and prepared to attack again.
Her second lunge was met with a blast of arctic wind and snow that gusted forth from a glowing white orb between her sister’s hands. The shards of needle-like ice and pellets of hail assaulted her and once more drove Cassandra to retreat.
Imoen took off down the hallway at a dead run. Cone of cold and flaming arrows might slow Cassie down, but it damn well wouldn’t stop her. She didn’t bother trying the metal doors bolted into the walls. There had to be an easier escape route, or a room with easier access. Time was not a luxury she had, to wrestle with locks and bolts with– with whatever it was, chasing her. A howl of anger behind her emphasized the point.
A small door, this one wood instead of steel, was set at the end of the hall. Wood… dammit. It might hold. It was better than nothing, at least.
She didn’t bother looking behind her as she reached the portal and yanked viciously on the handle. It opened, hinges groaning a brief metallic protest, and the young mage quickly ducked inside and slammed it shut behind her. Her hands fumbled frantically for some manner of deadbolt or tiebar, but it quickly became obvious that there was none. The door could not be locked.
Not physically, at least. Imoen pantomimed turning a non-existent key in the door’s non-existent lock and recited the familiar words of the spell. A ghostly, semi-transparent image of the key appeared where she had pretended to hold it, then gradually faded into invisibility as the arcane lock settled into place.
Less than five seconds later the entire door shook with a jolting crash of impact as it was attacked from the other side. Imoen leapt instinctively backwards and flattened herself against the far wall as the wood continued to tremble and shake. The arcane lock held its place.
She clenched her eyes shut and tried to block out the bestial screams and howls as she mentally leafed through her repertoire of magic. Most of the spells she’d prepared the night before were geared towards finding things, revealing things, bypassing obstacles to their route: see invisible, locate object, open lock. She’d already used her only instance of Otiluke’s Resilient Sphere, which was arguably the only one of real value in the situation. There was disintegrate, but that would to exactly as its name suggested.
Another slam against the door caused the entire portal to quiver. The wood groaned miserably under the onslaught; the ripping and cracking sound of splintering wood quickly replaced it.
It’s trying to go through the door, she realized bleakly. The enchantment would keep the door from opening but it did not strengthen or reinforce the wood itself. It would still shatter and break the same as any door – eventually.
An inhuman cry answered her from the other side and the Slayer’s efforts to destroy the door by brute for redoubled. Imoen looked around her self-imposed prison for another avenue of escape, but the walls of the room were solid and plain. There were no other exits.
The door had to hold. It had to. What was left – disintegrate? And kill Cassie, her own sister? Kill or be killed, was that it?
The creature in the hall screamed again, and Imoen sank to the floor, hands over her ears, trying to muffle the Hellish sound. It hardly made any difference at all. The cacophony continued, punctuated by quaking and rattling of the door, closing in on her, suffocating her, crowding out everything but raw, primeval fear.
She yelled it with all her strength, somehow piercing the din of chaos… and suddenly the room was quiet.
It was several seconds before she registered the change. She opened her eyes and looked at the door in wary disbelief. It was still, and still intact. She slowly uncovered her ears. Silent. Completely. Nevertheless she sat unmoving for nearly a minute more, trying to hear any hint of where the creature had gone. There were no obvious sounds of breathing, no footsteps, no click of claws on granite floors – unless it was being very, very careful, which didn’t seem to be its modus operandi. And somehow she couldn’t quite appreciate the mental image of a Slayer tiptoeing down the hall.
Imoen got to her feet and stealthily approached the door. She laid her ear against the wood with her pulse still racing frantically; what if it was still on the other side, waiting for just that? Another mental image appeared, this one less comical: a giant talon-tipped hand exploding through the door and closing around her skull.
More silence. Even thief-trained ears could detect nothing on the other side. Either the beast was gone or Cassie had somehow acquired an actual measure of grace and stealth. Probably the former, since ‘Cassie’ and ‘stealth’ weren’t words generally found in the same sentence.
Nevertheless, one couldn’t be too careful. Imoen cast stoneskins on herself before making any motion to open the door. The abjuration field constricted around her, forming an invisible and skin-tight suit. It wouldn’t stop everything, but it’d stop a lot.
She dispelled the lock and gingerly pressed down the latch. It released with a faint but audible click, and once more she froze. After several seconds of continued silence, she slowly opened the door.
The hallway looked like an earthquake had hit it. Splinters and fragments of wood littered the floor from the scores of inch-deep gouges that had all but gutted the door. It had held, but barely. Even small bits of rock and plaster were scattered across the tile from where claws had struck stone instead.
The creature was gone, but Cassandra was there. She lay on her back a few feet away from the door, human once more, the robe she had worn again ripped and tattered from the transformation. Her eyes were closed.
“Cass.” Imoen knelt down and turned the girl’s head to face her. She didn’t respond to her name or the touch. “Cassie, you okay?” She lightly tapped the girl’s cheek. “Back to normal now? … oh shit… Cassie!”
Imoen’s voice grew frantic as she noticed the stillness of her sister’s chest. She placed the fingers of one hand to her throat and the others just beneath her nostrils. There was no pulse, no warmth of breath. She wasn’t breathing. Gods, she wasn’t breathing!
She grabbed the fighter’s shoulders and tried to shake her awake. “Cassie, wake up!” The next slap was not nearly so gentle; it left a red imprint on pale skin, but the eyes did not even flutter.
Imoen felt for a pulse again, found nothing, and shook the body once more. “Don’t you die on me, Cass. Don’t you die on me!” Her own heart was racing once more, now from a different sort of fear. Tears welled in her eyes and she blinked them away angrily. “Dammit, Cassandra, don’t you fucking die on me!”
“Breathe… c’mon, breathe.” She tilted Cassie’s head back and opened her mouth. She’d seen Hull do the same at Candlekeep once, to a young boy who’d fallen into the lake. The boy’s lips had been blue and his flesh nearly cold, but Hull had brought him back from Kelemvor’s gates. Cassie was still warm.
Okay, Im, what’d he do next? Think! She held her hand over Cassandra’s open mouth, but the air was still. Her memory played over the boy’s rescue in frantic, choppy flashes. Down on the ground, mouth open, head tilted… and then Hull had shared his breath with the boy.
She pinched Cassie’s nostrils closed, covered her mouth with her own, and exhaled. The woman’s chest rose slightly, but still she did not move. She tried again a second time, with the same lack of result.
Oh gods, gods, she’s dead, she’s really dead. She was going to be alone again, lost again – and this time there would be no hero, no escape. Irenicus would– No. No! I can’t do that again. I can’t do that again. If Cassie died, so did any illusion of hope.
Imoen pulled away and smacked Cassandra’s chest in a sudden fit of anger and grief. “Gods damn you — damn you to the deepest pit in the Nine Hells!” Now the tears came freely, spilling down her cheeks and falling forlornly onto her sister’s skin. “You can’t leave me here. I won’t let you!”
Another shake of her shoulders was to no avail. Imoen leaned down once more and shared her breath, whispering prayers to any god that would listen. “Please, Cassie, please.”
Her chest rose and convulsed. The redhead’s body jerked with a rough instinctive gasp for air and she was immediately overcome by coughing and paroxyms. Her eyes watered from the violence of the spasms as she was forcibly returned to the land of the living.
Imoen’s tears began anew, but this time sprung from joy. She hugged Cassie as tight as she dared. Her sister tried to return the hug amidst the fit of coughs, achieving only partial, awkward success.
“Cassie, damn you,” she sobbed, half-laughing and half-crying. She thwacked her in the chest, prompting a whole new round of gasps and sputters. “Don’t you ever do that again!”
“Do what?” Cassandra managed to wheeze.
“Any of it! No more freaky monster stuff, no more death’s door!” She wrapped her arms around her and squeezed her tight. “Don’t you ever scare me like that again. If I weren’t so happy you’re alive, I’d kill you.”
Another fit of coughs, and resigned acceptance. “Yes, ma’am.”
Imoen held her in the embrace for nearly a minute before she finally and reluctantly withdrew and turned her attention more to the matter at hand. “Can you stand up?”
Cassie shifted around slowly, wincing several times as a myriad of aches and pains made themselves known. “I don’t think so. Everything’s tingling; half-numb.”
“Here, lemme help.”
Imoen got into a crouched position and braced herself under Cassandra’s arm. She rose slowly as Cassie tried to get to her feet. After several attempts they succeeded, but the warrior’s stance was wobbly and weak at best.
“I hate to use the same room, but I don’t think you’re gonna go very far,” Imoen said as she helped her sibling into the room she herself had hidden in earlier. “And if you didn’t wake up the entire asylum just now, then I think we’re in the clear.”
Cassie nodded and limped over to a clear spot near the northwest corner. Imoen helped her back down into a seated position, and Cassie realized belatedly that her clothing had again been destroyed. Whatever Irenicus had triggered inside of her, it was making very short work of her wardrobe.
“Lock the door?”
Imoen shook her head. “I used arcane lock when—just a second ago, but it’s spent.”
Terrific. Not only had the encounter caused enough racket to wake the dead, they couldn’t even bar the door.
“Cass…” Imoen reached out and touched her chin, guiding her to meet her gaze. While the rest of Cassandra had returned to normal, the blue of her eyes had not. They were black, as they’d been just before her transformation: solid onyx from side to side. “Cass, you’re okay, right?”
“I don’t know. I’m exhausted, and I feel like a herd of umberhulks just ran me down.”
“No, I mean up here.” She tapped her temple. “I mean, you sound okay, but… is it really all you, up there?” She was frowning, her eyes thick with doubt.
Cassie paused, considering. She felt mostly normal. As normal as she had since going through the ritual, at least. But the voice, the dialog in her thoughts: that didn’t seem normal. People did talk to themselves, though, and have internal discussions – Hell, she was doing it now. And after all the stress and chaos they’d been through, who was to say that such discussions were abnormal? “I don’t know, Im. I sound okay to me, too, but… after what just happened…”
“Do I look the same?”
That was an unexpected topic shift. “Uh…yeah? Why?”
She opened her mouth to say it, but then reconsidered and shrugged. Maybe it was an after-effect, or maybe it was just slow to fade. They’d probably be back to normal soon. And if not, she still had hold person ready to use. “No reason. I’m just paranoid I guess.”
“Yeah.” She gave her sis a wink. “Hey, one good thing: looks like you’re already dressed for bed now.”
Cassie chuckled slightly, prompting an unexpected cough. She tapped herself on the chest to clear it. “When we get out of here, first stop is a tailor.” They both fell silent for a few moments until the fighter spoke again. “Do you really feel safe here?”
She shrugged a little. “Door’s still intact. Better than nothing.”
“I meant with me.”
Imoen raised one eyebrow with curiosity. “Well… safe is relative concept, I guess,” she admitted after a moment’s hesitation. “No offense, Cass, but, I plan on staying near the door just in case you wig out again – which you better not,” she tacked on sternly.
Cassandra shook her head. “I—It’s not random. I can kind of feel it coming on, I think. I just get so angry, and it’s like I can’t stop it.”
“You better learn to.”
“Yeah, I know.” She exhaled a soft, pensive breath. “I’m lucky I didn’t kill you.”
“And you’re lucky I didn’t kill you,” Imoen said in all seriousness. “I’ve only got a set number of spells a day, and my last two are hold person and disintegrate. And I know for damn sure that hold person isn’t going to work on a demon.”
Which left disintegrate. Cassie nodded slowly. “Well… just don’t slap me again,” she suggested with a weak smile.
The corner of Imoen’s mouth twitched in amusement. “I’ll try. And I’m sorry ‘bout that, by the way.”
“Nah.” Imoen plopped down beside her and rested her chin in her hands. “It’s not, really. I overreacted. Yes, me.” She eyed Cassie, challenging her to make a comment. The other woman just smiled.
“So… yeah. I guess I kinda owe you an explanation,” she continued. “You—you hit some sore points, y’know? Well, no, obviously you didn’t know, you couldn’t have, but you still hit them. And it pissed me off, so I whacked you.”
Cassie nodded. Imoen’s face had taken on a shadow of sadness in the dim blue glow of the room. It painted her almost like a water-color, a tangible and visible echo of the growing sorrow in her voice.
“You asked what he did to me, Cass,” she said softly. “And I brushed you off. I keep laughing and joking like it doesn’t matter, ‘cause maybe if I do then it really won’t. But it’s still there, and it’s always gonna be there. And it’s not fair of me to take it out on you – even if you really deserve it sometimes.”
The reflexive smile she threw with the words quickly evaporated as she realized she was laughing off the issue yet again. Imoen sighed and shook her head. “Geez, I’m hopeless.”
“No, you’re right,” Cassie responded softly, taking her sister’s hand and squeezing it in reassurance. “I really do deserve it sometimes.” She offered a smile of her own.
Her words prompted a small, but this time genuine, smile. “Don’t encourage me, you dork.” Imoen returned the squeeze and scooted a little closer, happily accepting when Cassandra offered her open arms.
“Anyways… what I’m trying to say, you dummy, is that I owe you an explanation. And ‘sides, it’s only fair. You shared part of your story last night, so now I’ll share some of mine.”
“Are you sure? Mine wasn’t as personal, or as painful, I’d wager.”
“Yeah, I’m sure. If you want to hear it, that is.”
Another nod. “It’s important to me. I’d like to hear.”
“Fine.” The sorceress took a deep breath and straightened her posture, steeling herself against whatever was to come.
“Everything was fine, actually, until Irenicus took over the asylum. So I guess I should start there…”