“Hey, it’s here.”
Cassandra held up a thick packet of papers as she entered the dining room. Imoen was stretched out on the sofa under a thick down blanket with a steaming mug of tea next to her. She didn’t stay there for long.
“Ooooh!” She was on her feet and bounding over to Cassie before the blanket hit the ground. “Gimme!”
“Hey! Hold on!”
Cassie’s arm shot into the air, but it wasn’t fast enough to keep the package out of Imoen’s grasp. The red-head bounced back to the couch and flopped down in a whump of fluff and cotton.
“About time.” She flicked past the first few pages. “Read it already?”
“Didn’t have time.” Cassie stopped next to the foot of the sofa, crossing her arms over her chest. “Someone snatched it out of my hands before I got the chance.”
“Ladies first. You know the rules.”
“When I see a lady, I’ll let you know.”
“Hush.” Imoen flicked through the first few pages with her thumb. “She’s late. We should have had this a week ago.”
A shrug as Cassie took a seat on the arm of the couch. “She’s busy.”
“And we’re not?”
“Not really, no.”
“Oh, please.” She rolled her eyes dismissively. “Earth to Cassie. Big battle with Bodhi? On-going search for Irenicus?”
“Irenicus got rescheduled.”
“What?” That got Imoen’s attention. The flick of papers reversed as she traversed back to the beginning. “Oh, you’re kidding me! January?? She was supposed to have this whole thing finished by then!”
“Hey, you were the one complaining about working during the holidays.”
“Well… well, yeah!” Imoen drew her feet to the side as Cassie settled down on the couch. The soft grey gaze went back and forth between the papers and the blue-eyed woman visible just above them. “No one should have to work during Christmas.”
“We live in Faerûn, Im,” Cassie pointed out. “We don’t have Christmas.”
“Which you don’t celebrate.”
Imoen gave her a dark glare. “It’s the principle.” Cassie gave her a small, tolerant smile, to which Imoen held up a warning finger. “Don’t start.”
“Wouldn’t dare.” The smile was replaced with wide-eyed innocence, spoiled only by the laughter dancing in the bright blue gaze.
“Good.” A momentary glance back down at the papers. It darted back up a second later, but Cassie’s angelic smile stayed in place. “Anyways.” She licked her thumb, giving Cassandra one more cautionary look before going through the pages once more. “Lessee… Leave Bodhi’s place. Funeral – not ours, of course. Expected that. Oh!” One fingertip tapped against a line about halfway down the page. “I get some new character development!”
“Like you need any more character.”
“Hush. And hand me my tea, will ya?”
One fiery eyebrow arched up. “You want me to hand you a cup full of scalding hot water?” A shake of her head. “Uh-uh. I know you too well.”
“Dork. Then go get me a cookie or something.”
“Like you need any more cookies.”
“Hush!” She glanced up again in annoyance. This time Cassie’s smile was considerably less on the ‘innocent’ side. “You’re just jealous that I’m finally in the spotlight.”
“No I’m not. I’ve had enough character development, believe me. I could go a few weeks without having to go psycho.”
Imoen’s lips curled in a mischievous grin. “But you do it so well.”
Cassandra reached for the cup of tea and sniffed it curiously. Green tea with a splash of mint – Imoen’s latest favorite.
“What? If you’re not going to drink it, I might as well.”
“I wanted to drink it,” she pointed out indignantly. “At very least you could ask first.”
Another shrug. “You’d just say no.”
“Maybe that should tell you something. Sheesh.”
“Other than you don’t like to share?”
“I share plenty.”
“Name one time.”
Her lips pursed, but the mage didn’t answer. Cassie delicately raised an eyebrow in challenge. Imoen gave her a small kick in retaliation. “Barbarian.”
“A barbarian with tea,” the older girl pointed out with a wink.
“Yeah, yeah.” Imoen stuck out her tongue and curled her feet back underneath her as she went back to reading. “I swear, sometimes I don’t know why I put up with you.”
Cassie moved down to take a seat on the couch proper. “Because I’m so charming.”
“So you get character development. What else?”
Imoen feigned a wounded look. “You don’t even want to know what it is?”
“You wouldn’t tell me anyways.” She raised her free hand and curled her fingers in invisible quotation marks. “It ‘ruins the artistic spontaneity.'”
“Well, it does.” She ignored the roll of Cassie’s eyes. “So yeah… Ajantis dies – as if we didn’t see that coming – I get character development, we find a clue to Irenicus’ hidey-hole…” Imoen scanned the rest of the page with her lips pursed in a small, delicate circle before flipping to the next. “Big heart to heart talk.”
“Any more action scenes?” Cassie queried, craning her neck to see the documents.
“Not in Chapter 15. How’s your neck?”
Cassie reflexively ran her fingers over her throat. The flesh was still a bit tender, but nothing a few days vacation wouldn’t take care of. “Bit sore. Bodhi got a little too into the moment.”
“She loves her work. You should ask for a stunt double.”
“She loves acting out her little sadistic fantasies, you mean. And I don’t want a stunt double.”
Imoen flashed a grin at her. “Oh, c’mon. Bodhi’s not that bad. And she totally has a crush on you.”
Cassie wrinkled her nose. “I hope not.”
“She does. Why else do you think she does her own stunts?”
“What does that have to do with it?”
Imoen sighed – her patented ‘Are-you-really-that-slow’ sigh with which Cassie was intimately familiar. “Because, silly, every time you and her end up in a scene together, it’s a huge fight that ends up with one of you pinning the other one to the wall or floor or something. She totally gets off on it.”
“Just count yourself lucky that none of the fights took place in a bedroom.”
“Ew!” Cassandra grimaced and gave Imoen a light whack on the leg. “Gods. Thank you for that lovely mental image.”
She smirked. “No prob. ‘Sides, why ‘ew’? You could do worse than Bodhi licking your lips. Could have been Jaheira.”
“Jaheira’s at least attractive.”
“Oh? Bodhi’s not your type?”
Cassie shook her head. “Nah. Too much makeup. Jaheira’s more…”
“Drab?” Imoen offered helpfully.
“Earthy,” Cassandra countered. “Natural.”
“I’d take Nalia, personally.”
Both of Cassie’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. “You’re not even gay, Im.”
She shrugged. “Doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate a pretty woman when I see one. ‘Sides, I might be gay. Never know.”
“You aren’t gay. I’ve seen how you look at some of the extras. Male extras,” she clarified.
“Well, some of them are rather buff,” Imoen admitted with a small, wistful smile.
“—but that doesn’t mean that I don’t find the girls attractive. Seriously? That slit in Nalia’s robe? Totally hot.”
“Then you’re bi,” Cassie informed her. “Which isn’t gay, so the point stands.”
The mage let out an annoyed sigh and rolled her eyes. “You and your stupid labels.”
“You started it. All that jazz about Bodhi wanting me.”
“Shut up or I’ll start about Mazzy.”
“Mazzy is in no way, shape, or form even remotely interested in me. Or anyone. Male or female.”
“Yeah, you’d like to think that, wouldn’t you? Imagine: Mazzy peeling off her little halfling clothes, walking seductively towards—”
“Ugh! Enough! You win. Just change the damn subject.”
Imoen gave her a mischievous grin. “Sensitive topic?”
“Disgusting topic.” She tilted her chin up, motioning towards the stack of papers. “What about Chapter 16?”
The grin stayed in place, but Imoen dutifully directed her eyes back to the document. “Elves. Lots of elves. Hey, Jaheira’s a half-elf…”
Cassandra sighed. “Im.”
“Okay, okay. Sheesh. Oh, oh! Fight scene!” She bounced up and down excitedly. “You’ll like this. Big, big fight scene. Lots of golems, though. Gods, I hate golems.”
“They trained that bone golem pretty well though.”
“Trained? Cass, babe, you can’t train those things. They’re mindless.”
“Well, they kept it under control.”
“Well, are these golems going to be bone golems?” Cassie asked, taking another sip of tea.
Imoen shook her head. “Nah. Iron. Clay. Generic constructs. Still mindless, though,” she said, glancing pointedly over.
Cassandra gave her a small smile over the rim of the cup. “We’re insured,” she reminded her.
“Yeah, yeah. See how warm and happy that makes you when they’re setting your broken bones.” Imoen still hadn’t forgotten – or forgiven – the myriad of tiny injuries Cassie had received in early chapters. It was only a matter of time before something worse occurred.
“Well, scan the scene,” Cassie offered. “Do I end up getting crushed or something? Any Slayer transformation?”
“Mmm. Sec.” Grey eyes scanned the pages in quick, efficient lines. The small moue of her lips pursed into a pout as she read, then suddenly dropped open into a shocked, rounded ‘O’. “Oh no.” Her eyes jumped back up to the top of the page, and this time she read it more slowly. The horrified ‘O’ remained. “No way! No fucking way!”
“What?” Cassandra cupped the mug in both hands as she leaned forward for a better view. “Why? What happens?”
Imoen snatched the papers away and surged off the couch. She was a flurry of movement as she fetched three different spellbooks from the bookshelf and at least as many bags of powders, stones, and spider-legs from her desk.
“That bitch,” she fumed as she stormed into the bedroom. The irate sound of her voice carried back through the hall. “Okay, I’ll give you some artistic license, but she is not getting away with this. Absolutely not.”
Cassandra was on her feet as well. She followed her sibling to the bedroom, absent-mindedly setting the tea down on the living room table as she passed by. “Whoa, Im. Explain, please? What’s going on?”
“Just get dressed. We’re leaving.”
“Uh…” She looked down quizzically. Apparently Imoen had missed some of the more…obvious details of her clothing. Like the fact that she was wearing them. “I am dressed. Where are we going?”
“We’re going to pay Taig a little visit.”
“Pay Taig a visit?” she repeated incredulously. “And how in the Nine Hells do you expect to do that?”
“Plane shift,” Imoen answered matter-of-factly.
“Okay, first of all,” Cassie began as Imoen whizzed by her again back to the living room, “Plane shift doesn’t exist in Baldur’s Gate—”
“Sure it does!” came the pitched answer. “Planar Sphere, remember?”
“That wasn’t a spell; that was a giant machine.”
“Which shifted between planes,” Imoen pointed out, poking her head around the corner.
“It still wasn’t a spell! When was the last time you saw plane-anything in a Baldur’s Gate spellbook?”
“It’s in the Standard Reference Document. And in the Player’s Handbook.”
Cassandra crossed her arms. “And in this particular implementation of those?”
Imoen frowned. “Fine. But what about the Planar Prison, then?” she demanded, arching up one slim eyebrow in challenge. “Or going to Hell? Or the Pocket Plane?”
“Those aren’t spells,” Cassie repeated stubbornly. “Those are… are…”
“Plot holes?” Imoen suggested sweetly.
“Besides, you’re missing a vital point in winning your argument,” the younger girl said with a wink. “Earth isn’t an alternate plane at all. It’s a completely different Crystal Sphere.”
Cassandra threw up her hands in exasperation. “So why the Hell do you want to use plane shift, which doesn’t exist in Baldur’s Gate anyways?”
“Plot holes, babe: it’s all about plot holes. Now get dressed and come on.”
“I feel like a reject from a costume party,” Cassandra grumbled as they made their way through the winding city streets. “Everyone’s staring at us.”
“Different world, different rules,” Imoen answered. Her eyes were scanning the tall brick buildings set along the way, so close to each other that most of them even shared a single wall. Belgium, as they called it, apparently had a like of the color orange. A vast majority of the dwellings had rust-colored tiles on their sharply-angled roofs. “Hey.” She stopped, tugging on Cassie’s elbow, and pointed across the street. “That it?”
It was a tall, newer building, with a grey exterior and thankfully lacking the carrot-hued roof. On each level of the building was a small balcony and several windows. A row of metal boxes, each one adorned with a small label and name, was affixed on the outer wall next to the door. Slightly higher and to the other side were two items: a rectangular metal plate with a row of vertical buttons, and a simple painted number: 64.
“Think so,” Cassie answered. She wasn’t sure how Imoen had managed to dig up or scry out the information, but this was the right street and the right number. “How do we get in?”
“Knock, I guess.”
Imoen and Cassie jogged across the grey cobblestone street towards the collection of metal boxes. The door was set into a recess in the wall and, surprisingly, was made of glass.
“I could just break it,” Cassie offered.
Her sister gave her a warning glance. “Let’s try knocking first.”
“There’s no one there. Look – you can see right through it. It’s just a hallway with a stairwell.”
“Well, we’ll knock loudly,” Imoen huffed.
Knocking loudly did, indeed, bring results. After several minutes of forceful pounding on the glass portal, a middle aged human man appeared at the top of the stairs. He was balding with a thick and vibrant moustache, and with an equally thick and vibrant belly protruding over the tops of his pants. A small orange-and-white dog with long, wavy fur circled excitedly around his feet.
He leaned down, peering through the doorway to the strangers outside. Imoen waved excitedly, beaming him her best and most charming smile. She pointed towards the door latch hopefully.
It worked. Apparently the men of this realm were as vulnerable to female charms as those of Faerûn. A moment later he was at the bottom of the stairs; a second after that, they were inside.
“Thanks, mister!” Imoen brushed her hair back behind her ears, while Cassandra tried with only partial success to avoid the dog’s excited snuffling. “We’re looking for Taig. You know her?”
“Top floor. Take the lift.” He motioned towards a set of grey metal panels embedded in the wall next to the staircase.
“What’s a lift?” Cassandra whispered as the man retreated back up the stairs.
She shrugged merrily. “We’ll find out!”
The panels remained closed as they drew nearer. There was no latch, no doorknob, no obvious manner of opening. Cassie regarded it with a small frown as Imoen glanced around. A small button with the number “0″ engraved on it was set next to the panels. Imoen pushed it.
The doors slid open with a small, bell-like chime. The chamber behind was tiny – large enough for perhaps four people – with a flickering white magelight set into the ceiling. The walls of the chamber were also crafted of metal, with a long, square mirror covering a full half of the wall opposite the door.
Imoen stepped in cautiously, glancing around in interest. Cassandra followed a half-step behind.
“Must be some sort of… secret passage or something,” Imoen mused aloud.
“Not a trap?”
“Why would he point us towards a trap?”
Cassandra shrugged. “Why do most villains do the things they do? Just to be assholes.”
“Nah, I think this must be the ‘lift.’ So… it must lift us.”
“It’s not moving,” the older sister pointed out.
“Not yet,” Imoen agreed. “Give it a second. I bet we have to close the doors first.”
“And how do we do that?”
“Another button?” There were five of them set into the inner wall of the chamber, numbered from zero to three, with two having arrow-shaped symbols instead. “If we’re on zero now,” Imoen reasoned, reaching out a finger, “then the top would be three.”
The button light up with a ring of red light, and the metal panels slid back closed. A second later the entire chamber lurched to life with a faint, distant whrrr of machinery. Cassie braced herself against the walls with a sudden, nervous fright. She didn’t trust gnome machinery. If Jan Jansen built this thing, it’d be as likely to explode as reach the top.
A minute later, however, the chime sounded again, and the doors slid smoothly open. Beyond lay another hallway, free of any indication of gnomish work. Calling it a ‘hallway’ might have been overgenerous: it extended perhaps ten feet before ending at a simple wooden door.
Imoen, as always, wasn’t shy. Three swift, loud raps against the door announced their presence to dwellers inside.
A soft, muffled voice answered from the other side. “Wie is’t?”
The sisters exchanged bewildered glances.
“Uh… can we speak to Taig?” Imoen asked, leaning closer to the door.
This time the answer was in Common. “Who is it?”
“Imoen and Cassandra of Candlekeep. We’re looking for Taig Dale.”
Silence. After a moment the sound of a key in the lock. The door cracked open perhaps half an inch, and a sliver of a female human face peered out. The alert green eyes flickered from one girl to the other.
“Imoen,” Imoen said helpfully. “This is Cassie. Are you Taig?”
The brows drew together in confusion. “Yeah, but how—”
“Great! We need to talk!” Her hand flashed up, the stack of papers having materialized out of some or another pocket in the mage’s flowing robes. “Chapter 16? Not happening. So not happening.”
Taig was pushed aside as Imoen forced her way through the doorway with Cassandra hot on her heels. The older girl closed the door again as Imoen found her way to the nearest table and pulled out two chairs. She took a seat in one, sliding the other one over to their startled host, and held out the offending documents.
Taig accepted them automatically, still obviously flustered by the unexpected intrusion. Her gaze went repeatedly to Cassandra, whose decision not to leave without at least some basic chainmail armor now in retrospect seemed a bit overkill. The sword at her side certainly made an impression, judging from the nervous glances it gained.
“Now I appreciate that you’re the author and all,” Imoen was saying, leaning forward and fixing the uneasy blond with a steady gaze. “And yeah, yeah, we’re just characters and we get to dance to whatever little tune you give us. But you are not killing off Cassie.”
“Whoa. What?” Cassandra straightened, her attention immediately back on her sister. “I get killed? When? By who?”
Imoen waved her down. “Not important.”
“Because it’s not going to happen,” Imoen stated firmly. “You–” she said, pointing at Taig, “—need to re-write this.”
“Why? It fits the story,” the older woman argued back. “It’s well-written, and it’s dramatic. It works.”
“‘Cause it’s crap!” Imoen exploded. “You can’t kill off Cassie! Everyone loves Cassie!”
“Cassie’s an anti-hero. She’s a tragic figure. It’s a tragic ending.”
“Oh c’mon. She’s gone through so much shit because of you it’s not even funny. The least you could do is give her a happy ending.”
“People don’t read Crumbling Down for the happy endings,” Taig countered.
Imoen crossed her arms. “Then why are they reading it? To see Cassie get tortured and killed?”
Another jolt of alarm shot through Cassie’s nerves. “Tortured?”
“Probably for the sex, actually.”
Imoen rolled her eyes. “What sex? There hasn’t been any—” She stopped abruptly, her eyes widening. Taig looked at her with a smirk. “You’re kidding.”
The author shook her head. “No, I’m not. The sex scene was really popular.”
Imoen sighed, hiding her face in her hands. “Gods, people are disgusting.”
“They’re not disgusting. They just like a happy ending.”
“I’m all for happy endings,” Imoen assured her. “And Cassie deserves one. So… rewrite it, and give her a happy ending.”
“You mean another sex scene?” Taig asked, giving Imoen a mischevious smile that the thief-mage knew all too well.
“No! Happy without sex!”
“I liked the sex scene,” Cassandra quipped from her position by the door.
“Shut up, Cass.”
“You liked it, too.”
“It was work,” Imoen responded, shooting her an annoyed glance.
“Whatever. You were wet.”
“Cassie!” She scooped up a handful of small dice that had been laying on the tabletop and threw them one by one at her sister. “Too. Much. Frigging. Information!!” Each word was punctuated by a small sound of impact and an accompanying ow from the target.
Taig raised an eyebrow and said nothing. With the damnable smile still on her lips, she didn’t need to.
“Happy ending,” Imoen repeated sternly, stabbing the manuscript with her forefinger. “No sex.”
“If it’s Cassie’s happy ending, shouldn’t we let her decide?” Taig queried, raising her gaze to the warrior.
Cassie nodded. “I’d pick the sex.”
“You would, you pervert.” Imoen sighed. “Look, you’re the author, right?” she asked the green-eyed woman across from her.
“So, you can write whatever you want. All I’m saying is that killing off Cassie is just a cheap move, y’know? People love Cassie. Cassie’s great. Big hero and all that jazz. But more importantly, Cassie’s gone through a lot. People sympathize with her. I mean, she’s been almost literally to Hell and back in this story, and you can’t just keep throwing bad things at her. She needs a break. She deserves a happy ending. And I’m not gonna let you kill her off.” Imoen leaned back in the chair, fixing Taig with a strict, no-nonsense gaze. “If she goes, I go.”
“You can’t leave unless I write it that way.”
An auburn eyebrow arched. “Wanna make a bet?”
Cassie winced and silently shook her head. No, she mouthed. Making bets with Imoen was a sure way to lose.
Taig pursed her lips, glancing back and forth between the two redheads. If they were anything in real life like they were in the story, then Imoen wasn’t making an idle threat. And losing both main characters so close to the finale would ruin everything.
“Fine,” she said. “I’ll re-write it.” Imoen let out a whoop of joy, but Taig held up a hand and motioned that she hadn’t finished. “But, I re-write it how I want.”
“As long as Cassie gets a happy ending.”
“No promises. But she won’t die.”
Taig sighed. “Is a happy ending really that important?”
“Even if it requires another sex scene?”
The answer to that question was neither so quick, so positive, nor so enthusiastic. “I suppose so,” Imoen grudgingly allowed, glancing suspiciously over at Cassandra. “But, y’know, gratuitous sex isn’t always the answer.”
“I never write gratuitous sex.”
Both girls looked over at her with blatant disbelief.
“You wrote an erotica over Jaheira,” Cassandra said slowly.
“Like you’re complaining,” Imoen said with a roll of her eyes. “You like Jaheira.”
“I think she’s cute. But that’s totally different than writing a three page orgy about her.”
“It wasn’t an orgy,” Taig corrected indignantly. “It was just a sex scene.”
“And rather gratuitous,” Imoen pointed out. Cassandra nodded in agreement.
Taig wasn’t about to back down that easily. “It’s not gratuitous if it’s part of the plot.”
A snort of disbelief from Cassandra. “Plot? What plot?”
“It had a plot!”
Imoen smirked and shot a glance over at her sister. “Yeah: ‘Jaheira discovers her G-spot.'”
“I already said I’d re-write it,” Taig said. “So you get your happy ending. Or at least, Cassie doesn’t get killed and it’ll be somewhat happier than before. Okay?”
“Sex?” Imoen prompted warily.
“Author’s discretion,” she responded, standing her ground. “But not gratuitous. Maybe not at all. I’ll have to think about it.”
“Fine.” The mage stood up from the table and gestured for Cassie to get the door. “But if you bail on us and get Cassie killed…” She let the sentence trail off into a meaningful silence.
“I won’t,” Taig answered. “Scouts honor.”
“Great. C’mon, Cass, we’re done here.” The two sisters exited back out into the hallway, where Cassandra once again pushed the button to summon the metal box.
“Oh, and Ms. Taig?” Imoen queried, suddenly sweet, as the box opened and they stepped inside.
Taig arched an eyebrow. “What?”
“Comedy isn’t really your style,” the redhead winked as the doors slid shut once more.