The darkly robed figure’s expression was unreadable behind the silver death mask that hid its face. “Uncommonly direct, Sehanine,” its flat, passionless voice whispered. “Why do You interrupt Me?”
The darkness gradually faded to a thick, misty grey – a featureless plain of nothingness, lacking both sky and ground. The swirl of mist and fog half-hid the elven woman within. She was beautiful and young, with long and glimmering silver hair. A sheer, see-through dress made of little more than moonlight itself did little to hide her feminine charms.
“You are far from the City of Death,” she informed the dark figure. “You walk a foreign land.”
“In search of My subject.” The grey, pupilless eyes may have shifted to the limp, translucent rag that he grasped with his skeletal hand, but it was impossible to tell. In his other he held a shadowy black mist that dragged like tattered silk through the ether. “She belongs to Me.”
“That claim is not without contest.”
“Speak Your mind, Moonbow. I have no time for games.”
“Death has little else save time,” she responded softly. “She is beholden unto Us.”
The bone hand lifted, raising the lighter of his burdens into the air. “This is no elf. The Seldarine have no claim.”
“Our blood has mixed with hers.”
The tattered black robes shifted impatiently. “Speak plainly. You try My patience.”
“It is not in Sehanine’s nature to speak plainly, as You well know,” a male voice chided. An elderly, grey-bearded elven man manifested from the cloud of mist, solidifying at the woman’s right-hand side.
The death mask bowed slightly. “Enoreth.”
“Kelemvor.” A matching bow from the ancient sage. “Sehanine speaks the truth: she holds Our essence.”
“It is a human soul.”
“Tainted by the blood of Murder.”
“Who was Himself once human, and who now is dead – and thus a subject of My realm.” He waved the two aside with a motion of the skeletal arm. “Let Me pass.”
“The Exile lived from a stolen life, and fed himself on Our blood. His death restored the soul You hold. Our claim is valid.”
Silence. The Lord of the Dead regarded them with unreadable eyes. The expressionless silver mask gave away nothing. A rattling whisper emerged a minute later. “She is Faithless. No one hears her prayers.”
Sehanine arched a finely sculpted brow. “That prayers go unanswered does much to still the asking.”
“Ao has forbidden the Gods from interfering with Murder’s spawn, as You well know,” Enoreth rejoined.
“And yet do You now interfere,” Kelemvor noted drily.
“As do You, Pale One.”
“She is Faithless, but not without Faith,” Sehanine asserted. “Her ears do not hear, but her name graces many lips.”
“You compare her to a God?” For the first time, the Dead Lord’s voice took on the barest hint of emotion: a whisper of indignant offense. Compared to his normal deadpan emptiness, it was as loud as if he had shouted. “She is only human.”
“As were You, far beyond Your rise to Godhood. Or were You and Mystra judged unfairly?”
Another silence, then a cold admittance. “The judgement was fair.”
“Then release her to Us,” Enoreth pressed. “Claim her should she fall again, but respect Us whilst she treads Our lands.”
“You ask much.”
“Consider a token of goodwill – freely given, to be freely repaid.”
“Mm. Acceptable. And this one, then?” The left hand rose, bearing forth the foul, tattered black mist that it held. “Do You claim him?”
Sehanine’s pale light cast the Lord of Dead into shadow as She turned Her face away. “He is False, and I shall not accept him. He has no place among Our dead.”
“False,” the Philosopher God agreed.
One by one eleven other voices pronounced the judgment. The misty, ghost-like figures of the elven gods manifested in the ether as they spoke.
Kelemvor’s black-robed form turned slowly until He was face to face with the Creator of the Elves.
“Do You pronounce him False, Corellon?” the bone-dry voice rasped. “The Seldarine renounce Their claim?”
The normally joyful eyes of the First Seldarine were cold and hard, and the Elf Lord’s lips were set in a thin line. “We renounce him. Do with him what You will.”
Two months later.
The soft sounds of symphonic strings carried over the night air, competing with the songs of crickets and nightingales. The busy, low rumble of a hundred different voices filtered up from the ballroom below. The De’Arnise Keep was holding its annual banquet, and nobles and well-to-do families from across all of Amn now filled the manor to the brim. Matilda and her staff had been working on the preparation for days, and now every servant and free hand of the castle staff was pressed into action. Wine flowed as freely as water; small hors d’oeuvres made rounds on fine silver platters; and half-sincere flattery was traded like cheap coin.
Imoen sighed and tried to block out the noise. She stood on a balcony on the upper level, after excusing herself from the masses of people and mandatory greetings. Chanelle had covered her exit, deftly intercepting the Knight and Dame Wentworth with the explanation that the Baroness had business to attend to.
Baroness. She’d never known what Nalia’s actual title was; Cassie had never mentioned it. It hadn’t been until her return to the Keep and the coronation ceremony that Chanelle – gods bless that girl – had whispered it in her ear, along with the expected ceremonial answers that Imoen had utterly forgotten to memorize.
Imoen of Candlekeep – Baroness of De’Arnise. Ol Puffguts would have never believed it in a million years. A small smile curved her lips as she gazed out over the landscape, faintly illuminated by the three-quarter moon. She wouldn’t have believed herself, either.
Her gaze went reflexively to her hands. Smooth, pale flesh. Polished oval nails. There was no sign of how close she’d come to losing control completely. She flexed the fingers, her smile slowly fading. There was a lot that no one would ever believe.
The mage pushed herself away from the railing and went back inside. If she was going to use the excuse of being busy, she might as well make it true. The hallways were dark and unlit; she absently lit the torches as she passed by, touching each one with a small spark of arcane energy. Since the battle with Irenicus and the unwelcome awakening of the Taint inside her, molding magic had become second nature. The more complex spells still demanded focus and study, but such things as light, magic missile, and hold portal required no more energy than a thought.
The master bedroom wasn’t far away. The doors slowly swung open of their own accord as she approached, and the multi-armed crystal candelabra overhead flared to life. She dimmed it immediately, reducing the flames to tiny flickers of light, and then gently took a seat on the edge of the bed and sighed.
“Is it that bad?”
Imoen’s eyes widened, and an affectionate smile leapt once more to her lips. She leaned over the bed’s prone occupant and brushed the red-gold hair away from her face. “You’re awake.”
“I felt you coming.”
Imoen nodded. Her fingers traced a small, soft trail over Cassandra’s face. The flesh was supple and flush with life – a stark contrast to the nearly mummified condition that she’d been left in after Irenicus’ horrid wilting. She lay clad in a simple nightgown. The gaping, angry wounds across her shoulder and chest had healed to red, coin-sized scars. Those on her stomach were slower to mend. The unholy energy that imbued the yugoloth tridents had thwarted all attempts to heal the injuries with divine might.
“It’s not your fault,” Cassie said as Imoen’s fingertips brushed her lips.
Imoen gave her a gentle tap on the nose. “Stop reading my mind.”
“Can’t help it. That is your fault.”
Had Cassie fallen in any other place, in any other circumstance, it would have been a vastly different ending. But death among the branches of the Tree of Life was no ordinary death. Death with Irenicus’ blood and stolen divine essence mixed with hers; death destroying the man who wished to unseat the elven gods themselves… the Seldarine had been thankful.
But drawing Cassandra back to the realm of the living had been no small task, even for the gods. Her wounds were severe; her spirit already departed. Something had to maintain her, to feed her, until body and soul were reunited and the injuries had begun to heal. Imoen had been that ‘something.’ Imoen’s soul and life force, willingly given, woven by the Seldarine into Cassie’s own. And now even though the union had been broken, the residual bond between them remained. They were linked now. More than just their divine heritage, more than childhood friendship, and more than grown-up love.
Cassie’s eyes had drifted closed again. They were black as onyx –Slayer eyes. No amount of healing would ever change it. Imoen didn’t mind. The rest of Cassie’s body had gradually returned to normal after her soul had been restored, and now she actually looked more human than she had before. The claws were still there, but the ashen-grey flesh was once more healthy pink. The Taint inside hadn’t gone away, though, and the dark gaze served as constant reminder that they could never let down their guard.
Her eyes fluttered open again, and an apologetic smile curved the corner of her mouth. “Sorry. Long day.”
“S’okay.” Imoen squeezed her hand. Cassie’s movement was limited, but she’d never been the type to stay in bed all day, and Imoen knew better than to try and make her. The slow walks around the Keep and chats with the servants kept the new Baron’s spirits up. “I need to go back downstairs before the Wentworths’ll come banging on your door.”
She leaned down and bestowed a gentle kiss Cassie’s lips. It lingered longer than she’d intended, and Cassandra sighed softly when she pulled away.
“I want to make love to you.”
Imoen smiled. “When you’re better.”
“By then you’ll have found someone else.”
“Someone else?” Imoen arched an eyebrow in mock indignation, but she couldn’t keep the amusement out of her voice. “Cass, babe – I have one of the most famous noblewomen in Amn in my bed – and she just happens to be my best friend and a demi-god. Who could possibly be better than that?”
“I didn’t say you’d find someone better.”
“I’m spoiled. I could never be happy with a mere mortal.”
“I hear Sune’s available.”
“Not a fan of pointed ears.” Imoen gave her another kiss. “I really need to go, Cass. I’ll be back around midnight.”
Cassandra squeezed her hand. “Promise?”
She squeezed back. “Nothing in Heaven, Hell, or in between could keep me away.” She smiled softly as she reluctantly stood up. Her fingers tarried as long as possible on her lover’s skin, unwilling to let go.
Love wasn’t a strong enough word for what beat inside Cassie’s chest. Each heartbeat thundered with an emotion that put love to shame. Someday she’d make a new word, a better word, that told all the Heavens how she felt. A word that bards didn’t sing; a private word that only she would know. Something special that would tell Imoen exactly how she felt.
The mage’s small smile grew and blossomed into an expression of delighted joy. Her eyes twinkled with pleasure and happiness. She leaned over her sister, cupped her face with both hands, and embraced her with a long, sensual kiss that shamed the very word. It stole their breath and slowed down time, turning the small moment of joining into a union deeper than could be imagined. When Imoen broke away again, she placed a single finger to Cassie’s lips.
“Stop reading my mind,” she whispered playfully.
“Can’t help it,” Cassie murmured.
The mage departed with one last kiss. And an hour after midnight, as their slow, careful lovemaking brought them both to a deep and trembling climax, Cassandra whispered a single word in her ear.