“There it is.”
The strong, proud walls of the De’Arnise keep jutted out of valley, a silent stone warden overlooking a sea of ripe, golden grain. From this far away the main castle seemed small, almost overwhelmed by the press and crowd of surrounding farmland. Here and there were tiny specks of movement: peasants and farmers traversing their fields or calling upon the grand keep itself. The sunlight glinted off the metal of farm tools and livery.
Cassandra and Imoen lay on the crest of a hill roughly a mile away. After seven days of solid travel, five of which on foot, they had finally reached familiar territory. The chance to rest, refuel, and get a change of clean clothes would do wonders for the two tired and foot-sore girls.
Imoen let out a low whistle of appreciation as she peered down the slope. “And you own that? Like, the land and everything?”
“Technically.” Cassie licked her lips. She hadn’t been back since her initial confrontation with Bodhi—the confrontation which had cost Nalia De’Arnise her life. She’d informed no one, never recovered the body, so single-minded had been her determination to reach Spellhold.
“I’m not around much.” A thin strip of cloth hung from her belt, ripped from the sleeve of her shirt when they’d departed Tethir. Cassandra tugged it free and handed it to Imoen. “Let’s get this over with.”
“You don’t sound too cheery,” the younger sister noted.
Cassie didn’t respond. The cloth dropped over her eyes, obliterating the outside world with a wash of dirty beige. Imoen tugged it tight and fastened it with a simple knot.
“There. Turn around. See anything?”
She did so, stopping at where Imoen ought to be. Now the mage was only visible as a shadowy, humanoid figure through the film of cloth. “Not much.”
“Looks good from here.” A pat on her shoulder, follow by a hand taking her own. “What’s our story? Léoma of Silverdale? Ulomin and Carodei?”
Over the past week they’d used a half-dozen different aliases, all drawn from the musty old tomes of Candlekeep. It was safer—and more suiting Imoen’s flair for the dramatic—than announcing their true identities.
“No story. They know me already. Being blinded won’t be such a stretch.”
“Just plain ol’ Cassandra of Bhaal?”
“Cassandra of Candlekeep. They don’t know about Bhaal.”
Imoen pursed her lips. “I doubt that.”
“Just get me down the hill.”
“Okay, okay. Here.” Imoen’s slender arm slipped around her waist, her other hand still grasping Cassandra’s own. “It’s pretty steep, but it’s all grass. No loose rocks and stuff.”
The first few steps were always the hardest after being blindfolded. The first few days had been harder still, learning to navigate based on sound and feel, relying on Imoen’s eyes instead of her own. It was practical, though, despite appearances: travelers had more sympathy for a blind girl and her guide, more willingness to share a ride or a meal. Such charity would have be scarce indeed had Cassandra’s Bhaal-black eyes not been masked.
By now she’d grown used to it, and Imoen’s small pushes and pulls on her body were translated automatically into steps and stops. They navigated the slope with small but confident steps, using the tufts of dying weeds as footholds. Most of the grass was still green, but autumn’s touch was visible here and there as swathes of aging brown. The last harvests would need to be done soon, before the frosts began.
“Annnnnd flat.” Imoen reached the base two steps ahead of her sister, guiding the latter back to even ground. The main trade road was some hundred feet distant; a slow convoy of vegetable-laden wagons crept along its length. Perfect. “Looks like we can catch a ride. Keep walking, I’ll be right back.”
The mage broke into an easy jog, hiking up the hem of her robe in both hands. It didn’t deter the myriad of small burrs and thistles, which grabbed ahold of it all the same.
“Hey! Hey, mister!”
The wrinkled, white-haired farmer glanced over at her with rheumy eyes. His hands on the reins trembled, whether from age or infirmness; by all rights he was far too old to be driving his own crop.
Imoen slowed once she reached the flat, pounded earth of the road itself. A glance behind her assured her that Cassie was following, albeit it slowly, across the grassy plain.
“Hey, mister. Are you going to the De’Arnise Keep?”
“Ignore her, Beadley!” called out the bald, portly driver behind him. “Just keep drivin’.”
“Oh c’mon! I don’t want money or nothin’. But me and my friend, we’ve been walking for days.” She jerked her thumb over her shoulder; Beadley’s watery blue gaze followed automatically. “We’d really appreciate a lift.”
The wagon was slowing, but baldy wasn’t through. “Beadley! Keep movin’!”
“What’d we ever do you do, grumpy?” Imoen retorted, putting her hands on her hips and sticking out her tongue. “You got a thing against girls?”
“I got a thing against scamps like you begging off innocent, hard-working folk like us.”
“We aren’t beggars! C’mon, you’re going to the Keep anyways, right? Just give us a lift. It won’t slow you down, and then you’ve done your good deed for the day.”
“Imoen.” Cassie had made it to the road, and now reached out in the general direction of the mage’s voice. “What’s going on?”
“It’s okay.” Imoen reached out and took Cassie’s hand, glaring defiantly at the sour-faced driver that was ruining her plan. “Someone’s just had a bad morning and now he’s taking it out on us.”
He glared back. “Beadley! Move!”
“Hold your horses, Poffert.” Beadley’s thin, quavering voice barely managed to keep aloft. He gave a small jerk of his head. “Climb on up, girly. You and your friend, too.”
Imoen let out a whoop of joy and quickly clambered up the side of the wagon, turning to help Cassandra up in turn. Poffert’s face reddened with indignation; it made his already-pudgy features swell to the point of explosion. Beadley’s cart was moving again, though, and baldy held his tongue.
“Thanks a ton, Mister Beadley,” Imoen gushed, flashing him her best and brightest smile as she settled down amid the sacks of potatos, carrots, and cabbage. “We really appreciate it. Not everyone’s nice to strangers.”
“I normally ain’t that nice, either,” the old man admitted. “But anyone who has the sass to talk to Poffert like that can’t be all bad.”
“Oh, she’s got sass alright,” Cassandra confirmed.
A quick elbow to her ribs silenced her. “Hush, you.”
Beadley pursed his lips and gave a sharp shake of the reins. “Never met a woman who don’t.”
The remainder of the journey to the Keep took a quarter of an hour, all of which Imoen filled with a steady stream of cheerful banter and the occasional smug smile shot back at Poffert’s displeased scowl. Cassandra made herself as comfortable as possible on the sacks of produce and tried to listen, but Nalia was foremost in her mind. It’d been over a month; questions must have been raised. The heir of De’Arnise and the Steward of the Keep both disappearing? If Nalia’s death had been discovered, it was easy to guess where the blame would fall.
A small, warm hand closed around Cassie’s own. “C’mon, Cass, we’re here. Turn around. Put your foot here. Yup; little lower. Annnnnd….jump!”
She pushed herself away from the cart; the earth met her feet a second later. Imoen sprang down as well, landing with considerably more grace next to the dusty road.
“Thanks, Mister Beadley!” The auburn-haired mage waved enthusiastically as the produce cart continued its slow roll towards the marketplace. A frail, wrinkled hand rose in silent acknowledgement.
“Well… we’re here!” Imoen clapped her hands together, rubbing them briskly. ‘Here’, in this case, was just inside the keep’s main gate, where the trade road split into two directions, circling around the massive stone walls. A small, carefully groomed courtyard separated the De’Arnise home proper from the general populace outside. That, and a guarded, reinforced wooden door. “How do we get in?”
“In?” Cassandra turned her head, reflexively trying to look around. “Aren’t we already in?”
“Almost. There’s a big wooden door with metal bands around it, and a soldier guy next to it with a big pike. I’m guessing that’s the way into the main hall.”
“Sounds like it. Open or closed?”
“Closed. Got a plan?”
“Point me in the right direction. I can handle it from here.”
“You got it.”
Imoen cupped Cassandra’s elbow and gave her a quarter turn. The guard’s eyes were already on them: amongst the farmers and traders, the blind woman and her hyperactive guide stood out like lightning on a clear summer night. His thin lips pressed into a frown as they approached.
“Can I help you?” His fingers tightened around the shaft of the pike, but stopped short of actually lowering it to bear.
It was Cassie who answered. “I need to speak to the Major Domo.”
“Tell him it’s Cassandra.”
“Cassandra?” His eyes narrowed, darting reflexively to the distinctive bright red of her hair, then to Imoen’s unfamiliar face. “Lord Cassandra?”
“Just fetch him.”
“Just a moment. Wait here.”
“Lord Cassandra?” Imoen whispered as soon as the man had disappeared inside the keep. “I thought we left your winkie in the Underdark?”
“You have a ceremonial penis?”
“What’s your obsession with penises?”
“What? I’m not obsessed! I’m just—”
The mage rolled her eyes. “Why do I bother talking to you?”
“‘Cause I’m great?”
A finger jabbed her in the chest. “Don’t push it.”
Cassie’s lips curved in a whispy smile.
The portal opened again, this time yanked open with such force that both siblings jerked backwards in reflex. A human man on the late side of middle age appeared in the doorway, flanked by not one but two De’Arnise house soldiers. His face was rather forgettable, notable only for the still-youthful thickness of his greying hair, but his clothing was finely tailored and impeccably clean. A wide woven silk sash, equal parts green and gold, was pinned diagonally across his chest. His alert brown eyes sighted Cassie’s form with a mixture of alarm and relief.
Her head turned, pinpointing the sound of his voice. “Major Domo?”
“You: ready food and water. You: tell Mister Bremman that our audience will need to be rescheduled.” His voice was steady as he barked the orders, but his hand trembled as he reached for the blindfolded girl. The guards nodded each in turn and disappeared into the keep.
“Your Grace,” he repeated, tentatively touching her arm. “Are you wounded?”
“It’s nothing, Domo.”
“But your eyes—”
“It’s nothing,” she repeated. A small, warm touch grazed her fingers, and Cassandra felt Imoen’s hand curl protectively around her own. “Imoen? Meet Richard Malufson, Major Domo of the House of De’Arnise.”
Imoen raised her hem with her free hand and dipped in a small curtsey. “Pleased to meet you.”
“Domo, this is Imoen of Candlekeep, my sister.”
His gaze shifted. “Your sis–? Ah. Yes, I recall.” He bowed low, taking Imoen’s hand and bringing it to his lip as he straightened again. “An honor, Lady Imoen. Cassandra has said much about you.”
“If it’s anything about our childhood: lies, all lies.”
By this time a young serving girl, rounded with the first signs of pregnancy, had appeared behind the Domo’s shoulders. She raised herself on her tiptoes for a better view, then began gesturing excitedly to someone as yet unseen. The flicker of motion and explosion of whispers drew the Major Domo’s attention—and his ire.
“Chanelle! Make yourself useful, girl!”
She squeaked and instantly came to attention. “Yes, sir!” In another moment she, too, had vanished into the castle’s shadowy halls.
“Come in, come in,” Malufson was saying, stepping aside to clear the doorway. “Is there anything of priority you need or desire, Your Grace? It has been… quite a while.”
Cassandra shook her head, letting Imoen’s gentle touch guide her from the sunlit warmth of the courtyard into the cooler, dimmer interior. “A room, a bath, and some food is fine.”
The Domo clapped his hands together sharply; Chanelle and two other servants manifested out of nearby doorways. “Her Grace Cassandra of Candlekeep has returned. Make her chambers ready immediately.”
A flurry of bows and curtseys greeted the command, followed by a rush of rustling cloth and quick footsteps as the servants scattered once more. The Major Domo now walked ahead of them, motioning for the women to follow him down the long, torch-lit hall.
“Do you have any news of Nalia, Your Grace? I had hoped that she traveled with you.”
They hadn’t heard, then. Nalia’s body was still in the crypts, rotting slowly away with its silent inhabitants—or worse, desecrated by Bodhi and her minions. Cassandra’s stomach clenched. Nalia had deserved better. So had Aerie.
She halted, pulling Imoen to a stand-still as well. She couldn’t put right their deaths, but she could at least let their passing be honored.
“Could you have someone show Imoen to the library?” Thank the gods that she was wearing the blindfold; that she could not see the sudden realization that would surely haunt his eyes. “My news is best shared with you alone.”
The Major Domo sat ramrod-straight in his chair across from Cassie’s still-blindfolded form, as still as a stone statue. He didn’t fidget, didn’t twitch, barely so much as breathed or blinked. No sound. No movement. Cassie rolled her tongue over the roof over her mouth, trying to gather what little moisture was left to quell her parched despair.
“And you…left her there?” he asked at last.
“Yes,” she admitted. “I—I wasn’t thinking straight. I’m sorry.”
“Without your eyes it would have been difficult to—”
Cassandra shook her head. “My eyes are fine.”
A pause, followed by a cautious observation. “You wear a cloth.”
She sighed. “But I’m not blind. That’s not the reason Nalia died; that’s not why I left her there.”
“Did you have a reason?” he challenged, the first quavers of anger building in his throat. “Nalia De’Arnise was the last of her line, a noble woman, and a friend to you.”
“I know. Believe me, I know. I never meant for her to die; I never meant for either of them to die.”
“And yet she lies there, and you sit here in her stead, playing the cripple for your own entertainment.”
“I am not ‘playing’ anything!” Cassandra shot back. She yanked the knot of the blindfold; the cloth went lax and came loose in her hand. “Does this look like I’m playing?” she demanded, leaning forward and jabbing a finger towards her face.
His hands were knotted together, clenching each other until the skin turned white. The color slowly leeched out of his face as well as he leaned back in his chair, unconsciously putting distance between himself and the black gaze that faced him.
“I’m not playing,” she repeated. “I’m cursed. Imoen and I both are. Nalia helped me save Imoen’s life, and without her help neither of us would be here today. I know I didn’t do everything right. I know her blood is on my hands.”
The Major Domo’s mouth tightened; his hands twisted and clenched. “Did you kill Lady De’Arnise?”
“That girl was like a daughter to me,” he informed her in a soft, steely voice.
“That’s not what I meant. I didn’t kill her. I meant—I meant—” Cassie sighed, slumping back against her chair and rubbing her hand over her face. “Death is bred in my blood; it follows me. Haunts me. You have no idea how many friends I’ve buried,” she said quietly. “No idea.”
“Slain by your own hand?” he challenged, meeting her gaze without flinching.
She pressed her lips together, jaw clenching. “Never.”
Silence again. Somewhere in the distant parts of the keep were the echoes of voices, the sounds of doors as they opened and closed, the banging of iron pots and pans. Somewhere was Imoen, exploring the tomes collected by generations of a bloodline now dead. The Major Domo’s accusatory stare stayed on her, fixed and merciless.
“I’m not staying,” she admitted after a moment.
“All that De’Arnise owned is yours now,” he pointed out, sour and flat.
“I didn’t come here for that. I’m no noblewoman, I’m no lord. The only reason Nalia gave me control over her lands was to keep the Roenalls from destroying them.”
“And you think that disappearing again will dissuade their plans? De’Arnise needs a leader.”
“With all that I just said, you still want me as one?”
“What I want is pointless,” he responded. “Nalia De’Arnise appointed you as Lord of the Keep; in event of her death, everything falls to you. That was her wish, for whatever the reason. That is what I must—and will—accept.”
“You can find another Lord. A better one. You could run these lands yourself.”
“I have the knowledge, but not the power.”
“I could give you the power. I can confer the lands on whoever I want, can’t I?”
“You may. Conferring them on me, however, will not change the Roenalls’ ambitions.”
“You’d rather have a demon than a Roenall?”
The thin, stubble-covered lips pressed together as he regarded her. “Lady Nalia was a good judge of character,” he said after a moment. “And, regarding these lands, you have been a good steward, considering your inexperience and… other issues. Being cursed doesn’t make you a demon; perhaps a priest could break it.”
She shook her head. “No. A priest is no good to me.”
“Then what is your plan? You do not seem like the type of woman who easily surrenders to misfortune.”
At that a wry smile curved her lips. How true. “I plan to track down the ones who did this, and kill them both.”
The Major Domo leaned back in his chair. “Such things are usually more easily said than done,” he noted dryly.
“Yes,” she admitted. “But I will be calling in a lot of favors. I need you to send messengers to Athkatla: to the Bernard, the barman of the Copper Coronet; to Aran Linvail, leader of the Shadow Thieves; and to the Order of the Radiant Heart.”
Malufson nodded. There was no quill or parchment to record the request, but she trusted his memory. He had a sharp mind, and twenty years of stewardship of the House De’Arnise had only honed it further.
“I need information over a vampire, Bodhi. She used to have quarters in the Graveyard District. I need to find out where she is now. Or, I need to find her brother, a mage known as Irenicus. I owe them both a great deal of pain.”
Another nod. “And should your friends find them? An assault?”
Cassandra shook her head. “No. This is personal. I don’t want anyone else getting hurt.”
One grey eyebrow arched up. “You would confront a vampire and the mage, alone, Your Grace?”
The smile that now curled her lips was tight and sardonic. “I’m more dangerous than I look.”
A knock on the door made her start; the Major Domo, to his credit, showed no such reaction. There was no time to re-bind her eyes as the door began to creak open; she angled her head away and shielded her face with her hand.
“Master Ingelborn is here for his audience, sir,” a female voice announced.
Malufson’s grey eyes tracked over the warrior’s shoulder. “Inform him that I will be there as soon as duty permits.” Back to Cassandra. “Your Grace?”
“No, no.” She shook her head. “Go ahead. We can speak later.”
He rose gracefully from the table, taking the time to tug his tunic straight and adjust the green and gold sash. “As you say. Lady Imoen is likely upstairs; I will have your food sent up as well. The messengers you requested will depart this evening as soon as provisions can be made.”
The door behind her groaned shut; Cassandra stood up as well. “Thank you. For everything.”
“Of course, Your Grace.”
“And for listening.”
He paused, looking back at her as she prepared to re-tie the blindfold around her eyes, then gave a small, subtle bow. “Of course, Your Grace.”
The world disappeared as she set the cloth in place. Her ears tracked the sound of his soft footsteps across the cold stone floor; the click of the door’s latch and the metallic protest of the hinges; the sound of soft words. A new set of footsteps approached, halting just inside the threshold.
“Lord Cassandra?” A male voice, middle-aged and unfamiliar. “Sir Malufson requests that I show you upstairs. Your room should be ready shortly; Chanelle is drawing a bath, and Matilda will bring your food whenever you should wish it.”
A bath sounded wonderful, despite the grumblings of her stomach. “I’ll bathe first. Have the food delivered in half an hour.”
“Of course, my Lord.”
Cassandra braced her hands on either side of the library’s doorway and stuck her head inside. Shelves upon shelves of tomes lined the walls, stretching from floor to ceiling, covering nearly every possible inch of space. What wasn’t home to books, tomes, or parchment instead held lamps, candles, and bookends: functional items rather than decorative, a homage to the late Lord De’Arnise’s practical tastes. She released the frame and stepped inside, scanning the chairs, corners, and window sills. All were absent of a certain red-haired mage.
She hadn’t seen her since their arrival at the keep, earlier that afternoon. The conversation with the Major Domo, of course, had been private. That Imoen hadn’t been present while Cassandra was bathing, was to be expected. But dinner had come and gone without sight or sound of the mischievous thief, and the shadows across the land were growing longer. Cassandra’s nervous discomfort was growing as well.
The master bedroom had formerly belonged to Lady Delcia, before she’d stormed out of the keep in protest of living with ‘an upstart ruffian and hooligan.’ Nalia had tried to convince her to stay, but Cassie had been glad to see her go. The woman would need a castle of her own simply to house her own enormous ego.
Now the room was Cassandra’s, bare as it was. The oaken wardrobe was mostly empty, as were the various drawers in the writing desk and the shelves along the walls. The bed was tidily made, adorned with clean linen and fresh water in the small adjoining washing room. Fresh flowers—a bouquet of late summer roses, baby’s breath, and white orchids—stood elegantly in a tall, slender vase under the window.
She glanced in as she passed by. Imoen wasn’t there.
The small, round atrium, festooned with exotic plants, was likewise empty. The dining room. The storage room. Cassandra’s lips bent in an unconscious frown as she strode down the hall. She’d dismissed the servants after dinner with instructions only to come if called; with the floor empty of strangers, the blindfold had been discarded. The halls were dim and far too narrow to support illuminating torches, but Cassandra navigated without trouble. Her eyes didn’t mind the dark.
A sliver of light sliced across the hallway carpet, spearing the dull crimson with a sharp splash of deep, vivid red. Cassie quickened her step. The light came from the larger of the two guest bedrooms; the one formerly occupied by Nalia. The door was ajar; through the hand-wide opening, a oil lamp could be seen resting atop a large maplewood dresser. The subtle flicker of the flame made shadows shimmer and dance.
She rapped her knuckles gently against the door. “Imoen?”
Cassie pushed the door open with her fingertips and stepped inside. Her sibling was seated on the lush double bed, a score of books scattered around her in roughly defined piles. Imoen herself was stretched out on the mattress, propped up with no less than three pillows behind her back, with a large, leatherbound manuscript resting open in her lap. One delicate fingertip followed the lines of words as she read; it paused, holding its place, as Imoen glanced up at her visitor.
“I’ve been looking all over for you,” Cassie said.
“Sorry.” Imoen tilted her head slightly, motioning to the collection of tomes. “Got my head in a book; didn’t hear you.”
“No problem. You doing okay?”
“Fine, fine. The servants were great, had a nice bath, raided the library.” She marked her spot with a thin wooden marker and folded the book shut. “Great stuff on magical theory; a little less on the practical side of things. All pretty advanced spells, though—they sure didn’t waste any time on little things like mending or light.”
“Nalia was a smart woman; her family had pretty demanding standards.”
The use of was and had didn’t go unnoticed. Imoen’s lips pursed in a small circle; her fingertips reflexively caressed the book’s leather binding. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s not your fault.”
“It’s not yours either.”
Cassandra’s lips pursed as well. She changed the subject. “Why don’t you come to bed?”
“I am in bed.”
“But—” The frown deepened as she noted that Imoen was indeed settled in: her legs tucked in under the down-filled quilt, clad not in her normal robe but in a light nightgown instead. “You’re sleeping here?”
Imoen had opened the book again and now continued reading, her eyes studiously following her finger across the page. “Yes.”
“Why shouldn’t I?”
Cassandra’s brows furrowed in confusion. “We always sleep together.”
The thief-mage sighed, shutting the book firmly once more and turning her gaze on her sister. “I don’t really think that’s appropriate anymore. Do you?”
“Not appropriate?” Her voice jumped a register in disbelief. Suddenly Imoen’s behavior in the days after Tethir gained a new light: the small, subtle distance she’d kept between them; the lack of playful touches and pokes; the faint, awkward edge to her smile. Cassandra had written it off as a dozen things: stress, tiredness, even thoughtfulness. “What do you think I’m going to do?” she replied incredulously. “Rape you?”
The words were out of her mouth before she could stop them. Imoen’s eyes flashed and went cold; her lips tightened and narrowed into thin, pale lines.
“I’m sorry.” Cassie lowered her head, shaking it slowly. “I just—I mean—I thought what happened—” Stop. Breathe in. Collect yourself. “We can still sleep together,” she said softly. “Just sleep. I wouldn’t—”
“I know,” Imoen interrupted. Her eyes softened; uncertainty tugged at the corner of her mouth. “I know, Cass. I just… I just need some time to figure things out, okay?”
“Are you afraid of me now?”
“No, Cass,” Imoen answered firmly. “It’s not you, okay? You’re still a wonderful, great woman, and I still like you a lot. It’s me; I need some time to get my head on straight.”
“I like your head just the way it is.”
A smile. Small, fragile, bordering between sweet and sorrow. “G’night, Cassie. Close the door on your way out?”
Silence. She bit her lip, unsure how to respond to the dismissal. Finally she swallowed the lump in her throat and nodded. “Sure. Good night.”
The door clicked shut, and she went back to her bedroom alone.
A steady thrum of sound roused her from sleep. It began as a low hum, like the buzz of a distant horsefly; it built slowly, growing louder and deeper, until the very boards of the bed vibrated in sympathy.
Imoen muttered a sleepy protest and rolled over. The noise didn’t abate. She drew the pillow over her head, pinning it in place with one arm, and nestled down deeper into the covers. It didn’t help. The deep, throbbing vibration continued its press into her consciousness, blithely ignoring her attempts to block it out.
She scowled, rolling over again, and this time clapped both hands—and both pillows—over her ears. It was entirely too late at night for them to be… well, doing whatever it was they were doing. Whoever ‘they’ were.
Abruptly it stopped. Imoen hmph‘d and drew the quilt up over her head. It stayed silent. Good.
She was almost back in sleep again when a new sound caught her attention. Whispering. The soft sound of voices carrying through the darkness. Voices very close by.
Imoen’s eyes flashed open. Her fingers curled into the blanket with sudden cold fear as she fought the urge to leap out of bed. It was probably just servants. Three or four servants, in her bedroom, whispering unintelligibly.
A faint, blue-white glow offset the blackness in the chamber. She’d extinguished the oil lamp before going to sleep, and no candle or flame would give off such a pale, cold light. She bit her lip, mind racing. The whispering seemed to come from all around, but from her limited viewpoint, no speakers were visible. If she were going to see them—and take action—she’d have to move.
One hand crept slowly under the pillow. Underneath was a dagger, hidden there out of years of habit. The cold steel was a welcome sensation against her fingers. The thin, smooth blade—her fingers inched lower, until they brushed against the carved ivory handle, and then curled tightly around it.
She whipped the covers back; she was out of the bed and crouched on the floor in a single, fluid movement, the dagger thrust out in front of her. With her other hand she cast, whispering the simple incantation of arcane shield. The air before her rippled as the invisible force shield materialized.
There was no one there. The blue-white glow emanated from luminescent veins that crawled and spider-webbed across the room’s walls. The web was densest near the door, the focal point of the expansion; from there the tendrils reached out, spreading over shelves and tables. They pulsated, and with each surge of light the tentacles inched forward, settled, rested, pulsed, and extended again.
This couldn’t be good.
The whispers continued, but now they had taken on a darker, more sinster timbre. Interspersed with the hushed words were low, throaty chuckles and dog-like growls. Imoen scrambled to her feet, casting around in panic for the source of the sounds. There was no one.
See Invisibility. She lunged for her backpack, snatching it off the dresser as the veins of light crept closer. She needed talc, talc and powdered silver. Imoen ripped the pack open; her spell components were inside. Were inside. The sack in which she stored the various vials of powdered and liquid components, was missing. All her components were missing. Imoen dug through the various compartments and pockets with a growing feeling of panic. Even her spellbook and scrolls were gone. The pack was empty.
She had to get out of the room. The whispers were growing louder, angrier, more threatening. No one voice could be singled out; the cadence was too chaotic, too random, to understand. She was surrounded.
The mage bolted for the door. She didn’t know what the pulsating veins were, but she knew a hundred different spells that they weren’t—she’d take her chances. Anything was better than being trapped in a room with only one way out.
Her hand closed around the doorknob; the blue-white lines flared to life, but she felt nothing. It turned; the door gave no resistance as the red-headed girl slammed it open and dashed into the hall. The whisperers followed, and now as she glanced behind her she could see them: three rough humanoid figures, nothing more than wraith-like mist, breaking away from the shadows of the bedroom walls and floating slowly forward. To the bed. Through the bed. Gibbering and hissing.
She fled down the hall. It was pitch black, but somehow she could see regardless. The stonework and paintings were leeched of color, appearing in a wash of different grays. Cassandra’s room was on the other side of the keep, directly opposite of where Imoen had chosen to sleep. It put the maximum distance between them; now she was cursing the decision.
The blue tendrils were growing as well. Now they crackled as they spread, snapping like thin, dry branches, arcing outward at amazing speed. Imoen kept ahead of them, running as quickly as she could. She rounded the southeast corner at full speed, using her hands on the stones to take the sharp turn more cleanly. The sounds behind her kept pace.
Another hallway; another corner. She risked a glance backwards just before the turn. The veins were gone, but the withered, sharp cracking echoed through the corridor. The sibilant hissing of her attackers continued; as she watched with horrified eyes, the shadows began to seep out of the wall, less than ten yards distant from where she stood.
It knew her name.
She turned and ran. Cassandra’s bedroom was just around the corner; Imoen reached it in record time. The door stood half-ajar; the room was black as pitch. The strange night-sight of her vision rendered it as dull, dark gray; she didn’t bother questioning it. As long as she could see, she didn’t care about how.
She rushed over to her sibling’s bed. Cassie was still asleep, swaddled in the warmth of blankets, her back towards the door. Imoen grabbed her by the shoulder and shook her awake. “Cassie!”
Cassandra—her body—rolled over. The space where her face had been was ripped away, leaving a gaping hole fringed by threads of bloody, decayed flesh. The hole was black, utterly and completely: no spattered organs, no crushed or broken bones. No face, no teeth, no skull, no brain. Nothing but void, stretching into eternity, empty and dark. A scream gathered in Imoen’s throat, but terror froze her lungs. Two pinpoint lights appeared: two small, shining dots in the darkness. The lights blinked, and Imoen’s scream finally ripped free as the Slayer’s snarling maw exploded forth and its teeth sank into her flesh.
The scream shocked her into wakefulness. She bolted upright, heart thundering in her chest, gasping for breath. Before she knew it she was out of bed, her mind barely registering her actions. She fled in blind panic, but a dark, shadowy figure intercepted her not three steps towards the door. It engulfed her, trapping her in iron-strong arms. Imoen started screaming again, lashing out against it with wild kicks and punches in every direction.
“Get away from me!”
“It’s me! Cassie!”
The command was punctuated with a forceful shove as Imoen planted her hands on Cassie’s chest and thrust her backwards. The motion broke both the warrior’s grip and her balance. A second panicked push sent her stumbling back into the hallway. Imoen slammed the door closed and sank to her knees next to it. The hot wetness of tears streaked down her face, dripping silently onto the cold granite floor. She wrapped her arms around her chest to try to still her trembling.
C’mon, Im. Get a grip.
The fear coursing through her blood refused to be so easily quelled. She hugged herself tighter and drew in a shivering breath.
It was just a nightmare. Despite how real it had seemed, it was just a nightmare. There were no whispering voices. No white-blue veins. Cassie wasn’t the Slayer. Not yet.
She forced her eyes open. Ceiling. Square grey stones, joined with mortar, lined up in straight, regular rows. Ordinary and banal. Her gaze dropped lower. The walls, the dresser, the wardrobe. There was nothing unusual about any of them.
She was still shaking, but her resolve had returned. She hadn’t sat there crying in the Nashkel mines. She hadn’t froze in terror when facing down Sarevok. Hell, she’d made it through the Underdark with her wits intact. Imoen wiped her hands over her face, smearing away the tears. No little nightmare was going to change that.
And….up! With a deep breath and a mental push, she levered herself to her feet. The fight-or-flight adrenaline was slowly seeping out of her system, leaving in its place a hollow exhaustion.
The dagger was still under her pillow; she checked it twice, repositioning it, checking the sharpness of the edge, before crawling back into bed. The mattress was still warm. Another deep breath. Calm, Imoen. Calm. She summoned to mind magic formulas, replaying them in her thoughts in exact detail, trying to lose herself in the minutiae. Runes, sigils, and alchemical symbols quickly drew her into the abstract world of arcane theory, but as soon as her eyes began to drift close a sense of panic seized her. Her eyelids flew open again. The room remained unchanged: dark and silent.
She rolled over, trying to find a more comfortable position. No matter how she positioned herself, the sense of unease followed her. Lingering fear crept over her nerves. She was irrationally certain that, should she close her eyes too long, the blue lines would return, sneaking up on her in silence. With her eyes open, the shadows seemed to creep closer. Was that one longer than it had been before? Nearer? The shadowy wraiths lurked in every corner.
Finally she gave up. She threw back the edge of the covers and slipped out of bed. A second later she had her backpack slung across one shoulder and, still clad only in her nightshift, padded out into the darkness of the hall. The soft rustle of her clothing and the quick thwip thwip thwip of her footfalls sounded abnormally loud against the cryptlike silence of the keep. Each step urged her to look behind her, to see what—if anything—was following her through the halls. She ignored it. Stay calm, Im. Stay calm.
A moment later she was there: a simple wooden door, firmly shut against the outside world. Imoen bit her lip; her hand hovered hesitantly above the latch. It rotated freely, unlocked, when she turned it. The door slid open quietly. The room inside was still.
She pressed the door gently closed and set her pack down in the corner before approaching the bed. The figure there lay swathed in blankets and unmoving, little more than a patch of black against black.
Imoen drew in a steadying breath. She tugged the corner of the blanket down and slipped underneath it. An instant cocoon of warmth surrounded her; she nestled closer and gingerly pressed her hands to the figure’s back.
“Yeah. No, don’t.” She blocked Cassie’s attempt to turn and face her, using her arms to keep her at bay. The face—the lack of face—in the nightmare was still too fresh, too vivid. “Don’t look at me. Please don’t.”
A pause. “Are you okay?”
“No,” she answered honestly. She pressed her cheek against Cassie’s hair. It smelled of soft jasmine soap. “Had a nightmare.”
“I’m sorry I yelled at you. And that I hit you and stuff.”
“It’s okay.” One of Cassie’s hands reached back, sliding over Imoen’s arm and giving her a reassuring squeeze. “They should go away after a month or so.”
“The Bhaal nightmares. They did with me.”
Bhaal nightmares. She’d forgotten about them. Cassandra had been plagued by them constantly around the time they were in Nashkel and Baldur’s Gate, often waking two or three times a night in a cold, terrified sweat. Imoen had comforted her then, and over time the dreams had become both less violent and less frequent, until finally they’d stopped all together. Or at least, so Imoen assumed.
“D’ya still have them?” she asked softly.
“Bhaal nightmares? No, not anymore.”
“What do you dream about, then?”
Cassie’s hand squeezed her own. “Sometimes Gorion, or other friends. But mostly? About you. About us.”
“There isn’t an ‘us’, Cass. Not like that. That’s not why I’m in bed with you.”
“I never said that,” she countered quietly. “Look, Im—I’m your friend, first and foremost. Everything else is optional.”
“You mean that?”
“Of course I do.”
“Even—even the sex?” Imoen pressed. “Even if it never happened again? What would you do?”
Another squeeze of her hand, this one tight and lingering. “The same thing I’m doing now.”
Imoen let out a small, confused breath. “Really?”
Her arms slipped around Cassandra’s waist as she wiggled closer. A sudden urge to cry threatened to steal her voice. “You’re too good to me,” she whispered. “Why are you so good to me?”
Cassie’s fingers laced with hers; the other hand reached to brush her cheek. “Because you deserve it, Im. You deserve it.”
The De’Arnise Keep, Imoen decided, was paradise.
Matilda and her kitchen staff ensured a never-ending supply of sumptuous meals. Breakfast consisted of rich, full-grain muffins accompanied by fresh milk from local cows, topped off with a variety of fruits, nuts, and cheeses. Lunch invariably came early, usually in the form of poached eggs, raw leafy vegetables, and thick slices of warm baker’s bread. The stout Amnish woman prided herself above all on her dinners: always piping hot and never the same thing twice. Roast duck with dumplings and cranberry sauce; salmon steaks with a sweet balsamic and red wine reduction; ginger-glazed veal with spring onions and herb potatoes. Cassandra’s and Imoen’s enthusiastic appetites and gushing compliments never failed to send Matilda back to the kitchen with blushing cheeks and a chubby, dimpled smile as big as the pans she cooked in.
Right now Imoen was in the courtyard, taking a break from the stuff, stolid walls of the library. The last few days she’d practically lived between the pages of books, hunting down vampires, elven magic, and advanced arcana: anything and everything that might give them an advantage in their quest. Educational, but boring. And ‘boring’ was one thing that Imoen simply couldn’t stand.
Somewhere behind her a door creaked open. Imoen didn’t bother opening her eyes. Nothing could be so important that it warranted moving even a single inch out of the glorious afternoon sun.
Chanelle. Imoen smiled. She’d gotten on pretty good terms with the maid over the past few days. They shared an impish sense of humor and an unhealthy love of local gossip.
“I brought you a glass of wine.”
The smile widened. “Chan, girl, you are a dream.” Imoen opened her eyes and stretched her arms out over her head, luxuriating in the feeling of her muscles coming slowly to life. Chanelle stood in front of her with a small serving tray and a single, sparkling serving of rosé.
“You not having one?” Imoen asked, delicately accepting the fine-stemmed glass.
“I can’t,” Chanelle responded. “Can’t drink until sunset; Domo’s rule.” Her hand went reflexively to the ever-growing swell of her stomach. “And the midwife says it’s bad for the baby.”
“Not if you want the kid to have good taste. Here, have a sip.”
“No, no. Maybe later.” She flashed Imoen a smile of her own. “Thanks for the offer.”
“Jessup’s that skinny blond guy I met yesterday, isn’t he?”
She giggled. “I don’t think he’d be flattered by the description.”
“Nothing personal; just trying to keep straight the faces in my head.”
Imoen shrugged and brought the wine to her lips. The pale, translucent red liquid was sweet and fruity. “Normally it’s pretty good.”
The maid took a seat next to her, lowering herself gingerly into the grass. Her pregnancy wasn’t yet far enough along to interfere with work, but her belly was certainly large enough to make some movements easier than others. “Have you been sleeping okay? I could fix you some valerian tea after dinner.”
“Nah, I’m okay.” She’d stubbornly stuck to her decision to sleep apart from Cassandra, and no further nightmares had occurred. It was more a question of ‘when’, however, than ‘if’, the next would come. “Valerian tastes nasty.”
“Chamomile? Matilda has some elfroot.”
Another shake of her head. “It’s okay, really.”
“You’re as stubborn as Lord Cassandra,” Chanelle accused with a playful roll of her eyes. “I don’t think she’s drank a single tea I’ve made her; she’d rather pace around the halls all night. Oh, she scared the gray right out of Mattie’s hair the other night! Bumped into each other around a corner; Matilda said it frightened at least a year off her life!”
One auburn eyebrow arched up. “Cassie hasn’t been sleeping?”
“Not a wink. Hadn’t you noticed?”
The door creaked open again. Both girls automatically looked over, and Chanelle hurriedly—or as hurriedly as she could—got back to her feet, assisted by Imoen’s helping hands. The Major Domo stood in the doorway, a frown pressed into his thin, moustached lips.
“Chanelle, Lady Imoen: have you seen Lord Cassandra?”
A small curtsey from the De’Arnise maid. “No, sir.”
Imoen shook her head. “Not since breakfast. Why? What’s up?”
“We’ve received news back from Athkatla.”
That got Imoen on her feet as well. News from Athkatla could only mean one thing: news about Bodhi and Irenicus. She drained the rest of her wine—nearly the full glass—in a single, long gulp. It went down smooth and tingled with promise in her stomach. Ooh, I’m going to feel that. “I’ll check the second floor,” she said. “Chanelle, check the armory and weapons training places. Cassie loves that kind of stuff.”
They scattered. The keep had minimal staff during the afternoon; after lunch had been served and the dishes cleared away, the servants were given leave to have their own repast and relaxation. One young boy was at work in the grand hall, sweeping up dust with a broom as long as he was. Other than that, the keep was empty.
Imoen headed straight for the staircase. If Cassie wasn’t out doing her military hoo-hah, then she’d probably be in the library. If she wasn’t there, then she was probably in her room. Or taking a bath. But this early in the day?
“Cass?” Imoen poked her head in the library. No Cassie. To the bedroom then. She jogged the distance, holding up her robe’s hem with both hands. “Cassie?”
The voice came from the atrium. The door was half-open; Cassandra sat in one of the over-stuffed chairs, a book in one hand, sitting in the company of a dozen exotic plants. The windows were unshuttered and flung open wide, bathing the room in fresh air and sunlight. Her blindfold lay on an end table nearby.
“Here.” Imoen crossed over to her, picking up the length of cream-colored cloth. “Let me help you. We’re going downstairs.”
The warrior’s soft pink lips dipped in a frown. “Why? What’s going on?”
“Good news.” Imoen settled the blinder over Cassie’s head, then slipped behind her to tie it tight. “Or maybe bad news. One of the messengers is back from Athkatla.”
“Really?” Cassie sat up a little straighter. “Which one?”
“Dunno. Major Domo’s looking for you, though.”
“What’s the news?”
“Dunno,” she repeated, giving the blindfold one last tug. “Tight enough?”
“Little too tight, actually.”
“Wimp.” Imoen smiled as she slipped her fingers under the cloth and forced the knot to give up some slack. “Better?”
Imoen hauled, more than ‘guided’, Cassie out of the room, making a beeline for the master staircase. Her excited calls of Found her! reached the bottom well before they did, and by the time the two had navigated the two dozen steps down to the first floor, the Major Domo was waiting. In his hand was a small roll of parchment sealed with a blob of black wax.
“Your Grace.” He bowed low as Cassie stepped off the staircase and onto the flat granite floor. “A message from Aran Linvail.”
“Linvail?” Cassie reached out her hand reflexively, well askew of where the Major Domo was standing, before realizing the futility of it. She couldn’t read through a blindfold.
“Perhaps I should read it to you, Your Grace,” Malufson offered. “Or would you prefer a more…confidential location?”
“No, no. It’s fine. Read it, please.”
The Domo slid his thumbnail under the hardened wax seal; the imprinted letter ‘L’ cracked in twain. He unfurled it slowly, eyes scanning it for only a half-second, before looking up at the waiting woman again.
“It is… vague, Your Grace,” he said, frowning. “And exceedingly short.”
Imoen’s hands on Cassandra’s arm tightened in anticipation. “What does it say?”
Malufson extended the letter towards her. Imoen accepted it with equal parts eagerness and trepidation. It was short indeed. Only three small words were inscribed on the page in sharp, chiseled black letters:
She is here.