It was a twelve-hour journey by foot to Athkatla: they made it in five, thanks to two fresh geldings and Imoen’s judicious use of haste. They reached the city gates just as the last sliver of sun disappeared behind the horizon. The long shadows of evening melded into a single swath of omnipresent darkness as the last rays of sunlight died.
The guards had waved them through with neither interest nor attention; the two women were only a few small drops in the steady flow of merchants, travelers, vagabonds, and scamps that poured into the nation’s capital every day. Cassandra had re-blinded herself and mounted double with Imoen when the first vague outlines of the gate towers appeared in the distance; the extra horse trotted alongside as a rider-less spare.
“So where’s this Copper Coronet place?” Imoen queried from the front.
Cassie hooked one finger over the blindfold and eased it down long enough to scan the surrounding scenery. The polished white stone and glittering gold roofs of the Promenade were slowly fading away; clean cobblestone streets had turned into packed earth. Like in so many cities, the slums of Athkatla had grown up within spitting distance of the elite and their mansions. Beggars and thieves lived off the discards and carelessness of the rich and noble: charity was seldom to be found.
“Keep going straight,” she instructed, letting the blindfold slouch back into place. “It’s still a few streets ahead.” In her time in Athkatla Cassie had become intimately familiar with the Slums District and its inhabitants. It’d been a refuge: no one cared, no one asked questions, and everything was for sale if you had enough coin. “We should run right into it.”
“‘Kay.” Imoen pulled Cassie’s gelding, a slim sorrel named Bushfire, closer. More and more of the gazes that fell on them seemed almost dangerously interested. “Uh… what are the chances that we get mugged?”
“Two women on horseback looking lost?” Cassandra let out an amused breath. “Pretty high.”
“Even when one of them’s armed and armored?”
“I doubt they’ll be frightened of a blind warrior, Im.”
“Well, take off your blindfold!”
“And have everyone who gets within ten yards of us run screaming? That’s more attention that I’d like.”
“Better than getting robbed,” Imoen grumped.
“The Coronet’s safe. I’m friends with the owner and the barkeep.”
“Yeah. Hendak—the owner—was caught by an illegal slave ring that I broke up. Bernard, the barkeep, was a friend of Jaheira’s.”
The Copper Coronet appeared a few minutes later, designated as such by a dingy wooden plaque above the main doors. The paint was faded and peeling; the wood itself had seen better days and in some parts was rotting away entirely. The thick, warped windows were tainted yellow from gods only knew how many years of build up smoke, oil, and dirt. From the din of noise inside, though, it was a both a popular and festive place.
The sisters dismounted near the straw-roofed shed that served as a stable and secured the horses as best they could. There was no stable boy or watchman to protect the animals, but there was, thankfully, basic food and water. After a day like today, both horses would be glad to rest and refuel.
Imoen pushed the door of the tavern open. The low thunder of voices and music exploded into an orchestra of chaos. Every table was packed full with people of every possible description. A trio of dwarves with mugs raised bellowed out a lewd song; a group of motley sailors took turns jeering at the servant girls; several shady-looking characters near the back spoke in whispered tones. On a platform next to bar was a garishly dressed bard of indeterminate race, trying desperately to play his sitar loud enough to carry over the din.
“‘Ey, cutie!” One of the seamen tipped his cap at Imoen, beaming a drunken smile in her direction. “Buy you and—” His eyes fell on Cassandra, and his jaw went slack before barking out a rough laugh. “ey, looka this! One a Ilmater’s rejects, an’ all dressed in metal ta boot!”
The troop of sailors leaned in closer, forming a loose semi-circle. Imoen pressed closer to Cassandra; a reflexive habit to hide behind the larger girl. Cassie’s head tilted as the sounds of shifting footsteps drew closer.
“Ignore them,” Cassie instructed. “Let’s get to the bar.”
“Oh oh!” The sailors laughed again, with the foremost one slapping his compatriots on the back. “Guess that sword’s all for show, ‘ey boys?”
The general noise of agreement was lost in the background. Imoen pushed through the crowd with Cassie’s hand clasped tight. Several pairs of eyes watched them as they passed, but the pair reached the bar unmolested. The bartender was filling a fresh mug of ale from the keg on tap. He looked up only briefly before handing it off to a customer; his head jerked back abruptly as he did a swift double-take. His droopy brown eyes gave her a skeptical once over, flickering up and down.
“Cassandra?” he asked slowly.
The rich baritone voice brought a smile to the red-head’s lips. “Hendak treating you well, Bernard?”
“Cassie, ya blasted bastard!”
He levered his impressive bulk out from behind the wooden counter. Bernard was a giant of a man, standing a good six feet tall and with a massive stomach that took up almost as much space as he did. How he managed to move at all seemed to defy the laws of physics. The enormous arms enclosed the warrior in a bone-crushing hug.
“He works me like a dog, he does! Filthy slaver driver, that’s what he is. But you, girl! Where’ve you been? What happened to you?”
“It’s—” The sentence was cut off in a wheeze as the embrace tightened. “Long story,” she gasped.
“You’ll have to catch me up!” Bernard released her as his gaze turned to Imoen. “And who’s this little lady? Friend of yours?”
“Sister, eh?” One bushy eyebrow arched up. “So that’s the infamous Imoen, is it?”
A grin spread across Imoen’s lips. “‘Infamous’? What stories has Cassie been telling?”
“Stories?” He chuckled. “Oh, no stories. But anyone who knows Cassie knows about you. You’ve got a very devoted sister, lass.”
“Really?” Imoen’s smokey grey eyes shifted to Cassandra. Her smile took on a soft warmth.
“Oh, yes. So!” He clapped his hands together and rubbed them briskly. “What’ll it be? Room for the night? Dinner? Consider it on the house.”
“Sure, a room—”
“Two rooms,” Imoen interrupted quickly.
Cassie frowned. “Two rooms,” she amended, “would be great. And has anyone left messages for me?”
“Two rooms,” Bernard confirmed, turning to fetch the keys off a rack on the rear wall. A nearby pitcher barely escaped being toppled by his bulk. “No messages; didn’t even know you were back in town. Expecting someone?”
“Maybe. Not sure.”
Bernard held out the keys; after an awkward moment of forgetting that Cassandra couldn’t see them, Imoen accepted them on her behalf.
“Take a seat, girls. I’ll have a plate of grub out for you in a few minutes.”
Imoen took hold of Cassandra’s hand again. The only open seats were at the bar itself, near the end next to the window. The other patrons ranged from mostly sober to outright sloshed; all male, save for a single female dwarf who was given an unusual amount of space by her neighbors. Whether it was the combination of beard and breasts or the woman’s general rank smell, Imoen wasn’t sure.
“Sounds like you’ve made a lot of friends,” she commented as she slipped onto her stool.
“A few,” Cassie responded, shrugging. “Mostly by doing favors. Same shit as the Sword Coast, really. Bounty hunting, monster killing: stuff that the local guard doesn’t care about but the average guy can’t handle.”
“That doesn’t bother you? Being used like that?”
“I didn’t really have a choice.”
Another shrug. “You were gone. I had no idea where you were, and the only people who were willing to help me wanted twenty thousand gold to loosen their lips. What else could I have done? I needed money, and I needed it fast.”
Imoen set her elbow on the bar and propped her chin up in her palm. “Jaheira should have hit up the Harpers. They’ve got an organization spanning half Faerûn; you know they’ve gotta have gold to spare.”
“She tried,” Cassie confirmed. “But… I’m Bhaalspawn. For the Harpers I was a threat: ‘balance of good and evil’ and all that.”
“Just like that?”
“No…” Cassie sighed. “They attacked us; we killed them. Jaheira was devastated, but it was the only option. The Harpers wouldn’t back down.”
A nod. Once upon a time such a blatant admission of murder would have shocked her, but Imoen had seen far too much violence to hold to her former childhood ideals. “Sorry. Must have been hard.”
A thick ceramic mug of beer was thunked down on the table, quickly followed by a second. Both women looked up to see a harried-looking serving girl brush her frizzled blond curls back behind her ears.
“From Bernard,” she informed them flatly, already moving off to another client. “Food’s coming.”
Imoen curled her hand around the cup. “I wish I’d gotten a chance to say goodbye.”
“Yeah. She was a bossy, over-opinionated nag who constantly lectured me on being responsible.” A small, nostalgic smile as she took a sip of ale. “Closest thing to a mom I’ve ever had.”
Cassie chuckled. “She’d’ve loved to hear that last part. The first part, not so much.”
“Do you think about them a lot?” Imoen queried. “Khalid? Jaheira?”
“I try not to,” Cassie admitted. Her slow, questing fingers finally bumped against the ceramic mug. She picked it up. “Gives me nightmares.”
“Mm.” Probably best to change the subject then. They could both benefit from a little more sleep. “So what’s the plan tomorrow? Meet that Ribald guy and…?”
“Well, if we haven’t heard by Linvail by then, we’ll go pay him a visit. Find out what he knows about Bodhi.”
“Got a plan for her?”
Cassie shook her head. “Not yet. Not until we hear from Linvail. We need more information. I wiped out her little cadre last time, but she might have new helpers by now. And if she’s heard I’m back, you can bet gold that she’s going to set up a nasty welcome.”
Imoen arched an eyebrow. “You don’t think she’ll run?”
“I don’t know.” She pursed her lips thoughtfully. “I’ve beaten her twice now; she might not want to risk a third. On the other hand, I’m stubborn and she knows it. Might be easier to kill me and have it done with.”
“Tactical,” Cassie countered. “And realistic.”
The waitress returned—a different waitress, this one with short, choppy black hair and considerably more years showing on her lined face. Two large round trays were balanced on her forearms, each one bearing a load of simple but aromatic food.
“Tomato soup,” she explained, naming off the items in turn as she set the trays down on the table. “Pork with roasted potatos; creamed spinach; brown bread. Enjoy.”
“Thanks,” Imoen responded, but the waitress was already pushing her way back into the crowd.
Cassie’s fingers explored the edge of the tray until they located the cold, serrated edge of her steak knife. Now to find the food… “This is going to be awkward.”
“What—oh.” Imoen giggled. “Well, blind people have to eat, too. Want me to cut up your food for you? Or we could eat upstairs and you could take the blindfold off?”
“I’ll manage. Just point me towards the potatoes.”
The adventures of eating while blinded were a constant source of merriment for the next hour. Imoen dutifully gave directions as to how Cassie should move her utensils, giggling and correcting her when the warrior tried to cut the side of her plate by mistake. After a few minutes of adjustment things went more smoothly. The pork was straight ahead of her; the potatoes slightly to the left; the spinach at the bottom. Likely she was smearing everything over everywhere, but the majority of it made it to her stomach in the end.
By the time they’d finished eating and their second set of beers, the crowd had begun to thin out. Most of the honest laborers had to work when the sun rose and left to catch a bit of sleep. Those who were left were the less honest laborers: ruffians, thieves, and muscle for hire who did their jobs best under the cover of darkness. They made up the bulk of the after-hours clientele, and their ravenous appetite for drink ensured that the tavern’s pace never slowed.
Imoen stifled a yawn. “I’m tired.”
“Want to go to bed?”
“If you don’t mind.”
“Nah.” Cassandra stood up from the table. “I’ll go with you.”
Imoen nodded, forgetting that Cassie couldn’t see it. She wriggled between the narrow space between a pair of adjoining chairs and took ahold of Cassie’s elbow. Getting to the staircase was going to require some tricky navigation. “Chanelle said you weren’t sleeping well.”
“I haven’t been tired.”
“Still, you should sleep. You need your strength.”
“I know.” Cassie followed the soft, leading pressure on her arm. Every few steps were accompanied by a bump of flesh against flesh and a muttered apology. “I try, but it just ends up with me laying in bed for two hours doing nothing.”
“I could cast sleep on you,” Imoen offered.
She shook her head. “It’s probably just nerves. I’ll be fine.”
“If you say—hey!” A hand closed on Imoen’s rear and gave a firm squeeze. She spun around, eyes flashing. A trio of the sailors from earlier had gathered around the bar; the one closest to her gave her a wink while his buddies looked on and laughed. “What the Hell do you think you’re doing?”
“Ooh, a spitfire!”
“Got some red in ‘er,” one of the friends observed, reaching out and trying to touch the auburn strands of her hair. “Wild filly, betcha life.”
Imoen pushed his hand away. “Back off.”
“Now, lass,” the pincher cajoled. “We’ve been out ta sea for nigh a season. Ya wouldn’t grudge a man the sight of a pretty girl?”
A hand flashed out and closed around his neck; abruptly he was airborne as Cassandra shoved him backwards. A score of startled exclamations shot through the air as patrons scrambled to get out of the way. One half-elven man wasn’t fast enough; he and the sailor collided and together crashed to the ground in a tangle of legs and arms.
Silence. Even Pincher’s friends were mute, regarding the blindfolded warrior with a healthy new measure of respect. The only sound was a string of confused curses as the sailor and the hapless half-elf struggled to right themselves.
“What in the bloody Nine Hells!” Bernard stormed out of the kitchen. His massive bulk sent tremors through the floor. “I won’t have no fighting in the Coronet!” he roared. “Take it outside!”
“Cassie!” Imoen’s voice was an angry whisper. “What’s wrong with you?”
“He shouldn’t have touched you.”
“I can take care of myself!”
Bernard was bustling about the fallen men, hauling them up and pushing them towards the door with gruff, loud commands. The fallen half-elf tried in vain to explain that he hadn’t been involved, while the sailor shouted insults back at his assailant.
The mood was turning ugly; Pincher’s two friends had recovered from their initial shock and now regarded the two women with narrowed, angry eyes. It wouldn’t be long before their ire worked through to their drink-fogged brains.
Imoen tugged at Cassie’s hand. “Cass, let’s go. We’ll talk upstairs.”
“Head to bed, lass,” Bernard confirmed, now holding the two men each firmly under a meaty arm. “I’ll clean these rascals up.”
“Thanks, Bernard,” Cassie called back, before following Imoen’s lead up the stairs.
She couldn’t sleep.
Cassandra lay under the blankets of the small, single-person bed and stared up at the ceiling. It was wooden, made of long, rough hewn planks supported by thick crossbeams. She’d counted the number of boards above her head: sixty-five. She’d counted the number of nails holding them together: one-hundred and twenty six. At the moment she was counting the number of knots visible in the wood. She’d already found eleven, and while it was a tedious, boring task, it hadn’t succeeded in luring her to sleep. It was the fifth night in a row.
By now she should have been exhausted. Sleep deprivation caught up to one eventually: reddened eyes, foggy thoughts, the nagging sense of fatigue. But despite not sleeping at all for nearly a week, and sleeping only fitfully before that, she felt fine. No slow reactions; no aching muscles. Had news come that instant that Bodhi was at the door, she would have strapped on her armor and gone to fight.
The night was strangely silent now that the tavern had shut down. The kitchen pots no longer clanked and rang; the rowdy songs and shouting ribaldry had stopped. Outside she could hear lingering laughter and the sound of male voices: likely patrons who had moved their revelry outside.
Imoen hadn’t been happy. Her anger had been expressed in short, terse words. I’m not a little girl, she’d snapped. I went up with you against Sarevok. I helped you kill that svirfneblin demon. I was half the reason we survived the Underdark. Don’t treat me like a child; I can take care of myself! The resounding thud of her bedroom door slamming shut had ended the conversation.
She let out a long sigh in the darkness. If she was going to be awake, at least she could do something. In the De’Arnise Keep she’d raided the library, reading by candlelight until dawn’s first soft rays crested the horizon. The Copper Coronet, however, was notably lacking in literature.
Cassandra slipped her legs out from under the covers and got to her feet, ruffling her hair loose with both hands and stretching out her muscles. She’d slept in her trousers, and now fetched her tunic off the room’s single chair. There was something she could do…
She didn’t bother taking a candle or lantern. Whatever had changed her eyes had altered her vision as well, and now the pitch black night was rendered as little more than twilight. The Taint, she reflected as she descended the stairs, had its advantages.
The first floor was as quiet as the second. The windows had been shuttered and barred; the doors were secured with iron ties. The back door was even more firmly locked, with no less than three separate chains and two crossbars. It only took a moment of searching around the various counters to locate the master keys, hidden away in an empty pot. Bernard was a bear of a man, but rather predictable in his habits.
A few minutes later the door was open, and Cassie stepped out into the darkness of the moonlit Athkatlean night. The stables—or the ramshackle shed that served as one—was barely fifty feet away from the Coronet itself. Inside were still a half-dozen horses, dozing away where they stood. Most of the steeds had seen better days, and only two had the robust muscles and glossy coat of true health.
“Hey, Bushfire.” She patted the sorrel gelding on the rump. The long equine head swivelled around and fixed her with a surprised eye. “Sorry. Just wanted to make sure you’re okay.”
The horse next to him perked up as well: this one a dapple gray with a thick black mane. She rubbed its flank briskly in greeting. “Morning, Blackfoot.”
She took her time checking the horses over. Half an hour later she had refilled the feed troughs, fetched fresh water from the rain barrel, and double checked the saddles and gear for the morning. She didn’t have a hoof knife, nor was one present amidst the various odds and ends in the stable—not that there was any need for it, since the De’Arnise horsewarden had checked out both steeds personally the night before. Still, it would have been another fifteen minutes doing something useful, instead of aimlessly waiting for morning to come.
The sound of laughter once more echoed through the street in front of the tavern. Footsteps. Off-color jokes. Cassandra paid it no mind until the sounds abruptly stopped, replaced by an ominous chuckle.
“‘ey,” said a familiar male voice. “If it ain’t the little blind girl.”
Cassandra froze, a freshly oiled saddle still in hand.
“And missin’ ‘er metal this time,” another observed, a note of satisfaction in his voice.
She glanced over her shoulder. Two of the sailors from earlier stood near the open-air entrance to the stable: Pincher and one of his friends. Five additional men, all wearing similar clothes and colors, were grouped loosely behind them. Shipmates, all prowling the city’s nightlife.
“I think she owes me an apology,” Pincher commented to his mate, pitching his voice to reach Cassie loud and clear. His aura glowed with the purple tinge of pride. “Wasn’t too nice earlier.”
Cassie hefted the saddle up and set it astride one of the railings. Alcohol and testosterone was never a good combination; better to have her hands free, just in case.
The footsteps grew closer. The smell of alcohol and stale smoke wafted over her. “‘ey, lassie. Where’s ya ginger friend?”
Cassandra’s lips tightened as she debated how to respond. Ignoring them was her top choice, but she had a strong suspicion that they were not going to give her that option. Pincher had had at least four hours and likely twice as many pints to nurse his wounded pride. Finally she turned and faced them.
“Wha—” Pincher’s let out a rough bark of laughter. “Gods, lass, ya should’ve kept ya cloth on. Fuckin’ ugly, ‘ey lads?”
The chuckles spread through the group, with several leaning even closer to get a good look at Cassie’s face.
“Don’ matter, though,” Pincher drawled. “Why don’t ya go wake ‘er up, we’ll all ‘ave a nice time.”
Nods of agreement; scattered laughter. Cassie wasn’t amused.
“I’ll give you one minute to get out of my sight,” she said. “I suggest you start walking.”
“Oh oh!” Pincher elbowed his mates. They chuckled, arching eyebrows, looking at each other in amusement. “Now, lass,” the sailor warned her quietly, leaning forward, “ya got an ‘abit of bein’ mean ta me. ‘Ow about an apology, ‘fore I get angry?”
“How about you leave before I throw you into your friends again?” she countered.
The chuckles died down, replaced with low murmurs of discontent. Pincher frowned; his friends crowded in around him.
“Whatever busted ya eyes musta broke ya brain,” he growled. He reached out towards her loose-laced tunic. Thrown on for a measure of simple decency, she wore nothing underneath it. “Ya picked the wrong night ta be brave, lass.”
Cassandra caught his hand. “So did you.”
Pincher’s eyes widened in shock and pain as she squeezed; the crunch of breaking bone carried through the cold night air. His scream echoed through the alley as he dropped to his knees and tried to yank his hand away. The sound shocked his friends out of their drunken fog; they leapt to his defense.
It was almost absurdly easy. She dropped Pincher’s hand and left him howling in the dirt, then met his over-eager friends head-on. Their reflexes were dulled with wine and beer; their depth-perception off; their night-sight inferior. Had they knives and clubs, perhaps they would have stood a chance.
The first one yelled as he charged forward; Cassandra planted her hand in the middle of his face and hurled him backwards. Another swung a balled and bony fist at her head; a third tried to grab her from behind. The red-headed warrior dropped to her knees, twisting her body viciously both forward and down; the sudden shift of balance and acceleration sent the rear attacker catapulting forward into his companions. Pincher’s friend from the Copper Coronet, a burly human with shock-blond hair, came in with a snarl. She angled sideways, evading his clumsy grab, and rammed her knee into his stomach. He collapsed, retching his evening’s drinks into the dirt and straw.
The fight became a song; it hummed through her, ebbing and flowing in a symphony of movement and reaction. Counter, catch; the snap and crack of breaking bone; dodge, push, twist. All too soon it was over, and Cassandra found herself regarding six fleeing backs instead of seven brawling opponents. The white shirts of their sailor grab fluttered like beacons as they raced to escape.
Cassie’s eyes scanned the surroundings and lit upon the rusty, two-pronged pitchfork lying in the hay. She knelt and hefted it, rose to her feet in one fluid motion as she found the shaft’s balance, chambered her arm, and hurled it forward. It lanced through the air like an arrow, narrowly missing a man’s head, and embedded itself firmly in a wooden door instead.
She inhaled slowly, lips pursing in a small, displeased circle. The others were too far away, disappearing out of her sight as they scattered. The rest of the street was silent. In the Slums people knew better than to stick their heads out at night.
She was crossing back towards the tavern itself when a faint moan of pain caught her ears. Pincher, his hand little more than a twisted clump of flesh and a spear of fresh white bone jutting from his shattered arm, lay gasping in the dirt.
“Well, now,” Cassandra murmured as she knelt down next to him. “Looks like it’s just you and me.”
He grimaced, digging his heels into the dirt and trying to wriggle away. “You ain’t blind!” he wheezed. “You ain’t ‘uman!”
She bared her teeth in a feral smile. “Right on both accounts.”
Her hand fastened around his ankle and she pulled him back towards her. A dark stain of wetness soiled the crotch of his pants as he began babbling and begging for mercy.
“Please don’ kill me! Oh, gods, please, please!”
The Taint unfurled instinctively, crawling out of its lair with draconic lethargy. It seeped through her flesh, through her muscles, seeking out its prey. The white flicker of his lifeforce was visible now: a wild deer desperate to free itself as lion slowly closed in.
“Please,” he sobbed. “Please. I got a wife. I got a little boy.”
“They deserve better.” She could smell it now: the sweet mix of urine and fear; the primeval panic raising through his veins. It tingled in her throat like a rich blood-red wine. “Give me one reason why I shouldn’t kill you,” she hissed.
“Oh, Tyr! Tyr, Talos, Umberlee!” He stumbled through a list of gods, praying to any and all. “I’m sorry! Ya’ll never see me again! Never! Na you na yer friend!”
Friend. Imoen. Cassie’s predatory grin slowly faded as Imoen’s visage appeared in her head. You scare me, Cass. I don’t even know who you are anymore.
Pincher was still babbling out a steady stream of pleading. He was functioning more on adrenaline than his wits, seemingly paying no mind to his mangled hand and arm. Sooner or later the pain would cut through his fear, and then he’d enter a whole new world of regret.
Just kill him. He deserved it. He’d started it, him and his friends. She was only defending herself. Defending Imoen.
I can take care of myself!
“Run,” she ordered, transferring her grip to his shoulders and hauling him to his feet. A single shoved spurred him into motion. “Get out of here!”
He fled as fast as his feet would carry him, disappearing into the darkness without daring to look behind. She watched him go with a sneer of dissatisfaction. The Taint inside her throbbed and pulsed. It was hungry. It wanted to feed.
She pushed it down. It groaned in protest, licking at her soul like a slavering dog. Just a little bit, it urged. Just a taste.
Cassie braced herself with one arm against the stable wall. She closed her eyes, breathed in slowly, and tightened her grip on the darkness inside her. It whimpered and hissed as she forced it back until control. She was still Cassie. At least for now.
A soft knock on the bedroom door roused Cassandra from troubled thoughts. It’d been nearly two hours since the confrontation in the stables, and slumber still eluded her. The events played through her thoughts a constant loop, in infinite detail, as vivid as life itself.
“Who is it?”
The latch turned; a small gap of darkness appeared between door and wall. “It’s me: Imoen. Can I come in?”
The gap widened; a familiar feminine shape slipped inside before easing it closed again. The soft pad of footsteps approached the bed; Imoen’s face was drawn and tired in the gray-black shadows of the room.
“Can’t sleep?” Cassandra queried quietly.
She sighed, slipping under the covers and pressing closer. “Not really,” she admitted. “Had another nightmare.”
The warrior laced their fingers together and gave her a supportive squeeze. “Want to talk about it?”
Imoen laid her head on Cassie’s chest. The heartbeat was slow, steady, and calm. “Not much to say. I think I’m awake; something bad happens; I run to find you. I think I’m safe, but then I find out you’ve turned into some kind of monster. Same thing every time. I hate it.”
Cassie nuzzled her nose into Imoen’s auburn waves. Her eyes were wide open, staring into the nothingness of the dark. In a few hours it’d be morning. Soon the pools of blood by the stable would be noticed. Pincher was out there, somewhere, crippled by his narrow escape from death. You worry me, Cassie. You really do.
“Yeah,” she murmured softly. “I have that nightmare, too.”
Aran Linvail—or rather, one of his men—was waiting for them at breakfast the next morning. He was a tall, lanky man, missing one ear, and with a patchy black beard that couldn’t seem to decide in which direction it should grow. His lazy brown eyes hadn’t seemed to notice them when the sisters had descended from the upper level, but as they placed their orders for eggs and ham he’d suddenly popped up by their table.
“Hello there,” he drawled in a lazy south-Amnish accent. “Name’s Alan. Mind if I sit down?”
“Actually, yeah, we do,” Imoen had responded tartly, giving Cassandra a warning look to keep her temper in check. “There’s plenty of other tables available.”
“Relax, love.” He pulled out a chair anyways and spun it, sitting astride it in reverse, and rested his arms across the back. “I’m not here to give you trouble. Aran’d like to see you when you’re done eating. Something about a particularly troublesome woman.” A white, good-natured grin split his beard in two. “As if there’s any other kind.”
Cassandra’s lips quirked with a barely-suppressed smile; Imoen rolled her eyes.
“We’ll eat fast,” Cassie promised.
“You’ll eat fast,” Imoen corrected. “I’m gonna enjoy every single bite. Spellhold and Ust Natha weren’t exactly gourmet locations, y’know.”
“You’re in the Athkatlean slums,” Cassie pointed out. “I’m not sure most people here even know what ‘gourmet’ means.”
She stuck out her tongue: a small pink tip between pouty lips. “Well it sure as Hell can’t be worse than fungus and old gruel.”
“Say that again after you taste the eggs.”
An hour later, they were packed and underway. Imoen had doggedly taken her time over breakfast, despite her grudging admission that, indeed, the Copper Coronet’s food was slightly (she’d said with a glare) less tasty than Matilda’s fancy fare. The best part of it had been the apple juice, fresh-squeezed from the autumn harvest.
The path that Alan took to the docks wasn’t one that Cassandra was familiar with. It wove and twisted between buildings and through side alleys, up, left, down, right. Here and there he’d stop, chatting with a passing acquaintance or stopping to browse a merchant’s stall. Whether or not he was genuinely unconcerned as to their pace, or whether some cunning lay behind his dawdling, Cassandra wasn’t sure.
“Why do guys always assume that women are nothing but trouble?” Imoen complained as they walked.
“Who reshelved the entire ‘Alaundo’ section of the Candlekeep library somewhere else?” Cassie countered.
“That’s not ’cause I’m a girl. That’s ’cause Candlekeep was boring.”
“And putting stinging nettles in Albert’s robes?”
“Oh, c’mon, he deserved it. And he overreacted. It wasn’t that bad.”
“Throwing every mop you could find in the lake so you wouldn’t have to clean the cellar?”
“Okay, okay.” Imoen stuck out her tongue again and gave Cassie a gentle shove. “But it’s not like you were an angel, either.”
“You were a bad influence. And besides, I’m also a girl, so it doesn’t disprove the ‘women are trouble’ part.”
“Fine. So girls are trouble. But guys are bigger trouble. I mean, seriously: Molahey, Tazok, Sarevok, Irenicus? Kidnapping and killing ranks a bit above reshelving books.”
Imoen huffed out an annoyed breath. “So why don’t people ever crack jokes like, ‘Oooh, look! A guy. Everyone knows that guys are murdering, lying jerks. Ha ha!'”
“C’mon, Im, you’re taking it too seriously.” Cassie wrapped her arm around Imoen’s shoulders and gave her a few short, playful jostles. “So what if guys laugh at you? That just makes it all the easiest to pick their pockets, doesn’t it?”
“I guess. Still, it’s not fair.”
“When life starts being fair, let me know.”
“Oh, hush. You’re supposed to be supporting me.”
The rough rasp of Alan’s cough drew their attention back to the front. “Ladies?” He gestured to the door next to them. It was set into a building equally as large as it was garish, sporting two distinct stories and a crumbling layer of gaudy orange paint that had obviously seen better years. “We’re here.”
“This is the den of the Shadow Thieves?” Imoen asked incredulously. “I mean… it’s orange. Like, really orange.”
“It’s not very discreet?”
“Ah,” Alan smiled, “but that is exactly what makes it so discreet. So few would expect a thieves’ guild to be so blatantly on display.”
She frowned. “Seriously? That works?”
“A lot better than you’d think.”
A single knock at the door was all that was needed. A moment later it was answered by a very respectable-looking middle aged man who, for all intents and purposes, could have easily passed as any number of professions. Whether he was acting as butler or as master of the house, wasn’t clear.
“Ah, Mister Alan.” He stepped aside, revealing a large, tastefully furnished anteroom. “Do come in.”
“Don’t mind if I do.” He motioned towards the interior, looking back at the women. “Guests first. Jovinus, could you let him know that his guests have arrived?”
There was no question as to whom ‘him’ referred to. Jovinus nodded as the three entered, closing the door behind them. “He is aware. You can go downstairs.”
“Thanks. Ladies, follow me please.”
The illusion of the lush, if ordinary, waiting room was quickly shattered as Alan led them into a small alcove near the back. A section of the wall slid both back and aside as they approached, allowing access into a secret room beyond. How Alan had activated the mechanism wasn’t clear, even to Imoen’s inquisitive, thief-trained eyes.
The secret room was little more than a 5×10 holding area, at least at first. Another click, and another section of wall slide away, revealing still another level of intrigue. The chamber hidden here was large and expansive: tables and chairs dotted the wooden floors, along with a dozen or more people lounging about with their boots propped up on any object that happened to be both sturdy and nearby. They were dressed in all manner of clothing, from rough and tumble thugs to young debutants; from middle-aged bankers to old, tired tramps. Several of them raised hands in greeting as Alan and his charges passed them by.
“Yes, they’re all Shadow Thieves,” he commented, answering the unspoken question. “Our name is rather misleading, I’m afraid. We are an organization of diverse talents and equally diverse people.”
A staircase led down to a lower level; from there, a long hallway, lit at regular intervals by small mage lights, extended some two hundred feet further. Their footsteps echoed through the silence, now that they had left the life of the upper level behind. At the hallway’s end was a large, circular door of heavy wood, banded together with iron and reinforced with glyphs and runes.
Alan knocked twice, sharp and loud. Imoen felt the tell-tale tingle of magic pass over her skin just before the door swung open.
Compared to the antechamber upstairs, the offices of Aran Linvail were small, but when it came to luxury and comfort, the head of the Shadow Thieves had spared no expense. The expansive rugs which padded the floor were of Calimshanite design; the furniture carved of ebony and mahogany with intricate elven motifs. No fewer than five paintings hung on the walls, each one a rich and vibrant work of art. At least one of them Imoen recognized: Baldur at Victory, by Entar Willowbrook. Her brows arched, the corner of her lip curling in amusement. So that was who’d stolen it.
“Cassandra.” A surprisingly youthful man, no more than his mid-thirties, greeted them as they entered. With bright blue eyes and the boyish cut of his sandy blond hair, he could have passed for ten years younger. Aran met the warrior with a firm handshake and small nod; for Imoen he bowed deeply, taking her hand and pressing his lips to her fingers. “Lady Imoen. A pleasure to finally meet you in the flesh.”
Cassandra was frowning. Seated at the rear of the room, under the shadows of the great potted ferns, were five additional figures, silently observing the arrival. She turned her gaze on Linvail.
“Is this an ambush?”
Imoen stiffened at the words, her fingers reflexively going to her spell components.
“No, no, of course not.” He extended his hand, motioning for them to stay calm. “Lady Imoen, please. I’d rather not have my belongings destroyed.”
“What’s going on?”
“It’s no ambush,” he repeated, motioning for them to follow as he headed towards the seated figures. “Although, of course, it would be foolish to admit it if it was. Rather, it is a gathering of like purpose. Gentlemen? And lady.”
The group rose as a whole and slowly stepped forward. The group of strangers consisted of four men, ranging from young man to grey-bearded veteran, and one slim, blond woman. The men all wore light ceremonial arms and armor, emblazoned with the colors and heraldry of the Order of the Radiant Heart. The woman’s robes were also familiar: a devotee of Lathlander, God of Light.
“May I introduce to you Sirs Ajantis Ilvastarr, Wildorn of Bolugar, Theodorus Tormwine, and Keldorn Firecam of the Order of the Radiant Heart.” Aran gestured to each man in turn, who then gave a small bow of acknowledgement. “And this young lady here is Dawnseeker Messanai.” She bowed as well.
“My esteemed rivals are here only due to the extraordinary circumstances in which we find ourselves, as you’ll understand,” Linvail continued. “I hope you pardon that I invited them; it seemed prudent, given that you had already contacted them regarding Bodhi’s return.”
“How did you—” Cassie cut herself off. Of course Aran knew. Nothing happened in Athkatla without him knowing. “Sorry. Go ahead.”
“We had already discovered that there was a vampire at work in Athkatla, but our plans to engage her were put on hold once we had heard of your attempt,” one of the knights explained. He was an older, graying man, obviously a veteran of many years. “We thought the problem was resolved.”
“A month or so ago, however, new victims were found,” Dawnseeker Messanai interjected. A few of the men nodded. “Either a new vampire had taken claim of Bodhi’s territory, or she had returned.”
Aran took over, motioning the group to silence with a small movement of his fingers. “In light of your failure to kill Bodhi the first time, I felt it wise to arrange some assistance this time around. Bodhi and her ilk are of enough concern that our three organizations have agreed to a temporary truce.”
Cassandra bristled. “Don’t start on me about ‘failure’, Aran. The only reason I was in there in the first place is because you were too much of a coward to send your own men. I killed every vampire in that crypt—”
“Except the mistress.” Keldorn Firecam’s firm, wizened gaze didn’t waver. “You let her escape.”
“I lost two innocent people down there!” Cassie countered, her ire rising. “I took her on again in Spellhold. I’ve at least tried. What the Hell have you done, other than sit around making plans?”
“Now, now.” Aran stepped between them, placing one hand each on Firecam’s breastplate and Cassie’s shoulder. “Let’s not throw accusations this early in the game.” His soft eyes switched between the two warriors until he was sure that no violence would erupt. He lowered his hands. “The fact of the matter is that Bodhi is far too dangerous for one person to take on alone, no matter what their talents. We need more muscle.”
“I have more muscle,” Cassandra muttered, but Imoen shushed her with a warning glance.
“Also, Cassandra is the only person to have encountered Bodhi and lived. She has tactical knowledge that is invaluable to such a fight.”
Imoen cleared her throat. “Ahem.”
“Ah yes.” Aran flashed the sorceress a smile. “And we now have Imoen.”
“What does she do?” one of the younger knights, Ajantis, asked skeptically.
“I’m a mage.”
She straightened, crossing her arms defiantly across her chest. “I helped Cassandra take out Sarevok in Baldur’s Gate. I’ve killed demons almost single-handedly, and I’ve faced down things you wouldn’t believe in the Underdark.”
This time it was Aran’s turn to look surprised. “Underdark? Is that where you’ve been, Cassandra?”
“Among other places,” she answered. “About Bodhi…?”
“Of course. Bodhi, then, as you likely guessed, is back in Athkatla. My people have been alert for signs of her presence since you left, just in case. We’ve confirmed that she’s back in the graveyard district, likely crawling back under the same slimy stone she crawled out of. What she’s doing, we don’t know, save that she’s been keeping a low profile. Her victims tend to be transients. Whether she’s feeding and building her strength, or whether she’s rebuilding her clan of minions, no one is sure.”
“In either case, it’s better to hit her sooner rather than later,” Firecam asserted. “We’ve already made preparations, as has the Dawnseeker. All we need is a few hours’ notice to change armor and retrieve our supplies.”
“Are you sure she’s in the same crypt?” Cassandra asked dubiously.
“Reasonably sure,” Aran responded. “No one has gone in to check, of course.”
She bit her lip. She hadn’t been expecting reinforcements, but they were certainly welcome. A cleric and a handful of paladins were the best possible allies to have when taking on the undead. Bodhi had to be expecting them, though. She had her contacts in the shadows just as surely as Linvail did, and in Athkatla there was no such thing as a secret. The mobilization of such organizations wouldn’t go unnoticed.
“Im?” She glanced over at her younger sibling. “What do you think? Now or later?”
“Now,” Imoen answered firmly. “She’s Irenicus’ muscle. The sooner that bitch is dead, the better.” Her crossed arms tightened; a sort of awkward, shivering self-hug. “She’s got something of mine.”
Imoen’s soul. Irenicus had given it to his sister, retaining Cassandra’s for himself. Killing Bodhi would release it. Although what would happen then…
“What about when Bodhi’s dead?”
Aran raised an eyebrow. “Pardon? I don’t follow.”
“You can’t tell me that the Order of the Radiant Heart doesn’t know what I am,” Cassandra stated. “What are the chances that I ‘accidentally’ get killed in the midst of battle?”
Firecam stiffened; his armor creaked as it shifted over his muscles. “Yes, we’re aware of your heritage,” he confirmed.
“The ‘truce’, if that’s what we’re calling it, also includes you. You bear the mark of evil, but your actions tend to be good. That is enough for the Order to extend mercy… at least for now.”
“So you’ll deal with me later.”
A nod. “If necessary.”
The words didn’t inspire a warm fuzzy feeling, but it was a more gracious answer than she’d expected. One thing she’d learned from Anomen was that paladins were honest and trustworthy to a fault. If Firecam said she was safe, then she was safe.
“I need a table,” Cassandra said. “And the blueprints of the crypt, if you’ve got them. Paper, if you don’t. I remember the layout fairly well. I can point out the known traps and chokepoints; we’ll formulate a strategy from there.”