There were no further encounters as they made their way through Spellhold’s halls. The commotion of Cassie’s transformation seemed to attract no attention whatsoever, and it was not long before they puzzled out why. They made their way to the upmost level of the asylum, the main floor, and passed each room with increasing confusion.
The inmates were dead. Most lay inside their cell curiously unmolested, with neither mark nor blood upon them, almost as if asleep. The libraries and studies had been rifled through by a practiced hand, with only a few select manuscripts missing from each shelf. Labs stood still stocked with equipment, some experiments seemingly still in-progress, which Imoen, with her knowledge of arcana, was able to identify as alchemical solutions. Food lay out in several rooms, half-eaten or completely untouched; wardrobes were still stocked with clothing; storerooms still full of supplies. But there was not a single living person, not a single sign of violence.
Imoen had crept closer to her as they explored the halls, and now followed with one nervous hand grasping Cassandra’s tunic. The fighter had located a new set of clothing, a set of men’s traveling clothes, from one of the abandoned wardrobes. It was a little large on her, but not unattractively or awkwardly so, and it gave the younger girl all the more cloth to grip. Imoen’s gaze darted constantly from shadow to shadow; fear practically radiated off of her in waves.
“I don’t like this,” she whispered.
“What do you think happened?” the older sibling responded in a low voice.
“Well, I mean, all the food is still out, clothing still in the chests. Normally that would mean they left in a hurry.”
Imoen bumped into Cassandra’s back as the latter slowed to peak around a corner into the hallway beyond. She muttered an apology. “Why, though? Maybe they’re dead. They could be dead.”
“The only bodies we found were the inmates, though. No Irenicus, no Bodhi, no helpers…” Cassie pursed her lips thoughtfully. The hallway was empty. She started down it. “You know… Bodhi said ‘Irenicus will know of this’ when I, uh, changed the first time. Do you think that could be it? Was I really that frightening?”
“I think so – but of course, you were trying to kill me at the time.”
“Other than that.”
Other than that? Imoen gave her a scything look, which Cassie’s turned back utterly failed to appreciate. “Well, I can definitely see how finding out the person you left for dead ended up not only surviving, but also turning into an avatar of the God of Murder and ripping people apart like rag dolls, could be just a little bit disturbing.”
They came to a T-intersection, with one branch leading off to the north and the hallway they were in continuing straight towards another door a few hundred feet down. This time it was Imoen who slowed.
“Cass…” She tilted her head slightly, dirty auburn strands falling across her cheeks. Then her eyes widened. “I remember this! I remember this hall!” She released her grip on her sister and clapped her hands together, literally bouncing in excitement. “That’s the exit!”
She dashed over to the doors with Cassie just a few steps behind. They were closed tight, each one just over six feet in height, made of cherry-stained hardwood with brass and gold trim. Imoen reached them first and pulled on the left portal’s handle with no success, then the right. They remained closed. She made a wordless sound of frustration and pulled again, this time with both hands, but still the doors refused to move.
The warrior took hold of the other handle and tried to open it. It was either locked or stuck. Perhaps it could be forced. “Here, move. Get out of the way.”
Imoen obediently moved away from the portal to give Cassandra the space she needed. She wrapped both hands firmly around the brass grip and placed her foot against the wood of the second door. She used it as an anchor to bring the strength of both arms and legs to bear against the last barrier to freedom, straining with teeth bared in effort. The door creaked. Cassie relaxed, took a breath, and then yanked again, once more bringing all her strength to bear. It groaned unhappily but remained shut.
“Terrific.” Imoen glared at the double doors with a look that would have sent Bhaal Himself into hiding. “We find the gods-forsaken exit and it’s locked!”
“Locks have keys,” Cassie reminded her, releasing her hold and likewise eyeing the door in displeasure. “This one probably has one, too.”
“Oh yeah?” She put her hands on her hips. “Where?”
She shrugged defensively. “Somewhere. Irenicus and Bodhi had to get in and out somehow, didn’t they?”
“Did you forget something? Like, powerful mage? Teleport spells?”
“Bodhi wasn’t. And neither were his servants. Someone had to walk somewhere eventually.”
Imoen just rolled her eyes.
“Look, Im, it’s a door,” she said with frustration. “One stupid door. We didn’t come this far to be turned back now. Can’t you unlock it?”
“I told you: I can’t do jack crap without some decent tools.”
“Yeah, but magic. If there’s an arcane lock, there’s got to be an arcane unlock.”
Imoen pursed her lips into an unhappy pout, then sighed. “There is – it’s called knock – but it’s not in your scrolls so I can’t cast it.”
“It has to be on a scroll? Can’t you just cast it?”
“Nope. Magic formulas are really complex, Cass, and even with all the stuff I’ve studied I only have the really basic ones memorized. Anything else I gotta have something to study from. Gotta memorize the words and whether you twitch your pinky left or right.”
This time Cassie sighed. “Great.”
“Magic’s powerful, not perfect.”
“Obviously.” Cassie rubbed her hands over her face, muffling another sigh, and then looked back towards the hallway thoughtfully. “What about that library we passed? It might have more scrolls.”
Imoen shook her head. “Mundane texts; most of the magic stuff he kept in the examin—the torture chamber.”
“Well, where’s that?” If he left the key behind, it would probably be there as well.
She shivered involuntarily and motioned with her chin back the way they’d come. “Wait—Cassie!” Imoen grabbed her arm as the older girl began to walk back down the hall. “You’re not actually going in there!”
Cassandra turned and gave her a quizzical look. “Why not? He’s gone now.”
Imoen looked at her as if Cassie had just gone stark, raving mad. “Why in the Nine Hells would you want to?”
“Because he’s probably got magic books you can use, and maybe even the key to the door?”
“Cassie, please.” Imoen pulled her back again as she began to turn away. The color had drained from her face, leaving the thief-mage pale with sudden fright. “Don’t—don’t make me go down there,” she pleaded.
Cassandra took the girl’s hands in her own to calm her down. “It’ll take five minutes, if even that long. You don’t have to come; you can stay here, okay?”
“No, it’s not okay!” She pulled her hands away and balled them into fists at her sides, her face torn between fear and anger. “You’re not gonna just leave me here!”
“This might be our only way out!”
The redhead bit down hard on her trembling lower lip. Her eyes flashed between the hallway and her sister, then back again. “His study,” she blurted out after a moment. “Irenicus’ study, his office, he’d keep the best stuff there. We should check there first,” she said, pleading rather than suggesting.
If it wasn’t there, they could come back; another half an hour wouldn’t make a difference. And if they could avoid entering that hall all together… Some ghosts were better left undisturbed.
Cassandra nodded. “Lead the way.”
She did so. Finding the office wasn’t hard. Irenicus had taken over the old Coordinator’s office: the largest and most spacious on that floor. Apparently being a Coordinator – or the bribes you received as one – paid well. The room was richly decorated with plush, finely woven rugs and tapestries; skillfully carved furniture, and glittered with accents of gold. One large desk sat across from the room’s door. Bookshelves lined the walls, and another door led out from the far wall.
Cassie immediately went to the desk. There were papers set in tidy stacks across the top and she began to rifle through them with quick, cursory glances, looking for anything of possible importance. Some notes on accounting issues, how much to pay for what supplies, a note of shipping schedules and manifests – all mundane and useless to her. There was nothing hidden under the papers. She began opening the drawers.
The first one held nothing but writing implements, various inks, and a basic wax seal. The second one held more papers. She flipped through them as well, and caught herself as she saw her own name within the text.
Cassandra did not make proper use of the heritage given her.
She frowned and skimmed up the page. It was continued from the one before. After a few false starts she finally found the beginning of the note and began reading.
My condition grows worse, and what I remember of my ‘home’ is fleeting.
I see images of family whose names I cannot recall, and dream of emotions
I no longer feel vividly. On occasion I sense nature as if she is my mother,
as though never removed from her bosom, but such moments are few.
I bear the hallmarks of senility with the rage and power of a young elf to lament it.
Bodhi endured the curse much better than I do now, but she was more
focused and, more importantly, undead. She is now thoroughly seduced by
her vampiric condition, despite its previous failure to counteract the
death sentence she was under. She had embraced her mortality, excited
by the urgency of it, but now she is confused. Imoen’s soul has
restored her, but her motives remain transparent, even simplistic. She
revels in her carnal nature, even as the elf within despises the
creature she has become.
Her eyes widened. “Imoen, come look at this.”
Bodhi has delivered more assassins than I had asked for. I disposed of
some in advance, but it seems such a waste. I think she has done this
on purpose, as she has taken to releasing the extras in the maze below
and hunting at her leisure. I marvel at her hunger, and how she seems
so alive in her undeath. Perhaps it is the soul of Imoen. I am quite
through with the girl myself, though she can still serve as bait.
Cassandra had best hurry.
Victory! I am restored! Cassandra has given exactly what I needed, exactly
as I demanded, and now I see where Bodhi has found such fire! I feel
the essence of the gods within me! Damn Ellesime’s curse for the
weak-minded spell that it was; now I am free. Cassandra did not
make proper use of the heritage given her.
“Damn him,” she breathed in soft wonderment. “Im. Imoen.”
“Right behind ya.” The auburn girl leaned over her shoulder and scanned the texts as Cassie held them out for her. She gave a low whistle. “What a psycho. And he’s an elf? And Bodhi too?”
“Apparently.” Cassie handed the papers to Imoen and dug through to the bottom of the drawer. Nothing in this one either. “I’ll finish looking through the desk. Check out the bookcase, see if you can find anything useful. Books, scrolls – anything.”
The auburn girl nodded and immediately went to the tome-laden shelves, pulling out volumes and perusing their pages with a practiced and knowledgeable eye.
There were two drawers left in the study’s desk. Cassandra opened the first one and quizzically pulled out a set of oversized bracelets. Bracers, maybe? They were too big for the former and too small for the latter. They certainly looked expensive, though, apparently made of either platinum or possibly white gold, with interlocked runic designs covering every inch of the outer surface. Cassie pursed her lips. Unusually expensive oddities were usually trouble. She set them aside on the top of the desk.
The bottom drawer was locked. Figured. And she was in no mood to play. She planted one foot on the edge of the desk, grabbed the handle the best she could, and hauled backwards with all her strength. What had failed on the door worked marvelously here. A loud crack shattered the air and sent her lurching backwards as the lock broke and the drawer came free in her hands. Imoen turned sharply, arching one slim eyebrow. Cassie shrugged. The thief smiled and rolled her eyes, shaking her head as she went back to examining the texts.
“There’s some decent stuff in here, Cass,” she said, picking up a thick book bound with cracked red leather open flipping through the first dozen pages. “It looks like some are missing – probably his super-uber-mage stuff – but even if these are his leftovers, it’s a Hell of a lot better than your scrolls. Er… no offense.”
“None taken.” Inside the drawer was a small box, apparently solid. There was no obvious lid or hinge, no lines were the wood was joined. She gave it a curious shake. Something rattled inside.
Well, brute force had worked on the last one. She placed it on the floor, put one foot on top, and slowly began to apply force. It surrendered with a dull crunch with about half her weight bearing down.
“Cass.” Imoen had glanced over again at the sound. “Stop breaking things. What if that had something breakable inside, or it was trapped or something?”
Oh… Well, that was a valid point. Her foot was still in one piece, though. She picked up the box and gave it another shake, this one decidedly gentler than the first. The contents still rattled – and were presumably intact.
The break had made visible a thin line in the wood. She wedged her fingernails into the gap and tried to pull it apart. It creaked miserably then gave way, and opened into two equal halves in her hands.
The mage turned around once more, and her eyes widened as her jaw literally dropped.
Cassie smiled with satisfaction as she held up the small copper key. “Found it.”
“Sweet! Lemme grab some of these books and we can blow this joint!”
“Don’t rush it. We have the key now; make sure you get the really good stuff before we leave.”
“Oh, I will,” she assured her. “But you can’t imagine how grateful I am to finally have a way out of here.”
“What about these?” Cassie had pocketed the key and now held up the strange bracer-bracelets.
Imoen reached out and took one, examined it briefly, and handed it back. “Bracers of protection. Good stuff, hang onto that.”
“How can you tell?”
“The runes, silly.”
“Oh.” She regarded them dubiously. “What do they do?”
“They protect you. Do you really want me to start explaining magical theory again?”
She grinned. “Thought so. Just put’em on.”
“Hrmph.” She went ahead and did as instructed – she seemed to be doing that a lot lately – and wriggled the metal bands onto her wrists. They fit decently enough, and felt like normal metal. She clicked them together a few times. Nothing happened. Hrm.
It was a few minutes before Imoen finished going through the books and ended up with a set of five to claim as her own. “Here,” she said, handing four of them to Cassie. “Help a girl out.”
Each of the things easily weighed five pounds, maybe closer to ten. “I am a girl,” she pointed out indignantly.
“Yeah, but I’m girlier, so I win.” She gave her a playful whack on the butt. “Giddyup. Let’s get out of here.”
They backtracked their way to the exit, where the impassive double doors awaited them in silence. Cassandra shot Imoen a smug smile and dumped the tomes back in her arms despite the squeak of protest. “Have to have my hands free for the doors.”
Imoen was probably glaring at her, but from behind the stack of arcane texts it was hard to tell. “Just open the door,” came the muffled response.
Cassie fished the copper key from her pocket and inserted it into the lock. It stuck, but after a small jiggle it slid home. She turned it and tried the handle, and then blinked in surprise as it failed to open. She tried again, harder, but it made no difference. Frowning, she looked at the door, then turned the key the other way. Some sort of weird backwards lock? Another pull on the handle. Nothing. It failed to open.
“C’mon, these are heavy! What’s the hold up?”
Her frown deepened. Another pull on the handle, then another, and a third, with increasing frustration and force. “This isn’t the key. It’s not unlocking.”
“What?” The pile of books clattered to the floor. “What do you mean it’s not unlocking?” she demanded, coming over to the door. “That’s the key! These are the doors! This is the exit!”
“It’s not unlocking,” Cassie repeated, her voice rising slightly in response to Imoen’s accusatory tone. “You try!”
“Fine. Move.” Imoen knelt down and withdrew the key, studied it with a deep frown, then re-inserted it into the lock. She turned it first one way, then the other, with no more success than her sister.
“Great,” she hissed and dropped down to her knees. She brushed her hair back behind her ears and placed one against the metal lockplate. She turned the key again, seemingly randomly back and forth several times, before finally yanking it out of the keyhole and throwing it against the door in disgust. It ping’d off the hardwood and clinked onto the floor.
“It’s not the right key,” she confirmed sourly. “It’s not even catching the tumblers. It’s the wrong key. It’s the wrong god-damned key!”
“There’s got to be another key then,” Cassie reasoned. She knelt and retrieved the key. “Or another door.”
“A few hundred doors,” Imoen grumbled.
“Another key, then. Locks have keys. That’s how they work.” She sighed and ran her fingers through her red waves. They hadn’t been to the torture chamber yet. Dammit. That was the last place she wanted to go, and perversely probably the exact place she needed to.
“This sucks.” Imoen sighed as well, plopping down to the floor and picking up the books again. “What about that other door?”
“In the study. Did we check that?”
The image of Irenicus’ office flashed back into her mind, zooming in automatically to the door that had been set into the rear wall, next to the bookcases, behind the desk. The one they hadn’t checked.
They exchanged looks, then as one scrambled to their feet, gathered up the remaining tomes, and dashed back to the study as fast as possible. Imoen reached it first and this time had the presence of mind to set the books on the desk before turning to her sister and raiding her pockets. She fetched forth the key without askance or apology, and went immediately over to the door. She sank to her knees and inserted the key with trembling hands and turned it.
“Cass—Cass, it’s not working! It’s not catching these tumblers either!”
Cassandra frowned and motioned her aside, then took hold of the knob and turned it sharply. It rotated freely, unlocked, and the door glided open noiselessly – and with the key still held in Imoen’s fingers.
Imoen pursed her lips, got to her feet, and walked through the door. She gave her sister a murderous glare. “Don’t say it.”
Cassie retrieved the key from the lock, tucked it in her pocket, and gave her the sweetest smile she could.
Imoen slipped inside the room and looked around cautiously. The room was surprisingly bare, with only a single tapestry on the wall and a small table next to a large oval mirror of some sort. A few trinkets lay carelessly on the tabletop. Gods willing, one of them was a key.
The rogue approached the table cautiously, eyes reflexively scanning the floor and walls for tell-tale signs of traps and protective mechanisms. Anything hidden with skill or magic probably wouldn’t be detected until it was too late to avoid, but she’d chance it if it meant getting out of this damned place.
She had just started to reach for the items on the table when the mirror next to it abruptly flared with a dark purple light. Imoen jerked her hand backwards and instinctively ducked, covering her head with her hands. The light faded almost as quickly as it had appeared, seemingly without any effect. She slowly uncovered her face and glanced around warily. The room was still intact. Nothing missing, nothing new. No obvious weirdness.
Cassie stood about a foot away looking similarly perplexed. “What was that?”
“Dunno. Trap?” Imoen pursed her lips. She didn’t have any spells handy for divining what – if anything – had taken place. Not even a simple detect magic.
“What’d it do?”
“I dunno,” she repeated, still frowning. “Do you feel anything?”
She shook her head. “No.”
“Me neither.” Her eyes flicked back to the table. “I think… hold on.” Imoen slowly extended her hand towards the table again, this time keeping one eye cautiously on the mirror. This time nothing happened. That wasn’t it, then. She turned to her sister once more. “Did you do anything? Touch anything? Step on something?”
“I don’t think so. Pretty sure I didn’t.”
The thief-mage inched a bit closer to the mirror, table forgotten for the moment, and studied it. It was about six feet tall and half that wide, curved into a smooth and perfect oval. It was bordered in mahogany carved in an elaborate vine-and-leaf pattern, and amid the design were etched words in the Elvish script. The glass itself was black, probably set against some manner of opaque backing. Scrying mirrors used that a lot. Was that what it was? A divination tool?
“There’s writing here,” she informed her sibling. “Elvish. Figures, I guess.”
“What’s it say?”
Good question. The script was Elvish, but the words didn’t seem to be — at least, not the variety that she knew. “I’m not sure. I mean, it’s Elvish, or at least pretty close to it. But it’s not, y’know, standard Elvish. Maybe it’s an old dialect or something?”
There was a movement out of the corner of her eye, and the mirror swirled to life again: streaks of purple, violet, and black began to manifest in the glass. Imoen jumped backwards again with a frightened squeak. The mirror quieted again almost immediately, and Imoen whirled on Cassie.
“You moved!” she said, pointing an accusing finger. “What’d you do? Somehow you set it off.”
Cassandra held up her hands in a warding gesture. “Nothing! All I did was try to get a better look!”
“But what exactly did you do?”
“I stepped over here—“ she demonstrated, and another display of colors from the mirror immediately made her retreat. “What am I doing? Why is it reacting to me and not you?”
“I dunno.” The mage tapped a fingertip against her chin thoughtfully, studying the floor were Cassandra was standing. It looked normal enough, and tying a portable mirror to a non-portable floor just didn’t make sense at all. Why have a trigger in a place you couldn’t move, when the mirror could easily be moved to a whole different building? Or another city?
Her grey eyes wandered from the floor to Cassie’s foot, and then reflexively up the warrior’s body. The shoes were common enough, and the tunic. Barefoot versus shoes? But still, that’d mean the trigger was on the floor. Her eyes lit up as they found the bracers.
“Cass, the bracers. Take’em off, hand’em over.”
She raised an eyebrow but did as instructed. It was magic, and magic was Imoen’s game, not hers. Cassie tossed the bracers over to her sister without moving from where she stood. Im caught them without difficulty and then waved them at the mirror. It didn’t react.
“Hrm.” Her attention went back to Cassie. “Gimme the key?”
She fished it out of her pocket and tossed it over as well. As it arced through the air towards Imoen, the mirror began its kaleidoscopic display once more. The younger girl caught the key with a triumphant smile.
“Right key, wrong door – or other way around,” she said. “This key apparently goes to the mirror.”
“The mirror?” Cassie asked dubiously.
“Right. It’s probably a portal of some sort; wouldn’t need a key otherwise,” she reasoned.
“Like a portal out of here?”
“Could be. Dunno.” Her attention was back at the inscriptions on the wooden frame, now that she was assured the unusual colors were not a trap. “It’s just weird. It’s like not quite Elvish, y’know?”
“Im, the only Elvish I know is amin ner laure merna and amin hiraetha. Anything harder and you’ve lost me.”
She giggled. “Getting drunk and apologizing for it?”
“Well, and a few insults I picked up.”
“Mmm, I bet.” Imoen rolled her eyes, still chuckling. “Anyways, so… all this is, really, is one phrase written three different times. Magic number and all that. It says harl oloth, but Hell if I know what that is.”
“Can’t you take a guess?” Cassie asked.
Another roll of her eyes, this one much less amused. “Guessing in magic is a Very Bad Thing, Cass. But yeah, I can. The closest words I know would be herel and aroth. ‘Beneath midnight.’ Or maybe ‘before midnight’ – herel is kinda tricky.”
“Which means what? This thing only works before midnight? Or when it’s dark out?”
“You keep asking me like I’m supposed to know this stuff.”
“Well, you are the brains of the family.”
“At least you admit it.”
“Haven’t I always?”
“True, true.” The mage tapped her chin again, once more regarding the mirror. “Well, regardless, we don’t even know where this thing goes, so I’d rather find the right key to the real door.”
A search of the room turned up nothing, however, nor did a second search of the main study. A half-hour later found them once again standing before Spellhold’s exit, staring at the impassable doors with morose frustration.
Imoen let out a heavy sigh. “This sucks.”
Cassie nodded, sighing as well. She studied the doors for a minute or two, weighing the different possibilities. They had to get out, that was a given. And there had to be a way out, that was also a given. But so far they’d exhausted every possibility, and this was their second day without food. Doubtlessly they could survive without eating – Imoen had proven that – but the less time they spent in here, the happier both of them would be. And the sooner Irenicus would pay for his crimes.
“Im,” she said softly, wincing inside as she spoke. This was about the last thing on Faerûn she wanted to do. “We haven’t searched the torture chambers.”
“Nuh-uh.” She shook her head adamantly. “No way. I’d rather do the portal.”
“We don’t even know where that goes,” Cassie pointed out.
“Who cares? I am not going back into that room.”
“Imoen, be reasonable—“
“Hey, you be reasonable,” she countered, voice rising with anger. “You live in a cell for gods-know-how-long and have some bastard cutting you open and beating you every day. You do it, and then you see how much you want to go back to the one place you hate more than anywhere else on Faerûn.”
“I’m not gonna do it,” she repeated, shaking her head again. “I’m not. Give me the portal, hands down.”
“What if it leads to somewhere even worse?”
The redhead arched an eyebrow. “What,” she asked in a tone generally reserved for the especially dull or especially young, “could possibly be worse than Spellhold?”
Which was a valid point, Cassie conceded mentally.
“Well… do we go now, or stick around a while?” she asked. “The longer we wait, the more lead he has to get away, and the longer we linger here soulless. But neither of us is in the best of shape and another night’s sleep couldn’t hurt.”
Imoen placed her hands on her hips, lips pursed thoughtfully. “Y’know, as much as I hate this place, I think staying here for tonight is better. You’re right: we’re in crappy condition. And plus at least now I got some decent spellbooks to study.”
Cassie shook her head bemusedly. “How do you ever find time to sleep? All you do at night is study!”
“It’s a mage thing.”
“I guess so.” She ran her hands through her hair, brushing the tangles away from her face, and was abruptly aware of just how oily and fouled it had become. Cassandra’s brows rose as she realized another possible benefit of spending another night to recuperate. “Is there a wash basin around here?” she asked.
Imoen blinked at the abrupt change in topic. “Not that I know of,” she answered. “There’s some pitchers and bowls and stuff, and there’s create water in the scrolls you gave me – I guess we could fake it.”
“Anything. I’m dirty, I’m bloody, and I smell bad.”
The corner of Imoen’s mouth quirked in amusement. “I’ll see what I can do.”
They spent another half-hour getting settled in for the night. Cassie scoured the nearby rooms for spare sets of clothing for Imoen, since she’d already found some for herself. The younger girl needed something cleaner and more practical than the simple green smock she’d been wearing the last few days. She also found some stale but edible bread and a small sack of chestnuts that had already been shelled. Not gourmet fare, but better than nothing.
She returned to find her sibling had located two large pitchers and a good-sized bowl. They were set on the floor in the portal-room, while Imoen herself was seated at Irenicus’ former desk. She’d somehow cast or activated a magical light in the room, which lit both chambers with a soft yellow-white glow. One of the spellbooks was already cracked open before her, and she studied the contents with her elbows on the desk and her chin resting on both hands.
She made a slight motion of her head towards the rear room, not looking up from the book. “Mm-hmm. Pitchers.”
“Found some clothes for you. I think they’ll fit, at least.” Cassandra put the pile – three outfits’ worth – on the edge of the desk.
This time she did look up, and she smiled. “Thanks, Cass. I’ll try them on in a bit.”
“Okay. I’m going to wash up.” Or try, at least. With as much dirt and grime as covered her skin, it might take a few attempts.
Imoen nodded. “I’ll be here.”
Cassandra went into the portal-room and mostly-closed the door, leaving it slightly ajar. After everything they’d been through, she was just a little too paranoid to close it all the way. At least this way, if something happened they could hear each other, even if they couldn’t see each other.
She crossed over to the pitchers and small basin on the floor, casting a wary eye to the portal as she did. Of course Imoen had to study at the desk and stick the water in this room with the freaky magical device. Because nothing said ‘comfort’ like imagining what horrible thing might sneak through a mirror and attack you while you were naked.
Cassie took a deep, deliberate breath and let it out slowly. “It’s just a mirror, Cass.” Yeah, a magic mirror. As in, portal to the deepest bowels of the Nine Hells. Maybe she could turn it to face the wall? “Just a mirror,” she told herself sternly. “Relax.”
It was easier said than done. She caught herself eyeing the black void of the glass several times as she undressed, starting by laying her weapons within easy reach and kicking off the boots. She unbuttoned the men’s tunic she was wearing, folded it carefully, and placed it on the floor, followed by the breeches. The damn portal was still in the corner of her vision as she poured a bit of water from one of the pitchers into the basin and used her hands to scoop it up and over her body.
It wasn’t warm, but at least it wasn’t icy cold — a little cooler than room temperature. She tried to keep her bare leg over the basin as she filled her palms and sluiced the liquid over her calf. It streamed over her flesh and back into the basin, carrying with it a tinge of red and brown as the dust and blood flowed with it. She used her hands as makeshift washcloths, scrubbing herself down as best she could, gradually making her way from calf to thigh, then switching to do the same to her other leg.
When she was done with both limbs she regarded the now murky basin water with distaste. It’d be best to dump it and refill with fresh, but there wasn’t a drain or convenient disposal anywhere. She sighed. Fuck it. I want a bath. She tipped it over, letting the fouled water flow across the floor. It’d dry eventually.
She refilled it and paused again as she realized that her upper body was going to be much harder to clean and keep the water in the basin. Of course, the floor was already wet now. She could crouch.
Cassandra did so, again cleaning herself as best she could using only the water and her own hands. The water darkened much more quickly this time, and with a great deal more of the reddish tint. She discovered cuts and bruises she hadn’t even realized she had. She dumped the basin once more and picked up the pitcher to gage how much water was left. She’d used it sparingly, and had about a third of the container left. Not much, but enough to at least to wash the worst of the filth out of her hair.
It was a harder task than she expected, having to pour the water slowly with one hand and use the other to comb the tangles out of her matted mane. At least it’d be its proper color again when it dried.
“Hey, Cass, I found a—oops.”
Cassandra dropped the pitcher as her hands reflexively flashed to cover herself. It shattered on the stone floor and sent shards and the little remaining water spilling across the room.
“Imoen!” She glared a death-wish over her shoulder at the young thief-mage standing in the doorway.
“Sorry – hey, when’d you get a tattoo?”
“A little privacy?” Cassie demanded.
“It’s not like I haven’t seen you naked before.”
“Okay, okay, geez!” Imoen rolled her eyes, smirking, and dutifully turned her back – without leaving the room. “Better?”
Cassie growled. “No!”
Imoen’s smile grew even wider. She’d probably pay for this later, but it was priceless for now. Always been a flaw of hers – pleasure for now, pay for it later. Oh well. Cassie’s face was probably the same shade as her hair about now.
“Anyways, you should shut the door if you want privacy.”
Cassandra kept one eye on the door as she quickly scooped up her clothing and pulled on the breeches as fast as humanly possible. She was still wet, but she could dry off later. “And you should knock before coming into a room.”
“The door was open.”
“I was taking a bath!” She pulled the tunic over her head and tugged it down in place. “And well you knew that!”
“You said you were going to wash up,” Imoen corrected her. “You didn’t say anything about stripping down to your birthday suit.”
“But—“ Dammit. Cassie shook her hair out and quickly combed it through with her fingers. Imoen was right – as usual. One of these days, Cassandra was going to win an argument.
“Can I turn around yet?”
“Yeah, fine, whatever.”
The redhead did so, still with a mischievous smirk on her face. “That was so worth it.”
Cassie flipped her a rude gesture.
“Anyways,” Imoen continued, “I found some more notes in Irenicus’ desk, and a few relating to that portal. It does lead out of here – unfortunately, he’s not real clear on where exactly it goes. Ust Natha.”
She shrugged. “City, country, mountain – I have no idea. It has that same vaguely-Elven sound to it, but I don’t recognize it.”
“So we could end up leagues from here.”
“Yeah, but we’ll be out,” Imoen smiled happily. “Cool, huh?”
“I guess so.” She still wasn’t pleased with the idea of blindly leaping into a magical vortex.
“Spoil sport,” her sister accused. “Well, I’m happy about it, so nyah.”
She left the room and flopped down at Irenicus’ desk again, pausing to stick out her tongue at her sibling when the older girl came out of the portal room. Cassie returned the gesture as she walked over to where their gear lay on the floor.
“Ewww!” Imoen pushed Cassie away when she passed too closely to the desk. “Not over here, you’ll drip all over my book!”
Cassandra took the opportunity to shake her hair out, sending a spray of droplets over the protesting girl.
“Serves you right,” Cassie responded with a smirk.
Imoen’s lips puckered in a pout, but she stayed silent. Well, for about as long as Imoen ever did.
“You clean up nice,” she commented, eyes flicking up now and then from the arcane text. “Smell better, too.”
“Heh. Now if we could just get you clean.”
One dark eyebrow arched up. “I smell like roses, thank you.”
Another glare, but apparently the mage couldn’t focus on the book and still toss insults at the same time. So there were limits to her mind after all. She settled with an ominous promise. “Just you wait.”
“All talk, no action,” Cassie answered, crouching next to the sacks and searching for something semi-soft to lie on. Nothing. Figured. She sighed and stood back up. “I’m going to sleep in here,” she stated.
“You’re going to bed already?”
“Hell yes. I’m exhausted.”
“I’ll try to study quietly then.”
“No problem. If you need anything, I’ll be here.”
The grey eyes flicked up from the manuscript again, this time accompanied by a soft smile. “Thanks, Cass.”
A sudden vertigo seized her stomach and nearly doubled her over. She was plunged into darkness, utter and absolute, which did nothing to steady her equilibrium. She took a reflexive step to try to catch herself. It worked, but just barely.
“Im,” she whispered. “Imoen?” It was pitch black.
“I’m here,” a voice responded. “Just a sec.”
A moment later a small globe of light appeared, revealing the world around them once more. Well, what little ‘world’ there seemed to be. The floor they stood upon was raw, natural rock, littered with pebbles and boulders of various sizes. It was greyish-black in the dim light. They had appeared in some sort of large chamber, with no walls of any type visible within the radius of the glow. The ceiling, if there was one, was lost in the blackness overhead. Darkness enveloped everything beyond a mere twenty feet or so. It was eerily silent.
Imoen held the light overhead and looked around curiously. Cassandra’s hand went instinctively to her sword. This didn’t feel right.
“This is Ust Natha?” she whispered.
“I guess,” Imoen answered. “It’s the other end of the portal at least.”
“Where in the Nine Hells are we?”
“I see the same thing you do.”
Cassandra frowned. It was so quiet – too quiet. No birds, no insects, no wind even. The air smelled stale and musty. “Are we in a tomb? Or a cave?”
Imoen arched an eyebrow at the choice of words. “Well, we’re out of Spellhold,” she said somewhat defensively.
Terrific. Out of Spellhold, in to gods-knew-what. Not much of a trade-off. “We need more light.”
“This is all I have.”
“Can you make it brighter?”
She shook her head.
Terrific. Bloody damn terrific.
Imoen had crouched down and was looking carefully at the stony earth. Cassandra approached her and knelt down as well, raising her head every few seconds to scan the area around them. The hairs on her arms had pricked up and the darkness put her on edge even more than usual.
“What’re you doing?” she asked quietly.
“Looking for clues,” Imoen answered. “If Irenicus manifested here as well, he had to have walked off somewhere. Footprints, maybe. Or at least some clue as to which direction he went. Elves have better vision than humans, but even they can’t see in pitch blackness. He’d have to have some sort of way-sign or something to guide him.”
That made sense. Except, of course, Irenicus had known where he’d end up, had gods-only-knew what magic prepared, and might have even had someone meet him here for all they knew. But it was worth a shot. Cassie rose back to her feet and decided to keep watch while Imoen investigated. She’d always had a better attention to detail anyways.
A few minutes later, the mage spotted something.
“Here,” she said, pointing to an area of slightly-flatter-than-normal dirt about five feet from where they’d appeared. “Partial boot print. And there’s a way-sign over here. At least, I think that’s what it is.” Something had definitely been carved into the boulder she was examining, but what exactly it signified was another issue.
“So what does that mean?”
“That he went roughly that-a-way,” she answered, pointing to what was presumably the northeast.
“Now is this like, ‘I’m definitely sure he went that way’ or more like ‘I have no idea, but I’m guessing’?”
Imoen put her hands on her hips. “It’s a ‘I’m pretty sure but I suppose I could be wrong.’”
Well, it was better than nothing. Cassandra held out her hand. “Give me the light. I’m going in front.”
Imoen handed over the glowing orb. Interestingly it gave off absolutely no heat, and weighed about the same as a small apple, despite its much larger size. “Y’sure you’re not a little overprotective?” the mage asked.
“Probably,” Cassie responded. “Comes with the job.”
“Well? Aren’t you going to tell me?”
Cassandra turned around and looked at her for a moment. Her eyes were blue again, albeit it dark blue now – whatever the Slayer changes had done to her was slowly fading. Hopefully by tomorrow morning they’d be completely back to normal.
Comes with the job. It came with wanting to rip Irenicus into twenty separate pieces and burn each one to ash. The chaos of the last few days had thankfully kept the worst of her thoughts from her mind, but the underlying motivation was still there. She still caught her mind wandering from time to time, especially on that fragile border between wake and sleep — wandering to how it felt to have Imoen’s body against hers, flashing back and forth between the tears and smiles she’d seen, imagining the horrors the Imoen had been through.
It came with failing to protect the one person she swore she’d always be there for. And it came with making sure it never happened again.
“No.” She turned around and started into the darkness, carrying the small, precious light.
Imoen stood in surprise for several seconds before hiking the hem of her robe and hurrying to catch up.
No? Cassie never told her no, about anything.
They walked for gods-only-knew how long. Days with no vision of the outside world, and now this strange, static darkness, gave no hint as to whether it had been one hour or five. The globe of light had dwindled to half its original size, and Imoen could judge the time somewhat by the duration of the spell itself. It lasted seven hours on a standard casting; they were probably around the 3 or 4 mark when a voice called out to them.
“Tazgh na! Doghti srir.”
Both sisters froze in place. No speaker was visible, but with the light shrunken as it was, they could only see clearly for ten feet in any direction, and with steadily darkening shadows another five more. Cassandra automatically moved to place Imoen behind her. If something was coming, then by the gods it’d have to come through her first.
“Doghti srir!” the voice repeated. It was high-pitched but presumably masculine. “Tanan och srita na.”
“What is it saying?” Cassie whispered.
“I dunno,” Imoen whispered back.
That they’d chosen to speak instead of attack was a good sign at least. The voice’s owner wasn’t hostile – or at least, not interested in just killing the pair outright. And if it was a graverobber or thief, he’d find precious little loot.
“Hello!” Cassie called back. Imoen smacked her in the back with a hiss of disapproval, but the fighter ignored her. “We don’t understand you,” she continued, speaking slowly and eyes peeled for any sign of movement from the shadows.
It was silent for a few seconds. “Hello?” she called again.
“Hilo,” the voice responded hesitantly.
“Who are you?” And where are you? She still couldn’t see anything but the all-consuming blackness.
“Sor dan,” it answered. Another pause. “Kaman tong yes? Sor dan den tok.”
Kaman tong? Common tongue? It clicked. Whoever the speaker was, they were at least trying to communicate. Sor dan… sword down? She looked at the weapon in her hand and lowered the point to the ground, maintaining her grip just in case. She wasn’t about to go unarmed.
“Sword down,” she answered back. “You speak Common?”
“Kaman yes tok na gud. Ste. Ste.”
Stay. That was easy enough. Imoen was still pressed against her back; she wasn’t going anywhere.
Another minute passed, then the sound of footsteps could be heard approaching from the darkness. Cassandra’s sword hand twitched, but she kept the blade down. There was no use being hasty, especially since they apparently had no trouble seeing through the darkness.
A small dwarfish-looking man stepped into the edge of the light, holding his hand up to shield his eyes. He was dressed in some manner of hide – leather armor, but not any type of leather she was familiar with. It was drab grey with darker splotches, with metal rivets set into the chest. He carried what appeared to be a pickaxe and had a helm upon his head. A large nose, small dark eyes, and full black beard regarded them curiously.
Cassandra felt Imoen go rigid against her back and her hands tighten into a death-grip on her tunic. “Duergar,” she breathed in a panicked voice. “Cassie!” It quickly rose to a note of terror. “Kill it!”
The fighter’s eyes narrowed and a surge of anger swelled in her chest. She raised the sword, pointing the deadly tip at the little man. “Stay back,” she ordered.
He frowned. “Sor dan! Sor dan!”
Imoen’s heartbeat thundered so strongly that Cassie could feel it pulsing against her back. The sword remained level.
“Zi pa tazgh nasr,” the creature called into the darkness. “Dazgh sriri felgen!”
There was an answering click from somewhere in the darkness. Then another, and a third. Reinforcements.
“Sor dan,” he repeated.
Cassie pursed her lips and slowly lowered the blade. “Mage armor,” she whispered to the girl behind herself.
“I told you, that’s self– oh.”
The dwarf stamped his foot on the ground. “Dan.”
She could hear Imoen chanting softly behind her, then a chill rushed through her body as the magic field solidified in such close proximity. At least she was protected now. Cassandra kept her eyes on her opponent as she slowly crouched down and laid the sword flat on the ground. She rose once more, drawing herself to her full height and fixing him with a dark gaze.
Kill it, the voice in her head whispered. The same voice she’d heard yesterday after she’d transformed into Bhaal’s avatar. The unexpectedness of it shocked her and the resulting spike of fear and adrenaline made her heart race. But if the voice only appeared before she turned… and Imoen had better spells now, she could protect herself better if necessary. If necessary.
Could she change on purpose, though? Her heart was pounding, but the rage she’d felt before was not there. Where did the voice come from, then? It certainly wasn’t her — or was it? She took a deep breath and concentrated, trying to reach down inside herself, where that cold emptiness had been ever since Irenicus had performed his ritual. It didn’t feel so unnatural now. A little strange, but tolerable. Forgettable, even.
The coldness reached back, along with a thrum of eager energy. The inner voice hissed in satisfaction. Oh yes, there was definitely something there.
Cassandra grinned ferally. Reinforcements or not, she knew the Slayer was powerful enough to take them. If it could take down Bodhi, it could take down a dwarf. Give me a reason, you bastard.
“What’s going on?”
“Why did you put down your sword?”
Cassie shook her head. “I don’t need a sword. I can take them.”
“Are you insane?” the redhead hissed. “You’re not even wearing armor!”
“I don’t need it.” The dwarf was eyeing them warily, but apparently without comprehending the conversation.
“You are insane! What’s wrong with you? You get a god-complex?” The question clicked things into place, and a hot anger filled Imoen’s next words. “Don’t you dare, Cassandra. Don’t even think about it!”
Two more short humanoids, similar to the first, stepped into the edge of the light. Both carried compact crossbows, loaded and aimed at the two women, as well as the same bulbous nose and ink-black bushy beard.
“Wait…” Imoen peered around Cassandra’s shoulder, squinting to see better at the distance. A shiver ran through her, and her body tangibly relaxed. “Oh, thank the gods,” she breathed. “Svirfneblin.”
Kill it. “Svirf-what?”
“Those aren’t duergar.” The relief in her voice was evident. “Those are svirfneblin. Deep-gnomes.”
Well, they’d be dead either way in a few minutes; the details didn’t much matter. Cassie inhaled deeply and felt something shift inside of her as the coldness inside expanded and began to spread, tingling, into her arms and legs. It felt like a brisk winter day rushing through her blood. Almost…. enjoyable. A smile curved her lips.
“Hold on…” There was a rustle behind her as Imoen moved about. Another soft sound of chanting and a small crinkling sound. “There. Can you understand me now?”
“Yes,” the middle svirfneblin answered in a surprised voice.
Cassie’s eyebrows shot up. More magic?
“We don’t mean any trouble,” the mage continued, stepping around her sibling to make herself more visible. The mage armor would stop most attacks, if it turned ugly. “We’re just trying to find the way out of here.”
The gnomes exchanged curious looks. “Out of where?” the one of the left asked, lowering his crossbow slightly. Cassandra’s heart sank in disappointment. They were going to be reasonable.
Out of where… well, that was a good question. “Ust Natha?” Imoen offered hopefully.
The curiosity turned into bewilderment. “Ust Natha be quite far from here. You are already out.”
“Where are we then?”
“Granitehome is our city. It is not far. We do not often see surfacers.”
Surfacers? As opposed to…? Perhaps they really were underground.
Suddenly Imoen’s eyes widened. Svirfneblin… dark… underground… holy shit. Her mouth went dry. “Before midnight,” she whispered to herself. “Beneath midnight, beneath night…”
Cassie’s quirked eyebrow was now directed at her sister. “What’re you talking about?”
“I mistranslated,” she said. “Oh gods dammit, I mistranslated the whole thing!” She put her hands to her face. “Beneath midnight. Beneath night. Under dark.”
The warrior’s blue eyes widened in comprehension.
Maybe there were things worse than Spellhold after all.