The svirfneblin had led the two humans back to their village, and given them a surprisingly warm welcome considering the circumstances of the encounter. Imoen’s tongues spell had eased the meeting quite a bit, since even the most fluent of the gnomes spoke only halting, awkward, and heavily-accented Common. The two had been granted beds for the night, free of charge as the village’s guests, and for the first time in a long while they were free to sleep without needing to keep watch. Of course, that hadn’t stopped Cassie from taking the under-sized chair and jamming it firmly under the doorknob, just in case.
The fighter had hauled the mattress off the bed and onto the floor before doffing all but her trousers and promptly passing out on the first soft surface she’d slept upon in weeks. Imoen was sorely tempted to do likewise, but she’d elected to stay awake a bit longer and change her spell selection. Infravision was going to be a necessity down here, as well as light, and tongues. She’d made a list of what she hoped were fairly good spells for the coming days, and was working on memorizing the last of them. Otiluke’s Resilient Sphere.
The mage sighed. Hopefully she wouldn’t need it. Whatever was happening to Cassie ranked pretty damn high on the “Not Good” scale of things, and she had no doubt that any further Slayer transformations would push it clear off the chart. Even if Cassie could control it – which Imoen highly doubted – it still didn’t mean it was a good idea. The first time she’d felt great; the second time she’d almost died. What about the third time? How many times until she didn’t change back?
Imoen set the spellbook aside with another soft sigh. Her head hurt. Three hours of memorizing incantations, arcane gestures, spell components, and the like, was entirely too much. She needed a day off — or at least a night off.
She stretched her arms overhead, arching her back, then propped her head up on her hand and glanced over at her sleeping sibling. Sleep would be nice, but she just wasn’t tired yet. She pursed her lips thoughtfully and drummed the fingers of her other hand lightly against her thigh. Her eyes lit upon the sack of supplies that they’d continued to carry, and then shifted back to Cassandra’s form.
Imoen got to her feet and crossed over to the sack, rummaging through it a few seconds before withdrawing the diary. She’d wanted Cassie to read it, but the older girl deserved her sleep after the last few days, and reading a few entries by herself wouldn’t kill her. She could ask questions in the morning if she wanted to.
She flipped forward a few pages, found what appeared to be a good place, and then started reading.
Tenth-and-first day, ere Eleint (Day 4)
We picked up a warrior-priest called Anomen before venturing towards the slavers. He seems neither especially bright nor especially strong, but he has a valuable mix of abilities. And more importantly, he is willing to assist us for honor and righteousness, rather than a share of the reward. Typical aspiring paladin.
His addition proved to be invaluable, though, as we ran into a patrol of bugbears in the sewers and very nearly were killed for it.
And… I had a dream last night. Of Candlekeep, Imoen, and that blasted mage. He says I brought them to the dream, which implies that what I see is real. And if so, then time is all the more urgent. Imoen has said I will come too late.
Tenth-and-three day, ere Eleint (Day 6)
Anomen has saved us again. Truly I underestimated him. On our way to Nalia’s lands, we came across a poisoned man and promised to deliver him to his friends for assistance. A bothersome group, and apparently good friends of Jahiera (is anyone surprised?). However, I have now over ten-thousand gold, primarily thanks to those filthy slavers and their easily-busted chests. At this rate I shall have my “assistance fee” within two weeks of Imoen’s arrest. I am making excellent time. Gods willing, it will be time enough.
Again, I dream. Irenicus, again, telling me of the death in my blood with which I am already too familiar. “Follow,” he said, and I would receive the gifts of my blood. And then Imoen was there, standing gagged and bound by his side by ropes of lightning-like magic. They constricted around her, scorching her flesh and slicing into muscle. She whimpered behind the gags and looked at me with such terror.
“Follow,” he said. “If only to protect the weak who fell because of you.”
I don’t wish to write any more this week.
The next entry was undated, and the handwriting noticeably more jagged and uneven. The body of the page was wrinkled in spots and slightly discolored, and the ink had bled into the fibers of the page. Water damage, she realized.
Another dream. A different one. No Irenicus this time.
I dreamt of Candlekeep, and of Imoen. Of a time when we were children. I’d nearly forgotten… has it been so long? Or just so much has happened?
Then, like now, I promised her I’d take care of her. I promised I’d always be there for her. That—
The rest of the line was violently scratched out in a black blob of ink. It picked up again in a new thought, a few lines down the page.
Gods, what a wretched being I am. Chaos follows in my wake, just as Alaundo predicted, and Imoen is just one more innocent I’ve doomed. She’s better off without me and my twisted dreams. Better to have never met me at all.
Imoen very slowly closed the book, a thoughtful and somewhat pained expression on her face, then traced the cover with her fingertips. She sighed softly and pushed it away.
If only Cassandra knew how wrong she was. There were a lot of things that could have gone better, a lot of things Imoen regretted, but knowing Cassie had never been one of them. They’d fought, sure, and traded angry words more than once growing up. They didn’t always get along. But one thing she knew was that they loved each other, and nothing would ever change that. They had killed for each other, and they would die for each other. And if Cassandra thought for one single moment that Imoen would be better off without her… well, it was a stupid idea altogether.
Imoen got to her feet and went over to her sibling, who was still sleeping soundly on the small mattress. There wasn’t really enough room for both of them on the mattress, and Imoen was short enough that she probably could sleep on the other bed – if she wanted to. Instead the thief tugged the mattress off the other bed and dragged it over next to her sister.
Cassandra stirred slightly as the younger girl adjusted the makeshift bed. Imoen sat down behind her, folding her legs beneath her, and soothed the fighter back to sleep with gentle strokes to her hair. They were both clean now, after long-overdue baths.
The auburn girl exhaled softly and she continued to stroke Cassandra’s red waves. They’d both been through so much lately. A lot of things she wished they could just forget.
Her gaze went to the woman’s bare back. She’d elected to sleep without a tunic, wearing only the oversized men’s trousers. More comfortable that way, she’d said. It had revealed the tattoo inked over the fighter’s spine, trailing from just between her shoulder blades all the way down to the small of her back. She hadn’t had it when they’d left Baldur’s Gate.
Imoen’s fingertips traced the letters. The black ink had raised the skin slightly and roughened the texture of the flesh. It was healed, but recently so. She must have gotten it within her first few weeks in Athkatla. The script was Elven, but the word it spelled was in the Common tongue: Remember.
It was an odd sentiment to engrave on one’s skin. What exactly did she want to remember? If anything, given the tone of the diary and recent events, Imoen figured she’d want to forget. As if forgetting were that easy.
“You suck, Cass,” she murmured as she wriggled down into a prone position behind her sister. “Why’d you have to come and get me?”
She wasn’t complaining, exactly. Well, not at all. But from the scars that crisscrossed Cassandra’s skin, the words in the diary, the look in her eyes – it’d cost the fighter a lot more than twenty-thousand gold to get to Spellhold, and literally cost her her soul to get them both out.
Imoen continued to trace the lines of the tattoo as she thought. Maybe the “Remember” had something to do with the dreams she’d mentioned. It was easy to forget dreams if you weren’t careful.
Her lips curled into a faint smile as her own dreams came to mind. Baldur’s Gate. The Three Kegs Inn. She probably had a few dozen variations of these fantasies that she’d carefully sculpted during her imprisonment. The sensation of Cassandra’s skin under her fingers brought back to mind the image of them at the window, and Cassie’s threat to tickle her to death. She felt different in real life than in the dream. Warmer, but not as soft – muscular and taut from the struggles she’d been through, small cuts and scars giving texture and depth to skin. More real. So much more real.
Her fingers drifted off the letter “M” and over her sister’s shoulder. The skin here was pale, but half-way down her arms a light tan was present. She avoided the half-healed scratches and trailed down Cassanda’s tricep. Her mind was half in her imaginary world once more, an easy transition after so many weeks of practice. And in the tavern room, Cassie was holding her, fingers poised to make good her threat. Imoen shivered slightly and unconsciously caught her breath as dream-Cassie’s hands glided over her waist in a decidedly non-ticklish fashion and caressed the mage through the light fabric of her summer robe. Her scent was subtle and heady, skin with a hint of sweat; the smirk on her lips was self-assured. Cassandra pulled her closer, brushing her fingers over Imoen’s cheek, and the sorceress felt her skin prickle in response.
Imoen jerked her entire body backwards in surprise. The startled reaction brought Cassandra from half-slumber to full wakefulness, and she was sitting up, tensed for a fight, before Imoen’s heart started beating again.
“Gods dammit, Cass!” She whacked the woman on the shoulder, quite a bit harder than she’d intended. “You scared the Nine Hells out of me.”
“Me?” Cassie frowned and rubbed the now-stinging patch of skin. “What was that for?”
“You just—scared me,” she muttered defensively. Had she really just been thinking that– that Cassie was…? A faint blush rose in her cheeks. “I thought you were asleep.”
“I was, until you bolted like a startled rabbit,” the fighter grumbled. “Mostly, at least.”
Imoen’s grey eyes widened. “You were awake?”
“Not until you started tickling me.” She yawned, raising a hand to cover her mouth. “C’mon, I’m tired. Let a girl get some sleep.” The fighter laid back down and fiddled with the covers until they were back in a decent position, then folded back one corner for her sister.
“I wasn’t—uh—“ She trailed off uncertainly. Imoen pursed her lips, then gave in and slid back in under the blanket. Tickling. Sure.
Cassie yawned again and flipped the covers back up to cover them both, and then curled one arm back under her head and draped the other across Imoen’s waist. “’Night,” she murmured, her voice already thick with sleep.
“Good night,” Imoen responded quietly, and curled one arm under her own head. Her heart was still pounding a little at the unexpected shock of Cassandra’s voice. She wasn’t sure she really wanted Cassie snuggled up to her right now, but it’d just keep the girl awake longer and make her more aware if she objected. They always slept like this on the road back on the Sword Coast.
Besides… it felt good. Safe-good, secure-good. Not like-that-good. And it was her first human contact in – what, a few months now? The first touch of someone who really cared about her, the first peaceful, not-about-to-die night with another human being. She was just starved for human affection, and starvation made people act crazy sometimes.
Cassie’s deep, steady breath set up a gentle rhythm in the silence of the room. Imoen stayed awake a few minutes longer, examining her emotions: comfort, security, happiness. That was all… wasn’t it?
Nearly ten minutes later, Imoen finally felt slumber tugging at the edges of her mind, and the lullaby of Cassie’s presence pulled her into sleep.
When she awoke the next morning, Cassandra was no longer in bed. Imoen’s brows furrowed together as she slowly came out of the slumber and registered the lack. The sound of quiet yet forceful breathing was nearby, and it only took a tilt of her head and a yawn to locate the fighter near the facing wall, doing some morning exercises.
Cassie was doing pushups – the real kind, the soldier kind, not the little girly version that most women did. She lowered, paused with her nose touching the floor — or as close as she could get before her breasts got in the way – then levered herself back up to her starting position. She’d put back on her breast band, but was still without a tunic, and the movements highlighted the firm muscles in her arms, shoulders, and upper back. Imoen smiled lazily and stretched her own body underneath the blanket, using the back of her hand to muffle another yawn.
“How many ya at?” she asked after a few more seconds, still watching the steady flex and power of the woman’s form.
Cassie paused in the lowered position, glancing over without turning her head, and then pushed up again. “Average is thirty or thirty-five,” she said, then completed another. “I can do forty-five on a really good day.”
Imoen arched an eyebrow. Hell, she’d be lucky if she could do five of those before she had to use her knees instead of her tip-toes. “How many today?”
Cassie frowned, not answering, and then made a small motion with her head. “Come here.”
“Come here,” she repeated, still holding herself in the upper position. “I want to try something. Get on my back.”
The auburn girl giggled as she wriggled out of the covers and got to her feet with another stretch. “When’d I get promoted to exercise-equipment?” She made her way over to her sister and gave her a good-natured smile. “Do I sit like a lady or cling like a monkey?”
“Do you even know how to sit like a lady?”
“Hush, you.” Imoen straddled her sister’s back and then carefully laid flat, stomach-down, and hooked her arms under the red-head’s shoulders. “Now what?”
Cassie slowly began to lower herself again, still balanced on her toes and now with her sister’s weight as added resistance. She paused at the bottom, arms and back trembling with the effort, and then with a grunt raised herself back up. Twice, three times… Imoen’s eyes grew progressively wider with disbelief as the count went up to six before finally Cassandra couldn’t raise herself anymore and collapsed flat to the floor.
She lay there in a silence a moment, frowning unhappily as she caught her breath, then answered. “Sixty-three.”
“Sixty–! You are so lying.”
“Well… then that’s pretty damn amazing. I thought you said your max was like forty-five or something?”
Cassie got her arms back under her and pushed up with a loud grunt of effort, and somehow managed to lift herself once more from the floor. Imoen reflexively tightened her arms and held on for dear life as her balanced shifted from the unexpected movement, and she ended up pulling them both to the left and toppling them onto the stone.
“It was,” Cassie said. She didn’t sound too pleased with shattering her old record. “You can let go of me now, you know.”
Imoen rolled her eyes and smiled. “You’re kinda crushing me, you big oaf.”
The red-head took stock of the situation and realized she was indeed now laying half-atop her sister. Which didn’t mean Imoen couldn’t let her go, although it would make it awkward to get up.
Hrm. To play, or not to play? Her mind came to a decision almost instantly. Playtime had been all too rare in the past months. Cassandra lifted her hips and used her legs to wriggle herself backwards, pushing even more of her weight onto Imoen’s chest. The wizard’s protests soon gave way to wheezes and oofs of labored breathing.
“Hell no,” she gritted out, and started freeing her arms so she could push Cassie away.
The warrior felt the movement and seized Imoen’s hands with her own, interlacing their fingers and holding them firmly. “Then say that I’m the greatest person in the whole wide world.”
“How about: ‘Imoen has a monkey’s butt’?”
“Dammit… no…” She wheezed out the words and glared at her sibling.
Cassie rolled her eyes. Fine. She twisted her hips to bring her body around so that they were now chest-to-chest, and quickly maneuvered to bring herself into a standard pin position. Imoen tried to take advantage of the movement to wiggle herself out of the predicament, but Cassie just grinned and followed her motion for the scant few inches before the mage could no longer move beneath her weight. Now face-to-face and with her sister firmly pinned, she gave Imoen a smirk.
“Now you’re just being difficult,” she accused.
Breathing wasn’t nearly as hard now that Cassie had distributed her weight a bit more forgivingly. Being the smaller one had always been a disadvantage in wrestling matches. Imoen gave her an imperial glare. “Get off.”
Cassie’s smirk remained. Imoen hated to lose. She’d probably pay for this later, but for right now, she was going to milk it for all it was worth. “That’s rude, you know.”
“Yeah, well…” She tried to free herself again, but her struggles only encouraged Cassandra to adjust her position to immobilize the girl further. The fighter easily wrestled her arms down and pinned them over Imoen’s head where they were even more useless than before.
The sensation of Cassie’s hands against her flesh brought the vision from the fantasy to mind once more, and Imoen’s breath stopped on her lips. She blinked in surprise as the familiar scene around her took on a new shade of feeling that it’d never had before. She was suddenly aware — too aware — of how Cassie’s body felt against her, and the strange exciting vulnerability it evoked.
“Well what?” Cassandra asked with a smile, and the voice made Imoen shiver.
“Get off,” she repeated as a sensation of panic began to rise.
“Not until you say—“
“I mean it! This isn’t fun anymore!”
Cassie’s humor faded, and was quickly replaced with concern. She instantly rolled aside, freeing her sibling from the pin, and then moved to a crouch next to her. “Are you okay? I was trying to be gentle.”
Imoen shook her head and felt her cheeks redden self-consciously. “I’m fine,” she said, waving away Cassandra’s attempt to touch her shoulder. “I just—kinda… freaked out,” she muttered. It was true enough. “I’m sorry.”
The red-head’s brows knitted together in confusion as her mouth dipped into a frown. She studied Imoen uncertainly for several seconds before the younger sibling just couldn’t take it anymore.
“Let’s go get breakfast,” Imoen offered, getting to her feet and trying to avoid Cassie’s dubious gaze as she quickly got herself decent to go outside. “You’re hungry, right?”
“I guess,” she answered.
Breakfast was an awkward affair. Communicating had been easy enough, due to Imoen’s tongues spell, and the food had been decent, if strange. But the mage had spent the better part of the meal picking at her food and feeling like an idiot; Cassandra spent it giving their svirfneblin hosts uneasy looks. They were both relieved, the former more than the latter, when one of the gnomes came in with a summons for them.
Cassandra led the way, still glancing around at the wandering villagers with as much dubious suspicion as they regarded her. Something had changed, overnight. It was barely noticeable when looking at things, but people were almost outlined, somehow. Glowing in her vision. Not all of them, just a few, and it seemed to be intermittent. Most of the svirfneblin had a faint muddy-yellow color that flickered around their forms. She kept switching her focus, moving her gaze, trying to figure out if the trick was something in vision or something wrong with her eyes. The aura stayed consistent, at least somewhat, and didn’t move when she did. It was centered on the people.
And Imoen had lit up like that earlier, before breakfast. Bright, vivid yellow that had faded almost as instantly as it’d come. Was this another side effect of the Slayer transformations?
They came to a small, nondescript dwelling that was literally carved into the side of one of the cavern walls. The entire city was built in such a fashion – moulded and sculpted within the rock, rather than constructed out of it. It gave the impression of a nest of termites or an ant den, with gnomes scurrying in and out of their holes. At any moment the whole colony could swarm over the unwelcome visitors and carry them off into the depths. Cassandra shivered and stepped a bit closer to Imoen as the mage chit-chatted with their escort.
The little svirfneblin man knocked on the house’s wall with his hammer, and a few moments the round stone doorstone was rolled away from the entrance. Cassie pursed her lips doubtfully as she compared the height of the two women against the four-foot tall door. Fortunately the occupant stepped out rather than inviting them in.
“Ah, so you’re the surface-dwellers, come to Granitehome,” he said, his voice pleasant but his expression not quite a smile. “I am Goldander Blackenrock.”
“Yup. How’re ya? I’m Imoen, this is Cassandra.”
He took Imoen’s offered hand and looked on in bemusement as she shook it up and down. “I’m well, thank you, thank you. And you and your kindred?”
“Been better,” Imoen quipped before Cassie had a chance to speak. “We were kinda hoping we could get your help with that.”
“Yes, my watchmen mentioned as much. You seek the other two surfacers from the week past.”
“They were here?” Cassandra asked. “In Granitehome?”
The elder gnome shook his head. “Stone firm, no. But our watchmen took note of their passage. We keep a sharp eye out for glitter.”
Cassie arched her eyebrow slightly at Imoen, who didn’t seem to notice. Whatever the tongues spell did, apparently it didn’t handle idioms all that well. “Where are they, then?” she asked.
“Ust Natha. But you won’t be mining that vein without help.”
“And just how much is this help going to cost us?”
Imoen elbowed her sharply in the ribs and gave her a warning look. “Sorry, sir,” she smiled.
“I will help as I can, but I have a matter which takes importance,” Goldander said.
“Figures.” The muttered response was immediately rewarded with another hard jab and a glare. Cassie let out a small hiss of pain and tried to discreetly step outside of Imoen’s reach.
“Spare your tone,” the elder said with a disapproving look. “We are not weak. There is no shame in knowing when you are outmatched. Too much svirfneblin blood has been shed over this already. I will give you details of the task first, and you may decide if you wish to accept. I tap rock that you will.”
“As you can see, our Granitehome village is quite empty,” Goldander continued. “I have sent the majority to deeper climes far from here. It was no longer safe, and it is our own fault. We tunneled too deep recently, and unearthed a monstrosity. A strange cavern that yielded death, a monster we have not seen outside of dreaming. The task I ask of you is simple to explain, but difficult in deed. I ask that the beast be killed, and the tunnel be closed.”
“Can’t you just collapse the tunnel on it?” the fighter asked, trying to keep the growing annoyance out of her expression.
“The tunnel will readily collapse, of that we are sure. What is unsure is whether that would kill the beast now that it is awakened.”
“Awakened?” asked Imoen hesitantly. “Please tell me that you mean it was hibernating and not otherworldly.”
“As I said, it is a beast out of dreams, or nightmares, if you prefer. It is not of the rock. I do not know what to call it.”
“Fine, whatever. Find it, kill it.” Cassandra knew the drill well enough. Everyone else on Faerûn wanted the same damn thing. “Now about what we need–”
The red-head ignored her. “What about the other two surfacers?”
“I know of them,” he repeated, “but you will have a hard time finding them. They passed within the city of the Drow, Ust Natha. Now before you ask, I may know a way into the Drow city. Well, I know a being that might help you.”
Goldander frowned. “She could see you safely inside, but after that you would surely be dead. If such is the risk you would take, I will gladly point you in her direction. I’m sure she will see to your concerns if you approach politely, but I fear I must restrict your access until the needs of my village are met.”
“Fair enough.” Cassie sighed again and unsheathed her sword. “Where do I find this beast you need killed?”
“The passage is to the northeast, guarded by one of my best breachgnomes.” Goldander produced a small scroll from a case on his belt, and handed it towards Cassandra. Imoen quickly intercepted it and flicked it open.
He nodded to the mage. “Aye. When the beast is dead, use this to bring the cavern down upon it.”
“Fine. We’ll need supplies though.”
Goldander nodded again. “Aye, the market can supply you. I’m afraid our weapons and armor will be useless to you though.”
He gestured towards her somewhat vaguely. “Svirfneblin armor would not fit a surfacer, nor a sword fit your hand.”
Cassie frowned. It was a valid point, but not one she’d anticipated. The gnomes were half her size, and nothing made for their warriors would fit her. The weapons perhaps were more adjustable; a gnomish longsword could serve as a shortsword perhaps, but the grip would be made for smaller hands, and the balance for a different physique. Her present weapon was more suitable.
“Fine,” she said after a moment. “We’ll be back.”
She turned and walked off without a farewell, and Imoen had to jog to catch up with her. When she did, she scooted in front of the warrior and blocked her path with a frown.
“Cassie, stop. What in the Nine Hells do you think you’re doing?”
“Going to kill the monster, obviously.”
Cassandra stepped around her and continued towards the northeast passage. “Yup.”
Imoen swiftly moved to intercept her again. “No, no, no. You’re being a big dumb hero again.”
The older woman sighed and obediently stayed in place. “Look – we need to find Irenicus and Bodhi. To do that, we need to get into Ust Natha, and to do that we have to make these damn midgets happy.”
“Okay, granted, but marching into a tunnel to face down gods-know-what with nothing but your ego and a sword, is stupid.”
“Im, I can handle it.”
“Are you retarded?” she demanded frustratedly. “This Slayer thing is messing with your head. You were never this hot-headed before.”
“No, I’m not retarded, I’m just tired of running errands for half of Faerûn,” Cassandra snapped back. “You know how many favors I’ve done? Kill this, find that, fetch that. For once I’d like someone to say, ‘Sure, I’ll help’ without expecting me to kill something, steal something, or fuck someone.”
“So you’re gonna rush off into the unknown and get yourself killed instead?”
Cassie brushed past her and started walking again. “Relax. I have no plans on dying.”
“Like anyone ever does?”
The tunnel wasn’t too far of a walk, and Imoen’s continued objections didn’t slow down her sister at all. The svirfneblin guard was stationed at the tunnel’s entrance, and moved aside almost immediately when Cassie brusquely told him why they were there. Imoen tossed him a hasty apology as she followed the warrior into the darkness.
“Cass… Cass!” She grabbed the woman’s sleeve. “Dammit, slow down! I swear to Mystra Herself, I’ll slap hold person on you if I have to.”
She turned around with an impatient sigh. “I have walked into a den of vampires and came out more or less intact, so I don’t see why—“ Her brows knit together as her gaze landed on her sister, then she quickly looked around the tunnel, then down at her own hands.
The frown remained as she looked back at Imoen. The aura was back, but different this time. Mostly yellow, but faint and almost translucent, with small tendrils of black lacing through it like veins. “Did you do something?”
She shook her head. “No, why?”
“I–” Cassie looked down at her hands again. They looked perfectly normal. Back at Imoen, where the glow continued, but now fainter. “I—I don’t know.” What was going on?
“Do you seriously not see why I’m worried about you, Cass?” Imoen demanded, putting her hands on her hips.
The red-head scowled at her, but didn’t answer. She’d deal with it later. Instead, she started walking again, and soon came to the opening to the last-dug chamber. It was only half-finished, the pickaxe-scored walls rough and ugly. At the far side of it, where it had been most recently worked, a large sinkhole had collapsed into the floor and now yawned like an open maw.
The pair stopped just inside the chamber opening, and Cassie felt Imoen habitually press against her side. A glance around showed no obvious inhabitants.
“Do you see anything?”
Imoen shook her head. “Nuh-uh.”
Cassandra disengaged herself from her sister and stepped forward softly, tilting her head and looking around the room. As she approached the pit on the far side, she could see thin, dark crimson vapors which exuded from the depths. She paused and inhaled slowly, sampling the air. It had no scent, but nevertheless it seemed to sting her nose. The cold void inside her stirred to life.
“Something’s here,” she whispered. A trickle of adrenaline leaked into her blood.
“Sshh.” Cassie motioned her into silence. The hair on her arms began to prickle. “Stoneskins. Protective. Whatever.” Imoen nodded and began her incantations.
The sense of unease increased, and Cass found herself leaning forward in anticipation as her breath began to quicken. She could see over the edge of the pit only fractionally, and the depths were so dark that it revealed nothing of the vapors’ source. The voice was quiet, but the cold sensation within her swirled and rustled eagerly. She couldn’t wait to use it. A grin curled her lips.
The creature exploded out of the hole with a high-pitched howl. It emerged in a flurry of wings and tails and lashing appendages, flailing chaotically. Cassie jerked backwards to shield herself even as she reflexively swung her blade; it met nothing, hit nothing, and with her balance gone she staggered backwards just to keep standing.
A bolt of crackling blue-white lightning shot forth from near the doorway and struck the creature in the chest. It issued another high-pitched whine and dove down to the ground, settling down on what appeared to be four limbs. The hind ones resembled that of a dwarfish lion, with powerful muscles and thick, long claws; the front ones seemed at least nominally human, although powerfully built and the hands tipped with jagged nails. The body itself was short and squat, with mottled pinkish-yellow flesh that was wrinkled into large rolls of excess skin. The creature’s face sat atop the its shoulders; not on its head, for it had none, nor a neck, but rather a human face stretched and distorted flat across the surface where the neck should have been. It burbled at them incomprehensibly as flecks of spittle flew from its lips.
One of the creature’s two tails lashed out. The long, thin appendage lashed past Cassie like a whip, and attacked the mage behind her. The tip collided with Imoen’s stoneskins and failed to penetrate them, but the impact knocked her backwards. The other tail darted out and whipped across Cassandra’s chest. The fabric of her tunic did nothing to blunt the force; the cloth ripped and a bloody gash was opened in her skin.
A volley of magic missiles launched forth, but they fizzled and died harmlessly when they struck the wrinkled flesh. Imoen gritted her teeth, dodged a second attempted slap from the tail, and began to cast flame arrow. Fireball would have been better, but with Cassie that close she’d fry them both.
The redheaded warrior snarled and lashed out with a counterattack. The tentacle she’d aimed at snaked out of the way and retaliated with a lash to her face. She growled as the rage inside leapt out; a second slash connected and sliced deep into the flesh. The stretched face gibbered miserably and the tail-whip withdrew. It stopped just out of range, and then flashed forward and tried to coil itself around the woman’s neck. The flat of her sword deflected it.
The flame arrow manifested in the air in front of her, and a mental command from Imoen sent it streaking like a meteor towards the creature’s body. The energy dissipated as soon as it struck with no visible effect. Imoen hissed her frustration through gritted teeth. Whatever this thing was, it was magic-resistant.
The blow did succeed in attracting its attention, though. The tail flicked out once more and succeeded in its attempt to wrap around her waist. It coiled twice and then constricted with a massive pulse of muscles. She could feel the pressure build up, but thankfully the rigidity of the protective magic prevented it from collapsing her ribs. It held her securely but harmlessly, even as it tightened and constricted. Uncomfortable, but hardly dangerous.
“Let her go!” Cassie’s enraged shout echoed through the cavern. Obviously it didn’t look quite so harmless to her.
The creature stopped, half-turning in surprised towards the warrior, still gibbering and mumbling through the warped, boneless face. The second tentacle flung itself forward and burst through the slash of her sword, sending the fighter flying backwards and crashing to the ground. The weapon clattered against the stone and skidded to a stop a few feet away.
Cassandra rolled with the impact and brought herself to her feet almost instantly. She growled and ran forward, leaning to scoop up her sword as she passed it, and hurled herself towards the beast with a shout and a hard overhand swing. “I said, let her go!”
One of the front limbs rose to block the attack. The sword flayed open the shoulder area, but Cassie herself was caught by the taloned hand. It squeezed, making her grunt in pain, and then flung her away once more.
And then it gently set Imoen back on the ground and released her.
Imoen blinked and for a moment just stood there in surprise. Her sister was getting to her feet, more slowly this time, and holding her side with an expression of pain. As soon as she regained her bearings and sighted her foe once more, the expression switched to one of rage. She charged it again, deflecting another attempt from the tail with her blade, only to have the second tentacle, now unoccupied, fling her back once more. She went to the floor a third time.
“Would you fucking stop that?” she demanded as she levered herself off the ground.
Fireball would work now that the two were separated – if Imoen could keep Cassie from charging in again. “Cass, wait!”
“Wait?” The warrior looked at her in disbelief, eyes shifting rapidly between her and their opponent as she tried to concentrate on both. “For what?”
“Stay out of range,” the auburn sorceress instructed. “I’m gonna fireball it.” She reached into one of her pouches and pulled out the small pinch of sulphur needed for the spell, and began the incantation.
Cassie frowned and moved over to a position where she could more easily guard her sister from any incoming attacks. It hadn’t been too long into their adventuring career when she’d figured out that Imoen was most effective when she was free to concentrate on her spells, and Cassie ran interference against anyone trying to disrupt her. The trick of it was getting out of the way in time once the spell activated.
The tentacles stayed back as the beast regarded them curiously, but it seemed to know something was going on. She wasn’t sure how intelligent it was. The strange babbling sounds continued as it shifted and lowered the front half of its body to allow its face to see them. It let forth another miserable whine and the tails shot forward. Cassandra raised her blade immediately and hacked into the nearest one. It connected, but it was a glancing blow, and the second tail darted past her to strike the sorceress again. Again the stoneskins intercepted it, and Imoen’s voice quavered, but she kept both her concentration and her footing.
Cassie growled and prepared for another attack, but Imoen stepped just to the left of her line of vision and raised her hand. With a shout she finished the last word of the chant, and a small spark of fire flew out of her fingertip. It raced across the space between the mage and the monster and exploded in an inferno of raging flames. Cassie reflexively raised her arm to shield her face, but the blast only lasted a few seconds before the fire died down into nothingness once more.
The creature was still standing; indeed, it seemed more annoyed than hurt. Other than a slightly more reddened hue to its baggy skin, it was unaffected. It moaned and began to advance forward towards the two girls.
The warrior charged forward once more, this time avoiding the lash of the tails, and buried her sword up to the hilt with a loud cry. It sank into the creature’s chest and the beast wailed and trembled. The tails whipped forward and curled around her arms, trying to yank the woman loose, but Cassandra hung onto the blade determinedly and continued her forward momentum. Her shoulder slammed into the abomination’s flesh and her boots skidded and dug in for purchase against the uneven rocky floor.
Imoen’s mind raced for some sort of working which would help. She didn’t have anything strong enough to push the beast backwards; nothing to augment Cassie’s strength. The range was about right, though, for the one spell that did come to mind. She fished the components out of her pouch and crumbled them between her fingers as she started chanting. This machismo shit was going to get Cassie killed, sooner rather than later. If they survived this, they were going to have a long talk about not charging into mortal danger.
Cassie growled and gritted her teeth as she pushed herself and the sword further into the creature. The tails tightened painfully around her bare flesh as it tried to pull her away. She leaned forward, keeping her grip on the blade, and drew it up as hard as she could. The flesh was as tough as old leather and just as hard to cut, but slowly the wound widened as she strained against the resistance.
Imoen finished the chant, and dark moisture began to seep from the ground beneath the creature’s feet. The oil spread in a slowly but steadily growing pool, perhaps an inch deep, miring it in a puddle of thick, liquid grease. It didn’t seem to notice, or at least didn’t seem to mind – but if it tried to move, or if Cassie could make it, then it would find its traction a lot less stable.
The puddle continued to spread outward, and Cassandra was close enough that it enveloped her feet as well. Her foot slipped, and with it her balance and resistance against the beast’s strength. The tentacles hoisted her in the air, leaving her sword buried inside it, and for a heart-stopping moment she saw the gaping pit behind it as it held her overhead. It flung her forward, away from the hole; she felt weightless for a moment as the air rushed past her, and then she slammed full-force against the wall with a bone-jarring impact.
Cassie’s body fell to the floor, and Imoen immediately stepped between her and the creature, which was now trying to advance forward once again. The grease worked against it as well as it had the human, though, and it stumbled and wavered as it tried to find traction on the now-slick floor. The auburn girl gritted her teeth and started her next spell, determined to throw anything she could at this thing while she had the advantage.
A glowing white orb swirled into being in front of her chest, and a blast of arctic ice and wind howled forth. It struck the beast head-on, and as its footing slipped once more, the strength of the wind began to push it backwards. It curled its front hands and tried to maintain a hold on the rocks, but Imoen narrowed her eyes and tightened the weave of the spell. The radius of the cone of cold narrowed, channeling the force through a smaller conduit, and the cold howl rose in volume. The wind whipped through the chamber in a fury, lashing her hair around her face, and her breath began to fog in the now-chilly air.
The creature leaned into the blast and tried to take another step, but the force of the wind was too great. It stumbled and fell to its knees, skidding backwards several feet as the tempest continued. The hind legs disappeared into the hole, and for a moment it screamed and gibbered as its hands scrambled for purchase. Between the oily slickness, scream of winter storms, and its own ponderous body weight, there was no way for it to recover. It tumbled into the depths with a high-pitched, inhuman cry.
Imoen released the spell, and the energy flowed out of her and left her shaken and empty. She’d forced that harder than she should have, held the weave too long. Her hands trembled as she pulled out the scroll and began reciting the words written thereon. The creature’s scrabbling efforts to emerge again could be heard from the recesses of the pit, but she blocked it from her mind and continued.
The spell completed, and a soft tremor rumbled through the cavern. The grease-slicked earth softened and liquefied, flowing together like dark, murky water, and the hole slowly began to shrink. The beast’s cries became more urgent as it was gradually sealed in, and as the last bits of earth knitted themselves together, it was silenced completely. The cavern’s floor was intact and solid once more, as if the svirfneblin had never mined its depths.
For a few seconds Imoen stood motionless, save for the soft, white plume of frosted breath. Her entire body gradually began to shiver from the exertion of arcane energy and sudden icy chill. The cavern remained silent, though. Goldander’s scroll seemed to have worked.
She heard movement behind her, and turned her head sharply to glance in that direction. Cassie. Shit. The red-head was on her knees, doubled over but at least conscious, breath rough and raspy. Imoen lifted the hem of her robe and hurried over to her sibling.
“Cass.” She knelt down next to her and took her by her shoulders. “Cass, are you alright?”
The warrior nodded her head, but her position and the hair dangling in front of her face masked her expression. She brought her hand to her face as she coughed, and Imoen saw the flecks of blood as she lowered it again.
Imoen put her fingers under Cassie’s chin and tilted her head up. The bright blue eyes were dazed and half-closed, and blood trickled from both her nose and the corner of her mouth. The tails had lashed a long, thin line across her right cheek, and a wide swath of blood was smeared down her temple and over the side of her neck. The hair by her ear was matted with crimson, doubtlessly from where she’d collided with the rock.
“Oh Hells, Cass,” she muttered, using the thumb of her other hand to lift the woman’s eyelids and check the response of her pupils. “Can you understand me?”
Cassie moved her face aside, trying to break the contact, but Imoen refused to let go. The eyes remained unfocused, but the older girl nodded unsteadily. “Fine,” she murmured, almost too soft to be heard. Even her teeth were bloody. “I’m fine.”
“I bet the svirfneblin have a healer.” Imoen shifted her position and draped Cassandra’s arm across her shoulders, braced her own around her waist, and then gritted her teeth with effort as she half-helped and half-pulled the woman to her feet. “Y’ok? Can you walk?”
Another nod as she muffled another cough with her free hand. “Fine,” she repeated with a slight slur. “Really.”
The thief-mage ignored her and guided her into a slow walk. Cassandra’s steps were unsteady and halting, but gradually normalized as they made their way half-speed back out of the chamber and down the connecting hallway. It was nearly five minutes before they made it back to the junction where the breachgnome had been posted.
Imoen’s tongues spell was still active. One good thing about simple spells: they had amazingly long durations. She motioned the gnome over with a toss of her head. “We need a healer.”
His eyes traveled back to the passageway, where no doubt he had heard at least some of the conflict. “Is it sealed?”
“Yes,” she answered impatiently. “C’mon: healer.”
He motioned down another section of the tunnel. “Quickest way is this way.”
Cassandra tried to pull her arm away as they followed the svirfneblin down the passage. “Im, I’m okay.”
Imoen gave her a scolding look. “Are not; just wait until you see yourself in a mirror.” Her voice did sound steadier though, and her steps were more certain.
The redhead sighed and fell silent again. Another ten minutes brought them back to the main guest-inn of the village, where the two had slept the previous night. The breachgnome stopped at the doorway after rolling the entrance stone aside, and addressed Imoen. “I’ll fetch Felda and Goldander,” he said, and the mage nodded shortly and guided her sister through the low archway into the main chamber. Once they were back inside their sleeping quarters, she finally relinquished her hold on Cassie’s waist and helped her sit down once more.
“Here, let me look at you,” she said, crouching and tilting the woman’s head up once more. Cassie submitted to the touch with a slightly exasperated look. Her eyes were open fully now, clear and focused. Her mouth had stopped bleeding and she’d spit out most of the blood. The trickle from her nostrils had also stopped. The only fresh blood was a small, thin line trailing down her temple.
“Thank the gods,” Imoen breathed. “Cass, I swear, you take more abuse than any man I know.”
“I’m not a man.”
“You know what I mean, dork.” She licked the pad of her thumb and used it to wipe away some of the dried life. Cassie wrinkled her nose and tried to bat her away. “Hold still!”
“Im, come on—stop it, that’s gross!”
“Just hush,” she ordered, and continued the cleaning. “I swear, Cass, having you is worse than having a child. You can not rush into things like that! You’re lucky I saved your ass.”
“Yes, mother,” she grumbled, then jerked and gasped as a spike of pain went through her temple.
Imoen smirked as she dabbed a bit more gently this time. “Accident. Sorry.”
Cassie gave her a glare.
A knock sounded on the doorframe, and the two looked over. Goldander and an elderly female svirfneblin stood just outside the room. Imoen flashed them a smile and motioned them in. The female went straight to Cassandra – the healer, she guessed – while Goldander focused his attention on the mage. He arched an eyebrow.
“You sealed it?”
A nod. “Yup.”
“That was… faster than I expected.”
“Yeah, well, when Cassie gets it in her thick skull to do something, she doesn’t waste time.”
He pursed his lips thoughtfully. “Was it an easy task then?” Imoen shook her head emphatically, and he seemed somewhat relieved. “Well… you both seem to have come out intact, which is more than I can say for my svirnfeblin patrols.”
“I had magic,” she said with a small nod, and a glance over to her sister. “Cassie took a beating.”
“Felda is the best healer in Granitehome – who’s still in the village, at least,” he assured her. “Speaking of which… I’ll return shortly.” She nodded again in acknowledgement.
The healer took about fifteen minutes to dress and clean the fighter’s wounds, and pronounced that, considering the circumstances, Cassandra had come out in surprisingly good shape. She had suffered a significant blow to the head, but no bones had been broken and any remaining dizziness or lightheadedness would pass after a day or two.
The gnomish elder returned about halfway into the process, holding a small pouch in his hand. He handed it to Imoen while Cassandra looked on in curiosity.
“You’ll need this,” he said. “Fulfilling my part of the bargain. The woman you need to see is temperamental, and likes her solitude. This will bypass the initial magic wards.”
“A wizard?” Cassie asked.
“How do we find her?” This time it was Imoen’s question.
“Oh, it’s easy enough to find. I’ll ask a watchman to guide you out of the city and point the way.
“Thank you so much!” the mage gushed. “You can’t imagine how nice it is to meet someone who hasn’t tried to kill us.”
“And you’re going to Ust Natha?” he asked with amusement.
“Not a nice place, I take it?” Cassie asked. Felda tsked and ordered her back into silence.
“Nice enough if you like daggers in your back. But Adalon can help you somewhat there.”
Imoen nodded. “Is she expecting us?”
He shook his head. “No, but she’ll know you’re coming.”
Mmm. Fair enough then. “Anything else we should know?” she asked him.
Another shake of his head. “Naught but to be careful. Surfacers rarely last long here.”
The two women nodded, and Imoen said the majority of their goodbyes while Cassie continued to be fussed over by the svirfneblin healer. Eventually she too was finished, and left the room after giving strict orders for the human to stay in bed for the rest of the evening.
“But I’m going to get bored,” Cassie complained as the door swung shut.
Imoen gave her sister a smirk. “Serves ya right, pulling off bravado like that.”
“Well, at least you can entertain me.”
“Me?” She laughed. “Who said I’m staying here? I feel perfectly fine, other than being tired.”
“Well, what better things do you have to do? This place isn’t exactly a bundle of fun.”
“And you think you are?” she smiled. Cassie flipped her a rude gesture, which only made Imoen giggle more. “Don’t make me cast sleep on you again.”
“Wouldn’t I?” Her eyes sparkled. “You do need the rest. Doctor’s orders, y’know.”
“I’m not tired,” the older sibling complained.
“Well, it’s either sleep, or be bored. I’m not gonna sit here and coddle you all night.”
“You’re no fun.”
“I know.” Imoen fell silent a moment, lips slightly parted, and tilted her head quizzically as she regarded Cassandra with sudden interest. “….huh.”
Cassie glanced over her shoulder, but there was nothing there. She furrowed her brows. “What?”
Imoen leaned forward, frowning slightly. “There’s something in your hair. Hold still a sec.”
Her hand reached out and brushed against Cassandra’s cheek before tugging gently on a strand of hair. Suddenly a heavy fatigue fell over the warrior, and her eyes began to drift shut against her will.
“You’re so easy to dupe,” Imoen giggled as the world began to fade. She smiled gently and waved good-bye. “See you in the morning. Nighty-night.”
The two hit the marketplace the next morning after breakfast. They didn’t have very much money, other than what they’d found while rummaging through Irenicus’ belongings. It wouldn’t buy armor or weapons, but it would buy some more food. And Imoen had her spells, and Cassandra had the protective bracers. It’d have to do for now.
Cassie kept thinking as they wandered around the market place. Two things they did need were actual shoes, as well as an actual pack to carry their gear. The sacks which Bodhi had tossed in after them were functional enough, but awkward to carry and kept a hand occupied which could be better served holding a sword. Packs could be sealed and strapped over the shoulder or back – out of the way, and much more portable. And a new sword, since her old one was entombed with the monster.
Imoen kept up a steady stream of chatter with the shopkeepers as they browsed. She didn’t seem to notice the flicker of colors around the gnomes’ bodies. The colors weren’t as pronounced as earlier, but the hue was the same. Cassie furrowed her brow as she looked around the market place. Why did some have the aura and some didn’t?
Imoen broke off her conversation with the bearded gnome and flashed a smile as she turned around. “Yeah?”
“Did you…start seeing things, after your ritual?” the fighter asked quietly, trying to keep her voice low enough to avoid easy overhearing.
“Seeing things?” She giggled. “Like… little fuzzy puppies? Polka-dot frogs?”
Heh. That was a definite no. Cassie smiled. “Yeah, something like that.”
“Nope, sure didn’t. Why, ya seeing things?”
She debated how to answer that. She didn’t want to make it out as being more drastic than it was — especially since she didn’t know what it was. Finally she shrugged. “I’m not sure,” she replied.
Imoen’s eyebrow arched up. “How can you be not-sure if you’re seeing things?”
“I’m not sure,” she repeated, and this time got a roll of the eyes.
“Well, what are you seeing?”
Cassandra nodded. “Yellow, specifically. Like… auras, almost. Around people.”
The eyebrow crept a little higher. “That’s… different, I guess. Sure you aren’t just suffering malnutrition or one too many vampires whacking you on the head?”
“Could be,” she admitted. “That’s why I asked. If it was from the ritual, I guess you’d have it too.”
“Hrm. You weren’t seeing these before? When’d it start?”
“Today, I guess. I didn’t notice it until we were wrestling earlier.”
Imoen’s mind backtracked and immediately hit on the memory. The faint pinkness crept back into her cheeks. “Uh… just color?” she asked hopefully. “Nothing else?’
She shook her head negative. “Not that I can tell. It’s just … well, what do you think it is? You’re the witch.”
Imoen shot her a dark look. Cassie knew damn well that ‘witch’ wasn’t a flattering term. “Well… there are spells that let you see auras, like detect magic and detect evil and stuff like that.”
“Do you see colors?”
“Yes, but you also get information with it. Like if you have a detect magic going, stuff that’s magic will glow and if you look at it and concentration, you can get a feel for whether it’s abjuration or transmutation or something. Or if you detect evil – well, you know it’s evil, y’know?”
Cassie pursed her lips, then frowned slightly. Nothing had come with the colors so far.
Imoen shrugged, picking up a pair of boots from the merchant’s stall and inspecting them as she talked. “I hallucinated some when I was in that cell — hunger and such’ll do that to ya. So that’s also a possibility. But you’re not seeing things, just colors, right?”
Imoen plopped down on the ground and slipped off her sandals to try on the footwear. “Don’t sweat it then. At least, not yet. Unless you’ve spontaneously developed the ability to detect evil or something, I think it’s just your mind playing tricks on you.”
She wiggled her feet inside the shoes, and then got up and took a few steps around to test the comfort. “Not bad… hmm. But on the other hand, you should definitely let me know if something changes. I mean, no offense, but you’re not exactly yourself lately.”
Too true. “I will. Do they fit?”
“Yup, pretty good.” She sat back down and pulled them off, slipping on her sandals again. “How much money do we have?”
Cassie grinned. “Doesn’t matter. Goldander said it’s free. Guess there’s some perks to being heroes.”
Come noon they were on their way out of the city, complete with the elder’s promised escort and all the gear they could think of needing. Shoes, packs, a sword, some spell components, rations – the essentials, to travel light, but they took advantage of the gnomes’ generosity as best they could. Money was tight, and neither knew when their next chance for supplies might be.
The svirfneblin guard led them back across the bridge that connected the town to the main cavern ways. Imoen cast infravision on both her and her sister once they exited the dim lights of Granitehome and returned to the blackness. The effect was more like seeing in black and white than anything: colors were bled out, replaced with just the contrast of the lighter warmth against the cool dark background.
They walked in silence. Imoen’s occasional giggles and whispers were quickly hushed by the watchman’s stern gaze; even small sounds carried extremely well in the stillness of the caves. The boots they’d purchased from the gnomes muffled their footsteps much better than their previous ware had, and save for the sound of their breathing and the occasional kicked pebble, it was entirely quiet.
Unfortunately the Underdark was not as impressive as the stories had told. Perhaps it was simply because they lacked the senses to appreciate it, but impassive stone walls and the occasional patch of fungus hardly seemed as dangerous, dire, or majestic as the bards claimed. The steady wash of blacks and greys hardly seemed beautiful, and the occasional lizards and slime molds definitely weren’t awe-inspiring.
Imoen was bored almost instantly. Only the guide’s frequent frowns and Cassandra whispered threat of shoving a mushroom in her mouth kept her from breaking into campfire songs. But finally, after nearly an hour of seemingly random turns, circles, and meanderings through the darkness, the gnome motioned them to halt. He pointed to a large bridge that lay ahead, barely on the edge of their vision.
“Cross the bridge,” he instructed. “Ye’ll see a large fork in the way, half to fore-left and half to fore-right. Fore-left will take you to Lady Adalon. Fore-right is the way to Ust Natha.”
Cassandra looked at him dubiously. “If we’re this close, can’t we just go into Ust Natha?”
“Not alive,” he responded simply.
Well, Adalon it was then. “Then she isn’t going to kill us, I presume? It’s safe?”
He shrugged. “She probably won’t. There’s no such thing as ‘safe’ unless we’re in Granitehome’s walls. But I’ve brought ye this far.”
“And we appreciate it,” Imoen assured him. “Thank you very much.”
“Hope ye make it,” he said, and then turned and walked away.
The fighter watched him go with a mixture of amusement and trepidation. “Not the best send-off I’ve had,” she said aloud. “Or the worst.”
“Well, I didn’t see any vicious animals or anything on our way,” Imoen answered, “and we’re almost there, so…” She shrugged. “Let’s keep moving.”
Cassie nodded, and took the lead once more.
The bridge was made of stone, a single span somehow carved or shaped over the chasm it straddled. It was plain, lacking adornment, but had obviously been sculpted by skilled hands. It didn’t appear to have any joints or joinings, no supports or columns. However it had been constructed, it was a single, unified piece, straight as an arrow, and literally as sturdy as stone. The length was perhaps seventy feet, and the width around fifteen. There’d be no danger of falling off short of being pushed or having the Maid of Misfortune personally shake your hand.
The warrior stepped onto it cautiously and motioned for Imoen to stay behind her for the moment. It definitely seemed stable. Maybe she was overly paranoid. She motioned once again with her head, and went forward at a more normal pace. They crossed in a single-file line, one behind the other. They were only about ten feet from the opposite side when something warm and grayish-white moved in the distance.
Cassandra hesitated only a second before sprinting across the last bit of the span and gesturing for Imoen to follow. The lead wasn’t necessary — the thief-mage dashed after her the moment she realized the change. Left, the gnome had said, and the fork in the path wasn’t too far ahead. The gray-white shapes in the distance paused, and then began moving towards them rapidly. They’d been spotted.
Something whistled past Cassie’s head just as she reached the junction of the paths, and clattered off the stone walls behind her. The noises were higher-pitched than expected; something smaller than an arrow, perhaps a bolt or a stone. Either way, the creatures coming toward them were armed and hostile.
She grabbed Imoen by the shoulder and pushed her up against the wall of the split, safely on the other side of the fork’s dividing line. “Get out the pouch,” she whispered, and the girl nodded and began to rustle through her pockets to retrieve it. Running would do them no good if they were fried by magical wards. Hopefully Adalon’s wards were strong enough to stop the attackers – and that the woman didn’t mind having them led to her house.
Cassie quickly looked around the corner, up the other side of the fork. Four humanoid figures were coming down the tunnel at a run; dark patches decorated their bodies where clothing masked the heat. The blue-eyed woman hissed under her breath and glanced back at her sister. She had the pouch out, and was fumbling to get it open and pull out the contents inside.
She grabbed Imoen’s hand and pulled her into a run again. The fork continued straight for several hundred feet, but if they could keep a lead then their odds would be better. Ranged missiles could still cross the distance easily enough, but the further the shot, the worse the chance of hitting.
Another projectile whizzed by a few seconds later as their pursuers rounded the bend and started up the left branch of the fork. The tunnel curved sharply to the left once more, and the two humans took it without slowing. They skidded to a stop in front of a yawning black void that seemingly manifested out of nowhere, and which swallowed the rest of the passage in darkness. It couldn’t have been a cave entrance or natural passage in the stone; the infravision didn’t penetrate it, and the surrounding rocks, which should have been visible, were nowhere to be found. From all visible signs, the tunnel just simply ceased to exist.
Imoen took advantage of the pause to finish retrieving the contents of the svirfneblin’s pouch. As she withdraw the small gem within, the entire area was lit up in a bright yellow-white light, easily as strong as the mage’s light spells — and easily enough to make them a large, glowing target for the people behind them. But it did force back the strange blackness in front of them, which seemed to shrink away from the glow like a living beast and flowed to the outer edges of the illumination. A passageway became visible which angled down into the floor at a steep but manageable grade.
Terrific. Stand and be shot, or run into gods-only-know where. Mysterious passages were quickly climbing Cassandra’s list of least-favorite things.
She drew her sword and risked another look around the corner to their attackers. The pursuit appeared to have stalled; they lingered half-way down the passage but seemed reluctant to come closer. Perhaps they were familiar with the magical wards. Cassie nodded to Imoen. “Go. Be careful.”
The darker-haired girl nodded back and headed into the tunnel, with Cassandra only a few steps behind. The darkness shrank in again as soon as the light-gem’s glow completely entered its grasp, and quickly cut off any access to the exit. They were encased in a bubble of light, unable to see anything but the twenty-odd radius around them.
The floor evened out after about sixty feet and became horizontal again. Another ten feet and the darkness lifted. Imoen stopped with an audible gasp.
They were in a cavern – one truly enormous in size. It was lit with an ambient silver light that had no visible source. The ceiling arched over them in a smooth, polished span, easily over two hundred feet high, and the walls curved in a roughly circular shape for three times that length in each direction. A small village could have lived here with space to spare. The stone was worked with skill and artistry, decorated with embedded gems of various colors, which glinted softly and changed hues as the two women’s gazes wandered across the room. A deep, crystal blue lake filled part of the cavern, and a collection of gold and silver artifacts completely filled one of the cave’s many alcoves. Even more impressive was the occupant.
The dragon’s massive silver-grey wings unfurled and the snake-like neck lowered, bringing the creature’s smoothly scaled face down to their level. Green reptilian eyes, each one as large Cassandra’s head, regarded them unblinkingly.
Cassie swallowed hard. “We’re…ah…we need to talk to—“
She fell abruptly silent as a long serpentine tongue snaked out and tasted the air in front of her. The mouth opened, revealing ten-inch long serrated teeth, and a low rumble vibrated the entire chamber.
Imoen squeaked in surprise. “Lady Adalon?”
“SILENCE!” The shout shook the walls and made both women reflexively clasp their hands over their ears. “You will speak when spoken to, human,” the dragon growled.
Imoen shot her sister a panicked look. “Cassie!” she whispered.
Cassandra could do nothing more than discreetly shake her head. Retreat wasn’t an option, and she doubted they could out-fight a dragon even with the Bhaal essence inside her. There was no easy way out of this one.