“Cassandra of Bhaal,” the dragon rumbled slowly, drawing out the sibilant ‘ss’ into a hiss. “And Imoen of Candlekeep. I have watched your progress with great interest.”
So, my reputation precedes me. Cassie felt her lips twitch in amusement, despite the gravity of the situation. “I must be grand indeed, to have attracted the attention of a dragon.”
“Silence!” it roared, spreading its wings until the tips brushed each side of the cavern. “I will tell you when you may speak!”
Imoen shot Cassandra a murderous look, then bowed her head and did a low curtsy. “Our apologies. You honor us, Lady.”
“I’m sure I do, but flattery is not why I have allowed you to come here. You are here to serve a purpose.”
“Of course,” Cassandra grumbled, but the warrior’s snide mutter was too soft to carry to the beast’s great ears.
“The two you seek,” Adalon explained, “this Bodhi and Jon Irenicus – I believe they have made a deal with the drow in Ust Natha for their own safe passage… and a way to tip the scales against the elves of the world above. Irenicus bargained with my most prized possession. He violated my lair and stole from me. They have taken my eggs.”
Imoen’s soft gasp of shock brought Cassie’s inquisitive eyes to her. The look of sympathy on the girl’s face was genuine. The fighter frowned. If Firkraag and Adalon were the standard of draconic politeness, this sounded less like a crime and more like Irenicus doing the world a favor. On the other hand, Imoen knew a lot more about dragons than she did, and wouldn’t react that way for nothing. Maybe it was better to let her take the lead.
“I have been informed that to move from my lair is to cause the destruction of my eggs,” said Adalon. “It is the final straw in a long list of atrocities I have been witness to. You must retrieve them for me. Do this, and I will reveal a safe escape route to leave the Underdark, one that emerges close to where Irenicus plots his next move.”
That, at least, was a worthwhile offer. The redhead nodded. “I’ll see what I can do.”
“If Irenicus delivered the eggs to the drow,” Imoen said thoughtfully, lips pursed in concentration, “how would we get them back? We can’t just walk into the city unnoticed, Lady.” She cut off Cassie’s response just as the older sister opened her mouth. “And an open attack would be a total disaster.”
The large reptilian head nodded slowly. “I do not ask you to assault the city, rather to enter it with subtlety. You will take the identity of a group of drow I dispatched recently, a party from another city destined for Ust Natha. I will transform you, and you will be able to pass among the Drow with ease. They will not see through the fiction I create. When you arrive at the gate, tell them you are from the city of Ched Nasad, and that you seek sanctuary within Ust Natha.”
Now both women were frowning. “What if they cancel the spell?” Cassandra asked.
“And even if we look like drow, we sure don’t act like them.”
“My magic is flawless,” Adalon snapped. “And improvise on your behavior. They are in the turmoil of war at the moment and will overlook much. You will not be discovered by any other means than your own mistakes, so be careful not to make any.”
“Well that’s reassuring.”
The head drifted down, coming within a few feet of Cassandra’s own, and a low rumbling growl filled the cavern. “This is your only offer, human. Fail and it will be the death of you.”
Cassie swallowed her retort and simply nodded. This wasn’t the day to make another enemy.
After eyeing the fighter for several seconds, the creature seemed satisfied with the silence. The head lifted again, high up on the serpentine neck, and now regarded them both with intelligent eyes.
“It’s unusual for two unHoused females to travel alone. It would serve the disguise better if one of you would play the part of the slave.”
“I will not—“
“It is done. You now resemble the denizens of the Drow city, complete with a house insignia that will not draw undue attention. I suggest you act like Drow when speaking to anyone you meet.”
Imoen was gone. In her place stood a svelte, ebony-skinned elf with stark white hair and dark red lips. Adalon’s spell had gifted her with a more typically drowish physique: a few inches’ added height; a fuller, more voluptuous figure; and a more angular elven face. Imoen clasped her hands together over her mouth and stared at Cassandra in wide-eyed shock. Her distinctive, girlish giggle was an ill fit to her new dark elven countance. “Oh. My. God.”
“You will be able to speak the Drow tongue as if you were born to it,” the dragon was explaining. “And you answer to new names as well.” It nodded its head towards Imoen. “Inolin will be yours. It is a fair match for your surface name. And Veldrin is a common enough name for a man.”
Cassie was busy studying her hands. They looked the same, except for the color. Her skin was jet black now, and a quick tug at her bangs revealed white shot through with strands of cream and silver. Did she really look like a drow? Was she taller? Her fingers went to her ears and found rounded, elevated points where human ears had none. Then her mind suddenly registered the dragon’s speech.
“What? Wait—for a man?” she demanded, furrowing her brows in confusion. “Why do I get a male name?” Suddenly her own eyes widened as she registered a change in her voice. It sounded deeper now, even to her own ears.
Oh, shit. She looked down reflexively, hands coming up, and both saw and felt the flat and muscled surface of her chest, lacking its former feminine adornment. She bit her lip and felt adrenaline start to rise as her hand now automatically went between her thighs. Surely—
There was a bulge. A very masculine bulge. Cassandra’s hand jerked away as if it’d touched fire.
“WHAT THE HELL?”
Imoen’s giggle grew even louder. Her cheeks were bunched so big from her grin that they looked like small round apples. Her shoulders shook from the force, and at Cassandra’s startled exclamation the giggles exploded into all-out laughter. Her merriment echoed through the chamber, and Cassandra’s scowl did nothing to abate it.
She whirled on the dragon. “Change me back!”
“No, no, don’t! This is great!”
Adalon’s booming voice cut the squabble short. “Argue elsewhere,” she snarled, again sending a rush of cool hair swirling through the cavern at the irate motion of her wings. “I have provided the means – now you had best provide the results. Get out.”
The dismissal was final. Cassandra stalked out of the cave with a scowl worthy of Talos himself. Imoen’s peels of laughter followed her all the way through the darkness. They emerged from the lair, now cloaked in their drow disguises, into the stale air of the Underdark caverns.
“Omigod. I think my breasts are bigger!”
Cassie reflexively looked over at the sound of her sister’s voice, and found the unusual site of a drow woman peering down her tunic at an admittedly fuller-than-normal bosom.
“At least you have breasts,” she grumbled.
“Haha yeah!” Imoen shot her the world’s biggest grin. “Y’know I always wanted a big brother.”
“Oh shut up.”
“Oh, don’t be sore about it,” Imoen consoled, patting her new ‘brother’ on the shoulder. “Look at the bright side: now you can pee standing up!”
“Uh-uh-uh,” she tsk’d, shaking her head. “Inolin. Gotta use our new names.”
“Aw, c’mon. Be a sport about it.”
‘Veldrin’ glared at her and continued walking without response. Her—his, Imoen corrected mentally—physique hadn’t changed much, other than the obvious. He’d always been fairly muscular as a woman, but now the more feminine curves and softness were gone, bringing the muscles into much better view. Same height, though, about the same build. Her- his hair was a bit shorter, still with the beautiful, almost metallic shading, only now it was cream and strands of silver instead of red and strands of gold. She’d been too busy teasing to see how the enchantment had changed Veldrin’s face.
Heh. The grin was back, twice as big, as Inolin fell instead step behind her new brother. Cassie had a penis. This was going to be sport for years.
“Hey, and you’re my slave now, right?” she quipped. “Males being the inferior sex and all?”
“I am not male.”
“Your dingle says otherwise.”
Veldrin’s low growl of annoyance was audible even from ten steps away. “I can’t believe you volunteered me for this shit.”
Inolin shrugged, still smiling. “Didn’t know she was gonna slap an outie on you. But I kinda like the idea of you as my personal servant, don’t you?”
The grin widened mischievously. “Better get used to it, bro.”
“Dammit, Im, I’m a man!”
The mage laughed and skipped ahead gleefully, closing the distance between them until she could lace her arm with Veldrin’s. “You make a cute boy,” she winked.
“You are never getting cookies again. Ever.”
Grey eyes widened in mock-horror. “That’s mean!”
“You don’t need any more sweets.” Veldrin’s eyes, still blue, looked over at his friend with a small smirk on his dark lips. “Being Drow put twenty pounds on you, easy.”
Inolin’s mouth dropped into a surprised ‘O’, her look of horror now genuine as she stopped and looked down at her new form. “Are you saying I’m fat?”
He shrugged nonchalantly and kept walking. “If the pants fit. Or don’t.”
Her bosom was noticeably fuller now… and she did have a bit more curve. But that was a nice thing! And just ‘cause a few parts of her body had filled out didn’t mean that the rest of it had.
“I am not fat!” A blush of heat flushed her cheeks as she quickened her pace to walk with him once more. “I’m just voluptuous.”
“It’s true!” She scowled at him. “Hey, I’m the woman here; you can’t disagree with me.”
The warrior snorted his dissent. “Like Hell I can’t.”
The scowl turned into a pout, and the dark-skinned woman grumbled. “She gave you a man’s pig-headed brain, too.”
Cassie’s lips twitched in amusement.
They rounded the fork in the path, this time taking the right-handed branch towards Ust Natha. It was easier to see now, with their new drowish eyes. Things glowed in a soft kaleidoscope of blues, greens, purples, and dull yellows. At first Veldrin had thought they were auras, similar to what he’d seen in the svirfneblin village. These were different, though: softer, and without the same mental ‘taste’ of the others. His eyes instinctively transformed these new glows into knowledge of heat, moisture, and magical ambience. Inolin’s soft musing and frequent pauses to more closely examine some of the more vibrant glows, confirmed that she saw them as well.
“Amazing,” she breathed, reaching out to gingerly touch a purple-and-pink streaked rock. “Beautiful, too. If you have the eyes to see it, at least.”
“Yeah. More colorful than before.”
Inolin rolled her eyes, smiling slightly. Such poetry. ‘Course, it was more colorful, but there were nicer ways to put it than that. She wondered if there was a pattern to the hues. The spectrum of heat radiation was easy enough to see, from her experience with various magical effects that modified eyesight. The other tints were more mysterious. There were radiation ‘hot spots’ in the Underdark, from the tomes she’d read, but these were soft, ever-present lights, not random blasts of colors around a focal point.
The pastel and neon glows ceased abruptly as the ground fell away some fifty yards ahead, and a large chasm split the path in twain. A wide, stone-wrought bridge arc’d seamlessly out of the rough rock of the path into a smooth and polished span to the other side. It had obviously been crafted with either great skill or great magic, if not both; the railings were carved into thin spider-web motifs, incredibly realistic, and astonishing in the fine grace which had been coaxed out from the stone.
Veldrin’s booted foot touched the stone of the bridge, and a shout split the silence of the air.
Two drow males rushed out of the darkness, both aiming for Inolin. The sorceress had instinctively triggered her stoneskins and was already extending her hand towards the first of the attackers, aiming her assault. Veldrin’s steel hissed as it escaped its sheath, but a sudden tingle of warning made him turn back towards the bridge. A third male, armed with a short spear strapped across his back and a crossbow in his hands, hovered in mid-air a few feet away from the ledge. A click, a whistle of air as Veldrin instinctively jerked out of the line of strike, and something small and hard ping’d off the rock face behind him.
The figures that had chased them into Adalon’s lair — they’d laid an ambush, and their quarry had stumbled into it.
Veldrin crouched down, shaking the pale bangs out of his eyes, and quickly realized there was nothing to be done about the third male. He was out of range of melee, floating as he was, and he couldn’t fight what he couldn’t reach. Inolin could handle that one, once the other two were dealt with.
One finger extended, and the dark sorceress spoke a single word that carried the force and authority of arcane mastery. The weave lashed outwards, shimmering and rippling faintly through open air, and struck the first male head on. It swirled around him and constricted like a python surrounding its prey. For a moment he was stunned, held in place by the enchantment, but the strands of energy seemed to slip and falter as they sought to tighten further. Jaw clenched and red eyes livid with anger, the drow somehow managed to move despite the bonds. They fought and struggled, man against magic, and though he moved as though through thick water, nonetheless he moved.
The second male grabbed her from behind and for a split second she panicked as a long length of glimmering steel slid across her throat. The pain didn’t come, nor the splash of blood bright into the cool air. Inolin quietly and quickly breathed thanks to Mystra, and then threw her elbow back into her attacker’s gut. His breath huffed out in surprise; this was one wizard who wasn’t afraid of some hands-on work.
A quick, dark form darted forward, colliding full force with him. Cassie – Veldrin, dammit, Veldrin — used his momentum to slam the drow into the cavern wall, knocking loose what breath was left. He held the male there with his forearm levered powerfully and firmly across the man’s neck. The latter gasped for air and fumbled for the weapons at his belt, but the silver-haired warrior snarled and crushed his throat with increasing weight.
Inolin registered the fight out of the periphery of her vision, as her attention went back to the first attacker. He was still semi-enspelled, still moving as if through molasses. It made him an easy enough target. She traced a necromantic rune against the air, watching it pulse with dull red energy as it gathered strength. Whatever had spared him from the first enchantment did him no good on the second. His eyes rolled back in his head and his now-lifeless body drifted to the floor in the same strange slow-motion.
Something flashed by above her, and the woman instinctively ducked down before it took her head with it. A humanoid body encased in dark purple armor flew past with a scream of shock and fear, and disappeared into the depths of the chasm. The terrified echoes rebounded for several seconds more as Inolin automatically cast her gaze around for the next combatant.
Veldrin was looking as well, but the third male who had been hovering over the canyon, was missing. A quick survey of the surroundings betrayed no notion of his presence; either he was gone, or very well hidden. Veldrin frowned and approached the lip of the chasm warily. Inolin was right behind him.
“Think that was it,” she said with a hopeful tone, after a minute of cautious silence.
“Yeah.” The warrior looked over the edge, where the second male’s body had disappeared, and sighed. “Dammit. I wanted to kill him.”
“Kinda bettin’ you did,” his sister responded, making a soft whistling noise as she pantomimed something falling through the air. “Long fall, quick stop.”
“Mmm. Maybe.” He frowned slightly. He’d been hoping for something more bloody.
Inolin turned away from the void and knelt down next to the drow she’d killed, her thief’s instincts kicking into play. “Let’s see what goodies he’s got.”
The older sibling grumbled once more in disappointment before turning his attention as well. “Armor,” he said instantly. “They were all wearing it. Should fit, if we’re drow now.”
“Yup yup.” Nimble fingers were already unfastening belts, straps, and pouches. “Some sorta scale-mail, looks like.” She laid aside a longsword, a small hand crossbow, and a clutch of darts. “Weapons, naturally. Anything interesting on this guy?”
Another few minutes of rustling pockets and discarding belongings, and she sat back with a beaming smile of triumph. In her hands she held a ring, a small amulet on a silver chain, and a bottle of black liquid.
“Ring of Magic Resistance,” she grinned, slipping it onto her left hand. “Don’t mind if I do. Teach him to avoid Power Word: Stun. Dunno what the black stuff is, I’ll take a look at it later. This thing—,“ she jingled the necklace “—might be magic, dunno. Looks promising.”
Magic was nice, but Veldrin was more interested in the armor. The metal was something she’d never seen before, a dark, deep purple hue with lighter accents that swirled like oil or Damascus in the scales. The metal plates themselves were rectangular and sewn firmly and in tight overlap onto the leather backing. Good quality construction, and much better protection than what he was wearing now.
While Inolin finished searching the body, he pulled the scales on over the set of clothes already worn. They didn’t have time to strip the body completely, woolen underpad and all, but the simple tunic and breeches would keep the armor from chafing. And they could hopefully take some downtime to fine tune things, once they got into Ust Natha.
The longsword the male had been carrying caught the fighter’s trained eye. He arched one pale eyebrow and lifted it by the hilt. The size and weight was about as expected, but the design of the drow’s blade was something he’d never encountered. Set at staggered, almost random spaces along the flat of the blade were backward-curving spines, each an inch or two in length. There must have been about a dozen in all. For a moment he furrowed his forehead in confusion; then suddenly the mental image appeared of the blade thrusting into flesh, being withdrawn, and the spines dragging out shredded loops of guts and gore.
He grinned and retrieved the drow’s odd sheath as well.
“I could have sworn I saw another one,” Inolin was saying, brushing herself off and standing up again.
Veldrin nodded as he belted on the new equipment. He fastened the new sword across his back, leaving the old in its place on his left hip. “There was. Gone, though.”
“Great. Off to get reinforcements, y’think?”
“No.” He frowned, pausing, and thought back to the fight. “They—“ The frown deepened. “They didn’t have the right colors.”
One snow-white eyebrow arched up. “The auras?”
“Yes.” But how did that equate to motive? Veldrin’s dark lips pursed in thought as he replayed the thoughts and sensations once more through his mind. “I don’t know. They were purplish, like the armor. And yellow, right before they died.”
“Yellow being death? No, no, you said that the svirfneblin were yellow, and me too, at one point.”
“Yeah…” Death didn’t feel right. Afraid of dying? A sudden click, and rightness inside the coldness, told him he was right. Fear. The yellow glow was fear. The svirfneblin had been afraid of them. And Imoen….?
So what was the black he’d seen streaked through Imoen’s yellow? And what was this new purple hue?
“I’m not sure,” he said slowly, still considering the words. “Yellow… I think is fear.” Purple felt more… prideful, somehow. Desirous, but not lustful. Kingly?
Had Imoen been afraid of her?
“Purple I’m not sure,” Cassie finished, still frowning. “It just doesn’t seem aggressive enough. I don’t think he’s coming back.”
“Mmm… well, hope you’re right.”
“I am. I think.”
It took them only another few minutes to make sure Veldrin’s newly harvested armor was securely in place, and for Inolin to tuck her new belonings into various pouches for later examination. The two continued to walk, keeping a sharp eye out just in case, up the path towards Ust Natha.
Inolin bit her lip as they traveled. Cassie’s auras weren’t going away. And there wasn’t any spell effect that she could think of that would detect fear. Remove fear, yup. Cause fear, yup. Something tingled at the back of her head. Wasn’t there a spell that would reveal general states of mind? Not telepathy, but maybe something like detect emotions? She couldn’t remember.
The word brought its own flash of memory as Cassie’s tattoo lit up her mind.
“Hey Cass—Veldrin. That tattoo you got. What’s it mean?”
His head reflexively turned as he tried unsuccessfully to look at the tattoo himself. “Mm?” He hesitated. Imoen could read Elvish easily enough… “It’s just… a reminder, I guess. Of what all has happened.”
“Cassie.” Imoen’s words were soft. “Don’t lie to me.”
He slowed his step, and cast his glance over to the woman behind him. Changed as she was now, she was still Imoen, no matter how black her skin. The grey eyes that looked back regarded him with a mixture of expectation and disappointment: disappointment that Cassie would lie.
Veldrin averted his eyes. Why was he trying to protect her, anyways? There was nothing he could say, nothing he could tell her, that would be worse than what she’d been through already. It was far too late to be the knight in shining armor.
“Jaheira,” he admitted. “And some others.”
Silence, then a question. “Is she dead?”
He turned away again. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Can’t you tell me?”
“It’s in the diary.”
“I’d rather hear it from you.”
“Well I don’t want to talk about it,” he responded, with more resentment than he’d intended, and instantly regretted it. It wasn’t Imoen’s fault.
Cassie sighed. “Hey, c’mere,” she/he said, motioning her closer with a small motion of his head. When she approached warily, Veldrin slipped his arm around her waist and pressed his lips to the top of her head. The sisterly gesture felt more awkward as a man.
“Ask me about something else,” he compromised as they started walking again. “It’s not something I like to think about.”
“I dunno what you like and what you don’t,” Inolin answered defensively. “How am I supposed to know what’s okay and what’s not?”
“I’ll tell you.”
“You mean you’ll get all hostile over it.”
“I’ll try not to. Promise.”
The girl eyed him suspiciously for a moment, then held up one hand, the littlest finger extended. “Pinky swear?”
He did likewise, curling his finger around hers and giving it a tug for good measure. “Pinky swear.”
“Fine.” She snuggled up to him for a moment, a reflex, before abruptly breaking away. “Umm.. actually, I don’t think drow get all buddy-buddy.” A sigh. “Stupid drow. Stupid staying in character.”
Veldrin’s lips tilted in a half-smile, and he shrugged. “Temporary.”
“It better be; black-and-white is totally not my color.” She made an expression of playful distaste, but her features instantly became serious again. “The dreams. Tell me about your dreams.”
“In your diary. I read some more last night, about Jahiera leaving.” Cassie’s expression tightened, but Imoen pushed the subject. “Do you still have nightmares?”
“Cassie, you pinky-swore!”
“I don’t have nightmares now. They’re over.”
Her eyebrow quirked up skeptically. “Really?”
A short nod. Imoen’s expression didn’t change.
“Tell me about them.”
“They’re over. It doesn’t matter.”
“Like Hell it doesn’t,” Imoen responded, with more fire in her voice than he’d expected. “Those dreams tortured you—“ She ignored his snort of disagreement at her use of the word. “Emotionally, at least. The things you wrote in that diary, they shook you, they scared you, maybe even scarred you. And I know you don’t wanna tell me about it ‘cause I’m the little sister and you want to protect me, but dammit, Cass, I’m an adult now.”
She stopped him with her hands around his elbow, and forced the dark warrior to turn and face her. Her face was serious, and her eyes caught his with a determination and strength that gave weight to her words.
“Being strong all the time is gonna kill you, Cass. Let me be strong for you.”
Cassie fell silent. Those dreams… the dreams that had woken her up in a sweat sometimes, both of pleasure and of despair. Nightmares and memories of blood flowing like rivers all around her; the flayed and decomposing corpses of former friends, beckoning to her, promising her…. And they weren’t gone, not entirely; they never would be. You could never forget something like that.
But Imoen was an adult, and had been through things just as horrific. And these fantasies, these bright moments in a sea of pain… wouldn’t these be understood? The desire to feel love’s embrace when death was your constant companion – it was normal enough. The drow brows furrowed again, this time in confusion. It felt almost non-chalant now. Had the knowledge of Imoen’s torture really cast things in such a different light? The shame, the sickness of what had transpired in those nighttime reveries – it seemed childish. Blown out of proportion.
Inolin waited quietly, and it was several minutes more before Veldrin spoke again.
“They started about our childhood,” he started, voice thoughtful, almost dubious, as if he didn’t believe his own words. “Hanging around Candlekeep…. there was this goblin, inside the walls somehow, and it attacked you. Got you in the stomach with something, maybe a dagger. I whacked it over the head with a rock and killed it, then I had to carry you over to the healer. Then you appeared, the real you, the adult you. You asked me if I’d still protect you,” he said, the words taking on a tone of sadness. “If I’d still be there for you. Why I hadn’t come.”
“Oh.” She pursed her lips, then drew the corner of the lower between her teeth. Now wasn’t the time to admit that her dream-self’s accusatory questions had been real enough in her own mind. “What else?”
“There were others. You were in all of them. Things from our youth, and then always you coming to me, asking me why I hadn’t come.”
Veldrin began explaining them in detail: the summer swim at Graven’s Lake, the campout at Old Sisters’ Hills. Still, some details were harder than others, and it was only when Imoen’s eyebrow crept up and her sparkling eyes regarded him in expectation, after he’d long finished speaking, that he finally gave forth what he’d held back.
“We kissed. You asked me why I hadn’t saved you, if I’d forgotten my care for you… and then you hugged me, put your arms around me, and kissed me.” The memory of it, the intensity of it, made him thankful for his dark skin. “I could still feel it when I woke up.”
“Kissed.” The eyebrow edged higher, now nearly hidden in her hairline. “Like sisters.”
He nodded. He kept is face as still and blank as he possibly could to mask the roiling turmoil building in his stomach. Such things weren’t spoken about, weren’t done – dreams or not.
Imoen tilted her head, causing the pale strands of her hair to scatter across her shoulder. “And…. that’s all?”
“Just a kiss?”
“Two or three. But yes.” This time it was his eyebrow that edged up. This wasn’t the reaction he’d been expecting. Imoen having a silent, thoughtful reaction to anything was unusual.
She shrugged. “Well, it’s weird, but understandable. People have weird dreams sometimes, eh? I bet you were just freakin’ out over missing me.”
He frowned slightly. “Don’t you find that a little… disturbing?”
“Heh. After some of my dreams, Hell no.”
“What did you dream?”
“Huh? Er—,“ Imoen actually stopped walking for a second, eyes widening in surprise, but she recovered quickly and brushed it off with her typical light tone. “Nothing, just you know – dreams are weird sometimes. All sorts of crazy things, especially when you’re already a little coo-coo.”
“Y’know, like that time you dreamt that every book in Candlekeep grew legs and started chasing you?”
“No, no — I mean, like what did you dream?”
Her lips pursed in a small circle. “Nothing, I told ya. Just stuff.”
“Oh, c’mon, Ca—Veldrin. Dammit. Never going to get used to that. Anyways, can’t you pester me about it when we’re not wandering around the Underdark and there’s a freakin’ city of Drow nearby?”
“That didn’t stop you about pestering me about mine.”
“Psht. Double standards are the mistress’s prerogative,” the mage returned with a smirk. “And you, bro, are my lowly male slave. Oh!” The playful glint reappeared in her eyes, and Imoen’s lips spread into an impish grin. “We’ll have to get you one of those little thong things that just cover your twig-and-berries, and you can follow me around on a chain.”
“Don’t get too ambitious, Im,” he warned with a meaningful look. “Slaves have a tendency to rebel.”
“Not my slaves.”
“Wanna make a bet?”
“Hey, I’m like the best mistress ever!”
Inolin grinned. “Totally! I’ll get you a cute little diamond-studded collar and a big pink cushion to sleep on, and you’ll be my very own pet drow. Always wanted one of those.”
“And let me guess: I get the honor of obeying your every whim.”
“Of course. You want to keep your mistress happy, dontcha? We sophisticated ladies need a lot of attention.”
Veldrin stopped and made a low, extravagant bow. “Yes, mistress.”
Her grey eyes widened with a laugh of delight. She reached over and patted the top of his head. “Good boy—HEY!” The laugh became a squeal of protest as her brother hefted her over his shoulder like a bag of grain and started walking again. “You goober! Put me down!”
He shook his head, smiling faintly. “Nope.”
“That’s a direct order from your mistress!”
“Sorry, milady, but I have to locate a suitable carpet first. Couldn’t have your high and mighty feet touching the ground like those of us slaves.”
“Ooooh!” She growled and slapped her hands against his shoulders, trying to wiggle free. “Meanie! This was my game!”
His grin widened. “And now it’s mine.”
“Fine!” Inolin crossed her arms and resigned herself with a pout to the jostling as Veldrin carried her across the floor of the cavern. Sooner or later he’d get tired of carrying her, and then she was totally going to get him back for this. “Stupid boy.”
“And whose fault is that?”
The sulky silence in response made him chuckle.
Imoen’s self-imposed pout lasted nearly a full five minutes before the monotonous rise and fall of the scenery behind Veldrin’s back got to her. With his stupid Bhaalspawn strength, he could probably – and would probably – carry her the entire way to Ust Natha.
“C’mon,” she whined. “Let me down.”
“What do I get if I do?”
He shook his head, making the silver-shot length tickle over her hips. “You don’t have any cookies.”
“I’ll get you one when we get into Ust Natha!”
“I doubt the drow have a booming business in snickerdoodles.”
“Pfft.” She grumbled. “What do you want then, creep?”
“No! I’m the mistress here, and you never paid me back for the last two I gave you!”
“Footrub. Going once–”
“You have the nastiest feet in all of Faerûn!!”
“Oh c’mon, pretty please? Pleeeeeeease!”
Imoen’s heart jumped up at Veldrin’s reconsiderative tone. “As long as it’s not a footrub!”
“You were saying about those dreams?”
The heart missed the landing, stumbled, and fell on its face. “I changed the subject like ten minutes ago!”
He nodded, and his answer was almost annoyingly cheerful. “Yup.”
“Dreams?” he prompted again.
“Is the option for a footrub still open?” she grumbled.
“Not since you’re being so difficult about it, no. I mean, come on, your dreams couldn’t possibly be any weirder than mine.”
“Wanna make a bet?” But the muttered response was too quiet for him to hear.
“And besides,” he continued, “do you really want to be carried around like a burlap sack for the next three days?”
“Fine, fine, whatever. Just put me down.”
“Yeah, you dork, I’ll tell.” Fortunately her crossed fingers were safely out of view.
The scale-clad warrior halted, and returned her to her feet with graceful ease. The thief-mage’s annoyed gaze studied him for a moment while he simply smiled back, then she hmph’d and returned to his side.
“Okay, first rule of being my slave is that you do not ruin my teasing.”
He laughed. “I don’t think you’ll be teasing me once we’re in Ust Natha.”
“No,” she admitted, “but still!” One slim finger poked him in the shoulder. “I’m the imp extraordinaire here, not you.”
A smile. “Yes, mistress. Now stop trying to change the subject again.”
“Gah! You are impossible.”
“You are, you know that.”
“Okay, okay!” She blew a rebellious strand of hair of her eyes. “Lemme think for a second.” A ‘second’ ended up being about two minutes before she finally settled on a suitable narrative.
“I guess—well, it’s just that, y’know, spending time with Irenicus, in the cells…” Hrm. That start had sounded a lot smoother in her head. She tried again. “It wasn’t too pleasant, as you can imagine, so… I’d daydream. I mean, at first it was just to kill time more than anything, ‘cause it got incredibly boring being locked in a room for twenty hours a day, especially when the other Spellhold inmates disappeared. So I’d remember back to Candlekeep, kinda like you did, and think of all the fun stuff we’d do, and like I’d think of Baldur’s Gate after we killed Sarevok, and we were hanging out and relaxing.”
Veldrin nodded but stayed quiet, just letting her talk.
“After a while I started making up stories about what we’d do when you finally rescued me. Like…” she paused, selecting one of the many scenarios out of her memory. “Like there was this one where we went down Nashkel to that little fair they had down there, remember? And we’d watch the shows and you’d buy me some sweetbuns, and I’d volunteer you for the clowns.”
She grinned at that, the mental image of Cassandra being dragged into a jester’s act over her loud and repeated protests. Cassie’d hated clowns ever since a particularly horrible birthday party back in Candlekeep.
“So yeah, that’s about it,” she finished with a shrug and a smile. “Dreams. Ta-da!”
Veldrin tilted his head curiously. “I thought you said they were weird. Weirder than mine, even.”
“Well…uh… not those ones.”
“What were the weird ones, then?”
“Hey, isn’t that Ust Natha up ahead?”
He rolled his eyes skywards. “Imoen!”
“Alright, jeez. And it’s Inolin, remember.” She pursed her lips again. “I don’t really… feel – uh – comfortable, really… with these. Kinda… uh. Personal.”
“And mine weren’t?”
She gave him a scathing glare. “You’re not being very understanding.”
“Just tell me. I’m curious, and you know you can tell me anything.”
“I know I can,” she muttered, “but that doesn’t mean I want to.”
“What’s so bad about them?”
She shrugged defensively. “I… it’s just personal, okay?”
He hugged her close with one arm, and for a second she was tempted to shrug it off. Instead she accepted the embrace, still feeling awkward, and sighed to herself. C’mon, Im.
“It was while I was in Spellhold,” she said softly, reluctantly, “when it got really bad. When they’d put me back in the cell and I’d hurt so much I couldn’t move, and I just wished I would die. My dreams… I guess it was kinda like yours. I just missed you so much, Cass. I wanted so badly that you were there and everything would be okay. So in my dreams… you were. You made things okay.”
The hug tightened in reassurance and understanding. “You dreamt of being rescued.”
She shook her head. “No, just that you were there. Or that we were both somewhere else, I guess. Well, I don’t guess, I know, ‘cause they were my dreams, of course.” Imoen took a deep breath and pressed a little closer. “Those dreams… they started in a verdant forest. They — The dreams, not the forest, that was always the same– were always alike, but never the same…”
He nodded, and stayed silent. She was getting nervous, and any comment would only make it worse.
“I was laying on the floor — well not ‘floor’, but ground – and my body ached all over… did I tell you about the wounds? Yeah I did. I was laying there, aching on the ground — heh I said it right this time, you see? – and I’d always see a figure emerging from the underbrush.”
“As it approached, I realized it was you.” A small, genuinely happy smile crept onto her lips. “Heh. It’d be pretty stupid of me talking about this if it weren’t you, right? But as I watched you come closer – and you always looked great, by the way, totally fashionable – I felt so relieved that you were there, such an incredible feeling of hope and warmth…”
She sighed, and her tension began to gradually fade as she immersed herself in the memory. “It was so intense. Like more real than anything I’ve ever felt before in my life. And you’d — you’d approach me, and kneel down next to me, and you’d be smiling, and then you took me in your arms and held me really tight, without saying a word. You held me and then I broke down and cried… I cried so much, just let it all out, because you were there and I was safe now… All the pain faded away.”
“I just kept crying in your arms, feeling my sorrow go away as you… you, uh, c-caressed my hair, and face, and– and skin.” The self-conscious stammer was back, and without conscious knowledge, Imoen had drawn herself away from her sibling’s embrace, and now walked close but separate.
“And… ah… then it ended. I woke up in the cell again, and realized you weren’t there, never had been, and I was still just as trapped and tortured as I was before. But I was happier. At least for a while.”
“That doesn’t sound too bad,” Veldrin said quietly.
She glanced over at him, her gaze lingering for a moment as she studied his face. It was still Cassie in there, under the strange colors and more chiseled, angular features. Still the woman of her dreams.
“No,” she agreed. “It doesn’t.”
The hairs across her arms began to prickle, and her eyes were immediately drawn forward again as the familiar tingle of magical energy was identified. The tell-tale shimmering swirl of a dimension door was manifesting before them. Imoen grabbed Veldrin’s hand to stop him from the reflexive drawing of his sword. He looked askance at her, and she shook her head.
“I’m the leader, Veldrin” she whispered.
A single drow male manifested from the vortex of the spell, wearing a dark scarlet and obviously ceremonial fashion of armor, and holding a long, double-tipped polearm that pulsed with faint red energy.
“Halt!” he commanded in a firm and practiced voice. “There are no scheduled patrols this day. Identify yourselves and speak your purpose. Intruders will be killed where they stand.”
Inolin’s dark hand flashed out and collided solidly with the side of Veldrin’s head. He stumbled backwards from the unexpected force of the blow and his hand went immediately to his temple as he stared at his sister in shock.
“Idiot!” she hissed. “Did I not tell you we’d be late due to your incompetence?”
Veldrin’s jaw dropped open in surprise as Inolin then whirled on the newly-materialized male.
“Stand down, worm!” she ordered, betraying no hint of any hesitation or fear. “I am Inolin of Ched Nasad, and you will let me pass.”
The staff was lowered, and the male bowed slightly. “My apologies, mistress, I merely follow my duty in questioning you. You are welcome to pass, Inolin of Ched Nasad. Your arrival has been expected.”