“Chazhecha leureucha ajeli!”
Anomen ducked and raised his shield as a swarm of small, bright-red spheres of energy flew forth from the mage’s hands and zinged towards him like angry bees. They struck home regardless, darting around his shield, looping and twisting through the air to find his most unprotected spots. The armor protected him from the worst, but the impact still knocked him off-balance, and the crackle of arcane energy burnt like fire.
Suddenly Cassandra’s form was in front of him, trying to shield him, but the next wave of magic missiles wove around her, paying no attention, and slammed into the paladin again. He let out a hiss of pain and a less-than-gracious curse word.
“Jaheira!” the redheaded warrior shouted.
“Busy!” the half-elf’s sturdy voice returned from somewhere to Cassandra’s left. The chaos of chanting and shouting and the ringing of metal and war made further exchange impossible. The druid had engaged Baron Ployer the moment his treachery had been revealed and was determined to take down her old rival. Unfortunately that same treachery was giving the slaver a strong advantage. Three mages had teleported into the room, barred the door magically, and begun hurling spells like child’s play. The whole room smelled of sulfur and ash from burning hands, flaming arrows, and gods only knew what else. Smoke was beginning to fill the air from burnt hair and acid-etched armor.
Cassie swung her sword at the yellow-robed wizard before her as he began another incantation. They’d come prepared; her blow connected solidly, but bounced off his protective abjurations. Stoneskins, most likely, from the faint greyish hue of his skin, and a pain in the ass, for sure.
A triumphant shout caused her attention to dart to the side. Anomen’s opponent had fared for the worse, and the noble knight was pulling the spikes of his morningstar out of the ogre’s carcass. It was a summoned beast, the muscle serving the mage, but its death was an important victory. Without his pet, the sorcerer would be a much less formidable foe.
“Dammit! By the horns of—“ The oath was cut short with a sharp gasp of breath, and it seemed that for a moment the entire room went silent. For a moment, just a moment, nothing moved at all.
A deep chill grabbed hold of Cassandra’s heart and squeezed viciously. Suddenly everything was moving half-speed, dreamlike, unnatural, as she spun around, too slowly, Jaheira’s name half-formed on her lips. The woman was still standing; Ployer’s sword jutted from her chest where it had found a fatal flaw in her armor. He was grinning like a cat from ear to ear and watched her, even as Cassie did, as Jaheira sank to the floor.
“Good riddance, bitch,” he whispered.
The world kicked into play again, and suddenly the clang and chaos of melee rang loud and clear once more. The redheaded warrior was on him in an instant, assaulting him with a barrage of enraged blows from her spear that jarred his form with every contact and pressed him to retreat. Ployer kept speed well for his age, meeting when necessary, feinting when not – conserving his strength against the Bhaalspawn’s rage.
“Cut your losses, my dear,” he advised her in his rich, slow voice, breathless as it now was. “I have what I wanted.”
A sharp, violent stab to his gut was parried away. “You killed her!” Another, then a third, each thrust forward with increasing anger. “You killed her!”
“Watch it, whelp,” he snarled, blocking the weapon and trying to move inside her reach where the spear was useless. Cassandra adjusted to match him before he could. “Or I’ll send you to Hell with the Harper.”
She brought the butt of the shaft up hard and fast, using it like a quarterstaff, but again he managed to dodge and counterattack. His hand snuck in next to her wrist, still holding the pommel of the sword, and he hooked the hand-guard over the wooden haft and twisted his whole body at once down and away. One end of the spear was abruptly yanked out of her hand, and in an instant he was within her guard, once again smiling in smug satisfaction. “Too late.”
Cassie’s now-empty hand flashed out with unnatural speed and closed around his throat. The baron grunted in surprise as she dropped her weapon entirely and seized his sword arm as well. A grip, a twist, and he grimaced and groaned as his muscles wrenched in unnatural ways and his sword clattered to the ground. She reached inside herself, down to the thrum of energy that was the hallmark of her heritage, and let her fury shape it. Ployer’s eyes widened as he felt it. He struggled and writhed to free himself, but few could match the strength of a Child of Murder — especially one intent on fulfilling the name.
The tendrils of Taint unfurled and reached into him, hooking their invisible barbs into his life essence, and began pulling it inexorably into the blackness. The Taint fed on it, sucking it in, draining him dry bit by bit. His face blanched and the smugness was wiped away, replaced by a fear so pure it was beautiful. Cassie inhaled, baring her teeth at him in a growl, and coaxed the Taint to its fullest. The hooks dug in deeper, and pulled and sucked at his soul with slobbering, lustful greed. It only took a few seconds before his struggles stopped entirely and she dropped his corpse to the floor.
Yes, she agreed as she retrieved her spear. Too late.
Anomen stretched out his hand, reached towards the ceiling, and his thundered command-word brought down a bolt of fire on one of the mages. The man was less prepared for divine retribution than he was swords and staves, and his screams of agony told of its effectiveness. His hands flailed desperately at his now-flaming robes; parchments and spell components ignited and set off a chain reaction of sparks and explosions as their destruction released their stored energy. The tongues of flame flickered in hues of orange, yellow, blue, and green, and even Anomen was forced to retreat from the unexpected heat. The wizard’s cries grew more and more shrill, and when his flesh began to bubble and roast Cassie finally tore her eyes away.
The gruesome sight had caused a second mage to stutter over his incantation, and the magic fizzled with a small crackle of sound and flash of dim white light. He started a new one immediately as he saw the mistake had caught her attention. His feet carried him backwards in scampering, desperate steps as he tried to stay out of range of the blue-eyed woman and the six feet of wood and steel she wielded. She closed on him quickly, stepping over fallen bodies and splintered furniture, ignoring the smell of charred flesh. The screams had stopped. The spear lanced forward, hard and true, and pierced his abdomen from front to back. Cassie twisted the haft; the ridges of the head caught and tore at the soft entrails and dutifully yanked them free of their host when the spear withdrew. The man’s face stared at her in shocked surprise. He was young, very young – barely older than her – and he seemed to lack the comprehension of what had just happened. He sank to his knees, looking down at his stomach and the thick ropes of bluish-grey intestines that shouldn’t have been there. Then he looked back up at her.
“Sanenneuceu,” he finished in a mumble, and fell to the floor.
The sound of the word continued to echo. Somehow it carried over the chaos of the fight, past the screams and shouts of the combatants, and wrapped itself around his killer’s form. Cassie took a step backwards and shook her head to clear away the ringing in her ears. It didn’t help; the echo grew louder, more insistent, and pressed against her skull with mind-numbing force. She shook her head again, this time more forcefully, but there was no relief. The sound of his voice threaded its way past her senses, into her brain, slithering like a worm past the hands that she now clapped over hear ears. She could hear nothing else now, not even the thunder of her own breath. The volume continued to grow unmercifully until even her vision began to succumb to the force. Blackness ate away at the edges of her perception, quickly closing in towards the center, until finally she was cocooned entirely in just the one, single word.
Suddenly it shattered. As quickly as the numbness had come, it was gone. The caster was still on the ground, staring at her with dead eyes. But the sounds in the room had changed; the shouting and clanging of sword and armor had stopped. Her senses seemed unfogged now, and her mind alert. The fine hair on her arms prickled in unease as she turned to face the battle once more – and found it over.
Three new bodies littered the ground where none had lain a moment earlier. A second ogre, its head obviously reshaped by the fighter-priest’s heavy mace. A smaller creature, probably a type of hobgoblin, whose ribcage had suffered a similar fate. Anomen’s form lay a few feet distant. It was blackened, armor as well as skin, except where the flesh had split to reveal the bright pink layers beneath. The air was thick with the smell of char, and small wisps of smoke still rose from the corpse.
Anomen? She almost said the name, but her lips were so numbed from shock that it found no voice. What spell had the boy-mage cast to do this?
A dozen small arrows of searing pain slammed into her back and pushed her forward from the unexpected impact. She caught herself reflexively by jamming the butt of the spear into the floor and using it as a brace. Then the redhead whirled, weapon up and at the ready. Further pain shot up her leg as her weight shifted, and with a surprised gasp she went to the floor. The pain ignited lingering remnants all over her body, and it forced her to double over from the sheer power of the sensation.
Her mind raced to figure it out before her opponent attacked again. These were new pains, new wounds; she felt the exposed fire of a fresh burn across her left shoulder and the lancing agony in her leg suggested fractured or broken bones. Her eyes burned from smoke and heat. Small droplets of blood fell mutely to the wooden floorboards beneath her hands — blood that was probably her own.
The sound of chanting reached her ears. She knew it, knew it instinctively through the confusion that still clouded her mind. Ployer’s mages. She had to get up.
Cassandra levered herself to her feet, her body fueled more by will than muscle. Her leg threatened to give again, and a warm, thick wetness leaked down her calf. It was hard to breathe; her chest struggled and fought her efforts to draw in air. She was wounded and wounded badly. Something had happened inside the mage’s last word.
Let it flow, her mind whispered. Use it — use your strength. The Taint. Her god-born energy that no other mortal had.
She called on it. The chanting still continued, and if she didn’t act now she might not live to get another chance. The warmth rose up, tinged with the chill touch of the dead god inside her, and her muscles became firm once more just as another volley of magic missiles buried themselves into her arms and chest. She staggered but held her feet. Consciousness wavered and threatened to give way into darkness, but the sharp energy inside her held it back. It was a necessary evil that she hated to use – but things were unfinished. Jaheira was dead. Anomen was dead. Imoen was missing.
Her eyes refocused, and the arctic-blue gaze found the yellow-robed mage whom she’d faced earlier. No one else was still standing. His skin was pinkish-white again, healthy if smeared with blood and ash. The stoneskins had expired. He was vulnerable, if she could reach him before he cast again. Taint or no Taint, her body was failing.
She lifted the spear and advanced stubbornly, grimly, towards the retreating mage. He hadn’t started his next incantation, but his hands fumbled nervously near the pouches on his belt. He circled to her left, trying to get further distance – and then broke and bolted for the door.
Cassandra reacted immediately and jutted forth the butt of her spear to block his route. He skidded to a stop, robes fluttering in the wind of his haste, and quickly retreated in the other direction with a panicked spark in his eyes. She narrowed her eyes, partially in determination and partially in confusion. Why wasn’t he casting? What was he waiting for? It was only when he finally retrieved the object from his belt – a small, nearly useless dagger – that she realized the answer. He was out of spells.
“Please don’t hurt me,” he sputtered. “I-I don’t want to – don’t kill me! Please!” The whine was high-pitched from fear. “It was just a job. Just a job! I don’t hate you.”
Her eyes narrowed further, and his face paled as the blood fled in fear.
“I—I’ll give it to you,” he bargained desperately as he inched towards the door again and his knuckled tightened to white on the hilt of his dagger. “My payment, all of it. And Simon’s and Johannes’! All of it!” His retreat was cut short as the redheaded woman angled the spear again. His voice grew more and more frantic. “Anything! Anything just please don’t kill me, please just let me go, please, please!”
The expression on his face, the terror in his eyes, and the tell-tale ammonia scent of the wetness that soaked his robes… suddenly it made Cassie smile.
The smile turned into a chuckle, and the chuckle into full-out laughter. The mage froze in his steps and stared at her in disbelief. She kept laughing, despite the blood on her legs, despite the smell of death, despite the tingle of Bhaal inside her. She kept laughing while the wizard, too, began to smile uneasily. The awkward, confused hopefulness on his face just made it more outrageous. The entire situation, all of the events since they’d come into Athkatla, everything that had transpired since she and Gorion had stepped outside of Candlekeep’s walls – suddenly she was struck by the ridiculousness of it all, the futility, the hopelessness.
The piss-wet mage was chuckling as well, uneasily participating in the warrior’s mirth. His eyes darted nervously from side to side seeking an escape even as he did. He had no clue. He never would.
“I hate you,” she told him from behind her smile. The laughter still shook her, but the merriment of it was gone. Immediately the humor fled from his face as well.
“I hate you.” The smile stayed, but tears welled up in her eyes and the feeling of hopelessness began to take over. She gripped her spear tightly in both hands and let the emotion run where it would. She was too drained to do otherwise. The wetness spilled down her cheeks and the warrior’s chuckles were interspersed with half-choked sobs. The energy of the Taint began to recede and leave her empty and frail. Her body began to shake not from laughter but from despair.
She jammed the spear forward before he could say it. It sank into the softness of his gut and she jerked it violently from side to side to rend and rip as many of his vitals as possible.
“I hate you,” she repeated, not even sure herself whether it was laughter or weeping that made her muscles shake. Another jerk, and she lifted the body completely off the ground, and then with a snarl threw it as hard as she could towards the wall. She felt the wet resistance of tissue against the barbed head as his internal organs gave way and the spear came free of his stomach. He collided with a dull thunk and sank to the floor, unmoving. “I hate you. I hate you!”
She herself sank down, metal armor grating in protest, and dropped to her knees. The spear clattered to the floor, now unattended. She was laughing again, crying again, wishing she could kill him again, kill them all, kill herself. Anything to change what had happened.
“I hate you!” The scream echoed from the empty walls and fell on dead ears. She screamed it over and over again, screamed it at whoever was listening, at the gods themselves. Imoen was gone. Jaheira was dead. Anomen. Gorion. Minsc. Dynaheir. Xan. Countless others she had killed or led to their deaths, one by one or in groups, over and over and over again.
“I hate you! I hate you!” She screamed it until her throat was so raw that coughs racked her lungs and blood flecked the hands that sought to quell it. She screamed it at the curse of fate that brought such things.
“… I hate you…” she whispered, finally empty of rage, empty of sorrow, empty of anything, and sat numbly in the midst of the carnage. Tears trickled down her cheeks and one by one died against the wooden floor. “I hate you.” She closed her eyes and wished she could join the still bodies beside her. “I hate you, Cassie. I hate you.”
Day the Twenty-Eighth, ere Eleint (Day 21)
Jaheira and Anomen are dead. We met a man named Ployer with a grudge against Jaheira. He cast a curse on her via hired mages, and we sought him out to prevent her death. Or that was the plan. We found him, but he was prepared for us. Stupid, stupid, stupid. We walked straight into his trap. Him, his pet mages, fireworks and spells going off all around us. How they died I can’t even say. Was it the arc of flame, the lightning strike, the ogre they summoned from thin air?
Jaheira nearly dispatched Ployer before dying, and Anomen and I killed two of the mages before he fell. That left me, and I advanced with the wish to die with my comrades. One more bolt of energy, one more twinge of magic, and I WOULD have died.
But the mage had run out of spells.
I cried and laughed in mingled pain and joy as he tried to run away and I skewered him with my spear, hefting him aloft and throwing his crumpled body against the wall. I cried and laughed and screamed and sobbed that I yet lived. And I sat down. And I stayed there until nightfall, mourning.
During the night I gathered Jaheira and Anomen’s belongings and, little by little, returned it to the Copper Coronet. And I let no one carry with me. It was my burden. My guilt. My fault. I sold what was useless to me, but I kept their weapons and their armor. I will need new companions to assist me. New lambs to take to slaughter.
Among the carnage I found a lock of Jaheira’s hair tucked inside Ployer’s pocket, braided and tied with small ribbon. I kept it.
Gaelen Bayle’s house was not a far walk from Ployer’s residence. In the early hours of dawn, I beat on his door until he answered, and threw at him sacks of money until his bloody price lay at his feet. “There is your twenty thousand.”
Then he gave me a name. Aran Linvail.
Cassandra paused in the process of placing her goods on the store’s counter for purchase. This trip to Barterman’s Adventurers’ Mart had been fruitful – a small collection of extremely select, and extremely expensive, items. Linvail had ‘generously’ offered to let her keep five-thousand of the twenty-thousand gold fee in order to pay for needed supplies and for her ‘significant emotional distress.’ Her counter-offer of giving him significant physical distress hadn’t been well received.
She closed her eyes, focused for a moment, breathed in slow and steady. The past week had been a maelstrom of chaos inside her head, and her emotional footing was slipping under the assault. The wild urges to do something, hit someone, scream, cry – anything, really, to provoke a reaction, to cause a scene. Purpose and determination had gotten her nowhere but four carefully-carved gashes across her right thigh, where she’d inscribed a single cut for each of the friends she had lost. Gorion, Khalid, Jaheira, Anomen. Somehow seeing the knife seperate the skin, seeing the blood trickle down… somehow it had calmed her. The tears of grief had stopped. Control had returned, at least momentarily.
Breathe out. She didn’t want to talk. She had work to do, death to meet. But she turned around regardless to face the stammering voice. Long blond hair, wide blue eyes, and the tell-tale pointed ears and angular features of elven blood. The colorful and intricately braided robe she wore struck a memory.
“I—I don’t know if you, ah, r-r-remember me,” the girl said sheepishly, almost physically shrinking away as Cassandra’s sharp blue gaze focused on her. “My n-name is Aerie and I—“
“From the circus.”
Her face brightened. “Yes! You s-s-saved us from Kalah.”
The redhead nodded once. It seemed distant now, although it had only been perhaps two weeks before. “I remember.”
“I just wanted—” Her brows drew together, and the child-like eyes scanned over the rest of the store. “Where is your friend?”
Jaheira. Her name was Jaheira. “She—“ Wait. Cassie’s eyes narrowed slightly as the memory of the circus tent came back more clearly. Hadn’t the girl said she knew some magic? You could use her. “She left.” The answer came out fluidly, the pause barely noticeable. “We’re going to meet up again later.”
“Is there something I can do for you?”
Aerie shook her head emphatically. “Oh, n-no, I just wanted to tell you h-how grateful everyone at the c-c-circus is. You were great. If there’s ever anything we c-can do—“
“There is, actually.”
“R-r-r-really?” Her eyes widened even further, if that were possible, making her look even younger than she really was. Although, Cassie reminded herself, as an elf that probably still meant a century or two. “Anything! Well, a-almost anything. We don’t have a lot of m-m-money…”
Cassie shook her head. “I have money. I need magic. You mentioned you knew some, right?”
A vigorous nod. “My uncle Quayle t-taught me everything he knows, and he used to be quite the m-m-magician. And Baervar lets me h-heal.”
Ah, a cleric. That would be useful. Very, very useful. Especially if… “You’re a wizard and a priest?”
“Well, I t-try to be… B-but if you’d rather talk to Uncle Quayle I c-can—“
Cassie shook her head. “No, no, you’ll be perfect.” Aerie’s face lit up again in happiness. She seemed very eager to please. That was perfect, too. “That’s exactly the kind of help I need.”
“Great! What do you need me t-to do?”
The warrior glanced over to Barterman, who had been staying close by to one of his most profitable customers yet far enough away to stay politely out of the conversation. “Keep this for me,” she instructed, patting the pile of equipment she’d assembled on the counter. He nodded in acknowledgement.
Then she turned to Aerie. It seemed a shame to take someone so innocent into all this, but fate didn’t care about innocence. Fate simply pushed forward, blind, deaf, and dumb, oblivious to the people crushed beneath. The girl’s awed, almost adoring expression almost made her wince.
“Let’s talk while we get you some gear.”
“You owe me,” Cassandra stated flatly, her palms placed solidly on the top of the table.
“Owe you?” Nalia De’Arnise rose from her chair as well, and also leaned forward over the banquet table, refusing to back down. The four guards that were stationed around the hall went on alert and Cassie saw at least one put his hand on his blade.
“You did next to nothing,” the noblewoman interjected angrily. “Sir Delryn led the expedition, he drove out the trolls, he saved my lands. You let my father die with your procrastination and refusal to do what needed to be done when it needed to be done!”
“I practically showed Anomen how to hold the right end of a sword,” Cassie shot back. “And I recall not once but three times hauling him away from death at the hands of a troll he was far too eager to fight. Jaheira and I cleared out the umber hulks, and we took care of Torgal. Yes, we were too late to save your father, but we did save your lands. And might I remind you it is my reputation that keeps the Roenalls from taking those lands from you now.”
“You’re insufferable,” the noble gritted out, sitting back down in her chair with a huff of breath.
Her green eyes flashed over to the warrior, and the fingers which had been tapping out a frustrated tempo on the table top, stopped. The look quite plainly warned her not to press her luck. “So what is it, exactly, that you want?”
Cassandra slowly lowered herself back on the padded chair before answering to avoid seeming too imposing. Honey caught more flies than vinegar. “You. Your help.”
“Against vampires? Absolutely not – I’m no fool.”
She shook her head. “You won’t be fighting them directly; that’s my part. I need your ability to ward me with magic, and your skill with a trap. I’m sure there will be at least a few. I’ve already recruited a cleric who’s waiting for me at Athkatla. If you can protect my body, she can protect my soul – and if necessary, she can heal me. And if necessary, you can teleport us out.”
Red-painted lips pursed thoughtfully. “And you’ll do what you do best, I assume?”
This time a nod. “Swing a sword. A very expensive, very powerful sword.”
“Vampires won’t fall to swords alone.”
“I have wooden stakes and holy water.”
“And if that’s not enough?”
“Then I’ll die trying,” Cassandra answered honestly. “And you and Aerie will get out, go home, and forget about it all. But this is the last thing between me and Spellhold — I have to do it. All I want is a fighting chance to succeed.”
Nalia fell silent, her eyes lingering on the redhead for several seconds before re-directing to the table top. One manicured fingertip traced the lines of grain in the highly polished surface. Cassie let her think.
“I agree,” she said in a soft, firm voice some two minutes later. “I’ll help you. You might be one of the most annoying women I’ve ever met, but your heart is in the right place. There aren’t many people who would do what you’ve done, to save a friend.”
Cassie kept her expression neutral.
May the gods forgive them if they have.
Cassandra held up one hand, motioning for her companions to keep behind, as she descended the stairs by side-step, her sword held low and ready. Nalia obediently fell quiet, and Aerie’s frail hands sought out the noble’s arm as she pressed nervously closer.
“I-I’ve never been in a c-c-crypt before!” she whispered.
A sharp gesture from the redheaded warrior silenced her as Cassie reached the bottom of the stairs. It smelled old and slightly rancid, a mixture of new and ancient death. It was pitch black beyond the pool of afternoon light which spilled in from the open doors, and utterly silent.
She motioned for the other two women to join her, still keeping her eyes focused on the room before her. They’d chosen to come in the afternoon, trying to balance the necessities of not being caught by cemetery wardens and not facing vampires after darkfall. They had a few hours; hopefully it would be enough. With any luck the monsters were still sleeping.
The pool of light shrank into a tiny sliver and then vanished as Nalia pulled the doors closed once more. Seconds later a glowing orb of light appeared in Aerie’s palm and once more the room was visible. They stayed still until their eyes adjusted to the dimness.
The De’Arnise heir stepped forward, cloaking herself in stoneskins as she did. The ripple of grey energy leeched the color from her skin and clothing until she resembled a living statue. As a flustered afterthought, Aerie did the same. It was obvious which of them was more used to dangerous situations.
“What do you think?” Cassie whispered to them, lifting her chin towards the back of the crypt’s forechamber and towards the hall that could be vaguely seen extending into the darkness.
“Be careful,” Nalia said. Aerie fell silent with an embarrassed blush. “If they have the spies you say they do, then likely they’ve made preparations. They’d know you were coming, just not when.”
The fighter nodded. “Traps?”
“It’s difficult to judge in this kind of area. The stonework makes it hard to set things up on a whim, but tombs and catacombs like these are famous for being built with grave robbers in mind. I doubt we’ll find anything especially made for us.”
“Anything I should be looking for?”
The brunette shook her head. “I can go first. I know what the signs are. But if I see anything alive – or that used to be – you get the honors.”
Another nod. “Fair enough.”
“W-what should I do?”
“Watch our backs,” Nalia instructed, a half-second before Cassie could say the same. Aerie glanced back reflexively, nervously, towards the doors.
Nalia began to move forward cautiously, with more stealth than the Bhaalspawn would have thought possible. Apparently all those stories about sneaking out of the Keep and skulking around the Copper Coronet were true. How she could see in the darkness beyond the range of Aerie’s magelight, Cassie didn’t know. With magicians, though, anything was possible.
She stopped not yet thirty feet distant, just before the entrance to the hall. “Pressure plate,” she announced confidently, pointing towards the ground. “Don’t step on this row of stone.”
Cassie and Aerie approached cautiously, each peering at the spot where the mage-thief was pointing. “Already?”
Nalia shrugged. “People tend to be protective of their final resting place.”
“You’ve burgled many ancient tombs?”
The faint smile on her lips vanished. “Hardly,” she responded archly. “I read books – something I wager is beyond you.”
Cassie rolled her eyes – a motion she hoped was hidden in the dimness of the crypt. “Keep going,” she instructed, letting the barb fall, and motioning both Nalia and Aerie over the booby-trapped stonework. “Hopefully there isn’t one of these around every other corner.”
The rest of the hallway was, indeed, clear. It stretched forth another fifty feet before a brick archway opened into a cavernous room. They stopped just before the entrance, trying to see what was beyond, but with no success. The chamber was enormous, chilled, and black. Whatever ceiling or walls there might have been could not be seen, and even the stone flooring seemed to drop away in places.
Cassandra knelt down cautiously and extended her sword towards the blackness. She met no resistance, and the understanding made her heart lurch uncomfortably. “No floor,” she whispered.
“There’s a path,” Nalia countered, pointing out the three-foot-wide stones that could still be seen leading into the void, flickering in the light of Aerie’s orb.
“I-i-illusionary?” Aerie’s thread-thin voice asked.
The sword went out again, and tapped as expected against the rock. Cassie shook her head. “Real. But what’s supporting it?”
“And what if we f-fall?”
“Linvail said these were the directions,” the redhead reasoned out loud. “I don’t think he’d set me up to fail considering what’s at stake.”
“You trust the King of Thieves?” Nalia asked, arching one sculpted eyebrow.
She shrugged. “I’ll go first. Aerie, hand me that light. You can make a new one.”
The globe was passed over, and with weapon still in hand Cassandra edged her feet onto the narrow walkway. The width would actually be quite comfortable in most situations, but just the knowledge that she was suspended Gods-only-knew how far above ground, with no support or brace on either side, made her stomach tremble and made each step seem as if she were walking a tightrope.
Slow, Cassie. Steady.
She was fifty feet out, then seventy-five, when the path suddenly branched. A gentle curve arced from north to south, but fortunately the path grew no narrower. North had been her instructions from Linvail, north to the grand doors where his promised aid supposedly awaited. She motioned back to her followers, using gestures instead of words, beckoning them forward and then pointing to the direction they must go. Nalia nodded. Aerie was wringing her robe between nervous hands.
The northern curve stretched at least twice as long as the initial path, and more alarmingly had a slight rise to its slope. It was steady, though, and the stone even and with good grip beneath her shoes. As she neared the end of the path she could make out where the stones joined floor once more, and another short but solid hallway began. A small bluish light, its size hard to judge in the blackness, floated beyond the range of the magelight. A low rumble originated from somewhere near it.
“Down, Fleshy, down!”
A man’s voice gave a soft but firm command. Cassandra slowed her step and heard her compatriots do likewise. There was a slight tap of something hard against the stone of the tunnel, and the blue light grew larger. The illumination revealed two figures lurking at the end of the tunnel – a youngish, dark-headed man in wizards’ robes, and a hulking brute of a man standing beside him. The larger one looked to be a mass of nothing but muscle – a chest fit for a bull, legs like tree trunks, and arms made of knotted biceps and thick, rope-like sinew. He gave forth another low rumbling growl.
The young man picked up his staff – the top of which was the source of the blue light – and gave the other a firm whack. “Behave!”
Piotr and his golem will be waiting for you. They will open the doors. Linvail’s words came back to her. Was this the pair she was looking for?
“At your service,” he responded, with a haughty tone that didn’t match his words. “You are Gorion’s ward?”
Her eyes narrowed. Nothing good ever came from people who used that name. “Cassandra,” she corrected.
“Cassandra. And these lovely ladies?” His eyes traveled over her shoulder to the two magic-users.
Does it matter? “Aerie. Nalia.” She motioned briefly to each one in turn, and each woman gave him a small nod of acknowledgment. Aerie was blushing. “The door?”
“Yes, of course.” The mage turned back around to the towering golem and once more rapped the butt of his staff against the ground. “Fleshy!” he ordered imperially, “Open the doors!”
The creature turned with an awkward, ponderous gait, shifting from foot to foot until it had succeeded in facing the portal. It was a large, ancient-looking set of double-doors, bound and reinforced with iron, and barred with an immense ingot of metal. It was certainly older than any of its current visitors, and likely older than their ages all combined.
The command stopped the golem just in time. It had hefted the massive bar from its slots effortlessly, and was seconds away from simply casting it onto the stone floor. Instead, at its master’s behest, it set it up against the wall with a muffled but not thunderous clunk. Next it placed one hand on each of the wooden slabs and pushed inwards. The doors groan, creaked, and whimpered as they were forced to reveal the secrets within.
A faint thump reached Cassie’s ears, then another, and a third in rapid succession. The golem let out a roar and charged forward. The startled mage sprinted after it, yelling and commanding it to stop.
“Fleshy! Stop, you ignorant hulk! Fleshy!”
Abruptly he stopped, well behind his creation, and slid to the floor. The women exchanged looks of alarm, and as one readied themselves for battle. The hiss of Cassandra’s drawn steel cut through the chants of transmutation and abjuration, followed by arcane charge crackling through the air as the spells’ weaves solidified and became active.
She scooped up the fallen mage’s staff and threw it into the inner chamber. It bounced off the floor and spun around, casting wild shadows across the walls as things were lit, unlit, then lit again. The golem was roaring in rage and hurling forth massive, powerful punches — but at what, could not be seen. What was in there?
“Nalia. Aerie.” She pointed each one towards a different side, dividing them so that they could see the most area and that no enemy could take them both down with a single shot. Cassandra advanced in the middle. The staff had settled to rest, and she could see now what had felled its owner: a single arrow, jutting out from his ruined, bloody eye.
She entered the room swiftly, pale eyes sweeping and taking note of the situation even as she moved to the wall and along it. A moving target was harder to hit. Her quick scan of the room registered no enemies, though, no archers with bows drawn. She could hear the twang of bowstrings, the thunk of wood and steel entering flesh.
Abruptly in front of her something moved. It was a partial-face helm, with flaps curving down to protect the wearer’s cheeks and a metal flange to protect the nose. She started backwards and swung her sword forward out of instinct. It connected, but where it connected was only empty air. Nonetheless it caught, drug through the space as if through thick molasses, and came out the other side. The helm stayed where it was: floating without a wearer, the empty eyes staring at her at face-level.
Something else moved. A set of gloves floated up to what should have been chest-high, and aimed the bow they were holding directly at her. An arrow was already nocked, and one spectral hand pulled the bow taut. Cassie swung again, her body reacting confidently even though her mind was less sure. The sword cut through the empty air where the archer’s arm should have been, dragging heavily through the liquid resistance just as before. It should have severed the arm; she realized too late that if it did, the tension on the bow would be released just the same.
The bolt fired, but her footwork from the strike had moved her out of the way. She thrust the blade forward one more time, aiming for the invisible stomach. It sank in, and this time it seemed to have an effect. The syrupy weight of the air dissipated, and the helm, gauntlets, and accompanying bow collapsed to the ground.
“Grimwarders!” Nalia shouted. “Undead!”
Undead. Not an invisible opponent, but a supernatural one. It must be the magic in her blade that did it harm. The purchase was paying off.
Spells started exploding through the rest of the room, targeting the remaining spectral archers. The golem continued to flail about wildly, uncontrolled, bellowing in rage and pain. Although it itself was a creature of magic, it was insufficient to harm the grimwarders; its fists passed through empty air, or dented the helm without harm to the energy that inhabited it. It had managed to disarm several of the ghosts, though; the bows and arrows were material things, and shattered just as readily under the golem’s furious blows.
Cassandra dispatched one more, and the sound of metal clattering to the ground told that the mages were equally as successful. They were down to only two left when the golem was struck with an arrow to its face. It howled and swung wildly, crashing its fists into the second door, the one that separated the entryway from the deeper chambers of the crypt. The second door was neither so large nor so strong as the one they’d just opened, and the wood exploded in a shower of splinters and chunks. From somewhere within the crypt, an alarm bell began to sound.
“Well just bloody fantastic,” Nalia hissed, firing forth a bolt of yellow energy that exploded against the last grimwarder’s chest and sent its metal accouterments tumbling to the ground. “There went our surprise.”
The golem was already rampaging through the next room, accompanied by the sounds of wood, clay, and gods knew what else being smashed to bits.
“Come on,” the red-head ordered, motioning them to follow. They still did have one element of surprise — Cassandra was fairly certain that no one was expecting a wild mountain of muscle to come barging into the room. It was one extra ally, and she planned on taking as much advantage of that as she could. She scooped up the mage’s staff again, using its light to show the way. “Over here!”
It was the opposite way of the golem, but the women followed her without question. Nalia had used her contacts at the Government District to obtain blueprints of the tomb from the historical archives, and they’d agreed that the most likely place that Bodhi and her spawn would hide, would be in the main burial chamber. The mage’s out-of-control pet would be a massive distraction, and a far more obvious one than three women moving swiftly and silently down the halls. By the time any guardians or minions figured out who the real threat was, hopefully it would be too late.
They’d all memorized the route, just in case. It was too easy to get separated or lost, whether by accident or by malicious intent. Left, left, straight through, right. They ran, leaving the sounds of chaos and destruction behind them. There was too much urgency to inch along, checking for traps; it would simply have to be risked. They needed to be in and out before the sun went down, and that would not be long away.
Something exploded in front of them. The narrow walls of the hallway acted like a funnel for the flames and super-heated air, bottling the power into conduit much too small. The heat raced forward, and Cassie dove to the ground out of instinct. Nalia and Aerie flattened as well, the former landing directly on top of Cassie herself. The blast hit in a wave and roiled over them in wave upon wave of scorching fire, then disappeared into sudden silence.
“What the fuck was that?” the warrior demanded, trying to move as quickly as possible out from underneath the woman atop her.
“Well no shit.”
“She means the spell,” Nalia clarified. “Arcane fire. That was close.”
The noble was on her feet now, and surprisingly look unharmed. A quick look at Aerie confirmed that the elf, too, had escaped unscathed. Whatever protective spells they had cast upon themselves must have protected them, and Cassie realized with suddenly clarity that the tingling redness on her skin and faint smell of burnt hair could have been worse: Nalia had used her own body as a shield against the flame.
A movement, shrouded in faint blue-white light, approached from the end of the corridor. It was a roughly humanoid shape, but too far away in the darkness to determine if it were alive, dead, or undead. Cassandra wouldn’t have been surprised at any of the three.
There was another flash of light, and this time what came down the hallway was a jagged, blinding arc of lightning. Cassie flattened herself against the wall, out of the electricity’s path; the mages attempted to do the same but without the years of reflex to aid them. The bolt struck Nalia full-force as she twisted to the side and threw her arm up to shield her face; the stoneskins abjuration around her exploded into shards of glittering energy. The static charge from both spells crackled and dissipated around Aerie’s body, failing to penetrate her protections.
“Cassandra!” the De’Arnise heir yelled. “A little help!”
“How the Hell am I supposed to fight a mage?”
“Think of something!” she snapped, hurriedly tracing some manner of figure in the air and fetching something from her pouch of material components. Within seconds the color leeched out of her skin and clothing, leaving her uniformly pale gray as a second stoneskins activated.
Aerie was casting as well, and with a gesture of her hand the glowing figure at the end of the hall ceased to glow. “G-go! I dispelled it!”
The redhead pushed herself away from the wall and sprinted down the corridor. Twenty feet from her target she hurled the staff like a spear, both to light up her opponent and to feint out their reaction. The person — clearly a person — dodged nimbly out of the way, chanting loudly as they prepared their next move.
The light revealed a woman, tall and thin, dressed in elegant antique white robes. Her dark hair was long and held back from her face with a golden circlet. Despite the classical beauty of her face, it was anything but friendly; the bitter, hateful smile revealed long vampiric fangs.
A ripple of blurred air enveloped the air around the woman, and suddenly there were four people where before there had stood only one. The three extras were identical to the pale sorceress, down to the rustle of their robes and expression on their lips. They were crowded in tightly in the narrow confines of the walls, but seemed to move freely despite it. Cassandra hesitated. She’d seen magic-users pull a similar trick before. Three of these four were nothing but illusions meant to distract an opponent; one was real. The blurring of space distorted vision, though, making it impossible to tell fantasy from reality. The third in the back, which appeared to be the woman she’d originally faced, could easily no longer be the true threat.
She went for it anyway. She charged forward into the throng of duplicates, swinging in a wide arc. The blade passed through some of the women before colliding with something solid. The hit lacked the soft give of steel-to-flesh; the mage, predictably, had some manner of melee protection. Even as her strike landed the crowd was moving, re-arranging, seeking to protect the masquerade. She was lost within a see of dark hair and blue eyes flashing back and forth before her. All of them were casting, using identical movements and a chorus of voices; she couldn’t predict from what direction the result might manifest.
A warm feeling of pressure washed through her, and it didn’t originate with the vampire. She didn’t bother to look over her shoulder; she’d hired Aerie and Nalia to do what they did best, and trusted in their abilities. Either they were trying to protect Cassie or weaken her opponent; either way, it was good.
The undead finished her chant, and all eight hands stretched forth at once. A cloud of miasmic yellow fog swirled forth from the ground and traveled forth in a whirlwind. Cassandra turned her face to the side and covered it with one forearm. It passed over her with no sensation; no grit or dust abrading her skin. A strong heave of nausea gripped her stomach as the vapors entered her nose, but she held it back along with the rest of her breath. She dared not breathe it in.
Another shout from behind her; another wave of goosebumps burst to life across her skin as the energy rolled back and forth from mage to mage in an arcane duel. The vampire’s duplicates shimmered violently then dissolved into an indistinct haze of water-colored fog which soon disappeared completely. Cassie aimed at the remaining figure and thrust forward with all her strength. Again the blow was deflected by the vampire’s magic.
Suddenly she vanished. The blue-eyed warrior cast around frantically for where the woman had gone, but there was nothing. Had she teleported away? Was she invisible?
“Working on it!” came the noble’s rushed reply.
Still she scanned, and still saw nothing. An unseen foe had a huge advantage, and the defender likewise a huge problem — especially if the enemy did not need to be close to be deadly.
Aerie rushed forward. Cassandra had almost forgotten about the girl; Nalia, with her known skill and more visible personality, was much more present in her thoughts. But the elf had her own magical talents, not only in the arcane but in the divine; she had to remember that, to keep it in mind. She touched Cassie’s forehead with the symbol of Baervaer that she wore around her neck, and whispered something that the red-head didn’t understand. At the same time, the same warm rush as earlier washed over them — this time originating from in front of them.
Directly in front of them.
The vampiress was visible again as soon as the holy symbol touched Cassie’s flesh, and stood not three feet away. She was busy casting yet again, holding a fragment of bone and some manner of dust in her hands, crushing the latter against the former.
“Bloody Nine Hells! She dispelled us!”
It was Nalia, and Cassie didn’t understand exactly what it meant. From the woman’s tone she could tell it wasn’t a good thing. Now that her opponent was visible again, though, it didn’t matter. What she could see, she could fight.
This time the strike landed and sank into dead flesh. The vampiress screamed in rage and jerked backwards; her severed left arm fell to the floor. Two more spells whistled past the warrior’s form, each one seeming to consist of nothing more than a small colored spark. The first one struck the witch and immediately spread to encase her entire body in a vaguely yellow glow; the second made contact a half-second later, and exploded in black, crackling energy against her chest. When it ended, Cassandra could see the walls behind the vampiress through the hole it’d left behind. The woman collapsed, presumably once more truly dead, the remaining bones in her torso unable to support the weight. They cracked with a sickening snap as her body folded over.
“Status!” Cassie barked.
“She dispelled my stoneskins,” Nalia said sourly. “Again. And I’m pretty sure it took Aerie’s protection from normal weapons with it. We’re vulnerable to physical attack.”
“Can you re-cast them?”
“No,” they said in unison, then Nalia’s more forthright nature drove Aerie into silence. “I’m out of stoneskins,” the brunette said. The elf nodded sheepishly in agreement.
“Can you continue?”
“I’ll be fine,” the noble assured her. “Just keep yourself between me and whatever attacks us. I can still throw lightning bolt and finger of death from twenty meters.”
They moved on, stepping over the fallen body. Cassie glanced down skeptically, but it neither moved nor twitched. She could always come back and stake it later. Around the last corner in their memorized map, Cassandra skidded to a confused stop. A wall stood where no wall should have.
“What is this?” she asked in frustration, running her hands over the surface. The stones were cold and dry, caked with old dust and mold. It wasn’t illusionary. It must have been built after the original tomb, but that still could have been a century or more in the past.
“Here, let me see.” Nalia stepped forward and moved Cassie out of the way. Aerie hung back, casting her gaze around uncertainly for any other surprises.
The rogue noble ran her hands also along the brickwork, but with more intent than the warrior had. Her fingers explored the crevices and irregularities with a soft and experienced touch, racing over the stones with what appeared to the untrained eye to be careless haste.
“Here.” She pressed on one of the bricks. It moved inwards about two inches, and a click could be heard from the other side. “And here.” She motioned Cassandra forward, and gestured at an area of wall. “Slide it. It’s a hidden door.”
The fighter re-sheathed her blade and handed the light-staff to Nalia, set both hands against the indicated area, and pushed steadily and forcefully to the side. It slid with surprising ease, and Cassie realized that this section of the wall had been nothing more than a thin piece of sheetrock with an elaborately-done facade to blend in perfectly with its surroundings. Behind it she glimpsed the main burial chamber, its details masked by shadow.
Nalia smiled triumphantly as she stepped through to the other side. Cassandra followed close behind. “Hidden door, hidden lock. You’d think they’d come up with something more diffi–”
A spray of hot liquid caught Cassandra straight in the face. She stopped, her body instantly rigid, and dared not even to breathe. The scythe-like blade began to retreat back towards the wall, some invisible spring or lever or being drawing it back into its hiding place. Nalia’s head fell to the ground with a wet thump. Her body followed a moment later.
“Trap,” Cassie whispered. The blood leaked down her face, wet and thick with metallic scent. She seemed frozen, unable to move, even though her mind felt unnaturally calm. All she had to do was move before the scythe was back in place, before the trap was re-armed.
It’s just another body. Another lamb to the slaughter. Nalia’s eyes stared up at her, the pleased smile now frozen on her lips.
She had to move. She had come too far to let one more death dissuade her.
“Come on,” she ordered, stepping through the doorway and catching the horizontal haft of the blade before it could retreat completely. “Step through. Now!”
“Where is– Oh my g-g-g-“
“Aerie!” The mechanism controlling the blade was too strong to hold back, and in another two seconds it would be ready for the next victim. Cassandra released it, grabbed the elf’s arm, and roughly pulled her through. “Move!”
The girl was white, shock-white, and could do nothing but stare at her counterpart’s fallen body. It was likely the first death she’d encountered, and doubtlessly the one most sudden and gruesome to behold.
Cassandra was breathing again, and her mind functioning with a sick determination towards the goal that was finally in sight. She knelt down, grabbed Nalia’s legs, and pulled the body towards her, away from the deadly scythe. Blood still spurted out of the severed veins and arteries in time with the last few beats of the woman’s heart.
The sorceress was wearing baubles, carrying things that might make a difference. She didn’t know all of them, and knew that Aerie wouldn’t have the strength of mind to go about identifying them in the current situation. She grabbed what she did know — a ring of protection, an amulet that protected against a vampire’s soul-draining touch, and the two healing potions off the woman’s belt. She moved quickly, mechanically, before her conscience could realize what she was doing.
Aerie realized, though. The horrified stammer was laced with an edge of panic. “What are you d-d-doing?”
The warrior left the items on the floor for the moment and rose and turned to face the cleric. “Look at me,” Cassandra bade her, catching the girl’s face in her hands. The blond recoiled from the sight of her blood-streaked countenance. Cassandra held her fast. “She’s dead. We’re not. She can still help us! We have to keep going.”
“I d-don’t think–”
“No,” Cassie cut in sharply. “Do what I tell you. Don’t think. If you think, you will fall. We can think later. Right now, I need you to listen and to do.”
She nodded jerkily, unsteadily. It looked as if she were about to either pass out or throw up. They didn’t have time for either of those.
“Okay?” Another nod. Cassie pressed the point home. “Do exactly what I tell you. I will get you out of here.”
The blue-eyed fighter held her for another few seconds, searching the elf’s pale eyes for signs of doubt. There were plenty, but she was fairly certain that she’d follow where Cassie led. She released her, knelt down, and gathered up Nalia’s items.
“Here, take this. Protective amulet.” She slipped the ring on her own finger, then divided the healing potions, one to each of them. “We’re almost done,” she said again, reminding herself as much as she was Aerie. “Almost done.”
She pushed past the robed woman and glanced once over her shoulder to ensure she was still moving. She was. They moved to the center of the burial chamber, where the still-glowing light of Piotr’s staff could give them the best view of what was inside. The room was indeed large, easily a hundred feet in length and just as wide. The walls were lined with coffins, mostly carved of antique marble, some of dark-flecked granite, and a few here and there of wood. There were no signs of inhabitation, despite Lindvail’s claims that this was a thriving nest of undead. It looked like no one had been here for ages.
Her eyes went to the floor. There should have been nothing but the centuries of dust and occasional skittering of rats, but that was not the case. The dust was heavily disturbed, pounded and scattered by either many feet or few feet many times. Someone had been in here. Someone had been in here often.
Cassandra slung her pack off her shoulder and set it down on the ground, kneeling next to it. She opened it hurriedly and fetched out the dozen-odd wooden stakes and three precious vials of holy water. All of the later and four of the former she passed to Aerie, and then took one stake for herself.
“Here. Hold these. Whenever I use one, I need one back. If you see something move, scream.”
The elven girl nodded vigorously. Screaming would not be a problem.
Cassie went over to the first of the many coffins. Moving the heavy stone lid would be an effort, even with her enhanced strength, and certainly not something she could do with one hand. She transferred the wooden stake to her mouth, gripping it between her teeth, and then brought both hands to bear on the marble slab. With a hard grunt of effort, she pushed all of her weight into it, and was rewarded with the plate sliding with a grainy rumble to the side.
A second push sent the lid to the floor with a loud clack of stone-against-stone. Inside, as she’d both hoped and feared, lay a body. Not the decayed, ancient remains of some long-forgotten noble, but the pale and almost fresh-faced body of a young woman with long brown hair.
Cassie set the point of the stake over the woman’s heart. She didn’t have a mallet, but she suspected that her gauntleted hand would do just as well. With a shout, she brought her fist down as hard as possible on the flattened end of wood. It pierced the flesh easily, sank deep inside the woman’s chest, and stopped only when the point hit the resistance of stone beneath.
The woman didn’t react. For a moment Cassandra wondered if she’d staked a true corpse instead. Then a small hissing sound began to emanate from somewhere on the body, along with an overpowering odor of decay. The woman’s fair features began to disintegrate as the warrior watched. Her hue changed from pale to grey as small holes began to appear in the flesh; her cheeks sank in, her eyes becoming hollow and gaunt in their sockets. Death reclaimed the vampiress with startling speed, eating away skin and muscles, drawing back her lips in a death’s-head grin. The hair fell free of a now-desiccated scalp. Within two minutes it was over, and where once had lain a sleeping beauty now lay a rotted corpse.
It worked. With that knowledge in mind, Cassandra worked quickly. To each successive coffin she went, taking a stake from her companion’s grasp, holding it in her teeth, and heaving the lid free of resting spot. One of two of the boxes lay empty, presumably either waiting for a new occupant or waiting for their current one to return. The sun should still be out, albeit weakly, but it would not last long. Things would be waking up soon. One by one she slammed the stake through those that slumbered, making sure they would never wake again.
She shoved the granite top off the tenth coffin. A flurry of noise and movement erupted out of it, a chaotic swarm of black and brown flashing before her vision. She jerked backwards in surprise as the bats flew around the room, diving and swooping past her in a melee of motion. Aerie let out a startled squeak from somewhere behind her. She stabbed forth at the beasts with the stake, but it was a useless attempt. Some collided with her arm or her chest and flew elsewhere, but she could do nothing to actually fend them off.
Abruptly the hurricane of wings was gone, and the blinding mass of bodies with it. Cassie spun around, chest heaving to catch her panicked breath. Aerie was there, still standing, although she’d dropped the remaining stakes. She had cast something on herself that made her glow with a faint bluish light; doubtlessly some type of protective spell that she triggered out of fright or surprise.
“You are becoming quite a pest,” said a feminine voice from her other side.
Cassandra’s head whipped around to face the speaker, and found herself confronted by a female vampire with short, wild black hair and dark, smoky eyes. Her skin was the typical pale of her kind, with dark red lips. The outfit she wore could be considered revealing at best: a form-fitting corset and bustier that hugged her curves with a lover’s embrace. From Linvail’s description, she had a name for the face: Bodhi. She was beautiful.
“I had hoped we could work together,” she continued, casually and unconcernedly stepping closer. “Your skills are… impressive. Extremely.”
Aerie’s voice dragged her focus to what was at hand, and the fighter realized she’d even begun lowering her sword in front of this most dangerous opponent. She shook her head, clearing out the sudden, unusual distraction, and brought the blade to bear again.
The vampiress chuckled at the redhead’s obvious switch in behavior. “Don’t be hasty,” she purred, giving Cassandra a hungry once-over with her eyes. What kind of hunger wasn’t clear. “We could get to know each other.” The tone of her voice ensured that the offer was not entirely platonic. And for some reason, despite all she’d been through, the warrior found it tempting.
“You’re trying to charm me,” Cassie accused.
“I never try to charm,” she responded with a sultry smile.
One dark eyebrow arched up on the perfect alabaster skin. “You could use some manners.” Bodhi was moving, circling slowly, like a cat closing in for a kill. Cassandra matched her movements, keeping the sword between them. Aerie stood somewhere off, either forgotten or ignored. The undead did not seem concerned.
Abruptly she lunged, moving with a speed unlike anything Cassie had ever seen. The warrior dodged out of the way, attempting to deflect her with the sword, but the vampiress was gone just as quickly, no longer where she’d been a second before.
A movement out of the corner of her eye alerted her, but not fast enough to dodge this time. Bodhi’s hand raked across the shoulder of her armor, and the angry screech of metal echoed through the chamber. Cassandra thrust out one hand, found something solid, and pushed it away. There was a blur of movement, and again she was gone from view. Cassie risked a glance at her shoulder and saw four shallow but definite grooves now etched in its surface. How the Hell..?
“Aerie! Do something!”
“I don’t know! Whatever you did last time!”
“She’s not inv-v-visible or you’d s-see her!”
It seemed like rather contradictory logic. A soft, throaty laugh of amusement floated through the air from an invisible source. Cassandra’s bright eyes scanned the room from side to side, but saw nothing. The vampire was playing with them.
Aerie began chanting, and Cassandra unconsciously backed her way closer to one of the chamber’s walls. The less angles the creature could attack from, the better. She kept the sword at the ready, priming herself to strike at even the slightest movement.
The sword collided with stone, sending off a hail of sparks, as Cassie aimed for the voice.
Another swing, and another futile attempt.
“Stop it,” she growled. “Come out and fight!”
Aerie’s chant finished, and a warm, white light began to radiate outwards from the priestess’ body. It filled the chamber with a sense of comfort, of peace, and of tranquility. Cassie looked at the elf with a mixture of surprise and annoyance. How the Hell was feeling at peace supposed to help her kill undead?
A cloud of mist began to seep out of the floor, floating upwards and coalescing into a roughly human shape. It wavered back and forth, stretching out parts here and parts there, but continued to condense into a smaller and more definite form. It was less than a minute before Bodhi stood once more before her, this time lacking her lazy smile of satisfaction. Her lips were twisted in an angry snarl, and her dark eyes livid with rage.
“How dare you!” she spat, not at the warrior but at the elf.
She lunged again, this time at Aerie, who screamed in fright and cast forth the first spell she had available. A rain of bright white sparks began to cascade out of the empty air. They fell on all three combatants, but with radically different results. Where they touched Aerie they disappeared with neither smoke nor sound, simply vanishing upon contact. They fizzled as well on Cassie’s hair and face, leaving behind a slight sting as if from a tiny insect, and a slight feeling of nausea that increased as the rain continued.
With Bodhi, however, the results were dramatic. When each spark touched, she screamed in pain. The white specks landed on her skin and instantly began to sizzle and smoke, each eating a fingertip-sized hole in the vampire’s skin. She howled in rage and launched herself at Aerie one more time, this time tackling the cleric to the ground with angry insults and curses. Aerie began screaming again, more and more shrilly. The chaos made it impossible to tell exactly what was happening, but the fighter knew that this was her chance. Bodhi was short-sighted and let her rage dictate her actions; Cassandra noted this carefully in her mind.
She swung her sword down in a hard, vicious arc. It sliced into the undead’s back. The sight of the wound was surreal and unnatural; flaps of flesh folding back, exposing bloodless tissue and pale, dead muscle, so obviously devoid of life. Her own shouts of effort joined the cacophony, and she swung and stabbed over and over again, trying anything and everything to put an end to the noise.
After the fifth strike Bodhi rose, hissing like a wild cat, and whirled to face her blue-eyed assailant. The beauty which had so captivated her earlier was gone; her face was pitted with blackened holes where Aerie’s white rain had fallen, and the gashes and slashes across her body laid bare the bones and tendons underneath.
Cassandra gave her no time to react, no time to formulate a plan. The sword lanced forward, entering the woman’s stomach and exiting several inches out the other side. She twisted it with all her strength, first one way then the other, and then yanked the blade free. She was panting and sweating from effort, every muscle and nerve on fire with fear and anticipation.
Bodhi’s hands immediately went to her stomach. But far from looking mortally wounded, she instead looked extremely annoyed. Her fingers felt the edges of the wound, then one hand went to her back to feel were the sword had pierced clean through. The annoyance turned to anger.
“You will regret this,” she promised. Her ravaged and destroyed flesh gave the threat a demonic visage to match. “Whatever is left of you after Irenicus, I will rip to shreds.”
Cassie stepped towards her, determined to finish the job, but the vampire had powers beyond mere human muscle. Whatever Aerie had done appeared to have thwarted her somewhat; at very least, Bodhi was no longer disappearing and reappearing. But the supernatural speed and strength was undiminished, and at the first sign of Cassie’s movement the woman leapt backwards, landing crouched and cat-like, regarding her with hateful eyes.
“See you soon,” she whispered with a feral smile, and then with another jump she was lost in the darkness of the crypt.
Cassandra stood mute, numb, unsteady. It was over. She had killed the vampires, but lost their mistress. She wasn’t sure what Linvail’s reaction would be to the news.
There was no answer.
Cassandra took three trembling steps over to the prone woman. Whatever spells the elf had cast upon herself had not held up to the vampire’s assault. Deep gashes ran along her shoulders, over the curve of her neck, spilling blood along the elaborate embroidery of her robe. She was still alive though, breathing through trembling lips, eyes wide with shock and fear.
“Ssh.” She fetched the vial of healing draught off of the cleric’s waistbelt and uncorked it, then propped up the blond’s head with one hand and held the reddish liquid up to her lips. “Drink. Aerie, drink this.”
She tried. About half of the potion actually made it, with the remnants dribbling down her chin. Cassandra wiped it away with the flat of her hand, and then noticed something that made her freeze. Two round, distinct puncture wounds, slightly less than thumb’s width apart, set directly over the main artery of the neck.
“Oh, no, Aerie…”
The fragile eyes looked up at her, still lost in pain and confusion of a life lived in shelter until now. Cassandra put down the flask and hid her face in her hands, trying to control her thoughts, trying to calm down. She’d been bitten. If she died, she’d turn within a few hours, becoming yet another of Bodhi’s minions. If she survived, the process would take longer but the end result would be the same. Either the unnatural poison in her blood would claim her, or Bodhi would return to finish the job.
The potion was beginning to take effect. The bleeding had stopped, and the edges of the wounds were beginning to slowly knit themselves back together in ragged pink lines. With any luck, the process would complete before the loss of blood took her life.
I hate you. She didn’t know to whom the thought was directed. Bodhi, certainly, for the destruction she’d wrought; Irenicus, for making it necessary; the gods themselves, for allowing it to happen.
She picked up one of the remaining wooden stakes, only partially aware that she did so. It felt as if she were watching someone else, some actor on a stage, as she positioned it over the prone elf’s heart. She knew it had to be done, but the knowledge was abstract. Exhaustion, shock… She felt no emotional reaction, though she knew well she should. Shouldn’t she? Shouldn’t she?
She slammed her hand down on the stake. Aerie said nothing more. Cassie sighed and sank backwards, letting her weight rest against the rough stone of the wall. Everything felt suddenly a hundred times its weight.
Spellhold. That was what her goal was. That was what Linvail owed her. She levered herself away from the wall’s support, retrieved the glowing mage-staff, and slowly rose to retrace her steps. Spellhold. Imoen. The two words looped through her mind endlessly, driving her onwards towards the surface. She left Aerie’s body where it lay.