So, if you've read Crumbling Down before and liked it, feel free to re-read it. If you haven't read it, you should. The link to the first post is here.
Each Monday I'm posting a roughly-10-printed-pages chunk of the story. Once I get to Chapter 8 (the last chapter so far), I should hopefully have Chapter 9 done as well. Oh, the things I have planned! (Poor Cassie. Poor Imoen.)
Also, for your reading enjoyment, here's the post I linked to above, but without the need to clicky on it:
Chapter 1: The Hunt (part 1)
(Major changes/edits in this chapter: none [minor typos, word choices, etc.]. Warnings for this chapter: violence. Actually, that goes for ALL chapters, so expect it. In Cassandra's words: "We're warriors, Jaheira. Murder is what we do." Future sections will have fragments posted, but primarily hosted on my website.)
She stood before a memory. The gates of Candlekeep, her childhood home, yawned wide before her. The twin crimson standards of the great library hung limply on either side of the entrance, but the doors were gone. The guards were gone. The sights and sounds and smells of childhood were gone, from Hullâ€™s good-natured shouting to the stink of Dreppinâ€™s cows. The great keep was empty and hollow.
Cassandra reflexively tapped her palms against her hips, chest, and face. The sheath of her sword, heavy with its steel, clanked against the hardened leather cuisse and greave which protected her leg. A chainmail shirt protected her breasts, but the metal of her glove was cool against her bare cheek. No helm. Partially armored, then, and partially armed.
She glanced around. She was alone. Sheâ€™d had dreams like this before, but this one seemed different. A stale wind struggled to lift the red-gold strands of her hair, and she tucked them back with a faint expression of distaste. The scent of decay was in the air.
â€œDo not fight.â€
Cassie whipped around, yanking her sword from its sheath despite the trembling fear in the words, and then nearly dropped it in shock. Imoen stood before her, frail and shivering against the empty backdrop of the keepâ€™s outer grounds. Imoen, whom sheâ€™d spent the last month struggling, clawing, and ripping her way through FaerÃ»n to find again â€“ Imoen was here. Tears of joy and relief blurred the figure before her into a palette of pastel, threatening to wash the vision away as suddenly as itâ€™d come.
â€œImoenâ€¦â€ She sunk to her knees, the sound of her armor echoing against the walls, and took her sisterâ€™s hand in hers. â€œImoen, Iâ€™m here.â€
She was ignored. Imoen continued speaking in the same halting, far-away voice. â€œDo not fight. To fight is to lose. Come to me.â€
â€œIâ€™m here.â€ Cassie held the younger womanâ€™s hand to her cheek, letting her feel the wetness there. â€œIâ€™m here, I promise. I wonâ€™t leave again.â€
â€œYou cannot fight alone. Find me within.â€
The faded watercolors of Imoenâ€™s form began to disintegrate. The tips of her hair broke into multi-colored dust, stolen away in the decay-laden wind along with her clothing, her skin, and her voice. Cassandra clutched the hand she held tighter, only to feel it fracture and shatter under the pressure. It, too, began to slip through her fingers like so much sand, and the blue-eyed warrior grasped at the grains in disbelief.
â€œNo! Donâ€™t leave me!â€
Her sisterâ€™s form wavered, shimmered, and then tumbled into nothingness as the wind greedily stole the last precious shards.
â€œImoen!â€ Cassandra threw the sword into the dirt and screamed her name into hateful silence of the keep. No answer was forthcoming. Her eyes burned as fresh tears spilled down her cheeks and spattered into the lifeless dust below. She struggled to control the heaving and shaking in her chest.
Control. It wouldnâ€™t stop the pain, but it would push it aside and make it manageable. Control would blunt the edge of despairâ€™s teeth until another time. Her body trembled and breath caught in half-choked sobs as her mind repeated its mantra. Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in.
The mantra continued, and somewhere in the darkness of her soul a spark ignited. Rage was kindled, fueled by frustration and stoked by helplessness. Now each breath brought a hot flame of anger, each higher and hotter than the last. It wasnâ€™t fair. It wasnâ€™t fair to be so close, to have come so far, and be denied. It wasnâ€™t fair to have sacrificed so much and so many only to again fall short. It was not fair, and she was not going to have spilled so much blood for nothing.
She grasped the hilt of the sword and levered herself to her feet. Her eyes still stung, but she used it as motivation. She hurt, and she knew why. She knew who to blame. Her blood tingled throughout her veins and she advanced through the gates with grim determination. Sheâ€™d find Imoen. And after that, sheâ€™d find Irenicus.
The courtyard was as she remembered it, with the flowers springing forth in full glory of spring despite the timelessness of the dream. The familiar paths led to and fro, trailing off into pockets of nothingness where the fabric of the landscape disintegrated. â€˜Withinâ€™ could only refer to the great library itself, housed within the formidable walls, and it was there she went, blade drawn and mind seething. And it was there that the dream became even more surreal.
Cassandra stopped, half-raising her sword into a ready position, unsure of how to react. A massive, barrel-chested demon stood before her at the top of the libraryâ€™s entrance stairs. It was red-skinned and sported black bat-like wings easily twenty feet in span. The demon towered above her, well beyond seven feet tall, and massed as much as warhorse. Feral yellow eyes regarded her from above a short, canine muzzle filled with cruel and wicked teeth.
â€œThis path is to the core, to the depths of your soul,â€ it said, the words clear and spoken with a polished accent despite the devilish face. â€œYou must give of yourself to know yourself. Enlightenment requiresâ€”â€œ the fangs clicked together sharply, and the demon seemed to smile â€œâ€”sacrifice.â€
She tilted her head to the side, frowning as she studied him. He seemed solid enough, real enough. Itâ€™d be a very tight squeeze to get past him, though. â€œYou canâ€™t kill me,â€ she said at length. â€œIâ€™m the dreamer here, not you.â€
â€œI canâ€™t kill you,â€ it agreed, clicking its teeth together again. The wings flexed as it inhaled deeply, seeming to scent the air. â€œAnd demons do not dream.â€
Her frown deepened, and she advanced forward up the steps. The beast made no move towards her; its gaze on her blade was more amused than cautious.
â€œStep aside,â€ she ordered.
It laughed, a low rich sound interspersed with jackal-like yips and barks, then abruptly unfurled its wings with a rush of air and whip of leathery skin drawn taught. The body lengthened, the hunched legs straightening, and the demon leaned forward with a disturbing leer. â€œSacrifice. Then you may gain entrance.â€
Itâ€™d admitted it couldnâ€™t kill her, but could a demon hurt her? Even in a dream? What kind of sacrifice to dream-demons need? It was ridiculous to contemplate â€” giving something to her own imagination, in order to continue her own dream. Nonetheless, Cassandraâ€™s many brushes with magic made her suspect it was wise to comply.
â€œWhat do you want, then, as thisâ€¦ sacrifice?â€
It seemed to settle down when faced with cooperation, and slowly returned to its former, less-threatening position. â€œItâ€™s not what I want, Bhaalspawn. Itâ€™s what you want.â€
â€œWhat I want is for you to let me into the library,â€ she growled irritably.
It laughed again, a short chuckle, and then shook its head with an animal smile. â€œYou do not understand, Child of Bhaal, and that is why you have brought me here. You donâ€™t want that at all.â€
She tightened her grip on the hilt of her sword. â€œI think I know what I want, devil.â€
â€œYes,â€ it agreed. â€œYou do thinkâ€¦ but you donâ€™t really know.â€
â€œThen how about you enlighten me before I tire of your games?â€ she said, raising the sword once more.
â€œIdle threats are unbecoming, Child,â€ it rumbled, lowering itself further and twisting its snout into a grin. â€œEspecially from one like you. But do you truly wish to be enlightened?â€
â€œIf it gets you out of my way.â€
The yellow eyes narrowed, and the demon let out its bizarre laugh once more. â€œVery well. I take of your wits, and the wisdom you have learned. Thus you shall know yourself through your mistakes, when you undoubtedly falter with foolishness. Embrace your doubts and insecurities, Cassandra of Bhaal â€“ they are what give you strength.â€
A gust of air and wind-blow grit swirled into being around the demon and forced the fighter to shield her eyes. She staggered backwards, nearly stumbling off the stairs entirely, and then it was gone. The stairway lay open, accessible, and blessedly demon-free.
She approached the door cautiously as she eyed the surroundings for any further surprises, but none came forth. The door opened easily and revealed the dimly-lit interior of the famed Candlekeep library.
â€œImoen!â€ Her voice resounded off the shelves of books and vault-like walls, booming like thunder. â€œImoen!â€
â€œHere.â€ Cassandra turned her head towards the direction of the voice, and spotted a familiar figure in the northeast quarter of the libraryâ€™s main foyer. â€œOver hereâ€¦â€
She resheathed her sword and steadied it with her hand as she jogged over to where the figure stood, then slowed to a confused halt as Imoen gestured for her to stay back.
â€œIâ€¦ I can see you there,â€ her sister said, her voice soft and without echo even in the empty chamber.
â€œIâ€™m here, Im. Whatâ€™s wrong?â€
The girl held a finger to her lips. â€œShhhh. Before the shadows return to me. Iâ€™ve seenâ€¦. Iâ€™ve seenâ€¦â€ Her voice trembled and quavered. â€œLead the creature here. Lead it to me, and we shall fight it together. He does not expect us together.â€
Cassandra shook her head. â€œNo. Iâ€™ll do it. Tell me how, and Iâ€™ll do it.â€
â€œOne alone cannot win.â€ Imoen closed her eyes and turned her head away. â€œAlone you would fall, win or lose.â€
â€œI will not risk you,â€ she retorted, voice rising. â€œIâ€™ve done that too often!â€
The grey eyes opened, and the trembling voice was now strong. â€œGo. Lead the beast here.â€
â€œGo, Cassie. For us both.â€
Cassandra stood still for several moments, struggling between her emotions, then with a growl she turned on her heel and stalked out of the library. This was stupid. It was a dream. Why did she even care? It wasnâ€™t the real Imoen. It wasnâ€™t a real demon. None of it was real. Whatever imaginary beast that she was to face would also be no more than the smoke and mirrors of her own mind. Was this how she soothed her conscience at night, by torturing herself in her dreams?
The stairs of the library were clear again; the demon had taken its leave. What other creature was there, then? She cast her eye about the courtyard and saw nothing beyond the flowers planted there. She quickened into a jog once more, again steadying the sheath of her sword, and exited to the outer grounds. Left and right she scanned the horizonâ€¦ and on the left stood a figure where none had stood before.
To Hell with this, she spat mentally, then raised her voice to carry across the dead air. â€œYou there! Hey!â€
The figureâ€™s head turned in her direction, and the body quickly followed. He or she strode forward at a quick, confident pace. As the person drew nearer, details became clear. A horned helmet with a visor made of sharpened metal tines, fashioned to resemble a monsterâ€™s gaping maw; spiked metal armor tinted jet black, which encased a massive humanoid form. The dark warrior held what by all rights should have been a two-handed sword, but such was his size and power that he carried it easily with only one.
She knew him. Sheâ€™d met him many times before, in dreams fouled with fear and in more nightmares than she could recall.
â€œFall to your knees!â€ the warrior thundered.
She drew her sword. Imposing or not, it was still her dream. â€œFall to yours.â€
It provoked the reaction sheâ€™d expected. The dark warrior surged forward, raising the immense sword high overhead, and swung at her in massive arc. She ducked under the blow and moved inside of his range, limiting the effectiveness of the huge weapon, and drove her sword into the open faceplate of the helmet. The blade shattered teeth and bone as it pierced the roof of his mouth and skewered his brain, stopping with a dull metallic sound as the steel and the iron helmet collided.
Cassandra held it there for a moment, then yanked the blade backwards, freeing it from the corpse. The body teetered as if unsure which way to fallâ€¦ and then the gaping wound drew together, re-knitting itself, teeth sprouting from the gums and settling as if nothing had occurred. The warrior looked down on her, raising an arm, and drove a spike-covered gauntlet towards her head.
Cassie dodged out of reflex and hissed in surprise as the weapon ripped a shallow furrow through the shoulder of her mail shirt and the flesh underneath. That hurt. A lot more than sheâ€™d expect from a dream. Her foeâ€™s armored foot lashed out and caught her squarely in the right shin. Pain lashed through her leg from the impact and she fell hard to the ground, barely keeping her grip around the hilt of her blade.
â€œYou cannot run from yourself,â€ the warrior warned as he advanced, once again raising the giant sword. â€œYou cannot defeat yourself. I am the blood! I am the instinct!â€
She rolled out of the way as the blade bit deep into the earth where sheâ€™d lain and tore loose clots of dirt when it was yanked free. Suddenly she wasnâ€™t so positive that it wouldnâ€™t do the same to her head, dream or not. She got to her feet with difficulty, pain still lancing through her right leg, and she limped out of his range, dragging her blade behind her.
Aerie used to tell her that if someone died in a dream, they died in life as well. Normally Cassie scoffed at such superstitions, but now she wasnâ€™t so eager to put the avarielâ€™s words to the test.
Thankfully the constant of encumbrance worked in fantasy as well as reality. Laden down with gods-only-knew how many pounds of armor and metal, the dark warrior was fierce but slow. Cassandra kept ahead of him, half-limping, half-walking, and grimaced with each painful step. Sheâ€™d given the man a face full of steel and heâ€™d not even blinked. Heâ€™d kicked her and nearly broken her leg.
One alone cannot win. She was entering the courtyard, heading towards the library, where she hoped that Imoenâ€™s dream image knew what she was doing. She glanced behind her every few steps, partially to reassure herself he was still following and partially to reassure that he hadnâ€™t caught up. Going up the stairs was torture, and by the time she entered the main foyer, he was already at mounting the steps.
â€œImoen!â€ She made her way over to the figure at the back of the library. â€œWhat do I do?â€ When she reached her younger sister, she turned once more to check on the warriorâ€™s progress. He was heading towards the pair unerringly, with murder in his eyes.
â€œNow!â€ Imoen pointed at the advancing swordsman. â€œIt is within my sight. I will add my will to yours!â€
Cassandra shouted and threw herself forward in a flurry of blows, the clash of sword against armor ringing through the halls of the library. She focused on being faster than her opponent, knowing she could not be stronger, and somehow here in the library, her strikes made wounds. Blood flowed, and it kept flowing, enraging the dark warrior more with every slice.
â€œHow do you stand?â€ he demanded, reeling backwards. â€œI should devour you!â€ The blade of her sword slid off his chestplate with a shower of sparks and the screech of metal against metal.
â€œI have help,â€ she informed him, and shifted to strike again. Once again the blade dove into the gap of the helmetâ€™s face plate, and this time she knew the wound would kill. She left the sword there, buried inside the manâ€™s head, and released the hilt as she backed away.
â€œHelp?â€ Somehow he managed to talk nonetheless, despite the blade protruding from his face. He laughed, bubbles of blood and gore frothing in his destroyed visage. â€œYou are empty inside. There is nothing left. Nothing but me.â€
Imoen pulled on her arm. Cassie turned around and found her sister frantically looking at herself, at her hands, her clothing, her legs, as if theyâ€™d all betrayed her. â€œSomethingâ€™s wrong,â€ she breathed. â€œSomethingâ€™s wrong!â€
Imoenâ€™s breath started coming harder and faster as panic enveloped her, and she pushed Cassie violently away. â€œI- no- Not again! Not again!â€ She held her head in her hands and clenched her eyes shut. Her scream of terror reverberated through the entire keep, growing in volume and intensity as each and every echo added its voice to the fear, until Cassandra was forced to cover her ears and fall to her knees. The scream pierced her regardless, like a soul crying out in agony, until Cassie added her own voice to the chorus.
Then abruptly it was silent, and she was alone.
She awoke with the bile thick in her throat as her legs gave way beneath her. She fell forward, instinctively thrusting her hands forward to break her fall, and found herself somehow braced against empty air. She collapsed against the invisible barrier and fought back the urge to vomit.
â€œWell, you are a strong one indeed!â€
The voice raised the bile once more, and Cassandra gagged when the bitter gall entered her mouth. The red-haired woman fought it back once more and spit out the foul taste, wiping her mouth with her hand.
â€œYou resist beyond all reason.â€ The pride in his voice dipped into smug satisfaction. â€œA pity you are dead inside.â€
Cassie got to her feet. She was encased in some manner of glass container, a jar, and slowly her memory returned to her. She vaguely remembered the journey to the island; the struggle to find entrance to the asylum was slightly more clear. What she remembered best was the betrayal, when Irenicus had revealed that he now controlled the asylum, and that the shipâ€™s captain Saemon had been in his employ. When sheâ€™d been locked in this damnable jar to begin with, before the mageâ€™s ritual had begun. Now it was over, and his disfigured, corpse-like face stared at her from the other side of the glass.
She spat at him, ineffectively, and glared at him with icy eyes. â€œDead inside? I defeated your creature. Imoen and I defeated it, together.â€
â€œI donâ€™t know what you faced while mired within the spell, but here in the world of the living my plans have gone just as I wished.â€ Irenicus smiled. It was a tight and ugly sight. â€œI have drained you â€” drained you of the very thing that made you special. It is the worst of curses, and I should know.â€
â€œDrained me of my Taint? You consider that a curse?â€
â€œHardly. I have taken your very divinity, and drained you of your soul. The curse that was wrought against Bodhi and I has now ceased and yours has begun. You will wither, you will wane, and you will die.â€
â€œYouâ€™re not the first to underestimate me, Irenicus.â€
â€œOh really?â€ He approached the glass, the cold amusement clear in his dead black eyes. â€œImoen has also been stripped of her soul. She has withered, and she is dying. I think you would agree.â€
Her mind flashed back to how Imoen had seemed when they had discovered her in Spellhold. Sheâ€™d been empty. Shattered. Like the broken toy of a too-rough child, too battered to do anything but await the next abuse. The memory brought the hot spark of rage back to her heart.
â€œIf youâ€™ve hurt her, I will kill you,â€ she hissed.
â€œI have no doubt you would,â€ he agreed, â€œbut you are no longer a living threat. Bodhi!â€
The svelte, pale form of the vampire materialized from the shadows of the room and crossed to the mageâ€™s side.
â€œRemove this nothing,â€ he instructed, gesturing to the captive woman. â€œAnd Imoen as well. We no longer need them.â€
Bodhi smiled sweetly at Cassandra, no doubt enjoying the reversal of fortunes since her last defeat. â€œAs you would have it, brother.â€
He turned his attention to her once more and made a small, elegant gesture of departure. â€œFarewell, Child of Bhaal. We shall not meet again.â€
â€œIrenicus!â€ He strode out of the room, ignoring her call. â€œIrenicus!â€ She slammed her fists ineffectively against her prison walls. â€œI WILL HAVE YOUR HEAD, MAGE!â€
The dark-haired vampiress sighed and lazily drew her clawed fingernail across the glass. It etched a fine line into its surface. â€œSuch bravado. Such fire. Such a waste.â€
She clapped her hands sharply and within seconds two more vampiric minions appeared. Cassandra tried to follow Bodhiâ€™s motions as she manipulated the jarâ€™s locking mechanism. There was a click, then one of the servants pulled open half of the container while the other rushed in and delivered a punch to the humanâ€™s midsection with unnatural strength and speed. Cassie doubled over, unable to hold back the bile this time, and emptied her stomach on the cage floor.
Bodhiâ€™s nose wrinkled in distaste, and a brief gesture from her had Cassandra dragged from the glass container and thrown like a childrenâ€™s doll from the platform to the roomâ€™s floor. The impact kicked the breath from her lungs and another swift punch to her stomach brought tears to her eyes.
â€œDonâ€™t kill her. Not yet.â€
The two lesser vampires hauled her to her feet and drug her forward between them, each one holding an arm, as Bodhi guided the way. Cassie was vaguely aware that she was being transported down a hallway and up a flight of stairs. Two large doors swung open in front of them, blinding her with a momentary wash of light. They threw her forward into some manner of large open chamber where she landed painfully on a cold tile floor. Several unmarked sacks were tossed in after her, impacting with the floor with heavy, metallic sounds, and then the doors were closed.
â€œAre you alright?â€
Two hands helped her as she rolled onto her back. She teeth gritted against the pain of motion and fumbled for the hands. Two small, warm fingers curl around hers. A breath, another, and she opened her eyes.
The girl smiled shakily. She was kneeling over her fallen friend, clothed in a simple smock of rough green cloth. Several small scars marred her face where none had been before, but her eyes were clearer now. â€œYeah, itâ€™s me. Youâ€™re a sight for sore eyes, I tell ya.â€
Cassie reached up and took her arm, pulling the young woman into a prone embrace. Imoen went willingly, wrapping her arms around her as best she could, and buried her face in flame-red waves of Cassandraâ€™s hair. The wetness of tears touched her neck.
â€œCass, I thought Iâ€™d never see you again.â€
She hugged her tighter and rested her cheek against her sisterâ€™s. Her own tears threatened to make words impossible. â€œI came as fast as I could, I swear.â€
â€œI know.â€ Imoen returned the squeeze. â€œI knew youâ€™d find me.â€
â€œAre you alright? Did he hurt you?â€
Imoen pulled away slowly, a weak, forced smile barely curving her lips. â€œDonâ€™t worry about me. Look at you!â€ The smile vanished as Imoen really did look at her, and took count of the cuts, slashes, and scars. â€œHoly crap, Cass, are you alright?â€
She levered herself into a sitting position, grimacing again as bones shifted in ways they shouldnâ€™t have. â€œIâ€™m fine. Help me up.â€
Imoen did so to the best of her abilities, despite her smaller stature. Her hands steadied the fighter from behind. Cassieâ€™s stomach twisted again as the world tilted and spun from a wave of nausea.
â€œCassieâ€¦â€ Imoen cupped her sisterâ€™s face in her hands, fixating her with stormy grey eyes. â€œYou are not fine.â€
â€œI will be. Just help me, like in the dream.â€
â€œThatâ€“ that ritual he just did. The dream. You helped me kill the warrior in the library.â€
â€œWhat?â€ Confusion and concern furrowed her brow. â€œI had no dream in my ritual. The whole thing was an unbearable nightmareâ€¦ but I had no dreams at all. It was just blackness, all around me, and this pain like I was being ripped apart. I â€¦ Iâ€”â€œ
She shook her head, clearing away the dark memories which had spawned, and dropped her hands from Cassandraâ€™s face. â€œIâ€™m sorry. The things he showed me. They wereâ€¦ they were so black and horrid. And the feelings he evoked in me were even worse.â€
Cassieâ€™s jaw tightened. Her eyes flickered back to the doorway, beyond which the ritual had taken place. Beyond which was Irenicus. â€œHe tortured you.â€
She shuddered, a tremble running visibly through her body. â€œâ€˜Tortureâ€™ doesnâ€™t even come close. â€¦you know, heâ€“ he said he took my soulâ€¦â€
Cassandra hugged her close again, offering what comfort she could. â€œI donâ€™t think thatâ€™s possible.â€
â€œIâ€™m not so sureâ€¦â€ She looked down at her hands, curling her fingers experimentally. â€œIâ€™ve been getting a lot weaker, Cass. I donâ€™t know how much time has passed since heâ€¦ since he did whatever he did. But the effects are real.â€
â€œThen weâ€™ll find a way to stop it.â€
â€œI hope so. He did the same to you, you know.â€ She sighed, flexing her hands one last time. â€œIf we donâ€™t reverse what was done, weâ€™ll probably both die.â€
An amused feminine voice spoke from above. â€œOh, beyond a doubt.â€
Both sets of eyes lifted. Bodhi stood on a second-floor balcony, overlooking the chamber in which they stood, and leaned against the railing with a casual smile. â€œFamily reunion â€” so touching.â€
â€œWhat do you want?â€ Imoen demanded. â€œHavenâ€™t you done enough?â€
â€œAnd she still has a spark.â€ Bodhiâ€™s smile widened, her eyes focused on Imoen with a perverse hunger. â€œFading so quickly, though. Itâ€™s a pity; youâ€™ve proven resilient beyond all expectations. It isâ€¦ appealingâ€¦ to me.â€
â€œWe arenâ€™t here to entertain you!â€
â€œOh, but you are,â€ she corrected. â€œMy amusement is all that is keeping you alive. Irenicus wishes you dead, and he is very rarely denied his wishes.â€
â€œIrenicus this, Irenicus that â€“ you think too highly of him,â€ Cassandra spit back at her. â€œGet down here and do it, if thatâ€™s his demand.â€
The unearthly beauty of her face darkened in a frown. â€œIt is his demand, but I am not his lapdog, and now you are subject to my whim, not his.â€
â€œOh joy.â€ Imoen rolled her eyes.
Bodhi ignored her. She adjusted her position on the railing. â€œYour abilities have piqued my interest, and since you are to die I would have you do it in an entertaining fashion. Irenicus can be so dour when he wishes. He is set on revenge for his banishment and can think of nothing else. A failing of his mind remaining flesh, I suppose. But undeath has given me focus, and an interest in the abilities of powerful creatures. An interest in you.â€ Her smile returned. â€œI will make your death glorious, as well as entertaining.â€
â€œIf you want to kill me, kill me. I will not play this game.â€
â€œOh, but you will, Cassandra. You have no choice. Youâ€™ll run my maze like the good little mice you are.â€ She stepped away from the balcony and retreated into the blackness of Spellholdâ€™s walls. â€œThe hunt begins.â€
Cassandra sighed heavily, running her left hand through her hair. â€œYou know, Iâ€™d love to go just one god-damned week without someone trying to kill me. Just one.â€
â€œI think she meant it,â€ Imoen said, voice serious. â€œSpellhold is one big maze designed to separate the insane from the â€˜merely deviantâ€™. Weâ€™ll be lucky to survive running from her, much less fighting her.â€
Another sigh, and another reflexive run of her fingers through the crimson waves. â€œI need time to think, then, time to plan. We should get moving. Maybe we can find some make-shift weapons or â€“â€œ Her eyes caught the two sackcloth bags which had been thrown in after her. â€œWhatâ€™s in those sacks?â€
â€œSacks? Whatâ€”oh.â€ Imoen crouched down next to the nearest one and quickly untied the clasp with nimble fingers. One pale hand slipped in and withdrew a blood-spattered metal gauntlet. â€œHuh?â€
â€œThatâ€™s my armor.â€ Cassandra knelt beside her and quickly helped her empty the contents of the bag. Her chain shirt, greaves, boots â€” dirty and bloody, but functional. â€œItâ€™s all here,â€ she breathed in amazement. â€œAll of it, even my sword.â€
Imoenâ€™s tone was doubtful. â€œI guess she wants us to have a fighting chance.â€
â€œCheck the other one.â€ Cassandra started buckling on what of the protective leather and metal she could by herself as Imoen rummaged through the other container.
â€œUhâ€¦cloth? A robe, I think. Couple of rations â€“ at least we wonâ€™t starve â€“ no water though. A key. A teddy bear? What the Hell?â€
Cass looked up from fastening her knee guards and blushed slightly as Imoen waved the small brown animal at her with a questioning arch of her eyebrow. â€œI found it,â€ she muttered. â€œThought it might be important.â€
â€œOh, so itâ€™s not for me?â€
â€œUmm.. sure. I guess.â€
The fiery eyebrow arched higher.
â€œErâ€¦ of course itâ€™s for you. Thatâ€™s why I got it in the first place. Cheer you up.â€
Imoenâ€™s lips curved into a mischievous smile. â€œThanks. I appreciate it.â€ She dragged the bag over to her warrior sibling and let it loose as she helped fasten the armor. When she got to the pauldrons which protected her shoulders, she leaned in close with a giggling whisper. â€œNice recovery, by the way.â€
Cassandra stiffened at the warm touch of breath against her ear. Visions from her dreams flooded back, bringing with them a faint blush of heat. She turned her head away. â€œYou shouldâ€“ We should go.â€
â€œOkay. Iâ€™ll get the bag, youâ€™re carrying enough as is.â€ She shouldered the pack, oblivious to the reaction to her teasing. â€œDoor number one, door number two, or door number three?â€
The fighter studied the archways which led into the heart of Spellhold, each one light by simple flickering torchlight. Nothing seemed especially inviting or special about any of them.
â€œNumber two, I guess.â€
â€œNorth it is. Ah Hellâ€¦ waitâ€¦â€ Imoen put down the sack and glanced over her shoulder at the three small objects which had fallen out during her rifling through the bag. â€œJust a sec.â€
She crossed back over to the doorway through which Cassandra had so indelicately entered and knelt to scoop up the objects. A small tin container which smelled slightly of ash, one of the handful of rations which sheâ€™d discovered, and a small book.
A spellbook? Thatâ€™d be useful. She flipped it open to the first page.
I failed her. I failed her completely. I promised Iâ€™d take care of her, never leave her side, get her free of that madman; she trusted me to do it.
She closed the book instantly and glanced over her shoulder at Cassandra. Her foster sister was adjusting one of the straps on her greaves.
Imoen pursed her lips in a momentâ€™s hesitation. It was Cassieâ€™s handwriting. Sheâ€™d stolen her share of diaries in Candlekeep and read them all with giggling enjoyment, but they were adults now, and with all that had happened she was sure that they both had thoughts theyâ€™d prefer to keep private. But with all that had happened, all that could happenâ€¦ they might not have time to catch up on â€˜old times.â€™ Bodhi hadnâ€™t said how long her hunt would last.
â€œImoen, come on.â€
â€œComing, coming!â€ She slipped the book into her pocket, mentally cursing herself as she did so. She gathered the other two items in her hands and rushed back over to the sack, stuffing them inside.
â€œOkay, Iâ€™m ready.â€ She ensured the sack was firmly closed this time and hefted it over her shoulder. â€œPoint the way, fearless leader.â€
Cassandra glanced at her with a small frown and sighed as she turned towards the northern arch. â€œI wish you werenâ€™t so confident in me.â€
â€œHey, itâ€™s all Iâ€™ve got.â€
Stay tuned for Chapter 1, part 2 on Monday!
Edited by tcdale, 20 July 2009 - 01:47 AM.