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Crumbling Down


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#1 tcdale

tcdale
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Posted 01 April 2009 - 12:13 AM

Just a short post to let people know that "Crumbling Down" is finally making its re-appearance on the Internet. I've spent the last few weeks going back through the original chapters and re-editing them, trying to clean out the typos, plot holes, syntactic weirdness, etc., with an eye towards eventually continuing the story once I'm done with the re-edits.

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 Hull’s good-natured shouting to the stink of Dreppin’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. She’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.

“Do not fight.”

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 keep’s outer grounds. Imoen, whom she’d spent the last month struggling, clawing, and ripping her way through Faerûn to find again – 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 it’d come.

“Imoen…” She sunk to her knees, the sound of her armor echoing against the walls, and took her sister’s hand in hers. “Imoen, I’m here.”

She was ignored. Imoen continued speaking in the same halting, far-away voice. “Do not fight. To fight is to lose. Come to me.”

“I’m here.” Cassie held the younger woman’s hand to her cheek, letting her feel the wetness there. “I’m here, I promise. I won’t leave again.”

“You cannot fight alone. Find me within.”

The faded watercolors of Imoen’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.

“No! Don’t leave me!”

Her sister’s form wavered, shimmered, and then tumbled into nothingness as the wind greedily stole the last precious shards.

“Imoen!” 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 wouldn’t stop the pain, but it would push it aside and make it manageable. Control would blunt the edge of despair’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 wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair to be so close, to have come so far, and be denied. It wasn’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. She’d find Imoen. And after that, she’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. ‘Within’ 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.

“Halt.”

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 library’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.

“This path is to the core, to the depths of your soul,” it said, the words clear and spoken with a polished accent despite the devilish face. “You must give of yourself to know yourself. Enlightenment requires—“ the fangs clicked together sharply, and the demon seemed to smile “—sacrifice.”

She tilted her head to the side, frowning as she studied him. He seemed solid enough, real enough. It’d be a very tight squeeze to get past him, though. “You can’t kill me,” she said at length. “I’m the dreamer here, not you.”

“I can’t kill you,” it agreed, clicking its teeth together again. The wings flexed as it inhaled deeply, seeming to scent the air. “And demons do not dream.”

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.

“Step aside,” 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. “Sacrifice. Then you may gain entrance.”

It’d admitted it couldn’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 — giving something to her own imagination, in order to continue her own dream. Nonetheless, Cassandra’s many brushes with magic made her suspect it was wise to comply.

“What do you want, then, as this… sacrifice?”

It seemed to settle down when faced with cooperation, and slowly returned to its former, less-threatening position. “It’s not what I want, Bhaalspawn. It’s what you want.”

“What I want is for you to let me into the library,” she growled irritably.

It laughed again, a short chuckle, and then shook its head with an animal smile. “You do not understand, Child of Bhaal, and that is why you have brought me here. You don’t want that at all.”

She tightened her grip on the hilt of her sword. “I think I know what I want, devil.”

“Yes,” it agreed. “You do think… but you don’t really know.”

“Then how about you enlighten me before I tire of your games?” she said, raising the sword once more.

“Idle threats are unbecoming, Child,” it rumbled, lowering itself further and twisting its snout into a grin. “Especially from one like you. But do you truly wish to be enlightened?”

“If it gets you out of my way.”

The yellow eyes narrowed, and the demon let out its bizarre laugh once more. “Very 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 – they are what give you strength.”

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.

“Imoen!” Her voice resounded off the shelves of books and vault-like walls, booming like thunder. “Imoen!”

“Here.” Cassandra turned her head towards the direction of the voice, and spotted a familiar figure in the northeast quarter of the library’s main foyer. “Over here…”

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.

“I… I can see you there,” her sister said, her voice soft and without echo even in the empty chamber.

“I’m here, Im. What’s wrong?”

The girl held a finger to her lips. “Shhhh. Before the shadows return to me. I’ve seen…. I’ve seen…” Her voice trembled and quavered. “Lead the creature here. Lead it to me, and we shall fight it together. He does not expect us together.”

Cassandra shook her head. “No. I’ll do it. Tell me how, and I’ll do it.”

“One alone cannot win.” Imoen closed her eyes and turned her head away. “Alone you would fall, win or lose.”

“I will not risk you,” she retorted, voice rising. “I’ve done that too often!”

The grey eyes opened, and the trembling voice was now strong. “Go. Lead the beast here.”

“Imoen!”

“Go, Cassie. For us both.”

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 wasn’t the real Imoen. It wasn’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 horizon… 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. “You there! Hey!”

The figure’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 monster’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. She’d met him many times before, in dreams fouled with fear and in more nightmares than she could recall.

“Fall to your knees!” the warrior thundered.

She drew her sword. Imposing or not, it was still her dream. “Fall to yours.”

It provoked the reaction she’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 fall… 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 she’d expect from a dream. Her foe’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.

“You cannot run from yourself,” the warrior warned as he advanced, once again raising the giant sword. “You cannot defeat yourself. I am the blood! I am the instinct!”

She rolled out of the way as the blade bit deep into the earth where she’d lain and tore loose clots of dirt when it was yanked free. Suddenly she wasn’t so positive that it wouldn’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 wasn’t so eager to put the avariel’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. She’d given the man a face full of steel and he’d not even blinked. He’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 Imoen’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 hadn’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.

“Imoen!” She made her way over to the figure at the back of the library. “What do I do?” When she reached her younger sister, she turned once more to check on the warrior’s progress. He was heading towards the pair unerringly, with murder in his eyes.

“Now!” Imoen pointed at the advancing swordsman. “It is within my sight. I will add my will to yours!”

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.

“How do you stand?” he demanded, reeling backwards. “I should devour you!” The blade of her sword slid off his chestplate with a shower of sparks and the screech of metal against metal.

“I have help,” she informed him, and shifted to strike again. Once again the blade dove into the gap of the helmet’s face plate, and this time she knew the wound would kill. She left the sword there, buried inside the man’s head, and released the hilt as she backed away.

“Help?” 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. “You are empty inside. There is nothing left. Nothing but me.”

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 they’d all betrayed her. “Something’s wrong,” she breathed. “Something’s wrong!”

Imoen’s breath started coming harder and faster as panic enveloped her, and she pushed Cassie violently away. “I- no- Not again! Not again!” 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.

“Well, you are a strong one indeed!”

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.

“You resist beyond all reason.” The pride in his voice dipped into smug satisfaction. “A pity you are dead inside.”

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 ship’s captain Saemon had been in his employ. When she’d been locked in this damnable jar to begin with, before the mage’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. “Dead inside? I defeated your creature. Imoen and I defeated it, together.”

“I don’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.” Irenicus smiled. It was a tight and ugly sight. “I have drained you — drained you of the very thing that made you special. It is the worst of curses, and I should know.”

“Drained me of my Taint? You consider that a curse?”

“Hardly. 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.”

“You’re not the first to underestimate me, Irenicus.”

“Oh really?” He approached the glass, the cold amusement clear in his dead black eyes. “Imoen has also been stripped of her soul. She has withered, and she is dying. I think you would agree.”

Her mind flashed back to how Imoen had seemed when they had discovered her in Spellhold. She’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.

“If you’ve hurt her, I will kill you,” she hissed.

“I have no doubt you would,” he agreed, “but you are no longer a living threat. Bodhi!”

The svelte, pale form of the vampire materialized from the shadows of the room and crossed to the mage’s side.

“Remove this nothing,” he instructed, gesturing to the captive woman. “And Imoen as well. We no longer need them.”

Bodhi smiled sweetly at Cassandra, no doubt enjoying the reversal of fortunes since her last defeat. “As you would have it, brother.”

He turned his attention to her once more and made a small, elegant gesture of departure. “Farewell, Child of Bhaal. We shall not meet again.”

“Irenicus!” He strode out of the room, ignoring her call. “Irenicus!” She slammed her fists ineffectively against her prison walls. “I WILL HAVE YOUR HEAD, MAGE!”

The dark-haired vampiress sighed and lazily drew her clawed fingernail across the glass. It etched a fine line into its surface. “Such bravado. Such fire. Such a waste.”

She clapped her hands sharply and within seconds two more vampiric minions appeared. Cassandra tried to follow Bodhi’s motions as she manipulated the jar’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 human’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.

Bodhi’s nose wrinkled in distaste, and a brief gesture from her had Cassandra dragged from the glass container and thrown like a children’s doll from the platform to the room’s floor. The impact kicked the breath from her lungs and another swift punch to her stomach brought tears to her eyes.

“Don’t kill her. Not yet.”

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.

“Are you alright?”

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.

“…Imoen?”

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. “Yeah, it’s me. You’re a sight for sore eyes, I tell ya.”

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 Cassandra’s hair. The wetness of tears touched her neck.

“Cass, I thought I’d never see you again.”

She hugged her tighter and rested her cheek against her sister’s. Her own tears threatened to make words impossible. “I came as fast as I could, I swear.”

“I know.” Imoen returned the squeeze. “I knew you’d find me.”

“Are you alright? Did he hurt you?”

Imoen pulled away slowly, a weak, forced smile barely curving her lips. “Don’t worry about me. Look at you!” The smile vanished as Imoen really did look at her, and took count of the cuts, slashes, and scars. “Holy crap, Cass, are you alright?”

She levered herself into a sitting position, grimacing again as bones shifted in ways they shouldn’t have. “I’m fine. Help me up.”

Imoen did so to the best of her abilities, despite her smaller stature. Her hands steadied the fighter from behind. Cassie’s stomach twisted again as the world tilted and spun from a wave of nausea.

“Cassie…” Imoen cupped her sister’s face in her hands, fixating her with stormy grey eyes. “You are not fine.”

“I will be. Just help me, like in the dream.”

“Dream?”

“That– that ritual he just did. The dream. You helped me kill the warrior in the library.”

“What?” Confusion and concern furrowed her brow. “I had no dream in my ritual. The whole thing was an unbearable nightmare… but I had no dreams at all. It was just blackness, all around me, and this pain like I was being ripped apart. I … I—“

She shook her head, clearing away the dark memories which had spawned, and dropped her hands from Cassandra’s face. “I’m sorry. The things he showed me. They were… they were so black and horrid. And the feelings he evoked in me were even worse.”

Cassie’s jaw tightened. Her eyes flickered back to the doorway, beyond which the ritual had taken place. Beyond which was Irenicus. “He tortured you.”

She shuddered, a tremble running visibly through her body. “‘Torture’ doesn’t even come close. …you know, he– he said he took my soul…”

Cassandra hugged her close again, offering what comfort she could. “I don’t think that’s possible.”

“I’m not so sure…” She looked down at her hands, curling her fingers experimentally. “I’ve been getting a lot weaker, Cass. I don’t know how much time has passed since he… since he did whatever he did. But the effects are real.”

“Then we’ll find a way to stop it.”

“I hope so. He did the same to you, you know.” She sighed, flexing her hands one last time. “If we don’t reverse what was done, we’ll probably both die.”

An amused feminine voice spoke from above. “Oh, beyond a doubt.”

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. “Family reunion — so touching.”

“What do you want?” Imoen demanded. “Haven’t you done enough?”

“And she still has a spark.” Bodhi’s smile widened, her eyes focused on Imoen with a perverse hunger. “Fading so quickly, though. It’s a pity; you’ve proven resilient beyond all expectations. It is… appealing… to me.”

“We aren’t here to entertain you!”

“Oh, but you are,” she corrected. “My amusement is all that is keeping you alive. Irenicus wishes you dead, and he is very rarely denied his wishes.”

“Irenicus this, Irenicus that – you think too highly of him,” Cassandra spit back at her. “Get down here and do it, if that’s his demand.”

The unearthly beauty of her face darkened in a frown. “It is his demand, but I am not his lapdog, and now you are subject to my whim, not his.”

“Oh joy.” Imoen rolled her eyes.

Bodhi ignored her. She adjusted her position on the railing. “Your 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.” Her smile returned. “I will make your death glorious, as well as entertaining.”

“If you want to kill me, kill me. I will not play this game.”

“Oh, but you will, Cassandra. You have no choice. You’ll run my maze like the good little mice you are.” She stepped away from the balcony and retreated into the blackness of Spellhold’s walls. “The hunt begins.”

Cassandra sighed heavily, running her left hand through her hair. “You know, I’d love to go just one god-damned week without someone trying to kill me. Just one.”

“I think she meant it,” Imoen said, voice serious. “Spellhold is one big maze designed to separate the insane from the ‘merely deviant’. We’ll be lucky to survive running from her, much less fighting her.”

Another sigh, and another reflexive run of her fingers through the crimson waves. “I need time to think, then, time to plan. We should get moving. Maybe we can find some make-shift weapons or –“ Her eyes caught the two sackcloth bags which had been thrown in after her. “What’s in those sacks?”

“Sacks? What—oh.” 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. “Huh?”

“That’s my armor.” Cassandra knelt beside her and quickly helped her empty the contents of the bag. Her chain shirt, greaves, boots — dirty and bloody, but functional. “It’s all here,” she breathed in amazement. “All of it, even my sword.”

Imoen’s tone was doubtful. “I guess she wants us to have a fighting chance.”

“Check the other one.” Cassandra started buckling on what of the protective leather and metal she could by herself as Imoen rummaged through the other container.

“Uh…cloth? A robe, I think. Couple of rations – at least we won’t starve – no water though. A key. A teddy bear? What the Hell?”

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. “I found it,” she muttered. “Thought it might be important.”

“Oh, so it’s not for me?”

“Umm.. sure. I guess.”

The fiery eyebrow arched higher.

“Er… of course it’s for you. That’s why I got it in the first place. Cheer you up.”

Imoen’s lips curved into a mischievous smile. “Thanks. I appreciate it.” 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. “Nice recovery, by the way.”

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. “You should– We should go.”

“Okay. I’ll get the bag, you’re carrying enough as is.” She shouldered the pack, oblivious to the reaction to her teasing. “Door number one, door number two, or door number three?”

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.

“Number two, I guess.”

“North it is. Ah Hell… wait…” 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. “Just a sec.”

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 she’d discovered, and a small book.

A spellbook? That’d be useful. She flipped it open to the first page.


Day 1

I failed her. I failed her completely. I promised I’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 moment’s hesitation. It was Cassie’s handwriting. She’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 they’d prefer to keep private. But with all that had happened, all that could happen… they might not have time to catch up on ‘old times.’ Bodhi hadn’t said how long her hunt would last.

“Imoen, come on.”

“Coming, coming!” 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.

“Okay, I’m ready.” She ensured the sack was firmly closed this time and hefted it over her shoulder. “Point the way, fearless leader.”

Cassandra glanced at her with a small frown and sighed as she turned towards the northern arch. “I wish you weren’t so confident in me.”

“Hey, it’s all I’ve got.”

===============

Stay tuned for Chapter 1, part 2 on Monday! :blush:

Edited by tcdale, 20 July 2009 - 01:47 AM.

TC Dale: Fantasy & Fiction
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#2 tcdale

tcdale
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Posted 06 April 2009 - 09:30 AM

Crumbling Down has been updated! Chapter 1, part 2

Warnings in This Chapter: Graphic violence against undead.
Rating This Chapter: PG-13 or maybe R for violence.

Excerpt:

They’d explored for nearly two hours before increasingly frequent bouts of nausea had doubled Cassie over twice in ten minutes. Imoen had declared it time to stop for the night. The young mage had scouted out an empty room, some manner of fabric storeroom it seemed, and they’d decided that sleep was worth the risk. As Imoen had pointed out over her foster-sister’s objections, sleeping might get them killed – exhaustion would get them killed.

“Do you think we’ll make it?”

Cassandra glanced back from the door as she levered the make-shift bar into place. She gave the door a hard, experimental tug. “I don’t know.” It rattled but remained in place. “Guess it depends on how good a hunter Bodhi is.”

“Y’know, if she weren’t such a bitch, she’d be beautiful.”

She cast back another questioning glance. “Who, Bodhi? Beautiful?”

“Yeah, y’know, good-looking.” Imoen was seated next to the far wall, in the space between two large rolls of colorful cloth, digging through the pack of supplies which had accompanied Cassandra into Spellhold. She didn’t look up as she spoke. “Believe me, both their faces are permanently etched into my head. Bodhi’s got this look, y’know? She’s really gorgeous, like some gothic Sunite priestess almost, but she’s such a bitch.”

“Ever tell her that?”

“Umm… once. After that I dropped the ‘beautiful’ part and just went straight to ‘bitch.’”

“And why are you telling me this?”

She pulled out a tubular leather case and eyed it with curiosity. “What’s this?”

“Scroll case, I think.”

“Scrolls?” Her eyes lit up and she immediately unclasped the lock to get at the parchments within. “And I’m just trying to make conversation. I don’t really know what to talk about, I guess,” she admitted. “This isn’t exactly a normal reunion.”

“Yeah, I know what you mean.”

Pale pink lips pursed together in a low whistle of appreciation as she flipped through the scrolls. “You’re a life-saver, Cass. Where’d you get these?” She glanced up at last, and her eyes flashed when she saw the fighter still adjusting the barricade. “And what are you still doing standing up? Sit down already!”

Cassandra gave the door one last tug. It was as sturdy as it would ever be. Hopefully it’d be enough. Whatever came to get them would have to bust down the door to get in.

She crossed the twelve feet to her companion and began the laborious process of unbuckling and untying the pounds of armor which she’d put on a few hours earlier. “Just ran across them on the way. I had Nalia – mage I met on the way, nice girl, you’d’ve liked her – look them over and tell me which ones were the best. I figured they’d come in handy.”

“Definitely! If we can get a good night’s sleep – well, a good week’s sleep – then between your sword and my magic we could give Bodhi a run for her money.” Imoen’s eyes flickered upward from the scrolls again. “Don’t take that off! We just got it on you.”

“What do you want me to do, sleep in it?”

“Yes! What if we’re attacked?”

“Do you have any idea how much this weighs? There’s no possible way I can sleep in it.”

“Sure you can. Just find a comfortable position.”

Cassie sighed. “Imoen—“

“Sit!” Her hand snuck up and grasped the redhead’s wrist, giving her an insistent pull. She smiled in satisfaction when the her sibling complied. “Good girl.”

“I really can’t sleep in this,” Cassandra objected, wincing slightly at the sound of stone-against-metal as she wriggled to find even a decent way to sit in eighty pounds of armor. “It’s impossible.”

“Would you just hush?” Imoen said. “I’m going to have to study these scrolls all night to get them memorized by morning.”

“I thought you needed sleep?”

She shrugged, brushing her own red waves back behind her ear. The two friends shared a similar coloring, though Cassie’s hair was shot through with strands of blond which gave it a fire-like look, while Imoen’s was a rich, dark auburn. “One of us will have to keep watch, and you’ve been through a Hell of a lot more than me. Today, at least.”

“I told you, I can’t sleep—“

“Geez, I heard you the first time!” Imoen placed aside the scrolls with an annoyed sigh and shot her foster-sister a dark look. The anger dissipated immediately and with an apologetic smile she scooted closer to the seated woman and patted the leather on her leg.

“Hey, I’m sorry. I just—well, you’re here, right? Because you came, I’m free tonight. And maybe it’s just for tonight, but it’s something. I just want to make the best of it, y’know?”

“Fine. Let’s talk then.”

“About what?”

Cassandra shrugged. “Anything. Pick a subject.” Anything would be better than sitting and dwelling on just how bad the situation was.

Imoen pursed her lips thoughtfully, going silent for several minutes. When she finally spoke her voice had become soft and her expression completely serious. “You really took your time coming to rescue me, didn’t you?”

Her eyebrow shot up in surprise. “What?”

“I mean– don’t get me wrong, Cass, I’m incredibly grateful.” Imoen tucked her hair back behind her ears, a nervous gesture she’d had since childhood. “But it felt like an eternity just waiting, wondering if you’d arrive.”

Cassandra’s lips drew together as well, her defensive ire slowly subsiding. That hadn’t been a topic she’d expected. She turned several possible answers over in her mind, discarding most of them. Imoen didn’t need to know everything. Not even most of it. Especially after what’d she’d been through.

“I didn’t really know where to start looking for you.” She spoke slowly and stuck to the basics. “I had to pay twenty-thousand gold just to find out you were in Spellhold, then I had to charter a boat to the island and figure out how to get into the damn place.”

Grey eyes widened. “Twenty thousand gold? Where’d you get all that cash?”

More memories better left buried. Cassie faked a smile. “C’mon, you don’t need to concern yourself about those things. Just know that I got all of it.”


Full text of Chapter 1, part 2
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#3 Guest_Guest_TCDale_*_*

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Posted 10 April 2009 - 05:39 AM

Just as a small note -- I'm going on vacation next week, but if all goes well, the next part of Crumbling Down should be available on my website on Monday regardless. However, since I won't actually have internet access until Monday the 20th, I won't be able to announce it / post it here. But, I'll let y'all know when I"m back :)

#4 tcdale

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Posted 20 April 2009 - 02:06 AM

I'm back! Ugh. What a vacation :) As promised, Crumbling Down kept posting, and the second half of Chapter 2 is now available. In fact, it's right here! If you missed the first half of Chapter 2, you'll need to go to my webpage to catch up.


Crumbling Down, Chapter 2 "Fame and Fortune" - Part 2

Warnings / Spoilers for this part: None.


The commoner was where the ogre had said he’d be, to the northern side of the chamber, and he did indeed have the sword strapped to his thigh. The two warriors approached with confident stride, blades held low, and Cassandra offered a smile as she drew near.

“Could I borrow your blade a moment, sir?”

He lunged forward, an inhuman growl roaring from his throat. The attack was amateurish at best, and Cassie easily avoided it. She side-stepped his grab, lifted her sword, and brought the blade down across the nape of his neck. The head fell to the floor with a wet thunk, and she scooped the sword out of the body’s grasp before it too could clatter to the ground.

“Cassandra! Decapitating him was not necessary.”

She shrugged. “You trust the ogre, so I trust the ogre. The ogre said this is a monster.” She kicked the man’s head, which rolled to a stop several feet away. “Let’s hope it – she – is right.”

Green eyes narrowed. “For your sake, or else you’ve just become a murderer.”

“We’re warriors, Jaheira. Murder is what we do.”

“Cleansing the land of aberrations is not ‘murder’,” she stated flatly, falling into step behind her companion as they returned to where the ogre stood.

“Every monster we slay has a family. Do you ever stop to think of how many goblin children you have orphaned in your lifetime?”

“That is not the same.”

It was the same. She might not have been able to explain it as eloquently as a priest or philosopher, but murder was one thing Cassandra understood in a most intimate fashion. It was part of her essence, part of her very soul. She didn’t feel like debating it, though; now was not the time. They could argue morality later.

She called out to the creature as they approached. “Ogre!”

“You–you have the key! Or, rather, the sword! Please– please give it to me and I can be rid of this illusionary form at last!”

Well, here goes… She switched her grip to the blade of the sword and lay the flat of it across her forearm, hilt facing the beast in the traditional manner. It reached for the blade with more restraint than she’d expected. As the massive fingers enveloped it, a ripple of distortion flowed outwards, causing the entire scene to shake and tremble as if viewed through a film of water.

“My–my hands… my skin, it’s real again! Thank Baervar!” The ogre’s form wavered in the strange ripple and slowly dissolved into a faint mist of color. Beneath the facade was indeed a young woman, with long blond hair and vivid blue eyes. An elf, judging from the ears. “Oh, we must find Quayle! And stop Kalah before he does any more harm!”

“We?” Cassandra caught the girl’s shoulder as she started to turn towards the marble bridge. The last thing they needed as some wide-eyed innocent stumbling around in a sword fight. “You can wait outside. Or, um, where ‘outside’ used to be. We’ll take care of the rest.”

“Are—are you sure? I do know some magic, and—“

“We’re sure.” The redhead gave her a light push back towards the entrance of the building. “Wait outside.”

The girl obediently exited the room, leaving the two fighters free to approach the chamber’s man-made lake. A second person stood upon the ornate walkway, near the exit of the room: an extremely well-endowed woman in extremely revealing clothing.

“Welcome to Kalah’s realm,” she greeted them. “Be thee not of impure mind for surely Lord Kalah shall destroy thee. Kalah is the one Ruler, the One True Being.”

Jaheira snorted her disdain. Cassandra rolled her eyes. “Really, now?” the half-elf asked. “Where can we find this Kalah?”

“Worry not, Lady, for Kalah has already found thee. Continue on thy path and if thou shouldst find favor in Kalah’s eyes then thou shalt surely be granted an audience.”

Cassie edged past the woman with a displeased scowl. Jaheira followed close behind.

“Apparently Kalah has quite an ego,” Jaheira noted. “Almost as large as yours.”

Cassandra gave her a rude gesture, which only served to make the druid smile. “Anyone who needs some half-dressed tart to sing their praises is more self-absorbed than me.” She paused before the entrance to the next chamber. “Hey, Jah, maybe you should do some of that nature magic on us. There could be just about anything in there.”

“Yes, there could — which is why I will wait and see what we are facing before I go idly wasting magic.”

“Eh… well, any ideas on how to fight illusions?”

“You could close your eyes.”

Cassie blinked in surprise. “Really?”

Jaheira fixed her with an icy glare. “Surely even you can’t be that naive.”

“But—“

Jaheria threw the curtain open before Cassandra could finish her sentence. The next room was exposed; a lush den of finery, covered in rich, plush carpet. Bookcases lined the walls, filled to the brim with tomes of all sorts, but the large couches in the middle of the room were better suited for sleeping rather than reading. Pillows of all shape and size were piled upon them, soft and inviting – quite unlike the denizens which stood nearby.

Half a score of large, feral beasts leap up from their resting places. Cassandra recognized them instantly as werewolves; she’d dealt with enough of their kind before. Mixed in among the beasts were a number of slim, almost shadow-like forms which seemed to have no matching bodies. The shadows moved independently of the werewolves, independently of the light in the room, in ways that no natural shadow ever could. These, too, made their way towards the women.

A hand on her shoulder pulled her to her left. Jaheira had spotted the staircase which she had not, and now was mounting the steps. It was the only visible exit from the room other than the way they’d come. Cassandra looked back at the approaching foes, taking a quick and cursory count. Twelve against two; running was the better option. She darted up the stairs.

Halfway up the stairs, a familiar swirl of color and wind manifested, solidifying into the form of a muscular human man. “Kalah awaits—“

Cassandra shoved past him and knocked him hard against the rail as she raced for the exit. “Fucking genie,” she hissed under her breath.

Jaheira slammed into the door with her shoulder and burst it open easily. The next room appeared to be a study of some sort or a private office. Just in front of the large table by the far wall stood a tall, blueish-skinned creature. Its body was heavily muscled, its lower jaw protruding slightly with pointed canine-like teeth. It resembled the ogre-illusion they’d encountered downstairs, but taller and much less primitive in appearance. Around it stood a menagerie of the same lycanthropes and shadow-beasts that they’d encountered moments ago.

“You dare invade my realm?” it bellowed.

“You must be Kalah,” Cassie said.

“Indeed. And I am god in this world!” The ogrekin raised an accusing finger towards them. “At them, my shadows! Rip them apart!”

The legion of beasts advanced in a maelstrom of howls and screams. Cassie had to shout to be heard over the chaos. “Jah, get Kalah! I’ll take care of these!”

The woman gave the briefest of nods to signal that she had heard. The red-haired fighter raised her sword to ready position and screamed a war cry at the approaching horde. A few of them split away to follow the half-elf, but the shout drew the majority of the attention to Cassie. They descended on her en masse.

Some of the beasts were doubtlessly illusions, she knew – but Kalah would not be so foolish as to employ non-existant bodyguards. Some of them had to be real. As the flurry of snarls and claws closed in, Cass tried desperately to pick out some visual signal, some clue or flaw in the illusion, which would reveal which were the actual threats and which were merely distractions.

The first blow passed cleanly through her. The clawed hand struck and sunk into her chest, eliciting a reflexive attempt for her to yank away. Cassie’s heart stopped and her breath froze for a split second as she waited for the agony of rent flesh to burn through her nerves… but the hand withdrew again, unbloodied. The monster lashed out again, and again the attack was nothing but air. No pain. Her heart started beating again.

Something lashed across her cheek, and this time it hurt. She whirled around to face her attacker, but the throng of forms around her made it impossible to tell which one had struck her. So some of them were real – real enough to rip flesh. The fighter could feel a thin trickle of blood trailing down her neck. Another lunged at her with wide-open jaws, only to vanish when the teeth closed around her arm; another flash of pain raced up her thigh as one of the seething beasts tore through the armor there.

Jaheira’s form was blocked from view by the whirlwind of snarling and snapping beasts; Cassandra had no way to tell if the situation would last seconds or minutes more. A third gash opened across the left side of her ribs and she swung her sword at the area where the attacker should have been. It whistled through empty air.

Even if only one of the creatures was real, if she could not defend herself from it this would be a very short fight. How did you fight an enemy you couldn’t see? Or rather, too many enemies that you could see? She closed her eyes, trying to block out the chaos and gather some measure of control. There had to be a way. Something dug into her chest, sharp points blunted by the protective mail, and with a snarl she drove her blade to where the opponent should be. This time her blade struck home.

Cass opened her eyes in surprise and then clenched them closed once more. Keep your eyes closed, Cass. Jaheira had said it in jest, but it could work. The warrior could not fight by sight or sound, but the sense of touch could still serve. She pulled the sword out of her attacker and instantly thrust it forward again, again meeting resistance as it bit into flesh. With a rough twist she withdrew it, eyes still shut, and crouched into a ready position as she tried to determine the now-unseen world around her.

A hoarse masculine scream sounded from the forward-left. She turned to face it, sword still at the ready, but no attack came. Instead there was a fit of coughing and wheezing, followed by a higher-pitched male voice.

“No! This isn’t what was supposed to happen!”

Cassandra cracked one eye open, risking a glimpse. The office chamber and its creatures were gone, replaced instead by the mundane interior of the old circus tent. Dazed and bewildered patrons stood scattered about the area amid gambling tables and cheap trinkets. On the floor lay the speaker, a small dwarfish-looking man with bloody froth around his lips and a large bloodstain on his chest. Jaheira stood over him with the scimitar pointed at his throat.

“You’ve– you’ve killed me,” he gasped. “Destroyed Kalah with your misplaced morals and beastly greed for adventure…”

“What has passed here?” asked Jaheira angrily. “You replaced the circus with your personal playground?” The tip of the blade pressed against the flesh of his throat.

“In this tent– in my world– Kalah was the master, where none would dare to laugh…”

“Fool,” she spat. “Nothing gives you the right to decide others’ lives.”

“I don’t think he can hear you anymore, Jaheira.” Cassandra approached and prodded Kalah with the tip of her blade. He didn’t move.

“All the better.” She looked the human fighter over, frowning displeasedly at the multiple fresh wounds. “You must be more careful, Cassandra. Fortunate for you that I am a healer.”

“Fighting things that don’t exist was harder than I thought it would be.”

“I’m fortunate for the distraction you gave those illusions. How did you fare?”

She shrugged. “Kept my eyes closed. It didn’t work just perfectly, but it worked.”

Elven eyes widened. “Kept your eyes– Cassandra, are you mad?” the druid exploded. “You idiot! If you cannot see, you cannot fight! What if one of these wounds had pierced the heart, or slit your throat?”

“Hey, you gave me the advice.”

“I—you—“ She took a deep breath and tried to calm her tone. “Child, if you were not already injured, I would hurt you.”

“Good thing I’m bleeding.”

The young blond elven girl they’d rescued from the illusion had crouched down to wrap her arms around an elderly, spectacled gnome. “Uncle Quayle, you’re okay!”

“Ha!” he replied. “I knew Kalah would trip over himself, eventually. I’m just pleased he despised me enough to play with me rather than dispose of me like some of the others!”

“Oh, Quayle!” the girl smiled, “what would I ever do without you? Oh!” She stood as she noticed the two warriors regarding her. “Uncle Quayle, th-these are the women who saved us!”

“Ah!” He held out his hand to each of them in turn. “Pleased to meet our saviors. My name is Quayle.”

“Jaheira.”

“Cassandra,” she replied, accepting the handshake. “Say, umm… do you know if there was a reward for this?”

“No, I’m sorry, I don’t know… You might ask the circus owner?” The gnome glanced around the tent. “Oh dear. He must have been …disposed of.”

“We are just happy to have helped,” Jaheira assured him, taking Cassie’s hand and leading her from the tent at a rapid pace. Once outside the druid’s hand flashed up and knocked her firmly upside the head.

“Ow! Jaheira!”

She hissed her disapproval. “Have you no manners, asking those people for a reward for their lives?”

Cassie glowered at her. “In case you forgot, I’m twenty-thousand short of what I need. If saving Imoen means being rude, then by the gods I’ll be rude!”

“You will attract far more flies with honey than with vinegar.”

“I need to attract coins, not bugs.”

“You know what I mean.”

The human rubbed her head for a few more moments as they walked. Dusk had started to descend while they were within the illusion, and by the time they had crossed the Promenade and re-entered the slums district, night had taken hold. The two stayed close together, posture straight and steps sure, keeping an eye out for any would-be bandits.

The Copper Coronet was still abuzz with activity when they arrived. Jaheira paid the barkeep for a room and both women retired for the night.


* * * * * * * * *


“Rise and shine.”

A blinding wash of light flooded over Cassandra’s face. “What the—“ She flung her arm over her eyes. “Bloody Hell, Jaheira. Close the curtains!”

The light stayed where it was. The druid’s characteristic accent answered her from somewhere in the room. “It is well past dawn, and our noble employer is growing impatient.”

“Fine, fine, FINE!” Cassie threw off the blanket and swung her feet onto the cold wooden planks of the floor. “I’m up.”

“You are sitting.”

She rose to her feet, giving the woman an icy glare from behind her still-shielded eyes. “See? Happy?”

Jaheira smiled. And gods damn her, she honestly looked pleased. Maybe druids rose and shone at dawn every morning, but Cassie, like most civilized folk, liked to sleep an extra hour or two. One of these days, she’d get up in the middle of the night and wake Jaheira up with a splash of cold water – just to do it. Then they’d see how happy she was when it was her sleep that was interrupted.

The mental tirade continued through the entirety of Cassandra’s morning routine. Only after she’d finished washing, combed her hair, and gotten dressed did the foul mood begin to subside. With two sets of hands the packing went swiftly, and within the hour they were ready to go — but not without a good meal first.

The two women descended the stairs together, each carrying their pack of belongings. The common room was mostly empty, with the majority of patrons having wandered back to their homes the night before, or still sleeping off their ale in a rented room. A young elven man was leaning up against the bar counter. His eyes brightened as Jaheira approached.

“Ah, I sense you have an earthy wisdom about you, my sweet elf.” He smiled at her, taking her hand in his and raising it to his lips. “I find that most sensual.”

Jaheira pulled her hand away with a scowl before his kiss could land. “Do you also find sensual my disdain for your disgusting manner?”

The rebuff didn’t damper his ardor. “Ah, such passion! You set me on fire with your words…” His gaze traveled appreciatively over the half-elf’s slim and muscular form. “And with your lovely body, as well.”

The druidess held up her hand, palm towards the ceiling, and a moment later a small flame burst to life in the center. She held it in front of the would-be suitor, making sure his widening eyes got a good look at it.

“I could set you on fire with more than that, if you truly wish.”

His jaw opened and closed several times before a stuttering voice finally emerged. “Well…er, no, not really…”

“The first thing of sense you have said.” She closed her fist, snuffing the flame out of existance. “Now stay out of my way.”

Cassandra chuckled and took a seat next to Lady De’Arnise at one of the almost-empty tables. “Good morning.”

“Good morning. Are you ready to go?”

“Almost. Breakfast first.”

The noble sighed. “Can’t you eat on the road? Or eat when we get there? Every moment we delay decreases our chances of success!”

“We’ll get there; don’t worry. An hour is not going to spell the difference between doom and glory.”

The brunette woman sighed again and began drumming her fingers against the surface of the table impatiently.

Jaheira returned a few minutes later and took a seat next to them. “Berard will have our food momentarily,” she said.

“Good, I’m starving.”

“People are dying while you are ‘starving!’”

Cassie arched an eyebrow, as did Jaheira. “Lady De’Arnise–” The noblewoman’s own eyebrow went up. “Nalia,” Cassie corrected with a roll of her eyes. “Stop being so damn overdramatic. We. Will. Be. There. Soon.”

The nervous drumming stopped, but the noble looked anything but pleased. “I should have hired someone else,” she muttered.

“Well feel free.”

“There’s no time,” she snapped back at the redhead. “Unfortunately, you’ll have to do.”

A soft sound of someone clearing their throat raised all three sets of eyes to a newcomer at the table. A human male stood dressed in shining and obviously-unused armor, smiling genteelly at the women.

“Fair ladies—“ he began, but got no further.

“Oh, by the horns of Silvanus!” Jaheira slammed her hands down on the table, causing all three onlookers to jump. “Did you not just hear what I said to that foppish elf over there? It is not even noon and yet you rut like a wild boar. We are not interested in your amateur advances!”

Nalia cleared her throat, casting the woman a cool, reproachful look. “I’m sorry, sir,” she said to the befuddled bearded man. “Please excuse her outburst. Can I help you?”

“Rut like…? Ah…yes, well…” He somehow managed to collect himself and started the entire spiel over again, now specifically addressing the noblewoman. “Milady, what brings you to this cesspool of filth and corruption?”

Cassie rolled her eyes. Paladin. Had to be.

“I try to help those less fortunate than myself,” the noble explained. “The Copper Coronet offers plenty of opportunities. We are about to leave on a quest to retake my lands from unwelcome invaders.”

“Fortune smiles upon our meeting, then, for I am Anomen, Warrior Priest of Helm, and a force dedicated to serving justice and righteousness.”

Jaheira choked and sputtered on her drink. Cassie slapped her back sympathetically to clear her throat. “Oh—oh by the gods—“

“Should you desire to walk the path of virtue,” he continued, still addressing the noble, “then my virtuous and strong arm will be lent to your protection.”

“I would be extremely honored, Sir Anomen,” Nalia gushed. “This expedition needs a fighting man like yourself at the head. Would you be able to leave today? Within the hour?”

“Absolutely, milady.”

“What—wait a minute!” Cassandra objected. “A fighting man at the head? I can tell you right now that Jaheira and I have more battle experience than this man, and you’re not only going to hire him, but put him in charge?”

“That’s precisely what I’m doing,” the brunette responded coldly. “He at least understands the importance of helping people in an expedient and punctual manner!”

“I will be in charge here,” Cassie informed her. “That is how it is.”

“I am in charge here! You seem to forget who hired whom!”

“Gentlewomen, if I may… if the matter is urgent perhaps we should discuss this on our way to the Lady’s lands?”

Jaheira shook her head. “Our breakfast has not arrived.”

He made a sound of dismissive disgust. “A true warrior is not a glutton to be led around by his stomach! We can eat on the way; time is of the essence when dealing with evil-doers!”

Nalia rose from the table, and her stern gaze informed the two women that it was time for them to do the same. They did so unwillingly, trading conspiratory glances.

“He’s right,” she said. “Finally somebody understands. We need to leave now before the situation gets any worse!”

Anomen hoisted his pack onto his shoulder. If he had any other belongings he made no mention of it. He walked past the two female fighters with a slight sniff of disdain.

Cass swore the most vile curse she knew. “She can’t be serious. He has probably never seen a battle more serious than a practice duel.”

“Doubtlessly,” Jaheira agreed. “Still – she did hire us, and if you wish to save Imoen it might be wise to coddle her wishes. He may prove useful.”

“As a talking packhorse. Maybe if we play the part of frail maidens, we can get him to carry our stuff.”

The honey-blond elf smiled and winked at her. “Now you are on the correct train of thought.”
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#5 tcdale

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Posted 26 April 2009 - 09:41 PM

It is Monday, and as such it is time for another installment of Crumbling Down. Today we move on to Chapter 3 -"The Darker Side of Me" - part 1. Clip below, full text on the website.

(And completely unrelatedly, yesterday was my 1 year anniversary with my girlfriend. Yay!)

Rating (this section): PG (maybe PG-13 for graphic violence)
Spoilers: Well, there's game spoilers, of course, but you should already know that.
Warnings: None, other than graphic violence. However, as a general warning... things don't get any pleasanter, so if you're already bothered, stop before Chapter 4. :)
Summary: Bodhi ends her hunt, but Cassandra is not easy prey now that Irenicus' ritual has unlocked her full Taint.


Imoen’s lips pursed into a small circle. She’d cracked the door open perhaps two inches and now stood studying something on the other side, outside Cassandra’s range of vision. “Cass… We have a problem.”

“What kind of problem?” She advanced slightly, only to be waved back by an abrupt motion of her sister’s hand.

“Don’t,” Imoen ordered. “Stay there.”

She stayed in place, but her hand reflexively went to the hilt of her sword. “What is it?”

“Someone rigged the door.” She blew a sharp breath from between her lips, lifting her bangs from her eyes. “Dammit, that means Bodhi was right outside last night and we didn’t even know it. Dammit, dammit, dammit.”

Cassie leaned to the side, trying to get a look whatever Imoen had noticed, but could see nothing. It was either too subtle for untrained eyes, or blocked by the woman’s body.

“Are you sure it as Bodhi?” she asked.

“Dunno. Can’t tell just from the trap.” Imoen had slipped two of her fingers into the gap of the open door and was now feeling around gingerly on the other side. “I’m just assuming on the basis of her general bitchitude.”

“Anything I can do?”

“Nah, just hold on a sec.”

She bit her lip and closed her eyes, shifting position slightly to give her a longer reach through the door without opening it any wider. After a minute of effort and a few more adjustments of her angle, she sighed and withdrew her arm.

“’Kay, we’re screwed.” She motioned Cassandra over and pointed to a spot on the door where a thin, almost invisible strand of metallic fiber had been attached. “That’s attached to the door and the wall using some sort of putty. Judging from the smell on my fingers, it’s heartwood sap, which means the wire is probably platinum.”

“Which means…?”

“Which means we’re screwed. That’s the material components necessary for lightning bolt. If we break that wire – or dislodge the putty – we’re gonna end up lit up like a Talosian parade.”

Cassie eyed the wire and the door it had effectively barred. “Can’t you disarm it? Or dispel it, or whatever you do to magic when you don’t want it around?”

“Not that easy, sis.” She pursed her lips again, eyeing the wire with annoyance. “I mean, yeah, I can disarm a trap, but I gotta have the proper tools, y’know? And I can dispel magic, but that assumes that it’s a fixed-state magical effect, not a trigger effect. Plus you gotta know the oppositional school of the flux – which in this case I do – and select the appropriate counter-weave to cancel it out. Which normally I could do, but anyways – like I said, it’s a trigger-effect spell.”

“Whoa, Im. Too many words.” Cassie tapped her temple. “Me dumb warrior, remember? You lost me at ‘fixed-state’ whatever-it-was.”

“See, this is why you should let me teach you magic,” she countered. “You could pick this up; you’re not stupid, Cass.”

“Yeah, and would I be able to do all this fluxing counter-triggering stuff?”

“Not right away, no.”

“So I’d still be useless in this situation. I’ll stick with the grunt work.”

“You might not be stupid, but you sure are stubborn, y’know that?” She tapped her fingers against her chin and resumed studying the door. “So I can’t disarm it, unless you happen to have a bishop’s flick on you.”

“Bishop’s flick?”

“Nevermind. And I can’t dispel it. So… we can either open the door and take a lightning bolt to the face, or we can find another way out of this room.”

Cassandra went to the nearest wall and examined it more closely. She already knew from last night’s scouting of the room that there wasn’t an obvious secondary exit, but that didn’t rule out the slim possibility of a hidden door. Unusual cracks in the masonry; mismatches in the color of the bricks or mortar; scratches along the floor – she checked for all of it, with Imoen doing the same along the opposite wall. The investigation took nearly 10 minutes, even working as a team, but when they both announced their lack of findings, they shared a pensive look.

“Well,” Cassie said reluctantly, “I guess we open the door.”

Imoen nodded, her face now somber. “Looks like.”
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#6 tcdale

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Posted 03 May 2009 - 10:55 PM

And..... Chapter 3, part 2 is up!

Warnings: Graphic violence and things getting disembowled. However, Chapter 4 is worse. Just as an advisory.

Excerpt:
----------------------------

Imoen’s free hand flashed up and struck her swift and hard across the cheek. The sharp snap of impact echoed down the empty hall. Her grey eyes were bright with rage. “I said don’t touch me!”

Cassie’s hand went to cover the vicious sting of her cheek as the mage once more turned and ignored her. Her eyes widened; suddenly a wave of heat flooded her and the entire world was narrowed down to the girl who now was walking away.

How dare she!

The black fury hit her like a tidal wave; it crashed down and nearly washed her away in its turbulent swell. She had the sword raised to strike and lips drawn back in a mute snarl before she realized what she was about to do. The rage was wiped from her face by shock, and she dropped the blade as if it were white-hot in her hands. Though it’d been silent when held, the enchantment was apparently restricted to Cassandra herself — it clanged and clattered harshly against the cold stone floor.

Imoen jumped, startled, and turned around. Her expression slowly changed from exasperation to confusion and finally concern as she saw Cassandra bent over, holding her hands to her temples, eyes clenched shut and face harsh with pain.

She deserves it. An image flashed through the warrior’s mind: Imoen’s face, bloodied and bruised, as she screamed and pleaded for mercy. Her blood quickened in excitement even as she tried to shake the image out of her head.

Stop it. Get out of my head.

She deserves it, it repeated, and the image expanded. The phantasmal sounds of fist meeting flesh resounded in her mind, the wet smack of bloodied knuckles, the screams of terror. No one uses you.

Dammit, get out of my head!

“Cassie?” Imoen approached her cautiously, leaning slightly to the side to better see her sister. “Y’okay?”

She shook her head and tried to back away and keep distance between them. She was definitely not okay. Her heartbeat pounded in her temples like a herd of wild horses and the sensation of fire within her stole the air from her lungs. It doubled her over, gasping for breath, as the burning expanded outwards and lunged towards the surface. Definitely not okay.

“C’mon, Cass, cut it out.” The redhead’s voice was nervous and uncertain. She took a few hesitant steps forward.

Cassandra shook her head more vehemently and motioned for her to stay back. Words reflexively came to her lips as she tried to speak through the arcane silence. Run. Stay back. Stay back!

Imoen paused in her approach, face now thick with doubt and worry.

The other voice now cut in, its volume and intensity amplified in her mind by the rising tide of unnatural rage. She never listens, it growled. Ungrateful, selfish, manipulative…

No. No!

The green-clad mage began whispering under her breath and extended her hand towards her sister. A soft bluish light appeared on the tips of her fingers.

Dammit, Im! The frustration from both voices combined and the resulting scream echoed inside her skull. For the gods’ sake for once in your pathetic life will you just listen– “–to me and RUN!”

Cassie’s head snapped upwards at the unexpected sound of her own voice, and Imoen jolted backwards. The harsh panting of her breath now rasped through the still air, and the faint sound of cracking and breaking was no longer masked by the spell. The fighter winced as an especially loud snap dislocated her shoulder. Black, alien eyes regarded Imoen from the face of a friend.

“Run, damn you,” Cassandra whispered, but the soft words soon escalated to a scream. “Run before I rip your god-damned head off, you bitch!”
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#7 tcdale

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Posted 18 May 2009 - 10:33 AM

I'm a bad person. Well, I'm not, really, but I've been busy. Nonetheless, Crumbling Down has updated, I just haven't had time to post the reminder here. But, here I am! So.... Crumbling Down has been updated!

Below is part of Chapter 5, part 1: "Beneath Midnight." If you haven't been following my website, you'll need to go back and read Chapter 4: "Broken". Warning, though: Chapter 4 is extremely "dark" and contains torture and various kinds of abuse. If you're faint of heart or easily upset, you might want to stop reading the story about now.

=====================

“Im…”

The mage turned around once more, and her eyes widened as her jaw literally dropped.

Cassie smiled with satisfaction as she held up the small copper key. “Found it.”

“Sweet! Lemme grab some of these books and we can blow this joint!”

“Don’t rush it. We have the key now; make sure you get the really good stuff before we leave.”

“Oh, I will,” she assured her. “But you can’t imagine how grateful I am to finally have a way out of here.”

“What about these?” Cassie had pocketed the key and now held up the strange bracer-bracelets.

Imoen reached out and took one, examined it briefly, and handed it back. “Bracers of protection. Good stuff, hang onto that.”

“How can you tell?”

“The runes, silly.”

“Oh.” She regarded them dubiously. “What do they do?”

“They protect you. Do you really want me to start explaining magical theory again?”

“Um… no.”

She grinned. “Thought so. Just put’em on.”

“Hrmph.” She went ahead and did as instructed – she seemed to be doing that a lot lately – and wriggled the metal bands onto her wrists. They fit decently enough, and felt like normal metal. She clicked them together a few times. Nothing happened. Hrm.

It was a few minutes before Imoen finished going through the books and ended up with a set of five to claim as her own. “Here,” she said, handing four of them to Cassie. “Help a girl out.”

Each of the things easily weighed five pounds, maybe closer to ten. “I am a girl,” she pointed out indignantly.

“Yeah, but I’m girlier, so I win.” She gave her a playful whack on the butt. “Giddyup. Let’s get out of here.”

They backtracked their way to the exit, where the impassive double doors awaited them in silence. Cassandra shot Imoen a smug smile and dumped the tomes back in her arms despite the squeak of protest. “Have to have my hands free for the doors.”

Imoen was probably glaring at her, but from behind the stack of arcane texts it was hard to tell. “Just open the door,” came the muffled response.

Cassie fished the copper key from her pocket and inserted it into the lock. It stuck, but after a small jiggle the slid home. She turned it and tried the handle.. and then blinked in surprise as it failed to open. She tried again, harder, but it made no difference. Frowning, she looked at the door, then turned the key the other way. Some sort of weird backwards lock? Another pull on the handle. Nothing. It failed to open.

“C’mon, these are heavy! What’s the hold up?”

Her frown deepened. Another pull on the handle, then another, and a third, with increasing frustration and force. “This isn’t the key. It’s not unlocking.”

“What?” The pile of books clattered to the floor. “What do you mean it’s not unlocking?” she demanded, coming over to the door. “That’s the key! These are the doors! This is the exit!”

“It’s not unlocking,” Cassie repeated, her voice rising slightly in response to Imoen’s accusatory tone. “You try!”

“Fine. Move.” Imoen knelt down and withdrew the key, studied it with a deep frown, then re-inserted it into the lock. She turned it first one way, then the other, with no more success than her sister.

“Great,” she hissed and dropped down to her knees. She brushed her hair back behind her ears and placed one against the metal lockplate. She turned the key again, seemingly randomly back and forth several times, before finally yanking it out of the keyhole and throwing it against the door in disgust. It ping’d off the hardwood and clinked onto the floor.

“It’s not the right key,” she confirmed sourly. “It’s not even catching the tumblers. It’s the wrong key. It’s the wrong god-damned key!”

“There’s got to be another key then,” Cassie reasoned. She knelt and retrieved the key. “Or another door.”

“A few hundred doors,” Imoen grumbled.

“Another key, then. Locks have keys. That’s how they work.” She sighed and ran her fingers through her red waves. They hadn’t been to the torture chamber yet. Dammit. That was the last place she wanted to go, and perversely probably the exact place she needed to.

“This sucks.” Imoen sighed as well, plopping down to the floor and picking up the books again. “What about that other door?”

“Which one?”

“In the study. Did we check that?”

The image of Irenicus’ office flashed back into her mind, zooming in automatically to the door that had been set into the rear wall, next to the bookcases, behind the desk. The one they hadn’t checked.

They exchanged looks, then as one scrambled to their feet, gathered up the remaining tomes, and dashed back to the study as fast as possible. Imoen reached it first and this time had the presence of mind to set the books on the desk before turning to her sister and raiding her pockets. She fetched forth the key without askance or apology, and went immediately over to the door. She sank to her knees and inserted the key with trembling hands and turned it.

“Cass—Cass, it’s not working! It’s not catching these tumblers either!”

Cassandra frowned and motioned her aside, then took hold of the knob and turned it sharply. It rotated freely, unlocked, and the door glided open noiselessly – and with the key still held in Imoen’s fingers.

Imoen pursed her lips, got to her feet, and walked through the door. She gave her sister a murderous glare. “Don’t say it.”

Cassie retrieved the key from the lock, tucked it in her pocket, and gave her the sweetest smile she could.

(Read the rest at http://www.g2n.be/tc...g-down-5-1.html)
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#8 tcdale

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Posted 25 May 2009 - 12:56 AM

Chapter 5, part 2 is up and available! Link is here, first section of the text is below. Chapter 5, part 2 "Beneath Midnight".

Warnings for this section: None, but do you get to see Cassie get undressed!

Chapter 6 will likely (about an 80% chance at present) be delayed a week or two. My master's thesis and both of my final exams are ALL due in the SAME week (June 8th, June 9th, and June 13th), so between now and then real life takes precedence. If my studying and thesis work goes amazingly well, I might not need to sacrifice the time, but just as a warning.


========================================


They spent another half-hour getting settled in for the night. Cassie scoured the nearby rooms for spare sets of clothing for Imoen, since she’d already found some for herself. The younger girl needed something cleaner and more practical than the simple green smock she’d been wearing the last few days. She also found some stale but edible bread and a small sack of chestnuts that had already been shelled. Not gourmet fare, but better than nothing.

She returned to find her sibling had located two large pitchers and a good-sized bowl. They were set on the floor in the portal-room, while Imoen herself was seated at Irenicus’ former desk. She’d somehow cast or activated a magical light in the room, which lit both chambers with a soft yellow-white glow. One of the spellbooks was already cracked open before her, and she studied the contents with her elbows on the desk and her chin resting on both hands.

“Water?”

She made a slight motion of her head towards the rear room, not looking up from the book. “Mm-hmm. Pitchers.”

“Found some clothes for you. I think they’ll fit, at least.” Cassandra put the pile – three outfits’ worth – on the edge of the desk.

This time she did look up, and she smiled. “Thanks, Cass. I’ll try them on in a bit.”

“Okay. I’m going to wash up.” Or try, at least. With as much dirt and grime as covered her skin, it might take a few attempts.

Imoen nodded. “I’ll be here.”

“Thanks.”

Cassandra went into the portal-room and mostly-closed the door, leaving it slightly ajar. After everything they’d been through, she was just a little too paranoid to close it all the way. At least this way if something happened they could hear each other, even if they couldn’t see each other.

She crossed over to the pitchers and small basin on the floor, casting a wary eye to the portal as she did. Of course Imoen had to study at the desk and stick the water in this room with the freaky magical device. Because nothing said ‘comfort’ like imagining what horrible thing might sneak through a mirror and attack you while you were naked.

Cassie took a deep, deliberate breath and let it out slowly. “It’s just a mirror, Cass.” Yeah, a magic mirror. As in, portal to the deepest bowels of the Nine Hells. Maybe she could turn it to face the wall? “Just a mirror,” she told herself sternly. “Relax.”

It was easier said than done. She caught herself eyeing the black void of the glass several times as she undressed, starting by laying her weapons within easy reach and kicking off the boots. She unbuttoned the men’s tunic she was wearing, folded it carefully, and placed it on the floor, followed by the breeches. The damn portal was still in the corner of her vision as she poured a bit of water from one of the pitchers into the basin and used her hands to scoop it up and over her body.

It wasn’t warm, but at least it wasn’t icy cold — a little cooler than room temperature. She tried to keep her bare leg over the basin as she filled her palms and sluiced the liquid over her calf. It streamed over her flesh and back into the basin, carrying with it a tinge of red and brown as the dust and blood flowed with it. She used her hands as makeshift washcloths, scrubbing herself down as best she could, gradually making her way from calf to thigh, then switching to do the same to her other leg.

When she was done with both limbs she regarded the now murky basin water with distaste. It’d be best to dump it and refill with fresh, but there wasn’t a drain or convenient disposal anywhere. She sighed. Fuck it. I want a bath. She tipped it over, letting the fouled water flow across the floor. It’d dry eventually.

She refilled it and paused again as she realized that her upper body was going to be much harder to clean and keep the water in the basin. Of course, the floor was already wet now. She could crouch.

Cassandra did so, again cleaning herself as best she could using only the water and her own hands. The water darkened much more quickly this time, and with a great deal more of the reddish tint. She discovered cuts and bruises she hadn’t even realized she had. She dumped the basin once more and picked up the pitcher to gage how much water was left. She’d used it sparingly, and had about a third of the container left. Not much, but enough to at least to wash the worst of the filth out of her hair.

It was a harder task that she expected, having to pour the water slowly with one hand and use the other to comb the tangles out of her matted mane. At least it’d be its proper color again when it dried.

“Hey, Cass, I found a—oops.”

Cassandra dropped the pitcher as her hands reflexively flashed to cover herself. It shattered on the stone floor and sent shards and the little remaining water spilling across the room.

“Imoen!” She glared a death-wish over her shoulder at the young thief-mage standing in the doorway.

“Sorry – hey, when’d you get a tattoo?”

“A little privacy?” Cassie demanded.

“It’s not like I haven’t seen you naked before.”

“IMOEN!”

“Okay, okay, geez!” Imoen rolled her eyes, smirking, and dutifully turned her back – without leaving the room. “Better?”

Cassie growled. “No!”

Imoen’s smile grew even wider. She’d probably pay for this later, but it was priceless for now. Always been a flaw of hers – pleasure for now, pay for it later. Oh well. Cassie’s face was probably the same shade as her hair about now.

“Anyways, you should shut the door if you want privacy.”

Cassandra kept one eye on the door as she quickly scooped up her clothing and pulled on the breeches as fast as humanly possible. She was still wet, but she could dry off later. “And you should knock before coming into a room.”

“The door was open.”

“I was taking a bath!” She pulled the tunic over her head and tugged it down in place. “And well you knew that!”

“You said you were going to wash up,” Imoen corrected her. “You didn’t say anything about stripping down to your birthday suit.”

“But—“ Dammit. Cassie shook her hair out and quickly combed it through with her fingers. Imoen was right – as usual. One of these days, Cassandra was going to win an argument.

“Can I turn around yet?”

“Yeah, fine, whatever.”

The redhead did so, still with a mischievous smirk on her face. “That was so worth it.”

Cassie flipped her a rude gesture.

“Anyways,” Imoen continued, “I found some more notes in Irenicus’ desk, and a few relating to that portal. It does lead out of here – unfortunately, he’s not real clear on where exactly it goes. Ust Natha.”

“What’s that?”

She shrugged. “City, country, mountain – I have no idea. It has that same vaguely-Elven sound to it, but I don’t recognize it.”

“So we could end up leagues from here.”

“Yeah, but we’ll be out,” Imoen smiled happily. “Cool, huh?”

“I guess so.” She still wasn’t pleased with the idea of blindly leaping into a magical vortex.

“Spoil sport,” her sister accused. “Well, I’m happy about it, so nyah.”

She left the room and flopped down at Irenicus’ desk again, pausing to stick out her tongue at her sibling when the older girl came out of the portal room. Cassie returned the gesture as she walked over to where their gear lay on the floor.

“Ewww!” Imoen pushed Cassie away when she passed too closely to the desk. “Not over here, you’ll drip all over my book!”

Cassandra took the opportunity to shake her hair out, sending a spray of droplets over the protesting girl.

(Read the rest at Chapter 5, part 2 "Beneath Midnight".)
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#9 tcdale

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Posted 01 June 2009 - 11:13 PM

I’m afraid I have bad news! Crumbling Down (as you noticed) did not update on Monday. It also won’t be updating next Monday. Why not? Well, read further.

I am swamped with work. My thesis is due next Monday, I have a final exam next Tuesday, and final exam and a social night to prepare for next Saturday (yes, an exam on Saturday). Last week and this week are dedicated study time because, let’s face it, getting my Master’s degree under my belt is more important that the internet (even as interesting and loveable as you guys are). In the meantime I’m also trying to get various legal paperwork together and find a new job.

My first thought was to go ahead and update this week with the first half of Chapter 6. However, that seemed crueller than normal, to give you half of a chapter and then stop updating for a week. It seems slightly less cruel to stop at a chapter break, take a two week pause, and then come back with Chapter 6 so you can start something new.

So, that’s what I’m doing! I’ll still post something on Thursday as is my wont (is ‘wont’ still a word?), since that’s usually shorter, but Crumbling Down will be returning on Monday June 15th — and hopefully with a much less stressed author.

See you then!
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#10 tcdale

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Posted 15 June 2009 - 12:50 AM

I have a migraine, and I've had it since yesterday. So, this is a very short post before I go crawl back into bed.

Now that my exams are finished and my thesis is turned back in, I have time to start writing again. This means that Crumbling Down Chapter 6 (part 1) is now available. Enjoy!
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#11 tcdale

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Posted 23 June 2009 - 02:40 AM

Crumbling Down, Chapter 6 (part 2) is up and available, since yesterday even!

Rather than pasting the text here, I thought I'd take the opportunity to respond to a few questions I've gotten about the story itself and my writing in general. So, consider this a 'Reader's Q&A' post. And if you have other questions, feel free to post them on the "Comments" thread and maybe I can answer them another time :)

--------------------

Q: What inspired you to write Crumbling Down to begin with?
A: I like BG fanfic, but it annoyed the Hell out of me that everyone ALWAYS started with Chateau Irenicus. I decided to see if it was possible to write a story starting somewhere else -- really, really somewhere else. So, Crumbling Down started in Spellhold, which is something I'd never seen anyone do before.


Q: How did you formulate the plot?
A: I played the game. One thing I did very firmly up until Chapter 8 (and less so in Chapter 9 and beyond) is just play the game and keep a 'diary' of notes about what happened. Most of the 'dramatic scenes' are from my actual play throughs, including when and if someone dies.


Q: Why don't you have a party? Why focus so strongly on Imoen and Cassandra?
A: I played the game as if it were 'real' -- as if Cassandra was a real person, with real goals. I decided that, given the events of BG1, Cassandra will have learned not to trust other people that much, and thus will avoid picking up too many new companions. Her main concern is getting to Imoen, as fast as possible. Thus many potential side quests (Planar Sphere, Umar, etc.) were left undone. As soon as Cassandra had 20,000 gold, she left for Spellhold. Unfortunately, I also had some bad luck with the people I *did* join into the party, and some NPCs got killed. It was pure coincidence that, upon arriving in Spellhold, Cassandra was alone.


Q: So why not just go to a temple and get the resurrected?
A: Artistic choice. I write realistic fantasy as my genre of choice, which means I like fantasy that's still fantasy, but which obeys the laws of nature a little more closely than normal. So, magic has rules on how it works. Things have techniques. One of these is that I don't believe it's realistic to just collect your dead friends and run over to any temple and *poof*, they're back to life.

So, on my play-through, I made two very simple rules to go by: 1) No reloading [unless Cassie died, since that's necessary] and 2) people who die, stay dead. Made for a great dramatic story, even though it made the game quite a bit harder.


Q: You capitalize 'Hell' when you say stuff like 'What the Hell' and 'Get the Hell out'. Why?
A: Two reasons, actually. The first is that, in the Forgotten Realms, Hell is an actual place. You can go to it, just like you can go to Kara-Tur or Saradush. Thus, as a proper noun, it's capitalized. Secondly, it's stylistic. I like the capital H.


Q: Are Imoen and Cassandra going to have a relationship?
A: I haven't decided yet. Honestly. Give me your best argument why they should or shouldn't, and I'll consider it. However, "ewww, they're both girls" or "ewwww, incest is nasty" are not arguments. Give me arguments based on their personalities.


Q: Can I buy a copy of Crumbling Down, like a book or something?
A: Not yet, although I might make this available eventually if there's interest enough. Since it's fan fiction and I don't have rights from Wizards/Bioware, etc., I cannot sell Crumbling Down for profit. However, I could make some bound copies, I think, and you pay printing costs/shipping costs, and voila, you have a book. Or, if you think I'm just an awesome person and want to give me donations to show your appreciation, that's allowed. I just can't sell for profit. I will get my ass sued off.
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#12 tcdale

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Posted 20 July 2009 - 01:36 AM

I'm back! Today I posted Chapter 8, part 1 - "Stepping Stones". If you've missed previous chapters, go get them on the website.

Summmary:
(Diary/flashback chapter) Cassandra is blessed with divine blood; and with it, cursed with fate. As the Wheel of Prophecy grinds on, each passing day adds another life -- or another death -- onto a hero's shoulders. Sooner or later, even the strongest begin to break...

Rating: R (violence, lots of bloody violence, some curse words)

Excerpt:

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.

“But I—“

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.
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#13 tcdale

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Posted 03 August 2009 - 03:14 AM

Crumbling Down, Ch 9 ("He Who Fights Monsters"), part 1 has been posted!

He who fights monsters must be careful, lest he become one. Cassandra -- now Veldrin -- finds her grasp on sanity, and humanity, slipping as she struggles both the Taint within her and the evil around her.

Warnings: Lots of violence; attempted rape.

Excerpt:

The talons closed around Veldrin’s throat. The Bhaalspawn lashed out with a punch to the lupine muzzle. He struck again and again, growling and panting, hammering his fist into the leathery red flesh in raw, raging fury. Red and black clouded his vision; the rush of blood in his veins drowned out all other sound. The hiss of the Taint urged him onwards, whispering, shouting, demanding. A chorus of voices, the cacophony of a million souls, raged at him to kill it kill it no mercy blood for blood death for death kill it now. Something cracked as he slammed his gauntleted hand into the creature’s face again. Another strike; another crack. The pressure around his windpipe choked off his air, but the voices drove him on regardless. No mercy my lord Lord of Murder kill it – a spray of blood hit him the face, blinding him with a shower of thick ichor – kill it NOW – the cracking continued as he pummeled it with both fists – no mercy for the weak no mercy.

The beating continued long after clawed hands released his throat and Veldrin was able to draw breath once more. The wet and bloody smack of flesh against flesh was a music, a primal rhythm that echoed throughout the arena. His blood sang with it and his strikes beat percussion accompaniment. It was a symphony of beauty, and the sound filled him with joy.

“Veldrin! Stop it now!”

A hand landed on his shoulder, and he spun around with a furious growl. One hand grabbed a handful of cloth and yanked the person closer; the other balled back into a fist and drew back in anticipation.

“Cassandra.” The name was whispered, barely audible, but the foreign sound shook him with shock. Inolin – Imoen, his sister, Imoen – regarded him with cool gray eyes, unfased that her robe was caught firmly in his grasp. She raised her voice for the benefit of the onlookers. “How dare you lay a finger on me!”

The chorus of voices went quiet; the seductive, icy embrace of the Taint began to ebb away, leaving him empty and hollow. He looked around in confusion. The arena had been reopened, and now a half-score heavily armed drow warriors ringed him, weapons at the ready. Sondal stood several yards distant, and the audience remained outside, quiet and attentive. Their auras flickered in a rainbow of hues: jealousy, lust, greed, all weaving in and out of the steady dull-yellow fear. Everyone, everywhere he looked, was terrified.
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#14 tcdale

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Posted 10 August 2009 - 10:44 AM

Crumbling Down, Ch 9 ("He Who Fights Monsters"), part 2 has been posted!

Things just keep getting darker....

Warnings: Lots of violence; attempted rape.

Excerpt:

He brooded at the bar, nursing his sixth glass of drow mead. Figures moved and shifted at the edges of his vision as the clients danced, fought, and dined, but they kept their distance from the still-armored male. The initial adoration, the fawning, the sycophantic sweetness, had quickly lost its charm, and soon his admirers had found themselves face to face with the same dark rage that had spawned their flattery. Being on its receiving end proved much more disturbing than distant observation.

The Voice whispered to him. It had not been silent since the encounter with the nabassu. The seductive, sinister hiss was ever-present, playing through his brain in a constant stream of subtle noise. It was unintelligible, mysterious – words-but-not-words, thoughts-but-not-thoughts, meaningful and empty all at once.

A delicate, thin-stemmed glass of translucent turquoise liquid slid across the counter top and came to rest in front of him. Veldrin glanced up in surprise. The barkeep offered a shallow smile. “From the male over there,” he said, tipping his chin towards another table.

Veldrin turned around, brow furrowing. The room swayed and tilted under the influence of the six drinks he’d already downed, and finding the designated patron was a challenge. After a moment of concentration, he found it: a table near the edge of the bar’s seating area, occupied by both a male and a female. More sycophants. He downed the contents of the glass in a single gulp and then pushed it back to the bartender. When he looked up again, the male of the pair was standing in front of him.

“Honorable Lord,” he said, bowing low.

“Go away.”

“Just a moment of your time, if I may, my lord.”

The cold embers of anger stirred as Veldrin studied the other through wine-blurred eyes. “You don’t have a House insignia,” he muttered after a moment.

“No, my lord, I do not,” the other male admitted. “My House is insignificant, and the Despanas and Jae’llat do not take kindly to interlopers. I am Urlroos Quarra, Third Son of House Quarra, Ninth House of Ust Natha.”

“Leave me alone.”

Urlroos made a small motion to the barkeep, and within seconds another glass of mysterious blue-green liquor appeared at Veldrin’s elbow. “I assure you that my proposal is both short and rewarding.”

The warrior shook his head. “Not for sale.”

“Not your martial talents, my lord, although they are without a doubt beyond compare. People say you are the best warrior since the Descent itself.” Urlroos glanced meaningfully back to his female companion, who sat watching the affair from the table. “That is Alaunrae Quarra, First Daughter of House Quarra. She would like to engage you for… intimate purposes.”

Veldrin rubbed his face with his hand, trying to keep up with the string of words. They tripped over one another in his consciousness, increasingly drowned out by the Taint’s hissing frustration. “What?”

“She wishes to breed with you, my lord.”

“Breed?” That was a word he knew. “With a drow?” he asked in astonishment.

“Not with just any drow,” Urlroos corrected. “With you. A child of your seed, male or female, would be worth much to our House. We are prepared to pay – and, of course, we offer you a rare experience. The First Daughter is willing to allow you… certain privileges, in the bedroom.”

“Not interested.”

Urlroos took the glass in his own hand and offered it forth. “Another drink, my lord? Marimerra wine: a delicacy you are sure not to forget. As will be your night tonight, should you consider our offer.”

The female was approaching, now that the ice had been broken. She was slender and well-formed, with graceful curves and fine, feminine features. Her cheeks and eyelids had been painted with a dust of mica that glittered and shone as she moved. The coy smile on her lips was subtle, secretive, and inviting.

“Veldrin,” she said with a small tilt of her head, extending her hand to him. Drow etiquette was to bestow a kiss on the fingers, but he wasn’t in the mood to be polite. The male’s continued refusal to back down was quickly stoking Veldrin’s ire, even through the muddled haze of drink.

“No doubt it irks such a powerful male as yourself to be at the female’s command in the bedroom, always caring for her pleasure and never for your own,” Urlroos was saying. “But while we cannot offer you the prestige or wealth of House Despana, we can offer, shall we say, forbidden pleasures. The First Daughter offers herself to you, in exchange for your seed.”

“Meaning?” Veldrin asked sourly.

“Meaning that you can do anything you want to me, dear Veldrin,” Alaunrae purred, caressing his arm with her bare palm. Her other hand suddenly pressed between his thighs, stroking the hidden bulge. “Anything and everything.”

-------

Read the full text
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#15 tcdale

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Posted 24 August 2009 - 08:04 AM

Chapter 10 of Crumbling Down -- aptly itself named "Crumbling Down" -- has been posted! You can find part 1 here (Part One) and part 2 here (Part Two).

In Part One, Cassandra and Imoen find themselves on the wrong side of Drow law, due to Cassie's increasingly unstable behavior and thoughts under the influence of her Taint.

In Part Two, Imoen finally sees the sun again...but at a very steep price.

Enjoy!


Excerpt from Part Two:

The faster they were through here, the less chance they had of being spotted. Cassie broke back into a run, following the main way: a flat, gradually rising expanse of earth scattered with broken stones and pebbles. As the path continued, it grew steadily steeper once more. Soon her muscles were burning from the effort of scaling the rocky trail and her lungs laboring in vain to draw enough air. After nearly three miles of running at top speed, even her enhanced stamina was being pushed to the limit.

Her steps faltered; she stumbled, catching herself against a nearby stalagmite. She braced herself against it, gasping for breath; her vision flickered and swum as the thunder in her chest threatened to explode. She had to slow down, stop, and recover.

“Put me down, Cass,” Imoen demanded. “What’s wrong? Are you okay?”

“Fine.” They had to keep going. Stopping meant death. She pushed herself away from the rock and forced her legs to move. “I’m fine.”

Leave her, the Voice hissed again. She is useless.

Shut up.

You can go faster without her.

“Shut the Hell up.”

“What?”

Cassie shook her head. “Nothing.” She was almost to the top of the rise; at the edges of the light, the floor leveled out once more. She bared her teeth and focused on the point. Another fifteen steps brought her to the top, and there she finally collapsed. Imoen wriggled off her shoulder as Cassie rolled over on her back to catch her breath. “Is there anyone behind us?”

Imoen glanced down the crooked, stone-strewn incline. There was nothing, save the endless wasteland of cold, gray rock. “No.”

“Then maybe you should look in front,” said an angry feminine voice.

Cassandra’s eyes flashed forward, locking on the sight of a huge metallic object, easily twice as wide as she was, rushing down towards her head. She instinctively rolled to the side, doubting even as she did so that she would be able to gain the clearance necessary to avoid being crushed. The tail crashed into the ground, sending up an explosion of dust and vibrating the entire cavern to its very core. A numbing pain shot through both of Cassie’s legs; she bit her lips against the urge to scream and tasted blood as her teeth pierced her own flesh.

“Cassie!” Imoen had avoided the impact by letting herself slide down the path; now she scrambled back to the top.

The tail was rising again; its thick, silver length snaked out from behind an equally massive body. Adalon was hunkered down in the narrow confines of the passage, her wings folded tight against her body in order to fit. The dragon’s emerald eyes glittered with rage.

“Run!” Cassandra shouted. Imoen darted over to her, but the warrior pushed her away. “Run!”

“No! Cassie!”

“Run!” The tail was poised. Cassie grabbed Imoen with both hands and shoved her as hard as she could. It launched her forward nearly fifty feet and sent her sprawling to the floor between Adalon’s muscular, clawed forelegs just as the tail crashed down again.

“Cassie!” Imoen scrambled to her feet. Nothing could be seen through the cloud of dirt and debris and the mass of draconic flesh. She held the sleeve of her robe over her mouth and nose to filter out the dust as she screamed Cassie’s name again. “Cassie!”

There was no answer.
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