CHAPTER SIXTY THREE
14 of Nightal 1371, Year of the Unstrung Harp
"I think I shall pass on this one," I stopped the servitor with a briefest flick of a finger. The drow was about to refill my cup with another splash of dark, oily liquor. It tasted rather like an extraction of rotten fish guts, diluted with alcohol, and was not to my taste at all. I wondered if Greenberyl would have snapped a witty remark about my aversion to the drink. The dragon was enamored with drow cuisine, and, no doubt, would have found excuse for the foul taste.
I occupied myself with a thorough inspection of my manicure, then graced my interlocutor with a lazy smile.
"If I am to make any bargains today, I have to keep myself well-grounded." I told him, dripping cool suave with every word.
"You are a wise man, Master Jevan," my companions' eyes, bright as two chips of garnet, flashed at me from under the heavy-hooded eyelids.
The drow looked like he had been carved out of the same dark, roughly polished stone as his bloody uncomfortable seat. His feral face creased in a grimace that was meant to be a sarcastic smile. Noticing my attention, he leaned back in his chair polished by thousands of drow behinds. His own stare gave away nothing. We both spoke drow, the harsh language of the dark ones, well-suited for an exhausting verbal cat-and-mouse game that went on between us.
The furniture in the seedy wine shop on the outskirts of Ust-Natha's traders' district had seen better days. Much like every one of the few male patrons lounging about the common room on this late morning. I could not spot any drow females among the customers or the personnel. Not in the damp and gloomy kitchen, managed by a pair of sickly-looking goblinoids under the supervision of a wizened one-armed male. Nor on small stage, not so long ago occupied by a pair of exhausted, half-breed musicians.
Thank the Gods, the half-drow musicians were currently enjoying their break. The one-armed cook had showed them to the table in the darkest corner of the common room. Now they downed their doze of the cheap local poison from dented pewter mugs, while paying tribute to a plate of scary-looking marinated arthropods. The monotonous beat of their drum, accompanied by the shrill sound of the flute, had nearly driven me mad during the last hour, spent in a tense, probing conversation with my host.
"I am not in a habit of eliminating paying customers," the drow finally deemed to break the silence with the same deliberate lack of expression on his face. "At least not until the second half of the agreed-upon sum has changed hands." He saluted me with his cup.
"Oh, I have no doubt that you will stick to the bargain," I replied pleasantly. "You don't give the impression of a man with a suicide wish."
My host snarled sharply, finally showing a spark of well-controlled temper. His eyes narrowed, as he deliberately exchanged glances with a pair of leather-armored bravos at the table just a few yards away from ours.
"Of course, only a fool would cross the Masters of Bregan D'aerthe," he said casually, "yet it is plausible that a desperate gambler would use the Dark Mercenaries' name to gain entry into the city, even though he has no true connection to the organization."
"Was it meant to be a threat or a compliment?" I raised an eyebrow, parodying his expression of mocking concern. "Bregan D'aerthe activities need to stay hidden from the prying eyes of outsiders. That is why the organization often employs... unlisted entities. And whatever my reasons for travelling to Ust-Natha at this time, you can be assured that they don't concern you and your guild."
"Everything that is related to the comings in and goings out of Ust-Natha concerns us," he said carefully. "You appearance is somewhat... remarkable." He gave me a sour, disapproving look. For a briefest of moments his gaze lingered upon my face, then he quickly shifted his eyes elsewhere. "There is no way any one would miss to pick you from the crowd, Master Jevan. I would have never agreed to the measly sum your organization is paying us for your protection, if I knew this in advance. The last thing the guild needs is for the Sisterhood to clamp down on our activities. Of course, the Noble Houses are always occupied with their feud, but lately the Sisters of Lolth are getting more and more restless. Only last week, the three Bitches..."
He quickly shut his mouth, giving me a sharp glance. "I will fulfill my part of the bargain and get you to the Artificer's Market today, Master Jevan. But be aware that if you run into the slightest trouble with the Sisterhood, one of my men will slit your throat, before they could drag you away for interrogation."
"I assume you are speaking of the Matron Mother Iolathe and the females of her Council?" I asked lazily. " It is being said that House Zauviir's grip on power in Ust-Natha is rather feeble. Why should I be wary of Iolathe and her weaklings?"
My drow interlocutor turned chalky gray. I noticed how he shifted in his seat, throwing a glance in the direction of the servitor who just passed our table carrying a tray of some slimy, squiggly delicacies. "The Sisterhood led by Matron Iolathe basks in the favor of Mother Lolth, Chaos protect them!" He pronounced pompously.
"Are you mad?" He breathed out as soon as the servitor moved out of the hearing range. "Iolathe is a witless blunderer, tolerated only because other Houses have not made their move yet, but these days her spies are everywhere. The Ust-Natha's Sisterhood is buzzing like a nest of mud wasps doused with hot water. But with all their zeal, the hounds of the House Zauviir are not nearly as dangerous as the Torafin Sisters," he spat out on the floor in disgust. "Lately, the three Bitches have turned the city into their private playground. I have no idea what burr got under their saddles, but they are acting like the Darkness would never come and embrace us tomorrow."
"My thanks for the forewarning, associate," I gave him my best arrogantly dismissive scowl. "You should not have troubled yourself restating the obvious. Only a complete fool would compromise himself by provoking wrath of the local Sisterhood. I will be doubly careful though, not to run into any of your 'bitches'. I doubt they strain themselves with daily inspections of the Market."
"Very well," my companion downed what remained on the bottom of his cup in one gulp, cringing at the bitter taste of the liquor. "One of my men will take you there, but you have to follow my instructions to the letter."
Hazel slipped past the garishly-painted handcart pushed along by a skinny goblin. The tiny glow-light bobbed from its pole-and-rope support at the front of the cart, as the peddler pushed his lug across the uneven floor. The time was past midday, but it was too early in the day-cycle for a glint of the central Orb to reach the bottom of the grand cavern. The local populace chose to save on the lantern oil, so the slums were always shaded in darkness. It did not matter to the drow, but majority of the other races preferred to carry their own lights.
The rickety box-on-wheels stank of charred earthnuts and burnt sugar. Hazel's stomach growled and she ground her teeth. The voices in her head were telling her that now was not the best time to succumb to the ever-present pangs of hunger. But Hazel was so used to taking advantage of every opportunity to feed, that her hand darted in and out of the cart almost involuntarily. The leather whip seared her flank. When the blow landed, she was already rolling under the incoming commoner couple's feet and out of the enraged vendor's reach as he continued to berate her in Undercommon.
Hazel made a rude jest in the enraged goblin's general direction and darted out of the drow couple's way, before the kick aimed at her ribs by the poorly dressed male had landed. The drudge scowled, shaking his bony fist at Hazel, but his dame slapped him across the face, yelling at him for allowing the street rat to get under their feet.
Hazel scowled, sticking out the stub of her tongue at the male, while stuffing her mouth with the sticky, sugary mass of half-burned earthnuts. She had not eaten anything sweet for a very long time, and her mouth was filled with saliva. Without the help of a tongue her lips could not contain it, so it spilled out, dribbling down her chin. Hazel's body was so dirty that her natural nut-brown skin tone was almost lost under the layers of grime. In the near darkness, with her head shaved bald, she could almost pass for a drow, if one did not look closely.
The female took another look at Hazel's face, noticing the hazel-green eyes and the dark hole in place of a nose, and her curses became even louder. It was time to scamper, before the bitch attracted too much attention with her yells. This part of Ust-Natha was still shabby enough for the likes of this commoner and her scrimpy male, but it was too close to the base of the marketplace's pillar to be considered safe. And while the priestesses and the higher ranking drow females would avoid the regions at the bottom of the city cavern as plague, the male Nobles had a nasty habit of venturing anywhere they wanted, looking for seedier entertainment or a chance for gratuitous violence.
Hazel weaseled out of the small crowd that had gathered around the goblin's stalled cart, and darted on, scanning the dark passages between grand stalagmites for her quarry. The voices in her head grew louder, and she had to slow down, so that the screaming and wailing would subside a little. They were singing now. Something about coming through the Celestial Gate and reaching for the Eternal Home. She knew there were no such thing. Somehow, it made her sad and angry at the same time. Having feelings was scary. Hazel was not used to feeling anything as of late. Most of the time, the life of the city flowed past her without engaging her emotionally – animal instincts were crucial for survival, but not much else. To her eyes, the drow were like insects, crawling through their caves and passages, caring only about servicing their queen, who was hidden somewhere deep, inside her stinky hive. But the singers in Hazel's head bothered her, although she could not remember why.
When this morning Jabplynn had brought her to the rogues' den, as he often did, so she could have the scraps from the tables, while he played the drums, she had been content. Everything had changed since then.
Jabplynn was a half-breed. He was not particularly mean to her, even though his music was horrible. Taking Hazel with them was his way of paying her for sharing his bedroll. True, he always made her cover her face before going at it. But he had given her an almost whole blanket, and he preferred that he was the only male to lay with her. Hazel would have been long dead if Jabplynn had not found her in the Pits, and taken her in. She was not sure if being alive was a good thing. Sometimes in the deep of the night she contemplated going to the Pits to throw herself back in. Yet deep inside her heart she knew she was too cowardly to do that.
The moment when she had noticed the tall, blue-eyed wizard quietly conversing with the shifty rogue was when the voices in her head began screaming again. Hazel lived without them for so long, that she almost forgotten how bad it could be. And now she was trapped. The blue-eyed drow was headed upwards, into the more refined districts of Ust Natha. She could not go after him without risking it all. Yet the voices were growing louder, and she knew she had to follow, or her head would explode.
Her quarry and his companion crossed the passage and disappeared into the conduit leading upwards. Jabplynn would soon come looking for her, Hazel thought as she contemplated her choices. He always did when she ventured too far off on her own. Foolish half-drow, forgetting what he was. Disregarding that in this place caring for someone was like cancer that would eat you from inside. And caring for her in particular would earn him a place in the Pits. If he was lucky enough not to end up as spider-fodder.
Wheezing slightly, and muttering to herself, Hazel pulled on her hood, making sure that it hid her features well. Then she crossed the passage, zigzagging like a rat under a streetlight, and slinked into the spiral staircase that led to the upper levels of Ust Natha.
The antique weapons stall was the last place I intended to explore, before dropping my pretense at searching for the elven artifacts and calling it quits. There was no doubt that the Ust Natha's Artificers Market was a fascinating place. At any other time, I would have enjoyed my visit there immensely. At the moment though, I possessed neither funds not desire to acquire anything, but could not make a beeline for an exit without alerting my escort.
The Upper city was built mostly on individual platforms supported by giant stalagmites. The market took full advantage of that architectural style. The entire place was an intricate maze of roofed pavilions interconnected with elegantly arched bridges and stairways. Unlike the stone-carved shops of the Lower city, the stalls and bridges here were wrought of forged metal. The metalwork was superb, the finish spectacular. Whoever designed and implemented the finespun shells of market stalls was more of an artist than a metal smith.
Since the place was located that far above ground, the air could flow freely through the latticed walls of the pavilions, mixing the aromas of gourmet food and exotic spices with strange incenses, oiled metal, and fine leather. In addition to each stall maintaining its private source of illumination, numerous small spheres of magic light floated through the area, giving it an appearance of a dark garden invaded by fireflies. There were also sound wards, designed to absorb the excessive noise and provide shoppers with the semblance of privacy. In short, even impaired by recent political misfortunes that had befallen the city, Ust Natha's Artificers Market looked like an exotic paradise of consumption. Although there seem to be a shortage of paying customers. Very few somber-looking dark elves drifted from stall to stall, sometimes using their levitation ability to steer themselves toward the desired booth instead of using the stairways. Considering that the floor of the cavern was half a mile below, the habitual ease of their vertical maneuvering was somewhat disconcerting.
My shadow had relaxed his stance a little after an hour or so of trailing me through the aerial marketplace, but I was certain I would not be able to give him the slip any time soon. I intended to appear bored and in a need of refreshment. That would have been good enough excuse to stop haggling and pretend to look for a tavern or a wine shop. I had memorized the directions from the marketplace to the githyanki ship by heart. All I needed was a small diversion to sidetrack my escort. Which happened very soon, in a way I could not have anticipated in a lifetime.
I was browsing through the collection of fake Miyeritar blades. Most of them were crude replicas, but one or two looked like they could actually be used in a real fight. My shadow melded into the darkness, using the drow inherited trick to make himself scarce. I sighed, gesturing to the vendor to stop tempting me with his obsolete inventory, and was about to move on when I felt a glib hand slide under my cloak.
My first though was that whoever the miscreant was, he or she must be either stupid or absolutely desperate to try and pick the pockets of a wizard. I had spent weeks taking stock of Darromar's markets without being bothered by the local guild even once. And I had not been wearing the formal robes. In fact, the last time anyone had succeeded in lightening my pockets was in Amkethran. The memory gave me a nervous jolt. I coughed and straightened up abruptly, without looking in the direction of the pickpocket. All I intended to do was give him time to withdraw without making a scene. Since the money pouch was on the other side of my belt, I felt only slight annoyance.
The would-be thief however had other plans. I felt an awkward motion, then a sharp jolt of pain. The blade of the Fiery Sleeper was jerked from its sheath on my belt. On its way out, the dagger sliced through the silk of my robes and scratched my side. I cried out in surprise and swiftly turned towards the clumsy fool, grabbing the hand that was stealing my weapon.
The youth was frail and lightly built, as befitted the one of the elven descent. At first, I assumed the miscreant was a drow. But the weapon-trader's oil lantern provided enough illumination to see the difference. Under the layers of dirt, his skin was the rich brown of ripe chestnut hearts, not ebony black. The thief tried to pull out of my grip, wiggling like an eel. I had no desire to be sliced open with my own enchanted blade, so I held his wrist in an iron lock.
As if from a distance, I could hear the cries of the shopkeeper, calling for guards. That set my temper on edge: all I needed now was an interrogation by a patrol. My only hope was that my escort would stay out of this. Then, perhaps, I could drive the thief to run away, and convince the bystanders that the accident was a small trouble not worthy of investigation.
As we fought for control of the blade, the tight fabric of the hood slipped away, and I grasped the view of my assailant's face. The words of the drow curse froze on my lips: all I could produce was a strangled croak. For a nightmarish second I thought the girl might be Mirriam. Then with guilty relief I noticed high, elven cheekbones and the almond-shaped cut of her huge hazel-green eyes. She looked filthy and starved. Her head was shaven bald, allowing for a good view of both her tribal tattoos, and of the horrible scars that distorted her features. Her face looked like someone had started to carve a pretty doll out of a cherry wood billet, but got bored with the task, and, after giving it crudely humanoid shape, cut off all the extremities. She had no ears or nose. And from the harsh torturous sounds emanating from her mouth, I guessed that her tongue had been removed as well.
Shaken to my core, I almost wept from the sharp paroxysm of heartache. My resentment and disgust over the harsh treatment by the members of my own race were swept away in a flood of hot anger and empathy. There was nothing I could do for the girl. Except, maybe, spare her even harsher death.
"If you want to live, you must run. Now." I said quietly in Elven. "Keep the dagger if you must, but do not linger. I shall not be able to distract them for long." It was too much to hope that no one else around us would hear me speak. Still, there was a distinct chance that they would not understand a word.
If I hoped to spur the elf to flight, then my hopes were certainly dashed. All my little speech produced was a look of puzzlement, mixed with disgust. Then her face froze. An expression of sudden recognition flickered over it, even as the fire of pure loathing flared up in her eyes. She began to scream in silent helpless rage – frantically prying at the sun-stone on the weapon's hilt.
"You must kill her now." Irenicus's voice ordered in my head. "Or she will be the end of both of us."
That was when the city guard chose to drop on our heads – literally. As the heavy armored figures began to fall from the air, the platform quickly become swamped with drow fighters, clad in dusky adamantine breastplates. I counted half a dozen already, and they kept coming.
"I cannot harm anybody with magic unless they attack me first – or I will kill myself!" I yelled back at him silently. "Which is all your doing! And even if I could, how would murdering this poor creature help us?"
"If you don't do it now, they will skin you alive for helping and abetting the surface elf."
"What, in Chaos' name, is going on here?" A haughty female voice demanded in nasal Drow. "I do not recognize you, male. Why have not I laid my eyes on you before?"
I threw a quick glance in the direction of the speaker. The plump drow female looked like she was about to burst out of her custom fitted plate. Her body was not unpleasant to look at, and her thick white mane was pleated into an elaborate braid. At her neck, dangled a gaudy-looking piece of jewelry that practically screamed 'house insignia'. What immediately held my attention, however, was the three headed viper-scourge that she held in her hand.
"Now you will have to deal with the spider-brood." My alter ego sneered in disgust. "Why don't you ever listen to your betters?"
"Which one of you am I supposed to answer first?" I sneered back, while eyeing the priestesses generous curves.
"Drop your eyes, fool, before she notices that you are ogling her!"
"And what happens if I don't ?"
"You are about to find out!"
"Do not dare gape at my face, fool! Look down upon the ground when responding to the Chosen of the Spider Queen!" The priestess almost foamed at the mouth.
From the corner of my eye I could see that everybody but her guards and the mutilated elf were down, groveling. I opened my mouth to reply, and that, obviously, was a mistake.
The strike of the viper-scourge is a kind of agony one does not tend to forget. The three-headed snake-whip was aimed at my face, and I might have lost an eye if my reactions were any slower. As it happened, I managed to deflect the blow with my elbow. The viper-teeth struck through the padded silk of my robes, gouging the bloody marks across my flesh.
Their poison is meant to both paralyze the victim and exacerbate pain. Through the red haze of burning agony I could see the drow scowl and draw her weapon for a second strike. At that moment the mute elven girl finally managed to activate the sun-stone on the pommel of my dagger.
The sun ray struck the priestess and her brood as golden spray of fire. In my short life I have not seen anything so appealing, in all its pointless splendor. The wails and screams of the drow filled my ears, driving away my own pain and confusion. Their eyes were extremely sensitive to sunlight, and some of their natural enchantment could be dispelled by it. Overall, however, it did them little harm, besides scaring and enraging them a good deal. I took a deep breath, taking in the situation. The priestess had dropped the viper-scourge, and was scratching at her eyes as if intended to take them out with her fingernails. I doubted her confusion would last long, though. Some of her subordinated were already on their feet, taking aim at me with their swords and crossbows.
"Run." I mouthed to the elf, while sliding closer to the drow and giving the viper-scourge a good kick with my boot. It rolled all the way to the edge of the platform and dropped off into darkness. The elven girl was frozen still with my dagger in her hand. She ignored me completely, and instead took an aim at the priestess' head. Her throw was poorly aimed, and the muscle power behind it was that of the starved and weakened body. The blade barely scratched the drow priestess' cheek. But even that small wound was enough to trigger her rage.
"Seize them both!" She yelled at the top of her lungs. "This male is an enemy spy who sneaked a darthiir assassin into the city to attack the Matron Mother and her House! By the power of Darkness, I command you take them both!"
She did not even finish her speech, when the shadow next to me expelled forth a silent blot of darkness, flying at me with a blade in his hand.
"I told, you, you should have listened to me." Joneleth muttered in my head.
Then the world shattered.
Hazel dropped to her knees, clutching at her head. The screaming inside had risen in pitch, and was about to overwhelm her senses. She had done all she could, yet the screamers seem to be unhappy with her choices.
"I know I should have struck at the Shattered One", she told them. "But she was the one who had held the knife... the one who had... I am sorry. I know, I should have tried to destroy him. That was my purpose. That was why you have helped me get away the Pits, and brought me here today. I am so... so... so... so... so... sorry."
The sounds that escaped her mouth were nothing like articulate words. Hazel choked on her sobs. Her earthly existence was about to end, without her being able to fulfill her purpose.
The loud thump of a missile striking at hard surface broke her out of her fit of despair. The fire hissed, engulfing everything within sight. Another strike followed, then the dark skies opened, raining death and destruction. Hazel felt the fringes of her rags crackle and smolder. The few remaining bystanders around her began to scamper. They were at the very edge of the circle of fire, and had gotten only a smidgen of what engulfed the hub of the platform with its ornate pavilions.
At the very center of the apocalypses stood the tall figure, dressed in black wizard robes, and surrounded by the pale haloes of protective shields. At his feet lay the skeletal remains of the drow rogue, half-dissolved in a pool of acid. Around him, raged the firestorm. Within the reddish haze, Hazel could see the contorted figures of the drow guards and their priestess, frozen in stasis and being burned alive in their armor. When the firestorm faded, all that remained alive within it seemed to be the wizard, surrounded by his shields. He seemed taller now. Hazel could barely perceive his dark face, frozen in perpetual mask of disgust, and what she saw there scared her more than going back to the Pits.
It looked like whoever was directing the fight were not giving up just yet. A fresh band of drow fighters dropped from the upper levels, to be met with the hailstorm of blades, followed by sickly bursts of magic that turned the survivors into piles of gray dust. The next wave of attackers was brought down with a wail of an invisible spirit, that dropped everybody to their knees while the wizard eliminated them one by one by a mere touch of his hand.
Even with all her acquired hate of the dark ones, Hazel felt the acrid taste of bile rising up her throat. This was a wholesale slaughter, not a battle.
The one at the center of all that death and destruction must have felt the same way. All of a sudden, he dropped his hands in the middle of casting a spell, and crossed them over his chest instead. The surviving drow within five yards of him tried to crawl back, probably to be slaughtered by their Matron at later time. Hazel could no longer feel fear or hate. Not directed at him anyway. It was odd – what he did here and now was close enough to what he had once done to her former home. And it felt no more right now, then it had back then.
A moment of calm passed by only too quickly, and another troupe of drow warriors dropped from the air into the wizard's path. These looked better armed, and were led by a tall female, clad in ornate red armor. Behind her back Hazel spotted a few frailer male figures, dressed in flowing dark robes.
"I was told that a traveling wizard have single-handedly brought down Sreeka Zauviir and her entire regiment." The red-plated priestess purred with barely concealed delight. Smiling cattily, she stooped to pick something from the charred remains under her feet. "I can see for myself that that was not a mere exaggeration."
"A misunderstanding on her part, that led to this unpleasantness." The blue-eyed wizard inclined his head in polite regret.
"I am sure it was." The priestess nodded in his general direction. "But try explaining to the Matron Mother that her second daughter was a pigheaded fool!"
"I am sorry it had to end this way." He nodded at the piles of dust and charred bones. "There was little I could do to convince her that her logic was flawed."
"This is why I felt inclined to bring my House Wizard and his best apprentices with me." The priestess chuckled in reply. "Accord of the minds should speed up the negotiations of your surrender, don't you think?"
"I am not the one without sense or reason, Mistress." The wizard said calmly. "Still, my predicament here bears recognition."
"Arrangements can be made to the mutual advantage," The red-clad one nodded back. "But your chances of improving your situation would be much better, if you ally yourself with my House." She pointed at her bracelet that bore a medallion with house insignia. "I am Treachery Torafin, the Matron of the House Torafin. I have my needs. I believe you have yours. If mine can be met, yours will be too. I am sure we can come to an understanding of sorts."
"I have no quarrel with you or your House, Matron. You can take me in, and it will be beneficial if you take the girl as well."
My eyes cracked open as the last vocals of my own voice had faded away. For a moment, I was overtaken by a strong case of deja vu. It felt like any second now the dam would break, and my memories would start leaking back, filling the terrible emptiness inside. Then the sensation ended, leaving me devastated and dry, like a gasping fish left by receding tide upon a sand-bank.
"I shall lock her in the House dungeon for you." A tall drow female dressed in red plate told me haughtily. "Your captive will be safe with me as long as you behave yourself, Master Jevan."
"You know my name, mylady," was all I could come up with, without betraying myself.
The shock of coming back to my senses in the middle of a conversation, without having the slightest clue to its nature was upon me. The platform around us was littered with ash and charred bodies. At a short distance I could hear harsh snaps of martial commands, interrupted by the moans of dying.
The important-looking drow priestess at my side scowled and waved a gloved hand at her retinue.
"I can no longer be bothered to oversee this display of ineptitude. Vengeance, you should take over the clean up here. Despair will lead the reconnaissance team. Make sure there are no survivors of the market place accident, Sisters. The Matron Mother should not find out before time.
Miyeritar - was an ancient elven empire of Dark and Green Elves.