CHAPTER SIXTY FIVE
15 of Nightal 1371, Year of the Unstrung Harp
Day and night they scream from below.
Stuck in the mire and cannot leave.
Soon, they will burst my skull open, leaving nothing for you.
Too many for me to remember, too many for you to forget.
I ran my eyes over the missive, memorizing its contents. It was Quenya, albeit barely readable, as if written by a small child. The poorly scrawled letters seemed to shift and tremble as I scanned the page over. Then the words swelled into shapeless ruddy blobs, and the writing vanished, leaving behind nothing but a blank piece of yellowish parchment.
I shrugged, considering my options. The drow could have asked one of her pet wizards to check the missive prior to attempting to tackle me with it, so I proceeded carefully.
"I believe that whoever wrote the letter only meant for it to be read once."
"Have you read it? All I could see was some sort of cipher."
"Whoever wrote this used one of the more obscure surface languages, Mistress. I am not sure if I was correct identifying it."
"By the Dark Mother's tits! Don't give me this scholarly gibberish, male. You read the letter, and then it disappeared." Vengeance snapped her mouth shut and looked at me sharply. "Maybe that's why the darthiir wanted to use her own juice instead of ink."
"I assume you are speaking of my captive?" I quirked an eyebrow at her, and received a curt nod in reply. "Can you tell me how you've come into possession of this missive?"
"Why should I?" The drow snarled at me, then changed her tack. "I went to talk to your prisoner while you entertained the Matron of the House. What?" She made eyes at me. "I did not know you had the balls to keep what's yours from Treachery's claws, so I decided to have a closer look at the darthiir before my sister had her dragged to the Dark Mother's altar."
I made a skeptical noise.
"Fine." Vengeance pouted a little. "Do you have to be so dull? I was eavesdropping on the entire conversation between you and Treachery from Szordrin's quarters. He is in charge of the security, so we heard everything. When I heard her speak about eliminating the Matron Mother, I got bored and decided I need some fun for a change." The drow smirked at me speculatively. "So, I slipped into the dungeons and informed your 'specimen' that her new master was going to cut her open and dig into her brains." She looked at me mockingly. "She was sane enough to understand."
I twitched an eyebrow.
"I thought the darthiir was going to snuff it." The drow clicked her pierced tongue at her teeth. "But she only had a fit: falling down on the floor, foaming at the mouth, and such nonsensical tricks. Amusing but harmless. When she woke up, she started to make signs with her hands." Vengeance shrugged. "So I amused myself by giving her a piece of parchment and cutting her, so she could use her own blood to scribble you a letter. I assumed it was for you," the drow graced me with her trademark mocking stare, "since she went into convulsions after I described your plans for her. Was the missive at the least interesting? I heard darthiiri sorcerers can place very strong curses."
"I see." I remained motionless, listening to the wind that whistled between the glittering silhouettes of the stalagmites, riddled with drow dwellings. The youngest Torafin sister was not going to leave me alone, that much was certain. "What do you want of me, Mistress? Leave out the seduction and the blackmail parts. I am not interested, however impertinent it might sound."
"Why is it that the good-looking ones are always into boys?" Vengeance muttered to herself. "Must have something to do with basic male obstinacy! Still, much as I wanted you to believe that I am after your charms, I really don't care. It will save me some time if we can skip the satisfied male part."
"Consider it done."
"Must you be so rude, Master Jevan?" Vengeance wrinkled her nose, then turned all businesslike. "If you were expecting me to offer you the post of the House Wizard in exchange for assassinating Treachery, you will be disappointed."
"I suspected that you were much smarter than you wanted to look."
"I want to become my sister's right hand, after she becomes the First Matron Mother of Ust Natha." Vengeance said bluntly. "I would like to run the House Torafin internal affairs, while Treachery engages in the city's high politics." She stopped, and looked at me piercingly. "There are, however, circumstances to be overcome before this might come to pass."
"For starters, Treachery has to ascend."
"Not only that." My interlocutor frowned, looking at her well-groomed nails. "I have no doubt that with, or without your help we shall bring Iolathe down eventually. You've wiped out her best troops already. While the Dark Mother remains silent, House Zauviir has no chance against House Torafin. No, my problem is that at the moment, Treachery does not view me as her main and irreplaceable ally within her own House. She is blinded by a viper that she cuddles on her chest."
"You want my assistance against the middle sister then." I nodded matter-of-factly. "Interesting. What were you going to offer me as payment for my services?"
"You can be perceptive when you choose to be, mage. What would you want in return?"
"For starters, I would like this conversation to remain between the two of us." I said dispassionately, raising my hands and going about the business of casting a ward around the two of us.
I was somewhat proud of that particular casting, although I had to give Irenicus his due. Working with him on unlocking the power of the kiira stone proved beneficial in many aspects. He had taught me a number of simple spells that made my everyday life easier.
Having him silently watch over my shoulder, while I strained my arcane abilities had been reassuring. Joneleth was a remarkable teacher: patient and passionate about the subject at the same time. Gradually, we had learned to tolerate one another's presence in the same head. Yet his recent attempt at deception had nearly destroyed that trust. I was badly shaken – knowing that at any time he could seize control of our shared body did little to bolster my confidence.
The translucent bubble of the barrier spell sprang around me and the drow, cutting off the primitive noises of the midnight garden; making us all but undetectable by external senses.
"That was... efficient," Vengeance poked a dark finger at the spell-barrier, making it yield and accommodate her digit without breaching, "but unnecessary." She turned back to me. "I told you, Szordrin is taking care of Despair's spies for me tonight."
"Yes, but who is taking care of him?" I asked nonchalantly. "This way I will know whom to blame if I am betrayed."
"You are overstepping your boundaries, male." She actually tried to sound offended.
"You came here to coerce me into your services." I interrupted her furious protestations. "Yet while the Goddess is slumbering, you are as impotent against me as any of your sisters in faith. It's a wonder none of your House wizards have figured this out. You shall listen to my terms now, priestess. And if you happen to dislike any of them, feel free to slink back into your quarters and seethe over your petty schemes of revenge."
"You are not welcome here." The one-armed proprietor of the wine shop, which doubled as smugglers' hideout, stared at me as if he was seeing a particularly nasty ghost.
"I would steer clear of such statements if I were you." I muttered with a shrug. "Now, would you let your guild master know that I am waiting for him, or should I go into the backrooms and find him myself?"
The drow's face turned gray. He pulled out a heavy cudgel and made a sign to the pack of lean bravos mingling around the bar. I stepped back, thrusting the twisted dark-wood staff into the hook of my arm, and moving my hands in an inimitable gesture of arcane readiness. The amethyst orb at the weapon's top began to glow ominously. House Torafin's treasury yielded a few useful artifacts that guaranteed me some measure of security. Still, I preferred to bluff my way through the confrontation without using any of the wands or the amulets.
From the corner of my eye, I could see the few remaining customers dashing for quick exit through the side door. It appeared that I already had a reputation in town.
"I would rather have a quiet chat with Ryelt over a tankard of his favorite brew," I flashed a silver piece at the one-armed drow. "And resolve the matter of the blood price for his slain guildsman. No one else needs to be hurt."
The drow at the bar made a series of quick finger signs at each other. Finally, one of them nodded and disappeared behind the back door. I relaxed my guard a little. By no means could I consider myself out of the woods yet, but my chances of surviving the next few hours were increasing.
"Shopkeeper, I am expecting a letter to be delivered here to my name." I snapped at the one-armed host, who was still clutching his weapon. "You don't want a Noble House carrier to run into trouble in your bar, as it would be bad for business. I suggest you return to your catering and let me and the guild master resolve our differences."
"Go back to the kitchen, Jor." My recent acquaintance entered through the backdoor, quiet as a cat. His heavy-lidded eyes regarded me with pretend indifference. "I hear you've directed a Noble House courier to my place of business," he muttered languidly. "You should not have done that, e'spdon. I dislike being in the spotlight."
"Dislike it or not, you are on the hook, Ryelt." I shrugged." Now, you can turn the situation to your advantage, or you can try to fight me. I doubt there will be much left of this place if you decide to give it a try."
"You are a dead man walking, Jevan," he replied in the same bored, lazy voice. "Last night I saw you slay the Matron's favorite she-hound and half of the House Zauviir elite troops, then make an unholy alliance with the three Bitches. Leave me out of this, e'spdon. I prefer a quiet but profitable life on the fringes to the spectacular death that you bring in your wake."
"If only things were that simple, Ryelt." I offered quietly. "I am afraid the situation spun out of control long before I've arrived in your quaint snake pit of a city. With the Dark Mother fallen into slumber, it will take two weeks at the most before you have a full blown House war and riots on the streets."
"What did you say?" Ryelt's carmine-red eyes flashed at me with sudden alertness.
"I believe you were here during the Year of Shadows, Ryelt. The bleak season when the Gods were forced to walk upon Toril in mortal form, leaving the priestesses powerless."
"By the gathering Darkness!" He swore softly. "Not a word more out of your mouth, wizard. We shall continue this conversation in private." He gestured to his subordinates. "Make sure that no one enters the shop while I talk to the e'spdon."
"The way things stand right now, Iolathe is going to lose control of the city one way or another." I reiterated tiredly.
We were sitting in a private chamber at the back of the wine shop. It was not particularly fanciful, but I suspected the guild had more suitable headquarters somewhere else in the city.
"This would not be the case if you did not slaughter her best fighting force!" The smugglers' captain snapped. "For the love of Darkness, the last thing I need is for the Third and Fourth Houses to go the way of the First and the Second. Who is going to need my goods if the nobles are all dead? The trade is already crawling at slug-speed."
"From the mouths of the smugglers," I chuckled at his honest ire. "Believe me, I am not eager to saunter into Iolathe's throne room and start flinging spells at her remaining troops. In fact, I want out of Ust Natha as quickly as possible. Alas, I am stuck here. House Torafin's mages track my movements through the city."
"And that's why you've come to me?! What would you expect me to do? Bregan D'aerthe cannot pay me enough to get involved in the House War!"
"I am not suggesting that you throw your lot with House Torafin." I mused cautiously. "In fact, if we ally ourselves with the weaker side – we might gain advantage, although we will need a suitable excuse to approach the Matron Mother."
"There is no 'we' here to speak of, wizard! It is 'you' who is planning to betray House Torafin, and by doing so get into Iolathe's good graces! Why would I want to get my guild drawn into this mad scheme of yours?"
"I don't like Treachery's arrangement with me. I don't take lightly to intimidation. And I sensed something personal in your distaste for House Torafin." I grinned at him.
"You should have thought about that before unleashing your hellfire on the heads of Iolathe's elite guards," Ryelt sneered. But there was a bright spark in his eyes that told me that my comment about his hatred for House Torafin had hit the mark. He definitely had history with the three sisters.
"Did I even have a choice?" I replied grudgingly. "The priestess declared me an outlaw on first sight."
"Yes, I witnessed the entire event." Ryelt muttered quietly. "I put a shadow on you, but I also followed you on my own, and was lucky enough to get out of there alive."
"I hoped you would have me followed by more than one man." I nodded back. "And this is the main reason I am here with you, Ryelt. I don't like being played for a stooge, and neither does my organization. There was something shady about the entire chain of events. A mutilated darthiir wench roaming the marketplace? I don't believe in coincidences like that."
"I might be able to help you look into the matter, e'spdon." The drow offered after a pause. "For a suitable price, of course."
I suspected he would take the bait, eventually. Ryelt's instinctive pragmatism was something I was betting on from the start.
"House Torafin's treasury will cover my expenses for now." I looked him in the eye, smiling casually. "Until Matron Mother Iolathe ups the stakes."
"I would like that." The smugglers' captain heavy-lidded eyes lit with nasty humor, giving me a rare glimpse of his restrained personality. "Yes, I appreciate your attitude, e'spdon. Maybe I was too quick dismissing you. As a matter of fact, I hold a witness, who might prove useful. If we agree on price, I will gladly let you have him for as long as it takes to make him talk."
"From the sound of it I surmise he is not one of your men?"
"He is not even a drow." Ryelt's smirk looked more like a scowl. "A damned co'nbluth, who believed himself to be someone of importance." He paused, looking at me speculatively. "I could have him brought here, withal this place is not secure enough for the purpose. We will have to move to a different location."
I decided I disliked the dungeons after all. Stumbling through Zaureen's catacombs, and even getting Kessen out of jail in Darromar had not prepared me for the reality of Ryelt's 'different location'. The all-pervasive stench of feces and old blood fortified by poor ventilation made me feel queasy. Maybe I was over-sensitized to physical suffering by enduring months of blood-curdling nightmares back in Amkethran. Or, maybe, I was nothing but a sniveling milksop. Irenicus seemed to imply the latter, although faintly enough for me to understand his true feelings. I could sense that he was troubled by my reaction: I would have become sick at the door of Ryelt's torture chamber if my alter ego did not snap me out of it.
Ever since I had bested him at sava, Joneleth had refused to surface properly. He wouldn't be engaged in conversation, but occasionally manifested himself as an alternative flow of emotions, which was like trying to listen to two different streams of music at the same time – hectic and disorienting. At the sight of the bleeding and broken figure, suspended from the dungeon ceiling by a couple of meat-hooks thrust through the ribs, I sensed a remote aura of cold, logical detachment. That projected attitude granted me a few precious moments to get a grip on myself. I let Irenicus's detachment settle over the anger and disgust that threatened to overtake me fully. The sight of the prisoner's guts, spilling out of the gaping wounds, was not helping.
The dully gleaming brazier next to the victim threw just enough light to make visible a range of blood-stained implements of torture, and I thought of a tradesman who would make living by designing such things. The air stank of burnt meat. Ryelt stepped aside, talking to the frail looking dark elf, who was whistling softly, while tending to the pair of red-hot pincers heating on the coal brazier. They exchanged a few words, ignoring me completely. I turned away from them, concentrating instead on the prisoner, who did not appear conscious.
Right away, I could see that the tortured man was taller and more muscular than an average drow. In itself that meant nothing. I towered two heads over most of the locals. But his blunt nose and round chin indicated mixed origins. His ears looked less pointy than those of a pure-blood dark elf, and his skin tone was grayish rather than ebony black; even taking into account the pallor of his near-death condition. Something about the prisoner looked familiar, but I could not place him, however hard I tried.
"You've had this man here for some time." I commented chillily to Ryelt, who finished his brief exchange with the jailor. "How can he be relevant to the events that occurred only yesterday?"
"You are not as well versed in the arts of torture chamber as I thought, e'spdon." Ryelt's voice slithered like a roll of oiled silk, the red gleam of his eyes concealed under the heavy eyelids. "My dungeon master only had a few hours to work on him. The co'nbluth looks worse than he is. Half an hour with a cleric who does not sprawl before the Dark Mother should bring the wretch back to sound condition."
"What an interesting detail of your personal arrangements with the divine.”
"Surely you won't blame me for trading favors with the servants of the Masked Lord, e'spdon? Not after I saw you foil the marketplace with ashes of the Sisterhood's guards."
I quirked an eyebrow at his presumption. "I would not blame you for being clever and farsighted. Yet there are others, who might find your prudence offensive, or even call it 'blasphemy'."
Ryelt hissed, but I stared him down, waving away his obvious displeasure. "Why don't you tell your men to take the prisoner down, and bring in the aforesaid priest? I have little desire to interrogate a corpse."
"If I did not see you send a score of Iolathe's best to the Dark Mother's Realm, I would have questioned your worth, e'spdon." Ryelt muttered indolently. "As it stands, I will oblige you this one time. But don't expect me to let the co'nbluth live. He owes me blood price for endangering my household."
"Keep pelting me with riddles without providing coherent answers, smuggler, and you'll never get paid for your services."
"Patience is a virtue, e'spdon." Ryelt gave me an evil grin. "I hoped to provide you with some answers here, but my helper seems to have lost his touch." He nodded at the frail drow male and his set of tools. "Pull the stubborn wretch down, Dro, and sent someone to fetch the priest. There is a Masked Lord's servant among the half-bloods that toil for the guild. Let him know he is being summoned to take care of one of his own." He looked me in the eye and smirked. "And ask them to send down a boy with a jug of Morimatra. My guest here might need reinforcement."
While Dro and a couple of his henchmen took care of their unconscious victim, Ryelt pulled me aside and settled down for a drink. The stone slab looked like it was brought here for a different purpose, but at least the blood stains had been mostly washed away. A kobold runner brought us a jug of spicy, burning wine and a pair of stoneware goblets. If Ryelt was testing me, he was out of luck – my fit of revulsion had passed, replaced by seething irritation. I loathed being brought there even for a short visit. Shadows thrown off by the glowing brazier played on the walls of the vaulted, low-ceilinged chamber. It smelled strongly of blood, both old and new. Irenicus began to whisper in my head, and his quiet, unintelligible muttering sounded like he was loosing his grip on his sanity. I went still. Some important fact was trembling at the edge of my awareness, yet I could not grasp it and that was driving me crazy.
"Now, will you tell me what is this all about?" I took a sip of harsh, mouth-burning liquid and looked my host in the eye.
"What do you want to know, e'spdon?" Ryelt toasted me with his own cup.
"Who is the wretched half-drow and what's his connection to the Lost One?"
"Is this how you call your pet darthiir?" He nodded to himself. "The half-man is her paramour, however improbable this might sound to you. His name is Jabplynn, and he plays drums in one of my establishments."
A few more pieces of the puzzle clicked in my head, connecting into a pattern. I briefly touched the roll of parchment in the pocket of my robes. Vengeance proved to be good at her word – a letter was delivered to my attention as we were leaving Ryelt's hideout for his headquarters. I was barely able to scan through it, before he took me down to the dungeons, yet what I gained from it was enough to start making assumptions.
"Was he one of the pair that played in the Broken Jug yesterday?" I asked disinterestedly.
"Yes, he was. While the darthiir wench was scavenging the tables for leftovers," Ryelt glowered. "I allowed the half-man to earn his living by entertaining my guests, and he repaid me by bringing a fugitive darthiir into my home. I will skin him alive, after Dro finishes squeezing the last bit of information out of him."
"How do you know she was with this one?"
"The co'nbluth was asking after her at the marketplace right before it all started, and I recognized him at once. I remembered the musicians bringing a hooded sidekick along, although I never bothered to look under the hood. I always thought she was a half-blooded boy for some reason. I watched him when the darthiir exposed herself for what she is. He was terrified, but actively tried to get closer to her. After you proceeded to wipe out the priestess and her guards, I thought it prudent to take him with me."
"Too bad you could not pick up the darthiiri wench as well. It would have simplified matters. Treachery put her out of my reach, so I could not question her."
"The darthiir was too close to the priestess, e'spdon. I was not going to risk my life for the sake of your convenience."
"Point taken." I sighed profoundly taking a sip of my wine. The fiery liquid eased the twisted knot in my stomach., shifting the moans of the near dead man, the mutterings of the drow torturer, and the stench of blood to another plane of existence. "I suppose I owe you for whisking this one out from under Treachery's nose. There is something about that female..." I shrugged without finishing the sentence, and was rewarded by a glint of pure malice in Ryelt's purple-red eyes. "The Matron of House Torafin would have found out about your involvement, were the half-drow accidentally to fall into her hands. I suppose, I should feel lucky that our interests coincided."
Ryelt saluted me with his cup again, silently offering to refill mine, but I stopped his hand.
"There is, however, something more to this whole affair."
"Is not it always the case, e'spdon?"
"How long has your entertainer been bringing the darthiir to your hideout?" I asked him suddenly.
"I can ask around if you insist this is relevant." Ryelt's voice sounded bored, but I knew his wits were as sharp as his blade. "I recall seeing her there on the last spring equinox – during the Blooding festivities. So, she was with him for at least that long."
“Meaning she was probably taken captive and brought into Ust-Natha in Ardulace's last raid?”
“This is plausible enough, except that all Ardulace's captives were allegedly sacrificed to the Dark Mother.” Ryelt shook his head. “Chaos protect us, that raid brought a disaster on its heels. I suppose, anything could have happened in the ensuing weeks of madness. We had the bloody demigod walking the streets – disguised as a straggler from Chez-Nazad.” He gave me a curious look.
“There is nothing divine about me, if that's what you are thinking,” I reassured him wryly, and felt a briefest touch of bitter laughter echoing in the deep recesses of my mind. The sensation was bizarre enough to make me hide my face in my cup. The sheer smell of the wine made my head spin a little.
“A master of the Arcane with power such as yours comes as close to divinity as we get them here, e'spdon.” Ryelt winked at me. “Although I hope that your visit to our city won't end in the same way.” His speech sounded a little sluggish now, but I suspected he was faking most of the effect.
“Going back to our discussion,” I interrupted his musings. Gods forbid, but barring the fact that Ryelt would cheerfully string me up next to his half-drow captive at the first notion of my true identity, I almost started to like his dry humor. “I have reasons to believe that the darthiir comes from the surface city stock. I was told that the late Streeka was responsible for her mutilations.”
“Aye, Iolathe's youngest enjoyed offering gifts of pain to the Dark Mother,” Ryelt confirmed readily. “Some say she enjoyed it too much, even to the detriment of her other devotions. Matron Ardulace Despana had been the only one who could keep that one in hand, which could not be said about her mother, Matron Iolathe Zauviir. When the old spider and her brood were slaughtered by the demon, Streeka and her lover had their run of the captives' pen for a fortnight or so. That's why I am surprised your darthiir has somehow escaped her fate.”
“I keep forgetting you are a visitor to our fine city,” Ryelt smirked at me and refilled our cups, since I was too preoccupied with this new riddle to stop his hand. “Streeka Zauviir and Madness Torafin were an item for such a long time that it stopped being a respectable topic for gossip-mongers.”
“Ah.” I considered this latest tidbit for a moment. “I suppose Madness' desertion of her own House in favor of House Zauviir makes more sense now.”
“As if females' bouts of insanity need any excuses!” My interlocutor spat and took a deep pull of his Morimatra. “Some would say that House Torafin carries a unique curse. Their females are famous for betraying their own flesh and blood for the sheer joy of the act, even when it makes more sense to preserve faith and keep the House strong. It pleases the Goddess, they say, but also keeps the House from ever ascending to the rank of the First. Chaos protect us, I still don't see how all of this is relevant to your little puzzle?! Even assuming that your darthiir somehow lived through Streeka's ministrations.”
“Oh , but it does,” I confirmed smugly. “It also gives me new perspective on my situation.” His wine was getting into my head, but I was too strung up to care. "Withal, we are still missing some vital pieces of information here."
"I am certain Dru can get the half-man to speak, given time," Ryelt assured me cheerfully. "In the mean time we can sit back and send for more liquor."
"That is, if he does not send your captive to the Dark Mother's Pits before time! Where is your promised priest, smuggler? I want the half-breed, mended before I even come close to him."
"Too squeamish to look, eh, mage? What is it with you, arcane types? Cooking two dozen men alive in their armor like a bucket of prawns is alright – as far as you don't have to touch the bodies afterward."
"Bloodstains are awfully hard to get off."
"Ah, I suppose summoning a demon to do your laundry is considered frivolous abuse of power? Still, tell me, e'spdon..."
My head was spinning too fast, as the fires of his potent drink spread through my body. I began to panic quietly, when we finally were interrupted. One of Ryelt's agents dragged in a scrawny looking half-breed, dressed in rugged vestments that looked anything but priestly.
Chitine resembles a sickly, white, four-feet tall humanoid with vaguely spider-like features. They have wavy hair, sly faces, and spider's fangs protrude from their mouths. The lore says they were created inadvertently by the drow as a result of failed experiments on normal humanoids.
e'spdon-- archmage, (Drow)
co'nbluth - non-drow (Drow)
Taking place during the Year of Shadows, 1358 DR, the Time of Troubles was a period during which the gods of Faerûn were forced to walk the earth in their mortal avatar forms. During that time, the clerics of various faiths were denied access to their divine patrons.
Morimatra is a spiced wine favored by the Drow. Biting, harsh, and a kick in the stomach this liquid is rarely drank by any save the Drow for very obvious reasons