An Odd Dagger

Chapter 1. The Grin

A smile slowly crossed the wicked face of Jhul’Afae, for the game had taken an unsuspected turn. Facing his audience of fools once more, the drow prince masterfully replaced that rare smile with his more characteristic scowl before any of them could sense his deception. Not that it really mattered, as deception was the only game played among the Houses of Ill’Dereth, and it would have been quite out of place if Jhul’Afae was up to anything else. He did not erase the smile because he was afraid the others would recognize his wickedness, he did so only because there were some rules to this game and keeping up appearances had always been a large part of things.

“You expect me to stand here while you speak of the honor of House Dre’kel and the worth of its vast holdings. And you equate this greatness to what…the issue of your loins? By the Queen’s Unholy Web, Xul’Nohlu, your arrogance is unsurpassed and this insult will not fall quietly!” The retort was perfectly placed and judging by the red-faced, blubbering reaction of all six house elders, Jhul’Afae had scored a blow that reached much further than he had expected.

Xul’Nohlu rose from his ebon chair with violence playing across is violet eyes and strands of his long white hair, caught in disorderly tangles, snagged upon the jagged ornaments of his royal body armor. The drow elder of House Barh’Uk was unable to contain himself and Jhul’Afae knew that his words had penetrated that armor and beyond.

“You go too far, Jhul’Afae Do Excair! I offer a union of our two houses in the face of our common enemy. My ships for an eighth of your trade plus my daughter’s hand and you cry insult! And to think I had a hand at stopping your assassins a year ago. It seems House Trevane was right to put that price on your head. Does anyone here know if that price still stands?”

The room of elven nobles suddenly burst into a cacophony of shouts and threats and posturing as the minor Houses vied to align themselves on one side of the conflict or the other. Jhul’Afae used the chaos to turn once more to the open windows of House Dre’kel’s manor perched high upon the cliffs overlooking the black waters of the Sea of Fallen Stars.

He gazed down upon the town of Ill’Dereth far below and spoke quietly into the spider pendant clipped to his lapel. The others continued to argue and bicker just twenty feet behind him, but none would suspect Jhul’Afae possessed the magic to communicate to his compatriot waiting patiently on the cobbled streets below.

“He offers up his daughter, just as we thought, Vi’rel. It is time to move, and it must be done quickly…before this meeting adjourns.”

There was a moment’s pause and then the voice of Vi’rel, House Dre’kel’s Master Assassin came across the pendent in clear but quiet tones, “It shall be done, my Master.”

Lord Jhul’Afae, Prince of House Dre’kel smiled that awful smile once more before turning to face his audience again.

Chapter 2. The Snake

Vi’rel moved like a black adder through the sparsely populated streets of Ill’Dereth. The town itself was small when compared to the vast vaults the dark elves commanded throughout the Underdark, and he had no trouble moving about without drawing attention to himself. But, of course, only the witless would pay him any mind as it was, for the people of Ill’Dereth knew where Vi’rel stalked, death was close upon his heels.

A young woman dressed in thistleshroud skirt and tattered cloak was selling dried eel from a rack squeezed between the alley space of two stone buildings. She pulled her cloak’s cowl over her head and took a step backward into the shadows of the alleyway as he passed. Such was the reaction he expected and commanded from those who lived in Ill’Dereth. Others upon the street gave Vi’rel wide berth without making eye contact with the dangerous drow. He felt like an invisible ship plying dark waters, sowing fear within its wake.

Vi’rel moved with purpose as time was of the essence if his current employer’s plan was to succeed today. The Master Assassin felt sure it would, too, for he and Jhul’Afae had spent many evenings planning for each and every conceivable outcome of the summit. The meetings were held once each growing cycle and were attended by the various nobility along the trade routes of Aglarond around the Sea of Fallen Stars. The meetings were always full of treachery and deceit, but today Jhul’Afae had something else in mind; revenge upon House Barh’Uk – the real power behind a failed assassination four cycles ago.

Vi’rel quickly passed by the collection of stone houses and tall warehouses lining both sides of the cobbled streets as he made his way down to the docks, for the creature he sought had recently made its home along the stone pilings that lined the shore there. Halfway through town, the street sloped severely down toward the seaside docks and streaks of dark blue and violet light played more heavily upon the buildings there
The light originated from the Sea of Fallen Stars itself, produced by vast clouds of phosphorescence that billowed about the waters of the subterranean lake, giving it its name. The light from the waters joined in ever-shifting beams that shot from the water’s surface and stretched out toward the walls and ceiling of the massive cavern for hundreds of miles. Specks of green and purple light winked back from glowing fungi and mica that lined the surface of the cavern, like so many stars on a dark night.

The soft sound made by the assassin’s boots as he walked along the cobbles changed to muffled thumps when he reached the quay. The smell of stale sea water and old fish lay about the docks like a wet blanket; Vi’rel scowled and wrinkled his nose at the stench. Here at the town docks, stone piers and great basalt pilings reached like gnarled black fingers into the colorful waters and hundreds of fishing vessels, dhows and junks were lashed in chaotic pattern along their lengths.

All along the shoreline and littering the docks were countless filthy stone structures where drow fishermen eked out a living. Some of the pathetic hovels were homes, while others were store houses for spools of seines, small rowboats and other supplies the fishermen depended on. Still other buildings served as storefronts where the fisher folk sold the blind whitefish they took from the sea or scrimshaw carvings they made from fishbone.

Just a short way down the first pier and between a squat two-story tenement and a warehouse, Vi’rel found the tiny stone hut he was looking for.

“Your payment is due,” Vi’rel said as he opened the crude door and strode through the entry without knocking. Inside, the small room was cramped but surprisingly neat, its occupants leapt up in surprise from hammocks and makeshift bunk-beds where they had been laying. The assassin nearly laughed out loud at the sight of them. Nearly a dozen small creatures wrapped in black cloth and cloaks which covered every inch of their bodies save for their black and hairy hands and the cloven hoofed feet. The things grabbed for their little crossbows and daggers.

“Too late,” Vi’rel thought to himself, “if I had meant you harm you would all be dead by now.”

Seated at a table in the center of the room, another creature, more humanoid and just a finger’s breadth shorter than Vi’rel, also leapt to its feet, holding its hands up in the air and shouting to the smaller ones. “Hold!” the thing screamed, “this is not how we honor our guest!”

“Hear me, chuul, I find little honor in visiting you,” Vi’rel said with a sneer.

The drow took a moment to study the figure before him. The creature was tall and thin, perhaps lithe was a better way to describe it. The creature wore the same black wrappings and heavy cowled cloak as the smaller ones did, but it also wore a crude type of mail under its wrappings. The armor seemed to be formed from fancy bits of metal and leather. While much of the creature’s face was left in the shadow, Vi’rel could see pale red eyes gleam faintly from under its cloak’s hood.

When the creature spoke, it often boasted in a raspy voice, claiming to be some great hero of its people. While the creature was clearly a poor wretch, it led the little ones and commanded their loyalties. Vi’rel could see that its skin was not dark and hairy like the little ones, but white as bone and smooth. Admittedly, its face was handsome, for a creature, and was crisscrossed with an intricate design of self-inflicted scars and tattoos that the drow found appealing. Vi’rel could never decide if it was the skin designs or the creature’s boastful puffery that allowed him to take pity upon it.

It was a chuul for certain, the drow name given to any one of the lesser beasts found in the Underdark that had somehow evolved over time to develop speech. Being chuul, it had little intelligence and was weak and lazy. Chuul were normally ill-suited for the hard labor of a slave. In certain vaults, such as Erelhei-Kinestan, the chuul were simply hunted for sport.

But in the great cities of the Underdark, like Aglarond’s capital city of Erelhei-Cinlu, and its outlying towns like Ill’Dereth, the chuul were simply run out of town. In truth, they did not pose a danger to the drow and were merely pathetic nuisances. This one had arrived in the harbor town upon a makeshift raft a few months past along with its crew of “little ones”. At first, Jhul’Afae had asked that they be removed beyond the borders of the town where the local wildlife could have their way with them. But Vi’rel convinced the town’s lord that perhaps the chuul could be of some use to them.

Vi’rel continued, “I told you the lord of this town would allow you to stay here on the docks, but it would cost you. And now the time has come for your payment.”

The chuul stood up straight at that point, actually gaining a level of height above that of Vi’rel. The assassin was astonished at this, since he prided himself on his skill at observation and he had always judged this creature to be of slightly smaller stature than himself. The chuul certainly had an ability to disguise its actual size and the fact that it had deceived Vi’rel rankled at the dark elf.

“Yes, m’Lord,” the creature spoke, “as agreed upon when last we met, Yathaub and those that honorably serve under him are ready and willing to make restitution toward your generous hospitality, for we have travelled quite far in order…”

“Ahem,” Vi’rel smoothly cut in on the chuul’s over-eloquent discourse, “I see. Well, my time is short so let us be done with this, shall we?” Vi’rel stepped up to the table across from where the creature stood. The smaller ones had put down their silly weapons at their master’s bidding, but when Vi’rel approached, they also moved in close, arrayed out behind the tall chuul, six to a side.

“Lord Jhul’Afae has demanded that in payment for your residence in his town that you carry out a task for him. A short time ago, a follower of the false god Tharizdun arrived in our town and is seeking to gather converts from our populace. The Web Mistress has forbidden such acts and has decreed them punishable by death. Lord Jhul’Afae is currently in a very important meeting with the other Lords of the Sea of Fallen Stars and cannot be bothered with the task. All of his guards are needed to protect his own person and none can be spared.”

At that point, Vi’rel reached within the folds of his own cloak and drew forth a small bundle of oiled rags which he carefully laid upon the table before them. With equal care, the drow assassin unrolled the bundle to reveal a dark leather hilt protruding from an equally dark leather sheath, decorated with strange whorled etchings that made Vi’rel nauseous if he looked upon it too closely. Grasping the hilt, he drew the weapon from its sheath and its fat, ugly blade came into view. The blade itself was made from adamantine, a valuable metal found throughout the Underdark and prized for its arcane properties. The blade was nearly hollow and the cavity within filled with a poison Vi’rel had prepared himself, milked from the glands of an abberated chitine from the beast pits outside of Erelhei-Cinlu.

“Take this,” Vi’rel said. “You will find the blasphemous one on the beach not far beyond the last pier heading Vaultward,” he said, pointing in the general direction of the capital city of Erelhei-Cinlu. “She will be with one of her hand-maidens and probably her manservant, as well. Pay no heed to these other two, they are of no concern. Walk directly up to her and tell her you wish to hear more of the “true gods”. She will be delighted, I am sure to hear this, and will approach you willingly. When she gets within reach, you will plunge this into her chest. You must drive it all the way in to the hilt and you must leave the blade within her body. Do not pull the blade free once you have completed the stroke. The poison within will work fast. Return to your home and do not speak to anyone. I will arrive later to award you the deed to this house where you will be welcome to stay by the grace of Lord Jhul’Afae. Do you understand all that I have asked of you?”

The chuul grinned. Vi’rel noticed that its teeth were perfect and even whiter than its pale skin. “But of course, m’Lord,” the creature said smoothly, bowing its head slightly in Vi’rel’s direction. “Yathaub understands perfectly and would be honored to carry out this most important mission for his Lordship.”

“Very good, chuul. And be careful with that blade. A scratch from it would surely kill you,” said Vi’rel as he turned to leave.

“Yathaub has but one question for you, Your Greatness,” came the voice of the chuul. Vi’rel scowled and stopped just short of the doorway as the creature continued, “While Yathaub and his companions are more than pleased to carry out this mission, he asks himself why someone such as m’Lord Vi’rel doesn’t complete the task? Yathaub is renown among his people for his judgment in character and he sees quite clearly that you are more than capable.”

Vi’rel’s face turned ugly as anger boiled within him. The chuul’s question was clearly phrased with the right amount of humility for one so low speaking to his betters, so it was not so much what the creature said, but something in the way it spoke. If Vi’rel didn’t know chuul were incapable of something as sophisticated as sarcasm, the assassin could almost believe he detected a hint of mockery in the creature’s tone of voice.

Gaining his composure, Vi’rel turned back to face the room of chuul and he forced a wide, thin smile across his face. When it came out, his voice was higher and thinner than he wanted. He did not like being caught off guard and this chuul had managed that twice in the span of a few minutes. In that instant he silently vowed to slay the creature and its pathetic followers when this business was through.

“You must be joking, chuul,” he said as evenly as he could. “I have no talent for this type of thing. Please, now, be off with you and do it quickly. I must get back to our Lord’s manor at once.” And with that, Vi’rel left the hut, shutting the door softly on his way out.

Vi’rel was worried as he walked the length of the pier back to the cobbled streets of town. He was suddenly having doubts about this chuul, Yathaub, and its ability to carry out simple orders. It was imperative that he, himself, remain clear of the murder. If it wasn’t so he would take great pleasure in murdering the wench. The Web Mistress preaches that the spider spins many rings within her web, and so must the layers be within the Game of Houses. The daughter to Lord Xul’Nohlu of House Barh’Uk must die within the hour and, no less, by the poisoned blade of Prince Zho’ Khodor of House Trevane. For at this very moment, Jhul’Afae was grudgingly agreeing to the terms set forth by Barh’Uk for a lucrative trade agreement between the two Houses. As part of that agreement, the Prince would be effectively marrying the Princess of House Barh’Uk. The marriage would be legal and her death would not change the contract but it would free Jhul’Afae to marry again, if necessary. Further, Trevane would be neatly framed for the murder and, being the girl’s station lay outside that of the Game itself, cause such shame that Trevane would soon find itself in ruin, shunned by the other Houses for such a grievous breach of etiquette. In one fell stroke, his master will have gained access to a fleet of merchant vessels, dodged an unwanted marriage, and extracted revenge and dishonor upon two of his most hated enemies. A masterful stroke, indeed.

Besides, thought, Vi’rel, getting that dagger away from House Trevane without raising suspicion was a terribly difficult task and more than one of his operatives had lost their lives in its acquisition. The Trevane Dagger was forged in the foul Halls of Dyr’Fel by the demon smith Ghealt for one purpose – to win at the Game of Houses, and now that Vi’rel possessed the thing, he would make damned sure it served it function. How fitting, he thought, the dagger’s bite would ultimately bring about the doom of its master.

No, he would not return to the manor just yet. He would need to keep an eye on this Yathaub. Too many things could go wrong, he realized now. It had been difficult to convince the girl’s handmaiden that a walk on the shores of the Sea of Fallen Stars just outside of town at just this very moment in time would be an experience the Princess would not want to miss.Too bad she had no idea how wrong that was, he thought.

Chapter 3. Tilting At Windmills

The ramshackle buildings of Ill’Dereth spread slowly down the sloped cavern walls and crept forlornly into the Sea of Fallen Stars. While the finer homes and shops were found only at higher elevations, warehouses and poor tenements crowded the shores at the water’s edge which lapped without remorse at the stone structures. The poorest of the dark elves eked out an existence here, if barely; trolling for blind fish or scavenging for fungus and large insects. The stench of rot was overpowering upon the quay.

But further out along the shores of the sea, out beyond the skeletal stone biers and pilings that was home to Ill’Dereth’s armada of fishing vessels, the air became much more tolerable. Along the far stretches of smooth, black rock beach, one could almost find peace and tranquility, if not for the bevy of carnivorous beasts who constantly prowled the great cavern or swam the depths of the sea looking for stragglers who wander too far from the protection of city walls.

These dangers, though, were not unfamiliar to the pair walking slowly along the beach and away from Ill’Dereth. Yathaub spoke quietly to the closest of his creeper allies as they walked.

“Ah, I can understand your hesitation, my dear friend,” Yathaub said in his version of a cheerful voice, “the drow cannot be trusted and they cannot fathom the simplest forms of honor. But there is an opportunity here, and I intend to grab hold of it!” He shook his fist as he spoke and exuberance played across his scarred face.

The pair, one tall and lanky dressed in a thin black cloak while the other stood just above the tall one’s knees but dressed just as darkly, hobbled across the slick lakeshore stones. They were just outside of town and making their way along the old stone piers, the smaller one was having troubles as his cloven hooves were ill-suited for smooth loose stones.

As they rounded a huge column of rock marking a bend in the shoreline, Yathaub suddenly stopped short. His voice and facial features changed as a deadly serious pall drifted over him even though his gate and posture remained casual. “That must be them,” he said softly to his shorter companion and pointing to a trio of figures thirty yards further up the beach, “the big one is yours. I’ll handle the other two.”

The trio was close enough that Yathaub could make out some details and it appeared they hadn’t been spotted in return. A large drow in fanciful armor and shield bearing a winged crest sat upon a large rock a dozen feet from the water’s edge. His helmet lay on the stone next to him, but even from this distance Yathaub noted the formidable arsenal the bodyguard carried. His scimitar was sheathed and attached to his belt where two hand crossbows and a large knife were also visible. Strapped upon his back was a jet black alatl along with a quiver stuffed full of deadly javelins. This beast was nothing to be trifled with and Yathaub suddenly worried that his lone creeper would be enough to handle him.

On the beach before him two other figures ran about. Their actions confused Yathaub and caused him to pause. He was vaguely aware of his creeper vanishing into the shadows before him, wrapping itself in its black cloak and doing what creepers do best – creep. Yathaub held out a hand and motioned for the little creature to stop.

The other two drow were clearly female, fairly young, perhaps just entering adulthood, and they were dressed in men’s clothing – tight silk breeches, flowing shirts and high leather boots. Both had long wavy hair, one jet black and the other silvery white. But what stunned Yathaub the most was what they were doing. Accustomed to the deadly serious nature of the drow race, Yathaub was stunned to see the two apparently playing like small children.

Their lithe forms darted and dashed along the water’s edge as they chased one another. The dark haired one nearly trapped the other between the water and a boulder, but the white haired one bent down to scoop a handful of muck and wet sand and hurled at her attacker’s face. The dark haired one ducked and the lobbed missile flew harmlessly over her head. The two girls laughed and it was a sound foreign, yet not unpleasant, to Yathaub. Their laughter was high pitched, but not shrill. Yathaub thought it sounded more like small bells chiming than anything else.

Now the silver-haired one was giving chase and the two jumped and squealed in delight as the other ran in a zig-zag pattern across the rocks, staying just out beyond the reach of her pursuer. Yathaub watched, mesmerized by the sight of the two lithe figures gracefully and joyfully playing along the beach. So caught up was he, that he failed to find cover when they suddenly turned up the beach in his direction. He didn’t even move as the two chased each other to within twenty yards of where he stood. The silver haired one noticed him standing there, dumbfounded, and she pulled up short. The dark haired one caught her around the waist, laughing.

“Caught you, Shensen!” she said and then let out a slight squeal when she looked up and saw they were not alone. “Oh, hello. I hope we weren’t bothering you,” the dark-haired one said to Yathaub. With a fearsome growl, the large male drow leapt to his feat and bounded the ten yards to catch up with the two girls, drawing and loading his deadly alatl as he came.

Something in the back of Yathaub’s mind told him that he was in trouble, but his gaze had locked upon the jet black eyes of the dark haired drow and he found he could not move, he even wondered if he was breathing. Not once in his life had he beheld such beauty and his heart thudded noisily in his ears. He was vaguely aware of another sound and then he realized that the male drow was shouting at him.

“I said back off, chuul! Take another step forward and you will die before your foot hits the ground.”

The dark-haired drow took hold of the male’s thick arm and gently scolded him. “Gohrl, calm down. If he was here to threaten us he would have done so already instead of just standing there. He looks perfectly harmless to me and it is my guess that this is one of those seeking knowledge that we’ve heard about.”

Yathaub’s senses had not completely returned to him, but he did recognize the harsh, one-syllable name the dark-haired one gave to the male. The drow adhered to an exclusive rule of two or more elegant sounding names conjoined by a single letter denoting rank within the family. Only outsiders and outcasts were given one syllable names and the very harsh sounding ones were given to eunuchs and chuul. Yathaub took this one for a eunuch bodyguard, a suitable companion for female royalty.

At that moment, Yathaub also noticed the leather neck collar and wrist cuffs on the silver-haired drow. The runes and symbols etched along the leather clearly denoted ownership and subservience – a hand maiden, if he had to guess. Which would make the raven-haired goddess…..his mark.

The scowl dropped from Gohrl’s face and was quickly replaced by a look of worry, “My lady, if I may disagree, he doesn’t look all that harmless to me.” “Nonsense, Gohrl. We’ve just startled him,” said the dark haired drow as she walked forward to greet Yathaub. She smiled at him as she held her hand out to him, “I am Laila d’aub, and if you have come to hear about the path to true wealth then you have come to the right place.”

At that moment, Yathaub’s heart tore in two . . .

Yathaub tried to listen; to concentrate on what she was saying, but it was very difficult; and what in reality was the better part of an hour, seemed to him as but a few passing moments. There was something about a vision…or a dream, it wasn’t quite clear to him as her voice, her wondrous voice kept getting in the way. And then there was a man, or something like that, and his skin was pale and he lived within a vault of some kind where the cavern roof was a brilliant blue and a single bright light lit the vault with a terrible brightness. He was sure that this part was correct, except that she seemed to have doused herself earlier with a truly amazing perfume and the scent of her was severely distracting.

The man had shown her, no…not her…her handmaiden, the one named Shensen…yes, that was it…he had shown her a disc with an arc cutting across its face and a half circle upon the arc and this disc or this symbol or …or whatever…held some sort of importance. This part was a bit fuzzy to Yathaub as he found himself unable to remove his gaze from her lips. They seemed to hypnotize him as she spoke. His mind wandered. He could hear her words just fine, but he didn’t care what they meant, all that mattered was how her words were formed. Her lips and her mouth seemed to move in ways that . . .

Yathaub was vaguely aware that she spoke of a great wealth that the man in the blue vault spoke to Shensen about in her vision. But the wealth was not of coin or material goods, but a wealth of another kind. There was something to do with a gift that had long been lost by the drow. Yathaub tried to concentrate on this, but that beautiful silky black hair kept interrupting his thoughts.

Now she spoke of a voyage – no, a long journey – to lands far away … and above. Her handmaiden’s visions, and the man in the blue vault….she was sure they were needed there with the man and she was determined to see this journey through. They had come along with her father, the head of House Barh’Uk, but the three of them planned to leave him. Shensen’s visions had led them here, to Ill’Dereth, but now their path lay beyond. She began to tell him then that they had spoken to others about Shensen’s vision and that they had only been met with scoffs and derision…this concerned her and she was worried for her race and there was something more about the gift they had lost…but they were walking up the beach again and she was walking and she was moving and…and the way she walked turned his world upside down.

“And so I was sure that once we reached Ill’Dereth we would find someone who could explain these visions and what it all means. I cannot explain why I feel so, but I am quite certain Shensen has seen a great truth and I am compelled to see that she finds answers of a satisfying nature,” Laila d’aub said as they rounded the sharp bend along the beach that lead back toward town. Yathaub walked beside her and Shensen, who had said not a word the whole time, walked dutifully two paces behind them. The eunuch, Gohrl, kept vigil a few more paces further back.

“You are the only one from the town who has shown an interest in what we have to say. Do you have skills with interpreting visions such as this? What do you think this means?” Laila d’aub stopped walking and turned to look at Yathaub, waiting for his answer.

Yathaub was suddenly aware that she was considering him and her eyes were dark as jet. He felt himself float within those eyes and the ground seemed to drop from beneath his feet. So he spoke the only words he could . . .

“Yathaub is yours, m’lady,” he said kneeling down before her upon one knee, “your words have ensnared my very soul and my life is hereby yours to command. Upon my faith I swear to you, m’lady, I shall follow you to the ends of the earth and hereby I lay my life at your feet. Know this, that my love for you knows no bounds.”

Laila d’aub jumped just slightly as if suddenly waking from a dream and discovering she had been speaking with a madman. A very long and uncomfortable moment passed as she stood frozen, staring down at the kneeling figure before her. Shensen gingerly stepped up to her and lightly squeezed her arm, burying her face into Laila d’aub’s shoulder and hiding her face from view. Shensen shook just slightly, as if she were sobbing and she made quiet mewling sounds.

Yathaub stared at the pair and at once realized his proclamation was a worthy one. Any heartfelt speech such as the one he had just given which could bring a fair maiden to tears like that was most certainly a sign that his words had reached the heavens above and the very gods and makers of all things had taken notice.

Shensen shook more violently now and her sobs were more pronounced. Laila d’aub’s face suddenly scrunched up and she held a delicate hand up to her mouth. And then, in a most un-lady-like fashion, Laila d’aub burst into a gale of pure laughter. Shensen broke away from her then and she turned in Yathaub’s direction. Tears of mirth streamed down her face and she bent over, holding her sides.

Chapter 4. The Dagger

Confusion spread across Yathaub’s face as he spoke, “M’lady, Yathaub does not understand. These are not laughing matters we speak of. How is it that you and your handmaiden spend so much time laughing and giggling like giddy children? Yathaub has never seen drow laugh when not out of cruelty, and yet it appears the two of you are quite adept at it. Could it be a disease or strange malady you suffer?”

Laila d’aub wiped a delicate hand across her face to clear away the tears. “Oh, no, Yathaub. Forgive us. It’s just that . . . “

Laila d’aub’s words were suddenly cut short by a sharp sound from Gohrl. The eunuch looked startled as he stared upwards at the cavern roof, his mouth hanging open. The giant drow’s eye’s became unfocused as if he were mesmerized and a sickening gurgle issued from his throat as he sank to his knees in the pebbly beach. As Gohrl’s body fell forward, Yathaub saw the dark form of Vi’rel, Ill’Dereth’s master assassin standing just inches behind where the eunuch had been.

How the elf had gotten there unseen and unheard was beyond Yathaub’s comprehension. He had heard the drow were masters of dark magic, so perhaps Vi’rel was both a professional killer and a sorcerer, as well, adding a very dangerous set of skills to an already very dangerous man. And while Yathaub understood that Vi’rel had hired him to kill Laila d’aub, the presence of the master assassin right here and now could not be a good thing.

Vi’rel had gone to great length to hire Yathaub and his band of followers to commit this assassination, convincing Yathaub that he and his master, this Prince Jhul’Afae, must remain unconnected to the murder. Furthermore, Yathaub had reasoned the dagger Vi’rel had given him was to play a role in this whole affair. Vi’rel had ordered him to leave the dagger at the scene of the crime, still embedded in the victim, alluding this was necessary for the poison to work. But Yathaub was no stranger to the workings of poison. He had been fascinated by the weapon and had studied the dagger intently and the poison cartridges stored within its blade for quite some time after Vi’rel had left and he knew the blade had but to scratch its victim for the venom to work its magic. He knew the venom inside was a fast acting paralytic that acted within the body’s blood stream to shut down bodily functions, and not a necrotic poison where prolonged exposure to flesh would aid in its effectiveness. And he had reasoned that Vi’rel knew this too, which meant the dagger itself was important to the crime. That whomever the dagger had belonged to was meant to be framed for the murder. Yathaub knew this and had accepted this as just part of the bargain. Vi’rel had also tried to make it seem that he was not an assassin, yet here he was —assassinating.

Vi’rel had somehow managed to approach the group without notice, which meant the drow was either very skilled, had some means of magical aid or was very lucky; and Yathaub did not believe in luck. Further, Vi’rel had apparently killed the drow body guard, Gohrl, in a single strike. Once again, Yathuab discounted luck at having anything to do with it. Vi’rel was a killer, and he was very good at it.

In a swift motion, Vi’rel used his foot to push the body of Gohrl, sliding his blade free from the corpse with a sickening ring. Without hesitation the master assassin stepped over the body and brought his sword arm back, bending his elbow behind him. Yathaub’s mind raced, tracing a line between the point of Vi’rel’s sword and its intended target. It was clear the assassin meant to strike the young princess, Laila d’aub. Yathaub could picture the assassin’s sword slicing through her tender form and the spray of crimson lifeblood that would follow. Her blood. Still, he was paralyzed in that half-moment, unable to act and confused by his own emotions.

Vi’rel took another quick step toward Laila d’aub and his sword arm flashed forward. But as quick as the assassin was, the young servant girl, Shensen, was even faster as in one motion she drew the long knife from the sheath at her hip and stepped in from Vi’rel’s left side. She reached in low with the knife and with a clash of metal knocked the assassin’s blade sideways. It wasn’t much, but it was just enough to throw off Vi’rel’s stroke and his blade slipped past the princess’ left side at elbow height, slicing through cloth but not flesh. Laila d’aub let out a slight squeal of terror and leapt backwards, she fumbled at the straps to her own rapier but managed to free the weapon clumsily. It was obvious to Yathuab the girl was not trained to proficiency in combat and it was only a matter of time before Vi’rel cut her down.

With a growl, Vi’rel altered his stance and flipped his sword into his left hand, turned his backswing into a mighty upward arc that caught the off-balance Shensen across the side of her head, sending her spinning backwards to collapse against a boulder. Yathaub glanced at the girl, Laila d’aub, and he could see her face, her beautiful face, as she prepared herself for Vi’rel’s advance, and the inevitable, her certain death. It was not fear that played across her face, but a look that struck a final chord in Yathaub’s heart, it was bravery. He knew she was determined to meet her fate head on. It was at that moment Yathaub found his strength and he knew his words spoken earlier were true. With his pledge just minutes ago he had bound himself to her. Her fate and his would be intertwined until the very end. And at that moment Yathaub stepped between the assassin and the princess, drawing his twin daggers, one in each hand.

“Get out of the way, churl,” Vi’rel snarled. “You had your chance, but Lord Jhul’Afae will not stand for incompetence. Step away and you may yet live to see tomorrow.”

Yathaub knew he was outclassed by the master assassin before him. In a stand-up fight, he figured he might last a matter of seconds. In order to live, he had to find a way to even the odds – and he had barely a second to do so. The Dark Ones of Yathaub’s race, the Vuedriel, had survived the rigors and dangers of the Underdark and had become a successful, but obscure, society within the blackened depths. Their survival, however, was not due to their fierce fighting style for no Dark One could ever be mistaken for being particularly fierce or powerful. Their strength lay in guile, trickery and misdirection, talents for which Yathaub was not lacking.

Vi’rel had spent little time with Yathaub and his stalker minions since their first meeting many months before, but in that little time Yathaub had made a quiet study of both Vi’rel and his people. He made certain to observe the dark elves and their ways and mannerisms, looking for any weaknesses in their nature that he might be able to exploit should the need arise. After some weeks of living among the drow, Yathaub had to admit that as a species the dark elves were quite impressive and it was no wonder their race had grown to dominate all others within the lightless realms. The drow had no weaknesses to speak of. They were skilled in all forms of martial combat with a variety of weapons. Up close and personal, a drow will fight with unmatched ferocity combining weapons, poison, magic and uncanny agility to defeat you. Ranged combat with the drow is assuredly a losing proposition as no species Yathaub had yet encountered could strike from a distance with such precise accuracy and with such deadly results. The drow possessed an intelligence that was primed for self protection and the utter destruction of others. Yathaub had seen first hand over the past few months how the drow were master manipulators and deception and wickedness were engrained into the very fabric of their everyday lives. After only three weeks in Il’Dereth he had warned his minions not to provoke any drow in the slightest for even the tiniest provocation could set the drow against you and no amount of precaution would save you for the drow would literally “think around corners” to kill you if they had a mind to do so. And amid all of this the drow, as a race, had fostered a furious aura of arrogance. Bravado and pomposity were the drow’s first weapons and every dark elf was trained from infancy to use their vile haughtiness to fend off would-be aggressors. But in this, Yathaub also saw a weakness, perhaps the only weakness the Elves of the Underdark had.

Yathaub knew the gambit he was about to undertake and he knew his chances of success were slim, at best. But it was the only chance he could see.

“M’Lord, Vi’rel,” Yathaub stammered, “Your message did not say it was you who would come personally for the girl. I was expecting your manservant instead.” Yathaub stared evenly at the master assassin, the lie slipping easily off his tongue.

Vi’rel stopped his advance, a matter of only a few feet separated him from Yathaub and Yathaub breathed a mental sigh of relief.

“What are you talking about, you brainless fool. I sent no message!” Vi’rel snarled. Yathaub noticed how quickly the drow in front of him absorbed this new and obscure piece of information and how his eyes began darting from side to side, scanning for some hidden and unknown enemy.

“Yes you did, Master,” Yathaub continued, “Just a few minutes after you left our meeting. Your manservant arrived and delivered a note written by your hand, saying that the plans had changed and that I was to delay the girl until your servant could arrive to take care of matters.”

Vi’rel’s face looked suddenly quite worried, and then he reached his hand outward, “The note! Give it to me,” he said.

“I burned it just after it was delivered. I did not think you would want something like that lying around,” Yathaub said in a pleading voice.

Vi’rel scowled and then became agitated once again, “This messenger. What did he look like?”

“Well, he was tall and dark and slim . . .”

“Yes, yes, yes!” Vi’rel barked, “You’ve just described the entire Il’Drethian population! Get on with it!”

Yathaub bit down on a smile that threatened to bubble forth to his lips, “Oh. Indeed, I guess I have, haven’t I? The man had a thin, hooked nose; violet eyes, hair that hung in thick braids…” Yathuab continued to describe one of the random fish mongers who worked outside his hut every day. The description was just as good as any other.

When he finished, Vi’rel looked terribly worried and lowered his guard as he spun on his heels, looking up and down the rocky shoreline of the beach. Yathaub momentarily considered striking at that moment, but a keen sense of self preservation stilled his hand. Even if he got a lucky strike in, he knew it would never be enough to finish off the master assassin before Vi’rel could attack back, and even mortally wounded, Yathaub knew his chances were next to none against the deadly foe.

When Vi’rel finally looked back at Yathaub, his gaze traveled downward to the daggers held in the stalker’s hands. The drow’s gaze shot upward and met Yathaub’s eyes, sudden recognition flashed across his face that all was not as it seemed.

“You!” the drow screamed, “what is your game?”

With murder in his eyes he advanced upon the hapless stalker once again.

A shadow, small and low to the ground, darted out from behind a small rock on the beach. There was a glint of metal and a blurring slash as the dark creeper sunk its small dagger into the back of Vi’rel’s meaty calf. The assassin screamed in pain and swung downward, instinctively, with his blade, catching the stalker with a solid blow. There was a splash of blood, glowing brightly in the infrared spectrum, and the tiny creature flew backwards into the air, landing roughly in the rocks ten feet away.

Yathaub did not wait and acted before he knew exactly what he was doing. He hurled the poisoned dagger with a force that surprised him. His diatribe with Vi’rel had bought just enough time for his creeper to get into place. Unfortunately, the little creature probably did little lasting damage to the powerful assassin, and for its troubles it may have cost it its life. But the creeper had given Yathaub the opening he needed. And so it was with sudden shock and great despair that Yathaub saw Vi’rel recover from the stab to his leg, whipping around with blinding speed and caught the dagger one-handed, snatching it out of the air a full twelve inches before it had reached its target.

Vi’rel laughed. And it was a horrible laugh. Cold and mocking, the laugh was full of all the condescension and vitriol that had been bred into the drow over the centuries. At that moment Yathaub realized that all was lost. The drow bodyguard was dead, his creeper was probably rent in two, both maidens would be dead within the minute, and of course, he…Yathaub, was staring directly at the end of his life.

Vi’rel stopped laughing. The smile faded and his face lost focus. A shudder wracked the drow’s frame as he dropped the dagger he had caught to the stony ground and stared down at the thin red line etched into the palm of his hand. His eyes widened, and then rolled back into his head. Vi’rel collapsed then and lay still. The demon wrought dagger of Dyr’Fel had claimed another victim.

Chapter 5 – The Escape

“Hurry! We must make the safety of the tunnel as fast as we can,” Yathaub said softly to the two drow maidens.

Shensen and Laila d’aub scrambled faster across the sharp rocks of the boulder field to catch up with the Dark Stalker. A trail of Dark Creepers were strung out behind them, protecting their retreat, but only the most perceptive would be able to see them as they looked more like flickering shadows amid the boulders than anything else.

The dim purple light of the huge cavern that housed Ill’Dereth would make them clearly visible to any drow sentry or hungry beast that prowled this deadly land outside the town, and Yathaub knew their lives depended on reaching the shelter of one of the nearby tunnels as fast they could.

“The patrols will spot us if any happen by, M’lady. Yathaub thinks it will behoove us to reach the cavern exit ere that happens.”

Laila d’aub giggled. “Why do you talk like that, Yathuab? Nobody talks like that anymore.”
“Does it upset you?” Yathaub asked earnestly.

“Not really. It’s actually kind of cute.” Laila d’aub said with a smirk. “I think my protector should be able to talk any way he pleases.” Yathaub grinned at hearing this and his heart soared within his chest. She had called him, her protector, and up until this moment in his life, nothing had ever felt so good.

Yathaub continued to pick their way from boulder to boulder across the uneven ground as they made their way upslope toward the black shape of a tunnel entrance about a quarter mile away. He watched his surroundings carefully, on the lookout for drow patrols or any of the fierce creatures that lurked upon these far shores.

Hours before, Yathaub, Laila d’aub and the handmaiden, Shensen, had stood over the body of Vi’rel and discussed their options. There weren’t many. Obviously, someone very powerful, (House Dre’kel was first on the list) was out to assassinate Laila d’aub. For what gain remained a mystery.

Her father, elder of House Barh’Uk, might still be alive, but then again, she had to admit, it may be that her father was the one behind the assassination attempt in the first place, and that she was just a disposable pawn in some wild game. It certainly would not be out of character for him. Under normal circumstances she never would have put herself into such a vulnerable position by going on a business trip with her father. But this was not a normal circumstance. Laila d’aub completely believed in the dreams of her handmaiden and she knew deep down in her heart that it was important that they, together, see this through to the very end. For Laila d’aub, the danger of traveling with her father was a necessary risk.

Furthermore, she was not a silly girl. She had come prepared, or so she had thought, and brought along with her Gohrl, her house’s most dangerous bodyguard. But that had not worked out as well as she had planned.

Laila d’aub also knew that her powerful mother, Matron Barh’Uk would be of no help to her here. Drow society was matriarchic where the women held all real power. But out here, in the back country of the Underdark, the matrons allowed men to play their own silly games; usually surrounding commerce. For all of her mother’s power back home or in the large drow cities, there was very little she would do to aid her daughter, even if Laila d’aub were able to get a message to her, some one hundred miles away along the shores of the Sea of Fallen Stars.

The option that remained was to leave this place. It was what the two maidens had planned in the long run anyway. They would continue their journey in search of the strange man in the blue vault that Shensen had dreamt about.

Yathaub took only a moment to consider this when he had blurted out, “And I shall accompany you, fair maiden!”

The two drow had giggled profusely at that and Yathaub looked hurt as he wondered what could possibly have been so amusing.

“Well, my dear protector, Sir Yathaub, I gladly accept your willing offer of protection,” Laila d’aub managed to say with a fairly straight face, “My life, and the life of my most precious handmaiden, are in your hands.” She bowed low at this and when she arose and looked up into the face of the dark stalker, her eyes were aglow with mischief and her grin sat crookedly upon her face.

“Where is it that I am taking you, Princess?”

Laila d’aub covered her mouth with the back of her hand to stifle another giggle and she turned to Shensen, rolling her eyes playfully as she regarded her handmaiden.

“Shensen, where are your dreams pointing us?”

Shensen looked serious for a moment and then smiled, shrugging. “I have no idea,” she said. “But it must be someplace other than this awful place. Since we are so fortunate to have found a protector, perhaps we should have him lead for awhile.”

Yathaub regarded the two maidens seriously, “I know of several ways we may leave this place, and I would opt for the closest and the most expedient. Let us take care to cover our tracks,” he said while his gaze flickered across the three corpses on the beach, “and then I must return to town to recover my loyal companions. After that I shall lead us to safety.”

Laila d’aub had helped the other two move the bodies of the assassin, Gohrl, and the tiny dark creeper away from the sea shore and into the shelter of the larger rocks. There was nothing to be done for them and it was better that wild animals find the bodies rather than any drow searching along the shore.

Yathaub had spied the ugly dagger of Dyr’Fel laying on the ground and had stooped to pick it up. He paused just as his hand was about to grasp the hilt of the weapon. Just what was so special about this blade, he thought. As he looked upon the strange whorls and swoops etched into the metal he felt a brief wave of dread sweep through his body as if an icy breeze had just blown in off the waters of the sea. He shivered and then shook his head once to clear the foul feeling. He picked up the dagger and very carefully slid the blade into an empty leather sheath on his belt around his waist.

From there, Yathaub had moved the maidens to the shelter of a low overhanging rock formation closer to town and told them to wait while he snuck back and collected the rest of his creeper companions.

He was gone only a few minutes. Yathaub crept silently across the shore on the outskirts of town and then climbed up onto the quay. He soon returned with a trail of small black shadows following him. Laila d’aub noticed how eerily stealthy the Dark One and his minions were. Once beyond a few yards from her she found it very difficult to follow their movement as they seemed to blend in with the murk and the shadows around them. At twenty paces she could not see them at all.

Without a word, Yathaub had led them all further outside of town and toward the nearest wall of the massive cavern. In his short time in Ill’Dereth he had learned from the locals of a few exit tunnels that left the cavern and further into the Underdark.

When at last the small group reached the tunnel entrance, Laila d’aub stopped them. A small dirt road led from the tunnel entrance and wound down the slope to the shores of the Sea of Fallen Stars behind them where it met up with other roads leading along the water’s edge in both directions and also off towards the town of Ill”Dereth not far away. Yathaub could see no sign of life in any direction he looked. There were no visible drow patrols, there were no merchants or other travelers visible upon the network of roads below them or plying the dark waters of the Sea. He could see no movement among the rocks and boulders or fields of giant mushrooms which would indicate that wild beasts were about. They had been lucky so far. Very lucky, indeed.

The tunnel entrance was a wide, yawning opening in the side of the cavern, nearly fifty feet across and thirty feet high. A cold, damp and foul smelling wind issued from the tunnel’s maw and moaned softly as it passed. Algae and green-colored slime hung down in long tendrils from the arch of the tunnel far above them and brackish water dripped constantly to the roadway below. Patches of white fungus, resembling gobs of bubbling fat from a cooking skillet, collected in piles wherever the water dripped. The clumps of fungus appeared intact, telling Yathaub that this passage had not been used in some days.

“Yathaub, where does this tunnel lead?” Laila d’aub asked quietly and she nervously peered into the gloom before her.

“Yathaub does not know,” he replied sadly, “but we are surely safer in there than out here in the open. And if I recall, your handmaiden’s vision told her she should travel upward in order to find the man in the blue vault. Was that not correct.”

“Yes, that’s right,” said Laila d’aub tentatively, “and this tunnel does look like it goes upwards for a bit. Do you think this is the right way, though, Yathaub? There are probably hundreds of tunnels that lead out of this cavern. What makes you think this one is the right one?”

Yathaub stood up tall and craned his neck as he peered down into the cavern below them and as his gaze swept along the roads toward Ill’Dereth he spied movement, dark and quick and close to the shadows. They were still very far away and unhurried, which meant they weren’t pursuing, but the Dark One’s keen eyes picked out a drow patrol. He quickly ducked his head back down into the cowl of his cloak and moved in between the two maidens, hooking his arms into theirs as he went and pulled them into the cave.

“M’lady, Yathaub thinks this is the right cave because it is the nearest cave to where we were coming from.”

Shesen bent her head behind the Stalker’s back to deliver a scowl in Laila d’aub’s direction and was amused to see her mistress was doing the same thing but had screwed her face into a crazy look and had crossed her eyes and stuck out her tongue. Without words the two young women could agree that their new protector was at least just a little bit odd.

Chapter 6. The Rest

A few hours later the small group stopped for a rest. The tunnel was still massive and had a tendency to widen out even further into large stalagmite littered caverns. If not for the well-worn “road” that they followed it would have been very difficult to find the exit tunnel in some of these caverns.

“Speak to me further of these checkpoints, M’lady,” Yathaub said. He placed one foot upon a small rock at the edge of the tunnel and leaned toward the two maidens conspiratorially.

Neither Laila’Daub nor her handmaiden seemed winded after their hurried trek through the tunnel. That was good, thought Yathaub, the two young ladies were in good physical shape and he supposed there would be many more hours, perhaps days, travel at this pace before they might feel safe from pursuit.

“Well,” began the drow princess, “there is at least one checkpoint along any access route into a drow town or outpost. The major Vaults, like Erelhei-Cinlu, will have two or more checkpoints along each road.” Laila d’aub seemed excited now, as if telling him, a chuul, drow secrets was amusing. “Normally checkpoints are manned by squads or patrols selected from the High Houses of the nearest town or vault. Sometimes they may be staffed by wicked Ul-Lolauri, the blessed of Lolth. They are going to ask a lot of questions and will want to know where we came from and where we are going,” she said. “They may even ask for a password.”

“Ah, I see,” said Yathaub, “and do you, M;lady, happen to know this password?”

“Well,” she replied, “I think so. My mother is the Matron of a great house in Mor’Telar and as her youngest daughter, I was able to listen in on a lot of talk within the House. The last time I heard of a password it was the name of the young prince, Athux.”

“How long ago was that?” asked Yathuab, “Could this password remain unchanged for very long.”

“Oh, I’m sure it’s still the right password, Yathaub,” she said with confidence, “The towns and cities along the Sea of Fallen Stars are very numerous. They can’t possibly change them very often and hope to get new passwords to the right ears.” Laila d’aub looked assuredly at her companions, but there was something in her voice that told Yathaub she wasn’t completely sure.

“Hmm…perhaps it would be best if we tried to simply sneak past this checkpoint, M’lady,” Yathaub said.

Laila d’aub sucked in her breath sharply and the two drow maidens exchanged worried looks. “That’s not possible. We be caught and killed.”

Laila d’aub shook her head and then stared down at her toes. “We will need to deal with this checkpoint as much on the level as we can,” she continued. She stood up then and lifted her chin high. She suddenly took on a very regal look and said in a proud voice, “I am the daughter of Matron Barh’Uk of House Barh’Uk, favored by Lolth and third seat of Mor’Telar. I shall not slink amid the shadows and I shall not stand for any slight given to my House, Matron or property. I will answer any question of my choosing or none at all, if I am so inclined. I am Laila d’aub Barh’Uk and swift punishment will befall any who oppose me and my mission,” her voice was clear and loud and powerful now. Yathaub took a step back and shrunk down into the cowl of his dark cloak. She looked a little different to Yathaub just then, perhaps even a little scary.

The eyes of the princess took on a haughty glare and glowed violet in the dark cavern. She seemed to grow in height and stature now as she warmed to her role. She advanced on Yathaub and a look of violence and evil played across her face. “House Barh’Uk has sent me to procure ten bales of fine silk from the markets of Erelhei-Cinlu. My hand-maiden, bodyguard and a dozen house slaves accompany me. To delay me is to risk the wrath of House Barh’Uk which will manifest through me as the power of the Spider Queen, herself.”

And with this last bit, Laila d’aub waved her hands about menacingly and wiggled her fingers preparing to summon forth deadly magic granted from Lolth, the evil goddess of drow-kind. Yathaub was stunned and his fear was evident in the way in which he had backed up against the cavern wall and raised his arms in front of his face to ward off the magical attack.

In the back of his mind, Yathaub could hear mocking laughter. The memories of all the cruel and heartless souls he had encountered during his life seemed to rise up now within his head and sneered. He had been tricked! He had been fooled by the sight of this beautiful drow maiden. His mind had been clouded over – perhaps by some dark elven magic – and what he had thought to be an innocent, care-free being was in reality nothing but an evil, delusional and masochistic monster. This woman that he had only just met earlier in the day – this woman that he had felt a connection with – someone who he had thought shared his own ideals of innocence and goodness, was now revealed as another malevolent drow elf. How could he have been so foolish? The laughter in his head got even louder as the drow priestess moved toward him with murder in her eyes.

“Do you stand in my way, you pathetic worm?” she bellowed at Yathaub, “Answer me! Do not just stand there quivering like a helpless joahlla. Your mere presence is an insult to me, and for that insult I shall make you pay.”

She advanced purposefully upon the frightened Dark One, as if she were going to throttle him. She stared down at the cowering form of Yathaub and he tried to run but found he could not. Terror had taken hold of him and his feet refused to move. He thought he could even hear the energy crackling around this beautiful and terrible priestess of Lolth as she was about to obliterate him. His creepers skittered off to either side of the tunnel and hid behind small rocks and boulders.

During Yathaub’s time amongst the drow he had heard plenty of stories about the feared princesses and matrons who ultimately ruled drow society. He had been told how Lolth the Spider Queen, jealous and evil goddess of the drow, acted through the dark elf women by granting them terrible spells of torture, pain and destruction. Vile acts and dark deeds brought about Lolth’s favor and those so blessed wielded great power. But so far, Yathaub had only visited the small backwater drow villages where more often than not the drow men played at being rulers, and drow men were never granted power from Lolth. In the larger cities or vaults were the Great Houses and the dark chapels where matrons and priestesses resided. Until this very moment he had never seen a priestess of the Spider and now to discover that the woman he had pledged his life to was one of these evil clerics froze him in place.

Yathaub looked up now into the eyes of the woman he thought he loved and he saw nothing but violence and evil in that beautiful face. She meant to kill him and his heart was broken in two. The laughter in his head was still mocking him, but he found that he had the strength within him to confront those inner demons. He was, after all, Yathaub – hero to his people, and a number of his people, the creepers, were also frightened and scared, hiding amongst the rocks and boulders of this dark passageway.

At that moment, Yathaub used his inner strength to reassure himself of who he was and what he stood for. He had pledged his life to this cruel Spider priestess before him, and, for better or for worse, Yathaub always kept his promises. His life was hers to do with as she pleased. And so his fear left him, and he stood up tall before Laila d’aub, princess of House Barh’Uk and worshiper of the foul Lolth, and he accepted his fate.

He squared his shoulders and stood to his full height. He would die with dignity today, not cowering. Yathaub stood two feet taller than the small drow priestess, but she did not seem afraid of him one bit. Her fingers wove a complicated series of arcane gestures as she called to her evil Mistress of the Webs.

A silence hung about the small tunnel and Laila d’aub suddenly stopped mid-cast, arms raised. Yathaub saw the madness in her eyes began to ebb and he thought for just a moment that she might take pity on him and not destroy him.

And then he heard Shensen giggle.

“You are so scary, Laila,” Shesen said. “Especially when you do that weird thing with your eyes.”

Laila d’aub dropped her arms and skipped back across the tunnel to her handmaiden. “I know,” she said in a sing-song voice, “it comes from years of practice! You could do it too if you’d just listen to me. See,” she began wiggling her fingers again and Yathaub could see small motes of purple light appear around both of her hands, like tiny violet bugs. She pinched her fingers together on both hands and the lights coalesced into just two lights, each about the size and shape of Yathaub’s thumb.

“Then you need to concentrate a little,” she continued and the brought her hands up slightly toward her face. As she did this, the two purple lights moved through the air and came to rest on her face, right in front of her eyes, making them glow weirdly in the darkness.

“I know,” said Shensen pleasantly, “But that’s the part I don’t get.” The handmaiden created her own set of sparkling lights, except these were pink in color, and formed two orbs of pink light, as well, but then seemed to have some trouble floating the light toward her face.

“I don’t know how to explain it anymore, fish-for-brains,” Laila d’aub chided, “You just need to practice more!”

Shensen squealed back, “Fish-for-brains! Why if you weren’t my mistress, I’d throw you over my knee and paddle your royal behind for that!”

Both girls giggled and laughed. Shensen finally gave up trying to float her orbs of light upward and instead bent over to waist height and stuck her face into the light. Her eyes glowed hot pink and she screwed up her face and stuck her tongue out at Laila d’aub. Both drow then fell to the floor in gales of laughter. Tears streamed down their faces as they rolled in the dirt of the tunnel floor, completely taken over by the mirth of the moment.

Yathaub stared in stunned amazement before he finally found his voice.

“You mean, M’lady, that you did not mean Yathaub harm?”

The laughter and the giggles stopped and the drow maidens both looked up at him for a moment as if trying to read a sign post.

Shensen broke the silence with a snort of laughter. A look of feigned indignance spread across Laila d’aub’s face and she smacked Shensen in the shoulder with her fist. “Shensen, that is so unladylike and completely unbefitting of a royal handmaiden!”

Shensen fell over onto her back and began laughing so hard she couldn’t catch her breath.
Finally Laila d’aub stood up and brushed the dirt from her clothes. She regarded Yathaub with a kind smile.

“So, I was convincing, then?” she asked.

“M’lady,” Yathaub stammered, “I thought you were quite angry with Yathaub and was about to strike him down with the power of your dark deity.”

This brought another snort from Shensen, who was still on the ground giggling. “I don’t think Lolth will be granting my mistress any power any time too soon.” She finally managed to say.

Laila d’aub shot a smoldering look back at her handmaiden, “You hush up back there!” she said, “As your master I command you not to speak until you can stand up and act your…uh…act like a …..well, act more civilized!”

Shensen giggled at this, which actually brought a quick snort from Laila d’aub, which she then quickly suppressed and turned back to speak with Yathuab.

“I’m no priestess of Lolth, Yathaub,” she said somberly, “My mother says I do not have the proper disposition for the clergy. Or for the fighter’s guild, or the merchant’s guild either. But,” she brightened considerably at this, “she says I might make a good sorceress some day.”

Yathaub looked confused and tried to say something appropriate, but found it very difficult. “So you were just acting? That was very convincing, indeed,” he looked at her evenly at that moment. “Yathaub is not easily frightened. But he has heard stories of the wickedness that the Queen of Spiders inspires within her followers,” he said.

Yathaub looked across the tunnel to where one of the creepers was just poking its head out from behind a large rock. To anyone else it would have just appeared as if the shadows around the rock had deepened, but Yathaub was able to make out the small creature and could tell it was still afraid. Then he turned back to Laila d’aub. He was uncertain exactly how to say what he knew he must, but he continued onward, nonetheless.

“Yathaub has more to think about than just himself,” he spread his arms wide. “Yathaub’s people are special to him and he would not want to see them get hurt. So, M’lady, I must ask you. What fealty do you owe the Spider Queen?”

Laila d’aub started slightly when Yathuab had finished speaking. She took a moment and then sat down gently beside the Dark Stalker. She took his hand in hers and looked up into his eyes.

“Have no doubts about it, Yathaub, my mother and my sisters…my family. They are drow. As such, they worship Lolth and all that she is. My mother is cruel and she rules her household ruthlessly. I do not know my true father. He was one of many men who mated with the Matron of House Barh’Uk. Most likely he is dead. It would not matter for if he was like most drow, I would not mean anything to him at all. My current “father”, Xul’Nohlu, is only a father in name. He is my mother’s current consort, that is all.

“I will tell you this, Yathaub, because I feel I can trust you. Well, actually I don’t see that I have any choice at all but to trust you. But you should know who I am.”

Laila d’aub shifted slightly as she collected her thoughts. Shensen had picked herself up off the ground and was busy across the tunnel dusting herself off.

“It became apparent to my mother when I was very young that I was not like other children. My mother thinks it’s her fault. Normally when drow are born we are separated from our mothers and sent to the cold and heartless priestesses of the Spider Queen. It is there that we either learn to accept pain, fear and self-reliance. We learn these things before we speak our first words. Those that don’t simply die.

“My mother is very old and prophesy foretold that I would be her last child. The prophesy did something to her. After centuries of life, producing children, plotting with and against her fellow matrons and immersed in all things vile, she felt a strange longing to think some of these things were coming to an end.

“She told me that when she looked at me, as a newborn and just moments from the womb, she felt a strange satisfaction. And when the priestesses came to take me away, she found it difficult to give me up. So she told them they could not have me.

“My mother is a very powerful matron, and so they did not question her decision to keep me. Even so, she was very guarded about how she treated me in public. She was cold and indifferent to me as she held audience with nobles and ambassadors from other houses, but she refused the wet-nurse and kept me warm and fed, nonetheless. But in private, when the doors were closed and even the house slaves had departed, she held me close and she said I made her smile.”

Laila d’aub got quite as she told Yathaub these words. Her eyes were unfocussed and far away as she remembered her past.

“She said I laughed a lot and the sound was like wine goblets clinking together. She said my laughter made her feel happy. It made her feel complete. And so as I got older she found it more and more difficult to keep our secret. She had slave-women look after me and when they would grow suspicious of my behavior – always playing and always laughing – or if they showed any cruelness towards me, my mother would have them killed or sacrificed to Lolth.

“One day when I was a few years old, she was holding audience for the commoners who lived within her demense. A young woman who worked as a scullery maid in her household had just born a child to the man who tended the mushroom grove. Normally, in these situations, the child would either be raised by the woman or be sold into slavery. But this mushroom gardener claimed that he had an arrangement with the scullery maid to bear him a child so that he could raise an apprentice. When Matron Barh’Uk heard the case, she refused to look at the evidence, declared both of them in violation of House rules, had them executed and then took the baby for herself.

Laila d’aub looked across the tunnel-way to Shensen who was busy trying to coax a creeper out from his hiding place behind a rock. “She thought it was best for me to have someone to play with,” she continued, “Or maybe she just wanted another child, I do not know. But, Shensen and I grew up together in my mother’s House. My mother could still be quite cruel around us, but there were so many times, especially when the three of us were alone, where my mother stopped being Matron Barh’Uk and was…well, just my m…or, our, mother. She would watch us play for hours and sometimes we would catch her smiling at us. On a few occasions she even got down on the floor with us and played games.

Laila d’aub grew silent, a half smile frozen on her face as her eyes drifted away. Yathaub regretted breaking that beautiful silence; that shared moment, but he had to know.

“What happened, M’lady?” he asked, “Did your mother forsake the Spider Queen?”

She looked up at him quizzically, “No, silly. That would be stupid, now wouldn’t it?” She laughed a little then. “For fifty years, or so, Shensen and I stayed within my mother’s household, rarely seeing anyone else but the house slaves. Even my own brothers and sisters were mostly kept from us. We were aware that we were very different from the other drow, and that the adults around us could be very wicked, so we were careful to play the stoic and aloof roles in public and we saved the singing and dancing for when we were in private. I loved my years in House Barh’Uk, but they did come to an end.”

Yathaub’s heart beat so loudly within his chest, he felt sure Laila d’aub would be able to hear it’s painful drubbing. He was finding it easier now to listen to the vision that sat beside him and to actually retain the words in his head long enough to make some sense of them. But this was new and he struggled mightily to comprehend her words. He stole a quick glance down to be sure he was not imagining it, and yes . . . there it was . . . she was holding his hand. Her dark and delicate hand, warm and exhilarating, sat neatly in the palm of his own. How ugly and gnarled his hand looked next to hers and it suddenly occurred to him how dirty his skin was compared to hers. He worried that she might notice and retract her hand, but then he heard her words again and reminded himself that he must concentrate. He could no longer let this strange malady that had come over him prevent him from remembering what she said. Yathaub concentrated and slowed his breathing and his pounding heart. He knew what she had to say was important.

“A slave my mother thought she owned turned out to be a spy for a rival house within Vault Mor’Telar,” Laila d’aub continued with a distance to her words. The memory clearly pained her and it tore at Yathaub that she was hurt so by this retelling. “This slave-spy had reported back to her matron that my mother had kept two of her daughters from the Halls of Lolth and that she often showed them affection when she thought no one would notice. This was, of course, too much for the lesser matron to ignore. Can you imagine? Not only was there evidence of a matron who kept her brood from the Halls, but also was reported to show kindness?” Yathuab stared blankly at her. Clearly he could not imagine.

“Emissaries from the Halls of Lolth were sent immediately to our demesne,” Laila d’aub continued. “They barged into the throne room and demanded to see us,” Laila d’aub looked across the tunnel to Shensen, wistfully.

“My mother was furious, but the priestesses were one of only a handful of drow who outranked her within the Vault and so she had us brought forth. Neither Shensen nor I knew what was happening at the time, but when we saw the look on our mother’s face we braced ourselves for something terrible. When the priestesses laid out the charges before Matron Barh’Uk, she didn’t hesitate in directing vile hatred and scorn back at them. At first she laughed to near hysteria and then she insulted them and their stupidity. She lied and told them we were simply the playthings of her current consort, Xul’Nohlu. That he had brought us up from his estate in faraway Heljath village for their entertainment. My very birth had been forgotten by anyone not directly associated with our House, so the lie was not a difficult one to sell. The priestesses eventually came around to believe her and they soon left. Our mother wasted no time and immediately summoned Xul’Nohlu from his chambers. When he arrived she told him that he must leave Mor’Telar within the hour and he was to take the two of us with him back to his estate in Heljath.”

Laila d’aub squeezed Yathaub’s hand and he felt his face grow hot as his chest began to pound again. Fighting for control, he managed to stammer, “So you were able to escape the Halls of Lolth?”

She smiled up at him, “Yes, but I am not sure now if escape was for the better.”

Yathaub frowned and she continued with her tale, “The Matron thought it best that we at least look the part of courtesans during our hasty escape from Mor’Telar. She had us dressed in harlot’s clothes and quickly had our slaves apply heavy makeup and teased our hair to that of an unruly mop. Xul’Nohlu obediently gathered his retainers and led us out of the lands of House Barh’Uk. On the cobbled street outside the gate of our mother’s home we stumbled upon the naked, dismembered corpse of one of our house slaves. I would learn later on it was the body of the slave who had given up our secret. A vivid reminder to all who walked past that the retribution of Matron Barh’Uk was swift and gruesome.

“It took a few weeks to reach the village of Heljath where our “father”, Xul’Nohlu, had a small manor house. But it was only the first evening on the road when we discovered he planned to play his part in the ruse to its fullest. In those nights on the road and those first few weeks within his House, we learned what it truly meant to “serve” the men our society. It was horrible, Yathaub,” she suddenly said with tears in her eyes.

At that moment, Shensen was at her side and had both of her slender arms around Laila d’aub’s shoulders. Yathaub shuddered as he wondered about the shared horrors these two beautiful and innocent creatures had suffered at the hands of the drow beasts.

“Please, m’Lady. There is no need to continue. Yathaub knows of the cruelty of men, and especially the drow.”

She laughed a little at that and wiped away a tear upon her cheek with her free hand. “There is not much more to tell, dear Yathaub. When a person is abused such as this, they can either shrink within themselves and wait for it to pass or else they can get angry. Drow women have been known throughout history to realize their natural arcane abilities at times of emotional distress, and…well, Shensen and I discovered about the same time that we possessed some rather potent abilities. One night, before we could be summoned to Xul’Nohlu’s bed chambers, we stormed in on him. Shensen put a foot on his throat and a blade to his eye while I summoned forth flame and ice. He pleaded for mercy after only a few minutes, but we “played” with him most of the night.

“Oh, don’t look at me like that, Yathaub!” Laila d’aub squealed, “He deserved everything and more than what we gave him! It had to be convincing. It’s not as if we enjoyed torturing him….all that much,”

Shensen giggled at this and then she picked her head up from Laila d’aub’s shoulder, “And besides,” the handmaiden said with a wry grin, “we did leave him with one testicle.”

Yathaub blanched. And then he sat up straight. When Laila d’aub started to speak he held up a hand and gently signaled for quiet. The creepers had heard it, too, and all eleven of the creatures silently vanished into the gloom on either side of the wide natural corridor.

“What is …” Laila d’aub began, but Yathaub shot her a worried glance and gently put a finger to her perfect lips.

Yathaub craned his neck to look over a boulder to a spot further up the tunnel where he had heard the slight sound. It could have easily been nothing more than rock sliding or settling in the old tunnel, but his long years’ training at staying alive in the Underdark told him that caution was the prudent course.

The tunnel in front of him was much wider than it was tall and only his infravision allowed him to see anything at all in the lightless chambers. Contours in the rock showed up as slight gradations in the infrared color spectrum wherever the ambient heat of the rock varied in temperature. Most of the tunnel showed up as dark blue or indigo to his keen eyes, but the body heat from his own self and that of Laila d’aub and Shensen showed up as brilliant red. Even the rock where they had just been sitting showed up as a deep yellow to him. Anything alive up the tunnel would also show up in his vision. His creepers, however, were very adept at masking their own heat signatures and he only caught the barest glimpses of them as they crept from rock to rock in the gloom ahead of him.

Suddenly, one of the creepers broke the visual silence just enough so Yathaub could clearly make out the little creature’s head and hands. The creeper had shielded itself behind a boulder so that only Yathaub and the drow maidens would be able to see him, as the drow possessed infravision, as well. Anything further up the tunnel ahead with infravision would not be able to see the little creeper at all.

Yathaub noticed that the creeper was signaling him in the hand motion language known only to his people, the Vuedriel.

“Six,” was the signal. Then another signal…the little creeper was pinching his nose with two fingers. “Ah,” thought Yathaub, “troglodytes!”

Yathaub breathed a mental sigh of relief. Six troglodytes they could handle.

The creeper continued to signal. The trogs were about forty yards further up the tunnel and around a bend. It was also clear the trogs had not spotted them yet. “Good,” thought Yathaub. They would be able to avoid a fight with the foul, stinking creatures. While the bipedal reptiles were savage and bad-tempered, they were also not exceptionally smart nor all that physically tough. Still, Yathuab felt it would be best to stay clear of them as best they could.

He quickly looked around and decided fleeing would not be an option. While they could outrun the creatures easily, the truth was they had not run across a suitable side-passage in this tunnel that they could use for cover in quite some distance. It would not do for them to backtrack the way they had come only to run into a pursuing drow patrol. The immediate area of the tunnel was wide and rocky. Quite a few stalagmites and boulders were scattered about and the path of the tunnel wound around them in a snake-like fashion. Perhaps, Yathaub thought, their current location might just be the best place to hide and wait for the reptiles to just pass them by.

He signaled back to his creeper scout, keeping his hands low to the ground in case a trog were to round the bend ahead and spot him. At least this way if anything spotted his hands poking out from behind the boulder and near the ground that he would most likely be mistaken for a small animal.

“Hold your positions,” he signaled. “Stay to the shadows and let them pass.” And then, “No violence!” he added with emphasis just to be sure. His creepers were generally even-tempered blokes, but every once in awhile they got a devilish streak going and things tended to get rather bloody in a hurry when that happened. “No,” he thought to himself as he looked over his shoulder at the worried face of the two drow maidens, “it’s best to keep out of danger now.”

Yathaub motioned to the drow and the three of them silently slid into a small space formed by the jumble of boulders to the side of the tunnel trail. It was a tight spot for all three of them to squeeze into, but it was hidden well from the path. The warmth and nearness of Laila d’aub and even the beautiful Shensen sent momentary shivers up his spine and for a moment he lost himself in the contact he shared with them. A moment later he heard the telltale shuffle of something moving along the tunnel path and he shook himself out of the dream-state he found himself in. He had to stay alert; to focus on the task at hand, which at the moment was keeping himself and everyone in his small band alive.

Yathuab quieted his breathing and focused on calm thoughts. Without looking he was also aware of the two drow maidens becoming very very still, as well.

The sounds of shuffling became louder and more distinct as the seconds passed. Yathaub could tell by the sounds of their footfalls the trogs had neared to within ten yards when he smelled the telltale reek of lizard-musk. A troglodyte’s musk could bring tears to the eyes and cause sudden retching just by getting near to one when they were in a calm state. A riled-up troglodyte could really let loose a stench which could incapacitate an enemy.

Yathaub caught a slight movement to his left and he carefully turned his head so as not to make any noise. Laila d’aub had moved her small hand and was holding it over her nose and mouth. Her eyes were squeezed shut and a pained look was upon her scrunched up face. He would have giggled himself at the sight had it been a less dangerous situation.

Just then he caught sight of the trogs. They had passed their location now, hiding behind the boulder pile, and were trudging down the path, their backs to them now and about fifteen yards away. He counted five of the creatures. They were short and stocky things and looked mostly humanoid walking on two legs and swinging their long, talloned arms at their sides as they shuffled along. Their skin was bare and scaly, which he knew to be either light grey or bluish in color when seen in actual light. At the moment, with only his infravision to aide him, Yathaub could only see them as bright red and orange figures. They wore no clothes, to speak of, but also appeared genderless. Yathaub knew the species fairly well and had long ago reasoned that the males had larger fan-like crests on the top of their heads than the females. Although their backs were to him, Yathuab also remembered their mouths were long and pointed snouts that were filled with razor sharp teeth, which combined with the talons on their hands, could rend their enemies to meaty pulp in no time at all. Something the race was keen on doing to any creature they did not approve of.

The sixth troglodyte finally came into view as it was trailing the others by quite a margin. Yathaub nearly gave their hiding spot away as he sucked in his breath involuntarily. The thing was huge. He had never before seen a troglodyte so large before. While the others stood around five feet in height, this brute neared seven! The muscles rippled under its scaly skin and Yathaub spotted leather trappings and animal hides covering its bulk. It also carried what looked to be an extremely heavy stone spear in its hand.

Yathuab was holding his breath as the thing slowly passed by their hiding spot, but nearly yelped out loud at the sound of an un-lady-like snort just over his left shoulder. He shot a glance in that direction only to see Laila d’aub in sever agony. Her face was soaked in tears and her mouth was open as she gagged from the stench of the passing reptiles. As he watched in horror, he saw Laila d’aub gag again and a small, but clearly audible, snort issued from her wide-open mouth.

Yathuab spun his head back toward the trail and watched in terror as the brutish troglodyte wrenched itself around to stare in their direction, head cocked and snuffling at the air. They had been found!

With a spitting hiss, the behemoth trog tensed and large flaps of frilled skin fanned out on either sides of its massive head, making the creature look even more terrifying. Laila d’aub let out a small squeak of a scream which spurred Yathaub to his feet, drawing his twin daggers as he rose. He was vaguely aware of the shadowed movement to his right as he stood to face the massive beast, but his focus was on his adversary and he spared no attention for the shadow.

Yathaub could see the remaining trogs further down the tunnel as they suddenly turned around to see what the commotion was about. By the casual nature of the wandering tribe’s reaction, it was clear to Yathaub that they had grown accustomed to the safety provided by their hulking warrior. The other five trogs began slowly sauntering back down the pathway either to help their massive warrior or else to watch the grisly spectacle that was assuredly coming, Yathaub wasn’t sure which, but he could spare no more time to wonder as he knew he had to react quickly in order to ensure Laila d’aub’s safety. “No!” he shook his head and reminded himself that there were others that were relying on him for their safety, not just the drow maiden. His creepers, his very people, were also relying on him to get them through this jam, and the other drow maiden, Shensen, too.

“Hold steady there, large creature!” he shouted. Yathaub held his ground standing between the brute and Laila d’aub who was still crouched amid the boulders behind him. “Yathaub and his companions,….many, many tough and powerful companions, wish you and your tribe no harm,” he continued using the common tongue of the Underdark in a shaky voice. He hoped the creature understood him and he also hoped the creature would not recognize the fear in his trembling speech.

To Yathaub’s dismay, the giant troglodyte didn’t appear to understand him nor did it seem to care if there was fear in his voice as the beast slowly and confidently approached to within ten yards, its loud hissing now combined with guttural snorts and bellows.

Yathaub knew time was running out and he had to think of something fast. There was no way he was taking this thing on and living through the experience. Yathaub was pretty good with the blade and he felt he was fairly nimble, but the huge trog and his equally huge stone spear would certainly gut him before he even could close with the big fellow, armed with only daggers as he was.

The shadows to his right suddenly flashed forward and he was aware of the handmaiden, Shensen, running across the tops of several boulders toward the giant reptile.

“It isn’t working, Yath,” she shouted back at him. “You can only talk your enemies to death if they can understand you. And this one looks like it only understands stinky lizard.”

Shensen leapt from the top of the last boulder, twin adamantine kama’s whirling. The troglodyte raised his spear and easily blocked one of Shensen’s blades but she brought the other low and across the beast’s scaly chest as she dropped under the spear and to the ground. The strike managed to slice off most the hides and leather trappings covering the beast but seemed to do little else to harm it.

Yathaub charged the trog before he even knew what his feet were doing, but the monster brought the butt of its spear forward and slammed it into Yathaub’s chest, sending him flying backwards to crash among the boulders. This, however, gave Shensen the time and opening she needed as she brought her first weapon up in a scything motion and scoring an arm-length gouge from the trog’s knee up to its mid-section.

The troglodyte let out a tremendous bellow and a greenish-yellow moist fog billowed up from around its spine and neck, enveloping Shensen in its midst. She was instantly down on the ground and gagging as the putrid musk covered her.

Yathaub was struggling to his feet when he noticed the rest of the trog pack was only about twenty feet away. This was already going to be a near-impossible fight to win, but he knew when the other five trogs joined the battle that things would be over in no time at all.

“Zerdrash!” Laila d’aub shouted in a commanding voice. The startled Yathaub was even more stunned as he saw the drow princess standing just a few feet to his right and slightly behind him. The thumb of one hand and forefinger of the other were joined and she stood in a half crouch, a look of terrible determination creased her beautiful face. Two globs of bright violet light shot from her interlocking fingers and blasted into the head of the giant troglodyte, which reeled backwards on it’s heels, head slung back and snout pointing toward the cavern ceiling.

Shensen seized the opportunity, moving in a flash once more and both kama blades struck at the creature’s midsection. At the very same moment, Yathuab could see beyond the hulking trog at the pack of smaller troglodytes. There was a flurry of motion and the five trogs began hissing and flailing about. He could see the heat signatures of multiple figures among the small pack of reptiles and it took him just a moment to understand it was his creepers who had fallen upon them and were attacking in unison. He realized they must have cloaked themselves in the inky darkness they often produce while skulking about and worked back toward the pack. Yathaub smiled to himself. His creepers worked so well as a team and could sneak up upon nigh any foe.

After losing their team captain to the assassin, Vi’rel, there were only eleven of the little guys left. But they had seemed to adjust just fine, apparently having elected a new captain. They fought in pairs, oftentimes appearing from the dark shadows surrounding them just long enough to attack from either side of a single opponent before ducking back into the blackness once more.

Yathaub quickly returned his attention to the battle at hand. The giant troglodyte had finally recovered from the magical blast Laila has inflicted on it and was now trying to stab Shensen with the giant spear. The creature held the massive weapon in both hands and repeatedly brought the point down toward the drow handmaiden with such force that Yathaub felt tremors vibrate in the souls of his feet each time the weapon struck the ground. But Shensen was too fast for the brute. She was completely on the defensive now and her lithe form ducked and rolled out of the way of the spear each time.

Yathuab used the brief moment to call upon one of his own special abilities. The tall ones, or the stalkers of the Vudriel race, oftentimes were born with the innate ability to draw forth steam and mist from the surrounding earth, and it was just this ability that Yathaub invoked. The mist was harmless and was exceptionally cool in temperature. The mist instantly rose from the ground at his bidding and surrounded him in a billowing cloud. With no true light to see by, the mist was not actually visible in the pitch blackness of the tunnel, but the cool temperature most certainly masked Yathuab’s own body heat, making him invisible to any observers with infravision.

A moment later Yathaub struck from behind. His first blade gouged a massive chunk of scale and flesh from the shoulder blade of the troglodyte hero but did little in actually stopping the beast. A split second later his second dagger, the Dyr’fel dagger, struck true. Yathaub was amazed at how easily the thick adamantine blade separated the heavy scales of the trog. He was also impressed at how the blade slid through flesh as if he were simply slicing through a pail of water. He was then astonished at the reaction of the massive beast. Instantly the creature jerked about as if it had been shocked by an electric eel, then a deep gurgling issued from its throat as it slowly stopped thrashing. It dropped to its knees and then pitched forward into the earth. Shensen leapt clear of the beast at the last moment and Yathaub let the mist about him dissipate.

“You have saved my life twice in a single day, my dear Yathaub,” Laila d’aub breathed in astonishment.

Yathaub bowed deeply as he sought to control his own breathing. “It is my duty, m’lady. Yathaub has sworn his life for hers.” And this time Shensen did not giggle.

There was nothing but silence in the tunnel. Yathaub turned around to see elven sets of admiring yellow eyes staring up at him, a pile of dead troglodytes lay strewn about. His creepers had made short work of them.

Yathuab sheathed his own iron dagger but then stopped as he was stowing the ugly Dyr’fel blade. He had saved his lady’s life twice today, but it had actually been this dagger which had done the real work. Many hours earlier, Vi’rel had caught the weapon by the blade as Yathaub had thrown it at him. The dagger had stolen the life from the gloating, deadly assassin in a flash. And now, he had dropped this huge monstrosity before him by poking it between the shoulder blades with the very same dagger. Yathaub gulped audibly. This most certainly was a demon-wrought blade. He sheathed the weapon very, very carefully.

Chapter 7. The Outpost

The days within the tunnels leading away from Ill’Dereth passed slowly. They had traveled many, many miles within the twisting and turning passageway without encountering another living being. The tiny company began to relax a bit as they strolled along. Food and water was plentiful if you knew where to look. Many species of fungi found along the way were edible and even tasty. Other types of fungus burned readily, and if you knew just the right type, which Yathuab did, you could enjoy a near smokeless fire.

Roasted cave cricket and fried blindfish were delicacies that both the Vuedriel as well as the drow enjoyed and both were found in abundance within the caverns of the Underdark. The evenings were spent in quiet slumber as the creepers took turns at watch, allowing Yathaub and the two women to sleep undisturbed. During their long trek Yathaub found himself conversing quite easily with the two drow and the lightness of their beings and their laughter and mirth were actually a bit contagious. Yathaub found himself laughing for the sheer fun of it for the first time in his life. Yathaub found happiness and true joy during those days on the road with Laila d’aub. And it was during those brief few days when Yathaub began to understand that life held more value than he could have previously even imagined. Much more value.

And so it was with some dismay, and quite a bit of dread, that Yathaub found himself looking down from a high ledge six days later into a vast cavern, far greater in size than any cavern he had ever seen short of the cavern that held the Sea of Fallen Stars. One of his creepers, the new captain, stood motionless and silent by his side as the two peered down into the gloom.

Phosphorescent plants tended to grow in larger caverns and this one was no exception. The mild bluish light seemed to leech into the distant reaches of the cavern nearly two miles away allowing him to get an excellent view of the “valley” before him. The path they had followed could be clearly seen below him as it continued to wind around and amid the mighty stalag columns. He would lose sight of the path every now and then as it ducked behind a particularly massive pile of limestone, but he could eventually spot it again as it appeared further up the cavern-way.

But the thing that really caught their attention was the collection of stone structures squatting upon the cavern floor about a mile away where the valley was at its narrowest. The path travelled right through the structures and it was clear to Yathaub that there was no way at all to pass through this cavern-valley without first passing the stone buildings. To make matters worse, a thirty-foot tall stone tower was built in the center of the structures and it was most certainly manned by several guards. It was a drow checkpoint. Things were about to get very dangerous again.

Chapter 8. There Is Another – Interlude 1

Another black drop splattered onto the smooth stone with an instantaneous and violent smack, pulverizing the small globule of cold water into fine spray. Veszin’axlu felt the cool mist against his knee where his ebon, bare skin showed from above soft boots and below toughed hide cuisses.

Under better circumstances the refreshing, cool mist would have felt pleasant to Veszin’axlu. Under better circumstances he would have wondered about the long, freefall journey the droplet must have taken before hitting ground. He might have pondered where its journey began, somewhere far, far above him in a stony crevice formed in the cavern’s vast ceiling. He might have even been amused at the apparent completeness of the droplets demise, traveling so far only to be dashed against the stone-cut outer walls of Outpost Dryri’d’iminitri. Veszin’axlu’s carrion thoughts often circled around notions such as these.

But these were not the circumstances for those kinds of amusements.

Veszin’axlu was irritated, and the cold splattering mist against his skin only seemed to irritate him even more. What was worse, he now knew that many droplets fell in this exact spot and probably had been doing so for a very long time.

Veszin’axlu knew that a water droplet fell from the vault’s ceiling above him about once every sixty-two heartbeats. He knew this because this last droplet was somewhere around the two-hundred and eightieth one he had felt mist against his knee today. And that was only since he started counting.

Yes. Veszin’axlu was good and plenty irritated now and there was very little he could do about it. It was his first day on the job, so to speak, and his fear of irritating his betters certainly stifled the crude retorts that formed on his tongue after every suicidal drop of water splattered upon the dunite blocks the back-rock outpost was made from.

To keep himself from shouting in frustration, Veszin’axlu began shifting back and forth from one foot to the other, trying to concentrate on the swaying motion rather than the absurdity of his current situation. The tactic failed and ended up making him feel even more irritated than before.

“What in the name of the Abyss are you doing, thuk’ard?” Tebal’yraen suddenly growled, using the foul epithet the drow often bestowed upon those considered far beneath their station.

Veszin’axlu froze in place, unsure of what to do or say.

“Are you deaf, pup?” Tebal’yraen asked again, “I asked you what you were doing, and I’ll get an answer from you or I’ll toss you over this wall.”

“Begging your pardon, I was just trying to get the blood moving in my legs,” Veszin’axlu stammered, trying to keep all hint of fear from his voice lest his commanding officer find further reason to take offense.

“What’s the matter with you weakling runts? Doesn’t the academy at Erelhei-Cinlu train you turds for wall-standing anymore?”

Veszin’axlu suddenly choked on the vile comeback that nearly bubbled from his lips. Instead, the young drow shut his mouth quickly and turned his head to face out upon the great cavern’s boulder field spread out for miles before him lest his commanding officer observe the startled look on his face.

Never in all of his years of training at the Academy had Veszin’axlu experienced such pomposity, arrogance and disdain for duty as he had this very morning. The officers at the Academy were sadistic, brutal and powerful beyond reckoning. Cadets learned to respect their commanders with complete and unquestioning loyalty. Those that failed in these basic principles often died. Horribly.

But here was something Veszin’axlu was completely unprepared for.

Most cadets who survived to graduation at the military academy of Erelhei-Cinlu were placed within one of thousands of drow patrols that roamed the myriad tunnels of the Underdark surrounding the capitol city. Even more squads were sent off to the other great vaults of drow and some were even sent to the communes of their illithid allies. A few lucky pukes found themselves assigned to relatively easy jobs guarding minor houses or embassies at the tiny villages spread throughout the region around the Sea of Fallen Stars. Most graduates of the Academy were male and duty in these small towns were made even easier by the fact that female authority was relatively absent in these far-off places.

Some, like Veszin’axlu, found themselves assigned to the far outposts of the Under Realm. Dryri’d’iminitri was one such outpost and life was generally expected to be good for those who were stationed there. Sure, these outposts were generally run by at least one powerful priestess who reported directly to the Council of Matrons, who in turn reported directly to the Spider Queen, Lolth, herself. But it was often rumored throughout the Academy that the outpost priestesses fiercely protected their troops like their own broodlings. They had to. A lot of bad things happened in the outlands and a wise priestess kept her soldiers loyal, if not happy.

Veszin’axlu felt that if he were ever assigned to an outpost that he would be able to live with the inevitable favoritism that was always bestowed upon his female troopmates. As long as his obvious skill with weapons and fighting were respected by his commanding officers, that is.

What he never imagined in his wildest dreams was what he had experienced on this morning, his first day on duty at Dryri’d’iminitri Outpost.

Dryri’d’iminitri was located many leagues from Erelhei-Cinlu and it had taken a long trek over many days with a small patrol led by a cruel battle veteran in order to reach the squat and ugly structure. He had arrived only the night before, day and night being quite relative terms and dictated by the patrol’s timekeeper.

Dryri’d’iminitri lay at the crossroads of two great tunnels; one tunnel connecting the great vaults of Erelhei-Cinlu and Yvoth-Lened while another great tunnel led outward and upwards, away from drow lands and into the realm of the lesser beings of the Underdark. The outpost served as a warning to all who ventured down this latter tunnel that they were about to enter the lands of the mighty Drow and rarely were outsiders admitted. Often these unfortunate visitors were staked out upon the massive boulder fields that spread out in all directions from the Outpost and left to rot or be devoured by scavengers – of which there were plenty around Dryri’d’iminitri.

The outpost was not all that large and consisted of four slender towers, each taller than the next, connected by a low wall of hard, mineral encrusted stone. The interior of the structure held a large courtyard where visitors were questioned and often executed. Interior buildings served to keep the cavern drips off one’s head and also provided a sense of privacy. These interior buildings included a vast network of barracks to house the two-hundred armed drow who served the outpost as well as commander’s quarters, mess hall, armories, kitchens, larders and a chapel dedicated to Lolth.

Dryri’d’iminitri did not come with jail cells or a dungeon. None were needed.

Veszin’axlu’s first impression was a good one. The place seemed solid and his quarters were adequate, if not slightly spartan. Upon arriving he had not met any of the commanding officers who served the outpost, nor had he even spied the Spider Queen’s priestess who held the ultimate command here. He had, however, seen several acolytes of Lolth strolling the grounds. The Ul-Lolauri, or the ‘blessed of Lolth’ , were wicked women dressed only in thin silks with whorls and loops of bronze wrapped loosely around their extremities, pure avarice played about their visage while cold shivers ran up his spine whenever he passed one by.

This morning Veszin’axlu had awoken early and donned his gear before grabbing a quick bite of roasted cave cricket and stale water at the mess hall. Soon after washing down the meal he reported for his first day of duty in the courtyard. He thought it strange that several veterans slouched or lazed about the small yard awaiting the arrival of their commanding officer. Veszin’axlu stood stoically at attention while he waited, which granted him more than a few snickers of derision from his compatriots. He silently observed in pure wonder at the show of apparent lackadaisicalness. Such behavior would never have been tolerated back at the Academy.

One drow, a young elf probably not much older than himself, was taking coins from a few soldiers who stood or crouched in a small circle. They surrounded two other soldiers who were playing at dice. Either betting or dicing while in uniform would have earned him several lashes from his commanding officer’s whip followed quickly by several days of kitchen duty back at the Academy. But here, at Dryri’d’iminitri it seemed to be routine activity. The young man taking coin suddenly looked up and caught Veszin’axlu’s eye. For a moment, he thought the soldier was going to ask him to join in the fun. Veszin’axlu froze and just stared back. Then the soldier laughed and waved him off with a sneer before turning his attention back to the game of dice below him.

The wonders did not cease when an unshaven, grizzled veteran finally jumped up from where he had been sitting on a fungal-crate and began gruffly shouting out assignments. The trappings of this drow clearly marked him as a lowly rank – no more qualified to call assignments than Veszin’axlu, himself, and yet, the troops grumbled and obeyed, slumping off to parts along the walls and gates of Dryri’d’iminitri.

Veszin’axlu had been assigned a post along Fetid Wall, so named for the small stream of sewage that flowed out from under the wall and off into the boulder field. The stench flowing up from the goo-dispensing pipeworks jutting from the wall far below brought tears to his eyes.

Halfway along the length of the wall that bridged the gap between the two smaller towers, he had found Tebal’yraen standing there waiting for him to arrive. At first glance Tebal’yraen appeared to be on the younger side of things, but after a moment of study Veszin’axlu began to see the small wrinkles in the corners of his officer’s eyes and the bits of kinky grey hairs poking out from his unkempt head. Tebal’yraen was dressed in the official garb of an Erelhei-Cinlu lesser officer. He wore boiled leather jerkin with a long plackard of scales attached which draped below his knees, providing more freedom of movement than that afforded by the cuisses worn by Veszin’axlu, although, Veszin’axlu inwardly scoffed at the false protection offered by such a garb. One quick stab between the scales could easily sever the femoral artery, and he mentally filed this tactic away for future consideration. A drow in the vault learned early that you could never be too careful and exit strategies should always be considered. Scaled greaves began somewhere under that plackard and the greaves gave way to soft, low boots made from the blackened hide of some beast.

Tebal’yraen wore the white silken epaulettes denoting his rank – higher than a grunt, like Veszin’axlu but not as high as a web commander. Veszin’axlu noticed the normally white silk of the epaulettes were stained and dirty.

Tebal’yraen was armed with a single uncocked crossbow. A small case of bolts lay on the ground nearby. A greasy curved dagger was tucked under his belt and no scabbard protected its blade.

“I am Veszin’axlu, sir, and I am reporting for duty,” Veszin’axlu had said with all the confidence and swagger he could muster.

“I can’t care more than a spider’s ass what your name is,” growled the officer. “You are the new wall guard so show me what you got and start guarding this wall. My name is not “sir”. It is Tebal’yraen and you are to utter my name only if you see something out there that I need to know about. Otherwise keep your trap shut like you were trained to do and leave me be.”
Tebal’yraen grunted once and then sat down behind the wall’s low crenellations with a long, slow sigh.

At first Veszin’axlu was shocked and astonished at this apparent display of lackluster discipline. He was sure it must be part of some great practical joke or some form of hazing that all new guard must go through. He knew if he were to question his commanding officer he could risk raising his ire and Veszin’axlu knew from experience that could be a very bad or even fatal mistake. But as great snores began to erupt from the throat of Tebal’yraen he just began to feel tremendous irritation.

Perhaps, he thought a bit later, he should report his officer’s behavior to a higher authority, a web commander or even the Priestess, herself. But then the chilling thought occurred to him that this could be part of an elaborate test. To turn-on and undermine your “betters” was an integral part of drow society, but society never appreciated a direct confrontation. Subtlety was a requirement in such situations. His current situation was not anything he was prepared to deal with and he felt trapped. To rat on this slug of an officer was both expected and abhorred by the drow command as he knew it. But to remain silent was the safest choice, given this was his first day on duty. He decided he would take his chances with the safe route, for now.

Veszin’axlu continued to stay alert throughout the morning and gazed out into the nothingness of the boulder field before him. While there was very little light in this vast cavern, his drow eyes could easily pick out any warm-blooded creature for miles around by the telltale heat signatures their bodies gave off. Cold-blooded creatures were harder to detect, but his years of training at the Academy had honed his visual senses to tremendous acuity and he found he could pick out the slight heat differences of the small reptiles and other cooler creatures that roamed the Underdark with a fair amount of ease.

He saw nothing. Not even a drow patrol. Surely they had patrols out here, he thought to himself.

He could see several of the other wall and gate guards throughout the outpost, but none seemed to acknowledge him in the slightest. Veszin’axlu suddenly felt very alone and, for the first time in his life, vulnerable, standing upon the wall far from proper civilization and listening to the snores of his lazy officer now lying prone, sprawled out upon the wall at his feet.

It was only after he became aware of the incessant ceiling drip that Veszin’axlu contemplated the notions of murder. Sure it was only his first day at the Outpost, but drow tales and legends were full of stories about elves, like himself, who had taken even more drastic measures and were often rewarded handsomely for their foul deeds.

Thoughts of murder quickly fled his mind and Tebal’yraen was awaked by Veszin’axlu’s swaying movements.

“Once again, I require an answer from you dirty thuk’ard. I will not ask again.”

“Yes. They do teach us how to properly guard a wall at the Academy,” came Veszin’axlu’s reply, He winced inwardly at the emphasis he had accidentally given to the word “properly” and silently prayed to Lolth that Tebal’yraen would not pick up on the slight.

Tebal’yraen paused a long moment before finally letting loose a loud, rumbling belly-laugh that seemed to originate deep within him.

“Ha! Boy. You’ve got some learning to do,” Tebal’yraen said as he got to his feet and then leaned out upon the crenellations. Veszin’axlu imagined what a slight push could do at that very moment and then quickly thought better of it.

“Way out here we are far from the reaches of the Spider Queen,” Tebal’yraen continued. “Relax a bit. As you probably have already noticed from just half your first day out here in this shit hole, we don’t get many visitors. Those we do get don’t often leave. As long as one of us gives a proper shout or two whenever we see something out there then we’ve got nothin’ to worry about.”

Veszin’axlu thought for a long time about what his commanding officer had just said and the two stood silently unmoving, one still standing at attention and the other casually leaning out over the wall without giving a care to the foul vapors assailing his senses.

Finally Veszin’axlu spoke.

“The Priestess. Is she not concerned the Matrons will find this . . .” Veszin’axlu paused momentarily and considered his choice of wording very carefully, “…comfortable lifestyle not to their liking?”

“Faerqualn’nitra?” Tebal’yraen asked softly and looked around him nervously to make sure no one else was near. Veszin’axlu nearly laughed at this. No one had approached within one hundred paces of their post since he had arrived. It was almost absurd to think Tebal’yraen was worried about someone overhearing them.

“No. The Spiderling cares little for what the Matrons may or may not think,” Tebal’yraen continued in low tones. “The Mother’s have long since forsaken our station. House Barrilyl of Erelhei-Cinlu has constructed a massive post within the tunnel between here and the capitol. Perhaps you saw it on your way in?”

Veszin’axlu nodded as he remembered the fearsome outpost that straddled the entire tunnel two-days travel from here.

“House Noquneld just finished construction of what amounts to a castle about three days travel toward Yvoth-Lened. “ Tebal’yraen grumbled. “We’re not needed here any longer. We’re disposable, and everyone of us in here knows it. At full-force, this outpost can withstand anything those wild lands beyond could throw against us. Anything! ” Tebal’yraen showed true emotion when saying this, but then quickly his shoulders slumped and the energy left him once again.

“But we’re not at full-force, are we?” Tebal’yraen sneered. “

“And if that is what Lolth demands of us, so then shall we do!” Veszin’axlu blurted out without much thought; a knee-jerk reaction of a response. A reaction that had been pounded into his very being since the day he was born. It was, of course, every drow’s purpose in life to unquestioningly obey the dark will of their omnipotent goddess.

Tebal’yraen sneered, thought for a moment in silence and then laughed in the face of Veszin’axlu.

“Oh, pup. How quickly you come to heel. Please. Wipe the slobber off your chin before you speak to me again of these matters. Go back to your Spider and piss yourself.”

Veszin’axlu anger burbled over at this latest affront and his control melted upon the gust of foul air that suddenly rose from the pipes far below him. Without thinking he grabbed Tebal’yraen around the collar of his jerkin with one hand and struck him hard across the cheek with the other.

“Treason!” he yelled at the older drow. “You speak the words of a traitorous worm! None shall say such things of the Queen Mother!” And he began raining blows down upon his commanding officer’s head and face.

Tebal’yraen was surprised by the sudden onslaught by this young cadet, but he was also the veteran of many battles. He knew how to handle himself in a close fight. Ducking his head to protect his face from the next few blows, Tebal’yraen grabbed the younger officer’s right wrist and spun, coming up around and behind his opponent and twisting his arm behind his back.

Within a heartbeat Veszin’axlu found himself no longer striking his target but instead being forced to lean over the stone crenellations of the fortress wall and staring straight down at the ground far below him.

Tebal’yraen twisted his arm painfully behind his back and then whispered close in his ear, “You mother-lickin, bucket-scum, Academy boys make me so sick. I either will help you to choke on your sense of duty or I’ll eat your liver before you leave here.”

Tebal’yraen spat out the word “duty” with disdain before biting down hard on Veszin’axlu’s ear and savagely ripping it from the side of his head.

The pain on the side of Veszin’axlu’s head was nearly unbearable but he managed to stifle the scream nearly bursting from his lips, letting out a spittle-choked whimper instead. The older man gave him a push which nearly sent him toppling over the wall and to his death below, but Veszin’axlu quickly grabbled at the crusty crenellations and caught himself. He spun around quickly to see Tebal’yraen chewing on his severed ear, blood spattered upon his face and a look of mad calm playing across his visage.

Veszin’axlu felt the warm trickle run down the side of his head and neck and quickly put a hand up to staunch the flow of blood. A logical response to this insanity pounded inside his head along with the pulsing, excruciating pain. The first logical thing to do would be to draw his weapon and thrust it as far up the rabid creature’s crotch as he possibly could. The next logical thing would, of course, be to report this incident immediately to his…his superior officer.

But something seemed to stay Veszin’axlu’s hand and he did not draw his weapon. The calm and logical response that had come to him slowly melted inside him as he realized he did not know who, besides this rabid beast before him, his commanding officer actually was. The thought of fleeing the wall to report this incident to one of the Ul-Lolauri made his stomach churn. He had no idea how the cruel and powerful hand-maidens to the priestess would react to a common male soldier complaining about another male soldier. And then the thought of even speaking to the priestess, Faerqualn’nitra, sent chills down his spine.

Something instinctual, a feral response of survival, seemed to take over Veszin’axlu at that moment as he stood there on that lonely wall holding on to the side of his ruined head. And while the pain was tremendous, Veszin’axlu fought down deep inside himself to control the fire that seared away at him. He crouched low and snarled at Tebal’yraen. The sound was guttural and threatening and he took a bit of solace in the feeling of it rumbling from his chest.

The older officer stopped chewing and met his glare. A tense moment passed and then Tebal’yraen spit out the dark wad of chewed flesh and cartilage.

“Bah,” he growled. “You taste bad. I’ve changed my mind. You can keep your liver. If you even think of hitting me again, I’ll hold you down to the ground and slowly remove the skin from your bones, instead.”

Then the dark elf plopped himself down upon the wall and rested his back against the crenellations once more, wiping the blood and gore from his mouth with the back of a dirty sleeve and staring off into the dark at nothing at all.

Veszin’axlu thought about leaving the crazed officer here on the wall in order to check in with the outpost medic, but something told him that might be a bad idea. His animalistic growl had somehow succeeded in backing Tebal’yraen off and somehow he felt that fleeing might provoke another attack. Despite the pain and obvious risk of bleeding to death, Veszin’axlu held his ground.

Reaching into his belt pouch, he withdrew a small vial of ointment and clean silk. The ointment stung terribly but the pain lessened a bit as he wrapped the gauzy material around his skull. The moments stretched into minutes as he worked on binding his wound and no response came from the older drow seated upon the wall. Clearly Tebal’yraen had imposed his dominance on Veszin’axlu in a most violent way and Veszin’axlu, while clearly the loser in this encounter, had also not run away with his tail between his legs.

Veszin’axlu felt perhaps a pecking order, of sorts, had just been established between the two of them. But he still didn’t want the older officer to get the feeling he was too many rungs up the ladder. He realized the silence that lingered after this absurd exchange was, perhaps, another form of dominance against him and that every second that went by was a measure of just how dominant Tebal’yraen had made himself.

Wincing against the pain, Veszin’axlu broke the stalemate.

“Clearly you and the rest of my brothers here at Dryri’d’iminitri have little fear for the Queen of Spiders or her brood. Does Preistess Faerqualn’nitra share your views?”

A very long moment passed and Tebal’yraen did nothing. He did not move nor blink as he continued to stare out over the inky darkness above the drow compound. Veszin’axlu tensed slightly. He was unsure if his bold question would provoke another attack from the elf before him, but if one should occur he knew he would be ready this time. A few feet of distance separated the two and while his hand did not touch the hilt of his weapon, he was ready to draw it in a flash should Tebal’yraen make any sudden movement.

Finally, Tebal’yraen spoke.

“I would not know nor care what the Priestess thinks for she and her spider bitches keep their own council.”

Silence stretched out before them once again.

Veszin’axlu smiled inwardly for he had found something. Just a thread was all it really was, but at least it was something. An advantage? Perhaps, but he would be damned if he wouldn’t use it if he could. The older elf had just clearly spoken treason and, what’s more, he hadn’t reacted with violence or condescension.

Veszin’axlu had been raised as a child of terrible reason; of cold logic and cruel intentions. He was unprepared for this world of sloth and feral behavior that he had found himself in. But, he also knew he would need to adapt and learn and use the information he was presented with. He would need to use this information in order to survive. And so, he pressed on.

“I am listening, garu’kiel,” he said, using the honorific many drow use when addressing an older brother. The term was only appropriate for someone with whom one had great admiration and trust for. A term like this was only used between two individuals who were close and having forged a relationship over time. Veszin’axlu knew he was taking a risk in using the term with someone he had only known for half of a day, but he figured his gambit might pay off considering the current mental state of the one he was addressing.

“How is it you face your enemies upon the field of battle with such prowess and…” Veszin’axlu paused for a moment, searching for the right word. He was about to say ‘honor’, but then thought differently. At last he settled on a word. “…such prowess and ferocity, garu’kiel, if you have forsaken the Spider?”

Another long moment passed and still Tebal’yraen did not react. He just sat, motionless and stared off into the distance.

“Little brother,” he finally said, “As I told you before, you have much to learn if you are to survive out here.”

Veszin’axlu smiled inwardly. His ploy was working. Sweet words of guile and a ready-stance had stayed the hand (or teeth) of his would-be tormentor. And so he waited, hoping the elf would say more. And eventually he did.

“Your stupid tutors at the Academy never told you your prayers to Lolth out here would go unheeded, did they? They failed to mention your cries would never be heard this far from Erelhei-Cinlu. Spiders have many eyes, pup, but they have no ears to hear.”

Veszin’axlu bit back the snarls at hearing such blasphemy. If he had thought about it at all at that moment, perhaps he would have noticed that the biting back wasn’t as difficult as it was earlier in the morning. He found himself nodding easily as he continued what he thought was a masterful ruse on his part.

“No, garu’kiel. They did not mention this wisdom you speak of.”

Tebal’yraen shifted uneasily, then, and then looked up at the younger soldier before him. There was something different about him now. His eyes were not nearly as cruel as they were a bit earlier. They were more distant and … resigned.

“You say we have forsaken the Spider? No, pup, we soldiers of Faerqualn’nitra have forsaken no gods. It was She, Lolth the Spider Queen, who has left us out here to rot. We learned long ago to waste no prayers upon Her.”

Veszin’axlu found himself squinting hard as he stared into the eyes of Tebal’yraen. To hear an elf speak such words was sheer madness, a death sentence, an amputation like the loss of a limb.

Or an ear.

He could barely fathom the words issuing from his lips. The mere thought of Lolth not being in control of his life, of any drow’s life, was absurd. Treacherous. And yet, somehow…appealing.

“Listen to me, pup,” the older elf continued. “Do not look to the Spider for help any longer. She will be of no help to you here. But if you listen hard you will hear upon the echoes another voice, little brother.”

The words did seem to echo in Veszin’axlu’s aching skull. Another? And as the echoes faded Veszin’axlu heard another sound within his head. He heard the sound of rattling bones upon the gaming floor. It was the sound of choice, of random fate. The great gamble was suddenly before him and his very blood dripped from the speaker’s chin. It was the sound of chance. The sound of freedom.

“Come,pup. Have a sit and let me tell you of things. Great things.”

Veszin’axlu found himself sitting next to the older elf and his mind was abuzz, the pain of his missing ear forgotten. There is Another. The words echoed and rattled as he listened.

Chapter 9. The Fisherman – Interlude 2

Godii had fished the inky waters of Murch Bay for centuries. The ancient drow had long ago mastered the art of finding and reeling in buckets of fish while lesser elves went home hungry. His gnarled hands could no longer do simple things in life, like work a bone needle to mend his own clothes, but they had adapted well to hauling in nets and working the sculling oar of his tiny skiff.

The wrinkled fisherman had spent far more of his long life on the waters than on dry land. Even so, Godii knew the shores of the bay almost as much as he knew its waters.

And so it was with some trepidation, and then later a morbid curiosity, that his rheumy eyes watched the back of a massive sluroth lizard drag another corpse out from behind the boulder and begin to gorge itself upon its blackened flesh.

Godii’s hearing had diminished a bit over the years but he could still hear the sound of snapping bones even this far out upon the water. He sat safely within his small skiff and watched in amazement as the great beast tore chunks from the armored drow’s body and gulped them down. He had seen these beasts from a distance and he felt fairly certain they did not like the water much. Even so, he did not want to take a chance of being wrong so he used the boat’s long sculling oar to maintain what he felt was a safe distance as he watched. His eyes were wide in wonder and sadistic glee.

The ancient fisherman caught a flash of movement further up the beach to his left coming from the direction of his port village of Ill’Dereth. In the span of just a few heartbeats the drow patrol rounded a mass of boulders strewn across the beach and began their attack on the massive lizard. Alatl bolts flashed in the air and struck the beast’s scaly side. Godii could see most of the missiles just bounced harmlessly to the ground, but a few made purchase.

The giant lizard stopped devouring its gruesome meal and turned its thick head to get a better look at the nuisance daring to interrupt its dinner. For a moment, Godii thought the beast would charge its drow attackers, but then a brilliant, sizzling blue light streaked across the beach and slammed into the creature.

Godii’s eyes burned with searing pain as if they had been set to with hot coals and then his world went dark, completely blinded from the effects of the brilliant flash. A split second later a resounding boom of sonic force struck his little boat and dropped Godii to his wrinkled, bony arse. The magic was like nothing Godii had ever seen before and his confused brain wrestled with making sense of what he had just experienced; his eyes straining to recover.

While Godii had never witnessed the great magics of the Academy’s wizards, he had heard enough stories in his life and seen enough minor parlor tricks to realize a powerful mage was accompanying the drow patrol. He began to struggle with what it might mean to actually have someone as powerful as an Academy mage among the ranks of a common patrol. About that same time he also became aware that his boat was suddenly moving!

Godii struggled to get unsteadily to his feet and his sight began to clear, even though a red and purple streak seemed permanently superimposed upon all that he tried to look at.

A few moments later his sight had cleared enough so he could see a tall and slender young drow on the beach was making slow hand over hand movements in his direction. His boat seemed to move toward the shore in time with those movements. Godii nearly swooned at the thought. His boat was under the spell of a wizard and he was being towed to shore!

The giant lizard wisely decided the beach had become too crowded and it scuttled off down the beach. A few drow were still giving chase, shouting at the creature and hurling harmless bolts at its retreating bulk.

As Godii’s small fishing boat crunched upon the rocky shore and came to a halt, he noticed that several lean drow warriors made a protective semi-circle around the mage. The warriors were all dressed in the standard military trappings of the Ill’Dereth patrols except that each one of them had a small braided loop of material entwined across their leather shoulder straps. Godii had seen these loops before on other warriors and recognized them as the insignia of House Ill’Dereth.

The mage before him stood with arms folded in an arrogant stance and a wicked sneer upon his face. Godii understood the posturing all too well. These male drow existed outside the female dominated power struggles that took place in the great vaults of the Underdark. Out here, in the outlands, the males were allowed to “play” at being ruler.

Power, or the illusion of it, was everything to the elite males and they would use it and display it however and whenever they could.

Godii had been alive for centuries and he never had the chance to play on the elite side of the table. But, nevertheless, he knew his part well. He had to to have survived this long.

Once the boat came to a halt upon the shore, the elder fisherman bowed his head, stepped over the gunnels and into the cold brackish knee-deep water of the bay. Almost immediately he splashed down into a prostrate position with most of his body submerged in the water but his upper chest, neck and head pressed to the sandy stones.

“Oh, master,” he wailed, “I am but a poor fisherman and unworthy of this attention from those as mighty as you.”

“Quit your sniveling, you simplistic twit, and get to your feet,” the mage snarled.

Godii looked up in surprise and then very tentatively rose to his feet, standing before the mage, encircled by a ring of elite guards.

“Yes, master,” Godii stammered. The fisherman was wise enough to leave it at that, not adding anymore and removing any trace of simpering from his voice, replacing it, instead, with what he felt was just the right amount of respect. Head bowed, he waited for further instructions.

A moment later the mage spoke again. “Tell me, fisherman, how long have you been fishing in this area?”

“All my life, master.”

The mage became suddenly very angry.

“You are as stupid as you are old! I mean on this particular day, how long have you been fishing just off shore here?”

Godii smiled inwardly. While he would never dream of openly insulting such a powerful figure, he knew he could torture him just a little while maintaining his proper role as a “stupid” old fisherman.

“Beg your pardon, master. I did not realize that is what you meant,” Godii looked up now to meet the mage’s gaze – the better to judge just how much he could get away with in this little encounter.

“I am afraid I am just a poor fisherman and not a learned and powerful elf such as yourself.” Godii continued. “Again, you must excuse my stupidity, but it has been quite some time since I left the harbor and I really do not know what time it is.”

The mage ‘s brow furrowed and he looked as if he had just stepped in offal.

“What upon the Great Web are you babbling about, fisherman?” the mage spat. “I did not ask you about the time! I asked you how long you had been fishing in this area today!”

Godii looked as confused as he possibly could. “That’s right, master. And I am trying to answer your questions to the best of my abilities. But I left the harbor at six bells and since an old fisherman, such as myself, has no way of knowing the count of time out here on the water, I am afraid I cannot give you a very good answer to your query.”

Godii noticed that several of the guards had been milling about the half-eaten corpse which lay on the beach just beyond where he and the mage stood. From what remained of the corpse he could tell it had once been an exceptionally large drow. From the ruined bits of mail and small arsenal of weapons scattered about, Godii deduced this one had probably been a warrior or guard of some kind. One of the still-living-guards had been kneeling over the corpse, but just then the elf stood quickly and strode purposefully a bit further down the beach. The rest of the guards followed closely behind him.

Godii tried not to gasp when he recognized the royal emblem of House Dre’kel emblazoned upon the elf’s outer cloak. Godii realized in an instant why this patrol had a powerful mage in its company for it also had a member of the royal family in it, as well. The loops around the guard’s epaulettes must mean these elves were from the elite House Guard.

Godii reassessed his situation and decided he might be in far more peril than he at first realized, and perhaps instead of being evasive for the sheer pleasure of it he should probably play this encounter straight. Godii knew better than to mess around in the presence of “royalty”.

“Uh. Master, I think I know what you are asking now. It is just that I am not at all accustomed to being around so much powerful magic, and I think my brain got a bit addled. I have been fishing here in this area for the past several hours. It was just a short while ago when I spotted the great sluroth, of which I assume you and your brave patrol were hunting. It sniffed out the bodies that were hidden over there behind the boulders and had gulped down two of them before you arrived. One must have been very small for it took the creature just a snap and a gulp to send it down. The second one was quite a bit larger and the beast took its time tearing the corpse apart and savoring each morsel. It actually worried at the corpse so much that a large piece of it flew into the water just over there.”

Godii pointed over to the shore just where the noble drow and the rest of the patrol had gone. As he did so he noticed the noble had picked up a bloody, sodden heap of cloth and was now walking in their direction. Godii had seen the young prince, Jhul’Afae Do Excair several times in his life. This was the closest he had ever been to him. The realization chilled him to the bone and he found himself suddenly unable to speak. Fear gripped him in its icy embrace and his mind went numb.

The mage turned to lock eyes with the Prince.

“You have found something, my Liege?” the mage said with an easy and tempered voice

Jhul’Afae looked grim.

“I believe we are getting closer to an answer and it is not one I am comfortable with.”

The Prince help up the bloody cloth in his hand then and Godii could see a small, jeweled brooch or pin attached to it. The bauble was a stylistic representation of a spider. The Prince deftly detached it from the cloth and let the bloodied scraps fall to the ground at his feet.

“The Snake. This was his.”

Jhul’Afae held the spider pendant up for a moment and frowned at it.

“The girl is nowhere to be found. By all means, we must locate her and she must be alive. The dagger is also of utmost importance. “

The Prince stepped up close to the mage then and took hold of the collar of his dark cloak, rubbing the material between his fingers in a rather intimate fashion. Godii caught the glimmer of a shining chain shirt underneath the mage’s cloak. The armor was as fine of craftsmanship as the old elf had ever seen in his long life and he instantly realized the mage was wearing priceless mithril chainmail.

Godii sucked in a sharp breath. That shirt would be worth more than he had earned in his entire lifetime – more than what he could earn in one hundred lifetimes.

“You are my best tracker, Veph,” the Prince said softly into the mages ear. “You understand what is at stake here. She must be found. Quickly.”

The Prince then smoothly attached the spider pendent to the collar of Veph’s cloak and with both hands smoothed the material along his shoulders and chest, stepping back and smiling an oily smile as he did so.

“I will find her. Do not worry, my Prince,” the mage cooed, “I spy several footprints leaving the scene. Her trail, and that of the dagger, will be easy to follow.”

“Good,” the Prince said, still holding the eerie smile on his face. “Take a few elves with you. If the Snake is dead, she must be with powerful allies.”

“Again. Do not worry. It shall be done. And what shall we do with this rather unhelpful fisherman here?” Veph asked, suddenly looking directly at Godii.

The Prince started as if seeing Godii for the first time. The smile disappeared.

“You know as well as I there can be no witnesses.”

Godii was staring right at the Prince and still the royal drow moved so fast he did not even see it. In the last second of his long and pitiful life, Godii thought he had simply swooned from the sudden shock of being so addressed by a figure as powerful and frightening as the Prince Jhul’Afae Do Excair of House Dre’kel in Ill’Dereth. The world tilted and spun and he seemed to be falling. That was just before the lights went out.

Jhul’Afae Do Excair smiled once more as he gingerly tapped the old fisherman’s severed head into the water with the toe of his boot. He neatly cleaned the blood from his rapier’s blade using the cloak of the drow elite guard standing next to him before he strode back up the beach toward the town of Ill’Dereth. If he was bothered by the events that had just transpired, he certainly didn’t show it.

Chapter 10. The Wedding

Laila d’aub looked angry. Very angry. This was Plan B and things hadn’t gone as well as they had hoped, but Yathaub was impressed with her delivery, nonetheless.

“I am the daughter of Matron Barh’Uk of House Barh’Uk, favored by Lolth and third seat of Mor’Telar. I shall not slink amid the shadows and I shall not stand for any slight given to my House, Matron or property!”

Laila d’aub stood before the drow priestess and unleashed her finest performance yet.

“I will answer any question of my choosing or none at all, if I am so inclined. I am Laila d’aub Barh’Uk and swift punishment will befall any who oppose me and my mission.”

Dark shadows fell across her face as she delivered her lines to perfection. Yathaub felt that same quivering of fear in the pit of his stomach as he watched his beloved slip into her grim countenance. He had seen this same act play out over a dozen rehearsals, but it still caused him some amount of trepidation. As she rose up to her full height and stared down the priestess, it seemed to Yathaub that the pillared walls of the small shrine to Lolth actually shrunk, giving the room a stifling, claustrophobic feel.

“House Barh’Uk has sent me to procure ten bales of fine silk from the markets of Erelhei-Cinlu. My hand-maiden, bodyguard and a dozen house slaves accompany me. To delay me . . .”

The priestess raised her hand and Laila d’aub faltered.

“I have heard enough,” the priestess said with a look of complete disinterest.

Yathaub was now very frightened, indeed.

- – – – – -

For weeks Yathaub had successfully led the woman he loved and her handmaiden, Shensen, through the trackless, dark tunnels of the Underdark. They had fled from the coastal village of Ill Dereth and from what they could only assume was a twisted plot hatched by the girls’ “father”, Xul’Nohlu, elder male of House Barh’Uk, to kill them. The girls held fast to the notion that a man from Shensen’s dreams, a man in a bright blue vault, could help them, but neither of them knew where this blue vault could be found.

Yathuab and eleven of his diminutive, shadowy dark creeper minions had navigated the dangerous tunnels, but all the while he dreaded this inevitable moment. In drow territory, all tunnels led either to the massive and majestic drow vaults that contained entire cities or they led to drow controlled outposts and checkpoints. To leave drow territory one must pass through at least one checkpoint where many questions were usually asked and belongings picked through. Travelers sometimes requested permission to leave drow territory, but these requests were rarely granted nor offered freely.

Laila d’aub was convinced her mother’s name and an overheard password would see them safely through any checkpoint, but Yathaub was never completely sure of this. Nevertheless, he found himself completely unable to voice his concerns to her for fear of upsetting her. At these times he often reminded himself that love makes you do funny and stupid things, but these talks with himself never resulted in much.

At last they had come to a place in the Underdark where the only way forward would be to pass through a drow checkpoint. The jumble of walls, buildings and towers sat in the midst of a wide boulder plane. Countless stalagmites and stalactites festooned the floor and ceiling of the vast cavern and hundreds of thick columns had formed when the larger of these formations managed to grow together. Even so, those that manned the checkpoint and its towers would be able to easily spy any creature who tried to slip past without notice. The time had come where they would have to put Laila d’aub’s plan to action.

The roadway to the checkpoint was a terrible one. Half a mile from the checkpoint the gauntlet of gore began. On either side of the road hundreds of corpses were staked out on crude crosses made of lashed bone. Most of the corpses had been reduced to lonely skeletons. Several had been savaged by scavenging beasts, and some were still alive, if barely. Their feeble cries and moans could be heard emanating from somewhere out in that field of terror. The smell of carrion was thick upon the air.

They were met at the main gates of Checkpoint Dryri’d’iminitri with barely a nod from half a dozen sleepy looking drow guards. They were led through the gate by two other glum drow in leather armor and then deeper still into the complex past several open courtyards. The courtyards held fungal boxes of supplies, packs of tamed riding lizards and a few silent drow who did not look their way as they passed. This quiet, gloomy behavior was apparently business-as-usual at Outpost Dryri’d’iminitri .

Dozens of smaller passageways, outbuildings and alleys branched off from their course and Yathaub was soon convinced they would never be able to leave this maze quickly without a guide. Within a few turns he found himself hopelessly lost.

Eventually their drow guides led them to another large open courtyard. Dozens of small rooms with gated entries encircled the yard. Yathaub could see through the gates where more sleepy looking guards sat on stools with their booted feet propped up on crude tables. Each of the rooms also held a small contingent of furry hobgoblins huddling in the corners.

Yathaub knew a little bit about hobgoblins. Larger and more intelligent than their diminutive cousins, the common goblin, hobgoblins in the Underdark were almost always employed as mercenaries or shock troops. The way these hobgoblins stood clustered in corners, as far away from the drow in each room as they could get, he guessed they weren’t employed by the dark elves. But then again, the barred gates stood wide open, so he didn’t suppose they were prisoner either. Yathaub could plainly see the fear in their eyes as he passed by and those frightened looks made him wonder even more.

One entire side of the courtyard was comprised of an entry to a majestic and horrid building. The building was tall, about five stories in all, and was built from twisted and melted stone. Eight mighty buttresses sprouted from the sides of the building like the legs of a massive, black spider. Four of the “legs” terminated in the courtyard. Eight windows sat high up on the fourth floor, each one housed a brilliantly glowing red lantern producing the eerie effect of eyes watching all that transpired below. Shadows flitted and floated in a constant stream around the building’s upper floors.

A short, but wide set of stone steps led up to a pair of massive iron-bound wooden doors strethcing two stories in height. Wood was uncommon in the Underdark, but planks of this size were absolutely unheard of. Yathuab gaped at the doors in sickly wonder. They were carved with terrible shapes of foul creatures and torturous mutilations. At times Yathaub thought he could see the shapes move and writhe.

Their drow guides told the group they would need to wait in the courtyard until Priestess Faerqualn’nitra permitted them an audience and then they promptly turned around and slouched back toward the checkpoints main gates from which they had come.

Within a short while the massive doors before them boomed open and a small contingent of female drow guards, along with a handful of scantily dressed drow women, exited the building. They accompanied a strange group. At the head of the group, Yathaub saw a squat, hideous creature the likes of which he had never seen before. The creature was only about four feet tall, but resembled a troll more than anything he could imagine. Its skin was a greenish color and its nose was long, thin and twisted. In one hand it held a strong metal chain. The other end of the chain was attached to a snarling dog-like creature with long, sharp quills instead of fur. A tall, brown bugbear strode behind the troll-thing; bugbears being even larger and more intelligent cousins of both the common goblin and the hobgoblin.

But it was the last figure in the group that gave Yathaub a start. The creature was a thin, robed humanoid with a bald, flabby green flesh-sac for a head. Two weak and beady black eyes were situated low and wide upon the sac while a cluster of tentacles formed what should have been its mouth. An illithid. Yathaub knew the reputation of these creatures; they were called mind-flayers in the more rustic forms of the Undercommon language, and he knew enough to fear them. He had heard rumors these creatures ate living brains for breakfast.

The group halted at the top of the steps and one of the non-warrior female drow spoke to the trollish-imp creature in words so soft Yathaub could not hear. The troll-imp then turned to the bugbear and spoke harshly while pointing at one of the side rooms with the barred gates. The bugbear nodded grimly and then strode across the courtyard, two female drow in tow.

He watched as they entered the room that the troll-imp had pointed out and Yauthaub could plainly hear the large bugbear bellow out words in the creature’s native tongue. This was followed by a cacophony of howls and barks from the group of hobgoblins within. A few seconds later they emerged. Heavily armed drow followed, pushing two struggling hobgoblins out with them.

Yathaub could see the hobgoblins were manacled at the ankles and wrists. The wretched beasts howled and mewled in protest and each tried to run, but the grinning drow jabbed them with pointed halberds and delivered kicks and punches to keep them in line. Moments later the struggling hobgoblins were herded around the corner and out of sight.

The bugbear and drow maiden paid Yathaub’s group no attention at all as they walked past to rejoin their comrades at the top of the stairs. More words were exchanged between the troll-imp and the drow and then they parted ways; the drow retreated back inside the dreadful church while the troll-imp, his “dog”, the bugbear and the illithid casually strolled down the steps.

Halfway across the courtyard the troll-imp suddenly looked up and smiled broadly at Lailla d’aub, as if seeing them for the first time. The creature turned to its companions, gesturing for them to continue on without him, and then it sauntered up to Laila d’aub and Shensen, it’s horrible “dog” leading the way.

“Lovely day we’re having, wouldn’t you say?” the troll-imp said.

Laila d’aub studied the creature’s face with more curiosity than horror.

“Do not speak to me, creature,” she spat at him with more contempt than Yathaub felt was possible for one as lovely as Laila d’aub. And then he remembered she was warming up to her role. They desperately needed everyone in this checkpoint to see her as the haughty, arrogant princess of a highly-placed drow House. Their survival depended upon the success of this ruse and Laila d’aub was only playing the part.

The creature grinned even more broadly and then it just shrugged.

“It looks like you’re next. Best you find yourself some manners before going in there,” the troll-imp nodded back toward the church before turning around to rejoin its companions across the courtyard.

“Prickles, heel!” it hissed and the dog-creature took up pace next to its master.

“One moment, if you please,” Yathaub said, jogging a few paces to catch up to the pair. “Yathaub would like to know what that business was all about,” he said while pointing toward the room of hobgoblins.

The troll-imp snorted and then looked very amused. Amused for a troll-imp, that is.

“Well,” it began slowly, “let’s just say Kazmodjen knows when to tithe a church.” The creature winked at Yathaub and then continued on its way.

Yathaub stood stunned for just a moment, and then looked back to his friends. The eleven creepers stood patiently and protectively around Laila d’aub and Shensen.

“_A tithe?” he thought to himself and then the gravity of their situation suddenly dawned on him. “_These wicked drow demand a living sacrifice of those who wish to pass by their gates? Well, Yathuab will most certainly offer himself before losing any of his friends!

A short while later the doors to the church opened once more and the little group were led inside by the same contingent of female warriors. The interior of the church was even more dark and creepy than the outside, and it had the added bonus of smelling really, really bad. They were led deep into the structure, past many side rooms and antechambers. Small black candles were lit here and there throughout the interior, giving off a gloomy light. Somewhere far away he could hear moans intermingled with the occasional chiming of a bell.

At the end of a long hall the drow ushered them into the High Priestess’s reception room. It was a small room with a sinister feel. Black pillars with whorls of purple filigree were placed at random intervals throughout the room. The walls, floors and ceiling were cut from the same black stone as the pillars but these were unpolished and mortised. A thin red carpet led from the entry to a series of short, broad steps, atop which sat a throne.

White silk hung from the ceiling and between the pillars, undulating in an unfelt breeze, while low braziers sat along the steps, emanating with a hellish orange glow. Six dark elven women stood, leaned or lounged along the steps to either side of the throne. Each had hair as white as bleached bones and each were dressed in gauze so thin it was as if they wore nothing at all. Bracelets, rings, bangles, hoops and other gaudy jewelry festooned just about every part of their body that could support such things, and each wore looks of sultry boredom or seductive amusement.

Yathaub had blushed at the sight of them.

High Priestess Faerqualn’nitra sat in the throne. She was dressed as the others, which meant she wasn’t really dressed at all, and was indistinguishable from the other six in all ways except for the expression on her face. Yathuab knew that look. It was a grim look. It was the look of demented sadistic pleasure.

Yathaub shuddered.

Laila d’aub had begun their little act pleasantly enough. She took it just as they had planned, offering dripping praise laced with a touch of condescension. She dropped her mother’s name at just the right places and hinted at the urgency and secrecy of their current mission. She had thanked Faerqualn’nitra for her hospitality and apologized for having to be on their way so quickly but promised to stay longer on their return trip so as to take in the full pleasures that a well-run checkpoint like Dryri’d’iminitri had to offer.

Laila d’aub had nodded slightly to the High Priestess when she had finished her lines and had spun on her heels as if to leave. Yathaub noticed that Faerqualn’nitra had sat motionless throughout Laila d’aub’s performance without a hint of emotion.

Just then Yathaub saw the silks behind the throne part and a horrid creature leaned forward from the shadows. The creature stood about six feet in height and was yellow-colored, like rancid puss. Its body seemed to flow with viscid movement like a tallow candle endlessly melting. It had neither arms nor legs, but a single, large red eye centered near the top of its body. Yathaub felt nausea at the sight of the thing, but the Priestess smiled playfully and stroked its dripping, mucussy body like she was scratching the ears of a cat. The thing seemed to whisper something in her ear.

“Stop!” Priestess Faerqualn’nitra commanded and Liala d’aub and Shensen halted in their tracks. The creepers also stood still and looked terrifyingly up at the throne.

The High Priestess suddenly looked both perturbed and amused. “Tell me more of this mission of Matron Barh’Uk of House Barh’Uk. Tell me why she has sent her youngest child with so few to guard her and tell me why it is so important.”

It was at that moment when Laila d’aub gathered in her strength and started in on Plan B. She had gotten angry and petulant. She had puffed out her cheeks and spat out the next few lines of their practiced dialogue.

All the while the priestess had gazed down on them, unmoved and unimpressed.

“ . . .House Barh’Uk has sent me to procure ten bales of fine silk from the markets of Erelhei-Cinlu. My hand-maiden, bodyguard and a dozen house slaves accompany me. To delay me . . .”

The priestess had raised her hand and Laila d’aub faltered.

“I have heard enough,” the priestess said with a look of complete disinterest.

Yathaub was now very frightened, indeed.

  • * *

The horrid waxy creature behind the throne leaned in once more and whispered into Faerqualn’nitra’s ear.

“You lie, Laila d’aub, youngest daughter of Matron Barh’Uk of House Barh’Uk,” the priestess intoned in a bored manner. “I have reached the end of my patience. Explain yourself now or the lot of you will add to the decorations surrounding Dryri’d’iminitri.”

Yathaub found himself reaching for the daggers at his belt. They were out of options. His right hand easily found the hilt of the Dyr’Fel dagger and he was suddenly filled with a boost of confidence. The dagger, this weapon at his side, it had power and he knew it. It had slain a powerful drow assassin and felled a massive troglodyte with just a scratch. Somehow he felt the dagger might just be their ticket out of this horrible place. He gripped its hilt tightly but Laila d’aub stopped him short.

“Wait, Yathaub. Don’t. I will tell them the truth,” she said with desperation unlike anything he had ever seen in her.

As she spoke, Yathaub could see that she had given up. Gone was the regal princess of mighty House Barh’Uk and in her place stood a frightfully young, scared, and guilty looking little girl. Yathaub’s heart nearly split in two at the sight of his beloved in this state.

“I know I lied, High Priestess,” she began, “and I am truly sorry. I was foolish to think I could mislead one so powerful as yourself. But, you see, I…we…are desperate.”

She looked first at Shensen and then turned to look Yathaub squarely in the face. As their eyes met Yathaub nearly ran to her. He wanted desperately to sweep her up in his arms and carry her away from this awful place.

“My mother, as you know,” she continued, “is very powerful and strong in the eyes of the Unholy Queen.”

The High Priestess stifled a yawn and produced a very loud sigh of boredom instead, but allowed Laila d’aub to continue with her defense.

“To cross my mother is to invite certain death, which is why I….” she stammered and looked around the room. Her gaze fell on Yathaub once again and her face suddenly took on a strange look, Yathaub couldn’t define the look and it made him feel…odd.

“…we,” her face lit up with warmth and tenderness never taking her eyes away from Yathaub’s as she continued, “fled her kingdom to spare her the discomfort. You see, Yathaub and I fell in love and we ran away to be married.”

The High Priestess choked.

“What!?” she stammered, all traces of boredom were gone and a look of utter disgust had replaced it.

“You and that….thing,” she said, pointing at Yathuab, “you and that chuul….are married?!”

High Priestess Faerqualn’nitra suddenly looked as if she were going to be sick.

“Yes, Mother,” Laila d’aub said and she ran over to Yathaub’s side and threw her arms around his neck.

Yauthaub could not move.

Yathaub could not think.

He was vaguely aware of the sudden warmth of her body against his. He felt the slimness of her arms around him and the curves of her breasts as she wrapped herself tightly about his body.

Yathaub could not breathe.

Suddenly her lips found his and she passionately kissed him. Her hands thrust up under the cowl of his cloak and her fingers entwined in his hair. She pulled him even closer and her sweet, hot breath covered him in gasping time with her heaving chest.

Yauthab’s mind clicked into the off position.

Sometime later; perhaps it was a few minutes or perhaps a few days, Yathaub became aware that much talking had been going on all around him. There was movement, too. He saw pretty colors and had a vague notion that he was walking. Well, he was being led by the hand and his legs just kind of followed along for the ride.

Perfume. Yes, definitely perfume. Rich and sweet. The memory of soft lips. Her hand held his. Her hips brushed against the side of his leg as they walked.

They were outside the church, now.

A sudden Realization rose up from somewhere in the murky depths of his mind. This Thought burbled up and rudely knocked on the side of his head.

Knock, knock, knock.

“Hello!” the Thought said to him. “Yathaub. You are married.”

Yathaub blinked and the world slowly returned.

  • * *

High Priestess Faerqualn’nitra and her yochlol advisor retired to her chambers behind the throne. She gave orders to the six Ul-Lolauri, the blessed of Lolth, that she was not to be disturbed.

When the stone door clicked shut, Faerqualn’nitra used her fingers to trace the magic runes set in each wall of her elaborately decorated bedchamber. The action summoned up the ancient magics that sealed the room against scrying. She hated having to rely on rune magic. She wished she could once again command the magic granted to her by the Queen of Spiders. But Lolth had long since abandoned her and now she had found a new patron. Soon, she told herself. Soon she would have new magic at her command.

When she was done, she turned to regard the waxy yochlol, the dreaded handmaiden of Lolth, which stood patiently near the doorway.

“And that girl was actually telling the truth that last time? She was married to that horrible thing?” she asked.

The yochlol shifted then and its illusionary appearance faded away. In its place stood a dreadful woman. Tall and slender, the woman’s black hair was cropped close to her scalp. Bruises and tattoos criss-crossed her pale face like broken tile. Her eyes were white as eggs and her lips were black as a plague. She wore no clothes at all and the burnt remains of feathered wings protruded from her shoulder blades. Thick fur covered her elbows and knees. The fur continued down her calves where it ended in black, cloven feet.

The lilitus demon grinned back at Faerqualn’nitra with grey teeth.

“Oh yes, my sweet,” the demon hissed, “she was most definitely telling the truth.”

“Disgusting. I would just as soon mate with a lizard.”

Faerqualn’nitra fell back upon her large, ornate bed and patted the covers.

“Speaking of which…” she said, looking up at the demon expectantly.

“No, priestess. I must be back to our master. He is still very weak after his long imprisonment and he needs my help,” it hissed.

“Oh. Pity,” Faerqualn’nitra pouted. “But at least tell me how much longer we must continue this charade.”

The demon regarded the drow priestess with white, unseeing eyes.

“You have done well, tasty morsel. Tharizdun is pleased. Very soon he will be strong enough to grant you the magic your once precious Spider Queen did before she forsook you. Nay, the power of The Eater of Worlds shall far surpass that of The Spider. Until that time you must continue to let them believe you still serve Lolth and I shall cast your magics for you. Be not put out, my cozy pet, it gives me great pleasure to do so.”

Faerqualn’nitra nodded and smiled and let her head fall back into the pillows of her bed. The demon waved its hand and the High Priestess fell into a deep sleep. The demon then walked over to a finely carved chest of drawers and opened a bejeweled box sitting amid the trove of expensive brushes, face paints and perfumes the High Priestess stored there. It removed a long, ugly metal linked chain from the box. It had stored the chain there upon its arrival to the Prime Material Plane earlier in the day.
The demon carefully laid the chain into a figure-eight pattern on the floor and then stepped into the loops. Once both cloven hooves were set upon the floor inside the figure, the demon and the chain disappeared with an audible pop.

Moments later, the demon found itself still standing inside the figure-eight loops formed by the chain, but no longer in the lurid bedchambers of Faerqualn’nitra. Now it stood inside a sparsely furnished living space within the Iron Tower in the City of Dis on the second layer of Baator. And no longer was the demon a demon.

Instead, a short, thin devil with purple skin covered in a veritable pin cushion of needlelike quills stood in its place. The crafty creature had shed its second illusion of the day as soon as possible. He liked to cast illusions but he never liked to impersonate demons.

“Squandrek, report,” came a feminine voice from a nearby curtained balcony.

Squandrek quickly scurried over mortised stone and tightly patterned rugs in order to present his report to his mistress. His quills gently scraped a priceless divan and a low ebony table as he passed. A larger table of mahogany stood to his left, its surface held neat stacks of parchment. A quill and inkpot sat stoically at attention near one of the stacks.

Beyond the table and against the stone inner walls of the chambers were numerous wooden bookshelves that stretched from floor to the modest stone ceiling above. Their shelves were perfectly balanced with sorted books, not a one out of place. Squandrek knew the hundreds of volumes on those shelves were perfectly placed because he had long ago memorized their proper placement. If he was good his mistress would occasionally allow him to read a page or two from one of them. Squandrek loved books.

The small devil hurried past a simple marble stand set against the chamber’s outer wall to his right. The porcelain ewer sat balanced upon its single shelf. Just above the ewer hung the large red tapestry depicting all manner of souls in various stages of delicious torture. Squandrek loved the tapestry. He loved the ewer, too, but he loved the tapestry even more.

When he finally reached the far end of the room he found himself facing a long red curtain drawn before the chamber’s single balcony. The curtain, closed as it was, blocked his mistress from view but he could see her shadow superimposed on the curtain’s rich fabric.

“Mistress Ashunna,” Squandrek began, “the souls of the dark elves at Dryri’d’iminitri belong to you now. Your mark is upon them and your plan worked perfectly. The last recruit from Erelhei-Cinlu forsook Lolth just this morning. They are all drunk with notions of finding favor with The Dark One. Their tributes to Tharizdun have doubled and they suspect not he still lies chained within his prison in the Deep Ethereal.”

“Good,” the voice from behind the curtain purred, “you have done so very well, my dear Squandrek. I must find some way to reward you.”

The small devil smiled and puffed up, his quills stuck straight out making him look like a very dangerous purple balloon. And then a question struck him.

“I am still a little confused, Mistress Ashunna. Why did you stop me from demanding a tribute from that last group? I so, so, sooo would have enjoyed watching them stake that silver-haired dark elf in the killing fields outside Dryri’d’iminitri.”

The shadow on the balcony outside moved and the curtain gently pulled aside. Squandrek could see the endless burning landscape of Dis beyond. His mistress’s chambers were fairly high up in the Iron Tower so he had a pretty good view of the amazing landscape that made up this particular layer of Hell. But his attention quickly turned to Ashunna.

She stood before him with a gentle smile upon her face. Her hair was a fiery red, like the skies outside, and her skin was the pale blue of a robin’s egg. Squandrek liked eggs. Her wings were black as night and each feather was placed just so. Her eyes were often red, like her hair, but that was only when she was angry. Ashunna was angry a lot, but now she was not and her eyes were a beautiful solid black, like rich orbs of shining obsidian. She held her mighty bow in one hand and bent low to scratch Squandrek’s chin with her free one.

“I did not want them sacrificed, Squandrek, because I need them.”

Squandrek looked confused, but the tall erinyes devil just smiled even broader.

“It is okay. You cannot see what I see,” she stood up then and walked past Squandrek to her table. She shuffled through a few papers and then tapped their edges to once again form a perfectly neat pile.

“Someone comes, Squandrek. Someone from the surface of that world,” she continued. “An opportunity presents itself and I wish these two groups to meet. I sense more souls are ripe for the taking and I have a plan which I have now set in motion. We have made a bold statement. So easily have we corrupted the ranks of the Spider Queen, you and I. Now I have set my sights upon the Sea Mother and soon I will have the blood of her followers, too. “

Squandrek tried to stifle the giggle that burbled forth and failed. Squandrek liked blood.

~To be continued.

The Dyr’Fel Dagger

Non-magical masterwork adamantine dagger (damage 1d4+1).

This dagger was forged by the demon smith Ghealt in the forges at Dyr’Fel for House Trevane to use in the Game of Houses. It is a thick and ugly blade and has two removable poison cartridges hidden within the blade. The cartridges are accessed by flipping a hidden panel within the dagger’s hilt. The cartridges were forged with such cunning that the normal 5% chance of accidental poisoning is reduced to 0% when the cartridges are refilled.

The dagger holds two doses of any poison and the poison in released from the blade upon insertion into flesh. The special properties of adamantine ignores hardness when used against objects that have hardness.

An Odd Dagger

Thrice The Brinded Cat Thom