Down Among the Dark Things
Maera knew they'd gotten lucky. The Svirfneblin had found them first. Being gnomes, however sunless their environs, they were curious creatures first and foremost, and they found their surfacer guests fascinating. And after a little investigation pointed to the nearby drow city of Ust Natha as Irenicus and Bodhi's most likely destination, the gnomes had proved more than willing to help the party figure out a way to follow. It was obvious the amount of love lost between the various races of the Underdark was too little for a halfling's teaspoon. The svirfneblin were a peaceful sort, with 'keep your head down' and 'live and let live' as their primary precepts. They had been kind to the lost travelers, if understandably cautious, and that was why Maera felt so badly about hating the place so thoroughly.
They had been there for three days. She assumed it was days, at least. There was no real way to know. The deep gnomes had a pattern to their lives that indicated a daily cycle down in the depths, but their reckoning of time was very different, and she had no idea how or if it coincided with the daylight hours of the surface world. But that only one of the reasons she hated it. The light was dim, the food was strange and most of the ceilings were too low. She was restless, agitated and distracted. She paced and snapped and snarled like a caged tiger. Her companions jumped every time they saw her shadow, then glanced at each other guiltily for it. Minsc had even offered her Boo to help her calm herself, and it had taken every shred of her self-control not to shout him from the room.
She couldn't even look at Kelsey. Spellhold weighed on her like a leaden cloak, and she could remember it all in obscenely vivid detail. The darkness had wrapped her close with welcoming arms, and the pure, wrathful exultation of its embrace seemed the most perfect emotion she had ever experienced. It had felt so right, and she had felt so free. When she moved her fingers, she could feel the clawed hands. She could remember how easy it was to slash through skin and muscle, marveling in her own strength and power. She could still feel the blood, his blood, still see it on her hands. The memory made her gorge rise, and the one person whose comfort she wished for most was the one person she dared not approach.
Normally, she loved irony. This just made her sick.
There was little else to do but retreat into solitude, and she had found some on the outskirts of the svirfneblin granitehome, a rocky ledge where she could perch and stare down into the depths of the cave below. "Ah, my lady Maera!" The jovial voice of Goldander Blackenrock, headgnome of the community, nearly made her vacate her skin. He saw her start, and apologized. "Forgive me, but I bring good news. Odendal Breachgnome and his company will be returning from Lady Adalon's cavern tomorrow. Their visit was really a formality, though. I doubt very much that she would deny you her aid."
"You seem awfully sure she can help us, Goldander."
"There is little that is beyond Adalon's power, my lady. You will see that for yourself."
"I don't see why she has to be so damn mysterious," Maera said glumly.
"Better for her to reveal herself on her own terms. She is a proud creature."
She rested her forehead on the heels of her hands and sighed. "Thank you, Goldander. You've given me something to look forward to."
He nodded, but instead of departing, he hovered in place for a moment, rocking slightly on the balls of his feet. "Your companions had wondered if you would join them for the sleeping meal," he said.
She had to think about that for a moment. The sleeping meal – the last meal of the day, before bedtime. It was an imperfect translation, but there were so many concepts Deep Gnomish and Common didn't share, it was a wonder they could communicate at all. "Thank you, but tell them I'm not hungry, Goldander."
His small face wrinkled with discomfiture. "Very well." He departed, and she turned her attention back to the dark without, in hopes of ignoring the dark within.
The granitehome was asleep by the time Maera returned from her ledge, and she hoped her party was as well. It wasn't that she was avoiding them, she told herself, then sighed. Except that she was. They had been put up in the granitehome's community long room, because it was one of the few places the ceiling had been carved out high enough to accommodate for human-sized guests. The gnomes had helpfully set up some large cloth partitions, creating a pair of rooms and allowing them a degree of privacy. Just as she was about to duck through the curtain, she saw a shadow moving on the other side. Her body went with its first instinct; she seized the figure by the first available body part (it felt like a shoulder) and yanked it forward. A quick snap of her arm sent the lurker rolling onto its back, and Kelsey stared up at her, eyes wide.
She covered her face with her hands. Apology seemed utterly futile, so she stood for a moment and forced herself to soak in the enormity of her stupidity. She removed her hands; he was still staring. Exhaling hard, she asked, "Did I hurt you?"
"Other than my dignity, I think I'm okay." He moved to get up, and she held out a hand. He took it, long fingers warm in her chilly grip, but she pulled slightly too hard, and he came to his feet mere inches from her. Gods, he was so close. She could feel the rise and fall of his chest as he breathed. His expression was guarded, cautious, but when their eyes met, and she could see his mind was in the same place as hers. Back in Brynnlaw.
She swallowed. "Couldn't sleep?" She knew she should move, but she didn't want to.
"Actually, I-" He looked away, and it was suddenly clear. He had been about to look for her. She sighed heavily, and he looked back at her. "You don't have to keep your distance, Maera. No one is angry with you for what happened. You shouldn't punish yourself for it."
You weren't inside my head! You don't know how GOOD it felt! You don't understand; you CAN'T. So don't feed me lines about how I should feel, because you don't have a damn clue.
She sank her teeth into her tongue to keep the words at bay. He didn't deserve that. "Go back to bed, Kelsey," she murmured.
It hurt like a slap to see the disappointment cross his face as he nodded, and when he stepped back from her, the air around her seemed so cold. "I'll get some sleep, too," she said. "I promise." She sighed as he headed back to his blankets. She hated lying to him, but she knew there wouldn't be any rest for her.
The partition may have provided them visual privacy, but it did little to block out the babble of frightened, confused voices that filled the long room the next 'morning'. Maera pushed back the cloth, tugging on her jerkin to see a knot of nervous svirfneblin gathered around a cot on the far side of the room, debating fiercely in their own tongue. "What's wrong, Goldander?"
The headgnome turned, raising a hand to silence the group as he addressed her. His voice was grave. "Odendal's company has been attacked. They stopped to inspect one of our new diggings, when something came at them out of the depths. There were seven of them, my lady, and only two have returned."
She peered over their heads at the occupant of the cot, and recognized Odendal, the captain of the granitehome's guard. His gray skin had the sickly pallor of a mushroom, and he was heavily wrapped in bandages. An elderly female gnome hovered worriedly near the head of the cot, wearing a holy symbol Maera did not recognize. Her conscience twinged; the gnomes had gone to the mysterious Adalon on her behalf. The ragged remains of Odendal's mail hung forlornly on an armor rack, dried blood coating the torn rings. Claws had done that. Sharp, monstrously thick claws. Her fingers twitched at the thought and she balled them into fists. "Is there anyone who can lead me back to where it happened?" Almost as one, the gnomes squinted up at her.
"My lady," Goldander said slowly, "it could be very dangerous."
She shrugged. "Small price to pay for room and board." She turned back towards their curtained corner, where the rest of her group had clustered. "Hope you didn't have anything scheduled for today," she said, stepping through the partition and reaching for her boots. "I've volunteered us for monster killing duty."
"Gee, thanks Mae. I love being consulted first," Imoen grumbled as she fussed with her belt pouches. They had returned to the seclusion of the partitions to make ready while Maera spoke with Goldander.
Jaheira leveled an eyebrow at her. "You are not helping, Imoen."
"Sorry, Jaheira. You're right." Imoen's head dropped, and Kelsey half-chuckled; he'd heard that exact, turn-on-a-pin contrition in Maera's voice more than once. She gave him a hard look. "What?"
Kelsey held up his hands defensively. "Nothing." He turned crossly, her bad mood rubbed off like cheap paint. Minsc sighed as he pulled on his gauntlets.
"Everybody is snapping. Like turtles. Big, angry turtles with spiky shells!" The big ranger looked entreatingly at Kelsey. "Why is Maera so mad at us, Kelsey?"
"I don't think she's mad, Minsc. I think she's scared," he said. He could see her through the slit in the partition, standing alone against the wall, her arms crossed tight over her chest, her eyes distant as the farthest plane. Not even a week before, he would have happily contemplated what she might be thinking. Now he discovered he was a little afraid to know.
A rangy young gnome led the party through the tunnels to the new downward shafts. His nerve failed him as they reached the junction that led towards the spot of the attack, and he fled back to the granitehome with remarkable speed. They all glanced at each other, and proceeded.
There was breathing in the dark, a deep, regular whoosh like an oversized blacksmith's bellows. Something large of frame lurked just ahead, and the rustle and scrape of its movements had a malicious character. Whatever it was, it knew they were there and did not fear them. Imoen whispered an arcane word and vanished into the shadows, rounding the corner. When she returned a moment later, breaking the spell with a gesture, her face was white. "Balor," she reported.
"Lovely," Maera muttered. She looked about quickly, casting a quick eye on their surroundings. "The tunnel's wider here. We need to draw this way. You two," she said to the spellcasters, "aren't going to make much a dent. Keep it distracted, but don't wear yourselves out. We need to get in close and take it down fast."
Imoen set a stream of harmless, colorful light down the tunnel at the balor, and it lumbered towards them, growling a challenge. Minsc was there first, bearing the brunt of its heavy claws, catching them on the flat of his blade. He had its attention, which was one of the things he was best at. Maera slipped around its flank, aiming for the thin scales under the shoulder.
Her mind was always busy when she fought, cataloging movements, weighing outcomes. But this time there was a buzzing in the back of her head, an agitated voice of frustration that grew louder with every stroke of her sword. Why wouldn't it die? Sword be damned, she wanted to rip the creature's head from its body and splash its blood on the tunnels walls. She could have claws like those, and she could use them better, too.
The demon bled from a score of wounds, black blood seeping down its hide. A growl of frustration rumbled in its deep chest, and it whipped its barbed tail up and around. Maera swung wide, too wide, her foot faltering slightly on the uneven floor. She half turned for an instant - she didn't see it, but she felt it. The tail's tip slammed into her right side just as she raised her arm to swing her sword again. Ribs snapped and muscles tore; the world exploded in a white haze of pain, and she had just enough presence of mind to try landing on her uninjured side before everything went black.
"Is there anyone here who can repair her armor?" Jaheira. That was Jaheira's voice.
"Oh, yes, my lady." And that was Goldander the svirfneblin. "Though it will take some time. It's very fine work."
"That's just as well," Jaheira responded, sounding tired. "I have done what I can for her, but she'll need at least a day to recover."
She was lying on her back, under a blanket that felt impossibly heavy. Her side ached viciously, and it all came back. Shame and a little fear washed over her, taking up residence in an already unsettled stomach. The next stupid mistake she made might kill her. A warm, damp cloth swabbed gently at her forehead and cheeks, and she turned her head with a small grunt of protest. It was the most she could manage. She opened her eyes, and a blurry face resolved itself as they slowly focused.
"Hey," Kelsey said softly.
She tried to start up, but he pressed a hand against her bare shoulder. "Maera, please," he said. "You're going to be fine, but you have got to rest now. So just stay here, okay?" He wiped at the side of her neck with the cloth in his other hand. She could see blood and dirt on it as he dunked it back in the bowl of water beside him. "I wasn't done yet anyway."
The embarrassment in her gut twisted on itself. Why was he doing that? She licked her lips and decided to give speech a go. "Kelsey…" Her throat was too dry, and she coughed, which set muscles moving in her abdomen that were not at all ready for that. Kelsey set aside his cloth and leaned down, bracing the back of her neck with his hand. He lifted a cup to her lips and she drank greedily. The water was ice cold and made her teeth ache and chatter, but she had never had better. "Kelsey," she tried again, "you shouldn't…"
Shouldn't be so kind after what I nearly did to you, idiot. Weren't you there? Another inch and I would have disemboweled you! How can you keep acting like it somehow wasn't my fault? Why do you insist on being so damn nice to me?!
She shook her head weakly. She didn't have the words in her. "Thanks," she whispered.
"You're welcome." She looked up at him, and wondered if it was exhaustion burning her eyes or unshed tears. He looked so sad and resigned. "I'll stay if you want me to," he said softly.
She felt his fingers, tentative and devastatingly gentle, brush a lock of hair from her forehead. Please don't, she thought, this is hard enough as it is. But his hand was warm, and gods, it felt so good to be touched. She nodded.
Kelsey shifted to sit near her head, and twined her hair about his fingers absently. It had grown, he realized, since they first met. It was almost to her shoulders now, just an inch or two shy, and the length suited her. Her breathing had deepened, but he couldn't tell if she slept or not. Her face was still, but far from peaceful. She was beautiful, even then, and his chest ached as he watched her. He just wanted to see her smile again. But it wasn't just her smile, it was the way she smiled, the way she laughed, the way she walked, the way her body arched against his…
Not the thing to be thinking about right now, Coltrane, he lectured himself sternly. He sighed and returned to stroking her hair. His fingertips traced the curve of her ear, down to her earlobe. She loved it when he did that, and the reaction he'd gotten when…
No. He withdrew his hand, laced his fingers together, and sighed again.
Imoen stood near the wall, watching them with narrowed eyes. Kelsey could feel her gaze, but he didn't look up. After a moment, she grabbed Jaheira by the wrist, pulling her behind one of the partitions. Though she was obviously trying to keep her voice down, Kelsey could still hear her.
"Alright, Jaheira, what's the deal with those two?"
"Would you like me to confirm the evidence of your own eyes, or deny it?"
Imoen's sigh was exasperated. "I wasn't in Spellhold that long, was I? Mae is not the sort of person to go jumping into bed with some guy she barely knows."
"It is my understanding they have been intimate, but obviously I am not privy to details. And is the timeframe so truly important? Some take a far shorter time. A span of minutes, on occasion." There was mild reproach in Jaheira's tone, which Imoen ignored.
"This is Maera we're talking about! She's not like that! She had a crush on Ajantis for months and never said a word about it! I mean, that wasn't ever going to go anywhere anyways, but…" Her voice was plaintive. "I don't get it. What happened while I was gone?"
"Kelsey joined us about a tenday after you were taken. He has proved himself a worthwhile addition since. As for well or not he and Maera know each other, or whether you would deem that amount sufficient, it is not my place to say." There was silence, and Jaheira sighed. "Imoen, it is a natural thing. We grow beyond our families and find others with whom to share our love. It does not mean she loves you any less."
The silence grew contemplative, then Imoen wailed, "She won't talk to me, Jaheira! I know it would all make sense if we could just talk, but she won't!"
"I know," Jaheira said softly. "She has been much affected by what Irenicus did. She is not herself."
Imoen snorted tearfully. "Understatement."
"It is not just her I am concerned for," Jaheira added. "These headaches of yours worry me."
"I can still fight and I can still cast. Don't worry about me until I can't anymore."
Jaheira chuckled sadly. "You two are more alike than you know sometimes."
Maera was dreaming, but for once she didn't mind. She was in a broad, soft bed, half-wrapped in silken sheets, and she was not alone. Kelsey was there, smiling at her, sliding a hand over her cheek to clasp the nape of her neck, beneath her hair. She knew that look in his eye, warm, contented, and slightly mischievous. She had seen it before, that morning in Brynnlaw. She returned the smile, luxuriating in the sensation of his hand against her skin as she kissed him, and what began with tenderness was soon overwhelmed with a raw, hungry desperation. Her skin tingled and her limbs were weak, ever movement of his mouth sending aching shudders through her. She could feel his lips against hers, feel the texture of his skin under her hands. Taste, scent, sound – she knew she was dreaming, and she didn't care.
His mouth moved, kissing along her jaw, down her neck, and she let her head loll back, her fingers tightening their grip on his back. She felt him inhale, his breath hot, and part of her wanted to cry for sheer joy. She needed this, needed him. But just as she closed her eyes, a voice spoke.
"I told you not to hide behind the weak."
She looked over his shoulder, and froze. She saw herself standing beyond the bed, a twin who shook her head in disappointment. The other her leaned back her head, inhaling with in an obscene parody of pleasure as the shadowy form of the Slayer gathered about her. Kelsey did not seem to have noticed her. "You'll only get him killed."
The Slayer's claws arced downward with a blur, raking Kelsey across the back with sickening wet, tearing sound and tossing him into the floor like a spoiled child discarding a displeasing toy. Maera could only stare as his blood puddled around him; he breathed in quick, agonized gasps, and her own body was frozen, rigid with shock and fear as he lay dying just out of her reach. Her dream self, still cloaked within the Slayer, laughed derisively at her distress, extending a finger to tap her lightly on the nose. It left a dab of blood, cold and damp. "You know, I really don't understand this obsession with sex. Why settle for the little death when the real thing is so much better?" She shook her head, her shadowed face touched with a grisly smile. "You can run from me, but I'll still find you. I am the voice in the emptiness, the answer to every question. I am a part of you. The only part that matters."
Maera woke with a gasp. She was alone, thank the gods. She wasn't sure she could have faced another person. Gingerly holding her ribs, she sat up. The timelessness of the Underdark chafed at her. There was no way to know how long she'd been asleep. She fumbled for a shirt as Imoen pushed through the curtains.
"How are you feeling?"
"I'll do." She struggled a bit getting the shirt over her head, and Imoen helped her tug on the sleeves.
"Odendal's up and around. He wants to take us to Adalon tomorrow if you're up to it. Though if you ask me, you should both stay in bed for a few more days."
"We can't waste the time," Maera said. "Every day we spend here, Irenicus gets farther ahead of us."
"I get that, Mae. We're in this together, remember?"
"Yeah. You're right." She pushed past her sister. "I should talk to Goldander."
Imoen indulged in a brief fantasy that involved using a pry bar to remove Maera's self-involved head from whatever part of her anatomy it was lodged in, then sighed, hoping she wasn't too irritated to memorize her spells.
Odendal Breachgnome moved tentatively as he led the way to Adalon's cave, his gray skin still pale. Maera could sympathize; despite the excellence of Jaheira's work, she wasn't exactly moving at her best pace either. They crossed icy streams, skirted the edges of impossibly deep fissures, and wove between stalactites for hours before he brought them to a wide, open cave mouth. "Follow the stairs down," he said. "The Lady Adalon waits for you below." They thanked him as he set off in the direction of the granitehome once more, and they descended to meet the mysterious Adalon.
She stood in the center of a pool of light at least twenty feet in diameter. They all blinked and shielded their eyes; it was the brightest thing any of them had seen for days. Adalon appeared to be a tall human woman long, silvery hair and a pale, ageless, haughtily beautiful face. "Your prey has already left the Underdark," she said without preamble. "They have set their plans in motion and returned to the surface to see their fruition." Maera swore under her breath, but the woman continued. "You can still disrupt those plans, however. I can aid you in this, but I will require a service of you first."
"And that is?"
"You must retrieve my eggs."
Maera blinked. "Excuse me?"
Adalon sighed. "The svirfneblin were too discreet, I see. Will this help?" Within the space of a heartbeat, the human figure was gone. In her place, taking up the entirety of the circle of light, was a silver dragon, lustrous scales gleaming with almost painful brightness. Every jaw dropped. She was majestic as a mountain range, and equally intimidating. "I am the Guardian," she said, her voice echoing richly through the cavern. "I have maintained the truce between the drow and their surface brethren for centuries. The city of Ust Natha is a ceremonial outpost. It marks the place where the first drow descended into the dark. All these years, they have remained below, the elves have remained above, and I have taken no part in their affairs other than to make certain they continued thus.
"But now they have crossed me. They have stolen my eggs! I may not go into the city myself in search of them, so I must make use of you. You will go into Ust Natha and return my eggs to me. In return, I will lead you out of the Underdark to the place Irenicus has fled."
"Are we supposed to just march into a Drow city, then?" Imoen asked.
"Hardly." The dragon puffed out a contemptuous breath. "The eyes of mortals are easily deceived. It would be nothing for me to send you among them wearing their own faces."
"You can turn us into drow?" Maera felt herself struggling to keep up; she was still stuck on the fact they were talking to a dragon.
"No. But I can create an utterly convincing illusion. You will appear to them as a group already expected. When you speak, they will hear their own tongue."
"We don't have a lot of choice here, do we?"
Adalon flexed her wings in the draconic equivalent of a shrug. "I have named my price."
The group huddled. "Drow?" Kelsey blurted. "She wants us to pretend to be drow?"
"If the theft of a silver dragon's eggs was at Irenicus's behest, his plans are more far reaching than we had thought," Jaheira said. "It is a risk, but one we must take, I believe."
Maera pursed her lips. "I agree. I'm not thrilled at the prospect, but we are ridiculously conspicuous down here. And if getting back her eggs disrupts Irenicus's precious plans, then I am all for that." She glanced at Minsc, whose brow was deeply furrowed. "What's wrong, Minsc?"
"I do not want to change my face," he said, a touch of petulance creeping into his voice. "I like my face! Boo likes my face! The ladies like my face! Why doesn't the dragon?"
Maera smiled, the first genuine smile to touch her lips in days, and gently patted the big man's bald head. "I like your face, too, Minsc. But I think we're going to have to do this Adalon's way."
His shoulders slumped. "Heroes do not sneak about! We tap evil on the shoulder and punch it in the face! Then evil knows who's boss!"
"I know. I'd love to be punching right now, too, I believe. I'd love to be able to do this our own way, but we're out of our element down here. Just keep cool and follow my lead, okay?" The ranger nodded glumly, and Maera turned back Adalon, hoping she could follow her own advice. "All right, my lady. We agree."
Adalon lowered her long neck to meet Maera's eye level. "What do you know of the drow?"
Maear thought hard, summoning back long days in the library. "They're a deeply matriarchal society. Their cities are ruled by Houses that constantly fight for prominence. The worship of Lolth is absolute – they have other gods, but their worship is almost entirely forbidden. They don't believe in trust. Or love. They have no native word for mercy." Her perspective had shifted suddenly; she shook her head, disoriented, then realized why. Adalon's illusion had worked as she spoke and now it was complete. She was shorter.
"Even your own senses must be fooled if the illusion is to be complete," Adalon said. Maera and the others tried not to gawk at each other. Jaheira at least looked mostly like herself, only repainted in a drow palette. But the sharp, dark, elvish faces that Imoen, Kelsey, and Minsc wore were so unlike the human features she was accustomed to it was like finding herself surrounded by strangers. She turned over her hands in astonishment – the palms did not lighten like a dark-skinned human's would, and the scars weren't in the right places. Even her fingernails were shaped differently. "As the leader of this group, you will speak for them. You are Veldrin of Ched Nassad and you were sent here by your Matron Mother. Great things are afoot, and she wishes you to obtain glory and advancement for your House. Your aid will be useful to them, but you are a foreigner, so you will be tested. Show them no weakness." She swiveled her great head about to look at Jaheira. "Druid. You will wish to be careful in the spells you cast, so you do not reveal your…unorthodox theology. And you, little thief," she addressed Imoen, "Females do not practice the arcane arts. Do not use your magic in the presence of any drow, lest you find yourself answering very uncomfortable questions." Imoen nodded nervously.
Adalon gestured with a clawed forefoot, and an image of the caves beyond appeared before them. "We are here." She made another motion, and it changed, indicating a path through the darkness. "As you can see, Ust Natha is near. Go now. Do as I have charged, and my gratitude and aid shall be yours."
At the gates of Ust Natha, a single guard accosted them. "Halt! Go no further!" Something about his tone irritated Maera. It had not been a good tenday, and finally, she realized, she had someone to take it out on. She sneered.
"No wonder our aid is so welcome, if you're is the best Ust Natha has to show for itself. I am Veldrin of Ched Nassad. My arrival has been anticipated, so it would be wise to get out of my way." She fixed the guard with a weighted stare, and was pleased to see his composure crack.
"O-of course, honored female. Our Matron Mothers will be informed of your coming immediately." She nodded once, and swept past him into the city, Veldrin's face as smooth and unreadable as a mask.