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The Kingdom of the Sands, (Book 2 of the Vicelord Chronicles)

By Ely Cady All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy

Prelude and Chapter 1


                              Almraiven, Calimshan

                      (29th of Uktar, 1379 Dalereckoning)


He supped in his private quarters, watching Almraiven sleep through the parted veils of his overhanging balcony as he sipped a dark tea that his servants grew in the vegetable garden.

Though it was illuminated only by starlight, Vicelord Adir Telth'zol clearly saw its paved streets from his vantage on the third floor of his manor, saw the beggars and pickpockets as frequently as patrolling soldiers, which shooed the former away from the more reputable houses.

The rest, they let be. The vermin were ubiquitous to both the rich and poor sections of the city, his city.

Smiling, though Almraiven only rarely brought up pleasant notions, Adir considered his meal; dry, seasoned chicken cutlets, flatbread and hummus, and garlic-pickle chutney. The fare, while fairly simple, was his favorite. The herbs used in the meat helped dull the foul taste that his work left in his mouth, literally and metaphorically.

As a necromancer, his materials were not always...pleasant to the senses.

But he managed. He had weathered Calimshan's worst and emerged the stronger because of it, carving out his own little niche in the city of spells.

His wives, all three, lounged behind him, on the bed or seated apart, preoccupied with their after-dinner proclivities.

Gamori read by candlelight, Habibah strummed a rosewood viol, and Minnah carved ivory scrimshaw; a rather fine detailing of a lion seated atop a geometric platform. All were Half-Elves, bred from captured Elves and native Humans and sold for their beauty and longevity, for purebloods were difficult to find this far south.

He would outlive all of them by several centuries.

That was fine; they had little in common anyway. In fact, two of three outright detested him. He had accepted their hands in marriage only for the contacts among their masters' organizations.

But then a Sun Elf, one skilled in the magic of life and death, he would outlive most mortals anyway. It was his greatest resource; time, to which his Human rivals had so little to spend. Some of the other Vicelords were stronger than him, indeed, much stronger. More rooted to the city and its official and hidden hierarchies. But they had decades, at best, and he had centuries, millennia.

One way or another, he would be the last Vicelord in Almraiven. He, an Elf, would rule a land of Humans.

All he had was time. Time to watch, and wait, and enjoy...


                                Almraiven, Calimshan 

                   (30th of Uktar, 1379 Dalereckoning)


Vala Oblodra lamented the course of her life up until this point, peering down into her reflection in the murky waters of the fountain beside which she now stood. Though it was too dark for a mere human to see, she clearly noted her eyes, a deep blue, rimmed with circles darker than even her ashen grey skin. She ran her fingers, nails pointed and sharpened to claws, through her dark hair, cropped short and unevenly, minding her pointed ears. Ignoring the melancholy there, she righted her hood and scarf, the better to hide her features. A necessary precaution living among Humans, for she was not a Human herself. A mix of Drow and Orc, neither half of her lineage offered her any peace on the surface world, a destined life in the shadows.

She sighed.

A lifetime indeed, in under two decades of life.

A lifetime spent on the run. From Lloth. From Eilistraee. From her nightmares. Dreams of blood, and death. Dreams of her mother, an Orcen slave, who had died to save her life. Dreams of her father, an Oblodra Dark Elf, though she had never known him and likely never would.

From Menzoberranzan to Waterdeep, and from Waterdeep, to Almraiven.

A lifetime's worth, to be sure.

But that had changed, it seemed, for the last three years had been spent in the same place, the longest she had been idle since the age of ten.

Three years, marking her newfound adulthood, in a city of vice.

Vala had learned this city and its people well; their language, their gods, and their treasures.

Especially their treasures.

She had stolen to survive; food and water. She had stolen medicine when she found herself afflicted with surface ailments; a cold that caused her to seep fluid, a heat that made her vomit.

She took herbs that helped her to sleep, diluted them into a tea to drink almost nightly. It kept Nobody from taking over completely; that dark, animal state that surged up from time to time, a memory of roaming the wild Underdark alone.

She had accustomed fully to starlight. It no longer caused pinpricks of pain when she looked directly at Selûne's tears. She never moved by day. By day, she hid in a small loft she had purchased from a shifty tavern keeper.

Vala found she wanted a cabin on the shoreline, perhaps a mile or two from the city itself. There were a few that had caught her eye. Rustic, but solid. She could spend all night watching the stars, listening to the waves...

A pity she needed to be close to her work. Perhaps when she perfected long range teleportation...

Her base set, albeit begrudgingly, in the city limits, she had then stolen for wealth. A golden locket filched from a noble lady's jewelry box. A fine dress sword pulled from a gentleman's sheathe.

She had stashed the loot, waited weeks, even months, and sold them on the street, hidden by cloak and illusion. As a Psion, her powers did not manifest from the weave, Mystra's Weave, and could not be detected by any save other Psions, and they were few indeed.

Not once had she shown her face.

But strangely, she had noticed, her accent had changed, to become more in line with the Humans of this realm. Her peculiarities diminished. She began to look and feel at place in the desert of Calimshan. Her presence provoked fewer and fewer second glances.

But still the guilds of thieves had taken notice.

A Halfling, Barboris, had accosted her one day, and offered to fence her goods safely for a percentage.

As it took away the need to walk in the blistering heat of day, Vala had accepted the arrangement. Now, she stole particular goods for him, every night. She walked through walls into palaces, twisted the minds around her to accept whatever she wanted them to. Sometimes, she pinned her crimes on others, implanting false memories on the guards.

She chose bad people for that; pirates, slavers, soldiers. There were always soldiers that took what they pleased from the people in the poorer districts, including the one she housed herself in.

Their cries of innocence went unheeded. This land was cold, despite the warmth of its golden sands. 

For Ahriman el Jhotos, Archmage and King of Almraiven, offered no mercy to criminals, save those in his employ that acted at his behest.

He was the son of the late Acham el Jhotos, whose full name was Acham yn Aban el Jhotos the Weavepasha, who was also a mighty wizard and the ruler of Almraiven. He was considered to be one of the most powerful mortals alive, and his entire life had been dedicated to defending the city of Almraiven from Djinn, Efreet, and other menaces that had and presently still plagued it

The son had not taken after the father.

After the legend's death at the hands of Almraiven's enemies, Ahriman had seized power, and in his shadows, the Vicelords had slowly taken over the city, rising from common mobsters to dukes in their own right.

The home of a known abolitionist had become one of the greatest slave markets in Calimshan.

A tragedy in two acts. One that she had little time for.

Few asked for her name. She called herself Nobody when that happened, though she found that she was neither Vala nor Nobody in full; she possessed both Nobody's instinct and Vala's intelligence.

And now, with a cache of loot, enough to retire, she stole for something else.

Her nerves were jittery when she even considered it.

Stories told of a magical amulet worn by King Ahriman himself. Called the Eternity Ruby, it was created with the blood of chromatic dragons, and blessed by Io, The Great Eternal Wheel, God of all Dragons.

It was said to bestow true invulnerability onto its wielder. So long as they possessed the amulet, sword and spell would not hinder him, nor would plague or poison.

Vala wanted that power; she trained nightly atop the tavern's roof, hidden by telepathic illusions, until her skin was beaded with sweat, until her eyes bled with the pressure her brain was exerting onto itself, in order to grow strong enough to seize it.

She knew now her path; Nezierre had been right. Vala, or Nobody, was alone wherever she went.

So she would become strong, strong enough that even alone, nothing could harm her again. Nothing.

Then, maybe she could focus on changing things...for she did not want to be alone.

She could not use that power to change herself, so she would use that power to change the world instead. With the amulet, and the might of her psionics, she would reshape the world to suit her desires.

Vala, or Nobody, looked to the night sky, and decided it was a fine night to seize another trinket. New powers had opened themselves to her, and she was eager to experiment.


They watched, in silence.

Yes. She was the one.

The one they had waited for.

Years of preparation.

Diligence.

Sacrifice.

With her, they would prepare the way.

The way for change. The right to new leadership.

Almraiven would be theirs.


Vala, or Nobody, waited patiently for Barboris' men to arrive to claim her week's spoils; a heavy pouch of gems torn from a great many articles of jewelry, bars of gold and silver, melted from the same, elegant silk tapestries and cloaks, and anything else that was inexact enough to be difficult to trace back to their rightful owners.

The more she saw hidden inside those houses...the more she came to hate the Human nobility of this realm. People starved in the streets, and they created a pile of their own worthless excess to feel personal value in this world. It reminded her of the priestesses of Lloth, in a way.

For her part, she kept only the funds towards purchasing powerful enchantments to augment her psionics, her armor, her medicines and food,  some supplies in which to draw, and a straw mattress. For the moment, she needed little else.

Just the ruby...

She started, seeing a Human approach, though he was cloaked, like her.

"Her eye is the deepest darkness." Vala said, reciting a blasphemous reference to Shar, the Lady of Loss, Barboris' matron deity. It was their secret, pre-arranged code. The proper response was, "Those under her gaze are hidden from sight."

But the Human chuckled instead, "I am not here on guild business, Girl."

She flinched; her voice was masked, neither masculine nor feminine. How had he known that?

"I have a job for you."

"The guild frowns on freelance work. Goodbye."

She turned to leave. She could deliver on another day.

"You want the ruby, right?"

She stopped.

"I know a good way to get it."

She looked back to him, though neither could see each other's faces.

"Yes?"

"I need you to steal a few things for me." he continued, "Special things. From the Vicelords. Rattle them a little. Get the King involved. Interested?"

"To trifle with the Vicelords is death." she replied.

Not once, in the years she had been here, had she dared steal from them. Members of Ahirman's court, maybe. Passing diplomats and dignitaries, certainly.

But not them. Each was a wizard, and wizards were not to be trifled with.

But was she not prepared for that? Was she not prepared to risk the King's Ire for his greatest treasure?

"Tell me more, then." she said finally, exasperated. Let her see, then, if she was indeed ready.


"Have ye heard what the fuss is about?" a half-drunken dock worker chortled around his mug, "Has the underbelly abuzz, it does."

His fellow, a man with perhaps three of his teeth left and none of them long for this world, chuckled, "Aye, heard Amon lost his sword about a tenday ago. The fellow burned half of his retinue alive trying to recover it."

Another listened to their conversation, if only by proxy. He had many eyes and ears in Almraiven, his city.

And many that were not of the living...

Focusing on this particular specimen, which perched atop one of the common eateries in the dock quarter, Vicelord Adir Telth'zol listened in as they jested about more banal developments. It appeared that they did not intend to discuss the theft in more detail.

Pity.

Disappointed, but intrigued, Adir allowed himself a moment of sympathy for his uneasy ally as he considered the artifact; the Sword of Bahamut. A greatsword of legendary accolade, it was forged from the fire of Bahamut and the hammer of the Dwarf god Moradin for the purpose of killing evil Dragons. It was said that if one of good Dragon blood or a Paonil wielded it, then its true potential would show. This had been true, if the stories could be believed. Once per a day the wielder could speak a key word, "Bahamut",  even the slightest touch could instantly kill one of evil draconic blood, be it Dragon, Half-Dragon, or so on. Much could be achieved with such a powerful artifact.

Could have been achieved, he reminded himself.

"That is troubling." Adir confessed to himself, scratching his pointed ears, "I foresee much bloodshed following this theft. Perhaps I will seek out the artifact myself, the better to wield it justly, or conceal it from those that would use it recklessly."


The next night, she was already prepared to seize the next item.

In ectoplasm form, intangible and nearly undetectable, she crept through the walls of the palace of Erona Firelash, a Vicelord and mistress of destructive magic. And a hypocrite, given her association with Selûne, a goodly goddess that Vala had been familiar with among Eilistraee's coven.

Dauntless, she slid between the levels of the manse, inside of the walls, using instinct and the perceptions of the weaker minds within to guide her.

Surface fortresses paled in comparison to the intricacy of a Drow stronghold; it spoke wonders of her people's dedication to their paranoia. Vala could have done this heist in her sleep.

She did not seek out the lady's bedchambers. She knew the item in question to be far too dangerous for that. And so, without hesitation, she descended to the basement.

A relic of a passed age when the gods walked the earth, the weapon was no blade or staff. It was within a protective crystal cube, reinforced with Adamantine. It hovered in the precise center of the cube. The very slightest disturbance might cause the item, a black orb that absorbed light, to touch the edges of its containment.

Were that to happen...

The cube was welded to a pedestal, which was in turn bolted and welded to the ground. Cursory inspection of the palace had revealed that the entire floor was securely affixed to the support columns of the manor proper, preventing even an earthquake from shaking the pedestal. The cube was not meant to contain the orb, far from it! It was intended to protect the Vicelord's manor from it, for this most dangerous object was an Orb of Annihilation; a hole into the crushing void between the worlds.

If anything were to touch it, even the hand of a divine being, it would cease to be. Forever.

Knowing that the alarm spells of the host would activate the moment the pedestal was touched, Vala opened a dimensional door, created by untraceable psionic energy, and willed it over herself, setting foot on the astral plane. Knowing she would only have seconds, she willed the door about the pedestal, closing it in such a way to slice the object from its position.

The room beyond the doorway brightened, likely the precursor to a fire-based dweomer, so Vala sealed the door, deactivating it, before opening another to her room in Almraiven's slums, weary beyond measure at the rapid use of her powers.

The rage bubbled up in her veins, but she suppressed it with sheer force of will.

Nearly there. She was nearly there.

 The orb she left where it stood. None save a Psion attuned to her life energies could reach it. It had just disappeared from the face of Toril.

Until she gave it to its buyer, of course.


Vala accepted her payment; thousands of espedrilles, the currency of Calimshan, as well as over a dozen articles of jewelry, likely stolen from petty lords and ladies from across the region. More accurately, she seized the items and moved them through her dimensional door and into the astral safehouse she had created. When the deposit box afforded to her was empty, she again became intangible, and slid through the walls of the bank and into an adjacent alleyway.

She was nearly ready. Her buyer had assured her the time for a revolt was near. She would use the chaos to infiltrate the palace, and claim her prize.

Through the ruin of the Vicelords, who embodied everything she had fought in the Matron Mothers and the Slave Traders of Skullport, she would have wealth and power enough to forge her own destiny.

At long last, she would be free, at peace. At long last, she would be beyond the cruelties of fate.

She knew she would sleep soundly this night. Her mother's voice would not echo in her dreams...


Adir heard the news as he sipped his morning tea. One of his servants returned with a missive, its blood red seal marked with Selûne below a thunderbolt.

There was only one person of remark who worshiped the Moon Goddess and the Thunderer...

He broke the seal with the elongated nail of his little finger, which, unlike the rest, was filed to a point. Perusing its contents, he sighed, "Erona wishes to speak to me. She wants it public. Well, that means she will be more pleasant and amiable to reason than usual."


He found her in the bazaar.

She sat in the outer pavilion of a well known eatery, though not one he generally attended, possessed of the common dark skin, brown eyes, and black hair of a native of Calimshan. Short and thin, she was attractive in a purely physical sense, though her constant scowl lessened her beauty, as did her unwillingness to wear the trappings of a Calimshan female.

Instead, she wore layered robes of black silk. A coat of golden mail peek up from under its folds.

Her hair flowed freely, in a mane that draped down her shoulders. Her eyes were wild, the more so when they settled on him.

She beckoned him over. Her guards were not present, so he left his behind, across the way, taking a seat opposite to her.

"Adir..." she said calmly, not offering any honorific.

"Erona." he replied, equally lacking proper etiquette.

"You took something of mine." she continued, unmindful of the nervous stares that the other patrons gave them. It was rare indeed when they sat and talked.

Generally, each was trying to overpower the other and rout their soldiers from the city. Adir did not approve of her reckless experimentation, which often resulted in burned down buildings in the poorer districts, and she, in turn, did not approve of his safer but more socially uncouth necromantic rituals. Neither was in particularly good standing with the people, so Ahriman had allowed their (mostly) bloodless feud.

"Took something?" Adir asked, perplexed, "Could you be specific?"

"You know damned well!" she snapped, earning more stares. Her temper was well renowned, even among wizards.

"No, I don't..." he persisted, all innocence, "I heard Amon lost his sword. I will guess then that you lost something too? Something important?"

"Shut up." she replied, taking a sip from her glass. Several empty ones littered the table.

That was bad. Very bad.

He considered the layers of defensive enchantments about his person. Solid...it never hurt to set precautions, and he was especially grateful he had thought to do so.

"You are here to gloat, I think. You would not dare risk yourself unless you had my weapon."

The Orb. Somebody stole her orb, the greatest destructive enchantment she possessed.

In recent years, he had finally managed an advantage over her. He had bribed or blackmailed half of her soldiers from her house, cut off her best suppliers of slaves and ships, and gained new and terrible necromantic powers that might very well allow him to dominate her in a direct confrontation.

The Orb was the only think keeping him from initiating an attack. Very...interesting...

"So now I have only one recourse..." she said, and it occurred to him that her right hand had been under the table the entire conversation. He had subconsciously dismissed it, since she cast with her left.

But left-handed people often displayed ambidextrous behavior.

He readied an enchantment that nullified hostile magic just as she completed her incantation.

Fire washed over his body, blanketed the entire pavilion, and incinerated dozens of minor nobles and common servants. Men and women screamed, burned, and perished.

Commoners outside of the blast radius screamed and fled.

"Die, outsider!" she hissed, lunging from the table and thrusting forward with a concentrated sliver of brightly glowing energy.

His Gloomwing Aura triggered, and a pair of velveteen insect wings, obsidian black tinged with bone white, crossed over him, muting the energy and weakening its wielder with a cloud of noxious spores. Nonetheless, her own body emanated blistering heat, which seared the wings away along with the organic spores.

He had already risen to his feet, knocking over his chair in the process, calling upon a score of petrified bones that orbited his body.

Animating the ground itself with the spirits of the dead, a pair of corrupted earth elementals rose up, their surfaces dotted with grave moss and tombstones, their faces like hollowed, jawless skulls.

Their shoulders level with the nearest rooftops, they lumbered towards Erona, while a column of frozen lightning materialized in her hand, like a jagged, zigzagging javelin. She hurled it towards him, and he willed the bones to cross over each other, forming an aegis to intercept. When it struck, the ground itself shook. But his wards held true, and the bold deflected.

Into a nearby building.

"Shit!" Adir cursed, wincing as its shutters blew outward, as its interior glowed brightly, filled with terrified shrieks, before going dark and silent.

"STOP THIS, ERONA!" Adir snapped, a pea-sized orb of dark energy gathering at his fingertips, "The street is no place for a spell duel!"

"SO I WILL END IT NOW!" Erona retorted, a wand appearing in either hand. She discharged powerful abjurations into each of his elementals, which crumbled apart into raw material.

Adir hurled the sphere into her, which detonated outward in a cloud of draining necrotic energy which extinguished life. The sand under her feet blackened, became defiled.

But her own formidable defenses protected her.

That was fine. It gave him the time he needed to complete another pass of his hand, activating and consuming a valuable spell scroll in his belt. A dimensional door opened beneath Erona's feet, then rose up as she attempted to activate a levitation enchantment.

She raged as the portal swallowed her, and closed, sealing her in a pocket of Thanatos, the 113th known layer of the Abyss.

Once the realm of Orcus, the now deceased Demon Prince of Undeath, it was an empty realm of thin air and a black, moonlit sky, a place that belonged as much to the undead as to the Tanar'ri. Thus, a valuable resource to harvest components for his rituals.

"Sabih..." he said over his shoulder, seeing that his soldiers had remained within eyeshot, finding a defensible spot in an adjacent alleyway. Erona's own had fled. Threats alone could not compare to the magical geas he had placed on each of his servants.

His captain of the guard, a grizzled veteran in his middling years, approached and bowed, awaiting orders.

"Recall our men." Adir commanded, considering his next steps, "Lock down the manor and prepare for war. Erona will not remain idle for long."

"Did you not banish her to the abyss?" Sabih asked, to which the Vicelord shrugged, "She has the resources to have a portal spell ready, but it will likely transport her to her manor on the other side of the city. I have bought us hours, at best."

In small groups, commoners looked out from their homes, at first terrified, and then indignant.

Their whimpers became disconsolate muttering.

"Time to go." he noted, watching them begin to gather around the edges of the battleground, their faces angry, "Get them home quickly."

As his men departed, angry shouts rose in volume as the crowd took in the sights of their dead, the dozen or so burned homes, and an ill-considered Vicelord right in the middle of it.
Lacking his amulet, which allowed more varied teleportation, he sighed, redoubled his wards, and followed after them.

"Well then...it seems I must discover who has been riling my peers lately. I would not want anything of mine to disappear as well." he thought to himself, wondering if he would need to defend his home from the more mundane hazards of Almraiven...


Unlike the others, she didn't wait for nightfall. The master of the house was away, and now might be her only opportunity.

Again, she slid through the walls of the manse, minding the peculiar statuary lining its support columns and windows.

Sculpted from basalt, the statues looked like winged Goblins with leering, glinting eyes. She felt magic about them, and that unsettled her far more than their ghastly appearance.

She made her way up the three-story manor, intangible and masked from the naked eye with an aura that slightly bent light and shadow, making her significantly harder to spot.

Rising straight up the outer walls of the manse, she pushed herself forward by levitation, and found herself in perhaps the finest room she had even entered.

It occurred to her in that moment that Adir's blowsy mistresses might have been present. Thankfully, they were not, and she could admire what she saw in peace.

Almost perfectly circular in shape, it had black marble floors interlaced with white accents and a roof that was of identical material save for a glass skyline which she peered up to. The walls, a fine stone brick, were covered with hanging portraits, racks that held many curiosities such as books, alchemical glassware, odd mechanical devices, and objects of no apparent functionality. She noticed a high concentration of sea shells and preserved sea life among the paraphernalia; starfish, tangles of coral-like material called sea fans, seahorses, and small lengths of wrapped cord holding shark teeth.

She ignored the curiosities; the buyer had assured her it would be under a particular convergence of the white veins in the marble floor. Seeking a Y-pattern with a crescent basin, it took her a hundred count to spot, so subtle were the patterns of the worked stone.

This object did not reside in the floor...but the trigger for its summoning did. Pushing her hand in after shifting back into ectoplasm, Vala willed a small shard of psicrystal to penetrate a thin membrane hidden inside the stone.

With a rush of displaced air and a disembodied moan, the artifact materialized onto the floor.

Most knew to recognize a wizard's spell tome, into which they imparted the necessary information from which to perform their craft. Thus, most would have mistaken this fabulously ornamented dark leather-bound tome to be the work of a master wizard.

Thanks to the buyer and her own research, Vala knew better.

What she held in her hands was an artifact; the Codex of Infinite Planes. The artifact, the sentient artifact, would periodically grant its owner immensely powerful new spells without cost, mostly in the school of summoning and controlling powerful elemental spirits, requiring only the time necessary for the owner to absorb its knowledge.

For most, they said, it took years to master even one of its imparted techniques. Since Adir was an Elf, and could live for centuries, she assumed he had learned quite a few already.

That made her hesitate to actually complete the theft. But only for a moment.

She remembered her goal, and her desires, and that was all the reason she needed to carry through with the audacity or robbing each of the Vicelords and sowing chaos throughout Almraiven.

All for the ruby. All for the protection it offered.
She took her prize and was gone long before midday.


He was at a loss.

Adir considered the empty pocket within a fold of space hidden in his personal chambers, scratching his chin. No tool marks. No dispelling powder. No magical residue.

"Sir..." Sabih said nervously, "Should we not attend the riots?"

Erona's attempted assassination had left the city in an uproar. Over thirty commoners had died, mostly indentured servants, but worse, a major noble of Ahriman's court had perished as well. The nobles had wasted no time in organizing the city guard, adding to the hysteria.

"Send the soldiers in." Adir said with a dismissive wave of the hand, "The rabble will always find an excuse for civil disobedience. Such is the nature of those who are oppressed and malcontent because of it. It will pass. It always does. They will stomp and rage, but will also lose their steam, and return to their homes to sulk."

"The real issue is this..." Adir continued, thoughtful, "First Amon, then Erona, then myself. This is no mere shelf-sweeper. These thefts are meant to be interpreted as a message. A threat. A question of the Vicelord's authority."

"This was a political attack." he concluded.

"But who could have done this?" the soldier asked, nonetheless motioning for Rafid to carry the message, which would be relayed to the Undercaptain of the Guard.

Adir was not concerned; the citizens were enraged, but not so much as to cross onto his property. They hurled rotten food and excrement, even a burning brand or two, but his day laborers would clear the mess in the morning.

His undead sentries would repel an attack, even on the bunkhouse which housed his slaves.

Shrugging, Adir readied his talismans in preparation to contact the spirit world.

He was no diviner, but had his own means of obtaining information when all other methods failed...


Adir stood over the Half-Drow as she slept, hidden by complex illusions purchased at great expense from one of his more amiable rivals. A divination aura, his own work, allowed him to perceive facts beyond base surface details, thanks to a latent connection with several spirits he had bound into his service.

Thus, as he had managed to trace the thief to this building, he knew that he looked upon a disgraced servant of Eilistraee, the Dark Maiden and matron deity of many surface Drow. In her footlocker, he knew he would find spare clothing, a stack of coal sketches on cheap parchment, and a flute made from a hollow, polished Ogre femur with its ends hewn off. Simple effects, but all the more telling.

The woman herself was very interesting on her own.

She woke a cloak, even while sleeping, but with his augmented perceptions, he could see her as if she were nude. He ignored her immodesty, more focused on her base features. Her lineage. Her dark ashen skin. Her innocent face. Her slender neck. The way she ground her teeth in her sleep, and the way her lips parted around a pair of extended lower canines; a legacy of her Orcen heritage. He was able to comprehend the sound of her voice, un-modulated. The exact hue of her eyes, even when closed. He knew that she was indeed a Psion, a born prodigy from noble blood. He inferred a good deal of who she was, what she was, and what she wanted, all in a matter of moments.

Much about this string of crimes became abundantly clear; she was a contract thief, not some lunatic trying to imbalance the city for their own ends. Their buyer was...warded, undetectable. Pity.

And for these heists she was to be rewarded with...

Hmm...interesting.

He had no idea that King Ahriman possessed such an interesting trinket...

This pertinent information he absorbed in stride, inferring what else he could before she awoke.

Too late.

She started, on her feet and wielding a conjured whipblade in less than a two-count. A half dozen jagged crystals orbited her body, trailing vaporizing ectoplasm that looked slightly like one's breath when standing in a cold environ.

She said nothing, but her eyes darted to and fro under the hood of her cloak. Despite the protections, he must have tripped one of her alarm spells, or the psionic equivalent thereof. She knew somebody was with her in the room, but not who or where.

"Well hello there, sleepy..." he said jovially, dispelling his invisibility and crossing his arms.

She tensed, but did not attack. He could hear her sharp intake of breath. She knew who he was.

She knew he could crush her, if he wanted to.

"Since we need not make introductions..." he continued, "You can sit back down, Vala. Take a load off. Lose the cloak. If I wanted to attack you, I could have done it while you were sleeping."

She obliged. Mostly.

"Take off the cloak." he repeated, watching as she sat back down at the foot of the bed.

He could sense, if not see, her fierce scowl, but she acquiesced, and her slender hands lifted the hood, revealing a familiar soft, rounded face, with full lips, large blue eyes, and a small button nose.

Seeing those eyes up close, too gentle to belong to a killer, he marveled at their brightness, and lamented at the deeply buried sadness in them.

"How?" she asked; many questions contained in one, her face neutral, hiding her fear.

It didn't help. He could sense it in her.

"I have my ways." Adir replied, considering the stool she kept wedged under the table, before flipping it over and sitting down, facing her, "Oh, and you need not worry. The codex was a trinket; difficult to replace, but ultimately expendable. I am much more interested in you, my dear. You have a very...unique...set of skills. To walk through walls, to manipulate the minds that you touch, and leave no trace that any wizard or cleric can detect... I have learned so much from your technique, even if I am no Psion myself. The experience constituted something of a fair trade for the loss of my property".

"Then why are you here?" she asked, to which he grinned, "I was hoping to employ you, actually. Do not pretend that your Guildmaster has given you enough work if you live like this, and take such risky side-business. I have a job for you, one of great difficulty and great reward. I promise you, you will not want for wealth if you take this offer..."

He knew enough about her to know she would refuse right away; trust was something foreign to any Drow, especially this one.

"Also keep in mind that you have stolen from me. I may not be amiable to your hesitancy."

Her scowl deepened, "Fine. What do you want me to steal?"

"Later. I am also here to invite you to Pasha Ormat's revel in Memnon, north and west along the coast, halfway to Waterdeep. We can discuss this matter there. Free food, drink, and merriment. It will do well to prepare you for the job."

"I am not sure I-"

"Nonsense! Humor me, please. I promise it will be worth your while. Come as you...not as this..."Nobody" character."

"And wear something nice." he added, and was rewarded by the unveiled consternation on her face.

Lacking confidence...she was young, very young.

Probably less than twenty seasons of age.

And yet she was powerful enough to infiltrate the private manor of a Vicelord? A prodigy indeed.

"Fine." she replied testily, "When?"

"Two weeks time. You will need an invitation. Take this." Adir said, offering a small bronze token, depicting a pair of dolphins upright, with a small aquamarine dollop set between them.

She took the token, frowning as she studied it, before looking back to him, "I will be there. Now please, go away."

"It is a long trip up the coast to reach the city. I will be happy to provide-"

"I will find my own way to Memnon." Vala replied, "I will go to this revel, then, because you are so insistent. But I will decide if I wish to undertake the heist, and either way, you will trouble me no longer with past offenses."

"Deal." Adir said immediately, "I look forward to meeting you there, Vala."

"My name is Nobody." She replied coolly, "Vala does not exist."

"We will see." Adir said, smiling as a consumed reagent in his pouch emitted focused arcane energy, separating them by a cloud of mist before pulling him away to his manse.


 She stared at the spot that the Vicelord had stood upon, trembling with mixed frustration and fear.

If he had learned of her existence...who else might be able to do the same?

Were her psionics not as untraceable as she had been led to believe?

Her first impulse was to flee the city. She could take what she had and live like a Matron Mother for much of the rest of her life. She could go back aboard Shallow's End, or return to the Promenade, or seek shelter in any of the distant realms.

No.

If Adir could find her here...he could find her anywhere. She was not safe if she refused.

Sevren had spoken wisely in warning her against just this course those years ago.

She ground her first into the wall, snarling.

There was no choice; she would go to Memnon, and see what he had in mind...


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