Prelude and Chapter 1
(23rd of Elesias, 1361 Dalereckoning)
Another night in the Underdark, though the word held little meaning to its inhabitants, each lightless day measured as a pair of the twelve-hour cycles displayed by the heat signature of the magical pillar of stone named Narbondel; Menzoberranzan's timepiece.
The latter cycle of Narbondel, in which heat gradually bled from top to bottom in a manner akin to a candle wick slowly burning out, was far too dim to see from the battlements on which he stood, atop the overhanging cliff on which House Duskryn stood; a heavily fortified mansion in the northwest section of Menzoberranzan, fabled city of the Dark Elves.
He watched again for the dim flicker of light betraying the stone's position and its reading, and failed to find it, idly wondering if Archmage Gromph Baenre would light it soon, staring the process and the day anew.
He grimaced at the thought of a new day, though in his present state it was likely indeterminate thanks to his closed-face helm. It served to conceal his expression; a useful thing for a male Dark Elf, who generally wished above all else to be concealed and anonymous, beneath the attention of the unpredictable, wicked females of his species. Wicked too were their whips; animated snakes which delivered a multitude of foul poisons, and how loosely those whips hung in their scabbards!
Garbed in the leather-backed mail of a common house guard, Netal Oblodra righted his kite shield, emblazoned with the Duskryn crest, and checked to see if the strap holding his slim adamantine sword in its scabbard was loose. It was.
While he was not unduly concerned, as there was no current house war, House Duskryn had suffered several attacks from its rival houses over the centuries, and the experience had hardened it into an effective fighting force. Berni'th Duskryn, the cruel and sadistic Matron Mother of this house, ran a tight ship and had the support of more than one of the other noble houses as well as several lesser houses beneath it.
After the events of the Time of Troubles, Duskryn had become the Eighth House, the least of the ruling families of Menzoberranzan. The Houses Mizzrym, Fey-Branche, and Tuin'Tarl ruled immediately above it, with the Baenre weaker than it had been in centuries at the top of the hierarchy. House Oblodra's defection and subsequent destruction had weakened it. The failed war on the Dwarves of Mithral Hall and the death of Matron Baenre had weakened it. Triel's questionable leadership and the rising tensions with its neighbor Ched Nasad had weakened it.
Though they had friendly ties, the time might come when Menzoberranzan could carry on without the First House. The time might come when House Duskryn could carry on without the First House.
He wished them the best of luck with that, only in part due to the fact that it would improve his station as well. It might also serve to rid Menzoberranzan of one or two of the current noble houses and offer him some personal satisfaction.
Netal never spoke of his family; House Oblodra, the disgraced former Third House of Menzoberranzan, led by his grandmother K'yorl Odran, destroyed during the time of troubles when the goddess Lloth herself had walked the continent of Faerûn.
Thankfully, Netal had been far from Menzoberranzan at the time, and had only returned the previous year well informed of his family's demise. With his abilities, it hadn't been too difficult to cover his trail and arrange his service to House Duskryn, though at this point he was little more than a brute mercenary, reduced to commoner rabble. With the chaos that had ensued during the failed attack on Mithral Hall, nobody had taken notice of his psionics. Nobody had linked him to his House. That was well...for he did not wish to die for his grandmother's mistakes.
Resuming his patrol, Netal concentrated sufficiently to activate his latent psionic powers, manifesting to others as a barely audible humming sound and a tangible feeling of vibration. As was his wont, he filtered through subtle visual links prepared beforehand on several of the soldiers under his command, as well as many house slaves, becoming privy to their senses and base thoughts in addition to his own.
He had selected individuals that would not likely become aware of his actions. A tactical decision.
It wasn't terribly difficult, especially with the Orcs and Goblins that served as day laborers and general servants. They were most often too exhausted, to occupied by their duties, or too terrified by the genuine threat presented by their Drow masters to notice his telepathic presence. The Duskryn females, he had discovered soon after his employment, were notoriously violent, even for Dark Elves, always itching to test themselves against foes too cowed to resist.
Netal, to his credit, just anticipated their requests and completed them before they were even asked, preventing any contact and conflict whatsoever. It seemed to work for him.
Minutes passed as he gathered his results. Nothing was amiss, and there was nothing otherwise interesting to offer to the Duskryn family or any of the informants he supplied with rumors on the side.
"Lloth's hairy legs..." he cursed under his breath, seeing through the stable hand, an elderly Human male purchased from The Night Above, and noting that one of the laborers was finally birthing. That was potentially a problem for him, because it was her...
His watch ended several hours later, and Netal attended the changing of the guard, an affair done with military precision that was, sadly, only a pale reflection of the Baenre's highly ordered affair, and slipped away into his room.
As a captain, one of four who oversaw the house's defenses, under the Duskryn sons of course, his station warranted a small bunkroom along the lower levels of the manse. He kept few possessions; there was a wash basin, a locked chest beside the bedroll, a cabinet that held a change of clothing, and a small desk with loose papers spread haphazardly.
He ignored all of it, sitting cross-legged near the center of the room, throwing off his armor and weapon belt, though he always kept a series of small daggers hidden in the folds of his threadbare tunic, just in case.
He terminated the visual links on the others for the moment, concentrating on the stable hand, seeing through his eyes with greater clarity. He saw the dim way the Human perceived the world without infravision; the way he strained to focus through the dim torchlight. He smelled the musky animal stink of lesser races crammed together, accented with un-swept dung, dried blood, and heard the panting of the Orc the Human cared for, and then her screams as another painful contraction struck her.
Her name was Gul'tah.
One might have thought that she would have had to look especially beautiful, or at least not particularly hideous, to attract the attention of a Dark Elf, even one that had been rendered highly intoxicated by notoriously potent Dark Elven liquors.
Not so. She looked entirely ordinary for an Orc; a short, plump body, her skin tanned and rough, almost leathery, her eyes a dull yellow, her hair a ragged mane. Her voice, her laugh, was equally rough, almost grating. And yet something had caught his eyes on his trek to his room that night. Something had caused him to approach her, cajole her, and bed her, right there among the slaves, though none had seen him through the magical darkness he'd had the sense to conjure via innate ability, even when intoxicated.
He had woken in his room, a crushing pain in his head that in no way erased the memory of what he had done. He had been wary of ridicule, but no negative response had been forthcoming. Except for the fact that this particular Orc had become heavy with child within the next two weeks...
"There were so many other chances for her to do that..." he chided himself, watching the spectacle, "It could have been any of the other slaves, even the Goblins."
Still, he had to know for sure. He had to know that it...was not his.
She screamed again, her eyes pinched shut, blood tricking down the void in her legs. He tried to will the Human through which he saw to avert his eyes, to no avail. He cursed silently, wishing he had created links on a any of the eight Orcish slaves filling the room. He really didn't want to watch from that perspective.
The laboring Orc groaned as the contraction passed. He could see something else, a dark spot inside... Had it not been so dark, he might have terminated the link then and there. It couldn't be. It couldn't be.
He held down the gorge in his throat.
Another hour and more contractions passed, the Human soaking a rag and replacing the one on her forehead in the interim, and she soon shook, groaning.
It was nearly time.
The Human watched, expectant, as did Netal, through him.
She screamed a final time, her legs twitching, and the head tore free fully. The Human dug his hands in after the next bout, pulling the newborn free by its shoulders, and Netal was speechless. Connected to her mother by a thin cord, to which the Human sliced with a flat-bladed razor, was a baby female, though it hardly looked Orcish, save for the tiny lower canines that peeked through its lips. It bled heat from its tiny, frail body, and sprang to life as the Human cleared its throat, and its wails were loud indeed for something so small. The Human wrapped it in a rough threadbare towel, and presented it to the mother, who stared wide-eyed, despite the dark circles under her eyes.
Netal too could only stare, as did many of the slaves in the room. The infant was dark-skinned, and far too slim for a Orc infant, the points of her ears far more pronounced. Her hair, already budding on her bare scalp, was oil black, though there was a patch of grayed white near the front. Her eyes, when peeled open, were a rich, vibrant blue; a rare color for both Orcs and Drow. They would likely appear red in infravision, however.
There could be no doubt. It was a Half-Drow and then some.
The odds that another male had shared his peculiarity was next to nil.
It was his.
Netal Oblodra did not feel the crushing humiliation as he expected.
He felt...pensive, uncertain...and that made him felt quite unlike himself.
"What will you name her?" the Human asked, uneasily, and it took Gul'tah some time to frame a reply, some time to accustom.
"Va...la..." she said, her eyelids heavy, her face pinched in discomfort, save for a peculiar, prideful smile that marked it.
The girl's name was Vala.
Troubled, Netal considered terminating the link, but did not do so until the Human left the room.
For some reason he could not articulate, he wanted to watch as child and mother slept.
House Duskryn, Menzoberranzan
(7th of Ches, 1367 Dalereckoning)
The horn sounded, telling them it was morning.
Everyone woke up quickly, before the Dark Elves came in for inspection, and knelt near the door in orderly lines. They probably wanted to be first to eat.
Vala yawned, disentangling herself from Mama, who took a few moments to collect herself before getting up too. She changed her tunic, rough linen, for a clean one, but she did not get new leggings, so she kept the ones she had. Mama fussed over her hair for a while, but Vala shook her away. She would cut it soon, like Mama asked. She just hadn't had the chance yesterday.
She walked near the front of the bunkhouse, to the second line, and knelt down, though she kept close to Mama all the while.
They didn't hurry to be the first to be fed; the males sometimes fought for it, and it was good to be far away.
The house soldiers came in, eyeing everyone with naked suspicion, especially her, checking the room for sharp things or anything else they weren't supposed to have. The Dark Elves swatted at the other slaves, the rounded end of a pommel or the clink of a heavy boot often accompanied by the exclamation, "iblith."
Vala had learned that word quickly; "iblith" was a Dark Elf word which meant "excrement" or "offal". They used it when addressing anyone who wasn't Drow.
And according to the Dark Elves, everyone who wasn't a Dark Elf was a slave, as well as iblith, whether they knew it or not. That meant Goblins, Dwarves, Humans, and the Faerie Elves, whoever they were.
There were none of those; Vala and Mama were Orcs, which made up of most of House Duskryn's workers. Most Orcs were big and thickly muscled, much bigger than her, with longer tusks, thick, warty skin, and heavy-browed faces with sunken dark eyes. Most had green skin, though hers was dark and ashen. She didn't know why that was.
There were also Goblins, like Orcs but shrunken and thin, with big, pudgy heads, Gnolls, which had long snouts, claws, and coats of bristly fur, and Kobolds, which looked like scaly rats if they could walk on two legs.
Most weren't very friendly, so she just stayed with Mama.
The Dark Elf guards found nothing, so nobody would be tied up and flogged with the priestess' snake whips. That was good; Vala didn't want to see that again, since the rest were made to watch.
The Dark Elves sent two of the slaves, both Goblins, outside, and they brought in loaves of bread, made from spores from the mushrooms they farmed daily, and buckets of rusty water. No Rothé cheese, then... Vala deflated at that, but swallowed down the half-loaf that was passed to her, gulping the water as she was handed the bucket, before passing it further down her line.
Sometimes, the Dark Elves gave a meat stew, but Vala had no idea what kind of meat it was. And that it tasted funny.
When everyone was fed the Dark Elves took them out in groups of three to work the fields. Hers was second to last. She hugged Mama's skirts as they were led out of the bunkhouse, daring a glance back to the mansion above them. It was huge; three stories of finely quarried stone and metal that was black as obsidian, with winding arches, towers, murals and hieroglyphics engraving the walls, dozens of pennants, and glowing purple and red fire everywhere. Faerie Fire, she heard it was called, made from Faerzress, a form of magical radiation unique to the Underdark.
Whatever that was.
Sometimes they farmed by torch. Sometimes they changed their eyes to see heat instead of light. It made everything look strange; everyone looked light red, with splotches of yellow and green, where everything else looked like shades of dark green, blue, and purple.
The Dark Elves never used torches. Nor did they use stairs; there was no way to get into the mansion above without levitating. She knew all the nobles and many of the soldiers had a rock that let them float through air, and all the other soldiers lived near the bunkhouse and never left house grounds. She wondered if she could get one of those magic rocks. It might be fun to float like them.
Mama grunted for her to pay attention, so she looked away, back to the group.
They went down a small ramp, away from the cliff and the manor, and into a small bog underneath. There was putrid water everywhere, and Vala pinched her nose. There were rows of mushroom stalks, seventeen by thirty-seven. Each mushroom was as tall as a grown Orc, and much wider. The Dark Elves made the mushrooms grow with magic; they came back every day. Every day she, Mama, and the other slaves harvested the bloom on the top; a big, fat, russet brown cap that was good to make into bread, fermented into wine, or mixed with other things to make a healing salve.
There were other mushrooms too; little glowing blue ones that made potions, purple ones whose glossy, fibrous bodies were made into fabric, and a black one that helped make sleeping poison. The Dark Elves used that to make the other slaves stop if they got mean. Then the snake whips...
Vala shivered, but remembered they never farmed those mushrooms, the Dark Elves did. Beside the mushroom grove was a small patch of grass and root vegetables, where over two dozen Rothé lowed and chewed. They made cheese, the cheese that Vala liked, fur, that they never got to wear, and meat, which they never got to eat. That went to the Dark Elves.
Their group stopped, near the end of the field. The scythes and picks were in the same place as yesterday. Mama took a scythe. Vala found her shears, and waited while a male Orc took a pickaxe and started breaking apart the mushroom cap's outer casing, a shell that was hard as stone. Mama then used her scythe to slice off the softer, edible sections of the cap. Mama then handed a piece of the cap to her, usually about two-thirds the size of her body, which Vala set down, and cleaned off any lingering residue with her shears before dropping the fibers into the basket. They did this until the cap was completely gone, and then moved down the row. When the basket was full, Goblins would come to carry it away, and replace it with a fresh one.
The time passed by quickly. Her feet sank into the muck, but she didn't fight it. Thankfully, she, like the others, had bare feet. Otherwise, it would be hard to pull free.
Vala panted, sweating, trying to peel off a particularly stubborn fragment of shell, when she smelled Dark Elf in the air. She never heard them coming, because they walked without making a sound, even in the watery muck of the field.
Guards, keeping an eye on them.
There were five, a female leading them, her bright red eyes probing for somebody working too slowly, a leather whip at her belt. Not a snake whip, but still painful. Vala had learned that very quickly, unconsciously knotting the muscles in the small of her back. She had drawn on the bunkhouse walls with a piece of coal on a night she couldn't sleep, and they hadn't liked that. Not at all.
She averted her eyes; the Dark Elves didn't like being looked at, either. She grunted, trying harder to peel the cap, and the shell broke off with a loud thump. With a sharp intake of breath, she dropped the cap into the basket, clean as could be, and the Dark Elves passed by without a word.
Relieved, Vala took the next piece that Mama handed her, and returned to work.
When they were out of earshot, she looked to Mama, while peeling the next lump of mushroom, "Do you see any coal, Mama?"
Mama frowned at that, but did not look up from her work, "No. You not need draw anyway. You remember what happen last time."
"But I won't draw on the walls again." she protested, still flinching at the memory, "I found some mushroom husks the Dark Elves threw away. I can draw on those."
"I no see any coal." Mother replied, before her expression softened, "I look though. Keep working."
Satisfied, Vala dropped the next lump in the basket, and started on the next one after that. There was always a "next one after that".
Netal stood at rapt attention at his post, in truth more focused on the psionic link with one of the lesser guards following behind Irae Duskryn, one of the three daughters of Matron Mother Berni'th Duskryn.
He treasured these moments in which he could look upon his daughter. Any could tell that she was no pureblood Orc, and in truth, the Drow side of her lineage was far more prominent. Her small body was still plump with youth, but her slender neck, slanted eyes, and round, cherubic face, made it abundantly clear she would grow into a beautiful female.
If she survived long enough.
Watching her, Netal severely doubted she would remain a laborer for long. House Duskryn would likely make her into a maidservant or an attendant. That could be potentially opportune for him. While her continued survival pleased him for reasons he could not articulate, he studied her now for the purpose of learning enough about her to gain her trust and to quietly enlist her into his small cadre of spies later.
With an extra set of eyes in the manor proper, there was much he could accomplish, for House Duskryn, but more importantly, for himself.
He could also plant a telepathic link whenever he chose to, should she refuse him, but he was also curious to see if she developed psionic abilities of her own. Their linked blood gave her roughly a fifty-fifty chance; a mere flip of a coin. A fellow Mind Mage as an ally would be even more useful. Survival and the ever-consuming quest for power and influence, at least, as much influence as a male could hope to find in Menzoberranzan, had defined his life and continued to do so. Such was their way.
The patrol passed the spot at which Vala labored, and with nothing else of interest, Netal terminated the connection, lest the subject become aware of the link, and again cycled through his other prospects. There was always more to learn...
Irae Duskryn had been keeping a close watch on this most interesting slave through most of the day. She had no idea who was responsible for such unlikely offspring, though the sire was likely one of the house guards, taken the girl's mother out of frustration at their station and their treatment by the superior females of House Duskryn.
It was not uncommon, really.
Whatever the sire, whatever the reason, Vala was Half-Drow. And female. Irae needed capable females if she was ever to depose her elder sisters, and eventually her mother. The idea of usurping one's family was the motivation of every ranking female. Lloth demanded it from her faithful and her people, for it was the best way to prevent the great houses from becoming weak and bloated.
Under her mother's rule, House Duskryn was becoming one of the most prominent and stable ruling families. Under Irae's, Duskryn would rise to even higher station.
And so, when she was eventually sent to Arach-Tinilith to complete her training to become a High Priestess, she planned to do so with obedient underlings watching her house for her, studying her siblings and mother for weaknesses. Vala would make an excellent informant, and perhaps underpriestess. The females of lesser races were sometimes called to faith, and as a Half-Drow, Vala could even become a cleric of Lloth.
She would just have to make sure the little wretch owed something to her, became beholden to her.
The girl thought she wasn't watching, but Irae had a small enchanted item on her person; a talisman that offered her eyes in the back of her head. Metaphorically speaking, of course. The girl clung to her mother as her men led that group of slaves back to the bunkhouse. Tightly. And not out of fear of her fellow slaves. She rubbed the side of her head against her mother's thigh, a distant smile on her face.
Irae was unsure what to make of it; Orcs did not demonstrate such an odd behavior when they grew. It seemed like something a Human or Faerie Elf child might do. It implied some sort of...familial closeness, something that Irae did not fully comprehend. She had been plotting against her mother since her tenth nameday, had always seen her sisters only as rivals, and her brothers only as pawns. Lloth despised weakness, and compassion was among the worst symptom of that insidious condition.
Action was needed. Vala would need to gain strength to survive in the Underdark, to become a proper servant. The mother would have to die.
Irae considered the best way to do this, to best explain to Vala indirectly that softness was not a thing to be tolerated, all the while furthering her efforts to en-debt Vala to her. She was not unduly concerned as to how this could be accomplished. To the Drow, conspiracy and manipulation was as natural as drawing breath.
They led her and Mama back home. Everyone ate more bread, and she got a whole loaf this time. Vala was more than hungry enough to eat it all, and she drank more water than usual. Her skin was slick with sweat, and it was still hard to breathe.
Today had been hard, harder than usual. She'd heard that the wizards would make the mushrooms bigger and bigger, thanks to some new spell. How would they trim them all if that happened?
The Dark Elves left, locking and barring the doors behind them. With them gone, the Orcs and Goblins settled in for bed, growling at anyone who got too close. Vala stayed close to Mama, and found their pile of straw, not very big, since the males took the biggest piles.
That was fine; this was where she always slept.
Still, she wondered if the Dark Elves slept on straw. Or maybe they slept on air. For that matter, if they could walk on air, does that mean they could go down the big hole behind the manor? What was down there? Or outside home at all?
"Mama..." she whispered, not too loudly, since they might yell at her, "What is outside here?"
Mama frowned at that, scratching her head, "Mushroom bog. Why?"
"No." Vala whispered, "Outside that."
Mama tried to smile, but her eyes didn't smile.
"Nothing. There nothing past that. The world ends where you can't see any farther."
Vala wondered for a moment, then nodded. That made sense. It explained why the Drow said they could never leave.
She pressed herself against Mama, content, and went to sleep.