The Jewel of the Sands, (Book 1 of the Vicelord Chronicles)

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Chapter 4

House Duskryn, Menzoberranzan

(24th of Elesias, 1371 Dalereckoning)


The females of the house attended the Matron Mother in the Duskryn Chapel. After Alirana was stabilized; outside of blood loss, the injury was not severe, she woke in a rage, demanding Vala's head.

Irae, unwilling to risk her mother's ire, had not argued too overtly against this, merely claiming the girl's value with the awakening of her unusual powers. Neither wizardly in nature, nor deriving from divine or infernal beings, it had taken hours for one of the house guards, Netal Oblodra, to identify the phenomenon as a Psionic Manifestation.

He had surrendered this information with some difficulty, a most curious thing, though perhaps he was nervous about delivering a report to a room filled with agitated priestesses.

At least, that was what Irae hoped Mother would believe. Mother had not yet reached the understanding that the two were kin.

Divinations and binding spells had been placed on the girl, who now slept in a magical stasis at the sacrificial altar; a position that was by no means ironic, pending her selected judgment.

Matron Berni'th sat at her throne behind the altar, considering.

Irae stood with her sisters around the altar, and Alirana paced below, before her soldiers and the Duskryn house guard. Netal, to his credit, did not look at the girl overtly, nor did he appear to be intentionally looking away. He looked like any male; curious, but not overly interested.

"Something must be done." Matron Berni'th finally proclaimed, "I will not allow an iblith to shame this house by attacking an ambassador."

Alirana made no effort to hide her smirk, though it looked strained on her mangled face. Vala's attack had permanently scarred the flesh beneath her chin, near the throat, as well as tracing an angry red line from lip to cheekbone, obvious both in light and infravision. Clerical magic could only go so far; Lloth was a capricious goddess, and healing magic was always in short supply, scarcely given.

That Matron Duskryn had seen fit to save her life at all constituted a considerable charity; most would have let her rot for her foolishness.

Irae considered giving the conniving bitch her due personally, if only for a moment. Had this treachery accomplished a purpose, even against House Duskryn, she would have understood, even applauded her efforts. But effectively killing Vala because of her iblith blood served no purpose, and it offended Irae's practical sensibilities.

"You will give her to me, then..." Alirana demanded, breaking courtesy, "I will discipline her for attacking her betters."

"As I recall...." the Matron Mother replied dryly, "You have not yet repaid me in full for the thralls that were slain in your hunt. As enjoyable as it was, I see little reason to forego profit in this matter."

Irae bristled, but did not protest. She would not dare her mother's anger for a half-breed.

"House Zauvirr is due for a good faith payment." she continued, "I was already going to give them some fresh veal, and this will make a fine addition. I will sell her cheap, and they can decide what to do with her. If they harness her psionics, good...I hear the Illithid have ways of harvesting parts of a brain while leaving the subject...mostly intact. They can sell what is left to Nym. I hear he has received enough business to create a secondary site in Ched Nasad. She would fetch a fine price in his Jewel Box."

Irae shuddered; Nym, for he had no known house affiliation, was a retired wizard who had taken up the trade of innkeeper in the bazaar of Menzoberranzan. It was not widely known that he also traded in the flesh of female Drow, battle captives mostly, for to allow a male to so violate a female among the Drow constituted the most vile of blasphemies. But the Matron Mothers of the ruling families had abided his practices as a means to more easily subjugate the males of their species, offering in Nym's captives a cheap conquest to assuage their constant humiliation.

She hoped that there was not enough of the girl left to sell to Nym. A quick death would be a merciful one.

Netal paled. His entire body tensed.

Was he going to try to rescue her from Berni'th's decree?

The judgment seemed to satisfy Alirana, who quieted, watching the child with undisguised spite as her nude body was wrapped in a thin blanket and carried away.


Everything hurt.

Her head felt heavy.

A buzzing noise. More pain.

Then, silence. Warmth. She was finally laying still. Was she dead?

A woman, a Drow who was not Drow, stood over her. Her grin spread from cheek to cheek.

The woman, the goddess, reached out to her.

Vala wanted it to end; the pain, the doubt. She never wanted to see Alirana or Irae or any of the others ever again.

She reached out to touch Lloth's hand, but darkness carried her away ere their fingertips could meet. Again she felt herself spinning, tumbling.

"Lloth...?" Vala cried, "Lloth?!"

"Lloth will be of little aid to you now, creature..." another woman replied coldly.

Irae.

Everything went still again. She opened her eyes, not realizing they were closed, and saw Irae, standing over her, scowling.

"...Where am I?" Vala asked, and her mistress backhanded her, splitting her lip.

"You fool." the Drow snapped, striking her again, "You insolent idiot! Do you know that you have done?!"

At a loss, shivering, Vala pressed the blanket over her body tightly against her, wincing as she found her left hand shackled to the bed, "I do not understand, mistress? I went right to bed after your lecture. Did I do something wrong?"

Irae started, flummoxed, before regaining your composure, "You do not remember attacking Alirana Srune'Lett then? You do not remember attacking an ambassador under Duskryn protection, and shaming this family and our Matron Mother?"

What?

"I..." Vala stammered, horrified, "I do not. I remember..." she paused, trying to piece together what she had done after falling asleep. Everything was...cloudy...

"She stole my mother's tusk..." she concluded, seeing faint images flash before her eyes, "I went to ask her to give it back...and then..."

"And then...?" Irae prodded, her knuckles white as she gripped her whip.

"I felt something in the air..." Vala gasped, "Like a quake was happening far away, and the stones beneath my feet were vibrating. Everything went blue, and I saw lights, like tiny dots of Faerie Fire."

"You passed through metal like you were naught but air." Irae finished for her, "And summoned a mass of crystal that mangled Alirana's face."

She hurled something that smacked against Vala's cheek, and she ignored the sting, looking down to find her mother's tusk, still tied to its string, "You took back what was yours, at the cost of your place in House Duskryn. You are a common thrall once more, you insufferable churl!"

Her expression darkened further, though her voice became calm and even, "I had offered you a life beyond your station, and you have spat in my face with this insolence. You will be gone from this place, to wherever House Zauvirr chooses for you. Pray your end will be as your mother's. By attacking a priestess of Lloth, and being witnessed committing the deed, your afterlife will certainly not be pleasant, I can assure you."

Her face flush with heat, Irae turned away, and shut the door, locking it on the other side.

Leaving her alone in a room that was not her own.


She kept track of time only by the delivery of her meals, which felt like once every other cycle. The food made her feel dizzy; it was likely drugged, so she could not use her powers.

Powers.

That still felt strange. She was no wizard. Whatever she had done had been done in some sort of trance. She had no idea of what was now to cause her likely death.

Vala guessed that about a ten-day had passed before anyone else had entered since Irae, when a male Drow entered her room.

He looked entirely average; his short cropped, stark white hair contrasted his oil-black skin and burning red eyes, and his armor, while of fine make, was the standard issue of a house guard of the Duskryn compound.

"W-what is happening?" Vala asked, shivering in her blanket, studying his blank expression.

He just stared at her, his right eyelid quivering.

His hand was tightly gripping his sword.

Was he one of Alirana's guards?

"I should kill you." the Dark Elf said bluntly, scowling. He shook his head, "But it would be an act of mercy...Lloth would not protect me for it. The Matron Mother would kill me. And yet..."

He considered her, his eyes now pained, like a desperate, trapped animal, "I owe you this...but could I really..."

He shook his head a second time. "I cannot. I am so sorry. I..."

He turned, walked back to the door, "...I cannot."


The House Zauvirr caravan entered House Duskryn, led by one of its Weaponmasters, Jhuild Zauvirr, a great-nephew of its Matron Mother, Ssipriina Zauvirr. Such a prominent rise from a distant descendant spoke volumes of his ability with his fighting daggers.

Irae briefly considered Jhuild, appreciating his slim build that nonetheless sported thicker muscles than most diminutive males. He wore an armless suit of form-fitting black leathers, forsaking the more common adamantine coat of mail. A pair of waving bladed kris were sheathed across his back, and a pair of main-gauche were belted to his waist. A bandoleer was attached from his right shoulder to the left of his waist, holding dozens of small throwing knives.

About him was no drow piwafwi, but a fur-lined black cloak, its interior a lush velvet red.

"Ssipriina Zauvirr sends her regards." he said as he approached her and her mother, Alirana and her band thankfully long departed.

He bowed low, but his eyes moved up to her, taking notice of her scrutiny.

Irae, for her part, looked away, appearing disinterested.

That was the proper response, after all.

"Indeed." Berni'th replied jovially, "And let her know that she and hers are welcome here as valued allies. House Duskryn watches over its own."

Nodding, Jhuild motioned for his house guards to begin unloading Duskryn's payment for its part in the conspiracy; heavy crates of linen, silk, spices, and other trade goods that would fetch a hefty sum in the bazaar. Gold was too obvious; it was better to let their enemies think them mere trading partners.

"Business proceeds apace." Jhuild noted, "Our...investments continue to pay in rare goods from the surface. Your cut of the profit margin will be seven percent higher than the last."

"Excellent." the Matron Mother replied, "You must join us for tonight's feast. There will be diversions aplenty."

"Indeed." he replied slyly, his eyes darting to Irae again.

She returned the look. The loss of her valued slave had left her restless...


Vala woke to the sound of the door opening again. Startled, she looked up, wondering if the strange Dark Elf from before had returned.

It was a male Dark Elf, but a different one. His eyes settled on her cruelly.

"I am Jhuild Zauvirr, Weaponmaster of House Zauvirr. I am told that I am to bring you to Matron Ssipriina as tribute." he said, naked contempt on his face, nonetheless tinged with something else. It looked like...release.

Standing at attention, covering herself with the blanket to hide her nakedness, Vala nodded, her eyes downcast.

"They have told me you have unusual powers." Jhuild continued, "I will then have to make sure you don't do anything suspicious."

He rushed forward, and Vala heard a wet crunch as he struck her nose, bloodying her.

Suddenly, she was on the floor. Everything went dark.

"I am to bring you to my Matron Mother intact. But do not test the limits of my patience. I assure you they are slim indeed."


Netal watched the caravan exit through the gates of the manor, tormented.

Both the Drow in him, the creature of pure self-fulfillment, and the father, this unprecedented, insufferable creature that longed for proximity to this girl, this iblith child, raged at the sight of Vala taken from them. Again.

He knew, however, that this would be the last time. He would never see her again. He had failed himself by not finding her before Irae. He had failed Vala in failing to rescue or kill her. He had failed in the one task that might have lifted himself from the pit of wretched despair that was Drow Society.

Alone, lost in this world he despised but could not escape, Netal watched from the battlements of his adoptive house, his prison and his sanctuary; a lone pair of eyes glowing red in the endless darkness of Menzoberranzan.


Shackled to the inside of the roofed wagon that the caravan had carried with them, Vala watched through the cracks of its walls as the pack lizards led her away from House Duskryn, her home and her prison for all her life.

She did not hold the tears at bay. Not that she needed to. There was nothing else in the wagon with her but a pair of newborn Rothé, which nuzzled against her legs for warmth, their wrinkled, furless skin soft to the touch. She stroked one of its ears, numb to all else.

The Dark Elves were mounted on riding lizards surrounding the wagon, lances held at the ready. Down the edges of the miles-wide cavern of Menzoberranzan they went, skirting the west wall, offering a view of the dozens of lesser houses situated along the countless stalactites lining the great stone roof of the city; small, two story manses patrolled by dozens of mounted Dark Elves, though to her, they only looked like tiny red splotches to her infravision.

Further south, Vala caught a glimpse of a place that Irae had spoken of in hushed whispers; the Chamber of the Ruling Council. Four great towers, linked by high battlements, loomed over a great chasm lined with Faerie Fire. The towers looked like nothing other than hollow stalagmites carved with intricate tracing patterns, spiders being the most prevalent image. Everywhere in the architecture of all the buildings she passed, the spider was present; the Dark Elves' tribute to Mother Lloth.

From the crossroads they turned east, around a high plateau called Qu'ellarz'orl, alongside Tier Breche further north as the largest structure in the city. All she could see of House Baenre, the ruling family, was a painful cloud of violet Faerie Fire above great looming gates of adamantine and spider webs. It forced her to return to the visible spectrum of light, lest she be blinded.

Across from it, House Fey Branche, the Sixth House, was clearly visible, smaller but still easily dwarfing House Duskryn in size. Where her home had been a mansion, this was a castle, lined by several secondary towers and sets of battlements. She could not imagine how many people were inside its walls.

Angling north-east, they neared the Baeryn before turning to the shores of Lake Donigarden, which housed the Isle of Rothé, the property of House Hunzrin, a minor house nonetheless vital to Menzoberranzan's health due to its focus on agriculture, owning and maintaining the majority of fungus farms, Rothé herds, and fisheries.

As they passed the island, the light dimmed, forcing her to switch again to infravision. Menzoberranzan became nothing more than a distant blur.

Panic threatened. The Rothé she had been petting lowed in discomfort.

She looked down, realized she had been squeezing it too hard, and stopped, holding her hands to herself.


Hours passed as the caravan made its trek through the lightless Underdark, an endless labyrinth of tunnels and caves. Even in Infravision, Vala found it difficult to map out her surroundings; natural vents in the ground produced clouds of obscuring steam.

For once, she was very grateful that she was in the center of a large group of heavily armed Drow.

The Rothé, it seemed, liked it little better than she did. They cowered in their wagon together.

Wait.

Something was happening. The soldiers did not speak, but she saw glimmers of light pass between them atop their mount lizards.

Mirrors?

The caravan came to a halt.

Her meal, long forgotten and half-eaten by her fellow passengers, upended.

Vala curled into a little ball beside the Rothé, as she heard a low rumble in the distance.

She heard Drow blades unsheathe, heard the riding lizards hiss in agitation.

Then, there was a great commotion that came from all sides, that drew nearer.

The Rothé began to shiver too.

Vala closed her eyes, imagined herself in that little pile of straw in the bunkhouse.

She was safe. Nobody could harm her here.

She heard the twang of Drow hand crossbows, heard them rebound off of something hard, like stone, but more pliable.

Chitin, maybe.

The Dark Elves fought in silence. There were no battle cries, as with Orcs. The only thing she could hear were the plodding sounds of their lizards' feet, and the soft, went sinking of their spears into flesh.

But something else roared where they did not, accented with a heavy clicking pattern.

Hook Horrors. Irae had educated her on many of the wild beasts of the Underdark, and that lecture had accompanied a live specimen.

Vala began to weep. She was not here. She was in the pile of straw with mama.

The sounds of battle drew further away.

She was safe. She was in House Duskryn. She was home.

It grew quiet.

She was in House Duskryn.

Scratching noises...the sound of clawed feet on stone.

She was home.

A dull growl, curious.

She was safe.

A lower growl. Angry.

Hungry.

She saw little flecks of Faerie Fire, tinted blue.

It pawed at the door of the wagon. She could smell its breath. The Rothé lowed, panicked, huddled against her.

She clutched at her ears. Why were they so loud?

"Quiet..." she moaned, her heart pounding in her temples.

The Hook Horror on the other side snarled. It struck the door, and the whole wagon teetered.

"Quiet." she stated, dazed, the motes of blue fire thickening.

It struck again. The door jamb split.

The Rothé screamed.

"QUIET!"

The blue lights burst into streamers of mist.

"QUIET!" Vala screamed, clutching at her ears. She was crying, but when she tried to brush the tears away, she found they were red.

The door splintered apart. A mountain of pale chitin and grasping pincers leaned in, like a horrible melding of bird, turtle, and beetle, and seized one of the squirming Rothé with its barbed hook hands. It screamed all the louder, a high pitched squeal of terror.

"No!" Vala wailed, "You cannot have him!"

The Hook Horror pulled the creature apart with its bladed beak, licking up its gushing blood and organs as its midsection spilled open. Vala screamed as the little Rothé did, and continued to as it went limp. Slobbering down the rest with a length of sickening crunching and slurping sounds, the Hook Horror leaned in again, for the other one.

Her ears rung. She pointed her hand toward the Hook Horror, and mist bled from it.

It turned to her, its pupil-less yellow eyes narrowing.

Those eyes went wide indeed as a length of crystal skewered it through the mouth.

Vala screamed, but now in anger, pushing the little Rothé aside as she forced her hand forward.

The Hook Horror crumpled backwards, its mouth gushing black. Vala clutched her temple, as a searing wave of pain spread outward from behind her eyes.

A memory returned to her; Alirana, snarling, brandishing her snake whips, their scales black. Skull splotches marked their heads.

In her own hand, the length of crystal became a whip, a single length of bladed spinal disks, like a snake without its skin. Instead of a head, its end was a dagger.

The Hook Horror rose to fours, shrieking.

Vala swung her whip down, like the priestesses did, and the length of her whip coiled about its neck. It scrabbled against it, and Vala pulled, its edges retracting and slicing the head cleanly off.

Dark blood spattered her, her clothing, and Vala turned dazedly, to the battle far in the distance, visible as a blob of bright red heat.

She snarled, and ran towards it.


Jhuild Zauvirr crouched beside his downed lizard, hurling dagger after dagger into the charging Hook Horror. The monster shrieked, its beaked mouth wide, and its bladed hook arms scrabbled in the dirt.

It would not rise to its feet. His weapons were poisoned with a potent toxin that caused severe disorientation, nausea, and eventually paralysis.

It wretched, expelling a mass of half-digested "food", before collapsing fully, twitching.

Two more took its place, and his men were occupied with the rest of the flock.

Over two score of the beasts had ambushed their caravan. Less than an even score remained, but four of his seven men were incapacitated, and one was quite dead.

Two of the Hook Horrors were in the process of eating him, which bought Jhuild time, but he had to find a way to finish the others.

Favoring his twin kris, the Drow warrior rushed forward, twirling his blades in a hypnotic patterns, before sliding underneath their swiping arms and landing shallow hits on the joins of their ankles. He felt his adamantine bite deep. He twisted about, the sword in his right hand in reversed grip and close to his body, as one of the Hook Horrors turned and swatted at him. When its arm rebounded against that sword, it propelled him into its fellow, still turned away, offering him extra leverage to slide his blade into the small of its back, between its thick plates of armor.

Abandoning the weapon, for he knew he could not pull it free in time, he backpedaled, drawing and hurling a main-gauche into the other's left eye. It shrieked, clutching at its ruined orb, as its companion lay very still.

A second, smaller, perfectly balanced dagger robbed it of its other eye. The last one in his bandoleer.

Backing away, Jhuild crouched silently and observed, as the Hook Horror entered a killing frenzy, and turned on its downed fellow, sinking its beak into flesh.

Four of the remaining ten turned to him at the sounds of its feasting.

His back to the cavern wall, Jhuild prepared himself for his last defense.


Her world became a blur of bright lights and deafening sound, like rushing water.

Vala screamed at the Hook Horrors, their backs turned to her, and rushed forward, her whip sword burning brightly like fire.

One creature turned curiously, just as the whip-sword's tip buried itself into its chest, puncturing its thick plates without resistance.

The whip twisted in the wound, and the creature clutched its chest, whimpering plaintively, as it pulled free, a sickly yellow five-chambered heart impaled on its edge.

It collapsed, and all of the rest turned to her.

Vala groaned, the weight in her head unbearable, and she imagined giving it to them instead.

They clicked, screeching, as they fell to fours, bladed limbs scratching at their heads, drawing blood.

She felt the pain in her head diminish, just as they screamed, weeping blood.

Their plated heads cracked, oozing pale fluid.

They shook wildly, before going limp.

She saw other Dark Elves, fighting more Hook Horrors, but they saw what she had done, and shrieked in terror. They fled back into the tunnels, dozens of them, all too dark for her to see even in infravision.

One of the Drow, the one that had hit her in her room, looked to her, his gleaming red eyes wide as coins.

The other Drow finished off the last creature, which was eating one of its own, and then everything went silent.

Except for her breathing.

Mist bled from her body, and her head started to hurt again.

So close to the others, she heard voices, but their lips were not moving.

Jhuild came closer, and his "voice" became louder.

"How interesting..." he said aloud, grinning, "You are handy in a pinch, aren't you? Maybe you can serve House Zauvirr after all."

She heard...no...she saw, what he imagined Matron Zauvirr was planning to do with her.

She shivered, backed away.

"Come here, slave." Jhuild persisted, "This instant. And dismiss that sword-thing you have conjured."

They were going to sell her to the Illithid.

They were going to...

"Here." Jhuild said, eyes narrowed, finger pointed downward to the ground on which he stood, "Now."

Her whip sword became mist again. She held her arms to herself, eyes darting uncertainly.

"Good. Yes, now come here."

She shivered, near tears. She would not...

Jhuild scowled, took a step towards her.

She would not...

Vala turned and ran, into one of the tunnels behind her.

"Stop, Iblith!" Jhuild shouted from behind her, "You have nowhere to run!"

She paid him no heed. She had seen into his mind. She knew they intended to kill her, in mind if not in body.

The Dark Elves rushed to pursue, but their leader called them off.

"Not now." Jhuild said loudly, "We cannot risk them coming back. Get this disaster up and running in a hundred count or Lady Lloth herself will not save you from me!"

Away she fled into the darkness, the shouts of her Drow keepers going quiet.

They would not recklessly follow her. She knew the stories. The Wild Underdark was more dangerous than the Abyss itself; an endless chasm filled with confusing tunnels, chaotic magic, and tens of thousands of monstrous, carnivorous creatures like the Hook Horrors.

Nobody survived for long here. Even the Dark Elves traversed the Underdark with extreme caution.

In her heart, Vala knew she had likely only traded one death for another...

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