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

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Chapter 5

The Underdark

(2nd of Alturiak, 1373 Dalereckoning)


An echo, likely a crash in some upper tunnel.

A steady dripping of water.

Darkness, all consuming darkness.

Cold, blank stone, purple to its eyes, lacking even remote heat to shift its color to lighter blue.

Quiet. So quiet.

But not alone.

It sniffed the air for spoor, holding a flat length of stone sharpened to a point.

Nothing, but that meant nothing, for many of the other beasts of the Wild Underdark were not possessed of an odor. Many had hard outer shells that matched the stone that surrounded them, masking their heat signature.

But they would never find it. No.

It had become Nobody. Nothing. A mere patch of its own darkness, indeterminate from the darkness around it.

It remembered another life, but only faintly.

It remembered a face, felt a surge of fresh hatred, but it was a fleeting thing.

False memories.

There was no city. There were no others. There was only Nobody, and the monsters, and the dark. It deceived itself by imagining otherwise.

It need only concern itself with survival.

Beside it, in the small, small cave it had set for itself, was its kill; a trio of small, bony lizards it had snared.

It ate the meat raw. Fire was a dangerous thing in the Underdark. It was blinding, at a time that vision was key. At a time when its hunters might not have eyes, or if they did, might not use them.

A crunch of bone. A slurping sound.

It was careful to be quiet, but still some noises persisted.

A steady dripping of water.

A pebble falling from the stone ceiling, insufferably loud.

But Nobody found it hard to tell if it had been in the tunnel in which its cave was, or another altogether. Small vents in the rocks made sense of direction inexact.

It never knew what was happening out of line of sight.

Hence, the slab of stone protecting the entrance to its cave. Always, always it covered the cave before it slept. A new cave every time it slept. Forward, it went. Forward and up.

After it ate, it curled up, back to the wall, eyes facing the slab.

It pulled the tattered remnants of its clothing about it, drawing what warmth it could.

It stared at the slab at the end of the cave.

It would know. It would know.

It closed its eyes, weary but alert.


Iljrene Ahruyn, Battlemaster of the Dark Promenade of Eilistraee, forsook her place in the weapons hall for a time by wandering the outskirts of their Underdark sanctuary on patrol. The exercise calmed her nerves; it always paid to seek out a change in scenery, if however slight. It reduced the tedium of training new recruits, be them surfaces dwellers, freed slaves, of converts from Lloth's faithful.

The latter were well trained, certainly, but lacked the understanding of following strict protocol and trusting one's fellow Darksong Maidens, which took time to teach effectively.

But that was Iljrene's task as ordered by Qilué Veladorn, their leader and chosen of both the goodly goddesses Eilistraee and Mystra. By Song or by Sword, they would free all the Dark Elves from Lloth's tyranny, and integrate their people peacefully onto the surface kingdoms, as they had of old as the Ssri-Tel'Quessir.

That was long before her time, when their people had been a part of the Elven race, destined for the Elven afterlife known as Arvandor. Before Lloth had separated from the pantheon by attempting to murder Corellon Larethian, patron deity of the surface Elves.

She sighed, weary. So many had been lost to Lloth's demonic corruption.

One of her latest pupils followed her, silvery mail reflecting faint moonlight that never reached the tunnels of the Underdark. That one reminded her of the importance of her duty; one by one, she freed Elven souls from that corruption, that damnation to the abyss.

Once a noble of Menzoberranzan and a priestess of Lloth, and a singularly unpleasant creature at that, she had found forgiveness and redemption through Eilistraee, rejecting all aspects of her previous life. Her locks she had sheared into a short military cut, her girth she had honed into a fit, muscular build, and she spurned finery for leather and mail.

She stood head and shoulders over Iljrene herself, thickly muscled, the deep scar across her cheek and throat and her stern, unflinching expression making her look the ideal warrior.

Iljrene hid her smile. One might have assumed her to be the novitiate. Her slim, almost child-like build, soft, gentle voice, and large, innocent eyes, hardly fit the appearance of a hardened veteran, but her technique and centuries of experience had earned her respect from even the most seasoned fighters.

Never once had she been marked, though she had fought in countless battles.

Both carried slim broadswords, and a small round shield strapped to their backs. Iljrene, for her part, also carried a small metal crossbow, which hung around a strap around her shoulder, as well as a blowgun at her belt. Both lacked poison of Drow make, which required Underdark radiation to function properly and the magical Faerzress did not extend so close to the surface. Instead, she had brewed a concoction of nightshade and scorpion venom, mundane but debilitating to the right victim, to the former, and a potent sleeping drug for the latter.

Not that she really thought she would need either; this section, while marginally outside of the considerable magical protections within the Promenade, was mapped and regularly traveled, slightly above the countless tunnels leading deeper and deeper into the Wild Underdark. The risk of attack was scarce.

"We will visit the lake." Iljrene announced, "We won't be needed for a few hours. There is time yet."

Alirana looked to her, troubled, "Is it safe for us to venture that far? It skirts the lower reaches."

She nodded, "We will be safe. Our diviner scanned these reaches the other day, and found nothing larger than a halfling down here."


It woke, and finished its meal.

Thoroughly gorged, it rested for some time, before deciding it was thirsty. It needed to drink.

It remembered the water nearby, and wondered if there were any fish there.

Careful to look through the rock for ambient heat, it found none, and pushed the rock slab forward, opening the way to the tunnel beyond. It did not want to move so far up...but it was very thirsty, and it needed to move.

For all the time it remembered, it had felt drawn forward, and up. Maybe there was more food there.


Iljrene sat cross-legged before a great cavern, roughly two bowshots wide and many times that long, housing a large subterranean lake. More a pond, really; its relative size in an open chamber classified it as a lake though it wasn't even that deep. A bed of glowing coral illuminated its depths, showed in stark contrast the silvery luminescent kelp which hid many species of Underdark fish. Nonetheless, she caught infrequent glimpses of silvery skin, rows of delicate spines, and large eyes.

She loved this place. It was a true shame the Promenade didn't have an outpost more nearby.

Exhaling slowly, the Dark Elf emptied her mind, and attuned herself to the natural flow of life about her.

Though there was no such thing as fresh air so far underground, she imaged the play of wind against her skin, the subtle melody of birdsong. She heard the quite present sound of the pond's shallow waves striking the edges of the shoreline.

Rising to her feet, shedding her crossbow and shield, Iljrene drew her sword, and, without opening her eyes, slid into a graceful dance, utilizing her martial skill beside the beauty of the neideirra style.

However, where the more common Menzoberranyr neideirra utilized frenzied, thrashing movements, meant to quickly drain the body's reserve of energy in a burst of wildly acrobatic displays, her variation was slow, careful, precise. She knew she would have seemed in a restful repose, were it not for the sheer lethality of her mock attacks. Her blade whistled with the speed in which she wove it into complex passes and arrangements, meant to slip through, between, and around conventional defensive maneuvers, while the rest of her body confused and hypnotized with subtle swaying and contortions.

She imagined foes all about her, careful to gauge where Alirana had been standing, lest she force her to move. Thrusting forward, Iljrene nonetheless arched her body back, recoiling in the very same motion, carrying the momentum into a dazzling flurry, her sword passing over her head in a two-handed grip, following with a second, equally precise swipe from over her shoulder, before reversing the grip, and twirling it about her body in such a way to slap aside a multitude of pressing weapons without halting momentum. Maintaining impeccable footwork, she spun her body in such a way that this motion carried in a nearly perfect circumference about herself, never facing away from her stating position, and never advancing more than two paces in any direction before returning to her original standing point.

Hurling her sword into the air, Iljrene leaned backward, and somersaulted, landing hands-first, swatting the pommel with her feet, rolling forward, catching the sword by its handle, righting the guard, and thrust forward, aiming for what would have been the heart of her phantom enemy, the last one not cut down by her attacks. Opening her eyes, Iljrene turned her head, to see Alirana right where she had left her.

Smiling, the Drow noticed that her eyes were facing away, down the length of the shore.

Following those eyes, Iljrene's smile became a look of bewilderment.


How many hours had passed? How much time?

What was time? Had it only imagined such a thing?

Memories of time, of the passage of time, but were they real?

Nobody sat by the edge of the waters, staring into its depths. The fish were the same temperature as the water, so it switched its eyes to detect ambient light.

Light. Such a rare thing. It had almost forgotten.

Now able to see the fish, Nobody concentrated, imagining the little motes of blue fire, as it had learned to do long ago.

Its body bled mist, and it reached out its hand.

A length of crystal shot from its open palm, raced through the water, and speared a fish as it darted back into the kelp.

Licking its lips, for it had gotten hungry again, Nobody retracted the spear, the fish squirming impotently upon it.

It hurled the thing behind, to die in the air.

It drank, knowing it had food, and that it had scared the rest further downstream, before turning to the fish.

Everything outside of the water a dark blur.

It picked up the fish and tore out its bowels, before sinking its teeth deep.


Unmindful of their approach, Alirana crept towards the creature beside Battlemistress Iljrene.

At first, she had mistaken it for a goblin...color meant little in the lightless Underdark, but now she saw its skin was black. It faced away, gnawing on a raw fish.

It was a ragged thing; its mane reached nearly to its knees. It was female, but Alirana only knew that because the pitiful thing sparked an uncomfortable memory from her past.

A little girl, in a dark gown, her blue eyes sparking with a light that her soul had no longer possessed. A soul that Alirana herself had stripped from her.

"Vala..." Alirana moaned, her sword arm going limp.

The girl started, turned, her eyes appearing red as she switched between visible spectrums. She backed away, on fours, snarling, her kill limp in her hands. Mist flowed from her body; a psionic manifestation of ectoplasm.

"This is the one...?" Iljrene asked, lowering her sword, unmindful of the crystals that emerged from Vala's skin.

Alirana nodded grimly. She had confessed each and every one of her crimes after a cadre of Darksong Knights had ambushed her family caravan out of Menzoberranzan years ago, offering her and her surviving followers freedom by either the song of Lady Eilistraee or a sword of her follower's.

By choosing the song, she had chosen to abandon her former life. But before her stood a reminder of her crimes, and her need to atone.

"It's alright..." Alirana said gently, letting her blade fall to the floor. The girl flinched at the sound, covering her ears.

"I won't hurt you..." she continued, unmindful of the crystals that lengthened into blades.

So young...so powerful...

"Alirana." Iljrene warned...

Alirana reached out her hands, as if in an embrace.

"It's alright now. Come here."

Vala snarled again. Her eyes opened wide in recognition.

"Alirana..." Iljrene said again, more forcefully.

Vala tensed, crouched forward, as if to pounce.

Iljrene raised her sword.

But then the girl wavered, confused. Her eyes darted to and fro. The mist about her body lessened.

"Va..." she croaked, her voice strained with lack of use..."Va...laa...?"

"Yes." Alirana replied, moisture forming in the corners of her eyes, "Yes. Vala. Come here."

Oh, Goddess...had she really been out her all this time? Two years...?

Vala's eyes watered as well, the pale, wrinkled bags under them starkly pronounced, like a drunkard or a corpse. She looked in pain.

"Vala?" she asked again, tormented, "Va-la?"

"Yes!" Alirana breathed, advancing a step, "You are safe now. Safe. Take my hand."

Vala backed away, whimpering.

"No, come back. Just let me touch you."

Vala snarled, rose to her feet.

A dart sank into her cheek, just as the crystals again became lengthened blades.

"Iljrene!" Alirana gasped, looking behind her to find her mentor holding a hollow tube. A blowgun.

She turned back, to see Vala collapse, limp. She rushed over, held the girl up.

She was so light...so small...

She still breathed. Alirana exhaled in relief.

"She will awaken in mere hours." Iljrene noted, "We must reach the Promenade with her by then. She needs...help."

Stricken, Alirana nodded, "Two years...in the Wild Underdark...she is but a child."

"A gifted Psion..." Iljrene corrected, "But a child, nonetheless."

"Can you help her?" Alirana pleaded, desperate, and the woman nodded, "We will need to take measures to subdue her, but yes. We will try. We owe it to you, to earn your redemption, as you owe it to her, for the life you have stolen from her. Vala, then...she will awaken to find herself in the company of the Darksong Maidens. Pleasant company indeed."


It stirred, and felt warmth where there should have been none.

What had happened?

It opened its eyes, and found itself covered in furs. Confused, Nobody pushed away, and found the furs to be sheets, not some unknown creature. Under that, It wore a white gown, not the one from before.

It glanced about it; it was in a large room. So large. A high roof, hard angles.

It knew this...this was no cave. It was...

Memory failed it, then...

"Va...la..." It moaned, remembering the first words spoken to it since...

Had that been real?

No. It was imagining. There was only Nobody, the monsters, and the dark.

Growling, but more in confusion than alarm, Nobody noticed a small platter that had been set on a small elevation by the....bed? Was it called a bed?

On the platter was a pile of steaming mushrooms and a dark, viscous fluid.

Mindful of the naturally developing acids in some fungi, Nobody sniffed at it for a time.

Satisfied, it took the plate, and sought a more confined space in which to eat it.


Iljrene entered the girl's room, unlocking it. She did not see her atop the bed, and there was no other furnishing inside.

Crouching, the drow found her under it, gorging on the mushrooms she had left.

She noticed her immediately, and growled.

But no mist or crystal emerged from her body, and the girl paused, puzzled.

"Qilué has sanctified this place in the name of Eilistraee..." Iljrene said slowly in Undercommon, hoping her words were being understood, "No magic, be it wizardly, clerical, or psionic, can occur here without her approval or being cast from a devout follower of the Goddess."

She said nothing, her eyes unblinking.

"In those mushrooms is a potion I have prepared for you." she continued, "It forces deeply buried memories to surface. I am sorry...for while I am certain that there are things you wish forgotten...I know that you would not want to continue to live...like this."

Iljrene sat, cross-legged, returning her gaze, maintaining a distance of five paces. In her left hand, she held a small book, a written record of Eilistraee and Elvish history.

"I am Iljrene, Battlemaster of this sanctuary. I would read to you. I always find reading to soothe the mind as song soothes the spirit."

"..."

"I will tell you of the World Tree..." Iljrene continued, selecting a passage from the chapbook, "Ao the Overlord, from which all gods drew strength, knew that both good and evil existed in our world. In all worlds. Gods both dark and light paid tribute to him, but only the latter had a presence in the Afterlife. For the Hells and the Abyss, the home of Devils and Demons, had long existed then, but for the goodly, there was no place for our souls when we died."

"Corellon Larethian, our creator, and Moradin, the patron of the Dwarves, then mortals like us, begged for a goodly place for the souls of their followers. They pleaded mercy from Ao, and so at the crossroads of all the realms, he planted a seed. As that seed grew, its roots formed little pockets, in which he gave Corellon and Moradin space in which to create a realm suitable for their kin."

"And so they became gods and filled those reaches; Corellon envisioned green fields and great, majestic forests, and created Arvandor. Moradin envisioned lofty halls of flowing mead and the endless strike of hammer against ore, and thus crafted Dwarfhome."

"Centuries and millennia later, the champions of Halflings and Humans also vied for a place on the world tree, and on its lower roots they crafted the Green Fields. The lawful paladin kings among the human realms, then but young city-states, erected The House of the Triad, whereas the greatest of human wizards created Dweormerheart. For each of the goodly races there was a place beneath the World Tree, and for many it was good."

"But all was not well in Arvandor..." Iljrene continued sadly, "For Araushnee the Weaver, goddess of destiny and Corellon's lover, grew jealous and plotted to murder him and usurp control of the Seldarine. In secret, she aided his enemies; Gruumsh and Malar, in an attempt to murder him in cold blood."

"When he learned of her treachery, Corellon drew from Araushnee her beauty, making her a hideous blending of Elf and spider, and banished her and her people from the world tree, even as on Toril the Elves banished the Ssri-tel-quessir into the Underdark, and bound them with the Faerzress. With her, he banished Vhaeraun and Eilistraee, their children, though the latter was an unwitting ally in her rebellion."

"And so the Dark Elves wept, their skin darkening, their eyes burning red with their tears, their hair turning white from fear of the darkness in which they were imprisoned. And so the world unwillingly welcomed the first Drow, the children of Araushnee, then renamed Lloth, condemned to her newly created Demonweb Pits."

"But Eilistraee, in grief of her people's fate and her father's rejection, resisted Lloth, and demands of her followers the will to return, to the surface and to our rightful place in the World Tree."

Iljrene paused, thoughtful, "Through her chosen, Qilué Veladorn, the outcast of Mystra's Seven Sisters, she created the Dark Promenade; the portal from Lloth's darkness to Corellon's light. It is here, in the Promenade, that you stand, child."

Vala said nothing, gave no acknowledgement that she understood her words, but the Dark Elf nodded regardless, "When you come to yourself, I would train you as I have all the lost children we have gathered here. Remember these words, and their meaning to you, for a Half-Elf is still an Elf, a child of Corellon Larethian deserving of a place in the World Tree. Let me tell you more of Arvandor and the realms..."


Nobody lay beneath the bed as the Drow made strange noises, patterns that it could not articulate.

After a time, the female sighed, setting aside the book, and closed her eyes, as if asleep.

Tired itself, Nobody closed its eyes...just a moment.

Just a moment...

...It woke, its head aching. Like it did when its powers awakened, but worse.

It clutched its temples, groaning.

It opened its eyes to see the Drow much closer than before, and only then did it realize it was under the furs again. It thrashed wildly, trying to dislodge them, but the Drow held it firmly, her expression unreadable.

"Remember, Vala." she said, and it occurred to It that It could clearly understand the words. Words. Undercommon. The language of the-

It screamed, terrified, but the Drow of...Eilistraee, held her down.

"You are Vala..." she continued, "Daughter of Gul'tah and former thrall of House Duskryn. You lived in Menzoberranzan, but now you live here."

"Mama?" she asked, remembering a sad face with dark eyes, a weathered brow, and tusks, leaping into the jaws of a monster.

"She was your mother, yes." Iljrene said, nodding, "Remember."

"It..." Vala whimpered, "...It killed the Rothé."

She cried, remembering its squeals as it was torn apart by the Hook Horror, remembering Mama's cries as she was crushed by the Demon. She remembered.

She felt herself pressed against Iljrene, but was not sure if she or the woman had done that. All she knew was that the Drow's silvery gown was soft against her face, moistening with her tears.

She pressed herself against the woman all the tighter, banishing Nobody and accepting Vala, with all the pain and doubt that it brought...

The only other option was to succumb again to the darkness.

She felt it at the edges of her consciousness, set aside but not completely removed. Nonetheless, she laughed as she wept, drawn between joy and terror. Again, she was alive.

Again, she knew to fear the dark, rather than to live with it.


In spite of the potentially dire current events, Iljrene kept several hours apart from her routine to attend to the girl, seeing a potential Darksong Knight in the wayward Psion.

Now that she had reached her, Vala's education continued apace. In just two weeks since she had been carried into the Promenade, she had learned, or perhaps re-learned, to speak, read, and write Elvish, both the surface and Drow variations, as well as Common, the language of Humans.

After basic communication and literacy, they had discussed magical theory, history, and geography.

The Drow had seen, beside dozens of coal sketches littering Vala's room, several sheets of parchment filled with odd verses of poetry, whether copied or newly created, she could not say. The drawings themselves were very intricate, exquisitely detailed. Most were landscapes, and she noticed almost perfect symmetry between the depiction of one particular well-traveled area and her memories thereof.

A quick divination of that spot had confirmed it; Vala had Eidetic Memory, able to almost perfectly recall anything she committed to memorization, though to such an extent as to recall events months prior. Iljrene attributed it to her burgeoning Psionic powers.

Vala was now able to (mostly) suppress her more banal instincts, though Iljrene still noticed an odd hysteria boiling up in moments of intense stress. Activating her powers only made the phenomenon more frequent, so Qilué had allowed only infrequent lessons in Psionics. The girl trained with Elmbeth in those sessions, a resident wizard, in much the same way a new apprentice might be conditioned.

Though she drew power not from spells, but from her own mind, Vala learned a greater level of focus and concentration. Shards of psicrystal, as identified by one of their alchemists, a young Moon Elf male, no longer sprouted from her flesh, only from areas in which she dictated. They became thinner, more finely honed, though they sprouted secondary branches when she began to lose control.

Iljrene was still concerned about this; Vala could enter something akin to a berserker rage, though its symptoms were undoubtedly magical in nature. But she could not control it; she ceased to respond to verbal commands, and seemed unable to speak herself, reverting to base, animalistic noises. It became less and less frequent in the intermittent months, but still present, still something rooted to her essential being.

Attempts to reintroduce the girl to Alirana did not end in positive results. Nearly every instance had provoked a rage, and Iljrene and Qilué herself had been forced to seize and restrain her.

They were forced to keep her far away from the woman, which caused the recruit great distress. She seemed certain that she was responsible for Vala's condition; that her actions which caused the mother's death had provoked the rage those years ago. That if she could just reach the girl, explain all that had happened, it might dissipate indefinitely. She blamed herself for all of it, and for the girl's continued turmoil.

But Qilué had expressly forbidden her from seeing the girl after the last incident. Whether she was correct or not, the confrontation would have to wait.


The days went by more quickly now, now that she had found a routine in her training.

Still, Vala could hardly hide her excitement. The more she learned of Eilistraee from Iljrene, the more she wanted to know.

It felt like Lloth, but not like Lloth. It felt...lighter.

Better.

She wanted to know everything about the Dark Maiden.

She wanted to walk the surface with the Darksong Knights when they danced in the moonlight and hunted Demons.

She wanted to fight the Drow of the Underdark, like Jhuild and Alirana, and she wanted to save those that had a shred of good in them, like Irae.

She wanted to free all the slaves in Menzoberranzan, and Skullport, and all the rest.

After she had come to herself, she had read a great many of Iljrene's books. Seeing a peculiar surface custom detailed within one, Vala had asked for a spot on her forehead and between her eyes to be permanently marked with a small red dot, the representation of the Ajna Chakra, or Third Eye; a symbol of her developing psionics and her broadened awareness.

It was a reminder of the blood that had been spilled in the name of Drow cruelty. A spot that symbolized her mother's blood.

Vala found that she grew stronger with the regular meals; the dark circles under her eyes diminished, then disappeared. She became something more than wiry cartilage. She could breathe without wheezing now that there was no fungi and moisture present in the air, and the minor wounds she had sustained as Nobody had all but healed.

The conditioning and stretches Iljrene had instructed her to practice heightened her reflexes, her balance, and her confidence.

The magic lessons with Elmbeth helped her focus and to keep Nobody at bay.

Since Iljrene was away on business, and could not give another lecture, Vala sparred today with Lady Qilué herself in the weapons hall of the Dark Promenade, so she could become a better fighter. She would need to if she was ever to be given a patrol mission.

The whip sword she had once called on before fleeing into the wilds rested in her hand, light as air.

Rather than using it like a proper blade, Vala had found that she could direct it to attack on its own. It struck like a serpent, coiling and snapping forward, slipping around the shield that the High Priestess used to protect her body. The woman always seemed to evade it regardless, but many watched the spectacle with disbelief as she did. No normal person could withstand her weapon.

But Qilué was not normal; a towering mountain of a Drow, she stood taller than any of her peers, her white hair marked with streaks of silver, her tall, shapely body tightly muscled, but naturally graceful. Though garbed in only a thin white gown, she was possessed of more natural charisma and intimidation that Vala thought she could find in any armored warrior.

Her sword, a fabled Singing Sword, one of twenty magical silver blades provided by Eilistraee herself and wielded by Chosen who patrolled the Pit of Ghaunadaur, hummed as it passed weightlessly through the intricate, delicate patterns in which its wielder wove it.

The sword sang constantly when unsheathed. The blade's song, or so Vala had heard, made its wielder supernaturally confident and immune to illusionary charms.

The sword was unwrapped, naked, for its wielder was too graceful to even land a glancing cut as she defeated Vala's attacks again and again, slapping her with the flat of the blade every time, maneuvering around, under, and over her own magical weapon.

But it was not just a weapon. Vala keenly felt a rudimentary consciousness in its faceted depths, filled with instinct and memory. It lived, in a sense, like an extension of her being.

She tensed, thrusting the blade forward, and Qilué, with her superior height and reach, swatted it aside.

Just like she wanted her to.

Turning its head mid-flight, Vala twisted its later sections to rush backward, to spear the woman from behind. While she had intentionally dulled the sword's dagger tip into a thick, flat pommel with rounded edges, it still hurt.

Qilué leaned forward, as if to swat her with the flat of the blade again, but blinked, confused.

Vala grinned, knowing she at last had her, but impossibly, inconceivably, Qilué actually leaped over the returning end of the sword, propelled upward as if lifted by an invisible hand.

It was too late to redirect her weapon's course.

Vala felt the impact of her own weapon slam into her chest, felt the air pushed from her lungs, and felt herself collapse, insensate, ears ringing.

Moments passed by faster than normal; suddenly Qilué was kneeling over her, hand outstretched, a coy but gentle little smile on her face.

Dazed, Vala nonetheless accepted the hand, and pulled herself to her feet. Her whipblade was nowhere to be found; with her focus broken, it had turned back into mist and disappeared.

"You improvise..." Qilué said, "That is good. A moment's decision can turn the tide of a battle. But you need to think further ahead. If I were a Drow of Lloth, possessed of a House Insignia, I would be able to levitate at will...and your own attack would have ended your life."

"I am sorry, Mistress." Vala replied, abashed.

"Qilué." she corrected, "Or Priestess, if you must. But you are no thrall. Such designations are useless here."

"Of course, M-....emm, Qilué."

"Excellent." the Dark Elf said with a nod, towering over her, "Are you fit to continue?"

"Yes." Vala replied, though she was as tired as she remembered being, clearing the sweat on her face with a brush from her forearm, "But I think I need to meditate. I can feel..."

She could feel a part of herself pushing up from its grave, a reminder of the creature that Iljrene and the other one had found that day.

Qilué nodded, needing no explanation, "Go then, and reflect on what you have learned. We can continue tomorrow."

Vala returned the nod, though she summoned anew her whip-sword. It took about four minutes, and she nearly lost focus again.

She felt the weapon's ill-focused, faint surprise at being dismissed in such an abrupt manner, and a question of if it would be used again. She noted its distant but persistent irritation in being defeated so easily, even by an opponent as renowned as the chosen of Eilistraee, the Dark Maiden.

"You need a name..." Vala decided aloud. It was alive, and it needed the name of a living being.

"What do you think, Qilué?" she asked, looking up to the woman.

She hated having to look up to everybody...

"I agree." the Drow replied, still smiling, though Vala now glimpsed the fatigue in it. Was Qilué tired too? Did Chosen get tired?

"What to call it, though?" Vala wondered, considering its finely honed surface. No longer a mere pale crystal, its surface had slowly tinted blue the more Vala used it, like the color of her eyes. She wondered if a little of herself was rubbing off on it; if it was gaining aspects of her own personality.

"You look an awful lot like ice..." She thought aloud, remembering the odd sensation she felt as she touched a lump of ice brought down from the surface, where it had then rested atop a frozen lake, "Your name should reflect that. And the mist that comes from you, and that you come from, is cold to the touch. And you take life, like every weapon does, even if you are beautiful..."

It came to her, from an obscure language she had read about in Iljrene's books.

"You are Toshisha!" Vala declared, "The death that one finds in the coldest reaches of the world!"

Qilué nodded, "Indeed, it is a fine name. And a fine weapon. No priestess of Lloth could ever wield such a formidable and elegant whip, for it is crafted by your own hand and shaped by your own nature."

Beaming with approval, Vala dismissed Toshisha, and bowed low, surprised still that the Drow here returned the gesture with equal sincerity. It felt odd, but welcome.


Having said her good-byes to Qilué, who was needed elsewhere, Vala had meditated for a time, recovering her strength, banishing Nobody back into the place she had prepared for it.

Hours had passed, though they hardly felt like hours, and she had eaten her meal alone, before returning to her room.

And there she found someone she had not thought about all day, staring at her through moist eyes.

"Hello, Vala..." Alirana Srune'Lett said quietly.

Though she had not intended to, Vala felt herself scowl.

"We need to talk." the woman persisted, but she did not come any closer. She would not.

"Do we?" Vala asked, "I thought we talked plenty already. I will not forget what you did to my mother."

"I would not ask you to-"

"Yes, you would!" she snapped, burying Nobody as it again reached up from her, "By expecting me to tolerate your presence here. Is it not enough you killed her? Now you ask me to defile my memory of her by letting you walk freely through my life?"

Alirana's expression became distant, pained.

"I do not expect you to forgive me. But I wish that...oh, how do I explain the years that have passed? How do I explain what I have become? What I have ceased to be? I can never settle the debt between us...and I bear that as my punishment for what I have done, and for all the other things that I, as the spoiled child of Srune'Lett, committed in my life."

She averted her eyes, "It feels like another life. I remember the decades I spent under my mother, learning what it was to be Drow. How all the world, and everything in it, existed to suit our whims, or should be made to. I remember tormenting my brothers, because I could, because Mother preened as I did, congratulating my efforts. How right they said it was. How right I came to think it to be...how wrong I have come to know it was now. All of the lives that ended with Lloth's smiling approval..."

She shivered, held her arms to herself, "I felt and feel the weight of every one of those lives, the guilt of the horrible, unforgivable crimes I have committed. I wept in the arms of my captors, as for the first time in my life I had felt, truly felt, the truth of my actions. The light of Eilistraee had revealed to me where Lloth's darkness had concealed. I wanted, I needed, I need, to cleanse myself in it. In that pain. In that revelation."

Calming, Alirana exhaled, and ran a hand over the deep scar across her face and her throat, "The mark you left me I have kept, all this time, though Iljrene or any other of the priestesses could heal it. Even though I could heal it now. It reminds me of what I have cast aside, of the person that I let die with the rest of her family's caravan."

"I will not shed this scar until I ease your burden." she continued, "I cannot return your mother to life...but I wish for there to be peace between us. I wish you to become one of us, for you are an innocent and a truer child of Eilistraee than I am."

"Please..." she begged, "If you cannot forget, than forgive. Fight with me as a sister, and as a warrior of Eilistraee. Let me shield you, guide you, and, if need be, die for you. Let me atone, let me absolve. Let me earn that forgiveness. Please..."

The Drow warrior, once her tormentor and now...something else, pleaded, offering an embrace.

In her, Vala saw another. It looked like Qilué, but not Qilué.

A Drow that was not Drow.

Vala knew that by embracing one, she would embrace the other.

Absolve, and be absolved. Free...and be free.

The temptation was strong, so strong.

Since she had come to this place, she had envied the Dark Elves here, not feared them. To commune with a Goddess of Light, to become a priestess.

She needed not commit murder. She needed not do anything physical. There was no pact to be entered, nor contract to be struck. Their faith was different...it existed internally, not externally.

How she wanted to feel as they did, become as they were.

All she had to do...was forgive.

Tears threatened, but she pushed them away too.

The pain, the loss, the hopelessness, of watching her mother die returned to her. It steeled her, renewed her determination. The anger returned tenfold. Alirana saw it, knew the answer.

"I...I cannot. I am sorry."

Alirana deflated, averting her eyes.

"Leave me be." Vala continued, looking away, hardening herself, pushing Nobody and Lloth and Eilistraee away, "If you wish to offer something to me, offer me this. Go away. I do not want to look at you."

She heard, if not saw, the door open and close once more, and was again alone with her thoughts.

Alone, as she had always been alone.

Alone, as she hated above all else being.

Alone.


Iljrene sat with her guest in an isolated chamber in the lowest reaches of the Promenade, near where Qilué and her sisters had sealed the avatar of the foul god Ghaunadaur. She had offered every hospitality, from wine, tea, and food, to a fine cushion on which to sit, though this visitor, appearing tangible enough, was only a projection from its original caster, a form of telepathic illusion that had been permitted to pass through the normally impenetrable barriers placed upon the temple by Eilistraee herself.

Still, the detail was so extraordinary, that Iljrene herself would have believed the illusion to be real, a dangerous proposition, for believing in powerful illusions generally made them real.

The male, the Drow, eyed her with a carefully neutral expression as she in turn studied him, gauging his reactions to her words.

"You understand that it is not normally our policy to invite Bregan D'aerthe here, in our home..." she explained, "...You can understand, then, the necessity of this request."

"And that would be?" Kimmuriel Oblodra asked, arching a pale eyebrow curiously, "I have pressing matters below."

"There is a young Psion that is in the process of developing her powers." she replied, surrendering that information in a straightforward manner, more to unnerve the male than anything else.

It did; Kimmuriel, like all Underdark Drow, generally expected the parry-and-riposte style of conversation common in house intrigue, and was flummoxed by directness.

"I see..." he replied, "I assume she shows potential. Some Human or Faerie would hardly be worth my time."

Iljrene allowed him that comment, replying with a sly grin, "She is an Oblodra. Her ability and natural talent, of course, would be indicative of your own."

It was a wager; Drow Psions were incredibly rare; House Oblodra had supplied the vast, vast majority of that small number. The likelihood that she was of Oblodra blood was extremely high. Orc Psions were completely unheard of, in this age or any other.

He bristled at that, shifting uncomfortably, though it was only a reflection of his gesture, which he performed on another surface than the cushion over which his projection hovered.

"House Oblodra is no more." he said grimly, but not without a hint of pique, "Is she full blood?"

A noble house required a female to serve as Matron Mother. No doubt, restoring his family would be of interest to him....if only to subdue it under Bregan D'aerthe. She disabused him of the notion, "Nay. Half-Orc, Half-Drow. The Drow side is much stronger, but she is young. Sentimental. We will compensate you well in tutoring her."

He looked doubtful, and Iljrene played her hand, "We know about Lloth's silence. We know about the Scourged Legion. We know also Bregan D'aerthe's reticence in entering the conflict, and its concern that its home in the Clawrift may be...less than ideal, given recent events in the city."

"If this is another offer to join you in The Night Above..." Kimmuriel said dryly, "You can save it. We would sooner side with the priests of Vhaeraun than submit ourselves once more to the dominion of a goddess, particularly yours."

"We accept that." Iljrene replied, "For now. We offer you gold, enough to compensate you for your time, and neutral contacts in Skullport. They can arrange safe haven, should Bregan D'aerthe need it, and opportunity for work."

"I am sure that Jarlaxle can excuse your absence..." she concluded with a hint of sarcasm, again offering the mercenary vital information without cost. So used to the highly insular nature of Menzoberranzan and the Underdark in general, Dark Elves like Kimmuriel often forgot the surface presence of their distant kin in the followers of Eilistraee, and the fact that their leader, Qilué, was a chosen of both Eilistraee and Mystra, the goddess of magic.

As a Theurge, Qilué had her ways of discovering pertinent information.

The Promenade knew of the feud in Calimport, the attainment of Charon's Claw, and the presence and possible destruction of Crenshinibon, the sentient Crystal Shard. The Promenade knew of the disaster that had nearly befallen the male-led mercenaries, the powerful magic they had expended. That it was in fact Kimmuriel, not Jarlaxle, that currently led Bregan D'aethre.

That Jarlaxle Baenre was currently wandering the surface world, far from events as they were.

She was acknowledging the gravity of their request, for Kimmuriel was also perhaps the only Psion in the mercenary band, and was certainly the only Psion they could call upon without resorting to much more desperate measures.

But she was also acknowledging that Bregan D'aerthe, one of the Promenade's enemies, was in a state of flux that they could easily capitalize on, and that Eilistraee's faithful had no immediate intention of pressing the attack.

Honesty was the quickest, if not most convenient, method to upset negotiations and force a verdict.

"A sum of ten thousand." the male capitulated, his normally impassive demeanor noticeably flustered, "I will tutor the child in a neutral location in the Underdark. You may observe, but I do not want any-"

He paused, reconsidered the term he was to use. Likely, he correctly thought "Heretic Priestesses" was too radical.

"- associates of the Dark Maiden within eyeshot. Bregan D'aerthe will likewise keep its distance."

"That will be acceptable, if not ideal." Iljrene conceded, "But if the girl is harmed, know that you will surely perish. We do not abandon our own, nor fail to avenge them. You know this already."

Another key difference between Eilistraee and Lloth is that her followers, while far less in number, knew a greater level of cohesion, even loyalty, than any Matron Mother could ever force upon her subjects. Each sister was family, and any foolish enough to attack a sister when under the conditions of parley brought the entire sisterhood down on their heads.

Heads that were swiftly parted by silver blades.

Kimmuriel nodded, disinterested, "I will attempt no mischief on this Half-breed. There would be no gain for myself or Bregan D'aerthe. And in truth...I am curious to learn of this Psion that you are taking such great measures to train. She must show considerable potential."

Seeing the raw, wild energy that Vala had called upon while she was no more than twelve years of age, Iljrene only nodded.

She failed to mention, lest he renege on his word, that in order to unlock her power, Kimmuriel would also have to contend with Vala's hidden demons. That in order to train her, he would have to save her first.

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