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

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Chapter 9 and Epilogue

(18th of Eleint, 1376 Dalereckoning)

After fleeing the outpost, in tears that frosted to her cheeks, Vala found herself near the outskirts of Silverymoon, the magical city of Alustriel, the quasi-divine Human sister to Qilué. It had taken some backtracking, forcing her to skirt the Silver Marches, but she had approached from the east, and slid through the walls in ectoplasm form, bunking for that terrible first night alone on the surface in a great tower with open portals for walls and a peculiar metal device hanging by a thick rope.

She had learned its purpose that morning, nearly toppling from its peak in terror as it bombarded her with deafening waves of sound.

She was able to mask her appearance through telepathy and the thick bundled clothing she wore over her mottled tunic and leggings, arranging for food and dominating a teamster to vouch for her to accompany a merchant caravan as a guard.

Though she did well to hide, Humans and Faerie Elves often looked sidelong to her, frowning in consternation at her light, steady gait; too graceful to be Human in a land where Drow sightings were not uncommon.

As these two days waiting for the caravan passed, Vala found plenty of time to consider her next moves.

She was not willing to return to the Underdark. Even if Kimmuriel was willing to admit her into Bregan D'aerthe, she could not perform the tasks he would ask of her as a Drow mercenary. It was not in her, not then.

The thought of returning to the Promenade and accepting whatever judgment Qilué would bestow was tempting; Vala had no way to know if the woman would order her execution.

But that too was unacceptable; she could not forget or ignore her hatred towards Alirana.

Always, always, would she remember Qilué and Iljrene and the others that had showed her kindness, but she was not one of them. She did not belong.

She kept hidden, like a criminal; always she had been warned of the hatred that the other races felt toward the Drow, and her Orcish features would not endear them to her either.

There could be no life here, either. Her only chance would be to find a place far from anywhere other Drow might live; as a curiosity and not a threat she could make her way in a surface town. With her power and cunning, she would make her way.

It was all she had at that moment.

In order to survive the grief in her heart over the second loss of her world, she strode forward. There was nothing else she could do other than give in to despair and perish.

In the end, she did board the rearmost wagon in a caravan of four, headed south and guarded by six dark-skinned Human sellswords with common livery; an organized force. She heard them call themselves the Flaming Fist, part of a large band that used to operate out of Baldur's Gate, tasked with destroying those who committed acts of evil.

She assumed they would kill her on sight if she revealed herself, so she kept her distance all the while, eating and sleeping alone several paces outside of the encampment. Two or three times she had heard someone approach her in the dark, and each time she evaded them. It was not terribly difficult. To her, attuned to the slightest noise, flat-footed Humans were easy to pick out even against the confusing wind and birdsong.

Once she had been given food from their stores; dried pork, which had reminded her so much of the vile, evil stew of House Duskryn that she had purged herself in the bushes and declined any further nourishment.

She had found some edible nuts and berries growing from the trees, and that had been enough. She had the training and the experience to survive almost indefinitely in the harsh terrain, let alone accompanied.

Winter was in full, though the ground was only frosted, not covered in what Iljrene had called snow. By the time they reached Waterdeep, which never knew snow, Vala thought she might stop shivering.

She was thankful for her insulating disguise; accustomed to the constantly neutral temperature of the Underdark, these changing seasons had greatly disturbed and unsteadied her, and she had yet to experience the full bite of winter cold.

It might become an issue, however, for as the temperature rose the farther south one traveled, the cloak might become a little too much. She was equally unschooled in situations of extreme heat, save short-term proximity to one of the forges in House Duskryn.

She spoke little, though on one occasion, she had joined the other guards, Toshisha in hand, as they had skirted an area notorious for marauding bands of Gnolls. The Humans became more uncomfortable around her after seeing her psicrystal sword, and the way in which she could summon and dismiss it at will, now in under a two-count, but did not comment. That was good.

Weeks passed, as her unwitting transport briefly stopped to trade and resupply in Everlund, then Yartar, Tribor, and finally making its final stop in Waterdeep.

The irony...Vala realized...was that in escaping the coven of Eilistraee, she had arrived on the spot almost directly above the Promenade itself!

Her misgivings mattered little compared to the sight before her as they rolled down a steep hill, offering a magnificent view of the lands below.

There was land, reaching up to the city itself....and beyond that...

She perceived a distance unimaginable, marking each end of the horizon.

Beyond Waterdeep was eternity, the fading sun painting this endlessness, this infinity, in blinding red and gold that burned itself, physically and metaphysically, into her eyes.

"What is this?" she gasped, her eyes watering, unwilling to believe that what she saw was anything but the edge of the world. It was a lake, but a lake beyond anything she had ever believed possible. Her eyes could not see its end, could not even envision it had an end.

"The Sword Coast." Luk, one of the Flaming Fist guards, said beside her, having taken that opportunity to slip past her defenses without her noticing, "You have never seen the ocean?"

She shook her head, then realized the futility of the gesture in such a heavy cloak.

"No." she replied, "What is an ocean?"

Turning away, lest she permanently damage her sight, even in spite of the ectoplasm she created to form a shadowy cloud before her eyes and face, Vala studied the Human intently beneath her scarf and hood, seeing his puzzled frown, though he would only see impenetrable shadow.

"Like a lake, but bigger." he replied, "How have you not heard of-"

"I lived far to the east." Vala replied hastily, which was technically true, "There was a word, yes...but a mere word..."

She looked back, though with more caution now, "A word alone cannot account for this."

"In the...east, you said." the Human added as she turned away, chuckling, "Straight east or a little...down."

Vala sucked in air, and exhaled it slowly.

"I am certain I don't know what-"

"Never you mind lass, never you mind." he added, retracting his statement but making her very certain he had already found his answer as he did, "Enjoy your visit to the City of Splendors...maybe lose the cloak, eh?"

Vala found herself nodding, though she had no intention to stay, so close to Undermountain and her connections with her people. She decided she would continue south...much further south...

Qilué Veladorn learned of the disaster in the High Forest, and lamented the loss of her new sister as much the destruction of their outpost and the slaughter of its inhabitants. Vala had nearly accepted Eilistraee's communion, had so nearly forgotten her Underdark heritage. In spite of everything, the Chosen allowed herself a moment to grieve.

"Go, then, our wayward little sister." she said quietly, "Learn what you will of the surface and its ways. Find peace, and a new life, as the Dark Maiden wishes of every Drow. If you learn forgiveness, and let go your past hatreds, we will welcome you anew with open arms. Until then, farewell..."

She watched with a great sadness as Waterdeep, her last chance to renege and return to the Promenade, became nothing more than a tiny dark splotch on the morning horizon behind her, the sea spray wetting her cloak even as the wind threatened to tear it away completely. All about her, roughly clad Humans maintained the great mast of their caravel, a behemoth of wood, iron, and canvas sails, the latter vaguely rectangular in shape. They sang, jested, and cursed, with an openness that nearly sent her into the lower decks with reddened cheeks.

Gradually, the sun rose to its full glory, casting such intense light that she could only perceive a distance of roughly a bowshot before everything became obscured by a painful white haze. What she could see, however, featured color so rich that it likewise became painful to observe. But she endured. She would not be able to depict this scene with coal alone.

Maybe she would try to paint it sometime...

The captain, an elderly Human male with noticeable streaks of grey in his beard, attended the tiller; a thick wooden wheel with eight protrusions that could be grasped like handles, smiling like an uncouth youth as he surveyed his crew, laughing at their sport and even adding a few lewd jests of his own, tipping his great plumed hat in deference.

He was a curious sort to look at; fine linen clothing, a heavy, battle-worn cutlass, and yet there was such an aura of casualness about him that Vala had nearly considered being straightforward with him about her identity when booking passage with most of her coin. Almost...and even then only after carefully studying him for signs of latent illusions or enchantments. He had watched her curiously as his vessel, "Shallow's End" had raised anchor and set down the Sword Coast towards the sea of sands known as Calimshan, but after some time, it seemed he had forgotten her entirely.

That was good, because now that the crew was too preoccupied, Vala could appreciate this strange, terrifying feeling of weightlessness as Shallow's End crested a wave and plummeted down, nearly lifting her from her feet as gravity seemed to invert.

Though none could tell, her smile was wide indeed, for never had she felt so alive.

How this ocean spoke to her! How it sang its joy as the land could not!

Their vessel, while formidable, was but an insignificant speck when measured against this ocean's unfathomable size. With but an unfortunate stroke of luck, they could capsize, and be lost forever to the mysteries of its shadowed depths!

Her hands gripped the railing, and she laughed as she had never before as they once again struck down, sending a flurry of airborne water across the deck to the melody of the Human's bawdy uproars.

Though she knew not the words, she hummed in tune as they began to sing again, unmindful of the fact that they were singing about a...less than reputable female with unfortunate carnal tendencies...


Alirana woke to pain, but she would not succumb again. She could not.

She needed to wake up.

Startling, opening her eyes, she found herself atop a surgeon's table, the tangible weight of thousands of tons of rock overhead.

Iljrene was there, as was a young female Moon Elf, who was replacing the bandages about her midsection.

She tried not to look. Vala's strike had not been a clean one.

They gave her a little water to drink, and she tried not to gag on it. When the fit cleared, she dared to speak, gently, lest she strain her wound.

"Where is she?" Alirana asked quietly, to which the Battlemistress shook her head, "She is sent away, beyond our grasp. Our Harper associates spotted her, disguised, of course, in Waterdeep, but they said she took a ship further south."

Oh no...

"This is my fault..." Alirana moaned, licking her parched lips, "I set her against that...that thing. She wasn't ready, and her demons caught up with her."

"Nay." Iljrene replied calmly, though her eyes displayed her grief as her voice did not, "They were with her all along. I hope she finds a way to defeat them, wherever she has gone."

"Elmbeth was not able to track her by divination." she continued, eyes averted to the side, "Her psionic defenses repel such intrusive magic. Were it not for the Harpers, we would have no idea which way she went, or even if she is still alive. She acts wisely, I think. And I have hope."

"Why is that?" Alirana asked, though she suspected the answer.

"She chooses a life on the surface." Iljrene replied, "She could have sought out Kimmuriel, and we would have been powerless to stop her. She could have retreated into the Underdark and embraced her bestial aspects...but she did not. She is obviously not seeking a secluded cave in the wilderness, otherwise, she would not have traveled such a great distance. She seeks a civilization, a home, among the surface dwellers. Somewhere she would be accepted."

"I hope she finds it." Alirana said, "Or that she returns here. This was to be her home, and a fine one it is. I have already forgiven her. I hope the others will as well."

A few days of smooth sailing greeted the merry men of "Shallow's End".

Captain Sevren kept their course true, subtly angling them out of the shallows where they had dropped anchor for the night, skirting the major trade route that connected north to south; Neverwinter and Luskan to the north, Baldur's Gate, the Moonshaes, and around Wealdath, which jutted out from the bottom of Amn like a thrusting rapier, to Memnon, to the south. From there, it was east to Calimport, and further east to Almraiven, the City of Spells, and thus the last bastion of civilization for hundreds of leagues until one crept north and east enough to skirt the Vihorn Reach and further to Cormyr and Sembia.

One could also go west, Sevren supposed, to Chult, but why in the hells would a man want to do that unless he was mad or in search of the kind of sport that would either reward you with fame and riches or swallow you up and leave you in a tidy brown pile by the shores?

He chuckled at that image, lest it make him shudder instead.

The wind was good today. Hours passed, the sun fully rising to their flank as they moved south, slowly angling in front as they gradually altered course. He had timed this so the sun would be at its apex when they fully faced due south-east as they angled around the Nelanther Isles, so they would not be blinded by it. And as evening came, the sun would set in the west, almost at their backs, and then they would have an easy course with the strength of the tides speeding them further on to Calimshan's first port city.

The night shift of the crew would remain awake to man the ship, for these were dangerous waters and he liked to pass through them as fast as can be. He always paid them well for this, knowing they could sleep it off come morning, when the rest would take over fresh.

Their only passenger stood on deck, watching the sea go by.

She must have been on such voyages before, he figured, since she had offered nothing to Umberlee's waves in the first days, like most lubbers did.

Yet she seemed to know nothing of the nautical terms he offhandedly mentioned about their course, their cargo, or anything else, just nodding politely until he stopped speaking.

She had also failed to offer due courtesy by dining with him, as the ranking officer, on the first evening, as she likely would with their last.

And not once had she doffed that damned cloak! She was a fugitive, likely, though it was none of his business. All sorts of folks got themselves in trouble, even the good sorts once and a while.

He shrugged; she would be out of their hair in due time. She had asked to go as far down as they would. Well, Almraiven was as far as they would go. What she did there was her business.

"Cap'n!" his first mate shouted from the crow's nest, "Two ships back and off the port bow!"

He turned, cursing, locking the tiller in place as he drew a telescopic spyglass, a fine gift from the Gondsmen of Waterdeep and one of a matching pair, the other of which resided with the first mate.

There would have been no other way to see them, so far were they still.

But indeed there were two vessels approaching from the rear, coming at breakneck speed.

Caravels, like his own, but smaller, sleeker, meant for speed rather than cargo capacity.

Squinting, he tried to make their colors, to no avail. They swam with blank sails.

It would have been enough if they traveled gradually; this was a heavily trafficked route, and even the smaller ships could get good pay off of the right cargo.

He could excuse one travelling in such close proximity and at such speeds as a messenger ship, no more, but two approaching with this level of precision meant one thing.

Pirates, likely hidden in Firedrake Bay to the east, waiting for a hefty target to lumber on by.

With the Starspire mountains to the south, he could not safely dock, and the nearest safe port was many leagues away yet.

The scoundrels had them caught dead in the water!

The crew shifted uneasily, but there was a hardness in their eyes. This was a merchant vessel, but she never went forward unprepared!

"Up and at em, lads!" Sevren shouted above the din, "It looks like they're lookin' for a fight!"

He considered their odd passenger out of the corner of his eye...and wondered if this attack wasn't a coincidence...

He passed a glance to his first mate, before ordering him to attend the quarter deck. The mongrels were close enough now that the crow's nest was more a hazard than a boon.

And they might have an enemy far closer than the rest.

The Humans readied themselves quickly, drawing cutlasses and boarding axes, though a few belted their steel and drew bows instead. Two manned a ballistae on the port side, and another two on starboard. Like a giant crossbow, the ballistae would hurl massive spears at an enemy ship, tangling its rigging, killing a few of its crew, or hopefully even puncturing the hull, forcing its crew to divert attention as their ship took on water.

At least, that was what she had read in the Promenade's library some time ago.

Vala, for her part, loosened her cloak, though it still concealed her features, and summoned Toshisha, testing its heft, though it most often swung itself.

A few crewmen shared wary glances at the casual display, but the captain only laughed, "Looks like we have a free ship mage! Good to know! Let loose a fireball or two and let us be done with it!"

"I am not that kind of magic user!" she testily replied back in her own voice, then, "But we will see, won't we?"

She walked up the steps leading to the tiller, hand on the railing for support as one of the crewmen manned it. He eyed her with naked suspicion.

The enemy ships banked around Shallow's End, cutting off its avenues of retreat. They would rush from either side and attempt to pin it with their own ballistae spears, overwhelming the crew with an extreme show of force to compensate for their smaller numbers.

Vala had an idea on how to slow them.

"Do you see a mage?" she asked the captain and first mate, each of which were eyeing one of the ships with a small device with glass lenses.

"Nay, lass." Sevren replied, "Buy they don't wear skirts like them Waterdeep lords. They'll be hidden, and we won't be able to tell them apart until they start casting."

Nodding, for the reasoning was sound, Vala nonetheless noticed the tightness of the Human's back. The way his other hand inched towards his cutlass.

The first mate drew in a sharp intake of breath, and that was all the warning Vala needed before they rushed her.

Shifting to ectoplasm form, Sevren's cutlass sliced across her belly just as the first mate's boarding axe would have split her brow. Instead, it buried itself into the mizzenmast post behind her, and Sevren, hopelessly overbalanced, stumbled forward, his outstretched hand swiping through her body and denying something to grab hold to.

She could have skewered him on Toshisha's edge. She almost did, but raised her hands in surrender instead.

"I am not your enemy, Sevren."

"You came just afore the pirates." the first mate hissed through his yellowed teeth, "I'm to bettin' your the ship mage we can't see o'er on their ships.

Sighing, Vala slipped off her cloak, and both of them recoiled at the sight.

The crew took notice of the altercation, and advanced to the quarterdeck, steel in hand.

"I said I am not your enemy." she replied again, squinting in the daylight, "I will handle the ship mages, if any there are. I will handle the ballistae. Just keep this tub afloat, yes?"

"I'll not fight alongside a damned Drow!" the first mate snarled, a second axe in hand.

"Half." Vala corrected, nearly forced to cover her eyes entirely, "And it doesn't look like you have a choice. I cannot trust your attackers to carry me the rest of my journey, and likewise, I cannot walk over water or travel magically for more than a bowshot or two. You, in turn, my very likely perish at their hands, especially if they carry magic users, as most seasoned raiders do. It would seem like we need each other."

"Give us the word, captain, and we'll skewer the wretch!" one of the deckhands said, the words emboldening his fellows.

Vala summoned a cloud of ectoplasm about her body, which formed into over a dozen dagger-sized shards of psicrystal. The remainder of the cloud coalesced into a frigid mist that clung to her clothing, giving it the consistency of plate armor.

"You can try..." she replied coolly, "I can always just force the pirates to ferry me. They will fall in line if I kill enough of them."

The supreme confidence she emanated, if hardly the match to what she actually felt, left the Humans teetering uncertainly.

The captain cursed, for in the moments of bickering, the pirates had almost completely closed the distance. Vala found herself able to distinguish individual faces even in the glaring light of the sun. She noted an abundance of rotten, yellow teeth, scarred, swarthy, leathery skin, and bared swords.

"You're a hard negotiator, Drow." Sevren said with a grunt, "Back to stations, lads! You-" he snapped, motioning to the man on the tiller, "See them coming in hard from the flanks. Angle the ship, so they don't spear us with their nose!"

Having educated herself with the practices of surface-dwellers, Vala nodded at the captain's logic, as she noted a long, angular protrusion with a rounded tip on the fronts of both of the ships, obviously designed for battle, judging by the three ballistae on each side of their narrow decks. The protrusion, a battering ram of sorts, indeed slightly resembled a nose.

Likely, the pirates planned to strike the Shallow's End from either side, damaging its hull, before the ballistae and the boarding crew even reached it.

Everything happened at once.

The navigator spun the tiller, making the vessel nearly perpendicular with the enemy ships just as they closed distance. Instead of splitting the hull, they glanced off of it, the impact toppling many of the crewmen. Vala had shifted to ectoplasm form, and was thus unmoved.

First, they rammed the target vessel. Then, as the distance increased between the three vessels, the pirates would fire ballistae and ready boarding ladders as a small force swung on lines from the mainsail rigging. She had read of this at length, for naval combat was indeed something a Darksong Maiden trained for, for Skullport, the center of trade in the Underdark, had always been a potential target.

The ballistae fired, their hooked ends trailing great lengths of thick rope.

Vala focused her psionic power into six shards of Psicrystal positioned above the ship, their tips thick and flat, and thrust each downward, swatting the ballistae downward and into the water.

The crewmen on the other ships exchanged wary glances. They had not expected Sevren's ship to have a mage, likely. Vala walked casually about the deck, and the sight of a Dark Elf unnerved them further.

They recovered quickly. Crossbow bolts peppered the deck, and Sevren's longbow-men returned fire. Many bolts were directed at her, but knowing the crew were behind her, she conjured a sheet of tangible ectoplasm that absorbed the projectiles, its texture akin to thick molasses but pale green and shimmering.

Not content to merely defend, Vala hardened the barrier, rooting it in place, before retaliating with a hail of crystal shards. She felt, but did not hear, them deflect against something other than flesh.

A gout of flamed detonated at her feet, but struck only her ectoplasm form, passing through without harming her.

Several men beside her were not so lucky.

"I will kill you for that!" she snarled, her eyes scanning in front and behind for the enemy wizard.

Levitating above the barrier, still impervious to physical harm, Vala noted the wizard, his perfect teeth revealing his identity better than any flowing robes. Another, a dark-eyed female, his apprentice, perhaps, waved a talisman in a mystic pass, and the two pillars of stone she had erected from below deck came alive, revealing arms and misshapen, overlarge heads with jutting brows and glowing eyes.

Elementals. The apprentice was a conjurer, and the master was an evoker. The male placed his hand together, before weaving them into a series of mystic passes.

Vala descended, levitating down into the ship, thinking.

A cursory examination revealed his and his apprentice's mind to be protected from telepathic attack with a series of barriers, akin to the Tower of Iron Will. He was a Psion as much as a wizard, albeit likely an unschooled one.

Vala found that the crew, their sheer numbers making it difficult to focus on one in particular, were not so protected.

It was a hunch; pirates were cowards, after all. She had wagered that the captain would be on the same vessel as his magical support; the vessel she was facing.

She found him in a twenty count, ignoring but not unmindful of the screams of Sevren's men as they were pushed towards the quarter deck.

The Human's mind was intricate; the man was intelligent, cunning. Ruthless. She entered it without resistance, for he was unschooled in the invisible art, but soon wished that she had not.

Memories of his committed atrocities repeated over and over again as she studied him, learning the weaknesses in his psyche that she could exploit.

She found what she needed, and much more. Immediately asserting control over his body, all the while permanently severing the connections between body and mind, and mind and spirit. Vala killed the Human and animated his corpse in a temporary, rudimentary fashion, causing it to lunge towards the spell casters.

Though the creature's blank eyes, Vala saw that almost the entire crew of the enemy vessel was aboard the Shallow's end, massacring Sevren's men, who, forced to the upper levels of the ship, were bombarded by crossbows while a front guard boxed them in.

She noted this only offhandedly as the corpse flung itself into the wizard, impaling him on the end of a blade just as his apprentice stared back, her eyes wide as coins.

"TRAITOR!" Vala snarled through the captain's lips, causing his crew to glance back warily as one of the female's earth elementals plowed into him.

Her connection to the body dissipated as it began the initial stages of decomposition; as blood ceased to flow to the brain, making it inert.

Nodding grimly, Vala levitated back onto deck, a cloud of tenebrous mist clinging to her flesh. Humans shivered, their skin gooseflesh, as they recoiled from her presence, buying Sevren and the others time to organize. As one, they advanced down the steps, their steel biting deeply into pirate flesh.

Vala saw the apprentice likewise fall to the blades of those stationed on the vessel. She cut the rope bridges connecting Shallow's End to it with conjured blades of psicrystal, and the vessel began to drift away. Cut off from their ship, the pirates fought with greater ferocity, while their fellows from the ship behind her circled her.

Swords passed through her body without harm, but she felt her powers waning.

There was not much time left. Already she felt the rage gnawing at her. Her perception of time began to distort. Moments slowed, or sped without warning. Suddenly Sevren was nearly upon her, clutching at a deep wound in his thigh, even as his first mate doubled over, into the arms of an enemy, who pushed him to the mainmast and completed the impalement, the basket hilt of the curving sword brushing the man's belly.

Vala groaned, clutching her temples, seeing her hands coat in psicrystal that manifested outside of her conscious will. She felt her mindscape begin to fray, the barriers separating her from the creature of the Underdark wavering. Tears formed in the corners of her eyes.

"Do something!" Sevren snapped, and turning, her body awash in heat, Vala succumbed to the rage.

Sevren knew something was wrong. The Dark Elf screamed; a manic, bestial wail. His men and the pirates alike turned to her nervously, battle forgotten, as her tiny body began to sprout thick, jagged spines. Mist flowed from her pores. Her eyes burned blue.

She screamed again, and men around her, pirate or no, began to clutch their heads, blood seeping from their eyes.

"Kill you..." the girl snarled, her own eyes weeping blood, "KILL YOU!"

She charged forward, impaling a pirate with her outstretched hand, from which emerged a thrusting spear. It snapped in two, just as she circled around him, backhanding him with a fist covered in the same material, sending him sprawling, his head twisted at an unnatural angle.

Seeing the captain and the wizards dead, the pirates behind the girl retreated to their ship. Those in front, cut off from escape, charged into her. Where before they passed through, now they struck an armored hide, a hide from which grew more blades that thrust into their bodies.

There was no defense. In moments their numbers were halved. His own men fired arrows into their backs as they stumbled, crawled, and whimpered their way to the other ship, which was even then detaching from Shallow's End and retreating.

The girl nearly leapt onto that deck, and apparently judging the widening gap as too far to jump or levitate, she snarled, pacing, before striking down the survivors, even those that simply lay and moaned.

His crew cheered at their victory, until her wild eyes turned upon them.

The mirth died in an instant.

She took a step towards them. Another. Her eyes were blank.

"Ease, lass..." Sevren said calmly, evenly, setting down his blade and raising his hands in a gesture of surrender, "You saved my ship, and so it is yours. I will carry you to Almraiven, as we agreed. No questions."

The girl growled, as if the words did not register.

"Lower your weapons!" he ordered his men, unable to keep the fear out of his voice. He knew of warriors who went berserk in battle, by aid of potions or without. The Gutbuster Dwarves of Mithral Hall, the warriors of Rasheman, and special Orcs that called upon a fragment of One-Eyed Gruumsh.

He knew that, often as not, they could distinguish friend from foe, or, failing that, generally ignored noncombatants.

The girl reached him. She lifted her hand, trailing mist.

The crew tensed.

She blinked, confused. Her hand wavered.

"Ease, lass." he repeated, "I am not your enemy. We are not your enemy."

She blinked again, before her face took on the most horrified, revolted expression he had ever seen.

She fell to all fours, cradling her head. The spines fell away, breaking apart into mist. They left holes in her clothing.

He started as he realized she was sobbing.

"Berg." he snapped, addressing the ship navigator, "Bring this tub around. The rest of you, tighten the rigging and toss these whoresons to Umberlee. We will bury our dead, not theirs."

"Are you alright, lass?" he asked, minding his leg as he knelt down.

She nodded, downcast, "It has passed. Sometimes I can direct it, but I cannot control it. I..."

She shook her head, blinking heavily through dark-lidded eyes, "I must be alone for a time."

He nodded, helping her to her feet. It occurred to him now how small she was. How young she appeared; no more than tendays older than his own daughter. With the fair folk it was hard to tell...but...

She noticed his wound, "I can heal that."

"Nay." he replied, "I'll patch it up. Might need you if anyone who needs it...though it seems most that needed it have already passed."

He spared a last, mournful look at his first mate, a distant nephew, before sighing, "Aye then. Go get you some rest. We press onward to Memnon."


(16th of Marpenoth, 1376 Dalereckoning)

Two more days passed, but Vala hardly noticed, sequestered as she was in the lower decks. The captain had relinquished the use of his bed, a straw mattress, claiming to prefer the net hammock to hold up his wounded leg.

But she knew from his thoughts that he had done so in order to offer her some needed privacy, and for that she was very grateful.

She spent that time meditating, again separating the feral, raging aspects of her mind from the whole. So close to her fouler nature, she felt soiled. Again, she questioned her decision to leave the Promenade, for Eilistraee's light and the relative peace among her following had kept the darkness at bay as her own concentration could not.

Despite everything, she was nonetheless emboldened; she had repelled her berserker rage on her own. Sevren had undoubtedly helped, but she had done it! Perhaps...perhaps with time, she would rein in the impulses for good...

They docked twice, the first longer than the second. Sevren had said he was paying for a temple devoted to Tyr to store and prepare the bodies of the dead crewmen. "Shallow's End" would run its course, and return to Memnon to collect them for transport to their families situated along the Sword Coast.

On the third port, Vala sighed, collected her things, donned her cloak, and walked up to the deck.

The sailors eyed her warily as she stepped outside, but some also nodded in deference.

The captain hailed her as she advanced to the quarter deck, the coast stretched to either side.

It seemed like a second ocean, almost. A sea of golden sands swept up by gusts of wind battered rounded sandstone buildings, built low to the ground, as well as fat, bark-less trees with long pointed leaves. Colorful curtains and pennants were abundant, as were merchant stalls. Even from so far away, she could smell salt, leather, and cinnamon, an odd combination to be sure.

They dropped anchor along a small pier on the edges of the city's docks, which were crammed with fat merchant vessels and could not accommodate their passage. The lines of dockworkers unloading creates and hauling them up to one of two massive warehouses formed a labyrinth thicker and more erratic than the greatest of spider webs. The din of activity was deafening.

A Human approached them from the pier, eyeing the deep gouges in the hull, before offering a salute and shouting something in a tongue she did not understand.

The captain, in turn, replied in the same language, then nodded to her, "Amnian is the main language here, but most also know common. Stay by the docks and you should have no trouble."

He frowned, "You could stay. We are always looking for new blood. The men would not take offense, as you have fought beside us already."

Interesting. To Humans, like Eilistraee's Drow, battle forged a bond between survivors.

She believed him, but shook her head, storing that pertinent information for another time, "Truly, though, I thank you."

"It's nothing, lass." he said as his men offered a gangplank for the visitor, "You should not get off here, I tell you truly. Tis' a foul place, a treacherous place. The Vicelords rule the city, as even old King Ahriman does not. Powerful wizards, one and all of 'em. From them, the gold flows, and where the gold flows, people fight o'er it."

"Vicelords?" Vala asked, "Like the Pashas of Calimport?"

"The very sort." he replied, "They trade in flesh and precious stones, mostly, but one or two also dabble in enchanted goods and relics. They run the streets, from the battlemasters to the common footpads. Those that interfere in any way, they end up in the water. For good."

"Sounds like the city of my birth." Vala replied dismissively, "A place ruled by intrigue and magic and greed. It will be nothing to which I am unfamiliar. I will make my way here."

"Well enough." Sevren acknowledged, "But know one thing; don't cross the Vicelords. Do what you have to, to get ahead. Never show a weakness, and stay alert. Always. This place has spat out the remains of far stronger than you."

Offering the Human a bow, and in it a final gesture of gratitude, Vala stepped off the ship as the harbormaster exchanged words with the captain, setting off on perhaps the final leg of her journey for a new home...

To be continued

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