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Embers of Black - Chapter Eleven

Patrick Braddock
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Overcoming her surprised quickly, Naestra asked, "Who are you?" She knew the reputation of the drow and had even dealt with one or two during some of her darker moments in the Alliance. They were bloodthirsty, vicious warriors who raiding anyone who wasn't drow and killed anyone who was that wasn't an ally. Friends were unknown and love was reviled.

The dark elf woman whispered, "I am Anluriel Shandraeya, a follower of Eilistraee, the Dark Maiden."

"Eilistraee?" So far as the she knew, all drow worshipped Lolth, the Spider Queen that had brought the dark elves to their fall from grace millennia before.

Anluriel smiled. "You have nothing to fear from us. Come, let our healer see to you, as well." The drow woman stood, extending her hand to Naestra.

The assassin hesitating a moment before sheathing her knives, taking the proferred hand. Letting the dark elf draw her to her feet, she fell in step with the woman, the two of them heading towards the healer.

In the soft radiance of the glowing ball of light, Naestra looked to the sprawled forms of her companions. Her count showed only three. Frowning, she caught sight of Ashera, who was trying weakly to sit up. Corenne was being treated by the drow priestess and Illandra was moaning softly, showing signs of coming back to consciousness.

"Where's Ix?" she asked.

The drow beside her drew her brow together in a delicate furrow. "Who?"

"A man, another of our companions. He was wearing a red cloak, black armor. I don't see him and I didn't see those creatures carry him off�"

Turning, the dark elf signed something to one of the other dark elves that had taken up a position in a circle, guarding the group. The other elf slipping into the shadows outside the circle of dim light cast by the glowing orb.

"My scouts will look to see if he is near and bring him to us," Anluriel explained.

The drow cleric stood, her fine features drawn and tight. She said something to Anluriel in a language Naestra couldn't make out.

"She says she has done all she can, for now," the leader explained. "Two of your companions are able to walk and the third will need to be carried. If you wish, we can take you with us."

"Thank you." She thought for a moment. "While we walk, perhaps you can tell me what is going on."

The dark elf nodded. "Yes, that I can do. Come. Let us go."

Holding up for a moment, the assassin cast one last look around. "What about Ix?"

"If he is out there, my scouts will find him. Do not worry, if there is anything to be done, we will do it." Anluriel took her elbow, guiding her gently towards the south, away from the road. "Let us go before those creatures come back."

Nodding, Naestra fell in step with the drow woman. Her mind turned over the past few moments. Who are these dark elves and why are they helping us? And who is Eilistraee? Her thoughts changed. And what happened to that man? Ix? Did he run out on us and leave us to those creatures? Or did they take him with them somehow?

As they travelled, Naestra studied the group. Illandra and Ashera were both keeping up, though occasionally one of the drow would have to lend them a hand. Corenne was slung unceremoniously over the shoulder of one of the larger dark elves, her legs dangling in front and her head bouncing in back. All of Anluriel's group seemed to be females, which fit in with what the assassin knew of drow culture. Women held the power and men were little more than breeding stock. This pushed more than a few males to leave their Underdark dwellings and head out on their own, as adventurers or mercenaries or brigands.

She also studied the drow beside her as they walked. Anluriel was the fine features of her elven heritage, her skin the color of deepest night. Her silver hair shone in the moonlight and was pulled back in a simple tail much like the assassin's own. She knew little enough about how drow aged and for all she knew, the drow beside her could be an adolescent of five decades or a mature woman of five centuries.

The scenery changed little over the next few hours, the plains surrounded them were relentlessly empty of anything save for the occasional piles of rocks or snowbank. They had strayed far from the only road, which connected Develor to Gemyn's Rest. Both towns were still too new to have any major roadways linking them to the rest of the world. Develor had sprung up as a haven for adventuring parties that scoured the glacier for relics of ancient empires. The success of a few had brought more seekers, causing an avalanche as more and more people came, and then the people to support the first group, and so on and so on.

Food had been brought in overland from Icewind Dale to supplement the little that was grown in Develor's own sparse fields; other supplies had to be brought over the Spine of the World, a costly process, as both the distance was long and the perils were many.

Which makes this whole region a wonderful staging ground to start an empire of beasts already accustomed to its harsh way of life, she thought, her mind remembering the orcish marauders.

The night wore on and exhaustion began to creep up on Naestra. She saw that Illandra and Ashera both were stumbling along, barely able to stand beside the supporting arms of the drow beside them.

"How much farther is it?" she asked Anluriel softly.

Instead of answering, the dark elf simply pointed at a rough mound of rocks. As they approached, the assassin saw that there was a narrow opening among the rocks, leading back into darkness.

"Take my hand," Anluriel murmured quietly. Naestra took the drow's hand, holding tight as she was led into the darkness.

In the cave, there was no light at all, and the only sound came from the whisper-soft tread of boots on stone. With nothing to do and nothing to hold onto save the hand of the dark elf in front of her, Naestra began counting her steps.

Long minutes stretched on, and the assassin gave up her count at two hundred paces, because of the long distance covered and the startling amount of sharp turns and winding paths. Still they moved onward into the black.

As it seemed like the darkness was swallow them all, it suddenly winked out, and Naestra found herself blinking in a large cavern that held a phosphorescent glow. Looking around, she saw that the entire group, some dozen or so dark elves and herself and her four remaning companions, stood in the center of the cavern. Its ceiling soared high, a hundred feet about the worn stone of the floor. The walls were perhaps twice that length apart, with one side of the cavern holding a sparkling pool fed by a tumbling waterfall and the other holding an opening to the tunnel that they must have come through.

The dark elves used magic to blind us as they led us here, the assassin reasoned. But why? What do they have to fear from us?

There was movement off to her left, and Naestra saw that Ashera and Illandra were being led to a patch of stone that had what looked to be sleeping mats stretched out. The elf carrying Corenne had already depositing her unconscious load onto one of the mats.

"You may join your friends and sleep, if you wish," Anluriel said softly, having caught the subject of Naestra's gaze. "Or you may explore the cavern." She paused a moment. "There are, however, two places you may not go." She pointed towards the opening that the assassin had figured for their entrance point. "That leads up to the surface, yet to go up there may be to risk discovery by those creatures which attacked you, if they are still looking. The other place you may not go is there." She pointed again, to a small cave entrance near the pool. "We have a patient that was pulled from the brink of death and needs to recover before venturing out again."

The assassin nodded mutely, her eyes taking in everything, memorizing it for any possible extreme, whether defending against orcs or those shadow creatures or having to fight her way free of the drow.

"If it is alright with you, I think I'll join my comrades," she said quietly.

The drow woman smiled. "Of course. I'll have food and drink brought to you, if you wish it." Naestra nodded, already turning towards her companions and the promise of a few hours' sleep.

When she awoke some hours later, Naestra kept her eyes closed, listening intently for any sounds nearby. Nothing came to her ears save for the soft burbling of the waterfall that fed the pool.

Slowly, she opened her eyes, looking around the area. Her three companions were all nearby, still asleep. Turning her head a bit more, she saw the dark elves stretched out on the opposite side of the cavern, sleeping save for a single sentry who's attention was focused on the exit.

Rising, the assassin worked the kinks out of her back, stretching and making enough movement that the sentry saw her. When she saw the drow look in her direction, she nodded towards her then casually turned and strolled towards the pool. Up close, she saw that the pool was clear as crystal and deepened gradually, so that the bottom was only a dozen feet down at its deepest point.

Checking surreptitiously to make sure the sentry could see her, she unbuckled her belt, folding it and arranging her series of pouches and sheathes on the ground. Next, she worked her way out of her leathers, stacking them in a neat pile. She sat down, pulling off her boots and setting them beside her leathers. Standing back up, she slipping out of her dark shirt, letting it fall in a heap, adding her pants as well. She stretched for a moment, clad only in her thin shift before finally lifting that over her head and adding that to the pile of her clothes.

Naked, she approached the edge of the pool, untying the strap of rawhide that held her hair back, tossing it aside. Carefully, she tested the water with her toes and found that it was cool but not cold.

She waded out into the water, moving further and further away from the shore. When the water finally reached halfway up her chest, she turned and saw that she was half a dozen yards from the edge.

Taking a deep breath, Naestra fell forward, slipping under the surface. The cool water invigorated her, stealing away the last vestiges of fatigue and weakness from the fight the night before. She bobbed back up, rolling over onto her back and floating serenly on the water.

For nearly a half hour, she remaing motionless there, letting the water carry her body and her mind away, losing herself in a moment of pure relaxation. Finally, with a soft sigh, she righted herself, swimming towards the shore until she could put her feet down and walk more easily.

Reaching her pile of clothes, she slipped a small bar of lavender soap from a pouch at her belt, turning and heading back towards the water. Wading back in, she began slowly and methodically washing her skin and her hair, scrubbing away the dirt and grime of days on the plains, as well as soot and ashes from the ruins of Develor.

Finishing her bathing, she returns the soap to its place and once more swam out into the pool. She had been floating there for just a handful of minutes when she saw the sentry's attention to her again. Roughly fifteen minutes between checks. Good.

When the dark elf turned back to the cave entrance, Naestra took a deep breath and slipped under the water, swimming under the surface. She held her breath until it felt like her lungs were going to pop, but still she swam onward. Finally, she surfaced, gasping for breath. Good, she though. A bend in the cavern wall blocked her from the line of sight of the sentry. She had about ten minutes of safe time to find out who this mysterious patient was.

Making her way along the cavern wall, she left the pool, creeping towards the small cave, keeping to the shadows to prevent her from being easily seen. She reached the dark entrance with a good five minutes to explore.

She had worried about there being light, but now the assassin saw that the end of the tunnel was lit with a flickering radiance, probably a torch or larger flame. Silently, she crept along the passageway, easing towards the open doorway and the room at the end.

Finally, she reached a point that she could see around the wooden door jamb and into the room. There was indeed a fire flickering in a chiseled section on the far wall, its light showing a small writing desk holding a few sheets of parchment and a couple books. On the wall opposite the desk was a cot that was empty, though the rumpled blankets showed that someone had been sleeping there recently.

With only a few safe minutes left, the assassin began backing up, but bumped against something solid and unmoving. Blinking in surprised, she straightened, about to turn around and explain herself to whoever it was when a pair of strong arms wrapped around her from behind, holding her in a crushing grip.


Embers of Black - Chapter 11 © Patrick Braddock

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