Author’s Notes: This story is erotic fantasy written by Etaski. I reserve the right to be listed as the author of this story, wherever it is posted. If found posted anywhere except Literotica.com with this note attached, this story is posted without my permission. © Etaski 2013
This chapter begins a new book and a new storyline for established characters with a lot of history. It is not recommended as a starting point for the casual reader.
The story begins with “Sisterhood” and “Subterrane” on my author page, and follows through “Sufferance.”
“Surfacing” picks up right where “Sufferance” left off.
For those who’ve been following the story so far, welcome back. I hope you enjoy.
“Knowing ourselves is the weakest of walls. It breaks often and we rebuild often. The blind pretend it was never broken.”
“So how does one know what may cross over to stay, before the wall is rebuilt?”
“Only when we face it on the other side…”
—Conversation between an Illithid and a Drow in reverie
Jael’s scent about drove me crazy as I waited tensely for that first sunrise on the Surface, the one I knew would happen behind the clouds.
Our Elder had just forced her to take the Feldeu against the cave wall, and Jael even in her anxiety—or perhaps because of it—had climaxed from the rough sex. I could grant that Rausery had indeed managed to calm our youngest Red Sister—she was now too tired and sore to continue pacing and fidgeting as she had been. She sat next to me to my right, and Gaelan sat next to her. To choose between witnessing what I’d heard so much about and taking Rausery’s lesson and work out incredible tension and anxiety with my Sisters…well, it was too late to do both at this point.
We had already planted our heavy packs on a formed rock shelf farther back in the tunnel and high above our heads; it kept them out of reach from most creatures that would steal or do unwitting damage to the supplies.
I had placed my burden last then slipped the three guardian spiders given to me by D’Shea from my belt and into a loose pocket on the pack. I had focused hard on them as I’d practiced, giving them the simple command to “stay,” and deemed it successful when they settled down and went utterly still.
The three other Red Sisters had all seen the spiders attack Wilsira in the throne room almost two weeks ago, and I’d told Rausery about them being gifted to me by D’Shea on our journey upward. Only Jael was surprised to see them in my possession, but they all agreed that the creatures had no other use now than to serve me, perhaps through the next year if they did not get crushed.
We also agreed that I would get my pack first before the others, just in case. I did have two emergency anti-venoms in reserve, though I had seen no aggressive behavior from them toward a Red Sister so far. Nonetheless, I wished them tucked and secured while I contemplated the outside.
I sat closest to the exit, to this portal where soft grey light lay in a confined spotlight and slowly gathered strength as the stone and pebbles grew stark in their contrast. My first day on the Surface would have the Sky covered in a thick layer of grey cloud; the rain had stopped and started heavy and loud again, lightened, then paused, quieted, as the grey light gradually became more intense.
My own excitement at the constant change remained high and Jael’s perspiration and well-fucked scent didn’t help, especially as I had to close my eyes more and more often against the heightening dawn.
Even being told that I would not see the Sun that morning, I soon had to rely on my other senses; on sound and scent, touch and taste. Tears welled and escaped to roll down my cheeks despite my attempt at endurance, and the stabbing pain of punished and overloaded nerves began to torture me behind my eyes. I’d long since closed them by the time the grey light spread far beyond the intensity of the candle chamber, but still it seeped through my eyelids and my head throbbed in regular pulses.
“Just wait, my virgins,” Elder Rausery murmured from nearby with a definite smirk to her tone. “You haven’t felt anything yet.”
Until then we had maintained silence through the night, signing if we needed to speak as we could still see in the dark. It was obvious that we would be required to speak to communicate now, however, and Rausery had spoken in the Surface Trade tongue—an obvious sign that we were to do the same.
“What this first day?” I murmured, forgetting half my lessons then.
“‘What will we do this first day, Elder,’” she corrected sternly, and I repeated the complete sentence with a nod.
“Mostly you sit and contemplate this brightness until you become tired. If you are smart, you will retreat into darkness enough to sleep until sunset. Then at night we will go out to hunt for food. I will teach you this land’s resources.”
Jael and Gaelan made some sound as they shifted next to me so I knew they were listening, too. I could look forward to nighttime, though I would have to wear myself out further to sleep.
I brushed Jael as I quietly gained my feet and followed the wall by feel the very short way to the open portal; I could smell when the moisture coated the rocks and felt when moving air, or rather, when a breeze moved and lifted my cloak briefly as I came out from behind that shield of stone. I paused, eyes still closed and dripping tears, and pulled up my hood to block more of the light. It helped a bit, though I had to keep my face pointed down and still failed to open my eyes for longer than an instant.
In that instant I saw only grey, damp stone at my feet.
I heard Rausery stepping out with me, keeping pace and maybe listening for more than I knew to be aware, and Jael and Gaelan shifted behind as well. I still tasted water in the air, though not in heavy drops like before but more as if suspended in mist.
Even as I was not familiar with what had to be the spicy scent of the trees, I did not dislike it, and with another whiff I could detect the scent of decomposition underneath it—that scent of organic things breaking down and mushrooms and molds overtaking and creating a new resource, something all in the Underdark could recognize. I could even say it was more so here than down there, since the organic growth here had to be so far beyond our plantations as to seem limitless. From what Shyntre had said, the growth was mostly not tended; it was self-perpetuating and sustainable.
Someone touched my arm and I tensed, but then Jael murmured in the trade language, “Here are you.”
Rausery must have decided it was safe, because she chuckled. “That is ‘There you are,’ Jael. Repeat it.”
“Anyone wish to go farther?”
“Can you see, Elder?” Gaelan asked, and I could hear the physical discomfort thick in her voice.
“Not yet. But I know this place well. I don’t need to see.”
I took another step, and Rausery accepted that as volunteering; she took firm hold of my braids and pushed me forward. My heart began pounding immediately and it seemed I had lost connection with anything familiar somewhere behind me, that I had been set adrift. The ground dropped at a steep decline—something I could expect from the view I had last night, but it was still startling to take it blindly at this rate. I realized that sound did not bounce back to me or work quite the same with no ceiling over my head. I felt more than a little disoriented.
At the first stone to slip beneath my boot, I swallowed the panic and paid much more attention to my sense of balance and what my other senses were trying to tell me. I winced at the way the stones continued to fall, turning end over end and clacking against other rocks until I heard a few thumps before they came to rest.
“Noisy,” Rausery commented, and kept pushing me forward.
Yes, well, we were going much faster than I would have thought wise for being sightless on this slope. She was doing it on purpose.
I evened out only as I used at least three points of contact to find my way, and I managed to keep pace with Rausery as she dragged me down that rock slide. My cloak snagged on things I couldn’t see and damp rocks and pebbles slipped and bounced away from my feet. We continued to make an incredible amount of noise and I wondered that Rausery would even tolerate it—until I realized we weren’t the only ones making a racket.
“What is crying?” I asked, eyes still tightly closed.
“Birds,” she answered aloud. “A good sign. The storm is passing. They reclaim their territory with song every day of fair weather.”
*What short memories,* I thought first.
Then thought again.
Our sentries did the same every cycle and perhaps it would not do to let one’s guard be lax here as well. If a bird left and territory came open, surely another would grab it, as happened in the Underdark all the time. Alien as this place may be, Shyntre had taught me that there were many parallels following the same rules of survival if one only kept her mind open to it.
“Birds make bursts of noise in sudden attacks, but also know if the birds fall silent you may take it as a sign they sense a storm, a quake, or are hiding from a predator,” Rausery said as we skidded farther down. “Including some two-footed creatures.”
“Yes, Elder,” I said, feeling cool moisture begin to pass through my gloves from how often I needed to touch the stones. “They do not hide from us?”
“We make too much noise or are too visible to be a threat. They are above us and know where we are at all times.”
I could sense when the ground leveled off at last and I stayed in a partial crouch as Rausery stood up straight. She still had hold of my braids and pulled me to standing and toward something; I could sense an obstruction somehow and put out my hands out to prevent running into it face first.
As soon as I touched it, Rausery let me go and stepped back. I felt something hard, rough, and…almost round like stone but it was not. I smelled a thick, pungent life-sent coming from it, an individual source for what I had known was the smell of the wet forest as a whole.
“Tree,” I identified, still speaking the Surface tongue.
“Correct. Long pine, if you note the scent. It is unique. Open your eyes.”
My Elder gave me a generous amount of time to do so, but my eyes continued to water and I was gritting my teeth against the strain. I could not hold out for long, but I was able to at least to see a blurred layer of browned needles and flat, mulch leaves on a rocky outcrop partway down the mountain from our cave.
At first Rausery seemed to be gone, though I could still sense her somehow, and I tried looking up the rockslide but didn’t see her immediately, not seeing very far before the light forced me to close my eyes again.
Still no noise on her part; she was waiting for something. Again I recognized how the stone did not envelope me to help recycle the sound or the heat; all that information was quickly swept away by the endless open air. In addition, the birds made it impossible to hear my Elder’s breathing. I truly did not know where she was, yet there was the certainty, the gut-instinct that she was nearby watching me. I would have to use my eyes to find her; there was no other way.
Gathering my strength, I forced open my eyes again. I finally made out her shape crouched down a few trees over from me. My sight remained blurred and my head pounded but I kept looking where I knew she was. Eventually I realized the grey light and foliage made a slightly dappled pattern beneath the forest canopy, very like the mottled pattern of her cloak and hood. The pattern broke the visual outline of her form far better than my pure black cloak did. I stared a moment but then, feeling my tears thickening again, closed my eyes tight.
If it was like this now, what would it be like when the clouds left to leave the Sun bare and gold in the Sky?
I heard Rausery stand up and approach me with a light step. “What did you see, Sirana?”
I hesitated only in that I was not sure of the word I wanted to use. “Hide in daylight, Elder.”
“Yes. It is called camouflage. That, combined with stillness, does far more here than in the Underdark. Surface creatures use it the same way we use Darkness or bending energy to obscure our outline, but requires no magic. Camouflage.”
I nodded my understanding. “Cam…ouflage.”
“Good. One task later will be to mottle your cloak. Now, make it back to the cave on your own.”
She started moving quickly above me, my ears telling me plainly which direction she had gone—but I hadn’t thought that was the direction I’d come down. How could I be sure, though? I didn’t sense the deep pulse of the earth here and I couldn’t be certain of my direction with the Sun hidden behind clouds, never mind that I could not open my eyes.
I wasn’t too far away, though, and all I had to do was climb up the incline by feel. If I was climbing down, I could be sure it was the wrong way. Rausery would remain quiet but Jael and Gaelan might move to lure me their way.
I made less noise climbing back up, trying to separate out the soft step of a Red Sister from the flap and chirp and whistle of the morning birds. Eventually I made it back to the ledge and the cave mouth, and Rausery next dragged Gaelan down the mountain as soon as I was near Jael.
The youngest Sister touched my face, startling me as she next found my mouth with her lips the moment after that. The kiss was pleasant, and it did provide a focus for the tension and sensory bombardment of standing aboveground. I responded, pressing my lips back, though I never stopped hearing the birds even as we lingered and calmed each other a bit.
“Familiar,” she murmured with a smile in her voice.
She used the Surface tongue even when Rausery wasn’t present to hear it. Good self-discipline, plus I knew what she meant: at least a kiss was the same both under the Sky and beneath the ground. How did that strike me….?
“Poet,” I teased, and she turned to shoulder me in the chest to show her irritation.
She thought of all “scribblers” the same way: if they couldn’t stand up to her in a fight, she had no patience for finding their other strengths. If I hadn’t been there studying with her, eventually she would have pushed Shyntre hard enough that he no doubt would have knocked her on her ass with a force spell.
Maybe I should have let that happen. That same talent of his had certainly gotten my attention.
“I taste tears,” she said, and it sounded like she licked her lips.
“Am… in pain.”
“Yes. How long will pain…?”
“I know not.”
Elder Rausery had returned about then and spoke fairly loud in answer, startling both of us more from the suddenness of it. “It will always hurt, virgins. Some twenty or thirty sunrises to learn to tolerate it, unless you are weak, then it will be months. But the pain never fades. You adapt and accept new pain.”
She took Jael into the forest next, and Gaelan eventually found her way back to me. My Sister breathed quickly having finished her climb back up, though it was not due to pure physical tiredness, I thought. She felt as disoriented as Jael and I. I took Jael’s idea and gave Gaelan a kiss with our eyes still closed; as it had been for me, there was a focusing effect and relief of some anxiety. It was better than nothing.
The Elder was right; it never stopped hurting that morning and we had to retreat much farther back into the cave well before midday, exhausted from enduring the light even that long. My Sisters and I had no trouble falling into reverie for the rest of the time the Sun travelled across the Sky.
That first morning I had forgotten for a few marks…or rather, a few hours…that I was pregnant. Neither of my Sisters knew, and Elder Rausery didn’t know, so there was no underlying reminder in their own behavior as there had been with my Elder and my Lead before I’d left on this mission. Meanwhile, I had been so overwhelmed with everything else surrounding me upon finally reaching the Surface that…I’d forgotten.
Likewise, I’d forgotten my three beasties until it was time to capture a few insects from deeper within the cave with which to feed them. They remained on guard above my head, above my Sisters’ heads, as we lay down.
The moment I slipped into an exhausted rest between Jael and Gaelan, however, my dreams kindly recalled or warped certain recent events for me, should I dare attempt to let my pregnancy slip from my thoughts for an entire day. For all the trouble I’d been, for all I’d cost my allies and my enemies alike, the least I could do was be ever aware of the perpetual growth inside me.
On the nature of the a dream-terror I had…it was one where I’d taken Curgia’s place, not only to be bred by a fully mature and demonic Kerse on an altar, but next held in the Valsharess’s dungeon to await the birthing, the results expected to be many times worse than what my late sister had done. I waited in doomed dread, knowing ahead of time that the baby was to be given as a grandson to Wilsira, and I would be given to Auranka the Drider Mistress, if I was still breathing after the birth.
I lunged out of the terror just before I saw that birth. I considered the horrifying and bloody images to be the equivalent of being struck repeatedly with a giant club carved with a message on the side: “LUCKY PAWN. BEST REGARDS, LOLTH.”
Yes, it could have been a lot worse, and I’d been lucky in many ways. As many who had been using me in their plans, none had worked out quite how they wanted…except perhaps the Valsharess? How long before I could act upon others instead of always being acted upon?
I supposed, unless I wanted only to provide another piece to the big game, I must find a way to manage it within two years, though it would get harder the longer it took. If I somehow remained lucky for that bit longer, maybe it would take about the same amount of time to get in better position as it had to get so deeply into the game in the first place.
I didn’t have high hopes, though; D’Shea herself had taken two years to fall in pretty deep….and more than two hundred to climb back out, even as her position and power changed.
My breathing still seemed loud in my ears as I felt bare, dry fingers reach over to brush the sweat on my brow. I hadn’t made any vocal sounds, but no doubt my breath had become very irregular prior to coming awake, my racing heart audible in the dark. Gaelan was awake and aware of me. I could see the outline of her hands and the calm energy about her.
She signed, *Bad dreams still?*
I signed an affirmative.
*Rituals, like before?*
I sighed softly and signed the affirmative again.
Kerse’s ritual this time, not Lelinahdara’s like before. However, like Lolth’s Threshold, I knew this would be a long time fading, if it ever did. My recollection of the agony and pleasure and power trapped in that psychic loop—mindless and surging in an endless spell—would see to it that I never underestimated rituals of any sort. Not if I was smart.
The two rituals had a lot in common with each other except that, unlike the first one, Kerse’s hadn’t been only magic affecting me. A large part of it had also been the psionic, stubborn, dwarven side inside of me, trying so desperately to stay sane in the maelstrom of chaos.
What had the Illithid called me? A “thrall fully aware”? That felt right now that I thought about it, well after the fact. Maybe Kain was the only reason my sense of self hadn’t splintered into countless shards or dissolved entirely into Kerse, as close as we had been bound. Maybe Auslan had helped put me back together with his sacred healing. I felt different in some ways even if I couldn’t define how or judge which events had caused the changes, but I was also willing to consider the many ways by which I could have been lost and never come back at all.
Lucky, indeed, and I wondered now that I did not credit my survival entirely to my own will and intelligence and desire. I would have, once upon a time, but now…everything had seemed so far beyond my control once Wilsira had gone insane and dragged me down into that pit. Really, how was it possible that I’d even managed to recognize my name as I’d stood naked and lethe in the Consort’s room, let alone manage to function as well as I did through the crises that ultimately led me here on the Surface?
Gaelan touched my face again and signed, *Hey. You are alive. You are still with us.*
I almost reacted in defense or blithe sarcasm—I didn’t want her to pity me or think me weak—but I remembered where we were, on what we were about to embark, and how both she and Jael were here because of me… I found I could respond differently.
*Thank you,* I signed. *I am glad to be alive, and with my Sisters.*
I heard Gaelan’s lips draw back from her teeth before I glanced over to confirm she was smiling. She turned on her side facing me and laid her head on her arm, shifting closer.
*You’re welcome. Return to reverie, Sirana,* she signed.
We each drew in a breath and let it out slowly, ready to do just that, though I spent a few more quiet moments thinking about Auslan. I believed that he had been that last one to say that to me, before now. *Return to reverie.*
My hand slid down to rest low on my abdomen.
Now I had to go forward, but with the acceptance that my continued survival, and that of my child, truly did depend on me…up until the point that it didn’t.
Life was so much fun that way.
I wished I could remember whether sex with the Consort had been different or unique at all. Perhaps it hadn’t been; I could wager that I might even know more variety than him, having lived with the Sisterhood for two years. What else could he have tried that others couldn’t? Just the fertility magic itself, I thought.
That magic, though…I was convinced that was what had pushed me to offer to come back for him. Otherwise it hadn’t made any sense for me to say. I was a Red Sister; I could never choose a consort or a sire to be exclusive to me. I wouldn’t have the time to protect and support him, and it made both of us vulnerable, both of us targets of reprisal. I wouldn’t be able to keep him in any reasonable way, even if I completed my mission and returned as I promised.
Much like my pregnancy, if I somehow made it full term, I had no idea what would happen next. I had to try to plan something, though, for both sire and offspring before the time came. If the time came. And if I didn’t fail, it was likely I would have to plan it alone.
Later the three of us received a kick in the ass as a wake-up call. Elder Rausery then strode past us and said aloud into the tunnel, “The Sun has set.”
She had tossed the words casually over her shoulder and kept walking; she wasn’t stopping to wait. We scrambled to get up and quickly situate the couple of weapons which were not conducive to damage-free sleep, and I called my guardian spiders to me. They were quick and leaped down from the ledge to cling to my bracers as I moved after Gaelan and Jael; eventually they would make it into their home pouch on my belt on their own.
Passing through the Surface portal this third time and beneath a clear night Sky was stunning. The Moons had not yet arisen and I could note for certain that the Western direction was to my right as the bare smudge of reddish-purple light faded far into the horizon. The darkest part of the Sky would be East, and…the Stars provided the best kind of light thus far for our eyes.
The mountainous forest, which had been soaking wet the previous night and nothing but smells and sound during the day, was clear and in stark relief. At first I was unsure if my eyes were not in fact seeing the energy waves of dark vision to see so clearly, but no…this landscape was outlined not as if I was seeing pure energy, but instead as dark blue shades and silvery shadows highlighting every tree branch and stone. The light was far less harsh than a candle, yet there were more points of light than I could count above my head, some brighter, some faint or barely there. It was definitely the color spectrum in which I saw everything at night.
I had never seen this before. Light without fire to hand. Light without blinding flares, surges, or bursts. Just a constant, gentle trickle from above.
No. Not above. Shyntre had said it was “out.” Away, not up. Those Stars were only too far out to be as punishing as the Sun was up close. I had tried to imagine a limitless cavern over my head once in the library, but knew that was wrong because something still remained over my head. To actually see this river of Stars now, to know the space between them was so vast, and somewhere out there was the Abyss, where Kerse had been trying to reach with his wings…
How could it even be? Why was it here? How could he get from here to there? Or his sire from there back to here?
…where had we come from?
Wilsira had said to the Valsharess in the audience chamber, talking about the alliance with the Abyss: “before we came here.” Before we settled in what would become the City ruled by our queen, I had assumed.
But what about the Underdark itself? We weren’t the oldest race down there, we knew that in general—but we were strong enough to have displaced things to make our own small world. Our map designs and the very fact that we were literate in our magic only in light confirmed that we had gone underground from the Surface, not the other way around. So how long had our pale cousins been up here? Where on the Surface did we come from? Was it all from the same place and we had spread out from there?
Or had some of us come from somewhere else entirely?
Watching the Sky now I was unable to fully grasp my instinctive response to it; it was like a silent song deep in my mind, deep in my chest that I knew was still there… I wondered more about our racial hatred for our Surface cousins, as I’d only begun to do. I wondered about our distrust and enjoyment in taking advantage of their weaknesses.
I recalled Jaunda’s story about violating the blonde trespasser and, after finishing, throwing her back like a fish carcass. Closer to her home, with a chance to make it back to warn others. Unlike the others, who’d all died.
Shyntre had said there weren’t many Surface elves in this area, as a whole they avoided it as a place that Drow been known to surface from time to time. They hid from us elsewhere, seceded this part of the Surface where we did not even live, and it might be decades between visits for us. They would not even try to defend it, though it looked to have resources enough.
Why were they like that? Nothing so weak could hope to prosper on this exposed, ever-changing landscape, could it?
I wished Jaunda had questioned the blonde elf, at least asked her why she had come down so far as to be on the very borders of the Underdark. What had made the risk to her worth the trying? Just like us, where we stood now: we had a reason to be here, one deemed worth the risk or not, but we were not welcome and we knew that. I would expect no better treatment being captured up here than the blonde had received at our hands.
Rausery had gone back to signing. *The Moons will rise one after another and may be in the Sky together. This will hurt your eyes as well but is easier to adjust because it is less intense. Remember, you are not looking at the source but an indirect reflection. The light is still from the Sun.*
We nodded but remained silent. I noticed only now that it seemed even a bit warmer just as the Sun had set, compared to just before the Sun was about to rise, even if the Sky was just as dark. I blinked away the distraction and focused again on Rausery’s hands.
*We start with basics, putting into practice what you’ve learned in scrolls. How to find water, plants known to be edible in this season, and we will try to track game. We will practice building shelters and getting to know what you may have at hand to burn if you need fire. We are at the very end of Winter, and though Spring will come soon this is the most sparse time for food. We want to supplement our rations. Come full spring and summer there will be more abundance though your rations will be gone unless you make more.*
*Yes, Elder,* we signed.
*You will learn how to do this both at night and at day,* she signed, staring hard at us. *There will be no ‘night-only’ activity. Before I leave, we will practice combat in all lighting, dusk and dawn especially where it can get tricky for day creatures. Expect irregular rest. The weather and conditions will determine your training and I will call it as I see it best.*
*Yes, Elder,* we said again.
*Then lets us begin.*
Our cloaks tripped us up more than anything else during our run the first night. Every snag on tree limb or bush broke the tough pace Rausery had first set, made unwelcome noise, and earned proper excuses for the occasional signed or slapped humiliation at the hands of our demanding Elder.
Personally, I enjoyed how creative she would get in some of her lingual insults, even though my ears stung just as much as my Sisters’. It was as though the seven-century Drow was rejuvenated to a much younger year as she slipped through the Surface’s night forest with astonishing silence and dexterity…held back only by her three stumbling students.
The physical bruises and sore muscles we received in equal measure were punishment for making noise. They also increased our fight responses and kept our blood high as well. It did have the advantage of easing the drastic variances in the temperature whenever the air moved.
“You think it burns now, patty-slit, wait until I sit on your shoulders.”
After an hour it struck me that Rausery had said she would be finding food and water and learning our resources. Instead we were being run through an obstacle course with a distinct lack of stealth, smacked around, tearing our cloaks—which we would no doubt have to repair later—and becoming hungrier and dehydrated by the moment.
All this while also scaring away the night creatures I’d even had a chance to glimpse before they disappeared into the landscape. We weren’t anywhere near catching dinner, and our larger portion of our supplies were still back at the cave.
I knew Jael and Gaelan were bewildered, too, and losing strength, but neither of them had said anything yet. They likely wanted to keep their jaws without hairline cracks and what little of the thin air would stay in their lungs.
The problem I saw was that this did not help us now; this was moving without looking. It was as though we had skipped to a much later test of endurance without the basic experience to aid us. Granted, the Sisterhood was known for such treatment in the Underdark, but that wasn’t how Rausery had been handling our preparation before. This made no sense.
We had passed sign a little bit ago, a converging trail likely made by game in the area. By Rausery’s own notes and under Shyntre’s tutelage, I knew in theory that the convergence was possibly pointing at a source of surface water.
I was thirsty, I would not waste what I had on me, and I was now sure that Rausery was testing us.
I drifted to the back of the line after Gaelan had finished another set of push-ups and…I stopped. I began to backtrack as quietly as I could, intending to find that branching game trail again. My adrenaline still flowed and I thought reaching the water before Rausery might lessen the expected response to my insubordination. Perhaps.
Or perhaps I would just call her on her Drider shit so at least I believed that I fully deserved the punishment.
Left to my own pace, I could be much quieter and I gathered up my cloak just for simplicity and speed, keeping it close to my body so I could avoid getting hung up in the branches and shrubbery. The punishingly steep hill we had previously tackled straight-on I now took at an angle instead, keeping my eye on the point above of which I didn’t want to lose track. A Star brighter than the others around it helped me keep my orientation.
I needed to breathe deep in order not to wheeze, enormous draws to get enough air to which I was not accustomed. The scents were so lush here in the thick of the vegetation, even compared to standing on the mountain’s layered outcropping. The stone was drier but not the soil, which was still dark and musty with moisture. The “grasses” were short still due to the chill and the early season, but green. This soft plant layer fascinated me; it seemed like extremely aggressive moss now, as it was everywhere that the taller trees and woody stalks did not poison it away or block its Sunlight. And yet… it was not nearly as long as Shyntre had said it could grow. Given time, that would change before my eyes.
I found our own trail embarrassingly easy, further insulted by how obvious it would be to other hunters which direction we’d gone. At least I had no trouble finding the convergence again, and I started following that trail, keeping all my senses open for trouble.
Especially from my own kind.
The soft soil beneath my feet had been packed down by other creatures though grass strained at the edges to invade—and no doubt would by “Summer.” The pressure of many feet before mine compressing the soil was the only reason I did not walk in mud after the rain. The air never seemed to stop as it swept past my ears and through my hair; my eyes watered easily as the wind quickly stole too much moisture from them. I found myself blinking a lot as my heart slowed and my breathing became more regular. There was still plenty of forest noise from creatures as well, just as in the daytime, though it seemed more subdued.
I climbed and descended two more hills, still following the trail, before I heard rushing water; that noise was the same whether underground or above it. It would likely be safer to drink than some sources; different kinds of stone and sediment had a knack for filtering away odd tastes in water, and few parasites and other tiny creatures had the time or safety to fully infest water moving that fast.
Dark shapes of trees kept the water out of sight until I was nearly upon it; I could smell the wonderful refreshment and feel the vapor on my skin long before I emerged from the trees to get a good look at it. It was the loudest thing in the area, white and frothing as the rapids churned over large boulders at this exact location, but I soon noticed that the game trail lead farther upstream, along its edge to a double-waterfall and, between them, a bedrock platform just wide enough to create a relatively calmer pool. The waterfall higher up was a shorter drop than the lower one.
I headed for that pool, opting to climb the rocky wall beside the lower waterfall rather than follow the game trail that went back into the forest, no doubt so certain larger animals could find an easier place to climb. It was a funny thought to think that this trail became the path to water with a permanent detour—rather than some other animal forging a more direct path from a different direction.
Once I had crested beside the second waterfall and stood at the edge of the pool, I took a turn around me for any possible shadows or sparks of life energy aside from the trees. I could hear nothing thanks to the water and again I had to rely on my eyes. My peripheral vision drew me to a bit of light above the far side of the pool and when I focused that way, I realized the first Moon was rising, ready to shed more light on the forest.
The Moon was not full, maybe half, although the wavering reflection of its light on the pool were slivers that very much reminded me of the sickle shape of platinum in my sapphire pendant, the twin to the one around my wizard’s very bitable neck.
Fancifully, perhaps, I wondered if he had ever stood here? What had he known, or thought of what he was seeing? Had he been wearing this very sapphire at the time?
I could not spare too much time on that, unfortunately. My waterskin still contained pure underground water but was half-empty, and I wanted to taste this water before I mixed it. However I did not want to bring my lips directly to it, exposing all my back and head to…to what?
Well, to Rausery. I still expected her to catch up with me very soon.
Quickly tugging off a glove, I scooped into the astonishingly frigid water with my bare hand and sipped.
It was….crisp. Pure. Somehow, it was better than any water that had ever passed my lips before. What was the source? I racked my mind, trying to remember… Ah, yes.
Frozen rain drops turned to crystalline flakes…snow, falling from the Sky in Winter and waiting atop mountains until the days got longer and it melted under the intensity of the light, only to rush down from the tops of mountains, as it was now with Spring just starting. On to the very bottom of…wherever the water would flow. Some of it went to the Underdark. Eventually. But most on the Surface would become vapor again with heat and Sun, and it would become clouds and rain…or snow. And the water would start its journey over again.
There was a grand majesty to that predictable, life-sustaining loop that rivaled the reforming heat and chaotic surge of lava from the deep earth. I had to wonder why the water returned to the Surface rather than becoming lost among the Stars? Was the pull of the world’s core responsible for holding it, just as it was somehow holding all of us to it? How did it come here? I knew Lolth hadn’t made it…it was not part of our stories that She had ever created the world.
We had no story of who actually did. Or whether it formed on its own from the void…
A twig snapped. I gasped and tried to locate its direction. Irritatingly, I looked up first…but there was no ceiling and no trees above me; it was a wasted move. The sound had echoed in a maddeningly unfamiliar pattern and I was not sure where to look next. I was both surrounded on all sides without an easy escape…but also hard to attack from any but one direction unless something could fly. I focused on that one direction, on the forest behind me as I’d tasted the water.
I did not have to wait long; my attacker was overall an impatient one, and I saw the movement underneath new Moonlight within the trees. I recognized it and smiled, drawing my twin fighting daggers: black, non-reflective, single-edge blades elegantly curved and nearly as long as my forearms.
Jael surged out of the brush, fortunately without getting snagged, her own daggers drawn. I welcomed the engagement with a wide, white grin that certainly stood out in the night—there was far too much light for Jael not to be able to tell. In contrast she was frowning in concentration and fatigue, but I hoped to have her smiling as well soon.
Our weapons clashed and gave away our location to the others. I kept a wide stance on the potentially slick, wet stone as we circled, engaged, and broke apart again. Our immediate area was not so different from our native home: water and stone as our practicing ground. Strike, block, evade. Try to get behind… *Oh, no, you will not.*
I tumbled the very edge of the waterfall’s pool, dipped my blade, and flicked a good bit of the cold snowmelt into Jael’s face. She was shocked at the temperature, drawing in startled breath, and my next surge disarmed her right hand, the dagger clattering a short distance away. I saw her lick her lips, collecting some of the droplets, and I saw pleasure in her eyes. Not only that, but her body needed more. So did mine.
*I yield,* she signed and sheathed her left blade.
I nodded acceptance and sheathed both my blades as she lifted her other and secured that as well. We both kneeled to drink our fill. Somehow the cold water was even better sharing it with one of my Sisters. We soon noticed, however, that our stomachs began to cramp from drinking too much, too quickly—which was less volume than we could suck in relatively warmer underground water before suffering the same soon after a run.
The shock to the system. My teeth, throat, and tongue even ached from the cold. Shyntre had warned us…eating snow, for example, could draw too much body heat away from the core, which was dangerous to survival in cold weather. At the very least, let it melt in the mouth before swallowing.
Now here we were gulping down huge draws of water that had only just melted from higher up. No wonder our stomachs hurt.
*Where are Rausery and Gaelan?* I signed.
*And you attacked because…?*
*Because you are such a cunt sometimes.* She glared at me, though I knew the subtleties of her face well enough; she wasn’t truly angry, only angry at herself for not thinking of the idea first. *When you broke away, Rausery set us to tracking you, but only to watch you. And to learn. Then she disappeared as well.*
We heard a chuckle then and I realized that something I’d taken for a boulder atop the first waterfall when I first arrived was actually a crouching Drow…
She had anticipated my location and could have pounced on me the very first time I tasted the pool. Damn!
Our Elder dropped the two body-lengths down to our level, landing on both feet and bending her knees well, absorbing the impact with no apparent discomfort for the height or unevenness of the rock. At that same moment, Gaelan walked more calmly out of the forest following the game trail.
“Fill your skins, ladies,” Rausery said aloud, her grin visible beneath the ever-rising Moon. “Keep it close to your body beneath your cloak to warm.”
Jael’s stomach growled as the three of us did exactly that, Gaelan drinking what she had first before refilling, and the Elder chuckled again.
“So you’ve wasted a lot of energy finding this place,” she continued as if she hadn’t been herding us like so many guarro for a solid hour before I’d actually started tracking a water source, which had taken that amount of time again. “Now. Do you take from your stores or do you forage something edible?”
I reached on my belt for one of my travel bars. Sadly, I was going to need energy to forage for more energy, and I knew it. My mind flicked yet again to the second body growing inside mine, and the choice seemed plain enough to me. The wasted run was a mistake that would cost, but that was why I had the stores in the first place. I bit in.
My Sisters blinked at me as I chewed and Rausery cocked her head a bit.
“Tell us what you’re thinking, Sirana,” the Elder said, and interestingly spoke in Drow, not the Surface Trade language.
I swallowed and delayed my next bite, answering in Drow. “It took me too long to decide not to follow you at all, and it cost me too much. I have to use my stores, though I know better next time.”
Gaelan and Jael both looked confused and a little stunned. Rausery was just grinning, though granted it was in a fashion that implied I just might get that broken jaw.
“So, you say, don’t trust me or anything I say from now on?”
“No, Elder,” I replied immediately. “Only do what I need to do, use my training. Think for myself. You aren’t going to be here long, so I should not rely on you blindly even this first night.”
To my relief, she nodded. “Glad to see one of you got it. If you’re curious, Shyntre got it in under half an hour.”
I know all three of us flushed at that, but I still said, “And the only endurance tests he faced were sexual and he has not likely been under your direct leadership in battle.”
Rausery smirked. “So you had more conditioning to overcome, is that it? Nice excuse, Blue Eyes.”
I shrugged. “Excuses. Reasoning. Perception. Has it been so different for any before us, Elder?”
The Elder didn’t answer that; she moved to punch me in the stomach. My reaction in that mere eye-blink of time startled me: I hunched over and twisted and willingly took the blow to my right breast instead. Granted, I was wearing leather armor and a hit to either location wouldn’t have been as bad as fighting nude…but I still couldn’t override that base instinct to protect my gut at the expense of some other part of my body. The best I could do to undo my giveaway to my condition was let my arm drop from my abdomen rather than leave it there as I wanted.
I staggered back, gaining distance and watching her, my breast throbbing from the hard strike; I stubbornly kept both fisted hands at my sides. Rausery quirked a brow and shook her head.
“Sloppy,” she said, switching back to Surface Trade. Then she gestured for the three of us to follow. “We’ll be walking. And foraging. If we pick up a trail, we go stalking, but unfortunately only until midnight, as we must make it back to the cave before sunrise. Conserve energy and be silent as you can.”
She turned back to us with a grin. “How does that sound, virgins?”
We all signed an affirmative and continued learning.
I noticed quickly that Rausery was more helpful in her advice when I began to do some things on my own over the next few nights: to mend my cloak, try to find a suitable substitute for the fiberstalk bolts used in my hand crossbow from among the twigs and branches, and even pondering a way to either collect more rainwater at our cave site or find a larger storage for what I could carry so we could build a reserve.
That was one of the larger disadvantages of the site: the nearest water was a slough at the mountain’s base that was not safe to drink even if it could be used to wash, and the rushing snowmelt was an hour’s jog away.
“Are there caves closer to water?” I asked her, speaking Trade as we had been most times we weren’t signing. It was getting easier.
She shook her head once. “I’ve looked before. Unless something opened up in the last twenty years, there is nothing that protects well enough from the day for virgins like you. Which reminds me, we’re staying up past daybreak. You’ll get your first look at the Sun in the clear, blue Sky…Blue Eyes.” She smirked at me.
I felt a thrill both of excitement and fear at that.
Through this night, though, we hunted for food that would sustain us. Rausery focused on the smallest and most ubiquitous: ground and tree rodents, birds, rabbit, eggs, fish, grubs, insects, roots, mushrooms, greens, and in time would come reptiles of both land and water and plant fruits, pods, and nuts. We would use almost anything that came within our senses, and I had no reservation about using Callitro’s ring to assure that I hit something moving.
The young mage’s ring I knew would prove extremely practical on a daily basis; I could not have known before how much it would help, but I had chosen my “gift” well. I was impressed how much the magical boost in perception and timing improved my overall instincts for this new land, accelerating my adaption ahead of my Sisters.
I could use the small surge of magic a handful of times during a cycle, though not in quick succession. Callitro had been perfectly truthful when he said it only granted me one strike at the time, so make it count. That strike could be by first or blade, or by bolt or even as simple as a slung stone.
Some of the magic bled off into my sapphire, of course, but I had learned to account for it. Ever since the first time that necklace had interfered with the potency of one of Shyntre’s spells—shocking the Abyss out of me as we’d wrestled on the floor—it had since then seemed to take only a consistent, small percentage of a spell rather than disrupting the magic entirely.
Shyntre’s best guess why that was had been two-fold: first, the stone had only become active at that point, like a catalyst finally introduced to a latent potion, and second, that it had been worn by a magic-user at the time so had that massively reduced effect.
The stone obviously preferred the owner be something else. My academic had not given up until I’d finally told him more of what that “something else” was. He’d heard his mother’s oblique references to Rausery about the stone being “useless” to anyone but me, and also that it had to do something with my trials. I had to admire his tenacity, though I only told him in private so that I could extract a trade for that information.
The stone had not just struck by a psionic fist but…possibly interacted with a psionic “ghost” in the wearer as well… What followed was my trying to convince the paranoid wizard that, no, I couldn’t read minds, but I had one strong defense against the queen doing such to me.
I sighed at the memory and refocused on the night hunting.
My Sisters and I had our first taste of five of the earliest rodents and small mammals that had come out to forage. They were…alright. Perhaps they would be better if cooked.
“Humans from established villages or towns will focus on the deer and larger creatures,” Rausery said as we ate afterward back at the cave. “They are often hunting for more than themselves. They do not place much value on these smallest creatures to sustain their families, but they will sustain you. You will not have a store of travel food after a while; never spurn even a six-legged insect that will give you energy in favor of something much more costly to bring down by yourself. Eat any time you are awake and find something small or large. Your body will do best eating fresh, do not scavenge dead or old or sick, leave it to the native molds, mushrooms, or predators intended for such.”
Jael’s eyes were narrowed as she listened, concentrating on something as she twisted a skinned rabbit leg to free it from the joint. “What of raiding?”
Rausery smirked. “Stealing a fresh kill from an animal hunter…yes, if you can without injury. Kill it, too, for the added prize. Any furred or feathered creature is good to eat. Consider carefully before you raid a sentient race’s stores, especially Human. I’ve seen a village lie down, allow everything to be taken, and do nothing afterward…and I’ve seen the most dogged hunts for revenge you could not believe. They vary much and are unpredictable at times. You may be borrowing more trouble than you are capable of handling alone.”
“Why, Elder?” Jael asked. “Why would they be hard to predict if they’re so primitive?”
“Because they age quickly,” Rausery said pointedly, staring hard at her youngest virgin. “It’s not them, Jael, it’s you. You and the fact that you have already lived longer than most Humans can, yet you are among the youngest of those capable. Humans will be unpredictable to you because you do not have the same understanding of time as they do, and therefore it is harder to tell what any one Human will choose to do with their remaining time when confronted with a threat.
“You won’t be able to tell what age a Human actually is unless you find one that will talk with you for days or weeks, and even then that specific Human may be uneducated, or you don’t pay good enough attention to subtleties. You likely will never interact with a group of Humans who range from infant to elder. So…they are unpredictable. Do not toss that bit aside.”
I stared at our Elder with a bit of wonderment there; her centuries were showing in a way that they usually did not, as the martial expert was much more one for living in the current moment. This was fascinating, though…like a conversation I’d have with Shyntre or D’Shea…
“So comparing that to what we know of the Duergar and Illithids and other races in the Underdark…” I began.
Rausery nodded smartly. “More like us, even if perhaps a bit shorter. The more like us, the more predictable the perception. Most Humans do not live past half a century and those that do depend on the young to sustain them.”
We gaped at her and our Elder smirked. We knew about the short lifespan but not that the young worked to feed the old.
She finished off by saying to us, “If you can sustain yourself on the land and remain independent of the settlements, you will be the better for it and your mission less at risk.”
I thought next about my run-in with the Duergar, with Kain, trying to steal food and water from him…yes, quite a bit of trouble followed, and that was only one sentient being, not a whole tribe with a much shorter time to make choices.
“So there is magic here and there. Are there any mind-talents up here, like the Illithids?” I asked. “Shyntre did not say.”
Rausery’s deep crimson eyes slid to me and she pushed a raw muscle sliced from a squirrel’s haunch between her lips and chewed slowly, swallowing before she replied. “Stories so far. If they exist, they are far from here, though it is hard to tell when the locals use words like ‘witch’ and ‘demon’ to describe anything walking on two legs that is not Human. But yes, I’ve heard a few stories of mind-talent Humans. I even got a name once: Varasa.”
I blinked at the familiar sound. “D’Shea’s name? Varessa?”
Rausery shrugged. “Close. Lose the slight roll of the tongue and the stronger hiss. It’s choppy. Var. Ah. Sah. Coincidence, I think. Sounds made with tongues are finite, after all.”
“What of dwarves?” Gaelan asked. “Those exist for certain in this area.”
Rausery nodded. “They guard mountain passes and have trade caravans with Humans, but beyond that, most live beneath their chosen mountain. They do not have a great advantage over the Humans on the Surface for travelling distances and if you find some living in a permanent settlement, they are nowhere near Human settlements.”
“Underground but not in the Underdark,” Jael murmured just before another bite of rabbit. Some of its juice dripped off her chin.
Rausery nodded. “Better suited for it even than us, were we without our magic.”
Which reminded me… I looked at Gaelan. “Have you sensed any ley lines in our hunts?”
She hesitated. “I am not sure…”
“Which direction, even if you’re not sure?” I asked.
She pointed out toward the double-waterfall. “Beyond it, I think.”
Rausery smiled in approval. “That would be the direction of the Necromancer. Very good.”
“Elder…wouldn’t it make more sense for Gaelan to go seek the Necromancer if she can sense the ley lines?” Jael asked.
“You suggesting trading missions?” the Elder asked casually.
“Which would you take, young one?”
“Um…” Jael bit her lower lip then blurted, “I don’t know, they are magical! They’re the strongest of magic in this area and that is why the queen wants them gone. But we need…the other’s talents to combat them.”
The Elder waited in silence, watching her. We all waited, and eventually the youngest continued.
“Gaelan to sense the ley lines and use magic, me for reconnaissance, Sirana to plan ahead and lead us, all of us to fight…”
Jael swallowed, and I supposed it did not surprise me that Jael would defer to me to lead a small unit…and Gaelan wouldn’t challenge it. I’d been doing as much before directing them on how to have sex…
Rausery nodded thoughtfully. “Say you succeed that way. All three missions with all three of you together. Now what? Would you return?”
“We have to,” Gaelan said quietly. “We have no place up here, we could not survive Winter in the mountains…and we belong with the Sisterhood.”
“Alright. And now you face the Prime and the Valsharess with your report. Know that the Valsharess uses spells to see your memories or thoughts. What now?”
We were all silent at that one. We had already heard the queen’s writ on that.
“You abandon the Sisterhood and live elsewhere, or you do your mission alone, just as you did before in your wilderness trial,” Rausery said, though from her tone, she wasn’t any happier about this particular situation than any of us.
I felt something in my chest, then, a burning. I knew it was because I resented the word of one Drow wasting resources and pressing a stupid, impossible task on some of Her most promising servants…all for Sanctuary politics. Weren’t we worth more than that?
Apparently no more than those expendable in the regular army…
“There must be a way,” I murmured. I had already finished my double-handful of shrews and picked tiny pieces of bone from my teeth.
“She never said you couldn’t attempt to make temporary allies to help you,” our Elder said solemnly. “Only no Sisters to help you. That is why we practice the Surface tongue, isn’t it? To be able to bargain or interrogate.”
“Bargain with magicless, ignorant Humans who squat in villages and hurl ‘witch’ and ‘demon’ to all outsiders?” Jael said skeptically.
Elder Rausery smiled. “There are capable mercenaries and some magicians even among Humans, Jael, and they know their land better than you ever will. They are like dragons and dwarves; they like shiny jewels and coins of gold and silver. The value changes with time but that fact has remained for centuries.”
“Mostly male mercenaries, isn’t it?” I confirmed, unwillingly recalling the half-Drow about whom the queen wanted me to discover more information. The very word “mercenary” had triggered the thought in my mind. “They are larger and more aggressive than the females. We are at a disadvantage bargaining in their land.”
“They respect skill and speed the same as any of us. If something can kill them and they know it, the smart ones are wary and will bargain. The stupid ones who do not know it get injured or killed and good riddance.”
“And sex?” I asked curiously. “Shyntre said we would be considered very beautiful to most males, even looking so different, and it might trigger interest.”
Rausery laughed low. “Persuasion and distraction, perhaps. Interact and you will notice many of them easily distracted by female forms, and their self-control becomes worse the less they think of females as equals, or the more frightened they are by them. The ones you seek as allies are the ones who are not so easily distracted, or even are indifferent. Those are also the ones with whom you want to drive the hardest bargain.”
Jael scratched her head. “But we…notice males…and they aren’t equal…yet we are skilled and feared and not distracted.”
I knew I could make an argument against that one, certainly for me…but held my tongue to hear the Elder continue.
Rausery nodded. “I know. It’s a lesson in culture. You want to be careful indulging here even if they are not afraid. Sex has as much value as coins.”
Gaelan and I shared a smile and I said, “But they trade sex for coins all the time. A moment’s pleasure for an object of value.”
Rausery shook her head. “Give too many ‘moments’ away and they assume you have more to give. They will try to take it for free or extremely cheap. If they succeed, they lose respect because it was too easy, as you have no skill in barter or in protecting what’s yours.”
Jael chuffed in arrogance, and the Elder looked at her.
“You feel the same about some of your past lovers, don’t you, Jael? You sneer when you’re given no challenge? Well, imagine your pussy in any bargain as a diamond to a dwarf and use it accordingly—including never reveal that you have such a valuable thing for trade in the first place.”
I thought about that. “Or ask a very high price. I have seen before when I can control someone with lust. Why not use that?”
Again Rausery shook her head. “Until or unless you gain experience with the current human population, don’t try. Their lives are short, and their society changes too quickly. Just turn it around, Blue Eyes, you’ll see what I mean. Say there was an attractive, foreign male certain he could control you with your own desire in the Underdark. His reasoning is simply because he is used to being the one in control in his own homeland. What would you do to him to teach him otherwise?”
I blinked, several graphic methods passing through my mind. “Ah. I see, Elder.”
“Yes. This is among the best advice I can give you. Don’t discard this, either.”
The three of us nodded.
“Where does that male thinking on females come from?” Jael asked. “It seems so strange…”
Rausery was quiet, seeming to consider how to answer. It was me that spoke up.
“Children,” I said. “The Duergar do it this way, try to follow a bloodline through the male. The female can subvert that bloodline any time with her actions, and he knows it. He tries to control her behavior, and control what other males get near her. It’s more work, and it takes more of his energy and thoughts.”
“With varying success,” Rausery agreed with a nod. “It doesn’t matter to us as much; the child is ours no matter what. If we care about knowing the sire for certain, we control our own actions.”
“What does she get in return for that?” Gaelan asked with a wrinkle to her nose. “Lack of pain, or only less pain like the Duergar?”
“Sometimes. Also resources. Protection. Status or power,” Rausery answered, ticking off her fingers. “Same as we provide for our males, for their own benefit. Except she accepts it more for her children, which she knows are hers. Our own kept males don’t even get that satisfaction.”
Jael grunted, her lips pursing more tightly. “And we are to deal with these Humans?”
“Or you can work alone, Jael, it’s your choice,” said her Elder. “They are as likely to try to kill or capture you for being a demon as they are to try to communicate with you.”
“They are idiots! I’m not a demon!” the youngest blurted hotly, and it was painfully obvious she was thinking about Draegloth. “They have not seen a real one!”
“Or maybe they have,” Rausery smirked at Jael. “They had to get the idea from somewhere.”
“From us, long ago,” Gaelan smiled at the thought.
I looked up at the Stars again and considered that. What about our pale cousins? Would they be considered demons as well? It was odd to think that I knew more about what to expect from Humans than I did the elves of the Surface. That hadn’t been part of our lessons; there hadn’t seemed to be any material on it at Shyntre’s fingertips. I knew of an old, old war, and that we hated them, and they us…and that was about it.
That was when I noticed the barest lightening of the black Sky to deepest indigo in the East. The first Moon had set and the smaller, second Moon hovered just above the Western horizon as a bare sliver of light.
“Sunrise,” I muttered, and my Sisters followed my gaze and trepidation.
“Will we sit out for long?” Gaelan asked Rausery.
“Long enough to know what Sunburned eyes feel like,” she grinned. “We’ll get to the Sunburned skin later.”
The birds had begun singing very soon before the colors began to change. It was a tense and wordless wait on our remote outcropping as the Eastern horizon shifted in shade with alarming speed: indigo to the queen’s own purple before it seemed to move straight to a strange mix of orange and…pink? The Stars faded and disappeared before the relentless march of daylight and—high above the smear of strange, fiery shades—I could finally see blue…Sky blue, though it was paler and did yet not seem to be as rich as my eye color.
I believed Rausery that it would become so, though; she’d seen it on calm days closer to midday. It may be many more days before I could stand the light long enough to do the same.
The Sun crested not as gold but as blood red, and the three of us had been looking right at it when it did. We quickly averted our gazes and as I blinked, I noticed a moving blind spot in the shape of a partial disc that blocked some of the detail of my sight.
It took a long time to fade; I wasn’t even sure if it had by the time my head began to pound as I watched the full green of the evergreens and new grasses coming into view, seeing that the bark covering each sentinel was…brown. Like the old needles and mulched, dropped leaves and pods.
“Keep them open, novice,” Rausery growled. “It hasn’t even gone to gold, yet.”
And yet it was brighter than anything in existence.
The red tint changed to orange before too long, and my instinct knew that the bright gold from my dreams was next. My dreams? Or rather… from Auslan’s dreams. His visions of the female figure in white standing before a Drow—that Drow changing from “anyone” to me, with my face. This golden sunlight he’d known I would see for real somehow.
Jael keened a high sound of discomfort next, and Rausery kicked her with the toe of her boot. She went silent.
We were all leaking constant tears long before the Sun finally turned gold, swelling full and two finger widths above the horizon. By then I suspected it was the same for my Sisters as it was for me: I was blind whether my eyes were opened or closed, and the pain wouldn’t stop.
“Elder…” I whispered.
“You’re not intended to see today. Tell me when something changes.”
What was that supposed to mean?
We remained either seated or lying down for perhaps another hour in full daylight on the rocks. The birds’ singing now seemed incredibly loud; blood pounded in my ears and behind my eyes and it seemed I would get no peace and no relief. I could feel the heat of the Sun even this early in the day as it touched me or the black of my clothing. It warmed me and felt pleasant now, especially compared to the chill of night, but I knew it would be dangerous to stay exposed to it for long periods at a time.
I blinked sightlessly once again, and it felt like ground glass had been dusted beneath my eyelids. Frayed nerves scraped themselves raw against my own flesh.
I cried out.
“Something…changed, Elder,” I said, gritting my teeth.
“Tell me what you feel.”
“That’s it. They’re burned. Go inside and bandage your eyes. Keep them closed.”
When I staggered to my feet, I had no idea which direction I was going. I felt Rausery’s hands take firm hold of my shoulders and point me in a different direction than I’d been headed.
“This way. Straight ahead.”
“Y-you can’t see…?” I began to ask.
“No, I still can’t. I know this place. Don’t ask stupid questions and get into the dark.”
I wasted no more time doing so. In mere moments, my Sisters joined me, though the Elder remained outside for somewhat longer.
It occurred to me as I felt blind in my pack for something with which to wrap my eyes that my spiders were anxious, crawling quickly over my arms and making little hops from place to place.
“I’ll be okay,” I whispered, thinking it at them as I worked to calm myself so they could sense it, too. “Will have to see how you little ones do in the light as well.”
“A good idea,” Rausery said as the three of us began binding our eyes. “I doubt D’Shea created them for this world. They may die, Sirana.”
“Or they might just hide,” I replied. “I have plenty of pouches and crevices.”
“If you think so. They’re your brood.” She clapped her gloved hands and we jumped. She had our attention. “Don’t take those blindfolds off. It will take several days for your eyes to heal to where you can even see in the night without pain.”
“Wh—how will we hunt and get water?” Gaelan asked.
“Why do you think we gathered extra? And we’re ready for another test: moving through the night forest without eyes at all. You should be able to do that by now, and if you can’t, you deserve to smack into a tree. Meantime, I’d get some sleep if I were you.”
It took a while to ignore the pain long enough to drift into reverie, but eventually we managed it.
Our cycles took on a certain torturous, reliable pattern from that point: blind foraging, blind running, blind fighting, followed by a cold night of hard hunting for meat and all edibles before we endured another warming morning and usually burned our eyes again in hot afternoon—though not nearly as bad as the first time—and started over again. We were given more tricks to ease the pain or lessen the damage, making a “sunblindness mask” from flexible bark, for example.
“Extra good for snowblindness, too,” Rausery had said. “Snow reflects Sunlight the same as liquid water. A pale yellow soil or quartz rock is nothing compared to the shock of glittering snow.”
The masks blocked the worst glare and protected our eyes against burning, though it played hard against my peripheral vision and I looked forward to acclimating enough not to need it anymore. Even blind, I could not always hear as well as I always had in the Underdark, and it was because of more than birds and insects.
It was because of the wind.
Gusts of moving air whipping past our ears were its own kind of sensory overload; it varied day to day and throughout each hour with no discernible pattern. I had begun to understand why the Surface creatures had to be inured to a certain level of constant noise. The roaring of air across our sensitive ears—often worse the higher we climbed in those mountains, and especially so on the peaks and crests—could make it to where I lost both sight and sound.
That was when I began to pay more attention than ever to smell and taste and touch. The “acclimation” I had thought would be mostly sight turned out to be my entire body, and how well my mind could process new detail and discern new patterns.
We soon experienced Sunburn on our skin as well. By all evidence, Rausery had been looking forward to this particular lesson, as it was the only time she used her Feldeu while training us. Simply put: she wanted to fuck us, one each day, on a high and fully Sun-exposed piece of mountain.
“It’s tradition,” she chuckled, holding on to the back of my neck as we looked out over the vast, quickly greening landscape through our masks.
“Tradition, Elder?” I asked.
“Initiations in culture, passed from elder to younger.”
“Oh. I thought that was ‘sludge slides downhill.’”
Rausery laughed out loud, her deeper voice whipped quickly away by the wind. She massaged my neck. “Strip down and present for me, virgin. Keep looking out at the Surface as I use your twat.”
“Yes, Elder,” I said as I removed my newly-mottled cloak and laid the many pieces of my uniform upon it on the flat stone promontory.
The air felt chilly as it sloughed heat directly from my skin and hardened my dark purple nipples to tight points. The wind ruffled my hair and my mons fur alike and the way it caressed me around shoulders and waist, hips and thighs felt like the current of a stream. At the same time, I could feel exactly where the Sun struck my skin, its energy punching through the air without weight, without effort, and seeping into me. If I faced one way or the other, I knew exactly where my skin was exposed.
“Keep your mask on, Blue Eyes. Good, now. Kneel down, that’s good. Spread your legs a little more. Keep looking out.”
My Elder reached between my thighs to rub my sex with her gloved hand, leaning to pinch my nipples and stroking my skin, blocking part of the Sun until I was moist enough for her. Then I felt her take tight hold of my hips and slide her hot and hard Feldeu along my crack. I moved my hips around, pleasuring myself and her, slickening her weapon before she would plunge it inside. Eventually Rausery released my breasts and leaned back a bit and I knew without looking that the Sunlight was nearly straight above me; its seeping heat coated my bare back like a blanket.
I counted perhaps eleven different shades of green as I waited to be taken—all somewhat smudged as I had trouble seeing distances in this light—but I could grant that I had never felt such a vastness as this with my entire body as I kneeled naked on all fours on the edge of a high, flat rock.
My hands gripped the gritty ledge as my Elder sank swiftly to fill my sex and plow it for a while, stopping before one of us came, then starting again…stopping…then starting…then changing to a different orifice as I mewled, wishing she would let me climax as the Sun burned my naked back.
The experience was fun and new, and between the fits and starts, I tested how far I could see out and below without getting dizzy, gasping the thin air as Rausery fucked my netherhole. She did at last allow me to peak.
The aftermath of the experience, however, was miserable. The Sunburn darkened the grey-black tone of my skin to a purple-black and it radiated heat as if Sunlight itself was leaking out of my pores, but only after being locked within my skin doing its damage. Clothing felt hot and scratchy and was nearly impossible to ignore. It was a surprise and disturbing the way our skin peeled in small, grey strips after a few days and my Sisters and I needed to groom each other… but at least that part was painless. Rausery said it wasn’t so bad; we could have had blisters, as though we’d put our skin over a candle for too long. And after longer exposure than that? I would only imagine.
It was an excellent lesson reinforcing both the power of the Sun and the careless exposure of our skin. Extreme exposure was possible in good weather just as it was in cold and wet.
By the twenty-fifth day, our endurance had increased enough to be able to go out at midday wearing the masks and keeping our hoods up. Some rainy days gave our eyes much-needed relief. On the Sunny days, though, I could catch glimpses of that Sky blue that I’d wanted to see, though I could not believe how much heat pounded down on me from above when I went out into direct Sunlight. I was not used to sweating so easily and was grateful for those ever-shifting breezes and winds even in the Spring chill.
My spiders had begun to travel with me inside their pouch rather than stay in the cave, and as expected they did not like the light at all, though they would come out at night, even under Moonlight. If I tried to force them into Sun, they would just crawl deep into my glove or bracer and they were impossible to extract without crushing them until I went back into darkness and called them out on their own. They would obey, but not at the expense of their own survivability if there was no threat to me. I had to accept that weakness to this weapon and consider it in my near future.
My Sisters and I had innumerable opportunities to see so many of the creatures that lived in the forest, in both day and night. There were so many and none edible that I would refuse to eat. I had high confidence I would not starve with this abundance, even on my own, even as I began to notice an increased hunger that had to be related to my pregnancy. This was even before more plants began to grow with the warming and lengthening of each day. The Underdark would never produce this much food simple by existing.
Gathering food became our only focus for several weeks once we were in competition with the birds and rodents for certain mushrooms, berries, nuts, and blossoms. I knew why we were grinding and pressing these energy bars now: we were not only making some for us, but also gathering enough food for Rausery to make the return trip back down below.
It took another fifteen days to be able to go out in daylight without the mask with my hood up, and by then I knew the Trade names for nearly everything I could see and my mind worked constantly taking in my resources, the angles of ever-changing shadow, and the obstacles of ground and plant. Confidence aligned our shoulders as I glimpsed my Sisters stalk the forest with me, and I began to look forward to seeing more beyond this mountain where we’d been living well into this season of renewal.
My only regret would be that we would not see it together, and I had to hope that Rausery’s and Shyntre’s gifts of knowledge would be enough for each of us to return. In this quiet landscape devoid of racial threats, it seemed like a foolish hope. We hadn’t truly been tested yet. When we were, we would be alone. This Surface place, warmed from above by the brightest Star in the Sky, would be as unforgiving of mistakes as both the Underdark and the Abyss.
When I thought about it, I worried more for my Sisters than I did myself. Gaelan was far more cautious and less used to solitary, self-directed assignments than I was, and Jael…she was just so young still. She had not had the opportunity to mature too much beyond when I’d first met her in battle. True, I was only fifteen or twenty years her senior, not much considering, far less even than the years that separated Shyntre and Auslan, but…
….but I had been pressured to change from challenges well beyond the Sisterhood, which was significant on its own. Kain. Lana. Kerse and Wilsira. D’Shea’s own compulsion, her drive and her rivalries, and Auslan’s healing and visions. I’d survived it all. I could do so again, and I’d carry my child along for the ride for as long as I could. That was the biggest pressure for change.
“The eldest of you will be heading out first,” Rausery informed us after one last night of preparation, eleven days past the Spring equinox. She was looking at Gaelan.
To her credit, my Sister just nodded. She had been expecting this just as Jael and I had been; we only waited for Rausery to make the call.
The Elder said, “Tell me again where you are going.”
“West, to the forest on the far side of that mountain range,” Gaelan pointed to our right, in the opposite direction of where she’d told me she felt the ley lines leading to the Necromancer. “There are more Human patrols and lodgings, and the Warpstone cult lies deep within. I must destroy their ‘home stone’ to severe the connection with their matron power.”
“Remember you also have to go through two mountain passes.”
Gaelan nodded. “Possibly guarded by dwarves, yes. Or find a way around them.”
Rausery nodded, shifting her gaze to Jael instead of me. “And you?”
“West, also,” Jael answered without much inflection, “but farther South through a different pass. I search for a larger city, built higher up but not far from a large lake. The lake castle, Manalar.”
Rausery nodded. “You will have to confirm its name in case it has changed. Whom do you seek?”
“A healer-warrior called the Godblood. He likely has other names.”
My eyes narrowed a bit as I thought about that. “Does he reside there?”
Rausery tilted her head. “I thought so. We are going off only the queen’s vision on this one.”
“What did She say exactly, Elder?”
“She says we will find him at Mandalar in the warm seasons of this year, and She would be right because it would take that long for Jael to reach him.”
I felt an odd trickle roll down my spine despite my Elder’s logic; it wasn’t sweat but it did feel somehow cold. “Yes, but…if it is not his home, then there might be an event to call him there at that time instead.”
“Such as?” Gaelan asked.
I shrugged. “A need for a healer or a warrior. Both together imply unrest and death.”
Rausery started to smile, her dark crimson eyes watching me intently. “A war. Interesting. I forget how you draw out the unspoken the same way D’Shea does at times. You could be right, most organized conflicts between groups of Humans happen in the warm seasons.”
She shifted her gaze over. “Jael, you’re going to have to watch for patrols much farther out from the city than we told you, another day at least. Use any method of disguise at your disposal. You memorized where the Undercroft is? That will be your best point of entry, but do not go in without having an alternate exit as well. You will have to study it.”
Jael nodded stiffly. “Yes, Elder.”
Finally Rausery turned to me. I spoke merely at the look.
“I’m heading East to the ley line intersection and an old Tower where a Necromancer resides. I’m to destroy him…somehow.”
“He is still living flesh despite his magic, you can strike him down if you get close enough,” Rausery said with odd familiarity. “Surprising him will be the hardest part. Just burn him and scatter the ashes to make sure he does not somehow rise again.”
I tilted my head. “Have you seen him before, Elder?”
“He was here twenty years ago, yes,” she said placidly.
“And…have you met him, Elder?”
Rausery smiled crookedly; apparently I’d asked the right question. “He was a temporary ally the last time I was up here. Death mages are usually preoccupied with the opposite side of life and thus are not easily distracted by the act of creating it. He is crafty with a cruel streak that rivals many Underdark races. Do not underestimate him. As for his quirks…his lack of a sex drive does not prevent him from making innuendo merely for the reaction in others. I found it’s best to ignore the slurs.”
“Hm. Under what circumstances did you leave his company?” I wanted to know.
“Neutral. I decided not to kill him as he could prove useful again. The Valsharess seems to disagree on that now, so you are being sent to kill an elderly Human with notable magic.”
Gaelan shuddered subtly. “How many Necromancers have you heard of in your lifetime, Elder?”
Rausery looked at her with almost no expression. “Few. More on the Surface than below it, I think because overall there is more life energy. The release of that from a dying body is what they use in their spells.”
“That, and pieces from the dead,” my elder Sister added in plain disgust.
“Well…” Rausery looked at me. “Maybe that will be extra motivation for you, Sirana. If he catches wind of your intent and wins a conflict between you, he will use your body for spare parts and spell components.”
The sudden wave of nausea did surprise me. My first mental image was of my dissected my womb and I pressed a hand to my head in a vain attempt to smother it. I did not want to know what a death mage could do with a relatively rare “component” like a Drow embryo or fetus.
“Got it, Elder,” I said with a genuine desire to turn the conversation away from my mission. “So why is it called ‘Warpstone’ again?”
“Because it sounds better than fuck-a-slug-crazy stone,” Jael grinned and Rausery snorted a laugh, surprised as I was by the youngest’s comment.
“Close enough. It’s a Chaos element that I’m not even sure how it got here. If you think Lolth is a fickle goddess, you haven’t seen the followers…or perhaps the possessed…of Warpstone. They make little sense, cannot be bargained with or interrogated, and do not survive longer than a few years each before their body breaks down under the stress of entropy.”
“Only a few years?” Jael asked incredulously. “Well, then, why not just wait for them to snuff themselves out?”
“The element sends those with limited spans for replacements. Abducting, mostly. It was something the Necromancer was helping me with last time, because they were trying to move in to this valley. Neither he nor I wanted that. I thought we had destroyed the home stone, but…apparently they just move several valleys over.”
We all watched our Elder intently.
“Do you have any ties to Manalar Castle and the Godblood?” Jael asked.
“The Godblood, no,” she answered forthrightly. “If he’s Human and in his prime, he would have been a mere boy the last I was up here, and we’ve realized that we do not know for certain where his home is. Ties to the lake castle, yes. The Valsharess believed the rulers there possessed something….”
Rausery stopped then, seeming to struggle against a mere tick of her cheek. I knew both Gaelan and I had caught it; we recognized it.
Then she shook her head. “That is all I will say on that. That mission was not a complete success but I found something to satisfy her.”
Certainly it was all she was even able to say. The Valsharess and her compulsions again…even Rausery possessed at least one. No wonder she did not give D’Shea public ridicule when hers was discovered…and broken in the same instant. Now the Elder’s peer was one step ahead of her.
The apparent prevalence of compulsions did not comfort me, but it did somehow make me more grateful for what information I was given by my Elders, as neither D’Shea nor Rausery had thus far outright lied to me as far as I knew. Omitted, oh my yes. Much omission. And did they let me make my own assumptions without correcting me? Absolutely, yes. But what information they have given directly to their Red Sisters, we found we could always use it.
“It is time to rest, virgins.”
Gaelan reached out to touch me later on as we settled for reverie. She was to leave in another four or five hours, when the Sun had risen and her direction was clear once she got out of our remote valley. Rausery was wherever she usually went as we rested; it was never in the tunnel but somewhere outside. Jael had just fallen asleep, and that was no doubt part of the timing as Gaelan kissed me. The two had gotten used to each other, but each still preferred some privacy with me if they could get it.
I responded fully, wanting her taste and scent one more time before she left. I helped strip her leathers over and down her hips and legs, bunched at her ankles, and she did not even have to ask or encourage me to go down on her first.
She kept her gasps and her shudders quiet and restrained; I probed and mouthed her almost delicately, drawing my tongue slowly across her folds, inhaling deeply the fragrance in the tuft of her mons. Her hand stroked my ears gently and toyed with the single braid I’d taken to weaving with my hair while on the Surface, which took less time than the complex patterns expected when moving about the City where the public may see.
When Gaelan’s hips began to move a little too much, just as I was adding more urgency to my strokes and sucks, I gripped them hard with both hands, digging my fingers in to where she would feel it, and forced them still. I used my forearms and elbows to splay her thighs wider, accentuating just how little use her feet were, tangled so in her leathers.
The Red Sister who had first claimed me for D’Shea actually made a peep now at being held so open and vulnerable. She quickly bit her lip to keep from making more noise and waking Jael. Her pussy became wetter and her scent strengthened as she held herself still for me, trembling with effort. I attacked her sex then, lapping and sucking aggressively, thrusting my tongue inside her before flicking and swirling the tip around her clit. I could feel every muscle in her body straining as she ached to reach her peak.
Gaelan kept her mouth tightly closed, lips pressed together when she finally came, and the unique sound reminded me of our furtive coupling when I still dominated her in secret, though she topped me in public. I remembered her biting her fist to keep quiet as I stroked her netherhole with her own Feldeu. She had been just as beautiful then.
I kissed her netherlips more gently as she came down breathing deeply and heat radiating from her skin. I rose up to kiss her mouth next and she eagerly accepted the shared, heady whiff of the moisture on my lips.
Then we worked on lowering my own leathers and she gladly returned the favor.
I became aware of Jael watching me shortly after I’d made an unintended sound and looked over to find she was already awake, and probably had been for a while. I hadn’t counted on the spike of sensation that swelled in my gut being caught like that, but I liked it. I smiled and quirked an eyebrow in question. Jael hadn’t moved or given any sign to Gaelan, nor did it look as though she intended it.
Jael signed subtly, *I want better before we part.*
I nodded slightly, still breathing shallow and uneven as Gaelan brought me closer. *If you… stay out now.*
She signed the affirmative and let out a soft breath, closing her eyes again. She wasn’t asleep when I grunted in climax against Gaelan’s mouth, but she was very convincing. My elder Sister rose up to lie on top of me, kiss me again, and we waited for our breaths and heartbeats to slow before we parted for true reverie.
Honestly, a healthy orgasm was probably the only reason either of us slept before we saw her off in the morning. My Sister looked back only once.
“Jael goes tomorrow,” Rausery said quietly as we watched Gaelan climbing down the mountain. “South and West.”
Fetching water and repairing any and all weaknesses that we could find about our equipment filled the day for us. Jael wanted to get me alone and tried several times, but Rausery kept us working and being useful. I figured only when we were released to sleep would we have the opportunity.
My mind drifted often to Gaelan moving farther away beneath the same Sun over our heads. It was the same Sky, and soon, it would be the same Moons. Even after another forty days of travel, she would still be under the same Sky as each of us.
I wanted us to meet again beneath it; I wanted the queen to be wrong in her vision. I wanted Rausery’s detailed and intense training to be the balance-breaker, the game-changer.
But I still remembered what Gaelan had said the first time she’d looked out at the rain falling onto the forest: *I’m still not ready for this.*
….Damn. Why did she have to say that?
I wasn’t sure who grabbed who first when Jael and I finally had the final four hours, the time to rest deep in the tunnel, but our stripping was desperate and aggressive, and Jael bit my lip when we kissed. I grabbed her hair at the base of her neck and yanked it back, forcing her to look at me as I held her so tightly she had trouble breathing.
“You’re going to survive, right, Jael?” I whispered in Drow. “This isn’t you wanting just one last time, is it?”
She gritted her teeth and loosed a hand to slap me; I was shocked enough to let her hair go. Then she threw both arms around my neck and buried her face against me, kissing shoulder and neck and hooking a leg around my bare hip so we were pressed close as possible standing up.
“Fuck, no,” she growled. “Fuck you for saying that, you slit!”
I felt myself beginning to smile as we kept fighting against the inevitable.
Naked we entwined our legs as we had several times before, like our first time, our chests pressed together and lips locked once we were on the ground. We struggled to find a rhythm with both of us trying to show just how much we wanted to promise the other that there would be a next time. Finally, I let Jael lead—she just needed it so much more— and gasped as she ground my sex hard with her thigh. Soon I was moving with her.
“Yes,” I whispered, pressing more firmly between her legs as I squeezed her bottom in both hands. I didn’t care that the stone scraped my knees and knuckles and hips; it even seemed to enhance the youngest Sister’s teeth on my breast and neck…
Jael whimpered a lot in primal pleasure and actually climaxed just before I did. As with Gaelan, I held on as our heartbeats returned to normal; Jael didn’t seem to want to move.
“Sisters don’t leave Sisters to die,” she breathed.
It sounded as if she was testing the phrase on her tongue. I did not think she had ever said it before, though she’d heard it.
I did not answer, uncertain why she’d say it now. Surely, we had each acted on those words for each other. However, while I might consider it a truth for me—even benefiting Panagan or Qivni—Jael likely did not feel the same way for every Sister…or even many Sisters. Her habit of loyalty was fresh, cured with time even less than mine, and far from reliable. Rausery knew that.
Would Jael simply disobey to live or to find one of us?
“Meet me on the way back?” she asked quietly, her mouth nearly pressed to my shoulder.
Jael had the most distance to travel, and I had the shortest. She was assuming I’d finish first. It was a plausible assumption.
I nodded almost without realizing it. Then I said, “Yes. If I know where to look.”
Neither of us cared so much about being named “Sola” by the queen, to want to be the one to make it back first. The queen wasn’t here in the trench with us, and that promise, that “reward,” was a root held out on a stick which meant very little if we’d been sent to die anyway. If I finished first…why wouldn’t I start out after my Sisters instead of going after that root? Maybe I could find Gaelan, too.
Gaelan would follow her given path; I knew she would. I would know where to look. If Jael did not follow her mission, however, I would not know where to meet.
Her voice quavered slightly and she trembled for a second. “Just meet me on the way back. Stay alive. I’ll be there.”
And that was her answer. She wouldn’t abandon us; she wanted to return to the Sisterhood…but not without me.
“Deal,” I whispered.
Jael breathed out, her hand running down my back, and we fell asleep like that, naked and wrapped up in a tunnel leading back to the Underdark.
Tracers remained in my vision as I stood in Sunlight again the next day, wearing my mottled, grey-black cloak with my hood up and watching Jael leave. She did not look back after giving us both a hard, determined stare and turning away to begin her descent.
*Tracers…* I thought absently, my mind in a bit of a fog as she left.
Tracers were what Rausery called those spots and bending colors that impaired precise vision at long distances. It was part of the reason none of us bothered with making a long bow. We’d have to get by with stalking and ambush, using our strengths in shadow, to listen and be able to fight blind if necessary. We had to be able to tolerate Sunlight, but we would not be able to counter long shots or anyone with the eyes of a hawk. We would have to hide.
“Never leave your back open,” Rausery had said then. “You move carefully and quietly, you use shadow where you can, you always stop with something at your back.”
“You wait until tomorrow,” was what she said now.
“I’m going in the opposite direction, Elder,” I replied. “I could leave today.”
She frowned at me in definite warning. “You wait until tomorrow. If anyone’s going to circle back, it’s you, Sirana.”
I stiffened. “Elder—”
“Tomorrow,” she said sternly and allowed no further discussion.
The rest of that day, I focused hard on making a few more bolts, mixing more poison paste and more food—separately—and strengthening my belt and pouches with spare strands of darkened hide leftover from hunting. I applied a fresh coat of waterproofing solution on cloak and boots and gloves —mixed as Rausery had shown me using Surface reagents, knowing from recent experience that it would also help against elemental wear in general and control odor as well.
I didn’t see Rausery though I figured she was watching to see if I would sneak away. I used my time more wisely than that. When the Sun set and I still hadn’t seen her, however, I went to seek her out.
I did not find a trail or sign of passing, nor did I expect to; I found her just on the hunch that, were I her…were I somewhere I felt in my element, released from all duties, far from the immediate concerns of other Drow plots… though soon to return…
…then I might be spending my time watching the Stars and Moons a little longer. But I would choose somewhere I could still see the mouth of the cave and any figure moving down toward the treeline.
“Need something?” she asked and I jerked in surprise, having just finished climbing to the second ledge above our cave. She was there, reclined on a cradle of rock, lounging with her hands folded just above her belt.
I nodded and took a seat on a second rock within easy talking distance.
Rausery didn’t comment at first, staring out at the view, then up. I followed her gaze, temporarily entranced by the Stars. The Moons hadn’t risen yet and the Stars were radiant against the black Sky.
“So tell me,” she began. “Is there something else you will be doing, Sirana? Something She told you to do, perhaps?”
I gritted my teeth behind closed lips, feeling the wave of nausea as I would have liked to say, “Yes.” I turned my head to look at her profile, eventually drawing the Elder’s considering gaze. We stared full on for several long seconds, and I could read when she at last confirmed that I couldn’t answer.
Her mouth twitched and tensed at the same time. “I thought so.”
She looked away and was quiet again as a breeze passed over our ears in a low whoosh. She spoke again with her eyes on the night horizon.
“It’s lives or objects, usually. Always wants something of this place, wants to keep this portal open and information on the area, yet pretends no long-term interest. She blocks and punishes curiosity or ideas of expansion. How it serves Lolth for the Valsharess to have the visions and the choice to affect this world above, yet we remain closed up down below… is a mystery to me.”
Rausery had my complete attention; my ears eagerly drank in the words. The Elder wanted to “talk.” She wanted to speak her mind as she could with a compulsion on her.
I knew now that a compulsion spell could be much broader in its effect—as Wilsira’s had been on D’Shea. However, as I understood now that Wilsira’s curse had been fuelled and enhanced by an Abyssal ritual, I no longer feared that every Drow suffered something so broad, even beset by the queen.
Fortunate for both of us that Rausery’s compulsion must be as specific as mine, to be able to talk around it even as much as she had just now. Most compulsions had to be specific—the two on me had been so, as were Gaelan’s and Rausery’s. If one wanted more, one could only attempt to turn the unfortunate target into a thrall and take the will away entirely, as the Illithids did. But even that had risks.
Auslan had even said it himself: “Magic wears differently on us all over time…there is always change…”
Even for a queen that aims for stagnation.
Rausery’s statement would damn her if she’d said it so that it got back to the Valsharess…but she didn’t seem to care up here. I wasn’t going back with her, and I understood chaffing against restraint.
I looked out over the Surface. Just watching the Winter become Spring, seeing not only the green arrive seemingly from nowhere, but the white and pink blossoms and yellow ground flowers, showed that this place was anything but stagnant or restrained.
“Where did you hear most of your stories of the Surface, Elder?” I asked. “Not at the Necromancer’s Tower?”
A quick glance showed she was smiling. “Quite a few of the recent ones through Sarilis, actually. You know scholars. They must talk, and they must keep records to ‘prove’ their talk.”
I blinked. Sarilis. So now I had a name. She’d taken her time on that. Why hadn’t Shyntre mentioned it? “Records? Can you read the scrolls up here?”
I had been immersed in the Common language and had confidence getting my meaning across…but I was illiterate in any written Surface language, as far as I knew. I had even been told to expect variable, local differences in the speech itself. Script was an entirely different matter.
Elder Rausery shrugged. “I can read a bit of the Wizards’ scrolls. I’ve learned a few things this last century, taking on D’Shea’s boy when she wouldn’t…or, rather, couldn’t. The mages’ script has surprising overlap no matter where you are. Do you know what the root language is?”
I shook my head. “No, Elder.”
“Draconic. Very few Great Wyrms around, as I understand it, but both Sarilis and Shyntre read similar symbols in their own dens, I know that much.”
That alone explained one of the core differences between the arcane magic and the divine for the Drow…I already knew just from exposure that many of the words of divine power for the Priestesses came from the Abyssal language. How why any overlap between arcane and necromancy?
“Does he know that?” I asked. “Shyntre, I mean.”
“He wasn’t around Sarilis, if that’s what you’re really asking. I took the wizard topside earlier than that, general reconnaissance, not a focused mission. He may suspect, but he hasn’t met a Surface mage to compare notes.”
“And you haven’t told him.”
Rausery shrugged. “It’s only been twenty years since I figured that out. When it’s worth mentioning it, I will.”
As she was doing right now with me, “mentioning” what was worthwhile. Why? I wasn’t a magic user. What good was this to me?
Immediately I chastised myself for the thought. One would think that I knew better than to spurn anything she said. I knew well how some details clicked into place when one least expected them to produce results.
“So was Sarilis more of a challenge than finding an object before?” I asked.
My Elder watched my face for a moment and smirked, chuffing. She seemed to get that I was reminding her of her link to Manalar Castle and whatever it was she’d been seeking but couldn’t tell. “No. At least I found Sarilis.”
She’d answered. So it wasn’t a thing she’d been sent to find…but a being, like me. I nodded and stared at her. “Did you find mercenaries, too?”
I noticed that my voice wavered just a bit, and I felt some resistance in my own throat. I did feel some chill in the mountain spring night, but after my training it took much more now to affect my voice. Normally.
Rausery noticed. “Actually…the Necromancer did. He has a habit of killing them off when he’s done with them rather than paying them, so he can never draw in the best to work for him. Only the desperate.”
She was staring hard at me and I felt a tingle down my spine for no apparent reason.
“Perhaps you should consider the option yourself?”
I nodded. “Perhaps, Elder.”
What followed was an uncomfortable moment where I licked my lips, my mouth dry as I tried to work out whether I understood what she was “not saying,” and if she understood what I was not saying as well.
“Have you considered if there might be others…more powerful than Sarilis around?” she asked.
“No, Elder,” I answered, not immediately following her and a little frustrated that Rausery didn’t keep talking about mercenaries.
She nodded, and I realized that just my being able to speak had definitely answered one of her questions. “Might want to keep your ears open.”
I tilted my head. “For whom? Does she…or he… have a name?”
My asking so directly seemed to cause my Elder a fair degree of pain as she tensed, though she made no sound.
“Lives and objects,” I murmured.
She strained to laugh then she took another breath and said more easily, “Like mercenaries. What’s in their hands tells you a lot about them.”
I smiled at her then and she stared at my face before nodding slightly. We were as close to the same point of the map as we were going to get. I could assume she’d once been sent to look for a different magic user than Sarilis, and she likely figured I was being sent after a fighter for hire. It was something.
“There is one merc who’s been a lasting story somehow,” she offered, very casually crossing her arms against the breeze but keeping a very sharp eye on my face. “First heard of him bit over a century ago. Unconfirmed if he’s still around or if they use the stories as a way to threaten children into behaving.”
I let her read my face; my eyes were wider and my ears perked up. She smiled a bit and continued.
“Dark-skinned, different from all the pale races around here yet still hard to escape from or even see coming if he’s after you. A demon, one with shadows, they say, that works for a particularly fortunate guild.”
I found I couldn’t confirm outright, “Yes, that’s him! Tell me more!” because it hurt like someone was prodding my throat with a fire-heated spear. But I could ask something else.
“A… guild, Elder?”
She nodded. “Only seen in larger populations where many may have the same profession to fill demand,” she said. “Sarilis said it was a way for a city to control prices and feuds. If you want to practice a profession, you join the guild, pay your dues, work with their blessing. It’s organized.”
I struggled to say, “A demon works… for a mercenary guild?” It left my forehead moist and cooling in the night breeze and a bit of an ache at the back of my head.
Rausery shrugged. “Or they have some way to control him, I’m not sure. Or he’s not actually a demon, or he’s long dead and only the stories remain. I’ve never spoken with anyone who actually saw him. But the reputation alone gave them a far reach outside of their own city, so I’m sure they would protect their secrets. They are not so unlike us, despite appearances and short lives. They want power and resources the same, and have even developed more politics and intrigue in the last few centuries.” Rausery smirked. “It is like watching children grow up, over and over again.”
I nodded slowly. “Which city is said to possess that guild?”
“Unknown,” she answered firmly. “One of their first secrets. Members can be in any city or town of size, and they have some method of long-distance communication.”
Again I nodded and reflected how the timing was about right for the Draegloth lost to us when the Ma’ab captured our Priestess…yet the Valsharess had been so certain they were not the same male. She had not cared about the fate of the Draegloth, but wanted to know about the other. I thought the Draegloth a stupid thing to ignore, especially after Kerse, if this captive was still alive…
“Shyntre said the Ma’ab scouts came into this area a century ago but didn’t stay because of what they found,” I said. “That they’re far away.”
Rausery nodded. “Had to have time to practice, didn’t they? They’ll be back. Word twenty years ago was that they were mobilizing and expanding again, but still far from here.”
“Would they be close by now?”
“Depends on the fight the others are putting up.”
“Like the Godblood?”
The Elder Drow considered the sudden intensity of my gaze. “Back to that reason why he’d be at Manalar in the warm months?”
I shrugged, my shoulders tense. “Maybe.”
Rausery was very quiet, very still. “A Ma’ab siege…? I hope you’re wrong. We’d be putting another Drow in their hands. Jael wouldn’t stand a chance by herself.”
“She doesn’t stand much of a chance anyway,” I said quietly.
Her brows drew down as she fisted her hand tightly then opened it again. “Neither does Gaelan. Too far, too many dangers to our kind.” She drew in a breath, let it out. “If you can get Sarilis to talk…you’d have to kill him eventually, but—”
I felt a spark of possibility fly between us as I leaned forward. “But maybe introduce myself first?”
“You’re required to serve the interests of the Valsharess if you want to come back,” she said flatly. “So use what She gave you. Sarilis has stories, and they may lead you toward the merc. I’m sure She intended that much.”
I was already to that point, but beyond that…what if they led me toward my Sisters as well?
Rausery and I stared at each other and I thought I saw the possibility in her eyes as well. She couldn’t say it, of course, couldn’t give me an order so obviously flaunting the queen’s. All she had really said was that Sarilis could help me find the mercenary—all in the queen’s interest.
But I may use it nonetheless.
“Hope you’re on your game, Blue Eyes.” Eldery Rausery didn’t seem to have anything else left to offer on the subject, as she’d gone back to looking up at the Stars.
That was okay. She didn’t need to; my mind was already working. I wasn’t going to be able to rest anytime soon.
We were quiet for a while, then I watched as my Elder languidly removed her belt and set it next to her, next tugging at her pants. I felt a flush enter my cheeks as I tried to anticipate exactly what she might ask…then she just gestured toward the East.
“Sister Moons are rising together,” she said. “Been waiting for that. We’ve been here fifty days.”
I looked at saw a very pale set of bluish orbs just cresting the jagged horizon. Even the Moonlight hurt looking directly at it, a quick, stabbing pain at first, but the recovery was quicker and I grew accustomed to it eventually. I’d never seen both full Moons in the Sky, though, and not traveling together.
Fifty days…that meant it was sixty or sixty-five since I’d caught. The pregnancy was not yet having any effect on the shape of my body, and overall I only seemed to have a somewhat better appetite and experienced sharper hunger pains than I was used to if I neglected regular feeding too long. No lightheadedness, no nausea. Not yet, anyway. I hadn’t needed to take any health pellets; I kept those under jealous guard for when the day came.
The only other experience that seemed…heightened…were dreams, if I remembered them at all. I knew that was a normal change for us. The baby would be in near-constant reverie while it was growing, and two Drow dreaming together made for some interesting trips while unconscious.
Like my hunger, those dreams would only increase as time went on. I was not really looking forward to either of them, nor the inevitable weakness and distraction, and the change in physical balance, how I could move and fight.
And yet…the potion D’Shea had given me was still secured and unused at my belt, and I knew it would remain so unless something dire happened…
*How could being pregnant protect me?*
Auslan hadn’t known. But he hadn’t denied the vision or the outcome or the reason given by the silhouette. He’d even said the alternative could have been Shyntre siring my baby. It could have been any male; apparently all that mattered was that it happened somehow.
But what if the vision, the dream, was wrong entirely? By every practical account, this was a serious vulnerability and I knew it. Even Rausery had said Sarilis could make particular, horrifying use of my body if he managed to come out on top, and that was something I hadn’t even known going topside.
I found my vision impaired when I looked away from the Moons, but I could hear Rausery still; she had begun touching herself and had not asked anything of me. The wind shifted direction briefly and I caught a whiff of her familiar scent on it. I blinked and patiently waited for my night vision to clarify again.
Eventually I could make out Elder Rausery leaning back, leathers pushed down to her knees and her legs bent, a bare hand between her muscular thighs and two strong fingers disappearing into her cunt. She sounded very wet and the slick noise made my gut clench. Her eyes were closed at the moment, but they opened periodically to look at the Stars or the Moons, not at me.
I kept waiting for the order to strip, for her to reach for her Feldeu, but while I knew she was aware of me, she didn’t acknowledge me. I just watched her, listened to her breathing, drew in her scent in slow, deep breaths, and slowly became aroused myself.
I wasn’t sure I’d ever heard of Rausery to be so languid and casual in anything sexual, she was always so aggressive and dominant… At least down in the City, surrounded by Red Sisters and Priestesses, wizards and Nobles, commoners and slaves and merchants. I might understand, after all her training and as she seemed the one who’s been to the Surface the most, that she’d found something here that didn’t require a constant fight for status.
My eyes drew down to exactly how Rausery pleasured herself—not too different from how I tried to do so when servicing her—and my crotch ached, my leathers felt hot and tight, by the time the Elder seemed to reach her quick rise. She sped up how she dug inside of her, stroking that spot inside while mashing the heel of her hand against her clitoris. Her hips jerked, as did her breath, and where I’d felt chilled before on the side of the mountain, now I felt overly warm beneath my cloak.
She climaxed with a deep, satisfied growl, and still looked up at the Stars as she drifted down.
I was trembling.
She still didn’t command, didn’t ask anything. I wanted her to.
“Liked that, eh?” she said softly, her voice loaded with amusement.
“Yes, Elder.” I waited expectantly.
She nodded and leaned back in her afterglow, closing her thighs and wiping off her hand with a small cloth from her belt. She seemed like she would just lie there with her pants down for a while. Damn it. I wanted her to order me to strip…
Maybe she wanted me to ask instead? Wanted to make me beg her for release?
If that were the case, she might not look like she was about to fall asleep…
Maybe…maybe she didn’t want anything at all.
Maybe it was like my first night out: I shouldn’t wait for her to direct me. She wasn’t going to be there when the Sun rose again. She’d been telling me that for weeks.
I removed my cloak and slowly began to strip out of my tools, armor, and clothing, though I kept my necklace and my ring on. Unlike Rausery, I wanted to be naked beneath the two full Moons now much higher above the world’s edge. I wanted as a first choice to couple with her…but if she refused me—because she could—I’d just see to myself the way she had.
Decided and confident, I enjoyed the way my nipples tightened to hard, aching points when the cool air hit them, I loved the way my leathers slid down my thighs and relished the way my bare feet were so tolerant of the stones and pebbles beneath them.
Naked once again, and I felt ready for this new wilderness.
“Nice,” Rausery commented, her voice barely louder than the breeze. For the first time in weeks, she was speaking our native Underdark language. “I can see the work you’ve done in the mountains.”
“Any ‘traditions’ under the Moons, like under the Sun?” I asked with a sly smile.
She shook her head. “Nope. Usually reserve that just for me, and I’ve had it.”
I sighed, touching myself on that ledge high above the forest. I still ached. Finally I just said it.
“Wear your Feldeu for me, Elder. Let me remind you how I fuck cock before I go.”
Rausery’s ears had perked up hearing that in Drow, and her dark face opened in a very wide grin. “Let down your hair, novice, and it’s a deal. Always thought we looked best under Moonlight.”
Eagerly I unthreaded my braid, finger-combing my hair to let it spread out across my back as Rausery retrieved her Feldeu from her belt and set it between her thighs, pushing one end in and murmuring the command word. I had the awareness to cover my sapphire with my hand before she did, and I was glad as its warmth flared very briefly, though it didn’t seem to effect Rausery’s Feldeu much as its wearer sighed in pleasure.
This was going to be my last Drow cock for a long while—arguably real or not, I didn’t care—and I eyed it hungrily as I crawled onto her rock with her.
My Elder’s strong hands took hold of my waist as I straddled her and wiggled a little to get in a sustainable position with my knees on stone. It was going to hurt but physical discomfort had been a part of a Red Sister’s training from her first trial. Rausery certainly wouldn’t be complaining about her shoulders and lower back even though those were going to get scraped and battered, so I could hardly complain about my knees.
She reached up to touch Shyntre’s sapphire between my breasts, chuckling softly. “Make sure that doesn’t knock me in the teeth, or I’ll knock you in the head.”
“Of course, Elder,” I breathed.
She stroked my skin as I reached beneath us to settle the dark head of her cock against my wet folds. I began squatting down; I felt her slowly spreading me open and groaned.
“Ah, fuck,” Rausery grunted in return, thrusting her hips once to penetrate deeper and make me gasp. Her hands squeezed my thighs and hips. “So ride me, novice. Show the Sister Moons how you like it.”
I gladly did so, stroking her rod powerfully and setting myself for a well-paced, grunt-worthy fuck. During it, my Elder touched my hair a few times as it slid over my shoulders and close to her face, the strands framing my necklace, and I noted how brilliantly silver it was in this light. It practically glowed.
Rausery touched my ribs and arms and covered my breasts with calloused palms. It set off a crackle of sensations in my nipples that I wasn’t sure was pain or pleasure, and I squealed though my pace never flagged.
The Elder Sister laughed and groaned at the same time my sex clenched harder around her, next pinching my purple nipples harder between her fingers. My dripping pussy seemed to spasm and contract as I yelped again.
“Never remembered…your nipples being so tender before,” she commented.
I knew why they were, but I wasn’t saying. I was still in a swirl of feeling that I had trouble sorting out as she held on, as she kept squeezing my nipples as I stroked her cock.
“Elder…” I groaned, helpless for a moment as I held on to her stone-hard forearms, my fingers digging in.
She growled low and brusque in response, releasing me only to grip my arms and pull me down so we were pressed breast to breast. She held me tight, my knees splayed on the stone on either side of her. It kept me open as she took over the pace and thrust hard inside my cunt.
She shocked me utterly by kissing me, and between that and the resonating throb of my nipples, the pummeling of my snatch coupled with those hungry strokes of her tongue along mine…oh, Lolth, the tip running lightly along the sensitive edges of my lips before kissing me fully again…the overload sent me quickly into orgasm. My cry could not escape to be heard by anything near or far.
The next moment I felt a familiar warmth pressed between us again… the sapphire, though it did not glow. Still, I experienced a flash of an image that was too quick to place in a location, but I recognized the red-and-black hilt of a blade carved with glowing, scarlet runes…
The hand that held it was brown-skinned and decidedly not elven. It was wide, wrinkled, with big fingers and rough callouses. Silver hair grew on the back of the hand, above the knuckles, and disappeared with a thick-boned wrist into a plain, off-white sleeve. The hand—a left hand— also possessed a ring on the third finger, a gold band with a crested symbol that looked like a bird with its wide-spread wings set on fire.
I heard part of a name in a whisper that sounded uncomfortably like the Valsharess’s voice. *…reefon? Sree Fon…?*
The connection was broken when Rausery slammed into me so hard she hit my womb and I felt an icy moment where I only feared for my child…then she cried out in release and buried her face in my hair, biting my neck and keeping me pressed to her. Eventually the tension broken in her as well, and we lay as we were, gasping for catch our breaths.
The Elder’s hands slid down my back to squeeze my buttocks and she sighed. I lifted my head gingerly, trying to see her face and whether she’d sensed anything unusual.
“Still those Sun-damned blue eyes, even at night,” she said, appearing to be completely at peace with herself. She hadn’t seen what I saw, I didn’t think.
I smiled tentatively, intentionally squeezing her erection with my pussy and she hummed happily.
“Funny how your eye color matches Shyntre’s pretty well,” I said. “That had made me wonder a time or two.”
Rausery grunted a rough laugh. “I squeezed mine out centuries ago, Sirana, and I’ve already outlived her. The mage is a lot different from her…but not so different from D’Shea. Lucky for him. Made him better suited to survive the Palace and Sanctuary, unlike my girl.”
That was sobering, surprising, and made the fact that her Feldeu was still lodged up my body a bit awkward. Although…I wouldn’t say she had sounded especially bitter.
“You came from the commoners, didn’t you?” I asked, leaving myself impaled for the moment. “That’s what they said. Is that what you mean?”
Rausery looped some of my hair around her fingers a few times and I tensed, expecting to be jerked to cause pain. She only rubbed it between her fingers.
“Yeah,” she said. “I got noticed through martial prowess. Proved my ground tactics and training and endurance over and over again. No daughter of mine would be in her element around magic and prayer and word games. She didn’t have much chance. Had I been higher rank, or had known someone like Varessa or Tarra at the time…might’ve gotten her transferred somewhere else, out of the Sanctuary the way we got Shyntre out, but…” She shrugged and shook the memory away. “Lucky for D’Shea, her boy is suited for the games, much as he hates them. As are you. You two might’ve made a good match. Would certainly produce an interesting babe.”