P.S. This story may contain disturbing stuff. Nothing really explicit, though.
P.P.S. The yellow babel fish in the afterword is from Douglas Adam's Hitchiker's Guide, a most amusing series until Mostly Harmless, which annoyed me. Basically it somehow manages to translate different languages, something to do with sound waves.
Track 4: Red Hot
A flick of the wrist, and the pointed metal sheathed tip of nizzre'elgluth, the lightning whip, slammed with a crack into the ground. I imagined the small fragments of rock and dust from the impact spinning into the air, like fragments of bone and blood had the whip met its target.
"Will you join?" I asked again.
My opponent was admirably skilled. So far, nizzre'elgluth had only scratched him once, when most people would have been killed by now. He flashed to a stop, chest heaving with the effort of breathing, hunched over, maddened, passionate eyes also holding a delicious, flat dread. I was better and he knew it.
Stubborn - he would not yield, not yet, while he foolishly thought he had a chance. A jerk of the wrist, and I freed the whip. Known as the lightning whip because of its remarkably long length - several heights of a tall elf - and the metal-sheathed tip which, if twisted while embedded in something, would cause five sharp, pointed prongs to jerk out, further increasing the damage. Lightning because in the hands of a good user, it would be fast, unpredictable and nearly unstoppable.
I consider myself the best. I thought of it, after all, and perfected the design.
I pulled it back in a quick movement, then slapped down my hand, counted one tick, then wrenched up again.
The whip slashed down at the ground, then flicked up at the last moment, gouging the rock and causing fragments to spray at my opponent, making him shut his eyes involuntarily. With the momentum I pulled back again and turned the rough leather in my hand - the whip length twisted and spun along with it, and smashed through my opponent's exposed shoulder.
He let out a cry of horror and pain, sweet, intense pain, music and better to my ears. With a smile I twisted the leather again, and heard, with a pounding, excited heart, my opponent cry out again as the prongs shot deep into his shoulder.
I prepared to pull my hand back with a yank, but a voice behind me said, barely hesitant, but with a note of command, "Stop. We want him alive."
With a heartfelt sigh - I'd quite forgotten that fact in the heat of the moment, of course - I turned back to my opponent. "Yield and drop your weapons, or I will take off your entire arm."
I would enjoy that. A lot of myself hoped that he would be foolish enough not to listen, but he was drow as well, and he knew that I meant what I said. His swords clattered on the ground, a disappointing sound. I tugged a little on the leather, just to get one more soft cry of pain, then twisted to cause the barbs to return into their sheath.
"Well?" the voice behind me said, expectantly.
"If I pull it out he will bleed to death," I replied calmly.
Berg'inyon stepped out behind me and casually walked to a few feet before my opponent, who watched him warily. "Would you join us? Then we may aid you. Or L'Sarol here will kill you slowly."
He seemed about to give a defiant answer, but I saw the red points as his eyes looked at my face and saw the hungry anticipation writ all over it, and so he said, "I will join you."
I let out a disappointed hiss, but kept the length taut until the healers teleported in and took over. Pulled the point back into my hands with a jerk, and watched as the healers took him away, then with a creeping, barbaric smile I put it to my mouth and licked it, tasting the coppery, tangy texture of blood, while Berg'inyon watched, both repulsed and mesmerized, a mouse before a snake.
I cleaned the rest of the whip and replaced it in neat coils at my back, then rubbed my mouth and spoke in an amused voice. "Do you have any more assignments for me?"
Berg'inyon seemed startled that I was speaking to him, but he replied surely enough, "Not...not yet. But we may in a while."
"Good," I replied, and then held out my hand. Berg'inyon tossed a bag to me, and I caught it easily. The heavy tinkle of coins sounded more or less correct, so with a last, mocking salute I turned my back and sauntered away, back towards the heart of the city where it suited me to watch the turbulent swirl of drow life, the race which I currently shared of form and partly of heart. Currently it suited me to work for Bregan D'aerthe, who thought that they were manipulating me, or controlling me with money. It suited me to let them think so, as well, but I knew that they were afraid of me. You could see the dark fear in their eyes each time they had to associate with me, that gratifying apprehension with which they treated me.
Money does not matter to me. It has an old scent, all of it, of corruption and deceit and murder, bloodshed and hatred, and ugly, beautiful greed, but it means nothing to me. It suits me to let Bregan D'aerthe think that they have a way of holding my loyalty.
They were wary of me, at least. There was always one of their captains at hand to watch me when I did a job for them.
I reached the inn where I had a permanent room, and nodded curtly to the innkeeper before entering my chambers and closing the door. It was richly furnished, with ever so slightly tasteless opulence. Rich furs and bright colors brought into an uncomfortable dark shade by the muted light from mage lights, small balls of fire that burned in a glass sphere suspended magically in the air, a suggestion of withheld power.
With a finger I traced the long tooth of a star bear, one of the creatures which were fast becoming a problem in certain areas of the Underdark. This one I had killed personally - a huge male in the prime of its life, the single white pronged spot on its black breast which gave it its name showing up in the darkness as it reared and tried to crush me. Now glass eyes replaced its mad ones, and its head fixed forever in a grimacing snarl. It adorned my favorite couch, and I reclined for a moment in the shaggy, musky fur.
My trophy room, this main chamber, nearly full with mounted heads and oddities manufactured from pelts and skins and scales. The table in front of me, for example - a planed, transparent square of glass held up by a stiff, stuffed giant crocodile two times my height in length and nearly up to my waist in height, curled such that the head touched the tail. Two large pearls took the place of its white eyes. I had killed this one without a weapon, in the boggy, watery tunnels near the Underground Sea.
I removed my clothing and put them neatly on a rack made of the carved horn of a Greater black Horned serpent, those giant snake-like creatures more related to worms, their scales of a dull red sheen, and a long ivory horn jutting out from the back of their graceful heads.
More out of habit than a desire for modesty I put on a silk robe, relishing the sensuous feel of the fabric on my skin as I made my way slowly to the single window that looked out over the street. I sat on the high-backed chair there, padded with the skin of a nigouar, and put my legs up on a footstool, and looked out of the glass.
Onto a street, where a commoner male walked, eyes fixed on the ground, his clothing clean if simple and mended several times. Respectfully he stopped and darted quickly to the side when a matron passed on her drift disc, surrounded by her bodyguard of smartly dressed soldiers, marching in time, backs ramrod straight, a paragon of discipline.
Her eyes did not see him, her chin lifted haughtily, her grim expression a challenge to the world. In her eyes I could see ambition, that all consuming flame that burned with a pleasing fire in every single drow in this city, a heat that was exquisite and marvelous in its complex simplicity.
I smiled down at them, a quick, indulgent smile.
And the matron glanced down, and saw the male. He dared not meet her eyes, but stayed staring at the ground, submissive, head bowed, cringing, daring not to turn his back and walk away.
And she snarled, a command, a vicious one. The soldiers sprang as one like so many trained dogs on the male, swords drawn in an instant, with dazzling reflections of what little light there were from the glowing driftdisc throwing up weird patterns on the street. There was a lot of blood as the soldiers hacked and slashed at the male until he was merely a dead red lump on the ground in a growing puddle of blood.
The leader of the soldiers, splashed in blood, his face suffused with the crimson of excitement from the savage kill, turned back to the matron. Her face had a twisted, pleasured expression, that of unholy, crazed delight at the carnage. As I watched she cupped the leader's face in her hands, and slowly licked the blood away from his comely face.
And I smiled. Life in a drow city is so piquant.
They left, the soldiers back in their disciplined rows, as if nothing had happened, even with the tell tale dark stains on their clothing and the near palpable satisfaction of the matron on the driftdisc.
Beggars that had waited for the matron to leave now converged on the scene, their callused and diseased hands plucking the little valuables from the corpse, then they squabbled over them in the street. And as I leaned my head on my hand, they began to fight with rusty daggers and knives, the cheap weapons that they could get, and soon more blood stained the cobblestones.
They killed each other until only two were standing, two which began to stagger away then collapsed, dying from their wounds.
I continued to watch, waiting, waiting, and then the carrion feeders came, those large, bloated white worms which lived in the city and ate the dead and dying and unfortunate sick in the streets. They were too cowardly to face the healthy living, so the drow tolerated them. The creatures slowly ate, their black jaws crunching through bone and sinew, their lifesigns in the infrared as bright and rich as a drow's.
Two of the carrion feeders accidentally bumped into each other, and one bit at the other with the sickle-like fangs. The bitten one shrilled its pain, and curled around and fastened its own jaws on its attacker. They slashed and cut at each other until they too, leaking greenish, viscous liquid, curled up in the throes of death. Their comrades ate them.
I watched, and smiled.**
I met Kimmuriel Oblodra in the compound of one of Bregan D'aerthe's many offices, this one on the edge of the city. There were soldiers, onlookers, but Kimmuriel was very confident of himself, quietly so as he turned to regard me.
"L'Sarol," he said, in his measured voice, "You intrigue me."
I said nothing, but folded my hands and waited.
"Do you have magic?" he asked, then, and I heard the familiar fear in his voice.
They call me L'Sarol, the weapon, because that is all I am to them. I do not give people my true name. They would not believe me.
"It may be," I replied.
"Power, then?" he asked, hoping, so obviously, that I would say no.
I would enjoy frightening him, so I said, "Yes, if you would call it so."
"Can you demonstrate it? Prove it?" He asked.
Ah, this would be entertaining. "Bring me some slave or a creature you do not wish to use any longer, and set burning coals in a heap."
Mystified, he did so. Soldiers heaped dark coals in a brightly burning, sooty orange red fire, red hot coals, and two of them dragged out a squealing kobold, the creature's nostrils dilated with fear, an animal, blinding fear, which was not as flavorful as a drow's fear.
I watched. "Release it."
They did, and stepped back. The kobold wanted to flee, but its beady eyes found mine, and I smiled at it, a fierce smile.
Slowly at first, then more quickly, the kobold approached the fire in that bounding, leaping gait characteristic of its race, then leaped with unnatural longing into the hot flames. Nearly immediately, it exploded into fire as well, skin blistering then peeling away, hair crackling and falling into ash, but on its animal features a look of ecstatic pleasure, and I reveled in the pure pain I could feel from it.
When it was nothing but ash and charred bone, and a stench of burned flesh filled the air, so sickly sweet, I turned back to Kimmuriel. Him, and the rest of the soldiers, were pale, but part of them enjoyed the spectacle. The other part, of course, was simply frightened at what I had apparently done.
None of them were disgusted.
They were drow, after all.
"How?" Kimmuriel whispered.
I smiled. "I can do more. Would you like to watch one of them remove all its organs one by one? Or dip its hand in a freeze-sphere then hit the frozen hand with the other? Or to slowly eviscerate itself?"
"How?" he asked, respect in his voice.
"Would you like a demonstration with your men?" I said, ignoring his question. An uneasy murmuring broke out in their ranks.
"No, no, that was quite sufficient," Kimmuriel said quickly. Then he asked, "What are you?"
I smiled and turned my back on them. As I walked away, slowly, I heard a sound not unlike a lot of mad crickets as they cocked their crossbows at me, but a sharp order from Kimmuriel, and they lowered their weapons.
Drow were so amusing.
And I could taste their disquietude, and their craving to see more of such violence, the bloodlust so characteristic of such a race.
Yes, very amusing. Drow were one of the races that belonged to me the most often, seldom going to my twin after me.
I went back to my chambers.**
The window now looked out at a dark, dank-looking dungeon, but the individual cells were surprisingly clean. Rats tittered to themselves as they scurried across the stone ground.
In the cells that were mockingly spacious were broken specimens, and I say specimens because they were all examples of what happened when one aroused a matron's wrath. All of them knew what was being done to them, of course. I could see one of them, being slowly eaten alive by maggots, choking on his own rotting reek, yet his body regenerating as it was consumed due to some interesting spell.
Some, hurt to the point of death, to be healed again and hurt again. There was a priestess in one of the cells, 'attending' to a chained male with very handsome features that were marred by severe lines of pain and despair. She cut into him with small knives, slowly, shallow cuts that would sting like fire, gorging on his pain.
She took up something - some sort of cup - and poured the contents over his head. He cried out as steaming hot, bubbling acid ate into him.
Wasn't too bad already, actually.
When she had finished with him she spoke the words of a healing spell as I thought she would, and now he spoke for the first time, begging and entreating for death even as his body healed, tears trickling out of his eyes, and when she completed the spell, she licked the salty liquid from his cheeks.
I watched, playing with my influence over them.
And in his eyes I could see that he had been here long - for he had not only grown used to this sort of treatment, he also wanted it now, dully, his body now craving the pain that it gave him, something that obviously sickened him but which he could not control. My hand had his heart, and hers also, as well as that of all drow in this city, and all living creatures, at times.
Drow nearly most of all. A most passionate race.
Growing uninterested, the window dragged on, back up through the house, where the matron was satisfying other pleasures with a surprising number of playmates, but though I watched for a moment, it was nothing truly eye catching.
Normal for drow, of course.
Observed, as with a knife she inflicted both pleasure and pain on her playmates, who were not all male.
Chuckled to myself, and turned away the window.
Amusing, drow were.**
Met another of the captains - a handsome one with a nervous tic in his mouth that started once he saw me.
"House Makshalla wishes Taskan Blyrblurdth dead," he said, "Although Taskan is a great fighter he is growing old, and set in his ways, so he is of no use to Bregan D'aerthe. Kill him."
"The normal price," I replied coolly. "I take it Taskan can be found in his House?"
"He is currently walking in the Underdark with his brother Hyurra." The captain said, "A color shade away eastwards of here. Hyurra is expendable."
"I can find him," I said confidently, and walked away. Amused by the near-palpable relief from the captain.
So he would not be the one following me, then.
This area of the Underdark was boring, so I did not tarry, but came upon the two rather quickly. They did look alike, but as all drow were like. I did not know which was Taskan and which, Hyurra, but in most probability Taskan was the one dressed in armor, with Hyurra the mage.
They were standing together in one of the natural chambers. Probably set a trap for whomever they thought would be lured over to assassinate them. Must have circulated their walk in the Underdark for this purpose.
Drow think they are very clever.
I lifted nizzre'elgluth from around me as I hid behind a pillar, and prepared myself. They may be shielded, the two - they were expecting an attack, after all.
So, the best way would be to move them. Unless they shielded the entire area up to the high ceiling, which I doubted...
I hurled the whip, and with a whistle of air the pointed tip embedded itself deeply in the ceiling above them, firmly. Ah, no resistance of magic as yet, so I pulled on the whip with all my strength.
Nizzre'elgluth returned to my hand, the pointed tip, and stone crumbled and fell with a hissing and a cracking. Clouds of dust rolled under and upwards, like breaking waves, obliterating normal vision.
Infrared showed that the brothers were now separated, having both escaped from the caving in. I found the one which was more likely to be Taskan, and began to creep away towards him.
He had seen me as well - piwafwis are not particularly effective most of the time - and I had to dodge as throwing knives and then, a crossbow bolt, whistled past me. I took cover, and my gloved hand felt the tip of nizzre'elgluth, and I began to hunt.
Taskan's nickname was the Crossbow, and more bolts whistled by, one even managing to clip my cloak. Very good - no one has ever come that close to me with a ranged weapon before. It was evident that I would have to destroy his weapon.
Carefully, painfully, I managed to get close enough to use the whip. More fool he, for he tried to run. If he had not ducked out of his cover I would not have been able to get at him except by approaching him, which would have put me at a disadvantage. As it was, I cracked my whip.
The leather shuddered once, as the tip buried itself in his throat, severing the blood arteries, and I smiled as he fell, clawing ineffectually at the whip. I twisted, and the prongs shot out of the tip, jutting out of the skin of his neck like weird bone fragments.
Didn't even need to destroy that sturdy-looking crossbow.
He died slowly, and I savored each moment of it.
Then I had to retrieve nizzre'elgluth and duck as a lightning bolt seared over my head to disappear into the darkness.
Rolling up and running as magic missiles, the red blots of explosive light, shrilled past me and impacted on a stalagmite. I kept moving, and Hyurra kept shooting, until finally I saw him.
He thought himself safe - and truth be if I had a short ranged weapon, I would be at a bad disadvantage. For even as he spoke the words that would shoot a fireball at me I used the whip.
The metal point whistled past his ear. He had probably been protected against direct sharp and piercing weapons. I jerked on the length, and it swung round.
Hyurra was fast - he pushed up his arm, so the leather wound around both his neck and his arm, not strangling him. He strained against the whip, but could not break free.
Putting my weight behind it I yanked on nizzre'elgluth, and laughed as I heard his bones splinter, as his arm broke and his neck snapped as well, windpipe crushed. He toppled to the ground, and I took my time to approach him.
As I unwound the whip from him his lips moved. Odd, I'd thought he would have died.
He said something very softly, but my ears were good.
"I am not mortal," I agreed, cleaning the metal tip on his robes, then winding it back around me. He was about to belong to my sister soon anyway, so I might as well listen to him.
I sat down next to him. "I am neither male nor female. Many actions are done in my name, and I am emotion and passion and sense and madness. It is because of me that sentient ones rose to dominate the earth, and it will be because of me that they will fall. I am present in the hearts of all, drow, human, goblin, even rats."
"My twin is Despair, and related to me are She who takes all, He who has abandoned his realm, The Lord of Dreams, The First One, and She who was Delight. All pass through my realm only, for to stay is to be consumed, but many revisit me again and again."
"What I am courses through you, all of you, what I am burns, red hot, and also glows, mellow gold, but I am always there, sleeping or watching or awake and roaring. Some believe that my eldest sister has the greatest power of all, but in truth I hold in my hands the hearts of all."
"Then..." he whispered, but his eyes rolled up, and he went to the Sunless Lands.
"Yes," I said, and smiled.
"I am Desire."
"What a terrible...that is, are you feeling well?" Winter asked sympathetically.
The author grinned sheepishly. "Sorry. Just a little irked about only half of the exams being over...and too much Hellblazer."
"Definitely the latter," Winter mused. She sat in the padded revolving chair comfortably, wearing plain blue robes, no weapons, not even Irr'liancrea. The author, being nicer to Winter than to Zaknafein, had taken the hard stool instead.
"Why did Desire kill so much?" Winter wondered aloud as the author scrolled up.
"Um. That bit got a little out of hand, but she desired to see suffering, I suppose," the author admitted then continued thoughtfully, "Everyone's run by Desire, actually. Desire to do well so we study, to um, eat, to write...it's not only the thing which she's usually associated with."
Winter nodded, and shivered slightly. The author handed the elf her school jacket, which looked a little worse for wear, but Winter shook her head. "It'd pass."
"Didn't think he'd let you come," the author remarked, hanging up the jacket haphazardly on her easel. "I really won't know what to do if you were to faint here or something, so are you sure..."
"I should be past that," Winter said dryly. "Besides, Zaknafein asked me, and considering how annoyed Jarlaxle was the last time when he realized that I manipulated him to go...besides, I wanted to see."
"What is Zak doing now?" the author asked curiously. "Talking to Death again?"
"Yes," Winter sighed, "He likes her. Platonic sense."
"I should think so," the author said firmly, "But like? I don't think he liked anyone. Drizzt was something else."
"Ah...well, there are all sorts that make a world," Winter said philosophically. "And Death does like having someone who enjoys talking to her about anything and not only on what she does or whether she made deals."
"She's nice," the author said automatically. "How did you get away from Jarlaxle?"
"I did not tell Rai'gy this time," Winter said dryly, "Usually Jarlaxle does not bother trying to keep an eye on me...just drops in whenever he feels like having my company, or when he thinks that I'd been missing for too long a time, or at the equivalent of night. Now that he is busy with that treaty."
"I hope you get back before he finds you're here," the author muttered.
"So do I," Winter said serenely. "Now, do you want me to ask questions? This is fun."
"Glad you think so," the author said happily, "Hardly anyone else thinks so. Except possibly Constantine, who just thinks its fun to irritate me. And everyone else. Um...questions...actually now I'm just annoyed that both the new Terry Pratchett book and the new Wheel of Time book are out. Just at the time when I can't read them, too."
"Then I will ask questions," Winter said, a little comfortingly. "Well, now you have your Christmas gifts."
"I'm not reading the Wheel of Time book until it comes out in the library," the author shrugged, "I don't like any of the characters. Just interested to find out, well, what's going to happen, and who this nine moons person is. It's been a while, and I've forgotten most of what happened already. As to Terry Pratchett...can't wait, but it's a book on its own, not attached to the Witches or to the Guards."
"If you say so," Winter said placidly. "Question. Is that your true perception of Desire? So violent?"
"Well, yes," the author admitted, "Most of her fics that I've read portray her as merely manipulative, and all of them usually involve love or something. I did like one called 'The Jeweled Corset', but that one's a bit...well, everyone died, and Desire didn't feature personally in the story."
"I see," Winter murmured.
"And since Death doesn't like her - and Death likes everyone else - there must be something about Desire. Hence. And this took all those pictures from my dreams away from me, so writing has a psychological effect on me that is good." The author beamed brightly.
"Okay..." Winter smiled.
"She's the only member of the Endless who's neither female or male," the author mused, "And her twin is Despair. I find that concept very...well, I think Neil Gaiman is so talented. Wonder where he gets his ideas."
"From dreams?" Winter put with gentle mockery. Her illness seemed to have left her with a behavior which was unusually placid.
"He did write 'Eaten' due to a nightmare," the author shuddered, "In which, of course, he dreamed he was being slowly eaten by a witch while he watched, or something. Gross. The only disgusting nightmare I had was after a biology practical where we had to cut through an eye. Everything falls out, you know, with the lens on top. And the white bit - the sclera, is really tough. Then we had to invert the eye...it's all black with a white spot. Dreamed someone was doing that to my eyes while I somehow watched. Ew."
"I would agree," Winter's eyes widened.
"Or...the heart practical, where a science teacher stuck his hand into the heart and wiggled his finger out of the aorta. 'Look! This is where the left ventricle leads to!' Oh, ouch. I'm not cut out to be a doctor I suppose," the author concluded.
"Another question...are you fascinated with the subject of Bregan D'aerthe?" Winter smiled as she echoed Zaknafein's words.
"Well, yes," the author thought a little. "Not at first though. Must have been the fic about you and Bregan D'aerthe that caused it. More entertaining than writing about other bits of Menzoberranzan, and I'm not familiar with the other cities."
Winter chuckled. "Another question then? What will you write next?"
"Either the Delirium story or the Destiny one. Thought of a plot, finally." The author said, and unearthed a piece of paper from the stack below the table. "Tried to think of a Despair one that doesn't involve writing Wulfgar, but wasn't very successful so far."
"Because he will die?"
"I won't mind writing that. Just that I don't want to read Spine of the World, so a fic about him which does not refer to the book at all will be a bit strange." The author thought a bit. "However..."
They both turned slightly at steps outside, boots on the ground, jewelry clinking and jangling together.
"Oops," the author said blandly. "Hey, he figured out the 'porter. Er. Want to hide under the bed?"
"The distance between your bed and the floor is an inch, my dear," Winter pointed out dryly. "I have a better idea."
She slumped in the chair, and closed her eyes, in seconds appearing to be soundly asleep. Even her breathing slowed.
The author blinked, then jumped when Jarlaxle opened the door and stepped in, looking coldly furious. When he saw Winter, however, the sharp retort that had been obviously building in him died on his lips, and as he approached the boots and jewelry were silent.
Which was good for him, because the author had reached absently for the roll of duct tape on the table. She guiltily pulled her hand away.
The author tried very hard not to snicker as he carefully touched Winter's shoulder. Winter murmured in her 'sleep', and shut her eyes more tightly for a moment before half-opening them. "Jarlaxle?" she whispered, with an excellent imitation of someone just woken from a sound sleep.
"Yes," he said, tightly reigned temper showing in his flat voice, "Now, you have some explaining to..."
Winter closed her eyes again, and appeared to smile weakly. "Love you." She seemed to sleep again.
Jarlaxle cursed under his breath, obviously still wanting to scold Winter, but the words made him much gentler to her as he touched her cheek with sensitive fingers. "Sometimes," he muttered, "I wonder if she is only feigning it."
"She was rather tired when she came," the author said with an absolutely straight face. "Slept for a bit when the 'fic finished."
Jarlaxle nodded, unconvinced but resigned. "I have to carry her back then." He poked the shard at his belt, then as it flared slightly he tenderly picked up Winter in his arms. "Aluve'," he said, a curt farewell.
As he turned his back Winter managed to wink at the author before continuing to feign sleep.
The author waited until they left before treating herself with slightly hysterical laughter. "Aluve?" she muttered, then cocked her head and patted the side. A tiny yellow fish fell out of her ear, and she caught it haphazardly by the tail.
"What's wrong with you now?" she glared at the Babel Fish.
It made gulping motions, and wriggled a little.
The author sighed. "You and me both."