Author’s Note/Content Warning: This chapter contains some of the most graphically disturbing content in the entire story. Readers who are sensitive to depictions of violence, particularly against the most vulnerable, are advised to proceed with caution, and maybe give this one a pass. It is plot-relevant to Kuriwa’s journey, but not necessary to follow the larger story as a whole.
Getting in had been the trickiest part.
In all of Tar’naris, only Arkasia expressed any concern for her. The rest of the drow preferred not to interact with Kuriwa at all, but several made it clear that they believed she would immediately die once in Scyllithene territory and that they considered this a win/win scenario. On her first investigation of the available paths she doubted this, but upon deeper reflection a small part of her (buried deep beneath her constant projection of serene self-confidence) suspected they were right.
Archived lore pertaining to the deep drow was scarce in Qestraceel, sufficiently that Kuriwa had thought it must be some manner of mistranslation that Scyllithenes never tried to dig new tunnels. The Narisians confirmed it, however, and they were clearly in a position to know, given that constant war with their deeper-dwelling cousins was one of the cornerstones of their existence. They could not say why; Scyllithenes had rarely been captured, largely because Themynrites considered it pointless and dangerous to do so, and even more rarely had they been “persuaded” to reveal anything important about their society. The entire culture was a mystery. Even the Narisians could say only that they were sadistic and irrational. But whatever the reason, it was a historically established fact that the deep drow would not try to create a new tunnel unless they were deprived of an existing one, no matter what kind of resistance met them on the established route.
The current route was a single enormous tunnel emerging from one far edge of the cavern in which Tar’naris was built. It was completely encircled and blocked off by walls, but the Narisians had established a huge gate of solid iron barring it. And beyond that, up a steep path another set of walls, and another gate. And beyond that, a third, all of them constantly held by manned ramparts and towers bristling with crude siege weapons, built on such a steep incline that every row had a line of sight to the tunnel entrance. There were further sniper nests for slingers and spellcasters along the cavern’s walls, and even a few clinging to colossal stalactites which hung from the ceiling. At the time of Kuriwa’s visit, all of these were fully staffed and snipers armed with a variety of slingshots were actively harassing some excursion out of the deep caverns. Apparently this—being aggressively probed by rock-slinging soldiers, a handful of warlocks and several enthralled katzil demons—was what qualified as a peaceful period. There was never not some pressure upon the gates of Tar’naris.
According to Arkasia, the gates were necessary for the defense, because it was theoretically possible that they could fall and provide the Scyllithenes a path into the city. In four thousand years it had never happened, but the Narisians had learned that if they built walls with no gates, or collapsed the entrance tunnel, their enemies would dig a new one. So long as the path existed, however, they would not bother. For millennia, they had wasted lives and incalculable resources on those fierce defenses in utter futility, eschewing the obvious strategic advantage of creating a new path along which to attack. It was as if the Scyllithenes were blind to anything else, so long as there was someone to kill in front of them.
Kuriwa had to agree with the Narisian assessment: sadistic and irrational.
She let Arkasia dissuade her from trying to enter the deeper Underworld through the Scyllithene-held corridor. At any given point it was full of attackers, a mix of slingshot-wielding soldiers, shadow priestesses, warlocks, and demon thralls. After watching them pester the gate defenders for an hour, Kuriwa concluded that she could have personally mowed down this entire attacking force; their particular magics were critically weak against the fae, and she outmatched any caster present by entire orders of magnitude. That would undoubtedly earn her some credit with the Narisians, but she was looking forward to never again having to care what they thought. More immediately, it would make it impossible to achieve any true progress once out of Themynrite territory. It went without saying that there were forces in the deep below against which she would lose a contest of magical strength, and the bigger a ruckus she made, the faster they would emerge to destroy her. Passing through the Underworld would depend upon stealth. And she was less than confident that she could conceal her presence through an active battlefield filled with warlocks and clerics.
The remaining evidence of the hard lessons Tar’naris had learned in Scyllithene insanity ultimately provided her with a route.
There were other entrances to the caverns, older ones. There was a collapsed tunnel entrance which remained a tumbled rockfall now, thousands of years after the Narisians had brought it down on top of a huge invasion force. By sealing themselves off, thus, they had provoked the Scyllithenes to bore a new attack route, which opened some distance on the other side of the existing one from the first. That tunnel was surrounded by ruined walls which the Narisians had unwisely built to be an absolute barrier, with no gates or entrance, prompting the boring of the currently used tunnel. After the Scyllithenes had shifted all their attention to this one, the second had been collapsed by the defenders, and the deep drow had never shown it any further interest, as long as they had an open route.
So there were still two unused tunnels, each large enough to admit an army. Granted, they were blocked off by rubble and at least partially collapsed, filled with rock and dirt which had settled for thousands of years to make what for all intents and purposes was a wall.
All intents and purposes except those of an elder shaman, at least.
Kuriwa visited each and performed rituals of seeking, watched over by Gray Priestesses whose faces revealed nothing of their thoughts. Immersed in her magic, Kuriwa could feel their emotions as keenly as her own; they disliked and distrusted her and were mystified by what she was doing, but in the absence of active aggression, she opted to ignore them. Her investigation prompted her to choose the oldest of the two tunnels; it opened out into an un-collapsed portion after only a few dozen yards, and there was no sapient presence anywhere along it, nor even a residue of infernal taint. It had been ignored by the Scyllithenes for centuries at least.
Shape-shifting was the province of fae magic. It was achievable through the arcane, but polymorph spells were difficult, incredibly power-intensive, and not always controllable. The skill wasn’t common even among the high elves, nearly unheard of for humans and dwarves, and utterly beyond the imagination of the very rare arcanists who emerged among drow. An elf could not get through the maze of tiny cracks along the uppermost stretches of the collapsed tunnel, where sediment had not yet filled the way completely. Nor could a spider or cave lizard, for after thousands of years there was more than enough to seal off the remaining tiny routes.
A shaman in a spider’s form, however, armed with magic that could both dig swift new tunnels through dirt and even rock and dissuade hunting lizards, could get through. The Themynrite clerics were startled when she transformed, but her last impression of them as she vanished into the cracks was relief. Kuriwa did not begrudge them that; she was glad enough to end their acquaintance herself.
Due to her tiny stature and the frequent necessity of stopping to divine a suitable way forward and then dig it, her passage through sixty or so yards of tiny cracks took close to an hour. But soon enough it was done, and she emerged into the pitch blackness of the long-abandoned access tunnel, and also into her true form.
In this spot she paused to perform a few necessary rituals. Obviously, Kuriwa prepared herself with multiple measures for avoiding detection—given the enormity of the danger she faced, everything she could manage. Actual invisibility, erasure of tracks, the negation of her scent, suppression of her magical presence, telepathic shields to hide even her thoughts from detection. It was that last which worried her most; mind magic was of the divine, which shadow priestesses could use. Her own measures were significant but it was amply possible that some specialized priestess down here was a more skilled telepath than she could ever hope to be. For all she knew, Scyllith’s priesthood had an entire order dedicated to it.
With her presence as deeply concealed as she could manage, and her stealth measures backed up such that she could rejuvenate the spells as they flagged multiple times on the run before having to perform a new ritual to restore them, she turned to divination. Fae magic was also very strong in finding a way forward when one did not even know where to begin looking, and the need was great. She was alone in the most unknown, inscrutable culture that existed, in a span of tunnels which ran through the crust of the entire planet, filled with people whose only known propensity was toward cruelty and violence. Kuriwa would need the aid of every spirit willing to guide her in order to find anything even slightly useful in her quest.
Finally, prepared as best she could be, she crept forward through the dark silence of the ancient tunnel, and took her first steps into Scyllith’s domain.
Knowing that Scyllith was the goddess of light and beauty was one thing. Knowing it, intellectually, did not prepare Kuriwa for the experience of creeping into an anticipated pit of despair and finding glory beyond the wildest indulgences of the high elves.
Everything was carved and decorated. Everything. The disused tunnel to Tar’naris was in ruins beyond the cave-in, but even that had once been wrought to a standard of beauty that better suited a palace than a purely military route scarcely a stone’s throw from an enemy capital. The masonry there was crumbling and overgrown by wild fungus, with no light to hint at its lost grandeur; Kuriwa could only see at all thanks to her own magic. Beyond the old tunnel, though, true beauty unfolded.
They had worked with the shapes of natural caverns rather than against them. While everything had been carved and built into vaults, galleries, and colonnades all with high arched ceilings, rising and falling in neat flights of stairs, the chambers and corridors curved in patterns which reflected what had once been natural geological formations. At any rate, their arrangement served no purpose from an architectural standpoint.
White was the favored color; most of the facades were actually white marble, which she could tell had been transmuted through some form of alchemy given that it made solid walls of enormous span and lacked any natural veins. The Scyllithene aesthetic made ample use of negative space. Huge swaths of the walls were plain expanses of smoothly unadorned marble. In fact, she quickly surmised that part of the reason for the improbably high ceilings in every chamber was to create that negative space to offset the rich adornments which divided it up.
The columns were all squared, and each face was carved deeply and intricately, with angular geometric designs concealing more elaborate organic forms within them. Many of these deep engravings were filled with a material she did not recognize which put off a steady white glow, surely derived from some alchemical process like the marble. This provided the abundance of steady light which made the deep caverns as bright as noon on the surface, while clearly decorative lights in bright colors shone from glass and gems embedded in the roofs, casting lovely patterns across unadorned stretches of the walls and floor.
The huge blank walls were without exception bordered in elaborately carved moldings, most inlaid with metal. Gold, copper, silver, even steel, the particulars of material and design varied from room to room, but they were all highly polished.
Along the walls at floor level, up to about the height of a person, there were murals. This art was painted, unlike the abstract mosaics which made up the floors. The Scyllithene style was representational but stylized; the figures depicted were formed of simplified lines and idealized proportions, but it was clear what they were meant to portray. In fact, while some of these murals showed purely decorative scenes, a lot showed events in a narrative format that must have been important to be thus immortalized.
The majority of those were depictions of horrific violence. A lot more than she would have anticipated were explicitly sexual and usually portrayed acts that she could only charitably call perverse.
While figures were painted on the walls, they were never carved into them; all the carving on the actual structural components was abstract. Statues there were in abundance, quite a few of them fountains, positioned throughout the many rooms and corridors through which she passed. A lot of these were statues of the kind built on the surface, showing figures in heroic or contemplative poses. A lot of others reflected the vicious insanity of the murals.
Water and air were both widely-used components of the art. The air shafts doubtless served practical purposes in ventilation and temperature regulation, but they were also channeled periodically over delicate structures of metal which made an eerie, etherial music that wavered with the currents of gentle wind. This filled the oppressive silence of the underground where the voice of water did not.
Streams were shaped into canals both large and small, bordering some rooms and halls, in other places crossed by stone and metal bridges. Some had more glowing substances inlaid into the floor beneath them, causing the streams to cast shifting patterns of light across the walls and ceiling. Small waterfalls adorned several rooms and fountains were common, adding both visual and auditory art to the passages.
Despite having no access to plants, the Scyllithenes made abundant use of gardens in their décor. Many rooms had long, carved planters filled with decorative growths of colorful fungus, some bioluminescent but all of it at least pretty and clearly cultivated with care for the appearance they presented. Some of these were positioned high up columns or door frames, trailing fronds of exotic mushrooms like hanging vines. Notably, they never obstructed the large, plain stretches of marble wall.
That was the overall pattern. The detail in the paintings, carvings, engravings, and cultivated growths were rich and complex, but were always presented in the context of much larger swaths of negative space that both emphasized them and prevented them from overwhelming the eye. Color against blankness, perfectly balanced and stunning to behold. And always, everywhere, light. Pure light filling the rooms like the sun, colored light serving to accentuate and adorn. Nowhere was there darkness; rarely were there even shadows.
And the most astonishing thing about it was that she was clearly far from civilization. To Kuriwa’s senses, the existence and proximity of living forms was plain even through intervening stone, and very few were in the vicinity. There were no concentrations which suggested settlements or agriculture, nor even mining or any massed activity of any kind. All of this was just roads. No, not even that; it was the countryside. And it was not only kept scrupulously clean and repaired, but decorated to a standard of artistry that had no rival in her experience. Humanity had never created anything this glorious. Wood and sun elves wouldn’t bother with so much artificial décor, but the dwarves surely might, yet clearly lacked the skill and resources. These empty chambers at the back end of nowhere rivaled the grandeur of the most prestigious halls of Qestraceel.
What few encounters she had with living drow on her journey amply bore out the sinister promises hinted at in their artwork.
Kuriwa made a point of staying off the floor whenever possible. The numerous decorative touches were very conducive to this; with the augmentation of her magic she was able to clamber and hop from one feature to the next with relative ease. It had been a painful lesson in hear early life not to trust everything to magic, and so despite her abundant spells to ensure that she left no trace, she tried to minimize contact with commonly-trod surfaces on which traces might be found. Sometimes she had to get down and walk, but maintaining the habit of staying high up helped her in avoiding the rare drow she encountered.
The first was a large contingent clearly heading for Tar’naris. Kuriwa paused to let them pass, perched on the head of a towering statue of a nude woman pointing toward the Themynrite city. The soldiers were fully armored and accompanied by priestesses and warlocks, all of them garbed ornately. She had noticed that in watching them fight the Narisians earlier; the Scyllithenes put the Themynrites to shame in terms of fashion. Even the armor of the common soldiers was buffed, engraved and embossed more richly than any human noble she’d seen could afford. The priestesses wore truly exquisite gown and an astonishing wealth of jewelry.
Kuriwa remained perfectly still and silent while the force nearly a thousand strong marched past in formation, concentrating on her concealments. One accompanying katzil demon wandered close to her, clearly sniffing the air, but her magic held out and it moved on at the behest of its handler. Only when the last echoes of their passing had vanished down the halls did she resume her own course.
Drow on the march to war proved, during the several days of her journey, to be among the least vile. Kuriwa followed the guidance of her guardian spirits. She did not know toward what, but trusted that she was being led to her best chance of help. Clinging to that helped her cope with the things she saw.
The most numerous were the maintenance crews. Obvious slaves being chivvied along by handlers, carefully cleaning every surface while supervising priestesses took notes on any slight damage which required repair. Kuriwa passed a total of five cleaning crews and two clearly restoring crumbled statuary and stonework. In all of them, it was common to see those in charge abusing the laborers with both whips and pain-inducing spells, sometimes with the clear purpose of goading them to work faster, but more commonly for no reason except to make the handlers laugh. Which they did.
There were occasional fellow travelers, none of whom noticed her stealthy presence. She noticed that no one walked alone, and discovered why upon finding a drow woman lurking atop a door lintel at the entry of a long, mushroom-lined corridor with a knife in hand. Kuriwa took the precaution of deliberately befuddling that one’s senses before passing. Travelers were rare, but they moved in groups of no less than two, often three to five.
Even traveling companions were not a guarantee of safety so much as an indication of where, specifically, the danger was, as she discovered. Every single time she saw people passing over a bridge, someone got pushed off, to uproarious laughter. Usually this just meant a short fall into a shallow canal. Once it was an endless plummet over a waterfall into unfathomable distance below. That one, to judge by the reactions of the survivors, was the funniest of all.
At one point she found two people having sex in a kind of mushroom garden at the intersection of five hallways, clearly unconcerned with being encountered. Either there was no taboo about this in Scyllithene culture or… Well, the possibilities were many and Kuriwa was not especially curious. Woodkin culture emphasized privacy; she was well-practiced at not hearing things which were none of her business, and had this been a woodkin couple she could have completely ignored them, even when the woman loudly reached repletion right as Kuriwa was hopping from wall sconce to wall sconce right above them.
She had to look down at the abrupt change in the noises they were making, though, to her own chagrin. The woman below had finished off her climax by gouging out her partner’s eyes with both thumbs, and then turned to making a game of trying to stay atop him despite his thrashing without the use of her hands. Or maybe she just couldn’t use her hands, being too busy licking the gore from them.
Kuriwa put on a burst of speed to the point of risking silence. Behind her, the woman’s laughter followed for far too long a time, accompanied by the man’s screams.
That was one of the ugliest things she encountered on her journey, but not the worst. That honor went to an event which occurred on the outskirts of the first actual settlement she passed, a village built into the walls of a deep chasm where bridges and ledges formed the only solid ground above a seemingly infinite drop. Though she did not go close to the centers of activity, her path took her across the wide plaza abutting the canyon, where the ledge leading to the village met several corridors into other chambers.
There, the common pastoral scene of a woman keeping watch over several playing children was given a characteristically vile Scyllithene twist. The game those kids were playing consisted of beating one of their number with stone clubs. The unfortunate was already bloody and limping, clearly trying to escape but already too injured. Her cries only goaded the others on.
That point, more than any, would have broken Kuriwa’s resolve to stay out of Scyllithene business had she any inkling what was about to occur, or been fast enough to intervene. But she was too distant, barely within eyeshot down a corridor, and taken fully by surprise when the girl was abruptly pushed over the precipice into the abyss by her playmates.
She couldn’t have been more than ten.
Worse than the cheering and laughter of the children was the woman watching over them, who applauded, smiling in approval.
Kuriwa fled down the nearest tunnel with no regard to where her guides were leading her and little for silence. The first place she found big enough to crouch on beyond the sounds of the village, she did so, clutching herself and desperately forcing her own emotions back into balance. She had not managed to act in time to save a young life back there; betraying herself now by weeping over it would be truly pointless.
Even that was not the worst of it, of course. Had that been the first thing she encountered, the shock would have devastated her, but after three days of watching passing drow revel in senseless cruelty, that final act of horror drove the balance right out of her. It was some time before she recovered enough of her equanimity to move on.
To her gratitude, the spirits led her farther and farther from society. The longer she journeyed, the more infrequent her encounters with drow became. This was beneficial in practical terms, obviously; the fewer drow she met, the fewer opportunities there were for her to be discovered. It was a boon to her peace of mind, as well. Everything she saw and heard sickened her in some way.
These people were absolutely psychotic, every one of them. The reality of a whole society in Scyllith’s grip was inconceivable, incomprehensible. Even Hell under Elilial’s rule was surely not so repulsively cruel.
Beauty, light, and cruelty. This was a nation—in fact, an empire—made in the image of someone who did not deserve to exist. And it spanned the entire world below the surface. Kuriwa was not a believer in denial but only by refusing to contemplate the implications could she focus enough to keep pressing forward. It was a blessing that her path took her through the outskirts of this society. The sight of whatever happened in their cities might drive her to madness.
Eventually, she found herself clearly journeying beyond the bounds of civilization. First came dust, and then disrepair; by the end of the third day she had passed through faded murals and crumbling stonework into actual caved with only occasional signs of habitation, most of them long-ruined. She forced herself not to relax, but the indication that she was not surrounded by Scyllithenes in all directions brought her at least a little confidence. Kuriwa had come to consider it worse than being surrounded by demons. Those were unreasoningly violent; these were calculatedly sadistic.
At long last, she found the goal to which her guides were leading, discerning the use of divine and infernal magic woven in a strange pattern far ahead of her. Once her senses focused on it, the guiding spirits flickered out, their task done.
Kuriwa proceeded forward cautiously, under her own guidance now.
Carving and painting began to return—still aesthetic, as it seemed Scyllithenes could not bear for anything not to be decorative, but now also functional. They were images of warning, this time accompanied by the first written text she had encountered. The Scyllithene dialect of elvish was comprehensible, but even more garbled than the Themynrite version. Whatever lay down this tunnel was dangerous, and forbidden.
Which could be excellent, or too bad to contemplate. It stood to reason that something this society of malicious lunatics hated might represent all that was decent in the world. Or it could just be something so much worse than they that they had given up trying to contend with it.
Notably, despite all the warning signs, no attempt had been made to obstruct the tunnel. Of all the things she had seen, the Scyllithenes’ aversion to blocking off corridors was far from the most disturbing, but it had to be one of the more puzzling. The rest of it made a certain kind of vicious sense, taking into account that their culture was formed by Scyllith. But why were they so opposed to the closing of a path, and so unwilling to make a new one except at great need?
Regardless, she pressed forward with care. The magic grew nearer, and soon, there came the sound of a woman chanting in some echoing chamber up ahead. That was all for long minutes, both looming ever closer in Kuriwa’s senses while little changed in her surrounded.
Until, finally, she reached the end, and found a doorway. Not a door; it was open. But this portal had not been built by the drow. Set in the wall of a seemingly natural cavern, it was an open frame of pale metal that might have passed for steel to less acute eyes than hers, flanked by two glass columns which emitted a violet glow. She had seen the like of this before, deep below a grove to the north of Avir Idyllin.
Kuriwa paused on the threshold to take stock. The magic was coming from within, as was the chanting. Beyond the door was a ledge, and beyond that a wide-open circular chamber. It was walled by mithril and old, now-dark information panels, with atop those a crazed patchwork of spidersilk hangings, steel chains, weapons, baskets and jugs, and signs of habitation in general. Rather than the steady glow of ancient Elder God lights or the alchemical illumination of the Scyllithenes, it was lit by the orange flicker of fire.
Finally, with nothing else to do, she stepped through the door, invisible and silent. The tingle of alien magics passed over her skin as she crept to the edge of the platform and peered down.
Amid the ancient metal and glass had been constructed a stone altar, upon which was laid the body of a drow man, his skin carved with unintelligible sigils which now burned a faint orange like the fires which muttered in two braziers to either side. He had not been dead long enough for the blood to dry.
Before the altar of sacrifice was a drow woman with her arms upraised, chanting rhythmically in no language Kuriwa knew. She was dressed in scraps, the stitched-together rags of spidersilk a marked contrast to the exquisitely-garbed drow Kuriwa had passed on the way here. Also unlike them, she wore no jewelry, but had crude symbols drawn along her arms in a faintly glowing ink probably derived from luminescent mushrooms.
Whatever magic this was, it called for the sacrifice of a person; this woman was clearly no less dangerous than any Kuriwa had seen thus far. But to judge by her attire and the comparative rat’s nest in which she practiced, she rejected Scyllith’s ideal of beauty. This…could be promising.
Suddenly the chanting stopped.
“I know you are here,” the drow woman said, lowering her arms. “Be not alarmed, I have called for you. My magic, it compels truth. I will not lie to you, and you will not lie to me.”
She turned, raised her chin, and looked right at Kuriwa, locking eyes. Belatedly, the shaman realized that she was not invisible. In the future, she would adjust her stealth spells so that they alerted her somehow when they were negated rather than relying exclusively on her own situational awareness.
“Strange,” the drow commented, studying her. “You are not the thing I expected. But I have called, and you are here. It must be a great need which brings you into the depths, golden-hair. Come down and we will talk without lies, about what we can do for each other, and who shall pay for it.”
Kuriwa stared at her in silence for a moment. Then she turned to her right and began to descend the stairs.