“I am not unusual among the shadow priestesses for despising our goddess, but only for leaving their sisterhood,” Szaiviss explained later, when they were sitting cross-legged on the floor of the ancient Elder chamber with a few certainties having been established. The drow had not interfered while Kuriwa exercised her own magic to make sure that the web of spells around them did what she claimed. And it did; her guides confirmed that it was a beacon, aiming to draw in powerful aid against the Elder Goddess, and guaranteeing that no one within it would be able to lie. Szaiviss, as the priestess introduced herself, claimed that part was a common ritual working, and it said a lot about the drow that they would commonly need such a spell. At least Szaiviss had sat quietly while Kuriwa worked, demonstrating her willingness to extend the same consideration for which she asked. It was as promising a start as Kuriwa could have hoped, considering.
She had told her story—minimally, but without prevarication. In fact, she had tried to add a few little obfuscations just to test the Scyllithene spellwork, but it was quite impossible.
“Why would it be unusual for priestesses to leave, if it is common for them to loathe Scyllith?”
“You know nothing, golden-hair,” Szaiviss said dismissively. Kuriwa repressed all the obvious responses to that, simply staring at her and studiously ignoring the rune-carved dead man laid out on the slab right beside them. It was a sharp reminder that under any other circumstances she would have refused to have anything to do with such a creature, and perhaps attacked her outright on general principles. Here and now, though, she had not the luxury of choosing her allies.
After a pause, the priestess finally deigned to explain.
“There are some who are fully devoted to Scyllith’s way, who are passionate in their cruelty. Mad, they are. That is not a way for people to be. From birth, we are taught it, but not for everyone does it take. The devotees, the happily cruel, they do not become priestesses. The Lady of Light, she has no need for loyalty. She wants her will done by those who hate it, hate her.”
Kuriwa could only inhale slowly, trying to make sense of that.
“You wonder, why does it all work?” Szaiviss quirked an eyebrow in dark amusement.
“I wonder exactly that. How can you possibly run a society on terms like that?”
“You cannot.” The drow shook her head. “You cannot. It needs a goddess to make something like this run. Without Scyllith, it would all collapse. Immediately.”
Kuriwa narrowed her eyes. Szaiviss stared back, unblinking.
“And so…you want to get rid of Scyllith.”
The priestess just stared at her.
“How?” she prompted at last, not bothering to hide the skepticism in her voice.
“I am not close,” Szaiviss said at last, reluctantly. “I will probably not succeed. An impossible task, it is, to destroy a god. Wildly unrealistic, to disrupt her enough to break her hold on my people. Dangerous and pointless to lurk and meddle and harass, which is all I have done. But I aspire to the impossible.” She shrugged. “It is that, or work to sustain the insanity.”
“I see,” Kuriwa murmured. Faced with a choice like that… She would likely have done the same, in truth. “I am not sure what I can offer you, Szaiviss. I am in a desperate corner myself, and taking a stand against Scyllith is totally beyond my means. Anyone’s, I suspect. If that is the price you demand for helping me, I will have to look elsewhere.” She did not move, not truly thinking that could be the end of it. Her spirit guides often enough led her into trials, but never to a dead end.
“No one is taking a stand against Scyllith,” Szaiviss retorted. “No one, it is madness to even think. We will try very hard to not get her attention, yes? Or anyone’s.”
“Seems wisest,” Kuriwa said noncommittally.
“You have seen things like…this, yes?” Szaiviss leaned to one side, reaching out to rap her knuckles against a wall where pristine mithril peeked out between tattered spidersilk hangings.
About this, of all things, every instinct Kuriwa possessed demanded that she be cagey, but the spell continued to scintillate around them. Refusing to answer was as good as an answer, so she kept it terse. “I have.”
She actually tried to lie, but the words wouldn’t leave her throat. The best she could do was answer with a different truth. “That is a closely guarded secret, and not mine to betray.”
Szaiviss grunted. “Yes. Here, too. Fine, it is not as if I am about to go to your surface and dig in your secrets, I wish now only to know what I must explain. You know what were the Infinite Order, yes? Scyllith’s generation of gods?”
“To the extent that anyone knows, I believe I am up to date,” said Kuriwa, nodding. “Their leavings are best avoided, even the relatively benign ones. Are you actually living in here?”
“Hah! Even I am not that crazy, not quite. Not yet.” The brief mirth leaked from her face. “What you are wanting to do? I mean the hard parts, the time travel, the genetics, the dimensional shifting. For that you will find answers in the old Order’s vaults—some of them. Any adolescent here can cast a curse, but you want knowledge that exceeds Elilial’s. That means Infinite Order.”
“Veth’na alaue,” Kuriwa muttered.
“I do not know what that means,” Szaiviss said dryly, “but I can tell what it means, and it is right. They are bad news. The old facilities that do not just kill whoever looks at them too hard, they are further protected by many guardians and traps. But!” She leaned forward, grinning and raising one finger. Her teeth were yellowed, something Kuriwa had never seen on an elf. “Those defenses, they were made by shadow priestesses, weaving the corrupting fire and the divine light. Your magic, the green magic of Naiya, that is not known here. It is the best, the most powerful against what Scyllith’s people have. My knowledge and your power can get us into a place I know, which has answers we both need.”
A lead, and a solid one. From what she knew of the Infinite Order, it was exactly as Szaiviss said: their understanding of magic and science both outstripped even that of the current gods, but any repository of their data would be a fiend’s nest of terrors. The Elder Gods had used traps and curses practically as décor, both to secure their domains and because, she suspected, the suffering of others amused them. Naturally any such sites would be revered by these deranged dark elves.
And there was another point which made her wary.
“So you’re telling me,” she said carefully, “that the exact thing I need just so happens to be the same exact thing you need? How…improbably fortuitous.”
Szaiviss grimaced, and Kuriwa wondered if she were struggling against her own truth spell. “The old vault I have in mind, it is not any part of my plans. I did not plan at it because I cannot get past its protections, and because I do not know exactly what is there. But you can get us in, I think. And once we go to it, I will find something useful. It is a cache of tools and knowledge from the Order, yes? There is bound to be something. And you, I think, are not to be my personal guardian, adventuring through the tunnels after all my desires, yes? So we compromise at a thing we can both use.”
“If you don’t know what’s in this vault, how can you be so sure?”
“Sure? No. A reasonable guess.” She shifted in place, resting her hands on her knees in a meditative posture belied by the intent set of her eyes. “Not very far away on this continental shelf, on the surface there is what was the great stronghold of Druroth of the Infinite Order, once. It was mostly destroyed by Taluvon before the new gods rose up, half the whole mountain sunk into the ground. Druroth went elsewhere, keeping only some servants and passive systems to watch his old fortress, yes? So it fell into confusion and decay, long before Druroth himself died. And so beneath it, among its deepest roots, Araneid made herself a little nest.”
Kuriwa narrowed her eyes. “Araneid.”
“The spider goddess.” A touch of reverence crept into Szaiviss’s tone. “Creator of all drow, and once the ruler of us all. Until the uprising of the new gods. Themynra came, and then Scyllith, and yet Araneid, she is not forgotten, not gone, even dead. Rumors persist that there is still her arachne, hidden among us somewhere. Scyllith has what was left of the spider goddess, a cosmic egg containing her essence. It is a major source of the Lady of Light’s power, a reason that she is still running a society while Naiya, well… She is not talked to much anymore, yes? Not so able to keep her thoughts in order?”
“Is this…egg…in this place you are talking about?”
“No!” Szaiviss waved both hands urgently. “No, no, that is in Scyllithar itself. We are not going there! But my point is, this is a chamber of two Elder Gods who were not Scyllith. Araneid’s secret rooms, built amid the wreckage of Druroth’s stronghold. It is sealed off and protected, not touched in countless generations. There we will find secrets, things Scyllith does not want known. Things you can use, and I can use.”
“A slender thread,” Kuriwa said, leaning back.
Szaiviss curled her lip in a slight sneer. “And you came down to this sunken hell for what? Certainty?”
“You have a point,” she admitted.
“My beacon, your spirits,” the priestess pressed. “I called for the help which can make a difference for me. You asked to be led to where you can get what you need. We are brought together, and this is my one idea. Yes, it is slender. It is what we have. Will you go back to your cursed family empty-handed instead, golden-hair?”
It was not that simple, of course; Kuriwa could always look in a different direction for resources down here. But when it came to it, she had no better ideas than this. It was no more farfetched or less dangerous than anything she had feared, and not as bad as she had begun to expect after three days of watching the Scyllithene drow and their sadistic lunacy.
And she did not have time to dither. Every hour, the curse progressed.
“Your skill, then,” she said, “and my power. Very well, Szaiviss. Let us…try.”
The unspoken agreement that made their enforced partnership possible hinged on staying out of one another’s way. Kuriwa already detested everything the drow priestess was and stood for, and while she could hardly imagine the particulars it seemed a safe bet that the feeling would be mutual. And so they made no conversation save that which circumstances demanded, kept a wary eye upon one another, and proceeded in silence. Oddly, the tension imposed by their situation made for one of the least awkward silences Kuriwa had had to endure. Once it was established that there would be no socialization, social concerns ceased to apply.
The Scyllithene dialect, while recognizably the same language as the elvish with which Kuriwa had been raised, was even more garbled than that spoken in Tar’naris. Narisian elvish featured multiple levels of formality and several other features owing to their caste system, but apart from that was little different from surface elvish. Szaiviss’s tongue had some weird grammatical features which Kuriwa recognized as coming from the influence of demonic, a notoriously erratic constructed language which was fiendishly difficult to learn, by design. It rarely become enough of an issue to cause communication problems, especially given as little as the two of them tried to communicate; Szaiviss just constructed her sentences backwards, sometimes. Spoken, it made little ultimate difference, though Kuriwa did discover as they passed the odd sign on their journey that the Scyllithene wrote using demonic runes half the time.
They continued along a series of tunnels that avoided contact with other elves, which suited her perfectly. For the most part these were natural crevices, interspersed with ruins clearly crumbling from long abandonment. In an odd way, the ruinous underground wilderness was a lot more comforting than the ornate aesthetic of the well-maintained corridors Kuriwa had followed at first.
For all that, their progress was slow as Szaiviss warned her that anyone else lurking in these forgotten byways would be exiles from Scyllithene society like herself. Some of those might be potentially useful allies, who disdained the cruelty of Scyllith’s commands, but just as likely a stranger encountered here could be a lunatic or criminal, and the kind of people too unstable to function even among the Scyllithene were as dangerous to encounter as rabid animals. Kuriwa suspected her new companion had an agenda in keeping her (and her fae magic) away from other potential competitors, but she was altogether content minimizing her contact with the lunatic drow of the deep dark.
After less than half a day’s travel—it could be difficult to keep track with no sun but Kuriwa had a decently developed sense of time—they reached their first destination, which was another piece of Elder God ruins.
“Good, no one is here,” Szaiviss grunted, brushing past the warning signs and totems affixed all over the half-collapsed entry. Again, the Scyllithenes had not attempted to render the place inaccessible, merely posted warnings. “Oh. Anymore.”
Kuriwa peeked past her and grimaced. This room was built along the same plan as the tower-like space in which Szaiviss had crafted a ritual chamber: circular, hollow, and surrounded by now-inert panels of ancient technology. It had three entrances, though, rather than the one, and all of them were spaced evenly around the floor level. In the center was a raised, circular dais with a slightly convex crystalline floor, and lying against the base were the lower halves of two different corpses.
There was no smell, even. Was the lack of decay due to drow magic, or Infinite Order science? Or a simple lack of microorganisms down here? She was fairly unfamiliar with the normal ecology of caves, let alone what must have developed under Scyllith’s unnatural aegis.
“What is this?” Kuriwa asked while Szaiviss, ignoring the dead, paced around the edges of the chamber and began trying to tug loose one of the dead screens.
“Transportation platform,” the priestess grunted. The screen finally came free and lifted upward on silent hinges, and she reached into the array of inscrutable wires and parts beneath it. “A long way, we have to go, and long ways become short ways in the Underworld. Always, everywhere, things stalk the paths. The more you travel, the quicker doom meets you.”
Kuriwa scowled, flicking her eyes back to the bodies. “It doesn’t look like it’s working properly. You really expect me to get into that?”
“Works properly if used properly, like anything.” Something snapped audibly under Szaiviss’s fingers and she stepped back, lowering the panel back into place. It had already come alight. “The old gods, the things they built do not break with time. These devices are dangerous to use because there is security upon them—curses and traps for the unwary. Jealous, they were, not keen to share their tools with their servants. This one, I have known a long time. Changed the locks, I have. Dangerous for others to use, but I can make it work for me.”
“And…the one at the other end?” Kuriwa said skeptically. “I presume this comes out at a similar platform. Can you make that one work?”
“We go to one that will be safe to land on. But to leave…” Szaiviss turned back to her, a sly grin flickering across her features. “Less safe. Hopefully we find what we want where we are going. From there, I have many ways to get around, and there are paths up through the ancient fortress to the surface for you to escape. Not by this way will we come back, golden-hair. Now step quickly, it is set for two and will not stay long.”
Kuriwa indulged in a small sigh, but did as instructed, keenly aware of the risk she was taking. Of the use of Infinite Order technology she knew nothing; Qestraceel law forbade meddling with it and the Avatar she had met beneath the grove was self-contained and left none of his attendant machinery open to tampering. If Szaiviss intended to lead her into some kind of trap, this was a golden opportunity.
But the spirits had led her here, and one thing she knew Szaiviss did not have the capability to do was deceive them. Like all wood elves, she disliked teleportation on philosophical grounds, but having grown up in a city where it was as mundane a way to get around as it had apparently been to the Elder Gods, her personal objections where less stringent. If being teleported did indeed destroy the person and create a clone, for her that ship had sailed many times before she reached adulthood.
The platform began to glow beneath their feet, and then a flash split the room and their surroundings changed. Not entirely; they were in a chamber built to exactly the specifications of the previous one, which had suffered different particulars of decay over the long years. There were no dead bodies present now, but spidersilk banners hung upon the walls, ragged and thin with age, and scrawled with demonic runes of warning. A rockfall had buried one of the three exits from the room and a second was closed off by a solid mithril door which, to judge by the lack of any active panels near it, wasn’t going to open any time soon.
Most importantly, she was fine. Unharmed, unchanged, with her magic and connections to the spirits fully intact. If Szaiviss intended to ensnare her in some trap, she was playing a longer game.
“Where are we now?” Kuriwa asked, stepping quickly off the platform.
“Closer,” her companion said tersely, following her down. “Below what was the inland sea at the center of this continent. The great prairies, now. Close but not within the spatial distortion that is the Darklands on the infernal plane. How it is on the surface, I do not know, but it is suicide to go in there underground. So we will not. Our goal is right at the edge, should take us less than another day to get there.”
“I see.” Kuriwa let the shadow priestess slip past her and followed her out. This time, rather than opening right onto a natural cave, they followed a narrow mithril-lined corridor of Infinite Order make, its built-in lights long since inert. “Interesting. You measure time in days? I wouldn’t have thought your people even knew what they were.”
“We all of us live in a tiny ball of rock spinning through infinite space,” Szaiviss retorted, giving her a contemptuous look. “Because we live below a ceiling of stone does not make us stupid, or blind. All our peoples are made from the same ancient stock; we spend about the same times awake and asleep. Quiet now, we are closer to traveled paths here.”
Kuriwa, as she was constantly advising the young elves of her grove, extended her senses and shut her mouth.
This new territory, again, consisted of well-kept halls and tunnels. There were a few adjacent caves through which to pass, but mostly they were forced to travel in public spaces in order to proceed, and when thus exposed Szaiviss scurried furtively, on the lookout for any fellow travelers. Kuriwa could have concealed them both from anyone’s senses, but for the time being kept that knowledge to herself, as they encountered no one, and indeed no sign that anyone had been here recently.
It was a far cry from the ornate rooms and corridors leading to Tar’naris. Though carved in the same high-ceilinged style, pillars and all, these were unadorned white stone, and seemed less assiduously maintained; not only was there dust on the floors and patches of mushrooms in some of the corners, there were occasional cracks and chips in the stonework, left unrepaired. Of statuary, mosaics, or paintings, there was no hint. Startling as the artistry of the passages had first been to Kuriwa, they made sense, given that Scyllith was also the goddess of beauty. It seemed strange that her touch lay less heavily here.
Szaiviss was jumpier now and irritable about being questioned, but as they proceeded for hours and found no hint of any other drow, she finally (mostly out of sheer exasperation) condescended to answer Kuriwa’s increasingly insistent questions.
“These chambers lead to the halls of the dead,” she said grudgingly, creeping down a corridor and nodding to a doorway in passing. “All the halls that go off in that direction are to mausoleums. So there is less traffic here.”
“I would have thought there’d be more, given how readily you people slaughter each other.”
Szaiviss seemingly found no insult in that. “Few who die are preserved with honor. Most are left at the bottom of whatever chasm they fell into, or feed the lizards. It takes an important station in life, or a manner of death most noteworthy, to be worth the trouble of preserving a body.”
“And why is it so plain? Most cultures treat the fallen with reverence, and decorate—”
“We are not most cultures,” Szaiviss hissed, baring teeth at her. “It is plain here because beauty is a sign of the Lady of Light’s favor, and for the dead she has no use. Their suffering is over. Only the living can be tormented.”
It gave Kuriwa a sinking feeling, contemplating how much sense that actually made. Presumably, the other demented details of this society would be equally sensible in context. Part of her feared burdening her mind with enough understanding of their insanity to discern the patterns. With any luck, it would not become relevant.
Szaiviss finally selected a side corridor down which to travel, pausing to order Kuriwa to complete silence, and crept forward far more slowly. The shaman stayed behind her, quietly as ordered, and reaching out as far as her senses both mundane and magical could extend. Obviously Szaiviss’s caution was well-founded; there was magic up ahead, of a kind that made Kuriwa’s skin crawl.
The hallway terminated helpfully in an arched doorway braced by thick columns which gave them ample space to hide, with ahead of it a balcony bordered by a chest-high stone wall and curving ramps sweeping away to both sides, to a floor ten feet below. Kuriwa wondered in passing if the drow designed features like this because it created opportunities to ambush each other. For now, it at least spared them from blundering into the monstrosity below.
The chamber below the balcony was the size and shape of a small theater, with its opposite wall taken up by a mighty arched door over three stories tall; though broad enough for two wagons to pass through abreast it looked narrow simply due to its height. The thing was of iron, forming thick bars rather than being one solid piece. It looked impossibly heavy nonetheless, but before getting through that they would have to deal with its guardian.
Kuriwa had seen necromantic constructs cobbled together by humans, things stitched from multiple corpses or pieces thereof. This was on an entirely different level. It had no seams or stitching, looking as if it had simply grown naturally the way it was, which was not possible. Lacking a single head, it had five faces lumped together at the top of its torso, clustered like insane growths from some great tumor. Their eye sockets were empty and flickering with blue flame, all five mouths open and all groaning, gasping, or in one case wailing in obvious, constant pain. Its arms were disconcertingly normal in appearance, but below the torso was a huge swollen thorax like a spider’s—except that the bulbous body was covered in enormous blisters and pustules, all lit faintly from within by the same blue lichfire and several pulsating slowly. Like a spider, it had eight legs, but rather than segments of chitin exoskeleton, they were simply drow bones. Miscellaneous bones, fused together into uneven segments so that they had spider-like proportions, at least. Apart from the bony legs, its skin was the plain black of the drow—unbroken skin, marked by no seams or stitches.
The thing’s incessant noises of agony at least made cover for a whispered conversation.
“And that is…”
“The less than honored dead,” Szaiviss said dryly. “Some rites there are, which call for the use of interred corpses, or must be performed in crypts. Not forbidden are they, but meant to be difficult. To enter the crypts, one must get past the guardians. But not destroy the guardians! That brings more priestesses.”
“So not only the living can be tormented after all.”
“The dead can only suffer if condemned before they are dead.” The shadow priestess grinned without warmth or humor. “Once the spirit passes, it is beyond even Scyllith’s power. The name of Vidius is as despised here as that of Elilial.”
“And why are we going into the crypts?”
“The crypts are made around the old structure where Araneid’s nest is hidden. Much time I spent there, when I served among the shadow priestesses; I know the way beyond. But I now am exiled, and the guardian will seek to kill me if I try to pass.”
“So that’s what you need me for.”
Szaiviss withdrew her head from around the corner, pressing her back to the wall so she was again fully hidden from the room beyond, and looked at her expectantly.
The construct was made of a remarkable fusion of infernal and divine magic. It was amazing that the shadow priestesses could do such a thing at all, given how those two magics reacted when brought into contact. Were Kuriwa more of a scholar—or did she have time to analyze it in detail—she could probably have learned a great deal by studying how it had been done. For now, though, the task was to get by it as quickly as possible. Without destroying it, which was the hard part. Being half infernal, it was incredibly vulnerable to her own arts.
This would have to be done indirectly.
Silently, while Szaiviss stared impatiently from inches away, she considered possibilities. Vines and roots could entangle and immobilize it, or she could cause aggressive lichen to clog the joints in its segmented legs. But she did not know how physically strong it was; undead always had greater brute strength than the living, as they had fewer physical limitations on the stresses to which they could subject their limbs.
Of course, its innards would be vulnerable to the same kind of attack… But no, that ran the risk of damaging it catastrophically, which apparently they must not do. The same problems faced any prospect of simple elemental attacks with wind, fire, ice, or the like; there was an all-important middle ground between what would be ineffectual and what might destroy it outright. Worse, that was likely to be a very narrow gray area, and she had little chance of hitting it precisely given how little she knew of the thing.
Could it be simply distracted? Kuriwa had only a very basic ability to access the thoughts of others, and it would require considerable ritual preparation; telepathy was the province of divine magic, not fae. Empathy was another matter, however. Any shaman skilled enough to be let out on her own would be able to sense the shape of unguarded emotions.
From this thing, she sensed nothing but pain. Kuriwa cringed, immediately closing off her mind an instant after opening it to the monster. She had expected anger beneath its agony, but no, there was only anguish. Sorrow, loneliness, the aching hollowness of a multitude of souls chained to constant suffering, longing for the most basic mortal comforts which were forever beyond their reach.
Scyllith’s evil was truly beyond description.
“You making faces is not pacifying the guardian,” Szaiviss whispered fiercely. “I can make faces! For dithering there is no time.”
Struck by inspiration, Kuriwa retreated down the hall till she had space to occupy its center without being in view of the creature. There, she sat down and began removing ritual components from her pouches.
“Do not make a mess!” Szaiviss hissed.
“I’ll clean it,” Kuriwa said curtly. “Hush, let me focus.”
It did not require a highly complicated ritual, anyway, just a few crystals and candles to dilenate a circle; she was a sufficiently advanced practitioner that she didn’t need chalk or dust to fully draw the lines, so long as the space was defined. Two feathers—one sylph, one phoenix—she placed before her on the floor, forming a cross. Their magic made a focus from which to project her own thoughts while also shielding them. A lesser shaman would have needed far greater preparations to attempt this, but not for nothing was she an Elder of her grove.
She found the spirits in the construct easily; their agony was a horrible beacon to her senses. Kuriwa called upon the older, calmer spirits of nature, embodying the sluggish consciousness of the very earth itself. Deep underground, they were surrounded by rock, by the endless, sleepy patience of stone. Inanimate objects had no innate will or awareness, but a sufficiently powerful shaman could imbue the ground with familiar spirits, forming all around them a quiet animation.
The earth was patient, quiet, calm. Its presence was an all-encompassing sense of rest.
Having brought it thus to life, she brought it to the screaming spirits of the guardian.
Kuriwa had expected it to be far more difficult; she had been called on to pacify agitated spirits before, and it was usually as slow and coaxing a process as performing any kind of therapy for a living person. This was not a natural case, however, and whoever had designed the guardian had not anticipated this particular measure. The spirits within it hungrily seized the infinite calm of the earth as soon as she introduced it. With Kuriwa’s guidance, they sank into the surrounding quietude, losing their own sense of identity in the eternal earth itself. She gave them exactly what they wanted most: rest.
“What did you do?” Szaiviss demanded from up ahead, where she was peering into the chamber.
Kuriwa opened her eyes. “I put it to sleep. I don’t know how long that will hold; it is eager for the rest, but such is not in its nature. We should not tarry.”
“Look who tells who not to tarry,” Szaiviss muttered while Kuriwa gathered up her ritual accoutrements, but didn’t henpeck her any further.
They crept with care into the antechamber, but the guardian, having slumped to its side upon the floor, did not stir even as they approached. Its breathing was still loud, strained, but there were no more screams or even groans.
Kuriwa wished fervently that she could give it true, lasting peace. She wished she could do that for all the drow in this psychotic pit Scyllith had made of their world, but that was as futile as wishing for the moon. Trying to test her will against that of an Elder Goddess would be empty vainglory. It would be all she could do to accomplish her own mission here and get out.
Despite its size, the iron gate opened smoothly, the balance of its hinges clearly flawless. The two of them slipped through, carefully shutting it behind, and then hastened silently forward into the halls of the dead.
The crypts were a maze, consisting of towering chambers lined by person-sized notches in which bodies were laid, many with a single huge, ornately-carved sarcophagus standing in the center. Most of these rose four or five stories at least, some as much as twice that and the shortest they passed being twenty feet tall. Doorways and galleries opened onto them from all heights; they might have to pass through a burial chamber at its bottom, or skirt an unrailed drop to the floor of one from high above. These shafts were connected by smooth tunnels which wound in serpentine patterns, not only from side to side but vertically.
The layout was a tangled mess, but Szaiviss moved swiftly and purposefully, seeming to know exactly where she was going. Kuriwa could only trail along after her, keenly aware of how lost she was becoming, and how utterly dependent upon her guide.
Ironically, it was in here that they finally encountered other drow, though fortunately only at a distance. At one point, their corridor opened onto one side of the uppermost level of an open chamber and then followed it three-quarters of the way around its edge before branching off, which gave them an unfortunately long time to observe the ritual unfolding in the chamber below. At least, Szaiviss told her once they were a safe distance down the tunnel that it was a ritual; it just looked like two women violently making love on top of a sarcophagus around which they had piled a bunch of corpses.
Following the shadow priestess in front of her, Kuriwa found herself contemplating that spectacle, and the freshly-sacrificed male drow over whom Szaiviss had been chanting when they first met, and wondered what other twisted things this woman had done that she couldn’t even imagine. It was truly chilling, to consider that someone with such a different threshold for horror had found Scyllithene society so unbearable that she had risked her life to flee it. How could anyone live like this? How many drow were down here? Tens or hundreds of thousands? Millions? The scope of suffering was unimaginable.
Eventually, they emerged from a tunnel onto yet another burial chamber, this time about ten feet up, and rather than heading off to the side again, Szaiviss hopped down to the floor below. Kuriwa followed, watching at a distance while the shadow priestess unceremoniously dragged a mummified corpse out of place so that its stiff legs protruded over the side of its bier, and then crawled bodily into the alcove alongside it. Moments later there came a grinding noise, and Szaiviss’s legs disappeared as she wiggled fully into whatever she had just opened up.
“Come along, golden-hair, there is nothing else to see out there!”
With a sigh and a silent apology to the long-dead drow whose rest she had to disturb, Kuriwa clambered in after her. A piece of the wall inside the funerary alcove had shifted to the side, forming a narrow hole into a larger chamber beyond. Once she was through, Szaiviss reached back out to tug the corpse into its proper place and then push the stone barrier into place again. It was obviously intended to be opened thus; that much rock was simply too big for an elf to shift unaided.
They were now in a natural cavern, and there was light in the distance. Szaiviss carefully led the way toward the faint illumination, stepping over uneven rocks slickened by the underground stream along whose bed they now walked.
“Have you ever been here before?” Kuriwa whispered.
“I have looked in,” the drow replied. “Enough to see that a thing is beyond, to sense the magic that says who made it. I have found records that describe its place, lost and hidden fragments not known to the priestesses. But no…this is farther than I have gone. When I was a priestess, the others watched me constantly. That is their way. Only after being long absent from their ranks am I free enough to come here without leading them all after me, and I did not want to give my sisters access to this. Only with you along could I get past the guardians outside the crypts. I very much think it has been since Araneid’s time that any drow has stepped foot here.”
“That’s encouraging,” Kuriwa murmured. She sensed no living things in the vicinity, but from up ahead came a faint, unpleasant tingle of strange magic at work. Magic, or something older.
The light came from a single glowing Infinite Order data panel, affixed right to an apparently natural cave wall. To elven eyes, its faint glow was enough to discern more such touches upon the cavern in which it stood. It was clearly an already-existing geological feature, a cavern of uneven proportions which spread around them in a series of winding branches and stretched upward into a narrow shaft which ascended into infinite darkness above. More machinery was everywhere, worked right into the very walls and floor, pieces of metal, crystal and glass at whose purpose Kuriwa could not even guess. Only the lone, glowing panel which faced the entrance was still active; of all the artificial structures around, the only thing she recognized was the simple metal staircase and ladders which climbed the cave shaft toward where Szaiviss had said Druroth’s long-destroyed fortress lay, high above.
Both of them came to a stop in front of the panel, then looked at each other. It glowed in the darkness, but there was nothing depicted upon it except a single line of text in an unfamiliar language.
“These things, they work by touching,” said Szaiviss. “But there should be symbols to touch, things that show what it does. I see nothing like that and I fear to poke it at random.”
“Yes, let us please not poke anything at random,” Kuriwa agreed.
They jerked back from the panel in unison when a canned, unnatural voice suddenly spoke from it.
“Dialect identified: I.O. Codespeak, homo sapiens sindarin variant two. Please state your directive, users.”
“Directive?” Kuriwa repeated, frowning. “I hardly know how to proceed.”
“We should see what this thing knows,” Szaiviss suggested.
“Yes… Obviously what we want is locked away in some of this dusty old machinery. The trick is knowing where to look and what to turn on.”
“Acknowledged,” the raspy voice of the machine grated. “Cycling main power core. Primary system boot queued.”
“Wait!” Szaiviss shouted, too late.
All round them rose the hum of technology coming to life, accompanied by the rising glow of tiny running lights, and then artificial lamps producing the clean white illumination favored by the Infinite Order.
“I hope we’re buried too deep for anyone to notice this,” Kuriwa said, wincing.
“Should be,” Szaiviss replied, peering around nervously. “I suppose the risk, it is necessary; we can get nothing from these machines while they are asleep. I did not mean to turn it all on at once, though. There is no telling what—”
It hit them suddenly and with the weight of an avalanche, the force of a consciousness so many orders of magnitude mightier than their own that just to be in its presence felt to the mind like being stepped on by a dragon would to the body. Kuriwa and Szaiviss, both forgetting all the poise and dignity of their respective stations, staggered under the impact, crying out and tumbling to the ground.
Before them appeared a graceful figure of light, slender and lovely more in the way of a doll than an elf, with eyes like miniature galaxies. Her smile was kind and welcoming, even as her very aura blasted them against the far wall of the cavern.
“Why, how very lovely!” Scyllith cooed. “Visitors!”