Tag Archives: Szaiviss

Bonus #58: Accursed, part 4

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“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.”

Pacifying it…

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!”

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Bonus #57: Accursed, part 3

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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.

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12 – 27

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It was not without relief that he finally delegated the immediate clean-up and departed. Ildrin could handle the more urgent practicalities, while Delilah attended to the more trying duty of calming Rector, whose understandable upset at the sudden loss of so much of his hard work was considerably exacerbated by his inherent…difficulty. Getting him under control would be a necessary first step before the project could be cleaned up and resuscitated; he would be nothing but an obstruction to anyone trying to work in the ruins until then. Hopefully Ildrin could arrange the important matters alone, but if worse came to worst, he was prepared to involve Nassir. For obvious reasons, the number of people aware of, and involved in, this particular project had to be kept to an absolute minimum, consisting only of his most trusted lieutenants.

Justinian strode through the deep passages below the Cathedral at as rapid a pace as he could manage without resorting to unseemly haste. Not that there was anyone nearby, as his innate sense of others’ emotions revealed, but there were habits he maintained even when they seemed unnecessary, precisely because they were so necessary the rest of the time. He also kept his expression clear and serene, despite the turmoil of his thoughts.

Occupied with his inner whirl of plans, countermeasures, concerns and stratagems, he passed deeper and deeper below the Cathedral, penetrating layers of security with the minimum attention necessary to get through them. Several were magical devices which recognized him and required no conscious input, but he ardently eschewed the laziness of over-reliance on sophisticated gimmicks. The confusing layout of the deep passages was a help, which he had enhanced by placing barriers in such locations that he had to backtrack repeatedly through even more twisting, switchbacking corriors to retrieve various keys from their hiding places.

The descent took the better part of an hour. It was fairly rare that his demanding schedule allowed him the leeway to come here aside from his weekly visits, but that was for the best, considering how demanding these visits often were, themselves. And in the end, it was not optional. No one could know what he kept here.

The final door was hidden in plain sight, one simple wooden barrier in a hallway lined with identical ones, the rest of which were all trapped in some way. Justinian opened the correct door and slipped through, closing it behind him, and availed himself of the remaining few moments it took to traverse the opulent entry hall of this subterranean apartment to make extra certain that his face and bearing were composed.

He emerged into a grand chamber which, on its own merits could have belonged in any palace. Round, three stories in height, and with much of its second level encircled by a balcony from which doorways branched off, reached by a curved staircase beginning immediately to the right of the entry, it was carved entirely from marble and liberally gilded—with actual gold. The domed ceiling high above was a single piece of crystal, and also the primary source of light. A grand pianoforte and a large harp stood against one wall on a dais, though they were not the source of the music currently playing; a string quartet echoed from one of the adjacent rooms, with the characteristically scratchy undertones of a soundisc player. Rugs and pillows were scattered about more like the detritus of fallen trees than any deliberate attempt at décor, mismatched and drifting into piles against the walls.

The curtains covering the doorways, in contrast to the expensive quality of the room itself, were practically rags, dusty and torn. Only upon closer examination did one see that they were not, in fact, ragged or dirty, but that shape and color because they were nothing but dense masses of spider webs, arranged in roughly flat shapes. More of their kind were draped across the dome above, giving its clean light an eerie quality. Those immense cobwebs shifted slowly, as if in response to a breeze which was not there, causing peculiar patterns of light to sway gently across the floor.

“Where I am from, a man entering a woman’s home uninvited would experience…consequences.”

Justinian’s smile was only partially faked. Partially because on several levels, he truly did enjoy these exchanges. Faked because on other levels, they could be utterly nightmarish.

She had appeared in the doorway to his left, silently as always, and now posed with her arms braced against it, shoulders slanted one way, hips the other, smirking mysteriously. Everything a pose, a slice of pageantry. From some women, such behavior seemed like manipulation, and to be sure, she was manipulative in everything she did. He had come to understand, though, that there was no hostility in it, and not necessarily even an agenda. She manipulated like she breathed, and quite possibly could not stop.

He bowed, ignoring the obvious rejoinders about where she was from, or who provided her with this luxurious space in which to live.

“Ah, but if I were well-behaved, Szaiviss, you would find me so much less interesting.”

Her answering smile could almost have been genuine. Perhaps it truly was. It was a sly smile, but that might be the most genuine thing of all, from her.

Few Tiraan would ever see truly black skin on a drow; in Tar’naris, after millennia of interbreeding with (mostly enslaved) humans, drow came in an entire grayscale palette, ranging from a deep slate color to the nearly white of some of the modern half-drow who could be found in Lor’naris. Szaiviss came from an older and undiluted line, one which had had no contact with the surface since before the Elder Wars, and her skin was black, and subtly glossy, like living obsidian. Her eyes, too, were startling; unlike the more muted colors common to Narisians, they were a vivid scarlet which seemed almost to glow when the light hit them just right. That wasn’t due to her blood; the likes of vampires and some succubi had eyes like that, and for similar reasons. She wore a short gown that was necessarily filmy, being woven of cobwebs like her curtains, clinging to her and concealing almost nothing of what little it actually tried to cover. Against the dingy off-white garment and her black skin, her ankle-length white hair seemed almost to glow, falling all around her like a cloak.

“Let’s see,” she purred, her Tanglish fluent but heavily accented, and oozed out of the doorway to come slink toward him. “Only two days since you last came just to spend time with me, my love. Not long enough for the desire to overwhelm you again… I know I don’t yet have you that addicted to my charms. Which means…” She had come to stand very close, gazing up into his face from mere inches away, near enough that her breasts grazed the front of his tabard. “You want something.”

“Aside from the obvious?” he murmured, slipping his arms around her. Szaiviss did not pull back, but her expression hardened.

“No, no, beloved. No games, not till later. I rather it not hang over us in the meantime.”

“You seek to put me in a box too small for my comfort, my dear,” he replied, pulling her closer, which she allowed. “I can have more than one goal at a time. Any pressing need makes a perfect excuse.”

Szaiviss chuckled low in her throat, and finally did extricate herself, pressing her hands against his chest and pulling back out of his grasp. “Then I shall have to prioritize, as usual. Before we take time to play, you had better tell me your problem. Otherwise, you’ll be too…distracted.”

She turned and sauntered away, rolling her hips fluidly as she went. Justinian followed her through the curtained doorway into a much dimmer space, also bedecked with webs across the ceiling and pillows all over the floor, this one narrower and lit only by a single fairy lamp. The soundisc player was in here, as well as a stand currently burning incense. She did so love her sensual distractions, particularly of the kinds not available where she had come from. Then again, precious little was available there.

“My project with Rector and the Avatar has been stalled,” he admitted, watching her stretch herself out in a pile of cushions. She did not invite him to sit yet, and he did not presume; her jokes were one thing, but he had learned to respect some of the drow cultural mores she held in sincerity. “In fact, completely destroyed. Rector and his minders barely escaped unscathed, not to mention myself.”

“You’ll be wanting the goddess’s touch to access it again, then?” she mused. “How…prosaic. How disappointing.”

“Eventually,” he agreed with a grim little smile. “I have more urgent problems, however. Rector’s machine exploded with the full force contained in its power crystals, which I have made very certain before providing them that it should not be able to do. Someone at the other end of the connection did that quite deliberately. After replacing his display with the Imperial sigil.”

Her grin was a white slash across her face in the dimness. “Oh, Justinian. Poor, clever boy. Even your setbacks are just so fascinating.”

“Open confrontation with the Silver Throne has always been part of the plan,” he said with a shrug. “But it is much too early. Everything could be ruined if I am forced to proceed to direct hostilities before the other necessary factors are ready.”

“Then perhaps your plans are less thorough than you thought,” she said, her face devoid of levity now. “That forces me to question things, Justinian. Many things. How will you provide what you have promised me if the Empire comes storming in here before you can arrange it?”

“They will not,” he replied, beginning to pace back and forth. It was not his habit, but he preferred to show a few nervous tics and mannerisms in her presence which he did not ordinarily betray. Keeping her under control was far easier so long as she assumed she held the upper hand. “Even at the height of the Enchanter Wars, the Imperials did not dare invade the Cathedral. Sharidan is quite capable of eclipsing my ability to move, however, which would be bad enough.”

“Yes. And so, here we are, in this pit you have dug.”

“Rector grew too focused on his task and failed to adequately cover his tracks,” Justinian said, as if to himself, which continuing to walk slowly back and forth across the piled carpets. The lowest-hanging spider webs brushed the top of his head; he raised a hand to push one aside, though it didn’t really bother him. “Quite typical of his particular type of aberrant personality, and a risk I was aware of when I employed him. My errors were in overestimating the control his handlers have over him, and under-preparing for such an extreme breach of security. Minor breaches I expected, not…this. Even so, however, this is a setback, not necessarily a disaster. I find it is a mistake to over-plan; much better to surround oneself with the resources necessary to adapt to the unexpected.” He came to a stop, turning to face her, and spread his arms, smiling down at her. “And in that, I am still well-positioned. Even the Empire does not possess a resource such as you.”

Szaiviss regarded him in aloof silence for a moment before answering. “You imagine, Archpope, that you possess me?”

“As much as anyone does anyone, my dear. You are no one’s creature but your own, but our aims are in harmony.”

She smiled at that, but only briefly, before her expression hardened again. “And in all your scheming up there, what progress have you made toward my needs? I’ve heard nothing of it since that absolute silliness with the newspapers backfired on you.”

“That was only an exploratory probe of her defenses,” he replied calmly. “I continue to make them. A creature like Tellwyrn is not to be attacked openly, or without detailed knowledge of her capabilities. In point of fact, my dear, circumstance has recently conspired in our favor. Tellwyrn has her own problems lately, and though I did not intend it, Rector’s interference with the Hands of the Emperor has quite accidentally exacerbated them.”

She came smoothly to her feet, as rapidly as a pouncing cat, and pressed herself into his space, this time with no hint of allure. He did not back down from her, simply meeting her glare in perfect serenity.

“I must be the one to kill her, Justinian, or this is all pointless. Do not overstep yourself.”

“She would destroy you as effortlessly as she has all your predecessors,” he said calmly, declining to acknowledge her furious hiss. “My plotting is what will make your aim possible, Szaiviss. And Tellwyrn’s newest strength also provides her a weakness she has never had before. This University gives her many new advantages, but she is too bound up in it to abandon it at need. And the University is vulnerable as all institutions are, in many ways that an archmage is not. We will destabilize it, and thus her, to create the opening you need. But first, we must watch, and prepare, and lay the groundwork. I assure you, none of what I have done thus far will come close to ending the Arachne’s life. But every little step helps me learn how it may be done.”

She narrowed her eyes, but after a pause, slowly nodded, and drew back. “Very well, then. Your problem with the Empire…what do you wish me to do about it?” Her lips curled back in a displeased grimace. “There will be a price, Justinian, if you seek to invoke her presence.”

“Quite apart from the price she demands, there would be a cost,” he said, grimacing in return. “No. My dictum stands; under no circumstances must you invoke Scyllith’s presence here. No shrouds I can throw up would prevent the Pantheon from noticing that, and then we will both be finished, and all our plans come to naught.”

“Good,” she said with a wry little smile. “I meant a price I would demand, though, quite apart from whatever she wants. I desire nothing more than to be out from under the lunatic old bitch’s thumb as long as possible. The only reason she has a cult at all is the cursed Themynrites prevent my people from fleeing the Underdark.”

“We are in accord, then,” he replied, indulging in a small grin of his own. “No, not Scyllith, my dear; only you do I trust. I need your ability to find the unknown.”

“What, your room full of oracles is not enough?”

“Those sources are obstreperous,” he said, “and take time to use—time I don’t believe can be spared, in this case. Besides, my little tests have verified that all four of my Bishops have figured out how to ascertain who has been studying what in the Chamber of Truth. I don’t yet trust them with matters this sensitive, and for now, I’d rather let them chase each other’s schemes than catch a whiff of mine. Besides,” he added with another slow smile, “all the accumulated oracles of the world have never performed as well as your skills.”

“Your flattery is blunt,” she said, folding her arms and raising an eyebrow. She did it with a smile, though.

“I flatter you only when the simple truth gives me the opportunity, my lovely. It happens more often than I would have expected.”

“Yes, good boy,” she said approvingly. “Later, you may spend time praising me in detail. But! Work before pleasure. What is it you seek?”

“An enemy,” he said immediately. “Last year, one fortuitously appeared in the form of a hellgate, accompanied by a new stage in Darling’s own plot, which enabled me to ally the Church with the Throne against a common foe. One is not conveniently available, now, which means one will have to be found. I must re-cast this…little indiscretion as just that, and not the dramatic breach it truly is. To that end, I need alliance with the Throne against a common danger. To begin with. The rest I can arrange myself.”

Szaiviss turned away without answering, strolling toward the opposite end of the narrow room from the entrance. It was more of a wide hallway, really, its sides lined with occasional articles of furniture and thick drifts of pillows. Across from its entrance, the back wall was entirely swathed in more cobweb-curtains.

She shrugged and then rolled her shoulders, and her paltry garment slipped from them, slithering down to lie puddled around her bare feet. Szaiviss languidly raised one hand; Justinian, having seen this before, now knew to watch the shadows on the wall, barely visible as they were in the dimness of the one nightlight. He could see, however, the shadow of her arm. The arm did not move further, but the shadow did, reaching out to entangle its unnaturally long fingers in the darkness swathing the multiple layers of ragged silken drapes concealing the back of the room. At the shadow’s touch, the whole arrangement was pulled to one side, gathered up into a bundle, and draped over a hook on the wall, revealing what lay beyond.

The semi-circular space was bathed in pure white light which had been invisible behind the thick curtains. Its walls were of obsidian, crisscrossed by lines of white paint designed to resemble spider webs. Its floor was a raised dais, upon which was engraved a sigil which had been unseen on the surface of the world for eight thousand years, deliberately expunged long ago by the Pantheon. Scyllith’s personal glyph did not depict anything Justinian recognized; it was simply an arrangement of lines, like the Infinite Order’s. Perhaps, though, both of those had meant something more concrete in those days.

Szaiviss turned to glance at him over her shoulder, just in time to catch his eyes wandering over her body—because she expected and enjoyed it, mostly, but she was beautiful enough that his appreciative smile was the result simply of relaxing his customary reserve, not faking an expression.

The shadow priestess stepped up onto the dais, turned to face the room, and knelt, closing her eyes. Her chest swelled with a deeply in-drawn breath, then relaxed. Then again, and once more.

And then she opened her eyes. They were pure white, blazing with light. In trance, the drow began to speak. He listened intently, even after the first words revealed that she said exactly what he expected.

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