That Devil, Resolute
After that he just sat there for awhile, because in the throes of his rage he hadn't considered the fact that he had killed his guide – with Ocamel gone, Aglarel not only had no way to locate Lim Tal'eyve, but no way to return to Shade Enclave in the unlikely event that he completed his errand. The aftereffects of the holy magic were slow to fade from his system; he suffered from light sensitivity for a little over an hour, during which he couldn't stand to keep his eyes open for longer than a few seconds, and though the nausea flew from him with relative swiftness the muscle fatigue was far more difficult to shake. He knew how vulnerable he was lingering out in the open and detested the thought of staying there for long, but he had no way to shake the effects of the Erinye's holy magic any faster and had no choice, in the end, but to wait.
When he felt well enough to move ahead he clambered to his feet and set off in the direction Ocamel had been leading him prior to their altercation, and didn't allow himself to pause for anything. He set a swift pace despite the uneven, treacherous ground, always conscious of the multitudes of hellish winged creatures reeling through the crimson skies overhead; at one point the sulfuric clouds even unleashed a brief shower of acid rain, but Aglarel simply hitched his cloak closer about his body and continued on, enjoying the invulnerability to the elements that the garment afforded him.
He didn't much enjoy the thought of being stranded in the Abyssal Plane for an insurmountable period of time, and enjoyed it far less knowing that he had no one to blame but himself for the setback, but he knew the alternative was to risk the supreme displeasure of the High Prince and that was something he was most unwilling to put at stake. There was next to no chance that any of the foul creatures soaring in close proximity to him would aid him no matter how he propositioned them, and an even more remote chance that any of them knew where to find Lim Tal'eyve anyway. To Aglarel's knowledge the lichdrow was still more or less serving as prisoner to the Spider Queen while he attempted to regain and secure her favor, which he supposed meant that Lim was living in relative seclusion somewhere within the lower planes of existence. While he was assured of his own skills in a venue such as Thultanthar, he didn't fancy testing his mettle against the denizens of the Infernal Plane.
After wandering for many hours, though, Aglarel found that his concerns were all unfounded.
Gradually the terrain became a little less rocky, its hardened magma deposits not as numerous, and began sloping gently downward; though still mildly fatigued Aglarel picked up the pace, eager to get to the bottom of the sudden change in the environment. The rivulets of lava oozing down through rocky crevices and fractures in the jagged mountains became fewer with each step he took, until he was no longer traversing an uneven expanse of scorched earth but a smoother, almost desert-like terrain whose rock was a shade of burnt brick littered with a fine ruby sand. The sulfuric clouds rolled back and Aglarel watched interestedly as the crimson sky darkened from fuchsia to violet and at last to black – though of course there were no stars, only a blank black canvas of eternal night that made him feel somewhat at home in his otherwise alien surroundings. The sweltering heat subsided into milder climes, and by the time Aglarel came to the bottom of the seemingly endless slope the environment seemed almost pleasant.
What awaited him at the bottommost dip in the valley was decidedly less so.
As his eyes were well accustomed to very little or no light, Aglarel had no trouble glimpsing the scene playing out beneath the lightless canopy that served as the sky in the Abyssal Plane – it was a whirling sea of groping black arms, each appendage tipped with ragged, unkempt claws that perpetually slashed at the air as they searched for mortal flesh to tear into. There may have been other features somewhere beneath the surface – gaping maws of razor-sharp teeth, perhaps, or lifeless, staring eyes – but everything else lingered just beneath the pool's surface, obscured by a dark mist and distorted by the roiling waves. Common sense kept Aglarel from drifting too near those swiping arms but he ventured near enough to catch a glimpse of just what the cursed creatures were squabbling over – Aveil Arthien was just visible at the far end of the pool, her fingertips bloody from struggling to keep hold of the edge of the pool and her face barely cresting the surface as she fought against the arms that tore at her and labored for each breath. And sitting cross-legged mere inches away from the Archmistress's flailing hands, somehow impervious to the frantic swipes of the Abyssal dwellers entombed in the pool, was Lim Tal'eyve.
The wraithlike figure of the drow seemed to be speaking in low, hushed tones; Aglarel completed his approach soundlessly, straining to catch every word. "If you would only stop struggling you would see that the High Prince only means to keep you subdued, not kill you. If you drown in there it will be of your own volition, and no one else's." There followed a pause during which Lim listened rapturously to Aveil's gasps as she endeavored to form words, after which he added in a sarcastic voice, "Well, don't heed my advice, then. I have only lived for years down here – what do I know?"
"Can you blame her for questioning your word?" Aglarel spoke up, and though he wore a devious smile that displayed his amusement at Aveil's plight inwardly he was reminding himself precisely where all of his weapons were located on his person.
Lim Tal'eyve managed to pry his eyes away from the hellish pool long enough to glance Aglarel's way; he turned his head readily but not quickly, suggesting he had been aware of the assassin's presence all along. The smile he flashed was not unlike the one Aglarel wore himself, and then the drow was climbing to his feet and sweeping into a low, very respectful bow. "I suppose not," Lim admitted with a chortle, and when he straightened he seemed pleased. "I had hoped to receive the High Prince's emissary in a far less dismal locale, but I thought it only fair that I keep dear Aveil company while I waited. After all, it is mostly on my account that she has landed herself in this predicament to begin with."
Aglarel arched an eyebrow skeptically. "Mostly?"
The wraith spread his hands. "Can you not agree that her sentence may have been more lenient if she didn't insist on being so uncooperative?"
Aglarel couldn't help but concede the point. "You have me there."
For the first time a shadow of doubt rippled across Lim's otherwise oddly serene expression. "Forgive me, Fourth Prince Aglarel – I am, of course, pleased to receive you. I cannot help but express my surprise that it is you who has come here."
"You were expecting Hadrhune." Aglarel's tone made it plain that he was not asking, but telling.
Lim hitched his shoulders and snickered a little sheepishly. "Well, yes, actually. In all things he has been such a lion in her defense… When he came to thwart my efforts in Neverwinter I was certain it was because your sovereign had charged him with defending her, so naturally I was expecting that our paths would cross again. Can you tell me, what has happened to keep him from coming here? I daresay it is because he has displeased your sovereign in some way, though of course I would never be so audacious as to assume that I have any insight whatsoever into the inner workings of the High Prince."
"It is well that you know your place – I was hoping I wouldn't have to waste my time in teaching it to you." Aglarel crossed his arms over his chest and surveyed the drow through slitted silver eyes, always considering, always appraising. "You could say that Hadrhune played his part a little too well – he began to favor Aveil's personal vendettas over even the Most High's agenda, and even saw fit to pursue his own personal desires above the High Prince's express wishes."
"Oh dear." Lim somehow managed to look distinctly troubled by this news. "Might I inquire as to what transgression he committed?"
"The Most High commanded that Hadrhune not come to know the Archmistress carnally while she resided within the city," Aglarel explained bluntly. "Hadrhune disobeyed."
Lim made a show of wincing as though pained by this revelation. "Ah, that really is too bad. He was a most formidable opponent… Do you know, I was secretly rooting for him."
Aglarel crooked an eyebrow again, wearing a dubious expression. "Were you?"
"Of course." The wraith broke off long enough to toss the assassin a roguish wink. "For longer than I have been acquainted with her Aveil has been getting her way in all things, regardless of who she has been involved with. I had rather hoped that, in Hadrhune, she had at last stumbled across the one man she couldn't cow… It seems I was wrong after all."
"Mortals are fallible," Aglarel pointed out.
Lim nodded. "I wholly agree." He paused then as though wondering at the wisdom of his words before at last adding, "One of the many reasons why I so anticipated your arrival… I am certain at this point that the Archmistress has made my intentions perfectly clear, to you and to your sovereign."
"She has been quite unhelpful for the most part," Aglarel admitted, "but yes, she did divulge your plans to me." The Fourth Prince found that he was grateful they were reaching the crux of the matter, for he had little patience for idle chitchat. "You mean to request that the High Prince restore you to life and grant you the gift of the shadow, and in exchange you have promised to usurp the Spider Queen and deliver her to the High Prince, as a gift of your goodwill and as thanks for his generosity."
"I also intend to return Aveil's soul," Lim added agreeably, "as per my original bargain with her… Unless of course the High Prince intends to punish her, in which case I will leave that to him. If the decision falls to me, though, I would prefer to uphold my end of our agreement." The drow chuckled softly at some private joke before finishing, "I think you and I can both agree that the Archmistress is simply too entertaining to be kept chained in the Abyss… No, I believe that there is still far more amusement to be had at her expense."
Aglarel chose not to offer his opinion on the matter, though of course he silently agreed. Instead he opted for a far more diplomatic answer. "The Most High has taken an interest in the Archmistress and would like her soul returned to her without delay."
"An interest?" Lim echoed incredulously, for it was clear in both his tone and his expression that he had not been expecting to hear such news. "Of what nature?"
"I am not privy to that information," Aglarel lied smoothly. "That is the High Prince's business."
The wraith was nodding briskly, looking sheepish again, as though he suspected this question would not be received well. "I see – forgive me. I meant no disrespect."
The Fourth Prince knew that he should let it go at that and continue their negotiations, which so far had been rather more amicable in nature than he had originally anticipated, but the memories of all the discord and turmoil that the lichdrow had wrecked upon the City of Shade in the last several tendays suddenly came rushing back to him with startling clarity and forced him to reconsider. Now that he and Lim Tal'eyve were finally standing face to face he found his long-sublimated rage was at last bubbling back to the surface – here was the man who had nearly taken the life of Most High Telamont's chosen emissary Hadrhune. Here was the man who had bypassed Thultanthar's strongest security wards without batting an eyelash. Here was the man who had mustered an overwhelming army of phaerimm on a whim and led the awful aberrations to the High Prince's doorstep, all while facing little opposition. And suddenly Aglarel found that he wanted answers for himself.
"You were not so thoughtful or considerate when you declared war upon the Empire of Shade," Aglarel growled inhospitably, for the memory still did not sit well with him and he suspected he would never feel much better about it.
To Aglarel's surprise and intense dislike, Lim actually laughed aloud as though this was an absurd thing to say. "Actually, I was. The decision to lead the attack on Thultanthar was not something I did without much careful consideration beforehand – to be completely honest, I almost didn't go through with it. Briefly I toyed with the idea of coming alone and making my attempt on Aveil's life, for Lolth's eyes are always upon me and I knew I needed to act soon, but decided against it simply because the margin for error was too great. The odds that I will accomplish anything decline significantly if I am dead, you see." Aglarel opened his mouth smartly to tell the wraith that he did not find him at all amusing, but Lim overrode him. "I opted for the direct approach because it was the quickest way I could think of to convey all of the messages I wished to convey to your sovereign, but my plans went awry."
"When Aveil struck the killing blow that sent you back to the Abyss," Aglarel reasoned, but Lim was shaking his head.
"No, no – that was something of a boon for me, truth be told. Aveil wasn't then wise to my real intentions, and assumed that I truly meant her ill – in killing me she bought me a little more time, for then of course Lolth assumed that I was still faithful to her and wouldn't be watching me as closely. In the Spider Queen's complacency I was able to divulge the truth of my plans to Aveil, who might have protested if I hadn't used her soul as leverage against her."
Aglarel's questions increased exponentially. "Then you didn't mean to kill the Archmistress at all?"
Lim shrugged as though it hardly mattered; Aglarel, who had long been of the opinion that all mortals were expendable, couldn't help but marvel at the lichdrow's total disregard for all life. "I rather thought that anyone among her companions would intervene before it came to that, but they all stood there with the most dumbfounded looks on their faces… Perhaps they were hoping I might actually put an end to her, and save them the aggravation of being in her presence."
The Fourth Prince thought back to the small group of those who had allegedly been present at the Archmistress's demise – Brennus, Hadrhune, Soleil, and Phendrana – and cursed their ineptitude. "Then explain something to me. You say that it was never your goal to kill Aveil, and you were not much inconvenienced when she banished you back to the Abyss, but you have already admitted that your plans went awry. If neither of these things troubled you, what did?"
Lim heaved a sigh and ran a hand down his face, his expression growing sour as he remembered. "The phaerimm. Believe it or not, slaughtering your people in droves was also not a part of my plan."
"You lie," Aglarel hissed, insulted by such an audacious claim.
But the lichdrow spread his hands out wide, a wordless reminder that he concealed nothing. "I have nothing to gain in lying," he pointed out. "I am now under closer scrutiny by your sovereign than anyone else in all the Realms – even the slightest inconsistency in my words would be viewed as grounds for the instant dissolution of any bargain he might make with me. I know that you are nearer to him than any of the other nobles that surround him, for if you were not he would never have sent you here, and that you will relay all that I say directly to him. So I choose to be truthful, in the hopes that when the High Prince makes his decision my compliance will tip the scales in my favor."
"You are clever," Aglarel admitted begrudgingly. "Your vision is far-reaching, but it may not benefit you in the end. If the High Prince comes to see you as a threat in any way, he will eliminate you. That has always been his way."
"Of course it has," Lim agreed with an indulgent little chuckle that grated on the assassin's nerves. "History is littered with the tales of monarchs who have had power unceremoniously ripped from their grasp simply because they were too trusting. If your sovereign was one of these, I daresay he would not have lived so long."
"Something you would do well to remember," Aglarel warned, hoping to rattle the lichdrow with his continued veiled threats, but if Lim Tal'eyve was at all intimidated by anything the Fourth Prince had said he was doing a remarkable job of keeping his unease hidden. "In any case… the phaerimm."
"Yes, yes." Lim's expression fell, as though the memory of the assault on Thultanthar caused him great pain; Aglarel found himself wishing it was within his power to destroy the wraith and be done with it. "I had long since made up my mind to present my proposal to your sovereign, and my coming to Thultanthar was meant to be a grand affair in which we two sat down and talked over my proposition – but when I chose to include the phaerimm, my error in judgment cost me that opportunity. Instead of approaching the High Prince diplomatically I was made out to be a threat, a potential usurper… all on account of those wretched creatures."
"You know little of the phaerimm if you had intended to use them for anything other than senseless slaughter," Aglarel pointed out disdainfully.
"And I will not be utilizing them in the future," Lim assured dryly. "You can be certain of that."
One thing didn't quite add up for Aglarel, and he had grown quite tired of beating around the bush. "Why enlist them at all? If your intentions were to approach the Most High peaceably, as you have said, why bring with you an army at your back? Security?"
Lim Tal'eyve glanced over his shoulder toward the whirling depths of the black pool, where the dozens of grasping black hands were no less active than before; Aveil's face was just visible above the surface, but she had grown much paler and seemed to be very still. Aglarel resisted the urge to go to her, knowing that to do so would be to defy the High Prince's express wishes.
"I am familiar with the ways of wise kings," the lichdrow began slowly, his tone of voice introspective now. "And I know also that the wisest of kings is by far the most burdened by the petty requests of his subjects. Such is the way with your sovereign – he endeavors daily to maintain order within his kingdom through whatever means available to him, but I imagine that the sheer volume of insignificant duties thrust upon him by the weak and undeserving can be nothing less than exhausting. Knowing that I am barely a blink in the High Prince's eye, I knew that my request would seem to him just another one of these meaningless appeals – something, I was certain, he would pass over without much consideration. The men who capture the attention of kings are the men who appear as a force to be reckoned with – a potential ally of some importance, one who might one day be considered a collaborator with something to offer. And that is why I enslaved dozens of phaerimm."
"Enslaved?" echoed Aglarel incredulously. "You enlisted the aid of dozens… hundreds… of phaerimm against their will?!"
Lim blinked, somewhat taken aback by the prince's uncharacteristic outburst. "Were you under the impression that they followed me willingly into the resting place of their most hated enemies?" He chuckled into the back of his hand as though the mere notion was preposterous. "What folly! Can you imagine? A force of the thornbacks of that size, marching to the drum of a man they had never met? Assaulting the last stronghold of the Netherese Imperium, knowing full well that victory was never within their grasp? Tell me, Fourth Prince Aglarel – are there any creatures in the world foolish enough to do such things?"
"How?!" howled the assassin, his silver eyes piercing through the gloom. "Why?!"
"The how is quite simple," Lim explained mildly, as though he couldn't fathom just why the prince was getting so worked up. "For all of my schemes, am I not still entertaining the Spider Queen's utmost favor? Why, it would be far more shocking if she didn't favor me after all I have done! I made an attempt on Aveil's life and nearly succeeded in not only eliminating her, but your sovereign's chosen emissary as well. I formulated the entire plan to lead a contingent of phaerimm into Thultanthar all the while convincing her that I was doing so to eradicate your great shadow city in her name, a blow that would have crippled the power of Shar. Since she believed my actions would benefit her, she allowed me to follow through with it. Lolth herself nullified your security measures, and created the portal that allowed me access to the city. As for why, I believe you now have enough of the paltry details to fully comprehend the scope of my designs, so I will tell you: I enslaved the phaerimm with my own abilities, for the gifts Lolth has bestowed upon me over the last several years are now so great that such feats are within my grasp even without the Spider Queen's help. I bent the phaerimm to my will because I knew that to do such a thing would capture your sovereign's attention, and perhaps even a certain measure of his awe. And when the mightiest of kings is struck with awe, he is far more apt to listen to a proposal as outlandish as mine."
"A display," Aglarel breathed, at last understanding. "The phaerimm force was all for show."
Lim nodded, pleased. "Of course – and can you say in all honesty that such a plan would have failed? If I had showed up at your sovereign's doorstep with hundreds of your most hated enemies behind me, all of which had been cowed by my strength, do you really think he would have turned me away?"
Aglarel's expression hardened against as he remembered himself. "I cannot speak for the High Prince."
"Of course you can't," Lim said with a maniacal little laugh that set Aglarel's blood boiling again. "But I think we both know the answer."
"You lost control of them," Aglarel pointed out, eager now to prove that the lichdrow was not as capable as he made himself out to be. "They rebelled against your machinations and took up their own agenda. Hundreds of the Most High's faithful followers lost their lives on account of you and your inadequacies."
The wraith's unusual amber eyes flashed, the first visible sign that perhaps he was not as composed as he wanted Aglarel to believe, but his answer was decidedly less volatile. "Yes, the phaerimm laid your people low in the initial assault, but not through any fault of mine – rather, I underestimated their hatred of your kind. Their minds were easily broken and I led them as easily as a shepherd leads his unassuming flock in the moments before we breached your security, but the moment they caught their first glimpse of unsuspecting, defenseless Shadovar wandering the streets…" He cut himself off then and allowed himself a brief smirk, somehow amused at the memory. "Needless to say that their irrational desire to kill every last one of you made them impossible to control. All I could do from that point on was make it seem as though I had intended to do such a thing from the very beginning."
"Instead of a potential ally, you let yourself be viewed as a potential threat," Aglarel summarized. "The only other way the High Prince would ever have taken notice of you."
Lim spread his hands helplessly. "Not ideal, but perhaps just as effective."
Aglarel stood there, his hands clenched at his sides, hating the lichdrow with every fiber of his being but still somehow awed into silence at all he had heard. Now that he understood the motivations behind Lim Tal'eyve's decisions he found that he didn't condone any of those decisions any more than he had before, but remembered that it wasn't his opinion that mattered anyway. He vowed to himself that he would do his best in the exceedingly dark days to come to serve as exceptional counsel to the High Prince, but begrudgingly accepted the fact that there was nothing he could now do to alter the course things were destined to take. He wasn't Hadrhune, content to serve the High Prince only when it seemed profitable for him – he was Fourth Prince Aglarel, favored half-devil son of Most High Telamont, and he owed his existence to his patron.
He would continue to serve his father no matter where doing so might lead him.
"The High Prince has agreed to take you up on your proposition," Aglarel confided at last, studying the lichdrow's face for even the barest hint of emotion, but Lim Tal'eyve had mastered himself now and gave nothing away. "He has charged me with coming here and recovering you, as well as bringing you back to Thultanthar straight away. I feel compelled to remind you, however, that once you cross the threshold into the City of Shade you exist completely at the pleasure and mercy of the High Prince – whatever he wills of you, you are bound to do. If you are willing to submit yourself to utter and complete servitude, to devote yourself to the High Prince's pursuits, and to aid Thultanthar in returning to the prominence it once enjoyed, he will bestow upon you power the likes of which you cannot even imagine. Do you still have a mind to serve him?"
Lim Tal'eyve's amber eyes burned within his dark face in perceived victory, and for his part Aglarel could only pray to Dark Lady Shar that the lichdrow would falter and be cast out sooner rather than later. The Fourth Prince and all of his brothers were among the most highly ambitious individuals residing within the City of Shade to date and were constantly warring amongst themselves for the High Prince's favor, but there was no place in the Empire of Shade for the kind of selfish, unadulterated lust for power he saw reflected in the lichdrow's eyes. It was the kind of all-consuming desire that could tear asunder bonds that were previously thought unbreakable, the kind of reckless ambition that could reduce an illustrious empire to fire and ash.
"I am," the wraith answered after a time, for it seemed he had needed a moment to contain his glee. "And I am prepared to do whatever is necessary to repay your sovereign for the unprecedented bounty he is about to bestow upon me."
Aglarel couldn't resist the temptation to impart one last menacing threat. "One of your inconsequential mortal lifetimes would never be enough."
Lim Tal'eyve took this remark in stride, though – he may even have anticipated it, for he was quick and sure with his reply. "But I will not be mortal for much longer, now will I?"
They left Aveil treading water and struggling feebly against the black arms that kept swiping at her, and as they started away it seemed to Aglarel that she had lost the will to fight back. Perhaps, he reasoned, that had been the High Prince's intention all along.
He had worried that returning to the Material Plane would be difficult since he had lost his temper and prematurely destroyed the Erinye that had borne him to the Abyss, but found soon enough that his concerns were unfounded; Lim hadn't been lying when he'd mentioned that the powers gifted to him by the Spider Queen had grown over the years, and once Aglarel mentioned that his brother Dethud had summoned a denizen of the Abyssal Plane to ferry him between dimensions Lim had only to ask where the summoning circle was located and they were off. Once they arrived Aglarel communed briefly with his brother, who had been dismissing lesser creatures from the portal while awaiting his return, and then they found themselves back in Thultanthar. Dethud managed to catch a fleeting glimpse of Lim Tal'eyve when they set foot in the necromancer's chamber, but comprehension hadn't dawned before Aglarel seized the lichdrow's arm and veritably dragged him into the Shadow Realm with him. The journey was a short one, and within a matter of moments they found themselves within the High Prince's audience chamber.
Telamont was standing at the world window with his back to them when they admitted themselves; Aglarel hissed an order for Lim to stay put at the bottommost stair of the short staircase that led up to the High Prince's throne before making his way forward, certain that his sovereign would want to receive him alone before he saw to their guest. The moment Aglarel had drawn level with his father Telamont put out one arm and bound his son to his side bracingly, and Aglarel found himself far less aggravated in Telamont's presence than he had been only seconds before.
"You have done very well," the High Prince assured in an undertone. "I am pleased that you have carried out my wishes, even though you are opposed to this arrangement."
"Holy Father," Aglarel protested at once, "I would never presume to – "
"I know your mind," Telamont overrode him, squeezing his shoulder briefly in a most reassuring way. "You have never been able to hide your true thoughts from me… none of your brothers have. But do not fret – I am not displeased. Your compliance in the face of your obvious discomfort assures me that I have done well in trusting these affairs to you – what's more, your abhorrence to this turn of events cautions me to be ever vigilant. I thank you for all that you have done – rest assured, your efforts do not go unnoticed."
Aglarel bowed low. "It is an honor to serve you, Holy Father."
"I have one final task for you, and then you will be dismissed for some well deserved rest." The High Prince indicated the world window with his free hand, and Aglarel found himself gazing down into the ghostly-pale face of Aveil Arthien once more. "The Archmistress grows weak… I feel that she has suffered enough. Go and collect her for me, won't you? You needn't return to the Abyss – you can pass through the gateway near the dias, through which you watched her disappear earlier. I will ask that you do not tarry – by my estimate she has very little time left before she expires, and I have use for her yet."
"I will see to it." Aglarel glanced over his shoulder then, to the place where Lim Tal'eyve was standing; it seemed the lichdrow hadn't moved a muscle since their arrival, his amber eyes fixed respectfully upon the floor. "Do you not require my presence while you bandy words with the lichdrow?"
Telamont rubbed his chin with his free hand, considering, but did not seem altogether concerned. "I don't think so. He has only just appeared in our midst… I cannot imagine that he will cause too much trouble so soon after his arrival, can you?"
"For his sake," Aglarel snickered, ducking out of Telamont's encircling arm and leading the way back toward the dias, "I sincerely hope not." Lim Tal'eyve was kneeling upon the smooth black marble floor by the time they completed their approach; Aglarel walked right up to him and held out one shadowy hand in a kind of wordless request, and when the lichdrow looked up at him quizzically the Fourth Prince clarified, "The ring, the one which contains the Archmistress's soul – give it to me."
"Oh, of course," Lim answered agreeably, and from the littlest finger of his left hand he removed a radiant silver band that wound intricately around a dark, trilliant-cut stone; this he laid upon the prince's open palm, and Aglarel closed his fist around it immediately.
"Be swift," Telamont urged him. "She isn't long for this world."
Aglarel moved a few paces away, to a point where the floor seemed a little less corporeal and he thought perhaps he could glimpse the shadow of movement just beneath the surface; as he watched the well-polished marble became less and less opaque until he could see the vague image of the swirling black pool of ravenous demon limbs far below him. He thought he could just make out a ghostly white figure in the middle of those tormented souls, but knew it could just as well be his imagination playing tricks on him. He was about to pitch himself forward into the dark void when the voice of his sovereign accosted him once again.
"Ocamel needn't have died," Telamont said softly, his tone somehow sympathetic. "There was no need for you to cause yourself such undue grief."
The Fourth Prince kept his eyes rooted carefully upon the mass of groping black appendages below and his face carefully neutral, for the Erinye's last words to him had unsettled him more than he had let on and he had no desire to allow the High Prince to see him in any such state of vulnerability. His reply was monotonous and lifeless, though when he looked back on it later he would wonder if it was a little too much so. "Her usefulness had run its course with us both."
Then he tensed his legs and leapt soundlessly into the distorted black void.
When he landed upon the soft black sand that served as the shore for the hellish pool he found that the demon claws had at last succeeded in dragging Aveil completely below the surface; he shed his cloak hurriedly before leaping headlong into the pool after her, fear gripping his shadow orb like a vice. If the Archmistress passed beyond the Veil after the High Prince had tasked him with retrieving her, the resulting punishment would be severe indeed.
The water was like ice; Aglarel couldn't help but marvel at Aveil's resilience, for the subzero temperatures would have killed most mortals within minutes but she had fought against the current and the souls entombed within for hours. The demon's cruel claws raked at him as he sliced through the water, tearing at his clothing and his flesh as he passed, but he paid them no heed.
Failure in this was not an option. He was starting to believe more and more that Aveil would prove to be an irreplaceable ally where Lim Tal'eyve was concerned.
He found the Archmistress floating lifelessly just a few inches beneath the surface on the opposite end of the pool; her lips were tinged with a sickly blue color and her hair drifted in heavy black curtains around her otherwise gaunt face. Aglarel seized her by the collar of her spellcaster's robes and pulled her against him as he broke the surface, and as he treaded water toward the black shore he thought he felt her arms twitch in response. He heaved her out of reach of the flailing demon limbs and dragged her up the shoreline to a dry patch of sand, and after only a few chest compressions he was supporting her as she spat out mouthfuls of icy black water.
When she had regained her bearings her violet eyes snapped open, seeking his, and her characteristic sarcasm was swift to return. "You might have taken me with you when you departed this place with Lim."
"I might have," Aglarel agreed, sitting back on his heels and surveying her with disdain. "And as a result, I may have incurred the High Prince's wrath. Better to leave you here until he made his wishes quite plain."
Aveil was wringing water out of her heavy sheet of ebony hair, her expression forbidding, but the effect was lost to the white pallor of her face and the way her fingertips trembled slightly. With a start, Aglarel realized just how close to death she had truly been. "Do you always do what the Most High tells you to do?"
Aglarel barked out a laugh. "To the letter."
"I thought as much." She was squeezing droplets of water out of the hem of her robes now, even as Aglarel trod up the shore to retrieve his shroud. As he was gathering the garment in his arms she called back, "I suppose it stands to reason that you have admitted my most hated enemy into your city by now."
"The Most High will decide what is to become of Lim Tal'eyve," Aglarel replied vaguely, and when he was close enough he tossed the shadowy cloak down beside her. "Wear that. If you don't dry soon your death will be of hypothermia and not by drowning, and I will not fail the Most High."
Aveil scoffed but took up the cloak nonetheless. "Turn around."
To her surprise the Fourth Prince readily agreed; he was certain he heard her huff irritably when his back was turned, and fought the urge to laugh. Perhaps she had hoped to lure him in with the sight of her naked flesh, but Aglarel had long been wise to her games and wouldn't allow himself to become so easily enticed. Only silence passed between them as Aveil changed, during which Aglarel reflected upon all that had occurred that day and how best he might assist his sovereign in the future, and when Aveil at last cleared her throat to get his attention he found that she had wound the cloak around her body like a strapless gown. It wasn't her most glamorous look, to be sure, but it would keep her alive until they returned to Thultanthar.
"Words cannot express my fury at the treatment I have suffered at the hands of you and your sovereign," Aveil spat passionately, setting her hands upon her hips and fixing him with a look that Aglarel supposed other mortals found quite intimidating – to him, her rage was most comical. "I have survived these tortures and these horrors, after I divulged all that you wished to know, and for what? To be dragged back to the City of Shade, where undoubtedly I will be subjected to more unpleasantries for the entertainment of the Princes of Shade? Is this all I can expect for my future?"
Aglarel approached her then and took her left hand in his right; their eyes met in that instant, and Aveil gasped in surprise and intrigue at his sudden close proximity. He held her gaze as he opened his other hand, warming the clammy, cold digits with his.
"That remains to be seen," he murmured, holding the band just millimeters from her slightly-trembling fingertips, relishing the hint of desperation as it crept back into her eyes. "Will you continue to oppose the High Prince at every turn? Will you meddle in the affairs of others, when common sense would dictate you do otherwise? Will you resist, and argue, and pursue your own ends regardless of the consequences that befall you? Or are you prepared to swallow a measure of that pride of yours, and allow yourself to be assimilated into a society far greater than any individual could ever hope to be alone?"
There was no mistaking the shock and wonder in Aveil's eyes as comprehension dawned in her face; it brought to mind the first rays of sunlight stretching across a once-lifeless expanse of earth, and for a moment Aglarel was powerless within her gaze. By now her hand within his had warmed somewhat, and on some impulse Aveil entwined their fingers boldly – rather than pull away Aglarel allowed this behavior, for what he saw in her eyes was the truest emotion that perhaps she had ever worn in his presence. All thoughts of deception and manipulation had flown from her, and there was only one word to describe just what he was seeing: it was hope.
She could have her life back. She could be allowed to live, to thrive even. There was a chance that she could have everything she had been searching for in all the long, perilous years of her life – power, prestige, wealth, comfort, influence, protection – if she only submitted herself to the higher power that was High Prince Telamont Tanthul.
Aglarel could see in her eyes that she was tired of running, tired of fighting – but perhaps most of all, she was tired of being alone.
She was ready.
"I am," she said at last, somehow overjoyed to breathe those two words, and with a triumphant smirk Aglarel wasted no time in slipping the ring onto her finger.
The effect was instantaneous; the vibrancy that Aveil seemed to have been missing since her brief sojourn to Manifest flooded her features in a sudden rush of color and vitality, bringing a rise of rosy color to her cheeks and the lustrous sheen back to her dark hair and the perpetual gleam of confidence and tenacity back into her stunning violet eyes. Her skin warmed as though the ring was breathing life back into a corpse, and as Aglarel watched her body became less and less translucent until she at last retained the consistency of a healthy mortal being. And for some reason that he could never quite explain Aglarel found that he felt privileged to be present in the moment that Aveil Arthien returned to life – perhaps it was her aura of subtle magic that influenced the thoughts and emotions of those around her in her favor, but he suspected it was more because he enjoyed her company far more than he had previously realized.
"Did the lichdrow keep his word?" Aglarel snarled in a suddenly malicious tone, and Aveil recoiled at the hostility in his voice and dropped his hand. "If you say that he has deceived you, it will be the first thing we report to the High Prince upon our return."
"No," Aveil was quick to say, lifting one hand up before her face and studying the familiar contours with new appreciation before she curled her fingers into a fist. "No, I feel… I feel like myself again. I feel as though the void I have been carrying within me these long weeks has at last been filled."
"Good," said Aglarel, crossing his arms over his chest and looking adamant. "I will admit to you now that I had rather hoped the Most High would send me back here to recover you, for I have ulterior motives for bringing you back to Thultanthar with me."
Aveil missed his meaning entirely at first, raising one suggestive eyebrow and cocking one shapely hip out to the side as she expertly shifted her weight. "Oh? What could you desire of me, I wonder?"
"You misunderstand." The Fourth Prince's eyes were glittering mutinously beneath his cowl, the only feature currently visible within his sinister shadow-swathed face. "What I desire of you is in no way personal… I mean to put to you a proposition that is strictly business." Seeing Aveil's expression darken and turn sour Aglarel could only laugh and continue, "May I also add that it will be mutually beneficial to us both, and will offer tremendous amounts of amusement in the event that we succeed."
"Go on," Aveil baited, seemingly a little more interested now.
"Oh, I won't share the particulars of my plan with you here – the details can wait until we are safe within the City of Shade, and will take many days for us to perfect before we set things in motion. For now I will say little – just enough to gain your attention." Aglarel paused long enough to grin down at her, the ivory tips of his ceremonial fangs clearly visible despite the inherent gloom of their surroundings, and Aveil felt a thrill of terror and anticipation course down her spine.
She knew, even then, that she would agree to take part in whatever it was he was about to attempt to enlist her in.
"I foresee dark, uncertain days upon the horizon for the Empire of Shade – days fraught with peril and adversity, where only the most ambitious and clever could possibly stand to gain. During this time the Most High will need eyes and ears on every corner, at the end of every avenue, in every crevice of every mundane corridor. As his son and his most loyal and faithful servant I am content to take up this role, but I do not think this is a task I would be wise to undertake alone. In this, I would like to enlist your aid. So tell me, Aveil Arthien – are you prepared to devote yourself fully to the service of Most High Telamont, knowing that in doing so you will inevitably find yourself at odds with Lim Tal'eyve?"
At the conclusion of Fourth Prince Aglarel's vague yet somehow telling proposition, Aveil found that there was only one thing she could say.