I've made a couple of changes to the story over the last few days, starting a complete re-write of the ending of chapter 35 (I read it back recently after now having read it for a while and cringed a bit, it was so silly – I've changed it so that it is a little more in keeping with the story as a whole).
Allowing Nathyrra to kick a bit of butt here – well, she is supposed to be an expert assassin, after all...
Creeping forward, Nathyrra naturally fell to a crouch, minimising her already lithe shadow as she inched forwards towards the area she had been instructed by the Seer to investigate. She had left the vast majority of her scouting party – including two seasoned spellcasters – near where the Valsharess' troops were slowly yet steadily advancing after asking for a volunteer to accompany her upon another, much more covert mission; unsurprisingly, the first drow to step forward with an eager nod and a look of grim determination upon his young face had been Szinaufein. At first she had considered refusing his offer of help, but then straight away had questioned her motives for doing so: hadn't he proven himself a competent - and above all, trustworthy - ally over the last few weeks? If anyone would watch her back, it was the young ranger... and so why was she so reluctant to allow him to accompany her?
Unwilling to examine such motivations at that point, the assassin forced herself to concentrate upon the task in hand. She had wondered if she should have taken more than one companion with her, but the main focus of this operation was to scout and not to engage unless absolutely necessary, and in these cases, Nathyrra knew that there was a much less chance of being spotted if there were only two compared to a larger group.
Slowing to a standstill, she took in a deep lungful of air. It was tinged with the acidic tang of the Poison River, indicating that they were upon the right track. Nodding to Szinaufein, they then began searching the area carefully; it came as no surprise to find the faintest trace of booted footprints in the fine layer of mulch that substituted for soil in the Underdark.
How long? she signalled to her companion, gesturing towards the partial footprint.
Szinaufein hunkered down for a short moment, studying the almost invisible print carefully. Not long, he signalled back. The Seer was right; they are using the attack to their advantage.
Nathyrra smiled grimly. Of course they are. Did you expect them not to?
The ranger simply shrugged. What now?
Raising her head and narrowing her eyes towards the direction of Lith My'athar, the former Red Sister scowled slightly. We follow. And, if we can, we stop them.
Szinaufein's crimson eyes widened for the briefest of moments. Just the two of us?
If need be, yes. We cannot allow them to get near Lith My'athar.
Stroking his pointed chin with one slender ebon digit, the ranger hunkered down once more and studied the ground carefully, his head darting back and forth, making him resemble a strange bird of some sort, seeking out its prey. After a short while, he straightened up and regarded Nathyrra again, a grim look upon his fair face. By my calculations, there could be anything between three and five of them. I'm sorry I cannot be more precise.
That's okay. Nathyrra signalled back, touching the ranger's arm to show her sincerity. They don't need many – this will be a reconnaissance mission; they aren't attacking, just scoping us out.
Szinaufein frowned. Reconnaissance? Surely they do not need to do that – what about the Valsharess' diviners?
Nathyrra shook her head. The Seer has protected Lith My'athar from any form of scrying for now – just as the Valsharess has blocked all of our intrusions. Therefore, if they want to see what we're up to, they need to see it directly. You should know – we've been intercepting them for months now.
And you think they're using the attack as a cover?
That is the suspicion, yes.
The younger drow paused before answering, his attention fixed for a second upon the direction of the beleaguered dark elven city he now called home. "Then we should hurry – we need to stop them, or at least warn The Seer before they manage to take any information back to the Valsharess," he whispered, more to himself than to Nathyrra.
Offering Szinaufein an odd look, the assassin simply nodded before moving off gracefully once again. She did not look back, and so did not catch an odd look of conflict that flickered briefly across Szinaufein's face before he followed her.
Carefully, he creeps forwards into the gloom. None of them must catch him; none of them must see. Once, the shadows would have been his friend, but now, who knew? Once one of highest favour, reduced to nothing, reduced to take orders from a jumped up little...
No. Must remain calm. Cannot allow anything to cloud his judgement. He knows that He is testing him; he knows that He alone knows His truth. The other one – he is the mistaken one, the one being manipulated. He cannot – will not! - believe otherwise. It cannot be true – never have the two kinds ever worked together; are they not sworn enemies? It is ridiculous to even consider it! Had he known, he would not have joined, would not have agreed. Madness... it was all utter madness!
And then, to make it even worse, to heap insult upon insult upon insult, there was her – she who had nothing to do with any of this, she who had neither the sense nor the stomach to command them. By the Shadow, it made his head spin at their stupidity, at their total lack of any form of courage.
A surfacer! And not just any surfacer, but a female! It went beyond insult, beyond all sense. And yet he said that this was His will! Idiot! Dolt! How dare he say he knows His will... well, they would see His will in its full glory, given time. Now was the time to leave their vapid idiocy to themselves – he knew what to do.
Who to find.
Who to convince.
She did not follow the Spider Bitch. The Bitch was gone – how, no one knew... but that wasn't important. A power vacuum had been the result, and she had arisen, taken advantage of the situation. Oh, how he regretted not having the foresight to join her then... he could have shown her the way. He would have welcomed her into his shadowy embrace.
Instead, he had listened to his so-called brothers, his comrades in arms, those stupid fools who, he now realised, knew nothing. How much further would they debase themselves? Taking orders from that insipid, weak wretch, who in turn took hers from that accursed harpy they called a Goddess... by the Shadow, it made him sick. To be reduced to this, to be forced into such servitude, to be once again under the yoke of a cretinous female, after all he had done to get away, to escape...
What? Shadows in the dark up ahead. Must hide... hide from them, no matter who they are. No one can see. No one must know. No one must realise. Until it is too late, of course.
He knows this is right. Another female, maybe, but at least one of his type. One who understands power.
One he knows He would welcome into His flock, if only he can convince her...
Keeping a respectful distance from Nathyrra, Szinaufein allowed his thoughts to wander as much as his situation would allow. How long had he now been with the Seer's troops at Lith My'athar? Six months? Nearly a year? It was hard to tell, time flew by so quickly. He had spent quite a long time living a feral existence after the defeat of Cheth Rrhinn – how long that had been, he simply had no idea. He still considered himself lucky; those who had not willingly become slaves to the Valsharess' cause had been put to death in quite imaginative and gruesome ways for their perceived insolence. His House, much to his shame and fury, had caved in to her might almost immediately. Thankfully, he had been at the city's Melee Magthere and so had been lucky enough to have the luxury of a choice – he had chosen exile over servitude or death, along with a small handful of young males around his age.
Most of them, unfortunately, had died within a few days of the Valsharess' victory. Szinaufein would undoubtedly have shared their fate through his inexperience, but had been fortunate to meet a tall, scarred drow he vaguely recognised as having connections to his House. They had never spoken, but he recognised the older drow nevertheless; his scars made him instantly recognisable to all who met him. Rizonym hadn't been able to speak in those days, but his stoic presence had kept the small gaggle of drow youths together and in some form of vague order, and Szinaufein still felt some measure of gratitude towards the older dark elf.
He had joined the Seer's troops initially out of desperation, that much was true... nothing so altruistic as wishing to help their cause, just simple survival, a classic case of the enemy of my enemy must be my friend. He soon found out there truly was a mixture of characters seeking shelter in Lith My'athar, and the political structure was as fragile there as within any drow city, the only thing uniting them being the simple fact that they had all opposed the Valsharess, refusing her rule.
Those early, heady days had been ones of confusion and excitement for the young ranger, and he was not too proud to admit that he had managed to get himself into his own fair share of trouble. It was during one of these bouts of trouble – goading some of the original guards of House Maeviir into attacking a group of Eilistraee's followers in a tavern, he seemed to remember – that he had met Xen'shai, and had consequently been introduced to the smallest and most secretive sector of those defending the city against the Valsharess... the males who banded together under the protection of Vhaeraun.
Watching Nathyrra expertly scale the side of an outcrop of rock, Szinaufein felt a sudden swell of relief that he had never actually devoted his life to the Shadow Himself; even thinking His name made the young drow nervous, and although he felt comfortable in the company of the other drow that were devout, he himself just did not feel ready to commit his life to His service. Xen'shai had proved useful to know, however, despite (or maybe because of?) his connections with Vhaeraun's clergy – through the Deathsinger, Szinaufein had managed to worm his way into the best vzahaz, where his youthful exuberance and ready smile had endeared him to many of those closer to the Seer... truly, they were naïve to be taken in by such an act, and he had used this to his advantage more than once, knowing that Xen'shai and those he reported to (if he did indeed report to anyone - despite his larger than life persona, the Deathsinger was largely an enigma to all that met him: Szinaufein himself and heard at least five different stories with regards to how he had joined the Seer, each one as believable and plausible as the last) would reward him in ways Eilistraee's followers would indeed frown upon had they known such practices went on unknown under their very noses.
But now... was all of that beginning to change? He had been charged by Xen'shai to keep the former Red Sister– or Red Bitch, as the Deathsinger so often called her – ahead of him out of the other drow male's hair by all and any means possible. Why Xen'shai wished this, Szinaufein did not know... and, at first, he did not care. He had only seen Nathyrra from afar before joining her upon this near insane quest, and whilst she was undoubtedly beautiful, to him she was no different from the other haughty, self absorbed and beautiful females he had encountered before, and he was more than ready to treat her to his own peculiar brand of insubordination.
Accepting the hand that reached down to help him scale the final part of the rocky outcrop made slippery and treacherous by the spray that the swiftly flowing poison river threw up – one unclad hand in one of the many pools of corrosive water dotted around the outcrop could mean losing said appendage if you were not careful – Szinaufein heaved himself upwards and smiled with gratitude to the female he was supposed to 'keep busy', his heart heavy and, not for the first time, confused. When she smiled back at him, her wordless signals asking him if he was all right, his resolve almost broke; how could he lie to her – how could he hurt her? - as unsuspecting as she was? Signalling back that he was fine, however, he kept his mouth shut and, when she turned away from him and began creeping forwards once again, he gritted his teeth and shook his head against the swirl of conflict he felt over this mission... and this female in particular.
Smiling cruelly, Spirrak Teken'mtor signalled for his small troop to remain hidden and silent. In all his years as one of the Valsharess' most dedicated male commanders – second only to her Red Sisters in importance – he felt honoured to have been the one chosen for this attempt at infiltration. He had been reassured that Sabal's more overt frontal attack to test out the validity of using the Bone Golems as part of their main assault would draw out most of the rebel drows' elite fighters, leaving Lith My'athar as vulnerable as possible. Yet his role wasn't to attack to city, but simply to observe it; the despicable priestess of Eilistraee that held the rebel city together was, he grudgingly admitted, powerful... powerful enough to keep his Mistress' scrying attempts at bay, meaning that she actually had little idea of what went on in that accursed place.
Due to this, he had only selected the best to accompany him – a hand-picked group consisting of a rogue, a mage and a ranger, with himself as an accomplished assassin – and between them, he was determined to penetrate further into the rebel camp than anyone had ever managed before. In their arrogance, the seditious inhabitants of Lith My'athar relied heavily upon the location of the poisonous river to protect its eastern edge, and largely, their arrogance was justified; the river was beyond treacherous, its corrosive waters capable of eating a boat out from underneath them in mere minutes. What made it even more dangerous (and terrifying) was that if you didn't immediately succumb to the water as is dissolved your flesh from your bones, it was almost inevitable that you would be taken by the strange, amorphous inhabitants of the river. Quite what they were, no one knew... and, Spirrak mused, no one particularly wished to know. They had also discovered, to the fury of the Valsharess, that some kind of anti-magic field had been placed upon the river as it neared the city, meaning any attempts of magical flight or the like were met with the volunteers plummeting to a grisly, painful death. These failures did not make them lose hope and give up, though – if anything, it only strengthened their resolve to find a way to break through this natural defence, with the Valsharess convinced that if the city was to be taken, the river was the key.
It was down to this determination that he and his small group of allies now took a rather more circuitous route to Lith My'athar: a route that no army could take, but a handful of skilled individuals might take advantage of. If they could only get a foothold in the city – even if it was just a glimpse of what they were up to, their numbers, their fortifications – they would have a clearer image of what they were up against, and therefore could mobilise their troops against Lith My'athar with confidence.
Since Spirrak wholeheartedly believed that the Valsharess' destiny was to be the conqueror of the Underdark, the Mistress of All (and since becoming one of her favoured consorts, secretly hoped that he would benefit in some small way from her machinations), he did wonder why his Mistress was so circumspect... surely, there was nothing a tiny rag tag group of rebels could harbour within the walls of what was once nothing more than a small market town that could stop her inevitable rise to power and glory? Still, she hesitated, caution momentarily marring her beautiful, haughty expression when he had tactfully expressed this very opinion; at first, he had cowered before her, expecting punishment, but instead, she had smiled, placed a soft hand upon his cheek and charged him with trying to penetrate the Seer's defences along the river's edge.
He never once considered that this might actually have been his punishment.
Dropping back so that she was now side by side with her companion, Nathyrra frowned slightly and gestured ahead of her, looking a little apprehensive. Feeling his pulse quicken, Szinaufein nodded; whoever they hunted was just up ahead, that much was true. Even he could see the twinkling of the small yet effective warning lights, indicating that someone had passed by recently. They were a particularly ingenious invention of the Seer; small, magical traps that could only be set and – usually - seen by the followers of Eilistraee, serving no other purpose than to warn others of enemies that had passed through certain areas. Since approximately half of Lith My'athar's army did not follow Eilistraee, the Seer had tweaked them so that only allies could see them (it had also proved a useful and clever way of testing anyone's intention if their allegiance was brought into question – if they were not loyal, they could not see Eilistraee's Stars. Interestingly, Xen'shai had so far passed each and every trap she had laid for him), and so if they saw a twinkling, winking array of tiny stars burst upwards and create constellations above them, they knew someone of ill intent was near.
Moving with something akin to a crawl, the two drow edged their way carefully over the outcrop. Just ahead of them, the rocks rose again, and at their base, they could both see barely visible figures moving, their progress nothing more than a shift in the shadows to the untrained eye.
Luckily, both the assassin and the ranger were highly trained in such things.
Drawing her rapier from its scabbard and feeling slightly horrified that they had managed to get so close to Lith My'athar, Nathyrra slipped her hand into her belt pouch and brought forth a small vial of silvery liquid. Putting it to her lips, she swallowed it in one gulp and immediately disappeared from view. Taking her lead, Szinaufein then did the same. Just before he disappeared, he felt a warm hand touch his shoulder and soft lips caress the edge of one of his pointed ears as she leaned in to whisper to him.
"I'll take the mage," she breathed. "You take your pick of the other three once he is down. Make sure you strike true; even if a patrol has already picked up the Stars and is on its way to deal with this, we cannot allow them to draw any closer to the city. Hopefully, once the mage is out of the question, they will have a difficult time dispelling our enchantments." She hesitated briefly before squeezing the young ranger's shoulder. "Good luck."
And with that, she was gone.
Stiffening for a moment, Spirrak cocked his head to one side, listening intently. Was that a whisper of a footstep he heard? Scanning his surroundings, his comrades also stopped and mimicked their leader, each one of them concentrating as they tried to pick up any hints as to what he might have heard. Shaking his head, he indicated that there was nothing... but nevertheless, his senses were now heightened, almost as if he expected an attack. He did entertain the notion that maybe his mind was playing tricks on him – after all, they had never managed to get this close to Lith My'athar before, and so he was bound to be a little nervous – but his well-honed senses told him something was amiss.
Bringing his heavily enchanted longsword to bear, the drow assassin continued to creep forwards along the bottom of the natural gully, avoiding the pools of stagnant pools of water that had gathered there. Ahead of him, the ground flattened slightly, indicating that the little knowledge they had of the Seer's fortifications was true; once you had braved the perilous path by the poison river's edge, there was a gully – this gully – that lead to a much more hospitable path that eventually connected to a network of fields where they grazed their rothe. Spirrak had no doubt that they would meet resistance at some point, but he had faith in his small group's abilities: after all, had they not conquered a path that had left so many of his predecessors dead or irretrievably maimed?
Ducking behind a large chunk of broken basalt, he signalled for the rest of his troop to follow him in kind. Surveying the levelling off land, he searched for any kind of patrol, but found none. Sneering cruelly to himself, he once again could not believe the stupidity and arrogance of his enemy; turning to the other three to gloat, his triumph turned to horror as, right before his very eyes, his mage's throat was opened by an invisible force, spraying thick, glutinous heartsblood over him and his remaining comrades. His eyes widened in shock, the wizard scrabbled at the gruesome tear before sinking to the ground, his eyes already glazing over as he lost consciousness, a bloody froth bubbling from between his lips indicating that not only was the blade that opened his neck sharp, but also poisoned.
Whirling around, his longsword leading, Spirrak's head darted this way and that, desperately trying to seek out whoever had attacked them, but to no avail; whoever it was had retreated again to the shadows. It was then that another one of his comrades (who had also been trying to find out who – or what – had attacked them) let out a short shout, truncated by a gurgle as a dagger appeared almost magically in the soft part of her neck, just below her left ear, its blade buried to the hilt in her flesh. Swaying forward, the drow fingered the dagger's hilt as if to pluck it from her neck, an almost comical look of confusion upon her face before she pitched forwards, her crimson eyes rolling up in their sockets. It was obvious by the heavy way her body slumped upon impact with the ground that she was also dead.
Feeling a slight bubble of panic rise within his breast, Spirrak roughly grabbed his last remaining minion and pulled him towards him, placing him directly at his back. They then began to circle, their weapons held forth, with Spirrak's free hand dipping into a small velvet pouch at his belt. Drawing out a handful of a strange, purple-hued dust, the assassin began flinging it ahead of him randomly, hoping to coat their invisible attackers and reveal their positions. That they had disposed of the mage first meant that they were experienced in tactics; they had quickly and efficiently removed the one aspect that could have dispelled any and all invisibility enchantments they had currently upon their persons.
Snarling to himself, the assassin swore viciously as his tactic seemed to fail; however this soon turned to triumph as his dust settled upon what could only be a boot. His snarl transforming into a smirk, Spirrak lunged forwards, his sword leading, hoping to slash his invisible assailant with his poisoned blade, only realising far too late that this was actually a rather clever diversionary tactic; he was meant to see something. Upon hearing another shout cut short to a gruesome gurgle towards his back, he risked a glance behind him to see the last of his elite troops sinking to the ground, his throat slit from ear to ear so that it resembled the macabre parody of a grin. Spinning around, the assassin groped within his belt pouch for an invisibility potion of his own, realising all too late that he had paid dearly for his arrogance in not taking it earlier. It was then that he felt the one thing he had been almost been expecting since the beginning of this one-sided engagements; the cold kiss of steel against the soft, unguarded flesh of his own dark throat. His eyes widening for a mere fraction of a second, Spirrak knew there was nothing for him to do other than stand still and try to maintain an air of nonchalant confidence; he had been in such situations before, that much he knew... he would prevail. He always prevailed. The others were obviously weak.
To his left (and not behind him, as he had suspected) came a sudden, throaty chuckle, thick with malice.
"Well, well, well... what do we have here? Spirrak Teken'mtor, an actual assassin at last. Is the Valsharess so desperate that she relies upon you of all people?"
Upon hearing that voice, long suppressed memories bubbled to the surface of Spirrak's mind, momentarily clouding his judgement as he attempted to lunge towards the source of those terrible, mocking words. It was then that he felt the dagger bite just ever so slightly into his neck and knew that this despised relic from his past would kill him in a heartbeat, given half the chance.
"So you did survive, Nathyrra," he spat back, forcing himself to stand still once again.
"Oh, the Valsharess knew I survived Spirrak... what, she didn't share this titbit of information with you? And I thought you considered yourself so important..."
Snarling under his breath, the assassin clenched his jaw and swallowed down a bile-filled retort, choosing instead to remain silent, his resolve almost breaking when he heard yet another mocking chuckle emanate from his left.
"That's right – remain silent. Give nothing away. I remember the drill well." He felt his loathsome captor take a step closer to him, cursing himself – and her – for not being able to sense her before; how she did it, he had never been able to fathom. It had been that ability that had ultimately seduced the Valsharess into allowing her into the hallowed ranks of the Red Sisters, of that much he was sure.
"Don't worry; I'm not going to kill you." Nathyrra paused, and Spirrak thought he could feel her relishing her advantage over him. "Yet."
"Do your worst, bitch," the captured drow hissed furiously through gritted teeth. "No matter what you do, you're all doomed. The Valsharess has seen to that."
"The Valsharess is the one who is doomed," Nathyrra whispered back viciously, tightening the dagger against his throat, its fine blade finally biting down, drawing a bead of blood that trickled slowly and stickily down his chest. "She has no idea what she is up against." He then heard an element of amusement touch the female's voice. "And neither do you..."
Suddenly, out of nowhere, Spirrak felt something hard connect brutally with the back of his head; at first, the world flashed a blinding white before it faded to the deepest black as he sank into the welcome arms of unconsciousness.