A/N I don't own anything copyrighted or of Wizards, like House Jaelre, Cormanthyr, any recognizable characters (though I've taken liberties with them), or the drow. I do own the original characters in this story. This story is a direct sequel to The Final Gate, Book III of the Last Mythal trilogy. It focuses on the Vhaeraunites in the forests of the Old Elven Court. I'm ignoring the events in the Lady Penitent series, they're just wrong. The following is info on the recent events and House Jaelre, pulled from other sources except for the third bit, which is common knowledge.
The largest group of drow on the surface is the followers of House Jaelre. The leaders of this group have established smaller, finite goals for themselves. Rather than having a disorganized plan to take over the world or destroy all its enemies, House Jaelre plans to take over old elven settlements (particularly the old Elven Court in Cormanthor), study the mythals and remnants of elven high magic, and find a way to tune these powerful wards to not only keep out enemies from the surface, but to repel any enemy drow who might try to take their prize from them. To distract people from its activities in the Elven Court, House Jaelre executes precise and small-scale raids upon parts of the Dales…
22 Eleasias, 1374: The crusading army of Evermeet combined with the forces of Sembia and the Dalelands defeat the Fey'ri legion (and their Jaelre allies), and retake the city of Myth Drannor in the name of the Elves.
The Old Elven Court and Myth Drannor are both in the new lands of Cormanthyr. One is populated by drow, the other by faeries. The inevitable will occur.
Chapter One Raising the Red Road
Even the songbirds quieted at his approach, as if they knew the assassin wanted utter silence to be his herald. The small, feathered creatures were used to his kind, even the shadowy magic that he wielded, yet every time he took the dark road the blue birds were mute, the sun shone dimmer through the hundred foot tall shadowtops, and the golden patterns inlaid in the copper bark drew seemed to draw back into itself, retreating. Of course, most of that took place in his imagination. The assassin knew that his magic was nowhere near powerful enough to cloak the forest in that kind of stupor, nor was he so inherently terrible that life itself became greyer when he passed.
And why should he want that anyway? Compared to the blighted Night Below, the vibrancy of the Night Above –though it was currently day –was a refreshing, welcome exchange. More beautiful, even, then the old cities of his people. The assassin had visited three or four of them, and while exotic and wondrous, he found himself longing for his home every time he was in those tight corridors, surrounded by others who reminded him with their very existence that his trade, prized here on the surface even by the others of his kind, was one every single dark elf dabbled in down there. It was their nature.
Yet it seemed that nature did protest to him being there, just a little, as if there was something wrong with the image of him walking through the winding shadowtop forest of the Old Elven Court, something ungodly. The assassin failed to care. Tall, lithe, almost overly slim, he walked the narrow, winding dirt road like any other elf. The road would lead him nowhere, unless he knew exactly where to turn. He did turn at the right place, exactly, his utterly plain, fitted black outfit blending into the shadows along with his dark form. The way was permanently ingrained into his memory; he knew every single blade of grass on the shadow path.
So it was understandable that his black lips would part slightly in surprise when a series of red bricks greeted him in the middle of the secret way.
The dark elf's magma colored eyes narrowed as he considered the bricks. They were arrayed in a pattern to form the start of a road, it seemed. The bricks appeared to be freshly cut, almost perfectly, as if sorcery was involved instead of mundane bricklaying. There were seventeen in total, no significant number. The greater question was, who would lay the bricks? Certainly not-
"Well met, knight of the night." The assassin turned, but even as one of his gloved hands dropped to the cruelly enchanted, vile sword at his hips, he stopped the motion, for the voice was no enemy. He appraised the dark elf in his gold embroidered black robes, leaning slightly on a shadowtop staff shot through with greenwood, scarlet eyes gazing laughingly at the assassin. The mage's mouth was twisted into a grinning slice, pleased at surprising the skilled assassin.
"Valk," said the assassin in his courteous, melodic voice. No doubt the mage was cloaked in shadow magic, courtesy of the dark goddess he paid some homage to –an experiment, really, but the assassin wasn't privy to the details. Even if he had been a noble drow, able to detect magic whenever he passed, the assassin was unsure whether he could have detected the elusive Valk. He gestured to the staff. "Not carrying your usual arms, Auzkovyn."
"I felt that something else was necessary for this task, Malaka," he responded, nodding towards the bricks. Malaka merely waited for an answer, wavy white hair stirring slightly in an enjoyable breeze. "Oh, ask. I know you're curious, assassin. I saw you stop."
"I don't have much time; I need to make this journey quickly. Truly."
"Truly? If you really want to know, while you've been gone, my patrons have been meeting with yours." A more sober tone interjected itself into Valk's voice. "Ever since the faeries have been coming back in hordes and droves," the dark elf spat, "we all feel that we can do so much more on a united front. The red road you see before you is the manifestation of that new front."
"You want to make it clear to everyone exactly where House Jaelre's fortress is located?"
"It isn't visible to everyone, only those who have the patronage and blessing of Vhaeraun." Valk grinned, and Malaka felt like something was being left out. "The ones who can summon the forces of magic, of course. The road won't extend all the way, of course. There are mages working on it on your end as well… Belarbreeza, I think, is in charge. In fact, she's done by now, I think. We just need some tests to be run. The road will extend a little into the forest, and those of us blessed with the Masked Lord's divine favor and with the power to warp the natural with magic…" Valk's smile became wider. "Let's just say, teleportation is outdated. And an entirely new for of ambush is born."
Malaka wasn't exactly sure what the implications were, but he made a note to talk with Belarbreeza about it, though the female wizard was irritated as of late –probably because of the injuries she sustained trying to unravel a mythal. "Night be with you," he said, inclining his head.
"You said you had something urgent to do, did you?"
"I never said that," Malaka said delicately, dispassionately. I only hinted at it.
"Let us try the road, then!" Valk's eyes gleamed with excitement, but again, there was something else. "I'll send you on to House Jaelre, with no effort at all. You can still cast, can't you?"
"Powers akin to a mage, not a cleric. Or thaumaturge," he said, nodding respectfully to the robed drow, who indeed did possess a grasp of the divine and the arcane both. "It is the true way of the assassin, to learn some of these wizardly powers."
Valk waved it off. "That matters not," he said. "You can still use it. What say I show you how to operate it? This is better than any portal, Malaka. It is indeed a road, a red road, yet inside it our Masked Lord has complete and utter power. We can lure armies onto this road and destroy them at our leisure. We can whirl you off to House Jaelre in minutes. We can even call upon the energy of the road to augment our own powers." Valk was growing more and more excited every minute. "Come, assassin. I'll show you how to work it."
"I've already wasted enough time talking," Malaka said. Unspoken, he knew that he would fight this the moment he reached House Jaelre. Allowing other dark elves, of another clan, to create a path to their door was not a wise thing to do, even if they had some control over it. And though the Auzkovyn were drow akin to the Jaelre, they were not the Jaelre, and Malaka did not trust them as much as some. Night knew what would happen if Valk threw him into that road, wherever it was. He suspected that it was those who carried out the Masked Lord's will who had power over the road, not the Masked Lord himself. Scrutinizing Valk, he wondered if those that served his own unnamed goddess didn't have some power either.
"I will go with you, assassin," said Valk in exasperation. "I have no grudge against you, nothing will happen. You have to understand, this sort of magic is something that was not possible until recently, with, ah, new powers that we've tapped." Undoubtedly the supposed 'shadow magic'. "Belarbreeza researches high magic every day, but that was of the past. This is the future."
"You just admitted it, this is experimental. I make it a point not to jump into the experiments of wizards."
"You will be walking for half a day. Even if you are faster than that, it will still be night when you arrive. I can have you at House Jaelre in heartbeats. Nothing will go wrong. And if something unexpected occurs, like I said, the Masked Lord can watch the road." Can watch, not is watching. There's a difference. "You have done things far more risky in your time, Malaka."
"Do it. Before I change my mind. And you first. The first thing happens I don't like and I'll prove my sword savors drow blood as much as it does faerie." The assassin sighed. He must be going crazy. A hundred years of assassinations would do that do an elf. Even as he made the statement, Malaka drew upon his wells of power and prepared himself to poison Valk with a touch, turn perfectly invisible, and teleport himself. Just in case. They were both, after all, drow.
"Stand with me, on the bricks." Malaka gingerly stepped up, red dust swirling around his high, soft black boots and discoloring the dull leather. Oh, that will take some scrubbing, he groaned mentally. The mage closed his eyes and began whispering, while Malaka kept his eyes on the mage and began praying. He hated experiments. He had seen what they did to people. Again, he wondered idly whether he was insane or not.
The Masked Lord's hand must have been guiding him though, because in an instant, they were off the platform and standing in a featureless plain of black and white, with a grey sky overhead. There was no life whatsoever, which unsettled the assassin in a terrible, deep way. Curious, considering his profession, but he did need life to continue his trade. And no one liked to be alone.
Which is why Valk was here, grinning broadly. His staff, a weapon of nature, was missing, but the rest of him had made it. "Look down," he said. The assassin did, and started slightly. He was standing on a dull road the color of blood, terribly wide and grand in appearance. Looking forward, the rest of the road came into view. A complete road, he amended, narrower than the square they stood on now. It was the only color in this place –looking at Valk, the drow had lost all color in his eyes, robes, and trinkets. Even his skin and hair seemed to lack some of the luster they had, seeming darker and blander. The caster turned and studied Malaka. "Night below, you don't look any different. You, my friend, need help picking out your outfits."
Malaka only peeled his lips back into a smile, a small thrill rushing through his spine. "How do we get to House Jaelre?"
"Follow to red brick road, of course," said Valk. "But whatever you do, do not step off. Either you will exit this place violently and die horribly in the manner of leaving, or you will not, in which case all you have to do is step back on. But I wouldn't chance it." Valk winked. "Shall we?"
Malaka considered their surroundings warily, the realization that this was not Faerun dawning on him quickly. "What is this place?"
"A fragment of a whole, Malaka, merely a fragment. Imagine what I can do once I hold all the pieces." Valk smiled wistfully and set off in a determined walk, Malaka falling in behind him, brooding about exactly what the whole was. Within three or four minutes of silence and walking hard, the two reached another square of brick like the one they had started on. As they stepped on, Valk turned to Malaka. "Go ahead and leave this place. You bring us out."
"How? You're not about to let me operate experimental magic. That's like giving a male child a snake headed whip."
"Easy. The incantation can be recited in prayer or arcane format. Just repeat after me, and make sure you whisper. Wouldn't want to wake anything up with a booming spell, would you?" Valk laughed. Malaka's eyes widened.
"I don't have a booming voice," he said absently, wondering what there was to wake up. Nothing alive, and nothing good, that was for certain. He said each word after Valk in his customary murmur.
"Concentrate! Take us to House Jaelre, from this place. Picture it." An image of the citadel, surrounded by green leaves and copper trunks, a great black castle unchallenged by anyone, popped into Malaka's mind. Every little detail, like the twelve strutting towers that popped up from the ziggurat of the main keep, the spiked ramparts that protected it, the steel and wood bridges that connected the lesser towers and the twelve major ones, the red and black glow emanating from the inside, the onyx gargoyles peppering the entire castle, the sweeping arches that marked the gates…it was all there. And suddenly, the two drow were there to.
Valk gave a happy laugh. "The first test!" he said, cackling. "The magic works!" He plopped down in front of the leering arches of the gate and spread his arms to the heavens, laughing. Malaka looked at the Auzkovyn strangely, and found that the drow guardsmen were all leveling weapons at them, longbows and crossbows tipped with deadly poisons for sure. Two or three mages were also half in the shadows, undoubtedly poised to strike. A tall, lissome female with hair flowing the small of her back strode towards them, black and olive robes swishing.
"You idiot Auzkovyn!" she said, eyes bulging. "Have you lost your mind?"
"Females shouldn't talk like that," said Valk, a loopy grin on his face. "Especially not to one of the most powerful male casters in this forest. Ha!" He snapped his fingers in her face.
She slapped him lightly. "Gender won't matter when Jezz hears of this, it was completely unsanctioned. The Jaelre do not approve." She noticed Malaka in the shadows of a tree and rounded on him. "You. I can't believe you went along with this. You must have lost your mind, Malaka! I thought you were a responsible member of this House!"
"Apologies, Bela," he said, though what he wanted to say was 'Actually, I'm just a commoner'. He supposed he should be pleased that he was treated with as much respect as some of the nobles. Belarbreeza stood with her hands on her hips, glaring at the assassin. He knew that males weren't automatically inferior to females, but standing before her, Malaka knew that he did respect Bela…and her judgements. "I've been wondering the same thing, if you must know. I'll accept your punishments, but I have grim news first for us all."
She lost the hard front. "No matter now about the road. Ah…was it successful?" A little excitement came into her tone, and she grew a slightly embarrassed. Malaka just pointed at the giggling Valk. She smiled faintly. "That shadowman was right. This is useful magic. Perhaps I can use it to master higher spells…"
"Shadowman? I'm the only shadowman allowed in Jaelre," said Malaka, ruffled. He stepped off the brick hurriedly and walked over the Bela, the urgency that brought him here redefined, crossing the arched threshold and walking under the gargoyles.
"What's the news?" she said.
"Come. I'll explain it when you get your three co-leaders with you so I don't have to make all of you cry at separate times. Jezz and Nurkinyan are probably in their war room, right?" She nodded, and he went on with a side question. "What shadowman?" He dropped his voice. "And why wasn't I consulted before all this dealing with the other drow? I may not be one of the Four, but I believed that I carried some power in this House."
"You don't understand, Malaka. You've been away on your tasks for far too long. We've been hit hard by this influx of faeries, faeries that are undoing all that we've worked for. We are at a record low for converts from the elven population here. The Auzkovyn feel it too. Working together and pooling all our forces is what we need to survive. The shadowman too, we need him. The divinations I've cast reveal little about him, but it may have to do with all the uproar in Evereska about those flying citadels. He discussed…alternate sources of magic for us, since Mystra is such an opposing deity to our own Masked Lord."
"I heard rumors that there were one or two casters that could call upon a source of shadowy magic, and that Valk was among them, but I never knew what it meant."
"To be honest, neither do I, though I plan to learn this shadow magic starting now." A hunger came into her eyes. "Perhaps, deciphering the secrets of high magic with this shadow sorcery, I can merge the two…to have…such power…" She walked in silence for a while, dreaming of the possibilities. Malak took a moment to admire the interior of House Jaelre, set with plush red carpet on the floor, beautiful tapestries on so much of the smooth walls, unlit torches lining the halls. The passed inscribed wooden doors and statues of ebony and alabaster, all of them (like the tapestries) depicting Vhaeraun in his victory over the rest of the Seldarine, Dark and Light. Some of them, though, were merely images of masks.
"So…tell me of this other shadowman. He can't have been anywhere near as dark, charming, and dangerous as I, could he?" The corners of his lips turned upwards as he regarded Bela.
She laughed him off. "A more dangerous and charming male I've never met than that shadowman, and he was so dark the shadows peeled off his skin."
"Bastard! I must meet him and introduce him to Hound," muttered Malaka, touching the hilt of his sword. The short blade had a pommel shaped like a gaping demonic dog's maw, hence the name.
"He introduced us to his magic, taught a few some basics, and left with the promise of more, once we straighten out a few details."
"A deal. He wants a deal for this information." The pair turned to a huge double door set, onyx veined with ivory, flanked by two masked drow guards in studded leathers and each carrying twin short swords, one black and one ivory. "Night be with you," Malaka said out of habit, pausing and scrutinizing one of them. "Jeyrr? Is that you wearing the mask?"
The guard puffed out his chest a little in pride. "It is, Master," he said. "I graduated recently. The shadows were willing."
"And they put you on some of the most important guard shifts," murmured Malaka. "I have been gone a long time, indeed. Well done. Tebryn knows what he's doing with you, Jeyrr. Shadows embrace you."
Jeyrr took out a small gem from a pocket. "Forgive me, Master, but I have to do this as part of my duties." He paused, waiting for his response over Bela's. The male drow, even those raised on the surface, were weaned on the tales of female barbarism in Lolthite cities, and did not easily forget, even if the female in question was one of the leaders of the House.
"By all means, Jeyrr," said Malaka, looking to Bela in deference. She nodded. Malaka gave her the respect she deserved from her considerable prowess, nothing to do with gender. The fact that she was a beautiful female Matron in a society where a male could actively court females also weighed into his decisions around her, and so far, it seemed to be working.
The guard peered through the gem, which would ascertain their true natures, preventing anyone in disguise from entering the war room. "Clear!" announced Jeyrr with a knowing grin at his former instructor. Jeyrr was slightly nervous, it seemed, but the Master assassin of House Jaelre made a lot of people nervous –he was a hard instructor, and twice as deadly as Tebryn, a Patron of the House, in charge of defense, was. The whispers said that Malaka could take Tebryn's job, but that was never to be. Tebryn had a far more military mind, and Malaka was too much of a useful tool in the shadows outside Jaelre realms.
They entered the huge, circular room. Thirteen statues of the Masked Lord lit in faerie fire, all alabaster, surrounded a round table on a shining onyx floor, again veined, but this time with white gold. The walls were adamantine, Malaka knew, imported from the Underdark and enchanted on the surface. A huge map of Cormanthor made up the top of the table, while the ceiling was a map of all Faerun, of which portions could be enlarged and shrunken for more detailed viewing, by mages and priests of course.
A drow, white hair short and spiky, with a leg brace dressed in studded leather robes turned to face the new arrivals, the snake wrapped about his left arm hissing, and the black kukris on his hips absorbing the faerie fire glow. Malaka bowed from the waist to him. "Lord Jezz Jaelre," he said in his soft tones. The assassin held Jezz in highest respect –even with his injury, the drow had survived and thrived, and furthered the Cause more than any other Patron ever had. Even if he hadn't been a cripple while doing all this, it would have been impressive. The other drow in the room turned to face him and Bela as well, a well built figure in black leathers over gleaming silver chainmail, a longsword and short sword on his weapons belt, and a light crossbow as well. The two males bowed to each other.
"Master Malaka." Tebryn was cool and collected. He had always ignored the rumors that Malaka was aiming for him, even though if he had been Tebryn would be dead faster than he could blink. Yet he was never friendly with the assassin, though he always taught Malaka's classes when the assassin was out on a task for Vhaeraun.
"The Night darkens," said Malaka as he and Bela walked towards the war table.
"Yet the shadows hold a sign of hope," said Bela. She gave her news first, explaining about the successful, if unauthorized test. When she was done, Malaka couldn't help but interjecting.
"This is madness!" he hissed unhappily. "Providing a way for others to come right to out doorstep! And who knows what the Auzkovyn are doing on their end to gain an advantage over us?"
"No more than we are doing to them, and possibly less. They have no central force like a castle, just settlements and villages," Jezz said.
"Exactly. They may be planning to take this castle for themselves."
"Then they will die," interjected Tebryn. "Bela?"
The female's full lips curved upwards. "I've put in my own version of a protection spell on our end. It's no mythal, and inactive as of yet. The only reason you could come through was because it wasn't active. The spell, which is being developed along with Nurkinyan, should be able to detect exactly what is coming through, and close the gates on our end if we need to. Additional protections are also being made, offensive in nature. Some of Tzirik's research is being used." Tzirik had been a far more capable cleric than Nurkinyan, but he was dead now, in service to his deity. In fact, it seemed House Jaelre had lost many of its more experienced members recently.
Malaka hissed uncomfortably, knowing he had lost this battle. "It just seems…unlike us as drow to do this." He shrugged. "I have worse news that we should be worrying about, but we should likely call Nurkinyan before I explain."
Bela cast a spell, summoning the head cleric of House Jaelre mentally, and not long afterwards, a tall, thin drow with a mop of unruly hair and a pocked face entered, dressed in a loose shirt, tight breeches, and wearing a short sword on his belt. Of course, all the apparel was jet black and made of shining silk. He looked at Malaka in surprise. "You're back."
"Miss me?" the assassin said humorously. The two had once hated each other, because they had an argument about who their god favored more, but they had been younger and more prideful back then. Vhaeraun had since shown them that he saw them all as equal brothers, and since, they each held a healthy respect for each other and their respective professions. Besides, as Nurkinyan was the real leader of the House, to whom everyone reported to, Malaka figured it was a good thing they were not at odds, or else he might find himself having accidents and mishaps, most likely all fatal.
The Patron of House Jaelre –the Patron, walked towards the others, all of them saying the proper greeting and formalities when dealing with an elder and more respected dark elf. "You had urgent summons?" he said, taking his place around the war table.
Malaka glanced at each of his leaders, and moved around to a part of the map that said 'Myth Drannor'. He sighed tiredly, closing his eyes and rolling back his head, and let it all out in staccato bursts.
"The fey'ri have lost Myth Drannor and are all dead. Our agents are killed to the last as well, save myself. Myth Drannor has been restored to its former glory. A Coronal has been picked, a female. The empire of Cormanthyr is reborn. The 'Army of Myth Drannor', as strong as the Crusade was or stronger, is on the march. They are coming here, my lords and lady, they are coming."