The Farther You Fall
Notes and Disclaimers:
- All recognizable characters belong to WoTC or TSR or whoever. Not me. I make no money from their use and have none so don't bother trying to sue me.
- The story is intended as slash (as in male/male sexual content), and although the first chapter contains nothing of the sort and I've yet to decide how explicit it will become, the likelihood of 'very' is very high. Likewise, I've no use for 'throbbing manhoods' and no male, even a pointy-eared one, expels 'essence of ecstasy', as far as I am concerned; nor is it strawberry-flavored, ever. You've been forewarned. Run while you can.
- My knowledge of 4e is sorely limited, and frankly I couldn't care less about the rules anyway and just exploit the lore however I please (for instance, darkvision = seeing in heat patterns). So if frivolous use of the canon offends you, then once again, do run along. Nothing for you to see here.
-The above notwithstanding, I sincerely hope you enjoy the story. Feedback is always welcome and appreciated.
This Won't Hurt, I Swear (Part I)
23 Mirtul, The Year of the Silent Death (1395 DR)
A blue-white arc of light cut across the sky, a second flash followed by a roll of thunder. Elaith nearly dropped his pen, cursed and looked up from the paperwork to glare accusingly at the window. The din of clanging earthenware, rowdy toasts and shuffling feet in the tavern proper was almost drowned out by the sound of rain lashing against the glass but evidently the freak storm didn't make a lick of difference to the patrons of the Hidden Blade. They continued to drown their empty sorrows or celebrate equally dull joys with cheap drink, only to wake to a routine hangover and the inevitable repeat of the previous day. And so life dragged on, monotonous and uneventful and utterly unchanging. Sometimes, during severe bouts of melancholy, Elaith envied this mundane, predictable existence but for the most part he just felt detached contempt. One was generally responsible for one's own destiny. Chances came and went, and if you missed them they didn't always present themselves again.
On the other hand, when you did take them you ended up with most of Waterdeep's illegitimate trade and a good portion of its legal commerce and estates - and then you were stuck in a backroom of a bustling tavern in an ungodly hour, tending to paperwork that could be neither avoided nor trusted to another's eyes.
So really, was there a point to it all?
Putting the pen down carefully Elaith flexed his cramped fingers, realizing only then that his hands were numb with cold. The fire had all but gone out, permitting the unseasonable chill into the room. He rose and stalked toward the hearth, stirring the embers with brisk, impatient motions that matched his current mood. The thought of going out in this gods forsaken weather did nothing to improve it, and for a moment he considered a teleportation spell. But no. Even now, with over a decade since the collapse of the Weave, arcane magic was still too unstable, and he was as likely to find himself at the doorstep of the Blackstone manor as in the middle of Vilhon Wilds, or worse. Only a few rare items crafted before the Spellplague remained unaffected but they had become finite and were therefore worth a dragon's hoard.
In any case, he needed to at least finish with the deed granting him the villa in Sea Ward. The impoverished noble family to whom it had belonged – and what might these humans know of nobility? – had clung to it with irate determination, like a terrier with a dead rat. Their duly histrionic griping at the loss of this last shred of their faded glory had fallen just short of accusing Elaith of theft, so he wouldn't put it past them to muck up the documents from sheer spite.
With a sigh Elaith returned to his chair and the paperwork waiting for him. He propped his booted feet on the corner of the desktop, mindful of the priceless chultan wood, and picked up the parchment. He only just began to grasp the finer nuances of the convoluted wording when the door to his office opened. The Spellplague had played havoc with magelocks too, and although some of the more elaborate wards still functioned, those were now reserved for crucial locations. So here, in his semi-formal office which everyone and their grandsire's horse knew about, Elaith made due with a stout door and a couple of meatshields outside, not terribly skilled but usually capable of keeping out the rabble. Annoyed at the interruption and the lack of warning from the guards he made a mental note to have an inspirational discussion with the louts should they be alive, set the deed aside and regarded the visitor.
Swathed in a dark cloak, face obscured by its hood, his uninvited guest stood at the threshold.
Swinging his feet off the desk Elaith sat up from his sprawl, habitually releasing the hidden catch on his right bracer; the blade slid into his palm, its cool weight comforting in its familiarity. He was in no mood for theatrics, what with mysterious hooded figures barging into his office in ominous silence whilst a dreadful storm raged outside. It smacked of cheap adventure story, the tripe one indulged in when one was bored with watching grass grow. Insulting, really.
"Pray do come in," he offered, taking vicious pleasure in mock courtesy.
The visitor hesitated for just a moment, head turned to the side as if in thought, then started across the floor. Of a height with Elaith or so, the bearing was unmistakably male and the silent, predatory sort of grace hinted at martial training. Not a Lady In Distress, then, or Spurned Lover Bent On Revenge. That was fine by him, Elaith decided, and with vague amusement continued to speculate. Had he been cast in a role of a Hero With A Tragic Flaw or Villain With Delusions Of Morbid Grandeur? Bizarrely, he was beginning to develop a perverse sense of gratitude toward this poor soul, conveniently come to provide him with the means of unleashing his foul temper - and entertainment besides.
"Well?" he prompted, gauging the trajectory and the distance, lining up subtly for the throw.
There was a blur of movement and sound – metal, rasping; a glittering arc, descending – and then bright pain blossomed in his temple and everything dissolved into blackness.
The world reasserted itself with a view of a muddy boot and, out of the corner of his eye, the hem of a cloak, dripping rainwater onto the neat stack of finished paperwork. Resentment flared, heralding a headache which he discovered next. His vantage point confused him because he could definitely feel the very familiar contours of his chair underneath… which was really quite convenient, seeing as how he was tired, and something cold poked painfully at his neck whenever he stirred. So he gave up on exploration and puzzles altogether and let his eyes drift shut. To the Nine Hells with the paperwork, and the bloody half-wit who put a boot on his desk and hung a cloak over it could bloody well go there too.
"Vendui', Elaith Craulnober," a male voice said pleasantly. Warm and dark, it caressed the ears. It was also entirely unfamiliar.
The form of address, though… that was another matter. He'd heard it before. And since he obviously wasn't going to be left alone, he thought he might as well try and place it. Unfortunately all that his sluggish mind had to offer was a sense of thorough, boundless exasperation, invariably tied to the time and the circumstances in which he'd been greeted in this manner…
Elaith choked, gulped for air, and his wits cleared.
The drow crouched on the desk in front of him. The hood had come off, and the glow of the dying fire threw the ebony profile into stark relief. He had angular, typically elven features, finely wrought and set in hard lines. There was an air of confidence to him, evident even in the tilt of his head, in the languid ease with which he balanced himself, in the faint glint of adamantine armor beneath his cloak. The sternly tied white hair lent his face a severe cast but the mouth made up for it, clear-cut and frankly sensual, with a slight sardonic quirk to the lips. In the absence of darkvision the eyes were the color of dried blood, and Elaith hastily checked his perusal when he realized they were watching him with the aloof-yet-focused curiosity of a hunting cat.
Their eyes met and held and a startled trill shivered along his nerves, a… recognition of sorts, on some basic, visceral level. Elaith imagined in another moment they might be scenting each other, stiff-legged, like a pair of posturing hounds - except, of course, for the tip of a sword that rested at the hollow of his throat.
Held in a deceptively loose grip, the weapon - what he could see of it at anyway - was of superb make and without embellishments, and well-kept at that. He had apparently been stripped of the bracer which now lay discarded on the floor, and the drow's free hand was toying with the throwing knife. Elaith had a number of other weapons secreted about his furniture and his person but he could see no way to make use of them from his position, not and keep his neck intact. And the dark elf clearly wanted something since - well, he was still alive - so it behooved him to try and negotiate. Distasteful as it might be.
He still felt a little breathless, and there was a sour taste in his mouth he thought might be injured pride but he did his best to swallow it and spoke. "Is this truly necessary?"
"Is it your custom to try to kill your guests?" the drow returned. He let the knife slip through his fingers - it embedded itself in the desktop, as if to make an emphasis - and cocked his head, the gesture daring Elaith to deny the obvious.
It was, Elaith had to concede, a succinct and rather eloquent way to make a point. "The unannounced ones, yes," he said with a shrug, and winced when metal bit into flesh at the motion.
"Then I will introduce myself. My name is Zaknafein."
"You will forgive me if I do not say we are well met."
"You live," the drow countered blandly. His Common was fluent but heavily accented, which only added that much more spice to the expressive, silky-rough tones. Elaith could hardly miss the proverbial 'for now' that hung unspoken in the still air.
"Ah yes, your generosity is beyond compare. Very well, then; shall we start over? Well met, Zaknafein. How may I be of service?"
"I wish to speak with the leader of Bregan D'aerthe."
Elaith frowned. He hadn't expected that. Actually he had not the faintest idea of what this Zaknafein might want with him but he would never have guessed it to be, of all things, the role of a messenger boy to the notorious mercenary band. "I see," he offered noncommittally, buying himself time. He considered feigning ignorance but dismissed the idea. The chances of having been picked at random for such an unusual request were slim to none. Although it wouldn't hurt to learn the extent of the drow's information, in any case. "And why come to me with it?"
"I gathered, after some… research, that you have business with them."
"Ah." Reduced to monosyllabic responses - but really, there wasn't much he could say to that - Elaith spared a fleeting thought to wonder how many of his underlings would have to be replaced in light of this professed 'research'. He rather looked forward to it, should any of them have survived Zaknafein's tender mercies. Association with Bregan D'aerthe was certainly illicit, if vastly profitable, and he'd taken great pains to keep it clandestine. Or so he'd thought.
With some surprise and a measure of self-deprecation, he realized he'd forgotten the value of keeping an open mind and fallen into a trap of rigid thinking. Every dark elf with whom he came in contact was Bregan D'aerthe, therefore any dark elf was Bregan D'aerthe.
Well, excepting of course the famed Drizzt Do'Urden whose sterling reputation and valiant efforts against all kinds of evil (and more importantly, the exceedingly scandalous affair involving the Lady of Silvermoon and some human, or possibly dwarf) had played a significant part in the current social and political climate. In the wake of the Spellplague those city-states which fancied themselves civilized, like Waterdeep, had passed what was now known as Fair Laws. These days anyone was free to walk the streets so long as they traded fairly and obeyed the authorities - or were willing to keep a good appearance of it.
Elaith snapped out of his reverie once Zaknafein gave an unsubtle indication of waning patience by way of excreting pressure on his sword, just so - not enough to deal real injury but sufficient to draw a trickle of blood.
"I would prefer," Zaknafein said conversationally, "not to kill you."
"Oh, good. We agree."
"Then you will comply?"
"I cannot contact him directly, whenever I please. So perhaps if you would come back – " Zaknafein snorted softly, the sound a perfect mix of sarcasm and disbelief. Thrown off his stride, Elaith forced an unrepentant grin. All this bantering at sword-point didn't come without a cost, and the headache was on him in full force by now. "Be reasonable, will you?" he tried again. "It is not as if he and I are dear friends. There are certain protocols to our communication, and everything takes time. What would you have me do?"
"You require inspiration?" Zaknafein questioned, then with a smooth, imperceptible motion shifted the blade so that its edge, razor-sharp, parted skin in a delicate, deadly caress. It left Elaith bleeding from another shallow wound. Idly the sword flicked up to nick him again, on the right cheekbone this time, and once more, on the left, before returning to its prior position against his neck. Zaknafein's face remained impassive, nothing evident on it except indifference.
Elaith froze. The calculated, matter-of-fact violence hit him with the impact of a golem's fist, and for the first time fear brushed him with greedy fingers. He recalled, with a detached sort of clarity, how he'd found the notion of dealing with the drow repulsive to the extreme when he'd been first approached. But his long and distinguished career - which had earned him several telling designations, such as 'The Serpent' and 'Crimelord of Waterdeep' - often made for strange bedfellows. And over time he'd grown inured to the fact that he, born to one of the most esteemed elven lines and raised to protect and serve Evermeet's royalty, was neck-deep into highly objectionable business with a people who wantonly slaughtered his kin for centuries untold.
And so it had been inevitable, he reflected bitterly, that eventually it all came to a crux, and one of them now held a blade to his throat.
Intrinsic, gut-level hatred burned away fear and reason in a sweet, purifying surge. It stiffened his spine and made him raise his chin, lacing his voice with haughty disdain that was purely and utterly elven. "Drow." Elaith articulated the word with deliberate, icy precision, like the slur that it was in his native tongue. "Spare me the travesty. If you mean to use that sword, get on with it; otherwise, I suggest you sit on it and - "
A chuckle interrupted him, a rich, companionable sound that startled fleeting echoes in the room. In the silence that followed the dark elf withdrew the weapon and gave it a brief once-over, as if really considering the advice. "It is good that you have balls, Darthiir, " he said finally, lightly, and leaning forward, permeating the close space with a complex variety of scents - rain, oiled leather and metal, alien soaps and a coppery tang of spilled blood - clapped Elaith on the shoulder.
"Do not presume to touch me," Elaith snapped.
Unfortunately the sentiment was blithely ignored as Zaknafein leapt off the desk, sheathed his sword and proceeded to relieve him of every concealed weapon in his possession, with brisk efficiency that spoke of considerable insight. Unsurprised - dark elves were normally cautious, even the overconfident ones – Elaith endured it docilely until the drow slapped his thighs apart to examine the legguards reinforcing his leathers above the knee. Then he bit out a curse, jumping involuntarily at the touch that was decidedly too personal.
"Be still," Zaknafein advised, voice expressionless, but his lips curved slightly, the ghost of a smirk.
As much to draw the attention elsewhere as make a real attempt at protest, Elaith demanded, "Do you expect me to go about unarmed?"
"Are you not safe here?"
Not missing the irony, Elaith subsided into silence. Later he would even the score, and certainly not with words. As it was, he was too out of sorts to engage even in verbal fencing, let alone another confrontation of the kind he'd just been through. All he really wanted for now was to get some rest, and that meant losing the damnable drow. "If you insist that I contact Bregan D'aerthe, I will need to go out."
"Then I will go with you."
"But of course you will. Aren't you a dear."
Zaknafein glanced up from his search. "I will not let anyone harm you," he said flatly, impervious to Elaith's efforts at sarcasm.
"I've no need of bodyguards, thank you."
"No? The ones outside your door are dead. Although they were not of much use."
"Those weren't bodyguards but that is besides the point."
"And what is not?"
" 'What is not' what?"
"What is not besides the point if your bodyguards are?"
"They were not… Bloody Nine Hells. The point is that I'd rather keep my weapons, delighted as I am to have your steadfast protection."
The dark elf didn't deign to respond, occupied with two cut-glass vials he'd just appropriated from Elaith. He unstoppered one with suspicious wariness and, nose wrinkling at the potent smell, hurriedly moved it away from his face. He looked ready to stomp on it, as if it were a cockroach that had somehow, absolutely randomly, appeared in his hand.
Elaith suppressed the urge to laugh, mostly because he suspected there'd be a touch of hysteria in it, what with that bit of a conversation he'd just found himself engaged in. "A healing potion," he said. "Also works as a salve. Handy, that."
"Really. Then why does it smell like poison?"
"Not the trusting sort, are you? Then again, I suppose since it isn't fungus it must be poison. Very well, give it here." The potion was handed over wordlessly and Elaith shook out a few drops of the heavy liquid onto his fingertips, gingerly spreading it over the still-fresh cuts on his face and neck. The smell actually wasn't that bad, just too strong in large quantities. "What you smell is veilyrrh, also known as dreamgrass. It's common enough but N'Tel'Quessir do not know how to distill it properly for healing."
"Non-elves." The word meant 'non-people', literally, but Elaith saw no reason to give a drow detailed lessons in High Elven; he'd spoken the term out of habit, nothing more.
Zaknafein observed him dubiously until the wounds began to heal and fade, then resumed his efforts at disarming Elaith, indicating, with a curt gesture, that he get up and turn around. Having little choice Elaith complied though his shoulder blades itched the entire time he had the drow at his back. To his credit Zaknafein made quick work of it, at least. A fist weapon shaped to go over the knuckles joined the wide assortment of daggers and knifes, followed by a garrote and another knife, this one hiltless, meant to fit comfortably inside a boot. The dark elf surveyed the confiscated arsenal with an expression that held a touch of incredulity but was mostly approval. Admittedly, piled up on the desk like that, the heap of lethal metal did look impressive - or perhaps disturbing. Depending on one's viewpoint.
"I trust you're now satisfied I am harmless as a lamb," Elaith said primly, crossing his arms over his chest. Zaknafein, who was considering the healing potions with guarded uncertainty despite the demonstration, finally shrugged and dropped them into his belt pouch. He'd made no reply except his mouth twisting momentarily, so Elaith went on, "Well, shall we get this over with? I've had a nuisance of a day and it is quite a walk."
"Where are we going?" the drow wanted to know.
"You'll find out, won't you? Unless you've changed your mind? Say it isn't so."
Zaknafein only shook his head, though not really in answer if the look on his face - annoyance warring with grudging amusement - was anything to go by. And weaponless or not, he made sure Elaith preceded him on their way out the door.
The storm had worn itself out and a fine drizzle softened the streets into incoherent shadows as they made their way east through the sleeping city. Wandering magelights streamed after them, threads of translucent glowing spheres in muted hues of gold, affording their passage a surreal, dreamlike quality. The lights seemed drawn to Zaknafein, to his obvious displeasure, drifting about him in lazy circles whenever he slowed like some bizarre inquisitive butterflies, beautiful and eerie in the damp night air.
"What are these… creatures?" the dark elf growled, his tone suggesting he'd been fighting the impulse to swat at the things and winning by a narrowest of margins. Clearly poetic wonder wasn't among his faults.
Elaith, whose case-hardened soul was equally unmoved, bit his lip to keep from laughing as he shrugged. "No one knows. They just appeared one day. Mages insist they aren't sentient but it is as if they pick someone they feel curious about and follow for a time. Usually they favor spellcasters."
"I dislike magic," Zaknafein said with finality.
"Oh? Try telling them that, why don't you?" Elaith suggested glibly.
They reached the wall enclosing the City of the Dead. Elaith didn't bother with the gate which would be locked at night but headed straight for the convenient breach to the right of it, masked by loose stones that looked like they were mortared solidly enough. Removing them he went through the gap first. Zaknafein followed, wary as a cat . The dark elf hadn't drawn his weapons but he looked like he wanted to.
"It is only a cemetery," Elaith told him, pleased. The drow's reaction did credit to his instincts but it was also a dead giveaway that he was a stranger to Waterdeep. There was nothing dangerous about the City of the Dead - the poor used it as a park during the day - though it did look rather imposing, in an menacing sort of way. "But look, your new little friends cannot follow you here. A shame, is it not?"
"Why have we broken into a cemetery?"
"Because it's the shortest route to the Warren." It was really juvenile, baiting the too-somber, too-arrogant dark elf with cryptic answers, but satisfying - a pleasure Elaith simply could not resist. Zaknafein's stare, unamused, didn't spare him for a long scarlet moment. "Caves, tunnels, old burial sites, that sort of thing. Your kin have this peculiar fondness for underground burrows, I can't imagine why."
In fact the Warren was peopled, for lack of better term with which to describe an occasional stray band of diggers too greedy for their own good, by gnomes and dwarves, with a rare halfling thrown into the mix. But the reasoning was sound, unlikely to alarm Zaknafein. Elaith had considered actually doing as he'd been asked - after all, what did it matter to him if a drow had some unfinished business with another drow? They could cut each other's throats twice over for all he cared. But the process he'd have to go through was inconvenient, and besides he was feeling just a touch contrary and therefore disinclined to accommodate.
Once they entered the Warren Elaith carefully picked a route that was neither too short nor too long, weaving through the maze of empty corridors at speed. It wouldn't serve to wake the drow's suspicions. Unsurprisingly Zaknafein glided beside him with ease that went beyond the mere gift of darkvision and was clearly born of life-long experience. Elaith tried to imagine what it might be like, to live always confined in this close stony darkness, and failed. He'd have fallen on his sword within a tenday.
They went by an overturned mining cart, rusted from disuse. It wasn't much farther now.
Eventually the corridor narrowed, hemmed in by the rubble piled up against the walls on both sides. It was impossible to walk abreast from here on out. Presented with the choice to take the lead or follow Elaith halted, deliberately leaving the decision to Zaknafein. The dark elf motioned for him to continue and fell into step behind him, just as Elaith had expected he would; mistrust had its uses when properly exploited. Keeping his posture carefully neutral he nodded in agreement and moved on.
They passed under a low-hanging ceiling, both of them having to bend their heads. Just for reassurance, Elaith balled his left hand into a loose fist, lightly brushing sensitive fingers against the plain onyx band encircling the thumb, feeling the runes carved into the surface. He sensed rather than heard Zaknafein's suddenly arrested stride – the dark elf did have uncanny instincts, for all the good they were going to do him – but kept on moving and so the drow resumed, following close on his heels. Elaith glanced over his shoulder, made absolutely certain Zaknafein was no more than several paces away, and stepped on a trap.
Twin stone walls crashed down in ponderous concert, blocking the path in either direction.
"Aluve', Zaknafein," Elaith said, savoring the words with unholy relish, and twisted his ring. He couldn't quite read Zaknafein's expression as the dark elf faded from his view but the litany of curses in the drow tongue was well worth using up the priceless teleportation device.
Vendui' (Drow) - Greetings
Darthiir (Drow) – surface elf
Aluve' (Drow) - Farewell