"Jaluk," Nathyrra said. "I am impressed and I do not say that often."
"Why thank you," Haer'Dalis said. He gazed up at his summoned wyvern, which had swooped once around the cavern before alighting on the floor before him. Two spiders the size of ponies sat docile before the kobold and Nathyrra's zombies, fresh as they were, could almost be mistaken for living elves. Flames flickered over their bodies and created light but no heat.
"Very well," Nathyrra said. "Time for us to all become invisible. Everyone has their potion handy, in case our spells wear off or are stripped from us? Then let us be off. We will hug the right side of the room. Deekin, give us time to get into position before you send in the summons. Have our creatures stay near the door, to draw attention away from Halaster. I will cast a spell of haste upon us all, that our creatures may be more effective and that we may accomplish our task all the sooner."
She cast her spells. Solaufein felt his heart surge to a rapid beat as energy poured into his body. He smiled to himself. It was time. If all went well, they would snatch the mage and avoid a fight where the odds were against them. He did not think all would go that well. He could feel the fight before them like a premonition in his bones. He rubbed his luck charm. A pious man would pray for protection or perhaps forgiveness for his sins and errors. No words came. His sword would speak for him, when the time came.
He and Haer'Dalis pulled open both doors. Solaufein could only hope he wouldn't stumble into one of his unseen companions. His soft boots made no sound but he could hear the footsteps of Haer'Dalis, noisy surfacer that he was.
He moved at close to a run but he slowed as the wizard came into sight. Halaster stood within an arcane circle scribed on the floor around a triangle. Three runestones formed the corners of the triangle. Each flat stone stood about at the height of his knee. They reminded him of the grave markers he'd seen in human cemeteries. The runestones were carved of pale soft stone and were embellished with markings that made his eyes flinch. The wizard stood in the center of the triangle but sagged in a way that suggested that magic and not his own will held him upright. His hair was as white as any drow's but shaggy and unkempt. A white beard straggled over his collar bones. He had been stripped of his robes, which lay in a dark puddle of cloth outside the circle and wore loose black breeches and socks but no shoes. A woman stood beside him—the Red Sister, Solaufein assumed. Her hand was very dark against the wizard's pale flesh. She held a dagger. As he watched, she peeled another strip of flesh from the old man's bloody belly. Halaster looked over her head with eyes that seemed to track two directions at once. Strangely, his expression showed more irritation than fear.
The woman's hand dropped lower and Halaster jerked and then screamed.
"You shall tell me how to open a portal to the Underdark," she said. "Or I will slice off your manhood, such as it is, old man, and let you lip it off the edge of my blade."
"Best leave me my manhood if you wish me to make your mistress sing. Tra la! Tell her to hie to my side and I shall whisper the secret into her long ebon ear." The mage cackled. "Maybe she can bring me a flower. Is it Greengrass yet? Does the sap rise? I'm sure it must be time for spring revels." Halaster lolled his head back against his invisible restraints. His eyes were strange and pale and quite thoroughly mad, Solaufein thought. His voice changed from a whisper to a shout. "Where's the boy with my drink? I want the nettle tea, mind you, and it had best be hot." He stared straight at Solaufein and blinked. "Late again. Someone needs a good beating," he muttered. His voice rose. "And I want an apple with my tea. No, a dinner roll. Make that six. With butter! Damn that boy, what is taking so long? Are the cows all dry? Again?"
"Who does he think he is talking to?" asked one of the priestesses.
"He speaks to shadows," the Red Sister said and shrugged. "I don't care who he speaks to as long as he tells me what I wish to know."
"The human is mad, mistress," the drow mage said. "He cannot help us."
"Then he will die."
The mage gave the Red Sister an uneasy look. "Mistress, is it wise to kill him? You can feel his power woven through the very rock. Some fear the mountain itself will collapse upon his death."
"Then he will speak." She twisted her blade. Halaster gasped.
"He has spoken for hours and days, mistress, but his words make no sense."
"The rivvil thinks to hide behind his madness. Soon I shall strip away even that defense." The Red Sister smiled but her expression changed when the wyvern's cry pierced the still air of the room. "What? More of the madman's wandering beasts? I thought we had destroyed them." She jerked her head at the mage. "Deal with it, jaluk, and harshly. I will not be interrupted." He bowed and beckoned for the swordsmen to follow him.
"Now, rivvil, you will speak and you will answer my question," she said. "How is the portal opened?" Halaster twisted his head to look at something behind him. Solaufein crept closer. Does he see the others? Or is he indeed looking at shadows? The mage shivered one eye closed in an elaborate wink. The Red Sister growled and slapped his face. "You will pay attention when I speak, fool, or I will pluck that wandering eyeball from your addled head."
"And you will feed me my eye on the point of your blade, yes, yes, of course you will. And you thought I did not heed your dulcet words, for shame. My attention to the ladies is legendary but we were speaking of my eyeball, yes? May I have relish with that? A sweet relish with pickled carrots would be nice. Carrots are the perfect complement, but that is obvious, yes? Too obvious? Would eggs be better? Which do you recommend?"
"I recommend that you—"
"Ah, look, the first of the season's butterflies. I knew Greengrass had come. Bring on the revels!"
The Red Sister turned her head at the flap of the wyvern's wings. The beast had one of the swordsmen in its claws. As Solaufein watched, the beast lowered its beak and snapped the man's neck. It dropped the body and sheared away, followed by a hail of bolts from the gallery. A scream rang out from near the door and then there was a blinding flash of lightning. Solaufein closed his eyes just a hair too slowly to protect his vision.
"How I love a spring storm," Halaster murmured.
Solaufein barely heard Nathyrra's words but he saw their effect when one of the runestones crumbled into white powder. Halaster gave a grunt and sank to one knee. The Red Sister jerked in alarm and her free hand jerked in a frantic signal to the cleric beside her. Instead of calling a spell, the cleric pulled a medallion from under her clothes and whispered a word of activation. Her head swiveled and Solaufein could tell by her startled glance that she could see them.
"Invaders," she gasped. "They are cloaked in spells."
"Strip their magic," the Red Sister said.
"I will need my wand."
"Then get it, fool. Must I tell you everything?" The assassin jumped when the runestone near her knee fell into dust.
"If the mage is freed—"
"Then I will kill him." With a quick step, the Red Sister moved behind Halaster, shoved him down on both knees and held her blade to his throat.
"Kill the mage and the Valsharess will not be pleased." Nathyrra stepped out of the spell that hid her and smiled. "You know better than most how—creatively—and thoroughly she expresses her displeasure."
"Alurl Faen," the Red Sister said. Her eyes were wide but her voice was careful and controlled. "So it's true. You still live. The Valsharess will reward me greatly when I bring her your head."
"Not if you cost her Undermountain and the swift path to the surface."
"There are other ways to the surface. They may take longer—"
Nathyrra laughed. "Aye, and the Valsharess is so well known for her patience. Elgluth, you are as foolish as ever."
"And you as brash. Archers!" She raised her hand and bolts rained down from the gallery behind her. None struck Nathyrra. Her magics protect her, Solaufein realized, at least until the cleric dispels them. The cleric had reached the wall and picked up a leather case. Solaufein ran after her and struck at her exposed neck before she could turn and see her danger. To his shock, the blow half severed her neck. She died almost instantly. He'd never killed a priestess with such ease.
Dark Maiden, where are her protections, her spells? Could it possibly be true? Could the Spider Queen be dead and her clerics helpless?
A crossbow bolt struck the floor near his foot. Several other archers leaned over, ready to fire. His invisibility was gone. If he could still levitate, he could easily reach the gallery above but since he could not, he ran a dodging path back towards Nathyrra. It was probably smarter to save his invisibility potion until the situation became more dangerous, since his armor was good and the range of the crossbows was limited by the archers' position. Unless, of course, an archer pulled off a lucky head shot. Best not to think about that.
A sound rang out, first a ringing tone and then it dropped into a melody, at first glorious. Haer'Dalis could use his voice to strengthen his friends but also he sang as a weapon. As the song dropped into a lower and lower register, his voice changed until it seemed to come from no living throat at all. Surely a vengeful ghost sang of its life and its death and its eternity of bitter suffering, alone, unloved, and unheard. Solaufein had heard this dirge before; he knew it; and yet there was a part of him that woke to sorrow anew. He heard one and then another of the archers moan in fear and despair. At least one dropped his bow and turned his face to the cavern wall behind him.
He saw Haer'Dalis shimmer half in and half out of view. Nathyrra stood near the Red Sister.
"Do not think to use your spells on me," Elgluth said.
"I challenge you," Nathyrra said. "You told others that if you had been sent against me, I'd be long dead. Why don't you prove it now?"
Elgluth laughed. "Do you think me such a fool as to give up my advantage? No, Alurl Faen. You are outnumbered and soon you shall fall at my feet, like this pitiful rivvil." She jerked Halaster's head back against her hip. "Stand away, og'elend, and tell your males to drop their arms. I will slay the mage before I let him fall into your hands."
Nathyrra stepped back. Her hair fell across her face and the words of a spell ripped out of her throat. Solaufein crouched, ready to spring. In a rush of air that popped painfully against his ears, a giant hand appeared out of the air before Nathyrra. The massive phantasmal fingers closed around the Red Sister but not before she drew her blade across the mage's throat. Halaster fell forward and hit the ground face first while the spell pushed the woman back. Solaufein raced to Elgluth. Pinned, she stared up with furious eyes.
"Light take you—" she growled. She struggled but could not move.
Solaufein jammed his blade into her throat before she could complete her curse. "Light take you as well," he muttered.
"The mage, does he live?" Haer'Dalis asked. Nathyrra knelt beside Halaster and rolled him over. She pressed her slender fingers against his throat. Blood ran in streaks through Halaster's beard.
"Quickly, a healing potion," she said. Haer'Dalis pulled one from his belt pouch. "Pour it over his wound, here. Good. Give me another and I will see if he can swallow."
"Hurry," Solaufein said. His ears twitched. "One of the swordsman calls for help. Soon we will be overrun." A bolt passed closer than he liked and was followed by two more as the archers on the gallery recovered from the bard's song. "More so than we already are, that is."
"Curse me, I forgot the last runestone!" Nathyrra cried out the word of unmaking and it crumbled into dust like the others. Solaufein tensed. The mage was free. Nothing felt different. A stream of fiery arrows lit the far side of the room near the door. The long shrieking cry and the thud of a heavy body that followed told him the wyvern had fallen to the drow mage's spells.
"I hope you have a plan for getting us out of here," Haer'Dalis said. "Alive, by my preference."
"I had planned on Halaster being alive and conscious," Nathyrra snapped.
"Trot out your spells, bard," Solaufein said. "The archers seem to have recovered their spirits. Their reinforcements will be here shortly." He stepped forward to guard Nathyrra from the figure that shot towards them and relaxed slightly when he saw it was Deekin. The kobold's eyes were stretched open wide.
"More drow coming," he gasped. "Lots more."
Haer'Dalis frowned. "Shall we run for it?"
"Run where? The only way out is through the door we came in," Solaufein snapped.
Both men whipped their heads around at Halaster's whispered words. The mage's hand clutched Nathyrra's knee. With a frown, she helped him to a sitting position.
"I must find the words to express my gratitude, dear lady," Halaster said. "You saved my life.
"Use short words," Deekin said. His eyes were on the drow who poured into the chamber like a silent, lethal wave. "We about to die."
"No," Halaster said. He cast the approaching enemy a cursory glance. "They are."
In later days, Solaufein tried not to remember the hellish devastation that blasted from the very rock around him. He tried not to remember the screams, or the dust that swirled around the room, or the greasy feel to the air. The dust and the grease, they were all that remained of a roomful of living, breathing, vengeful drow.
His eyes burned so from the storm of energy that had swept the room that he thought his sight deceived him. Two Halasters? The mage's double shimmered into view like he'd stepped through an invisible door. The new Halaster was fully clothed, if somewhat disheveled, and his shaggy brows were drawn down in a ferocious frown.
"Where is the impudent strumpet who dares to violate my home?" His eyes settled on Nathyrra, who still supported the wounded Halaster. "You there. You're the wrong one. Where is she?"
"Who do you seek?" Nathyrra asked. "For that matter, who are you?" She bent over the first Halaster. "I thought—are you Halaster? Is this an illusion?"
Both Halasters ignored her. "She's not here, old boy," the first Halaster said. "No Valsharess."
"Flown the cote?"
"The bird never fluttered in at all. These pesky adventurers 'rescued' me before the trap could snap."
"Now that is a damned inconvenience." The second Halaster turned his head so that his glare was shared out amongst the four of them. "You shall pay for your meddling, fools."
"Hold a moment," said the first Halaster. "I'm not so sure the plan was working."
"Of course the plan was working. Unless you did something stupid. But you couldn't be stupid. You're too me to be stupid."
"You're right, of course. Don't think it will work twice, though. Do you? So now how are we going to lure the Valsharess here?"
"Together, we'll think of something. Two brains are better than one, after all." The second Halaster tapped his nose.
"After lunch," the first Halaster said. "My stomach thinks my throat's been cut." He rubbed the wound under his chin. "My stomach called that about right, perspicacious organ. Good thing the pretty one was quick with her potions."
"Deal with your stomach after we deal with these meddlers," the second Halaster said. "Shall I drop them into a seething pool of lava?"
"Deekin not be liking that idea!"
Both Halasters ignored the kobold. "They meant well," the first Halaster said.
"That would make a fitting epitaph." Both Halasters chuckled. The second Halaster offered a hand and pulled his double to his feet.
"Does it not matter that Nathyrra saved your—your twin's life?" Haer'Dalis said.
"True enough," the first Halaster said. "I acknowledge the debt, misguided though the lady's actions were. We shall spare your lives, adventurers."
"Not so fast," said the second Halaster. He pointed a finger, tipped with a long dirty nail, at Solaufein. "This one I remember." He stepped closer. His eyes glittered with malice. Solaufein took an involuntary step back. "Drow, you slaughtered Berger. He was mine and you killed him."
"He did?" the first Halaster asked. "He killed poor little Berger? Damnable bloodthirsty drow! Why would you do such a thing? Who's going to air out my sock drawer and see that the monsters are fed?"
"I did not know he was sentient," Solaufein said.
"He spoke to you, fool," the second Halaster said.
"And he did attack me," Solaufein said. "If you were watching, you know that."
"Nonsense, the boy wouldn't harm a fly," the first Halaster said. "Well, perhaps he would but no matter. The point is, Berger was under my protection and you killed him. Now you must pay."
"A life for a life," his twin said. Solaufein felt a prickle in the air and smelled the scent of a coming surface storm. He drew his sword, little use though it be against wizards of such power.
"Wait," Nathyrra cried. To Solaufein's astonishment, she leapt forward and interposed her body between him and the Halasters. "This is the man who can defeat the Valsharess! The Seer has foreseen this. You must not kill him. He is Eilistraee's champion!"
"Foreseen and foretold," the first Halaster muttered. "Forsooth, prophesy gives me an ache in the forehead. I say kill him anyway. Warriors and champions must come ten to a copper, judging by the number who find their way here." He gave his twin a weary look. "Speaking of which, old boy, we are positively infested with them at the moment."
"Yes, yes, I will deal with Durnan's pesky brood," the second Halaster said. "But first I'll deal with this bloodthirsty drow. Not that blood flowed through Berger's veins. Couldn't really call that blood, no indeed, and I doubt very much it would slake anyone's thirst. Even a drow's. Did Berger even have veins? Can't recall now but I rather think he didn't."
"Stick to the point," the first Halaster said.
"What if drow say he sorry he got so mad at Berger?" Deekin asked. "Can't you makes another golem? Not hard for you, Deekin guessing."
"Harder than you think. Berger was unique," the second Halaster said. "Besides, I can hardly spare another bit of that particular flesh. Doesn't grow back, you know. The pain was excru—" He stopped. The two Halasters exchanged glances. At the same moment, smiles erupted on their faces. "We will spare your life if you kill the Valsharess. A life for a life, what could be fairer than that? We would see to her ourselves but we have much to do. All this pesky housework! Go, then, and ensure this upstart drow queen stays out of Undermountain."
Solaufein saw Nathyrra's shoulders slump in relief. He tightened his grip on his sword. He did not trust the glint in the Halasters' eyes.
"However—" the first Halaster said.
"You killed Berger and must pay the blood price. It's never good to let these little debts accumulate, you know."
"Excruciating pain, I know it well and so shall you, drow."
"Strike down my boy in anger, will you? Next time you'll think twice. Live and suffer and maybe you'll learn." The wizards stepped forward. Neither laid a hand on Nathyrra but she found herself shunted to the side. Both mages cocked their heads to the same angle. They chanted in unison. Their words echoed as they broke the ominous silence. Their sound was made all the more eerie by the fact that the men spoke different words but at an identical cadence and inflection. Their voices rose in crescendo.
"No," Nathyrra whispered in horrified recognition.
The spell crashed over Solaufein in a wave of such agony as he had never experienced, not in a lifetime of torture and punishment. All warriors know pain; all drow know pain; drow warriors accept pain as the price of survival. This was pain beyond the familiar anguish of the body, pain beyond what anyone could accept. This spell struck at his very soul, it seemed, and it wrenched from him a scream that would have not been out of place in any of the Nine Hells. At first the pain was everywhere, driving the breath from his body and the thoughts from his head. After an unending moment, it began to center itself like a red hot spike thrust deep and straight into his heart.
He fell to the floor.
"He still holds on to his sword," one of the Halaster's said. Solaufein's eyes squeezed shut. He could not tell the men apart from their voices.
"These warriors are all alike," said another Halaster. He made a tsking noise.
"Predictable," the other agreed. "That's what makes our curse so cleverly fitting."
"All he has to do is let go. Think he will do so? Even with this little hint?"
"Would you like a small wager on how long it takes?"
"Stop it! You're killing him," Nathyrra cried.
"No, no, the curse will not kill him. Unless he has a weak heart, and surely that is not the case if he has been chosen by this goddess of yours. Might wish he was dead, heh heh, but that's a different matter altogether. The pain will lessen. I daresay he will become accustomed."
"Unless he doesn't." The other Halaster snickered.
"This is how you treats us after we frees you?" Deekin said. "Solaufein a drow. You know how they is. You should have told Berger to stay away from drow."
"Berger should have been safe here in his home."
"This not a safe place!" Deekin cried. "This a terrible place! You terrible too, just like people say. You not being fair."
Halaster shrugged. "Ah, but I am mad, drakeling, just like people say. What is fairness to me?"
"What is the nature of this curse?" asked a grim Haer'Dalis.
"Why, it is beautifully simple. Every time yon black-hearted drow draws his sword in anger, this will happen." He pointed at Solaufein's writhing body. "Maybe next time he'll think before he goes around slaughtering innocent golems in their own homes and inconveniencing their masters."
"You will remove this curse now," Haer'Dalis said.
The Halaster he faced grinned and said nothing. The other one spoke. "Remove it? I will not. If he thinks this curse unjust, I suppose he can ask his goddess to lift it. An interesting test of faith, eh? Maybe he'll thank me one day." Solaufein moaned and tried to rise to a crawling position. His glowing red eyes shot the nearest Halaster a look of hatred. "Or maybe not. Still, a champion of Eilistraee must learn mercy, after all." He studied Solaufein's face. "The goddess might want to choose another. This one doesn't look suitable at all. Are you sure he's the right one?" he asked Nathyrra. "Mayhap your Eilistraee has made an error." Solaufein growled and tried to lift his sword. His arms collapsed when the pain intensified.
"Halaster, please," Nathyrra said.
"But that is Her business, I suppose. Far be it from me to advise a goddess. When your hero here kills the Valsharess, the curse will be lifted. So he'd best get cracking. Off you go, drow, back to where you came from. And stay there, this time. I don't want your kind here. No offense, dear lady," he said, with a nod to Nathyrra. He raised his hands.
"Wait," she said. "If you send him to the Underdark, send me with him. Send us both to the camp of the Seer."
"Very well. Since my double seems to think we owe you a debt, I will fulfill your request," said the second Halaster. "What about the rest of you?"
"I go with Solaufein," Haer'Dalis said.
"Um, Deekin not sure—"
Halaster cut him off. "Off you go then. Good luck and don't take any wooden knickers."