The air was dark and thick with the smell of smoke, hanging over Sabal like a cloud as she curled up to sleep on the frigid stone floor—a welcome relief from the heat of small bodies packed together like crates. Too many bodies and not enough space or food. The bones of her ribs stood out like the ridges of a washboard and her hip pressed into the smooth rock uncomfortably. She cared little, fingers dancing over the bruises on her angular face. They were almost familiar, fresh ones appearing before the old ones had even healed. Life was full of unexpected strikes. If nothing else, it taught her to be aware of the world around her.
Punishment for...she wasn't sure. Existing, perhaps?
The House of Abandonment was not a kind place by any stretch of the imagination. Unwanted, unneeded, children fought for the necessities of life or died. They said those who came out alive were the cruelest and coldest of drow. Perhaps because they understood that they lived in a world where compassion was weakness and nothing cared if they survived or fell into the dust. They knew that there was no room for failure and that life existed in a precarious balance on the edge of a razor, always threatening to tumble off the blade one way or another. Or perhaps that divine razor would slice it in half, separating not right from wrong, but living and the dead. There was no right or wrong. Only survival.
She was hungry, always hungry. Even when she won the scraps, there wasn't enough to fill her stomach. Just enough to make sure she never lost the gnawing ache of an empty belly, the hot knot of insides curling in on themselves. It almost would have been easier if she failed. A slow, gradual weakening until one day the beating broke the wrong bone or eyes just drifted shut never to open again. At least it was over for them. Even as a child, she understood that sometimes there were things worse than death.
Sabal touched the small necklace she wore for comfort, the only thing that had come with her into this place. It was a small, tarnished silver disk with a strange symbol on it—possibly like one of the glyphs that marked different houses, she couldn't be sure—and her name engraved on the back in neat drow lettering. Well, she wasn't sure if it was her name. It was certainly a name. Even when they were kindly inclined, no one here bothered to call her anything but "brat" or "whelp". But it was the name she used for herself. It had a nice sound to it.
Perhaps it had belonged to her mother? She knew only in an abstract way that she must have had one once. She never felt it worth the energy to hate that absent figure. Sometimes she wondered why, if she had a mother, she was here. She couldn't have done something, not as an infant. Was there even a reason?
There was a sudden creak as the door eased open. The girl shot up and bolted to the back of the room with the other children crowded in here. The hulking figure of G'eldorl filled the door, shambling in and reaching out to swat some of the tiny bodies away with one arm. His father had been a draegloth, and the powerful, demonic size passed down into the male half-drow. But behind the male came a slender, unfamiliar figure. The woman wore beautiful dark armor emblazoned with web patterns, leather and metal meshing together seamlessly to flex and bend without a sound. The symbol of Lloth was emblazoned on her chest and a crimson sash that matched her eyes was wound around her waist. Her ivory hair hung loose around her face, framing the foreign angles of a stranger's face.
This one walked with power. With purpose. She was here for a reason and Sabal knew it as well as anyone could. She didn't belong in a place like the House of Abandonment. Why would a predator chase such paltry game? It begged the question of why their guest was here.
Sabal's ear twitched slightly when a bigger female's shoulder brushed against it. They were always bumping into each other here in the small spaces, but that didn't mean she liked it. The smell of perfume and a clean body cut through the filth and odors of the cramped and crowded space. It made her hesitate, which was just long enough for a brutally clawed hand to seize her by the arm and rip her away from the others. "This is the one, Honored Xullae," G'eldorl growled out in his guttural voice.
The drow girl twisted and tried to flee, clawing at the male's arm fiercely with small but sharp nails. G'eldorl hit her across the face with enough force to stun, the loud slap echoing through the room. Sabal blinked hazily, everything spinning as a burning feeling spread across her narrow face.
"That's enough, G'eldorl. The girl's half mad with fear." The voice flowed over Sabal like liquid silver, instantly calming her whether she liked it or not. The effect was almost like magic. "Bring her out. I will find the truth of this matter."
Sabal went limp out of spite, making the half-drow drag her out. He dumped her unceremoniously in the courtyard of the large, rambling building, and at the feet of the clean female. The girl focused on the boots, knowing that was safe. Looking into eyes was dangerous. Speak only when spoken to. Every lesson had been beaten into her soundly. That seemed to be the only way they knew how to teach her, perhaps because she'd long ago shut her ears intentionally.
A soft hand touched her grimy cheek, delicate fingers tracing an older welt around the edges. The touch was light enough not to cause her any pain. "You received this from the male with one eye?" the silver voice asked.
Sabal nodded slightly. The harmonics of the woman's speech indicated lying was not an option. In fact, it suggested subtly that lying would be met with punishment. Or perhaps that was what she was reading from it. The girl had always been talented at understanding people. It was almost like she could brush aside their walls and peer directly into their innermost thoughts.
"And what happened after that?" The questions were not insistent, more like gentle nudges that kept her going with her story. They didn't work perfectly because Sabal was keeping her lips so tightly sealed, but it did get the girl to relax the slightest bit.
"I hit him," the girl answered, twisting her fingers together to hide the tremor in her hands. "But not on purpose. I was so angry. He fell...blood came out of his nose. And then he got up." There was something soothing about the fingers stroking her cheek, yet also terrifying. No one touched Sabal without pain. Clearly, this woman wanted something. Why else would someone do that?
"Have you always been able to do this?" The crimson eyes looking down at her certainly didn't seem hostile or suspicious, which was a little more unnerving. She knew what to do with anger and malice. This pleasant sort of curiosity didn't mesh well with what she knew of the world. The hand moved away and Sabal tried to shrink back as she nodded.
Do you want to leave this place, Sabal? Silvery words formed in her thoughts without passing through her ears, dancing across the surface of her mind. You have the same gift I do. You could learn to use it...become more than what you are.
Sabal pushed back a little, answering the same way. She didn't know how she did it, only that it came to her as naturally as breathing. She had always been able to express her thoughts or even put them into someone else's head. If she had known others had to struggle to achieve the same effect, she would have been incredulous. Yes.
The woman laughed, and this time Sabal felt the hand pet her head indulgently. "Come, then. G'eldorl, you will have your gold. She is what I was looking for." You may call me Xullae, Sabal. I am your teacher now.
The girl didn't understand precisely what that meant, but she was no fool. Things were about to change. Perhaps for the better, even.