Author's Note: There will be romance in here of a wide variety. Drow are drow, after all. If this perturbs you, you are more than welcome not to read. And this may very well not make sense if you haven't read its predecessor. Other than that and the occasional grammatical error because I'm not magical, enjoy.
The countless lights of Menzoberranzan glittered in the Underdark like diamonds set into ebony, shimmering and shifting even as the mage leaned against the archway that lead to her balcony. Her slender arms were crossed in front of her chest, the barest hints of magic still dying away at her fingertips. For Alystin Kenafin, her tired gray eyes half closed under the weight of sleep, the sunless day had been long and trying. This was a brief respite, a chance to catch her breath, as it were.
Beneath her feet, the machinations of the House continued in its endless rhythms. Guards patrolled in straight lines that interlocked with the paths of others, shifts changing and giving way to fresh faces. Priestesses conducted rites on every hour while the nobles assembled and parted over and over during the day, laying plots and pitfalls to ever increase their power over their rivals. Daily life flowed in and out like the tide as slaves scurried in and out of the stronghold, bringing and taking the essentials of life with them in carts and baskets. Presiding over it all in immobile, unshakable authority was the Matron Mother herself.
But here in Alystin's study, things were quiet. Books lined most of the walls, carefully stored alongside dusty scrolls on intricately carved stone shelves. Candles flickered in their neat summoning circle or perched on silver holders, dribbling wax down onto the bare spots of the floor. Her desk was heaped with pages and pages of ritual notes and research, broken up by spell components and half-completed crafting tasks that seemed to come without an end in sight. There were a few concessions to her area of real expertise: drying herbs or roots spread out on a soft white cloth, anatomical sketches in leather bound notebooks, and bandages carefully rolled up next to small tins of salves or ointment.
"Looks like you've hardly been getting out," someone said from behind her, amusement clear in their voice. "I suppose there's really no hope for you."
Aly turned with a wide smile. "Nede, it's good to see you," she said softly. "I hear you've finally settled down and chosen a consort."
Maturity suited the priestess better than anyone had expected, but there was still much of the fires of youth in her. Nedelyne's figure was a bit thicker than when they'd first met, her posture more certain, and her features more clearly defined. She'd evaded much of the softness that nobles could easily fall into by volunteering to accompany many of the patrols. It kept her sharp, she'd insisted.
The noble of House Druu'giir laughed. "Well, it was hard to decide, but I figured at least one woman in our family ought to make up her damn mind," the cleric said, taking a seat in the armchair that was kept for the mage's occasional guest. "More than I can say for you."
"And you think I have time for that how? Every little task that the House Wizard ought to be doing is dumped on my lap instead. Probably because Sinjss almost broke him in one of her moods, but still," Aly said, sitting down in her own chair. It was well-worn and thoroughly broken in, her favorite place to study. Through the prodding of magic, it had curved and warped until it fit her absolutely perfectly. That also meant that it fit almost no one else.
Nede rolled her eyes. "I'll never understand the fascination with playing rough. Anyway, I thought you might need someone to talk to. Someone who's not related."
The mage sighed and leaned back in her chair. Exhaustion of numerous kinds made her limbs heavy and her expression weary. "That's more true than you might think. And I suppose you're the safest person to confide in here in Menzoberranzan." She paused thoughtfully for a moment before speaking. "Have you ever had...doubts, Nede?" There was no way Aly could be more specific comfortably, so instead she glanced over at the small icon of Lloth on the wall and the neat private altar beneath it.
Nedelyne nodded, her expression more serious. There were some things not to take lightly. "Despite what so many priestesses like to claim, it's quite normal. At some point in their life, everyone has a crisis of faith of some magnitude or another. I can't say I'm surprised that you find yourself in that situation."
Alystin raised an eyebrow. "And that is supposed to mean...?"
"For your entire life, you've been belittled by the Spider Queen's clerics as an inferior person simply for the type of magic you happen to be talented in. And the Goddess Herself is a somewhat distant presence in your life, is She not?" the priestess said simply. There was little in the way of condemnation when she spoke. The years had done much to temper ingrained fanaticism on Nede's part. Every step she took away from the Academy and the Church allowed her to reflect upon her beliefs.
"She hardly has an interest in me," the mage said by way of answer, crossing her arms.
"So you might think, if you listen to let us say...your sisters or your mother," Nedelyne said. She shrugged slightly. "It is impossible to know the mind of a deity. Even ancient and well-learned priestesses grasp at straws. But the teachings of the Spider Queen are about power, survival, cunning. Even a lowly male soldier can serve Her beyond some priestesses if he embodies these things. Sinjss and Chardalyn were born into privilege, as was Matron Kenafin. They claim cunning, but they have not clawed their way up from the bottom. I wouldn't be in a rush to take their words to heart."
Aly sighed deeply, some of the lines in her forehead smoothing out. "Thank you, Nede. It's at least comforting to hear. I feel a little less lost at the moment."
"Well, I'm probably not the perfect person for this," the cleric said with an impish grin. "After all, your mother and sisters would do many terrible things to me if they found out I was here prying secrets out of you. If, being the operative word."
"I'm surprised Sinjss doesn't know. She seems to have made my business into her business. I suppose she considers me more of a threat now that I'm well established in the House," Alystin muttered sourly.
"You catch more flies with honey than she does with poison," Nedelyne said. "Honestly, if I was really going to be worried about one of your sisters, it would be Chardalyn. But I think you and I both pass somewhat beneath her notice."
"She wants to be Matron. And sooner rather than later."
"As any High Priestess worth her salt would," Nede said with a wave of one hand. "I'm fortunate to be low on the ranks of Druu'giir nobles. My sisters may have that coveted position and all the assassination attempts and warfare that comes with it. I can see danger coming."
Aly smiled a little. "And I couldn't have it even if I did want to. Any news out in the wide world?"
"That you might like to hear? Perhaps. Sabal is back in Menzoberranzan," the priestess said.
"Really?" The mage's surprise was easy to read. "I haven't seen her since after graduation."
"Well, you are somewhat of a shut-in," Nedelyne pointed out in good humor. "And inquisitors don't get much in the way of time off. However, I've made it a point to keep an ear out for news. For the most part, she hasn't been in the city. Heretics have way-houses and enclaves that need rooting out. The swath of destruction is pretty impressive. But I do have a warning for you before you go hunting for her, Aly."
"She's changed a lot."
Alystin gestured dismissively. "We all have. The Academy wasn't yesterday, after all. You're responsible, I'm somewhat confident on a good day—"
"Yes and no," the priestess said with a shrug. "They say the day an inquisitor takes their vows, their world is wholly changed, that duty consumes them and leaves room for nothing else. True or not, at least try to be careful. The rules are different out here in the real world."
"You worry so, Nede. If it makes you feel better, I give you my word."
The chapel of the Yath'Abban was dark, lit only by the glowing coals of braziers wreathed in thick, heavy smoke that still faintly smelled of incense. But even in that smoky darkness, keen amber eyes could pick out the gleaming smile of perfectly white teeth in a dark face.
"You've done well, inquisitor."
Sabal's scarred features remained perfectly immobile, only the faint flicker of her gaze hinting that she had registered speech. The years since the Academy had been hard and sometimes painful, like a fire burning in a crucible to create adamantine. There were plenty of new marks to mar her body, but none so vivid as the scar that ran horizontally across her face, from cheek to cheek over the bridge of her nose.
The laugh was soft, like velvet. "Nothing to say?"
"I did as instructed save for one thing," Sabal said, finally stirring. She shifted her weight from one foot to the other, muscles moving like water. "It seemed unnecessary to check his breathing with a mirror, as his head was six feet from his body at the time. Incidentally, your priestess hadn't quite managed to get herself killed. She is waiting outside."
"You mean the Goddess's priestess, I think," the Handmaiden murmured, barely visible in the gloom.
The wilder shrugged. "Fool either way."
She was rewarded by a soft noise of amusement and then a small wave of dismissal, which suited her perfectly. There was nothing particularly enjoyable about an audience with one of her demonic handlers, except for perhaps the thrill of a chase. Sabal made a small reverential gesture in the direction of the Spider Queen's dark, grooved stone altar before turning and departing to face the fuming priestess in the hallway.
"Inquisitors are supposed to follow orders," the cleric hissed, red eyes narrowed as she glared up at the impassive scarred face. However, even the fearsome aspect of an infuriated noble was somewhat lost on this particular audience.
"I did, Revered Schezalle. They were simply not your orders," Sabal said. Her scarred hands flexed slightly, a very subtle threat for the priestess to drop the subject. The pain that had been plaguing her every moment traveling in this woman's company had returned with a vengeance. As far as the amber-eyed drowess was concerned, the only thing worse than having to take time out of her normal duties just to run down a lowly mercenary was having to do all that for the sake of some spoiled brat who was somehow mystically valuable. In her mind, there were certain servants that the Spider Queen was probably better off without.
"Just a hint," a raspy male voice said cheerfully from the shadows further down the hall. "You might want to just bite back those angry words, Revered Schezalle, and back away slowly." The priestess turned her dagger glare on the acid-twisted features of Ryld, but did so while beating a hasty retreat. He grinned in his grotesque way and winked at Sabal. "And there you have it. My magic vanishing trick strikes again."
Sabal rolled her amber eyes and relaxed slightly. "And to what do I owe the pleasure of your rescue?"
"Felt like it," he said simply. "And, you know, Matron Alaenrahel would be rather put out if you ripped the head off one of her daughters."
"Matron Alaenrahel possesses the equipment to make more," Sabal said flatly, massaging her temples for a moment.
Ryld let loose with a throaty, full laugh. "And that, que'ssan, is what I love about you. Now come on."
She arched an eyebrow delicately at him in a perfected expression of equal measure disdain and request for an explanation. "And where exactly will we be going?"
"To relax, of course," he said with a grand gesture of his deformed, claw-like hand. "I'm sure you're ready for some time to unwind after shepherding home that mess. Also, I might have a favor to ask of you, but that's beside the point."
The wilder studied him for a moment with those strange, amber eyes and then prowled towards the doors to the city. Every motion was poetry of silent ease like a hunting animal in its element. Perhaps she was not so predictable or compliant as her fellows, but there was much to be said for power and grace. Ryld, ever experienced in measuring people, could also sense a familiar restlessness in those movements. It was like a beast returned to its cage again. He shivered slightly when he felt something ghost against the very edges of his thoughts, barely tangible. Training had taught him to look for it, but sometimes he regretted that awareness around inquisitors. Sabal's mind swept on, ever hunting as it combed through the sea of thoughts around her.
A predator could never really stop looking for prey.