All Rivers Run To The Sea
For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten. Also their love, and their hatred, and their envy, is now perished; neither have they any more a portion for ever in any thing that is done under the sun.
Calihye has lost count of her winters.
Three or five or ten may have passed without her knowing. The snowstorms hit Heliogabalus like a swarm of a thousand howling demons and swallow up the sun – sometimes she cannot see it for days. The sky falls down on the roofs of the city and bleeds frozen tears from where spires and chimneys pierce it through.
It's cold even when it's warm, which is almost never.
She imagines the frost has covered her all over like armor and is surprised people don't seem to notice. She can feel it tug at her skin and that is why it is sometimes hard to move. On the inside, she is nothing but ice, a shard of the Great Glacier lodged firmly in the place where her heart used to be.
She can feel it begin to crack and melt if she comes too close to the fire or people, dangerously close for both her and them, and then it hurts so much she runs away into the cold again to make it stop.
There is a part of her that is still aware of the existence of numbers and names and dates, and usually she lets this part take over when she has to carry out a job – whenever she's assigned one.
She moves through the criminal underworld of the Bloodstone Lands easy as a fish through water because she has seen a deeper darkness, and although it now lies far beneath and way beyond, its shadows sleep inside her and wake up now and then to peer at the world through her eyes. She feels like a marionette dancing to the whims and wishes of an unseen master and does nothing to fight the feeling – she knows it to be the truth.
She steps lightly as a dancer ahead of thugs and cuthroats and thieves, weaving in and out of their miserable anthill in which they go through the same motions every day and every night. To no avail – she can see it clearly, and the fathomless darkness in her mind echoes in confirmation. As she listens to the hollow sound, she imagines she can hear a voice speak to her, in her own aching head, and then she breaks and falls and freewheels into the void.
Sometimes the voice is very real indeed.
She has a soft spot for assassins, even her own wannabe killers.
Usually, they are new to the city and unaware of the precarious balance between the Citadel and the Spysong, of the intricate inner workings of the powers of the Bloodstone Lands, and, subsequently, completely ignorant of the even more subtle details, such as the quiet presence of the drow mercenaries and Calihye's dubiously privileged status.
They hate her as soon as they lay eyes on her, hate her attitude and the condescending look she gives them when they brag in taverns about their pathetic exploits, hate her voice when she mocks them – which she does fairly often, partly just because she can, but mostly because they're not good enough.
Never good enough, never clever enough, never fast enough to compare to him.
When they come for her she kills them without mercy, but a bitterness lingers, a wishful thought that maybe one day, someone will finally be able to top him and put an end to the tyranny of Artemis Entereri's ghost in her frozen heart.
She feels betrayed.
They die, and her hopes wither, unfulfilled.
The Citadel of Assassins is patient with her because they have no choice.
Knellict loathes her all the more with every passing hour, but he has bottled up his anger for the time being and keeps it away on the ice, in the dark place. She does the same with her guilt and regret so she understands the merits of the method well enough. She also knows its flaws so she almost sympathizes with him, but not quite. He wants to kill her, after all.
The desire to make her suffer simmers gently inside of him, heating up his blood and making his eyes shine brightly whenever he looks at her. For him, she is nothing more than a puppet, a spy reporting to the drow his every move, and the fact that he is correct in his assumptions, doesn't help the matters much.
"Ah, so you are back again," Knellict sneers as she enters the candle-lit room, the guards closing the doors with a soft click behind her, leaving the two of them alone. "So your masters still find you amusing, I suppose. I wonder how long it will last?
Knellict's power is great, his minions are many, and he can make her death last a long, long while. No one is going to miss her if suddenly she disappears from the dirty, windswept streets of Heliogabalus.
But he won't lay a finger on her. Like her, Knellict is leashed by those who come and leave as they wish and take without asking.
"Don't get too full of yourself, wench," he says, his voice thick with frustration. "The damned drow will tire of the cold and the light and will slink back to their foul lair beneath the earth. They will leave the Bloodstone Lands for good and then I shall have my way with you. Or do you think they will protect you from my wrath forever?"
In the end, however, it all comes back to the fact that neither of them has a choice. They both lost and the only difference is that he is too stubborn to admit it.
Ilnezhara seems to think Calihye is a messenger girl.
She wanders in circles around the warehouse, hair bright as flame even in the torchlit room, light fingers dancing over the goods: curling possessively around the jewels, caressing the spidersilks, hovering hesitantly over the trinkets and amulets. The expression on her face is a mixture of caution and hungry delight, even though Calihye knows these emotions to be only skin-deep.
The routine never changes, and Bregan D'aerthe does not bother to stand guard over every bag of merchandise. Their surface agents – Calihye among them – deal with the most mundane of tasks, knowing all too well the retribution that should follow if something is discovered that is not to the liking of the band.
She closes her eyes for a moment and wishes she knew a little less. Her blood is slow and sluggish from the poison they poured into her veins and her memory is full of holes and cracks. She tries to avoid looking at what is writhing behind them, the ugly recollections of cruel laughter and searching hands and white teeth in the darkness. Ghosts of pain and humuliation slithers against her heart, white-hot against cold, and the ice melts. She bleeds and the shadows lap at her blood, thirsty and eager to be revived again.
She thinks, I wish I could be as hungry. I wish I could learn to be a scavenger.
Ilnezhara inspects the stock and keeps inquiring about Jarlaxle, his whereabouts and wellbeing. She pouts that he doesn't come to visit her and scolds Calihye for knowing nothing about his personal life.
"What use are you, girl?" she complains, waving a hand in an elegantly dismissive gesture. "You don't know the answers to the simplest of questions!"
The dragon's voice drifts toward Calihye across the void, reaches her standing there, transfixed, on the other side of nothingness and pulls her over and through. She blinks her eyes open and the shadows recede a little.
"I have not seen Jarlaxle for several years. He's banned from the Bloodstone Lands by King Gareth's edict, as you know."
Ilnezhara gives her a disbelieving look.
"I know that you do more for the drow than just sell their goods. It's no use lying."
If only you really knew how much more, Calihye thinks, but outloud she replies.
"I answer to Kimmuriel."
Ilnezhara is silent for the briefest of moments, and then she says:
"Ah. You have my sympathy."
Calihye thinks of Artemis Entreri even when she does not think of him.
She thinks, I hate that man. He let Parissus die. He killed.
She thinks, and he was never sorry. Not really.
But she has come to realize that she no longer recall what color Parissus' eyes were, or how she used to smile when the hunt for orc ears was going particularly well, or how they stood together, back to back, surrounded by a dozen of beasts, fearless and never doubting each other, how they believed they would both live forever, laughing in the face of the unknown.
She remembers that all those things were and that they were good, but the substance of the past has become liquid and then turned to smoke, and Vaasan angry winds have carried it away. The painting of her and Parissus, done all those years ago (how many years? every day feels like a small eternity now) got lost at some point. It was the only proof she could touch that there used to be a life before Artemis Entreri rode into the Bloodstone Lands on his demon mount, and Calihye wonders how long it will take her to start doubting her own memory. The thin wisps of it still curl around the edges of her feelings, still strive to be recaptured, but Calihye recognizes the futility and is angry at herself because it feels like she is betraying her dead friend. She strains her hearing, half-expecting the words of reproach to reach her from across the death.
They never do.
And when she allows herself to dwell on the thought, which is not often, Calihye knows that her treacherous mind has preserved the image of Artemis Entreri so well it's almost as if the he is standing beside her.
She closes her eyes and listens to the heartbeat of the man who is not there anymore.
And thinks, I wish I could learn how to stop loving you.
At night, she often wakes up to the phantoms of Menzoberranzan floating before her glazed, unseeing eyes. Then she sits up, hugs her knees and waits, and watches them dissipate reluctantly. When the sky outside turns dull gray with the unfulfilled promise of a winter sun, they melt away completely, leaving nothing behind except for the silence of her bated breath.
But she knows they will return and even during the day, she is not at peace. She looks for them behind every corner.
When the drow first hauled her into the hell of the Underdark, the enormity of the situtaion crushed down on top of her like an avalanche and pulled her under.
The City of Spiders surprised and terrified her beyond all measure – not much of a damp dark hole she had been led to expect, it was awash in the faerie light instead, glowing and constantly flickering and casting shadows so thick and inky-black they looked alive. The darkness pressed in from all sides, more sinister and profound than ever, and for the first time in her life Calihye realized how much she missed the endless emptiness of the sky above her head. The architecture appeared distorted and wrong on an almost incomprehensible level, and the language spoken in the streets was a the most beautiful of songs that had ever been sung over the damned.
The Clawrift, where Bregan D'aerthe had one of its many hideouts, came almost as a respite.
In the eternity that followed, Calihye often found herself thinking of the yawning abyss below, longing for the fall, imagining the black wind laughing and whistling in her ears as she plunged down into places where nothing would be able to reach her. In her mind's eye, she imagined it as a great sleeping beast, so enormous it was impossible to truly see it for what it was. She waited for it to awake and consume her whole.
As the days turned into months, she became frantic, sick with the hopelessness of her tiny room and constantly aware of the miles and miles of stone and earth separating her from the world where she belonged. The wish to end the torture filled her from within until there was no space left in her head for anything else, and the depths of the Clawrift haunted her dreams with a patience of a millenium-old predator.
But the drow would always lock the door very carefully when they left.
Only when they finally took her back to the World Above she realized they had kept her with them just long enough for the Underdark to crawl under her skin and seep into her blood. It is a slow, cruel poison that lingers and eats at her resolve and everything she might want to achieve, a darkness so deep and powerful it is never truly gone.
She thinks of that every time Kimmuriel returns for the news of the Bloodstone Lands.
She thinks of Kimmuriel a lot.
Calihye waits, every day, for Jarlaxle to appear.
It is a truly inexplicable felling, a hope that borders on absurd as the mercenary is indeed banned from the Bloodstone Lands on pain of execution.
Perhaps it's all Ilnezhara's fault. Some forms of madness are slow and subtle, but others are contagious and spread like wildfire if given the chance, and the dragon woman seems to be quite sure Jarlaxle will eventually return. She even comments on it.
"Drow live for a very long time – unless they are killed, that is – and so do dragons. And Jarlaxle is not one to get himself killed like a fool. We shall meet again."
Maybe she simply wants to talk about Jarlaxle. Maybe she misses him. It seems a little presumptuous to suspect a dragon of possessing such lesser feelings, but Calihye rather likes the idea, even though she is clever enough to keep it to herself.
Tazmikella, however, seems to be under the impression that it's her life's mission to keep Ilnezhara's feet firmly on the ground.
"When will you stop with this nonsense? The wretched drow must have already got bored with the surface world and returned to his Underdark home."
"Oh, he would not do that." Ilnezhara's smile is thoughtful and a little cruel. "I know his type well, dear sister. That one has outgrown the confines of his city, however challenging it might be, and will never be content there again. Of course he is unlikely to truly leave it behind either..." She rounds on Calihye and asks, sugar-sweet. "So, what is Jarlaxle doing these days? Is he still traveling with that dour human assassin who used to be your lover?"
The winds are roaring in Calihye's ears, and the ice cracks and shatters into a thousand fragments, each sharp as a dagger poised to stab; and she says, in a voice she can hardly recognize:
"I have no information to share, I fear."
"Too bad," Ilnezhara replies as she sets aside a bottle of Underdark wine and a couple of rings. Her smile is no longer caramel and honey, it's sharp and full of teeth. "Well, why don't you ask your drow master, that psionicist? Surely a girl of your irresistible charm can coax that much out of one male?"
The dragon woman doesn't say, because we both know the drow can only use you for one thing, but the unspoken words ring loud and clear in the tone of her voice.
Calihye shuts her eyes and sees Kimmuriel's handsome face, cold and distant, as if he were frozen alive.
She thinks again of what she never asks him (why do you despise Vaasa so much if you're made of the same thing? All it does is keep the ice outside instead of inside).
To Ilnezhara she responds, softly:
"You give me way too much credit."
When all else fails, Calihye likes to blame Jarlaxle for all the misery that befell her.
His hand is behind all the chaos that her life has become.
It was Jarlaxle who made Entreri leave her all alone in Heliogabalus when she needed him most and was teetering on the edge of desperation, when she was so empty anything could fill her up and because of Jarlaxle it was hatred. If Entreri hadn't left, she tells herself firmly, if he had stayed with her instead, she would have chosen right.
It was Jarlaxle who orchestrated the catastrophe in the castle in the north, made Entreri a criminal in the eyes of the Spysong and determined the outcome of events. If only he hadn't named Entreri the king.
Jarlaxle had been manipulating Entreri long since the beginning and he manipulated her too for no reason other than his desire to control. If he hadn't, he would not have known she might try to kill Entreri.
It was undoubtedly Jarlaxle who had asked Kimmuriel to spy on her – how much, she wonders, did the psionicist see in her mind, as he shuffled through her wishes and dreams? She can imagined the detached look in his eyes, cold curiosity mixed with disdain, arrogance etched into every line of his face as he picked apart everything that made her up, bit by bit, and examined it; a test subject for him to vivisect.
The very thought makes her shudder and feel vulnerable and helpless, paralyzed with horror as if he truly had had cut her open with a knife and left her for good without a backward glance when he was done, all her secrets and weaknesses spilling out, an ugly sight evoking nothing but disgust in anyone who deigned to look.
And it was Jarlaxle's fault because Kimmuriel would have never chosen to waste his time on her unless he had a good reason.
Calihye finds it hard to distinguish the wavering, almost invisible line that separates Jarlaxle and Kimmuriel in the leadership of Bregan D'aerthe, but if she had to answer, she would say that while they both terrify her, the nature of the feeling is different.
Jarlaxle, at times, seemed almost human or at least as close to human as a drow can ever be. She is not so blind to the truth so as to assume he hated her on some deep personal level or even disliked her very much. But Jarlaxle is what he is, a breath of chaos in the world of people trying to lay rules and define borders, and wherever he goes, the balance is shifted and the order is disrupted. Calihye is quite sure he would be unable to change his nature even if he tried. Neither Lloth, nor any other deity have anything to do with that fact – some things just happen, and the best you can do is use them to your advantage.
Calihye's fear if him is that of an unstoppable force, a hurricane or an earthquake that comes and goes because such is its way, leaving destruction and suffering and famine in its wake. She wishes she had run for cover when she still could.
Her fear of Kimmuriel is different – it's blind and mindless, as if she were an animal cowering in the darkest corner, squeling quietly and unable to move in the face of its cruel master.
Kimmuriel is everything that Jarlaxle is not.
She has come to look forward to his visits. It puzzles her.
She hates him, after all.
He doesn't come very often, and when he does, it's purely business. Wrapped in his dark clothes, he sits in the comfortable chair with his back to the fireplace, legs outstretched and crossed at the ankles, and listens to her reports as she delivers them. His face is impassive, almost bored. Disdain is perhaps the only emotion she has seen him display and even that disappeared before she had a chance to decide if it was better or worse than his usual emotionless mien. Perhaps it was neither.
Kimmuriel says little and explains less which, she believes, is because he deems her unworthy of knowing his plans. In truth she doesn't care about his plans any more, not even those concerning her.
During these meetings, she always tries to keep her voice steady. She would hate to let him see her weak and frightened and disoriented again. It's not about him personally, of course – he has already witnessed how pathetic she was on the brink of suicide, and his opinion of humans and surface elves was at its lowest even before that. It matters to her because in her mind, Kimmuriel is all of Bregan D'aerthe put together, all the cruel, leering faces, and red eyes narrowed in disgust, and the rough, bruising fingers, all that overwhelming strengh that rendered her years of battle experience useless and ridiculous, that made the chasm separating her from them seem even deeper and wider, impossible to cross.
She hates him for that. He is the leader, the master, so everything they inflicted on her is his doing and his fault. Every little bit of pain and humiliation she suffered at their hands is him. Of course he will never feel guilty – she would not expect that from a monster – but she takes small comfort in the fact that he knows and cannot stop knowing.
Of that she is quite sure. He is aware of her every thought, the darkest nooks and corners of her mind as open to him as if they were illuminated by the light of a thousand suns. She knows he can taste her every fear, can dismantle her and reconstruct as he sees fit. If he wanted to, he could turn her memory inside out, exposing all the shame and fear and frailty that she keeps buried under layer upon layer of carefully woven lies. He can dissect her at his whim and he won't even need a knife for that.
Sometimes – she wonders if it's just her wishful thinking – she imagines she can see something, a ghost of emotion, flicker across his face, and for a moment he looks weary and haunted, and then it's gone, leaving only the usual indifferent arrogance behind. She can feel his inexplicable power, that unstoppable force, on an almost physical level, is if his mere presence pressed her into the ground and made it hard to breathe, as if an invisible net were wrapping itself around her, constricting her movements.
Kimmuriel watches her break apart with calm eyes. Every time there's less to make the whole again, and the result is becoming more and more bizzare, jagged and transparent around the edges. Every time she turns a full circle she finds new holes and drains and it's harder and harder to patch up. What is lost is never found and becomes snow dust on the wind.
She is so weak that he is fascinated and she can feel it.
She cannot even imagine what may be going through his head, through that mind capable of overcoming unimaginable limits. Calihye can't help but wonder what makes him tick. She thinks, in the privacy of her solitude, that he must be tired.
"You believe I'm weak." She does not doubt his answer, nor does she pause to consider her own motives for saying this.
"No?" She would be surprised but she knows too well that drow lie all the time and even when they don't, they twist every word and every meaning so that it becomes a lie without being it. His answer can mean any thing.
"You are broken beyond repair. You are hopeless. It is not a personal opinion but a fact." There is no sympathy in his soft voice. There is no malice either, but his every word is a glass knife that cuts her up a little.
She feels hypnotized.
"Is that so."
Calihye smiles up at him through the pain and the tears that will not come. She has been almost afraid he will be generous. She has feared her actions might be justified and forgiven which would mean that everything she has told herself was nothing but a farce. But she has Kimmuriel to remind her of what she did and he never loses his touch. She has met many ruthless people in her life, Artemis Entreri being perhaps one of the best examples, her ultimate choice, the instrument of her self-destruction; but Kimmuriel is beyond any reproach, beyond perfection.
Over the years he remains the one who can make her bleed in the most exquisite way.
"Thank you," she says and she means it.
She finds herself wanting to touch him – she has never touched him before. Within her fractured, frozen world Kimmuriel is the only thing that is truly real; as real as only someone who doesn't believe in anything can be. As real as only someone who feels nothing can be. She longs to become, if only for a moment, part of this void, to be invincible like him, to shed all that makes her human and go where nothing can harm her.
She looks up at his face – when has he stood up? he is towering over her, making the room shrink to the size of a bird cage – and all she can feel is what might just be a sick, poisonous sort of tenderness for him. She is grateful, and for the first time in years a shadow of discomfort passes behind his eyes. He does not like to be surprised. She almost wants to say, it's fine, I'm still the same old me, and then remembers, yet again, that he can read her like an open book.
Calihye wonders if he will kill her immediately or opt for a more creative approach. Her head is oddly empty, devoid of thoughts, as she too straightens up slowly, and reaches out, and touches his face lightly, carefully.
Kimmuriel's hand shoots up, long fingers tightening around her neck, strength unmistakable, making her ask herself how many miserable necks he has snapped in his long life, in the dark place where only those without mercy had a chance to survive.
Not that she cares any longer. Nothing matters, in the end. Enemy or friend, love or hate, guilt and joy are the same past the point of no return, when all is lost and buried. All the rivers run to the sea sooner or later.
The warmth of Kimmuriel's body so close to hers seems to lull her into an indifirence so profound it's almost lethargic. The ice encasing her heart is finally melting, and in its wake only the black, barren ground remains.
It feels like spring but she knows better. No flowers will ever bloom in the Underdark.
Calihye smiles and repeats,
His eyes, now dark and unreadable, are the only thing she can see.