…I ain’t perfect
But I’m worth it
I deserve it…(Sam Smith feat Logic, “Pray”)
As she had been ordered to do, the Painbearer went to meet Phaere in her quarters on her own and as soon as she was allowed into the cosy living-room, the Drow woman snapped. "I want Solaufein dead". Good luck with that, the Human girl thought, "I understand your anger, Mistress, but...". "And you will kill him". Fat chance, she suppressed the urge to snort, "It’s a dangerous task you require of me, Mistress.
I don’t have the official protection of your House yet and while this is an advantage to you, because I can’t be connected to House Despana, it’s not the same for me. And I would not be of use to you anymore, should I die". Phaere huffed, "Oh, no need to worry, Veldrin, you will be quite safe. Go to his quarters tonight, he will not expect you and surely he won’t guess the real reason behind your visit.
Seduce him, if it can help you get closer to him. And after killing him, bring me...Bring me his piwawfi cloak", she decided, nodding to herself, "Yes, it will make a perfect trophy". "I give you my word that you will have that cloak before three days have passed, Mistress", Margaret Dawn promised, grinning inwardly, But if you think I’m gonna kill Solaufein, you have no idea who you’re talking to. "Good. Go now and don’t waste any time. It’s a matter of utmost importance".
"As you command, Mistress", she bowed and went back to the inn, to the party headquarters, where she took a small parchment out of her pack, drew a map on one side of it and scribbled some words in the Common language on the other, then she fished out of her pack the peach-coloured Gem of Light. Imoen approached her, curiosity written clearly on her face, "Watcha doing, sis?". "The right thing, I hope. In this accursed place, it’s hard to say", the Ilmatari replied with a sigh, then she stood, "I’ll be back soon, you just stay here".
Solaufein was comfortably lounging on his bed, when a slave knocked on the door to the bedroom. "You have a guest, master Solaufein. She says her name is Veldrin". The warrior jumped to his feet, surprised: why should Phaere’s pet come to visit him? Unless...He took a dagger from a closet and hid it in one of his sleeves, then nodded to the slave, "Let her in and then leave".
Veldrin entered the room, apparently unarmed and without the arrogant expression he had already become used to seeing on her face, "Greetings, Solaufein. I have something to discuss with you". "Phaere sent you, I suppose". "She did, yes. She asked me to kill you, but I won’t harm you, unless you attack me first".
His jaw dropped at those words, "What? You...Why?". She shrugged, "I don’t think you deserve to die, that’s all". Now he was behind shocked, his eyes wide, "No Drow would say such a thing...Who are you?". The young woman bit her lower lip, hesitating for a moment, "Does it matter? I am offering you to keep your life, is that not enough?".
"I...Yes, it is, but I’m curious". She grinned, an expression he had never seen on a Drow’s face before, "Are you sure you are a Drow, then? Because no Drow would ever say that either", she said and Solaufein couldn’t help chuckling. "Ha, true. You are quite unusual, but then again, so am I. Do you...Do you worship Lolth?". She shook her head, "Nope, not in a thousand lives.
Neither do you, I guess". "No, I follow Lady Eilistraee", he said and realized it was the first time he’d said it out loud to another living soul, "Will you betray my trust and feed me to the Spiders, now that you know?". "Please, give me a little credit here: it would be the top of idiocy to save you from Phaere’s rage, only to send you to the spider pits.
No, I have a better solution: these will help you", she handed him a parchment and a small, peach-coloured gem, "The map shows the way to a cave not far from the city gates, you will find some friends of mine there. Before you get to the end of the stairs, shout the words: “I am a friend, Meg sent me” in the Common language. And then show them this parchment, there’s a message from me on the other side". He arched an eyebrow, "Meg? I thought your name was Veldrin".
"It is now, but...It’s a long story. Can you leave the city without being seen? Because it would be awkward if the supposed corpse were seen strolling through the market, you know", Veldrin winked and he laughed. "Yes, I know of a way to get out of the city unnoticed. Thank you, Veld...Meg. I will not forget the mercy you have shown me today".
"Before you go, can you give me your cloak? Phaere wants it". "Ah, of course", he smiled sadly, "We...We were lovers, once. But her mother thought her care for me was not Drow-like and sent her to the Handmaidens. They...She was...When she came back, there was nothing left of the woman I had once known: all that was left of Phaere were hatred and ambition". "I’m sorry".
"Don’t be: it was never meant to be anyway, she didn’t feel as I did and her heart belonged to Lolth already back then", he replied, passing her the cloak. "I see. Do you have a dagger?". He blinked, "Yes, of course. Why?". "Because I need you to stab the back of the cloak and to cut my palm", she said and smiled, "Phaere would never believe that I have killed you, if I presented her with a whole, spotless piwawfi. This will make our little ruse more realistic".
Solaufein nodded and took the dagger out of his sleeve, then proceeded to open a long tear in the soft fabric, but hesitated when the young woman extended her hand, "Maybe you should do it yourself". Her lips twisted in a bitter smile, "Trust me, it’s not a good idea: I may be tempted to cut more than just my palm". The warrior didn’t object anymore then, passing the blade on her skin and watching as she let the blood drop on the torn cloak.
"There, this should do. Wait for a while after I’ve left and then get out of the city as fast as you can". "I will", he nodded and wore another cloak, this one enchanted to prevent its wearer from being seen, "Thank you, Meg and may the Lady Silverhair watch over you. Farewell". "Not farewell, but goodbye, Solaufein: if we come out of this place alive, we will join you and our other friends quite soon". "Goodbye, then".
Phaere smiled when Meg presented her the piwawfi cloak, "Ah, here it is. You have served me well, Veldrin and you have earned yourself a place with House Despana. Your work isn’t finished yet, of course: you and your underlings will meet me and Matron Mother Ardulace at the Temple as soon as possible. Do not be late: she requires your services".
"Of course, Mistress", the Painbearer bowed and hurried back to the apartment, cursing under her breath. Jaheira opened the door and frowned, "You have been away for a long time, child", she said as her ward got in, "What happened?". "Long story short, Phaere wanted Solaufein dead, he’s a follower of Eilistraee so I spared him, he left and now we must meet with Phaere’s mother at the Temple of Lolth", the Human priestess summed up, "Please, let’s just go now, I will fill you in later".
Edwin scowled, "I hate this place, you know? I am an Odesseiron, not a slave to be ordered around! (If only I could bring that annoying Drow bitch in Thay, I would teach her how to treat her betters!)", he growled. "And I would have nothing against it, but can we talk about it later? I don’t want to be fed to the spiders for being late". He nodded and forcibly schooled his features into a blank expression, then followed her out of their quarters.
When they reached the Temple, they stopped in wonder and horror: bigger than most other buildings in the city, it had a roughly spherical shape, it was made of black stone striped with red, eight round grey gems (the central two being bigger than the others) were lined up on the front wall and there were four tall spiked columns on each side of the building, giving it the appearance of an enormous venomous spider ready to jump on the lower part of the city.
Imoen gulped, "I don’t like it", she whispered to her half-sister. "Neither do I, but we have little choice. Come and let me do all the talking". The doors opened, like the maw of a monster preparing to devour them and the adventurers reluctantly got in, discovering that the inside was even worse than the outside, with most of the floor being stained with dried blood and the stench of death and decay permeating everything.
It nearly feels like being back home, Meg thought, the smell reminding her of the old Temple of Bhaal were she was born, At least I’m not gonna be a sacrifice here...I hope. Matron Mother Ardulace was waiting for them at the end of the corridor: the resemblance with her daughter was striking, but her face was harder, seemingly carved out of the very same stone with which the Temple had been built and her posture was so stiff that Margaret Dawn felt her back ache just by looking at her.
She wore the typical black robe trimmed with dark red and purple of Lolth’s clergy, but hers was embellished with white embroidery depicting spiders and webs on the neckline and sleeves. Phaere was at her left side, wearing a similar robe and smiled at seeing them, "Ah, Veldrin, you are here! Mother, this is the female I told you about, Veldrin Zauvirr".
Her mother pursed her lips, "I’m not blind, foolish girl! So this is the mighty Veldrin, mh? I don’t see anything special in her. Why are you so interested in her?". "Mother, she has proved quite capable so far: she has freed me from the Devourers, has dealt with the Eye Tyrant and she has also taken care of that...Other problem".
Ardulace blinked, surprised, "She is that female? The one who disposed of Solaufein himself?", she frowned and bent forward, examining Veldrin more closely, "She looks scrawny, though. And there’s something...Strange about her". "Strange, Mother? How so?". "I’m not sure...But no matter, we have more important things to think of at the moment.
You there, Veldrin! I have a task for you: I sent my daughter to kill an Eye Tyrant, but it was not the Elder One I needed", she spat. "But, Mother, my spies told me that...", Phaere stammered, but her mother wasn’t inclined to listen. "Silence! I won’t accept your excuses, girl! Now be silent, if you don’t want to meet the drider!", she snapped at her daughter, then turned towards the Ilmatari, "Now, Veldrin, you have proven yourself competent and that is good.
House Despana is on the road for greatness, but to achieve it I need something rare and I want you to fetch it for me. You can speak now". Meg bowed deeply, "It will be an honour to serve you, Matron Mother. Say what you need of me and you will have it". Ardulace smiled coldly, "Good, you at least show the proper respect. I need the blood of one of the races living close to our city, it makes no difference which of them you take: the eyestalk of an ancient Eye Tyrant, the blood of a Kuo-Toa prince, or the blood of the Elder Brain of the Devourers.
I trust you know where to find each of these creatures". "I do, Matron Mother", Meg said, silently thanking the Gods for her party having taken several bottles of blood and brain tissue of the Elder Brain, so that Edwin and Aerie could use them as a spell component. Even sacrificing a vial of that stuff, there would still be plenty of it for both mages’ needs.
"Good", Ardulace turned to Phaere with a sneer, "You should take example from your pet, girl: she has more knowledge on her own, than you with all your spies!". Phaere was floored, though she did not let it show, "I...I will do my best no to disappoint you again, Mother". "You’d better", her mother replied, then gestured towards Veldrin, "And you, go! I need the blood and I need it soon!".
"As you command, Matron Mother", the Painbearer bowed once more and led her friends out of the Temple, but before leaving the city, she stopped in front of the tavern, "You go ahead and wait for me before the gates, I have something to do". Jaelryn frowned, "Can we assist you, Mistress Veldrin?". "No, I can manage on my own", Margaret Dawn answered, then she passed by the tavern and headed to a circular platform she had seen the day before.
A male Drow was there, surrounded by metal cages, ten of which were occupied by some slaves: there were five Human men and five Deep Gnomes, three of whom were children. At seeing her, the Drow scoffed, "You’re here again? I told you already, you can’t buy any slaves unless you have the protection of a House".
"Well, I have some news for you, then, male", she smiled coldly, "I am Veldrin Zauvirr and I serve Matron Mother Ardulace of House Despana". He gulped at that, his arrogance vanishing in a heartbeat, "You...You are that Veldrin? I’ve heard of you...You saved Mistress Phaere of House Despana from the Devourers and killed an Eye Tyrant". "That’s me, yes.
And I need these slaves to perform a service for my Matron Mother, so tell me how much they cost and be quick!". "They, well, since there are some useless Humans among them I can give you a discount, so...A thousand gold coins if you buy them as they are. If you want them fully equipped, with weapons and armour, two thousand golds".
Meg tossed him a small coin purse, "I want them fully armed and armoured. And don’t you even think of equipping them with garbage, worm! If my mission fails because of a low-quality equipment, you will answer for that before Matron Mother Ardulace herself, is that clear?", she growled and he nodded hastily. "Of course, powerful female, only the best for your slaves!
I will take them out of the cages, so you can give them your orders as I go and fetch their equipment", he assured her, opening the cells before rushing to the store-room. The leader of the Humans, a tall, bulky man with short blond hair, shot her a cold glance, "So, you’re our master, then. What do you require of us?". "I will tell you after we’re out of the city. For now, just follow me".
He blinked, surprised at her kind tone, but refrained from commenting on it as the slaver came back with the finest items he had. "Here you are, powerful female". She examined the armour and weapons and couldn’t help being impressed by them, "Well, you kept your word, I see. I am pleased. Maybe I will remember about you, after I have raised sufficiently in station", she said, giving the slaver a small smile and suggestively adjusting the neckline of her dress. "I, uh...Yes".
She waited for the former slaves to equip themselves and then led them to her companions, who looked at the small group with wide eyes. Ilivarra pointed to them, "Uh, Mistress Veldrin, what...". "Wait a little, Ilivarra and you’ll understand", the Ilmatari promised, passing through the gates with the others in tow. When they were far enough from Ust Natha, she stopped and smiled, "All right, explanation time: I didn’t buy you to keep you as slaves, but to give you your freedom back".
A Svirfneblin child hesitantly peeked at her from behind the leg of one of the Humans, "No hurt?", he asked in a small voice. "No, darling, no hurt at all", she reassured him, "I intend to bring you all to the village, the Granitehome, so you will have the chance to rest and eat properly". One of the men cleared his throat, "Not that we don’t appreciate it, but...We would rather leave this place as soon as possible and since we’re equipped...".
Jaheira intervened, having guessed her ward’s plan, "The Deep Gnomes know of a safe passage to the Surface, so it’s in your interest to come along". At that, the former slaves cheered and accepted to follow their lead, so the group proceeded towards the Svirfneblin settlement, where they saw Odendal patrolling the bridge.
"Odendal, it’s us, the friends of the Light!", Meg called out. The Deep Gnome smiled, "Ah, you are back...", his trailed off and his eyes widened with joy as the freed Svirfneblin rushed forward to meet their old friend, "You? How...I thought the Dark Ones had captured you!". One of the former slaves, a red-haired Deep Gnome woman, wiped tears of happiness from her cheeks, "Oh, they did, Odendal dear, but this Dark One bought us and set us free".
He chuckled, "They are not what they seem, my darling Durthee, but it doesn’t matter now. I see we have more guests to take care of", he noted, as his dark grey eyes fixed on the Human men standing at the end of the bridge. "They need to rest and to get to the Surface", Margaret Dawn explained, "Since you’ve already helped Cyrus and the others to leave safely, I thought...".
He cut her off, a warm smile on his lips, "We will give hospitality to these men and help them reach the Surface, you have my word on this, woman of the Light. And thank you for returning our friends to us". "My pleasure", she smiled back and passed a gold pouch to the leader of the former Human slaves, "Here, take this. You’ll need it for the travel back home".
The man’s eyebrows shot up as he felt the weight of the pouch, "Are you sure? All this money...". "As I said, you’ll need it and we have more than enough anyway. Just keep it, please". He nodded, then impulsively took her hand and kissed it, "Thank you, my lady. I don’t know who you are, but we owe you our lives and our freedom. I wouldn’t have expected a Drow to show us mercy". "We’re not Drow, this is just an illusion: we all come from the Surface, just like you".
"Really? I hope we’ll meet again under the Sun, then and that I will be able to see your true face, kind lady. I don’t doubt that it will be as beautiful as this". Anomen couldn’t help putting himself between them, "My lady’s true self is more beautiful than you can ever imagine", he said, stressing the word “my”, then he turned to his leader, "Meg, I think we should go back to the city now: Phaere and the Matron Mother must be waiting for us". "Ah, yes, you’re right", the young woman nodded, a warm smile on her lips as she regarded him, "Let’s go then".