Happy Holidays and a very Merry Christmas to all of you readers!
I know how to hurt
I know how to heal
I know what to show
And what to conceal…(Garbage, “The world is not enough”)
Before going back to Ust Natha, Meg decided to stop by Adalon’s lair once again, to make sure that Solaufein had made it safely to the cave. When they got in, Aerie rushed ahead to meet them, a wide smile on her lips, "You’re back! Can we leave then?", she asked eagerly. "Sorry, not yet", the Ilmatari said, "We just came to see if our new friend had joined you".
Solaufein walked up to them as well, he was in full health and he looked relaxed and happy for the first time since their first meeting, "I did, Vel...Meg. I am glad to see you all safe and sound. Does that mean you had no trouble with Phaere?". "No trouble at all: she swallowed the bait, the line and the whole rod. Are you okay?". "Oh, I am: I had a nice meal with your friends and took the chance to rest properly.
I had wanted to leave and look for a way out of the Underdark after that, but...". Minsc intervened, placing a big hand on the Drow’s shoulder, "Minsc and Boo couldn’t let the little man go alone! A friend of little Meg is a friend of Minsc and Boo and we do not turn our backs on our friends, no sir! The little man will leave the Underdark with us, right, Boo?", he announced and Solaufein grinned. "Yes, that’s what I meant".
Imoen laughed, "Sorry, Sola, but you’re one of us now!". He blinked, "Sola? My name is...". Jaheira cut him off, "Do not bother, once she’s given you a nickname there’s no way around it. You’d better get used to it". "I see. Sola it is, then", he gave a mock-resigned sigh, then sobered, "Lady Adalon has explained me the reasons why you’re here. If I can help you in any way...".
Margaret Dawn bit her lower lip, "Well, the more pressing matter is retrieving the eggs. Do you know where they could be?". "I know that, yes: they are kept inside a chest in the treasure room of the Temple, guarded by four Golems and protected by a pressure-plate system located in the chest. And I have some additional information that could be of interest to you", the Drow warrior said, "Matron Mother Ardulace wants to use them as payment for a Demon Lord".
Everyone started and Edwin’s eyes went wide as saucers. "The woman plans to summon a Demon Lord? Is she out of her mind?". "Probably, but she’s mainly ambitious: she wants to unleash it on the Surface Elves and to use the prestige that having it as her ally will bring her to make House Despana become the First House of the city". Anomen made a disgusted sound, "How can someone, anyone be so utterly merciless and heartless?", he asked nobody in particular.
"That is the way of the Drow, Alton...". "Anomen", the Helmite said, extending a hand towards Solaufein with a friendly smile, "We haven’t been properly introduced yet: I am Anomen Delryn, priest of Helm and knight of the Most Noble Order of the Radiant Heart". "A pleasure to meet you, then, Anomen Delryn", the Drow warrior smiled back, shaking hands with him. One by one, the others introduced themselves too, telling Solaufein their real names and he was deeply touched by that show of trust.
"So, now we know where the eggs are", Meg mused, "It won’t be easy to get them though, they would surely notice their absence before we can get out of the city". Solaufein smirked, "I know of a way to help you in this: you see, Phaere has a set of fake eggs, made by a Duergar craftsman and she plans to switch them before the summoning ritual...".
"So her mother will be killed by the outraged Demon Lord and she will have the real eggs to offer, becoming the new Matron Mother of House Despana and keeping all the fame and prestige for herself", the Painbearer concluded, "Clever, if very cold. Do you think this craftsman could make a second set of fake eggs for us?". "He could, for the right price.
I will lead you to him". "No, you must not leave this cave until we’re ready to leave the Underdark for good. Just draw a map for us, it will be enough". He frowned, a bit hurt, "I can defend myself well enough". "I know, but I don’t want to risk anyone finding out that you’re still alive: it would blow our cover, you see".
"Oh. Right, I hadn’t thought of it. All right, then", he took the quill and parchment she gave him and drew a map, "Remember to tell him that you don’t want the eggs to have any mark on them. Phaere had hers been marked, so she can recognize the real ones from the fake ones". "We will. Thank you, Solaufein. See you later guys, lady Adalon".
With their brand new set of fake eggs in their Bag of Holding, the adventurers walked back into the city, heading directly towards the Temple to deliver the vial of blood of the Elder Brain to the Matron Mother. "Excellent, Veldrin, excellent! The Spider Queen smiles upon us today!", Ardulace beamed, admiring the vial full of blood, "I will start the preparations immediately, but we must make sure the ritual will not be interrupted".
"Do you want the city to be sealed, Mother?", Phaere asked. "Yes: we can’t risk the Silver One to try some desperate move and ruin everything. The ritual will take place at midnight. Veldrin, you can rest now, but I will have need of your services soon". The younger Drow woman intervened, "Well, I have need of her services now. Veldrin, come to my quarters in an hour".
Meg bowed, "As you command, Mistress Phaere. My respects, Matron Mother, it has been an honour to serve you", she said, but Ardulace had already turned her back on them and was walking towards a chamber on the left side of the Temple. The rest of the party went back to their quarters at the inn, while the Ilmatari obediently met with Phaere.
"Ah, Veldrin, right on time. I appreciate your punctuality. Now, you know that House Despana is going to become the First House of this city, right?". "I do, Mistress". "But there’s no reason why my Mother should be the head of the House. I would be much better suited for that role, don’t you agree?", she asked, watching Veldrin intently. "You would be a perfect Matron Mother, Mistress Phaere, I have no doubt about that".
She nodded with satisfaction, "Good. Now, I have a plan, but I need you to carry it out. Do you have any problem with betraying my Mother?". And here we go, the Painbearer thought, her stomach churning in disgust, "None at all, Mistress. I served you since I first set foot in this city and I am loyal to the One I serve".
Phaere put her hands on the other woman’s shoulders and smiled, "I am pleased to hear this, my dear Veldrin. You will be well rewarded, once I am Matron Mother of my House: you will be my champion and you will have slaves, riches and power. But to get all of this, you must do a little task for me". "I am ready, Mistress, as always".
"My Mother plans to summon a Demon Lord, to help us in the war against the Surface scum...That’s why she needed the blood, it’s a vital part of the summoning ritual. And she wants to offer the Demon Lord the eggs of the Silver Dragon as a payment for his help". Margaret Dawn’s lips curved in a small smile, "I think I see what you are planning, Mistress: it would be a very...Unfortunate accident, if Matron Mother Ardulace were to lose the eggs, wouldn’t it?
The Demon Lord may even kill her in its rage", she said, "And if, for a lucky turn of events, you happened to have the eggs in your possession...". Phaere’s eyes widened slightly in a mixture of surprise and admiration, "Indeed, Veldrin. You are most perceptive. Yes, I need you to get those eggs for me.
I had a set of fake eggs made: they look nearly identical to the real ones, apart from a little mark on the side, practically invisible unless you know that it’s there. You must switch them and bring the real eggs to me". Meg bowed, "I will make the switch, Mistress and you will have your prize soon. I just need the details to better prepare myself for this task".
"Oh, of course, the details. The eggs are kept in the treasure room, it’s on the right side of the Temple, behind a double door made of grey marble. They are inside a chest and there is a pressure trap, so be careful: if the weight changes too abruptly, the four guarding Golems will activate and an alarm will set off", the Drow woman explained, then she opened a closet and took out of it a black-dyed Bag of Holding decorated with pearls, handing it to Veldrin along with a key, "Here are the fake eggs and the key to the door.
Do it tonight, there will be only five guards outside the Temple and two inside, guarding the treasure room". "I will, Mistress and soon you will have the position you deserve", Meg assured her, grinning inwardly, then she left. When she was safely back to party’s quarters, she locked the door and smiled brightly, "Guys, rejoice! Phaere has just ordered me to make the switch and has even handed me the key to the treasure room!".
Jaheira allowed herself a small smile of her own, "This will make our task easier, at least". "Oh, yeah. Immy, pass me the fake eggs, please", the Ilmatari asked. The little thief complied, observing with curiosity as she took three more eggs from the black Bag of Holding and replaced them with their own, "What are those? Phaere’s fake eggs?". "Yep. I’m gonna switch them now, so we’ll know for sure she won’t get the real ones.
Thank the Gods my own Bag of Holding is green, so we won’t confuse them", the Painbearer added, stuffing Phaere’s imitations into the green bag and handing it to her half-sister, "Immy, Yoshimo, you will retrieve Adalon’s eggs from the Temple after sunset. Aerie will turn you invisible, but you’ll bring some Potions of Invisibility just to be on the safe side", she said and explained them what she had learned about the Temple.
The two thieves discussed for some minutes about the plan, with the young woman arguing that there was nothing wrong if something valuable happened to “accidentally” find its way into their pockets during the mission and the Kozakuran replying that it wasn’t worth risking their lives for a couple of trinkets, his position being supported by the other party members as well. In the end, Imoen grudgingly accepted to follow the plan and promised not to steal anything else, though she muttered something that sounded suspiciously like “mutton-mongering spoilsport riff-raffs”.
The switch went smoothly, thanks to Imoen’s and Yoshimo’s combined abilities and the two went back to their companions with their prize, wearing wide triumphant smiles. "We got them, sis!", the currently-not-pink-head exclaimed happily as soon as they were inside the apartment, "And I didn’t snatch anything else, I swear!". "Glad to hear it, pixie. Now all that remains to be done is to give the imitations to Phaere and let the Demon Lord do the dirty work for us".
"Do you think we will be required to attend to the ritual?", Anomen asked, worried, "It would make our escape much harder, if we were locked inside the Temple". "I know, but if Ardulace orders us to be there, we can’t refuse. And there’s also the matter of getting out of a sealed city", the Ilmatari toyed with her Ring, deeply troubled, "Though if we said that we’re on a mission for the Matron Mother, the guards at the gate would probably let us go".
Edwin intervened, "What if they refused? I too hope they won’t, but they could". "Why should they? I’m a female working for the Matron Mother, they must let me pass, or I could have them fed to the spiders". Imoen seemed worried for a moment, "But ya won’t, right? Feed them to the spiders, I mean". Her half-sister looked at her, mortified, "Immy! Did I give you any reason to think I would?".
"No, of course not, sis!", the little thief hastily said, "I was just kidding". "Oh. Okay. Tell you what, since we have the eggs, we’ll try and leave the city now: if we’re lucky, they haven’t sealed it yet". The Thayan arched an eyebrow, "And since when we’re lucky? (Never, that’s the answer)". "There’s no harm in trying, though. Let’s go". They exited the inn, but before they could even reach the marketplace, a Duergar approached them, "Mistress Veldrin?".
"What do you want, worm?". "Mistress Phaere requests your presence at her quarters". Figures, she thought, suppressing the urge to roll her eyes, "All right, I’m going. Is the presence of my underlings required as well?", she asked then, a plan forming in her mind. "I...I don’t know, Mistress, but I doubt it: she told me to get you only". "Then they can carry out the mission on their own.
Matron Mother Ardulace herself ordered us to fetch her something important and I won’t disappoint her", she turned and handed Anomen her green Bag of Holding, where Adalon’s eggs were safely stored, "Put the items she wanted us to retrieve in here. I trust you remember where to find them?". He hesitated, taken off-balance, "Well...". She reduced her eyes to slits, "The stall we’ve seen near the city of the Devourers, foolish male! The stall of those disgusting Duergars!".
His eyes clouded with worry as he understood her intentions, but he nodded all the same, "As you command, Mistress Veldrin". "Good. Jaelryn, you’re in charge until my return. And don’t forget this", Margaret Dawn added, handing the druidess the Light Gem they’d received from Goldander and silently thanking the Gods for the yellow Gem of Light she still had in her pack from the Temple in the Umar Hills.
Settled the matter, she just turned and left without another word, while her companions reached the city gates. Thank the Gods, the guard at the doors didn’t suspect anything and agreed to make an exception and let them out, especially after Jaheira had threatened to roast him on a spit if he delayed them with his useless questions.
In her luxurious bedroom in the Female Fighters Society, Phaere was nervously pacing back and forth, but her features relaxed as she saw Meg, "Veldrin, at last! Do you have them?". "I do, Mistress", Veldrin handed her the black Bag of Holding with a flourish, "The hour of your triumph is closer than ever".
The Drow woman gently took one of the fake eggs out of the pouch and admired it, blissfully unaware of the treachery, "Beautiful, isn’t it? To think that such a small thing will have such a great influence on my future...". You can bet on it, the Ilmatari thought, feeling a small thrill of excitement at the prospect of both Phaere and her mother being ripped to pieces by an enraged Demon Lord, "Sometimes it’s the smallest things that hold more power over us, Mistress".
The other woman blinked, "You are very peculiar, Veldrin. But I like it", her lips curved in a smile, "You have served me well and I think you deserve to get a taste of your future rewards right now", she clapped her hands and a young Drow male entered the room. He was very attractive, with delicate features and sensuous lips, the open silk shirt he wore did nothing to conceal his well-toned chest and abdomen and the tight-fitting leather trousers made it clear that Mother Nature had been generous to him.
"He is Duagloth", Phaere said, her smile widening, "He is one of the most skilled pleasure slaves of Ust Natha and he will serve you for tonight, my dear Veldrin". Meg nearly had an heart-attack then and there, WHAT?!?, she thought, but her face remained impassive, she knew she couldn’t let her shock show, "I...Am grateful and honoured for this, Mistress Phaere, but I don’t think I deserve it, not now at least: the position of Matron Mother is not yours yet and until then, I’d rather be focused on our goal. There will be time for pleasure after your ascension", she improvised.
Phaere was stunned, "You refuse my gift?". "I am not refusing it, Mistress, merely delaying the night when I will enjoy my reward. I feel this is not the right moment to indulge in such delights: there is still time before the ritual, time during which a lot of things could happen and if we want everything to go as planned, I must be ready to intervene at the slightest problem. If I’m...Busy...With a male, I can’t do that", the Painbearer explained, And I’ll be damned if I betray Anomen!
The Drow woman nodded, deeply impressed, "You have a point. Your loyalty to me and my cause is admirable and I will not forget it, rest assured. You and I will do great things together", she turned to the pleasure slave, "Leave, male! We have no need of you now!". Duagloth bowed and left in a hurry, grateful for that stroke of good luck and leaving the two women alone.
"Can I serve you in some other way, Mistress?", Margaret Dawn asked. "No, you can rest for now", Phaere answered, but just then, someone knocked on the door, "What now?". The slave, a young Drow girl, bowed deeply, "Forgive me, Mistress Phaere, but Matron Mother Ardulace requires your presence at the Temple". "Ah, the ritual, at last! Come, my darling Veldrin: the moment of my ascension is close at hand".