Throne Of Cards 78 – A Tangled Web
Now, if a paladin stated they solved a problem by ‘lending a helping hand’ they would mean one thing. We mean something else.
Excerpt from ‘Ruminations Of A Master Bard’
“Is this the Underdark?” Imoen asked, her eyes round and wide. “It sure looks like it, even if I missed out on the whole thing when you guys went there, what with falling off the boat in Brynnlaw and all.”
“It’s a bit close to the surface still to be the actual Underdark,” Zaerini replied, looking about. “Then again, this place was built by Drow, so I guess it’s a matter of degrees.” Certainly the layout of the caverns they were traversing was familiar, with spiderweb patterns etched into the dark rock walls and a particular, dense silence that she associated with that nasty time spent in Ust Natha. “No signs of further guards yet though, that’s a bit odd.”
“Sssh,” Viconia interrupted, raising a slim hand. “I hear something.” Everybody fell quiet as the cleric’s pointed ears twitched slightly. “Spiders,” She finally said. “One cavern away, a lot of them. A couple of minders as well.”
“Spiders?” Edwin said. “A minor obstacle. Seeing as they are conveniently gathered together, they can all burn together.”
“And a glorious fire it’d be too, no doubt,” Rini said. “But I don’t want Sendai to know we’re coming just yet. Preferably not until we’re already right on top of her. That’s why we bothered to hide the bodies up on top after all.”
“Infiltration is always made easier by good disguises,” Dekaras said, thoughtfully eyeing the group. “In this place, we cannot exactly pretend to be recently hired gardeners, cooks or masseurs…”
“…or woodcutters, yes, thank you Imoen. However, one of us is an actual Drow, and could perhaps pass for one of Sendai’s followers.”
“And I can always shapechange,” Rini added. “I’ll just be a little innocent pet belonging to the dreaded Drow priestess, and nobody will suspect a thing.”
“What of the rest of us?” Edwin asked, a little suspiciously.
“I was thinking slaves, but given the state of the villages we passed through, sacrifices might also be a reasonable cover.”
“Hm,” Rini said. “It could work, I guess. Any other ideas?”
“Well, I’m reasonably confident I could get through the caverns on my own, should you prefer that, but the lack of proper information about the area and the habits of your sibling would require some level of improvisation…”
“In other words, an almost certain death. Thanks, but let’s not do that, I kind of enjoy having you alive. We’ll try the first plan, if Vic is willing.”
“Of course,” Viconia said. Then she grinned. “An opportunity to order the lot of you about for an extensive period of time and have you obey my slightest whim? How could I possibly refuse?”
“Minsc will be the best sacrifice ever!”
“Highly likely, unless you follow my lead, friend,” Sarevok said with a slightly smug smile. “I am of course a master of stealth and subterfuge, and will be the perfect example to you.”
Oh Gods. Maybe we should have just gone for the ‘blast our way through the army’ tactic.
“We’ll deposit our weapons and gear in the Bags of Holding,” Rini interrupted. “Other than easily hidden weapons of course – and no, that doesn’t include your sword, Big Brother. Into the bag it goes.”
“Fine,” Sarevok huffed. “But if you break it, you get me a new one.”
Sometime later, they were ready to depart, with all of them other than Viconia having divested themselves of all obvious weapons and attempting to look appropriately subservient. Most of them weren’t doing it very well, Rini thought, but perhaps they could pretend to be recently captured slaves. “Here goes then,” She told her friends. “Heads down, remember? Humble slaves?”A chorus of ‘yeses’ answered her, with Sarevok’s and Minsc’s being particularly loud and enthusiastic. “Great. Vic…I mean, Mistress Viconia, lead on if you please.” She concentrated, then let herself go, her form shrinking and dwindling even as she felt fur growing all along her body and her teeth lengthening. Finally she stood on four legs, and she stretched and tested her claws.
Viconia nodded imperiously at the group, and pointed at the next passage to the right. “That way, lazy scum, and do try to move your feet at more than a snail’s pace unless you want every inch of flesh flayed from your bones with a dull knife. Move!”
As they walked, Rini heard Edwin speak up behind her in a voice that was a curious mixture of admiration and apprehension. “If I may ask…just when and why did you ever find it necessary to pose as a masseur?”
Dekaras cleared his throat briefly. “The long version of that story will have to wait, I’m afraid. Let’s just say that it was a convenient cover.”
Viconia led the group into a larger cavern, where thick spiderwebs criss-crossed the air between vast stalactites. The strands were almost as thick as a human arm, and the dozens of bloated spiders clinging to them were each the size of a large dog, one of them nearly as big as a horse. There were a pair of Drow males idling about near the walkway leading across the deep chasm, one of them lazily scratching his ear and the other one apparently brushing the hairy legs of a smaller, cat-sized spider. There was a pink bow tied around what was possibly the spider’s neck.
Huh. Shepherds, I suppose? Or…spiderherds? I hope they don’t have to shear them.
As they spotted the approaching group, the two Drow got to their feet, one of them calling out a question in their own language. Viconia immediately replied in the same tongue, her voice sharp, and the two males paled slightly as they bowed to her. “Adequate,” Viconia curtly said in Common. “Now, we will speak in the inferior tongue of surfacers for the moment, as I wish for my slaves to understand. They are newly taken and not fully trained yet, and need to know the ways of this place. You will provide them with a brief summary of its layout. As for me, I have an important message for Mistress Sendai.”
“For-forgive me, Mistress,” One of the men quaked. “We are humble servants, and do not have access to the inner sanctums. Captain Namarra is the officer currently in command of the outpost, and she will surely aid you in passing your message along.”
“Phaugh! Worthless runts, you sicken me with your shivering.” Viconia sneered. “But you may keep on living, for now, as it would be too much of a waste of precious time to slay you. Where will I find this Namarra?”
“Across the largest bridge, Mistress, the biggest building in the outer settlement.”
Viconia nodded and marched off, not sparing the two spiderherds a second glance. The others all followed her, with varying displays of proper slave humility and obedience. Rini made a point of snagging a claw on Edwin’s shoe to get his attention as his fingers were twitching dangerously close to his spell components and she worried that he might forget himself. He picked her up with a sigh and settled her in his arms, and that made her feel greatly reassured if perhaps not for the reason he might have thought.
The outpost wasn’t as large as Ust Natha by any means, but there were still a fair amount of buildings, and it was a good thing they’d been given directions so they wouldn’t have to waste much time. There were several barracks for soldiers, as well as smaller dwellings for Drow of lower rank, training grounds and a small market. The largest and most official looking building had guards posted outside, looking fairly bored and lazy. Rini suspected that Sendai hadn’t really had to face any troubling invasions yet.
“You!” Viconia barked. “I require Captain Namarra. Fetch her, at once.”
It wasn’t very long before the Captain arrived, a handsome but surly-looking woman with short white hair and narrow lilac eyes glinting against her dark skin. She blinked a few times, and then glared at Viconia. “Yes? What do you want, stranger?”
“I have important information for Mistress Sendai,” Viconia said. “For her eyes only.”
Namarra scoffed. “Right,” She said. “The enclave is under lockdown, all access to the inner sanctums is to be cleared by me. I’ve got my orders, straight from Diyatha. Do you outrank her, stranger? I doubt it. I don’t either, but since she isn’t here, I am the boss.”
“You are making a bad mistake, Captain,” Viconia said with icy contempt. “I assure you of this.”
“Maybe. Still got my orders. You can give me the message and I’ll make sure it gets where it’s going, or you can enjoy a long stay amongst the peasants. I’ve got the only key to the tunnels, and it stays right here.” She patted her neck, where Rini could now just glimpse a flash of silver against black skin. Then she winced with a sudden grimace of pain and rubbed her neck a little harder. “Damn hard bunks…never a good sleep. Anyway, my word is final.”
Viconia seemed about to say something, but then paused. “Perhaps,” The priestess said, her voice now much calmer than before. “Perhaps I may yet change your mind, Captain, once you fully understand the importance of my mission. Allow me to treat you to a good meal, from whatever inn is the best in these parts, and I will provide you with further details, anything you wish.”
“Well,” Namarra said. “I was about to go off duty shortly.”
“Excellent,” Viconia purred. “And as a further token of good faith, may I also offer you the services of one of my slaves, before the meal? To help you relax?”
“I have my own bedslaves,” Namarra said. “They’d have to be fairly special to interest me.”
“Most of them aren’t properly trained yet,” Viconia admitted with a show of regret. “However, this one came to me from a previous owner, a lady of my acquaintance with high standards. While I don’t doubt that he would satisfy you in the usual sports of the bedchamber, I would first suggest you avail yourself of his other skills.” She smiled. “He is an excellent masseur. I assure you, once he is done with you, you will be a new woman.” She turned her head. “Isn’t that so?”
Dekaras gave her a deep bow. “I always aim to please, Mistress, and I would not be exaggerating if I stated that none of my clients ever came back to complain.”
Rini had felt Edwin’s arms tightening around her, and she carefully nudged her claws into the crook of his arm, warning him to be still. Easy, Dread Wizard. It will be fine. I think. I hope. Unless they’re both being too cocky and something goes horribly wrong. But nothing to do but carry on right now.
“Hmmm,” Namarra said, her surly face finally cracking a small smile. “Tempting. Very well, slave, come with me, and let’s find out just how good you are. But first, a basic precaution.” She turned to the two guards by the door. “Search him, and if all is clear send him in. Then send the rest of them to the inn.”
Rini definitely had her heart in her mouth as the two guards stepped closer, but Dekaras simply walked up to them with his arms stretched out and allowed them to pat him down. After a short while, the guards declared themselves satisfied. Did he actually dump all of his weapons in the Bag of Holding? I’d never have thought it he’d have the heart to give them all up, even temporarily. Or that the bag would be big enough. Even so, she made a snap decision of her own, and just as the assassin was following Namarra into the Captain’s Quarters, she twisted out of Edwin’s arms, and hurried to follow. She could hear a faint oath from the wizard, and suspected he’d have a few things to say to her later, but that was a problem for later, not for now. The Drow all ignored her at least, and she hoped she could be of some help on the inside, or at least be backup if something went wrong. The building seemed to be part official office, and further inside a private dwelling. It was there Namarra was heading, into a dimly lit bedroom. Rini hung back a little, wanting to stay close at hand and yet not wanting to risk being spotted. Besides, in the office separated from the bedroom by a short hallway she’d noticed that the desk was covered with heaps of official looking papers she was itching to take a closer look at. “All right, you,” Namarra’s voice said from inside the room. “Work your magic, if you can. And no funny business, unless you want a taste of the whip. Just do what you’re told, and remember my servants are just outside the door.”
It was true, another two armored guards, these ones female and well armed, were on post just outside the partially open bedroom door, immobile but definitely not sleeping on the job.
“Of course, Mistress,” Dekaras’ voice replied. “Now, may I request that you undress and lie on your bed, facedown? And if I may lay claim to a few towels and some manner of oil, that would further facilitate this.”
Rini made a deliberate choice not to try to listen at this point, but her sharp hearing couldn’t avoid picking up on the rustle of clothing and clank of armour, as well as the creaks of the bedsprings. After a while, she could also hear what sounded like the slow, deliberate movement of skin against skin, a few faint pops, and finally Namarra’s voice again, groaning with delight. “Lolth’s blessing…that’s perfect. A little higher now, snap those vertebrae back into proper order!”
If Dekaras replied to this, Zaerini didn’t hear it, for she had silently jumped on top of the table and was paying close attention to the papers on it as well as a map on the mall that provided her with a basic layout of Sendai’s enclave. She could spot the outpost, and there were two different tunnels leading further inside, both of them apparently leading to the same place, and she memorized the entire map as well as she could. There were guard schedules on the desk, those might also be helpful, yes. And hey, what’s this? A letter signed simply ‘Diyatha’ ordered the Captain to make certain to ‘dump the monk corpses in the spider pens’. Friends of Brother Balthazar? The letter also mentioned ‘keeping our honoured guest content’. That apparently wasn’t a reference to the monks, but there were no further clues to who was meant.
“Oooooooh!” Namarra moaned from inside the bedchamber, and Rini felt the fur standing up all along her back. No. Just no. Imagination, go away. She hunched down behind a pile of books to keep from being spotted, and out of the corner of her eye she could see the two Drow guards quietly nudging each other and chuckling. Here was another interesting item next to the letter, an official-looking seal. Hmmm. I can think of all sorts of interesting things that could be used for. She carefully picked it up in her mouth, and was just about to poke about the papers some more when she heard…nothing. Everything had gone very quiet, and after a few moments Dekaras walked out of the bedroom, fastidiously wiping his oily hands on a white fluffy towel before closing the door behind him.
“As is customary, the Mistress is relaxing after her massage,” He told the two guards. “She must not be disturbed for at least one hour, and I have dimmed the light inside to help her rest peacefully.”
“Can I get some of what she got?” One of the guards said with an eager grin. “Sounded like she enjoyed it.”
“That may yet happen. But for now, I am under orders to return to my Mistress.”
“Oh well,” The guard said, unlocking and opening the entry door. “Later it is!” Rini hurried to jump off the table, and so was unable to see exactly what happened next, but there was a definite smacking sound. When she crept into the hallway, Dekaras was already walking out the door, as casually as if he was taking a stroll in a sunny garden, but he turned his head slightly and caught her eye as she followed. Once they were well out of sight of the guards, he paused, and carefully picked her up to settle her on his shoulder.
“May I?” He whispered, holding his hand out, and she dropped the seal into his open palm. “Thank you, and well spotted.” He resumed walking, and she mewed softly, wishing that she could speak properly but trying to make herself understood through inflection and tone. “I believe Mistress Namarra is more relaxed now than ever before,” He said in a quiet voice. “Certainly her neck will never pain her again, and I was well rewarded for my troubles. It is a good thing I work well with my hands even in the absence of my usual implements of choice. Even so, I think perhaps we had best not linger too long here, don’t you agree?”
They reunited with the rest of the group in a room at the inn Namarra had directed them to. Rini had chosen to remain in her cat form for now, in order not to attract undue attention in case the Drow were keeping track of the number of ‘slaves’ to arrive with Viconia. Well, that and the fact that Edwin couldn’t well scold her the way he undoubtedly wanted to as long as she was a cat – not unless he wanted to attract even more attention. Not that I blame him for worrying, but this time around I think I’d like to skip the argument and go straight for the making up part. She took particular care to rub her head against his hand and saw his mouth twitch into a small smile as he rubbed behind her ear.
“Get a room, you guys!” Imoen giggled. “So, how’d it go?”
Dekaras turned his palm over to display a silver key. “This would be an excellent time to quietly move along,” He said. “We have…approximately 50 minutes before ‘quietly’ will no longer be an option. Less, if some curious individual decides to disturb Mistress Namarra too soon after her relaxing neck rub.”
“No time to waste then,” Viconia firmly stated. “We were not idle in your absence, and I have an idea about where to go. The only question is whether the northern or the southern tunnels are our best option, both are bound to be guarded but there was little time to gather more information without rousing suspicion.”
“We may as well pick whichever one is closest,” Sarevok said. “We want to be as far away from here as possible once chaos breaks loose.”
That was certainly true, and nobody had any objections. At the entrance to the northern tunnels, two rather bored-looking Drow stood guard, but they both snapped to attention as the group approached them. “Halt!” One of them said. “Who goes there?”
“Somebody you do not want to annoy, scum,” Viconia snarled. “These slaves are to be brought before Mistress Sendai, without delay. Unless you wish to contradict her orders, I suggest you step aside now.” She held up the key taken from Namarra. “Well?”
“Apologies, Mistress,” One of the guards excused himself. “But if I may…this route isn’t normally used for…”
“Do you wish to contradict me?” Viconia asked, her voice now a low hiss. “Think carefully before you answer.”
“N-no, Mistress. Of course not, Mistress.” Both guards hurriedly moved aside, to let the group past. Viconia nodded curtly before unlocking the tall wooden door before them. Not just tall either, Rini thought. Wide. I wonder why it needs to be that wide? Well, there was nothing to do but go ahead. They all stepped through, the ‘slaves’ following Viconia with varying levels of apparent subservience. Well, so far so good. The large wooden door slammed shut behind them, and she saw what lay before them. Oh. Maybe it would have been better to take the southern tunnels after all.
The tunnel wasn’t so much a tunnel as a large cavern. Presumably there was a ceiling somewhere far above in the darkness, but there was definitely a sense of large open space above as well as below. Faintly glowing lanterns illuminated a narrow ledge curling around the edge of a cliff, leading further down into the depths, and there was no way to see just how far it went. That, however, wasn’t the most unsettling thing about this place. Spider webs crisscrossed the air, between the cliff’s edge and stalactites as thick as large trees, forming a glittering maze throughout the entire large cavern. Some of them were complicated and intricate constructions, others simple strands, but every single thread was thick as man’s wrist and glistening with something sticky. Whatever had made them was still out of sight, and the air was still and oppressive.
“Yuck,” Imoen said, her eyes wide. “Think it’s too late to go to the other tunnels?”
“’Fraid so,” Rini replied even as she changed back to her normal. “And there could be something even worse in those anyway. We’ll just…go nice and quiet, right? And if that doesn’t work, we’ve come quite a long ways since those spiders back in Beregost, remember those?”
Her sister gave her a small smile, but she suspected Imoen was probably thinking the same thing she was, namely that those spiders in Beregost would compare to whatever had made these webs like a lizard would to a dragon. Still, there is a path here, so the Drow must come this way sometimes, right? Even so, some traitorous part of her brain started supplying the scene with suitably ominous music. “Nothing for it,” She said. “We’ll move as quickly and as quietly as we can, and hope we don’t disturb the spiders, but be ready for anything. Vic, what kind of spider do you think made these?”
The priestess frowned, a worrying sight. “I…am not sure,” She said. “They do not resemble the webs of any guardian spiders I have encountered.”
“Great. Well, let’s go, and try not to wake it up.”
They couldn’t move as fast as she would have liked, as the path was steep and treacherous, and here and there strands of web crossed it so that you had to step across or crouch under them. Still, at least there were no Drow chasing after them just yet, and they were going steadily downwards. Things were going well, sort of. And then, after perhaps half an hour or so, they reached the point about halfway down the path where the path was no more. It had broken down, leaving a gap entirely too wide to leap across. Someone, or something, had tried its best to be helpful by building a bridge of sorts. Glistening ropes had been spun across the chasm, forming a neat and tidy web. It looked sturdy enough for a human to walk across, yes. But what will come once we do?
“I don’t think we can sneak past this one,” She said. “Unless…Eddie, what about freezing it? Would that keep the spider from sensing us moving out there?”
Her lover shook his head. “I could do it,” He said. “Think one step further though, do you really want to climb across a chasm on what amounts to icy twigs? I dare say the freezing itself would alert the spider anyway.”
“Well, we have no time to turn back and there is no other path,” Sarevok said. “We’ll just have to deal with the beast if it appears. Shall I go first?”
“Hold a moment,” Dekaras said. “You don’t want to be stuck out there when it comes. A decoy would work better, and then perhaps we can surprise it instead of the other way around.”
“Fair point,” The large warrior agreed. He picked a large chunk of rock up off the ground. “This should do it. Minsc, shall we see who can throw the farthest? The loser has to clean the winner’s armour tonight.”
“Minsc is always up to a challenge, but be warned! Boo is very picky, and he knows every nook and cranny of both Minsc and Minsc’s armour.”
“Too much information, friend, but I suppose I will just have to win, won’t I?”
“Not until I say so,” Viconia cut in. The priestess had been busy casting so many protective spells that Rini could feel her skin fairly tingling with power, and she and Edwin hadn’t been idle either, adding as many enhancing spells as they had to increase the group’s chances. “Everybody, make certain you have at least one antidote on you in case I cannot reach you in time. All set? Good.”
“On the count of three, Minsc. One…two…three!”
Sarevok and Minsc both managed to hurl their large rocks an impressive distance into the webs to the side of the ledge, away from the group. Rini couldn’t quite tell who won, since they’d aimed in different directions, but right now she was more preoccupied with listening anyway. The webs were vibrating, she could practically hear a low humming that made her feel slightly nauseous as it trembled through her bones. Then, there was another movement, the webs were stirring further above them, high above under the distant ceiling. Something was moving up there, rapidly descending on many legs. She could see a dark blur now, a shadow against the faint lights illuminating the path. Large. Really, really large spider. Then, the thing was upon them and she saw that the reality was for worse than what she had imagined.