Surfacing Ch. 04byEtaski©
Author's Notes: This story is erotic fantasy written by Etaski. I reserve the right to be listed as the author of this story, wherever it is posted. If found posted anywhere except Literotica.com with this note attached, this story is posted without my permission. (c) Etaski 2013
Author's Note: For those of you who may have been missing the intrigue from "Sufferance"...I think it's back in full force with this chapter.
Please forgive me if there seem to be a few more typos than usual; I know I missed some as this was delayed enough by real life eating my time that I could not be quite as thorough over 79 pages (when I thought it would be 50-60). I hope you enjoy. :)
I complimented Sarilis on the stew after I'd observed the dwarf eating away at what he'd taken from the pot; only then had I followed suit. It was the first warm meal I had had in weeks, rich in some animal fat and plenty of mushy root vegetables, the meat tender and melting in my mouth. I seemed to cause a bit of a ripple among the men when I helped myself to a second full serving, the bowls already sized to feed Humans such as the fighter in the spiked armor.
Sarilis chuckled. "Oh, I do love a woman with a hearty appetite. And I'll grant the stew is decent. Gavin made it before he left yesterday. I just kept it warm with a spell."
I looked toward where the apprentice was deep into his second bowl as well, leaning up against the wall by the fire. He had not joined us at the heavy wooden table, had said nothing, and looked up only rarely. I figured he had to be listening, though.
Meanwhile, the big warrior was staring at me from across the table without blinking. He wasn't the only one, of course, but the others I was pretty sure had blinked by now and he was the one who seemed to be trying to engage me in...what? A hypnotic cantrip? A contest?
I finally looked over at him, took a mouthful of stew, pulled the wooden spoon slowly from between my lips, chewed deliberately and swallowed. His dark eyes flicked down to my throat and lips as they moved but then back up to my eyes. I winked, and he finally blinked, which drew a smile from me.
He scowled blackly at me, lifting a nostril in a snarl. "So what is a 'Red Sister'?"
"On to business already, Kurn?" Sarilis sighed before looking over at me. "Shall I, my dear?"
I nodded once. "You shall."
I wanted to hear what he had to say about the Red Sisters. What exactly had Rausery told him?
"Start with what she is," Mathias interrupted, sitting two chairs over, on my side of the table.
"She's en elf, ya idiot," the dwarf, Rithal, grumbled, squinting at me from the far end. "Just never seen the colorin' before."
"An elf," Castis repeated, who I'd since realized was not only a mage, but possibly of the same origin as Kurn, as there were little hints in the symbols within their dress that suggested it. He glanced at his big brother, looking doubtful, but interestingly, Kurn nodded once in confirmation.
"Like in the stories," the large man rumbled. "We just didn't call it that."
"What did we call it?"
Kurn leaned over and whispered something in their native tongue.
Castis's brows rose up high and he looked at me again. Meanwhile, I kept my breath even, face placid, and my body relaxed. What was that supposed to mean? Not only that, but it was strange. How was it that the warrior actually knew more than the mage, especially on the topic of the legends of their own people?
"Elves. The long-lived ones in hidin'," Rithal continued, looking at Mathias. "Don't see 'em very often but they don't age, if ya even chance to see the same one twice in yer life."
The fire-haired dwarf made it sound as though that pertained to the elves he knew of—the pale ones of the Surface. It happened to suit the Drow, too, but...
"It's like they're waitin' for something," Rithal smiled at me. "Are ya? Waitin'?"
I lifted a brow and said in my best Court voice, "Only if there are after-dinner sweets."
I was almost certain that I heard Gavin stifle a snort over by the wall, though no one looked at him.
Sarilis was leaning back in his chair and looking rather bored. Eventually, Kurn remembered to ask him again, "So what's a Red Sister?"
The Necromancer seemed very happy at last to be remembered and straightened up as much as his decrepit frame allowed. "Why, a lady warrior, Kurn. I daresay a match for you. What she lacks in size and brute force, she surpasses in wit and speed. They are trained by their own kind—the dark elves—to carry out any task, at any cost. We are very fortunate that she has answered my summons."
"I don't want an unknown like this in my group," the big man growled, already looking insulted the moment Sarilis suggested I could match him. "I wager you don't even know her real motive for being here."
I noted that both the dwarf and Mathias each seemed surprised—maybe annoyed—that Kurn had claimed ownership of "the group."
"I had planned to ask in due time, my suspicious Hellhound. Timing is everything." Sarilis chortled, turning to me. "Second things second, my dear, now that our bellies are full. How is my old flame, Rausery? It has been so long since she graced my humble dwelling. Does she still make five corpses for every one of any other mercenary?"
The old mage was verbally agile, I had to grant him that. In two exchanges, he had confirmed he knew my Elder's name, implied an intimacy that was likely fabricated, had claimed credit for my being here, indirectly insulted the "Hellhound's" martial prowess, set me up as a rival leader for an already motley band, and laid the expectation for how many I would kill in a battle to be akin to his boasts about Red Sisters in general.
Pretty damned efficient. No wonder Rausery had seen fit to bargain with him; he thought like a Drow Noble sitting at Court. Yet... he would die so soon, even if he didn't meet a blade in the throat as he was supposed to do. It implied a speed of learning each year that almost seemed impossible for a race so short-lived.
Or maybe we learned at similar rates with similar experience...but the "dark elves" just spent more time waiting for the opportune moment. As did the pale elves, if I took the dwarf's words at face value. By contrast, if one did not expect to live long, there would seem little advantage to waiting to act, wouldn't there?
Maybe impatience was the major force that pushed the Human race. As Rausery had implied, they feel passing each year much more acutely, more urgent, in a way I would never fully understand.
"She speaks well of your wit, Sarilis," I said with Noble grace that came naturally after spending my young breeding years at Court. "She regrets not being able to answer the summons herself."
Sarilis's eyes glinted in amusement and intrigue. My granting credit to both his claims in front of the others pleased him very much and it sent a clear message: I was willing to play the game. I could expect a much more revealing discussion at a later point. His gaze all but promised it.
"And are you as...accommodating?" he asked, leaning toward me with a wave of one blue-veined hand. "I knew her to use the power of her unparalleled beauty well to her advantage...especially under moonlight. The... release... being part of the magic and mystique of the Red Sisters, as I understood it. Ahh, to be even twenty years younger!"
Had Rausery not warned me about the impotent sorcerer's penchant for making innuendo, or about the dangers of attempting to control other races through lust, I may have been surprised enough to doubt their previous relationship. As it was, I took it as a sleight-of-hand probing of boundaries, and figured he likely had once spied on Rausery pleasuring herself in that self-same Moonlight, based on what I already knew.
I caught the look on the faces of each man there, however, and I recognized it. It was the same as when many Noble Matrons gazed at a Consort, or even just a possibly available, handsome courtesan. Intentionally or not, thanks to Sarilis, all males at the table had just imagined me to have a real pussy between my thighs. Like it or not—and I didn't, really—the Necromancer was well versed in manipulating his current crowd of mercs. He was playing both sides.
But playing his cards a bit too quickly, in my opinion. That impatience again, I supposed.
I took another bite of stew; the men were too quiet, a few pairs of lips twitching in half-drawn smiles or sneers, for me not to think they were taking Sarilis seriously in his suggestion. There was no answer I could give that would not seem like either a challenge to play harder, or a promise of future "accommodation." What had Rausery said? Best to ignore the words, certainly if there were no actions to go with it.
"Rausery led you before, as I understand it," I said. "I trust I shall do the same on this task? Of course I am trained and capable."
That got Kurn's attention fast. He leaned forward, his gauntleted hand tightening into a fist atop the table. "You shan't. Castis and I will not take orders from a short, black witch that slinks in expecting us to fall to our knees at a flick of her wrist."
As far as I knew, I had set no such expectation. I had always loved assumptions, but as D'Shea had proven, I had to be careful about which ones I revealed. They could tell one so much about what another knew...or *thought* they knew.
I smiled. "And what are your strengths? Further, what was a 'Hellhound'?"
Sarilis cackled in delight, bringing his fingertips together. "An elite fighting unit of the Ma'ab. I believe they may have similar function to the Red Sisters, my dear."
The Necromancer was watching me far too intently for me to dare to give an honest reaction. That was a certain surprise and revealed more of the danger to me. I would not know whether this specific, Human man would know anything true of the Drow Priestess his kind had captured a hundred years ago, but somehow based on his responses to me so far, he likely knew rumors at least.
What was it he had just said? *Like in the stories. We just didn't call it that.* What did he call it, then? The "dark sorceress"? Or maybe the Common equivalent...black witch.
Just as important as what they might already know—or believed they knew—of Drow, there was the question of what two Ma'ab were doing here in the first place?
I turned back to Kurn and Castis, noting more about their features in case something might prove distinctive should I lay eyes on any more of their race. I smiled a bit and nodded. "I see."
"You likely do not," Castis spoke up. It was a little harder for me to tell, but I thought perhaps he might be considered the more handsome among his own, or even compared to those others here. There was a lighter balance to his bone structure, more symmetry to his face, and his skin was smoother with fewer blemishes.
"Even whispers of the Hellhounds being sent in ahead of our main forces makes any army of this land quiver," the Ma'ab magician continued as Kurn lifted his chin a bit and straightened his back.
I shrugged. "As you like. Trusted by your high priestess, then. Did she send you here?"
At the risk of displaying my own ignorance, I decided to play that bit hoping for another reaction from the Hellhound, if it was even partly true. What Rausery had said before about the Ma'ab being a bit like us in social structure clashed with his apparent attitude toward female leaders. I wanted to know more why.
Kurn's face tightened up and muscles stood out on his neck as he glared hard at me; it did feel like he was preparing to attack and I was ready to move fast if necessary. "That cunt can dissolve back into the Greylands."
Castis elbowed his big brother to gain his attention, though the tap to the armor did little more than make a noise, but they still exchanged a look, then the mage looked at me instead.
"Winds change, Red Sister," Castis said. "Once that may have been true, but now we have a different mission to restore balance to our race."
I smiled at the smaller man. "Interesting. What would you consider 'restored balance'?"
Ten to one it was simple swapping of the current power roles. Or vengeance without a long-term plan. One of the two.
"The generals will cease being puppets and take their rightful place determining the course of our history," Kurn growled.
I tilted my head. "Not 'contributing' to that course? Generals often know little of trade or agriculture or crafting beyond weapons and temporary structures."
"We need not debate the particulars," Castis said with finality, giving another warning look to the Hellhound, who had to restrain himself before he continued the debate.
I let it go for now, even though I could have pushed farther. The Hellhound would only keep his temper so long. Patience. If such a "unit" did serve a similar function as me and my Sisters...they hadn't learned to keep their mouths shut yet.
Or maybe most of them do, and this one Hellhound was simply tossed out for being too difficult to work with. Of course, my kind would have killed such an errant Sister, not exiled her...or ideally, she would not have made it that far into the elite anyway. We chose and trained accordingly.
The Hellhounds might be a better-than-average fighting force, but I doubted they had even half our qualities as Red Sisters. Sarilis had told me the difference almost immediately, I recalled, in so many words: size and brute force versus wit and speed.
Or, again...that was the difference between Kurn and me in particular, if not for the Hellhounds as a group.
I spent the time finishing up my stew and considering why Sarilis would set us up in opposing challenge so blatantly? If I didn't know better, the Necromancer seemed a little disappointed as the talking stopped. Or maybe he was disappointed that nothing of real interest had happened at his table, just a little posturing largely because I would only play along so much.
Maybe if he was thinking of Rausery...yes, the Elder may have done something physical by now to establish a proper hierarchy when confronted with someone like the Hellhound. But I wasn't Rausery, and I wasn't going to get into unnecessary fights for dominance with a snarling dog letting slip plenty of information on his own. I had my pregnancy to consider, and that wasn't how I worked anyway.
I could almost hear Sarilis taking mental notes of the differences between us; he would want to talk later. I need not do or say anything else to guarantee that.
"So when do we go over the plans?" Mathias asked after a time.
"Tomorrow, sir Mathias," our host answered cordially. "No doubt you are all very tired after your journeys here and you will be leaving again soon enough. Tomorrow."
Understandably, there was some squabbling over sleeping quarters; no fighter wanted to be on anything but the ground floor—or as close to it as possible—and the Necromancer's joke about the wonderful view up the narrow, winding staircase didn't help much.
With a full belly and a fuller day behind me, I would need some rest if I was going to discover more about what was happening here; the earlier, the better, and the fresher I'd be. I took the room my host suggested—fourth floor overlooking the valley—and left the others to pitch the rest. They certainly had a tendency to raise their voices to unnecessary levels.
Sarilis hadn't known I was coming, I was nearly certain, and since no one present had said, "Hey! That's my room!" I figured my chances that the room was free of Drow-specific dangers or traps were pretty good. True, all here knew where I would be, but...that was their risk if they tried to interrupt. I was comfortable with the idea of slipping into reverie before talking with the Necromancer; after all, if he tried something or let something happen as I rested, then he wouldn't get to talk.
And I knew he wanted to. Very much, he did.
While such a scenario was tempting to simply kill him in his own room this night and take off after Tamuril only a half a day ahead of me...I'd been told time and again that Sarilis was crafty and paranoid. His Court-like confidence playing the host playing off his guests was interesting for one living mostly alone as a recluse, with only silent undead and a skulking apprentice for company. I wouldn't have predicted it; I could make no assumptions. I did not think it would be so easy to simply walk up to him and stab him.
I would wait, and I would focus. Forget about catching up to the elf.
The build of the place did feel familiar and...comforting, even though it did not resemble Drow structure at all. Pieces fit well together as a puzzle, but without the obvious magic-forming done to the rock in our own buildings. Each floor made good use of its space even though it would probably take only two handfuls of moments to run across the diameter and the ceilings—while a little low for Humans—were generous for dwarves. The place was dwarven masonry, through and through, but I could note the quality and...admire it?
I shook my head. Kain again. I counted myself lucky that no racial hatred had boiled up out of my control when I had seen the red-blonde Surface dwarf. Instead, I felt only mild curiosity as to why he, like the two Ma'ab, was apart from his own people.
They were no doubt wondering the same about me.
On the second floor, there was a candle burning behind a door a short way down the curved hall. Its light was glaring to my sensitive eyes, though probably more subtle to most Surface dwellers.
Deviating from a path uninvited was certain to draw attention in places like the Drow Wizards' Tower; this place was probably no different, but the fact that I did feel my first ward here drew my curiosity.
I could not remember confronting any ward since Kerse had commanded me to break the one guarding the Illithid's prison. The pain had been intense, and it came back to me now. Considering the high, physical strain that this particular skill put on my body in order to find the dissonant song to break the spell, I knew it wasn't safe to go against a strong ward while I was pregnant. Yet another reason why Red Sisters were sent away to wait it out when a pregnancy happened.
Not that I had chosen that non-luxury at the time.
This one was very weak, though, very simple. I did start down the path toward the candlelight, and I felt right where and what the ward was—it just a suggestion: "You're tired, you want to sleep, go to your room," and it had been erected very recently. Next I heard someone shifting behind the closed door. I focused, unafraid of this particular ward. Yes, I was tired, but I wanted to prove to myself that I could still do it, even on such a light one as this with no real punishment if I failed to follow the suggestion.
I let the ward affect me, resisting the temptation to leave and go to my room to sleep, and I let my body and mind listen to the ward, seeing the arcane runes in my mind that would unravel the protection....
I felt when it broke then stepped forward, and I heard the man inside curse softly as he realized it. I grinned as I wasn't wearing the magical bracers from down below, but just standard ones. I'd done it just one my own. Granted, if even the paranoid Necromancer's wards hadn't been tested better than the Drow tested each other's...then that was one aspect of magical knowledge that might be very weak on the Surface.
"What do you want?" Gavin's voice asked before I had even touched the closed door.
Orrr.... it could be an apprentice still learning his craft.
*Want?* I hadn't thought of a want yet. I mentally shrugged and fell back on my usual. "To ask you a question. Open your door, apprentice. Surely privacy is better."
I'd think of a question by the time I got inside.