05 June 2010

Vaszura Do'Ar, Chapter 1

We've started Fibonacci's new campaign. It's been interesting. My account is a bit long to put into one post, so I'm going to break it up into several. Parts of this were worked out long before the campaign itself started. Really, the campaign starts with the second installment.

My character is a drow assassin, Vaszura Do'Ar. Vaszura means something like "blood exile", and Do'Ar translates to "Walkers in Poison." I actually generated the name "Zura" first then decided I wanted it to correspond to an actual drow name. I really like playing this character. She is in fact a good drow, but she's one who has had to live and work within the main drow society, so she has to be used to thinking like the more common drow do. This results in some curious notions and attitudes. Note: none of the other player characters are present in this part. Here's Chapter 1:

It was with some trepidation that Zura stepped off the boat onto the dock. Monkey Island was about as far from the Underdark as it was possible to get, and she felt a wave of homesickness pass over her. Gone were the dark spires and caverns of her homeland, perhaps never to be seen again. The sky above her was not nearly solid enough, and the light of the cursed sun made it seem more ephemeral still. Though it was certainly warm enough to go without her cloak and headdress, she kept them on. Both helped hide the ebon blackness of her skin. Her face was still visible through the veil, but she hoped the veil’s mottled colors would keep casual onlookers from noticing the color of the skin underneath it. If nothing else, it gave her eyes some additional protection from the cursedly bright sun. Her fellow travelers didn’t seem to mind the brightness, though Zura noticed she wasn’t the only one wearing more clothes than the weather really called for. Everyone has something to hide, she reminded herself.

Most travelers were burdened with various chests and satchels, but Zura had only what she’d been able to fit into her backpack. She could have taken more, only that would have required taking one of her family’s riding lizards to help carry it, and that would only have drawn attention when the beast was reported missing. Her family had been in enough trouble already, and not just because of Zura’s carelessness. She remembered the horrible sinking feeling when she’d had to report to her mother that she had been seen. In a noble family, Xullin’bryn Do’ar would have been considered the matriarch, but it was dangerous for a merchant family to use such a title where others might hear, particularly where the priestesses of Lolth might hear. If Zura had only waited for the signal before moving, her face would not have been seen, and she might still be back with her family in the blessed dark under the earth. But Zura, fresh from her training at the assassins’ school where nearly half the females in her clan had been educated, had been too impatient, too eager to prove herself, and she had moved too soon. Perhaps if nothing else had gone wrong that night, they might have been able to simply silence the two junior priestesses who had seen her, but there had been no time. They’d been lucky to escape with no one killed or, worse, captured. Zura still didn’t know the full extent of what had gone wrong, as she’d had to leave before hearing the full story. Now, she probably never would.

The wooden dock beneath her feet creaked and shifted with every footfall on it. The planks were in sore need of repair. The smell of fish and salt grew stronger the closer Zura got to the island proper, which seemed backwards to her, but she’d noticed the same thing boarding the ship from the mainland: the smell was worst just up from the water. She looked around at the hustle and bustle of the port town whose name she’d forgotten and sighed. There was no mud in the streets of the Underdark, as there was no weather there. She’d heard that a wizard of Menzoberranzan had once summoned a storm over the city to put out a fire that burned the stones themselves, and perhaps then there would have been mud, but there was certainly nothing like the oozing mess now masquerading as the street nearest the docks. There were some inns along that street, but Zura hoped to find one on a street that did not suck at her feet as she tried to walk through it.

The streets did dry out as she got further from the docks, much to Zura’s relief. She found an inn three streets in that seemed to fit her needs. She had seen similar places in the Underdark, though there the inn would be carved out of rock rather than built. Patrons carefully avoided looking too closely at one another, lest they themselves be examined closely, so no one paid any mind when a small lithe figure wrapped from head to toe despite the sunny island climate came in to ask for a room. The innkeeper did give her one quick startled look, but he recovered quickly and went back to looking bored and uninterested as he handed her a key. When Zura got to the door, she wondered why he bothered with keys. The lock seemed ready to fall apart with a gentle tap. She had her own ways of protecting the room, of course, but she wondered if the innkeeper would be grateful or annoyed if she did some work to repair the lock.

She pulled G’eld’s cage out of her backpack before doing anything else. The little spider, barely larger than one of Zura’s hands, had been locked up in it for the whole voyage from the mainland. She skittered out, eager to stretch her legs and hunt down some prey. Zura had learned quickly that surface dwellers feared even a tiny spider such as G’eld, and hadn’t wanted to risk letting her out to hunt on a ship where she did not have private accommodations. She often wondered what surface dwellers would make of the mid-sized spiders that roamed the streets of most drow cities. They ranged in size from a foot across to larger than a house, and she’d even heard stories of some spiders larger than mansions that had created an entire drow city from their calcified webbing. She hadn’t seen it before it burned, but even she found the idea hard to credit.

While G’eld hunted, Zura drew the curtains on the room’s one window, grimacing when that didn’t block out all the accursed light. She pulled the blanket off of the bed to help and nodded in satisfaction. There were still lines of brightness around the very edges, but it was no worse than the light-clocks used to keep track of time in most drow cities. That done, she settled into reverie to pass the time until darkness fell. When the room had darkened noticeably, she came out of reverie, carefully pulled the blanket off the window and opened the curtains. The sky bore the breathtaking mix of colors that meant the sun was not quite gone yet. Zura could think of nothing in the Underdark to match the play of colors in the sky at dawn and dusk, though she thought having to deal with the horrible yellow orb was too steep a price to pay for them. She waited, watching the colors fade into near-blackness. The stars made much better companions than the sun. Now she could go out without feeling like her eyes were going to burn off. After a moment’s hesitation, she left her longsword behind. She hadn’t seen anyone wearing swords in the streets, so wearing hers would probably draw attention. Her hand crossbow was small enough to hide on her back under her cloak, though, and she had four daggers that she was never without. She was more hesitant about the backpack, but finally decided to put G’eld’s cage on it and leave it as well. There was nothing of real value in it, and G’eld’s presence would likely discourage most casual thieves anyway.

Zura headed back to the inn just as she noticed the sky growing light again. She’d spent most of the night just learning the ins and outs of the town, but she’d decided that there were far too many elves in it for her peace of mind. From what she’d gathered, the island was mostly populated by humans and elves, and she’d managed to land in a concentration of her lighter-skinned cousins. Thankfully, between the night and the natural variation in skin tones amongst the islanders, from a distance no one seemed to think Zura’s skin color particularly remarkable. Still, it would take only one elf getting close enough to see both her skin and her ears for Zura to find herself in real trouble. She sighed. Surface elves had driven her people underground and into Lolth’s arms. The first was forgivable, the second decidedly not. Neither side was entirely blameless, though, and unlike most of her kind, Zura held no particular grudge against surface elves, but she certainly didn’t trust them, either. Better to avoid them in case they took it in their head to attack her for being drow. To avoid them, though, she would need to get out of this town, and that meant deciding where to go next.

After spending half the day in reverie and the rest practicing with her knives and sword, Zura headed out into the island night again, hoping to learn of a nearby town that was not overrun by elves. Unfortunately, from what the human residents told her, most of the surrounding area seemed to be elf-territory. Up the river a ways, there was apparently a Capitol city run by some human duke who answered to a king on the mainland, and it had a larger concentration of humans than elves, which would still be an improvement. So far, only two elves had seen Zura for what she really was. The first one’s eyes had widened, but when Zura did nothing more threatening than keep sipping her drink, he’d simply backed away quietly and left her alone. The second had given her a rather nasty glare, to which Zura had responded by letting her face go completely neutral. It was a gamble, as some would see that look as a challenge, but the elf only wheeled around and stalked away, glaring back over his shoulder occasionally.

The bartender, a portly human with a neat mustache, had smiled faintly, probably relieved there wouldn’t be a fight. “If you went to the Banana Festival,” he told her, “No one would think twice if you covered your face. Monkey masks, banana masks, I’ve even seen some people dressing up like bits of the jungle.”

“What makes you think I need to hide my face?” Zura asked. She didn’t wear the veil at night, though she did wear the part of the headdress that hid her ears. Anyone seeing black skin and elven features would draw the obvious conclusion. Mostly people had either not noticed or not cared.

The bartender just winked at her. Zura took another sip and asked him to tell her more about the festival. It was apparently a celebration of Monkey culture, only it was apparently a celebration by humans and for humans, which seemed odd. “Do the Monkeys participate?” Zura asked.

“Oh, some do. The ones that live in towns, anyways. I hear the wilder ones won’t come in t’town until it’s over, though. Not that t’wild ones come in much anyways. Biggest celebration’ll be up in ‘e Capitol, o’course. People go plum wild there.” He continued describing the festivities while Zura listened bemusedly. The more she heard, the more she thought it sounded like a celebration based on what people thought Monkey culture was like, rather than on actual Monkey culture. No wonder Monkeys preferred to avoid it. Still, she was curious about the Monkeys, and seeing what people generally thought about Monkey culture could be a useful first step to learning about them. She could have chosen any small enough island to avoid the Underdark, but she’d chosen this one specifically because the stories of Monkeys had intrigued her. She hadn’t seen any in the streets here, but the bartender assured here there were more in the Capitol. “Not too fond o’port towns,” he explained. “Too far from ‘e jungle.” Zura nodded, thinking it sounded rather like drow and the caverns of the Underdark. The bartender kept regaling her with stories, both of the Monkeys and the Festival, until she’d finished her drink and was ready to go. She doubted any of them were entirely true, though she suspected that the most repeated themes were probably accurate.

She stepped out of the bar back into a narrow, poorly lit street. The best kind, in her opinion. There weren’t many others about, as it was getting late by surface reckoning. Silly surface folk and their fear of the dark. As she walked, debating where to head next, a small wiry figure in a dark cloak fell in beside her. “Vendui,” the man said in horribly accented drow as he pressed two fingers to his lips. Zura barely stopped herself from running. Had Lolth’s priestesses managed to track her even to this island? But, no. He’d clearly only seen the word written down, or he would have known how to pronounce it. “Vendui,” she responded, carefully overemphasizing the correct pronunciation. Though there was no need to make it a formal greeting, she also touched her lips and waited to see what he would do next. She mentally checked the location of her daggers, knowing she wouldn’t have time to get to the crossbow on her back.

“I've been watching you,” he said after a moment, “and I've been reading about the Drow. This is a long way from the Underdark.”

“Yes,” Zura agreed, “It is. That’s sort of the point.” One of her hands moved nearer a dagger, but she didn’t try to grab it just yet.

The wiry man nodded. “If you’re staying on the island for a while, you'll want employment. It's easy enough to find work as a dock hand, but I might have something more...interesting.”

Zura blinked for a moment, trying to figure out why a human would reveal he knew she was drow in order to offer her a job. Either he thought a drow’s abilities might be useful, or he thought he could blackmail her. She responded cautiously. “Indeed? I had hoped to find work as a guard, not a dockhand. Does your job involve guarding ... something?”

“Guarding? Not at the moment, although good body guards are hard to find. What I want is someone who can move discretely, gather information, and then obtain a certain item. Preferably without killing anyone who will be missed.”

“Interesting,” Zura said, but mention of killing raised her adrenalin level still higher. Had he also identified her as an Assassin, trained in the ways of manipulating Shadow? She kept her worries carefully hidden. “I take it you don't want the other Houses finding out about your operation. Do you work for a House or are you also in exile?” He carried himself with the easy grace of a noble, and having information to use against him would be useful. Strangely, though, the question seemed to amuse him.

“I'd have to say neither,” he said, not quite grinning.

Once again, Zura blinked at him. Though her family were merchants and mainly dealt in poisons, there were those in the great Houses who knew that many of the Do’Ar family were trained as assassins and sought them out for those talents. Any who learned too much were summarily eliminated, of course. But it was rare, very rare, for someone not connected to one of the great Houses to seek such talents, rarer still to do it in the open air like this. “In drow society, those are the only possibilities,” she said, not quite truthfully, but close enough. “Is surface culture really so different, then?”

“There's no one surface culture. On this island, things are very much clan-based if that's what you mean. But I was just being cryptic. It's better for both of us if you don't know who I'm working for.”

“Ah. This I understand.” It still seemed odd to deny connection to any House, but refusing to identify which House was a common part of the Game. If this human were more skilled in the Game, he would have given her the name of a rival House to try and cause trouble for it rather than denying any connection outright. “Very well, what are the risks and benefits to myself if I agree to work for you?”
“The benefits are that I pay well, and if you execute the job successfully it may lead to other jobs. The risk is that if you are caught trying to steal from the Countess De l'Hôpital...well, you aren't important enough to warrant a trial.”

“Trial?” Zura said, surprised again. “What is a trial? Do the heads of houses not simply execute intruders when they are caught?”

“That's precisely what they do...unofficially.” He seemed to be hiding a grin. “I think I like Drow society. It sounds so much more honest.”

“In some respects, perhaps,” Zura said carefully. Honest? Drow? She wondered what he could possibly have been reading to get that impression. No one told the truth unless it was to her advantage or she didn’t expect to be believed. “Your job offer does intrigue me, but before accepting I must ask whether you have any connection to the Spider Queen.” Given his naiveté in certain matters, it seemed unlikely, but she watched his reaction carefully.

“Spider Queen?” he said, sounding genuinely surprised. “I’ve met the Monkey King, but he likely does not remember me.”

“Lolth is the name she takes for herself, and she insinuates herself into every nook of drow society. She would stifle us and have us be nothing more than sophisticated barbarians.”

The man paused for a moment. “Lolth… isn’t that a goddess?” Zura nodded. “If so, I assure you I have no connections to her. Or any deity.”

“Ah, good,” Zura said, letting out a breath she hadn’t realized she was holding. “Nor have I. I do respect Corellon for taking in the drow who wished no longer to be drow, but that was never an option for me.” While Zura understood all too well the desire to be out from under Lolth’s watchful webs, she could not comprehend why any of her kind would leave behind their heritage and birthright: their place in the Underdark. She had had no choice in the matter, but these no-longer-drow did have a choice. It made no sense to her. She looked up when she realized the human was still speaking.

“Religion isn't very widely practiced around here,” he told her, and paused. “Except by the Monkeys, but they worship the spirits of their ancestors.”

Zura tried to picture this. “Do the spirits actually appear?”

He shrugged. “I’ve heard stories about what happens deep in the jungles that make the blood run cold. And the Monkeys don't let outsiders into their temples, so who knows. Also, there are Monkeys and then there are Monkeys. They don't all wear clothing and run fruit stands.”

Zura nodded vaguely. “I’m afraid I’ve drifted from your job proposal. I would like more details before I decide. How much more can you tell me?”

“The Countess will go to the Capitol for the Banana Festival. All the heads of houses are there, and much business is conducted, both openly and behind closed doors. I have information, very privileged information, that the L'Hôpital estate has been suffering financially for some time, and the Countess is desperate for money. I have heard that she intends to sell an object of great value. I want to know who she's selling it to, why it's such a secret, and I want the object.”

“I take it that I will not know what this object is beforehand... How much time will I have to study the household and its habits?”

“The festival starts in eight days and goes on for a week. I don't yet know when or where the transaction is to take place, but I will contact you as soon as I do.”

Zura hid an eager smile. This was the kind of job she’d trained for. Normally she’d be expected to assassinate someone in the process, but it was still a chance to put her hard-won skills to use. “Very well,” she said, pretending indifference. “This job intrigues me, and I was interested to see more of Monkey culture anyway. I will agree to aid you in this for suitable compensation.”

It was instantly clear that neither of them was much good at haggling. The human offered her 200 gold. She considered a moment and asked for 400 instead. Shrugging indifferently, the human suggested 360, and Zura accepted. “With 90 in advance. I’ll need a few more supplies.” He handed over the coins without argument. Zura looked at him thoughtfully. “You give me this money with no specific instructions for contacting you again, beyond travel to the Capitol?” It was a strangely trusting thing to do. If he’d really been reading about the drow, his source had to be woefully inaccurate in many respects.

“If I've misjudged your interest in the job, the loss is my own fault. I'll look for you in the marketplace, at this time of night.”

“Curious,” Zura said, “But acceptable.” She looked at him a moment longer before saying, “Vedaust,” and bowing slightly. “I will look for you in the Capitol.”

“Vedaust,” he responded, pronouncing the farewell marginally better than he had the greeting, and then he turned and headed towards the docks. For a moment she considered trying to follow him, but there were rooftops and alleys all around her, and it seemed unlikely he would have approached her without someone keeping a close eye on things, likely someone with a crossbow. There were other ways of finding more information, especially here near the taverns. After waiting a few moments to make it clear to any unseen watchers that she was not trying to follow, she headed the same way towards a more disreputable tavern she’d passed on the way to this one. Thankfully it, too, was frequented mostly by humans. The reputable one was a better place for acquiring aboveboard, easily available information. Disreputable ones, however, were better if you needed underhanded, hard to come by information.

This place was about as disreputable as a place could get and still run something resembling a genuine, legal business. It was dim, smoky, and crowded inside. It was not as loud as might be expected for the crowd, likely because most of the discussions were about things not meant for other ears. Zura wasn’t interested in any of the groups. Instead she found a quiet, shadowed alcove and began looking around. In most places like this one, there would be a watcher sitting on the edges, where he could see all the comings and goings. She spotted a likely candidate sitting by himself in a dark corner, much like the alcove Zura had chosen. He seemed slightly out of place here, as he was older than most of the crowd. At first glance, Zura thought him frail due to his skeletal appearance, but then she noticed that he sat with his back ramrod straight and that he held himself with an air of confidence and strength. His red cloak pooled around his chair, probably picking up every bit of muck and dust on the floor. A simple silver brooch held the cloak in place. The clothing visible underneath the cloak was fine and in very good repair. Though he seemed lost in thought, Zura could tell that he was keeping a close eye on the other patrons, as if watching for anyone who might be paying attention to him. So far as Zura could tell, he hadn’t noticed her yet. She watched him for a few more moments. When no one else approached him, she cautiously moved out of the shadows and walked toward his table. His eyes were on her almost instantly. She couldn’t read his expression, but she thought he was waiting for her to speak. “I’m trying to find information about a human who approached me tonight,” she said. “Shall I continue or leave you in peace?”

“Continue,” he said, giving her a disdainful look. “I am unconscionably bored.”

“He is short and wiry with grey hair, and a curious sense of humor, and tonight he was dressed entirely in black, but I suspect this is common for him.”

“I can think of someone who might fit that description. He buys and sells information.”

“Curious. Where do his loyalties lie?”

“I’ve no idea, except to say that the word ‘confidential’ to him means ‘worth a higher price.’” Zura opened her mouth to respond, but then she caught an almost familiar gleam in the man’s eye. He was playing her, manipulating the conversation to some end of his own. Well, two could play that game. First to find out if he really knew her mysterious man-in-black.

Zura nodded. “Sounds like my kind of person. What can you tell me about his pronounced limp?”

For a moment, the man in red seemed inordinately puzzled, then he stood abruptly. “I've really never seen him that close. But I must be going. Affairs of, ah, things to do. Good day.” He began hurrying through the crowd to the door, looking back frequently to see if Zura was following. She gave him enough of a head start that the crowd might be able to hide her and did just that. He seemed to notice her anyway and quickened his pace. As she exited the tavern, she caught a glimpse of him turning down an alley and raced to follow, but she was too late. There was no visible sign of him as she rounded the corner. She hid herself in a shadow and waited for a few more minutes before deciding she’d well and truly lost him. She muttered drow curses under her breath and headed back out of the alley. She had no idea who the man in red had been, but the name Rhyl’mur’ss, “shadow spy,” suited him. His reaction suggested he did know the man in black, but Zura didn’t think she could trust anything the man had actually said.

The encounter made Zura even more anxious to get out of the port city. Something about the man in the red cloak unsettled her. She first put her advance to good use procuring lockpicks, footpads and camouflaged clothing, and then began looking for the best way to get to the Capitol. Naturally, the boats that carried passengers up the river only ran during the day. She found one that had cabins, at least, so she could spend the day in Reverie, away from the horrible brightness. It was slightly more expensive, but worth it she decided, especially for a journey that would take a full week. The Banana Festival would already be in full swing when she arrived. There were hints of the festivities even on the boat, and Zura watched curiously as otherwise sane-seeming people walked around in an odd gait apparently supposed to resemble the way monkeys walked and called to each other using strange whoops and howls. By comparison, the few actual Monkeys Zura saw on the riverbank seemed calm and serene.

That impression was only magnified when she saw the actual Festival in progress in the Capitol. People walked around dressed as bananas, trees, monkeys, and a few in costumes made to look like the statue Zura had glimpsed from the ship that had brought her to the island. It was probably supposed to look like a Monkey, but everything had been made with sharp angles, so it was hard to tell. On its stomach had been a curious shape. She hadn’t sensed anything magical about it, but that sort of magic wasn’t really her strong suit anyway. The costumes didn’t quite manage to get the angles right, but they were at least recognizable, which was more than Zura could say for many of the costumes. It was clearer when they wore only a fake monkey tail and ears, but somehow that seemed even less dignified to Zura’s sensibilities, perhaps because the wearer’s face was clearly visible. After walking around for a while, Zura realized she wasn’t the only one eyeing the reveler’s antics askance. When no one was watching, so did many of the Monkey residents. They smiled genially when they knew someone was watching but they didn’t always notice Zura standing in the shadows, and then she often saw weariness when they dropped their genial façade. She supposed she’d feel the same way about a Drow Festival where surface-dwellers painted their skin black and dressed up like spiders.

She’d been in the Capitol only one night when her contact approached her again. On a dark side street, he suddenly fell in beside her as she walked. It startled her less this time, though she still made sure she could reach all her daggers. “I know where the transaction is to take place,” he said by way of greeting. Zura nodded and listened. “The duke is having a ball two nights from now. The Countess De l'Hôpital will attend, and she plans to meet with her buyer in a tower bedroom. I happen to know that there’s a secret passage leading out of this room down to the servants’ halls.” Zura was curious but knew better than to ask where he’d gotten this information. She asked for more information about the layout, but that seemed to be it. One public staircase and one secret staircase, and a window, barred of course.

“If I’m up there alone, I’m going to need some way to create a distraction,” Zura said.

Her contact grinned. “Oh, there will be plenty of distraction later on. I’ll see to that. But it may or may not spread to the upper floors.”

“No, I mean up in the room. Something like… a noisemaker to draw people’s attention or a smokescreen to cover my escape.” As a drow, she could cast a cloud of darkness around her, but it didn’t last very long. She thought she might need more than that to pull this off.

If anything his grin grew wider. “Oh? I think I have just the things.” He pulled out some strange looking canisters. Four of them were black cylinders. Two were double red cylinders. All had a curious metal ring at the top, and were small enough to fit comfortably in one of Zura’s hands. “This,” he said, gesturing toward the black canisters, “is a smoke bomb. It blocks line of sight and will spread out to cover an area 35 square feet in about 24 seconds. After that it begins to dissipate. Be careful that you don’t breathe in the smoke, though. This one,” he gestured with the hand holding the red canisters, “is called a flash-bang, and it does just that. It will blind and deafen most opponents for a good long while. Both work the same way. Just pull the pin and throw it where you want to go.” He handed the canisters to her. Zura wondered what other interesting devices he might just happen to have with him, but decided not to ask. He hadn’t told her his name, but she decided Belhrys, fire-starter, suited him, and she told him so. The name seemed to amuse him. “Anything else you might need to know?”

“Is it possible for me to get into this duke’s palace and scout the area beforehand?”

“Yes. During the festival there are so many comings and goings that you shouldn’t have any problems.”

Zura nodded. “And once I have the object, how do I find you again?”

“Oh, you don’t need to worry about that. I’ll find you. I might find you more quickly if you head straight out from the servants entrance when you’re done.”

Zura nodded and smiled inwardly. She found she was looking forward to the challenge. Belhrys took off into the crowd again, vanishing as quickly as he’d appeared. She let the smile appear on her face once he was gone. There was something comforting about his presence. Just as she’d felt an instant dislike for Rhyl’mur’ss, she felt an instant liking for Belhrys. She wasn’t foolish enough to trust him, of course, and she wondered how far he really trusted her. She could try to keep the object for herself. If it was worth paying to steal, it would probably sell for a fairly high price. Unfortunately, Belhrys was her only contact on the island and he had demonstrated twice that he had no trouble whatsoever locating her whenever he felt like it. Besides, he had done nothing to earn such a betrayal. Unlike most drow, the Do’Ar clan preferred to have a reason to betray someone.

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