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Tabula Avatar Chapter 58

At long last here is the next chapter of ‘Tabula Avatar’. It’s taken me a lot longer to write this chapter than I expected; it was December 27th when the previous chapter went up! Sorry about that. Previous chapters can be found HERE; you might need a refresher after such a long gap.

Summary: AU from some point during Tabula Rasa, when the crystal didn’t get broken but instead fell into the hands of The Trio. They inserted the trapped memories into the computer game ‘Baldur’s Gate 2: Shadows of Amn’ and the Scoobies teamed up with the Bhaalspawn and her companions on a quest that took them into deadly peril.

When we left our heroes Buffy and company were impersonating mercenaries in the drow city of Ust Natha. They are disguised as drow (except for Minsc, who is still human, and Xander, who is disguised as a duergar or dark dwarf) and have all adopted aliases. It should be easy enough to see who the aliases refer to but, just in case of confusion after such a long break, I’ve provided a glossary of the aliases as a footnote.

This chapter is 8,660 words. Rating R for some very strong language.

Tabula Avatar

Chapter Fifty-Eight

“It’s gonna be weird going to a party without my Xander-shaped friend,” Buffy remarked, shooting a sly glance at Xander, “even if he isn’t all that Xander-shaped right now.”

Xander rolled his eyes. “I must have been crazy to go along with this plan. I didn’t want to be five feet tall so I signed up to be four foot three. What the hell was I thinking?”

“You kept your manly breadth of shoulder,” Anya reminded him, “and certain other, more important, attributes. I have no complaints about your present form.”

“But you get to go to the ball and I don’t,” Xander complained. “Oh, well, a dinner party at a Matron Mother’s place probably would be the kind of fun that isn’t.”

“I thought she seemed pretty, well, nice,” said Tara.

“A Matron Mother can survive only by being more ruthless than those around her,” Viconia pointed out. “That she is courteous of manner makes her only the more dangerous.”

Tara sighed. “I guess so. I’ve memorized a couple of Neutralize Poisons just in case.”

“A wise precaution, close friend,” Viconia said, “and one that I have taken also.”

“Look after Tallin, Zander,” Willow requested. “Don’t let him get into any trouble, okay?” A crease appeared on her forehead. “I still don’t get why he ended up as ‘Tallin’. Yeah, I know it’s the capital of Estonia, and ‘Minsk’ is the capital of Belarus, but I don’t get why the Brit contingent kept cracking up when I suggested ‘Tomsk’.”

Grins appeared on the faces of Spike and Giles. “Would have been as bad as ‘Bungo’ or ‘Orinoco’,” Spike said. “A six foot four Womble would just be dead wrong.”

- - - - -

“Welcome to my home,” Evelintra greeted, waving a hand in a gesture of invitation. She was unarmored and her low-cut gown had slits at the side to show off her shapely legs. Gold bracelets, rather than protective bracers, decorated her wrists. A golden amulet at her neck dangled down into a cleavage that managed to be quite impressive even without the assistance of an Earth-style bra.

“Hi,” Buffy said, as she walked past the armored doorman and into the home of the Matron Mother of House Zaughym. She pouted slightly. Evelintra’s gown, of dove gray silk shot through with golden threads, was gorgeous. Buffy had done a little shopping in Ust Natha, and the silk shirt that she was wearing had been chosen for looks rather than practicality, but it wasn’t in the same class as Evelintra’s apparel and Buffy felt somewhat at a disadvantage. The rest of the party, led by Sorkatani, filed in after Buffy; until Spike reached the door.

The vampire hit an invisible barrier and bounced back. He collided with Jaheira, knocked her from her feet, and only a fast grab by Giles saved her from falling down the short flight of steps that led up to Evelintra’s door.

“Sodding buggering damn!” Spike swore. “You okay, Jhaelirae? Sorry about that.”

“I am, thanks to Gelfein,” Jaheira answered. She stared at the doorway, her eyes narrowed, and she opened her mouth to speak.

Giles beat her to it. “I take it you forgot about the invite rule, ah, Urlzaqh?”

“Yeah,” Spike admitted. “Thought the dinner invitation would have covered it.” He shook his head. “I don’t get it. Some places I can waltz into with no invite, even when I’m bloody sure the owner wouldn’t want me there and I’m going to kill the git once I’m in, but here I go smack into the barrier and get clobbered. Doesn’t bloody add up.”

“There do seem to be certain… inconsistencies,” Giles agreed. He remembered the occasion on which Spike had walked unhindered into the house belonging to the Slaver bosses; the invite rule should have been in operation then, if it worked in the same fashion as it did on Earth, and so there had to have been some factor in operation of which they were unaware. Before he could ask Spike about any other instances Giles saw Evelintra at the door and decided to postpone the discussion until another time.

“My apologies, Urlzaqh, it seems that I did not make myself sufficiently clear,” the Matron Mother said. “Of course you are included in the invitation. Come in, please.”

Spike raised an eyebrow at Giles, shrugged, and entered the house to join the others.

Evelintra led the way to a chamber where a dozen drow guests were sitting or standing, most with wine glasses in their hands, and she introduced the newcomers as they filed in. “The renowned members of the Flickering Flame warrior society,” Evelintra announced. “Dynefryn, Qilafae, Veldrin, Jhaelirae, Micar’lae, Gelfein, Urlzaqh the vampire,” she paused, “and I’m afraid I didn’t catch the names of the other members of your group. Forgive me.”

“I’m Auniira,” Anya introduced herself.

“Dhaunae,” Dawn added. “Qilafae’s sister.”

“Iimzyne,” said Imoen. She had seized an opportunity to get a proper haircut, repairing the damage that had been done to her hair during her captivity, and she wore the low-cut gown that she had purchased in Brynlaw. “I’m Dynefryn’s sister.”

“And I’m Vyll’ae,” Willow completed the introductions. A slight crease in her brow and her protruding lower lip gave away her irritation at not being one of those party members who had been recognized without prompting. She had set aside her Robe of the Good Archmagi, in case it was recognized as an extremely inappropriate garment for a drow, and she wore a locally-purchased dress. It wasn’t in the same class as Evelintra’s gown, or the silk dress that Tara wore, and clothes envy made her pout even more prominent.

Evelintra dipped her head in acknowledgement and turned to perform introductions in the other direction. “This is Talabrae,” she began, “and Chaldiira,” she went on, gesturing in the direction of a woman of her own age who was heavily pregnant, “my sister-in-law Vlondril, and my niece Akorynrae.” The last named was a girl of about the same apparent age as Dawn, rail slim, whose hair was shaved away at the sides of her head. Her upper lip was curled into a sneer.

“Hi,” Dawn greeted her contemporary, giving her a wide smile.

The drow girl’s lip twitched upward in the start of an answering smile. “Hi,” she replied, sounding almost startled, and then dipped her head and adopted the sneer once more.

Evelintra went on to introduce her male dinner guests. “Angloth, Relonatar, Szindear, and my brother Tebaonar.” Buffy felt her eyes beginning to glaze over. She’d never remember all the names and she just hoped that there wouldn’t be a test later.

Evelintra indicated a pair of young males, teenagers in human terms, who were in close proximity to her niece. “My nephew Geldiirn, and Akorynrae’s boyfriend Krendorl.” Geldiirn wore his hair in a similar semi-Mohawk style to his sister, although shorter, and his eyes were trained on Dawn with open admiration evident in his expression. “You have, of course, already met Zaknal’dor,” Evelintra continued, pointing to the young male who had fought in the arena and been healed of a dreadful injury by Tara and Jaheira, “and Solaufein.”

“And wasn’t that an experience that was a whole lot of not fun?” Buffy muttered, glaring at the drow warrior. Her glare grew even more intense when Evelintra guided everyone to their seats for the meal and Buffy discovered that she had been placed next to Solaufein.

- - - - -

“It’s disgusting,” said the drow male. “Only a complete slut would fuck a slave.”

“Or someone who is so shit in bed that no drow would fuck her twice,” a second drow male added.

Xander gritted his teeth, stared at his plate, and tried to pretend that he hadn’t heard.

“Three of the females are filthy perverts,” said a third male. “The one who is screwing the duergar is bad enough but the two whores who are fucking the enormous human oaf are even worse. Their slits are probably so stretched that a normal male wouldn’t even touch the sides.”

Minsc’s head swiveled like the gun turret of a Main Battle Tank and he aimed an icy gaze at the drow males. “You insult my witches. You need to be taught a lesson in manners by the application of a very large boot to your backsides.”

Xander groaned and, with some difficulty, restrained himself from head-butting his plate of rothé steak and mushrooms. He estimated that his chance of being able to obey Willow’s instruction to ‘keep Minsc out of trouble’ was now one in ten million at best.

- - - - -

A svirfneblin slave turned away from the table after setting down a dish of food in front of Jaheira. He bumped into another passing slave, his serving tray tipped, and the laden plate intended for Giles slipped from the tray and crashed down upon the floor.

Buffy clenched her teeth to keep herself from audibly or visibly wincing. She had seen what happened to slaves who screwed up in this city. If Evelintra killed the slave on the spot then the gnome would be getting off lightly.

“I crave pardon for my clumsiness, Matron Mother,” the slave said, bowing deeply.

“Granted,” said Evelintra. “It was not entirely your fault. Clean up the mess at once. Once you have done so then fetch another serving for my guest. You will make amends for your error with extra dish-washing duties after the meal.”

“Of course, Matron Mother,” said the gnome. “I must fetch cloths for the cleaning.”

“Do so,” Evelintra said. “At once, that our guests are not kept waiting.” The gnome bowed deeply and scurried off. Evelintra turned to Giles. “Your pardon, Gelfein, your food will be delayed slightly.”

“That’s quite all right, Matron Mother,” Giles said. He fought to keep his eyebrows down but was unable to prevent them from creeping upwards. Viconia wasn’t even trying to conceal her astonishment and her mouth was hanging open.

“You are surprised at my lenience?” Evelintra arched an eyebrow and smiled. “Others may slay slaves for the slightest mistake or misdemeanor. I cannot afford to follow their example. Replacements aren’t cheap.” Her smile grew wider. “I have found that there are other advantages. My servants can learn from their mistakes. Such mishaps as you have just observed happen less frequently than in other Houses.”

“There is logic behind your actions,” Viconia conceded, “but it is not the custom.”

“My House, my customs,” said Evelintra, shrugging. “I would not hesitate to slay a slave whose error stemmed from malevolence but a simple accident, or an honest mistake, in my eyes warrants only minor punishment.” She focused a sharp gaze on Viconia. “Do you of the Flickering Flame not treat your own slaves just as well, or better?”

“True,” Viconia admitted, “but we are well aware that we are unusual in that respect.”

“Unusual, but not unique,” said Evelintra. “Some see my attitude as a sign of weakness. I don’t agree, I think that it is only good sense, but I have been able to persuade only a few to see things my way.” She waved a hand in a gesture encompassing the guests who sat around the long table. “Almost all of whom are here now.”

“I must admit that I was dubious at first,” put in Talabrae. “I thought it possible that discipline amongst the slaves would break down to the point of mutiny.” She was older and thinner than Evelintra, with a much flatter chest, but she still seemed to ooze sexuality. A multitude of miniature rings adorned her ears and her wrists were bedecked with a dozen slim gold bangles. “I was pleasantly surprised. Even though now I order executions only for offences where there is malicious intent, or when the wrongdoer attempts to conceal his mistakes, and floggings only when the offender is willfully negligent, discipline has not suffered appreciably. Household expenses have dropped by thirty-eight per cent and productivity has risen.”

“As I told you it would,” said Evelintra. She turned to face Spike. “I am afraid that from your point of view, Urlzaqh, my unconventional attitude has a drawback. I have no malefactors, or expendable slaves, to feed to you. I apologize for my failings as a hostess and I hope that you will not be too discontented with having to make do with wine.”

“What, don’t I get any of that fish?” Spike cocked his head to one side and quirked his scarred eyebrow upward. “Looks right tasty. Even without chips, salt, and vinegar.”

“You eat normal food?” Evelintra’s eyes widened.

“Doesn’t do a lot for me as food,” Spike said, “but that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy it.”

“Oh. Your pardon.” Evelintra raised her hands and clapped them together. “Servants, bring another plate of fish for our guest Urlzaqh.”

“At once, Matron Mother,” said the closest slave, and he hastened to obey.

Buffy suddenly realized that an invitation to dinner with any Matron Mother other than Evelintra, and perhaps Talabrae, would indeed have resulted in a hapless slave being dragged in and served up to Spike as a Happy Meal on legs. She smothered a gasp of horror at the thought, sensed eyes turning toward her, and hastily snatched up her goblet of wine and drank.

Oops, big mistake. Well, not completely a mistake, maybe, ‘cause if there had been anything odd about her expression the choking and coughing would hide it pretty well, but this was so not the way to look smooth and sophisticated at a dinner party. Buffy had expected the drow Morimatra wine to be, well, smooth and sophisticated. Nope. It was rough, raw, and flavored with fiery spices. It was like swallowing a porcupine. Alive.

- - - - -

Xander took up his position in the dueling arena. Great, just freaking great. ‘Don’t let Minsc get into any trouble’. Yeah, right. Now they were in a cage match to the death against four drow guys.

It had to be a set-up. The drow weren’t any that he’d seen before, or not that he could remember, but their House Auvrindar insignia was a dead give-away that this wasn’t just a random bunch of guys who didn’t like humans or duergar. It was payback for Buffy and Sorkatani terminating the House Auvrindar weapon master and priestess.

It seemed a pretty dumb plan to Xander. Even if these guys were sure that they could kill him and Minsc he couldn’t see what the drow thought they were gaining. They had to know that Sorkatani and Buffy would just kill them right after. Unless they thought that killing slaves wouldn’t bring any retaliation but, hey, if they didn’t think it would matter to the two leaders they wouldn’t be doing it anyway.

Not that Xander was going to give them the chance to carry out Stage One of the Evil Vengeance Plan ™. He hadn’t seen these drow fight but he’d seen their House weapon master in action, twice if you counted the single second that it had taken Sorkatani to slice the guy in half, and the late Lasaonar had been supposed to be the best fighter in House Auvrindar. He’d been pretty good, yeah, but Xander wouldn’t have backed down from taking the guy on. The current four, against Xander and Minsc together, shouldn’t be too much of a problem. Xander might be dwarf-size right now, and his two-handed sword Flame of the North was way too big to handle, but he had acquired Lasaonar’s Blade of Searing bastard sword and, at this size, it made a pretty good substitute.

“Evil, meet my sword,” Minsc rumbled, as he reached back to take hold of Lilarcor’s hilt.

One of the drow males held up a hand. His mouth was twisted in a sneer. “Hold, giant. You have forgotten something crucial.” The sneer turned into a sardonic grin. “A slave who draws steel against a drow is executed. If you touch the sword you seal your fate.”

“What!” Xander gaped. “You have to be kidding. We’re in a freaking death match here and you think we won’t use our swords?”

“If you use them, you die,” the drow said. He turned to face the arena master who stood on the platform overlooking the cage. “Is that not so, Sondal?”

“It is,” the Master of Ceremonies confirmed. He hefted a crossbow. “It will be my duty to shoot you down if you break the law, slaves. I hope that it does not come to that. I’d rather not have Dynefryn annoyed at me. It is bad enough that she will undoubtedly spray me with the blood of these fools without giving her an excuse to do anything worse.”

“She will do nothing,” said one of the drow fighters. “When we leave here we set off at once to join the troops fighting the elves.” He drew a slim rapier. “First, a human and a dwarf as a warm-up.”

“We cannot use our swords? That is unfair,” Minsc said, “but if that is how it must be, then so be it. Evil, meet my boot. Boot, meet Evil!”

Xander raised his fists. “Let’s get ready to rumble.”

“In the name of Lolth,” Sondal called out, “fight!”

- - - - -

Giles bent his head forward and looked at Evelintra over the top of non-existent glasses. “I gather that you do not support this war against the surface elves?”

“It is sheer stupidity,” Evelintra declared. “What do we have to gain? Territory? Hardly. Few of us would wish to live under the sun. Loot? I fail to see how we can win enough to defray the cost of the war. The elves do not have great stores of gold or jewels. Their made goods are inferior to our own, save that their armor and weaponry does not decay in the rays of the sun, and that is a quality of no relevance except when we are fighting against them. Our troops will have to capture much equipment just to break even. Slaves? Surface elves make terrible slaves. All know this.”

“There is the matter of revenge, I suppose,” Talabrae said, with no great conviction behind her words.

“Revenge? Huh.” Evelintra snorted. “Yes, the surface elves wronged us grievously, but that was thirteen thousand years ago. We have avenged ourselves many times over since then. Also, it was the sun elves who attacked our kinsfolk. The moon elves were neutrals until we foolishly dragged them into the war. The wood elves were our allies in those days. Attacking the wood elves of Suldanessellar on the grounds of revenge makes no sense.”

Viconia raised her eyebrows. “You are familiar with the Secret Histories? I had thought them unknown in this city. When those we met in the tavern told of the founding of Ust Natha they related myths and folk tales as if they were historical fact.”

“The truth is less glorious than the myth,” said Evelintra. “Yet there is much of which we can rightfully be proud.”

“Not including this war,” said Solaufein. “I agree with you that it is at best pointless and at worst dangerously foolish. Ardulace sees advantage only for herself, and House Despana, and cares not that she damages the city in the process.” He fixed his gaze on Buffy. “If you pass on my words to your employers, Qilafae, then so be it. I will not hide my opinions.”

“Hey, I’m not going to go telling tales,” Buffy told him. “I think pretty much the same way as Evelintra.”

Evelintra smiled impishly. “Not in all respects, I think,” she said. “I’d rather fuck than fight.”

“Hey, I like fucking too,” Buffy said. The total lack of any innocuous euphemisms for sexual intercourse in the Drow language made her statement come out a lot more bluntly than she had intended. “Uh, I just like fighting first. It gets me hot.” Buffy saw Willow’s eyebrows going up, Spike’s lips twitching into a smirk, and a wide grin appearing on Dawn’s face. Oops. She hadn’t meant to be so forthcoming; blame it on the Morimatra.

“Your fighting style is unusual and effective,” Solaufein remarked. “Perhaps you would join me in a sparring session at another time?”

Buffy raised her eyebrows. Was that a come-on? Maybe it was. Well, Solaufein was being a lot less of an asshole than when they’d first met, in fact he seemed to be a pretty nice guy, and hey, she could understand him not taking to her straight away when he thought she was just a cold professional killer. No need to give him the big brush-off. “Maybe I might,” she said. “We’ll see how things go.”

- - - - -

The drow advanced, his feet gliding smoothly over the stone flags, rapier poised for a lethal thrust. Xander gritted his teeth. If he could use his sword the drow would be toast. Literally, with the Sword of Searing. Without a sword it was a whole different ball game. That extra thirty inches of reach gave the drow a huge advantage. Somehow Xander had to get inside the sword’s arc. He flicked a glance at his other opponent, who was hanging back a little, and saw that drow gulping down a potion and then blinking out of sight. Invisibility. Crap. That brought a whole new level of urgency to the game.

Xander lowered his head and charged. He took a hit from the rapier as he went in but it glanced harmlessly from the enchanted dragon-scale armor. He slammed into the drow, taller but lighter than Xander in his duergar form, and knocked the guy from his feet. Xander followed him down, grabbing for the sword arm, catching it and slamming it against the stone floor, forcing the drow to let go of his rapier, and then they were rolling across the stone floor, grappling and punching at each other, first one on top and then the other, with the invisible drow presumably hovering over them waiting for a clear shot at Xander. Well, no way was Xander going to give the guy an easy target. He used hands, elbows, feet and knees every chance he got, doing as much damage as he could, but he kept moving the whole time. Keep rollin’, rollin’, rollin’, rollin’, yeah.

Xander caught a brief glimpse of Minsc raising one of his two opponents over his head and hurling him at his other foe. There was no time to keep looking and to see how the move worked out. Xander tried to take advantage of being momentarily uppermost by slamming the drow’s head down against the stone flags. Simultaneously he felt a flare of pain in his right side. The drow had managed to draw a dagger with his left hand and force it between the dragon armor’s scales. Xander gasped in pain, banged the drow’s head against the floor again, and then threw himself over in another roll just a scream came from the other side of the arena.

It was a piercing shriek, high and filled with unmistakable agony, and Xander couldn’t stop himself from glancing in that direction. Neither, luckily, could the invisible drow, who had just committed himself to a thrust. There was a second scream as the rapier drove home into the wrong target, penetrating easily through the drow chain-mail, and the attacker popped into visibility with his mouth dropping open in horror at his mistake. Xander swept a leg around and tripped him before he could react. The drow lost his grip on his rapier, leaving it sticking into his accidental victim, and fell backward onto his ass.

The drow scrambled away. Xander pushed aside the suddenly limp body of his first opponent and climbed to his feet. He pulled the dagger out of his side. Using it in the fight would probably count as ‘drawing steel against a drow’ and get him shot. Not worth the risk. He dropped it on the ground and shot a quick glance across at Minsc’s side of the arena.

One of Minsc’s opponents was down on the ground, lying motionless, and from the angle at which the drow’s neck was twisted Xander deduced that he wouldn’t be getting up again. The giant ranger was holding his other foe by one arm and the groin. Xander winced. That explained the screams. Minsc lifted the drow, screaming and struggling ineffectually, high above his head and dashed him down head-first onto the stone flags with dreadful force. The screaming stopped abruptly.

Xander could feel blood trickling down his side, inside his armor, but the wound didn’t seem to be deep and it wasn’t slowing him down. He rushed the last drow and unleashed a flurry of punches. The drow jumped back, sidestepped, and drew a dagger. Xander bored in again, relying on his armor to protect him, but the drow dodged and backed off once more.

Too far. A huge hand clamped on the back of his head and an arm wrapped around his neck. “You should not have said those things about my lovely witches,” Minsc growled. “Now you shall pay!” He heaved and wrenched. There was an ugly crunching sound and the drow slumped in his arms and went limp.

“The victors, Tallin and Zander, slave warriors of the Flickering Flame Company,” the Master of Ceremonies announced. There were relatively few spectators for the bout, certainly nothing like as many as had flocked to see Sorkatani and Buffy in action against renowned champions, but there was a ripple of applause. Xander got the impression that most of those applauding were female. The males stayed silent.

“As slaves you cannot claim the equipment of the fallen,” Sondal continued. “It becomes the property of your owners and will be held here until they return and claim it.”

Xander shrugged. “Okay by me.” He took a healing potion from his belt pouch; he didn’t want to risk anyone recognizing his paladin ‘lay on hands’ healing ability, something that no ‘evil’ duergar should be able to do, and getting suspicious. “All I want to do is patch up my wound, get back to the table, and finish off my interrupted meal.”

- - - - -

Evelintra pushed back her chair and rose to her feet. “If everyone is finished,” she said, “we can adjourn to the other room for drinks.”

Buffy wrinkled up her nose. “I’m not sure,” she said. “I’m not much for drinking. I like to keep a clear head for fighting, you know? I’ve had about as much as I can handle.”

“The same is true for me,” Sorkatani said. “The meal was excellent, and I have enjoyed the conversation, but perhaps we should go now.”

“Oh, please stay longer,” Evelintra said. “The drinks do not have to be alcoholic or hallucinogenic. I even have some exotic beverages imported from the surface. ‘Tea’, and ‘chocolatl’, and also a rare delicacy called ‘coffee’.”

The corners of Sorkatani’s mouth turned down, as they always did when coffee was mentioned, but she managed to force a rather shaky smile onto her face. “I would like to try ‘chocolatl’, I think,” she said.

“Certainly, Dynefryn,” Evelintra said. “It is said to possess aphrodisiac qualities. I do not know if that is true, but after all,” she gave a distinctly wicked grin, “how could I tell?”

- - - - -

“Now I understand what some people see in humans,” a drow woman remarked. “What a magnificent specimen! When he broke that fool’s neck I simply oozed with lust.”

“Oh, yes, so did I,” said another. “I hear that they are very well endowed, too.”

“I must have him,” declared the first. “Slave, accompany me to the lust chambers and service me.”

Xander suppressed a groan. More trouble. At least he was being spared the unwanted attentions, his current duergar body obviously not possessing the same lust-inspiring qualities as Minsc’s six foot four wall of muscle, but things didn’t look good for the Rashemen ranger. The drow who was hitting on Minsc wasn’t even a hot chick, like that Evelintra babe who had invited the others to the party; she was a hard-faced bitch who reminded Xander of a jet-black version of Maggie Walsh.

Minsc looked puzzled for a moment and then his brows descended and his forehead creased up in a stern frown. “My mistresses would not approve,” he said. “I will not go with you, lady.”

“What? You dare disobey me? I shall have you flogged, insolent human!”

“I, uh, don’t think you want to do that, lady,” Xander pointed out. “If you harm Tallin then Vyll’ae won’t like it. She’ll turn you into some little crawling bug. Or, hey, maybe she’ll just set you on fire.”

“Wretch of a duergar, are you threatening me?” The drow glared at Xander.

“Nope. Just pointing out that you’re gonna be pissing off a majorly powerful Archmage,” Xander said, “and, hey, take it from me, that’s never a good idea.”

“An Archmage?” The drow woman took a step back. “I did not know.”

“My Vyll’ae is a powerful witch indeed,” Minsc confirmed.

“Huh. You may depart, uncouth barbarian slave, I have lost interest in your smelly human body,” said the drow. “I shall purchase a more aesthetically pleasing specimen.” She spun on her heel and walked away quickly. The other woman who had expressed interest in Minsc went with her.

Xander heaved a sigh. “Now can we get back to our meal?”

“I am hungrier now than when we began,” said Minsc, “and thirsty. A few beers, perhaps, once we have eaten.”

“I have a better idea,” Xander advised. “Stick to water.”

- - - - -

“Solaufein tells me that you are a bard of quite extraordinary skills,” Evelintra said to Giles. “Perhaps you would entertain us?”

“Certainly,” Giles answered without thinking. “Ah, that is, if you are sure that you would be interested,” he added, as it occurred to him that most of the songs in his repertoire were full of references to subjects, such as the sky, the sun, the seas, and the mountains, that would be as alien to the drow as fast cars and motorbikes had been to his audiences in Athkatla.

“Of course I am interested,” Evelintra assured him. “Why would I not be?”

“My songs are a little… unusual,” Giles told her. “I have done some, ah, planewalking, including spending some time in a planar prison with a troupe of entertainers from the city of Sigil, and most of my songs originate in other worlds.” All true, of course, although he was putting it in a way that invited the drawing of conclusions that were not so true. “They may be somewhat, ah, strange to your ears.”

“I look forward to hearing them,” Talabrae said. Several of the other guests spoke up to agree.

“I would appreciate hearing your music in a context other than in the middle of a pitched battle, while devourers sought to tear the brains from my head,” Solaufein added.

“Very well,” Giles assented. He produced his Bag of Holding from his belt, withdrew the guitar, and also took out a tan-tan, a Faerûnian instrument closely resembling a tambourine, which he passed to Viconia. He checked the guitar’s tuning, struck a couple of random chords, and screwed up his forehead as he considered what songs would go down best amongst the drow. “Hmmm. Ah. No, perhaps not. Hmm. I wonder. Yes. I have it.” He poised his fingers over the strings. “This song is called ‘Purple Haze’.”

- - - - -

Minsc pushed his plate away. “A beer would be nice,” he said, “but perhaps you are right and we should drink only water.”

“I just don’t think this would be a good time to get even a little drunk,” said Xander. He noticed a familiar drow female heading straight for them. Phaere, the Matron Mother’s daughter who they had rescued from the Mind Flayers. “Although I didn’t expect to be proved right quite this soon.”

“You are the slaves of Dynefryn of the Flickering Flame, are you not?” the drow girl addressed them.

“We are, Handmaiden,” Xander confirmed, hoping that he was using the right form of address. It seemed to satisfy Phaere.

“Where are your mistresses? I have an urgent task for them.”

“They’re at a party,” Xander informed her. “A Matron Mother invited them.”

Phaere frowned. “A Matron Mother? Who? Of which House?”

Xander decided that playing dumb would be a good move. “Uh, she’s called something like Evil-Lyn,” he said. Buffy had coined the variation on Evelintra’s name after their first meeting. “I don’t know which House. Sorry.”

“Evelintra?” Phaere’s lip curled. “If they are with that decadent and debauched slut then they will doubtless be drunk and probably engaged in a perverted orgy. They would be in no fit state for combat. I shall have to rely upon you two miserable slaves. Gird yourselves for battle and come with me.”

Xander raised his eyebrows. A drunken orgy? Spike would be all for it, yeah, and maybe Viconia, and Imoen hadn’t exactly been keeping her legs together since she’d been rescued, but he couldn’t see the idea raising any cheers from the others. Willow and Tara? ‘Only ever been kissed twice’ Sorkatani? Buffy, especially with Dawn being there? No way. The Hammer of Thunderbolts would start swinging the second anybody even suggested a game of whatever was the drow equivalent of Strip Poker. And, hey, why would Phaere be so down on drunken orgies anyway, unless it was because she hadn’t been invited? He decided she was just telling lies about somebody she didn’t like and put the idea out of his head.

“What are we to fight?” Minsc asked.

“Does it matter? Your only function is to slay the enemies of House Despana,” Phaere said. “You have no choice but to obey.”

“Hey, we can’t prepare for the fight if we don’t know who we’re fighting,” Xander pointed out.

Phaere scowled at him. “Your manner is insolent, slave. Your mistresses of the Flickering Flame treat you too leniently, it is clear, and you would benefit from a touch of the lash. Still, short and ugly one, I concede your point. The foe is a Beholder.”

“Oh, crap. This is not good.” Xander clenched his teeth. He didn’t have Carsomyr, with its anti-magic properties, to shield him from a Beholder’s eye beams. This was going to be tough. He hoped that Imoen had left the Cloak of Mirroring behind, rather than taking it with her to the party, otherwise Anya might come back and find that her Xander was now a stone statue of a duergar.

- - - - -

“An excellent song, Gelfein, and skillfully performed,” Evelintra praised. “Solaufein did not exaggerate your accomplishments.”

“Indeed so,” added Talabrae. “The minstrel who wrote it was a surfacer, I deem, for it mentioned kissing the sky, and yet it is plain that he or she was familiar with the effects of consuming large quantities of Morimatra.”

“That is correct,” said Giles, “and indeed I have heard that he died from over-indulgence in something not dissimilar. I am glad that the song met your approval.”

“It most certainly did,” said Evelintra. “Perhaps you would favor us with another song?”

“Of course,” Giles said. He thought for a moment, glancing around the room for inspiration, and his gaze fell on Evelintra’s niece. Her appearance, so redolent of teenage rebellion although she would in fact be well out of her teens chronologically, struck a spark of inspiration. He did not introduce the song but launched straight into the opening riffs and then the lyrics.

You got your mother in a whirl
She’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl
Hey babe, your hair’s all right
Hey babe, let’s go out tonight
You like me and I like it all
We like dancing and we look divine
You love bands when they play it hard
You want more, and you want it fast
They put you down, and say I'm wrong
You tacky thing, you put them on

Rebel Rebel, you've torn your dress
Rebel Rebel, your face is a mess
Rebel Rebel, how could they know?
Hot tramp, I love you so…

Some of the lyrics toward the end of the song would be meaningless to this audience, Giles knew, but he doubted if anyone would ask for an explanation. His expectation was correct. Only applause and praise followed the final chords.

“I do not wish to impose upon you, Gelfein, but would you continue to play?” Evelintra asked. “The simple entertainments that I had planned would seem flat indeed by comparison with your songs.”

“It’s no imposition,” Giles assured her. “I enjoy playing. Hmm. I hadn’t actually planned on performing here, however, and it may take me a moment to think what to play next.”

“Bitch, please,” Buffy piped up. Dawn sniggered.

Giles glanced at Viconia, who nodded and stood up, and then they began the requested song.

I hate the world today…

- - - - -

“I’m beginning to really hate this place,” Xander muttered under his breath. He wiped Beholder blood from his face, grimaced, and touched a finger gently to a scorched and blistered patch on his cheek.

“A good deed done, my friend,” Minsc declared. “We have kicked the butt of Evil most mightily. At least, I think we have kicked its butt, for in truth I am not sure that these round creatures have butts to kick. Boo says, well done.” Minsc cocked his head to one side. “He also says that he hopes that they bring him back some nuts from the party. Or green vegetables, for he is growing tired of mushroom.”

“I don’t think they have green vegetables in Ust Natha,” said Xander. “Kinda hard to do the whole…” He stumbled over the next word. He wasn’t totally sure that he would have been able to pronounce ‘photosynthesis’ correctly in English but there didn’t seem to be a word for it in drow at all. “Uh, it’s hard to do the getting energy out of sunlight thing without the sunlight.”

“Out of the way, slaves,” Phaere commanded, approaching with a short-bladed knife in one hand and a pouch in the other. She had taken no part in the fight at all.

Xander’s eyebrows rose as he watched the drow priestess slicing off the eyestalks from the Beholder’s corpse and put them in her bag. “Is that why we had to kill this, uh, guy? So you could collect his eyes?”

“None of your business, slave. Do not presume to question your superiors,” Phaere snapped. “Your work is done. Return to the tavern and wait for your mistresses.”

“That’s okay, ma’am, no need to thank us,” Xander muttered. He raised his voice to normal levels. “Come on, Tallin, let’s go. I could use a bath.”

- - - - -

“Do you have any suggestions as to what we should perform next, Veldrin?” Giles asked Viconia.

Her mouth opened to reply but then closed again. Her eyes grew wide and she raised her face toward the ceiling. “Yes, at once,” she said, apparently speaking to someone unseen. “I obey.” She lowered her head again and addressed Giles. “I must sing ‘Shadows of the Night’, mentor. Play it.”

Giles raised his eyebrows. Was this a command from Shar? It would seem so. “Of course, Veldrin,” he assented.

Evelintra raised a hand. “Excuse me for just one moment before you begin,” she said. “There is an order that I must give to the kitchen staff.” She stood up and hurried from the room.

Giles took a moment to look around the guests. He noticed, rather to his surprise, that the young drow warrior who had briefly lost his arm in the arena now had that arm around Sorkatani and she was not objecting. Evelintra’s nephew had reached the same stage with Dawn. Buffy, whom he would have expected to be at the very least aiming death glares at the boy, was too occupied with Solaufein to have noticed. Spike, however, had his eyes trained in Dawn’s direction and could be counted upon to remove the lad’s hand at the wrist if it ventured into any debatable territory. Imoen was sitting on the lap of the drow male who had been paired with her at the dining table, his arms about her waist, but that was not really much of a surprise.

“My apologies,” Evelintra said, returning after only a moment. “If you would continue now?”

“Of course. Ready, Veldrin? One, two, three…”

We’re running with the shadows of the night
So baby take my hand it’ll be all right
Surrender all your dreams to me tonight
They’ll come true in the end…

Giles cast his eyes over the audience as he played. At first he was primarily interested in the apparent attempts of some of the drow men to court the unattached female members of the party, as he could see this resulting in problems in the near future, but as his gaze passed across Evelintra an expression on her face caused him to concentrate his attention upon her.

The Matron Mother was looking at each ‘Flickering Flame’ member in turn, spending some five seconds staring at each, with her brow furrowed in apparent concentration but a half-smile playing over her lips. Until she came to Spike. Her jaw dropped and her eyes became wide circles. She gaped in obvious astonishment for only a moment and then her face adopted a neutral expression. She shook herself, smiled once more, and focused her gaze upon Viconia.

Oh, dear,’ Giles thought. ‘She knows something. Has she spotted that Spike is the wrong sort of vampire, or seen through his disguise somehow?’ It was a disturbing possibility but there didn’t seem to be anything that could be done about it at the moment. He tried to put the matter aside for the time being and concentrate on his playing. After all, if his suspicions about Viconia’s momentary phase-out were correct, he was performing for a goddess and it really wouldn’t do to hit any wrong notes.

- - - - -

“I wish Warren could be here to see this,” Jonathan said.

“Me too,” said Andrew. He gazed at the screen. “Uh, this is probably a real dumb idea…”

Jonathan suppressed a groan. If even Andrew thought an idea was dumb it probably set new records for stupidity.

“…but, if Warren’s going to stay in that coma for ever, suppose we, uh, put him into the game world? That would have to be better than just lying there, right?”

Jonathan scratched his head. Maybe that wasn’t such a totally bad idea. Being in Faerûn, meeting up with wizards and elves and warrior maidens, compared to being in a coma? If he was in the same position he’d probably go for it, he thought, if he had the chance. Of course they couldn’t exactly ask Warren. There was quite a lot of potential for badness. Consulting with someone who possessed the quality of common sense, such as Tara, would probably be a good idea before they actually did anything. Katrina too; it wouldn’t be right to make any decisions for Warren without consulting her.

“I mean, if it had happened there, they could fix Warren right up with a Heal spell, maybe a Restoration,” Andrew went on. “Or, hey, what about if we brought Tara out instead?”

“I don’t know if her spells would work in this world,” Jonathan said. “Look, let’s think about this. It wouldn’t do much good dropping Warren into Ust Natha. It’s a pretty scary place.”

- - - - -

“Thanks for the party,” said Buffy. “It was totally great.”

“If so, much of the credit must go to Gelfein, and to Veldrin,” Evelintra said. “I must thank you as well, Qilafae. I would never have thought of adding milk to chocolatl, or to coffee, and it improves the flavor significantly.”

“Just a tip I picked up when we were, uh, traveling on another plane,” Buffy said. “I’m glad it worked out.” She had made the suggestion before she remembered that milk in the Underdark came from rothé, the shaggy creatures that looked like those musk ox things that sometimes showed up on Discovery Channel programs about the Arctic, and not from cows. Luckily the taste of the milk hadn’t been too strange.

“We must do this again some time,” Evelintra went on. “I would love to hear more of Gelfein’s songs.” She shot a sidelong glance at where the young warrior Zaknal’dor was saying goodbye to Sorkatani. “I am sure that my other guests would delight in spending more time in your company, too.”

“Yeah, we’d like that, if we get the time,” Buffy said.

“Before you go,” Evelintra said, “I would like to give you each a little gift as a memento.” She clapped her hands and a slave rushed to her side. The gnome passed her a small sack. Evelintra opened it and pulled out a gold chain bearing a black stone pendant. “There is one for each of you. I have included an extra pair for your two slaves. Wear them at all times. They will bring you luck.”

“Hey, you shouldn’t have,” Buffy said.

“Take them,” Evelintra urged. “Think of them as payment for Gelfein’s music, if you like.” She put the necklace back into the sack and held it out to Buffy.

“Okay, and thanks,” Buffy said, accepting the pouch. “Goodbye, Evelintra.”

“Yeah, ‘bye, Matron Mother,” Spike added. “What a swell party it’s been.”

- - - - -

“Well, I’m guessing you had a good time,” said Xander, “unlike me.”

“We did,” Anya confirmed. “It was a great party. It’s a shame you couldn’t have been there. Were you terribly bored?”

“No, not bored,” Xander told her. “Hey, bored would have been good. We fought in the arena and we weren’t allowed to use our swords, we had to go hunt down a rogue beholder for a snotty bitch who didn’t even say thanks, and, hey, our meal went cold. When the mushroom sauce gets cold it tastes like snot.”

“Oh, poor Zander,” Anya said. “I’ll make it up to you.” She put her mouth close to his ear and whispered.

Xander’s glum expression vanished and was replaced by a broad smile. “Hey, yeah, that makes it worth missing out on the party.”

“It was pretty cool,” said Buffy. “Hey, it was more, well, normal than any party we ever went to back on Earth. No zombies, no human sacrifice, pretty much a total absence of suckage. I had a good time.”

“Me too,” said Dawn. “I even met a boy.”

“Don’t get too involved,” Buffy cautioned her. “We’re not staying here long, remember, and, hey, evil drow.” She glanced aside at Sorkatani, who was looking somber, and decided that she didn’t need to repeat her warning for Tani’s benefit. “Although, maybe it’s a shame,” Buffy went on. “Solaufein really isn’t as much of an asshole as I thought. He’s pretty okay really. And I so have to think of a new nickname for Evelintra. Evil-Lyn doesn’t fit. She’s nice.”

“She is still a drow priestess, and therefore undoubtedly a creature of Evil,” Giles reminded her. “She seemed to detect something odd about S- Urlzaqh at one point. I am somewhat concerned about what use she might make of her discovery.”

“Hey, I detected something odd about Urlzaqh years ago,” Buffy said airily. “Don’t worry about it. Hey, Vyll, would you check out those necklaces that Evelintra gave us? I don’t think she’d give us cursed things that’ll turn us into frogs, or whatever, but, hey, better safe than sorry.”

“Sure thing, Qil,” Willow said. She took the bag of pendants from Buffy and began to cast an Identify spell.

“I must admit that I also felt a liking for Evelintra,” Jaheira said, “despite the lustful glances that she was bestowing upon Gi- Gelfein. In other circumstances I would be glad to call her friend. I hope that there will not be any cause for conflict between us.”

“She is unlike any Matron Mother that I have met before,” said Viconia. “I am tempted to ask her to purchase and take into her House those members of House DeVir who are held captive here. I believe that she would treat them well.”

“Yeah, only I don’t think they’d let her do that,” Spike said. “House Zaughym’s pretty low on the pecking order, right? Maybe you could ask Talabrae? She didn’t seem too bad either and her lot are, what, Fourth House in the city, did I get that right? She might be able to swing it.”

“If she follows Evelintra’s ways too closely she risks losing influence,” Viconia pointed out. “It is a possibility that I shall keep in mind, although making the suggestion to her would need to be done cautiously.”

“Hey, this is real strange,” Willow announced, looking up from the necklaces.

“So, what do they do?” Buffy asked.

“Well, they radiate Evil,” Willow revealed. “One whomping great stack of Evil.”

“Is that the kind of Evil where we have to throw them into the fires of Mount Doom?” asked Dawn, “or just the kind where we can’t wear them but we can sell them without risking any world-endage?”

“Pretty bad Evil vibes,” Willow said. “Not Sauron level, I’d say, but close.”

“I kinda expected the Evil,” Buffy said. “So, what else do they do?”

“Nothing,” Willow replied. “Nothing at all.”

Buffy frowned. “Can I say, huh?”

“They don’t do a thing except radiate Evil,” Willow clarified. “If we wear them we’ll show up as totally Bad.”

“That would screw my abilities up,” said Xander, “although the general buzz around here has them pretty screwed up anyway unless I concentrate like crazy.”

“So why would she give them to us, unless she knows that we’re not what we’re supposed to be?” Buffy wondered.

“That would explain her look of total surprise after she stared at Spike,” Giles said. “A non-Evil vampire is rather a contradiction in terms.”

“Like a non-Evil drow priestess,” said Buffy. “Uh, sorry, Veldrin.” Viconia rolled her eyes but said nothing.

“Evelintra wore an amulet that was not dissimilar, although more elaborate,” Giles pointed out. “Could it be that she is also, in fact, not Evil?”

“If so,” Viconia said, “there is only one possible explanation. She must be a priestess, not of She who I will not name, but of Eilistraee. She plays a dangerous game, if that is so, and if it is discovered she will be executed in ways too horrible for me to mention in the presence of Dhaunae.”

“Well, let’s not blow her cover,” said Buffy. “We wear the necklaces and we keep our mouths shut. Right, guys?”

“Of course,” said Giles, “as long as Evelintra does not blow our cover. I would much prefer that none of us be executed by any method, horrible or otherwise.” He turned to Viconia. “Veldrin, am I correct in believing that you received a direct command from, ah, a divine source during our performance?”

“That is so,” Viconia confirmed. “My goddess informed me that she grew impatient.”

“And she was listening, I take it? My word. A Divine Command Performance. I sincerely hope that she liked it.”

- - - - -

We’re running with the shadows of the night,” sang Shar, Mistress of the Night. “So baby take my hand it’ll be all right…” She beckoned imperiously and a shadowy servitor rushed to answer her summons.

“What is your will, oh Nightsinger?” the minion asked.

“Bring to me the petitioner Yoshimo,” Shar commanded, “for I much desire to speak with him.”

The servitor bowed low. “At once, Lady of Loss,” he said. “I shall bring you the limp and beaten shade of Yoshimo.”

“Fool, that was not my command,” Shar snapped. “I said that I wished to speak with him, not interrogate him. Treat him with courtesy.”

The shadow creature had no visible eyebrows but the play of darkness on his features conveyed an impression that they would have been raised had he possessed them. “Your wish is my command, my Lady. I obey.” He turned and scurried away.


Glossary of Character Aliases

• Qilafae = Buffy
• Dynefryn = Sorkatani
• Gelfein = Giles
• Zander = Xander
• Auniira = Anya
• Vyll’ae = Willow
• Micar’lae = Tara
• Urlzaqh = Spike
• Veldrin = Viconia
• Dhaunae = Dawn
• Jhaelirae = Jaheira
• Tallin = Minsc
• Iimzyne = Imoen

Tags: fic, tabula_avatar
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