It was half-past midnight when the drow got the drop on me.
I, admittedly, could have been more careful, but when our hunters and scouts told me that something had happened to the local goblins I felt dismissive. They were goblins, after all – stupid, greedy, easily distracted, tricked, and slain. I was the favored of the elven gods, a bearer of their will. Anything reduced to preying on goblins would be easy enough for me to examine and handle appropriately.
As it turns out, pride hurts precisely like a needle piercing your neck. I entered the woods near our village, armed and armored but not wrapped in the protective spells I might have used if I was thinking with more sense and less arrogance. The starlight through the trees was more than enough to see by, even without the bright full moon to aid it, but I could see none of the usual traces of a new predator. No marks of territory, no unusual spoor, no tracks. I paused, to consider potentially using a divination, when I felt something beside me. I turned to look and managed to catch a blur of motion before feeling the needle prick my neck, held fast inside a fist that barely touched me. I managed to see a blurry outline with white hair before the world tipped sideways and I slid into unconsciousness.
Spider silk rope has a distinctive feeling, and I woke to find my hands and feet bound, with a gag in my mouth and my holy symbol wrapped around a rock several feet away from me. My captor sat on the opposite side of a small cooking fire, more coals than flame, and patiently stirred a small pot of what smelled like gruel. She was, unmistakably, a drow – ebon skin, white hair, deep red eyes. Her armor was well-kept and reinforced with spider silk woven over the leather, and her cloak had been dirtied with local soil to alter its color. A professional touch, which I appreciated on an abstract level.
“I know you’re awake,” the drow murmured, in heavily accented elven. Her tone was low without whispering. “Your breathing changed, priest.”
I sighed through my nose.
The drow undid the clasp of her cloak and shrugged it off of her shoulders. Her eyes flicked to me, and I was surprised at the lack of malice in her gaze. She stirred her pot and then set her spoon aside before reaching forward and untying my gag. I worked my jaw for a moment and raised an eyebrow at her.
“Can you cook?” the drow asked. I stared silently for long enough that she repeated the question, extra slowly: “Can. You, priest in front of me, cook food without killing yourself or others?”
“Yes,” I answered, shaking my head. “Why do you care?”
“Because this is the last of my travel food and I have no idea how much of what I caught is edible.”
There was a long moment of silent disbelief, which must have shown on my face because she nudged my ribs, indignantly, with her boot.
“I’ve been here less than a week, elf,” she snapped. “Excuse me if I don’t know everything about your freakish surface world. Will you teach me to cook or not?”
“Are you serious right now?” I asked slowly. “Why, in any of the flaming Hells, would I do that? Why would you trust me with it? You can hold a knife to me but I’d just poison you and then where are you?”
The drow picked up a dagger from behind the log she was sitting on, and I mentally prepared myself to meet the gods. I was so shocked when she cut my bonds instead of killing me that I didn’t move at first.
“There,” the drow said with a wry look. “You can go running back to your village if you like. I’ll pack up and go someplace else while you’re doing that, of course, so it’s not like you’ll get much from it but the knowledge that a tunnel to the Great Below is nearby. Or, just as a thought, you can meet my very, very simple request.”
“This entire situation is insane,” I protested, as I sat up. My hostess shrugged.
“Probably,” the drow agreed. “but I had to talk to someone eventually. I just didn’t want it getting awkward and violent.”
“Talk?” I asked, as I rubbed the feeling back into my wrists.
“Mmhm. Had a more important question than the cooking thing.”
“Such as?” I asked, warily retrieving my holy symbol. The drow woman leaned back and turned her head to the sky. She pointed up at the stars, and her voice took on a wistful, longing tone.
“What can you tell me about those?”
* * * *
Her name was Deirdre, and I’m still not sure what to think of her. I expected – actually, I don’t know what I was expecting. Political exile? Unable to bear the evil of her homeland? Spy for her people? Her motives were so simple that I spent the first few months that I knew her suspecting treachery. She came to the surface to see the stars, she told me. No, not quite. She said, “I’ve been looking at the stars all my life. I wanted to come meet them.”
I visited almost every night, mostly to keep tabs on her. I taught her what foods were edible and some basic recipes, and she asked me about the stars. She wanted to know everything – their names, the constellations, where they came from, why they existed, what I thought of them, what other races thought of them. She asked questions I’d never thought about. Had anyone been to the stars? Were there paths to them? Sometimes we talked about other things, little things, but always, without fail, it came back to the stars.
I warmed up to her in spite of myself. She was so earnest, something I never expected in a drow. There was something childlike about her love of the night sky that I couldn’t help but smile at. She readily agreed to stay away from the village, even agreed to continue driving away the native goblin population. Explaining that the goblins were not escaped slaves was one of our many more awkward conversations. She looked at the world through a lens of casual cruelty that was both appalling and saddening, but she was not, I think, cruel herself. She expected cruelty, and she was certain pragmatic, ruthless, and careful, but she also seemed indifferent, unmotivated to harm others.
One night, I finally asked her how she’d seen the stars before she came to the surface. She mulled over the question for awhile, while she dressed a rabbit her snares had caught. Finally, she raised an almost indifferent hand and gestured just to the left of me. I turned my head – and saw the night sky next to me. Or something like it, rather, a ragged hole cut into the space that opened onto a vast, black emptiness dotted with a sea of stars that twinkled, flickered, and shone into the forest.
“Merciful gods,” I breathed. “It’s so…vast. So empty.”
“I know,” Deirdre replied wistfully. “It’s peaceful. When it all gets to be too much I just…watch it, for awhile.”
“What does this rift do?”
Deirdre set down her skinning knife and stood. She stretched, briefly, and then stepped into the gate. For a moment I saw her outlined against the endless sea of stars, and I thought she had miscalculated and was going to die. And then she sat, seemingly on nothing at all, and turned to face me. She leaned against the emptiness and shot me a cocky grin.
“Up here,” she said, and I heard her from the rift and from the tree above me. I looked up, startled, and saw her sitting on a tree branch at the mouth of another rift, leaning against the tree itself.
“You’re slow,” she teased. “But you get there, priest.”
“How are you doing that?” I asked, my curiosity getting the better of me. I looked down at the rift next to me, just in time to see the drow tap her temple.
“I always had power, younger even than others got it,” she explained, her voice still coming from both places at once. “But it never turned into the kind of might my parents hoped it would. It turned into this, though. I can open up gates into this…this Void, and guide others through them. Come on up. I’ll show you the way.”
I stood, hesitantly, and stepped through the rift. For a moment I felt terrible cold, a horrid, indifferent chill that bit through bone and touched my soul, and then I was wrapped in Deirdre’s power. It showed me where to place my feet, how to walk the nothing on starlight and will. Unfortunately, it did not show me where the tree branch was, and she had to throw an arm out to prevent me from falling. She closed both rifts and steadied me so I could take a seat.
We sat in silence for a long time, staring up at the moon and stars.
“What do you want out of life?” I asked, suddenly. “What comes now?”
Deirdre shrugged. “Quiet, I suppose. I have quiet here.”
“It can’t last forever,” I pointed out.
Deirdre touched a flower growing from the branch next to her. “Neither can this. But it’s still worth having, isn’t it? For the first time ever, I get to do what I want without having someone breathing down my neck. And what I want, more than anything else, is to just enjoy the silence. Is that so much?”
“I suppose not,” I answered. “I’ve got to head back. Same time tomorrow?”
“As always,” the drow agreed.
I knew she watched me go. I was up for a long time, after I got home, staring at the stars.