The night was still. There was no omen or warning in this night, nothing that might hint at the coming threat.
The drow had come to the surface.
At the edge of the forest, the raiding party had gathered, waiting for the return of their scout, sent ahead to check the area. Some of the raiders prodded the trunks of the trees in wariness or disgust. Some twitched at every little sound; the rustle of leaves in the breeze, the flight of a night-bird overhead, all seemed strange and threatening.
Some, on the other hand, were staring up at the sky, looking at the stars. They'd been taught that the distant pinpricks of light served as a mocking warning of the searing fire that would rise in the sky here during other hours; combined with its obvious reminder of the uncomfortable lack of stone overhead, it was little wonder their expressions contained both distaste and perverse fascination.
Mazarun Zothyrr shivered a little as the breeze brushed his cheek and set his hair to swaying gently. He continued his contemplation of the stars. They were so strange... and yet they were oddly pretty, their light not strong enough to be painful. He would have closed his eyes to focus fully on the effect of the breeze, but his eternal wariness reminded him that Dinlochar was still out there somewhere.
Dinlochar. Mazarun's lips twisted in irritation. He would have to deal with that one soon enough, he knew that. He knew the scout was plotting against him. He knew that, even if he failed to mysteriously fall in battle, his fellow raider was very likely to slip a knife into his back on the way home to Menzoberranzan.
Ah, the joys of House politics. Mazarun sighed quietly. On the better side of the matter, at least he wouldn't miss Dinlochar afterwards; the scout was prone to telling and retelling his tales of past raids, repeating them constantly, and giving that infuriating little laugh with the tones resembling the screech of tortured metal whenever he came to a point describing anything particularly brutal done to a foe. His laugh, his stories, his smug face... oh yes, Mazarun would not grieve terribly for Dinlochar.
"Our information was out of date," Dinlochar announced, stepping out from between the trees. "The faerie scum have moved on. There are humans here now."
The raid leader frowned. They'd been hoping to strike against the hated surface elves, and much of the excitement of the raid had been generated by that fact. They could not afford to return home having done nothing, but their preferred targets were gone. The drow warband muttered amongst themselves, debating this new turn of events.
"We strike anyway," the leader announced at last. "Faerie blood or not, all blood that coats our blades will be a tribute to the Spider Goddess. She will smile upon our devotion."
Their course of action decided, the raiders set out, Dinlochar directing them onward.
In the valley, the little village was quiet, its occupants asleep. Even the man at the gate was drowsy, his attention limited. There hadn't been so much as a stray wolf in winter here for years, after all. The village was tiny, no more than two decades old, but it was a peaceful place. It was a safe place. Until now.
A lone farm, just outside the village, was the first target. The drow crept up to it, silent as ghosts, hearing only the quiet sounds of sleepy animals.
The wind changed.
The farmer's dog, scenting newcomers, scrambled to its heavy paws, barking loudly.
And thus it was that the farmer was awake for the worst night of his life. Even warned by his dog, he could do little but grab the rusty sword that had been his father's legacy as a soldier, and shout for his wife to take the others and run.
It was far too late to run. He could not have known that, but he realised soon enough as the shadowy figures closed in. One of them gestured, and the door at his back shattered into useless splinters. Another raised a crossbow, and silenced the agitated hound.
Mazarun had been tense with excitement as they reached the farm. He'd been preparing for a fight since they left, and it was about time they got one. But as the farmer charged from the house, and he saw the human's clumsy sword-waving, he felt a bitter surge of disappointment. This would be no challenge at all.
Still, the man was an armed target. Mazarun charged, parrying a few wild strikes, and cut the human down. He lowered his rapier, staring at the body. This was no fitting battle. It was not a victory he could take pride in.
The farm was silent again. Mazarun did not look in the house. He had no wish to see what foes had bloodied the blades of his companions.
"Move out," their raid leader ordered. "We're not done." He pointed toward the village.
"Will we be able to finish this before the night ends?" Mazarun asked. "The priestess did warn us..."
"If we're quick." The leader looked around at them warningly. "So don't be slow."
They set out, making their way closer to the village. Mazarun found himself wishing they'd brought more fighters. Perhaps with a larger group, Rantel would have been included. Mazarun shook his head a little. Wishing for what could not be was pointless, even if it would have meant he could have fought beside the one with whom he'd trained, the only one he had ever truly thought could be relied upon to guard his back without turning on him.
Trust was a foolish impossibility, and yet for those few times they fought side by side, they had managed it. He didn't know how. All he knew was that something was different there.
But Rantel had been set to a different patrol for this time, and so he could not join the raid. It was, perhaps, just as well. Mazarun was forced to push away a sour undercurrent of fear that if Rantel had come, he too would have seen something wrong with their target, and it would have meant that it was not just Mazarun's bad mood, that there was genuinely something... unfitting about what they were doing. Or perhaps he would have been fine with it, and it would prove there was merely something wrong with Mazarun's state of mind. Mazarun was not sure which option bothered him more, and he reminded himself that neither was the case. Dwelling on it would be foolish, he told himself. There was no point to speculating upon something that was not the case. Not even if, raiding party or no, he suddenly felt very alone.
At last, they'd reached the village wall. One of the warriors pointed and grinned upon spotting the sleepy-looking gate guard. A single crossbow shot was enough to take him down, the sleep poison on the bolt acting quickly.
Drow teachings insisted that humans were foolish brutes, little subtler than orcs. This was probably why they missed the second guard until it was too late.
The man ran down the street, shouting, his cries of alarm rousing the village. There was a hum of unseen activity, and then humans boiled onto the street from their crude homes, just as though the raiders had lobbed a stone at an insects' nest.
There was a flurry of confusion, and then battle was joined.
Mazarun felt his earlier strange regret fade as he traded blows with village-men, steadfast hunters and woodsmen who would not give up their home without a fight. They did not have his skill, but they had the numbers, and they knew their home better than their attackers.
It was not quite enough.
Bleeding from small cuts here and there from a few chance hits, Mazarun heard shouting in the clumsy human speech. A moment of confusion passed as he recalled his lessons, and understood the men were being told to fall back before it was too late.
One of them had been carrying a lit torch, until it had been snatched and thrown aside by a drow soldier. The torch had caught on a thatched roof, fire crackling across the building and sending waves of smoke across the battle.
One of the drow soldiers fell, screaming, as a fireball engulfed him. They have a wizard! Mazarun looked around, trying to spot the one who'd cast the spell. If he didn't take down the wizard quickly, this battle might go entirely the wrong way for all of them.
He managed to glimpse a figure in flowing robes amid the smoke. "There!" he called, angling in, along with several others. They had to finish this, now.
The robed human waved his hands, chanted a spell... and a white haze filled Mazarun's vision.
There was a sickening feeling wracking his body, as though he might be spinning in place. He could no longer feel the earth beneath his feet. He couldn't hear anything. He couldn't even smell the acrid tang of the smoke anymore.
Dizzy and ill, his head pounding, he fell to ground that felt far rockier than the soil of the village. Mazarun opened his eyes, and cried out in sudden pain. There was so much light everywhere, searing the field of his vision. He'd not thought anything could be this bright, and it was all the more painful after the comforting dark of the moonless night they'd chosen to raid on.
Squinting, eyes watering, Mazarun heard a thin whimpering sound, and managed to make out a dark shape beside him. Even hardened by the rigours of drow life, he almost threw up when he saw it more clearly.
He had landed cleanly in this new place. Dinlochar, his body partly-submerged in a rock-face, had not.
A teleport spell, then, Mazarun managed to reason despite the terrible pain in his head. We could be anywhere. He looked at Dinlochar again, and knew that the scout was dying, slowly but surely.
Not even Dinlochar deserved to go like that. Mazarun drew his dagger, and smoothly cut Dinlochar's throat, ending his agony in one strike.
Then, wincing at the pain in his own injuries, he began to search for somewhere to hide until the fire in the sky had faded.