While booking his room for a week and paying the innkeeper, he spotted a young drow woman in the lobby. That's strange, he thought. There were no drow in Analdia that he knew of. Maybe she was a Traveller like himself. But no, a quick scan of her aura revealed her to be a weak Illusionist like most drow. His curiosity piqued, he went over and sat at her table in the common room.
"Hello there," he said smiling, at her. "Mind if I sit here?"
"No, not at all," she smiled back. "My name is Arelca. What's yours?"
"I'm Valarian," he said, looking her over. "Can I buy you a drink?" No harm in being friendly.
Arelca just grinned again, and nodded. Valarian had the waiter bring over drinks for him and the woman. He estimated her to be in her early twenties. She did get a number of odd looks from the other patrons, most of whom had clearly never seen a dark elf before. But there was something different about this woman he couldn't quite put his finger on. Somehow, she lacked the same sort of feeling many drow had.
"I can't help but notice, you aren't like the other elves around here," Valarian ventured to ask, figuring the worst he'd get was his face slapped and yet another pretty girl walking out on him.
Arelca nodded brightly. "I'm a member of the Guild of Eternal Shadow. It seems the people of Analdia haven't heard much of it."
Guild of Eternal Shadow? "I must admit, I have not. Could you tell me about it?"
"Well, all guild members undergo the Transformation for admittance, you see. That's why we look like this, and thus can be recognized wherever we go."
Valarian frowned thoughtfully. That would explain the difference. Did she even know what a drow was? "So what does this guild do?"
"All sorts of things," Arelca smiled. "Although previously we performed unpleasant tasks for others, we've rather expanded lately."
Ah. They were a guild of thieves and assassins, to be sure. That was the only explanation. "What does it take to join?" he asked, mainly out of curiosity than any intention of doing so. He had no desire to be a drow.
"These days, you have to be sponsered by a member of one year or more," Arelca explained. "Do you want to join or something?"
Valarian shook his head. "No, but I'll think about it. So there aren't many guild members in Analdia?"
"Just me and my brother, Tharil," she told him. "Cathertash is a long way from here."
"Will you be in town for a while?"
Arelca nodded. "Sure, we'll be here for at least another week or so."
"I'd like to buy you dinner sometime, if you don't mind," Valarian grinned at her. "I'd presume you're nocturnal?"
"That would be nice," she winked at him. "Yes, we are. Can you stay up late enough for my dinner?"
Valarian laughed softly. "For a pretty girl like you, anything." He bid her good evening and finished his drink, and headed out into the city.
He found that he rather liked her. Although he found it a bit strange to like a drow, she didn't seem at all like any of the drow he had ever met. Not that he had ever really gotten to know any drow, but she was definitely likeable. Friendly. More open than most he'd heard of.
After ordering some new clothes made for him to be delivered in the morning, he ordered a bath back at the inn and settled in to removing his soiled clothing. Had she really been so friendly with him looking like he had just gotten back from a warzone? No matter. He stripped off his clothing and settled into the hot water.
As he bathed, he noticed in startlement that there was a small purple spot on the side of his thigh. "Oh hell," he said aloud, pulling himself out of the bath so quickly that he spilled water on the floor.
His mind raced. Surely the Taint only affected drow. How many elves had he come into contact with today? He panicked. Wrapping a towel around himself, he feared an epidemic of disasterous proportions. Immediately, Valarian sent telepathic messages to the archmages of the four towers at the corners of Analdia, warning them that there was a potential epidemic on their hands in the province, and to close all travel in and out of the region. Fearing that the neighboring provinces would become infected, they readily complied and slammed the gates of Analdia closed.
What could he do? The healers of Chasm's Edge had been working on it for two years and never managed to find a cure. A few hours more notice wouldn't save them if it couldn't be found anyway. Besides, the disease was supposed to take months to run its course. Resigning himself to helplessness for the moment, he settled bath into his bath, now cold, and went to bed.
Valarian slept through most of the day, having been up very late the night before, and when he woke and headed for the nearest healer's office, he found it crowded with people, all complaining of small purple spots. The doctors, thinking it was merely an onset of adult purple pox, perscribed some simple herbs as a treatment.
The Traveller insisted on speaking to the head healer immediately. A bit reluctant, the man agreed to talk to him, once Valarian made it clear that he had information about the recent plague of purple pox.
"It's not purple pox," Valarian said, almost frantically. "It's much, much worse. It's a disease called the Taint, and it's deadly."
"What do you know of it?" the healer frowned suspiciously. "I haven't seen you before. Did you bring it here with you?"
"Yes," Valarian admitted ruefully. "Dammit. I thought it only affected drow. I had no idea--"
The man stopped him from his tirade. "Alright, it's not important. Do you know how we can cure it?"
Valarian shook his head, breathing heavily. "No, but I might be able to find out. It's supposed to take months to run its course, we have time at any rate."
"Okay, thanks. Let me know what you find out."
"I will, right away," he gasped, running back to his room. Why was he so panicked? Surely it would behave the same as it did on drow. But the fact that his legs and stomach contained more spots this morning worried him. It seemed to be moving faster than the drow in Chasm's Edge creditted it with.
Sighing, Valarian sat down on his bed and began to focus himself, to try and telepathically contact the healers in Chasm's Edge. They'd know, if anyone did. Riven would have found a cure, if anyone could, he figured.
However, upon realizing just who it was contacting them, the Chasm's Edge healers refused to give him any information about the cure, and shielded the vicinity against both magical travel and telepathy. Valarian swore heavily. It would take him days to travel outside that shield and walk or ride in, and they'd still probably refuse, most likely killing him for his insolence in the process.
Valarian tried to calm himself. This was no good. If he couldn't get a cure and he had only weeks to live, he was damn well going to enjoy himself. He found Arelca that night and took her out on a pleasant night on the town, spending extravagently on a meal and jewelry for her. Money he didn't really have to spare, but he didn't really care at this point.
"The rubies nicely complement the color of your eyes," he smiled at her. They kissed for a long time under the light of the moons of Khiszalr.
As the days wore on, more and more cases of the Taint appeared, and some people were becoming very ill, although no deaths were reported yet. Valarian knew that this case was somehow worse, that the Taint was working much faster this time. Perhaps he should contact Riven directly, he thought. The man would probably refuse as well, or demand something he wasn't really willing or capable of paying.
Then, he discovered, that Arelca and her brother were unaffected by the Taint. He found this very peculiar. Perhaps they simply hadn't shown symptoms yet. After all, the Taint had been started among the drow. But even after everyone else was infected, those two were still Taint-free.
"Maybe being dark elves makes us immune to it somehow," Tharil, Arelca's brother, suggested as they talked one night. Valarian had almost become nocturnal himself with his efforts to spend all his waking hours with Arelca.
"But it started among dr--dark elves," Valarian protested. "It makes no sense."
"Well, maybe we have special protection by being Shadow Guild members," he hypothesized.
"I'll sponser you for joining if you'd like," Arelca offered. "Maybe it'll cure you of it."
It makes no sense, Valarian screamed in his mind. Why were these drow immune to it while the drow in Chasm's Edge were dying of it? What set them apart, made them different?
Perhaps, he thought, the drow in Chasm's Edge weren't fully drow. Among normal populations, the chances of breeding with other races was fairly common, to the point where many of the races of light elves had become intermixed. Maybe that had happened on Wilderplane as well. And if the transformation method made them fully drow, and only those with light elven blood were affected... It was the only explanation that made sense.
But, if he went off and joined this Shadow Guild, he'd be sentencing all the elves in Analdia to a horrible death. What else could he really do, though?
"Alright," Valarian finally said with a sigh. "For you," he cupped Arelca's chin in his hand, "I will do it."
"It's a long journey to Cathertash," Tharil mused. "Are you sure you can make the trip? And what about infecting others on the way?"
"I am a Traveller," Valarian said simply. "I can take us directly there."
"Take us about half a mile west of the guildhall, if you can, then," Tharil suggested. "So the guards don't panic."
"Now, you're absolutely sure neither of you has shown any signs of infection at all?" he asked. They weren't healers, either, his Seeking would have picked it up.
"Positive," Arelca assured him. "You won't be infecting them all by going there."
"Very well," he sighed. "Go get your things and be back here in an hour."
They nodded and went off to their rooms. Valarian stood there under the moons for an hour waiting, musing. If he did this, he was sentencing the entire population of Analdia to death. He was giving up on them. Riven still might have an answer. It was his fault they were sick in the first place. Didn't he at least owe it to them to find a cure?
What could he really do, though? Riven was as likely to refuse and just kill him as the Chasm's Edge healers were. He'd be dying for nothing. And he really wanted to live now. The sparkle in Arelca's eyes gave him a purpose in life he had never before had. He no longer wanted to throw his life away for nothing.
When they returned, he hugged Arelca again, and teleported the three of them to the path to the Guild of Eternal Shadow. His Seeking picked up many hidden guards watching the path, but he wasn't unnerved. They were drow, and thus immune to the Taint.
"Let's go," Arelca said, leading the way down the path.
They entered the massive guildhall, dark and ominous, but Valarian was not perturbed. From somewhere down the hall, a door opened and an older woman approached. Althoug her years were clearly advanced, she was strong and spry.
"Well," she said. "If it isn't Arelca and Tharil. I wasn't expecting you two back anytime soon. What brings you back home?"
"Greetings, Guildmistress Tertinal," Arelca said, bowing slightly to the woman. "I would like to sponser this man for membership in the guild." She indicated Valarian.
Valarian bowed to the woman. Tertinal looked him over. "What is your name?"
"My name, mistress, is Valarian Sunbringer."
Tertinal nodded. "A fine name, for an elf of the day. But entirely inappropriate for a member of the Guild of Eternal Shadow. You'll have to change it."
"Then, with your leave, from this day forward I will be known as Valarian Nightbringer."
Tertinal smiled. "Much better. Come this way."
She turned and led him off through hallways and finally to a small room deep within the guildhall. "This is the induction room," the Guildmistress explained. "Here you will remain until the transformation process is complete."
There were a pair of guards at the inside of the room. Clearly they were here to supervise him and not to keep anyone out of the room. From a locked box inside the induction chamber, Tertinal pulled out a small gold ring set with a black stone. "If you are unsure about what you are doing, Valarian, speak now, because this is the point of no return."
Valarian held out his hand. "I'm sure."
Tertinal slid the ring onto his finger. "Since you are an elf, this will take half as long as it does for humans, but will still take the better part of a day. You must also swear the oaths of membership." She pulled out a piece of paper from the box and handed it to him.
Valarian took the paper and glanced over it. Arelca didn't mention that part. Perhaps she was forbidden to. No matter. He was committed now, no matter how terrible the oaths might be.
"I, Valarian Nightbringer, do hereby swear to bring harm to no dark elf. May death take me swiftly should I ever break this oath. I swear also to never reveal to a being of the daylight the nature of these oaths, and to grant to the guild a portion of any monetary income which I earn. May I be stripped of all possessions should I ever break this oath."
Tertinal nodded in approval and replaced the paper in the box. "Excellent. The guards are here to witness the transformation process. You may speak to them during the intervening time if you wish. I have things to do tonight." With that, she bowed slightly and left the room.
Valarian chose rather to brood in silence at his choice and the consequences thereof. His oath meant he could never bring his revenge upon Theryn. She was technically not a "dark elf", and certainly no Shadow Guild member, but being the relatively honorable sort he prefered to take it in the broadest reasonable context. He sighed softly as the realization hit him that he'd just thrown away his entire life up till this point, which had mainly consisted of plotting things to do with Theryn.
No matter. Perhaps it was time that he gave up the entire pointless revenge thing and lived a happy life instead. He was in love with a drow, it was not reasonable to hate someone just for being a drow. Really, he was beginning to feel guilty over the entire matter. Valarian had never really gotten to know a drow before. Maybe they weren't so bad as folklore liked to make them out to be. Even if one did kill his parents. She was only defending herself, he reasoned. Only defending herself...
He had a lot of time to think about it. After a few hours, he was already noticing his skin darkening. Arelca brought him in some food and they talked for a while.
"If you're a Traveller, have you visited many places? What have you seen?"
Valarian smiled. "I've seen many things you probably wouldn't believe, my dear."
"Tell me about them," she sat down to listen.
He went on to tell her about the strange and wonderful planes he had seen. Hasaris, where islands floated in the sky and people had wings. Sasherey, always covered in a perpetual winter. And Mezulbryst, where no sun ever rose. Arelca was particularly interested in this last one.
Tertinal appeared after a bit. "I trust you are well, Valarian?"
"I am," he said. The transformation had been going smoothly and swiftly. "How will I know when the transformation is completed?"
"When you can remove the ring yourself," the Guildmistress told him.
He tugged lightly at the ring on his finger. It didn't come off. He nodded to her. "It shouldn't be much longer, I don't think." His skin was already dark and his hair had taken on a pale bronze-gold coloration.
"I will remain for the rest," said Tertinal, taking a seat. "What's this I heard about a place with no sun?"
"It's called Mezulbryst," Valarian told her. "There's no sun, but there's four moons in the sky. Blood red, ochre, dark green, and black. But you need magic to be able to see the black moon, other than observing where it obscures the stars."
"It sounds like a perfect place for dark elves," Tertinal mused. "Perhaps we should expand the guild to there. Who lives there?"
"Dark elves do live there," he went on. "A good number of them. There's also humans, and light elves, and all sorts of people."
"I want to see it," Arelca said excitedly. Even the two guards were interested.
"Alright," Valarian said, looking to Tertinal. "With your leave, I would take a group of guild members to Mezulbryst to survey the location for possible expansion."
"Sounds like a good idea to me," Tertinal grinned. "Make it so."
Valarian tried again to remove the drowring, and this time it came off. It was done. He returned the ring to Tertinal, who locked it up again, and hugged Arelca. He'd done it. He'd actually done it.
Thinking back on the Taint, he asked Tertinal, "Where could I take a bath?"
"Ah. I'll assign you some chambers, you can take one there." She assigned him to some chambers adjacent to Arelca's, and he went off there to bathe while went to sleep.
Much to his relief, the spots of the Taint were fading already and were almost gone by the time he finished with his bath. He breathed a bit easier knowing that he wasn't going to die and hadn't just infected the nice drow here. But still, images of Analdia flashed through his mind, as he scryed there unconsciously. The people there were growing sicker by the day, dying by the hundreds, and he'd abandoned them. There's nothing I can do for them, he told himself fiercely, even knowing it wasn't true.
With a sigh, he tucked himself into bed and went to sleep, but all he could see in his dreams were fields of elves laying dead of the Taint.
He awoke the next evening and went down for breakfast in the common room, and sat next to Arelca as she introduced him to some of the other guild members. There were quite a number of them, he learned, although most of them were out in outlying areas. She had apparently already told them about Mezulbryst, and they were quite fascinated.
"So dark elves can be out there all times of the day safely?" one of them asked.
"Are there any cities there?" another wanted to know.
Valarian answered their questions as best as he could, but finally told them that the best way the could find out was to see for themselves when he went there with Arelca. A handful of them readily agreed, four males and a female, and he said they'd be the ones he'd bring along. If others wanted to go they'd have to wait for his return. He wasn't about to dump dozens of curious dark elves onto Mezulbryst without warning. They agreed to leave tomorrow, to give them a chance to prepare, and Valarian proceeded to Arelca's room to celebrate.
The next evening, Valarian's quick telepathic scan of the vicinity revealed a tiny presense that had not been there before. Arelca was pregnant, he realized. It had to be his, since it had not been there before, and she hadn't been with anyone else in that time period, since he had been with her the entire time. He was going to be a father. He'd never felt so attracted to anyone before, and never had any children or lover.
Valarian looked to Arelca and said impulsively, "Will you marry me?"
Arelca was a little surprised at the suddenness of it, but not at all objected. "Yes," she said simply, kissing him.
Valarian thought himself crazy for wanting to marry a woman he hadn't even known for a week, but he knew his life was changing and all he could do was change with it and throw caution to the wind. It was a very different life he was looking forward to, one filled with happiness, love, and hope, and not revenge and suffering. Perhaps he could even find some way to make it up to Riven and Theryn for how much trouble he'd caused them.
"When?" Valarian asked.
"Why wait?" Arelca laughed softly, calling Tertinal over.
The Guildmistress performed the ceremony on the spot, and Valarian swore to love and cherish Arelca for the rest of his life, on pain of castration should he ever forsake her. These people have some strange oaths, he thought.
Then, an hour later, the other guild members who were planning to go to Mezulbryst approached him, carrying their packs. "We're ready to go when you are," they told him.
He didn't want to bring his wife and unborn child into a warzone, but a quick Seeking scan told him that the war was over. "Alright," he said, hugging Arelca tight. "Let's go."
He called upon his Travelling magic to encompass the seven of them and take them to a location just west of South Toven. They'd be able to walk into the city there without too much suspicion, and the guild members wouldn't be shocked by excessive drow as well.
His new friends looked in awe at the starry sky and the unfamiliar moons, before Valarian laughed softly and pulled them out of their reverie. "This way," he said. "We're a bit of a hike from the city, but it's not far. This is a city called South Toven. I'm sure you'll like it here."
The seven of them headed off, smiles on their faces, Valarian's arm around his bride's waist, toward the city of South Toven.