The first time he saw her he thought he was mad. He had been mad. They’d been under the mountain lost for weeks, drinking water from luminescent mineral springs and slowly starving on a meager ration of cold, albino, many-legged things they’d stunned with the light of their torches and managed to stab, crush or throttle.
Tunnels that seemed to rise for miles suddenly turned into crumbling spiral stairs to the abyss. Highways of stone petered off into maddeningly inaccessible cracks beyond which lay clean, rushing waters, or cathedrals of luminescent crystal. Layers of bones lay strewn in ancient claustrophobic battlefields so old that ribcages turned to fossil fields of grasping claws.
He saw her then, the Drow princess, as he and his fellow mercenaries staggered across such a grasping battlefield, dizzy with thirst. The Drow princess was whispered of among Men from those mountains. A blonde-haired maiden warrior whose existence was haunted by the handful of victims who’d escaped her, found, saved at death’s door hanging upside down in the dark, mad from the poison that had held them paralyzed but conscious for days or weeks.
She watched coldly as he reached out to her from across the field of bones, pleading for his life. Then she tossed a waterskin the mercenary’s way. As his companions drew their blades to run him and one other through for it, she smiled a half-smile and stepped back out of the torchlight.
Later, as he half-slept alone under the mountain with his comrades’ blood drying on his armor, she returned. He’d been slowly feeding a smoky fire of half-mouldy timbers to drive away anything that might find him there, dozing in his delirium and his slowly-rusting chainmail.
He didn’t hear her, but the fire went dark, his head hit a wall hard enough that he saw stars and there she sat on his chest, with the point of a kris knife poking through a broken ring in his chainmail. The mercenary could feel the poison numbing his as-of-yet unbroken skin till it was deathly cold.
Then she kissed his mouth and said in a voice like icy bells, “It is true what the Men whisper above, those ruined generations of the once-proud, cowering in their thatched huts and the shadows of the ruins of their former glory.
If you will take me to the daylit world, from whence came the the god who cuckolded my mother’s husband, the king, I will spare you. I want to find the god whose seduction sentenced her to be throttled by her own entrails the day after my birth. I have sworn a blood oath that I shall slay him with the Sword of Souls and avenge mine and my father’s lifelong shame. And I may choose be your lover for a little while, if you do not disappoint me now. Otherwise, you will surely die tonight by my hand.”
Then she kissed the mercenary again, hard, and tore the chainmail shirt from his chest as if it were paper.
Years later, long after he’d taken her through the ancient streets of the Oldest City to teach her of the daylit world, she left him finally. She left him sleeping, with a bag of jewels the size of strawberries tucked into his hand, and his ribs bruised and cracked, and the smell of her hair still on his hands.
And when he heard, some years later, that a demonic warrior princess had slain a god, he smiled softly to himself and chuckled.