Added July 07, 1999
Category: Fantasy/Dark Elf
Author: Lledrith RavenWolf

Dark Elf Category Winner 1999
[Disclaimer]

Twin Swords

Prologue

Part 1

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Prologue

There is always much speculation about the place of death. In truth, it consists of many planes: from the lowest, known as the Abyss, cursed home of Lloth and her yochlols; to the plane of the common crimes, where twisted, groaning souls are punished for their murders or thefts; to that of the plane of joy, that of those innocent, good beings of the Material plane.

It is a presence all around the Material Plane, an invisible place whose vastness equals that of the heavens. Merged together, the Realms would consist of a thousand thousand planes of existence, a large world in its own right, but just one world out of many scattered in the dark balance of the universe, that perfect scale.

In the heart of the balance of worlds is a shifting, neutral world known as Sanctuary, home of the six most powerful beings in the universe. These are the World - Makers, each with their own signature powers, personality, and amusements, creating or battling for worlds. All of them have an endless thirst for knowledge, which is fueled through experiments.

Such experiments range from the small; that of creating a new species and watching its development, to that of the massive; that of creating a whole world with a singular purpose, enchantment or structure, then leaving that world to its own devices and just watching.

Sometimes the World - Makers reach out to souls in their worlds, nudging them along destinies that give them gains. Good World - Makers would help the souls, giving them their heart’s desire, for a price that would benefit the soul in a good way. The evil ones would not, twisting the souls for their amusements.

Fights often break out amongst the World - Makers, mostly over worlds, but sometimes, rarely, over the seat of Kano, the Head of the World - Makers.

***

The Realms were such an experiment, created by Morikanblancmyran, the Dragon World - Maker, Kano of the spirits since the beginning of time. Kano was a title earned by accident, but his unparalleled wisdom and willpower proved a good asset in stifling resentments.

The World - Makers spend most of their days in silent contemplation. On one such incident the First Dragon perceived a distant occurrence in the Realms. A being he had marked for watching that he had plans for, was plummeting back to the spirit plane for the second time, from the material plane.


Book of Souls

Soul, the living essence of a being. It may be twisted or healed, broken but never destroyed. In its tenure as a life of a being, it develops itself. Born neutral, it would be turned down the path of good or evil, striving always for an inner peace, away from the base emotions, then to be pushed at death to planes which its actions have chosen.

Only two occurrences may break this inexorable path, that of interference of a being possessing clerical powers, or restlessness caused by an uncompleted deed of the soul’s life before death. I pity souls that have been turned from their path by such occurrences, especially the latter. For those who have been 'resurrected` may be released unto death, that of a uncompleted deed would send the soul wailing forever on the material plane, until its undoubtedly difficult deed has been accomplished by another.

Few have escaped both curses.

So it was with myself. At rest and at peace in the Plane of Joy, I was pulled out to the Material Plane, at a cleric’s unholy bidding, to become the ultimate servant in my evil god’s army, that of Zin-Carla. My soul finally broke the cleric’s control when commanded to kill my only son, in a fight over a lake of acid. Outraged and horrified at the thought of killing the only person I had loved in my entire life, my soul had wrenched back control at the last moment, to plunge off into the acid, ending the enchantment.

Back in the Plane, I have watched my son’s movements through the Material Plane, and have often found myself wishing for the chance to leap out of my Plane’s confinement, and help him with my blades. I have cried out in fear and rage at times when it seemed apparent that he was to join me here, at such a young age, with so much of Life’s road yet to see.

My soul at peace, my heart in turmoil. But watching Drizzt, seeing his deeds, I smile, and feel satisfaction that I have done well in giving up my life twice, so long ago, so that he may live his in the name of good.

May his scimitars dance always to that name.

--Zaknafein Do'Urden

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Chapter 1: Summons

Amorphous shapes drifted around in this plane, sometimes forming into the likeness they had taken in life. The plane seemed oddly mixed, a potpourri of rooms without walls, here a room of bookshelves, there a room of turf with azure skies overhead, the clouds overhead forming unbelievable shapes. There was a room with a circle of couches, where men and women discussed abstracted topics, incomprehensible to a mortal. A room with a great blue slide into sparkling clear water, where spirits raced down at high speeds to splash, laughingly, into, then leap out to queue for another ride.

Yet all these rooms merged with harmony, all imbued with an essence of joy. For this was the Plane of Saints, for all the souls who have held firmly to the path of good in their mortal lives. Unlike the Abyss, the opposite of this plane, only a being possessing great power could wrench out a single soul.

In one room of a meadow of springy turf and bright flowers, there is a strange sight to see, an adult, white haired elf with ebon skin, with the lithe confident steps of a warrior, playing with children of assorted races.

His handsome features have the look of joy that is evident on all inhabitants of this Plane, and his playmates seem to disregard his looks, although the dark elves are some of their races’ most hated enemies.

Another strange fact was that though the meadow was bathed in warm sunshine, the drow did not seem to mind, nor did the other races of children that belonged to the Underdark, the lightless cavernous place below the surface of the Material Plane. The game is simple yet enjoyable: one of the group is blindfolded, and the rest run around in the boundaries of that room, avoiding the blindfolded player, known as the Catcher. The Catcher tries to ‘tag’ another player by touching that person and guessing his or her name. If ‘tagged’ correctly, the ‘tagged’ player would become the Catcher.

Spirits retain their material properties when they change into their original likeness. The dark elf seemed to have an uncanny knowledge of where his youthful friends were, and when it was his turn as Catcher, deftly ‘tagged’ them, even through the blindfold.

This fact the group accepted, with much laughter.

The drow spirit’s genuine smile was another unusual feature for his race. Drow were, of late, rarely seen on such a Plane, for their evil Goddess Lloth usually twisted their lives down the path of evil at a tender age.

This game had endured for several years of the Material Plane, for what was time in the face of eternity?

The drow stepped out of the current Catcher’s reach, a svirfneblin child, not making a sound, yet patting the child’s head with one hand in a swift move. The svirfneblin cried out in triumph, and made a wild swipe at the air in front of it, nearly overbalancing in its excitement. Grinning impishly, the dark elf leapt agilely to the side, allowing the Catcher to charge ahead out of his vicinity.

A sudden tug at his soul stole the smile on his face, and he blinked in surprise, a sense of dread creeping into his heart. Could it be that he was to be summoned again back to the Material Plane, to further the evil designs of his race?

Unconsciously, he took a step back, accidentally bumping into the ancient oak behind him.

This movement alerted the deep gnome Catcher, and he turned in the sound’s general direction, charging and running into the soft form at the oak, to crumple into a laughing, tangled heap of arms and feet. With a speed that did not match with his short, stubby hands, the svirfneblin felt the features of his ‘tagged’ player.

“Zaknafein Do’Urden!” The svirfneblin yelled with a note of triumph, “You’re It!”

The child removed his blindfold, a satisfied grin on its small, wrinkled face as it looked at the dark elf. The language was a curious mix of all the spoken languages of all the worlds, musical and lilting. All the souls of the Plane seemed to understand it perfectly.

Zaknafein accepted his ‘tagging’ graciously, and took the proffered blindfold.

As if it had only been waiting for this moment, the tugging came again, more demanding. Probing tentatively, Zak discerned that the perpetrator was not mortal. Not a god, nor a demon. His curiosity aroused, he excuses himself reluctantly from the game.

The children’s responses were more or less similar to the svirfneblin Catcher, “Come back soon you will, Zak?”

Solemnly, the dark elf promised them, foretelling dire consequences that would befall him if he broke his word, inciting a few giggles from the group, then said his farewells.

Allowing the caller to pull his soul along to his destination, Zaknafein Do’Urden smiled to himself, an expression that came easily to him now. It is said that all souls made their own heavens or hells.

This, was his heaven.

If an observer were to look down far above the flat balance of worlds, Sanctuary would stand out like a faceted diamond in black sand. Multihued, it is as large as the largest star, and it is safe to say that the rest of the universe revolves around it. It was the first world created, a joint effort from the six World - Makers that had existed since the beginning of time and and will live beyond time itself.

Thus it is a neutral place. Neither good nor evil holds sway on this special world, for it is a world dedicated to solely to learning.

One thing stands out on this marvelous place, a building of such immense proportions that it can be seen far above the planet. Every bit of the building is a work of art, a piece raised to the harmony that rules all the planes. Even more curious, the building seemed to have been built by one being alone. The intricate designs on the building are in recognizable patterns, repeated and criss-crossed, now and again overlapping at their edges. Like the planet itself, the building blazes with multihued fire, hewn of a single immense block of mother of pearl.

The building, with no real name but fancifully called Library of Wisdom, had been created along with Sanctuary, at the beginning of time, with the combined efforts of all six World - Makers.

It deserves its nickname, for it contains all the tomes and reading materials with importance or great scientific, historical or literary impact, from all the worlds of Creation.

More importantly, it houses the Great tomes, books ‘written’ by the World - Makers, willed into existence at the same time as a planet is willed into existence. The Great tomes wrote the history of the created planet, from the beginning to its end.

Most of the planet is undisturbed nature, of mountains and plains and seas, containing all the natural features of all the known worlds. All the worlds too have at least one animal representative in Sanctuary, be it a proud and noble unicorn, or a small robin.

There is only one city in Sanctuary, its wide paved streets often home to entertainers, who are mostly students of the many Schools performing for the public in their spare time. Now and again, one would spot a large, plain ring of a table in a large square.

These were the communal eating tables, enough for all the inhabitants of the city. The tables all looked ancient, but the wood unblemished by the weather. Each of the chairs is numbered, and every person would receive a new number each day.

This is to allow the people to know each other citizen of the city well, giving them the chance to mingle with other people that they would not normally see in their daily routines.

Rounding a corner, a visitor may see a curious glass tube, covered at the top with carved adamantite. Handles of silver are fastened onto both sides of the glass, and pulling on the handle, a door would open, its outline barely noticeable before.

Stepping inside, one would see a swirling gas. You just have to will yourself to another location in the city, and in a space of two heartbeats; you will be in another glass tube, in that location in the city.

Teleporters, as they are called, took beings around the city with minimal amounts of fuss. Enchanted, even giants would be able to fit inside, for it altered its size accordingly to its guest.

The city smells of a pleasant mixture of wildflowers, this delicate scent now and again replaced by the smell of fresh bread in a bakery, or the spicy, tangible scent of hot food in a roadside stall.

This unique scent is due to a seemingly random scattering of gardens throughout the city, with carved benches and tall trees, their shady boughs often attracting climbers, that recline on the wide boughs or plucked the tree’s sweet fruit.

Like the Library of Knowledge, the city is entirely made of gleaming mother of pearl, an impressive sight to behold.

However, the city is dedicated to knowledge, and many large Schools were housed in its boundaries. These Schools were sometimes divided into many sections, but remained basically the same.

Each World - Maker founded at least one School at the beginning of time, and although all the schools grew in size over time, none is dominant, and there is no competition between them, except on those rare occasions in which a World - Maker goes to war with another one. Even then open confrontations are rare.

Masters of each School are personally selected by the World - Makers, through their prowness, experience and personality. Sometimes the selected Master would have had no knowledge of Sanctuary’s very existence in before being told of his being selected, having come from another world.

The city seemed unnaturally quiet this day, and a solemn procession moved through its wide main street, heading for a peaceful grove on the city’s outskirts. The focus of this procession was a single long wooden box, sporting runic carvings and other symbols of life. The box was supported by six creatures on either side, moving with measured steps down the streets.

The creatures were a strange mix of griffin, elf, human, dwarf, a half man, half horse, and some reptilian species. All shared the same sorrowful look of loss and regret.

The box was open, showing its inhabitant in peaceful repose. A human in full armor, hands crossed on his chest. His armor was intricately forged, and the patterns on his cloak bespoke him a Master of a School. The powerful set of his shoulders, the strong jaw, and massive chest gave a clue to the person he would have been in life, one of strength and character.

His face wore a faint smile, and was a mask of serenity. His hair was white with age, and wrinkles snaked across his broad forehead, proclaiming that this man had passed due to age.

The crowd behind wore clothes of dark hue, and in respect to the deceased, preserved silence as they walked.

The procession soon moved to the city’s great, ornamental gates. Ornamental, for there were no other cities on Sanctuary to defend against, nor any hostile force on this realm of neutrality.The gates were wide open, and the beings stepped out into a quiet grove.

The first sound the city heard that day was a soft harmony composed of many inflections and tunes, sung by the creatures in the procession, weaving itself into a song of death. The song was sacred beyond words, and accompanied the coffin as it was slowly lowered into the pit at the heart of the grove.

The song reached its peak as the coffin touched the bottom, and then took a note of yearning as the lid was lowered to fit perfectly on top. Two students, flanking the grave, then lowered the Master’s sword onto the top of the coffin, where it fastened magically with a click.

The harmony started on its last stage, that of regret, as earth was pushed back into the grave, and a structure of clear blue obsidian, the height of a full-grown man, was erected on the grave. Words were inscribed on the structure, a tribute to the deceased Master.

As the ceremony ended, the crowd bowed to the structure, then set their own tributes on the grave, soon burying the mound over a heap of brightly colored flowers.

The silver dragon floated in a warm, indoor pool, its body submerged but for its head, which rested against the cold stone of the floor, eyes closed in ecstasy. To all appearance, it seemed fast asleep, in a dragon’s meditative trance that could span centuries in its contemplation.

It had been aware of the funeral at the city, and was saddened at the death as any of Sanctuary’s citizens. It was also reminded painfully of the School’s more material loss, and had spent most of its time since the Master had weakened looking for a solution.

The dragon felt rather guilty at thinking in such a possessive, unfeeling matter, but it reconciled itself to reality, pragmatism being a part of its complicated character.

It would not be fair to resurrect the dead Master, it knew. He deserved his peace after a long servitude, but the temptation had been great. Looking for an appropriate successor took time and effort, of which the silver dragon could not spare at this particular time. However, the dragon had a code of honor, which it adhered to at all times, whether convenient to itself, or not.

Quite by chance it seemed, the dragon had come across its answer. Reaching out across the planes, it called and coaxed its target to come.

Zaknafein floated upwards, ever upwards, rapidly rising through the planes of existence until he surfaced from the Realms altogether. As he beheld the balance of planets, Zak could not help but feel a sense of awe and insignificance.

So immense were the distances, so dark was the balance!

The tugging stopped, as if reorienting itself, then pulled his soul faster and faster, past worlds and brightly burning suns, whose heat he could not feel, past large rocks floating aimlessly around, stranded without purpose, sometimes to be caught up in a planet’s pull and smash into it forcefully.

To a single multihued planet, at the heart of the balance. The trip had taken approximately two minutes of the Material Plane.

Zaknafein eyed it with growing amazement, and his suspicions about the nature of the summons grew.

Insubstantial as the wind, Zak’s soul plunged down, to fly swiftly over golden deserts and through ancient forests, to a city of shifting, multihued fire, where the pulling paused, as if allowing him to enjoy the sight.

Zak had spent all four centuries of his life in Menzoberranzan; a dark elf city of incredible beauty, but this city took his breath away. Graceful spires reached for the sky; perfect domes and arches were apparent within the great walls.

The summons came again with more urgency, and he was led quickly into the city gates, over straight streets and under arcs of lush, living plants.

Into a semicircle of perfectly spaced buildings of different hues, each with its distinct shape and structure. Zaknafein’s suspicions were confirmed as he read a metal plate at the center of the semicircle, with a simple message that had a depth of implications:

WORLD - MAKERS

The silver dragon’s eyes snapped open as it sensed the soul’s imminent arrival. Usually, it would have rushed a summoned soul to its side in seconds, but it had seen no harm in letting this one do a bit of sightseeing. And it had a lot of time on its hands now, that the crisis on one of his more important worlds having resolved itself in a matter of seconds, in a correct course.

Well maybe with a little bit of help.

The soul drifted in cautiously, and the dragon allowed itself a secret smile. Although souls were invisible to most mortals, a World - Maker could see one quite clearly, as a mist that formed now and again into the features of its life before, with other facts about the soul clearly written on it.

The silver dragon glanced once at the soul, and it solidified into a slender figure with a mane of white hair and ebon-skin, unarmed and unarmored, wearing simple robes. It smiled again. All was going according to plan.

Zaknafein was startled when he solidified into his material shape, and more so when he saw the size of the dragon. He had expected a World-Maker to be immense, fitting his overall impression of Sanctuary.

Instead, the dragon was small; its head would have been easily cradled in an adult elf’s arms. It had been engaged in what seemed to be a bath when Zak had arrived, for it was floating in gently steaming water, tail twitching slightly, wings folded across its back.

For a moment he thought that the dragon was not the World - Maker that the colour of the building proclaimed it to be, but one of that World - Maker’s many servants. Until it raised its head, and met Zaknafein’s eyes with its own.

In those beautiful orbs Zak seemed to see a multitude of starry skies, glowing, speaking the truth of existence and that of Time.

The dark elf did not even see the three stones embedded in the dragon’s chest, before knowing the dragon’s name.

“Morikanblancmyran.”Zaknafein whispered in awe, held by the dragon’s wise gaze.

“Morikan would do,” the silver dragon replied, in the mixed language of the soul, eyes dancing with amusement, a wide, smug smile on its exquisite face.

For a long silence, neither spoke, then Zak stated, “Why?”

The profound shock had jarred his mind, even though he had suspected the perpetrator of the summons. Meeting a being with enough power to create an entire world was never comfortable, let alone the leader of those beings.

“Have I summoned you?” Morikan finished for him. “Well, Zaknafein Do’Urden,” the dark elf flinched visibly at his name, “do you know what Sanctuary is?”

Irritation was beginning to overshadow awe, and Zak replied a little sharply, “You would know if I do.” If what Zak knew of World - Makers was correct, Morikan would know of all his thoughts, desires, and even his life story, in a single glance, so he thought the silver dragon was toying with him asking such a question.

Morikan stretched his front claws onto the cold stone, then rested his head on them. Tilting his head up slightly at Zak, he replied, “I suppose I would know if I wished, but I prefer not to probe into another’s privacy. Unless, of course, you would like me to.” He added dryly. Zaknafein blinked, then shook his head emphatically.

“Sanctuary is a place of learning, and contains the largest library in the known universe. It also contains many schools…” he said in the voice he had used in his past life, the droning voice in which he had explained theories during his tenure as a Master of Melee-Magthere.

The dragon held up a silver-scaled claw, cutting off his sentence. “Enough for now. Do you know of this person?” he gestured, and a perfect image of a human formed beside Zak.

The dark elf slowly circled the image, then reported with a tone of smugness, “Janran LongSword, Sword Master of your School of Warriors.”

Zaknafein’s soul had a spirit’s thirst for knowledge, and he had spent much of his time acquiring information about the Realms and the rest of the universe.

Patiently, as if speaking to a dense child, Morikan asked, “And do you know what has happened to him?”

“No. Nor do I wish to. May you tell me the point of this soon so I may return to my game?” Zak was getting more and more impatient with the banter.

“You need to know what happened.” Morikan retorted inexorably. “Janran has passed away due to old age, peacefully.”

“What does that have to do with myself?” the dark elf asked. Then his eyes widened as a realization hit him. “You cannot be suggesting…”

“Ah, but I am. Will you, Zaknafein Do’Urden, take over his position as Sword Master of the School of Warriors?” Morikan asked, whirling, glowing eyes boring into the elf.

“No… I mean, why me? Why not someone who is alive? I am content; you have nothing to offer me for that position. Nothing.” Zak stammered in shock, lamely trailing off, belatedly reminding himself not to offend the World - Maker.

“Because,” Morikan drawled, “You are possibly among the best swordsmen in my worlds. Most of the others are humans, who,” a look of pain twisted the dragon’s surprisingly expressive features, “do not live long. The other choices all are preoccupied at the moment, especially your son, Drizzt.” Morikan eyed Zak covertly after mentioning Drizzt’s name.

Zaknafein started at the name, then remembered to cover his look of interest. “What do you mean?” he asked cautiously.

“He is living a dangerous life, and is uncommonly reckless even for one so young. Sooner or later…” Morikan let the sentence trail off. Zak’s eyes narrowed. “So what are you offering for this position?” he asked grudgingly.

“The chance for you to teach youths to adhere to your code of honor. For,” Morikan caught Zak’s incredulous look, “it is almost the same as the School’s. Mine has but one more rule, obeying me.” The dragon remarked rather smugly.

“Chosen youths that have impact on my purpose are brought here, to learn, and you will find that each of them is a challenge to your abilities. There are however, many Masters of the various weapons, therefore you will not be overtaxed. A class of six or so is the maximum for each Master.”

“They are not all human, and the first few years of your tenure will mostly be spent in the Library studying the various types of students that may turn up under you.”

“I will give you the ability to switch from this solid form to your insubstantial form. This is not charity, as you will have to teach your students how to fight against such spirits. You will learn how to fight against such spirits yourself.”

“Also, you will be given the ability to transverse the planes. This will tax your willpower, and you’ll find you won’t be able to use it too often, a good point actually. One would not like one’s Sword Master running off at every opportunity,” Morikan added dryly, inciting a chuckle from Zaknafein.

“Well?” the silver dragon looked at Zak expectantly.

Zaknafein considered the offer. Transversing the planes would allow him to return to the Realms, for his promise to the children. It would also give him the chance to help his son during times of dire trouble.

The idea of teaching students like Drizzt, melding them to his ideals, was also as attractive, if not more than that ability. However he wished to know more of this deal.

The elf crossed his hands around his chest. “I too, have passed to the Plane of Saints. Why do you not just resurrect Janran?”

Morikan looked at him calmly, a knowing look in his orbs as he discerned the purpose of the question. “It would not be fair. Janran has served me faithfully for forty of his years. Also, one’s school needs a change,” the dragon put in, quickly cutting across Zak’s protests at it not being ‘fair’.

“Why do you not just divide yourself and teach them yourself?”

“I do not have the patience, or the time. Doing that for the Sword Master position would require, out of fairness, for me to assume all the other positions in the rest of the schools I control. As I will not die, as time passes the tactics and movements of the schools would become stereotyped. Can you imagine having the same teacher for all the weaponry? How boring.” Morikan replied with a snort.

“Why do you not just uproot my son? He is as good, if not better, than I am, and still has many centuries of life to go, while in my material self I have but three more.” Saying this pained Zaknafein, but he looked squarely at Morikan.

Silently the dragon applauded his courage and stubbornness. Normally a fair offer like this would be accepted without question, for fear of it being withdrawn by the unpredictable World - Makers. Too many questions often irritated Morikan, but he admitted to himself that he rather liked Zak.

“Your son has not fulfilled his destiny. You have. As for the centuries, I am not resurrecting you. Technically, you are a soul, which incidentally has the ability to solidify. You will not age.”

“When will I stop this tenure then?”

Morikan thought for a moment. “When your son joins you in the Plane of Saints.”

Zaknafein considered that, then, still looking into Morikan’s starry orbs, nodded firmly. “I accept this position, willingly.”

The silver dragon smiled, satisfaction and relief evident on its face. Unlike some of his brothers and sisters, Morikan did not believe in coercion.

“Very well. Welcome then, Zaknafein Do’Urden, Sword Master of the School of Warriors.” Morikan boomed, and a deep toned bell rang somewhere deep in the chamber, along with a telepathic message to the School of Warriors that a replacement had been found.

In a smooth, graceful movement, the silver dragon plucked a gleaming scale from its side, and blew gently on it, transforming it into a bright ball, too bright for Zak to look at. The ball hesitated, floating above the dragon’s open palm, then drifted over to Zaknafein.

Hovering over his head, Zaknafein was suddenly ringed in the same colour as the ball. Then he blazed in a burst of searing, white light.

When the light diminished, Zaknafein saw he was wearing a suit of ordinary chain mail. Twin swords hung at his belt, rather plain, in contrast to his intricately patterned cloak that proclaimed him a Sword Master. His boots were comfortable, and inscribed with runes. The bracers on his wrists had similar inscriptions, and fitted him perfectly. With a wide, boyish smile on his face, Zaknafein looked back up at Morikan.

“Welcome again, Sword Master. You’ll find a guide at the School, where I will transport you next. Your weapons will stay plain, as the first task, or quest, you will have after your studies would be to find and acquire new ones. You will probably have to do a bit a research in the Library.” Morikan smiled.

“Now, your guide is waiting. My blessings on you, farewell.” The dragon made a gesture, and a white mist surrounded Zaknafein. When it cleared, the dark elf was gone.

“Good luck.” Morikan whispered, then settled back into the pool, closing his eyes, a smug smile on his face.

[top]

Chapter 2: City of Learning

The world lurched once more, and Zaknafein found himself in a hall quite like that of the Do’Urden training gym, only much larger. Looking around, he saw that there were no doors to the hall, that simple curtains served instead, framing the arches that lead out of the place. The arches were built on four sides of the room, perfectly spaced, representing the four compass directions.

Tubes, suspended from the domed ceiling, gave off a light not unlike that of sunlight in the Material Plane, but Zak found that he did not feel any discomfort.

There were several evenly spaced, white circles on the rough floor of gray stone, each with a radius of approximately three meters. At the side of each circle stood neatly stacked piles of planks, boxes, and other materials that the dark elf presumed were to build obstacles on the circles.

At the very center of the hall was a raised platform, steps leading up at the corner. Plain, brown benches ringed the platform, for students to watch the mock fights or demonstrations on the platform.

On the exit labeled NORTH, there were two corkboards flanking the arch, with papers randomly fastened on. Brass plates sat on top of the boards that read: MESSAGES

At the western exit, neat racks stood on its side, filled with many types of swords and shields. The rack on the left side held wooden practice poles and boards as practice shields, each roughly similar to its counterpart on the right rack, which held real weapons of metal. Mosaic depicting swordsmen at war formed the eastern walls, along with a curious gray pane of glass with a seat in front. The pictures were surprisingly lifelike and beautiful, gemstones making up the eyes of the creatures, and the hooves of horses. The battle was surrounded in turn by pictures that showed smithies hard at work and warriors training fiercely. Words were written at the top of the mosaic, apparently the code of the school: FOR HONOR, FOR GOOD, AND NOT FOR SELF

The southern side of the hall held padded suits and many types of armor, including some that Zak had neither seen nor heard of.

“What is this place?” Zak asked of the seemingly empty walls.

“Sword hall.” Came a calm answer behind him.

Zak whirled towards the source of the voice, and his eyes widened in surprise when he saw the speaker. A drow female, her long white mane cascading down her delicate face, to teasingly brush at her hips. Her slender arms crossed over her chest, as she leant against the platform.

Moving with fluid grace, she stepped out of the shadows, facing Zaknafein, ice blue eyes sparkling and radiant. Her flowing robes were plain, and a single sword with an ornate, adamantite hilt hung by her side.

“Greetings, Zaknafein Do’Urden. My name is Lin’Fayaenre Ra’Kest, your guide for today. You may call me Winter.” She said in the Drow tongue, her voice musical and lilting.

Pausing, she looked at him curiously, as though trying to gauge his reaction to her appearance.

Zak was stunned, even more so when he saw the ranking marks on her cloak, that proclaimed her a graduating student of Morikan’s Loremaster School.

“How did a cleric of Lloth end up in Sanctuary?” he asked at last.

“I was called, as were you,” Winter replied evenly, the ghost of a smile on her face.

That expression confused Zaknafein, for she was the first priestess of Lloth he had ever seen to smile a genuine smile.

“You are not dead.” He stated bluntly, as he could sense the enamations from another soul, that she did not possess.

“There are many ways to summon someone.” Winter replied with a tone of finality. “It is safe to say that I am no longer a follower of the Spider Queen, for I have forsaken her ways.”

Seeing the incredulous look in Zak’s eyes, she added, “You are not the only one who can see through her lies.” The serious look on her face lending truth to her words.

“Now, I have been instructed to tell you a little more about this city, and also about what you are supposed to do as a Master of this School. It is quite different from the life of a drow Master.”

“Students on the last level of the various Schools often are relegated to a Master of another School for use in combat training. I have been sent here, and will help you when you are required to teach you students how to fight with and against mages.”

“Students currently wishing to learn how to use swords have been given out to the other weapon Masters at the moment, until you finish your ‘orientation’ period.” Winter finished in a businesslike voice. “Any questions?” she asked.

“How long will my ‘orientation’ period be?” Zaknafein asked, clearly hoping that he could get it over with quickly and start teaching.

“It depends on how long you will take to absorb what information you need about Sanctuary and the school. Most of the information can be found there,” she waved a hand at the eastern wall, “but you would probably require some time in the Library.”

A smile of mischief appeared on her face. “Good luck in the Library.” She added, as if it was an afterthought.

“The time would also include your quest, of which you would find out yourself,” Winter said quickly, seeing Zak’s mouth open to ask another question.

“Any other questions I will answer on the way. The day wears on, shall we go?” Winter indicated that he follow her, and walked swiftly out through the west exit without waiting for an answer.

Zaknafein shook his head in disbelief, and quickly caught up with his long strides.

Lin’Fayaenre led Zak around the large complex of the School of Warriors, beginning with personal visits to the rest of the weapon Masters, who greeted the new Sword Master with warmth. All also demanded that he should sit down and have a drink with them someday.

Students they met on the corridors bowed respectfully, and Zak felt uncomfortable with all the acknowledgement that seemed to come with his title.

There were few artworks in the complex, mostly having to do with Morikan, or war. Zaknafein, seeing a tapestry on a man dressed in full plate mail and on a large charger, laughed.

“How do they manage to move?” he asked.

Winter snickered. “They don’t really. The horse does. One would suggest you keep your comments about this type of armor down. It is the favorite of quite a few weapon Masters, including the Sword Master before you.”

Zaknafein blinked, then narrowed as he saw the bait. With a final look of disdain at the tapestry, he moved on without a word.

Winter smiled to herself. This one would prove interesting.

They spent the rest of the morning inspecting the various structures in the academy. Zak stopped before a long, rectangular pool in another room that reminded him of Morikan.

“What is this for?” he had realized that all the structures, fantastical and ludicrous as some were, all had to do with learning the weapons trade.

“Balance.” Winter walked over to a metallic device at one end of the pool. “Logs are put in the water, and a student would balance on them. When the Master is satisfied, he would turn on this machine. Waves are generated of varying strength, and the student has to stay one the log, at all times.”

“One got rather wet that day,” she admitted wryly, then glared at him, as if daring him to comment.

Zak just laughed.

When he recovered, he remembered something. “Are you not from the Loremaster School? What were you doing with that device then?”

“Morikan has complained that his Loremasters are ‘pathetic’ at defending themselves without spells, so he has decreed that both his other schools must get at three levels in this School first, before they enter the schools of their choice.” Winter explained.

Zaknafein privately nursed the same feelings about wizards, but kept them to himself.

“Now, we are coming to possibly the most interesting room in the area.” Winter remarked, and led the way to a wooden door at the end of the chamber. Knocking thrice on the door, she stopped, while Zak waited curiously.

“Who?” came a high voice inside in the Common tongue that Zak found he understood.

The glass pane at the top of the door slid away partially, to reveal two bright, inquisitive eyes. “Oh. Well I suppose you could come in.”

The door opened, revealing yet another large room, surprisingly plain. To the left stood a wooden table and a chair, piled high with papers. The rest of the room did not contain a single piece of furniture, starkly white.

Zaknafein looked around with a slight feeling of disappointment. What was so interesting about this room?

“The new Sword Master I presume? An honor to meet you, sir. My name is Pyrikkan, Loremaster. Winter has told you how wonderful this room is eh? A disappointment you think?” The words seemed to stumble over one another, as if this creature was overflowing with ideas to quick to mouth them all at once.

Looking at Pyrikkan, Zaknafein’s hands moved reflexively to his sword hilts. Standing before him was a savage looking creature that looked like a bipedal lizard. Its powerful head was filled with sharp teeth, and its hands were obviously dexterous, ending with three claws. Its legs made the biggest impression, however. Powerfully muscled, they ended birdlike, but for the huge, sharp claw that grew out of the center of the foot, tipped like a sickle.

Pyrikkan saw the reaction. “Why is that the first thing they do when they see me? Is there some exception you people take to my appearance?” he complained, but his eyes twinkled with amusement.

He turned to look at Winter, who was silently shaking with laughter. “Not a word, young lady. I remember you tried to strike me down with a lightning bolt. Scorched the walls, you did, I had to request for reparations that took such a long time…What are you laughing at?” he asked Zaknafein irritatably.

“A lightning bolt?” Zaknafein managed to gasp out, then burst into fresh bouts of laughter.

Winter made a rude noise, which caused Pyrikkan twist his face slightly in what would translate as raising an eyebrow.

“Well. Let us continue.” Pyrikkan started, stressing the last word. Zak calmed down quickly, and looked at the Loremaster.

“Good. This is the Room of Illusions. It is always manned by a master specializing in the subject. I create an environment and illusionary opponents, for the warriors to fight against. This is further enhanced by my amulet, a gift from Morikan, to give the illusions more substance.” With its three fingers, Pyrikkan lifted up the stone pendant on his amulet.

“This room, obviously, saves the School time by trying to acquire real monsters. However the station must be manned at all times by two masters, for it is very dangerous. Imagine basilisks roaming loose through the School.” Pyrikkan rambled on in his quick voice.

Zak shuddered. Once as a student Menzoberranzan’s Melee-Magthere he had led a patrol, which had come across one such beast. Fully half of the students in the patrol had been felled, turned into stone or by the monster’s poisonous breath.

Pyrikkan became more and more animated as he described the room, and even gave them a demonstration by creating an ogre, then banishing it offhandedly when the ogre made as to bash in his head with a cruel looking club.

When the lecture ended, Pyrikkan bowed gracefully, then returned to his stack of papers on the table.

“Now for your rooms,” Winter informed Zak as they exited.

“This,” Winter took in the room with a sweep of her hand, “is probably only aesthetic for you. I rather envy you,” she remarked wryly. “You don’t tire, nor go hungry, nor need rest. However, if that sly Morikan neglected to tell you, you can get hurt in your material form, after which you will need to become insubstantial to heal.”

Zaknafein nodded absently as he studied the room. The neat bed in the corner looked comfortable, and there was a desk with reading lights next to it. Empty shelves stood at the other end of the small room. There were cupboards and a device for hanging armor.

Another of the curious gray glass panes was fixed in the wall next to the hanging device, with a comfortable, padded chair in front of it. Zaknafein walked over to the gray pane and inspected it, all the while sensing that Winter was feeling amused at his action. Not understanding why, he touched the glass.

“Greetings, Zaknafein Do’Urden. What do you require?” a disembodied voice came from the suddenly pulsating screen.

Zaknafein leapt backwards in his astonishment, almost overturning the padded chair. Behind him was the clear sound of Winter snickering.

“An information device from one of the worlds. You speak to it, ask it questions, and it will answer the best it is able.” Winter explained.

“Curious.” Zak replied, going back to look at the screen. “Where is the voice coming from?”

“The screen itself. More devices have been built into it. This machine is akin to the pane you must have seen in the Sword Hall. Most of the information you would need, however, is available in the Library.” Winter replied.

A few bells rang in the City, and Winter visibly brightened. “Time for my afternoon meal. Enjoy the device for the time being, for I will come back after the meal to show you the Library. Now, if you’ll excuse me,” With a smile and a bow, Lin’Fayaenre swept out of the room, leaving Zak alone.

It had proved an interesting day so far. With a look of anticipation, Zaknafein settled in the padded chair and started to ask the screen questions.

Winter came back for him after her meal, and they walked through the School’s corridors to a room containing spaced glass tubes, the teleporters.

Pulling open a glass door, the two drow elves walked inside, where Winter then shut the door tightly.

“Library.” She commanded, and the world lurched.

When the mist cleared, they seemed to be in the same room as before. Zaknafein raised an eyebrow, but Winter confidently opened the door, and walked out of the room.

They were in a different corridor now, that had steps leading upwards from it, and pathways in the other two directions. Confidently, Winter walked up the steps, followed by Zak, who paused now and again to look around.

The ceiling was high, and covered in magnificent pictures. Below them was a massive structure, magically suspended in the air, that showed Sanctuary and the rest of the universe revolving around it. Many curious creatures wandered around, looking at the many exhibits or simply sitting down on one of the benches and enjoying the air.

They reached the top of the stairs, to a carved archway with another brass plate: LIBRARY

Beyond the arch waited a magnificent sight. Row after row of bookshelves, stretching even further than the eye could see. A spiral stair in front of them, carved of a single, massive block of rough stone, began its ponderous ascent to the next floor of the immense library.

“How many floors are there?” Zaknafein asked in awe.

“History, Science, Weaponry, Magic, Maps, Languages.” Winter answered promptly. “Of these, you will spend most of your time in the Weaponry floor, and later at that of History.”

There was a sound of someone clearing his throat behind them, Zaknafein turned to see a half man, half horse, known as a centaur. The centaur towered a full head above them, deep blue eyes filled with profound wisdom, his moon shaped face sporting an imposing, rust colored beard. His large horse body was bay colored, and long, combed tail the same colour as his beard.

“Tauron Thunderhoof, Head Librarian,” Winter introduced. “A sly old fox, that one. Rather boring at times, but he is possibly one of the most important people in all of Sanctuary.” Her fingers signaled in the drow code.

Tauron stretched out a huge paw to Zaknafein over the counter, which the dark elf shook warmly. Zak’s eyes widened slightly in pain, and secretly nursed a bruised hand, at the centaur’s strength.

“An honor it is too meet you, Sword Master,” Tauron boomed in a hearty voice, “I may be as boring as Winter says, but the Library is most assuredly not. If you wish to take books out to study, check them out at any one counter like this.” He tapped the wooden, crescent shaped counter. “Do return them in good shape though.”

Zak smirked at Winter’s crestfallen look.

“The only rule in the Library is not to disturb others. Enjoy your visit. There have been a few new additions to the Weaponry floor, which is probably the one you are visiting. Perhaps you should read our history first though…” Tauron paused as he saw Winter rolling her eyes heavenward. He winked at Zak, then went back to sorting books on a rack.

“Why, that sly old fox,” Winter muttered when they were out of earshot, then glared at Zak’s wide smile.

“Anyway, there is one librarian per level, with many assistants. All of them report to Tauron.” She told him.

“How do we get around this place?” Zaknafein asked, eyeing the distances, “Not by walking I hope.”

“By these.” Winter walked over to a box at the counter, taking out two button like devices, and handing one to Zaknafein.

“They will prove useful even to you. Another fact Morikan has probably ‘forgotten’ to mention is that although you may drift in your spirit form, you cannot travel faster than in your material form.”

“Morikan is Kano of the spirits. Why does he keep forgetting such important things?” Zak wondered aloud, secretly knowing the answer.

Winter smiled. “If you have noticed, he enjoys the sound of his own voice, and loves answering questions. He probably likes withholding information just for the sake of knowing something that you do not.”

I heard that The voice of Morikan resounded in their minds.

Of course you did. Winter replied smugly. Zaknafein’s shoulders started shaking in laughter, for the hundredth time that day.

Then his presence was gone, leaving an offended silence.

“There is a map of the Library over there.” Winter continued, gesturing to a part of the wall behind them. “Press the button, then will yourself to a labeled section of the Library.”

Zak examined the map with interest, eyes seeking out immediately the Realms section of the History floor.

“You will have to start there.” Lin’Fayaenre pointed to a section labeled: MASTER’S REFERENCE in the weaponry floor.

Out of curiosity, she asked, “How much have you learned from the pane in your room?”

Zaknafein, still examining the map, replied absently, “I have but three more of its chapters to read.”

“You are probably the fastest reader one has met then,” Winter’s eyes widened, “However you will not be so fast with the information here!”

“After you finish the Master’s section, you will be required to research a weapon of choice. The names are listed in a large book in the center of the weaponry floor, and you may ask your pane.”

“Choose carefully, then start your quest. After its completion, you will take up your full duties as Sword Master.”

“The Library is open for all the hours of the day and night, as the librarians rotate shifts.”

“One will leave you here. Farewell.” With a smile, Winter pressed her button, and disappeared abruptly.

[top]

Chapter 3: Questing

A dark elf reclined on a chair, surrounded by tall bookshelves, balancing a heavy tome on his lap. His head was bent in concentration, stark white hair slightly unkempt. What could be seen of his cloak bespoke him a Master of a School.

Years had passed since Zaknafein first set foot in Sanctuary, but it could be said that he had completed the reading part of his ‘orientation’ period in a remarkably short time. Yet he had learned as much, nay, even more than required, as Morikan, the silver World - Maker, had discovered.

The dragon often called Zak to his chambers for little tests, and for conversations updating him on what Zak was doing at the moment. Although Zaknafein suspected that the wily World - Maker already knew about his movements, he still enjoyed these sessions, which almost always turned into debates.

The depth of the dragon’s wisdom constantly surprised Zaknafein.

Now he was concentrating on his quest. All the listed weapons in the tome had strong magical properties, and a long history (made up or otherwise) that gave them immense value.

However their precise locations were difficult to find. A researcher would be lucky even to find a ‘modern’ mention in the inevitable jumble of their conflicting tales.

Zak’s form blurred slightly at the edges as he forced himself to read through the book he was holding without hurling it through a nearby window. He preferred the true ring of sword meeting sword the a scholar’s life.

Which reminded him that the training session of the day was about to begin.

After he had settled into a normal routine, Zaknafein allowed most of the morning for training his students, which the other Masters had gladly (and with much relief) handed over. He also deftly allotted a lot of time for visiting his young friends on the Plane of Saints, and they had begun a new game, called ‘hide and seek’.

Morikan had then bluntly reminded him of what he was supposed to do, but grudgingly allowed the practice, on condition that he could only teach in the mornings. The silver dragon did not wish Zak to get sidetracked.

So innocent they were, so filled with joy!

The students were an assorted group, but all fairly gifted, some having taught Zak himself a few tricks of the trade. The sessions always reminded himself of the time he had spent teaching Drizzt, his beloved son, so long ago.

Pulling himself out of his thoughts, he returned to his task.

On the platform at the Sword Hall, two drow elves fought, the line between practice and combat blurred. Lin’Fayaenre parried a blow with her crystal sword, sending Zaknafein’s sword wide, then reversed direction to block a cruel thrust by the other.

The two battled back and forth, while students sat in a ring around the platform. Others passing by the hall filed in quietly to watch the dazzling display of swordsmanship.

Zaknafein launched his favourite move, the torque vise. One sword came down with impossible speed, forcing Winter to swing her sword up, while the other came up and swept forward for her throat. The students gasped, for they thought that the contest was at an end.

Winter quickly transferred her blade to her left hand, and used her wrist to block the winning thrust. Her adamantite bracer rang loudly against Zaknafein’s sword, a clear, familiar note. Her crystal sword then freed itself and went into a flickering routine, poking at Zaknafein’s defenses, too fast for the eye to see.

Cursing, Zak parried blindly, before recognising the pattern of the strikes, one sword slipping through her defenses. With alarcity, the crystal blade twisted, smashing the sword away, then continuing its flurry of hits.

Zaknafein settled into a defensive route, trying to wear his opponent down, as he would not tire. Winter’s eyes narrowed, then her sword feinted towards his thigh. Easily, he blocked it, his remaining sword again darting to her side.

With an extra sword, Zak held an advantage. Or so he thought. With only one sword, Winter’s strokes had more strenght, and she put that strenght into use now. Lunging sideways, she allowed her momentum into her swing, and the flat of the blade smashed painfully into Zak’s fingers, causing the sword to go flying out of the platform.

Drow females, as a whole, were stronger than the male ones.

Undaunted, Zak’s remaining sword flew in. Winter twisted to the side, the sword scratching her leg but causing no serious damage. Winter smirked suddenly, causing Zak to narrow his eyes and watch her blades more closely.

The crystal sword started another flickering routine, a seemingly haphazard array of stabs and slaps at Zak’s defenses. More alert, Zak saw each blow come and parried accordingly. The movements continued to force his sword down, then reversed and thrust forward just as Zaknafein saw an opening in Lin’Fayaenre’s apparently perfect defense.

The crystal sword touched Zak’s chest at the same time his sword nicked her throat.

There was a stunned silence, then the hall resounded with applause and cheers. The two opponents stared at their positions, and burst into belly-shaking laughter.

Sheathing their weapons, they shook hands, then turned to the crowd, surprised at its size, and at the familiar faces of several weapon Masters, clapping along with the students.

The fight had been incited when Zaknafein, with his contempt for magic, had asked Winter to fight him with her powers at close range, obviously trying to prove that the sword was better than a few uttered dweomers.

Winter, knowing this, had drawn her weapon on the platform instead, and fought him fairly. Both were skilled at the sword, and the fight had endured for many bouts, neither giving way.

Zaknafein promised himself that he would not make hasty assumptions in the future, and gingerly fingered a bruise on the side.

Winter, on the other hand, was not as surprised at the turn of events, for she had witnessed his prowness on the platform many times before. She unconsciously fingered the edge of her newest scratch out of many, wincing at the thought of bathing later.

Drifting in his insubstantial form, Zaknafein floated back into the library. The few bruises were healing fast, and he materialized in front of the same bookshelf, taking another tome down.

He was looking for twin swords, known fancifully in lore as Scorcher and Frostbite, forged by the combined efforts of a red dragon, an ice dragon, and surface dwarves, working in harmony.

Apparently the red dragon, Ralkaroajirac, had become greedy, and, working with the ice dragon, Irakragfaran, stole both the swords and much of the dwarven treasures, killing many of the dwarves in the ensuing war. Leaving Irakragfaran crippled and surronded, he fled, but dropped Frostbite in his haste.

The dwarves had then hung a sword on a structure made of Irakragfaran’s horns and scaly hide, in memory of their fallen comrades. Transporting it magically to a glacial place, they ensured that Ralkaroajirac would never get its claws on the sword.

The tales implied that the swords had great magical power, but that may have been exaggerated. Zaknafein doubted that swords could ‘cut a strand of hair in half and smash stone with a single blow’.

More importantly, they were spoken of as worthy quests. To get one would be honor enough to give Zaknafein his full duties as Sword Master, but the dark elf meant to get both.

Now, if he could but discern the locations…

His eyes brightened at the next line.

“Seek ye closely then the Twin Swords of the Realms, brave adventurers, for which…” the story degenerated again back into gibberish.

There were a thousand thousand places that could be called ‘the Realms’, and a hundred more where dragons had such complicated names, but Zaknafein’s heart told him that it was his home the tale spoke about.

He read through the verse again, to make sure his eyes were not playing tricks on him.

Satisfied, he snapped the volume shut, and replaced it on the shelf. Gathering his notes, Zak allowed Himself a satisfied grin.

The time of deeds was at hand.

Travelling the planes was never unpleasant, Zaknafein thought as he looked around him. This was the fastest, though most unpredictable, way of getting to the Material Plane. Morikan had graciously transported him to the outskirts of Zak’s home world, and he flew ever downwards now, in his soul form.

Downwards, ever downwards.

Ahead of him now he saw the familiar hard edges of the Material Plane, and he eagerly dived in…

He was floating above a desert, harsh and arid. Visualising his map, which he had memorized, he tried to get his bearings.

Zaknafein had landed more or less where he had calculated, a flat, uninhabited place west of the Eyrie Mountains. Prudently, he wore chain mail and his swords, and carried a pack containing several more practical things.

With a determined set to his jaw, he drifted to the west. His route would take him through the Eyrie Mountains, through to Moonwood, then to Silverymoon. He hoped that he would be allowed in to speak to the sages about his quest. For the Library contained only written books, and not unspoken knowledge, handed down by word of mouth generation after generation. It was the best course he could think of in the time being.

It felt interesting to walk the Material Plane, although it was different this time. The bright sunlight did not stab his sensitive eyes, and he drifted on, tireless.

The preparations had taken the remainder of that day, a large portion of farewells and good wishes. Winter had volunteered to make the arrangements for the students, though Zaknafein thought privately that she could serve as a good replacement.

Rules of Sanctuary dictated otherwise. Winter would have to stay in Sanctuary until she graduated, then she would leave to fulfil her ‘purpose’, Morikan had informed Zaknafein. Thus she could not serve as a Master, in any School.

The weapon Masters had taken him aside and given him many useful suggestions, which he had listened to raptly. Zak’s thoughts wandered back to the last meeting with Morikan. The dragon’s well wishes seemed a trifle detached, somehow.

The thought that Morikan, who Zak treated almost like his father, was not interested enough on this important first quest hurt Zak, but he had stubbornly told himself that Morikan was probably concentrating on more momentous events, farther away.

Perhaps he was creating a new experiment.

Morikan sat on his padded seat, watching Zaknafein. He was rather sorry that he could not have given a fonder sending off for the drow, but allowing the drow to think that he had been blessed, and becoming arrogant, was not a good thing.

Zaknafein was interesting in that fact. He was not filled with pride at his skills, nor did he assert his authority willingly. Zak had established early with his students that he did not want them to bow to him, nor did he want them to call him ‘Sir’.

The dark elf enjoyed his mornings almost as much as he enjoyed his games on the Plane of Saints, Morikan could see. He had heard of the contest between Zak and Winter, and had been watching it actually. The silver dragon was glad that it had served to tear down another one of Zaknafein’s assumptions.

“Good luck.” Morikan said, then reluctantly switched his attention to his latest experiment.

He had reached the edges of the plains now, and was rather glad to see that there was a change to the unending yellow of his surroundings. The sky was clear and blue, but still no clouds shielded the earth from the sweltering heat.

Not being truly alive, Zaknafein did not feel thirst, or heat. Tireless, he did not stop even at night, but walked on. It did not make any difference being solid or insubstantial, and he alternated this every day. Striding across the short grass, he saw a small forest of stunted trees.

The trees were not close together, but in this desert plain, such a collection of trees would count as a forest. An unearthly chittering could be heard, insect-like, but he did not see any such swarms of insects around him. Only a swarm of insects could make such a loud noise.

Or so he believed.

Large, multifaceted eyes peered out from the cover of the trees, and immediately focused on the warm, moving source fast approaching. Long stalks on top of its alien head waved about in excitement, and its fierce crushing jaws snapped together reflexively.

Another of its giant kin approached, and they conferred, stalks touching, then the newcomer rushed on all its jointed six legs to a large hole in the ground. The sentry settled to watch. One lone figure was easy prey, it thought.

The new location of their nest was most profitable. They had met many such creatures already, mostly in large groups. Food that kept the colony growing.

If an observer were to watch high up in the sky, the creatures would have resembled giant ants.

Zaknafein moved on obliviously, towards the inviting trees ahead. As he closed on the nearest plant, trunks bulging with stored water, the chittering sound came. Much louder this time.

With a sigh, Zaknafein became insubstantial, and drifted on through the trees. A sudden rush of movement at the corner of his eye made him whirl around, and he came face to face with…

A giant ant, cruel jaws snapping as it lunged at him. Zaknafein waited calmly, and the surprised ant found itself rushing through its prey. Undeterred, it turned with surprising speed considering its bulk, and tried to close its vise like jaws on Zak, jaws that could easily snip an elf in two.

The jaws met on thin air and the ant stopped in amazement, chittering and waving its antennae wildly.

Zaknafein, tiring of the game, drifted on. He did not wish to harm the ants, as he thought that few others would pass this way in the desert.

Until he saw the neat pile beyond the dark hole. Of whitened bones, with a group of vultures squawking over the remnants of something the size of a child, thankfully obscured by the black birds.

Zaknafein felt anger building inside him, his eyes suddenly burning with rage. His swords leaping into his hands, he turned on the confused ant, which had followed him, still trying to snap at him. Suddenly materializing, he ducked under another clumsy attempt, then ran under the ant’s body.

The ant’s chittering grew louder in outrage, and it tried to see the slender figure that was banging its armor furiously.

The ant’s carapace was too tough to break, Zaknafein realized, and he slipped out, seeing the vulnerable joints. Snarling, he jumped onto the ant’s back, causing the creature to thrash around in absolute rage. Smoothly, a sword bit into the ant’s flesh, between the head and the body.

In horror, he saw that the ant turned further, ignoring the pain as it tried to kill its enemy.

With a sudden snap, the head fell off, and Zak felt bile rising in his throat as the body continued to thrash around.

Sickened, he turned to face the horde of ants that fast approached, attracted by the fallen ant’s signals. The monsters had killed, and would kill again. They had to be stopped.

Zaknafein leapt up onto another ant, whirling blades deflecting another ant’s bite, then plunging the blades into the ant’s abdomen. The ant turned around, jaws snapping, and Zaknafein, anticipating the move, dove under the head, pushing his swords upwards in an X.

Another ant’s severed body lay thrashing on the ground.

From what he did know of normal ants, he knew that a central ant queen controlled the nest, and he needed to destroy her to eliminate the nest. The nest, realizing the danger of this small opponent, kept sending out giant ants, then finally sent its elite strike force.

Reddish brown in color, they towered over the green ones that Zaknafein had battled. Their jaws were much larger and sported teeth. Together, they rushed at the dark elf, perhaps hoping to bury them in their numbers and bulk.

Giant ant nests had much less subjects than normal ants, and this proved rather fortunate. However, the numbers were still formidable.

Zaknafein, untiring, continued his deadly assault with his blades, the danger spurring him on to greater feats, a wolfish grin on his face.

He worked ever closer to the hole.

The ant queen sent messages of full alert down the colony. This lone attacker had already decimated more than half of her force, and she called some of her subjects down to guard her chamber.

The intruder had to be stopped.

Green ants picked up her eggs, long and sickly white, and deposited them in her well defended chamber. Then they skittered off mindlessly down the corridors, their only thought defending their Queen.

Zaknafein was inside the tunnels now, singlehandedly mowing down any ant that was unfortunate enough to get into his way. His swords fell back into an easy rhythm, and he used the same method on each ant, marvelling that they could be so stupid as to fall for such ploys over and over again.

Ant bodies littered his path, and he ignored his injuries from the mandibles of a red ant that had come too close. He headed to the barricade of ants at the end of the tunnel, that perfectly disiplined troupe simply watching their comrades in front of them die in Zak’s path.

The wall of ants snapped at Zaknafein, and he fell back slightly, considering his options. He had discovered early on that neither globes of darkness, nor faerie fire bothered the ants, and he was at a loss of what to do.

The many alien heads chittered and tried to bite at Zaknafein, but none moved from their place as an inpenetrable layer to their Queen.

Zaknafein reached inside his pack, and threw several grey spheres in front of the ants. Billowing clouds of smoke burst out, choking the ants and breaking the wall. The chittering reached shrieking point as the ants rushed around madly, sensitive eyes seared with pain.

Zaknafein had slipped a mask on early, and he calmly strode on, dodging the berserk ants, and entered the Queen chamber.

The Queen ant sensed the confusion of her subjects, and ponderously tried to retreat into an escape tunnel at the end of the chamber.

Zak ran forward, faster than the bloated monster, to leap onto her back, a squishy white mess that bulged with eggs. Running along, he plunged the swords on either side, and the queen ant thrashed in agony. In an effortless bound, he was on her middle section, and with a smooth movement, lopped her head off.

Zaknafein emerged into the bright sunlight, feeling rather proud of himself. Around him, the filthy vultures had begun their macabre job on the fallen ants, and he simply avoided them.

Of the various white eggs in the nest, he had taken care of them by sticking in his swords at different angles. There was still a full scale ant riot inside the tunnels, but that had not bothered his insubstantial form.

Without the Queen or any replacements, the nest would not survive.

He wiped his blades on the grass, and continued westwards to the mountains.

Zak moved easily ahead of the merchant troupe, a silent protector. The merchants had warily but eagerly accepted his offer to accompany them to the mountains, for the exchange of a few tales. Suspicions of the drow elves had died down somewhat with the exploits of Zak’s son, but they still remained.

Zaknafein spent most of his time with the caravans far ahead, clearing the way.

An old man, apparently the storyteller of the group, admitted his ignorance of the twin swords, but approved of his plans.

Every night, the old man wove stories, his voice often dropping to a conspiring whisper, or rising in a thunderous shout. The others would listen, breathless, hanging on to his words, as did the dark elf, always sitting unobtrusively at the very edge of the camp.

Zaknafein was an attentive listener to the old man’s tales of long ago, as to his stories of dragon lore.

If he was correct, Ralkaroajirac, the red dragon, still lived.

[top]

Chapter 4: Travels

Zaknafein took his leave of the merchants as soon as they reached the Eyrie Mountains. The tall, imposing mountains reached higher than the tallest trees, blocking out most of the sky. Closely packed yet boasting a river and forests, Zaknafein wondered what kind of birds the Eyries were home to.

He supposed he would find out.

Drifting along, he descended a steep gorge without incident. The river had eroded through the rocks over time, forming the gorge and the irregular, stepped cliffs. Hardy shrubs grew now and again on the rare patches of soil, and a thin veil of water cascaded down to Zaknafein’s left, to trickle slowly into the river.

The water was a muddy brown, bulging from recent rains, and it roared downwards, veering around bends, rushing over jagged, angular rocks, spitting white foam at every obstacle.

For a while, Zak merely stood and enjoyed the natural beauty of the place. One may find little pockets of heaven like these, if one just looked hard enough.

He had been following the river for many days and nights, but still had not come to the end of the range. According to his map, this was the shortest way out to Moonwood.

The days had passed without incident… well almost without. A foolish goblin tribe had thought a lone elf easy prey, even if he was obviously drow.

Zak had simply tossed the lot of them into the river.

Zak was approaching a cave at the side of the river, which sported two structures in front. As he neared, he saw that they were twin spiders, each carved from a block of quartz crystal. The tunnel wound inwards into darkness that soon became impenetrable to normal sight.

From his infravision, Zak saw that the tunnel had not been used for some time.

Curious, he stopped outside, and examined the spiders. Carvings on their pedestal showed that they had been raised in honor of Lloth, the evil goddess of his race. But what drow had come all the way to the perilous surface to erect these statues?

Shrugging, he turned to continue on his way.

A scratching, grinding sound behind him alerted him, and he whirled, blades leaping into his hands.

The spiders had magically animated, and they attacked. Zak was confused, he was not only drow, but he had not attempted to enter the temple. Nor had he attacked any other drow nearby.

This confusion kept his blades on defensive. The spiders, taking advantage of the situation, pressed on, trying to kill him or force him into the rough river. A leg swiped at him, narrowly missing, and took a chunk out of the stone wall.

Zaknafein’s confusion was replaced by anger. A familiar light sprang into his eyes, and his blades became an extension of his hands, each taking care of one spider, working independently, as a growl escaped his lips.

The spiders had been placed there to offer sacrifices of the surface people to Lloth, and they mindlessly continued their attack, the elf’s blades simply bouncing off their quartz bodies.

One of Zak’s blades feinted, then drove at the spider’s mouth. The spider lurched to the side, clamping on the blade like a vise, but then it lost its balance and feel into the river, suddenly hissing and changing into a rough block of quartz.

Hope bubbled in Zak’s heart, over the dismay he felt at losing one of his swords. The remaining sword launched a flurry of strikes, gradually poking the spider backwards, and with a final scrabbling of soil, it too fell to share its companion’s fate.

Zak sheathed his remaining sword, satisfied, and continued on his way.

Morikan jerked back from the vision, and snarled. What was Lloth trying to do on the surface, where she had been precisely told not to interfere? Perhaps he had ignored the Realms for too long.

Reaching out, he did not like what he found.

A silver dragon woke suddenly in the Realms, the essence of Morikan’s spirit in that world, and spoke an arcane word of summoning. A brazier appeared in its lair, and the flames flared to life. A creature that looked like melted wax formed, its drooping mouth and eyes taking in the chamber.

“Who dares…” the yochlol began, then saw the dragon’s starry orbs, and abruptly changed its manner. “What would you wish to know, Lord Morikanblancmyran?” the creature asked respectfully.

“Call your mistress.” Morikan replied curtly.

The creature stiffened in outrage, but gave a grotesque bow and disappeared. The flames died down then flared back into life. Jerking to the sides, they then formed a flat, lifeless plane. A beautiful drow female stepped out cautiously.

“Lloth. What are you doing on the surface?” Morikan snapped. “If one recalls, that was in the agreement when the other gods and I decided not to intercede when you stole the drow elves.”

Lloth opened her mouth to answer, her scheming mind concocting various tales, but Morikan cut her off. “Firstly, you were supposed to stay in the Underdark. This world is too important to waste it on the gods’ squabbles over surface wars. The last time it happened, which you started by taking the elves, the conflict had escalated until I had to intercede.”

“You are the representative of Chaos on this world, but you are not supposed to overdo it. Technically I like my worlds balanced, but I may make an exception,” Morikan’s orbs narrowed dangerously.

Lloth paled. Morikan was neutral, unlike some of his extreme brothers and sisters, but he had occasionally leant towards the Good alignment. It went against his principles, but he might just decide, in a fit of ire, to get rid of her.

She would require more sacrifices tonight from her ‘children’, to get over this meeting. Lloth was aware that Morikan had taken yet another drow away from her, her vindictive nature outraged at that fact. Though the drow was male, and already dead, she still felt that he was still her possession.

The attacking spiders had been spurred on partially by her, and she knew that she would not get away so easily now that Morikan knew that fact. He would force many damaging promises on her now.

As Zak followed the river’s muddy path, he was not aware of eyes watching him. Unobtrusive, a skinny, rat faced human crouched on the top of the cliff, above Zaknafein.

Recently, this area had been claimed by bandits, led by their brilliant leader, Altarev One-eye, had in a few sweeps allied with a troop of gnolls and a smaller, but more deadly group of ogres. All to the promise of wealth.

The river was fast becoming a favorite merchant route, for merchants found to their surprise that the path was wide enough for caravans. Unknown to them, that had been the work of captured bandit slaves, along with a bit of magical assistance from their evil mage.

The tactical wisdom of Altarev dictated that they allow the first few merchants to pass, allowing them to set up a firm routine that would pass this mountain route on their way to Silverymoon. Then they attacked, cutting off the feeble resistance, and claiming the caravans as their rightful booty.

The merchants, preferring the shorter (and safer) Eyrie Mountains to the Trollmoors, had stubbornly continued on the route, precisely as Altarev had predicted. Merchants would go on routes twice as dangerous as the Eyrie Mountains if there was even a promise of profit.

Several times attempts had been made to capture and get rid of the bandits, clearing the routes, but the wily Altarev had always known through his extensive spy network of such campaigns long beforehand. There are many places to hide in the Eyrie Range.

The bandit sentry was surprised at Zak’s appearance. Not only did the lone figure sport white hair and ebon skin, he walked alone.

He noticed the elf’s richly patterned cloak and boots. Perhaps with magical value, they would add well to the bandit camp’s already considerable collection.

Getting up slowly and noiselessly, he glided back to the camp to report.

Morikan reclined back on his seat, as Lloth bowed and exited through the door of flame.

She would not raid the surface again for a long time.

The last time she had attacked Mithril Hall, the dwarven god had been outraged, and it had almost turned into another interspecies war, dragging the rest of the gods into either side. It had took a long series of threats and coaxing to calm things down back to their original state. The gods had not liked the idea of being thrown back out of heaven much.

The whole ugly affair had interfered with his experiment, and Morikan was not amused.

The river took a sharp bend out of sight. Unconcerned, Zak followed, enchanted boots striking the reddish brown, smooth surface of the cliff side. If he had looked more closely at the path, he would have grown more suspicious.

Normally such platforms, formed naturally, would actually have been cut by the river while the river had been higher up. Potholes would have formed, as they were an inevitable part of erosion. The platform was absolutely smooth.

Rounding the blind bend, he came face to face with a well-organized group of mercenaries, their unshaven faces leering at him. His remaining blade flashed into his hands, and he waited, unhurried.

The speaker of the group, a huge human missing one ear, stepped forward. “Why are you passing through Lord Altarev’s mountains without a pass?” He boomed.

Zaknafein did not want a fight, until he knew what this situation more clearly.

“I did not know the mountains had acquired a new owner.” He calmly replied.

The human glared at Zak as he tried to see if the reply was an insult. Grudgingly deciding otherwise, he carried on with his mission. “Lord Altarev wishes to see you about this. Come willingly with us, and we will not harm you.” The leader said in his harsh, guttural voice.

Altarev, at once discerning the visitor through the sentry’s description, knew of the fighting skills of drow through legend. He did not wish to get any of his camp killed. Always a realist, he knew that the single drow might wish to join a larger group. Legend too wrote that drow enjoyed wealth. He wished to verify this fact.

Zaknafein sighed inwardly, regretting not taking his soul state for this entire day. He considered ‘disappearing’ now. He did not wish to get involved in further bouts of heroics, for the group was rather obviously a bandit group and used to preying on travelers in this pass.

Then a robed human stepped out from behind the group, watery eyes staring at Zak. A wizard. The dark elf set his shoulders determinedly, knowing that becoming insubstantial was out of the question now.

“Well?” The large human leader asked impatiently, wondering if hesitation would serve as insult enough to attack out of orders.

“I will follow.” Zak replied curtly.

The bandit camp was surprisingly well organized. The living quarters of the bandits, circular constructions of wood, tented over with the waterproof cattle hide, sat in neat rows, while a raised tent on heavy logs, larger than the rest, was placed in the very center of the camp. It was lined with many ornamental weapons, fixed onto the walls. The skull of some horned carnivore overlooked the entrance to the large tent, empty sockets seemed to follow Zak’s every move.

Wooden chests lay on the outside of each tent, probably containing the bandit’s personal weapons, and crudely constructed racks hung drying skins, cleaned from the prey of the bandits for trade. Surrounded by flies, with dark brown stains below, the skins were not a pleasant sight. Their smell permeated the camp.

Another large tent stood further away, and Zak noticed the tall, grayish, dog-faced humanoids that moved around aimlessly there. Gnolls. Whenever any of the humanoids encountered an unfortunate human in their path, they would drive him away with kicks and snarls. Their alliance would be tenuous at best. Zak stored that bit of information away, for future use if required.

The group of humans, spears at the ready, poked Zak towards the main tent, guarded by two large ogres. The creatures were also scattered around the camp, looking at the newcomer watchfully.

Activity stopped as the other bandits too stopped to stare at the dark elf, unconsciously fingering their weapons. Dark elves had a hefty reputation in the realms.

Altarev sat calmly on his throne of animal hide, waiting patiently for his visitor, while his compatriot, Gyark, the gnoll chieftain, paced agitatedly. Tall even for a gnoll, the black haired creature was the veteran of many battles, but the dark elves were a mystery. Gyark did not like mysteries.

The tent flap slipped open, and Gyark started backwards in surprise. The watery-eyed wizard walked in. “The elf.” He said succinctly.

“Well done, Selk.” The light baritone of Altarev replied. “Show him in.”

Selk nodded, and walked out of the flap to report to the group leader. Selk was never one to waste words.

Gyark spun on Altarev. “Are you sure … this wise?” he stuttered in his shaky grasp of the Common tongue. Without replying, Altarev gestured to the entrance.

Zaknafein came striding in, still unruffled. His eyes darted around, taking in the tent. Then he sauntered over in front of the bandit leader. And waited.

“Kneel.” Growled the huge human leader behind him.

Zak continued to stand, arms crossed over his chest in defiance.

With a roar of rage the human swung his mace at the slender elf, only to be blocked by a sword, whistling through the air. In a flash, Zaknafein sidestepped another swing, his sword flying forward, and exiting through the human’s back.

The mace fell from nerveless hands as the human looked at Zaknafein in astonishment. With a sigh, he toppled backwards.

There was a loud metallic rustle as all the other bandits that had witnessed the incident drew their weapons, then an astonished silence as a clapping sound was heard.

All turned to stare at Altarev, applauding the dark elf’s action, sensitive mouth in a slight smile. “Well done, dark elf.” With a dispassionate wave at the fallen corpse, he ordered to the others, “Clear that mess.” Gyark looked at Altarev in absolute amazement, still holding on to his halberd.

“I did not come to provide entertainment for a bandit leader. Let me pass on my way, and no one shall be hurt.” Zaknafein remarked coolly, with a threat in his voice.

Altarev merely chuckled, a mirthless laugh. “You fight well, dark elf. Instead of this business of yours, would you like to join me in this little camp?” he waved a hand deprecatingly.

Zak tried subterfuge. “My masters would not allow that.”

Again, he chuckled. “You are obviously no ordinary dark elf, my friend. Dark elves, to my knowledge, do not walk in full daylight, nor wear such cloaks. Your movements were unhurried, so I presume your business is not of utmost importance.”

Unable to help himself, Zak nodded slowly, listening to the soothing voice of the bandit leader.

“Thus I ask you again. Join us, and we will let you go on with escorts. When you finish your business, return to a lifetime of wealth.”

Zak snapped out of the hypnotic words at the last line, and stared at Altarev with narrowed eyes, fingers gesturing slightly in a simple spell that he had learnt in Sanctuary. To his eyes, Altarev, and himself, were lined in blue. Someone had cast a spell.

Altarev saw immediately that the spell was broken, and he tapped the side of his chair, a signal. “I am sorry that you think that way, dark elf. Farewell then.”

A lightning bolt hit Zaknafein’s back, blasting him to the foot of Altarev’s throne. Cursing himself for his complacency, Zaknafein took his soul form. The burns slowly healed, and he drifted up.

Altarev had anticipated such a move, and he swung his sword at where he believed Zak was at the moment. Instinctively, Zaknafein lurched backwards, but the sword grazed his side. His eyes widened in amazement. Altarev not only should not have seen him, he would not have been able to hurt him in this state!

The angry light leapt back into his eyes. Ignoring the pain, he shifted back into his material form and parried the sword’s next vicious swing. Altarev leapt from his throne, and countered Zak’s every move with an even parry. Obviously no mean swordsman, Zak wondered absently who Altarev had been before he had turned to such a life.

Quickly Zak adjusted his rhythm to accommodate one sword. Altarev was good, but not good enough. Weaving and darting, Zak’s sword poked relentlessly at Altarev’s defenses, driving him between the wizard.

Altarev, snarling in rage, recognized the ploy, but was unable to turn his opponent back. He drove harder at Zak, and Zak relaxed into a defensive routine, allowing Altarev to tire. The bandit leader thought that the elf would tire first, for sentries had reported that Zaknafein traveled even through the night.

He did not know the truth of his opponent well enough.

Untiring, Zaknafein waited, the other bandits numbly watching the display. The opportunity presented itself, and the dark elf feinted to the side. Altarev had no choice but to parry the crippling stroke, and could only watch as Zak reversed directions and cut a neat line on Altarev’s neck.

Gyark watched in horror as his superior fell, then ran, roaring, at Zaknafein. Zak became insubstantial, then as the gnoll chieftain, caught in his own momentum, charged through, he materialized and stabbed the monster through the back.

He heard a familiar muttered chant, and quickly grabbed a mirror off the crude walls, raising it in time to deflect the bolt back. The unfortunate wizard was hurled through the air to land as a smoking heap at the far end of the camp.

Zak, not bothering himself with the rest of the camp, simply drifted off on his way.

Traveling almost continuously in his soul state now, Zak entered a gentle valley in the mountains. The valley seemed out of place, its green turf holding herds of deer and tall, shady trees. The valley stretched in a circular depression many miles wide, to give way to the Eyrie Mountains again.

Zak drifted on, reveling in the pleasant change of surroundings.

A movement tugged at his consciousness, and he drifted over to take a closer look. It was the broken, twitching body of a magnificent beast, splattered with blood. Its eagle head tossed and turned, talons weakly grasping at the air, tawny lion body jerking spasmodically. Its long tasseled tail lay limp in the grass.

Zak felt compassion for the noble beast, but sadly began to turn away, instinctively searching for the cause of its pathetic state. Some giant perhaps, or a battle in the air?

His vision impaired, the griffin only saw vague shapes. It had crawled on determinedly for a long time, the sole survivor of a meeting of a goblin raid. Unknown to the select griffin group, the bandits had given the goblins magical weapons, also wishing to cause harm to their common enemies. Thus a barrage of poisoned weapons shot by magical bows had decimated the flying creatures.

He had stumbled back, trying to reach to eyrie.

A presence approached, but he could not see it, even through the jumble of images through its tired eyes. “Help… me,” it managed to croak, then slumped back into unconsciousness.

Zaknafein stared at the beast. Had his ears been playing tricks on him? However, if the griffin was a sentient being, like those at Sanctuary, he would never forgive himself for letting it die.

With a sigh, he materialized and rummaged through his backpack, and took out an arrangement of vials, randomly pouring each one into the griffin’s beak, then rubbing its throat to make it swallow. The wounds healed over magically, till not even a scar marred its beautiful hide.

Slowly the fierce eyes opened, and saw its rescuer.

In a flash it had its powerful hindquarters below it and its claws were half extended in defense, eyeing the dark elf warily.

Zak sighed. “I did not go to all the trouble of healing you to hurt you.” He snorted, not bothering to draw his sword.

Sheepishly, the griffin dropped its claws to its side. “One is sorry. Thank you for your aid.” It said simply.

Zak was surprised at its clipped, precise voice. The speech of the griffins he had known was stuttered and rasping. Intrigued, he looked closer at the creature. “You are welcome.”

An awkward silence ensued as both sides examined each other.

The griffin started back with a squawk of surprise. “You are not - alive.” It accused.

Zak crossed his hands on his chest. “Did you think I chose that fact?” he said, sarcasm dripping from his tone.

The griffin recovered. “Sorry. Griffin can tell whether you alive or not - alive.” It struggled with the language, “Come back to Eyrie. Give you…” its face contorted slightly as it groped for the correct word.

“Reward? There is nothing you can give me… unless you have another griffin who knows dragon lore. And about the Twin Swords.” Zaknafein replied.

The griffin considered that, then bobbed its head. “Rhianarr Longtalons knows many dragon things. Come?” It asked hopefully.

Zak smiled. “I will be honored.”

The griffin made a happy sound that would be the human equivalent of an answering smile. “Griffin’s name is Niranvarr Windsoarer.” It introduced itself, placing a talon on its chest proudly.

“My name is Zaknafein Do’Urden. Is this Eyrie far away?” he asked politely, not wishing to get too sidetracked.

“Not - far. Five wing-hours.” Niranyarr replied.

Zak winced. Five wing-hours were a long time, but he allowed the sacrifice for a taste of company.

Niranyarr launched himself suddenly into the air, feeling the wind on his wings, then flared them and landed back beside Zak. “Could not resist.” He explained cockily.

Zak grinned. He could get to like his new friend.

[top]

Chapter 5: Friends

Metal rang against metal in a protesting note as a dark elf faced off against its opponent. Eagle head forward, the cruel, hooked beak darted to and fro like some weird snake, trying to find an opportunity to strike. The griffin’s talons, wrapped in a dwarven crafted type of metal glove, were made doubly dangerous by the sharp knives that protruded when the claws flexed.

Its powerful lion’s hindquarters balanced its body perfectly, allowing it to recover to an even stance faster that its opponent. The griffin’s tasseled tail lashed furiously at its flanks as it sidestepped yet another lunge, its wings outstretched for balance.

Zaknafein handled the two swords with ease, gracefully parrying the nasty swipes of his opponent, which would cripple him if they connected. A sword feinted to the right, and Niranyarr complied, smashing at the sword with his metal claws. Slipping under the claw, the sword unerringly flew towards the griffin’s belly, while the other sword chopped downwards at the proud head. Niranyarr saw the swords coming, and his claws moved impossibly fast to clash loudly on both swords, knocking them wide, then immediately launching an attack, right claw angling to Zak’s face, while the left claw swiped at the dark elf’s wrist.

Zak twisted backwards, left sword parrying the blow to his face, while the other hit the other set of claws with the flat of the blade, then quickly angled downwards, as did the other sword.

Ducking another swipe, Zaknafein came under the griffin’s defenses.

One sword sat, poised, at the griffin’s chest, while the other touched the white feathers.

Niranyarr trilled in surprise, then made the odd, coughing sound that Zak knew as laughter. “Good you are, dark elf.” Niranyarr remarked in admiration.

Zak accepted the compliment with a smile. “As are you, if you would learn how to use swords.” He looked at the griffin’s powerful, sleekly muscled bulk, which could move with surprising agility.

Incredulously, Niranyarr slipped off his metal gloves, and showed Zak his talons. “Not - good for gripping sword.” He said wryly in his clipped voice.

Zaknafein pretended to examine the proffered claw. “They aren’t?” he asked in mock surprise.

Niranyarr narrowed his amber eyes, then grasped at the hilt of one on Zak’s swords and attempted to lift it out of the sheath. He nearly lifted the drow along with it.

“Do you see? Cannot even sheath.” Niranyarr snorted.

Zak pretended to look crestfallen, then his expression changed into laughter. The griffin rocked backwards in surprise, then snorted again. “Elves.” He said despairingly.

Zak only laughed harder.

Drow were initially not welcome in the Skysong Eyrie, and many drawn crossbows had greeted the two when Zak had first reached the eyrie. The griffins had thought that Zak had put a spell of binding on Niranyarr, and had attempted to ‘rescue’ the griffin.

Niranyarr had insisted that Zak was a guest, and the griffin elders, under their rules, had to grudgingly let the dark elf in.

They found out about Zak’s skills with his swords early on when a young griffin had attacked the ‘stinking elf’ when Zak was on his way to see Rhianarr Longtalons, the eyrie’s sage.

Zak, refusing Niranyarr’s intervention, had single-handedly attacked the larger creature, and beat him soundly. No other griffins willingly attacked him now, and his passage was marked with respect. Griffins, a practical race, did not allow preconceptions to mar their judgement.

After a few days had passed without incident, the dark elf was allowed to roam around the eyrie.

After Niranyarr had described what had happened to his group, the meeting of the Elders erupted in outrage. Plans were being made, in the name of vengeance, for use on the goblins, and on the bandits.

However Zak privately suspected that this was just an excuse for the bloodthirsty creatures to launch an all out offensive on the goblins, then innocently protest that they had been ‘provoked’.

Niranyarr had recognized the bandit’s involvement through the inscribing of the many arrows that he had ‘caught’.

Zak was currently enduring a surge of celebrity after admitting to slaying the bandit leader. Reports showed that the camp was in disarray, and nasty fights had broken out between the ranks of the humans and the gnolls. Without the ironfisted leadership of Altarev and Gyark, the well-organized camp had simply fallen apart.

Zak was uninterested in the plans, and did not join in the discussions. When invited to, he declined politely, saying he had nothing to contribute.

Niranyarr respected the dark elf’s choice, but always snorted derisively when Zak used his excuse. They stayed together in the griffin’s cave, speaking to each other often, and now knew each other rather well.

Niranyarr knew that Zak would have had much to contribute, if he bothered to. The dark elf however, did not wish to get involved in anything that would cause his quest to get sidetracked further.

Niranyarr was one of several wingleaders, the highest military position below that of an Elder, and now one of the most decorated fighters. Unlike Zak, Niranyarr enjoyed the acknowledgement that came with the laurels.

He looked at a new box of jewelry, taking out each individual crafting and inspecting it under the magically glowing globes in his cave.

Behind him, Zak reclined on an embarrassment of cushions, watching. “Vanity, Windsoarer?” he asked.

Niranyarr took out a necklace of black pearls. “One sees you finally decided to stop behaving like vegetable. All griffins are vain.” He replied in the Common tongue. Zak had been surprised to find that Niranyarr was one of few griffins in his tribe with a grasp of the language. His speech was passable, though sometimes incomprehensible.

Zak snorted, and settled deeper into his soft nest, taking a borrowed book from the Skysong library with him. The book on dragon lore was very precise, and Zak had formulated a plan on what to do. Rhianarr disliked dragons intensely; one having scorched her right leg so much it had become useless. She was very happy to aid him in his quest.

Apparently the Skysong eyrie had received questers before.

“This?” Niranyarr asked, turning his feathered head to show an array of teardrop like crystals, that seemed to be suspended in the air, so delicate were their chains.

From the deep pile of cushions, a white haired head peered up briefly. Zak indicated his opinion by rolling his eyes, then disappeared back into the cushions.

“Drow just cannot appreciate the finer things in life.” Niranyarr observed under his breath.

“Griffins cannot understand the finer things in life.” Came the muffled retort. Zak, with his sharp ears, had overheard Niranyarr’s remark.

Griffin life was simple. Mornings were dedicated to lessons, afternoons to sleeping, and nights to making the Eyrie Mountain goblins’ lives miserable.

Zak remembered a ditty from his childhood that did not seem so senseless now.

Two little goblins,
Out in the sun,
Down came a griffin,
And then there was one.

Griffins could see as well as owls in the dark, their eyes growing larger to adjust to the lack of light, their ears fine-tuning themselves to their surroundings.

The raids were always led by a wingleader, with a specific tribe of goblin to attack. All ‘fair’ raids so far had been very successful.

Zak often wondered why the goblins never abandoned the mountains altogether.

There were different patrols, a group consisting of more than ten griffins. The patrols took turns each day to hunt in the morning, for a large afternoon meal that would last the creatures for the rest of the day. Each patrol had a designated spot to eat at, and the wingleaders another spot.

The griffins enjoyed their meals, and Niranyarr was shocked to find that Zak did not need to eat. Zak still remembered the griffin’s response, “No wonder you are so thin!”

For Zak, he often took himself and a book to the recesses of his cushions when the bell rang at the start of the afternoon meals. Griffins were so messy!

Respecting his friend’s sensibilities, Niranyarr always washed before he returned from the meal.

Time had passed, and Zak soon grew restless. He now had a more refined plan for his quest, and he often spent his time looking out over the range, sitting on the highest point of the Skysong eyrie.

Niranyarr, seeing this, had persuaded him to stay until the ‘grand raid’ as the griffin had put it, so he could slip out of the range with the least amount of fuss, obscured by the war.

Zak knew the eyrie was reluctant to let him leave, as he knew privately that he could leave any time by simply becoming insubstantial. He gave in eventually to Niranyarr’s pleas however.

Sitting now on his favorite perch, he fingered the plain sword the griffins had given him. It was rather old, probably filched from one of their nightly raids, and was actually on display until he had come along. It filled his empty sheath well.

This day, the sunset would have a special significance.

The war would begin this night.

Goblins raised about in panic, erecting last minute defenses, paying no heed to the conflicting orders of their chieftain.

Their shaman had just predicted that the griffins would arrive this night, in a single, sweeping hand of revenge. Already, many of the goblins had thoughts of deserting the area, but the prediction of their chief had stopped them short. “Griffin will come and catch you and eat you!”

Still, a mumbling resentment was in the ranks. The goblins blamed their leader, Vark, for agreeing to the arrangement with the bandits. They had known that killing so many griffins in a raid would cause a war with the flying creatures.

Vark had reminded them that the smaller raid they had decimated would have killed many of the goblins anyway, but the goblins lived in a world of now.

Now, the griffins were coming, and the camp had degenerated into chaos, with a single, accusing finger pointing straight at Vark, the convenient scapegoat.

Vark and his advisors attempted to think of a workable plan against the griffins, now that most of their enchanted weapons had been returned and no help forthcoming from the bandits. The best the stupid creatures could come up with was to scatter and run in all directions, but even Vark could see the obvious disadvantage of being scattered and undefended.

Night descended rapidly on the camp.

The patrols strapped on their metal claws, powerful paws digging grooves into the rock. They whole eyrie was divided into three parts, ‘goblins’, ‘bandits’, and ‘home’. The ‘goblins’ and ‘bandits’ would leave after the sunset, to smash the goblins with the ‘goblins’ group in offensive. The ‘bandits’ would simply shoot their arrows into the fray; sharp eyes and equally sharp skills ensuring them targets.

The roles would be reversed at the bandit camp.

The ‘home’ group would stay to defend the eyrie, a precaution. The patrols had drawn lots to see which groups they would fall to, and the offensive and defensive teams could be seen clearly through the disappointment on the features of the defensive team.

Niranyarr, oddly, was not with the offensive team, although he could have chosen to go with them. Zak kept shooting him sidelong, suspicious glances, which the griffin pretended not to see.

The entire eyrie watched with breathless anticipation as the sun descended ponderously down the mountains, bathing the land with a dim orange glow.

Night’s blanket enfolded the earth abruptly, and the offensive team immediately launched into the air, in complete precision and silence, heading westwards over the valley.

Zak said his good-byes to the eyrie and to Niranyarr, and set off through the darkness in the opposite direction.

A goblin shrieked at his post, and Vark came over to look. Nothing. The goblins were nervous this night, and kept imagining things. Vark favored the hapless sentry with a clout that sent it falling into the ground.

Turning his back to the darkness, Vark caught a crossbow bolt right in the middle of his back. Alarms were shouted through the camp, as a veritable rain of bolts ensued, each bolt precisely catching a goblin.

Looking wildly in front of them, the goblins did not think to look upwards.

Screeching, the flying griffins swooped down like furious, avenging angels, wrecking havoc on the feeble defenses. What left of the goblin’s bravado broke, and they scattered into the night.

Frantically, their shaman began a screaming chant that was cut off abruptly by a crossbow bolt between his starting eyes.

Having decimated the camp to their satisfaction in a matter of minutes, the griffins contented themselves by tearing down the tents, then regrouped and flew, shrieking victoriously, towards the bandit camp.

It was a long time before the goblins dared to creep back to salvage what remained of their possessions.

The bandit camp contained fewer people now, and the humans, with the backing of ogre muscle, had wrested back control of the camp. The gnolls then abandoned the alliance, preferring their independence to a lifetime of servitude under the humans.

The internal battles for supremacy in the camp continued, as did a few on the spot politics that seemed to favor daggers and murders.

Thus the bandits were even less prepared than the goblins when the griffins arrived for their nightly fun. So embroiled in their struggles for power, it is hard to say if they would even have cared if they knew.

Zaknafein walked out of the boundaries of the Skysong Eyrie, which were marked by a feathered pole. Stopping a while to look back with a wistful smile, he then continued on his way. Fires lit up the night in a spot far away, and he knew the griffins had finished their fun.

He followed the river further onwards, until he could see the distant flat plains that were the edges of the Eyrie Mountains.

His stride took up speed, as he hurried out of the tall, imposing mountains.

At the end of the path was a familiar sight. A griffin was leaning under an outcrop, wings folded lightly back, lion legs relaxing one over the other, tasseled tail flicking lightly over the large paws.

Zak moved closer, and an incredulous sound escaped him. “Niranyarr Windsoarer?”

The large griffin moved with catlike grace out from the outcrop, rising to his full height, towering over Zak. “Yes?” he asked innocently.

“What are you... I cannot allow you to come.” Zak declared, recognizing the griffin’s intent as he spied the pack slung over the powerful shoulders.

“I not remember needing to ask permission.” Niranyarr replied, then his eyes took on a mischievous twinkle. “Besides, life’s been rather boring.”

“It will be dangerous,” Zak warned, “I may pass unharmed and unseen in my soul form, but you will not.”

“As dangerous as raids.” Niranyarr stated firmly. “Cloak.” He said suddenly, and held out a long white cloak. “Causes invisibility.” He explained smugly, then put it on his shoulders, fastening it awkwardly with a silver buckle.

Zak gave up the argument. “Oh very well, if you must. Just do not get into any trouble.”

“Me?” Niranyarr eyes shone with enough innocence that would have caused a saint to blush.

Zak gave the griffin a disgusted glance, choosing not to dignify that remark with an answer. Without a word, he walked ahead with the sound of the griffin’s coughing laughter behind him.

Niranyarr flew high up in the air, powerful beats of his wings keeping him aloft as he scanned the land with his sharp eyes. The river Subrin snaked its shimmering way below him, splitting into two forks. Far beyond, a misty forest could be seen.

Satisfied, the griffin spiraled down to his drow friend, waiting impatiently below.

“Well?” Zak asked.

“The air nice and warm.” Niranyarr reported with an absolutely straight face.

“The land.” Zak stated, growing more impatient.

“Don’t know about the land... feels warm too.” Niranyarr said.

Zak glared at him, and the griffin relented. “River fork coming, we’re right position. Moonwood ahead.”

Zak sorted through the confusing sentence, then smiled. “Thank you, Niranyarr.”

The griffin bobbed its magnificent head, then flexed its gloved talons. “Go eat.” It suggested.

Zak looked at the griffin in surprise. Niranyarr knew that Zak did not require sustenance. Then he realized that Niranyarr was referring to himself. The dark elf nodded in acquiescence.

Niranyarr made an affectionate sound and patted Zak’s head, almost driving the drow to his knees, then launched off, wings kicking sand into the air as Zak shielded his eyes.

Life was considerably more interesting with a friend along, someone to talk to in the long hours of the journey. Even though they had to stop for a few hours each afternoon for the griffin to rest, Zak believed that it was worth it.

Choosing a posse of trees on the plain, Zaknafein dragged the backpacks over, then sat down to wait for Niranyarr’s return.

next part

Lledrith RavenWolf

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