February 01, 2000
Category: Fantasy/Dark Elf
Author: Lledrith RavenWolf

[Disclaimer]

Magecraft series: Ascension

Prologue

Part One: First Winds
Chapter 1: First Winds
Chapter 2: Skirmishes
Chapter 3: Victory and Death
Chapter 4: Battle's End
Chapter 5: Dreamscape

Part Two: Sorcere
Chapter 6: Awakening
Chapter 7: Malice
Chapter 8: Jarlaxle
Chapter 9: Sorcere
Chapter 10: Deliberations

[next page]


Prologue

"I really don’t think so, Jarl." The child looked carefully into the busy marketplace in front of them. Jarl muttered beside him. Both were no more than six years of age, barefooted, their hair unkempt but not overly dirty, their clothes plain and soiled but not tattered. They looked like any street urchins would, except that their bone white hair and deep black skin proclaimed them as drow.

The marketplace, or the Bazaar, was a collection of many merchant stalls and chic shops, where common drow and slaves alike wandered, and sometimes a noble female on a driftdisc and an escort passed through.

Urchins were the least noticed creatures, perhaps on par with slaves. Children of the commoners, they went around begging money, but mostly thieved. Not many survived the lash of a bodyguard’s whip when discovered, or the cruel sport of a passing drow priestess.

"You hardly ever, Zak," Jarl said, "Merchant’s purses are always filled with gold."

The last word seemed to have a hypnotic sound to it, which silenced them both for a while as they watched their target. A stout human merchant hawking some ‘surface’ wares. Mostly odds and ends – staffs, staves, cups, and several live creatures which they’d never seen before. The merchant was having a debate with some driftdisc females over a cowering pair of humanoid creatures.

The purse in question was in a corner of the stall near a glass tank filled with mewling, furry, golden-eyed creatures, with tan fur on the head and the rest of the body chocolate brown. Their paws had tiny claws, and they fascinated Zak.

"Merchants allwus ha’ odd tings," Jarl drawled, imitating Nina so perfectly that Zak had to stifle a laugh. Nina was a half-drow female, one of the ‘ladies’ of the night in the brothel where they technically stayed. They only went there to sleep in the day, as in the night it had all sorts of weird sounds. The only bad thing about the place was that the half-drow all insisted on fussing over them, not being permitted children of their own. Still, square meals and clothes and a place to sleep was a good deal...

Jarl and Zak couldn’t remember their parents any longer, except that they had somehow or other been entrusted to the care of the brothel. Left outside as babes, etc. The both of them didn’t actually give much of a damn.

"Zak? Are you in?" Jarl waved a hand before Zak’s eyes, and he blinked.

"’Course I am," Zak said crossly, "So what do you want to do? Sneak over and snitch it in the middle of all those guards?"

"I distract, you snitch it," Jarl said.

"How subtle," Zak said sarcastically.

"Any other ideas?" Jarl asked. "Say, can you remember what that wizard said when he was showing off here the other day?"

Wizards, common magic-users, sometimes performed spells for money. Zak liked to watch the colorful displays. One thing Nina had said about Zak before was that he had a most uncanny, nearly unnatural memory for everything, and if needed could recall a conversation made a year ago precisely. He could remember what the wizard did, even the movements, and Jarl was convinced he could do the spell. He wasn’t.

"Yes," Zak said cautiously.

"Do it over the potter’s head?" Jarl asked.

"I don’t think I should," Zak said doubtfully.

"Why not?" Jarl demanded.

Zak was going to protest but realized he couldn’t think of anything as to why not. "Well, what if I can’t? I’ve never recalled a spell before and you know it."

"Then I’d do the distraction. Make it the noisy one." Jarl said, referring to the wizard’s last trick – mini fireworks.

Zak opened his mouth to protest further, but Jarl was already sidling over to the fat human’s stall. He swallowed hard, then made his mind blank of distraction, and searched.

As always, the memory came up, and when he spoke the words as softly as he could and did the motions, he was slightly aghast to realize he was speaking in the wizard’s voice.

He could feel some power rushing up inside him, like water roaring up a geyser’s funnel, welling up as he stretched out his finger and pointed, the twinge of never before known ecstasy as it surged and left. He felt alive.

The potter dove to the ground when the fireworks burst out over his head in a roar of sound and fiery sparks. Zak stared at it in astonishment – he did not realize it would be so... big. Already, pandemonium had broken out in the marketplace – the bodyguards nearly panicking, the escorts picking several fights.

Zak took a deep breath and dove into the crowd after his brother. He found him moving away, the purse already not on the stall.

On impulse, Zak took advantage of the chaos a minotaur slave that was maddened by sparks that had started a fire on its fur to scoop out one of the mewling things and stuff it into his shirt, then ran off after his brother.

Too late – one of the bodyguards had either seen them or noted that the purse was gone and put the blame on them, and shouted.

"Pretty fireworks," Jarl gasped as they dodged around the legs, "A bit excessive."

Zak, cradling his precious bundle, just concentrated on running. Behind them they could hear the sounds of pursuit.

"What did you take?" Jarl asked when they ducked into a quieter alley, then into another one.

"One of the creatures," Zak said. Whatever it was, it was soft and warm and making a happy rumbling sound. Purring, he realized.

"Is that counted as a share?" Jarl grinned as they wound through the alleys towards the brothel. The ‘ladies’ had insisted on teaching them how to read, write, sing, play an instrument, and fight. The fighting only comprised of daggers, to the disappointment of the both of them.

From what they had seen of the city, they had decided that the half-drow were the most educated and feeling, though they were a little too free with a switch when they thought the two were causing trouble.

What they ‘stole’ were distributed between themselves and the brothel. Zak patted the creature again and it purred enthusiastically. "I think this can be my share," he said.

"Suit yourself," Jarl said, as they slowed to a brisk walk, "I’d be using mine for a dagger of my own. Or maybe one of those small hand crossbows."

Zak grinned, then Jarl hissed when the creature poked its head out and then scrambled into Zak’s arms. "It’s cute," he said in a desultory tone, then grinned. "Ya’d ha’ to fid yit an’..."

"Clin yit an’ mek sure yit sleeps," Zak continued. They looked at each other and laughed, then froze when the small creature made a coughing rasp that was supposed to be a snarl.

Zak grabbed Jarl and pulled him behind a heap of stinking refuse. They waited with bated breath for a while, then they saw the bodyguards running into the alley at them.

Zak looked at Jarl, then they both darted out and started to run harder. They twisted and turned while the shouts always seemed to come closer, and sometimes soldiers burst out in front of them.

They didn’t understand it. Why was the merchant so intent on catching them?

Soon they came to alleys, which they did not recognize, and Zak realized he had another problem – the power was welling up in him again. Trying to force him to use it again. He gulped and ran faster.

They ducked into yet another alley, and came to an abrupt halt. "Dead end!" Jarl said, almost a wail. Nowhere to run.

They turned, but the bodyguards were already at the exit, swords drawn, cruel smiles etched on their faces.

"Common urchins," one of them said, and Zak realized that all the bodyguards were drow. He wondered briefly how the merchant could have gotten so many drow mercenaries.

"Give the purse and the cub back," another said, "And we’d make sure you die quickly." The furry creature made another pathetic snarl at them.

"Do it again, Zak," Jarl whispered, as they were backed to the end of the alley, "Do more magic!"

There was no use saying he could not. The power was a throbbing force in his mind. Dreamily, he handed the creature... cub to Jarl, then stretched out his hands, palms facing the soldiers.

The drow laughed. "You think that can stop us?"

He remembered. He remembered the wizard’s fire spell – palms out – Agannazar’s Scorcher, the wizard had said. His memory had never failed him, and would not fail him now as he spoke the words in a quick rush and pushed the power out in a jet of intense flame that engulfed the soldiers in front of them.

When it cleared, Zak looked at the ashes in awed astonishment, then at his hands in shock, but Jarl grabbed his hand and pulled him over the still-hot ground and out of the alley into another one which was in the vague direction of the brothel.

As they rounded a corner, they came out into a street – face to face with a drow priestess, resplendent in her robes, on a driftdisc, soldier escort around her. Watching them with eyes that were rather unsurprised.

It took them another moment to realize she was a matron.

Jarl let out a terrified yelp. All drow priestesses killed without remorse in the most painful ways, Karene had said. And matrons were the worst of the lot. Compared to her, the soldiers were but cockroaches.

Zak stared at her. He dared not use his newfound skill against them, and already he drooped with fatigue. They barely cried out when the drow soldiers grabbed them.

[top]

Part One: First Winds

Chapter 1: First Winds

The page prince Drizzt walked quickly with his head down, almost on the edge of a run. He kept his concentration on peripheral vision, such that he would not bump into anyone. Especially his sisters, or his mother.

Finally he thought he reached the door, and carefully looked around, indulging by stretching his neck back to soothe the crick in it. He looked at the door.

It was like any other in House Do’Urden – ornate, strong, decorated. Except this door had not a single spider on it.

He shrugged, and tentatively knocked on the door. His sensitive ears picked up a slight echo from behind the door, but other than that there was no answer, so he knocked again. "Master Zaknafein?"

This time, to his surprise, it swung wide open, to reveal a large chamber within, lit dimly by only one flickering mage light. Drizzt blinked.

Saying the room was a mess would have been an understatement. Books and strange devices were strewn on the bed, which looked suggestively like it had never been slept in. The books on the shelves were in uneven rows, and some were even dumped on top of the rows. Strange devices and statues were displayed erratically on the same shelves, and on the large single table were several glass instruments, and many dark stains. Papers and quills and rulers and other stationery had been pushed to one side, though some rebellious remnants lay still on parts of the table. The chair had been stacked messily with papers, with only one small paperweight in the form of what looked like a spell book. Even the floor was not spared, randomly littered with papers and books and boxes. What looked like a mat with objects on was sprawled under the table.

The only neat place in the room was a large glass-fronted display cupboard that occupied an entire room, only partially filled with all sorts of strange devices. Drizzt identified a wand and a set of swords. A long staff, glowing a faint blue, was leaning against it.

Drizzt turned his attention away sharply when he belatedly remembered what he had been supposed to do. "Master Zaknafein?" he asked tentatively. "The Matron Mother..."

The page prince could only stare as a darker shadow reared out at the side of the table, and caught sight of two bulging, red tinted eyes with slitted pupils, wrinkled skin that pulled back to a cruelly smiling mouth where yellowed tusks protruded. Feathers red as blood stuck up from the top of the face, and a strange hair on the sides. The nose was beaklike and long, tapering off to a hooked point.

The creature seemed to have black wings, which stretched down from the hands to the legs, that seemed to be of pure darkness themselves.

Drizzt bravely held his ground. "What... what are you?" he asked.

The creature let out a harsh chuckle. "Streea. Streea. Usstan uil dost streea, ussan uil dost vlos." Death, death, I am your death, I am your blood.

Drizzt turned and ran quickly when the creature stepped towards him. It paused, then walked with cat-like grace to the door and closed it neatly. Then it collapsed against the door, shoulders shaking in a fit of laughter as it took off the mask to show a handsome elven face.

That was a very cruel thing to do, Zaknafein. A voice spoke severely in his mind, laced with the freedom of the run, and an innate power.

Zaknafein looked up, and the mat unfolded itself smoothly and fluidly to show a large female king cheetah, that padded out serenely, then sat down on her haunches, long sinous tail twitching, lifting one long paw to lick.

"I would think so, Zaire." Zak said soberly, then smiled again. "Fun, though."

***

Drizzt ran into another elf further down the passageway, and looked up fearfully, relaxing visibly when he saw it wasn’t a female relative, but the Weapon Master.

"Why are you in such a hurry, page prince?" the elf smiled, "Did Zaknafein scorch your tail?"

"Master Jarlaxle," Drizzt gulped, "There’s a monster in Master Zaknafein’s room!"

"Monster?" Jarlaxle asked, sounding startled, then smiled.

"It’s true!" Drizzt protested, mistaking the smile for a disbelieving one.

"No doubt," Jarlaxle said somberly, "Tell me, did this ‘monster’ have red eyes that seemed to start from its head, tusks, feathers, and wings?"

"Why, yes," Drizzt said in confusion, "How..."

"Never mind how," Jarlaxle said dryly, "Go on your business, page prince. I’d find Zaknafein and tell him."

"Thank you, Master Jarlaxle," Drizzt said awkwardly, then paused. "Do you need help?"

"No," Jarlaxle said, striding towards Zaknafein’s room. When he was sure that Drizzt had left, he pushed open the door.

Zaknafein was seated at his table in his mage robe, apparently conducting an experiment. He looked up with a raised eyebrow as his brother came in. The cheetah purred loudly as a greeting.

Jarlaxle carefully closed the door, then looked at Zak with an amused grin. "Why did you scare the boy, Zak?"

"Me?" Zaknafein asked innocently.

"You know what I’m talking about, Zak," Jarlaxle said, "Because I seem to remember you pulling off the same trick on the Matron Mother when she was still a young one."

Zaknafein chuckled. "It always seems to work," he admitted.

"She is not going to be very amused, Zaknafein. Females hardly ever forgive and forget," Jarlaxle sighed, walking over to the bed and roughly shoving everything to one side for a space to sit. "Honestly, sometimes I think your sense of humor is..."

"Almost as perverted as yours," Zaknafein quipped, carefully stoppering a bottle, then his hands reached for two silvery, large marbles on the table, clenching his fist and relaxing, making the marbles rub together with a ‘scritch, crrk’ noise.

"Must you do that?" Jarlaxle asked sourly, "You know it gets on my nerves."

"It helps me concentrate," Zaknafein said.

"Well, it doesn’t, for me," Jarlaxle retorted, "Mages should carry staffs and not beads."

Zak raised an eyebrow, "Well, I think beads are better. Lighter, at least."

Jarlaxle sniffed. "Drizzt was sent to tell you that Malice wants to speak to you about something."

"Then I’d better go and see..." Zak began.

"No need, Zaknafein," Malice’s voice floated in through the door. Both males stood up quickly, and bowed, though Zaire merely watched on. The Matron of House Do’Urden had a ‘pretty face’, as Jarlaxle and Zaknafein had commented when they had first seen her, and she had never outgrown it. "What is this about a monster in your room, patron?"

Zaknafein grinned irrepressably. "A figment of my imagination?"

Malice glared at him. "Weapon Master?"

"Yes, Matron Mother?" Jarlaxle shot a smirk at Zak.

"Shut up and go away." Malice continued to stare at Zak.

"Very well, Matron Mother." Jarlaxle said, and went out of the door, closing it behind him. "Let’s see you talk your way out of this one, mage." He whispered to the door.

He fingered the chain with a pendant of a dice around his neck, and grinned, then sauntered back to the weapon hall for a bit more practice.

***

The drow soldiers collected in the large compound of House Baenre, and quickly filed into place. Pushing out the slaves in front of them, they left as the spider wall spiraled into an opening.

They split into several smaller groups and took winding tracks to prevent any other from tracking them back to where they had come from.

Inside House Baenre’s chapel, the high priestesses of the ruling house gathered around their most precious artifact of a rearing spider carved of a block of immense emerald, that glowed sickly as they chanted, the wizened Matron Baenre leading.

Tonight they would attack a House. The groups may wind and backtrack, but their paths led inexorably to House Do’Urden, fifth House of Menzoberranzan.

House Do’Urden’s status with Lloth was always rather uncertain – due partly to the Matron’s unpredictable children, and also to the two adopted drow, Zaknafein and Jarlaxle Do’Urden, one mage and one fighter, both formidable opponents... for males, of course.

Baenre was stronger than Do’Urden many times. Matron Baenre felt confident as she began to invoke Lloth’s favor.

***

It was Jarlaxle’s turn to look up when Zaknafein hurried into the room. "I’d have thought you would both take a few hours," he began with a grin, which faded at Zak’s expression.

"We’re going to be under attack," Zak said, "We have to rally the troops!"

"Who?" Jarlaxle asked as the both of them raced down to the common rooms.

"I don’t know," Zak said in frustration, "I can only pick up that there are more than seven hundred."

"Seven hundred!" Jarlaxle gasped.

Zak nodded grimly.

"Only the top three houses can have seven hundred," Jarlaxle said, "Lloth... at times like this I regret snitching the merchant’s purse."

"So do I," Zaknafein said, as they reached the common rooms, "I think I have a plan."

"Seven hundred..." Jarlaxle mused, "It had better be a good one."

"Perhaps it is," Zaknafein said, "I’d need all the magic users in the house."

[top]

Chapter 2: Skirmishes

"What do you mean, empty?" Dantrag roared, or rather what would have seemed as a roar in finger-language, jerky and abrupt.

The scout cowered back in fright. The Weapon Master of House Baenre was known for his cruel punishments. "It’s... it’s true, Master Dantrag... on my life it is!" His fingers trembled.

"Stop frightening the soldiers, brother," an elf stepped out of the silent ranks behind them and walked to Dantrag. He was tall for an elf, and held a long staff. However, it was his ornately stitched robe that proclaimed him as Gromph, the Arch Mage, eldest of House Baenre.

Dantrag snarled, but remembered himself enough to continue speaking in the drow code. "I did not ask for your opinion, Gromph. Leave the tactics to me, and I will leave the magics to you."

"Undoubtedly." Gromph ‘said’ serenely. Gromph had his own reasons for coming – as Arch Mage of the city, he had various other duties, and was not exactly subject to House business. No one was exactly sure, even to this date, of the exact rank of Arch Mage, though it was surely lower than the lowest high priestess.

Dantrag was very sure why – Gromph didn’t bother to keep it a secret – and half the city knew in any way, especially the mages. Zaknafein Do’Urden, a powerful mage and easily Gromph’s equal if not his superior, due to his already legendary memory. The problem with spells was that to draw on magical energy, the wizard had first to shape specific mental patterns in his mind. He would have to use spells in a spell book to force his mind through mental exercises, preparing it to hold the final twisted pattern.

This was called memorization. Once a wizard memorized a spell, it sort of remained as potential energy until he triggered it with all sorts of ‘junk and gibberish’, as warriors called it. Once it was released, the spell would be wiped clean from the memory of the wizard’s mind. Oh, a spell could be memorized more than once, of course, but each time it would only count as one time it could be used. For example, if a wizard memorized a spell seven times, assuming he was of a high enough level, he would only be able to cast the spell seven times.

Gromph’s own mind could easily hold more spells than Dantrag could comfortably want to know, but Zaknafein was different. It had been apparent in the wizard school of Sorcere very early that Zaknafein never forgot everything. It seemed as though once his mind got hold of something, it held on grimly and never let go – not even a spell. He could memorize a lightning spell once and use it as many times as he wanted, for his mind very firmly remembered the pattern of the spell, instantly recalling it if needed.

It was said that Zaknafein hardly bothered with studying, and Dantrag believed it.

It was also known that Zaknafein and his brother Jarlaxle were adopted ones, found by a lucky (for House Do’Urden, at least) in a bazaar when they had created trouble, and when Zaknafein had first realized he had magical talent. Immediately they had been bundled off to House Do’Urden by the current Do’Urden Matron’s predecessor and forced to swear allegiance to House Do’Urden before they could blink.

It was something that seriously irked Matron Baenre. Had she only been there instead of House Do’Urden’s Matron, those two would have been a good addition to the house... aesthetically.

In truth, Dantrag hated Jarlaxle almost as much as Gromph hated Zaknafein for never needing to study. Jarlaxle was said to be the most skilled Weapon Master in Menzoberranzan, and Dantrag meant to test it out this night – even as Gromph obviously wanted to test out Zaknafein. Jarlaxle had Lloth’s own luck... a gambler that always won. Dantrag meant to prove to him that it would not be so tonight.

Both ends served – both brothers had unanimously agreed to go on the same group together, as they understood each other. They understood what this battle would hold for them.

But now? The courtyard was empty, the scouts had said – and Do’Urden’s formidable gate wide open.

Every nerve of Dantrag screamed out that it was a trap, and even his sisters, linked to the leaders of the groups and so to him, did not understand it. Matron Baenre wanted to move on, however, so they did.

Now they were quietly gathered outside the large cavern of House Do’Urden. Unseen, but there – and probably many in the city knew it. Except House Do’Urden... or was it not? Dantrag pushed that thought out of his head... perhaps House Do’Urden had some sort of business tonight...

We advance. Quenthel ‘said’ suddenly in his mind.

Startled, a mental torrent of words that mostly screamed out that it was foolishness poured out before he stopped himself, but he noted that Quenthel didn’t reply. Meaning she probably agreed.

They moved cautiously – and at some point stopped – the hundreds of drow soldiers surrounding the cavern entrance like a killing, crushing force.

They were close enough to see the intricate Do’Urden balustrade clearly.

On some signal from Baenre’s daughters, the slaves were forced towards the entrance, but when the first kobold unwillingly tried to step through, something happened.

A brilliant flash of stabbing light burst out, and Dantrag shut his eyes tightly, though red spots still blossomed out. Screams from the slaves were giving them away, but the light seemed to be shooting out at them. The agonized screams suddenly stopped, and Dantrag’s eyes cleared quickly enough for him to know Quenthel had helped him a little.

Nothing. The Do’Urden courtyard was still empty. He had half expected all the soldiers to come charging out at them.

A sickly stench of burning flesh reached his nose, and he looked to the entrance.

In a grotesque semi-circle were the nearest fifty-odd slaves – eyes rolled up, mouth set in hideous smiles.

Sunburst. Quenthel’s voice sounded shocked, and she should – sunburst was a legendary spell. A legendary, surface dweller spell, used and then forgotten in the wars that had driven them down to the Underdark.

Gromph was already muttering to himself. How had Zaknafein learnt about it? How had he managed enough energy to cast it? Sunburst required, it was said, raw energy equivalent to lighting all the faerie fires in the city and keeping them steady for days.

Already the slaves were shriveling smaller and smaller – then they abruptly collapsed into dust. The remaining slaves gibbered in fear.

There was a roar of fire from the balcony facing the entrance, and a throne appeared, with Matron Do’Urden sitting serenely on it. Her four daughters flanked her – two on each side, all high priestesses that looked as calm as she was.

Another burst of fire, and under the balcony appeared Zaknafein Do’Urden, his hands folded over his dark robe, with Jarlaxle imitating his gesture by his side, swords not even drawn. Both also looked calm, though Zaknafein’s mouth was turned up slightly at a corner that could be interpreted as a smirk.

Dantrag’s eyes were firmly fixed on Jarlaxle. The drow looked as much as he had in Melee-Magthere – lithe, shorter than Zaknafein, but not less muscled. The rather boyish look on his face had faded somewhat, but was still there. The strange chain’s pendant of a dice was held rather firmly in one hand.

For a moment, both groups stared at each other – the sunburst had wiped off any remnant of globe of darkness shielding, and probably woken up half the city.

Then Zaknafein spoke up. "With your permission, Matron?"

"Certainly," Matron Malice said calmly. What Dantrag thought was a blob on the rail in front of her glowed clearly enough to show it as a carved spider not unlike Baenre’s. One of Zaknafein’s hands unfolded, showing two beads that were being ground together. Dantrag signaled immediately, and the slaves were – unwillingly – pressed forward, spilling towards the gate.

The Do’Urden family never even blinked, but when the closest came within a foot of the gate, Zaknafein suddenly snarled something, and the slaves abruptly tried to turn back, probably expecting another sunburst, scrambling over each other in their haste.

Dantrag roared at them, but stopped when he saw portals. Hundreds of them, opening up all before Zaknafein – then the things stepped out.

His eyes nearly popped from his head. Giant spiders whose heads reached over the waist of tall Zaknafein, facing them, mandibles clicking together.

"The Children of Lloth defend us," Matron Malice said, "The Chosen of Lloth aid us. We call upon the spiders of Lloth. Swell in size and in strength, Children of Lloth. Aid us. Aid us."

The spiders immediately swarmed towards the gate and through, pouring over the shrieking slaves.

How...? Dantrag could not help but admire whatever mage work Zaknafein had done. It was forbidden to kill a spider. Already the soldiers were backing off silently, watching the slaves uneasily as the spiders finished them off quickly and advanced menacingly, chittering. Behind them now flowed the soldiers of Do’Urden.

Do not kill the spiders! Quenthel’s voice abruptly sounded in his mind, To do so is to bring down the fury of Lloth on us!

Helplessly, he signaled for them to run, but circled away and waited and watched as the spiders all chased after the fleeing soldiers. Then he walked carefully to the gates, hugging the sides, not surprised to find that Gromph had done the same thing.

"Come out, Dantrag," Jarlaxle said abruptly from inside the cavern. "We know you’re there."

"Would you like to fight, Archmage?" Zaknafein asked tauntingly, also from inside, "Or would you run away with your tail between your legs?"

Dantrag glanced uneasily at Gromph, but they stepped out to the entrance, facing the two of them. On the balcony, the Matron and her daughters had vanished – probably a projected illusion – they were probably in the chapel, more or less safe, matching wits with Baenre. Dantrag’s hand was already in his pocket, and a bolt shot out towards Jarlaxle, who was already moving, but the bolt caught fire and burnt to ashes two feet away from him.

"You’re spoiling the fun." Jarlaxle complained.

"How did you manage the spiders?" Gromph demanded.

Zaknafein raised an eyebrow. "Luck. Lloth’s own luck, Jarlaxle?" He smiled at his brother, who grinned back. "Monster summoning, of course – with the aid of some devices. Do you remember a dealer thirty years ago in the bazaar who came from the surface?"

Gromph grunted. "Laner." He named a merchant that dealed with magical items.

"Precisely," Zaknafein said coolly. "The devices enhance abilities – including telepathic animal control. I doubt those spiders would stop until all or most of your soldiers are killed."

"The sunburst?" Gromph growled.

"Luck again," Zaknafein smiled, "It so happened that Laner had a book which we both bid for, remember?"

Gromph hissed in rage, knuckles growing white over his staff.

"I’m sure this is very interesting, Zaknafein," Jarlaxle interrupted, "But Dantrag and I have a bit of business to discuss."

Zaknafein didn’t even blink. Suddenly he was on the balcony, and Jarlaxle was gone.

Dantrag immediately drew his swords, and turned in time when Jarlaxle appeared at his back and attacked. Gromph ignored the both of them and strode forward, then his staff flashed and he too appeared on the balcony, ten feet from Zaknafein.

"It begins," Gromph whispered, then lightning stabbed forward from his staff, dispersing off Zaknafein’s shield, then a bolt of energy hissed against his own shield.

He stood a chance, Gromph knew – Zaknafein’s face was slightly drawn. The sunburst had taken a bit more effort than Zaknafein must have expected.

Zaknafein also knew this. The beads, unnoticed by Gromph, were already smoldering smears of ash on his palm. They had taken most of the drain, but he had taken the rest.

But he would face Gromph without artificial aid. And he swore to beat him... or die.

[top]

Chapter 3: Victory and Death

The combined power of the high priestesses of Baenre struck forcefully, but most of it seemed to rebound off some shield. Baenre knew what the shield was – one of the daughters of Do’Urden was rumored to be of strong psychic persuasion, enough to rival Matron Kyorl of House Oblodran.

The counter blow came, and it seemed that it magnified, and Baenre knew suddenly that something they had done had angered Lloth. Some stupid soldiers had killed a spider.

Their spider statue shattered, spraying Baenre’s circle of eight with hot shards, but Baenre grimly led them on.

Baenre had fifteen – fifteen high priestesses. Enough to swamp Do’Urden’s mere five. She gave House Do’Urden an hour at most.

They struck again and again, the waves of mental energy rolling out towards the fifth House.

Matron Baenre knew she had to win. The rules of Menzoberranzan called for a raid to be executed perfectly. When she was done with the five priestesses, she would organize efforts to safely pen in the giant spiders, then with her remaining soldiers hunt out and obliterate the Do’Urden soldiers from the city.

She did wonder faintly how Dantrag and Gromph were going on. She knew that they were going to confront Jarlaxle and Zaknafein Do’Urden... she blinked

In the cavernous chapel, blue portals appeared. Surrounding the circle of eight and the other high priestesses.

And more giant spiders stepped out.

***

"What did you do?" Gromph demanded. Zaknafein’s head was bowed, though his shield did not waver, he hadn’t countered any blows.

Zaknafein’s head snapped up, eyes burning, though also tainted with intense weariness. Then he smiled, and an immense jolt of energy shook Gromph’s shielding. "I wonder how your mother likes giant spiders?" he asked softly.

Gromph snarled. "When I’m through with you..."

"I’d wish I’ve never been born?" Zaknafein asked, palms out. Gromph immediately braced himself, and the jets of intense fire roiled off his shield. "Sometimes I wish that myself."

"How long more can you continue standing, Zaknafein?" Gromph asked, "Already you are tired, but I am..."

"Also tired," Zaknafein grinned, "Fair’s fair." More lightning lanced out, then cones of cold, and then a billowing cloud of ghastly yellow vapor appeared over Gromph’s shields.

Gromph held on grimly, dispelling the Cloudkill spell easily, then lashing out with a vertical column of fire that enveloped Zaknafein’s shields.

Zaknafein in turned dispelled that spell, and they rounded off again. Gromph realized suddenly that Zaknafein seemed a bit closer than before. Below, Jarlaxle ducked a sword blow, then swept out with his feet, immediately stepping back for balance without even seeing if he had missed, his swords arcing in again, neatly deflected by Dantrag.

Dantrag forced and locked swords with Jarlaxle, then continued to push the swords towards Jarlaxle’s throat. The Baenre Weapon Master was stronger than Jarlaxle, though Jarlaxle was the faster.

A searing wave of heat made him falter for a short second, but Jarlaxle had broken free and nicked his shoulder, then the Do’Urden Weapon Master dived in with a fury, swords clipping always at his hands, so fast that Dantrag could only trust that he could counter all of them.

When Jarlaxle stepped back, Dantrag felt that his hands were numbing quickly, but forced himself to continue. Jarlaxle stepped in again, driving them over the burnt bodies.

Dantrag stepped quickly back and a dagger appeared as if by magic in his hand. His foot landed behind him for balance...and he slipped as he stepped on something squishy. A goblin’s outstretched palm.

He still remembered himself well enough to roll away as Jarlaxle’s swords in turn drove into where he was. An inch more and they would have stuck in the ground – as it was it only drove through the palm he had stepped on.

"Lloth’s own luck," Dantrag snarled.

Jarlaxle nodded graciously. "I’d always wondered why the merchant sent his bodyguards after my brother and I," he said as if they were but strolling down a street. "The purse wasn’t that big. Turned out he kept the pendant in it away from prying drow eyes." Jarlaxle touched the pendant in question.

Dantrag’s hands were numbing quickly, but he ignored them and attacked again, slightly desperately. Jarlaxle fell to an easy rhythm. "Do you know what they do?"

"I care not," Dantrag growled, deflecting a feint, then quickly intercepting the thrust.

"I’m sure you do," Jarlaxle said, in turn catching a nasty slice at his throat. "The dice twists luck itself. I save the luck for important things – like this, for example, though most of it is with Matron Malice and the soldiers. It turns luck into some kind of stored thing, like money. You can spend it or keep it. When I keep it, I don’t have luck as much as a normal drow would. When I over-use it, I have bad luck until the balance is restored. Obviously, I’m using it now."

"How much more?" Dantrag smiled suddenly.

Jarlaxle raised an eyebrow. "For as long as I want, though of course the period of bad luck after this would be longer. Zak and I split the money, of course – I got the pendant, and he got something else."

Dantrag’s back hit something hard, and he panicked briefly, swerving away, nearly losing his balance. A rock formation was the culprit, but he barely recovered in time to take Jarlaxle’s strike.

"See?" Jarlaxle grinned. "Luck."

"Damn you," Dantrag said, launching into a sequence, swords flying up, then down, then up again, but he noted with some shock that his hands were shaking a little.

"How long can you last, Dantrag?" Jarlaxle smiled, "When my brother is done with yours, I’m sure he’d like to watch and find out. I’d have to persuade him not to interfere, of course."

"Gromph is the Archmage," Dantrag said, "Zaknafein is but..."

"A Master at Sorcere," Jarlaxle said rather serenely. "Head of Sorcere is the Archmage. Close enough... isn’t it? Zaknafein, in the idea of many in Menzoberranzan, should have been ArchMage, if not for Baenre."

Dantrag merely growled. For the first time, he was beginning to feel afraid.

***

Those not in the Baenre circle of eight formed one of their own, concentrating on holding a shield up against the spiders. The creatures had seemed to split into two groups, one that had gone off to rampage the halls of House Baenre, and the others trying to get in at them.

Then the sisters noted something strange – six of the giant spiders had reared up, front legs waving. They watched in horror as a purplish portal appeared, and the spiders stepped through.

Appearing inside their circle.

***

"The spiders have broken through," Matron Malice murmured, "Hold on, daughters."

Already several of the common priestesses had fallen, and those who could take their place were faltering.

Malice took pride that none of her daughters had fallen, not even Lanfaye, the youngest, who was single-handedly holding up their shields. It was strange – Lanfaye had very little clerical strength. Some of the novices in Arach-Tinilith were stronger than her, but her psychic strength held against anything Baenre was throwing against her, but her face was beginning to look very strained, as were the others.

Vierna, the eldest, was the strongest as well, stronger even than Malice, though she adhered very closely to her own rules, such that Malice was sure that a mere suggestion that she kill Malice to be Matron Mother would cause her to faint on the spot.

Taralyn after Vierna was big for a drow female, but her face was rather vague looking at best. Not exactly beautiful, she could be called handsome. Taralyn too, was powerful, but her heart was disturbingly free of spite or any such ugly emotions. Taralyn was perfectly loyal to Malice, even to the extent of saving the Matron’s life several times. Taralyn was strong in that she could ‘take’ a lot – she was absorbing most of Baenre’s hits, allowing Malice to provide the strength to concentrate fully on Baenre’s circle.

Dantrena, with her large, melting eyes and enchanting face, was stunningly beautiful, but she was stronger in the offensive spells and healing than Vierna herself, two strange combinations. She spearheaded the ‘attacks’ on the Baenre circle. Again, a mere novice, with luck, could defeat her – her defensive skills were meager at best.

As fitting a team as they were, they wouldn’t hold up any longer. Malice could only pray to Lloth that they would hold long enough.

***

The portal spiders quickly killed off the circle of eight, some of them dying as Baenre sisters in desperation tried to lash out with their spells, their snake-whips discarded as the heads refused to turn on the spiders.

The large shield faltered then collapsed, and the other spiders flowed in hungrily. Matron Baenre screamed and opened her eyes when something sharp stabbed into her neck, and her flailing arms held something furry and thin. A giant spider?

She turned to curse the others with her dying breath and ask for help, but the words froze in her mouth even as she wrenched away from her attacker.

Of her daughters, only two remained – Quenthel weakly moving under three spiders tearing at her, and one more in a heap of robes, at which some bluish spider with blade-like legs was occupied slicing to ribbons.

"How?" Baenre wailed, even as the spiders started to surround her. The venom from the bite was flowing into her veins. "Lloth, help me! Lloth...."

***

Gromph was driven to his knees by the last immense bolt of raw energy, but he made himself hold on to his shields. No more spells... the very thought of that was frightening him. He remembered no more spells.

Abruptly he realized Zaknafein was right in front of him. He looked up, and saw the other mage’s fist flying towards him, connecting with his nose and driving him forcefully against the rail.

Zaknafein’s other hand shot into his robe, emerging with a dagger. Before Gromph could even recover from the blow, it stabbed deep into his chest.

"Sometimes it’s better to do it this way. Faster, at least," Zaknafein smiled. "Lloth, what will Jarlaxle think of me?"

"Damn... you," Gromph gurgled. Zaknafein reached forward, and snatched the chain of office from Gromph’s neck.

"You never deserved this," Zaknafein said calmly, ignoring the other mage’s clawing on the ground.

He watched as Gromph’s twitching hand stilled, then turned away, starting to walk to approximately the center of the balcony before going to Jarlaxle’s help.

He whirled abruptly when he heard a hoarse rasp of words behind him, and managed to see Gromph’s smirk. "If... I cannot have... it... neither will you!" The last three words a roar, and something exploded behind him.

The glass from the sliding doors burst out, deadly shards flying to him, and he dived down, but the fragments stabbed deep into him.

Stupid overconfident idiot! He wailed at himself, as the darkness came.

[top]

Chapter 4: Battle’s End

Zaire let out an unearthly howl of pain and rage, then abruptly charged at the door of the hiding place, scrabbling frantically at it.

Drizzt walked warily up to her, his hand still firmly on the dagger he had... borrowed from the weapons hall. "What is it?" he asked.

The Matron had set Zaire to guarding Drizzt in one of Do’Urden’s various hidden chambers, this one behind a bookshelf in Zaknafein’s room, which was so heavily warded and soaked with magic that locating spells would not work or would backfire.

Something was wrong if Zaire wanted to get out. Drizzt wouldn’t believe Zaire would voluntarily try to attack any intruder in the room – the big cat would rather wait for someone to open the shelf.

How would Zaire know something was wrong?

Drizzt then remembered that Zaire was somehow linked to Zaknafein. Such that four hundred odd years had also slid off the cheetah’s back as well, and the creature looked like it was still in the prime of its life.

Something had happened to Zaknafein? Drizzt quickly fumbled at the back of the bookshelf in front of them, but it had been made to be opened from the outside.

He never claimed to understand anyone inside the House. Jarlaxle had nearly collapsed in laughter when he saw the bookshelf chamber, claiming that Zaknafein obviously had a bad taste in literature, while Zaknafein said this was such a stupid, obvious trick that no one would think of looking for it.

Drizzt looked down, and saw a small lever at the edge of the bookshelf – just as obviously the mage was prepared against accidentally locking himself in or something, so he pulled it.

The shelf swung open, and Zaire immediately leaped to the door, going through the large flap-device at the bottom. Drizzt, grumbling at the cat, managed to twist the doorknob open, look around hastily for any monsters in the room, then close the door, and run after the cheetah.

He lost the cheetah quickly – the creature seemed to run faster than wind, long paws covering the ground faster than his – but knew that the cat had gone to the balcony.

Drizzt gasped out loud when he arrived – Zaknafein had collapsed against the rail, robe soaked in blood in a pool of red, several large, sharp glass fragments the size of Drizzt’s palm sticking out of his back, one hand convulsively clutching some gold chain of office. A shuddering, weak heaving of the chest proclaimed the mage was still alive. Glass crunched under Drizzt’s feet as he turned.

Very near Zaknafein was the body of another elf, but Zaire apparently had him by the throat, growling menacingly and angrily. The elf’s hand twitched and reached a large glass fragment, drawing back as if to stab Zaire with it, but Drizzt darted forward and grabbed hold of the elf’s wrist, twisting the fragment away.

Agonizingly, the elf suffocated, hand growing limp, the fragment dropping down to shatter further.

Zaire shook the elf to make sure he was truly dead, then padded over to the form of Zaknafein, making a noise that sounded like a whimper, licking his face.

"We’d better fetch some help," Drizzt told it. Zaire was supposed to be intelligent...It didn’t seem to listen.

The sounds of someone fighting reached him, and he looked through the rail – Jarlaxle and some dark elf sparring heatedly around the entrance. Back and forth they weaved, around lots of dead bodies. Where was everyone else?

Drizzt swallowed, and sat down beside Zaire. Suddenly he felt very confused, and rather alone. "Don’t die on me, Master Zaknafein," he told the mage quietly. "Please. I’m going to find the Matron!"

***

"It is done," Matron Malice said with a shuddering breath, "The spiders have killed Matron Baenre and her daughters, or they have fled. House Do’Urden has survived the attack." Her own voice sounded incredulous to herself, and no wonder.

Lanfaye immediately collapsed, and Vierna followed her. Taralyn and Dantrena leant heavily against each other, taking deep breaths, but when she glanced at them, they smiled with fierce pride.

"We will charge Baenre with the justice of Lloth," Taralyn said softly. The new day was supposed to have dawned, by now.

"Daermon N’a’shezbaernon," Dantrena said slowly, but with the same quiet pride, "Fourth House of Menzoberranzan."

"A good ring, does it not?" Malice smiled. "Now we have to gather back our soldiers."

There was the sound of pattering feet outside. Malice’s hand went to her whip until she realized that it was a small sound of pattering feet. Drizzt poked his head into the chapel half-fearfully.

"What are you doing out of the room, page prince?" Malice demanded, though she did not have the strength to scold anyone anymore. Not yet, at least.

"Matron... Mother," Drizzt said quickly, his words a rush, "Zaknafein’s... uh, that is, Zaknafein’s injured... he’s not dead," he said even more quickly, when Malice’s face drained of color. It was quite obvious to anyone who was not blind and death in the House that the Matron had very deep ‘feelings’, as Jarlaxle put it, for the patron, which he also returned, and which Jarlaxle often made fun of.

He thought that was only proper, so why did they make so about it? And they avoided the word ‘love’, but ‘love’ only meant (in the drow tongue, that is) lust. Strong liking was better for it. Drizzt remembered the bed, and then just as quickly kicked the thoughts out of his head guiltily when Malice stared at him.

"Where is he?" she demanded.

"The balcony," he said quickly. Malice’s temper was volcanic at best, totally unpredictable and absolutely terrifying to everyone, except for Zaknafein, who seemed immune to it, and Jarlaxle, who didn’t take it seriously. Jarlaxle never took anything much seriously.

Drizzt had had his fair share of beatings from the whips that hissed at her side, though mostly from Vierna, who was his wean mother and not happy about it. Malice thought that since she was the strongest, she would be the best at teaching him, even though Lanfaye had said she wouldn’t mind taking the task.

Malice quickly swept past him, but he could almost feel the weariness radiating off her. Taralyn looked at Vierna’s and Lanfaye’s unconscious forms then curtly told a nearby common priestess to take care of them. Dantrena shot Drizzt a tired grin – she was the nicest of the sisters – then limped off after Malice, followed by Taralyn, who pulled him after her and began to berate him about not following instructions.

Drizzt bore it without comment; eyes fixed on his toes. Taralyn’s lectures were long-winded and she tended to repeat herself and wander off to his other faults, but strangely he’d still had to feel her whip. Even Dantrena had beaten him more than once whenever she caught him exploring her room. It wasn’t exactly his fault – he’d just wanted to see where she secreted so many sweets that she could give him one almost every day.

Sometimes he wondered briefly if the other houses were as weird as his were. Zaknafein and Jarlaxle were very nearly the strangest. Zaknafein was his father, but always looked mildly surprised when he saw Drizzt, as though he was still trying to figure out why and how Drizzt was still there. It always made him scurry off quickly... anything but that penetrating stare. Jarlaxle alternated between ignoring Drizzt, laughing at Drizzt or talking seriously to him about weapons, though the last was the least common but most welcome.

He realized that Taralyn had abruptly stopped and seemed to be waiting for an answer, so he quickly mumbled something noncommittally. This time, Taralyn seemed too tired to carry on her tirade.

When they reached the balcony, Malice was already kneeling beside Zaknafein and grumbling angrily to herself – the female drow was glowing a heated red in the infrared spectrum. "Bloody fool" was about the mildest she was calling the mage as her fingers ran over the wounds.

Even Taralyn and Dantrena made no comment about the words that would fit an innkeeper’s barmaid better than a Matron of a ruling House.

"We have to get him in," Malice said.

***

Jarlaxle looked up once, and saw his sisters on the balcony with someone kneeling down. He didn’t want to know why, but he knew something – if his sisters were out of the chapel and alive, the battle was over.

Dantrag seemed to know that as wall, and lost whatever desperate zeal he had been clinging on to. Jarlaxle considered playing with the Baenre Weapon Master for a while more, then sighed and thrust, sword dancing past the half-hearted defense into the other’s heart.

Dantrag collapsed with a gurgling snarl, sliding limply off the sword. Callously, Jarlaxle wiped the sword on him, then just as callously searched the elf’s pockets. Just in case, though he was sure Dantrag wouldn’t bring anything interesting.

Nothing. He looked at Dantrag’s swords in consideration for a while, then took them. Ordinary, but still trophies. He jumped when Malice’s voice shouted at him.

"Jarlaxle Do’Urden!" she was saying, "Come here!"

He sighed, and dropped the swords. Plenty of time later. He ran quickly over to the courtyard, then levitated to the balcony. And let out a gasp of horror.

"Exactly," Malice said grimly, "Now help me carry this damned idiot inside. I cannot work here."

"Matron Mother," Jarlaxle said worriedly, "Are you strong enough to heal..."

"I am strong enough to use salves and potions, Weapon Master," Malice said tartly, "And hurry up, Lloth damn you!"

Jarlaxle shrugged and carefully took hold of Zaknafein, lifting him up with a grunt. "Someone’s going to have to go on a diet, or something," he muttered irritably, following Malice as she strode back inside the house, and noted that the medallion was still firmly clutched in his hand. "Damn you, Zaknafein. You take winning too hard."

[top]

Chapter 5: Dreamscape

He slept and dreamed. He always remembered his dreams – the first would always seem to be some sort of paradise of the springy turf of the surface world under the starry sky. He’d always had a morbid fascination of the surface world...no doubt the sun was horrific, but he did like the night there.

The moving air – wind, that is – took hold of his hair and whipped it around gently, and he brushed the strands off his face. Zaire’s burnished gold eyes stared at him from the depths of the undergrowth, and he grinned at the cheetah. For some reason it looked rather relieved.

Dreamscape jerked.

He grimaced. Jarl stood by his side as they walked with shamefaced look up the dim-lit building of the brothel towards Sherl’s office. They’d broken something again, though accidentally.

It wasn’t exactly their fault, after all. Balls were meant to be played with, and the outside was full of bad people who’d jump at a chance to spoil a game.

They reached the forbidding door, and Jarl muttered something about an old buzzard before Sherl told them to come in.

Dreamscape jerked.

"...And are you going to do it again?" Nina demanded.

Zak and Jarl sighed. They’d already been through this with Sherl... it wasn’t fair. "No, Nina."

"And will I hear of this again?" Nina continued.

"No, Nina," Zak and Jarl groaned. Tedium, tedium, but they knew very well what was going to happen next.

"Right," Nina said, taking out a stick she used whenever they did something bad. "Down, the both of you. This is going to hurt me more than it’d hurt the two of you."

Jarl snorted loud enough for Nina to hear, and quickly tried to cover it with a cough.

"Would you like some medicine tonight, Jarl?" Nina asked sweetly, "For that cough of yours?"

"No, Nina," Jarl said hastily.

"And don’t smile like that, Zak," Nina said, her voice suddenly stern, "I might decide to dose you with something so you won’t catch the cough. Just in case."

Dreamscape jerked.

"You had better be careful," Marena said firmly, "It’s market day, and there will be a lot of Matrons going around. They’d mostly be around the place where they sell soldiers, Tirach, I think, but be careful. And don’t go near Tirach."

"Yes, Marena," Zak and Jarl mentally rolled their eyes. Yes this, no this, sometimes they really felt like running away. But they couldn’t.

"And what would you be?" Marena asked expectantly.

"Careful, Marena," Zak and Jarl chorused.

"And where won’t you go?" Marena asked.

"Tirach, Marena," Zak and Jarl sighed.

"Good. We don’t want you to come back in pieces," Marena snorted, then her face softened. "The sisters pooled some money together," she said, handing them some coins each, "From the night’s earnings. Make sure you don’t spend it all at once."

Dreamscape jerked.

Zak watched in a sort of stunned amazement as Malice ran away from him and turned a corner.

"What did you do now?" Jarl asked quietly, walking out from somewhere to his shoulder.

"I didn’t do anything," Zak protested, "That is, Malice’s leaving tomorrow for Tier Breche, so I just wished her good luck. With all due respect."

"And what did she do?" Jarl asked, then grinned impishly as Zak’s face reddened in the infrared spectrum with what looked like embarrassment.

"I’d never understand females," Zak murmured as Zaire purred and rubbed against him.

"What did she do?" Jarl grinned, but his face turned solemn when Zak shot him a murderous glare. "Well, sorry, if it hurts your pride or something. I only saw her running away. And crying, too. What will the Matron think?"

"I really don’t understand," Zak said, "It’s been years since we’ve been in House Do’Urden, and she’s always seemed to make it clear she hates the both of us, and me especially. And she stares at me most of the time and looks away when I turn my head. And now?"

"Kisses and tears and running away," Jarl mused, then hastily added when Zak’s face darkened further, "Stands to reason, Zak. You haven’t seen the looks she’s thrown your way when she thinks no one’s looking. Lloth, Zak, when that one becomes Matron you’d better start running."

Another shadow loomed up out of the passageway where Jarl had come from. "I am sure your conversation is just fascinating. Both of you." They looked up to see the figure of Raenral, current patron of House Do’Urden. Of average height and dapper in shape, Raenral was patron because of his overly handsome face. He was a mage of dubious power, but had been chosen to teach Zak until he became of age enough to enter Sorcere.

"Master Raenral?" Zak said uncertainly.

"Zaknafein Do’Urden, you will come with me," Raenral said severely, "I will tolerate no gossip in this House. Jarlaxle Do’Urden, you will go back to Weapon Master Maerlan and tell him that you have committed a grievous indiscretion. I trust he will teach you a lesson."

Zak looked back at Jarl when he was being led – no, towed away, and exchanged a private smile. They’d gotten into trouble before, and the ‘justice’ of the house was such that the both of them would be punished, but they’d take it. Together.

Dreamscape jerked.

Zak looked around the cavern, gripping his staff more tightly. Students had a choice of magical weapons offered by Sorcere, and some chose the wands for their charges of spells, some the staff for enhancing. Zak knew he could... would remember all the spells he had ever studied, and he’d gone through the books more than twice the night before.

Each had a sort of medallion on their chest that generated a small shield around the wearer. The idea of it was that any spell hitting the small shield, if offensive and deadly, would be dispelled, and the medallion would let out a loud sound to call the Masters above to the drow. The drow would be counted as ‘out’, and ranked accordingly.

Not unlike the ‘Melee’ at the warrior school. There had been hundreds of rules in the first few, but as they progressed, there became less and less rules.

This was his final ‘Skirmish’, as Sorcere called it. They only had one every three or so years, and for as long as he could remember he’d been of the top rank. Gromph Baenre hadn’t liked it, but he could not do anything. For the last seven ‘Skirmishes’ he’d beaten Gromph fairly.

Seeing the bond Zaire had with him and knowing it could not be broken, Zaire was allowed into Sorcere, but the cat was under the strictest rules. Now, it was on a chain and tied at the entrance of the caverns, watched over carefully. The Masters took no chances.

The last one had no boundaries on the spells. Zaknafein kept an iron hold on himself and his spells as the first flash somewhere to the northwest told him the battle had started.

Dreamscape jerked.

He’d spent the last six months in Arach-Tinilith, bowing and scraping to the priestesses, submitted to speeches even longer than Sherl’s had ever been.

Zaknafein had a neat trick he’d learnt somewhere, though. He could act as though he was listening with his heart and soul, while his mind fell asleep, or partly asleep. He’d never been caught, and he’d never actually remembered anything enough to think about it. Oh, he could recall it if he wished under questioning, but for the time being, he simply couldn’t care less about the silly priestesses and their silly speeches.

He was rather thankful that Malice had already graduated before this year. So that he wouldn’t be able to meet her in the passageways. He still wasn’t exactly sure about her.

Zaknafein had gone back to House Do’Urden every Festival of the Founding, but for every one Malice had avoided him. Jarlaxle never seemed to change on the outside, but Zak sensed he had become more sardonic and serious. At least he hadn’t become like Maerlan, a totally cold and ruthless warrior who would have killed Jarlaxle if he had the chance, the same as Raenral would have killed him.

The ways of the drow gave him a headache and a boiling anger he never could suppress until one day he lost his temper in his room. Jarlaxle had come over to see what was wrong, and they had a long, painful talk, then the both of them decided to try and deal with it together as much as possible. They could not justify some of the ways, but they could forget, or let out the anger somehow.

Maerlan was showing his age, and Jarlaxle was obviously the candidate for his successor. Maerlan had taken to glaring at Jarlaxle with a deep and profound hatred.

Dreamscape jerked.

"One over there," Jarlaxle commented casually. Zaknafein nodded, and concentrated – the water troll burst into flames.

Maybe coincidence, or maybe not, but Jarlaxle was inside the same patrol. Probably as not the Matron had pulled a few strings. Jarlaxle had point position, with Zaire, though the cat had protested mightily when Zaknafein told it to stay with his brother. Zaire did not like Jarlaxle very much.

The patrol leader motioned them on, and they continued, with Zaknafein as their wizard staying in the middle, and Jarlaxle running on ahead with Zaire at his heels.

In Zaknafein’s mind, the cheetah continued its angry grumbling.

Dreamscape jerked.

"Wipe that look off your face, Zak," Jarlaxle said when they were out of earshot of the chapel, "You look rather ridiculous."

Zaknafein scowled at him. "Ha, yes."

"You know very well that she was going to do that. Didn’t you?" Jarlaxle asked.

"No," Zaknafein said, "She’s been avoiding me so long I’m not sure of what she thinks anymore. And I don’t care."

"Yes you do," Jarlaxle said firmly, "And you know it."

Zaknafein sighed, but refused to admit his brother was right. "It’s a bit fast. The Matron... that is, the ex-Matron suddenly dead, and the other sisters leave to create their own houses. Eighteenth house we may be, but I think that Malice should have kept a few allies. And thought about it before... before doing this. I mean, naming a patron isn’t as important as if the house would fall."

Jarlaxle let out an evil chuckle. "Watch your back, Zaknafein," he said, "Malice’s been waiting to do that for a long time. Why should she wait? And you’d better watch your words, too."

Zaknafein’s eyebrow shot up. "I don’t find any fault with it. You do it too – more than myself. Your room’s not exactly far from mine, and the walls not that thick."

"Females see it another way." Jarlaxle said airily, "And I’m not tied to anyone now. Patron you may be, but you’d better stop, or she might just decide to whip you."

"I do have some common sense, Jarlaxle," Zaknafein said, "Thank you so much for telling me what I already know. What about you? Isn’t being named Weapon Master a little quick as well?"

"And tiring," Jarlaxle sighed, "I hate waking up early in the morning. Yes, it does impress the females, what with duty and such, but really, I like my sleep."

"So do I," Zak said automatically, and instantly regretted it when Jarlaxle let out an amused laugh.

"You’d not be having much of it now that..." Jarlaxle yelped as Zaknafein stepped firmly on his foot.

Dreamscape rippled like a pond where someone had dropped a pebble, and he could hear voices. His consciousness rose.

[top]

Part Two: Sorcere

Chapter 6: Awakening

Jarlaxle was instantly at the bed when Zaknafein moaned, peering into his brother’s face. "Are you all right?"

Zaknafein was lying on his front, face carefully turned by Jarlaxle to the side such that the elf would not suffocate. It had been necessary - the back of the mage was a mess of glass fragments and bruises.

Zaknafein opened his eyes slowly and saw Jarlaxle’s face too close for comfort, but quickly remembered himself enough to try and make a joke. "Lloth, ‘tis Jarlaxle," he said weakly, not understanding why his voice sounded like a croak, "Am I in hell?"

"Very funny, Zaknafein," Jarlaxle said, straightening. His arm was held in a sling, and Zak could make out a bandage on his forehead. "How hilarious."

Zaknafein tensed briefly as he checked on his wounds, then relaxed on the bed, knowing he probably couldn’t move much without a lot of pain. He was in his room, the mess having been pushed roughly to one large pile in the side. The way the sheets had been bloodstained suggested why he wasn’t in the... other bed.

"Are you sure you’re not going to try and get up and say you’re fit enough to walk?" Jarlaxle asked.

"Oh, shut up, Jarlaxle," Zaknafein said, "You know I won’t – it’s rather pointless since I cannot."

"Sometimes you are so practical you make me sick," Jarlaxle retorted.

Zaire’s features were the next to look up into his, and the cheetah immediately began to wash his face with her rough tongue enthusiastically while he coughed and protested. Jarlaxle grabbed the cheetah’s collar and hauled it back.

"Naughty girl. Sit." Jarlaxle grinned at it, while Zaire shot an angry stare at the weapon master and retired with dignity under the table.

Zaknafein’s hand reached a cloth, and he wiped his face with it. Dampened in hot water. He put it back down regretfully, feeling rather more refreshed.

"What time is it?" Zaknafein asked.

"Well into the next day," Jarlaxle said, "The rest of the House with the exception of Lanfaye has gone to watch House Baenre’s destruction."

"Baenre’s destruction..." Zaknafein mused. "Oh my."

"Powerful and strong as it is," Jarlaxle said, "It would not withstand the forces of Tier Breche. I’m not surprised if Malice and company are returning soon."

"Dantrag got you?" Zaknafein smiled at Jarlaxle’s bandages.

"Yes, and Malice said she wouldn’t waste any healing on me," Jarlaxle sighed, "So she just got someone to treat it with salve and bind it up. You’re pampered."

Zaknafein chuckled. "It still hurts, though."

"Sure it would," Jarlaxle said. "It’s only fair. You killed Gromph?"

"Same as you killed Dantrag." Zaknafein said. Both brothers treated this like simple fact, but their smiles held something of relief.

Jarlaxle nodded. "Though how he managed to get you in this way..."

Zaknafein tried to shrug, but it hurt so much he stopped. "Carelessness. I stabbed him, and he didn’t have the grace to die properly and quickly. Enough breath to implode the glass sliding doors."

"Gromph never had anything much like grace in his life," Jarlaxle agreed.

Zaknafein suddenly noticed something. "Where’s the chain of office?"

"Given up to Sorcere," Jarlaxle said calmly. Zaknafein raised an eyebrow. "Relax. They know you killed Gromph fairly. They’re just going to deliberate for a while."

Zaknafein tried to tell himself he didn’t care, failed, and shut it out of his mind. "I see," he said flatly.

Jarlaxle smoothly changed the subject. "You really shouldn’t talk in your sleep, Zaknafein," he said with a grin.

"What did I say?" Zak sighed.

"Well, just after Malice finished healing you, you started to talk about Nina. And Sherl. Another dream?" his grin grew wider.

"Lloth, yes," Zak groaned, "My life literally flashed before my eyes... all the bad parts. I thought it was bad enough to have dreams with you in it. How did Malice take it?"

"She wasn’t very happy at all," Jarlaxle said. Seeing Zak’s horrified expression, he relented. "I explained about them, don’t worry. At least you didn’t speak out about... others until she had gone to go and accuse Baenre."

"Just like her to feel jealous," Zak murmured, though he did feel proud. Proud about what?

"Bad parts?" Jarlaxle asked sympathetically.

Zak winced, and nearly winced again when pain stabbed through his ribs enough for him to gasp out. "Yes. Like a long lecture with Sherl on the day we broke the vase in the living room playing ball. Nina’s lecture after than. Marena’s lecture before we went to the bloody marketplace. Malice when I wished her luck to Arach-Tinilith..."

"Isn’t that a good dream?" Jarlaxle grinned impishly, "I mean, she did kiss you."

"I didn’t have that part," Zak said sourly, "I had the part when you had to break in on me, then the part when Raenral came along."

Jarlaxle shuddered. "I think I’ve had enough about dreams for the time being."

"How are the others?" Zak asked.

"Fine," Jarlaxle said. "Lanfaye is still sleeping off her exertions."

"How is your luck?" Zak grinned.

"Bad," Jarlaxle sighed, "Coming up here, I slipped on some water on the stairs and got this bandage on my head and a scathing speech from Taralyn." The drow priestess was two centuries younger than himself, but she always managed to make him feel like a first year student.

As Jarlaxle continued to rattle off his string of bad luck, Zaknafein started to smile. Everything seemed to be all right. He still couldn’t believe that the House had survived, but from the way his muscles ached unbearably from last night’s strain, he knew he had also paid for it.

Briefly he wondered how the other magic-users were turning up, but only enough to wonder if they could still use the mage arts, or if they would ever wake up. The enhancing artifacts purchased from Laner had all but been burnt out by the massive use of magic, and he had to watch the bazaar later. Whenever he got up.

Zaire looked out at him from under the table, and purred.

***

Malice rode home on her driftdisc, forcing herself to stay awake. She wanted to collapse from exhaustion, but watching House Baenre fall had been infinitely satisfying.

The price had not been very high for House Do’Urden. All the magic-users had collapsed, and those who had woken up could not even light a candle, drained as they were. The giant spiders had been carefully taken away someplace safe in the Underdark by Sorcere before they had destroyed House Baenre, and her soldiers had returned with only twenty fatal casualties to Baenre’s hundreds. The others could be healed to fight for another day.

Still, there were still about two hundred Baenre common soldiers left, and she would have to watch the markets closely.

Vierna’s eyes were sunken, and she walked with a zombie-like gait, but she would be fine, as would the others. The Do’Urden soldiers had a great boost to their morale, and went around flaunting their House symbols, the only house to have undergone and defeated a Baenre attack since Menzoberranzan’s founding.

Many had been surprised about their summoning of monster spiders to do their ‘dirty work’. She understood somewhat – wizards never exactly played pivotal parts in raids, not like high priestesses. There were no repercussions from Lloth, and though the city would be in slight turmoil for a while, it was nothing new.

This was a first time of such high magic usage, and she suspecting it would not be the last time. The other Houses would have watched, and would learn. She would have to tell Zaknafein to set up wards against this on the house... Zaknafein.

She had made sure he was fine until she had gone off to the council. There were those who would question such actions with another drow, and a male at that, but she did not regret it. In this way, she was sure of his loyalty above the rest, and although he often questioned her orders he hardly ever disobeyed. At least, for the important ones, or for those in which he believed would not harm her in any way.

Males were odd. The unbroken ones like Zaknafein and his brother Jarlaxle odder still. One had to maneuver around them carefully, and yet they would be easier to manipulate than any others would. Called unbroken because although they acknowledged the power of priestesses, they did not follow it fully enough. And yet these types were stronger than the others were. Odd, indeed.

Malice knew she was... vulnerable in this point. She still could not forget the stab of pain and horror at her heart when Drizzt told her about the injury. She was comforted by the idea that if their roles had been reversed, Zaknafein would as well, though she was also shocked by the sudden intense wave of jealousy when Zaknafein started muttering about some female called Nina.

It was probably thankful that Jarlaxle had been around, or she would not have been sure of what she would have done. Malice had been raised from young to know that males were inferior, no better than slaves, and she still held that opinion somewhat.

What had begun centuries ago when she was still a youngling had taken root, and she was sure that it would never be felled until her death. Lloth, sometimes she felt jealous about Zaire!

At that, she chuckled to herself, though loud enough for Dantrena to shoot her a worried look.

Quickly she sobered, and began deliberating on what she was going to say to Zaknafein later about facing Gromph single-handedly and without help. Words rose to mind.

***

Zaire’s growl woke Zaknafein, and he opened his eyes reluctantly to realize that Jarlaxle was already on his feet, swords half drawn.

Drizzt stepped in hesitantly, looking around quickly before remembering that his eyes should be on the floor.

Jarlaxle and Zaknafein glanced at each other before laughing, though laughing made tendrils of fiery agony shoot through his chest. Apparently Malice hadn’t healed as much as Jarlaxle assumed she had. Probably some obscure lesson... females were strange at best.

"I remember when we used to do that," Zaknafein managed to say, reaching for the water. His throat felt dry, but Jarlaxle had calmly told him that Malice did not allow wine to patients.

Drizzt’s eyes were up again. "Really?"

"It is very boring looking at your toes all the time," Jarlaxle grinned, "And horrible when your neck cramps something terrible."

Drizzt looked like he had found paradise inside the room. "That’s what I feel too, but my sisters... that is..."

"Sisters, Drizzt," Jarlaxle said, "Thanks to this bedridden cripple here."

"Not a cripple yet, Jarlaxle," Zaknafein said dryly. Drizzt stared at him as if fascinated. "What, lad? Have I grown an extra head?"

"Actually, so long as they don’t find out, why not?" Jarlaxle asked, "Zak and I spent quite a bit of time locking ourselves in rooms we were supposed to clean up, and stretching our necks."

"Being born in the same year does have its rewards," Zak agreed, "Jarlaxle at the beginning, myself at the end, but both of us get to be page princes at the same time. For what it’s worth."

"Company," Jarlaxle said, and they smiled.

"That is true, Master Jarlaxle," Drizzt said, "Sometimes I wish there was another page prince."

"Don’t," Zaknafein shuddered, then coughed violently. Taking out so much raw magical power certainly had its drawbacks. He was going to think about getting another stronger enhancing object. "Two page princes share the same tasks, and since they believe two pairs of hands are better than one, they give you enough work for ten."

"And Silmar is not half as hard as Talyae had been." Jarlaxle said, naming the current Mistress of the Kitchens, a glorified title for head cook. Talyae had been Mistress during Zak and Jarl’s time, and they had often likened her to a dragon with a sore tooth, never sure when she’d bite off their heads. Or scorch their tails.

"No talking in there!" Zaknafein made a passable mimicking of Talyae’s harsh voice. "Use more effort! Why, the both of you eat enough to feed four times of you, and you say you’re tired?" Jarlaxle shook with laughter.

Drizzt smiled as if they had just given him a throne. The poor child had to be thirsting for someone to speak to. "Silmar speaks like that too," he said tentatively, "Sometimes I think she has the eyes of an eagle to spot all the unwashed parts of the bowls."

"At least Silmar does not have a figure like a battering ram," Jarlaxle grinned. Zaknafein snorted. "Is it Silmar, now?" Drizzt looked at them blankly.

"Even I am not so stupid as to choose someone like that," Jarlaxle said dryly. "Choose a female with any sort of power in your life and you are asking for trouble."

"But Master Zaknafein is patron," Drizzt’s brows were furrowed in thought and an effort to understand. "Doesn’t the Matron Mother have power in all our lives?"

"That’s different," Jarlaxle grinned, "Malice chose him."

"Oh, tell the world, Jarlaxle," Zaknafein sighed.

"Maybe I will," Jarlaxle bantered, "But I heard Malice saying she wanted some words with you when you woke up."

Zaknafein looked sourly at the both of them. "Maybe I should smother myself with my pillow now," he said.

"And miss the fun?" Jarlaxle said archly, and Drizzt grinned.

[top]

Chapter 7: Malice

Zaire growled again, and Jarlaxle’s hands flew to his swords.

"No need," Zaknafein smiled, "It’s Malice."

"Matron Malice," Malice corrected, leaning on the frame of the door with a steely glint in her eyes. She turned her stare to Drizzt, who quickly lowered his eyes to his feet. "What are you doing here, page prince?" she asked harshly.

Zaknafein gambled on whether he should help Drizzt and get into further trouble, or ignore Drizzt and let the lad get a beating. He sighed. "Drizzt is here for someone to talk to, Ma-that is, Matron. Talking to Jarlaxle is torturous."

Jarlaxle raised an eyebrow, but had the sense to keep quiet. Malice transferred her scathing gaze to the Weapon Master. "Out," she said.

"Yes, Matron Mother," Jarlaxle said, and when moving out pushed Drizzt in front of him, shooting Zaknafein a sympathetic grin. Malice shut the door.

"Master Jarlaxle, what is going to happen to Master Zaknafein?" Drizzt asked, with wide eyes.

"No whipping, don’t worry," Jarlaxle said with a grin. "Just a scathing that he’d recover from soon."

"What’s scathing?" Drizzt asked, his eyes growing wider.

"Does Silmar scold you about not washing properly?" Jarlaxle asked.

"Yes," Drizzt said.

"That kind of scolding," Jarlaxle said seriously. Drizzt nodded in comprehension. "How old are you, child?"

"Thirteen," Drizzt said proudly.

"Three more years," Jarlaxle mused.

"To what?" Drizzt asked, warming to the brothers.

"Just hang on," Jarlaxle grinned, "And don’t let go."

The door opened, and Malice glared at them. "Still there?"

"We’re just moving along," Jarlaxle said innocently, and they quickly moved away under her stare.

***

Malice closed the door, then looked around the room. "Still a mess," she remarked.

"Did you think that would change?" Zak bantered.

"I believe I ordered you once to clean it up," she told him.

"I did," Zak said innocently. Malice looked at him disbelievingly. "It just got messy again."

Malice shrugged and sat on the side of the bed. "How do you feel now?" she asked neutrally.

"Terrible," Zak said truthfully, "I feel like someone hit me all over with a warhammer."

"Good," Malice said savagely, "What did you mean, fighting Gromph with not even a staff to help you?"

"Jarlaxle was fighting Dantrag," Zak said mildly.

"Jarlaxle was using swords and his dice," Malice said coldly.

"Swords are useless in a magical battle," Zak replied.

"You know very well what I mean," Malice told him. "What if he had won?"

Zak shrugged, then stifled a gasp as his shoulders tensed involuntarily. "Then I’d have died, I think. Gromph isn’t one to let enemies live, and neither am I. I just wished I stabbed him a little lower."

"Stabbed?" Malice asked, sounding startled.

"I wanted to end it quickly," Zak said, "So I used a dagger as well. What would happen if I tried to roll over?"

Malice put her hands on his bare shoulders and pressed down hard, making his breath hiss out in pain. "Worse than that." Her eyes glittered. "And far worse than that if you ever try such a stupid thing again."

"As the Matron commands," Zak grinned, "So will I obey... ouch!"

Malice’s hands began their gentle kneading of his shoulders again, loosing the tension. "And do not taunt me."

Zak smiled faintly, eyes half closed. In an effort to change the subject before she launched into another tirade about his faults, he said, "Baenre is destroyed?"

Malice smirked. "Of course. Their wards were certainly rather powerful, but not enough. Two hundred or so Baenre soldiers have been ‘salvaged’, and Vierna and the others will take turns watching the markets."

"We will probably only be awarded a hundred at most," Zak said rather drowsily.

"It would be more than I would expect," Malice said.

"Use half to create a mercenary group in the city," Zak said, "For hire."

Malice’s hands stopped. "Whyever for?"

"Power?" Zak smiled. "And more money, of course. Mercenaries frequent taverns and such, and when the group has proven itself, the Houses would start using it as a tool, as they use the other groups."

"Everyone knows it is dangerous to hire mercenary groups openly allied to a House." Malice said.

"If the price is reasonable enough... Lloth knows the other mercenary groups seem to charge their own weight in gold... many houses will use it." Zak said, "Those below us, who think that we have no interest in the group other than the money. Or perhaps the actual ownership of the group could be kept a relative secret."

"More like a spy network," Malice said, "Such that not all members of this... group is revealed."

"Yes," Zak said.

"And who would head this group?" Malice asked with a mischievous grin.

"Why, Jarlaxle, of course," Zak grinned back, "And myself. It’d give us something to do until I can get out of bed without collapsing from the pain."

Malice frowned at him, but her hands continued mechanically. "You should like the two of you have already planned this beforehand."

"I do?" Zak asked innocently, then hissed again when her hands pressed down, harder. "Well, maybe we speculated a little."

"Actually, I am sure the both of you have this very well planned out," Malice said dryly, "Right to where you would base the group. And don’t give me that look, Zaknafein. I do have my own eyes in my own House."

"We did not plan on the soldiers, as yet," Zak protested.

"Opportunists," Malice accused.

"Any drow alive must be," Zak murmured, but refused to let his mind wander on that subject.

Malice shrugged. "And what would this group be called?"

"Jarlaxle said it should be Bregan D’aerthe’." Zak said with a grin.

There was a silence while Malice worked, thumbs moving in small circles. "Who is Nina?" she asked in a completely neutral voice.

Zaknafein twisted over to look at her with a horrified expression, ignoring the stab of pain. "Wha... I thought Jarlaxle..." He stopped when he saw her amused smile.

Malice pressed him back down. "So he did," she said calmly.

"Why, you..." Zak murmured irritably. Females!

Malice’s mouth twitched up in a faint smile. "Nalrann of House Barrison del’Armgo lit Narbondel today," she said, changing the subject again.

Zaknafein raised an eyebrow, but did not take the bait. "Is that so," he said solemnly.

"House Barrison del’Armgo is the First house, now," Malice said in the same neutral voice, a dangerous voice, but the corners of her mouth twitched again. Zaknafein didn’t seem to react at all, which was frightening in a way. Whoever lit Narbondel was usually considered to be the Archmage. "Is there something wrong with you?" she asked irritably.

Zaknafein looked back up at her again, a half-smile on his face. "What did you think I would do?"

"Get worked up?" she suggested.

Zaknafein chuckled. "Too much effort for the time being. When I manage to walk, then I’d think about it. Does Sorcere know I’m alive?"

"Representatives came to the House to get the chain of office," Malice said. Jarlaxle refused their entry further than the gates, but he gave them the impression that you were alive, especially since Zaire made a brief appearance to snap and snarl at Paelr’an Tlabbar." One of the Masters of Sorcere that Zaire hated with a fervent and deep passion, since he had kicked her once. Paelr’an was of House Faen Tlabbar, Third House, and he disliked Zak as well as Zaire.

"Lloth, I hope she got him," Zaknafein grinned viciously. Zaire made an discontented rumble under the table.

"She didn’t," Malice said unnecessarily. "But she did give Paelr’an a fright, since he had probably decided you were dead."

The Masters of Sorcere was a strange reflection of Arach-Tinilith’s. Only those from the top few houses had the Master’s bracers, and Zaknafein was one of them, though he spent most of his time in Sorcere reading up the spell books or fast asleep in his room. Sorcere’s Master chambers were nice and quiet, unlike House Do’Urden where he would be constantly called up for all sorts of ‘errands’.

"How his heart must have broken," Zak murmured, "If he has a heart."

A low growl from under the table gave implications of what the cheetah would like to do to Pael’ran’s heart.

"What are you going to do about this?" Malice asked, the dangerous tone of voice in turn implying what she was going to do to him if he was going to do something stupid.

"Sleep," Zak said promptly. Malice’s eyes narrowed. "Oh, very well," he said, "When I can walk, I am going to Sorcere and look up the rules, then confront the council."

"Do not get into any more fights there," Malice said, "I think you should wear the ceremonial robe, and obviously the bracers. And get a staff."

"Why that robe?" Zaknafein asked desperately, "It’s hot and cumbersome." And it really looked as though it had been made by someone who believed a robe was only for show and not for comfort.

Malice continued as though she hadn’t heard him. "Gromph’s staff is still here. Merge his staff with yours, I think. And comb your hair. The way it looks like now, you seem like a houseless rogue. Maybe you should bring Jarlaxle."

Zaknafein, quickly growing alarmed, shuddered. "No thank you. Fighters are barely tolerated in Sorcere. Merging a staff is going to be rather difficult."

"You don’t seem to have anything else to do," Malice said relentlessly.

"Very well," Zaknafein said neutrally. He was already beginning to devise ways on how to wriggle out of this.

"And you had better obey, patron," Malice said as if she had read his thoughts. For a moment, Zak quickly checked his shields, and noted that they were down. Damn.

Malice smiled viciously at him. "Perhaps that is as good a word as most," she said serenely, ignoring his glower. "Mind your language," she added when he bit out a few curses against mind-reading females. Her hands began to wander, effectively stoppering further protests.

[top]

Chapter 8: Jarlaxle

Zaire sprang to her feet when the door opened, her snarl changing to a disgruntled sound when Jarlaxle wandered in as if he had been meaning to do it all along. The weapon master had a limp where there hadn’t been in the last visit.

Zaknafein looked up from where he had been scouring a thick book borrowed from Sorcere. The patron had recovered enough to be able to prop himself up by his elbows against the pillows, but still could not walk. "Busy?" he asked.

"Well, yes," Jarlaxle said, sitting down on the side of the bed automatically. "Matron Malice said you had something you wanted to tell me."

"We’d have half of what we can buy from Baenre’s soldiers," Zaknafein smiled, "The roots of Bregan D’aerthe."

Jarlaxle’s eyes widened. "She agreed to everything?"

"I did not tell her ‘everything’," Zaknafein said dryly, "Except that we’d give the House the profits, and any information."

Jarlaxle grunted. "Good. The soldiers have been... purchased and sworn in."

"How many?" Zak demanded.

"One hundred," Jarlaxle said, fingering the dice, "And I sprained my ankle walking down a flat corridor."

Zak grinned, glancing at the number of the page then shutting it and dumping it from the bed.

Jarlaxle looked at the cover and frowned. "A Sorcere book? This is so unlike you."

"I mean to be ArchMage, brother," Zak said bleakly.

"Hold, Zak," Jarlaxle raised his hands, "You will be. Eventually."

Zaknafein sighed. "Once I reach the goal, I’d find that running after it for so long was worthless, after all."

Jarlaxle raised an eyebrow. "If you acknowledge that, then why?"

Zaknafein smiled again, though this time tightly. "Because I am so close."

His brother snorted. "Ha, yes. All in the council want to be ArchMage, and yet all the ArchMages are discontented with their seats."

"Because from that high perch they can see the higher ones that are out of their reach," Zaknafein said dully, "Also why female wizards are treated with barely concealed contempt. The thought that the highest positions are held by females is bad enough. What would happen if the ArchMage was also female?"

"Sorcere would rebel," Jarlaxle predicted easily, "And in the force of so much magic, the city would be devastated."

"That much is true enough," Zak shrugged.

ArchMage had actually only meant the best mage in the city, and the one to light Narbondel. Sorcere had merged the Master of the Academy with the position, however, in an effort to make it higher. Master of the Academy had been ‘Mistress’ for a long time, as one of the Houses had females who were mages. Once the last Mistress died under strange circumstances, the position had been swiftly merged with ArchMage.

A desperate effort, perhaps. Mages were often more stubborn than fighters. It took a stronger will for magic, and stronger discipline, whatever the fighters should think. Magic, where one single mis-step could mean a very painful death. Oh, the fighters usually said that magic was good when far away and useless when up close, but Zaknafein would like to see what would happen when a warrior tried to cut him down. He’d hit him with something worse than an energy bolt.

Mages had high positions because magic was important in many essential aspects of life in Menzoberranzan other than battle. And also despised and secretly feared by the priestesses because their powers had nothing whatsoever to do with Lloth at all. Magery came from some unknown source, open to some and closed to many others. And seemingly, for all those after the surface wars, it was through a filter in which they could only pass using spells.

The best mages had filters with larger holes, but for those who can reach in at will, reaching for the raw magic had serious drawbacks. No one alive now was strong enough to take the immense strain. Even using a little of it as bolts was landing him in bed for several days.

The world of Toril had been created with raw magic. Too much raw magic had fractured the reality of the world, such that from afar it looked like any other planet, and yet it consisted of many ‘planes’ around and on top of each other. There were a lot of illogical things about Toril that were because of raw magic, after all.

"What are you thinking about?" Jarlaxle demanded, "You’re smiling."

Zaknafein looked up at him, then shrugged. "Just about magic in particular."

Jarlaxle grumbled, but did not press him further. "Do you want me to speak to the soldiers?"

"Might as well," Zaknafein said, "Pick out the better half."

"Would I do any less?" Jarlaxle grinned.

"I doubt so," Zak said drily, "Then you can train them in the months that they’re supposed to stay here, and when they’re good enough we move them to the... headquarters."

"As you command," Jarlaxle grinned outrageously. "Do you want me to name them all after you as well?"

Zak glared at him, and Zaire hissed under the table. "I don’t think that is necessary," Zak said calmly.

Zaire padded out from under the table again, shoulders rolling in the cheetah’s peculiar gait that made it look as if all the skin and bones were hanging loosely down from the flexible backbone. Her paws were dog-like for better running, but the curved claws were just as sharp as any large cat. She padded over to the door, where Zak had, being bored, merged the ‘cat-flap’ into part of the door, then made it so that only Zaire could pass through in the same manner as a ghost passed through walls.

Then she sat down and looked at them expectantly.

"You know you can go through yourself," Zak told it.

Zaire yawned, and patted the door.

"I would if I could," Zak said, "But I can’t, so go by yourself."

"What did she say?" Jarlaxle asked.

Zak shrugged. "She wants to go for a walk or something."

Zaire glared at Jarlaxle, then padded past to Zak and nudged his arm.

"I said I can’t," Zak sighed, "Ask Jarlaxle."

Zaire growled her opinion of Jarlaxle, combined with a rude sound.

"Hey!" Jarlaxle protested. "If she’s going to come with me, she’s going to come on a leash."

"That wouldn’t stop her if she wanted a piece of you," Zak grinned. Zaire sniffed and went back under the table, clawing the rumpled sheets and pillows into a comfortable nest.

"Exactly why you wanted to bond with a... cheetah is what I don’t understand," Jarlaxle commented, "Surely a... tiger is better. Or a panther. They’re more powerful, for one. And a cheetah... well, it’s quite well known that it’d rather run than fight, though it can run very well. And it looks very fragile. In the patrols, Zaire was good for spotting trails, but other than that she can’t kill with those teeth and claws unlike a bigger cat."

Zaire growled, implying that her teeth and claws would be more than enough to damage the weapon master seriously.

"I don’t think she likes your opinion," Zak said dryly, "Besides, I like her. If you like panthers, go and play with the Faceless One."

"What’s wrong with him?" Jarlaxle asked.

"He has one of those binding things in the shape of an onyx panther," Zak shrugged, "I’ve seen him try and show off before Zaire by summoning the creature. It’s a large panther."

"Take it from him, then," Jarlaxle suggested, "And if Zaire’s jealous you can always give it to me."

"Short of killing him, I don’t think I can pry his fingers from it," Zak said dryly. "But some day his experiments will kill him. And jealousy is only the tip of the ‘iceberg’, as surface dwellers say, for Zaire."

Zaire sniffed.

"Let me guess," Jarlaxle said, "She said she’s not jealous."

Zak grinned at him. "Sometimes I wonder what she sees me as. She’s not a magical creature like the panther. Female cheetahs do not seem to have ‘friends’, unlike male ones, but they only ‘team up’ with brothers for hunting and... other activities," he grinned. "It can’t be a son because once the son grows up, that’s the end of the story as far as a female’s concerned. It can’t be a father because of the same reason, only vice versa."

"A son that never grows up?" Jarlaxle suggested with a grin. Zak looked startled.

"Somehow I did not think of that," he said slowly, "Well, Zaire?"

Zaire made a sound like a chirp. Cheetahs couldn’t roar, but they had a weird ability to chirp, a little bird-like.

Zak sighed. "Wonderful."

"I take it that she said yes," Jarlaxle smiled viciously.

"Oh, shut up," Zak said irritably.

Zaire purred.

***

Jarlaxle ran his eyes critically over the new soldiers. Zak had quickly lowered himself thankfully into a nearby chair – Jarlaxle had had to support him most of the way to the common soldier areas, complaining all the way that Malice was going to kill him if she found out.

Twenty were magic-users, but Malice had maintained that since Zak had all but destroyed the mage abilities of the House’s magic-users, those bought would have to stay with the house. Under rigorous training, courtesy of Yours Truly.

Then Jarlaxle walked back to Zak. "What do you think?" he asked.

"There doesn’t seem to be much difference," Zak shrugged, "You choose."

"There’s all the difference in the world," Jarlaxle muttered, "The tenth one from the left, he has shifty eyes that..."

"You choose," Zak said dryly, patting Zaire.

Jarlaxle nodded, and carefully picked out fifty slowly, giving them no answers, as they gave no questions. Then he told the rest to leave to their rooms.

"Right," Jarlaxle said easily, when the fifty assembled again in front of the both of them. "The fifty of you have been chosen for a special... band supported by House Do’Urden, though that is more or less supposed to be secret. If the both of us catch any of you giving out that secret, that elf would regret the day he was born."

"It is a mercenary band that would be headed by the both of us," Zaknafein said, "Of course, you will get pay and further training like the other groups. Some of you will be promoted later, but right now all of you are soldiers no matter what you were in House Baenre."

"There are several rules," Jarlaxle said, "One is that no one is allowed to ‘run away’. Anyone doing so will be hunted down and hung by his feet inside Narbondel."

"Secondly, you are all expected to obey us," Zaknafein stressed the last word with a smile at Jarlaxle. "To your deaths if necessary. House Do’Urden will sponsor us until we get a... fixed practice."

"Profits will be handed out through our system," Jarlaxle said. "And... oh. Greetings, Matron Mother."

Zaknafein blinked at the figure that strode in, and tried to rise, grimacing. The fifty soldiers fell to their knees. "Greetings, Matron Mother," he said.

"You may speak with the soldiers later, Weapon Master," Malice said, her voice quivering with tightly controlled fury. She moved her gaze to the soldiers. "Return to your rooms," she said. Hastily, they rose and fled.

"What is the meaning of this, Zaknafein?" Malice asked.

Zaknafein blinked again. "Meaning, Matron Mother? You approved... that is..."

"I’m not talking about the bloody Bregan D’aerthe," Malice said angrily, "What are you doing out of your room when you are supposed to be resting? Resting, Zaknafein! The House cannot afford a crippled mage!" The last seemed to be added for the sake of any eavesdroppers.

Zaknafein could nearly feel the relief radiating off Jarlaxle. "Many apologies, Matron Mother," Zaknafein began.

"Apologies, my foot," Malice took a deep breath, but Zaknafein stepped forward and enfolded her in a deep kiss before she could continue her tirade. Jarlaxle grinned at the both of them and at Malice’s indignant noises, bowed deeply, and left quietly out of the door.

[top]

Chapter 9: Sorcere

Zaknafein grumbled to himself as he walked unsteadily over to his shelves and unearthed Gromph’s staff from under the rubble. Hefting it, he noted that it was conventionally made of surface-dweller wood, which could supposedly store the most amount of magic. It had a large gem on the top.

He knelt down and sifted through the rest of the mess, digging out the staff he kept here under a small pile of dusty spell books and wands. This one was more for defending from a warrior – made of solid adamantite, grudgingly infused with gems at the handle. It stored only the faintest amount of magic, but it was astonishingly effective at bashing the heads of others in.

Calmly, he put the two staffs together, holding them with some difficulty upright before pulling himself to his feet, then sighed and reached carefully for raw magic.

Zaire had come out of the table to watch him with interest, and her tail curled and uncurled fitfully.

Slowly he reached just past the filter to the bubbling, heaving blue-gold brightness within, and grunted quietly as he forced it through. The power surged through his hands into the staffs, and their outlines dimmed. Zak realigned them carefully, then pushed them together, using a little more magic to tie it off.

He swore sulphurously to himself and leant on the staff for a while with his eyes tightly shut until the nausea and the blackout went away, then straightened to probe the new staff carefully. The merged staff had Gromph’s enhancing ability and was able to channel a lot of stored magic. Though it looked faintly like gnarled wood, it had the consistency of adamantite.

All the gems had gone – that from Gromph’s staff was lying on the ground. He picked it up, and looked at it – the magic from it was mostly gone. He tossed it under the table for Zaire to play with later, and raised an eyebrow at the cheetah.

It yawned at him.

"Where am I going?" he grinned, "I’m going to Sorcere. Do you want to come along?"

Zaire looked bored, and twitched her ears irritably.

"I’m not walking there, by the way," Zak said, "Too lazy, I know."

Zaire sighed, and padded over to rub against him. The mage nearly staggered under her weight. "If that’s what you say," he grinned. Leaning the staff on the crook of his arm, he moved his hands precisely in several motions, muttering all the while, and waited as a bluish-purple portal spiraled out and firmed into an arch. The colored nebula dissipated after a few seconds, to show the top of the steps to Tier Breche. No sense in wasting effort, and directly setting a portal beyond the guard spiders was not permitted.

Zaire padded sedately out first, and Zaknafein walked through after her. As he closed off the portal, he smiled in satisfaction – the silly ceremonial robe was under so much magical paraphernalia that it was buried out of sight. He wore a plain, light robe with the trimmings of runes of any good mage robe. The sleeves were not long enough to cover his hands completely like some of the ‘new fashion’ robes, short enough to show part of the bracers of a Master of Sorcere.

As he walked through between the large statues of the spiders, he looked immediately to the pointed stalagmite tower of Sorcere, wider than House Do’Urden itself, towering up to nearly touch the ceiling of the large Academy. Someone standing outside it immediately darted in, and he smiled again to himself.

Only then did he look to the other buildings – the impressive Arach-Tinilith, where Vierna taught as a Mistress, and the ugly pyramidal Melee-Magthere, where Jarlaxle had been a Master, though he had caused more than his fair share of trouble there, the other Masters of Melee-Magthere had ignored it carefully. Then, House Do’Urden had been the only House to have a Master or Mistress in all three schools.

Lastly he glanced at the newest addition – an arched entrance towards a lit interior in the wall between Arach-Tinilith and Sorcere, that led to a laboriously carved half-sphere slightly wider than Sorcere, polished smooth with magic. The new library held books from all three schools, such that space could be conserved in them. The books lined the walls, though there was an extra tall bookshelf for Sorcere’s spell books. Zaknafein knew the librarian inside personally, and he spent most of his time ostensibly studying in the library (chatting) or in his room (sleeping).

Jarlaxle had retired to the post of Weapon master under dire threat from Malice, but Vierna still stayed on, apparently rising in rank. Zaknafein had just been waiting for Gromph to die. Now he contentedly walked on, proud that he was not staggering as usual. Zaire gave her usual flat glare at the last-year fighter students at the entrance of Melee-Magthere.

He had been surprised he hadn’t healed as fast as he should have, until he cornered Dantrena one day and made her admit that Malice was trying to keep him in the House, then made her heal him the rest of the way. Later he would apologize to her – when he got the chain.

Accordingly, there were thirteen masters, with one as Master of Sorcere, and also the ArchMage. It was the same with the other schools. Zaknafein had idly wondered if thirteen had some odd significance, and decided against it – eight was Lloth’s ‘lucky’ number. Eight, that sounded like ‘hate’... he was rambling again.

Zaire padded to the entrance of Sorcere and yawned, baring her not-unimpressive teeth. He grinned at her, and followed her inside.

The inside of Sorcere was lit by dim mage lights, the corridors uniformly wide that branched off into other rooms. The lecture hall was in front of him, but he turned away to ascend the steps upwards, to his rooms.

He reached the corridor of the Masters’ rooms, went to his, and closed the door behind him, Zaire immediately bounding onto the bed and settling down.

There was an intricately carved table with a smooth polished surface, where there were several stacks of notes and some glass equipment. Wands were lazily strewn over the table, but any student who thought of pinching one would be immediately destroyed on the spot. Zaknafein wore no wands, unlike the other Masters, but he liked to see them around.

The room was, if possible even more disheveled than that at House Do’Urden though the mess was mostly made up of books and some vials filled with viscous, many colored liquids. Most of the vials were explosive, and thus carefully kept in the glass fronted cabinets, though all were not labeled. Zaknafein remembered each and every one of them, and it did not suit him to put labels and allow the rest of the world to see.

There was a wardrobe for spare clothing that was standard in all the rooms after the Faceless One’s famous accident, though there was nothing inherently valuable as well. Or anything valuable that belonged to the school, at least. Since a rare Sorcere book had been melted in another accident, books were not allowed to be borrowed out from the library.

Sometimes Zak believed the entire history of Sorcere was one big accident.

Someone knocked on his door, and Zaire automatically growled.

"Come in," Zak said, leaning on the staff. A student looked inside.

"The Masters are calling a Meeting, sir," he said.

Zak nodded, and the student darted off thankfully. "Come, Zaire," he said quietly, hands tightly gripping his staff, "I suppose we had better answer to them."

***

Jarlaxle gave the fifty Bregan-D’aerthe soldiers a few more commands, then walked them all to a room hidden in the twisting passages of the lower floor of House Do’Urden. Zaknafein had painstakingly converted it before the unfortunate meeting with House Baenre’s soldiers to a permanent portal to the new building.

It was heavily warded, and Jarlaxle looked back at the fifty nervous soldiers crowding the corridor. All of them were wearing a chain of adamantite that could not be removed by normal means, which ended with a mithril amulet of a fox, one paw upraised. Expensive, but well worth it. Only those wearing the chain, with the exception of Jarlaxle and Zaknafein, could see the portal, let alone enter it.

Jarlaxle ordered the soldiers through, and walked in himself after the last one. They were inside a dusty room that was nearly the exact replica of that of House Do’Urden, but Jarlaxle opened the door to a corridor narrower than that of the House. Zaknafein and himself had lectured the soldiers already on the layout of the building on the quiet side of the bazaar, and the soldiers more or less knew where they could go and where they could not. Further training and testing had picked out four captains. He and Zaknafein would have to figure out the ranking system later, for they had not expected this many troops.

The mercenaries could do their own exploring later. Jarlaxle handed a small bag of coins to each of them and a ring of keys to their room and to some doors, and told all of them to get lost. Grinning, they did so – soldiers, or mercenaries now as they were called, had more freedom than normal House soldiers did.

They would explore the place with their own leisure, and settle into their appointed rooms, then go out to the bazaar in their mercenary uniforms of chain mail and tabard to go and attract some attention.

Jarlaxle watched their retreating backs with satisfaction.

***

Zaknafein filed into the Hall with the other Masters, and took his seat at the round, wooden ring-like table, where the ArchMage normally sat at the head. Zaire settled down next to his chair.

No one sat in the seat of the ArchMage, and Zak would have been very angry if that had happened. All the Masters had to nominate and vote for an ArchMage, together.

Nalrann took his normal seat, shooting Zak a flat glare, which he returned equably. After a few seconds, the other mage looked away. Pael’ran also took his normal seat, which was thankfully (for him) far enough away from Zaire.

The two Shobalar Masters were male, but still looked on with thinly veiled contempt for their House’s reputation for female wizards. The other ruling houses all had one Master, and the three last wizards were from Ninth House Freth, Twelfth House K’ya’natra and Fourteenth House Nal’Fayan.

Zak noted that the chain of office was on a velvet cloth in front of the ArchMage’s seat, and his jaw tightened.

[top]

Chapter 10: Deliberations

When all were seated, Zaknafein looked at the others carefully. Nalrann stared fixedly at what were presumably his fingers under the table. He had two wands more than usual. N’aryo Oblodra, the oldest by far, looked the same as ever – oddly serene, with the sensitive eyes of a telepath, always unarmed. Pael’ran avoided his eyes, fingers gripping his staff until the knuckles were white. Larama’ln Branche of Fey Branche also had an inhospitable stare, as his House was but one step below Do’Urden. He continuously rolled a blue wand around his fingers. Nara’noth and Kyar’noth Shobalar had had the strongest struggles becoming Masters, and their twin faces had a look of weathered equality. Both also held staffs. Of all the mages, their support was unknown. Ryankal Teken’duis had a nervous tic in his eye, and he also avoided Zaknafein’s eyes, playing with the inscription on his staff. Troth’an Mar’Kara also looked uneasy, and he also stared fixedly at one of his wands.

Taranlal Freth shot him a faint grin. He was a relative and an ex-student, and he supported Zaknafein, as Zaknafein had been slightly instrumental in getting him to become a Master. The medallion present from Zaknafein glowed faintly. Raen’al K’ya’natra had the same look of a coiled snake on his face, holding a stave, and Paren’kil Nal’Fayan’s face had his normal look of thinly veiled ambition. His belt was festooned with wands.

Nalrann stood up from his seat, and all attention turned to him. "Today we are all gathered here to vote for the new ArchMage, since the passing of the last."

Zaknafein leant back in his chair, and Nalrann looked sharply at him, a look of fleeting relief scooting across his face when he realized the mage hadn’t done anything magical.

"You know the rules," Nalrann said, "But as tradition dictates, I must recite them one more time." A snicker from the Shobalars, quieted by a flat look from Nalrann.

"You are all allowed to ‘nominate’ a mage if you want to. After three are nominated, the three mages will leave while the remaining mages deliberate given a bit of paper. The first mage will be represented with ‘one’, the second ‘two’, and the third ‘three’. Write the number on the paper, and the paper would be put inside a ballot box. The Mistress of Arach-Tinilith and Melee-Magthere are already in Sorcere, and they will count out the secret votes." He continued. The Mistresses were technically not allowed in the room until after the votes were in the box.

Zaknafein idly reflected about Melee-Magthere. Still having a Mistress as the head, but the school was thinking about getting a Master instead, and secretly seeking Sorcere’s support under the pretense of more hostilities, such that the Masters of Melee-Magthere, presumably going over to ‘complain’, could discuss strategies.

"We begin," Nalrann said, sitting down.

Pael’ran stood up, predictably, but Taranlal beat him to it. "I nominate Zaknafein Do’Urden," he said, shooting a smirk at Pael’ran before sitting down with dignity.

Pael’ran glared irritably at him. "I nominate Nalrann Armgo."

There was a long pause as the mages looked at each other. Then Larama’ln stood up lazily. "I nominate N’aryo Oblodra." Zaknafein sighed inwardly. The mage did hate House Do’Urden enough to try and get another candidate of a higher house.

Zaknafein rose to his feet, nodding to Zaire who followed him out. Nalrann and N’aryo fell into step with him as they walked out of the hall, closing the massive doors behind them, then Zaknafein leant against the wall, hand still firmly on his staff.

N’aryo immediately looked at Zaknafein, squinting.

"Is there something on my face?" Zaknafein bantered. Nalrann studiously avoided him, turning his back on them to stare at the door.

"Not that I can see," N’aryo said calmly. "I heard you used the sunburst spell?"

"Saw, you mean?" Zaknafein grinned.

"Saw," N’aryo admitted. "You woke me up."

"Well, I’m sorry," Zaknafein smiled.

"You can repay it," N’aryo said serenely. Zaknafein raised an eyebrow.

"Teach it to me," N’aryo said.

Zaknafein shrugged, eyeing Nalrann covertly. "Why not?" he grinned, and winked at N’aryo. N’aryo also looked at Nalrann, and smiled at Zaknafein.

"Why not indeed," he said calmly.

"How are your... filters?" N’aryo asked.

"The sunburst took a bit of it," Zaknafein said seriously, "It’s easier reaching for it now." Again, he glanced at Nalrann’s back.

"Really," N’aryo said. "Remember that destroying the filter completely will be dangerous, Zaknafein."

"I know," Zaknafein grinned. "Don’t remember, if I go mad this city will be the first to know about it."

Zaire gave up trying to stare at Nalrann, and padded over to N’aryo, purring deeply as the mage stooped to pet her.

"And how are you?" he asked softly, "Has he been feeding you?"

"Of course I have," Zaknafein said, "If I hadn’t, Pael’ran may not have survived this meeting."

N’aryo chuckled at Nalrann’s suddenly stiff back. "Indeed," he said delicately, "I saw him kick her when she was in his way that time. Females never forget, do they?"

"I doubt so," Zaknafein said dryly. "She also hasn’t forgotten you used to keep tidbits in your pockets, I see." Zaire was sniffing ecstatically at N’aryo’s robe.

"Bribing her," N’aryo remarked dryly, reaching into his pocket and unearthing something that he tossed to Zaire.

The cheetah caught it neatly and swallowed, then licked the old mage’s hand.

Zaknafein sighed, then Zaire straightened, tail lashing. "What is it, girl?"

She made a half-whistle at him. "Oh. They knocked," said Zaknafein. That meant that the mages had finished their deliberating and had knocked on the door where the Mistresses were.

"Fast," N’aryo commented.

"I doubt so," Zaknafein said dryly, "I am so sure that everyone has been spending the time since Gromph’s untimely passage deliberating."

N’aryo smiled. "Perhaps so," he admitted, "I know I have been... thinking."

Zaire purred at him then cocked her head to the side, tail freezing.

"They’ve come out of the door," Zak said, squaring his shoulders. "Well, a little bit longer, eh, Nalrann?"

Nalrann stiffened again, but ignored him pointedly.

***

Doorknobs, doorknobs, doorknobs... he was sick of doorknobs. Drizzt glumly polished the one in front of him and moved on. His eyes were only on the doorknobs now.

He jumped when the next one twisted and opened under his grasp, to show a very messy room. Briefly he considered walking in to explore, and agonized with himself before looking at the ground closely and noticing the traces of wards. And besides, he’d never known what had happened to the monster... Quickly he closed the door, and went to the next one. It also opened under his grasp, to show a considerably neater room, though this one with several weapons in the place of magic in the other one. Jarlaxle’s room.

No wards – Drizzt put a foot in, then yelped when a hand clapped on his shoulder. Twisting, he saw the wolfishly grinning face of the weapon master.

"My room is private territory," Jarlaxle told him. "No touching, no entering." Actually there was a spare room in the weapons hall, but this place was better in which he could regularly irritate his brother. The spare room was too close to the common area below, which was noisy at times.

"Sorry, Master Jarlaxle," Drizzt said contritely. The weapon master winked at him. "Maybe when you’re older," he shrugged. "A few more years, Drizzt."

"To what?" Drizzt demanded, but the weapon master grinned and pushed him out to the corridor, then looked consideringly at the doorknobs.

"Where did you start?" Jarlaxle asked.

"From the balcony," Drizzt said.

Jarlaxle looked down the corridor. "I calculate six hundred twenty-five to do if you’re working your way up."

Drizzt looked crestfallen, and Jarlaxle grinned again. "Determination, page prince," he said grandly, "Count yourself lucky you don’t have to wipe the doors as well."

"You had to?" Drizzt asked, his eyes shining again.

"Oh yes," Jarlaxle said ruefully, "The ex-patron was a vicious mage who put wards on his door when he realized we had to wipe and polish the doors and knobs."

***

The door opened magically, and the three of them walked back in, followed by Zaire, and took their seats. Many of the mages avoided their eyes, studiously fiddling with their equipment.

The two mistresses glanced at the three of them again. "N’aryo Oblodra is ArchMage," said the Mistress of Arach-Tinilith slowly.

***

"You don’t have to buff it all the way," Jarlaxle explained patiently, "Lloth knows they don’t check."

"Oh, but I must, Master Jarlaxle," Drizzt said earnestly, "It’s not... honest otherwise."

Jarlaxle threw back his head and laughed. "You’re drow, Drizzt! Honesty and drow do not come together."

"Truly?" Drizzt asked, "Then why does Vierna punish me when... when..."

"That is, you have to be honest to females, though Zaknafein often disobeys that one," Jarlaxle said solemnly. "There are only a few rules to drow, Drizzt. One, respect the females. Two, worship and respect Lloth. Three, respect those stronger than you but think of a way to bring them down. Four, Ambition be in your heart, as well as unpredictability. Five, if you’re to do something you don’t like, try to shirk."

"Six, know always that Master Jarlaxle speaks a load of rubbish," Taralyn appeared, glaring at Jarlaxle sternly. The weapon master put on a contrite expression. "Forgive me, holy one," he said in a sepulchral voice, "I deserve death for my rubbish."

"You are crossing your fingers behind your back," Taralyn said severely. Drizzt bit down on his lip to push back down on the laughter that threatened to spill out.

***

Zaknafein blinked, feeling as if someone had hit him in the stomach and Nalrann half-rose from his chair, mouth open in protest. The females ignored them.

If they chose you, Nalrann may have killed them. If they chose Nalrann, you may have killed them. If they chose someone in between, since the both of you don’t know who voted for whom, they get a respite. Zaire told him reasonably. The cheetah was getting to understand this.

"Do you accept this honor, N’aryo Oblodra?" the other Mistress asked formally.

N’aryo stood up slowly. "No," he said flatly, drawing startled gasps from all present except for the Mistresses.

"Oh?" asked the Mistress of Arach-Tinilith.

"I am eight hundred years old," N’aryo said calmly, "And I know I will not live long. Is it not better to have a younger ArchMage such that all this deliberating business will not come again for some time more, such that we do not trouble our busy Mistresses?"

"Will you cast your vote, then?" the Mistress of Melee-Magthere asked reluctantly. Zaknafein saw that she was from House Barrison del’Armgo, which explained a bit. "There has been a rule that if an ArchMage refuses the post, he may cast his own vote for any of the other two, and his vote decides."

Because no ArchMage had ever refused willingly, and those who had had other motives, so they needed the decisive vote, Zaknafein knew. In Sorcere’s history, only three had refused before in favor of a higher house for protection, and this rule had been added dubiously at the first one.

"Why then," N’aryo smiled serenely, "I vote for Zaknafein Do’Urden."

[next page]

Lledrith RavenWolf

[top]

© 2000 Dragon's Library & Ulrike Großmann