October 03-31, 2000
Category: Fantasy/Dark Elf; PG-13
Author: Lledrith RavenWolf

[Disclaimer]

Too Many Shards


Prologue

"Explain this to me one more time. If Crenshinibon needs sunlight to function, then why in Morikan's name did the shard allow itself to be brought to the Underdark?"

A female drow elf, picking her way delicately through one of the various tunnels of the Underdark, apparently alone. At times she would stop abruptly before a chasm, and turn away, as if sensing that chasm, even if grey stone looks the same in the infrared. She wears a satchel slung by her side, and an apparently lightweight, well-made robe of colors that would be iridescent light blue in visual light but just grey in the infrared, like some makeshift piwafwi.

She wears a cloak with strange symbols, including a stylized dragon, wings outstretched, proud head arched forward, long tail curling over sharp talons, white on the dark fabric of the cloak in visual light, a uniform grey like the rest of the drow's clothing in the infrared.

A loose knife belt around her waist holds the scabbard of a single long sword, only the hilt visible to the eye, carved and wrought in adamantite, as well as a few barely hidden throwing knives. Long white hair occasionally brushed against the hilt, also falling around part of the drow's face, to be flicked away absently by a slender hand with sword calluses.

"Perhaps mine brother hath learned to tap the heartbeat of the Underdark."

This second voice, a medley of harmonies, sounds vaguely mortal but just as obviously is not, seems to come from the sword. Talking swords, though rare, aren't that unheard of, and in fact are so popular in written fictions (even in Sanctuary) that they are quite boring, actually.

"Hmph." Is the drow's reply, then a muffled curse as she accidentally stubs her toe. "Bloody hell."

"Winter!"

"I can curse if I want to," the drow replies mutinously.

"We are nearing thy city."

"You are changing the subject."

"Ah, a crevasse."

"What? Oh, sh... "

"Winter!"

The drow mutters darkly under her breath as she hauls herself slowly out of the crevasse she had slipped into, soft soil crumbling under her hands and boots, but she finally manages to free herself.

"Witty repartee with a sword. How far the mighty fall," Winter brushes dirt from her robes as much as possible, then continues wandering down the tunnel, at times having to stoop due to the sudden narrowing of the entrance.

"Hardly mighty as compared to Asur."

"Irr'liancrea, anything compared to Asur is weak. Before this thread of conversation becomes more inane, if that is possible, please do me a favor... "

"Yes?"

"Shut up. Lloth, I wish Drizzt... or even Zaknafein was here."

"Thou didst refuse his help. And as for the Sword Master... "

"I know. I have to do this myself." The drow looks down a high cliff over a wide cavern mouth. Far below, the gates are still visible, glowing faintly with a superior variant of the spell commonly known as faerie fire. Two guards. "Hmph. I say we kill them."

"Winter!"

"Oh, all right." The drow leaped lightly off into mid air, levitating slowly downwards, finally landing a respectful distance before the guards, who straighten and point spears at her.

"Halt!"

"Is it not interesting that guards everywhere have a basic guard-ness to them? 'Halt'. How original. The next thing they will say is 'State your business'." The drow mutters to her sword, in another tongue that has not been heard on this world.

"State your business!"

The drow known as Winter raises her face to the guards, a wicked smile playing on full lips. Ice-blue eyes peer out from under her fringe of stark white hair. "My business is none of yours. I am passing through the city, heading for another drow habitation. I would not disturb the precious Pax of the Market for any petty reason, nor do I thieve, nor do I intend to indulge myself in the Noble Game. Satisfied?"

The guards blink at each other. Only a native of the city would know all those terms, and no native, especially a drow female of such quiet assurance of power, would probably travel outside the city except...

They reluctantly open the gates, and the drow presses one small bag of coins into each of their hands, with a wink and a smile. "I will be obliged with you if the both of you did not see me pass through these gates."

"See who, lady?" one of the guards inquired, with a straight face. City guards are not paid well, and hardly noticed. Bribes are most welcome, as the drow female knew.

"Good boys," Winter replied carelessly, and entered Irinelaeran, the city of her birth.

***

Chapter 1: Winter

You moved around the corner of a building - the Burli apothecary - as unobtrusively as you could. From knowledge hard earned you know that sneaking, or moving stealthily, oft in fact attracts attention than eludes it. Moving as though you have a place to go, the eyes of others slide over you.

The adult drow towered over you, and you dodged a few half-hearted kicks and returned a few unpleasantries with some of them, the rest simply ignored your presence. A street 'svirfneblin', as your type is nicknamed, your 'caste' in the big city is somewhere bordering over that of 'slave', and you knew it.

You invoked your talent again in the relative shelter of the doorway of the apothecary, leaning grubby shoulders on the scuffed and pitted stone wall, as your mind tentatively reached... lucky that your physical senses were paying attention, because the outraged owner of the apothecary snarled something at you and you have to hurry away to protect yourself from physical injury. You wore no weapons that are obvious - weapons tend to call attention, and barbed attention at that.

The episode had not interrupted your concentration and you located the 'presence' again, you knew its position - somewhere inside the rows of colorful stalls that made up the Market. There is Pax in the Market which meant no fighting, hence less kicks in your direction, though more curses as you slipped through the crowds and caused mildly scandalized looks in your direction that are just as quickly forgotten.

Shopkeepers watched you as you near and pass their stalls, in case of theft, then just as quickly forgot and waited for the next one. Your type was hardly unknown, after all.

The presence was stronger now and nearer, and finally, from a less crowded and more shadowed part of the mage-lit Market, you spied what you had been looking for - and feel disappointed.

At one of the stalls selling mage equipment, a drow adult male argued with the shopkeeper. He looked like an ordinary mercenary, if a bit more well-to-do - his armor of adamantite chain mail was not embellished, but well kept, and his robe comfortable-looking but not exactly expensive-looking, just a plain, dull color. Breeches, unadorned, were tucked into boots that looked like one of the most expensive items on him - very well made and decorated, but probably magically more than for show. The male was oddly slender, and a hood obscured his face. He wore plain gloves, and a satchel hung by his side, though in the elaborate stitching on it you recognized the symbols of wards.

You ran a critical eye over him - your gift couldn't have failed, but you really could not see anything intrinsically valuable on his person, except the satchel, perhaps, - until the male stepped around to look more closely at a wand, revealing the sword strapped onto his hip.

All your mind-senses go off at once - that was the object you have been seeking, the most valuable object in the city at the moment. For a moment you felt disappointed again - you should have guessed that such a vague 'request' to your finding gift would result in such a heavy-looking object instead of baubles, but value in what way, you wondered? Perhaps Petriarch would know.

You waited until the male - strange, that the mercenary would buy magical equipment, but he may be supplying a mage - started to move away, then you tailed him discreetly and skillfully, your bare feet hardly feeling the dirty cobblestones of the Market in your excitement of a stalking.

He entered the more crowded part of the Market - the food section - and you are hard put to abandon this stalking for the preying on some of the more savory-looking foodstuffs on display, but eventually your self-control won over and you continued, moving carefully closer. Here, everyone is more interested in food and ignored you, and you felt strange, as if invisible, and revel slightly in the power that this may bring until you brought yourself short and paid more attention on your target.

He neared an alley, which you recognized, and started to talk to a stallholder. The angle and distraction is perfect, and you slipped in, dirk in hand, to cut the straps holding the scabbard to the mercenary's belt.

Both hands are used for such a theft - one to carefully lift the object as the other slashes silently down on the straps, so the scabbard would hardly be missed unless, of course, the owner notices the sudden lack of weight at his hip, but the alley is close by and no one has ever outrun you before, nor can he catch you once you enter the labyrinth of passages.

You waited until they started discussing prices - that is the most absorbing part of a conversation and he probably would not notice you.

Your dirk barely nicked the leather before the mercenary suddenly spun around and grabbed for your hand. Automatically you sprang backwards and dashed into the alley, aborting the theft, his shouts gradually fading behind you.

Finally you rounded a last corner and paused to catch your breath, waiting for the adrenaline to die down. How had he managed to discover your theft, you wondered? You know yourself for one of the best thieves in the city, at least of petty crime and not that of the Noble Game... unless...

The sword must have been warded. But there were no symbols on the scabbard, and you knew enough that the hilt decoration was just that - decoration. Strange, but nothing to be remarked on. Putting swords and such out of your mind, you realized your stomach was speaking to you pointedly, and you ambled off to get food.

Taking a circuitous route back to the Market, you watch out warily for the mercenary, but he wasn't here and you relaxed a little. Theft by 'street svirfneblin', or the street children, was not uncommon and there is no actual outcry.

You waited for stall owners to become engaged with customers before pinching some items from their overflowing stalls, then retreated back to the alleys to enjoy your ill-gotten gains. Slices of pie and bread are hastily consumed, as is a small bottle of some unknown juice that is not alcoholic, at least. Your stomach now appeased, you returned to prowling the Market.

A nigouar amongst rothe. The image nearly made you chuckle as you pushed strands of dirty white hair from your eyes. No nigouar this invisible, and no rothe with so sharp a kick. If caught you may be killed, there is no mercy in this sort of cities, or if there is, certainly not for the likes of you.

A whiff of expensive perfume from a passing priestess, but you knew better than to try to lift her purse and you carefully kept your distance from her snake-whip. A duergar merchant is fair game and you managed to cut his purse, relieving him of his coins and secreting them in your clothing quickly and easily. He will notice his loss later but will probably not report it - drow do not care of the problems of one of the 'lesser' races.

You rubbed your nose thoughtfully in the alley, decided that there is nothing much left at the Market for you and decided to fleece the 'rothe' again later. You slipped back into the shadows of a quiet street, knowing you are leaving heat markings, but the filth on your feet will make less of that visible.

Your feet, callused from years of walking barefoot, hardly felt any strain or such any more as they carried you through many intersections and finally into a more disreputable part of the city.

There are other 'street svirfneblin' here and you recognized the lot of them, they gave you a berth and you gave them a berth. They knew you for who you are, and you did not want any trouble. Petriarch did not like trouble amongst his 'charges'.

This was the back of a house of ill repute, ostensibly an inn, but the whores here were probably better termed courtesans. They were all beautiful and educated, all could play at least one instrument and could hold an intelligent conversation... verbally as well as physically, of course. And what they did is of their choice.

They all took names of Surface world flowers - Irinelaeran was close enough to Skullport, after all, and trade relations are good enough to see surface world products here.

You pulled your mind from these revelations and knocked carefully on the back door.

After a while it opened, and widened as the opener saw you and allowed you to step in. You did so, looking a little guiltily at the dirty marks you made on the kitchen floor.

"Kel." The speaker of your name glanced down at you from where she was kneading some dough and raised an eyebrow. "Brought something important, I hope? 'Tis hardly one cycle and the Market is still going strong."

"Yes'm," you replied, then frowned. Raena the cook wasn't the one you were supposed to...

"Petriarch is up talking to a client of his," Raena shrugged. "You can give me the goods. I'd pass them to him - he knows."

You nodded dumbly, slightly frightened by Raena as usual. Her intimidating presence and hacksaw like profile has struck doubt in the heart of many taller than 'street svirfneblin'. Carefully you removed the 'goods', or the baubles and coins from your own kind of 'clients', and handed them to her, noticing with wry interest that your hands are just about the cleanest part of you. You could afford any 'contamination' that may slow down or affect your 'service'.

"How did your 'experiment' go?" Raena asked as she secreted the things in a tin labeled 'biscuits', and you regretted telling the others in her presence that morning of your 'experiment' with your gift. Anything that would allow you to leave! You looked around wildly but there is no escape, and you capitulated grudgingly.

"Not well mum," you said cautiously.

"Not well?" Raena raised an eyebrow. She was not your mother, but all the 'street svirfneblin' called her that.

"I finds it, mum, but 'twas warded, like." Street speech tumbled naturally from your lips, contrasting with Raena's 'educated', straight speech.

She barely winced anymore. "Hmph. I could have told you that. Off you go, then, before you dirty any more of my kitchen. Oh, and Petriarch wants you to find the other Seekers and call them back here, then return yourself. Some sort of business."

All of them? You blinked.

Raena saw your reaction and nodded absently, returning to her baking. "Lloth knows what he is up to this time. Shoo. You may tell the others outside to help you."

You gratefully sidled out of her kitchen, now knowing why there were so many street svirfneblin outside the door. All of you glanced at each other and decided that caution and rivalry is petty next to Raena's wrath, and divided the task between yourselves. You set off with a mental list in your mind of those you had to find.

Seekers are those with the gift you have - one holds it until one reaches 'adulthood', meaning that you may lose the gift around sixteen to twenty or so years of age. That is still some time away and you are not concerned with looking that far. When you reach that age you know that Petriarch will take care of further job opportunities - that is why you joined his little 'confederation' as he calls it, a group of 'street svirfneblin' with this particular ability. He keeps up this 'trust' fund, and also gives a safe place to sleep at night.

In return you gave him a certain quota of 'goods' a day, and you found this exchange quite to your liking - Petriarch is likeable for drow, and though not exactly friendly he is not exactly hostile either.

Your gift, of course, is the ability to find nearly anything you put your mind on. A certain humanoid, or a merchant with a large purse, or a certain book in the city. There are intensities of gifts and yours, trained by Petriarch, is one of the best. You can probably locate anything in the Underdark if you wish to, though stepping out of the relative safety of Irinelaeran is the last thing you probably want to do.

You found your first target eyeing a merchant at the rothe pens, and you hunkered down next to him. He saw you and made no comment except raising an eyebrow, but Kter was a quiet one.

"Petriarch, 'e wants us. You gotta report back," you murmured, then gave him two of those you have to find for him to locate, along with a few more instructions, then the both of you parted ways.

The 'street svirfneblin' walked everywhere and saw everything, but that sometimes mades your type very difficult to find. Your closest target was a quarter across the city, and you eventually found her staring at the debris washed up on the shore of the Kraen River.

She straightened up as she sees you. "Kel?" Her voice was the muted, automatic murmur that all 'street svirfneblin' use - you have not much truck with so much speech, so usually when your type do speak it is for business, often shady.

"Kerr." You acknowledged. "Petriarch's orders. You gotta report back."

You did not bother to give her any names - Kerr's gift was not really strong, not like yours or Kter's.

Leaving her, your feet took you to the Raeka end of the city, where the entertainment usually was. You found your target, Ras, quietly watching a pair of gracefully dancing female adults wearing very skimpy clothing.

"Kel. Thisy 'portant?" he inquired.

"Petriarch wants us t' report back." You replied. You had one other left on your mental list, and, passing a male elf juggling fire, you wandered down to the Makan quarter where the expensive food shops are and found your last target diving quickly into the alley in front of you.

An outraged-looking, stout adult was waving a cleaver and shouting, and his eyes fixed on you. He threw the weapon at you but you dodged easily, nearly feeling the rush of air as the weapon flew past you to skitter on the cobblestones, and shot into the alley after your target.

Eventually the two of you lost him, and you grinned at Rob as he grinned at you, then he gave you an egg tart from a bag of other pastries probably stolen from a bakery, with the cleaver-throwing adult as the baker? You accepted happily.

"Got careless?" you asked curiously. Rob was very skilled as well.

"Yare, yare. Nearly got'way, but one of the customers paid 'is three bob too quick, like, an' saw me relievin' some o' the tray, see. Rum'un."

You grinned. "Petriarch wants the lot o' us t' report back to 'im."

"Race you there."

***

Nearly everyone was back outside the place as you and Rob reach it. You were the faster, and he obligingly gave up another egg tart, which you consumed quickly before the others saw fit to relieve you of it.

"Wonder wot 'e wants 'is time." Kerr muttered.

"Prob'ly some rich gent wants some diam'nd found," Rob shrugged, still slightly breathless.

"Really rich, then." You said. Petriarch did not sell his services cheaply.

Finally the door opened to show Petriarch's face. He was short for drow, with slightly bulging eyes and a usual, faint smile on his lips. He nods, and waited for the last to come, before saying, "Rob, Kter, Kel... Jor, Prov, Sher. Come in. The rest of you, I have something else for you to do. Stay here."

The six of us were the best Seekers, and we looked uneasily at each other as we entered the kitchen. Raena tut-tutted at the prints on her floor, but Petriarch ignored her and opened the other kitchen door discreetly, leading us up the staircase.

You looked down at the inn - Rose was entertaining two males, one of whom looked likely to end up in her bed later. Foxglove was speaking with the performing musician, and the other 'ladies' were conspicuously not present. The other customers are mostly regulars and you recognized a few, but then you reached the second story, a clean corridor. Petriarch herded the lot of you into one of the more expensive rooms, then closed the door behind you.

The room was richly furnished with a large bed and other sumptuous furniture - the lot of you felt slightly guilty as your dirty toes sank into the soft carpeting. Of course, you dared not touch any of the expensive looking decorations - Petriarch may have treated you well but he was not above a thrashing.

In dismay you recognized the other occupant of the room - the mercenary you tried to steal from earlier! You forced yourself to keep calm and made your heart stop trying to force its way out of your chest, lowering your head, hoping that he would not notice you.

Or was Petriarch giving you up to him? No, he would not do that... or if he was about to he would not have called the rest up with him.

This mercenary wanted to find something?

"Here they are, Winter, the best I've got," Petriarch said in his gruff voice.

What sort of name was 'Winter'?

"They're all... children." The mercenary looked surprised.

"That's when the gift kicks in," Petriarch shrugged. "Take it or leave it."

"Well then," The mercenary sighed, turning back his hood. You blinked as you realized the mercenary is actually female... 'he' shook out long white tresses that framed a very beautiful, feminine face.

Suddenly her eyes settled on you and she blinked, and you waited for the denunciation, biting your lip, then she smiled suddenly. "Which are you willing to spare, Petriarch?"

"They're all good," Petriarch shrugged.

"Even finding a drow city they've never seen before?" she raised an eyebrow, elegantly poised.

"Anything you want to find, they will," Petriarch shrugged again. "You're certainly paying me enough to get the best."

Drow city? The lot of you glanced uneasily at each other.

"I'd keep the one I choose safe," she said, as if reading our minds, but she was speaking to Petriarch.

"Good to hear," was his gruff reply.

"I may have to take the youngest. I do not know how long I will be engaged in Menzoberranzan, but I may require his... or her skills longer than I'd thought." Winter said thoughtfully.

"You're talking about Kel, then." Petriarch nodded at you, and you looked at him in horror. "Don't you worry. Winter's an old friend and she keeps her promises."

Winter nodded. "Thanks a million, Petriarch. I will have to speak with Kel now."

The rest filed out, shooting you sympathetic glances, and you seemed rooted to the spot, unable to move in shock. Petriarch gruffly ruffled your hair before going out and closing the door, the sound like that of a crypt door shutting.

"I know who you are. You are the one who tried to steal Irr'liancrea today, hey?" Winter's speech was strange, but you could follow it. She patted the sword hilt.

"Yes'm," you managed, backing a step.

"Child, I'm not going to punish you. I need your help, remember?" Winter sighed. "Now, did Petriarch tell you what you were supposed to help me find?"

"No'm."

"I need you to find Menzoberranzan," Winter said, "then to lead me to it. I cannot portal there because it would set off Crenshinibon's alarms, and other alarms as well - Morikan knows where Lloth may send me if I try to use magic to 'jump' over. Ah, but I see you do not understand. Well then, can you find the city?"

"Yes'm," you said, then cautiously added, "I needa picture of it, mum."

"Oh dear," she shrugged. "Well then, I suppose you should find Crenshinibon, then." She drew her sword and your eyes widened - it was one of the strangest things you had ever seen, a sword whose hilt is wrought of bluish crystal instead of metal, glowing faintly in the visual light of the mage-lit room.

You looked at her cautiously.

"I can give thee an image of mine brother,"

You blinked as you realized the voice was coming from the sword, but you were not truly surprised - perhaps that was how Winter knew when you were trying to steal her sword. Then there aws a 'probing' feel in your mind and suddenly you saw a picture of what looked like a crystal shard.

"Can you find that?" Winter asked, hope in her voice.

"Yes'm," was your reply, as you reached out over distance and found the presence of the thing. It was easy - it seemed to pulse in your mental map with great power.

"Good. Come on, then." Winter looked down at her chainmail and sighed. "By Morikan, I hate dressing up as a male. I wonder how Zaknafein can stand to carry so much weight on his body all the time... but no time for speculation. You'd have to bathe, and Petriarch has some more suitable clothing... "

Your eyes widened as you realized what she implied.

"We're leaving the city in an hour."

***

Chapter 2: The Underdark

Clean and wearing a new set of more comfortable clothing for travel - robes supposedly warded against physical attack, a satchel of your own, a piwafwi, of all things, and boots which felt strange on your feet, you meekly followed Winter, still in her male dress, out of the city, where she curtly nodded to the guards. They stared at her - a mercenary venturing out into the Underdark with only a child? - but apparently ignored and forgot her.

When you left all sounds and sights of the city Winter breathed a great sigh of relief, and loosed her hair enthusiastically, the tresses spilling over her shoulders. She smiled at you. "The clothes fit? It was a little rushed."

You could only nod, already feeling apprehension at leaving a familiar place and venturing into a strange one, and a dangerous one at that, and yet excitement at the new undertaking.

"Your name is Kel, yes?" Winter continued, as we picked our way through a tunnel that seemed to get rougher and rougher as we progressed.

"Yes'm," you replied. Winter had an intimidating presence, and also a curious one as well. How could any female like her not be worshipping Lloth or some other gods? She had such poise that you had automatically classed her as 'noble-born', but she did not seem to be anything at all, not mage, even with the wands she had purchased, not warrior, even with the sword at her hip, not priestess... .

"I suppose you wonder what I am?" Winter inquired, breaking into your thoughts. You blink furiously at her. A mind reader?

"Not me, but the sword," Winter admitted, patting its hilt. "Ah, a large step." She hoisted you up the obstacle, then vaulted nimbly up. "I suppose I might have to explain... the sword Irr'liancrea informs me that we are not as yet into the unpatrolled bit of the Underdark yet, so we can afford to make a bit of noise. I am a Loremaster, but before that my name was Lin'Fayaenre Ra'Kest, of Irinelaeran."

You saw her watching you closely as it dawned on you why she seemed a little familiar. Ra'Kest... House Ra'Kest was the top house in Irinelaeran. Before you were born there was some sort of trouble in the House which was still whispered around to this day, a favorite topic of gossip in Petriarch's tavern, some daughter stealing something and running away, a daughter with an unheard-of power.

"Ra'Kest," you managed to murmur, before blinking again. "Ah."

"An answer of sorts I would believe," Winter shrugged. "Mind your head... oh dear. Are you all right? Yes you are. Very well... I was Ra'Kest until I fled the city and later ended up in another world, but I see you are beginning to doubt me, yes?"

You stared at her, rubbing your head where you had accidentally hit it on an outcrop. Another world? That sounded like the words of a drug-induced sleep of an addict of some hallucinogen, but she seemed so sure... everything about her seemed sure.

"It is true, Kel. There are many worlds out there, but needless to say I managed to end up in the correct one at the correct time... and events led me back here. When we reach Menzoberranzan I will try to portal you back to Irinelaeran if you wish, but your gift may serve me well there - and I will be most willing to take care of you."

Take care? If it was anything like what she had already done - outfitting you with expensive and comfortable equipment, even purchasing a large, beautifully wrought dagger when your eyes had fallen on it... this would indeed prove to be an interesting trip. And as to a portal back... you decided you would see, but you did already miss Irinelaeran.

Walking in the Underdark seemed to be like walking in blindness. No signs of anything except heat signs from yourself and Winter, which was not the least bit comforting. If you could see the heat signs, so could monsters, things that lurked in corners and waited to rend your flesh! No, not comforting at all.

The stone was cold and did not show up in the infrared... if not for Winter's directions you felt you would have fallen into some crevasse already. Her sword was glowing, some bluish light that was just enough to see by, but carelessness may mean crippling or death. Having grown up in a world that was of flat streets and buildings, the Underdark came as a complete shock to you, like one of those tales adults told to frighten children come true.

But Winter was unafraid and you seemed to draw from her strength, and your feet somehow continued to walk calmly on instead of leading your body to bolt in terror.

"How long have you been a thief?" Winter was asking, a little playfully.

You stared at her.

"Do you know how old you are, then?"

"No'm," you replied.

"And you can call me Winter, Kel."

"Yes'm."

Winter sighed. "Not much for talking, are you?"

"Not like thee, whose words foam from her mouth like water in a creek," You nearly jumped - the sword talking was still fairly shocking.

"Hmph."

Your mind wandered back to what had happened after Winter had outfitted you and you had bathed. Petriarch, running into the room.

"Winter! You have to leave... they've begun to look for you!"

"Will they find me?" Winter had said casually as she helped you put on your boots.

"Not here."

"Then there is not much as yet to worry about," she had said dismissively. "Oh all right, Petriarch. I won't be staying long, anyway. And how did you know Ra'Kest was looking for me?"

"The children told me. That was what I called all of them back for, to look out for Ra'Kest elves walking the streets," Petriarch gave you a sidelong glance. "How much money are you spending on Kel?"

"Enough to make Kel comfortable," was her succinct reply. "When I walk out of here I will be dressed as a male... I will be a male, my walking, my talking, my attitude. I am rather good at acting, thank you - you were the one who taught me, remember?"

"But... "

"Either I do this or they find me and I die slowly," Winter had said, as calmly as if she had been discussing the state of carpets in the room. "So I will be the part. Males are hardly noticed, after all, and they will be looking for a robed female, not a male in chain mail, though it chafes and it is damnably heavy."

"You had better be sure," was Petriarch's reply before he left. Winter had merely smiled.

"Petriarch helped and shielded me when I was still living here," she had explained. "Though he is like a mother hen, I suppose he does mean well... "

You had watched the entire episode in astonishment, and now you wondered, inconsequentially, what a mother hen was.

***

You led and she followed, your gift leading you through tunnels and caverns, and everything seemed gloriously boring. There were no monsters behind sinister rocks, nor were there fungi with poisonous fumes. You began to feel slightly let down.

Winter finally asked for a stop for rest - even you were already feeling tired, and you sat down next to her gratefully. She drew Irr'liancrea and stabbed it into the ground, then moved over a few medium-sized flat rocks about two-feet across, then began to murmur in some arcane tongue to herself.

You had seen this before, but it was still miraculous to watch. The rocks began to glow in the infrared - heat, and a strong heat at that - you feel it from where you sit and shuffle away slightly.

Winter then used her scabbard to draw a circle around the makeshift campsite, muttering again, and the small trough glows slightly blue in visual light before returning to 'normal'. Satisfied, she sat down and put down her satchel, before taking out rations - dry biscuit and fungus that you had found, some mushroom, and some dried meat.

Then the part you liked most, when she uttered more words and held out both hands. There was a distortion in the air, and a pot materialized in them. More words and it half-filled with water. She left the pot to boil on the heated rocks, then began to cook efficiently.

You find some small pebbles and settled back to juggle. You managed to get five pebbles up into the air before you heard a chuckle from Winter's direction - turning to look at her, the pebbles continue to fly in the air.

"Most dexterous," she approved, holding out a bowl. "Ready to eat yet?"

You toss all the pebbles into one hand, then dump them at your side, reaching out eagerly for the bowl, remembering your manners and adding, "Thanks'm."

The bowl is hot and metal, so you set it on the ground, using the spoon in it to eat quickly. You look up once to see Winter watching you in bemusement.

"Why do you eat so fast? You may burn your tongue," she commented, eating her portion more daintily.

"Used t' it, mum," you replied cautiously. In Irinelaeran, if you did not eat quickly your food may be snatched away from you.

"Well, no one's taking it from you here," Winter said, unconsciously perhaps having listened to your thoughts again via Irr'liancrea. "Eat more slowly, or you may be sick."

"Yes'm."

The last of the stew eaten, Winter frowned at the bowls and pot, speaking again, and they suddenly gleam, clean, before she did the vanishing trick on them.

Emboldened by impulse, you asked, "'ow did you make 'em go 'way like that?"

"I am a Loremaster," Winter smiled. "A type of magic-user. I merely send those pots and bowls away to another place. It is rather an easy task. However, I do not send food, because in that other place it may be taken or go bad. Sending the heavier things away means our packs need not be so heavy."

Your full stomach makes you realize that Winter had in fact left most of the food to you, even if she did give you the semblance of eating.

"Sleep now. One wilt watch." Irr'liancrea suddenly spoke, but Winter nodded, making blankets appear, half of which she handed to you. You managed to make a sort of nest that you curl up in and sleep, your last thoughts of crystal swords and heated rocks...

***

"Thou hast company."

That ominous phrase shocks you out of sleep and you rub sleep-blurred eyes. Vision is murky for a moment, then jumps sharply in focus and you let out a small gasp of fear - duergar!

Not the merchants in the city, but lean, muscled soldiers that encircled the protection at a respectful distance, muttering to themselves.

Winter rolled gracefully to her feet and plucked up Irr'liancrea in a single fluid move. Her armor was not on, but she still looked competently dangerous. Some of the duergar took a step back.

You watched as she spoke some words in the duergar tongue - a harsh language that you have never been actually able to pronounce.

The duergar hesitated, then replied slowly.

"I should have paid more attention to the maps," Winter muttered in drow, finally. "These dwarves are from a nearby city they call 'Klaendarkr'... asking why we are invading their land."

"We ain't invadin' 'em," you said quickly, staring at the duergar. All of them held axes, in a way that made you know that they did know how to use the cruel-looking weapons. Swords looked dashing, rapiers courtly, daggers mysterious and bows noble, but axes looked barbarically obvious - a weapon for killing and no other, most businesslike.

"So we aren't," Winter agreed. "This is stupid." She spoke again in the duergar tongue, something that caused mild consternation in the duergar ranks.

Winter translated for you, haltingly. "Something about attack... ah, some of them think we are an advance scouting party. A single female and a child, even if both are drow? Sometimes I wonder if those helmets they wear impede their thinking processes. Now all of them are looking for hidden drow, when even the best drow magic cannot truly conceal heat traces or sounds."

Indeed the duergar were shooting glances into the darkness.

"I suppose I will have to resort to primitive threats," Winter sighed and spoke again in dwarfish. The duergars' grip on their weapons tightened, and you put a hand to your dagger, wary.

The dwarves finally seemed to reach some sort of agreement, and spoke. Winter frowned in annoyance. "Now they want us to go to this Klaendarkr. For Morikan's sake, we were only passing through! Sometimes dwarves... damn."

"Agree, then." Irr'liancrea spoke up. The dwarves gave it a horrified glance, then began to whisper in earnest to themselves.

"Hah! They do not like 'drow magic'. Fine... I may be able to play this to my benefit... firstly, why should we go to Klaendarkr?"

"Because there are those there who 'keep tabs', as thou'rt prone to say, on thy destination. Better to ask duergar than goblins or svirfneblin, who do not trust thy kin at all... duergar have worked with drow before. An' 'tis better off by far for thee to actually know something of Menzoberranzan present. The books thou read in the Library are slightly out of date."

"Into a dwarven city?" Your voice quavered slightly, but Winter cocked her head, a sign that she was thinking thoughtfully.

"Might as well, I suppose," she said.

"What?" your ears seem to be playing you up.

"Oh, Kel," Winter smiled. "Dwarven cities aren't that different from drow ones, and I did say I will protect you. You have nothing to fear... if there is a problem I will simply portal the lot of us back to Irinelaeran. I doubt there is anything on this plane that can stop Irr'liancrea. And I do need this information, I suppose." She turned back to the duergar and spoke.

They glanced at each other, then debated, pointing at the sword and at us.

"Dwarves adore arguing," you realized with shock that Winter was standing right next to you. She had walked without a sound! You feel slightly annoyed when she ruffles your hair in reassurance, but then you have to fight off the impulse to cling to her when the duergar turn back to look.

"Here we go, then. Kel, pick up your satchel. Good." Winter nodded, wore her armor quickly, and stepped out of the protective circle. You followed her, watched as she dispelled the magic - the duergar were watching her as if she were a berserk ogre.

You walked as closely to her as possible, still frightened, but now it is a dull terror underlying your thoughts. Duergar horror stories were very common, and each time one of the humanoids shot you a glance you would look away quickly.

Winter, as usual, was supremely confident, murmuring soothing words to you from time to time. Irr'liancrea, sheathed, still glowed faintly through the scabbard.

The duergar plainly did not know what to make of you and Winter. Their speaking in a language you do not understand made it worse - you kept imagining that they are speaking about you, making you feel more tensed and suspicious. What if they were to kill the two of you in their city? What if Winter didn't know what she was doing?

Winter kept up a near-steady stream of talk during the trudge to the dwarven city, in both dwarven and drow, some jokes, some stories, but you did not have the heart to listen to her, fear like lead in your stomach.

The duergar, unwillingly at first, listened to her tales and quips, then some started to laugh, then all of them, at Winter's sly wit, and when we finally reached the city they were already telling some of their own stories to her.

Just like Winter, you thought wryly.

The only thing of the city you can see is a pair of massive doors that seem both strong and beautiful at the same time - trademarks of dwarven craftsmanship. The bearded guards stared at you and Winter, and spoke with your 'escort' before finally letting you and the rest into the city.

***

Klaendarkr was incredible.

Your eyes grow used to the increased amount of lighting, and notice something - everything looks as though it had been touched by dwarven hands. The walls are too straight to be natural, and the cavern head is an immense dome over the city with uneven decorations at the side, all plated in metal and carving. This metal glowed, giving the city some sort of light.

"A timeclock," Winter murmured to you. Apparently the duergar escort were explaining things. "Grades of infrared heat according to the time now."

The walls looked carved, as did the cobbled grounds, all symmetrical and beautifully planned, like a single work of art, dwarven art - built to withstand a siege but also built to showcase dwarven talents.

"Everythin's cut from rock," you find yourself saying. "'ollowed out. Thisy was just rock, once."

Winter looked surprised. "That's right. Very good, Kel."

You find yourself smiling at her praise.

Duergar pause from what they had been doing to stare at you and Winter as you pass by. You see that their homes seem more open and 'friendly' than Irinelaeran - certainly you do not see any 'street svirfneblin' wandering around.

Some of the escort are questioned, but then you and Winter are hurried down some more streets, past one garden of brightly glowing fungi, past an interesting waterfall... towards a large residence.

It was another large cave-like structure, but this was obviously a rich one. Guards at the entrance blinked at us, then spoke with the escort, then waved us through. Inside was a well-tended, beautiful garden, lit in soft mage-lights. Some of the fungi were pleasantly scented, and the path was of crushed marble, making crunching sounds under your boots.

Two large flights of steps swept down from either side of the curved walls of the large cavern to face each other in the garden, but you were herded under the balcony of the several-storey high building, to the first storey.

Inside you changed escort to a more well-equipped guard, who lead you inside while the old escort drifts away 'to get some rest' as Winter put it.

You carefully kept your hands to yourself. The inside was just as richly furnished as the outside, dwarven style, with weapons and armor taking the place of tapestries and paintings, everything solidly made and practically colored in pleasing shades instead of the gaudy hues that some elves seem to favor.

Eventually you ended up in what looks like a waiting room, and the escort stood while waving you two to the padded benches that line both walls. The room was carpeted and a vase stands on a table in the middle, with what Rose calls 'mock-roses' inside, fungi that glow in the dark and resemble half-opened rose blooms. Very, very expensive.

Winter sat down on a bench and helped you up next to her. The bench was comfortable and to your mild consternation you found yourself about to sleep. The guards seemed perfectly content to wait it out, and Winter continued to speak. You wondered vaguely why she never seems to run out of things to say.

When she seemed to be on the verge of winning the guards over, the other door in the room - leading to the office of whatever you two were supposed to see - opened, and the guards shooed you in.

The office was plainly furnished - no carpet, some cushioned chairs in front of a desk, behind of which was yet another chair, turned with the back facing us, the occupant looking out of a narrow window over a street. The room held mostly file cabinets and paper... and nothing else, making the large room seem rather empty.

The chair turned around, and the both of you gasped...

Because the occupant was drow.

***

Chapter 3: Mikaras

Drow in a dwarven city!

You stared at the elf in the chair. He was impeccably dressed, though also rather plainly - hair unadorned and unfashionably short, clothes robes, shirt and breeches, all in plain colors of blue and gray. He steepled his fingers and peered down his nose at the two of you, dark eyes sparkling with amusement.

"Please be seated," he spoke with a familiar accent - Irinelaeran accent! You feel stunned by this, and so unthinkingly allowed yourself to be lifted into one of the chairs by Winter. She sat down in the other, and frowned at the male elf.

"How... " she began.

He interrupted her. "Circumstances," he said dismissively, "But it is most astonishing to see the poise of the fabled Lin'Fayaenre Ra'Kest falter, no?"

Winter regained her 'fabled poise' with amazing speed, settling into the chair and giving him a cool stare. "I am afraid you have the advantage of us... " she left the sentence hanging.

"My name is Mikaras," the drow said, then gave you a curious glance. "The child's name, however... "

"Kel," you said, before you could stop yourself, then looked at Winter in chagrin. She shook her head slightly as if to say it was no matter.

"And how did you know... "

"One of my dwarven soldiers told me than a female elf who wielded a talking sword of crystal was coming," Mikaras said wryly. "It did not take much brain work to figure out who it was, no?"

"What did you bring us here for?" Winter said, to the point.

Mikaras smiled charmingly, or tried to. Certainly to you he seemed to succeed. "The pleasure of the company of a famous drow?"

"Notorious, more like it," Winter responded.

"Notoriety is more wide-ranging than simple fame," Mikaras agreed. "But I am digressing. Any soldiers my patrols find this close to the city, they take to me, and the city usually allows me to deal with them."

"And this dealing involves?" Winter's poise did not change, but you were suddenly aware of a coiled up tension within her. A predator ready to spring.

"I speak with them, then send them on their way," Mikaras said. "As to what I do say... that varies, but the effect is that this city has not been attacked by drow in living memory. I... I suppose the word is [dwarven word] the city, and I shudder to think what our murdering kin would do to it, yes? Charming. Our language does not even have a word which goes even close... except 'lust', which is not applicable in this case."

Mikaras did not seem like any sort of drow you know, and you are aware that you were continuing to stare.

"Tell me, Winter... yes, I am aware of your nickname - why are you back in this area, and with a child?" Those eyes swept back to you, and you automatically tried to sink into your seat. "A street child, at that... what was that charming name the old city had for them? Ah yes, 'street svirfneblin' - evil, tiny light fingered creatures." The way Mikaras spoke the last phrase - whimsically - took all criticism or seriousness out of it.

"You see much," Winter said coolly. She obviously did not like being upstaged by a fellow drow, and she was stalling, such that not much of why you were there could be shown.

"Many have spoken of your intelligence," Mikaras said suddenly. "Would you like to tell me about myself?"

Winter raised an eyebrow. "What people hear tends to be inflated, but very well. I see before me one Mikaras... Tre'kerena, past his second century of age."

Mikaras looked as though he would have asked a question, then touched the medallion half-hidden by his shirt and smiled wryly. You recognize the design on the medallion as well.

"You are, of course, head of a band of soldiers whom also take mercenary jobs on the side-line, as well as other illicit dealings that also involve merchants, judging from the paperwork that I can read from here... " Mikaras chuckled at that.

Winter shrugged and plunged on. "You are doing very well, as is obvious from the fact you can keep so many soldiers that look so well... fed. However, you did not build this place, in fact I am sure that you bought it from someone... no, inherited it, which would probably explain why so much dwarfish furniture is around, so I would assume some duergar bequeathed it to you."

"I could have purchased the furniture... " Mikaras began playfully.

"Your office here is obviously your personal sanctum - it is plainly done, most unlike that of the outside. You inherited this, Mikaras. The fact that everything here seems like it has been there for more than two centuries, judging from the dust in some of the less-swept corners I passed up here, means that whoever had this was also a mercenary, probably the person whose 'group' you took over."

Mikaras nodded slightly.

"You used to hold swords, one long and one short, but you have not for some time, preferring to devote yourself to the energies of your work. The fact that you... [dwarven word] this city has been mentioned by you, but also can be seen in other ways - the window, which is newer than the rest of the house, and the paintings, for one."

"The swords?" Mikaras asked.

"I can see the calluses which have faded a little to tend towards that of holding a pen."

You watched this verbal fencing match, slightly openmouthed.

"Anything you can tell about my personality?" Mikaras smiled.

"Other than you have once been scorned in some [same dwarven word] affair or lost it, and that you are unsure about how you feel about your family, some sort of scandal perhaps? I cannot deduce much about how your personal life is like. However, you are probably a likeable, strong person with hidden talent - dwarves do not follow... ah, but I see something has upset you."

Mikaras was leaning forward, half-standing in shock. "How... "

Winter looked more smug now that she appeared to have the upper hand. "About the affair? Why, you have, on your arm, under your robe sleeve, a band with a design for '[dwarven word]', dwarfish, of course. The inscription, from here, appears to have been neatly sliced to obscurity. I saw your arm when you invited us to sit. As to your family, the fact that you still wear your medallion is evidence enough for me."

"Very good," Mikaras murmured, settling down into the chair. "And correct in all points except - one, I still do use my swords, though not very often... two, I have severed myself from my family. The medallion just has a ward on it that prevents me from eating poison, and other such sort of attacks on my person which proves useful."

"And, there is something worrying you - perhaps a rival group or such that has serious imports on your own," Winter finished, and smiled slightly in triumph when Mikaras blinked again. "You have eye-rings from lack of sleep, and the fact that you have them means this is not a common occurrence - hence something is worrying you. It cannot be some act of prejudice because you are probably used to it... but I admit that was a little of a guess."

"Very good," Mikaras repeated. "And true. The rival group Ironhammer recently acquired a new leader... whom everyone does not know who it is, but I suspect... "

You were tired, and the words were failing to register - your eyes closed somewhere after Winter had begun to explain her deductions on Mikaras' affair. Now they flew open as Mikaras paused, and you felt dismayed as you realized both Mikaras and Winter are looking at you.

"Yes'm?" you asked.

"Kel is tired," Winter said to Mikaras, "Do you have a guest room?"

"The child can sleep here," Mikaras grinned. "Kel looks comfortable enough, and you can tuck the child in to bed later... poor thing seems frightened of my dwarven friends."

You flushed slightly, but Mikaras was right - the chair was comfortable... from somewhere Mikaras produced a cloak, and Winter covered you with it as you spiraled slowly into sleep, their voices over your head...

***

You woke in a soft bed, head on a pillow of soft feathers, and luxuriated a little in the warmth before sitting up quickly. You were in a room also of dwarven furnishing - rich and with weapons on the walls. Winter sat on the other bed, absently combing her hair. She smiled at you as you slipped off and tidied your clothing and began to wear your boots.

"Truly sorry for keeping you awake so long," she admitted.

"Thou was... occupied," Irr'liancrea spoke up.

"The sword was tellin' you 'bout all those things, right? 'mean, I didna think you could guess that well... " you blurt out.

"Ah, Kel, again you surprise me," Winter grinned. "Yes, it was... about why he was so tired from lack of sleep only, however. Certainly it was worth the cheating to shock him again."

"'e wants you t' kill somethin', right?" you continued. The satchels were in a corner and not close at hand, meaning you weren't going to leave anytime soon, but Irr'liancrea was still close at hand and Winter was in her armor, something that she did not like, but would use in a job that may involve fighting...

"Correct," Winter smiled. "Why Kel, you should have talked to Mikaras... you may have told him what he ate after he woke up and what he wore yesterday."

"Kill what?" you pressed.

"As forward as always. Well child, I am to enter the compound of Ironhammer and see what their leader is. And perhaps kill him if need be. You on the other hand, stay here."

"Wot if... somethin' happens? T' you?" you could not help asking.

"Mikaras would take care of you, and so would this sword," Winter patted the scabbard calmly. "Nothing on this plane can destroy Irr'liancrea, I believe, and its will is its own. It should be able to move back here. But why speak of death, Kel? Wish me luck."

"Yes'm," you replied, feeling slightly downcast.

"Chin up, Kel. After this Mikaras promised to help me with Menzoberranzan... he has a few spies there, as in every city which is open to duergar trade. You might like to speak with him at the moment... can you read and write?"

"No'm."

"Pity, or you may have helped him with that mountain he calls paperwork."

***

You were ushered back into Mikaras' room, where you clambered back onto the chair you had slept in.

Mikaras continued to write, though you were aware that he was paying very close attention to your every move.

"Well met again, Kel," Mikaras said, jokingly, "Winter told me you are a very smart child."

"She tol' me I kin prob'ly tell you what you ate when you woke up, an' what you wore yest'rday." You said carefully. Winter's words, not your own, hence he would not be able to see much of yourself from there.

"And can you tell me?" Mikaras inquired, with a humor-the-child tone.

"You didna eat an' you're wearin' the same thing." You replied confidently.

Mikaras looked up then, disbelieving, then smiled wryly. "Out-guessed by a child. Maybe I really should go and sleep."

"I kin see the signs," you said, because you had been hungry before and seen others hungry before. "And your clothes crumpled, like. You prob'ly slept with head onna table."

"Very good," Mikaras unconsciously echoed Winter. "Well then, what would you like to do now?"

"See Winter," you said automatically, caught yourself, then smiled sheepishly at Mikaras. "Naw. I'd juggle for a bit."

"Juggle?" Mikaras raised an eyebrow, then rooted in the drawers until he located a small bag of coins, which he gave to you. "Here you go."

You managed to get eight into the air until that ticklish feeling in the nape of your neck alerted you to the fact that Mikaras was watching you. Feeling impish, you turned his gesture back on him - you raised an eyebrow.

Mikaras chuckled and returned to his work. When you tired of juggling you returned him the bag. He glanced at you.

"I should count the coins, should I not?"

You sighed and removed the small amount of coins on your person and returned them to him.

"All the coins, my dear."

Obligingly you returned him the lot. Mikaras wasn't to be underestimated, and you wondered vaguely why he had sent Winter to do the 'dirty work' instead of leaving himself... but of course, Winter was expendable.

You crouched in your chair and simply watched everything you could at once, drawing into yourself and keeping yourself quiet, the essential part of hiding.

Time seemed to pass slowly, marked only by the scratching of Mikaras' quill pen on papers, and his occasional mutters, which you could not decipher and did not seem important.

Then the door opened, and Mikaras looked up and smiled. "Winter. How did it go?"
You felt a strong wash of relief as Winter, bloodied and slightly wounded in her neck and left arm but otherwise fine, sat down in the other chair, ignoring Mikaras. She tapped Irr'liancrea, then spoke words in drow that sounded like the healing spell but was subtly different.

Her wounds closed up quickly, then she looked back up. "The leader was as you say - illithid. Quite easy to kill if you have shields on your mind, but this one unexpectedly could fight. I left the dwarves alone - I doubt any of them could see me."

"Doubt?"

"Unless one of them had power surpassing my sword." Winter smiled.

"Not possible, then. Well done. Now I shall keep my side of the promise... "

"How have you been doing, Kel?" Winter glanced at you.

"Fine'm." You replied.

"It is quite impossible to concentrate on paperwork with Kel staring at me, but otherwise the child is most entertaining," Mikaras said. Entertaining? Your hackles rise a little, then you push them back down as Mikaras leaned back in his chair with the air of one going to start a long story.

"You know of Matron Baenre's amusing sally on Mithril Hall?"

"Obviously. Did this city send representatives, I wonder... "

"No. Mithril Hall is none of our business. We had trade relations, that is all... I have a sword from Mithril Hall," Mikaras said, unnecessarily, you thought. What was Mithril Hall?

"In any case... do you know who is head of the city now?" Mikaras decided, obviously, to sound out Winter's knowledge.

"Triel Baenre is head of House Baenre, which is still First House. Barrison del'Armgo is second... Q'Xorlarrin third I believe. Who cares. I am more interested in Bregan D'aerthe... they accept females now, though I believe they are watched more often. I do not know anything of this group other than that its leader Jarlaxle is the current wielder of Crenshinibon and he has not, strangely, built a Cryshal-Tirith or a crystal tower inside the city, for odd reasons of his own."

"Then what would you like to know of Menzoberranzan?" Mikaras inquired. "You seem to have the grist of the matter."

"Currently? Menzoberranzan - do they allow 'foreign' drow to enter?" Winter asked.

"Yes. They lost a large number in the defeat at Mithril Hall... newcomers are welcome, but you'd be hard put to get any adoption by a House, but I see that is not of your concern... "

"Unless I appear at the gates blatantly non-Lloth," Winter said wryly. "I am tempted to see if I can ride through the resultant scandal."

"Though the child may cause some comment." Mikaras looked at you.

"True. But I doubt it would cause a building-toppling stir." Winter said dismissively. "Now, are there any 'safe spots' you can recommend in Menzoberranzan?"

"The dwarven quarter," Mikaras said promptly. "The inn there known as... roughly translates as 'Axe wrought from Mithril' I believe. One dwarfish word translates to four drow words... interesting. That is the base for Klaendarkr spies, and also the embassy, of course, though it is an embassy no non-drow in the city should know of. You can have quarters there if no one sees you enter and leave."

"Thanks," Winter nodded. "Now to Bregan D'aerthe. Who are Jarlaxle's closest?"

Mikaras consulted a list. "This is tentative, mind. We have not been able to infiltrate Bregan D'aerthe, since it is all drow. Kimmuriel Oblodra, psionist. Rai'gy Bondalek of Ched Nasad... oh, you know of him? Yes, he was high priest once. Male priest of Lloth... most interesting, but hardly the topic of discussion here."

"Rai'gy in Bregan D'aerthe?" Winter murmured to herself. "Hmm. But the Book said that Bregan D'aerthe was instrumental in setting the coup that caused Rai'gy to drop from High priest to outcast... "

"Jarlaxle is quite the clever one," Mikaras smirked. "Inner circle has Berg'inyon, once of Baenre... Ran'deran, once of DeVir. Tantras'nen, once of Hun'ett. Three captains of three sectors of warriors, then Rai'gy for priests and Kimmuriel for magic."

"How many weapon masters does he have?" Winter blinked. "I've heard of only Berg'inyon... "

"Quite a collection. Jarlaxle takes the finest, does he not? There are probably several more, but those three are the most prominent."

"Then he should have taken Zaknafein."

"Why he did not, you would have to ask him," Mikaras shrugged. "I have heard of this Zaknafein... Zin-carla, yes? Dead now."

Winter smiled slightly but did not refute it. "Dead, certainly. A pity - he would be most amusing to meet in Menzoberranzan."

"He does not like females, from reports," Mikaras said.

"Ah? Well, I find that hard to believe." Everything from Winter seemed to speak of underlying mirth.

"Strange that he did not take Drizzt Do'Urden... certainly he took Dinin Do'Urden and Vierna Do'Urden, albeit for a short period of time."

Winter wasn't smiling anymore, and you wondered why. Then she shrugged. "Drizzt is certainly good though not as good as his father. He lacks focus and is a most confused person, you could say. Half of him says one thing and the other half does the other... "

"You have met Drizzt?" It was not a question.

"Oh yes," Winter's eyes looked far away, and she absently pushed a lock of hair from her eyes. "Quite a nice fellow. But that is not the point... I doubt he would have joined Jarlaxle's group in any case. The fact that Jarlaxle healed him is strange enough - even Za... nevermind." Winter caught herself. "Jarlaxle is most unpredictable."

"Bregan D'aerthe's move of reaching out to all cities regardless of race for information is revolutionary." Mikaras agreed. "His spy network is probably larger than mine."

"Do you know how one joins this Bregan D'aerthe?"

"One makes a large enough spectacle of oneself," Mikaras grinned. "Pick a fight somewhere, like in the main square where there is sometimes a Bregan D'aerthe soldier - incognito, of course, offering passers-by money if they beat him. Only that sword of yours is a little noticeable."

Winter drew Irr'liancrea, and murmured to it. Blue flashed once, then turned to the gleam of polished adamantite. She beamed at Mikaras.

"Now your problem is winning the fight," Mikaras said dryly.

"That may be a problem," Winter said enigmatically, "Or it may not." She sheathed the sword. "I looked at the map to Menzoberranzan, but maps change. Anything untoward on the way?"

"Illithids, but not much from them after Zaknafein and Drizzt passed through... not the same city that those two wrecked, but this one is probably also wary of drow. Blingdenstone if you use the safer route. The faster route goes near a goblin enclave, though these probably do not like drow and will try to keep away. And a large part of it is nigouar - Underdark wolf - territory. Vicious little creatures. Obviously, where there is nigouar there is rothe and other hooved animals, but they take offense at creatures poaching on them."

"Not much of a problem," Winter smiled.

"After that is some unknown space, then you go to the cavern of sand. It is like a miniature desert... who knows what is in there, but there are all sorts of rumors. You'd pass a few rivers on the way to the city which you can drink at, but I suggest you hold water for your passage through this place. 'Cavern' is deceiving."

"More unknown space after that, then you'd reach Mekkane, the mongrel city. It's mostly trade, and the city drow pointedly ignore it, but there's probably Bregan D'aerthe somewhere in it... though I suggest you ignore them until you reach Menzoberranzan."

Why 'mongrel city'? you wonder.

Winter glances at you. "Mongrel city, Kel, because it is just about the only city where the proportions of races are more or less equal, even drow. It will be most amusing to visit."

Amusing would not be the word you would use, but you are content to keep your peace.

"Mekkane is still under weapon law - that is, no laws at all except those your swords or magic can talk you out of. It may be a good place to impress Bregan D'aerthe, but that is entirely your choice," Mikaras shrugged. "If you would explain more of your quest I could help you more."

"Sorry, Mikaras," Winter smiled.

"It is about Crenshinibon, though?"

Winter nodded curtly. "What else do you think is important enough in Bregan D'aerthe that I should want to look into it? I have much better things to do than traipse around the Underdark."

"Teleport there."

"And make my presence loudly felt? No thanks."

"I... see." Mikaras nodded. "Anything else you wish to know?"

Winter paused. "Can we buy supplies here?"

"Of course... I can get my dwarven friends to help you if you'd like."

"I'd give them a list. I do not want my supplies to be totally of dwarfish lager, thank you."

***

Chapter 4: Travels

"Mindshields for Kel seem necessary," Winter commented. The two of you stared down from a slope at two minotaurs, their eyes blank, like a painted doll's. Mind controlled beasts, you realized, and shivered slightly. You could not help but pity the two huge animals. Bestial as they looked, with a massive bull's head and cruelly curving horns slicked with some dried black substance that shone dully in the light provided by Irr'liancrea, still no creature deserved to be so controlled.

"Yes," Irr'liancrea responded, and you felt a small twinge in the back of your mind, like intangible walls surrounding your thoughts. And not too soon as well, because a sudden barrage of what felt like mental 'arrows' seemed to skid off the walls.

You frowned and shuffled closer to Winter. She gave you a reassuring smile, then turned back to the minotaurs. "I would speak with your masters."

The minotaurs stared, unmoving.

Winter sighed, a little callously. "Perhaps I shall have to cut them down after all." She began to draw her sword, but then the minotaurs stepped aside, revealing a disgusting-looking creature, an illithid...it gave the impression of staring at the two of you. You blinked - you had been sure the creature had not been there a short time ago...

Winter and the creature simply stared at each other, and then she spoke out of the corner of her mouth. "It is puzzled as to why it cannot touch our minds."

"Yes'm." You feel profoundly relieved for the shields.

"I wonder if a toll would suffice..." Winter raised an eyebrow at the creature, which hesitated, then backed away. The minotaurs lumbered forward, and you let out an involuntary hiss.

"Ah, I see it wants to play." Winter murmured calmly, drawing her sword quickly, holding it in front of her, then started running forward, long strides eating up the ground. The first minotaur held up its halberd and swung it down with impossible speed, the huge blade parallel to the ground, but Winter leaped forward, perfect timing, somehow managing to use the blade as a stepping stone.

She leaped high into the air, Irr'liancrea raised over her head for an instant before smashing down into the creature's brain. It died without a sound, and she somehow managed to free her blade, spinning for the next.

It was lumbering towards you, halberd swinging, but you were faster and you dodged quickly, easily, drawing your dagger even though you knew it is probably useless against so large a creature. You knew where to strike, at least - you ran behind the creature before it could react and plunged the wicked blade into the back of the knee joint, pulling it away, then running again.

The creature collapsed into a kneel, but the halberd was in an impossibly fast swipe...then Winter was there, and her sword clashed into the steel of the pole, somehow managing to stop the blow. Roughly she shoved you aside, then whirled with deadly grace and thrust...

The second minotaur collapsed in a spray of dark blood that colored Winter's chain mail and face.

She turned - the illithid was making some sort of magic - but unthinking, you took out one of your stones for juggling and hurled it into the creature. There is a wet crack, and it fell, unmoving.

"Good throw," Winter commented, wiping her blade on the corpse of the minotaur, then retrieving a cloth from her satchel and cleaned herself up the best she could before sheathing her sword.

You looked down at yourself - you had escaped the more bloody parts of the fight, and your reflexes...and Winter, had saved your life. In relief you waited for the adrenaline to fade away...you had survived illithids! One illithid, to be sure, but that did not make it seem any less... sweet.

"Will 'em illithids attack us naow?" you asked, dreading the answer.

"We have shown our strength," Winter shrugged. "I hope they will not. Come, we must be on our way."

The next creatures that attacked were some sort of bats, screeching and swooping in to scratch at your eyes and face, automatically you fling your arms up to protect yourself. From Winter's exclamations you knew she was probably suffering from the same disaster. Then she snarled something, and the bats abruptly dropped away, landing noiselessly on the ground, quite dead.

You looked up in awe, but Winter's face was pale and her hands shook slightly. "I hate using that spell," she murmured, eyes haunted. She closed them and hugged herself once, then drew her sword in a blinding slash that bit open some attacker that had dropped from above us.

The attacking drow elf collapsed into a bloody heap, and Winter stared before shuddering again. "Be on your guard, Kel. It appears these illithids have allies in strange places."

"Yes'm."

"Mwah. This gets boring..." Winter peered at the pair of minotaurs lumbering into a charge in front of you. "I hate unnecessary bloodletting...opposed to necessary bloodletting, of course, and Zaknafein would...damnit, move slower you stupid rothe heads...call me nine kinds of fool, but I really hate killing so impersonally...damn you!"

Winter swore quietly to herself as she inspected the gash in her chain mail. "Wonderful. I hope Petriarch does not require his armor back in excellent condition."

Your eyes were wide - Winter was the finest fighter you had ever seen...so fast...

"No'm," you murmured.

"Well come on then," she sighed, then shuddered again, still taken by the aftereffects of the death-spell. "How many this illithid city's 'allies' is I still have yet to find. Hopefully they would give up sooner or later...I did think that illithids were smarter than normal drow..."

"Yes'm."

"Should have asked Mikaras about this."

"Yes'm."

"Though that fellow knows so much about some far-off drow city that I feel slightly suspicious about him...how convenient that he has reports so close to hand on my target, yes?"

"Yes'm. Dwarves, they don't wanta walk 'round much inna drow city, mum."

"Well, we have a little mystery there..." The two of you rounded a corner, your gift leading you on.

"Yes'm."

"And do not call me mum."

"Yes'm."

***

The illithids finally got the hint and stopped sending attacks; hence the rest of the journey through the intersecting tunnels which would also lead to their city was relatively peaceful. There were no monsters near an illithid city.

"This is amazing. If not for our earlier encounters I would have found this route infinitely more restful." Winter seemed to be in high spirits.

"Yes'm," you replied. There was something wrong, wrong about the very place in which you walked, but you could not put your finger on it. Your gift was informing you loudly that the closest danger was waiting, waiting in your path.

"What's wrong, Kel?"

"A lot wrong, mum," you replied without thinking, and she quirked an eyebrow curiously at you.

"A lot wrong? I wonder." Was her reply, though she continued to stride down the tunnel confidently. "Maybe you are being pessimistic. The only thing that can bother us now is a trap, and illithids don't set traps."

"Yes'm." you replied cautiously. Winter sounded so sure, but all your senses, metaphorically, where sending alarm bells to your head.

This continued for some distance, with you feeling apprehensive and Winter feeling confident, though as you walked and saw and heard nothing you felt less and less sure of your fears, until you began to question your gift.

Then a portion of the floor sank down when Winter stepped on it, and she blinked. A whistling of air - Winter's shout - you leaped automatically backwards...and a sickening crunch of metal on bone and floor...

Nearly afraid to look but not resisting the impulse, you glanced up, and felt a burst of both relief and horror, eyes wide. Winter was in a half-kneel a few body-lengths from you, breathing hard.

A huge metal plate, several body-lengths across and wide, had been slammed into the floor. You looked up - the ceiling seemed to be torn, but when you concentrated you realized that it was...paper. Part of the ceiling was paper, painted cunningly to look like rock, with a device behind it that gleamed with the shine of metal in the dull light, which meant that Winter's triggering the trap had dropped the plate that tore through the paper, and dropped down....

The side facing down had large, thin spikes sticking out of it every so often, most of which had driven a few finger-lengths into the rock ground. One of these spikes had driven through Winter's left leg, as easily as one would pierce melting butter with a knife...

"Winter!" you realized it was the sword that spoke, and its voice held a certain degree of horror.

"It appears that I have to listen...to advice...more often," Red trickled down from the edge of Winter's mouth, she had bitten through her lip. "Damn it, I don't dare use Irr'liancrea's power here to raise this thing, it may alert Crenshinibon... I suppose I'd have to do it myself. Kel, can you hold my hand?"

You nodded dumbly and stepped forward, thrusting out your hand, and she grasped it gratefully. Each time the pain seemed to throb in her, she squeezed your hand, hissing quietly to herself. Then she took several deep breaths and closed her eyes, and spoke in a clear, steady voice, in that other tongue which meant she was attempting a spell.

The strange words flowed from her mouth, ceaselessly, monotonous, and eventually they made your heart hurt with the ponderous rhythm, over and over again...

"Alkaen kes'kel daman riel, q'kkrdanka masnio ommico..."

You prayed to whatever god that may be listening that no illithids would choose to show up at this moment, but continued to look warily down the tunnels, either ends, straining to catch any movement.

"Illne, illne ma'ke la'e'g riel, riel wa'ter'ne mas'del'vian..."

Your eyes kept returning to the pool of blood that seemed to be spreading from the site of the wound, inexorable, Winter's lifeblood that seeped onto the unmoving rock.

"Q'alnesser dqakern maka'ma'ke vienn...viene...trie..." Winter took a deep, sobbing breath and continued. "Raeka, l'ien, mah'hsien..."

You happened to be staring at the spike that had driven through her leg, and you realized that its shape seemed to be becoming less and less solid, wavering in the air. Then Winter abruptly pulled to the side, and her leg passed through the spike as though it was not there. She stopped her chanting and breathed heavily for several long moments, the spike returning to solidity nearly immediately.

"Thank you, Kel," she murmured, and pulled out her leg, inspecting the gaping wound. "Oh dear." She began to speak again, this time in the spell of healing, casting the spell several times.

"Cure major wounds would drain too much of my energy," she explained before you asked the obvious question. "Though admittedly 'cure light wounds' wouldn't mend most of my leg, but I will have to bear with it until we can find shelter."

"Then hurry," the sword spoke up again.

She nodded wearily and stood up and gingerly put her weight on her injured leg, winced, then shifted her weight back. "Damn. Kel, if I ever seem to confident to you from now on, just whisper 'Illithid tunnels' to me and I will be heartily obliged."

***

There were several more traps on the way, which either you or Winter managed to find and disarm without much incident, though you would carry a scar on your upper right arm till the end of your days.

Finally the two of you reached a flat, polished plaque mounted on the wall, with oddly intricate writing on it which was not of drow make. Winter peered at it for a moment, then smiled in satisfaction. "We're on the end of illithid territory."

"Naow's wolves," you remind her, looking at the last picture on the plaque - a stylized one of a wolf running.

"Wolves are fine...I hope." Winter thought for a moment. "You may be right. Well then, I'd have to put out a request..."

She bowed her head and sat down carefully on the ground, wincing, then appeared to freeze, going into some sort of trance. You walked slowly around her, staring, wondering what she was trying to do.

Eventually you sat down beside her, fingering the dagger scabbard at your side, and wondering if wolves and illithids got together. What could they say to each other? Illithids should understand wolves pretty well if they wanted to - mindspeech crossed all language barriers because its meaning would be more apparent than any words...but would the wolves take umbrage at such treatment? Or were they enslaved like the other creatures? Then why were there still wolf territory bordering the illithids, or did the illithids come to some sort of agreement with the wolves?

In which case, were the wolves intelligent or under some sort of protection?

Your thoughts veered further and further away, and you realized wryly why the Underdark seemed to produce so many philosophers...the total silence and the endless feel to the atmosphere seemed conducive for thought.

A "Hmph," from Winter's direction alerted you to her 'waking up', and she smiled at you. A tired smile, but a triumphant one as well. "The wolves will not be hostile," she said shortly, attempted to stand up, failed, snarled to herself, and used Irr'liancrea as support.

"Mebbe we should rest, mum," you suggested.

Winter swayed slightly but did not fall. "Nonsense. We'd be safer in the wolf territory than here."

You could think of many arguments but you mutely found yourself following her into the rest of the tunnels, then eventually taking up the lead, through intersections and caverns and over a few streams, the water slowly cutting their own channels in the rock.

Winter stopped abruptly at the fourth stream. "Wait," she said, and so the two of you did. The stream poured down as a half-hearted waterfall in the small cavern, from a spot high up in the wall, to meander away down another tunnel. More tunnels in the cavern, with only two seeming natural, the rest...probably thoqqua make and hence safe. The two natural ones were, for Winter, painfully low, and she was taking the opportunity in the cavern to stretch her back.

Or so you thought. A growl behind the two of you, and you whirled. Wolves trotted nonchalantly out of one of the thoqqua tunnels, their shoulder nearly taller than you, and they did not show their teeth as they carefully fanned out. There were at least ten of them you could see here - there were more heat-signals down the tunnel where they had come from.

The wolves had gray-black fur in Winter's mage-light, and very dark amber eyes. They did not immediately slaver and jump at you as you had thought they would, but some sat down on their haunches. The combined effect of so many penetrating stares made you squirm uncomfortably.

Winter stepped forward in their direction, and after a pause a large wolf with only one and a half ears did so as well.

You wondered if Winter was going to speak in wolf...if she did you would not be surprised.

But she did not, and after a short while as she and the wolf stared at each other, the wolf flicked its ears, and padded forward in front of Winter and yourself, keeping a careful distance. The other wolves spread themselves out unevenly around the two of you - escort, perhaps? And in this way the two of you progressed down the tunnels.

Winter had to stop now and then to cast the light wounds ritual on herself, and the wolves merely waited patiently while you hoped that whatever had happened to prevent them from attacking would hold.

Claws clicked insistently on rock as the wolves wandered around impatiently before finally settling down to wait. Then Winter stood up again, nodding to the leader, and the group stood up as one. Wolves seemed to be linked by some sort of mental bond...when the group did something it was together as a group...

Most frightening, come to think of it.

You lost count of time. Sometimes the wolves would stop, and two or three would stay behind while the rest melted away into the darkness. When they returned, bloody-jawed and satisfied, then the two or three would disappear. You could never tell them apart, but it seemed to you that there were 'substitutions' somewhere - some of the wolves seemed different as time dragged on.

You seemed to have been walking in a group of wolves forever - Irinelaeran a memory of long ago, and the only thing keeping you from going mad was Winter's unconcerned stride beside you. You thought of the new drow city and its probable comforts, and imagined yourself there already, thinking back of the wolf tunnels and smiling. You found that image hard to keep and lost it eventually.

The wolves stopped again, at some sort of landmark, and waited. You shivered slightly - they appeared to be waiting for something, and you were about to ask Winter when the something appeared - more wolves. The leader cautiously made a snuffling sound, and the lead wolf of the other pack flicked its ears. Winter led you to the next pack, your new escort, while the old ones drifted away.

Eating? Any fungus or such that the two of you could find, no meat as yet. The wolves would watch mildly as Winter cooked, and they always declined to eat. Winter probably had some internal clock on which she plotted stopping, meals and such, or perhaps it was some sort of training she had undergone before she had come to the Underdark.

There were several more such escort exchanges, and Winter explained at one that the two of you were crossing nigouar territories, hence the changes.

Once you managed to grasp a question which had been nagging at you for a while. "How did you git the wolves t' leave us alone?"

Winter peered down at you, but the wolves, thankfully, ignored you. "How? I asked...a spirit, yes, you could call it a spirit. It...is the first wolf, you could say. I threatened it - if it didn't get these to give us free passage, I would simply destroy any wolf I come across. Much simpler this way, don't you think?"

You were speechless. First wolf? Spirit? What spirit could have such power?

"Questions, questions," Winter murmured. "Simply accept it is so. I may have to explain it to you another day, maybe, but for now we walk. That does sound like a stupid thing to say, come to think of it."

"Do wolves talk? T' each other?" You looked at the escort.

"To each other? Yes and no. Certainly not the way we are talking to each other...it is hard to explain. You probably would not understand it, the same way a wolf would not understand how we can convey emotions, feeling and such just in words and little body language."

"Ah."

"Do you miss Irinelaeran, Kel?"

"Yes'm."

"Truly...sorry, come to think of it. My only thought in Irinelaeran was completing my mission, but now...if you do wish to return I will portal you back. I will just have to change my plans a little."

You stared. Winter seemed...was sincere. And she did need you, as a guide to Menzoberranzan...Crenshinibon's location was bright and clear to you, and you only, here. And none of the others would want to undertake this task.

You did miss Irinelaeran.

Perhaps in a million universes you agreed and returned and continued your life there. In a million universes Winter may or may not have made it to Menzoberranzan. Perhaps in a few of them...without your help she could have died, or given up, or worse.

"I'm stayin', mum," you said then. You did not have choice in the matter in Irinelaeran, but now you did, and you chose Winter.

"Thanks... thank you very much, Kel." And she was silent.

***

Chapter 5: White Hunters

The wolves glanced around nervously, then padded away. The current Leader looked back once, and whined almost apologetically before following its pack. Winter chuckled at some joke known only to herself, then stared out into the new cavern.

It was mostly undulating piles of sand, gritty sand that was probably simply disintegrated rock. Like someone had taken an immense hammer and pulverized a huge section of solid rock in the Underdark - before us, before the immense tunnel mouth that led to the cavern, was a seemingly endless stretch of sand.

Winter raised Irr'liancrea which let out a modicum of brighter light, a grudging, grayish blue which showed that the sword did not approve, and squinted away over the sand. "I cannot see the end of it," she said, morbidly, then sheathed her sword and stepped forward, boots crunching softly into the sand.

"That light is a beacon for any monsters which this place may hold," Irr'liancrea said irritably. Winter ignored it.

You followed quickly, then began to lead Winter over the apparently endless distance. It was eerily silent. You had expected monsters or worse, perhaps some evil sorcerer that built a huge tower and ruled this barren place with an iron fist - but nothing, nothing at all. After three sleeps, there still seemed to be no end of the sand, and yet no sound. The advice about water had been well given - there seemed to be nothing but fine sand in this place.

After the fifth sleep (you had been counting time in the number of times Winter stopped the trek to lay out rolls for sleeping, since there were no clocks here) you thought you saw the faintest gleam of light to the northeast - you pointed it out to Winter, who chuckled again to herself and refused to say anything else.

Whatever it was, it was alive. Your gift pointed it out as the next living thing closest to you and Winter.

During the next hours of walking you realized that the light seemed to be getting closer, as if the two of you were approaching it. You asked this again of Winter, softly - the vastness of the cavern seemed to breed silence - and she chuckled again.

This was beginning to get annoying.

After the eight sleep, a few hours, the light abruptly brightened, a ring of them. You blinked - to the northwest, a fair distance away, was what appeared to be a ring of caravans. Four caravans, thin-sided and made of some strange, whitish substance.

The hardness of the light betrayed it as mage-light, and you felt wary, but Winter was heading straight for them and you could only follow and hope she knew what she was doing.

Then Irr'liancrea's light revealed something soft and sharp and large to the side in front. You squinted - it was as tall as Winter's shoulder and massive - and realized to your terror that it was the biggest spider you had ever seen.

You let out a gasp of horror which Winter blinked at, then she smiled down at you. "Nothing to worry about," she murmured, then shouted, "Greetings to the camp!"

The spider scuttled forward, and you realized it was some huge species of tarantula - spiky fur on its legs and body, many beady black eyes, and two curving, giant fangs. It appeared to study the both of you calmly.

Then a figure ducked out from behind it, emerging from darkness to Irr'liancrea's light - drow! And strange drow at that - male, wearing shirt and breeches and no armor. Boots, plain, leather. Tattered, discoloured robe. Scruffy, long hair, common-enough, rugged features, and a wide ingratiating smile.

"Who are you?" he asked politely.

"A Loremaster of Morikan's," Winter replied. "And this is a friend of mine known as Kel."

"Morikan... can you prove it?"

Winter unfastened her robe and swept it in front of her. In Irr'liancrea's light the underside showed the design of the white dragon that you had seen before. She laced it back onto her shoulders.

The male let out a low whistle. "Ah. And your business?"

"I would like to meet Qarrin," Winter smiled. "She comes highly recommended."

The male nodded, at some secret satisfaction. "Wait here." He patted the spider affectionately - patted, without being bitten! - and it chirred at him. "I hope Xal're did not startle you."

"No," Winter nodded graciously at the creature.

You wondered, a little faintly, how many more revelations would rise to the surface as you found yourself being introduced to a few more giant spiders and drow of both sex as the male returned and led everyone towards the main caravan. Whoever these drow were, both sexes seemed to be on equal footing. They all seemed to have at least one spider friend, and they all wore no armor and watched us as we passed them with curiosity.

Qarrin turned out to be a female, of dark beauty, carelessly sprawled on the doorframe of the first caravan, digging her fingernails with a large knife. She raised an eyebrow as the two of you approached, glanced at Winter, then nodded to herself.

"Thank you, Pie'rre." She told the male, and he withdrew. "So," she continued, not looking at us, "You are Winter."

"That I am," Winter inclined her head graciously.

"Hmph. How goes that annoying member of our mutual race now known as a Sword Master?"

"Fine, last I saw," Winter smiled, a noncommittal smile that vanished as quickly as it had appeared. There was a silence where both females seemed to evaluate each other, then Qarrin waved the both of you to be seated, and Winter pulled you up to the caravan platform before hoisting herself up with the grace of a gymnast.

You realized that the caravan seemed to be made of some hardened web, like a new type of cobweb compacted together to a substance harder than wood...but Qarrin was speaking before you could comment.

"Knew him before he went to Menzoberranzan. Promising fellow...even if his attitude was...is terrible. Told him he'd go to a sticky end...turns out that he went to two of them. Ha."

"Before he went to Menzoberranzan?" Winter stared blankly at Qarrin, composure dropped for an instant before she recovered graciously. "I was under the impression he was born there."

"Born there?" Qarrin snorted. "Of course not. If he was born there he'd just be like any other spineless drow. Purebred city drow are so pathetic. Oh, he may say he's born there - outsider drow were not welcome four hundred years ago. He may even believe it now. He is those sort of people who create all sorts of masks for themselves and never manage to merge them - when one mask grows out of place they simply destroy it utterly. I would think that the mask he wears now is most different from the one he wore in Menzoberranzan. Everything about Zaknafein is usually under rigid control."

You listened, confused, to the rather neurotic conversation that was going on above your head, thought of asking a question, then decided the better of it.

"Then where did he come from? If you do not mind me asking." Winter amended, as Qarrin began to look amused at the questions.

"He? Ah...probably another of the Wandering Tribes." Qarrin shrugged. You had never heard of the Wandering Tribes before, and you felt lost in the sea of words.

"Alone? In the Underdark?" Winter looked incredulous.

"He has a lot of good and bad luck. Bad luck was to get seriously injured by stumbling into a waerse fungus cavern after he struck out on his own, good luck was for us to find him when he crawled out to die," Qarrin smirked. "Lucky for him."

"Which tribe?" Winter pressed.

"He never said. He's a private person...but I would think it was Kae'lesh'ra...the Named blades. Certainly he inherited their fighting skills...if not their unreliable luck." Qarrin shook her head briefly. "Why are we discussing him?"

Winter ignored that hint to get to the point. "Named blades? But I have never seen his Name sword..."

"He gave it to us when we dropped him off at Menzoberranzan." Qarrin smiled at Winter's start of astonishment.

"What?"

"He gave it to us. I did tell you about his masks. He wanted to start afresh, the silly fellow. I suppose four centuries may have made him wiser...he was the most naive person I had ever seen then."

Winter blinked. "Are we talking about the same person?"

"Zaknafein, yes?" Qarrin inquired.

"Yes...really Zaknafein?"

"Why should I lie to you?"

"Zaknafein? Naive? Sounds more like his son..." Winter paused at Qarrin's smirk. "Ah, I see history is repeating itself. How fun. Though if Drizzt does manage to get to four centuries at the rate he's going, I personally will be very surprised."

"Hmph," Qarrin snorted.

"Have you passed Menzoberranzan lately?" Winter abruptly changed the subject.

"Last week."

"Any news?" Winter grinned.

"What sort of news? Like what color robes are Gromph wearing today? Or the latest gossip on Triel Baenre? Be more specific," Qarrin returned to her nails with studied care.

"Like the most neutral, no-questions-asked inn to stay at," Winter said. "Then you can tell me about Mikaras."

"What are you giving me?" Qarrin grinned. "Oh very well. Morikan did instruct us that a Loremaster would pass this way, though I did not expect a drow. That inn would be the Sword Hilt inn on Draeka street, though they may charge quite a price."

"Money is not much of a problem," Winter said complacently, and you blinked.

"Mum..." you began.

"Shh, Kel."

"As to Mikaras...not much is known about him, really," Qarrin admitted. "He is not from Irinelaeran, but from Menzoberranzan."

"He has an Irinelaeran accent," Winter pointed out, though by the narrowing of her eyes you thought that she had some of her suspicions confirmed.

"He spent some time there. Business is unknown," Qarrin continued, "However, he then had that famous accident of his. Found by duergar, almost killed, managed to make friends with them, and now he's doing what he knows best."

"Any affiliation to outside drow?" Winter inquired blandly.

"Not that I can see." Qarrin shrugged. "Mikaras is also a rather private person. He does not like publicity very much - keeps a low profile."

"Menzoberranzan...that city does breed a lot of wanderers," Winter mused to herself, but Qarrin took it as a de facto question.

"Menzoberranzan is a strange city by rights," Qarrin said, "Hardly any of the drow cities would even think of invading the surface world. Hardly any drow cities even rigidly follow that primitive ranking system any longer. And hardly any of them still have civil wars, even if it is just inter-house. And even fewer are pure Lloth-worshippers. Although there are some cities whom still have that Females Are Better Than Males policy, I cannot think of any other offhand that pursue it to Menzoberranzan's degree. Zaknafein made a bad choice when he decided to 'start anew' there."

"Should have chosen Irinelaeran?" Winter raised an eyebrow.

"No, perhaps Q'Xarr'rae." Qarrin grinned. "First drow city set up by a male."

"Still exists?" Winter blinked.

"Why yes," Qarrin smiled. "The Underdark is a large place. And one of Q'Xarr'rae's more endearing characteristics is that it is a city of agnostics and athiests. Has been destroyed and rebuilt several times, however. Q'Xarr'raenians appear to offend many people easily."

"I knew that," Winter muttered. "Very well, back to Menzoberranzan. Are there any unspoken rules in there?"

"Do not speak back to a priestess," Qarrin recited blandly, "If you are a commoner, respect a noble. This sort of rule. I probably have a book somewhere..." she got up and entered the caravan.

You looked up carefully at Winter. "Who're these people?" you ask softly.

"One of the Wandering Tribes. Or rather, they are classed as one, even though they deny it. They're the White Hunters, or Bl'anc'Tree'a." Winter leaned back comfortably. "Only tribe adopted by Morikan. They're allied to those huge white spiders you saw - all friends. No special bond or anything, but most spiders only have one rider until that rider dies or they die themselves. If the former, then they simply choose another rider or return to their homeworld. Yes, they are not from this realm - Morikan merely makes it convenient for them to enter and leave."

"I ain't 'eard o' 'em before," you said doubtfully. "An' o' the Wanderin' Tribes."

"I'm not surprised," Winter nodded. "They are only well known in the non-Lloth cities. Especially if said cities are non-drow."

"Mum, 'bout Mikaras...is 'e bad?"

"Bad? I doubt it. I liked him, and so does Irr'liancrea. No, I just believe, to use a famous phrase, there's more to him than meets the eye."

Qarrin reappeared, waving a rather battered looking book which she handed in a flourish to Winter. Winter took it graciously and thumbed through the pages, before snapping the book shut.

"Thanks," she said.

Qarrin grinned. "Anything for a Loremaster. However, you can now oblige me by talking about Sanctuary."

"What do you want to know?" Winter hugged the book to herself absently.

"My alma mater, of course. Warrior School." Qarrin smiled. "More precisely..." she reached into the dark, leather smelling recesses of the caravan and pulled out a spear, with a tassel of an iridescent, unidentifiable color and inscriptions on the handle.

"Spear classes," Winter grinned. "Spear master...there's a new one, did you know?"

"What happened to Tre'ile?" Qarrin asked.

"Accident involving twenty armed elves with elf-shot on another world," Winter said wryly.

Qarrin winced. "Another good one is lost. And the new one? Marist, I believe?"

"No, Elikkar," Winter smirked at Qarrin's look of astonishment.

"The Saur?" Qarrin said slowly.

"The Saur," Winter confirmed.

"I don't believe it," Qarrin said slowly. "No, I really don't."

Saur? Spear Master? You sighed to yourself. The both of them did look as though they were enjoying, to a small degree, your fog of incomprehension.

***

"Do not tell me you are bringing that child into Menzoberranzan," Qarrin pointed at you with her knife, and you took an involuntary step back.

"Kel? I am afraid Kel is following me," Winter said calmly.

"Menzoberranzan is not pro-life." Qarrin grinned. "There is no way you can pull off any disguise if people see you are caring for a child with no apparent power and with no apparent value."
"Oh, Kel has a most useful gift," Winter said graciously.

"That may be even worse, if you think about it," Qarrin pointed out, and you did think about it. What if other people wanted your gift? People who were not like Winter or Petriarch?

"True," Winter agreed. "What do you suggest?"

"Change Kel's shape," Qarrin made a vague gesture.

"Into?" Winter pressed.

"Ask Kel," Qarrin waggled her eyebrows at you. "Well, child?"

"Not one of the other sentient races," Winter cautioned.

"Animal, then," Qarrin agreed.

"Nigouar?" you said tentatively. You did admire those fierce looking creatures. And if the transformation was only for your body and not for your mind, you would not be able to fly, at any rate. Any hoofed animals may invite questions as to why Winter was not riding. A flashy bird or that sort of mage's pet may invite potential buyers and thefts. But a wolf...a type of animal famous for having a mind of its own...

"Good one," Winter approved.

Qarrin was not so quick to do so. "Can you walk like one? Behave like one? Nigouar are complex animals, and they have all sorts of behaviors that you'd need a lifetime of study to reproduce."

"Some sort of different nigouar, then," Winter said, dismissive, "I doubt Menzoberranzan is quite aware of the species, at any rate. Certainly Irinelaeran ideas about the so called Underdark Wolf is incredible at best, downright absurd at worst."

"How can you change Kel? According to you, using that much magic from Irr'liancrea so close to Menzoberranzan is dangerous."

"One tends to agree," the sword spoke up. Irr'liancrea spoke less and less often now that you were nearing Menzoberranzan.

"Ah, I suppose I will have to try one of those much-vaunted Loremaster spells," Winter looked resigned. "Sit down, Kel."

Winter sat down as well, then Qarrin followed, cross-legged on the sand, watching curiously as Winter began to speak clearly in the other tongue, a singsong rhythm now, as if telling a lively story.

You frowned - nothing seemed to be happening. And nothing did, for about fifteen minutes while you became more and more bored, and Qarrin more and more interested. Then tickling at your neck made you reach up - your hair was growing longer! You blinked, and looked at your hands, rubbing one absently, and blinking further at the fine fuzz of fur which was already present.

Your body changed gradually over the next three hours, while Winter chanted out ceaselessly and the three of you began to attract a small audience. There was no pain, just a cramping and stretching sensation at certain parts. You wriggled out of your clothes finally, new claws scrabbling on the sand, then Winter's eyes seemed to focus on you, and she smiled.

"Voila, as M'sieur Andr=C0 is wont to say." Winter beamed at you and the rest of the White Hunters gathered around.

You walked a cautious circle around your clothes. Four legs took some adjusting to, and it an embarrassing while later, filled with helpful comments and unhelpful laughter, that you managed to walk in a straight line without falling on your muzzle.

Winter left you to the babysitting of several highly entertained White Hunters, and went to speak with Qarrin.

When you mastered walking, or trotting, as one of the Hunters put it, you went on to trying to run, a disaster from the outset, but you managed a sedate lope. The world looked different from nigouar eyes - there were colors, but each object had its own scent, as well. Scent showed up in your 'vision', in the form of textures. The spiders had a knobby textured smell, and drow a smooth, creamy one. Each creature, however, had different 'feels' to their smells, and you tried to concentrate on differentiating each scent until your head reeled.

"Kel?" Winter was asking for you, so you loped back to her, taking pride in the fact that you had not once tripped over your long legs.

She smiled down at you, then adjusted her armor. "Come, we must be going."

"Wait," Qarrin approached quickly, then tossed a cloth-wrapped, long bundle to Winter. She unwrapped it to find two scabbards of plain black leather, one empty, and one containing a sword, the lighter sort of swords for one-handed use.

She drew it, admiring the easy-to-grip hilt and the blade, then peered at one edge. "Serrated," Winter said slowly. "This is a Name blade, is it not? I cannot think of any other with such quality..."

The blade's rainbow sheen was apparent even in the dim light, the mark of perfect workmanship, accomplished without magic.

"Unfortunately," Qarrin nodded. "Guess who."

"You are giving it to me?" Winter said, disbelieving, "His name blade?"

"If you would take it. I do not use swords, and it seems a waste to leave it to rot in a caravan. No one else here would use it, besides."

"I do not fight with one-handed swords," Winter said, though her resolve was visibly breaking down. The blade was very handsome, a quiet, simply unique beauty which would have been marred if the hilt had been, like so many other swords, carved into strange designs.

"A good disguise, eh? They will look for a single blade elf, if they are already aware of you. Enjoy using it," Qarrin smiled, a little wistfully. Winter said nothing, but clasped the other female's hand, then belted the scabbards on. A few murmured requests, and Irr'liancrea obligingly shrunk enough to fit into the empty scabbard. Its normal scabbard disappeared without fuss. Winter patted it, and the hilt changed to a replica of the Name blade.

"One more thing, Qarrin," Winter paused again. "Is it still there? The tagnik'zur-tur'rilthiir?"

Half elf which was a dragon? You blinked at Winter's words.

Qarrin's eyes held a world of mischief. "Did you think it could die?"

Winter laughed at that, another joke that passed over your head, then started off over the desert, you trotting by her side, listening to the 'best wishes' which floated over from the White Hunters.

You realized you could still invoke your gift, and led her out of the White Hunters' encampment.

Eventually the two of you left the desert-cavern and struck out back into the Underdark with relief.

The Underdark was an easier place to navigate now. If you concentrated you could make out each pitfall and crevasse simply by smelling them out. Even when infrared was not apparent, and it often was not, your nose told you everything.

"Normally nigouar do not see colors," Winter's voice sounded unnaturally loud to your enhanced ears, "So I changed your eyes a little."

You wanted to thank her and realized you could not speak, only a little bark.

"Couldn't change your voice box," Winter admitted. "Sorry."

You wanted to reassure her but could not, and compensated for bumping her leg with your nose.

The 'unknown area' to Mekkane was uneventful except for a few bats, which flapped out of your way and squeaked indignantly. You found that although you had taken a nigouar shape, you had not taken their instincts or their tastes - you much preferred your food cooked, still, and you had absolutely no idea how to hamstring a person. Or howl.

The route finally became more and more 'marked' by sentient creatures - rubbish strewn here and there, and the marks of carts and rothe and other domestic creatures. One sleep's journey away from the city, Winter stopped and began an elaborate disguise - her hair she hacked off shorter with a blade, even though it would still fit into a nice ponytail, it would not be to the hips, as before.

Makeup took a long time to apply, then she spent twice that time chanting to herself. Finally when she raised Irr'liancrea's light up a little to show off, you realized that the male mercenary you had seen that day in the market was back. Winter grinned crookedly at you, then touched her enhanced cheekbones. "This probably would not last a full body-check, but it is passable as a male. And blue eyes...I am afraid those will have to go." She concentrated a little, and when she looked back at you her eyes were a dark brown.

Without further word, she started off towards Mekkane. You noted that her stride was longer now, and her shoulders slightly hunched. Her cloak was turned around again, such that the plain side was the visible side, and the two of you approached the mongrel city.

***

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