Part 1: Beginnings
Part 2: Battle
Part 3: Rules
Drizzt looked around the room uneasily, playing with the dragon dagger. Zaknafein, on the other hand, was sprawled over the only couch in the room, petting Zaire, his cheetah. Ti’vienr Teken’duis, the oldest of the Masters of Melee-Magthere, was pacing around in a tight circle.
"What if..." Ti’vienr began again.
Zaknafein gave him a bored look. Ti’vienr swallowed what he was going to say and continued to pace in agitation.
Drizzt looked miserably at the dagger and carefully traced the design on the scabbard of the dagger. They’d only told him what they were going to do five minutes ago – he had already been considerably surprised at being summoned to Melee-Magthere in the first place, away from his patrol.
They were in the adjoining room to the Meeting Hall of Melee-Magthere, as the Masters of Melee-Magthere gathered inside. The Mistress of Melee-Magthere had died three days ago, under unforeseen circumstances.
Drizzt noticed that Zaknafein and all the mage Masters he had seen had been wearing smug expressions ever since the formal announcement. Oh, they did have befittingly somber expressions during the grand funeral, but Drizzt had expected them to smirk any minute throughout it.
A new mistress was officially to be selected, but Melee-Magthere’s Masters had delayed sending in their formal assent to the candidate under protests that there were several matters that needed doing due to the Mistress’ ‘untimely death’ that needed sorting first.
Drizzt glanced at Zaknafein. Mages were, through unspoken agreement not allowed in Melee-Magthere grounds, and the mage looked like he was secretly enjoying the barely concealed scandalized glances from some of the Masters. But the Master of Sorcere had to be here – custom dictated it for what they were about to try.
Ti’vienr was with them for the sole reason of ‘balancing out’ Zaknafein. If Melee-Magthere tried to put another Master to wait with them, it was possible Sorcere would add another Master...and so on. So one Master – to the ArchMage. Drizzt was sure the odds weren’t fair, if anything was to happen.
Zaknafein had explained the dagger to him partly in the past days during the mourning of the ex-Mistress. Apparently it ‘took’ his blood whenever he cut himself on it – and that would release the dragon into the world. On the other hand, the dragon was bound to his command.
All the Masters of both schools had been adamant that he keep the dagger safely and not use it until the ceremony, so he hadn’t managed to ‘find’ the dragon’s thought again to ‘ask’ it what it used the blood for. Drizzt doubted it was for drinking, then shivered at the thought.
There was a sudden stop in movement in front of him, and he looked up. Ti’vienr had stopped again. This time, Zak did not bother to look up, but Zaire turned her delicate head to regard the old Master with gold-flecked eyes, and bared her fangs for an instant. Ti’vienr held the cheetah’s unblinking stare for several seconds then looked away with a grunt.
Zak seemed moved to take pity on the old elf for a moment, and opened his mouth to utter what Drizzt thought would be a comforting remark. However, it was a curt snap. "Quit worrying, Ti’vienr."
Ti’vienr spun at the ArchMage, and Zaire snarled softly in warning, but Zak lay a restraining hand lightly on her shoulder and she subsided ungraciously. "Worry? What we’re doing is going to anger...Them, and the Goddess, for sakes!" his whisper was sharp, "I never really wanted..."
In a flash Zaknafein had somehow sprung up from a reclining position and crossed the two meters to the old Master, hands gripping the front part of his Master’s cloak. Drizzt’s hands had moved automatically for his scimitars, but Zaire turned her stare to his eyes, and he stopped. The message was simple – I’ve known you for some time and I don’t mind you and I know you are his cub, but touch those swords and you die.
"You never wanted?" Zak said quietly, his voice low menace, filled with such steel that Ti’vienr tried to shrink back. "You never wanted? You and your council of Masters, who came to us for help and you never, wanted? Sorcere only wishes to work with those who keep to their goal, and not deviate at the slightest risk. Give me the word, and I’d take Drizzt back to his patrol. Give me the word, and I’d transport that dagger of his to the deepest pit in the Nine Hells such that such a chance will never come again. Go on. Give me the word."
Ti’vienr nearly whimpered at the hint of a barely held rage, but Zak pushed him away and slumped back onto the sofa as if nothing had happened. The old Master attempted to regain a vestige of dignity by dusting off and straightening his cloak, but Drizzt could see he was very frightened of Zaknafein.
Drizzt swallowed. The silence that followed was nearly unbearable, but Zak seemed unconcerned. Zaire appeared to be lazily basking in the ArchMage’s attention, but Drizzt knew that she was focusing on him, and on Ti’vienr.
Then there was a respectful knock on the door, and Ti’vienr nearly jumped to get it in his relief. A student looked in and said in respectful tones, "The Ceremony is beginning."
Zaknafein nodded to Drizzt, and followed Ti’vienr out of the room. Drizzt trailed behind him, but kept a prudent three paces behind Zaire. The cheetah had been skittish lately.
Part 1: Beginnings
It was a good thing that Masters of Melee-Magthere didn’t have titles behind their names, like Sorcere did, Zak decided. Sorcere’s Masters all had a ‘title’ of the subject of magic they were in charge of, like Master of Illusion. Melee-Magthere’s Masters were all just Masters – as students were encouraged to pick a weapon and learn it for their entire stay, while students of Sorcere had to learn all the magic until the last five years where they would pick a Master.
Drizzt stayed outside the large doors to Melee-Magthere’s hall, while Zak, Zaire and Ti’vienr swept in. Ti’vienr meekly took his seat, and Zak and Zaire padded over behind the lectern, the ArchMage exchanging nods with the Mistress of Arach-Tinilith.
"A new Master of Melee-Magthere has been selected," she began, when he stopped in position next to her, "He has come in first every year for his class’ Melee, and has graduated with the highest honors in his year."
Zak’s mind went on autopilot as the Mistress droned on formally. His foot had already gone to sleep behind the lectern as Zaire was curled up comfortably on it. As planned, his fingers did a small, unnoticeable by the Mistress, dance under the lectern as he began to weave a subtle spell.
"He has single-handedly destroyed an earth elemental..."
Zak hadn’t been exactly surprised at what the dagger had been capable of. Without the dagger, he was sure Drizzt would have been a nasty smear on the ground of some Underdark cavern by then. With the patrol’s wizard downed early by a lucky svirfneblin warrior and the clerics busy countering svirfneblin ones, he wouldn’t have had any other types of help.
There weren’t any Lloth-curs...Lloth-blessed priestesses in Melee-Magthere. Other than the Mistress standing next to him, that is. Now, if those fools of Melee-Magthere had listened and not made any ingenious last-minute improvisations, the plan should come into fruit...
He blinked at the smattering of applause that signaled the end of the Mistress’ speech. A student fighter walked up quickly to the lectern, head held low, and offered a set of the Master’s bracers up on a velvet cushions. Velvet cushions seemed to be traditional.
Zak picked up the bracers. It was his turn. He extricated his foot from underneath Zaire and padded down the lectern.
Drizzt, on cue, entered, dwarfed by the immense doors, apparently unarmed and dressed in a simple robe with no house sigils. Head held high; he strode in to stop before Zaknafein. He bowed once to Zak, once to the Mistress, then one more to the surrounding Masters.
"By what claim are you Master?" the Mistress asked formally.
Zak nearly held his breath, but Drizzt drew the dagger with ease from inside his clothing, thumb effectively hiding the purple gem.
"By this." He said. The Mistress’ eyes began to widen by this new approach, and Zak sensed a sudden influx of raw magic being dumped into the hall.
The black dragon appeared abruptly behind Drizzt. It’s serpentine neck only stretched half a meter higher than Drizzt, but it radiated a tight, enclosed power that could and would, if necessary, expand without bounds.
Its immense, lavender eyes stared down the Mistress. She looked around and apparently seemed to notice for the first time that she was the only female in the hall, and that the dragon was obviously more powerful than she was.
"Your claim is sufficient," she said haltingly and formally, her cry of outrage somehow stifled by the distinctly different aura around each Master now.
Drizzt’s impassive face flinched for a brief second, as if the dragon had said something.
Zak stepped forward, and Drizzt held out his hands. For a moment the mage felt the intense, penetrating gaze on him, but he resolutely did not waver. He clasped the bracers onto Drizzt’s wrists. As he did so, he tied off the spell, then rubbed away the traces with a single thought. As he looked accidentally up and met the dragon’s eyes, he thought he saw a tint of respect.
"By your claim you are Master," the Mistress said shakily.
"By your claim you are Master," Zak also repeated, and time, for many in the hall, turned in an instant into treacle. "Master of Melee-Magthere."
"Master of Melee-Magthere," the Mistress echoed, the confusion-spell on her doing its job. "Tier Breche welcomes you..." she stiffened.
Zak could nearly hear the sound of all the Melee-Magthere Masters holding their breath.
The Mistress looked around helplessly, but the dragon somehow caught her eye, and held it hypnotically. It was a curious look, the type of look one gave interesting bugs that could be squashed with a flick of the finger, but interesting nonetheless.
"Master of Melee-Magthere," she nearly whispered, her words seemingly dragged from her mouth. Then she quickly looked away, and with as much dignity as she could gather, fled from the hall.
One of the Masters rose as if to go after her, but a firm stare from Zak caused him to sit down again.
"Tier Breche welcomes you, Drizzt," Zak smiled. Around the hall, Masters were breaking out into relieved laughter and congratulatory pats. Drizzt grinned at him, turning his hands this way and that to admire the bracers.
"The Master of Sorcere has a chain of office," Zak observed, "Let the Dagger now be the symbol of Melee-Magthere then – small, deadly and powerful – and let it be called the Dagger of Magthere. Let all further Masters of Melee-Magthere hold the dagger."
A cheer was picked up, oddly from Ti’vienr, and spread, as such things do.
Zak could feel the dragon watching him, but he looked up and took its stare openly. To his mage eyes, the dragon’s orbs fairly blazed with the color of raw magic, and he slowly reached through his filters until his did, too.
The dragon cocked its head as if understanding something, and looked away. Zak took a breath and let the magic go, then noticed Zaire growling at the dragon by his side.
He didn’t need to look at the cheetah to know what she was thinking, for her thoughts blazed in their linked minds, fiery brands of primal fear, an animal’s hatred for Dark and the unknown, and the sinking feeling a creature gets when it encounters something more powerful than it would ever hope to be.
Evil. Evil. Evil.
That elf is thy father?
Yes. Drizzt replied, as some Masters came forward to shake him by the hand.
He is born of raw magic, like the first ones.
Drizzt noted some approval in this. Er?
The first elves were of magic, and they controlled raw magic – or it could be said that raw magic controlled them. Magic is not a resource to be used, but a sentient being that gives, and also takes.
So magic is bad?
I am of magic. The dragon replied simply. Drizzt could not ascertain whether the dragon meant it was ‘bad’ or not.
Oh. Drizzt replied, shaking Ti’vienr’s hand. The Master looked as pleased as though he had pulled off the plan himself. Zak, who was watching everyone covertly, flicked his eyes up in a gesture of contempt behind Ti’vienr’s back and looked amused.
These female elves... they will make trouble?
Then I will kill them.
Trouble should be stopped first before it starts. Or wish thee to make an example of them?
No. Er... Zaknafein has a certain plan, I think.
He does not.
Then he’d think of one. Drizzt told the dragon decisively.
I obey. The tone of voice was mocking, now.
"They have enlisted the help of a dragon of magic!" hissed the Mistress of Arach-Tinilith, pacing around the great chapel of Arach-Tinilith. She felt more confident now that she was surrounded by the trappings of her power.
"His dagger?" Vierna asked in curiosity.
"Yes," the Mistress said, then abruptly spun on the priestess. "How did you know?"
"Zaknafein and Jarlaxle have been overtly secretive about it," Vierna said quickly, "And one of their flaws is an urge towards being melodramatic."
"I have looked at it," the Mistress snarled, as the others looked warily at her, "It is the Dagger of Menzoberra. The warrior Drizzt failed to cover the purple gem completely enough."
"Why does Lloth’s tool not strike him down?" Viken of Mar’kara asked timidly.
"I know not," the Mistress of Arach-Tinilith said fiercely, but had to admit it was something she had been wondering about. "Lloth’s ways are her own."
"Then do we interfere?" Nyvae Freth ventured.
"The males of Tier Breche have gone too far," the Mistress growled, "First Sorcere, now Melee-Magthere! We must act quickly, and crush them, and place Mistresses of our own as the heads again."
"They may fight back," Valere Shobalar observed quietly.
"We will take in the armies of our houses and surround them," the Mistress snarled, "The power of Lloth herself will guide us. Do you doubt, Valere?"
"I doubt not," Valere said hurriedly. The Mistress need no longer be pushed. "But many in our armies have been taught by both errant schools..."
"Errant?" shrieked the Mistress; "They have shown disrespect! They have, by summoning that wicked thing, thrown filth on the name of the Spider Queen! This must be cleansed! Our armies will join us in this crusade! The Spider Queen will smile on us!"
"Assuredly," Brentae Branche said soothingly. "We may consider not taking the Academy-taught nobles of our Houses, for they may betray us. Males are treacherous creatures."
"They fear pain," Valere growled.
"So do we," Brentae said brazenly, "But we both wish for power. I say we tie the males at home with errands."
"A good plan, Brentae," the Mistress approved, "But not for me to decide. The Matrons of the Houses will – for they will know their descendants better. Dismissed."
Vierna burst into the chapel, startling Malice and the others. "War has been declared on Sorcere and Melee-Magthere!" she blurted out in her excitement.
Malice started from her throne in astonishment. "Why?"
Quickly, Vierna related what had happened to Malice, and the Matron looked agitated.
"Scions of Do’Urden are key points of this blasphemy," she nearly wailed, "House Do’Urden will redeem itself in the eyes of Lloth."
"We’d fight, then," Lanfaye said grimly.
"We may need Bregan D’aerthe," Dantrena said.
Malice nodded absently. "Bregan D’aerthe has many soldiers. Jarlaxle will just have to carry out his orders on pain of death."
Was she imagining it, or did Lanfaye wince?
"Tell Jarlaxle to prepare himself and his mercenary group for war," Malice said, "Vierna, did the Mistress tell you when we will begin?"
"While surprise is fresh," Vierna replied, then told them of the planned ruling Matrons meeting in House Oblodra.
Malice wrinkled her nose – she didn’t like House Oblodra, every ostentatious, square meter of it, but she had no choice.
"Did the Mistress tell you what will happen to the prime offenders?" she asked deceptively. Whatever was happening, she was sure Zak was up to the neck in it.
"Sacrificed to Lloth?" Vierna asked tentatively.
Malice’s eyes strayed to the floor for an instant, and then her head snapped up again, glowing with wrath. No longer would she be weak to a mere male. "When that happens," she said with deadly calm, "I will hold the sacrificial knife."
There, she’d said it, and will fulfill this service to her Goddess, and bring prosperity back to her family. So why did her heart ache so?
Jarlaxle grinned when Lanfaye walked into his room. "You could have called me," he began suggestively.
Lanfaye looked closely at the weapon master. "Do you know of the recent developments in Tier Breche?"
"Why should I?" Jarlaxle asked, all innocent.
"Zaknafein is your brother," Lanfaye pointed out.
"I haven’t met him for a while," Jarlaxle shrugged, "He doesn’t come to Bregan D’aerthe HQ very often, and never here." Partly truth, and partly lies. The weapon master felt Lanfaye’s telepathic presence invade his mind, and he merely sat back and forced to the front all the memories of Lanfaye as a child in the House. Lanfaye hated it when he did that.
"Stop it," she said irritably.
"Stop what? You aren’t looking inside my mind again, are you?" Jarlaxle’s grin grew even wider.
"You are to assemble Bregan D’aerthe," Lanfaye said, "The armies will invade Tier Breche."
"Many soldiers are in other Houses," Jarlaxle replied, "Those I will not pull out. The rest...well, we will be there, but I will not be leading."
"Yes," Lanfaye said. It would not do to openly air the fact that Bregan D’aerthe was of House Do’Urden. "You will be leading House Do’Urden’s soldiers."
A hint of surprise as the sides of his mouth twitched, as if he had been expecting some other order. "Very well," he said.
"If you fail," Lanfaye warned him, "The Matron has promised you death."
"If I fail," Jarlaxle said honestly, though not in the way Lanfaye thought he meant, "I’d probably be dead anyway."
Lanfaye leaned closer. "I’m sure you’re involved in this somehow," she growled, "Zaknafein confides in you. Do you know anything?" Her hand closed over the handle of her whip.
Jarlaxle didn’t look cowed at all, but he wrinkled his forehead as if in thought. "Other than Drizzt was becoming a Master, no." he said. Perfect truth.
Jarlaxle watched as she walked out of the door, counted to a hundred, then went out and padded down into the bowels of the House until he reached the portal to Bregan D’aerthe.
He emerged in HQ, the two guards stationed at the portal already with swords drawn, but they ripped off a smart salute when they recognized him. Jarlaxle nodded amiably to them.
"Call the captains to the office," he told one of them and the drow soldier quickly hurried out. He wandered in the now-comfortably-renovated building until he ascended a set of stairs to a corridor laid with an opulent, dwarf-stitched, rich carpet.
The main design was the ‘mascot’ and symbol of Bregan D’aerthe – an Underdark fox, or a black fox. Supposedly smaller than surface ones, it was totally, inky black, even its eyes, which were ‘tailored’ to see normal spectrum colors, infrared, and ultra-violet. Its ears were large and sensitive, and its long legs for quick flight. More a scavenger than anything else, but not much was known about it except that it seemed to live in small colonies with a definite social structure, and had a complicated language of barks and chirps.
Jarlaxle liked the idea – Zak had suggested a cheetah at first, but that would have been too obvious who were the heads of Bregan D’aerthe. He padded over the carpet and went into his office, noting with satisfaction that there was not a single scrap of paperwork on it. Paperwork couldn’t beat Zaknafein’s ultra-retentive mind for anything important.
A tamed black fox, bought with a painful price from Laner, leapt up from the basket near the table, ears twitching eagerly. It wore a delicate black leather collar, the mithril amulet of a fox that every Bregan D’aerthe soldier wore hanging on it.
Jarlaxle took down a tin from a shelf, and the fox began to frolic eagerly around him. The weapon master grinned and took out a few biscuits from the tin, tossing them into the basket, and the fox dived in after them.
A respectful knock sounded on the door. "Come in," he said, kneeling down to pat the fox gingerly behind its ears. The fox had tried to bite Zak once for patting it – and Zaire had had to be forcibly restrained.
The captains filed in – there were six now, as Bregan D’aerthe had expanded in the last few years.
He straightened, and nodded at them. "It’s started," he said calmly, "They’re attacking Tier Breche. Non-take forces to be split up into six for each of you. Walk them through roundabout five-oh to position."
The captains nodded. They’d planned this last week, but had traced out several routes as emergencies. "Take forces to follow their houses until signal," Jarlaxle said with satisfaction. "Dismiss."
He waited until they had left, then dragged out a cloudy scrying mirror from behind a high cupboard set. Looking at the runes around it, his sensitive fingers traced some – stopping now and then to press lightly on some gems, and to shift some stones to the side.
The mirror, seemingly made from burnished adamantite, wavered, and then abruptly cleared as if he was standing at the site he was looking at.
Zak was standing alone in his room in Sorcere. He raised an eyebrow at Jarlaxle.
"You’re going to be under attack," Jarlaxle informed him.
"I know, Zak said dryly, "Arach-Tinilith announced it some time ago. We’ve set sentries and ward-shields around and joining Melee-Magthere to Sorcere."
"Arach-Tinilith is cut off from Menzoberranzan," Jarlaxle said in satisfaction.
"They aren’t daring to call Lloth until the rest of the party comes," Zak grinned wickedly. Zaire turned over on the neat bed.
"How’s Drizzt?" Jarlaxle asked.
"He and his dragon are showing off," Zak shrugged, "Scorching some minor parts of Arach-Tinilith. The dragon set most of the wards, and it’s holding them all."
"Single-handedly?" Jarlaxle breathed.
"Better than you then, ArchMage," Jarlaxle smirked. Zak shrugged.
"Bregan D’aerthe?" Zak inquired.
"Marching on." Jarlaxle said.
"House Do’Urden?" Zak hesitated a little.
"What did you think?" Jarlaxle asked, "Lanfaye wasn’t very thrilled. Now Malice, though..."
Zak’s face darkened, then cleared again. "Oh, shut up. Everything’s going correctly for the time being, then."
"What do you plan to do?" Jarlaxle asked quietly, "We can’t fight off Menzoberranzan."
"The dragon can," Zak’s smile was wan. "But as we aren’t sure what it’s here for, we better not. And we don’t know what hold Lloth has on it. Don’t worry – I’d think of something."
"Comforting," Jarlaxle grumbled, "I don’t want to leave Menzoberranzan in my old age, Zak. I have a nice life. Don’t ruin it."
"I’d try to keep you out of it," Zak said sourly.
"I’m serious," Jarlaxle said coolly, "If you die, I’d try being a houseless rogue. There’s not much in House Do’Urden I really need now. If you are exiled...well, we’d see."
Zak grinned thinly at him. "Don’t worry."
"Now you’ve started me." Jarlaxle muttered.
Part 2: Battle
A Bregan D’aerthe soldier, wearing a cloak over his mercenary uniform, slipped unnoticed into the bazaar, and padded up to a large circle of caravans behind a stall. The dwarf in charge of the stall looked up, but the soldier gave no sign that he was disgusted at the sight of the duergar.
A small flash of his cloak, and the dwarf shrugged at him and stumped into the shade of the wagons, the soldier following.
"Whut does those two want now?" the dwarf demanded when they were out of the noise of the bazaar.
The soldier told him dutifully.
"So whut dey’re seyin’," the dwarf said slowly, "Iff’n ah heelp ‘em fight against all de priestesses heere, when dey win ah get free trade? Me beard!"
Whisper, whisper, the soldier replied.
"Yeah well, one smallish drag’n ain’t worth me spit..."
Whisper, whisper, the soldier said.
"Ah hah. Yeah, ah know Zak is de ArchMage, he keeps a-flauntin’ dat fact in fronta everyone..."
Whisper, the soldier continued.
"Yeah? Bregan D’aerthe ain’t exactly half de city..."
Whisper? The soldier sounded a little exasperated. Jarlaxle had warned him about the dwarf - Laner, who outmatched most drow in bargaining.
"Right," Laner said, more businesslike now, "Whut ye are seyin’ is there’n a smallish chance ye’d win, and if ye lose me and me kinfolk get sacreeficed to Lloth next to yer Masters. If we win, ah get free trade. What else I do want..."
After the next few minutes, the soldier winced.
"Ye agree? Ah have enough mercenaries dis time. Ah, ah see yer Masters know. Dey always do. Well?"
"Free trade," the soldier said coolly, not even whispering now.
"An’ me conditions," Laner replied, not missing a beat.
"No doubt something can be negotiated later..."
"Ah’m talkin’ about now."
"I am not at liberty to..."
"Yes ye are. Ah’ve seen yer uniform. Yer a cap’n."
"Gave ye instruct’ns on de lines o’ : Go get Laner. He has a lotta troops this year. He may want de trade, de bugger, an’ all sorta of expensive cutthroat deels. We need hees help, so git him o’er here."
The soldier looked surprised. Broadly correct on all points.
"Well..." the soldier deflated slightly.
"C’mon now," Laner grinned wolfishly, "Only a-teasin’ ye. Ah’d settle this with yer Masters later. Where’s thisy here fight?"
The soldier told him, then jogged out of the caravans, ostensibly with a purchase. Laner watched him go, then unstrapped his large two-handed axe from his belt and banged it against his shield.
Dwarves erupted from the caravans. Laner counted the two hundred, all armed with mithril and adamantite weapons and armor with satisfaction. He had prospered in the last few years. Leaving some on guard, he nodded to the rest.
The duergar slipped away in an alley, weapons at the ready. There they met another soldier, who nodded at them and started to lead them through a quiet route towards Tier Breche.
Around Menzoberranzan, the drow began to march.
Jarlaxle looked at the Do’Urden troops with his usual cocky self-confidence then turned to Malice. "Matron Mother..." he began.
"Speak," Malice said absently. Her fingers stroked a precious sacrificial knife at her side.
"Tier Breche is in a cavern," he said tentatively, "Not many soldiers will fit in there..."
"I see your point, Weapon Master," Malice said abruptly, "Trust in the Matrons."
Jarlaxle nodded. He had made a Contribution, and now just concentrated on walking. He dared not think of the plans. He dared not think of all the nasty surprises that Sorcere and Melee-Magthere were going to do.
He needn’t have bothered. Lanfaye was too agitated to pay much attention to his thoughts.
The dragon watched the approaching hordes impassively.
"Not yet," Drizzt whispered.
Too many will come.
"Not time," Drizzt disagreed.
The dragon sounded faintly disapproving, and Drizzt didn’t wonder why. He was beginning to wonder where in the Nine Hells Zaknafein was.
"Go and call the ArchMage out," he told a Sorcere student. The student looked rebellious until the dragon shifted its intense stare to him, then the student darted off quickly.
They are not obeying. They must be punished.
"I’m not a Master of Sorcere," Drizzt said.
"What?" Tyrank’al asked.
Drizzt looked at his former teacher, and saw an older drow, still serious, still serene. "Nothing," he said quickly.
"And what did I tell you about that?" Tyrank’al inquired.
"Don’t reply ‘nothing’ when asked what you had been saying," Drizzt repeated dryly. "Yes, teacher. No, teacher."
Tyrank’al chuckled. "Master or no Master, my boy, I can still handle you. And you may need a good trashing now."
"No sir," Drizzt grinned. The smile died when he abruptly felt the dragon’s intense anger.
He has threatened you!
Drizzt quickly put a calming hand on the dragon’s side, and nearly withdrew it. It was white-hot, but quickly cooled to a comfortable temperature at his touch.
A joke. Just a joke, he told it quickly.
The dragon didn’t seem to understand this.
"Er." Drizzt frowned.
"Now what?" Tyrank’al asked.
"The dragon wants to know what a joke is," Drizzt said in a resigned tone. "Later, perhaps."
Tyrank’al looked dubiously at the dragon. "If you say so."
Kyorl Oblodra stepped forward, flanked by the Mistress of Melee-Magthere and Malice. She looked carefully, at a safe distance away, from the flickering shields and wards that had cordoned off Sorcere and Melee-Magthere from Menzoberranzan, and the second layer that effectively trapped Arach-Tinilith in its own enclosure.
The shields were transparent. In the area between Sorcere and Melee-Magthere were students and Masters from both schools. Facing them was an unfamiliar elf...Drizzt, she believed. For the dragon that had been spoken of sat directly behind him. It looked at her, and she had to tear her gaze away with effort.
She felt slightly violated. She had been touched with filth! Absently she began to rub her hand against the sleeve of her robe.
No ArchMage, though. Knowing Zaknafein, he was going to put up a dramatic entrance.
She looked back at the gathered masses of Melee-Magthere as if for support. The Weapon Master of Do’Urden, Jarlaxle, was clutching that dice-shaped pendant of his tightly. Well, she thought, as she turned away with a small smile, perhaps the best of us...them also have their weak spots.
Behind the shielded area were the masses of Arach-Tinilith. The Mistress had escaped the shielding, but the rest had not. Braziers stood ready to call up Lloth’s chosen to fight for her children.
Everyone seemed to be waiting for her to say something.
Clearing her throat, a bad habit she meant to take care of later, she stepped forward into the focus of attention.
"Sorcere and Melee-Magthere," she said formally, voice amplified by a magic user in her army, "You have thirty seconds to surrender yourselves. You will not be hurt. Just hand over the Masters Drizzt and Zaknafein, and may Lloth forgive you all."
It was generous, but Kyorl had seen enough of fights to know that there were casualties, and a cornered animal fought hardest. Now, if the animal could only see that there was a way out...
No student or Master moved.
"There will be no parley," Drizzt agreed pleasantly, "Er. All of you have thirty seconds to surrender to us."
"What?" Kyorl shouted, "Have you no eyes? We outnumber all of you several times to one!"
Drizzt placed his hand on the dragon’s neck. "We can cut down on that," he suggested.
Malice was fuming at Kyorl’s side, then she paled as brilliant light suddenly streaked dead center in the space between the two rogue schools. The students cleared a space, and Zaknafein the ArchMage abruptly appeared, his cheetah at his side.
Kyorl knew it. House Do’Urden’s patron had always been one for dramatics.
Zaknafein smiled coldly at the massed hordes, ignoring the priestesses behind. "Kyorl Oblodra," he said formally, "Twenty seconds left."
Kyorl’s face was glowing red with humiliation and fury. He grinned at that, then made the mistake of turning to regard her companions. Malice.
She was very pale, but also very angry. He could feel her emotions nearly radiating from her, and mixed in them was sorrow.
Forcing himself to look away, he patted Zaire. "Ten seconds," he said coldly.
"We outnumber you," Kyorl snarled.
Zak tickled Zaire’s ears. "Five seconds."
What was he doing? Kyorl gaped as the mage negligently began to count down, then noticed that the students and Masters were edging away from him.
What was he going to do?
What were they going to do?
What in the Nine Hells was happening?
"Zero." Zak smirked. He looked at the gathered masses. "Today there will be a profound change in Menzoberranzan," he said quietly, "Join our cause, brothers. We will unseat the females."
Not waiting for any response, he turned around.
The priestesses hadn’t been idle. The last of them chanted out loud, and the flames flickered and then stilled into the candlewax figures of yochlols. Tentacles reached hungrily for them.
"Drizzt?" Zak asked quietly. "Take care of them."
Drizzt patted the dragon. It turned gracefully and arched its neck, taking a deep breath.
Intensely hot fire lanced out, passing right through the shield, melting the yochlols. One priestess screamed out a rune, and a balor stepped through, and immense demon.
Baleful eyes turned to see that of the dragon’s. Though the balor nearly stooped at the high ceiling, the purple gaze held it.
Then the dragon snarled, a horrible sound that accelerated in volume and menace.
The balor’s eyes flickered with fear, then it disappeared.
A yochlol tried to reach through the shields. The dragon burned it.
As if on cue, the priestesses began to retreat, calling on Lloth to aid them. That was what Zak had been waiting for.
Planting his staff in front of him, he reached deeply into raw magic, deeper than he had ever gone, and pulled.
Lloth was listening. Something was opening, a purple-black hole that would not normally be seen by any eyes, but clear and sharp in eyes helped by magic. Zak felt the magic fill him, and he forced it out through the staff.
Then he knew he had reached too far, but it was too late, too late...
Kyorl watched in horror as a five-meter radius around Zaknafein abruptly burst into a kaleidoscope of swirling fire and color. The dragon had already dragged Drizzt away, and was apparently shielding the students and Masters. The cheetah Zaire and the staff had been hurled out, nearly impacting Melee-Magthere’s gates.
There were blanks in the fire, as if another color was present but not there, not exactly.
Then her second surprise came. The dragon disappeared, to some astonished sounds from the enemy. She held her head up.
"Charge!" she cried, pointing her whip at the students and Masters.
Her hand tingled, and she looked at it in amazement. Tendrils of the blank color seemed to be creeping up it, tinged now and again by blue. Looking up at Arach-Tinilith, she saw that the same thing was happening, as well as on any other priestess whip.
There was a "whoomph", and Kyorl screamed as her whip exploded violently in her hand.
Jarlaxle blew his silent whistle when he heard Kyorl’s order. The Do’Urden troops, already D’aerthe converts secretly placed in Do’Urden, turned on the closest House.
In the ranks, Bregan D’aerthe troops also turned on the closest non-mercenary soldier, causing confusion in the ranks.
More confusion arose when it was ascertained that something was attacking the back grimly in wedge formation. A hundred duergar.
Jarlaxle ran his weapon smoothly through the soldier, and turned around quickly at movement sensed behind him.
Lanfaye stared at him with horrified eyes. Her side was bleeding from the whip explosion, and Jarlaxle could see it was serious.
"Damn," he whispered. He looked at the fight. Then he looked at her. Then at the fiery holocaust of flame where his brother was.
He grabbed the nearest Bregan D’aerthe magic user. "Portal to HQ now," he snarled. The drow had the sense to comply quickly, as Jarlaxle picked up the feebly protesting Lanfaye easily in one movement. He’d go back later.
"What’s happening?" Drizzt demanded, fighting off several soldiers beside Tyrank’al, who was carefully setting off fireballs in the midst of enemy troops and small fans of flame for closer ones.
"To Zak?" Tyrank’al replied, "He’s using pure raw magic... reached in too far!"
"In where?" Drizzt asked desperately.
"Magic," Tyrank’al replied, viciously booting a soldier that got too close, then cracking his head with the heavy staff. "All mages have a filter against raw magic. He’s used too much, and his filter’s melted off..."
"So?" Drizzt asked.
"I don’t know," Tyrank’al said quietly.
Nothing he’d ever done would compare to this. Pure magic surged through him, strengthening his senses, leaking out in the form of brilliant green-gold, forming wild dances of flame around him.
The voice was like the dragon’s, yet it didn’t speak - it gave a general feeling of what it was going to say. It was the voice of raw magic, which had created the world.
It burned in his soul, heavy and ancient and crackling and full. The first mages had realized its danger and kept it in with filters, but he’d melted his...
He stretched out his hand like a claw, then clenched it.
Arach-Tinilith abruptly folded on itself, then also burst into wild, roaring flame that consumed it into ashes in a few seconds.
There was another "whoomph" sound, louder, this time.
And a cheetah - Zak dimly remembered its name was Zaire - was leaping at him, the flames and colors of magic streaming off its fur, his staff in its mouth. Forcing him down as the shockwave knocked down everyone standing.
Zak remembered a vision.
Zaire didn’t know why she did that... instinct, perhaps. And perhaps also the fact that the weird fire had streamed off the staff like water over fish.
They rolled to the side a little at the impact, and Zaire flinched when a large pointed rock - a stala-something - rammed into the place where Zak had just been standing.
Though the cheetah couldn’t sense it, a Presence older than the world withdrew from her mind. Raw magic had looked for an opening into the world for centuries, and now it had found one, it wasn’t going to let it die that easily.
"Oh Lloth," Kyorl whispered. Arach-Tinilith was just gone.
Drizzt had stood up, as had many other soldiers.
"You have seen what we can do," he said, a little shakily, "Will you join us, brothers of Menzoberranzan?"
"A little too dramatic," Tyrank’al muttered.
Drizzt wasn’t listening - he was wondering what had happened to the dragon. Too little blood offering, perhaps, but he hadn’t the strength to call it again.
There was some hesitation on the soldiers’ behalf.
Kyorl stood up, swaying slightly. "We will never give in!" she shouted, "Lloth will protect..."
"Lloth is nothing." Zaknafein rose to his feet. His voice was unearthly and echoing. "Compared to pure magic, what powers does your puny goddess have?"
There was a shrieking and a black, pervasive influence suddenly, but Zak tilted his head slightly and it was gone.
"Do you give in?" Zaknafein asked the soldiers, "No more sacrifices for us. The females have downtrodden us for centuries on centuries, and it will stop now. They will no longer order us to our deaths. They will no longer speak to us like an inferior species, or have ranks higher than the highest of us. We will no longer be treated like tolerable refuse. What say you?"
Bregan D’aerthe soldiers had rearranged themselves in the conflict such that different soldiers had exchanged uniforms of different houses, so as not to identify the soldier as ‘that one who just stuck a sword in someone in the same house, traitor’.
Looking like any ordinary soldier, a thousand odd Bregan D’aerthe soldiers raised their weapons in salute. Slowly, the other normal soldiers, seeing that others had done it first, also complied, not knowing that Bregan D’aerthe’s Zak and Jarlaxle had already agreed on this several hours ago.
There was a cry of outrage from Kyorl. The closest soldier, Bregan D’aerthe, stepped forward and ended the cry as quickly as it had been voiced.
After that, the females were very cooperative.
Zak looked tiredly at Drizzt, who was standing nearly back to back with Tyrank’al in a circle of bodies.
"A mage and a fighter fight well," Drizzt grinned.
"Where’s the dragon?" Zak asked, "We may need him to hold the fort for a while against Lloth."
"How are you feeling?" Tyrank’al asked Zak, "You were using pure magic!"
"I know," Zak said, cautiously feeling around. Nothing - the presence had withdrawn. "I know. I’m all right - once I get some sleep."
Zaire rubbed against him, leaving a long smear of soot. The cheetah was unscathed, but her golden fur covered liberally in soot. Her gold-flecked eyes now had some sort of blanked color around them. Tyrank’al shivered.
"Think you can organize them a little?" Zak asked, "Jarlaxle’s at HQ. I’m going to get some rest."
<"Sure," Drizzt said. Zak winked at Tyrank’al, who grinned back behind Drizzt’s back. It was important to lead the young Master around for a while, but not destroy his confidence.
Laner had somehow pushed his way through the crowd to Zak’s side.
"Oh. Hello, Laner," Zak said, leaning heavily on his staff.
"Don’t yer hello me," Laner growled, "Keep yer promise."
Zak looked offended. "Of course."
"I’d see yer in HQ about yit when yer rested," the duergar said shortly, then hefted his axe. "Good fight. A lil’ short, though."
Drizzt couldn’t help it. He leaned back against the closest wall, and laughed, and laughed. It was slightly hysterical, as relief flooded into him. They had won.
Part 3: Rules
"How’s she?" Zak inquired. Jarlaxle whirled, nearly overturning the chair he was sitting on. They were in one of the private sickrooms of HQ, actually now that of Lanfaye’s.
Lanfaye’s wound had been bandaged quickly by Zekres, and she was now breathing evenly, though she was still very pale.
"Zekres says she’d make it," Jarlaxle said shortly. The weapon master looked disturbed.
"I see," Zak said emotionlessly. Jarlaxle looked sharply at him, and saw that some kind of blanked color seemed to flicker around his eyes. He’d been around Zak long enough to know what that meant.
"Oh no..." he said.
"Oh yes," Zak sighed, "Zaire too." The cheetah purred, scattering soot randomly on the ground.
"We could get one of the priestesses to heal her," Jarlaxle said dubiously, apparently forgetting about Zak and looking back at Lanfaye.
"Not one of Lloth’s, we can’t." There was an odd edge to Zak’s voice.
"Why not?" Jarlaxle asked, "We can control it..."
"Don’t you see?" Zak said quietly, "Why I allowed the priestesses to call up those yochlols?"
"I was wondering about that," Jarlaxle said dryly, "But I thought it was showing off."
"It wasn’t," Zak said wearily, "It was what I did that burned out the filters. When you call a god or goddess, and they reply, they open a link to you. I’ve closed that link to Lloth, and gave her a nice sting to go along with it."
"Oh gods," Jarlaxle whispered. "Permanently?"
Zak nodded savagely. "For all in this city, at least. And their descendants, forever." Now Zak started to laugh, and his laughter made the hair on Jarlaxle’s arms want to rise.
"Good," Jarlaxle said after a pause. "If magic’s so great, heal her."
Zak looked blankly at Jarlaxle, then smiled wryly. "Thank you for reminding me."
Jarlaxle nodded grimly. Not even raw magic healed hurts, for some reason. It seemed to be able to do anything else, short of resurrection.
"We’d get by," Zak shrugged.
"Where’s Malice?" Jarlaxle grinned wickedly. Zak’s expression became pained briefly before flickering back.
"Here," Zak said shortly.
Jarlaxle nodded knowingly.
"Not as bad as Lanfaye," Zak continued. Jarlaxle’s grin faded to make way for irritation.
"Yeah well," he grumbled, "Had a nice sleep?"
"No," Zak admitted.
"Go sleep a bit more, then," Jarlaxle said.
"I can’t," Zak said. Sleeping gave him nightmares, or visions of how the world started...
"Then go to your office," Jarlaxle sighed, "Laner’s coming. Did you clean your boots from walking around in Menzoberranzan?"
"No," Zak said, "I fell asleep."
"Then walk on the carpet," Jarlaxle said.
"Why?" Zak asked suspiciously.
Jarlaxle radiated innocence.
Zak looked at the carpet. There didn’t seem to be anything wrong with it. Zaire shook out her coat, and padded over it.
Zak automatically started after her. Then Nina and Zekres darted out of a side door. Their accents had somehow disappeared after the brothel had been shut down, and Zak had never speculated why.
"Zaknafein!" Nina snapped, "Off the carpet!"
Zak was already moving before he realized it.
"We spent the morning cleaning it while the two of you were off playing soldiers," Zekres continued, "And the first thing Jarl does is to step on it with his dirty boots! And now you!"
Zaknafein held up two hands in a gesture of surrender. "All right, all right, I’m sorry."
Zaire made a sound like a snigger.
"And you too, cat," Nina told it. Zaire looked injured, but obligingly padded off the carpet.
"Sorry?" Zekres bristled.
"Jarlaxle told me to do it," Zaknafein said quickly.
"He did?" Nina’s voice rose, "Why, that..." she disappeared down the stairs.
"You’re not let off, Zaknafein," Zekres said, "Frankly, the things the two of you do...your lady friend’s awake, by the way."
"Which lady friend?" Zaknafein inquired innocently.
"Doesn’t ring a bell," Zak said irritably.
Zaknafein looked at her furiously.
"I changed your diapers, Zaknafein. Don’t you tell me what’s not right," Zekres snapped.
Zaknafein finally looked sheepish. "Right, right."
Zak considered cleaning it off with a thought, but they got upset when he used magic to do the housework, so he retreated into the office. He’d take care of Malice later...after Laner. And possibly after they read out the new rules.
The black fox leapt up when the door opened, then cowered in its basket when Zaire padded in.
Laner was already waiting for him. The dwarf left off sharpening his axe, and got off one of the expensive chairs. The cushion was stained with a bit of blood, and Zaire sniffed out the scent of mithril on it. Zekres was really not going to like this...
"’ello ‘ello," Laner grinned. "About your agreement..."
Zaknafein stepped onto the upraised platform in the center of the cleared bazaar, with Drizzt at his side. They had agreed on the rules an hour ago in the presence of all the Masters.
"When a new governing takes over," Zaknafein started, amplifying his voice, "There are new rules."
The bazaar was filled, but Zaknafein made sure his voice would be heard in all of Menzoberranzan.
Drizzt was fingering his dagger. The dragon, apparently, had disappeared on secret discussion with Jarlaxle and Zaknafein, so that the enemy would charge.
"First and foremost, I would like to announce that Lloth would no longer have any influence whatsoever in Menzoberranzan. Her power here no longer exists." He smirked.
"The houses will still exist," Zaknafein said, "But there will no longer be a ranking system. There may be a difference of power, of course. A council of ten, for convenience the current top ten Houses, will preside over judging and such in Menzoberranzan – bring the large crimes to them for judging. The oldest non-Master male will head the House, and there will be no more patron nonsense. The title is ‘Lord’. This is, however, still tentative."
"Masters will lead the city and decide laws and such, Sorcere and Melee-Magthere together." Drizzt said, "And the two head Masters of both, the two of us, of course," he permitted himself a grin at Zak, "Will still head the Masters."
"I am sure that many of you know the mercenary group Bregan D’aerthe," Zak said, "It is the largest group in Menzoberranzan that does so. They have agreed to one more duty – patrolling the city and making sure you uphold the laws. A ‘policing’ force, if you will."
"As for the laws," Drizzt said dryly, "No murders, not even in secret, except in self defense. No thieving. No adultery...we will put up the complete list later in the Bazaar."
"The surviving priestess females," Zak continued, "Can be absorbed back into their Houses if you want. Whatever they have done, they are still needed for the continuation of our species, and I believe in second chances. Do not mistreat them, though," he said dangerously, "We are not of Lloth, and we will no longer follow her perverted ways. To do so is to prove that we are on the same level as they were."
There was a small murmur, hopefully of assent, with the crowd below.
Drizzt whistled, and some Bregan D’aerthe soldiers emerged, pushing the surviving priestesses that could walk in front of them.
The crown murmured angrily, but a hard stare from Zak silenced them. They parted to make way for the priestesses.
"Lloth will punish you!" shrieked the first, Vaneka Oblodra.
Zak smiled grimly. "Would you like to take back those words?" he asked, and Drizzt realized that Zak wasn’t speaking in his ‘normal’ voice. Zaire began to growl.
"Lloth will kill the perpetuators of this blasphemy." Vaneka looked disheveled, and she was missing the better part of her hand from her whip’s explosion.
"I wouldn’t bet on that," Zak said quietly. His voice was becoming more and more odd, as if he was speaking inside a small echoing cavern.
"Zak..." Drizzt said tentatively.
Zak’s eyes flashed, and he held out his hand. There was a twist in the air as if there was a blaze of blanked color, then a drow female appeared, standing in mid air and looking confused.
Drizzt blinked. The female wore a dress made entirely of living spiders, and she was impossibly beautiful. Her eyes were malevolent with ancient evil. She could only be one thing...what had Zak done?
The priestesses fell to their knees in supplication.
"Come closer," Zak said, and his voice wasn’t even remotely like his normal anymore, it was overwhelming, the effect greater than that of his dragon’s voice.
Unwillingly, the female stepped forward in front of him. Zak shuddered convulsively, as if something was attempting to take over his body, then stared at the female again. "What is your name?" he tempered down his voice obligingly at Drizzt’s wince.
"Lloth," the female said unwillingly through clenched teeth. "You will pay for this."
"I am magic itself," Zak laughed, "Do you recognize that?" His eyes bored into hers, and she looked quickly away.
"Yes," she said, and her voice faltered briefly.
"Look at your goddess, priestesses," Zak sneered. "Her power is nothing compared to magic."
Lloth snarled, and Drizzt was brushed briefly by her power as she directed her crushing will on Zaknafein. He was nearly driven to his knees. Zaire growled, but Zak gave her a half-shake of her head, and she subsided unwillingly.
Zaknafein looked at her, expressionless. "Is that the best you can do?" he asked. "Cliche. My turn."
He held out his hand, and she tried to flinch away. Drizzt saw that Zak was wearing a ring, though the carving he could not see.
Zak pressed the ring into her cheek, and Lloth began to writhe and scream. Steam rose from the ring, but Zak looked unconcerned. Below, Vaneka began to wail.
Zak took away his hand, and Drizzt saw with some horror that a symbol of a cheetah’s head had been branded onto Lloth’s cheek. She felt at it with trembling fingers.
Zak twisted Lloth’s head this way and that to show her face to those below, radiating a grim satisfaction.
"My mark will stay with you for the rest of your existence," Zak said coldly, "Leave Menzoberranzan alone. I can do worse to you if I need to." He turned to Drizzt. "Well, Master Drizzt, would you like to do something? Your scimitars will go through her easily."
Drizzt unsheathed one in a blurring motion, and pressed the point to Lloth’s neck. He wanted to do this – her curse had tainted and broken so many...but he couldn’t. However, he did press harder, drawing a bead of blood. Grimly, he touched his dagger to the stain on his scimitar. Perhaps the dragon would like this better.
It didn’t come, of course – the summoning required his blood – but Drizzt could sense it was pleased.
Zak nodded, and Lloth vanished in the twist of air like that of which she had come.
"Well, priestesses?" he asked coolly.
Vaneka had fainted dead away.
Zak walked into the room, closing the door behind him. It was another sickroom in HQ, but he noted that it was one of the better-furnished ones. Nina and company were overdoing things, he decided.
Malice was apparently sleeping on the narrow bed, her wealth of luxurious hair spread like a soft cloud on the pillow, her beautiful face peaceful. Thankfully she wasn’t wearing that accursed priestess robe, but a simple, off-white one.
He sat down on the bed, Zaire curling up on the carpet. According to Nina, Malice had some bad burns on her side, but nothing more serious.
Zak looked at her for a long time, though not with much emotion in his heart other than a vague confusion. None of that hatred-versus-love things – he was too weathered for that already. He reached out tentatively to brush a strand of hair back from her cheek.
Malice’s breathing changed note immediately, and one of her hands snapped up to grab his hand inches from her face. Her eyes opened to regard him, and Zak saw in them about the same confusion as him, except with a little fear.
"I knew it was you," she said coldly.
Zak shrugged. She was still holding his hand, he noted, and he made no effort to retrieve it.
"So," she said with the same freezing voice, "What are you going to do?"
"First on my mind is why you decided to take up with Rizzen and the rest," Zak said dryly, "Or is that a stupid question?"
"I didn’t grow ‘tired’ of you, if that’s what you think," Malice said, her voice taking in a hint of outrage, the fear already gone from her eyes. "You were the one who started it."
"Tell me what I did." Zak said flatly.
"You know perfectly well."
"If I knew I wouldn’t ask," Zak pointed out.
"Then maybe you think it’s fine to go and sleep with so many females behind my back," Malice said. Now she was becoming both upset and furious.
Zak looked completely bewildered. "I did?"
"Nina... and Zekres," Malice said triumphantly, "And quite a few others. Yes, Jarlaxle agreed that they were your ‘childhood caretakers’, but I only have his word, and yours. You keep talking about them all the time in your sleep."
Zaknafein gave her an incredulous look. "Because of this you went and..."
"Yes," Malice snapped.
Zak stared at her, then started to chuckle. Malice gave him a furious glare.
"If you could be so good as to leave," she said tightly, "I would be so obliged."
"Would you like to see them?" Zak asked, "They’re here, you know – Nina and the others."
"If this is some sort of revenge..." Malice stopped and took several heaving breaths, "You’re absolutely sick, Zaknafein."
Zaknafein touched his amulet, his face going blank.
"I don’t want to see them!" Malice cried, pushing his hand away.
"But you must," Zaknafein said dryly, "To see the truth."
A few minutes later, Sherl stepped in, followed by Zekres, Nina, Marena and Kirane.
"Allow me to introduce you to Sherl, Zekres, Nina, Marena and Kirane," Zak said grandly, "And vice versa, this is Malice."
"Your lady friend," Zekres said sagely, "Right. Have the both of you made up?"
Malice stared at them. Though drow did not show their age much, it was obvious at all five females were very old indeed.
"You called us in just for an introduction?" Sherl demanded, "Well. I thought you had better sense."
"Sorry," Zak grinned, and waited until they left.
"Well?" he asked Malice, still grinning. Malice looked stunned, and embarrassed.
It took an effort, but she started. "My apologies, Zaknafein," she said stiffly, "I was in the wrong."
"All of us make mistakes," Zak said carefully, "I forgive you."
"Who said I wanted your forgiveness?" Malice demanded irritably. Zak raised an eyebrow at her.
"Well..." she began, then faltered. Zak smiled oddly, and reached out to hold her in a close embrace. Zaire yawned, chirped with satisfaction, then curled up more tightly to sleep.
Zak padded down busy Narbondellyn, Zaire following closely behind him. Beside him, Jarlaxle yawned.
"Didn’t get much sleep?" Zak grinned, not looking at the head of House Do’Urden.
"No," Jarlaxle sighed. The new ‘government’ had smoothed out most of the rough edges in a remarkably quick period of time. There had been some half-hearted attempts from the females at rebellion, but most of the others had settled down, perhaps resentfully but relieved that they weren’t going to lose their lives, or get tortured like what Zak would have had if he had lost to them. Lanfaye had settled down really well...once she’d ascertained that Jarlaxle wasn’t about to try and lord it over her.
"How are you?" Jarlaxle grinned. Zak had been very busy for the past few months, and this was the first time since then that Jarlaxle had seen him.
"Also tired," Zak smiled. Jarlaxle noted that his brother did smile more often now. "I worked out a bit of ‘agreement’ with magic – I use it at least once a day, and it stops trying to take over my voice. It really spooks Zaire." The cheetah chirped an agreement.
"You can talk to it?" Jarlaxle looked surprised.
"It is alive, in a sense," Zak sighed. "It’s complicated."
"I’m sure it is," Jarlaxle shrugged. "Ah, there’s Laner."
"And he’s looking well," Zak grinned.
"What do you expect?" Jarlaxle muttered.
The dwarf looked up from his new, impressive stall in the middle of the bazaar. "Zaknafein an’ Jarlaxle!" he roared, turning to them.
"Hello, Laner," Zak smiled, "You conniving bugger."
"Me beard," Laner grinned from ear to ear, "Yer city’s lookin’ better den yit ever has. The neew nem’s better too."
Zaknafein and Drizzt had changed the name of the city. No more ‘of Menzoberra’, it was now ‘Che’el D’aerthe’. More appropriate, somehow.
There were more non-drow traders in the bazaar now, and Zak couldn’t say that it wasn’t boosting the economy.
One of the trader’s ‘goods’ caught his eye while Jarlaxle was bargaining heatedly with Laner over a suit of mithril armor.
Amongst a group of selling, depressed-looking slaves were two proud elves. Zak thought they were a new type of surface elves until he noted the faint ‘aura’ that all Underdark-born creatures had, sort of like a flicker of red brown amber in the color of magic.
The elves had light bronzed-yellow skin, and deep black hair. The pupils of their eyes were also black, and the eyes almond-shaped and tilted up at the sides rather exotically. They seemed to be smaller sized than the drow elves that gawked at them, but not in musculature or such but in proportion. They radiated a certain aloof laziness even through the shackles on their hands.
"What elves are those?" Zak nudged Laner.
Laner squinted in the direction of his pointed finger. "Oh. Rare type. Underdark. Live inna beeg, beeg cavern underneath one o’ the surface world oceans. Can’t remember whut they’re called."
"I see," Zak said dryly. He padded over to the elves, Jarlaxle looking torn between bargaining and following. Muttering apologies to Laner, the lord of Do’Urden hurried after his brother and the cheetah.
The drow parted from his way. Three meters away, he deftly picked out the language of the elves from their minds into his head.
The slaver, a drow, wandered up to him. "Greetings and Salutations, ArchMage. May I interest you in any of my goods?"
Zak looked curiously at the elves. "What are they?" he asked. One of them stiffened, but the other put a restraining hand on his elbow.
"Zhongguo elves," the slaver shrugged, "From BaiLong cavern, far north from here. They’re good fighters and good...riders. Would you like to buy them?"
"Perhaps so," Zak said. "Five hundred adamantite for each."
"Five hundred, sir?" the slaver looked dismayed. Zaire snarled then, startling some of the goblin slaves into gibbering terror, and he looked nervously at Zak.
"Or nothing," Jarlaxle added.
"Very good sir," the slaver regained his composure.
Zak nodded, and paid up. He picked up both chains of the shackles, and jerked his head, signaling that the elves should follow.
One of the elves dug in his heels, but the other hissed at him and he reluctantly followed.
"I’d see you later," Jarlaxle said, turning morosely back to Laner. Zaknafein nodded at him.
Zak looked pointedly at nothing in front of him, and a portal formed to a meeting room in HQ. Zaire padded in first, and Zak dragged the two elves after him.
"Right," he said in their language, when he had indicated that they should sit down, "Tell me about this ‘White Dragon’ cavern of yours."
The first looked surprised, then suspicious. "Why?" he asked, in a musical voice.
"You are slaves to me," Zak said dryly, "Though I would rather see it as a payable debt, it is purely your choice."
"So that you can invade us?" the second one growled, "We will raise weapons and defend our ground, unshakable as rock."
Zak looked significantly at the first.
"He is young and excitable," the first said, "This paying back of debt is not uncommon to us."
"Actually, I was thinking more of trade," Zak said, "And diplomatic relations. I do want Che’el D’aerthe to continue on after I die."
"Water from far away cannot quench a near fire." The first observed.
"Perhaps so," Zak commented, "But it can surely scare off any arsonists."
"Well said," the first one grinned, "My name is Tianxiang."
"Heaven’s Luck?" Zak observed.
"Not so lucky, apparently," Tianxiang grinned. "Though many call me Luck."
"My name is Feijian," the second said grudgingly.
"Flying sword. Interesting," Zak grinned. "Now, are you two important in the world of yours?"
"Important enough," Luck said carefully.
"I see," Zak commented. "Enough to set up relations in a favorable light?"
"Yes." Luck said.
Feijian raised an eyebrow. "But..." he began.
"We also need allies," Luck said, "Better if it were to have come from our Qin family, would it not?"
"Yes," he sighed.
"Good," Luck grinned, "It is good that you gave us a debt then," he told Zak.
"Why is that so?" Zak asked.
"Well, if you were just to set us free it would have been an insult," Luck explained, "We’d have killed you."
"It’s what we’re like," Feijian grinned wolfishly. "Friend?"
"Friend," Zak smiled. Why not, anyway?
"Right," Luck commented, "Now we’d protect you until you decide our debt’s been paid off. And help you in any way we think good, of course."
"Honor is that big among your race?" Zak grinned.
"Unfortunately." Feijian sighed.