Prologue

Wide Patrol

Shapes in the darkness.

...soft sound of something hard and sharp on the stone...

...gentle click of jaws on jaws...

...red and yellow and green and colors unknown dancing...

...too big, too big for one to handle...

...too close...

Pass one sword to the other hand, a tiny burst of pain as I forget about the weight and my hand sags, as in shock I have bitten my lip. I dare not curse. Already the piwafwi is working to conceal my body's heat, but it cannot conceal sound. I get the cold square of metal that is a dweomer from my backpack and I hold it out, carefully, slowly. My hand does not shake and I am strangely proud.

Flash once.

Flash twice.

Danger ahead, too large for one to handle.

Draw a circle in the air, then flash four times in quick succession.

Four of them, too large for one to handle, help required.

I sheathe my swords – my perch is precarious enough without turning it into a juggling feat. The sound of metal in leather seems loud, like a harsh scrape, in the relative silence.

With one hand I grope along the wall until I find a protuberance to grip, it is sharp and too large to be comfortable but I have no choice. I look back quickly to see to return message.

Three flashes, first two quickly, next one long, help is coming, stay where you are.

I grip my dweomer-metal tightly, for reassurance, I can feel the hard shape through my soft gloves. There is no light for reflection in the tunnels, so they are enchanted to show light when 'switched' on with a thought, a spectrum of light mostly visible only to dark elves. The device is several centuries old, and its design has not changed, a flat, polished side, and the other side carved with seemingly meaningless designs.

I squint and feel the strain in my eyes, but am rewarded by flickers of color – only there if you know where to look – help has come.

More signals show that help knows what the danger is, and a pause between. I alternate my attention between the shapes in front and the flickers behind, what is in front is moving closer, not purposefully, hence it is still unaware of our presence, and I feel relieved and disappointed at the same time.

There is a leaden feeling in my gut and a rush of awareness in my mind, and I am aware of every movement, the rhythmic clicking in front of me, the painful lack of noise behind where help is.

Signals catch my eye – we move on and avoid them. I signal back – acknowledged – and I claw my way forward, silently, the dweomer back in my pack, absolutely aware of every sound. My boots and gloves prevent infrared traces on the walls, but I take more caution passing over the creatures, raw excitement surging in me even though I have done this many times, but the sensations are as heady as the first.

I judge when I may stop and check on the others – one step, one outcrop, one handhold, and I turn and look back, clinging on to the jagged walls.

Nothing for a moment.

...then a bright ball of fire that stings my eyes...

...orange and gold and red...

...four vaksei or great centipedes...

...head larger than an elf...

...darkness...

Another fireball, then another, the light the flame provides throws up insane shadows, and shows the rest of the patrol, directly above the vaksei, one of the monsters rearing up, legs clicking madly on the stone, jaws too close to one elf struggling to go higher, the edge of his piwafwi already bitten and torn...

One of the vaksei is on fire, the magical flames eating into its carapace, maddened with pain it shrills harshly, large jaws snapping, snapping, closing on one of the many legs of a companion. The bitten vaksei hisses and whirls with uncanny speed and unholy grace and the large stinger on the back of its tail arches forward, piercing a segment of the mad one.

...red and yellow and green of movement...

The other vaksei rear up, trying to catch the rest of the patrol, they're not high enough, and they can't run fast enough...

Only one thing I can do.

Reach in and out, and jump off my perch, drawing my swords as I half levitate, half fall down and land softly on the soil, crush of gravel against boot, and I shout loudly, clashing my swords together once into a shape of an 'X'.

I take a step closer as the two remaining vaksei turn to look at me. The vaksei is still on fire and in the light I can see their eyes, huge black glittering gems that stare down at me, then they slither off the wall and I know my ploy has worked.

My patrol take advantage of the situation to get into a position, more fireballs on the dueling pair, but the others are coming at me, too close...

Fangs from the closest scythe at me and I dart away to the side, clashing my swords together in an effort to launch an attack, but it's too fast, too fast for me, I barely leap out of reach before its jaws snap shut. Fiery pain in my right leg, it's gashed the side, but discipline and self-control keep me from stumbling.

The legs stab down and I have to avoid them as well, in desperation I bend down and lunge between two...under the monster.

More infrared than vision, heat even through the hard dull carapace as the monster chitters in frustration and tries to swerve out from over me, but I move with it, knowing that if I were to be exposed I would die.

I don't hear my patrol, and that is good. Silent killers we are, and the only thing we can cry out is our death cry. I plunge my swords upwards, the carapace is too hard and they skitter off to the sides.

The vaksei shrills its outrage and tries to move, I move with it grimly. I will not slacken.

I find a joint between the segments, the exposed flesh more colorful in the infrared, and I stab one sword sharply upwards.

It shrieks, but I dare not react. Already my back hurts as I am hunched under its bulk, and I know I cannot keep this up, but keep it up I must or I will die.

I braced myself once then I started to run, long legs eating up the ground, I clashed my swords together once and the vaksei stopped, stupidly, head swiveling, trying to see me as I ran underneath it towards the head.

I crossed my swords as the large jaws are closer, closer, then I simultaneously dropped to a kneel, heart pounding within me, as I pushed my swords sharply upwards then slashed down, one hand to either side, when I felt the sickening impact of steel meeting exposed joint.

Sticky blood spurts out onto my face and armor and I feel nauseous but I cannot react, I continue to hack at the head. The vaksei screams its pain, then shrills again, oddly. Help is attacking its tail, perhaps? I cannot speculate.

I drop one sword and dance to the side, my back protests the sudden curl as I hold the remaining sword in a two-handed grip, keep my balance, and swing with all my strength and the weight of my body.

The sword slices through the head, the impact sending the grotesque thing flying. The new burst of blood catches me in the eyes and I stagger back, momentarily blinded, but training holds and I do not drop my sword.

The body continues thrashing and a leg catches me in the stomach, flinging me into the wall. I wipe the last of the blood out of my eyes with my sleeve, and force myself to breathe evenly, ignoring the rest of the bruises on my body. I have to get my other sword, so I dart in and retrieve it, then dart out again.

The wound in my leg is throbbing in earnest but my duty is first to the patrol than to self. Leaving the dying vaksei I run down to see what the rest of them are doing.

The sting of the vaksei I attacked has been chopped off, which explains why the creature did not try to impale me on it. A comrade is standing on the downed body of the other vaksei, metal blades catching the glint of the flames that consume the maddened vaksei.

Four comrades are finishing off the last, and finally we all turn to look at each other. Our leader signals in the code and we report in turn, a roll call. Everyone's present and some are injured, though none seriously. Explanations can wait, we need shelter, and I flick the blood off my blades and sheathe my swords, waiting.

Finally he signals to me and I set off on a lope down the tunnel. The vaksei are creatures that attack anything if they are in a group, so we do not think that there are any other monsters down the tunnel if these four are still alive. Soil crunches beneath my boots, and I retrieve the dweomer from my backpack with the ease of practice. Every now and then I will turn back to signal to apparent space, and wait for replies before continuing. If they wish to inform me of signals, I would feel something brush my mind.

My senses are working overtime as I scout. I am the point of the patrol and it is my duty to act as a warning. As I concentrate I seem to meld into the tunnel, into the fabric of the atmosphere. Every sound seems amplified, and I can nearly taste the still air.

I cannot afford the luxury of speculating on the presence of the vaksei. Every ounce of will must be forced into my role, and I no longer have to concentrate to do this.

...boots on the soil...

...not walking or running...

...pulsing pain in my leg...

...warm blood seeping into clothing...

This is hardly a new route, and my mind unbidden calls up every single landmark that I have had to remember the last time I was here.

**

The stalagmite with the gouge in the side. My fingers idly trace the rock and I stop and signal back.

Five flashes, two slow then circle, two quick then one slow...all's clear, known landmark.

Three quick flashes...move on.

Sickly sweet scent of the vaksei's blood seems overpowering, but I ignore it, even as a part of me longs to wipe it off. I quell the urges to move faster, forcing my quickly beating heart to slow down.

After what seems eternity, I find the mark – four parallel lines with one wavy line underneath it – gouges in the wall, sanctuary, and I stop and signal back.

Five flashes, two slow then circle, one quick then two slow...all's clear, sanctuary.

Three quick flashes...move on.

My fingers find the carved directions automatically even though I already know where to go...upwards ten body-lengths then leftwards all the way until the ledge. I remove one glove and rub my hand over both sets of gouges, the heat marks lingering for the patrol. The directions aren't the direct way up, because they only give the easiest route to climb up handhold wise.

Pain in my leg as I hoist myself up. I decide to treat myself and I levitate upwards, slowly, hands tracing and finding the horizontal gouges for one body-length...two body-lengths...finally ten and I levitate to the left until groping fingers find the cave mouth. I pause in the entrance and peer in...no heat traces, the coast is clear.

I stand on the ledge and signal again, five flashes, two slow, circle, then three quick...all's clear, move in.

Four flashes, one quick and three slow, mark the entrance.

I take off my piwafwi, my heat signals are now visible, and I wait.

The patrol streams in, first the side guards then the body, then the tail, then I retreat into the cave and I hear the muttered words of a spell from our mage that will conceal the entrance.

More muttered words and a mage light whirls into existence in the glass container above us.

My eyes take a short time to get used to the light, then I take in the room. It is a natural cave, albeit a rather small one. All ten of us fit inside with not much more to spare.

We put down packs with relief and rub sore shoulders, checking each other's wounds. The leader Vainafein D'Raljime stands up, his light mage robes making not a sound, and he nods to the two clerics. Priestesses of Lloth, but on Wide Patrol they are just another part of the team, no special treatment, with a role to play. Out in the Underdark away from the protection of the city, aggravating one's teammates may prove fatal in the form of a marked delay in help.

They go about healing with efficiency, unearthing salves and potions from their packs. Away from the tension of the patrol the atmosphere is more relaxed, and we even go as far as making jokes. Away from protocol and the Underdark, members of a patrol develop a certain camaraderie, strong bonds that are essential to a working team. Even the priestesses joke.

I wait my turn for healing as the 'tail', Jarlaxle of Y'luranle, opens his mouth. "What drug have you been taking behind everyone's backs, hmm? That has to be the most insane stunt I have witnessed as yet."

I grin at him, then laugh with everyone else...it had been a very suicidal move to make, and looking back now I cannot believe I had done that.

Fingers on my leg above my wound alert me to the presence of one of the clerics, who raises an eyebrow and asks, a trifle sarcastically, "Does the hero require a healing?"

Some chuckle at this even as I obligingly roll up my trousers from where they have been tucked into my boots. Malice Do'Urden treats the slash efficiently and without fuss, and not for the first time I notice how beautiful she is, even in tattered and bloodied robes.

I chase away the memory of her distinctive scent and the awareness of her fingers on my skin as she moves to the elf sitting next to me, one of the right side guards, Karek of Dos'terna, and check my wound...it's healing.

Jarlaxle sits opposite me as usual and he mutters, "Unfair. You have such a light wound in comparison to what you did."

I say that fairness is never an issue.

Jarlaxle has a nasty bite on his left arm, which is already healing very quickly as I watch. Lloth's clerics are potent. Everyone reminisces on the fight, and the clerics roll their eyes at each other as if to say males.

The other right side guard, Shinofein Mas'del'ka, asks mildly, "Is all the masculine bragging is getting on your nerves, fair ones?" The cleric Macrylic Hunt'trena sniffs loudly and mutters something about rothe stags locking horns to Malice, who chuckles.

Vainafein wonders out loud,"Strange that the vaksei are on a normally disused tunnel."

A left side guard, Himargen of Tre'mlenr shrugs and replies, "It is strange that there are actually four of them in the first place."

The other left side guard Delrker Nika'delr solemnly agrees and wonders with a perfectly straight face, "Why weren't they eating each other in the first place?"

Vainafein has no sense of humor, he actually takes this seriously and remarks, "Strange indeed."

Jorquen of Ra'ndaln is the youngest in the team, and he played with the edge of his mage robe even as he commented dryly, "Vaksei are most flammable, do you not find?"

"You are all too welcome to go back and retrieve some for fuel," says Karek just as I say that he can go back and fight with the scavengers if he likes.

"Why me?" Jorquen protests.

Malice rolls her eyes.

Jarlaxle says, "Because you're the youngest."

"Because you're a mage," Delrker chimes in. Vainafein raises an eyebrow at that

"You're in for it now. How flammable are left side guards?" Shinofein mildly asks Delrker.

"How did the conversation begin to include me?" Himargen wonders out loud, and I sigh and shake my head.

"Any more male posturing and the lot of you can go sit in the corner and hold hands." Macrylic says. I say what about female posturing?

"Feh, they do it all the time, we just do not notice until it is too late." Says Jorquen.

Malice smiles a wicked smile and remarks, "Is that not just like a male?"

"Am I the only one who finds that most conversations end on such sexist remarks?" Shinofein points out.

Macrylic agrees and points out just as mildly, "Usually us females win, anyway, hmm?" The snakes on her whip hiss in emphasis, and Shinofein laughs, raising his hands in surrender.

After everyone has been healed we set up the fireplace, using the coal supply in the back of the cave (certain preserved fungus), and Jorquen lights the fire magically. We argue as usual on whose turn it is to cook, and Vainafein pointedly takes out a roster from his backpack.

It's my turn, and Delrker says, "Try not to mix so much ash into the food this time."

I protest my innocence, and Jarlaxle chimes in, "Why not? It gives the food a certain flavor." Macrylic stares at Jarlaxle as if he has taken leave of his senses, and he probably has, the rogue.

Himargen says, "I do not like eating ashes."

"If you do, there is something seriously wrong with you, Himargen." Karek says.

I say that if he wants to cook that's fine with him.

Vainafein says, "It is your turn, Zaknafein, get on with it before the fire burns out." I say that we have two firestarters here, so that is not much of a problem, is it? Jorquen protests, and I obligingly retrieve the equipment from the back of the cave.

Food is what dry rations and what we come across in the tunnels, carried in our packs. Everyone carries his or her share, of course. Dried meat and water and fungus go into the pot, with Shinofein's mild suggestions and Jarlaxle's caustic ones.

Verbally fencing with Jarlaxle, I serve out portions and we sit back to eat.

Malice glanced at Delrker. "You eat like a goblin." I personally agree, but I do not say anything. The meat is tough and nearly leathery to chew, though the taste makes up for it, going with the tang of the trakka moss and the fleshy, understated flavor of the drulmer mushrooms and the creamy dragomor. We were lucky today. Normally we do not eat this well.

Everyone washes his or her own cutlery, with the bland water magicked from the air into a bucket retrieved from the cave's supplies. The waste is poured into another bucket and the water 'returned' to the air via magic (Vainafein's turn this time), before the dried remains are burned in the bucket. The ashes are poured onto the dying fire, a last burst of orange, before only glowing embers remain.

We have a while to relax, and everyone takes part in one of Himargen's games of dice, small metal balls, one target ball and luck. The game begins sedately then becomes more rowdy as blatant cheating and bickering sneak in to have a look, and everyone disagrees with everyone else, and new rules are made up on the spot.

This sort of behavior may seem rather childish and strange in Menzoberranzan, but is perfectly normal for a patrol working off steam in unknown and potentially dangerous territory after a whole day of impersonal communication and stress from the knowledge that a slip may mean death of not only oneself, but the rest of the team.

Vainafein finally orders everyone to sleep, and we automatically set up the guards. I am first as usual, paired with Jarlaxle and I sit near the entrance, watching, thinking. All is cool grey before me in the infrared, but my eyes never leave the view even as I wipe my face and as much as my clothing as possible with a cloth in the supplies in the cave.

Regular breathing behind me, as one by one everyone slumbers. Jarlaxle is unnaturally silent, and I finally raise my eyebrow at him and ask him where he mislaid his tongue.

We speak in low voices so as not to disturb the others. He thumbs his nose at me and comments, "I'm surprised the silent one is actually speaking. Sometimes," he adds, "Speaking to you reminds me of trying to speak to a wall. I was trying to see if prolonged silence would draw you out."

I replied dryly that he appears to have succeeded. Jarlaxle says, "Only natural." and I silently meditate on egotistical elves while he chatters at me and finally winds to a stop.

The best way of treating Jarlaxle is to ignore him.

Each watch is a pair...unfortunately the tail and point are together, then the clerics, then the right side guards, then the left, then the mages.

Menzoberranzan, like a large spider, reels in my mind, and Jarlaxle's as well, because we end up speaking wistfully of the comforts to be had there. Hot baths, the bread and cheese from the stall in the northeastern corner of the bazaar, the regular meals, and the soft beds. But we also know of the other side of Menzoberranzan, the harder side.

...priestesses up to their elbows in gore...

...painful bite of a snake whip...

...dark blood, warm and sticky, in the gutters...

...agonized screams of other drow...

And I wonder again if drow are like that or if Lloth truly influences us to that extent, or if her power is lessened outside her city when drow are in small teams that inadvertently forge bonds out of mutual experiences.

And I wonder if she knows of this, but she must, mustn't she? Because the clerics call on her every night. Then I think of my comrades, one by one, fixing them in my mind because when we next wake and return to our circuit, any one of us may die.

Jarlaxle, of average height and a decidedly unusual sense of humor (as Delrker says, perverted), with his two swords a most reliable tail. Everyone expected him to be chosen as leader until Vainafein was added to the team.

Vainafein, a tall, gangling elf, dignified in his robes and looking as though he should be studying something obscure in the Library instead of calling up all sorts of offensive spells on unlucky monsters. A leader with the most experience in the group, radiating quiet confidence.

Jorquen, shorter and scruffy-looking, with a thin ascetic set to his features and a careless attitude towards life, but deadly serious when required and just as good a mage as Vainafein if not better. He was a growing name in Sorcere, and the team was proud to have him.

Malice, proud, beautiful, fiery, with an acid tongue and a wicked personality, but also brave and focussed. If she survives her tenure as a member of Wide Patrol she will probably lead her House. She is capable enough, unless power spoils her.

Macrylic, the oldest in the team, a match to Malice in power and personality, also a strong elf, even if her features are slightly too coarse to be a conventional beauty, but once she single-handedly faced down a water elemental when Vainafein was knocked unconscious and the rest of us were similarly occupied with the other elementals.

Karek, the fastest of the lot of us, as sharp as his chosen weapon and as unusual as it – the scythe. He adores being 'different', and he is the only elf of the lot who does not wear his hair according to House. Scarred on his cheek due to a corby which got lucky, it says a lot of him that he carries it like a badge.

Shinofein is calm and composed all the time. I have never heard him raise his voice. He is, however, an excellent fighter with his combination of scimitar and short sword – I have a scar to prove it.

Himargen, serious Himargen, always seems to bear the brunt of teasing, something which he takes philosophically. I have no idea where he comes up with the space to secrete all his games, but without them most of this camaraderie we share will not be restored each time we stop to rest...perhaps he is the wisest of us all?

Delrker with the understated humor and the passion for – what was it? – odd colored pebbles. He appears to be an expert on everything, even on things he has hardly an acquaintance with, and oddly, his 'intuitive guesses' sometimes have truth.

Nine comrades, nine 'friends', one could say. Menzoberranzan is like a stone thrown in a pool of water, the ripples of influence reach a certain distance and stop. It is as if we put on a mask inside the city and see what is truly inside us outside it, outside the ripples of influence, and open ourselves up to our comrades because we need trust to function as a single team, and we need a working team to survive.

**

Wide patrol teams are made of the finest, and the proportion of fighters to clerics to wizards are not fixed, but once a team is made, it stays a team unless a member dies and a new one is added, until the team finishes the tenure. Wide patrol goes on large circuits from the city, or on mapping missions. Much of the grounds from Menzoberranzan are as yet unknown, but Wide patrol takes care of that.

I do not think that the idea of Wide patrol will survive much...it has a high casualty rate, and the city loses a larger proportion of its finest. And some argue that regular patrols are enough, since the city is hardly going to be attacked, and the Wide patrols have no point.

Others argue that the system provides valuable information pertaining to possible invasion routes, and how to combat certain monsters, and in any case of emergency, possible evacuation routes. A city is not of buildings but of citizens.

...dark alley with metal glinting...

...a scream, no, a cry of hopeless agony...

...bright red blossoms in both vision and infrared...

Jarlaxle pokes me pointedly and I raise an eyebrow at him. It seems to encourage him, and he looks back at the sleeping team and leans back on the wall. I refuse to be drawn into conversation, so he finally speaks up.

"Wide patrol has its moments."

I understand what he means. This aura of peace and trust that someone I can rely on is watching my back, away from the backstabbing of Menzoberranzan where your enemy would most probably be your own kind. The Underdark transforms, eat or be eaten, walk with caution or live with the consequences, unpredictable and predictable at the same time.

However I remind him mildly of other 'moments', for example that time when he was caught by a cave-fisher and...

Jarlaxle hastily changed the subject, and I took that as a small victory in our verbal sparring matches. I do not always win.

Macrylic wakes first and nudges awake Malice, and they take over.

"I'm surprised the both of you are awake," Malice says sardonically in a voice husky from.

Jarlaxle makes the mistake of asking, "How so?"

We are saved from a long and probably untrue monologue of the relative capacities of Jarlaxle and myself by Macrylic.

"The both of you, go and sleep. Stop bothering us," Snakes hiss from her whip, and I manage to pinch Jarlaxle discreetly to prevent him from letting fly to a sally, and I return to my pack, where I lay out the sleeping roll attached to the top and remove my armor.

By the heightened sensations on the nape of my neck I know someone is watching, and it is probably Malice. Shrugging inwardly, I curl up to sleep, trying to find a comfortable position.

My sleep is hardly ever dreamless.

...glittering eyes of vaksei...

...vague shapes in the infrared...

...flashes of signals too fast to catch...

**

Someone pokes me inelegantly in the ribs and I wake up slowly, in stages as I have been trained, so I would not wake up feeling rumpled and tired. There's something hard jabbing into my hip and my arm, folded beneath me sometime in sleep, feels cramped, but I wake feeling more or less refreshed.

Everyone else is waking up, rubbing the last of sleep away from their eyes, and the mages stop waking everyone up and start pointedly opening their packs. We take out dry breakfast rations and eat them in silence.

Finally Vainafein nods to me and I stand up, stretching luxuriously. Jarlaxle follows as we put on our armor quickly and head to the entrance. Levitating down I check automatically for any presence passing through the time of rest and find none, Jarlaxle makes a sound of relief, and we walk quickly down the tunnel until we find the intersection.

Fingers find and trace out the symbol for water on the eastward wall...two wavy lines. Two small lines crossing the water, jagged, show us that the water is at best a fast stream, but a dot above the lines show that the water may not be safe to drink.

Eastwards through the intersection brings us to the stream, that runs in a small gorge. There is a shallow pit northwards of it, lined with furry fungus, the makeshift privy. The fact that there is water makes this comparatively luxurious already. We wash up in the stream, gratefully cleaning away the last of the bloodstains and the smell, then head back quickly.

Malice and Macrylic are waiting at the entrance, we nod to them and they set off to do the same. Patiently we wait for each paired to go off and come back while we help pack up everything neatly and replace the equipment at the back of the cave.

Conversation starts up again, the fast chatter before another long period of silence, though Vainafein and Jorquen are studying scrolls and the rest of us are checking our weapons. There is a new nick to my swords from yesterday's vaksei, and I make a further mental note to visit a smithy when we get back.

Vainafein and Jorquen leave and come back, and we outline the route we will take. Silently all of us commit it to memory, and it is time to go. I shoulder my pack, shifting the weight on my back.

"I wonder if the fungi back in that pit is edible?" Jarlaxle murmurs.

"You are certainly welcome to try," Shinofein replies. Most of us snigger.

Jorquen remarks slyly, "Knowing Jarlaxle, he just might." Jarlaxle's retorts are cut short by Vainafein who herds everyone out of the cave firmly.

We go into position, my dweomer back in my hand, a tension in my legs which is the eagerness to move on. Vainafein signals thrice, move on, and I start off down the tunnel.

Usually Wide patrol does not encounter anything truly dangerous. We try to avoid most creatures unless, like yesterday, chance forces our hand. I keep to one side of the tunnel and move softly, eyes straining to pierce the darkness, each footing sure and steady, in case of a sudden pit that might have been dug after the old map we use had been drawn.

Likewise the team would keep the this side of the tunnel.

Tedium sets in quickly, a dampener on excitement, because most of Wide patrol is just walking and testing, and reporting later when a stop to rest is signaled, then starting again, all over. At least this is a circuit and hence there should not be anything out of the ordinary...much. No mention of vaksei before, but not much of a matter...once my team encountered a basilisk in a circuit marked 'safe'.

We pass a segment of the cave lined with fungus, and I signal back that there is a possible source of food. The rest catch up and we study the fungus together before agreeing on which are edible and which are not. We pick some and the mages invoke their preserving spell, and we fit them in our packs.

I set off again when Vainafein gives me the signal, my pack is heavier but there is the promise of food to be had later, which does make up for it.

Mile on mile of walking.

...total darkness...

...sounds like drow trapped and muffled...

...straining to hear things that are not there...

There is no cave or shelter close by for miles, but my stomach is beginning to speak to me loudly and my feet are beginning to protest. A nudge in my mind signals me to look back.

Six flashes, four slow, one circle, then two slow. We stop, all is clear.

I take a last look at the darkness and jog back quickly to the group. An open rest is a dangerous one, so Vainafein and Jorquen take their time laying wards while the rest of us stay together and wait. When they return we put down our packs and stretch tired muscles before sitting down.

Jarlaxle mutters, "I thought we would never stop." Vainafein shrugs his reply.

It is Malice's turn to cook, which means that there are no jibes, even from Jarlaxle, not due to respect for females but because Malice sometimes has a certain vindictive nature.

When we eat our fill we duly report...unhurt, refreshed...it is rather obvious but protocol expects it.

We pick up our packs and continue, again, I move on ahead.

**

Water ahead, a muted roar of wet and splashing sound, hissing and snarling on unyielding rocks. I walk more carefully until I reach the edge of the deep gorge and wide, and realize a little wryly that my efforts are wasted – some sort of algae in the water causes the water to glow a soft green. There is no bridge, but a natural platform before us, carved relatively flat by some creatures, perhaps svirfnebli of long ago.

I turn back and signal, but a flicker before me catches my eye and I stop, nearly holding my breath.

The flickers have a familiar pattern, and it takes me a few seconds to realize that it is another elf moving towards me, on the other side of the gorge, apparently unaware of my presence.

For a moment I blink in astonishment...no other patrols are on this circuit! My brain belatedly reminds me that Menzoberranzan drow are not the only drow in the Underdark. Cautiously I signal back, one quick one slow, circle, one quick, circle, two quick two slow. Drow, only one (seen), do not signal back.

The sighted drow is still some distance away, though moving closer.

Another point?

It is most uncommon for elven patrols of different cities to meet, and my mind is still slightly numb with shock, but I keep absolutely still and thank Lloth that I have a piwafwi. My heart leaps madly within me but I force myself to calm down, hands on the hilts of my swords.

Finally the team is with me and I point wordlessly ahead. There are no soft exclamations behind me – too well trained – and we all look as one to Vainafein, something that may seem humorous in Menzoberranzan but right now the most natural thing to do.

Vainafein pats his belt of wands – ready yourselves for battle if need be – then steps forward and forms a mage light above him. Under it, he crosses his arms, a gesture of peace.

The rest of us are obscured in the darkness still, ready to attack if the elf attacks our leader.

There is a short pause, then faerie fire lines the other elf on the other side of the gorge, though a respectful distance away, he too has his arms crossed and we relax a little.

He signals in the drow code – a little strange due to the different cities, but barely understandable – do you have followers?

Vainafein signals back, yes, do you?

There is a pause then more signals, yes, reveal to each other?

Vainafein pauses then signals again, which city are you?

The signal back we do not understand, except for 'and which are you from?'

Vainafein signals Menzoberranzan, seeing no reason to hide. Unless this is an invasion force, we should be able to handle it...

The stranger signals wait, then a female cleric is at his side, also outlined in faerie fire. There is a soft hiss from Malice and Macrylic, disguised by the sound of the river, and I understand why – she is not a priestess of Lloth. Designs on her robes are not of purple and red or of spiders. There are tattoos on her cheeks and neck, outlandish designs.

She crosses her arms, then signals back we have not heard of Menzoberranzan.

Vainafein replies neither have we heard of you.

It appears to be a standoff, then the cleric shrugs and the opposite team is lined in faerie fire. Twelve of them to our ten. Vainafein nods to us and we also invoke this magical ability of drow.

Silently we study each other. The other team has one mage to our two, but five clerics to our two. Six warriors to six warriors. This could be a bad fight.

They may have run into some trouble – some of them are injured. Vainafein eyes the other males and they don't seem to want to fight, but they will if they must. The clerics glare over the river at each other.

I can almost feel Vainafein's mind working. Should we allow them to continue? There is a chance that they may find our caves...but then again, we have entered so many intersections to get here that they may not. Will this area become unsafe (drow traps) if the cities decide to take Views in the matter? They are injured but we do not know what their mages or clerics can do.

The other side would probably be thinking the same. To allow us to continue may not exactly be such a good thing...

Vainafein finally signals will you go back?

The female replies no, will you? Query are you scouting.

Vainafein signals back no and this is a patrol. Query what is your business.

The female hesitates before replying scouting, where is your city?

Vainafein replies behind us and in front of you.

These word games could go on forever, and we shift uncomfortably behind Vainafein. The need of the other group to find a place to stop is greater, however, and we can wait them out.

The other group also seems to know of this. However, we do not want to spark a war by attacking the other group, nor does the other wish the same. Hopefully. The seconds seem to trickle by, but we continue to stare at each other warily.

The female then replies combat?

We tense, and Vainafein replies why?

The female replies one mage to one mage, one fighter to one fighter, one cleric to one cleric, Query.

I blink at this, though the others are murmuring to themselves, then I see the logic. If the finest of us fight their best, then we may have a measure of how good the city behind the other side is. Keeping in mind that we may have more drow in our city than theirs and vice versa, since one single patrol is not much of a true gauge for a city's strength.

Vainafein replies Wait, and turns to us. He signals what do you think?

We more or less agree to fight, and Vainafein turns back to the cleric fair fight, no interference, not to the death?

The cleric seems relieved – her finger movements are less jerky – agreed.

Now to see if they will keep their promises. We'd keep ours...we do not want to fight their entire group at once. Mages go first, and Vainafein and Jorquen raise eyebrows at each other before Jorquen remarks, "If the other side were to win and not keep their promises, the mage from this side might die, and we still need a leader."

Vainafein frowns, but Jorquen is already moving ahead. The mage from the other side detaches himself from the party, and the both of them levitate over to the irregular platform sticking out of the river, that is slightly lower than both tunnel entrances.

Magical contests look impressive. As expected, the other mage has some 'new' spells, but Jorquen appeared to be doing quite well. Monsters summoned out of air are dispelled or consumed by flame, stone rising ponderously from the platform pushed back down or broken away to splash down into the river.

I realize at one point that I have stopped breathing, and let out my breath before spots start to dance in front of my eyes.

Jorquen isn't truly attacking, which means that his next move is quite obvious to the rest of us. He quietly builds up his defensive, allowing the other mage to be the one attacking most of the time.

...Jorquen raises one hand and slashes it down...

...the other mage's eyes widen...

...as he lifts up and slams down into the rock...

...audible crack, unmoving...

Jorquen's trump card, what he calls the 'Claw of Wind', somehow to attune air itself to his hand. It takes some time to build up, more time to amplify, but is truly effective because there's air even behind a magic shield.

He is quite jealous of this move and not many others of Sorcere know how to use it, but the other team doesn't know of this, of course.

The chest of the other defeated mage is still moving, which means that Jorquen probably just gave him a few cracked ribs, and did not use the full force. He bows to the other side, then levitates back to us. We watch his back. Vainafein's hands are on his wands, in case they decide to shoot at Jorquen.

The other team collects their mage. Fighters are next and the six of us glance at each other.

Shinofein and I step forward at the same time. He shoots me a wry smile and murmurs, "The point member is too valuable to lose."

I reply that the point member is usually the first to die, so any other drow is trained to take up the point if necessary. However, as the casualty rate of a right side guard is lower, hardly any other is trained to take the place.

Nothing he can say to that, so he merely wishes me "good luck." Jarlaxle looks as though he wants to say something, but a glare from me surprisingly gets him to shut up. Without pride or modesty I can say that I am among the best in this team.

I nod and levitate over to the platform, waiting. After a short pause a fighter breaks from the other team and lands some distance away from me. He's about my height and he holds an adamantite staff nearly as tall as he is, with the ease of practice.

I shift into a firm stance, then I wait. He seems content to wait as well, one hand lower down on the staff, one hand higher up. There's light enough for me to see a long slit on one end of the staff, and I begin to suspect something.

We both wait, steady, waiting for the other to strike first or make a mistake.

...heart beating quickly with excitement...

...gleam of metal...

...roar of water on rock...

He raises his staff, parallel to the ground, like a spear, then he abruptly charges. He's coming too fast for my liking, and there's a dark spot on the end of his spear, and I suspect again...

...slap his staff to one side...

...spike slides out from the spot, misses me...

...thin, wicked blade flicks out from the slit...

...parry, but it's too long and too sharp...

...hits my armor with a glink...

...I spin away desperately, sword slashing out...

We stop, some distance from each other, new respect in our eyes. I technically have first blood – the sword stroke managed to slice through his sleeve, but not by much. He thumbs something on his staff and the spike and blade slide back in.

I touch the slash on my armor. Another item that needs repair now, I realize. His blade is adamantite as well.

Hidden blades he uses, so hidden blades shall I use. I twist my wrist slightly to the side to free the safety catch in my gloves, then this time I attack first, swords low and crossed, too close for him to dodge away, I extend my arms sharply forward, the blades like a scissors...

He catches them with his staff but it's a close thing, his eyes are wide, my swords are on the end of the slit so he cannot use his blade.

I flick my wrist towards him, still holding my swords, and he's good enough to realize and jerk his face away as the palm dagger flicks out of the leather and nearly rams into his face. He gets a slash on his cheek as it is, but I've forgotten something...

...staff jerks back, I free my swords quickly...

...not fast enough...

...other end of the staff slams into my stomach...

...no blade, thank Lloth...

I stagger backwards, my stomach hurts, but I stand crouched and ready as always. I slip the palm dagger back into its sheath.

He thinks I'm dazed, and swings his sword towards me, I can't see the slit, so I have to guess where the blade is. Sick of guessing...I lunge forward, drop my swords, with free hands grab the staff below where I judge the slit is and simultaneously jerk the staff back at him...

The end connects with his chest and it's his turn to stagger backwards, but he still swipes the staff at me as I let go.

Quickly I drop to the ground and grab my swords, roll to my back, swords slashing up to knock the staff away from me, the blade passes too close to my neck for my comfort.

...misses me...

...I roll back on my feet...

...he's recovered and already charging...

...not in a ready stance...

Leap high into the air, buoyed by levitation, drop quickly behind him and slash at his back...but it's not as exposed as I thought. He spins around and catches my blade, and catches my next thrust as well.

Too close!

His blade flicks out and gashes my leg open, it's deep and it hurts but I jerk it away...both weapons are caught now and we can't hurt each other further, can we?

An impasse? Not really, because I use my momentum, whirl, slip past, under his staff and kick him where it counts with the wounded leg, it now hurts more, but as he doubles over I smash aside his weapon, reverse my grip so my hilt of my sword faces him, and hit him smartly in the side of his head.

Hard enough? Yes, he drops like he's been poleaxed. I have to wait for my breathing to slow down, but I back off from the corpse, nod to the opponent side, and levitate back to the team.

Malice is the first to say something. "There's no point for me to heal you since you seem to get injured in the same spot." I realize a little late that it is the same leg which the vaksei managed to hurt the last time. I shrug at her, too relieved to think of a reply, too relieved to reply to the murmurs of 'well done' from the team.

The team retrieves their warrior and a cleric levitates to the platform. I blink as Malice levitates off, not Macrylic, who is busy taking out salves from her pack.

She tells me, "Sit down!" so I can't see what Malice is doing behind everyone, but from the harsh sounds of commands and rituals and the occasional white bursts of light I know the battle is under way.

Macrylic pokes my stomach and I flinch, she sighs and says "You may have a large bruise there but nothing appears to be broken...lucky for you." I smile weakly as she treats my wounds. The rest are absorbed in watching the fight.

...burst of red gold light that makes me shield my eyes...

...slithering rasp of scales on rock...

...hiss of fury, snake-like, drow-like...

I stand up, jolts of fire down my leg as it slowly heals, Macrylic makes a sound like 'Hmph' but allows me to, I look over Himargen's shoulder.

Malice's back to us, her hands outstretched, but her shields and such are all invisible as compared to the other cleric's red and gold splendor.

Malice is defensive now, meaning she's trying to duplicate more or less Jorquen's move of saving power then striking. The other cleric is no fool, she understands what Malice is trying to do, and suddenly directs her blasts down at the rock beneath Malice's feet...

Too close to the edge!

The rock gives way, slowly, time frozen like thickened cream, Malice plunging down towards the water even as with outflung hand she releases her strike...

The other cleric knocked unconscious by the force of Malice's blow into an ungainly heap...

Without thinking I push past the others to the edge and look down. Her infrared signals are being pulled too fast downstream, but she's alive, so I dive down after her, something that may seem to be foolish to me later but now it's all I can think of doing.

Shouts behind me, all I can see is the greenish water, and then a slap on the senses as I cleave through the icy surface, so cold, my eyes shut to avoid the sting, then I'm up at the surface and getting my bearings.

Malice doesn't seem to be moving, maybe unconscious, so I swim towards her, my armor's pulling me down but the current is helping me. I nearly sweep past her but I somehow manage to grab her robes and pull her to me, arm around her waist. Yes, she's unconscious, her head lolls to the side and it's bleeding but she's alive, thank Lloth.

Water is soaking through my armor and it's heavier and heavier, but I fight grimly to keep to the surface, somehow managing to claw my way to the wall. I'm tired, too tired from the fight to levitate away, but somehow I manage it, pulling us out of the water, then I gasp to catch my breath.

Hands on my shoulders and I nearly flinch away before I recognize Karek and the others. I relinquish Malice to them, then Delrker and Himargen grab hold of my shoulders and drag me through the air, levitating, my feet hanging loosely over the water, back to safety.

They drop me down and my feet can't hold me, so I sit down abruptly, feeling numb as my brain attempts to catch up with what my body has done.

"Lloth, I have not realized until now how utterly idiotic you can be." Jarlaxle says quietl.

I shrug. She will be alive and not swept downstream if I had not done what I did. As it is she would have a headache when she wakes up, but she will be fine.

The other team is watching us in astonishment and I do not blame them. Maybe I'd regret what I have done in the future but now the leader says, "Good work." and my team mates smile at me. Warmth inside me that has nothing to do with Jorquen's drying spell.

I don't really catch what Vainafein signals to the defeated patrol, but they levitate off downstream. We may have to check for traps as we continue, but the customary excitement in the face of danger begins to build in me...

...and it's good to be alive on Wide patrol.