The story 'Too Many Shards' is my friend Risa's fault. Once I was whining about the apparent lack of really unusual things to write as or write in, and she suggested (probably to shut me up) writing as a 2nd person perspective (like gamebooks)...
Anyway, Too Many Shards has Winter as a main character, and is a continuation from my very first Dark Elf story of many years ago, Twin Swords, which I probably won't upload into Fanfiction.net because it is remarkably long winded. Go look at my webpage or something. :)
Hope you enjoy the story.
"Explain this to me one more time. If Crenshinibon needs sunlight to function, then why in Morikan's name did the shard allow itself to be brought to the Underdark?"
A female drow elf, picking her way delicately through one of the various tunnels of the Underdark, apparently alone. At times she would stop abruptly before a chasm, and turn away, as if sensing that chasm, even if grey stone looks the same in the infrared. She wears a satchel slung by her side, and an apparently lightweight, well-made robe of colors that would be iridescent light blue in visual light but just grey in the infrared, like some makeshift piwafwi.
She wears a cloak with strange symbols, including a stylized dragon, wings outstretched, proud head arched forward, long tail curling over sharp talons, white on the dark fabric of the cloak in visual light, a uniform grey like the rest of the drow's clothing in the infrared.
A loose knife belt around her waist holds the scabbard of a single long sword, only the hilt visible to the eye, carved and wrought in adamantite, as well as a few barely hidden throwing knives. Long white hair occasionally brushed against the hilt, also falling around part of the drow's face, to be flicked away absently by a slender hand with sword calluses.
"Perhaps mine brother hath learned to tap the heartbeat of the Underdark."
This second voice, a medley of harmonies, sounds vaguely mortal but just as obviously is not, seems to come from the sword. Talking swords, though rare, aren't that unheard of, and in fact are so popular in written fictions (even in Sanctuary) that they are quite boring, actually.
"Hmph." Is the drow's reply, then a muffled curse as she accidentally stubs her toe. "Bloody hell."
"I can curse if I want to," the drow replies mutinously.
"We are nearing thy city."
"You are changing the subject."
"Ah, a crevasse."
"What? Oh, sh..."
The drow mutters darkly under her breath as she hauls herself slowly out of the crevasse she had slipped into, soft soil crumbling under her hands and boots, but she finally manages to free herself.
"Witty repartee with a sword. How far the mighty fall," Winter brushes dirt from her robes as much as possible, then continues wandering down the tunnel, at times having to stoop due to the sudden narrowing of the entrance.
"Hardly mighty as compared to Asur."
"Irr'liancrea, anything compared to Asur is weak. Before this thread of conversation becomes more inane, if that is possible, please do me a favor..."
"Shut up. Lloth, I wish Drizzt...or even Zaknafein was here."
"Thou didst refuse his help. And as for the Sword Master..."
"I know. I have to do this myself." The drow looks down a high cliff over a wide cavern mouth. Far below, the gates are still visible, glowing faintly with a superior variant of the spell commonly known as faerie fire. Two guards. "Hmph. I say we kill them."
"Oh, all right." The drow leaped lightly off into mid air, levitating slowly downwards, finally landing a respectful distance before the guards, who straighten and point spears at her.
"Is it not interesting that guards everywhere have a basic guard-ness to them? 'Halt'. How original. The next thing they will say is 'State your business'." The drow mutters to her sword, in another tongue that has not been heard on this world.
"State your business!"
The drow known as Winter raises her face to the guards, a wicked smile playing on full lips. Ice-blue eyes peer out from under her fringe of stark white hair. "My business is none of yours. I am passing through the city, heading for another drow habitation. I would not disturb the precious Pax of the Market for any petty reason, nor do I thieve, nor do I intend to indulge myself in the Noble Game. Satisfied?"
The guards blink at each other. Only a native of the city would know all those terms, and no native, especially a drow female of such quiet assurance of power, would probably travel outside the city except...
They reluctantly open the gates, and the drow presses one small bag of coins into each of their hands, with a wink and a smile. "I will be obliged with you if the both of you did not see me pass through these gates."
"See who, lady?" one of the guards inquired, with a straight face. City guards are not paid well, and hardly noticed. Bribes are most welcome, as the drow female knew.
"Good boys," Winter replied carelessly, and entered Irinelaeran, the city of her birth.
You moved around the corner of a building – the Burli apothecary – as unobtrusively as you could. From knowledge hard earned you know that sneaking, or moving stealthily, oft in fact attracts attention than eludes it. Moving as though you have a place to go, the eyes of others slide over you.
The adult drow towered over you, and you dodged a few half-hearted kicks and returned a few unpleasantries with some of them, the rest simply ignored your presence. A street 'svirfneblin', as your type is nicknamed, your 'caste' in the big city is somewhere bordering over that of 'slave', and you knew it.
You invoked your talent again in the relative shelter of the doorway of the apothecary, leaning grubby shoulders on the scuffed and pitted stone wall, as your mind tentatively reached...lucky that your physical senses were paying attention, because the outraged owner of the apothecary snarled something at you and you have to hurry away to protect yourself from physical injury. You wore no weapons that are obvious – weapons tend to call attention, and barbed attention at that.
The episode had not interrupted your concentration and you located the 'presence' again, you knew its position – somewhere inside the rows of colorful stalls that made up the Market. There is Pax in the Market which meant no fighting, hence less kicks in your direction, though more curses as you slipped through the crowds and caused mildly scandalized looks in your direction that are just as quickly forgotten.
Shopkeepers watched you as you near and pass their stalls, in case of theft, then just as quickly forgot and waited for the next one. Your type was hardly unknown, after all.
The presence was stronger now and nearer, and finally, from a less crowded and more shadowed part of the mage-lit Market, you spied what you had been looking for – and feel disappointed.
At one of the stalls selling mage equipment, a drow adult male argued with the shopkeeper. He looked like an ordinary mercenary, if a bit more well-to-do – his armor of adamantite chain mail was not embellished, but well kept, and his robe comfortable-looking but not exactly expensive-looking, just a plain, dull color. Breeches, unadorned, were tucked into boots that looked like one of the most expensive items on him – very well made and decorated, but probably magically more than for show. The male was oddly slender, and a hood obscured his face. He wore plain gloves, and a satchel hung by his side, though in the elaborate stitching on it you recognized the symbols of wards.
You ran a critical eye over him – your gift couldn't have failed, but you really could not see anything intrinsically valuable on his person, except the satchel, perhaps, – until the male stepped around to look more closely at a wand, revealing the sword strapped onto his hip.
All your mind-senses go off at once – that was the object you have been seeking, the most valuable object in the city at the moment. For a moment you felt disappointed again – you should have guessed that such a vague 'request' to your finding gift would result in such a heavy-looking object instead of baubles, but value in what way, you wondered? Perhaps Petriarch would know.
You waited until the male – strange, that the mercenary would buy magical equipment, but he may be supplying a mage – started to move away, then you tailed him discreetly and skillfully, your bare feet hardly feeling the dirty cobblestones of the Market in your excitement of a stalking.
He entered the more crowded part of the Market – the food section – and you are hard put to abandon this stalking for the preying on some of the more savory-looking foodstuffs on display, but eventually your self-control won over and you continued, moving carefully closer. Here, everyone is more interested in food and ignored you, and you felt strange, as if invisible, and revel slightly in the power that this may bring until you brought yourself short and paid more attention on your target.
He neared an alley, which you recognized, and started to talk to a stallholder. The angle and distraction is perfect, and you slipped in, dirk in hand, to cut the straps holding the scabbard to the mercenary's belt.
Both hands are used for such a theft – one to carefully lift the object as the other slashes silently down on the straps, so the scabbard would hardly be missed unless, of course, the owner notices the sudden lack of weight at his hip, but the alley is close by and no one has ever outrun you before, nor can he catch you once you enter the labyrinth of passages.
You waited until they started discussing prices – that is the most absorbing part of a conversation and he probably would not notice you.
Your dirk barely nicked the leather before the mercenary suddenly spun around and grabbed for your hand. Automatically you sprang backwards and dashed into the alley, aborting the theft, his shouts gradually fading behind you.
Finally you rounded a last corner and paused to catch your breath, waiting for the adrenaline to die down. How had he managed to discover your theft, you wondered? You know yourself for one of the best thieves in the city, at least of petty crime and not that of the Noble Game...unless...
The sword must have been warded. But there were no symbols on the scabbard, and you knew enough that the hilt decoration was just that – decoration. Strange, but nothing to be remarked on. Putting swords and such out of your mind, you realized your stomach was speaking to you pointedly, and you ambled off to get food.
Taking a circuitous route back to the Market, you watch out warily for the mercenary, but he wasn't here and you relaxed a little. Theft by 'street svirfneblin', or the street children, was not uncommon and there is no actual outcry.
You waited for stall owners to become engaged with customers before pinching some items from their overflowing stalls, then retreated back to the alleys to enjoy your ill-gotten gains. Slices of pie and bread are hastily consumed, as is a small bottle of some unknown juice that is not alcoholic, at least. Your stomach now appeased, you returned to prowling the Market.
A nigouar amongst rothe. The image nearly made you chuckle as you pushed strands of dirty white hair from your eyes. No nigouar this invisible, and no rothe with so sharp a kick. If caught you may be killed, there is no mercy in this sort of cities, or if there is, certainly not for the likes of you.
A whiff of expensive perfume from a passing priestess, but you knew better than to try to lift her purse and you carefully kept your distance from her snake-whip. A duergar merchant is fair game and you managed to cut his purse, relieving him of his coins and secreting them in your clothing quickly and easily. He will notice his loss later but will probably not report it – drow do not care of the problems of one of the 'lesser' races.
You rubbed your nose thoughtfully in the alley, decided that there is nothing much left at the Market for you and decided to fleece the 'rothe' again later. You slipped back into the shadows of a quiet street, knowing you are leaving heat markings, but the filth on your feet will make less of that visible.
Your feet, callused from years of walking barefoot, hardly felt any strain or such any more as they carried you through many intersections and finally into a more disreputable part of the city.
There are other 'street svirfneblin' here and you recognized the lot of them, they gave you a berth and you gave them a berth. They knew you for who you are, and you did not want any trouble. Petriarch did not like trouble amongst his 'charges'.
This was the back of a house of ill repute, ostensibly an inn, but the whores here were probably better termed courtesans. They were all beautiful and educated, all could play at least one instrument and could hold an intelligent conversation...verbally as well as physically, of course. And what they did is of their choice.
They all took names of Surface world flowers – Irinelaeran was close enough to Skullport, after all, and trade relations are good enough to see surface world products here.
You pulled your mind from these revelations and knocked carefully on the back door.
After a while it opened, and widened as the opener saw you and allowed you to step in. You did so, looking a little guiltily at the dirty marks you made on the kitchen floor.
"Kel." The speaker of your name glanced down at you from where she was kneading some dough and raised an eyebrow. "Brought something important, I hope? 'Tis hardly one cycle and the Market is still going strong."
"Yes'm," you replied, then frowned. Raena the cook wasn't the one you were supposed to...
"Petriarch is up talking to a client of his," Raena shrugged. "You can give me the goods. I'd pass them to him – he knows."
You nodded dumbly, slightly frightened by Raena as usual. Her intimidating presence and hacksaw like profile has struck doubt in the heart of many taller than 'street svirfneblin'. Carefully you removed the 'goods', or the baubles and coins from your own kind of 'clients', and handed them to her, noticing with wry interest that your hands are just about the cleanest part of you. You could afford any 'contamination' that may slow down or affect your 'service'.
"How did your 'experiment' go?" Raena asked as she secreted the things in a tin labeled 'biscuits', and you regretted telling the others in her presence that morning of your 'experiment' with your gift. Anything that would allow you to leave! You looked around wildly but there is no escape, and you capitulated grudgingly.
"Not well mum," you said cautiously.
"Not well?" Raena raised an eyebrow. She was not your mother, but all the 'street svirfneblin' called her that.
"I finds it, mum, but 'twas warded, like." Street speech tumbled naturally from your lips, contrasting with Raena's 'educated', straight speech.
She barely winced anymore. "Hmph. I could have told you that. Off you go, then, before you dirty any more of my kitchen. Oh, and Petriarch wants you to find the other Seekers and call them back here, then return yourself. Some sort of business."
All of them? You blinked.
Raena saw your reaction and nodded absently, returning to her baking. "Lloth knows what he is up to this time. Shoo. You may tell the others outside to help you."
You gratefully sidled out of her kitchen, now knowing why there were so many street svirfneblin outside the door. All of you glanced at each other and decided that caution and rivalry is petty next to Raena's wrath, and divided the task between yourselves. You set off with a mental list in your mind of those you had to find.
Seekers are those with the gift you have – one holds it until one reaches 'adulthood', meaning that you may lose the gift around sixteen to twenty or so years of age. That is still some time away and you are not concerned with looking that far. When you reach that age you know that Petriarch will take care of further job opportunities – that is why you joined his little 'confederation' as he calls it, a group of 'street svirfneblin' with this particular ability. He keeps up this 'trust' fund, and also gives a safe place to sleep at night.
In return you gave him a certain quota of 'goods' a day, and you found this exchange quite to your liking – Petriarch is likeable for drow, and though not exactly friendly he is not exactly hostile either.
Your gift, of course, is the ability to find nearly anything you put your mind on. A certain humanoid, or a merchant with a large purse, or a certain book in the city. There are intensities of gifts and yours, trained by Petriarch, is one of the best. You can probably locate anything in the Underdark if you wish to, though stepping out of the relative safety of Irinelaeran is the last thing you probably want to do.
You found your first target eyeing a merchant at the rothe pens, and you hunkered down next to him. He saw you and made no comment except raising an eyebrow, but Kter was a quiet one.
"Petriarch, 'e wants us. You gotta report back," you murmured, then gave him two of those you have to find for him to locate, along with a few more instructions, then the both of you parted ways.
The 'street svirfneblin' walked everywhere and saw everything, but that sometimes mades your type very difficult to find. Your closest target was a quarter across the city, and you eventually found her staring at the debris washed up on the shore of the Kraen River.
She straightened up as she sees you. "Kel?" Her voice was the muted, automatic murmur that all 'street svirfneblin' use – you have not much truck with so much speech, so usually when your type do speak it is for business, often shady.
"Kerr." You acknowledged. "Petriarch's orders. You gotta report back."
You did not bother to give her any names – Kerr's gift was not really strong, not like yours or Kter's.
Leaving her, your feet took you to the Raeka end of the city, where the entertainment usually was. You found your target, Ras, quietly watching a pair of gracefully dancing female adults wearing very skimpy clothing.
"Kel. Thisy 'portant?" he inquired.
"Petriarch wants us t' report back." You replied. You had one other left on your mental list, and, passing a male elf juggling fire, you wandered down to the Makan quarter where the expensive food shops are and found your last target diving quickly into the alley in front of you.
An outraged-looking, stout adult was waving a cleaver and shouting, and his eyes fixed on you. He threw the weapon at you but you dodged easily, nearly feeling the rush of air as the weapon flew past you to skitter on the cobblestones, and shot into the alley after your target.
Eventually the two of you lost him, and you grinned at Rob as he grinned at you, then he gave you an egg tart from a bag of other pastries probably stolen from a bakery, with the cleaver-throwing adult as the baker? You accepted happily.
"Got careless?" you asked curiously. Rob was very skilled as well.
"Yare, yare. Nearly got'way, but one of the customers paid 'is three bob too quick, like, an' saw me relievin' some o' the tray, see. Rum'un."
You grinned. "Petriarch wants the lot o' us t' report back to 'im."
"Race you there."
Nearly everyone was back outside the place as you and Rob reach it. You were the faster, and he obligingly gave up another egg tart, which you consumed quickly before the others saw fit to relieve you of it.
"Wonder wot 'e wants 'is time." Kerr muttered.
"Prob'ly some rich gent wants some diam'nd found," Rob shrugged, still slightly breathless.
"Really rich, then." You said. Petriarch did not sell his services cheaply.
Finally the door opened to show Petriarch's face. He was short for drow, with slightly bulging eyes and a usual, faint smile on his lips. He nods, and waited for the last to come, before saying, "Rob, Kter, Kel...Jor, Prov, Sher. Come in. The rest of you, I have something else for you to do. Stay here."
The six of us were the best Seekers, and we looked uneasily at each other as we entered the kitchen. Raena tut-tutted at the prints on her floor, but Petriarch ignored her and opened the other kitchen door discreetly, leading us up the staircase.
You looked down at the inn – Rose was entertaining two males, one of whom looked likely to end up in her bed later. Foxglove was speaking with the performing musician, and the other 'ladies' were conspicuously not present. The other customers are mostly regulars and you recognized a few, but then you reached the second story, a clean corridor. Petriarch herded the lot of you into one of the more expensive rooms, then closed the door behind you.
The room was richly furnished with a large bed and other sumptuous furniture – the lot of you felt slightly guilty as your dirty toes sank into the soft carpeting. Of course, you dared not touch any of the expensive looking decorations – Petriarch may have treated you well but he was not above a thrashing.
In dismay you recognized the other occupant of the room – the mercenary you tried to steal from earlier! You forced yourself to keep calm and made your heart stop trying to force its way out of your chest, lowering your head, hoping that he would not notice you.
Or was Petriarch giving you up to him? No, he would not do that...or if he was about to he would not have called the rest up with him.
This mercenary wanted to find something?
"Here they are, Winter, the best I've got," Petriarch said in his gruff voice.
What sort of name was 'Winter'?
"They're all...children." The mercenary looked surprised.
"That's when the gift kicks in," Petriarch shrugged. "Take it or leave it."
"Well then," The mercenary sighed, turning back his hood. You blinked as you realized the mercenary is actually female...'he' shook out long white tresses that framed a very beautiful, feminine face.
Suddenly her eyes settled on you and she blinked, and you waited for the denunciation, biting your lip, then she smiled suddenly. "Which are you willing to spare, Petriarch?"
"They're all good," Petriarch shrugged.
"Even finding a drow city they've never seen before?" she raised an eyebrow, elegantly poised.
"Anything you want to find, they will," Petriarch shrugged again. "You're certainly paying me enough to get the best."
Drow city? The lot of you glanced uneasily at each other.
"I'd keep the one I choose safe," she said, as if reading our minds, but she was speaking to Petriarch.
"Good to hear," was his gruff reply.
"I may have to take the youngest. I do not know how long I will be engaged in Menzoberranzan, but I may require his...or her skills longer than I'd thought." Winter said thoughtfully.
"You're talking about Kel, then." Petriarch nodded at you, and you looked at him in horror. "Don't you worry. Winter's an old friend and she keeps her promises."
Winter nodded. "Thanks a million, Petriarch. I will have to speak with Kel now."
The rest filed out, shooting you sympathetic glances, and you seemed rooted to the spot, unable to move in shock. Petriarch gruffly ruffled your hair before going out and closing the door, the sound like that of a crypt door shutting.
"I know who you are. You are the one who tried to steal Irr'liancrea today, hey?" Winter's speech was strange, but you could follow it. She patted the sword hilt.
"Yes'm," you managed, backing a step.
"Child, I'm not going to punish you. I need your help, remember?" Winter sighed. "Now, did Petriarch tell you what you were supposed to help me find?"
"I need you to find Menzoberranzan," Winter said, "then to lead me to it. I cannot portal there because it would set off Crenshinibon's alarms, and other alarms as well – Morikan knows where Lloth may send me if I try to use magic to 'jump' over. Ah, but I see you do not understand. Well then, can you find the city?"
"Yes'm," you said, then cautiously added, "I needa picture of it, mum."
"Oh dear," she shrugged. "Well then, I suppose you should find Crenshinibon, then." She drew her sword and your eyes widened – it was one of the strangest things you had ever seen, a sword whose hilt is wrought of bluish crystal instead of metal, glowing faintly in the visual light of the mage-lit room.
You looked at her cautiously.
"I can give thee an image of mine brother,"
You blinked as you realized the voice was coming from the sword, but you were not truly surprised – perhaps that was how Winter knew when you were trying to steal her sword. Then there aws a 'probing' feel in your mind and suddenly you saw a picture of what looked like a crystal shard.
"Can you find that?" Winter asked, hope in her voice.
"Yes'm," was your reply, as you reached out over distance and found the presence of the thing. It was easy – it seemed to pulse in your mental map with great power.
"Good. Come on, then." Winter looked down at her chainmail and sighed. "By Morikan, I hate dressing up as a male. I wonder how Zaknafein can stand to carry so much weight on his body all the time...but no time for speculation. You'd have to bathe, and Petriarch has some more suitable clothing..."
Your eyes widened as you realized what she implied.
"We're leaving the city in an hour."