Prologue

Prologue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            "How subtle," Zak said sarcastically.

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

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

            "Yes," Zak said cautiously.

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

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

            "Why not?" Jarl demanded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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