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Homeland (part 2 chapter 9)

2006-08-28 22:23

  CHAPTER 9

  WHISPERS IN THE TUNNELS

  The svirfneblin patrol inched its way around the bends of the broken and twisting tunnel, war hammers and pickaxes held at the ready. The deep gnomes were not far from Blingdenstone-less than a day out-but they had gone into their practiced battle formations usually reserved for the deep Underdark.

  The tunnel reeked of death.

  The lead deep gnome, knowing that the carnage lay just beyond, gingerly peeked over a boulder. Goblins! his senses cried out to his companions, a clear voice in the racial empathy of the svirfnebli. When the dangers of the Underdark closed in on the deep gnomes, they rarely spoke aloud, reverting to a communal empathic bond that could convey basic thoughts.

  The other svirfnebli clutched their weapons and began deciphering a battle plan from the excited jumble of their mental communications. The leader, still the only one who had peered over the boulder, halted them with an overriding notion. Dead goblins!

  The others followed him around the boulder to the grisly scene. A score of goblins lay about, hacked and torn. “Drow:' one of the svirfneblin party whispered, after seeing the precision of the wounds and the obvious ease with which the blades had cut through the unfortunate creatures' hides. Among the Underdark races, only the drow wielded such slender and wicked-edged blades.

  Too close, another deep gnome responded empathetically, punching the speaker on the shoulder. “These have been dead for a day and more,' another said aloud, refuting his companion's caution. ”The dark elves would not lie in wait in the area. It is not their way:'

  “Nor is it their way to slaughter bands of goblins,' the one who had insisted on the silent communications replied. ”Not when there are prisoners to be taken!“

  “They would take prisoners only if they meant to return directly to Menzoberranzan,' remarked the first. He turned to the leader. ”Burrow-Warden Krieger, at once we must go back to Blingdenstone and report this carnage!“

  “A thin report it would be,' Krieger replied. ”Dead goblins in the tunnels? It is not such an uncommon sight:'

  “This is not the first sign of drow activity in the region,' the other remarked. The burrow-warden could deny neither the truth of his companion's words nor the wisdom of the suggestion. Two other patrols had returned to Blingdenstone

  recently with tales of dead monsters-most probably slain by drow elves-lying in the corridors of the Underdark.

  “And look,' the other deep gnome continued, bending low to scoop a pouch off one of the goblins. He opened it to reveal a handful of gold and silver coins. ”What dark elf would be so impatient as to leave such booty behind?“

  “Can we be sure that this was the doings of the drow?” Krieger asked, though he himself did not doubt the fact. “Perhaps some other creature has come to our realm. Or possibly some lesser foe, goblin or orc, has found drow weapons:'

  Drow! the thoughts of several of the others agreed immediately.

  “The cuts were swift and precise,' said one. ”And I see nothing to indicate any wounds beyond those suffered by the goblins. Who else but dark elves are so efficient in their killing'?“

  Burrow-Warden Krieger walked off alone a bit farther down the passage, searching the stone for some clue to this mystery. Deep gnomes possessed an affinity to the rock beyond that of most creatures, but this passage's stone walls told the burrow-warden nothing. The goblins had been killed by weapons, not the clawed hands of monsters, yet they hadn't been looted. All of the kills were confined to a small area, showing that the unfortunate goblins hadn't even found the time to flee. That twenty goblins were cut down so quickly implicated a drow patrol of some size, and even if there had been only a handful of the dark elves, one of them, at least, would have pillaged the bodies.

  “Where shall we go, Burrow-Warden?” one of the deep gnomes asked at Krieger's back. “Onward to scout out the reported mineral cache or back to Blingdenstone to report this?”

  Krieger was a wily old svirfneblin who thought that he knew every trick of the Underdark. He wasn't fond of mysteries, but this scene had him scratching his bald head with out a clue. Back, he relayed to the others, reverting to the silent empathic method. He found no arguments among his kin, deep gnomes always took great care to avoid drow elves whenever possible.

  The patrol promptly shifted into a tight defensive formation and began its trek back home.

  Levitating off to the side, in the shadows of the high ceiling's stalactites, the spirit-wraith of Zaknafein Do'Urden watched their progress and marked well their path.

  King Schnicktick leaned forward in his stone throne and considered the burrow-warden's words carefully. Schnicktick's councilors, seated around him, were equally curious and nervous, for this report only confirmed the two previous tales of potential drow activity in the eastern tunnels.

  “Why would Menzoberranzan be edging in on our borders?” one of the councilors asked when Krieger had finished. “Our agents have made no mention of any intent of war. Surely we would have had some indications if Menzoberranzan's ruling council planned something dramatic:'

  “We would,' King Schnicktick agreed, to silence the nervous chatter that sprang up in the wake of the councilor's grim words. ”To all of you I offer the reminder that we do not know if the perpetrators of these reported kills were drow elves at all:'

  “Your pardon, my King:' Krieger began tentatively.

  “Yes, Burrow-Warden,' Schnicktick replied immediately, slowly waving one stubby hand before his craggy face to prevent any protests. ”You are quite certain of your observations. And well enough do I know you to trust in your judgments. Until this drow patrol has been seen, however, no assumptions will I make:'

  “Then we may agree only that something dangerous has invaded our eastern region:' another of the councilors put in.

  “Yes:' answered the svirfneblin king. ”We must set about discovering the truth of the matter. The eastern tunnels are therefore sealed from further mining expeditions:' Schnicktick again waved his hands to calm the ensuing groans. “I know that several promising veins of ore have been reported-we will get to them as soon as we may. But for the present, the east, northeast, and southeast regions are hereby declared war patrol exclusive. The patrols will be doubled, both in the number of groups and in the size of each, and their range will be extended to encompass all the region within a three-day march of Blingdenstone. Quickly must this mystery be resolved:'

  “What of our agents in the drow city?” asked a councilor. “Should we make contact?”

  Schnicktick held his palms out. “Be at ease:' he explained. ”We will keep our ears open wide, but let us not inform our enemies that we suspect their movements:' The svirfneblin king did not have to express his concerns that their agents within Menzoberranzan could not be entirely relied upon. The informants might readily accept svirfneblin gemstones in exchange for minor information, but if the powers of Menzoberranzan were planning something drastic in Blingdenstone's direction, agents would quite likely work double-deals against the deep gnomes.

  “If we hear any unusual reports from Menzoberranzan, the king continued, ”or if we discover that the intruders are indeed drow elves, then we will increase our network's actions. Until then, let the patrols learn what they may:'

  The king dismissed his council then, preferring to remain alone in his throne room to consider the grim news. Earlier that same week, Schnicktick had heard of Drizzt's savage attack on the basilisk effigy.

  Lately, it seemed, King Schnicktick of Blingdenstone had heard too much of dark elves' exploits.

  The svirfneblin scouting patrols moved farther out into the eastern tunnels. Even those groups that found nothing came back to Blingdenstone full of suspicions, for they had sensed a stillness in the Underdark beyond the quiet norm. Not a single svirfneblin had been injured so far, but none seemed anxious to travel out on the patrols. There was something evil in the tunnels, they knew instinctively, something that killed without question and without mercy.

  One patrol found the moss-covered cavern that once had served as Drizzt's sanctuary. King Schnicktick was saddened when he heard that the peaceable myconids and their treasured mushroom grove were destroyed.

  Yet, for all of the endless hours the svirfnebli spent wandering the tunnels, not an enemy did they spot. They continued with their assumption that dark elves, so secretive and brutal, were involved.

  “And we now have a drow living in our city:' a deep gnome councilor reminded the king during one of their daily sessions.

  “Has he caused any trouble?” Schnicktick asked

  “Minor:' replied the councilor. ”And Belwar Dissengulp, the Most Honored Burrow-Warden, speaks for him still and keeps him in his house as guest, not prisoner. Burrow-Warden Dissengulp will accept no guards around the drow:'

  “Have the drow watched:' the king said after a moment of consideration. ”But from a distance. If he is a friend, as Master Dissengulp most obviously believes, then he should not suffer our intrusions:'

  “And what of the patrols?” asked another councilor, this one a representative from the entrance cavern that housed the city guard. “My soldiers grow weary. They have seen nothing beyond a few signs of battle, have heard nothing but the scrape of their own tired feet:'

  “We must be alert,' King Schnicktick reminded him. ”If the dark elves are massing. . :'

  “They are not,' the councilor replied firmly. ”We have found no camp, nor any trace of a camp. This patrol from Menzoberranzan, if it is a patrol, attacks and then retreats to some sanctuary we cannot locate, possibly magically inspired:'

  “And if the dark elves truly meant to attack Blingdenstone,' offered another, ”would they leave so many signs of their activity? The first slaughter, the goblins found by Burrow-Warden Krieger's expedition, occurred nearly a week ago, and the tragedy of the myconids was some time before that. I have never heard of dark elves wandering about an enemy city, and leaving signs such as slaughtered goblins, for days before they execute their full attack:'

  The king had been thinking along the same lines for some time. When he awoke each day and found Blingdenstone intact, the threat of a war with Menzoberranzan seemed more distant. But, though Schnicktick took comfort in the similar reasoning of his councilor, he could not ignore the gruesome scenes his soldiers had been finding in the eastern tunnels. Something, probably drow, was down there, too close for his liking.

  “Let us assume that Menzoberranzan does not plan war against us at this time,' Schnicktick offered. ”Then why are drow elves so close to our doorway? Why would drow elves haunt the eastern tunnels of Blingdenstone, so far from home?“

  “Expansion?” replied one councilor.

  “Renegade raiders?” questioned another. Neither possibility seemed very likely. Then a third councilor chirped in a suggestion, so simple that it caught the others off guard.

  “They are looking for something:'

  The king of the svirfnebli dropped his dimpled chin heavily into his hands, thinking he had just heard a possible solution to the puzzle and feeling foolish that he had not thought of it before.

  “But what?” asked one of the councilors, obviously feeling the same. “Dark elves rarely mine the stone-they do not do it very well when they try, I must add-and they would not have to go so far from Menzoberranzan to find precious minerals. What, so near to Blingdenstone, might the dark elves be looking for?”

  “Something they have lost:' replied the king. Immediately his thoughts went to the drow that had come to live among his people. It all seemed too much of a

  coincidence to be ignored. “Or someone:' Schnicktick added, and the others did not miss his point.

  “Perhaps we should invite our drow guest to sit with us in council?”

  “No:' the king replied. ”But perhaps our distant surveillance of this Drizzt is not enough. Get orders to Belwar Dissengulp that the drow is to be monitored every minute. And, Firble:' he said to the councilor nearest him. “Since we have reasonably concluded that no war is imminent with the dark elves, set the spy network into motion. Get me information from Menzoberranzan, and quickly. I like not the prospect of dark elves wandering about my front door. It does so diminish the neighborhood:'

  Councilor Firble, the chief of covert security in Blingdenstone, nodded in agreement, though he wasn't pleased by the request. Information from Menzoberranzan was not cheaply gained, and it as often turned out to be a calculated deception as the truth. Firble did not like dealing with anyone or anything that could outsmart him, and he numbered dark elves as first on that ill-favored list.

  The spirit-wraith watched as yet another svirfneblin patrol made its way down the twisting tunnel. The tactical wisdom of the being that once had been the finest weapon master in all of Menzoberranzan had kept the undead monster and his anxious sword arm in check for the last few days. Zaknafein did not truly understand the significance of the increasing number of deep gnome patrols, but he sensed that his mission would be put into jeopardy if he struck out against one of them. At the very least, his attack against so organized a foe would send alarms ringing throughout the corridors, alarms that the elusive Drizzt surely would hear.

  Similarly, the spirit-wraith had sublimated his vicious urges against other living things and had left the svirfneblin patrols nothing to find in the last few days, purposely avoiding conflicts with the many denizens of the region. Matron Malice Do'Urden's evil will followed Zaknafein's every move, pounding relentlessly at his thoughts, urging him on with a great vengeance. Any killing that Zaknafein did sated that insidious will temporarily, but the undead thing's tactical wisdom overruled the savage summons. The slight flicker that was Zaknafein's remaining reasoning knew that he would only find his return to the peace of death when Drizzt Do'Urden joined him in his eternal sleep.

  The spirit-wraith kept his swords in their sheaths as he watched the deep gnomes pass by.

  Then, as still another group of weary svirfnebli made its way back to the west, another flicker of cognition stirred within the spirit-wraith. If these deep gnomes were so prominent in this region, it seemed likely that Drizzt Do'Urden would have encountered them.

  This time, Zaknafein did not let the deep gnomes wander out beyond his sight. He floated down from the concealment of the stalactite-strewn ceiling and fell into pace behind the patrol. The name of Blingdenstone bobbed at the edge of his conscious grasp, a memory of his past life.

  “Blingdenstone,' the spirit-wraith tried to speak aloud, the first word Matron Malice's undead monster had tried to utter. But the name came out as no more than an undecipherable snarl.

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