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Homeland (part 1 chapter 2)

2006-08-28 22:07

  Chapter 2 The Fall of House DeVir

  Dinin noted with satisfaction that any of the meandering bugbears, or any other of the multitude of races that composed Menzoberranzan, drow included, now made great haste to scurry out of his way. This time the secondboy of House Do'Urden was not alone. Nearly sixty soldiers of the house walked in tight lines behind him. Behind these, in similar order though with far less enthusiasm for the adventure, came a hundred armed slaves of lesser races, goblins, orcs, and bugbears.

  There could be no doubt for onlookers, a drow house was on a march to war. This was not an everyday event in Menzoberranzan but neither was it unexpected. At least once every decade a house decided that its position within the city hierarchy could be improved by another house's elimination. It was a risky proposition, for all of the nobles of the “victim” house had to be disposed of quickly and quietly. If even one survived to lay an accusation upon the perpetrator, the attacking house would be eradicated by Menzoberranzan's merciless system of “justice”

  If the raid was executed to devious perfection, though, no recourse would be forthcoming. All of the city, even the ruling council of the top eight matron mothers, would secretly applaud the attackers for their courage and intelligence and no more would ever be said of the incident.

  Dinin took a roundabout route, not wanting to lay a direct trail between House Do'Urden and House DeVir. A half-hour later, for the second time that night, he crept to the mushroom grove's southern end, to the cluster of stalagmites that held House DeVir. His soldiers streamed out behind him eagerly, readying weapons and taking full measure of the structure before them.

  The slaves were slower in their movements. Many of them looked about for some escape, for they knew in their hearts that they were doomed in this battle. They feared the wrath of the dark elves more than death itself, though, and would not attempt to flee. With every exit out of Menzoberranzan protected by devious drow magic, where could they possibly go? Every one of them had witnessed the brutal punishments the drow elves exacted on recaptured slaves. At Dinin's command, they jumped into their positions around the mushroom fence.

  Dinin reached into his large pouch and pulled out a heated sheet of metal. He flashed the object, brightened in the infrared spectrum, three times behind him to signal the approaching brigades of Nalfein and Rizzen. Then, with his usual cockiness, Dinin spun it quickly into the air, caught it, and replaced it in the secrecy of his heat shielding pouch. On cue with the twirling signal, Dinin's drow brigade fitted enchanted darts to their tiny hand-held crossbows and took aim on the appointed targets.

  Every fifth mushroom was a shrieker, and every dart held a magical dweomer that could silence the roar of a dragon.“ . . . two. . . three” Dinin counted, his hand signaling the tempo since no words could be heard within the sphere of magical silence cast about his troops. He imagined the “click” as the drawn string on his little weapon released, loosing the dart into the nearest shrieker. So it went all around the cluster of House DeVir, the first line of alarm systematically silenced by three-dozen enchanted darts.

  Halfway across Menzoberranzan, Matron Malice, her daughters, and four of the house's common clerics were gathered in Lloth's unholy circle of eight. They ringed an idol of their wicked deity, a gemstone carving of a drow faced spider, and called to Lloth for aid in their struggles. Malice sat at the head, propped in a chair angled for birthing. Briza and Vierna flanked her, Briza clutching her hand.

  The select group chanted in unison, combining their energies into a single offensive. spell. A moment later, when Vierna, mentally linked to Dinin, understood that the first attack group was in position, the Do'Urden circle of eight sent the first insinuating waves of mental energy into the rival house.

  Matron Ginafae, her two daughters, and the five principal clerics of the common troops of House DeVir huddled together in the darkened anteroom of the five-stalagmite house's main chapel. They had gathered there in solemn prayer every night since Matron Ginafae had learned that she had fallen into Lloth's disfavor. Ginafae understood how vulnerable her house remained until she could find a way to appease the Spider Queen. There were sixty-six other houses in Menzoberranzan, fully twenty of which might dare to attack House DeVir at such an obvious disadvantage. The eight clerics were anxious now, somehow suspecting that this night would be eventful.

  Ginafae felt it first, a chilling blast of confusing perceptions that caused her to stutter over her prayer of forgiveness. The other clerics of House DeVir glanced nervously at the matron's uncharacteristic slip of words, looking for confirmation.

  “We are under attack” Ginafae breathed to them, her head already pounding with a dull ache under the growing assault of the formidable clerics of House Do'Urden.

  A second signal from Dinin put the slave troops into motion. Still using stealth as their ally, they quietly rushed to the mushroom fence and cut through with wide-bladed swords. The secondboy of House Do'Urden watched and enjoyed as the courtyard of House DeVir was easily penetrated. “Not such a prepared guard” he whispered in silent sarcasm to the red-glowing gargoyles on the high walls. The statues had seemed such an ominous guard earlier that night. Now they just watched helplessly.

  Dinin recognized the measured but growing anticipation in the soldiers around him, their drow battle-lust was barely contained. Every now and then came a killing flash as one of the slaves stumbled over a warding glyph, but the secondboy and the other drow only laughed at the specta-cle. The lesser races were the expendable “fodder” of House Do'Urden's army. The only purpose in bringing the goblinoids to House DeVir was to trigger the deadly traps and defenses along the perimeter, to lead the way for the drow elves, the true soldiers.

  The fence was now opened and secrecy was thrown away. House DeVir's soldiers met the invading slaves head on within the compound. Dinin barely had his hand up to begin the attack command when his sixty anxious drow warriors jumped up and charged, their faces twisted in wicked glee and their weapons waving menacingly.

  They halted their approach on cue, though, remembering one final task set out to them. Every drow, noble or commoner, possessed certain magical abilities. Bringing forth a globe of darkness, as Dinin had done to the bugbears in the street earlier that night, came easily to even the lowliest of the dark elves. So it went now, with sixty Do'Urden soldiers blotting out the perimeter of House DeVir above the mushroom fence in ball after ball of blackness.

  For all of their stealth and precautions, House Do'Urden knew that many eyes were watching the raid. Witnesses were not too much of a problem, they could not, or would not, care enough to identify the attacking house. But custom and rules demanded that certain attempts at secrecy be enacted, the etiquette of drow warfare. In the blink of a red glowing drow eye, House DeVir became, to the rest of the city, a dark blot on Menzoberranzan's landscape.

  Rizzen came up behind his youngest son. “Well done” he signaled in the intricate finger language of the drow. Nalfein is in through the back“

  “An easy victory” the cocky Dinin signaled back, “if Matron Ginafae and her clerics are held at bay”

  “Trust in Matron Malice” was Rizzen's response. He clapped his son's shoulder and followed his troops in through the breached mushroom fence.

  High above the cluster of House DeVir, Zaknafein rested comfortably in the current-arms of Briza's aerial servant, watching the drama unfold. From this vantage, Zak could see within the ring of darkness and could hear within the ring of magical silence. Dinin's troops, the first drow soldiers in, had met resistance at every door and were being beaten badly.

  Nalfein and his brigade, the troops of House Do'Urden most practiced in the ways of wizardry, came through the fence at the rear of the complex. Lightning strikes and magical balls of acid thundered into the courtyard at the base of the DeVir structures, cutting down Do'Urden fodder and DeVir defenses alike.

  In the front courtyard, Rizzen and Dinin commanded the finest fighters of House Do'Urden. The blessings of Lloth were with his house, Zak could see when the battle was fully joined, for the strikes of the soldiers of House Do'Urden came faster than those of their enemies, and their aim proved more deadly. In minutes, the battle had been taken fully inside the five pillars.

  Zak stretched the incessant chill out of his arms and willed the aerial servant to action. Down he plummeted on his windy bed, and then he fell free the last few feet to the terrace along the top chambers of the central pillar. At once, two guards, one a female, rushed out to greet him. They hesitated in confusion, though, trying to sort out the true form of this unremarkable gray blur too long.

  They had never heard of Zaknafein Do'Urden. They didn't know that death was upon them.

  Zak's whip flashed out, catching and gashing the female's throat, while his other hand walked his sword through a series of masterful thrusts and parries that put the male off balance. Zak finished both in a single, blurring movement, snapping the whip-entwined female from the terrace with a twist of his wrist and spinning a kick into the male's face that likewise dropped him to the cavern floor.

  Zak was then inside, where another guard rose up to meet him. . . but fell at his feet.

  Zak slipped along the curving wall of the stalactite tower, his cooled body blending perfectly with the stone. Soldiers of House DeVir rushed all about him, trying to formulate some defense agenst the host of intruders who had already won out the lowest level of every structure and had taken two of the pillars completely.

  Zak was not concerned with them. He blocked out the clanging ring of adamantite weapons, the cries of command, and the screams of death, concentrating instead on a singular sound that would lead him to his destination: a unified, frantic chant.

  He found an empty corridor covered with spider carvings and running into the center of the pillar. As in House Do'Urden, this corridor ended in a large set of ornate double doors, their decorations dominated by arachnid forms. “This must be the place” Zak muttered under his breath, fitting his hood to the top of his head.

  A giant spider rushed out of its concealment to his side.

  Zak dove to his belly and kicked out under the thing, spinning into a roll that plunged his sword deep into the monster's bulbous body. Sticky fluids gushed out over the weapon master, and the spider shuddered to a quick death.

  “Yes” Zak whispered, wiping the spider juices from his face, “this must be the place” He pulled the dead monster back into its hidden cubby and slipped in beside the thing, hoping that no one had noticed the brief struggle.

  By the sounds of ringing weapons, Zak could tell that the fighting had almost reached this floor. House DeVir now seemed to have its defenses in place, though, and was finally holding its ground.

  “Now, Malice” Zak whispered, hoping that Briza, attuned to him in the meld, would sense his anxiety. “Let us not be late!”

  Back in the clerical anteroom of House Do'Urden, Malice and her subordinates continued their brutal mental assault on the clerics of House DeVir. Lloth heard their prayers louder than those of their counterparts, giving the clerics of House Do'Urden the stronger spells in their mental combat. Already they had easily put their enemies into a defensive posture. One of the lesser priestesses in DeVir's circle of eight had been crushed by Briza's mental insinuations and now lay dead on the floor barely inches from Matron Ginafae's feet.

  But the momentum had slowed suddenly and the battle seemed to be swinging back to an even level. Matron Malice, struggling with the impending birth, could

  not hold her concentration, and without her voice, the spells of her unholy circle weakened.

  At her mother's side, powerful Briza clutched her mother's hand so tightly that all the blood was squeezed from it, leaving it cool-the only cool spot on the laboring female to the eyes of the others. Briza studied the contractions and the crowning cap of the coming child's white hair, and calculated the time to the moment of birth. This technique of translating the pain of birth into an offensive spell attack had never been tried before, except in legend, and Briza knew that timing would be the critical factor.

  She whispered into her mother's ear, coaxing out the words of a deadly incantation.

  Matron Malice echoed back the beginnings of the spell, sublimating her gasps, and transforming her rage of agony into offensive power.

  “Dinnen douward ma brechen tol” Briza implored.

  “Dinnen douward . . . maaa . . . brechen to” Malice growled, so determined to focus through the pain that she bit through one of her thin lips.

  The baby's head appeared, more fully this time, and this time to stay.

  Briza trembled and could barely remember the incantation herself. She whispered the final rune into the matron's ear, almost fearing the consequences.

  Malice gathered her breath and her courage. She could feel the tingling of the spell as clearly as the pain of the birth. To her daughters standing around the idol, staring at her in disbelief, she appeared as a red blur of heated fury, streaking sweat lines that shone as brightly as the heat of boiling-water.

  “Abec” the matron began, feeling the pressure building to a crescendo. “Abec” She felt the hot tear of her skin, the sudden slippery release as the baby's head pushed through, the sudden ecstacy of birthing. “Abec dj'n'a'BREG DOUWARD.” Malice screamed, pushing away all of the agoony in a final explosion of magical power that knocked even the clerics of her own house from their feet.

  Carried on the thrust of Matron Malice's exultation, the dweomer thundered into the chapel of House DeVir, shattered the gemstone idol of Lloth, sundered the double doors into heaps of twisted metal, and threw Matron Ginafae and her overmatched subordinates to the floor.

  Zak shook his head in disbelief as the chapel doors flew past him. “Quite a kick, Malice” He chuckled and spun around the entryway, into the chapel. Using his infravision, he took a quick survey and head count of the lightless room's seven

  living occupants, all struggling back to their feet, their robes tattered. Again shaking his head at the bared power of Matron Malice, Zak pulled his hood down over his face.

  A snap of his whip was the only explanation he offered as he smashed a tiny ceramic globe at his feet. The sphere shattered, dropping out a pellet that Briza had enchanted for just such occasions, a pellet glowing with the brightness of daylight.

  For eyes accustomed to blackness, tuned in to heat emanations, the intrusion of such radiance came in a blinding flash of agony. The clerics' cries of pain only aided Zak in his systematic trek around the room, and he smiled widely under his hood every time he felt his sword bite into drow flesh.

  He heard the beginnings of a spell across the way and knew that one of the DeVirs had recovered enough from the assault to be dangerous. The weapon master did not need his eyes to aim, however, and the crack of his whip took Matron Ginafae's tongue right out of her mouth.

  Briza placed the newborn on the back of the spider idol and lifted the ceremonial dagger, pausing to admire its cruel workmanship. Its hilt was a spider's body sporting eight legs, barbed so as to appear furred, but angled down to serve as blades. Briza lifted the instrument above the baby's chest. “Name the child” she implored her mother. “The Spi-der Queen will not accept the sacrifice until the child is named!”

  Matron Malice lolled her head, trying to fathom her daughter's meaning. The matron mother had thrown every thing into the moment of the spell and the birth, and she was now barely coherent.

  “Name the child!” Briza commanded, anxious to feed her hungry goddess.

  “It nears its end” Dinin said to his bl'othel' when they met in a lower hall of one of the lesser pillars of House DeVir. “Rizzen is winning through to the top, and it is believed that Zaknafein's dark work has been completed”

  “Two score of House DeVir's soldiers have already turned allegiance to us” Nalfein replied.

  “They see the end” laughed Dinin. “One house serves them as well as another, and in the eyes of commoners no house is worth dying for. Our task will be finished soon”

  “Too quickly for anyone to take note” Nalfein said. “Now Do'Urden, Daermon N'a'shezbaernon, is the Ninth House of Menzoberranzan, and DeVir be damned!”

  “Alert!” Dinin cried suddenly, eyes widening in feigned horror as he looked over his brother's shoulder.

  Nalfein reacted immediately, spinning to face the danger at his back, only to put the true danger at his back. For even as Nalfein realized the deception, Dinin's sword slipped into his spine. Dinin put his head to his brother's shoulder and pressed his cheek to Nalfein's, watching the red sparkle of heat leave his brother's eyes.

  “Tho quickly for anyone to take note” Dinin teased, echoing his brother's earlier words.

  He dropped the lifeless form to his feet. “Now Dinin is elderboy of House Do'Urden, and Nalfein be damned”

  “Drizzt” breathed Matron Malice. “The child's name is Drizzt!”

  Briza tightened her grip on the knife and began the ritual. “Queen of Spiders, take this babe” she began. She raised the dagger to strike. “Drizzt Do'Urden we give to you in payment for our glorious vic-”

  “Wait!” called Maya from the side of the room. Her melding with her brother Nalfein had abruptly ceased. It could only mean one thing. “Nalfein is dead” she announced. “The baby is no longer the third living son”

  Vierna glanced curiously at her sister. At the same instant that Maya had sensed Nalfein's death, Vierna, melded with Dinin, had felt a strong emotive surge. Elation? Vierna brought a slender finger up to her pursed lips, wondering if Dinin had successfully pulled off the assassination. Briza still held the spider-shaped knife over the babe's chest, wanting to give this one to Lloth.

  “We promised the Spider Queen the third living son” Maya warned. “And that has been given”

  “But not in sacrifice” argued Briza.

  Vierna shrugged, at a loss. “If Lloth accepted Nalfein, then he has been given. To give another might evoke the Spider Queen's anger”

  “But to not give what we have promised would be worse still!” Briza insisted.

  “Then finish the deed” said Maya.

  Briza clenched down tight on the dagger and began theritual again.

  “Stay your hand” Matron Malice commanded, propping herself up in the chair. “Lloth is content, our victory is won. Welcome, then, your brother, the newest member of House Do'Urden”

  “Just a male” Briza commented in obvious disgust, walking away from the idol and the child.

  “Next time we shall do better” Matron Malice chuckled, though she wondered if there would be a next time. She approached the end of her fifth century of life, and drow elves, even young ones, were not a particularly fruitful lot. Briza had been born to Malice at the youthful age of one hundred, but in the almost four centuries since, Malice had produced only five other children. Even this baby, Drizzt, had come as a surprise, and Malice hardly expected that she would ever conceive again.

  “Enough of such contemplations” Malice whispered to herself exhausted. “There will be ample time. . ” She sank back into her chair and fell into fitful, though wickedly pleasant, dreams of heightening power.

  Zaknafein walked through the central pillar of the DeVir complex, his hood in his hand and his whip and sword comfortably replaced on his belt. Every now and then a ring of battle sounded, only to be quickly ended. House Do'Urden had rolled through to victory, the tenth house had taken the fourth, and now all that remained was to remove evidence and witnesses. One group of lesser female clerics marched through, tending to the wounded Do'Urdens and animating the corpses of those beyond their ability, so that the bodies could walk away from the crime scene. Back at the Do'Urden compound, those corpses not beyond repair would be resurrected and put back to work.

  Zak turned away with a visible shudder as the clerics moved from room to room, the marching line of Do'Urden zombies growing ever longer at their backs.

  As distasteful as Zaknafein found this troupe, the one that followed was even worse. The Do'Urden clerics led a contingent of soldiers through the structure, using detection spells to determine hiding places of surviving DeVirs. One stopped in the hallway just a few steps from Zak, her eyes turned inward as she felt the emanations of her spell. She held her fingers out in front of her, tracing a slow line, like some macabre divining rod, toward drow flesh.

  “In there!” she declared, pointing to a panel at the base of the wall. The soldiers jumped to it like a pack of ravenous wolves and tore through the secret door. Inside a hidden cubby huddled the children of House DeVir. These were nobles, not commoners, and could not be taken alive.

  Zak quickened his pace to get beyond the scene, but he heard vividly the children's helpless screams as the hungry Do'Urden soldiers finished their job. Zak found himself in a run now. He rushed around a bend in the hallway, nearly bowling over Dinin and Rizzen.

  “Nalfein is dead” Rizzen declared impassively. Zak immediately turned a suspicious eye on the younger Do'Urden son.

  “I killed the DeVir soldier who committed the deed” Dillin assured him, not even hiding his cocky smile.

  Zak had been around for nearly four centuries, and he was certainly not ignorant of the ways of his ambitious race. The brother princes had come in defensively at the back of the lines, with a host of Do'Urden soldiers between them and the enemy. By the time they even encountered a drow that was not of their own house, the majority of the DeVirs' surviving soldiers had already switched allegiance to House Do'Urden. Zak doubted that either of the Do'Urden brothers had even seen action against a DeVir.

  “The description of the carnage in the prayer room has been spread throughout the ranks” Rizzen said to the weapon master. “You performed with your usual excellence as we have come to expect”

  Zak shot the patron a glare of contempt and kept on his way, down though the structure's main doors and out beyond the magical darkness and silence into Menzoberranzan's dark dawn. Rizzen was Matron Malice's present partner in a long line of partners, and no more. When Malice was finished with him, she would either relegate him back to the ranks of the common soldiery, stripping him of the name Do'Urden and all the rights that accompanied it, or she would dispose of him. Zak owed him no respect.

  Zak moved out beyond the mushroom fence to the high-est vantage point he could find, then fell to the ground. He watched, amazed, a few moments later, when the proces-sion of the Do'Urden army, patron and son, soldiers and clerics, and the slow-moving line of two dozen drow zom-bies, made its way back home. They had lost, and left be-hind, nearly all of their slave fodder in the attack, but the line leaving the wreckage of House DeVir was longer than the line that had come in earlier that night. The slaves had been replaced twofold by captured DeVir slaves, and fifty,!

  or more of the DeVir common troops, showing typical drow loyalty, had willingly joined the attackers. These traitorous' draw would be interrogated-magically interrogated-by the Do'Urden clerics to ensure their sincerity.

  They would pass the test to a one, Zak knew. Drow elves were creatures of survival, not of principle. The soldiers would be given new identities and would be kept within the privacy of the Do'Urden compound for a few months, until the fall of House DeVir became an old and forgotten tale.

  Zak did not follow immediately. Rather, he cut through the rows of mushroom trees and found a secluded dell, where he plopped down on a patch of mossy carpet and! raised his gaze to the eternal darkness of the cavern's ceiling-and the eternal darkness of his existence.

  It would have been prudent for him to remain silent at that time; he was an invader to the most powerful section of the vast city. He thought of the possible witnesses to his words, the same dark elves who had watched the fall of House DeVir, who had wholeheartedly enjoyed the specta-cle. In the face of such behavior and such carnage as this night had seen, Zak could not contain his emotions. His la-ment came out as a plea to some god beyond his experience.

  “What place is this that is my world; what dark coil has my spirit embodied?” he whispered the angry disclaimer that had always been a part of him. “In light, I see my skin as black; in darkness, it glows white in the heat of this rage cannot dismiss.

  “Would that I had the courage to depart, this place or this life, or to stand openly against the wrongness that is the world of these, my kin. 1b seek an existence that does not run afoul to that which I believe, and to that which I hold dear faith is truth.

  “Zaknafein Do'Urden, I am called, yet a drow I am not, by choice or by deed. Let them discover this being that I am, then. Let them rain their wrath on these old shoulders al- ready burdened by the hopelessness of Menzoberranzan”

  Ignoring the consequences, the weapon master rose to his feet and yelled, “Menzoberranzan, what hell are you?”

  A moment later, when no answer echoed back out of the quiet city, Zak flexed the remaining chill of Briza's wand from his weary muscles. He found some comfort as he pat-ted the whip on his belt-the instrument that had taken the tongue from the mouth of a matron mother.

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