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Homeland (part 2 chapter 16)

2006-08-28 22:23



  Clacker looked down to the far end of the long and narrow cavern, to the many-towered structure that served as a castle to the illithid community. Though his vision was poor, the hook horror could make out the squat forms crawling about on the rock castle, and he could plainly hear the chiming of their tools. They were slaves, Clacker knew duergar, goblins, deep gnomes, and several other races that Clacker did not know-serving their illithid masters with their skills in stonework, helping to continue the improvement and design on the huge lump of rock that the mind flayers had claimed as their home.

  Perhaps Belwar, so obviously suited to such endeavors, was already at work on the massive building.

  The thoughts fluttered through Clacker's mind and were forgotten, replaced by the hook horror's less involved instincts. The mind flayers' stunning blasts had reduced Clacker's mental resistance and the wizard's polymorph spell had taken more of him, so much so that he could not even realize the lapse. Now his twin identities battled evenly, leaving poor Clacker in a state of simple confusion.

  If he understood his dilemma, and if he had known the fate of his friends, he might have considered himself fortunate.

  The mind flayers suspected that there was more to Clacker than his hook horror body would indicate. The illithid community's survival was based on knowledge and by reading thoughts, and though they could not penetrate the jumble that was Clacker's mind, they saw clearly that the mental workings within the bony exoskeleton were decidedly unlike those expected from a simple Underdark monster.

  The mind flayers were not foolish masters, and they knew, too, the dangers of trying to decipher and control an armed and armored quarter-ton killing monster. Clacker was simply too dangerous and unpredictable to be kept in close quarters. In the illithids' slave society, however, there was a place for everyone.

  Clacker stood upon an island of stone, a slab of rock perhaps fifty yards in diameter and surrounded by a deep and wide chasm. With him were assorted other creatures, including a small herd of rothe and several battered duergar who obviously had spent too long under the illithids' mind-melting influences. The gray dwarves sat or stood, blank-faced, staring out at nothing at all and awaiting, Clacker soon came to understand, their turn on the supper table of their cruel masters.

  Clacker paced the island's perimeter, searching for some escape, though the pech part of him would have recognized the futility of it all. Only a single bridge spanned the warding chasm, a magical and mechanical thing that recoiled tightly against the chasm's other side when not in use.

  A group of mind flayers with a single burly ogre slave approached the lever that controlled the bridge. Immediately, Clacker was assaulted by their telepathic suggestions. A single course of action cut through the jumble of his thoughts, and at that moment, he learned of his purpose on the island. He was to be the shepherd for the mind flayers' flock. They wanted a gray dwarf and a rothe, and the shepherd slave obediently went to work.

  Neither victim offered any resistance. Clacker neatly twisted the gray dwarf's neck, then, not so neatly, bashed in the rothe's skull. He sensed that the illithids were pleased, and this notion brought some curious emotions to him, satisfaction being the most prevalent.

  Hoisting both creatures, Clacker moved to the gorge to stand opposite the group of illithids. An illithid pulled back on the bridge's waist-high lever. Clacker noted that the action of the trigger was away from him, an important fact, though the hook horror did not exactly understand why at that time. The stone-and-metal bridge grumbled and shook and shot out from the cliff opposite Clacker. It rolled out toward the island until it caught securely on the stone at Clacker's feet.

  Come to me, came one illithid's command. Clacker might have managed to resist the command if he had seen any point in it. He stepped out onto the bridge, which groaned considerably under his bulk.

  Halt! Drop the kills, came another suggestion when the hook horror was halfway across. Drop the kills! the telepathic voice cried again. And get back to your island!

  Clacker considered his alternatives. The rage of the hook horror welled within him, and his thoughts that were pech, angered by the loss of his friends, were in complete agreement. A few strides would take him to his enemies.

  On command from the mind flayers, the ogre moved up to the lip of the bridge. It stood a bit taller than Clacker and was nearly as wide, but it was unarmed and would not be able to stop him. Off to the side of the burly guard, though, Clacker recognized a more serious defense. The illithid who had pulled the lever to activate the bridge stood by it still, one hand, a curious four-fingered appendage, eagerly clenching and unclenching it.

  Clacker would not get across the remaining portion and past the blocking ogre before the bridge rolled away from under him, dropping him into the depths of the chasm. Reluctantly, the hook horror placed his kills on the bridge and stepped back to his stone island. The ogre came out immediately and retrieved the dead dwarf and rothe for its masters.

  The illithid then pulled the lever, and, in the blink of an eye, the magical bridge snapped back across the gorge, leaving Clacker stranded once more.

  Eat, one of the illithids instructed. An unfortunate rothe wandered by the hook horror as the command came surging into his thoughts, and Clacker absently dropped a heavy claw onto its head.

  As the illithids departed, Clacker sat down to his meal, reveling in the taste of blood and meat. His hook horror side won over completely during the raw feast, but every time Clacker looked back across the gorge and down the narrow cavern to the illithid castle, a tiny pech voice within him piped out its concern for a svirfneblin and a drow.

  Of all the slaves recently captured in the tunnels outside the illithid castle, Belwar Dissengulp was the most sought after. Aside from the curiosity factor of the svirfneblin's mithril hands, Belwar was perfectly suited for the two duties most desired in an illithid slave: working the stone and fighting in the gladiatorial arena.

  The illithid slave auction went into an uproar when the deep gnome was marched forward. Bids of gold and magic items, private spells and tomes of knowledge, were thrown about with abandon. In the end, the burrow-warden was sold to a group of three mind flayers, the three who had led the party that had captured him. Belwar, of course, had no knowledge of the transaction, before it was ever completed, the deep gnome was ushered away down a dark and narrow tunnel and placed in a small, unremarkable room.

  A short while later, three voices echoed in his mind, three unique telepathic voices that the deep gnome understood and would not forget-the voices of his new masters.

  An iron portcullis rose before Belwar, revealing a well-lighted circular room with high walls and rows of audience seats above them.

  Do come out, one of the masters bade him, and the burrow-warden, fully desiring only to please his master, did not hesitate. When he exited the short passageway, he saw that several dozen mind flayers had gathered all about on stone benches. Those strange four-fingered illithid hands pointed down at him from every direction, all backed by the same expressionless octopus face. Following the telepathic thought, Belwar had no trouble finding his master among the crowd, busily arguing odds and antes with a small group.

  Across the way, a similar portcullis opened and a huge ogre stepped out. Immediately the creature's eyes went up into the crowd as it sought its own master, the focal point of its existence.

  This evil ogre beast has threatened me, my brave svirfneblin champion, came the telepathic encouragement of Belwar's master a short while later, after all of the betting had been settled. Do destroy it for me.

  Belwar needed no further prompting, nor did the ogre, having received a similar message from its master. The gladiators rushed each other furiously, but while the ogre was young and rather stupid, Belwar was a crafty old veteran.

  He slowed at the last moment and rolled to the side. The ogre, trying desperately to kick at him as it ended in a charge, stumbled for just a moment.

  Too long.

  Belwar's hammer-hand crunched into the ogre's knee with a crack that resounded as powerfully as a wizard's lightning bolt. The ogre lurched forward, nearly doubling over, and Belwar drove his pickaxe-hand into the ogre's meaty backside. As the giant monster stumbled off balance to the side, Belwar threw himself at its feet, tripping it to the stone.

  The burrow-warden was up in an instant, leaping onto the prone giant and running right up it toward its head. The ogre recovered quickly enough to catch the svirfneblin by the front of his jack, but even as the monster started to hurl the nasty little opponent away, Belwar dug his pickaxe-hand deep into its chest. Howling in rage and pain, the stupid ogre continued its throw, and Belwar was jerked out straight.

  The sharp tip of the pickaxe held its grip and the deep gnome's momentum tore a wide gash in the ogre's chest. The ogre rolled and flailed, finally freeing itself from the cruel mithril hand. A huge knee caught Belwar in the rump, launching him to the stone many feet away. The burrow-warden came back up to his feet after a few short bounces, dazed and smarting but still desiring nothing but to please his master.

  He heard the silent cheering and telepathic shouting of every illithid in the room, but one call cut through the mental din with precise clarity. Kill it! Belwar's master commanded.

  Belwar didn't hesitate. Still flat on its back, the ogre clutched at its chest, trying vainly to stop its lifeblood from flowing away. The wounds it already had suffered probably would have proved fatal, but Belwar was far from satisfied. This wretched thing had threatened his master! The burrow-warden charged straight at the top of the ogre's head, his hammer-hand leading the way. Three quick punches softened the monster's skull, then the pickaxe dived in for the killing blow.

  The doomed ogre jerked wildly in the last spasms of its life, but Belwar felt no pity. He had pleased his master, nothing else in all the world mattered to the burrow-warden at that moment.

  Up in the stands, the proud owner of the svirfneblin champion collected his due of gold and potion bottles. Contented that it had done well in selecting this one, the illithid looked back to Belwar, who still chopped and bashed at the corpse. Although it enjoyed watching its new champion at savage play, the illithid quickly sent out a message to cease.

  The dead ogre, after all, was also part of the bet. No sense in ruining dinner.

  At the heart of the illithid castle stood a huge tower, a gigantic stalagmite hollowed and sculpted to house the most important members of the strange community. The inside of the giant stone structure was ringed by balconies and spiraling stairways, each level housing several of the mind flayers. But it was the bottom chamber, unadorned and circular, that held the most important being of all, the central brain.

  Fully twenty feet in diameter, this boneless lump of pulsating flesh tied the mind flayer community together in telepathic symbiosis. The central brain was the composite of their knowledge, the mental eye that guarded their outside chambers and which had heard the warning cries of the illithid from the drow city many miles to the east. The illithids of the community, the central brain was the coordinator of their entire existence and nothing short of their god. Thus, only a very few slaves were allowed within this special tower, captives with sensitive and delicate fingers that could massage the illithid god-thing and soothe it with tender brushes and warm fluids.

  Drizzt Do'Urden was among this group.

  The drow knelt on the wide walkway that ringed the room, reaching out to stroke the amorphous mass, feeling keenly its pleasures and displeasures. When the brain became upset, Drizzt felt the sharp tingles and the tenseness in the veined tissues. He would massage more forcefully, easing his beloved master back to serenity.

  When the brain was pleased, Drizzt was pleased. Nothing else in all the world mattered, the renegade drow had found his purpose in life. Drizzt Do'Urden had come home.

  'A most profitable capture, that one.' said the mind flayer in its watery, otherworldly voice. The creature held up the potions it had won in the arena.

  The other two illithids wiggled their four-fingered hands, indicating their agreement. Arena champion, one of them remarked telepathically.

  And tooled to dig,' the third added aloud. A notion entered its mind and, thus, the minds of the others. Perhaps to carve? The three illithids looked over to the far side of the chamber, where the work had begun on a new cubby area. The first illithid wiggled its fingers and gurgled, “In time the svirfneblin will be put to such menial tasks. Now he must win for me more potions, more gold. A most profitable capture!”

  “As were all taken in the ambush, said the second.

  “The hook horror tends the herd,' explained the third.

  “And the drow tends the brain,' gurgled the first. ”I noticed him as I ascended to our chamber. That one will prove a proficient masseuse, to the pleasure of the brain and to the benefit of us all:'

  “And there is this,' said the second, one of its tentacles snapping out to nudge the third. The third illithid held up an onyx figurine.

  Magic? wondered the first.

  Indeed, the second mentally responded. Linked to the Astral Plane. An entity stone, I believe.

  “Have you called to it?” the first asked aloud.

  Together, the other illithids clenched their hands, the mind flayer signal for no. “A dangerous foe, mayhaps,' explained the third. ”We thought it prudent to observe the beast on its own plane before summoning it:'

  “A wise choice,' agreed the first. ”When will you be going“

  “At once,' said the second. ”And will you accompany us?“

  The first illithid clenched its fists, then held out the potion bottle. “Profits to be won,' it explained.

  The other two wiggled their fingers excitedly. Then, as their companion retired to another room to count its winnings, they sat down in comfortable, overstuffed chairs and prepared themselves for their journey.

  They floated together, leaving their corporeal bodies at rest on the chairs. They ascended beside the figurine's link to the Astral Plane, visible to them in their astral state as a thin silvery cord. They were beyond their companions' cavern now, beyond the stones and noises of the Material Plane, floating into the vast serenity of the astral world. Here, there were few sounds other than the continuous chanting of the astral wind. Here, too, there was no solid structure-none in terms of the material world-with matter being defined in gradations of light.

  The illithids veered away from the figurine's silver cord as they neared the completion of their astral ascent. They would come into the plane near to the entity of the great panther, but not so close as to make it aware of their presence. Illithids were not normally welcome guests, being despised by nearly every creature on every plane they traveled.

  They came fully into their astral state without incident and had little trouble locating the entity represented by the figurine.

  Guenhwyvar romped through a forest of starlight in pursuit of the entity of the elk, continuing the endless cycle. The elk, no less magnificent than the panther, leaped and sprang in perfect balance and unmistakable grace. The elk and Guenhwyvar had played out this scenario a million times and would play it out a million, million more. This was the order and harmony that ruled the panther's existence, that ultimately ruled the planes of all the universe.

  Some creatures, though, like the denizens of the lower planes, and like the mind flayers that now observed the panther from afar, could not accept the simple perfection of this harmony and could not recognize the beauty of this eternal hunt. As-they watched the wondrous panther in its life's play, the illithids' only thoughts centered on how they might use the cat to their best advantage.

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