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Homeland (part 2 chapter 24)

2006-08-28 22:23

  CHAPTER24

  FAITH

  Drizzt and Belwar did not have to remind each other of the significance of the green glow that appeared far ahead up the tunnel. Together they quickened their pace to catch up with and warn Clacker, who continued his approach with strides quickened by curiosity. The hook horror always led the party now, Clacker simply had become too dangerous for Drizzt and Belwar to allow him to walk behind.

  Clacker turned abruptly at their sudden approach, waved a claw menacingly, and hissed.

  “Pech:' Belwar whispered, speaking the word he had been using to strike a recollection in his friend's fast-fading consciousness. The troupe had turned back toward the east, toward Menzoberranzan, as soon as Drizzt had convinced the burrow-warden of his determination to aid Clacker. Belwar, having no other options, had finally agreed with the drow's plan as Clacker's only hope, but, though they had turned immediately and had quickened their march, both now feared that they would not arrive in time. The transformation in Clacker had been dramatic since the confrontation with the duergar. The hook horror could barely speak and often turned threateningly on his friends.

  “Pech,' Belwar said again as he and Drizzt neared the amious monster.

  The hook horror paused, confused.

  “Pech” Belwar growled a third time, and he tapped his hammer-hand against the stone wall.

  As if a light of recognition had suddenly gone on within the turmoil that was his consciousness, Clacker relaxed and dropped his heavy arms to his sides.

  Drizzt and Belwar looked past the hook horror to the green glow and exchanged concerned glances. They had committed themselves fully to this course and had little choice in their actions now.

  “Corbies live in the chamber beyond,' Drizzt began quietly, speaking each word slowly and distinctly to ensure that Clacker understood. ”We have to get directly across and out the other side swiftly, for if we hope to avoid a battle, we have no time for delays. Take care in your steps. The only walkways are narrow and treacherous:'

  “C-C-Clac-” the hook horror stammered futilely.

  “Clacker,' Belwar offered.

  “I-I-I'll-” Clacker stopped suddenly and threw a claw out in the direction of the green-glowing chamber.

  “Clacker lead?” Drizzt said, unable to bear the hook horror's struggling. “Clacker lead,' Drizzt said again, seeing the great head bobbing in accord.

  Belwar didn't seem so sure of the wisdom of that suggestion. “We have fought the bird-men before and have seen their tricks,' the svirfneblin reasoned. ”But Clacker has not:'

  “The sheer bulk of the hook horror should deter them,' Drizzt argued. ”Clacker's mere presence may allow us to avoid a fight:'

  “Not against the corbies, dark elf,' said the burrow-warden. ”They will attack anything without fear. You witnessed their frenzy, their disregard for their own lives. Even your panther did not deter them:'

  “Perhaps you are right,' Drizzt agreed, ”but even if the corbies do attack, what weapons do they possess that could defeat a hook horror's armor? What defense could the bird-men offer against Clacker's great claws? Our giant friend will sweep them aside:'

  “You forget the stone-riders up above,' the burrow-warden pointedly reminded him. ”They will be quick to take a ledge down, and take Clacker with it!“

  Clacker turned away from the conversation and stared into the stone of the walls in a futile effort to recapture a portion of his former self. He felt a slight urge to begin tap-tapping on the stone, but it was no greater than his continuing urge to smash a claw into the face of either the svirfneblin or the drow.

  “I will deal with any corbies waiting above the ledges:' Drizzt replied. ”You just follow Clacker across a dozen paces behind:'

  Belwar glanced over and noticed the mounting tension in the hook horror. The burrow-warden realized that they could not afford any delays, so he shrugged and pushed Clacker off, motioning down the passage toward the green glow. Clacker started away, and Drizzt and Belwar fell into step behind.

  “The panther?” Belwar whispered to Drizzt as they rounded the last bend in the tunnel.

  Drizzt shook his head briskly, and Belwar, remembering Guenhwyvar's last painful episode in the corby chamber, did not question him further.

  Drizzt patted the deep gnome on the shoulder for luck, then moved up past Clacker and was the first to enter the quiet chamber. With a few simple motions, the drow stepped into a levitation spell and floated silently up. Clacker, amazed by this strange place with the glowing lake of acid below him, hardly noticed Drizzt's movements. The hook horror stood perfectly still, glancing all about the chamber and using his keen sense of hearing to locate any possible enemies.

  “Move,' Belwar whispered behind him. ”Delay will bring disaster!

  Clacker started out tentatively, then picked up speed as he gained confidence in the strength of the narrow, unsupported walkway. He took the straightest course he could discern, though even this meandered about before it reached the exiting archway opposite the one they had entered.

  “Do you see anything, dark elf?” Belwar called as loudly as he dared a few uneventful moments later. Clacker had passed the midpoint of the chamber without incident and the burrow-warden could not contain his mounting anxiety. No corbies had shown themselves, not a sound had been made beyond the heavy thumping of Clacker's feet and the shuffling of Belwar's worn boots.

  Drizzt floated back down to the ledge, far behind his companions. “Nothing,' he replied. The drow shared Belwar's suspicions that no dire corbies were about. The hush of the acid-filled cavern was absolute and unnerving. Drizzt ran out toward the center of the chamber, then lifted off again in his levitation, trying to get a better angle on all of the walls.

  “What do you see?” Belwar asked him a moment later. Drizzt looked down to the burrow-warden and shrugged.

  “Nothing at all:'

  “Magga cammara,' grumbled Belwar, almost wishing that a corby would step out and attack. Clacker had nearly reached the targeted exit by this time, though Belwar, in his conversation with Drizzt, had lagged behind and remained near the center of the huge room. When the burrow-warden finally turned back to the path ahead, the hook horror had disappeared under the arch of the exit.

  “Anything?” Belwar called out to both of his companions. Drizzt shook his head and continued to rise. He rotated slowly about, scanning the walls, unable to believe that no corbies lurked in ambush.

  Belwar looked back to the exit. “We must have chased them out,' he muttered to himself, but in spite of his words, the burrow-warden knew better. When he and Drizzt had taken flight from this room a couple of weeks before, they had left several dozen of the bird-men behind them. Certainly the toll of a few dead corbies would not have chased away the rest of the fearless clan.

  For some unknown reason, no corbies had come out to stand against them.

  Belwar started off at a quick pace, thinking it best not to question their good fortune. He was about to call out to Clacker, to confirm that the hook horror had indeed moved to safety, when a sharp, terror filled squeal rolled out from the exit, followed by a heavy crash. A moment later, Belwar and Drizzt had their answers.

  The spirit-wraith of Zaknafein Do'Urden stepped under the arch and out onto the ledge.

  “Dark elf!” the burrow-warden called sharply.

  Drizzt had already seen the spirit-wraith and was descending as rapidly as he could toward the walkway near the middle of the chamber.

  “Clacker!” Belwar called, but he expected no answer, and received none, from the shadows beyond the archway. The spirit-wraith steadily advanced.

  “You murderous beast!” the burrow-warden cursed, setting his feet wide apart and slamming his mithril hands together. “Come out and get your due!” Belwar fell into his chant to empower his hands, but Drizzt interrupted him.

  “No!” the drow cried out high above. “Zaknafein is here for me, not you. Move out of his way!”

  “Was he here for Clacker?” Belwar yelled back. “A murderous beast, he is, and I have a score to settle!”

  “You do not know that:' Drizzt replied, increasing his descent as fast as he dared to catch up to the fearless burrow-warden. Drizzt knew that Zaknafein would get to Belwar first, and he could guess easily enough the grim consequences.

  “Trust me now, I beg, Drizzt pleaded. ”This drow warrior is far beyond your abilities:'

  Belwar banged his hands together again, but he could not honestly refute Drizzt's words. Belwar had seen Zaknafein in battle only that one time in the illithid cavern, but the monster's blurring movements had stolen his breath. The deep gnome backed away a few steps and turned down a side walkway, seeking another route to the arched exit so that he might learn Clacker's fate.

  With Drizzt so plainly in sight, the spirit-wraith paid the little svirfneblin no heed. Zaknafein charged right past the side walkway and continued on to fulfill the purpose of his existence.

  Belwar thought to pursue the strange drow, to close from behind and help Drizzt in the battle, but another cry issued from under the archway, a cry so pain-filled and pitiful that the burrow-warden could not ignore it. He stopped as soon as he got back on the main walkway, then looked both ways, torn in his loyalties.

  “Go!” Drizzt shouted at him. “See to Clacker. This is Zaknafein, my father:' Drizzt noticed a slight hesitation in the spirit-wraith's charge at the mention of those words, a hesitation that brought Drizzt a flicker of understanding.

  “Your father? Magga cammara, dark elf!” Belwar protested. “Back in the illithid cavern-”

  “I am safe enough,' Drizzt interjected.

  Belwar did not believe that Drizzt was safe at all, but against the protests of his own stubborn pride, the burrow-warden realized that the battle that was about to begin was far beyond his abilities. He would be of little help against this mighty drow warrior, and his presence in the battle might actually prove detrimental to his friend. Drizzt would have a difficult enough time without worrying about Belwar's safety.

  Belwar banged his mithril hands together in frustration and rushed toward the archway and the continuing moans of his fallen hook horror companion.

  Matron Malice's eyes widened and she uttered a sound so primal that her daughters, gathered by her side in the anteroom, knew immediately that the spirit-wraith had found Drizzt. Briza glanced over at the younger Do'Urden priestesses and dismissed them. Maya obeyed immediately, but Vierna hesitated.

  “Go,' Briza snarled, one hand dropping to the snake-headed whip on her belt. ”Now:'

  Vierna looked to her matron mother for support, but Malice was quite lost in the spectacle of the distant events. This was the moment of triumph for Zin-carla and for Matron Malice Do'Urden, she would not be distracted by the petty squabbling of her inferiors.

  Briza then was alone with her mother, standing behind the throne and studying Malice as intently as Malice watched Zaknafein.

  As soon as he entered the small chamber beyond the archway, Belwar knew that Clacker was dead, or soon would be. The giant hook horror body lay on the floor, bleeding from a single but wickedly precise wound across the neck. Belwar began to turn away, then realized that he owed comfort, at least, to his fallen friend. He dropped to one knee and forced himself to watch as Clacker went into a series of violent convulsions.

  Death terminated the polymorph spell, and Clacker gradually reverted to his former self. The huge, clawed arms trembled and jerked, twisted and popped into the long and spindly, yellow-skinned arms of a pech. Hair sprouted through the cracking armor of Clacker's head and the great beak split apart and dissipated. The massive chest, too, fell away, and the whole body compacted with a grinding sound that sent shivers up and down the hardy burrow-warden's spine.

  The hook horror was no more, and, in death, Clacker was as he had been. He was a bit taller than Belwar, though not nearly as wide, and his features were broad and strange, with pupil-less eyes and a flattened nose.

  “What was your name, my friend?” the burrow-warden whispered, though he knew that Clacker would never answer. He bent down and lifted the pech's head in his arms, taking some comfort in the peace that finally had come to the tormented creature's face.

  “Who are you that takes the guise of my father?” Drizzt asked as the spirit-wraith stalked across the last few paces.

  Zaknafein's snarl was indecipherable, and his response came more clearly in the hacking slice of a sword.

  Drizzt parried the attack and jumped back. “Who are you?” he demanded again. “You are not my father!”

  A wide smile spread over the spirit-wraith's face. “No,' Zaknafein replied in a shaky voice, an answer that was inspired from an anteroom many miles away.

  “I am your. . . mother!” The swords came on again in a blinding flurry.

  Drizzt, confused by the response, met the charge with equal ferocity and the many sudden hits of sword on scimitar sounded like a single ring.

  Briza watched her mother's every movement. Sweat poured down Malice's brow and her clenched fists pounded on the arms of her stone throne even after they

  had begun to bleed. Malice had hoped that it would be like this, that the final moment of her triumph would shine clearly in her thoughts from across the miles. She heard Drizzt's every frantic word and felt his distress so very keenly. Never had Malice known such pleasure!

  Then she felt a slight twinge as Zaknafein's consciousness struggled against her control. Malice pushed Zaknafein aside with a guttural snarl, his animated corpse was her tool!

  Briza noted her mother's sudden snarl with more than a passing interest.

  Drizzt knew beyond any doubts that this was not Zaknafein Do'Urden who stood before him, yet he could not deny the unique fighting style of his former mentor. Zaknafein was in there-somewhere-and Drizzt would have to reach him if he hoped to get any answers.

  The battle quickly settled into a comfortable, measured rhythm, both opponents launching cautious attack routines and paying careful attention to their tenuous footing on the narrow walkway.

  Belwar entered the room then, bearing Clacker's broken body. “Kill him, Drizzt!” the burrow-warden cried. “Magga . . :' Belwar stopped and was afraid when he witnessed the battle. Drizzt and Zaknafein seemed to intertwine, their weapons spinning and darting, only to be parried away. They seemed as one, these two dark elves that Belwar had considered distinctly different, and that notion unnerved the deep gnome.

  When the next break came in the struggle, Drizzt glanced over to the burrow-warden and his gaze locked on the dead pech. “Damn you!” he spat, and he rushed back in, scimitars diving and chopping at the monster who had murdered Clacker.

  The spirit-wraith parried the foolishly bold assault easily and worked Drizzt's blades up high, rocking Drizzt back on his heels. This, too, seemed so very familiar to the young drow, a fighting approach that Zaknafein had used against him many times in their sparring matches back in Menzoberranzan. Zaknafein would force Drizzt high, then come in suddenly low with both of his swords. In their early contests, Zaknafein had often defeated Drizzt with this maneuver, the double-thrust low, but in their last encounter in the drow city, Drizzt had found the answering parry and had turned the attack against his mentor.

  Now Drizzt wondered if this opponent would follow through with the expected attack routine, and he wondered, too, how Zaknafein would react to his counter. Were any f Zak's memories within the monster he now faced?

  Still the spirit-wraith kept Drizzt's blades working defensively high. Zaknafein then took a quick step back and came in low with both blades.

  Drizzt dropped his scimitars into a downward “X,' the appropriate cross-down parry that pinned the attacking swords low. Drizzt kicked his foot up between the hilts of his blades and straight at his opponent's face.

  The spirit-wraith somehow anticipated the countering attack and was out of reach before the boot could connect. Drizzt believed that he had an answer, for only Zaknafein Do'Urden could have known.

  “You are Zaknafein!” Drizzt cried. “What has Malice done to you?”

  The spirit-wraith's hands trembled visibly in their hold on the swords and his mouth twisted as though he was trying to say something.

  “No!” Malice screamed, and she violently tore back the control of her monster, walking the delicate and dangerous line between Zaknafein's physical abilities and the consciousness of the being he once had been.

  “You are mine, wraith:' Malice bellowed, ”and by the will of Lloth, you shall complete the task!“

  Drizzt saw the sudden regression of the murderous spirit-wraith. Zaknafein's hands no longer trembled and his mouth locked into a thin and determined grimace once again.

  “What is it, dark elf?” Belwar demanded, confused by the strange encounter. Drizzt noticed that the deep gnome had placed Clacker's body on a ledge and was steadily approaching. Sparks flew from Belwar's mithril hands whenever they bumped together.

  “Stay back!” Drizzt called to him. The presence of an unknown enemy could ruin the plans that were beginning to formulate in Drizzt's mind. “It is Zaknafein:' he tried to explain to Belwar. ”Or at least a part of it is!“

  In a voice too low for the burrow-warden to hear, Drizzt added, “ And I believe I know how to get to that part:' Drizzt came on in a flurry of measured attacks that he knew Zaknafein could easily deflect. He did not want to destroy his opponent, but rather he sought to inspire other memories of fighting routines that would be familiar to Zaknafein.

  He put Zaknafein through the paces of a typical training session, talking all the while in the same way that he and the weapon master used to talk back in Menzoberranzan. Malice's spirit-wraith countered Drizzt's familiarity with savagery, and matched Drizzt's friendly words with animal-like snarls. If Drizzt thought he could lull his opponent with complacency, he was badly mistaken.

  Swords rushed at Drizzt inside and out, seeking a hole in his expert defenses. Scimitars matched their speed and precision, catching and stopping each arcing cut and deflecting every straightforward thrust harmlessly wide.

  A sword slipped through and nicked Drizzt in the ribs. His fine armor held back the weapon's razor edge, but the weight of the blow would leave a deep bruise. Rocked back on his heels, Drizzt saw that his plan would not be so easily executed.

  “You are my father!” he shouted at the monster. “Matron Malice is your enemy, not I!”

  The spirit-wraith mocked the words with an evil laugh and came on wildly. From the very beginning of the battle, Drizzt had feared this moment, but now he stubbornly reminded himself that this was not really his father that stood before him. Zaknafein's careless offensive charge inevitably left gaps in his defenses, and Drizzt found them, once and then again, with his scimitars. One blade gashed a hole in the spirit-wraith's belly, another slashed deeply into the side of his neck.

  Zaknafein only laughed again, louder, and came on.

  Drizzt fought in sheer panic, his confidence faltering. Zaknafein was nearly his equal, and Drizzt's blades barely hurt the thing! Another problem quickly became evident as well, for time was against Drizzt. He did not know exactly what it was that he faced, but he suspected that it would not tire.

  Drizzt pressed with all his skill and speed. Desperation drove him to new heights of swordsmanship. Belwar started out again to join in, but he stopped a moment later, stunned by the display.

  Drizzt hit Zaknafein several more times, but the spirit-wraith seemed not to notice, and as Drizzt stepped up the tempo, the spirit-wraith's intensity grew to match his own. Drizzt could hardly believe that this was not Zaknafein Do'Urden fighting against him, he could recognize the moves of his father and former mentor so very clearly. No other soul could move that perfectly muscled drow body with such precision and skill.

  Drizzt was backing away again, giving ground and waiting patiently for his opportunities. He reminded himself over and over that it was not Zaknafein that he faced, but some monster created by Matron Malice for the sole purpose of destroying him. Drizzt had to be ready, his only chance of surviving this encounter was to trip his opponent from the ledge. With the spirit-wraith fighting so brilliantly, though, that chance seemed remote indeed.

  The walkway turned slightly around a short bend, and Drizzt felt it carefully with one foot, sliding it along. Then a rock right under Drizzt's foot broke free from the side of the walkway.

  Drizzt stumbled, and his leg, to the knee, slipped down beside the bridge. Zaknafein came upon him in a rush. The whirling swords soon had Drizzt down on his back across the narrow walkway, his head hanging precariously over the lake of acid.

  “Drizzt!” Belwar screamed helplessly. The deep gnome rushed out, though he could not hope to arrive in time or defeat Drizzt's killer. “Drizzt!”

  Perhaps it was that call of Drizzt's name, or maybe it was just the moment of the kill, but the former consciousness of Zaknafein flickered to life in that instant, and the sword arm, readied for a killing plunge that Drizzt could not have deflected, hesitated. Drizzt didn't wait for any explanations. He punched out with a scimitar hilt, then the other, both connecting squarely on Zaknafein's jaw and moving the spirit-wraith back. Drizzt was up again, panting and favoring a twisted ankle.

  “Zaknafein!” Confused and frustrated by the hesitation, Drizzt screamed at his opponent.

  “Driz-” the spirit-wraith's mouth struggled to reply. Then Malice's monster rushed back in, swords leading.

  Drizzt defeated the attack and slipped away again. He could sense his father's presence, he knew that the true Zaknafein lurked just below the surface of this creature, but how could he free that spirit? Clearly, he could not hope to continue this struggle much longer.

  “It is you,' Drizzt whispered. ”No one else could fight so. Zaknafein is there, and Zaknafein will not kill me:' Another thought came to Drizzt then, a notion he had to believe.

  Once again, the truth of Drizzt's convictions became the test.

  Drizzt slipped his scimitars back into their sheaths. The spirit-wraith snarled, his swords danced about in the air and cut viciously, but Zaknafein did not come on.

  “Kill him!” Malice squealed in glee, thinking her moment of victory at hand. The images of the combat, though, flitted away from her suddenly, and she was left with only darkness. She had given too much back to Zaknafein when Drizzt had stepped up the tempo of the combat. She had been forced to allow more of Zak's consciousness back into her animation, needing all of Zaknafein's fighting skills to defeat her warrior son.

  Now Malice was left with blackness, and with the weight of impending doom hanging precariously over her head. She glanced back at her too-curious daughter, then sank back within her trance, fighting to regain control.

  “Drizzt:' Zaknafein said, and the word felt so very good indeed to the animation. Zak's swords went into their sheaths, though his hands had to struggle against the demands of Matron Malice every inch of the way.

  Drizzt started toward him, wanting nothing more than to hug his father and dearest friend, but Zaknafein put out a hand to keep him back.

  “No,' the spirit-wraith explained. ”I do not know how long I can resist. The body is hers, I fear,“ Zaknafein replied. Drizzt did not understand at first. ”Then you are?“

  “I am dead:' Zaknafein stated bluntly. ”At peace, be assured. Malice has repaired my body for her own vile purposes:'

  “But you defeated her:' Drizzt said, daring to hope. ”We are together again:'

  “A temporary stay, and no more.' As if to accentuate the point, Zaknafein's hand involuntarily shot to his sword hilt. He grimaced and snarled, and stubbornly fought back, gradually loosening his grip on the weapon. ”She is coming back, my son. That one is always coming back!“

  “I cannot bear to lose you again:' Drizzt said. ”When I saw you in the illithid cavern-“

  “It was not me that you saw:' Zaknafein tried to explain. ”It was the zombie of Malice's evil will. I am gone, my son. I have been gone for many years:'

  “You are here:' Drizzt reasoned.

  “By Malice's will, not. . . my own:' Zaknafein growled, and his face contorted as he struggled to push Malice away for just a moment longer. Back in control, Zaknafein studied the warrior that his son had become. ”You fight well:' he remarked. “Better than I had ever imagined. That is good, and it is good that you

  had the courage to run-“ Zaknafein's face contorted again suddenly, stealing the words. This time, both of his hands went to his swords, and this time, both weapons came flashing out.

  “No!” Drizzt pleaded as a mist welled in his lavender eyes. “Fight her:'

  “I . . . cannot,' the spirit-wraith replied. ”Flee from this place, Drizzt. Flee to the very. . . ends of the world! Malice will never forgive. She. . . will never stop-“

  The spirit-wraith leaped forward, and Drizzt had no choice but to draw his weapons. But Zaknafein jerked suddenly before he got within reach of Drizzt.

  “For us!” Zak cried in startling clarity, a call that pealed like a trumpet of victory in the green-glowing chamber and echoed across the miles to Matron Malice's heart like the final toll of a drum signaling the onset of doom. Zaknafein had wrested control again, for just a fleeting instant-one that allowed the charging spirit-wraith to veer off the walkway.

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