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Homeland (part 2 chapter 2)

2006-08-28 22:23

  CHAPTER 2

  Voices in the Dark

  Drizzt stretched away his weariness and forced himself to his feet. The efforts of his battle against the basilisk the night before, of slipping fully into that primal state so necessary for survival, had drained him thorougly. Yet Drizzt knew that he could afford no more rest, his rothe herd, the guaranteed food supply, had been scattered among the maze of tunnels and had to be retrieved.

  Drizzt quickly surveyed the small and unremarkable cave that served as his home, ensuring that all was as it should be. His eyes lingered on the onyx statuette of the panther. He was held by a profound longing for Guenhwyvar's companionship. In his ambush of the basilisk, Drizzt had kept the panther by his side for a long period-nearly the entire night-and Guenhwyvar would need to rest back on the Astral Plane. More than a full day would pass before Drizzt could bring a rested Guenhwyvar forth again, and to attempt to use the figurine before then in any but a desperate situation would be foolish. With a resigned shrug,

  Drizzt dropped the statuette into his pocket and tried vainly to dismiss his loneliness.

  After a quick inspection of the rock barricade blocking the entrance to the main corridor, Drizzt moved to the smaller crawl tunnel at the back of the cave. He noticed the scratches on the wall by the tunnel, the notches he had scrawled to mark the passage of the days. Drizzt absently scraped another one now, but realized that it was not important. How many times had he forgotten to scratch the mark? How many days had slipped past him unnoticed, between the hundreds of scratches on that wall?

  Somehow, it no longer seemed to matter. Day and night were one, and all the days were one, in the life of the hunter. Drizzt hauled himself up into the tunnel and crawled for many minutes toward the dim light source at the other end. Although the presence of light, the result of the glow of an unusual type of fungus, normally would have been uncomfortable to a dark elf's eyes, Drizzt felt a sincere sense of security as he crossed through the crawl tunnel into the long chamber. Its floor was broken into two levels, the lower being a moss-filled bed crossed by a small stream, and the upper being a grove of towering mushrooms. Drizzt headed for the grove, though he was not normally welcomed there. He knew that the myconids, the fungus-men, a weird cross between humanoid and toadstool, were watching him anxiously. The basilisk had come in here in its first travels to the region, and the myconids had suffered a great loss. Now they were no doubt scared and dangerous, but Drizzt suspected that they knew, as well, that it was he who had slain the monster. Myconids were not stupid beings, if Drizzt kept his weapons sheathed and made no unexpected moves, the fungus-men probably would accept his passage through their tended grove.

  The wall to the upper tier was more than ten feet high and nearly sheer, but Drizzt scaled it as easily and as quickly as if it had sported a wide and flat staircase. A group of myconids fanned around him as he reached the top, some only half Drizzt's height, but most twice as tall as the drow. Drizzt crossed his arms over his chest, a commonly accepted Underdark signal of peace.

  The fungus-men found Drizzt's appearance disgusting-as disgusting as he considered them-but they did indeed understand that Drizzt had destroyed the basilisk. For many years the myconids had lived beside the rogue drow, each protecting the life-filled chamber that served as their mutual sanctuary. An oasis such as this place, with edible plants, a stream full of fish, and a herd of rothe, was not common in the harsh and empty stone caverns of the Underdark, and predators wandering along the outer tunnels invariably found their way in. Then it was left to the fungus-men, and to Drizzt, to defend their domain.

  The largest of the myconids moved forward to stand before the dark elf. Drizzt made no move, understanding the importance of establishing an acceptance

  between himself and the new king of the fungus-man colony. Still, Drizzt tensed his muscles, preparing a spring to the side if things did not go as he expected.

  The myconid spewed forth a cloud of spores. Drizzt studied them in the split-second it took them to descend over him, knowing that the mature myconids could emit many different types of spore, some quite dangerous. But Drizzt recognized the hue of this particular cloud and accepted it wholly.

  King dead. Me king, came the myconid's thoughts through the telepathic bond inspired by the spore cloud.

  You are king, Drizzt responded mentally. How he wished these fungoids could speak aloud! As it was?

  Bottom for dark elf, grove for myconid, replied the fungus-man.

  Agreed-

  Grove for myconid! the fungus-man thought again, this time emphatically.

  Drizzt silently dropped down off the ledge. He had accomplished his mission with the fungoid, neither he nor the new king had any desire to continue the meeting.

  Off at a swift pace, Drizzt leaped the five-foot-wide stream and padded out across the thick moss. The chamber was longer than it was wide and it rolled back for many yards, turning a slight bend before it reached the larger exit to the twisting maze of Underdark tunnels. Around that bend, Drizzt looked again upon the destruction wreaked by the basilisk. Several half-eaten rothe lay about-Drizzt would have to dispose of those corpses before their stench attracted even more unwelcome visitors-and other rothe stood perfectly still, petrified by the gaze of the dreaded monster. Directly in front of the chamber exit stood the former myconid king, a twelve foot giant, now no more than an ornamental statue.

  Drizzt paused to regard it. He had never learned the fungoid's name, and had never given it his, but Drizzt supposed that the thing had been his ally at least, perhaps even his friend. They had lived side by side for several years, though they had rarely encountered each other, and both had realized a bit more security just by the other's presence. All told, though, Drizzt felt no remorse at the sight of his petrified ally. In the Underdark, only the strongest survived, and this time the myconid king had not been strong enough. In the wilds of the Underdark, failure allowed for no second chance.

  Out in the tunnels again, Drizzt felt his rage beginning to build. He welcomed it fully, focusing his thoughts on the carnage in his domain and accepting the anger as an ally in the wilds. He came through a series of tunnels and turned into the one where he had placed his darkness spell the night before, where Guenhwyvar

  had crouched, ready to spring upon the basilisk. Drizzt's spell was long gone now and, using his infravision, he could make out several warm-glowing forms crawling over the cooling mound that Drizzt knew to be the dead monster.

  The sight of the thing only heightened the hunter's rage. Instinctively, he grasped the hilt of one of his scimitars. As though it moved of its own accord, the weapon shot out as Drizzt passed the basilisk's head, splatting sickeningly into the exposed brains. Several blind cave rats took flight at the sound and Drizzt, again without thinking, snapped off a thrust with his second blade, pinning one to the stone. Without even slowing his pace, he scooped the rat up and dropped it into his pouch. Finding the rothe could be a tedious process, and the hunter would need to eat.

  For the remainder of that day and half of the next, the hunter moved out away from his domain. The cave rat was not a particularly enjoyable meal, but it sustained Drizzt, allowing him to continue, allowing him to survive. For the hunter in the Underdark, nothing else mattered.

  That second day out, the hunter knew he was closing in on a group of his lost beasts. He summoned Guenhwyvar to his side and, with the panther's help, had little trouble finding the rothe. Drizzt had hoped that all of the herd would still be together, but he found only a half dozen in the area. Six were better than none, though, and Drizzt set Guenhwyvar into motion, herding the rothe back toward the moss cave. Drizzt set a brutal pace, knowing that the task would be much easier and safer with Guenhwyvar by his side. By the time the panther tired and had to return to its home plane, the rothe were comfortably grazing by the familiar stream.

  The drow set out again immediately, this time taking two dead rats along for the ride. He called Guenhwyvar again when he was able and dismissed the panther when he had to, then again after that, as the days rolled by without further sign. But the hunter did not surrender his search. Frightened rothe could cover an incredible amount of ground, and in the maze of twisting tunnels and huge caverns, the hunter knew that many more days could pass before he caught up to the beasts.

  Drizzt found his food where he could, taking down a bat with a perfect throw of a dagger-after tossing up a deceptive screen of pebbles-and dropping a boulder onto the back of a giant Underdark crab. Eventually, Drizzt grew weary of the search and longed for the security of his small cave. Doubting that the rothe, running blind, could have survived this long out in the tunnels, so far from their water and food, he accepted his herd's loss and decided to return home via a route that would bring him back to the region of the moss cavern from a different direction.

  Only the clear tracks of his lost herd would detour him from his set course, Drizzt decided, but as he rounded a bend halfway home, a strange sound caught his attention and held it.

  Drizzt pressed his hands against the stone, feeling the subtle, rhythmical vibrations. A short distance away, some thing banged the stone in succession. Measured hammering.

  The hunter drew his scimitars and crept along, using the continuing vibrations to guide him through the winding passageways.

  The flickering light of a fire dropped him into a crouch, but he did not flee, drawn by the knowledge that an intelligent being was nearby. Quite possibly the stranger would prove to be a threat, but perhaps, Drizzt hoped in the back of his mind, it could be something more than that.

  Then Drizzt saw them, two banging at the stone with crafted pickaxes, another collecting rubble in a wheelbarrow, and two more standing guard. The hunter knew at once that more guards would be about, he probably had penetrated their defenses without even seeing them. Drizzt summoned one of the abilities of his heritage and drifted slowly up into the air, guiding his levitation with his hands along the stone. Luckily, the tunnel was high at this point, so the hunter could observe the mining creatures in relative safety.

  They were shorter that Drizzt and hairless, with squat and muscled torsos perfectly designed for the mining that was their calling in life. Drizzt had encountered this race before and had learned much of them during his years at the Academy back in Menzoberranzan. These were svirfnebli, deep gnomes, the most hated enemies of the drow in all the Underdark.

  Once, long ago, Drizzt had led a drow patrol into battle against a group of svirfnebli and personally had defeated an earth elemental that the deep gnome leader had summoned. Drizzt remembered that time now, and, like all of the memories of his existence, the thoughts pained him. He had been captured by the deep gnomes, roughly tied, and held prisoner in a secret chamber. The svirfnebli had not mistreated him, though they suspected-and explained to Drizztthat they would eventually have to kill him. The group's leader had promised Drizzt as much mercy as the situation allowed. Drizzt's comrades, though, led by Dinin, his own brother, had stormed in, showing the deep gnomes no mercy at all.

  Drizzt had managed to convince his brother to spare the svirfneblin leader's life, but Dinin, showing typical drow cruelty, had ordered the deep gnome's hands severed before releasing him to flee to his homeland.

  Drizzt shook himself from the anguishing memories and forced his thoughts back to the situation at hand. Deep gnomes could be formidable adversaries, he reminded himself, and they would not likely welcome a drow elf to their mining operations. He had to keep alert.

  The miners apparently had struck a rich vein, for they began talking in excited tones. Drizzt reveled in the sound of those words, though he could not begin to understand the strange gnomish language. A smile not inspired by victory in battle found its way onto Drizzt's face for the first time in years as the svirfnebli scrambled about the stone, tossing huge chunks into their wheelbarrows and calling for other nearby companions to come and join in the fun. As Drizzt had suspected, more than a dozen unseen svirfnebli came in from every direction.

  Drizzt found a high perch against the wall and watched the miners long after his levitation spell had expired. When at last their wheelbarrows were overfilled, the deep gnomes formed a column and started away. Drizzt realized that his prudent course at that time would be to let them get far away, then slip back to his home.

  But, against the simple logic that guided his survival, Drizzt found that he could not so easily let the sound of the voices get away. He picked his way down the high wall and fell into pace behind the svirfneblin caravan, wondering where it would lead.

  For many days Drizzt followed the deep gnomes. He resisted the temptation to summon Guenhwyvar, knowing that the panther could use the extended rest and himself satisfied in the company, however distant, of the deep gnomes' chatter. Every instinct warned the hunter against continuing in his actions, but for the first time in a very long time, Drizzt overruled the instincts of his more primal self.

  He needed to hear the gnomish voices more than he needed the simple necessities of survival.

  The corridors became more worked, less natural, around him, and Drizzt knew that he was approaching the svirfneblin homeland. Again the potential dangers loomed up before him, and again he dismissed them as secondary. He quickened his pace and put the mining caravan in sight, suspecting that the svirfnebli would have some cunning traps set about.

  The deep gnomes measured their steps at this point, taking care to avoid certain areas. Drizzt carefully mimicked their movements and nodded knowingly as he noticed a loose stone here and a low trip-wire there. Then Drizzt ducked back behind an outcropping as new voices joined the sound of the miners.

  The mining troupe had come to a long and wide stairway, ascending between two walls of absolutely sheer and uncracked stone. On the side of the stair was an opening barely high and wide enough for the wheelbarrows, and Drizzt

  watched with sincere admiration as the deep gnome miners moved the carts to this opening and fastened the lead one to a chain. A series of taps on the stone sent a signal to an unseen operator, and the chain creaked, drawing the wheelbarrow into the hole. One by one the carts disappeared, and the svirfneblin band thinned as well, taking to the stairs as their load lessened.

  As the two remaining deep gnomes hitched the last cart to the chain and tapped out the signal, Drizzt took a gamble borne of desperation. He waited for the deep gnomes to turn their backs and darted to the cart, catching it just as it disappeared into the low tunnel. Drizzt understood the depth of his foolishness when the last deep gnome, still apparently unaware of his presence, replaced a stone at the bottom of the passage, blocking any possible retreat.

  The chain pulled on and the cart rolled up at an angle as steep as the paralleling staircase. Drizzt could see nothing ahead, for the wheelbarrow, designed for a perfect fit, took up the entire height and width of the tunnel. Drizzt noticed then that the cart had little wheels along its sides as well, aiding in its passage. It felt so good to be in the presence of such intelligence again, but Drizzt could not ignore the danger surrounding him. The svirfnebli would not take well to an intruding drow elf, it was likely they would strike out with weapons, not questions.

  After several minutes, the passage leveled off and widened. A single svirfneblin was there, effortlessly turning the crank that hauled up the wheelbarrows. Intent on his business, the deep gnome did not notice Drizzt's dark form dart from behind the last cart and silently slip through the room's side door.

  Drizzt heard voices as soon as he opened the door. He continued ahead, though, having nowhere else to go, and dropped to his belly on a narrow ledge. The deep gnomes, guards and miners, were below him, talking on a landing at the top of the wide stairway. At least a score stood there now, the miners recounting the tales of their rich find.

  At the back end of the landing, through two immense and partly ajar metal-bound stone doors, Drizzt caught a glimpse of the svirfneblin city. The drow could see but a fraction of the place, and that not very well from his position on the ledge, but he guessed that the cavern beyond those massive doors was not nearly as large as the chamber housing Menzoberranzan.

  Drizzt wanted to go in there! He wanted to jump up and rush through those doors, give himself over to the deep gnomes for whatever judgment they deemed fair. Perhaps they would accept him, perhaps they would see Drizzt Do'Urden for who he truly was.

  The svirfnebli on the landing, laughing and chatting, made their way into the city.

  Drizzt had to go now, had to spring up and follow them beyond the massive doors.

  But the hunter, the being who had survived a decade in the savage wilds of the Underdark, could not move from the ledge. The hunter, the being who had defeated a basilisk and countless other of this dangerous world's monsters, could not give himself over in the hopes of civilized mercy. The hunter did not understand such concepts.

  The massive stone doors closed-and the moment of flickering light in Drizzt's darkening heart died-with a resounding crash.

  After a long and tormented moment, Drizzt Do'Urden rolled off the ledge and dropped to the landing at the top of the stairs. His vision blurred suddenly as he made his way down, the path away from the teeming life beyond the doors, and it was only the primal instincts of the hunter that sensed the presence of still more svirfneblin guards. The hunter leaped wildly over the startled deep gnomes and rushed out again into the freedom offered by the wild Underdark's open passageways.

  When he had put the svirfneblin city far behind, Drizzt reached into his pocket and took out the statuette, the summons to his only companion. A moment later, though, Drizzt dropped the figurine back, refusing to call the cat, punishing himself for his weakness on the ledge. If he had been stronger on the ledge beside the immense doors, he could have put an end to his torment, one way or another.

  The instincts of hunter battled Drizzt for control as he made his way along the passages that would take him back to the moss-filled cavern. As the Underdark and the press of undeniable danger continued to close in around him, those primal, alert instincts took command, denying any further distracting thoughts of the svirfnebli and their city.

  Those primal instincts were the salvation and the damnation of Drizzt Do'Urden.

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