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Homeland (part 2 chapter 5)

2006-08-28 22:23

  CHAPTER 5

  UNHOLY ALLY

  In no hurry to stand before his outraged mother, Dinin wandered slowly toward the anteroom to House Do'Urden's chapel. Matron Malice had called for him, and he could not refuse the summons. He found Vierna and Maya in the corridor beyond the ornate doors, similarly tentative.

  “What is it about?” Dinin asked his sisters in the silent hand code.

  “Matron Malice has been with Briza and Shi'nayne all the day:' Vierna's hands replied.

  “Planning another expedition in search of Drizzt:' Dinin motioned halfheartedly, not liking the idea that he would no doubt be included in such plans.

  The two females did not miss their brother's disdainful scowl.

  “Was it really so terrible?” Maya asked. “Briza would say little about it:'

  “Her severed fingers and torn whip revealed much,' Vierna put in, a wry smile crossing her face as she motioned. Vierna, like every other sibling of House Do'Urden, had little love for her eldest sister.

  No agreeing smile spread on Dinin's face as he remembered his encounter with Drizzt. “You witnessed our brother's prowess when he lived among us:' Dinin's hands replied. ”His skills have improved tenfold in his years outside the city:'

  “But what was he like?” Vierna asked, obviously intrigued by Drizzt's ability to survive. Ever since the patrol had returned with the report that Drizzt was still alive, Vierna had secretly hoped that she would see her younger brother again. They had shared a father, it was said, and Vierna held more sympathy for Drizzt than was wise, given Malice's feelings for him.

  Noticing her excited expression, and remembering his own humiliation at Drizzt's hands, Dinin cast a disapproving scowl at her. “Fear not, dear sister,' Dinin's hands said quickly. ”If Malice sends you out into the wilds this time, as I suspect she will, you will see all of Drizzt you wish to see, and more!“ Dinin clapped his hands together for emphasis as he ended, and he strode right between the two females and through the anteroom's door.

  “Your brother has forgotten how to knock,' Matron Malice said to Briza and Shi'nayne, who stood at her sides.

  Rizzen, kneeling before the throne, looked up over his shoulder to see Dinin.

  “I did not give you permission to lift your eyes!” Malice screamed at the patron. She pounded her fist on the arm of her great throne, and Rizzen fell down to his belly in fear. Malice's next words carried the strength of a spell.

  “Grovel!” she commanded, and Rizzen crawled to her feet. Malice extended her hand to the male, all the while looking straight at Dinin. The elderboy did not miss his mother's point.

  “Kiss,' she said to Rizzen, and he quickly began lavishing kisses onto her extended hand. ”Stand,' Malice issued her third command.

  Rizzen got about halfway to his feet before the matron punched him squarely in the face, dropping him in a heap to the stone floor.

  “If you move, I shall kill you,' Malice promised, and Rizzen lay perfectly still, not doubting her in the least. Dinin knew that the continued show had been more for his benefit than for Rizzen's. Still, unblinking, Malice eyed him.

  “You have failed me,' she said at length. Dinin accepted the berating without argument, without even daring to breathe until Malice turned sharply on Briza.

  “And you!” Malice shouted. “Six trained drow warriors beside you, and you, a high priestess, could not bring Drizzt back to me:'

  Briza clenched and unclenched the weakened fingers that Malice had magically restored to her hand.

  “Seven against one,' Malice ranted, ”and you come running back here with tales of doom!“

  “I will get him, Matron Mother,' Maya promised as she took her place beside Shi'nayne. Malice looked to Vierna, but the second daughter was more reluctant to make such grand claims.

  “You speak boldly,' Dinin said to Maya. Immediately, Malice's disbelieving grimace fell upon him in a harsh reminder that it was not his place to speak.

  But Briza promptly completed Dinin's thought. “Too boldly,' she growled. Malice's gaze descended upon her on cue, but Briza was a high priestess in the favor of the Spider Queen and was well within her rights to speak. ”You know nothing of our young brother,' Briza went on, speaking as much to Malice as to Maya.

  “He is only a male,' Maya retorted. ”I would-“

  “You would be cut down!” Briza yelled. “Hold your foolish words and empty promises, youngest sister. Out in the tunnels beyond Menzoberranzan, Drizzt would kill you with little effort:'

  Malice listened intently to it all. She had heard Briza's account of the meeting with Drizzt several times, and she knew enough about her oldest daughter's courage and powers to understand that Briza did not speak falsely.

  Maya backed down from the confrontation, not wanting any part of a feud with Briza.

  “Could you defeat him,' Malice asked Briza, ”now that you better understand what he has become?“

  In response, Briza flexed her wounded hand again. It would be several weeks before she regained full use of the replaced fingers.

  “Or you?” Malice asked Dinin, understanding Briza's pointed gesture as a conclusive answer.

  Dinin fidgeted about, not knowing how to respond to his volatile mother. The truth might put him at odds with Malice, but a lie surely would land him back in the tunnels against his brother.

  “Speak truly with me!” Malice roared. “Do you wish another hunt for Drizzt, so that you may regain my favor?”

  “I . . :' Dinin stuttered, then he lowered his eyes defensively. Malice had put a detection spell on his reply, Dinin realized. She would know if he tried to lie to her. ”No,' he said flatly. “Even at the cost of your favor, Matron Mother, I do not wish to go out after Drizzt again:'

  Maya and Vierna-even Shi'nayne-started in surprise at the honest response, thinking nothing could be worse than a matron mother's wrath. Briza, though, nodded in agreement, for she, too, had seen as much of Drizzt as she cared to see. Malice did not miss the significance of her daughter's motion.

  “Your pardon, Matron Mother,' Dinin went on, trying desperately to heal any ill feelings he had stirred. ”I have seen Drizzt in combat. He took me down too easily-as I believed that no foe ever could. He defeated Briza fairly, and I have never seen her beaten! I do not wish to hunt my brother again, for I fear that the result would only bring more anger to you and more trouble to House Do'Urden:'

  “You are afraid?” Malice asked slyly.

  Dinin nodded. “And I know that I would only disappoint you again, Matron Mother. In the tunnels that he names as home, Drizzt is beyond my skills. I cannot hope to outdo him”。

  “I can accept such cowardice in a male,' Malice said coldly. Dinin, with no recourse, accepted the insult stoically.

  “But you are a high priestess of Lloth!” Malice taunted Briza. “Certainly a rogue male is not beyond the powers that the Spider Queen has given to you!”

  “Hear Dinin's words, my matron,' Briza replied.

  “Lloth is with you!” Shi'nayne shouted at her.

  “But Drizzt is beyond the Spider Queen,' Briza snapped back. ”I fear that Dinin speaks the truth-for all of us. We cannot catch Drizzt out there. The wilds of the Underdark are his domain, where we are only strangers.'

  “Then what are we to do?” Maya grumbled.

  Malice rested back in her throne and put her sharp chin in her palm. She had coaxed Dinin under the weight of a threat, and yet he still declared that he would not willingly venture after Drizzt. Briza, ambitious and powerful, and in the favor of Lloth even if House Do'Urden and Matron Malice were not, came back without her prized whip and the fingers of one hand.

  “Jarlaxle and his band of rogues?” Vierna offered, seeing her mother's dilemma. “Bregan D'aerthe has been of value to us for many years?'

  “The mercenary leader will not agree,' Malice replied, for she had tried to hire the soldier of fortune for the endeavor years before. ”Every member of Bregan D'aerthe abides by the decisions of Jarlaxle, and all the wealth we possess will not tempt him. I suspect that Jarlaxle is under the strict orders of Matron Baenre. Drizzt is our problem, and we are charged by the Spider Queen with correcting that problem.'

  “If you command me to go, I shall:' Dinin spoke out. ”I fear only that I will disappoint you, Matron Mother. I do not fear Drizzt's blades, or death itself if it is in service to you.' Dinin had read his mother's dark mood well enough to know that she had no intention of sending him back out after Drizzt, and he thought himself wise in being so generous when it didn't cost him anything.

  “I thank you, my son:' Malice beamed at him. Dinin had to hold his snicker when he noticed all three of his sisters glaring at him. ”Now leave us:' Malice continued condescendingly, stealing Dinin's moment. “We have business that does not concern a male.'

  Dinin bowed low and swept toward the door. His sisters took note of how easily Malice had stolen the proud spring from his step.

  “I will remember your words,' Malice said wryly, enjoying the power play and the silent applause. Dinin paused, his hand on the handle of the ornate door. ”One day you will prove your loyalty to me, do not doubt.'

  All five of the high priestesses laughed at Dinin's back as he rushed out of the room.

  On the floor, Rizzen found himself in quite a dangerous dilemma. Malice had sent Dinin away, saying in essence that males had no right to remain in the room. Yet Malice had not given Rizzen permission to move. He planted his feet and fingers against the stone, ready to spring away in an instant.

  Are you still here?“ Malice shrieked at him. Rizzen bolted for the door.

  “Hold!” Malice cried at him, her words once again empowered by a magical spell.

  Rizzen stopped suddenly, against his better judgment and unable to resist the dweomer of Matron Malice's spell.

  “I did not give you permission to move!” Malice screamed behind him.

  “But-” Rizzen started to protest.

  “Take him!” Malice commanded her two youngest daughters, and Vierna and Maya rushed over and roughly grabbed Rizzen.

  “Put him in a dungeon cell,' Malice instructed them. ”Keep him alive. We will need him later:'

  Vierna and Maya hauled the trembling male out of the anteroom. Rizzen did not dare offer any resistance.

  “You have a plan,' Shi'nayne said to Malice. As SiNafay, the matron mother of House Hun'ett, the newest Do'Urden had learned to see purpose in every action. She knew the duties of a matron mother well and understood that Malice's outburst against Rizzen, who had in fact done nothing wrong, was more of calculated design than of true outrage.

  “I agree with your assessment,' Malice said to Briza. ”Drizzt has gone beyond us:'

  “But by the words of Matron Baenre herself, we must not fail,' Briza reminded her mother. ”Your seat on the ruling council must be strengthened at all cost:'

  “We shall not fail,' Shi'nayne said to Briza, eyeing Malice all the while. Another wry look came across Malice's face as Shi'nayne continued. ”In ten years of battle against House Do'Urden,' she said, “I have come to understand the methods of Matron Malice. Your mother will find a way to catch Drizzt:' She paused, noting her ”mother's“ widening smile. ”Or has she, perhaps, already found a way?“

  “We shall see,' Malice purred, her confidence growing in her former rival's decree of respect. ”We shall see:'

  More than two hundred commoners of House Do'Urden milled about the great chapel, excitedly exchanging rumors of the coming events. Commoners were rarely allowed in this sacred place, only on the high holidays of Lloth or in communal prayer before a battle. Yet there were no expectations among them of any impending war, and this was no holy day on the drow calendar.

  Dinin Do'Urden, also anxious and excited, moved about the crowd, settling dark elves into the rows of seats encircling the raised central dais. Being only a male, Dinin would not partake of the ceremony at the altar and Matron Malice had told him nothing of her plans. From the instructions she had given him, though, Dinin knew that the results of this day's events would prove critical to the future of his family. He was the chant leader, he would continually move throughout the assembly, leading the commoners in the appropriate verses to the Spider Queen.

  Dinin had played this role often before, but this time Matron Malice had warned him that if a single voice called out incorrectly, Dinin's life would be forfeit. Still another fact disturbed the elderboy of House Do'Urden. He was normally accompanied in his chapel duties by the other male noble of the house, Malice's present mate. Rizzen had not been seen since that day when the whole family had gathered in the anteroom. Dinin suspected that Rizzen's reign as patron soon would come to a crashing end. It was no secret that Matron Malice had given previous mates to Lloth.

  When all of the commoners were seated, magical red lights began to glow softly all about the room. The illumination increased gradually, allowing the gathered dark elves to comfortably shift their dual-purpose eyes from the infrared spectrum into the realm of light.

  Misty vapors rolled out from under the seats, hugged the floor, and rose in curling wisps. Dinin led the crowd in a low hum, the calling of Matron Malice.

  Malice appeared at the top of the room's domed ceiling, her arms outstretched and the folds of her spider-emblazoned black robes whipping about in an enchanted breeze. She descended slowly, turning complete circuits to survey the gathering-and to let them look upon the splendor that was their matron mother.

  When Malice alighted on the central dais, Briza and Shi'nayne appeared on the ceiling, floating down in similar fashion. They landed and took their places, Briza at the cloth-covered case off to the side of the spider-shaped sacrificial table and Shi'nayne behind Matron Malice.

  Malice clapped her hands and the humming stopped abruptly. Eight braziers lining the central dais roared to life, their flames' brightness less painful to the sensitive drow eyes in the red, mist-enshrouded glow.

  “Enter, my daughters!,' Malice cried, and all heads turned to the chapel's main doors. Vierna and Maya came in, with Rizzen, sluggish and apparently drugged, supported between them and a casket floating in the air behind them.

  Dinin, among others, thought this an odd arrangement. He could assume, he supposed, that Rizzen was to be sacrificed, but he had never heard of a coffin being brought in to the ceremony.

  The younger Do'Urden daughters moved up to the central dais and quickly strapped Rizzen down to the sacrificial table. Shi'nayne intercepted the floating casket and guided it to a position off to the side opposite Briza.

  “Call to the handmaiden!” Malice cried, and Dinin immediately sent the gathering into the desired chant. The braziers roared higher, Malice and the other high priestesses prodded the crowd on with magically enhanced shouts of key words in the summoning. A sudden wind came up from nowhere, it seemed, and whipped the mist into a frenzied dance.

  The flames of all eight braziers shot out in high lines over Malice and the others, joining in a furious burst above the center of the circular platform. The braziers puffed once in a unified explosion, throwing the last of their flames into the summoning, then burned low as the lines of fire rolled together in a gathered ball and became a singular pillar of flame.

  The commoners gasped but continued their chanting as the pillar rolled through the colors of the spectrum, gradually cooling until the flames were no more. In their place stood a tentacled creature, taller than a drow elf and resembling a half-melted candle with elongated, drooping facial features. All the crowd recognized the being, though few commoners had ever actually seen one before, except perhaps in illustrations in the clerical books. All in attendance knew well enough the importance of this gathering at that moment, for no drow could possibly miss the significance of the presence of a yochlol, a personal handmaiden of Lloth.

  “Greetings, Handmaiden,' Malice said loudly. ”Blessed is Daermon N'a'shezbaernon for your presence:'

  The yochlol surveyed the gathering for a long while, surprised that House Do'Urden had issued such a summons. Matron Malice was not in the favor of Lloth.

  Only the high priestesses felt the telepathic question. Why dare you call to me?

  “To right our wrongs!” Malice cried out aloud, drawing the whole of the gathering into the tense moment. “To regain the favor of your Mistress, the favor that is the only purpose of our existence!” Malice looked pointedly at Dinin, and he began the correct song, the highest song of praise to the Spider Queen.

  I am pleased by your display, Matron Malice, came the yochlol's thoughts, this time directed solely at Malice. But you know that this gathering does nothing to aid in your peril!

  This is but the beginning, Malice answered mentally, confident that the handmaiden could read her every thought. The matron took comfort in that knowledge, for she held faith that her desires to regain the favor of Lloth were sincere. My youngest son has wronged the Spider Queen. He must pay for his deeds.

  The other high priestesses, excluded from the telepathic conversation, joined in the song to Lloth.

  Drizzt Do'Urden lives, the yochlol reminded Malice. And he is not in your custody.

  That shall soon be corrected, Malice promised.

  What do you desire of me?

  “Zin-carla!” Malice cried aloud.

  The yochlol swayed backward, momentarily stunned by the boldness of the request. Malice held her ground, determined that her plan would not fail. Around her, the other priestesses held their breath, fully realizing that the moment of triumph or disaster was upon them all.

  It is our highest gift, came the yochlol's thoughts, given rarely even to matrons in the favor of the Spider Queen. And you, who have not pleased Lloth, dare to ask for Zin-carla?

  It is right and fitting, Malice replied. Then aloud, needing the support of her family, she cried, “Let my youngest son learn the folly of his ways and the power of the enemies he has made. Let my son witness the horrible glory of Lloth revealed, so that he will fall to his knees and beg forgiveness!” Malice reverted to telepathic communication. Only then shall the spirit-wraith drive a sword into his heart!

  The yochlol's eyes went blank as the creature fell into itself, seeking guidance from its home plane of existence. Many minutes-agonizing minutes to Matron Malice and all of the hushed gathering-passed before the yochlol's thoughts came back. Have you the corpse?

  Malice signaled to Maya and Vierna, and they rushed over to the casket and removed the stone lid. Dinin understood then that the box was not brought for Rizzen, but was already occupied. An animated corpse crawled out of it and staggered over to Malice's side. It was badly decomposed and many of its features had rotted away altogether, but Dinin and most of the others in the great chapel recognized it immediately: Zaknafein Do'Urden, the legendary weapon master.

  Zin-carla, the yochlol asked, so that the weapon master you gave to the Spider Queen might correct the wrongs of your youngest son?

  It is appropriate, Malice replied. She sensed that the yochlol was pleased, as she had expected. Zaknafein, Drizzt's tutor, had helped to inspire the blasphemous attitudes that had ruined Drizzt. Lloth, the queen of chaos, enjoyed ironies, and to have this same Zaknafein serve as executioner would inevitably please her.

  Zin-carla requires great sacrifice, came the yochlol's demand. The creature looked over to the spider-shaped table, where Rizzen lay oblivious to his surroundings. The yochlol seemed to frown, if such creatures could frown, at the sight of such a pitiful sacrifice. The creature then turned back to Matron Malice and read her thoughts.

  Do continue, the yochlol prompted, suddenly very interested.

  Malice lifted her arms, beginning yet another song to Lloth. She motioned to Shi'nayne, who walked to the case beside Briza and took out the ceremonial dagger, the most precious possession of House Do'Urden. Briza flinched when she saw her newest “sister” handle the item, its hilt the body of a spider with eight blade like legs reaching down under it. For centuries it had been Briza's place to drive the ceremonial dagger into the hearts of gifts to the Spider Queen.

  Shi'nayne smirked at the eldest daughter as she walked away, sensing Briza's anger. She joined Malice at the table beside Rizzen and moved the dagger out over the doomed patron's heart.

  Malice grabbed her hands to stop her. “This time I must do it,' Malice explained, to Shi'nayne's dismay. Shi'nayne looked back over her shoulder to see Briza returning her smirk tenfold.

  Malice waited until the song had ended, and the gathering remained absolutely silent as Malice alone began the proper chant. “Thkken bres duis bres,' she began, both her hands wringing over the hilt of the deadly instrument.

  A moment later, Malice's chant neared completion and the dagger went up high. All the house tensed, awaiting the moment of ecstacy, the savage giving to the foul Spider Queen.

  The dagger came down, but Malice turned it abruptly to the side and drove it instead into the heart of Shi'nayne, Matron SiNafay Hun'ett, her most hated rival.

  “No!” gasped SiNafay, but the deed was done. Eight blade-legs grasped at her heart. SiNafay tried to speak, to cast a spell of healing on herself or a curse upon Malice, but only blood came out of her mouth. Gasping her last breaths, she fell forward over Rizzen.

  All the house erupted in screams of shock and joy as Malice tore the dagger out from under SiNafay Hun'ett, and her enemy's heart along with it. “Devious!” Briza screamed above the tumult, for even she had not known Malice's plans. Once again, Briza was the eldest daughter of House Do'Urden, back in the position of honor that she so dearly craved.

  Devious! the yochlol echoed in Malice's mind. Know that we are pleased!

  Behind the gruesome scene, the animated corpse fell limply to the floor. Malice looked at the handmaiden and understood. “Put Zaknafein on the table! Quickly!” she instructed her younger daughters. They scrambled about, roughly displacing Rizzen and SiNafay and getting Zaknafein's body in place.

  Briza, too, went into motion, carefully lining up the many jars of unguents that had been painstakingly prepared for this moment. Matron Malice's reputation as the finest salve maker in the city would be put to the test in this effort.

  Malice looked at the yochlol. “Zin-carla?” she asked aloud.

  You have not regained the favor of Lloth! came the telepathic reply, so powerfully that Malice was driven to her knees. Malice clutched at her head, thinking it would explode from the building pressure. Gradually the pain eased away. But you have pleased the Spider Queen this day, Malice Do'Urden, the yochlol explained…… And it is agreed that your plans for your sacrilegious son are appropriate. Zin-carla is granted, but know it as your final chance, Matron Malice Do'Urden! Your greatest fears cannot begin to approach the truth of the consequences of failure!

  The yochlol disappeared in an explosive fireball that rocked the chapel of House Do'Urden. Those gathered only rose to a higher frenzy at the bared power of the evil deity, and Dinin led them again in a song of praise to Lloth.

  “Ten weeks!” came the final cry of the handmaiden, a voice so mighty that the lesser drow covered their ears and cowered on the floor.

  And so for ten weeks, for seventy cycles of Narbondel, the daily time clock of Menzoberranzan, all of House Do'Urden gathered in the great chapel, Dinin and Rizzen leading the commoners in songs to the Spider Queen, while Malice and her daughters worked over Zaknafein's corpse with magical salves and combinations of powerful spells.

  The animation of a corpse was a simple spell for a priestess, but Zin-carla went far beyond that feat. Spirit-wraith, the undead result would be called, a zombie imbued with the skills of its former life and controlled by the matron mother appointed by Lloth. It was the most precious of Lloth's gifts, rarely asked for and

  even more rarely granted, for Zin-carla-returning the spirit to the body-was a risky practice indeed. Only through the sheer willpower of the enchanting priestess were the undead being's desired skills kept separate from the unwanted memories and emotions. The edge of consciousness and control was a fine line to walk, even considering the mental discipline required of a high priestess. Furthermore, Lloth only granted Zin-carla for the completion of specific tasks, and stumbling from that fine line of discipline inevitably would result in failure.

  Lloth was not merciful in the face of failure.

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