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Homeland (part 2 chapter 13)

2006-08-28 22:23

  CHAPTER 13

  A LITTLE PLACE TO CALL HOME

  “Enough. Enough!” the winded burrow-warden gasped at Drizzt, trying to slow his companion. “Magga cammara, dark elf. We have left them far behind:'

  Drizzt spun on the burrow-warden, scimitars ready in hand and angry fires burning still in his lavender eyes. Belwar backed away quickly and cautiously.

  “Calm, my friend,' the svirfneblin said quietly, but despite the reassurance, the burrow-warden's mithril hands came defensively in front of him. ”The threat to us is ended:'

  Drizzt breathed deeply to steady himself, then, realizing that he had not put his scimitars away, promptly slipped them into their sheaths.

  “Are you all right?” Belwar asked, moving back to Drizzt's side. Blood smeared the drow's face from where he had slammed into the side of the walkway.

  Drizzt nodded. “It was the fight,' he tried vainly to explain. ”The excitement. I had to let go of-“

  “You need not explain,' Belwar cut him short. ”You did fine, dark elf. Better than fine. Had it not been for your actions, we, all three, surely would have fallen:'

  “It came back to me,' Drizzt groaned, searching for the words that could explain. ”That darker part of me. I had thought it gone:'

  “It is,' the burrow-warden said.

  “No.' argued Drizzt. ”That cruel beast that I have become possessed me fully against those bird-men. It guided my blades, savagely and without mercy:'

  “You guided your own blades,' Belwar assured him.

  “But the rage, replied Drizzt. ”The unthinking rage. All I wanted to do was kill them and hack them down:'

  “If that was the truth, we would be there still.' reasoned the svirfneblin. ”By your actions, we escaped. There are many more of the bird-men back there to be killed, yet you led the way from the chamber. Rage? Perhaps, but surely not unthinking rage. You did as you had to do, and you did it well, dark elf. Better than anyone I have ever seen. Do not apologize, to me or to yourself!“

  Drizzt leaned back against the wall to consider the words. He was comforted by the deep gnome's reasoning and appreciated Belwar's efforts. Still, though, the burning fires of rage he had felt when Guenhwyvar fell into the acid lake haunted him, an emotion so overwhelming that Drizzt had not yet come to terms with it. He wondered if he ever would.

  In spite of his uneasiness, though, Drizzt felt comforted by the presence of his svirfneblin friend. He remembered other encounters of the last years, battles he had been forced to fight alone. Then, like now, the hunter had welled within him, had come to the fore and guided the deadly strikes of his blades. But there was a difference this time that Drizzt could not deny. Before, when he was alone, the

  hunter did not so readily depart. Now, with Belwar by his side, Drizzt was fully back in control.

  Drizzt shook his thick white mane, trying to dismiss any last remnants of the hunter. He thought himself foolish now for the way he had begun the battle against the bird-men, slapping with the flat of his blades. He and Belwar might be in the cavern still if Drizzt's instinctive side had not emerged, if he had not learned of Guenhwyvar's fall.

  He looked at Belwar suddenly, remembering the inspiration of his anger. “The statuette!” he cried. “You have it:'

  Belwar scooped the item out of his pocket. “Magga cammara!” Belwar exclaimed, his round-toned voice edged with panic. “Might the panther be wounded? What effect would the acid have against Guenhwyvar? Might the panther have escaped to the Astral Plane?”

  Drizzt took the figurine and examined it in trembling hands, taking comfort in the fact that it was not marred in any way. Drizzt believed that he should wait before calling Guenhwyvar, if the panther was injured, it surely would heal better at rest in its own plane of existence. But Drizzt could not wait to learn of Guenhwyvar's fate. He placed the figurine down on the ground at his feet and called out softly.

  Both the drow and the svirfneblin sighed audibly when the mist began to swirl around the onyx statue. Belwar took out his enchanted brooch to better observe the cat.

  A dreadful sight awaited them. Obediently, faithfully, Guenhwyvar came to Drizzt's summons, but as soon as the drow saw the panther, he knew that he should have left

  Guenhwyvar alone so that it might lick its wounds. Guenhwyvar's silken black coat was burned and showing more patches of scalded skin than fur. Once-sleek muscles hung ragged, burned from the bone, and one eye remained closed and horribly scarred.

  Guenhwyvar stumbled, trying to get to Drizzt's side. Drizzt rushed to Guenhwyvar instead, dropping to his knees and throwing a gentle hug around the panther's huge neck. “Guen:' he mumbled.

  “Will it heal?” Belwar asked softly, his voice nearly breaking apart on every word.

  Drizzt shook his head, at a loss. Really, he knew very little about the panther beyond its abilities as his companion. Drizzt had seen Guenhwyvar wounded before, but never seriously. Now he could only hope that the magical extraplanar properties would allow Guenhwyvar to recover fully.

  “Go back home:' Drizzt said. ”Rest and get well, my friend. I will call for you in a few days:'

  “Perhaps we can give some aid now,' Belwar offered.

  Drizzt knew the futility of that suggestion. “Guenhwyvar will better heal at rest:' he explained as the cat dissipated into the mist again. ”We can do nothing for Guenhwyvar that will carry over to the other plane. Being here in our world taxes the panther's strength. Every minute takes a toll.'

  Guenhwyvar was gone and only the figurine remained. Drizzt picked it up and studied it for a very long time before he could bear to drop it back into a pocket.

  A sword flicked the bedroll up into the air, then slashed and cut beside its sister blade until the blanket was no more than a tattered rag. Zaknafein glanced down at the silver coins on the floor. Such an obvious dupe, but the camp, and the prospect of Drizzt returning to it, had kept Zaknafein at bay for several days!

  Drizzt Do'Urden was gone, and he had taken great pains to announce his departure from Blingdenstone. The spirit-wraith paused to consider this new bit of information, and the necessity of thought, of tapping into the rational being that Zaknafein had been on more than an instinctive level, brought the inevitable conflict between this undead animation and the spirit of the being it held captive.

  Back in her anteroom, Matron Malice Do'Urden felt the struggle within her creation. In Zin-carla, control of the spirit-wraith remained the responsibility of the matron mother that the Spider Queen graced with the gift. Malice had to work hard at the appointed task, had to spit off a succession of chants and spells to insinuate herself between the thought processes of the spirit-wraith and the emotions and soul of Zaknafein Do'Urden.

  The spirit-wraith lurched as he felt the intrusions of Malice's powerful will. It proved to be no contest, in barely a second, the spirit-wraith was studying the small chamber Drizzt and one other being, probably a deep gnome, had disguised as a campsite. They were gone now, weeks out, and no doubt moving away from Blingdenstone with all speed. Probably, the spirit-wraith reasoned, moving away from Menzoberranzan as well.

  Zaknafein moved outside the chamber into the main tunnel. He sniffed one way, back east toward Menzoberranzan, then turned and dropped to a crouch and sniffed again. The location spells Malice had imbued upon Zaknafein could not cover such distances, but the minute sensations the spirit-wraith received from his inspection only confirmed his suspicions. Drizzt had gone west.

  Zaknafein walked off down the tunnel, not the slightest limp evident from the wound he had received at the end of a goblin's spear, a wound that would have crippled a mortal being. He was more than a week behind Drizzt, maybe two, but the spirit-wraith was not concerned. His prey had to sleep, had to rest and eat. His prey was flesh, and mortal and weak.

  “What manner of being is it?” Drizzt whispered to Belwar as they watched the curious bipedal creature filling buckets in a fast-running stream. This entire area of the tunnels was magically lighted, but Drizzt and Belwar felt safe enough in the shadows of a rocky outcropping a few dozen yards from the stooping robed figure.

  “A man,' Belwar replied. ”Human, from the surface.'

  “He is a long way from home,' Drizzt remarked. ”Yet he seems comfortable in his surroundings. I would not believe that a surface-dweller could survive in the Underdark. It goes against the teachings I received in the Academy:'

  “Probably a wizard,' Belwar reasoned. ”That would account for the light in this region. And it would account for his being here:'

  Drizzt looked at the svirfneblin curiously.

  “A strange lot are wizards,' Belwar explained, as though the truth was self-evident. ”Human wizards, even more than any others, so I've heard tell. Drow wizards practice for power. Svirfneblin wizards practice the arts to better know the stone. But human wizards, the deep gnome went on, obvious disdain in his tone. “Magga cammara, dark elf, human wizards are a different lot altogether!”

  “Why do human wizards practice the art of magic at all?” Drizzt asked.

  Belwar shook his head. “I do not believe that any scholars have yet discovered the reason,' he replied in all sincerity. ”A strange and dangerously unpredictable race are the humans, and better to be left alone:'

  “You have met some?”

  “A few:' Belwar shuddered, as though the memory was not a pleasant one. ”Traders from the surface. Ugly things, and arrogant. The whole of the world is only for them, by their thinking:'

  The resonant voice rang out a bit more loudly than Belwar had intended, and the robed figure by the stream cocked his head in the companions' direction.

  “Comen out, leetle rodents,' the human called in a language that the companions could not understand. The wizard reiterated the request in another tongue, then in drow, and then in two more unknown tongues, and then in svirfneblin. He continued on for many minutes, Drizzt and Belwar looking at each other in disbelief.

  “He is a learned man,' Drizzt whispered to the deep gnome.

  “Rats, probably,' the human muttered to himself. He glanced around, seeking some way to flush out the unseen noisemakers, thinking that the creatures might provide a fine meal.

  “Let us learn if he is friend or foe,' Drizzt whispered, and he started to move out from the concealment. Belwar stopped him and looked at him doubtfully, but then, with no recourse other than his own instincts, he shrugged and let Drizzt move on.

  “Greetings, human so far from home,' Drizzt said in his native language, stepping out from behind the outcropping.

  The human's eyes went hysterically wide and he pulled roughly on his scraggly white beard. “You ist notten a rat” he shrieked in strained but understandable drow.

  “No.' Drizzt said. He looked back to Belwar, who was moving out to join him.

  “Thieves!” the human cried. “Comen to shteal my home, ist you?”

  “No.' Drizzt said again.

  “Go avay!” the human yelled, waving his hands as a farmer would to shoo chickens. “Getten. Go on, qvickly nowl”

  Drizzt and Belwar exchanged curious glances.

  “No.' Drizzt said a third time.

  “Thees ist my home, stupit dark elven!” the human spat.

  “Did I asket you to comen here? Did I sent a letter invititing you to join me in my home? Or perhapst you and your oogiy little friend simply consider it your duty to velcome me to the neighborhoodl”

  “Careful, drow:' Belwar whispered as the human rambled on. ”He's a wizard, for sure, and a shaky one, even by human standards:'

  “Oren maybe bot the drow ant deep gnome races fear of me?” the human mused, more to himself than to the intruders. “Yes, of course. They have heard that I Brister

  Fendlestick, decided to take to the corridors of the Underdark and have joined forces to protecket themselvens against me! Yes, yes, it all seems so clear, and so pititiful, to me now!“

  “I have fought wizards before,' Drizzt replied to Belwar under his breath. ”Let us hope that we can settle this without blows. Whatever must happen, though, know that I have no desire to return the way we came:' Belwar nodded his grim agreement as Drizzt turned back to the human.

  “Perhaps we can convince him simply to let us pass,' Drizzt whispered.

  The human trembled on the verge of an explosion. “Fine!” he screamed suddenly. “Then do not getten away!” Drizzt saw his error in thinking that he might reason with this one. The drow started forward, meaning to close in before the wizard could launch any attacks.

  But the human had learned to survive in the Underdark, and his defenses were in place long before Drizzt and Belwar ever appeared around the rocky outcropping. He waved his hands and uttered a single word that the companions could not understand. A ring on his finger glowed brightly and loosed a tiny ball of fire up into the air between him and the intruders.

  “Velcome to my home, then!” the wizard yelled triumphantly. “Play with this!” He snapped his fingers and vanished.

  Drizzt and Belwar could feel the explosive energy gathering around the glowing orb.

  “Run!” the burrow-warden cried, and he turned to flee. In Blingdenstone, most of the magic was illusionary, designed for defense. But in Menzoberranzan, where Drizzt had learned of magic, the spells were undeniably offensive. Drizzt knew the wizard's attack, and he knew that in these narrow and low corridors, flight would not be an option.

  “No!” he cried, and he grabbed the back of Belwar's leather jack and pulled the deep gnome along, straight toward the glowing orb. Belwar knew to trust in Drizzt, and he turned and ran willingly beside his friend. The burrow-warden understood the drow's plan as soon as his eyes managed to tear away from the spectacle of the orb. Drizzt was making for the stream.

  The friends dived headlong into the water, bouncing and scraping on the stones, just as the fireball exploded.

  A moment later, they rose up from the steaming water, wisps of smoke rising from the back of their clothing, which had not been submerged. They coughed and sputtered, for the flames had temporarily stolen the air from the chamber, and the residual heat from the glowing stones nearly overwhelmed them.

  “Humans,' Belwar muttered grimly. He pulled himself from the water and shook vigorously. Drizzt came out beside him and couldn't hide his laughter. The deep gnome, though, found no levity at all in the situation. ”The wizard,' he pointedly reminded Drizzt. Drizzt dropped into a crouch and glanced nervously all around.

  They set off at once.

  “Home!” Belwar proclaimed a couple of days later. The two friends looked down from a narrow ledge at a wide and high cavern that housed an underground lake. Behind them was a three-chambered cave with only a single tiny entrance, easily defensible.

  Drizzt climbed the ten or so feet to stand by his friend on the top-most ledge. “Possibly,' he tentatively agreed, ”though we left the wizard only a few days' walk from here:'

  “Forget the human,' Belwar snarled, glancing over at the burn mark on his precious jack.

  “And I am not so fond of having so large a pool only a few feet from our door,' Drizzt continued.

  “With fish it is filled” the burrow-warden argued. “ Andwith mosses and plants that will keep our bellies full, and water that seems clean enough!”

  “But such an oasis will attract visitors,' reasoned Drizzt. ”We would find little rest, I fear:'

  Belwar looked down the sheer wall to the floor of the large cavern. “Never a problem,' he said with a snicker. ”The bigger ones cannot get up here, and the smaller ones. . .

  well, I have seen the cut of your blades, and you have seen the strength of my hands. About the smaller ones I shall not worry!“

  Drizzt liked the svirfneblin's confidence, and he had to agree that they had found no other place suitable for use as a dwelling. Water, hard to find and, more often than not, undrinkable, was a precious commodity in the dry Underdark. With the lake and the growth about it, Drizzt and Belwar would never have to travel far to find a meal.

  Drizzt was about to agree, but then a movement down by the water caught his and Belwar's attention.

  “And crabs!” spouted the svirfneblin, obviously not having the same reaction to the sight as the drow. “Magga cammara, dark elf! Crabs! As fme a meal as ever you will find!”

  Indeed it was a crab that had slipped out of the lake, a gigantic, twelve-foot monster with pincers that could snap a human-or an elf or a gnome-fully in half. Drizzt looked at Belwar incredulously. “A meal?” he asked.

  Belwar's smile rolled right up around his crinkled nose as he banged his hammer and pick hands together.

  They ate crab meat that night, and the day after that, and the day after that, and the day after that, and Drizzt soon was quite willing to agree that the three-chambered cave by the underground lake made a fme home.

  The spirit-wraith paused to consider the red-glowing field. In life, Zaknafein Do'Urden would have avoided such a patch, respecting the inherent dangers of odd-glowing rooms and luminous mosses. But to the spirit-wraith the trail was clear, Drizzt had come this way.

  The spirit-wraith waded in, ignoring the noxious puffs of deadly spores that shot up at him with every step, choking spores that filled the lungs of unfortunate creatures.

  But Zaknafein did not draw breath.

  Then came the rumbling as the grubber rushed to protect its domain. Zaknafein fell into a defensive crouch, the instincts of the being he once had been sensing

  the danger. The grubber rolled into the glowing moss patch but noticed no intruder to chase away. It moved in anyway, thinking that a meal of baruchies might not be such a bad thing.

  When the grubber reached the center of the chamber, the spirit-wraith let his levitation spell dissipate. Zaknafein landed on the monster's back, locking his legs fast. The grubber thrashed and thundered about the room, but Zaknafein's balance did not waver. The grubber's hide was thick and tough, able to repel all but the finest of weapons, which Zaknafein possessed.

  “What was that?” Belwar asked one day, stopping his work on the new door blocking their cave opening. Down by the pool, Drizzt apparently had heard the sound as well, for he had dropped the helmet he was using to fetch some water and had drawn both scimitars. He held a hand up to keep the burrow-warden silent, then picked his way back to the ledge for a quiet conversation.

  The sound, a loud clacking noise, came again.

  “You know it, dark elf?'” Belwar asked softly.

  Drizzt nodded. “Hook horrors,' he replied, ”possessing the keenest hearing in all the Underdark:' Drizzt kept his recollections of his sole encounter with this type of monster to himself. It had occurred during a patrol exercise, with Drizzt leading his Academy class through the tunnels outside Menzoberranzan. The patrol came upon a group of the giant, bipedal creatures with exoskeletons as hard as plated metal armor and powerful beaks and claws. The drow patrol, mostly through Drizzt's exploits, had won the day, but what Drizzt remembered most keenly was his belief that the encounter had been an exercise planned by the masters of the Academy, and that they had sacrificed an innocent drow child to the hook horrors for the sake of realism.

  “Let us find them,' Drizzt said quietly but grimly. Belwar paused to catch his breath when he saw the dangerous simmer in the drow's lavender eyes.

  “Hook horrors are dangerous rivals,' Drizzt explained, noticing the deep gnome's hesitation. ”We cannot allow them to roam the region:'

  Following the clacking noises, Drizzt had little trouble closing in. He silently picked his way around a final bend with Belwar close by his side. In a wider section of the corridor stood a single hook horror, banging its heavy claws rhythmically against the stone as a svirfneblin miner might use his pickaxe.

  Drizzt held Belwar back, indicating that he could dispatch the monster quickly if he could sneak in on it without being noticed. Belwar agreed but remained poised to join in at the first opportunity or need.

  The hook horror, obviously engaged in its game with the stone wall, did not hear or see the approaching stealthy drow. Drizzt came right in beside the monster, looking for the easiest and fastest way to dispatch it. He saw only one opening in the exoskeleton, a slit between the creature's breastplate and its wide neck. Getting a blade in there could be a bit of a problem, though, for the hook horror was nearly ten feet tall.

  But the hunter found the solution. He came in hard and fast at the hook horror's knee, butting with both his shoulders and bringing his blades up into the creature's crotch.

  The hook horror's legs buckled, and it tumbled back over the drow. As agile as any cat, Drizzt rolled out and sprang on top of the felled monster, both his blades coming tip in at the slit in the armor.

  He could have finished the hook horror at once, his scimitars easily could have slipped through the bony defenses. But Drizzt saw something-terror?-on the hook horror's face, something in the creature's expression that should not have been there. He forced the hunter back inside, took control of his swords, and hesitated for just a second-long enough for the hook horror, to Drizzt's absolute amazement, to speak in clear and proper drow language, “Please do……not ……kill. . . me.”

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