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Homeland (part 1 chapter 25)

2006-08-28 22:09

  Chapter 25 The Weapon Masters

  “Impudent!” growled the yochlol. The fire in the brazier puffed, and the creature again stood behind Malice, again draped dangerous tentacles over the matron mother. “You dare to summon me again?”

  Malice and her daughters glanced around, on the edge of panic. They knew that the mighty being was not toying with them; the handmaiden truly was enraged this time.

  “House Do'Urden pleased the Spider Queen, it is true” the

  yochlol answered their unspoken thoughts, “but that one act does not dispel the displeasure your family brought upon Lloth in the recent past. Do not think that all is for-given, Matron Malice Do'Urden!”

  How small and vulnerable Matron Malice felt now! Her power paled in the face of the wrath of one of Lloth's per- sonal servants.

  “Displeasure?” she dared to whisper. “How has my family brought displeasure to the Spider Queen? By what act?”

  The handmaiden's laughter erupted in a spout of flames and flying spiders, but the high priestesses held their posi- tions. They accepted the heat and the crawling things as part of their penance.

  “I have told you before, Matron Malice Do'Urden” the yochlol snarled with its droopy mouth, “and I shall tell you one final time. The Spider Queen does not reply to ques-tions whose answers are already known!” In a blast' of ex-plosive energy that sent the four females of House

  Do'Urden tumbling to the floor, the handmaiden was gone.

  Briza was the first to recover. She prudently rushed over to the brazier and smothered the remaining flames, thus closing the gate to the Abyss, the yochlol's home plane.

  “Who?” screamed Malice, the powerful matriarch once again. “Who in my family has invoked the wrath of Lloth?”

  Malice appeared small again then, as the implications of the yochlol's warning became all too clear. House Do'Urden was about to go to war with a powerful family. Without Lloth's favor, House Do'Urden likely would cease to exist.

  “We must find the perpetrator” Malice instructed her daughters, certain that none of them was involved. They were high priestesses, one and all. If any of them had done some misdeed in the eyes of the Spider Queen, the sum-moned yochlol surely would have exacted punishment on the spot. By itself, the handmaiden could have leveled House Do'Urden.

  Briza pulled the snake whip from her belt. “I will get the

  information we require!“ she promised.

  “No!” said Matron Malice. “We must not reveal our search.

  Be it a soldier or a member of House Do'Urden, the guilty one is trained and hardened against pain. We cannot hope that torture will pull the confession from his lips; not when he knows the consequences of his actions. We must dis-cover the cause of Lloth's displeasure immediately and properly punish the criminal. The Spider Queen must stand behind us in our struggles!“

  “How, then, are we to discern the perpetrator?” the eldest daughter complained, reluctantly replacing the snake whip on her belt.

  “Vierna and Maya, leave us” Matron Malice instructed.

  “Say nothing of these revelations and do nothing to hint at our purpose”

  The two younger daughters bowed and scurried away, not happy with their secondary roles but unable to do any-thing about them.

  “First we will look” Malice said to Briza. “We will see if we can learn of the guilty one from afar”

  Briza understood. “The scrying bowl” she said. She rushed from the anteroom and into the chapel proper. In the central altar she found the valuable item, a wide golden bowl laced throughout with black pearls. Hands trembling, Briza placed the bowl atop the altar and reached into the most sacred of the many compartments. This was the hold- ing bin for the prized possession of House Do'Urden, a great onyx chalice.

  Malice then joined Briza in the chapel proper and took the chalice from her. Moving to the large font at the entrance to the great room, Malice dipped the chalice into a sticky fluid, the unholy water of her religion. She then chanted, “Spide-rae aught icor ven” The ritual complete, Malice moved back to the altar and poured the unholy water into the golden bowl.

  She and Briza sat down to watch.

  Drizzt stepped onto the floor of Zaknafein's training gym for the first time in more than a decade and felt as if he had come home. He'd spent the best years of his young life here-almost wholly here. For all the disappointments he had encountered since-and no doubt would continue to experience throughout his life-Drizzt would never forget that brief sparkle of innocence, that joy, he had known when he was a student in Zaknafein's gym.

  Zaknafein entered and walked over to face his former stu-dent. Drizzt saw nothing familiar or comforting in the weapon master's face. A perpetual scowl now replaced the once common smile. It was an angry demeanor that hated everything around it, perhaps Drizzt most of all. Or had Zaknafein always worn such a grimace? Drizzt had to won-der. Had nostalgia glossed over Drizzt's memories of those years of early training? Was this mentor, who had so often warmed Drizzt's heart with a lighthearted chuckle, actually. the cold, lurking monster that Drizzt now saw before him?

  “Which has changed, Zaknafein” Drizzt asked aloud,

  “you, my memories, or my perceptions?”

  Zak seemed not even to hear the whispered question.

  “Ah, the young hero has returned” he said, “the warrior with exploits beyond his years”

  “Why do you mock me?” Dnzzt protested.

  “He who killed the hook horrors” Zak continued. His swords were out in his hands now, and Drizzt responded by drawing his scimitars. There was no need to ask the rules of engagement in this contest, or the choice of weap-ons.

  Drizzt knew, had known before he had ever come here, that there would be no rules this time. The weapons would be their weapons of preference, the blades that each of them had used to kill so many foes.

  “He who killed the earth elemental” Zak snarled deri-sively. He launched a measured attack, a simple lunge with one blade. Drizzt batted it aside without even thinking of

  the parry.

  Sudden fires erupted in Zak's eyes, as if the first contact had sundered all the emotional bonds that had tempered his thrust. “He who killed the girl child of the surface elves!” he cried, an accusation and no compliment. Now came the sec-ond attack, vicious and powerful, an arcing swipe descend-ing at Drizzt's head. “Who cut her apart to appease his own thirst for blood!”

  Zak's words knocked Dnzzt off his guard emotionally, wrapped his heart in confusion like some devious mental whip. Drizzt was a seasoned warrior, though, and his re-flexes did not register the emotional distraction. A scimitar came up to catch the descending sword and deflected it harmlessly aside.

  “Murderer!” Zak snarled openly. “Did you enjoy the dying child's screams?” He came at Drizzt in a furious whirl, swords dipping and diving, slicing at every angle.

  Drizzt, enraged by the hypocrite's accusations, matched the fury, screaming out for no better reason than to hear the anger of his own voice.

  Any watching the battle would have found no breath in the next few blurring moments. Never had the Underdark witnessed such a vicious fight as when these two masters of the blade each attacked the demon possessing the other-and himself.

  Adamantite sparked and nicked, droplets of blood spat. tered both the combatants, though neither felt any pain, , and neither knew if he'd injured the other.

  Drizzt came with a two-blade sidelong swipe that drove Zak's swords out wide. Zak followed the motion quickly, turned a complete circle, and slammed back into Drizzt's thrusting scimitars with enough force to knock the young warrior from his feet. Drizzt fell into a roll and came back up to meet his charging adversary.

  A thought came over him.

  Drizzt came up high, too high, and Zak drove him back on his heels. Drizzt knew what would soon be coming; he in-

  vited it openly. Zak kept Drizzt's weapons high through sev. eral combined maneuvers. He then went with the move that had defeated Drizzt in the past, expecting that the best Drizzt could attain would be equal footing: double-thrust low.

  Drizzt executed the appropriate cross-down parry, as he had to, and Zak tensed, waiting for his eager opponent to try to improve the move. “Child killer!” he growled, goading on Drizzt.

  He didn't know that Drizzt had found the solution. With all the anger he had ever known, all the disappoint-ments of his young life gathering within his foot, Drizzt fo- cused on Zak. That smug face, feigning smiles and drooling for blood.

  Between the hilts, between the eyes, Drizzt kicked, blow-ing out every ounce of rage in a single blow.

  Zak's nose crunched flat. His eyes lolled upward, and blood exploded over his hollow cheeks. Zak knew that he was falling, that the devilish young warrior would be on him in a flash, gaining an advantage that Zak could not hope to overcome.

  “What of you, Zaknafein Do'Urden?” he heard Drizzt snarl, distantly, as though he were falling far away. “I have heard of the exploits of House Do'Urden's weapon master!

  How he so enjoys killing!“ The voice was closer now, as

  Drizzt stalked in, and as the rebounding rage of Zaknafein sent him spiraling back to the battle.

  “I have heard how murder comes so very easily to Zakna-fein!” Drizzt spat derisively. “The murder of clerics, of other drow! Do you so enjoy it all?” He ended the question with a blow from each scimitar, attacks meant to kill Zak, to kill the demon in them both.

  But Zaknafein was now fully back to consciousness, hat-ing himself and Drizzt equally. At the last moment, his swords came up and crossed, lightning fast, throwing Drizzt's arms wide. Then Zak finished with a kick of his own, not so strong from the prone position but accurate in

  its search for Drizzt's groin.

  Drizzt sucked in his breath and twirled away, forcing himself back into composure when he saw Zaknafein, still dazed, rising to his feet. “Do you so enjoy it all?” he managed to ask again.

  “Enjoy?” the weapon master echoed.

  “Does it bring you pleasure?” Drizzt grimaced.

  “Satisfaction!” Zak corrected. “I kill. Yes, I kill”

  “You teach others to kill!”

  “To kill drow!” Zak roared, and he was back in Drizzt's face, his weapons up but waiting for Drizzt to make the next move.

  Zak's words again entwined Drizzt in a mesh of confu-sion. Who was this drow standing before him?

  “Do you think that your mother would let me live if I did not serve her evil designs?” Zak cried. Drizzt did not understand.

  “She hates me” Zak said, more in control as he began to understand Drizzt's confusion, “despises me for what I know” Drizzt cocked his head.

  “ Are you so blind to the evil around you?” Zak yelled in his face. “Or has it consumed you, as it consumes all of them, in this murderous frenzy that we call life?”

  “The frenzy that holds you?” Drizzt retorted, but there was little conviction in his voice now. If he understood Zak's words correctly-if Zak played the killing game simply be-cause of his hatred for the perverted drow-the most Drizzt could blame him for was cowardice.

  “No frenzy holds me” Zak replied. “I live as best I can. survive in a world that is not my own, not my heart” The la-ment in his words, the droop of his head as he admitted his helplessness, struck a familiar chord in Drizzt. “I kill, kill drow, to serve Matron Malice-to placate the rage, the frus-tration, that I know in my soul. When I hear the children

  scream . . . “ His gaze snapped up on Drizzt and he rushed in all of a sudden, his fury returned tenfold.

  Drizzt tried to get his scimitars up, but Zak knocked one of them across the room and drove the other aside. He rushed in step with Drizzt's awkward retreat until he had Drizzt pinned against a wall. The tip of Zak's sword drew a droplet of blood from Drizzt's throat.

  “The child lives!” Drizzt gasped. “I swear, I did not kill the elven child!”

  Zak relaxed a bit but still held Drizzt, sword to throat. Dinin said-“

  “Dinin was mistaken” Drizzt replied frantically. “Fooled by me. I knocked the child down-only to spare her-and covered her with the blood of her murdered mother to mask my own cowardice!”

  Zak leaped back, overwhelmed.

  “I killed no elves that day” Drizzt said to him. “The only times I desired to kill were my own companions!”

  “So now we know” said Briza, staring into the scrying bowl, watching the conclusion of the battle between Drizzt and Zaknafein and hearing their every word. “It was Drizzt who angered the Spider Queen”

  “You suspected him all along, as did I” Matron Malice re-plied, “though we both hoped differently.

  “So much promise!” Briza lamented. “How I wish that one - had learned his place, his values. Perhaps. . . ”

  “Mercy?” Matron Malice snapped at her. “Do you show mercy that would further invoke the Spider Queen's dis- pleasure?”

  “No, Matron” Briza replied. “I had only hoped that Drizzt could be used in the future, as you have used Zaknafein all these years. Zaknafein is growing older”

  “We are about to fight a war, my daughter” Malice re-minded her. “Lloth must be appeased. Your brother has

  brought his fate upon himself; his actions were his own to decide“

  “He decided wrongly”

  The words hit Zaknafein harder than Drizzt's boot had.

  The weapon master threw his swords to the ends of the room and rushed in on Drizzt. He buried him in a hug so in-tense that it took the young drow a long moment to even re- alize what had happened.

  “You have survived!” Zak said, his voice broken by muf. fled tears. “Survived the Academy, where all the others died!”

  Drizzt returned the embrace, tentatively, still not guess- ing the depth of Zak's elation.

  “My son!”

  Drizzt nearly fainted, overwhelmed by the admission of what he had always suspected, and even more so by the knowledge that he was not the only one in his dark world angered by the ways of the drow. He was not alone.

  “Why?” Drizzt asked, pushing Zak out to arm's length.

  “Why have you stayed?” Zak looked at him incredulously. “Where would 1 go? No one, not even a drow weapon master would survive for long out in the caverns of the Underdark. Tho many monsters, and other races, hunger for the sweet blood of dark elves”

  “Surely you had options”

  “The surface?” Zak replied. “Th face the painful inferno every day? No, my son, I am trapped, as you are trapped” Drizzt had feared that statement, had feared that he would find no solution from his newfound father to the di-lemma that was his life. Perhaps there were no answers.

  “You will do well in Menzoberranzan” Zak said to comfort him. “You are strong, and Matron Malice will find an appro- priate place for your talents, whatever your heart may de-sire”

  “To live a life of assassinations, as you have?” Drizzt asked, trying futilely to keep the rage out of his words.

  “What choice is before us?” Zak answered, his eyes seek-ing the unjudging stone of the floor.

  “I will not kill drow” Drizzt declared flatly.

  Zak's eyes snapped back on him. “You will” he assured his son. “In Menzoberranzan, you will kill or be killed”

  Drizzt looked away, but Zak's words pursued him, could not be blocked out.

  “There is no other way; the weapon master continued softly. ”Such is our world. Such is our life. You have escaped this long, but you will find that your luck soon will change“

  He grabbed Drizzt's chin firmly and forced his son to look at him directly.

  “I wish that it could be different; Zak said honestly, ”but it is not such a bad life. I do not lament killing dark elves. I per-ceive their deaths as their salvation from this wicked exist-ence. If they care so dearly for their Spider Queen, then let them go and visit her!“

  Zak's growing smile washed away suddenly. “Except for the children” he whispered. “Often have I heard the cries of dying children, though never, I promise you, have I caused them. I have always wondered if they, too, are evil, born evil. Or if the weight of our dark world bends them to fit our foul ways”

  “The ways of the demon Lloth; Drizzt agreed.

  They both paused for many heartbeats, each privately weighing the realities of his own personal dilemma. Zak was next to speak, having long ago come to terms with the life that was offered to him.

  “Lloth; he chuckled. ”She is a vicious queen, that one. I would sacrifice everything for a chance at her ugly face!“

  “I almost believe you would” Drizzt whispered, finding

  his smile.

  Zak jumped back from him. “I would indeed” he laughed heartily. “So would you!”

  Drizzt flipped his lone scimitar up into the air, letting it spin over twice before catching it again by the hilt. “True enough!” he cried. “But no longer would I be alone!”

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