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Homeland (part 1 chapter 22)

2006-08-28 22:09

  Chapter 22 Gnomes,Wicked Gnomes

  Among the twists and turns of the tunnel mazes of the Underdark, slipping about their silent way, went the svirfnebli, the deep gnomes. Neither kind nor evil, and so out of place in this world of pervading wickedness, the deep gnomes survived and thrived. Haughty fighters, skilled in crafting weapons and armor, and more in tune to the songs of the stone than even the evil gray dwarves, the svirfnebli continued their business of plucking gems and precious metals in spite of the perils awaiting them at every turn.

  When the news came back to Blingdenstone, the cluster of tunnels and caverns that composed the deep gnomes' city, that a rich vein of gemstones had been discovered twenty miles to the east-as the rockworm, the thoqqua, burrowed-Burrow-warden Belwar Dissengulp had to climb over a dozen others of his rank to be awarded the privilege of leading the mining expedition. Belwar and all of the others knew well that forty miles east-as the rock- worm burrowed-would put the expedition dangerously close to Menzoberranzan, and that even getting there would mean a week of hiking, probably through the territo-ries of a hundred other enemies. Fear was no measure against the love svirfnebli had for gems, though, and every day in the Underdark was a risk.

  When Belwar and his forty miners arrived in the small ca-vern described by the advance scouts and inscribed with the gnomes' mark of treasure, they found that the claims had not been exaggerated. The burrow-warden took care not to get overly excited, though. He knew that twenty thousand drow elves, the svirfnebli's most hated and feared enemy, lived fewer than five miles away.

  Escape tunnels became the first order of business, wind-ing constructions high enough for a three-foot gnome but not for a taller pursuer. All along the course of these the gnomes placed breaker walls, designed to deflect a light-ning bolt or offer some protection from the expanding flames of a fireball.

  Then, when the true mining at last began, Belwar kept fully a third of his crew on guard at all times and walked the area of the work with one hand always clutching the magi-cal emerald, the summoning stone, he kept on a chain around his neck.

  “Three full patrol groups” Drizzt remarked to Dinin when they arrived at the open “field” on the eastern side of Menzoberranzan. Few stalagmites lined this region of the city, but it did not seem so open now, with dozens of anxious drow milling about.

  “Gnomes are not to be taken lightly” Dinin replied. “They are wicked and powerful-”

  “ As wicked as surface elves?” Drizzt had to interrupt, cov-ering his sarcasm with false exuberance.

  “ Almost” his brother warned grimly, missing the connota- tions of Drizzt's question. Dinin pointed off to the side, where a contingent of female drow was coming in to join the group. “Clerics” he said, “and one of them a high priest- ess. The rumors of activity must have been confirmed”

  A shudder coursed through Drizzt, a tingle of prebattle excitement. That excitement was altered and lessened, though, by fear, not of physical harm, or even of the gnomes. Drizzt feared that this encounter might be a repeat of the surface tragedy.

  He shook the black thoughts away and reminded himself that this time, unlike the surface expedition, his home was being invaded. The gnomes had crossed the boundaries of the drow realm. If they were as evil as Dinin and all the oth-ers claimed, Menzoberranzan had no choice but to respond with force. If.

  Drizzt's patrol, the most celebrated group among the males, was selected to lead, and Drizzt, as always, took the point position. Still unsure, he wasn't thrilled with the as- signment, and as they started out, Drizzt even contem-plated leading the group astray. Or perhaps, Drizzt thought, he could contact the gnomes privately before the others ar- rived and warn them to flee.

  Drizzt realized the absurdity of the notion. He couldn't

  stop the wheels of Menzoberranzan from turning along their designated course, and he couldn't do anything to hin-der the two score drow warriors, excited and impatient, at his back. Again he was trapped and on the edge of despair. Masoj Hun'ett appeared then and made everything better.

  “Guenhwyvar!” the young wizard called, and the great panther came bounding. Masoj left the cat beside Drizzt and headed back toward his place in the line.

  Guenhwyvar could no more hide its elation at seeing Drizzt than Drizzt could contain his own smile. With the in-terruption of the surface raid, and then his time back home, he hadn't seen Guenhwyvar in mere than a month.

  Guenhwyvar thumped against Drizzt's side as it passed, nearly knocking the slender drow from his feet. Drizzt re-sponded with a heavy pat, vigorously rubbing a hand over the cat's ear.

  They both turned back together, suddenly conscious of the unhappy glare boring into them. There stood Masoj, arms crossed over his chest and a visible scowl heating up his face.

  “I shan't use the cat to kill Drizzt” the young wizard mut-tered to himself. “I want the pleasure for myself Drizzt wondered if jealousy prompted that scowl. Jeal- ousy of Drizzt and the cat, or of everything in general? Ma-soj had been left behind when Drizzt had gone to the surface. Masoj had been no more than a spectator when the victorious raiding party returned in glory. Drizzt backed away from Guenhwyvar, sensitive to the wizard's pain.

  As soon as Masoj had moved away to take his position far-ther down the line, Drizzt dropped to one knee and threw a headlock on Guenhwyvar.

  Drizzt found himself even gladder for Guenhwyvar's companionship when they passed beyond the familiar tun-nels of the normal patrol routes. It was a saying in Menzo-berranzan that “no one is as alone as the point of a drow patrol” and Drizzt had come to understand this keenly in the last few months. He stopped at the far end of a wide way and held perfectly still, focusing his ears and eyes to the trails behind him. He knew that more than forty drow were

  approaching his position, fully arrayed for battle and agi-tated. Still, not a sound could Drizzt detect, and not a mo. tion was discernable in the eerie shadows of cool stone. Drizzt looked down at Guenhwyvar, waiting patiently by his side, and started off again.

  He could sense the hot presence of the war party at his back. That intangible sensation was the only thing that dis- proved Drizzt's feelings that he and Guenhwyvar were quite alone.

  Near the end of that day, Drizzt heard the first signs of trouble. As he neared an intersection in the tunnel, cau-tiously pressed close to one wall, he felt a subtle vibration in the stone. It came again a second later, and then again, and Drizzt recognized it as the rhythmic tapping of a pick or hammer.

  He took a magically heated sheet, a small square that fit into the palm of his hand, out of his pack. One side of the item was shielded in heavy leather, but the other shone brightly to eyes seeing in the infrared spectrum. Drizzt flashed it down the tunnel behind him, and a few seconds later, Dinin came up to his side.

  “Hammer” Drizzt signaled in the silent code, pointing to the wall. Dinin pressed against the stone and nodded in con-firmation.

  “Fifty yards?” Dinin's hand motions asked.,

  “Less than one hundred” Drizzt confirmed.

  With his own prepared sheet, Dinin flashed the get-ready signal into the gloom behind him, then moved with Drizzt and Guenhwyvar around the intersection toward the tap-ping.

  Only a moment later, Drizzt looked upon svirfnebli gnomes for the very first time. Gnome guards stood barely twenty feet away, chest-high to a drow and hairless, with skin strangely akin to the stone in both texture and heat ra-diations. The gnomes' eyes glowed brightly in the telltale red of infravision. One glance at those eyes reminded Drizzt and Dinin that deep gnomes were as much at home in the darkness as were the drow, and they both prudently

  ducked behind a rocky outcropping in the tunnel.

  Dinin promptly signaled to the next drow in line, and so on, until the entire party was alerted. Then he crouched low and peeked out around the bottom of the outcropping. The tunnel continued another thirty feet beyond the gnome guards and around a slight bend, ending in some larger chamber. Dinin couldn't clearly see this area, but the glow of it, from the heat of the work and a cluster of bodies, spilled out into the corridor.

  Again Dinin signaled back to his hidden comrades, and then he turned to Drizzt. “Stay here with the cat” he in-structed, and he darted back down around the intersection to formulate plans with the other leaders.

  Masoj a few places back in the line, noted Dinin's move-ment and wondered if the opportunity to deal with Drizzt had suddenly come upon him. If the patrol was discovered with Drizzt all alone up in front, was there some way Masoj could secretly blast the young Do'Urden? The opportunity, if ever it was truly there, passed quickly, though, as other drow soldiers came up beside the plotting wizard. Dinin soon returned from the back of the line and headed back to join his brother.

  “The chamber has many exits” Dinin signaled to Drizzt when they were together. “The other patrols are moving into position around the gnomes”

  “Might we parley with the gnomes?” Drizzt's hands asked in reply, almost subconsciously. He recognized the expres-sion spreading across Dinin's face, but knew that he had al-ready plunged in. “Send them away without conflict?” Dinin grabbed Drizzt by the front of his piwafwi and pulled him close, too close, to that terrible scowl. “I will for-get that you asked that question” he whispered, and he dropped Drizzt back to the stone, considering the issue closed.

  “You start the fight” Dinin signaled. “When you see the sign from behind, darken the corridor and rush past the guards. Get to the gnome leader; he is the key to their strength with the stone”

  Drizzt didn't fully understand what gnomish power his

  brother hinted at, but the instructions seemed simple enough, if somewhat suicidal.

  “Take the cat if the cat will go” Dinin continued. “The en-tire patrol will be by your side in moments. The remaining groups will corne in from the other passages” Guenhwyvar nuzzled up to Drizzt, more than ready to follow him into battle. Drizzt took comfort in that when Dinin departed, leaving him alone again at the front. Only a few seconds later carne the command to attack. Drizzt shook his head in disbelief when he saw the signal; how fast drow warriors found their positions!

  He peeked around at the gnomish guards, still holding their silent vigil, completely unaware. Drizzt drew his blades and patted Guenhwyvar for luck, then called upon the innate magic of his race and dropped a globe of dark-ness in the corridor.

  Squeals of alarm sounded throughout the tunnels, and Drizzt charged in, diving right into the darkness between the unseen guards and rolling back to his feet on the other side of his spell, only two running strides from the small chamber. He saw a dozen gnomes scrambling about, trying to prepare their defenses. Few of them paid Drizzt any at- tention, though, as the sounds of battle erupted from vari- ous side corridors.

  One gnome chopped a heavy pick at Drizzt's shoulder.

  Drizzt got a blade up to block the blow but was amazed at the strength in the diminutive gnome's arms. Still, Drizzt could then have killed his attacker with the other scimitar.

  Too many doubts, and too many memories, though, haunted his actions. He brought a leg up into the gnome's belly, sending the little creature sprawling.

  Belwar Dissengulp, next in line for Drizzt, noted how eas-ily the young drow had dispatched one of his finest fighters and knew that the time had already come to use his most powerful magic. He pulled the emerald summoning stone from his neck and threw it to the ground at Drizzt's feet.

  Drizzt jumped back, sensing the emanations of magic. Be- hind him, Drizzt heard the approach of his companions,

  overpowering the shocked gnome guards and rushing to join him in the chamber. Then Drizzt's attentions went squarely to the heat patterns of the stone floor in front of him. The grayish lines wavered and swam, as if the stone was somehow coming alive.

  The other drow fighters roared in past Drizzt, bearing down on the gnome leader and his charges. Drizzt didn't follow, guessing that the event unfolding at his feet was more critical than the general battle now echoing through-out the complex.

  Fifteen feet tall and seven wide, an angry, towering hu-manoid monster of living stone rose before Drizzt.

  “Elemental” came a scream to the side. Drizzt glanced over to see Masoj, Guenhwyvar at his side, fumbling through a spellbook, apparently in search of some dweomer to battle this unexpected monster. To Drizzt's dis-may, the frightened wizard mumbled a couple of words and vanished.

  Drizzt set his feet under him, and took a measure of the monster, ready to spring aside in an instant. He could sense the thing's power, the raw strength of the earth embodied in living arms and legs.

  A lumbering arm swung out in a wide arc, whooshing above Drizzt's ducking head and slamming into the cavern wall, crushing rocks into dust.

  “Do not let it hit me” Drizzt instructed himself in a whis-per that came out as a disbelieving gasp. As the elemental recoiled its arm, Drizzt poked a scimitar at it, chipping away a small chunk, barely a scratch. The elemental grimaced in pain-apparently Drizzt could indeed hurt it with his en- chanted weapons.

  Still standing in the same spot off to the side, the invisible Masoj held his next spell in check, watching the spectacle and waiting for the combatants to weaken each other. Per-haps the elemental would destroy Drizzt altogether. Invisi- ble shoulders gave a resigned shrug. Masoj decided to let the gnomish power do his dirty work for him. The monster launched another blow, and another, and Drizzt dove forward and scrambled through the thing's

  stone pillar legs. The elemental reacted quickly and stomped heavily with one foot, barely missing the agile drow, and sending branching cracks in the floor for many feet in either direction.

  Drizzt was up in a flash, slicing and thrusting with both his blades into the elemental's backside, then springing back out of reach as the monster swung about, leading with an-other ferocious blow.

  The sounds of battle grew more distant. The gnomes had taken flight-those that were still alive-but the drow war. riors were in full pursuit, leaving Drizzt to face the elemen-tal.

  The monster stomped again, the thunder of its foot nearly knocking Drizzt from his feet, and then it came in hard, fall- ing down at Drizzt, using the tonnage of its body as a weapon. If Drizzt had been even slightly surprised, or if his reflexes had not been honed to such perfection, he surely would have been crushed flat. He managed to get to the side of the monster's bulk, while taking only a glancing blow from a swinging arm.

  Dust rushed up from the terrific impact; cavern walls and ceiling cracked and dropped flecks and stones to the floor.

  As the elemental regained its feet, Drizzt backed away, overwhelmed by such unconquerable strength.

  He was all alone against it, or so Drizzt thought. A sudden ball of hot fury enveloped the elemental's head, claws rak-ing deep scratches into its face.

  “Guenhwyvar” Drizzt and Masoj shouted in unison, Drizzt in elation that an ally had been found, and Masoj in rage. The wizard did not want Drizzt to survive this battle, and he dared not launch any magical attacks, at Drizzt or the elemental, with his precious Guenhwyvar in the way.

  “Do something, wizard!” Drizzt cried, recognizing the shout and understanding now that Masoj was still around. The elemental bellowed in pain, its cry sounding as the rumble of huge boulders crashing down a rocky mountain. Even as Drizzt moved back in to help his feline friend, the monster spun, impossibly quick, and dove headfirst to the

  floor.

  “No!” Drizzt cried, realizing that Guenhwyvar would be crushed. Then the cat and the elemental, instead of slam-ming against the stone, sank down into it!

  The purple flames of faerie fire outlined the figures of the gnomes, showing the way for drow arrows and swords. The gnomes countered with magic of their own, illusionary tricks mostly. “Down here!” one drow soldier cried, only to slam face first into the stone of a wall that had appeared as the entrance to a corridor.

  Even though the gnome magic managed to keep the dark elves somewhat confused, Belwar Dissengulp grew fright-ened. His elemental, his strongest magic and only hope, was taking too long with the single drow warrior far back in the main chamber. The burrow-warden wanted the monster by his side when the main combat began. He ordered his forces into tight defensive formations, hoping that they could hold out.

  Then the drow warriors, detained no more by gnomish tricks, were upon them, and fury stole Belwar's fear. He lashed out with his heavy pickaxe, smiling grimly as he felt the mighty weapon bite into drow flesh.

  All magic was aside now, all formations and carefully laid battle plans dissolved into the wild frenzy of the brawl. Nothing mattered, except to hit the enemy, to feel the pick head or blade sinking into flesh. Above all others, deep gnomes hated the drow, and in all the Underdark there was nothing a dark elf enjoyed more than slicing a svirfnebli into littler pieces.

  Drizzt rushed to the spot, but only the unbroken section of floor remained. “Masoj?” he gasped, looking for some an. swers from the one schooled in such strange magic. Before the wizard could answer, the floor erupted behind Drizzt. He spun, weapons ready, to face the towering ele-mental.

  Then Drizzt watched in helpless agony as the broken mist that was the great panther, his dearest companion, rolled off the elemental's shoulders and broke apart as it neared the floor.

  Drizzt ducked another blow, though his eyes never left the dissipating dust-and-mist cloud. Was Guenhwyvar no more? Was his only friend gone from him forever? A new light grew in Drizzt lavender eyes, a primal rage that sim- mered throughout his body. He looked back to the elemen-tal, unafraid.

  “You are dead” he promised, and he walked in.

  The elemental seemed confused, though of course it could not understand Drizzt's words. It dropped a heavy arm straight down to squash its foolish opponent. Drizzt did not even raise his blades to parry, knowing that every ounce of his strength could not possibly deflect such a blow. Just as the falling arm was about to reach him, he dashed for-ward, within its range.

  The quickness of his move surprised the elemental, and the ensuing flurry of swordplay took Masoj's breath away. The wizard had never seen such grace in battle, such fluid-ity of motion. Drizzt climbed up and down the elemental's body, hacking and slashing, digging the points of his weap-ons home and flicking off pieces of the monster's stone skin.

  The elemental howled its avalanche howl and spun in cir-cles, trying to catch up to Drizzt and squash him once and for all. Blind anger brought new levels of expertise to the magnificent young swordsman, though, and the elemental caught nothing but air or its own stony body under its heavy slaps.

  “Impossible” Masoj muttered when he found his breath. Could the young Do'Urden actually defeat an elemental? Masoj scanned the rest of the area. Several drow and many gnomes lay dead or grievously wounded, but the main fight-ing was moving even farther away as the gnomes found their tiny escape tunnels and the drow, enraged beyond good sense, followed them.

  Guenhwyvar was gone. In this chamber, only Masoj, the elemental, and Drizzt remained as witnesses. The invisible wizard felt his mouth draw up in a smile. Now was the time to strike.

  Drizzt had the elemental lurching to one side, nearly

  beaten, when the bolt roared in, a blast of lightning that blinded the young drow and sent him flying into the cham-ber's back wall. Drizzt watched the twitch of his hands, the wild dance of his stark white hair before his unmoving eyes. He felt nothing-no pain, no reviving draw of air into his lungs-and heard nothing, as if his life force had been some-how suspended.

  The attack dispelled Masoj's dweomer of invisibility, and he came back in view, laughing wickedly. The elemental, down in a broken, crumbled mass, slowly slipped back into the security of the stone floor.

  “Are you dead?” the wizard asked Drizzt, the voice break-ing the hush of Drizzt's deafness in dramatic booms. Drizzt could not answer, didn't really know the answer anyway.

  “Too easy” he heard Masoj say, and he suspected that the wizard was referring to him and not the elemental.

  Then Drizzt felt a tingling in his fingers and bones and his lungs heaved suddenly, grabbing a volume of air. He gasped in rapid succession, then found control of his body and real-ized that he would survive.

  Masoj glanced around for returning witnesses and saw none. “Good” he muttered as he watched Drizzt regain his senses. The wizard was truly glad that Drizzt's death had not been so very painless. He thought of another spell that would make the moment more fun.

  A hand-a gigantic stone hand-reached out of the floor just then and grasped Masoj's leg, pulling his feet right into the stone.

  The wizard's face twisted in a silent scream.

  Drizzt's enemy saved his life. Drizzt snatched up one of the scimitars from the ground and hacked at the elemental's arm. The weapon sliced in, and the monster, its head reap-pearing between Drizzt and Masoj, howled in rage and pain and pulled the trapped wizard deeper into the stone.

  With both hands on the scimitar's hilt, Drizzt struck as hard as he could, splitting the elemental's head right in half. This time the rubble did not sink back into its earthen plane;

  this time the elemental was destroyed.

  “Get me out of here!” Masoj demanded. Drizzt looked at him, hardly believing that Masoi was still alive, for he was waist deep in solid stone.

  “How?” Drizzt gasped. “You. . ” He couldn't even find the words to express his amazement.

  “Just get me out!” the wizard cried. Drizzt fumbled about, not knowing where to begin.

  “Elementals travel between planes” Masoj explained, knowing that he had to calm Drizzt down if he ever wanted to get out of the floor. Masoj knew, too, that the conversa-tion could go a long way in deflecting Drizzt's obvious suspi-cions that the lightning bolt had been aimed at him. “The ground an earth elemental traverses becomes a gate be- tween the Plane of Earth and our plane, the Material Plane.

  The stone parted around me as the monster pulled me in, but it is quite uncomfortable“ He twitched in pain as the stone tightened around one foot. ”The gate is closing fast!“

  “Then Guenhwyvar might be . . ” Drizzt started to reason.

  He plucked the statuette right out of Masoj's front pocket and carefully inspected it for any flaws in its perfect design.

  “Give me that!” Masoj demanded, embarrassed and angry. Reluctantly, Drizzt handed the figurine over. Masoj glanced at it quickly and dropped it back into the pocket.

  “Is Guenhwyvar unharmed?” Drizzt had to ask.

  “It is not your concern” Masoj snapped back. The wizard, too, was worried about the cat, but at this moment,

  Guenhwyvar was the least of his troubles. “The gate is clos-ing” he said again. “Go get the clerics!”

  Before Drizzt could start off, a slab of stone in the wall be. hind him slid away, and the rock-hard fist of Belwar Dis-sengulp slammed into the back of his head.

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