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Homeland (part 1 chapter 11)

2006-08-28 22:09

  Chapter 11 Grim Preference

  Zak slid one of his swords from its scabbard and admired the weapon's wondrous detail. This sword, as with most of the drow weapons, had been forged by the gray dwarves, then traded to Menzoberranzan. The duergar workman-ship was exquisite, but it was the work done on the weapon after the dark elves had acquired it that made it so very spe- cial. None of the races of the surface or Underdark could outdo the dark elves in the art of enchanting weapons. Im-bued with the strange emanations of the Underdark, the magical power unique to the lightless world, and blessed by the unholy clerics of Lloth, no blade ever sat in a wielder's hand more ready to kill.

  Other races, mostly dwarves and surface elves, also took pride in their crafted weapons. Fine swords and mighty hammers hung over mantles as showpieces, always with a bard nearby to spout the accompanying legend that most often began, “In the days of yore. . ”

  Drow weapons were different, never showpieces. They were locked in the necessities of the present, never in remi-niscences, and their purpose remained unchanged for as long as they held an edge fine enough for battle-fine enough to kill.

  Zak brought the blade up before his eyes. In his hands, the sword had become more than an instrument of battle. It was an extension of his rage, his answer to an existence he could not accept.

  It was his answer, too, perhaps, to another problem that seemed to have no resolution.

  He walked into the training hall, where Drizzt was hard at work spinning attack routines against a practice dummy.

  Zak paused to watch the young drow at practice, wonder-ing if Drizzt would ever again consider the dance of weap- ons a form of play. How the scimitars flowed in Drizzt's hands! Interweaving with uncanny precision, each blade seemed to anticipate the other's moves and whirred about in perfect complement.

  This young drow might soon be an unrivaled fighter, a master beyond Zaknafein himself.

  “Can you survive?” Zak whispered. “Have you the heart of a drow warrior?” Zak hoped that the answer would be an emphatic “no” but either way, Drizzt was surely doomed.

  Zak looked down at his sword again and knew what he must do. He slid its sister blade from its sheath and started a determined walk toward Drizzt.

  Drizzt saw him coming and turned at the ready. “A final fight before I leave for the Academy?” He laughed. Zak paused to take note of Drizzt's smile. A facade? Or had the young drow really forgiven himself for his actions against Maya's champion. It did not matter, Zak reminded himself. Even if Drizzt had recovered from his mother's tor-ments, the Academy would destroy him. The weapon mas-ter said nothing; he just came on in a flurry of cuts and stabs that put Drizzt immediately on the defensive. Drizzt took it in stride, not yet realizing that this final encounter with his

  mentor was much more than their customary sparring.

  “I will remember everything you taught me” Drizzt prom-ised, dodging a cut and launching a fierce counter of his own. “I will carve my name in the halls of Melee-Magthere and make you proud”

  The scowl on Zak's face surprised Drizzt, and the young drow grew even more confused when the weapon master's next attack sent a sword knifing straight at his heart. Drizzt leaped aside, slapping at the blade in sheer desperation, and narrowly avoided impalement.

  “Are you so very sure of yourself?” Zak growled, stub-bornly pursuing Drizzt.

  Drizzt set himself as their blades met in ringing fury. “I am a fighter” he declared. “A drow warrior!”

  “You are a dancer!” Zak shot back in a derisive tone. He slammed his sword onto Drizzt's blocking scimitar so sav-agely that the young drow's arm tingled.

  “ An imposter!” Zak cried. “ A pretender to a title you can. not begin to understand!”

  Drizzt went on the offensive. Fires burned in his lavender eyes and new strength guided his scimitars' sure cuts. But Zak was relentless. He fended the attacks and contin-ued his lesson. “Do you know the emotions of murder?” he spat. “Have you reconciled yourself to the act you commit-ted?”

  Drizzt's only answers were a frustrated growl and a re-newed attack.

  “Ah, the pleasure of plunging your sword into the bosom of a high priestess” Zak taunted. “To see the light of warmth leave her body while her lips utter silent curses in your face! Or have you ever heard the screams of dying chil. dren?”

  Drizzt let up his attack, but Zak would not allow a break.

  The weapon master came back on the offensive, each thrust aimed for a vital area.

  “How loud, those screams” Zak continued. “They echo over the centuries in your mind; they chase you down the paths of your entire life”

  Zak halted the action so that Drizzt might weigh his every word. “You have never heard them, have you, dancer?” The weapon master stretched his arms out wide, an invitation.

  “Come, then, and claim your second kill” he said, tapping his stomach. “In the belly, where the pain is greatest, so that my screams may echo in your mind. Prove to me that you are the drow warrior you claim to be”

  The tips of Drizzt's scimitars slowly made their way to the stone floor. He wore no smile now.

  “You hesitate” Zak laughed at him. “This is your chance to make your name. A single thrust, and you will send a repu-tation into the Academy before you. Other students, even masters, will whisper your name as you pass. 'Drizzt Do'Ur-den; they will say. 'The boy who slew the most honored weapon master in all of Menzoberranzan!' Is this not what you desire?”

  “Damn you” Drizzt spat back, but still he made no move to attack.

  “Drow warrior?” Zak chided him. “Do not be so quick to claim a title you cannot begin to understand!”

  Drizzt came on then, in a fury he had never before known. His purpose was not to kill, but to defeat his teacher, to steal the taunts from Zak's mouth with a fighting display too impressive to be derided.

  Drizzt was brilliant. He followed every move with three others' and worked Zak low and high, inside and out wide.

  Zak found his heels under him more often than the balls of his feet, too involved was he in staying away from his stu. dent's relentless thrusts to even think of taking the offen-sive. He allowed Drizzt to continue the initiative for many minutes, dreading its conclusion, the outcome he had al-ready decided to be the most preferable.

  Zak then found that he could stand the delay no longer.

  He sent one sword out in a lazy thrust and Drizzt promptly slapped the weapon out of his hand.

  Even as the young drow came on in anticipation of vic-tory, Zak slipped his empty hand into a pouch and grabbed a magical little ceramic ball-one of those that so often had aided him in battle.

  “Not this time, Zaknafein!” Drizzt proclaimed, keeping his attacks under control, remembering well the many occa-sions that Zak reversed feigned disadvantage into clear ad-vantage.

  Zak fingered the ball, unable to come to terms with what he must do.

  Drizzt walked him through an attack sequence, then an-other, measuring the advantage he had gained in stealing a weapon. Confident of his position, Drizzt came in low and hard with a single thrust.

  Though Zak was distracted at the time, he still managed to block the attack with his remaining sword. Drizzt's other scimitar slashed down on top of the sword, pinning its tip to the floor. In the same lightning movement, Drizzt slipped his first blade free of Zak's parry and brought it up and around, stopping the thrust barely an inch from Zak's throat.

  “I have you!” the young drow cried.

  Zak's answer came in an explosion of light beyond any-thing Drizzt had ever imagined.

  Zak had prudently closed his eyes, but Drizzt, surprised, could not accept the sudden change. His head burned in ag-ony, and he reeled backwards, trying to get away from the light, away from the weapon master.

  Keeping his eyes tightly shut, Zak had already divor.ced himself from the need of vision. He let his keen ears guide him now, and Drizzt, shuffling and stumbling, was an easy target to discern. In a single motion, the whip came off Zak's belt and he lashed out, catching Drizzt around the ankles

  and dropping him to the floor.

  Methodically, the weapon master came on, dreading every step but knowing his chosen course of action to be correct.

  Drizzt realized that he was being stalked, but he could not understand the motive. The light had stunned him, but he was more surprised by Zak's continuation of the battle.

  Drizzt set himself, unable to escape the trap, and tried to think his way around his loss of sight. He had to feel the flow of battle, to hear the sounds of his attacker and antici-pate each coming strike.

  He brought his scimitars up just in time to block a sword chop that would have split his skull.

  Zak hadn't expected the parry. He recoiled and came in from a different angle. Again he was foiled.

  Now more curious than wanting to kill Drizzt, the weapon master went through a series of attacks, sending his sword into motions that would have sliced through the defenses of many who could see him.

  Blinded, Drizzt fought him off, putting a scimitar in line with each new thrust.

  Treachery!“ Drizzt yelled, painful residual explosions from the bright light still bursting inside his head. He blocked another attack and tried to regain his footing, real-izing that he had little chance of continuing to fend off the weapon master from a prone position.

  The pain of the stinging light was too great, though, and Drizzt, barely holding the edge of consciousness, stumbled back to the stone, losing one scimitar in the process. He spun over wildly, knowing that Zak was closing in.

  The other scimitar was knocked from his hand. treachery“ Drizzt growled again. ”Do you so hate to lose?“

  “Do you not understand?” Zak yelled back at him. “To lose is to die! You may win a thousand fights, but you can only

  lose one!“ He put his sword in line with Drizzt's throat. It would be a single clean blow. He knew that he should do it, mercifully, before the masters of the Academy got hold of his charge.

  Zak sent his sword spinning across the room, and he reached out with his empty hands, grabbed Drizzt by the front of his shirt, and hoisted him to his feet.

  They stood face-to-face, neither seeing the other very well in the blinding glare, and neither able to break the tense si- lence. After a long and breathless moment, the dweomer of the enchanted pebble faded and the room became more comfortable. lruly, the two dark elves looked upon each other in a different light.

  “A trick of Lloth's clerics” Zak explained. “Always they keep such a spell of light at the ready” A strained smile crossed his face as he tried to ease Drizzt's anger. “ Although I daresay that I have turned such light against clerics, even high priestesses, more than a few times”

  “Treachery” Drizzt spat a third time.

  “It is our way” Zak replied. “You will learn”

  “It is your way” snarled Drizzt. “You grin when you speak of murdering clerics of the Spider Queen. Do you so enjoy killing'? Killing drow?”

  Zak could not find an answer to the accusing question. Drizzt's words hurt him profoundly because they rang of truth, and because Zak had come to view his penchant for killing clerics of Lloth as a cowardly response to his own un-answerable frustrations.

  “You would have killed me” Drizzt said bluntly.

  “But I did not” Zak retorted. “And now you live to go to the Academy-to take a dagger in the back because you are blind to the realities of our world, because you refuse to ac-knowledge what your people are.

  “Or you will become one of them” Zak growled. “Either way, the Drizzt Do'Urden I have known will surely die” Drizzt's face twisted, and he couldn't even find the words

  to dispute the possibilities Zak was spitting at him. He felt the blood drain from his face, though his heart raged. He walked away, letting his glare linger on Zak for many steps.

  “Go, then, Drizzt Do'Urden!” Zak cried after him. “Go to the Academy and bask in the glory of your prowess. Re-member, though, the consequences of such skills. Always there are consequences!'.'

  Zak retreated to the security of his private chamber. The door to the room closed behind the weapon master with such a sound of finality that it spun Zak back to face its empty stone.

  “Go, then, Drizzt Do'Urden” he whispered in quiet la- ment. “Go to the Academy and learn who you really are”

  Dinin came for his brother early the next morning. Drizzt slowly left the training room, looking back over his shoul-der every few steps to see if Zak would come out and attack him again or bid him farewell.

  He knew in his heart that Zak would not.

  Drizzt had thought them friends, had believed that the bond he and Zaknafein had sown went far beyond the sim-ple lessons and swordplay. The young drow had no answers to the many questions spinning in his mind, and the person who had been his teacher for the last five years had nothing left to offer him.

  “The heat grows in Narbondel” Dinin remarked when they stepped out onto the balcony. “We must not be late for your first day in the Academy”

  Drizzt looked out into the myriad colors and shapes that composed Menzoberranzan. “What is this place?” he whis-pered, realizing how little he knew of his homeland beyond the walls of his own house. Zak's words-Zak's rage-pressed in on Drizzt as he stood there, reminding him of his ignorance and hinting at a dark path ahead.

  “This is the world” Dinin replied, though Drizzt's question had been rhetorical. “Do not worry, Secondboy” he laughed, moving up onto the railing. “You will learn of Men- zoberranzan in the Academy. You will learn who you are

  and who your people are“

  The declaration unsettled Drizzt. Perhaps-remembering his last bitter encounter with the drow he had most trusted-that knowledge was exactly what he was afraid of. He shrugged in resignation and followed Dinin over the balcony in a magical descent to the compound floor: the first steps down that dark path.

  Another set of eyes watched intently as Dinin and Drizzt started out from House Do'Urden.

  Alton DeVir sat quietly against the side of a gigantic mush-room, as he had every day for the last week, staring at the Do'Urden complex.

  Daermon N'a'shezbaernon, Ninth House of Menzoberran-zan. The house that had murdered his matron, his sisters and brothers, and all there ever was of House DeVir . . . ex-cept for Alton.

  Alton thought back to the days of House DeVir, when Ma-tron Ginafae had gathered the family members together so that they might discuss their aspirations. Alton, just a stu-dent when House DeVir fell, now had a greater insight to those times. Twenty years had brought a wealth of experi- ence.

  Ginafae had been the youngest matron among the ruling families, and her potential had seemed unlimited. Then she had aided a gnomish patrol, had used her Lloth-given powers to hinder the drow elves that ambushed the little people in the caverns outside Menzoberranzan-all because Ginafae desired the death of a single member of that attack- ing drow party, a wizard son of the city's third house, the house labeled as House DeVir's next victim.

  The Spider Queen took exception to Ginafae's choice of weapons; deep gnomes were the dark elves' worst enemy in the whole of the Underdark. With Ginafae fallen out of Lloth's favor, House DeVir had been doomed.

  Alton had spent twenty years trying to learn of his ene-mies, trying to discover which drow family had taken ad. vantage of his mother's mistake and had slaughtered his kin. Threnty long years, and then his adopted matron, SiNafay

  Hun'ett, had ended his quest as abruptly as it had begun. Now, as Alton sat watching the guilty house, he knew only one thing for certain: twenty years had done nothing to di-minish his rage.

  Part 3 The Academy

  The Academy.

  It is the propagation of the lies that bind drow society to- gether; the ultimate perpetration of falsehoods repeated so many times that they ring true against any contrary evi-dence. The lessons young drow are taught of truth and jus- tice are so blatantly refuted by everyday life in wicked Menzoberranzan that it is hard to understand how any could believe them. Still they do.

  Even now, decades removed, the thought of the place frightens me, not for any physical pain or the ever-present sense of possible death- I have trod down many roads equally dangerous in that way. The Academy of Menzober-ranzan frightens me when I think of the survivors, the grad- uates, existing-reveling-within the evil fabrications that shape their world.

  They live with the belief that anything is acceptable if you can get away with it, that self-gratification is the most im- portant aspect of existence, and that power comes only to she or he who is strong enough and cunning enough to snatch it from the failing hands of those who no longer de- serve it. Compassion has no place in Menzoberranzan, and yet it is compassion, not fear; that brings harmony to most races. It is harmony, working toward shared goals, that pre-cedes greatness.

  Lies engulf the drow in fear and mistrust, refute friend-ship at the tip of a Lloth-blessed sword. The hatred and am- bition fostered by these amoral tenets are the doom of my people, a weakness that they perceive as strength. The result is a paralyzing, paranoid existence that the drow call the edge of readiness.

  I do not know how I survived the Academy; how I discov-ered the falsehoods early enough to use them in contrast, and thus strengthen, those ideals I most cherish.

  It was-Zaknafein, I must believe, my teacher. Through the experiences of Zak's long years, which embittered him and cost him so much, I came to hear the screams: the screams of protest against murderous treachery; the screams of rage from the leaders of drow society; the high priestesses of the Spider Queen, echoing down the paths of my mind, ever to hold a place within my mind. The screams of dying children.

  -Drizzt Do'Urden

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