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Homeland (part 2 chapter 19)

2006-08-28 22:23



  Approximately one hundred twenty illithids resided in and around the stone castle in the long and narrow cavern, and everyone of them felt the same searing headache when Guenhwyvar dived into the community's central brain.

  Guenhwyvar plowed through the mass of defenseless flesh, the cat's great claws tearing and slashing a path through the gore. The central brain imparted emotions of absolute terror, trying to inspire its servants. Understanding that help would not soon arrive, the thing reverted to pleading with the panther.

  Guenhwyvar's primal ferocity, however, allowed for no mental intrusions. The panther dug on savagely and was buried in the spurting slime.

  Drizzt shouted in outrage and ran all about the walkway, trying to find some way to get at the intruding panther. Drizzt felt his beloved master's anguish keenly and pleaded for somebody-anybody-to do something. Other slaves jumped and cried, and mind flayers ran about in a frenzy, but Guenhwyvar was out in the center of the huge mass, beyond the reach of any weapons the mind flayers could use.

  A few moments later, Drizzt stopped his jumping and shouting. He wondered where and who he was, and what in the Nine Hells this great disgusting lump in

  front of him possibly could be. He looked around the walkway and caught similar confused expressions on the faces of several duergar dwarves, another dark elf, two goblins, and a tall and wickedly scarred bugbear. The mind flayers still rushed about, looking for some attack angle on the panther, the primary threat, and paid no heed to the confused slaves. Guenhwyvar made a sudden appearance from behind the folds of brain. The cat came up over a fleshy ridge for just a moment, then disappeared back into the gore. Several mind flayers fired their mind blasts at the fleeting target, but Guenhwyvar was out of sight too quickly for their energy cones to strike-but not too quickly for Drizzt to catch a glimpse.

  “Guenhwyvar?” the drow cried as a multitude of thoughts rushed back into his mind. The last thing he remembered was floating up among the stalactites in a broken corridor, up to where other sinister shapes lurked.

  An illithid moved right beside the drow, too intent on the action within the brain to realize that Drizzt was a slave no longer. Drizzt had no weapons other than his own body, but he hardly cared in that moment of sheer anger. He leaped high into the air behind the unsuspecting monster and kicked his foot into the back of the thing's octopus head. The illithid tumbled forward onto the central brain and bounced along the rubbery folds several times before it could find any hold.

  All about the walkway, the slaves realized their freedom. The gray dwarves banded together immediately and took down two illithids in a wild rush, pummeling the creatures and stomping on them with their heavy boots.

  Fwoop! A blast came from the side, and Drizzt turned to see the other dark elf reeling from the stunning blow. A mind flayer rushed in on the drow and grabbed him in a tight hug. Four tentacles latched on to the doomed dark elf's face, clamping on, then digging in toward his brain.

  Drizzt wanted to go to the drow's aid, but a second illithid moved between them and took aim. Drizzt dived to the side as another attack sounded. Fwoop! He came up running, desperately trying to put more ground between himself and the illithid. The other drow's scream held Drizzt for a moment, though, and he glanced back over his shoulder.

  Grotesque, bulging lines crossed up the drow's face, a visage contorted by more anguish than Drizzt had ever before witnessed. Drizzt saw the illithid's head jerk, and the tentacles, buried beneath the drow's skin and reaching and sucking at his brain, pulsed and bulged. The doomed drow screamed again, one final time, then he fell limp in the illithid's arms and the creature finished its gruesome feast.

  The scarred bugbear unwittingly saved Drizzt from a similar fate. In its flight, the seven foot-tall creature crossed right between Drizzt and the pursuing mind flayer just as the illithid fired again. The blow stunned the bugbear for the moment it

  took the illithid to close in. As the mind flayer reached for its supposedly helpless victim, the bugbear swung a huge arm and knocked the pursuer to the stone.

  More mind flayers rushed out onto the balconies overlooking the circular chamber. Drizzt had no idea where his friends might be, or how he might escape, but the single door he spotted beside the walkway seemed his only chance. He charged straight at it, but it burst open just before he arrived.

  Drizzt crashed into the waiting arms of yet another illithid.

  If the inside of the stone castle was a tumult of confusion, the outside was chaos. No slaves charged at Zaknafein now. The wounding of the central brain had freed them from the mind flayers' suggestions, and now the goblins, gray dwarves, and all the others were more concerned with their own escape. Those closest to the cavern exits rushed out, others ran about wildly, trying to keep out of range of the continuing illithid mind blasts.

  Hardly giving his actions a thought, Zaknafein whipped across with a sword, taking out a goblin as it ran screaming past. Then the spirit-wraith closed in on the creature that had been pursuing the goblin. Walking through yet another stunning blast, Zaknafein chopped the mind flayer down.

  In the stone castle, Drizzt had regained his identity, and the magical spells imbued upon the spirit-wraith honed in on the target's thought patterns. With a guttural growl,

  Zaknafein made a straight course toward the castle, leaving a host of dead and wounded, slave and illithid alike, in his wake.

  Another rothe bleated out in surprise as it soared through the air. Three of the beasts limped about across the way, a fourth had followed the duergar to the bottom of the chasm. This time, though, Clacker's aim was true, and the small cowlike creature slammed into the lever, throwing it back. At once, the enchanted bridge rolled out and secured itself at Clacker's feet. The hook horror scooped up another gray dwarf, just for luck, and started out across the bridge.

  He was nearly halfway across when the first mind flayer appeared, rushing toward the lever. Clacker knew that he couldn't possibly get all the way across before the illithid disengaged the bridge.

  He had only one shot.

  The gray dwarf, oblivious to its surroundings, went high into the air above the hook horror's head. Clacker held his throw and continued across, letting the illithid close in as much as possible. As the mind flayer reached a four-fingered hand toward the lever, the duergar missile crashed into its chest, throwing it to the stone.

  Clacker ran for his life. The illithid recovered and pushed the lever forward. The bridge snapped back, opening the deep chasm.

  A final leap just as the metal-and-stone bridge zipped out from under his feet sent Clacker crashing into the side of the chasm. He got his arms and shoulders over the lip of the gorge and kept enough wits about him to quickly scramble over to the side.

  The illithid pulled back on the lever, and the bridge shot out again, clipping Clacker. The hook horror had moved far enough to the side, though, and Clacker's grip was strong enough to hold against the force as the rushing bridge scraped across his armored chest.

  The illithid cursed and pulled the lever back, then rushed to meet the hook horror. Weary and wounded, Clacker had not yet begun to pull himself up when the illithid arrived. Waves of stunning energy rolled over him. His head drooped and he slid back several inches before his claws found another hold.

  The mind flayer's greed cost it dearly. Instead of simply blasting and kicking Clacker from the ledge, it thought it could make a quick meal of the helpless hook horror's brain. It knelt before Clacker, four tentacles diving in eagerly to find an opening in his facial armor.

  Clacker's dual entities had resisted the illithid blasts out in the tunnels, and now, too, the stunning mental energy had only a minimal effect. When the illithid's octopus head appeared right in front of his face, it shocked Clacker back to awareness.

  A snap of a beak removed two of the probing tentacles, then a desperate lunge of a claw caught the illithid's knee. Bones crushed into dust under the mighty grip, and the illithid cried in agony, both telepathically and in its watery, otherworldly voice.

  A moment later, its cries faded as it plummeted down the deep chasm. A levitation spell might have saved the falling illithid, but such spellcasting required concentration and the pain of a torn face and crushed knee delayed such actions. The illithid thought of levitating at the same moment that the point of a stalagmite drove through its backbone.

  The hammer-hand crashed through the door of another stone chest. “Damn!” Belwar spat, seeing that this one, too, contained nothing more than illithid clothing. The burrow-warden was certain that his equipment would be nearby, but already half of his former masters' rooms lay in ruin with nothing to show for the effort. Belwar moved back into the main chamber and over to the stone seats. Between the two chairs, he spotted the figurine of the panther. He scooped it into a pouch, then squashed the head of the remaining illithid, the astral castaway, with his pickaxe-hand almost as an afterthought, in the confusion, the svirfneblin had nearly forgotten that one monster remained. Belwar heaved the body away, sending it down in a heap on the floor.

  “Magga cammara,' the svirfneblin muttered when he looked back to the stone chair and saw the outline of a trap door where the creature had been sitting. Never putting finesse above efficiency, Belwar's hammer-hand quickly reduced the door to rubble, and the burrow-warden looked upon the welcome sight of familiar backpacks.

  Belwar shrugged and followed the course of the logic, swiping across at the other illithid, the one Guenhwyvar had decapitated. The headless monster fell away, revealing another trap door.

  “The drow shall find need of these,” Belwar remarked when he cleared away the chunks of broken stone and lifted out a belt that held two sheathed scimitars. He darted for the exit and met an illithid right in the doorway.

  More particularly, Belwar's humming hammer-hand met the illithid's chest. The monster flew backward, spinning over the balcony's metal railing.

  Belwar rushed out and charged to the side, having no time to check if the illithid had somehow caught a handhold and having no time to stay and play in any case. He could hear the commotion below, the mental attacks and the screams, and the continuing growls of a panther that sounded like music in the burrow-warden's ears.

  His arms pinned to his sides by the illithid's unexpectedly powerful hug, Drizzt could only twist and jerk his head about to slow the tentacles' progress. One found a hold, then another, and began burrowing under the drow's ebony skin. Drizzt knew little of mind flayer anatomy, but it was a bipedal creature and he allowed himself some assumptions.

  Wiggling a bit to the side, so that he was not directly facing the horrid thing, he brought a knee slamming up into the creature's groin. By the sudden loosening of the illithid's grip, and by the way its milky eyes seemed to widen, Drizzt guessed

  that his assumptions had been correct. His knee slammed up again, then a third time.

  Drizzt heaved with all his strength and broke free of the weakened illithid's hug. The stubborn tentacles continued their climb up the sides of Drizzt's face, though, reaching for his brain. Explosions of burning pain racked Drizzt and he nearly fainted, his head drooping forward limply. But the hunter would not surrender.

  When Drizzt looked up again, the lire in his lavender eyes fell upon the illithid like a damning curse. The hunter grasped the tentacles and tore them out savagely, pulling them straight down to bow the illithid's head.

  The monster fired its mind blast, but the angle was wrong and the energy did nothing to slow the hunter. One hand held tightly to the tentacles while the other slammed in with the frenzy of a dwarven hammer at a mithril strike on the monster's soft head.

  Blue-black bruises welled in the fleshy skin, one pupil-less eye swelled and closed. A tentacle dug into the drow's wrist, the frantic illithid raked and punched with its arms, but the hunter didn't notice. He pounded away at the head, pounded the creature down to the stone floor. Drizzt tore his arm away from the tentacle's grasp, then both fists flailed away until the illithid's eyes closed forever.

  The ring of metal spun the drow about. Lying on the floor just a few feet away was a familiar and welcome sight.

  Satisfied that the scimitars had landed near his friend, Belwar charged down a stone stairway at the nearest illithid. The monster turned and loosed its blast. Belwar answered with a scream of sheer rage-a scream that partially blocked the stunning effect-and he hurled himself through the air, meeting the waves of energy head on. Though dazed from the mental assault, the deep gnome crashed into the illithid and they fell over into a second monster that had been rushing up to help. Belwar could hardly find his bearings, but he clearly understood that the jumble of arms and legs all about him were not the limbs of friend. The burrow-warden's mithril hands slashed and punched, and he scrambled away along the second balcony in search of another stair. By the time the two wounded illithids recovered enough to respond, the wild svirfneblin was long gone.

  Belwar caught another illithid by surprise, splatting its fleshy head flat against the wall as he came down onto the next level. A dozen other mind flayers roamed all about this balcony, though, most of them guarding the two stairways down to the tower's bottom chamber. Belwar took a quick detour by springing up to the top of the metal railing, then dropping the fifteen feet to the floor.

  A blast of stunning energy rolled over Drizzt as he reached for his weapons. The hunter resisted, though, his thoughts simply too primitive for such a sophisticated attack form. In a single movement too quick for his latest adversary to respond to, he snapped one scimitar from its sheath and spun about, slicing the blade at an upward angle. The scimitar buried itself halfway through the pursuing mind flayer's head.

  The hunter knew that the monster was already dead, but he tore out the scimitar and whacked the illithid one more time as it fell, for no particular reason at all.

  Then the drow was up and running, both blades drawn, one dripping illithid blood and the other hungry for more. Drizzt should have been looking for an escape route-that part that was Drizzt Do'Urden would have looked- but the hunter wanted more. His hunter-self demanded revenge on the brain mass that had enslaved him.

  A single cry saved the drow then, brought him back from the spiraling depths of his blind, instinctive rage.

  “Drizzt!” Belwar shouted, limping over to his friend. “Help me, dark elf! My ankle twisted in the fall!” All thoughts of revenge suddenly thrown away, Drizzt Do'Urden rushed to his svirfneblin companion's side.

  Arm in arm, the two friends left the circular chamber. A moment later, Guenhwyvar, sleek from the blood and gore of the central brain, bounded up to join them.

  “Lead us out,' Drizzt begged the panther, and Guenhwyvar willingly took up a point position.

  They ran down winding, rough-hewn corridors. “Not made by any svirfneblin,' Belwar was quick to point out, throwing his friend a wink.

  “I believe they were,' Drizzt retorted easily, returning the wink. ”Under the charms of a mind flayer, I mean,' he quickly added.

  “Never!” Belwar insisted. “Never the work of a svirfneblin is this, not even if his mind had been melted away!” In spite of their dire peril, the deep gnome managed a belly laugh, and Drizzt joined him.

  Sounds of battle sounded from the side passages of every intersection they crossed. Guenhwyvar's keen senses kept them along the clearest route, though

  the panther had no way of knowing which way was out. Still, whatever lay in any direction could only be an improvement over the horrors they had left.

  A mind flayer jumped out into their corridor just after Guenhwyvar crossed an intersection. The creature hadn't seen the panther and faced Drizzt and Belwar fully. Drizzt threw the svirfneblin down and dived into a headlong roll toward his adversary, expecting to be blasted before he ever got close.

  But when the drow came out of the roll and looked up, his breath came back in a profound sigh of relief. The mind flayer lay face down on the stone, Guenhwyvar comfortably perched atop its back.

  Drizzt moved to his feline companion as Guenhwyvar casually finished the grim business, and Belwar soon joined them.

  “Anger, dark elf,” the svirfneblin remarked. Drizzt looked at him curiously.

  “I believe anger can fight back against their blasts,' Belwar explained. ”One got me up on the stairs, but I was so mad, I hardly noticed. Perhaps I am mistaken, but-“

  “No,' Drizzt interrupted, remembering how little he had been affected, even at close range, when he had gone to retrieve his scimitars. He had been in the thralls of his alter ego then, that darker, maniacal side he so desperately had tried to leave behind. The illithid's mental assault had been all but useless against the hunter. ”You are not mistaken,' Drizzt assured his friend. “Anger can beat them, or at least slow the effects of their mind assaults.'

  Then get mad!“ Belwar growled as he signaled Guenhwyvar ahead. Drizzt threw his supporting arm back under the burrow-warden's shoulder and nodded his agreement with Belwar's suggestion. The drow realized, though, that blind rage such as Belwar was speaking of could not be consciously created. Instinctive fear and anger might defeat the illithids, but Drizzt, from his experiences with his alter ego, knew those were emotions brought on by nothing short of desperation and panic.

  The small party crossed through several more corridors, through a large, empty room, and down yet another passage. Slowed by the limping svirfneblin, they soon heard heavy footsteps closing in from behind.

  “Too heavy for illithids,' Drizzt remarked, looking back over his shoulder.

  “Slaves,' Belwar reasoned.

  Fwoop! An attack sounded behind them. Fwoop! Fwoop! The sounds came to them, followed by several thuds and groans.

  “Slaves once again,' Drizzt said grimly. The pursuing foot steps came on again, this time sounding more like a light shuffle.

  “Faster!” Drizzt cried, and Belwar needed no prompting. They ran on, thankful for every turn in the passage, for they feared that the illithids were only steps behind.

  They then came into a large and high hall. Several possible exits came into view, but one, a set of large iron doors, held their attention keenly. Between them and the doors was a spiraling iron stairway, and on a balcony not so far above loomed a mind flayer.

  “He'll cut us off,” Belwar reasoned. The footsteps came louder from behind. Belwar looked back toward the waiting illithid curiously when he saw a wide smile cross the drow's face. The deep gnome, too, grinned widely.

  Guenhwyvar took the spiraling stairs in three mighty bounds. The illithid wisely fled along the balcony and off into the shadows of adjoining corridors. The panther did not pursue, but held a high, guarding position above Drizzt and Belwar.

  Both the drow and the svirfneblin called their thanks as they passed, but their elation turned sour when they arrived at the doors. Drizzt pushed hard, but the portals would not budge.

  “Locked!” he cried.

  “Not for long!” growled Belwar. The enchantment had expired in the deep gnome's mithril hands, but he charged ahead anyway, pounding his hammer-hand against the metal.

  Drizzt moved behind the deep gnome, keeping a rear guard and expecting the illithids to enter the hall at any moment. “Hurry, Belwar:' he begged.

  Both mithril hands worked furiously on the doors. Gradually, the lock began to loosen and the doors opened just an inch. “Magga cammara, dark elf!” the burrow-warden cried. “A bar it is that holds them! On the other side!”

  “Damn!” Drizzt spat, and across the way, a group of several mind flayers entered the hall.

  Belwar didn't relent. His hammer-hand smashed at the door again and again.

  The illithids crossed the stairway and Guenhwyvar sprang into their midst, bringing the whole group tumbling down. At that horrible moment, Drizzt realized that he did not have the onyx figurine.

  The hammer-hand banged the metal in rapid succession, widening the gap between the doors. Belwar pushed his pickaxe-hand through in an uppercut motion and lifted the bar from its locking clasps. The doors swung wide.

  “Come quickly!” the deep gnome yelled to Drizzt. He hooked his pickaxe-hand under the drow's shoulder to pull him along, but Drizzt shrugged away the hold.

  “Guenhwyvar!” Drizzt cried.

  Fwoop! The evil sound came repeatedly from the pile of bodies. Guenhwyvar's reply came as more of a helpless wail than a growl. .

  Drizzt's lavender eyes burned with rage. He took a single stride back toward the stairway before Belwar figured out a solution.

  “Wait” the svirfneblin called, and he was truly relieved when Drizzt turned about to hear him. Belwar thrust his hip toward the drow and tore open his belt pouch. “Use this!”

  Drizzt pulled out the onyx figurine and dropped it at his feet. “Be gone, Guenhwyvar!” he shouted. “Go back to the safety of your home!”

  Drizzt and Belwar couldn't even see the panther amid the throng of illithids, but they sensed the mind flayers' sudden distress even before the telltale black mist appeared around the onyx figurine.

  As a group, the illithids spun toward them and charged.

  “Get the other door!” Belwar cried. Drizzt had grabbed the figurine and was already moving in that direction. The iron portals slammed shut and Drizzt worked to replace the locking bar. Several clasps on the outside of the door had been broken under the burrow-warden's ferocious assault, and the bar was bent, but Drizzt managed to set it in place securely enough to at least slow the illithids.

  “The other slaves are trapped,' Drizzt remarked.

  “Goblins and gray dwarves mostly,' Belwar replied.

  “And Clacker?”

  Belwar threw his arms out helplessly.

  “I pity them all,' groaned Drizzt, sincerely horrified at the prospect. ”Nothing in all the world can torture more than the mental clutches of mind flayers:'

  “Aye, dark elf,' whispered Belwar.

  The illithids slammed into the doors, and Drizzt pushed back, further securing the lock.

  “Where do we go?” Belwar asked behind him, and when Drizzt turned and surveyed the long and narrow cavern, he certainly understood the burrow-warden's confusion. They spotted at least a dozen exits, but between them and every one rushed a crowd of terrified slaves or a group of illithids. Behind them came another heavy thud, and the doors creaked open several inches.

  “Just go!” Drizzt shouted, pushing Belwar along. They charged down a wide stairway, then out across the broken floor, picking a route that would get them as far from the stone castle as possible.

  “Ware danger on all sides!” Belwar cried. “Slave and flayer alike!”

  “Let them beware!” Drizzt retorted, his scimitars leading the way. He slammed a goblin down with the hilt of one blade as it stumbled into his way, and a moment later, sliced the tentacles from the face of an illithid as it began to suck the brain from a recaptured duergar.

  Then another former slave, a bigger one, jumped in front of Drizzt. The drow rushed it headlong, but this time he stayed his scimitars.

  “Clacker!” Belwar yelled behind Drizzt.

  “B-b-back of . . . the. . . cavern,' the hook horror panted, its grumbled words barely decipherable. ”The b.b.best exit:'

  “Lead on,' Belwar replied excitedly, his hopes returning. Nothing would stand against the three of them united. When the burrow-warden started after his giant hook horror friend, however, he noticed that Drizzt wasn't following. At first Belwar feared that a mind blast had caught the drow, but when he returned to Drizzt's side, he realized otherwise.

  Atop another of the many wide stairways that ran through the many-tiered cavern, a single slender figure moved through a group of slaves and illithids alike.

  “By the gods,' Belwar muttered in disbelief, for the devastating movements of this single figure truly frightened the deep gnome.

  The precise cuts and deft twists of the twin swords were not at all frightening to Drizzt Do'Urden. Indeed, to the young dark elf, they rang with a familiarity that brought an old ache to his heart. He looked at Belwar blankly and spoke the

  name of the single warrior who could fit those maneuvers, the only name that could accompany such magnificent swordplay.


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