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Homeland (part 2 chapter 17)

2006-08-28 22:23

  CHAPTER 17

  A DELICATE BALANCE

  Belwar studied his latest foe carefully, sensing some familiarity with the armored beast's appearance. Had he befriended such a creature before? he wondered. Whatever doubts the svirfneblin gladiator might have had, though, could not break into the deep gnome's consciousness, for Belwar's illithid master continued its insidious stream of telepathic deceptions.

  Kill it my brave champion, the illithid pleaded from its perch in the stands. It is your enemy, most assuredly, and it shall bring harm to me if you do not kill it!

  The hook horror, much larger than Belwar's lost friend, charged the svirfneblin, having no reservations about making a meal of the deep gnome.

  Belwar coiled his stubby legs under him and waited for the precise moment. As the hook horror bore down on him, its clawed hands wide to prevent him from dodging to the side, Belwar sprang straight ahead, his hammer-hand leading the way right up into the monster's chest. Cracks ran all through the hook horror's exoskeleton from the sheer force of the blow, and the monster swooned as it continued forward.

  Belwar's flight made a quick reversal, for the hook horror's weight and momentum was much greater than the svirfneblin's. He felt his shoulder snap out

  of joint, and he, too, nearly fainted from the sudden agony. Again the callings of Belwar's illithid master overruled his thoughts, and even the pain.

  The gladiators crashed together in a heap, Belwar buried beneath the monster's bulk. The hook horror's encumbering size prevented it from getting its arms at the burrow-warden, but it had other weapons. A wicked beak dived at Belwar. The deep gnome managed to get his pickaxe-hand in, its path, but still the hook horror's giant head pushed on, twisting Belwar's arm backward. The hungry beak snapper and twisted barely an inch from the burrow-warden's face.

  Throughout the stands of the large arena, illithids jumped about and chatted excitedly, both in their telepathic mode and in their gurgling, watery voices. Fingers wiggled in opposition to clenched fists as the mind flayers prematurely tried to collect on bets.

  Belwar's master, fearing the loss of its champion, called out to the hook horror's master. Do you yield? it asked, trying to make the thoughts appear confident.

  The other illithid turned away smugly and shut down its telepathic receptacles. Belwar's master could only watch.

  The hook horror could not drive any closer, the svirfneblin's arm was locked against the stone at the elbow the mithril pickaxe firmly holding back the monster's deadly beak. The hook horror reverted to a different tactic, raising its head free of Belwar's hand in a sudden jerking movement.

  Belwar's warrior intuition saved him at that moment, for the hook horror reversed suddenly and the deadly beak dived back in. The normal reaction and expected defense would have been to swipe the monster's head to the side with the pickaxe-hand. The hook horror anticipated such a counter, and Belwar anticipated that it would.

  Belwar threw his arm across in front of him, but shortened his reach so that the pickaxe passed well below the hook horror's plunging beak. The monster, meanwhile, believing that Belwar was attempting to strike a blow, stopped its dive exactly as it had planned.

  But the mithril pickaxe reversed its direction much quicker than the monster anticipated. Belwar's backhand caught the hook horror right behind the beak and snapped its head to the side. Then, ignoring the searing pain from his injured shoulder, Belwar curled his other arm at the elbow and punched out. There was no strength behind the blow, but at that moment, the hook horror came back around the pickaxe and opened its beak for a bite at the deep gnome's exposed face.

  Just in time to catch a mithril hammer instead.

  Belwar's hand wedged far back in the hook horror's mouth, opening the beak more than it was designed to open. The monster jerked wildly, trying to free itself, each sudden twist sending waves of pain down the burrow-warden's wounded arm.

  Belwar responded with equal fury, whacking again and again at the side of the hook horror's head with his free hand. Blood oozed down the giant beak as the pickaxe dug in.

  “Do you yield?” Belwar's master now shouted in its watery voice at the hook horror's master.

  The question was premature again, however, for down in the arena, the armored hook horror was far from defeated. It used another weapon: its sheer weight. The monster ground its chest into the lying deep gnome, trying simply to crush the life out of him.

  Do you yield?“ the hook horror's master retorted, seeing the unexpected turn of events.

  Belwar's pickaxe caught the hook horror's eye, and the monster howled in agony. Illithids jumped and pointed, wiggling their fingers and clenching and unclenching their fists.

  Both masters of the gladiators understood how much they had to lose. Would either participant ever be fit to fight again if the battle was allowed to continue?

  Mayhaps we should consider a draw? Belwar's master offered telepathically. The other illithid readily agreed. Both masters sent messages down to their champions. It took several brutal moments to calm the fires of rage and end the contest, but, eventually, the illithid suggestions overruled the gladiators' savage instincts of survival. Suddenly, both the deep gnome and the hook horror felt an affinity for each other, and when the hook horror rose, it lent a claw to the svirfneblin to help him to his feet.

  A short while later, Belwar sat on the single stone bench in his tiny, unadorned cell, just inside the tunnel to the circular arena. The burrow-warden's hammer-wielding arm had gone completely numb and a gruesome purplish blue bruise covered his entire shoulder. Many days would pass before Belwar would be able to compete in the arena again, and it troubled him deeply that he would not soon please his master.

  The illithid came to him to inspect the damage. It had potions that could help heal the wound, but even with the magical aid, Belwar obviously needed time to rest.

  The mind flayer had other uses for the svirfneblin, though. A cubby in its private quarters needed completing.

  Come, the illithid bade Belwar, and the burrow-warden jumped to his feet and rushed out, respectfully remaining a stride behind his master.

  A kneeling drow caught Belwar's attention as the mind flayer led him through the bottom level of the central tower. How fortunate the dark elf was to be able to touch and bring pleasure to the central brain of the community! Belwar then thought no more of it, though, as he made the ascent to the structure's third level and to the suite of rooms that his three masters shared.

  The other two illithids sat in their chairs, motionless and apparently lifeless. Belwar's master paid little heed to the spectacle, it knew that its companions were far away in their astral travels and that their corporeal bodies were quite safe. The mind flayer did pause to wonder, for just a moment, how its companions fared in that distant plane. Like all illithids, Belwar's master enjoyed astral travel, but pragmatism, a definite illithid trait, kept the creature's thoughts on the business at hand. It had made a large investment in buying Belwar, an investment it was not willing to lose.

  The mind flayer led Belwar into a back room and sat him down on an unremarkable stone table. Then, suddenly, the illithid bombarded Belwar with telepathic suggestions and questions, probing as it roughly set the injured shoulder and applied wrappings. Mind flayers could invade a creature's thoughts on first contact, either with their stunning blow or with telepathic communications, but it could take weeks, even months, for an illithid to fully dominate its slave. Each encounter broke down more of the slave's natural resistance to the illithid's mental insinuations, revealed more of the slave's memories and emotions.

  Belwar's master was determined to know everything about this curious svirfneblin, about his strange, crafted hands and about the unusual company he chose to keep. This time during the telepathic exchange, the illithid focused on the mithril hands, for it sensed that Belwar was not performing up to his capabilities.

  The illithid's thoughts probed and prodded, and sometime later fell into a deep corner of Belwar's mind and learned a curious chant.

  Bivrip? it questioned Belwar. Simply on reflex, the burrow-warden banged his hands together, then winced in pain from the shock of the blow.

  The illithid's fingers and tentacles wiggled eagerly. It had touched upon something important, it knew, something that could make its champion stronger. If the mind flayer allowed Belwar the memory of the chant, however, it would give

  back to the svirfneblin a part of himself, a conscious memory of his days before slavery.

  The illithid handed Belwar still another healing potion, then glanced around to inspect its wares. If Belwar was to continue as a gladiator, he would have to face the hook horror again in the arena, by illithid rules, a rematch was required after a draw. Belwar's master doubted that the svirfneblin would survive another battle against that armored champion.

  Unless. . .

  Dinin Do'Urden paced his lizard mount through the region of Menzoberranzan's lesser houses, the most congested section of the city. He kept the cowl of his piwafwi pulled low about his face and bore no insignia revealing him as a noble of a ruling house. Secrecy was Dinin's ally, both from the watching eyes of this dangerous section of the city, and from the disapproving glares of his mother and sister. Dinin had survived long enough to understand the dangers of complacency. He lived in a state that bordered on paranoia, he never knew when Malice and Briza might be watching.

  A group of bugbears sauntered out of the walking lizard's way. Fury swept through the proud elderboy of House Do'Urden at the slaves' casual manner. Dinin's hand went instinctively to the whip on his belt.

  Dinin wisely checked his rage, though, reminding himself of the possible consequences of being revealed. He turned another of the many sharp corners and moved down through a row of connected stalagmite mounds.

  “So you have found me,' came a familiar voice from behind and to the side. Surprised and afraid, Dinin stopped his mount and froze in his saddle. He knew that a dozen tiny crossbows-at least-were trained on him.

  Slowly, Dinin turned his head to watch Jarlaxle's approach. Out here in the shadows, the mercenary seemed much different from the overly polite and compliant drow Dinin had known in House Do'Urden. Or perhaps it was just the specter of the two sword-wielding drow guards standing by Jarlaxle's sides and Dinin's own realization that he didn't have Matron Malice around to protect him.

  “One should ask permission before entering another's house.' Jarlaxle said calmly but with definite threatening undertones. ”Common courtesy:'

  “I am out in the open streets.' Dinin reminded him.

  Jarlaxle's smile denied the logic. “My house.'

  Dinin remembered his station, and the thoughts inspired some courage. “Should a noble of a ruling house, then, ask Jarlaxle's permission before leaving his front gate?” the elderboy growled. “And what of Matron Baenre, who would not enter the least of Menzoberranzan's houses without seeking permission from the appropriate matron mother? Should Matron Baenre, too, ask permission of Jarlaxle, the houseless rogue?” Dinin realized that he might be carrying the insult a bit too far, but his pride demanded the words.

  Jarlaxle relaxed visibly and the smile that came to his face almost appeared sincere. “So you have found me,' he said again, this time dipping into his customary bow. ”State your purpose and be done with it.'

  Dinin crossed his arms over his chest belligerently, gaining confidence at the mercenary's apparent concessions.

  “Are you so certain that I was looking for you?”

  Jarlaxle exchanged grins with his two guards. Snickers from unseen soldiers in the shadows of the lane stole a good measure of Dinin's budding confidence.

  “State your business, Elderboy, Jarlaxle said more pointedly, ”and be done with it.'

  Dinin was more than willing to complete this encounter as quickly as possible. “I require information concerning Zin-carla,' he said bluntly. ”The spirit-wraith of Zaknafein has walked the Underdark for many days. Too many, perhaps?“

  Jarlaxle's eyes narrowed as he followed the elderboy's reasoning. “Matron Malice sent you to me?” he stated as much as asked.

  Dinin shook his head and Jarlaxle did not doubt his sincerity. “You are as wise as you are skilled in the blade,” the mercenary offered graciously, slipping into a second bow, one that seemed somehow ambiguous out here in Jarlaxle's dark world.

  “I have come of my own initiative, Dinin said firmly. ”I must find some answers.'

  “Are you afraid, Elderboy?”

  “Concerned, Dinin replied sincerely, ignoring the mercenary's taunting tone. ”I never make the error of underestimating my enemies, or my allies. Jarlaxle cast him a confused glance.

  “I know what my brother has become,' Dinin explained. ”And I know who Zaknafein once was:'

  “Zaknafein is a spirit-wraith now,' Jarlaxle replied, ”under the control of Matron Malice:'

  “Many days,' Dinin said quietly, believing the implications of his words spoke loudly enough.

  “Your mother asked for Zin-carla,' Jarlaxle retorted, a bit sharply. ”It is Lloth's greatest gift, given only so that the Spider Queen is pleased in return. Matron Malice knew the risk when she requested Zin-carla. Surely you understand, Elderboy, that spirit -wraiths are given for the completion of a specific task:'

  “And what are the consequences of failure?” Dinin asked bluntly, matching Jarlaxle's perturbed attitude.

  The mercenary's incredulous stare was all the answer Dinin needed. “How long does Zaknafein have?” Dinin asked.

  Jarlaxle shrugged noncommittally and answered with a question of his own. “Who can guess at Lloth's plans?” he asked. “The Spider Queen can be a patient one-if the gain is great enough to justify the wait. Is Drizzt's value such?” Again the mercenary shrugged. “That is for Lloth, and for Lloth alone, to decide:'

  Dinin studied Jarlaxle for a long moment, until he was certain that the mercenary had nothing left to offer him. Then he turned back to his lizard mount and pulled the cowl of his piwafwi low. When he regained his saddle, Dinin spun about, thinking to issue one final comment, but the mercenary and his guards were nowhere to be found.

  “Bivrip!” Belwar cried, completing the spell. The burrow-warden banged his hands together again, and this time did not wince, for the pain was not so intense. Sparks flew when the mithril hands crashed together, and Belwar's master clapped its four-fingered hands in absolute glee. The illithid simply had to see its gladiator in action now. It looked about for a target and spotted the partially cut cubby. A whole set of telepathic instructions roared into the burrow-warden's mind as the illithid imparted mental images of the design and depth it wanted for the cubby.

  Belwar moved right in. Unsure of the strength in his wounded shoulder, the one guiding the hammer-hand, he led with the pickaxe. The stone exploded into dust under the enchanted hand's blow, and the illithid sent a clear message of its pleasure flooding into Belwar's thoughts. Even the armor of a hook horror would not stand against such a blow!

  Belwar's master reinforced the instructions it had given to the deep gnome, then moved into an adjoining chamber to study. Left alone to his work, so very similar to the tasks he had worked at for all of his century of life, Belwar found himself wondering.

  Nothing in particular crossed the burrow-warden's few coherent thoughts, the need to please his illithid master remained the foremost guidance of his movements. For the first time since his capture, though, Belwar wondered.

  Identity? Purpose?

  The enchanting spell-song of his mithril hands ran through his mind again, became a focus of his unconscious determination to sort through the blur of his captors' insinuations.

  “Bivrip?” he muttered again, and the word triggered a more recent memory, an image of a drow elf, kneeling and massaging the god-thing of the illithid community.

  “Drizzt?” Belwar muttered under his breath, but the name was forgotten in the next bang of his pick-hand, obliterated by the svirfneblin's continuing desire to please his illithid master.

  The cubby had to be perfect.

  A lump of flesh rippled under an ebony-skinned hand and a wave of anxiety flooded through Drizzt, imparted by the central brain of the mind flayer community. The drow's only emotional response was sadness, for he could not bear to see the brain in distress. Slender fingers kneaded and rubbed, Drizzt lifted a bowl of warm water and poured it slowly over the flesh. Then Drizzt was happy, for the flesh smoothed out under his skilled touch, and the brain's anxious emotions soon were replaced by a teasing hint of gratitude.

  Behind the kneeling drow, across the wide walkway, two illithids watched it all and nodded approvingly. Drow elves always had proved skilled at this task, and this latest captive was one of the finest so far.

  The illithids wiggled their fingers eagerly at the implications of that shared thought. The central brain had detected another drow intruder in the illithid webs that were the tunnels beyond the long and narrow cavern-another slave to massage and sooth.

  So the central brain believed.

  Four illithids moved out from the cavern, guided by the images imparted by the central brain. A single drow had entered their domain, an easy capture for four illithids.

  So the mind flayers believed.

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