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Homeland (part 2 chapter 15)

2006-08-28 22:23



  “What do you know?” Matron Malice demanded of Jarlaxle, walking at her side across the compound of House Do'Urden. Malice normally would not have been so conspicuous with the infamous mercenary, but she was worried and impatient. Reported stirring within the hierarchy of Menzoberranzan's ruling families did not bode well for House Do'Urden.

  “Know?” Jarlaxle echoed, feigning surprise.

  Malice scowled at him, as did Briza, walking on the other side of the brash mercenary.

  Jarlaxle cleared his throat, though it sounded more like a laugh. He couldn't supply Malice with the details of the rumblings, he was not so foolish as to betray the more powerful houses of the city. But Jarlaxle could tease Malice with a simple statement of logic that only confirmed what she already had assumed. “Zin-carla, the spirit-wraith, has been in use for a very long time:'

  Malice struggled to keep her breathing inconspicuously smooth. She realized that Jarlaxle knew more than he would say, and the fact that the calculating mercenary had so coolly stated the obvious told her that her fears were justified. The spirit-wraith of Zaknafein had indeed been searching for Drizzt for a very long time. Malice did not need to be reminded that the Spider Queen was not known for her patience.

  “Have you any more to tell me?” Malice asked.

  Jarlaxle shrugged noncommittally.

  “Then be gone from my house,' the matron mother snarled.

  Jarlaxle hesitated for a moment, wondering if he should demand payment for the little information he had provided. Then he dipped into one of his well-known low, hat-sweeping bows and turned for the gate.

  He would find his payment soon enough.

  In the anteroom to the house chapel an hour later, Matron Malice rested back in her throne and let her thoughts roll out into the winding tunnels of the wild Underdark. Her telepathy with the spirit-wraith was limited, usually a passing of strong emotions, nothing more. But from those internal struggles of Zaknafein, who had been Drizzt's father and closest friend in life and was now Drizzt's

  deadliest enemy, Malice could learn much of her spirit-wraith's progress. Anxieties caused by Zaknafein's inner struggle inevitably would increase whenever the spirit-wraith got close to Drizzt.

  Now, after the disturbing meeting with Jarlaxle, Malice had to learn of Zaknafein's progress. A short time later, her efforts were rewarded.

  “Matron Malice insists that the spirit-wraith has gone west, beyond the svirfneblin city,' Jarlaxle explained to Matron Baenre. The mercenary had set out straight from House Do'Urden to the mushroom grove in the southern end of Menzoberranzan, to where the greatest of the drow families were housed.

  “The spirit-wraith keeps to the trail,' Matron Baenre mused, more to herself than to her informant. ”That is good:'

  “But Matron Malice believes that Drizzt has a lead of many days, even weeks,' Jarlaxle went on.

  “She told you this?” Matron Baenre asked incredulously, amazed that Malice would reveal such damaging information.

  “Some information can be gathered without words.' the mercenary replied slyly. ”Matron Malice's tone inferred much that she did not wish me to know:'

  Matron Baenre nodded and closed her wrinkled eyes, wearied by the whole experience. She had played a role in getting Matron Malice onto the ruling council, but now she could only sit and wait to see if Malice would remain.

  “We must trust in Matron Malice,' Matron Baenre said at length.

  Across the room from Baenre and Jarlaxle, Elviddinvelp, Matron Baenre's companion mind flayer, turned its thoughts away from the conversation. The drow mercenary had reported that Drizzt had gone west, far out from Blingdenstone, and that news carried potential importance that could not be ignored.

  The mind flayer projected its thoughts far out to the west, issued a clear warning down the corridors that were not as empty as they might appear.

  Zaknafein knew as soon as he looked upon the still lake that he had caught up to his quarry. He dropped low into the crooks and crags along the wide cavern's

  wall and made his way about. Then he found the unnatural door and the cave complex beyond.

  Old feelings stirred within the spirit-wraith, feelings of the kinship he once had known with Drizzt, New, savage emotions were quick to overwhelm them, though, as Matron Malice came into Zaknafein's mind in a wild fury. The spirit-wraith burst through the door, swords drawn, and tore through the complex. A blanket flew into the air and came down in pieces as Zaknafein's swords sliced across it a dozen times.

  When the fit of rage had played itself out, Matron Malice's monster settled back into a crouch to examine the situation. Drizzt was not at home.

  It took the hunting spirit -wraith only a short time to determine that Drizzt, and a companion, or perhaps even two, had set out from the cavern a few days before. Zaknafein's tactical instincts told him to lie in wait, for surely this was no phony campsite, as had been the one outside the deep gnome city. Surely Zaknafein's prey meant to return. The spirit-wraith sensed that Matron Malice, back on her throne in the drow city, would endure no delays. Time was running short for her-the dangerous whispers were growing louder every day-and Malice's fears and impatience cost her dearly this time.

  Only a few hours after Malice had driven the spirit-wraith into the tunnels in pursuit of her renegade son, Drizzt, Belwar, and Clacker returned to the cavern by a different route.

  Drizzt sensed at once that something was very wrong. He drew his blades and rushed across to the ledge, springing up to the door of the cave complex before Belwar and Clacker could even begin to question him.

  When they arrived at the cave, they understood Drizzt's alarm. The place was destroyed, hammocks and bedrolls torn apart, bowls and a small box that had been stuffed with gathered foods smashed and thrown to every comer. Clacker, who could not fit inside the complex, spun from the door and moved away, ensuring that no enemy was lurking in the far reaches of the large cavern.

  “Magga cammara!” Belwar roared. “What monster did this?”

  Drizzt held up a blanket and pointed out the clean cuts in the fabric. Belwar did not miss the drow's meaning.

  “Blades,' the burrow-warden said grimly. ”Fine and crafted blades:'

  “The blades of a drow,' Drizzt finished for him.

  “Far are we from Menzoberranzan,' Belwar reminded him. ”Far out in the wilds, beyond the knowledge and sight of your kin:'

  Drizzt knew better than to agree with such an assumption. For the bulk of his young life, Drizzt had witnessed the fanaticism that guided the lives of Lloth's foul priestesses.

  Drizzt himself had traveled on a raid many miles to the surface of the Realms, a raid that suited no better purpose than to give the Spider Queen a sweet taste of the blood of surface elves. “Do not underestimate Matron Malice.' he said grimly.

  “If it is indeed your mother come to call,' Belwar growled, clapping his hands together, ”she will find more than she expected waiting for her. We shall lie for her.' the svirfneblin promised, “the three of us.'

  “Do not underestimate Matron Malice,' Drizzt said again. ”This encounter was no coincidence, and Matron Malice will be prepared for whatever we have to offer:'

  “You cannot know that,' Belwar reasoned, but when the burrow-warden recognized the sincere dread in the drow's lavender eyes, all conviction drifted out of his voice.

  They gathered what few usable items remained and set out only a short while later, again going west to put even more distance between themselves and Menzoberranzan.

  Clacker took up the lead, for few monsters would willingly put themselves in the path of a hook horror. Belwar walked in the middle, the solid anchor of the party, and Drizzt floated along silently far to the rear, taking it upon himself to protect his friends if his mother's agents should catch up to them. Belwar had reasoned that they might have a good lead on whoever ruined their home. If the perpetrators had set off in pursuit of them from the cave complex, following their trail to the tower of the dead wizard, many days would pass before the enemy even returned to the cavern of the lake. Drizzt was not so secure in the burrow-warden's reasoning.

  He knew his mother too well.

  After several interminable days, the troupe came into a region of broken floors, jagged walls, and ceilings filled with stalactites that leered down at them like poised monsters. They closed in their ranks, needing the comfort of companionship. Despite the attention it might draw, Belwar took out his magically lighted brooch and pinned it on his leather jack. Even in the glow, the shadows thrown by sharp-edged mounds promised only peril.

  This region seemed more hushed than the Underdark's usual stillness. Rarely did travelers in the subterranean world of the Realms hear the sounds of other creatures, but here the quiet felt more profound, as though all life somehow had been stolen from the place. Clacker's heavy steps and the scrape of Belwar's boots echoed unnervingly off the many stone faces.

  Belwar was the first to sense approaching danger. Subtle vibrations in the stone called out to the svirfneblin that he and his friends were not alone. He stopped Clacker with his pick-hand, then looked back to Drizzt to see if the drow shared his uneasy feelings.

  Drizzt signaled to the ceiling, then levitated up into the darkness, seeking an ambush spot among the many stalactites. The drow drew one of his scimitars as he ascended and put his other hand on the onyx figurine in his pocket.

  Belwar and Clacker set up behind a ridge of stone, the deep gnome mumbling through the refrain that would enchant his mithril hands. Both felt better in the knowledge that the drow warrior was above them, looking over them.

  But Drizzt was not the only one who figured the stalactites as an ambush spot. As soon as he entered the layer of jagged, spearlike stones, the drow knew he was not alone.

  A form, slightly larger than Drizzt but obviously humanoid, drifted out around a nearby stalactite. Drizzt kicked off a stone to propel himself at it, drawing his other scimitar as he went. He knew his peril a moment later, for his enemy's head resembled a four-tentacled octopus. Drizzt had never actually viewed such a creature before, but he knew what it was: an illithid, a mind flayer, the most evil and most feared monster in all the Underdark.

  The mind flayer struck first, long before Drizzt had closed within his scimitar's limited range. The monster's tentacles wiggled and waved, and-fwoop!-a cone of mental energy rolled over Drizzt. The drow fought back against the impending blackness with all of his willpower. He tried to concentrate on his target, tried to focus his anger, but the illithid blasted again. Another mind fIayer appeared and fired its stunning force at Drizzt from the side.

  Belwar and Clacker could see nothing of the encounter, for Drizzt was above the radius of the deep gnome's illuminating brooch. Both sensed that something was going on above them, though, and the burrow-warden risked a whispered call to his friend.


  His answer came only a moment later, when two scimitars clanged to the stone. Belwar and Clacker started toward the weapons in surprise, then fell back.

  Before them the air shimmered and wavered, as if an invisible door to some other plane of existence was being opened.

  An illithid stepped through, appearing right before the surprised friends and letting out its mental blast before either of them even had time to cry out. Belwar reeled and stumbled to the floor, but Clacker, his mind already in conflict between hook horror and pech, was not so adversely affected.

  The mind fIayer loosed its force again, but the hook horror stepped right through the stunning cone and smashed the illithid with a single blow of his enormous clawed hand.

  Clacker looked all around, and then up. Other mind flayers were drifting down from the ceiling, two holding Drizzt by the ankles. More invisible doors opened. In an instant, blast after blast came at Clacker from every angle, and the defense of his dual personalities' inner turmoil quickly began to wear away. Desperation and welling outrage took over Clacker's actions.

  Clacker was solely a hook horror at that moment, acting on the instinctive rage and ferocity of the monstrous breed. But even the hard shell of a hook horror proved no defense against the mind fIayers' continuing insidious blasts. Clacker rushed at the two holding Drizzt.

  The darkness caught him halfway there.

  He was kneeling on the stone-he knew that much. Clacker crawled on, refusing to surrender, refusing to relinquish the sheer anger.

  Then he lay on the floor, with no thoughts of Drizzt or Belwar or rage.

  There was only darkness.

  PART 4


  There have been many times in my life when I have felt helpless. It is perhaps the most acute pain a person can know, founded in frustration and ventless rage. The nick of a sword upon a battling soldier's arm cannot compare to the anguish a prisoner feels at the crack of a whip. Even if the whip does not strike the helpless prisoner's body, it surely cuts deeply at his soul.

  We all are prisoners at one time or another in our lives, prisoners to ourselves or to the expectations of those around us. It is a burden that all people endure, that all people despise, and that few people ever learn to escape. I consider myself fortunate in this respect, for my life has traveled along a fairly straight-running path of improvement. Beginning in Menzoberranzan, under the relentless scrutiny of the evil Spider Queen's high priestesses, I suppose that my situation could only have improved.

  In my stubborn youth, I believed that I could stand alone, that I was strong enough to conquer my enemies with sword and with principles. Arrogance convinced me that by sheer determination, I could conquer helplessness itself. Stubborn and foolish youth, I must admit for when I look back on those years now, I see quite clearly that rarely did I stand alone and rarely did I have to stand alone. Always there were friends, true and dear, lending me support even when I believed I did not want it and even when I did not realize they were doing it.

  Zaknafein, Belwar, Clacker, Mooshie, Bruenor Regis, Cattie-brie, Wulfgar and of course, Guenhwyvar dear Guenhwyvar: These were the companions who justified my principles, who gave me the strength to continue against any foe, real or imagined. These were the companions who fought the helplessness, the rage, and frustration.

  These were the friends who gave me my life.

  -Drizzt Do'Urden

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