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Homeland (part 1 chapter 20)

2006-08-28 22:09

  Chapter 20 That Foreign World

  The fourteen members of the patrol group made their way through twisting tunnels and giant caverns that sud-denly opened wide before them. Silent on magical boots and nearly invisible behind their piwafwis, they communicated only in their hand code. For the most part, the ground's slope was barely perceptible, though at times the group climbed straight up rocky chimneys, every step and every handhold drawing them nearer their goal. They crossed through the boundaries of claimed territories, of monsters and the other races, but the hated gnomes and even the duergar dwarves wisely kept their heads hidden. Few in all the Underdark would purposely intercept a drow raiding party.

  By the end of a week, all of the drow could sense the dif-ference in their surroundings. The depth still would have seemed stifling to a surface dweller, but the dark elves were accustomed to the constant oppression of a thousand thou- sand tons of rock hanging over their heads. They turned every corner expecting the stone ceiling to flyaway into the vast openness of the surface world.

  Breezes wafted past them-not the sulfur-smelling hot winds rising off the magma of deep earth, but moist air, scented with a hundred aromas unknown to the drow. It was springtime above, though the dark elves, in their sea- sonless environs, knew nothing of that, and the air was full

  of the scents of new-blossomed flowers and budding trees.

  In the seductive allure of those tantalizing aromas, Drizzt had to remind himself again and again that the place they approached was wholly evil and dangerous. Perhaps, he thought, the scents were merely a diabolical lure, a bait to an unsuspecting creature to bring it into the surface world's murderous grip.

  The cleric of Arach-Tinilith who was traveling with the raiding party walked near to one wall and pressed her face against every crack she encountered. “This one will suffice” she said a short time later. She cast a spell of seeing and looked into the tiny crack, no more than a finger's width, a second time.

  “How are we to get through that?” one of the patrol memo bers signaled to another. Dinin caught the gestures and ended the silent conversation with a scowl.

  “It is daylight above” the cleric announced. “We shall have to wait here”

  “For how long?” Dinin asked, knowing his patrol to be on the edge of readiness with their long-awaited goal so very near.

  “I cannot know” the cleric replied. “No more than half a cycle of Narbondel. Let us remove our packs and rest while we may”

  Dinin would have preferred to continue, just to keep his troops busy, but he did not dare speak against the priestess.

  The break did not prove a long one, though, for a couple of hours later, the cleric checked through the crack once more and announced that the time had come.

  “You first” Dinin said to Drizzt. Drizzt looked at his brother incredulously, having no idea of how he could pass through such a tiny crack.

  “Come” instructed the cleric, who now held a many-holed orb. “Walk past me and continue through”

  As Drizzt passed the cleric, she spoke the orb's command

  word and held it over Drizzt's head. Black flakes, blacker than Drizzt's ebony skin, drifted over him, and he felt a tre- mendous shudder ripple across his spine.

  The others looked on in amazement as Drizzt's body nar-rowed to the width of a hair and he became a two-dimensional image, a shadow of his former self.

  Drizzt did not understand what was happening, but the crack suddenly widened before him. He slipped into it, found movement in his present form merely an enactment of will, and, drifted through the twists, turns, and bends of the tiny channel like a shadow on the broken face of a rocky cliff. He then was in a long cave, standing across from its sin-gle exit.

  A moonless night had fallen, but even this seemed bright to the deep-dwelling drow. Drizzt felt himself pulled to-ward the exit, toward the surface world's openness. The other raiders began slipping through the crack and into the cavern then, one by one with the cleric coming in last. Drizzt was the first to feel the shudder as his body resumed its natural state. In a few moments, they all were eagerly checking their weapons.

  “I will remain here” the cleric told Dinin. “Hunt well. The Spider Queen is watching”

  Dinin warned his troops once again of the dangers of the surface, then he moved to the front of the cave, a small hole on the side of a rocky spur of a tall mountain. “For the Spi- der Queen” Dinin proclaimed. He took a steadying breath and led them through the exit, under the open sky.

  Under the stars! While the others seemed nervous under those revealing lights, Drizzt found his gaze pulled heaven- ward to the countless points of mystical twinkling. Bathed in the starlight, he felt his heart lift and didn't even notice the joyful singing that rode on the night wind, so fitting it seemed.

  Dinin heard the song, and he was experienced enough to recognize it as the eldritch calling of the surface elves. He crouched and surveyed the horizon, picking out the light of a single fire down in the distant expanse of a wooded valley. He nudged his troops to action-and pointedly nudged the wonderment from his brother's eyes-and started them off.

  Drizzt could see the anxiety on his companions' faces, so contrasted by his own inexplicable sense of serenity. He sus-pected at once that something was very wrong with the whole situation. In his heart Drizzt had known from the minute he had stepped out of the tunnel that this was not the vile world the masters at the Academy had taken such pains to describe. He did feel unusual with no stone ceiling above him, but not uncomfortable. If the stars, calling to his heartstrings, were indeed reminders of what the next day might bring, as Master Hatch'net had said, then surely the next day would not be so terrible.

  Only confusion dampened the feeling of freedom that Drizzt felt, for either he had somehow fallen into a trap of perception, or his companions, his brother included, viewed their surroundings through tainted eyes.

  It fell on Drizzt as another unanswered burden: were his feelings of comfort here weakness or truth of heart?

  “They are akin to the mushroom groves of our home” Dinin assured the others as they tentatively moved under the perimeter boughs of a small forest, “neither sentient nor harmful”

  Still, the younger dark elves flinched and brought their weapons to the ready whenever a squirrel skipped across a branch overheard or an unseen bird called out to the night. The dark elves' was a silent world, far different from the chattering life of a springtime forest, and in the Underdark, nearly every living thing could, and most certainly would, try to harm anything invading its lair. Even a cricket's chirp sounded ominous to the alert ears of the drow.

  Dinin's course was true, and soon the faerie song drowned out every other sound and the light of a fire be-came visible through the boughs. Surface elves were the most alert of the races, and a human-or even a sneaky halfling-would have had little chance of catching them un-awares.

  The raiders this night were drow, more skilled in stealth than the most proficient alley thief. Their footfalls went un- heard, even across beds of dry, fallen leaves, and their crafted armor, shaped perfectly to the contours of their

  slender bodies, bent with their movements without a rustle. Unnoticed, they lined the perimeter of the small glade, where a score of faeries danced and sang.

  Transfixed by the sheer joy of the elves' play, Drizzt hardly noticed the commands his brother issued then in the silent code. Several children danced among the gathering, marked only by the size of their bodies, and were no freer in spirit than the adults they accompanied. So innocent they all seemed, so full of life and wistfulness, and obviously bonded to each other by friendship more profound than Drizzt had ever known in Menzoberranzan. So unlike the stories Hatch'net had spun of them, tales of vile, hating wretches.

  Drizzt sensed more than saw that his group was on the move, fanning out to gain a greater advantage. Still he did not take his eyes from the spectacle before him. Dinin tapped him on the shoulder and pointed to the small cross- bow that hung from his belt, then slipped off into position in the brush off to the side.

  Drizzt wanted to stop his brother and the others, wanted to make them wait and observe the surface elves that they were so quick to name enemies. Drizzt found his feet rooted to the earth and his tongue weighted heavily in the sudden dryness that had come into his mouth. He looked to Dinin and could only hope that his brother mistakenly thought his labored breaths the exultations of battle-lust. .

  Then Drizzt's keen ears heard the soft thrum of a dozen tiny bowstrings. The elven song carried on a moment longer, until several of the group dropped to the earth.

  “No!” Drizzt screamed in protest, the words torn from his body by a profound rage even he did not understand. The denial sounded like just another war cry to the drow raid-ers, and before the surface elves could even begin to react, Dinin and the others were upon them.

  Drizzt, too, leaped into the glade's lighted ring, his weap-ons in hand, though he had given no thought to his next move. He wanted only to stop the battle, to put an end to the scene unfolding before him.

  Quite at ease in their woodland home, the surface elves

  weren't even armed. The drow warriors sliced through their ranks mercilessly, cutting them down and hacking at their bodies long after the light of life had flown from their eyes.

  One terrified female, dodging this way and that, came be-fore Drizzt. He dipped the tips of his weapons to the earth, searching for some way to give a measure of comfort. The female then jerked straight as a sword dove into her back, its tip thrusting right through her slender form. Drizzt watched, mesmerized and horrified, as the drow warrior behind her grasped the weapon hilt in both hands and twisted it savagely. The female elf looked straight at Drizzt in the last fleeting seconds of her life, her eyes crying for mercy. Her voice was no more than the sickening gurgle of blood.

  His face the exultation of ecstacy, the drow warrior tore his sword free and sliced it across, taking the head from the elven female's shoulders.

  “Vengeance!” he cried at Drizzt, his face contorted in furi-ous glee, his eyes burning with a light that shone demonic to the stunned Drizzt. The warrior hacked at the lifeless body one more time, then spun away in search of another kill.

  Only a moment later, another elf, this one a young girl, broke free of the massacre and rushed in Drizzt's direction, screaming a single word over and over. Her cry was in the tongue of the surface elves, a dialect foreign to Drizzt, but when he looked upon her fair face, streaked with tears, he understood what she was saying. Her eyes were on the mu-tilated corpse at his feet; her anguish outweighed even the terror of her own impending doom. She could only be cry-ing, “Mother!”

  Rage, horror, anguish, and a dozen other emotions racked Drizzt at that horrible moment. He wanted to escape his feelings, to lose himself in the blind frenzy of his kin and ac-cept the ugly reality. How easy it would have been to throw away the conscience that pained him so.

  The elven child rushed up before Drizzt but hardly saw him, her gaze locked upon her dead mother, the back of the child's neck open to a single, clean blow. Drizzt raised his scimitar, unable to distinguish between mercy and murder.

  “Yes, my brother!” Dinin cried out to him, a call that cut through his comrades' screams and whoops and echoed in Drizzt's ears like an accusation. Drizzt looked up to see Dinin, covered from head to foot in blood and standing amid a hacked cluster of dead elves.

  “Today you know the glory it is to be a drow!” Dinin cried, and he punched a victorious fist into the air. “today we ap-pease the Spider Queen!”

  Drizzt responded in kind, then snarled and reared back for a killing blow.

  He almost did it. In his unfocused outrage, Drizzt Do'Ur-den almost became as his kin. He almost stole the life from that beautiful child's sparkling eyes.

  At the last moment, she looked up at him, her eyes shining as a dark mirror into Drizzt's blackening heart. In that re-flection, that reverse image of the rage that guided his hand, Drizzt Do'Urden found himself.

  He brought the scimitar down in a mighty sweep, watch-ing Dinin out of the corner of his eye as it whisked harm-lessly past the child- In the same motion, Drizzt followed with his other hand, catching the girl by the front of her tu- nic and pulling her face-down to the ground.

  She screamed, unharmed but terrified, and Drizzt saw Dinin thrust his fist into the air again and spin away.

  Drizzt had to work quickly; the battle was almost at its gruesome end. He sliced his scimitars expertly above the huddled child's back, cutting her clothing but not so much as scratching her tender skin. Then he used the blood of the headless corpse to mask the trick, taking grim satisfaction that the elven mother would be pleased to know that, in dying, she had saved the life of her daughter.

  “Stay down” he whispered in the child's ear. Drizzt knew that she could not understand his language, but he tried to keep his tone comforting enough for her to guess at the de-ception. He could only hope he had done an adequate job a moment later, when Dinin and several others came over to him.

  “Well done!” Dinin said exuberantly, trembling with sheer excitement. “ A score of the orc-bait dead and not a one of us even injured! The matrons of Menzoberranzan will be pleased indeed, though we'll get no plunder from this pitiful lot!” He looked down at the pile at Drizzt's feet, then clapped his brother on the shoulder.

  Did they think they could get away?“ Dinin roared.

  Drizzt fought hard to sublimate his disgust, but Dinin was so entranced by the bloodbath that he wouldn't have no-ticed anyway.

  “Not with you here!” Dinin continued. “Two kills for Drizzt! ”

  “One kill!” protested another, stepping beside Dinin.

  Drizzt set his hands firmly on the hilts of his weapons and gathered up his courage. If this approaching drow had guessed the deception, Drizzt would fight to save the elven child. He would kill his companions, even his brother, to save the little girl with the sparkling eyes-until he himself was slain. At least then Drizzt would not have to witness their slaughter of the child.

  Luckily, the problem never came up. “Drizzt got the child” the drow said to Dinin, “but I got the elder female. I put my sword right through her back before your brother ever brought his scimitars to bear!”

  It came as a reflex, an unconscious strike against the evil all about him. Drizzt didn't even realize the act as it hap-pened, but a moment later, he saw the boasting drow lying on his back, clutching at his face and groaning in agony. Only then did Drizzt notice the burning pain in his hand, and he looked down to see his knuckles, and the scimitar hilt they clutched, spattered with blood.

  “What are you about?” Dinin demanded.

  Thinking quickly, Drizzt did not even reply to his brother.

  He looked past Dinin, to the squirming form on the ground, and transferred all the rage in his heart into a curse that the

  others would accept and respect. “If ever you steal a kill from me again” he spat, sincerity dripping from his false words, “I will replace the head lost from its shoulders with your own!”

  Drizzt knew that the elven child at his feet, though doing her best, had begun a slight shudder of sobbing, and he de-cided not to press his luck. “Come, then” he growled. “Let us leave this place. The stench of the surface world fills my mouth with bile!”

  He stormed away, and the others, laughing, picked up their dazed comrade and followed.

  “Finally” Dinin whispered as he watched his brother's tense strides. “Finally you have learned what it is to be a drow warrior!”

  Dinin, in his blindness, would never understand the irony of his words.

  “We have one more duty before we return home” the cleric explained to the group when it reached the cave's en- trance. She alone knew of the raid's second purpose. “The matrons of Menzoberranzan have bid us to witness the ulti-mate horror of the surface world, that we might warn our kindred”

  Our kindred? Drizzt mused, his thoughts black with sar-casm. As far as he could see, the raiders had already wit-nessed the horror of the surface world: themselves!

  “There!” Dinin cried, pointing to the eastern horizon.

  The tiniest shading of light limned the dark outline of dis- tant mountains. A surface dweller would not even have no-ticed it, but the dark elves saw it clearly, and all of them, even Drizzt, recoiled instinctively.

  “It is beautiful” Drizzt dared to remark after taking a mo-ment to consider the spectacle.

  Dinin's glare came at him icy cold, but no colder than the look the cleric cast Drizzt's way. “Remove your cloaks and equipment, even your armor” she instructed .the group.

  “Quickly. Place them within the shadows of the cave so that they will not be affected by the light”

  When the task was completed, the cleric led them out into the growing light. “Watch” was her grim command.

  The eastern sky assumed a hue of purplish pink, then pink altogether, its brightening causing the dark elves to squint uncomfortably. Drizzt wanted to deny the event, to put it into the same pile of anger that denied the master of Lore's words concerning the surface elves.

  Then it happened; the top rim of the sun crested the east- ern horizon. The surface world awakened to its warmth, its life-giving energy. Those same rays assaulted the drow elves' eyes with the fury of fire, tearing into orbs unaccus-tomed to such sights.

  “Watch!” the cleric cried at them. “Witness the depth of the horror!”

  One by one, the raiders cried out in pain and fell into the cave's darkness, until Drizzt stood alone beside the cleric in the growing daylight. Truly, the light assaulted Drizzt as keenly as it had his kin, but he basked in it, accepting it as his purgatory, exposing him for all to view while its stinging fires cleansed his soul.

  “Come” the cleric said to him at length, not understanding his actions. “We have borne witness. We may now return to our homeland”

  “Homeland?” Drizzt replied, subdued.

  “Menzoberranzan!” the cleric cried, thinking the male confused beyond reason. “Come, before the inferno burns the skin from your bones. Let our surface cousins suffer the flames, a fitting punishment for their evil hearts!” Drizzt chuckled hopelessly. A fitting punishment? He wished that he could pluck a thousand such suns from the sky and set them in every chapel in Menzoberranzan, to shine eternally.

  Then Drizzt could take the light no more. He scrambled dizzily back into the cave and donned his outfit. The cleric had the orb in hand, and Drizzt again was the first through

  the tiny crack. When all the group rejoined in the tunnel be- yond, Drizzt took his position at the point and led them back into the descending path's deepening gloom-back down into the darkness of their existence.

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