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Homeland (part 1 chapter 29)

2006-08-28 22:09

  Chapter 29 Alone

  Drizzt walked back around the stalagmite, back to the body of Masoj Hun'ett. He had had no choice but to kill his adversary; Masoj had drawn the battle lines.

  That fact did little to dispel the guilt in Drizzt as he looked upon the corpse. He had killed another drow, had taken the life of one of his own people. Was he trapped, as Zaknafein had been trapped for so very many years, in a cycle of vio-lence that would know no end?

  “Never again” Drizzt vowed to the corpse. “Never again will I kill a drow elf”

  He turned away, disgusted, and knew as soon as he looked back to the silent, sinister mounds of the vast draw city that he would not survive long in Menzoberranzan if he held to that promise.

  A thousand possibilities whirled in Drizzt's mind as he made his way through the winding ways of Menzoberran-zan. He pushed the thoughts aside, stopped them from dull- ing his alertness. The light was general now in Narbondel; the drow day was beginning, and activity had started from every corner of the city. In the world of the surface-dwellers, the day was the safer time, when light exposed as-sassins. In Menzoberranzan's eternal darkness, the daytime of the dark elves was even more dangerous than the night. Drizzt picked his way carefully, rolling wide from the mushroom fence of the noblest houses, wherein lay House Hun'ett. He encountered no more adversaries and made the safety of the Do'Urden compound a short time later. He rushed through the gate and by the surprised soldiers with-out a word of explanation and shoved aside the guards be-low the balcony.

  The house was strangely quiet; Drizzt would have ex-pected them all to be up and about with battle imminent. He gave the eerie stillness no more thought, and he cut a straight line to the training gym and Zaknafein's private quarters.

  Drizzt paused outside the gym's stone door, his hand tightly clenched on the handle of the portal. What would he propose to his father? That they leave? He and Zaknafein on the perilous trails of the Underdark, fighting when they must and escaping the burdensome guilt of their existence under drow rule? Drizzt liked the thought, but he wasn't so certain now, standing before the door, that he could con- vince Zak to follow such a course. Zak could have left be-fore, at any time during the centuries of his life, but when Drizzt had asked him why he had remained, the heat had drained from the weapon master's face. Were they indeed trapped in the life offered to them by Matron Malice and her evil cohorts?

  Drizzt grimaced away the worries; no sense in arguing to himself with Zak only a few steps away.

  The training gym was as quiet as the rest of the house. Tho quiet. Drizzt hadn't expected Zak to be there, but some-thing more than his father was absent. The father's pres-ence, too, was gone.

  Drizzt knew that something was wrong, and each step he took toward Zak's private door quickened until he was in full flight. He burst in without.a knock, not surprised to find the bed empty.

  “Malice must have sent him out in search of me” Drizzt reasoned. “Damn, I have caused him trouble!” He turned to leave, but something caught his eye and held him in the room-Zak's sword belt.

  Never would the weapon master have left his room, not even for functions within the safety of House Do'Urden, without his swords. “Your weapon is your most trusted companion” Zak had told Drizzt a thousand times. “Keep it ever at your side!”

  “House Hun'ett?” Drizzt whispered, wondering if the rival house had magically attacked in the night, while he was out battling Alton and Masoj. The compound, though, was se. rene; surely the soldiers would have known if anything like that had occurred.

  Drizzt picked up the belt for inspection. No blood, and the clasp neatly unbuckled. No enemy had torn this from Zak.

  The weapon master's pouch lay beside it, also intact.

  “What, then?” Drizzt asked aloud. He replaced the sword belt beside the bed, but slung the pouch across his neck, and turned, not knowing where he should go next.

  He had to see about the rest of the family, he realized be- I fore he had even stepped through the door. Perhaps then this riddle about Zak would become more clear.

  Dread grew out of that thought as Drizzt headed down the long and decorated corridor to the chapel anteroom.

  Had Malice, or any of them, brought Zak harm? For what, purpose? The notion seemed illogical to Drizzt, but it i nagged him every step, as if some sixth sense were warning him.

  There still was no sign of anyone.

  The anteroom's ornate doors swung in, magically and si-lently, even as Drizzt raised his hand to knock on them. He saw the matron mother first, sitting smugly on her throne at the rear of the room, her smile inviting.

  Drizzt's discomfort did not diminish when he entered.

  The whole family was there: Briza, Vierna, and Maya to the sides of their matron, Rizzen and Dinin unobtrusively standing beside the left wall. The whole family. Except for Zak.

  Matron Malice studied her son carefully, noting his many wounds. “I instructed you not to leave the house” she said to Drizzt, but she was not scolding him. “Where did your trav-els take you?”

  “Where is Zaknafein?” Drizzt asked in reply.

  “Answer the matron mother!” Briza yelled at him, her snake whip prominently displayed on her belt.

  Drizzt glared at her and she recoiled, feeling the same bit- ter chill that Zaknafein had cast over her earlier in the night.

  “I instructed you not to leave the house” Malice said again, still holding calm. “Why did you disobey me?”

  “I had matters to attend” Drizzt replied, “urgent matters. I did not wish to bother you with them”

  “War is upon us, my son” Matron Malice explained. “You are vulnerable out in the city by yourself. House Do'Urden cannot afford to lose you now”

  “My business had to be handled alone” Drizzt answered.

  “Is it completed?”

  “It is”

  “Then I trust that you will not disobey me again” The words came calm and even, but Drizzt understood at once the severity of the threat behind them.

  “To other matters, then” Malice went on.

  “Where is Zaknafein?” Drizzt dared to ask again.

  Briza mumbled some curse under her breath and pulled the whip from her belt. Matron Malice threw an out-stretched hand in her direction to stay her. They needed tact, not brutality, to bring Drizzt under control at this criti- cal time. There would be ample opportunities for punish-ment after House Hun'ett was properly defeated.

  “Concern yourself not with the fate of the weapon mas- ter” Malice replied. “He works for the good of House Do'Ur-den even as we speak-on a personal mission”

  Drizzt didn't believe a word of it. Zak would never have left without his weapons. The truth hovered about Drizzt's thoughts, but he wouldn't let it in.

  “Our concern is House Hun'ett” Malice went on, address-ing them all. “The war's first strikes may fall this day”

  “The first strikes already have fallen” Drizzt interrupted.

  All eyes came back to him, to his wounds. He wanted to con-tinue the discussion about Zak but knew that he would only get himself, and Zak, if Zak was still alive, into further trou-ble. Perhaps the conversation would bring him more clues.

  “You have seen battle?” Malice asked.

  “You know of the Faceless One?” Drizzt asked.

  “Master of the Academy” Dinin answered, “of Sorcere. have dealt with him often”

  “He has been of use to us in the past” said Malice, “but no more, I believe. He is a Hun'ett, Gelroos Hun'ett”

  “No” Drizzt replied. “Once he may have been, but Alton DeVir is his name. …… was his name”

  “The link!” Dinin growled, suddenly comprehending.

  “Gelroos was to kill Alton on the night of House DeVir's fall!

  “It would seem that Alton DeVir proved the stronger” mused Malice, and all became clear to her. “Matron SiNafay Hun'ett accepted him, used him to her gain” she explained to her family. She looked back to Drizzt. “You battled with him?”

  “He is dead” Drizzt answered. Matron Malice cackled with delight.

  “One less wizard to deal with” Briza remarked, replacing the whip on her belt.

  “Two” Drizzt corrected, but there was no boasting in his voice. He was not proud of his actions. “Masoj Hun'ett is no more”

  “My son!” Matron Malice cried. “You have brought us a great edge-in this war!” She glanced all about her family, in. fecting them, except Drizzt, with her elation. “House Hun'ett may not even choose to strike us now, knowing its disadvantage. We will not let them get away! We will destroy them this day and become the Eighth House of Menzoberranzan! Woe to the enemies of Daermon N'a'shez. baernon!

  “We must move at once, my family” Malice reasoned, her hands rubbing over each other in excitement. “We cannot wait for an attack. We must take the offensive! Alton DeVir is gone now; the link that justifies this war is no more. Surely the ruling council knew of Hun'ett's intentions, and with both her wizards dead and the element of surprise lost, Matron SiNafay will move quickly to stop the battle”

  Drizzt's hand unconsciously slipped into Zak's pouch the others joined Malice in her plotting.

  “Where is Zak?” Drizzt demanded again, above the cho-rus.

  Silence dropped as quickly as the tumult had begun.

  “He is of no concern to you, my son” Malice said to him, still keeping to her tact despite Drizzt's impudence. “You are the weapon master of House Do'Urden now. Lloth has for-given your insolence; you have no crimes weighing against you. Your career may begin anew, to glorious heights!”

  Her words cut through Drizzt as surely as his own scimi-tar might. “You killed him” he whispered aloud, the truth too awful to be contained in silent thought.

  The matron's face suddenly gleamed, hot with rage. “You killed him!” she shot back at Drizzt. “Your insolence de-manded repayment to the Spider Queen!”

  Drizzt's tongue got all tangled up behind his teeth.

  “But you live” Malice went on, relaxing again in her chair, 'as the elven child lives!'

  Dinin was not the only one in the room to gasp audibly.

  “Yes, we know of your deception” Malice sneered. “The Spider Queen always knew. She demanded restitution!'

  “You sacrificed Zaknafein?” Drizzt breathed, hardly able to get the words out of his mouth. “You gave him to that damned Spider Queen?”

  “I would watch how I spoke of Queen Lloth” Malice warned. “Forget Zaknafein. He is not your concern. Look to your own life, my warrior son. All glories are offered to you, a station of honor!'

  Drizzt was indeed looking to his own life at that moment; at the proposed path that offered him a life of battle, a life of killing drow.

  “You have no options” Malice said to him, seeing his in-ward struggle. “I offer to you now your life. In exchange, you must do as I bid, as Zaknafein once did!'

  “You kept your bargain with him” Drizzt spat sarcasti-cally.

  “I did!” Matron Malice protested. “Zaknafein went will- ingly to the altar, for your sake!”

  Her words stung Drizzt for only a moment. He would not accept the guilt for Zaknafein's death! He had followed the only course he could, on the surface against the elves and here in the evil city.

  “My offer is a good one” Malice said. “I give it here, before all the family. Both of us will benefit from the agreement, . . . Weapon Master?”

  A smile spread across Drizzt's face when he looked into Matron Malice's cold eyes, a grin that Malice took as accept-ance.

  “Weapon master?” Drizzt echoed. “Not likely”

  Again Malice misunderstood. “I have seen you in battle” she argued. “Two wizards! You underestimate yourself”

  Drizzt nearly laughed aloud at the irony of her words.

  She thought he would fail where Zaknafein had failed, would fall into her trap as the former weapon master had fallen, never to climb back out. “It is you who underestimate me, Malice” Drizzt said with threatening calm.

  “Matron!” Briza demanded, but she held back, seeing that Drizzt and everyone else was ignoring her as the drama played out.

  “You ask me to serve your evil designs” Drizzt continued.

  He knew but didn't care that all of them were nervously fin-gering weapons or preparing spells, were waiting for the proper moment to strike the blasphemous fool dead. Those childhood memories of the agony of snake whips reminded him of the punishment for his actions. Drizzt's fingers closed around a circular object, adding to his courage, though he would have contii1ued in any case.

  “They are a lie, as our-no, your-people are a lie!”

  “Your skin is as dark as mine” Malice reminded him. “You are a drow, though you have never learned what that

  means!“

  “Oh, I do know what it means”

  “Then act by the rules!” Matron Malice demanded.

  “Your rules?” Drizzt growled back. “But your rules are a damned lie as well, as great a lie as that filthy spider you claim as a deity!”

  “Insolent slug!” Briza cried, raising her snake whip.

  Drizzt struck first. He pulled the object, the tiny ceramic globe, from Zaknafein's pouch.

  “A true god damn you all!” he cried as he slammed the ball to the stone floor. He snapped his eyes shut as the pebble within the ball, enchanted by a powerful light-emanating dweomer, exploded into the room and erupted into his kin's sensitive eyes. “And damn that Spider Queen as well!”

  Malice reeled backward, taking her great throne right over in a heavy crash to the hard stone. Cries of agony and rage came from every corner of the room as the sudden light bored into the stunned drow. Finally Vierna managed to launch a countering spell and returned the room to its customary gloom.

  “Get him!” Malice growled, still trying to shake off the heavy fall. “I want him dead!”

  The others had hardly recovered enough to heed to her commands, and Dmzt was already out of the house.

  Carried on the silent winds of the Astral Plane, the call came. The entity of the panther stood up, ignoring its pains, and took note of the voice, a familiar, comforting voice.

  The cat was off, then, running with all its heart and strength to answer the summons of its new master.

  A short while later, Drizzt crept out of a little tunnel, Guenhwyvar at his side, and moved through the courtyard of the Academy to look down upon Menzoberranzan for the last time.

  “What place is this” Drizzt asked the cat quietly, “that I call home? These are my people, by skin and by heritage, but I am no kin to them. They are lost and ever will be.

  “How many others are like me, I wonder?” Drizzt whis-pered, taking one final look. “Doomed souls, as was Zakna-fein, poor Zak. I do this for him, Guenhwyvar; I leave as he could not. His life has been my lesson, a dark scroll etched by the heavy price exacted by Matron Malice's evil prom-ises.

  “Good-bye, Zak” he cried, his voice rising in final defi. ance. “My father. 'Take heart, as do I, that when we meet again, in a life after this, it will surely not be in the hellfire our kin are doomed to endure!”

  Drizzt motioned the cat back into the tunnel, the entrance to the untamed Underdark. Watching the cat's easy move-ments, Drizzt realized again how fortunate he was to have found a companion of like spirit, a true friend. The way would not be easy for him and Guenhwyvar beyond the guarded borders of Menzoberranzan. They would be un- protected and alone-though better off, by Drizzt's estimation-more than they ever could be amid the evilness of the drow.

  Drizzt stepped into the tunnel behind Guenhwyvar and left Menzoberranzan behind.

  Exile

  By R.A. Salvatore

  PRELUDE

  The monster lumbered along the quiet corridors of the Underdark, its eight scaly legs occasionally scuffing the stone. It did not recoil at its own echoing sounds, fearing the revealing noise. Nor did it scurry for cover, expecting the rush of another predator. For even in the dangers of the Underdark, this creature knew only security, confident of its ability to defeat any foe. Its breath reeked of deadly poison, the hard edges of its claws dug deep gouges into solid stone, and the rows of spearlike teeth that lined its wicked maw could fear through the thickest of hides. But worst of all was the monster's gaze, the gaze of a basilisk, which could transmutate into solid stone any living thing it fell upon.

  This creature, huge and terrible, was among the greatest of its kind. It did not know fear.

  The hunter watched the basilisk pass as he had watched it earlier that same day. The eight legged monster was the intruder here, coming into the hunter's domain. He had witnessed the basilisk kill several of his rothe, the small, cattlelike creatures that enhanced his table with its poison breath, and the rest of the herd had fled blindly down the endless tunnels, perhaps never to return.

  The hunter was angry.

  He watched now as the monster trudged down the narrow passageway, just the route the hunter had suspected it would take. He slid his weapons from their sheaths, gaining confidence, as always, as soon as he felt their fine balance. The hunter had owned them since his childhood, and even after nearly three decades of almost constant use, they bore only the slightest hints of wear. Now they would be tested again.

  The hunter replaced his weapons and waited for the sound that would spur him to motion. A throaty growl stopped the basilisk in its tracks. The monster peered ahead curiously, though its poor eyes could distinguish little beyond a few feet. Again came the growl, and the basilisk hunched down, waiting for the challenger, its next victim, to spring out and die.

  Far behind, the hunter came out of his cubby, running impossibly fast along the tiny cracks and spurs in the corridor walls. In his magical cloak, his piwafwi, he

  was invisible against the stone, and with his agile and practiced movements, he made not a sound.

  He came impossibly silent, impossibly fast.

  The growl issued again from ahead of the basilisk but had not come any closer. The impatient monster shuffled forward, anxious to get on with the killing. When the basilisk crossed under a low archway, an impenetrable globe of absolute darkness enveloped its head and the monster stopped suddenly and took a step back, as the hunter knew it would.

  The hunter was upon it then. He leaped from the passage wall, executing three separate actions before he ever reached his mark. First he cast a simple spell, which lined the basilisk's head in glowing blue and purple flames. Next he pulled his hood down over his face, for he did not need his eyes in battle, and against a basilisk a stray gaze could only bring him doom. Then, drawing his deadly scimitars, he landed on the monster's back and ran up its scales to get to its head.

  The basilisk reacted as soon as the dancing flames outlined its head. They did not burn, but their outline made the monster an easy target. The basilisk spun back, but before its head had turned halfway, the first scimitar had dived into one of its eyes. The creature reared and thrashed, trying to get at the hunter. It breathed its noxious fumes and whipped its head about.

  The hunter was the faster. He kept behind the maw, out of death's way. His second scimitar found the basilisk's other eye, then the hunter unleashed his fury. The basilisk was the intruder, it had killed his rothe! Blow after savage blow bashed into the monster's armored head, flecked off scales, and dived for the flesh beneath.

  The basilisk understood its peril but still believed that it would win. It had always won. If it could only get its poisonous breath in line with the furious hunter.

  The second foe, the growling feline foe, was upon the basilisk then, having sprung toward the flame-lined maw without fear. The great cat latched on and took no notice of the poisonous fumes, for it was a magical beast, impervious to such attacks. Panther claws dug deep lines into the basilisk's gums, letting the monster drink of its own blood.

  Behind the huge head, the hunter struck again and again, a hundred times and more. Savagely, viciously, the scimitars slammed through the scaly armor, through the flesh, and through the skull, battering the basilisk down into the blackness of death.

  Long after the monster lay still, the pounding of the bloodied scimitars slowed.

  The hunter removed his hood and inspected the broken pile of gore at his feet and the hot stains of blood on his blades. He raised the dripping scimitars into the air and proclaimed his victory with a scream of primal exultation.

  He was the hunter and this was his home!

  When he had thrown all of his rage out in that scream, though, the hunter looked upon his companion and was ashamed. The panther's saucer eyes judged him, even if the panther did not. The cat was the hunter's only link to the past, to the civilized existence the hunter once had known.

  “Come, Guenhwyvar,” he whispered as he slid the scimitars back into their sheaths. He reveled in the sound of the words as he spoke them. It was the only voice he had heard for a decade. But every time he spoke now, the words seemed more foreign and came to him with difficulty. Would he lose that ability, too, as he had lost every other aspect of his former existence? This the hunter feared greatly, for without his voice, he could not summon the panther.

  He then truly would be alone.

  Down the quiet corridors of the Underdark went the hunter and his cat, making not a sound, disturbing no rubble. Together they had come to know the dangers of this hushed world. Together they had learned to survive. Despite the victory, though, the hunter wore no smile this day. He feared no foes, but was no longer certain whether his courage came from confidence or from apathy about living.

  Perhaps survival was not enough.

  PART 1

  THE HUNTER

  I remember vividly the day I walked away from the city of my birth, the city of my people. All the Underdark lay before me, a life of adventure and excitement, with possibilities that lifted my heart. More than that, though, I left Menzoberranzan with the belief that I could now live my life in accordance with my principles. I had Guenhwyvar on my side and my scimitars belted on my hips. My future was my own to determine.

  But that drow, the young Drizzt Do'Urden who walked out of Menzoberranzan on that fated day, barely into my fourth decade of life, could not begin to understand

  the truth of time, of how its passage seemed to slow when the moments were not shared with others. In my youthful exuberance, I looked forward to several centuries of life.

  How do you measure centuries when a single hour seems a day and a single day seems a year?

  Beyond the cities of the Underdark, there is food for those who know how to find it and safety for those who know how to hide. More than anything else, though, beyond the teeming cities of the Underdark, there is solitude.

  As I became a creature of the empty tunnels, survival became easier and more difficult all at once. I gained in the physical skills and experience necessary to live on. I could defeat almost anything that wandered into my chosen domain, and those few monsters that I could not defeat, I could surely flee or hide from. It did not take me long, however, to discover one nemesis that I could neither defeat nor flee. It followed me wherever I went-indeed, the farther I ran, the more it closed in around me. My enemy was solitude, the interminable, incessant silence of hushed corridors.

  Looking back on it these many years later, I find myself amazed and appalled at the changes I endured under such an existence. The very identity of every reasoning being is defined by the language, the communication, between that being and others around it. Without that link, I was lost. When I left Menzoberranzan, I determined that my life would be based on principles, my strength adhering to unbending beliefs. Yet after only a few months alone in the Underdark, the only purpose for my survival was my survival. I had become a creature of instinct, calculating and cunning but not thinking, not using my mind for anything more than directing the newest kill.

  Guenhwyvar saved me, I believe. The same companion that had pulled me from certain death in the clutches of monsters unnumbered rescued me from a death of emptiness-less dramatic, perhaps, but no less fatal. I found myself living for those moments - when the cat could walk by my side, when I had another living creature to hear my words, strained though they had become. In addition to every other value, Guenhwyvar became my time clock, for I knew that the cat could come forth from the Astral Plane for a half-day every other day.

  Only after my ordeal had ended did I realize how critical that one-quarter of my time actually was. Without Guenhwyvar, I would not have found the resolve to continue. I would never have maintained the strength to survive.

  Even when Guenhwyvar stood beside me, I found myself growing more and more ambivalent toward the fighting. I was secretly hoping that some denizen of the Underdark would prove stronger than I. Could the pain of tooth or talon be greater than the emptiness and the silence?

  I think not.

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