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Homeland (part 2 chapter 12)

2006-08-28 22:23

  CHAPTER 12

  Wilds, Wilds, Wilds

  “Did you set it?” Drizzt asked Belwar when the burrow-warden returned to his side in the winding passage.

  “The fire pit is cut,' Belwar replied, tapping his mithril hands triumphantly-but not too loudly-together. ”And I rumpled the extra bedroll off in a corner. Scraped my boots all over the stone and put your neck-purse in a place where it will be easily found. I even left a few silver coins under the blanket -I figure I'll not be needing them anytime soon, anyway:' Belwar managed a chuckle, but despite the

  disclaimer, Drizzt could see that the svirfneblin did not so easily part with valuables.

  “A fine deception,' Drizzt offered, to take away the sting of the cost.

  “And what of you, dark elf?” Belwar asked. “Have you seen or heard anything?”

  “Nothing,' Drizzt replied. He pointed down a side corridor. ”I sent Guenhwyvar away on a wide circuit. If anyone is near, we will soon know:'

  Belwar nodded. “Good plan,' he remarked. ”Setting the false camp this far from Blingdenstone should keep your troublesome mother from my kinfolk:'

  “And perhaps it will lead my family to believe that I am still in the region and plan to remain,' Drizzt added hopefully. ”Have you given any thought to our destination?“

  “One way is as good as another,' remarked Belwar, hoisting his hands out wide. ”No cities are there, beyond our own, anywhere close. None to my knowledge, at least:'

  “West, then,' offered Drizzt. ”Around Blingdenstone and off into the wilds, straight away from Menzoberranzan:'

  “A wise course, it would seem,' agreed the burrow-warden. Belwar closed his eyes and attuned his thoughts to the emanations of the stone. Like many Underdark races, deep gnomes possessed the ability to recognize magnetic variations in the rock, an ability that allowed them to judge direction as accurately as a surface dweller might follow the sun's trail. A moment later, Belwar nodded and pointed down the appropriate tunnel.

  “West,' Belwar said. And quickly. The more distance you put between yourself and that mother of yours, the safer we all shall be:' He paused to consider Drizzt for a long moment, wondering if he might be prodding his new friend a bit too deeply with his next question.

  “What is it?” Drizzt asked him, recognizing his apprehension.

  Belwar decided to risk it, to see just how close he and Drizzt had become. “When first you learned that you were the reason for the drow activity in the eastern tunnels,' the deep gnome began bluntly, ”you seemed a bit weak in the knees, if you understand me. They are your family, dark elf. Are they so terrible?“

  Drizzt's chuckle put Belwar at ease, told the deep gnome that he had not pressed too far. “Come,' Drizzt said, seeing Guenhwyvar return from the scouting trek. ”If

  the deception of the camp is complete, then let us take our first steps into our new life. Our road should be long enough for tales of my home and family:'

  “Hold,' said Belwar. He reached into his pouch and produced a small coffer. ”A gift from King Schnicktick,' he explained as he lifted the lid and removed a glowing brooch, its quiet illumination bathing the area around them.

  Drizzt stared at the burrow-warden in disbelief. “It will mark you as a fine target,' the drow remarked.

  Belwar corrected him. “It will mark us as fine targets,' he said with a sly snort. ”But fear not, dark elf, the light will keep more enemies at bay than it will bring. I am not so fond of tripping on crags and chips in the floor“

  “How long will it glow?” Drizzt asked, and Belwar gathered from his tone that the drow hoped it would fade soon.

  “Forever is the dweomer,' Belwar replied with a wide smirk. ”Unless some priest or wizard counters it. Stop your worrying. What creatures of the Underdark would willingly walk into an illuminated area?“

  Drizzt shrugged and trusted in the experienced burrow-warden's judgment. “Very well,' he said, shaking his white mane helplessly. ”Then off for the road:'

  “The road and the tales,' replied Belwar, falling into step beside Drizzt, his stout little legs rolling along to keep up with the drow's long and graceful strides.

  They walked for many hours, stopped for a meal, then walked for many more. Sometimes Belwar used his illuminating brooch, other times the friends walked in darkness, depending on whether or not they perceived danger in the area. Guenhwyvar was frequently about yet rarely seen, the panther eagerly taking up its appointed duties as a perimeter guard.

  For a week straight, the companions stopped only when weariness or hunger forced a break in the march, for they were anxious to be as far from Blingdenstone-and from those hunting Drizzt-as possible. Still, another full week would pass before the companions moved out into tunnels that Belwar did not know. The deep gnome had been a burrow-warden for almost fifty years, and he had led many of Blingdenstone's farthest-reaching mining expeditions.

  “This place is known to me,' Belwar often remarked when they entered a cavern. ”Took a wagon of iron,' he would say, or mithril, or a multitude of other precious minerals that Drizzt had never even heard of. And, though the burrow-warden's extended tales of those mining expeditions all ran in basically the same direction-how many ways can a deep gnome chop stone? Drizzt always listened intently, savoring every word.

  He knew the alternative.

  For his part in the storytelling, Drizzt recounted his adventures in Menzoberranzan's Academy and his many fond memories of Zaknafein and the training gym. He showed Belwar the double-thrust low and how the pupil had discovered a parry to counter the attack, to his mentor's surprise and pain. Drizzt displayed the intricate hand and facial combinations of the silent drow code, and he briefly entertained the notion of teaching the language to Belwar. The deep gnome promptly burst into loud and rolling laughter. His dark eyes looked incredulously at Drizzt, and he led the drow's gaze down to the ends of his arms. With a hammer and pickaxe for hands, the svirfneblin could hardly muster enough gestures to make the effort worthwhile. Still, Belwar appreciated that Drizzt had offered to teach him the silent code. The absurdity of it all gave them both a fine laugh.

  Guenhwyvar and the deep gnome also became friends during those first couple of weeks on the trail. Often, Belwar would fall into a deep slumber only to be awakened by prickling in his legs, fast asleep under the weight of six hundred pounds of panther. Belwar always grumbled and swatted Guenhwyvar on the rump with his hammer-hand-it became a game between the two-but Belwar truly didn't mind the panther being so close. In fact, Guenhwyvar's mere presence made sleep-which always left one so vulnerable in the wilds- much easier to come by.

  “Do you understand?” Drizzt whispered to Guenhwyvar one day. Off to the side, Belwar was fast asleep, flat on his back on the stone, using a rock for a pillow. Drizzt shook his head in continued amazement when he studied the little figure. He was beginning to suspect that the deep gnomes carried their affinity with the earth a bit too far.

  “Go get him,' he prompted the cat.

  Guenhwyvar lumbered over and plopped across the burrow-warden's legs. Drizzt moved away into the shielding entrance of a tunnel to watch.

  Only a few minutes later, Belwar awoke with a snarl. “Magga cammara, panther!” the deep gnome growled. “Why must you always bed down on me, instead of beside me?” Guenhwyvar shifted slightly but let out only a deep sigh in response. “Magga cammara, cat!” Belwar roared again. He wiggled his toes frantically, trying futilely to keep the circulation going and dismiss the tingles that had already begun. “Away with you!” The burrow-warden propped himself up on one elbow and swung his hammer hand at Guenhwyvar's backside.

  Guenhwyvar sprang away in feigned flight, quicker than Belwar's swat. But just as the burrow-warden relaxed, the panther cut back on its tracks, pivoted

  completely, and leaped atop Belwar, burying him and pinning him flat to the stone.

  After a few moments of struggling, Belwar managed to get his face out from under Guenhwyvar's muscled chest.

  “Get yourself off me or suffer the consequences!” the deep gnome growled, obviously an empty threat. Guenhwyvar shifted, getting a bit more comfortable in its perch.

  “Dark elf!” Belwar called as loudly as he dared. “Dark elf, take your panther away. Dark elf!”

  “Greetings,' Drizzt answered, walking in from the tunnel as though he had only just arrived. ”Are you two playing again? I had thought my time as sentry near to its end:'

  “Your time has passed,' replied Belwar, but the svirfneblin's words were muffled by thick black fur as Guenhwyvar shifted again. Drizzt could see Belwar's long, hooked nose, though, crinkle up in irritation.

  “Oh, no, no,' said Drizzt. ”I am not so tired. I would not think of interrupting your game. I know that you both enjoy it so:' He walked by, giving Guenhwyvar a complimentary pat on the head and a sly wink as he passed.

  “Dark elf!” Belwar grumbled at his back as Drizzt departed. But the drow kept going, and Guenhwyvar, with Drizzt's blessings, soon fell fast asleep.

  Drizzt crouched low and held very still, letting his eyes go through the dramatic shift from infravision- viewing the heat of objects in the infrared spectrum-to normal vision in the realm of light. Even before the transformation was completed, Drizzt could tell that his guess had been correct. Ahead, beyond a low natural archway, came a red glow. The drow held his position, deciding to let Belwar catch up to him before he went to investigate. Only a moment later, the dimmer glow of the deep gnome's enchanted brooch came into view.

  “Put out the light,' Drizzt whispered, and the brooch's glow disappeared.

  Belwar crept along the tunnel to join his companion. He, too, saw the red glow beyond the archway and understood Drizzt's caution. “Can you bring the panther?” the burrow-warden asked quietly.

  Drizzt shook his head. “The magic is limited by spans of time. Walking the material plane tires Guenhwyvar. The panther needs to rest:'

  “Back the way we came, we could go,' Belwar suggested. ”Perhaps there is another tunnel around:'

  “Five miles,' replied Drizzt, considering the length of the unbroken passageway behind them. ”Too long:'

  “Then let us see what is ahead,' the burrow-warden reasoned, and he started boldly off. Drizzt liked Belwar's straightforward attitude and quickly joined him.

  Beyond the archway, which Drizzt had to crouch nearly double to get under, they found a wide and high cavern, its floor and walls covered in a mosslike growth that emitted the red light. Drizzt pulled up short, at a loss, but Belwar recognized the stuff well enough.

  “Baruchies!” the burrow-warden blurted, the word turning into a chuckle. He turned to Drizzt and, not seeing any reaction to his smile, explained. “Crimson spitters, dark elf.

  Not for decades have I seen such a patch of the stuff. Quite a rare sight they are, you know:'

  Drizzt, still at a loss, shook the tenseness out of his muscles and shrugged, then started forward. Belwar's pick-hand hooked him under the arm, and the powerful deep gnome spun him back abruptly.

  “Crimson spitters,' the burrow-warden said again, pointedly emphasizing the latter of the words. ” Magga cammara, dark elf, how did you get along through the years?“

  Belwar turned to the side and slammed his hammer-hand into the wall of the archway, taking off a fair-sized chunk of stone. He scooped this up in the flat of his pick-hand and flipped it off to the side of the cavern. The stone hit the red-glowing fungus with a soft thud, then a burst of smoke and spores blasted into the air.

  “Spit,' explained Belwar, ”and choke you to death will the spore! If you plan to cross here, walk lightly, my brave, foolish friend:'

  Drizzt scratched his unkempt white locks and considered the predicament. He had no desire to return the five miles down the tunnel, but neither did he plan to go plodding through this field of red death. He stood tall just inside the archway and looked around for some solution. Several stones, a possible walkway, rose up out of the baruchies, and beyond them lay a trail of clear stone about ten feet wide running perpendicular to the archway across the chasm.

  “We can make it through,' he told Belwar. ”There is a clear path:'

  “There always is in a field of baruchies,' the burrow-warden replied under his breath. Drizzt's keen ears caught the comment. ”What do you mean?“ he asked, springing agilely out to the first of the raised stones.

  “A grubber is about,' the deep gnome explained. ”Or has been:'

  “A grubber?” Drizzt prudently hopped back to stand beside the burrow-warden.

  “Big caterpillar,' Belwar explained. ”Grubbers love baruchies. They are the only things the crimson spitters do not seem to bother:'

  “How big?”

  “How wide was the clear path?” Belwar asked him.

  “Ten feet, perhaps,' Drizzt answered, hopping back out to the first stepping stone to view it again. Belwar considered the answer for a moment. ”One pass for a big grubber, two for most:' Drizzt hopped back to the side of the burrow-warden again, giving a cautious look over his shoulder. “Big caterpillar:' he remarked.

  “But with a little mouth:' Belwar explained. ”Grubbers eat only moss and molds-and baruchies, if they can find them. Peaceful enough creatures, all in all:'

  For the third time, Drizzt sprang out to the stone. “Is there anything else I should know before I continue?” he asked in exasperation.

  Belwar shook his head.

  Drizzt led the way across the stones, and soon the two companions stood in the middle of the ten-foot path. It traversed the cavern and ended with the entrance to a passage on either side. Drizzt pointed both ways, wondering which direction Belwar would prefer.

  The deep gnome started to the left, then stopped abruptly and peered ahead. Drizzt understood Belwar's hesitation, for he, too, felt the vibrations in the stone under his feet.

  “Grubber:' said Belwar. ”Stand quiet and watch, my friend. They are quite a sight:'

  Drizzt smiled wide and crouched low, eager for the entertainment. When he heard a quick shuffle behind him, though, Drizzt began to suspect that something was out of sorts.

  “Where. . ' Drizzt began to ask when he turned about and saw Belwar in full flight toward the other exit.

  Drizzt stopped speaking abruptly when an explosion like the crash of a cave-in erupted from the other way, the way he had been watching.

  “Quite a sight!” he heard Belwar call, and he couldn't deny the truth of the deep gnome's words when the grubber made its appearance. It was huge-bigger than the basilisk Drizzt had killed-and looked like a gigantic pale gray worm, except for the multitude of little feet pumping along beside its massive torso. Drizzt saw that Belwar had not lied, for the thing had no mouth to speak of, and no talons or other apparent weapons. But the giant was coming straight at Drizzt with a vengeance now, and Drizzt couldn't get the image of a flattened dark elf, stretched from one end of the cavern to the other, out of his mind. He reached for his scimitars, then realized the absurdity of that plan. Where would he hit the thing to slow it? Throwing his hands helplessly out wide, Drizzt spun on his heel and fled after the departing burrow-warden.

  The ground shook under Drizzt's feet so violently that he wondered if he might topple to the side and be blasted by the baruchies. But then the tunnel entrance was just ahead and Drizzt could see a smaller side passage, too small for the grubber, just outside the baruchie cavern. He darted ahead the last few strides, then cut swiftly into the small tunnel, diving into a roll to break his momentum. Still, he ricocheted hard off the wall, then the grubber slammed in behind, smashing at the tunnel entrance and dropping pieces. of stone all about.

  When the dust finally cleared, the grubber remained outside the passage, humming a low, growling moan and, every so often, banging its head against the stone. Belwar stood just a few feet farther in than Drizzt, the deep gnome's arms crossed over his chest and a satisfied grin on his face.

  “Peaceful enough?” Drizzt asked him, rising to his feet and shaking off the dust.

  “They are indeed:' replied Belwar with a nod. ”But grubbers do love their baruchies and have no mind to share the things!“

  “You almost got me crushed!” Drizzt snarled at him.

  Again Belwar nodded. “Mark it well, dark elf, for the next time you set your panther to sleep on me, I will surely do worse!”

  Drizzt fought hard to hide his smile. His heart still pumped wildly under the influence of the adrenaline burst, but Drizzt held no anger toward his companion. He thought back to encounters he had suffered just a few months before, when he was out alone in the wilds. How different life would be with Belwar Dissengulp

  by his side! How much more enjoyable! Drizzt glanced back over his shoulder to the angry and stubborn grubber.

  And how much more interesting!

  “Come along,, the smug svirfneblin continued, starting off down the passage. ”We are only making the grubber angrier by loitering in its sight:'

  The passageway narrowed and turned a sharp bend just a few feet farther in. Around the bend, the companions found even more trouble, for the corridor ended in a blank stone wall. Belwar moved right up to inspect it, and it was Drizzt's turn to cross his arms over his chest and gloat.

  “You have put us in a dangerous spot, little friend:' the drow said. ” An angry grubber behind, trapping us in a box corridor!

  Pressing his ear to the stone, Belwar waved Drizzt off with his hammer-hand. “Merely an inconvenience,' the deep gnome assured him. ”There is another tunnel beyond-not more than seven feet:'

  “Seven feet of stone:' Drizzt reminded him.

  But Belwar didn't seem concerned. “ A day:' he said. ”Perhaps two:' Belwar held his arms out wide and began a chant too low for Drizzt to hear clearly, though the drow realized that Belwar was engaged in some sort of spellcasting.

  “Bivrip!” Belwar cried.

  Nothing happened.

  The burrow-warden turned back on Drizzt and did not seem disappointed. “A day.' he proclaimed again.

  “What did you do?” Drizzt asked him.

  “Set my hands a humming:' replied the deep gnome. Seeing that Drizzt was completely at a loss, Belwar turned on his heel and slammed his hammer-hand into the wall. An explosion of sparks brightened the small passage, blinding Drizzt. By the time the drow's eyes could adjust to the continuing burst of Belwar's punching and hacking, he saw that his svirfneblin companion already had ground several inches of rock into fine dust at his feet. ”Magga cammara, dark elf:' Belwar cried with a wink. You did not believe that my people would go to all the trouble of crafting such fine hands for me without putting a bit of magic into them, did you?“

  Drizzt moved to the side of the passage and sat. “You are full of surprises, little friend:' he answered with a sigh of surrender.

  “I am indeed!” Belwar roared, and he pounded the stone again, sending flecks flying in every direction.

  They were out of the box corridor in a day, as Belwar had promised, and they set off again, traveling now-by the deep gnome's estimation-generally north. Luck had followed them so far, and they both knew it, for they had spent two weeks in the wilds and had encountered nothing more hostile than a grubber protecting its baruchies.

  A few days later, their luck changed.

  “Summon the panther:' Belwar bade Drizzt as they crouched in the wide tunnel they had been traveling. Drizzt did not argue the wisdom of the burrow-warden's request, he didn't like the green glow ahead any more than Belwar did. A moment later, the black mist swirled and took shape, and Guenhwyvar stood beside them.

  “I go first:' Drizzt said. ”You both follow together, twenty steps behind:' Belwar nodded and Drizzt turned and started away. Drizzt almost expected the movement when the svirfneblin's pickaxe-hand hooked him and turned him about.

  “Be careful:' Belwar said. Drizzt only smiled in reply, touched at the sincerity in his friend's voice and thinking again how much better it was to have a companion by his side. Then Drizzt dismissed his thoughts and moved away, letting his instincts and experience guide him.

  He found the glow to be emanating from a hole in the corridor floor. Beyond it, the corridor continued but bent sharply, nearly doubling back on itself. Drizzt fell to his belly and peered down the hole. Another passage, about ten feet below him, ran perpendicular to the one he was in, opening a short way ahead into what appeared to be a large cavern.

  “What is it?” Belwar whispered, coming up behind.

  “Another corridor to a chamber,' Drizzt replied. ”The glow comes from there:' He lifted his head and looked down into the ensuing darkness of the higher corridor. “Our tunnel continues,' Drizzt reasoned. ”We can go right by it:'

  Belwar looked down the passageway they had been traveling, noting the turn. “Doubles back,' he reasoned. ”And probably comes right out at that side passage we passed an hour ago:' The deep gnome dropped to the dirt and looked into the hole.

  “What would make such a glow?” Drizzt asked him, easily guessing that Belwar's curiosity was as keen as his own. Another form of moss?“

  “None that I know,' Belwar replied.

  “Shall we find out?”

  Belwar smiled at him, then hooked his pick-hand on the ledge and swung over and in, dropping down to the lower tunnel. Drizzt and Guenhwyvar followed silently, the drow, scimitars in hand, again taking the lead as they moved toward the glow.

  They came into a wide and high chamber, its ceiling far beyond their sight and a lake of green-glowing foul-smelling liquid bubbling and hissing twenty feet below them. Dozens of interconnected narrow stone walkways, varying from one to ten feet wide, crisscrossed the gorge, most ending at exits leading into more side corridors.

  “Magga cammara,' whispered the stunned svirfneblin, and Drizzt shared that thought.

  “It appears as though the floor was blasted away,' Drizzt remarked when he again found his voice.

  “Melted away,' replied Belwar, guessing the liquid's nature. He hacked off a chunk of stone at his side and, tapping Drizzt to get his attention, dropped it into the green lake. The liquid hissed as if in anger where the rock hit, eating away at the stone before it even sank from sight.

  “Acid,' Belwar explained.

  Drizzt looked at him curiously. He knew of acid from his days of training under the wizards of Sorcere in the Academy. Wizards often concocted such vile liquids for use their magical experiments, but Drizzt did not figure that acid would appear naturally, or in such quantities.

  “Some wizard's working, I would guess,' said Belwar. ”An experiment out of control. It has probably been here for a hundred years, eating away at the floor, sinking down inch by inch:'

  “But what remains of the floor seems secure enough,' observed Drizzt, pointing to the walkways. ”And we have a score of tunnels to choose from:'

  “Then let us begin at once,' said Belwar. ”I do not like this place. We are exposed in the light, and I would not care to take quick flight along such narrow bridges- not with a lake of acid below me!“

  Drizzt agreed and took a cautious step out on the walkway, but Guenhwyvar quickly moved past him. Drizzt understood the panther's logic and wholeheartedly agreed.

  “Guenhwyvar will lead us,' he explained to Belwar. ”The panther is the heaviest and quick enough to spring away if a section begins to fall:'

  The burrow-warden was not completely satisfied. “What if Guenhwyvar does not make it to safety?” he asked, truly concerned. “What will the acid do to a magical creature?”

  Drizzt wasn't certain of the answer. “Guenhwyvar should be safe,' he reasoned, pulling the onyx figurine from his pocket. ”I hold the gateway to the panther's home plane.'

  Guenhwyvar was a dozen strides away by then-the walkway seemed sturdy enough-and Drizzt set out to follow. “Magga cammara, I pray you are right,' he heard Belwar mumble at his back as he took the first steps out from the ledge.

  The chamber was huge, several hundred feet across even to the nearest exit. The companions neared the halfway point-Guenhwyvar had already passed it-when they heard a strange chanting sound. They stopped and glanced about, searching for the source.

  A weird-looking creature stepped out from one of the numerous side passages. It was bipedal and black skinned, with a beaked bird's head and the torso of a man, featherless and wingless. Both of its powerful-looking arms ended in hooked, wicked claws, and its legs ended in three-toed feet. Another creature stepped out from behind it, and another from behind them.

  “Relatives?” Belwar asked Drizzt, for the creatures did indeed resemble some weird cross between a dark elf and a bird.

  “Hardly:' Drizzt replied. ”In all of my life, I have never heard of such creatures.'

  Doom! Doom!“ came the continuing chant, and the friends looked around to see more of the bird-men stepping out from other passages. They were dire corbies, an ancient race more common to the southern reaches of the Underdark-though rare even there-and almost unknown in this part of the world. Corbies had never been of much concern to any of the Underdark races, for the bird-men's methods were crude and their numbers were small. For a passing band of adventurers, however, a flock of savage dire corbies meant trouble indeed.

  “Nor have I ever encountered such creatures, Belwar agreed. ”But I do not believe that they are pleased to see us:'

  The chant became a series of horrifying shrieks as the corbies began to disperse out onto the walkways, walking at first, but occasionally breaking into quick trots, their anxiety obviously increasing.

  “You are wrong, my little friend, Drizzt remarked. ”I believe that they are quite pleased to have their dinner delivered to them:'

  Belwar looked around helplessly. Nearly all of their escape routes were already cut off, and they couldn't hope to get out without a fight. “Dark elf, I can think of a thousand

  places I would rather do battle:' the burrow-warden said with a resigned shrug and- a shudder as he took another look down into the acid lake. 'Taking a deep breath to calm himself, Belwar began his ritual to enchant his magical hands.

  “Move while you chant:' Drizzt instructed him, leading him on. ”Let us get as close to an exit as we can before the fighting begins:'

  One group of corbies closed rapidly at the party's side, but Guenhwyvar, with a mighty spring that spanned two of the walkways, cut the bird-men off.

  “Bivrip!” Belwar cried, completing his spell, and he turned toward the impending battle.

  “Guenhwyvar can take care of that group,' Drizzt assured him, quickening his steps toward the nearest wall. Belwar saw the drow's reasoning, still another group of enemies had come out of the exit they were making for.

  The momentum of Guenhwyvar's leap carried the panther straight into the pack of corbies, bowling two of them right off the walkway. The bird-men shrieked horribly as they fell to their deaths, but their remaining companions seemed unbothered by the loss. Drooling and chanting, “Doom! Doom!” they tore in at Guenhwyvar with their sharp talons.

  The panther had formidable weapons of its own. Each swat of a great claw tore the life from a corby or sent it tumbling from the walkway to the acid lake. But, while the cat continued to slash into the bird-men's ranks, the fearless corbies continued to fight back, and more rushed in eagerly to join. A second group came from the opposite direction and surrounded Guenhwyvar.

  Belwar set himself on a narrow section of the walkway and let the line of corbies come to him. Drizzt, taking a parallel route along a walkway fifteen feet to his friend's side, did likewise, drawing his scimitars somewhat reluctantly. The drow could feel the savage instincts of the hunter welling up within him as the battle drew near, and he fought back with all of his willpower to sublimate the wild urges. He was Drizzt Do'Urden, no more the hunter, and he would face his foes fully in control of his every movement.

  Then the corbies were upon him, flailing away, shrieking their frenzied chants. Drizzt did little more than parry in those first seconds, the flats of his blades working marvelously to deflect each attempted strike. The scimitars spun and whirled, but the drow, refusing to loose the killer within him, made little headway in his fight. After several minutes, he still faced off against the first corby that had come at him.

  Belwar was not so reserved. Corby after corby rushed in at the little svirfneblin, only to be pounded to a sudden halt by the burrow-warden's explosive hammer-hand. The electrical jolt and the sheer force of the blow often killed the corby where it stood, but Belwar never waited long enough to find out. Following each hammer blow, the deep gnome's

  pickaxe-hand came across in a roundhouse arc, sweeping the latest victim from the walkway.

  The svirfneblin had dropped a half-dozen of the bird-men before he got the chance to look over at Drizzt. He recognized at once the inner struggle the drow was fighting.

  Magga cammara!“ Belwar screamed. ”Fight them, dark elf, and fight to win! They will show no mercy! There can be no truce! Kill them-cut them down-or surely they shall kill you!“

  Drizzt hardly heard Belwar's words. Tears rimmed his lavender eyes, though even in that blur, the almost magical rhythm of his weaving blades did not slow. He caught his opponent off balance and reversed the motion of a thrust, slamming the bird-man in the head with the pommel of his scimitar. The corby dropped like a stone and rolled. It would have fallen from the ledge, but Drizzt stepped across it and held it in place.

  Belwar shook his head and belted another adversary. The corby hopped backward, its chest smoking and charred by the jarring impact of the enchanted hammer-hand. The corby looked at Belwar in blank disbelief, but uttered not a sound, nor made any move at all, as the pickaxe hooked in, catching it in the shoulder and launching it out over the acid lake. Guenhwyvar flustered the hungry attackers. As the corbies closed in on the panther's back, thinking the kill at hand, Guenhwyvar crouched and sprang. The panther soared through the

  green light as though it had taken flight, landing on yet another of the walkways fully thirty feet away. Skidding on the smooth stone, Guenhwyvar just managed to halt before toppling over the ledge into the acid pool.

  The corbies glanced around in stunned amazement for just a moment, then took up their shrieks and wails and set off along the walkways in pursuit.

  A single corby, near where Guenhwyvar had landed, ran fearlessly to battle the cat. Guenhwyvar's teeth found its neck in an instant and squeezed the life from it. But while the panther was so engaged, the corbies' devilish trap showed another twist. From far above in the high-ceilinged cavern, a corby at last saw a victim in position. The bird-man wrapped its arms around the heavy boulder on the ledge beside it and pushed out, dropping with the stone.

  At the last second, Guenhwyvar saw the plummeting monster and scrambled out of its path. The corby, in its suicidal ecstacy, didn't even care. The bird-man slammed into the walkway, the momentum of the heavy boulder shattering the narrow bridge to pieces.

  The great panther tried to spring out again, but the stone underneath Guenhwyvar's feet disintegrated before they could set and spring. Claws scratching futilely at the crumbling bridge, Guenhwyvar followed the corby and its boulder down into the acid lake.

  Hearing the elated shouts of the bird-men behind him, Belwar spun about just in time to see Guenhwyvar's fall. Drizzt, too engaged at the time-for another corby flailed away at him and the one he had dropped was stirring back to consciousness between his feet-did not see. But the drow did not have to see. The figurine in Drizzt's pocket heated suddenly, wisps of smoke rising ominously from Drizzt's piwafwi cloak. Drizzt could guess easily enough what had happened to his dear Guenhwyvar. The drow's eyes narrowed, their sudden fire melting away his tears.

  He welcomed the hunter.

  Corbies fought with fury. The highest honor of their existence was to die in battle. And those closest to Drizzt Do'Urden soon realized that the moment of their highest honor was upon them.

  The drow thrust both his scimitars straight out, each finding an eye of the corby facing him. The hunter pulled out the blades, spun them over in his hands, and plunged them down into the bird-man at his feet. He snapped the scimitars up immediately and plunged them down again, taking grim satisfaction in the sound of their smooth cut.

  Then the drow dived headlong into the corbies ahead of him, his blades cutting in from every possible angle hit a dozen times before it ever launched a single swing, the first corby was quite dead before it even fell. Then the second, then the third. Drizzt backed them up to a wider section of the walkway. They came at him three at a time.

  They died at his feet three at a time.

  “Get them, dark elf,' mumbled Belwar, seeing his friend explode into action. The corby coming to meet the burrow-warden turned its head to see what had caught Belwar's attention. When it turned back, it was met squarely in the face by the deep gnome's hammer-hand. Pieces of beak flew in every direction, and that unfortunate corby was the first of its species to take flight in several millennium of evolution. Its short airborne excursion pushed its companions back from the deep gnome, and the corby landed, dead on its back, many feet from Belwar.

  The enraged deep gnome wasn't finished with this one. He raced up, bowling from the walkway the single corby who managed to get back to intercept him. When he arrived at last at his beakless victim, Belwar drove his pickaxe-hand deep into its chest. With that single muscled arm, the burrow-warden hoisted the dead corby high into the air and let out a horrifying shriek of his own.

  The other corbies hesitated. Belwar looked to Drizzt and was dismayed. A score of corbies crowded in on the wide section of the walkway where the drow made his stand. Another dozen lay dead at Drizzt feet, their blood running off the ledge and dripping into the acid lake in rhythmic hissing plops. But it wasn't the odds that Belwar feared, with his precise movements and measured thrusts, Drizzt was undeniably winning. High above the drow, though, another suicidal corby and his pet rock took a dive.

  Belwar believed that Drizzt's life had come to a crashing end.

  But the hunter sensed the peril.

  A corby reached for Drizzt. With a flash of the drow's scimitars, both its arms flew free of their respective shoulders. In the same dazzling movement, Drizzt snapped his bloodied scimitars into their sheaths and bolted for the edge of the platform. He reached the lip and leaped out toward Belwar just as the suicidal boulder-riding corby crashed down, taking the platform and a score of its kin with it into the acid pool.

  Belwar heaved his beakless trophy into the corbies facing him and dropped to his knees, reaching out with his pickaxe-hand to try to aid his soaring friend. Drizzt caught the burrow-warden's hand and the ledge at the same time, slamming his face into the stone but finding a hold.

  The jolt ripped the drow's piwafwi, though, and Belwar watched helplessly as the onyx figurine rolled out and dropped toward the acid.

  Drizzt caught it between his feet.

  Belwar nearly laughed aloud at the futility and hopelessness of it all. He looked over his shoulder to see the corbies resuming their advance.

  “Dark elf, surely it has been fun, the svirfneblin said resignedly to Drizzt, but the drow's response stole the levity from Belwar as surely as it stole the blood from the deep gnome's face.

  “Swing me!” Drizzt growled so powerfully that Belwar obeyed before he even realized what he was doing. Drizzt rolled out and came swinging back toward the walkway, and when he bounced into the stone, every muscle in his body jerked violently to aid his momentum.

  He rolled right around the bottom of the walkway, scrambling and clawing with his arms and legs to gain a footing back up behind the crouching deep gnome. By the time Belwar realized what Drizzt had done and thought to turn around, Drizzt had his scimitars out and slicing across the face of the first approaching corby.

  “Hold this,' Drizzt bade his friend, flicking the onyx figurine to Belwar with his toe. Belwar caught the item between his arms and fumbled it into a pocket. Then the deep gnome stood back and watched, taking up a rear guard, as Drizzt cut a devastating path to the nearest exit.

  Five minutes later, to Belwar's absolute amazement, they were running free down a darkened tunnel, the frustrated shrieks of “Doom! Doom!” fast fading behind them.

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