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Homeland (part 2 chapter 22)

2006-08-28 22:23

  CHAPTER 22

  WITHOUT DIRECTION

  The sword cut carne too swiftly for the goblin slave to even cry out in terror. It toppled forward, quite dead before it ever hit the floor. Zaknafein stepped on its back and continued on, the path to the narrow cavern's rear exit lay open before the spirit-wraith, barely ten yards away. Even as the undead warrior moved beyond his latest kill, a group of illithids carne into the cavern in front of him. Zaknafein snarled and did not turn away or slow in the least. His logic and his strides were direct, Drizzt had gone through this exit, and he would follow.

  Anything in his way would fall to his blade.

  Let this one go on its way! came a telepathic cry from several points in the cavern, from other mind flayers who had witnessed Zaknafein in action. You cannot defeat him! Let the drow leave! The mind flayers had seen enough of the spirit-wraith's deadly blades, more than a dozen of their comrades had died at Zaknafein's hand already.

  This new group standing in Zaknafein's way did not miss the urgency of the telepathic pleas. They parted to either side with all speed-except for one.

  The illithid race based its existence on pragmatism founded in vast volumes of communal knowledge. Mind flayers considered base emotions such as pride fatal flaws.

  It proved to be true again on this occasion.

  Fwoop! The single illithid blasted the spirit-wraith, determined that none should be allowed to escape.

  An instant later, the time of a single, precise swipe of a sword, Zaknafein stepped on the fallen illithid's chest and continued on his way out into the wilds of the Underdark.

  No other illithids made any move to stop him.

  Zaknafein crouched and carefully picked his path. Drizzt had traveled down this tunnel, the scent was fresh and clear. Even so, in his careful pursuit, where he would often have to pause and check the trail, Zaknafein could not move as swiftly as his intended prey.

  But, unlike Zaknafein, Drizzt had to rest.

  “Hold” The tone of Belwar's command left no room for debate. Drizzt and Clacker froze in their tracks, wondering what had put the burrow-warden on sudden alert.

  Belwar moved over and put his ear to the rock wall. “Boots,' he whispered, pointing to the stone. ”Parallel tunnel:'

  Drizzt joined his friend by the wall and listened intently, but, though his senses were keener than almost any other dark elf, he was not nearly as adept at reading the vibrations of the stone as the deep gnome.

  “How many?” he asked.

  “A few,' replied Belwar, but his shrug told Drizzt that he was only making a hopeful approximation.

  “Seven,' said Clacker from a few paces down the wall, his voice clear and sure. ”Duergar-gray dwarves-fleeing from the illithids, as are we:'

  “How can you……' Drizzt started to ask, but he stopped, remembering what Clacker had told him concerning the powers of the pech.

  “Do the tunnels cross?” Belwar asked the hook horror. “Can we avoid the duergar?”

  Clacker turned back to the stone for the answers. “The tunnels join a short way ahead,' he replied, ”then continue on as one:'

  “Then if we stay here, the gray dwarves will probably pass us by,' Belwar reasoned.

  Drizzt was not so certain of the deep gnome's reasoning. “We and the duergar share a common enemy,' Drizzt remarked, then his eyes widened as a thought came to him suddenly. ”Allies?“

  “Although often the duergar and drow travel together, gray dwarves do not usually ally with svirfnebli,' Belwar reminded him. ”Or hook horrors, I would guess!“

  “This situation is far from usual,' Drizzt was quick to retort. ”If the duergar are in flight from the mind flayers, then they are probably ill-equipped and unarmed. They might welcome such an alliance, to the gain of both groups:'

  “I do not believe they will be as friendly as you assume,' Belwar replied with a sarcastic snicker, ”but concede I will that this narrow tunnel is not a defensible region, more suited to the size of a duergar than to the long blades of a drow and the longer-still arms of a hook horror. If the duergar double back at the crossroad and head toward us, we may have to do battle in an area that will favor them:'

  “Then to the place where the tunnels join,' said Drizzt, ”and let us learn what we may:'

  The three companions soon came into a small, oval-shaped chamber. Another tunnel, the one in which the duergar were traveling, entered the area right beside the companions' tunnel, and a third passage ran out from the back of the room. The friends moved across into the shadows of this farthest tunnel even as the shuffling of boots echoed in their ears.

  A moment later, the seven duergar came into the oval chamber. They were haggard, as Drizzt had suspected, but they were not unarmed. Three carried clubs, another a dagger, two held swords, and the last sported two large rocks.

  Drizzt held his friends back and stepped out to meet the strangers. Though neither race held much love for the other, drow and duergar often formed mutually gainful alliances. Drizzt guessed that the chances of forming a peaceful alliance would be greater if he went out alone.

  His sudden appearance startled the weary gray dwarves. They rushed all about frantically, trying to form some defensive posture. Swords and clubs came up at the ready, and the dwarf holding the rocks cocked his arm back for a throw.

  “Greetings, duergar,' Drizzt said, hoping that the gray dwarves would understand the drow tongue. His hands rested easily on the hilts of his sheathed scimitars, he knew he could get to them quickly enough if he needed them.

  “Who might ye be?” one of the sword-wielding gray dwarves asked in shaky but understandable drow.

  “A refugee, as yourselves,' replied Drizzt, ”fleeing from the slavery of the cruel mind flayers:'

  “Then ye know our hurry,' snarled the duergar, ”so be standin' outa our way!“

  “I offer to you an alliance,' said Drizzt. ”Surely greater numbers will only aid us when the illithids come.'

  “Seven's as good as eight,' the duergar stubbornly replied. Behind the speaker, the rock thrower pumped his arm threateningly.

  “But not as good as ten,' Drizzt reasoned calmly.

  “Ye got friends?” asked the duergar, his tone noticeably softening. He glanced about nervously, looking for a possible ambush. “More drow?”

  “Hardly,' Drizzt answered.

  “I seen him!” cried another of the group, also in the drow tongue, before Drizzt could begin to explain. “He runned out with the beaked monster an' the svirfneblin!”

  “Deep gnome!” The leader of the duergar spat at Drizzt's feet. “Not a friend of the duergar or the drow!”

  Drizzt would have been willing to let the failed offer go at that, with he and his friends moving on their way and the gray dwarves going their own. But the well-earned reputation of the duergar labeled them as neither peaceful nor overly intelligent. With the illithids not far behind, this band of gray dwarves hardly needed more enemies.

  A rock sailed at Drizzt's head. A scimitar flashed out and deflected it harmlessly aside.

  “Bivrip!” came the burrow-warden's cry from the tunnel. Belwar and Clacker rushed out, not surprised in the least by the sudden turn of events. In the drow Academy, Drizzt, like all dark elves, had spent months learning the ways and tricks of the gray dwarves. That training saved him now, for he was the first to strike, lining all seven of his diminutive opponents in the harmless purple flames of faerie fire.

  Almost at the same time, three of the duergar faded from view, exercising their innate talents of invisibility. The purple flames remained, though, clearly outlining the disappearing dwarves.

  A second rock flew through the air, slamming into Clacker's chest. The armored monster would have smiled at the pitiful attack if a beak could smile, and Clacker continued his charge straight ahead into the duergar's midst.

  The rock thrower and the dagger wielder fled out of the hook horror's way, having no weapons that could possibly hurt the armored giant. With other foes readily available,

  Clacker let them go. They came around the side of the chamber, bearing straight in at Belwar, thinking the svirfneblin the easiest of the targets.

  The swipe of a pickaxe abruptly stopped their charge. The unarmed duergar lunged forward, trying to grab the arm before it could launch a backswing. Belwar anticipated the attempt and crossed over with his hammer-hand, slamming the duergar squarely in the face. Sparks flew, bones crumbled, and gray skin burned and splattered. The duergar flew to his back and writhed about frantically, clutching his broken face.

  The dagger wielder was not so anxious anymore.

  Two invisible duergar came at Drizzt. With the outline of purple flames, Drizzt could see their general movement, and he had prudently marked these two as the sword-wielders. But Drizzt was at a clear disadvantage, for he could not distinguish subtle thrusts and cuts. He backed away, putting distance between himself and his companions.

  He sensed an attack and threw out a blocking scimitar, smiling at his luck when he heard the ring of weapons. The gray dwarf came into view for just a moment, to show

  Drizzt his wicked smile, then faded quickly away.

  “How many does ye think ye can block?” the other invisible duergar asked smugly.

  “More than you, I suspect,' Drizzt replied, and then it was the drow's turn to smile. His enchanted globe of absolute darkness descended over all three of the combatants, stealing the duergar advantage.

  In the wild rush of the battle, Clacker's savage hook horror instincts took full control of his actions. The giant did not understand the significance of the empty purple flames that marked the third invisible duergar, and he charged instead at the two remaining gray dwarves, both holding clubs.

  Before the hook horror ever got there, a club smashed into his knee, and the invisible duergar chuckled in glee. The other two began to fade from sight, but Clacker now paid them no heed. The invisible club struck again, this time smashing into the hook horror's thigh.

  Possessed by the instincts of a race that had never been concerned with finesse, the hook horror howled and fell forward, burying the purple flames under his massive chest. Clacker hopped and dropped several times, until he was satisfied that the unseen enemy was crushed to death.

  But then a flurry of clubbing blows rained down upon the back of the hook horror's head. The dagger-wielding duergar was no novice to battle. His attacks came in measured thrusts, forcing Belwar, wielding heavier weapons, to take the initiative. Deep gnomes hated duergar as profoundly as duergar hated deep gnomes, but Belwar was no fool. His pickaxe waved about only to keep his opponent at bay, while his hammer-hand remained cocked and ready.

  Thus, the two sparred without gain for several moments, both content to let the other make the first error. When the hook horror cried out in pain, and with Drizzt out of sight, Belwar was forced to act. He stumbled forward, feigning a trip, and lurched ahead with his hammer-hand as his pickaxe dipped low.

  The duergar recognized the ploy, but could not ignore the obvious opening in the svirfneblin's defense. The dagger came in over the pickaxe, diving straight at Belwar's throat.

  The burrow-warden threw himself backward with equal speed and lifted a leg as he went, his boot clipping the duergar's chin. The gray dwarf kept corning, though, diving down atop the falling deep gnome, his dagger's point leading the way.

  Belwar got his pickaxe up only a split second before the jagged weapon found his throat. The burrow-warden managed to move the duergar's arm out wide, but the gray dwarf's considerable weight pressed them together, their faces barely an inch apart.

  “Got ye now!” the duergar cried.

  “Get this!” Belwar snarled back, and he freed up his hammer-hand enough to launch a short but heavy punch into the duergar's ribs. The duergar slammed his forehead into

  Belwar's face, and Belwar bit him on the nose in response. The two rolled about, spitting and snarling, and using whatever weapons they could find.

  By the sound of ringing blades, any observers outside Drizzt's darkness globe would have sworn that a dozen warriors battled within. The frenzied tempo of swordplay was solely the doing of Drizzt Do'Urden. In such a situation, fighting blindly, the drow reasoned that the best battle method would be to keep all the blades as far away from his body as possible. His scimitars charged out

  relentlessly and in perfect harmony, pressing the two gray dwarves back on their heels.

  Each arm worked its own opponent, keeping the gray dwarves rooted in place squarely in front of Drizzt. If one of his enemies managed to get around to his side, the drow knew, he would be in serious trouble.

  Each scimitar swipe brought a ring of metal, and each passing second gave Drizzt more understanding of his opponents' abilities and attack strategies. Out in the Underdark, Drizzt had fought blindly many times, once even donning a hood against the basilisk he'd met.

  Overwhelmed by the sheer speed of the drow's attacks, the duergar could only work their swords back and forth and hope that a scimitar didn't slide through.

  The blades sang and rang as the two duergar frantically parried and dodged. Then came a sound that Drizzt had hoped for, the sound of a scimitar digging into flesh. A moment later, one sword clanged to the stone and its wounded wielder made the fatal mistake of crying out in pain.

  Drizzt's hunter-self rose to the surface at that moment and focused on that cry, and his scimitar shot straight ahead, smashing into the gray dwarf's teeth and on through the back of its head.

  The hunter turned on the remaining duergar in fury. Around and around his blades spun in swirling circular motions. Around and around, then one shot out in a sudden straightforward thrust, too quickly for a blocking response. It caught the duergar in the shoulder, gashing a deep wound.

  “Give! Give!” the gray dwarf cried, not desiring the same fate as its companion. Drizzt heard another sword drop to the floor. “Please, drow elf!”

  At the duergar's words, the drow buried his instinctive urges. “I accept your surrender,' Drizzt replied, and he moved close to his opponent, putting the tip of his scimitar to the gray dwarf's chest. Together, they walked out of the area darkened by Drizzt's spell.

  Searing agony ripped through Clacker's head, every blow sending waves of pain. The hook horror gurgled out an animal's growl and exploded into furious motion, heaving up from the crushed duergar and spinning over at the newest foes.

  A duergar club smashed in again, but Clacker was beyond any sensation of pain. A heavy claw bashed through the purple outline, through the invisible duergar's skull. The gray dwarf came back into view suddenly, the concentration needed to maintain a state of invisibility stolen by death, the greatest thief of all.

  The remaining duergar turned to flee, but the enraged hook horror moved faster. Clacker caught the gray dwarf in a claw and hoisted him into the air. Screeching like a frenzied bird, the hook horror hurled the unseen opponent into the wall. The duergar came back into sight, broken and crumbled at the base of the stone wall.

  No opponents stood to face the hook horror, but Clacker's savage hunger was far from satiated. Drizzt and the wounded duergar emerged from the darkness then, and the hook horror barreled in.

  With the specter of Belwar's combat taking his attention, Drizzt did not realize Clacker's intent until the duergar prisoner screamed in terror. By then, it was too late.

  Drizzt watched his prisoner's head go flying back into the globe of darkness.

  “Clacker!” the drow screamed in protest. Then Drizzt ducked and dived backward for his own life as the other claw came viciously swinging across. Spotting new prey nearby, the hook horror didn't follow the drow into the globe. Belwar and the dagger-wielding duergar were too engaged in their own struggles to notice the approaching crazed giant. Clacker bent low, collected the prone combatants in his huge arms, and heaved them both straight up into the air. The duergar had the misfortune of corning down first, and Clacker promptly batted it across the chamber. Belwar would have found a similar fate, but crossed scimitars intercepted the hook horror's next blow.

  The giant's strength slid Drizzt back several feet, but the parry softened the blow enough for Belwar to fall by. Still, the burrow-warden crashed heavily into the floor and spent a long moment too dazed to react.

  “Clacker!” Drizzt cried again, as a giant foot came up with the obvious intent of squashing Belwar flat. Needing all his speed and agility, Drizzt dived around to the back of the hook horror, dropped to the floor, and went for Clacker's knees, as he had in their first encounter. Trying to stomp on the prone svirfneblin, Clacker was already a bit off balance, and Drizzt easily tripped him to the stone. In the blink of an eye, the drow warrior sprang atop the monster's chest and slipped a scimitar tip between the armored folds of Clacker's neck.

  Drizzt dodged a clumsy swing as Clacker continued to struggle. The drow hated what he had to do, but then the hook horror calmed suddenly and looked up at him with sincere understanding.

  “D-d-do . . . it,' came a garbled demand. Drizzt, horrified, glanced over to Belwar for support. Back on his feet, the burrow-warden just looked away.

  “Clacker?” Drizzt asked the hook horror.“ Are you Clacker once again?”

  The monster hesitated, then the beaked head nodded slightly.

  Drizzt sprang away and looked at the carnage in the chamber. “Let us leave,' he said.

  Clacker remained prone a moment longer, considering the grim implications of his reprieve. With the battle's conclusion, the hook horror side backed out of its full control of Clacker's consciousness. Those savage instincts lurked, Clacker knew, not far from the surface, waiting for another opportunity to find a firm hold. How many times would the faltering pech side be able to fight those instincts?

  Clacker slammed the stone, a mighty blow that sent cracks running through the chamber's floor. With great effort, the weary giant climbed to his feet. In his embarrassment, Clacker didn't look at his companions, but just stormed away down the tunnel, each banging footstep falling like a hammer on a nail in Drizzt Do'Urden's heart.

  “Perhaps you should have finished it, dark elf,' Belwar suggested, moving beside his drow friend.

  “He saved my life in the illithid cavern,' Drizzt retorted sharply. ”And has been a loyal friend.'

  “He tried to kill me, and you,' the deep gnome said grimly. ”Magga cammara!'

  “I am his friend!” Drizzt growled, grabbing the svirfneblin's shoulder. “You ask me to kill him?”

  “I ask you to act as his friend,' retorted Belwar, and he pulled free of the grasp and started away down the tunnel after Clacker.

  Drizzt grabbed the burrow-warden's shoulder again and roughly spun him around.

  “It will only get worse, dark elf,' Belwar said calmly into Drizzt's grimace. ”A firmer hold does the wizard's spell gain with every passing day. Clacker will try to kill us again, I fear, and if he succeeds, the realization of the act will destroy him more fully than your blades ever could!“

  “I cannot kill him,' Drizzt said, and he was no longer angry. ”Nor can you:'

  “Then we must leave him,' the deep gnome replied. ”We must let Clacker go free in the Underdark, to live his life as a hook horror. That surely is what he will become, body and spirit:'

  “No,' said Drizzt. ”We must not leave him. We are his only chance. We must help him:'

  “The wizard is dead,' Belwar reminded him, and the deep gnome turned away and started again after Clacker.

  “There are other wizards,' Drizzt replied under his breath, this time making no move to impede the burrow-warden. The drow's eyes narrowed and he snapped his scimitars back into their sheaths. Drizzt knew what he must do, what price his friendship with Clacker demanded, but he found the thought too disturbing to accept.

  There were indeed other wizards in the Underdark, but chance meetings were far from common, and wizards capable of dispelling Clacker's polymorphed state would be fewer still. Drizzt knew where such wizards could be found, though.

  The thought of returning to his homeland haunted Drizzt with every step he and his companions took that day. Having viewed the consequences of his decision to leave Menzoberranzan, Drizzt never wanted to see the place again, never wanted to look upon the dark world that had so damned him.

  But if he chose now not to return, Drizzt knew that he would soon witness a more wicked sight than Menzoberranzan. He would watch Clacker, a friend who had saved him from certain death, degenerate fully into a hook horror. Belwar had suggested abandoning Clacker, and that course seemed preferable to the battle that Drizzt and the deep gnome surely must fight if they were near Clacker when the degeneration became complete.

  Even if Clacker were far removed, though, Drizzt knew that he would witness the degeneration. His thoughts would stay on Clacker, the friend he had abandoned, for the rest of his days, just one more pain for the tormented drow.

  In all the world, Drizzt could think of nothing he desired less than viewing the sights of Menzoberranzan or conversing with his former people. Given the choice, he would prefer death over returning to the drow city, but the choice was not so simple. It hinged on more than Drizzt's personal desires. He had founded his life on principles, and those principles now demanded loyalty. They demanded that he put Clacker's needs above his own desires, because Clacker had befriended him and because the concept of true friendship far outweighed personal desires.

  Later on, when the friends had set camp for a short rest, Belwar noticed that Drizzt was engaged in some inner conflict. Leaving Clacker, who once again was tap-tapping at the stone wall, the svirfneblin moved cautiously by the drow's side.

  Belwar cocked his head curiously. “What are you thinking, dark elf!”

  Drizzt, too caught up in his emotional turbulence, did not return Belwar's gaze. “My homeland boasts a school of wizardry,' Drizzt replied with steadfast determination.

  At first the burrow-warden didn't understand what Drizzt hinted at, but then, when Drizzt glanced over to Clacker, Belwar realized the implications of Drizzt's simple statement.

  “Menzoberranzan?” the svirfneblin cried. “You would return there, hoping that some dark elf wizard would show mercy upon our pech friend?”

  “I would return there because Clacker has no other chance,' Drizzt retorted angrily.

  “Then no chance at all has Clacker,' Belwar roared. ”Magga cammara, dark elf. Menzoberranzan will not be so quick to welcome you!“

  “Perhaps your pessimism will prove valid,' said Drizzt. ”Dark elves are not moved by mercy, I agree, but there may be other options:'

  “You are hunted,' Belwar said. His tone showed that he hoped his simple words would shake some sense into his drow companion.

  “By Matron Malice,' Drizzt retorted. ”Menzoberranzan is a large place, my little friend, and loyalties to my mother will play no part in any encounter we find beyond those with my own family. I assure you that I have no plans to meet anyone from my own family!“

  And what, dark elf, might we offer in exchange for dispelling Clacker's curse?“ Belwar replied sarcastically. ”What have we to offer that any dark elf wizard of Menzoberranzan would value?“

  Drizzt's reply started with a blurring cut of a scimitar, was heightened by a familiar simmering fire in the drow's lavender eyes, and ended with a simple statement that even stubborn Belwar could not find the words to refute.

  “The wizard's life:'

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