Night of the Hunter by R. A. Salvatore

  The matron mother nodded her appreciation.

  Gromph signed his fingers at his illithid companion, and the mind flayer’s tentacles began to wave and waggle around.

  “Mark it?” Quenthel asked, having read his hand signal to Methil.

  “When we decide to return here, would there be a better place to arrive?” Gromph replied, and Quenthel understood then that the archmage and his mind flayer had just magically attuned to this particular room for purposes of teleportation, both magical and psionic.

  When that was finished, Gromph moved back under the archway and reconstructed his dimension door and followed Quenthel back to the ledge across the way.

  “The Chapel of Q’Xorlarrin,” she repeated to Berellip. “And that tunnel, I think, would suit well your matron as her private quarters.”

  “Yes, Matron Mother.”

  “Consecrate this ground with the blood of slaves,” Quenthel instructed. “Feed the primordial beast with the flesh of our enemies.”

  “Yes, Matron Mother,” Berellip eagerly replied.

  So eagerly, Matron Mother Quenthel thought. On impulse, Quenthel lifted her arms out wide, tilted her head back, and closed her eyes. “Lift your scourge,” she told Berellip.

  “Matron Mother?” the priestess replied with a clear tremor in her voice.

  “It is fitting that my blood is first to seal the chapel. Lift your scourge!”

  With trembling hands, Berellip complied. She didn’t snap her snake-headed whip at the matron mother, but she didn’t have to, for it was an instrument of Lady Lolth’s wrath, and the snakes understood their purpose here.

  They lashed and tore at Quenthel’s skin, and she reveled in the glory of Lolth as her blood dripped to the stones. She began to twirl and to dance, and Berellip kept pace, her four serpents biting again and again.

  After many steps and much blood it ended, and the matron mother cast a spell of healing to close her wounds, regain her strength, and neutralize the poison of Berellip’s vipers.

  Then she took her own five-headed instrument from her belt. Now it was Berellip’s turn to dance for the Spider Queen.

  Some time later, Quenthel, Gromph, and Methil left Berellip lying on the floor of the primordial chamber in a pool of her own blood. Dazed and disoriented, the priestess would surely die if she could not find the clarity to collect her thoughts and her powers enough to heal herself from the venom of Quenthel’s vicious serpents.

  In that tragic event, the matron mother figured, it would be the will of Lolth, and Matron Zeerith would have no one to blame but herself for raising such impotent daughters.



  ARTEMIS ENTRERI TWISTED AND TURNED, TRYING TO UPRIGHT HIMSELF before his descent. He had no idea what had hit him, and everyone around him, but only that they were all flying now, bounced a dozen feet into the air by the rolling ground.

  He came around and saw his opponent similarly reacting. He glanced at the globe of darkness, behind him and to the side, and noted Brother Afafrenfere bouncing down then lying still along the ground beside the darkness globe now, and twisted around, having landed awkwardly.

  This fight was over. He had no chance. He might defeat this noble drow of House Baenre, but to what end?

  So he half-turned in his descent and landed with his legs already moving, sprinting back for the building down and to the right of the burning Stonecutter’s Solace. He waved his heavy cloak out behind him as a shield against the hand crossbow bolts. He heard Tiago Baenre’s protest. “Coward!” the drow cried.

  Entreri ignored him and sprinted around the edge of the building, sheathing his weapons as he went. He leaped and caught a handhold, and with exceptional strength and agility, spun himself up and over, throwing his legs above him and onto the low roof. He rolled over and came up in a crouch.

  And saw again Tiago Baenre, floating in the air just beyond the roof’s edge.

  With an evil grin, the drow banged his sword against that translucent shield and stepped onto the roof. He lifted his blade in salute, bidding Entreri to come on.

  The assassin glanced around, seeking an escape route. He could run, perhaps, moving to the lower sections of the city—surely the pursuit would become distracted by the many other targets …

  Entreri shook the thoughts from his mind and focused instead on this one drow stalking him.

  With a shrug, he drew his weapons and charged.

  They came together in a blur of movement, turning and leaping out to either side, diving back in. Sword and shield met sword and dagger, blades ever turning and re-angling, particularly from Entreri who took great care not to let either of his weapons become entangled again in the web-like properties of that strange shield.

  The combatants turned and rolled as readily as their weapons, each seeking an advantageous angle, for they were surely well-matched here.

  Other dark elves rose up as spectators, levitating around the roof line. Somehow that spurred Entreri on, and he began to drop his trailing foot back just a bit more with each riposte and each turn. He wanted to win now, even at the cost of his own life. So be it, he thought, as long as he could bring this one, this Baenre, down before him.

  But he was running out of time as Tiago’s allies positioned around them, and as this young drow warrior, superbly skilled and trained, matched his every move. Entreri dropped his foot back just a bit more as he spun out to the left, coming around with a backhand that Tiago ably ducked.

  And in came Tiago, clearly understanding Entreri’s desire to flee. The jeweled dagger flashed, taking aside the drow’s sword thrust, but that thrust was merely a feint, Entreri realized, and he leaped up as the real attack, a sidelong slash of that shield, cut in at his knees.

  He went up in a turn, and kicked out, but pulled short on the kick, his own feint, and let his leg fling out to the side as Tiago’s sword vainly tried to catch up. And around went the leaping Entreri, and now his right leg came around instead in a circle kick, and the drow could not recover before getting Entreri’s boot slammed into his face.

  Tiago staggered backward. “Oh clever!” he yelled, his voice slurred as he spat blood.

  “Get used to it,” Entreri growled and came on. He pulled up short, though, and twisted around to avoid a hand crossbow bolt, diving in over Tiago’s right shoulder and flying for his face. A click from the other side had him turning fast back the other way, and the second dart skipped past.

  And in came Tiago with a shield rush, bulling toward him, and the drow’s sword flashed out beside the blocker.

  Entreri hit it with his own blade, and stabbed in behind it, and just over Tiago’s shield, with his deadly dagger.

  The drow ducked the thrust and lifted his shield to lift Entreri’s arm, and the assassin felt the buckler grabbing at him, pulling at his clothes with its web-like stickiness. So Entreri didn’t fight it, and instead pressed ahead, pressed into the shield and bulled into Tiago, driving him back and standing tall to drive him down.

  The bite of a hand crossbow dart got him in that leading left shoulder. A second grazed his face, and as he fell down atop Tiago in a heap, he saw the other dark elves moving for the roof to intervene. More than spectators after all, he realized, and knew he was doomed.

  He tried for the kill, desperately wanting to see Tiago’s last breath before he breathed his own, but even caught by the sudden reversal and the surprisingly aggressive move, the drow noble proved up to the task of defending, keeping Entreri’s dagger arm stuck and up too high, and working his sword in tight against Entreri’s at the proper angle to keep the blades out to the side.

  Entreri couldn’t gain any leverage here, and he felt the drow noble wriggling out from under him even as he felt the drow poison seeping into his body.

  Never in her experience had Dahlia felt the sheer power and magical strength contained with Ravel Xorlarrin’s lightning web. It floated down over her and her son, chasing her to the ground, it seemed, as she transformed
back from her cloak’s crow form. Immediately, she drew forth her flail, slapping it together and straightening the whole in a single motion to have the fully reconstituted Kozah’s Needle in hand, and she prodded up the end of that staff to catch the center of the descending lightning web.

  “Fly away!” she heard Effron cry to her, and there was great fear in his voice, she knew, and she understood as soon as her staff touched the drow dweomer. The energy of the gathered storm crackled within her—her hair flew wildly.

  The web descended, sparking and exploding, shaking the ground. Teeth chattering, unable to speak, Dahlia tried to cry out to Effron to take her hand, hoping that somehow Kozah’s Needle would shield them both. She barely managed to glance his way out of the corner of her eye, and saw that he was a charred thing already, sinking to the ground.

  And the explosions roared on all around her, the ground shaking, like a prolonged peal of thunder reflecting back and forth off canyon walls, and hardly dissipating.

  More energy flooded into the staff, arcing around its length, stinging her hands, reaching into her. She felt her heart pounding. Her temples throbbed, the world seemed to go dark, black splotches racing across her vision.

  But she held on, because to let go was to be consumed, to melt, as Effron had.

  Effron! Her son!

  Rage drove her back against the mounting force, a scream of denial deep in her mind. She clenched her jaw tightly to stop from cracking her chattering teeth, or biting off her own tongue.

  And then it was done. The lightning web folded up, swirling above her once more as it seemed to be sucked into the end of her mighty staff. She couldn’t contain the power; she felt as if the metal staff would simply explode, or if it did not, as if the sheer power of the drow magic would consume her.

  She half-turned, half-fell, and in that movement saw Ambergris lying off to the side, propped on one elbow, staring at her dumbfounded, and had Dahlia been able to see her reflection in the eyes of that dwarf, she would have understood, for she seemed more a creature of lightning then than anything resembling an elf, with powerful arcs of magical energy streaming along her sides and limbs.

  And Dahlia saw the female drider, staring back at her, lifting a club as if to throw it at her.

  Dahlia threw first, desperately, Kozah’s Needle flying like a spear.

  It went in short, landing at the drider’s spidery legs, but it didn’t matter. The blast launched the abomination into the air, and sent a shock wave through the ground that made the street seem as malleable as a pool of water.

  Ambergris went flying. The porch of the building rolled and buckled, and then the building itself collapsed as the wave rolled under it.

  Dahlia felt herself lifted into the air. She saw the drider descending as she rose, legs curling under it as if melting under the sheer heat of the blast, face locked in the mask of a dying scream.

  Out rolled the wave, up the hill to scatter the drow wizards and throw Entreri and Tiago into the air as they battled on the street before Stonecutter’s Solace. It rolled across the street to send Yerrininae bouncing—and screaming all the while for his beloved Flavvar.

  Dahlia came down awkwardly, twisting her ankles and knee, then falling hard to her face in the road. She managed to prop herself up enough to see Ambergris sitting in the road, dazed and battered. And it was Amber’s expression of sudden shock and terror that told Dahlia that the other drider, the huge male, had come up behind her—an instant before she felt a blinding explosion around her head and went flying away into the darkness.

  The sheerest denial drove Artemis Entreri. Up on the rooftop, turning and twisting with Tiago Baenre, stuck to the drow noble’s shield, the wider world spun around. And in that panorama, Entreri saw Dahlia fall. The elf woman lay in the street before the towering drider.

  Ambergris would fare no better, the assassin knew in that instant. The dwarf sat there, clearly dazed, the monstrous abomination closing in.

  And so denial and anger drove Entreri. He managed to plant his feet and regain a measure of balance, and with a defiant roar, he rose quickly, taking Tiago with him, and spun around powerfully, throwing the drow aside. The stubborn shield let him go then and he staggered behind the falling Tiago.

  But he caught himself quickly and reversed direction, sprinting for the far end of the rooftop.

  Another dart hit him, then another, then a barrage, sticking him and stinging him and filling him with poison. His arms felt heavy, his vision and other senses suddenly dull, and he knew the drow noble would be close behind.

  He dived down to the edge of the rooftop, or perhaps he fell, for his legs grew numb beneath him. He reached over, making as if to pull himself forward to drop to the ground.

  But that wasn’t the point. He hadn’t run off with any thought of escaping, because he knew that he couldn’t possibly escape. But his dagger could.

  He reached under the eaves of the roof, hooking his arm down and around, and tucked his dagger neatly in place, and then he did pull himself over and simply let go, crashing down to the ground.

  He rose stubbornly and staggered away, cutting between other buildings, around corners, the drow’s taunting laughter following him every step. Finally, thinking that he had done enough to throw them off the track of his prized weapon, Entreri stopped and turned to face the pursuit of Tiago Baenre.

  The assassin was falling into darkness before the drow noble even caught up to him, the drow poison taking his strength and sensibilities.

  He heard Tiago Baenre call to him—by name!—and that seemed a curious thing, a ridiculous thing, but he couldn’t quite figure out why.

  Dahlia felt the heat all around her, and the constant ring of metal on metal. She sensed that she was standing, but couldn’t be certain, and she couldn’t understand how that might be in any case, for she had no strength in her legs.

  She felt something pressing against her cheek, like the flat of a sword blade, perhaps.

  The elf woman opened her eyes and recognized the place at once, or at least realized that she knew this place, though she couldn’t quite sort it out. She remembered the explosion in the street, Kozah’s Needle releasing a tremendous burst of magical lightning. She saw again the drider female, curling up in charred death.

  She winced as she remembered the explosion in her own head, then wailed loudly as she thought of Effron, her son, melting beside her. She had tried to save him, but to no avail.

  “Welcome back,” she heard, a familiar voice that brought Dahlia more fully into the present and the scene around her.

  Never lifting her check from the metal strap on which it rested, she glanced to the side at the speaker, Artemis Entreri.

  He was hanging in a metal cage, almost a coffin of banded straps, it seemed, pressing him tightly, holding him upright.

  As was Dahlia’s own cage.

  “Caught again,” she heard Entreri say, his voice hopeless and helpless, too far removed from caring to express any real concern.

  They were in Gauntlgrym, Dahlia realized, in the Forge itself, strung up just a few feet from the floor. Goblin slaves moved around the various forges, carting wheelbarrows of scrap metal, carrying solid bars yet to be worked, while drow craftsmen stood by the trays and anvils, going about their work.

  Dahlia tried to turn to face Entreri, but so tightly was she held in the cage that she really couldn’t manage it. Her effort did cause the cage to swing and rotate just a bit, though, and before it turned back, she noted a third cage in the line, beyond Entreri’s.

  “Effron,” she whispered, hoping against reality.

  “Afafrenfere,” Entreri corrected. “Though I expect that he’s already long dead. He hasn’t moved or made a sound in the hours I’ve been awake.”

  “They brought him here,” Dahlia argued.

  “To torment us, no doubt,” said Entreri, and he finished with a grunt when a drow moved up behind his hanging cage and prodded him with a hot poker shoved between the slats. That same dro
w walked over to Dahlia’s prison as well, and very casually laid the poker against her ankle.

  How she screamed.

  And none in the room, not goblin or drow, seemed to care. When the pain had ended, she glanced back at Entreri, and managed to swing her cage once more. He just shook his head.

  He had been in a situation akin to this before, Dahlia recalled, a prisoner of the drow in their dark city of Menzoberranzan. He had told her some of the tale, and had hinted at parts far worse. He had told her that he would rather be dead than fall into the clutches of the dark elves ever again.

  Dahlia could only wince as she considered that ominous warning, for she was an elf, the ultimate enemy of the drow.

  She would be tortured to death, she knew, and likely her torment would last for years.

  The four heads of Berellip Xorlarrin’s whip rose and struck at the form in the cage, biting deeply into the legs of the victim, tearing his skin, but alas, Afafrenfere did not stir.

  “Your friend is dead,” Berellip announced to Entreri and Dahlia, walking over to stand where they both could see her. “He is the fortunate one.”

  She looked up at Entreri and grinned wickedly. “Bregan D’aerthe?” she said. “Do you have any more lies to add to your tale? It was they, these allies you falsely claimed, who informed us of your return.”

  Entreri didn’t answer.

  “We will learn where you have been these last twenty years, do not doubt,” she said. “And then you will die. How that will happen is somewhat to your choosing. Tell me where Drizzt Do’Urden is hiding.”

  “I don’t know,” Entreri answered, and he glanced to the side as a pair of male dark elves moved up to Afafrenfere’s cage, one fumbling with a ring of keys as if to remove the corpse.

  The Xorlarrin high priestess laughed at him. “So be it,” she said, then waved off the two male attendants. “Leave him! Let them bask in his stench, to remind them that they, too, will soon begin to rot.”

  Berellip turned to Dahlia. “Where are the rest of your companions?”

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