Night of the Hunter by R. A. Salvatore

  It was his cruelty that so impressed, he knew. He was an instrument for them, and in a role he cherished. The whip he now brandished was not snake-headed, of course, for those were reserved for the high priestesses of Lolth, but it was a vicious scourge nonetheless, with several barbed hooks along its twin lashes.

  Melkatka liked the feel of the weapon, and loved the opportunity now presented to him to put it to prolonged use. This art was a balancing act, he understood, and a delicious one at that.

  The whip rolled up over his shoulder and snapped out, and the tough little dwarf yelped despite herself.

  “Faster!” Melkatka shouted at her, and he cracked the whip again, this time drawing a line of blood behind the dwarf’s right ear, and indeed nearly removing the ear in the process! She started to shriek, but bit it back, and fell to the side to one knee, growling against the bite.

  A balancing act, Melkatka reminded himself. He couldn’t disable these pitiful captives; they were needed for the mines! Indeed, they had only been kept alive for this very purpose.

  The drow guard snapped the whip three times in rapid succession, cracking the air above the dwarf’s head. “To work!” he ordered.

  The dwarf looked back at him hatefully, and he relished the baleful stare. She tried to talk, to curse him no doubt, but all that came out of her mouth was garbled nonsense and putrid greenish-white foam. She was a spellcaster, this one, a cleric, and the dark elves knew how to deal with such creatures. For she had been cursed by the high priestesses, by Berellip Xorlarrin herself, and anytime the dwarf tried to formulate a word, her mouth was filled with the putrid, vomit-inducing poison.

  She doubled over, spitting furiously to clear the choking, wretched foam. Then she staggered and fell to the ground, and Melkatka put his whip to use once more, coaxing her back to her feet, and back to the pick and stone.

  The drow torturer was quite pleased with himself when he heard the ring of that pick against the rock wall once more, the tap-tapping mixing in with the cacophony of other mining implements ringing in these tunnels far below the Forge of Gauntlgrym.

  Several new slaves had been brought in from the coastal city the Xorlarrins had raided, to join in with the goblin laborers. The drow craftsmen needed metal, lots of metal, for the hungry forges, and mithral could be found here, along with several other minerals, even adamantine. Work continued furiously along the lower chambers of Gauntlgrym, as the drow craftsmen fashioned doors and stairways and barricades—not with the finest metals, though, for those were reserved for armor and weapons. They were building a drow city here, and one settled around a primordial forge, one capable of fashioning the most wondrous weapons and armor. Melkatka fantasized about being awarded a new sword and mail shirt, and the hope drove his arm back and forward yet again, cracking his whip one more time at the poor little dwarf, who just grunted and dug her pick hard into the stone wall.

  “Are they so sturdy that they do not even feel the blows, or so stupid that they do not understand that they are supposed to cry out?” another of the drow guards asked, coming over to join the expert torturer.

  “A bit of both, perhaps, but no matter,” Melkatka replied. “Tough hide will strip away with enough beating, and cry out or not, doubt not that she feels the bite of the whip.”

  The two shared a laugh at the dwarf’s expense, but their titters died away quickly as they both noted a curious creature fluttering toward them: a large bat—curious because they had not noticed any bats in this part of the complex before. And they were too deep for such creatures as the one approaching, for this one seemed the normal type of cave bat, if quite large, and not one of the types commonly found in the deeper Underdark.

  It came toward them in a haphazard flutter, bouncing back and forth across the wide tunnel. Melkatka raised his whip while his companion drew out his twin swords.

  The bat pulled up short, still a dozen strides away, then rolled over weirdly in mid-air, and strangely elongated as it came out of its somersault, growing legs, it seemed, that reached for the ground.

  Then it was no bat, but a dwarf, dirty and stout, wrapped in ridged armor and with the most absurd helmet spike protruding from the top of his metal helm almost half again his height!

  He landed with his feet wide apart, hands on his hips.

  “Another slave!” Melkatka’s companion said, then repeated the words in the common language of the surface, which most dwarves would surely understand.

  “Nah,” the dwarf replied and began a steady approach. “I thinked yerself might be making for a good slave,” he quipped, throwing the drow’s words back at him. “But I seen what ye did to the girl there, and so now I’m thinking not.”

  Melkatka raised his whip, while cleverly pulling out his hand crossbow with his free hand, and firing off his dart just as his companion dropped a globe of darkness upon the newcomer. Lightning quick, the drow torturer dropped his hand crossbow to the length of its tether and drew out his own sword.

  His companion moved to the side, both dark elves intent upon the area of magical darkness.

  Many heartbeats passed.

  “He is down,” Melkatka’s companion said. “Well shot, brother!”

  The two glanced at each other, then watched together the hand crossbow bolt that came spinning between them—from behind.

  Melkatka started to swing around when the heavy gauntlet of the dwarf, who had somehow slipped out of the darkness and arrived behind them, backhanded him across the side of his ribs and sent him flying. He accepted the blow and turned and leaped with it, touching down lightly and quick-stepping to hold his balance, thinking to rush right back in at the surprising enemy. Indeed, he even managed a step that way.

  But he was too focused on the newcomer, unaware that he had landed near the female slave. He did realize his error, but only for the instant until the blinding white flash of a miner’s pick driving through his skull dissipated into the absolute darkness of a sudden and brutal death.

  Amber Gristle O’Maul shook the embedded pick all around, not to extract it, but simply to feel its end mashing around inside her torturer’s skull. She watched across the way as she did, to see the remaining drow battling furiously with the strange dwarf battlerager—for of course she recognized this furious fighter as a battlerager—who had come onto the scene.

  Drow swords worked brilliantly—of course they did!—cutting in side to side against lifted blocking arms. And fine indeed was that ridged armor, Amber realized, for the dwarf’s arms remained intact against solid hits from those magnificent drow blades!

  The dwarf kept advancing, steadily and unbothered. Around went the drow swords, one coming in again from outside in, the other retracting and stabbing straight ahead.

  And the dwarf became as insubstantial as fog, the stabbing sword hitting nothing tangible. With a yelp of surprise, the drow wisely turned and fled, but he had only gone a few strides when the dwarf reconstituted, just to the side as the fleeing drow passed, and despite the drow’s quick turn and dodge, swords slashing in a frenzy, the dwarf came on with a barrage of punches. His short legs pumped furiously, driving him against the drow, driving the drow against the far wall.

  The drow tried to scamper out to the side one way, then the other, but the dwarf cut him off expertly. No novice, this!

  The drow struck out ferociously, one sword blocked by a grabbing hand that slid down the blade to cup the drow’s hand, and with a deft twist of his wrist, the dwarf turned his hand over and slid his gauntlet spike into the drow’s wrist and forearm.

  The other sword got through, a solid slash atop the dwarf’s shoulder, but if the battlerager was at all wounded, he didn’t show it.

  Nay, he just kept boring in, and when the drow retracted, he grabbed that arm.

  The drow tried to hold him back, and tried to get away, but the dwarf methodically lowered his head and slowly pushed in. The helmet spike went against the drow’s fine armor, and how the dark elf squirmed.

  “No! No!” he p

  The dwarf offered a soft whisper of “Shhh,” in reply, his powerful legs continuing to drive him forward.

  The drow went into a frenzy, dropping his swords and pulling his hands free to pound at the dwarf. But the dwarf bored in, the helmet spike finally pressing through fine drow armor.

  The drow gasped and grunted, squirmed and continued to flail, but ever slower as the helmet spike slid into his chest and stabbed at his heart.

  The spike was against the wall then, fully through the poor victim, but the dwarf kept methodically driving onward.

  The drow fell limp and the dwarf finally came back from the wall, standing straight and with the slain dark elf bobbing weirdly, impaled atop his helm. Blood spewed freely from the impaled corpse, showering the dwarf.

  Amber nodded eagerly at him, but her smile disappeared when the dwarf heaved the drow up, pressing him off the spike, and lifted his face to bask in—nay, to drink!—the pouring blood.

  A long while later, he dropped the corpse to the ground, grabbed the drow by the hair, and dragged him along as he came toward Amber. She shook her head and tried to speak, which of course just filled her mouth with wretched foam.

  “But aren’t ye a lovely sight,” the battlerager said when he stood before her, and he dropped the dead and drained drow fully to the stone and reached a bloody hand up as if to stroke Amber’s face. She recoiled instinctively, only then fully grasping what it was that stood before her: an undead monstrosity, a vampire.

  She tried to speak again, to ask him who he was, and simply spat out a line of wretched foam. How she hated these dark elves! And she almost wanted this undead creature to kill her then and there.

  “Pleasant little lovely,” the vampire said with a puzzled look and a mocking snort. He looked at her shackles. “I’d break ye free, but them drow’d get ye and blame ye for their dead.” He paused, as if another thought had suddenly come to him, and the look that came over his face chilled Amber to the bone. “Might be another way, eh?”

  His hand came up again, tenderly—and so discordant that movement rang to Amber, for the gauntlet was still liberally dripping the blood of his dark elf victim. She shuddered and shrank back, shaking her head and pleading with him with little mewling sounds.

  The battlerager paused, his hand hovering near to her, his expression shifting through a myriad of emotions, from eagerness to puzzlement, to consternation and ending with a little, feral growl.

  Amber sucked in her breath, swallowed a bunch of the putrid magical foam in the process, and vomited all over the ground between herself and the vampire.

  “I’m lookin’ that wretched to ye, eh?” the undead dwarf roared, and he lifted his hand as if to strike.

  But he pulled back, shaking his head, muttering to himself.

  Fighting his urges and his hunger, Amber realized.

  And then something else came over him, and he looked off into the distance, up the tunnel and higher. He muttered something that sounded like, “The graves!” And he stomped his heavy boot. “Ah, ye thieving dogs! Ye let him be! Me king!”

  He had gone mad, clearly, and Amber believed her life to be at its end, believed that this vicious creature would then tear her apart.

  But he didn’t. He ran off up the tunnel, but skidded to a stop and came running back the other way. Down went one spiked fist, driving hard into a drow corpse, and down hard went the other hand on the second corpse, like a gaffe hook pulling a fish up the side of a boat. A drow corpse tucked under each arm, the dwarf ran away, down the tunnel.

  He came back a short while later, and Amber knew it was him, although he was in the form of a flapping bat then, and he went right past her without a notice, back the other way.

  He had moved the bodies so that she could not be blamed for the murders, she realized.

  The captured dwarf cleric fell back against the wall, overwhelmed and terrified. She slid down to the floor and sat there, crying. Spewing foam with every chortle, cursing the dark elves and cursing life itself.

  And, at times at least, savoring the revenge, feeling again her pick inside her torturer’s skull, with that thought in mind, she began digging that pick into the sandier areas of her limited run, obscuring the blood and brain matter.

  The three friends and Guenhwyvar, moving along at the back of the procession, turned a corner into a wide, straight corridor lined with doors on either side.

  “Slow,” Regis whispered, for with his lowlight vision, the halfling could see Bruenor down at the other end of the corridor, just out of their light radius, where this passage ended in a sharp right turn. The dwarf crouched and looked back, his hand held up to his approaching friends.

  Regis looked to Catti-brie and Wulfgar and whispered, “Wait.” He noted that Catti-brie had already stopped, and was already nodding her agreement. She had one hand on Guenhwyvar, and could clearly feel the tenseness within the panther. Guenhwyvar sensed something nearby, some enemy likely, Regis could see and Catti-brie could feel.

  After a few heartbeats, they started off again slowly, moving toward Bruenor, who was still some twenty strides away. Once more, though, Regis held out his arm to stop the others as Bruenor swung around, coming fully into their corridor and throwing his back to the wall at the corner. Up came his axe, clutched tightly diagonally across his chest, the many-notched head resting on the front of his left shoulder.

  He glanced back at his friends and smiled, then whipped around in perfect timing, his battle-axe sweeping across to cut down the first of the monsters charging out of the side corridor.

  “Goblins!” Regis cried, recognizing the diminutive monster as it pitched over backward under the weight of Bruenor’s blow, big flat feet shooting forward from under it.

  Catti-brie slapped at Guenhwyvar’s flank and the panther leaped away, brushing hard against Wulfgar, who had already started his charge. Wulfgar staggered under the weight of the collision, but stumbled forward anyway, right past a door on the left-hand side of the corridor.

  And that door flew open behind him, and out poured more goblins, two abreast, war-whooping and waving their crude weapons. Another door down the corridor, just in front of the barbarian, burst open and still more poured out, shouting even louder.

  Regis leaped past Catti-brie, landing solidly with a powerful step and thrust, his rapier stabbing the throat of the nearest creature. Up came his second hand, hand crossbow drawn, and he let fly into the face of the second goblin in the front ranks. The monster shrieked and grabbed at the quarrel, stumbling aside, then getting thrown aside by the one behind it as it pushed through to stab at the halfling with its spear.

  But Regis already had his dirk in hand, and he caught the thrusting spear between its main blade and one of the side catch-blades.

  “Aside!” Catti-brie ordered.

  With a twist of his wrist, Regis snapped the end off of the crude spear. He feigned a counter, but complied with Catti-brie instead, enacting his prism ring magic and warp-stepping to his right, farther down the corridor, leaving the opening for his magic-using companion.

  Up came Catti-brie’s hands, thumbs touching, fingers fanned, and a wave of flames flew from her fingertips, engulfing the goblin clutching at its stabbed throat and the spear-wielder beside it, and the two behind them as well.

  And in came Regis from the side, rapier plunging home once and again to finish off the burning creature in the second rank, then going out a third time with brilliant speed, catching the nearest goblin in the third rank before it ever even realized that he was there.

  And Catti-brie was casting again, he heard, and a quick glance at her told him to hold the line back from her.

  At the other end of the hall, Bruenor chopped down a second goblin, then blew aside a third and fourth in a single sidelong sweep. Four down already, squirming and dying, but the wild-eyed dwarf was far from sated, for behind those front ranks came larger creatures: hobgoblins and bugbears.

  Bruenor Battlehammer hated nothing more than smel
ly bugbears!

  But he hated the one coming in at him even more in that moment when it blocked his axe swing and countered with a heavy blow of its makeshift club—a club that looked very much like the thick thigh bone of a sturdy dwarf.

  Bruenor accepted the hit, the bone slamming against his one-horned helm. In exchange he bored in on the creature and caught a handhold of its hide jerkin. It hadn’t been a fair trade, of course, as the dwarf’s ears were surely ringing, but he had to grapple this one and had to pull it back. For in flew Guenhwyvar, right behind the bugbear as the dwarf tugged it forward.

  “Ah, no ye don’t!” he said to the creature and to Guenhwyvar, warding her away from this one. He spun around and heaved the bugbear the other way across the hall. “Ye’re mine, ye dog!”

  The bugbear, much taller and twice as heavy as Bruenor, hadn’t gone far, of course, and it howled and leaped for him, more than eager to grant him that wish.

  Bruenor met the charge with his own fury, launching a series of short and powerful chops to drive his enemy back against the wall, his focus entirely on the bugbear, entirely on its weapon, entirely on his own decomposed leg.

  And that was his mistake, he suddenly realized, for while he couldn’t help but hear the cries and roars of Guenhwyvar’s fury behind him, a second bugbear had slipped past the panther.

  And now its spear slipped through a seam in Bruenor’s armor, biting into the dwarf’s back.

  Wulfgar fully recovered from the brush of the leaping panther and turned his attention on the hobgoblins and bugbears spilling out into the corridor from the door in front of him.

  He tried to make sense of the chaotic scene, but a couple of things struck him as curious. First, several of these goblinkin were not dressed in the typical hides or smelly sackcloth one might expect of such creatures, nor even in pilfered leather armor. No, they wore the fine dress of the dark elves, the smooth shirts and flowing capes and even the fabulous armor.

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