Night of the Hunter by R. A. Salvatore


  He reached back to throw the missile, but found himself distracted by other missiles—a barrage of spinning missiles, and a volley thrown at him.

  Jearth’s sprint brought him right past a side tunnel at the same moment that a host of dwarves had reached the same juncture, and the bearded folk wasted no time in launching their mining picks the drow’s way. Some bounced aside harmlessly, skipping off the uneven ceiling, while others battered both the rider and his lizard, mostly to minimal effect.

  But one pick turned around perfectly to stab its tip deeply into the lizard’s rear flank, into the thigh of its back leg.

  The wounded beast stopped its run and wriggled around, battling the determined tug of Jearth. The lizard’s rear right leg detached from the ceiling, waving around in the air as it tried to dislodge the pick, and it even tried to turn around to bite at the pained area.

  Jearth fought hard to keep his mount straight and to keep it moving, realizing all the while that it was probably not a good idea to idly hang there with a mob of angry dwarves closing in.

  He had to leap free of the saddle, he realized, but too late, as another mining pick spun in, barely missing him as he ducked back from it.

  Missing him, but hitting his mount, and more specifically, hitting one of the straps securing Jearth’s saddle, and as that strap severed, Jearth’s right leg came free, too suddenly for him to adjust himself properly to cleanly fall free.

  Instead, he just fell, or half-fell, from the saddle, hanging awkwardly, his left foot twisted and thus locked into place, holding him there, inverted and staring into the eyes of charging dwarves.

  With a shake of his head and a sigh, the inverted drow drew out his swords.

  Back at the furious battle line, still on the ceiling and batting aside the reaching picks and shovels of the dwarves, Tiago managed a glance down the corridor. He saw Jearth’s weapons working brilliantly, fending off dwarves from all angles. The Weapons Master of House Xorlarrin parried a mining pick with one blade while cutting a dwarf’s throat with his other. Jearth got that second blade back in close to his own torso in time to meet the heavy swing of a hammer, and used that push to go into a spin—a spin, Tiago realized in just that heartbeat—that would help him free his trapped foot.

  He saw Jearth fall, but it was a good thing, the drow dropping from the ceiling and flipping over as he went to land lightly on his feet before the press of the dwarf miners.

  Tiago smiled and nodded as he faded back behind the drow line, confident that Jearth would dispatch the group, or at least hold them at bay, until this line could be breached and the foot soldiers could run to his aid.

  To facilitate that point, the Baenre noble rode back down to the floor and drove his mount between a pair of drow infantry, shoving them aside that he could join in the fight properly. His lizard pressed ahead, maw snapping, and Tiago had to pull it back just a bit as it tried to pursue those dwarves as they fell back.

  The lizard, like all of Tiago’s mounts, was superbly trained, though, and pulling it back for Tiago meant nothing more than a clicking sound and a proper press of his left heel, leaving his arms free.

  He swept his shield across at the dwarf to his left, and before the blocker had gone fully past the intended target, the dwarf eager to come in at him behind the swipe, Tiago called upon that shield to diminish in size. It did so instantly, rolling in on itself, and thus allowing the drow to strike first with his sword, to stab his fine blade out at the unsuspecting dwarf from under the edge of the diminishing shield.

  He pulled the bloodied blade back in and cut it across to the right, rolling it over a swinging pick. He turned the sword back the other way brilliantly, and with enough leverage and strength to send that pick flying away. Hardly pausing to admire the flight of the weapon, Tiago plunged his sword straight ahead, straight into the dwarf’s chest.

  He prodded his lizard mount into a charge then, but rolled off the lizard’s back as it leaped away—rolled off with a complete somersault that landed him back on his feet and moving forward, throwing himself with glee into the midst of battle.

  Better armed, better armored, better trained, the drow had clearly turned the tide of battle. One-against-one, few warriors in the Realms could match a dark elf, but even among the ranks of these elite warriors, Tiago Baenre stood tall. His blade and shield worked in a concerted blur, sweeping and stabbing, blocking and parrying. His fight was not straight-line, moving ahead, but became a dance all around, the drow commoners gladly surrendering ground as he crossed before them, the dwarves wishing they had!

  The fight in that corridor had already favored the dark elves, but with Tiago among them, the fight became a rout and the dwarven line quickly shattered.

  Tiago brought his shield up fast to catch a chop of a dwarf’s pick, and he enacted the magic of the shield, whose name was Spiderweb, to hold the weapon fast as he pulled it out to the side. The movement invited the dwarf to press in, and so the bearded fellow complied, leading with a fist.

  But Tiago was ahead of his move, and that punching fist met the tip of a fine weapon, a sword that cut through gauntlet and knuckles, and drove up through the dwarf’s wrist and split the bone of the dwarf’s forearm.

  The dwarf howled—oh, how he screamed!—and Tiago pressed out fast with the shield, freeing the pick before retracting his arm. In the same movement, the drow warrior turned his sword down and under with a sharp jerk, tearing it free of the muscled arm and shooting it ahead only briefly before turning his shoulders to retract the sword and throw the shield out before him, to bull ahead over the dwarf as the poor fool fell backward and to the ground.

  But fell without a scream, for that quick strike of the sword had taken out its throat.

  Crossing over the falling Battlehammer, Tiago broke free, leading the way, his wicked smile wide indeed.

  He saw Jearth, battling far ahead. Up came the weapons master’s blade, shining with dwarf blood, and down it went, repeatedly.

  But only one blade, Tiago realized even as he eagerly started forward.

  Only one blade!

  And one of Jearth’s arms hung limply at the weapons master’s side!

  One blade against a horde of dwarves pressing in from every angle. Jearth spun and struck, leaped aside and darted ahead, then back, brilliant in every movement.

  But the dwarf net closed, a relentless barrage of picks and fists.

  “To me!” Tiago called to the warriors, now all in a full charge to get to Jearth’s side.

  A charge that would not arrive in time, he realized.

  “Ravel!” he cried to the mage behind him as he saw Jearth pulled down in the teeming mass of dwarf muscle.

  On they charged, and the mage’s spell flew over them in the form of an amorphous green glob. It soared into the midst of Jearth’s desperate fight and exploded into a cloud of virescent gas, the stench rolling back to make Tiago crinkle his nose in disgust. He could hardly see the tangle ahead through the ugly fog, and even the sound of the fight seemed to diminish, dulled by the thick haze.

  And hopefully, he thought, the fight had diminished, the combatants crippled by the stinking cloud.

  But then out of the fog came some of those fighters, a line of angry dwarves, spitting and snorting, but hardly slowed, it seemed, by the nauseating fumes.

  “Jearth,” Tiago mouthed in shock as he drove into their ranks.

  Those dwarves fought valiantly, but like their comrades at the blown door, they could not win out against the superior force that had come to their tunnels. Several drow died in that corridor, but three times the number of gallant Battlehammer dwarves met their end there, and a similar number were taken as prisoners.

  Tiago Baenre could not consider it a victory, though, because the fight for Kelvin’s Cairn had just begun, because at least one dwarf had escaped the assault to run ahead to warn his bearded kin.

  And because Jearth, Weapons Master of House Xorlarrin, Tiago’s friend and companion, lay bloodied in the corri
dor before him.

  Tiago watched intently as the priestess Saribel rushed to Jearth and began frantically calling upon the powers of Lolth to heal the fallen warrior.

  But to no avail.

  Jearth Xorlarrin, Tiago’s most trusted companion among the ranks of the rival House, lay dead.

  “You should not have let him run ahead alone!” Ravel scolded when Saribel stood up from the dead Xorlarrin noble and shook her head.

  Tiago’s threatening stare reminded the wizard that he was scolding a Baenre, and one that could cut him into pieces.

  “What fool would cast such a cloud of noxious fumes over a bevy of dwarves?” Tiago retorted. “Their food and drink is fouler than your pathetic spell! Likely you crippled Jearth and no others—or was that your intent all along?”

  Ravel found himself back on his heels at that outrageous accusation—for was it so outrageous that it would not bring the wrath of Matron Zeerith upon him?

  “In the opening salvoes,” Saribel said with great remorse, drawing the attention of both. The priestess shook her head. “We must finish this fight in our favor to atone for the loss. Berellip will not be pleased. Matron Zeerith will not be pleased.”

  “Unless we return with a gaggle of slaves to work our mines,” Tiago said, and he motioned for driders to come forth with their shackles to gather and secure the captives. “And with the head of Drizzt Do’Urden. Come,” he said to Saribel, to Ravel, and loudly enough to include all the others, “let us avenge the death of Jearth.”

  “With all speed,” Ravel agreed. “Before a formal defense can be put in place.” The mage cast a spell then, creating a floating wizard eye, which he sent off down the side passage.

  Others of Ravel’s wizardly contingent did likewise, their magic vision spreading out among the corridors, showing them the way.

  CHAPTER 21

  A PILE OF NIGHTCRAWLERS

  WHERE IS YOUR PET?” QUENTHEL ASKED GROMPH WHEN SHE FOUND him in his private quarters in House Baenre.

  The archmage chuckled at the characterization of the illithid. “Methil remains in Q’Xorlarrin.”

  Quenthel took her seat opposite him, and she seemed far from pleased at the news. “Still?” she asked sourly.

  “I can recall him at any time,” Gromph explained. “And he is constantly in my mind, communicating. Physical distance matters little to an illithid.”

  “Tsabrak is off to the east,” the matron mother said. “Matron Zeerith has not yet departed for Q’Xorlarrin. I do not trust her daughter Berellip …”

  “Berellip is of no concern. To me, to you, or to Methil, surely.”

  “Then why have you left the mind flayer behind?”

  “We found … an instrument,” Gromph explained, a grin undeniably spreading across his face.

  Matron Mother Quenthel looked at him curiously, and seemed not pleased by his cryptic response. “An instrument?”

  Gromph nodded. “So it would seem.”

  “An instrument to further the aims of the Spider Queen?”

  “Or one that was already used in that capacity,” said Gromph.

  “Do tell,” Quenthel remarked.

  “This is yet another of many moving parts,” Gromph replied. “Perhaps. Or perhaps not. It is astounding, is it not, how so many things have come full circle, to land back before us at this critical time?”

  The matron mother seemed initially as if she would shriek in rage at the continuing evasiveness of the archmage, but Quenthel, instead of bluntly verbally lashing out, paused and tilted her head.

  She was honestly considering the words, Gromph recognized, and he saw that as further evidence of the progress his once immature and weakling sister continued to make. Methil’s work implanting Yvonnel’s memories continued to amaze.

  “The son of Barrison Del’Armgo returned to us at precisely this time,” Gromph explained, “and bearing the sword of our slain brother, no less! Slain by the hand of the same heretic who once murdered you.”

  Quenthel’s eyes narrowed, but she was not angry with him, Gromph knew.

  “The same rogue who brought the recent scream from Lady Lolth, and to whom you have now properly and cleverly reacted by reconstituting his damned House.”

  “A rogue known to Jarlaxle,” Quenthel agreed. “Who is surely now caught in the web of Drizzt.”

  “You will force alliance from Matron Mez’Barris through manipulation of Tos’un, no doubt, as you glue the bondage of Matron Zeerith through Tsabrak and Saribel. And really, is there anything more facilitating than war to bring all of the Houses into line?”

  “And now another instrument, so you say,” Quenthel prompted.

  “So many seeming coincidences!” Gromph replied with dramatic flair. “That Jarlaxle brought to me the head of our dead mother, and that Methil El-Viddenvelp returned to haunt the caverns just outside of our home, that he and Yvonnel the Eternal could so aid us in this time of great upheaval. Are these fortuitous and random events? Or have the gods, or has Lady Lolth, so cleverly planned for this time of the Sundering?”

  “It is enough to make you wish that you were more devout, I expect,” Matron Mother Quenthel said slyly.

  Gromph laughed. “Devout enough, it would seem, given my current role in the Spider Queen’s spinning web.”

  Quenthel conceded that point with a nod. “And now another instrument, so you say,” she prompted again, a bit less patiently this time.

  “Perhaps.”

  “Do tell.”

  Gromph stared at her for a few moments, then shook his head. “When I am certain,” he answered, and Quenthel scowled.

  “There are too many moving parts in this great clockwork,” the archmage explained. “You need not bother with this other potential cogwheel at this time.”

  “It is not your place to determine what I should or should not bother with,” the matron mother warned.

  But Gromph merely smiled. “My play parallels your own,” he informed her, “as it was in the tunnels outside the city, when I took you to Methil. Go and pray, I beg, and you will see that my decision serves Lady Lolth best. You have a dangerous rival to coerce to your side, a House to reconstruct and a war to prepare, do you not? If this instrument I have found is deemed suitable for your needs, then I will reveal it to you, and indeed, trouble you with it. If not, then better that you are not distracted.”

  “You hide this from me for my own good?”

  “I hide nothing. I will not distract you until I am sure that the distraction is worthy of your time and thought.”

  He watched his sister closely as he spoke the words, thinking of how Quenthel would handle such a retort as compared to the expected reaction he would have received from Yvonnel.

  And indeed, Quenthel seemed to be working her way through an internal struggle at that moment, though she did well to keep her expression calm. Her long pause was telling, though.

  “A parallel play to a common goal, then,” she said at length, and rose to leave. “You will inform me when the illithid returns.”

  Gromph nodded and his sister—no, he couldn’t think of her as such at that moment, for indeed, she had answered as wise Yvonnel would have—and the Matron Mother of Menzoberranzan left his chamber.

  The intrusion of the tentacles did not disgust her as much, her revulsion diminishing with each session—sessions that were fast becoming commonplace, though Dahlia truly had little notion of the passing of time.

  She knew this place, she thought, as memories of the swirling sounds of the water elementals and the subtle thrum of the fire primordial in the pit before her brought her back to the days of Sylora Salm and the destruction of Neverwinter.

  She couldn’t quite sort it out.

  She knew the chamber was different, too, and she noted the many drow craftsmen and goblin workers rushing around, carrying metal. A ladder? A railing?

  Directly before her came a grinding sound of stone sliding on stone as the many goblin workers fitted the marble top of …


  Of what? A sarcophagus? An altar? A sacrificial table, perhaps? It was a smooth black stone, she noted, shot with red veins, like blood.

  Yes, like blood.

  Fleeting images, many of Dahlia’s memories, some of things she did not understand, crossed her mind as the room before her faded away, and she could not honestly recognize what the illithid was taking from her, or what it was offering to her.

  It was all a blur, and the throbbing pain of Methil’s work could not be denied.

  She heard herself screaming, but that, too, seemed distant, as if she was hearing the screams of some other woman in some other room being violated to the core of her very identity.

  She tried to thrash around, but the spiders had done their work well and the filaments held her in place, standing there, arms out wide as if staked.

  Helpless.

  At some point, she lost consciousness, overwhelmed by the intrusion, the horror, the confusion.

  “There!” Regis said triumphantly, holding forth a small piece of pottery he had created, like a tiny soup bowl.

  Wulfgar stared at the item for a few moments, then let his gaze drift past it to the elaborate set-up of smoking vials, metal tubing, and a small fire pit. Then he looked to Regis, his expression blank.

  “Magnificent, is it not?” the halfling teased.

  “It is not,” Wulfgar remarked. “I have seen old women fire clay with half the trouble, to create bowls one might actually use.”

  “Ah, because you do not understand. This is no ordinary pot.”

  “Perhaps for a chipmunk.”

  Regis sighed and returned the stare, and Wulfgar merely shrugged. Sitting at the side of the small room, Catti-brie gave a little chuckle, enjoying their banter.

  “Come and see,” Regis bade her.

  “See what?” Wulfgar asked him. “All this effort for a chipmunk bowl?”

 
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