Night of the Hunter by R. A. Salvatore

  Not a dwarf moved, but many sets of disappointed eyes stared back at him. He had just called for them to abandon their home, something no dwarf was ever wont to do.

  “We’ll be back!” Stokely promised. “And we’ll have the garrisons of the towns and a horde o’ barbarians aside us! Don’t ye doubt!”

  Several dwarves began to nod.

  “Now get ye going!” Stokely ordered, and that broke the trance, and all began to scramble.

  But then the darkness came, blinding them all, and even the lightning bolts sizzling through the magical blackness and the brilliant, flaming bursts of fireballs could not be seen.

  But surely felt.

  Stokely Silverstream and Brimble staggered into a side room to catch their breath.

  “Junky’s down,” Brimble said. She leaned on a chair by the door off the main corridor, while Stokely raced across the room to a second door. He cracked it open.

  “Way’s clear,” he said, turning back to face her. “This’d be a better run to the front door.” Even as he spoke the words, they stung him profoundly. His group had been routed and scattered in and about the throne room, overwhelmed by the dark elven magic and spinning blades in the darkness.

  Now it was every dwarf for himself, something no clan leader ever wanted to face.

  He knew Brimble’s words to be true. Junky and some others had been catching up, but, alas, they hadn’t made it. Now the best Stokely could hope for was to get out of the complex and round up some reinforcements to try to take it back.

  But even that didn’t exactly inspire, for how many of his dwarves would be left to inhabit the place?

  Yes, it seemed to Stokely Silverstream in that dark moment that the centuries-long domain of Clan Battlehammer in Icewind Dale had come to its end.

  “Come on, then,” he called.

  Brimble just stared at him, unblinking.

  “Lass?” he asked and took a step toward her.

  He stopped fast when a pair of dark elves pushed in through the door behind Brimble, a male and a female, both superbly outfitted, particularly the male, whose sword and shield both glistened, nearly translucent, and seemed as if they had captured the very stars within their depths.

  “Where will you run, dwarf?” the male drow asked, stepping past Brimble without a care, and only then did Stokely fully appreciate that his dear cleric friend had fallen victim to a spell she often used, and was magically, fully, held in place.

  The drow warrior lifted his sword out to the side, in line with poor Brimble’s throat. “Run, then,” he bade Stokely. “She will feel the pain, I assure you, and she will die slowly.”

  “Save yourself—perhaps you will get away,” said the female, moving up to cruelly stroke Brimble’s hair. Her command of the surface language was not so strong, and her accent thick, so that it took Stokely a few heartbeats to decipher her words.

  “But you will know that you fled and left your friend to die,” the male added, “until the darkness of death mercifully releases you from your private torment.”

  Stokely Silverstream turned back from the door and banged his axe against his shield. “Come on, then,” he bade the drow warrior as he stepped back toward the middle of the room. “Or are ye too a’feared to fight me alone?”

  “I?” the drow asked, moving forward to meet the challenge. “Do you not know who I am, dwarf?”

  Stokely leaped ahead, axe swinging as he went for the quick kill—which would be his only chance to save Brimble and hustle her away, obviously.

  The drow’s shield seemed to roll around, and each circuit made it larger, and though Stokely had aimed to drop his axe over the top of the blocker, by the time it connected, the shield was large enough to fully defeat the attack.

  Stokely fell off to that side, his right, and tucked his own shield in tight to block the stab of the drow’s sword.

  The fine magical blade cut right through a wooden plank, but the adamantine bands of the shield held—just barely, Stokely realized as he disengaged and glanced down. One of the bands had been cut halfway across.

  “I have killed a balor at the gates of the city,” the drow boasted, just as Stokely began his next advance. “Is the name of Tiago so quickly forgotten?”

  That stopped the dwarf in his tracks.

  “Yes, dwarf,” the drow went on. “Tiago, friend of Drizzt.”

  “No friend of Drizzt!” the dwarf declared. “Drizzt is friend to Clan Bat—nay, Drizzt is of Clan Battlehammer!”

  In he charged, axe swinging and chopping wildly as he moved through his best attack routines. At one point, he cut his weapon viciously across, and let himself get pulled in the wake. He came around with his shield angled sidelong to strike at the drow if he tried to advance behind the axe cut, then came all the way around, ready to strike again.

  But the drow was gone, and Stokely wisely threw himself forward, barely avoiding the stabbing sword.

  “Nay, foolish dwarf,” said the drow who had been quick enough to get out to the side halfway through Stokely’s pirouette. “Drizzt is of House Do’Urden, ever of House Do’Urden, ever of Menzoberranzan!”

  And now the drow came on, pressing the attack, his sword stabbing forward in rapid succession as he powerfully advanced.

  Stokely could only hope his shield would hold as he blocked the repeated thrusts and stepped back furiously. Finally he caught his balance enough to counter, and out went his axe with all his considerable strength behind it. It creased into the drow’s shield, but to Stokely, it seemed more like he had struck a feather mattress, for the blow did not sound or feel sharp, but muted.

  He couldn’t begin to fathom the material of that shield, and his confusion became even more complete when he tried to pull the blade back but found it stuck fast.

  He hesitated, staring blankly.

  A drow sword slashed against his extended elbow, and Stokely let go of his weapon and retracted the torn arm.

  On came the drow and up went Stokely’s shield, and the dwarf’s mind whirled as he considered how he might retrieve his axe, still stuck fast to that curious shield, or wondered where he might flee to gain another weapon—perhaps he could pull Brimble’s mace from her frozen hand.

  Or perhaps, he quickly understood, he could do no such thing.

  The drow came on with such a fury that Stokely could not dodge left or right, or even retreat after the few steps he took that put his back up against the room’s wall. And there, trapped, he tried to cover, but this one was too proficient, too skilled, and too well-armed.

  Stokely blocked a series of sudden, powerful thrusts that cracked and flecked the wood of his shield, and a pair of heavy downward chops that creased the adamantine ring that bound the materials in place. Another thrust got through the breaking blocker and severed one of the arm straps that secured it to Stokely’s forearm, and cut a nice line in the dwarf’s sleeve and skin as well!

  The shield fell to pieces. Stokely threw it at the drow, and threw himself at the drow behind it.

  He felt the burning explosion of the sword slash across his face in mid-leap, and reached out as he descended, determined to grab hold of the drow.

  But Tiago was already off to the side, and Stokely landed and staggered and groped at the empty air.

  The next explosion knocked the dwarf’s helm free, and cracked the back of his skull, adding to the angle of his forward lean and to his momentum, and he pitched headlong to the stone floor, pitched headlong into darkness.

  And so the Battle of Kelvin’s Cairn did end, and Tiago Baenre could rightfully claim victory.

  But it was a hollow cheer, the noble drow knew as his kin began looting and rounding up the new-found slaves, for Drizzt Do’Urden was nowhere to be found.

  And Jearth Xorlarrin, Weapons Master of Q’Xorlarrin, remained very much dead.



  THE GRIN ON GROMPH BAENRE’S FACE DID LITTLE TO CALM THE ARMGO nobles standing around the throne of Matro
n Mez’Barris. “The husband of Minolin Fey graces us with his presence,” High Priestess Taayrul announced to her Matron, and Gromph understood that the sleight had certainly been practiced by Taayrul and approved by Mez’Barris. Taayrul was a sniveling little witch, after all, and would never expose herself to the wrath of Gromph without her powerful mother’s blessing, and indeed, demand.

  “By the determination of Lady Lolth herself,” Gromph replied, and lightly, as if taking the insult without a care. “I would be a poor servant to ignore the Spider Queen’s direct command, and a fool to ignore her determination that my child will be favored.”

  “Child?” Matron Mez’Barris asked.

  Gromph merely smiled wider.

  “Then you will elevate Minolin Fey to Matron of House Baenre, perhaps,” Mez’Barris pressed. “Now that your sister Sos’Umptu has moved on to serve in House Do’Urden, the path to ascent seems rather simple.”

  “The path to ascent would go through Matron Mother Quenthel,” Gromph replied. “Hardly simple, for there is no more difficult path to walk in all of Menzoberranzan.”

  “Difficult, yes, but we have a way.”

  Gromph matched the matron’s sly look with a smirk and chuckle, which had the ever-wary Priestess Taayrul staring hard at him, and across from her, Weapons Master Malagdorl, an impulsive oaf, even took a threatening step Gromph’s way, his hand going to his sword hilt.

  “You have already had this discussion with Priestess Minolin,” Gromph said.

  “Are we to pretend that our many plans never happened?”

  “That would be wise, yes.”

  “Or perhaps I will go to Matron Mother Quenthel and tell her of your designs against her,” Matron Mez’Barris warned.

  “Yes, let us go forthwith,” Gromph casually replied, and that had the nobles of Barrison Del’Armgo whispering and looking at him curiously. “Or better, perhaps …” The archmage paused and began some spellcasting.

  Malagdorl drew his weapon, Taayrul began to pray and Matron Mez’Barris leaped from her chair at the affront. To enter the audience chamber of a rival House and cast a spell unbidden by, and in the presence of, the matron …

  Gromph paused and looked at Mez’Barris incredulously. He shifted his gaze just a bit to the side, to Malagdorl, and the archmage’s smile reappeared, and this time it was one threatening a sudden and brutal death.

  “You don’t need to be so on edge, Matron of Barrison Del’Armgo,” Gromph assured her. “Though if your weapons master advances another stride, you will need to replace him.”

  Matron Mez’Barris glared at her impetuous son and hissed at him until he moved back beside the throne and sheathed his great sword.

  “This is a time of unity,” Gromph explained. “View every step the matron mother has recently taken through that prism, and you will see the reasoning of her design.”

  “Will House Melarn agree with that assessment?”

  “House Melarn?” Gromph asked innocently, and Mez’Barris narrowed her eyes. She wanted to call him out, the archmage knew, but she could not. If she elaborated on the affront to House Melarn, she would, at the same time, be admitting that House Melarn had put those soldiers and driders into the abandoned and sequestered House Do’Urden in clear violation of the orders of the Ruling Council.

  She would even be hinting at her own complicity in creating the garrison the Baenre’s had cleared from that restricted House, for surely there were Barrison Del’Armgo soldiers among that garrison. Such open secrets could never be admitted, even if all knew the truth.

  “The Melarni ascend to the Sixth House with the departure of the Xorlarrins,” Gromph replied. “That will satisfy eager Matron Zhindia.”

  “They are more powerful than Houses ranked higher, and they are more devout,” Mez’Barris reminded him.

  “If Matron Zhindia is as devout as you claim—and I do not dispute that,” he quickly added, seeing Mez’Barris’s scowl, “then she will know that the Spider Queen will not sanction any inter-House warfare at this time. Indeed, should she move against Fey-Branche, she will find Houses Mizzrym and Faen Tlabbar allied with her enemy.”

  The matron scowled more profoundly, clearly anticipating Gromph’s next remark.

  “And all of them allied with House Baenre,” he stated. “Our entire might will turn against House Melarn, and destroy Zhindia’s family as fully as Matron Mother Yvonnel destroyed House Oblodra in the Time of Troubles. Do not doubt that the Spider Queen would favor this.”

  “Have you come here to threaten—”

  “Quite the opposite, Matron.” Gromph cut her short and offered a bow as he spoke. When he came up, he lifted his arms in the same pose as when he was spellcasting earlier. He froze there and looked to Matron Mez’Barris for permission to continue.

  Malagdorl was already leaning forward again, his face a scowl, and how Gromph wanted to simply make him vanish, to obliterate him to nothingness.

  The archmage remembered that he was an ambassador here and settled for the fantasy of melting the impudent weapons master.

  Matron Mez’Barris held up her hand to hold Malagdorl back, then motioned for Gromph to continue.

  The archmage began to chant softly. His fingers glowed with black energy and he drew a doorway in front of him, trailing lines of blackness as substantial as if he had been painting on a canvas.

  The completed lines shimmered and sparked and bled blackness within the square Gromph had drawn, until the whole shimmered like a curtain, a black portal.

  Mez’Barris and her children and all the Armgo guards stood ready, many glancing around as if expecting an open portal to the Abyss itself, as if expecting a horde of demons to come roaring into their audience chamber.

  But it was no horde, just a solitary figure, and that figure was not demonic, but was, rather, a drow, a female drow: the Matron Mother of Menzoberranzan.

  In glancing around, it occurred to perceptive Gromph that the nobles of this Second House looking at the spectacle of Matron Mother Quenthel would have been less shocked if it had been the demon horde instead.

  “Matron Mez’Barris, am I welcomed in your home this day?” the matron mother asked.

  The Matron of Barrison Del’Armgo stared at her arch-rival, not knowing what to make of any of this. She swallowed hard as her gaze slipped to the portal, still shimmering, still open. Her expression revealed her fear: Was there a Baenre army ready to pour through at the matron mother’s command?

  “Of course, Matron Mother, if you come in the name of the Spider Queen,” Mez’Barris properly replied.

  “I am the Matron Mother of Menzoberranzan,” Quenthel imperiously replied. “Where I go, so goes the Spider Queen, in name and in heart.”

  “Y-yes, Matron Mother,” Mez’Barris replied, stammering just a bit in surprise, and she wisely lowered her gaze.

  Quenthel’s assertion of power had hit the perfect tone, Gromph understood, and he did well to hide his grin.

  “There is no threat here, Matron of Barrison Del’Armgo,” the matron mother said. “I am here in solidarity and alliance. We look outward now—the Spider Queen will not accept intrigue among her matrons. Not now. You are under House Baenre’s protection.”

  Gromph held his breath at that explosive remark, and he saw the expressions of Mez’Barris and her two children tightening immediately, yet again.

  “We do not need Baenre’s protection,” the proud Mez’Barris retorted, but Quenthel went on undeterred.

  “And House Baenre is under yours,” she said, stealing her counterpart’s bluster.

  Indeed, Matron Mez’Barris stammered indecipherably for a few moments.

  Now Gromph did smile, and almost chuckled. Quenthel was playing her. She had moved Mez’Barris to a place of pride and stolen it away with her own humility in the course of two simple sentences!

  “We go to war, Matron Mez’Barris,” the matron mother said, squaring her shoulders to reflect the gravity of the declaration. “Tsabrak Xorlarrin prepares th
e battlefield, and House Do’Urden will lead the march from Menzoberranzan and Q’Xorlarrin.”

  “Your mother went this way before,” Matron Mez’Barris warned.

  “I am painfully aware of that,” the matron mother replied, the personal reference a reminder that she, Quenthel, had been slain on that very adventure.

  “Your mother sent forth the greatest army Menzoberranzan has dispatched in the modern age, and we returned wounded, one and all.”

  “A mistake that will not be replayed,” Quenthel assured her. “Our force will be modest this time, for no great drow army is needed in the coming battle.”

  Mez’Barris and the others looked at her curiously. “What goal …?” Mez’Barris started to ask.

  “We have a vast army already assembled and awaiting our lead,” the matron mother explained. “A kingdom of orcs, entrenched upon the land, that will sweep down upon the peoples of the cities and citadels in the region known as the Silver Marches. Woe to the dwarves in the mines who turned us back a century ago, and woe upon their fellows in two nearby citadels as well. Woe to the darthiir, the elves in the Moonwood, and woe to the great cities of Sundabar and Silverymoon.”

  “Grand claims.”

  “An army of tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands,” Quenthel told her. “An army that was put in place for just this day. An army waiting for us to come and prod it forward.”

  “And so we will march,” Mez’Barris said. “A collection of all the Houses, or of Do’Urden alone?”

  “House Do’Urden is a creation of the Spider Queen’s bite,” the matron mother explained. “For Lady Lolth, this action is personal, a stab at the heart of a fellow goddess. All the Houses will send representatives. I would expect proud Barrison Del’Armgo to complement the warrior ranks. That is at your discretion, of course, though I tell you openly that House Baenre will be well-represented.”

  “By Sos’Umptu, who will lead this force,” Mez’Barris reasoned, but Quenthel shook her head.

  “Sos’Umptu will not go,” the matron mother said firmly. “She leads House Do’Urden in the interim only, directing Bregan D’aerthe in their work to reclaim the House. We will determine suitable leaders for this force we send, but among them …” She paused and smiled.

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