Night of the Hunter by R. A. Salvatore

  She watched Catti-brie’s flight across the chamber, watched her stagger down to the floor, and Dahlia heard cheering in her thoughts even as her adversary heard the laughter of the Spider Queen.

  Dahlia slowed, and winced. She thought of Drizzt, and not just that last encounter on the mountainside, but of their lovemaking, of their adventuring together, of their friendship.

  She thought of Effron, and of how her companions—how her friends—had rescued her from him in the docked boat, and had then given her the time with him to heal their wounds.

  And now he was dead, her boy, killed by drow …

  But the memory shifted before she could complete the thought, before she could realize that the drow had done this terrible thing to her and to her son.

  And instead, that line of thought swerved, leaping through connections that suddenly made perfect sense to the elf warrior.

  Effron was dead because of Drizzt, because Drizzt had spurned her, and he had done so because of a ghost, because of this ghost, Catti-brie.

  This disciple of foul Mielikki.

  That last notion made little sense to Dahlia, who knew little of Mielikki and cared even less, but it didn’t matter. For now it all made perfect sense. Effron was dead because of Catti-brie; everything bad in Dahlia’s life was because of Catti-brie.

  And now she could find revenge. She charged. She planted her staff at the base of the altar stone and vaulted high into the air, screaming with unbridled glee and unbridled hatred.

  Catti-brie came up to her feet and spun around to meet that flying charge, and Dahlia, landing right in front of her, could have ended the fight immediately, could have released all the power stored in Kozah’s Needle in one mighty blast that would have melted the woman where she stood.

  But no, that would be too easy, too mercifully quick.

  Catti-brie deflected Dahlia’s stabbing staff aside, then came up and across horizontally, bow held wide in both hands, to block a powerful downward chop.

  The woman proved a decent fighter, parrying and angling her weapon appropriately to slide strikes harmlessly wide, but she was no match for Dahlia.

  And Catti-brie knew it. Dahlia could see it on her face. She knew she was overmatched.

  But she was not afraid.

  For a moment, that puzzled Dahlia, but only for a moment. She understood that Catti-brie was buying time, and was she calling again to the primordial for help?

  Dahlia drove on more ferociously, pounding her weapon heavily, driving Catti-brie back with each strike. And the woman was running out of room, closing in on the wall.

  Dahlia increased her tempo, swatting and stabbing, rushing ahead and forcing her enemy ever backward, and when Catti-brie’s back went against the wall, Dahlia swung mightily. Taulmaril came across to block, but as the weapons connected, Dahlia broke her staff in half, two equal lengths joined with a strong cord. The strike had been blocked above the halfway mark of the weapon, so that top half flew back over toward Dahlia as she drove the weapon down.

  She was ready for that, however, and she caught it, and now stabbed freely beneath the blocking blow.

  Catti-brie did well to drive her bow down to mitigate the attack, but as soon as Kozah’s Needle touched her chest, Dahlia released a bit of its energy, enough to jolt the woman against the wall, her head cracking hard into the stone.

  Dahlia retracted and dropped one of the two poles, then, confident that Catti-brie was too dazed to respond. She swung around in a full circuit, letting her weapon fly out to its full length and rejoining it into a single staff as she went. She came around with great speed and power and batted Taulmaril from Catti-brie’s hands, launching it into the remaining webbing at the corner of the chamber, just to the side of the sealed tunnel meant for Matron Zeerith.

  Hardly slowing, Dahlia slid one hand out wide and drove the staff sidelong before her, under the chin of slumping Catti-brie, lifting her up against the wall with Kozah’s Needle tight against her throat.

  Now it was personal, Dahlia thought, and she was pleased, and so was the voice in her head.

  Now she could feel the woman’s fear.

  Now she could feel the woman’s pain.

  Now she could watch the light go out in Catti-brie’s blue eyes. “Now,” Dahlia said, hardly aware of the words, “Mielikki will lose.” And Dahlia was happy.

  Wulfgar pounded at the door while Regis crawled around the adamantine arch above it, looking for a lock or clasp or something that might spring whatever was holding it closed.

  Bruenor, however, looked inside himself. He noted Afafrenfere, nodding his way in encouragement, then closed his eyes and sent his thoughts back to the Throne of the Dwarven Gods.

  He heard the song of Moradin, the roar of Clangeddin, the whispers of Dumathoin.

  He opened his eyes and moved for the door, nudging Wulfgar out of the way. He begged silence from Clangeddin, and begged for wisdom from Moradin.

  Then he focused on the whispers, the secrets.

  This was still Gauntlgrym, he was told, whatever the dark elves might be doing to deface the complex. This was still the realm of the dwarves, ever on and always before. The dressings on the door mattered not.

  Not the black bas relief of foul Lolth nor the adamantine arch.

  No, this was the same door, crafted of dwarf hands, set in stone by dwarf smiths, by Bruenor’s ancestors.

  He put his hand against the mithral.

  He was friend here, royal of blood, noble of deed, he told the door, told the spiritual remnants the ancient dwarf craftsmen had imbued here with their love of their craft.

  He was friend to Gauntlgrym, and this place remained Gauntlgrym.

  The door itself seemed to breathe with life, the seal breaking as the portal swung outward.

  And Bruenor charged in, Wulfgar and Regis close behind.

  Catti-brie couldn’t respond. She couldn’t draw breath. The staff, crackling with power, crushed in against her windpipe. Her eyes bulged and she grabbed the staff in both hands, inside Dahlia’s grasp, and tried to push back.

  But Catti-brie was in an awkward position, her head bent slightly by a jag in the wall, and she hadn’t the strength to push Dahlia away, nor the mobility to even twist her neck enough to get the press off of her windpipe.

  And there was another power in the staff: a dark energy that she could feel as tangibly as the metal of Kozah’s Needle. She thought of the altar, pulsing as if alive, and the feeling of weakness and sickness as she had stepped upon it flashed in her now-fleeting thoughts.

  Now fleeting because she was falling away. The edges of her vision darkened.

  She thought of Drizzt and wished she had said goodbye, but she was at peace because she knew that she had done Mielikki’s bidding, that she and the Companions of the Hall had saved him.

  In that notion, Lolth might win now, but Catti-brie had done as the goddess had bade …

  A sharp recoil sounded in Catti-brie’s mind, a shout of “No!” as profound as if she had screamed the word aloud.

  This was not about Drizzt. Not now.

  This was about Mielikki and Lolth.

  This was about Catti-brie and Dahlia, proxies for the titanic struggle. Catti-brie could not be content with her efforts atop Kelvin’s Cairn. Who would Drizzt be without her? How could he withstand a broken heart yet again?

  Or Bruenor, her Da? Or Wulfgar or Regis?

  She could not, must not, surrender until the end. She could not be satisfied with past victories when present battles raged.

  She had but a fleeting moment of consciousness left, and in that instant, she recalled Dahlia’s drop from the webbing, when the elf warrior had broken this strange staff in half across her shoulders.

  Catti-brie’s fingers played along the length of the metal pole; she sent the last vestiges of her conscious thoughts into that weapon to find its secrets.

  Then she pushed out with every bit of strength she had left, a last, desperate gasp and grasp for life, and as she di
d, she tried to drive her head forward, meeting the press, and as she did, her fingers found the secret of Kozah’s Needle and she released the staff into two parts.

  The break of the weapon released her, so suddenly, and her head snapped forward, her forehead crashing against startled Dahlia’s nose, slamming the woman backward in a stagger, and in that awkward shuffle, her staff, the focus of her balance, suddenly broken in two, Dahlia couldn’t hold on.

  Catti-brie, her teeth chattering from the sheer power contained within the weapon, yanked Kozah’s Needle from Dahlia’s grasp and drove the ends back together, trying to hold on to it.

  She looked at Dahlia then, blood running down the elf’s face from her shattered nose, and an expression on her face that Catti-brie couldn’t begin to comprehend.

  As soon as she had inadvertently let go of the weapon, a staff teeming with the imbued dark energies of the altar, Dahlia’s connection to the darkness had diminished, just a bit, and beside those feelings of hatred for Catti-brie, of blame for the death of Effron, came the gentle images of Drizzt once more and the companions she had known, and the sea journey where Effron and she had found peace.

  She thought of Drizzt and tried to reach for him more fully, but could not hold, his image fading from her to be replaced, to her surprise, by one she suddenly realized as more dear.

  By the image of Artemis Entreri. She heard his words to her, of comfort in his own way, but of understanding.

  And in them, the whisper of a better way and a better life, the distant whisper of hope itself.

  And the turmoil of Dahlia, the great paradox of love and hate that had twined together throughout her life, that had carried her through murderous battles with her every lover, shocked her and infused doubt against the red wall of outrage.

  She felt Alegni’s violation once more, saw the murder of her mother, threw her infant baby from the cliff. Szass Tam leered at her, her dying lovers cried out for mercy she would not afford them.

  The cackles of Lolth met the sobs of broken Dahlia.

  She didn’t know what to do, a voice screaming in her head to launch herself back at Catti-brie, a wound in her heart telling her to fall down and cry. She stumbled back from the wall and turned and had to get out of there, had to get away from this woman she faced, from the awful truth of herself and her miserable life.

  She started to run for the far exit, the tunnel to the Forge, but in rushed the red-bearded dwarf, the huge barbarian, and the clever halfling—the other ghosts that haunted Drizzt Do’Urden, the other companions returned to life to stand with Drizzt against the dark lady.

  Against Lolth.

  Against wretched Dahlia.

  Yes, wretched Dahlia, she knew, and she let out a cry, part anger, part remorse, part profound sadness, and she turned to her right, to the pit and thought to leap in and be done with the pain.

  She took a running stride, but a sharp voice in her head denied her.

  No! came the order she could not resist, the order from Lolth, the order relayed through Methil, hidden invisibly across the way, who spoke for Lolth.

  Dahlia skidded to a stop and whirled around, then sprinted for the one remaining opening, the entrance to the sealed tunnel meant to serve as Matron Zeerith’s chamber.

  The remaining webs parted for her, and in her mind, she knew that the magical wall of iron would be dispelled, freeing her to the lower tunnels, saving her to fight and win another day.

  Catti-brie watched the woman’s run, and saw her companions entering the chamber, but only distantly did those images register. Her focus had to be the staff, Kozah’s Needle, and the tremendous power contained within, curling tendrils of energy that battled her as surely as Dahlia had battled her. Her own lightning from Taulmaril arced and ran around the weapon, combining with the dark powers from the altar, and within those black energies lived a flicker of the Spider Queen, a conduit to the mind of the dark Demon Queen of Spiders.

  In that staff, Catti-brie heard the thoughts of Dahlia, the telepathic exchange between the elf and the goddess. She felt the turmoil, the battle, light and dark, and she knew that Dahlia meant to end her struggle by leaping into the pit even before she saw Dahlia turn that way.

  And Catti-brie, too, heard the denial, the darkness refuting Dahlia, the darkness dominating Dahlia, and as Dahlia spun around and rushed into the second tunnel, Catti-brie felt her hope for freedom that she could turn again upon Drizzt and his friends as an agent of Lolth.

  Catti-brie could hardly hold the staff, and she, too, turned for the primordial pit, thinking to feed the god-like primordial beast this tainted weapon.

  But mercy stopped her, mercy for Dahlia and her dismayed realization that Dahlia had lost and Dahlia was lost, and this realization turned her back fast the other way.

  Kozah’s Needle, teeming with power, flew spear-like into the tunnel behind the retreating Dahlia. It hit the wall just inside, and the resulting explosion shook the ground with the power of an earthquake, and as she tumbled down, Catti-brie feared that she had just broken the whole of the place, and perhaps had freed the primordial.



  DRIZZT AND ENTRERI RAN ALONG THE BACK CORRIDOR, PASSING THE lava tube, an open tunnel to their left, a wall of iron blocking the passage to their right.

  They paid it no heed, other than to use it as a guide-point in their rush to rejoin the others in the Forge.

  But then they were flying, falling, tumbling, as a great retort rumbled all around them, dust and stones bursting out from their left, from around the magical wall of stone. Pelted and bounced around, the two crashed in across the way, Entreri several steps into the open lava tube.

  “The beast,” Drizzt breathed, picking himself up from the ground. On he ran, Entreri, his limp noticeably more pronounced, struggling to keep up.

  Entering the brightly lit Forge, Drizzt first noted Brother Afafrenfere leaning on the open mithral door on legs surely wobbly. He called out to the monk, who looked his way and pointed emphatically down the tunnel.

  Drizzt never slowed, turning in fast, Entreri hustling close behind.

  The two came into the primordial chamber, Drizzt leading and skidding to a stop as he took in the remarkable scene: the webbing, the dead green spider, the altar block, the pile of magma near the ledge, and the Companions of the Hall, standing together before a pile of collapsed rubble—right at the entrance to the lava tube, Drizzt knew.

  Catti-brie leaned heavily on Bruenor, looking dazed and weak and covered with dust, and Drizzt ran to her with all speed.

  “We found yer Dahlia,” Bruenor said to him, nodding to the rubble.

  Drizzt sucked in his breath. Entreri, who had heard, ran by him to the rubble pile and began hopping all around the broken stones and dust, shoving some aside.

  “Dahlia!” he yelled and he threw a rock at the rubble and spun back on the others. “What did you do?”

  Drizzt pulled Catti-brie closer, expecting Entreri to leap at her, but the woman straightened, stepped away from him, and lifted her chin resolutely. “She was not the elf you once knew,” she said confidently. “She was possessed of a demon. She would hear no reason.”

  Entreri picked up another stone, swung around, and threw it with all his might into the pile. He sat down there, as if his legs had simply collapsed beneath him, staring at the stone.

  “We should be leaving,” Regis remarked. “Did you find the dwarf?”

  Drizzt never stopped looking at Catti-brie or at the burn and bruise across her throat. “She is close behind, and with others we freed, as well,” he answered. “And yes, it is time to go, and with all speed.”

  He took Catti-brie by the shoulders then, and pushed her past him to the waiting support of Wulfgar. He nodded to his friends, and they started back for the Forge.

  “We have to go,” Drizzt said to Entreri a few moments later, moving near to the man and bending low beside him.

  “Then go,” Entreri replied.

  “There is nothing here for you.”

  Entreri looked up at him, and the assassin’s crestfallen expression spoke to Drizzt before Entreri corrected the assertion with, “There is nothing for me.”

  “There is always something.”

  “Go, drow,” Entreri said. “Your place is with your friends.”

  “You will find …” Drizzt started to say, but Entreri cut him short. “Go,” he said more firmly, and he turned back to the wall of broken stone.

  Drizzt let his stare linger for a bit longer, but really had nothing more he could say. He rose, patting Entreri on the shoulder, and started away.

  “I will never forget that you came for me, Drizzt Do’Urden,” Entreri called after him, and for some reason he didn’t quite yet understand, those words filled Drizzt’s heart.

  By the time he got back to the Forge, Drizzt found Ambergris and the three freed humans with the others. Catti-brie had no spells available to help the cursed dwarf, but Regis reached into his magical pouch and produced a potion he thought might be of use, and indeed, before the group of ten had even started off, Ambergris was already speaking once more, and nonstop as she recounted her adventures to any who would listen.

  “Gutbuster,” Regis whispered to Drizzt and Bruenor, nodding his chin at the recovering female dwarf. “I figured that it could cut through any sickly venom.”

  “Bwahaha,” Bruenor laughed, and Drizzt was glad of his own smile. He was thinking of Dahlia, and with a heavy heart, and thinking of Entreri, with great sympathy.

  Ambergris moved over to her dear friend Afafrenfere and placed her thick hand on his forehead as she began her chant, calling upon her god to infuse the battered man with healing warmth and strength.

  Afafrenfere stood taller almost immediately and nodded his gratitude.

  “I’ve some more magic prepared,” the cleric offered.

  “Use it upon yourself, then,” said Regis, breaking away from Bruenor and Drizzt. “I’m not sure how long my potion will hold back the curse of the drow.”

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