Night of the Hunter by R. A. Salvatore


  “Curse o’ the damned drow,” Bruenor muttered beside Drizzt, who nodded.

  “Don’t like seein’ ’em here, elf,” the dwarf went on. “Yerself excepted, o’ course.”

  “Of course,” Drizzt agreed with a grin.

  Bruenor started to reply, but stopped short, and a curious expression crossed his face. He held up his hand to halt Drizzt’s forthcoming question, and turned to the Great Forge.

  “Bruenor?” Drizzt asked after a long while had passed, the dwarf just standing there, staring.

  Without a word, Bruenor started across the room, for the forge. When he got there, he laid his axe, helm, and shield atop the metal tray leading to the closed oven doors. He looked around, ignoring the questions from Drizzt, and found a pole with a hooked tip and a pair of long tongs.

  The others joined the pair then, Catti-brie and Wulfgar similarly asking what Bruenor might be up to, but still the dwarf ignored them all. He reached along the tray, between the blocking walls, with the hooked pole and used it to pull open the heavy oven door.

  Inside, the primal fire burned angrily, and Bruenor nodded and smiled.

  Then he rushed around, collecting the tools he’d need.

  “We haven’t the time,” Drizzt said to him when he figured it out.

  “Hold the room,” the dwarf answered, and distantly, his tone brooking no debate.

  “Bruenor?”

  “Just ye hold the room, elf!” the dwarf demanded. He looked past Drizzt to the others. “All o’ ye!”

  “We have injured,” Catti-brie reminded him. “And innocents. Every moment we delay …”

  The dwarf looked at her soberly.

  “We have to g—” Catti-brie started to insist, but she stopped short and stared at the opened oven, and heard the call of the primordial. “The axe,” she told the dwarf. “And the helm …”

  Catti-brie looked to Bruenor, her expression suddenly one of excitement. To the horror of the others, she hopped up onto the tray and stepped between the guard walls, where it should have been too hot for any person to venture, and reached down to pick up the dwarf’s implements.

  “Girl!” Bruenor said with alarm.

  Catti-brie glanced back with a wide smile, holding Bruenor’s axe. She tossed it into the oven.

  “Girl!” the dwarf cried and the others, too, gasped.

  And in went the dwarf’s shield, which was mostly made of wood, like the axe handle—and surely the primordial fires would eat it to nothingness.

  Catti-brie held up the helm and inspected it. It was made of metal, one horn sticking out one side, set into a metal holding circlet, and the stub of a horn sticking out the other. Two rubies were set one above the other in the front, and Catti-brie focused on these, the others could tell, as she began to softly chant.

  “Prepare yourself, and quickly,” she told the dwarf. “Your hammer and mithral plating.”

  “Girl?”

  “Listen to them,” Catti-brie said to him. “To Dumathoin. He knows.” Bruenor closed his eyes and fell within himself, and pictured the throne, remembering the sensation, the sounds of the gods.

  Like Catti-brie, he began to chant, but while hers was a mixture of songs, the melody of Mielikki and the foreign sounds of the Plane of Fire, his was the dwarven brogue, the song of workers and miners, an ancient song that had once echoed off these very halls, in ages lost to the world.

  Catti-brie kissed the rubies on the helm and tossed it into the oven. She turned to Bruenor and motioned to the tongs, and the dwarf handed them to her. She turned and reached in, and dragged back the many-notched axe.

  Its handle was smoking a bit, but seemed, amazingly, unharmed.

  Catti-brie picked it up, examining the glowing metal head. She put it down before Bruenor, who began sprinkling it with silver flakes, then tap-tapped with a hammer, singing all the while.

  Next came the shield, and the wood seemed a bit darker, but again unharmed, and the metal band around its edge glowed, and the relief of the foaming mug standard seemed to somehow have more depth to it. Catti-brie considered it for a moment, then laughed and cast an enchantment upon it as she put it beside Bruenor’s work table.

  Bruenor had just gotten to work on that shield, reinforcing the bands, when the woman pulled forth the glowing helm, and those rubies set in the front sparkled most of all, and indeed, small flames burned clearly within them. The horns seemed untouched, as did the leather inset of the item.

  Catti-brie didn’t put this down beside Bruenor’s worktable. There was no need. She dipped it in the forge’s water tray to cool it, hot steam shooting up with an angry hiss.

  Then, as Bruenor continued his song and his work, the woman plopped the helm atop his head.

  And Bruenor’s face lit up with profound joy and he hoisted his axe.

  And he sang, and tossed mithral flakes all around him.

  The rubies glowed and Bruenor heard their call. He uttered a word that he did not understand, though Catti-brie surely did, and she nodded as the rubies flared with mounting inner fire.

  The head of Bruenor’s axe burst into flames.

  Not flames to eat the weapon, though, but to enhance it, adding the enchantment of flametongue to an axe that had already known hundreds of battles.

  Bruenor slid his shield over his other arm and extinguished the axe’s fires with a thought.

  “Now we can go, elf,” he said, as if coming out of a trance. “Aye, now we can go.”

  Drizzt looked over to Ambergris, who was shaking her head in clear awe of the scene before her. He tapped her on the shoulder and pointed across the way, to the huge, broken drider and the weapon lying on the ground in front of it.

  With a squeal, Amber Gristle O’Maul ran across to retrieve her beloved Skullcrusher, and when she returned, she looked to Bruenor and to the oven pleadingly.

  “No, girl,” the dwarf said. “Not now. I’m not for knowin’ what just happened, but ‘tweren’t no simple bit o’ smithin’.”

  “It was a gift,” Catti-brie said. “To you. A gift of the dwarf gods, a gift from Gauntlgrym.” She paused and matched intense stares with her dwarf father. “And it was a request.”

  Bruenor nodded. “Aye. A deal I’m glad to make.”

  “A request?” Regis and Wulfgar asked together.

  “We’ve a long road,” Bruenor replied, and started away. “And one that just got longer.”

  The others followed, Drizzt bringing up the rear of the line.

  He looked back several times, toward the primordial chamber, thinking of Dahlia, thinking of Entreri. Truly the death of the elf woman stung him—more than he would have expected. Perhaps he had never really loved her—certainly not as he loved Catti-brie—but he had cared for her, and deeply.

  She was at peace, he hoped. At long last, perhaps Dahlia had found peace.

  And Entreri’s last words to him rang in his head and in his heart. He wished that the man was leaving with them, out of this place and back to their own place.

  But Drizzt took heart, confident in this one’s skill and resourcefulness, certain that he would see Artemis Entreri again.

  EPILOGUE

  THE WONDROUS THINGS I HAVE WITNESSED, GROMPH BAENRE HEARD in his mind, and the thought had been offered with excitement. That alone alerted the archmage that something tremendous indeed had occurred, for when had he ever known an illithid to show excitement?

  He felt a further communication, a request that he go to Methil with all haste, and with the matron mother. Normally, the archmage would have ignored such a request, but the excitement in Methil’s thoughts had surely intrigued him.

  Within a short while, he and Quenthel joined the illithid in the anteroom of the primordial chamber.

  “My elemental?” he asked at once, with surprise and alarm. “Where is the guard?”

  “Destroyed,” Methil replied in his watery voice. The mind flayer’s tentacles waved toward the archway and the bridge beyond, motioning them out.

  T
he matron mother was no less alarmed, and surely more horrified, when she crossed through the steam and mist to witness the defilement of the chapel. One jade spider was missing, the other lying inverted and quite destroyed back the other way, by the tunnel to the Forge. And most of the webs were gone, the floor beneath the remaining strands littered with the crispy bodies of scores of burned spiders.

  “What is this sacrilege?” Matron Mother Quenthel demanded, and Gromph looked to Methil for an explanation.

  “The battle of gods,” Gromph answered his sister a moment later, his voice full of incredulity. He lifted his gaze above the altar stone, to the missing centerpiece of this sacred chapel.

  “The darthiir sacrifice,” he mumbled.

  Both he and Quenthel looked to the cave-in as Methil telepathically relayed the images of the last moments of the battle. The illithid started for the pile, the other two in tow. He held up one arm to Gromph, who joined hands with the creature.

  Gromph nodded as Methil silently explained.

  “What is it?” Matron Mother Quenthel demanded.

  Gromph offered her his hand. “Come,” he bade her.

  Quenthel hesitated, looking at him and particularly at that strange mind flayer, suspiciously. When Gromph didn’t retract his offered hand, though, she took it, and immediately she felt strange, lighter.

  “Whatever you do, do not let go,” Gromph solemnly warned as Methil led the way to the pile—and into it.

  Quenthel did well not to cry out in revulsion and fear as her less than corporeal form slipped through the stones and dirt. Not between them, as a priestess or mage might do with some wraithform spell, but through them, as if her own corporality and that of the stones had somehow moved into different dimensions.

  She could feel the stones slipping through her, and it was not a comfortable sensation.

  When they came into an open area past the pile, the closed chamber was too dark even for drow lowlight vision. With a few words and a wave of his hand, Gromph created a muted red light. They were about halfway along the tunnel, the archmage estimated, glancing at his magically created metal wall a bit farther along.

  “What is that?” he heard the matron mother say and he looked back, to see that Methil had collected something in their strange journey.

  “The darthiir’s staff,” Gromph said, taking Kozah’s Needle, then handing it to his sister.

  Methil pointed down at the rubble pile and waggled his tentacles, the emanating psionic magic pushing a few small stones aside to reveal a foot, delicate and light-skinned, the foot of a darthiir woman.

  “She is dead, then,” the matron mother stated flatly, for clearly Dahlia had been buried under tons of stone.

  But a moment later, Gromph began to chuckle, and he and his sister watched as Methil became nearly translucent once more, then reached down and grabbed Dahlia’s foot, sharing the psionic state with her.

  Illithids were not physically strong creatures, but Dahlia slid easily out from under the pile. In that moment, she simply did not exist in the same dimension as the crushing stones.

  Methil left her lying on the ground when he and Dahlia came back fully to their material state, and the darthiir did not stir in the least, and indeed, seemed quite dead.

  But Methil knew better and he explained it to Gromph and to Quenthel.

  “Strange are the powers of these creatures of the mind,” Gromph remarked. “Often I am reminded to be glad that Matron Mother Yvonnel destroyed House Oblodra.”

  Quenthel could only shake her head and mutter, “Kinetic barrier?” without any understanding of the psionic dweomer at all.

  “Come, and be quick!” Gromph said suddenly. He grabbed Dahlia’s hand and held out his other one for Quenthel, who took it, then shuddered in revulsion as she grabbed hold of Methil’s offered hand as well.

  A few moments later, they stood by the altar, Dahlia lying atop it, the red veins in the stone seeming to pulse with life.

  “Stay back,” Gromph warned his sister. “When she awakens, she must release the held energy of the cave-in, residing now in Methil’s offered psionic protection.”

  “Awakens?” the matron mother said, at a loss. “Release?”

  Even as she spoke, Dahlia’s eyes popped open and she jerked suddenly, her back arching so violently that she was lifted up into the air. As her physical form separated from the altar stone, they could see that she was still connected by a wall of black energy, pulsing with red lines of power, rushing into the stone. The primordial chamber shook once more, the altar taking in the force and seeming as if it grew stronger in doing so.

  Dahlia fell back down, hard. She looked at them, but distantly, clearly dazed, and Methil fell over her, his tentacles wriggling up her nose and around her skull as he joined with her once more.

  The illithid telepathically shared his understanding, and Dahlia’s thoughts, with Gromph and Quenthel.

  “Back to the anteroom,” Matron Mother Quenthel instructed as she sorted it all out. “Let us await the arrival of Matron Zeerith.”

  And indeed, she was smiling as she made that proclamation, and Gromph could only shake his head at how this struggle of the goddesses continued to play out. When they got into the anteroom, Methil still connected to Dahlia, who walked zombie-like, her eyes empty, Gromph created an extra-dimensional mansion that the Baenre nobles and their blessed guest might relax in proper security and comfort to await the arrival of the Xorlarrins.

  All of them, even the two dwarves, breathed a sigh of relief when they came out of the tunnels into the open air of the Crags.

  “The road ain’t far,” Bruenor explained, pointing to the east. “She’ll get us to Port Llast, and from there on to Longsaddle.”

  “For Pwent,” Regis agreed, and the dwarf nodded.

  The three humans they had rescued cheered at that thought, but Drizzt and Ambergris both turned to Brother Afafrenfere, for the monk had been hinting that he would not follow their road.

  “Well, speak it clear, then,” Ambergris bade him.

  “It is time for me to go home,’ Afafrenfere admitted. “To face my brethren in the hopes that they will forgive me.”

  “Was years ago when ye went with Parbid to the Shadowfell,” Ambergris said. “Think they’ll even remember ye?”

  The monk smiled. “Not that long,” he said, and Ambergris laughed.

  And nodded as she looked at Drizzt. The drow knew her story, of how she had been sent to the Shadowfell as an agent of Citadel Adbar, as repentance for some … indiscretions. Knowing how Amber Gristle O’Maul had walked the gray areas of morality herself, Drizzt was not surprised when she reached up and patted her friend on the shoulder and declared, “I’m goin’ with ye.”

  Brother Afafrenfere’s face brightened immediately, but he shook his head and tried to insist that he could not ask that of her, that it was too far a journey, and through dangerous lands.

  “Bah, but who’s to speak for ye if not meself, who knows ye better than any?” the dwarf said.

  Afafrenfere stared at her for a moment, then laughed in surrender. “I am not so sure that your presence will bolster my case,” he said in a lighthearted tone. “But I welcome it!”

  “The Monastery of the Yellow Rose?” Drizzt asked.

  “Aye,” said the monk. “In faraway Damara, in the Bloodstone Lands.”

  Regis’s ears perked up. “Come with us to the road and turn south, then,” he said to the monk. “Then turn south through Neverwinter and follow the Trade Way to the Boareskyr Bridge, and inquire of Doregardo and the Grinning Ponies all along your way. When you find them, tell them you are a friend of mine, of the halfling called Spider. They will see you to Suzail, where you can catch passage to Impiltur.” The halfling nodded as he finished, his thoughts spinning back to the far banks of the great Sea of Fallen Stars, to Aglarond, to Donnola Topolino and a life he had known, and one whose echoes tapped profoundly at his heavy heart.

  When they got to the main road and Afafrenfere a
nd Ambergris turned to the south, it was all Regis could manage not to go with them.

  He had a duty here, he reminded himself, repeatedly. To Pwent, trapped in Wulfgar’s broken horn, and to Bruenor, determined to return to Mithral Hall.

  But he would return to the city of Delthuntle and to his beloved Donnola, Regis silently vowed as he watched the monk and the dwarf walk away to the south, his other companions moving north for Port Llast, and with Longsaddle waiting beyond that.

  They crept back into the complex they had declared as their home to witness the carnage and the defilement of their chapel. For Berellip Xorlarrin, the shock was complete. The webs had unfolded and the captive Dahlia was gone and the room prepared for her mother, Matron Zeerith, was buried now under tons of rock. She did not dare set the remaining goblin slaves to dig out that rubble for fear that it would lead to more instability.

  The images in the Forge were no less troubling, beginning with, and centering around, the broken form of the great drider. The captive human was gone—even the dead monk had been removed. And those slaves they had not had the time to drag away had also been freed. The priestess cursed herself for not sending an assassin down into that remaining mining section, particularly when she remembered that a dwarf cleric had been among the few down there.

  And the dead in the Forge, many, many dead, were all Xorlarrin allies, scores of goblins, a quartet of driders, and more than a dozen Xorlarrin drow.

  With not a single enemy among them.

  By all accounts, the invaders had gone and the apostate Do’Urden had gone, and the complex was back in Berellip’s hands, but her mother would not be pleased.

  According to Berellip’s scouts, Matron Zeerith was only a day or two away, marching with the rest of the House and a sizable force from Menzoberranzan that would lead the way to Tsabrak’s location in the east.

  The only good news the priestess received came from the north, where Ravel, Saribel, and Tiago Baenre approached, so said her scouts. But even in this, there were whispers of trouble, rumors about many drow dead, many Xorlarrin dead, and even whispers that Weapons Master Jearth was not among the returning band.

 
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