Passage to Dawn by R. A. Salvatore



  She was beautiful, shapely, and pale-skinned with thick, lustrous hair cascading halfway down her naked back. Her charms were offered openly, brazenly, conveyed to him at the end of a gentle touch. So gentle. Little brushing fingers of energy tickled his chin, his jawbone, his neck.

  Every muscle of his body tensed and he fought for control, battled the seductress with every bit of willpower remaining in him after so many years.

  He didn't even know why he resisted anymore, didn't consciously remember what offerings of the other world, the real world, might be fueling his stubbornness. What were "right" and "wrong" in this place? What might be the price of pleasure? What more did he have to give?

  The gentle touch continued, soothing his trembling muscles, raising goose bumps across his skin wherever those fingers brushed. Calling to him. Bidding him to surrender. Surrender.

  He felt his willpower draining away, argued against his stubbornness. There was no reason to resist. He could have soft

  sheets and a comfortable mattress; the smell-the awful reek so terrible that even years had not allowed him to get used to itbe taken away. She could do that with her magic. She had promised him.

  Falling fast, he half-closed his eyes and felt the touch continuing, felt it more keenly than before.

  He heard her snarl, a feral, bestial sound.

  Now he looked past her. They were on the lip of a ridge, one of countless ridges across the broken, heaving ground that trembled as if it were a living thing, breathing, laughing at him, mocking him. They were up high. He knew that. The ravine beyond the ridge was wide, and yet he could not see more than a couple of feet beyond the edge. The landscape was lost in the perpetual swirling grayness, the smoky pall.

  The Abyss.

  Now it was his turn to growl, a sound that was not feral, not primal, but one of rationale, of morality, of that tiny spark that remained in him of who he had been. He grabbed her hand and forced it away, turning it, twisting it. Her strength in resisting confirmed his memories, for it was supernatural, far beyond what her frame should have allowed.

  Still, he was the stronger and he forced the hand away, turned it about, then set his stare upon her.

  Her thick hair had shifted a bit, and one of her tiny white horns had poked through.

  "Do not, my lover," she purred. The weight of her plea nearly broke him. Like her physical strength, her voice carried more than was natural. Her voice was a conduit of charms, of deceit, of the ultimate lie that was all this place.

  A scream erupted from his lips and he heaved her backward with all his strength, hurled her from the ridge.

  Huge batlike wings unfolded behind her and the succubus hovered, laughing at him, her open mouth revealing horrid fangs that would have punctured his neck. She laughed and he knew that although he had resisted, he had not won, could never win. She had almost broken him this time, came closer to it than the last, and would be closer still the next. And so she laughed at him, mocked him. Always mocking him!

  He realized that it had been a test, always a test. He knew who had arranged it and was not surprised when the whip tore

  into his back, laying him low. He tried to take cover, felt the intense heat building all around him, but knew that there was no escape.

  A second snapping had him crawling for the ledge. Then came a third lash, and he grabbed on to the lip of the ridge, screamed, and pulled himself over, wanting to pitch into the ravine, to splatter his corporeal form against the rocks. Desperate to die.

  Errtu, the great balor, twelve feet of smoking deep red scales and corded muscles, casually walked to the edge and peered over. With eyes that had seen through the mists of the Abyss since the dawn of time, Errtu sought out the falling form, then reached out to him.

  He was falling slower. Then he was not falling at all. He was rising, caught in a telekinetic web, reeled in by the master. The whip was waiting and the next lash sent him spiraling, mercifully, into unconsciousness.

  Errtu did not retract the whip's cords. The balor used the same telekinetic energy to wrap them about the victim, binding him fast. Errtu looked back to the hysterical succubus and nodded. She had done well this day.

  Drool slipped over her bottom lip at the sight of the unconscious form. She wanted to feast. In her eyes, the table was set and waiting. A flap of her wings brought her back to the ledge and she approached cautiously, seeking some way through the balor's defenses.

  Errtu let her get close, so close, then gave a slight tug on the whip. His victim flopped away weirdly, jumping past the balor's perpetual flames. Errtu shifted a step to the side, putting his bulk between the victim and the succubus.

  "I must," she whined, daring to move a bit closer, half-walking and half-flying. Her deceivingly delicate hands reached out and grasped at the smoky air. She trembled and panted.

  Errtu stepped aside. She inched closer.

  The balor was teasing her, she knew, but she could not turn away, not with the sight of this helpless one. She whined, knowing she was going to be punished, but she could not stop.

  Taking a slightly roundabout route, she walked past the balor. She whined again, her feet digging a firm hold that she might rush to the prone victim and taste of him at least once before Errtu denied her.

  Out shot Errtu's arm, holding a sword that was wrought of lightning. He lifted it high and uttered a command and the ground jolted with the strength of a thunderstroke.

  The succubus waited and leaped away, running for the ledge and then flying off of it, shrieking all the while. Errtu's lightning hit her in the back and sent her spinning, and she was far below the edge of the ridge before she regained control.

  Back on the ledge, Errtu gave her not another thought. The balor was thinking of his prisoner, always of his prisoner. He enjoyed tormenting the wretch, but had to continually sublimate his bestial urges. He could not destroy this one, could not break him too far, else the victim would hold no value for the balor. This was but one being, and measured against the promise of freedom to walk again on the Prime Material Plane, that did not seem so much.

  Only Drizzt Do'Urden, the renegade dark elf, the one who had banished Errtu to a hundred years in the Abyss, could grant that freedom. The drow would do that, Errtu believed, in exchange for the wretch.

  Errtu turned his horned, apelike head to look over one massive shoulder. The fires that surrounded the balor burned low now, simmering as was Errtu's rage. Patience, the balor reminded himself. The wretch was valuable and had to be preserved.

  The time was coming, Errtu knew. He would speak with Drizzt Do'Urden before another year had passed on the Material Plane. Errtu had made contact with the witch, and she would deliver his message.

  Then the balor, one of the true tanar'ri, among the greatest denizens of the lower planes, would be free. Then Errtu could destroy the wretch, could destroy Drizzt Do'Urden, and could destroy every being that loved the renegade drow.


  Part 1


  Six years. Not so long in the life span of a drow, and yet, in counting the months, the weeks, the days, the hours, it seemed to me as if I had been away from Mithril Hall a hundred times that number. The place was removed, another lifetime, another way of life, a mere stepping stone to . . .

  To what? To where?

  My most vivid memory of Mithril Hall is of riding away from the place with Catti-brie at my side, is the view in looking back over the plumes of smoke rising from Settlestone to the mountain called Fourthpeak. Mithril Hall was Bruenor's kingdom, Bruenor's home, and Bruenor was among the most dear of friends to me. But it was not my home, had never been so.

  I coul
dn't explain it then, and still cannot. All should have been well there after the defeat of the invading drow army. Mithril Hall shared prosperity and friendship with all of the neighboring communities, was part of an assortment of kingdoms with the power to protect their borders and feed their poor.

  All, of that, but still Mithril Hall was not home. Not for me, and not for Catti-brie. Thus had we taken to the road, riding west to the coast, to Waterdeep.

  I never argued with Catti-brie-though she had certainly expected me to-concerning her decision to leave Mithril Hall. We were of like minds. We had never really set down our hearts in the place; we had been too busy, in defeating the enemies who ruled there, in reopening the dwarven mines, in traveling to Menzoberranzan and in battling the dark elves who had come to Mithril Hall. All that completed, it seemed time to settle, to rest, to tell and to lengthen tales of our adventures. If Mithril Hall had been our home before the battles, we would have remained. After the battles, after the losses . . . for both Catti-brie and Drizzt Do'Urden, it was too late. Mithril Hall was Bruenor's place, not ours. It was the war-scarred place where I had to again face the legacy of my dark heritage. It was the beginning of the road that had led me back to Menzoberranzan.

  It was the place where Wulfgar had died.

  Catti-brie and I vowed that we would return there one day, and so we would, for Bruenor was there, and Regis. But Catti-brie had seen the truth. You can never get the smell of blood out of the stones. If you were there when that blood was spilled, the continuing aroma evokes images too painful to live beside.

  Six years, and I have missed Bruenor and Regis, Stumpet Rakingclaw, and even Berkthgar the Bold, who rules Settlestone. I have missed my journeys to wondrous Silverymoon, and watching the dawn from one of Fourthpeak's many rocky perches. I ride the waves along the Sword Coast now, the wind and spray in my face. My ceiling is the rush of clouds and the canopy of stars; my floor is the creaking boards of a swift, well-weathered ship, and beyond that, the azure blanket, flat and still, heaving and rolling, hissing in the rain and exploding under the fall of a breaching whale.

  Is this my home? I know not. Another stepping stone, I would guess, but whether there really is a road that would lead me to a place called home, I do not know.

  Nor do I think about it often, because I've come to realize that I do not care. If this road, this series of stepping stones, leads nowhere, then so be it. I walk the road with friends, and so I have my home.

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