The Halfling's Gem by R. A. Salvatore




  SACRIFICED!

  In hopeless horror, Regis watched his friends huddle together. Then the scene in the Taros hoop shifted from the lower levels of the guildhouse to a darker place, a place of smoke and shadows, of ghouls and demons.

  A place where no sun shone.

  “No!” the halfling cried out, realizing the wizard’s intent. Seconds later, Regis saw his friends in their huddle again, this time in the swirling smoke of the dark plane.

  Regis watched as his friends turned back to back in a pitiful attempt at defense. Already, dark shapes swooped about them or hovered over them—beings of great power and great evil.

  Regis dropped his eyes, unable to watch.

  THE LEGEND OF DRIZZT

  Homeland

  Exile

  Sojourn

  The Crystal Shard

  Streams of Silver

  The Halfling’s Gem

  The Legacy

  Starless Night

  Siege of Darkness

  Passage to Dawn

  The Silent Blade

  The Spine of the World

  Sea of Swords

  THE HUNTER’S BLADES TRILOGY

  The Thousand Orcs

  The Lone Drow

  The Two Swords

  THE SELLSWORDS

  Servant of the Shard

  Promise of the Witch-King

  Road of the Patriarch

  TRANSITIONS

  The Orc King

  October 2007

  The Pirate King

  October 2008

  The Ghost King

  October 2009

  THE CLERIC QUINTET

  Canticle

  In Sylvan Shadows

  Night Masks

  The Fallen Fortress

  The Chaos Curse

  TO MY SISTER SUSAN,

  WHO’LL NEVER KNOW HOW

  MUCH HER SUPPORT HAS MEANT

  TO ME OVER THE LAST FEW YEARS

  PROLOGUE

  he wizard looked down upon the young woman with uncertainty. Her back was to him; he could see the thick mane of her auburn locks flowing around her shoulders, rich and vibrant. But the wizard knew, too, the sadness that was in her eyes. So young she was, barely more than a child, and so beautifully innocent.

  Yet this beautiful child had put a sword through the heart of his beloved Sydney.

  Harkle Harpell brushed away the unwanted memories of his dead love and started down the hill. “A fine day,” he said cheerily when he reached the young woman.

  “Do ye think they’ve made the tower?” Catti-brie asked him, her gaze never leaving the southern horizon.

  Harkle shrugged. “Soon, if not yet.” He studied Catti-brie and could find no anger against her for her actions. She had killed Sydney, it was true, but Harkle knew just by looking at her that necessity, not malice, had guided her sword arm. And now he could only pity her.

  “How are you?” Harkle stammered, amazed at the courage she had shown in light of the terrible events that had befallen her and her friends.

  Catti-brie nodded and turned to the wizard. Surely there was sorrow edging her deep blue eyes, but mostly they burned with a stubborn resolve that chased away any hints of weakness. She had lost Bruenor, the dwarf who had adopted her and had reared her as his own since the earliest days of her childhood. And Catti-brie’s other friends even now were caught in the middle of a desperate chase with an assassin across the southland.

  “How quickly things have changed,” Harkle whispered under his breath, feeling sympathy for the young woman. He remembered a time, just a few tendays earlier, when Bruenor Battlehammer and his small company had come through Longsaddle in their quest to find Mithral Hall, the dwarf’s lost homeland. That had been a jovial meeting of tales exchanged and promises of future friendships with the Harpell clan. None of them could have known that a second party, led by an evil assassin, and by Harkle’s own Sydney, held Catti-brie hostage and was gathering to pursue the company. Bruenor had found Mithral Hall, and had fallen there.

  And Sydney, the female mage that Harkle had so dearly loved, had played a part in the dwarf’s death.

  Harkle took a deep breath to steady himself. “Bruenor will be avenged,” he said with a grimace.

  Catti-brie kissed him on the cheek and started back up the hill toward the Ivy Mansion. She understood the wizard’s sincere pain, and she truly admired his decision to help her fulfill her vow to return to Mithrall Hall and reclaim it for Clan Battlehammer.

  But for Harkle, there had been no other choice. The Sydney that he had loved was a facade, a sugar coating to a power-crazed, unfeeling monster. And he himself had played a part in the disaster, unwittingly revealing to Sydney the whereabouts of Bruenor’s party.

  Harkle watched Catti-brie go, the weight of troubles slowing her stride. He could harbor no resentment toward her. Sydney had brought about the circumstances of her own death, and Catti-brie had no choice but to play them out. The wizard turned his gaze southward. He, too, wondered and worried for the drow elf and the huge barbarian lad. They had slumped back into Longsaddle just three days before, a sorrow-filled and weary band in desperate need of rest.

  There could be no rest, though, not now, for the wicked assassin had escaped with the last of their group, Regis the halfling, in tow.

  So much had happened in those few ten-days; Harkle’s entire world had been turned upside down by an odd mixture of heroes from a distant, forlorn land called Icewind Dale, and by a beautiful young woman who could not be blamed.

  And by the lie that was his deepest love.

  Harkle fell back on the grass and watched the puffy clouds of late summer meander across the sky.

  Beyond the clouds, where the stars shone eternally, Guenhwyvar, the entity of the panther, paced excitedly. Many days had passed since the cat’s master, the drow elf named Drizzt Do’Urden, had summoned it to the material plane. Guenhwyvar was sensitive to the onyx figurine that served as a link to its master and that other world; the panther could sense the tingle from that far-off place even when its master merely touched the statuette.

  But Guenhwyvar hadn’t felt that link to Drizzt in some time, and the cat was nervous now, somehow understanding in its otherworldly intelligence that the drow no longer possessed the figurine. Guenhwyvar remembered the time before Drizzt, when another drow, an evil drow, had been its master. Though in essence an animal, Guenhwyvar possessed dignity, a quality that its original master had stolen away.

  Guenhwyvar remembered those times when it had been forced to perform cruel, cowardly acts against helpless foes for the sake of its master’s pleasure.

  But things had been very different since Drizzt Do’Urden came to possess the figurine. Here was a being of conscience and integrity, and an honest bond of love had developed between Guenhwyvar and Drizzt.

  The cat slumped against a star-trimmed tree and issued a low growl that observers to this astral spectacle might have taken as a resigned sigh.

  Deeper still would the cat’s sigh have been if it knew that Artemis Entreri, the killer, now possessed the figurine.

  am dying.

  Every day, with every breath I draw, I am closer to the end of my life. For we are born with a finite number of breaths, and each one I take edges the sunlight that is my life toward the inevitable dusk.

  It is a difficult thing to remember, especially while we are in the health and strength of our youth, and yet, I have come to know that it is an important thing to keep in mind—not to complain or to make melancholy, but simply because only with the honest knowledge that one day I will die can I ever truly begin to live. Certainly I do not dwell on the reality of my own mortality, but I believe that a person cannot help but dwell, at least subconsciously, on that most imposing specter un
til he has come to understand, to truly understand and appreciate, that he will one day die. That he will one day be gone from this place, this life, this consciousness and existence, to whatever it is that awaits. For only when a person completely and honestly accepts the inevitability of death is he free of the fear of it.

  So many people, it seems, stick themselves into the same routines, going through each day’s rituals with almost religious precision. They become creatures of simple habit. Part of that is the comfort afforded by familiarity, but there is another aspect to it, a deep-rooted belief that as long as they keep everything the same, everything will remain the same. Such rituals are a way to control the world about them, but in truth, they cannot. For even if they follow the exact routine day after day after day, death will surely find them.

  I have seen other people paralyze their entire existence around that greatest of mysteries, shaping their every movement, their every word, in a desperate attempt to find the answers to the unanswerable. They fool themselves, either through their interpretations of ancient texts or through some obscure sign from a natural event, into believing that they have found the ultimate truth, and thus, if they behave accordingly concerning that truth, they will surely be rewarded in the afterlife. This must be the greatest manifestation of that fear of death, the errant belief that we can somehow shape and decorate eternity itself, that we can curtain its windows and place its furniture in accordance with our own desperate desires. Along the road that led me to Icewind Dale, I came upon a group of followers of Ilmater, the god of suffering, who were so fanatical in their beliefs that they would beat each other senseless, and welcomed torment, even death itself, in some foolish belief that by doing so they would pay the highest tribute to their god.

  I believe them to be wrong, though in truth, I cannot know anything for certain concerning what mystery lies beyond this mortal coil. And so I, too, am but a creature of faith and hope. I hope that Zaknafein has found eternal peace and joy, and pray with all my heart that when I cross over the threshold into the next existence, I will see him again.

  Perhaps the greatest evil I see in this existence is when supposedly holy men prey upon the basic fears of death of the common folk to take from them. “Give to the church!” they cry. “Only then will you find salvation! Even more subtle are the many religions that do not directly ask for a person’s coin, but insist that anyone of goodly and godly heart who is destined for their particular description of heaven, would willingly give that coin over.

  And of course, Toril is ripe with “doomsdayers,” people who claim that the end of the world is at hand, and cry for repentance and for almost slavish dedication.

  I can only look at it all and sigh, for as death is the greatest mystery, so it is the most personal of revelations. We will not know, none of us, until the moment it is upon us, and we cannot truly and in good conscience convince another of our beliefs.

  It is a road we travel alone, but a road that I no longer fear, for in accepting the inevitable, I have freed myself from it. In coming to recognize my mortality, I have found the secret to enjoying those centuries, years, months, days, or even hours, that I have left to draw breath. This is the existence I can control, and to throw away the precious hours over fear of the inevitable is a foolish thing indeed. And to subconsciously think ourselves immortal, and thus not appreciate those precious few hours that we all have, is equally foolish.

  I cannot control the truth of death, whatever my desperation. I can only make certain that those moments of my life I have remaining are as rich as they can be.

  —Drizzt Do’Urden

  day and more we have lost,” the barbarian grumbled, reining in his horse and looking back over his shoulder. The lower rim of the sun had just dipped below the horizon. “The assassin moves away from us even now!”

  “We do well to trust in Harkle’s advice,” replied Drizzt Do’Urden, the dark elf. “He would not have led us astray.” With the sunshine fading, Drizzt dropped the cowl of his black cloak back onto his shoulders and shook free the locks of his stark white hair.

  Wulfgar pointed to some tall pines. “That must be the grove Harkle Harpell spoke of,” he said, “yet I see no tower, nor signs that any structure was ever built in this forsaken area.”

  His lavender eyes more at home in the deepening gloom, Drizzt peered ahead intently, trying to find some evidence to dispute his young friend. Surely this was the place that Harkle had indicated, for a short distance ahead of them lay the small pond, and beyond that the thick boughs of Neverwinter Wood. “Take heart,” he reminded Wulfgar. “The wizard called patience the greatest aid in finding the home of Malchor. We have been here but an hour.”

  “The road grows ever longer,” the barbarian mumbled, unaware that the drow’s keen ears did not miss a word. There was merit in Wulfgar’s complaints, Drizzt knew, for the tale of a farmer in Longsaddle—that of a dark, cloaked man and a halfling on a single horse—put the assassin fully ten days ahead of them, and moving swiftly.

  But Drizzt had faced Entreri before and understood the enormity of the challenge before him. He wanted as much assistance as he could get in rescuing Regis from the deadly man’s clutches. By the farmer’s words, Regis was still alive, and Drizzt was certain that Entreri did not mean to harm the halfling before getting to Calimport.

  Harkle Harpell would not have sent them to this place without good reason.

  “Do we put up for the night?” asked Wulfgar. “By my word, we’d ride back to the road and to the south. Entreri’s horse carries two and may have tired by now. We can gain on him if we ride through the night.”

  Drizzt smiled at his friend. “They have passed through the city of Waterdeep by now,” he explained. “Entreri has acquired new horses, at the least.” Drizzt let the issue drop at that, keeping his deeper fears, that the assassin had taken to the sea, to himself.

  “Then to wait is even more folly!” Wulfgar was quick to argue.

  But as the barbarian spoke, his horse, a horse raised by Harpells, snorted and moved to the small pond, pawing the air above the water as though searching for a place to step. A moment later, the last of the sun dipped under the western horizon and the daylight faded away. And in the magical dimness of twilight, an enchanted tower phased into view before them on the little island in the pond, its every point twinkling like starlight, and its many twisting spires reaching up into the evening sky. Emerald green it was, and mystically inviting, as if sprites and faeries had lent a hand to its creation.

  And across the water, right below the hoof of Wulfgar’s horse, appeared a shining bridge of green light.

  Drizzt slipped from his mount. “The Tower of Twilight,” he said to Wulfgar, as though he had seen the obvious logic from the start. He swept his arm out toward the structure, inviting his friend to lead them in.

  But Wulfgar was stunned at the appearance of the tower. He clutched the reins of his horse even tighter, causing the beast to rear up and flatten its ears against its head.

  “I thought you had overcome your suspicions of magic,” said Drizzt sarcastically. Truly Wulfgar, like all the barbarians of Icewind Dale, had been raised with the belief that wizards were weakling tricksters and not to be trusted. His people, proud warriors of the tundra, regarded strength of arm, not skill in the black arts of wizardry, as the measure of a true man. But in their many tendays on the road, Drizzt had seen Wulfgar overcome his upbringing and develop a tolerance, even a curiosity, for the practices of wizardry.

  With a flex of his massive muscles, Wulfgar brought his horse under control. “I have,” he answered through gritted teeth. He slid from his seat. “It is Harpells that worry me!”

  Drizzt’s smirk widened across his face as he suddenly came to understand his friend’s trepidations. He himself, who had been raised amidst many of the most powerful and frightening sorcerers in all the Realms, had shaken his head in disbelief many times when they were guests of the eccentric family in Longsaddle. The Harpells had a unique??
?and often disastrous—way of viewing the world, though no evil festered in their hearts, and they wove their magic in accord with their own perspectives—usually against the presumed logic of rational men.

  “Malchor is unlike his kin,” Drizzt assured Wulfgar. “He does not reside in the Ivy Mansion and has played advisor to kings of the northland.”

  “He is a Harpell,” Wulfgar stated with a finality that Drizzt could not dispute. With another shake of his head and a deep breath to steady himself, Wulfgar grabbed his horse’s bridle and started out across the bridge. Drizzt, still smiling, was quick to follow.

  “Harpell,” Wulfgar muttered again after they had crossed to the island and made a complete circuit of the structure. The tower had no door. “Patience,” Drizzt reminded him.

  They did not have to wait long, though, for a few seconds later they heard a bolt being thrown, and then the creak of a door opening. A moment later, a boy barely into his teens walked right through the green stone of the wall, like some translucent specter, and moved toward them.

  Wulfgar grunted and brought Aegis-fang, his mighty warhammer, down off his shoulder. Drizzt grasped the barbarian’s arm to stay him, fearing that his weary friend might strike in sheer frustration before they could determine the lad’s intentions.

  When the boy reached them, they could see clearly that he was flesh and blood, not some otherworldly specter, and Wulfgar relaxed his grip. The youth bowed low to them and motioned for them to follow.

  “Malchor?” asked Drizzt.

  The boy did not answer, but he motioned again and started back toward the tower.

  “I would have thought you to be older, if Malchor you be,” Drizzt said, falling into step behind the boy.

  “What of the horses?” Wulfgar asked.

  Still the boy continued silently toward the tower.

  Drizzt looked at Wulfgar and shrugged. “Bring them in, then, and let our mute friend worry about them,” the dark elf said.

 
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