The Crystal Shard 18. Biggrin’s House

The Crystal Shard 18. Biggrin’s House

Drizzt and Wulfgar were pleasantly surprised when they found the back entrance to the verbeeg lair. It sat high up on the steep incline on the western side of the rocky outcropping. Piles of garbage and bones lay strewn about the ground at the bottom of the rocks, and a thin but steady stream of smoke wafted out of the open cave, scented with the flavors of roasting mutton.

The two companions crouched in the brush below the entrance for a short while, noting the degree of activity. The moon had come up, bright and clear, and the night had lightened considerably. “I wonder if we’ll be in time for dinner,” remarked the drow, still smirking wryly. Wulfgar shook his head and laughed at the dark elf’s uncanny composure.

Although the two often heard sounds from the shadows just beyond the opening, pots clanging and occasional voices, no giant showed itself outside the cave until shortly before moonset. A fat verbeeg, presumably the lair’s cook from its dress, shuffled out onto the doorstep and dumped a load of garbage from a large iron pot down the slope.

“He’s mine,” said Drizzt, suddenly serious. “Can you provide a distraction?”

“The cat will do,” Wulfgar answered, though he wasn’t keen on being alone with Guenhwyvar.

Drizzt crept up the rocky slope, trying to stay in the dark shadows as he went. He knew that he would remain vulnerable in the moonlight until he got above the entrance, but the climb proved rougher than he had expected and the going was slow. When he was almost to the opening, he heard the giant chef stirring by the entrance, apparently lifting a second pot of garbage for dumping.

But the drow had nowhere to go. A call from within the cave diverted the cook’s attention. Realizing how little time he had to get to safety, Drizzt sprinted the last few feet to the door level and peered around the corner into the torchlit kitchen.

The room was roughly square with a large stone oven on the wall across from the cave entrance. Next to the oven was a wooden door slightly ajar, and behind this Drizzt heard several giant voices. The cook was nowhere in sight, but a pot of garbage sat on the floor just inside the entrance.

“He’ll be back soon,” the drow muttered to himself as he picked his handholds and crept noiselessly up the wall and above the cave entrance. At the base of the slope, a nervous Wulfgar sat absolutely motionless as Guenhwyvar stalked back and forth before him.

A few minutes later the giant chef came out with the pot. As the verbeeg dumped the garbage, Guenhwyvar moved into view. One great leap took the cat to the base of the slope. Tilting its head up at the cook, the black panther growled.

“Ah, git outa here, ye mangy puss,” snapped the giant, apparently unimpressed and unsurprised by the sudden appearance of the panther, “afore I squash yer head an’ drop ye into a stewin’ pot.”

The verbeeg’s threat was an idle one. Even as it stood shaking an oversized fist, its attention fully on the cat, the dark shape that was Drizzt Do’Urden sprang from the wall onto its back. His scimitars already in hand, the drow wasted no time in cutting an ear-to-ear smile into the giant’s throat. Without uttering a cry the verbeeg tumbled down the rocks to settle in with the rest of the garbage. Abruptly Drizzt dropped to the cave step and spun around, praying that no other giants had entered the kitchen.

He was safe for the moment. The room was empty. As Guenhwyvar and then Wulfgar crested the ledge, he signaled to them silently to follow him in. The kitchen was small (for giants) and sparsely stocked. There was one table on the right wall which held several pans. Next to it was a large chopping block with a garish cleaver, rusty and jagged and apparently unwashed for weeks, buried into it. Over to Drizzt’s left were shelves holding spices and herbs and other supplies. The drow went to investigate these as Wulfgar moved to peer into the adjoining – and occupied – room.

Also square, this second area was a bit larger than the kitchen. A long table divided the room in half, and beyond it, directly across from where he stood, Wulfgar saw a second door. Three giants sat at the side of the table closest to Wulfgar, a fourth stood between them and the door, and two more sat on the opposite side. The group feasted on mutton and slurped thick stew, all the while cursing and taunting each other – a typical dinner gathering of verbeeg. Wulfgar noted with more than a passing interest that the monsters tore the meat from the bones with their bare hands. There weren’t any weapons in the room.

Drizzt, holding a bag he had found on the shelves, drew one of his scimitars again and moved with Guenhwyvar to join Wulfgar. “Six,” Wulfgar whispered, pointing to the room. The big barbarian hoisted Aegis-fang and nodded eagerly. Drizzt peeked through the door and quickly formulated an attack plan.

He pointed to Wulfgar, then to the door. “Right,” he whispered. Then he indicated himself. “Behind you, left.”

Wulfgar understood him perfectly, but wondered why he hadn’t included Guenhwyvar. The barbarian pointed to the cat.

Drizzt merely shrugged and smiled, and Wulfgar understood. Even the skeptical barbarian was confident that Guenhwyvar would figure out where it best fit in.

Wulfgar shook the nervous tingles out of his muscles and clenched Aegis-fang tightly. With a quick wink to his companion, he burst through the door and pounced at the nearest target. The giant, the only one of the group standing at the time, managed to turn and face his attacker, but that was all. Aegis-fang swung in a low sweep and rose with deadly accuracy, smashing into its belly. Driving upward, it crushed the giant’s lower chest. With his incredible strength, Wulfgar actually lifted the huge monster several feet off of the ground. It fell, broken and breathless, beside the barbarian, but he paid it no more heed; he was already planning his second strike.

Drizzt, Guenhwyvar close on his heels, rushed past his friend toward the two stunned giants seated farthest to the left at the table. He jerked open the bag he held and twirled as he reached his targets, blinding them in a puff of flour. The drow never slowed as he passed, gouging his scimitar into the throat of one of the powdered verbeeg and then rolling backward over the top of the wooden table. Guenhwyvar sprang on the other giant, his powerful jaws tearing out the monster’s groin.

The two verbeeg on the far side of the table were the first of their group to truly react. One leaped to stand ready to meet Drizzt’s whirling charge, while the second, unwittingly singling itself out as Wulfgar’s next target, bolted for the back door.

Wulfgar marked the escaping giant quickly and launched Aegis-fang without hesitation. If Drizzt, at that time in midroll across the table, had realized just how close his form had come to intercepting the twirling war-hammer, he might have had a few choice words for his friend. But the hammer found its mark, bashing into the verbeeg’s shoulder and knocking the monster into the wall with enough force to break its neck.

The giant Drizzt had gored lay squirming on the floor, clutching its throat in a futile attempt to quell the flow of its lifeblood. And Guenhwyvar was having little trouble dispatching the other. Only two verbeeg remained to fight.

Drizzt finished his roll and landed on his feet on the far side of the table, nimbly dodging the grasp of the waiting verbeeg. He darted around, putting himself between his opponent and the door. The giant, its huge hands outstretched, spun around and charged. But the drow’s second scimitar was out with the first, interweaving in a mesmerizing dance of death. As each blade flashed out, it sent another of the giant’s gnarled fingers spinning to the floor. Soon the verbeeg had nothing more than two bloodied stumps where its hands had once been. Enraged beyond sanity, it swung its clublike arms wildly. Drizzt’s scimitar quickly slipped under the side of its skull, ending the creature’s madness.

Meanwhile, the last giant had rushed the unarmed barbarian. It wrapped its huge arms around Wulfgar and lifted him into the air, trying to squeeze the life out of him. Wulfgar tightened his muscles in a desperate attempt to prevent his larger foe from snapping the bones in his back.

The barbarian had trouble finding his breath. Enraged he slammed his fist into the giant’s chin and raised his hand for a second blow.

But then, following the dweomer that Bruenor had cast upon it, the magical war hammer was back in his grasp. With a howl of glee, Wulfgar drove home the butt end of Aegis-fang and put out the giant’s eye. The giant loosened its grip, reeling backward in agony. The world had become such a blur of pain to the monster that it didn’t even see Aegis-fang arcing over Wulfgar’s head and speeding toward its skull. It felt a hot explosion as the heavy hammer split open its head, bouncing the lifeless body into the table and knocking stew and mutton all over the floor.

“Don’t spill the food!” cried Drizzt in mock anger as he rushed to retrieve a particularly juicy-looking chop.

Suddenly they heard heavy-booted footsteps and shouts coming down the corridor behind the second door. “Back outside!” yelled Wulfgar as he turned toward the kitchen.

“Hold!” shouted Drizzt. “The fun is just beginning!” He pointed to a dim, torchlit tunnel that ran off the left wall of the room. “Down there! Quickly!”

Wulfgar knew that they were pushing their luck, but once again he found himself listening to the elf.

And once again the barbarian was smiling.

Wulfgar passed the heavy wooden supports at the beginning of the tunnel and raced off into the dimness. He had gone about thirty feet, Guenhwyvar loping uncomfortably close at his side, when he realized that Drizzt wasn’t following. He turned around just in time to see the drow stroll casually out of the room and past the wooden beams. Drizzt had sheathed his scimitars. Instead, he held a long dagger, its wicked tip planted firmly into a piece of mutton.

“The giants?” asked Wulfgar from the darkness.

Drizzt stepped to the side, behind one of the massive wooden beams. “Right behind me,” he explained calmly as he tore another bite off of his meal. Wulfgar’s jaw dropped open when a pack of frothing verbeeg charged into the tunnel, never noticing the concealed drow.

“Prayne de crabug ohm keike rinedere be-yogi iglo kes gron!” Wulfgar shouted as he spun on his heel and sprinted off down the corridor, hoping that it didn’t lead to a dead end.

Drizzt pulled the mutton off the end of his blade and accidentally dropped it to the ground, cursing silently at the waste of good food. Licking the dagger clean, he waited patiently. As the last verbeeg rambled past, he darted from his concealment, whipped the dagger into the back of the trailing giant’s knee, and scooted around the other side of the beam. The wounded giant howled in pain, but by the time it or its companions had turned back around, the drow was nowhere to be seen.

Wulfgar rounded a bend and slipped against the wall, easily guessing what had stopped the pursuit. The pack had turned back when they found that there was another intruder nearer the exit.

A giant leaped through the supports and stood with its legs wide apart and its club ready, its eyes going from door to door as it tried to figure out which route the unseen assailant had taken. Behind it and off to the side, Drizzt pulled a small knife out of each of his boots and wondered how the giants could be stupid enough to fall for the same trick twice in a span of ten seconds. Not about to argue with good fortune, the elf scrambled out behind his next victim and, before its companions still in the tunnel could shout a call of warning, drove one of the knives deep into the giant’s thigh, severing the hamstring. The giant lurched over to the side and Drizzt, hopping by, marveled at how wonderful a target the thick veins in a verbeeg’s neck make when the monster’s jaw is clenched in pain.

But the drow had no time to pause and ponder the fortunes of battle. The rest of the pack – five angry giants – had already thrown aside their wounded companion in the tunnel and were only a few strides behind. He put the second knife deep into the verbeeg’s neck and headed for the door leading deeper into the lair. He would have made it, except that the first giant coming back into the room happened to be carrying a stone. As a rule, verbeeg are quite adept at rock throwing, and this one was better than most. The drow’s unhelmeted head was its target, and its throw was true.

Wulfgar’s throw was on target, too. Aegis-fang shattered the backbone of the trailing giant as it passed its wounded companion in the tunnel. The injured verbeeg, working to get Drizzt’s dagger out of its knee, stared in disbelief at its suddenly dead companion and at the berserk death charge of the ferocious barbarian.

Out of the corner of his eye, Drizzt saw the stone coming. He managed to duck enough to avoid getting his head caved in, but the heavy missile caught him in the shoulder and sent him flying to the floor. The world spun around him as though he was its axis. He fought to reorient himself, for in the back of his mind he understood that the giant was coming to finish him off. But everything seemed a blur. Then something lying close to his face managed to hold his attention. He fixed his eyes on it, straining to find a focus and force everything else to stop spinning.

A verbeeg finger.

The drow was back. Quickly, he reached for his weapon.

He knew that he was too late when he saw the giant, club raised for a death blow, towering above him.

The wounded giant stepped into the middle of the tunnel to meet the barbarian’s charge. The monster’s leg had gone numb, and it could not plant its feet firmly. Wulfgar, Aegis-fang comfortably back in his hands, swatted it aside and continued into the room. Two of the giants were waiting for him.

Guenhwyvar wove between a giant’s legs as it turned and launched itself as high and far as its sleek muscles could take it. Just as the verbeeg standing over Drizzt started to swing its club at the prone elf, Drizzt saw a shade of black cross in front of its face. A jagged tear lined the giant’s cheek. Drizzt understood what had happened when he heard Guenhwyvar’s padded paws set down on the table and propel the cat further across the room. Though a second giant now joined the first and both had their clubs poised to strike, Drizzt had gained all the time that he needed. In a lightning movement, he slid one of the scimitars from its sheath and thrust it into the first giant’s groin. The monster doubled over in agony, a shield for Drizzt, and caught the blow from its comrade on the back of its head. The drow mumbled “Thank you” as he rolled over the corpse, landing on his feet and again thrusting upward, this time lifting his body to follow the blade.

Hesitation had cost another giant its life. For as the stunned verbeeg stared dumbfoundedly at its friend’s brains splattered all over its club, the drow’s curved blade sliced under its rib cage, tearing through lungs and finding its mark in the monster’s heart.

Time moved slowly for the mortally wounded giant. The club it had dropped seemed to take minutes to reach the floor. With the barely perceptible motion of a falling tree, the verbeeg slid back from the scimitar. It knew that it was falling, but the floor never came up to meet it. Never came up…

Wulfgar hoped that he had hit the wounded giant in the tunnel hard enough to keep it out of the fray for a while – he would be in a tight spot indeed if it came up behind him then. He had all that he could handle parrying and counter-thrusting with the two giants he now faced. He needn’t have worried about his backside, though, for the wounded verbeeg slumped against the wall in the tunnel, oblivious to its surroundings. And, in the opposite direction, Drizzt had just finished off the other two giants. Wulfgar laughed aloud when he saw his friend wiping the blood from his blade and walking back across the room. One of the verbeeg noticed the dark elf, too, and it jumped out of its fight with the barbarian to engage this new foe.

“Ay, ye little runt, ye think ye can face me even up an’ live to talk about it?” bellowed the giant.

Feigning desperation, Drizzt glanced all about him. As usual, he found an easy way to win this fight. Using a stalking belly-crawl, Guenhwyvar had slithered behind the giant bodies, trying to get into a favorable position. Drizzt took a small step backward, goading the giant into the great cat’s path.

The giant’s club crashed into Wulfgar’s ribs and pushed him up against the wooden beam. The barbarian was made of tougher stuff than wood, though, and he took the blow stoically, returning it two-fold with Aegis-fang. Again the verbeeg struck, and again Wulfgar countered. The barbarian had been fighting with hardly a break for over ten minutes, but adrenalin coursed through his veins, and he barely felt winded. He began to appreciate the endless hours toiling for Bruenor in the mines, and the miles and miles of running Drizzt had led him through during their sessions as his blows started to fall with increasing frequency on his tiring opponent.

The giant advanced on Drizzt. “Arg, hold yer ground, ye miserable rat!” it growled. “An’ none o’ yer sneaky tricks! We wants to see how ye does in a fair fight.”

Just as the two came together, Guenhwyvar darted the remaining few feet and sank his fangs deep into the back of the verbeeg’s ankle. Reflexively, the giant shot a glance at the rear attacker, but it recovered quickly and shot its eyes back to the elf…

…Just in time to see the scimitar entering its chest.

Drizzt answered the monster’s puzzled expression with a question. “Where in the nine hells did you ever find the notion that I would fight fair?”

The verbeeg lurched away. The blade hadn’t found its heart, but it knew that the wound would soon prove fatal if untended. Blood poured freely down the monster’s leather tunic, and it labored visibly as it tried to breath. Drizzt alternated his attacks with Guenhwyvar, striking and ducking away from the lumbering counter while his partner rushed in on the monster’s other side. They knew, and the giant did, too, that this fight would soon be over.

The giant fighting Wulfgar could no longer sustain a defensive posture with its heavy club. Wulfgar was beginning to tire as well, so he started to sing an old tundra war song, the Song of Tempos, its rousing notes inspiring him into one final barrage. He waited for the verbeeg’s club to inch inevitably downward and then launched Aegis-fang once, twice, and then a third time. Wulfgar nearly collapsed in exhaustion after the third swing, but the giant lay crumpled on the floor. The barbarian leaned wearily on his weapon and watched his two friends nip and scratch their verbeeg to pieces.

“Well done!” Wulfgar laughed when the last giant fell.

Drizzt walked over to the barbarian, his left arm hanging limply at his side. His jacket and shirt were torn where the stone had struck, and the exposed skin of his shoulder was swollen and bruised.

Wulfgar eyed the wound with genuine concern, but Drizzt answered his unspoken question by raising the arm above him, though he grimaced in pain with the effort. “It’ll be quick to mend,” he assured Wulfgar. “Just a nasty bump, and I find that a small cost to weigh against the bodies of thirteen verbeeg!”

A low groan issued from the tunnel.

“Twelve as yet,” Wulfgar corrected. “Apparently one is not quite done kicking.” With a deep breath, Wulfgar lifted Aegis-fang and turned to finish the task.

“A moment, first,” insisted Drizzt, a thought pressing on his mind. “When the giants charged you in the tunnel, you yelled something in your home tongue, I believe. What was it you said?”

Wulfgar laughed heartily. “An old Elk tribe battle cry,” he explained. “Strength to my friends, and death to my foes!”

Drizzt eyed the barbarian suspiciously and wondered just how deep ran Wulfgar’s ability to fabricate a lie on demand.

* * *

The injured verbeeg was still propped against the tunnel wall when the two companions and Guenhwyvar came upon it. The drow’s dagger remained deeply buried in the giant’s knee, its blade caught fast between two bones. The giant eyed the men with hate-filled yet strangely calm eyes as they approached.

“Ye’ll pay fer all o’ this,” it spat at Drizzt. “Biggrin’ll play with ye afore killin’ ye, be sure o’ that!”

“So it has a tongue,” Drizzt said to Wulfgar. And then to the giant, “Biggrin?”

“Laird o’ the cave,” answered the giant. “Biggrin’ll be a wantin’ to meet ye.”

“And we’ll be wanting to meet Biggrin!” stormed Wulfgar. “We have a debt to repay; a little matter concerning two dwarves!” As soon as Wulfgar mentioned the dwarves, the giant spat again. Drizzt’s scimitar flashed and poised an inch from the monster’s throat.

“Kill me then an’ have done,” laughed the giant, genuinely uncaring. The monster’s ease unnerved Drizzt. “I serve the master!” proclaimed the giant. “Glory is to die for Akar Kessell!”

Wulfgar and Drizzt looked at each other uneasily. They had never seen or heard of this kind of fanatical dedication in a verbeeg, and the sight disturbed them. The primary fault of the verbeeg which had always kept then from gaining dominance over the smaller races was their unwillingness to devote themselves wholeheartedly to any cause and their inability to follow one leader:

“Who is Akar Kessell?” demanded Wulfgar.

The giant laughed evilly. “If friends o’ the towns ye be, ye’ll know soon enough!”

“I thought you said that Biggrin was laird of this cave,” said Drizzt.

“The cave,” answered the giant. “And once a tribe. But Biggrin follows the master now.”

“We’ve got trouble,” Drizzt mumbled to Wulfgar. “Have you ever heard of a verbeeg chieftain giving up its dominance to another without a fight?”

“I fear for the dwarves,” said Wulfgar.

Drizzt turned back to the giant and decided to change the subject so that he could extract some information more immediate to their situation. “What is at the end of this tunnel?”

“Nothin’,” said the verbeeg, too quickly. “Er, just a place for us t’ sleep, is all.”

Loyal, but stupid, noted Drizzt. He turned to Wulfgar again. “We have to take out Biggrin and any others in the cave who might be able to get back to warn this Akar Kessell.”

“What about this one?” asked Wulfgar. But the giant answered the question for Drizzt. Delusions of glory pushed it to seek death in the wizard’s service. It tightened its muscles, ignoring the pain in its knee, and lunged at the companions.

Aegis-fang smashed the verbeeg’s collarbone and neck at the same time Drizzt’s scimitar was slipping through its ribs and Guenhwyvar was locking onto its gut.

But the giant’s death mask was a smile.

* * *

The corridor behind the back door of the dining room was unlit, and the companions had to pull a torch from its sconce in the other corridor to take with them. As they wound their way down the long tunnel, moving deeper and deeper into the hill, they passed many small chambers, most empty, but some holding crated stores of various sorts: foodstuffs, skins, and extra clubs and spears. Drizzt surmised that Akar Kessell planned to use this cave as a home base for his army.

The blackness was absolute for some distance and Wulfgar, lacking the darkness vision of his elven companion, grew nervous as the torch began to burn low. But then they came into a wide chamber, by far the largest they had seen, and beyond its reaches, the tunnel spilled out into the open night.

“We have come to the front door,” said Wulfgar. “And it’s ajar. Do you believe that Biggrin has left?”

“Sssh,” hushed Drizzt. The drow thought that he had heard something in the darkness on the far right. He motioned for Wulfgar to stay in the middle of the room with the torch as he crept away into the shadows.

Drizzt stopped short when he heard gruff giant voices ahead, though he couldn’t figure out why he couldn’t see their bulky silhouettes. When he came upon a large hearth, he understood. The voices were echoing through the chimney.

“Biggrin?” asked Wulfgar when he came up.

“Must be,” reasoned Drizzt. “Think you can fit through the chimney?”

The barbarian nodded. He hoisted Drizzt up first – the drow’s left arm still wasn’t of much use to him – and followed, leaving Guenhwyvar to keep watch.

The chimney snaked up a few yards, then came to an intersection. One way led down to a room from which the voices were coming, and the other thinned as it rose to the surface. The conversation was loud and heated now, and Drizzt moved down to investigate. Wulfgar held the drow’s feet to help him inch down the final descent, as the slope became nearly vertical. Hanging upside down, Drizzt peeked under the rim of the hearth in another room. He saw three giants; one by a door at the far end of the room, looking as though it wanted to leave, and a second with its back to the hearth, being scolded by the third, an immensely wide and tall frost giant. Drizzt knew by the twisted, lipless smile that he looked upon Biggrin.

“To tell Biggrin!” pleaded the smaller giant.

“Ye ran from a fight,” scowled Biggrin. “Ye left yer friends t’ die!”

“No…” protested the giant, but Biggrin had heard enough. With one swipe of its huge axe, it lopped the smaller giant’s head off.

* * *

The men found Guenhwyvar diligently on watch when they came out of the chimney. The big cat turned and growled in recognition when it saw its companions, and Wulfgar, not understanding the throaty purr to be a friendly sound, took a cautious step away.

“There has to be a side tunnel off the main corridor further down,” Drizzt reasoned, having no time to be amused by his friend’s nervousness.

“Let’s get this over with, then,” said Wulfgar.

They found the passage as the Drow had predicted and soon came to a door they figured would lead to the room with the remaining giants. They clapped each other on the shoulder for luck and Drizzt patted Guenhwyvar, though Wulfgar declined the drow’s invitation to do likewise. Then they burst in.

The room was empty. A door previously invisible to Drizzt from his vantage point at the hearth stood ajar.

* * *

Biggrin sent its lone remaining soldier out the secret side door with a message for Akar Kessell. The big giant had been disgraced, and it knew that the wizard wouldn’t readily accept the loss of so many valuable troops. Biggrin’s only chance was to take care of the two intruding warriors and hope that their heads would appease its unmerciful boss. The giant pressed its ear to the door and waited for its victims to enter the adjoining room.

* * *

Wulfgar and Drizzt passed through the second door and came into a lavish chamber, its floor adorned with plush furs and large, puffy pillows. Two other doors led out of the room. One was slightly open, a darkened corridor beyond, and the other was closed.

Suddenly Wulfgar stopped Drizzt with an outstretched hand and motioned for the drow to be quiet. The intangible quality of a true warrior, the sixth sense that allows him to sense unseen danger, had come into play. Slowly the barbarian turned to the closed door and lifted Aegis-fang above his head. He paused for a moment and cocked his head, straining to hear a confirming sound. None came, but Wulfgar trusted his instincts. He roared to Tempos and launched the hammer. It split the door asunder with a thunderous snap and dropped the planks – and Biggrin – to the floor.

Drizzt noticed the swing of the open secret door across the room beyond the giant chieftain and realized that the last of the giants must have slipped away. Quickly the drow set Guenhwyvar into motion. The panther understood, too, for it bolted away, clearing the writhing form of Biggrin with one great bound, and charged out of the cave to give chase to the escaping verbeeg.

Blood streamed down the side of the big giant’s head, but the thick bone of its skull had rejected the hammer. Drizzt and Wulfgar looked on in disbelief as the huge frost giant shook its jowls and rose to meet them.

“It can’t do that,” protested Wulfgar.

“This giant’s a stubborn one,” Drizzt shrugged.

The barbarian waited for Aegis-fang to return to his grasp, then moved with the drow to face Biggrin.

The giant stayed in the doorway to prevent either of its foes from flanking it as Wulfgar and Drizzt confidently moved in. The three exchanged ominous stares and a few easy swings as they felt each other out.

“You must be Biggrin,” Drizzt said, bowing.

“That I am,” proclaimed the giant. “Biggrin! The last foe yer eyes’ll see!”

“Confident as well as stubborn,” Wulfgar remarked.

“Little human,” the giant retorted, “I’ve squashed a hunnerd o’ yen puny kin!”

“More reason for us to kill you,” Drizzt stated calmly.

With sudden speed and ferocity that surprised its two opponents, Biggrin took a wide sweep with its huge axe. Wulfgar stepped back out of its deadly range, and Drizzt managed to duck under the blow, but the drow shuddered when he saw the axe blade take a fair-sized chunk out of the stone wall.

Wulfgar jumped right back at the monster as the axe passed him, pounding on Biggrin’s broad chest with Aegis-fang. The giant flinched but took the blow. “Ye’ll have t’ hit me harder ‘an that, puny man!” it bellowed as it launched a mighty backswing with the flat head of the axe.

Again Drizzt slipped below the swing. Wulfgar, however, battle-weary as he was, did not move quickly enough to back out of range. The barbarian managed to get Aegis-fang up in front of him, but the sheer force of Biggrin’s heavy weapon smashed him into the wall. He crumpled to the floor.

Drizzt knew that they were in trouble. His left arm remained useless, his reflexes were slowing with exhaustion, and this giant was simply too powerful for him to parry any blows. He managed to slip in one short thrust with his scimitar as the giant recovered for its next swing, and then he fled toward the main corridor.

“Run, ye dark dog!” roared the giant. “I’ll after ye, an’ I’ll have ye!” Biggrin charged after Drizzt, smelling the kill.

The drow sheathed his scimitar as he reached the main passage and looked for a spot to ambush the monster. Nothing presented itself, so he went halfway to the exit and waited.

“Where can ye hide?” Biggrin taunted as its huge bulk entered the corridor. Poised in the shadows, the drow threw his two knives. Both hit home, but Biggrin hardly slowed.

Drizzt moved outside the cave. He knew that if Biggrin didn’t follow him, he would have to go back in; he certainly couldn’t leave Wulfgar to die. The first rays of dawn had found their way onto the mountain, and Drizzt worried that the growing light would spoil any chance he had for ambush. Scrambling up one of the small trees that concealed the exit, he pulled out his dagger.

Biggrin charged out into the sunlight and looked around for signs of the fleeing drow. “Yer about, ye miserable dog! Ye’ve no place to run!”

Suddenly Drizzt was on top of the monster, gouging its face and neck in a barrage of stabs and slices. The giant howled in rage and jerked its massive body backward violently, sending Drizzt, who could not gain a firm hold with his weakened arm, flying back into the tunnel. The drow landed heavily on his injured shoulder and nearly swooned in agony. He squirmed and twisted for a moment, trying to regain his feet, but he bumped into a heavy boot. He knew that Biggrin couldn’t have gotten to him so quickly. He turned slowly onto his back, wondering where this new giant had come from.

But the drow’s outlook changed dramatically when he saw that Wulfgar stood over him, Aegis-fang firmly in his hand and a grim look stamped upon his face. Wulfgar never took his eyes off of the giant as it entered the tunnel.

“He’s mine,” the barbarian said grimly.

Biggrin looked hideous indeed. The side of its head where the hammer had struck was caked with dark, dried blood, while the other, and several spots on its face and neck, ran bright with blood from new wounds. The two knives Drizzt had thrown were still sticking in the giant’s chest like morbid medals of honor.

“Can you take it again?” Wulfgar challenged as he sent Aegis-fang on a second flight toward the giant.

In answer, Biggrin stuck out his chest defiantly to block the blow. “I can take whatere’ ye have t’ give!” it boasted.

Aegis-fang slammed home, and Biggrin staggered back a step. The hammer had cracked a rib or two, but the giant could handle that.

More deadly, though, and unknown to Biggrin, Aegis-fang had driven one of Drizzt’s knives through the lining of its heart.

“I can run, now,” Drizzt whispered to Wulfgar when he saw the giant advancing again.

“I stay,” the barbarian insisted without the slightest tremor of fear in his voice.

Drizzt pulled his scimitar. “Well spoken, brave friend. Let us fell this foul beast – there’s food to be eaten!”

“Ye’ll find that more a task than ye talk!” Biggrin retorted. It felt a sudden stinging in its chest, but it grunted away the pain. “I’ve felt the best that ye can hit, an’ still I come at ye! Ye can no’ hope t’ win!”

Both Drizzt and Wulfgar feared that there was more truth to the giant’s boasts than either of them would admit. They were on their last legs, wounded and winded, yet determined to stay and finish the task.

But the complete confidence of the great giant as it steadily approached was more than a little unnerving.

Biggrin realized that something was terribly wrong when it got within a few steps of the two companions. Wulfgar and Drizzt knew, too, for the giant’s stride suddenly slowed visibly.

The giant looked at them in outrage as though it had been deceived. “Dogs!” it gasped, a gout of blood bursting from its mouth. “What trick…”

Biggrin fell dead without another word.

* * *

“Should we go after the cat?” Wulfgar asked when they got back to the secret door.

Drizzt was wrapping a torch out of some rags he had found. “Faith in the shadow,” he answered. “Guenhwyvar will not let the verbeeg escape. Besides, I have a good meal waiting for me back in the cave.”

“You go,” Wulfgar told him. “I shall stay here and watch for the cat’s return.”

Drizzt clasped the big man’s shoulder as he started to leave. They had been through a lot in the short time they had been together, and Drizzt suspected that the excitement was just beginning. The drow sang a feasting song as he started to the main passage, but only as a dodge to Wulfgar, for the dinner table wouldn’t be his first stop. The giant they had spoken with earlier had been evasive when asked about what lay down the one tunnel they had yet to explore. And with everything else they had found, Drizzt believed that could only mean one thing – treasure.

* * *

The great panther loped along over the broken stones, easily gaining on the heavy-footed giant. Soon Guenhwyvar could hear the verbeeg’s labored breathing as the creature struggled with every leap and climb. The giant was making for Daledrop and the open tundra beyond. But so frenzied was its flight that it didn’t move off the face of Kelvin’s Cairn to the easier ground of the valley. It sought a straighter route, believing it to be the quicker path to safety.

Guenhwyvar knew the areas of the mountain as well as its master, knew where every creature on the mountain laired. The cat had already discerned where it wanted the giant to go. Like a shepherd’s dog, it closed the remaining distance and scratched at the giant’s flanks, veering it into the direction of a deep mountain pool. The terrified verbeeg, certain that the deadly warhammer or darting scimitar weren’t far behind, didn’t dare stop and engage the panther. It surged blindly along the path Guenhwyvar had chosen.

A short time later, Guenhwyvar broke away from the giant and raced ahead. When the cat reached the edge of the cold water, it tilted its head and concentrated its keen senses, hoping to spy something that could help it complete the task. Then Guenhwyvar noticed a tiny shimmer of movement under the sparkles of the first light on the water. Its sharp eyes sorted out the long shape lying deathly still. Satisfied that the trap was set, Guenhwyvar moved back behind a nearby ledge to wait.

The giant lumbered up to the pool, breathing heavily. It leaned against a boulder for a moment, despite its terror. Things seemed safe enough for the moment. As soon as it had caught its breath, the giant looked around quickly for signs of pursuit, then started forward again.

There was only one path across the pool, a fallen log that spanned the center, and all of the alternative routes around the pool, though the water wasn’t very wide, weaved around sheer drops and jutting rockfaces and promised to be slow going.

The verbeeg tested the log. It seemed sturdy, so the monster cautiously started across. The cat waited for the giant to get close to the center of the pool, then charged from its hiding place and launched itself into the air at the verbeeg. The cat landed heavily into the surprised giant, planting its paws in the monster’s chest and rebounding back toward the safety of the shore. Guenhwyvar splashed into the icy pool, but scrambled quickly out of the perilous water. The giant, though, swung its arms wildly for a moment, trying to hold its precarious balance, then toppled in with a splash. The water rushed up to suck it down. Desperately, the giant lunged for a nearby floating log, the shape that Guenhwyvar had recognized earlier.

But as the verbeeg’s hands came down, the form it had thought to be a log exploded into movement as the fifty-foot water constrictor threw itself around its prey with dizzying speed. The unrelenting coils quickly pinned the giant’s arms to its side and began their merciless squeeze.

Guenhwyvar shook the freezing water from its glistening black coat and looked back to the pool. As yet another length of the monstrous snake locked under the verbeeg’s chin and pulled the helpless monster under the surface, the panther was satisfied that the mission was complete. With a long, loud roar proclaiming victory, Guenhwyvar bounded off toward the lair.