The Crystal Shard 29. Other Options

The Crystal Shard 29. Other Options

The dwarves of Mithril Hall completed the first of their secret exits shortly after sunset. Bruenor was the first to climb to the top of the ladder and peek out from under the cut sod at the settling monster army. So expert were the dwarven miners that they had been able to dig a shaft right up into the middle of a large group of goblins and ogres without even alerting the monsters in the least.

Bruenor was smiling when he came back down to rejoin his clansmen. “Finish th’ other nine,” he instructed as he moved down the tunnel, Catti-brie beside him. “Tonight’s sleep’ll be a sound one for some o’ Kessell’s boys!” he declared, patting the head of his belted axe.

“What role am I to play in the coming battle?” Catti-brie asked when they moved away from the other dwarves.

“Ye’ll get to pull one o’ the levers an’ collapse the tunnels if any o’ the swine come down,” Bruenor replied.

“And if you are all killed on the field?” Catti-brie reasoned. “Being buried alone in these tunnels does not hold much promise for me.”

Bruenor stroked his red beard. He hadn’t considered that consequence, figuring only that if he and his clan were cut down on the field, Catti-brie would be safe enough behind the collapsed tunnels. But how could she live down here alone? What price would she pay for survival?

“Do ye want to come up an’ fight then? Ye’re fair enough with a sword, an’ I’ll be right beside ye! “

Catti-brie considered the proposition for a moment. “I’ll stay with the lever,” she decided. “You’ll have enough to look after your own head up there. And someone has to be here to drop the tunnels; we cannot let goblins claim our halls as their home!”

“Besides,” she added with a smile, “it was stupid of me to worry. I know that you will come back to me, Bruenor. Never have you, nor any of your clan, failed me!” She kissed the dwarf on the forehead and skipped away.

Bruenor smiled after her. “Suren yer a brave girl, my Catti-brie,” he muttered.

The work on the tunnels was finished a few hours later. The shafts had been dug and the entire tunnel complex around them had been rigged to collapse to cover any retreating action or squash any goblin advance. The entire clan, their faces purposely blackened with soot and their heavy armor and weapons muffled under layers of dark cloth, lined up at the base of the ten shafts. Bruenor went up first to investigate. He peeked out and smiled grimly. All around him ogres and goblins had bedded down for the night.

He was about to give the signal for his kinsmen to move when a commotion suddenly started up in the camp. Bruenor remained at the top of the shaft, though he kept his head beneath the sod layer (which got him stepped on by a passing goblin), and tried to figure out what had alerted the monsters. He heard shouts of command and a clatter like a large force assembling.

More shouts followed, calls for the death of the Severed Tongue. Though he had never heard that name before, the dwarf easily guessed that it described an orc tribe. “So, they’re fightin’ amongst themselves, are they?” he muttered softly, chuckling. Realizing that the dwarves’ assault would have to wait, he climbed back down the ladder.

But the clan, disappointed in the delay, did not disperse. They were determined that this night’s work would indeed be done. So they waited.

The night passed its mid-point and still the sounds of movement came from the camp above. Yet the wait wasn’t dulling the edge of the dwarves’ determination. Conversely, the delay was sharpening their intensity, heightening their hunger for goblin blood. These fighters were also blacksmiths, craftsman who spent long hours adding a single scale to a dragon statue. They knew patience.

Finally, when all was again quiet, Bruenor went back up the ladder. Before he had even poked his head through the turf, he heard the comforting sounds of rhythmic breathing and loud snores.

Without further delay, the clan slipped out of the holes and methodically set about their murderous work. They did not revel in their roles as assassins, preferring to fight sword against sword, but they understood the necessity of this type of raid, and they placed no value whatsoever on the lives of goblin scum.

The area gradually quieted as more and more of the monsters entered the silent sleep of death. The dwarves concentrated on the ogres first, in case their attack was discovered before they were able to do much damage. But their strategy was unnecessary. Many minutes passed without retaliation.

By the time one of the guards noticed what was happening and managed to shout out a cry of alarm, the blood of more than a thousand of Kessell’s charges wetted the field.

Cries went up all about them, but Bruenor did not call for a retreat. “Form up!” he commanded. “Tight around the tunnels!” He knew that the mad rush of the first wave of counterattackers would be disorganized and unprepared.

The dwarves formed into a tight defensive posture and had little trouble cutting the goblins down. Bruenor’s axe was marked with many more notches before any goblin had even taken a swing at him.

Gradually, though, Kessell’s charges became more organized. They came at the dwarves in formations of their own, and their growing numbers, as more and more of the camp was roused and alerted, began to press heavily on the raiders. And then a group of ogres, Kessell’s elite tower guard, came charging across the field.

The first of the dwarves to retreat, the tunnel experts who were to make the final check on the preparations for the collapse, put their booted feet on the top rungs of the shaft ladders. The escape into the tunnels would be a delicate operation, and efficient haste would be the deciding factor in its success or failure.

But Bruenor unexpectedly ordered the tunnel experts to come back out of the shafts and the dwarves to hold their line.

He had heard the first notes of an ancient song, a song that, just a few years before, would have filled him with dread. Now, though, it lifted his heart with hope.

He recognized the voice that led the stirring words.

* * *

A severed arm of rotted flesh splatted on the floor, yet another victim of the whirring scimitars of Drizzt Do’Urden.

But the fearless trolls crowded in. Normally, Drizzt would have known of their presence as soon as he entered the square chamber. Their terrible stench made it hard for them to hide. These ones, though, hadn’t actually been in the chamber when the drow entered. As Drizzt had moved deeper into the room, he tripped a magical alarm that bathed the area in wizard’s light and cued the guardians. They stepped in through the magical mirrors that Kessell had planted as watchposts throughout the room.

Drizzt had already dropped one of the wretched beasts, but now he was more concerned with running than fighting. Five others replaced the first and were more than a match for any fighter. Drizzt shook his head in disbelief when the body of the troll he had beheaded suddenly rose again and began flailing blindly.

And then, a clawed hand caught hold of his ankle. He knew without looking that it was the limb he had just cut free.

Horrified, he kicked the grotesque arm away from him and turned and sprinted to the spiraling stairway that ran up to the tower’s second level from the back of the chamber. At his earlier command, Guenhwyvar had already limped weakly up the stairs and now waited on the platform at the top.

Drizzt distinctly heard the sucking footsteps of his sickening pursuers and the scratching of the severed hand’s filthy nails as it also took up the chase. The drow bounded up the stairway without looking back, hoping that his speed and agility would give him enough of a lead to find some way of escaping.

For there was no door on the platform.

The landing at the top of the stairs was rectangular and about ten feet across at its widest length. Two sides were open to the room, a third caught the lip of the cresting stairwell, and the fourth was a flat sheet of mirror, extending the exact length of the platform and secured between it and the chamber’s ceiling. Drizzt hoped that he would be able to understand the nuances of this unusual door, if that was what the mirror actually was, when he examined it from the platform’s level.

It wouldn’t be that easy.

Though the mirror was filled with the reflection of an ornate tapestry hanging on the wall of the chamber directly opposite it, its surface appeared perfectly smooth and unbroken by any cracks or handles that might indicate a concealed opening. Drizzt sheathed his weapons and ran his hands across the surface to see if there was a handle hidden from his sharp eyes, but the even slide of the glass only confirmed his observation.

The trolls were on the stairway.

Drizzt tried to push his way through the glass, speaking all of the command words of opening he had ever learned, searching for an extra-dimensional portal similar to the ones that had held Kessell’s hideous guards. The wall remained a tangible barrier.

The lead troll reached the halfway point on the stairs.

“There must be a clue somewhere!” the drow groaned. “Wizards love a challenge, and there is no sport to this!” The only possible answer lay in the intricate designs and images of the tapestry. Drizzt stared at it, trying to sort through the thousands of interwoven images for some special hint that would show him the way to safety.

The stench flowed up to him. He could hear the slobbering of the ever-hungry monsters.

But he had to control his revulsion and concentrate on the myriad images. One thing in the tapestry caught his eye: the lines of a poem that wove through all of the other images along the top border. In contrast to the dulling colors of the rest of the ancient artwork, the calligraphed letters of the poem held the contrasting brightness of a newer addition. Something Kessell had added?

Come if ye will

To the orgy within,

But first ye must find the latch!

Seen and not seen,

Been yet not been

And a handle that flesh cannot catch.

One line in particular stood out in the drow’s mind. He had heard the phrase “Been yet not been” in his childhood days in Menzoberranzan. They referred to Urgutha Forka, a vicious demon that had ravaged the planet with a particularly virulent plague in the ancient times when Drizzt’s ancestors had walked on the surface. The surface elves had always denied the existence of Urgutha Forka, blaming the plague on the drow, but the dark elves knew better. Something in their physical make-up had kept them immune to the demon, and after they realized how deadly it was to their enemies, they had worked to fulfill the suspicions of the light elves by enlisting Urgutha as an ally.

Thus the reference “Been yet not been” was a derogatory line in a longer drow tale, a secret joke on their hated cousins who had lost thousands to a creature they denied even existed.

The riddle would have been impossible to anyone unaware of the tale of Urgutha Forka. The drow had found a valuable advantage. He scanned the reflection of the tapestry for some image that had a connection to the demon. And he found it in on the far edge of the mirror at belt height: a portrayal of Urgutha itself, revealed in all of its horrible splendor. The demon was depicted smashing the skull of an elf with a black rod, its symbol. Drizzt had seen this same portrayal before. Nothing seemed out of place or hinted at anything unusual.

The trolls had turned the final corner of their ascent. Drizzt was nearly out of time.

He turned and searched the source of the image for some discrepancy. It struck him at once. In the original tapestry Urgutha was striking the elf with its fist; there was no rod!

“Seen and not seen.”

Drizzt spun back on the mirror, grasping at the demon’s illusory weapon. But all he felt was smooth glass. He nearly cried out in frustration.

His experience had taught him discipline, and he quickly regained his composure. He moved his hand back away from the mirror, attempting to position his own reflection at the same depth he judged the rod to be at. He slowly closed his fingers, watching his hand’s image close around the rod with the excitement of anticipated success.

He shifted his hand slightly.

A thin crack appeared in the mirror.

The leading troll reached the top of the stairs, but Drizzt and Guenhwyvar were gone.

The drow slid the strange door back into its closed position, leaned back, and sighed with relief. A dimly lit stairway led up before him, ending with a platform that opened into the tower’s second level. No door blocked the way, just hanging strands of beads, sparkling orange in the torchlight of the room beyond. Drizzt heard giggling.

Silently, he and the cat crept up the stairs and peeked over the rim of the landing. They had come to Kessell’s harem room.

It was softly lit with torches glowing under screening shades. Most of the floor was covered with overstuffed pillows, and sections of the room were curtained off. The harem girls, Kessell’s mindless playthings, sat in a circle in the center of the floor, giggling with the uninhibited enthusiasm of children at play. Drizzt doubted that they would notice him, but even if they did, he wasn’t overly concerned. He understood right away that these pitiful, broken creatures were incapable of initiating any action against him.

He kept alert, though, especially of the curtained boudoirs. He doubted that Kessell would have put guards here, certainly none as unpredictably vicious as trolls, but he couldn’t afford to make any mistakes.

With Guenhwyvar close at his side, he slipped silently from shadow to shadow, and when the two companions had ascended the stairs and were on the landing before the door to the third level, Drizzt was more relaxed.

But then the buzzing sound that Drizzt had heard when he first entered the tower returned. It gathered strength as it continued, as though its song came from the vibrations of the very walls of the tower. Drizzt looked all around for a possible source.

Chimes hanging from the room’s ceiling began to tinkle eerily. The fires of the torches on the walls danced wildly.

Then Drizzt understood.

The structure was awakening with a life of its own. The field outside remained under the shadow of night, but the first fingers of dawn brightened the tower’s high pinnacle.

The door suddenly swung open into the third level, Kessell’s throne room.

“Well done!” cried the wizard. He was standing beyond the crystal throne across the room from Drizzt, holding an unlit candle and facing the open door. Regis stood obediently at his side, wearing a blank expression on his face.

“Please enter,” Kessell said with false courtesy. “Fear not for my trolls that you injured, they will surely heal!” He threw his head back and laughed.

Drizzt felt a fool; to think that all of his caution and stealth had served no better purpose than to amuse the wizard! He rested his hands on the hilts of his sheathed scimitars and stepped through the doorway.

Guenhwyvar remained crouched in the shadows of the stairway, partly because the wizard had said nothing to indicate that he knew of the cat, and partly because the weakened cat didn’t want to expend the energy of walking.

Drizzt halted before the throne and bowed low. The sight of Regis standing beside the wizard disturbed him more than a little, but he managed to hide that he recognized the halfling. Regis likewise had shown no familiarity when he had first seen the drow, though Drizzt couldn’t be sure if that was a conscious effort or if the halfling was under the influence of some type of enchantment.

“Greetings, Akar Kessell,” Drizzt stammered in the broken accent of denizens of the underworld, as though the common tongue of the surface was foreign to him. He figured that he might as well try the same tactics he had used against the demon. “I am sent from my people in good faith to parley with you on matters concerning our common interests.”

Kessell laughed aloud. “Are you indeed!” a wide smile spread across his face, replaced abruptly with a scowl. His eyes narrowed evilly. “I know you, dark elf! Any man who has ever lived in Ten-Towns has heard the name of Drizzt Do’Urden in tale or in jest! So keep your lies unspoken!”

“Your pardon, mighty wizard,” Drizzt said calmly, changing tactics. “In many ways, it seems, you are wiser than your demon.”

The self-assured look disappeared from Kessell’s face. He had been wondering what had prevented Errtu from answering his summons. He looked at the drow with more respect. Had this solitary warrior slain a major demon?

“Allow me to begin again,” Drizzt said. “Greetings, Akar Kessell.” He bowed low. “I am Drizzt Do’Urden, ranger of Gwaeron Windstrom, guardian of Icewind Dale. I have come to kill you.”

The scimitars leaped out of their sheaths.

But Kessell moved, too. The candle he held suddenly flickered to life. Its flame was caught in the maze of prisms and mirrors that cluttered the entire chamber, focused and sharpened at each reflecting spot. Instantaneously with the lighting of the candle, three concentrated beams of light enclosed the drow in a triangular prison. None of the beams had touched him, but he sensed their power and dared not cross their path.

Drizzt clearly heard the tower humming as daylight filtered down its length. The room brightened considerably as several of the wall panels which had appeared mirrorlike in the torchlight showed themselves to be windows.

“Did you believe that you could walk right in here and simply dispose of me?” Kessell asked incredulously. “I am Akar Kessell, you fool! The Tyrant of Icewind Dale! I command the greatest army that has ever marched on the frozen steppes of this forsaken land!”

“Behold my army!” He waved his hand and one of the scrying mirrors came to life, revealing part of the vast encampment that surrounded the tower, complete with the shouts of the awakening camp.

Then a death cry sounded from somewhere in the unseen reaches of the field. Instinctively, both the drow and the wizard tuned their ears on the distant clamor and heard the continuing ring of battle. Drizzt looked curiously at Kessell, wondering if the wizard knew what was happening in the northern section of his camp.

Kessell answered the drow’s unspoken question with a wave of his hand. The image in the mirror clouded over with an inner fog for a moment, then shifted to the other side of the field. The shouts and clanging of the battle rang out loudly from within the depths of the scrying instrument. Then, as the mist cleared, the image of Bruenor’s clansmen, fighting back to back in the midst of a sea of goblins, came clear. The field all around the dwarves was littered with the corpses of goblins and ogres.

“You see how foolish it is to oppose me?” Kessell squealed.

“It appears to me that the dwarves have done well.”

“Nonsense!” Kessell screamed. He waved his hand again, and the fog returned to the mirror. Abruptly, the Song of Tempos resounded from within its depths. Drizzt leaned forward and strained to catch a glimpse of an image through the veil, anxious to see the leader of the song.

“Even as the stupid dwarves cut down a few of my lesser fighters, more warriors swarm to join the ranks of my army! Doom is upon you all, Drizzt Do’Urden! Akar Kessell is come!”

The fog cleared.

With a thousand fervent warriors behind him, Wulfgar approached the unsuspecting monsters. The goblins and orcs who were closest to the charging barbarians, holding unbending faith in the words of their master, cheered at the coming of their promised allies.

Then they died.

The barbarian horde drove through their ranks, singing and killing with wild abandonment. Even through the clatter of weapons, the sound of the dwarves joining in the Song of Tempos could be heard.

Wide-eyed, jaw hanging open, trembling with rage, Kessell waved the shocking image away and swung back on Drizzt. “It does not matter!” he said, fighting to keep his tone steady. “I shall deal with them mercilessly! And then Bryn Shander shall topple in flames!”

“But first, you, traitorous drow,” the wizard hissed. “Killer of your own kin, what gods have you left to pray to?” He puffed on the candle, causing its flame to dance on its side.

The angle of reflection shifted and one of the beams landed on Drizzt, boring a hole completely through the hilt of his old scimitar and then drove deeper, cutting through the black skin of his hand. Drizzt grimaced in agony and clutched at his wound as the scimitar fell to the floor and the beam returned to its original path.

“You see how easy it is?” Kessell taunted. “Your feeble mind cannot begin to imagine the power of Crenshinibon! Feel blessed that I allowed you to feel a sample of that power before you died!”

Drizzt held his jaw firm, and there was no sign of pleading in his eyes as he glared at the wizard. He had long ago accepted the possibility of death as an acceptable risk of his trade, and he was determined to die with dignity.

Kessell tried to goad the sweat out of him. The wizard swayed the deadly candle tantalizingly about, causing the rays to shift back and forth. When he finally realized that he would not hear any whimpering or begging out of the proud ranger, Kessell grew tired of the game. “Farewell, fool,” he growled and puckered his lips to puff on the flame.

Regis blew out the candle.

Everything seemed to come to a complete halt for several seconds. The wizard looked down at the halfling, whom he thought to be his slave, in horrified amazement. Regis merely shrugged his shoulders, as if he was as surprised by his uncharacteristically brave act as Kessell.

Relying on instinct, the wizard threw the silver plate that held the candle through the glass of the mirror and ran screaming toward the back corner of the room to a small ladder hidden in the shadows. Drizzt had just taken his first steps when the fires within the mirror roared. Four evil red eyes stared out, catching the drow’s attention, and two hellhounds bounded through the broken glass.

Guenhwyvar intercepted one, leaping past its master and crashing headlong into the demon hound. The two beasts tumbled back toward the rear of the room, a black and tawny-red blur of fangs and claws, knocking Regis aside.

The second dog unleashed its fire breath at Drizzt, but again, as with the demon, the fire didn’t bother the drow. Then it was his turn to strike. The fire-hating scimitar rang in ecstasy, cleaving the charging beast in half as Drizzt brought it down. Amazed at the power of the blade but not having time even to gawk at his mutilated victim, Drizzt resumed his chase.

He reached the bottom of the ladder. Up above, through the open trap door to the tower’s highest floor, came the rhythmic flashing of a throbbing light. Drizzt felt the intensity of the vibrations increasing with each pulse. The heart of Cryshal-Tirith was beating stronger with the rising sun. Drizzt understood the danger that he was heading into, but he didn’t have the time to stop and ponder the odds.

And then he was once again facing Kessell, this time in the smallest room of the structure. Between them, hanging eerily in midair, was the pulsating hunk of crystal – Cryshal-Tirith’s heart. It was four-sided and tapered like an icicle. Drizzt recognized it as a miniature replica of the tower he stood in, though it was barely a foot long.

An exact image of Crenshinibon.

A wall of light emanated from it, cutting the chamber in half, with the drow on one side and the wizard on the other. Drizzt knew from the wizard’s snicker that it was a barrier as tangible as one of stone. Unlike the cluttered scrying room below, only one mirror, appearing more like a window in the tower’s wall, adorned this room, just to the side of the wizard.

“Strike the heart, drow,” Kessell laughed. “Fool! The heart of Cryshal-Tirith is mightier than any weapon in the world! Nothing that you could ever do, magical or otherwise, could even put the slightest scratch upon its pure surface! Strike it; let your foolish impertinence be revealed!”

Drizzt had other plans, though. He was flexible and cunning enough to realize that some foes could not be defeated with force alone. There were always other options.

He sheathed his remaining weapon, the magical scimitar, and began untying the rope that secured the sack to his belt. Kessell looked on curiously, disturbed by the drow’s calm, even when his death seemed inevitable. “What are you doing?” the wizard demanded.

Drizzt didn’t reply. His actions were methodical and unshaken. He loosened the drawstring on the sack and pulled it open.

“I asked you what you were doing!” Kessell scowled as Drizzt began walking toward the heart. Suddenly the replica seemed vulnerable to the wizard. He had the uncomfortable feeling that perhaps this dark elf was more dangerous than he had originally estimated.

Crenshinibon sensed it, too. The crystal shard telepathically instructed Kessell to unleash a killing bolt and be done with the drow.

But Kessell was afraid.

Drizzt neared the crystal. He tried to put his hand over it, but the light wall repulsed him. He nodded, expecting as much, and pulled back the sack’s opening as wide as it would go. His concentration was solely on the tower itself, he never looked at the wizard or acknowledged his ranting.

Then he emptied the bag of flour over the gemstone.

The tower seemed to groan in protest. It darkened.

The wall of light that separated the drow from the wizard disappeared.

But still Drizzt concentrated on the tower. He knew that the layer of suffocating flour could only block the gemstone’s powerful radiations for a short time.

Long enough, though, for him to slip the now-empty bag over it and pull the drawstring tight. Kessell wailed and lurched forward, but halted before the drawn scimitar.

“No!” the wizard cried in helpless protest. “Do you realize the consequences of what you have done?” As if in answer, the tower trembled. It calmed quickly, but both the drow and the wizard sensed the approaching danger. Somewhere in the bowels of Cryshal-Tirith, the decay had already begun.

“I understand completely,” replied Drizzt. “I have defeated you, Akar Kessell. Your short reign as self-proclaimed ruler of Ten-Towns is ended.”

“You have killed yourself, drow!” Kessell retorted as Cryshal-Tirith shuddered again, this time even more violently. “You cannot hope to escape before the tower crumbles upon you!”

The quake came again. And again.

Drizzt shrugged, unconcerned. “So be it,” he said. “My purpose is fulfilled, for you, too, shall perish.”

A sudden, crazy cackle exploded from the wizard’s lips. He spun away from Drizzt and dove at the mirror embedded in the tower wall. Instead of crashing through the glass and falling to the field below, as Drizzt expected, Kessell slipped into the mirror and was gone.

The tower shook again, and this time the trembling did not relent. Drizzt started for the trap door but could barely keep his footing. Cracks appeared along the walls.

“Regis!” he yelled, but there was no answer. Part of the wall in the room below had already collapsed; Drizzt could see the rubble at the base of the ladder. Praying that his friends had already escaped, he took the only route left open to him.

He dove through the magic mirror after Kessell.