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The Halfling's Gem
1. Tower of Twilight
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Halfway to Everywhere
1. Tower of Twilight
"A 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 weeks 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 war hammer, 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.
They found one section of the wall - at least - to be an illusion, masking a door that led them into a wide, circular chamber that was the tower's lowest level. Stalls lining one wall showed that they had done right in bringing the horses, and they tethered the beasts quickly and rushed to catch up to the youth. The boy had not slowed and had entered another doorway.
"Hold for us," Drizzt called, stepping through the portal, but he found no guide inside. He had entered a dimly lit corridor that rose gently and arced around as it rose, apparently tracing the circumference of the tower. "Only one way to go," he told Wulfgar, who came in behind him, and they started off.
Drizzt figured that they had done one complete circle and were up to the second level - ten feet at least - when they found the boy waiting for them beside a darkened sidepassage that fell back toward the center of the structure. The lad ignored this passage, though, and started off higher into the tower along the main arcing corridor.
Wulfgar had run out of patience for such cryptic games. His only concern was that Entreri and Regis were running farther away every second. He stepped by Drizzt and grabbed the boy's shoulder, spinning him about. "Are you Malchor?" he demanded bluntly.
The boy blanched at the giant man's gruff tone but did not reply.
"Leave him," Drizzt said. "He is not Malchor. I am sure. We will find the master of the tower soon enough." He looked to the frightened boy. "True?"
The boy gave a quick nod and started off again.
"Soon," Drizzt reiterated to quiet Wulfgar's growl. He prudently stepped by the barbarian, putting himself between Wulfgar and the guide.
"Harpell," Wulfgar groaned at his back.
The incline grew steeper and the circles tighter, and both friends knew that they were nearing the top. Finally the boy stopped at a door, pushed it open, and motioned for them to enter.
Drizzt moved quickly to be the first inside the room, fearing that the angry barbarian might make less than a pleasant first impression with their wizard host.
Across the room, sitting atop a desk and apparently waiting for them, rested a tall and sturdy man with neatly trimmed salt-and-pepper hair. His arms were crossed on his chest. Drizzt began to utter a cordial greeting, but Wulfgar nearly bowled him over, bursting in from behind and striding right up to the desk.
The barbarian, with one hand on his hip and one holding Aegis-fang in a prominent display before him, eyed the man for a moment. "Are you the wizard named Malchor Harpell?" he demanded, his voice hinting at explosive anger. "And if not, where in the Nine Hells are we to find him?"
The man's laugh erupted straight from his belly. "Of course," he answered, and he sprang from the desk and clapped Wulfgar hard on the shoulder. "I prefer a guest who does not cover his feelings with rosy words!" he cried. He walked past the stunned barbarian toward the door - and the boy.
"Did you speak to them?" he demanded of the lad.
The boy blanched even more than before and shook his head emphatically.
"Not a single word?" Malchor yelled.
The boy trembled visibly and shook his head again.
"He said not a - " Drizzt began, but Malchor cut him off with an outstretched hand.
"If I find that you uttered even a single syllable, ...." he threatened. He turned back to the room and took a step away. Just when he figured that the boy might have relaxed a bit, he spun back on him, nearly causing him to jump from his shoes.
"Why are you still here?" Malchor demanded. "Be gone!"
The door slammed even before the wizard had finished the command. Malchor laughed again, and the tension eased from his muscles as he moved back to his desk. Drizzt came up beside Wulfgar, the two looking at each other in amazement.
"Let us be gone from this place," Wulfgar said to Drizzt, and the drow could see that his friend was fighting a desire to spring over the desk and throttle the arrogant wizard on the spot.
To a lesser degree, Drizzt shared those feelings, but he knew the tower and its occupants would be explained in time. "Our greetings, Malchor Harpell," he said, his lavender eyes boring into the man. "Your actions, though, do not fit the description your cousin Harkle mantled upon you."
"I assure you that I am as Harkle described," Malchor replied calmly. "And my welcome to you, Drizzt Do'Urden, and to you, Wulfgar, son of Beornegar. Rarely have I entertained such fine guests in my humble tower." He bowed low to them to complete his gracious and diplomatic - if not entirely accurate - greeting.
"The boy did nothing wrong," Wulfgar snarled at him.
"No, he has performed admirably," Malchor agreed. "Ah, you fear for him?" The wizard took his measure of the huge barbarian, Wulfgar's muscles still knotted in rage. "I assure you, the boy is treated well."
"Not by my eyes," retorted Wulfgar.
"He aspires to be a wizard," Malchor explained, not ruffled by the barbarian's scowl. "His father is a powerful landowner and has employed me to guide the lad. The boy shows potential, a sharp mind, and a love for the arts. But understand, Wulfgar, that wizardry is not so very different from your own trade."
Wulfgar's smirk showed a difference of opinion.
"Discipline," Malchor continued, undaunted. "For whatever we do in our lives, discipline and control over our own actions ultimately measure the level of our success. The boy has high aspirations and hints of power he cannot yet begin to understand. But if he cannot keep his thoughts silent for a single month, then I shan't waste years of my time on him. Your companion understands."
Wulfgar looked to Drizzt, standing relaxed by his side.
"I do understand," Drizzt said to Wulfgar. "Malchor has put the youth on trial, a test of his abilities to follow commands and a revelation to the depth of his desires."
"I am forgiven?" the wizard asked them.
"It is not important," Wulfgar grunted. "We have not come to fight the battles of a boy."
"Of course," said Malchor. "Your business presses; Harkle has told me. Go back down to the stables and wash. The boy is setting supper. He shall come for you when it is time to eat."
"Does he have a name?" Wulfgar said with obvious sarcasm.
"None that he has yet earned," Malchor replied curtly.
* * *
Though he was anxious to be back on the road, Wulfgar could not deny the splendor of the table of Malchor Harpell. He and Drizzt feasted well, knowing this to be, most probably, their last fine meal for many days.
"You shall spend the night," Malchor said to them after they had finished eating. "A soft bed would do you well," he argued against Wulfgar's disgruntled look. "And an early start, I promise."
"We will stay, and thank you," Drizzt replied. "Surely this tower will do us better than the hard ground outside."
"Excellent," said Malchor. "Come along, then. I have some items which should aid your quest." He led them out of the room and back down the decline of the corridor to the lower levels of the structure. As they walked, Malchor told his guests of the tower's formation and features. Finally they turned down one of the darkened side-passages and passed through a heavy door.
Drizzt and Wulfgar had to pause at the entrance for a long moment to digest the wondrous sight before them, for they had come to Malchor's museum, a collection of the finest items, magical and otherwise, that the mage had found during the many years of his travels. Here were swords and full suits of polished armor, a shining mithril shield, and the crown of a long dead king. Ancient tapestries lined the walls, and a glass case of priceless gems and jewels glittered in the flicker of the room's torches.
Malchor had moved to a cabinet across the room, and by the time Wulfgar and Drizzt looked back to him, he was sitting atop the thing, casually juggling three horseshoes. He added a fourth as they watched, effortlessly guiding them through the rise and fall of the dance.
"I have placed an enchantment upon these that will make your steeds run swifter than any beasts in the land," he explained. "For a short time only, but long enough to get you to Waterdeep. That alone should be worth your delay in coming here."
"Two shoes to a horse?" Wulfgar asked, ever doubting.
"That would not do," Malchor came back at him, tolerant of the weary young barbarian. "Unless you wish your horse to rear up and run as a man!" He laughed, but the scowl did not leave Wulfgar's face.
"Not to fear," Malchor said, clearing his throat at the failed joke. "I have another set." He eyed Drizzt. "I have heard it spoken that few are as agile as the drow elves. And I have heard, as well, by those who have seen Drizzt Do'Urden at fight and at play, that he is brilliant even considering the standards of his dark kin." Without interrupting the rhythm of his juggling, he flipped one of the horseshoes to Drizzt.
Drizzt caught it easily and in the same motion put it into the air above him. Then came the second and third shoes, and Drizzt, without ever taking his eyes off Malchor, put them into motion with easy movements.
The fourth shoe came in low, causing Drizzt to bend to the ground to catch it. But Drizzt was up to the task, and he never missed a catch or a throw as he included the shoe in his juggling.
Wulfgar watched curiously and wondered at the motives of the wizard in testing the drow.
Malchor reached down into the cabinet and pulled out the other set of shoes. "A fifth," he warned, launching one at Drizzt. The drow remained unconcerned, catching the shoe deftly and tossing it in line.
"Discipline!" said Malchor emphatically, aiming his remark at Wulfgar. "Show me, drow!" he demanded, firing the sixth, seventh, and eighth at Drizzt in rapid succession.
Drizzt grimaced as they came at him, determined to meet the challenge. His hands moving in a blur, he quickly had all eight horseshoes spinning and dropping harmoniously. And as he settled into an easy rhythm, Drizzt began to understand the wizard's ploy.
Malchor walked over to Wulfgar and clapped him again on the shoulder. "Discipline," he said again. "Look at him, young warrior, for your dark-skinned friend is truly a master of his movements and, thus, a master of his craft. You do not yet understand, but we two are not so different." He caught Wulfgar's eyes squarely with his own. "We three are not so different. Different methods, I agree. But to the same ends!"
Tiring of his game, Drizzt caught the shoes one by one as they fell and hooked them over his forearm, all the while eyeing Malchor with approval. Seeing his young friend slump back in thought, the drow wasn't sure which was the greater gift, the enchanted shoes or the lesson.
"But enough of this," Malchor said suddenly, bursting into motion. He crossed to a section of the wall that held dozens of swords and other weapons.
"I see that one of your scabbards is empty," he said to Drizzt. Malchor pulled a beautifully crafted scimitar from its mount. "Perhaps this will fill it properly."
Drizzt sensed the power of the weapon as he took it from the wizard, felt the care of its crafting and the perfection of its balance. A single, star-cut blue sapphire glittered in its pommel.
"Its name is Twinkle," Malchor said. "Forged by the elves of a past age."
"Twinkle," echoed Drizzt. Instantly a bluish light limned the weapon's blade. Drizzt felt a sudden surge within it, and somehow sensed a finer edge to its cut. He swung it a few times, trailing blue light with each motion. How easily it arced through the air; how easily it would cut down a foe! Drizzt slid it reverently into his empty scabbard.
"It was forged in the magic of the powers that all the surface elves hold dear," said Malchor. "Of the stars and the moon and the mysteries of their souls. You deserve it, Drizzt Do'Urden, and it will serve you well."
Drizzt could not answer the tribute, but Wulfgar, touched by the honor Malchor had paid to his oft-maligned friend, spoke for him. "Our thanks to you, Malchor Harpell," he said, biting back the cynicism that had dominated his actions of late. He bowed low.
"Keep to your heart, Wulfgar, son of Beornegar," Malchor answered him. "Pride can be a useful tool, or it can close your eyes to the truths about you. Go now and take your sleep. I shall awaken you early and set you back along your road."
* * *
Drizzt sat up in his bed and watched his friend after Wulfgar had settled into sleep. Drizzt was concerned for Wulfgar, so far from the empty tundra that had ever been his home. In their quest for Mithril Hall, they had trudged halfway across the northland, fighting every mile of the way. And in finding their goal, their trials had only begun, for they had then battled their way through the ancient dwarven complex. Wulfgar had lost his mentor there, and Drizzt his dearest friend, and truly they had dragged themselves back to the village of Longsaddle in need of a long rest.
But reality had allowed no breaks. Entreri had Regis in his clutches, and Drizzt and Wulfgar were their halfling friend's only hope. In Longsaddle, they had come to the end of one road but had found the beginning of an even longer one.
Drizzt could deal with his own weariness, but Wulfgar seemed cloaked in gloom, always running on the edge of danger. He was a young man out of Icewind Dale - the land that had been his only home - for the first time in his life. Now that sheltered strip of tundra, where the eternal wind blew, was far to the north.
But Calimport was much farther still, to the south.
Drizzt lay back on his pillow, reminding himself that Wulfgar had chosen to come along. Drizzt couldn't have stopped him, even if he had tried.
The drow closed his eyes. The best thing that he could do, for himself and for Wulfgar, was to sleep and be ready for whatever the next dawn would bring.
* * *
Malchor's student awakened them - silently - a few hours later and led them to the dining room, where the wizard waited. A fine breakfast was brought out before them.
"Your course is south, by my cousin's words," Malchor said to them. "Chasing a man who holds your friend, this halfling, Regis, captive."
"His name is Entreri," Drizzt replied, "and we will find him a hard catch, by my measure of him. He flies for Calimport."
"Harder still," Wulfgar added, "we had him placed on the road." He explained to Malchor, though Drizzt knew the words to be aimed at him, "Now we shall have to hope that he did not turn from its course."
"There was no secret to his path," argued Drizzt. "He made for Waterdeep, on the coast. He may have passed by there already."
"Then he is out to sea," reasoned Malchor.
Wulfgar nearly choked on his food. He hadn't even considered that possibility.
"That is my fear," said Drizzt. "And I had thought to do the same."
"It is a dangerous and costly course," said Malchor. "The pirates gather for the last runs to the south as the summer draws to an end, and if one has not made the proper arrangements, ..." He let the words hang ominously before them.
"But you have little choice," the wizard continued. "A horse cannot match the speed of a sailing ship, and the sea route is straighter than the road. So take to the sea, is my advice. Perhaps I can make some arrangements to speed your accommodations. My student has already set the enchanted shoes on your mounts, and with their aid, you may get to the great port in short days."
"And how long shall we sail?" Wulfgar asked, dismayed and hardly believing that Drizzt would go along with the wizard's suggestion.
"Your young friend does not understand the breadth of this journey," Malchor said to Drizzt. The wizard laid his fork on the table and another a few inches from it. "Here is Icewind Dale," he explained to Wulfgar, pointing to the first fork. "And this other, the Tower of Twilight, where you now sit. A distance of nearly four hundred miles lies between."
He tossed a third fork to Drizzt, who laid it out in front of him, about three feet from the fork representing their present position.
"It is a journey you would travel five times to equal the road ahead of you," Malchor told Wulfgar, "for that last fork is Calimport, two thousand miles and several kingdoms to the south."
"Then we are defeated," moaned Wulfgar, unable to comprehend such a distance.
"Not so," said Malchor. "For you shall ride with sails full of the northern wind, and beat the first snows of winter. You will find the land and the people more accommodating to the south."
"We shall see," said the dark elf, unconvinced. To Drizzt, people had ever spelled trouble.
"Ah," agreed Malchor, realizing the hardships a drow elf would surely find among the dwellers of the surface world. "But I have one more gift to give to you: a map to a treasure that you can recover this very day."
"Another delay," said Wulfgar.
"A small price to pay," replied Malchor, "and this short trip shall save you many days in the populated South, where a drow elf may walk only in the night. Of this I am certain."
Drizzt was intrigued that Malchor so clearly understood his dilemma and was apparently hinting at an alternative. Drizzt would not be welcome anywhere in the South. Cities that would grant the foul Entreri free passage would throw chains upon the dark elf if he tried to cross through, for the drow had long ago earned their reputation as ultimately evil and unspeakably vile. Few in all the Realms would be quick to recognize Drizzt Do'Urden as the exception to the rule.
"Just to the west of here, down a dark path in Neverwinter Wood and in a cave of trees, dwells a monster that the local farmers have named Agatha," said Malchor. "Once an elf, I believe, and a fair mage in her own right, according to legend, this wretched thing lives on after death and calls the night her time."
Drizzt knew the sinister legends of such creatures, and he knew their name. "A banshee?" he asked.
Malchor nodded. "To her lair you should go, if you are brave enough, for the banshee has collected a fair hoard of treasure, including one item that would prove invaluable to you, Drizzt Do'Urden."
He saw that he had the drow's full attention. Drizzt leaned forward over the table and weighed Malchor's every word.
"A mask," the wizard explained. "An enchanted mask that will allow you to hide your heritage and walk freely as a surface elf - or as a man, if that suits you."
Drizzt slumped back, a bit unnerved at the threat to his very identity.
"I understand your hesitancy," Malchor said to him. "It is not easy to hide from those who accuse you unjustly, to give credibility to their false perceptions. But think of your captive friend and know that I make this suggestion only for his sake. You may get through the southlands as you are, dark elf, but not unhindered."
Wulfgar bit his lip and said nothing, knowing this to be Drizzt's own decision. He knew that even his concerns about further delay could not weigh into such a personal discussion.
"We will go to this lair in the wood," Drizzt said at last, "and I shall wear such a mask if I must." He looked at Wulfgar. "Our only concern must be Regis."
* * *
Drizzt and Wulfgar sat atop their mounts outside the Tower of Twilight, with Malchor standing beside them.
"Be wary of the thing," Malchor said, handing Drizzt the map to the banshee's lair and another parchment that generally showed their course to the far South. "Her touch is deathly cold, and the legends say that to hear her keen is to die."
"Her keen?" asked Wulfgar.
"An unearthly wail too terrible for mortal ears to bear," said Malchor. "Take all care!"
"We shall," Drizzt assured him.
"We will not forget the hospitality or the gifts of Malchor Harpell," added Wulfgar.
"Nor the lesson, I hope," the wizard replied with a wink, drawing an embarrassed smile from Wulfgar.
Drizzt was pleased that his friend had shaken at least some of his surliness.
Dawn came upon them then, and the tower quickly faded into nothingness.
"The tower is gone, yet the wizard remains," remarked Wulfgar.
"The tower is gone, yet the door inside remains," Malchor corrected. He took a few steps back and stretched his arm out, his hand disappearing from sight.
Wulfgar jerked in bewilderment.
"For those who know how to find it," Malchor added. "For those who have trained their minds to the properties of magic." He stepped through the extradimensional portal and was gone from sight, but his voice came back to them one last time. "Discipline!" he called, and Wulfgar knew himself to be the target of Malchor's final statement.
Drizzt kicked his horse into motion, unrolling the map as he started away. "Harpell?" he asked over his shoulder, imitating Wulfgar's derisive tone of the previous night.
"Would that all of the Harpells were like Malchor!" Wulfgar replied. He sat staring at the emptiness that had been the Tower of Twilight, fully understanding that the wizard had taught him two valuable lessons in a single night: one of prejudice and one of humility.
* * *
From inside the hidden dimension of his home, Malchor watched them go. He wished that he could join them, to travel along the road of adventure as he had so often in his youth, finding a just course and following it against any odds. Harkle had judged the principles of those two correctly, Malchor knew, and had been right in asking Malchor to help them.
The wizard leaned against the door to his home. Alas, his days of adventure, his days of carrying the crusade of justice on his shoulders, were fading behind him.
But Malchor took heart in the events of the last day. If the drow and his barbarian friend were any indication, he had just helped to pass the torch into able hands.
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