The Halfling's Gem

23. If Ever You Loved Catti-brie

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Bruenor had come into Pook's chambers cursing and swinging, and by the time his initial momentum had worn away, he was far across the room from the Taros Hoop and from the two hill giant eunuchs that Pook had on guard. The guildmaster was closest to the raging dwarf, looking at him more in curiosity than terror.

Bruenor paid Pook no mind whatsoever. He looked beyond the plump man, to a robed form sitting against a wall: the wizard who had banished Catti-brie to Tarterus.

Recognizing the murderous hate in the red-bearded dwarf's eyes, LaValle rolled to his feet and scrambled through the door to his own room. His racing heart calmed when he heard the click of the door behind him, for it was a magic doorway with several holding and warding spells in place. He was safe - or so he thought.

Often wizards were blinded by their own considerable strength to other - less sophisticated, perhaps, but equally strong - forms of power. LaValle could not know the boiling cauldron that was Bruenor Battlehammer, and could not anticipate the brutality of the dwarf's rage.

His surprise was complete when a mithril axe, like a bolt of his own lightning, sundered his magically barred door to kindling and the wild dwarf stormed in.

* * *

Wulfgar, oblivious to the surroundings and wanting only to return to Tarterus and Catti-brie, came through the Taros Hoop just as Bruenor exited the room. Drizzt's call from across the planes, though, begging him to hold the portal open, could not be ignored. However the barbarian felt at that moment, for Catti-brie or Drizzt, he could not deny that his place was in guarding the mirror.

Still, the image of Catti-brie falling through the eternal gloom of that horrid place burned at his heart, and he wanted to spring right back through the Taros Hoop to rush to her aid.

Before the barbarian could decide whether to follow his heart or his thoughts, a huge fist slammed into the side of his head, dropping him to the floor. He flopped facedown between the tree trunk legs of two of Pook's hill giants. It was a difficult way to enter a fight, but Wulfgar's rage was every bit as intense as Bruenor's.

The giants tried to drop their heavy feet on Wulfgar, but he was too agile for such a clumsy maneuver. He sprang up between them and slammed one square in the face with a huge fist. The giant stared blankly at Wulfgar for a long moment, disbelieving that a human could deliver such a punch, then it hopped backward weirdly and dropped limply to the floor.

Wulfgar spun on the other, shattering its nose with the butt end of Aegis-fang. The giant clutched its face in both hands and reeled. For it, the fight was already over.

Wulfgar couldn't take the time to ask. He kicked the giant in the chest, launching it halfway across the room.

"Now, there is only me," came a voice. Wulfgar looked across the room to the huge chair that served as the guildmaster's throne, and to Pasha Pook, standing behind it.

Pook reached down behind the chair and pulled out a neatly concealed heavy crossbow, loaded and ready. "And I may be fat like those two," Pook chuckled, "but I am not stupid." He leveled the crossbow on the back of the chair.

Wulfgar glanced around. He was caught, fully, with no chance to dodge away.

But maybe he didn't have to.

Wulfgar firmed his jaw and puffed out his chest. "Right here, then," he said without flinching, tapping his finger over his heart. "Shoot me down." He cast a glance over his shoulder, to where the image in the Taros Hoop now showed the shadows of gathering demodands. "And you defend the entrance to the plane of Tarterus."

Pook eased his finger off the trigger.

If Wulfgar's point had made an impression, it was driven home a second later when the clawed hand of a demodand reached through the portal and latched onto Wulfgar's shoulder.

* * *

Drizzt moved as if swimming in his descent through the gloom, the pumping actions gaining him ground on Catti-brie. He was vulnerable, though, and he knew it.

So did a winged demodand watching him fall by.

The wretched creature hopped off its perch as soon as Drizzt had passed, flapping its wings at an awkward angle to gain momentum in its dive. Soon it was overtaking the drow, and it reached out its razor-sharp claws to tear at him as it passed.

Drizzt noticed the beast at the last moment. He twisted over wildly and spun about, trying to get out of the diving thing's path and struggling to ready his scimitars.

He should have had no chance. It was the demodand's environment, and it was a winged creature, more at home in flight than on the ground.

But Drizzt Do'Urden never played the odds.

The demodand strafed past, its wicked talons ripping yet another tear in Drizzt's fine cloak. Twinkle, as steady as ever even in midfall, lopped off one of the creature's wings. The demodand fluttered helplessly to the side and continued down in a tumble. It had no heart left for battle against the drow elf, and no wing left to catch him anyway.

Drizzt paid it no heed. His goal was in reach.

He caught Catti-brie in his arms, locking her tightly against his chest. She was cold, he noted grimly, but he knew that he had too far to go to even think about that. He wasn't certain if the planar gate was still open, and he had no idea of how he could stop his eternal fall.

A solution came to him in the form of another winged demodand, one that cut an intercepting path at him and Catti-brie. The creature did not mean to attack yet, Drizzt could see; its route seemed more of a flyby, where it would pass under them to better inspect its foe.

Drizzt didn't let the chance go. As the creature passed under, the dark elf snapped himself downward, extending to his limit with one blade-wielding hand. Not aimed to kill, the scimitar found its mark, digging into the creature's backside. The demodand shrieked and dove away, pulling free of the blade.

Its momentum, though, had tugged Drizzt and Catti-brie along, angling their descent enough to line them up with one of the intersecting smoky bridges.

Drizzt twisted and turned to keep them in line, holding out his cloak with his free arm to catch a draft, or tucking it in tightly to lessen the drag. At the last moment, he spun himself under Catti-brie to shield her from the impact. With a heavy thud and a whoosh of smoke, they landed.

Drizzt crawled out and forced himself to his knees, trying to find his breath.

Catti-brie lay below him, pale and torn, a dozen wounds visible, most vividly the gash from the wererat's quarrel. Blood soaked much of her clothing and matted her hair, but Drizzt's heart did not drop at the gruesome sight, for he had noted one other event when they had plopped down.

Catti-brie had groaned.

* * *

LaValle scrambled behind his little table. "Keep you back, dwarf," he warned. "I am a wizard of great powers."

Bruenor's terror was not apparent. He drove his axe through the table, and a blinding explosion of smoke and sparks filled the room.

When LaValle recovered his sight a moment later, he found himself facing Bruenor, the dwarf's hands and beard trailing wisps of gray smoke, the little table broken flat, and his crystal ball severed clean in half.

"That the best ye got?" Bruenor asked.

LaValle couldn't get any words past the lump in his throat.

Bruenor wanted to cut him down, to drive his axe right between the man's bushy eyebrows, but it was Catti-brie, his beautiful daughter, who truly abhorred killing with all of her heart, who he meant to avenge. Bruenor would not dishonor her memory.

"Drats!" he groaned, slamming his forehead into LaValle's face. The wizard thumped up against the wall and stayed there, dazed and motionless, until Bruenor closed a hand on his chest, tearing out a few hairs for good measure, and threw him facedown on the floor. "Me friends might be needin' yer help, wizard," the dwarf growled, "so crawl! And know in yer heart that if ye make one turn I don't be liking, me axe'll cleave yer head down the middle!"

In his semiconscious state, LaValle hardly heard the words, but he fathomed the dwarf's meaning well enough and forced himself to his hands and knees.

* * *

Wulfgar braced his feet against the iron stand of the Taros Hoop and locked his own iron grip onto the demodand's elbow, matching the creature's mighty pull. In his other hand the barbarian held Aegis-fang ready, not wanting to swing through the planar portal but hoping for something more vulnerable than an arm to come through to his world.

The demodand's claws cut deep wounds in his shoulder, filthy wounds that would be long in healing, but Wulfgar shrugged away the pain. Drizzt had told him to hold the gate if ever he had loved Catti-brie.

He would hold the gate.

Another second passed and Wulfgar saw his hand slipping dangerously close to the portal. He could match the demodand's strength, but the demodand's power was magical, not physical, and Wulfgar would grow weary long before his foe.

Another inch, and his hand would cross through to Tarterus, where other hungry demodands no doubt waited.

A memory flashed in Wulfgar's mind, the final image of Catti-brie, torn and falling. "No!" he growled, and he forced his hand back, pulling savagely until he and the demodand were back to where they had started. Then Wulfgar dropped his shoulder suddenly, tugging the demodand down instead of out.

The gamble worked. The demodand lost its momentum altogether and stumbled down, its head poking through the Taros Hoop and into the Prime Material Plane for just a second, long enough for Aegis-fang to shatter its skull.

Wulfgar jumped back a step and slapped his war hammer into both hands. Another demodand started through, but the barbarian blasted it back into Tarterus with a powerful swipe.

Pook watched it all from behind his throne, his crossbow still aimed to kill. Even the guildmaster found himself mesmerized by the sheer strength of the giant man, and when one of his eunuchs recovered and stood up, Pook waved it away from Wulfgar, not wanting to disturb the spectacle before him.

A shuffle off to the side forced him to look away, though, as LaValle came crawling out of his room, the axe-wielding dwarf walking right behind.

Bruenor saw at once the perilous predicament that Wulfgar faced, and knew that the wizard would only complicate things. He grabbed LaValle by the hair and pulled him up to his knees, walking around to face the man.

"Good day for sleepin'," the dwarf commented, and he slammed his forehead again into the wizard's, knocking LaValle into blackness. He heard a click behind him as the wizard slumped, and he reflexively swung his shield between himself and the noise, just in time to catch Pook's crossbow quarrel. The wicked dart drove a hole through the foaming mug standard and barely missed Bruenor's arm as it poked through the other side.

Bruenor peeked over the rim of his treasured shield, stared at the bolt, and then looked dangerously at Pook. "Ye shouldn't be hurtin' me shield!" he growled, and he started forward.

The hill giant was quick to intercept.

Wulfgar caught the action out of the corner of his eye, and would have loved to join in - especially with Pook busy reloading his heavy crossbow - but the barbarian had troubles of his own. A winged demodand swooped through the gate in a sudden rush and flashed by Wulfgar.

Fine-tuned reflexes saved the barbarian, for he snapped a hand out and caught the demodand by a leg. The monster's momentum staggered Wulfgar backward, but he managed to hold on. He slammed the demodand down beside him and drove it into the floor with a single chop of his war hammer.

Several arms reached through the Taros Hoop, shoulders and heads poked through, and Wulfgar, swinging Aegis-fang furiously, had all he could handle simply keeping the wretched things at bay.

* * *

Drizzt ran along the smoky bridge, Catti-brie draped limply over one shoulder. He met no further resistance for many minutes and understood why when he at last reached the planar gate.

Huddled around it, and blocking his passage, was a score of demodands.

The drow, dismayed, dropped to one knee and laid Catti-brie gently beside him. He considered putting Taulmaril to use, but realized that if he missed, if an arrow somehow found its way through the horde, it would pass through the gate and into the room where Wulfgar stood. He couldn't take that chance.

"So close," he whispered helplessly, looking down to Catti-brie. He held her tightly in his arms and brushed a slender hand across her face. How cool she seemed. Drizzt leaned low over her, meaning only to discern the rhythm of her breathing, but he found himself too close to her, and before he even realized his actions, his lips were to hers in a tender kiss. Catti-brie stirred but did not open her eyes.

Her movement brought new courage to Drizzt. "Too close," he muttered grimly, "and you'll not die in this foul place!" He scooped Catti-brie up over his shoulder, wrapping his cloak tightly around her to secure her to him. Then he took up his scimitars in tight grips, rubbing his sensitive fingers across the intricate craftings of their hilts, becoming one with his weapons, making them the killing extensions of his black arms. He took a deep breath and set his visage.

He charged, as silently as only a drow elf could be, at the back of the wretched horde.

* * *

Regis rose uncomfortably as the black silhouettes of hunting cats darted in and out of the starlight surrounding him. They did not seem to threaten him - not yet - but they were gathering. He knew beyond doubt that he was their focal point.

Then Guenhwyvar bounded up and stood before him, the great cat's head level with his own.

"You know something," Regis said, reading the excitement in the panther's dark eyes. Regis held up the statuette and examined it, noting the cat's tenseness at the sight of the figurine.

"We can get back with this," the halfling said in sudden revelation. "This is the key to the journey, and with it, we can go wherever we desire!" He glanced around and considered some very interesting possibilities. "All of us?"

If cats could smile, Guenhwyvar did.

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