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The Halfling's Gem
24. Interplanar Goo
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"Outa me way, ye overstuffed bag o' blubber!" Bruenor roared.
The giant eunuch planted its legs wide apart and reached down at the dwarf with a huge hand - which Bruenor promptly bit.
"They never listen," he grumbled. He stooped low and dashed between the giant's legs, then straightened quickly, the single horn on his helmet putting the poor eunuch up on its toes. For the second time that day, its eyes crossed and it tumbled, this time its hands low to hold its newest wound.
A killing rage evident in his gray eyes, Bruenor turned back to Pook. The guildmaster, though, seemed unconcerned, and in truth, the dwarf hardly noticed the man. He concentrated instead on the crossbow again, which was loaded and leveled at him.
* * *
Drizzt's single emotion as he came in was anger, anger at the pain the wretched creatures of Tarterus had caused to Catti-brie.
His goal, too, was singular: the little patch of light in the gloom, the planar gate back to his own world.
His scimitars led the way, and Drizzt grinned at the thought of tearing through the demodand flesh, but the drow slowed as he came in, his anger tempered by the sight of his goal. He could whirl in on the demodand horde in an attacking frenzy and probably manage to slip through the gate, but could Catti-brie take the punishment the mighty creatures would surely inflict before Drizzt got her through?
The drow saw another way. As he inched in on the back of the demodand line, he reached out wide to either side with his blades, tapping the back two demodands on their outside shoulders. As the creatures reflexively turned to look back over their shoulders, Drizzt darted between them.
The drow's blades became a whirring prow, nicking away the hands of any other demodands that tried to catch him. He felt a tug on Catti-brie and whirled quickly, his rage doubled. He couldn't see his target, but he knew that he had connected on something when he brought Twinkle down and heard a demodand shriek.
A heavy arm clubbed him on the side of the head, a blow that should have felled him, but Drizzt spun back again and saw the light of the gate only a few feet ahead - and the silhouette of a single demodand, standing to block his passage.
The dark tunnel of demodand flesh began to close about him. Another large arm wheeled in, but Drizzt was able to duck beneath its arc.
If the demodand delayed him a single second, he would be caught and slaughtered.
Again it was instinct, faster than thought, that carried Drizzt through. He slapped the demodand's arms wide apart with his scimitars and ducked his head, slamming into the demodand's chest, his momentum forcing the creature backward through the gate.
* * *
The dark head and shoulders came through into Wulfgar's sights, and he hammered Aegis-fang home. The mighty blow snapped the demodand's backbone and jolted Drizzt, who pushed from the other side.
The demodand fell dead, half in and half out of the Taros Hoop, and the stunned drow rolled limply to the side and out, tumbling into Pook's room, beneath Catti-brie.
Wulfgar paled at the sight and hesitated, but Drizzt, realizing that more creatures would soon rush through, managed to lift his weary head from the floor. "Close the gate," he gasped.
Wulfgar had already discerned that he could not shatter the glassy image within the hoop - striking at it only sent his war hammer's head into Tarterus. Wulfgar started to drop Aegis-fang to his side.
Then he noticed the action across the room.
* * *
"Are you quick enough with that shield?" Pook teased, wiggling the crossbow.
Intent on the weapon, Bruenor hadn't even noticed Drizzt and Catti-brie's grand entrance. "So ye've one shot to kill me, dog," he spat back, unafraid of death, "and one alone." He took a determined step forward.
Pook shrugged. He was an expert marksman, and his crossbow was as enchanted as any weapon in the Realms. One shot would be enough.
But he never got it off.
A twirling war hammer exploded into the throne, knocking the huge chair over into the guildmaster and sending him sprawling heavily into the wall.
Bruenor turned with a grim smile to thank his barbarian friend, but his smile washed away and the words died in his throat when he saw Drizzt - and Catti-brie! - lying beside the Taros Hoop.
The dwarf stood as if turned to stone, his eyes not blinking, his lungs not drawing breath. The strength went out of his legs, and he fell to his knees. He dropped his axe and shield and scrambled, on all fours, to his daughter's side.
Wulfgar clasped the iron edges of the Taros Hoop in his hands and tried to force them together. His entire upper body flushed red, and the veins and sinewy muscles stood out like iron cords in his huge arms. But if there was any movement in the gate, it was slight.
A demodand arm reached through the portal to prevent the closing, but the sight of it only spurred Wulfgar on. He roared to Tempus and pushed with all his strength, driving his hands together, bending the edges of hoop in to meet each other.
The glassy image bowed with the planar shift, and the demodand's arm dropped to the floor, cleanly severed. Likewise, the demodand that lay dead at Wulfgar's feet, with half its body still inside the gate, twitched and turned.
Wulfgar averted his eyes at the horrid spectacle of a winged demodand caught within the warping planar tunnel, bent and bowed until its skin began to rip apart.
The magic of the Taros Hoop was strong, and Wulfgar, for all of his strength, could not hope to bend the thing far enough to complete the job. He had the gate warped and blocked, but for how long? When he tired, and the Taros Hoop returned to its normal shape, the portal would open once again. Stubbornly the barbarian roared and drove on, turning his head to the side in anticipation of the shattering of the glassy surface.
* * *
How pale she seemed, her lips almost blue and her skin dry and chill. Her wounds were vicious, Bruenor saw, but the dwarf sensed that the most telling injury was neither cut nor bruise. Rather, his precious girl seemed to have lost her spirit, as though she'd given up her desire for life when she had fallen into the darkness.
She now lay limp, cold, and pale in his arms. On the floor. Drizzt instinctively recognized the dangers. He lolled over to the side, pulling his cloak out wide, shielding Bruenor, who was quite oblivious to his surroundings, and Catti-brie with his own body.
Across the room, LaValle stirred, shaking the grogginess out of his head. He rose to his knees and surveyed the room, immediately recognizing Wulfgar's attempt to close the gate.
"Kill them," Pook whispered to the wizard but not daring to crawl out from under the overturned chair.
LaValle wasn't listening; he had already begun a spell.
* * *
For the first time in his life, Wulfgar found his strength inadequate. "I cannot!" he grunted in dismay, looking to Drizzt - as he always looked to Drizzt - for an answer.
The wounded drow was barely coherent.
Wulfgar wanted to surrender. His arm burned from the gashes of the hydra bite; his legs seemed barely able to hold him; his friends were helpless on the floor.
And his strength was not enough!
He shot his gaze to and fro, searching for some alternate method. The hoop, however powerful, had to have a weakness. Or, at least, to hold out any hope, Wulfgar had to believe that it did.
Regis had gotten through it, had found a way to circumvent its power.
Wulfgar found his answer.
He gave a final heave on the Taros Hoop, then released it quickly, sending the portal into a momentary wobble. Wulfgar didn't hesitate to watch the eerie spectacle. He dove down and snatched the pearl-tipped scepter from Drizzt's belt, then leaped up straight and slammed the fragile device onto the top of the Taros Hoop, shattering the black pearl into a thousand tiny shards.
At that same moment, LaValle uttered the last syllable of his spell, releasing a mighty bolt of energy. It ripped past Wulfgar, searing the hairs on his arm, and blasted into the center of the Taros Hoop. The glassy image, cracked into the circular design of a spider's web by Wulfgar's cunning strike, broke apart altogether.
The ensuing explosion rocked the foundations of the guildhouse.
Thick patches of darkness swirled about the room; the onlookers perceived the whole place to be spinning, and a sudden wind whistled and howled in their ears, as though they had all been caught in the tumult of a rift in the very planes of existence. Black smoke and fumes rushed in upon them. The darkness became total.
Then, as quickly as it had begun, it passed away and daylight returned to the battered room. Drizzt and Bruenor were the first to their feet, studying the damage and the survivors.
The Taros Hoop lay twisted and shattered, a bent frame of worthless iron with a sticky, weblike substance clinging stubbornly in torn patches. A winged demodand lay dead on the floor, the severed arm of another creature beside it, and half the body of yet another beside that, still twitching in death, with thick, dark fluids spilling onto the floor.
A dozen feet back sat Wulfgar, propped up on his elbows and looking perplexed, one arm bright red from LaValle's energy bolt, his face blackened by the rush of smoke, and his entire frame matted in the gooey webbing. A hundred little dots of blood dotted the barbarian's body. Apparently the glassy image of the planar portal had been more than just an image.
Wulfgar looked at his friends distantly, blinked his eyes a few times, and dropped flat on his back.
LaValle groaned, catching the notice of Drizzt and Bruenor. The wizard started to struggle back to his knees, but realized that he would only be exposing himself to the victorious invaders. He slumped back to the floor and lay very still.
Drizzt and Bruenor looked at each other, wondering what to do next.
"Fine to see the light again," came a soft voice below them. They looked down to meet the gaze of Catti-brie, her deep blue eyes opened once again.
Bruenor, in tears, dropped to his knees and huddled over her. Drizzt started to follow the dwarf's lead, but sensed that theirs should be a private moment. He gave a comforting pat on Bruenor's shoulder and walked away to make sure that Wulfgar was all right.
A sudden burst of movement interrupted him as he knelt over his barbarian friend. The great throne, torn and scorched against the wall, toppled forward. Drizzt held it away easily, but while he was engaged, he saw Pasha Pook dart out from behind the object and bolt for the room's main door.
"Bruenor!" Drizzt called, but he knew even as he said it that the dwarf was too caught up with his daughter to be bothered. Drizzt pushed the great chair away and pulled Taulmaril off his back, stringing it as he started in pursuit.
Pook rushed through the door, swinging around to slam it behind him. "Rassit - " he started to yell as he turned back toward the stairs, but the word stuck in his throat when he saw Regis, arms crossed, standing before him at the top of the stairway.
"You!" Pook roared, his face twisting and his hands clenching in rage.
"No, him," Regis corrected, pointing a finger above as a sleek black form leaped over him.
To the stunned Pook, Guenhwyvar appeared as no more than a flying ball of big teeth and claws.
By the time Drizzt got through the door, Pook's reign as guildmaster had come to a crashing end.
"Guenhwyvar!" the drow called, within reach of his treasured companion for the first time in many weeks. The big panther loped over to Drizzt and nuzzled him warmly, every bit as happy with the reunion.
Other sights and sounds kept the meeting short, however. First there was Regis, reclining comfortably on the decorated banister, his hands locked behind his head and his furry feet crossed. Drizzt was glad to see Regis again, as well, but more disturbing to the drow were the sounds echoing up the stairs: screams of terror and throaty growls.
Bruenor heard them, too, and he came out of the room to investigate. "Rumblebelly!" he hailed Regis, following Drizzt to the halfling's side.
They looked down the great stairway at the battles below. Every now and then, a wererat crossed by, pursued by a panther. One group of ratmen formed a defensive circle, their blades flashing about to deter Guenhwyvar's feline friends, right below the friends, but a wave of black fur and gleaming teeth buried them where they stood.
"Cats?" Bruenor gawked at Regis. "Ye brought cats?"
Regis smiled and shifted his head in his hands. "You know a better way to get rid of mice?"
Bruenor shook his head and couldn't hide his own smile. He looked back at the body of the man who had fled the room. "Dead, too," he remarked grimly.
"That was Pook," Regis told them, though they had already guessed the guildmaster's identity. "Now he is gone, and so, I believe, will his wererats associates be."
Regis looked at Drizzt, knowing an explanation to be necessary. "Guenhwyvar's friends are only hunting the ratmen," he said. "And him, of course." He pointed to Pook. "The regular thieves are hiding in their rooms - if they're smart - but the panthers wouldn't hurt them anyway."
Drizzt nodded his approval at the discretion Regis and Guenhwyvar had chosen. Guenhwyvar was not a vigilante.
"We all came through the statue," Regis continued. "I kept it with me when I went out of Tarterus with Guenhwyvar. The cats can go back through it to their own plane when their work is done." He tossed the figurine back to its rightful owner.
A curious look came over the halfling's face. He snapped his fingers and hopped down from the banister, as if his last action had given him an idea. He ran to Pook, rolled the former guildmaster's head to the side - trying to ignore the very conspicuous wound in Pook's neck - and lifted off the ruby pendant that had started the whole adventure. Satisfied, Regis turned to the very curious stares of his two friends.
"Time to make some allies," the halfling explained, and he darted off down the stairs.
Bruenor and Drizzt looked at each other in disbelief.
"He'll own the guild," Bruenor assured the drow.
Drizzt didn't argue the point.
* * *
From an alley on Rogues Circle, Rassiter, again in his human form, heard the dying screams of his fellow ratmen. He had been smart enough to understand that the guild was overmatched by the heroes from the North, and when Pook sent him down to rally the fight, he had slipped instead back into the protection of the sewers.
Now he could only listen to the cries and wonder how many of his lycanthrope kin would survive the dark day. "I will build a new guild," he vowed to himself, though he fully understood the enormity of the task, especially now that he had achieved such notoriety in Calimport. Perhaps he could travel to another city - Memnon or Baldur's Gate - farther up the coast.
His ponderings came to an abrupt end as the flat of a curving blade came to rest on his shoulder, the razor edge cutting a tiny line across the side of his neck.
Rassiter held up a jeweled dagger. "This is yours, I believe," he said, trying to sound calm. The saber slipped away and Rassiter turned to face Artemis Entreri.
Entreri reached out with a bandaged arm to pull the dagger away, at the same time slipping the saber back into its scabbard.
"I knew you had been beaten," Rassiter said boldly. "I feared you dead."
"Feared?" Entreri grinned. "Or hoped?"
"It is true that you and I started as rivals," Rassiter began.
Entreri laughed again. He had never figured the ratman worthy enough to be considered a rival.
Rassiter took the insult in stride. "But we then served the same master." He looked to the guildhouse, where the screaming had finally begun to fade. "I think Pook is dead, or at least thrown from power."
"If he faced the drow, he is dead," Entreri spat, the mere thought of Drizzt Do'Urden filling his throat with bile.
"Then the streets are open," Rassiter reasoned. He gave Entreri a sly wink. "For the taking."
"You and I?" Entreri mused.
Rassiter shrugged. "Few in Calimport would oppose you," the wererat said, "and with my infectious bite, I can breed a host of loyal followers in mere weeks. Certainly none would dare stand against us in the night."
Entreri moved beside him, joining him in his scan of the guildhouse. "Yes, my ravenous friend," he said quietly, "but there remain two problems."
"Two," Entreri reiterated. "First, I work alone."
Rassiter's body jolted straight as a dagger blade cut into his spine.
"And second," Entreri continued, without missing a breath, "you are dead," He jerked the bloody dagger out and held it vertical, to wipe the blade on Rassiter's cloak as the wererat fell lifeless to the ground.
Entreri surveyed his handiwork and the bandages on his wounded elbow. "Stronger already," he muttered to himself, and he slipped away to find a dark hole. The morning was full and bright now, and the assassin, still with much healing to do, was not ready to face the challenges he might come across on the daytime streets.
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