They moved through the winding tunnels as quietly as a whispering breeze, each step measured in stealth and end-ing in an alert posture. They were ninth-year students working on their last year in Melee-Magthere, and they op-erated as often outside the cavern of Menzoberranzan as within. No longer did padded poles adorn their belts; ada-mantite weapons hung there now, finely forged and cruelly edged.
At times, the tunnels closed in around them, barely wide enough for one dark elf to squeeze through. Other times, the students found themselves in huge caverns with walls and ceilings beyond their sight. They were drow warriors, trained to operate in any type of Underdark landscape and learned in the ways of any foe they might encounter.
"Practice patrols" Master Hatch'net had called these drills, though he had warned the students that "practice pa-trols" often met monsters quite real and unfriendly. Drizzt, still rated in the top of his class and in the point po. sition, led this group, with Master Hatch'net and ten other students following in formation behind. Only twenty-two of the original twenty-five in Drizzt's class remained. One had been dismissed-and subsequently executed-for a foiled assassination attempt on a higher-ranking student, a second had been killed in the practice arena, and a third had died in his bunk of natural causes-for a dagger in the heart quite naturally ends one's life.
In another tunnel a short distance away, Berg'inyon Baenre, holding the class's second rank, led Master Dinin and the other half.
The class in a similar exercise.
Day after day, Driz t and the others had struggled to keep the fine edge of rea iness. In tJIree months of these mock patrols, the group had encountered only one monster, a cave fisher, a nasty crablike denizen of the Underdark. Even that conflict had provided only brief excitement, and no practical experience, for the cave fisher had slipped out along the high ledges before the drow patrol could even get a strike at it.
This day, Drizzt sensed something different. Perhaps it was an unusual edge on Master Hatch'net's voice or a tin. gling in the stones of the cavern, a subtle vibration that hinted to Drizzt's subconscious of other creatures in the maze of tunnels. Whatever the reason, Drizzt knew enough to follow his instincts, and he was not surprised when the telltale glow of a heat source flitted down a side passage on the periphery of his vision. He signaled for the rest of the patrol to halt, then quickly climbed to a perch on a tiny ledge above the side passage's exit.
When the intruder emerged into the main tunnel, he found himself lying back.down on the floor with two scimi. tar blades crossed over his neck. Drizzt backed away imme. diately when he recognized his victim as another drow student.
"What are you doing down here?" Master Hatch'net de. manded of the intruder. "You know that the tunnels outside Menzoberranzan are not to be traveled by any but the pa. troIs!"
"Your pardon, Master" the student pleaded. "I bring news of an alert"
All in the patrol crowded around, but Hatch'net backed them off with a glare and ordered Drizzt to set them out in defensive positions.
"A child is missing" the student went on, "a princess of House Baenre! Monsters have been spotted in the tunnels!"
"What sort of monsters?" Hatch'net asked. A loud clacking noise, like the sound of two stones being clapped together, answered his question.
"Hook horrors!" Hatch'net signaled to Drizzt at his side.
Drizzt had never seen such beasts, but he had learned enough about them to understand why Master Hatch'net had suddenly reverted to the silent hand code. Hook hor-rors hunted through a sense of hearing more acute than that of any other creature in all the Underdark. Drizzt im-mediately relayed the signal around to the others, and they held absolutely quiet for instructions from the master. This was the situation they had trained to handle for the last nine years of their lives, and only the sweat on their palms belied the calm readiness of these young drow warriors.
"Spells of darkness will not foil hook horrors" Hatch'net signaled to his troops. "Nor will these" He indicated the pis-tol crossbow in his hand and the poison-tipped dart it held, a common first-strike weapon of the dark elves. Hatch'net put the crossbow away and drew his slender sword.
"You must find a gap in the creature's bone armor" he re-minded the others, "and slip your weapon through to the flesh" He tapped Drizzt on the shoulder, and they started off together, the other students falling into line behind them.
The clacking resounded clearly, but, echoing off the stone walls of the tunnels, it provided a confusing beacon for the hunting drbw. Hatch'net let Drizzt steer their course and was impressed by the way the student soon discerned the pattern of the echo riddle. Drizzt's step came in confidence, though many of the others in the patrol glanced about anx-iously unsure of the peril's direction or distance.
Then a singular sound froze them all where they stood, cutting through the din of the clacking monsters and re-sounding again and again, surrounding the patrol in the echoing madness of a terrifying wail. It was the scream of a child.
"Princess of House Baenre!" Hatch'net signaled to Drizzt.
The master started to order his troops into a battle forma-tion, but Drizzt didn't wait to watch the commands. The scream had sent a shudder of revulsion through his spine, and when it sounded again, it lighted angry fires in his lav-ender eyes.
Drizzt sprinted off down the tunnel, the cold metal of his scimitars leading the way.
Hatch'net organized the patrol into quick pursuit. He hated the thought of losing a student as skilled as Drizzt, but he considered, too, the benefits of Drizzt's rash actions. If the others watched the finest of their class die in an act of stupidity, it would be a lesson they would not soon forget.
Drizzt cut around a sharp corner and down a straight ex-panse of narrow, broken walls. He heard no echoes now, just the ravenous clacking of the waiting monsters and the muffled cries of the child.
His keen ears caught the slight sounds of his patrol at his back, and he knew that if he was able to hear them, the hook horrors surely could. Drizzt would not relinquish the passion or the immediacy of his quest. He climbed to a ledge ten feet above the floor, hoping it would run the length of the corridor- When he slipped around a final bend, he could barely distinguish the heat of the monsters' forms through the blurring coolness of their bony exoskeletons, shells nearly equal in temperature to the surrounding stone.
He made out five of the giant beasts, two pressed against the stone and guarding the corridor and three others far-ther back, in a little cul-de-sac, toying with some-crying-object.
Drizzt mustered his nerve and continued along the ledge, using all the stealth he had ever learned to creep by the sen-tries. Then he saw the child princess, lying in a broken heap at the foot of one of the monstrous bipeds. The motion of her sobs told Drizzt that she was alive. Drizzt had no inten-tion of engaging the monsters if he could help it, hoping that he might perhaps slip in and steal the child away.
Then the patrol came headlong around the bend in the corridor, forcing Drizzt to action.
"Sentries!" he screamed in warning, probably saving the lives of the first four of the group. Drizzt's attention abruptly returned to the wounded child as one of the hook horrors raised its heavy, clawed foot to crush her.
The beast stood nearly twice Drizzt's height and out-weighed him more than five times over. It was fully ar-mored in the hard shell of its exoskeleton and adorned with gigantic clawed hands and a long and powerful beak. Three of the monsters stood between Drizzt and the child.
Drizzt couldn't care about any of those details at that hor-rible, critical moment. His fears for the child outweighed any concern for the danger looming before him. He was a drow warrior, a fighter trained and outfitted for battle, while the child was helpless and defenseless.
Two of the hook horrors rushed at the ledge, just the break Drizzt needed. He rose up to his feet and leaped out over them, coming down in a fighting blur onto the side of the remaining hook horror. The monster lost all thoughts of the child as Drizzt's scimitars snapped in at its beak relent-lessly, cracking into its facial armor in a desperate search for an opening.
The hook horror fell back, overwhelmed by its oppo-nent's fury and unable to catch up to the blades' blinding, stinging movements.
Drizzt knew that he had the advantage on this one, but he knew, as well, that two others would soon be at his back. He did not relent. He slid down from his perch on the monster's side and rolled around to block its retreat, dropping be-tween its stalagmitelike legs and tripping it to the stone.
Then he was on top of it, poking furiously as it floundered on its belly.
The hook horror desperately tried to respond, but its ar-mored shell was too encumbering for it to twist out from under the assault.
Drizzt knew his own situation was even more desperate. Battle had been joined in the corridor, but Hatch'net and the others couldn't possibly get through the sentries in time to stop the two hook horrors undoubtedly charging his back.
Prudence dictated that Drizzt relinquish his position over this one and spin away into a defensive posture.
The child's agonized scream, however, overruled pru-dence. Rage burned in Drizzt's eyes so blatantly that even the stupid hook horror knew its life was soon to end. Drizzt put the tips of his scimitars together in a "V" and plunged them down onto the back of the monster's skull with all his might. Seeing a slight crack in the creature's shell, Drizzt crossed the hilts of his weapons, reversed the points, and split a clear opening in the monster's defense. He then snapped the hilts together and plunged the blades straight down, through the soft flesh and into the monster's brain. A heavy claw sliced a deep line across Drizzt's shoulders, tearing his piwafwi and drawing blood. He dove forward into a roll and came up with his wounded back to the far wall. Only one hook horror moved in at him; the other picked up the child.
"No!" Drizzt screamed in protest. He started forward, only to be slapped back by the attacking monster. Then, par-alyzed, he watched in horror as the other hook horror put an end to the child's screams.
Rage replaced determination in Drizzt's eyes. The closest hook horror rushed at him, meaning to crush him against the stone. Drizzt recognized its intentions and didn't even try to dodge out of the way. Instead, he reversed his grip on his weapons and locked them against the wall, above his shoulders.
With the momentum of the monster's eight-hundred-pound bulk carrying it on, even the armor of its shell could not protect the hook horror from the adamantite scimitars.
It slammed Drizzt up against the wall, but in doing so im-paled itself through the belly.
The creature jumped back, trying to wriggle free, but it could not escape the fury of Drizzt Do'Urden. Savagely the young drow twisted the impaled blades. He then shoved off from the wall with the strength of anger, tumbling the giant monster backward.
Two of Drizzt's enemies were dead, and one of the hook horror sentries in the hallway was down, but Drizzt found no relief in those facts. The third hook horror towered over him as he desperately tried to get his blades free from his latest victim. Drizzt had no escape from this one. The second patrol arrived then, and Dinin and Berg'inyon Baenre rushed into the cul-de-sac, along the same ledge Drizzt had taken. The hook horror turned away from Drizzt just as the two skilled fighters came at it.
Drizzt ignored the painful gash in his back and the cracks he had no doubt suffered in his slender ribs. Breathing came to him in labored gasps, but this, too, was of no conse-quence. He finally managed to free one of his blades, and he charged at the monster's back. Caught in the middle of the three skilled drow, the hook horror went down in seconds.
The corridor was finally cleared, and the dark elves rushed in all around the cul-de-sac. They had lost only one student in their battle against the monster sentries.
"A princess of House Barrison'del'armgo" remarked one of the students in Dinin's patrol, looking at the child's body.
"House Baenre, we were told" said another student, one from Hatch'net's group. Drizzt did not miss the discrepancy. Berg'inyon Baenre rushed over to see if the victim was in-deed his youngest sister.
"Not of my house" he said with obvious relief after a quick inspection. He then laughed as further examination re-vealed a few other details about the corpse. "Not even a princess!" he declared.
Drizzt watched it all curiously, noting the impassive, cal-lous attitude of his companions most of all.
Another student confirmed Berg'inyon's observation. "A boy child!" he spouted. "But of what house?"
Master Hatch'net moved over to the tiny body and reached down to take the purse from around the child's neck. He emptied its contents into his hand, revealing the emblem of a lesser house.
" A lost waif" he laughed to his students, tossing the empty purse back to the ground and pocketing its contents, "of no consequence"
"A fine fight" Dinin was quick to add, "with only one loss.
Go back to Menzoberranzan proud of the work you have accomplished this day"
Drizzt slapped the blades of his scimitars together in a re-sounding ring of protest.
Master Hatch'net ignored him. "Form up and head back" he told the others. "You all performed well this day" He then glared at Drizzt, stopping the angry student in his tracks.
"Except for you!" Hatch'net snarled. "I cannot ignore the fact that you downed two of the beasts and helped with a third" Hatch'net scolded, "but you endangered the rest of us with your foolish bravado!"
"I warned of the sentries-" Drizzt stuttered.
"Damn your warningl" shouted the master. "You went off without command! You ignored the accepted methods of battle! You led us in here blindly! Look at the corpse of your fallen companion!" Hatch'net raged, pointing to the dead student in the corridor. "His blood is on your hands!
"I meant to save the child" Drizzt argued.
"We all meant to save the child!" retorted Hatch'net. Drizzt was not so certain. What would a child be doing out in these corridors all alone? How convenient that a group of hook horrors, a rarely seen beast in the region of Menzoberranzan, just happened by to provide training for this "practice patrol" Tho convenient, Drizzt knew, consid-ering that the passages farther from the city teemed with the true patrols of seasoned warriors, wizards, and even clerics.
"You knew what was around the bend in the tunnel" Drizzt said evenly, his eyes narrowing at the master. The slap of a blade across the wound on his back made Drizzt lurch in pain, and he nearly lost his footing. He turned to find Dinin glaring down at him.
"Keep your foolish words unspoken" Dinin warned in a harsh whisper, "or 1 will cut out your tongue"
"The child was a plant" Drizzt insisted when he was alone with his brother in Dinin's room.
Dinin's response was a stinging smack across the face.
"They sacrificed him for the purpose of the drill" growled the unrelenting younger Do'Urden.
Dinin launched a second punch, but Drizzt caught it in midswing. "You know the truth of my words" Drizzt said.
"You knew about it all along"
"Learn your place, Secondboy" Dinin replied in open threat, "in the Academy and in the family" He pulled away from his brother.
"Th the Nine Hells with the Academy!" Drizzt spat at Dinin's face. "If the family holds similar. . " He noticed that Dinin's hands now held sword and dirk.
Drizzt jumped back, his own scimitars coming out at the ready. "I have no desire to fight you, my brother" he said.
"Know well that if you attack, I will defend. Only one of us will walk out of here"
Dinin considered his next move carefully. If he attacked and won, the threat to his position in the family would be at an end. Certainly no one, not even Matron Malice, would question the punishment he levied against his impertinent younger brother. Dinin had seen Drizzt in battle, though.
Two hook horrors! Even Zaknafein would be hard pressed to attain such a victory. Still, Dinin knew that if he did not carry through with his threat, if he let Drizzt face him down, he might give Drizzt confidence in their future strug-gles, possibly inciting the treachery he had always expected from the secondboy.
"What is this, then?" came a voice from the room's door-way. The brothers turned to see their sister Vierna, a mis-tress of Arach- Tinilith. "Put your weapons away" she scolded. "House Do'Urden cannot afford such infighting now!"
Realizing that he had been let off the hook, Dinin readily complied with the demands, and Drizzt did likewise.
"Consider yourselves fortunate" said Vierna, "for I'll not tell Matron Malice of this stupidity. She would not be merciful, I promise you"
"Why have you come unannounced to Melee-Magthere?" asked the elderboy, perturbed by his sister's attitude. He, too, was a master of the Academy, even if he was only a male, and deserved some respect.
Vierna glanced up and down the hallway, then closed the door behind her. "Th warn my brothers" she explained quietly. "There are rumors of vengeance against our house"
"By what family?" Dinin pressed. Drizzt just stood back in confused silence and let the two continue. "For what deed?"
"For the elimination of House DeVir, I would presume" replied Vierna. "Little is known; the rumors are vague. I wanted to warn you both, though, so that you might keep your guard especially high in the coming months"
"House DeVir fell many years ago" said Dinin. "What pen-alty could still be enacted?"
Vierna shrugged. "They are just rumors" she said. "Ru-mors to be listened to!"
"We have been accused of a wrongful deed?" Drizzt asked. "Surely our family must callout this false accuser" Vierna and Dinin exchanged smiles. "Wrongful?" Vierna laughed.
Drizzt's expression revealed his confusion.
"On the very night you were born" Dinin explained, "House DeVir ceased to exist. An excellent attack, thank you"
"House Do'Urden?" gasped Drizzt, unable to come to terms with the startling news. Of course, Drizzt knew of such battles, but he had held out hope that his own family was above that sort of murderous action.
"One of the finest eliminations ever carried out" Vierna boasted. "Not a witness left alive"
"You. . . our family. . . murdered another family?"
"Watch your words, Secondboy" Dinin warned. "The deed was perfectly executed. In the eyes of Menzoberranzan, therefore, it never happened"
"But House DeVir ceased to exist" said Drizzt.
"The child" said Dinin with a laugh.
A thousand possibilities assaulted Drizzt at that awful mo-ment, a thousand pressing questions that he needed an-swered. One in particular stood out vividly, welling like a lump of bile in his throat.
"Where was Zaknafein that night?" he asked.
"In the chapel of House DeVir's clerics, of course" replied Vierna. "
Knafein plays his part in such business so very well"
Drizzt rocked back on his heels, hardly able to believe what he was hearing. He knew that Zak had killed drow be-fore, had killed clerics of Lloth before, but Drizzt had al. ways assumed that the weapon master had acted out of necessity, in self.defense.
"You should show more respect to your brother" Vierna scolded him. "Th draw weapons against Dinin! You owe him your life!"
"You know?" Dinin chuckled, casting Vierna a curious glance.
"You and I were melded that night" Vierna reminded him.
"Of course I know"
"What are you talking about?" asked Drizzt, almost afraid to hear the reply.
"You were to be the third.born male in the family" Vierna explained, "the third living son"
"I have heard of my brother Nal-" The name stuck in Drizzt's throat as he began to understand. All he had ever been able to learn of Nalfein was that he had been killed by another drow.
"You will learn in your studies at Arach. Tinilith that third living sons are customarily sacrificed to Lloth" Vierna con. tinued. "So were you promised. On the night that you were born, the night that House Do'Urden battled House DeVir, Dinin made his ascent to the position of elderboy" She cast a sly glance at her brother, standing with his arms proudly crossed over his chest.
"I can speak of it now" Vierna smiled at Dinin, who nodded his head in accord. "It happened too long ago for any punishment to be brought against Dinin"
"What are you talking about?" Drizzt demanded. Panic hovered all about him. "What did Dinin do?"
"He put his sword into Nalfein's back" Vierna said calmly.
Drizzt swam on the edge of nausea. Sacrifice? Murder?
The annihilation of a family, even the children? What were his siblings talking about?
"Show respect to your brother!" Vierna demanded. "You owe him your life.
"I warn the both of you" she purred, her ominous glare shaking Drizzt and knocking Dinin from his confident ped-estal._"House Do'Urden may be on a course of war. If either of you strike out against the other, you will bring the wrath of aU your sisters and Matron Malice-four high priestesses-down upon your worthless soul!" Confident that her threat carried sufficient weight, she turned and left the room.
"I will go" Drizzt whispered, wanting only to skulk away to a dark corner.
"You will go when you are dismissed!" Dinin scolded. "Remember your place, Drizzt Do'Urden, in the Academy and in the family"
" As you remembered yours with Nalfein?"
"The battle against DeVir was won" Dinin replied, taking
no offense. "The act brought no peril to the family"
Another wave of disgust swept over Drizzt. He felt as if the floor were climbing up to swallow him, and he almost hoped that it would.
"It is a difficult world we inhabit" Dinin said.
"We make it so" Drizzt retorted. He wanted to continue further, to implicate the Spider Queen and the whole amoral religion that would sanction such destructive and treacherous actions. Drizzt wisely held his tongue, though. Dininwanted him dead; he understood that now. Drizzt un-derstood as well that if he gave his scheming brother the op-portunity to turn the females of the family against him, Dinin surely would.
"You must learn" Dinin said, again in a controlled tone, "to accept the realities of your surroundings. You must learn to recognize your enemies and defeat them"
"By whatever means are available" Drizzt concluded.
"The mark of a true warrior!" Dinin replied with a wicked laugh.
"Are our enemies drow elves?"
"We are drow warriors!" Dinin declared sternly. "We do what we must to survive."
" As you did, on the night of my birth" Drizzt reasoned,
though at this point, there was no remaining trace of outrage in his resigned tone. "You were cunning enough to get away cleanly with the deed"
Dinin's reply, though expected, stung the younger drow profoundly.
"It never happened"