The sky had grayed again, threatening yet another wintry blast, but the friends, undaunted, started out from their latest resting spot full of hope and spirit, ready to do battle against whatever obstacles they might find. They were together again, and for the first time since Wulfgar's unexpected return from the Abyss it seemed comfortable to them all. It seemed . . . right.
When Wulfgar had first returned to them - in an icy cave on the Sea of Moving Ice in the midst of their raging battle against the demon Errtu - there had been elation, of course, but it had been an uncomfortable thing on many levels. It was a shock and a trial to readjust to this sudden new reality. Wulfgar had returned from the grave, and all the grief the other four friends had thought settled had suddenly been unearthed, resolution thrown aside.
Elation had led to many uncomfortable but much-needed adjustments as the friends had tried to get to know each other again. That led to disaster, to Wulfgar's moodiness, to Wulfgar's outrage, and to the subsequent disbanding of the Companions of the Hall. But now they were together again.
They fell into a comfortable rhythm in their determined march, with Bruenor leading the main group, plowing the trail with his sturdy body, Regis came next, noting the mountain peaks and guiding the dwarf. Then came Wulfgar, the heavy bardiche on his shoulder, using his height to scan the trail ahead and to the sides.
Catti-brie, a short distance back, brought up the rear of the four, bow in hand, on the alert and keeping track of the drow who was constantly flanking them, first on one side and then the other. Drizzt had not brought up Guenhwyvar from the Astral Plane - in fact, he had handed the figurine controlling the panther over to Catti-brie - because the longer they could wait, the more rested the great cat would be. And the drow had a feeling he would be needing Guenhwyvar before this was ended.
Soon after noon, with the band making great progress and the snow still holding back, Catti-brie noted a hand signal from Drizzt, who was ahead and to the left.
"Hold," she whispered to Wulfgar, who relayed the command to the front.
Bruenor pulled up, breathing hard from his trudging. He lifted the axe off his back and dropped the head to the snow, leaning on the upright handle.
"Drizzt approaches," said Wulfgar, who could easily see over the snowy berm and the drifts on the path ahead.
"Another trail," the drow explained when he appeared above the berm. "Crossing this one and leading to the west."
"We should go straight south from here," Regis reminded.
Drizzt shook his head. "Not a natural trail," he explained.
"Tracks?" asked Bruenor, seeming quite eager. "More ogries?"
"Different," said Drizzt, and he motioned for them all to follow him.
Barely a hundred yards ahead, they came upon the second' trail. It was a pressed area of snow cutting across their current path, moving along the sloping ground to the east. There, continuing across an expanse of deep, blown snow, the friends saw a lower area full of slush and with a bit of steam still rising from it.
"What in the Nine Hells done that?" asked Bruenor.
"Polar worm," Drizzt explained.
Bruenor spat, Regis shivered, and Catti-brie stood a bit straighter, suddenly on her guard. They all had some experience with the dreaded remorhaz, the great polar worms. Enough experience, certainly, to know that they each had little desire to battle one again.
"No foe I wish to leave behind us," the drow explained.
"So ye're thinking we should go and fight the damned thing?" Bruenor asked doubtfully.
Drizzt shook his head. "We should figure out where it is, at least. Whether or not we should kill the creature will depend on many things."
"Like how stupid we really are," Regis muttered under his breath. Only Catti-brie, who was standing near to him, heard. She looked at him with a smile and a wink, and the halfling only shrugged.
Hardly waiting for confirmation, Drizzt rushed up to take the point. He was far ahead, creeping along the easier path carved out by the strange and powerful polar worm, a beast that could superheat its spine to vaporize snow and, the drow reminded himself, vaporize flesh. They found the great beast only a few hundred yards off the main path, down in a shallow dell, devouring the last of a mountain goat it had caught in the deep snow. The mighty creature's back glowed from the excitement of the kill and feast.
"The beast will not bother with us," Wulfgar remarked. "They feed only rarely and once sated, they seek no further prey."
"True enough," Drizzt agreed, and he led them back to the main trail.
A few light flakes were drifting through the air by that point, but Regis bade them not to worry, for in the distance he noted a peculiar mountain peak that signaled the northern tip of Minster Gorge.
The snow was still light, no more than a flurry, when the five reached the trail on the side of the peak, with Minster Gorge winding away to the south before them. Regis took command, explaining the general layout of the winding run, pointing out the expected locations of sentries, left and right, and leading their gazes far, far to the south where the white-capped top of one larger mound could just be seen. Carefully, the halfling again diagrammed the place for the others, explaining the outer, ascending path running past the sea facing and around to the east on that distant mound. That path, he explained, led to at least one door set into the mound's side.
Regis looked to Drizzt, nodded, and said, "And there is another, more secret way inside."
"Ye thinking we'd be better splitting apart?" Bruenor asked the halfling doubtfully. He turned to aim his question at Drizzt as well, for it was obvious that Regis's reminder had the drow deep in thought.
Drizzt hesitated. Normally, the Companions of the Hall fought together, side by side, and usually to devastating effect. But this was no normal attack for them. This time, they were going against an entrenched fortress, a place no doubt secure and well defended. If he could take the inner corridors to some behind-the-lines vantage point, he might be able to help out quite a bit.
"Let us discern our course one step at a time," the drow finally said. "First we must deal with the sentries, if there are any."
"There were a few when I flew by with Robillard," said Regis. "A pair, at least, on either side of the gorge. They didn't seem to be in any hurry to leave."
"Then we must take alternate paths to avoid them," Wulfgar put in. "For if we strike at a band on one side, the band opposite will surely alert all the region before we ever get near to them."
"Unless Catti-brie can use her bow . . ." Regis started to say, but the woman was shaking her head, looking doubtfully at the expanse between the high gorge walls.
"We can not leave these potential enemies behind us," the drow decided. "I will go to the right, while the rest of you go to the left."
"Bah, there's a fool's notion," snorted Bruenor. "Ye might be killin' a pair o' half-ogries, elf - might even take out a pair o' full-ogries - but ye'd not do it in time to stop them from yelling for their friends."
"Then we have to disguise the truth of the attack across the way," Catti-brie said.
When the others turned to her, they found her wearing a most determined expression. The woman looked back to the north and west.
"Worm's not hungry," she explained. "But that don't mean we can't get the damn thing angry."
* * * * * * * * * *
"Ettin?" one of the half-ogre guards on the eastern rim of the gorge asked.
Scratching its lice-ridden head, the half-ogre stared in amazement as the seven-foot-tall creature approached. It sported two heads, so it seemed to be of the ettin family, but one of those heads looked more akin to a human with blond hair, and the other had the craggy, wrinkled features and thick red hair and beard of a dwarf.
"Huh?" asked the second sentry, moving to join its companion.
"Ain't no ettins about," the third called from the warm area beside the fire.
"Well there's one coming," argued the first.
And indeed, the two-headed creature was coming on fast, though it presented no weapon and was not advancing in any threatening manner. The half-ogres lifted their respective weapons anyway and called for the curious creature to halt.
It did so, just a few strides away, staring at the sentries with a pair of positively smug smiles.
"What you about?" asked one half-ogre.
"About to get outta the way!" the red-haired head exclaimed.
The half-ogres' chins dropped considerably a moment later when the huge human - for it was indeed a human! - threw aside the blanket and the red-haired dwarf leaped off his shoulder, rolling to the left. The human, too, took off, sprinting to the right. Coming fast behind the splitting pair, bearing down on their original position, and thus bearing down on the stunned half-ogres, came a rolling line of steam.
The brutes screamed. The polar worm broke through the snow cap and reared, towering over them.
"That ain't no ettin, ye fools!" screeched the half-ogre by the fire. With typical loyalty for its wild nature, it leaped up and ran off to the south along the ravine edge and toward the cavern complex.
Or tried to, for three strides away, a blue-streaking arrow like a bolt of lightning slammed it in the hip, staggering it. The slowed beast, limping and squealing, didn't even see the next attack. The red-haired dwarf crashed in, body-slamming it, then chopping away with his nasty, many-notched axe. For good measure, the dwarf spun around and smashed his shield so hard into the slumping brute's face that he left an impression of a foaming mug on the half-ogre's cheek.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Regis heard the commotion behind him and took comfort in it as he worked his way along the side of the ravine across the way, working for handholds just below the rim, out of sight of the guards on that side. He and Drizzt had left the other three, picking their way to the western wall. Then Regis and the drow had split up, with the drow taking an inland route around the back of the sentry position. Regis, a plan in mind, had gone along the wall.
The halfling was well aware from the smirk Drizzt had given him when they'd split up, that Drizzt didn't expect much from him in the fight, that the drow believed he was just finding a place to hide. But Regis had a very definite plan in mind, and he was almost to the spot to execute it: a wide overhang of ice and snow.
He worked his way under it, staying against the stone wall, and began chipping away at the overhang's integrity with his small mace.
He glanced back across the gorge to see the polar worm rear again, a half-ogre thrashing about in its mouth. Regis winced in sympathy for the brute as the polar worm rolled its head back and let go of the half-ogre, rolling it over the horned head and down onto the glowing, superheated spine of the great creature. How the agonized half-ogre thrashed!
Further along, Regis spotted Bruenor, Wulfgar, and Catti-brie sprinting down to the south, getting as far away from the polar worm and the three wounded - and soon to be dead - half-ogres as possible.
The halfling paused, hearing commotion above. The guards on his side recognized the disaster across the way.
"Help!" Regis called out a moment later, and all above him went quiet.
"Help!" he called again.
He heard movement, heard the ice pack crunch a bit, and knew that one of the stupid brutes was moving out onto the overhang.
"Hey, yer little rat!" came the roar a moment later, as the half-ogre's head poked down. The creature was obviously lying flat atop the overhang, staring at Regis incredulously and reaching for him.
"Break . . . break," Regis demanded, smacking his mace up at the ice pack with all the strength he could muster. He had to stop the pounding and dodge aside when the brute's hand snapped at him, nearly getting him.
The half-ogre crept even lower. The ice pack creaked and groaned in protest.
The brute's declaration became a wail of surprise and terror as the ice pack broke free, taking the half-ogre with it down the side of the ravine.
"Do you now?" Regis asked the fast-departing beast.
"Yup," came an unexpected response from above, and Regis slowly looked up to see the second sentry glaring down at him, spear in hand, and with Regis well within stabbing distance. The halfling thought of letting go, then, of taking his chances on a bouncing ride down the side of the ravine, but the half-ogre stiffened suddenly and hopped forward, then tried to turn but got slashed across the face. Over it went, plummeting past the halfling, and Drizzt was in its stead, lying flat and reaching down for Regis.
The halfling grabbed the offered hand, and Drizzt pulled him up.
"Five down," said Regis, his excitement bubbling over from the victory his information had apparently delivered. "See? I had the count right. Four, maybe five - and right where I told you they would be!"
"Six," Drizzt corrected, leading the halfling's gaze back a ways to another brute lying dead in a widening pool of bright red blood. "You missed one."
Regis stared at it for a moment, mouth hanging open, and, deflated, he only shrugged.
Surveying the scene, the pair quickly surmised that none of these two groups would give them any further trouble. Across the way, the three were dead, the white worm tearing at their bodies, and the two that had gone over the edge had bounced, tumbled, and fallen a long, long way. One of them was lying very still at the bottom of the gorge. The other, undoubtedly nearby its broken companion, was buried under a deep pile of snow and ice.
"Our friends went running down the edge of the ravine," Regis explained, "but I don't know where they went."
"They had to move away from the gorge," Drizzt reasoned, seeming hardly concerned. They had discussed this very possibility before bringing the white worm from its feast. The drow pointed down along the gorge to where a sizeable number of huge ogres and half-ogres were running up the ravine. The companions had hoped to dispatch these sentries without alerting the main base, but they had understood from the beginning that such might be the case - that's why they had used the white worm.
"Come," Drizzt bade the halfling. "We will catch up with our friends, or they with us, in due time." He started away to the south, staying as near to the edge of the gorge as he safely could.
They heard the ogre posse pass beneath them soon after, and Drizzt veered back to the edge, then moved down a bit farther and went right over, picking his way down a less steep part of the ravine.
Regis huffed and puffed and worked hard but somehow managed to keep up. Soon, the halfling and the drow were standing on the floor of the gorge, the posse far away to the north, the mound that housed the main complex just to the south and with the cave opening quite apparent.
"Are you ready?" Drizzt asked Regis.
The halfling swallowed hard, not so thrilled about moving off with the dangerous Drizzt alone. He far preferred having Bruenor and Wulfgar standing strong before him and having Catti-brie covering him with that deadly bow of hers, but it was obvious that Drizzt wasn't about to let this opportunity to get right inside the enemies' lair go by.
"Lead on," Regis heard himself saying, though he could hardly believe the words as they came out of his mouth.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
The four leaders of Sheila Kree's band all came out of their rooms together, hearing the shouts from below and from outside the mound complex.
"Chogurugga dispatched a group to investigate," Bellany informed the others. The sorceress's room faced north, the direction of the tumult, and included a door to the outside landing.
"Ye go and do the same," Sheila Kree told her. "Get yer scrying pool up and see what's coming against us."
"I heard yells about a white worm," the sorceress replied.
Sheila Kree shook her head, her fiery red hair flying wildly. "Too convenient," she muttered as she ran out of the room and down the curving, sloping passage leading to Chogurugga and Bloog's chamber, with Jule Pepper right behind her.
Le'lorinel made no move, though, just stood in the corridor, nodding knowingly.
"Is it the drow?" Bellany asked.
The elf smiled and retreated back into the private room, shutting the door.
Standing alone in the common area, Bellany just shook her head and took a deep breath and considered the possibilities if it turned out to be Drizzt Do'Urden and the Companions of the Hall who were now coming against them. The sorceress hoped it was indeed a white worm that had caused the commotion, whatever the cost of driving the monster away.
She went back into her chamber and set up for some divining spells, thinking to look out over the troubled area to the north and to look in on Morik, just to check on where his loyalties might truly lie.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
A few moments later, Le'lorinel slipped back out and headed down the same way Sheila and Jule had gone.
Chogurugga's chamber was in complete chaos, with the ogress's two large attendants rushing around, strapping on armor pieces and hoisting heavy weapons. Chogurugga stood quietly on the side of the room in front of an opened wardrobe, its shelves filled with potion bottles. Chogurugga mulled them over one at a time, pocketing some and separating the others into two bunches.
At the back of the room, Bloog remained in the hammock, the ogre's huge legs hanging over, one on either side. If Bloog was the slightest bit worried by the commotion, the lazy brute didn't show it.
Le'lorinel went to him. "He will find you," the elf warned. "It was foreseen that the drow would come for the warhammer."
"Drow?" the big ogre asked. "No damn drow. White worm."
"Perhaps," Le'lorinel replied with a shrug and a look that told Bloog implicitly that the elf hardly believed all the commotion was being caused by such a creature as that.
"Drow?" the ogre asked, and Bloog suddenly seemed a bit less cock-sure.
"He will find you."