reat gargoyles leered down from twenty feet; a gigantic stone statue of a humanoid lizard warrior - a golem of some sorts, perhaps, but more likely just a carving - guarded the door, which was set between its wide-spread legs. Just inside that dark opening, a myriad of magical lights danced and floated about, some throwing sparks in a threatening manner.
Le'lorinel was hardly impressed by any of it. The elf knew the schools of magic used by this one, studies that involved illusion and divination, and feared neither. No, E'kressa the Seer's guards and wards did not impress the seasoned warrior. They were more show than substance. Le'lorinel didn't even draw a sword and even removed a shining silver helmet when crossing through that darkened opening and into a circular corridor.
"E'kressa diknomin tue?" the elf asked, using the tongue of the gnomes. Le'lorinel paused at the base of a ladder, waiting for a response.
"E'kressa diknomin tue?" the elf asked again, louder and more insistently.
A response drifted through the air on unseen breezes.
"What adventures dark and fell, await the darker side of Le'lorinel?" came a high-pitched, but still gravelly voice, speaking in the common tongue. "When dark skin splashes blade with red, then shall insatiable hunger be fed? When Le'lorinel has noble drow dead, will he smile, his anger fled?"
Le'lorinel did smile then, at the display of divination, and at the obvious errors.
"May I - ?" the elf started to ask.
"Do come up," came a quick interruption, the tone and abrupt manner telling Le'lorinel that E'kressa wanted to make it clear that the question had been foreseen.
With a chuckle, Le'lorinel trotted up the stairs. At the top, the elf found a door of hanging blue beads, a soft glow coming from behind them. Pushing through brought Le'lorinel into E'kressa's main audience chamber, obviously, a place of many carpets and pillows for sitting, and with arcane runes and artifacts: a skull here, a gigantic bat wing there, a crystal ball set on a pedestal along the wall, a large mirror, its golden edges all of shaped and twisted design.
Never had Le'lorinel seen so many trite wizardly items all piled together in one place, and after years of working with Mahskevic the elf knew indeed that they were minor things, window dressing and nothing more - except, perhaps, for the crystal ball.
Le'lorinel hardly paid them any heed, though, for the elf was watching E'kressa. Dressed in robes of dark blue with red swirling patterns all about them, and a with a gigantic conical hat, the gnome seemed almost a caricature of the classic expectations of a wizard, except, of course, that instead of being tall and imposing, E'kressa barely topped three feet. A large gray beard and bushy eyebrows stuck out from under that hat, and E'kressa tilted his head back, face aimed in the general direction of Le'lorinel, but not as if looking at the elf.
Two pure white orbs showed under those bushy eyebrows.
Le'lorinel laughed out loud. "A blind seer? How perfectly typical."
"You doubt the powers of my magical sight?" E'kressa replied, raising his arms in threat like the wings of a crowning eagle.
More than you could ever understand," Le'lorinel casually replied.
E'kressa held the pose for a long moment, but then, in the face of Le'lorinel's relaxed posture and ridiculing smirk, the gnome finally relented. With a shrug, E'kressa reached up and took the phony white lenses out of his sparkling gray eyes.
"Works for the peasants," the illusionist seer explained. "Amazes them, indeed! And they always seem more eager to drop an extra coin or two to a blind seer."
"Peasants are easily impressed," said Le'lorinel. "I am not."
"And yet I knew of you, and your quest," E'kressa was fast to point out.
"And you know of Mahskevic, too," the elf replied dryly.
E'kressa stomped a booted foot and assumed a petulant posture that lasted all of four heartbeats. "You brought payment?" the seer asked indignantly.
Le'lorinel tossed a bag of silver across the expanse to the eager gnome's waiting hands. "Why not just use your incredible powers of divination to get the count?" Le'lorinel asked, as the gnome started counting out the coins.
E'kressa's eyes narrowed so that they were lost beneath the tremendous eyebrows. The gnome waved his hand over the bag, muttered a spell, then a moment later, nodded and put the bag aside. "I should charge you more for making me do that," he remarked.
"For counting your payment?" Le'lorinel asked skeptically.
"For having to show you yet another feat of my great powers of seeing," the gnome replied. "For not making you wait while I counted them out."
"It took little magic to know that the coins would all be there," the elf responded. "Why would I come here if I had not the agreed upon price?"
"Another test?" the gnome asked.
"Impatience is the folly of humans, not of elves," E'kressa reminded. "I foresee that if you pursue your quest with such impatience, doom will befall you."
"Brilliant," came the sarcastic reply.
"You're not making this easy, you know," the gnome said in deadpan tones.
"And while I can assure you that I have all the patience I will need to be rid of Drizzt Do'Urden, I do not wish to waste my hours standing here," said Le'lorinel. "Too many preparations yet await me, E'kressa."
The gnome considered that for a moment, then gave a simple shrug. "Indeed. Well, let us see what the crystal ball will show to us. The course of your pursuit, we hope, and perhaps whether Le'lorinel shall win or whether he shall lose." He rambled down toward the center of the room, waddling like a duck, then veered to the crystal ball.
"The course, and nothing more," Le'lorinel corrected.
E'kressa stopped short and turned about slowly to regard this curious creature. "Most would desire to know the outcome," he said.
"And yet, I know, as do you, that any such outcome is not predetermined," Le'lorinel replied.
"There is a probability . . ."
"And nothing more than that. And what am I to do, O great seer, if you tell me I shall win my encounter with Drizzt Do'Urden, that I shall slay him as he deserves to be slain and wipe my bloodstained sword upon his white hair?"
"Rejoice?" E'kressa asked sarcastically.
"And what am I to do, O great seer, if you tell me that I shall lose this fight?" Le'lorinel went on. "Abandon that which I can not abandon? Forsake my people and suffer the drow to live?"
"Some people think he's a pretty nice guy."
"Illusions do fool some people, do they not?" Le'lorinel remarked.
E'kressa started to respond, but then merely sighed and shrugged and continued on his waddling way to the crystal ball. "Tell me your thoughts of the road before you," he instructed.
"The extra payment insures confidentiality?" Le'lorinel asked.
E'kressa regarded the elf as if that was a foolish question indeed. "Why would I inform this Drizzt character if ever I met him?" he asked. "And why would I ever meet him, with him being halfway across the world?"
"Then you have already spied him out?"
E'kressa picked up the cue that was the eagerness in the elf's voice, and that anxious pitch made him straighten his shoulders and puff out his chest with pride. "Might that I have," he said. "Might that I have."
Le'lorinel answered with a determined stride, moving to the crystal ball directly opposite the gnome. "Find him."
E'kressa began his casting. His little arms waved in high circles above his head while strange utterances in a language Le'lorinel did not know, and in a voice that hardly seemed familiar, came out of his mouth.
The gray eyes popped open. E'kressa bent forward intently. "Drizzt Do'Urden," he said quietly, but firmly. "The doomed drow, for there can be but one outcome of such tedious and careful planning.
"Drizzt Do'Urden," the gnome said again, the name running off his lips as rhythmically and enchantingly as had the arcane words of his spell. "I see ... I see ... I see . . ."
E'kressa paused and gave a "Hmm," then stood straighter. "I see the distorted face of an overeager bald-headed ridiculously masked elf," he explained, bending to peer around the crystal ball and into Le'lorinel's wide-eyed face. "Do you think you might step back a bit?"
Le'lorinel's shoulders sagged, and a great sigh came forth, but the elf did as requested.
E'kressa rubbed his plump little hands together and muttered a continuance of the spell, then bent back in. "I see," he said again. "Winter blows and deep, deep snows, I hear wind . . . yes, yes, I hear wind in my ears and the running hooves of deers."
"Deers?" Le'lorinel interrupted.
E'kressa stood up straight and glared at the elf.
"Deers?" Le'lorinel said again. "Rhymes with 'ears,' right?"
"You are a troublesome one."
"And you are somewhat annoying," the elf replied. "Why must you speak in rhymes as soon as you fall into your divining? Is that a seer's rule, or something?"
"Or a preference!" the flustered gnome answered, again stamping his hard boot on the carpeted floor.
"I am no peasant to be impressed," Le'lorinel explained. "Save yourself the trouble and the silly words, for you'll get no extra coins for atmosphere, visual or audible."
E'kressa muttered a couple of curses under his breath and bent back down.
"Deers," Le'lorinel said again, with a snort.
"Mock me one more time and I will send you hunting Drizzt in the Abyss itself," the gnome warned.
"And from that place, too, I shall return, to repay you your favor," Le'lorinel replied without missing a beat. "And I assure you, I know an illusion from an enemy, a guard of manipulated light from that of substance, and possess a manner of secrecy that will escape your eyes."
"Ah, but I see all, foolish son of a foolish son!" E'kressa protested.
Le'lorinel merely laughed at that statement, and that proved to be as vigorous a response as any the elf might have offered, though E'kressa, of course, had no idea of the depth of irony in his boast.
Both elf and gnome sighed then, equally tired of the useless exchange, and with a shrug the gnome bent forward and peered again into the crystal ball.
"Word has been heard that Gandalug Battlehammer is not well," Le'lorinel offered.
E'kressa muttered some arcane phrases and waggled his little arms about the curve of the sphere.
"To Mithral Hall seeing eyes go roaming, to throne and curtained bed, shrouded in gloaming," the gnome began, but he stopped, hearing the impatient clearing of Le'lorinel's throat.
E'kressa stood up straight and regarded the elf. "Gandalug lays ill," the gnome confirmed, losing both the mysterious voice and the aggravating rhymes. "Aye, and dying at that."
"Priests in attendance?"
"Dwarf priests, yes," the gnome answered. "Which is to say, little of any healing powers that might be offered to the dying king. No gentle hands there.
"Nor would it matter," E'kressa went on, bending again to study the images, to absorb the feel of the scene as much as the actual display. "It is no wound, save the ravages of time, I fear, and no illness, save the one that fells all if nothing kills him sooner." E'kressa stood straight again and blew a fluffy eyebrow up from in front of one gray eye.
"Old age," the gnome explained. "The Ninth King of Mithral Hall is dying of old age."
Le'lorinel nodded, having heard as much. "And Bruenor Battlehammer?" the elf asked.
"The Ninth King lies on a bed of sorrow," the gnome said dramatically. "The Tenth King rises with the sun of the morrow!"
Le'lorinel crossed arms and assumed an irritated posture.
"Had to be said," the gnome explained.
"Better by you, then," the elf replied. "If it had to be."
"It did," said E'kressa, needing to get in the last word.
"Bruenor Battlehammer?" the elf asked.
The gnome spent a long time studying the scene in the crystal ball then, murmuring to himself, even at one point putting his ear flat against the smooth surface to better hear the events transpiring in the distant dwarf kingdom.
"He is not there," E'kressa said with some confidence soon after. "Good enough for you, too, for if he had returned, with the dark elf beside him, would you think to penetrate a dwarven stronghold?"
"I will do as I must," came the quiet and steady response.
E'kressa started to chuckle but stopped short when he saw the grim countenance worn by Le'lorinel.
"Better for you, then," the gnome said, waving away the images in the scrying ball and enacting another spell of divination.He closed his eyes, not bothering with the ball, as he continued the chant - the call to an otherworldly being for some sign, some guidance.
A curious image entered his thoughts, burning like glowing metal. Two symbols showed clearly, images that he knew, though he had never seen them thus entwined.
"Dumathoin and Clangeddin," he mumbled. "Dumathoin and Moradin."
"Three dwarf gods?" Le'lorinel asked, but E'kressa, standing very still, eyes fluttering, didn't seem to hear.
"But how?" the gnome asked quietly.
Before Le'lorinel could inquire as to what the seer might be speaking of, E'kressa's gray eyes popped open wide. "To find Drizzt, you must indeed find Bruenor," the gnome announced.
"To Mithral Hall, then," Le'lorinel reasoned.
"Not so!" shrieked the gnome. "For there is a place more urgent in the eyes of the dwarf, a place as a father and not a king."
E'kressa shook his hairy head vehemently. "Find the dwarfs most prized creation of his hands," the gnome explained, "to find the dwarfs most prized creation of the flesh - well, one of two, but it sounded better that way," the gnome admitted.
Le'lorinel's expression could not have been more puzzled.
"Bruenor Battlehammer made something once, something powerful and magical beyond his abilities as a craftsman," E'kressa explained. "He crafted it for someone he treasured greatly. That creation of metal will bring the dwarf more certainly than will the void on Mithral Hall's stone throne. And more, that creation will bring the dark elf running."
"What is it?" Le'lorinel asked, eagerness now evident. "Where is it?"
E'kressa bounded to his small desk and pulled forth a piece of parchment. With Le'lorinel rushing to join him, he enacted another spell, this one transforming the image that his previous spell had just burned into his thoughts to the parchment. He held up his handiwork, a perfect representation of the jumbled symbols of the dwarven gods.
"Find this mark, Le'lorinel, and you will find the end of your long road," he explained.
E'kressa went into his spellcasting again, this time bringing forth lines on the opposite side of the parchment.
"Or this one," he explained, holding the new image, one that looked very much like the old, up before Le'lorinel.
The elf took the parchment gently, staring at it wide-eyed.
"One is the mark of Clangeddin, covered by the mark of Dumathoin, the Keeper of Secrets Under the Mountain. The other is the mark of Moradin, similarly disguised."
Le'lorinel nodded, turning the page over gently and reverently, like some sage studying the writings of some long-lost civilization.
"Far to the west, I believe," the gnome explained before Le'lorinel could ask the question. "Waterdeep? Luskan? Somewhere in between? I can not be sure."
"But you believe this to be the region?" the elf asked. "Did your divination tell you this, or is it a logical hunch, considering that Icewind Dale is immediately north of these places?"
E'kressa considered the words for a while, then merely shrugged. "Does it matter?"
Le'lorinel stared at him hard.
"Have you a better course to follow?" the gnome asked.
"I paid you well," the elf reminded.
"And there, in your hands, you have the goods returned, tenfold," the gnome asserted, so obviously pleased by his performance this day.
Le'lorinel looked down at the parchment, the lines of the intertwining symbols burned indelibly into the brown paper.
"I know not the immediate connection," the gnome admitted. "I know not how this symbol, or the item holding it, will bring you to your obsession. But there lies the end of your road, so my spells have shown me. More than that, I do not know."
"And will this end of the road prove fruitful to Le'lorinel?" the elf asked, despite the earlier discounting of such prophecy.
"This I have not seen," the gnome replied smugly. "Shall I wager a guess?"
Le'lorinel, only then realizing the betrayal of emotions presented by merely asking the question, assumed a defensive posture. "Spare me," the elf said.
"I could do it in rhyme," the gnome offered with a superior smirk.
Le'lorinel thought to mention that a rhyme might be offered in return, a song actually, sung with eagerness as a delicate elven dagger removed a tongue from the mouth of a gloating gnome.
The elf said nothing, though, and the thought dissipated as the image on the parchment obscured all other notions.
Here it was, in Le'lorinel's hands, the destination of a lifetime's quest.
Given that, the elf had no anger left to offer.
Given that, the elf had too many questions to ponder, too many preparations to make, too many fears to overcome, and too many fantasies to entertain of seeing Drizzt Do'Urden, the imitation hero, revealed for the imposter he truly was.
* * * * * * * * *
Chogurugga lay back on five enormous pillows, stuffing great heaps of mutton into her fang-filled mouth. At eight and a half feet, the ogress wasn't very tall, but with legs the girth of ancient oaks and a round waist, she packed more than seven hundred pounds into her ample frame.
Many male attendants rushed about the central cavern, the largest in Golden Cove, keeping her fed and happy. Always they had been attentive of Chogurugga because of her unusual and exotic appearance. Her skin was light violet in color, not the normal yellow of her clan, perfectly complimenting her long and greasy bluish-black hair. Her eyes were caught somewhere between the skin and hair in hue, seeming deep purple or just a shade off true blue, depending on the lighting about her.
Chogurugga was indeed used to the twenty males of Clan Thump fawning over her, but since her new allegiance with the human pirates, an allegiance that had elevated the females of the clan to even higher stature, the males practically tripped over one another rushing to offer her food and fineries.
Except for Bloog, of course, the stern taskmaster of Golden Cove, the largest, meanest, ugliest ogre ever to walk these stretches of the Spine of the World. Many whispered that Bloog wasn't even a true ogre, that he had a bit of mountain giant blood in him, and since he stood closer to fifteen feet than to ten, with thick arms the size of Chogurugga's legs, it was a rumor not easily discounted.
Chogurugga, with the help of Sheila Kree, had become the brains of the ogre side of Golden Cove, but Bloog was the brawn, and, whenever he desired it to be so, the true boss. And he had become even meaner since Sheila Kree had come into their lives and had given to him a gift of tremendous power, a crafted warhammer that allowed Bloog to expand caverns with a single, mighty blow.
"Back again?" the ogress said when Sheila and Bellany strode into the cavern. "And what goodzies did yez bring fer Chogurugga this time?"
"A broken ship," the pirate leader replied sarcastically. "Think ye might be eating that?"
Bloog's chuckle from the side of the room rumbled like distant thunder.
Chogurugga cast a glower his way. "Me got Bathunk now," the female reminded. "Me no need Bloog."
Bloog furrowed his brow, which made it stick out far beyond his deep-set eyes, a scowl that would have been comical had it not been coming from a beast that was a ton of muscle. Bathunk, Chogurugga and Bloog's vicious son, was becoming quite an issue between the couple of late. Normally in ogre society, when the son of a chieftain was growing as strong and as mean as the father, and that father was still young, the elder brute would beat the child down, and repeatedly, to secure his own place in the tribe. If that didn't work, the son would be killed, or put out at least. But this was no ordinary group of ogres, Clan Thump was a matriarchy instead of the more customary patriarchy, and Chogurugga would tolerate none of that behavior from Bloog - not with Bathunk, anyway.
"We barely hit open water when a familiar sight appeared on our horizon," explained an obviously disgusted Bellany, who had no intention of witnessing another of Chogurugga and Bloog's legendary "Bathunk" battles.
"Chogurugga guesses three sails?" the ogress asked, taking the bait to change the subject and holding up four fingers.
Sheila Kree cast a disapproving glance Bellany's way - she didn't need to have the ogres' respect for her diminished in any way - then turned the same expression over Chogurugga. "He's a persistent one," she admitted. "One day, he'll even follow us to Golden Cove."
Bloog chuckled again, and so did Chogurugga, both of them reveling in the thought of some fresh man-flesh.
Sheila Kree, though she surely wasn't in a smiling mood, joined in, but soon after motioned for Bellany to follow and headed out the exit on the opposite side of the room, to the tunnels leading to their quarters higher up in the mountain.
Sheila's room was not nearly as large as the chamber shared by the ogre leaders, but it was almost hedonistic in its furnishings, with ornate lamps throwing soft light into every nook along the uneven walls, and fine carpets piled so high that the women practically bounced along as they crossed the place.
"I grow weary o' that Deudermont," Sheila said to the sorceress.
"He is likely hoping for that very thing," Bellany replied. "Perhaps we'll grow weary enough to stop running, weary of the run enough to confront Sea Sprite on the open waters."
Sheila looked at her most trusted companion, gave an agreeing smile, and nodded. Bellany was, in many ways, her better half, the crusty pirate knew. Always thinking, always looking ahead to the consequences, the wise and brilliant sorceress had been the greatest addition to Bloody Keel's crew in decades. Sheila trusted her implicitly - Bellany had been the very first to wear the brand once Sheila had decided to use the intricate design on the side of Aegis-fang's mithral head in that manner. Sheila even loved Bellany as her own sister, and, despite her overblown sense of pride, and the fact that she was always a bit too merciful and gentle-hearted toward their captives for Sheila's vicious tastes, Sheila knew better than to discount anything Bellany might say.
Three times in the last couple of months, Deudermont's ship had chased Bloody Keel off the high seas, though Sheila wasn't even certain Sea Sprite had seen them the first time and doubted that there had been any definite identification the other two. But perhaps Bellany was right. Perhaps that was Deudermont's way of catching elusive pirates. He'd chase them until they tired of running, and when they at last turned to fight. . . .
A shudder coursed Sheila Kree's spine as she thought of doing battle with Sea Sprite on the open waters.
"Not any bait we're soon to be taking," Sheila said, and the answering expression from Bellany, who had no desire to ever tangle with Sea Sprite's devastating and legendary Robillard, was surely one of relief.
"Not out there," Sheila Kree went on, moving to the side of the chamber, to one of the few openings in the dark caverns of Golden Cove, a natural window overlooking the small bay and the reefs beyond. "But he's chasin' us from profits, and we've got to make him pay."
"Well, perhaps one day he'll be foolish enough to chase us into Golden Cove. We'll let Chogurugga's clan rain heavy stones down on his deck," Bellany replied.
But Sheila Kree, staring out at the cold waters, at the waves where she and Bloody Keel should now be sailing in pursuit of greater riches and fame, wasn't so certain she could maintain that kind of patience.
There were other ways to win such a personal war.