Drizzt Do'Urden walked slowly along a trail in the jutting southernmost spur of the Spine of the World Mountains, the sky brightening around him. Far away to the south, across the plain to the Evermoors, he noticed the glow of the last lights of some distant city, Nesme probably, going down, replaced by the growing dawn. When Drizzt turned another bend in the mountain trail, he saw the small town of Settlestone, far below. The barbarians, Wulfgar's kin from faraway Icewind Dale, were just beginning their morning routines, trying to put the ruins back in order.

Drizzt watched the figures, tiny from this distance, bustle about, and he remembered a time not so long ago when Wulfgar and his proud people roamed the frozen tundra of a land far to the north and west, on the other side of the great mountain range, a thousand miles away.

Spring, the trading season, was fast approaching, and the hardy men and women of Settlestone, working as dealers for the dwarves of Mithril Hall, would soon know more wealth and comfort than they ever would have believed possible in their previous day-by-day existence. They had come to Wulfgar's call, fought valiantly beside the dwarves in the ancient halls, and would soon reap the rewards of their labor, leaving behind their desperate nomadic ways as they had left behind the endless, merciless wind of Icewind Dale.

"How far we have all come," Drizzt remarked to the chill emptiness of the morning air, and he chuckled at the double-meaning of his words, considering that he had just returned from Silverymoon, a magnificent city far to the east, a place where the beleaguered drow ranger never before dared to believe that he would find acceptance. Indeed, when he had accompanied Bruenor and the others in their search for Mithril Hall, barely two years before, Drizzt had been turned away from Silverymoon's decorated gates.

"Ye've done a hundred miles in a week alone," came an unexpected answer.

Drizzt instinctively dropped his slender black hands to the hilts of his scimitars, but his mind caught up to his reflexes and he relaxed immediately, recognizing the melodic voice with more than a little of a Dwarvish accent. A moment later, Catti-brie, the adopted human daughter of Bruenor Battlehammer, came skipping around a rocky outcropping, her thick auburn mane dancing in the mountain wind and her deep blue eyes glittering like wet jewels in the fresh morning light.

Drizzt could not hide his smile at the joyous spring in the young girl's steps, a vitality that the often vicious battles she had faced over the last few years could not diminish.

Nor could Drizzt deny the wave of warmth that rushed over him whenever he saw Catti-brie, the young woman who knew him better than any. Catti-brie had understood Drizzt and accepted him for his heart, and not the color of his skin, since their first meeting in a rocky, wind-swept vale more than a decade before, when she was but half her present age.

The dark elf waited a moment longer, expecting to see Wulfgar, soon to be Catti-brie's husband, follow her around the bluff.

"You have come out a fair distance without an escort," Drizzt remarked when the barbarian did not appear.

Catti-brie crossed her arms over her chest and leaned on one foot, tapping impatiently with the other. "And ye're beginning to sound more like me father than me friend," she replied. "I see no escort walking the trails beside Drizzt Do'Urden."

"Well spoken," the drow ranger admitted, his tone respectful and not the least bit sarcastic. The young woman's scolding had pointedly reminded Drizzt that Catti-brie could take care of herself. She carried with her a short sword of dwarven make and wore fine armor under her furred cloak, as fine as the suit of chain mail that Bruenor had given to Drizzt! Taulmaril the Heartseeker, the magical bow of Anariel, rested easily over Catti-brie's shoulder. Drizzt had never seen a mightier weapon. And, even beyond the powerful tools she carried, Catti-brie had been raised among the sturdy dwarves, by Bruenor himself, as tough as the mountain stone.

"Is it often that ye watch the rising sun?" Catti-brie asked, noticing Drizzt's east-facing stance.

Drizzt found a flat rock to sit upon and bade Catti-brie to join him. "I have watched the dawn since my first days on the surface," he explained, throwing his thick forest-green cloak back over his shoulders. "Though back then, it surely stung my eyes, a reminder of where I came from, I suppose. Now, though, to my relief, I find that I can tolerate the brightness."

"And well that is," Catti-brie replied. She locked the draw's marvelous eyes with her intense gaze, forced him to look at her, at the same innocent smile he had seen those many years before on a windswept slope in Icewind Dale.

The smile of his first female friend.

"'Tis sure that ye belong under the sunlight, Drizzt Do'Urden," Catti-brie continued, "as much as any person of any race, by me own measure."

Drizzt looked back to the dawn and did not answer. Catti-brie went silent, too, and they sat together for a long while, watching the awakening world.

"I came out to see ye," Catti-brie said suddenly. Drizzt regarded her curiously, not understanding.

"Now, I mean," the young woman explained. "We'd word that ye'd returned to Settlestone, and that ye'd be coming back to Mithril Hall in a few days. I've been out here every day since."

Drizzt's expression did not change. "You wish to talk with me privately?" he asked, to prompt a reply.

Catti-brie's deliberate nod as she turned back to the eastern horizon revealed to Drizzt that something was wrong.

"I'll not forgive ye if ye miss the wedding," Catti-brie said softly. She bit down on her bottom lip as she finished, Drizzt noted, and sniffled, though she tried hard to make it seem like the beginnings of a cold.

Drizzt draped an arm across the beautiful woman's strong shoulders, "Can you believe for an instant, even if all the trolls of the Evermoors stood between me and the ceremony hall, that I would not attend?"

Catti-brie turned to him - fell into his gaze - and smiled widely, knowing the answer. She threw her arms around Drizzt for a tight hug, then leaped to her feet, pulling him up beside her.

Drizzt tried to equal her relief, or at least to make her believe that he had. Catti-brie had known all along that he would not miss her wedding to Wulfgar, two of his dearest friends. Why, then, the tears, the sniffle that was not from any budding cold? the perceptive ranger wondered. Why had Catti-brie felt the need to come out and find him only a few hours from the entrance to Mithril Hall?

He didn't ask her about it, but it bothered him more than a little. Anytime moisture gathered in Catti-brie's deep blue eyes, it bothered Drizzt Do'Urden more than a little.

* * * * *

Jarlaxle's black boots clacked loudly on the stone as he made his solitary way along a winding tunnel outside of Menzoberranzan. Most drow out alone from the great city, in the wilds of the Underdark, would have taken great care, but the mercenary knew what to expect in the tunnels, knew every creature in this particular section.

Information was Jarlaxle's forte. The scouting network of Bregan D'aerthe, the band Jarlaxle had founded and taken to greatness, was more intricate than that of any drow house. Jarlaxle knew everything that happened, or would soon happen, in and around the city, and, armed with that information, he had survived for centuries as a houseless rogue. So long had Jarlaxle been a part of Menzoberranzan's intrigue that none in the city, with the possible exception of First Matron Mother Baenre, even knew the sly mercenary's origins.

He was wearing his shimmering cape now, its magical colors cascading up and down his graceful form, and his wide-brimmed hat, hugely plumed with the feathers of a dialryma, a great flightless Underdark bird, adorned his clean-shaven head. A slender sword dancing beside one hip and a long dirk on the other were his only visible weapons, but those who knew the sly mercenary realized that he possessed many more than that, concealed on his person, but easily retrieved if the need arose.

Pulled by curiosity, Jarlaxle picked up his pace. As soon as he realized the length of his strides, he forced himself to slow down, reminding himself that he wanted to do fashionably late for this unorthodox meeting that crazy Vierna had arranged.

Crazy Vierna.

Jarlaxle considered the thought for a long while, even stopped his walk and leaned against the tunnel wall to recount the high priestess's many claims over the last few weeks. What had seemed initially to be a desperate, fleeting hope of a broken noble, with no chance at all of success, was fast becoming a solid plan. Jarlaxle had gone along with Vierna more out of amusement and curiosity than any real beliefs that they would kill, or even locate, the long-gone Drizzt.

But something apparently was guiding Vierna - Jarlaxle had to believe it was Lloth, or one of the Spider Queen's powerful minions. Vierna's clerical powers had returned in full, it seemed, and she had delivered much valuable information, and even a perfect spy, to their cause. They were fairly sure now where Drizzt Do'Urden was, and Jarlaxle was beginning to believe that killing the traitorous drow would not be such a difficult thing.

The mercenary's boots heralded his approach as he clicked around a final bend in the tunnel, coming into a wide, low-roofed chamber. Vierna was there, with Dinin, and it struck Jarlaxle as curious (another note made in the calculating mercenary's mind) that Vierna seemed more comfortable out here in the wilds than did her brother. Dinin had spent many years in these tunnels, leading patrol groups, but Vierna, as a sheltered noble priestess, had rarely been out of the city.

If she truly believed that she walked with Lloth's blessings, however, then the priestess would have nothing to fear.

"You have delivered our gift to the human?" Vierna asked immediately, urgently. Everything in Vierna's life, it seemed to Jarlaxle, had become urgent.

The sudden question, not prefaced by any greeting or even a remark that he was late, caught the mercenary off guard for a moment, and he looked to Dinin, who responded with only a helpless shrug. While hungry fires burned in Vierna's eyes, defeated resignation lay in Dinin's.

"The human has the earring," Jarlaxle replied.

Vierna held out a flat, disc-shaped object, covered in designs to match the precious earring. "It is cool," she explained as she rubbed her hand across the disc's metallic surface, "thus our spy has already moved far from Menzoberranzan."

"Far away with a valuable gift," Jarlaxle remarked, traces of sarcasm edging his voice.

"It was necessary, and will further our cause," Vierna snapped at him.

"If the human proves to be as valuable an informant as you believe," Jarlaxle added evenly.

"Do you doubt him?" Vierna's words echoed through the tunnels, causing Dinin further distress and sounding clearly as a threat to the mercenary.

"It was Lloth who guided me to him," Vierna continued with an open sneer, "Lloth who showed me the way to regain my family's honor. Do you doubt..."

"I doubt nothing where our deity is concerned," Jarlaxle promptly interrupted. "The earring, your beacon, has been delivered as you instructed, and the human is well on his way." The mercenary swept into a respectfully low bow, tipping his wide-brimmed hat.

Vierna calmed and seemed appeased. Her red eyes flashed eagerly, and a devious smile widened across her face. "And the goblins?" she asked, her voice thick with anticipation.

"They will soon make contact with the greedy dwarves," Jarlaxle replied, "to their dismay, no doubt. My scouts are in place around the goblin ranks. If your brother makes an appearance in the inevitable battle, we will know." The mercenary hid his conniving smile at the sight of Vierna's obvious pleasure. The priestess thought to gain only the confirmation of her brother's whereabouts from the unfortunate goblin tribe, but Jarlaxle had much more in mind. Goblins and dwarves shared a mutual hatred as intense as that between the drow and their surface elf cousins, and any meeting between the groups would ensure a fight. What better opportunity for Jarlaxle to take an accurate measure of the dwarven defenses? And the dwarven weaknesses?

For, while Vierna's desires were focused - all that she wanted was the death of her traitorous brother - Jarlaxle was looking at the wider picture, of how this costly exploration up near the surface, perhaps even onto the surface, might become more profitable.

Vierna rubbed her hands together and turned sharply to face her brother. Jarlaxle nearly laughed aloud at Dinin's feeble attempt to imitate his sister's beaming expression.

Vierna was too obsessed to notice her less-than-enthusiastic brother's obvious slip. "The goblin fodder understand their options?" she asked the mercenary, but she answered her own question before Jarlaxle could reply. "Of course, they have no options!"

Jarlaxle felt the sudden need to burst her eager bubble. "What if the goblins kill Drizzt?" he asked, sounding innocent.

Vierna's face screwed up weirdly and she stammered unsuccessfully at her first attempts at a reply. "No!" she decided at length. "We know that more than a thousand dwarves inhabit the complex, perhaps two or three times that number. The goblin tribe will be crushed."

"But the dwarves and their allies will suffer some casualties," Jarlaxle reasoned.

"Not Drizzt," Dinin unexpectedly answered, and there was no compromise in his grim tone, and no argument forthcoming from either of his companions. "No goblin will kill Drizzt. No goblin weapon could get near his body."

Vierna's approving smile showed that she did not understand the sincere terror behind Dinin's claims. Dinin alone among the group had faced off in battle against Drizzt.

"The tunnels back to the city are clear?" Vierna asked Jarlaxle, and, on his nod, she swiftly departed, having no more time for banter.

"You wish this to end," the mercenary remarked to Dinin when they were alone.

"You have not met my brother," Dinin replied evenly, and his hand instinctively twitched near the hilt of his magnificent drow-made sword, as though the mere mention of Drizzt put him on the defensive. "Not in combat, at least."

"Fear, Khal'abbil?" The question went straight to Dinin's sense of honor, sounded more like a taunt. Still, the fighter made no attempt to deny it. "You should fear your sister as well," Jarlaxle reasoned, and he meant every word. Dinin donned a disgusted expression.

"The Spider Queen, or one of Lloth's minions, has been talking with that one," Jarlaxle added, as much to himself as to his shaken companion. At first glance, Vierna's obsession seemed a desperate, dangerous thing, but Jarlaxle had been around the chaos of Menzoberranzan long enough to realize that many other powerful figures, Matron Baenre included, had held similar, seemingly outrageous fantasies.

Nearly every important figure in Menzoberranzan, including members of the ruling council, had come to power through acts that seemed desperate, had squirmed their way through the barbed nets of chaos to find their glory.

Might Vierna be the next to cross that dangerous terrain?

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