7 Eleint, the Year of the Banner (1368 DR)
Tiep remembered a riot in Berdusk. He didn't remember it coherently—he couldn't have been more than six at the time—but what he did remember was vivid. First, everyone had raced toward the market with sticks and rocks and torches. Then he recalled people screaming, horses crashing through the crowd, and flashing steel as everyone tried to get away from the market. He'd seen his first corpse that day: a woman who'd fallen and been trampled during the retreat.
When he thought about it now, Tiep supposed the riot had been about the cost of food and the fear of starvation. His grown self understood that riots had underlying causes; usually the cost of one thing or the fear of something else. And riots had flash points, they didn't just happen—though that was the way he remembered the Berdusk riot. One moment, he must have been doing something he couldn't remember, and the next he'd been running with his mates, a cobblestone in each hand and a howl in his heart.
He remembered that the riot had been exhilarating, until he saw the corpse.
She'd been the baker's daughter and Tiep had never known her name, but she'd given out bread crusts from the back door of her father's shop and sometimes let him and his mates warm themselves by the oven in winter. The baker had shut his shop after the riot. He hadn't really had much choice in the matter. The mob had burnt it clear down. Tiep remembered going cold and hungry more often after that—hardly a surprise to his grown self, but at six, he hadn't made the connection between the High Sun riot and winter's discomfort.
He'd been a child then, and children didn't string events together. He'd run to the market. He'd run away from it. The baker's daughter gave him food. The baker's daughter was a corpse. The baker's shop was gone. He'd gone hungry and cold. There were no connections, no causes, no reason not to riot with the mob.
The goblins were like the child he'd been—maybe that was why he despised them so. They ran toward Dru when they saw him carrying a dead "demon" on his shoulders. They ran away when they found out that the "demon" was someone they'd known as "Grouze." They pushed and shoved and hurt one another—mostly the real goblin children—when they ran.
Ghistpok, the fat, old goblin they called their chief, couldn't control them. His house withstood the mob because the Zhentarim had built it, and say what you would about the Zhentarim, they knew how to build a stone wall. A handful of the flimsy goblin hovels got trampled.
When the goblins who'd been tending the hearth and stew pot caught sight of the mob headed their way, they threw up their hands and ran. Bad enough that Tiep and his friends had to sacrifice Hopper to get on Ghistpok's good side, but watching the rampaging goblins overturn the pot in their hysteria was more than Tiep could bear to watch. He wanted badly to unsheathe his sword and kill a few, in the old gelding's name.
Ghistpok's tribe didn't deserve to live; they didn't have enough sense. The hearth fire would have spread through the camp if it hadn't been raining again. The swordswingers the Beast Lord put together underground were smarter than all of Ghistpok's goblins put together. Which said a lot about the bugs Lady Mantis cooked up back in Weathercote.
Then Druhallen did something with his voice and made himself sound like a thousand men all shouting from the top of the quarry.
"Stop your running. Stop your screaming. Come back to the old headquarters."
The goblins stopped. Every one of them understood plain language; they'd just been pretending that they didn't. They hung their ugly orange and red heads and looked ashamed as they filed back to the clearing in front of the stone house. Ghistpok climbed up to what remained of the Zhentarim roof; that was a sight from below that Tiep hoped never to see again.
"Listen to me." Dru's voice boomed through the quarry. "We went into Dekanter to find the truth about the demons, and we did find it. We've brought it where you can see it and judge for yourselves." Tiep was impressed. He'd hadn't guessed that Druhallen could charm so many minds. Galimer had assured him Dru didn't cast any sort of charm spell; charms and enchantments were Galimer's specialty—because so few of them were cast on the fly.
That was Dru, letting everyone think there was something he couldn't do so Galimer could seem to be the expert. Wizards were sneaky folk, and Druhallen was one of the sneakiest because he seemed so straightforward.
Last night, after the storm died and Dru huddled up with his magic box, he hadn't said anything about being prepared to charm the goblins, but he was. Had he memorized the spell last night because he'd guessed that the goblins would be unruly? Had Dru been carrying the reagents around all summer, the way he'd been carrying around the reagents for his Candlekeep scrying spell?
And they complained about Tiep keeping secrets!
The charm began to wear off. Ghistpok was among the first to recover. The goblin chief wasn't pleased to see his tribe listening to Druhallen. He waved his arms and hopped from one foot to the other while shouting goblin words. Tiep held his breath and prayed that Tymora or some other god would give the fat goblin a little shove toward embarrassment if not oblivion, but the gods had done enough for one day. Ghistpok commanded his tribe's attention, finished his tirade, and clambered uneventfully down from the roof.
Dru picked up the swordswinger's corpse—which Tiep hadn't noticed on the ground while Ghistpok was ranting—and carried it into the stone house. Ghistpok and five or six male goblins followed Dru. That left maybe forty or fifty goblins, including children, standing around in the rain. It took a while, but eventually a few of the females went off to reconstruct the soaked, scattered hearth.
He watched the females wrestle the huge stew pot onto an iron tripod and empty smaller pots of rainwater into it. Then, while one of them struggled to coax fire out of the sopping embers, the rest gathered the meat that had spilled out when the stew pot overturned. Without hesitation, they tossed the chunks back into the pot.
Tiep was suddenly cold. His knees trembled and the ground wobbled beneath his feet. He would have fallen, but the thought of landing in the mud was so horrifying that it kept his legs moving until he was off the mounds and standing on the quarry stone. Gasping and sobbing, he doubled over, clutching his gut. It had been hours since Tiep had eaten. There was nothing left in his stomach and that only made the retching worse.
His throat was raw before Tiep had regained control over his body and thoughts. The stairway to the High Trail beckoned through the late afternoon shadows, but so did the eastward gorge leading out of the Dekanter quarry. For the first time Tiep noticed a pair of Zhentarim-built houses just inside the gorge. Their roofs were gone, and soot stained the gaping holes that had been their windows and doorways. As shelters, neither would be better than standing out in the open, but once Tiep noticed them and the charred remnants of a wooden gate between them he forgot about the rain.
Druhallen will not listen to reason, Amarandaris had told him the night before they left Parnast. I've told him not to leave Parnast, but if he does—if he slips away and you go with him, then you will be my eyes in Dekanter. Watch him. Watch everything he does; remember everything he says, especially when he casts that spell he got from Candlekeep. But more than that, keep your eyes open for an iron box as long as your arm and half as high. Men died protecting that box. Look for it beneath the walls of the gatehouse. Leave it where you see it, if you see it, but when you get to Yarthrain, pay a visit to a man called Horace, the cooper behind the Black Buck Inn. Tell him everything—give it to him in writing, if you can. A reward will be waiting for you when you get to Scornubel.
The best part of everything Amarandaris had said was that the odds were against the Zhentarim showing up here in Dekanter. The bad part was that Tiep couldn't tell Druhallen not to worry. The worst part, until now, was that he hadn't seen anything that might have been a gatehouse.
With renewed strength and purpose, Tiep strode to the gorge and across the threshold of the northern gatehouse. The interior had been burnt and looted months ago. Charred wood was rotting fast. In the dim light Tiep couldn't easily tell the difference between roof-beams and furniture. There was nothing that looked like an iron box, but plenty of rubbish lay heaped up against the walls. He kicked the nearest pile.
"No talk. Go away." Tiep leapt straight up when he heard words coming from the rubbish behind him. His heart had stopped and restarted at violent speed before a shred of intelligence let him know he'd heard that voice before.
One trash heap was more blue and green than sooty black.
"What are you doing here? Shouldn't you be back with your brothers and sisters, getting ready for the big feast and celebration?"
"Sheemzher not eat. Sheemzher not celebrate. Not talk. Go away."
"Sorry, Sheemz, I've got work to do. You're not sitting on a iron box, are you?" Tiep knew better than to provoke the goblin when they were hung on tenterhooks waiting to get back to the egg chamber, but when he was fighting guilt and anxiety, Tiep couldn't resist the temptation to pick on an easy target. "Did you see Ghistpok up on the wall? Didn't you marry his daughter? Did she look like him?"
The goblin said something guttural in his own language.
"You want to repeat that in a language that sentient races can understand?"
"Sheemzher say, better sacrifice that one, not Hopper. Not miss that one."
The goblin's voice was forlorn, yet defiant, as though he knew he couldn't win but wouldn't back down from a fight, either. It was a trait Tiep knew well and one that blunted some of his own anger.
"Hopper had cracked a hoof. It was just a question of where and when Dru would use his mercy spell."
"Not mercy, sacrifice. Sacrifice. Good sir say sacrifice. Good sir not ask Hopper."
Tiep kicked another rubbish heap. He'd have hurt himself if the iron box had been within it, but the heap collapsed without incident.
"Dru's in charge. He makes the decisions because he's the one who does the lion's share of the work when we're on the road. He's right, too, most of the time. We've got to have Ghistpok's cooperation. If—If—Look, it wasn't as if Dru said, Let's slaughter Hopper. We left Cardinal behind, and you remember what happened to him. That was pointless. This is—this is better. We're getting closer to that scroll your bug lady wants, and closer to getting Galimer back. That's what sacrifice is all about."
Sheemzher made the sound of a bladder bursting then said. "Not eat. Not celebrate. Ghistpok—" He made the bladder-bursting sound again. "Good sir not ask Hopper, not ask Sheemzher. Sheemzher say no sacrifice. Not right. Ghistpok not right. All not right. Good sir say, sacrifice hurt. How? Hopper not sacrifice good sir."
"Animals don't sacrifice people, Sheemzher. People make sacrifices because people—" Tiep had to think for a moment—"because people are cleverer than animals. People see consequences and complications. They're sneaky. They make a sacrifice here, so something they want will happen over there."
Tiep waved his arm at the empty door way as a way of indicating that it was a long reach between Hopper's death and getting Galimer out of Weathercote. Sheemzher didn't get the point, though. The goblin just stared out the door, looking for something that wasn't there.
"People," Sheemzher said softly, reminding Tiep that the word meant one thing to him and another to the goblins. "Some people clever. Some people not clever. Some people gods. Gods sacrifice people, yes?"
Tiep went back to kicking rubbish. "You're talking to the wrong person, Sheemz. I don't have anything to do with gods—except Tymora, of course. Lady Luck." An ironic thought crossed his mind. "Everybody makes sacrifices to Lady Luck, but gods do what they want. Rozt'a says the last thing she ever wants is the love of a god; it's sure to turn out bad for her, however it turns out for the god. She's probably right. A good friend is worth more than any god. Look what Druhallen's putting himself through for Galimer."
"Good sir eat, yes? Good sir celebrate, yes? Good sir forget Hopper, yes?"
"Yes, no—how in blazes should I know what Dru remembers or forgets? And people—humans— sometimes we do what we have to do and spend the rest of our lives regretting it." The way he regretted everything he'd done for the Zhentarim since that fateful night in Scornubel. "I don't know what Druhallen would do if he had to chose between saving Rozt'a or Galimer. I don't know what I'd do." Tiep looked up. The goblin stared at him with unnerving intensity.
"It's just talk, Sheemzher. We didn't really sacrifice Hopper. We're not gods or priests. Just forget the word ever came up."
The goblin didn't listen. "Good sir save Tiep?" he asked, the first time he'd recognized Tiep by name. "Or, good sir sacrifice Tiep?"
The questions cut close to the bone. Tiep spun around in a ready rage. "Be quiet! Be quiet and stay quiet! Leave me alone!"
Tiep stormed out of the northern gatehouse and into the southern one. He kicked rubbish until the sting of Sheemzher's questions had dulled to a familiar, guilty ache. The iron box remained hidden, if it still existed, but he found a sword buried in the ash. Burnt, rotting leather notwithstanding, the hilt of the sword Tiep found in the gatehouse mud fit his hand better than the hilt of the sword he'd taken off the swordswinger.
He'd keep the swordswinger's weapon; the buried blade was rusted beyond redemption. The blades were similar, though—very similar. He carried them both to the open doorway where the light was best and compared the forge marks hammered into the steel. The marks were clear and identical.
Tiep had learned the marks of Darkhold's forge and armory before he'd learned to read, and he'd learned to read before Galimer sat down to teach him his letters. It wasn't an iron box, but he could tell Horace, Amarandaris, and Sememmon himself—if the Dark Lord were interested—that the Beast Lord was arming his bug-brained goblins with Zhentarim swords.
The discovery might not get him his promised reward, which he wouldn't accept under any circumstance, but it might back the Network off for a little while.
Tiep left the sword and the southern gatehouse behind. Sheemzher waited for him in the gorge.
"People begin feast. People begin celebration."
Tiep shook his head vigorously. After Rozt'a and Galimer had adopted him, he'd become fascinated by food, studying it as only a boy who'd often gone hungry could. He knew how to make stew. "They can't be. Meat doesn't cook that fast. It's half-cooked, worse than raw. You've made another mistake, Sheemz. Your eyes aren't good enough."
"People begin feast. Sheemzher not need eyes. Sheemzher use nose."
There was no arguing with Sheemzher's nose. Halfway across the quarry floor, Tiep could both see and smell the truth. Druhallen and Rozt'a were easy to pick out among the goblins. They had bowls in their hands. Through light rain, Tiep couldn't tell if they were eating. He wasn't getting closer for a better look.
Sheemzher was where Tiep had left him between the two gatehouses. Their eyes locked, and Tiep tried, with neither magic nor prayer at his disposal, to will the goblin into one of the buildings so he could hole up in the other. The exercise failed and Sheemzher followed him into the southern house. The remains of a wall hearth provided an almost dry, almost comfortable place to sit and wait. Of course, Sheemzher had to share it with him, but so long as the goblin kept his mouth shut Tiep didn't mind the company.
As the afternoon wound down and the feasting became some of the worst drone-singing Tiep had ever heard, he introduced Sheemzher to dice. The goblin took to gambling like a duck to water but was convinced that a double-six was easier to roll than any lower combination. If they'd been playing for gold, or even copper, Tiep could have transferred all the goblin's wealth to his purse, but they were playing for bits of an endless supply of soggy charcoal. He was sorry he'd gotten his dice out long before darkness put a halt to their playing.
A breeze blew the last of the rain down the gorge. The clouds broke up overhead and the stars of late summer became visible overhead. The temperature began to drop. It was only the first eve of The Fading, but the temperature dropped like stone once the sky was clear. Tiep stamped around the gatehouse, trying to keep warm in clothes that wouldn't dry, while Sheemzher stayed on the hearth, completely unperturbed.
When the chill reached Tiep's bones, the pull of Ghistpok's bonfire became too strong to resist. He returned to the mounds with Sheemzher at his side. The goblins, except for Ghistpok and maybe a few other males, were packed around a hissing fire in the clearing in front of the old Zhentarim headquarters. Their monotonous singing was accompanied and guided by four drummers, all female, all pounding furiously. Tiep had to breathe deep to keep his heart from racing to their rhythm. That meant filling his lungs with the bonfire's pungent smoke.
Tiep warmed himself until he couldn't stand the smells and sounds any longer, then went looking for Druhallen and Rozt'a. They were behind the headquarters. Rozt'a was curled up in an old wool blanket. Tiep didn't ask where she'd found it, but it wasn't one of theirs. He wasn't surprised that she could sleep through the din of goblin music. Rozt'a claimed that anyone who said he wasn't tired was a liar, and anyone who couldn't sleep when he was tired was a fool.
Dru had his box out, waiting for midnight. He held the dark glass disk—the mystery that had dragged them here in the first place and which remained unsolved—in both hands and studied it with a frown and furrowed brow. Tiep approached him slowly; bad things could happen when wizards were interrupted. Dru's concentration was not as complete as it looked. He heard them when they were still several paces away and quickly slipped the disk back into its compartment within the box. Dru didn't ask Tiep where he'd been or what he'd been doing, and Tiep didn't ask Dru what he'd been thinking about while he held the disk or whether he'd enjoyed the feast.
Tiep did ask, "Any idea what happens next?"
Dru shot an inquiring glance at Sheemzher before answering. "They're not talking much and I'm no better at understanding goblin than I was this morning, but Ghistpok's inside working himself up for some sort of trance-ordeal. When he's ready, I think we all follow him down to the chalk circle."
"People dance, good sir," Sheemzher explained. "Ghistpok talk Beast Lord. Beast Lord talk Ghistpok."
"They dance, they drink, too, don't they?" Dru scowled. "A bunch took off into the mines a while ago."
"Wine there, yes. Sheemzher think people not drink much wine anymore, good sir. Zhentarim gone long time. Wine gone, maybe."
"Or maybe we follow a tribe of drunken goblins to the egg chamber. Outhzin's been chipping away at his spear all evening. I guess that's a good sign."
"Good sign, yes. Grouze brother Outhzin. Very angry. Same Sheemzher when Sheemzher lose Elva. All good now. All good for good sir, yes?"
"So long as nothing happens before midnight. I need time to study. I've been light all day. I don't want to go below this empty. While you're both here, though, let me show you how these work—"
Druhallen pulled a pair of Rozt'a's heavy leather gloves off his belt. Tiep knew they'd been enchanted as soon as he saw them and clutched his hands behind his back.
"I can't wear them," he said quickly. "My jinx is tingling."
"That's good to know, but I was counting on Sheemzher to climb back up atop the egg—if you're up to it?"
"Sheemzher climb, good sir. Gloves or not gloves, Sheemzher climb."
"When you're up there, clap your hands twice before you grasp the scroll. I've put an unbinding into the leather, it should help pull the scroll free and keep the flareback from burning your hands. You understand?"
The goblin nodded.
"And you, Tiep: two claps, then pull."
"They're not going to do me any good."
"I'm asking you to remember how to kindle the enchantment, in case someone forgets." Dru's glance darted to Sheemzher and back again.
Tiep's heart skipped a beat, and not because the goblin might forget his instructions. "Dru? What do you mean, Dru? You're sounding like you're not going to be in the egg chamber ..." His voice trailed off. "What's going on, Dru?"
His foster father shrugged. "I don't see myself there, so I'm being careful."
"What do you mean you don't 'see' yourself. You haven't—you know—had a vision or something?"
"No visions, Tiep." Dru tried to laugh; the attempt wasn't entirely successful. "Not even close to a vision. When I cast an enchantment that's tied to a future act, sometimes I get a flash of that act. Most of the time I don't; most of the time, I'm not there when the spell kindles, so why should I get a flash? This time I'd expected to be there when this unbinding kindles. In case I'm not—two claps, then pull. All right?"
"Yeah," Tiep muttered. "You're sure everything's going to be all right?"
"No one's ever sure, Tiep. That's why I'm being careful. I've told you and Sheemzher. I told Rozt'a before she went down for a nap. I could wish I had more time, more gloves, but wishes don't count. You sticking close until we head below with Ghistpok?"
"You're sure we're going in with him?"
"That's the plan right now. I told you; no one's ever sure. Settle in. Grab a nap, like Rozt'a's doing. I need to rest my mind."
Tiep went through the motions of settling in amid the trash piled up behind the old Zhentarim headquarters. He closed his eyes. Usually he had no trouble falling asleep—the exhausted innocence of youth, Galimer called it. Sleep wasn't waiting for him in Dekanter. Maybe he was growing up.
He thought of Manya and Pulsey, the girl he'd met in Llorkh, and Basienne, who was prettier than both Manya and Pulsey together and might be waiting for him in Scornubel, if he was lucky enough to get back to Scornubel. He thought of Galimer, too, and how close they'd be to Parnast and Manya when they got to Weathercote. Then he thought of Amarandaris and how cold the air in Dekanter had gotten.
The goblins were still singing and drumming, though not as loudly or rapidly as before. It was good to know there were limits. The camp was quiet enough that Tiep could hear Dru whispering nearby. He cracked an eyelid—in case his foster parents were having an actual conversation—but it was just Dru preparing himself for the Underdark with his fists clenched and his eyes squeezed shut. When push came to shove, spellcraft demanded a lot from the wizards who practiced it. Tiep was long past the days when he mourned the vocation he couldn't have.
Druhallen had worked up a sweat by the time he'd finished preparing his spells. His hands shook just a little when he folded his box. Tiep wondered what he'd studied, but wasn't bold enough to ask. It was like asking someone if they wore undergarments to bed. When Dru glanced his way, Tiep closed his eyes again and feigned dreams.
He didn't have to pretend for long. The drummers and singers kicked up a sudden racket. Dru gave both him and Rozt'a a gentle shake to awaken them.
"Ghistpok's come outside. They're all headed down to the chalk circle. We're under way."
For a man who hadn't slept, Tiep was both stiff and groggy. He yawned mightily but couldn't get enough air into his lungs to shake off the lethargy.
"You can stay behind," Rozt'a suggested when she saw him struggling.
They were always suggesting that, as if he were still a child and not up adult responsibilities. "I'm coming. I'm ready."
"Then keep moving. Sheemzher, what are they singing about now?"
The goblin song had changed. It had words, now, though it was still mostly drone and entirely sour.
"People calling Beast Lord, good sir. People say, Beast Lord wise, Beast Lord good, Beast Lord come—" Sheemzher lapsed into a bit of goblin so-called melody.
"That's enough," Dru chided.
Starlight revealed an easy path from the Zhentarim headquarters to the chalk circle. Dru didn't have to waste a light spell, if he had one to spare. The goblins had arranged themselves on the chalk: males surrounded by children, then females. Those males with the largest family rings clumped closest to the black standing stone. Those with fewer, sat farther away.
If Sheemzher had had only Elva and six children, then Sheemzher had sat on the circle's very edge.
While Ghistpok anointed the stone with various oils, wineskins the size and shape of rats were passed from one harem to the next. Everybody took a sip, even the children. The males took several, but nobody got as much as a goblet's worth. Within minutes, they were on their feet swaying and droning again.
"Doesn't take much to get a goblin drunk," he commented.
"They're smaller," Rozt'a chided.
Dru had a different perspective, "They could be adding something to their wine. Mushrooms. I imagine they get quite a crop of mushrooms. There are mushrooms that will have you looking at the sky and seeing green." When all the goblins had had their wine and mushrooms, and all of them were swaying together, the drumming started again. If there was a rhythm to their pounding, Tiep couldn't detect it, though something kept the goblins moving together rather than crashing into one another as their dance grew steadily wilder. The trick Tiep had used earlier—deep breathing to thwart the drumbeat rhythm—failed against this new assault. His heart pounded, and he found himself gasping for air.
Sheemzher was completely gone, hopping about and waving his arms like the rest of the goblins. If the goblin was only pretending to be drunk, he was doing it very well. Slowly it occurred to Tiep that the goblins weren't particularly inebriated or performing a traditional dance, they were entranced and imitating perfectly the moves and gesture their chief, Ghistpok, made as he circled the glistening black stone.
He shared his insight with Druhallen, to whom it came as no surprise. Maybe it was the noise and the heart-stopping irregularity of the drumbeats, but Dru seemed a bit entranced himself. When Ghistpok stiffened and started screaming in goblin, Dru didn't seem to care. Rozt'a was the one who shook some sense back into Sheemzher.
"What's he saying?" she demanded of the glaze-eyed goblin.
"All well now. All mistake. Grouze mistake," Sheemzher crooned. "People wrong, all wrong. Beast Lord say, come, come now, see the truth. No egg. No bugs. No slaves. Come see. Ghistpok come. People come. All come to Beast Lord. All worship. All learn."
Tiep saw what was happening. "The wine and the drumming gets them all thinking the same, and then the Beast Lord gets all thinking the way he wants them to. This isn't going to work!" He was shouting at Rozt'a who was still shaking Sheemzher.
"It's still our best chance," Dru countered. He seemed to be himself again, though his face had the look of someone with a serious headache. Maybe he was doing something magical, because Sheemzher stopped babbling the instant Dru touched him. "Blind obedience is as good as a sentience shield for our purposes," Dru explained. "We stay with them until it gets them into the pool chamber, then we slip back to the athanor while it's planting lies inside their minds."
" 'Slip back to the athanor'!" Rozt'a sputtered. "Dru, you're mad! This isn't what we planned."
"We were counting on Ghistpok to stand up to the Beast Lord. He can't do it. He's not strong enough or clever enough. None of them are. And they wouldn't, even if they could. That was our mistake—These goblins worship the Beast Lord. They're not like us, picking and choosing through a pantheon. They'd sooner die than admit the Beast Lord's deceived and betrayed them."
Dru silenced Rozt'a with an upraised hand. "When you were part of the sentience shield in Cormyr, the alhoon knew you were hostile, knew you were coming. It attacked you. Ghistpok's goblins aren't hostile; the Beast Lord won't attack them. We can fight our way out, if it comes to that."
Tiep studied Dru's face while he and Rozt'a argued. He saw something there he'd never seen before. He didn't know what it was, but he'd wager it had something to do with the enchantment spell Dru had cast on the leather gloves and the flash of the future his foster- father hadn't had.
Ghistpok's goblins were surging toward the mine entrance, all of them and all moving the same way, left foot, right foot, arms swinging and voices chanting.
"If we're going with them, we better start moving," Rozt'a said grimly.
"I'm going to strengthen your minds first. Make you resistant to the Beast Lord's suggestions." He touched Rozt'a and the goblin. "Even you, Tiep. Get the scroll to Weathercote. Get Galimer out of there. I'm depending on you."
Tiep had waited years to hear Druhallen say those words and mean them. They were cold comfort at the bottom of the Dekanter quarry. The spell felt like an egg cracked open on Tiep's scalp and the egg-gut swiftly coating his skin. He shuddered once, then was calmer than he'd been since that morning—scarcely a week ago—in the bug lady's glade when Druhallen hit him with the same spell.
Even the thought that Dru was worried sick about something no longer distressed him.
"You added something," Tiep accused his foster father. "No," he replied, but wizards lied all the time.
Tiep couldn't tell if Dru had strengthened his own mind or if all the restored calm and renewed sense of purpose came from the magic flowing through his thoughts alone. It didn't matter much. They were as ready as they'd ever be and on their way to steal an ancient scroll from an undead mind flayer.
What could be easier?
Ghistpok led them down almost familiar corridors. Druhallen cast a light spell and no one seemed to care, or notice that there were three humans and one traitor-goblin marching some twenty paces behind them. They came to the place where Tiep was sure they'd turned back yesterday when Sheemzher was leading them and the water got too high. The tunnel was merely wet now. Dru muttered that it had been drained within the last few moments and that they'd been damn lucky to survive their first two visits because the Beast Lord had control over the storm water sloshing through the mines and used water in its defenses.
What did it matter if they'd been lucky before, as long as there was no danger now and they were marching in the right direction?
They were. Tiep recognized the place where they'd met the swordswingers for the first time. The bodies were gone, but the walls had been scorched by Dru's fire. He could feel the Beast Lord now, like a weight or shadow across his thoughts. Between his own immunity and Dru's spell, the alhoon was a presence he could easily ignore.
The pool chamber's glow had become visible ahead of the fast-moving goblins. There was a chance that the Beast Lord would be waiting for them, but not even the thought of those dead-white eyes and writhing tentacles could disrupt Tiep's confidence. He stuck close behind Dru and Rozt'a who were slowing down, putting more distance between themselves and the precisely marching goblins.
Swordswingers appeared in the corridor and drew no reaction from Outhzin and the other elder goblins who'd been beneath Dekanter yesterday as they marched at the front of the herd with Ghistpok.
"That's bad," he whispered to Dru and Rozt'a. "They don't remember why they've come down here."
Rozt'a nodded. "They've got no thoughts of their own left."
But they did. The goblins stopped. Their leaders—Tiep couldn't make out individuals—spoke to the swordswingers. A few of them led a few of the swordswingers through the quietly standing goblins toward the humans.
"Take this," Dru said as he turned and thrust something icy and hard into Tiep's hands. He handed the enchanted gloves to Sheemzher. "The three of you, step back now and stay close together until the way is clear. Then get to the athanor, get the scroll and get out! Don't worry about me."
"You saw something," Tiep protested. "You lied! You saw something!"
Druhallen wasn't answering questions. He'd wrapped his arms around them all, him, Rozt'a, and the goblin, and shoved them backward. He stood alone when the goblins and swordswingers arrived. They swarmed around him, taking his sword but not his folding box.
Dru had become their prisoner, and a single word echoed through Tiep's mind: sacrifice. The little part of him that wasn't touched by the mind-strengthening spell wanted to scream and attack, but the larger part, where magic had him seeing everything with cold, self-serving logic, made him grab Sheemzher and take another backward step. Rozt'a remained an arm's length away.
Tiep hissed to get her attention. "Back up. Stay close."
Maybe she didn't hear him. Maybe she chose to stride toward Druhallen instead. The rude, aggressive dog-face who'd grabbed Rozt'a yesterday, and whom she'd sent flying, pointed his spear at her. In a heartbeat she had her sword drawn and so did all the swordswingers. Nobody moved.
"Dru? Dru, are you ready?"
The look on Dru's face was more frightening than all the swords. Something had gone terribly wrong but, not knowing the vision that had guided Druhallen, Tiep couldn't guess where or how his plan had failed.
"Can you kill them all?" Dru asked.
"I can try." "That's not enough."
"Be damned, Druhallen—it's enough for me!"
She raised her sword and froze, like a living statue. The swordswingers disarmed her without a twitch.
Sheemzher started to ask a question. Tiep hit him hard with the hand that clutched the freezing disk. He hit him a second hit when the goblin opened his mouth again.
Quiet! he mouthed.
The swordswingers and goblins had come within a foot of him and Sheemzher and not noticed them. It was the old glass disk. Somehow it had to be the disk that hid them. And it was Tiep's fault that both Druhallen and Rozt'a were being herded toward the pool chamber with him and Sheemzher left behind. Sheemzher snuggled in behind him, peeking out around Tiep's arm. They stayed like that until they were the only ones left in the corridor.
"Are you going to be strong?" Tiep asked his clinging companion. He felt a nod against his ribs. "You still have the gloves Druhallen gave you?" Another nod.
The pool chamber was very quiet. The light flickered, though, and Tiep knew the chamber was occupied. When they were a few strides from the threshold, he told Sheemzher to stay put and crept up to survey the situation alone. It was as bad as he'd feared, with the ugly, fearsome alhoon standing behind the big, circular pool and Tiep's foster parents flanking him. Dru and Rozt'a were both standing still, but straining against invisible restraints.
The calm resolve that Dru's spell had planted in Tiep's mind faltered. For a moment, maybe longer, he couldn't think or move himself. When something touched his hand he nearly leapt out of his skin.
"Shhh-sh," the goblin advised. "Go now? Tiep, Sheemzher go now? Get scroll, yes?"
Sheemzher was on the short side, even for a goblin, and he had lousy goblin eyes. He couldn't see what Tiep saw and, for once, Tiep wasn't going to upset the dog face with a load of bad news.
"Yeah, we go now." He put a hand on Sheemzher's shoulder, steering him across the threshold and along the pool-chamber wall. "Keep your head down and your eyes in straight in front of you—"
"Sheemzher head down, Sheemzher see feet!"
Exasperated with himself more than the goblin, Tiep gave Sheemzher a shove in the proper direction. "Just don't look out toward the pools. Can you smell the egg? Can you find the open way into the egg chamber?"
The goblin rose on his toes and sniffed several times, then whispered. "Sheemzher smell egg. Egg smell strong. Sheemzher find egg, yes."
They sneaked along the outer wall. Tiep was the one who had trouble following orders. Every few steps he had to look to his left, toward the pools where the Beast Lord stood. Those writhing tentacles were the only movement Tiep could see, unless he counted Dru and Rozt'a's futile efforts to free themselves. He tried not to notice their struggles, but they were the reason he had to look.
Sheemzher took Tiep's hand again when they came to the passage they had used the first time. Tiep hesitated, more because he'd lose sight of Dru and Rozt'a than because he didn't trust the goblin's nose. Sheemzher tugged and Tiep followed. The granite wall was gone. Tiep knew they'd entered the larger chamber by the way sound changed—without Dru's light spell he couldn't see his hand in front of his face.
"Is it there?" he asked anxiously. "Is the scroll there?" and, belatedly, "Are we alone in here?"
"All alone," Sheemzher assured him. "Scroll there. Tiep lift Sheemzher, yes?"
Tiep let the goblin lead him to chamber's center. He knew the egg was there when he bumped his shoulder against its open door. Sheemzher didn't truly need any help climbing to the egg's top, but Tiep was glad to tie the icy disk into his shirt hem and hoist the goblin to his shoulders.
"Don't forget to put on the gloves," he said when the weight was gone. "And clap twice before you pull on the scroll."
Sheemzher clapped three times, which was a harmless error. The chamber lit up as if a score of lightning bolts had struck the egg. Tiep was blinded by light, not darkness. Blobs of lurid color floated within his eyes. He held up his arms, hoping Sheemzher would find them.
Sheemzher had been thrown across the chamber again—Tiep had heard what happened after he and Rozt'a left the first time. Tiep forced himself to ask, "Are you hurt?" when all he really cared about was the scroll. He thought he might just shrivel up and die if the goblin hadn't freed the scroll.
"Scroll here, too. Sheemzher have scroll. Sheemzher hurt some here, there."
With neither light nor goblin eyes to guide him, Tiep couldn't take two steps without tripping over some piece of twisted metal. It was the sound that worried him, though sound was the least of his problems. Be they goblins, swordswingers, or the Beast Lord himself, everyone beneath Dekanter could see in the dark except for him, Rozt'a, and Druhallen. Fear of noise dropped Tiep to his hands and knees. He crawled to the goblin and could make no assessment of his injuries.
"Can you move? Walk?"
"Maybe. Get spear. Spear there."
Sheemzher pointed toward something Tiep couldn't hope to see. "Forget your spear. Can you walk out of here."
"Spear! Sheemzher need spear. Get spear, Sheemzher walk."
"Give me the scroll first."
It was smaller than Tiep expected, barely longer than his forearm. He was numb to the elbow the instant he touched it. No telling what that meant. Tiep stripped off his shirt instead and quickly smoothed it across the stone floor. He unrolled the golden scroll and laid it flat on his shirt—the cloth was a bit longer than the scroll. He put the glass disk in the middle of the scroll. After tucking the hem over one bar and its finials, Tiep let the scroll layer itself within his shirt as it recoiled. It wasn't as tightly rolled as before, but the bulge wasn't as large as he'd feared it might be. He could hold the cloth-wrapped scroll without the numbness growing worse and after a moment's indecision, tucked the entire bundle against the small of his back.
"So, where's your damn spear?"
They could hear noise out in the pool chamber by the time Tiep got his hands on Sheemzher's left-behind spear. The sounds were the same high-pitched keening sounds Ghistpok's goblins had made when they'd led Hopper down the quarry steps yesterday morning, and quite different from their trance singing earlier.
He helped Sheemzher to his feet. The goblin was wobbly, especially on his right side. Tiep heard himself say—
"Are you sure you can walk? I could carry you if you're not sure."
"Sheemzher walk. Sheemzher strong."
"Stay close then. Dru meant for us to stay close together. I don't want you getting left behind."
"Not lose Sheemzher."
Sheemzher led the way through the darkness. The goblin's eyes were fine, but he moved slowly and Tiep could hear him breathing hard. Sheemzher's injuries faded from Tiep's concern when they cleared the egg-chamber dogleg and could see into the pool chamber.
All the goblins, the naked slaves they'd seen before and Ghistpok's ragged tribe from the smallest child to fat Ghistpok himself, were prostrate on the stone, with their faces hidden and their arms extended in front of them, toward the Beast Lord. They were so motionless that Tiep would have thought them dead, but for the keening that echoed around him. The swordswingers—about forty of them altogether—were also motionless, though they were standing with their swords drawn, their attention focused on the Beast Lord who stood with his back to the egg chamber. Rozt'a stood to the Beast Lord's right; she been stripped of her clothes which lay in pieces around her.
Dru was nowhere to be seen.
Tiep was enraged, but beneath the spell in his mind, Tiep was as frightened as he'd ever been in his life. If the magic broke, terror would overcome anger and he'd be unable to move, except to soil himself and collapse on the stone. The spell would break. None of Dru's spells lasted forever and there was a bad chance that none of them would last longer than him. They should get moving toward the surface, toward Weathercote and Galimer. They shouldn't waste another moment. A man groaned. It was a small sound, almost lost in the goblin keening, but Tiep heard it as clearly as he heard his own heart's beating and knew without doubt or hesitation that it had come from Druhallen's throat.
"Where is he?"
"Good sir kneel. Good sir before Beast Lord. Alho-o-o-oon!" The goblin's wail blended into the keening. "Alho-o-o-o-on eat mind. Good lady not care. Good lady not care goblins, not care good sir. Good lady care only scroll. Sacrifice!"
Sheemzher hoisted up his spear and took a tottering step forward. Tiep lunged and grabbed him before the goblin took another. He could see Dru now, on his knees before the Beast Lord, those ghastly tentacles sliding around his face like snakes.
Mind flayers. Mind flayers didn't eat minds, they ate brains. He could hear the Beast Lord, beyond Druhallen's spell and his own immunity—it was like the otio-whatever, the dung beast that had grabbed him a few nights back with its hunger, hunger, hunger radiating into his mind, but the Beast Lord was vastly more powerful and vastly more hungry. The Beast Lord wanted Dru's life—his loves and fears, his knowledge and hopes. The Beast Lord would share those delicacies with his minions as he consumed them.
The last thing Dru had told Tiep was "Don't worry about me," but Tiep couldn't do it. There was a clear path out of the pool chamber. Tiep reached behind his back.
"You take this back to Weathercote ... to your good lady."
Tiep couldn't keep the bitter sarcasm from his voice as he offered the shirt-wrapped bundle to Sheemzher.
The goblin folded his arms and shook his head. "Not leave. Sheemzher not leave. Galimer not friend. Good lady not friend. Good sir friend. Sheemzher not leave. Sheemzher kill god. Sacrifice. Tiep leave, yes? Tiep have other life, yes? No sacrifice."
"No, damn you—No!"
Druhallen's spell was cracking from inside. Tiep drew his sword; Sheemzher pressed his spear's tip against Tiep's bare chest.
"Wait. Alho-o-o-o-on strong mind. Alho-o-o-o-on blind just once. Touch mind once—" Sheemzher stuck his finger in one nostril, a disgusting gesture at an inappropriate time. "Alho-o-o-o- on blind. Wait. Wait, yes? Sheemzher give sign."
The flint pressure on Tiep's chest increased. Sheemzher—the runty, warty, dog-faced goblin—would kill him on the spot if he gave the wrong answer.
"I'll wait," Tiep said, and added, "You planned this. You and your damned bug lady."
"No good lady. Good lady not care." The goblin withdrew his spear, and Tiep breathed easier. "Sheemzher make plan; Sheemzher do plan. No other people care. Ghistpok not care. Maybe too late. Sheemzher care. Sheemzher plan. Sheemzher kill god. Sacrifice."
It was Tiep's turn to threaten his companion. "Not Dru. Not on your worthless life."
He was bigger than Sheemzher, considerably longer in the leg, and the goblin was injured. Tiep was going to reach the Beast Lord first and slam his sword into the middle of the Beast Lord's rib cage—assuming an alhoon had ribs and kept its vital organs within them; and also assuming that it could be killed with an ordinary Zhentilar's sword.
Tiep charged across the pool chamber, but stopped a few feet short of plunging his sword through the Beast Lord's fancy cloak. For one thing, the alhoon's presence grew stronger the closer Tiep got. For another, he could see better and understood what Sheemzher had been trying to tell him when the goblin stuck his finger in his nostril. Only three of the Beast Lord's four tentacles were writhing over Druhallen's head; the fourth was pressed rigid against his cheek. Its tip disappeared into Dru's nose and there was blood streaming over his mouth and chin.
Damn Sheemzher who couldn't string a proper sentence together! How was he supposed to know the right moment to attack? The Beast Lord hadn't noticed that there was an armed human standing an arm's length from his back. He wouldn't notice two feet of steel protruding from his chest, either, until it was too late.
Sheemzher arrived at Tiep's side. He held up one hand, palm-out, a sign all the races knew meant stop! The goblin's injuries were apparent in the brighter light around the pool. The right side of his face was bloodied—Tiep couldn't see Sheemzher's right eye for the blood and didn't know if it was even still there. Sheemzher had a wound on his right side too. It wasn't bleeding badly. All the damage must have been inside because the goblin was paralyzed from the wound down on that side of his body.
They were a sorry lot: a naked woman, a wizard with his brain about to be devoured, a wounded goblin, and a bumbling thief with a sword he didn't know how to use. It was a miracle they'd gotten this far, a fool's miracle.
Then the keening stopped, and all of the Beast Lord's tentacles went rigid against Dru's face. Tiep didn't need a signal from Sheemzher. He let out a yell and pointed the sword at the spot where a man's heart would be vulnerable, if an alhoon were a man.
The sword began to vibrate inches away from the cloak. Tiep hung onto the hilt with both hands, willing the tip forward, but it was no use. Plain steel couldn't penetrate the Beast Lord's defenses. It did get his attention.
The Beast Lord turned to face Tiep, unwrapping its tentacles from Druhallen's head as it moved. Dru collapsed on the stone. He might have been alive; he might have been dead. Tiep couldn't tell by looking at him. A heartbeat later, he couldn't tell anything at all. His world was white eyes with neither pupils nor irises and four blind serpents reaching for him. Dru's spell couldn't protect him from the Beast Lord's direct attention. Tiep felt his life's memories flowing away from him and a hideous cruelty that put Sememmon to shame.
The first tentacle touched Tiep's face. He screamed, and his tormentor consumed his fear. The second tentacle traced an arc over his eyes, across his cheek, and thrust violently into his nose. Tiep couldn't breathe. He gulped air through his mouth, fighting for life when his last wish was to die quick. The Beast Lord was laughing inside his skull.
There was darkness.
And there was light again.
Tiep was still alive, still standing in the Beast Lord's pool chamber. The sword had fallen from his hand and his body quaked with the aftershocks of sheer terror, but aside from the blood streaming from his ravaged nostril, he was unharmed.
The Beast Lord, who still stood so close that Tiep could see the tiniest wrinkles in its tentacles and the shiny membrane covering its eyes, had lost interest in feasting on his fears. Tiep couldn't move, except to breathe and breathing took all his concentration whether he tried breathing through his mouth or, by mistake, through his nose. Between labored breaths, Tiep looked for his foster parents and found them. Dru hadn't risen from the stone, but he was breathing. The Beast Lord blocked Tiep's view of Rozt'a, but he could see the top of her head beyond a cloaked shoulder and hoped that meant she was still alive.
Tiep couldn't see Sheemzher; the angle was wrong. He couldn't hear the goblin, either. They hadn't succeeded in killing a god. They hadn't even come close, but Tiep forgave the goblin because Sheemzher had tried.
The goblin keening hadn't resumed. The pool chamber was dead quiet, except for a few humans trying to breathe. It didn't take long for Tiep to wonder what had caused their reprieve and how long it would last. If he couldn't find the strength and skill to get his feet moving, whatever distracted the Beast Lord's attention had simply postponed the inevitable.
After an eternity of silence and breathing, Tiep heard a swordswinger howl, and then he heard that howl cut short. He strained his eyes, searching the portion of the chamber he could see. There were shadows beyond the pools, moving shadows, but he couldn't see what made them. Something was out there, though, stalking the swordswingers. Another one howled and died immediately after, and from the same place in the darkness, there was a loud, faintly liquid sound, like a fish or frog being smashed against a wall.
Tiep squinted, desperate to see what was happening. His neck moved! Not enough to improve his vision, but he'd moved! He could breathe without concentrating on every breath and he'd moved! Tymora—to whom he'd forgotten to pray—hadn't forgotten her prodigal.
There was hope!
Tiep was concentrating on flexing his toes when he saw the cause of his hope: another mind flayer... two of them... no, three ... four. He counted six, but there were surely more gliding around the pool chamber. He couldn't turn his head, couldn't see what might be sneaking up behind him.
The invaders were different from the Beast Lord. Tiep remembered Sheemzher relaying the question the bug lady had asked him: Is its flesh slick and shiny or dry? The Beast Lord was definitely dry. The invaders were definitely slick and shiny. Between the Beast Lord and the invaders was a choice of nightmares with no chance to wake up. Tiep's fingers moved. He made a fist with his left hand.
Something whizzed past his right ear. He never saw what it was, but the Beast Lord flinched. Then it moved. Like a burrowing snake, it moved out of Tiep's sight. Maybe he'd seen creatures move faster, but he'd expected that the alhoon would move slowly and wasn't prepared for its speed, or for the speed of the invaders when they dodged streaking fire that looked and smelled for all the world like the spells that Druhallen cast.
Tiep couldn't be sure how successful the Beast Lord was against its attackers, but hit or miss, fire was falling on the prostrate goblins. He saw it fall on fat Ghistpok. The goblin couldn't move to swat the flames that swiftly lit him up like a candle. It was horrible death to watch, and Tiep felt no pity at all.
He'd made and opened a right-hand fist. He could yawn and wriggle his toes.
The invading mind flayers fought with invisible spells unlike any that Druhallen cast. One of them struck the Beast Lord. Tiep could see only the effect. For a moment the Beast Lord was hidden in an inky black cloud and the air through the pool chamber crackled like pine boughs in a hot fire. Then the cloud was gone and one of the invaders became a living torch.
Tiep bent his right knee and straightened it again before he lost his balance. If he lived another minute, he'd be running for shelter. Better than that—far better than that—Druhallen had pulled himself into a crouch and was getting his legs under him. Rozt'a hadn't moved yet, but she would, once Dru got to her.
He did, but not before fire came dangerously close to all three of them and one of the invading flayers ran between Druhallen and Rozt'a on its way to attacking the Beast Lord with its longer tentacles. When the flurry ended, one of the invader's tentacles flopped and flapped on the stone, the Beast Lord was oozing from a mangled shoulder, and Druhallen had his arms around Rozt'a.
She was still groggy when Dru got to Tiep. They were all too exhausted for joy or relief or anything more than Dru's hoarse, raspy question:
To which Tiep replied with a nod. Through it all he'd been aware of the shirt-wrapped bundle against his back.
Druhallen pushed them all toward the wall and safety. Tiep pushed back.
They looked, even Rozt'a, and saw the goblin in a heap some ten feet away, his spear at his side. Dru pushed again. Tiep shoved free. Sheemzher had been hurt before and wasn't moving at all, but they weren't leaving him or his damn spear behind. He hoisted the goblin onto his shoulder and used the spear for balance.
Dru offered to carry Sheemzher when they were all together again. Tiep just shook his head and Dru guided them all toward the wall. Druhallen's expression was more unreadable than usual on account of his bloody face; Tiep supposed he looked the same. He couldn't look at Rozt'a, not without her clothes.
The Beast Lord took out another of the living mind flayers, but there were still several left, weaving through the chamber, lobbing their invisible magic and cutting down any swordswinger alert enough to attack them. They'd never know if this was a battle in the war the Beast Lord was fighting with its Underdark neighbors, but if it was, then it was likely to be an important battle—the last battle if the Beast Lord lost.
Tiep could pass that along to Horace when they got to Yarthrain.
An explosion shook the pool chamber just before they reached the tunnel that lead to safety. The irresistible pull of curiosity stopped them all and turned them around. The Beast Lord was gone—vanished, maybe dead—and the living mind flayers turned their white-eyed attention to the three of them. For a moment, Tiep was back in the grip of the Beast Lord's tentacles with cold, alien thoughts nibbling at his memories. He learned a word, cephalophagy: the consumption of a living brain, thought by thought, emotion by emotion. The word would always be with him, on the edge of nightmare.
Then he was free. They were all free. Another mind flayer had fallen. The Beast Lord was gone from the chamber, but not from the battle. The living mind flayers had their choice to make and they made it, turning their backs on the humans.
"Let's get going," Dru said. "Whoever wins this duel is going to be hungry when it's over."