A heavy burden weighed on the most honored burrow warden's strong shoulders, but Belwar did not stoop as he marched through the long, winding tunnels. He had made the decision with a clear mind and definite purpose, and he simply refused to second-guess himself all the way to Mithril Hall.
His opponents in the debate had argued that Belwar was motivated by personal friendship, not the best interests of the svirfnebli. Firble had learned that Drizzt Do'Urden, Belwar's drow friend, had escaped Menzoberranzan, and the drow march, by all indications, was straight for Mithril Hall, no doubt motivated in part by Lloth's proclaimed hatred of the renegade.
Would Belwar lead Blingdenstone to war, then, for the sake of a single drow?
In the end, that vicious argument had been settled not by Bel-war, but by Firble, another of the oldest svirfnebli, another of those who had felt the pain most keenly when Blingdenstone had been left behind.
"A clear choice we have," Firble had said. "Go now and see if we can aid the enemies of the dark elves, or a new home we must find, for the drow will surely return, and if we stand then, we stand alone."
It was a terrible, difficult decision for the council and for King Schnicktick. If they followed the dark elves and found their suspicions confirmed, found a war on the surface, could they even count on the alliance of the surface dwarves and the humans, races the deep gnomes did not know?
Belwar assured them they could. With all his heart, the most honored burrow warden believed that Drizzt, and any friends Drizzt had made, would not let him down. And Firble, who knew the outside world so well (but was, by his own admission, somewhat ignorant of the surface), agreed with Belwar, simply on the logic that any race, even not-so-intelligent goblins, would welcome allies against the dark elves.
So Schnicktick and the council had finally agreed, but, like every other decision of the ultimately conservative svirfnebli, they would go only so far. Belwar could march in pursuit of the drow, and Firble with him, along with any gnomes who volunteered. They were scouts, Schnicktick had emphasized, and no marching army. The svirfneblin king and all those who had opposed Belwar's reasoning were surprised to find how many volunteered for the long, dangerous march. So many, in fact, that Schnicktick, for the simple sake of the city operation, had to limit the number to fifteen score.
Belwar knew why the other svirfnebli had come, and knew the truth of his own decision. If the dark elves went to the surface and overwhelmed Mithril Hall, they would not allow the gnomes back into Blingdenstone. Menzoberranzan did not conquer, then leave. No, it would enslave the dwarves and work the mines as its own, then pity Blingdenstone, for the svirfneblin city would be too close to the easiest routes to the conquered land.
So although all of these svirfnebli, Belwar and Firble included, were marching farther from Blingdenstone than they had ever gone before, they knew that they were, in effect, fighting for their homeland.
Belwar would not second-guess that decision, and, keeping that in mind, his burden was lessened.
Bidderdoo put the fireball far down the tunnel, but the narrow ways could not contain the sheer volume of the blast. A line of fire rushed out of the tunnel, back into the cavern, like the breath of an angry red dragon, and Bidderdoo's own clothes lit up. The mage screamed-as did every dwarf and kobold near him, as did the next line of minotaurs, rushing down for the cavern, as did the skulking dark elves behind them.
In the moment of the wizard's fireball, all of them screamed, and, just as quickly, the cries went away, extinguished, overwhelmed, by hundreds of tons of dropping stone.
Again the backlash swept into the cavern, a blast so strong that the gust of it blew away the fires licking at Bidderdoo's robes. He was flying suddenly, as were all those near him, flying and dazed, pelted with stone, and extremely lucky, for none of the dropping, stalactites or the heavy stone displaced in the cavern squashed him.
The ground trembled and bucked; one of the cavern walls buckled, and one of the side chambers collapsed. Then it was done, and the tunnel was gone, just gone, as though it had never been there, and the chamber that had been named for the dwarf Tunult seemed much smaller.
Bidderdoo pulled himself up from the piled dust and debris shakily and brushed the dirt from his glowing gemstone. With all the dust in the air, the light from the enchanted stone seemed meager indeed. The wizard looked at himself, seeing more skin than clothing, seeing dozens of bruises and bright red on one arm, under the clinging dust, where the fires had gotten to his skin.
A helmet spike, bent slightly to the side, protruded from a pile not far away. Bidderdoo was about to speak a lament for the battlerager, who had gotten him to the spot, but Pwent suddenly burst up from the dust, spitting pebbles and smiling crazily.
"Well done!" the battlerager roared. "Do it again!"
Bidderdoo started to respond, but then he swooned, the insidious drow poison defeating the momentary jolt of adrenaline. The next thing the unfortunate wizard knew, Pwent was holding him up and he was gagging on the most foul-tasting concoction ever brewed. Foul but effective, for Bidderdoo's grogginess was no more.
"Gutbuster!" Pwent roared, patting the trusty flask on his broad belt.
As the dust settled, the bodies stirred, one by one. To a dwarf, the Gutbuster Brigade, tougher than the stone, remained, and the few kobolds that had survived were cut down before they could plead.
The way the cavern had collapsed, with the nearest side chamber gone, and the wall opposite that having buckled, this small group found itself cut off from the main force. They weren't trapped, though, for one narrow passage led to the left, back toward the heart of Tunult's Cavern. The fighting in there had resumed, so it seemed from the ring of metal and the calls of both dwarves and kobolds.
Unexpectedly, Thibbledorf Pwent did not lead his force headlong into the fray. The passage was narrow at this end, and seemed to narrow even more just a short way in, so much so that Pwent didn't even think they could squeeze through. Also, the battlerager spotted something over Bidderdoo's shoulder, a deep crack in the wall to the side of the dropped tunnel. As he neared the spot, Pwent felt the stiff breeze rushing out of the crack, as the air pressure in the tunnels beyond adjusted to the catastrophe.
Pwent hooted and slammed the wall below the crack with all his strength. The loose stone gave way and fell in, revealing a passageway angling into the deeper corridors beyond.
"We should go back and report to King Bruenor," Bidderdoo reasoned, "or go as far as the tunnel takes us, to let them know we are in here, that they might dig us out."
Pwent snorted. "Wouldn't be much at scoutin' if we let this tunnel pass," he argued. "If the drow find it, they'll be back quicker than Bruenor's expectin'. Now that's a report worth givin'!"In truth, it was difficult for the outrageous dwarven warrior to ignore those tempting sounds of battle, but Pwent found his heart seeking the promise of greater enemies, of drow and minotaurs, in the open corridors the other way."And if we get stuck in that tunnel there," Pwent continued, pointing back toward what remained of Tunult's Cavern, "the damned drow'll walk right up our backs!"The Gutbuster Brigade formed up behind their leader, but Bidderdoo shook his head and squeezed into the passage. His worst fears were quickly realized, for it did indeed narrow, and he could not get near the open area beyond, where the fighting continued, could not even get close enough to hope to attract attention above the tumult of battle.Perhaps he had a spell that would aid him, Bidderdoo reasoned, and he reached into an impossibly deep pocket to retrieve his treasured spellbook. He pulled out a lump of ruffled pages, smeared and singed, many with ink blotched from the intense heat. The glue and stitches in the binding, too, had melted, and when Bidderdoo held the mess up, it fell apart.The wizard, breathing hard suddenly, feeling as if the world were closing in on him, gathered together as many of the parchments as he could and scrambled back out of the passageway, to find, to his surprise and relief, Pwent and the others still waiting for him."Figgered ye'd change yer mind," the battlerager remarked, and he led the Gutbuster Brigade, plus one, away.Fifty drow and an entire minotaur grouping, Quenthel Baenre's hands flashed, and from the sharp, jerking movements, her mother knew she was outraged.Fool, Matron Baenre mused. She wondered then about her daughter's heart for this expedition. Quenthel was a powerful priestess, there could be no denying that, but only then did the withered old matron mother realize that young Quenthel had never really seen battle. House Baenre had not warred in many hundreds of years, and because of her accelerated education through the Academy, Quenthel had been spared the duties of escorting scouting patrols in the wild tunnels outside Menzoberranzan.It struck Baenre then that her daughter had never even been outside the drow city.The primary way to Mithril Hall is no more, Quenthel's hands went on. And several paralleling passages have fallen as well. And worse, Quenthel stopped abruptly, had to pause and take a deep breath to steady herself. When she began again, her face was locked in a mask of anger. Many of the dead drow were females, several powerful priestesses and one a high priestess.Still the movements were exaggerated, too sharp and too quick. Did Quenthel really believe this conquest would be easy? Baenre wondered. Did she think no drow would be killed?Baenre wondered, and not for the first time, whether she had erred in bringing Quenthel along. Perhaps she should have brought Triel, the most capable of priestesses.Quenthel studied the hard look that was coming at her and understood that her mother was not pleased. It took her a moment to realize she was irritating Baenre more than the bad report would warrant."The lines are moving?" Baenre asked aloud.Quenthel cleared her throat. "Bregan D'aerthe has discovered many other routes," she answered, "even corridors the dwarves do not know about, which come close to tunnels leading to Mithril Hall."Matron Baenre closed her eyes and nodded, approving of her daughter's suddenly renewed optimism. There were indeed tunnels the dwarves did not know about, small passages beneath the lowest levels of Mithril Hall lost as the dwarves continued to shift their mining operations to richer veins. Old Gandalug knew those ancient, secret ways, though, and with Methil's intrusive interrogation, the drow knew them as well. These secret tunnels did not actually connect to the dwarven compound, but wizards could open doors where there were none, and illithids could walk through stone and could take drow warriors with them on their psionic journeys.Baenre's eyes popped open. "Word from Berg'inyon?" she asked.Quenthel shook her head. "He exited the tunnels, as commanded, but we have not heard since."Baenre's features grew cross. She knew that Berg'inyon was outwardly pouting at being sent outside. He led the greatest cohesive unit of all, numerically speaking, nearly a thousand drow and five times that in goblins and kobolds, with many of the dark elves riding huge lizards. But Berg'inyon's duties, though vital to the conquest of Mithril Hall, put him on the mountainside outside the dwarven complex. Very likely, Drizzt Do'Urden would be inside, in the lowest tunnels, working in an environment more suited to a dark elf. Very likely, Uthegental Armgo, not Berg'inyon, would get first try at the renegade.Baenre's scowl turned to a smile as she considered her son and his tantrum when she had given him his assignment. Of course he had to act angry, even outraged. Of course he had to protest that he, not Uthegental, should spearhead the assault through the tunnels. But Berg'inyon had been Drizzt's classmate and primary rival in their years at Melee-Magthere, the drow school for fighters. Berg'inyon knew Drizzt perhaps better than any living drow in Menzoberranzan. And Matron Baenre knew Berg'inyon.The truth of it was, Berg'inyon didn't want anything to do with the dangerous renegade."Search out your brother with your magic," Baenre said suddenly, startling Quenthel. "If he continues his obstinacy, replace him."Quenthel's eyes widened with horror. She had been with Berg'inyon when the force had exited the tunnels, crossing out onto a ledge on a mountain overlooking a deep ravine. The sight had overwhelmed her, had dizzied her, and many other drow as well. She felt lost out there, insignificant and vulnerable. This cavern that was the surface world, this great chamber whose black dome sparkled with pinpoints of unknown light, was too vast for her sensibilities.Matron Baenre did not appreciate the horrified expression. "Go!" she snapped, and Quenthel quietly slipped away.She was hardly out of sight before the next reporting drow stepped before Baenre's blue-glowing driftdisk.Her report, of the progress of the force moving secretly in the lower tunnels, was better, but Baenre hardly listened. To her, these details were fast becoming tedious. The dwarves were good, and had many months to prepare, but in the end, Matron Baenre did not doubt the outcome, for she believed that Lloth herself had spoken to her. The drow would win, and Mithril Hall would fall.She listened to the report, though, and to the next, and the next, and the next after that, a seemingly endless stream, and forced herself to look interested.