"Ye're thinking we'll need the thing?" Catti-brie asked as she and Drizzt made their way along the lower levels of Mithril Hall. They moved along a corridor that opened wide to their left, into the great tiered cavern housing the famed dwarven Undercity.
Drizzt paused and regarded her, then went to the left, drawing Catti-brie behind him. He stepped through the opening, emerging on the second tier up from the huge cavern's floor.
The place was bustling, with dwarves running every which way, shouting to be heard over the continual hum of great pumping bellows and the determined ring of hammer on mithril. This was the heart of Mithril Hall, a huge, open cavern cut into gigantic steps on both its east and west walls, so that the whole place resembled an inverted pyramid. The widest floor area was the lowest level, between the gigantic steps, housing the huge furnaces. Strong dwarves pulled carts laden with ore along prescribed routes, while others worked the many levers of the intricate ovens, and still others tugged smaller carts of finished metals up to the tiers. There the various craftsman pounded the ore into useful items. Normally, a great variety of goods would be produced here-fine silverware, gem-studded chalices, and ornate helmets-gorgeous but of little practical use. Now, though, with war hanging over their heads, the dwarves focused on weapons and true defensive armor. Twenty feet to the side of Drizzt and Catti-brie, a dwarf so soot-covered that the color of his beard was not distinguishable leaned another iron-shafted, mithril- tipped ballista bolt against the wall. The dwarf couldn't even reach the top of the eight-foot spear, but he regarded its barbed and many-edged tip and chuckled. No doubt he enjoyed a fantasy concerning its flight and little drow elves all standing in a row.
On one of the arcing bridges spanning the tiers, perhaps a hundred and fifty feet up from the two friends, a substantial argument broke out. Drizzt and Catti-brie could not make out the words above the general din, but they realized that it had to do with plans for dropping that bridge, and most of the other bridges, forcing any invading dark elves along certain routes if they intended to reach the complex's higher levels.
None of them, not Drizzt, Catti-brie, or any of Bruenor's people, hoped it would ever come to that.
The two friends exchanged knowing looks. Rarely in the long history of Mithril Hall had the Undercity seen this kind of excitement. It bordered on frenzy. Two thousand dwarves rushed about, shouting, pounding their hammers, or hauling loads that a mule wouldn't pull.
All of this because they feared the drow were coming.
Catti-brie understood then why Drizzt had detoured into this place, why he had insisted on finding the halfling Regis before going to Settlestone, as Bruenor had bade them.
"Let's go find the sneaky one," she said to Drizzt, having to yell to be heard. Drizzt nodded and followed her back into the relative quiet of the dim corridors. They moved away from the Undercity then, toward the remote chambers where Bruenor had told them they could find the halfling. Silently they moved along-and Drizzt was impressed with how quietly Catti-brie had learned to move. Like him, she wore a fine mesh armor suit of thin but incredibly strong mithril rings, custom fitted to her by Buster Bracer, the finest armorer in Mithril Hall. Catti-brie's armor did little to diminish the dwarf's reputation, for it was so perfectly crafted and supple that it bent with her movements as easily as a thick shirt.
Like Drizzt's, Catti-brie's boots were thin and well worn but, to the drow's sharp ears, few humans, even so attired, could move so silently. Drizzt subtly eyed her in the dim, flickering light of the widely spaced torches. He noted that she was stepping like a drow, the ball of her foot touching down first, instead of the more common human heel-toe method. Her time in the Underdark, chasing Drizzt to Menzoberranzan, had served her well.
The drow nodded his approval but made no comment. Catti-brie had already earned her pride points this day, he figured. No sense in puffing up her ego any more.
The corridors were empty and growing increasingly dark. Drizzt did not miss this point. He even let his vision slip into the infrared spectrum, where the varying heat of objects showed him their general shapes. Human Catti-brie did not possess such Under-dark vision, of course, but around her head she wore a thin silver chain, set in its front with a green gemstone streaked by a single line of black: a cat's eye agate. It had been given to her by Lady Alustriel herself, enchanted so that its wearer could see, even in the darkest, deepest tunnels, as though she were standing in an open field under a starry sky.
The two friends had no trouble navigating in the darkness, but still, they were not comfortable with it. Why weren't the torches burning? they each wondered. Both had their hands close to weapon hilts; Catti-brie suddenly wished she had brought Taul-maril the Heartseeker, her magical bow, with her.
A tremendous crash sounded, and the floor trembled under their feet. Both were down in a crouch immediately; Drizzt's scimitars appeared in his hands so quickly that Catti-brie didn't even register the movement. At first the young woman thought the impossibly fast maneuver the result of the magical bracers, but, in glancing at Drizzt, she realized he wasn't even wearing them. She likewise drew her sword and took a deep breath, privately scolding herself for thinking she was getting close in fighting skill to the incredible ranger. Catti-brie shook the thought aside-no time for it now-and concentrated on the winding corridor ahead. Side by side, she and Drizzt slowly advanced, looking for shadows where enemies might hide and for lines in the wall that would indicate cunning secret doors to side passages. Such ways were common in the dwarven complex, for most dwarves could make them, and most dwarves, greedy by nature, kept personal treasures hidden away. Catti-brie did not know this little-used section of Mithril Hall very well. Neither did Drizzt.
Another crash came, and the floor trembled again, more than before, and the friends knew they were getting closer. Catti-brie was glad she had been training so hard, and gladder still that Drizzt Do'Urden was by her side.
She stopped moving, and Drizzt did likewise, turning to regard her.
"Guenhwyvar?" she silently mouthed, referring to Drizzt's feline friend, a loyal panther that the drow could summon from the Astral Plane.
Drizzt considered the suggestion for a moment. He tried not to summon Guenhwyvar too often now, knowing there might soon be a time when the panther would be needed often. There were limits on the magic; Guenhwyvar could only remain on the Material Plane for half a day out of every two.
Not yet, Drizzt decided. Bruenor had not indicated what Regis might be doing down here, but the dwarf had given no hint that there might be danger. The drow shook his head slightly, and the two moved on, silent and sure.
A third crash came, followed by a groan.
"Yer head, ye durned fool!" came a sharp scolding. "Ye gots to use yer stinkin' head!"
Drizzt and Catti-brie straightened immediately and relaxed their grips on their weapons. "Pwent," they said together, referring to Thibbledorf Pwent, the outrageous battlerager, the most obnoxious and bad-smelling dwarf south of the Spine of the World (and probably north of it, as well).
"Next ye'll be wantin' to wear a stinkin' helmet!" the tirade continued.
Around the next bend, the two companions came to a fork in the corridor. To the left, Pwent continued roaring in outrage; to the right was a door with torchlight showing through its many cracks. Drizzt cocked his head, catching a slight and familiar chuckle that way.
He motioned for Catti-brie to follow and went through the door without knocking. Regis stood alone inside, leaning on a crank near the left-hand wall. The halfling's smile lit up when he saw his friends, and he waved one hand high to them-relatively high, for Regis was small, even by halfling standards, his curly brown hair barely topping three feet. He had an ample belly, though it seemed to be shrinking of late, as even the lazy halfling took seriously the threat to this place that had become his home.
He put a finger over pursed lips as Drizzt and Catti-brie approached, and he pointed to the "door" before him. It didn't take either of the companions long to understand what was transpiring. The crank next to Regis operated a sheet of heavy metal that ran along runners above and to the side of the door. The wood of the door could hardly be seen now, for the plate was in place right before it.
"Go!" came a thunderous command from the other side, followed by charging footsteps and a grunting roar, then a tremendous explosion as the barreling dwarf hit, and of course bounced off, the barricaded portal.
"Battlerager training," Regis calmly explained.
Catti-brie gave Drizzt a sour look, remembering what her father had told her of Pwent's plans. "The Gutbuster Brigade," she remarked, and Drizzt nodded, for Bruenor had told him, too, that Thibbledorf Pwent meant to train a group of dwarves in the not-so-subtle art of battleraging, his personal Gutbuster Brigade, highly motivated, skilled in frenzy, and not too smart.
Another dwarf hit the barricaded door, probably headfirst, and Drizzt understood how Pwent meant to facilitate the third of his three requirements for his soldiers.
Catti-brie shook her head and sighed. She did not doubt the military value of the brigade-Pwent could outfight anyone in Mithril Hall, except for Drizzt and maybe Bruenor, but the notion of a bunch of little Thibbledorf Pwents running around surely turned her stomach!
Behind the door, Pwent was thoroughly scolding his troops, calling them every dwarven curse name, more than a few that Catti-brie, who had lived among the clan for more than a score of years, had never heard, and more than a few that Pwent seemed to be making up on the spot, such as "mule-kissin', flea-sniffin', water-drinkin', who-thinks-ye-squeeze-the-durned-cow-to-get-the-durned-milk, lumps o' sandstone."
"Wo are off to Settlestone," Drizzt explained to Regis, the drow suddenly anxious to be out of there. "Berkthgar is being difficult."
Regis nodded. "I was there when he told Bruenor he wanted the warhammer." The halfling's cherubic face turned up into one of his common, wistful smiles. "I truly believed Bruenor would cleave him down the middle!"
"We're needing Berkthgar," Catti-brie reminded the halfling, Regis pooh-poohed that thought away. "Bluffing," he insisted. "Berkthgar needs us, and his people would not take kindly to his turning his back on the dwarves who have been so good to his folk."
"Bruenor would not really kill him," Drizzt said, somewhat unconvincingly. All three friends paused and looked to each other, each considering the tough dwarf king, the old and fiery Bruenor returned. They thought of Aegis-fang, the most beautiful of weapons, the flanks of its gleaming mithril head inscribed with the sacred runes of the dwarven gods. One side was cut with the hammer and anvil of Moradin the Soulforger, the other with the crossed axes of Clanggedon, dwarven god of battle, and both were covered perfectly by the carving of the gem within the mountain, the symbol of Dumathoin, the Keeper of Secrets. Bruenor had been among the best of the dwarven smiths, but after Aegis-fang, that pinnacle of creative triumph, he had rarely bothered to return to his forge.
They thought of Aegis-fang, and they thought of Wulfgar, who had been like Bruenor's son, the tall, fair-haired youth for whom Bruenor had made the mighty hammer.
"Bruenor would really kill him," Catti-brie said, echoing the thoughts of all three.
Drizzt started to speak, but Regis stopped him by holding up a finger.
"... now get yer head lower!" Pwent was barking on the other side of the door. Regis nodded and smiled and motioned for Drizzt to continue.
"We thought you might-"Another crash sounded, then another groan, followed by the flapping of dwarven lips as the fallen would-be battlerager shook his head vigorously."Good recovery!" Pwent congratulated."We thought you might accompany us," Drizzt said, ignoring Catti-brie's sigh of disgust.Regis thought about it for a moment. The halfling would have liked to get out of the mines and stretch in the sunshine once more, though the summer was all but over and the autumn chill already began to nip the air."I have to stay," the unusually dedicated halfling remarked. "I've much to do."Both Drizzt and Catti-brie nodded. Regis had changed over the last few months, during the time of crisis. When Drizzt and Catti-brie had gone to Menzoberranzan-Drizzt to end the threat to Mithril Hall, Catti-brie to find Drizzt-Regis had taken command to spur grieving Bruenor into preparing for war. Regis, who had spent most of his life finding the softest couch to lie upon, had impressed even the toughest dwarf generals, even Thibbledorf Pwent, with his fire and energy. Now the halfling would have loved to go, both of them knew, but he remained true to his mission.Drizzt looked hard at Regis, trying to find the best way to make his request. To his surprise, the halfling saw it coming, and immediately Regis's hands went to the chain about his neck. He lifted the ruby pendant over his head and casually tossed it to Drizzt.Another testament to the halfling's growth, Drizzt knew, as he stared down at the sparkling ruby affixed to the chain. This was the halfling's most precious possession, a powerful charm Regis had stolen from his old guild master in far-off Calimport. The halfling had guarded it, coveted it, like a mother lion with a single cub, at least until this point.Drizzt continued to look at the ruby, felt himself drawn by its multiple facets, spiraling down to depths that promised...The drow shook his head and forced himself to look away. Even without one to command it, the enchanted ruby had reached out for him! Never had he witnessed such a powerful charm. And yet, Jarlaxle, the mercenary, had given it back to him, had willingly swapped it when they had met in the tunnels outside Menzoberranzan after Drizzt's escape. It was unexpected and important that Jarlaxle had given it back to Drizzt, but what the significance might be, Drizzt had not yet discerned."You should be careful before using that on Berkthgar," Regis said, drawing Drizzt from his thoughts. "He is proud, and if he figures out that sorcery was used against him, the alliance may indeed be dissolved.""True enough," Catti-brie agreed. She looked to Drizzt."Only if we need it," the drow remarked, looping the chain about his neck. The pendant settled near his breast and the ivory unicorn head, symbol of his goddess, that rested there.Another dwarf hit the door and bounced off, then lay groaning on the floor."Bah!" they heard Pwent snort. "Ye're a bunch o' elf-lickin' pixies! I'll show ye how it's done!"Regis nodded-that was his cue-and immediately began to turn the crank, drawing the metal plate out from behind the portal."Watch out," he warned his two companions, for they stood in the general direction of where Pwent would make his door-busting entrance."I'm for leaving," Catti-brie said, starting for the other, normal, door. The young woman had no desire to see Pwent. Likely, he would pinch her cheek with his grubby fingers and tell her to "work on that beard" so that she might be a beautiful woman.Drizzt didn't take much convincing. He held up the ruby, nodded a silent thanks to Regis, and rushed out into the hall after Catti-brie.They hadn't gone a dozen steps when they heard the training door explode, followed by Pwent's hysterical laughter and the admiring "oohs" and "aahs" of the naive Gutbuster Brigade."We should send the lot of them to Menzoberranzan," Catti-brie said dryly. "Pwent'd chase the whole city to the ends of the world!"Drizzt-who had grown up among the unbelievably powerful drow houses and had seen the wrath of the high priestesses and magical feats beyond anything he had witnessed in his years on the surface-did not disagree.Councilor Firble ran a wrinkled hand over his nearly bald pate, feeling uncomfortable in the torchlight. Firble was a svirfneblin, a deep gnome, eighty pounds of wiry muscles packed into a three-and-a-half-foot frame. Few races of the Underdark could get along as well as the svirfnebli, and no race, except perhaps the rare pech, understood the ways of the deep stone so well.Still, Firble was more than a bit afraid now, out in the (hopefully) empty corridors beyond the borders of Blingdenstone, the city that was his home. He hated the torchlight, hated any light, but the orders from King Schnicktick were final and unarguable: no gnome was to traverse the corridors without a burning torch in his hand.No gnome except for one. Firble's companion this day carried no torch, for he possessed no hands. Belwar Dissengulp, Most Honored Burrow Warden of Blingdenstone, had lost his hands to drow, to Drizzt Do'Urden's brother Dinin, many years before. Unlike so many other Underdark races, though, the svirfnebli were not without compassion, and their artisans had fashioned marvelous replacements of pure, enchanted mithril: a block-headed hammer capping Belwar's right arm and a two-headed pickaxe on his left."Completed the circuit, we have," Firble remarked. "And back to Blingdenstone we go!""Not so!" Belwar grumbled. His voice was deeper and stronger than those of most svirfnebli, and was fitting, considering his stout, barrel-chested build."There are no drow in the tunnels," Firble insisted. "Not a fight in three weeks!" It was true enough; after months of battling drow from Menzoberranzan in the tunnels near Blingdenstone, the corridors had gone strangely quiet. Belwar understood that Drizzt Do'Urden, his friend, had somehow played a part in this change, and he feared that Drizzt had been captured or killed."Quiet, it is," Firble said more softly, as if he had just realized the danger of his own volume. A shudder coursed the smaller svirfneblin's spine. Belwar had forced him out here-it was his turn in the rotation, but normally one as experienced and venerable as Firble would have been excused from scouting duties. Belwar had insisted, though, and for some reason Firble did not understand, King Schnicktick had agreed with the most honored burrow warden.Not that Firble was unaccustomed to the tunnels. Quite the contrary. He was the only gnome of Blingdenstone with actual contacts in Menzoberranzan, and was more acquainted with the tunnels near the drow city than any other deep gnome. That dubious distinction was causing Firble fits these days, particularly from Belwar. When a disguised Catti-brie had been captured by the svirfnebli, and subsequently recognized as no enemy, Firble, at great personal risk, had been the one to show her quicker, secret ways into Menzoberranzan.Now Belwar wasn't worried about any drow in the tunnels, Firble knew. The tunnels were quiet. The gnome patrols and other secret allies could find no hint that any drow were about at all, not even along the dark elves' normal routes closer to Menzoberranzan. Something important had happened in the drow city, that much was obvious, and it seemed obvious, too, that Drizzt and that troublesome Catti-brie were somehow involved. That was the real reason Belwar had forced Firble out here, Firble knew, and he shuddered again to think that was why King Schnicktick had so readily agreed with Belwar."Something has happened," Belwar said, unexpectedly playing his cards, as though he understood Firble's line of silent reasoning. "Something in Menzoberranzan."Firble eyed the most honored burrow warden suspiciously. He knew what would soon be asked of him, knew that he would soon be dealing with that trickster Jarlaxle again."The stones themselves are uneasy," Belwar went on."As if the drow will soon march," Firble interjected dryly."Cosim camman denoctusd," Belwar agreed, in an ancient svirfneblin saying that translated roughly into "the settled ground before the earthquake," or, as it was more commonly known to surface dwellers, "the calm before the storm.""That I meet with my drow informant, King Schnicktick desires," Firble reasoned, seeing no sense in holding back the guess any longer. He knew he would not be suggesting something that Belwar wasn't about to suggest to him."Cosim camman denoctusd," Belwar said again, this time more determinedly. Belwar and Schnicktick, and many others in Blingdenstone, were convinced that the drow would soon march in force. Though the most direct tunnels to the surface, to where Drizzt Do'Urden called home, were east of Blingdenstone, beyond Menzoberranzan, the drow first would have to set out west, and would come uncomfortably close to the gnome city. So unsettling was that thought that King Schnicktick had ordered scouting parties far to the east and south, as far from home and Menzoberranzan as the svirfnebli had ever roamed. There were whispers of deserting Blingdenstone altogether, if the rumors proved likely and a new location could be found. No gnome wanted that, Belwar and Firble perhaps least of all. Both were old, nearing their second full century, and both were tied, heart and soul, to this city called Blingdenstone.But among all the svirfnebli, these two understood the power of a drow march, understood that if Menzoberranzan's army came to Blingdenstone, the gnomes would be obliterated."Set up the meeting, I will," Firble said with a resigned sigh. "He will tell me little, I do not doubt. Never does he, and high always is the price!"Belwar said nothing, and sympathized little for the cost of such a meeting with the greedy drow informant. The most honored burrow warden understood that the price of ignorance would be much higher. He also realized that Firble understood, as well, and that the councilor's apparent resignation was just a part of Firble's bluster. Belwar had come to know Firble well, and found that he liked the oft-complaining gnome.Now Belwar, and every other svirfneblin in Blingdenstone, desperately needed Firble and his contacts.