The long night drifted into morning, with the dark elves once again claiming the upper hand in the battle for Keeper's Dale. Berg'inyon's assessment of the futility of the defense, even with the dwarven and svirfneblin reinforcements, seemed correct as the drow ranks gradually engulfed the svirfnebli, then pushed the line in the east back toward the wall once more.
But then it happened.
After an entire night of fighting, after hours of shaping the battle, holding back the wizards, using the lizard riders at precise moments and never fully committing them to the conflict, all the best laid plans of the powerful drow force fell apart.
The rim of the mountains east of Keeper's Dale brightened, a silvery edge that signaled the coming dawn. For the drow and the other monsters of the Underdark, that was no small event.
One drow wizard, intent on a lightning bolt that would defeat the nearest enemies, interrupted his spell and enacted a globe of darkness instead, aiming it at the tip of the sun as it peeked over the horizon, thinking to blot out the light. The spell went off and did nothing more than a put a black dot in the air a long way off, and as the wizard squinted against the glare, wondering what he might try next, those defenders closest charged in and cut him down.
Another drow battling a dwarf had his opponent all but beaten. So intent was he on the kill that he hardly noticed the coming dawn-until the tip of the sun broke the horizon, sending a line of light, a line of agony, to sensitive drow eyes. Blinded and horrified, the dark elf whipped his weapons in a frenzy, but he never got close to hitting the mark.
Then he felt a hot explosion across his ribs.
All these dark elves had seen things in the normal spectrum of light before, but not so clearly, not in such intense light, not with colors so rich and vivid. They had heard of the terrible sunshine-Berg'inyon had witnessed a dawn many years before, had watched it over his shoulder as he and his drow raiding party fled back for the safe darkness of the lower tunnels. Now the weapon master and his charges did not know what to expect. Would the infernal sun burn them as it blinded them? They had been told by their elders that it would not, but had been warned they would be more vulnerable in the sunlight, that their enemies would be bolstered by the brightness.
Berg'inyon called his forces into tight battle formations and tried to regroup. They could still win, the weapon master knew, though this latest development would cost many drow lives. Dark elves could fight blindly, but what Berg'inyon feared here was more than a loss of vision. It was a loss of heart. The rays slanting down from the mountains were beyond his and his troops' experience. And as frightening as it had been to walk under the canopy of unreachable stars, this event, this sunrise, was purely terrifying.
Berg'inyon quickly conferred with his wizards, tried to see if there was some way they could counteract the dawn. What he learned instead distressed him as much as the infernal light. The drow wizards in Keeper's Dale had eyes also in other places, and from those far-seeing mages came the initial whispers that dark elves were deserting in the lower tunnels, that those drow who had been stopped in the tunnels near the eastern door had retreated from Mithril Hall and had fled to the deeper passages on the eastern side of Fourthpeak. Berg'inyon understood that information easily enough; those drow were already on the trails leading back to Menzoberranzan.
Berg'inyon could not ignore the reports' implications. Any alliance between dark elves was tentative, and the weapon master could only guess at how widespread the desertion might be. Despite the dawn, Berg'inyon believed his force would win in Keeper's Dale and would breach the western door, but suddenly he had to wonder what they would find in Mithril Hall once they got there.
Matron Baenre and their allies? King Bruenor and the renegade, Drizzt, and a host of dwarves ready to fight? The thought did not sit well with the worried weapon master.
Thus, it was not greater numbers that won the day in Keeper's Dale. It was not the courage of Berkthgar or Besnell, or the ferocity of Belwar and his gnomes, or the wisdom of Stumpet Rakingclaw. It was the dawn and the distrust among the enemy ranks, the lack of cohesion and the very real fear that supporting forces would not arrive, for every drow soldier, from Berg'inyon to the lowest commoner, understood that their allies would think nothing of leaving them behind to be slaughtered.
Berg'inyon Baenre was not questioned by any of his soldiers when he gave the order to leave Keeper's Dale. The lizard riders, still more than three hundred strong, rode out to the rough terrain of the north, their sticky-footed mounts leaving enemies and allies alike far behind.
The very air of Keeper's Dale tingled from the tragedy and the excitement, but the sounds of battle died away to an eerie stillness, shattered occasionally by a cry of agony. Berkthgar the Bold stood tall and firm, with Stumpet Rakingclaw and Terrien Doucard, the new leader of the Knights in Silver, flanking him, and their victorious soldiers waiting, tensed, behind them.
Ten feet away, Belwar Dissengulp stood point for the depleted svirfneblin ranks. The most honored burrow warden held his strong arms out before him, cradling the body of noble Firble, one of many svirfnebli who had died this day, so far from, but in defense of, their home.
They did not know what to make of each other, this almost-seven-foot barbarian, and the gnome who was barely half his height. They could not talk to each other, and had no comprehensible signs of friendship to offer.
They found their only common ground among the bodies of hated enemies and beloved friends, piled thick in Keeper's Dale.
Faerie fire erupted along Drizzt's arms and legs, outlining him as a better target. He countered by dropping a globe of darkness over himself, an attempt to steal the enemy's advantage of three-to-one odds.
Out snapped the ranger's scimitars, and he felt a strange urge from one, not from Twinkle, but from the other blade, the one Drizzt had found in the lair of the dragon Dracos Icingdeath, the blade that had been forged as a bane to creatures of fire.
The scimitar was hungry; Drizzt had not felt such an urge from it since ...
He parried the first attack and groaned, remembering the other time his scimitar had revealed its hunger, when he had battled the balor Errtu. Drizzt knew what this meant.
Baenre had brought friends.
Catti-brie fired another arrow, straight at the withered old matron mother's laughing visage. Again the enchanted arrow merely erupted into a pretty display of useless sparks. The young woman turned to flee, as Drizzt had ordered. She grabbed her father, meaning to pull him along.
Bruenor wouldn't budge. He looked to Baenre and knew she was the source. He looked at Baenre and convinced himself that she had personally killed his boy. Then Bruenor looked past Baenre, to the old dwarf. Somehow Bruenor knew that dwarf. In his heart, the eighth king of Mithril Hall recognized the patron of his clan, though he could not consciously make the connection.
"Run!" Catti-brie yelled at him, taking him temporarily from his thoughts. Bruenor glanced at her, then looked behind, back down the tunnel.
He heard fighting in the distance, from somewhere behind them.
Quenthel's spell went off then, and a wall of fire sprang up in the narrow tunnel, cutting off retreat. That didn't bother determined Bruenor much, not now. He shrugged himself free of Catti-brie's hold and turned back to face Baenre-in his own mind, to face the evil dark elf who had killed his boy.
He took a step forward.
Baenre laughed at him.
Drizzt parried and struck, then, using the cover of the darkness globe, quick-stepped to the side, too quickly for the dark elf coming in at his back to realize the shift. She bored in and struck hard, hitting the same drow that Drizzt had just wounded, finishing her.
Hearing the movement, Drizzt came right back, both his blades whirling. To the female's credit, she registered the countering move in time to parry the first attack, the second and the third, even the fourth.
But Drizzt did not relent. He knew his fury was a dangerous thing. There remained one more enemy in the darkness globe, and for Drizzt to press against a single opponent so forcefully left him vulnerable to the other. But the ranger knew, too, that his friends sorely needed him, that every moment he spent engaged with these warriors gave the powerful priestesses time to destroy them all.
The ranger's fifth attack, a wide-arcing left, was cleanly picked off, as was the sixth, a straightforward right thrust. Drizzt pressed hard, would not relinquish the offensive. He knew, and the female knew, that her only hope would be in her lone remaining ally.
A stifled scream, followed by the growl of a panther ended that hope.
Drizzt's fury increased, and the female continued to fall back, stumbling now in the darkness, suddenly afraid. And in that moment of fear, she banged her head hard against a low stalactite, an obstacle her keen drow senses should have detected. She shook off the blow and managed to straighten her posture, throwing one sword out in front to block another of the ranger's furious thrusts.
Drizzt didn't, and Twinkle split the fine drow armor and dove deep into the female's lung.
Drizzt yanked the blade free and spun about.
His darkness globe went away abruptly, dispelled by the magic of the waiting tanar'ri.
Bruenor took another step, then broke into a run. Catti-brie screamed, thinking him dead, as a line of fire came down on him.
Furious, frustrated, the young woman fired her bow again, and more harmless sparks exploded in the air. Through the tears of outrage that welled in her blue eyes she hardly noticed that Bruenor had shrugged off the stinging hit and broke into a full charge again.
Bladen'Kerst stopped the dwarf, enacting a spell that surrounded Bruenor in a huge block of magical, translucent goo. Bruenor continued to move, but so slowly as to be barely perceptible, while the three drow priestesses laughed at him.
Catti-brie fired again, and this time her arrow hit the block of goo, diving in several feet before stopping and hanging uselessly in place above her father's head.
Catti-brie looked to Bruenor, to Drizzt and the horrid, twelve-foot fiend that had appeared to the right, and to Regis, groaning and trying to crawl at her left. She felt the heat as fires raged in the tunnel behind her, heard the continuing battle back, that way which she did not understand.
They needed a break, a turn in the tide, and Catti-brie thought she saw it then, and a moment of hope came to her. Finished with the kill, Guenhwyvar growled and crouched, ready to spring upon the tanar'ri.
That moment of hope for Catti-brie was short-lived, for as the panther sprang out, one of the priestesses casually tossed something into the air, Guenhwyvar's way. The panther dissipated into gray mist in midleap and was gone, sent back to the Astral Plane.
"And so we die," Catti-brie whispered, for this enemy was too strong. She dropped Taulmaril to the floor and drew Khazid'hea. A deep breath steadied her, reminded her that she had run close to death's door for most of her adult life. She looked to her father and prepared to charge, prepared to die.
A shape wavered in front of the block of goo, between Catti-brie and Bruenor, and the look of determination on the young woman's face turned to one of disgust as a gruesome, octopus-headed monster materialized on this side of the magical block, calmly walking-no, floating-toward her.
Catti-brie raised her sword, then stopped, overwhelmed suddenly by a psionic blast, the likes of which she had never known.
Methil waded in.
Berg'inyon's force pulled up and regrouped when they had cleared Keeper's Dale completely, had left the din of battle far behind and were near the last run for the tunnels back to the Under-dark. Dimensional doors opened near the lizard rulers, and drow wizards (and those other dark elves fortunate enough to have been near the wizards when the spells were enacted) stepped through. Stragglers, infantry drow and a scattering of humanoid allies, struggled to catch up, but they could not navigate the impossible terrain on this sign of the mountain. And they were of no concern to the Baenre weapon master.
All those who had escaped Keeper's Dale looked to Berg'inyon for guidance as the day brightened about them.
"My mother was wrong," Berg'inyon said bluntly, an act of blasphemy in drow society, where the word of any matron mother was Lloth-given law.
Not a drow pointed it out, though, or raised a word of disagreement. Berg'inyon motioned to the east, and the force lumbered on, into the rising sun, miserable and defeated.
"The surface is for surface-dwellers," Berg'inyon remarked to one of his advisors when she walked her mount beside his. "I shall never return."
"What of Drizzt Do'Urden?" the female asked, for it was no secret that Matron Baenre wanted her son to slay the renegade.
Berg'inyon laughed at her, for not once since he had witnessed Drizzt's exploits at the Academy had he entertained any serious thoughts of fighting the renegade.
Drizzt could see little beyond the gigantic glabrezu, and that spectacle was enough, for the ranger knew he was not prepared for such a foe, knew that the mighty creature would likely destroy him.
Even if it didn't defeat him, the glabrezu would surely hold him up long enough for Matron Baenre to kill them all!Drizzt felt the savage hunger of his scimitar, a blade forged to kill such beasts, but he fought off the urge to charge, knew that he had to find a way around those devilish pincers.He noted Guenhwyvar's futile leap and disappearance. Another ally lost.The fight was over before it had begun, Drizzt realized. They had killed a couple of elite guards and nothing more. They had walked headlong into the pinnacle of Menzoberranzan's power, the most high priestesses of the Spider Queen, and they had lost. Waves of guilt washed over Drizzt, but he dismissed them, refused to accept them. He had come out, and his friends had come beside him, because this had been Mithril Hall's only chance. Even if Drizzt had known that Matron Baenre herself was leading this march, he would have come out here, and would not have denied Bruenor and Regis and Catti-brie the opportunity to accompany him.They had lost, but Drizzt meant to make their enemy hurt."Fight on, demon spawn," he snarled at the glabrezu, and he fell into a crouch, waving his blades, eager to give his scimitar the meal it so greatly desired.The tanar'ri straightened and held out a curious metal coffer.Drizzt didn't wait for an explanation, and almost unintentionally destroyed the only chance he and his friends had, for as the tanar'ri moved to open the coffer, Drizzt, with the enchanted ankle bracers speeding his rush, yelled and charged, right past the lowered pincers, thrusting his scimitar into the fiend's belly.He felt the surge of power as the scimitar fed.Catti-brie was too confused to strike, too overwhelmed to even cry out in protest as Methil came right up to her and the wretched tentacles licked her face. Then, through the confusion, a single voice, the voice of Khazid'hea, her sword, called out in her head.Strike!She did, and though her aim was not perfect, Khazid'hea's wicked edge hit Methil on the shoulder, nearly severing the illithid's arm.Out of her daze, Catti-brie swept the tentacles from her face with her free hand.Another psionic wave blasted her, crippling her once more, stealing her strength and buckling her legs. Before she went down, she saw the illithid jerk weirdly, then fall away, and saw Regis, staggering, his hair still dancing wildly. The halfling's mace was covered in blood, and he fell sidelong, over the stumbling Methil.That would have been the end of the illithid, especially when Catti-brie regained her senses enough to join in, except that Methil had anticipated such a disaster and had stored enough psionic energy to get out of the fight. Regis lifted his mace for another strike, but felt himself sinking as the illithid dissipated beneath him. The halfling cried out in confusion, in terror, and swung anyway, but his mace clanged loudly as it hit only the empty stone floor beneath him.It all happened in a mere instant, a flicker of time in which poor Bruenor had not gained an inch toward his taunting foes.The glabrezu, in pain greater than anything it had ever known, could have killed Drizzt then. Every instinct within the wicked creature urged it to snap this impertinent drow in half. Every instinct except one: the fear of Errtu's reprisal once the tanar'ri got back to the Abyss-and with that vile scimitar chewing away at its belly, the tanar'ri knew it would soon make that trip.It wanted so much to snap Drizzt in half, but the fiend had been sent here for a different reason, and evil Errtu would accept no explanations for failure. Growling at the renegade Do'Urden, taking pleasure only in the knowledge that Errtu would soon return to punish this one personally, the glabrezu reached across and tore open the shielding coffer, producing the shining black sapphire.The hunger disappeared from Drizzt's scimitar. Suddenly, the ranger's feet weren't moving so quickly.Across the Realms, the most poignant reminder of the Time of Troubles were the areas known as dead zones, wherein all magic ceased to exist. This sapphire contained within it the negative energy of such a zone, possessed the antimagic to steal magical energy, and not Drizzt's scimitars or his bracers, not Khazid'hea or the magic of the drow priestesses, could overcome that negative force.It happened for only an instant, for a consequence of revealing that sapphire was the release of the summoned tanar'ri from the Material Plane, and the departing glabrezu took with it the sapphire.For only an instant, the fires stopped in the tunnel behind Catti-brie. For only an instant, the shackles binding Gandalug lost their enchantment. For only an instant, the block of goo surrounding Bruenor was no more.For only an instant, but that was long enough for Gandalug, teeming with centuries of rage, to tear his suddenly feeble shackles apart, and for Bruenor to surge ahead, so that when the block of goo reappeared, he was beyond its influence, charging hard and screaming with all his strength.Matron Baenre had fallen unceremoniously to the floor, and her driftdisk reappeared when magic returned, hovering above her head.Gandalug launched a backhand punch to the left, smacking Quenthel in the face and knocking her back against the wall. Then he jumped to the right and caught Bladen'Kerst's five-headed snake whip in his hand, taking more than one numbing bite.The old dwarf ignored the pain and pressed on, barreling over the surprised Baenre daughter. He reached around her other shoulder and caught the handle of her whip in his free hand, then pulled the thing tightly against her neck, strangling her with her own wicked weapon.They fell in a clinch.In all the Realms there was no creature more protected by magic than Matron Baenre, no creature shielded from blows more effectively, not even a thick-scaled ancient dragon. But most of those wards were gone now, taken from her in the moment of antimagic. And in all the Realms there was no creature more consumed by rage than Bruenor Battlehammer, enraged at the sight of the old, tormented dwarf he knew he should recognize. Enraged at the realization that his friends, that his dear daughter, were dead, or soon would be. Enraged at the withered drow priestess, in his mind the personification of the evil that had taken his boy.He chopped his axe straight overhead, the many-notched blade diving down, shattering the blue light of the driftdisk, blowing the enchantment into nothingness. Bruenor felt the burn as the blade hit one of the few remaining magical shields, energy instantly coursing up the weapon's head and handle, into the furious king.The axe went from green to orange to blue as it tore through magical defense after magical defense, rage pitted against powerful dweomers. Bruenor felt agony, but would admit none.The axe drove through the feeble arm that Baenre lifted to block, through Baenre's skull, through her jawbone and neck, and deep into her frail chest.Quenthel shook off Gandalug's heavy blow and instinctively moved for her sister. Then, suddenly, her mother was dead and the priestess rushed back toward the wall instead, through the green-edged portal, back into the corridor beyond. She dropped some silvery dust as she passed through, enchanted dust that would dispel the portal and make the wall smooth and solid once again.The stone spiraled in, fast transforming back into a solid barrier.Only Drizzt Do'Urden, moving with the speed of the enchanted anklets, got through that opening before it snapped shut.Jarlaxle and his lieutenants were not far away. They knew that a group of wild dwarves and a wolfman had met Baenre's other elite guards in the tunnels across the way, and that the dwarves and their ally had overwhelmed the dark elves and were fast bearing down on the chamber.From a high vantage point, looking out from a cubby on the tunnel behind that chamber, Jarlaxle knew the approaching band of furious dwarves had already missed the action. Quenthel's appearance, and Drizzt's right behind her, told the watching mercenary leader the conquest of Mithril Hall had come to an abrupt end.The lieutenant at Jarlaxle's side lifted a hand-crossbow toward Drizzt, and seemed to have a perfect opportunity, for Drizzt's focus was solely on the fleeing Baenre daughter. The ranger would never know what hit him.Jarlaxle grabbed the lieutenant's wrist and forced the arm down. Jarlaxle motioned to the tunnels behind, and he and his somewhat confused, but ultimately loyal, band slipped silently away.As they departed, Jarlaxle heard Quenthel's dying scream, a cry of "Sacrilege!" She was yelling out a denial, of course, in Drizzt Do'Urden's-her killer's-face, but Jarlaxle realized she could just as easily, and just as accurately, have been referring to him.So be it.The dawn was bright but cold, and it grew colder still as Stumpet and Terrien Doucard, of the Knights in Silver, made their way up the difficult side of Keeper's Dale, climbing hand over hand along the almost vertical wall."Ye're certain?" Stumpet asked Terrien, a half-elf with lustrous brown hair and features too fair to be dimmed by even the tragedy of the last night.The knight didn't bother to reply, other than with a quick nod, for Stumpet had asked the question more than a dozen times in the last twenty minutes."This is the right wall?" Stumpet asked, yet another of her redundant questions.Terrien nodded. "Close," he assured the dwarf.Stumpet came up on a small ledge and slid over, putting her back against the wall, her feet hanging over the two-hundred-foot drop to the valley floor. She felt she should be down there in the valley, helping tend to the many, many wounded, but if what the knight had told her was true, if Lady Alustriel of Silverymoon had fallen up here, then this trip might be the most important task Stumpet Rakingclaw ever completed in her life.She heard Terrien struggling below her and bent over, reaching down to hook the half-elf under the shoulder. Stumpet's powerful muscles corded, and she easily hoisted the slender knight over the ledge, guiding him into position beside her against the wall. Both the half-elf and the dwarf breathed heavily, puffs of steam filling the air before them."We held the dale," Stumpet said cheerily, trying to coax the agonized expression from the half-elf's face."Would the victory have been worth it if you had watched Bruenor Battlehammer die?" the half-elf replied, his teeth chattering a bit from the frigid air."Ye're not for knowing that Alustriel died!" Stumpet shot back, and she pulled the pack from her back, fumbling about inside. She had wanted to wait a while before doing this, hopefully to get closer to the spot where Alustriel's chariot had reportedly gone down.She took out a small bowl shaped of silvery mithril and pulled a bulging waterskin over her head."It is probably frozen," the dejected half-elf remarked, indicating the skin.Stumpet snorted. Dwarven holy water didn't freeze, at least not the kind Stumpet had brewed, dropping in a little ninety-proof to sweeten the mix. She popped the cork from the waterskin and began a rhythmic chant as she poured the golden liquid into the mithril bowl. She was lucky-she knew that-for though the image her spells brought forth was fuzzy and brief, an area some distance away, she knew this region, and knew where to find the indicated ledge.They started off immediately at a furious and reckless pace, Stumpet not even bothering to collect her bowl and skin. The half-elf slipped more than once, only to be caught by the wrist by Stumpet's strong grasp, and more than once Stumpet found herself falling, and only the quick hands of Terrien Doucard, deftly planting pitons to secure the rope between them, saved her.Finally, they got to the ledge and found Alustriel lying still and cold. The only indication that her magical chariot had ever been there was a scorch mark where the thing had crashed, on the floor of the ledge and against the mountain wall. Not even debris remained, for the chariot had been wholly a creation of magic.The half-elf rushed to his fallen leader and gently cradled Alustriel's head in one arm. Stumpet whipped out a small mirror from her belt pouch and stuck it in front of the lady's mouth."She's alive!" the dwarf announced, tossing her pack to Terrien. The words seemed to ignite the half-elf. He gently laid Alustriel's head to the ledge, then fumbled in the pack, tearing out several thick blankets, and wrapped his lady warmly, then began briskly rubbing Alustriel's bare, cold hands. All the while, Stumpet called upon her gods for spells of healing and warmth, and gave every ounce of her own energy to this wondrous leader of Silverymoon.Five minutes later, Lady Alustriel opened her beautiful eyes. She took a deep breath and shuddered, then whispered something neither Stumpet nor the knight could hear, so the half-elf leaned closer, put his ear right up to her mouth."Did we hold?"Terrien Doucard straightened and smiled widely. "Keeper's Dale is ours!" he announced, and Alustriel's eyes sparkled. Then she slept, peacefully, confident that this furiously working dwarven priestess would keep her warm and well, and she was confident that, whatever her own fate, the greater good had been served.For the good of all goodly folk.