Streams of Silver 22. The Dragon of Darkness
At the heart of the lower levels, in an immense cavern of uneven and twisting walls pocketed with deep shadows, and a ceiling too high for the light of the brightest fire to find, rested the present ruler of Mithril Hall, perched upon a solid pedestal of the purest mithril that rose from a high and wide mound of coins and jewelry, goblets and weapons, and countless other items pounded from the rough blocks of mithril by the skilled hands of dwarven craftsmen.
Dark shapes surrounded the beast, huge dogs from its own world, obedient, long-lived, and hungry for the meat of human or elf, or anything else that would give them the pleasure of their gory sport before the kill.
Shimmergloom was not now amused. Rumblings from above foretold of intruders, and a band of Duergar spoke of murdered kin in the tunnels and whispered rumors that a drow elf had been seen.
The dragon was not of this world. It had come from the Plane of Shadows, a dark image of the lighted world, unknown to the dwellers here except in the less substantial stuff of their blackest nightmares. Shimmergloom had been of considerable standing there, old even then, and in high regard among its dragon kin that ruled the plane. But when the foolish and greedy dwarves that once inhabited these mines had delved into deep holes of sufficient darkness to open a gate to its plane, the dragon had been quick to come through. Now possessing a treasure tenfold beyond the greatest of its own plane, Shimmergloom had no intentions of returning.
It would deal with the intruders.
For the first time since the routing of Clan Battlehammer, the baying of the shadow hounds filled the tunnels, striking dread even into the hearts of their gray dwarf handlers. The dragon sent them west on their mission, up toward the tunnels around the entry hall in Keeper’s Dale, where the companions had first entered the complex. With their powerful maws and incredible stealth, the hounds were indeed a deadly force, but their mission now was not to catch and kill – only to herd.
In the first fight for Mithril Hall, Shimmergloom alone had routed the miners in the lower caverns and in some of the huge chambers on the eastern end of the upper level. But final victory had escaped the dragon, for the end had come in the western corridors, too tight for its scaly bulk.
The beast would not miss the glory again. It set its minions in motion, to drive whoever or whatever had come into the halls toward the only entrance that it had to the upper levels: Garumn’s Gorge.
Shimmergloom stretched to the limit of its height and unfolded its leathery wings for the first time in nearly two hundred years, blackness flowing out under them as they extended to the sides. Those Duergar who had remained in the throne room fell to their knees at the sight of their rising lord, partly in respect, but mostly in fear.
The dragon was gone, gliding down a secret tunnel at the back of the chamber, to where it had once known glory, the place its minions had named Shimmergloom’s Run in praise of their lord.
A blur of indistinguishable darkness, it moved as silently as the cloud of blackness that followed.
* * *
Wulfgar worried just how low he would be crouching by the time they reached Garumn’s Gorge, for the tunnels became dwarven sized as they neared the eastern end of the upper level. Bruenor knew this as a good sign, the only tunnels in the complex with ceilings below the six foot mark were those of the deepest mines and those crafted for defense of the gorge.
Faster than Bruenor had hoped, they came upon the secret door to a smaller tunnel breaking off to the left, a spot familiar to the dwarf even after his two-century absence. He ran his hand across the unremarkable wall beneath the torch and its telltale red sconce, searching for the brailed pattern that would lead his fingers to the precise spot. He found one triangle, then another, and followed their lines to the central point, the bottommost point in the valley between the peaks of the twin-mountains that they signified, the symbol of Dumathoin, the Keeper of Secrets Under the Mountain. Bruenor pushed with a single finger, and the wall fell away, opening yet another low tunnel. No light came from this one, but a hollow sound, like the wind across a rock face, greeted them.
Bruenor winked at them knowingly and started right in, but slowed when he saw the runes and sculpted reliefs carved into the walls. All along the passage, on every surface, dwarven artisans had left their mark. Bruenor swelled with pride, despite his depression, when he saw the admiring expressions upon his friends’ faces.
A few turns later they came upon a portcullis, lowered and rusted, and beyond it saw the wideness of another huge cavern.
“Garumn’s Gorge,” Bruenor proclaimed, moving up to the iron bars. “‘Tis said ye can throw a torch off the rim and it’ll burn out afore ever it hits.”
Four sets of eyes looked through the gate in wonder. If the journey through Mithril Hall had been a disappointment to them, for they had not yet seen the grander sights Bruenor had often told them of, the sight before them now made up for it. They had reached Garumn’s Gorge, though it seemed more a full-sized canyon than a gorge, pning hundreds of feet across and stretching beyond the limits of their sight. They were above the floor of the chamber, with a stairway running down to the right on the other site of the portcullis. Straining to poke as much of their heads as they could through the bars, they could see the light of another room at the base of the stairs, and hear clearly the ruckus of several Duergar.
To the left, the wall arced around to the edge, though the chasm continued on beyond the bordering wall of the cavern. A single bridge pned the break, an ancient work of stone fitted so perfectly that its slight arch could still support an army of the hugest mountain giants.
Bruenor studied the bridge carefully, noting that something about its understructure did not seem quite right. He followed the line of a cable across the chasm, figuring it to continue under the stone flooring and connect to a large lever sticking up from a more recently constructed platform across the way. Two Duergar sentries milled about the lever, though their lax attitude spoke of countless days of boredom.
“They’ve rigged the thing to fall!” Bruenor snorted.
The others immediately understood what he was talking about. “Is there another way across, then?” Catti-brie asked.
“Aye,” replied the dwarf. “A ledge to the south end of the gorge. But hours o’ walking, and the only way to it is through this cavern!”
Wulfgar grasped the iron bars of the portcullis and tested them. They held fast, as he suspected. “We could not get through these bars, anyway,” he put in. “Unless you know where we might find their crank.”
“Half a day’s walking,” Bruenor replied, as though the answer, perfectly logical to the mindset of a dwarf protecting his treasures, should have been obvious. “The other way.”
“Fretful folk,” Regis said under his breath.
Catching the remark, Bruenor growled and grabbed Regis by the collar, hoisting him from the ground and pressing their faces together. “Me people are a careful lot,” he snarled, his own frustration and confusion boiling out again in his misdirected rage. “We like to keep what’s our own to keep, especially from little thieves with little fingers and big mouths.”
“Suren there’s another way in,” Catti-brie reasoned, quick to diffuse the confrontation.
Bruenor dropped the halfling to the floor. “We can get to that room,” he replied, indicating the lighted area at the base of the stairs.
“Then let’s be quick,” Catti-brie demanded. “If the noise of the cave-in called out alarms, the word might not have reached this far.”
Bruenor led them back down the small tunnel swiftly, and back to the corridor behind the secret door.
Around the next bend in the main corridor, its walls, too, showing the runes and sculpted reliefs of the dwarven craftsmen, Bruenor was again engulfed in the wonder of his heritage and quickly lost all thoughts of anger at Regis. He heard again in his mind the ringing of hammers in Garumn’s day, and the singing of common gatherings. If the foulness that they had found here, and the loss of Drizzt, had tempered his fervent desire to reclaim Mithril Hall, the vivid recollections that assaulted him as he moved along this corridor worked to refuel those fires.
Perhaps he would return with his army, he thought. Perhaps the mithril would again ring out in the smithies of Clan Battlehammer.
Thoughts of regaining his people’s glory suddenly rekindled, Bruenor looked around to his friends, tired, hungry, and grieving for the drow, and reminded himself that the mission before him now was to escape the complex and get them back to safety.
A more intense glow ahead signaled the end of the tunnel. Bruenor slowed their pace and crept along to the exit cautiously. Again the companions found themselves on a stone balcony, overlooking yet another corridor, a huge passageway, nearly a chamber in itself, with a high ceiling and decorated walls. Torches burned every few feet along both sides, running parallel below them.
A lump welled in Bruenor’s throat when he looked upon the carvings lining the opposite wall across the way, great sculpted bas reliefs of Garumn and Bangor, and of all the patriarchs of Clan Battlehammer. He wondered, and not for the first time, if his own bust would ever take its place alongside his ancestors’.
“Half-a-dozen to ten, I make them,” Catti-brie whispered, more intent on the clamor rolling out of a partly opened door down to the left, the room they had seen from their perch in the chamber of the gorge. The companions were fully twenty feet above the floor of the larger corridor. To the right, a stairway descended to the floor, and beyond it the tunnel wound its way back into the great halls.
“Side rooms where others might be hiding?” Wulfgar asked Bruenor.
The dwarf shook his head. “One anteroom there be, and only one,” he answered. “But more rooms lay within the cavern of Garumn’s Gorge. Whether they be filled with gray ones or no, we cannot know. But no mind to them; we’re to get through this room, and through the door across its way to come to the gorge.”
Wulfgar slapped his hammer into a fighting grip. “Then let us go,” he growled, starting for the stair.
“What about the two in the cavern beyond?” asked Regis, staying the anxious warrior with his hand.
“They’ll drop the bridge afore we ever make the gorge,” added Catti-brie.
Bruenor scratched his beard, then looked to his daughter. “How well do ye shoot?” he asked her.
Catti-brie held the magical bow out before her. “Well enough to take the likes of two sentries!” she answered.
“Back to th’ other tunnel with ye,” said Bruenor. “At first sound of battle, take ’em out. And be fast, girl; the cowardly scum’re likely to drop the bridge at the first signs of trouble!”
With a nod, she was gone. Wulfgar watched her disappear back down the corridor, not so determined to have this fight now, without knowing that Catti-brie would be safe behind him. “What if the gray ones have reinforcements near?” he asked Bruenor. “What of Catti-brie? She will be blocked from returning to us.”
“No whinin’, boy!” Bruenor snapped, also uncomfortable with his decision to separate. “Y’er heart’s for her is me guess, though ye aren’t to admit it to yerself. Keep in yer head that Cat’s a fighter, trained by meself. The other tunnel’s safe enough, still secret from the gray ones by all the signs I could find. The girl’s battle-smart to taking care of herself! So put yer thoughts to the fight before ye. The best ye can do for her is to finish these gray-bearded dogs too quick for their kin to come!”
It took some effort, but Wulfgar tore his eyes away from the corridor and refocused his gaze on the open door below, readying himself for the task at hand.
Alone now, Catti-brie quietly trotted back the short distance down the corridor and disappeared through the secret door.
* * *
“Hold!” Sydney commanded Bok, and she, too, froze in her tracks, sensing that someone was just ahead. She crept forward, the golem on her heel, and peeked around the next turn in the tunnel, expecting that she had come up on the companions. There was only empty corridor in front of her.
The secret door had closed.
* * *
Wulfgar took a deep breath and measured the odds. If Catti-brie’s estimate was correct, he and Bruenor would be outnumbered several times when they burst through the door. He knew that they had no options open before them. With another breath to steady himself, he started again down the stairs, Bruenor moving on his cue and Regis following tentatively behind.
The barbarian never slowed his long strides, or turned from the straightest path to the door, yet the first sounds that they all heard were not the thumps of Aegis-fang or the barbarian’s customary war cry to Tempos, but the battle song of Bruenor Battlehammer.
This was his homeland and his fight, and the dwarf placed the responsibility for the safety of his companions squarely upon his own shoulders. He dashed by Wulfgar when they reached the bottom of the stairs and crashed through the door, the mithril axe of his heroic namesake raised before him.
“This one’s for me father!” he cried, splitting the shining helm of the closest Duergar with a single stroke. “This one’s for me father’s father!” he yelled, felling the second. “And this one’s for me father’s father’s father!”
Bruenor’s ancestral line was long indeed. The gray dwarves never had a chance.
Wulfgar had started his charge right after he realized Bruenor was rushing by him, but by the time he got into the room, three Duergar lay dead and the furious Bruenor was about to drop the fourth. Six others scrambled around trying to recover from the savage assault, and mostly trying to get out the other door and into the cavern of the gorge where they could regroup. Wulfgar hurled Aegis-fang – and took another, and Bruenor pounced upon his fifth victim before the gray dwarf got through the portal.
Across the gorge, the two sentries heard the start of battle at the same time as Catti-brie, but not understanding what was happening, they hesitated.
A streak of silver flashed across the chasm, exploding into the chest of one of the sentries, its powerful magic blasting through his mithril armor and hurling him back ward into death.
The second lunged immediately for the lever, but Catti-brie coolly completed her business. The second streaking arrow took him in the eye.