King Obould built a wall of tough guards all around him as he made his way through the vast encampment at the ruins of Shallows. The great orc was tentative that day, for the ripples emanating from the murder of Achtel were still flowing out among the gathering and Obould had to wonder if that backlash would turn some of the tribes against him and his cause. The reactions of the orcs guarding the region's perimeter had been promising, at least, with several falling flat before Obould and groveling, which was always welcomed, and all the others bowing low and staying there, averting their eyes to the ground whenever they reverently answered the great orc king's questions. As one, the sentries had directed Obould to seek out Arganth Snarrl.
The spectacular shaman was not difficult to locate. With his wild clothing and feathered headdress, the cloak he had proffered from dead Achtel, and his continual gyrations, Arganth commanded the attention of all around him. Any trepidation Obould held that the charismatic shaman might pose some rivalry to him were dispelled almost immediately when he came in sight of the shaman. The shaman caught sight of Obould and fell flat to his face as completely and as surely as if he had been felled by a giant-thrown boulder.
"Obould Many-Arrows!" Arganth shrieked, and it was obvious that the shaman was literally crying with joy. "Obould! Obould! Obould!"
Around Arganth, all the other orcs similarly prostrated themselves and took up the glorious cry.
Obould looked to his personal guards curiously and returned their shrugs with a suddenly superior look. Yes, he was enjoying it! Perhaps, he mused, he should demand more from those closest around him. .. .
"Are you Snarrl? Arganth Snarrl?" the king asked, moving up to tower over the still gyrating, facedown shaman.
"Obould speaks to me!" Arganth cried out. "The blessings of Gruumsh upon me!"
"Get up!" King Obould demanded.
When Arganth hesitated, he reached down, grabbed the shaman by the scruff of his neck and jerked him to his feet.
"We have awaited your arrival, great one," Arganth said at once, and he averted his eyes.
Obould, falling back off balance a bit, realizing then that such apparent overblown fealty could be naught but a prelude to an assassination, grabbed the shaman's chin and forced him to look up.
"We two will speak," he declared.
Arganth seemed to calm then, finally. His red-streaked eyes glanced around at the other prone orcs, then settled back to meet Obould's imposing stare.
"In my tent, great one?" he asked hopefully.
Obould released him and motioned for him to lead the way. He also motioned for his guards to stay on alert and to stay very close.
Arganth seemed a completely different creature when he and Obould were out of sight of the rest of the orcs.
"It is good that you have come, King Obould Many-Arrows," the shaman said, still holding a measure of reverence in his tone, but also an apparent inner strength - something that had been lacking outside. "The tribes are anxious now and ready to kill."
"You had a ... problem," Obould remarked.
"Achtel did not believe, and so Achtel was murdered," said Arganth.
"That Obould is Gruumsh and Gruumsh is Obould," Arganth boldly stated.
That put the orc king back on his heels. He narrowed his dark eyes and furrowed his prominent brow.
"I have seen this to be true," Arganth explained. "King Obould is great. King Obould was always great. King Obould is greater now, because the One-Eye will be one with him."
Obould's expression did not lose its aura of obvious skepticism.
"What sacrilege was done here by the dwarves!" Arganth exclaimed. "To use the idol!"
Obould nodded, beginning to catch on.
"They defiled and desecrated Gruumsh, and the One-Eye is not pleased!" Arganth proclaimed, his voice rising and beginning to crack into a high-pitched squeal. "The One-Eye will exact vengeance upon them all! He will crush them beneath his boot! He will cleave them with his greatsword! He will chew out their throats and leave them gasping in the dirt!"
Obould continued to stare and even brought his hand up in a wave to try to calm the increasingly animated shaman.
"His boot," Arganth explained, pointing to Obould's feet. "His greatsword," the shaman went on, pointing to the massive weapon strapped across Obould's strong back. "Obould is the tool of Gruumsh. Obould is Gruumsh. Gruumsh is Obould! I have seen this!"
Obould's large and ugly head tilted as he scrutinized the shaman, seeking even the slightest clue that Arganth was taunting him.
"Achtel did not accept this truth," Arganth went on. "Gruumsh did not protect her when the angry drow arrived. The others, they all accept and know that Obould is Gruumsh, I have done this for you, my king ... my god."
The great orc king's suspicious look melted into a wide and wicked grin.
"And what does Arganth want in return for his service to Obould?"
"Dwarf heads!" the shaman cried without the slightest hesitation. "They must die. All of them! King Obould will do this."
"Yes," Obould mused. "Yes."
"Will you accept the blessings of Gruumsh, delivered through the hand of Arganth and the other gathered shamans?" the orc priest asked, and he seemed to shrink down a bit lower as he dared ask anything of Obould, his gaze locked on the floor.
"You are great, Obould!" Arganth shrieked in terror, though there was no overt accusation in Obould's questioning tone.
"Yes, Obould is great," Obould replied. "What blessings?"
Arganth's bloodshot eyes sparkled as he answered, "To Obould we give the strength of the bull and the quickness of the cat. To Obould we give great power. Gruumsh will grant this. I have seen it."
"Such spells are not uncommon," Obould answered sharply. "I would demand no less from - "
"No spell!" Arganth interrupted, and he nearly fainted dead away when he realized that he had done so. He paused for along moment, apparently hoping that the great orc would not crush him. "A spell to give, yes, but forevermore. Obould is Gruumsh. Obould will be strong - stronger!" he quickly and enthusiastically added when the scowl began to spread over Obould's ugly face. "The god-blessing of Gruumsh is a rare and beautiful gift," Arganth explained. "Not in a hundred years has it been granted, but to you, great Obould, it will be. I have seen this. Will you accept and join us in ceremony?"
Obould stared long and hard at the shaman, having no idea what he might be referring to. He had never heard of any "god-blessing of Gruumsh" before. But he could tell that Arganth was afraid and full of sincere respect. The priests had always favored Obould before. Why should they not when he made every conquest with his obligatory dedication to the great One-Eye?
"Obould will accept," he told Arganth, and the shaman nearly did a back flip in his excitement.
Obould was quick to sober him, grabbing him by the collar and lifting him easily right from the ground, then pulling him in close so that he could smell the king's hot breath.
"If I am disappointed, Arganth, I will stake you to a wall and I will eat you, starting at your fingers and working my way up your arm."
Arganth nearly fainted dead away again, for it was often rumored that Obould had done just that to other orcs on several occasions.
"Do not disappoint me."
The shaman's response might have been a "yes," or might have been a "no." It didn't really matter to Obould, for the mere tone of it, a simple and pitiful squeak, confirmed all the orc king needed to know.
* * *
"Am I doing them honor?" Drizzt asked Guenhwyvar.
He sat on the boulder that formed half of his new home, rolling the one-horned helmet of Bruenor over in his delicate fingers. Guenhwyvar lay beside him, right up against him, staring out over the mountainous terrain. The wind blew strongly in their faces that evening and carried a bit of a chill
"I know that I escape my pain when we are in battle," the drow went on.
His gaze drifted past the helmet to the distant mountains. He was speaking more to himself than to the cat, as if Guenhwyvar was really a conduit to his own conscience.
Which of course, she had always been.
"As I focus on the task at hand, I forget the loss - it is a moment of freedom. And I know that our work here is important to the dwarves of Mithral Hall. If we keep the orcs off-balance, if we make them fear to come out of their mountain holes, the press against our friends should lessen."
It all made perfect sense of course, but to Drizzt, the words still sounded somewhat shallow, somewhat of a rationalization. For he knew beneath the surface that he should not have stayed out there, not immediately, that despite the obvious signs that none had escaped, he should have gone straightaway from Shallows to Mithral Hall. He should have gone for his own sensibilities, to confirm whether or not any of his dear friends had escaped the onslaught, and he should have gone for the sake of the surviving dwarves of Clan Battlehammer, to bear witness to the fall of their king and to coordinate his subsequent movements with their own defenses.
The drow dismissed his guilt with a long sigh. Likely the dwarves had buttoned up the hall behind their great doors of iron and stone. The orcs would bring great turmoil to the North, no doubt, particularly to the myriad little towns that dotted the land, but Drizzt doubted that the humanoids would pose much of a real threat to Mithral Hall itself, even with the loss of King Bruenor. The dark elves of Menzoberranzan had attempted to wage such a war, after all, and with far greater resources and greater access through the many Underdark tunnels, and they had failed miserably. Bruenor's people were a resilient and organized force, indeed.
"I miss them, Guenhwyvar," the drow whispered, and the panther perked up at the resumption of talk, turning her wide face and soft eyes over her friend. "Of course I knew this could happen - we all knew it. In fact, I expected it. Too many narrow escapes and too many lucky breaks. It had to end, and in this type of a fall. But I always figured that I would be the first to fall, not the last, that the others would witness my demise, and not I, theirs."
He closed his eyes and saw again the fall of Bruenor, that terrible image burned indelibly into his mind. And again he saw the fall of Ellifain, and in many ways, that faraway battle wounded him even more deeply. For the fall of Bruenor brought him personal pain, but it was in accordance with those principles that had so guided Drizzt for all of his life. To die in defense of friend and community was not so bad a thing, he believed, and while the disaster at Shallows wounded his heart, the disaster along the Sword Coast, in the lair of Sheila Kree, wounded more, wounded the very foundation of his beliefs. Every memory of the fall of Ellifain brought Drizzt back to that terrible day in his youth, when he had first ventured onto the surface along with a raiding party that had attacked and slaughtered a group of innocent surface elves. That had been the first real trial, the first life-and-death trial, of his principles that Drizzt Do'Urden had ever faced. That fateful night so long ago, his first night under the stars, had changed Drizzt's perceptions indelibly. That fateful night had indeed been the beginning of the end of his existence in Menzoberranzan, the moment when Drizzt Do'Urden had truly come to see the evil of his people, an evil beyond redemption, beyond tolerance, beyond anything Drizzt could hope to combat.
Zaknafein had nearly killed him for that wretched surface raid, until he had learned that Drizzt had not really partaken of the killings and had even deceived his companions and the Spider Queen herself by allowing the elf child to live.
How it had pained Drizzt those years before, when he had ventured through the Moonwood to happen upon Ellifain and her people, only to find the grown elf child out of her mind with rage and so obviously distorted.
And in the battle along the Sword Coast, for him to inadvertently slay her!
On so many levels, it seemed to Drizzt that Ellifain's death had mocked his principles and had made so much of his life, not a lie, but a fool's errand.
The drow rubbed his hands over his face, then dropped one atop Guenhwyvar, who had lain her head upon his leg by then, and was breathing slowly and rhythmically. Drizzt enjoyed those moments with Guenhwyvar, when they were not engaged in battle, when they could just rest and enjoy the temporary peace and the mountain breezes. The instincts of the Hunter understood that he should dismiss the cat, to allow her to rest in her Astral home. For she would be needed more desperately when orcs and giants were about.
But Drizzt, and not the Hunter, so torn and internally battling at that moment, could not listen to that pragmatic alter ego.
He closed his eyes and thought of his friends - and not of their fall. He saw again the uncomplicated Regis on the banks of Maer Dualdon, his fishing line stretched out to the dark waters before him. He knew that the hook wasn't baited, and that the line was nothing more than an excuse to simply relax.
He saw again Bruenor, grumping about the caves surrounding Kelvin's Cairn, shouting orders and banging his fists - and all the while winking at Drizzt to let him know that the gruff facade was just that.
He saw again the young boy that was Wulfgar, growing under the tutelage of both Drizzt and Bruenor. He remembered the fight in the verbeeg lair, when he and Wulfgar had charged in headlong against a complex full of powerful enemies. He remembered the battle with Icingdeath in the ice cave, when a clever and lucky Wulfgar had brought down the icicle roof to defeat the dragon.
He saw again Catti-brie, the young girl who had first greeted him on the slopes of Kelvin's Cairn. The young woman who had first shown him the truth of his life on the surface, in a faraway southern desert. The woman who had stayed beside him, through all his doubts and all his fears, through all his mistakes and all his triumphs. When he had foolishly returned to Menzoberran-zan in an effort to free his friends of the shackles of his legacy, Catti-brie had braved the Underdark to rescue him from the drow and from himself. She was his conscience and always told him when she thought he was wrong, but more than that, she was his friend and never really judged him. With a gentle touch, she could take away the shivers of doubt and fear. With a glance from those enticing blue eyes, she could look into his soul and see the truth of his emotions, busting any facade he might have painted upon his face. With a kiss on his cheek, she could remind him that he had his friends around him, always and evermore, and that in light of those friends, nothing could truly wound him.
In light of those friends....
That last thought had Drizzt's head slumping to his hands, had his breath coming in shorter, forced gasps, and had his shoulders bobbing with sobs. He felt himself sinking into a grief beyond anything he had ever known, felt himself falling into a dark and empty pit, where he was helpless.
Always and evermore? Ellifain? Were those the lies of Drizzt Do'Urden's life?
He saw Zaknafein fall into the acid. He saw Withegroo's tower, that awful tower, crumble to dust and flames.
He fell deeper, and he knew only one way to climb out of that pit.
"Come, Guenhwyvar," the Hunter said to the panther.
He rose on steady legs, and with steady hands, he drew forth his scimitars. The Hunter's eyes scanned the distance, moving below the twinkling stars and their invitation to painful introspection to the flickers of campfires and the promise of battle.
The promise of revenge.
Against the orcs.
Against the lies.
Against the pain.
* * *
Thousands of orcs gathered around the broken statue of Gruumsh One-Eye one dark night, staying respectfully back as they had been instructed by their respective spiritual leaders. They whispered among themselves and bullied for position that they might witness the miraculous event. Those scuffles were kept to a minimum, though, for the shamans had promised that any who distracted the proceedings would be offered as sacrifice to Gruumsh. To back up their threat, the shamans had more than a dozen unfortunate orcs already in custody, allegedly for crimes committed out on the battlefield.
Gerti Orelsdottr was there that night as well, along with nearly a hundred of her frost giant kin. She kept her enclave even farther back from the statue, wanting to witness the supposed miracle that had the orcs in such a state of frenzy, but not wanting to give it too much credence by the weight of her immediate presence.
"Detached amusement," she had instructed her kin. "Watch it with little outward concern and detached amusement."
Another two sets of eyes were also witnessing the event. Kaer'lic Suun Wett and Tos'un Armgo at first remained near to Gerti's group - and indeed had met with the frost giantess earlier in the evening - but soon they inched closer, the drow cleric in particular wanting to get a better view.
The call for silence went out from those shamans near to the statue, and those orcs who did not immediately obey were quickly warned, usually at the end of a spear tip and often with a painful prod, by the many soldiers of Obould who were scattered throughout the throng.
_Many shamans_, Tos'un communicated to Kaer'lic, using the silent drow language of intricate hand movements.
_A great communal spell_, Kaer'lic explained. _It is not so uncommon a thing among the drow, but rarely have I heard of the lesser races employing such a tactic. Perhaps this ceremony is as important as the orcs have hinted_.
_Their powers are not great_! Tos'un argued, emphatically grabbing his thumb at the end of his statement.
_Individually, no_, Kaer'lic agreed. _But do not underestimate the power of shamans joined. Nor the power of the orc god. Gruumsh has heard their call, perhaps_.
Kaer'lic smiled as she noted Tos'un shift uncomfortably, his hands sliding near to the twin weapons he had sheathed on his hips.
Kaer'lic was not nearly as concerned. She knew Obould's designs, and she understood that those designs were not so different from her own or those of her companions or those of Gerti. This would not be a ceremony that turned the orcs against their allies, she was certain.
Her thoughts were cut short as a figure dramatically appeared atop the ruined idol of the orc god. Wearing dead Achtel's red robes and his typical ceremonial headdress, Arganth Snarrl leaped up to the highest point on the broken statue and thrust his arms up high, a burning torch in each hand, flames dancing in the night wind. His face was painted in reds and whites and a dozen toothy bracelets dangled from each arm.
He gave a sudden shrill cry and thrust his arms even higher, and two dozen other torches soon flared to life, in a ring around the statue.
Kaer'lic carefully eyed the holders of these lower torches, shamans all, and painted and decorated garishly to an orc. The drow had never seen so many orc shamans in one place, and given the typical stupidity of the brutish race, she was surprised that so many were even clever enough to assume that mantle!
Up on the statue, Arganth began to slowly turn around. In response, those shamans on the ground began to move slowly around the perimeter of the statue, each turning small circles within the march around the larger circle. Gradually Arganth began to increase the pace of his turn, and those below similarly began to move faster, both in their own circles and in their larger march. That march became more animated with each step, becoming more of a dance. Torches bobbed and swayed erratically.
It went on for many minutes, the shamans not seeming to tire in the least - and that alone told perceptive Kaer'lic that there was some magic afoot. The drow priestess narrowed her eyes and began scrutinizing more closely.
Finally, Arganth stopped all of a sudden, and those below stopped at precisely the same moment, simply freezing in place.
Kaer'lic sucked in her breath - only a heightened state of communion could have so coordinated that movement. With the synchronicity of a practiced dance team - which of course they were not, for the shamans were not even of the same tribes, for the most part, and hadn't even known each other for more than a few days - the group swayed and rotated, gradually coming to stand straight, torches held high and steady.
And Obould appeared. As one, the crowd, including Kaer'lic and her drow associate, including Gerti and her hundred giants, gasped.
The orc king was naked, his muscular frame painted in bright colors, red and white and yellow. His eyes had been lined in white, exaggerating them so that it seemed to every onlooker as if Obould was scrutinizing him specifically, and the crowd reflexively shrank back.
As she collected her wits about her, Kaer'lic realized how extraordinary the ceremony truly was, for Obould was not wearing his magnificent masterwork armor. The orc king had allowed himself to be vulnerable, though he hardly appeared helpless. His torso rippled with every stride, and his limbs seemed almost as if his muscles were stretched too tightly, the sinewy cords standing taut and straight. In many ways, the powerful orc seemed every bit as imposing as if he had been fully armed and armored. His face contorted as his mouth stretched in a wide and threatening growl, as his intensity heightened so that it seemed as if his mortal coil could not contain it.
Up above, Arganth dropped one torch to the horizontal, then swept it before him. The first orc prisoner was dragged out before Obould and forced to his knees by the escorting guard.
The creature whined pitifully, but its squeals were quickly drowned out by the shamans, who began chanting the name of their god. That chant moved outward, to encompass the front ranks of the crowd, and continued to spread back through all the gathering until thousands of orc voices joined in the call to Gru-umsh. So hypnotic was it that even Kaer'lic caught herself mouthing the name. The drow glanced around nervously, hoping that Tos'un had not seen, then she smiled to see him similarly whispering to the orc god. She gave him a sharp elbow to remind him of who he was.
Kaer'lic looked back to the spectacle just as Arganth shrieked and brought his two torches in a fast and definitive cross before him, and the crowd went suddenly silent. Looking down to Obould, Kaer'lic saw that he had produced a great blade from somewhere. He slowly raised it high above his head. With a cry, he brought it flashing down, lopping the head from the kneeling orc.
The crowd roared.
The second orc prisoner was dragged in and brought to his knees beside the decapitated corpse of the first.
And so it went, the process of chanting and beheading repeated through the ten prisoners, and each execution brought a greater cry for the glory of Gruumsh than the previous.
And each made Obould seem to stand just a bit taller and stronger, his powerful chest swelling more tightly beneath his stretched skin.
When the killings were finished, the shamans began their circular dance once more, and all the crowd took up the chant to the great One-Eye.
And another creature was brought forth, a great bull, its legs hobbled by strong chords. The orc soldiers surrounding the creature prodded it with their spears and gave it no leeway whatsoever, marching it before their magnificent king.
Obould stared hard at the bull for a long while, the two seeming to fall into some sort of a mutual trance. The orc king grasped the bull by the horns, the two standing motionless, just staring.
Arganth came down from on high, and all the shamans moved around him and surrounded the bull. They began their spellcasting in unison, invoking the name of Gruumsh with every sentence, seeking the blessings of their god.
Kaer'lic recognized enough of the words to know the general spell, an invocation that, temporarily, greatly increased the strength of the recipient. There was a different twist to that one, though, the drow understood, for its intensity was so great that she could feel the magical tingling even from a distance.
A series of weird, multicolored lights, green and yellow and pink, began to flow around the bull and Obould. More and more of the lights began to emanate from the bull, it seemed. Those lights ran forward to engulf and immerse themselves in the orc king. Each one seemed to take a bit of strength from the animal, and soon it stood on trembling legs, and each one seemed to make Obould just a bit more formidable
It ended, and only then did Kaer'lic even recognize that during the process, the bindings had been cut away from the bull, so that the only thing holding it was Obould, one hand grasped upon each horn.
All fell silent, a great hush of anticipation quieting the crowd.
Obould and the creature stared at each other as the moments slipped by. With sudden strength and speed, the orc king brought his hands around, twisting the bull's head upside down. Reversing his grips, the orc king completed the circuit, bringing the poor creature's head around a full three hundred and sixty degrees.
Obould held that pose for a long moment, still staring at the bull. He let go, and the bull fell over.
Obould thrust his arms to the sky and cried out, "Gruumsh!"
A wave of energy rolled out from him across the stunned and silent crowd.
It took Kaer'lic a moment to realize that she had been knocked to her knees, that all around her were similarly kneeling. She glanced back at the frost giants, to see them on their knees as well, and none of them, particularly Gerti, looking overly pleased by that fact.
Again the shamans went into their wild dance around the broken statue, and not a one in the crowd dared to rise, though every voice immediately joined in the chanting.
It stopped again, abruptly.
A second creature was brought forth, a great mountain cat, held around the neck by long noose poles. The creature growled as it neared Obould, but the orc king didn't shy from it at all. He even bent forward, then fell to all fours, staring the cat in the eye.
The attendants loosened their nooses and removed the poles, freeing the beast.
The stare went on, as did the anticipating hush. The cat leaped forward, snapping and roaring, claws raking, and Obould caught it in his hands.
The great cat's claws couldn't dig in against Obould's flesh.
The great cat's teeth could find no hold.
Obould rose up to his full height and easily brought the squirming, thrashing cat up high above his head.
The orc king held that pose for a long moment, then called out again to Gruumsh and began to move about, his feet gaining speed with every stride, his balance holding perfect with every turn and every leap. He stopped in the middle of the frenzied movement and gave a great and sudden twist. The cat cried out, then fell silent and limp. Obould tossed its lifeless body to the ground beside the dead bull.
The crowd began to roar. The shamans began to sing and to dance, their circle bringing them around the orc king and the dead prisoners and animals.
Arganth moved inside the ring, then he ordered the culmination of the dance. The leading shaman began to sway rhythmically, whispering an incantation that Kaer'lic could not hear.
The ten headless orcs stood up and marched in silent procession to form two ranks behind Obould.
Again Arganth fell into his spellcasting, and suddenly, both the bull and the mountain cat sprang up, very much alive.
Very much alive!
The confused and frightened creatures leaped about and ran off into the night. The orcs cheered, and Obould stood very calm.
Kaer'lic could hardly draw her breath. The animation of the corpses did not seem like such a tremendous feat - certainly nothing she had expected from an orc shaman, but nothing too great in magical power - but the resurrection of the animals! How was that possible, coming from an orc?
And Kaer'lic knew, and Kaer'lic understood. Gruumsh had attended the ceremony, in spirit at least. The orc cry to their god had been answered, and the One-Eye's blessing had been instilled in Obould.
Kaer'lic saw that clearly in scrutinizing the calm orc king. She could feel the gravity of him, even from afar, could recognize the added, supernatural strength and speed that had been placed within his powerful frame.
The dwarves had erred, and badly, she knew. Their ruse in using the image of Gruumsh to so deceive his minions had brought upon them the wrath of the orc god - in the form of King Obould Many-Arrows.
Suddenly, Kaer'lic Sun Wett was very much afraid. Suddenly, she knew, the balance of power among those united in battling the dwarves had shifted.
And not for the better.