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«STARLESS NIGHT», Robert Salvatore

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PROLOGUE

Drizzt ran his fingers over the intricate carvings of the panther statuette, its black onyx perfectly smooth and unmarred even in the ridged areas of the muscled neck. So much like Guenhwyvar, it looked a perfect representation. How could Drizzt bear to part with it now, fully convinced that he would never see the great panther again?

"Farewell, Guenhwyvar," the drow ranger whispered, his expression sorrowful, almost pitiful, as he stared at the figurine. "I cannot in good conscience take you with me on this journey, for I would fear your fate more than my own." His sigh was one of sincere resignation. He and his friends had fought long and hard, and at great sacrifice, to get to this point of peace, yet Drizzt had come to know that it was a false victory. He wanted to deny it, to put Guenhwyvar back in his pouch and go blindly on, hoping for the best.

Drizzt sighed away the momentary weakness and handed the figurine over to Regis, the halfling.

Regis stared up at Drizzt in disbelief for a long, silent while, shocked by what the drow had told him and had demanded of him.

"Five weeks," Drizzt reminded him.

The halfling's cherubic, boyish features crinkled. If Drizzt did not return in five weeks, Regis was to give Guenhwyvar to Catti-brie and tell both her and King Bruenor the truth of Drizzt's departure. From the draw's dark and somber tones, Regis understood that Drizzt did not expect to return.

On sudden inspiration, the halfling dropped the figurine to his bed and fumbled with a chain about his neck, its clasp caught in the long, curly locks of his brown hair. He finally got the thing undone and produced a pendant, dangling a large and magical ruby.

Now Drizzt was shocked. He knew the value of Regis's gemstone and the halfling's craven love of the thing. To say that Regis was acting out of character would be an incredible understatement.

"I cannot," Drizzt argued, pushing the stone away. "I may not return, and it would be lost…"

"Take it!" Regis demanded sharply. "For all that you have done for me, for all of us, you surely deserve it. It's one thing to leave Guenhwyvar behind—it would be a tragedy indeed if the panther fell into the hands of your evil kin—but this is merely a magical token, no living being, and it may aid you on your journey. Take it as you take your scimitars." The halfling paused, his soft gaze locking with Drizzt's violet orbs. "My friend."

Regis snapped his fingers suddenly, stealing the quiet moment. He rambled across the floor, his bare feet slapping on the cold stone and his nightshirt swishing about him. From a drawer he produced yet another item, a rather unremarkable mask.

"I recovered it," he said, not wanting to reveal the whole story of how he had acquired the familiar item. In truth, Regis had gone from Mithril Hall and found Artemis Entreri hanging helplessly from a jutting stone far up the side of a ravine. Regis promptly had looted the assassin, then cut the seam of Entreri's cloak. The halfling had listened with some measure of satisfaction as the cloak, the only thing holding the battered, barely conscious man aloft, began to rip.

Drizzt eyed the magical mask for a long time. He had taken it from the lair of a banshee more than a year before. With it, its user could change his entire appearance, could hide his identity.

"This should help you get in and out," Regis said hopefully. Still Drizzt made no move.

"I want you to have it' Regis insisted, misunderstanding the drowns hesitation and jerking it out toward Drizzt. Regis did not realize the significance the mask held for Drizzt Do'Urden. Drizzt had once worn it to hide his identity, because a dark elf walking the surface world was at a great disadvantage. Drizzt had come to see the mask as a lie, however useful it might be, and he simply could not bring himself to don it again, whatever the potential gain.

Or could he? Drizzt wondered then if he could refuse the gift. If the mask could aid his cause—a cause that would likely affect those he was leaving behind—then could he in good conscience refuse to wear it?

No, he decided at length, the mask was not that valuable to his cause. Three decades out of the city was a long time, and he was not so remarkable in appearance, not so notorious, certainly, that he would be recognized. He held out his upraised hand, denying the gift, and Regis, after one more unsuccessful try, shrugged his little shoulders, and put the mask away.

Drizzt left without another word. Many hours remained before dawn; torches burned low in the upper levels of Mithril Hall, and few dwarves stirred. It seemed perfectly quiet, perfectly peaceful.

The dark elf's slender fingers, lightly touching, making not a sound, traced the grain of a wooden door. He had no desire to disturb the person within, though he doubted that her sleep was very restful. Every night, Drizzt wanted to go to her and comfort her, and yet he had not, for he knew that his words would do little to soothe Catti-brie's grief. Like so many other nights when he had stood by this door, a watchful, helpless guardian, the ranger ended up padding down the stone corridor, filtering through the shadows of low-dancing torches, his toe-heel step making not a whisper of sound.


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