Silence! Vierna's delicate fingers signaled the command repeatedly in the intricate drow hand code.
Two handcrossbows clicked as their bowstrings locked into a ready position. Their drow wielders crouched low, staring at the broken door.
From behind them, across the small chamber, there came a slight hiss as an arrow magically dissolved, releasing its dark elf victim, who slumped to the floor at the base of the wall. Dinin, the drider, shifted away from the fallen drow, his hard-skinned legs clacking against the stone, Silence!
Jarlaxle crawled to the edge of the blasted door, cocked an ear to the impenetrable blackness of the conjured globes. He heard a slight shuffling and drew out a dagger signaling to the crossbowmen to stand ready.
Jarlaxle stood them down when the figure, his scout, crawled out of the darkness and entered the room.
"They have gone," the scout explained as Vierna rushed over to join the mercenary leader. "A small group, and smaller still with one crushed under your most excellent wall." Both Jarlaxle and the guard bowed low in respect to Vierna, who smiled wickedly in spite of the sudden disaster.
"What of Iftuu?" Jarlaxle asked, referring to the guard they had left watching the corridor where the trouble had begun.
"Dead," the scout replied. 'Torn and ripped."
Vierna turned sharply on Entreri. "What do you know of our enemies?" she demanded.
The assassin eyed her dangerously, remembering Drizzt's warnings against alliances with his kin. "Wulfgar, the large human, hurled the hammer that broke the door," he answered with all confidence. Entreri looked to the two fast-cooling forms splayed out across the stone floor. "You can blame the deaths of those two on Catti-brie, another human, female."
Vierna turned to Jarlaxle's scout and translated what Entreri had told her into the drow tongue. "Were either of these under the wall?" the priestess asked of the scout.
"Only a single dwarf," the drow replied.
Entreri recognized the drow word for the bearded folk, "Bruenor?" he asked rhetorically, wondering if they had inadvertently assassinated the king of Mithril Hall.
"Bruenor?" Vierna echoed, not understanding.
"Head of Clan Battlehammer," Entreri explained. "Ask him," he bade Vierna, indicating the scout, and he grabbed at his clean-shaven chin with his hand, as though stroking a beard. "Red hair?"
Vierna translated, then looked back, shaking her head. "There was no light out there. The scout could not tell."
Entreri silently cursed himself for being so foolish. He just couldn't get used to this heat-sight, where shapes blurred indistinctly and colors were based on amount of heat, not reflecting hues.
"They are gone and are no longer our concern," Vierna said to Entreri.
"You would let them escape after killing three in your entourage?" Entreri started to protest, seeing where this line of reasoning would take them - and not so sure he liked that path.
"Four are dead," Vierna corrected, her gaze leading the assassin to Drizzt's victim lying beside the revealed chute.
"Ak'hafta went after your brother," Jarlaxle quickly put in.
"Then five are dead," Vierna replied grimly, "but my brother is below us and must get through us to rejoin his friends."
She began talking to the other drow in their native tongue, and, though he had not come close to mastering the language, Entreri realized that Vierna was organizing the departure down the chute in pursuit of Drizzt.
"What of my deal?" he interrupted.
Vierna's reply was to the point. "You have had your fight. We allow you your freedom, as agreed."
Entreri acted pleased by that reply; he was worldly enough to understand that to show his outrage would be to join the other fast-cooling forms on the floor. But the assassin was not about to accept his losses so readily. He looked around frantically, searching for some distraction, some way to alter the apparently done deal.
Entreri had planned things perfectly to this point, except that, in the commotion, he hadn't been able to get into the chute behind Drizzt. Alone down below, he and his archrival would have had the time to settle things once and for all, but now the prospect of getting Drizzt alone for a fight seemed remote and moving farther away with every second.
The wily assassin had wormed his way through more precarious predicaments than this - except, he prudently reminded himself, that this time he was dealing with dark elves, the masters of intrigue.
* * * * *
"Shhh!" Bruenor hissed at Wulfgar and Catti-brie, though it was Thibbledorf Pwent, deep in sleep and snoring as only a dwarf can snore, who was making all the noise. "I think I heared something!"
Wulfgar angled the battlerager's helmet point against the wall, slapped one hand under Pwent's chin, closing the battlerager's mouth, then clamped his fingers around Pwent's wide nose. Pwent's cheeks bulged weirdly a couple of times, and a strange squeaky-smacking type of noise came out from somewhere. Wulfgar and Catti-brie exchanged looks; Wulfgar even bent to the side, wondering if the outrageous dwarf had just snored out of his ears!
Bruenor cringed at the unexpected blast, but was too intent to turn and scold his companions. From down the corridor there came another slight shuffling noise, barely perceptible, and then another, still closer, Bruenor knew they soon would be found; how could they escape when both Wulfgar and Catti-brie needed torchlight to navigate the twisting runnels?
Another scuffle came, just outside the small chamber.
"Well, come on out, ye pointy-eared ore kisser!" the frustrated and frightened dwarf king roared, hopping through the small opening around the slab Wulfgar had used to partially block the passageway. The dwarf lifted his great axe high above his head.
He saw the black form, as expected, and tried to chop, but the form was by him too quickly, springing into the small chamber with hardly a whisper of noise.
"What?" the startled dwarf, axe still high, balked, swinging himself around and nearly spinning to the floor.
"Guenhwyvar!" he heard Catti-brie call from beyond the slab.
Bruenor rambled back into the chamber just as the mighty panther opened its maw wide and let drop the valuable figurine - along with the ebon-skinned hand of the unfortunate dark elf who had grabbed for it when Guenhwyvar had made the break.
Catti-brie gave a sour look and kicked the disembodied hand far from the figurine.
"Damn good cat," Bruenor admitted, and the rugged dwarf was truly relieved that a new and powerful ally had been found.
Guenhwyvar roared in reply, the mighty growl reverberating off the tunnel walls for many, many yards in every direction. Pwent opened his weary eyes at the sound. Wide those dark orbs popped indeed when the battlerager caught sight of the six-hundred-pound panther sitting only three feet away!
Adrenaline soaring to new heights, the wild battlerager flubbed out sixteen words at once as he scrambled and kicked to regain his footing (inadvertently kneeing himself in the shin and drawing some blood). He almost got there, until Guenhwyvar apparently realized his intent and absently slapped a paw, claws retracted, across his face.
Pwent's helmet rung out a clear note as he rebounded off the wall, and he thought then that another nap might do him good. But he was a battlerager, he reminded himself, and, by his estimation, a most wild battle was about to be fought. lie produced a large flask from under his cloak and took a hearty swig, then whipped his head about to clear the cobwebs, his thick lips flapping noisily. Somehow seeming revived, the battlerager set his feet firmly under him for a charge.
Wulfgar grabbed him by the helmet point and hoisted him off the floor, Pwent's stubby legs pumping helplessly.
"What're ye about?" the battlerager snarled in protest.
but even Thibbledorf Pwent had his bluster drained, along with the blood in his face, when Guenhwyvar looked to him and growled, ears flattened and pearly teeth bared.
"The panther is a friend," Wulfgar explained.
'The wh - who is ... the damn cat?" Pwcnt stuttered.
"Damn good cat," Bruenor corrected, ending the debate. The dwarf king went back to watching the hall then, glad to have Guenhwyvar beside them, knowing that they would need everything Guenhwyvar could give, and perhaps a little bit more.
* * * * *
Entreri noticed one wounded drow propped against the wall, being tended by two others, the bandages they applied quickly growing hot with spilling blood. He recognized the injured dark elf as one that had reached for the statuette soon after Drizzt had called for the cat, and the reminder of Guenhwyvar gave the assassin a new ploy to try.
"Drizzt's friends will pursue you, even down the chute," Entreri remarked grimly, interrupting Vierna once more.
The priestess turned to him, obviously concerned about his reasoning - as was the mercenary standing beside her.
"Do not underestimate them," Entreri continued. "I know them, and they are loyal beyond anything in the dark elf world - except of course for a priestess's loyalty to the Spider Queen," he added, in deference to Vierna because he didn't want his skin peeled off as a drow trophy. "You plan now to go after your brother, but even if you catch him at once and head with all speed for Menzoberranzan, his loyal friends will chase you."
"They were but a few," Vierna retorted.
"But they will be back with many more, especially if that dwarf under the wall was Bruenor Battlehammer," Entreri countered.
Vierna looked to Jarlaxle for confirmation of the assassin's claims, and the more worldly dark elf only shrugged and shook his head in helpless ignorance.
"They will come better equipped and better armed," Entreri went on, his new scheme formulating, his banter building momentum. "With wizards, perhaps. With many clerics, surely. And with that deadly bow" - he glanced at the body near the wall - "and the barbarian's warhammer."
"The tunnels are many," Vierna reasoned, seemingly dismissing the argument. "They could not follow our course." She turned, as if her argument had satisfied her, to go back to formulating her initial plans.
"They have the panther!" Entreri growled at her. "The panther that is the dearest friend of all to your brother. Guenhwyvar would pursue you to the Abyss itself if there you carried Drizzt's body."
Again distressed, Vierna looked to Jarlaxle. "What say you?" she demanded.
Jarlaxle rubbed a hand across his pointy chin. "The panther was well known among the scouting groups when your brother lived in the city," he admitted. "Our raiding party is not large - and apparently five fewer now."
Vierna turned back sharply on Entreri. "You who seem to know the ways of these people so well," she prompted with more than a bit of sarcasm, "what do you suggest we do?"
"Go after the fleeing band," Entreri replied, pointing to the blackened corridor beyond the blasted door. "Catch them and kill them before they can get back to the dwarven complex and muster support. I will find your brother for you."
Vierna eyed him suspiciously, a look Entreri most certainly did not like.
"But I am awarded another fight against Drizzt," he insisted, baiting the plan with some measure of believability.
"When we are rejoined," Vierna added coldly.
"Of course." The assassin swept into a low bow and leaped for the chute.
"And you will not go alone," Vierna decided. She gave a look to Jarlaxle, and he motioned for two of his soldiers to accompany the assassin.
"I work alone," Entreri insisted.
"You die alone," Vierna corrected, "against my brother in the tunnels, I mean," she added in softer, teasing tones, but Entreri knew that Vierna's promise had nothing at all to do with her brother.
He saw little point in continuing to argue with her, so he just shrugged and motioned for one of the dark elves to lead the way.
Actually, having a drow with the levitational powers beneath him made the ride down the dangerous chute much more comfortable for the assassin.
The leading dark elf came out into the lower corridor first, Entreri landing nimbly behind him and the second drow coming in slowly behind the assassin. The first drow shook his head in apparent confusion and kicked lightly at the prone body, but Entreri, wiser to Drizzt's many tricks, pushed the dark elf aside and slammed his sword down onto the apparent corpse. Gingerly, the assassin turned the dead drow over, confirming that it was not Drizzt in a clever disguise. Satisfied, he slipped his sword away.
"Our enemy is clever," he explained, and one of his companions, understanding the surface language, nodded, then translated for the other drow.
"That is Ak'hafta," the dark elf explained to Entreri. "Dead, as Vierna predicted." He led his drow companion toward the assassin.
Entreri was not at all surprised to find the slain soldier right below the chute. He, above anyone else in Vierna's party, understood how deadly their opponent might be, and how efficient. Entreri did not doubt that the two accompanying him, skilled fighters but inexperienced concerning the ways of their enemy, would have little chance of catching Drizzt. By Entreri's estimation, if these unknowing dark elves had come through the chute alone, Drizzt might well have cut them down already.
Entreri smiled privately at the thought, then smiled even more widely as he realized that these two didn't understand their ally, let alone their enemy.
His sword jabbed to the side as the trailing drow passed by him, neatly skewering both of the unfortunate elf's lungs. The other drow, quicker than Entreri had expected, wheeled about, handcrossbow leveled and ready.
A jeweled dagger came first, nicking the draw's weapon hand hard enough to deflect the shot harmlessly wide. Undaunted, the dark elf snarled and produced a pair of finely edged swords.
It never ceased to amaze Entreri how easily these dark elves fought so well with two weapons of equal length. He whipped his thin leather belt from his breeches and looped it double in his free left hand, waving it and his sword out in front to keep his opponent at bay.
"You side with Drizzt Do'Urden!" the drow accused.
"I do not side with you," Entreri corrected. The drow came at him hard, swords crossing, going back out wide, then crossing in close again, forcing Entreri to bat them with his own sword, then promptly retreat. The attack was skilled and deceptively quick, but Entreri immediately recognized the primary difference between this drow and Drizzt, the subtle level of skill that elevated Drizzt - and Entreri, for that matter - from these other fighters. The double crossing attack had been launched as finely as any Entreri had ever seen, but during the few seconds he had taken to execute the maneuver, the dark elf's defenses had not been aligned. Like so many other fine fighters, this drow was a one-way warrior, perfect on the attack, perfect on defense, but not perfect on both at the same time.
It was a minor thing; the drow's quickness compensated so well that most fighters would never have noticed the apparent weakness. But Entreri was not like most fighters.
Again the drow pressed the attack. One sword darted straight for Entreri's face, only to be swatted aside at the last moment. The second sword came in low, right behind, but Entreri reversed his weapon's momentum and batted the thrusting tip to the ground.
Furiously the drow came on, swords flying, diving for any apparent opening, only to be intercepted by Entreri's sword or hooked and pulled wide by the leather belt.
And all the while the assassin willingly retreated, bided his time, waited for the sure kill.
The swords crossed, went out wide, and crossed again as they charged for Entreri's midsection, the dark elf repeating his initial attack.
The defense had changed, the assassin moving with sudden, terrifying speed.
Entreri's belt looped around the tip of the sword in the drow's right hand, which was crossed under the other, and then the assassin jerked back to his left, pulling the swords tightly together and forcing them both to the side.
The doomed dark elf started backing at once, and both swords easily came free of the awkward belt, but the drow, his defensive balance forfeited in the offensive routine, needed a split second to recover his posture.
Entreri's flashing sword didn't take that split second. It dove hungrily into the drow's exposed left flank, tip twisting as it weaved its way into the soft flesh beneath the rib cage.
The wounded warrior fell back, his belly wickedly torn, and Entreri did not pursue, instead falling into his balanced battle stance.
"You are dead," he said matter-of-factly as the drow struggled to stand and keep his swords level.
The drow could not dispute the claim, and could not hope, through the blinding and burning agony, to stop the assassin's impending attack. He dropped his weapons to the floor and announced, "I yield."
"Well spoken," Entreri congratulated him, then the assassin drove his sword into the foolish dark elf's heart.
He cleaned the blade on his victim's piwafwi, retrieved his precious dagger, then turned to regard the empty tunnel, running fairly straight both ways beyond the range of his somewhat limited infravision. "Now, dear Drizzt," he said loudly, "things are as I had planned." Entreri smiled, congratulating himself for so perfectly manipulating such a dangerous situation.
"I have not forgotten the sewers of Calimport, Drizzt Do'Urden!" he shouted, his anger suddenly boiling over. "Nor have I forgiven!"
Entreri calmed at once, reminding himself that his rage had been his weakness on that occasion when he had battled Drizzt in the southern city.
"Take heart, my respected friend," he said quietly, "for now we can begin our play, as it was always meant to be."
* * * * *
Drizzt circled back to the chute area soon after Entreri had departed. He knew at once what had transpired when he saw the two new corpses, and he realized that none of this had occurred by accident. Drizzt had baited Entreri in the chamber above, had refused to play the game the way the assassin had desired. But Entreri apparently had anticipated Drizzt's reluctance and had prepared, or improvised, an alternative plan. Now he had Drizzt, just Drizzt, in the lower tunnels, one against one. Now, too, if it came to combat, Drizzt would fight with all his heart, knowing that to win was to at least have some chance of freedom. Drizzt nodded his head, silently congratulating his opportunistic enemy. But Drizzt's priorities were not akin to Entreri's. The dark elf's main concern was to find his way through, to circle back around, that he might rejoin his friends and aid them in their peril. To Drizzt, Entreri was no more than another piece of the larger threat.
If he happened to encounter Entreri on his way, though, Drizzt Do'Urden meant to finish the game.