He felt so very vulnerable with his scimitars tucked away, and often paused to tell himself that he was being incredibly foolhardy. The I potential cost - the lives of his friends - prodded Drizzt on, though, and he cautiously, quietly, placed hand over hand, inching his way up the winding and treacherous chute. Years ago, when he, too, was a creature of the Underdark, Drizzt had been able to levitate and could have managed the chute much more easily. But that ability, apparently somehow linked to the strange magical emanations of the deepest regions, had flown from Drizzt soon after he had stepped onto Toril's surface.

He hadn't realized how far he had fallen and silently thanked his goddess, Mielikki, that he had survived the plummet! He put a hundred crawling feet behind him, some of the going easy along sloping stretches, other parts nearly vertical. As nimble as any thief, the drow stubbornly climbed on.

What had happened to Guenhwyvar? Drizzt worried. Had the panther come to his hurried call? Had one of the drow, the opportunistic Jarlaxle, perhaps, simply scooped up the dropped figurine to claim the panther as his own?

Scaling hand over hand, Drizzt neared the chute opening. The blanket had not been replaced, and the room above was eerily quiet. Drizzt knew the silence meant little where his dark elf kin were concerned. He had led drow scouting parties that had covered fifty miles of rough tunnel without a whisper of noise. Rightly fearful, Drizzt imagined a dozen dark elves encircling the small chute, weapons drawn, awaiting their prisoner's foolish return.

But Drizzt had to go up. For the sake of his imperiled friends, Drizzt had to block his fear that Vierna and the others were still in the room.

He sensed danger as his hand inched upward, reaching for the lip. He saw nothing, had no practical, plausible warning, save the silent shouts of his warrior instincts.

Drizzt tried to dismiss them, but his hand inevitably moved more slowly. How many times had his insight - he could call it luck - saved him?

Sensitive fingers slid gingerly up the stone; Drizzt resisted his anxious urge to shoot his hand up, grab the lip and hoist himself over, forcing the play of whatever peril awaited him. He stopped, felt something, barely perceptible, against the tip of his middle digit.

He could not retract his hand!

As soon as the initial moment of fear passed, Drizzt realized the truth of the spiderweb trap and held himself steady. He had witnessed the many uses of magical webs in Menzoberranzan; the First House of the city was actually encircled by a weblike fence of unbreakable strands.

And now, though only a single finger was barely touching the magical strands, Drizzt was caught.

He remained perfectly still, perfectly quiet, concentrating his muscle movements so that his weight came more fully against the nearly vertical wall. Gradually he maneuvered his free hand to his cloak, first going for a scimitar, then wisely changing his mind and reaching instead for one of the tiny quarrels he had taken from the dead dark elf in the corridor below.

Drizzt froze at the sound of drow voices above, in the room.

He couldn't make out half their words, but he discerned that they were talking about him - and about his friends! Catti-brie, Wulfgar, and whoever else was with them apparently had escaped.

And the panther was running free; Drizzt heard several remarks, fearful warnings, about the "devil cat."

More determined than ever, Drizzt inched his free hand back toward Twinkle, thinking that he must try to cut through the magical barrier, must get up from the chute and rush to his friends' aid. The moment of desperation was fleeting, however, lasting only as long as it took Drizzt to realize that if Vierna had sealed this chute with the bulk of her force still above it, then there must be another path, not too far, from level to level.

The drow voices receded, and Drizzt took another moment to solidify his precarious perch. He then worked the quarrel free of his cloak, rubbing it against the stone, then against his clothing in an effort to get all of the insidious sleeping poison from its tip. Gingerly he reached his hand up toward the trapped finger, bit his lip to keep from crying out, and jabbed the quarrel under the skin and worked a tear.

Drizzt could only hope he had removed all of the poison, that he would not fall asleep and tumble, probably to his death, back down the chute. Finding a solid grip with his free hand, bracing himself for the jolt and the pain, he jerked his arm hard, tearing the top, trapped skin clean of his finger.

He nearly swooned for the pain, nearly lost his balance, but somehow he held on, brought the finger to his mouth to suck out and spit out the possibly poisoned blood.

He came back into the lower corridor five minutes later, scimitars in hand, eyes darting this way and that in search of his archenemy and in an effort to make some guess about which way he should travel. He knew that Mithril Hall was somewhere back to the east, but realized that his captives had been taking him primarily north. If there was indeed a second way up, it likely was beyond the chute, farther to the north.

He replaced Twinkle in its sheath - not wanting its glow to reveal him - but held his other scimitar out in front of him as he made his stealthy way along the corridor. There were few side passages, and Drizzt was glad for that, realizing that any direction choice he might make at this point, with no feasible landmarks to guide him, would be mere guesswork.

Then he came to an intersection and caught a glimpse of a fleeting, shadowy figure darting along an apparently parallel tunnel to his right flank.

Drizzt knew instinctively that it was Entreri, and it seemed obvious that Entreri would know the other way out of this level.

To the right Drizzt went, in crouched, measured steps, now the pursuer, not the pursued.

He paused when he got to the parallel tunnel, took a deep breath, and peeked around. The shadowy figure, moving quickly, was far ahead, turning unexpectedly right once more.

Drizzt considered this course change with more than a little suspicion. Shouldn't Entreri have kept to the left, kept close to the course he thought Drizzt was taking?

Drizzt suspected then that the assassin knew he was being followed and was leading Drizzt to a place Entreri considered favorable. Drizzt couldn't afford the delay of heeding his suspicions, though, not while the fate of his overmatched friends lay in the balance. To the right he went, quickly, only to find that he had not gained any ground, that Entreri's course had led them both into quite a maze of crisscrossing passageways.

With the assassin no longer in sight, Drizzt concentrated on the floor. To his relief, he was close enough behind so that the residual heat of Entreri's passing footsteps was still visible, though barely, to his superior infravision. He realized that he was vulnerable, head down, with little idea of how many seconds ahead of him the assassin might be, or how many seconds behind, Drizzt knew, for he felt certain that Entreri had led him to this region so that he could double back and come at Drizzt from the back.

His pace barely matched Entreri's as the narrow tunnels gave way to wider natural chambers. The footsteps remained obscure and fast cooling, but Drizzt somehow managed.

A small cry ahead gave him pause. It wasn't Entreri, Drizzt knew, but he believed he was not yet close enough to link up with his friends.

Who had it been, then?

Drizzt used his ears instead of his eyes and sorted through the tiny echoes to follow a barely audible whimpering. He was glad then for his drow warrior training, for years of studying echo patterns in winding tunnels.

The whimpering grew louder; Drizzt knew its source was just around the bend, in what appeared to him from his angle to be a small, oval side chamber.

One scimitar drawn, another hand on Twinkle's hilt, the drow dashed around the corner.

Regis!

Battered and torn, the plump halfling lay sprawled against the far wall, his hands tightly bound, a thin gag pulled tightly across his mouth, and his cheeks caked with blood. Drizzt's first instincts sent him running forward for his injured friend, but he skidded to a halt, fearing another of clever Entreri's many tricks.

Regis noticed him, looked desperately to him.

Drizzt had seen that expression before, recognized its sincerity beyond anything a disguised Entreri, mask or no mask, could hope to duplicate. He was at the halfling's side in a moment, cutting the bonds, tearing free the tight.

"Entreri..." the halfling began breathlessly.

"I know," Drizzt said calmly.

"No," Regis retorted sharply, demanding the drow's attention. "Entreri... was just..."

"He passed through here no more than a minute ahead of me," Drizzt finished, not wanting Regis to struggle any more than necessary for his labored breath.

Regis nodded, his round eyes darting about as though he expected the assassin to charge back in and slay them both.

Drizzt was more concerned with an examination of the halfling's many wounds. Taken individually, each of them appeared superficial, but together they added up to a severe condition indeed. Drizzt let Regis take a few moments to get the blood circulating through his recently untied hands and feet, then tried to get the halfling to stand.

Regis shook his head immediately; a great wave of dizziness knocked him from his feet, and he would have hit the stone floor hard had not Drizzt been there to catch him.

"Leave me," Regis said, showing an unexpected measure of altruism.

Indomitable, the drow smiled comfortingly and hoisted Regis to his side.

"Together," he explained casually. "I would not leave you any more than you would leave me."

The assassin's trail was, by then, too cool to follow, so Drizzt had to go on blindly, hoping he would stumble on some clue as to the location of the passage to the higher level. He drew out Twinkle now, instead of his other blade, and used the light to help him avoid any small jags in the floor, that he might keep Regis's walk more comfortable. All measure of stealth had been lost anyway, with the groaning halfling held at his side, Regis's feet more often scraping than stepping as Drizzt pulled him along.

"I thought he would . . . kill. . . me," Regis remarked after he had caught and held enough of his hard-to-find breath to utter a complete sentence.

"Entreri kills only when he perceives it to his advantage," Drizzt replied.

"Why did he ... bring me along?" Regis honestly wondered. "And why ... did he let you find me?" Drizzt looked at his little friend curiously. "He led you to me," Regis reasoned. "He ..." The half-ling slumped heavily, but Drizzt's strong arm continued to hold him upright.

Drizzt understood exactly why Entreri had led him to Regis. The assassin knew that Drizzt would carry Regis along - by Entreri's measure, that was exactly the difference between him and Drizzt. Entreri perceived that very compassion to be the draw's weakness. In all truth, the stealth had been lost, and now Drizzt would have to play this game of cat and mouse by Entreri's rules, showing as much attention to his burdening friend as to the game. Even if luck showed Drizzt the way up to the next level, he would have a difficult time getting to his friends before Entreri caught up to him.

Even more important than the physical burden, Drizzt realized, Entreri had given Regis back to him to ensure an honest fight. Drizzt would play out their inevitable battle wholeheartedly, with no intention of running away, with Regis lying helpless somewhere nearby.

Regis slipped in and out of consciousness over the next half hour, Drizzt uncomplaining and carrying him along, every now and then switching arms to balance the load. The drow ranger's skill in the tunnels was considerable, and he felt confident that he was making headway in sorting through the maze.

They came into a long, straight passage, a bit higher-roofed and wider than the many they had crossed. Drizzt placed Regis down easily against a wall and studied the patterns in the rock. He noticed a barely perceptible incline in the floor, rising to the south, but the fact that they, traveling north, were going slightly down did not disturb the drow at all.

"This is the main corridor of the region," he decided at length. Regis looked to him, puzzled.

"It once ran fast with water," Drizzt explained, "probably cutting through the mountain to exit at some distant waterfall to the north."

"We're going down?" Regis asked.

Drizzt nodded. "But if there is a passageway back up to the lower levels of Mithril Hall, it will likely lie along this route."

"Well done," came a reply from somewhere in the distance. A slender form stepped out of a side passage, just a few dozen feet ahead of Drizzt and Regis.

Drizzt's hand went instinctively inside his cloak, but, putting more trust in his scimitars, he retracted it immediately as the assassin approached.

"Have I given to you the hope you so desired?" Entreri teased. He said something under his breath - a call to his weapon probably, for his slender sword began glowing fiercely in bluish-green hues, revealing the assassin's graceful form in dim outline as he sauntered toward his waiting enemy.

"A hope you will come to regret," Drizzt replied evenly.

The whiteness of Entreri's teeth gleamed in the aqua light as he answered through a wide smile. "Let us see."



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