The Halfling's Gem

13. Paying the Piper

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The docks rolled away beyond sight in either direction, the sails of a thousand ships speckled the pale blue waters of the Shining Sea, and it would take them hours to walk the breadth of the city before them, no matter which gate they sought.

Calimport, the largest city in all the Realms, was a sprawling conglomeration of shanties and massive temples, of tall towers springing from plains of low wooden houses. This was the hub of the southern coast, a vast marketplace several times the area of Waterdeep.

Entreri moved Regis off the docks and into the city. The halfling offered no resistance; he was too caught up in the striking emotions that the unique smells, sights, and sounds of the city brought over him. Even his terror at the thought of facing Pasha Pook became buried in the jumble of memories invoked by his return to his former home.

He had spent his entire childhood here as an orphaned waif, sneaking meals on the streets and sleeping curled up beside the trash fires the other bums set in the alleys on chilly nights. But Regis had an advantage over the other vagabonds of Calimport. Even as a young lad, he had undeniable charm and a lucky streak that always seemed to land him on his feet. The grubby bunch he had run with just shook their heads knowingly on the day their halfling comrade was taken in by one of the many brothels of the city.

The "ladies" showed Regis much kindness, letting him do minor cleaning and cooking tasks in exchange for a high lifestyle that his old friends could only watch and envy. Recognizing the charismatic halfling's potential, the ladies even introduced Regis to the man who would become his mentor and who would mold him into one of the finest thieves the city had ever known: Pasha Pook.

The name came back to Regis like a slap in the face, reminding him of the terrible reality he now faced. He had been Pook's favorite little cutpurse, the guildmaster's pride and joy, but that would only make things worse for Regis now. Pook would never forgive him for his treachery.

Then a more vivid recollection took Regis's legs out from under him as Entreri turned him down Rogues Circle. At the far end, around the cul-de-sac and facing back toward the entrance to the lane, stood a plain-looking wooden building with a single, unremarkable door. But Regis knew the splendors hidden within that unpretentious facade.

And the horrors.

Entreri grabbed him by the collar and dragged him along, never slowing the pace.

"Now, Drizzt, now," Regis whispered, praying that his friends were about and ready to make a desperate, last-minute rescue. But Regis knew that his prayers would not be answered this time. He had finally gotten himself stuck in the mud too deeply to escape.

Two guards disguised as bums moved in front of the pair as they approached the door. Entreri said nothing but shot them a murderous stare.

Apparently the guards recognized the assassin. One of them stumbled out of the way, tripping over his own feet, while the other rushed to the door and rapped loudly. A peephole opened, and the guard whispered something to the doorman inside. A split second later, the door swung wide.

Looking in on the thieves' guild proved too much for the halfling. Blackness swirled about him, and he fell limp in the assassin's iron grasp. Showing neither emotion nor surprise, Entreri scooped Regis up over his shoulder and carried him like a sack into the guildhouse and down the flight of stairs beyond the door.

Two more guards moved in to escort him, but Entreri pushed his way past them. It had been three long years since Pook had sent him on the road after Regis, but the assassin knew the way. He passed through several rooms, down another level, and then started up a long, spiral staircase. Soon he was up to street level again and still climbing to the highest chambers of the structure.

Regis regained consciousness in a dizzy blur. He glanced about desperately as the images came clearer and he remembered where he was. Entreri had him by the ankles, the halfling's head dangling halfway down the assassin's back and his hand just inches from the jeweled dagger. But even if he could have gotten to the weapon quickly enough, Regis knew that he had no chance of escape - not with Entreri holding him, two armed guards following, and curious eyes glaring at them from every doorway.

The whispers had traveled through the guild faster than Entreri.

Regis hooked his chin around Entreri's side and managed to catch a glimpse of what lay ahead. They came up onto a landing, where four more guards parted without question, opening the way down a short corridor that ended in an ornate, ironbound door.

Pasha Pook's door.

The blackness swirled over Regis once again.

* * *

When he entered the chamber, Entreri found that he had been expected. Pook sat comfortably on his throne, LaValle, by his side and his favorite leopard at his feet, and none of them flinched at the sudden appearance of the two long-lost associates.

The assassin and the guildmaster stared silently at each other for a long time. Entreri studied the man carefully. He hadn't expected so formal a meeting.

Something was wrong.

Entreri pulled Regis off his shoulder and held him out - still upside down - at arm's length, as if presenting a trophy. Convinced that the halfling was oblivious to the world at that moment, Entreri released his hold, letting Regis drop heavily to the floor.

That drew a chuckle from Pook. "It has been a long three years," the guildmaster said, breaking the tension.

Entreri nodded. "I told you at the outset that this one might take time. The little thief ran to the corners of the world."

"But not beyond your grasp, eh?" Pook said, somewhat sarcastically. "You have performed your task excellently, as always, Master Entreri. Your reward shall be as promised." Pook sat back on his throne again and resumed his distant posture, rubbing a finger over his lips and eyeing Entreri suspiciously.

Entreri didn't have any idea why Pook, after so many difficult years and a successful completion of the mission, would treat him so badly. Regis had eluded the guildmaster's grip for more than half a decade before Pook finally sent Entreri on the chase. With that record preceding him, Entreri did not think three years such a long time to complete the mission.

And the assassin refused to play such cryptic games. "If there is a problem, speak it," he said bluntly.

"There was a problem," Pook replied mysteriously, emphasizing the past tense of his statement.

Entreri rocked back a step, now fully at a loss - one of the very few times in his life.

Regis stirred at that moment and managed to sit up, but the two men, engaged in the important conversation, paid him no notice.

"You were being followed," Pook explained, knowing better than to play a teasing game for too long with the killer. "Friends of the halfling?"

Regis's ears perked up.

Entreri took a long moment to consider his response. He guessed what Pook was getting at, and it was easy for him to figure out that Oberon must have informed the guildmaster of more than his return with Regis. He made a mental note to visit the wizard the next time he was in Baldur's Gate, to explain to Oberon the proper limits of spying and the proper restraints of loyalty. No one ever crossed Artemis Entreri twice.

"It does not matter," Pook said, seeing no answer forthcoming. "They will bother us no more."

Regis felt sick. This was the southland, the home of Pasha Pook. If Pook had learned of his friends' pursuit, he certainly could have eliminated them.

Entreri understood that, too. He fought to maintain his calm while a burning rage reared up inside him. "I tend to my own affairs," he growled at Pook, his tone confirming to the guildmaster that he had indeed been playing a private game with his pursuers.

"And I to mine!" Pook shot back, straightening in his chair. "I know not what connection this elf and barbarian hold to you, Entreri, but they have nothing to do with my pendant!" He collected himself quickly and sat back, realizing that the confrontation was getting too dangerous to continue. "I could not take the risk."

The tension eased out of Entreri's taut muscles. He did not wish a war with Pook and he could not change what was past. "How?" he asked.

"Pirates," Pook replied. "Pinochet owed me a favor."

"It is confirmed?"

"Why do you care?" Pook asked. "You are here. The halfling is here. My pen - "

He stopped suddenly, realizing that he hadn't yet seen the ruby pendant.

Now it was Pook's turn to sweat and wonder. "It is confirmed?" Entreri asked again, making no move toward the magical pendant that hung, concealed, about his neck.

"Not yet," Pook stammered, "but three ships were sent after the one. There can be no doubt."

Entreri hid his smile. He knew the powerful drow and barbarian well enough to consider them alive until their bodies had been paraded before him. "Yes, there can indeed be doubt," he whispered under his breath as he pulled the ruby pendant over his head and tossed it to the guildmaster.

Pook caught it in trembling hands, knowing immediately from its familiar tingle that it was the true gem. What power he would wield now! With the magical ruby in his hands, Artemis Entreri returned to his side, and Rassiter's wererats under his command, he would be unstoppable!

LaValle put a steadying hand on the guildmaster's shoulder. Pook, beaming in anticipation of his growing power, looked up at him.

"Your reward shall be as promised," Pook said again to Entreri as soon as he had caught his breath. "And more!"

Entreri bowed. "Well met, then, Pasha Pook," he replied. "It is good to be home."

"Concerning the elf and barbarian," Pook said, suddenly entertaining second thoughts about ever mistrusting the assassin.

Entreri stopped him with outstretched palms. "A watery grave serves them as well as Calimport's sewers," he said. "Let us not worry about what is behind us."

Pook's smile engulfed his round face. "Agreed, and well met, then," he beamed. "Especially when there is such pleasurable business ahead of us." He turned an evil eve upon Regis, but the halfling, sitting stooped over on the floor beside Entreri, didn't notice.

Regis was still trying to digest the news about his friends. At that moment, he didn't care how their deaths might affect his own future or lack of one. He only cared that they were gone. First Bruenor in Mithril Hall, then Drizzt and Wulfgar, and possibly Catti-brie, as well. Next to that, Pasha Pook's threats seemed hollow indeed. What could Pook ever do to him that would hurt as much as those losses?

"Many sleepless nights I have spent fretting over the disappointment you have caused me," Pook said to Regis. "And many more I have spent considering how I would repay you!"

The door swung open, interrupting Pook's train of thought. The guildmaster did not have to look up to know who had dared to enter without permission. Only one man in the guild would have such nerve.

Rassiter swept into the room and cut an uncomfortably close circle as he inspected the newcomers. "Greetings, Pook," he said offhandedly, his eyes locking onto the assassin's stern gaze.

Pook said nothing but dropped his chin into his hand to watch. He had anticipated the meeting for a long time.

Rassiter stood nearly a foot taller than Entreri, a fact that only added to the wererat's already cocky attitude. Like so many simpleton bullies, Rassiter often confused size with strength, and looking down at this man who was a legend on the streets of Calimport - and thus his rival - made him think that he had already gained the upper hand. "So, you are the great Artemis Entreri," he said, contempt evident in his voice.

Entreri didn't blink. Murder was in his eyes as his gaze followed Rassiter, who still circled. Even Regis was dumbfounded at the stranger's boldness. No one ever moved so casually around Entreri.

"Greetings," Rassiter said at length, satisfied with his scan. He bowed low. "I am Rassiter, Pasha Pook's closest advisor and controller of the docks."

Still Entreri did not respond. He looked over to Pook for an explanation.

The guildmaster returned Entreri's curious gaze with a smirk and lifted his palms in a helpless gesture.

Rassiter carried his familiarity even further. "You and I," he half-whispered to Entreri, "we can do great things together." He started to place a hand on the assassin's shoulder, but Entreri turned him back with an icy glare, a look so deadly that even cocky Rassiter began to understand the peril of his course.

"You may find that I have much to offer you," Rassiter said, taking a cautious step back. Seeing no response forthcoming, he turned to Pook. "Would you like me to take care of the little thief?" he asked, grinning his yellow smile.

"That one is mine, Rassiter," Pook replied firmly. "You and yours keep your furry hands off him!"

Entreri did not miss the reference.

"Of course," Rassiter replied. "I have business, then. I will be going." He bowed quickly and spun to leave, meeting Entreri's eyes one final time. He could not hold that icy stare - could not match the sheer intensity of the assassin's gaze - with his own.

Rassiter shook his head in disbelief as he passed, convinced that Entreri still had not blinked.

"You were gone. My pendant was gone," Pook explained when the door closed again. "Rassiter has helped me retain, even expand, the strength of the guild."

"He is a wererat," Entreri remarked, as if that fact alone ended any argument.

"Head of their guild," Pook replied, "but they are loyal enough and easy to control." He held up the ruby pendant. "Easier now."

Entreri had trouble coming to terms with that, even in light of Pook's futile attempt at an explanation. He wanted time to consider the new development, to figure out just how much things had changed around the guildhouse. "My room?" he asked.

LaValle shifted uncomfortably and glanced down at Pook. "I have been using it," the wizard stammered, "but quarters are being built for me." He looked to the door newly cut into the wall between the harem and Entreri's old room. "They should be completed any day. I can be out of your room in minutes."

"No need," Entreri replied, thinking the arrangements better as they were. He wanted some space from Pook for a while, anyway, to better assess the situation before him and plan his next moves. "I will find a room below, where I might better understand the new ways of the guild."

LaValle relaxed with an audible sigh.

Entreri picked Regis up by the collar. "What am I to do with this one?"

Pook crossed his arms over his chest and cocked his head. "I have thought of a million tortures befitting your crime," he said to Regis. "Too many, I see, for, truly, I have no idea of how to properly repay you for what you have done to me." He looked back to Entreri. "No matter," he chuckled. "It will come to me. Put him in the Cells of Nine."

Regis went limp again at the mention of the imfamous dungeon. Pook's favorite holding cell, it was a horror chamber normally reserved for thieves who killed other members of the guild. Entreri smiled to see the halfling so terrified at the mere mention of the place. He easily lifted Regis off the floor and carried him out of the room.

"That did not go well," LaValle said when Entreri had left.

"It went splendidly!" Pook disagreed. "I have never seen Rassiter so unnerved, and the sight of it proved infinitely more pleasurable than I ever imagined!"

"Entreri will kill him if he is not careful," LaValle observed grimly.

Pook seemed amused by the thought. "Then we should learn who is likely to succeed Rassiter." He looked up at LaValle. "Fear not, my friend. Rassiter is a survivor. He has called the street his home for his entire life and knows when to scurry into the safety of shadows. He will learn his place around Entreri, and he will show the assassin proper respect."

But LaValle wasn't thinking of Rassiter's safety - he had often entertained thoughts of disposing of the wretched wererat himself. What concerned the wizard was the possibility of a deeper rift in the guild. "What if Rassiter turns the power of his allies against Entreri?" he asked in a tone even more grim. "The street war that would ensue would split the guild in half."

Pook dismissed the possibility with a wave of his hand. "Even Rassiter is not that stupid," he answered, fingering the ruby pendant, an insurance policy he might just need.

LaValle relaxed, satisfied with his master's assurances and with Pook's ability to handle the delicate situation. As usual, Pook was right, LaValle realized. Entreri had unnerved the wererat with a simple stare, to the possible benefit of all involved. Perhaps now, Rassiter would act more appropriately for his rank in the guild. And with Entreri soon to be quartered on this very level, perhaps the intrusions of the filthy wererat would come less often.

Yes, it was good to have Entreri back.

* * *

The Cells of Nine were so named because of the nine cells cut into the center of a chamber's floor, three abreast and three long. Only the center cell was ever unoccupied; the other eight held Pasha Pook's most treasured collection: great hunting cats from every corner of the Realms.

Entreri handed Regis over to the jailor, a masked giant of a man, then stood back to watch the show. Around the halfling the jailor tied one end of a heavy rope, which made its way over a pulley in the ceiling above the center cell then back to a crank off to the side.

"Untie it when you are in," the jailor grunted at Regis. He pushed Regis forward. "Pick your path."

Regis walked gingerly along the border of the outer cells. They all were roughly ten feet square with caves cut into the walls, where the cats could go to rest. But none of the beasts rested now, and all seemed equally hungry.

They were always hungry.

Regis chose the plank between a white lion and a heavy tiger, thinking those two giants the least likely to scale the twenty-foot wall and claw his ankle out from under him as he crossed. He slipped one foot onto the wall - which was barely four inches wide - separating the cells and then hesitated, terrified.

The jailor gave a prompting tug on the rope that nearly toppled Regis in with the lion.

Reluctantly he started out, concentrating on placing one foot in front of the other and trying to ignore the growls and claws below. He had nearly made the center cell when the tiger launched its full weight against the wall, shaking it violently. Regis overbalanced and tumbled in with a shriek.

The jailor pulled the crank and caught him in midfall, hoisting him just out of the leaping tiger's reach. Regis swung into the far wall, bruising his ribs but not even feeling the injury at that desperate moment. He scrambled over the wall and swung free, eventually stopping over the middle of the center cell, where the jailor let him down.

He put his feet to the floor tentatively and clutched the rope as his only possible salvation, refusing to believe that he must stay in the nightmarish place.

"Untie it!" the jailor demanded, and Regis knew by the man's tone that to disobey was to suffer unspeakable pain. He slipped the rope free.

"Sleep well," the jailor laughed, pulling the rope high out of the halfling's reach. The hooded man left with Entreri, extinguishing all the room's torches and slamming the iron door behind him, leaving Regis alone in the dark with the eight hungry cats.

The walls separating the cats' cells were solid, preventing the animals from harming each other, but the center cell was lined with wide bars - wide enough for a cat to put its paws through. And this torture chamber was circular, providing easy and equal access from all eight of the other cells.

Regis did not dare to move. The rope had placed him in the exact center of the cell, the only spot that kept him out of reach of all eight cats. He glanced around at the feline eyes, gleaming wickedly in the dim light. He heard the scraping of lunging claws and even felt a swish of air whenever one of them managed to squeeze enough leg through the bars to get a close swipe.

And each time a huge paw slammed into the floor beside him, Regis had to remind himself not to jump back - where another cat waited.

Five minutes seemed like an hour, and Regis shuddered to think of how many days Pook would keep him there. Maybe it would be better just to get it over with, Regis thought, a notion that many shared when placed in the chamber.

Looking at the cats, though, the halfling dismissed that possibility. Even if he could convince himself that a quick death in a tiger's jaws would be better than the fate he no doubt faced, he would never have found the courage to carry it through. He was a survivor - had always been - and he couldn't deny that stubborn side of his character that refused to yield no matter how bleak his future seemed.

He stood now, as still as a statue, and consciously worked to fill his mind with thoughts of his recent past, of the ten years he had spent outside Calimport. Many adventures he had seen on his travels, many perils he had come through. Regis replayed those battles and escapes over and over in his mind, trying to recapture the sheer excitement he had experienced - active thoughts that would help to keep him awake.

For if weariness overtook him and he fell to the floor, some part of him might get too close to one of the cats.

More than one prisoner had been clawed in the foot and dragged to the side to be ripped apart.

And even those who survived the Cells of Nine would never forget the ravenous stares of those sixteen gleaming eyes.

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