The Halfling's Gem

16. Never a Fouler Place

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Book 3.

Desert Empires

16. Never a Fouler Place

Entreri slipped through the shadows of Calimport's bowels as quietly as an owl glided through a forest at twilight. This was his home, the place he knew best, and all the street people of the city would mark the day when Artemis Entreri again walked beside them or behind them.

Entreri couldn't help but smile slightly whenever the hushed whispers commenced in his wake - the more experienced rogues telling the newcomers that the king had returned. Entreri never let the legend of his reputation - no matter how well earned - interfere with the constant state of readiness that had kept him alive through the years. In the streets, a reputation of power only marked a man as a target for ambitious second-rates seeking reputations of their own.

Thus, Entreri's first task in the city, outside of his responsibilities to Pasha Pook, was to re-establish the network of informants and associates that entrenched him in his station. He already had an important job for one of them, with Drizzt and company fast approaching, and he knew which one.

"I had heard you were back," squeaked a diminutive chap appearing as a human boy not yet into adolescence when Entreri ducked and entered his abode. "I guess most have."

Entreri took the compliment with a nod. "What has changed, my halfling friend?"

"Little," replied Dondon, "and lots." He moved to the table in the darkest corner of his small quarters, the side room, facing the ally, in a cheap inn called the Coiled Snake. "The rules of the street do not change, but the players do." Dondon looked up from the table's unlit lamp to catch Entreri's eyes with his own.

"Artemis Entreri was gone, after all," the halfling explained, wanting to make sure that Entreri fully understood his previous statement. "The royal suite had a vacancy."

Entreri nodded his accord, causing the halfling to relax and sigh audibly.

"Pook still controls the merchants and the docks," said Entreri. "Who owns the streets?"

"Pook, still," replied Dondon, "at least in name. He found another agent in your stead. A whole horde of agents." Dondon paused for a moment to think. Again he had to be careful to weigh every word before he spoke it. "Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Pasha Pook does not control the streets, but rather that he still has the streets controlled."

Entreri knew, even before asking, what the little halfling was leading to. "Rassiter," he said grimly.

"There is much to be said about that one and his crew," Dondon chuckled, resuming his efforts to light the lantern.

"Pook loosens his reins on the wererats, and the ruffians of the street take care to stay out of the guild's way," Entreri reasoned.

"Rassiter and his kind play hard."

"And fall hard."

The chill of Entreri's tone brought Dondon's eyes back up from the lantern, and for the first time, the halfling truly recognized the old Artemis Entreri, the human street fighter who had built his shadowy empire one ally at a time. An involuntary shudder rippled up Dondon's spine, and he shifted uncomfortably on his feet.

Entreri saw the effect and quickly switched the subject. "Enough of this," he said. "Let it not concern you, little one. I have a job for you that is more in line with your talents."

Dondon finally got the lantern's wick to take, and he pulled up a chair, eager to please his old boss.

They talked for more than an hour, until the lantern became a solitary defense against the insistent blackness of the night. Then Entreri took his leave, through the window and into the alley. He didn't believe that Rassiter would be so foolish as to strike before taking full measure of the assassin, before the wererat could even begin to understand the dimensions of his enemy.

Then again, Entreri didn't mark Rassiter high on any intelligence scale.

Perhaps it was Entreri, though, who didn't truly understand his enemy, or how completely Rassiter and his wretched minions had come to dominate the streets over the last three years. Less than five minutes after Entreri had gone, Dondon's door swung open again.

And Rassiter stepped through.

"What did he want?" the swaggering fighter asked, plopping comfortably into a chair at the table.

Dondon moved away uneasily, noticing two more of Rassiter's cronies standing guard in the hall. After more than a year, the halfling still felt uncomfortable around Rassiter.

"Come, come now," Rassiter prompted. He asked again, his tone more grim, "What did he want?"

The last thing Dondon wanted was to get caught in a crossfire between the wererats and the assassin, but he had little choice but to answer Rassiter. If Entreri ever learned of the double-cross, Dondon knew that his days swiftly end.

Yet, if he didn't spill out to Rassiter, his demise would be no less certain, and the method less swift.

He sighed at the lack of options and spilled his story, detail by detail, to Rassiter.

Rassiter gave no countermands to Entreri's instructions. He would let Dondon play out the scenario exactly as Entreri had devised it. Apparently, the wererat believed he could twist it into his own gains. He sat quietly for a long moment, scratching his hairless chin and savoring the anticipation of the easy victory, his broken teeth gleaming even a deeper yellow in the lamplight.

"You will run with us this night?" he asked the halfling, satisfied that the assassin business was completed. "The moon will be bright." He squeezed one of Dondon's cherublike cheeks. "The fur will be thick, eh?"

Dondon pulled away from the grasp. "Not this night," he replied, a bit too sharply.

Rassiter cocked his head, studying Dondon curiously. He always had suspected that the halfling was not comfortable with his new station. Might this defiance be linked to the return of his old boss? Rassiter wondered.

"Tease him and die," Dondon replied, drawing an even more curious look from the wererat.

"You have not begun to understand this man you face," Dondon continued, unshaken. "Artemis Entreri is not to be toyed with - not by the wise. He knows everything. If a half-sized rat is seen running with the pack, then my life is forfeit and your plans are ruined." He moved right up, in spite of his revulsion for the man, and set a grave visage barely an inch from Rassiter's nose.

"Forfeit," he reiterated, "at the least."

Rassiter spun out of the chair, sending it bouncing across the room. He had heard too much about Artemis Entreri in a single day for his liking. Everywhere he turned, trembling lips uttered the assassin's name.

Don't they know? he told himself once again as he strode angrily to the door. It is Rassiter they should fear!

He felt the telltale itching on his chin, then the crawling sensation of tingling growth swept through his body. Dondon backed away and averted his eyes, never comfortable with the spectacle.

Rassiter kicked off his boots and loosened his shirt and pants. The hair was visible now, rushing out of his skin in scraggly patches and clumps. He fell back against the wall as the fever took him completely. His skin bubbled and bulged, particularly around his face. He sublimated his scream as his snout elongated, though the wash of agony was no less intense this time - perhaps the thousandth time - than it had been during his very first transformation.

He stood then before Dondon on two legs, as a man, but whiskered and furred and with a long pink tail that ran out the back of his trousers, as a rodent.

"Join me?" he asked the halfling.

Hiding his revulsion, Dondon quickly declined. Looking at the ratman, the halfling wondered how he had ever allowed Rassiter to bite him, infecting him with his lycanthropic nightmare. "It will bring you power!" Rassiter had promised.

But at what cost? Dondon thought. To look and smell like a rat? No blessing this, but a disease.

Rassiter guessed at the halfling's distaste, and he curled his rat snout back in a threatening hiss, then turned for the door.

He spun back on Dondon before exiting the room. "Keep away from this!" he warned the halfling. "Do as you were bid and hide away!"

"No doubt to that," Dondon whispered as the door slammed shut.

* * *

The aura that distinguished Calimport as home to so very many Calishites came across as foul to the strangers from the North. Truly, Drizzt, Wulfgar, Bruenor, and Catti-brie were weary of the Calim Desert when their five-day trek came to an end, but looking down on the city of Calimport made them want to turn around and take to the sands once again.

It was wretched Memnon on a grander scale, with the divisions of wealth so blatantly obvious that Calimport cried out as ultimately perverted to the four friends. Elaborate houses, monuments to excess and hinting at wealth beyond imagination, dotted the cityscape. Yet, right beside those palaces loomed lane after lane of decrepit shanties of crumbling clay or ragged skins. The friends couldn't guess how many people roamed the place - certainly more than Waterdeep and Memnon combined! - and they knew at once that in Calimport, as in Memnon, no one had ever bothered to count.

Sali Dalib dismounted, bidding the others do likewise, and led them down a final hill and into the unwalled city. The friends found the sights of Calimport no better up close. Naked children, their bellies bloated from lack of food, scrambled out of the way or were simply trampled as gilded, slave-drawn carts rushed through the streets. Worse still were the sides of those avenues, ditches mostly, serving as open sewers in the city's poorest sections. There were thrown the bodies of the impoverished, who had fallen to the roadside at the end of their miserable days.

"Suren Rumblebelly never told of such sights when he spoke of home," Bruenor grumbled, pulling his cloak over his face to deflect the awful stench. "Past me guessing why he'd long for this place!"

"De greatest city in de world, dis be!" Sali Dalib spouted, lifting his arms to enhance his praise.

Wulfgar, Bruenor and Catti-brie shot him incredulous stares. Hordes of people begging and starving was not their idea of greatness. Drizzt paid the merchant no heed, though. He was busy making the inevitable comparison between Calimport and another city he had known, Menzoberranzan. Truly there were similarities, and death was no less common in Menzoberranzan, but Calimport somehow seemed fouler than the city of the drow. Even the weakest of the dark elves had the means to protect himself, with strong family ties and deadly innate abilities. The pitiful peasants of Calimport, though, and more so their children, seemed helpless and hopeless indeed.

In Menzoberranzan, those on the lowest rungs of the power ladder could fight their way to a better standing. For the majority of Calimport's multitude, though, there would only be poverty, a day-to-day squalid existence until they landed on the piles of buzzard-pecked bodies in the ditches.

"Take us to the guildhouse of Pasha Pook," Drizzt said, getting to the point, wanting to be done with his business and out of Calimport, "then you are dismissed."

Sali Dalib paled at the request. "Pasha Poop?" he stammered. "Who is dis?"

"Bah!" Bruenor snorted, moving dangerously close to the merchant. "He knows him."

"Suren he does," Catti-brie observed, "and fears him."

"Sali Dalib not - " the merchant began.

Twinkle came out of its sheath and slipped to a stop under the merchant's chin, silencing the man instantly. Drizzt let his mask slip a bit, reminding Sali Dalib of the drow's heritage. Once again, his suddenly grim demeanor unnerved even his own friends. "I think of my friend," Drizzt said in a calm, low tone, his lavender eyes absently staring into the city, "tortured even as we delay."

He snapped his scowl at Sali Dalib. "As you delay! You will take us to the guildhouse of Pasha Pook," he reiterated, more insistently, "and then you are dismissed."

"Pook? Oh, Pook," the merchant beamed. "Sali Dalib know dis man, yes, yes. Everybody know Pook. Yes, yes, I take you dere, den I go."

Drizzt replaced the mask but kept the stern visage. "If you or your little companion try to flee," he promised so calmly that neither the merchant nor his assistant doubted his words for a moment, "I will hunt you down and kill you."

The drow's three friends exchanged confused shrugs and concerned glances. They felt confident that they knew Drizzt to his soul, but so grim was his tone that even they wondered how much of his promise was an idle threat.

* * *

It took more than an hour for them to twist and wind their way through the maze that was Calimport, to the dismay of the friends, who wanted nothing more than to be off the streets and away from the fetid stench. Finally, to their relief, Sali Dalib turned a final corner, to Rogues Circle, and pointed to the unremarkable wooden structure at its end: Pasha Pook's guildhouse.

"Dere be de Pook," Sali Dalib said. "Now, Sali Dalib take his camels and be gone, back to Memnon."

The friends were not so quick to be rid of the wily merchant. "More to me guessin' that Sali Dalib be heading for Pook to sell some tales o' four friends," Bruenor growled.

"Well, we've a way beyond that," said Catti-brie. She shot Drizzt a sly wink, then moved up to the curious and frightened merchant, reaching into her pack as she went.

Her look went suddenly grim, so wickedly intense that Sali Dalib jerked back when her hand came up to his forehead. "Hold yer place!" Catti-brie snapped at him harshly, and he had no resistance to the power of her tone. She had a powder, a flourlike substance, in her pack. Reciting some gibberish that sounded like an arcane chant, she traced a scimitar on Sali Dalib's forehead. The merchant tried to protest but couldn't find his tongue for his terror.

"Now, for the little one," Catti-brie said, turning to Sali Dalib's goblin assistant. The goblin squeaked and tried to dash away, but Wulfgar caught it in one hand and held it out to Catti-brie, squeezing tighter and tighter until the thing stopped wiggling.

Catti-brie performed the ceremony again then turned to Drizzt. "They be linked to yer spirit now," she said. "Do ye feel them?"

Drizzt, understanding the bluff, nodded grimly and slowly drew his two scimitars.

Sali Dalib paled and nearly toppled over, but Bruenor, moving closer to watch his daughter's games, was quick to prop the terrified man up.

"Ah, let them go, then. Me witchin's through," Catti-brie told both Wulfgar and Bruenor. "The drow'll feel yer presence now," she hissed at Sali Dalib and his goblin. "He'll know when ye're about and when ye've gone. If ye stay in the city, and if ye've thoughts o' going to Pook, the drow'll know, and he'll follow yer feel - hunt ye down." She paused a moment, wanting the two to fully comprehend the horror they faced.

"And he'll kill ye slow."

"Take yer lumpy horses, then, and be gone!" Bruenor roared. "If I be seein' yer stinkin' faces again, the drow'll have to get in line for his cuts!"

Before the dwarf had even finished, Sali Dalib and the goblin had collected their camels and were off, away from Rogues Circle and back toward the northern end of the city.

"Them two're for the desert," Bruenor laughed when they had gone. "Fine tricks, me girl."

Drizzt pointed to the sign of an inn, the Spitting Camel, halfway down the lane. "Get us rooms," he told his friends. "I will follow them to make certain they do indeed leave the city."

"Wastin' yer time," Bruenor called after him. "The girl's got 'em running, or I'm a bearded gnome!"

Drizzt had already started padding silently into the maze of Caliport's streets.

Wulfgar, caught unawares by her uncharacteristic trickery and still not quite sure what had just happened, eyed Catti-brie carefully. Bruenor didn't miss his apprehensive look.

"Take note, boy," the dwarf taunted. "Suren the girl's got herself a nasty streak ye'll not want turned on yerself!"

Playing through for the sake of Bruenor's enjoyment, Catti-brie glared at the big barbarian and narrowed her eyes, causing Wulfgar to back off a cautious step. "Witchin' magic," she cackled. "Tells me when yer eyes be filled with the likings of another woman!" She turned slowly, not releasing him from her stare until she had taken three steps down the lane toward the inn Drizzt had indicated.

Bruenor reached high and slapped Wulfgar on the back as he started after Catti-brie. "Fine lass," he remarked to Wulfgar. "Just don't be gettin' her mad!"

Wulfgar shook the confusion out of his head and forced out a laugh, reminding himself that Catti-brie's "magic" had been only a dupe to frighten the merchant.

But Catti-brie's glare as she had carried out the deception, and the sheer strength of her intensity, followed him as he walked down Rogues Circle. Both a shudder and a sweet tingle spread down his spine.

* * *

Half the sun had fallen below the western horizon before Drizzt returned to Rogues Circle. He had followed Sali Dalib and his assistant far out into the Calim Desert, though the merchant's frantic pace gave no indications that he had any intentions of turning back to Calimport. Drizzt simply wouldn't take the chance; they were too close to finding Regis and too close to Entreri.

Masked as an elf - Drizzt was beginning to realize how easily the disguise now came to him - he made his way into the Spitting Camel and to the innkeeper's desk. An incredibly skinny, leather-skinned man, who kept his back always to a wall and his head darting nervously in every direction, met him.

"Three friends," Drizzt said gruffly. "A dwarf, a woman, and a golden-haired giant."

"Up the stairs," the man told him. "To the left. Two gold if you mean to stay the night." He held out his bony hand.

"The dwarf already paid you," Drizzt said grimly, starting away.

"For himself, the girl, and the big..." the innkeeper started, grabbing Drizzt by the shoulder. The look in Drizzt's lavender eyes, though, stopped the innkeeper cold.

"He paid," the frightened man stuttered. "I remember. He paid."

Drizzt walked away without another word.

He found the two rooms on opposite sides of the corridor at the far end of the structure. He had meant to go straight in with Wulfgar and Bruenor and grab a short rest, hoping to be out on the street when night fully fell, when Entreri would likely be about. Drizzt found, instead, Catti-brie in her doorway, apparently waiting for him. She motioned him into her chamber and closed the door behind him.

Drizzt settled on the very edge of one of the two chairs in the center of the room, his foot tapping the floor in front of him.

Catti-brie studied him as she walked around to the other chair. She had known Drizzt for years but never had seen him so agitated.

"Ye seem as though ye mean to tear yerself into pieces," she said.

Drizzt gave her a cold look, but Catti-brie laughed it away. "Do ye mean to strike me, then?"

That prompted the drow to settle back in his chair.

"And don't ye be wearing that silly mask," Catti-brie scolded.

Drizzt reached for the mask but hesitated.

"Take it off!" Catti-brie ordered, and the drow complied before he had time to reconsider.

"Ye came a bit grim in the street afore ye left," Catti-brie remarked, her voice softening.

"We had to make certain," Drizzt replied coldly. "I do not trust Sali Dalib."

"Nor meself," Catti-brie agreed, "but ye're still grim, by me seeing."

"You were the one with the witching magic," Drizzt shot back, his tone defensive. "It was Catti-brie who showed herself grim then."

Catti-brie shrugged. "A needed act," she said. "An act I dropped when the merchant had gone. But yerself," she said pointedly, leaning forward and placing a comforting hand on Drizzt's knee. "Ye're up for a fight."

Drizzt started to jerk away but realized the truth of her observations and forced himself to relax under her friendly touch. He looked away, for, he found that he could not soften the sternness of his visage.

"What's it about?" Catti-brie whispered.

Drizzt looked back to her then and remembered all the times he and she had shared back in Icewind Dale. In her sincere concern for him now, Drizzt recalled the first time they had met, when the smile of the girl - for she was then but a girl - had given the displaced and disheartened drow a renewed hope for his life among the surface dwellers.

Catti-brie knew more about him than anyone alive, about those things that were important to him, and made his stoic existence bearable. She alone recognized the fears that lay beneath his black skin, the insecurity masked by the skill of his sword arm.

"Entreri," he answered softly.

"Ye mean to kill him?"

"I have to."

Catti-brie sat back to consider the words. "If ye be killing Entreri to free Regis," she said at length, "and to stop him from hurting anyone else, then me heart says it's a good thing." She leaned forward again, bringing her face close to Drizzt's, "but if ye're meaning to kill him to prove yerself or to deny what he is, then me heart cries."

She could have slapped Drizzt and had the same effect. He sat up straight and cocked his head, his features twisted in angry denial. He let Catti-brie continue, for he could not dismiss the importance of the observant woman's perceptions.

"Suren the world's not fair, me friend. Suren by the measure of hearts, ye been wronged. But are ye after the assassin for yer own anger? Will killing Entreri cure the wrong?"

Drizzt did not answer, but his look turned stubbornly grim again.

"Look in the mirror, Drizzt Do'Urden," Catti-brie said, "without the mask. Killin' Entreri won't change the color of his skin - or the color of yer own."

Again Drizzt had been slapped, and this time it brought an undeniable ring of truth with it. He fell back in his chair, looking upon Catti-brie as he had never looked upon her before. Where had Bruenor's little girl gone? Before him loomed a woman, beautiful and sensitive and laying bare his soul with a few words. They had shared much, it was true, but how could she know him so very well? And why had she taken the time?

"Ye've truer friends than ever ye'll know," Catti-brie said, "and not for the way ye twirl a sword. Ye've others who would call themselves friend if only they could get inside the length of yer arm - if only ye'd learn to look."

Drizzt considered the words. He remembered the Sea Sprite and Captain Deudermont and the crew, standing behind him even when they knew his heritage.

"And if only ye'd ever learned to love," Catti-brie continued, her voice barely audible. "Suren ye've let things slip past, Drizzt Do'Urden."

Drizzt studied her intently, weighing the glimmer in her dark, saucerlike eyes. He tried to fathom what she was getting at, what personal message she was sending to him.

The door burst open suddenly, and Wulfgar bounded into the room, a smile stretching the length of his face and the eager look of adventure gleaming in his pale blue eyes. "Good that you are back," he said to Drizzt. He moved behind Catti-brie and dropped an arm comfortably across her shoulders. "The night has come, and a bright moon peeks over the eastern rim. Time for the hunt!"

Catti-brie put her hand on Wulfgar's and flashed him an adoring smile. Drizzt was glad they had found each other. They would grow together in a blessed and joyful life, rearing children that would no doubt be the envy of all the northland.

Catti-brie looked back to Drizzt. "Just for yer thoughts, me friend," she said quietly, calmly. "Are ye more trapped by the way the world sees ye or by the way ye see the world seein' ye?"

The tension eased out of Drizzt's muscles. If Catti-brie was right in her observations, he would have a lot of thinking to do.

"Time to hunt!" Catti-brie cried, satisfied that she had gotten her point across. She rose beside Wulfgar and headed for the door, but she turned her head over her shoulder to face Drizzt one final time, giving him a look that told him that perhaps he should have asked for more from Catti-brie back in Icewind Dale, before Wulfgar had entered her life.

Drizzt sighed as they left the room and instinctively reached for the magical mask.

Instinctively? he wondered.

Drizzt dropped the thing suddenly and fell back in the chair in thought, clasping his hands behind his head. He glanced around, hoping, but the room had no mirror.

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