The Halfling's Gem


17. Impossible Loyalties


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LaValle held his hand within the pouch for a long moment, teasing Pook. They were alone with the eunuchs, who didn't count, in the central chamber of the top level. LaValle had promised his master a gift beyond even the news of the ruby pendant's return, and Pook knew that the wizard would offer such a promise with great care. It was not wise to disappoint the guildmaster.

LaValle had great confidence in his gift and had no trepidations about his grand claims. He slid it out and presented it to Pook, smiling broadly as he did so.

Pook lost his breath, and sweat thickened on his palms at the onyx statuette's touch. "Magnificent," he muttered, overwhelmed. "Never have I seen such craftsmanship, such detail. One could almost pet the thing!"

"One can," LaValle whispered under his breath. The wizard did not want to let on to all of the gift's properties at once, however, so he replied, "I am pleased that you are pleased."

"Where did you get it?"

LaValle shifted uneasily. "That is not important," he answered. "It is for you, Master, given with all of my loyalty." He quickly moved the conversation along to prevent Pook from pressing the point. "The workmanship of the statuette is but a fraction of its value," he teased, drawing a curious look from Pook.

"You have heard of such figurines," LaValle went on, satisfied that the time to overwhelm the guildmaster had come once again. "They can be magical companions to their owners."

Pook's hands verily trembled at the thought. "This," he stammered excitedly, "this might bring the panther to life?"

LaValle's sly smile answered the question.

"How? When might I - "

"Whenever you desire," LaValle answered.

"Should we prepare a cage?" Pook asked.

"No need."

"But at least until the panther understands who its master - "

"You possess the figurine," LaValle interrupted. "The creature you summon is wholly yours. It will follow your every command exactly as you desire."

Pook clutched the statuette close to his chest. He could hardly believe his fortune. The great cats were his first and foremost love, and to have in his possession one with such obedience, an extension of his own will, thrilled him as he had never been thrilled before.

"Now," he said. "I want to call the cat now. Tell me the words."

LaValle took the statue and placed it on the floor, then whispered into Pook's ear, taking care that his own uttering of the cat's name didn't summon Guenhwyvar and ruin the moment for Pook.

"Guenhwyvar," Pook called softly. Nothing happened at first, but both Pook and LaValle could sense the link being completed to the distant entity.

"Come to me, Guenhwyvar!" Pook commanded.

His voice rolled through the tunnel gate in the Planes of existence, down the dark corridor to the Astral Plane, the home of the entity of the panther. Guenhwyvar awakened to the summons. Cautiously the cat found the path.

"Guenhwyvar," the call came again, but the cat did not recognize the voice. It had been many weeks since its master had brought it to the Prime Material Plane, and the panther had had a well-deserved and much-needed rest, but one that had brought with it a cautious trepidation. Now, with an unknown voice summoning it, Guenhwyvar understood that something had definitely changed.

Tentatively, but unable to resist the summons, the great cat padded off down the corridor.

Pook and LaValle watched, mesmerized, as a gray smoke appeared, shrouding the floor around the figurine. It swirled lazily for a few moments then took definite shape, solidifying into Guenhwyvar. The cat stood perfectly still, seeking some recognition of its surroundings.

"What do I do?" Pook asked LaValle. The cat tensed at the sound of the voice - its master's voice.

"Whatever pleases you," LaValle answered. "The cat will sit by you, hunt for you, walk at your heel - kill for you."

Some ideas popped into the guildmaster's head at the last comment. "What are its limits?

LaValle shrugged. "Most magic of this kind will fade after a length of time, though you can summon the cat again once it has rested," he quickly added, seeing Pook's disheartened look. "It cannot be killed; to do so would only return it to its plane, though the statue could be broken."

Again Pook's look soured. The item had already become too precious for him to consider losing it.

"I assure you that destroying the statue would not prove an easy task," LaValle continued. "Its magic is quite potent. The mightiest smith in all the Realms could not scratch it with his heaviest hammer!"

Pook was satisfied. "Come to me," he ordered the cat, extending his hand.

Guenhwyvar obeyed and flattened its ears as Pook gently stroked the soft black coat.

"I have a task," Pook announced suddenly, turning an excited glance at LaValle, "a memorable and marvelous task! The first task for Guenhwvvar."

LaValle's eyes lit up at the pure pleasure stamped across Pook's face.

"Fetch me Regis," Pook told LaValle. "Let Guenhwyvar's first kill be the halfling I most despise!"

* * *

Exhausted from his ordeal in the Cells of Nine, and from the various tortures Pook had put him through, Regis was easily shoved flat to his face before Pook's throne. The halfling struggled to his feet, determined to accept the next torture - even if it meant death - with dignity.

Pook waved the guards out of the room. "Have you enjoyed your stay with us?" he teased Regis.

Regis brushed the mop of hair back from his face. "Acceptable," he replied. "The neighbors are noisy, though, growling and purring all the night through."

"Silence!" Pook snapped. He looked at LaValle, standing beside the great chair. "He will find little humor here," the guildmaster said with a venomous chuckle.

Regis had passed beyond fear, though, into resignation. "You have won," he said calmly, hoping to steal some of the pleasure from Pook. "I took your pendant and was caught. If you believe that crime is deserving of death, then kill me."

"Oh, I shall!" Pook hissed. "I had planned that from the start, but I knew not the appropriate method."

Regis rocked back on his heels. Perhaps he wasn't as composed as he had hoped.

"Guenhwyvar," Pook called.

"Guenhwyvar?" Regis echoed under his breath.

"Come to me, my pet."

The halfling's jaw dropped to his chest when the magical cat slipped out of the half-opened door to LaValle's room.

"Wh-Where did you get him?" Regis stuttered.

"Magnificent, is he not?" Pook replied. "But do not worry, little thief. You shall get a closer look." He turned to the cat.

"Guenhwyvar, dear Guenhwyvar," Pook purred, "this little thief wronged your master. Kill him, my pet, but kill him slowly. I want to hear his screams."

Regis stared into the panther's wide eyes. "Calm, Guenhwyvar," he said as the cat took a slow, hesitant stride his way. Truly it pained Regis to see the wondrous panther under the command of one as vile as Pook. Guenhwyvar belonged with Drizzt.

But Regis couldn't spend much time considering the implications of the cat's appearance. His own future became his primary concern. "He is the one," Regis cried to Guenhwyvar, pointing at Pook. "He commands the evil one who took us from your true master, the evil one your true master seeks!"

"Excellent!" Pook laughed, thinking Regis to be grasping at a desperate lie to confuse the animal. "This show may yet be worth the agony I have endured at your hands, thief Regis!"

LaValle shifted uneasily, understanding more of the truth to Regis's words.

"Now, my pet!" Pook commanded. "Bring him pain!"

Guenhwyvar growled lowly, eyes narrowed.

"Guenhwyvar," Regis said again, backing away a step. "Guenhwyvar, you know me."

The cat showed no indication that it recognized the halfling. Compelled by its master's voice, it crouched and inched across the floor toward Regis.

"Guenhwyvar!" Regis cried, feeling along the wall for an escape.

"That is the cat's name," Pook laughed, still not realizing the halfling's honest recognition of the beast. "Good-bye, Regis. Take comfort in knowing that I shall remember this moment for the rest of my life!"

The panther flattened its ears and crouched lower, tamping down its back paws for better balance. Regis rushed to the door, though he had no doubt that it was locked, and Guenhwyvar leaped, impossibly quick and accurate. Regis barely realized that the cat was upon him.

Pasha Pook's ecstasy, though, proved short-lived. He jumped from his chair, hoping for a better view of the action, as Guenhwyvar buried Regis. Then the cat vanished, slowly fading away.

The halfling, too, was gone.

"What?" Pook cried. "That is it? No blood?" He spun on LaValle. "Is that how the thing kills?"

The wizard's horrified expression told Pook a different tale. Suddenly the guildmaster recognized the truth of Regis's banterings with the cat. "It took him away!" Pook roared. He rushed around the side of the chair and pushed his face into LaValle's. "Where? Tell me!"

LaValle nearly fell from his trembling. "Not possible." He gasped. "The cat must obey its master, the possessor."

"Regis knew the cat!" Pook cried.

"Impossible loyalties," LaValle replied, truly dumbfounded.

Pook composed himself and settled back in his chair. "Where did you get it?" he asked LaValle.

"Entreri," the wizard replied immediately, not daring to hesitate.

Pook scratched his chin. "Entreri," he echoed. The pieces started falling into place. Pook understood Entreri well enough to know that the assassin would not give away so valuable an item without getting something in return. "It belonged to one of the halfling's friends," Pook reasoned, remembering Regis's references to the cat's 'true master.'

"I did not ask," replied LaValle.

"You did not have to ask!" Pook shot back. "It belonged to one of the halfling's friends - perhaps one of those Oberon spoke of. Yes. And Entreri gave it to you in exchange for..." He tossed a wicked look LaValle's way.

"Where is the pirate, Pinochet?" he asked slyly.

LaValle nearly fainted, caught, in a web that promised death wherever he turned.

"Enough said," said Pook, understanding everything from the wizard's paled expression. "Ah, Entreri," he mused, "ever you prove a headache, however well you serve me. And you," he breathed at LaValle. "Where have they gone?"

LaValle shook his head. "The cat's plane," he blurted, "the only possibility."

"And can the cat return to this world?"

"Only if summoned by the possessor of the statue."

Pook pointed to the statue lying on the floor in front of the door. "Get that cat back," he ordered. LaValle rushed for the figurine.

"No, wait." Pook reconsidered. "Let me first have a cage built for it. Guenhwyvar will be mine in time. It will learn discipline."

LaValle continued over and picked up the statue, not really knowing where to begin. Pook grabbed him as he passed the throne.

"But the halfling," Pook growled, pressing his nose flat against LaValle's. "On your life, wizard, get that halfling back to me!"

Pook shoved LaValle back and headed for the door to the lower levels. He would have to open some eyes in the streets, to learn what Artemis Entreri was up to and to learn more about those friends of the halfling, whether they still lived or had died in Asavir's Channel.

If it had been anyone other than Entreri, Pook would have put his ruby pendant to use, but that option was not feasible with the dangerous assassin.

Pook growled to himself as he exited the chamber. He had hoped, on Entreri's return, that he would never have to take this route again, but with LaValle so obviously tied into the assassin's games, Pook's only option was Rassiter.

* * *

"You want him removed?" the wererat asked, liking the beginnings of this assignment as well as any that Pook had ever given him.

"Do not flatter yourself," Pook shot back. "Entreri is none of your affair, Rassiter, and beyond your power."

"You underestimate the strength of my guild."

"You underestimate the assassin's network - probably numbering many of those you errantly call comrades," Pook warned. "I want no war within my guild."

"Then what?" the wererat snapped in obvious disappointment.

At Rassiter's antagonistic tone, Pook began to finger the ruby pendant hanging around his neck. He could put Rassiter under its enchantment, he knew, but he preferred not to. Charmed individuals never performed as well as those acting of their own desires, and if Regis's friends had truly escaped Pinochet, Rassiter and his cronies would have to be at their very best to defeat them.

"Entreri may have been followed to Calimport," Pook explained. "Friends of the halfling, I believe, and dangerous to our guild."

Rassiter leaned forward, feigning surprise. Of course, the wererat had already learned from Dondon of the Northerners' approach.

"They will be in the city soon," Pook continued. "You haven't much time."

They are already here, Rassiter answered silently, trying to hide his smile. "You want them captured?"

"Eliminated," Pook corrected. "This group is too mighty. No chances."

"Eliminated," Rassiter echoed. "Ever my preference."

Pook couldn't help but shudder. "Inform me when the task is complete," he said, heading for the door.

Rassiter silently laughed at his master's back. "Ah, Pook," he whispered as the guildmaster left, "how little you know of my influences." The wererat rubbed his hands together in anticipation. The night grew long, and the Northerners would soon be on the streets - where Dondon would find them.


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