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The Halfling's Gem
19. Tricks and Traps
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Wulfgar found himself in a square, unadorned room of worked stone. Two torches burned low in wall sconces, revealing another door before him, across from the portcullis. He tossed aside the broken door and turned back to his friends. "Guard my back," he told Catti-brie, but she had already figured her part out and had brought her bow up level with the door across the room.
Wulfgar rubbed his hands together in preparation for his attempt to lift the portcullis. It was a massive piece indeed, but the barbarian did not think it beyond his strength. He grasped the iron, then fell back, dismayed, even before he had attempted to lift.
The bars had been greased.
"Entreri, or I'm a bearded gnome," Bruenor grumbled. "Ye put yer face in deep, boy."
"How are we to get him out?" Catti-brie asked.
Wulfgar looked back over his shoulder at the unopened door. He knew that they could accomplish nothing by standing there, and he feared that the noise of the dropping portcullis must have attracted some attention - attention that could only mean danger for his friends.
"Ye can't be thinking to go deeper," Catti-brie protested.
"What choice have I?" Wulfgar replied. "Perhaps there is a crank in there."
"More likely an assassin," Bruenor retorted, "but ye have to try it."
Catti-brie pulled her bowstring tight as Wulfgar moved to the door. He tried the handle but found it locked. He looked back to his friends and shrugged, then spun and kicked with his heavy boot. The wood shivered and split apart, revealing yet another room, this one dark.
"Get a torch," Bruenor told him.
Wulfgar hesitated. Something didn't feel right, or smell right. His sixth sense, that warrior instinct, told him he would not find the second room as empty as the first, but with no other place to go, he moved for one of the torches.
Intent on the situation within the room, Bruenor and Catti-brie did not notice the dark figure drop from the concealed cubby on the wall a short distance down the tunnel. Entreri considered the two of them for a moment. He could take them out easily, and perhaps quietly, but the assassin turned away and disappeared into the darkness.
He had already picked his target.
* * *
Rassiter stooped over the two bodies lying in front of the side passage. Reverting halfway through the transformation between rat and human, they had died in the excruciating agony that only a lycanthrope could know. Just like the ones farther back down the main tunnel, these had been slashed and nipped with expert precision, and if the line of bodies didn't mark the path clearly enough, the globe of darkness hanging in the side passage certainly did. It appeared to Rassiter that his trap had worked, though the price had certainly been high.
He dropped to the lower corner of the wall and crept along, nearly tripping over still more bodies of his guild-mates as he came through the other side.
The wererat shook his head in disbelief as he moved down the tunnel, stepping over a wererat corpse every few feet. How many had the master swordsman killed?
"A drow!" Rassiter balked in sudden understanding as he turned the final bend. Bodies of his comrades were piled deep there, but Rassiter looked beyond them. He would willingly pay such a price for the prize he saw before him, for now he had the dark warrior in hand, a drow elf for a prisoner! He would gain Pasha Pook's favor and rise above Artemis Entreri once and for all.
At the end of the passage, Drizzt leaned silently against the sundew, draped by a thousand tendrils. He still held his two scimitars, but his arms hung limply at his sides and his head drooped down, his lavender eyes closed.
The wererat moved down the passage cautiously, hoping the drow was not already dead. He inspected his waterskin, filled with vinegar, and hoped he had brought enough to dissolve the sundew's hold and free the drow. Rassiter dearly wanted this trophy alive.
Pook would appreciate the present more that way.
The wererat reached out with his sword to prod at the drow, but recoiled in pain as a dagger flashed by, slicing across his arm. He spun back around to see Artemis Entreri, his saber drawn and a murderous look in his dark eyes.
Rassiter found himself caught in his own trap; there was no other escape from the passage. He fell flat against the wall, clutching his bleeding arm, and started inching his way back up the passage.
Entreri followed the ratman's progress without a blink.
"Pook would never forgive you," Rassiter warned.
"Pook would never know," Entreri hissed back.
Terrified, Rassiter darted past the assassin, expecting a sword in his side as he passed. But Entreri cared nothing about Rassiter; his eyes had shifted down the passage to the specter of Drizzt Do'Urden, helpless and defeated.
Entreri moved to recover his jeweled dagger, undecided as to whether to cut the drow free or let him die a slow death in the sundew's clutches.
"And so you die," he whispered at length, wiping the slime from his dagger.
* * *
With a torch out before him, Wulfgar gingerly stepped into the second room. Like the first, it was square and unadorned, but one side was blocked halfway across by a floor-to-ceiling screen. Wulfgar knew that danger lurked behind the screen, knew it to be a part of the trap Entreri had set out and into which he had blindly rushed.
He didn't have the time to berate himself for his lack of judgment. He positioned himself in the center of the room, still in sight of his friends, and laid the torch at his feet, clutching Aegis-fang in both hands.
But when the thing rushed out, the barbarian still found himself gawking, amazed.
Eight serpentlike heads interwove in a tantalizing dance, like the needles of frenzied women knitting at a single garment. Wulfgar saw no humor in the moment, though, for each mouth was filled with row upon row of razor-sharp teeth.
Catti-brie and Bruenor understood that Wulfgar was in trouble when they saw him shuffle back a step. They expected Entreri, or a host of soldiers, to confront him. Then the hydra crossed the open doorway.
"Wulfgar!" Catti-brie cried in dismay, loosing an arrow. The silver bolt blasted a deep hole into a serpentine neck, and the hydra roared in pain and turned one head to consider the stinging attackers from the side.
Seven other heads struck out at Wulfgar.
* * *
"You disappoint me, drow," Entreri continued. "I had thought you my equal, or nearly so. The bother, and risks, I took to guide you here so we could decide whose life was the lie! To prove to you that those emotions you cling to so dearly have no place in the heart of a true warrior.
"But now I see that I have wasted my efforts," the assassin lamented. "The question has already been decided, if it ever was a question. Never would I have fallen into such a trap!"
Drizzt peeked out from one half-opened eye and raised his head to meet Entreri's gaze. "Nor would I," he said, shrugging off the limp tendrils of the dead sundew. "Nor would I!"
The wound became apparent in the monster when Drizzt moved out. With a single thrust, the drow had killed the sundew.
A smile burst across Entreri's face. "Well done!" he cried, readying his blades. "Magnificent!"
"Where is the halfling?" Drizzt snarled.
"This does not concern the halfling," Entreri replied, "or your silly toy, the panther."
Drizzt quickly sublimated the anger that twisted his face.
"Oh, they are alive," Entreri taunted, hoping to distract his enemy with anger. "Perhaps, though perhaps not."
Unbridled rage often aided warriors against lesser foes, but in an equal battle of skilled swordsmen, thrusts had to be measured and defenses could not be let down.
Drizzt came in with both blades thrusting. Entreri deflected them aside with his saber and countered with a jab of his dagger.
Drizzt twirled out of danger's way, coming around a full circle and slicing down with Twinkle. Entreri caught the weapon with his saber, so that the blades locked hilt to hilt and brought the combatants close.
"Did you receive my gift in Baldur's Gate?" the assassin chuckled.
Drizzt did not flinch. Regis and Guenhwyvar were out of his thoughts now. His focus was Artemis Entreri.
Only Artemis Entreri.
The assassin pressed on. "A mask?" he questioned with a wide smirk. "Put it on, drow. Pretend you are what you are not!"
Drizzt heaved suddenly, throwing Entreri back.
The assassin went with the move, just as happy to continue the battle from a distance. But when Entreri tried to catch himself, his foot hit a mud-slicked depression in the tunnel floor and he slipped to one knee.
Drizzt was on him in a flash, both scimitars wailing away. Entreri's hands moved equally fast, dagger and saber twisting and turning to parry and deflect. His head and shoulders bobbed wildly, and remarkably, he worked his foot back under him.
Drizzt knew that he had lost the advantage. Worse, the assault had left him in an awkward position with one shoulder too close to the wall. As Entreri started to rise, Drizzt jumped back.
"So easy?" Entreri asked him as they squared off again. "Do you think that I sought this fight for so long, only to die in its opening exchanges?"
"I do not figure anything where Artemis Entreri is concerned," Drizzt came back. "You are too foreign to me, assassin. I do not pretend to understand your motives, nor do I have any desire to learn of them."
"Motives?" Entreri balked. "I am a fighter - purely a fighter. I do not mix the calling of my life with lies of gentleness and love." He held the saber and dagger out before him. "These are my only friends, and with them - "
"You are nothing," Drizzt cut in. "Your life is a wasted lie."
"A lie?" Entreri shot back. "You are the one who wears the mask, drow. You are the one who must hide."
Drizzt accepted the words with a smile. Only a few days before, they might have stung him, but now, after the insight Catti-brie had given him, they rang hollowly in Drizzt's ears. "You are the lie, Entreri," he replied calmly. "You are no more than a loaded crossbow, an unfeeling weapon, that will never know life." He started walking toward the assassin, jaw firm in the knowledge of what he must do.
Entreri strode in with equal confidence.
"Come and die, drow," he spat.
* * *
Wulfgar backed quickly, snapping his war hammer back and forth in front of him to parry the hydra's dizzying attacks. He knew that he couldn't hold the incessant thing off for long. He had to find a way to strike back against its offensive fury.
But against the seven snapping maws, weaving a hypnotic dance and lunging out singly or all together, Wulfgar had no time to prepare an attack sequence.
With her bow, beyond the range of the heads, Catti-brie had more success. Tears rimmed her eyes in fear for Wulfgar, but she held them back with a grim determination not to surrender. Another arrow blasted into the lone head that had turned her way, scorching a hole right between the eyes. The head shuddered and jerked back, then dropped to the floor with a thud, quite dead.
The attack, or the pain from it, seemed to paralyze the rest of the hydra for just a second, and the desperate barbarian did not miss the opportunity. He rushed forward a step and slammed Aegis-fang with all of his might into the snout of another head, snapping it back. It, too, dropped lifelessly to the floor.
"Keep it in front of the door!" Bruenor called. "And don't ye be coming through without a shout. Suren the girl'd cut ye down!"
If the hydra was a stupid beast, it at least understood hunting tactics. It turned its body at an angle to the open door, preventing any chance for Wulfgar to get by. Two heads were down, and another silver arrow, and then another, sizzled in, this time catching the bulk of the hydra's body. Wulfgar, working frantically and just finished with the furious battle against the wererats, was beginning to tire.
He missed the parry as one head came in, and powerful jaws closed around his arm, cutting gashes just below his shoulder.
The hydra attempted to shake its neck and tear the man's arm off, its usual tactic, but it had never encountered one of Wulfgar's strength before. The barbarian locked his arm tight against his side, grimacing away the pain, and held the hydra in place. With his free hand Wulfgar grasped Aegis-fang just under the hammer's head and jabbed the butt end into the hydra's eye. The beast loosened its grip and Wulfgar tore himself free and fell back, just in time to avoid five other snapping attacks.
He could still fight, but the wound would slow him even more.
"Wulfgar!" Catti-brie cried again, hearing his groan.
"Get out o' there, boy!" Bruenor yelled.
Wulfgar was already moving. He dove toward the back wall and rolled around the hydra. The two closest heads followed his movement and dipped in to snap him up.
Wulfgar rolled right to his feet and reversed his momentum, splitting one jaw wide open with a mighty chop. Catti-brie, witnessing Wulfgar's desperate flight, put an arrow into the other head's eye.
The hydra roared in agony and rage and spun about, now having four lifeless heads bouncing across the floor.
Wulfgar, backing across to the other side of the room, got an angle to see what lay behind the screen. "Another door!" he cried to his friends.
Catti-brie got in one more shot as the hydra crossed over to pursue Wulfgar. She and Bruenor heard the crack as the door split free of its hinges, then a sliding bang as yet another portcullis dropped behind the big man.
* * *
Entreri carried the latest attack, whipping his saber across at Drizzt's neck while simultaneously thrusting low with his dagger. A daring move, and if the assassin had not been so skilled with his weapons, Drizzt would surely have found an opening to drive a blade through Entreri's heart. The drow had all he could handle, though, just raising one scimitar to block the saber and lowering the other to push the dagger aside.
Entreri went through a series of similar double attack routines, and Drizzt turned him away each time, showing only one small cut on the shoulder before Entreri finally was forced to back away.
"First blood is mine," the assassin crowed. He ran a finger down the blade of his saber, pointedly showing the drow the red stain.
"Last blood counts for more," Drizzt retorted as he came in with blades leading. The scimitars cut at the assassin from impossible angles, one dipping at a shoulder, the other rising to find the ridge under the rib cage.
Entreri, like Drizzt, foiled the attacks with perfect parries.
* * *
"Are ye alive, boy?" Bruenor called. The dwarf heard the renewed fighting back behind him in the corridors, to his relief, for the sound told him that Drizzt was still alive.
"I am safe," Wulfgar replied, looking around the new room he had entered. It was furnished with several chairs and one table which had been recently used, it appeared, for gambling. Wulfgar had no doubt now that he was under a building, most probably the thieves' guildhouse.
"The path is closed behind me," he called to his friends. "Find Drizzt and get back to the street. I will find my way to meet you there!"
"I'll not leave ye!" Catti-brie replied.
"I shall leave you," Wulfgar shot back.
Catti-brie glared at Bruenor. "Help him," she begged.
Bruenor's look was equally stern.
"We have no hope in staying where we are," Wulfgar called. "Surely I could not retrace my steps, even if I managed to lift this portcullis and defeat the hydra. Go, my love, and take heart that we shall meet again!"
"Listen to the boy," Bruenor said. "Yer heart's telling ye to stay, but ye'll be doing no favors for Wulfgar if ye follow that course. Ye have to trust in him."
Grease mixed with the blood on Catti-brie's head as she leaned heavily on the bars before her. Another demolished door sounded from deeper within the complex of rooms, like a hammer driving a stake into her heart. Bruenor grabbed her elbow gently. "Come, girl," he whispered. "The drow's afoot and needin' our help. Trust in Wulfgar."
Catti-brie pulled herself away and followed Bruenor down the tunnel.
* * *
Drizzt pressed the attack, studying the assassin's face as he went. He had succeeding in sublimating his hatred of the assassin, heeding Catti-brie's words and remembering the priorities of the adventure. Entreri became to him just another obstacle in the path to freeing Regis. With a cool head, Drizzt focused on the business at hand, reacting to his opponent's thrusts and counters as calmly as if he were in a practice gym in Menzoberranzan.
The visage of Entreri, the man who proclaimed superiority as a fighter because of his lack of emotions, often twisted violently, bordering on explosive rage. Truly Entreri hated Drizzt. For all of the warmth and friendships the drow had found in his life, he had attained perfection with his weapons. Every time Drizzt foiled Entreri's attack routine and countered with an equally skilled sequence, he exposed the emptiness of the assassin's existence.
Drizzt recognized the boiling anger in Entreri and sought a way to exploit it. He launched another deceptive sequence but was again deterred.
Then he came in a straight double-thrust, his scimitars side by side and only an inch apart.
Entreri blew them both off to the side with a sweeping saber parry, grinning at Drizzt's apparent mistake. Growling wickedly, Entreri launched his dagger arm through the opening, toward the drow's heart.
But Drizzt had anticipated the move - had even set the assassin up. He dipped and angled his front scimitar even as the saber came in to parry it, sliding it under Entreri's blade and cutting back a reverse swipe. Entreri's dagger arm came thrusting out right in the scimitar's path, and before the assassin could poke his blade into Drizzt's heart, Drizzt's scimitar gashed into the back of his elbow.
The dagger dropped to the muck. Entreri grabbed his wounded arm, grimaced in pain, and rushed back from the battle. His eyes narrowed on Drizzt, angry and confused.
"Your hunger blurs your ability," Drizzt said to him, taking a step forward. "We have both looked into a mirror this night. Perhaps you did not enjoy the sight it showed to you."
Entreri fumed but had no retort. "You have not won yet," he spat defiantly, but he knew that the drow had gained an overwhelming advantage.
"Perhaps not," Drizzt shrugged, "but you lost many years ago."
Entreri smiled evilly and bowed low, then took flight back through the passage.
Drizzt was quick to pursue, stopping short, though, when he reached the edge of the globe of blackness. He heard shuffling on the other side and braced himself. Too loud for Entreri, he reasoned, and he suspected that some wererat had returned.
"Are ye there, elf?" came a familiar voice.
Drizzt dashed through the blackness and side-stepped his astonished friends. "Entreri?" he asked, hoping that the wounded assassin had not escaped unseen.
Bruenor and Catti-brie shrugged curiously and turned to follow as Drizzt ran off into the darkness.
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