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The Halfling's Gem
2. A Thousand Thousand Little Candles
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The assassin, mesmerized, watched as the ruby turned slowly in the candlelight, catching the dance of the flame in a thousand thousand perfect miniatures - too many reflections; no gem could have facets so small and so flawless.
And yet the procession was there to be seen, a swirl of tiny candles drawing him deeper into the redness of the stone. No jeweler had cut it; its precision went beyond a level attainable with an instrument. This was an artifact of magic, a deliberate creation designed, he reminded himself cautiously, to pull a viewer into that descending swirl, into the serenity of the reddened depths of the stone.
A thousand thousand little candles.
No wonder he had so easily duped the captain into giving him passage to Calimport. Suggestions that came from within the marvelous secrets of this gem could not easily be dismissed. Suggestions of serenity and peace, words spoken only by friends...
A smile cracked the usually grim set of his face. He could wander deep into the calm.
Entreri tore himself from the pull of the ruby and rubbed his eyes, amazed that even one as disciplined as he might be vulnerable to the gem's insistent tug. He glanced into the corner of the small cabin, where Regis sat huddled and thoroughly miserable.
"I can now understand your desperation in stealing this jewel," he said to the halfling.
Regis snapped out of his own meditation, surprised that Entreri had spoken to him - the first time since they had boarded the boat back in Waterdeep.
"And I know now why Pasha Pook is so desperate to get it back," Entreri continued, as much to himself as to Regis.
Regis cocked his head to watch the assassin. Could the ruby pendant take even Artemis Entreri into its hold? "Truly it is a beautiful gem," he offered hopefully, not quite knowing how to handle this uncharacteristic empathy from the cold assassin.
"Much more than a gemstone," Entreri said absently, his eyes falling irresistibly back into the mystical swirl of the deceptive facets.
Regis recognized the calm visage of the assassin, for he himself had worn such a look when he had first studied Pook's wonderful pendant. He had been a successful thief then, living a fine life in Calimport. But the promises of that magical stone outweighed the comforts of the thieves' guild. "Perhaps the pendant stole me," he suggested on a sudden impulse.
But he had underestimated the willpower of Entreri. The assassin snapped a cold look at him, with a smirk clearly revealing that he knew where Regis was leading.
But the halfling, grabbing at whatever hope he could find, pressed on anyway. "The power of that pendant overcame me, I think. There could be no crime; I had little choice - "
Entreri's sharp laugh cut him short. "You are a thief, or you are weak," he snarled. "Either way you shall find no mercy in my heart. Either way you deserve the wrath of Pook!" He snapped the pendant up into his hand from the end of its golden chain and dropped it into his pouch.
Then he took out the other object, an onyx statuette intricately carved into the likeness of a panther.
"Tell me of this," he instructed Regis.
Regis had wondered when Entreri would show some curiosity for the figurine. He had seen the assassin toying with it back at Garumn's Gorge in Mithril Hall, teasing Drizzt from across the chasm. But until this moment, that was the last Regis had seen of Guenhwyvar, the magical panther.
Regis shrugged helplessly.
"I'll not ask again," Entreri threatened, and that icy certainty of doom, the inescapable aura of dread that all of Artemis Entreri's victims came to know well, fell over Regis once more.
"It is the Drow's," Regis stammered. "Its name is Guen - " Regis caught the word in his mouth as Entreri's free hand suddenly snapped out a jeweled dagger, readied for a throw.
"Calling an ally?" Entreri asked wickedly. He dropped the statuette back into his pocket. "I know the beast's name, halfling. And I assure you, by the time the cat arrived, you would be dead."
"You fear the cat?" Regis dared to ask.
"I take no chances," Entreri replied.
"But will you call the panther yourself?" Regis pressed, looking for some way to change the balance of power. "A companion for your lonely roads?"
Entreri's laugh mocked the very thought. "Companion? Why would I desire a companion, little fool? What gain could I hope to make?"
"With numbers comes strength," Regis argued.
"Fool," repeated Entreri. "That is where you err. In the streets, companions bring dependence and doom! Look at yourself, friend of the drow. What strength do you bring to Drizzt Do'Urden now? He rushes blindly to your aid, to fulfill his responsibility as your companion." He spat the word out with obvious distaste. "To his ultimate demise!"
Regis hung his head and could not answer. Entreri's words rang true enough. His friends were coming into dangers they could not imagine, and all for his sake, all because of errors he had made before he had ever met them.
Entreri replaced the dagger in its sheath and leaped up in a rush. "Enjoy the night, little thief. Bask in the cold ocean wind; relish all the sensations of this trip as a man staring death in the face, for Calimport surely spells your doom and the doom of your friends!" He swept out of the room, banging the door behind him.
He hadn't locked it, Regis noted. He never locked the door! But he didn't have to, Regis admitted in anger. Terror was the assassin's chain, as tangible as iron shackles. Nowhere to run; nowhere to hide.
Regis dropped his head into his hands. He became aware of the sway of the ship, of the rhythmic, monotonous creaking of old boards, his body irresistibly keeping time.
He felt his insides churning.
Halflings weren't normally fond of the sea, and Regis was timid even by the measures of his kind. Entreri could not have found a greater torment to Regis than passage south on a ship, on the Sea of Swords.
"Not again," Regis groaned, dragging himself to the small portal in the cabin. He pulled the window open and stuck his head out into the refreshing chill of the night air.
* * *
Entreri walked across the empty deck, his cloak tight about him. Above him, the sails swelled, as they filled with wind; the early winter gales pushed the ship along its southern route. A billion stars dotted the sky, twinkling in the empty darkness to horizons bordered only by the flat line of the sea.
Entreri took out the ruby pendant again and let its magic catch the starlight. He watched it spin and studied its swirl, meaning to know it well before his journey's end.
Pasha Pook would be thrilled to get the pendant back. It had given him such power! More power, Entreri now realized, than others had assumed. With the pendant, Pook had made friends of enemies and slaves of friends.
"Even me?" Entreri mused, enthralled by the little stars in the red wash of the gem. "Have I been a victim? Or shall I be?" He wouldn't have believed that he, Artemis Entreri, could ever be caught by a magic charm, but the insistence of the ruby pendant was undeniable.
Entreri laughed aloud. The helmsman, the only other person on the deck, cast him a curious glance but thought no more about it.
"No," Entreri whispered to the ruby. "You shan't have me again. I know your tricks, and I'll learn them better still! I will run the path of your tempting descent and find my way back out again!" Laughing, he fastened the pendant's golden chain around his neck and tucked the ruby under his leather jerkin.
Then he felt in his pouch, grasped the figurine of the panther, and turned his gaze back to the north. "Are you watching, Drizzt Do'Urden?" he asked into the night.
He knew the answer. Somewhere far behind, in Waterdeep or Longsaddle or somewhere in between, the drow's lavender eyes were turned southward.
They were destined to meet again; they both knew. They had battled once, in Mithril Hall, but neither could claim victory.
There had to be a winner.
Never before had Entreri encountered anyone with reflexes to match his own or as deadly with a blade as he, and memories of his clash with Drizzt Do'Urden haunted his every thought. They were so akin, their movements cut from the same dance. And yet, the drow, compassionate and caring, possessed a basic humanity that Entreri had long ago discarded. Such emotions, such weaknesses, had no place in the cold void of a pure fighter's heart, he believed.
Entreri's hands twitched with eagerness as he thought of the drow. His breath puffed out angrily in the chill air. "Come, Drizzt Do'Urden," he said through his clenched teeth. "Let us learn who is the stronger!"
His voice reflected deadly determination, with a subtle, almost imperceptive, hint of anxiety. This would be the truest challenge of both their lives, the test of the differing tenets that had guided their every actions. For Entreri, there could be no draw. He had sold his soul for his skill, and if Drizzt Do'Urden defeated him, or even proved his equal, the assassin's existence would be no more than a wasted lie.
But he didn't think like that.
Entreri lived to win.
* * *
Regis, too, was watching the night sky. The crisp air had settled his stomach, and the stars had sent his thoughts across the long miles to his friends. How often they had sat together on such nights in Icewind Dale, to share tales of adventure or just sit quietly in each others' company. Icewind Dale was a barren strip of frozen tundra, a land of brutal weather and brutal people, but the friends Regis had made there, Bruenor and Catti-brie, Drizzt and Wulfgar, had warmed the coldest of the winter nights and taken the sting out of the biting north wind.
In context, Icewind Dale had been but a short stopover for Regis on his extensive travels, where he had spent less than ten of his fifty years. But now, heading back to the southern kingdom where he had lived for the bulk of his life, Regis realized that Icewind Dale had truly been his home. And those friends he so often took for granted were the only family he would ever know.
He shook away his lament and forced himself to consider the path before him. Drizzt would come for him; probably Wulfgar and Catti-brie, too.
But not Bruenor.
Any relief that Regis had felt when Drizzt returned unharmed from the bowels of Mithril Hall had flown over Garumn's Gorge with the valiant dwarf. A dragon had them trapped while a host of evil gray dwarves had closed in from behind. But Bruenor, at the cost of his own life, had cleared the way, crashing down onto the dragon's back with a keg of burning oil, taking the beast - and himself - down into the deep gorge.
Regis couldn't bear to recall that terrible scene. For all of his gruffness and teasing, Bruenor Battlehammer had been the halfling's dearest companion.
A shooting star burned a trail across the night sky. The sway of the ship remained and the salty smell of the ocean sat thick in his nose, but here at the portal, in the sharpness of the clear night, Regis felt no sickness - only a sad serenity as he remembered all of those crazy times with the wild dwarf. Truly Bruenor Battlehammer's flame had burned like a torch in the wind, leaping and dancing and fighting to the very end.
Regis's other friends had escaped, though. The halfling was certain of it - as certain as Entreri. And they would come for him. Drizzt would come for him and set things right.
Regis had to believe that.
And for his own part, the mission seemed obvious. Once in Calimport, Entreri would find allies among Pook's people. The assassin would then be on his own ground, where he knew every dark hole and held every advantage. Regis had to slow him down.
Finding strength in the narrow vision of a goal, Regis glanced about the cabin, looking for some clue. Again and again, he found his eyes drawn to the candle.
"The flame," he muttered to himself, a smile beginning to spread across his face. He moved to the table and plucked the candle from its holder. A small pool of liquid wax glittered at the base of the wick, promising pain.
But Regis didn't hesitate.
He hitched up one sleeve and dripped a series of wax droplets along the length of his arm, grimacing away the hot sting.
He had to slow Entreri down.
* * *
Regis made one of his rare appearances on the deck the next morning. Dawn had come bright and clear, and the halfling wanted to finish his business before the sun got too high in the sky and created that unpleasant mixture of hot rays in the cool spray. He stood at the rail, rehearsing his lines and mustering the courage to defy the unspoken threats of Entreri.
And then Entreri was beside him! Regis clutched the rail tightly, fearing that the assassin had somehow guessed his plan.
"The shoreline," Entreri said to him.
Regis followed Entreri's gaze to the horizon and a distant line of land.
"Back in sight," Entreri continued, "and not too far." He glanced down at Regis and displayed his wicked smile once again for his prisoner's benefit.
Regis shrugged. "Too far."
"Perhaps," answered the assassin, "but you might make it, though your half-sized breed is not spoken of as the swimming sort. Have you weighed the odds?"
"I do not swim," Regis said flatly.
"A pity," laughed Entreri. "But if you do decide to try for the land, tell me first."
Regis stepped back, confused.
"I would allow you to make the attempt," Entreri assured him. "I would enjoy the show!"
The halfling's expression turned to anger. He knew that he was being mocked, but he couldn't figure the assassin's purpose.
"They have a strange fish in these waters," said Entreri, looking back to the water. "Smart fish. It follows the boats, waiting for someone to go over." He looked back to Regis to weigh the effect of his chiding.
"A pointed fin marks it," he continued, seeing that he had the halfling's full attention. "Cutting through the water like the prow of a ship. If you watch from the rail long enough, you will surely spy one."
"Why would I want to?"
"Sharks, these fish are called," Entreri went on, ignoring the question. He drew his dagger, putting its point against one of his fingers hard enough to draw a speck of blood. "Marvelous fish. Rows of teeth as long as daggers, sharp and ridged, and a mouth that could bite a man in half." He looked Regis in the eye. "Or take a halfling whole."
"I do not swim!" Regis growled, not appreciating Entreri's macabre, but undeniably effective, methods.
"A pity," chuckled the assassin. "But do tell me if you change your mind." He swept away, his black cloak flowing behind him.
"Bastard," Regis mumbled under his breath. He started back toward the rail, but changed his mind as soon as he saw the deep water looming before him; he turned on his heel and sought the security of the middle of the deck.
Again the color left his face as the vast ocean seemed to close in over him and the interminable, nauseating sway of the ship...
"Ye seem ripe fer de rail, little one," came a cheery voice. Regis turned to see a short, bowlegged sailor with few teeth and eyes scrunched in a permanent squint. "Ain't to findin' yer sea legs yet?"
Regis shuddered through his dizziness and remembered his mission. "It is the other thing," he replied.
The sailor missed the subtlety of his statement. Still grinning through the dark tan and darker stubble of his dirty face, he started away.
"But thank you for your concern," Regis said emphatically. "And for all of your courage in taking us to Calimport."
The sailor stopped, perplexed. "Many a time, we's to taking ones to the south," he said, not understanding the reference to "courage."
"Yes, but considering the danger - though I am sure it is not great!" Regis added quickly, giving the impression that he was trying not to emphasize this unknown peril. "It is not important. Calimport will bring our cure." Then under his breath but still loud enough for the sailor to hear, he said, "If we get there alive."
"'Ere now, what do ye mean?" the sailor demanded, moving back over to Regis. The smile was gone.
Regis squeaked and grabbed his forearm suddenly as if in pain. He grimaced and pretended to battle against the agony, while deftly scratching the dried patch of wax, and the scab beneath it, away. A small trickle of blood rolled out from under his sleeve.
The sailor grabbed him on cue, pulling the sleeve up over Regis's elbow. He looked at the wound curiously. "Burn?"
"Do not touch it!" Regis cried in a harsh whisper. "That is how it spreads - I think."
The sailor pulled his hand away in terror, noticing several other scars. "I seen no fire! How'd ye git a burn?"
Regis shrugged helplessly. "They just happen. From the inside." Now it was the sailor's turn to pale. "But I will make it to Calimport," he stated unconvincingly. "It takes a few months to eat you away. And most of my wounds are recent." Regis looked down, then presented his scarred arm. "See?"
But when he looked back, the sailor was gone, rushing off toward the captain's quarters.
"Take that, Artemis Entreri," Regis whispered.
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