Entreri stood on a hill a few miles outside the City of Sails, his campfire burning low behind him. Regis and friends had used this same spot for their last stop before they entered Luskan and, in fact, the assassin’s fire burned in the very same pit. This was no coincidence, though. Entreri had mimicked every move the halfling’s party had made since he had picked up their trail just south of the Spine of the World. He would move as they moved, shadowing their marches in an effort to better understand their actions.
Now, unlike the party before him, Entreri’s eyes were not on the city wall, nor toward Luskan at all. Several campfires had sprung up in the night to the north, on the road back to Ten-Towns. It wasn’t the first time those lights had appeared behind him, and the assassin sensed he, too, was being followed. He had slowed his frantic pace, figuring that he could easily make up the ground while the companions went about their business in Luskan. He wanted to secure his own back from any danger before concentrating on snaring the halfling. Entreri had even left telltale signs of his passing, baiting his pursuers in closer.
He kicked the embers of the fire low and climbed back into the saddle, deciding it better to meet a sword face to face than to take a dagger in the back.
Into the night he rode, confident in the darkness. This was his time, where every shadow added to the advantage of one who lived in shadows.
He tethered his mount before midnight, close enough to the campfires to finish the trek on foot. He realized now that this was a merchant caravan; not an uncommon thing on the road to Luskan at this time of year. But his sense of danger nagged at him. Many years of experience had honed his instinct for survival and he knew better than to ignore it.
He crept in, seeking the easiest way into the circle of wagons. Merchants always lined many sentries around the perimeter of their camps, and even the pull-horses presented a problem, for the merchants kept them tied close beside their harnesses.
Still, the assassin would not waste his ride. He had come this far and meant to find out the purpose of those who followed him. Slithering on his belly, he made his way to the perimeter and began circling the camp underneath the defensive ring. Too silently for even wary ears to hear, he passed two guards playing at bones. Then he went under and between the horses, the beasts lowering their ears in fear, but remaining quiet.
Halfway around the circle, he was nearly convinced that this was an ordinary merchant caravan, and was just about to slip back into the night when he heard a familiar female voice.
“Ye said ye saw a spot o’ light in the distance.”
Entreri stopped, for he knew the speaker.
“Yeah, over there,” a man replied.
Entreri slipped up between the next two wagons and peeked over the side. The speakers stood a short distance from him, behind the next wagon, peering into the night in the direction of his camp. Both were dressed for battle, the woman wearing her sword comfortably.
“I have underestimated you,” Entreri whispered to himself as he viewed Catti-brie. His jeweled dagger was already in his hand. “A mistake I shan’t repeat,” he added, then crouched low and searched for a path to his target.
“Ye been good to me, for bringing me so fast,” Catti-brie said. “I’m owing to ye, as Regis and the others’ll be.”
“Then tell me,” the man urged. “What causes such urgency?”
Catti-brie struggled with the memories of the assassin. She hadn’t yet come to terms with her terror that day in the halfling’s house, and knew that she wouldn’t until she had avenged the deaths of the two dwarven friends and resolved her own humiliation. Her lips tightened and she did not reply.
“As you wish,” the man conceded. “Your reasons justify the run, we do not doubt. If we seem to pry, it only shows our desire to help you however we may.”
Catti-brie turned to him, a smile of sincere appreciation on her face. Enough had been said, and the two stood and stared at the empty horizon in silence.
Silent, too, was the approach of death.
Entreri slipped out from under the wagon and rose suddenly between them, one hand outstretched to each. He grasped Catti-brie’s neck tightly enough to prevent her scream, and he silenced the man forever with his blade.
Looking across the breadth of Entreri’s shoulders, Catti-brie saw the horrific expression locked onto her companion’s face, but she couldn’t understand why he hadn’t cried out, for his mouth was not covered.
Entreri shifted back a bit and she knew. Only the jeweled dagger’s hilt was visible, its crosspiece flat against the underside of the man’s chin. The slender blade had found the man’s brain before he ever realized the danger.
Entreri used the weapon’s handle to guide his victim quietly to the ground, then jerked it free.
Again the woman found herself paralyzed before the horror of Entreri. She felt that she should wrench away and shout out to the camp, even though he would surely kill her. Or draw her sword and at least try to fight back. But she watched helplessly as Entreri slipped her own dagger from her belt and, pulling her low with him, replaced it in the man’s fatal wound.
Then he took her sword and pushed her down under the wagon and out beyond the camp’s perimeter.
Why can’t I call out? she asked herself again and again, for the assassin, confident of the level of terror, didn’t even hold her as they slipped deeper into the night. He knew, and she had to admit to herself, that she would not give up her life so easily.
Finally, when they were a safe distance from the camp, he spun her around to face him – and the dagger. “Follow me?” he asked, laughing at her. “What could you hope to gain?”
She did not answer, but found some of her strength returning.
Entreri sensed it, too. “If you call out, I shall kill you,” he declared flatly. “And then, by my word, I shall return to the merchants and kill them all as well!”
She believed him.
“I often travel with the merchants,” she lied, holding the quiver in her voice. “It is one of the duties of my rank as a soldier of Ten-Towns.”
Entreri laughed at her again. Then he looked into the distance, his features assuming an introspective tilt. “Perhaps this will play to my advantage,” he said rhetorically, the beginnings of a plan formulating in his mind.
Catti-brie studied him, worried that he had found some way to turn her excursion into harm for her friends.
“I’ll not kill you – not yet,” he said to her. “When we find the halfling, his friends will not defend him. Because of you.”
“I’ll do nothing to aid ye!” Catti-brie spat.”Nothing!”
“Precisely,” Entreri hissed. “You shall do nothing. Not with a blade at your neck – ” he brought the weapon up to her throat in a morbid tease – “scratching at your smooth skin. When I am done with my business, brave girl, I shall move on, and you shall be left with your shame and your guilt. And your answers to the merchants who believe you murdered their companion!” In truth, Entreri didn’t believe for a moment that his simple trick with Catti-brie’s dagger would fool the merchants. It was merely a psychological weapon aimed at the young woman, designed to instill yet another doubt and worry into her jumble of emotions.
Catti-brie did not reply to the assassin’s statements with any sign of emotion. No, she told herself, it won’t be like that!
But deep inside, she wondered if her determination only masked her fear, her own belief that she would be held again by the horror of Entreri’s presence, and that the scene would unfold exactly as he had predicted.
Jierdan found the campsite with little difficulty. Dendybar had used his magic to track the mysterious rider all the way from the mountains and had pointed the soldier in the right direction.
Tensed and his sword drawn, Jierdan moved in. The place was deserted, but it had not been that way for long. Even from a few feet away, the soldier from Luskan could feel the dying warmth of the campfire. Crouching low to mask his silhouette against the line of the horizon, he crept toward a pack and blanket off to the side of the fire.
* * *
Entreri rode his mount back into camp slowly, expecting that what he had left might have drawn some visitors. Catti-brie sat in front of him, securely bound and gagged, though she fully believed, to her own disgust, that her own terror made the bonds unnecessary.
The wary assassin realized that someone had entered the camp, before he had ever gotten near the place. He slid from his saddle, taking his prisoner with him. “A nervous steed,” he explained to Catti-brie, taking obvious pleasure in the grim warning as he tied her to the horse’s rear legs. “If you struggle, he will kick the life from you.”
Then Entreri was gone, blending into the night as though he were an extension of its darkness.
* * *
Jierdan dropped the pack back to the ground, frustrated, for its contents were merely standard traveling gear and revealed nothing about the owner. The soldier was a veteran of many campaigns and had bested man and orc alike a hundred times, but he was nervous now, sensing something unusual, and deadly, about the rider. A man with the courage to ride alone on the brutal course from Icewind Dale to Luskan was no novice to the ways of battle.
Jierdan was startled, then, but not too surprised, when the tip of a blade came to rest suddenly in the vulnerable hollow on the back of his neck, just below the base of his skull. He neither moved nor spoke, hoping that the rider would ask for some explanation before driving the weapon home.
Entreri could see that his pack had been searched, but he recognised the furred uniform and knew that this man was no thief. “We are beyond the borders of your city,” he said, holding his knife steady. “What business have you in my camp, soldier of Luskan?”
“I am Jierdan of the north gate,” he replied. “I have come to meet a rider from Icewind Dale.”
Entreri was perplexed and uncomfortable with the soldier’s response. Who had sent this man, and how had he known where to look? The assassin’s first thoughts centered on Regis’s party. Perhaps the halfling had arranged for some help from the city guard. Entreri slipped his knife back info its sheath, certain that he could retrieve it in time to foil any attack.
Jierdan understood the calm confidence of the act as well, and any thoughts that he might have had for striking at this man flew from him. “My master, desires your audience,” he said, thinking it wise to explain himself more completely. “A meeting to your mutual benefit.”
“Your master?” asked Entreri.
“A citizen of high standing,” Jierdan explained. “He has heard of your coming and believes that he may help with your quest.”
“What does he know of my business?” Entreri snapped, angered that someone had dared to spy on him. But he was relieved, too, for the involvement of some other power structure within the city explained much, and possibly eliminated the logical assumption that the halfling was behind this meeting.
Jierdan shrugged. “I am merely his courier. But I, too, can be of assistance to you. At the gate.”
“Damn the gate,” Entreri snarled. “I’ll take the wall easily enough. It is a more direct route to the places I seek.”
“Even so, I know of those places, and of the people who control them.”
The knife leaped back out, cutting in and stopping just before Jierdan’s throat. “You know much, but you explain little. You play dangerous games, soldier of Luskan.”
Jierdan didn’t blink. “Four heroes from Ten-Towns came into Luskan five days ago: a dwarf, a halfling, a barbarian, and a black elf.” Even Artemis Entreri couldn’t hide a hint of excitement at the confirmation of his suspicions, and Jierdan noted the signs. “Their exact location escapes me, but I know the area where they are hiding. Are you interested?”
The knife returned again to its sheath. “Wait here,” Entreri instructed. “I have a companion who shall travel with us.”
“My master said that you rode alone,” Jierdan queried.
Entreri’s vile grin sent a shiver through the soldier’s spine. “I acquired her,” he explained. “She is mine and that is all that you ever need to know.”
Jierdan didn’t press the point. His sigh of relief was audible when Entreri had disappeared from sight.
Catti-brie rode to Luskan untied and ungagged, but Entreri’s hold upon her was no less binding. His warning to her when he had retrieved her in the field had been succinct and undeniable. “A foolish move,” he had said, “and you die. And you die with the knowledge that the dwarf, Bruenor, shall suffer for your insolence.”
The assassin had told Jierdan no more about her, and the soldier didn’t ask, though the woman intrigued him more than a little. Dendybar would get the answers, Jierdan knew.
They moved into the city later that morning, under the suspicious eye of the Daykeeper of the North Gate. It had cost Jierdan a week’s pay to bribe them through, and the soldier knew he would owe even more when he returned that night, for the original deal with the Daykeeper allowed the passage of one outsider; nothing had been said about the woman. But if Jierdan’s actions brought him Dendybar’s favor, then they would be well worth the price.
According to the city code, the three gave up their horses at the stable just inside the wall, and Jierdan led Entreri and Catti-brie through the streets of the City of Sails, past the sleepy-eyed merchants and vendors who had been out since before dawn and into the very heart of the city.
The assassin was not surprised an hour later when they came upon a long grove of thick pine trees. He had suspected that Jierdan was somehow connected to this place. They passed through a break in the line and stood before the tallest structure in the city, the Hosttower of the Arcane.
“Who is your master?” Entreri asked bluntly.
Jierdan chuckled, his nerve bolstered by the sight of Dendybar’s tower. “You shall meet him soon enough.”
“I shall know now,” Entreri growled. “Or our meeting is ended. I am in the city, soldier, and I do not require your assistance any longer.”
“I could have the guards expel you,” Jierdan shot back. “Or worse!”
But Entreri had the last word. “They would never find the remains of your body,” he promised, the cold certainty of his tone draining the blood from Jierdan’s face.
Catti-brie noted the exchange with more than a passing concern for the soldier, wondering if the time might soon come when she could exploit the untrusting nature of her captors to her own advantage.
“I serve Dendybar the Mottled, Master of the North Spire,” Jierdan declared, drawing further strength from the mention of his powerful mentor’s name.
Entreri had heard the name before. The Hosttower was a common topic of the whisperings all around Luskan and the surrounding countryside, and the name of Dendybar the Mottled came up often in conversation, describing the wizard as an ambitious power seeker in the tower, and hinting at a dark and sinister side of the man that allowed him to get what he wanted. He was dangerous, but potentially a powerful ally. Entreri was pleased. “Take me to him now,” he told Jierdan. “Let us discover if we have business or no.”
Sydney was waiting to escort them from the entryroom of the Hosttower. Offering no introduction, and asking for none, she led them through the twisting passages and secret doors to the audience hall of Dendybar the Mottled. The wizard waited there in grand style, wearing his finest robes and with a fabulous luncheon set before him.
“Greetings, rider,” Dendybar said after the necessary, yet uncomfortable, moments of silence when each of the parties sized up the other. “I am Dendybar the Mottled, as you are already aware. Will you and your lovely companion partake of my table?”
His raspy voice grated on Catti-brie’s nerves, and though she hadn’t eaten since the supper the day before, she had no appetite for this man’s hospitality.
Entreri shoved her forward. “Eat,” he commanded.
She knew that Entreri was testing both her and the wizards. But it was time for her to test Entreri as well. “No,” she answered, looking him straight in the eye.
His backhand knocked her to the floor. Jierdan and Sydney started reflexively, but seeing no help forthcoming from Dendybar, quickly stopped and settled back to watch. Catti-brie moved away from the killer and remained in a defensive crouch.
Dendybar smiled at the assassin. “You have answered some of my questions about the girl,” he said with an amused smile. “What purpose does she serve?”
“I have my reasons,” was all that Entreri replied.
“Of course. And might I learn your name?”
Entreri’s expression did not change.
“You seek the four companions from Ten-Towns, I know,” Dendybar continued, having no desire to bandy the issue. “I seek them, as well, but for different reasons, I am sure.”
“You know nothing of my reasons,” Entreri replied.
“Nor do I care,” laughed the wizard. “We can help each other to our separate goals. That is all that interests me.”
“I ask for no help.”
Dendybar laughed again. “They are a mighty force, rider. You underestimate them.”
“Perhaps,” replied Entreri. “But you have asked my purpose, yet have not offered your own. What business does the Hosttower have with travelers from Ten-Towns?”
“Fairly asked,” answered Dendybar. “But I should wait until we have formalized an agreement before rendering an answer.”
“Then I shan’t sleep well for worry,” Entreri spat.
Again the wizard laughed. “You may change your mind before this is finished,” he said. “For now I offer a sign of good faith. The companions are in the city. Dockside. They were to stay in the Cutlass. Do you know it?”
Entreri nodded, now very interested in the wizard’s words.
“But we have lost them in the alleyways of the western city,” Dendybar explained, shooting a glare at Jierdan that made the soldier shift uneasily.
“And what is the price of this information?” Entreri asked.
“None,” replied the wizard. “Telling you helps my own cause. You will get what you want; what I desire will remain for me.”
Entreri smiled, understanding that Dendybar intended to use him as a hound to sniff out the prey.
“My apprentice will show you out,” Dendybar said, motioning to Sydney.
Entreri turned to leave, pausing to meet the gaze of Jierdan. “Ware my path, soldier,” the assassin warned. “Vultures eat after the cat has feasted!”
“When he has shown me to the drow, I’ll have his head,” Jierdan growled when they had gone.
“You shall keep clear of that one,” Dendybar instructed.
Jierdan looked at him, puzzled. “Surely you want him watched.”
“Surely,” agreed Dendybar. “But by Sydney, not you. Keep your anger,” Dendybar said to him, noting the outraged scowl. “I preserve your life. Your pride is great, indeed, and you have earned the right. But this one is beyond your prowess, my friend. His blade would have you before you ever knew he was there.”
Outside, Entreri led Catti-brie away from the Hosttower without a word, silently replaying and reviewing the meeting, for he knew that he had not seen the last of Dendybar and his cohorts.
Catti-brie was glad of the silence, too, engulfed in her own contemplations. Why would a wizard of the Hosttower be looking for Bruenor and the others? Revenge for Akar Kessell, the mad wizard that her friends had helped defeat before the last winter? She looked back to the treelike structure, and to the killer at her side, amazed and horrified at the attention her friends had brought upon themselves.
Then she looked into her own heart, reviving her spirit and her courage. Drizzt, Bruenor, Wulfgar, and Regis were going to need her help before this was all over. She must not fail them.