THE WIND ON THE ROAD
We'll keep close to the foothills," Ellery said to Jarlaxle, pulling her horse up beside the bouncing wagon. "There have been many reports of monsters in the region and Mariabronne has confirmed that they're about. We'll stay in the shadows away from the open plain."
"Might our enemies not be hiding in wait in those same shadows?" Jarlaxle asked.
"Mariabronne is with us," Ellery remarked. "We will not be caught by surprise." She smiled with easy confidence and turned her horse aside.
Jarlaxle set his doubting expression upon Entreri.
"Yes," the assassin assured him, "almost everyone I've killed uttered similar last words."
"Then I am glad once again that you are on my side."
"They've often said that, too."
Jarlaxle laughed aloud.
The going was slower on the more uneven ground under the shadows of the Galenas, but Ellery insisted and she was, after all, in command. As the sun began its lazy slide down the western sky, the commander ordered the wagons up into a sheltered lea between mounds of tumbled stones and delegated the various duties of setting the camp and defenses. Predictably, Mariabronne went out to scout and the pair of soldiers set watch-points - though curiously, Entreri thought, under the guidance of the dwarf with the twin morning stars. Even more curious, the thin sage sat in contemplation off to the side of the main encampment, his legs crossed before him, his hands resting on his knees. It was more than simple meditation, Entreri knew. The man was preparing spells they might need for nighttime defense.
Similarly, the other dwarf, who had introduced himself as Pratcus Bristlebeard, built a small altar to Moradin and began calling upon his god for blessing. Ellery had covered both the arcane and the divine.
And probably a little of both with Jarlaxle, Entreri thought with a wry grin.
The assassin went out from the main camp soon after, climbing higher into the foothills and finally settling on a wide boulder that afforded him a superb view of the Vaasan lowlands stretching out to the west.
He sat quietly and stared at the setting sun, long rays slanting across the great muddy bog, bright lines of wetness shining brilliantly. Dazzling distortions turned the light into shimmering pools of brilliance, demanding his attention and drawing him into a deeper state of contemplation. Hardly aware of the movement, Entreri reached to his belt and drew forth a small, rather ordinary-looking flute, a gift of the dragon sisters Ilnezhara and Tazmikella.
He glanced around quickly, ensuring that he was alone, then lifted the flute to his lips and blew a simple note. He let that whistle hang in the air then blew again, holding it a little longer. His delicate but strong fingers worked over the instrument's holes and he played a simple song, one he had taught himself or one the flute had taught to him; he couldn't be certain of which. He continued for a short while, letting the sound gather in the air around him, bidding it to take his thoughts far, far away.
The flute had done that to him before. Perhaps it was magic or perhaps just the simple pleasure of perfect timbre, but under the spell of his playing, Artemis Entreri had several times managed to clear his thoughts of all the normal clutter.
A short while later, the sun much lower in the sky, the assassin lowered the flute and stared at it. Somehow, the instrument didn't sound as fine as on those other occasions he'd tested it, nor did he find himself being drawn into the flute as he had before.
"Perhaps the wind is countering the puff of your foul breath," Jarlaxle said from behind him.
The drow couldn't see the scowl that crossed Entreri's face - was there ever to be a time when he could be away from that pestering dark elf?
Entreri laid the flute across his lap and stared off to the west and the lowering sun, the bottom rim just touching the distant horizon and setting off a line of fires across the dark teeth of the distant hills. Above the sun, a row of clouds took on a fiery orange hue.
"It promises to be a beautiful sunset," Jarlaxle remarked, easily scaling the boulder and taking a seat close beside the assassin.
Entreri glanced at him as if he hardly cared.
"Perhaps it is because of my background," the drow continued. "I have gone centuries, my friend, without ever witnessing the cycles of the sun. Perhaps the absence of this daily event only heightens my appreciation for it now."
Entreri still showed no hint of any response.
"Perhaps after a few decades on the surface I will become as bored with it as you seem to be."
"Did I say that?"
"Do you ever say anything?" Jarlaxle replied. "Or does it amuse you to let all of those around you simply extrapolate your words from your continuing scowls and grimaces?"
Entreri chortled and looked back to the west. The sun was lower still, half of it gone. Above the remaining semicircle of fire, the clouds glowed even more fiercely, like a line of fire churning in the deepening blue of the sky.
"Do you ever dream, my friend?" Jarlaxle asked.
"Everyone dreams," Entreri replied. "Or so I am told. I expect that I do, though I hardly care to remember them."
"Not night dreams," the drow explained. "Everyone dreams, indeed, at night. Even the elves in our Reverie find dream states and visions. But there are two types of dreamers, my friend, those who dream at night and those who dream in the day."
He had Entreri's attention.
"Those night-dreamers," Jarlaxle went on, "they do not overly concern me. Nighttime dreams are for release, say some, a purging of the worries or a fanciful flight to no end. Those who dream in the night alone are doomed to mundanity, don't you see?"
"The ordinary. The mediocre. Night-dreamers do not overly concern me because there is nowhere for them to rise. But those who dream by day... those, my friend, are the troublesome ones."
"Would Jarlaxle not consider himself among that lot?"
"Would I hold any credibility at all if I did not admit my troublesome nature?"
"Not with me."
"There you have it, then," said the drow.
He paused and looked to the west, and Entreri did too, watching the sun slip lower.
"I know another secret about daydreamers," Jarlaxle said at length.
"Pray tell," came the assassin's less-than-enthusiastic reply.
"Daydreamers alone are truly alive," Jarlaxle explained. He looked back at Entreri, who matched his stare. "For daydreamers alone find perspective in existence and seek ways to rise above the course of simple survival."
Entreri didn't blink.
"You do daydream," Jarlaxle decided. "But only on those rare occasions your dedication to... to what, I often wonder?... allows you outside your perfect discipline."
"Perhaps that dedication to perfect discipline is my dream."
"No," the drow replied without hesitation. "No. Control is not the facilitation of fancy, my friend, it is the fear of fancy."
"You equate dreaming and fancy then?"
"Of course! Dreams are made in the heart and filtered through the rational mind. Without the heart..."
"And only that. A pity, I say."
"I do not ask for your pity, Jarlaxle."
"The daydreamers aspire to mastery of all they survey, of course."
"As I do."
"No. You master yourself and nothing more, because you do not dare to dream. You do not dare allow your heart a voice in the process of living."
Entreri's stare became a scowl.
"It is an observation, not a criticism," said Jarlaxle. He rose and brushed off his pants. "And perhaps it is a suggestion. You, who have so achieved discipline, might yet find greatness beyond a feared reputation."
"You assume that I want more."
"I know that you need more, as any man needs more," said the drow. He turned and started down the back side of the boulder. "To live and not merely to survive - that secret is in your heart, Artemis Entreri, if only you are wise enough to look."
He paused and glanced back at Entreri, who sat staring at him hard, and tossed the assassin a flute, seemingly an exact replica of the one Entreri held across his lap.
"Use the real one," Jarlaxle bade him. "The one Ilnezhara gave to you. The one Idalia fashioned those centuries ago."
Idalia put a key inside this flute to unlock any heart, Jarlaxle thought but did not speak, as he turned and walked away.
Entreri looked at the flute in his hands and at the one on his belt. He wasn't really surprised that Jarlaxle had stolen the valuable item and had apparently created an exact copy - no, not exact, Entreri understood as he considered the emptiness of the notes he had blown that day. Physically, the two flutes looked exactly alike, and he marveled at the drow's work as he compared them side by side. But there was more to the real creation of Idalia.
A piece of the craftsman's heart?
Entreri rolled the flute over in his hands, his fingers sliding along the smooth wood, feeling the strength within the apparent delicateness. He lifted the copy in one hand, the original in the other, and closed his eyes. He couldn't tell the difference.
Only when he blew through the flutes could he tell, in the way the music of the real creation washed over him and through him, taking him away with it into what seemed like an alternate reality.
"Wise advice," a voice to the side of the trail greeted Jarlaxle as he moved away from his friend.
Not caught by surprise, Jarlaxle offered Mariabronne a tip of his great hat and said, "You listened in on our private conversation?"
Mariabronne shrugged. "Guilty as charged, I fear. I was moving along the trail when I heard your voice. I meant to keep going, but your words caught me. I have heard such words before, you see, when I was young and learning the ways of the wider world."
"Did your advisor also explain to you the dangers of eavesdropping?"
Mariabronne laughed - or started to, but then cleared his throat instead. "I find you a curiosity, dark elf. Certainly you are different from anyone I have known, in appearance at least. I would know if that is the depth of the variation, or if you are truly a unique being."
"Unique among the lesser races, such as humans, you mean."
This time, Mariabronne did allow himself to laugh.
"I know about the incident with the Kneebreakers," he said.
"I am certain that I do not know of what you speak."
"I am certain that you do," the ranger insisted. "Summoning the wolf was a cunning turn of magic, as returning enough of the ears to Hobart to ingratiate yourself, while keeping enough to build your legend was a cunning turn of diplomacy."
"You presume much."
"The signs were all too easily read, Jarlaxle. This is not presumption but deduction."
"You make it a point to study my every move, of course."
Mariabronne dipped a bow. "I and others."
The drow did well to keep the flicker of alarm from his delicate features.
"We know what you did, but be at ease, for we pass no judgment on that particular action. You have much to overcome concerning the reputation of your heritage, and your little trick did well in elevating you to a position of respectability. I cannot deny any man, or drow, such a climb."
"It is the end of that climb you fear?" Jarlaxle flashed a wide smile, one that enveloped the whole spectrum from sinister to disarming, a perfectly non-readable expression. "To what end?"
The ranger shrugged as if it didn't really matter - not then, at least. "I judge a person by his actions alone. I have known halflings who would cut the throat of an innocent human child and half-orcs who would give their lives in defense of the same. Your antics with the Kneebreakers brought no harm, for the Kneebreakers are an amusing lot whose reputation is well solidified, and they live for adventure and not reputation, in any case. Hobart has certainly forgiven you. He even lifted his mug in toast to your cleverness when it was all revealed to him."
The drow's eyes flared for just a moment - a lapse of control. Jarlaxle was unused to such wheels spinning outside his control, and he didn't like the feeling. For a moment, he almost felt as if he was dealing with the late Matron Baenre, that most devious of dark elves, who always seemed to be pacing ahead of him or even with him. He quickly replayed in his mind all the events of his encounters with the Kneebreakers, recalling Hobart's posture and attitude to see if he could get a fix upon the point when the halfling had discovered the ruse.
He brought a hand up to stroke his chin, staring at Mariabronne all the while and mentally noting that he would do well not to underestimate the man again. It was a difficult thing for a dark elf to take humans and other surface races seriously. All his life Jarlaxle had been told of their inferiority, after all.
But he knew better than that. He'd survived - and thrived - by rising above the limitations of his own prejudices. He affirmed that again, taking the poignant reminder in stride.
"The area is secure?" he asked the ranger.
"We are safe enough."
The drow nodded and started back for the camp.
"Your words to Artemis Entreri were well spoken," Mariabronne said after him, halting him in his tracks. "The man moves with the grace of a true warrior and with the confidence of an emperor. But only in a martial sense. He is one and alone in every other sense. A pity, I think."
"I am not sure that Artemis Entreri would appreciate your pity."
"It is not for him that I express it but for those around him."
Jarlaxle considered the subtle difference for just a moment then smiled and tipped his hat.
Yes, he thought, Entreri would take that as a great compliment.
More's the pity.
The ground was uneven, sometimes soft, sometimes hard, and full of rocks and mud, withered roots and deep puddles. The drivers and riders in the wagons bounced along, rocking in the uneven sway of the slow ride, heads lolling as they let the jolts play out. Because of the continual jarring, it took Entreri a few moments to detect the sudden vibration beneath his cart, sudden tremors building in momentum under the moving wheels. He looked to Jarlaxle, who seemed similarly awakening to the abrupt change.
Beside the wagon, Ellery's horse pawed the ground. Across and to the front, the horse of one guard reared and whinnied, hooves slashing at the air.
Mariabronne locked his horse under tight control and spurred the creature forward, past Ellery and Entreri's wagon then past the lead wagon.
"Ride through it and ride hard!" the ranger shouted. "Forward, I say! With all speed!"
He cracked his reigns over one side of his horse's neck then the other, spurring the animal on.
Entreri reached for the whip, as did the woman driving the front wagon. Jarlaxle braced himself and stood up, looking around them, as Ellery regained control of her steed and chased off after Mariabronne.
"What is it?" Entreri bade his companion.
"I'm feeling a bump and a bit of a shake," yelled Athrogate from the back of the wagon in front. "I'm thinkin' to find a few monsters to break!"
Entreri watched the dwarf bring forth both his morning stars with a blazing, fluid movement, the balls immediately set to spinning before him.
Athrogate lost all concentration and rhythm a split second later, however, as the ground between the wagons erupted and several snakelike creatures sprang up into the air. They unfurled little wings as they lifted, hovering in place, little fanged mouths smiling in hungry anticipation.
The horse reared again and the poor rider could hardly hold on. Up leaped a snake-creature, right before his terror-wide eyes. He instinctively threw his hands before his face as the serpent spat a stream of acid into his eyes.
Down he tumbled, his weapon still sheathed aside his terrified, leaping horse, and all around him more winged snakes sprang from holes and lifted into the air.
Streams of spittle assaulted the man, setting his cloak smoldering with a dozen wisps of gray smoke. He screamed and rolled as more and more acid struck him, blistering his skin.
His horse leaped and bucked and thundered away, a group of snakes flying in close and hungry pursuit.
Beside the gray-haired man, Davis Eng kept his horse under control and crowded in to try to shield his fallen comrade, but more and more winged snakes came forth from the ground, rising up to intercede. Out came Davis Eng's broadsword, and a quick slash folded one of the hovering snakes around the blade and sent it flying away as he finished through with his great swing.
But another snake was right there, spitting into the soldier's face, blinding him with its acid. He swept his blade back furiously, whipping it about in a futile effort to keep the nasty little creatures at bay.
More venom hit the man and his mount. Another pair of snakes dived in from behind and bit hard at the horse, causing it to rear and shriek in pain. The soldier held on but lost all thoughts of helping his prostrated companion. That prone man continued to squirm under a barrage of acidic streams. He clawed at the ground, trying to get some traction so that he could propel himself away.
But a snake dived onto his neck, wrapping its body around him and driving its acid-dripping fangs into his throat. He grabbed at it frantically with both hands, but other snakes dived in fast and hard, spitting and biting.
Entreri shouted out, and the horses snorted and bucked in terror and swerved to the right, moving up along the uneven and rising foothill.
"Hold them!" Jarlaxle cried, grabbing at the reigns.
The wagon jolted hard, its rear wheel clipping a stone and diving into a deep rut. The horse team broke free, pulling the harness from the frame and taking both Jarlaxle and Entreri with them - for the moment at least. Both kept their sensibilities enough to let go as they came forward from the jolt and tug, and neither was foolish enough to try to resist the sudden momentum. They hit the ground side by side, Entreri in a roll and the drow landing lightly on his feet and running along to absorb the shock.
Entreri came up to his feet in a flash, sword and dagger in hand and already working. He set opaque veils of ash in the air around him, visually shielding himself from the growing throng of winged snakes.
Streams of acidic spittle popped through the sheets of black ash, but the assassin was not caught unaware. Already turning and shifting to avoid the assault, he burst through hard, catching the snakes by surprise as they had tried to catch him. A slash of Charon's Claw took down a pair, and a stab of his jeweled dagger stuck hard into the torso of a third. That snake snapped its head forward to bite at the assassin's wrist, but Entreri was a flash ahead of it, twisting his hand down and flicking the blade to send the creature flying away.
Before the creature had even cleared from the blade, the assassin was on the defensive again, slashing his sword to fend a trio of diving serpents and to deflect three lines of acid.
More came at him from the other side, and he knew he could never defeat them all. He surrendered his ground, leaping back down the hill toward the two dwarves and the thin man, who had formed a triangular defensive posture in the back of the rolling wagon.
Athrogate's twin morning stars moved in a blur, spiked metal balls spinning fast at the end of their respective chains. He worked them out and around with tremendous precision, never interrupting their flow, but cunningly altering their angles to clip and send spinning any snakes that ventured too close. Athrogate let out a series of rhyming curses as he fought, for lines of acidic spittle assaulted him, sending wisps of smoke from his beard and tunic.
Pratcus stood behind him, deep in prayer, and every now and then he called out to Moradin then gently touched his wild bodyguard, using healing magic to help repair some of his many wounds.
To the side of the cleric, the thin man waggled his fingers, sending forth bolts of energy that drove back the nearest creatures.
Entreri knew he had to catch that wagon.
"Make way!" he cried, cutting fast to the side, coming up even with the back of the wagon as he leaped atop a rock.
Athrogate turned fast, giving him safe passage onto the bed. Before the dwarf could yell, "Hold the flank!" Entreri went right past him, between the other dwarf and the thin man. He scrambled over the bench rail to take a seat between the two drivers, both of whom were ducking and screaming in pain.
Entreri threw the hood of his cloak up over his head and grabbed the reins from Calihye. The half-elf woman was obviously blinded and almost senseless.
"Keep them away from me!" he shouted to the trio behind.
He bent low in the seat, urging the horses on faster.
Parissus, sitting to Entreri's right, mumbled something and slumped in hard against him, causing him to twist and inadvertently tug the reins and slow the team. With a growl, Entreri shoved back, not quite realizing that the woman had lost all consciousness. She tumbled back the other way and kept going, right over the side. Entreri grabbed at her but couldn't hold her and hold the team in its run.
He chose the wagon.
The woman rolled off, falling under the front wheel with a grunt, then a second grunt as the back wheel bounced over her.
Calihye cried out and grabbed at Entreri's arm, yelling at him to stop the wagon.
He turned to glower at her, to let her know in no uncertain terms that if she didn't immediately let go of him, he'd toss her off the other side.
She fell back in fear and pain then screamed again as another stream of acidic venom hit her in the face, blistering one cheek.
Hold on! Hold on!
That was all the poor, confused Davis Eng could think as the assault continued. Gone were his hopes for aiding his fallen friend, for he rode on the very edge of doom, disoriented, lost in a sea of hovering, biting, spitting serpents. Lines of blood ran down his arms and along the flanks of his horse, and angry blisters covered half his face.
"Abominations of Zhengyi!" he heard his beloved commander yell from somewhere far, far away - too distant to aid him, he knew.
He had to find a direction and bolt his horse away, but how could he begin to do anything but hold on for all his life?
His horse reared, whinnied, and spun on its hind legs. Then something hit it hard from the side, stopping the turn, and the soldier lurched over and could not hold on.
But a hand grabbed him hard and yanked him upright, then slid past him and grabbed at his reigns, straightening him and his horse out and leading them on.
So great was Mariabronne's control of his mount that the horse accepted the stinging hits from the abominations, accepted the collision with Davis Eng's horse, and carried on exactly as the ranger demanded, finding a line out of there and galloping away.
On the ground behind Mariabronne, the fallen soldier kept squirming and rolling, but he was obviously beyond help. It pained Mariabronne greatly to abandon him, but there was clearly no choice, for dozens of snake creatures slithered around him, biting him repeatedly, filling his veins with their venom.
The horses could outrun the creatures, Mariabronne knew, and that was this other soldier's - and his own - only hope.
The warrior woman cried out, bending low and slashing her axe through the air as her horse thundered on toward the soon-to-be-overwhelmed drow. He worked his arms frantically - and magnificently, Ellery had to admit - sending a stream of spinning daggers at the nearby snakes. He spun continually as well, his cloak flying wide and offering more than nominal protection against the barrage of acidic venom flying his way. Still, he got hit more than once and grimaced in pain, and Ellery was certain that he couldn't possibly keep up the seemingly endless supply of missiles.
She bent lower, winced, and nearly fell from her seat as a stream of caustic fluid struck the side of her jaw, just under the bottom edge of her great helm. She kept her wits about her enough to send her axe swiping forward to tear the wing from another of the snakes, but a second got in over the blade and dived hard onto her wrist and hand. Hooked fangs came forth and jabbed hard through Ellery's gauntlet.
The knight howled and dropped her axe then furiously shook her hand, sending both the gauntlet and the serpent tumbling away. She shouted to the drow and drove her steed on toward him, reaching out her free hand for his.
Jarlaxle caught her grip, his second hand working fast down low with a dagger, and Ellery's surprise was complete when she found herself sliding back from her seat rather than tugging the drow along. Some magic had gripped the dark elf, she realized, for his strength was magnified many times over and he did not yield a step as her horse galloped by.
She was on the ground in a flash, stunned and stumbling, but Jarlaxle held her up on her feet.
"What...?" she started to ask.
The drow jerked her in place in front of him, and Ellery noted faint sparkles in the air around them both, a globe of some sort.
"Do not pull away!" he warned.
He lifted his other hand to show her a black, ruby-tipped wand in his delicate fingers.
The woman's eyes went wide with fear as she glanced over Jarlaxle's shoulder to see a swarm of snakes flying at them.
Jarlaxle didn't show the slightest fear. He just pointed his wand at the ground and uttered a command that dropped a tiny ball of fire from its end.
Ellery instinctively recoiled, but the drow held her fast in his magically-enhanced iron grip.
She recoiled even more when the fireball erupted all around her, angry flames searing the air. She felt her breath sucked out of her lungs, felt the sudden press of blazing heat, and all around her and the drow, the globe sparked and glowed in angry response.
But it held. The killing flames could not get through. Outside that space, though, for a score of feet all around, the fires ate hungrily.
Serpents fell flaming to the ground, charred to a crisp before they landed. Off to the side, the wagon Entreri and Jarlaxle had unceremoniously abandoned flared, the corn in the supply bags already popping in the grip of the great flames. Across the other way, the body of the fallen soldier crackled and charred, as did the dozen serpents that squirmed atop it.
A puff of black smoke billowed into the air above the warrior and the drow. The wagon continued to burn, sending a stream up as well, its timbers crackling in protest.
But other than that, the air around them grew still, preternaturally serene, as if Jarlaxle's fireball had cleansed the air itself.
A wave of heat flashed past Entreri - the hot winds of Jarlaxle's fireball. He heard the thin man in the wagon behind him yell out in the surprise, followed by Athrogate's appreciative, "Good with the boom for clearin' the room!"
If the assassin had any intention of slowing and looking back, though, it was quickly dismissed by the plop of acidic spittle on the hood of his cloak and the flapping of serpent wings beside his ear.
Before he could even move to address that situation, he heard a thrumming sound followed by a loud whack and the sight of the blasted serpent spiraling out to the side. The thrumming continued and Entreri recognized it as Athrogate's morning stars, the dwarf working them with deadly precision.
"I got yer back, I got yer head," came the dwarf's cry. "Them snakes attack ye, they wind up dead!"
"Just shut up and kill them," Entreri muttered under his breath - or so he thought. A roar of laughter from Athrogate clued him in that he had said it a bit too loudly.
Another serpent went flying away, right past his head, and Entreri heard a quick series of impacts, each accompanied by a dwarf's roar. Entreri did manage to glance to the side to see the remaining woman, fast slipping from consciousness, beginning to roll off the side of the wagon. With a less-than-amused grimace, Entreri grabbed her and tugged her back into place beside him.
Entreri then glanced back and saw Athrogate running around in a fury. His morning stars hummed and flew, splattering snakes and tossing them far aside, launching them up into the air or dropping them straight down to smack hard into the ground.
Behind the two dwarves the thin man stood at the back of the wagon, facing the way they had come and waggling his fingers. A cloud of green fog spewed forth from his hands, trailing the fast-moving wagon.
The serpents in close pursuit pulled up and began to writhe and spasm when they came in contact with the fog. A moment later, they began falling dead to the ground.
"Aye!" the other dwarf cried.
"Poison the air, ye clever wizard?" said Athrogate. "Choking them stinkin', spittin' liza - "
"Don't say it!" Entreri shouted at him.
"What?" the dwarf replied.
"Just shut up," said the assassin.
Athrogate shrugged, his morning stars finally losing momentum and dropping down at the end of their respective chains.
"Ain't nothing left to hit," he remarked.
Entreri glared at him, as if daring him to find a rhyming line.
"Ease up the team," the thin man said. "The pursuit is no more."
Entreri tugged the reigns just a bit and coaxed the horses to slow. He turned the wagon to the side and noted the approach of Mariabronne and the wounded soldier, the ranger still handling both their mounts. Entreri moved around a bit more onto the flat plain, allowing himself a view of the escape route. The wizard's killing cloud of green fog began to dissipate, and the distant burning wagon came more clearly into sight, a pillar of black smoke rising into the air.
Beside him, Calihye coughed and groaned.
Mariabronne handed the soldier's horse over to the care of Athrogate then turned his own horse around and galloped back to the body of the other fallen woman. Looking past him, Entreri noted that the other soldier was dead, for the man's charred corpse was clearly in sight.
From the sight of the fallen woman, all twisted, bloody, and unmoving, the assassin gathered that they had lost two in the encounter.
At least two, he realized, and to his own surprise, a quiver of alarm came over him and he glanced around, calming almost immediately when he noted Jarlaxle off to the other side, up in the foothills, calmly walking toward them. He noted Ellery, too, a bit behind the drow, moving after her scared and riderless mount.
The wounded woman on the ground groaned and Entreri turned to see Mariabronne cradling her head. The ranger gently lifted her battered form from the mud and set her over his horse's back then slowly led the mount back to the wagon.
"Parissus?" Calihye asked. She crawled back into a sitting position, widened her eyes, and called again for her friend, more loudly. "Parissus!"
The look on Mariabronne's face was not promising. Nor was the lifeless movement of Parissus, limply bouncing along.
"Parissus?" the woman beside Entreri cried again, even more urgently as her senses returned. She started past the assassin but stopped short. "You did this to her!" she cried, moving her twisted face right up to Entreri's.
Or trying to, for when the final word escaped her lips, it came forth with a gurgle. Entreri's strong hand clamped against her throat, fingers perfectly positioned to crush her windpipe. She grabbed at the hold with both hands then dropped one low - to retrieve a weapon, Entreri knew.
He wasn't overly concerned, however, for she stopped short when the tip of the assassin's jeweled dagger poked in hard under her chin.
"Would you care to utter another accusation?" Entreri asked.
"Be easy, boy," said Athrogate.
Beside him, the other dwarf began to quietly chant.
"If that is a spell aimed at me, then you would be wise to reconsider," said Entreri.
The dwarf cleric did stop - but only when a drow hand grabbed him by the shoulder.
"There is no need for animosity," Jarlaxle said to them all. "A difficult foe, but one vanquished."
"Because you decided to burn them, and your companion," accused the shaken, shivering half-elf soldier.
"Your friend was dead long before I initiated the fireball," said the drow. "And if I had not, then I and Commander Ellery would have suffered a similar fate."
"You do not know that!"
Jarlaxle shrugged as if it did not matter. "I saved myself and Commander Ellery. I could not have saved your friend, nor could you, in any case."
"Abominations of Zhengyi," said Mariabronne, drawing close to the others. "More may be about. We have no time for this foolishness."
Entreri looked at the ranger, then at Jarlaxle, who nodded for him to let the half-elf go. He did just that, offering her one last warning glare.
Calihye gagged a bit and fell back from him, but recovered quickly. She scrambled from the wagon bench and over to her fallen companion. Mariabronne let her pass by, but looked to the others and shook his head.
"I got some spells," the dwarf cleric said.
Mariabronne walked away from the horse, leaving the woman with her fallen friend. "Then use them," he told the dwarf. "But I doubt they will be of help. She is full of poison and the fall broke her spine."
The dwarf nodded grimly and ambled past him. He grabbed at the smaller Calihye, who was sobbing uncontrollably, and seemed as if she would melt into the ground beside the horse.
"Parissus..." she whispered over and over.
"A stream of drats for being her," Athrogate muttered.
"At least," said Jarlaxle.
The sound of an approaching horse turned them all to regard Ellery.
"Mariabronne, with me," the commander instructed. "We will go back and see what we can salvage. I need to retrieve my battle-axe and we have another horse running free. I'll not leave it behind." She glanced at the fallen woman, as Pratcus and Calihye were easing her down from the horse. "What of her?"
"No," Mariabronne said, his voice quiet and respectful.
"Put her in the wagon then, and get it moving along," Ellery instructed.
Her callous tone drew a grin from Entreri. He could tell that she was agitated under that calm facade.
"I am Canthan," he heard the thin man tell Jarlaxle. "I witnessed your blast. Most impressive. I did not realize that you dabbled in the Art."
"I am a drow of many talents."
Canthan bowed and seemed impressed.
"And many items," Entreri had to put in.
Jarlaxle tipped his great hat and smiled.
Entreri didn't return his smile, though, for the assassin had caught the gaze of Calihye. He saw a clear threat in her blue-gray eyes. Yes, she blamed him for her friend's fall.
"Come along, ye dolts, and load the wagon!" Athrogate roared as Mariabronne and Ellery started off. "Be quick afore Zhengyi attacks with a dragon! Bwahaha!"
"It will be an interesting ride," Jarlaxle said to Entreri as he climbed up onto the bench beside the assassin.
"'Interesting' is a good word," Entreri replied.