"Hurry!" Calihye shouted at Entreri. "Drive them harder!"
Entreri grunted in reply but did not put the whip to the team. He understood her desperation, but it was hardly his problem. Across a wide expanse of rocky ground with patches of mud, far up ahead, loomed the low skyline of Palishchuk. They were still some time away from the city, Entreri knew, and if he drove the team any harder, the horses would likely collapse before they reached the gates.
Jarlaxle sat beside him on the bench, with Athrogate next to him, far to Entreri's left. Pratcus sat in the back, along with Calihye and the two wounded, the soldier Davis Eng and Calihye's broken companion, Parissus.
"Harder, I say, on your life!" Calihye screamed from behind.
Entreri resisted the urge to pull the team up. Jarlaxle put a hand on his forearm, and when he glanced at the drow, Jarlaxle motioned for him to not respond.
In truth, Entreri wasn't thinking of shouting back at the desperate woman, though the thought of drawing his dagger, leaping back, and cutting out her wagging tongue occurred to him more than once.
A second hand landed on the assassin's other shoulder, and he snapped his cold and threatening glare back the other way, face-to-face with Pratcus.
"The lady Parissus is sure to be dying," the dwarf explained. "She's got moments and no more."
"I cannot drive them faster than - " Entreri started to reply, but the dwarf cut him short with an upraised hand and a look that showed no explanation was needed.
"I'm only telling ye so ye don't go back and shut the poor girl up," Pratcus explained. "Them half-elves are a bit on the lamenting side, if ye get me meaning."
"There is nothing you can do for the woman?" Jarlaxle asked.
"I got all I can handle in keeping Davis Eng alive," Pratcus explained. "And he weren't hurt much at all in comparison, except a bit o' acid burns. It's the damn bites she got. So many of 'em. Poisoned they were, and a nasty bit o' the stuff. And Parissus, she'd be dying without the poison, though I'm sure there's enough to kill us all running through her veins."
"Then have Athrogate smash her skull," Entreri said. "Be done with it, and done with her pain."
"She's far beyond any pain, I'm thinking."
"More's the pity," said Entreri.
"He gets like that when he's frustrated," Jarlaxle quipped.
He received a perfectly vicious look from Entreri and of course, the drow responded with a disarming grin.
"That soldier gonna live, then?" asked Athrogate, but Pratcus could only shrug.
Behind them all, Calihye cried out.
"Saved me a swat," Athrogate remarked, understanding, as did they all from the hollow and helpless timbre of the shriek that death had at last come for Parissus.
Calihye continued to wail, even after Pratcus joined her and tried to comfort her.
"Might be needing a swat, anyway," Athrogate muttered after a few moments of the keening.
Ellery pulled her horse us beside the rolling wagon, inquiring of the cleric for Parissus and her soldier.
"Nasty bit o' poison," Entreri and Jarlaxle heard the dwarf remark.
"We're not even to the city, and two are down," Entreri said to the drow.
"Two less to split the treasures that no doubt await us at the end of our road."
Entreri didn't bother to reply.
A short while later, the Palishchuk skyline much clearer before them, the troupe noted the circle of brightly colored wagons set before the city's southern wall. At that point, Mariabronne galloped past the wagon, moving far ahead.
"Wingham the merchant and his troupe," Ellery explained, coming up beside Entreri.
"I do not know of him," Jarlaxle said to her.
"Wingham," Athrogate answered slyly, and all eyes went to him, to see him holding one of his matched glassteel morning stars out before him, letting the spiked head sway and bounce at the end of its chain with the rhythm of the moving wagon.
"Wingham is known for trading in rare items, particularly weapons," Ellery explained. "He would have more than a passing interest in your sword," she added to Entreri.
Entreri grinned despite himself. He could imagine handing the weapon over to an inquiring "Wingham," whoever or whatever a "Wingham" might be. Without the protective gauntlet, an unwitting or weaker individual trying to hold Charon's Claw would find himself overmatched and devoured by the powerful, sentient item.
"A fine set of morning stars," Jarlaxle congratulated the dwarf.
"Finer than ye're knowing," Athrogate replied with a grotesque wink. "Putting foes to flying farther than ye're throwing!"
"Fine weapons," Jarlaxle agreed.
"Enchanted mightily," said Ellery.
Jarlaxle looked from the rocking morning star back to the commander and said, "I will have to pay this Wingham a visit, I see."
"Bring a sack o' gold!" the dwarf hollered. "And a notion to part with it!"
"Wingham is known as a fierce trader," Ellery explained.
"Then I really will have to pay him a visit," said the drow.
Pratcus waddled back up to lean between Entreri and the drow. "She's gone," he confirmed. "Better for her that it went quick, I'm thinking, for she weren't to be using her arms or legs e'er again."
That did make Entreri wince a bit, recalling the bumps as the wagon had bounced over poor Parissus.
"What of Davis Eng?" Ellery asked.
"He's a sick one, but I'm thinking he'll get back to his feet. A few tendays in the bed'll get him up."
"A month?" Ellery replied. She did not seem pleased with that information.
"Three gone," Entreri mumbled to the drow, who didn't really seem to care.
Ellery obviously did, however. "Keep him alive, at all cost," she instructed then she turned her horse aside and drove her heels into its flanks, launching it away.
Accompanied by the continuing sobs of Calihye, Entreri took the wagon the rest of the way to Palishchuk. On Ellery's orders, he rolled the cart past Wingham's circus and to the city's southern gate, where they were given passage without interference - no doubt arranged by Mariabronne, who had long ago entered the city.
They pulled up beside a guardhouse, just inside the southern gate, and stable hands and attendants came to greet them.
"I promise you that I will not forget what you did," Calihye whispered to Entreri as she moved past him to climb down from the wagon.
Jarlaxle again put a hand on the assassin's forearm, but Entreri wasn't about to respond to that open threat - with words anyway.
Entreri rarely if ever responded to threats with words. In his thoughts, he understood that Calihye would soon again stand beside Parissus.
A trio of city guards hustled out to collect Davis Eng, bidding Pratcus to go with them. Another couple came out to retrieve the body of Parissus.
"We have rooms secured inside, though we'll not be here long," Ellery explained to the others. "Make yourself at ease; take your rest as you can."
"You are leaving us?" the drow asked.
"Mariabronne has left word that I am to meet him at Wingham's circus," she explained. "I will return presently with word of our course."
"Your course," Calihye corrected, drawing all eyes her way. "I'm through with you, then."
"You knew the dangers when you joined my quest," Ellery scolded, but not too angrily, "as did Parissus."
"I'm to be no part of a team with that one," Calihye retorted, tipping her chin in Entreri's direction. "He'll throw any of us to our doom to save himself. A wonder it is that even one other than him and that drow survived the road."
Ellery looked at the assassin, who merely shrugged.
"Bah! But yer friend fell and flees to the Hells," Athrogate cut in. "We're all for dyin', whate'er we're tryin', so quit yer cryin'! Bwahaha!"
Calihye glowered at him, which made him laugh all the more. He waddled away toward the guardhouse, seeming totally unconcerned.
"He is one to be wary of," Jarlaxle whispered to Entreri, and the assassin didn't disagree.
"You agreed to see this through," Ellery said to Calihye. She moved over as she spoke, and forcibly turned the woman to face her. "Parissus is gone and there's naught I, or you, can do about it. We've a duty here."
"Your own duty, and mine no more."
Ellery leveled a hard stare at her.
"Will I be finding myself an outlaw in King Gareth's lands, then, because I refuse to travel with a troupe of unreliables?"
Ellery's look softened. "No, of course not. I will ask of you only that you stay and look over Davis Eng. It seems that he'll be journeying with us no farther as well. When we are done with Palishchuk, we will return you to the Vaasan Gate - with Parissus's body, if that is your choice."
"And my share is still secure?" the woman dared ask. "And Parissus's, which she willed to me before your very eyes?"
To the surprise of both Entreri and Jarlaxle, Ellery didn't hesitate in agreeing.
"An angry little creature," Jarlaxle whispered to his friend.
"A source of trouble?" Entreri mused.
"Mariabronne has returned," Wingham informed Olgerkhan when he found the large half-orc back at Nyungy's house. "He has brought a commander from the Vaasan Gate, along with several other mercenaries, to inspect the castle. They will find a way, Olgerkhan. Arrayan will be saved."
The warrior looked at him with undisguised skepticism.
"You will join them in their journey," Wingham went on, "to help them in finding a way to defeat the curse of Zhengyi."
"And you will care for Arrayan?" Olgerkhan asked with that same evident doubt. He glanced to the side of the wide foyer, to a door that led to a small closet. "You will protect her from him?"
Wingham glanced that way, as well. "You put the great Nyungy in a closet?"
Olgerkhan shrugged, and Wingham started that way.
"Leave him in there!" Olgerkhan demanded.
Wingham spun back on him, stunned that the normally docile - or controllable, at least - warrior had so commanded him.
"Leave him in there," Olgerkhan reiterated. "I beg of you. He can breathe. He is not dangerously bound."
The two stared at each other for a long while, and it seemed to Olgerkhan as if Wingham was fighting an internal struggle over some decision. The old merchant started to speak a couple of times, but kept stopping short and finally just assumed a pensive pose.
"I will not care for Arrayan," Wingham said decided at last.
"Then I will not leave her."
Wingham stepped toward Olgerkhan, reaching into his coat pocket as he did. Olgerkhan leaned back, defensive, but calmed when he noted the objects Wingham had produced: a pair of rings, gold bands with a clear gemstone set in each.
"Where is she?" Wingham asked. "Back at her house?"
Olgerkhan stared at him a bit longer, then shook his head. He glanced up the stairs then led the way to the first balcony. In a small bedroom, they came upon Arrayan, lying very still but breathing with a smooth rhythm.
"She felt better, a bit," Olgerkhan explained.
"Does she know of Nyungy?"
"I told her that he was with you, looking for some answers."
Wingham nodded, then moved to his niece. He sat on the bed beside her, blocking much of Olgerkhan's view. He bent low for a moment then moved aside.
Olgerkhan's gaze was drawn to the woman and to the ring Wingham had placed on her finger. The clear gem sparkled for a brief moment then it went gray, as if smoke had somehow filtered into the gemstone. It continued to darken as Olgerkhan moved closer, and by the time he gently lifted Arrayan's hand for a closer inspection, the gem was as inky black as onyx.
The warrior looked at Wingham, who stood with his hand out toward Olgerkhan, holding the other ring.
"Are you strong enough to share her burden?" Wingham asked.
Olgerkhan looked at him, not quite understanding. Wingham held up the other ring.
"These are Rings of Arbitration," the old merchant explained. "Both a blessing and a curse, created long ago by magic long lost to the world. Only a few pairs existed, items crafted for lovers who were bound body and soul."
"Arrayan and I are not - "
"I know, but it does not matter. What matters is what's in your heart. Are you strong enough to share her burden, and are you willing to die for her, or beside her, should it come to that?"
"I am. Of course," Olgerkhan answered without the slightest hesitation.
He reached for Wingham and took the offered ring. With but a fleeting glance at Arrayan, he slid the ring on his finger. Before he even had it in place, a profound weariness came over him. His vision swam and his head throbbed with a sharp pain. His stomach churned from the waves of dizziness and his legs wobbled as if they would simply fold beneath him. He felt as if a taloned hand had materialized within him and had begun to tug at his very life-force, twanging that thin line of energy so sharply and insistently that Olgerkhan feared it would just shatter, explode into a scattering of energy.
He felt Wingham's hand on him, steadying him, and he used the tangible grip as a guide back to the external world. Through his bleary vision he spotted Arrayan, lying still but with her eyes open. She moved one arm up to brush back her thick hair, and even through the haze it was apparent to Olgerkhan that the color had returned to her face.
He understood it all then, so clearly. Wingham had asked him to "share her burden."
That thought in mind, the half-orc growled and forced the dizziness aside, then straightened his posture, grabbed Wingham's hand with his own, and pointedly moved it away. He looked to the old merchant and nodded. Then he glanced down at his ring and watched as a blood-red mist flowed into it and swirled in the facets of the cut stone. The mist turned gray, but a light gray, not the blackness he had seen upon poor Arrayan's finger.
He glanced back at the woman, at her ring, and saw that it, too, was no longer onyx black.
"Through the power of the rings, the burden is shared," Wingham whispered to him. "I can only hope that I have not just given a greater source of power to the growing construct."
"I will not fail in this," Olgerkhan assured him, though neither of them really knew what "this" might actually mean.
Wingham moved over and studied Arrayan, who was resting more comfortably, obviously, though she had again closed her eyes.
"It is a temporary reprieve," the merchant said. "The tower will continue to draw from her, and as she weakens, so too will you. This is our last chance - our only chance - to save her. Both of you will go with Mariabronne and Gareth's emissary. Defeat the power that has grown dark on our land, but if you cannot, Olgerkhan, then there is something else you must do for me."
The large half-orc stood attentively, staring hard at old Wingham.
"You must not let the castle have her," Wingham explained.
"Consume her," came the reply. "I cannot truly comprehend what that even means, but Nyungy, who is wiser than I, was insistent on this point. The castle grows through the life-force of Arrayan, and the castle has made great gains because we did not know what we battle. Even now, we cannot understand how to defeat it, but defeat it you must, and quickly. And if you cannot, Olgerkhan, I will have your word that you will not let the castle consume my dear Arrayan!"
Olgerkhan's gaze went to Arrayan again as he tried to sort through the words, and as Wingham's meaning finally began to dawn on him, his soft appearance took on a much harder edge. "You ask me to kill her?"
"I ask for your mercy and demand of you your strength."
Olgerkhan seemed as if he would stride over and tear Wingham's head from his shoulders.
"If you cannot do this for me then..." Wingham began, and he lifted Arrayan's limp arm and grabbed at the ring.
"Then I will have your word," said the merchant. "Olgerkhan, there is no choice before us. Go and do battle, if battle is to be found. Mariabronne is wise in the ways of the world, and he has brought an interesting troupe with him, including a dark elf and a wizened sage from Damara. But if the battle cannot be won, or won in time, then you must not allow the castle to take Arrayan. You must find the strength to be merciful."
Olgerkhan was breathing in rough pants by then, and he felt his heart tearing apart as he looked at his dear Arrayan lying on the bed.
"Put her hand down," Olgerkhan said at length. "I understand and will not fail in this. The castle will not have Arrayan, but if she dies at my hand, know that I will fast follow her to the next world."
Wingham slowly nodded.
"Better this than to enter the castle beside that troublesome dwarf," said Davis Eng, his voice weak with poison.
Herbalists had come to him, and Pratcus had worked more spells over him. He would survive, they all agreed, but it would be some time before he even had the strength to return to the Vaasan Gate, and it would likely be tendays before he could lift his sword again.
"Athrogate?" Calihye asked.
"A filthy little wretch."
"If he heard you say that, he'd crush your skull," the woman replied. "The finest fighter at the wall, so it was said, and there's more than a little magic in those morning stars he swings so cleverly."
"Strength of arm is one thing. Strength of heart another. Has one so fine ever thought to enlist in the Army of Bloodstone?"
"By serving at the wall, he serves the designs of King Gareth," Calihye reminded.
Flat on his back, Davis Eng lifted a trembling hand and waved that notion away.
Calihye persisted. "How many monster ears has he delivered to your Commander Ellery, then? And those of giants, too. Not many can lay claim to felling a giant in single combat, but it's one that Athrogate all too easily brandishes."
"And how do you know he was alone? He's got that skinny friend of his - more trouble than the dwarf!"
"And more dangerous," said Calihye. "Speak not ill of Canthan in my presence."
Davis Eng lifted his head enough to glower at her.
"And be particularly wise to do as I say as you lie there helplessly," the woman added, and that made the man lay his head back down.
"I didn't know you were friends."
"Me and Canthan?" The woman snorted. "The more ground's between us, the calmer beats my heart. But like your dwarf, that one is better on my side than my opponent's." She paused and moved across the small room to the fire pit, where a kettle of stew simmered. "You want more?"
The man waved and shook his head. It already seemed as though he was falling far, far away from the conscious world.
"Better to be out here, indeed," Calihye said - to herself, for Davis Eng had lapsed into unconsciousness. "They're for going into that castle, so I'm hearing, and that's no place I'm wanting to be, Athrogate and Canthan beside me or not."
"But did you not just say that the dwarf was a fine warrior?" came a different voice behind her, and the woman froze in place. "And the skinny one even more dangerous?"
Calihye didn't dare turn about; she knew from the proximity of the voice that the newcomer could take her down efficiently if she threatened him. How had he gotten so near? How had he even gotten into the room?
"Might I even know who's addressing me?" she dared ask.
A hand grabbed her shoulder and guided her around to look into the dark eyes of Artemis Entreri. Anger flared in Calihye's eyes, and she had to fight the urge to leap upon the man who had allowed her friend to fall beneath the wagon wheels.
Wisdom overcame the temptation, though, for in looking at the man, standing so at ease, his hands relaxed and ready to bring forth one of his ornamented weapons in the blink of an eye, she knew that she had no chance.
Not now. Not with her own weapons across the way next to Davis Eng's bed.
Entreri smiled at her, and she knew that her glance at the sleeping soldier had betrayed her.
"What do you want?" she asked.
"I wanted you to keep on speaking, that I could hear what I needed to hear and be on my way," Entreri replied. "Since that is not an option, apparently, I decided to bid you continue."
"Your appraisal of Athrogate and Canthan, to start," said the assassin. "And any information you might offer on the others."
"Why should I offer anyth - "
She bit off the last word, and nearly the tip of her tongue as faster than her eye could even follow, the assassin had his jeweled dagger in his hand and tip-in against the underside of her chin.
"Because I do not like you," Entreri explained. "And unless you make me like you in the next few minutes, I will make your death unbearable."
He pressed in just a bit harder, forcing Calihye up on her tip-toes.
"I can offer gold," she said through her gritted teeth.
"I will take whatever gold of yours I want," he assured her.
"Please," she begged. "By what right - "
"Did you not threaten me out on the road?" he said. "I do not let such chatter pass me by. I do not leave enemies alive in my wake."
"I am not your enemy," she rasped. "Please, if you let me show you."
She lifted one hand as if to gently stroke him, but he only grinned and pressed that awful dagger in more tightly, breaking the skin just a bit.
"I don't find you charming," Entreri said. "I don't find you alluring. It annoys me that you are still alive. You have very little time left."
He let the dagger draw a bit of the half-elf's life-force into its vampiric embrace. Calihye's eyes widened in an expression so full of horror that the assassin knew he had her undivided attention.
He reached up with his other hand, planted it on her chest, and retracted the dagger as he unceremoniously shoved her back and to the side of the cooking pit.
"What would you ask of me?" Calihye gasped, one hand clutching her chin as if she believed she had to contain her life's essence.
"What more is there to know of Athrogate and Canthan?"
The woman held up her hands as if she didn't understand.
"You battle monsters for your living, yet you fear Canthan," said Entreri. "Why?"
"He has dangerous friends."
The woman swallowed hard.
"Two beats of your fast-beating heart," said Entreri.
"They say he is associated with the citadel."
"What citadel? And do understand that I grow weary of prying each word from your mouth one at a time."
"The Citadel of Assassins."
Entreri nodded his understanding, for he had indeed heard whispers of the shadowy band, living on after the fall of Zhengyi, digging out their kingdom in the shadows created by the brilliance of King Gareth's shining light. They were not so different than the pashas Entreri had served for so long on the streets of Calimport.
"And the dwarf?"
"I know not," said Calihye. "Dangerous, of course, and mighty in battle. That he even speaks to Canthan frightens me. That is all."
"And the others?"
Again the woman held up her hand as if she did not understand.
"The other dwarf?"
"I know nothing of him."
"Ellery?" he asked, but he shook his head even as the name left his lips, doubting there was anything the half-elf might tell him of the red-haired commander. "Mariabronne?"
"You have not heard of Mariabronne the Rover?"
A glare from Entreri reminded her that it really wasn't her place to ask the questions.
"He is the most renowned traveler in Vaasa, a man of legend," Calihye explained. "It is said that he could track a swift-flying bird over mountains of empty stone. He is fine with the blade and finer with his wits, and always he seems in the middle of momentous events. Every child in Damara can tell you tales of Mariabronne the Rover."
"Wonderful," the assassin muttered under his breath. He moved across the room to Calihye's sword belt, hooked it with his foot and sent it flying to her waiting grasp.
"Well enough," he said to her. "Is there anything more you wish to add?"
She looked from the sword to the assassin and said, "I cannot travel with you - I am charged with guarding Davis Eng."
"Travel? Milady, you'll not leave this room. But your words satisfied me. I believe you. And I assure you, that is no small thing."
"You have earned the right to defend yourself."
"While I suspect you would rather fight him," - he gave a quick glance at the unconscious Davis Eng - "I do not believe he is up to the task."
"And if I refuse?"
"I will make it hurt more."
Calihye's look moved from one of uncertainty to that primal and determined expression Entreri had seen so many times before, the look that a fighter gets in her eye when she knows there is no escape from the battle at hand. Without blinking, without taking her gaze from him for one second, Calihye drew her sword from its scabbard and presented it defensively before her.
"There is no need for this," she remarked. "But if you must die now, then so be it."
"I do not leave enemies in my wake," Entreri said again, and out came Charon's Claw.
He felt a slight tug at his consciousness from the sentient weapon but put the intrusion down with a thought. Then he came on, a sudden and brutal flurry of movement that sent his dagger out ahead and his sword sweeping down.
Calihye snapped her blade up to block, but Entreri shifted the angle at the last minute, making the sword flash by untouched - until, that is, he reversed the flow and slapped it hard against the underside of her sword, bringing forth a yelp of surprise to accompany the loud ringing of metal.
Entreri hit her sword again as she tried to bring it to bear, then retreated a step.
The woman slipped back behind the fire pit and glanced at Entreri from above the glow. Her gaze went down to the cooking pot, just briefly.
Enough for Entreri.
Charon's Claw came across vertically as Calihye broke for the pot, launching it and the tripod on which it stood forward to send hot stew flying. She followed with a howl, one that turned to surprise as she saw the wall of black ash Entreri's sword had created.
Still, she could not halt her momentum as she leaped the small fire pit, and she followed the pot through the ash wall, bursting out with a wild slashing of her sword to drive the no-doubt retreating intruder back even farther.
Except that he was not there.
"How?" Calihye managed to say even as she felt the explosion of pain in her kidney.
Fire burned through her and before she regained her sensibilities she was on her knees. She tried to turn her shoulders and send her sword flashing back behind her, but a boot stopped her elbow short, painfully extending her arm, and the sword flew from her hand.
She felt the heavy blade settle onto her collarbone, its evil edge against the side of her neck.
Entreri knew he should just be done with her then and there. Her hatred on the road had sounded as a clear warning bell to him that she might one day repay him for the perceived wrong.
But something washed over him in that moment, strong and insistent. He saw Calihye in a different light, softer and vulnerable, one that made him reconsider his earlier words to her - almost. He looked past the scar on her face and saw the beauty that was there beneath. What had driven a woman such as her to so hard a road, he wondered?
He retracted the sword, but instead of bringing it in to take his enemy's head, he leaned in very close to her, his breath hot in her ear.
Disturbed by his emotions, Entreri roughly shook them away.
"Remember how easily you were beaten," he whispered. "Remember that I did not kill you, nor did I kill your friend. Her death was an unfortunate accident, and would that I could go back to that frantic moment and catch her before she fell, but I cannot. If you cannot accept that truth then remember this."
The assassin brought the tip of his awful dagger up against her cheek, and the woman shuddered with revulsion.
"I will make it hurt, Calihye. I will make you beg me to be done with it, but...."
It took Calihye a few moments to realize that the cold metal of the demonic blade was no longer against her skin. She slowly dared to open her eyes then even more slowly dared to turn back.
The room was empty save for Davis Eng, who lay with his eyes wide and terror-filled, obviously having witnessed the last moments of the one-sided fight.