Though he was confident that his job was done regarding Arrayan and Olgerkhan and that Athrogate would dispatch the assassin, Canthan glanced back many times as he ran down the descending corridor. Though his gaze turned to what lay behind him, his thoughts were on the future, for he knew that there was a great prize to be found in the pages of the Witch-King's book. His perusal of the tome had shown him possibilities beyond his imagination. Somehow within that book loomed the secret that would grant him ownership of the castle, without it taking his life-force as it had Arrayan's. He was certain of that. Zhengyi had designed it so. The book would trap the unwitting and use that soul to build the castle.
But that was only half the enchantment. Once constructed, the fortress was there for the taking - for one wise enough and strong enough to seize it.
Canthan could do that, and certainly Knellict, among the greatest of wizards in the Bloodstone Lands, could too. Had the Citadel of Assassins just found a new home, one from which they might openly challenge King Gareth's claim of dominion?
"Ah, the possibilities," Canthan muttered as he approached the next door.
The castle was either dormant or soon to be, he believed, or at least it was beyond regeneration given the fall of its life sources. Still the wizard remained at the ready.
He threw a spell of opening that swung the door in long before he physically entered the room. In the large chamber beyond, he saw movement, and he didn't even wait to discern the type of creature before he began his spellcasting.
A gnoll mummy came to the threshold. It served as the first target, the initial strike point.
A bolt of lightning arced onto its head then shot away to the next target, and on again. It diminished with each successive strike but jumped about several times. That first mummy smoked and unwrapped into a pile of smoldering rags, and Canthan was fast to the point, next spell ready. A quick survey of the large room showed him the course of his first strike, the chain bouncing across five targets, mummies all. The healthiest remaining creature had been the last hit, so Canthan reversed his line and made that one the first.
In the instant it took the second lightning chain to leap across the remaining mummies, all four went down, reduced to smoking husks.
Canthan rushed in and braziers flared to life. The wizard looked upward at the ceiling ten feet above and saw the telltale egg shapes of the guardian daemons nestled above each of the four braziers in the room.
Grinning, Canthan filled the upper two feet of the room, wall-to-wall, with strands of sticky webbing. It was a precaution only, he believed, for the castle had to be dead. The already animated monsters, like the mummies, might remain, so he thought, but with Arrayan gone, no others should animate.
The wizard paused to catch his breath and consider the situation. He hoped Ellery was done with the troublesome drow and Athrogate with the equally troublesome assassin.
Mariabronne's death was good fortune for the Citadel. The troublesome but loyal ranger would have most assuredly handed Zhengyi's great gift over to King Gareth and the other fools who ruled Damara.
Canthan knew he still had to approach things with great care, though. He hoped his guess about the qualities of the castle was correct, for his task of truly deciphering the secrets of the book would be much more difficult if he had to spend half his time destroying monsters.
The wizard had to quickly gather Athrogate and Ellery back to his side and take some rest. He had nearly exhausted his magical spells for the day, and even though he believed the battle to be won, Canthan didn't like feeling vulnerable. His wizardry was his armor and his sword. Without his spells, he was just a clever but rather feeble man.
He didn't appreciate the view, then, when a solitary man stalked with great determination into the chamber.
Far from being dead, as Canthan had presumed, the outer walls of the great structure teemed with life. Gargoyles, regenerated from their previous night's battle on the hill, flew off with the sunset, speeding across the few miles to the walls of Palishchuk.
There the defenses had been set, and there the desperate battle began. But walls proved little impediment to the winged creatures, and they swarmed the city in search of easy targets.
In her room, Calihye heard the commotion beginning on the streets, the cries of alarm and the sounds of battle joined. She looked over at Davis Eng, his eyes wide, his breathing heavy with anticipation and stark fear. A twinge of sympathy went through her, for she could only imagine his terror at being so completely helpless.
"What is it?" he managed to whisper.
Calihye had no answer. She moved to the room's one window and pulled aside the drape. Out on the street below her, she saw the fighting, where a trio of half-orc guards slashed and rushed wildly after the short hops and flights of a single gargoyle. Calihye watched for a while, mesmerized by the strange sequence and dance.
Then she gave a shout and fell back as a gargoyle crashed through the window, scattering shards of glass, its clawed hands reaching for her throat.
The woman let herself fall over in a backward roll, and she came up lightly to her feet, reversing her momentum and leaping forward as the foolish gargoyle charged ahead, impaling itself on her blade.
But another was at the window, ready to take its place.
"Help me," Davis Eng cried out.
Calihye ignored him, except to think that if the situation got too desperate she might be able to use the man as an offering to the beasts while she made her escape out the door.
She was a long way from that unpleasant possibility, however, and she went forward to meet the newest invader, working her sword with the skill of a seasoned veteran.
"Be reasonable, my friend," Canthan said as he backed away.
Artemis Entreri, his face perfectly expressionless, walked toward him.
"The girl is dead?"
"Be reasonable, man," Canthan reiterated. "She was the source of power for this place - her life-force was feeding it."
No answer. Soon Canthan had a wall to his back, and Entreri was still coming on, sword and dagger in hand.
"Ah, but you fancied her, did you not?" Canthan asked.
He laughed - a sound he had to admit to himself was for no better reason than to cover his sincere discomfort. For Canthan didn't have many spells left to cast, and if Entreri had found a way to defeat Athrogate, he was a formidable foe indeed.
Still no answer, and Canthan cast a quick spell that sent him in an extra-dimensional "blink" to the other side of the room.
Entreri did nothing but turn and continue his determined approach.
"By the gods, don't tell me that you slew Athrogate?" Canthan said to him. "Why, he was worth quite a bit to the Citadel - a favor I do for you in killing you now. However we might talk, I cannot forgive that, I fear, nor will Knellict!" He finished with a flourish of his arms, and launched a lightning bolt Entreri's way.
But it wasn't that easy. Entreri moved before the blast ensued, a sudden and efficient dive and roll out to the side.
Canthan was already casting a second time, sending a series of magical missiles that no man, not even Artemis Entreri, could avoid. But the assassin growled through their stinging bites and came on.
Laughing, Canthan readied another blast of lightning, but a dagger flashed through the air, striking him in the chest and interrupting his casting. The wizard was of course well warded from such mundane attacks, and even the jeweled dagger bounced away. He quickly refocused and let fly his blast at the man - or at what he thought was the man, he realized too late, for it was naught but a wall of ash.
Growing increasingly fearful, Canthan spun around to survey the room.
He spun again, then stopped and muttered, "Oh, clever."
He didn't even have to look to understand the assassins ruse and movement.
For in that moment of distraction from the dagger, in that reflexive blink of the wizard's eye, Entreri had not only swiped the sword and put forth the ash wall, but he had leaped up, catching himself on Canthan's webbing.
The wizard glanced up at him. The assassin was in a curl, legs tucked up tight against his chest, his hands plunged into the secure webbing. He uncoiled and swayed back, then toward Canthan. As he came forward, he flicked something he held in one hand - a simple flint and steel contraption. The resulting spark ignited the web and burned the entire section away in an instant, just as Entreri came to the height of his swing.
He flew forward, falling over into a backward somersault as he went, extending his legs and arms to control the fall. He landed lightly and in perfect balance right in front of the wizard, and out came his sword.
The skilled wizard struck first, a blast of stunning lightning that crackled all over Entreri's body, sparks flying from his sword. His jaw snapped uncontrollably, his muscles tensing and clenching, the fingers of one hand curling into a tight ball, the knuckles of the other whitening on the hilt of Charon's Claw.
But Entreri didn't fly back and he didn't fall away. He growled and held his ground. He took the hit and with incredible determination and simple toughness, he fought through it.
When the lightning ended, Entreri came out of it in a sudden spin, Charon's Claw flying wide. Given the sheer power of that blade, beyond the defenses of any wards and guards, Entreri could have quite easily killed the horrified wizard, could have taken the man's head from his shoulders. But Charon's Claw came in short in a diagonal stroke, cutting the wizard from shoulder to opposite hip.
Stunned and falling back, Canthan could not get far enough away as Entreri, his face still so cold and expressionless that Canthan wondered briefly if he was nothing more than an animated corpse, leaped high in a spin and came around with a circle kick that snapped Canthan's head back viciously.
Entreri retrieved his prized dagger and wiped the blood from his nose and mouth as he again stalked over to the prone Canthan. Face down, the man squirmed then stubbornly pulled himself up to his elbows.
Entreri kicked him in the head and kicked him again before Canthan settled back down to the floor. The assassin put his sword away but held the dagger as he grabbed the semiconscious wizard by the scruff of his neck and dragged him back to the corridor.
"Surely you'll be reasonable in this regard," Jarlaxle, on his hands and knees and peering over the edge of the hole, said to Athrogate. "You cannot get out without my help."
Athrogate, hands on hips, just stared up at him.
"I had to do something," Jarlaxle said. "Was I to allow you to kill my friend?"
"Bah! Well I wouldn't've fought him if he hadn't've fought meself."
"True enough, but consider Olgerkhan."
"I did, and I killed him."
"Sometimes acts like that upset people."
"He shouldn't've got in me friend's way."
"So your friend could kill the girl?"
Athrogate shrugged as if it did not matter. "He had a reason."
"An errant reason."
"What's done is done. Ye wanting an apology?"
"I don't know that I want anything," Jarlaxle replied. "You seem to be the one in need, not I."
"You cannot get out. Starvation is a lousy way for a warrior to die."
Athrogate just shrugged, moved to the side of the hole, studied the sheer wall for a moment, and sat down.
Jarlaxle sighed and turned away to consider Arrayan. She was still cradling Olgerkhan's head, whispering to him.
"Don't you dare leave me," she pleaded.
"And only now you realize your love for him?" Jarlaxle asked.
Arrayan shot him a hateful look that told him his guess was on the mark.
Noise from the corridor turned Jarlaxle's head, but not the woman's. In came Entreri, muttering under his breath and dragging Canthan at the end of one arm. He moved around the hole to Arrayan and Olgerkhan.
The woman looked at him with a mixture of surprise, curiosity, and horror.
Entreri had no time for it. He grabbed her by the shoulder and shoved her aside, then dropped Canthan before Olgerkhan.
Arrayan came back at him, but he stopped her with the coldest and most frightening look the woman had ever seen.
With her out of the way, Entreri turned his attention to Olgerkhan. He grabbed the large half-orc's hand and pulled it out over the groaning Canthan. He put his dagger into Olgerkhan's palm and forced the half-orc's fingers over it. He glanced at Arrayan then at Jarlaxle, and he drove the dagger down into Canthan's back.
He slipped his thumb free, placed it on the bottom of the dagger's jeweled hilt, and willed the blade to feed. The vampiric weapon went to its task with relish, stealing the very soul of Canthan and feeding it back to its wielder.
Olgerkhan's chest lifted and his eyes opened as he coughed forth his first breath in many seconds. He continued to gasp for a moment. His eyes widened in horror as he came to understand the source of his healing. He tried to pull his hand away.
But Entreri held him firmly in place, forcing him to feed until Canthan's life-force was simply no more.
"What did you do?" Arrayan cried, her voice caught between horror and joy. She came forward and Entreri did not try to stop her. He extracted his dagger from Olgerkhan's grasp and moved aside.
Arrayan fell over her half-orc friend, sobbing with joy and saying, "It was always you," over and over again.
Olgerkhan just shook his head, staring blankly at Entreri for a moment. He sat up, his strength and health renewed. Then he focused on Arrayan, upon her words, and he buried his face in her hair.
"Ah, the kindness of your heart," Jarlaxle remarked to the assassin. "How unselfish of you, since the contender for your prize was about to be no more."
"Maybe I just wanted Canthan dead."
"Then maybe you should have killed him in the other room."
Jarlaxle laughed and sighed all at once.
"Where is Ellery?" Entreri asked.
"I believe that you nicked her heart."
Entreri shook his head at the insanity of it all.
"She was unreliable, in any case," Jarlaxle said. "Obviously so. I do take offense when women I have bedded turn on me with such fury."
"If it happens often, then perhaps you should work on your technique."
That had Jarlaxle laughing, but just for a moment. "So we are five," he said. "Or perhaps four," he added, glancing at the hole.
"Stubborn dwarf?" asked the assassin.
"Is there any other kind?"
Entreri moved to the edge of the hole. "Ugly one," he called down. "Your wizard friend is dead."
"Bah!" Athrogate snorted.
Entreri glanced back at Jarlaxle then moved over, grabbed Canthan's corpse, and hauled him over the edge of the hole, dropping him with a splat beside the surprised dwarf.
"Your friend is dead," Entreri said again, and the dwarf didn't bother to argue the point. "And so now you've a choice."
"Eat him or starve?" Athrogate asked.
"Eat him and eventually starve anyway," Jarlaxle corrected, coming up beside Entreri to peer in at the dwarf. "Or you could come out of the hole and help us."
"Help ye what?"
"Win," said the drow.
"Didn't ye just stop that possibility when Canthan put it forth?"
"No," Jarlaxle said with certainty. "Canthan was wrong. He believed that Arrayan was the continuing source of power for the castle, but that is not so. She was the beginning of the enchantment, 'tis true, but this place is far beyond her."
The drow had all of the others listening by then, with Olgerkhan, the color returned to his face, standing solidly once more.
"If I believed otherwise, then I would have killed Arrayan myself," Jarlaxle went on. "But no. This castle has a king, a great and powerful one."
"How do you know this?" Entreri asked, and he seemed as doubtful and confused at the others, even Athrogate.
"I saw enough of the book to recognize that it has a different design than the one Herminicle used outside of Heliogabalus," the drow explained. "And there is something else." He put a hand over the extra-dimensional pocket button he wore, where he kept the skull-shaped gem he had taken from Herminicle's book. "I sense a strength here, a mighty power. It is clear to me, and given all that I know of Zhengyi and all that the dragon sisters told me, with their words and with the fear that was so evident in their eyes, it is not hard for me to see the logic of it all."
"What are you talking about?" asked Entreri.
"Dragon sisters?" Athrogate added, but no one paid him any heed.
"The king," said Jarlaxle. "I know he exists and I know where he is."
"And you know how to kill him?" Entreri asked. It was a hopeful question, but one that was not answered with a hopeful response.
The assassin let it go at that, surely realizing he'd never get a straight answer from Jarlaxle. He looked back down at Athrogate, who was standing then, looking up intently.
"Are you with us? Or should we leave you to eat your friend and starve?" Entreri asked.
Athrogate looked down at Canthan then back up at Entreri. "Don't look like he'd taste too good, and one thing I'm always wantin' is food." He pronounced "good" and "food" a bit off on both, so that they seemed closer to rhyming, and that brought a scowl to Entreri's face.
"He starts that again and he's staying in the hole," he remarked to Jarlaxle, and the drow, who was already taking off his belt that he might command it to elongate and extract the dwarf, laughed again.
"We'll have your word that you'll make no moves against any of us," Entreri said.
"Ye're to be takin' me word?"
"No, but then I can kill you with a clearer conscious."
"I do so hate him," Entreri muttered to Jarlaxle, and he moved away.
Jarlaxle considered that with a wry grin, thinking that perhaps it was yet another reason for him to get Athrogate out and by their side. The dwarf's lack of concern for Canthan was genuine, Jarlaxle knew, and Athrogate would not go against them unless he found it to be in his best interests.
Which, of course, was the way with all of Jarlaxle's friends.