AN AUDIENCE WITH THE KING

Athrogate and Entreri eyed each other for a long, long while after the dwarf came out of the hole.

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"Could've ruined yer weapon, ye know," Athrogate remarked, holding up the morning star that coated itself with the rust-inducing liquid.

"Could've eaten yer soul, ye know," the assassin countered, mimicking the dwarf's tone and dialect.

"With both yer weapons turned to dust? Got the juice of a rust monster in it," he said, jostling the morning star so that the head bounced a bit at the end of its chain.

"It may be that you overestimate your weapons or underestimate mine. In either case, you would not have enjoyed learning the truth."

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Athrogate cracked a smile. "Some day we'll find out that truth."

"Be careful what you wish for."

"Bwahaha!"

Entreri wanted nothing more than to drive his dagger into the annoying dwarf's throat at that moment. But it wasn't the time. They remained surrounded by enemies in a castle very much alive and hostile. They needed the powerful dwarf fighting beside them.

"I remain convinced that Canthan was wrong," Jarlaxle said, moving between the two.

He glanced back at the two half-orcs, leading the gaze of the dwarf and the assassin. Arrayan sat against the wall across the way, while her companion scrambled about on all fours, apparently searching for something. Olgerkhan looked much healthier, obviously so. The dagger had fed Canthan's life energy to him and had healed much of the damage of Athrogate's fierce attacks. Beyond that, the great weariness that had been dragging on Olgerkhan seemed lifted; his eyes were bright and alert, his movements crisp.

But as much better as he looked, Arrayan appeared that much worse. The woman's eyes drooped and her head swayed as if her neck had not the strength to hold it upright. Something about the last battles had taken much from her, it seemed, and the castle was taking the rest.

"The castle has a king," Jarlaxle said.

"Bah, Canthan got it right, and ye killed him to death for it," said Athrogate. "It's the girl, don't ye see? She's wilting away right afore yer eyes."

"No doubt she is part of it," the drow replied. "But only a small part. The real source of the castle's life lies below us."

"And how might ye be knowin' that?" asked the dwarf. "And what's he looking for, anyway?"

"I know because I can feel the castle's king as acutely as I can feel my own skin. And I know not what Olgerkhan is seeking, nor do I much care. Our destiny lies below and quickly if we hope to save Arrayan."

"What makes ye think I'm giving an orc's snot rag for that one?"

Entreri shot the dwarf a hateful look.

"What?" Athrogate asked with mock innocence. "She ain't no friend o' me own, and she's just a half-orc. Half too many, by me own counting."

"Then disregard her," Jarlaxle intervened. "Think of yourself, and rightly so. I tell you that if we defeat the king of this castle, the castle will fight us no more, whatever Arrayan's fate. I also tell you that we should do all that we can to save her, to keep her alive now, for if she is taken by the castle it will benefit the construct and hurt us. Trust me on this and follow my advice. If I am wrong, and the castle continues to feed from her, and in doing so it continues to attack us, then I will kill her myself."

The dwarf nodded. "Fair enough."

"But I only say that because I am certain it will not come to that," Jarlaxle quickly added for the sake of Olgerkhan, who glared at him. "Now let us tend our wounds and prepare our weapons, for we have a king to kill."

Athrogate pulled a waterskin off and moved toward the two half-orcs. "Here," he offered. "Got a bit o' the healing potions to get yer strength back," he said to Arrayan. "And as for yerself, sorry I breaked yer neck."

Olgerkhan offered nothing in reply. He hesitated for a moment by Arrayan's side, but then moved back toward the side passage and began crawling around on all fours once more, searching.

Entreri pulled Jarlaxle to the far side of the room and asked, "What are you talking about? How do you know what you pretend to know, or is it all but a ruse?"

"Not a ruse," Jarlaxle assured him. "I feel it and have since we entered this place. Logic tells me that Arrayan could not have constructed anything of this magnificence, and everything I have seen and felt since only confirms that logic."

"You have told me that all before," the assassin replied.

"Could you offer something more?"

Jarlaxle patted his button pocket, wherein he had stored the skull. "The skull gem we took from the other tower has sensitized me to certain things. I feel the king below us. His is a life-force quite mighty."

"And we are to kill him?"

"Of course."

"On your feeling?"

"And following the clues. Do you remember Herminicle's book?"

Entreri thought on that for a moment then nodded.

"Do you remember the designs etched upon its leathery cover, and in the margins on the page?"

Again the assassin paused, and shook his head.

"Skulls," Jarlaxle explained. "Human skulls."

"And?"

"Did you notice the designs on the book up the ramp, the source of this castle?"

Entreri stared hard at his friend. He had not actually looked at the book that closely, but he was beginning to catch on. Given his experiences with Jarlaxle, where every road seemed to lead, his answer was as much statement as question: "Dragons?"

"Exactly," the drow confirmed, pleased that Entreri resisted the urge to punch him in the face. "I understand the fearful expressions of our sister employers. They knew that the Witch-King could pervert dragonkind as he perverted humankind, even from beyond the grave. They feared the apparent opening of Zhengyi's lost library, as evidenced by Herminicle's tower. They feared that such a book as the one that constructed this castle might be uncovered."

"You doubt that Arrayan started this process?"

"Not at all, as I explained. The book used her to send out its call, I believe. And that call was answered."

"By a dragon?"

"More likely an undead dragon."

"Wonderful."

Jarlaxle shrugged against his companion's disgusted stare. "It is our way. An adventurous road!"

"It is a fatal disease."

Again the drow shrugged, and a wide grin spread across his face.

They continued on their way down the side passage Canthan had taken to the room where Entreri had defeated the battle mage.

The magical webbing Canthan had created to prevent the daemon eggs from falling remained in place, except for the small area Entreri had burned away in his fight with the mage. Still, the five went through the room quickly, not wanting an encounter with those powerful adversaries. They all believed that the "king," as Jarlaxle had aptly named it, awaited them, and they needed no more wounds and no more weariness. The order of the day at that time was avoiding battles, and so with that in mind, Entreri took up the point position.

They made good progress for a short while along the twisting, winding corridor. No traps presented themselves, only the pressure bars that kept lighting the wall torches, and no monsters rose before them.

Around one particularly sharp bend, though, they found Entreri waiting for them, his expression concerned.

"A room with a dozen coffins like those of the gnoll mummies," he explained, "only even more decorated."

"A dozen o' the raggy ones?" Athrogate replied. "Ha! Six slaps each!" he said and sent his morning stars into alternating swings.

The dwarf's cavalier attitude did little to lift the mood of the others, however.

"There is another exit from the room, or is this the end of our path?" Jarlaxle asked.

"Straight across," said Entreri. "A door."

Jarlaxle instructed them to wait then slowly moved ahead. He found the room around the next bend, a wide, circular chamber lined, as Entreri had said, with a dozen sarcophagi. The drow took out the skull gem and allowed it to guide his sensibilities. He felt the energy within each of the coffins, vengeful and focused, hating death and envying life.

The drow fell deeper into the skull gem, testing its strength. The gem was attuned to humans, not the dog-faced humanoids wrapped in rags within the coffins. But they were not too far removed, and when he opened his eyes again, Jarlaxle drew forth a slender wand from its holster inside his cloak and aimed it across the room at the door. He paused a moment to consider the richly decorated portal, for even in the low light of the torches burning in the wall sconces behind him, he could see the general make-up of its design: a bas relief of a great battle, with scores of warriors swarming a rearing dragon.

The drow found the design quite revealing. "It was made of memories," he whispered, and he looked all around, for he was talking about more than that door; he was talking about the whole of the place.

The castle was a living entity, created of magic and memories. Its energy brought forth the gargoyles and the doors, the stone walls and tunnels complete with the clever designs of the wall torches and the traps. Its energy recreated its former occupiers, the gnoll soldiers Zhengyi had used as staff, only trapped in undeath and far more powerful than they had been in life.

And its energy had unwittingly tapped into the other memories of the place, animating in lesser form the many bodies that had been buried on that spot. Jarlaxle suspected then that those undead skeletons that had arisen against them in the courtyard were not of Zhengyi's design but were an inadvertent side effect of the magical release.

He smiled at that thought and looked ahead at the design on the door. It was no haphazard artist's interpretation. The scene was indeed a memory, a recording of something that had truly occurred.

The drow had hoped that the suspicions festering within him since crawling through the portcullis would prove accurate, and there was his confirmation and his hope.

He pointed his wand at the door and uttered a command word.

Several locks clicked and a latch popped. With a rush of air the door swung open. Beyond it, the corridor continued into darkness.

"Remain in a tight group and be quick through the room," Jarlaxle instructed the others when he returned to them a moment later. "The door is open - make sure it remains so as we pass. Come now, and be quick."

He glanced at the half-orcs, Olgerkhan all but carrying Arrayan, who seemed as if she couldn't even keep her head from swaying. Jarlaxle motioned for Athrogate to help them, and though he gave a disgusted sigh, the dwarf complied.

"Are you coming?" the drow asked Entreri as the others started away.

The assassin held up his hand, looked back the way they had come, and said, "We're being followed."

"Press ahead," Jarlaxle instructed. "Our road is ahead of us, not behind."

Entreri turned on him. "You know something."

"You hope I do," Jarlaxle replied, and he started after the trio. He paused a few steps down and glanced back at his friend and grinned sheepishly. "As do I."

Entreri's expression showed that the humor was not appreciated.

"We cannot go out, unless we are willing to let the castle win," Jarlaxle reminded him after they had taken a few steps. "And in that victory, the construct will claim Arrayan. Is that acceptable to you?"

"Am I following you?" Entreri remarked.

They passed through the chamber quickly and no sarcophagi opened and no eggs fell, releasing daemons to rise against them. Through the other door, they found a long descending staircase and down they went into the darkness.

Entreri took the lead again, inspecting every step and every handhold as the light diminished around them. Near to the bottom, he was relieved to see another of the pressure plates, and torches soon flared to life on the opposite walls at the sides of the bottom step.

The light flickered and cast long, uneven shadows across stone that was no longer worked and fitted. It seemed as if they had come to the end of the construct, to a natural winding tunnel, boring down ever deeper before them.

Entreri went ahead a short distance, the others moving close behind. He turned and went back past them to the last two torches. He inspected them carefully, expecting a trap or ten, and indeed on the left-hand one, he removed several barbed pins, all wet with some sort of poison. Then he carefully extracted the torches and carried them back to the others. He handed one to Olgerkhan and had thought to give the other to Arrayan. One look at the woman dissuaded him from that course, however, for she didn't seem to have the strength to hold it, and indeed, had it not been for Olgerkhan's supporting arm, she would not have been standing. He offered the torch to Athrogate instead.

"I got dwarf eyes, ye dolt," Athrogate growled at him. "I ain't needing no firelight. This tunnel's bathed in sunlight next to where me kin've dug."

"Jarlaxle needs both of his hands and Arrayan is too weak," Entreri said to him, thrusting the torch back his way. "I prefer to lead in the darkness."

"Bah, but ye're just making me a target," the dwarf growled back, but he took the torch.

"Another benefit," Entreri said, turning away and moving out in front.

The corridor continued to bend to the left, even more sharply, giving the assassin the feeling that they were in the same general area from which they'd started, only far below. The caverns were all of natural stone, with no more torches and no pressure plates or other traps that the assassin could locate. There were intersections, however, and always sharp turns back the other way as the other winding tunnels joined into this one, becoming one great spiraling corridor. With each joining, the passage widened and heightened, so that it seemed almost as if they were walking down a long sloping cavern instead of a corridor.

Trying to minimize the feeling of vulnerability, Entreri kept them near to the inner bending wall as he edged ahead, sword in one hand, dagger in the other. Their progress was steady for some time, and they put many hundreds of feet between themselves and the staircase. But then Olgerkhan's cry froze the assassin in mid-stride.

"It's taking her!" the half-orc wailed.

Entreri spun and ran back past the turning Athrogate. He shoved by Jarlaxle, needing to get to Arrayan. By the time he spotted her, she was down on the ground, Olgerkhan kneeling over her and whispering to her.

Entreri slid down beside her opposite the large half-orc. He started to call out to her but cut himself short when he realized that he was calling the name of a halfling friend he had left far back in the distant southern city of Calimport. Surprised and unnerved, the assassin looked from Arrayan to Jarlaxle, his expression demanding answers.

Jarlaxle wasn't looking back at him, though. The drow stood facing Arrayan with his eyes closed and his hand over the center of his waistcoat. He was whispering something that Entreri could not make out, and in looking from him back to the fallen woman, Entreri understood that the drow was trying to somehow intervene. Entreri thought of the skull gem and guessed that Jarlaxle was somehow using it to disrupt the castle's possession of the woman.

A moment later, Arrayan opened her eyes. She seemed more embarrassed than hurt, and she accepted Olgerkhan and Entreri's help in getting back to her feet.

"We are running out of time," Jarlaxle stated - the obvious for the others, but his tone explaining clearly to Entreri that he could not long delay the inevitable life-stealing process. "Quickly, then," the drow added, and Entreri gave a nod to Arrayan then left her with Olgerkhan and sprinted back to the front of the line.

He had to hope that there would be no more traps, for he did not slow every few feet to inspect the ground ahead.

The corridor continued to bend and spiral but began to narrow again, soon becoming a mere dozen feet across and with a jagged ceiling often so low that Olgerkhan had to crouch.

Entreri felt the hairs on the back of his neck tingling. Something was ahead, he sensed, whether from some smell or perhaps a sound barely audible. He motioned for the dwarf behind him to halt, then crept ahead on all fours and peered around a sharper bend.

The corridor continued for another dozen feet, then the stone floor fell away as it opened into a great chamber. He remembered Jarlaxle's words about the "king" of the castle, and he had to take a deep, steadying breath before going forward.

He crept ahead, belly-crawling as he exited the corridor into a vast cavern, on a ledge high up from the uneven floor. To his right, the ledge continued for just a short distance, but to his left, it continued on, sloping down toward the unseen cavern floor. It was not pitch black in there, as some strange glowing lichen scattered about the floor and walls bathed the stone as if in starlight.

Entreri crawled to the edge and peered over, and he knew they were doomed.

Far below him, perhaps fifty feet, loomed the king of the castle: a great dragon. But not a living dragon of leathery skin and thick scales but one made mostly of bones, with only patches of skin hanging between its wings and in patches across its back and head. The gigantic dragon carcass, mostly skeleton, crouched on the floor with its bony wings tucked in tight atop its back. If Entreri had any doubts that the creature was "alive," they were quickly dispelled when, with a rattle of bones, the great wings unfolded.

Swords, armor, and whitened bones littered the chamber all around the undead beast, and it took Entreri a few moments to sort out that that had been the spot of a desperate battle, that those weapons and bones belonged to warriors - likely of King Gareth's army, he realized when he gave it some thought - who had done battle with the wyrm in the time of Zhengyi.

Entreri started to back up then nearly jumped out of his boots when he felt a hand on his shoulder. Jarlaxle moved up beside him.

"He is fabulous, is he not?" the drow whispered.

Entreri shot him a hateful look.

"I know," the drow said for him. "Always dragons with me."

Down below, the dragon of bones and torn skin swung its head to look up at them, and though it had no physical eyes, just points of reddish light, its intimidating gaze rattled the companions.

"A dragon cadaver," Entreri said with obvious disgust.

"A dracolich," Jarlaxle corrected.

"That is supposed to sound better?"

The drow just shrugged.

And the dragon roared, its throaty blast reverberating off the stone walls with such power that the assassin feared the ledge he lay upon would collapse.

"That ain't right," Athrogate said when the echoing blast at last relented. The dwarf had come up as well, but unlike Entreri and Jarlaxle he wasn't lying on the stone. He stood at the lip of the ledge, staring down, hands on his hips. He looked at Jarlaxle and asked, "That the king?"

"One would hope."

"And what're we supposed to do with that thing?"

"Kill it."

The dwarf looked back down at the dracolich, which hunched upon its hind legs, sitting upright, head swaying, two-foot long teeth all too clear with little skin covering its mouth.

"Ye're joking with an old dwarf," said Athrogate.

He didn't rhyme his words, and Entreri knew that no "bwahahas" would be forthcoming.

Jarlaxle pulled himself up. "I am not," he proclaimed. "Come now, our time of trial is upon us. Run along, mighty Olgerkhan, for the sake of your lady Arrayan. And you, good Athrogate, fearless and powerful. Those brittle bones will turn to dust before your mighty swings!"

Olgerkhan roared and came out onto the ledge, then with strength and power they had not seen from him before, he took up his heavy club and charged down along the ledge.

"Ye're really not joking with an old dwarf?" Athrogate asked.

"Shatter its skull!" Jarlaxle cheered.

Athrogate looked at the drow, looked down at the dracolich, looked back at the drow, and shrugged. He pulled his morning stars over his shoulders and whispered to his weapons alternately as he ran off after Olgerkhan, bidding their enchantments forth.

"Fill yer teeth with half-orc bread," the dwarf yelled to the waiting beast, "while Athrogate leaps atop yer head! Bwahaha!"

"And now we leave," Entreri remarked, coming up beside Jarlaxle and making no move to follow his two warrior companions.

But then it was dark, pitch black so that Entreri couldn't see his hand before his face if he'd waggled his fingers an inch in front of his eyes.

"This way," Jarlaxle bade him, and he felt the drow's arm around his waist.

He started to protest and pull away, sheathing his dagger to free up one hand, though he dared not move too quickly on the ledge. But the assassin was caught by surprise when Jarlaxle pushed against him hard, wrapping him in a tight hug. The drow then fell the other way, off the ledge.

The dragon roared.

Entreri screamed.

But then they were floating as the drow enacted the power of his levitation, and as they set down on the cavern floor, Jarlaxle threw aside the stone he had enchanted with radiating darkness and let go of Entreri.

Entreri rolled to the side, putting some distance between himself and the dark elf. He got his bearings enough to realize that the dracolich wasn't looking at him and Jarlaxle, but was focusing on the half-orc and the dwarf as they continued their raucous charge down the sloping stone ledge.

Entreri had his chance to strike with the element of surprise. With the beast distracted, he could get past its formidable defenses and score a mighty blow.

But he didn't move, other than to look down at his weapons. How could he even begin to hurt something like that?

He glanced to the side and considered leaping over and stabbing Jarlaxle instead, but he found the drow with his eyes closed, deep in concentration.

Jarlaxle had some hidden trick to play, it seemed - or at least, that's what Entreri hoped.

But Entreri still did not charge in against the beast, as it was no fight that he wanted. He rushed away from the wall, weaving toward the far side of the cavern, putting as much distance between himself and the half-orc and dwarf as possible.

He glanced back as Olgerkhan cried out, and he nearly swooned to see a line of black spittle spraying from the dracolich's skeletal mouth. Though he was still fully twenty feet from the floor, the half-orc desperately leaped from the ledge ahead of that spit, which engulfed the stone and immediately began to melt it away.

"Once a black dragon," Entreri heard Jarlaxle explain in reference to the acidic breath weapon, trademark of that particular beast.

"It can breathe?" Entreri gasped. "It's a skeleton, and it can breathe?"

But Jarlaxle had closed his eyes again and was paying him no heed.

Entreri ran along faster, heedless of Olgerkhan's groans. He did glance back once to take note of the poor half-orc, crumpled on the floor, one leg bent out at a disturbing angle, obviously shattered. How ridiculous, he thought. For the first time, the half-orc had seemed as if he might be ready for battle, and there he was, out of the fight yet again before it had even begun. And he was Arrayan's "hero" and true love?

The momentary distraction cost the assassin dearly, for when he looked back, he saw the great bony tail swiping his way.

Arrayan, too, fought a great battle, but hers was internal and not carried out with sword or wand. Hers was a test of will, a battle as one might wage with a disease, for like a cancer did the darkness of the Zhengyian construct assail her. It clawed at her life energy with demonic hands. For days it had pulled at her, thinned her, sapped her, and now, so close to the king of the castle, the monstrous beast she had inadvertently awakened, Arrayan had come to the final battlefield.

But she had no way to fight back, had no strength to go on the offensive against the dracolich and the continuing intrusions of the book. That was a physical battle for her companions to wage.

She had to just hold on to the last flickers of her life, had to cling to consciousness and identity. She had to resist the temptation to succumb to the cool and inviting darkness, the promise of rest.

One image, that of Olgerkhan, carried her in her battle though she knew it to be a losing cause. For all those years he had been her dearest of friends. He had tolerated her pouting when she couldn't unravel the mysteries of a certain spell. He had accepted her selfishness when all of her thoughts and all of her talk had been about her own future and dreams. He had stayed beside her, his arm offered in support, through every setback, and he cheered her on from afar through every victory.

And she had accepted him as a friend - but just as a friend. She had not understood the depth of his devotion and love for her. He had worn that ring, and though Arrayan had not been in on the placement and explanation, she understood the properties of physical arbitration the matched set had created. He had suffered, terribly so, so that she could get where she was, so that she would have her one chance, feeble as it seemed.

She could not let him down. She could not betray the trust and the sacrifice of the half-orc she loved.

Yes, loved, Arrayan knew beyond all doubt. Far beyond her friend, Olgerkhan was her partner, her support, her warmth, and her joy. Only when she had seen him near death had Arrayan come to fully appreciate that.

And she had to fight on.

But the darkness beckoned.

She heard the ruckus in the far room and managed to open her eyes. She heard the approach of someone from the other direction, but she hadn't the strength to turn her head.

They passed her by, and Arrayan thought she was dreaming, then feared that she had gone over to the netherworld. For those three, Ellery, Mariabronne, and Canthan, had certainly died, yet they walked past her, ran by her, the warrior woman hefting her mighty axe, the ranger holding his legendary sword, the wizard preparing a spell.

How was it possible?

Was this the reality of death?

"Bwahaha! Ye got to be quicker than that, ye bony worm!" Athrogate bellowed as he dodged past a slashing claw, dived under the biting fangs, and came up with a smashing swing that cracked hard against the dracolich's foreleg. Bone dust flew, but the leg didn't give out or crack apart.

Athrogate had put all of his weight behind that strike, had let fly with all of his magically enhanced might, and had used the enchantment of the morning star, the oil of impact coating it, for maximum effect.

He hadn't done much damage.

He hit the leg again, and a third time, before the other foreleg crashed against his shoulder and launched him into a flying roll. He bounced through the heap of bones, weapons, and armor, finally coming back to his feet just in time to leap aside to avoid the snap of the dracolich's powerful and toothy jaws.

"A bit o' help, if ye might!" the dwarf yelled, and that was as close to a call of panic as had ever been uttered by the confident Athrogate.

The dracolich bit at him again, and he dodged aside, and even managed to snap off a one-two routine with his morning stars, their glassteel heads bouncing alternately off the thick dragon bone.

The creature showed no sign of pain or fear, and the head pressed on, snapping at him over and over. He retreated and dodged, jumped back, and when the dracolich finally caught up to him, the dwarf leaped up high, just high enough to get above the thing's snapping maw. He was spared a deadly bite but was thrown back and to the floor.

When he landed and slid down onto his back, he noted Olgerkhan, still squirming and grabbing at his shattered leg.

"By the gods, ye dolt, get up!" Athrogate pleaded.

Entreri wasn't quick enough. He jumped and turned sidelong but got clipped by the swinging tail and spun halfway over. He kept the presence of mind to tuck his head and shoulders and turn all the way as he landed among the bones, but when he came back to his feet, he found that one ankle would hardly support his weight. He gave it a cursory glance to see blood staining the side of his boot.

He hopped and limped along, though, and still his thoughts were to simply find a way out of there. All along, Entreri had expected that Jarlaxle's thirst for adventure would eventually put them in a position where they could not win. That time had come.

He stumbled on a tangle of bones then threw himself flat as the dracolich's tail swung back his way but higher off the ground. He glanced back across the length of the undead beast to see Jarlaxle standing quietly off to the side, to see Athrogate's desperate struggle against the more dangerous weapons of the dragon, to see Olgerkhan squirming in agony, and to see...

The assassin blinked repeatedly, unable to comprehend the scene before him. Running down the slope to join in the fray was Ellery. Ellery! Supposedly dead at his hand. And behind her came Mariabronne, also dead.

Entreri snapped his glare back at Jarlaxle, thinking that his friend had deceived him. He hadn't seen Ellery's corpse, after all. Was it all just a lie?

Even as he contemplated abandoning his flight and rushing back to slaughter Jarlaxle, however, he realized that he had indeed seen Mariabronne lying in the utter stillness of death.

Entreri's gaze was drawn up to the small landing at the top of the ramp. There stood Canthan, waving his arms.

Now that man was dead, Entreri knew. More than dead, his soul had been destroyed by the jeweled dagger.

Yet here he was, casting a spell.

Farther down, still forty feet from the ground, Ellery took up her axe in both hands and leaped out into the air.

Suicidal, Entreri thought. But could it be suicide if she was already dead?

She soared from on high, her body snapping forward as she crashed down beside the dracolich, her axe slamming into a rib with tremendous force, taking a chunk of bone and tearing a long line of tough skin all the way down to the ground. She landed hard but came right back to her feet, swinging with abandon, without concern for any semblance of defense.

Behind her came Mariabronne, leaping far and wide. He slammed down on the dracolich's back face-first, and somehow held on, eventually bringing himself to a sitting position straddling the beast's huge spine. He locked his legs around a vertebra, took up his sword in both hands, and began slamming away.

The dracolich reared - and from above came a sudden and blinding stroke of lightning that crackled around the creature's head.

But if the lightning hurt the dracolich at all, the beast didn't show it.

It all made no sense to Entreri, so of course he glanced back at Jarlaxle. The drow just stood there, serene, it seemed, with his eyes closed in concentration. Entreri shook his head. That one always had a trick to play.

His sigh was one of disgust, his shrug one of helplessness, but Entreri changed direction and lifted Charon's Claw above his shoulder. Perhaps it wasn't the end after all.

The dracolich was focused on Canthan, and Athrogate charged back in from the front as Entreri limped in at the back. Ellery and Mariabronne pounded away with abandon. The assassin still shook his head, though, doubting that it would be enough.

He watched the serpentine neck lift the head fast toward the wizard. Canthan let loose a second spell and the dracolich's skull momentarily disappeared within the flames of a fireball. It came through smoking and blackened in spots.

With his free hand, Entreri pulled out the side of his cloak and whispered, "Red" into a pocket, then grabbed Charon's Claw with both hands, determined to make his first strike count.

Up above, the dracolich's head snapped Canthan from the ledge, its powerful jaws taking in the wizard to the waist and clamping hard. The beast swung its neck side to side and Canthan's lower torso fell free from on high as his upper body was ground into pulp.

Entreri wanted to scream.

But he growled instead and came up on the dracolich's rear leg, throwing all of his weight behind his strike.

He did some damage, but hardly enough, and it occurred to him that he would have to hit the creature a thousand times to kill it.

Canthan was already gone. The dracolich fell to all fours and swiveled its head around to spit forth another stream of acid, one that engulfed Mariabronne and melted him in place.

Entreri reconsidered his course.

Beside him, a skeleton rose, lifting a rusting broadsword. The assassin slashed at it, felling it with a single stroke. But all around him, more bones rattled, collected themselves, and rose. Entreri looked everywhere for some way out. He moved to strike at the next nearest skeleton, but he stopped short when he realized that he was not their enemy.

The skeleton warriors, formerly men of the Army of Bloodstone, attacked the dracolich.

Stunned, Entreri looked again to Jarlaxle, and his mind whirled with the possibilities, the insanity, as he noted that Jarlaxle stood with one hand extended, a purple-glowing, skull-shaped gemstone presented before him.

"By the gods!" Athrogate yelled from in front, and for the first time Entreri was in full agreement with the wretched little creature.

All around the great chamber, the Army of Bloodstone rose and renewed the battle they had waged decades before. A hundred warriors stood tall on skeletal legs, lifted sword, axe, and warhammer. They had no fear and only a singular purpose, and as one they rushed in at the beast. Metal rang against bone, leathery skin tore apart beneath the barrage.

Athrogate had no idea what was happening around him or why. He didn't stop to question his good fortune, though, for had the dead not risen, he undoubtedly would have met a sudden and brutal end.

The dracolich's roar thundered through the room and nearly felled the dwarf with its sheer power. A line of acidic spittle melted one group of skeleton warriors, but as the beast lowered its head to breathe its devastation, another group of warriors charged in.

Athrogate saw his opening. He called forth more oil of impact on his right-hand morning star and charged in behind the group of skeletons, pushing through them and letting fly a titanic swing.

The explosion shattered dragon teeth and took off a large chunk of the dracolich's jawbone, but before the dwarf could swing again, the great skull lifted up beyond his reach.

Then it came down, and hard, and Athrogate cried out and dived away. Skeletons all around him got crushed and shattered, and the dropping skull smacked him hard and sent him sprawling, his weapons flying from his grasp. He tried to rise but could not. He sensed the dracolich coming in at his back and knew he was doomed.

But first he was grabbed by the front by a stumbling half-orc who yanked him aside and drove him to the ground then fell atop him defensively.

"Ye still smell bad," the dwarf muttered, his voice weak and shaky.

Olgerkhan would have taken that as a thank you, except that the half-orc was barely conscious by that point, overwhelmed by the lines of agony rolling up from his broken leg.

Entreri slashed and bashed with all his strength, his mighty sword having some effect. The cumulative efforts of all the fighters was their only chance, he knew, and he played his part.

But not too well, for in Entreri's thoughts, first and foremost, he did not want to draw the dracolich's attention.

Wherever that attention went, the beast's enemies crumbled to dust.

And the great creature was in a frenzy by that point, its wings beating and battering, its tail whipping wildly and launching warriors through the air to smash against the chamber's distant walls.

But metal rang out, on and on, snapping against bones, tearing rotting dragon skin. One wing came down to buffet Ellery, but when it reached its low point, a dozen undead warriors leaped upon it and hacked away, and bit and clawed and tugged on bones with skeletal arms. The dracolich roared - and there seemed to be some pain in that cry - and thrashed wildly.

The skeletons hung on.

The dracolich rolled, and bones splintered and shattered. When it came around, the skeleton warriors were dislodged, but so was its wing, snapped right off at the shoulder.

The creature roared again.

Then it bit Ellery in half and launched her torn corpse across the room.

Stubbornly, relentlessly, the skeletons were upon it again, bashing away, but Entreri recognized that the ring of metal on bone had lessened.

A line of spittle melted another group of charging skeletons. Forelegs tore another undead soldier in half and threw its bones at yet another. The dracolich flattened another pair with a downward smash from its great skull.

All hope faded from Entreri. Despite the unexpected allies, they could not win out against that mighty beast. He looked over to Jarlaxle then, and for the first time in a while the drow looked back. Jarlaxle offered an apologetic shrug, then tugged on the side of his hat's wide brim. His body darkened, his physical form wavered.

The dark elf seemed two-dimensional more than three, more of a shadow than a living, breathing creature. He slipped back to the wall, thinned to a black line, and slid into a crack in the stone.

Entreri cursed under his breath.

He had to get away, but how? The ramp was no good to him with the large section burned out of it.

So he just ran, as fast as his wounded ankle could carry him. He stumbled across the room, away from the dracolich as it continued its slaughter of the skeleton army. He looked back over his shoulder to see the creature's massive tail sweep aside the last of the resistance, and his heart sank as those terrible red points of light that served as the beast's eyes focused in on him.

The monster took up the chase.

Entreri scanned the far wall. There were some openings but they were wide - too wide.

He had no choice, though, and he went for the narrowest of the group, a circular tunnel about eight feet high. As he reached its entry, he leaped to a stone on the side, grimacing against the stinging pain in his ankle, then sprang higher off of it, catching the archway with both hands. He worked his hands fast, hooking a small cord, then let go and ran on into the tunnel.

But it wasn't a tunnel, only a small, narrow room.

He had nowhere to run, and the dracolich's head could easily snake in behind him.

He turned and flattened himself as much as possible against the short tunnel's back wall. He drew his weapons, though he knew he could not win, as the creature closed.

"Come on, then," he snarled, and all fear was gone. If he was to die then and there, so be it.

The beast charged forward and lowered its head in line. Its serpentine neck snapped with a rattle of bones, sending those terrible, torn jaws forward into the tunnel, straight for the helpless Entreri.

The assassin didn't strike out but rather dived down, curled up, and screamed with all his strength.

For as the dracolich's skull came through the archway, came under the red-eyed silver dragon statuette that Entreri had just placed there, the devilish trap fired, loosing a blast of fire that would have given the greatest of red dragonkind pause.

Flames roared down from the archway with tremendous force, charring bone, bubbling the very bedrock. The dracolich's head did not continue through to bite at Entreri, but the assassin knew nothing but the sting of heat. He kept curled, his eyes closed, screaming against the terror and the pain, denying the roar of the flames and the dracolich. He felt his cloak ignite, his hair singe.

The defenders of Palishchuk fought bravely, for they had little choice. More and more gargoyles came in at them from out of the darkness in the latest wave of a battle that seemed without end. After the initial assault, the townsfolk had organized into small, defensible groups, tight circles surrounding those who could not fight. To their credit, they had lost only a few townspeople to the gargoyles, though a host of the creatures lay dead in the streets.

In one small room, a lone warrior found less luck and no options. For, like some of the other townsfolk who had fallen that night, Calihye had been cut off from the defensive formations. She battled alone, with Davis Eng helplessly crying out behind her.

Three gargoyles were dead in the room, with two killed in the early moments of the long, long battle. After an extended lull, the third had come in against her, and it had only just gone down. Its cries had been answered though, with the next two crashing in, and Calihye knew that others were out there, ready to join the fray.

She dodged and stabbed ahead, and she thought she might win out against the pair, but she knew she couldn't keep it up much longer.

She glanced over at Davis Eng, who lay there with the starkest look of terror on his face.

Calihye growled as she turned her attention back to the fight. She couldn't leave him, not like that, not when he was so utterly helpless.

So she fought on, and a gargoyle went spinning down to the floor. Another came in, then another, and Calihye spun and slashed wildly, hoping and praying that she could just keep them at bay.

All thoughts of winning flew away, but she continued her desperate swinging and turning, clinging to the last moments of her life.

The gargoyles screeched so loudly, so desperately, that it stung Calihye's ears, and behind her, Davis Eng cried out.

But then the gargoyles were gone. Just gone. They hadn't flown out of the room. They hadn't done anything but disappear.

The gargoyle corpses were gone too, Calihye realized. She blinked and looked at Davis Eng.

"Have I lost my mind then?" she asked.

The man, looking as confused as she, had no answers.

Out on the street, cheering began. Calihye made her way to the broken window and looked down.

Abruptly, without explanation, the fight for Palishchuk had ended.

From a crack in the wall across the chamber, Jarlaxle had seen the conflagration. A pillar of fire had rained down from above, obscuring the dracolich's upper neck and head. The great body, one wing torn away, shuddered and trembled.

What trick had Entreri played?

Then it hit the drow. The statuette he had placed over their apartment door in Heliogabalus, the gift from the dragon sisters.

My clever friend, Jarlaxle thought, and he thought, too, that his clever friend was surely dead.

The flames relented and the dracolich came back out of the hole. Lines of smoke rose from its swaying head and neck, and when it turned unsteadily, Jarlaxle could see that half of its head had been melted away. The creature roared again or tried to.

It took a step back across the room. It swayed and fell, and it lay very, very still.

Jarlaxle slid out of the crack and rematerialized in the chamber - a room that had grown eerily quiet.

"Get off o' me, ye fat dolt," came Athrogate's cry, breaking the silence.

The drow turned to see the dwarf roll Olgerkhan over onto the floor. Up hopped Athrogate, spitting and cursing. He looked around, trying to take it all in, and stood there for along while, hands on his hips, staring at the dragon cadaver.

"Damned if we didn't win," he said to Jarlaxle.

The drow hardly heard him. Jarlaxle moved across the room quickly, fearing what he would find.

He breathed a lot easier when Artemis Entreri walked out from under the archway, wisps of smoke rising from his head and torso. In one hand he held the crumpled, smoldering rag that had been his cloak, and with a disgusted look at the drow, he tossed it aside.

"Always dragons with you," he muttered.

"They do hold the greatest of treasures for the taking."

Entreri looked around the bone-filled but otherwise empty room, then back at Jarlaxle.

The drow laughed.

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