Entreri moving off ahead of them, the group passed swiftly out of the corner tower and along the corridors of the interior eastern wall. They didn't find any guardian creatures awaiting them, though they came upon a pair of dead gargoyles and a decapitated flesh golem, all three with deep stab wounds in the back.
"He is efficient," Jarlaxle remarked more than once of his missing friend.
They came to an ascending stair, ending in a door that stood slightly ajar to allow daylight to enter from beyond it. As they started up, the door opened and Artemis Entreri came through.
"We are at the joined point of the outer wall and the interior wall that separates the baileys of the castle," he explained.
"Stay along the outer wall to the back and the turn will take us to the main keep," Mariabronne replied, but Entreri shook his head with every word.
"When the gargoyles came upon us last night, they were not the castle's full contingent," the assassin explained. "From this point back, the outer wall is lined with the filthy creatures and crossing close to them will likely awaken them and have us fighting every step of the way."
"The inner wall to the center, then?" asked Ellery. "Where we debark it and spring across the courtyard to the keep's front door?"
"A door likely locked," Mariabronne reasoned.
"And locked before a graveyard courtyard that will present us with scores of undead to battle," Jarlaxle assured them in a voice that none questioned.
"Either way we're for fighting," Athrogate chimed in. "Choose the bony ones who're smaller in the biting!" He giggled then continued, "So lead on and be quick for it's soundin' exciting." The dwarf howled with laughter, but he was alone in his mirth.
"How far?" Mariabronne asked.
Entreri shrugged and said, "Seventy feet of ground from the inner gatehouse to the door of the keep."
"And likely a locked door to hold us out," added Ellery. "We'll be swarmed by the undead." She looked to Pratcus.
"I got me powers against them bony things," he said, though he appeared unconvinced. "But I found the first time that they didn't much heed me commands."
"Because they are being controlled by a greater power, likely," Jarlaxle said, and all eyes settled on him. He shrugged, showing them that it was just a guess. Then he quickly straightened, his red eyes sparkling, and looked to Entreri. "How far are we now to that keep?"
Entreri seemed perplexed for just a moment then said, "A hundred feet?"
"And how much higher is its top above the wall's apex here?"
Entreri looked back behind him, out the open door. Then he leaned back and glanced to the northeast, the direction of the circular keep.
"It's not very high," the assassin said. "Perhaps fifteen feet above us at its highest point."
"Lead on to the wall top," Jarlaxle instructed.
"What do ye know?" asked Athrogate.
"I know that I have already grown weary of fighting."
"Bah!" the dwarf snorted. "I heared ye drow elfs were all for the battle."
"When we must."
Jarlaxle offered a smile to the dwarf as he squeezed past, moving up the stairs to follow Entreri to the outside landing. By the time the others caught up to him, he was nodding and insisting, "It will work."
"Pray share your plan," Mariabronne requested.
"That one's always tellin' folks to pray," Athrogate snorted to Pratcus. "Ye should get him to join yer church!"
"We drow are possessed of certain... tricks," Jarlaxle replied.
"He can levitate," said Entreri.
"Levitation is not flying," Canthan said.
"But if I can get close enough and high enough, I can set a grapnel on that tower top," Jarlaxle explained.
"That is a long climb, particularly on an incline," remarked the ranger, his head turning back and forth as he considered the two anchor points for any rope.
"Better than fighting all the way," said Jarlaxle.
As he spoke, he took off his hat and reached under the silken band, producing a fine cord. He extracted it, and it seemed to go on and on forever. The drow looped its other end on the ground at his feet as he pulled it from the hat and by the time he had finished, he had a fair-sized coil looped up almost to the height of his knees.
"A hundred and twenty feet," he explained to Entreri, who was not surprised by the appearance of the magical cord.
Jarlaxle then took off a jeweled earring, brought it close to his mouth and whispered to it. It grew as he moved it away, and by the time he had it near to the top end of the cord, it was the size of a small grappling hook.
Jarlaxle tied it off and began looping the cord loosely in one hand, while Entreri took the other end and tied it off on one of the crenellations along the tower wall.
"The biggest danger is that our movements will attract gargoyles," Jarlaxle said to the others. "It would not be wise to join in battle while we are crawling along the rope."
"Bah!" came Athrogate's predictable snort.
"Sort out a crossing order," Jarlaxle bade the ranger. "My friend, of course, will go first after I have set the rope, but we should get another warrior over to that tower top as quickly as possible. And she will need help," he added, nodding toward Arrayan. "I can do that with my levitation, and my friend might have something to assist...?"
He looked at Entreri, who frowned, but did begin fishing in his large belt pouch. He pulled out a contraption of straps and hooks, which looked somewhat like a bridle for a very large horse, and he casually tossed it to the drow.
Jarlaxle sorted it out quickly and held it up before him, showing the others that it was a harness of sorts, known as a "housebreaker" to anyone familiar with the ways of city thieves.
"Enough banter," Ellery bade him, and she nodded to the north and the line of gargoyles hanging on the outside of the wall.
"A strong shove, good dwarf," Jarlaxle said to Athrogate, who rushed at him, arms outstretched.
"As I pass you," Jarlaxle quickly explained, before the dwarf could launch him from the wall - and probably the wrong way, at that! He positioned Athrogate at the inside lip of the tower top, then walked at a direct angle away from the distant keep. "Be quick," he bade Entreri.
"Set it well," the assassin replied.
Jarlaxle nodded and broke into a quick run. He leaped and called upon the power of his enchanted emblem, an insignia that resembled that of House Baenre, to bring forth magical levitation, lifting him higher from the ground. Athrogate caught him by the belt and launched him out toward the tower, and with the dwarf's uncanny strength propelling him, Jarlaxle found himself soaring away from the others.
Jarlaxle continued to rise as he went out from the wall.
Halfway to the keep, he was up higher than its highest point. He was still approaching, but greatly slowing. The levitation power could make him go vertical only, so as the momentum of his short run and Athrogate's throw wore off, he was still twenty feet or so from the keep's wall. But he was up above it, and he began to swing the grapnel at the end of one arm.
"Gargoyles about the top," he called back to Entreri, who was ready to scramble at the other end of the rope. "They are not reacting to my presence, nor will they to yours, likely, until you step onto the stone."
"Wonderful," Entreri muttered under his breath.
He kept his visage determined and stoic, and his breath steady, but was assailed with images of the gargoyles walking over and tearing out the grapnel, then just letting him drop halfway across into the middle of the courtyard. Or perhaps they would swarm him while he hung helpless from the rope.
"Take in the slack quickly," Entreri said to Athrogate as Jarlaxle let fly the grapnel.
Even as it hit behind the keep's similarly crenellated wall, the dwarf began yanking in the slack, tightening the cord, which he stretched and tightly looped over the wall stone.
Off went Entreri, leaping from the wall to the cord. He hooked his ankles as he caught on, his arms pumping with fluid and furious motion. He hand-walked the cord, coiling his body, then unwinding in perfect synchrony, and so fast was he moving that it seemed to the others as if he was sliding down instead of crawling up.
In short order, he neared the roof of the keep. As he did, he let go with his feet and turned as he swung his legs down, gathering momentum. He rolled his backbone to gather momentum as he went around and back up, and he let go at the perfect angle and trajectory. Turning a half flip as he flew, drawing his weapons as he went, he landed perfectly on his feet on the wall top - just as a gargoyle rushed out to meet him.
The creature caught a sword slash across the face, followed by a quick dagger thrust to the throat, and Entreri followed the falling creature down, leaping from the wall to the roof in time to meet the charge of a second gargoyle.
"Come on, half-ugly," Athrogate, who was already in the housebreaker harness, said to Olgerkhan.
Before the half-orc warrior could respond, the dwarf leaped up to the top of the wall, grabbed him by the back of his belt, and swung out, hooking the harness to the cord as he went. With amazing strength, Athrogate held Olgerkhan easily with one arm while his other grabbed and tugged, grabbed and tugged, propelling him across the gap.
Olgerkhan protested and squirmed, trying to grab at the dwarf's arm for support.
"Ye hold still and save yer strength, ye dolt," Athrogate scolded. "I'm leaving ye there, and ye best be ready to hold a fight until I get back!"
At that, Olgerkhan calmed, and the rope bounced. The half-orc managed to glance back, as did Athrogate, to see Mariabronne scrambling onto the cord. The ranger moved almost as fluidly as had Entreri, and he gained steadily on the dwarf as they neared the growing sounds of battle.
Up above them, Jarlaxle lifted a bit higher, gaining a better angle from which to begin loosing his missiles, magical from a wand and poison-tipped from his small crossbow.
"Go next," Commander Ellery bade Pratcus. "They will need your magic."
She leaned on the wall, straining to see the fighting across the way. Every so often a gargoyle raised up from the keep's roof, its great leathery wings flapping, and Ellery could only pray that the creature didn't notice the rope and the helpless men scrambling across.
Pratcus hesitated and Ellery turned a sharp glare at him.
The dwarf grabbed at the rope and shook his head. "Won't be holding another," he explained.
Ellery slapped her hand on the stone wall top and turned to Canthan. "Have you anything to assist?"
The wizard shook his head. Then he launched so suddenly into spellcasting that Ellery fell back a step and gave a yelp. She turned as Canthan cast, firing off a lightning bolt that caught one gargoyle as it dived at Athrogate and Olgerkhan.
"Nothing to assist in the climbing, if that is what you meant," the wizard clarified.
"Whatever you can do," Ellery replied, her tone equally dry.
Entreri learned the hard way that his location atop the keep's roof had put him in close proximity to many of the gargoyles. He'd taken down three of them, but as four more of the beasts leaped and fluttered around him, the assassin began moving more defensively rather than trying to score any killing blows.
From up above, Jarlaxle took down one, launching a glob of greenish goo from a wand. It struck a gargoyle on its wings and drove it down, where it stuck fast, hopelessly adhered to the stone. A second of the gargoyles broke off from Entreri and soared out at the levitating drow, but before the assassin could begin to get his feet properly under him and go on the attack against the remaining two, another pair came up over the wall at him.
Muttering under his breath, the assassin continued his wild dance, using Charon's Claw to set up walls of opaque ash to aid him in his constant retreat. He glanced quickly at the rope line to note Athrogate's progress and had to admit to himself that he was glad to see the dwarf fast approaching - an admission he thought he'd never make where that one was concerned.
Entreri worked more deliberately then, trying not only to stay away from the claws and horns of the leaping and soaring foursome but to turn them appropriately so that his reinforcements could gain a quick advantage.
He started left, then cut back to the right, toward the center of the rooftop. He fell fast to one knee and thrust his sword straight up, gashing a dropping gargoyle that fast beat its wings to lift back out of reach. Entreri started to come back up to his feet, but a clawing hand slashed just above his head, so he threw himself forward into a roll instead. He came up quickly, spinning as he did, sword arm extended, to fend off the furious attacks. With their ability to fly and leap upon him, the beasts should have had him - would have had any typical human warrior - but Artemis Entreri was too quick for them and managed to sway the angle of his whipping blade to defend against attacks from above as well.
Hanging by the harness under the rope, Athrogate came right up to the keep's stone wall.
"Get up there and get ye fighting!" he roared at Olgerkhan.
With still just one arm, the dwarf hauled the large half-orc up over the lip of the stone wall. Olgerkhan clipped his foot as he went over, and that sent him into a headlong tumble onto the roof.
The dwarf howled with laughter.
"Go, good dwarf!" Mariabronne called from right behind him on the rope.
"Going back for the girl," Athrogate explained. "Climb over me, ye treehugger, and get into the fightin'!"
Not needing to be asked twice, Mariabronne scrambled over Athrogate. The ranger seemed to be trying to be gentle, or at least tried not to stomp on the dwarf's face. But Athrogate, both his hands free again, grabbed the ranger by the ankles and heaved him up and over to land crashing on the roof beside Entreri and Olgerkhan. Athrogate couldn't see any of that, since he was hanging under the rope, but he heard the commotion enough to bubble up another great burst of laughter.
As soon as the rope stopped bouncing, the dwarf released a secondary hook on the harness and a few quick pumps of his powerful arms had him zipping back down the decline toward the others. He clamped onto the rope though, bringing himself to an abrupt halt when he saw Pratcus climbing out toward him. Unlike Entreri and Mariabronne, the dwarf had not hooked his ankles over the rope but was simply hanging by his hands. He let go with the trailing hand and rotated his hips so that when he grabbed the rope again, that hand was in front. And on he went, rocking fast and hand-walking the rope.
Athrogate nodded and grinned as he watched the priest's progress. Pratcus wore a sleeveless studded leather vest, and the muscles in his arms bulged with the work - and with something else, Athrogate knew.
"Put a bit of an enchantment on yerself, eh?" Athrogate said as Pratcus approached. Athrogate turned himself around so that his head was down toward the other dwarf, and reached out to take Pratcus's hand.
"Strength o' the bull," Pratcus confirmed, and he grabbed hard at Athrogate's offered hand.
A spin and swing had Pratcus back up high beyond the hanging dwarf, where he easily caught the rope again and continued along his way.
Athrogate howled with laughter and resumed his descent to the tower wall.
"Who's next?" he asked the remaining trio.
Ellery glanced at Canthan. "Take Arrayan," she decided, "then Canthan, and I will go last."
"We've not the time for that, I fear," came a voice from above, and they all turned to regard Jarlaxle.
The drow tossed a second cord to Athrogate, and the dwarf reeled him in.
"The castle is awakening to our presence," Jarlaxle explained as he descended.
He motioned down toward the ground, some twenty feet below.
Athrogate started to argue but lost his voice when he followed Jarlaxle's lead to look down. For there was the undead horde again, clawing through the soil and moving out under the long rope.
"Oh, lovely," said Canthan.
"They're coming into the wall tunnels, too," Jarlaxle informed him.
"Ye think they're smart enough to cut the rope behind us?" Athrogate roared.
"Oh, lovely," said Canthan.
Jarlaxle nodded to Ellery.
"Go," he bade her. "Quickly."
Ellery strapped her axe and shield over her back and scrambled out onto the rope over the hanging Athrogate.
"Be quick or ye're to get me hairy head up yer bum," Athrogate barked at her.
She didn't look back and moved out as quickly as she could.
Take the half-orc girl and drop her to the horde, sounded a voice in Athrogate's head.
The dwarf assumed a puzzled look for just a moment, then cast a glance Canthan's way.
Our victory will he near complete when she is dead, the wizard explained.
"Come on, girl," the obedient Athrogate said to Arrayan.
Jarlaxle alit on the wall top beside the woman and grabbed her arm as she started for the dwarf. "I'll take her," he said to the dwarf, and to Canthan, he added, "You go with him."
Canthan tried not to betray his surprise and anger - and suspicion, for had the drow somehow intercepted his magical message to the dwarf? Or had Athrogate's glance his way somehow tipped off the perceptive Jarlaxle to his designs for Arrayan? Canthan used his customary sarcasm to shield those telling emotions.
"You can fly now?" the mage said.
"Levitate," Jarlaxle corrected.
"Straight up and down."
"Weightlessly," the drow explained, and he took the end of his second cord from Athrogate and looped it around the lead of the housebreaker harness. "We will be no drag on you at all, good dwarf."
Athrogate figured it all out and howled all the louder. Canthan was tentatively edging out toward him by then, so the dwarf reached up and grabbed the wizard by the belt, roughly pulling him out.
"Got me a drow elf kite!" Athrogate declared with a hearty guffaw.
"Hook your arms through the harness and hold on," Jarlaxle bade the wizard. "Free up the dwarf's arms, I beg, else this castle will catch us before we reach the other side."
Canthan continued to stare at the surprising drow, and he saw clearly in Jarlaxle's returned gaze that the dark elf's instructions had emanated from more than mere prudence. A line was being drawn between them, Canthan knew.
But the time to cross over that line and dare Jarlaxle to defy him had not yet come. He had kept plenty of spells handy and was far from exhausted, but trouble just then could cost him dearly against the castle's hordes, whatever the outcome of his personal battle with the drow.
Still staring at Jarlaxle, the wizard moved to the lip of the wall and tentatively bent over to find a handhold on Athrogate's harness. He yelped with surprise when the dwarf grabbed him again and yanked him over, holding him in place until he could wrap his thin arms securely through some of the straps. Then he yelped again as Athrogate planted his heavy boots against the stone wall, pushed off, and began hand-walking the rope.
Jarlaxle took up the slack quickly and moved to the lip with Arrayan.
"Do hold on," the dark elf bade her, and to her obvious shock, he just stepped off.
Perhaps to ease the grasping woman's nerves, the drow used his power of levitation to rise up a bit higher, putting more room between them and the undead monsters. Canthan had heard tell that all drow were possessed of the ability to levitate, but he suspected that Jarlaxle was in fact using some enchanted item - perhaps a ring or other piece of jewelry. He was well aware that the mysterious drow had more than a few magic items in his possession, and not knowing precisely what they were made the wizard all the more reluctant to let things go much farther between them.
"We're coming fast, Ellery!" Athrogate called to the woman up ahead. "Ye're gonna get yerself a dwarf head! Bwahaha!"
Ellery, no fool, seemed to pick up a bit of speed at that proclamation.
The rooftop was clear, but the fight was still on at the keep, for the undead had begun scaling the tower - or trying to, at least - and more gargoyles were awakening to the intrusion and flying to the central structure.
Mariabronne worked his bow furiously, running from wall to wall, shooting gargoyles above and skeletons scrambling up from below. Olgerkhan, too, moved about the rooftop, though sluggishly. He carried many wounds from the initial fight after Athrogate had unceremoniously tossed him over the wall, most of them received because the large warrior, so bone-weary by then, had simply been too slow to react. Still, he tried to help out, using gargoyle corpses as bombs to rain down on the climbing undead.
Artemis Entreri tried to block it all out. He had moved about eight feet down the small staircase along the back wall to a landing with a heavy iron door. The door was locked, he soon discovered, and cleverly so. A quick inspection had also shown him more than one trap set around the portal, another clear reminder that the Zhengyian construct knew how to protect itself. He was in no hurry, anyway - he didn't intend to open the door until the others had arrived - so he carefully and deliberately went over the details of the jamb, the latch, potential pressure plates set on the floor...
"We've got to get in quickly!" Mariabronne cried out to him, and the ranger accentuated his warning with the twang of his great bow.
"Just keep the beasts off me," Entreri countered.
As if on cue, Olgerkhan cried out in pain.
"Breach!" Mariabronne shouted.
Cursing under his breath, Entreri turned from the door and rushed back up the stairs, to see Mariabronne ferociously battling a pair of gargoyles over to his right, near where the rope had been set. A third creature was fast approaching.
Behind the ranger, Olgerkhan slumped against the waist-high wall stones.
"Help me over!" the dwarf priest called from beyond the wall.
Olgerkhan struggled to get up, but managed to get his hand over.
Entreri hit the back of one gargoyle just as Pratcus gained the roof. The dwarf moved for Olgerkhan first, but just put on a disgusted look and walked past him as he began to cast his healing spell, aiming not for the more wounded half-orc, but for Mariabronne, who was beginning to show signs of battle wear, as claws slipped through his defenses and tore at him.
"We have it," the ranger cried to Entreri, and as the dwarf's healing washed over him, Mariabronne stood straighter and fought with renewed energy. "The door! Breach the door!"
Entreri paused long enough to glance past the trio to see Ellery's painfully slow progress on the rope and the other four working toward him in a strange formation, with Jarlaxle and Arrayan floating behind Athrogate and the hanging wizard.
He shook his head and ran back to the keep's uppermost door. He considered the time remaining before the rest arrived, and checked yet again for any more traps.
As usual, the assassin's timing was near perfect, and he clicked open the lock just as the others piled onto the stairwell behind him. Entreri swung the door in and stepped back, and Athrogate moved right past him.
Entreri grabbed him by the shoulder, stopping him.
"Eh?" the dwarf asked, and he meant to argue more, but Entreri had already put a finger over his pursed lips.
The assassin stepped past Athrogate and bent low. After a cursory inspection of the stones beyond the threshold, Entreri reached into a pouch and pulled forth some chalk dust. He tossed it out to cover a certain section of the stones.
"Pressure plate," he explained, stepping back and motioning for Athrogate to go on.
"Got yer uses," the dwarf grumbled.
Entreri waited for Jarlaxle, who brought up the rear of the line. The drow looked at him and grinned knowingly, then purposely stepped right atop the assassin's chalk.
"Make them believe you are more useful than you are," Jarlaxle congratulated, and Entreri merely shrugged.
"I do believe you are beginning to understand it all," Jarlaxle added. "Should I be worried?"
The simplicity of the answer brought yet another grin to Jarlaxle's coal-black face.