TO THE VICTOR...
Olgerkhan grunted and groaned and held his breath as Athrogate tied a heavy leather strap around his broken leg. The dwarf looped the belt and held one end up near the half-orc's face.
"Best be biting hard," he said.
Olgerkhan looked at him for a moment, then took the end of the strap in his mouth and clamped down on it.
Athrogate nodded and gave a great tug on the strap, yanking it tight and forcing the half-orc's leg in line. The strap somewhat muffled Olgerkhan's scream, but it still echoed through the chamber. The half-orc's hands clenched and he pounded them on the stone floor.
"Yeah, bet that hurt," Athrogate offered.
The half-orc lay back, near to collapse. He flitted in and out of consciousness for a few moments, black spots dancing before his eyes, but then through the haze and pain, he saw something that commanded his attention. Arrayan appeared on the ledge. She stood straight, for the first time in so long, leaning on nothing.
Olgerkhan came up to his elbows as she met his gaze.
"And so it ends," Jarlaxle remarked, he and Entreri moving to the dwarf and half-orc. "Help him up, then. I will levitate you up to join Arrayan on the ledge one at a time."
Athrogate moved to help Olgerkhan stand, but Entreri just moved away to the wall, where he quickly picked a route and began climbing. By the time Jarlaxle made his first trip up, easing Olgerkhan down beside Arrayan, Entreri was nearly there, moving steadily.
When he finally pulled his head above the ledge, he found Arrayan fallen over Olgerkhan, hugging him tightly and professing her love to him. Entreri hopped up beside them, offered a weak smile that neither of them even registered, and moved off to check the ascending hallway.
He sprinted up some distance but found no enemies and heard no sounds at all. When he came back, he found the other four waiting for him, Olgerkhan leaning on the dwarf with Arrayan supporting him under his other arm.
"The corridor is clear," he reported.
"The castle is dead," Arrayan replied, and her voice rang out more strongly than Entreri had previously heard.
"Ye can't be sure," Athrogate replied.
But Arrayan nodded, her confidence working against the doubts of the others. "I don't know how I know," she explained. "I just know. The castle is dead. No gargoyles or mummies will rise against us, nor daemons or other monsters. Even the traps, I believe, are now inert."
"I will ensure that, every step," Entreri assured her.
"Bah, but she can't be sure," Athrogate reiterated.
"I do believe she is," said Jarlaxle. "Sure and correct. The dracolich was the source of the castle's continuing life, was giving power to the book, and the book power to the gargoyles and other monsters. Without the dragon, they are dead stone and empty corpses, nothing more."
"And the dragon was giving the book the power to steal from me my life," Arrayan added. "The moment it fell, my burden was lifted. I do not understand it all, good dwarf, but I am certain that I am correct."
"Bah, and I was just starting to have some fun."
That brought a laugh, even from Olgerkhan, though he grimaced with the effort. Jarlaxle moved out before the trio to join Entreri.
"We will move up ahead and ensure that the way is clear," the dark elf said, and he and Entreri started off.
They trotted along swiftly, putting a lot of distance between themselves and the others.
"The castle is truly dead?" Entreri asked when they were well alone.
"Arrayan is a perceptive one, and since she was inextricably tied to the castle, I would trust her judgment in this."
"You seem to know more than she."
"No gargoyles and no mummies," Entreri went on. "Their source of power is gone. But what of the undead? Will we find skeletons waiting for us when we get back to the keep?"
"What do you mean?"
"Their master, it would seem, walks beside me."
Jarlaxle gave a little laugh.
"When did you become a necromancer?" Entreri asked.
Jarlaxle took out the skull gem.
"It was you back there, of course," the assassin said. "All of it."
"Not completely true," Jarlaxle replied. "I brought in our three lost companions, true. You did indeed hear them following us down."
"And left the fourth hanging on a spike?"
Another laugh. "He is a dwarf - the gem grants me no power over dead dwarves, just humans. So if you fall in battle...."
Entreri was not amused. "You have the power to raise an army of skeletons?" he asked.
"I did not," the drow explained. "Not all of them. The dracolich animated them, or the castle did. But I heard them, every one, and they heard me, and heeded my commands. Perhaps they harbored old grievances against the dragon that had long ago slaughtered them."
They crossed the room where Entreri had battled Canthan and moved steadily along. No eggs fell from the ceiling carvings, releasing guardian daemons to terrorize them, and no sarcophagi creaked open. When they at last reached the main chamber of the keep, they found that the monsters had broken through the doors. But none remained to stand against them. Bones littered the floor, and a pair of gnoll mummies lay still on the stairs, but not a gargoyle was to be seen. Outside it was dark, for it was well into the night by then.
Jarlaxle paid it all little heed. His prize was in sight, and he was fast to the book, which still stood on its tendril platform. No mystical runes spun in the air above it, and the drow felt no tingles of magical power as he moved to stand before it. He looked over at Entreri then tore out a page.
He paused and looked around, as if listening for the rumble of a wall crumbling.
"What?" Entreri asked.
"The castle will not crumble as did Herminicle's tower."
"Because, unlike that structure, this one is complete," Jarlaxle explained. "And because the life-force that completed this castle is still alive."
"Arrayan? But you said..."
Jarlaxle shook his head. "She was nothing more than the one who began the process, and the castle leeched her for convenience, not for survival. Her death would have meant nothing to the integrity of the structure, beyond perhaps slowing the growth of the gargoyles or some other minor thing."
"Well, if not Arrayan, then who?" Entreri asked. "The dracolich?"
Jarlaxle tore out another page, then another. "Dracoliches are interesting creatures," he explained. "They do not 'die' as we know it. Their spirits run and hide, awaiting another suitable body to animate and inhabit."
Entreri's eyes went wide and despite himself he glanced around as if expecting the beast to drop upon him. He started to ask Jarlaxle what he meant by that but paused when he heard the others shuffling into the chamber behind him.
"Well met," Jarlaxle said to them. "And just in time to witness the end of the threat."
He stepped back from the book as he finished and tapped the tips of his thumbs together. Fingers splayed before him, he called upon the power of one of his magic rings. Flames fanned out from his spread hands, washing over the magical book and igniting it. Laughing, Jarlaxle brought a dagger into his hand and began tearing at the tome, sending blackened, burning parchment flying.
In that show, the drow found his treasure, and he slipped it into his sleeve under the cover of his slashing movements. He was not surprised by the sight of the prize: a purple glowing gem shaped like a skull. Not a human skull, like the one Jarlaxle already possessed, but the skull of a dragon.
Immediately upon closing his fingers on the gem, the drow felt the life-force of the great black dragon contained within.
He felt the hate, the outrage.
But most of all, he felt the dragon's fear.
He enjoyed that.
The five remaining party members did not have to go far to find more allies. With the defeat of the dragon, the defeat of the Zhengyian artifact, had come the defeat of the gargoyles. Guessing that something positive and important must have happened out there, Wingham had quickly led a contingent of half-orc soldiers out of Palishchuk's northern gate.
How pleased they were to see the five exiting through the hole in the portcullis Athrogate had earlier made.
Pleased and concerned all at once, for four were missing, including a man who had been a friend to Palishchuk for decades.
Arrayan ran to Wingham and wrapped him in a great hug. Cheers went up all around the pair - for Arrayan and for Olgerkhan, with the occasional reminder thrown in to salute the other three.
Those cheers were fast tempered however, when Olgerkhan confirmed the deaths of Canthan and Ellery, of good Pratcus and of Mariabronne the Rover.
So it was a muted celebration, but a celebration nonetheless, for the threat had passed and Palishchuk had survived. After a short while of cheering and many prayers offered for the dead, Wingham demanded a complete recounting.
"There will be time for that when we return to Palishchuk," Jarlaxle responded, and the others, even ever-curious Wingham, quickly agreed. The castle might have been dead, but they were still deep in the Vaasan wilderness, after all.
"We almost lost her," Jarlaxle later said to Wingham, for he had made it a point to walk beside the old half-orc on their journey back. "Olgerkhan threw off his ring, and the sudden shock of bearing all the burden nearly overwhelmed the poor girl."
Wingham cast him a curious glance and nearly blurted out, "How do you know about that?" Jarlaxle figured, for he read it clearly on the old weapon dealer's face.
"When we could not find Olgerkhan's ring, we knew we had to move quickly. Fortunately, by that time, we were ready to do battle with the true king of the castle, a black dracolich of enormous size and power."
That widened Wingham's eyes. "You have a few stories to tell," he said.
"It has been a long day," Jarlaxle replied.
All of the city turned out that night, the old, the very young, and everyone in between, to hear the tales of the fall of the dracolich. Jarlaxle served as storyteller for the five, of course, for few in all the world could weave a tale better than the strange old dark elf. Athrogate got in a few rhymes and seemed to take particular delight in the groans of the onlookers.
Through it all, Entreri moved to the far side of the common room, trying to remain inconspicuous. He didn't really want to talk to anyone, didn't want any pats on the back, and had little desire to answer questions about the deaths of Ellery and Canthan in particular.
But he did see one face among the crowd, in the back and over by the door, which he could not ignore.
"Davis Eng?" he asked when he arrived by Calihye's side.
"Resting well," she curtly replied. "He nearly died when the gargoyles attacked the town, but I was there."
"Ever the hero."
Calihye turned a glare over him. "That would be your title, would it not?"
"We asked you to come along."
"To lie dead beside Ellery, no doubt."
Entreri merely smiled, bowed, and took his leave.
The cheering faded behind him as he walked out into the Palishchuk night. He was alone with his feelings, including a few that he hadn't even known he possessed. He pictured Arrayan's face then thought of Dwahvel Tiggerwillies. He considered his anger, his hurt, when Arrayan had professed her love to Olgerkhan.
Why had he felt that? Why so keenly?
He admitted to himself that he was indeed attracted to Arrayan, but he had been to Ellery and Calihye, as well, on that level. He didn't love the half-orc - how could he, when he didn't truly know her?
It all had him shaking his head, and as he considered it, with time to think and reflect, with no danger pressing and no distractions, he found his answer.
He drew out Idalia's flute and stared at it, then gave a helpless little laugh.
So, the dragon sisters - and his drow friend, no doubt - had conspired to manipulate him.
Strangely, at that moment of reflection, Artemis Entreri was not angry with them.
A wagon rolled out of Palishchuk three days later, carrying Entreri and Jarlaxle, Calihye, Athrogate, and Davis Eng. A handful of Palishchuk soldiers had agreed to serve as guards and drivers. Behind it came a second wagon, bearing the bodies of Pratcus and Commander Ellery. Of Mariabronne, they hadn't found enough to bury, and Canthan's lower torso, though supposedly retrieved by the Palishchuk guards who had returned to the castle, had not been placed in the cart. Whispered rumors said that it had been claimed and removed in quiet the day before, but even the ever-suspicious Jarlaxle and Entreri had put little credence in the confused reports.
"You would be wise to keep all curiosity seekers out of the castle," Jarlaxle told Wingham, who stood with Arrayan and Olgerkhan and a much older half-orc, who had been introduced as an old and renowned bard. "The book is destroyed, so the place should be dead, by all reasoning. But it was a Zhengyian artifact, after all, and we do not know what other surprises the Witch-King left in place."
"The soldiers who went in have told everyone of the fate of Pratcus," Wingham replied, "and that there was apparently no treasure to be found. The castle will remain as it is until King Gareth can send an appropriate force to investigate."
"Farewell then," the drow said with a low bow and a sweep of his great hat. "Expect my return here at Palishchuk, at a time when I might more fully peruse and enjoy the town."
"And you will be welcomed, Jarlaxle," Arrayan put in. "Though we'll not likely see you until the spring melt."
Jarlaxle smiled at her and held up the magical ring she had given him, on his request that he might study it further and perhaps replace its lost companion. Arrayan had no problem in handing it over after Wingham had agreed, for neither knew that Jarlaxle already had the sister ring in his possession. As soon as the others had left that room of battle, a quick spell had shown Jarlaxle its location, and the drow was never one to let such items go to waste.
"Winter is fast approaching," Wingham said. "But then, up here, winter is always fast-approaching, if it is not already here!"
"And you will be welcomed, as well, Artemis Entreri," Olgerkhan added.
Entreri locked stares with the half-orc then turned his gaze over Arrayan. Her smile was warm and friendly, and full of thanks.
Entreri reached into his cloak and pulled forth the flute of Idalia, then looked back to the pair. Feeling Jarlaxle's curious gaze upon him, he turned to the drow.
There was apprehension there, and Entreri got the sense that his friend was about to be quite disappointed.
He held up the flute but didn't toss it to Olgerkhan, as he had intended.
"Perhaps I will learn to play it well enough to entertain you upon my return," he said, and he saw the smile widen on Jarlaxle's dark face.
Entreri wasn't sure how he felt about that.
"I would like that," said Arrayan.
The wagons rolled away. Artemis Entreri spent a long time staring back at the half-orcs, and a long time letting his hands feel the craftsmanship of Idalia's work.
The rest of the day proved uneventful. Even Jarlaxle was quiet and left Entreri pretty much alone. They set their camp for the night, and Entreri chose one of the wagon benches as his bed, mostly because then no one was likely to sleep too close to him. He wanted very much to be alone again and only wished that he had been far enough away from all the others that he might take up the flute and try to learn more of its magic.
He found himself wishing he could be even farther away when, a short while into the quiet night, Calihye climbed up to stand beside him.
At first, he feared she might make a move against him. His dagger in hand, he knew he could easily defeat and kill her, but he did not wish to do that.
"The road will not be clear tomorrow," the half-elf said to him.
Entreri put on a puzzled look and swung around to sit up.
"Before mid-day, perhaps sooner, we will find pursuit, a band of riders coming with questions and accusations," she explained.
"What do you know?"
"The Citadel of Assassins wishes to know about Canthan," Calihye explained. "He was no minor player in that dark association, and now he is dead. Rumors say by your hands."
"Rumors say many things."
"Olgerkhan told of his near-death experience in the castle. He told of a dagger and of the fall of Canthan. Many ears beyond the small group of friends sitting beside the half-orc heard that tale."
Entreri stared at her hard.
"Archmage Knellict is not Canthan," Calihye went on. "Whatever success you found against that wretch will not easily be replicated where Knellict is concerned. Nor will he come alone, and the men beside him will not be novices to the art of murder."
"Why are you telling me this?"
The woman stared at him for a long while. "I will not live indebted to Artemis Entreri," she said and turned away.
Not for the first time, Entreri was glad that he had not killed her.
Dawn was still long away when Entreri and Jarlaxle moved out from the wagons.
"The word is 'Blackfire, " Jarlaxle explained as he handed the obsidian figurine over to his companion.
"Black - " Entreri started to ask, but the drow interrupted him with an upraised hand and a word of warning.
"Do not speak the summons until you are ready to ride," Jarlaxle explained. "And place the figurine on the ground before you do, for it will summon an equine beast from the lower planes to serve you. I found it on the body of Mariabronne - a curious item for a goodly ranger of the Army of Bloodstone to carry."
Entreri started at him, then at the figurine.
"So if you are ready, we should go," Jarlaxle said.
"You will ride behind me?"
"Beside you," said the drow, and from yet another of his many pouches, he produced an identical item.
Entreri couldn't find the heart to even shake his head.
The cries of the nightmares split the night, awakened the others at the wagons, and reminded those who were supposed to be guarding the troupe that they were supposed to be guarding the troupe. By the time any of them got to the south side of the encampment, though, Entreri and Jarlaxle were long gone.
The wind whipped Entreri's hair and buffeted his cloak as the nightmare charged on, fiery hooves tearing at the soft tundra.
When dawn broke, the companions were still running, their steeds showing no sign of tiring though they had put many, many miles between themselves and the wagons.
Even with that, however, they found that they were not alone.
"The woman spoke truthfully," Jarlaxle remarked when a line of horsemen appeared behind them and to the side, riding hard and with purpose. "Let us hope that the Bloodstone Lands are filled with places to hide!"
The horses would not catch them, however hard their riders drove them. The hellish steeds were too powerful and did not tire. Soon the pair were running free again, and they knew they were much closer to the Vaasan Gate.
"We could seek the protection of King Gareth," Jarlaxle remarked.
"Until he learns that we killed his niece."
Entreri turned his head, and if Jarlaxle hadn't been grinning at that moment, Entreri would have leaped across and throttled him.
"If the Citadel of Assassins hunts us, then King Gareth will likely embrace us even more," said the drow. "I am not fond of relying on such things, but until we can sort out the potential of our new power, it will have to do. Well, that and the dragon sisters, who I'm sure will look upon us with new respect."
"Respect or hatred?"
"They are not as different as you seem to believe."
Entreri moved to reply, but before he could get a word out, the air around the riding pair shimmered weirdly, like a wave of soft blue cloth.
Their summoned horses disappeared out from under them.
Entreri hit the ground hard, bouncing and rolling, scraping his face and nearly shattering his jaw. As he at last came around, finally controlling the roll, he saw Jarlaxle drift by, the drow still upright and levitating through the momentum of the fall.
"That was no accident, nor did the duration of the magic of the mounts run out simultaneously," the drow called back, from far ahead.
Entreri looked around, his hands going to his weapons.
"To the foothills, and quickly," Jarlaxle insisted. "The Citadel mustn't catch us out in the open."
They rushed back to retrieve their mounts, merely obsidian figurines once more. Then they scrambled to the west, where the ground began to slope up, and great tumbled boulders from the Galenas offered them some cover. They were still climbing when far in the distance to the north, they spotted the unmistakable dust and movement of many galloping horses.
"How did they do that?" Entreri asked when they pulled up with their backs against a huge stone for a much-needed break. "Was it an ambush? Is there a wizard about?"
"Was it even them?" Jarlaxle asked.
"If not, then this troupe should ride right past us," Entreri reasoned.
Both he and Jarlaxle took that cue to peer around the boulder down to the flat plain, where the truth of it all became quite evident. For the pursuers had slowed, with some already turning to the west and filtering into the foothills north of their current position.
"We should find a defensible spot," Jarlaxle suggested.
Entreri didn't blink. "When they close on us, you will just turn to shadowstuff and melt into a crack in the stones, no doubt," he said.
Jarlaxle considered the words for a moment, but given the incident in the dracolich's cave, he really wasn't in any position to promise differently.
"Come," the drow offered. "All hope is not lost. There are caves, perhaps."
"None that will suit your needs," came a voice, and the two turned their heads very slowly to see an older man, well-groomed and dressed in splendid robes of purple and red, and with not a speck of mud on him. The way he held himself, the tilt of his head, and the obvious reverence with which those several guards around him, including a dwarf both of them knew too well, told them exactly who he was before he even introduced himself as Archmage Knellict.
"I do not know that I would name Canthan as a friend," Knellict said. "He was an annoying one, who seemed to find even more annoying companions."
"That'd be me," Athrogate proudly announced, and no one was amused.
"But he was an asset to my organization," Knellict continued. "A valuable one, and one lost to me."
"If I had known that, I would have let him kill me," Entreri quipped.
"Shut up, dwarf," said Knellict, and when Athrogate immediately buttoned his lip, shifted nervously, and averted his gaze to the ground, it occurred to Entreri and Jarlaxle that the archmage was all his reputation claimed, and more.
"Commander Ellery was no small asset, as well," Knellict said. "A liaison to the happenings of the crown - mostly an unwitting and stupid asset, but an asset nonetheless."
"Ah, and now you seek to reclaim that which you have lost," Jarlaxle replied.
"Do I?" Knellict began walking around to the side, studying them both as he went. "You were stronger than Canthan, obviously, since you vanquished him," he said. "And no doubt King Gareth will now welcome you into his court, since you have saved Palishchuk and defeated the magic of Zhengyi."
"I think we just volunteered," Entreri remarked.
"You prefer the alternative?" Jarlaxle came right back.
"I need not explain the details to you, of course," Knellict said. "You are both well aware of the rules. We understand each other?"
"I have created such organizations," Jarlaxle assured him.
Knellict burst into movement. Entreri went for his weapons, but Jarlaxle, recognizing the gesture, grabbed his friend's arm.
A great wind came up and dust swirled around them, blinding them momentarily. And when it was gone, the two stood alone.
"They were never really here," Jarlaxle said. "Knellict projected the image and sounds of the entire group to us. He is a powerful one."
"But we really had that conversation?"
"We heard them and they heard us," Jarlaxle assured him. The drow cast a few quick spells and tapped his eye patch more than once.
"And now we work for the Citadel of Assassins?" Entreri asked.
"And the dragon sisters. We would not be wise to forget that pair."
"You seem pleased by it all."
"The easiest road to gaining control is one walked beside those who currently rule."
"I thought it was Jarlaxle who was always in control," Entreri remarked, and his voice took a sudden sharp edge to it.
The drow looked at him curiously, catching that razor line.
"Even when he should not be in control," the assassin went on. "Even in those instances when he is taking control of something that does not concern him."
"When did you take to speaking in riddles?"
"When did you presume to so manipulate me?"
"Manipulate?" Jarlaxle gave a little laugh. "Why, my friend, is that not the nature of our relationship? Mutual manipulation for personal gain?"
"Are we to spend this entire conversation asking questions without answers?"
In reply, Entreri pulled forth Idalia's flute and tossed it at Jarlaxle's feet.
"I did not give you that," the drow stated.
"Truly?" asked Entreri. "Was it not a gift from the sisters, with Jarlaxle's understanding and agreement?"
"It is a precious instrument, a gift that most would appreciate."
"It is a manipulation of the heart, and you knew it."
The drow put on an innocent look but couldn't hold it and just gave a little laugh instead.
"Did you fear that I would not go into the castle unless I felt something for Arrayan?"
"I had no idea that there was an Arrayan," Jarlaxle pointed out.
"But you enjoyed the manipulation."
"My friend..." Jarlaxle began, but Entreri cut him short.
"Don't call me that."
Again Entreri's tone caught the drow by surprise, as if that knife's edge in his voice had developed a wicked, serrated blade.
"You still cannot admit the obvious, I see," Jarlaxle said. He took a step back, almost expecting Entreri to draw his sword on him.
The assassin looked around.
"Knellict and his minions are long gone," Jarlaxle assured him, and he tapped his enchanted eye patch to accentuate his certainty.
"Jarlaxle knows," Entreri remarked. "Jarlaxle knows everything."
"It keeps us both alive."
"And again, that is by the choice of Jarlaxle."
"You are beginning to bore me."
Entreri rushed up to him and grabbed him by the throat.
Jarlaxle dropped a knife from his enchanted bracer into one hand, ready to plunge it home. But Entreri wasn't pressing the case, other than to shout in Jarlaxle's face, "Are you my father, then?"
"Then what?" Entreri asked, and he let go, sending Jarlaxle stumbling back a step. "You manipulate and carry me along, and for what? For glory? To give a dark elf credibility among the humans? For treasures that you cannot carry alone?"
"No such treasures exist," came the dry reply.
"Then for what?" Entreri yelled at him.
"For what," Jarlaxle echoed, with another of his little laughs and a shake of his head. "Why, for anything and for nothing at all."
Entreri stared at him with a puzzled expression.
"You have no purpose, no direction," Jarlaxle explained. "You wander about muttering to yourself. You walk no road, because you see no road before you. I would be doing you a favor if I killed you."
That brought a look showing a complete acceptance, even an eagerness, for the challenge.
"Is it not the truth?" Jarlaxle asked. "What is the point of your life, Artemis Entreri? Is it not your own emptiness that led you all those years into desiring a battle with Drizzt Do'Urden?"
"Every time you mention that name, you remind me how much I hate you."
"For giving you that which you desired? For facilitating your fight with the rogue drow? Ah, but did I steal the only thing in your life giving you meaning, by giving you that which you said you desired? A pitiful state of the heart, would you not agree?"
"What would you have me say? I only know that which I feel."
"And you feel like killing me."
"More than you would understand."
"Because I force you to look at yourself and you do not like what you see. Is that a reason to kill me, because I am offering to you a chance to sort through your own emotions? That is all the magic of the flute did to you, I suspect. It offered you the opportunity to look past your own emotional barriers."
"Did I ask for your help?"
"Friends help when they are not asked."
Entreri sighed and shook his head, but he could not deny any of what the drow had said. His shoulders slumped a bit, and Jarlaxle let the dagger fall to the ground behind him, certain then that he would need no weapons.
A few moments passed between them until finally Entreri looked up at the drow, his face calm, and asked, "Who are you?"
Jarlaxle laughed again, and it was a sincere expression of joy, for that was where he had hoped it would all lead.
"Why, Artemis Entreri, do you not yet know? Have you not come to understand any of it?"
"I understand less each day."
"I am your muse," Jarlaxle announced.
"I am he who will give meaning to your life, Artemis, my friend. You do not even begin to understand the breadth of your powers. You know how well you might skulk through the shadows, you know all too well your prowess with the blade, but you have never understood what those well-deserved, well-earned powers can bring you."
"You assume that I want anything."
"Oh, you do. If you can only dare to wish for it."
"What? Athrogate's Citadel of Assassins? Shall we move to dominate them?"
"Of course, to begin."
"Think large, my friend. Make your goal expansive. Athrogate will give us the insight and bona fides we need to find a strong place within the Citadel's organization - we will quickly learn whether it is worth our time to overtly dominate the place or merely to covertly exert enough control to render them harmless to us."
"Couldn't we just kill the annoying little dwarf instead?"
Jarlaxle laughed. "There has been a void of power up here for many years."
"Since the fall of Zhengyi."
"Vaasa is ours for the taking."
"Vaasa?" Entreri could hardly repeat the word, and for one of the few times in all his life, he actually stuttered. "Y-you would go against King Gareth?"
Jarlaxle shrugged. "Perhaps. But there are other ways." He ended by holding up the dragon skull gemstone. "The sisters will learn of a new balance of power between us, to begin with. And within this stone lies control of the castle and a new ally."
"An ally that will bite us in half."
Jarlaxle shook his head. "Not while I am in possession of his phylactery. He and I are already in communication, I assure you. If I choose to let him out again, he will only do so with great trust in me, for if I destroy the phylactery, I destroy the dracolich's spirit. Utterly."
"Gareth will send soldiers to the castle."
"And I will let them stay for a while."
"You will go against a legendary paladin king?"
"Come now, can you not admit that it might be fun?"
Entreri started to speak several times, but nothing decipherable came forth. Finally he just shook his head, sighed, and turned away, moving back down toward the flat ground.
"Trust me," said Jarlaxle.