[Author's Note: Sorry for making you guys wait so long for an update! Finals kept me busy, and vacation was distracting... But now I'm back, and we should get back to our regular psuedo-monthly update schedule in no time. Thank you for your patience, and all your kind reviews!]
Early the next morning, Catti-brie met up with Harkle on the lawn of the Ivy Mansion. They were joined by nearly all of the other Harpells, along with Jarlaxle. It was time to send the mercenaries after Drizzt.
"Where is Entreri?" Catti-brie asked the drow.
Jarlaxle smiled, exuding an air of calm and poise. "He shall be along shortly," he promised her.
In truth, Jarlaxle was unsure if the assassin would be along at all. They hadn't spoken since their argument in the hallway the day before.
His uncertainty was laid to rest as he spotted the assassin approaching the crowd. Jarlaxle removed his hat and waved it in the air with great enthusiasm, grinning broadly at his associate.
Entreri acted as though he didn't see the mercenary until he was right next to him.
"Well met," Entreri murmured to the group in general.
"Excellent!" said Harkle, clapping his hands with delight. "Is everyone gathered?"
The wizard's question was answered with elated shouts from his relatives and Jarlaxle. Catti-brie and Entreri responded far more demurely.
"All right, then," said Harkle, reaching into a small pouch at his waist. He pulled out a large silver coin and held it out to Jarlaxle.
"The inscription on the tails side will send you back here when read aloud," the wizard explained as the drow took the coin from him. Jarlaxle read the inscription silently, chuckled, and passed it off to Entreri to examine.
"Now, then!" said Harkle, clapping his hands together for attention and silence.
All the wizards took a step back from the mercenaries as Harkle was handed an enormous book by one of his relatives.
"Wait!" said Catti-brie.
Nearly everyone present seemed annoyed by the princess's intrusion. Harkle looked confused.
"M'lady...?" he said.
Catti-brie ignored him, stepping forward to address Entreri directly. She looked him in the eye for a moment, then handed him a small package that she had been holding behind her back.
"I trust ye," she said quietly, then turned away from him to join the wizards standing a safe distance from the spellcasting.
"May we continue?" asked Harkle. He looked back to his book when Catti-brie nodded.
Entreri and Jarlaxle stood close together as Harkle chanted. He had gone on for several moments when another of his cousins stepped forward and sprinkled pepper in front of his face.
With a mighty sneeze from Harkle, the mercenaries disappeared in a blinding flash of light accompanied by a sizable plume of smoke. They left behind a small, smoldering crater where they had been standing.
Harkle rubbed his nose on a purple handkerchief. "Well, that's that," he said.
Entreri felt his knees buckle as his feet hit earth, but he regained his balance quickly and blinked to remove the aftereffects of the flash from his eyes. Looking to his left, he saw Jarlaxle standing just a few feet away. The drow had removed his magnificent hat and was now shaking the ringing from his ears.
The drow felt the assassin's gaze and smiled, re-donning his hat.
"I've had worse journeys," said Jarlaxle, leaning over slightly to plant his palm on the trunk of a young tree. "You?"
Entreri ignored him and examined his new surroundings. They were in the middle of a small copse of trees. Just beyond what passed for a tree line, he could see several large buildings, apparently made from gray stone and assembled with very blocky architecture, so each building resembled nothing so much as a giant brick.
"No sign of our wayward ranger," Jarlaxle noted, squinting at the morning sun. "Shall we being knocking on doors and asking if he has been seen?"
"Where are we?" Entreri muttered.
Jarlaxle put a hand to his chin thoughtfully and turned himself around in a slow circle to take in a complete view of his surroundings. "I haven't the faintest idea," he concluded, sounding not at all upset by the notion.
Entreri sighed and moved towards the tree line. He couldn't tell whether or not Jarlaxle's door-to-door suggestion had been facetious, and quite frankly, he didn't care. Perhaps they could find the ranger just by asking. If they found trouble instead, well, Entreri knew how to handle that.
The assassin paused, frowning down at the small parcel that was still in his hand. It was a lumpy thing, wrapped in rough cloth and tied with twine. He had a feeling he knew what it was, but it was best to be sure before he went any further.
His deft fingers easily undid the knots in the twine, and he let it fall to the ground along with the cloth. What remained in his hand was his jeweled dagger.
"She returned it," he said softly, and to no one in particular.
Jarlaxle smirked behind the assassin's back, resisting the urge to say, "I told you so," or some variant thereof.
"Shall we explore?" he said instead.
Entreri slid his dagger back into its sheath and turned to watch as the drow caught up with him. Together, they approached the nearest building.
Leigh had spent another night in the "tent," and had woken up late for her first class. She decided to skip it altogether in favor of eating breakfast. On her way to the Residential Dining Hall, she passed two men in very strange clothes. She almost said hello to one of them, momentarily mistaking him for Drizzt, but caught herself in time to avert her gaze and stare at the pavement as she hurried along. She knew Drizzt didn't wear a hat like that, or at least, she knew that she hadn't seen one like it lying around the dorm room. Besides, Drizzt's eyes weren't red. She blushed slightly, remembering the incident with the notebook the previous evening. She scolded herself for saying such a stupid thing. Of course the notebook didn't match his eyes. It was clearly purple, whereas his eyes were more of a lavender shade. Thinking of his eyes just made her blush deeper, practically staining her cheeks scarlet. She scolded herself again for harboring a silly crush, and resolved to think no more on him or the stranger with the fabulous hat.
It took a little over an hour for the mercenaries to enter the first building and knock on every door within. Behind every door that was answered, there was invariably a bleary-eyed human teen that had never heard of Drizzt do'Urden. More troubling was the looks they got from some of the teens that showed just what they thought of the mercenaries. Clearly, clothing and mannerisms such as theirs were not often seen in this area.
"If that is indeed the case," said Jarlaxle as the mercenaries walked back down the hall to exit the building, "then we can assume that they are not lying. Our dear ranger would stick out like a sore thumb here." He spoke quietly, so as not to re-awaken anyone they had already spoken with. There was no need to be rude.
"The girl outside seemed to recognize you for a moment," said Entreri.
"Or thought she did," added Jarlaxle. "Yes, we should try to find her again. She could prove far more fruitful than a hundred more doors." He grinned, turning his head to catch the assassin's eye. "You can track the girl easily enough; I'll handle the doors. I should be done with them before the sun reaches its zenith. We can meet back in the woods then."
Entreri did not question the mercenary's plan. He knew that Jarlaxle's temperament was more suited to endless door-knocking. Nodding his agreement, he left the building.
Leigh breakfasted alone, as she did every day, toasting a bagel at the food bar and then munching on it while she read a book. Usually she could count on the other students leaving her to her own devices, but today another girl sat down across the table for her. The intrusion was not unwelcome.
"Hi, Evka!" said Leigh, smiling brightly as she put down her book.
"Hey, Leigh," said Evka, a short young woman with short black hair. Her fashion choices, including a long tie-dyed skirt paired with combat boots, indicated that she was also an art major. "How's it going?"
"Not bad," said Leigh. "No class until noon."
"Nice," said Evka. "What're you gonna do until then?"
Leigh shrugged. "I could go to the office and hang for a bit."
"You could," Evka agreed. "What're you doing this evening?"
Leigh shrugged again.
"Well," said Evka, "why don't you call me when you're all done with classes, and we can make plans for dinner or something? I haven't seen you in forever."
"Sounds good," said Leigh.
"Awesome," said Evka. "I have to go, I've got an English lecture..."
"See you later," said Leigh, waving as her old friend departed. Leigh herself left shortly afterward, headed towards her on-campus job in the office of the school's second theatre club.
The purpose of the second theatre club, called the Two-Penny Players, was to perform the shows that the school administration had banned the primary theatre club from performing. These shows included but were not limited to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, The Vagina Monologues, and Sweeney Todd. As such, the club became a sort of haven for the students who were considered wacky even by the liberal standards of the art department, and its office became a between-class hang out spot for its members.
It was a short walk from the residential cafeteria to the Two-Penny office, a walk that had Leigh passing very close to a great number of buildings that had some very convenient and closely-placed balconies, should anyone have wanted to follow her from above. As it was, her stalker found that he fit in fairly well with the crowd as long as he kept to the shadows between and beside the concrete monstrosities. A few people gave his outfit a second glance, but that second glance often revealed the cold, hard stare in his eyes, and after seeing that, everyone left him alone.
And so Entreri followed the girl, about ten paces behind, moving with the crowd of students going to and from classes.
There were a few other people present in the Two-Penny office when Leigh arrived, but they left for their own classes within the hour. Then it was simply Leigh, alone in the small room just off of the main auditorium, lying down on a tattered and filthy couch as she read her art history textbook. Seagulls often perched on the roof just above the office, and they were particularly noisy today. Their cries were almost giving Leigh a headache. After about twenty minutes of trying to concentrate on her book and failing, she got off of the couch and headed over to the window, fully intending to give those stupid birds a piece of her mind, or at least open the window and flail at them with a broom.
There was a man in the window.
Leigh shrieked and immediately ran out of the office, dropping her book on the floor. She flattened herself against the wall outside the office and tried her darndest to stop hyperventilating. She told herself that she was crazy, that she just needed to up the dosage on her medication. People did not go around crouching on balconies with daggers in their hands. There was not a man in the window. There could not possibly be a man in the window. This was exactly like that time at Ashley's tenth birthday party when she saw the ghost walk through the living room. It was just a hallucination, and she'd best not tell anyone about it.
Entreri cursed under his breath. His skills must be slipping, for him to have been so easily seen. Gods knew the girl was loud enough for him to have warning of her approach.
He quickly dropped down to hang off the edge of the balcony, fairly confident that the grayish hue of his skin was enough to disguise his fingers against the stone, so that they could not be seen from the window.
When Leigh finally calmed herself down enough to return to the office, there was no sign of a man on the balcony, at least not that she could see. Still, she no longer felt safe in the office, so she gathered up her books into her backpack and left.
About thirty seconds after she walked out of the office, Entreri climbed back onto the balcony and picked the lock on the window. He wrinkled his nose as he crawled into the room; it smelled of forgotten food and unwashed humans. Granted, it was nothing compared to the streets of Calimport, but it was still unpleasant.
The room itself was almost bewilderingly weird. Portraits on cheap parchment hung all over the walls, showing people in elaborate costumes and garish face paint. A metallic device on a desk in the corner hummed and flickered, displaying runes on the one glassy side facing the center of the room. The carpet was as much dirt as it was fabric, and Entreri could practically smell the diseases breeding in the couch. None of the chairs looked like any of the other chairs, except that they were all in a state of disrepair that would discourage most people from sitting in them. But the weirdest thing of all was the giant human phallus sitting on the very topmost shelf in the corner, about two feet long and reaching proudly for the ceiling. There were runes drawn all over it. Entreri concluded that this was a shrine for a fertility cult and left it at that. He was about to leave the room entirely and follow the girl when he heard footsteps outside.
The assassin quickly reviewed his options. He could go back onto the balcony. He could hide under the desk, or possibly the couch. Or he could live up to his job description and kill whoever came in before even noticed he was there. Alternatively, he could take the newcomer hostage and find out what they knew about Drizzt and the girl.
The last option seemed the least messy and most useful.
The door opened, and in walked a young man with short, spiky black hair and a face full of metal. Entreri lunged forward and grabbed the lad's shoulder, holding him in place while his other arm quietly closed the door.
To Entreri's bewilderment, the lad seemed unperturbed by this action.
"Oh, hey," he said, "you here for the auditions?"
Entreri said nothing, just stared hard into the young man's face.
"My name's Austin," the young man went on. He started to smile, but gave up on it as he studied Entreri more closely. "Well, I might as well not bother auditioning now. You're already in costume; that'll impress Brian. He likes it when we don't have to pay for costumes. He likes it when we don't have to pay for anything, actually."
Entreri released Austin's shoulder and took a small step back. The idiot had given him a perfect alibi for being here. It would seem that the fertility shrine was home to a performing troupe, and the assassin was, as Austin had put it, "already in costume."
"The auditions are this evening," said Austin, taking the other man's silence as encouragement to keep talking. "Room seven in the liberal arts building at five o' clock."
"Thank you," said Entreri after a brief period of awkward silence.
"No problem," said Austin, finally managing a grin.
"Excuse me," said the assassin. He brushed past Austin and walked out of the office. Hopefully the girl's trail had not yet gone cold.
Austin reached down to pick up a quarter from the cluttered floor. As he held it closer, he realized that it wasn't a quarter at all, but some other coin. The heads side had a picture of a smiling man with an enormous hat. He turn the coin over to the tails side.
"'In Mercenaries We Trust'?" he read aloud, raising one pierced eyebrow.
There was a flash of light and a plume of smoke, and where Austin had been, there was only a smoldering crater in the cement floor.
Leigh found herself walking faster and faster as she got further away from the office, eventually jogging by the time she got to the woods that separated the dorms from the main campus.
The jog of an unathletic young woman was no match for the stealthy run of an assassin. Entreri had no trouble keeping up with her. He had less trouble catching up to her. Soon he would overtake her.
The girl had seen him. He needed to silence her before she spoke to anyone about his presence.
With a twitch of his legs, he leapt forward and tackled her to the ground, his hand over her mouth and his dagger at her throat.
Leigh never saw it coming. All she knew was that one minute she was vertical, and the next minute she was horizontal. She was briefly reminded of all those times she was hit in the head with a basketball during recess as a child. The childhood memories vanished from her mind when she fully realized that the weight on her back was a man, and the sharp pain at her throat was a knife.
"Don't move," her assailant warned her.
Leigh thought about all the self-defense classes she had taken during gym in high school. She bitterly noted how absolutely useless they were now.
"I'm going to uncover your mouth," the man continued. "If you make any fuss, I will not hesitate to kill you."
Leigh didn't want to believe him. All her life, she had been taught that violent people were mostly bluffing. That they were really just sad people who felt out of control, and they didn't really want to hurt anyone.
The man's hand left her mouth. She tried to speak, to tell him to just take her bag, that her wallet was in her jacket pocket, that her cell phone was a useless pink brick but if he wanted that he could take it too. She couldn't even will her mouth to open, much less talk. Tears welled up in her eyes and streamed silently down her cheeks as she finally realized how totally helpless she was.
The man's weight was off of her now. His knife was away from her throat. Leigh didn't even think about getting up, much less running. For now, she was more than content to lie in the dirt and cry.
Entreri could barely keep from rolling his eyes at the girl's pathetic display.
"If you answer my questions," he said, "I won't kill you."
The girl made no indication that she was listening. He crouched down next to her to make sure that she heard his words.
"Tell me everything you know about Drizzt do'Urden," he said, "and I will let you go free without a scratch."
Now she was listening. He saw her eyes immediately focus on his face. There was no doubt that she recognized the name.
Leigh tried again to open her mouth, this time to spill all the information the man wanted... but she was still too terrified.
"Where is he?" asked the assassin.
Leigh panicked. He was going to kill her. Here he was, willing to let her go, and here she was, willing to talk, but through some horrible twist of fate, she was too scared to speak. She worked her jaw and her brain, trying to calm down, trying to get her mouth open.
Sunlight flashed off of the blade of his knife as he whipped it out and showed it to her again.
"Where is Drizzt do'Urden?" the assassin demanded. "Do I have to start taking off fingers?"
That killed Leigh's concentration. She unconsciously balled her hands into fists and started crying all over again.
"Artemis!" shouted a voice up the path.
Entreri's head shot up at the sound of his first name. It was Jarlaxle, swaggering soundlessly down the path towards him and his captive.
"You're scaring the poor thing!" said the drow, motioning with his hands for Entreri to back off. "There, there, now, it's not so bad. My friend just likes to make an impression on people."
Entreri rolled his eyes and sheathed his dagger as he stepped away from the girl. Jarlaxle immediately took his place, putting a gentle hand on the girl's shoulder.
"Come now, he'll not hurt you, he's all bark and no... Well, some bite, yes, but not for you." Jarlaxle grinned over his shoulder at the assassin. "Sit up, there's a good girl."
Leigh managed to stop her crying and move as the nicer man directed her to. She hiccuped a little and looked at him, totally confused. He smiled at her.
"My name is Jarlaxle," the drow introduced himself with a courtly nod and a tip of his enormous hat. "Artemis and I were just trying to find our friend. Could you tell us where he is?"
Leigh finally got her mouth open.
"Classes get out soon. People will be coming through the woods any minute," she said, surprising herself. She had intended to tell them how to get to her room, and then beg for mercy. Bravery was not a trait that she assumed she had. Perhaps she could get away alive without betraying Drizzt after all.
"Really?" said Jarlaxle. "Well, we can't have that. Come with us," he said, getting to his feet and holding out a hand to help her up. "We'll find a more private place to chat."
Leigh followed his directions to the letter, going with the men off of the path and deeper into the woods. It seemed her bravery only went so far.