Night of the Hunter by R. A. Salvatore

  A bit farther along, Entreri noted another enemy, a bigger enemy, half-drow, half-spider. He had spent years in Menzoberranzan; he knew the power and sheer evil of the abomination known as a drider.

  He shook his head and finger-crawled away along the side of the building, some ten feet from the window. He turned back to call to Dahlia, and motioned for her to follow, then continued on a bit more and pushed himself out from the wall in a great leap, landing lightly atop the roof of the building just below Stonecutter’s Solace.

  He turned back for Dahlia, thinking to catch her if her leap brought her in short, and he just shook his head when he realized that the dangerous elf woman wasn’t following him at all. She came flying out of the window, literally, her magical cloak transforming her into a giant raven. She swept out of the window and circled tightly, climbing fast to land on the inn’s roof.

  Entreri glanced down. The building was burning and the sounds from the common room on the first floor told him that the fight was on in full.

  Bright blinding light filled all the windows in a sudden and thunderous flash, and splinters of wood went flying off the far side of the building, blown apart by a powerful stroke of some lightning-like magic. And out came a pair of men, staggering, jerking wildly, hair flying crazily.

  A drow leaped out behind them, his shield and sword seeming like the essence of the stars themselves, translucent but spotted with bits of stones that sparkled like diamond lights in a night sky. The drow struck once, twice, and both men tumbled down, writhing and dying.

  It occurred to Artemis Entreri that he had seen this drow before, though not outfitted so marvelously, surely. Still, watching the movements, watching the deference played toward this one by the other dark elves spilling out behind him, brought a name to Entreri’s lips, one from a dark place in a dark time.

  “Tiago Baenre.” He shook his head. “Lovely.”

  “Whoa now!” Ambergris said, staggering and trying to hold her balance as the whole street reverberated with the shock of rolling thunder. She grabbed onto Effron for support, and caught his dead arm, which was swaying wildly behind his back.

  “Dwarf!” he managed to call out before tumbling over backward.

  “Eh, no,” Ambergris answered, standing over him, one hand reaching down to help him up. “No dwarf.”

  A shaken and unsettled Effron reached up for the dwarf’s offered hand, but he paused, noting Amber’s face. He followed her gaze across the lane, to the front of a building, and more important, to the gigantic arachnoid creature standing in front of the building.

  Its drow face smiling, the beast lifted a huge spear and let fly. The throw came in high, above Amber’s head, but that was the design, for the spear trailed a net, a net that opened behind it.

  “Bah!” Ambergris cried, grabbing her mace off her back and sweeping it across, right to left as she dived out to the right. Skullcrusher’s bulbous head hit the side of the net and drove it across and the dwarf rolled free. She called out for Effron, though, certain that her companion was under the net, and when she scrambled around, she managed a glance that way, to confirm that yes, indeed, the twisted young tiefling crouched in the road, covered by the heavy cords of the drider net.

  “Bah, ye dog!” the dwarf roared and started forward as the drider lifted another spear and charged off the porch. But another form came first, rushing around the skittering spider legs, out of the spider’s twilight shadow, and Ambergris howled and batted her mace back and forth desperately, in full retreat as she parried the sudden strikes of drow swords.

  “Get out, boy! Oh run!” she managed to cry out, staggering backward, trying to find some measure of a defensive posture against the overwhelming assault by the drow warrior.

  A task made much easier a heartbeat later when a line of black fire swept between Ambergris and the drow, and to the dwarf’s great relief, the hot side of the darkfire licked cruelly at her opponent. She saw the drow sprinting away, slapping at flames, and turned to thank, and hopefully support, Effron, but stopped before she had taken a step that way.

  Where the warlock had been was now a roiling cloud of gooey black smoke, rolling over and popping like bubbling mud. And spreading, it seemed, like a hungry black ooze.

  Not knowing what to make of it, Ambergris retreated across the street, running for the shelter of the house behind.

  She reached the door and almost got through, when a second drider suddenly appeared meeting her in the doorway with a swing of a heavy cudgel that rattled off the side of Amber’s head, sending her staggering backward yet again to smash through a hitching rail and stagger hard into a stack of water barrels, sending them and the stunned dwarf tumbling.

  Pressed flat against the wooden floor in the magical darkness, his robes tight around him, Afafrenfere felt the burning and shocking power of the lightning bolt. He heard the wall splintering above him, and had to hope that it was broken apart enough for him to push through.

  But he couldn’t check it, he knew instinctively, and he wasn’t surprised when he found that he was not alone in the darkness. These were dark elves, after all, who relished the blackness.

  The monk came up fast, and on instinct even leaped as he rose, and he felt the cut of a sword beneath him, as expected, the drow figuring to finish what the fireball and lightning bolt had started. Afafrenfere landed lightly and struck out with his hands, left and right, and fell into a rhythm, feeling the movements around him, anticipating the attacks.

  An out-turned downward slap moved a cutting sword aside, an uplifted leg, bent at the knee, starting in close and sweeping out wide, took a second sword with it, and as he moved that leg, Afafrenfere planted his foot firmly and bulled ahead.

  His heavy right punch connected squarely, and he felt the lighter drow flying away and heard the dark elf tumbling down the stairs.

  But the replacement was there almost instantly, and the fact that this newcomer had so easily avoided the flying swordsman told the monk that the area of darkness was very limited, likely just a stride or so.

  Afafrenfere rushed to the right along the corridor. Hope rekindled when he came out of the darkness, as he had suspected, only two quick strides to the side.

  And that hope fell away when he realized that he was alone, that Entreri and Dahlia were gone, and hope plummeted from a high cliff face when a shining sword chased him out of the darkness and caught up to him, under his late block, to stab him deeply in the side.

  He lurched and stumbled toward the door of Entreri’s room.

  Then he stopped and spun around, his left arm leading and rising, lifting the pursuing drow’s sword. Afafrenfere kicked his foot up straight between himself and the dark elf, as if he meant to stomp it down straight ahead—and indeed, the drow’s second blade angled in to defeat just such an attack.

  But Afafrenfere’s leg swept out to the side and down instead, away from the blade, and the monk stepped in behind the feigned kick and leaned forward over his feet to drive his open hand into the drow’s chin, staggering the swordsman back into the darkness. Afafrenfere kept going forward with a jump and somersault, and as he came over, he double-kicked straight ahead, into the darkness and into the drow. The monk felt the bite of a sword on one leg, but it was not a substantial hit, and certainly nothing to compare with the weight of his own blows.

  He landed hard, but came up immediately and started for the door. He winced with every stride, not for his leg but for the first wound in his side, one much worse than he had initially realized, it seemed.

  By the time he pushed through the door he was wheezing and fighting for breath, with one hand against his torn side, trying to quell the bleeding, Afafrenfere stumbled to the broken window where Entreri and Dahlia had made their escape. He looked out at the street, now with fighting visible in many locations.

  Stonecutter’s Solace shook again with a tremendous explosion, one that put the monk down to the floor. He knew the drow were coming—he certainly hadn’t killed either of his last
two foes. Now fighting for every clawing inch, Afafrenfere pulled himself back up, and squeezed out of the window. He had to climb for the roof, he knew, his fingers settling on the top board of the frame. With great effort, the bleeding monk pulled himself to his feet on the sill. He picked his next handhold, then grimaced as he got slugged in the gut.

  No, not punched, he realized, looking down to see the hand crossbow bolt sticking in his midsection.

  Another joined it.

  Afafrenfere knew about drow poison, of course, but that didn’t trouble him nearly as much as knowing that there were a pair of dark elves, at least, coming into the room!

  He let go of the top board and stepped off the sill.

  From across the rooftop of the building before and below Stonecutter’s Solace, Artemis Entreri noted Afafrenfere’s movements. Recognizing that the monk appeared in need of help, Entreri started to wave out to Dahlia, who stood atop the inn’s roof as an elf woman once more. She looked down over the street. He tried to get her attention, but Dahlia seemed not to notice, her gaze set farther along to the west, down the road and the hill from the inn. Entreri brought his fingers to his lips, thinking to blow a sharp whistle to gain her attention, but before he could, Afafrenfere simply stepped away and dropped from the ledge. The shocked Entreri understood a moment later when a dark elf appeared at the window.

  Down plummeted the monk, but his hands and feet worked furiously along the side of the building, catching holds and slowing his fall somewhat. But Afafrenfere was surely in a weakened state, Entreri could see, and he hit the ground hard, his legs buckling under him as he rolled away from the burning building.

  And not far from him stood the drow with the sword and shield, the one Entreri thought he recognized as Tiago Baenre. A drow noble.

  Once more, Entreri turned to the rooftop, to call to Dahlia, and he was relieved to see her become a giant raven again, moving to the edge and springing off into the darkening night. He thought she must be going to Afafrenfere’s rescue, but could only shake his head as Dahlia swooped out and away from the building, flying right past Entreri’s perch and farther on down the street.

  Hardly thinking of the movement, realizing only that he was the monk’s only chance at survival, Artemis Entreri sprinted across the roof.

  Tiago Baenre had noticed the fallen monk, who was then struggling to stand back up, shaky on his legs and lurching to the side, his hand tight there, obviously against a wound.

  Tiago would have him dead before he ever readied a defense.

  Weapons in hand, Entreri had leaped down to the ground and sprinted to Afafrenfere before he could even consider the seemingly suicidal move. He went by the monk and met the charge of Tiago, his sword blocked by that translucent, star-filled shield, his jeweled dagger ably taking the drow’s strange sword aside.

  In his head, the assassin spat curses at Drizzt Do’Urden.

  Drizzt had done this to him, he knew. All those acts and talks of nobility and community and friendship … all of that, indeed, had put Artemis Entreri into battle with a drow noble, superbly armed and with many allies all around.

  And all for the sake of a wounded friend.

  “How has it come to this?” the assassin asked with a helpless laugh.

  A golden translucent shield appeared at the front of the bubbling ooze of Effron’s magical smoke, and not a heartbeat too soon, for the huge drider let fly another spear, this one aimed lower, to pierce the heart of the cloud and the heart of the warlock who had created the cloud.

  The spear hit the shield and deflected wide, spinning and shaking, but still deadly, as one unfortunate citizen, fleeing the battle up the road at the inn, found out. The huge missile caught him in the side, lifted him from the ground, and threw him back across the street, not far from where Ambergris shakily tried to rise. The man groaned and rolled, grabbing at the spear as if hoping to tug its barbed head free. He was dead before he closed his hands.

  The bubbling ooze around Effron melted away, and melted with it was the heavy net, the thick coils, those that remained at all, reduced to twisted and charred lines of unconnected twine.

  The young warlock stood up, leaned his bone staff against his shoulder, and dusted himself off, his expression aptly reflecting that he was more piqued than scared as he matched stares with the huge drider—and though Effron may have seemed a tiny thing indeed standing before a creature as large and imposing as this particular drider, who now produced a trident that was longer than Effron was tall, the twisted warlock was not the least bit intimidated by the half-spider, half-drow abomination.

  No, he was just angry.

  He swept his bone staff in front of him, releasing a wave of bolts of black energy, weaving around as they flew across the way to turn unerringly, burning into the drider. As the creature recoiled, stung but hardly defeated, Effron glanced back for Ambergris. He saw her, but she wasn’t about to be much use to him, obviously. She had risen by then, and had her large mace in hand, but faced an enemy akin to his own, although a smaller abomination than this one, and, like the dwarf, female.

  Effron noted another possibility, though, and he held forth his staff, the eyes on its small skull head flaring with the power of the negative plane. A line of red energy reached out from the weapon for the man lying dead at the end of the drider’s spear.

  Effron spun back and stamped his staff on the ground, and the area between him and the closing male drider began to bubble and boil, and octopus-like tentacles erupted from the morass, writhing and reaching for the arachnoid creature.

  Just a few moments later, the newly created zombie shuffled by Effron, the long spear dragging at its side, and bore down on the drider, walking right through the black tentacles where the drider did not dare.

  “Tricks will not save you!” the drider cried, ending with a grunt as Effron hit it with stinging black fire.

  The zombie wandered through, lifting its arms to rake at the drider.

  The drider impaled it with a single thrust of his huge trident, and easily lifted the undead thing high into the air, tossing it far over his shoulder in a movement that reminded Effron of a farmer throwing hay.

  He nodded his admiration to the beast, then moved fast to his right as the drider skittered right, determined to keep the writhing tentacles between them.

  Distance favored him, Effron knew, and he threw another wave of black energy missiles, weaving through the tentacles and stinging the mighty drider yet again.

  “How many have you got, trickster?” the beast howled.

  “Forevermore,” Effron answered, and simply to prove his point, he sent forth another wave.

  But the creature smiled through its grimaces, its expression so confident as to be more than a little unnerving. Effron glanced to the left to see Ambergris apparently holding her own on the porch of the building. As he continued moving to his right, the twisted warlock glanced over his shoulder.

  A large black bird glided down toward him—his mother, he knew—but whatever comfort he might take in that powerful reinforcement was quickly lost. For the drider had allies as well, a group of dark elves standing in concentric circles, centered by one who served as the hub of a peculiar spider’s web of blue-sparking electrical energy.

  “Fly away!” the young warlock yelled to his mother, just as she came down beside him, and just as the drow flung the lightning web, spinning, turning, and sparkling.

  Dahlia came back to her elf form.

  The lightning net fell over the mother and son.

  Effron melted away.

  Amber finally found her footing. She shook her head to clear the dizziness and met the drider’s next swing with Skullcrusher, mace and cudgel connecting with teeth-shattering force. The dwarf was more than ready to play that game, though, even against this larger opponent. She began to mouth the words to a spell, to fill her muscles with the strength of Clangeddin, but then came the explosions, the flashes, the trembling ground, violently shaking as the lightning net landed ov
er Dahlia, who stood just a few strides from Ambergris.

  The dwarf staggered, but the drider, so balanced on eight spidery legs, did not.

  Cudgel and mace met again with crushing force. The shock wave of magical thunder continued. The ground rolled.

  Ambergris was on her back then, her spell driven from her lips, her mace flown from her hand, the drider standing over her.

  The drider’s heavy cudgel descended.

  The first exchanges seemed more a dance than a battle, with Entreri and Tiago circling, each offering weak thrusts that were easily blocked or parried.

  “Where is he?” Tiago asked, and he turned back to his right, putting the now-burning Stonecutter’s Solace behind him.

  Entreri moved fast to intercept, seeing that the drow was creating an open line for the fallen monk.

  “Any time you wish to join in would be welcomed,” Entreri said to his companion.

  Afafrenfere groaned and managed to stand, but barely, for one leg would not hold his weight and the side of his robe was soaked in blood. A quick glance at the man had Entreri realizing that he had been foolish indeed to leap down from the rooftop to come to Afafrenfere’s aid. This one, he believed, wasn’t about to survive the wounds he already bore!

  The assassin went at Tiago in his frustration, sword leading, in and up, and he spun behind it in a sudden reverse to send his dagger thrusting forward.

  But Tiago not only met the sword with his own wondrous blade, and got his shield in line with the dagger, he did so while resetting his feet. Before Entreri had even completed the maneuver, Tiago came forward in a rush, his shield sweeping out before him, but turned then so that its edge could cut across to take Entreri out at the legs.

  Entreri barely retreated in time, and Tiago continued forward, sword chopping, shield cutting back the other way, then back again, with the sword quickly following in a dizzying display.

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