Chapter 1: Beneath the Falling Sky…
The dark elf trudged along the muddy street, making for the mountain far into the distance. How much longer? He wondered for perhaps the thousandth time. Judging the distance was fairly close to impossible, for the rain that steadily fell made a thick curtain in front of his view. And to his dismay, there was no one on the street who could tell him how far he had to go. His heritage didn't help him any, though the people of the small town he was passing through had indeed met with one other of his race.
Nor did his flamboyant clothing lend him any support from the people. An enormous wide brimmed hat sat atop his bald head, with a curving red plume tucked into the band. His cape, though thoroughly soaked by this time, shimmered and seemed to shift its color almost constantly.
Jarlaxle Baenre was indeed a curious sight, made even more odd and out of place by the pallid looking human male at his side (who he had to prop up to keep from falling over at times)... and the fact that, despite the pouring rain, he was still pressing on toward that mountain. Any person with a fraction of a working mind would have sought food and a warm place to sleep by then. Unless that person knew, as Jarlaxle did, that the man at his side had one hope of survival and not much time. That hope was in the form of a maiden he knew, high up on that mountain.
Or so the drow had last known the lady to be living. Now he had only to hope that his sources were still up to date on the whereabouts of his powerful friend.
She must still be there! What reason would she have to leave? Jarlaxle thought, more for motivation than to find an answer. One of her morphing spells would do us well right now...if I could appear human, perhaps we could acquire mounts. I could send... and in looking at his companion, he heaved a slight sigh; a healing spell would be far better suited to their situation. And that was just the reason the drow had to get to his friend as quickly as possible. He needed her considerable magic, to heal the sickness that had overtaken his traveling companion. The journey had not begun as so, but it seemed it was how it needed to be for the time. The man walking beside him turned his gaze once more. He was scowling again, in Jarlaxle's direction.
And when Artemis Entreri turned that awful scowl your way, it was usually wise to find out why, and change whatever ired him... unless you already knew, and knew too that he could not do much to you anyway.
The man was incredibly pale, close to the color of Jarlaxle's eyebrows by then, all except for his flushed cheeks. His shoulder length jet black hair (with a bit of gray in his sideburns showing up) was plastered to his sharp features, his entire body shook from the cold... and something else. The man was horribly sick, and quite soon to die if something could not be done.
A plague had enveloped many of the humans of Faerun. It seemed to begin as a simple cold. Then there came a high fever, and at this stage, many of those affected died. The survivors, however, had to suffer through an uncontrollable shaking. They frequently coughed up large amounts of blood, and they were always very weak. The afflicted humans could not get much food down their swollen throats.
Artemis Entreri, king of assassins, was certainly human (though at times, he seemed so far beyond). And now, he was certainly quite unhappy about it. Thus lie his anger at Jarlaxle. Entreri wanted the dark elf to allow him to end this miserable existence, for there was no cure, not even a temporary one, to the plague he now had. He knew not of the drow's plans, or why he would not just let the man at least find a dark hole to die in... alone, and left with some measure of dignity.
There is no dignity in that fate, man! Not when there is almost surely another way! Jarlaxle, practically reading Entreri's mind, wanted to scream at him. Jarlaxle held a great deal of respect for the man. The fate the sickened human desired was not at all what he deserved, in Jarlaxle's mind. He had so much farther to come. Though he was undeniably older, perhaps losing a bit of his speed, the drow mercenary knew that there was so much more potential in him. Though, at the time, Jarlaxle wondered if he would soon have to carry the assassin.
And before the assassin had gotten sick, Jarlaxle had remembered a person who could stop his aging! It could even be reversed considerably, he knew. This had been the original purpose of their journey. Jarlaxle had a very old and very close friend who could cast aside the only thing that stood in Artemis Entreri's way. Or, so it had been the only thing in his way.
Now with this plague... he was nearly sure that the most powerful creature he had ever encountered could heal that. Well, he was... marginally sure, anyhow.
It was the "almost", the "nearly sure", that bothered Jarlaxle. He knew not if his friend could heal Entreri entirely. Just as he was almost sure that his friend was still living where she had been for so very long. But if she had gone home, and was not at her house on that mountain, the assassin would indeed be doomed.
A small elven boy watched out his window as Jarlaxle and Entreri went by. He was only about five years old, and the look on his sweet little face was a typical expression of curiosity. Though, his curiosity mixed in with a bit of sadness. It was the strange dark elf that brought his curiosity, and the obviously sick man who the drow walked with brought his sadness. The child wanted nothing more than to help these two, for the boy found something else obvious. They, at least one of them, anyway, needed help. If not, why then were they walking in the rain? Why was the drow trying to keep the man moving like this when it would be much better to find shelter from the cold rain?
The young elven boy had seen one dark elf before and that one had been very kind, indeed. The drow had passed through the town some time ago with a small band of four others. (Who were no less noticeable that he!) That particular drow elf also had a huge panther companion at times, and during his pass, he had even let the curious child pat the beautiful creature! The boy thought that if one surface dwelling drow was so very kindly, then maybe another was as well.
He slipped on his little cloak, opened up his window and crept half way out. Secure that no one had awakened, for he would surely be punished if discovered outside so late (to help out a strange dark elf, no less), he slid down to the muddy ground outside. The rain had slowed greatly, and with his newly learned use of the infravision he possessed, the child spotted and followed the pair with little difficulty.
Jarlaxle, hearing footsteps behind he and Entreri, silently cursed his luck. He hadn't wanted to attract any attention at all. Though there was only one pair of feet to be heard, and their owner made a very small attempt at keeping quiet. Perhaps the person meant to leave them be. Jarlaxle had begun to turn around to greet the one following them. Entreri, on the other hand, held his dagger readied (and it was trembling quite a bit, despite the man's effort to stay it) and cocked to throw.
"No my friend. Our passing will be much slower and much more difficult if we leave behind a trail of bodies!" Whispered the mercenary, pushing down the assassin's dagger arm.
"If I am to be killed, I should wish to take my share down with me!" Entreri replied. He was still with his back to their follower, moving for Charon's Claw with his free arm. It seemed that he hoped more were to come if this one were killed. Many more, the assassin hoped, for perhaps those many would end his pain.
Jarlaxle then turned the man around, to face a frightened looking elven boy-child. The drow motioned for Entreri to put away the dagger and leave Charon's Claw in its sheath. He complied (had no choice, really) and slumped to a large rock on the side of the street, nearly overtaken by a wave of dizziness. Jarlaxle walked closer to the boy, palms out wide in front of him. He certainly did not want to send the little one screaming off to alert the whole town!
"Hello." The child said, calming a bit from Jarlaxle's unthreatening posture. "Jeaden... I, well, tha's my name, anyhow. I saw that your friend there's pretty sick... and you look like you've gotta be someplace real fast." Then, tentatively, he whispered to the drow. "Can I help?"
Jarlaxle was about to send the child away, but figuring the boy to be the only help they would find, he nodded. He went a little closer, and crouched down to face Jeaden.
"Have you ever been on the mountain, over that way?" The drow gestured, and Jeaden nodded, so eager to be of help. Jarlaxle figured that the boy would have no inkling to the answer of his next question, but asked it anyway. "Do you know of a woman who lives up there? She's little... a bit shorter than I, with the greenest eyes you shall ever behold..."
"What's the lady's name?" The boy asked, with a sparkle hinting recognition in his eyes. Jarlaxle raised one white eyebrow to regard the child.
"Her name is Dusk. Dusk..." Jarlaxle's words died in his throat as the Jeaden's face sprouted the biggest smile the drow had ever witnessed, just before the child burst out excitedly...
"AUNTIEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE! Yeah, yeah, I know her! Tha's my Auntie Dusk!" He then seemed to realize how loud he had just been, and looked, a bit sheepishly, to Jarlaxle. (Who was looking around nervously, hoping no one had been awakened.)
"Well, she's not really my aunt... we all just call her that. All us kids do. I can take you to her!" He said happily, taking Jarlaxle by the arm and then looking around wide-eyed, as if just noticing how late it must be. "Oh, wait... I don think I can now."
"That's all right, Jeaden. You have been a great help!" Said the mercenary, seeing the child's almost crestfallen look. "We thank you. Now you head for home, and you must tell no one of our meeting. Understood?"
The boy grinned again. "I can do better than that! I'll get horses! I get ta take care of my big cousint's horses while he's gone and it's just me that takes care of them, so you can borrow 'em, since you know my Auntie Dusky! Nobady'll ever know they're gone. Ya just have to get her to bring 'em back when you get to her, kay? She's got lots a neat stuff... ooh, and medicine! I just know she can help your friend over there! I 'member lots a times when I got sick she made me allllllll better! And then one time MOMMY got real sick, and then..." And so Jeaden babbled on, Jarlaxle in tow.
Entreri made no move to get off his rock to follow, just simply shook his head. The little child had far too much energy in the middle of the night for him to tolerate. He rubbed at his temple, trying to be rid of the headache that had formed there. Though, the assassin thought he had heard the boy talking about someone who could cure him.
Perhaps, Entreri thought, I should rest. If I am awake to hear that insane child still running his mouth when they get back ... A rare grin (even rarer these days, for he never truly had the urge to grin lately) found his face. Jarlaxle was a painful thorn in his side at times, but he was quite adept at finding allies. With that, Artemis Entreri leaned back on the rock and closed his eyes, but only after coughing up what seemed to be most of his lungs.
"But then, ya know, I never found that boot of mine. So my Auntie, ya know what she did? She just looked at me for a minute an' told me to watch the table, an' then POOF! There was another boot just esactally like the one my stupid mean 'ol smelly 'ol sister lost on me. It was just POP, just right there, an' it fit just like the other one and everything! Isn't' that the neatest thing you ever heard?!" Jeaden said with excitement, finishing a story he had been telling Jarlaxle.
The elven child had just saddled up one of the horses and the mercenary worked on the second. He really had little clue whether or not he was doing it correctly. The drow had only to hope that Jeaden would tell him before he started yet another story. Though the little elf was practically driving him mad, Jarlaxle was amused at his seemingly boundless energy and his exhaustless stream of jabber.
As Jarlaxle finished with the second horse (with a few quick adjustments from Jeaden), he looked to the boy to thank him and send him home. He was thoroughly surprised when he saw the little one gearing up a third mount, this one a young pony. It looked as though he planned to come along.
Jeaden saw the stern look on Jarlaxle's face, and knew what he was about to say. (He had learned to read such looks very well, since he got them from his parents all the time.)
"You think you're gonna make me go home, don't chya?" The child said matter-of-factly. He paused, and then smiled. "You're gonna need somebody to bring you to her house..." Jarlaxle started to shake his head. "And even if you already know the way, who's gonna go get her if your friend falls off his horse, or something bad happens? He is all wobbly leggded and all, ya know. An' if she's not in the house I know esactally where she goes, an' I can find her easy."
Jarlaxle sighed and chewed his bottom lip. Jeaden was right, he knew. But this could become a problem. If he allowed the boy to come along, the little one would be found missing the next morning. (That was, if it had not already been discovered that he was gone.) But if the boy's mother knew Dusk like his stories suggested, then his absence and that of the horses could be taken care of.
"All right then, come along." Jarlaxle said with another sigh. "But..." he said, seeing the huge grin return, "You must be as quiet as you can. Which means no more long stories until sunrise, at least. My friend..." speaking of Entreri now; "...can be rather grumpy, shall I say. And he's never been fond of children. Do you understand?"
"Uh hu uh hu! And don't worry about your grumpy pal, I won't bug him bad. He can even go to sleep on the horse if he wants to! They're really well trained, and they'll follow us right along and walk reeeeeeeal gentle. Oh, I'll be good and quiet too, kay? No more story from me!"
Jarlaxle looked curiously at Jeaden, wondering how much energy the boy had stored in that little body of his. And he wondered, too, how long this night would be for him.
Entreri sat up from his rock and rubbed his head again. He heard the sound of hoof beats coming his way and heard, too, the excited whisper of an elven child. He listened to the hoof beats again, quickly coming to realize that there were three sets of them. He heard Jarlaxle shush the boy... something with a J, his name was... and two horses came toward him.
"Why a third horse? The child cannot walk back without the beast's company?" Entreri asked, and slowly opened his eyes. There was Jarlaxle on one horse, holding the reins of another out to him. He held them out with that tell-tale smug look on his face, nodded backward to direct the man's gaze behind him... to the little elven boy, his little pony fully outfitted to ride through the night.
Entreri glared at the mercenary, liking his chuckle even less than that grin.
"You are not the brightest creature I have met, you know that don't you?" Said Entreri.
Jarlaxle only grinned at him, beckoned to the riderless horse and gave the reins over to the man. Entreri shook his head, groaned at the pain it caused and would have fallen over if he had not the horse to lean on for a moment. With some amount of effort, he managed to swing one leg over the horse's back and settled himself into the saddle.
"After you, my abbril! I insist!" Entreri hissed at Jarlaxle, his gray eyes burning. Again the drow only chuckled, walked the horse along while telling Jeaden (who was all the while smiling) to lead the way.
A seemingly young woman stood on the rail of her balcony. She looked up to the sky, smiled as a cool breeze brushed her beautiful face and past the strange tattoo beneath her left eye. The breeze ruffled through her thigh length hair and sent a slight shiver down her back. She let out a contented sigh, slipping off the thin gown she wore. She let the wind take it back into the doors behind her and looked down to the lake below. The moonlight had put everything into grayish tones. Anyone witnessing the strange sight would have seen her as nothing but a shadow.
Of course there was no one around, the woman knew. Not yet at least. She had felt that visitors were coming for the past few days now. They were drawing nearer with the passing of each hour. Travelers passed by her home all the time, though this feeling was quite different. She had the distinct knowledge that whoever came on their way were no ordinary band of travelers. These beings pressed onward through the night to see her, but she was not yet sure of whatever business pressed them on so. And so she asked the night wind.
"Who comes to me, old friend? Tis much too late for the elves." She whispered to the wind, speaking of a particular family she knew. "No, they would have waited for morning, no matter how urgent their business. But who, then?" She said, more to herself than the wind. Her voice echoed with her every word, the extra resonance not coming of the terrain around her. They echoed as they were spoken, giving them an almost hypnotic quality.
She sighed again, wondering, and looked again to the lake. The balcony she stood on was quite high, but she prepared to leap from it anyway. It didn't really matter, anyhow. The lake below her was very deep, she knew, and that pleased her more than a little. She tampered down the considerable muscle in her legs, got up on her toes and sprung. She smiled and shut her eyes as she felt herself drop from the balcony, nothing but the cool, deep water to stop her fall. Just before she hit the water, she laughed, and opened her eyes...
How their deep green did shine through the moonlight's gray.