People who deserve extra special thanks (no particular order):

Witchwolf, for pimping my fics and giving me those sick book report reviews.
Ariel, for proofreading some of my chapters and providing me a list of Jarlaxle's items.
Rezuri, Hannah, and Karei for art.
Thanks also to Alzadea, Lord Onisyr, Lessiehanamoray, and Neven, for reviewing, cheerleading, providing me info, and/or generally giving me some of your time.

devil takes hindmost started out as 'What would happen if Entreri stabbed himself with his dagger?' It was supposed to be six chapters at the most and then, like a virulent cancer, it spread like crazy.

If I added a list of sources I had to draw on for this fic, it would take up its own chapter, too. Part of what made this fic what it is was Thomas X. Hammes, Colonel USMC's book, The Sling and the Stone: on war in the 21st century. Casteja grew out of a desire to make sure I understood Hammes' concept of fourth generation war (4GW) through application in fiction. I especially took note of Mao and the Vietnamese modifications to those tactics.

The other book of great help was Extreme Encounters by Greg Emmanuel. If you want accounts of animals attacks, dangerous weather, crime and punishment, normal mishaps, and other bizarre ways to die or just experience horrendous pain, go no further.


(Cut from the end of chapter one, when Jarlaxle leaves Entreri to supposedly get a breath of 'fresh' air.)

Deep into the shadows of Iljak's nights went the dark elf. He was no less suited to the darkness than his assassin friend, though Entreri was now much harder to pick out of even the shallowest of shadowed depths. In their inn's black alley, Jarlaxle found the contact he'd mentioned meeting.

The drow psionicist stood within the alley, sneering disdainfully at the filth and scurrying rats. When he saw Jarlaxle's unmistakable figure enter the alley, he sighed in open irritation. "We could have met further from the stench of the city."

A smirk answered the statement, telling the disgusted dark elf that Jarlaxle had wished the meeting there simply because he enjoyed irritating him. "Entreri wished me to give you his greetings."

Kimmuriel's frown deepened at the statement. There was no love lost between the two; he hated the human at least as much as the human hated him. "How nice. Have you found him a woman, yet?"

At this Jarlaxle seemed to choke slightly, whether in amusement or actual horror, it was hard to say. The mercenary, ever preferring to remain mysterious and unpredictable, ignored the question and made his immediate request known. "I think I will need to borrow the Agrach-Dyrr boy for a day."

Fine white eyebrows lifted in the darkness before lowering in reserved suspicion. "You know I have been too busy to train him properly."

"I'm not yet certain I'll need him for that," Jarlaxle replied lazily. "Right now I'm more interested in his conventional skills; this place is damnably humid and the terrain is going to be very inhospitable."

Kimmuriel couldn't resist an evil smirk. "You may be interested in his conventional skills, but he won't be interested in helping you in that regard."

Jarlaxle shrugged. "Too bad for him. Find a way to get him out of his House."

"That won't be easy. Nor has he ever been to the surface."

"Impart your experience to him, then."

---

(From the measuring scene in chapter two.)

Against his personal desire to split the youth in two, Entreri stripped off his shirt and tossed it onto one of the bed posts. It took little time for the dark elf to take measurements from his from his bare torso to his hips, which the lad found unerringly even through Entreri's belted and strapped leathers. His touch was impersonal as he spanned the assassin's chest with the cord and turned his attention to the circumference of his arms. (turns to Jarlaxle)

The same measurements were taken, in nearly the same amount of time, but for a slight hesitation when the tailor began measuring Jarlaxle's back. Entreri had a hand on his dagger, watching the suddenly frozen Jaka as he paused in his measurements. The unarmed drow's lips drew back over jet black teeth in a slight hiss. "No scars…"

Jarlaxle responded with a wicked smile, "There are some things I've rightly earned that I don't want to keep. So, what would you use it for?"

A vague look of surprise widened the lad's yellow eyes for a moment, but then he turned back to his measuring cord and continued as if there had been no interruption. The only indication of the event or Jarlaxle's question was the lad's jaw becoming tight, as if his teeth were clamped together with great force. (Jarlaxle's question is a reference to his knowledge that Jaka has worked drow skin.)

---

(From chapter four, when Jarlaxle gets his portable hole back.)

Unfortunately for Jarlaxle, one of Vektch's men knew the secret to the pit. He leaned over and hooked his finger into the hole, picking it up and returning it to its original size. The man chuckled as he glanced at the dark elf. "I'm assuming this is yours, black elf?"

Jarlaxle nodded amiably and stretched forth his hand to take it from the fair-haired soldier. "Yes, my friend. If you are finished with it…?"

The man considered the circle of black fabric, leaving no one in doubt of his train of thought. He rolled it up and began to tuck it into a belt pouch when he paused and reversed his decision. The disc was dropped into Jarlaxle's hand. "With your kind's reputation, I prefer not to waste time looking over my shoulder," he explained needlessly. "That said, if we see you again we will not hesitate to slay you."

The dark elf looked wounded, but took the item back casually. "After your fellows put a hole through my hat, you have the indecency to threaten my life? Ah, the life of Drizzt Do'urden is fraught with turmoil and misunderstandings."

Entreri was taken with the urge to gouge his partner's eyes out with the mention of that annoying ranger. He had to put up with it far too often. It never worked, it always reminded him of the insufferable drow, and it was far beyond old.

However, it actually sparked a look of recognition from the man. "You're Do'urden?"

Both Entreri and Jarlaxle were equally shocked, but sublimated their reactions with the skill that came with a lifetime of subterfuge. "Ah, so you have heard of me? I must admit, I had no idea those merchants were affiliated with that black-hearted villain, Wianar!"

The assassin refrained from rolling his eyes when he recalled Jarlaxle had used the same insult to describe Vektch when they had first seen the wanted posting in Iljak. The soldier stared at Jarlaxle for a moment, clearly unconvinced. "I thought you had a panther… and I pictured you with more hair."

---

(From chapter four, when Jaka arrives to help track)

The moment the (Kim's) portal disappeared, Jarlaxle tossed his outrageously plumed hat toward the black haired drow. Jaka raised his head, yellow eyes following the object's quick progress, but he hesitated. Entreri watched, wondering if the lad was considering sidestepping the eyesore. At the last moment, just as it was about to sail into the brush, a black hand plucked it from the air.

"It has a hole," Jarlaxle sighed sadly, as dramatic as ever. He spoke in the Common tongue for Entreri's benefit, though the assassin was proficient in the drow language. "Can you fix it?"

The young drow nodded absently, giving Entreri the answer he had not desired. "I can."

The colorful mercenary grinned hugely at this response; he didn't want to endure rain or shine with a hole in his trademark hat. "Wonderful! As soon as we locate cover from the impending rain, you can patch it up."

Shaking his head, Entreri turned away from the two to locate the cover Jarlaxle had mentioned. Traveling with one drow was bad enough, traveling with two was worse, especially if the new drow was going to collaborate with the first one.

"A misunderstanding," the tailor spoke from behind, his Common nowhere near as eloquent as his native language for all it was oddly accented. "I can fix this, but I won't."

Entreri and Jarlaxle turned as one to stare at the slim figure bringing up the rear while watching where he placed his nimble feet. He was holding the famous hat's brim in both hands as he followed, a vaguely curious expression on his face as he watched the grass he was crushing underfoot. Entreri had the distinct impression the lad didn't find his refusal something to be concerned about. A wicked gleam appeared in his dark eyes as he looked at Jarlaxle's reaction.

"You won't?" Jarlaxle asked switching to drow again. He was uncertain he had heard Jaka correctly or that Jaka had understood him. The refusal was at odds with the exceedingly respectful treatment he had been enjoying. "Why is that?"

The lad caught up with the two and handed the hat back to Jarlaxle with both hands. He looked up slightly through locks of hair as black as Entreri's, though his attitude remained the pinnacle of courteousness. "I won't be associated with something like that."

A short, harsh laugh ripped from Entreri's chest at the lad's refusal and Jarlaxle's subsequent look of shock. He reevaluated his opinion of the strange drow after all.

---

(Written on a 2AM lark while working on chapter seven. This was a reaction to my undeleted 'Don't forget insects!' note. That note hung around at the foot of my cursor until the end of chapter ten. This never took place and was written out-of-continuity. I provided a link for it on my profile page when I posted it at my short-entry writing journal.)

the leach that broke the dark elf's back

The heat had not abated, the humidity had doubled, and the insect population density within the swamp was thicker than the proverbial flies on shit. Entreri was not as afflicted by the bloodsuckers as his drow cohorts, but he attributed this directly to the amount of skin they were revealing to help cool their bodies.

They trudged on through the swamp's murky water, with Jaka stopping once and a while to pick the occasional lotus or iris and crush their petals into a white cloth; inspecting them for colorfastness, but also pausing to inhale their exotic scents. Entreri and Jarlaxle would have found these moments of curiosity more amusing, but slogging through scalding humidity and buzzing mosquitoes didn't do much for improving their attitudes.

All at once, Jarlaxle stopped in his tracks, ankle deep in mud, waist deep in water. Jaka, attention consumed with a luridly green spider in one of his decapitated lotus, nearly ran right into the former mercenary leader. He pulled up short just in time, but was confused by the odd expression on the older male's face.

Colorful Jarlaxle, whose obnoxiously buoyant diatryma feather seemed to wilt with the weather, seemed to be struggling with a sudden realization of some kind. Both Entreri and Jaka observed him in silent interest as the male's brow furrowed in strained concentration.

Slowly, the dark elf rose out of the water on the wings of his innate powers of levitation. He had barely cleared the water when he ripped off his belt and threw it at Jaka, who dropped the lotus and caught the belt in one hand and one of the pouches it held in the other. Nobody noticed how round his yellow eyes became as his gaze dropped down to the water and beheld the sinking flower, green passenger still on board.

No, Entreri was more concerned with Jarlaxle, who had hooked his thumbs in the left side of his skintight, low slung pants, available eye wide and slightly crazed. Flipping down two inches of material on his left flank, the male revealed the source of his disturbance. Laying flat against his skin, black on black, was a fully mature and increasingly engorged leach of magnificent proportions.

Jaka, who had closed his eyes for a moment to beg Lolth's forgiveness, was not aware of the creature sucking his superior's life blood until a strained command hit him from the older male's direction. "Jaka. Is there anyone in the area, say, for a mile or so around?"

It was a question that Entreri could not immediately connect to the situation as he began to chuckle under his breath at the strained look on his partner's angular face. Mosquitoes, biting flies, and now a leach; obviously Jarlaxle was popular with more than just the ladies (and the occasional admiring male) that weren't offended by his skin color.

Confused, but obedient, Jaka found his center and concentrated on answering the question. He found very little of interest to comment on. "Nothing more than alligators and the like."

Nodding sagely at this confirmation, Jarlaxle sighed and then took a deep, steadying breath. And, from the midst of the cloud of biting and stinging insects, with one (of possibly many) leach happily pumping drow blood down its gullet, Jarlaxle tilted his head back just a bit.

Birds of every color and description exploded from the area and through the canopy in response to the full throated scream of primal annoyance and frustration that issued from a constricted throat.

---

(The biggest chunk cut from chapter six. It minimized Casteja's in-person appearance and I suddenly realized that neither Entreri nor Jarlaxle would tag along mentally with Jaka to experience it. Still, it is kind of entertaining and you get to meet Tan's wife. The letter mentioned at the end was going to be sent to Ashrei.)

(Where is Vritra? Chained?)

The impression of Casteja was very strong in close quarters, especially as he was smeared with mud over one side of his body, even over his shoulder. The man's face was caught up in an expression of exasperation and pain. He was leaning heavily on his right leg while a hardened Chondathan soldier dug her fingers into his left leg.

"Good god! Just tell me the problem and stop touching the rotten thing!" His pain hazed focus settled on Tan with no small amount of relief. "Tell me you have a prayer for me, Tan; your wife is trying to cripple me."

Tan shook his head, "I do the moment you get rid of that sword. You should have kept one of those potions for yourself; if you can't get through to Narbeli, a bad leg is the least of our problems."

"My decision on those potions is irrevocable." The dark haired man snorted in derision and looked down his leg at the soldier still examining his leg. "Lassel, just tell me the damage."

The woman looked up, meeting Casteja's eyes. "Broken. Without Tan's prayer or one of those potions he took from Ashrei, you won't be walking. Either way, it needs to be set."

The leader of the insurgency frowned darkly and nodded. "That's all I needed to hear. Retrieve whatever you need to splint it and come back."

Lassel stood slowly, cleaning her hands off on a rag tucked through her sword belt. "Forget your ankle, sir, and concentrate on Narbeli. You've come back after worse set backs."

Casteja nodded, looking just a little impatient. "Go, and get me word from your scouts about the outflanking maneuver. If she's going to torch farmers, bring in a Thay wizard, and venture in Chondalwood, there's no telling what she'll do next. She thinks massing so many of our forces like this means this is a headquarters and this is her best chance to wipe us out. She doesn't know that we are temporarily unable to retreat past the swamp."

The woman nodded and walked out, while Tan and Casteja sized each other up behind her back. After a moment, Casteja rolled his eyes. "It hurts less than I'm letting on."

"You look like one of the hells chewed you up and spat you out once the taste registered," Tan replied, not losing his dry demeanor. Vektch had the decency to laugh at the statement.

"There's too much going on right now for jokes," Casteja chuckled. "Has the Sespech representative been evacuated? I don't want her around if I'm talking to a black elf and an assassin; she wouldn't be very impressed. I want those horses she mentioned last month."

The cleric nodded. "I don't think the Baron would really care, but she might. She's gone, at any rate, so there's no fear of her seeing a dark elf or assassin."

"What did you think of them?"

"I think the assassin is the one of the two to be wary of," Tan remarked bluntly. "He didn't utter a single word or offer a clue. But his manner was telling and his eyes desolate. In complete contrast, the drow was obnoxiously theatrical."

(connect)

"Tan, you didn't bless any of those fields, did you? I can free up a whole division to help bring in the crops if you can provide them scythe and sickle to do so," the man continued, speaking rapidly, "but after we get out of here. I want you to stay to ask Chauntea's blessing then."

"Understood," Tan replied, walking to one end of the room to pick up a pitcher of water and heading back.

"I've already sent out orders for a complete scattering of our forces. Two different plans depending on whether I regain Narbeli's support or not. In any case, all the troops know where they will eventually be reassigned. I need them to remain in areas they are familiar with; the locals sympathize with us more that way."

The cleric nodded, "Understood." He came near Vektch and began pouring the water over his muddy shoulder. The man seemed totally unsurprised by the behavior and responded by working the worst of the mud off his arms and torso. The activity did not slow Casteja down in the least.

"As usual, the troops are instructed to raid Ashrei's supply lines. If they have no alternatives, it is acceptable to take what they need from the farming communities as long as they pay them with labor." The injured man stopped and stared straight at Tan again, a smile coming across his handsome, if scarred, face. "She used one of those Thay wizards on us. I really thought she was more patient than this, but she obviously feels that killing me or capturing me here is her best bet."

Tan paused with the pitcher of water. "She's right, Casteja. You've done an excellent job of networking this insurgency, but you remain the best suited for running it. Lassel and I are not as skilled in managing all the other parts of the conflict."

"Rot," Casteja shrugged, "they don't need either of you. They can continue on without any one of us. So, even if we do get killed or taken out, this revolution won't end until Eles is dead or over in Thay with a bridle over his head and a bit in his mouth." (And a tail up his ass? Would he say that? Maybe.)

"But living through the war is always good," Tan remarked dryly.

"Well, yes, there is that," Casteja smirked.

(Narbeli barges in, Tan leaves. Blah de blah blah)

"Wianar's general is the one hurting the wood, not us."

"But who chooses to run into the wood, thus leading that general to harm it?"

"We had permission to retreat into the wood."

"Now you don't!"

"I know! And now all my people are being slaughtered by that woman and her lunatic slaver!"

"Casteja, I'll take you into the wood alone."

"I'd rather die here with my soldiers than carry the guilt of abandoning them and my responsibilities to them! I got them into this."

"Damn you Casteja Vektch! Don't hold yourself hostage! You're just using the wood, you don't care about it!"

"If I win this war, I can grant Chondalwood greater protection. Besides, you know I don't want to anger the Emerald Coalition. We all know it is Wianar's people that want to log the wood. I have the Coalition's permission to be here. How do I know you aren't just punishing me for that (NC-17 rated) letter?"

She flew at him suddenly (because of his leg, he falls quickly, swearing. She finally notices his state.) "You ass, this is not what this is about. This is not a lovers' quarrel. I never expected some kind of life oath, not from a human. You can mate with whomever you like, just as I do. Attraction is natural, sex natural. The problem is that you have encroached on my goodwill and influence."

(she agrees to let them have access one last time for the period of a week, but he'll never be welcomed back until he wins and oaths are made. he doesn't know Narbeli's already fucked him over)

---

(Cut from seven, because I already had too much pretty setting stuff; I changed it and cannibalized it for the epilogue. I gave part of this setting to Ariel.)

There came a pronounced hush to the wood that failed to make Entreri or Jarlaxle at home. The crickets and early cicadas ceased their chirping and droning, the slight breeze flowing before no longer rustled the leaves or billowed the draping moss. Unsure of what the uncharacteristic stillness portended, the three of them made quick progress up the hill to more stable footing.

Using drow hand code, they quickly communicated their parts in a possible coming conflict with some swamp beast. Whatever it was, they agreed, it had to be magical in nature to affect even their surroundings.

A slight hitch in Jaka's breathing alerted the other two to the next incident. Both looked behind in the lad's direction only to see the fireflies furthest away dousing their illumination in a wave of growing darkness. If not for the continued moonlight, the small group might have been more unnerved.

The dousing of the fireflies came toward them. As the fireflies closest to them shut down their glow, they could see the small creatures descend slowly to find purchase on foliage and moss covered rocks closest to them. They did not evidence pain or distress or even confusion, though the three males felt a wave of cool air come along with the darkness.

Certain that the source of the strange disturbance was approaching from back the way they came...

---

(I managed to plan things properly for several chapters. This next bit would have been from chapter fourteen. This was my original plan, but after explaining it to my sensitive roommate while I was typing out chapter ten, she insisted it was too sad an ending.)

"Don't touch it!" Casteja howled at the boy. His right hand was clutching the open wound where his arm used to be, blood pumped hard and fast between his fingers and dyed his pale shirt bright, shiny red.

The command only spurred the boy on. He grasped the hilt in two hands and sneered ferally at the wrecked man before he took the first step toward his mother. The second step never came. Kiretheo's childish features contorted first in shock and then in fear. His blue-green eyes fixed on the blade and the eye that was flaring to life near his slender fingers. The boy tried to drop it and when he could not, he looked to his mother.

Ashrei's citrine eyes grew very wide, her lips pulled over her teeth in a snarl. Casteja forgotten, she rushed at her son, muscles propelling her unlike before.

But the damage was done. The boy seemed to simply disintegrate more descript In his place a curled and grotesque creature slumped to the floor, its once magnificent garments in tatters. It was an illithid and it looked mostly dead, but staring up from the back of the revolting creature's ugly hand was the sword, orange eye glaring and malevolent. In a home of illithid flesh it looked far more normal, though equally alien as the creature itself.

(Kiretheo is taken, Ashrei kills comatose illithid, Casteja's soft spot spurs him to pick up Vritra, Kiretheo out and Casteja in. Ashrei hesitantly triumphant. Business as usual; Entreri lops off Kiretheo's arm (Ashrei goes nuts). Picks up sword with gauntlet hand. Exit our hero, stage left. Phosealis' shrine to drop off Vritra.)

---

(This was chopped out of the epilogue. I wrote this scene specifically for Rezuri and, to a lesser extent, WitchWolf (who loves Kimmuriel). Unfortunately, it didn't work. I now know I should have cut all mention of it from the epilogue.)

As hard as sleep was to come by, he came instantly awake the moment he felt a gaze upon him. He was certain he'd only been asleep a few hours when the feeling swept over him. Instinctually, his gloved hand tightened on Vritra, and his opposite on Charon's Claw. The droning cicadas, locusts, and crickets made a wall of noise that crushed other sounds far below normal hearing. And Entreri's hearing, though sharp for a human, was still only that of a human. There was nothing to hear beneath the cover of insect droning.

Carefully, he opened his eyes just enough to peer furtively through the blur of his black lashes. Thanks to the moving light the fireflies provided under the trees' heavy canopy and the vision provided to him by the shade, he could see his watcher fairly well.

There was a humanoid shape directly before him, crouched, but with black hands held empty and to the sides. Whoever it was wasn't really working to surprise him, but that alone was startling to an assassin that had become inured to the prospect of legions of angry people wanting him torn apart and fed to dogs.

It took less than a heartbeat for him to bring Charon's Claw out of the scabbard and thrust it into the figure's hypothetical face. Yellow eyes shone vaguely, reflecting the moving lights all around them.

"Take off my shirt."

Entreri knew the voice and he was struck by what the subdued drow really wanted. "You're not my type, Mi'iduor."

If the lad's eyes could only look more blank if he was dead. He shifted back in his crouch and lifted his elbows and rested them on his bent knees. "Not the shirt I'm wearing, the shirt you are wearing," the dark elf said quietly, firmly. "I was never paid for the material or the tailoring."

"It didn't protect me anyway," Entreri snorted, but made no move to comply with the dark elf's command. "It let a dagger through."

The lad's yellow eyes narrowed, but his expression didn't grow malevolent only slightly intrigued. "Magical?"

The assassin nodded.

"Must be strong magic," Jaka commented. "Was it undead in nature? The bone needles I use to work that cloth were blessed by a cleric of Kiaransalee."

"Is that the only reason you're here?" The assassin asked bluntly. "To retrieve your handiwork? Did Jarlaxle send you?"

The boy shook his head. "I'm here at great cost because I want the material back. There is no other reason. I have not seen Jarlaxle."

"And to whom are you paying this great cost?" The assassin rose slowly to his feet, keeping Charon's Claw at the youth's face. Jaka was a hard drow to read, but he knew he could rely on him to be as deceptive as any other. If Kimmuriel was his master, it stood to reason that he was learning the art of the deception from one of the best.

"Nobody you know," the male stated, "it is enough that he has what is left of this cloth's dye lot. As long as you keep this material, you can always be found. There is benefit to be had if Jarlaxle retains the garment, whether he pays or not, but you have no sway or use in Menzoberranzan."

Entreri snorted in sarcastic humor. Jarlaxle had likely known the material was traceable; it was probably set up in that way just to cover all possibilities. The bastard. If that was the case, he actually had a good reason to get rid of the shirt. Then again, perhaps Jaka was lying to him about tracking it just to get it back. The assassin really didn't want to face sweltering Chondalwood in his leathers. It would be nice if the male's eye would give him away, but few faces were ever as inexpressive as the one before him.

"Even if you can track this material," Entreri, finally said, his voice even as he looked down at the crouching dark elf, "I'm not convinced that really concerns me. You've stated before that you know you can't kill me and, moreover, Jarlaxle would not be pleased if you did."

Glancing up through locks of shiny black hair, Jaka was equally even with his reply. "I do not sense Jarlaxle anywhere in the area and Master Kimmuriel has never, to my knowledge, liked you."

Not offended by the threat, Entreri only raised an eyebrow, while his habitual sneer pulled at his mouth. "All this trouble for a bit of material, Mi'iduor? It must be more important than you're letting on."

A hint of obsidian tooth reflected the green light of a stray firefly as the male betrayed a sign of nervousness just as he had the week prior when he'd forgotten to mention Casteja and Ashrei's conflict not fifty miles away from Entreri's current camp. He was biting his black lip. The assassin was wary, but he took the movement for a sign of victory.

"If you want the shirt," he relented, "I'll trade it to you for information."

Jaka's head tilted to one side in curiosity his face did not show. "About mind magic? I'm sure I know nothing else of importance to you."

The assassin didn't waste breath disagreeing; there were plenty things he could think of asking about Kimmuriel and Jarlaxle that he was reasonably certain the psionicist could answer. For the time being, though, Jaka was mostly correct.

Instead, he asked, "Are you fully recovered from Vritra?"

The profound stillness that swept over the boy was proof enough that sometimes a lack of reaction was a reaction in itself. The yellow eyes did not blink, nor did his black hands twitch, only the deceptive travel of firefly light over his body gave him any sort of illusion of movement. At last, his lips moved. "As much as I need to be."

Entreri was smart enough to know the boy's answer meant 'no'. "How far back did it go before we got the ward on you?"

Moving slowly, Jaka rose to his feet, Charon's Claw always tracking his face. The male's left hand was pressed against his chest, where Entreri assumed his bizarre drow skin pendant would hang; that was another answer in itself. The male took a step back from the assassin. "Far."

The line of questioning was having the effect Entreri had assumed it would. It would not have been pleasant if their roles were reversed, but even when the assassin had empathy for an opponent, it never translated into mercy. Fortunately for Jaka, he only had one more question.

Charon's Claw was swept back into its scabbard so Entreri could manage to pull off the black shirt. It was an affair he had perfected over the last few days; dressing and undressing while keeping Vritra almost constantly in his gloved grip.

The sight arrested Jaka's abbreviated retreat. Cautiously, the male regained footing he had given up a moment prior. He reached out to take the garment, but Entreri did not offer it. "Did your mother have any sort of identifying feature?"

The question didn't make the male as uncomfortable as Entreri had thought. If anything, his muscles seemed to ease into a more relaxed definition. "She had full lips, very well shaped; always glossed with venom. Their beauty led many drow to disadvantage and defeat."

A flick of his wrist and the black material was transferred from the assassin's tough tan hand to the smooth black hands of the psionicist. Jaka brought it quickly before his eyes while running his fingers over the puncture Entreri's dagger had made before making his verdict. "Mendable."

Neither of them made any other attempt to communicate. That was something Entreri could appreciate about the young male from the Underdark's volcanic reaches; he didn't waste words. He wasn't like loquacious Jarlaxle at all. What he didn't appreciate was the lack of nod or bow when Jaka began to back away; the lad never failed to give that small token of respect to Jarlaxle, even when the flashy bastard had told him not to bother.

The thin black figure stepped back from the assassin and put the nearest tree between them in order to make his wordless, if not soundless, retreat. It was not hard for Entreri to disappear into the thick shadows in order to follow the dark elf. He didn't need the droning insects to cover his steps. He was hushed as darkness. He didn't worry about the lad's weak infravision, with Charon's Claw in his hand, he was invisible to heat sensing eyes. Nor did he even worry about being traced by the lad's psionics; Vritra was ever in his hand.

The only care was the expanse of skin against the darkness, for without the shirt, there was an ample amount open to the night air. Of course, Entreri had learned long ago to move in the deepest shadows, to wear them as a cloak. The shade attributes his dagger had fed him not so long ago made this task even easier for the master assassin. He moved along with the dark elf; hushed as darkness, black as death.

The sight that greeted his iron colored eyes caused him to swear violently under his breath.

A small portal of absolute blackness awaited Jaka and an even more familiar voice came from within the void as the lad stepped into it. "Biting your lip remains an effective ploy, Jakadirek, but don't expect it to work on creatures of any intelligence."

Kimmuriel Oblodra was very fortunate Entreri's hands were filled with two swords he did not want to lose in a throw. The man let go of Charon's Claw to seize a dagger to sling into the portal before it snapped shut without a trace, but even his movements could not outpace the speed of thought. The portal ceased to exist as Entreri's fingers clawed around the dagger's hilt.

Yes, the young psionicist was trained in deception by one of the most deceptive and difficult drow Entreri knew. He was reminded that his hatred of dark elves was not racist, but merely pragmatic.

---

(Yet more cut out of the epilogue. I was trying to illustrate what little Entreri would say by segueing into the memory. It flowed perfectly, sure, but it took focus off Entreri and Jarlaxle. It hurt to cut this scene.)

Entreri wasn't inclined to delve into the memories he'd received from Vritra. With Casteja gone and little chance of having to deal with Jaka again, there was no reason to do so. He thought back anyway, to the vague image of a gray morning thousands of years past.

It happened in autumn; the smell of leaves, frost, and broken flesh permeated the air. Cloud cover was thick across the land and sky, turning the battlefield into a dream already dressed for remembrances. Casteja had thought the red of blood very vibrant in the gray atmosphere, especially the steaming blood pouring steadily from the wound in his gray-clad thigh.

The feeling of his staggering steps was strong. Every move was jarring as he ran toward the only area on the battlefield where the trees had not been ripped apart or smoldering: Phosealis' grove. It was off limits to all, known to be cursed with an awful geas of divine proportions. It was safe from catapult, ballista, and cannon.

As far as Casteja knew, there was only one person that could enter the shrine safely and that was the one man that still paid tribute to the shrine's lost nature deity.

Both sides of the military action had decimated the other as he knew they would. Chaos had ripped through the land as a result, but still the revolution roiled and raged. Other countries were making bloody inroads into the land of his birth. Mercenaries and bandits were running roughshod through the ruined cities. Decadent and prideful, neither government nor revolutionary would call truce long enough to fend off the outside threats.

Heavy impacts were shaking the ground right behind Casteja; the ground obliterating gallop of a war horse's heavy hooves. All his soldiers were gone, all his plans annihilated, he ran for the shrine for his life, his face bathed continuously in every frozen breath that heaved through his nose and lips. He did not want to die. Only twenty-four years old, he still had plans to lay and things to prove. Or plans to prove and things to lay.

The footing across the field was treacherous. Torn and ravaged by war machine, cavalry, and footman alike, and then frozen in the night, the ground was a foreign landscape of tortured earth. It came as almost an amusing realization when the young man's foot skidded across an ice-filled gouge. He went down grinning; once a high ranking officer, demoted to lowly foot soldier running for his life, and destined to die pounded into the warped earth by an animal.

But the horse sailed over him as he desperately tried to roll to the side to avoid what damage he could. He did not pause to thank fortune, but quickly came to his knees, his pistol still firmly in hand. He pulled back one of the two hammers and sighted down the ornate barrel, with every intention of taking his enemy's head off and trying to steal the massive gray steed.

A mass of dark ringlets crowning a laughing pale face and bright blue eyes met his aim. Did she never age? She was beautiful even with her battered armor and bloody lips.

"Rot, woman! Must you?"

She remained grinning. "I must! We switched sides this morning."

He couldn't help but laugh, her band of wolfish mercenaries had switched sides three times in the last week depending on the flow of coin and with no regard for the size of the force they were against.

Using knees alone, she guided the horse over to him and leaned down to ruffle his black hair. "You're a better commander than a grunt, boy. Did your father run out of money for your commission? I have plenty if you want to be an officer again."

"I'll use it to buy my life from you, lady," he smiled, getting to his feet. "Would you mind terribly taking me prisoner?"

She made a show of thinking about his request before shaking her head. "We were told to take no prisoners, handsome stranger. Truly it is a loss, for one of my sisters-in-arms would give me her armills if I'd be your pimp. Besides, you're too old to have a babysitter."

"Maybe I'd enjoy you playing my pimp, as long as you've no plans to beat me and take my money. I shan't weigh you down, Mother."

"Don't call me that!" The blood on her lips made her snarl as ferocious as any beast. He was reminded of the wolves he'd had to kill on his father's land. (the land is his father's through marriage, so, not really his father's land)

---

Character concepts

Artemis Entreri changes character book to book and short story to short story. My take on Entreri is cobbled together from the novels Streams of Silver , The Halfling's Gem , The Silent Blade , and Servant of the Shard . I also use the short stories The Third Level (which tells us Entreri ran to Calimport to escape being molested by his father and uncle), That Curious Sword (where Entreri's dagger feeds him a shade), and Empty Joys. Wickless in the Nethe (the title appropriately refers to a frog's ass) and PotWK are ignored.

To make a long story even longer; I wrote Entreri how I wish he would be written. This makes him, in all reality, out of character.

Jarlaxle's characterization is taken solely from Servant of the Shard and the two short stories I mentioned above. He's the harder one to write, because it is difficult to remember he is a conniving, scheming, ruthless bastard even when he has the capacity to be strangely kind at times.

Ashrei came out of the desire to write a strong female character who could also be sexy and viable while being a mother. I took her name from a pointless 'boys love' fantasy manga/novel called Jadou 邪道 and her image from Lineage II. Originally I played her for a very short stint on the forums at menzoberranzan dot net, where I also played Jak. I ended up realizing I had written her as the 'nice' version of Jak's mother. Her boys are quite willing to kill each other to gain her favor. (The two eldest are allied against the younger three, with Kiretheo being taken in by Inyol as a mascot of sorts.)

Casteja Vetch (he added a 'k') came from a character concept nobody would let me play way back in the day. Explaining the original concept is too long a story. His father taught him the basics of boxing; he went on to be the star boxer in his weight category at the military university he attended. They did not use gloves during matches. His field of study was military history and War theory (special emphasis on conflict origination). His country was a bit more technologically advanced than the current Forgotten Realms; they had firearms. The country was extremely debauched and decadent; think Marie Antoinette's France, but on the scale of Rome's golden age. With the war that ripped the country apart came utter chaos, epic natural disasters, and a subsequent 'dark age' where civilization took several steps back. Technology, such as the alchemical process to produce gunpowder, was lost.

Vritra was part of Casteja's original concept, but started out inside another god. It is sentient but doesn't have normal motivations or goals. It can recede into Casteja's body, but this is uncomfortable as it then takes 'root' in his flesh. After Vritra got sucked into a void, it became slightly obsessed with the first thing it came in contact with: Casteja. It has ownership feelings for him and 'enjoys' puzzling out how he works. It doesn't understand humanoid feelings or motivations.

One last item: the last scene in the epilogue was meant to be a hint that all the scenes within Vritra's fleshy prison were actually never Entreri. They were always Casteja.