Part III: The Riddle

By Ariel-D and Chi X

A/N: Jarlaxle, of course, manages to lose yet one more thing. Poor drow. Poor Entreri!

Off-color and situational humor.

For several tendays, Jarlaxle and Entreri had been traveling through the many small kingdoms around the Lake of Steam when the drow mercenary first heard the poem concerning ancient treasure. The bard traveling with the caravan they'd been hired to guard shared the poem at the caravan leader's request. Since it was the end of a hard day, everyone was tipsier than perhaps they ought to be, save the sellswords.

The bard strummed his lute and recited in a dry tone:

"If thou dost know riddle, this treasure may'st thou detect:
Once in the Barony of Great Oak, Netheril did rest.
Before the flying fortresses the earth was their friend;
They buried in't wondrous items of power without end."

"Now say on the riddle," the caravan leader prompted, gesturing with his tankard. He was a large, black-bearded man from Calimshan.

The bard sighed and cast him a long-suffering look. "You're not going to solve the riddle. You're drunk."

"Say on, I say," he insisted.

Jarlaxle smiled ingratiatingly. "Yes, do say on. I'd like to hear this famous riddle. Being a stranger in these parts, I've never heard it."

Considering the song had mentioned " wondrous items of power without end," Entreri wasn't surprised that Jarlaxle was interested. He sensed a hoax, though. Or a legend that had likely been mangled over the centuries.

The bard grumbled and resigned himself to being bullied. "The version of the riddle I have heard goes on thusly: If you can find the true north tower of Godswalk Keep, follow the shadow through the valley until you reach a brook where no water runs. Find you there a stone like a maiden, and she will wink in the direction of the treasure. When you reach a tree time has not forgotten, dig in the shadow of the tree four hours after the sun reaches the highest point in the sky." He glared at Jarlaxle and Entreri. "And good luck to you, I say, because everyone has been trying to find the treasure for six hundred years."

"Not long, to an elf," Jarlaxle said lightly. He tipped his hat. "Thank you, Sir Bard."

"Don't you 'sir bard' me," the man grumbled.

Jarlaxle chuckled.

Entreri sighed. He sensed Jarlaxle Antics headed his way. This was not good. The riddle was ridiculous in its details.

Predictably, as soon as they'd escorted the caravan to Blackalblade, a glorified fortress, they turned south at Jarlaxle's insistence to visit the Barony of Great Oak. Hearing that it was an abandoned settlement now occupied only by farmsteads did not stop the drow mercenary. Neither did the warnings that Godswalk Keep was unsafe, full of spiders and ettercaps and possibly home to the ghost of Garagos, who was apparently some kind of ancient god.

"Spiders?" Entreri said once they were headed south through Great Oak. His horse whinnied as though in agreement. "I've had enough of spiders thanks to you. And I'm not keen on ettercaps, either. Much less the ghosts of dead gods."

Jarlaxle laughed and wagged a finger. "But we need not enter the keep, my reluctant friend. We need only to locate the true north tower and follow its shadow."

Entreri snorted. "That's good for you. I'm leaving you to deal with any spiders and ettercaps we see."

Jarlaxle gestured to his bracers. "And so I shall."

The few inns they stayed in along the way were run by humble folk who begged them not to go to Godswalk Keep. "Everyone goes," one faded, middle-aged woman said. "No one returns."

Jarlaxle's only response was, "Has it ever occurred to you, dear lady, that they have simply kept on going south to Oeble?"

"He's just like the rest," she said to her husband as they left. She didn't bother to wait until they were out of the inn.

"Perhaps I will return, if only to show these common folk the treasure we have retrieved," Jarlaxle commented to Entreri as they saddled up.

Entreri called back to them. "I'll do my best to stop his ghost from haunting you." Then he smirked at Jarlaxle.

Jarlaxle shook his head. "Really, if anyone is going to be haunted, it is going to be you."

"Your ghost will stay and haunt me?" Entreri asked. "I can't think of a better reason to commit suicide."

"That would be a fine decision," Jarlaxle groused. "Then I'd have to go to the Nine Hells just to visit you. Do you know what they're like?" Without waiting, he answered his own question. "Horribly inconsistent and with the most inconvenient rules." He tossed off his mock-sulking a moment later. "On the other hand, tales say that if one reaches the top of the Nine Hells, one is alive again, so perhaps that wouldn't be such a bad choice if one had to die. The Abyss is much harder to get out of." He shuddered.

Entreri winced, unable to stop himself. "I'll take the Nine Hells over the Abyss any day. And I'll climb back out, I assure you. Or just take over. Whichever seems the less miserable." He shrugged.

Jarlaxle snorted with laughter. "You, as keeper of the Nine Hells. Why am I not surprised your ambitions turn to the macabre?"

"I'd rather not be in the Nine Hells," Entreri said, "but everyone tells me that is the only place I could possibly end up. If I'm doomed, I might as well make the most of it."

"But if you climb back out, then you don't have to stay there," Jarlaxle pointed out. He looked away with a smile. "Besides, people are too small-minded to comprehend what you're capable of."

"I knew I liked you for some reason," Entreri quipped. "I just forget what it is from time to time. Usually when you're dragging me into some insane venture that promises to get me killed. Like this one."

Jarlaxle laughed. "You will not be killed, khal abbil. On the contrary, you and I will walk away very, very powerful."

The drow continued to exhibit this level of confidence until they followed the riddle's instructions and ended up in a forest clearing full of holes.

Not only were there holes as far as the eye could see, on all sides of Jarlaxle's selected tree, but also some were twenty feet deep. "Obviously, several people grew desperate," he remarked, trying to put a brave face on this development.

"The other explanation for why no one returns may be that they found the treasure and immediately went someplace better than Great Oaks," Entreri said. "Or they may have simply fallen into one of the deeper holes and never climbed back out."

Jarlaxle looked horrified at Entreri's first suggestion and intrigued by the second.

"Maybe one of these holes goes to the Nine Hells," Entreri added, climbing off his horse. There were too many holes; he would need to guide his mare. "Maybe this is where I'll emerge when I get free."

"So macabre," Jarlaxle complained again. He slipped out of his saddle and led his horse as well. "It's not quite four yet." He kept an eye on the ground and an eye on the shadow of the tree he'd picked out.

Entreri was used to Jarlaxle's non sequiturs. "Indeed." He hadn't really hadn't paid attention to the details of the venture. "What are we looking for and when?"

"What we are looking for, Artemis, is the area lying within the shadow of the tree at four o'clock," Jarlaxle said. "Which you would remember if you would pay attention. You have an excellent memory. I'm beginning to think that you're simply not interested in this venture." He gave the assassin a mock hurt expression.

"That would be because I'm not. I don't think we'll find anything." Entreri gave him a sideways look. "Although I will not mind if you prove me wrong, considering."

Jarlaxle grinned and stopped, scanning the sky. "I'll be happy to." He judged the tree's shadow, muttering to himself in Drow, and pulled a circle of black cloth out of his hat. He was luckily standing in an area unmarked by shovels and pickaxes. With a flourish, Jarlaxle spun the black cloth like dough until it was large enough and stuck it to the ground. The fabric instantly became a hole much like the others surrounding it.

Entreri stepped to the edge and glanced in.

Jarlaxle knelt and looked inside. "Nothing but roots and moist earth." He stood, brushed off his knees, and peeled his fabric hole off of the ground. "I'll merely repeat until I find the right area." He turned and gestured grandly. "After all, we have a whole shadow to work with and mostly new ground to cover. I believe our treasure hasn't been stolen." Jarlaxle was quick to assign such terms as 'our' and 'stolen', but he was a drow.

"We can hope," Entreri muttered.

Jarlaxle investigated with his magic hole two more times, strategically working his way down. Neither time yielded so much as a sign that the earth had ever been disturbed. Rocks lay in one, more tree roots in the other. Jarlaxle was now fully in the tree's shadow. "The tree may have been shorter when the riddle was constructed," he reasoned.

Entreri held the reins of both horses, staying in place so as to not risk injuring them. "Or someone created the riddle just so people could make fools of themselves for the next thousand years." Off to his right, a twig snapped among the trees. Entreri glanced that direction, but he saw nothing.

Jarlaxle quipped, "You hadn't been born yet, so I'm safe. The only person who would be that cruel is you." He shifted and reached out to pull his fabric hole off the ground when his horse suddenly let out a panicked whinny and bolted, tearing the reins out of Entreri's hand.

"We're being attacked!" Jarlaxle leapt to his feet and ran after his horse. The horse miraculously managed to navigate around the holes pocking the ground; Jarlaxle did the same without sparing a thought. A drow warrior was used to far more dangerous obstacles. Out of the corner of his vision, he caught a flash of reddish orange fur, too small to be a bear and too large for a fox.

The creatures helpfully darted from the woods in front of his horse, stopping the steed short. Less helpfully, they were the ettercaps that farmers had warned of: bipedal beings with torsos like spiders and heads and limbs like a troll. Jarlaxle leapt onto his horse and drew one of his longswords in time to cut through webbing that the ettercaps spat from their mouths. "Ao was having a bad day when he created you."

His horse bucked, resisting his control, and kicked in the head of an overeager ettercap. Dark goo spattered out. Jarlaxle wheeled the horse around and allowed it to lash out again. The remaining ettercaps seemed paralyzed by this show of resistance. Jarlaxle smirked and cut them to pieces before they could gather their wits and retreat.

Entreri, as promised, had left Jarlaxle to fight the ettercaps alone. This, however, had more to do with the fact he was fighting to keep his mare from bolting. He got her calmed down, then glanced Jarlaxle's way to assess the damage. "Never a dull moment. Mostly."

Jarlaxle hopped off his horse and led it back toward Entreri. "Isn't that a good thing? You get surly when you're bored, and then you fall into depression."

Entreri ignored the final comment. "No one likes to be bored. Least of all you."

Jarlaxle grinned. "Indeed not." He handed the reins to the assassin and bent down, plucking at the rim of the hole before him. Earth crumbled between his thumb and forefinger. Perplexed, Jarlaxle tried again. "Artemis . . . Do you think this could be a wild magic zone? My hole won't come up."

"Are you sure you're at the right hole?" Entreri asked. "I thought you were further down."

Jarlaxle stood and dusted off his breeches reproachfully. "I would certainly know my hole from a hole in the ground."

"I admit your hole is perfectly round," Entreri said. "But then again, that hole you plucked at is not perfectly round. Or perfectly oval, depending on what you do with it. Apparently you don't know your hole from other holes."

Jarlaxle huffed, then examined the hole he'd been attempting to peel off the ground. He cast Entreri a sulky look and wandered farther up, examining the shape of every hole he passed. When he was roughly in the middle of the tree's shadow, he tried again. "This isn't it either! How can this be?"

Then a cloud passed over the sun.

The shadows immediately disappeared. Jarlaxle scowled at the sky in annoyance, only to have a cold, wet droplet land on his face. He held out his hand and received another prickling, cold fleck. "It's raining? What have I done to anger the gods?"

"Tried to find their coveted treasure?" Entreri suggested. "They did say some dead god was in the area." His horse snorted, as though on cue.

Jarlaxle sighed. "Garagos is the god of destruction during war. He's like the evil twin to Tempus." He wagged his finger. "Yes, as usual, I have been doing research so you don't have to." He gestured broadly. "Anyway, what would a god of wartime destruction want with treasure?" More cold drops of rain stung him, larger now than before. The sky gave a far-off rumble.

"I answered your question. Speculatively." Entreri smirked. "I never said you asked the right question."

Jarlaxle gave him a look. Then the drow mercenary crawled in a circle on hands and knees, trying to peel off all the holes immediately around him. Not a one came up. "I don't see how I could have lost a hole in such a relatively small area. It was right here. Was it not this one?" Soil came off at his prodding. Jarlaxle tried again with similar result. "No, nor this one. What is going on here?"

"You lost your hole." Entreri was well aware how terribly wrong this conversation was beginning to sound, but he was too secretly amused to do anything about it.

Jarlaxle stood, vaguely irritated. "I didn't lose it. We are not leaving here until I have retrieved it, in which case it will not be lost."

"The things you lose." Entreri shook his head. "Your sanity will be next, I'm sure."

Jarlaxle huffed. "I tell you it isn't lost. For some reason, my hole is stuck open. That is all. I shall find which one it is from the bottom up."

"This will be quite a show," Entreri drawled. He leaned against his mare and crossed his arms.

Jarlaxle's expression was quite dark. He muttered to himself and jumped into the nearest hole. "Unlike the crumbling earth that is underneath our feet, my hole will resist penetration. You see, in reality it is still a circle of fabric and will resist being broken. All I have to do is attempt to dig deeper, and I will find out whether or not this is my hole." He produced a spade from his hat, knelt, and easily scooped up dirt. "This is one hole down." He levitated back up and hopped down the next hole.

"So your hole is impenetrable? Good to know." Entreri didn't normally allow himself such lewd innuendos, but Jarlaxle had set himself up far too well.

"Yes. That is one of its many useful features." Jarlaxle dug up dirt in the second hole and moved on to a third, disappearing once again. "My hole also resists stretching."

Entreri was convinced by this point that Jarlaxle was playing along on purpose; however, the drow was doing a wonderful job of keeping a straight face. "I'm not going to touch that one." He realized his reply was also suggestive and just gave up.

Jarlaxle dug into the bottom of the hole, smiling. The clay rich soil crumbled and mounded on the spade, revealing that he wasn't any closer to finding his magical hole. Disappointment was swiftly followed by hope of a different kind as his exploration caused earth to crumble six inches up, revealing an unnatural flat surface. He carefully dug around it. Soil cascaded around his ankles, revealing a chest held in place by root veins.

"Artemis . . ." Jarlaxle dug it out, nearly burying himself in the process. He wiggled free of the soil around his waist and brought the chest up with him via levitation, scattering dirt everywhere. "I might have found it."

Instantly, Entreri went from bored to interested. "Yes, please prove me wrong." He carefully led his mare over to Jarlaxle.

Jarlaxle set the chest on the ground and knelt before it. "It's very old. I can see some faded runes, but they didn't stop the wet ground and the roots from partially breaking down the wood. The chest is half-rotted." He traced a metal lock. "This is gold. Allow me to make sure that opening this chest by breaking the lid will not have any unforeseen consequences." He examined the chest with his eye patch and waved a birch wand over it. "No enchantments seem to be active." Then he gave a start and looked at his wand. "Actually, the field around the box drained my wand. That suggests something, doesn't it?"

"Something," Entreri agreed, although he didn't get his hopes up.

Jarlaxle tore the lid off its hinges carefully. The box was lined inside with red velvet, and a red silk cloth was wrapped around several lumpy objects. Taking gloves out of his hat, Jarlaxle pulled them on, then unwrapped the silk. The drow mercenary breathed in sharply. "This must be it."

Nestled in the box were five pouches containing coins. In the center of the box was a short platinum scepter with a head made of a shining white stone, possibly moonstone. Beside it was a tarnished silver ring with a large rectangular ruby set into it.

"Netherese," Jarlaxle said. "No doubt about it."

"How do you know that?" Entreri asked.

Jarlaxle traced the markings on the scepter with a fingertip. "This is writing. Loross. You can tell because of the tall, thin, slanting letters. It is an ancient derivative of Draconic. Loross was the language of Netherese nobility. What scholars today call Netherese was the Common of their culture, or Low Netherese. While also based on Draconic, the letters are squat, and each word is separated by a round mark, similar to the periods and hyphens of Common today." He grinned up at Entreri. "I know a little, but I cannot read it. For that we will have to consult an actual scholar."

"In that case, I suggest we don't do anything with it until we've found out what it says." Entreri was generally the cautious one.

Jarlaxle nodded. "Agreed. But we cannot and will not leave it here." He tossed Entreri a coin purse from the chest. "Look at these."

Entreri caught it and opened it. "There are 50 platinum coins here. That's 500 gold." He glanced at the chest and the other four pouches. "If they each contain 50 platinum, then we just picked up the equivalent of 2500 gold." That was nothing to sneeze at.

"The pouches look identical." After a check, they found that each pouch was the same in every regard. "This would have constituted a fortune in ancient times." He handed the platinum off to Entreri. Then he wrapped up the scepter and the ring in the silk and slid the package into his hat. "We should go to Candlekeep. The scholars of Candlekeep would know how to find the information we seek."

"This still leaves the problem of your hole, however," Entreri said.

Jarlaxle's face fell.

Entreri would have not mentioned it, given the resulting hole-hunt that would occur, except Jarlaxle would have remembered it later and dragged him back here. "Hop to it. You said you know your own hole."

Jarlaxle sighed and bowed his head. "I don't want to exchange my hole for this treasure, however wonderful it may be. I need my hole."

Entreri's mare snorted again. He felt oddly in tune with his horse in that moment. "We'll wait for you." He picked out a nice, thick tree root and sat on it, content to watch Jarlaxle yank on dirt for the next hour.

Three hours later, Jarlaxle found where he'd left his hole. He trudged away muddy, exhausted, and cold. "I want to find an inn. An inn with a fireplace and mulled wine and food. And a bath. And hot water. And beds to lie in."

Entreri, who was also soaked through, couldn't really argue. Still, he smirked with amusement. "You need to invest in a magical item to find magical items."

Jarlaxle grumbled vaguely in response, but Entreri ignored him and stood, mounting his horse.

After all, this was all in a day's work when one was with Jarlaxle.