Author's Note: This is the result of a conversation with Ariel D in which she suggested that I write a scene after Servant of the Shard in response to her fluff request. I dug out an idea I'd had and fleshed it out a little more with her. This is the result.
Artemis and Jarlaxle snapped their gaze to one side, and then the other. They stood back to back on a narrow ledge, sand and grit leaking over the edge and into the chasm that split the mountainside. Down into oblivion.
"If they reach us they'll crush us!" Artemis growled. "They'll not even have to fight us. All they'd have to do is force us over the ledge."
They sprinted in separate directions.
The gnolls let out loud, howling battle cries and surged after them, seeming to sense that they were truly worried about their own lives. On one side, they surged to meet Jarlaxle. On the other, they ran forward as Artemis drew Charon's Claw from its sheath and exposed the crimson blade, shocking red against the dull brown of mountain stone and the slate gray of sky.
The collision happened startlingly fast and was lost in the shock of adrenaline. Artemis saw every detail in crystal clarity, felt Charon's Claw moving through meat and bone like butter, the same way it has taken chunks out of stone when Kohrin Soulez first wielded it against him. The ease of battle with Charon's Claw in his hand was still new to him. However, the memory was lost in the smell of blood and rotten meat. He suddenly realized something was wrong when he had to take a step back. There were too many gnolls.
"It must be a territorial dispute!" Jarlaxle called from the other side of the chasm. The ledge ran all the way around the vaguely 'U' shaped section of the path, cutting them off from each other. "They look angry!"
Artemis slashed at the gnoll he faced, slicing off its head and sending it rolling. Its companion shoved the corpse off the side of the mountain and lunged forward at him. When he dodged a wild blow of its spear, his shoulder bumped into an outcropping of rock from the mountain face, and he instantly had to readjust his footing. The jolt woke him up to where he was, almost forgotten in his single-minded concentration.
He growled, and hacked his way forward, deciding to carve a way through the gnolls if they did not stand aside in time.
Jarlaxle smiled. He saw out of the corner of his eye that Artemis had released his anger to match that of the gnolls, pitting against them in equal fury.
In spite of his situation, he was still having fun – largely due to the fact that he had an advantage they had not. He couldn't fall.
Laughing, he picked them off one by one, enjoying their dumbfounded looks as he periodically treaded air, rising above them to dodge their blows and give himself the proper amount of room to throw his daggers.
He dropped back to the stone ground and kicked the nearest gnoll off the ledge without even beginning to lose his balance, and that's when he began to taste true fear coming from his enemies.
He grinned from ear to ear and bowed to them, sweeping off his hat grandly on the narrow ledge. They just stood there, eyes rolling, whites showing.
He straightened, and laughed again. "Didn't you know? I'm a drow. I came from far below." He winked. "And I can send you there, if you care to visit! We have plenty of room!" He spoke in perfect Gnoll, even without his whistle, enjoying the way their language rolled off his tongue. He paused and tapped his lower lip. "Oddly poetic, Gnoll."
They froze at hearing him speak their own language, and then fled without so much as a yip.
He turned around, startled, when he heard a bitten-off yell from Artemis.
Artemis stumbled for the second time on the unfamiliar terrain, a half-yell bursting from him in frustration. The gnolls were getting progressively more skilled as he sliced through their numbers. Clearly, they exhibited a strategy like the Drow, sending their weakest fighters first.
He was discovering the limitations of battle on a ledge. The mountain face was so near that he was easily overwhelmed if the gnolls pressed in close. He'd pushed them back to the narrowest part of the path, only to find that he couldn't fight them there.
Cursing, he knew he couldn't back up, because that would be the worst thing to do. He couldn't wield his weapon, but as it was, neither could his opponent. The gnoll was still trying to figure out how to attack him. He didn't want to solve its problem by giving it more space to fight. He needed to solve his own.
The gnoll grunted, deciding at the last minute not to try chopping down from overhead with its axe.
Artemis smiled coldly. It wouldn't do him any good, anyway. With a flick of his wrist, he drew his dagger. At the same moment the gnoll was beginning a clumsy swing from the side, Artemis stabbed it in the stomach.
It let out a whine, curling back its teeth in an almost tame grimace, ears back. It dropped its axe over the edge and staggered back.
When the gnoll behind it shoved its battle companion aside, Artemis was already following through with Charon's Claw. Skewered, the gnoll let out a shrill bark. It staggered backwards, disengaging itself and falling into the chasm seemingly of its own free will.
Sweat rolled down the side of Artemis' face, but that was the only indication that he was being pressed at all. Jarlaxle shook his head admiringly. Artemis wasn't even flinching. He knew that some humans would have a problem with fighting on a narrow ledge high in the mountains. They would be so distracted by the possibility of falling that they would quickly lose the battle. However, Artemis had everything under control. That left Jarlaxle to the treat of watching.
"Will this never end?" Artemis growled. "How many gnolls can there be?"
Then he heard an eerie yowling further back along the path, where his vision was obstructed. The ground started to shake directly under his feet, and the black glove on his hand tingled. Magic.
Time seemed to stop the moment Artemis felt the ledge crumbling underneath his feet, cracking and giving. He moved backward, eyes locked on the gnoll in front of him.
"Artemis!" Jarlaxle yelled, but Artemis couldn't answer.
With a cunning snarl, the axe-wielding gnoll lashed out. Artemis blocked the first strike, and then, off balance because of the ground still shaking underneath his feet, the gnoll succeeded in hitting him in the face with the butt of its axe.
His head snapped back, and the force of the blow made him further retreat. He lashed out with Charon's Claw, but he was numbed by the fact that the damage might already have been done.
Jarlaxle knew in an instant's thought what he had to do. Artemis was directly across from him now, tantalizingly close, but so far away due to the meandering 'U' shaped path. He ran further down his end of the path, then whirled around and sprinted towards the edge, judging the distance of the chasm with his eyes. He could make it.
He leaped over the edge at a full run. He turned on his levitation with concentration fuelled by desperation. His hereditary magic ignited inside of him in a burst, lifting him high through the air in an arc, cape flapping out behind him.
At the apex of his flight, he summoned forth daggers from his bracers and threw them down on Artemis' enemies, sending them whistling through the air with deadly accuracy.
Artemis stared as the next three gnolls in line all collapsed near simultaneously.
At this height, Jarlaxle could see a gnoll waving a staff, adorned with gold bracelets and necklaces, a string of skulls rattling around its neck. There. He sent four daggers at the gnoll shaman through the air all at once. They all hit home, riddling the gnoll's body.
Jarlaxle saw the edge of the path looming closer.
There were five gnolls remaining, and they rushed to take Artemis out without hesitation.
Jarlaxle summoned another dagger from his bracer and prepared to throw it.
Then suddenly he was falling. Not the controlled descent of levitation, but tumbling. It was like having a pillow yanked out from under him. He screamed.
Artemis whirled around and saw the sheer terror on his face. Before he had even finished the follow through of his attack, he spun and grabbed Jarlaxle's hand with a smack that resounded off the cliff side.
Snapping out of his moment of unreality, Jarlaxle threw his daggers one after the other, fending off the gnolls while Artemis pulled him onto the ledge. He didn't realize that he was breathing so hard he was almost hyperventilating.
"What happened?" Artemis demanded.
"My levitation! It didn't work! It left!" Jarlaxle knew he was hysterical, but he couldn't help it. He felt robbed. He felt naked. He felt vulnerable. He couldn't believe that he'd fallen prey to the same forces that had stripped Drizzt Do'Urden of his powers. He wasn't some tenth house brat. He was a full grown Baenre. This shouldn't have happened to me!
It didn't register in Jarlaxle's mind that he was back on solid ground until all the gnolls had fallen, and he and Artemis were alone. That was when the feeling came back into his hand and he noticed he was holding Artemis' hand in a death grip. He hastily let go.
Artemis, instead of snatching his hand back, just slowly lowered it. He stared blankly over the edge of the precipice.
Jarlaxle let go and laughed shakily. "That was quite a battle. I shall never underestimate gnolls again."
They both stood with their backs against the mountain side. The ledge was only wide enough for one person to stand without part of their foot being over the edge.
Artemis slowly raised his eyes to look at Jarlaxle.
Jarlaxle looked back.
"You could have died. Only to save me. I didn't think you were that foolish."
Jarlaxle smiled and arched an eyebrow. "Why, Artemis, you could have died, and only to save me. I didn't know you had that in you."
They stared at each other for a moment in silence.
Artemis awkwardly raised an arm as if to pat him on the shoulder.
Jarlaxle impulsively tackled him in a tight embrace. "You truly are my friend."
Artemis hugged him back in a surprisingly strong grip. Jarlaxle hadn't expected that kind of reaction.
Artemis didn't seem to notice until a minute later that Jarlaxle had already let go. Then he disengaged with such force that he almost shoved Jarlaxle away.
"Let's get going." The assassin averted his eyes. "Unless you want to stay here and look at the view."
"No, thank you," Jarlaxle said. He turned and started to walk back towards where his gnolls had fled. He thought that the safer place. After all, the gnolls in that area were terrified of him.
Artemis followed in silence.
They walked that way for a while, until Jarlaxle slipped on a loose stone and briefly lost his balance. Artemis' hand snapped out faster than even Jarlaxle could see and grabbed Jarlaxle by the wrist in a crushing grip.
Jarlaxle regained his balance and looked over his shoulder at his friend. "I'm fine now."
Artemis' face was pale, and his expression was so blank that Jarlaxle didn't know if Artemis had even heard him.
"Go," Artemis said. He looked angry, all of a sudden.
Jarlaxle, puzzled, started walking again, hindered somewhat by Artemis' hand on his wrist. He paused. "I can walk by myself –"
"I didn't catch you once just to watch you fall because we decided on being careless!" Artemis snapped. "Now walk. Keep on walking. Don't stop walking until we reach a place that isn't a half foot across."
Jarlaxle thought Artemis was exaggerating about the narrowness of the ledge, but he didn't argue. Instead, he obediently began walking again, marveling at the expression on Artemis' face. It seemed as though… Artemis was actually worried about him.
Curious, he feigned a stumble around a bend in the path.
Artemis froze up, yanking him against the face of the mountain, going paper-pale.
Jarlaxle looked at him in awe, a smile blooming across his face filled with the warmth that was suddenly coursing through him.
Artemis, recovered from the shock, merely nodded and looked down, refusing to meet Jarlaxle's eyes, almost as if he were ashamed. Some of the color was returning to his face.
"You saved me," Jarlaxle said.
He thought Artemis wouldn't speak. He was wrong.
Artemis finally said, "It was nothing."
Artemis didn't lift his hand from Jarlaxle's wrist until they were safely sitting on the floor of a cave, and drizzle was saturating the air.