Rizolvir felt his consciousness leaving the blissful dark where it had been dwelling for an unknown amount of time, and through his still slow reasoning, he knew he was waking up. A dull pain, which he was unable to locate, greeted him and he tried to quiet his mind, and to ease himself back into the non-feeling vacuum where he had been floating before.
Unfortunately, that was not to be.
Ah, how I love the taste of dark elf blood in the morning… We should really make a repeat of this sometime soon, pal.
Rizolvir forced a groan past his sore throat, and lamented that the sword hadn't been lost in the crypt.
Aw, don't be like that, the sentient sword chuckled, amused. I must admit, though, that I am amazed that you even remember the crypt. That's some amazing mind you've got, recovering so quickly.
For once, Enserric didn't sound too sarcastic and Rizolvir had to wonder if it was truly that incredible a feat.
"It is not my clearest memoir, but I do tend to remember my fights," he said, trying to move his left hand to assess damages.
You remember your flights as well?, the obnoxious sword taunted, and his left fingers twitched.
Honestly, he had been quite oblivious of the ending of his venture, but Enserric's comment made him aware of the desperate escape from the Illefari tumulus.
"That is going down as 'strategic retreat'," he said with a mental smirk. "It does not qualify as fleeing if there are no enemies to give chase."
The dark elf couldn't form a clear recollection of what had transpired between going down and going unconscious: he had only a grip of flashes and images of rushing forward as the world around him – around them – fell to pieces, but he was quite positive that they had been pursued by nothing but masonry.
Ah, whatever makes you feel better, pal.
"Of course. But I wonder," Rizolvir racked his brain, but the elusive glimpses he could catch weren't definitely enough to satisfy his curiosity, "I cannot help but wonder… How did we abandon the crypt in the end?"
Enserric, helpful as ever, sent some half-formed memories his way. They were incomplete, and more about feeling than about seeing, but they got the message across: Jarlaxle was more than he seemed to be, for the rogue had managed to get a portal up and going. Straining a bit, Rizolvir understood that it was the original Illefari one – probably the one used by the golem to move to the upper, modern crypt – and the fact that the other drow had been so quick in finding and activating it gave the spellsword some pause.
More than he seemed to be, indeed.
Aren't you going to ask about your sorceress, pal? I'd have never thought you'd wonder about technicalities before her well being…
"She is fine," Rizolvir dismissed the sword's comments with a slight frown. He didn't know why, but… "I would know if she were not."
Would you, now? Ah well. You're no fun. Anyway, I'll let you know that women like to be inquired after, even if they are all right.
The former smith sighed. There it went again… But truth was, Enserric wasn't being as indiscreet as it was used to. And, even though a normal female would probably skin him alive if he so much as asked a question, let alone one about her condition, Yria was by no means normal. He had already learned that she enjoyed talking and that she liked to hear his opinion, even if it was not asked for. Perhaps she would not mind him caring about her physical status.
It was sad that sometimes that thrice damned scrap of metal did have some good advice.
Hey, my advice is always good and helpful. It's you who has a thick head and doesn't see it the right way from time to time.
Rizolvir sent a dubious look the sword's way.
Then, he had the most awful sensation as the blade's conscience laughed at him and actually shoved him awake.
The drow's body was resting on a bed, not too comfortable but not too poor either, and what should have been excruciating pain had faded into a barely noticeable soreness. Somewhere deep down, he knew it to be the work of Jarlaxle's magical healing orb.
However, Rizolvir didn't have time to appreciate this blissful estate before his sensitive ears were assaulted by the worst screeching sound ever. His hands jerked, and he froze, not knowing if he should reach for his weapons of for his suddenly aching head, before recognizing the noise.
For the longest time, it had been the most common noise in his life, really. Right up until he died and joined Yria, he had always been surrounded by the sound of steel on stone.
It would be almost funny, if it weren't so sad, to think of the number of hours he had spent sharpening weapons, he thought as he shifted his gaze to the side to locate the source.
Ruby eyes met gray ones, and the sharpening stilled for the barest moment in acknowledgement before starting up again, rhythmical, methodic.
"About time," Entreri said, boredom dripping off of his every word. "There's just so long I was going be waiting here."
Rizolvir gave a twisted smirk as he sat up carefully, and he reached up a hand to brush his off-white hair out of his face.
"You must be losing your edge if I am waking up without a knife in my back."
The assassin stopped his sharpening and ran his thumb along the dagger's blade to test it, his own lips curling up in the dark beginnings of a smile.
"Jarlaxle would hate for me to ruin what his magic has fixed," Artemis said, with just a hint of a threat.
And that short exchange was about all the two people needed to come to an understanding.
Because no matter how hard the both of them tried to deny it, beyond their race and their pasts and their goals, their souls weren't that different. Ruthless and driven, knowing better than to ever rely on someone else, they both had been caught like flies in a spider web and towed along by big, pushy, overwhelming personalities that seemed to be intent on changing the foundations of their lives and the world itself. Scary as that thought of change was, they found that at some point they both had started going along of their own free will, and that they were enjoying every minute of it.
It was enough of an understanding.
"Yria?" Rizolvir asked.
"Next room down the corridor," Artemis motioned with his head to the slim wall separating the two rooms. "If you're going to her, tell her that we're having dinner soon. That idiot Jarlaxle said he would be back as soon as the sun were down."
"I will," rising on slightly unsteady legs, Rizolvir walked to the door and leaned heavily against it for a moment, catching his breath. "So, why?"
The drow hadn't turned when he asked the question, but it was not really necessary. He could see the deadpan expression in Artemis Entreri's voice.
"For sanity's sake."
Rizolvir actually laughed at that, the sound eerie and unnatural coming from a dark elf's throat, but still rich and surprisingly sincere, echoing in the small room once the spellsword grabbed Enserric and slipped out.
Sanity… personally, he wasn't so sure that he had much left. His mind must be running dangerously low on such attribute if he was actually considering to do what he was doing.
He knocked on the next door, and forced the tension out of his shoulders when it opened to reveal one Yria Ingerd.
The small sorceress had obviously taken the time to wash up, and she had changed out of her bright blue attire – and though the new pants were an inconspicuous black, the array of reds and flaming oranges that constituted her tunic made up for it. Her usually unruly hair was standing up in more frizzy angles than ever, as if she had dried it after her bath with a flame arrow spell poorly aimed, and Rizolvir couldn't help but answer to the big grin she was aiming his way.
"Hey!" she stepped aside and motioned for him to come in, and he did.
After carefully pushing away all thoughts and memories of what could happen to an insolent male who visited uninvited the spider's lair.
"Yria. I see that you are fine?"
Which was actually the truth. As he had told Enserric earlier, he knew in his gut that the human girl was unharmed, but he had expected her to be pissed at the loss of the Bloody Kiss if nothing else. Instead, she was smiling – a real one, not the scary sweet curling up of the lips she did whenever she was about to turn a wide area to ashes – and seemed honestly jovial.
"Why, sure! It takes more than that to take me down! How about you? No offense meant, but you were looking quite crappy when we made it to the surface…"
And she had been worried. Not that she was going to tell him, but when she had turned around to see Entreri dragging him along, she had believed that he was gone. That was a feeling she didn't want to explore any further, as she didn't want to dwell on the relief she had felt when Jarlaxle had pulled out his healing orb and had fixed the worst of the damage before deeming them all fit to make the trip to Beregost to rest.
It was almost incredible that her drow companion was standing before her, looking none the worse for wear except for a few shallow cuts adorning his exposed forearms.
"It has been taken care of," his leveled voice pulled her out of her somber thoughts, and she was surprised to find ruby red eyes looking at her own.
Her surprise was clear in her face – she was way too expressive – and Rizolvir felt his breathing accelerating. When Yria simply held his gaze, her smile growing wider if anything, a seeming content feeling floating in her otherwise ordinary orbs… The heady feeling the warrior mage got was almost equal to that of winning a battle.
So it was true that she liked to be inquired after, and, furthermore, she didn't seem to be adverse to eye contact. She was quite the special one, and the drow wondered for a moment just how else she was opposite to everything he had known before.
So keep investigating and find out!
"No," and for once, he couldn't muster up the heart to be angry at Enserric. "I believe I have pushed my luck quite far enough for today." And aloud, after making sure that his voice would come out steady enough, he added,
"Artemis Entreri informs me that we will be dining soon. Apparently, Jarlaxle is to join us shortly."
"Okay," it took a moment for the sorceress to process his words, having been a bit off balance herself, but she pulled back together soon enough. "Just give me a minute! I need to tame this a bit before coming down, or people will mistake me for a harpy."
Rizolvir cocked his head to the side. It was true that her hair had too much of an attitude to be considered normal at that moment, but surely it didn't make her comparable to a harpy. As a matter of fact, he liked that hair: as everything else about the petite girl, it was nothing like the lustrous silk of his dark elven race. It was wild and opinionated and thick, very much like Yria's personality. And it seemed to have just as much fight in it, if the way she was wrestling with her own mane was anything to go by.
The drow sighed deeply.
Perhaps he was not quite done pushing his luck yet, he thought as he made his way to her.
Pal, you're just amazing. You've got the girl, the room, and the bed…
And you just comb her hair?
o O o
Jarlaxle took off his great purple hat, turned it a few times in his hand, and plopped it right back on his head while he waited for his wine to arrive and for his companions to come down from their rooms.
He had told them that he was going to collect his reward, and that was true: after all, Entreri and he had gone and slain a monster in the local crypt. The fact that it had never come out and it was not to blame for the death of the local farmer they had been investigating in the first place had little to do with the reality that they had accomplished a job of some kind resulting in benefits for the community, so it was only fair that they got money in exchange.
Besides, what the villagers didn't know couldn't hurt them, and surely they would sleep better thinking the death of their neighbor avenged.
But of course, that had not been the only thing the mercenary leader had been doing.
After finding a somewhat secluded spot, Jarlaxle had pulled out his special summoning contraption and had called forth Kimmuriel – in his personal opinion, he had been refraining from doing so for long enough already, and on the other hand, the list of things that he wanted to ask of the psion kept growing and growing, and if the meeting didn't take place soon, he was at risk of forgetting something or other.
Kimmuriel had answered the call diligently, and if Jarlaxle hadn't known his own lieutenant better than that, the perfectly schooled features of the other dark elf could have fooled him into thinking that the psion was at ease.
Which was not the case: Bregan D'aerthe's current leader was weary of the motives behind the unexpected reunion, and so Jarlaxle had taken it upon himself to relax him with a gift first thing. Of course, he had mentioned – albeit in passing – that said gift was a mostly intact Illefari golem, and that it might be in a somewhat aggressive mood when it was pulled out of the extradimensional space where it was stored.
When Kimmuriel had given him an incredulous stare, Jarlaxle had merely brushed it off. Mutual resources for the band, he had said, and the psion had left it had that, tucking the button away for later examination. At that moment, Jarlaxle could have moved on to telling him all the new items and accessories he wanted, but that would have been too simple.
And it would have left room for the other drow to complain on Bregan D'aerthe being too busy to cater to his every childish need, and of course that was something the rogue would not have, no matter what.
So the renowned mastermind had decided to ask for information first, articles later.
And sitting down back in the local inn and sipping his glass, he couldn't help but smirk at the memory of his brilliant move. Kimmuriel had been so surprised at learning of Jarlaxle's new acquaintance, of her connections to his lieutenant and the Valsharess and of the possible implications that by the time he had realized just how many things Jarlaxle had requested, he was already back in his quarters in Menzoberranzan, stranded with a constant nagging to his curiosity and a huge extra workload, all courtesy of one smart Jarlaxle.
Now, to sit back and wait, thought said rogue as he craned his neck to catch a glimpse of Artemis Entreri coming down the stairs to sit with him.
Jarlaxle turned his mind back to matters at hand, and braced himself to defend against the accusations that he knew were coming.
So when nothing came forth and the assassin simply sat there drinking from his own mug, Jarlaxle started to worry.
"Why, Artemis, you're particularly silent today. Working on the 'brooding stereotype', perhaps?" the drow tried, and the man fixed him with a glare.
"Why, Jarlaxle, you sound particularly foolish today. Thinking of the fastest way to get your throat slit open?"
Jarlaxle chuckled, more to ease himself than out of real amusement. Some kind of aggressive answer was better than no answer at all, though.
"My, you've strung more than five words together in one sentence! I am impressed," he commented, trying to sound good humored.
"It beats me why you would want me to speak, if you're not going to listen to what I say anyway," the human let out an annoyed sigh.
And that left Jarlaxle fishing around for words for a heartbeat, which in turn did wonders to improve Entreri's mood – but of course, the assassin would be caught dead before showing it.
"I really don't understand you, Artemis. Of course I pay attention to everything that you say! Want me to quote you? For example…"
"I know you hear me," the Calishite groaned, suddenly uncomfortable with the whole conversation. "But you never listen, Jarlaxle." If you did, Entreri added silently, half of the problems we always seem to find ourselves in wouldn't exist.
The drow rogue blinked, apparently quite bewildered. He had been expecting an angry Artemis – he had been preparing to confront an angry Artemis. But now he had found a weary Entreri instead, and somehow it was much more difficult to deal with the disappointment the man seemed to have in their partnership than with the threats and occasional flying furniture.
"Look," the man said, suddenly having found the perfect way to turn the spot light away from him, "if you want to talk, talk with her," and he nodded to the approaching pair of new companions. "She's got your brand of craziness, so you should understand each other pretty well. Just don't give me a headache, if only not for tonight."
And Jarlaxle didn't have to answer, because at that moment Yria plopped down in their table, high spirits and shining eyes and an air around her that for all its innocence had the other patrons looking over in worry.
"So," she said, in a chirpy tone, "what are we going to do now?"
No one questioned the use of 'we'.
"You don't look too depressed about having lost the gem you were supposed to recover," Jarlaxle commented, mostly because he needed some time to organize the evens that had just transpired in his head.
A flinch coming from the other drow, who had sat quietly in a corner, and the subtle rising of temperature in the inn's common room clued him in to the fact that it might not have been the smartest conversation starter ever.
"Well," the petite sorceress said, her smile a bit strained before she composed herself, "what can I say? I got experience in starting from scratch. When you adventure, you gamble… sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. And at least this time, we haven't won the reward but we haven't lost anything either… You don't seem too put out either at having lost your artifact."
Under un-baffled circumstances, Jarlaxle would have picked up on the new maturity found in the girls' speech, and he would have wondered about what she had lost before… as it was, he was only reminded of his own loss.
Ouch, he thought.
"Well, I did win some gold" – which I'm not going to share – "and I didn't really have a use for the artifact so… I guess another time," he said, only half believing his words. "But you are right in wondering. What will come now, indeed?"
"Not Heroing, definitely. That's the way to die rat poor," Yria said, and Jarlaxle had to agree – though perhaps for slightly different reasons.
The rogue leader threw a look around the table: two dark elves, one renowned assassin, and one crazy sorceress of unknown morals… no, certainly Heroing wasn't their way.
"How about Dungeon Crawling?" he suggested.
"Nah," the girl dismissed it with a wave of her hand. "There's just one Dungeon that's worth to Crawl, and that's Undermountain. And at the moment, Undermountain is undergoing heavy restoration works, so we'll have to wait for a while before raiding the place again."
One part of Jarlaxle's mind filed the information away to reflect on it later – had she survived Undermountain before? Was the legendary dungeon really being refurnished? Why? – and he shrugged.
"Well, Treasure Plundering has proven to be a bit of a fiasco, hasn't it?"
"Yes," Yria nodded, torn between smiling or frowning at the results of her newest experiment.
"And trying to Covertly Take Over the Underworld of a big city doesn't pay off, either."
Yria gave him a weird look, as if he had just grown a second head, but then she shook her head:
"Err… Obviously. How about Bounty Hunting? How does it work for you?"
Good question, Jarlaxle thought. How does it work? Entreri and he were just getting started after all.
"Oh well… I don't know, the pay's not too good but the job is quite secure," he said, and then suddenly his brilliant mind supplied him with an equally brilliant idea.
"What do you say, Artemis?"
The assassin was surprised out of his staring contest with his ale mug, and he lifted his gray gaze to meet the expectant gaze of Jarlaxle and Yria.
He cringed. They were like children. Couldn't they just leave him out of their petty discussions?
But at the same time, hidden behind the annoyance, was another feeling.
And, to be honest, it was a good one, even if he didn't really know where it was coming from.
"I say that we really need to shake off the dust of this dump of a village. And I say that, with our luck," he didn't say if this luck was good or bad, "something or other will find us as soon as we set foot on the road."
Jarlaxle was relieved that Entreri was answering, and he grinned wickedly at the man.
"On to the road it is, then!" he said, raising his wine in a toast.
Yria and Rizolvir exchanged a glance – just when had started that drow to look her in the eye, Jarlaxle wondered – and, apparently having reached a mute understanding with the warrior mage, the small sorceress shot her fist in the air.
"Alright! Forever onwards!"
Jarlaxle laughed and copied her pose, and the two of them started to sprout more and more 'inspiring' nonsense for their companions' sake.
And their companions shared fairly embarrassed looks, and decided that perhaps it was time to discreetly move to the bar to help themselves to another drink.
Entreri and Rizolvir grabbed a mug of ale each, and they exercised their 'blending in' abilities while the colorful Yria and Jarlaxle, in turn, did their very best to assure that they had every single patron's attention.
The Calishite took a sip as he looked on the show, and he thought that Jarlaxle was a manipulative bastard, and that he hated drow…
… But that he could get used to this.
Very well used to this, and the thought surprised a fleeting smile curling up his thin lips.
o O o
(… or is it?)
o O o
A/N: And so we got to the end… I'm sorry it took this long to update, the story insisted on being 11 chapters long – and that's one of my pet peeves, so I had to wrestle the ending into submission… Hope you liked it.
You guys seem to have liked this story more than I'd have dared to hope and to imagine – thanks, thanks, forever thanks because without you, I'd not have found the motivation to write. Of course, special thanks go to my reviewers, and to those who have added the fiction to their favorites/alert lists, but also to the large silent fan base The long way to profit has – at least, it has one according to the Reader Traffic feature… Now that we've come to an end, I'd love if some of you left a final message! Today or next year, I don't care…. But I'd like to know if I've managed to entertain you and to bring you a smile: that's what I work for, and that's my greatest reward.
Now, an important notice: there will be a sequel to this story. I'm taking a while off, but I'll come back soon with the adventures of our dear characters… Please check my profile to be updated on my projects, sequels, and side stories.
Until then, let me say it just once more: thank YOU!