A/N: Sorry for the delay, guys. I got really sick, and now I'm really behind with my work this semester. I would have liked to write a much longer chapter than this, but at least I got across what I wanted to say. So without further ado, I will finish my series.
Chapter Seven: The Meaning of Love
Entreri blocked Lander's initial downward swing, and then he and Lander circled each other, gazes locked. They assessed one another through a thousand unconscious cues such as body posture, sword angle, movement speed, and breathing pattern. Lander's dark eyes glinted with hate and the need for revenge, while Entreri felt nothing but the calmness and coolness fighting brought him.
Apparently losing his patience, Lander attacked first again, jerking his arms upward and swinging down once more, as though he wished to split Entreri in half. Entreri parried by locking his sword and dagger in an X pattern, catching the blade and letting the impact race through his arms as he pushed Lander backward. In that moment, during that simple block he had executed countless times in his life, Entreri realized what he was fighting for: not just to collect a bounty and not just to survive. He fought to win the lives of the injured Jarlaxle and Nyx, too.
To the assassin, the fight seemed to slow into dancing blades—a series of graceful turns and twists, stances and evasions, strikes and parries. Entreri was his sword and dagger; he was the fight. With the harmony of movement came the harmony of time: every fight he'd fought since he picked up a sword, from childhood until the present. A continuum spread itself before him, revealing endless acts of violence and murder that altered over time, bringing him to the moment he willingly fought to save others.
Lander backed away, frantically blocking the blows Entreri rained upon him, and the assassin smiled, knowing finally why he had bothered to live when spite itself was no longer enough.
"I lived to reach this moment," Entreri said aloud, watching confusion wash over Lander's rounded features, but the assassin knew he, at least, would actually die in peace if he did die. He would die sword in hand. Entreri would die understanding who he was, with his only regret not realizing the truth sooner.
Lander's back hit the wall, and Entreri's dagger shot past his defenses, nicking him in the side. The Zhent hissed, the hate burning in his gaze, and pressed forward again, only to lose his balance as the entire fortress shook.
Losing his balance as well, Entreri recovered himself and jumped clear of Lander's reach. A resounding crash echoed through the structure, and the chandelier snapped loose and crashed to the floor, causing Entreri to dive to the side of the room. A roar vibrated the air, hurting Entreri's ears and setting off alarm deep within him.
"Dragon!" he yelled, and seeing that Lander was stunned, glanced at the hole in the floor. To his relief, he saw Nyx climb out, then turn and help Jarlaxle up behind her.
Safe. They were safe.
Entreri glared back at Lander, realizing he had to finish the fight quickly. He stepped forward, knowing his posture radiated his confidence and determination, only to draw up short when Melcer teleported into the room and grasped his twin by one shoulder.
"Melcer!" Lander lowered his sword, his expression betraying his shock.
The wizard's right arm and the right side of his face were covered in burns, and blood streamed from his mouth and nose. "Dragon . . . castle lost . . . crumbling . . . must . . . leave." He slumped against his brother, who caught him around the waist.
"Melcer! Stay conscious. Melcer!" Lander's panicked voice seemed to cut through the unseen dragon's roars and the clatter of falling rumble.
Entreri held his sword and dagger in a defensive pattern, but Lander seemed to have lost interest in him. Running footsteps on the staircase drew the assassin's attention, and Entreri watched as a half dozen soldiers raced down the stairs.
"We must leave, sir!" the lead solider called as he reached Lander. "We've lost all the turrets, and the dragon has demolished the western wall. We must retreat at once or risk being buried in the ruins!" Without permission, the soldiers ran for the main doors, rushing past Entreri without even a glance.
"Retreat?" Lander whispered, his eyes wide with shock or perhaps denial.
Melcer pushed away from his brother's chest. "They're . . . right." He paused as an explosion rocked the castle and fragments of rock flew through the walls as though the stone were brittle parchment.
While Lander remained distracted, Jarlaxle and Nyx joined Entreri.
"I don't like the sound of that," Jarlaxle whispered. "I think the dragon just took down another wall. We must escape now as well."
"I will not abandon our home!" Lander's shriek drew everyone's attention. "This is our legacy. We must defend it; we must—"
Melcer cupped one hand against his brother's cheek. "Your life . . . is more important . . . than a building."
"My life?" Lander repeated, his tone relaying his puzzlement, but even as he spoke, Melcer collapsed.
Nyx grabbed Entreri's upper arm, but he didn't spare a glance at her. Jarlaxle stepped close to his side, but he didn't look at him, either. His gaze was captured by the look of soul-killing pain on Lander's face.
"Melcer!" Lander dropped his broadsword and scooped up his twin's body. "You can't—don't—No!" Tears streaked down his face, accenting the grimace twisting his sallow features. Plaster rained from the ceiling, settling on the soldier's black hair and shoulders like snowflakes. "Anything . . . but this," he sobbed, but Melcer remained still, his body slumped in his brother's arms.
All the emotion bled from Lander's face, leaving him to look like a waxen doll. Without further words or pleas to the one who would not return to him, he picked up his brother's body and escaped, following the path of his soldiers. Entreri watched his retreating form, and for a moment, he imagined himself leaning over Jarlaxle, desperately focusing on the healing orb, hoping the drow wouldn't die.
Nyx released his arm and stepped up to face him. "Why didn't you kill him? You could have finished him off since his soldiers ran away."
Entreri stared out the gaping doorway, beyond which the setting sun tainted the sky crimson. He pulled a smirk to his face, curling his lip as he met Nyx's gaze. "He was too pathetic to kill."
Nyx raised an eyebrow, apparently bemused by his answer, but when Entreri's gaze slipped past her to Jarlaxle's solemn expression, the drow didn't grin or wink, laugh or snigger. In fact, he didn't look proud or satisfied, like the brilliant, calculating mercenary who always accomplished his schemes. Jarlaxle merely nodded, and something passed between them then. For the first time in the decade since Entreri had first met Jarlaxle, he felt like the drow finally comprehended him as a peer, an equal—something more than a tool, puppet, or experiment.
Jarlaxle walked toward the doorway, his signature swagger replaced by a weary limp. "Shall we escape to Loudwater, abbil? I doubt you wish to face a dragon, and I know Nyx and I aren't up to such an endeavor."
"Yes," Entreri replied, the simple answer all he could offer in the face of an experience that defied words.
Tai had one arm wrapped around a tree trunk and the other around Miri's waist. When Miri's blood had made contact with the portal, the magical opening had transformed into a violent whirlpool that sucked monsters, tree limbs, and leaves out of the material plain.
"Ahhhhhh, god!" Tai yelled, pleading with Hoar with all his soul to give him the strength to retain his grip on the tree and Miri at the same time. Around him, bolts of crimson lightning shot threw crimson tendrils, which looked like a spiral galaxy of magical energy had stretched its arms through the forest floor to beckon and capture the escaped creatures. Far above his head, a tornado-like funnel had appeared, channeling the monsters down into the portal. Screaming lamias, achaierai, otyughs, yrthaks, and dragons thrashed in the wind, trying to escape the magical pull, but one by one they were sucked into the whirlpool and out of the dimension.
With a sudden pressure change that caused Tai's ears to pop and then ring, the vortex collapsed on itself, spraying millions of shredded leaves into the air and leaving the forest eerily quiet. Tai hit the ground and eased his arm away from the tree as he glanced around the area.
No monsters. No evil aura.
"They're gone," Tai whispered to himself, but his panic only intensified. The young woman who had closed that portal lay against his side, features frozen in pain, face white. Tai laid her on the ground, his terror momentarily converting to rage. "You fool!" He clutched the symbol of Hoar that was sewn on his cape. "The prophecy didn't say you had to give all your blood to open or close the portal!"
Tai had no more time to waste, however. He squeezed the Hoar symbol brutally and implored his god. "Please, Hoar, lend me the power! Justice is not served by her death, and you can bring her back." He knew what he was asking, and he knew the odds. However, Miri had only stopped breathing a few minutes earlier. With divine energy, with enough life-force, she could be—
Tai gasped as a burn bloomed in his chest. He looked down and saw a golden light emanate from his sternum. Trusting Hoar and not questioning what was happening, Tai put one hand on Miri's forehead and the other over her heart.
"By the power of Hoar," he said, giving himself completely to his god and his god's power, "live!" Volts and volts of energy shot down his arms from his chest, scorching his veins, but he didn't flinch. He simply watched Miri's face, having faith that she would breathe again, and allowed the life-force to pour through him. This time, his heart did not even skip a beat, and Miri's entire form glowed golden, a shimmer settling on her face like fine glitter.
Miri's eyes flew open, and she coughed abruptly, spitting up blood. Tai pulled her into a sitting position and leaned her against his chest as she coughed up more blood. Finally, she relaxed, her breath drawing even, and the golden glow seemed to sink into her skin and infuse her.
She glanced up at him and smiled, blood still streaking from the corner of her mouth. "You just . . . won't let . . . me die."
Tai shook his head. "You little fool," he murmured with exasperated affection. "You didn't have to die. The portal needed your blood, not your life."
With a snort, she buried her face against his neck. "I . . . just didn't want . . . to destroy all I loved."
Tai hugged her, knowing she would need time to think through her actions and their repercussions. Time to understand her role in the prophecy and her identity now that she was free of it.
But on the breeze, slipping past Tai's ears, came a whisper—the soft voice of a pleased god. "Well done, my Chosen."
With a deep gratitude that caused tears to sting his eyes, Tai relaxed into those words and their implications.
I am yours, he told his god. I leave my life in your hands.
And that is why you are the Chosen, the voice answered.
Tai leaned his cheek against Miri's head and smiled, at peace to know his life would make a difference, that he would matter and all his suffering would not be in vain.
Tai waved goodbye to Mr. Brightwood and stepped onto the porch, Miri close behind him. Dawn light poured over Loudwater, revealing the scorched and damaged buildings left in the wake of the monsters' attack. Already the citizens had banded together to repair the damage, and the sounds of hammering filled the air.
Miri shut the front door behind her and smiled as Tai faced her. Although her complexion was wan, her eyes sparkled with life. "I still can't thank you enough for helping me and saving my life—twice."
Reaching out, Tai took her hand and squeezed it. "No thanks needed, I assure you." He bit his lip, uneasy with the knowledge he had to say goodbye. "What will you do now?"
Miri gestured at the rubble in the street. "I'm staying to help with the clean up, although fortunately Loudwater didn't take as much damage as I feared."
Tai nodded, wishing their paths didn't have to separate so soon. "Well, Entreri estimates that we'll be back through here in about a month, if . . .?"
She grinned. "Of course! After I finish helping here, I'm going to move in with my aunt, so I made you a map." She handed him a scroll.
Tai frowned in confusion. "Move in with your aunt? I thought she lived here, with you and your father."
"She does. Did." Miri tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. "She's inherited her mother's cottage in the forest, and since it's in a little community of Eldath worshippers, she's going to move there. She's invited me to go with her so I can spend time with other druids before I decide whether to follow Hoar or not."
"That's an excellent idea." Tai smiled. "I'll honor your decision, whichever it is."
"I know." She returned the smile.
Tai glanced away, staring down the street. Men and women worked, shoving rubble from damaged or destroyed buildings and hauling it away in carts. At the wooden house two down from Miri's, a team of carpenters repaired a hole in the porch roof. He bit his lip, watching the action and pondering what he needed to say next. Still, Hoar had given him an order. He turned back to Miri. "There is one thing that Hoar told me to say to you."
Miri raised an eyebrow. "A message from your god? Very well."
"It's about Darvin." Tai himself was unsure how to feel about the news. "Hoar said that Darvin worked to control the monsters right up to the moment he died. He was trying to save you. Hoar felt that despite the injustice Darvin served you—or perhaps because of it—you deserved to know that he did want to save you in the end."
Tears sprang to Miri's eyes, and she stared at her feet for several moments. "I . . . see." She exhaled deeply. "He was my lifelong friend, so it's comforting to know that he really did care. Even if it does make my grief over his death worse."
"And, hopefully, it will help you forgive him with time," Tai said. "You don't want to live your life angry with him."
Miri met his gaze. "You're right. That's not the kind of person I want to be."
Tai smiled and held up the map. "Very well. I'll find you when we return this way."
"You can mail me letters in the meantime," Miri replied. "Mail them here to my father's house; I'll get them."
"I will." Tai squeezed her hand once again and released it. "Until later, then." He leaned down and gave her a quick kiss, then hopped off the porch and ran toward Nyx, who awaited him on their horse. He hated extended goodbyes, especially when he believed he would, indeed, see the person again soon.
Entreri climbed atop his horse and stared down the road where Nyx hovered on her horse, which she'd be sharing with Tai. In the dawn light, her auburn hair seemed streaked with gold, and the assassin wondered why he'd never noticed before.
Jarlaxle led his horse over to Entreri's and grinned at him. "Admiring the lovely monk?"
Entreri turned a glare upon him. "Of course not. I was simply wondering if Tai would ever overcome his odd fear of horses and ships."
The drow's uncovered eye twinkled. "Ah, I see." He didn't seem convinced. "Well, I think he will as he grows older." Jarlaxle glanced Tai's direction. "By all accounts, he fought well during his battle."
Entreri snorted. "His melee skills still need work."
"Is the great Artemis Entreri up to the task?"
"What am I? His surrogate father?" Entreri smirked at the drow. "If you're so concerned, maybe I should tell Tai that 'Uncle' Jarlaxle is eager to help."
The drow laughed. "Very well. Maybe I shall."
Entreri blinked, unable to tell if Jarlaxle were joking. He seemed serious. "You are truly odd."
"Perhaps." Jarlaxle grinned and flipped back his cape, revealing the hilt of a sword. "And perhaps that is to your advantage, given that Kimmuriel was able to complete my most recent request."
Entreri stared at the sword hilt and guard, which were crafted to resemble a human skeleton. "You . . . He cannot have possibly . . ." His shock was nearly too great for words.
Jarlaxle shrugged and detached the sheath from his belt, handing over Charon's Claw. "There are few things in this world, magical or otherwise, that can be lost or destroyed that also cannot be retrieved or replaced."
Entreri accepted the sword, drawing the blade with its intricate design of reapers. "You never cease to amaze me." He had no idea how to feel, however, about the reappearance of the soul-destroying sword.
"I know, I know," Jarlaxle replied in a sing-song voice, grinning.
"Crazy drow." Unsure which sword he preferred to use, having become accustomed to the poisonous Black Widow, Entreri merely shook his head and attached the sword to his belt. He would ponder his choice later. "But tell me, what news did Kimmuriel have for you?"
Jarlaxle grew grim. "Lander Stonar escaped with his brother's body and several of his soldiers and servants, and they apparently needed further north. The Zhents have ordered Lander's execution and placed a bounty on his head."
"He won't last long, then." Entreri glanced back and saw Tai approaching Nyx and her horse. "Looks like we're ready to go." He tugged on his horse's reigns, directing the bay mare to head for the city's gates—or what was left of them after the monsters' attack.
Jarlaxle urged his black mare to follow. "You have no pity for him, then?" The drow cocked his head, shooting Entreri a sideways glance. "Did the sight of the man weeping for his dead brother not move your heart at all?"
"They brought it on themselves," Entreri replied, but in his heart he wondered what love existed that one man could so grieve for another. He glanced back at Nyx and Tai, who followed two horse-lengths behind, and wondered if they knew the answer.
"I found it all quite tragic," Jarlaxle said, waving one hand through the air. "I do believe his twin was, as they say, his better half." He grinned at the assassin. "And perhaps there is some value to the bonds that humans grow. It seemed to make them strong, and perhaps it would have been enough to make them successful had they not been lacking business sense."
Entreri stared at Jarlaxle, meeting that one-eyed gaze, and tried to determine what he was driving at. "A drow thinks there is value and strength in familial love?" he asked, incredulous.
Jarlaxle merely shrugged and grinned.
Thinking over all that had passed between them over the years, especially in the past several days, Entreri frowned and finally nodded. "You've always been a good judge of others' characters and strengths. If you believe it is so, I won't argue."
For a moment, Jarlaxle looked so shocked that Entreri wondered that he didn't fall off his horse. "Ah, well," the drow said, a genuine smile blooming on his face. "I suppose that means you finally accepted my wisdom, my friend."
Entreri snorted and gazed down the road ahead. "Or you have accepted mine, making you capable of something other than swallow thinking."
"Not at all." Jarlaxle chuckled. "I am several hundred years your senior, after all."
Entreri smirked. "Yes, you're quite ancient. So don't push your luck, my friend."
In response, peals of joyous drow laughter drifted down the street.
A/N: I left this as open-ended as possible because I wanted you guys to imagine whatever you like. I laid groundwork so you can imagine it either way: Artemis and Nyx get together or they just stay friends; Tai and Miri get back together again or don't; and Entreri eventually becomes a vengeful, LN, Holy Javelin of Hoar or stays a LEish assassin who finally managed to accept some friends. There is even a small possibility that Miri could become a Holy Javelin and be the second Javelin who protects the Chosen of Hoar. In fact, I even left it open enough for you to imagine Lander escapes completely and gets his twin resurrected. All roads are open; imagine whatever makes you happiest.
That said, I do have two people who want to pick up where I left off—Sushi-san85 and Chi. Each has very different paths she wishes to take, so you guys should have fun reading their ideas. Disclaimer: I hereby disown any credit for the events and development of future stories using my OCs, although I retain rights to them as my creations.
Now, thank you to everyone who has read, reviewed, and faved this story. I would also like to take the opportunity to thank everyone who was read, reviewed, faved, and encouraged this entire 10-story series (including "Masquerade of Monsters"). I appreciate all the support and help over nearly 5 years' worth of time, and I thank everyone who has acted as beta reader over the course of my FR fanfic career, especially my primary beta, Darkhelmetj, and Chi, who betaed ch. 6 of this story.