Disclaimer: I don't own any of this stuff. I'm just playing with it. I hope Wizards doesn't mind.
Artemis Entreri stood at a distance from the ruined shell that once was The Copper Ante. Blast marks and fallen walls gave clear signs of magical attack as well as physical. His heart in his throat, he approached the devastated building cautiously. The damage was fresh, parts of the structure still smoldering from the fireballs.
The front door was gone, as was a significant section of the wall around it. The bar was a mess of shattered glass and blasted wood. Small crumpled forms lay scattered in and around it. A few of the less mutilated ones were recognizable from his previous stay, including a red cheeked barmaid that had repeatedly offered him a night he'd never forget. For a moment, her saucy wink superimposed itself over the gruesome sight before him.
Everyone was dead. The guildhouse had become a slaughterhouse.
Where was Dwahvel?
He raced through the building, searching for any sign of her. Mutilated halfling bodies lay everywhere, and he couldn't escape the smell of blood and ash.
Soon, his assassin's instincts had put together a picture of the attackers. A rival guild most likely. Humans judging from the angle of the blows and the types of weapons used. A trio of wizards working in tandem, but one working a little less enthusiastically than the others. Forced labor, perhaps.
He found her where he knew he would, in her office. He knew without looking that the body was hers from the tumble of brown curls cast over her face, from the curve of her hip as she lay there like a broken doll, from the dagger she held in her hand.
"Dwahvel?" he whispered almost tenderly as he knelt beside her. A pool of blood spread out onto the carpet beneath her head, marring its lovely floral pattern with a red stain. He also knew without looking that he shouldn't look. He shouldn't see what they'd done to her. He should instead look for clues, hit the streets in search of information. He should begin to bring retribution to bear on those responsible.
But he couldn't stop himself. He'd come all the way from Memnon with only one goal—to get back to his one real friend. To go home. He had to see her face again.
Now his hand moved of its own volition to push away the hair. It trembled a little as it met the soft ringlets. A few looped themselves around his fingertips as if seeking one more contact—as if saying goodbye.
Then he pushed back the tumble of curls and saw what remained of her.
With a gasp and a start, Entreri sat up in the darkness, one hand flying to his dagger, the other clutching Charon's Claw. The oasis was deserted. His sleep had not been disturbed by visitors or animals. Only by his own fears.
As he forced his heart to slow once more, he thought wryly to himself that after enduring this same nightmare every evening since he'd left Memnon and Jarlaxle behind, he should be used to it by now. He should realize that he was dreaming and be able to alter the dream. Or at least wake himself up.
But each moment of rest seemed to be filled with images of Dwahvel dead on the floor and himself arriving just too late to help her. He reached into his pocket to pull out a small obsidian statue. Once again, he considered calling the nightmare to his side, shortening his journey to minutes. Once again, he placed it back in his pocket.
He'd left all Jarlaxle's magical gifts behind he believed, only to find the statue somehow still in his pocket some distance down the road. It was simply too valuable to discard by the roadside, but he couldn't bring himself to use it.
Now, it came out of his pocket once again as Entreri considered the nature of his nightly torment. Could it be a warning rather than the fears of an overworked mind? Could he possibly get to Calimport in time to prevent the tragedy he kept dreaming of?
Dwahvel's face floated into his vision. He'd seen Dwahvel so many times in the face of Arrayan, the half-orc wizard of Vassa. He'd heard her voice in the tunes of Idalia's cursed flute. He'd often found himself playing a halfling tune he'd heard in the bar of the Copper Ante. The tune brought him peace when there was little to be found otherwise.
His hands began to move through the fingerings until he caught himself. But the memory of the flute alone was enough to stir up a wash of emotion in him. Images slid through his brain, each colliding chaotically with the others.
Sights of his childhood--Tosso-posh's leer, his mother's face fading away into the distance, eating scraps out of a garbage barrel—mixed unrepentantly with more current events--the death of Drizzt Do'Urden, the Underdark of Menzoberranzan, Ellery and Arrayan, the feel of Calihye beside him, Jarlaxle's apologetic look as Urshula prepared to destroy him, the final gasp of a miserable old priest.
He cried out against the onslaught, uncharacteristically dropping his weapons to put his head in his hands. This was what insanity felt like, he realized. All the events of one's life played back in one's head simultaneously.
And his life had been eventful. He could feel the grime of his past coating his skin. How many terrible things had he done to others? How many terrible things had been done to him? What would it take to put this madness to rest?
He had to get to her. She with her quiet advice, her uncanny ability to hear his heart when his words would not suffice. He had to get to her.
Then the image from his dream surfaced in his mind's eye. He could feel the little curls wrapping around his fingers again. He knew what lay beneath them.
With a cry of anger and anguish, he gathered his things rapidly and called to the nightmare. The large black beast barely paused long enough for him to mount before tearing through the desert to Calimport.
Dwahvel Tiggerwillies stood before the bar, the early morning sun shining in through one of the front windows. Fortunately, the brawl of the night before had not shattered it again. A few weary patrons still lay sleeping it off in various corners and under tables and benches.
"Hard night last night," the barmaid Tinsey commented behind a yawn. "Aren't you ready for bed?"
"Definitely," Dwahvel commented. "You go on ahead. I'm just going to see the morning watch before I turn in."
She stepped carefully around a sleeping customer and headed down the hall to the guard office. "Sammidge, who's on morning watch?" she asked as she walked through the door.
Her captain of the guard answered, stating that he was already out on rounds.
"Be sure he locks the front door," Dwahvel replied. "I'm going to bed now and I don't want any unexpected visitors."
Sammidge assured her that he would personally check the door. She nodded and covered a yawn of her own with a dainty hand as she walked back past the bar headed upstairs.
The front door flew open with a crash as it slammed against a nearby table. Dwahvel looked up to see a tall man armed with dagger and sword silhouetted by the glare of the rising sun. She reached for her dagger and her alarm whistle, but once he'd taken a step into the gloom of the bar and out of the blinding sun, she could see his face.
"Artemis Entreri?" she asked with a note of genial surprise. "What are you doing here?" Then she thought of the manner of his entrance and followed up with, "Are you in trouble?" in a more serious voice.
"Is everything right here?" Entreri asked her in a curiously abrupt tone of voice. "Do you expect trouble of any kind?"
"Not today," she ventured, a question in her own voice. "What's going on, Artemis?"
Entreri looked around him with a practiced eye, scanning every inch of the room for potential dangers. "Put a double guard on for the next several days," he commanded. Then he walked past her upstairs to the room he'd used on his previous visit.
He fell into the soft, human-sized bed, and within seconds he'd been taken captive by a deep, dreamless sleep.
Dwahvel wasn't sure of what to make of her guest. When she went in to speak with him once she'd posted her double guard, he was so deeply asleep that her entrance didn't wake him. That in itself spoke volumes about Entreri's condition.
She watched him sleep for a moment. He'd cast himself across the bed face down, one hand pulling the pillow beneath his cheek. The other hand was cast carelessly beside him. Neither of his weapons were drawn or even in easy reach. Both still hung from the heavy belt that circled his waist, the scabbard of the terrifying Charon's Claw half trapped beneath his thigh.
He'd not even bothered to remove his boots or his traveling cloak. If it had been any other person than Artemis Entreri who lay sleeping in such an uncomfortable position, she'd have made an effort to relieve him of at least the worst of his burdens.
But touching a man as deadly as Entreri while he was asleep smacked of complete foolishness in her mind, and Dwahvel just let him be, closing the door gently behind her and hanging a note on it to prevent anyone else from disturbing his clearly much needed slumber.
Late that afternoon after she'd risen, she sat at her desk in the office working through a mound of receipts and requests for guild assistance. At a soft knock at the door, she rose to allow Entreri into the room.
He stood there, still disheveled, still armed, his cloak still hanging from his shoulders, and looked down at her with a most curious expression. Then he glanced down at the carpet beneath her feet and dropped to one knee, placing himself at her eye level.
She'd not had much chance to look at him from that perspective before.
There was a shadow behind his dark eyes—even deeper than she would have expected from a ruthless assassin. Lines of worry creased his forehead and there was a weariness about him. But his hair was as dark as ever with no signs of the silver threads that had begun to show in her own.
"Who's after you, Artemis?" she asked softly.
"No one," came his quiet answer, but his eyes stayed locked on hers.
"Then what is wrong?"
He didn't reply. Instead he reached up to take one of her curls in his fingers. Then he closed his eyes and took a deep, shuddering breath. Dwahvel froze anxiously. What was wrong with him? The last time she'd seen him this close to the edge, he was being pursued by dark elves. What demons hounded him now?
With a boldness that surprised her, she reached out to touch his cheek. His skin was cold and he hadn't shaved in days. He leaned ever so slightly into her hand. After a long moment, he opened his eyes and dropped the curl, but didn't move away from her touch.
"Come have dinner with me in an hour," she commanded lightly. Then she leaned forward and gave him an impulsive kiss on the forehead before stepping back to make room for him to rise to his feet again. He merely nodded and left the room.
She truly didn't know what to make of him.
Over dinner, Entreri began the tale of his adventures since he'd last seen her. Details of the destruction of the crystal shard came easily to his lips, as did many of his adventures in the Bloodstone Lands.
He hesitated a moment over his description of Arrayan, but finally said, "She was very lovely." That alone triggered a raised eyebrow from Dwahvel, but she didn't push. He brought up Calihye, but failed to mention the relationship he'd had with her or the way she'd tried to kill him.
Of Memnon, all he could say was that he'd been there.
To Entreri's dismay, most of his tales seemed to be of Athrogate. Somehow, the crusty old dwarf was easier to talk about than anything else.
Dwahvel laughed easily at his humorous stories and shivered at his description of the fall of the dracolich Urshula. Despite the many holes in his accounting, it felt good to tell her as much as he could.
"So where did you leave Athrogate and Jarlaxle?" she asked at last.
"Do you plan to rejoin them?"
There was a long pause as Dwahvel waited for Entreri to comment further. But instead of continuing his tales, he turned to his dinner instead. They ate quietly, their conversation confined to the quality of the food in Dwahvel's kitchens. At last, she poured him a glass of port and they moved to sit by the fire in silence.
Entreri looked into the flames, letting them mesmerize him. Her liquor was as good as her food, he thought to himself as he finished the port. She offered to pour him another, but he refused. He wanted his wits about him as much as possible. Customers would begin to arrive in earnest and Dwahvel would have business to conduct. He wanted to be on hand as security should she need him.
When he said as much to her, Dwahvel shook her head. "Are you certain you want your presence in Calimport to be common knowledge?" she asked. "Remember the amount of trouble you left in your wake on your last visit."
Entreri had to consider her words. His presence could possibly mean trouble for Dwahvel with the rival guilds.
Then she disturbed him further by asking, "What are your plans?"
He looked over at her where she sat in a small easychair, her feet curled up casually beneath her skirts. Plans?
"I don't know," he heard himself admit.
She rose from the chair in one fluid movement, placing one hand on his arm as she passed by the sofa where he sat. "You know you can stay here as long as you want," she answered. "If you want to re-enter the guild world, let me know. I'll do what I can to make this happen."
Then she looked directly into his eyes. "But you know how difficult it will be. You know what will happen when the world knows you are back," she cautioned. "Do you really want that life again, Artemis?"
"No," he answered without hesitation.
"Then you'd best be thinking what you do want." And with that Dwahvel headed downstairs to conduct business with the halfling world of Calimport.
While Dwahvel's attention was diverted fully onto business, leaving her precious little time to wonder what Entreri was thinking, he was without diversion and spent the entire evening considering her words.
In all his life, he'd never had this kind of choice.
From his first entry into Pasha Basadoni's guild as a mere boy, his life had been directed by the Pashas, following their orders, doing their dirty work. He'd lived to serve. To serve and to grow in power for himself.
He'd lived to build his reputation and his skills as a fighter and assassin. He'd become the most dangerous man in Calimshan. And the most feared.
But all his skills were meaningless in the face of the drow. First Drizzt Do'Urden—his mirror, his enemy, his nemesis—then Jarlaxle and the hosts of Menzoberranzan. His time with the dark elves had humbled him. He'd been less than nothing in their eyes. Less than nothing in his own after a while. If Do'Urden hadn't helped him escape the Underdark, he would have killed himself within a fortnight despite Jarlaxle's protection.
Jarlaxle. The thought of his former companion brought a bitter smile to his face. He could certainly be entertaining, but most of the time Entreri couldn't help but believe he was the entertainment. Perhaps Jarlaxle had meant it when he'd assured him he never meant to harm him. But he'd certainly used him. And manipulated him. And helped him face down the worst of his demons in his own way.
But with Jarlaxle he'd never had a choice either. He was as demanding as any Pasha and many times more powerful. Even now, Entreri knew the dark elf would cross his path again, demanding Entreri's assistance or companionship or soul.
He had no idea what he would say to him either. It did no good to tell him no. Entreri felt certain that even death would be no release. Whatever plane of hell Entreri found himself traversing in the afterlife, Jarlaxle would have connections there and would be more than able to find him.
Perhaps, he thought wryly, he should devote himself in service to Lolth, the one deity Jarlaxle would be disinclined to visit. Or he could devote himself to someone equally repellent to the dark elf's sensibilities—Ilmater perhaps or another of the goodly gods, he thought cynically. He could even take lessons from Cadderly Bonaduce perhaps—if his frightening monk wife didn't kill him on sight.
But not Selune, Entreri thought with a shudder. Memories of his encounter with the Divine Voice raced through him, filling him with rage and disgust. And self-loathing.
He was beyond grateful that he'd never sired a child. He'd never passed on the legacy of corruption and weakness, of gullibility and viciousness that marked his own birth and childhood.
Memnon had stirred the worst in him. Though the memories had been long buried, he'd always hated Tosso-posh and Belrigger for their abuses. He'd hated the merchant whose lecherous ways had driven him to murder.
But Memnon had given him new people to hate. He hated the priest who sired him. He'd hated him enough to kill him.
Then he thought of Shanali and his thoughts were a mix of pity, regret, anger, and love. He pitied her weakness, her gullibility. He regretted her loss.
But he'd discovered a newfound anger at her as well. She'd sold him. She'd sold him to a pedophile to save her own life. All the years she'd protected him from Belrigger and Tosso. All the times she'd fed him and starved herself. All the gentleness she'd somehow managed to hold onto for him despite the unloving world she lived in. All these were ultimately worthless in the face of what she'd done.
Wouldn't it have been better to have died than to have sold her only child into that kind of slavery? Wouldn't it have been better for her to have killed him herself?
She had to have known what the merchant was. Even as a boy Entreri had known in an instant he wasn't safe with the old man. Shanali was a grown woman. Shouldn't she have known too?
Or was she so blinded by the promises of the priests for healing that she wouldn't see?
But knowing her failure, knowing her weakness, Entreri still loved her. He still missed her even though time had dulled his memories to the point that he couldn't see her face, couldn't hear her voice.
He still missed her gentleness. He missed the security of knowing he mattered to someone.
He thought of Calihye then. In a moment of weakness he'd given her a piece of himself he'd never relinquished before. And she'd tried to kill him. He wondered where she was, then thought better of it.
The open flames danced before his unseeing eyes as the memories roiled in his brain like snakes.
Then he got up and went to Dwahvel's liquor cabinet. Another glass of port seemed like a very good idea after all.
(AN: Yes, I know he's weak and depressed. He ought to be.)