Disclaimer: What's not mine, doesn't belong to me. No profit is being made.
Important A/N: Welcome, and welcome back to all my old friends! Yes, the first author's note of my fics tends to be novel-length, I know… but please, bear with me this once: I believe everything I have to say is quite interesting this time :)
Firstly, this is a sequel to The long way to profit. The characters have all undergone development and certain adventures… Without reading that first, this will sound awfully ooc and plain confusing. Next, as a piece of trivia, I want to say that I can't draw. But I enjoy trying, and there's a few manga-style pictures of my original characters in my deviantart account – homepage of my profile. You might like them – let me know your opinion if you check them out!
Finally, this second installment will have plenty of action, intrigue, adventure, and, of course, our friends will mature and change with their experiences. I try to stick to cannon FR lore, but there are a couple of issues that I'll be warning you about as they come up – or else, this note will be novel-length.
And now, on with the first chapter. Please, let me know your thoughts! You just have to press the green review button at the end…
Where the road goes
He was the one closest to the perimeter, so he was the first one feeling it. The vague sensation of being observed, the prickle of danger in his skin, making the fine white hairs of the nape of his neck stand up electrified. Ruby eyes scanned the surrounding area, and Rizolvir's hand closed upon his sword's pommel.
"We are not alone," he said, barely above a whisper, and the man walking a few strides ahead of him nodded.
Entreri had picked up the slight change in atmosphere too, and the drow's comment only served to reassure him that whoever was around, it wasn't anyone friendly. Still, the assassin kept his posture relaxed, not giving away that he was aware of their assailants if not for the quick look he shared with the tense drow behind him.
Not a move, that look said, and Artemis hoped that he would heed it.
He knew too well that any drow warrior worth his salt wouldn't, though.
And surely enough, he didn't get a nod as an answer.
On the bright side of things, it wasn't a sneer either what he got: it was a raised eyebrow and a decidedly amused expression, which the man translated roughly to mean, 'and why would we want that?'.
Well, Entreri thought, at least the drow had actually understood that he wanted their enemies to be confident in their 'surprise advantage', and that had to count for something.
The next step would be for the spellsword to actually act on his insight, and he would be almost as comfortable fighting alongside the former smith as he was with Jarlaxle.
Artemis would love to have a means to communicate with the drow rogue, but the outrageous hat could be seen a few yards ahead, its owner enthusiastically trying to learn how to drive a cart while chatting animatedly with one Yria Ingerd – surely about how to best rule the world. There was no way for the assassin to make eye contact with the elf to issue a warning, so he would have to make do with Rizolvir to carry out his rapidly forming plan.
Not that he didn't work well with the warrior mage, because he did, but the two of them still needed to work on the finer points of coordination that made him and Jarlaxle such a perfect, deadly team.
And there was a barely heard sound and a barely seen movement, and it was at that precise moment in time that their unseen assailants decided to make their presence officially known.
The Calishite smirked darkly and welcomed the action.
Because at that precise moment in time, Artemis Entreri thoroughly refused to have an epiphany about how well he seemed to be able to perform when teamed up with a drow.
Two arrows flew off from opposite sides of the road simultaneously, just as four ragged looking individuals stepped out of the shadows and into the path, brandishing wicked blades and equally evil smiles.
Jarlaxle had barely the time to abandon his conversation and to jump off the wagon, but when he landed, he was ready to battle.
The bandits hadn't even gotten properly positioned yet, and he couldn't help but to smile when he saw where the two arrows on the fly were aimed.
The only attack that might have had some chance of actually hitting any of the four companions, and it had been wasted in one of the horses.
The drow snapped his wrist once, twice, thrice, and his magical bracer fed an unending supply of daggers into his waiting hand. The bandits had gone out of their way to make sure that the small merchant group couldn't escape, when they should have been busy and concerned about escaping themselves? This was going to be a quick affair alright.
Highwaymen this days just didn't have the brains.
Back in the rear guard, Rizolvir's first instinct was to lunge forwards as fast as possible, and to dispatch the insolent humans as summarily as possible. Not only because 'ahead' was were Yria stood and he actually wanted to fight by her side – even if doing so brought him much too close to the sly and weird creatures known as 'horses' – but because that was where he should be. A true warrior should be in the thick of battle, always aiming to becoming stronger… and he really needed to become a true, strong warrior if he wanted to appease his god for a lifetime spent in the forges rather than in the battle field.
Even Enserric, his sentient longsword, was silently pushing him to the front, whishing to sate its permanent bloodlust, informing mind of the weak nature of his foes, and honestly he was a hair's breath away from obeying his body and bolting into the fray.
Fortunately, that was the moment chosen by his drow nature to kick in.
Death never comes to look you in the eye.
And so the spellsword twirled around, his twin blades a whirlwind of steel, his footwork making him dance to a deadly, inaudible tune.
There was blood, and one of the sneaking bandits was killed even before he realized that he had been spotted.
The second silent assassin gulped when he realized just what kind of demon was hiding beneath the cowl.
And yet, even as he stared mesmerized at ebon skin and glowering ruby eyes, the killing blow came silent and invisible in the form of one powerful swipe of Charon's Claw.
Honestly, though, there wasn't that much of a difference between his expected murdered and the one who actually delivered the blow.
Entreri pulled his sword free with an abrupt jerk, and spared a glance to the drow – he had to admit to being a little impressed, for the elf had reacted almost as quickly as himself – before rushing forwards, to the other point that had been attacked.
His own battle had been solved in a matter of seconds, but still he had to get ahead before…
The assassin cursed loudly upon seeing the third man fall under a steady torrent of daggers that showed no sign of being anywhere close to drying up.
"Jarlaxle!" he shouted. "Keep one of them alive!"
There was no doubt that the drow heard him, and that he quickly understood and immediately shared his idea, for the bald rogue visible winced when, not a fraction of a heartbeat after Artemis issued the warning, one of his daggers embedded itself onto the throat of the last standing man, while a second one was buried to the hilt in his chest.
Jarlaxle chucked uncomfortably and Entreri sighed.
"Ah, so sorry, Artemis. It seems that I got carried away… could we try to find the archers instead?"
The Calishite snorted.
"Good luck with that," he muttered, and looked pointedly to the petite girl that was still sitting in the cart.
She was absently picking at an invisible thread of her cloak, and the air of innocent obliviousness that surrounded her was too dense – and too familiar to one Jarlaxle – to be believable.
"Hmm?" she inquired when she felt three pairs of eyes on her.
"Are you alright, Yria?" Rizolvir asked in turn, his deep ruby eyes searching her face as he obviously debated whether to go to her – thus getting closer to the hateful 'horses' – or to stay where he was.
But before she could answer, Entreri was asking another question of his own.
"Couldn't you not have gone overboard, for once?"
The sorceress hadn't even bothered pinpointing the location of the archers. She had merely let two fireballs fly loose in the general area, which in turn had resulted in two bits of forest less along the road.
"I wasn't going overboard!" she protested. And to her credit, she didn't actually believe that she had. "I was just doing our job, defending this caravan!"
"And of course it didn't occur to you to keep one of the attackers alive, right?"
"… Why would we want to catch one of them?"
"No, of course it didn't occur to her," the assassin sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose.
Unknown to him, it was this tired and deflated gesture what placated the antagonizing look that Rizolvir had started to throw his way as soon as he had started questioning the young woman.
"Why would she think of interrogating someone?" the man added quite bitterly.
"But we're not seeking answers," Yria commented, cocking her head to the side in genuine curiosity. "Why would we want to interrogate anyone? What would we ask?"
Artemis just gave her an incredulous look.
Unfortunately, Yria had proven to be quite impervious to his stares, and she merely kept looking at him, not in the least intimidated and quite intrigued.
And that's when Jarlaxle decided that it was as good a moment as any to step into the conversation: Artemis was improving his social skills greatly thanks to his own personal coaching, but the poor man was nowhere near ready to deal with an Yria yet.
The dark elf approached his friend, when the action didn't result in an immediate death threat, he patted the man's shoulder, awkwardly trying to calm and console him.
"There, there," he said, carefully and ready to snatch back his arm if it looked like he was in danger of loosing it. "It's not that she doesn't listen, it's just that she… ah… got carried away with the accomplishment of our immediate goal, that is protecting the valuables, and she momentarily forgot about the numerous misconceptions surrounding this job."
And Artemis redirected to him his incredulous stare, and Jarlaxle felt forced to add,
Yria looked at him funnily, and Rizolvir merely smirked – no help at all coming from that front.
Finally, the girl nodded and said,
Sounding thoroughly unconvinced.
Artemis sighed, Rizolvir's smirk evolved into a full-fledged smile, and Jarlaxle chuckled nervously.
"Well, doesn't matter," the drow rogue told her. "I will go over the details with you again while we solve the problem of the dead team of horses."
After all, if after much thought and reflection he had just decided to start listening to what Artemis Entreri was actually saying, it was only fair that he ensured that the others did the same.
o O o
It was their last night staying at Beregost. They had already rested enough to face another leg of their journey, and Entreri's suggestion that they get out of town as soon as possible had seemed wise enough, so there really was no reason for them to stay any longer.
But as fate would have it, Beregost simply refused to let go of them so easily, and its dust tried to accompany them in the form of a new employer: a tall, lanky, balding merchant who had made the stop in the customary route to the East, and who had just happened to overhear something or other about the prowess of the mercenary group.
As predicted, a new job found them easily enough.
The man, who went by the name of Tyler Folrn, had been interested in securing their services as escorts, and had come to the common room of the inn the group was staying at to discuss business.
And as they all sat there, sipping various beverages and listening with various degrees of interest to the offer the merchant was making, Way to Profit no. 6 started to outline itself in their minds.
Still, Folrn left without a definite answer that night, the companions having promised to discuss the offer and to give him an answer in the morrow. And why?
Why wouldn't they jump at the chance of getting paid for doing something that they were intending to do anyway? After all, there was nothing too special about a merchant hiring out mercenaries to make sure that his goods reached their intended market.
Because that was exactly where stuff started to turn weirder and weirder.
First off, the caravan was small. One single carriage, one single patron kind of small. And yes, there were valuable cargos that could make such a venture profitable enough, but usually the men in charge of them weren't lanky, balding peasants.
The second clue was the lack of previous guards to work with, to replace or to reinforce. Apparently, the merchant had made it to Beregost alone and then decided that he needed protectors for the next half of the journey. Okay, that was weird alright.
Then there was the fact that the man wanted to hire all four of them – surely two guards were more than enough for such a small expedition?
Not to mention that with the fares imposed by a merciless Jarlaxle-Yria negotiation tandem, the poor merchant had surely been stripped of any gain he might have been hoping to get in the first place.
Not even Jarlaxle's experienced, market-y oriented mind could come up with an explanation good enough to Folrn's eagerness.
Still, when the man was sent on his way, it came as a surprise to Artemis Entreri. Even the assassin had to admit that the pay was good enough, and the fact that there was a mystery behind the contract had never dissuaded Jarlaxle before.
What happened once they were alone was more shocking.
Jarlaxle took off is hat, ran a hand along his scalp, and gave his audience a sheepish look.
"So… there obviously is some kind of trap. Myself, I can safely say that I am intrigued. I seriously doubt that, whatever surprise might be in stock, it will something that we can't deal with. I would like to see what kind of opportunity we can find in Caravan Protecting and, after all, we are going to be traveling soon enough whether we get the job or not," the drow's visible eye blinked, and it was clear how difficult it was for the former leader of Bregan D'aerthe to utter his next words. "What do you all think? Artemis?" A gulp. A stutter. And then Jarlaxle pressed on, with a small voice. "Shall we… vote?"
And Artemis Entreri was amazed at the way the dark elf was consciously giving up manipulation and baring an actual choice to them.
The assassin realized that the dark elf was… trying to apologize, in his own subtle, roundabout way. Even though Jarlaxle himself would never ever out it in so many words.
He knew that, knowing the drow rogue's nature as well as he did, this new behavior couldn't possibly last. It was against everything Jarlaxle believed in.
But it was something quite nice to see, a once in a lifetime show, and Entreri enjoyed every minute of nervous suspense Jarlaxle endured.
Then he shrugged, faking a great deal of disinterest, and said:
"We're going that way anyway."
Besides, he would be lying if he didn't admit that he was more than a little curious himself.
Even if he had not been recognized as the man he was, normal sane people avoided drow like the plague. And while Jarlaxle might somehow have worked his way beyond the prejudices with his non-threatening, all-around bright demeanor, to say that the other, darker, dark elf had done the same went way beyond any stretch of the imagination, no matter how wild.
So why would a normal merchant want to hire a professional assassin, two drow and a top-notch sorceress for a single wagon of cargo?
o O o
Entreri looked at the corpses around them, doing his best to ignore the whining of the caravan proprietor.
Whatever it was, these weaklings certainly couldn't be the reason.