Time of change
Gazing upon the quiet, unassuming streets of the middle-sized town of Phlan, it was almost hard to believe that only two days ago a battle of unheard-of dimensions had taken place.
Well, probably huge battles and wars and turn-over points were reached across Faerun all the time, now that he thought about it. Perhaps he should amend his sentence: it was hard to believe that he had been fighting for his life just two days prior.
Yes, that sounded better.
Jarlaxle tipped his great hat to protect his eyes from the slanted rays of a late evening's sun and leant against the stone wall of the local inn where they were staying, smiling widely at some amusing detail only he could understand - and drawing curious glances from the scant few pedestrians in the process.
The drow rogue did not care. He never did. And this time, he had reasons to smile: after all, the fact that the flow of magic had been saved by Artemis Entreri, the best assassin of the Realms, Yria Ingerd, the savior-destroyer of Waterdeep, and two very much un-goodly drow was amusing as all the hells.
He craned his neck around, taking in the views: a wide road of packed dirt with two story buildings on both sides and countless alleys sprawling forth, creeping towards the stone walls that protected the city and separated it from Old Phlan, the ruined and infested ancestor of the blooming trading spot. No matter where he looked, he saw the toils of a most mundane life: women and kids carrying water to their homes to drink and wash and cook, men coming back dirty and somber from the fields right beyond the gates, families closing up shop for the day.
Everything was normal and unsavory.
And it was ironic that it was like that because of them, wasn't it.
Otherwise, by this point, the Shadovar would have gotten their hands on the book, performed their little ritual, and right about now magic would be crashing all around Toril. And then, there'd be a floating city some couple hundred miles to the west, and Phlan might as well be one of the first places to fall to the ambitions of the once-humans.
Jarlaxle smirked and gently slid his finger along one of the golden loops that adorned his pointy ears.
And to think that his protecting his trinkets would have such a huge effect.
But his musings got interrupted at that point: two feet to his left, the inn's heavy door opened and out came Artemis Entreri.
The Calishite had cleaned up and changed clothes after taking a light nap, but no one would be able to tell: he looked exactly the same. All of the man's clothes were functional, non-descript. As if specially designed to help their wearer to blend with the shadows that grew tall in the twilight.
Jarlaxle had to grin at that. With eyes such as Entreri's, you just could not be unnoticed. They were like a town crier asking everyone to be careful and mind their business, as was evident when two goons who had been loitering around and discreetly watching how Jarlaxle relaxed decided to move it as soon as the assassin stepped out.
Entreri spared a glance to the two one-eared would-be assaulters, held a snort barely in check - though it would have been unnoticeable to anyone who did not know him as much as Jarlaxle did - and moved to the drow's other side, leaning against the wall in turn.
For a long moment, the two of them shared a companionable silence and Jarlaxle thought that magic and the peasant's way of life had not been the only salvaged things.
Their renewed partnership had been the most important prize out of the whole venture, and that was even without stopping to consider what it was slowly, falteringly, cautiously, evolving into. Because neither Jarlaxle nor Entreri had much experience with open trust and both were clearly dumbfounded when treating concepts such as equality - real equality - and, let's not forget, friendship.
But now they had both acknowledged that they were getting there. It was a new adventure, and they were both in it. Together.
The price to pay had only been a priceless book that would have turned them in something nearly equal to demigods - Jarlaxle almost flinched. And he could not forget the day-long tantrum Yria had thrown because the book had been destroyed, could he?
Still, it was worth it.
And the curious thing of it all, the one that left the drow mercenary nearly agape, was that... well, hells, he meant it.
Lost as he was in such a thought, he was startled when his long-time partner cleared his throat.
"So," Artemis said, "what are the plans on leaving this Gods-forsaken town?"
As far as communication went, the Calishite still had a long way to go.
But the dark elf knew him well, and understood that there was no malice behind the question. More like, it was a token to mean that, since he had giving up manipulating, now he could choose freely what to do.
Totally contradictory, and total Entreri.
"Well," Jarlaxle shrugged, "I checked out the bill boards while you rested. There is Old Phlan, where monsters and treasure are said to abound."
"Or more likely, no one has entered that decrepit ruin of a city in ages and the townsfolk need to do some cleaning," Artemis remarked dryly, and his friend tipped his hat with a small laugh.
The Calishite allowed the corner of his lips to curl up a small fraction, in his own version of a smile. He had checked the boards as well before coming out, and the announcements about the walled labyrinth of moldy stone seemed to him about as appealing as watching the grass grow.
Frankly put, nothing worth it could be still there, when the ruins were so close to the newly built, flourishing city.
He knew Jarlaxle was well aware of how utterly uninteresting the thing would be, but he had to hand it to the drow: he was trying to behave.
Probably for the same reasons he had destroyed something he clearly desired.
Entreri crossed his arms lazily, looking for all the world like he was not actually surveying their surroundings with his five senses and then some, and closed his eyes as he mumbled out his next words, as off-handedly as he could.
"There was a notice about a King trying to clean out his kingdom as well."
Jarlaxle, predictably, perked up.
"Why, yes, I noticed! It seems the whole country was under the reign of some form of undead until recently, and now the amount of beasts, minions and dark fortresses with untold secrets and treasures is proving to be an impediment to populating the land with hard-working farmers!"
Artemis smirked, opening one eye to look at Jarlaxle, and the elf realized he had just given away that he had been investigating the issue.
He did not mind.
"The rewards are rich, including but not limiting to lordships over the cleaned castles and, of course, gold. But you're not going to like it, my friend. It's a paladin king," the drow shrugged, dismissing the matter.
Which went to prove just how invested he was in the whole 'let's care about others beyond myself' project.
The assassin, however, raised an eyebrow.
"Lord Jarlaxle, savior of... what was the name of the wannabe country, again?"
"I'll be damned if I can remember!" grinned said drow.
"A place you're not sure about, people we thoroughly dislike, high chances that we will end up cursed and prosecuted by the end of our toils..." Entreri shook his head, enumerating the things that could possibly go wrong if they even attempted to carve out their niche in that new country who called for heroes through Inn bill boards.
Then, a slow smirk made its way onto the expressionless face of the man.
"Sounds like Way to Profit number Umphteen."
Jarlaxle barked a laugh at that, both in amusement and in wonder.
"My friend, I knew you'd see it that way!" with a flamboyant movement, the drow took off his hat and wrapped his free arm around Entreri's shoulders, who rolled his eyes at the gesture of camaraderie – and knew Jarlaxle understood even as he went on in full grandiloquent mode.
"Indeed, let us sail forth and overcome the obstacles born of prejudice to show the world what true heroes we are! Then, once they are all in shock of our gallantry and courage and skill, let them shower us with gold and fame and presents!"
"We are not heroes, Jarlaxle."
"Are, too," the drow grinned, his hat clutched to his chest, his other arm still hanging comfortably on the human. "Ask the good people of Beregost, or Greenest! Ask those who can sleep freely now because the threat of the Shadovar is gone! Routed by us, I might add!"
Entreri frowned, clearly seeing the point but refusing to agree to anything 'heroic' on principle.
Jarlaxle just played his trump card.
"Just think about Do'Urden's face when he starts hearing folks praising the names of Jarlaxle and none other than Artemis Entreri for giving them a better life out of the goodness of their hearts!"
The Calishite shook his head, and muttered something about being 'sellswords', but he was smiling.
It would be an amusing sight, indeed.
The drow grinned, knowing that he had won, and gave the man's shoulder a squeeze.
"Let us make a good name - thankful rewards are greater than blackmailed ones. And then," his grin turned a smaller version of itself that was genuine in ways his other masks could not dream of being. "And then, when we've saved and have a reputation and are rich beyond measure, we can look into starting our own company."
"Another Bregan D'aerthe?" Entreri was almost scared to ask.
"Nope! There's already one of those, and it's too unique to be copied. No, I'm thinking along the lines of establishing... I don't know, perhaps a service of mercenaries with a permanent base. Have a training center. Hire our services to prevent scamming, and do some of our own when we're not treated right..."
Jarlaxle trailed off. What he was talking about, albeit vaguely, was more or less - if his time among the Calishite culture had given him the right understanding – was what the guilds back in Calimport were born for. The true calling of the great Houses and their Pashas before it all went down to a simple gang war.
The kind of Guild Entreri had dreamed - no, the man did not know how to dream. The guild Entreri had wanted to revive after their take-over of Basadoni.
It might have been possible if the Crystal Shard and the other guilds had not stepped in.
It was going to be possible, without Shard and without competition.
They both knew it.
Entreri fingered the simple iron band that adorned his ring finger: they were just a few minute's worth of travel from the beginning of a new chapter.
"What about our companions?" he asked, partly stalling and partly because, loath as he was to admit it, he cared.
"I doubt they are going anywhere anytime soon," he said, wiggling his eyebrows suggestively. "We can leave them a note: 'go dig up Old Phlan; we'll be back soon' or something like that."
Artemis Entreri shook his head and emitted a low, dark chuckle. Winging it like that, with no preparation whatsoever, was exactly the kind of thing he would never do.
So he just twisted the ring on his finger and faded away alongside a perplexed, grinning dark elf.
Because, really, it was exactly the kind of thing his friend would love.
o O o
The second floor of the most cozy, quintessential and blissfully oblivious inn of Phlan was a place for matters to be taken care of with the leisured pace of those who are not aware of the passage of time or of the comings and goings of the world around them, and who could care less.
Everything on the ambient decoration invited to a certain kind of calm, soothing travelers and workers alike: there were only six rooms, and the floor was carpeted with warm-hued rugs. The two windows that spilled light into the landing had potted plants in them, and the heavy oak doors were regularly varnished and cleaned, so it always smelled fresh – except at the first light in the morning, when the staff baked delicious goods and the aromas would crawl up from the kitchen and the eating room.
Indeed, it was the best inn in town and it showed. It enveloped its visitors with the need to be gentle, polite. Soft and mild.
Even though the innkeeper of such an establishment had had serious misgivings about letting out his best suite to the weird group who had checked in the previous night, and had almost been intimidated into offering his services by their serious air of competence and their bloodstained clothes, it looked like it was going to turn out like a good idea.
After all, they had paid a couple of nights in advance and the innkeeper had seen what kind of gold they had. And besides, the extravagant and grandiloquent drow had already left, and with him had gone the grim-looking human who gave every patron the creeps and made one's hair stand on end even when he was just drinking morning's coffee on a corner.
The other two? It did not look like they were going to be out and about spooking his clientele, so they were unlikely to outstay their welcome.
No, things in his well-tended inn were running smoothly and kept doing so. There was nothing out of the ordinary, and except for the handful of gold coins that the man would find discreetly placed on his kitchen every morning from that first day on, there was no indication whatsoever that a powerful, crazy sorceress and a drow mage warrior had taken up residence on his locale.
Well, there was the sword.
It was a plain iron weapon, lacking elegance and ornaments, and it would appear at random times, propped up against the wall close to the door to the room the guests were staying in.
At first, it had drawn curious glances from the personnel and from other guests – after all, wasn't leaving it around like that a screaming demand to be robbed? But somehow, the blade was never touched. As if some kind of warning kept everyone from so much as looking it twice… To the point where people stopped paying attention to it.
With enough practice, they all could even pretend that the faint voice that resonated in their head whenever they were upstairs, cleaning the rooms or bringing room service, was just their imagination.
Pal? Come on, pal! This is totally not fair! After all we went through, and now you lock me out! You're totally going to flunk it without my help, you retarded drow! Pick me up again! Pick me up this very moment!
… Pal? Are you there?
Of course, it was just their imagination…
o O o
Although... Is There Any Such Thing as The End?
o O o
A/N: I know I said I'd update on monday, but I had the epilogue sitting on my computer (which is the reason I knew I could update on time...) and realized that with the start of NaNoWriMo, things would likely be too hectic. So, here it is: I give you the end to Greatest Prize, and the closing point to the Entrepreneurial Saga. It has been one hell of a exciting ride for me, and I can't thank you enough, you guys, who have supported me through plot holes and dry periods and creative sprees. You guys who have read me and have felt something while reading my words. I won't write names, because I'm bound to forget one and that would make me feel really wretched - and because I can't think up an order I'd like to acknoledge you all. Just, thank you.
This story made me feel like G.R.R. Martin. Not because I'm half as good as he is, but because I've been so long with two half-written chapters waiting to wrap up my "novel". I know that was a bit wicked of me, and I apologize - though real life did take over, I figure it was only because I allowed it to. I could have finished sooner. The truth is, though, I did not really want to finish, did I. The End are such serious words. Letting go of the characters I've been so long with, letting them move on on their own, closing the story... it was a bit difficult for me, and it sucked to all of you. You can see what I ended up doing: editing, editing and editing until I could offer closure while keeping an open ending - and ending that suggest that life still will go on for our friends, that there're more adventures waiting right around the corner. How exactly do Rizolvir and Yria get over their akward act and differences? Will they get back to Undermountain and Halaster? Will Eldath come back? And, what about Entreri and Jarlaxle? How would a trip to Vaasa work if the adventure was based on solid characterisation? Would they create their own mercenary empire? How will their friendship progress?
Yes, plenty of questions. No de facto answers... But that's life, isn't it? Wondering and dreaming. Let us dream endless adventures going beyond this story!
So, to finish my little speech... Thank you. And I hope to see you soon.