Artemis Entreri crouched by a small campfire, his eyes ever scanning the darkness around him. Apart from the watches, the rest of the caravan's guard was asleep. They'd reported a quiet trip from Mirabar, apart from a disturbing encounter with some newly arrived worshipers of Malar in Longsaddle.
While a few days out of Waterdeep, the caravan's exhausted guard had been more than ready for bolstering by the presence of the renowned swordmaster and his group as Entreri and four others had been sent by one of his wealthier and more nervous clients to insure that the caravan made the last leg of the journey safely.
Why the old man was so worried about the last portion of the journey was beyond Entreri, however. The miles closest to Waterdeep were the best patrolled by the City Guard and the safest. But old Torspur's money was good and made up for being away from home for a few days.
He considered the substantial irony in the thought that he first of all had a home to go to and secondly actually missed it when he was away. He'd spent the first forty years of his life without a home worth mentioning. He'd lived in a state of constant change, with little more than the clothes on his back and the sword and dagger at his hip as his only possessions.
Sitting by the campfire, those days came back to him vividly. But instead of freedom, he remembered only restlessness and dissatisfaction. Any person who was driven by motion and adventure simply hadn't found in himself what he needed, Entreri decided.
After forty years it was nice to have finally found enough peace inside himself that enabled Artemis Entreri to actually sit still.
A soft sound came to him across the campfire and he rose slowly, prodding the sleeping guard next to him with the toe of his boot.
Cullon woke instantly and quietly, his hand going reflexively to the sword at his side. He shot a questioning look at Entreri who simply gestured across the fire to the area where he'd heard the noise. Together they circled the sleeping group, unwilling to wake them unless necessary.
Once past the firelight, Entreri's eyes adjusted quickly to the darkness. Without hesitation he headed straight toward the wagon where Torspur's cargo was loaded. Sure enough, the canvas cover lay thrown back and two men busily yet quietly unloaded an unexceptional wooden crate.
Sending Cullon around to flank from the left, Entreri circled the pair from the other side. The two men silently—too silently—pried open the lid of the crate and Entreri realized they were dampening the noise by magical means.
Knowing that a globe of silence likely hung over the area made it that much easier for the former assassin to approach his target. Entreri glided like a ghost through the shadows cast by the wagon until he stood directly beside the thieves who only became aware of his presence when the silver tip of his blade between them caught their attention.
All noises of the night, from the sounds of the nearby forest to the sighs of the horses, had been completely shut off as Entreri got within twenty feet of the men. He didn't know how long the globe would hold out, but one look at the two before him told him that they were using some kind of artifact. That neither of the men was a wizard was evident from the way they wore their swords.
Cullon came forward bravely to stand opposite him, his blade also drawn and to Entreri's gratification not betraying a sign of the nervousness he felt certain the young man felt. Entreri motioned for the men to put down the box and step away. In the eerie complete silence they did so, then as one sprang back to draw their weapons.
Part of Entreri wished it wouldn't come to that. He hadn't killed anyone in a long time, and Cullon had never done more than wound a pirate or two. However, the steely looks darted at them by the thieves told him more certainly than their words would have that the two were prepared to kill them for whatever lay in Torspur's box.
The closest opponent to Entreri was also the biggest by several inches and several pounds, but he could tell from the smaller man's bearing and the way he held his sword that though smaller, he was the more dangerous of the two.
So Entreri deftly stepped onto and across the crate between them to engage the smaller man before Cullon could get in his path. His young student had improved greatly, but Entreri still was not certain he was ready for the kind of challenge his opponent offered.
Without the sound of metal against metal, the fight had an otherworldly, dreamlike quality. Moonlight glimmered on the blades and all was still around them, the rest of the camp having no idea there was anything going on at all.
It surprised him just how much he missed the sounds the swords made. He became aware of how much of his technique was rooted in hearing the unmistakable scrape of direction change and force as the blades rang against each other.
Without the noise, he instead concentrated on the vibration that ran up into his fingers, the shockwaves and tremors that translated into information in the palm of his hand. The darkness of the night impeded his vision somewhat as well, turning the confrontation into one of physical sensation as much as anything.
He kept his eye on Cullon to be certain he was not in trouble before proceeding to disarm his opponent. Unfortunately, the man was not content to be disarmed and pulled a short dagger out of his belt, continuing to thrust at him though clearly outmatched.
With a resigned sigh, Entreri pierced him in the shoulder, forcing him to drop the dagger as well. Then he held the tip of his rapier at the man's throat until he finally knelt in defeat. Entreri spared his life in order to question him later, and without realizing his good fortune, the man become one of the few to face the blade of Artemis Entreri and actually live to tell the tale.
Entreri took him out with a blow to the back of the head with the heavy hilt of his sword and prepared to watch Cullon's battle with the larger man.
The young lookout held his own well, Entreri was glad to see. He kept his guard tight and watched the other fighter for openings, taking advantage of them whenever possible to attempt a hit. Entreri could tell, however, that Cullon was not going for the kill.
That would be the death of him, he feared. Cullon would hold back against a dangerous opponent in an effort to spare his life, and his opponent would use that moment of mercy to slip inside his defenses.
Entreri knew he could take Cullon's side in this encounter and easily take out the big fighter, but held back. Unless Cullon appeared to be in mortal peril, this was his fight, his opportunity to defeat another man in combat. Entreri would be content to watch their silent ballet.
Once again, Cullon held his blade from a possible killing stroke to attempt a disarming. Once again, the big fighter opposite him pressed his advantage, this time pinking him in the upper arm. Perhaps it was the blood that began to flow, perhaps it was the fear that the wound would cause him to weaken, but at the next opportunity, Cullon did not pull back, but instead brought the point of his sword in under the man's defenses to pierce him cleanly just beneath the ribs.
Entreri watched the man fall to the ground, clutching his belly in silent agony. Cullon just stood there, bloody sword in hand, his chest rising and falling rapidly with the heaviness of his breath, but there was no sound.
Then the man's hand fluttered and his eyes rolled back into his head and he became completely still.
Cullon looked up at Entreri, his eyes full of questions. Entreri's dark eyes met his solemnly and he shook his head. In the silence of the moment, Entreri watched as a part of Cullon died as well, an innocence that he had not really noticed before.
As many men as he'd watched die in his life, as many men as he'd watched make their first kill, he'd not expected the feeling of sadness that came over him as Cullon gazed down at the dead man, a look of cool detachment coming over his features.
Sound began to come back over them as the spell wore off. To Entreri's surprise, the first sound he heard was the sound of his own sigh.
"I tried not to kill him," Cullon said at last when the noise of the world was back with them fully.
"Yes, but he tried to kill you," Entreri replied. "There's no dishonor in what you've done." Then they tied the hands of the smaller man and loaded his still unconscious form into the back of a wagon, along with that of his dead companion. None of the rest of the camp ever knew anything had happened.
"Who was he?" Cullon asked as Entreri went through the dead man's pockets for information.
"I don't know. But his companion here will. When we get to the city, I'm sure the Watch will be happy to find out just who they are and what they wanted with Mr. Torspur's cargo," Entreri answered.
Then he tossed Cullon a bag of coins and the dead man's sword and dagger. "That's all he's got of value," he explained. "Now it's yours."
"I don't want it," Cullon answered with distaste.
"Fine. Turn it in to the Watch when we get to the city," Entreri replied evenly. They went back to the fire where Cullon picked up his bedroll and prepared to travel again. "Day is still hours off. You might want to get a few more hours sleep," Entreri suggested.
"I'm not sleepy anymore," Cullon replied. "I'll stay up and keep a guard on the other man. They might not have been alone."
"You do that," Entreri answered, then sat down again by the fire, his back securely against a nearby rock.
Cullon took a few steps toward the prisoner, then stopped to look at his swordmaster. "What about you?" he asked. "Can you sleep?"
"I'll sleep in Waterdeep," Entreri stated. He too wanted to make certain no other thieves were tracking their progress and kept the wagon with Torspur's cargo within his line of sight at all times.
"Does it always bother you to kill a man?" Cullon's question hung in the darkness.
"Only once," came the quiet answer. Cullon looked at his teacher for a long moment, then walked away, his shoulders straight, but burdened.
Entreri glanced up at the young man's retreating form and heard himself sigh again. When had youth gotten to be so young? he wondered. When had he gotten to be so old? He'd traveled such a long road. When would it end? When would he be the one lying dead beneath a younger man's blade?
He sighed again and flexed the muscles of his shoulders and arms. Ever since his encounter with the shade in Damara, his speed and his strength had returned to that of a man ten years younger. Every time he caught a glimpse of the elusive gray tinge that lurked beneath his skin, he was reminded of Jarlaxle's predictions that he might age more like an elf than a human from that point.
The idea sickened him. He'd already lived longer than he'd thought he ever would as a boy in Memnon where only the very rich made it past forty. He'd lived longer than he thought he would as a young lieutenant in Calimshan where only the very skilled lived past thirty.
So much of the world wearied him these days. So many of the things considered valuable by those around him had already proven to be empty pursuits in his experience.
He thought of Jarlaxle then. How many centuries had he filled with acquisition and opportunity as answers to boredom and meaninglessness? How many conflicts had he manufactured just to fill up his time, to fill up the long centuries that lay before him?
Entreri sat by the fire and watched as Cullon stood over the dead man, the leather bag of coins in his hand. He watched as Cullon looked at the bag and finally pocketed it, and he felt old.
Then he ran his finger over the wide gold band that encircled his finger and he thought of the one who'd given it to him. It was not a wedding band, though he'd wondered sometimes if perhaps it truly had been such in all but name.
After all, he'd introduced her as his wife to everyone they met in Waterdeep. What else lay before them but to formalize their relationship as such? That odd priest of Lathander, Brother Ansel, had asked him if he was certain she was not his wife. He still wasn't sure.
But as he ran his fingertip across the band and thought of her, he knew what she was. She was the one thing he had in this life that he hadn't found empty. Her love for him was the one thing that gave his existence a dimension of meaning it had never had before.
And being apart from her was torture. More than anything at that moment, he wanted to be back with her in their little house in Waterdeep. He wanted to be back with his friend, his lover—his wife. It was only with the greatest of concentration that he stopped the ring from taking him there, from transporting him to its mate on Dwahvel's finger.
The ring had been expensive and its dimensional gate would only work once. Its magic was to be saved until that moment when it was absolutely necessary. At the moment when being safely by her side meant the difference between life and death. And homesickness was not fatal.
Even though at that moment, it certainly felt so.
Back in the little house in Waterdeep, Dwahvel woke to a sound in her kitchen. "Artemis?" she called sleepily. She was very glad he was home. The four days that he'd been gone to meet the caravan had gone very slowly and she missed him terribly.
"It'll only be a few days," he'd assured her when he left. "It wouldn't be good business to turn this one down."
"Then hurry back," she'd said to him, planting a very passionate kiss on his mouth to remind him of what he was leaving behind. If he was going to run off on her for several days, she at least wanted him to miss her while he was gone.
Now he was back, she sighed in relief. It had to be him. No one else would be able to get past the ridiculous number of devious traps and locks he'd set on all the doors and windows before leaving. He'd gotten much better—and she was glad of it—but he was still the most paranoid individual she'd ever met.
She rose from the bed and slipped into a warm robe against the cool night air and set out to find him. He never seemed to eat or sleep well on the road and always came in starved and exhausted.
The kitchen was dark as she entered and there was indeed a figure sitting at the wooden table of her kitchen. But from the glimmer of its red eyes, she knew it was not her Artemis. Behind that silent figure, another was busily picking through the cabinets.
"Make yourself at home, Jarlaxle," she said grimly, trimming the lamp.
"Oh, I will, I will, Mistress Tiggerwillies," the drow elf returned with a gallant bow to her. Then he turned back to the cabinets and continued to dig. "Do you have any cider to go with this cheese?" he asked.