Title: Blood and Sand
Summary: He could open Artemis here and look inside, see if he could find the strange spark that made him so interesting.
A/N: Totally and utterly different from my other fic in this fandom, however, it is possibly a prequel to it. Consider it so if you'd like. Also, this is the most romantic thing I've ever written. 3
Also, give all your thanks to Lady of Scarlet, my beta. Without her, this would be thoroughly dull, unexciting and also full of shifting tenses. Down right boring, even. She's a Pretty Princess!
Warning: Rated M for a reason. Slashy undertones strong enough to be actual slash, knife kink, pain kink, blood play, angst, bad language, unannounced and kind of random POV changes, and fluff. Yeah, I really shouldn't be allowed to have a computer. Oh, and sadomasochism/masochism.
Disclaimer: If R.A. Salvatore wrote them like this, I wouldn't have to. Anyway, intellectual property of R.A. Salvatore and the copyright is probably owned by Wizards of the Coast.
It was the middle of summer and the sun was fucking hot. There were no breezes, no trees, and no shade. The sky was so blue that it looked like raw magic. Sand stretched out like the goddamn sky, and the heat rose in curling thermal waves that twisted in the air. It was solar noon and the day was just going to get hotter.
Jarlaxle and Artemis weren't talking to each other. Artemis' blood was boiling with rage and Jarlaxle was so tense that he thought he just might break something if he didn't calm down. They had fought all morning, snarling over the lack of water, insulting each other's navigation abilities, but most of all complaining about the fucking heat.
They were lost. They should have found an oasis three days ago, and another today. Instead there was mile after mile of heat warped sand, the entire world reduced to gold and blue. They had maybe a day's worth of water left (and neither could help thinking that it was two days worth for one person).
Jarlaxle's hat was pulled low over his eyes. The sun burnt him even in the shadow, its rays reflecting off the gleaming sand below onto his skin. He took a cautious sip from his canteen, hiding his actions from Entreri.
Jarlaxle couldn't see where they were going and he hoped like hell that Entreri could, because for all he knew they'd been wandering in circles for the last week. The sun and sand were too bright. He could barely see the jewel-like colours anymore. Throbbing sunspots ached inside his eyes and blocked out everything.
Entreri's head was uncovered because he was using his hat as a fan. The sun and the desert didn't bother him much and normally he liked the heat, but the idea that he might die here had taken root and burnt its message into his flesh. He felt the heat like the fiery tongue of death lapping at his sweat-slicked neck.
Entreri didn't know where they were, didn't know where they were going, and he was getting really fucking thirsty. He touched the half empty canteen strapped to his belt on his right hand side. Jarlaxle walked on his left. Yesterday, they had both been on the left.
Jarlaxle licked the sweat salt off his lips and spared a prayer to a god he knew wouldn't answer. The salt stung his cracked lips, but he didn't have enough saliva to make them anything but slightly damp.
The air stirred softly like it was sighing, cooling him briefly and he wished it would do it again. He pulled his hat off to wipe at the sweat that ran like water down his scalp, grimacing at the feel of bristling short hair. There hadn't been water to shaving in over a week.
They walked across the sun's path, heading due south. Together they slogged through shifting sands and didn't think about dying. Visions of clean white bone in an endless desert dwelled behind Entreri's eyes. Jarlaxle thought of snow.
In the end, they nearly stumbled onto the cacti. There was no water in the deep valley hidden between two dunes, but the flesh of the plants was thick and they had full gleaming leaves shaped like medallions of jade. Other cacti rose from the sand like thick spiny barrels.
A bone dry oval of packed down sediment dusted with thin ripples of sand graced the centre of the valley. Squared off blocks of yellowed stone lay like fallen soldiers, framing a half collapsed wall, ruins from a time when water had flowed in this desert. The thin shade from the wall looked like paradise.
They still weren't talking.
Jarlaxle had settled beside the wall, taking advantage of the growing shadows. He swayed in a non-existent breeze and his hands looked skeletal, dry skin stretched across bone. The air stole the moisture of his breath, his skin, his eyes, without offering the saving grace of cooling him. He had stopped sweating miles ago. His cracked lips were parted, panting breaths offering the only breeze he could find. His mouth was dry and even if he wanted to talk he wasn't sure that he could.
Entreri dropped to his knees beside a thick barrel-shaped cactus, fogged mind trying to remember if this breed was poisonous. Jarlaxle would be fine. Very few poisons can harm a drow. But Entreri couldn't remember if the flesh contained water or if it would kill him. His hand drifted out to stroke the smooth flesh hidden between the needles. It was cooler than the air and the sand, the temperature difference striking to him. His vision was blurry and, by all the gods, his head hurt. His eyes drifted shut, lids nearly rasping. He swore he could hear drums.
The white hot sun drove through Jarlaxle's skin in shimmering waves of heat, his sprawled limbs branded by its fierce rays. He couldn't see anything. The world was blanketed in white sunspots, and it hurt too much to keep his eyes open in the face of the light.
Entreri's boot prodded at his ribs and Jarlaxle shifted to show that he was paying attention. The human settled beside him and put something soft and wet into his hand. Jarlaxle could hear the dry wheeze of Entreri's breath in the absolute silence of the desert.
"It's probably edible," Entreri offered, voice cracking. "If you chew it and suck out the moisture it's not half bad." He scraped out another handful for himself. In the battle between dying of dehydration and poison, he didn't have a preference. It tasted like glue, and the pulp was thoroughly unpleasant in texture. He had eaten worse.
Jarlaxle pulled it towards his mouth, the effort exhausting him. He chewed it into a mash and sucked out the liquid. The remaining pulp was too fibrous to even think about swallowing, so he spit it out. Jarlaxle opened his blind eyes and looked to where he heard Entreri. He held out his hand for more. His arm trembled from the cramps that were tying him into knots. Everything hurt.
Entreri glanced over at Jarlaxle, and gave him another handful of the tacky paste. The cactus was almost out of pulp, its hard outer shell quickly baking dry in the open air. There were a few more scattered around the rim of the dried out oasis. They might survive. A quick breeze danced through the valley, setting the sand dancing. The sun sank behind them, its loathsome eye forced shut by the height of the dunes. His fear eased a little. It's not hope (he doesn't feel that) but something in him relaxed as he watched Jarlaxle drink the moisture from the pulp. Jarlaxle's lips were sticky with blood and sap.
They had drunk from all of the cacti, leaving the empty rinds half buried in sand. The sun was almost fully set, the sky turning to orange and red in the west and a brilliant purple-black in the east. They sated their thirst. It was time to leave their temporary sanctuary and continue south towards Calimport.
Jarlaxle stumbled to his feet, vision still uselessly blurred. He brushed sand from his pants, listening for Entreri. Luckily the assassin feels no need for stealth; otherwise this would be more difficult. Entreri strode down the valley along the solid base of the trough. Jarlaxle followed by listening for the brush of cotton on linen, leather on sand.
Entreri looked back at Jarlaxle, concerned. Jarlaxle still stumbled even though he had drunk his fill of the tasteless cactus juices. Entreri slowed his stride to allow him to catch up.
The desert whispered softly, sand dragging in the wake of a cool breeze rolling in from the southwest. It felt like home to Entreri. The blazing heat was gone and the desert night evoked memories from his youth. Undeserved nostalgia, he's sure, but he makes no effort to truly remember the past. Such things were better without reality intruding.
The sun was set, and a truly black night had descended on the desert. The gold sand looked charcoal grey and the sky over head was even darker. The cool breeze had turned into a cold wind that snapped through the dunes.
Entreri looked up, suddenly uneasy. The moon was supposed to be waxing, not waning. His nostrils flared as he breathed deep, seeking confirmation. His unease became tightly contained anxiety. The wind held moisture.
"Jarlaxle," he called out. "We need to get out of this valley." He paused, looking up at the steep inclines of loose sand. "Watch for a path we can use," he added, tension audible in his voice.
"Why?" Jarlaxle asked, confused. He couldn't see anything but darkness, although he suspected that it was simply a very dark night. Anything that might kill them Entreri would already have attacked.
"It's going to rain," Entreri explained, setting off in a ground-covering lope. He glanced at the sky, heart beating faster than the exercise warranted. "Come on, we have to get out of here," he yelled over his shoulder.
"Why?" Jarlaxle asks again, still confused. Obediently, he began to run, chasing after the sound of Entreri's footsteps as best he could. "I thought rain was good."
"Not in a desert. It's going to flood," Entreri explained, keeping a wary eye on the lightning that was beginning to spark under the bellies of the clouds. "If we don't find a way out of this valley, we're going to drown."
"Fuck," Jarlaxle said. The wind picked up, covering the sound of Entreri's footsteps. His ears twitched back against his skull, changing angles to keep the wind out. Jarlaxle swore under his breath and quickened his pace, tripping over stones buried under the sand. Entreri was pulling ahead of him.
Entreri cursed violently, his feet suddenly ankle deep in rapidly rushing water. "Hurry," he shouted.
The walls of the valley were becoming steeper. Entreri increased his pace to a sprint, the water rising with every step.
The valley turned a sharp corner, the still shallow water driving into the outer curve, the slope collapsing down as its underpinnings washed away. Entreri considered trying to run up the slope, but it was far too unstable.
His feet were nearly torn out from under him by knee-deep water by the time he reached the corner. Entreri almost laughed in relief. The sudden corner was caused by a lovely, solid, highly climbable cliff.
Entreri waded through the slower water on the inside corner and climbed up to the wind-flattened cliff top, thirty feet above. He dropped his pack and returned to the edge to give Jarlaxle a hand up. The rough cliff face was empty. Entreri looked down the flooded valley, waiting for lightning to strike. His back tensed as he gazed intently at the rising water, swaying in maelstrom of wind.
Lightning struck three times in rapid succession, turning the water ghostly white and illuminating Jarlaxle. The drow was struggling to keep his footing in the waist deep water, still more than fifty feet away from the bottom of the cliff. Thunder boomed, a chest rattling explosion of sound.
Entreri unsheathed Charon's Claw and drove it hilt deep into the solid rock. "Stay," he whispered, hoping it would listen this time. He dug out the longest length of rope they had and tied it around the hilt of his sword, then gave it a harsh jerk to test it. The blade stayed firm in the stone and he spared a moment to hope he would be able to get it out again. He tied the other end around his waist and climbed back down into the raging waters.
Lightning flashed again, showing him Jarlaxle. The drow was fighting to stay upright, but the water was almost chest deep and there was no way he was going to walk out of it. Entreri's whistle drowned in thunder, and Jarlaxle didn't notice him waving. Entreri sighed and resigned himself to doing this the hard way.
Entreri looped the extra length of the rope around his wrist and let the water carry him downstream, slowly releasing the slack. Lightning sizzled through the air, close enough to bring the scent of ozone with it. The charge of electricity made Entreri's hair rise as he scanned the place where he last saw Jarlaxle.
The water was up to Jarlaxle's neck. It pinned him against the shifting sand bank, and he was trying to scale it. The sand kept collapsing under him, sinking him deeper into the rushing waters.
Entreri stopped as far away as he could, trying to avoid the undercurrent. Jarlaxle still didn't see him, much to his annoyance. Thunder rolled continuously now, making yelling useless. Entreri released a bit more rope and grabbed Jarlaxle's wrist.
Jarlaxle shouted in surprise and fought against Entreri's hand. The movement tore him from his precarious perch, the current twisting his wrist from Entreri's grasp.
"Goddamn," Entreri muttered, shaking the rest of the rope from his wrist. He let the water carry him after Jarlaxle and pushed off the flood bed to gain speed. At nearly the limit of the rope's reach he caught hold of Jarlaxle's hand. He locked his hand around the thin bones hard enough to crack them, not caring so long as he didn't lose Jarlaxle again. Jarlaxle's other hand stretched out to take Entreri's wrist, the drow sinking below the surface again.
Entreri pulled Jarlaxle close to his chest to reduce drag, wincing as he felt bone snap from the force of his grasp.
Jarlaxle's head surfaced, and he choked on storm water while gasping for air. Entreri slammed his arm across Jarlaxle's chest, holding his head above the water.
Entreri twisted a length of rope around Jarlaxle to keep him from drifting away. He hauled on the rope, dragging them through the flood towards the cliff. Jarlaxle recovered quickly and helped using his good hand.
By the time they reached the cliff, thirty feet was fifteen. The angle of the rope was the only thing saving them from going under. The rain finally began to pour down on them, thick heavy drops that made the rock slick. Entreri supported Jarlaxle on his left, the bones in his hand shifting too much for him to use it.
Charon's Claw had cut deep in the rock, carving a razor thin rift in the cliff. Artemis and Jarlaxle ignored it as they scrambled over the edge. They collapsed next to each other, panting.
Artemis fumbled with the rope tied around his waist, trying to untie the knot, but quickly gave up and cut it off instead.
"Where are your canteens?" he asked Jarlaxle, pulling his own from his pack.
Jarlaxle groped along his belt, looking for them. His bag of holding squished wetly under his hand, thin streams of water leaking out though the stitches.
The canteens were on his right, he remembered. His searching fingers found the leather straps and untied it one-handed. He pushed it in the direction of Entreri's voice.
Entreri stopped, puzzled. "I'm… over here," he said.
Jarlaxle's eyes shifted lazily from where he'd pushed the canteens to a metre to Entreri's left.
"You can't see," Entreri said flatly, eyes narrowing as he tied the evidence together.
"It's getting better," Jarlaxle defended, trying to placate the anger burning in Entreri's voice.
"You were blind, and you didn't tell me?" Entreri demanded in disbelief. "What kind of fool are you?"
"You wouldn't have told me!" Jarlaxle retorted. "And what would telling you have changed?" He glared viciously at Entreri's shoulder.
"I would have dragged you along so that you didn't fall behind, you idiot," Entreri snapped irately.
"And broken my hand that way?" Jarlaxle snarled, unreasonably furious. His hand ached, he was cold, he couldn't fucking see, and he had almost died. Again.
"…the Hell?" Entreri told Jarlaxle, offended by the accusation. He rubbed the skin of his knuckles, breathing deeply. "I saved your life."
"I never asked you to," Jarlaxle countered. His hat had washed away in the storm and the rain dripped down his face, collecting in his eyelashes, and falling down like tears.
He sensed vibrations from the rock underneath him and turned his head instinctively to look. Lightning snapped down to the earth.
Artemis' face was inches from his own, a blurred mask of white-lit skin and huge black eyes.
Jarlaxle jumped, startled.
"No," Artemis decided. "You aren't allowed to do this," he informed him. "You said we were friends." He punctuated his accusation by pushing Jarlaxle to the ground and shifting to straddle him, his soaked hair sending water droplets scattering through the rain. "You said."
His voice sounded strangely hollow, the words tearing free without the accompanying emotions.
Artemis fingered a blade hidden up his sleeve, a lifetime of solving problems with blood calling to him. "You told me that you weren't going to leave."
"What hell is wrong with you?" Jarlaxle hissed, drawing a knife from his wrist bracer and shoving it against Artemis' neck.
Lightning flashed in the clouds, throwing the dripping red line under his knife into high contrast.
Artemis' mouth opened, slow breaths slipping out. He relaxed under the blade, lightning-lit eyes gleaming white. His hands pinned Jarlaxle's shoulders to the ground. He leaned into them as a thrumming tension built from the ashes of the previous calm.
Phantom heat filled the air between them, a ghost touching their skin before dying in the chilled gale winds. His knees bracketed Jarlaxle's hips, pouring warmth into him through wet cloth.
"I believed you," he said, voice nearly lost in the thunder. "And you lied, you almost died, because you wouldn't let me help you," Artemis accused, releasing one of Jarlaxle's shoulders to wipe away a rain-thinned trickle of blood from his neck. "You… I," Artemis muttered, lost.
He loomed over Jarlaxle in the sporadic brilliance of lightning, his body shielding Jarlaxle from the brunt of the rain. A muted sigh of frustration parted Artemis' lips. He didn't know what he was trying to say.
He leaned into the knife and let it nip at his skin, welcoming the bite over the raging uncertainty that plagued him.
Jarlaxle lightened the pressure on Artemis' throat. He felt Artemis' disquiet in the silence, Artemis' body speaking for what he wasn't saying.
His eyes couldn't see, the fury of the storm deadened his hearing, but he could feel Artemis like a smouldering brand, half threat, half plea. He rested the knife lightly on Artemis' skin and asked with a cautious scrape down the prominent tendons of Artemis' neck, little rivers streaming away from major veins.
Artemis answered, bowing his head and letting his brow rest against Jarlaxle's shoulder. The blade traced the back of his neck, little cuts that didn't hurt until the rain found them.
His breath came a little too fast and his body trembled from the chill of the wind.
He kept hearing the crack of bone under his hand.
Artemis had been so certain that Jarlaxle would fight him and be lost in the glassy lightning-lit flood, a leviathan that would have swallowed Jarlaxle whole.
It would have been like he had never existed.
Jarlaxle blinked blindly at the feel of Artemis' fingers tracing the swelling flesh of his hand. It hurt dimly, the pain shimmering under Artemis' touch. Jarlaxle pressed his hand into Artemis' palm, bone edges grinding under the strain. Sweat beaded on his brow and washed away under the onslaught of rain.
Jarlaxle gripped the knife tightly, holding it above Artemis' skin. He ran it down his chest, slicing through his tattered cotton shirt. The wet edges fell open and formed a secluded stage between them.
Jarlaxle's hand rested between the torn layers over his heart. He drew a curving ellipse between Artemis' ribs, a shallow mark that arced gracefully from the thin skin of his chest to end at the edge of the heavy muscles covering Artemis' back.
His thumb traced through the welling blood, following the hollow between his ribs to the soft skin behind the arm where the ribs disappeared under muscle.
Blood surged hot and vital under his hand, bleeding out from the incandescent source to cool and dilute in the rain, soaking though Artemis' shirt.
Artemis almost pulled away from the deeper cut, the splitting of his skin feeling like a punishment. The cautious retracing of the lines kept him still, face buried against Jarlaxle's neck, hand clasping broken bones.
The hand pressing into his ribs felt like a promise.
The next cut stole Artemis' breath from the wind, lifting his head in a struggle for air. His arms shook with silent tremors from the effort of not taking the last inches between their bodies.
Jarlaxle tilted his head and laid his cheek against Artemis' hair. He spread his hand flat across the open cuts, feeling the warm blood in stripes against cool skin, and the rain beating against both. He tugged down, telling Artemis to close the gap.
Artemis allowed their bodies to touch. No weight, no pressure, just a line of contact. His hand lay over Jarlaxle's palm, pressing down, rubbing through the inflamed flesh to find the broken bones.
Jarlaxle's eyelids flickered in time to Artemis' hand seeking out the broken edges, but he didn't fight him.
Jarlaxle slid the knife across Artemis' skin, adding another opening between his ribs. The curving stripes, carved blindly, followed the curves and angles of his bones. Jarlaxle stroked the cut, thumb digging in like he wanted to enter Artemis through it.
Artemis twisted under the contact, bucking into Jarlaxle's hand. Something raw and broken stirred inside him, fires raging in absolutes of light and dark.
Jarlaxle gave the open gash one last stroke, touching the burning heat inside Artemis.
The pain was beautiful. He loves… he loves… Jarlaxle's eyes stared into the dark.
Artemis' solid pressure anchored him to the ground, keeping him sheltered from the storm. Hot trickles of blood and water washed down his side, dripping from the marks he had made.
He let the knife slide below Artemis' ribs and pressed down ever so lightly. He could open Artemis here and look inside, see if he could find the strange spark that made him so interesting.
Jarlaxle forced it in, feeling the skin part under the blade. He was close to the truth of the burning body draped over his. He could feel it, the infinite pinnacle, in the wet breath lapping against his neck, the shuddering of the flesh, the wonderful ache of life.
Artemis pushed into Jarlaxle's broken bones like he was trying to reach the ground underneath them.
Jarlaxle shuddered, twisting the knife in tiny fractions of degrees, feeling the sensation arc through the knife into Artemis, race through seizing and shuddering muscles, and ground itself through the snapped bones in his hand. They're connected and the knowledge is sweet bliss.
Artemis writhed against him, truth sublimating into blue white lightning, the insistent beat of life echoing from Artemis to Jarlaxle, immolating everything in its path.
Jarlaxle sank into the ground, licking blood from the bite mark on Artemis' shoulder.
"Gods," Artemis whispered into Jarlaxle's ear. His voice rang low and deep, purring like the rolling thunder. The disquiet was purged, the rising darkness consoled.
Jarlaxle pulled the knife out, feeling empty. The fire of Artemis was fading already. His hand began to ache.
Artemis rolled onto his side, bringing Jarlaxle with him. He released Jarlaxle's broken hand with a regretful caress, eyes lingering on it. The knuckles were swollen and twisted.
Jarlaxle lay quiet under his grip, red eyes black in the darkness. Artemis grabbed Jarlaxle's shoulder and pulled him closer in an awkward one-armed hug.
Jarlaxle was stiff for a moment before melting into him. He chuckled and draped his good arm over Artemis' waist, whispering, "Your stubble itches."
Artemis rubbed his face deliberately along Jarlaxle's cheek, his five o'clock shadow rasping along smooth skin. "I know," he muttered, running a hand through Jarlaxle's spiky hair. "Yours does too."
The storm lessened, winds blowing it deeper inland. The pounding of the rain became a gentle drizzle. The roar of thunder and rushing water subsided. Moonlight penetrated the dense cloud cover, lightening the stormy night.
Entreri watched the darkness. Jarlaxle was beside him, head resting on Entreri's shoulder. His warm, even breath glided over Entreri's neck and brushed over the shallow nicks and scrapes. His ribs stopped bleeding hours ago. The canteens were full to the brim with sandy water. He thinks that maybe everything could be okay (he doesn't hope because he can't remember how). Jarlaxle's good hand curled around the last and deepest cut, holding it in his sleep. It stung.