Chapter 2

The rebel base turned out to be no more than a shack in the woods. Artemis and Jarlaxle approached cautiously, but the assassin saw no one.

"Do we go in?" Artemis asked.

Jarlaxle rubbed his chin. He gestured to Entreri in drow hand sign as he did so, masking the movements with his show of thought. We are surrounded. They are cloaked in invisibility. Aloud, the mercenary said, "It is barely possible that the man we seek lives inside."

"We have come all this way," Artemis agreed. "I would hate to come for nothing. We should at least check before reporting back to Messemprar."

"It should only take a second, either way," Jarlaxle said.

Artemis kicked in the door of the shack, Charon's Claw drawn, ready for any sight but the one he encountered.

A small, balding man sat on a chair in the middle of the empty shack, hands politely folded in his lap. He wore the attire of a successful merchant, dyed in somber gray. "I know who you are," the man said. "You are the mercenaries sent to kill me. And I am –"

"Arturius Margulo," Jarlaxle said.

The arms dealer glared. "Yes. I see you have come…well-prepared." He stood up and snapped his fingers.

Jarlaxle and Artemis suddenly found themselves surrounded by archers. They all trained those deadly steel-tipped arrows on the mercenaries. Margulo grinned, revealing a missing canine and several fillings. "I, too, am well prepared." He gestured to his archers. "As you can see. What say you?" The arm's dealer made a show of taking in Jarlaxle's bloodstained clothes. "Did you enjoy my wares?" He chuckled, a high, whining sound.

Artemis had an irresistible impulse to squash a gnat. "I shall enjoy holding you down and shoving one of your special arrows down your throat."

Margulo scoffed. "And how will you manage that?"

"We are more prepared than you think," Jarlaxle said. He showed off a turquoise ring against his cheek and smiled, revealing his white, perfectly set teeth.

"Get them!" Margulo yelled.

Jarlaxle twisted the ring a quarter turn to the right.

Time slowed down. Entreri saw arrows churn through the air as if through water, leaving strange, glowing ripples in the air.

Jarlaxle effortlessly batted the arrows out of the air in a spinning move, daggers in both hands, not slowed down in the least. He nodded at Artemis.

The assassin rushed forward, secretly amazed at this new toy of Jarlaxle's. He whipped through the archers surrounding them, slicing them up. They didn't even bleed.

Jarlaxle stood back, counting down with his hands. He snapped his fingers. At the same moment, time rushed back to the frozen figures. Blood gushed from the archers, spraying Jarlaxle, Artemis, and the arms dealer with fine spray. Broken arrows rained down as the archers collapsed in a state of blood and gore Artemis Entreri had hardly seen. He glanced at the mutilated bodies, bemused. As if a string had been yanked, their bodies fell apart all at once. His simple test of Jarlaxle's ring proved that any number of actions could be taken, until the effect ran out, and still the chain of actions would count as happening simultaneously.

"Now, I think you shall surrender," Jarlaxle said.

The arms dealer looked rather green. "I surrender," he said faintly.

"Good," Jarlaxle said. "Now we shall interrogate you."

"About what?" Margulo protested.

"First of all, about how you came to the conclusion you had the right to supply an army's worth of weaponry when you can't stand a little blood," Jarlaxle said cheerfully.

"My job has nothing to do with – with this." Margulo gestured at the mutilated archers. "This is all your doing! You and the rest of the sadistic bastards of the world. Freaks. Vigilantes." He shook his head.

Artemis was perfectly incredulous. "Me? Sadistic bastard?" He took a step forward, suddenly motivated to behead the odious man. "What do you call yourself?"

"A responsible citizen, helping law-abiders upholding the law," Margulo said. "This land is Gilgeam's, you know."

"Gilgeam is dead," Jarlaxle said. "But, surely you knew that."

"The rebels have no right –"

"You are the rebels!" Artemis grabbed the front of his tunic. "Mulhorand won, death-dealer."

"You are the death dealer," Margulo said. "I am only a peddler. You are an assassin." He pulled free and smoothed down his tunic. "You kill people."

"And what do you do?" Artemis demanded.

The arms dealer looked taken aback. "My weapons don't kill people. People kill people."

"It's irresponsible!" Entreri exclaimed. He didn't know what prompted him to say that. "You supply them, knowing they'll hack each other's heads off! Knowing they'll drive steel shafts through children, bomb each other's houses…" He trailed off. He'd never felt so impassioned by the thought…or as confused by the fact that he was achieving an emotional height he usually couldn't touch.

Shaken, he turned to Jarlaxle, silently hoping the mercenary would sense his dissolving clarity and take over.

Jarlaxle stepped in, both calm and firm. "The fact of the matter is, you are a traitor. We have been hired by the government of Mulhorand, and we will uphold justice."

Had Artemis Entreri been in full control of his wits, he would have choked on such a statement on his behalf. As it was, he rolled his eyes at the melodrama and let Jarlaxle continue to handle the situation.

Jarlaxle tapped his lower lip. "What treasures have the fallen masters of Gilgeam's faith offered you in return, I wonder? Mere wealth…or something more?"

The arms dealer glared at Jarlaxle.

Jarlaxle made a show of shrugging and sighing. "Ah, well." In a split second, he slit the arms dealer's throat, flashing up behind the man with dagger in hand. The dealer fell to the floor with a familiar thump, the sound of a skull hitting the ground far too hard.

Jarlaxle stepped over the body and rejoined Artemis. "You impressed me with your speech."

Artemis turned away. "Don't start."

"Stay with me, and at this rate, you too will be a master of the heroic soliloquy."

"That is not one of my goals."

Jarlaxle draped his arm around Artemis' shoulders. "What, then? What is your goal, upon traveling this path?"

Artemis snorted. "I don't know. I should probably quit right here, before I get too much deeper in with you." He glanced at Jarlaxle and smirked. "But you know I won't."

Jarlaxle made an assenting noise. "Your judgment has ever been lacking." He smiled back. "That is why you need me."

Artemis raised an eyebrow. "Is that what you think?"

"You do," Jarlaxle said. "Even if you don't think that you do."

"I am not the one with the questionable thought processes," Artemis said.

"Females are an acquired taste," Jarlaxle said. "That does not make me insane."

"I am not speaking of your sexual exploits," Artemis said. "Get your head out of the gutter."

"Then what are you speaking of?" Jarlaxle asked. "I had all this Margulo business wrapped up. We were never in danger for a moment – thanks to my superior planning, my wisdom, my handsomeness –"

"Never for a moment?" Artemis asked.

Jarlaxle paused. Then he said, quite deliberately light, "Perhaps for a moment, a mere fraction of a second –"

"When the arrow passed through your body?" Artemis asked.

Jarlaxle frowned. "It is not as though I could not handle a minor –"

"You couldn't get up," Artemis said.

"I chose not to get up," Jarlaxle said.

Artemis crossed his arms. "You were completely helpless, on the ground."

Jarlaxle scowled. "I defy you to prove such an accusation."

"You lost three pints of blood," Artemis said.

Jarlaxle scoffed. "Surely not that much."

"You are wearing it."

Jarlaxle looked down at himself.

"In another five minutes you would have bled out," Artemis said. He held up two fingers in front of Jarlaxle's face. "Two minutes, and you would have been unconscious. You didn't speak, and if I didn't look for you…You. Would. Be. Dead."

Jarlaxle wore an incredulous expression, as if he'd never been scolded before in his life. "What is the meaning of this, abbil? Are you trying to say that my incompetence –"

"Shut up!" Artemis snapped. He made a clamping motion. "Shut your mouth, close your lips, and listen to me. I am not accusing you of incompetence."

Jarlaxle's visible eye burned resentfully. "What are you accusing me of, then?"

Artemis raised an eyebrow. "Frankly? In a word? Not caring."

"That is two words," Jarlaxle said.

Artemis stared at him.

Jarlaxle sputtered. "And – and anyway, Artemis! Not caring? Where did you get an idea like that?"

"What good are you to me dead?" Artemis yelled. "What good are you then?"

Jarlaxle looked...confused. He took off his hat and ran a hand over his bald head.

"Do you think I rescued you from Crenshinibon for fun?" Artemis yelled. "Is that what you think?" He flung his hand up. "Fun? It was not fun, Jarlaxle! It was necessary!"

"If you think that I am that incompetent –"

"Forget about the supposed incompetence! It's not about that!"

"Then what is it about?" Jarlaxle asked.

"This is about friendship!" Artemis exclaimed.

Jarlaxle went very still. After a moment of silence, he asked, "Friendship?" His voice was timid.

Artemis snorted in exasperation, shook his head, and exhaled. "Yes, Jarlaxle, friendship. Friendship? That mythical thing you have preached to me about a thousand times? I decided to take that seriously. Then you almost try to kill yourself by not asking for help."

"I…I thought…You were busy." Jarlaxle wrung the brim of his hat in his hands.

"Not that busy," Artemis said. "What did you expect me to do? Leave you there to die?"

"Anyone else I know would have." Jarlaxle glared at him.

Artemis looked at Jarlaxle incredulously. "You can't tell me you wanted me to leave you like that."

"I didn't," Jarlaxle said. He looked away. "Of course I didn't."

Artemis closed the distance between them and touched Jarlaxle's arm. "Then what is the problem?"

"You told me to handle it." Jarlaxle stared off into the woods. "You told me to take care of it. I said I would…and – and the archer got away. He managed to flee before I…" He sighed. "Well, I…I just assumed…you wouldn't want anything to do with me, after…Well, healing me would hardly be important."

Artemis put his hands on Jarlaxle's shoulders and forced the mercenary to face him. "Victory or failure, you are still my friend."

Jarlaxle met Artemis' eyes. His expression was carefully blank. "Thank you, Artemis. Thank you."

"Next time, just ask for help," Artemis said.

Jarlaxle turned away. "It is not always that easy."

Artemis grabbed Jarlaxle's arm and forced the mercenary to turn around. "Well, make it easy."

Jarlaxle looked at him warily. "How?"

"I promise you that when you need my help, you have but to ask and I am there," Artemis said. "If you ever start to feel any doubts, remember what I say now and try it." He gave Jarlaxle a shake. He looked deeply into Jarlaxle's uncovered eye. "Promise me that you will remember and just say my name whenever you need me. Don't think. Don't ask, 'Is this the right time?' Don't analyze whether or not I should come. Just tell me to."

"But –" Jarlaxle stammered.

"Promise!" Artemis yelled, tightening his grip.

Jarlaxle jumped. "Alright…alright, I…" He licked his suddenly dry lips. "Alright, khal abbil, I promise. If I am in trouble, I will not try to handle it alone. I will call you."

"Good." Artemis finally released him, turning his arm loose. He strode towards the door. "You do that and we won't have any problems."

Jarlaxle followed, seeming subdued. Artemis thought Jarlaxle might stay that way the whole journey back to Messemprar. He was surprised when Jarlaxle spoke up again a few moments later. "You know, khal abbil…"

Artemis looked at Jarlaxle over his shoulder. "Yes? What is it?"

Jarlaxle gave him a little smile. "I think you will make a fine paladin after all."

"And I think your intestines will make a fine accordion, after all," Artemis retorted.

Jarlaxle looked at him reproachfully. "Intestines? Accordion? That does not make any sense, Artemis. Really."

"Neither does Artemis Entreri becoming a paladin," Artemis said.

"It makes more sense than your musical theory," Jarlaxle said.

"I don't write the music, I just make it," Artemis said. He cracked his knuckles and smiled. "Now that, is music."

Jarlaxle shook his head. "That is a deplorable habit –"

"One that you will rid me of in a simple twelve week program designed to rip the very soul from my body?" Artemis asked.

"I am not a soul-ripper," Jarlaxle said. "Nor will I ever be."

Artemis smirked. Everything was back to normal.