Author's Note: A short story to take place directly after the Epilogue of Servant of the Shard. This is an idea I had a while ago, and just now finished out into what I hope is a semi-readable short story.
The Psychology of Looting
There, across the cave, beyond the drop into the untold depths of utter darkness, was the artifact. A tiny bridge of stone crossed the chasm.
Jarlaxle let out a low whistle. For a moment, he seemed content merely to gaze upon the object of their journey. Artemis had to concede the moment. A sword with a fist-sized ruby set into the hilt was a sight to behold. Especially the way it glowed and sparkled, surrounded by a magical force field that lit the dim cave single-handedly. Jarlaxle's treasure-lust was justified. Especially if the drow's reports about the sword's capabilities were to be believed.
"The God-Killer," Artemis murmured.
"Indeed." Jarlaxle pointed. "And this bridge, the only way of crossing the pit."
"And no other way of obtaining the artifact," Artemis said. "Yes. So you've told me."
"It might be dangerous," Jarlaxle said.
Artemis raised an eyebrow. "And the monster infested caves weren't?"
Jarlaxle chuckled. "You have a point, my friend." He shrugged. "Shall we?"
Jarlaxle led the way. Artemis followed close on the drow's heels. The spindly bridge was only a hair over one foot wide. They crossed the bridge with impeccable balance and arrived in front of the sword, which looked more magnificent than ever.
Artemis noticed Jarlaxle was sweating.
"Now for the hard part," Jarlaxle admitted. He dabbed his head with a handkerchief. "Supposedly, the one to touch the God-Killer must be worthy."
"You never told me that."
Jarlaxle gave him a grin. "Why would I be unworthy? Still…" He contemplated.
"I have no idea," Artemis said. "It depends on Crahn the Twisted's sense of worthiness."
Jarlaxle's grin broadened. "Ah. Then I should have no problem. Drow, after all, are the very essence of twisted."
Artemis gestured. "Then by all means. Touch it."
Jarlaxle slipped his hand through the magical force field without any difficulty, going elbow-deep. He touched the sword.
A booming, disembodied voice filled the cavern. "Who dares to touch what is forbidden?"
"A triggered response," Artemis said dryly. "How clever."
Then an earthquake shook the ground under Artemis' feet. He nearly pitched backwards into the pit before regaining his balance.
Jarlaxle looked around. "Artemis…we must get out of this cavern, now."
"Then grab the sword and let's run!" Artemis snapped.
"It's stuck," Jarlaxle said.
"It's not –" Artemis yanked at the sword. He stared. "It's stuck."
Another tremor shook the cavern.
Jarlaxle grabbed his arm and ran back onto the bridge. As soon as the drow set foot on the bridge, it shattered. Jarlaxle's grip on Artemis' arm tightened. He ran and leapt from piece to piece of the falling bridge, yanking Artemis close behind.
Jarlaxle kicked his levitation on in one last desperation-fueled leap.
Artemis knew they weren't going to make it.
They made it.
The moment they touched down on the other side of the cavern, the shuddering stopped. Jarlaxle let go of his arm. He immediately fell to his knees.
There was dead silence in the cavern.
After a moment, during which he convinced himself he was alive, Artemis Entreri rose to his feet. "Plans?"
To Artemis' consternation, Jarlaxle adjusted his eye patch and looked into the chasm with a smile. The drow mercenary glanced at him, taking in his expression. "There will be other opportunities."
Jarlaxle's coolheaded statement did nothing to provide release for Artemis' frustration. "Other opportunities? How can you back down without a wince after being so close to your desire?"
Jarlaxle chuckled. "I have what I desire most – for is not one's life what one desires most?" He patted himself reassuringly. "And I have that."
"Your goal, then!" Artemis snapped.
Jarlaxle regarded him slyly, and Artemis was reminded of why he didn't trust the drow. Anyone that could look at him with such a secret source of amusement was not to be trusted. "I have that, as well."
The mercenary turned and walked the breadth of the precipice, headed for the entrance to the caves through which they'd come.
A moment of shock delayed the assassin from doing the same, and he had to run to catch up to the slippery drow. "What do you mean?" he demanded. "Our goal was to get the artifact on the other side of that –" He stopped, feeling like a fool in the face of Jarlaxle's laughter. He didn't have to explain Jarlaxle's goal to Jarlaxle. "What?"
"That was your goal," Jarlaxle said, glancing at the assassin over his shoulder. His uncovered crimson eye danced.
"Nonsense! That was your goal, you brought us here, you had us go all the way through these caves – in the dark – fight all these monsters –"
"Had a good time, did you?" Jarlaxle asked, grinning.
Artemis recoiled. "No!" But he stopped and reconsidered at the amusement on Jarlaxle's face. Had he hated the venture as much as he believed? He went back over the fights, the struggles through the winding caves in pitch blackness, the exhilaration as he –
"Perhaps I did," he admitted, bowing his head.
Jarlaxle clapped him on the shoulder. "Good."
Artemis' head jerked up. "But you wanted that artifact –"
Jarlaxle was shaking his head. "It wasn't worth it to me."
Artemis' jaw dropped.
"Don't misunderstand me," Jarlaxle said. "To secure it would have been a bonus." He grinned. "But I didn't come all the way here for that."
Artemis finally found his voice. "For what, then?"
Jarlaxle's face lit up, as if the assassin had finally asked the right question. "For you."
Artemis almost felt as though he would faint. The ground dipped like sand under his feet. "For me?"
"Yes," Jarlaxle said. "You wanted the artifact, didn't you?"
Artemis thought he might be going insane. "Yes, but…You told me about it. I didn't…"
"I selected the artifact for you," Jarlaxle said. "You wanted a challenge." He raised both hands, indicating their surroundings, and let out a laugh. "I gave you one."
"You wanted the artifact because it would signify your struggles and how you overcame them," Jarlaxle said. "It would be a tangible symbol of your achievement."
Artemis nodded slowly. That made sense. He would have desired it greatly for that purpose. Like a trophy. Then he paused. It was frightening how well Jarlaxle understood him. How easily he'd been played. "You're right," he said. His expression hardened. "But next time, you are not to lie to me."
"Someday that will not be necessary," Jarlaxle agreed.
Artemis narrowed his eyes. "That day is today."
Jarlaxle shrugged, and resumed leading the way through the tunnel, weaving further and further into darkness. "We shall see."
"What shall we see?" Artemis demanded, close behind him. The assassin would never admit how much he needed the security of Jarlaxle's presence even to enter a cave again.
"How much you've learned," Jarlaxle said, and he burst out laughing.
Artemis entertained visions of strangling him. "You are lucky I need you alive."
"I know," Jarlaxle said. "Do not think I will ever lose sight of that fact."
Artemis had the uncomfortable feeling that Jarlaxle was trying to tell him something.