"Get your armor," he'd said, "we're going."
Zaknafein knew he should have asked for more information right then; where they were going, what they were going to do, just why did he need his armor, but he didn't. Life had grown stagnant for him; always caught between training young mercenaries, practicing new techniques, or the occasional diplomatic jaunt with his partner. Some adventure would be a good change of pace. Plus, it's not like Jarlaxle was going to throw them both into something they couldn't handle. The last thing their newly-formed band of vagabonds needed was a lack of leadership.
So the two set out into the vast caverns of the Underdark. When they were well out of the city, Jarlaxle pulled a scroll case from the small satchel he'd brought along. He removed the parchment and unfurled it, stopping so Zaknafein could examine it with him.
He pointed to an unassuming stretch on the map, relatively straight without too many alcoves a few hours walk from the Menzobarranzan. He explained that there was a new cave that had opened up somewhere along that wall, and he intended to explore it for something worthwhile. Although Zak was positive his friend had more information than he was letting on, he shrugged his shoulders and fell into step beside him. It was probably a contingent of svirfneblin, duergar, or at the very worst surface dwarves mining too deep. Regardless of the specifics, it seemed an easy mission. The walk to and from would probably take longer than whatever task Jarlaxle had planned.
A few hours into their trek, Zaknafein realized he was placing far too much trust in Jarlaxle. "Why are we going exploring?" he asked upon this realization, "Isn't that a job for the new guys?"
"Normally I would say yes, but this is a special mission." Jarlaxle replied, "Do you remember that new female that showed up a while back? The crazy one that every matron and her sister has it in for? Has been stealing things and killing priestesses openly?"
Zaknafein did not remember this mystery girl, but nodded his head as if he had. All the females were equally crazy and looked the same to him, it was hard to remember one in particular.
"Well, the runners that did return said that they'd seen her out here."
"So the tunnels might be a road to a neighboring city." Zaknafein folded his arms across his chest, "I don't see why we're- Wait. 'The runners that did return'? Does that mean that there were some that didn't?"
Far from amused: "Jarlaxle."
"We're here!" He gestured grandly to a large gaping hole in the stone wall. It was taller than both of them combined and twice as wide, it looked as though it was scratched out. The walls and floor of the new cave were unnaturally jagged, not formed by nature, magic, or mining but something different entirely. Jarlaxle removed his satchel and dropped it beside the opening.
Out of that satchel Jarlaxle removed the scroll case with the map, two metal and cloth face masks, a strip of thick fabric, and a small jar of some liquid. He left the scroll case beside the satchel, handed one of the masks to Zaknafein advising him to wear it, and donned his own mask before wrapping the strip of fabric about his shaved head. He drew his cowl about his face and nodded for his partner to do the same. At last he opened the jar. "Put this on whatever parts of your skin are still exposed," he said, before pulling out a cloth that had been soaking in the fluid and swiping it across his brow and neck. It was odorless and had the consistency of ink, Zak felt it cool his skin as he swept it across the few patches that were still exposed, as though he had just stepped out of a bath, and the feeling persisted well after any normal liquid would have dried. "It's to keep your skin hydrated."
"The salve raiding parties use when caverns have extreme heat. I thought it felt familiar. The masks are for vapor. You expecting this tunnel to open into a volcano or something?"
Zaknafein didn't like the sound of that, but before he could ask any more questions, his partner was bounding into the cavern, leaving scroll case and jar behind, but carrying the empty satchel. He had to sprint a short distance to catch up.
"Keep off the ground," Jarlaxle said over his shoulder as he lifted off into the air mid-stride, momentum carrying him forward. Zak lifted off shortly after, but not before depressing a pressure plate. Darts whizzed toward him, he had to twist and bounce of the wall to avoid them.
"Traps?" He took hold of Jarlaxle's cloak and pulled him to the ground. "You said this cavern was new. Why are there traps here?"
"We don't have time for explanations," he snarled back, which sounded strange muffled by the facemask. "I wasn't planning on you setting off anything. We have to hurry if we still want the element of surprise."
"Surprise against what?"
Jarlaxle grabbed hold of his arm, broke off into a run, pulling Zaknafein behind him, and lifted into the air again. "You'll see when we get there, but for now you'll just have to trust me. Push off the walls for momentum, but only if you have to we don't need to set off any more traps and get injured before we get there."
Zaknafein suddenly felt more nervous than he had in a long time. He tried to swallow the feeling, but it nagged him all the way down the corridor. What creature's maw where they running valiantly into and why was Jarlaxle fighting so hard to hide it? Where there mind flayers setting up a new outpost? Zak knew they had a city not too far from here, and he wasn't sure how well he'd be able to take on a creature that could read his every thought.
He trusted his friend.
He just had to keep telling himself that.
He trusted Jarlaxle.
After some time they reached the end of the corridor and gently floated down. Wary of traps the two drow crept their way into an enormous open cave. The ceiling and walls were beyond their vision as they picked their way in. Zaknafein's hand was trained on his sword; he kept his knees bent and his breathing steady. Prepared for absolutely anything.
Except for what they came upon.
At first, it was just a few scattered coins, a gemstone here or there. The deeper into the cave they traveled the more frequent the treasures became, until they were surrounded by coins, gems, jewelry, and even a few ornate weapons, garments, and tapestries, all gathered into piles. It was more treasure than either of them had ever seen in one place before. The men stood, breathless, for several moments, trying to take in all the splendor about them.
"Jarlaxle," Zak's voice was little more than a whisper, further muffled by his mask, but he knew the other would hear him, "How did you know all this was here? What is this place?"
The questions snapped Jarlaxle from his own daze, "Quick, survey the horde. Pick what you want. Gather what you can."
Without thinking, Zak's eyes settled on a sword a good distance away. Jutting from the side of a coin-pile, glittering delicately in the subtle luminescence that lit the cavern. He couldn't see the details from where he stood, but he knew if there was one thing he would take from this haul to keep, it would be this weapon.
Before he could make his way through the piles to his treasure, Zaknafein sensed movement. He was a seasoned fighter, despite his lack of formal training, and could tell that whatever it was that had moved in the periphery of his vision wasn't just big. It was huge. He nudged Jarlaxle to alert him to the danger. Judging by the stiffness of his arm, Jarlaxle had already seen it.
"Scatter," was all the warning Zaknafein received before Jarlaxle darted between two coin piles and a thunderous roar shook the ground. He was pitched forward, continued to fall, tucking into a roll and coming up to strife in the direction opposite the one Jarlaxle had taken. Only when he found a safe niche between treasure piles did Zaknafein risk surveying the area. At first he looked for signs of his partner, but the search was short lived.
The first to catch his attention were four glowing red eyes high above his head. Then, the two mouths of long, glistening teeth. Maroon scales, widespread wings that took up a large portion of the cavern. Long, stone-rending claws. Deadly bludgeoning tail.
"Who dares disturb our lair?"
"Some silly faeries no doubt. I told you we should not have dug so close to their city."
"There are only two, sister. Calm yourself."
The two voices, differing only slightly in pitch, rumbled and shook the cavern. Zak's ears rang after they'd finished speaking. He hid as best he knew how, making himself as small as possible behind the pile of coins. He tried to watch the monstrous creature with one eye and search for Jarlaxle with the other. Zaknafein vowed that if both of them managed to get out of this alive, he'd kill his partner and run the mercenary band himself.
The creature also surveyed the room, twin heads working in tandem. "Come out, little faeries." No doubt using the term to rile up the prideful nature of the drow; a tactic that would've worked better had they been female or worshippers of the Spider Queen. One of the heads stopped and reared back, "Found one!"
The "one" was not Zaknafein.
The other head whipped to get a better look at what her sister had found, "Oh, he's so young, too!" She sounded delighted, "Run, so we may chase you!" The entire time the second head was inhaling deeply through her nose.
Zak wasn't the most well versed in the way of dragons, what little he did know involved the phrases "avoid at all costs" and "consistently deadly." He was fairly certain that if that head breathed out and it hit Jarlaxle, his friend would most likely die. He would have to do something so her breath didn't hit straight on.
Without a whisper of sound he crept back, toward the tail. Not his most brilliant of plans, but something needed to be done. He drew his sword and kept his eyes trained on the two heads.
"Now," the unoccupied head asked Jarlaxle, who was still hidden from Zak's view, "You had a friend somewhere didn't you? Where did he dash off to? Hmm?" The head twisted to where he had been moments before, and followed his path of travel. Desperate, he threw up a globe of impenetrable darkness, hoping to shield himself from her infravision long enough to get her off his trail. The only drawback was he couldn't see her progression and when he broke free of the globe, she could be staring right at him. His risk, however, did pay off, and when he was within striking distance of her tail, her gaze was elsewhere. "Oh where, Oh where, has the little faerie-" Her jaw snapped shut when Zak struck his blade between two of the scales on her tail.
No amount of bracing could have made the impact less painful. She swung her tail back back to gain velocity and brought it whipping at the drow with more force than a fall straight into the hells. It only hit one side of him, as he ducked and turned when the tail pulled back, trying to protect as many vital areas as he could, but he was still flung across the room. He collided with a pile of coins showering everything in his wake with gold and sliver and slid across a smooth patch of stone floor. He heard the roar of the second head releasing it's breath and slipped into unconsciousness.
It took Zaknafein several heartbeats to realize he was still alive and, aside from a massive bruise forming on his entire right side, unhurt. He didn't feel any flares of pain that came with broken bones. He could feel both hands and feet. His head was throbbing and his heart pounded in his chest, but his breathing was steady and his vision cleared quickly. He wasn't sure how long he'd been unconscious, but from what he could tell, it hadn't been long. He felt something press against his back. He struggled to roll over, a hand grabbed his shoulder and assisted him.
Jarlaxle, now donning a rather ridiculous hat and several new pieces of jewelry, was looking down on him with concern. Are you still with me? he signed the words slowly.
Not having full control of his hands, or his wits, Zaknafein mouthed back, You look silly.
Jarlaxle made a face of intensified concern and perplexity. Zak?
He tried to sit up without making any noise; Jarlaxle helped him. I don't know how long it'll be before they really start hunting us. Zak raised an eyebrow. They're doing this little "we can't find you" act for sport. They don't see us as much of a threat so they're making a game of killing us.
That made sense.
Zak finally managed to bring his hands up to clumsily sign back, How's our cover?
Making it up as I go.
Again: made sense.
He tried to adjust his senses to what was happening. A two-headed dragon was playing a hunting game with them. Jarlaxle, talented, but not the most skilled of swordsmen, was wearing a single sabre that wasn't imbued with any magical properties; he had also taken a number of items from the horde including, but not limited to that outrageous hat, a necklace and several bracelets. Zak himself was down a weapon, and his only other had very limited properties. They were somewhere in the cave, too far from the door and too close to the dragon for a quick escape.
As if to stir up his planning the dragon slammed her tail down on a pile of small items sending rings and trinkets flying.
"Oh damn. Another empty one," said one with mock distain.
"Perhaps the next?" said the other.
The tail slammed down on a pile of treasure closer to the two men.
I need you to make a distraction. Zaknafein franticly signaled Jarlaxle.
What kind of distraction? he responded.
I don't know, but it has to be huge and potentially wounding. Zak struggled into a crouch.
I have an idea.
Good man. And the two silently bolted in opposite directions. Zaknafein caught sight of the sword he had wanted to claim earlier, and wove a path through the treasure towards it. Jarlaxle picked up several of the scattered little trinkets skidding them across the floor towards the dragon's feet, praying to whatever gods would listen that some were magical, he even removed a few of his stolen goods and cast them towards the dragon.
"You hope to appease me with my own treasures drow?" One head snorted.
"How silly of you. Did you not learn your lesson yet?" The other breathed deep, and cocked her head at Zaknafein.
The harshly acrid breath of the dragon hit him as Zaknafein tumbled forward, taking the sword in one hand and drawing his second blade with the other. The face mask only protected him slightly from the corrosive gas, preventing him from breathing it in. The salve that still moistened his skin protected it from drying out, however his leather boots and gloves were not so lucky, and exposed parts of his hands and feet to the gas as they were eaten away, little by little. His eyes stung as though he had held them open for far too long, and he had to fight to keep them open long enough to clear the effected area. Disoriented by the sudden burning effects, Zak slammed into the cavern wall, pain sparking up in the portions of his bruised side that made contact.
Jarlaxle was slightly more lucky. Before the head trained on him could suck in enough air to fire another blast of corrosion, he pulled out a wand and aimed it at the small collection of items at the dragon's feet. The wand, a gift from a matron as payment for his "services," shot a cone of powerful fire into the pile of items. He was sad to see the few charges the wand had go so quickly, and so many trinkets go to waste but if his plan worked, so be it. Didn't need to melt all of the treasure, just enough to make her angry the wand could be replaced.
Gold trinkets melted splattering molten metal on the creature. Fed up with this nonsense, she rushed him, ready to just devour the sad little creature and end the foolishness. Mouth wide open on one head, wings spread wide, the other head roaring, it closed the short distance. The other head keeping an eye trained on the companion.
Jarlaxle threw the wand into the space between him and the dragon, and stood his ground, confident. Zak, dumbfounded, slowly levitated toward the ceiling, not sure what exactly was happening.
The wand shattered beneath one of the creature's forelimbs and exploded in a dazzling array of colors causing the few other magical items nearby to also explode in a chain reaction of detrimental magic. The creature roared, more from anger than pain dislodging stones from the ceiling with the sheer volume of it, and blinded by the blaze. Jarlaxle scurried away in the interval, trying to find a safe hiding place. The limb that had crushed the wand was wounded, a few cracked scales, a broken claw and a decent amount of blood. He hoped it was the distraction his partner was hoping for.
When she regained her vision to both heads scoured, searching in the normal visible spectrum for the elves. Angered and no longer looking for a playful hunting sport she swept aside anything in her path, leveling almost all of her piles of treasure, beating her wings and roaring in order to disorient and expose her prey. One head scoured for movement the other roared and breathed corrosion and snapped madly. The two weaved to and fro like twin snakes dancing to the same charmer.
At their farthest apart, Zaknafein dropped down from his position among the stalactites, onto the searching head. Hooking his foot behind one of the ridges of bone on the crown of her head to guide his movements, he continued levitating so as not to be thrown off and killed. Within heartbeats the second head knew he was there and whipped around at him, open mouth reminding him of a dungeon cell for reasons he could not readily describe. With more speed than should have been possible Zaknafein plunged a blade into one of the dragon's eyes and sprang out of the way of the oncoming bite. There was a sickening crunch of bone and scale as one head's mouth closed around the brow of the other. He plunged his newly acquired second blade into the opposite eye of the head he'd landed on, before letting gravity pull him away from the danger of those snapping jaws.
The two heads, one blinded and hurt, the other nothing short of berserk warred with each other for a few moments. Zak wove his way through the flailing limbs, roaring mouths, dangerous claws, whipping tail and sharp, biting teeth to where he had seen Jarlaxle run to. When he arrived, his partner was missing.
"I have another idea," Jarlaxle said as he rushed up behind Zak.
He grabbed his partner's arm and lead him across the room, pulling a black disc of fabric from under his hat as they ran. "You know what this is?"
"A way out I hope."
Zak scowled at him not knowing what could be better than a way out at this point. Jarlaxle grinned madly at his partner. "We can win this."
"No," Zaknafein was ready to strangle him. "We're bad off enough as it is. Let us get out of here while we still have our lives and some treasure," as if to punctuate his point the glanced at the sabre still clenched in his fist and Jarlaxle's hat.
"Think of what it could do to the city-"
"Since when do you believe in that 'good of the city' nonsense you preach to the new soldiers to get them to stay? No. You want glory and treasure and I want my life. Stay if you wish but I-" He turned and found himself staring into the maw of the still sighted creature. Her tail thumped down trying to use the vibration to pitch him into her waiting bite. He absconded with Jarlaxle just as the maw snapped shut, "What's your plan?"
"Who said I had a plan?"
"WHAT?" He didn't know whether to be angry or sob and beg the gods for forgiveness; surely he must have done something to deserve these as his final moments.
They must have sprinted the entire length of the cavern before they found a small natural alcove to hide in. Disoriented and unsure where the exit was and with no way to get their bearings the two really had no choice but to stand and fight. Or stand and hide, as it were.
"Where are they?" The blinded head demanded.
The other head only sniffed and growled.
"Where are those obnoxious little faeries sister?" the first demanded a second time. And when it received no response she snapped at her sister. "Where ARE they"
"In the wall." was all the second one said before slamming her tail into the stone beside the alcove. "Come out little vermin! Come out!" Cracks began to form in the wall and stalactites fell from the ceiling.
Zaknafein could feel the vibrations in his bruised and battered side, adrenaline wasn't enough to stave off the dull ache that had settled there. Perhaps he was more badly injured than he'd previously assessed. He ground his teeth as wave after wave of dull, cramp-like pain shot across his torso and leg. "What now? We can't keep running in circles forever."
"Wait for it." Zak was about to ask 'wait for what?' but then he saw one of the falling stones hit the dragon, followed by several others.
"A cave in?" he attempted to ask when Jarlaxle grabbed hold of his arm and pulled him through a small ring of blackness into the safety of the solid stone wall. It was a small, uncomfortably cramped space, but it was safe from the thundering hail of stones and stalactites that rained down on the enraged dragon. One head roaring for the two men to show themselves, the other at her sister to cease her actions. The two argued and Zak knew he'd be deaf for a very long time, he could feel the warmth collecting in his ears and trickling down his neck. He hoped Jarlaxle retained his hearing long enough to know the outcome.
Then, all of a sudden, the vibrating stopped, the muffled roaring stopped. The alcove was still open and misty iridescence seeped in from the open cavern. Jarlaxle pushed Zak to go first, following close behind. When his feet touched down one the stone floor his bruised leg gave out and he collided with the stone wall. He felt a hand on his arm, knowing that his partner was asking if he was alright, Zak nodded and righted himself.
The dragon, blind head arched high, claws digging into the other head scratching deep, angry rents into the flesh of it's neck. It's jaw was moving but all Zak could hear was the ringing of his own deafness. Jarlaxle tugged on his sleeve and gestured with the black fabric.
I can't hear you. Zak signed at him.
Jarlaxle stopped talking, nodding that he understood. She's blind, he signed back at Zaknafein when he tucked the black disc back into his hat, distracted and the other one is dead, or close. We could take her now.
Zak flipped his new blade over in his hand. It was lighter than the previous one had been, balanced and perfect, shimmering with magic. Jarlaxle drew his own blade. Divide and conquer?
They split up, rejoining to score a few hits on the distracted creature. Still sightless, one forepaw injured, several scales broken and now burdened with the weight of a dead second head the fight was a bit more even. The two started on foot, then lifted to the ceiling, dive-bombing scores of hits to her exposed flesh. Zak pulled his leading blade free of the dragon's wounded eye on one trip and used both swords to cut a deep rent into one of her wings.
She roared, and chomped and clawed at where she thought the elves would be, but it proved futile. She sucked in a deep breath and spewed at much corrosion as she could muster at them in a final effort to save herself, before breathing her last.
The pair continued to strike the creature sometime afterward just in case. When they were sure she was finally dead the two dropped to the floor, stared at the carcass for a dozen heartbeats or so, and then looked to each other.
Two drow men, without houses, without status, young and virtually no one had taken on a dragon and survived. In a fit of adrenaline-addled joy, they embraced laughing uproariously in triumph. The horde was theirs for the taking. They raided the stash, Zak picking up and donning a new set of chainmail, it would need to be altered to fit him, but it was well made and magical. He also took another blade to match the one he'd already taken, getting to choose it out of a dozen others. Jarlaxle took a myriad of items, stuffing some into the satchel he carried, others into his pockets, Zak couldn't keep track of it all. He collapsed onto a pile of coins, breathing out a sigh of relief. No doubt Jarlaxle was talking about the haul; Zak was surprised the man could still hear when he couldn't. Probably had earplugs or something. He was glad to be deaf, so he didn't have to listen to the other man's rambling.
He felt himself slipping into unconsciousness again and it worried him. Pain had begun to bubble up more potently in his side, arm, and leg. He tried to breathe deeply and steady himself, but all he could do was gasp for air and slip into blackness.
Startled by his comrade's sudden distress, Jarlaxle dropped the gemstone he'd been examining and rushed to his side, shaking him gently. His breathing was shallow and wheezing. "Zak…"
"Your friend is dying." came a voice from over his shoulder. It was a priestess from the tenth house. She examined the dragon's carcass as she approached him.
Jarlaxle watched her closely, "How long have you been here?"
"Not long. We felt the vibrations all the way in the Clawrift. No one was willing to send armies so a small contingency came out and investigated. When I got here, she was already dead," she replied.
"So you're not very high ranking in your house?"
"Not yet," she pulled a bottle from a pocket on her belt and handed it to the mercenary. "Make him drink it," she instructed, "all of it if you can."
Jarlaxle complied, pouring as much of the red liquid into his dying friend as he could, not caring that it could be poison. Worst case scenario: he died quicker.
But Zaknafein didn't die, he sputtered a bit, coughed, and took several deep breaths. Before long he was sitting up and wiping the blood from his ears.
"Feeling better?" Jarlaxle asked more to test his partner's hearing than to see how he felt.
"Much," Zak's eyes were focused on the priestess, who had begun picking through some of the treasure, "Why did you help me?"
"Your power is great and your skill is unmatched," she replied, "it would be a shame if my future house could not utilize it." When Zaknafein raised an eyebrow in question she clarified: "Now that you owe me your life, I will have you pay off your debt by becoming an invaluable member of my house when I ascend as Matron."
"You would have me join your house as a soldier?" He responded gaze shifting from the priestess to Jarlaxle and back again.
"No. I would take you as my weapons master and personal consort." Zak had to fight openly cringing. "Of course, my ascension will take time, and you will be a 'free' man until then."
There was a short, tense silence as Zaknafein weighed his options. Eventually he asked, "What house will I soon be calling my own?"
She smiled, and it was something truly from the very depths of hell, "Do'Urden."
A/N: Okay. Had this idea for a while finally wrote it down, will probably draw some art to accompany it later. Spent all night writing it. Don't want to look at it anymore.
May do some adjusting to it later. But for now SCREW THAT. It's 6 AM.