When Entreri regained consciousness, he was lying on the cold stone floor. His body still twitched and ached from the latest round of torture the tiefling had inflicted on him. Had he ever suspected that Charon's Claw had been collecting intel on him, just waiting for its chance to subjugate him, Entreri would have ridded himself of the damn sword long ago.
He sat up slowly, his head pounding and his muscles wobbling. He wiped his nose, suspecting he'd find blood, and he did. He'd known many pains in his life, but this agony was by far the worst.
And the only reason it was happening to him was because Jarlaxle had betrayed him, leaving him in the clutches of the Netherese.
If not for the fact Dwahvel had never betrayed him, Entreri would have cursed himself as a fool to think that friendship was ever real. Instead he just cursed himself for thinking the drow's offer of friendship was real.
With a grunt, he forced himself to his feet and stumbled back to the room he was kept in. He fell onto the bed there, curling onto his side as his muscles spasmed several more times. He could have never imagined his blade was Netherese, never could have never imagined that the Shade would come for it. Never could have never imagined he'd end up enslaved - the one thing he'd fought hardest in his life to never be. All he'd ever wanted from life was freedom and independence. He'd never hoped for joy, love, or friendship. But now even his freedom was lost.
He really thought death was the better fate, and he'd attempted suicide several times. However , since his soul was tied to Charon's Claw, it simply brought him back.
He honestly thought he would die if the sword were destroyed, but that seemed to be his only out. He was willing to accept that, but he needed help to pull it off. The greatest irony of his life was that Drizzt Do'Urden was probably the only one who could help him. But would he?
It was hard to say. Drizzt would want to destroy the sword simply because it was evil, perhaps. Entreri didn't know what else to think about that. In fact, he wasn't sure of much right now. He felt lost.
Hells, he was so lost he didn't even own his own name any longer. The gods-damned tiefling had renamed him to suit his whims. Named him Barabbas the Grey, in fact – an utterly clunky moniker that didn't remotely fit him. He'd heard it had belonged to a patriotic revolutionary in the Shallowfell – one who had committed murder during an insurrection.
Entreri failed to see the connection between himself and that other Barabbas, that he should be named after the man.
A ghost-like figure walked through the wall and gradually materialized. He wore a broad-brimmed purple hat, a high-cut vest with low slung pants, and tall, black boots. Jarlaxle raised his head, revealing his face, and looked at Entreri with solemn sympathy. "Do you really think this could happen? Is this your worst fear? That you would be enslaved?" He crossed the room and sat down on the bed. "Do you not know how strong you are? Charon's Claw could never overcome you. Also, I have no reason to betray you. I admire you. I saved your life more than once, my friend. Why would I throw that away?"
"To save your life," Entreri said tonelessly. "We were both going to die. You saw the chance to save your life, so you sold me to them. And I was enslaved."
Jarlaxle pulled out his healing orb from his belt pocket and held it over Entreri, softly chanting. Soothing light emanated from the orb.
Entreri didn't resist. He'd always felt that if he saw Jarlaxle again, he would kill him or die trying. However, in this moment, he found he couldn't even muster the anger necessary to do so. "I made sure I was master of Charon's Claw," he murmured. "I saw you with Crenshinibon, and I knew. I knew I had to master the sword. I couldn't rely on the gauntlet. I couldn't take the chance. I would never keep a magical artifact that could enslave me like Crenshinibon did you." He stared at the wall sightlessly. "But it's sentient. It did something I didn't expect: it learned me."
"Artemis Entreri," Jarlaxle said softly, smiling. "You shut down an artifact such as Crenshinibon with ease, but you fell prey to Charon's Claw? Don't be ridiculous. Please, do not do yourself this disservice." Then he gestured to the room. "All around us is an illusion. Fannagrin's spell plants memories in your mind. Gives you pain that is not real. Pummels you with unpleasant emotions. But you will defeat it, will you not?" The drow pointed, and suddenly there was a closet door. A closed, wooden door with an aged brass knob. "You perceive everything. No magic can fool you."
Jarlaxle stood. "I could never fool you, either. What makes you think I am clever enough to win your trust if I did not earn it? You are a better judge of people than that."
Entreri stared up at the drow. He couldn't really argue Jarlaxle's words, and something else bothered him as well: he'd known all along that Charon's Claw was sentient and demonic. Why would he ever trust the sword? Would he not be suspicious of it? Get rid of it the moment he suspected anything was up? There were plenty of other powerful swords; it wasn't like he'd ever believe he had to have this one.
Plus Jarlaxle had called to mind an event from long ago: a dungeon they'd visited that had been full of illusions. Could this be another illusion? Had all the intervening decades never passed?
Was he, in fact, still free?
Entreri climbed off the bed, finding he was healed. For a moment more, he stared at Jarlaxle, then he marched straight for the door. If he was still free, if this was an illusion, he wanted out immediately.
He would never trade anything for his freedom. Ever.
Entreri grabbed the knob, turned it, and threw the door open. Suddenly he was standing in the dungeon, and Jarlaxle - the real Jarlaxle - was standing just a foot away in the hallway.
Entreri exhaled with undisguised relief. Gods, that was the worst thing I could ever have imagined.
Jarlaxle started forward at the sight of him and wrapped him in an embrace. "I believed in you. I knew you would make it. But I admit I was worried."
Once again, Entreri accepted the hug. He found he couldn't reject it. He felt as though the center of his chest had been blasted through by a magical arrow. "You were there again." That was all he could say about it in this moment.
"So were you," Jarlaxle whispered. He hugged Entreri tightly. "Both of you." He realized that didn't make sense without context, but he couldn't explain. What if I was never allowed to this again?
Jarlaxle paused, then continued. "I have a plan. A plan about you." He forced himself to take a deep breath; the images from the illusion were still too fresh in his mind. "Calimshan is your home. I want you to go back someday. I want to be with you. As your friend. I want you to live successfully there, without the dark shadows of the past lingering over everything. This end goal may be a long way away, but I want you to know I have every intention of helping you return to Calimshan." Then he realized an important part of his message to himself. "If you would ever like to return to Calimshan, that is."
Entreri found Jarlaxle's entire response to be mysterious, and he leaned back so he could see Jarlaxle's face. "Very well. I don't know yet where I want to go, but I will keep your offer in mind." Returning to Calimport right now would be impossible, after all.
Jarlaxle felt unsteady. He had been taxed more than he had realized. Gazing back at his friend made him feel such complicated things. Being drow, he knew he didn't necessarily understand how to handle his feelings. "Artemis, wherever you want to go, I'll help. I'd never attempt to lead you where you do not want to go." He looked away.
Entreri understood then that the illusion had been directly about him, just as his own illusion had heavily relied on Jarlaxle. However, there was clearly one major difference: while Entreri's vision had involved Jarlaxle's betrayal, Jarlaxle had apparently seen one that showed him betraying Entreri. In a sense, their illusions were both similar and opposite. "The illusionary Jarlaxle said that I was seeing my worst fear," he murmured, and certainly being enslaved via Charon's Claw to a sadistic tiefling qualified as one of his worst case scenarios. But why would Jarlaxle's worst fear to be betray him?
It couldn't be that, Entreri knew. Just like his worst fear wasn't Jarlaxle's betrayal. Rather, the betrayal itself had to led to one of their worst fears.
Jarlaxle was shocked at the straightforward comment. "Then clearly your subconscious mind discerned what was going on. The sleep before this obstacle paid off." The rest had probably paid off for him as well. He didn't know that he would have gotten through the obstacle otherwise. "The trouble is that Fannagrin apparently spent much time learning how to tap into someone's senses and get into their mind to make them believe what was happening. For the several minutes the scenario I was subjected to played out, it was very real. Very real indeed."
"I can unfortunately agree with that." Entreri did not care to ever have such an experience again.
"There were several aspects of the illusion that were disturbing," Jarlaxle said. Even as he thought back on it, his mind skittered away from the concept that he should ever be rendered utterly alone. "But part of it was the implication that, regardless of my intentions, I would destroy you."
Entreri cocked his head then, smirking. "Am I not replaceable?"
"There is only one Artemis Entreri," Jarlaxle said.
Entreri snorted. However, it was not lost on him that Jarlaxle's belief that he was cursed had played into the contents of the illusion.
Jarlaxle crossed the distance between them in one step and squeezed Entreri's shoulder. "No, it is true, khal abil. And I knew that I could remain with you from the moment you shared the reason for your disgust with Spirit Soaring. Above all else, beyond the business opportunities our alliance represents, we have something much more precious. We have a friendship."
Entreri was surprised to hear that his comment about priests had somehow had an impact; after all, he'd just been sharing his observations.
As for the declaration of friendship . . . it was something he very much wanted to believe. Granted, they seemed to be building a foundation, but time would tell if it held. In the meantime, Entreri knew quite well that he could never say no to an offer of friendship, especially when he found Jarlaxle so compelling. He reached out and squeezed Jarlaxle's shoulder in return.
A large smile broke out over Jarlaxle's face. "If there be any more illusions, we will face them together. Seeing projections of each other in the illusion proves we have control. If we have control, then we can stick together."
Entreri wasn't sure it was that simple, but he nodded anyway. Given the turn the illusions had taken, he would prefer to have the real Jarlaxle fighting alongside him.
"Hold onto my arm when I attempt to activate the illusion," Jarlaxle suggested. "Maintaining physical contact is likely one way to make sure we stay together."
Entreri nodded again. It seemed to be a reasonable plan. "Very well. Let's get this done."
Jarlaxle led the way to the door and opened it. His eyes widened. There, temptingly placed on an elaborate pedestal, was a glowing white stone. He steeled himself. If this is real, I will have it. He pulled out his pouch of dust, unwilling to cut corners at the end, took a pinch, and offered Entreri his free hand.
Entreri had meant to grasp Jarlaxle's arm, but he decided not to argue. He took Jarlaxle's hand, his gaze on the stone inside. He couldn't deny that he would likely seen an indirect benefit from this venture.
Jarlaxle blew the dust into the room. A white light blinded him. He clutched at the assassin's hand tightly. We will stay at each other's side.
When the flare faded, they were in a large study. Bookshelves and tables were spread willy-nilly, covered in scrolls and tomes. An enormous desk held papers, inks, and crystals. A large, arched window looked out on rolling green fields in the afternoon sun.
Jarlaxle glanced at Entreri and knew immediately that he was standing next to the real Artemis Entreri. He let go of the assassin's hand and drew his wand on the figure sitting at the desk.
In rich blue, velvet robes was a familiar figure, though his light brown hair was not streaked with grey. Incredibly, the wizard still wrote in his book, undeterred by their presence.
Entreri drew his sword, holding it in his left hand so his gauntlet would be free. No doubt he was going to have to fight Fannagrin again.
Just as Jarlaxle thought there had been some mistake, Fannagrin spoke. "So, you have made it past all my other illusions. Why?"
Jarlaxle tightened his grip on his wand and vowed to throw daggers at the slightest provocation. "Why does it matter to you, O Illusion?"
Fannagrin turned in his chair and smirked at them. "Very clever. Yes, like all the other visions, I am an illusion. If you suffered through all the rooms, you must want the Stone quite badly. Again, the question is: Why?" He stroked his beard.
"Why have you guarded the Cleansing Stone so vigilantly?" Entreri shot back.
Fannagrin raised an eyebrow and stood. "It was a mistake to dig up the Stone. My king's surveyors found an area of the land where the gods seemed blind. I traced that anomaly to the Cleansing Stone. I believe it to be part of another world or some shard of cursed material left over from an ancient battle. Typically such battles leave areas of wild magic. But this stone could have been created that way." His frown grew to a scowl. "I found the hard way that one's ties to one's deity are severed on contact. It is a poison. That stone can spell the doom of all life on Toril. You mean to spread such poison around?"
Jarlaxle decided that he had to try telling the truth. "I live under the curse of an evil goddess. A demon queen, actually. The Cleansing Stone is the only way to get out from underneath her shadow and live a normal life." He glanced at Entreri. "For all that I know, my partner is suffering due to a similar situation. There are many like myself, entrapped in webs they cannot cut."
Entreri doubted any goodly gods were watching out for him, considering the events of his childhood. He knew his mother had prayed to Selune, and she had taught him to as well. However, he had not done so since he was nine. If Selune had ever cared about him, he would not have suffered so greatly.
Jarlaxle eyed Fannagrin warily. He wondered if an illusion could truly be reasoned with.
The wizard was indeed silent for a long time.
Jarlaxle used Drow hand signals to say to Artemis, I think we broke it.
Entreri considered the situation for a moment. We don't have to take the Stone, he signed back. All you have to do is touch it. Fannagrin wasn't wrong on one count, after all: the Stone would be highly dangerous in the hands of the wrong person. Some people wanted their gods.
I never planned to. Jarlaxle looked back to Fannagrin. "If you are capable of deals, consider this: we only want to touch the Stone. We will not take it. Your safeguards are wise, and it is not for me to consider the price one should pay for such magic. Let others brave the illusions as well if they truly desire their freedom."
Suddenly, they were in the chamber of the Cleansing Stone. Jarlaxle took an instinctive step back. Then hope surged in his chest. He couldn't help going up to the glowing stone. As he approached, he felt the air change. He grew lighter somehow. Safer.
That change motivated him to touch the Cleansing Stone. His eyes flew wide at the surge of energy. Floodgates of white light opened, soaking him through. He stumbled back and looked at himself. Then he looked at Entreri.
"I seem no different, but I feel . . . " Jarlaxle shook his head. He swallowed. "For the first time . . . I know She isn't watching."
Entreri found a small smile quirking up the corners of his mouth. He'd never before witnessed someone actually gain their freedom, actually escape a piece of the hell life offered. "Then it was worth it," he said quietly.
Jarlaxle ran to him and hugged him, ecstatic.
Entreri stumbled back a step from the force of Jarlaxle's enthusiasm. He'd never imagined being hugged three times in one day, but he understood Jarlaxle was too giddy with his newfound freedom to contain himself. He snorted faintly. It felt weird, but it wasn't dangerous. Given enough time, he might actually adjust to it.
Jarlaxle thumped him on the back and let him go. "You should try it. If there is even a slight chance that this can help, you have to touch the Cleansing Stone."
Entreri stared at the Stone. Although he was well aware that his mother had prayed to Selune, he had no idea who his step-father and uncle had prayed to. Given the level of sickness they had both revealed, there was some chance they might have followed an evil deity. Not to mention that during his years in Calimport, someone could have prayed to any number of evil deities to curse him. "Very well." He walked up to the Stone and touched it.
A surge of energy and light poured into Entreri, and he gasped as he felt something being burned off. He released the Stone and turned to Jarlaxle, eyes wide. "There was something. I don't know what. But something."
Jarlaxle thought he might never see such an expression on Artemis Entreri's face. He crossed over to the assassin and squeezed his friend's shoulder. "I'm glad. I know that this cannot fix everything, but this is the beginning of something new. For both of us."
Entreri took a deep breath and nodded. "I think I actually believe you." Hope was not an emotion he was well acquainted with, but this seemed promising.
Jarlaxle patted his shoulder and let go, grinning. The drow mercenary turned his gaze to the door.
Fannagrin stood there, looking in at them. "Because you have told the truth, you may leave this place alive."
Jarlaxle tipped his hat to the illusion.
"Always an added benefit," Entreri said.
Jarlaxle laughed. "Although I would hate to have to traverse the illusions again."
"There is no way to trigger the illusions from this side," Fannagrin said. "The rooms only operate in one direction. I never foresaw that anyone would have reason to reach the inner chamber."
"Obviously," Jarlaxle said dryly.
On the way back, the rooms were nothing but empty stone chambers, exactly as they appeared. In minutes, they ascended to the ground level, where the castle walls crumbled and the sun shone over the hills.
Jarlaxle took a deep breath of fresh air. He gazed out across the sunlit world. "It's beautiful, isn't it?"
Entreri glanced at the horizon. "It's much the same as any other sunset." But even as he said the words, he wasn't sure that was true. He felt light-weight from whatever curse had been lifted from him. Somehow, the sunlight seemed warmer to him now, and although he found it to be an odd effect, he couldn't deny that he'd noticed it.
Jarlaxle grinned and teased him, "I will keep saying that whether you agree with me or not. If ever you change your mind, the admission will cost you nothing."
Entreri shot him a sideways glance, but a smile played about his lips.
Jarlaxle knew that he would have many, many years still to tell Artemis Entreri the world was beautiful. Their adventures had only just begun.
A/N: Thus launching an AU in which both Artemis and Jarlaxle can actually get what they want.
I'd like to add more stories to this and make it a series, but I have a lot of ideas and a limited amount of time, so we'll see.
Thank you to everyone who read and reviewed!