Entreri came leaping down the mountainside, springing from stone to stone, never keeping his path straight. He was hardly aware of his movements, yet every step was perfect and in complete balance, for the assassin had fallen into a state of pure battle clarity. His movements came with fluid ease, his body reacting just below his level of consciousness perfectly in tune with what he instinctively determined he needed to do. Entreri moved at a full sprint as easily on the broken, jagged trail down the steep slope of the northern Galena foothills, a place where even careful hikers might turn an ankle or trip into a crevice, as if he was running across a grassy meadow.
He skipped down along a muddy trail as another spear flew over his head. He started around a boulder in his path, but went quickly up its side instead, then sprang off to the left of the boulder to the top of another large stone. A quick glance back showed him that the goblins were closing on his flank, moving down easier ground in an attempt to cut him off before he reached the main trail.
A thin smile showed on Entreri's face as he leaped from that second boulder back to the ground, rushing along and continuing to veer to the west, his left.
The crackle of a thunderbolt back the other way startled him for a moment, until he realized that Jarlaxle had engaged the monsters with a leading shot of magic.
Entreri brushed the thought away. Jarlaxle was far from him, leaving him on his own against his most immediate enemies.
On his own. Exactly the way Artemis Entreri liked it.
He came to a straight trail running north down the mountainside and picked up his pace into a full run, with goblins coming in from the side and hot on his heels. As he neared the bottom of the trail, he spun and swiped his magical sword in an arc behind him, releasing an opaque veil of dark ash from its enchanted, blood-red blade. As he came around to complete the spin, Entreri fell forward into a somersault, then turned his feet as he rolled back up, throwing his momentum to the side and cutting a sharp turn behind one boulder. He hooked his fingers as he skidded past and caught himself, then threw himself flat against the stone and held his breath.
A slight gasp told the assassin the exact position of his enemies. He drew his jeweled dagger, and as the first goblin flashed past, he struck, quick and hard, a jab that put the vicious blade through the monster's ribs.
The goblin yelped and staggered, lurching and stumbling, and Entreri let it go without further thought. He came out around the rock in a rush and dived to his knees right before the swirl of ash.
Goblin shins connected on his side, and the monster went tumbling. A third came close behind, tangling with the previous as they crashed down hard.
Entreri scrambled forward and rolled over, coming to his feet with his back to the remaining ash. Without even looking, he flipped his powerful sword in his hand and jabbed it out behind him, taking the fourth goblin in line right in the chest.
The assassin turned and retracted his long blade, snapping it across to pick off a thrusting spear as the remaining goblin pair composed themselves for a coordinated attack.
"Getsun innk's arr!" one goblin instructed the other, which Entreri understood as "Circle to his left!"
Entreri, dagger in his right hand, sword in his left, went down in a crouch, weapons out wide to defend against both.
"Beenurk!" the goblin cried. "Go more!"
The other goblin did as ordered and Entreri started to turn with it, trying to appear afraid. He wanted the bigger goblin to focus on his expression, and so it apparently did, for Entreri sneakily flipped the dagger over in his grip then snapped his hand up and out. He was still watching the circling goblin when he let fly at the other one, but he knew that he had hit the mark when the bigger goblin's next command came out as nothing more than a blood-filled gurgle.
The assassin slashed his sword across, creating another ash field, then leaped back as if meaning to retrieve his dagger. He stopped in mid-stride, though, and reversed momentum to charge back at the pursuing goblin. He rolled right over the goblin's thrusting sword, going out to the humanoid's right, a complete somersault that landed Entreri firmly back on his feet in a low crouch. As he went, he flipped Charon's Claw from his left hand to his right. He angled the blade perfectly so that when he stood, the blade came up right under the goblin's ribs.
His momentum driving him forward, Entreri lifted the goblin right from the ground at the tip of his fine sword, the creature thrashing as it slid down the blade.
Entreri snapped a retraction, then spun fast, bringing the blade across evenly at shoulder level, and when he came around, the fine sword crossed through the squealing goblin's neck so cleanly that its head remained attached only until the creature fell over sideways and hit the ground with a jolt.
The assassin leaped away, grabbing at the dagger hilt protruding from the throat of the kneeling, trembling goblin. He gave a sudden twist and turn as he yanked the weapon free, ensuring that he had taken the creature's throat out completely. By then, the two he had tripped were back up and coming in - though tentatively.
Entreri watched their eyes and noted that they were glancing more often to the side than at him. They wanted to run, he knew, or they were hoping for reinforcements.
And the latter was not a fleeting hope, for Entreri could hear goblins all across the mountainside. Jarlaxle's impetuousness had dropped them right into the middle of a tribe of the creatures. They had only seen three at the campfire, milling around a boiling kettle of wretched smelling stew. But behind that campfire was a concealed cave opening.
Jarlaxle hadn't heard Entreri's warning, or he hadn't cared, and their sudden assault had brought forth a stream of howling monsters.
He was outnumbered two to one, but Entreri had the higher ground, and he used it to facilitate a sudden, overpowering attack. He came forward stabbing with his sword then throwing it out across to the left, and back to the right. He heard the ring of metal on metal as the goblin off to his right parried the backhand with its own sword, but that hardly interrupted Entreri's flow.
He strode forward, sending Charon's Claw in a motion down behind him, then up over his shoulder. He came forward in a long-reaching downward swipe, one designed to cleave his enemy should the goblin leap back.
To its credit, it came forward again.
But that was exactly what Entreri had anticipated.
The goblin's sword stabbed out - and a jeweled dagger went against the weapon's side and turned it out, altering the angle just enough to cause a miss. His hand working in a sudden blur, Entreri sent his dagger up and over the blade, then down and around, twisting as he went to turn the sword out even more. He slashed Charon's Claw across to his right as he did, forcing the other goblin to stay back, and continued his forward rush, again rolling his dagger, turning the sword even farther. And yet again, he rolled his blade, walking it right up the goblin's sword. He finally disengaged with a flourish, pulling his dagger in close, then striking out three times in rapid succession, drawing a grunt with each successive hit.
Bright blood widening around the three punctures, the goblin staggered back.
Confident that it was defeated, Entreri had already turned by that point, his sword working furiously to fend the suddenly ferocious attacks by the other goblin. He parried a low thrust, a second heading for his chest, and picked off a third coming in at the same angle.
The goblin screamed and pressed a fourth thrust.
Entreri flung his dagger.
The goblin moaned once then went silent. Its sword tip drifted toward the ground as its gaze, too, went down to consider the dagger hilt protruding from its chest.
It looked back at Entreri. Its sword fell to the ground.
"My guess is that it hurts," said the assassin.
The goblin fell over dead.
Entreri kicked the dead creature over onto its back then tugged his dagger free. He glanced up the mountainside to the continuing tumult, though he saw no new enemies there. Back down the mountain, he noted that the first goblin that had passed him, the one he had stung in the side, had moved off.
A flash of fire to the side caught his attention. He could only imagine what carnage Jarlaxle was executing.
Jarlaxle ran to the center of a clearing, goblins closing in all around him, spears flying at him from every direction.
His magical wards handled the missiles easily enough, and he was quite confident that the crude monsters possessed none of sufficient magical enhancement to get through the barriers and actually strike him. A dozen spears came out at him and were harmlessly deflected aside, but closely following, coming out from behind every rock surrounding the clearing, it seemed, came a goblin, weapon in hand, howling and charging.
Apparently, the reputation of the dark elves was lost on that particular group of savages.
As he had counted on their magical deficiencies to render their spears harmless, so did Jarlaxle count on the goblins' intellectual limitations. They swarmed in at him, and with a shrug Jarlaxle revealed a wand, pointed it at his own feet, and spoke a command word.
The ensuing fireball engulfed the drow, the goblins, and the whole of the clearing and the rocks surrounding it. Screams of terror accompanied the orange flames.
Except there were no flames.
Completely ignoring his own illusion, Jarlaxle watched with more than a little amusement as the goblins flailed and threw themselves to the ground. The creatures thrashed and slapped at flames, and soon their screams of terror became wails of agony. The dark elf noted some of the dozen enemies lying very still, for so consumed had they been by the illusion of the fireball that the magic had created through their own minds the same result actual flames from such a blast might have wrought.
Jarlaxle had killed nearly half the goblins with a single simple illusion.
Well, the drow mused, not a simple illusion. He had spent hours and hours, burning out this wand through a hundred recharges, to perfect the swirl of flames.
He didn't pat himself on the back for too long, though, for he still had half a dozen creatures to deal with. They were all distracted, however, and so the drow began to pump his arm, calling forth the magic of the bracer he wore on his right wrist to summon perfectly weighted daggers into his hand. They went out in a deadly stream as the drow turned a slow circle.
He had just completed the turn, putting daggers into all six of the thrashing goblins - and into three of the others, just to make sure - when he heard the howling approach of more creatures.
Jarlaxle needed no magical items. He reached inside himself, into the essence of his heritage, and called forth a globe of absolute darkness. Then he used his keen hearing to direct him out of the clearing off to the side, where he slipped from stone to stone away from the goblin approach.
"Will you just stop running?" Entreri asked under his breath as he continued his dogged pursuit of the last wounded goblin.
The blood trail was easy enough to follow and every so often he spotted the creature zigzagging along the broken trail below him. He had badly stung the creature, he believed, but the goblin showed no sign of slowing. Entreri knew that he should just let the creature bleed out, but frustration drove him on.
He came upon one sharp bend in the trail but didn't turn. He sprang atop the rock wall lining the ravine trail and sprinted over it, leaping across another crevice and barreling on straight down the mountainside. He saw the winding trail below him, caught a flash of the running goblin, and veered appropriately, his legs moving on pure instinct to keep him charging forward and in balance along stones and over dark holes that threatened to swallow him up. He tripped more than once, skinning a knee and twisting an ankle, but never was it a catastrophic fall. Hardly slowing with each slight stumble, Entreri growled through the pain and focused on his prey.
He crossed the snaking path and resisted the good sense to turn and follow its course, again cutting across it to the open, rocky mountainside. He crossed the path again, and a few moments later came up on the fourth bend.
Certain he was ahead of his foe, he paused and caught his breath, adjusted his clothing, and wiped the blood from his kneecap.
The terrified, wounded goblin rounded a bend, coming into view. So intent on the trail behind it, the wretch never even saw Entreri as it ran along.
"You could have made this so much easier," Entreri said, drawing his weapons and calmly approaching.
The assassin's voice hit the goblin's sensibilities as solidly as a stone wall would have smacked its running form. The creature squealed and skidded to an abrupt stop, whined pitifully, and fell to its knees.
"Pleases, mister. Pleases," it begged, using the common tongue.
"Oh, shut up," the killer replied.
"Surely you'll not kill a creature that so eloquently begs for its life," came a third voice, one that only surprised Entreri momentarily - until he recognized the speaker.
He had no idea how Jarlaxle might have gotten down that quickly, but he knew better than to be surprised at anything Jarlaxle did. Entreri sheathed his sword and grabbed the goblin by a patch of its scraggly hair, yanking its head back violently. He let his jeweled dagger slide teasingly across the creature's throat, then moved it to the side of the goblin's head.
"Shall I just take its ears, then?" he asked Jarlaxle, his tone showing that he meant to do no such thing and to show no such mercy.
"Always you think in terms of the immediate," the drow replied, and he moved up to the pair. "In those terms, by the way, we should be fast about our business, for a hundred of this one's companions are even now swarming down the mountainside."
Entreri moved as if to strike the killing blow, but Jarlaxle called out and stopped him.
"Look to the long term," the drow bade him.
Entreri cast a cynical look Jarlaxle's way.
"We are competing with a hundred trackers for every ear," the drow explained. "How much better will our progress become with a scout to guide us?"
"A scout?" Entreri looked down at the sniveling, trembling goblin.
"Why of course," said Jarlaxle, and he walked over and calmly moved Entreri's dagger away from the goblin's head. Then he took hold of Entreri's other hand and gently urged it from its grip on the goblin's hair. He pushed Entreri back a step then bent low before the creature.
"What do you say to that?" he asked.
The dumbfounded goblin stared at him.
"What is your name?"
"Gools? A fine name. What do you say, Gools? Would you care to enter into a partnership with my friend and me?"
The goblin's expression did not change.
"Your job will be quite simple, I assure you," said the drow. "Show us the way to monsters - you know, your friends and such - then get out of our way. We will meet you each day - " he paused and looked around - "right here. It seems a fine spot for our discussions."
The goblin seemed to be catching on, finally. Jarlaxle tossed him a shiny piece of gold.
"And many more for Gools where that came from. Interested?"
The goblin stared wide-eyed at the coin for a long while then looked up to Jarlaxle and slowly nodded.
"Very well then," said the drow.
He came forward, reaching into a belt pouch, and brought forth his hand, which was covered in a fine light blue chalky substance. The dark elf reached for the goblin's forehead.
Gools lurched back at that, but Jarlaxle issued a stern warning, bringing forth a sword in his other hand and putting on an expression that promised a painful death.
The drow reached for the goblin's forehead again and began drawing there with the chalk, all the while uttering some arcane incantation - a babbling that any third-year magic student would have known to be incoherent blather.
Entreri, who understood the drow language, was also quite certain that it was gibberish.
When he finished, Jarlaxle cupped poor Gools's chin and forced the creature to look him right in the eye. He spoke in the goblin tongue, so there could be no misunderstanding.
"I have cast a curse upon you," he said. "If you know anything of my people, the drow, then you understand well that this curse will he the most vicious of all. It is quite simple, Gools. If you stay loyal to me, to us, then nothing will happen to you. But if you betray us, either by running away or by leading us to an ambush, the magic of the curse will take effect. Your brains will turn to water and run out your ear, and it will happen slowly, so slowly! You will feel every burn, every sting, every twist. You will know agony that no sword blade could ever approach. You will whine and cry and plea for mercy, but nothing will help you. And even in death will this curse torment you, for its magic will send your spirit to the altar of the Spider Queen Lolth, the Demon Goddess of Chaos. Do you know of her?"
Gools trembled so badly he could hardly shake his head.
"You know spiders?" Jarlaxle asked, and he walked his free hand over the goblin's sweaty cheek. "Crawly spiders."
"They are the tools of Lolth. They will devour you for eternity. They will bite" - he pinched the goblin sharply - "you a million million times. There will be no release from the burning of their poison."
He glanced back at Entreri, then looked the terrified goblin in the eye once more.
"Do you understand me, Gools?"
The goblin nodded so quickly that its teeth chattered with the movement.
"Work with us, and earn gold," said the drow, still in the guttural language of the savage goblins. He flipped another gold piece at the creature. Gools didn't even move for it, though, and the coin hit him in the chest and fell to the dirt.
"Betray us and know unending torture."
Jarlaxle stepped back, and the goblin slumped. Gools did manage to retain enough of his wits to reach down and gather the second gold piece.
"Tomorrow, at this time," Jarlaxle instructed. Then, in Common, he began, "Do you think - ?"
He stopped and glanced back up the mountainside at the sudden sound of renewed battle.
Entreri and Gools, too, looked up the hill, caught by surprise. Horns began to blow, and goblins squealed and howled, and the ring of metal on metal echoed on the wind.
"Tomorrow!" Jarlaxle said to the goblin, poking a finger his way. "Now be off, you idiot."
Gools scrambled away on all fours, finally put his feet under him, and ran off.
"You really think we'll see that one ever again?" Entreri asked.
"I care little," said the drow.
"Ears?" reminded Entreri.
"You may wish to earn your reputation one ear at a time, my friend, but I never choose to do things the hard way."
Entreri started to respond, but Jarlaxle held up a hand to silence him. The drow motioned up the mountainside to the left and started off to see what the commotion was all about.
"Now I know that I have walked into a bad dream," Entreri remarked.
He and Jarlaxle leaned flat against a rock wall, overlooking a field of rounded stone. Down below, goblins ran every which way, scrambling in complete disarray, for halflings charged among them - dozens of halflings riding armored war pigs.
The diminutive warriors swung flails, blew horns, and threw darts, veering their mounts in zigzagging lines that must have seemed perfectly chaotic to the poor, confused goblins.
From their higher vantage point, however, Entreri and Jarlaxle could see the precision of the halflings' movements, a flowing procession of destruction so calculated that it seemed as if the mounted little warriors had all blended to form just a few singular, snakelike creatures.
"In Menzoberranzan, House Baenre sometimes parades its forces about the streets to show off their discipline and power," Jarlaxle remarked. "These little ones are no less precise in their movements."
Entreri had not witnessed such a parade in his short time in the dark elf city, but in watching the weaving slaughter machine of the halfling riders, he easily understood his companion's point.
It was easy, too, for the pair to determine the timeline of the onesided battle, and so they began making their way down the slope, Jarlaxle leading Entreri onto the stony field as the last of the goblins was cut down.
"Kneebreakers!" the halflings cried in unison, as they lined their war pigs up in perfect ranks. A few had been injured, but only one seemed at all seriously hurt, and halfling priests were already hard at work attending to him.
The halflings' self-congratulatory cheering stopped short, though, when several of them loudly noted the approach of two figures, one a drow elf.
Weapons raised in the blink of an eye, and shouts of warning told the newcomers to hold their ground.
"Inurree waflonk," Jarlaxle said in a language that Entreri did not understand.
As he considered the curious expressions of the halflings, however, and remembered his old friend back in Calimport, Dwahvel Tiggerwillies, and some of her linguistic idiosyncrasies, he figured out that his friend was speaking the halfling tongue - and, apparently, quite fluently. Entreri was not surprised.
"Well fought," Jarlaxle translated, offering a wink to Entreri. "We watched you from on high and saw that the unorganized goblins hadn't a chance."
"You do realize that you're a dark elf, correct?" asked one of the halflings, a burly little fellow with a brown mustache that curled in circles over his cheeks.
Jarlaxle feigned a look of surprise as he held one of his hands up before his sparkling red eyes.
"Why, indeed, 'tis true!" he exclaimed.
"You do realize that we're the Kneebreakers, correct?"
"So I heard you proclaim."
"You do realize that we Kneebreakers have a reputation for killing vermin, correct?"
"If you did not, and after witnessing that display, I would spread the word myself, I assure you."
"And you do realize that dark elves fall into that category, of course."
"Truly? Why, I had come to believe that the civilized races, which some say include halflings - though others insist that halflings can only be thought of as civilized when there is not food to be found - claim superiority because of their willingness to judge others based on their actions and not their heritage. Is that not one of the primary determining factors of civility?"
"He's got a point," another halfling mumbled.
"I'll give him a point," said yet another, that one holding a long (relatively speaking), nasty-tipped spear.
"You might also have noticed that many of the goblins were already dead as you arrived on the scene," Jarlaxle added. "It wasn't infighting that slew them, I assure you."
"You two were battling the fiends?" asked the first, the apparent leader.
"Battling? Slaughtering would be a better term. I do believe that you and your little army here have stolen our kills." He did a quick scan and poked his finger repeatedly, as if counting the dead. "Forty or fifty lost gold pieces, at least."
The halflings began to murmur among themselves.
"But it is nothing that my friend and I cannot forgive and forget, for truly watching your fine force in such brilliant maneuvering was worthy of so reasonable an admission price," Jarlaxle added.
He swept one of his trademark low bows, removing his hat and brushing the gigantic diatryma feather across the stones.
That seemed to settle the halfling ranks a bit.
"Your friend, he does not speak much?" asked the halfling leader.
"He provides the blades," Jarlaxle replied.
"And you the brains, I presume."
"I, or the demon prince now standing behind you."
The halfling blanched and spun around, along with all the others, weapons turning to bear. Of course, there was no monster to be seen, so the whole troupe spun back on a very amused Jarlaxle.
"You really must get past your fear of my dark-skinned heritage," Jarlaxle explained with a laugh. "How else might we enjoy our meal together?"
"You want us to feed you?"
"Quite the contrary," said the drow. He pulled off his traveling pack and brought forth a wand and a small wineskin. He glanced around, noting a small tumble of boulders, including a few low enough to serve as tables. Motioning that way, he said, "Shall we?"
The halflings stared at him dubiously and did not move.
With a great sigh, Jarlaxle reached into his pack again and pulled forth a tablecloth and spread it on the ground before him, taking care to find a bare spot that was not stained by goblin blood. He stepped back, pointed his wand at the cloth, and spoke a command word. Immediately, the center area of the tablecloth bulged up from the ground. Grinning, Jarlaxle moved to the cloth, grabbed its edge, and pulled it back, revealing a veritable feast of sweet breads, fruits, berries, and even a rack of lamb, dripping with juices.
A row of halfling eyes went so wide they seemed as if they would fall out and bounce along the ground together.
"Being halflings, and civilized ones at that, I assume you have brought a fair share of eating utensils, plates, and drinking flagons, correct?" said the drow, aptly mimicking the halfling leader's manner of speaking.
Some of the halflings edged their war pigs forward, but the stubborn leader held up his hand and eyed the drow with suspicion.
"Oh, come now," said Jarlaxle. "Could you envision a better token of my friendship?"
"You came from the wall?"
"From the Vaasan Gate, of course," Jarlaxle answered. "Sent out to scout by Commander Ellery Tranth Dopray Kierney Dragonsbane Peidopare herself."
Entreri tried hard not to wince at the mention of the woman's name, for he thought his friend was playing a dangerous game.
"I know her well," said the halfling leader.
"Do you?" said the drow, and he brightened suddenly as if it all had just fallen in place for him. "Could it be that you are the renowned Hobart Bracegirdle himself?" he gasped.
The halfling straightened and puffed out his chest with pride, all the answer the companions needed.
"Then you must dine with us,"said Jarlaxle. "You must! I..." He paused and gave Entreri a hard look. "We," he corrected, "insist."
Again the hard look, and from that prodding, he did manage to pry a simple "Indeed" out of the assassin.
Hobart looked around at his companions, most of them openly salivating.
"Always could use a good meal after a battle," he remarked.
"Or before," said another of the troupe.
"Or during," came a deadpan from Jarlaxle's side, and the drow's face erupted with a smile as he regarded Entreri.
"Charm is a learned skill," Jarlaxle whispered through his grin.
"So is murder," the human whispered back.
Entreri wasn't exactly comfortable sitting in a camp with dozens of drunken halflings. He couldn't deny that the ale was good, though, and few races in all the Realms could put out a better selection of tasty meats than the halflings, though the food from their packs hardly matched the feast Jarlaxle had magically summoned. Entreri remained silent throughout the meal, enjoying the fine food and wine, and taking the measure of his hosts. His companion, though, was not so quiet, prodding Hobart and the others for tales of adventure and battle.
The halflings were more than willing to comply. They spoke of their rise to fame, when King Gareth first claimed the throne and the Bloodstone Lands were even wilder than their present state.
"It is unusual, is it not, for members of your race to prefer the road and battle to comfortable homes?" Jarlaxle asked.
"That's the reputation," Hobart admitted.
"And we're knowing well the reputation of dark elves," said another of the troupe, and all of the diminutive warriors laughed, several raising flagons in toast.
"Aye," said Hobart, "and if we're to believe that reputation, we should have killed you out on the slopes, yes?"
"To warrior halfling adventurers," Jarlaxle offered, lifting his flagon of pale ale.
Hobart grinned. "Aye, and to all those who rise above the limitations of their ancestors."
"Huzzah!" all the other halflings cheered.
They drank and toasted some more, and some more, and just when Entreri thought the meal complete, the main chef, a chubby fellow named Rockney Hamsukker called out that the lamb was done.
That brought more cheers and more toasts, and more - much more - food.
The sun was long gone and still they ate, and Jarlaxle began to prod Hobart again about their exploits. Story after story of goblins and orcs falling to the Kneebreakers ensued, with Hobart even revealing the variations on the "swarm," the "weave," and the "front-on wallop," as he named the Kneebreaker battle tactics.
"Bah," Jarlaxle snorted. "With goblins and orcs, are tactics even necessary? Hardly worthy opponents."
The camp went silent, and a scowl spread over Hobart's face. Behind him, another Kneebreaker stood and dangled his missile weapon, a pair of iron balls fastened to a length of cord for the outsiders to clearly see.
Entreri stopped his eating and stared hard at that threatening halfling, quickly surmising his optimum route of attack to inflict the greatest possible damage on the largest number of enemies.
"In numbers, of course," Jarlaxle clarified. "For most groups, numbers of goblinkin could prove troublesome. But I have watched you in battle, you forget?"
Hobart's large brown eyes narrowed.
"After your display on the stony field, good sir Hobart, you will have a difficult time of convincing me that any but a great number of goblinkin could prove of consequence to the Kneebreakers. Did those last goblins even manage a single strike against your riders?"
"We had some wounded," Hobart reminded him.
"More by chance than purpose."
"The ground favored our tactics," Hobart explained.
"True enough," Jarlaxle conceded. "But am I to believe that a troupe so precise as your own could not easily adapt to nearly any terrain?"
"I work very hard to remind my soldiers that we live on the precipice of disaster," Hobart declared. "We are one mistake from utter ruin."
"The warrior's edge, indeed," said the drow. "I do not underestimate your victories, of course, but I know there is more."
Hobart hooked his thick thumbs into the sides of his shining plate mail breastplate.
"We've been out a long stretch," he explained. " 'Twas our goal to return to the Vaasan Gate with enough ears to empty Commander Ellery's coffers."
"Bah, but you're just looking to empty Ellery from her breeches!" another halfling said, and many chortled with amusement.
Hobart looked around, grinning, at his companions, who murmured and nodded.
"And so we shall - the coffers, I mean."
The halfling leader snapped his stubby fingers in the air and a nervous, skinny fellow at Jarlaxle and Entreri's right scrambled about, finally producing a large bag. He looked at Hobart, returned the leader's continuing smile, then overturned the bag, dumping a hundred ears, ranging in size from the human-sized goblins' ears, several that belonged to creatures as large as ogres, and a pair so enormous Jarlaxle could have worn either as a hat.
Hobart launched back into his tales, telling of a confrontation with a trio of ogres and another ogre pair in the company of some hobgoblins. He raised his voice, almost as a bard might sing the tale, when he reached the climactic events, and the Kneebreakers all around him began to cheer wildly. One halfling pair stood up and reenacted the battle scene, the giant imposter leaping up on a rock to tower over his foes.
Despite himself, Artemis Entreri could not help but smile. The movements of the halflings, the passion, the food, the drink, all of it, reminded him so much of some of his closest friends back in Calimport, of Dwahvel Tiggerwillies and fat Dondon.
The giant died in Hobart's tale - and the halfling giant died on the rock with great dramatic flourish - and the entire troupe took up the chant of, "Kneebreakers! Kneebreakers!"
They danced, they sang, they cheered, they ate, and they drank. On it went, long into the night.
Artemis Entreri had perfected the art of sleeping light many years before. The man could not be caught by surprise, even when he was apparently sound asleep. Thus, the stirring of his partner had him wide awake in moments, still some time before the dawn. All around them, the Kneebreakers snored and grumbled in their dreams, and the few who had been posted as sentries showed no more signs of awareness.
Jarlaxle looked at Entreri and winked, and the assassin nodded curiously. He followed the drow to the sleeping halfling with the bag of ears, which was set amid several other bags of equal or larger size next to the halfling that served as the pack mule for the Kneebreakers. With a flick of his long, dexterous fingers, Jarlaxle untied the bag of ears. He slid it out slowly then moved silently out of camp, the equally quiet Entreri close behind. Getting past the guards without being noticed was no more difficult than passing a pile of stones without having them shout out.
The pair came to a clearing under the light of the waning moon. Jarlaxle popped a button off of his fine waistcoat, grinning at Entreri all the while. He pinched it between his fingers, then snapped his wrist three times in rapid succession.
Entreri was hardly surprised when the button elongated and widened, and its bottom dropped nearly to the ground, so that it looked as if Jarlaxle was holding a stovepipe hat that would fit a mountain giant.
With a nod from Jarlaxle, Entreri overturned the bag of ears and began scooping them into Jarlaxle's magical button bag. The drow stopped him a couple of times, indicating that he should leave a few, including one of the giant ears.
A snap of Jarlaxle's wrist then returned his magical bag to its inauspicious button form, and he put it on the waistcoat in its proper place and tapped it hard, its magic re-securing it to the material. He motioned for Entreri to move away with him then produced, out of thin air of course, a dust broom. He brushed away their tracks.
Entreri started back toward the halfling encampment, but Jarlaxle grabbed him by the shoulder to stop him. The drow offered a knowing wink and drew a slender wand from an inside pocket of his great traveling cloak. He pointed the wand at the discarded bag and the few ears, then spoke a command word.
A soft popping sound ensued, accompanied by a puff of smoke, and when it cleared, standing in place of the smoke was a small wolf.
"Enjoy your meal," Jarlaxle instructed the canine, and he turned and headed back to camp, Entreri right behind. The assassin glanced back often, to see the summoned wolf tearing at the ears, then picking up the bag and shaking it all about, shredding it.
Jarlaxle kept going, but Entreri paused a bit longer. The wolf scrambled around, seeming very annoyed at being deprived of a further meal, Entreri reasoned, for it began to disintegrate, its temporary magic expended, reducing it to a cloud of drifting smoke.
The assassin could only stare in wonder.
They had barely settled back into their blankets when the first rays of dawn peeked over the eastern horizon. Still, many hours were to pass before the halflings truly stirred, and Entreri found some more much-needed sleep.
The sudden tumult in camp awakened him around highsun. He groggily lifted up on his elbows, glancing around in amusement at the frantic halflings scrambling to and fro. They lifted stones and kicked remnants of the night's fire aside. They peeked under the pant legs of comrades, and often got kicked for their foolishness.
"There is a problem, I presume," Entreri remarked to Jarlaxle, who sat up and stretched the weariness from his body.
"I do believe our little friends have misplaced something. And with all the unorganized commotion, I suspect they'll be long in finding it."
"Because a bag of ears would hear them coming," said Entreri, his voice as dry as ever.
Jarlaxle laughed heartily. "I do believe that you are beginning to figure it all out, my friend, this journey we call life."
"That is what frightens me most of all."
The two went silent when they noted Hobart and a trio of very serious looking fellows staring hard at them. In procession, with the three others falling respectfully two steps behind the Knee-breaker commander, the group approached.
"Suspicion falls upon us," Jarlaxle remarked. "Ah, the intrigue!"
"A fine and good morning to you, masters Jarlaxle and Entreri," Hobart greeted, and there was nothing jovial about his tone. "You slept well, I presume."
"You would be presuming much, then," said Entreri.
"My friend here, he does not much enjoy discomfort," explained Jarlaxle. "You would not know it from his looks or his reputation, but he is, I fear, a bit of a fop."
"Every insult duly noted," Entreri said under his breath.
Jarlaxle winked at him.
"An extra twist of the blade, you see," Entreri promised.
"Am I interrupting something?" Hobart asked.
"Nothing you would not be interrupting in any case if you ever deign to speak to us," said Entreri.
The halfling nodded then looked at Entreri curiously, then similarly at Jarlaxle, then turned to regard his friends. All four shrugged in unison.
"Did you sleep the night through?" Hobart asked.
"And most of the morning, it would seem," Jarlaxle answered.
"Bah, 'tis still early."
"Good sir halfling, I do believe the sun is at its zenith," said the drow.
"As I said," Hobart remarked. "Goblin hunting's best done at twilight. Ugly little things get confident when the sun wanes, of course. Not that they ever have any reason to be confident."
"Not with your great skill against them, to be sure."
Hobart eyed the drow with clear suspicion. "We're missing something," he explained. "Something you'd be interested in."
Jarlaxle glanced Entreri's way, his expression not quite innocent and wide-eyed, but more curious than anything else - the exact look one would expect from someone intrigued but fully ignorant of the theft. Entreri had to fight hard to keep his own disinterested look about him, for he was quite amused at how perfectly Jarlaxle could play the liars' game.
"Our bag of ears," said Hobart.
Jarlaxle blew a long sigh. "That is troubling."
"And you will understand why we have to search you?"
"And our bedrolls, of course," said the drow, and he stepped back and held his cloak out wide to either side.
"We'd see it if it was on you," said Hobart, "unless it was magically stored or disguised." He motioned to one of the halflings behind him, a studious looking fellow with wide eyes, which he blinked continually, and thin brown hair sharply parted and pushed to one side. Seeming more a scholar than a warrior, the little one drew out a long blue wand.
"To detect magic, I presume," Jarlaxle remarked.
Hobart nodded. "Step apart, please."
Entreri glanced at Jarlaxle then back to the halfling. With a shrug he took a wide step to the side.
The halfling pointed his wand, whispered a command, and a glow engulfed Entreri for just a moment then was gone.
The halfling stood there studying the assassin, and his wide eyes kept going to Entreri's belt, to the jeweled dagger on one hip then to the sword, powerfully enchanted, on the other. The halfling's face twisted and contorted, and he trembled.
"You would not want either blade to strike you, of course," said Jarlaxle, catching on to the silent exchange where the wand was clueing the little wizard in to just how potent the human's weapons truly were.
"You all right?" Hobart asked, and though the wand-wielder could hardly draw a breath, he nodded.
"Turn around, then," Hobart bid Entreri, and the assassin did as he was asked, even lifting his cloak so the prying little scholar could get a complete picture.
A few moments later, the wand-wielder looked at Hobart and shook his head.
Hobart held his hand out toward Jarlaxle, and the other halfling lifted his wand. He spoke the command once more and the soft glow settled over a grinning Jarlaxle.
The wand-wielder squealed and fell back, shading his eyes.
"What?" Hobart asked.
The other one stammered and sputtered, his lips flapping, and kept his free hand up before him.
Entreri chuckled. He could only imagine the blinding glow of magic that one saw upon the person of Jarlaxle!
"It's not... there's... I mean... never before... not in King Gareth's own..."
"What?" Hobart demanded.
The other shook his head so rapidly that he nearly knocked himself over.
"Concentrate!" demanded the Kneebreaker commander. "You know what you're looking for!"
"But... but... but..." the halfling managed to say through his flapping lips.
Jarlaxle lifted his cloak and slowly turned, and the poor halfling shielded his eyes even more.
"On his belt!" the little one squealed as he fell away with a gasp. His two companions caught him before he tumbled, and steadied him, straightening him and brushing him off. "He has an item of holding on his belt," the halfling told Hobart when he'd finally regained his composure. "And another in his hat."
Hobart turned a wary eye on Jarlaxle.
The drow, grinning with confidence, unfastened his belt - with a command word, not through any mundane buckle - and slid the large pouch free, holding it up before him.
"This is your point of reference, yes?" he asked the wand-wielder, who nodded.
"I am found out, then," Jarlaxle said dramatically, and he sighed.
"A simple pouch of holding," the drow explained, and tossed it to Hobart. "But take care, for within lies my precious Cormyrean brandy. I know, I know, I should have shared it with you, but you are so many, and I feared its potent effect on ones so little."
Hobart pulled the bottle from the pouch and held it up to read the label. His expression one of great approval, he slid it back into the pouch. Then he rummaged through the rest of the magical container, nearly climbing in at one point.
"We share the brandy, you and I, a bit later?" Jarlaxle proposed when Hobart was done with the pouch.
"Or if that hat of yours is holding my ears, I take it for my own, drink just enough to quench my thirst and use the rest as an aid in lighting your funeral pyre."
Jarlaxle laughed aloud. "I do so love that you speak directly, good Sir Bracegirdle!" he said.
He bowed and removed his hat, brushing it across the ground, then spun it to Hobart.
The halfling started to fiddle with it, but Jarlaxle stopped him with a sharp warning.
"Return my pouch first," he said, and the four halflings looked at him hard. "You do not wish to be tinkering with two items of extra-dimensional nature."
"Rift. Astral. Bad," Entreri explained.
Hobart stared at him then at the amused drow and tossed the pouch back to Jarlaxle. The Kneebreaker commander began inspecting the great, wide-brimmed hat, and after a moment, discovered that he could peel back the underside of its peak.
"A false compartment?" he asked.
"In a sense," Jarlaxle admitted, and Hobart's expression grew curious as the flap of cloth came out fully in his hand, leaving the underside of the peak intact, with no compartment revealed. The halfling then held up the piece of black cloth, a circular swatch perhaps half a foot in diameter.
Hobart looked at it, looked around, casually shrugged, and shook his head. He tossed the seemingly benign thing over his shoulder.
"No!" Jarlaxle cried, but too late, for the spinning cloth disk elongate in the air and fell at the feet of Hobart's three companions, widening and opening into a ten foot hole.
All three squealed and tumbled in.
Jarlaxle put his hands to his face.
"What?" Hobart asked. "What in the six hundred and sixty-six layers of the Abyss?"
Jarlaxle slipped his belt off and whispered into its end, which swelled and took on the shape of a snake's head. The whole belt began to grow and come alive.
"They are all right?" the drow casually asked of Hobart, who was at the edge of the hole on his knees, shouting down to his companions. Other Kneebreakers had come over as well, staring into the pit or scrambling around in search of a rope or a branch to use as a ladder.
Jarlaxle's snake-belt slithered over the edge.
Hobart screamed and drew his weapon, a beautifully designed short sword with a wicked serrated edge.
"What are you doing?" he cried and seemed about to cleave the snake.
Jarlaxle held up his hand, bidding patience. Even that small delay was enough, for the fast-moving and still growing snake was completely in the pit by then, except for the tip of its tail, which fastened itself securely around a nearby root.
"A rope of climbing," the drow explained. Hobart surveyed the scene. "Have one take hold and the rope will aid him in getting out of the pit."
It took a few moments and another use of the wand to confirm the claim, but soon the three shaken but hardly injured halflings were back out of the hole. Jarlaxle walked over and calmly lifted one edge of the extra-dimensional pocket. With a flick of his wrist and a spoken command, it fast reverted to a cloth disk that would fit perfectly inside the drow's great hat. At the same time, the snake-rope slithered up Jarlaxle's leg and crawled around his waist, obediently winding itself inside the belt loops of his fine trousers. When it came fully around, the "head" bit the end of the tail and commenced swallowing it until the belt was snugly about the drow's waist.
"Well..." the obviously flustered Hobart started to say, staring at the wand-wielder. "You think.. " Hobart tried to go on. "I mean, is there...?"
"I should have killed you in Calimport," Entreri said to Jarlaxle.
"For the sake of a flustered halfling, of course," the drow replied.
"For the sake of my own sanity."
"Truer than you might realize."
"A-anything else you need to look at on that one?" Hobart finally managed to sputter.
The wand-wielder shook his head so forcefully that his lips made popping and smacking noises.
"Consider my toys," Jarlaxle said to Hobart. "Do you really believe that your ears are of such value to me that I would risk alienating so many entertaining and impressive newfound friends in acquiring them?"
"He's got a point," said the halfling standing next to Hobart.
"All the best to you in your search, good Sir Bracegirdle," said Jarlaxle, taking his hat back and replacing the magical cloth. "My offer for brandy remains."
"I expect you would favor a drink right now," Entreri remarked.
"Though not as much as that one," he added, indicating the flabbergasted, terrified, and stupefied wand-wielder.
"Medicinal purposes," Jarlaxle added, looking at the trembling little halfling.
"He's lucky you didn't strike him blind," added Entreri.
"Would not be the first time."