Entreri rocked his chair up on two legs and leaned back against the wall. He sipped his wine as he watched the interaction between Jarlaxle and Commander Ellery. The woman had sought the drow out specifically, Entreri knew from her movements, though it was obvious to him that she was trying to appear as if she had not. She wasn't dressed in her armor, nor in any uniform of the Army of Bloodstone, and seemed quite the lady in her pink dress, subtly striped with silvery thread that shimmered with every step. A padded light gray vest completed the outfit, cut and tightly fitted to enhance her womanly charms. She carried no weapon - openly, at least - and it had taken Entreri a few minutes to even recognize her when first he'd spotted her among the milling crowd. Even on the field when she had arrived in full armor, dirty from the road, Entreri had thought her attractive, but now he could hardly pull his eyes from her.
When he realized the truth of his feelings it bothered him more than a little. When had he ever before been distracted by such things?
He studied her movements as she spoke to Jarlaxle, the way she leaned forward, the way her eyes widened, sparkling with interest. A smile, resigned and helpless, spread across the assassin's face and he briefly held out his glass in a secret toast to his dark elf companion.
"This chair and that chair free o' bums?" a gruff voice asked, and Entreri looked to the side to see a pair of dirty dwarves staring back at him.
"Well?" the other one asked, indicating one of the three empty chairs.
"Have the whole table," Entreri bade them.
He finished his drink with a gulp then slipped from his seat and moved away along the back wall. He took a roundabout route so as to not interrupt Jarlaxle's conversation.
"Well met to you, Comman - Lady Ellery," Jarlaxle said, and he tipped his glass of wine to her.
"And now you will claim that you didn't even recognize me, I expect."
"You underestimate the unique aspect of your eyes, good lady," said the drow. "In a full-face helm, I expect I would not miss that singular beauty."
Ellery started to respond but rocked back on her heels for just an instant.
Jarlaxle did well to mask his grin.
"There are questions I would ask of you," Ellery began, and her voice gained urgency when the drow turned away.
He spun right back, though, holding a second glass of wine he had apparently found waiting on the bar. He held it out to the woman, and she narrowed her eyes and glanced around suspiciously. How was it that the second glass of wine had been waiting there?
Yes, I knew you would come to me, Jarlaxle's smile clearly revealed when Ellery accepted the drink.
"Questions?" the drow prompted the obviously flabbergasted woman a few moments later.
Ellery tried to play it calm and collected, but she managed to dribble a bit of wine from the corner of her mouth and thought herself quite the clod while wiping it.
"I have never met a dark elf before, though I have seen a pair from afar and have heard tales of a half-drow making a reputation for herself in Damara."
"We do have a way of doing that, for good or for ill."
"I have heard many tales, though," Ellery blurted.
"Ah, and you are intrigued by the reputation of my dark race?"
She studied him carefully, her eyes roaming from his head to his feet and back up again. "You do not appear so formidable."
"Perhaps that is the greatest advantage of all."
"Are you a warrior or a wizard?"
"Of course," the drow said as he took another sip.
The woman's face crinkled for a brief moment. "It is said that drow are masters of the arts martial," she said after she recovered. "It is said that only the finest elf warriors could do individual battle against the likes of a drow."
"I expect that no elves who sought to prove such a theory are alive to confirm or deny."
Ellery's quick smile in response clued Jarlaxle in to the fact that she was catching on to his wit - a manner that was always a bit too dry and unrelenting for most surface dwellers.
"Is that a confirmation or a boast?" she asked.
"It just is."
A wicked smile grew on the woman's face. "Then I say again, you do not look so formidable."
"Is that an honest observation or a challenge?"
"It just is."
Jarlaxle held out his glass and Ellery tapped hers against it. "Some day, perhaps, you will happen upon me in Vaasa and have your answer," Jarlaxle said. "My friend and I have found some success in our hunts out there."
"I have noted your trophies," she said, and again her eyes scanned the drow head to toe.
Jarlaxle laughed aloud. He quieted quickly, though, under the intensity of Ellery's stare, her bright eyes boring into his.
"Questions?" he asked.
"Many," she answered, "but not here. Do you think that your friend will be well enough without you?"
As she asked, both she and Jarlaxle turned to the table in the back corner, where the drow had left Entreri, only to find that he was gone.
When they looked back at each other, Jarlaxle shrugged and said, "Answers."
They left the bustle of Muddy Boots and Bloody Blades behind, Jarlaxle following the woman as she easily navigated the myriad corridors and hallways of the wall complex. They moved down one side passage and crossed through the room where monster ears were exchanged for bounty. Moving toward the door at the rear of the chamber gave the drow an angle to see behind the desks, and he spotted a small chest.
He made a note of that one.
The door led the pair into another corridor. A right turn at a four-way intersection led them to another door.
Ellery casually fished a key out of a small belt pouch, and Jarlaxle watched her curiously, his senses more acutely attuning to his surroundings. Had the warrior woman planned their encounter from the beginning?
"A long way to walk for the answers to a few questions," he remarked, but Ellery just glanced back at him, smiling.
She grabbed a nearby torch and took it with her into the next chamber, moving along the wall to light several others.
Jarlaxle's smile widened along with his curiosity as he came to recognize the purpose of the room. Dummies stood silently around the perimeter and archery targets lined the far wall. Several racks were set here and there, all sporting wooden replicas of various weapons.
Ellery moved to one such rack and drew forth a wooden long sword. She studied it for a moment then tossed it to Jarlaxle, who caught it in one hand and sent it into an easy swing.
Ellery drew out a second blade and lifted a wooden shield.
"No such shield for me?" the drow asked.
With a giggle, Ellery tossed the second sword his way. "I have heard that your race favors a two-bladed fighting style."
Jarlaxle caught the tossed blade with the edge of the first wooden sword, breaking its fall, balancing it, then sending it into a controlled spin.
"Some do," he replied. "Some are quite adept with long blades of equal length."
A flick of his wrist sent the second sword spinning skyward, and the drow immediately disregarded it, looking over at Ellery, placing his remaining sword tip down on the floor, tucking one foot behind his other ankle and assuming a casual pose on the planted blade.
"Myself, I prefer variety," he added with more than a little suggestion in his tone.
As he finished, he caught the dropping second blade in his free hand.
Ellery eyed him cautiously, then led his gaze to the weapons' rack. "Is there another you'd prefer?"
The woman's eyes narrowed. She strapped the shield onto her left arm, then reached over and drew a wooden battle-axe from the rack.
"My dear Lady Ellery," said Jarlaxle, "are you challenging me?"
"I have heard so many tales of the battle prowess of your race," she replied. "I will know."
Jarlaxle laughed aloud. "Ah yes, answers."
"Answers," Ellery echoed.
"You presume much," said the drow, and he stepped back and lifted the two blades before him, testing their weight and balance. He sent them into a quick routine, spinning one blade over the other, then quick-thrusting the second. He retracted the blades immediately, bringing them to rest at his side. "What interest would I have in doing battle with you?"
Ellery let the axe swing easily at the end of her arm. "Are you not curious?" she asked.
"About what? I have already seen far too many human warriors, male and female." He sent one of the wooden swords in a spin again, then paused and offered a coy glance at Ellery. "And I am not impressed."
"Perhaps I can change your mind."
"Do you fear to know the truth?"
"Fear has nothing to do with it. You brought me here to satisfy your curiosity, not mine. You ask of me that I reveal something of myself to you, for your sake. You will reveal your battle prowess at the reward of satisfying your curiosity. For me, there is...?"
Ellery straightened and stared at him sourly.
"The chance to win," she said a moment later.
"Winning means little," said the drow. "Pride is a weakness, don't you know?"
"Jarlaxle does not like to win?"
"Jarlaxle likes to survive," the drow replied without hesitation. "That is not so subtle a difference."
"Then what?" Ellery asked, impatience settling into her tone.
"What is your price?" she demanded.
"Are you so desperate to know?"
She stared at him hard.
"A lady of your obvious charms should not have to ask such a question," the drow said.
Ellery didn't flinch. "Only if you win."
Jarlaxle cocked his head to the side and let his eyes roam the woman's body. "When I win, you will take me to your bedchamber?"
"You will not win."
"But if I do?"
"If that is your price."
Jarlaxle chuckled. "Pride is a weakness, my lady, but curiosity..."
Ellery stopped him by banging the axe hard against her shield.
"You talk too much," she said as she strode forward.
She lifted her axe back over her shoulder, and when Jarlaxle settled into a defensive stance, she charged in.
She pumped her arm as if to strike but stepped ahead more forcefully with her opposite foot and shield-rushed instead, battering at the drow's weapons left to right. She started to step in behind that momentum, the usual move, but then pivoted instead, spinning around backward and dropping low. She let her weapon arm out wide, axe level and low as she came around.
Had he expected the move, Jarlaxle could have easily stepped in behind the shield and stabbed her.
But he hadn't expected it, and he knew as Ellery came around, forcing him to leap the sailing axe, that the woman had judged his posture perfectly. He had underestimated her, and she knew it.
Jarlaxle fell back as Ellery came up fast and pressed the attack, chopping her axe in a more straightforward manner. He tried to counter, thrusting his right sword out first, then his left, but the woman easily blocked the first with her shield and deftly parried the second out wide on one downswing with her axe.
Jarlaxle snapped his right hand across, however, batting the side of that axe hard, then rolled his left hand in and over, again smacking the same side of the axe. He did a quick drum roll on the weapon, nearly tearing it from Ellery's hand and forcing it out wider with every beat.
But Ellery reacted properly, rolling her shield shoulder in tight and bulling ahead to force too much of a clench for Jarlaxle to disarm her.
"If I win, I will have you," the drow said.
Ellery growled and shoved out hard with her shield, driving him away.
"And what will Ellery claim if she wins?" Jarlaxle asked.
That stopped the woman even as she began to charge in once more. She settled back on her heels and peered at the drow from over the top of her shield.
"If I win," she began and paused for effect then added, "I will have you."
Jarlaxle's jaw might have hit the floor, except that Ellery's shield would surely have caught it, for the woman used the moment of distraction to launch another aggressive charge, barreling in, shield butting and axe slashing. It took every bit of Jarlaxle's speed and agility for him to keep away from that axe, and he only managed it by rolling to the side and allowing Ellery to connect with the shield rush. The drow used the momentum to get away, throwing himself back and into a roll. He came lightly to his feet and side-stepped fast, twisting as he went to avoid a wild slash by the woman.
"Ah, but you cheat!" he cried and he kept backing, putting considerable ground between the two. "My good lady, you steal all of my incentive. Should I not just drop my weapons and surrender?"
"Then if I win, I deny you!" she cried, and she charged.
Jarlaxle shrugged, and whispered, "Then you will not win."
The drow dodged left, then fast back to the right as Ellery tried to compensate, and though she tried to maintain her initiative, she found herself suddenly barraged by a dizzying array of thrusts, slashes, and quick, short stabs. At one point, Jarlaxle even somehow moved his feet out in front and dropped to the floor, sweeping her legs out. She didn't fall directly but stumbled, twisting and turning.
It was futile, though, for she went down to the floor.
Her agility served her well then, as she rolled to the side and got up to one knee in time to intercept the drow's expected charge. She parried and blocked the first wave of attacks, and even managed to work her way back to a standing position.
Jarlaxle pressed the attack, his blades coming at her from a dizzying array of angles. She worked her arms furiously, positioning her shield, turning her axe, and she dodged and backed, twisting to avoid those cunning strikes that managed to slip through her defenses. On a couple of occasions, the woman saw an opening and could have pressed the attack back the other way.
But she didn't.
She played pure defense and showed the drow a series of apparent openings, only to close them fast as Jarlaxle tried to press in. At one point, her defense was so quick that the drow overbalanced and his great hat slipped down over his eyes. For just a moment, though, for he swept one hand up, pulled the hat from his head and tossed it aside. Beads of perspiration marked his bald head.
He laughed and came on hard again, pressing the attack until he had Ellery in full flight away from him.
"You are young, but you fight like a drow veteran," Jarlaxle congratulated after yet another unsuccessful attack routine.
"I am not so young."
"You have not seen thirty winters," the drow protested.
The grin that creased Ellery's wide face made her look even younger. "I spent my childhood under the shadow of the Witch-King," she explained. "Bloodstone Village knew war continually from the Vaasan hordes. No child there was a stranger to the blade."
"You were taught well," Jarlaxle said.
He straightened and brought one sword up in salute.
Not ready to let such an obvious opening pass, Ellery leaped ahead, axe swinging wildly.
Halfway into that swing, she realized that she had been baited, and so she laughed helplessly as she saw her target easily spinning to the side. Her laugh became a yelp when the flat of Jarlaxle's wooden sword slapped hard against her rump.
She started to whirl around to face him, but he was too quick, and she got slapped hard again, and a third time before the drow finally disengaged and leaped back.
"By all measures, that should be scored as a victory," Jarlaxle argued. "For if my blades were real, I could have hamstrung you thrice over."
"Your blows were a bit high for that."
"Only because I did not wish to sting your legs," he answered, and he arched his eyebrow suggestively.
"You have plans for them?"
"If you are so eager then you should let me win. I promise, you would find it more enjoyable."
"You said you would deny me."
"I have changed my mind."
Jarlaxle straightened at that, his swords coming down to his sides. He looked at her, smiled, shrugged, and dropped his blades.
Ellery howled and leaped forward.
But the drow had planned his disarmament carefully and precisely, dropping the swords from on low so that they fell perfectly across his feet. A quick hop and leg tuck sent both swords flying back to his hands, and he landed in a spin, blades swiping across to slap hard at Ellery's axe. Jarlaxle rolled in right behind the stumbling woman's outstretched arms, and right behind the stumbling woman, catching her from behind and with one arm wrapped around, his sword tight against her throat.
"I prefer to lead," he whispered into her ear.
The drow could feel her shivering under the heat of his breath, and he had a marvelous view of her breasts heaving from the exertion of the fight.
Ellery slumped, her axe falling to the floor. She reached across, unstrapped her shield, and tossed it aside.
Jarlaxle inhaled deeply, taking in her scent.
She turned and grabbed at him hard, pressing her lips against his. She would only let him lead so far, it seemed.
Jarlaxle wasn't about to complain.
Entreri didn't know if he was supposed to be walking so freely through the corridors of the Vaasan Gate, but no guards presented themselves to block his progress. He had no destination in mind; he simply needed to walk off his restlessness. He was tired, but no bed could lure him in, for he knew that no bed of late had offered him any real rest.
So he walked, and the minutes rolled on and on. When he found a side alcove set with a tall ladder, he let his curiosity guide him and climbed. More corridors, empty rooms, and stairwells greeted him above and he kept on his meandering way through the dark halls of this massive fortress. Another ladder took him to a small landing and a door, loose-fitting and facing east, with light glowing around its edges. Curious, Entreri pushed it open.
He felt the wind on his face as he stared into the first rays of dawn, reaching out from the Vaasan plain and crawling over the valleys and peaks of the Galenas, lighting brilliant reflections on the mountain snow.
The sun stung Entreri's tired eyes as he walked out and along the parapet of the Vaasan Gate. He paused often, stood and stared, and cared not for the passage of time. The wall top was more than twenty feet wide at its narrowest points and swelled to more than twice that width in some spots, and from there Entreri truly came to appreciate the scope of the enormous construction. Several towers dotted the length of the wall stretching out before the assassin to the east, and he noted the occasional sentry, leaning or sitting. Still with no indication that he should not be there, he walked out of the landing and along the top of the great wall, some forty or fifty feet above the wasteland stretching out to the north. His eyes remained in that direction primarily, rarely glancing south to the long valley running between the majestic Galenas. He could see the tents of the Fugue, even his own, and he wondered if Jarlaxle had gone back there but thought it more likely that Ellery had offered him a more comfortable setting.
The curious couple did not remain in his thoughts any more than did the southland. The north held his attention and his eyes, where Vaasa stretched out before him like a flattened, rotting corpse. He veered that way in his stroll, moving nearer to the waist-high wall along the edge so that he could better take in the view of Vaasa awakening to the dawn's light.
There was a beauty there, Entreri saw, primal and cold: hard-edged stones, sharp-tipped skeletons of long dead trees, and the soft, sucking bogs. Blasted by war, torn by the march of armies, scalded by the fires of wizard spells and dragon breath, the land itself, the soul of Vaasa, had survived. It had taken all the hits and blasts and stomping boots and had come out much as it had been before.
So many of those who had lived there had perished, but Vaasa had survived.
Entreri passed a sentry, sitting half asleep and with his back against the northern wall. The man looked at him with mild curiosity then nodded as the assassin strode past him.
Some distance away, Entreri stopped his walk and turned fully to survey the north, resting his hands on the waist-high wall that ran the length of the gate. He looked upon Vaasa with a mixture of affection and self-loathing - as if he was looking into a mirror.
"They think you dead," he whispered, "because they do not see the life that teems beneath your bogs and stones, and in every cave, crack, and hollow log. They think they know you, but they do not."
"Talking to the land?" came a familiar voice, and Entreri found his moment of contemplation stolen away by the approach of Jarlaxle. "Do you think it hears you?"
Entreri considered his friend for a moment, the bounce in his gait, the bit of moisture just below the brim of his great hat, the look of quiet serenity behind his typically animated expression. Something more was out of place, Entreri realized, before it even fully registered to him that Jarlaxle's eye patch had been over the other eye back in the tavern.
Entreri could guess easily enough the route that had at last taken Jarlaxle to the wall top, and only then did the assassin truly appreciate that several hours had passed since he had left his friend in Muddy Boots and Bloody Blades.
"I think there are some who would do well to hear me less," he answered, and turned his eyes back to Vaasa.
Jarlaxle laughed and moved right beside him on the wall, leaning on the rail with his back to the northern land.
"Please do not let my arrival here disturb your conversation," said the drow.
Entreri didn't reply, didn't even look at him.
That did elicit a dismissive glance.
"You have not slept," Jarlaxle remarked.
"My sleep is not your concern."
"Sleep?" came the sarcastic response. "Is that what you would call your hours of restlessness each night?"
"My sleep is not your concern," Entreri said again.
"Your lack of sleep is," the drow corrected. "If the reflexes slow...."
"Would you like a demonstration?"
Jarlaxle yawned, drawing another less-than-friendly glare. The drow returned it with a smile - one that was lost on Entreri, who again stared out over the muddy Vaasan plane. Jarlaxle, too, turned and leaned to the north, taking in the preternatural scene. The morning fog swirled in gray eddies in some places, and lifted up like a waking giant in others.
Indeed, Vaasa did seem as if a remnant of the time before the reasoning races inhabited the world. It seemed a remnant of a time, perhaps, before any creatures walked the lands at all, as if the rest of the world had moved along without carrying Vaasa with her.
"A forgotten land," Jarlaxle remarked, glancing at Entreri.
The assassin returned that look, even nodded a bit, and the drow was surprised to realize that Entreri had understood his reference exactly.
"What do you see when you look out there?" Jarlaxle asked. "Wasted potential? Barrenness where there should be fertility? Death where there should be life?"
"Reality," Artemis Entreri answered with cold finality.
He turned and offered one stern look to the drow then walked past him.
Jarlaxle heard the uncertainty in Entreri's voice, sensed that the man was off-balance. And he knew the source of that imbalance, for he had played no small part in ensuring that Idalia's flute had found its way into Artemis Entreri's hand.
He stayed at the rail for some time, soaking in the scene before him, remembering the night just passed, and considering his always dour friend.
Most of all, the dark elf wondered what he might do to dominate the first, recreate the second, and alter the third.
Always wondering, always thinking.