Here is the next chapter of ‘Tabula Avatar’, a lot later than I’d intended, featuring a guest appearance from two of the most popular characters from the ‘Forgotten Realms’ books. Previous chapters can be found HERE. Rating R; this chapter is 8,750 words.
Buffy glared at a tree as if she expected it to apologize and remove itself from her path. Not an impossible expectation, in this world, but no such thing occurred. “Trekking through the woods, so not my favorite thing,” she moaned. “Hey, Will, anything you can do to speed us up?”
“I could Haste us, sure,” Willow replied, “but we’d be pretty much wasted when it wore off. It’s not worth it. Teleporting, well, I could make it to Athkatla on my own, no problem, but not if I took you guys along with me. You think maybe I should do that? Go on my own, I mean. I could warn Lord Delryn, I guess, and tell Aran Linvail about what happened.”
“Anomen’s father wouldn’t listen to you,” Buffy said, “but yeah, giving the Shadow Thief Godfather a heads-up would be useful.”
“I don’t think you should go off by yourself,” Tara said. Minsc nodded agreement.
Sorkatani pursed her lips. “I don’t think the gain is worth the risk, Willow. If Bodhi learnt of your presence in the city she would immediately seek your death.”
“Yeah, and I sure wouldn’t want to take her on by myself,” Willow agreed, “even if she didn’t have Tanova and Anomen backing her up. Although, hey, I could pick up Korgan, and maybe some of Linvail’s people…”
“And some of the guys from the Radiant Heart,” Xander suggested.
Willow shook her head. “I couldn’t get them to work with the Shadow Thieves, Xander, not without you there,” she said.
“Bet you Korgan will be too bloody drunk to be any use anyway,” Spike put in.
“Without me you could not just walk in to see Linvail,” Sorkatani pointed out, “and also there is Bodhi’s infiltration of the Thieves’ Guild to consider. Speak to the wrong man, one who had been charmed by her, and you might be led to Bodhi rather than to Linvail.”
Willow opened her mouth to reply. Buffy pre-empted her.
“We’re not going to take that risk,” the Slayer said in tones that brooked no argument. “Bodhi is too freaking dangerous. We don’t give her the chance to pick us off one by one.” She would have gone on to say more but Jaheira interrupted.
“I hear something,” the druid announced. “Screams.”
At once everyone fell silent. Minsc cocked his head. “That way,” he said, after a moment, pointing slightly to the east of their intended course. Jaheira nodded her agreement.
Sorkatani nocked an arrow to the string of her Tuigan bow. “Then that is where we shall go.”
Artemis Entreri’s lips curled back from his teeth. “This cannot be borne,” he hissed.
Jarlaxle’s eyebrows rose. Entreri was the coolest, most composed, man that the drow mercenary had ever met and the killing rage that he could see in the assassin’s eyes was unprecedented. “Are you developing a sense of justice? I don’t like it either but there is nothing that we can do. They number twenty or more.”
“Twenty-three,” Entreri corrected him, “but I care not.” Another scream of pain reached his ears, seemingly too high in pitch to be coming from any male throat, although the evidence of their eyes contradicted that deduction. It died away into a choked whimper. Entreri’s snarl grew even more savage and a guttural growl sounded deep in his throat. He pulled out his saber, and his emerald-studded dagger, and stepped out of the trees.
Jarlaxle was taken completely by surprise. Artemis Entreri putting himself into peril for the sake of strangers? It was almost impossible to believe. He would have been pleased, had the circumstances been different, for he had been trying for months to get Entreri to show emotion and unwind enough to accept his friendship. Unfortunately this particular show of emotion was likely to get them both killed.
Jarlaxle crossed his hands and pulled out a pair of magical daggers from his enchanted wrist bracers. He poised one for a throw and watched to see how Entreri would handle the situation. Would he adopt the guise of an innocent blundering upon the scene by accident, puzzled and shocked by what he saw, and acting weak to lull the brigands into a false sense of security until he struck? Or would he swagger up boldly, concealing his disgust and seething anger, and request or demand to be allowed to take his turn with the victims? Either pose could be an effective tactic to allow him to get in close and deliver a telling blow or two before his true purpose was revealed. Tricky to carry off, of course, but none was better at such acting than Artemis Entreri.
Jarlaxle watched from the trees, keeping out of sight because any sight of him would immediately ruin whatever scheme Entreri had decided upon, and frowned. He could see no evidence of any such plan. Entreri was simply striding towards the men, sword and dagger poised ready for combat, as if he was about to launch a straightforward attack on a mere handful of foes. Suicidal insanity. True, there was an inherent element of surprise in such boldness, and the enemy would be thrown off balance and no doubt immediately suspect that the lone attacker had reinforcements following close behind, but when those ‘reinforcements’ consisted of but a single man it was a tactic foredoomed to failure.
Jarlaxle winced. It wasn’t a tactic at all. Entreri was so blinded by rage that he was attacking without thought, without a plan, his only desire being to kill. He was walking to his death. Not deliberately, this was no intentional suicide mission, but inevitably nonetheless. The brigands, or perhaps mercenary soldiers, were too formidable. Nine drow bodies, stripped and dumped in a grisly pile at the side of the clearing, bore mute witness to that fact; the three living drow captives bore a witness somewhat less mute. There were no human bodies, indicating that the group had defeated the drow without taking losses, and they were well armed and equipped.
And, despite their post-battle activities, they were alert. One man went to meet the approaching figure. He was short but broad of shoulder, clad in banded mail, and held a double-bladed axe across his chest. “Hold, stranger, what do you want here?” he demanded.
Entreri brought up his saber and drove it out in a lightning-quick strike, before the man could even raise his axe, piercing the throat above the armor’s gorget. “Your deaths,” Entreri answered the dying man. He pulled the sword free and made for the next closest of the brigands.
The killing had been so quick and efficient that there was as yet no general alarm. Entreri’s second target, a crossbowman, stared at his falling colleague incredulously and then made a frantic attempt to cock his weapon. He realized that he would be too late, let the crossbow fall, and tugged a short sword from his belt. By that time Entreri was only two paces away. The crossbowman saw what he thought was an opening and hurled himself into an attack. Entreri parried with his saber and brought his left hand across to plunge his jeweled dagger into his opponent’s stomach.
Two down, twenty-one to go, but now the alarm was raised. Cries sounded from all parts of the camp. Weapons were snatched up. A battle priest began to chant a blessing. A wizard started to cast a Haste spell and another clad himself in Stoneskin. The rapists withdrew from their victims and grabbed for clothes and armor.
Entreri confronted another man, a thief or scout, in a studded leather brigandine. He swept aside the man’s long-sword and plunged his dagger down just above the scout’s collarbone, driving it home to the hilt, then pulled it free and let the dying foe fall to the ground.
A dagger hurtled from the trees and struck one of the wizards in the face, impaling his cheek, and cutting his Haste spell off before it could be completed. He tugged the dagger free, sending gouts of blood spurting out over his robes, and groped for a healing potion. A second dagger hit him in the throat and felled him. Jarlaxle was providing covering fire from the sidelines and had removed a deadly threat. Three archers retaliated, sending a volley of arrows in the direction from which the daggers had come, but they hit nothing.
A new danger loomed in front of Entreri; a warrior in full plate armor, tall and broad, his face hidden by a full helm. He swung a huge two-handed sword with ominous ease. Entreri backed away from the knight and then suddenly spun around. He lashed out with his saber and impaled a leather-clad hunter who had been coming up from behind. Entreri disengaged and dodged aside as the armored man rushed at him. His tactical thinking was unimpaired, despite the rage that filled him, and he knew that he had to make as many quick kills as possible to whittle down the opposition’s overwhelming advantage of numbers. He couldn’t afford to get tied up in a battle of attrition against someone who couldn’t be taken out with one quick strike. First he had to eliminate the lighter-armored opponents and, especially, those who could kill him from a distance.
Entreri rushed at the group of archers. Another fighter in plate tried to intercept him. This man’s armor didn’t provide complete coverage. The full plate went down to the waist but below that he wore only pants and boots. The implication was obvious. Entreri snarled, veered aside, parried a swinging sword and riposted. He pierced his target and ripped sideways as he disengaged. The warrior collapsed to his knees, vainly trying to stem the fountain of blood from his groin, and Entreri permitted himself a grim smile as he resumed course for the bowmen. Poetic justice.
Flashes of light and the sound of explosions came from behind him, in the bushes where Jarlaxle lurked, but Entreri was not perturbed. Almost every item of jewelry worn by the flamboyant drow was a ward against spells and getting through those protections would take multiple attempts. Confirmation of Jarlaxle’s safety came almost at once as a lightning bolt crackled from one of his many wands and struck the Stoneskinned wizard. The mage fell to his hands and knees, gasping for breath, and then began to climb back to his feet. Entreri jumped aside to dodge an arrow, losing sight of the injured wizard in the process, and closed with the archers.
One of the bowmen backed off, readying an arrow, as the others met Entreri’s rush. A bow-stave was swung at Entreri’s face as the third bowman drew sword and dagger. Entreri ducked the blow, spun, and slashed at the throat of the swordsman. His saber clashed against the other man’s blade and was parried. He twisted aside to avoid a riposte and brought up his dagger to fend off another strike from the bow-stave. This time he sliced through the bowstring and the bow-stave jerked viciously in its wielder’s hands, as the tension was released explosively, and snapped. The bowman cursed, dropped the ruined weapon, and grabbed for a dagger.
Entreri spun around, slashing with both sword and dagger to keep the bowmen back, and looked for the armored knight who could be entering the combat at any second. No, the man was ten paces away, kneeling at the side of the partially-armored man Entreri had stabbed in the groin. Laying on hands, healing him, bringing him back from the brink of death. Enteri gave a snarl of hatred and disbelief. A paladin! The hypocritical bastard was healing a rapist! Further away a priest was raising from the dead the mage who had been Jarlaxle’s first victim. Entreri clenched his teeth. If he was going to have to kill them all twice, well, so be it.
He completed his spin and slashed at the legs of the man fighting sword-and-dagger. He raked his dagger across the eyes of the other man, brought up his saber to pin the first man’s sword and dagger briefly, and stabbed his dagger down to the hilt behind the foe’s collar bone. As he did so he felt an impact and searing pain. A hurled hand-axe had hit him in the back of his left shoulder. His arm went numb and he lost his grip on his dagger. He released his sword, reached over his shoulder to tug the embedded axe free and let it fall, and grabbed for the dagger with his right hand.
The vampiric blade drained the life energy of victims and transferred it to the dagger’s wielder, healing him, but the stabbed man was too badly injured and died almost at once. The flow of blood from Entreri’s wound slowed only marginally. He jerked the blade free and stabbed for the stomach of the man whose eyes he had raked a moment ago.
Healing energy flooded into him. Sensation and movement returned to his left arm. He saw the bowman who had retreated from his first rush taking aim and he dodged aside, pulled his injured opponent into the path of the arrow as it was loosed, withdrew his dagger as the man jerked under the arrow’s impact and died, and charged the bowman.
Heavy footsteps pounded behind him as the paladin followed. Entreri outpaced his pursuer and launched a furious attack. The archer had a buckler strapped to his bow arm; he dropped his bow, blocked Entreri’s dagger with the buckler, and drew a short-sword. Entreri stabbed once more and again his strike was blocked. He went in close, grappled, and brought up his knee hard. The bowman gasped and doubled up. Entreri brought down his dagger and this time it wasn’t parried. He hung on to the man for a moment, receiving another flood of vampiric energy to complete the healing of his axe wound, and then twisted to put the dying archer between himself and the approaching paladin. A crossbow bolt narrowly missed his head as he moved and his Brooch of Shielding flared as it soaked up a Magic Missile spell.
His saber lay several yards away. Taking on a plate-clad knight when armed only with a dagger, even a strongly enchanted one, would be just a messy form of suicide. He grabbed the short-sword from the dying man’s hand, let the body fall, and turned to face the paladin. Further away he could see that Jarlaxle had obviously killed the wizard for a second time and the drow seemed to be keeping the other wizard fully occupied and on the defensive. The partially armored man with the bloodstained groin was heading for Jarlaxle’s position, crossbowmen were trying to pin Jarlaxle down, and other fighters seemed to be trying to outflank the drow. There were just too many of the enemy. He’d slain seven, Jarlaxle seemed to have killed four, but that left a dozen against the two of them.
At least for the moment Entreri had but a single foe, if a formidable one, to deal with. He saw the knight raising his sword for a swing, judged the trajectory, and side-stepped to slip past the blade. Once he could get inside the arc it would just be a matter of finding a vulnerable point in the armor…
The paladin’s foot caught on a fallen bow. He tripped, stumbled, and his blow went wild. Entreri’s dodge took him straight into the new path of the sword-stroke. The weapon’s point ripped across his bicep and then smashed into his chest with shattering force.
Entreri hit the ground face first. His dagger was gone, yards away out of reach, and the short-sword was stuck deep into the soil. A bloody froth came from his lips as he tried to breathe. He tried to rise, but only succeeded in rolling onto his back, and fumbled at his belt for a healing potion. The paladin kicked it away, lost his balance again, and staggered back a couple of paces. The knight recovered his balance and raised his sword.
There was a ‘pop’ of displaced air and a large flightless bird appeared beside Entreri. A diatryma, summoned by Jarlaxle using the magical feather that he wore in his hat, six and a half feet tall and with a massive hooked beak. It hissed, flapped its stumpy wings, and advanced to place itself between the paladin and Entreri. The bird’s head shot out and it pecked at the knight. The beak glanced off the gleaming steel plate without effect. The diatryma pulled its head back to strike again. The paladin swung his sword and connected with the long neck. The blade bit deep and the bird staggered. Another swing clove through the neck and the diatryma fell dead.
The knight in shining armor strode past the corpse, taking care not to trip or to step in the pool of blood, and stood over Entreri. He changed his grip on the sword to one more suitable for a downward finishing blow. Entreri tried to spit curses at him but failed to do more than blow bubbles of bloody froth.
“Die, traitor to humanity, in the name of Helm,” the paladin declaimed, and raised the sword. Entreri silently commended his soul to Shar, because the Dark Mistress was the deity he despised least, and awaited his inevitable death.
Something blurred through the air and smashed into the knight’s helmet. The paladin was knocked from his feet and landed on his backside. A war-hammer fell to the ground beside Entreri’s leg. The knight released his sword with one hand, clawed his visor open, and spat out blood and teeth.
A volley of arrows, crossbow bolts, and a thrown hand-axe whistled into the clearing. Two men fell dead and others were wounded. One arrow would have gone through the knight’s open visor had he not raised his armored gauntlet to his face at that very second. The arrow failed to penetrate the heavy plate covering the back of the hand and glanced off harmlessly. The paladin recoiled, closed his visor, and began to scramble to his feet using his sword as a prop.
A group of warriors emerged from the forest and ran into the clearing. A cloud of flying insects, wasps and biting flies and bees, came with them. The swarm headed for the nearest priest. The newcomers fell on the closest of the fighters and chopped them down.
The mage, apparently now fully recovered from Jarlaxle’s Lightning Bolt, cast a spell as the insect plague spread out from the priest and approached him. A pair of sword spiders, larger than a man and with razor-sharp slicing edges on their front legs, materialized and moved to attack the new arrivals.
Music sounded from the forest, chords on a yarting or something similar, and a voice rang out in song.
“The spiders are not insects
But in a war they will side with the insects.
Traitors! Traitors! Spider traitors!”
The sword spiders reversed their course and joined the insect plague in attacking the priest. He flailed blindly with his mace but lasted only seconds before collapsing, slashed and bitten and stung to death, and the swarm moved on to attack the mage and the other cleric.
The paladin had regained his feet and taken fresh hold of his sword in a fighting grip. He half-turned away and then turned back to Entreri. Obviously he had decided to finish off his wounded opponent before entering the fray against the newcomers. Entreri groaned in frustration at the unfairness of everything and tried to roll over enough to reach the short-sword with his working arm. If he could just hold the iron-clad swine off for a few moments…
He didn’t need to. A young woman raced across the clearing, moving so fast that Entreri deduced that she was Hasted, and attacked the knight. She was small, no taller than a drow, and slim enough to look almost frail. Even so, when she delivered a stamping kick to the paladin’s leg it buckled under him and he went down, letting go of his sword with one hand to clutch at his injured limb. “My leg! Aargh, my leg!” he gasped out, the words muffled by his visor and also by missing teeth.
“Hey, I’ve heard that somewhere before,” the girl said. The knight lashed out at her with his great-sword. She parried the blow with a long-sword, a fancy weapon with an elaborate hilt and gilded pommel, blocking effortlessly and then twisting to disarm him. She kicked his sword away, caught his arm with her free hand, and wrenched it around and up to expose the vulnerable section under his armpit. She drove her blade home, deep into his chest, and withdrew it in a fountain of blood. “Eww, gross,” she said, as the paladin jerked and expired. She flipped his body away. “Hey, Tara, there’s a guy bad hurt here. Punctured lung, it looks like.”
“Coming!” a female voice called in reply.
The girl bent to pick up the war hammer, hefted it and scanned the vicinity as if looking for targets, found none and hooked it onto her belt. “Hang on in there,” she said to Entreri, “we’ll get you fixed up in just a minute.” She flicked blood from her sword blade and then headed for one of the fallen archers. She was moving at normal speed; not hasted, then, just naturally very fast.
Entreri looked around, as best he could, and caught a few glimpses of the last moments of the battle. The man armored to the waist, who had been stabbed in the groin by Entreri early in the fight, faced off against another girl only slightly taller than the one who had saved his life. She used two swords to kill the man, hitting him three times in quick succession without him being able to retaliate, her style reminding Entreri somewhat of his old foe Drizzt Do’Urden. The second of the two enemy clerics ran screaming as he sought to escape the plague of insects. A woman with rather elfin features intercepted him and rammed a spear through his chest. Two armored warriors hacked another knight to death with two-handed swords. Another small woman, no taller than the first, rained down blows with a flail on a crossbowman whose state of undress indicated that he had been one of those actively involved in rape. She continued to smite her foe long after he stopped moving.
“Lie still,” a soft female voice addressed Entreri. “I’ll have you fixed up in no time.”
He looked up, saw a woman with honey-blonde hair smiling at him, and gave up his efforts to observe what was by now nothing more than mopping-up. He lay back and relaxed as she knelt down, placed her hand gently on his chest, and cast a spell of Healing. He had a deep-rooted mistrust of male priests but regarded priestesses – other than drow ones – as more tolerable; this one’s smile seemed to radiate kindness and compassion. She was clad in armor of red and black scales, dragon-skin unless he missed his guess, as were several others in her group. The spell that she cast restored him to full health immediately, despite the severity of his injury, implying a level of competence at her craft that matched those of the accomplished warriors he had seen in action.
“Thanks,” Entreri said. He sat up and looked around. All members of the enemy party were dead now. The flail-wielding woman was still delivering blows to her victim but he was hardly identifiable even as human by this time.
“I have to go,” the priestess said. She stood up. “The, uh, there are other people who need attention.” She gestured in the direction of where the drow prisoners had undergone their ordeal.
“Of course,” Entreri said. “See to them without delay. I am fully recovered.”
The priestess gave him a brief smile and hastened away. “Hey, Vicky,” he heard her call out as she went, “You can stop hitting that guy now. He’s kinda all the way dead, and more, and we got work to do.”
“Very well, abbil,” the woman addressed replied. Entreri’s eyes widened. A drow? He couldn’t see her face, hidden as it was by a broad-brimmed hat with a veil, and her dragon armor concealed her skin. He strained his ears to make out her words. “You are right that this iblith is dead and feels my blows no longer. His death was more merciful than he deserved. We shall tend to the victims, then, as I presume is your wish.”
“Hey, you okay now?” The girl who had slain the paladin returned to Entreri’s vicinity, wiping the blade of her sword clean with a piece of cloth sliced from the clothing of a fallen archer, and smiled at him.
“I am,” Entreri confirmed. He went to where his dagger lay, bent down, and retrieved it. “Thanks to you and your associates, that is. I was almost slain. I over-reached myself, it seems, and perhaps it was a foolish venture.”
“Well, maybe it wasn’t all that smart,” the girl said, “but I guess there are things you just have to do if you want to be able to live with yourself.”
Entreri frowned. “I don’t do good deeds,” he said, as much to himself as to her. “I fight for money. Nothing else.”
“Yeah, right,” the girl said, the corners of her mouth twitching. “I’ve heard that one before, too. Well, I bet these guys have some gold, and they sure don’t need it any more. We’ll share it out later. I’m Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”
“Artemis Entreri,” he replied. Vampire Slayer? She spoke as if it was a title. Having seen her in action he could well believe that it was one fairly earned.
Jarlaxle emerged from the trees, his arms spread wide to show his empty hands and thus non-hostile intent, although of course his magical bracers meant that weapons were never far from his grasp. He sauntered towards Entreri, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, with his most ingratiating smile on his face. Several members of the Vampire Slayer’s party drifted, just as casually, to meet him.
Entreri studied his rescuers, sizing them up, assessing them both as people and as potential threats. It seemed distinctly unlikely that they would turn on him, as they had gone to the trouble of healing him, but he had learned long ago never to take anything for granted. He had no doubt that Jarlaxle would be carrying out a similar assessment, behind his smile, and of course the scrutiny would be reciprocated by the victorious adventuring party.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer was, he decided now that he had time to study her in detail, fair in both senses of the word. Her hair was blonde, although her eyebrows and a slight hint of a darker shade at the roots indicated to him that it would probably be a light shade of reddish-brown without artificial aids, and her features were fine and clear save for a minor irregularity about the bridge of her nose; perhaps the legacy of a combat injury that had healed naturally instead of through magic. Her eyes were green and her gaze was open and, apparently, honest and friendly. She wore no armor apart from dragon-hide boots. Entreri would have expected, from the power she had shown in her hammer-throw and her defeat of the paladin, to see her wearing a Girdle of Giant Strength. Her sword belt, however, was a mundane affair of plain leather too slender to be an item of such power. The source of her great strength, whatever it was, remained unknown.
The girl who had wielded two swords in the fight arrived and took up position in close proximity to Buffy. Her hair was as black as the wings of a raven, as a bard would say, and her skin was a light shade of bronze. At first Entreri guessed her to be a Calishite, like himself, but when she drew close he saw from the set of her eyes that her origins lay in far-off Kara-Tur. She brushed a strand of hair away from her forehead and fixed her eyes on Jarlaxle.
“Greetings, fair ladies,” Jarlaxle said. He swept his feather-plumed hat from his shaven head, held the hat to his chest, and bowed low. “You have my gratitude, and that of my taciturn friend, for your most timely assistance. No doubt Artemis has expressed himself only in curt monosyllables, a grunt of ‘thanks’ perhaps, but I assure you that he means as much by that as a bard could convey in an entire song cycle.”
Entreri noticed eyebrows climbing, and eyes widening, all around the group. Jarlaxle, who managed to cram more flamboyance into his four foot eight inch frame than anyone else would have thought possible, tended to have that effect upon first meeting. The drow wore enough jewelry to stock a small shop; a goodly proportion of it was magical. His clothes were a riot of color. Bright blue pants tucked into high wide boots that would be in style only on a pirate, a red leather vest worn without a shirt so that his tautly muscled stomach was exposed, the wide-brimmed purple hat with its huge feather, a shimmering multi-colored cloak, and, perhaps his most distinctive garment, his eye-patch. A magical aid to vision, rather than concealing a damaged eye as one would expect, it was held in place by a gaudy patterned band of Calishite silk.
One member of the adventuring band, a warrior in black leather whose hair – probably dyed – was so pale as to be almost white, focused his gaze on the eye-patch and grinned. “Bloody hell,” he commented, “it’s Pudsey Bear!”
Most of his colleagues seemed to find the remark as incomprehensible as did Entreri. Only one, a man of Entreri’s age, or older, who held a yarting and so was presumably the party’s bard, laughed aloud. The others ignored the comment.
The Kara-Turan girl grinned. “Somehow,” she said to Jarlaxle, “I’m guessing you’re not from Ust Natha.” Her brow furrowed slightly and she tilted her head to one side. “Rilauven, maybe?”
“You are half correct, fair lady,” Jarlaxle said. “I hail from the city of Menzoberranzan, far to the north of here.” He replaced his hat. “I see that there is one of my race amongst your companions. No doubt you have learned of the Drow from her.”
“Usstan inbal, ke, jaluk,” she replied, “lu'Usstan inbal screus mzild wun l'szith-tangi nindel udos inbal fridj maunus wun Ust Natha.”
“Show-off,” Buffy the Vampire Slayer muttered.
Jarlaxle’s eyebrows rose. “Impressive,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard a surfacer speak our language so well before. You even have a Menzoberranzan accent.”
“Dawn and Tara speak it better than I do,” the Kara-Turan girl admitted, gesturing first at a leggy young maiden in red dragon-leather and then in the direction of where three women, one of them the drow, ministered to the rape victims. “I am Sorkatani Gorion’s Ward, originally from Candlekeep, later of Baldur’s Gate and now living in Athkatla.”
“Well met,” said Jarlaxle. “I am Jarlaxle of Menzoberranzan, and my companion is Artemis Entreri.”
Sorkatani turned her gaze on Entreri. “I have heard that name,” she said. “An assassin, cold and ruthless, it is said.” She smiled at him. “I prefer to judge from deeds rather than reputations. Well met, Artemis Entreri.”
Entreri had tensed, ready for possible action, at her first words. Her friendly smile caught him off balance. “Uh, well met,” he said. “Sorkatani? That name is known to me. The Perfect Warrior, they call you, do they not? I would have thought it a vainglorious and boastful title, probably undeserved, except that the reward offered for your death kept rising and rising and was never claimed. Now that I’ve seen you in action I can understand why.”
“My half-brother gave me that name, in mockery,” Sorkatani told him. “He was the one who put the reward on my head.” She grinned at Entreri again. “Now that I’ve seen you in action I’m glad that you didn’t seek to claim it.”
“I don’t take contracts without knowing what I’m getting myself into,” Entreri said. He saw a grimace flicker across Sorkatani’s face briefly but did not know what had triggered it. “I would not have accepted a commission from one who was so obviously an incompetent and a cheapskate. To start with a pittance, then be forced to increase the amount when the pathetic thugs who would work for so little failed, showed that he would have been a most unsatisfactory employer. You get what you pay for.”
“You pay peanuts, you get monkeys,” a dark-haired young warrior put in. He also was clad in dragon scale armor and bore a two-handed great-sword.
“Exactly,” said Entreri. “An apt way of putting it. And I am no monkey.”
“True,” said Jarlaxle. “That would be my role in this partnership, as I am small, and nimble, and, ah…”
“Cute?” suggested the young maiden in red leather; Dawn, presumably, if Entreri had read Sorkatani’s gesture correctly.
“Perhaps not the word for which I was groping,” Jarlaxle said, “but I will not object. Yes, I will concede that I have certain similarities to a monkey. I draw the line, however, at perching on the shoulder of a pirate.”
“Aye aye, Captain,” the dark-haired young man said. This brought chuckles from his comrades; a reference to some past experience, no doubt.
“And the nature of Monkey was… irrepressible,” the blond man remarked, a change in his accent hinting that he was quoting. Again the bard laughed but the others failed to react. Entreri deduced that those two originated in a different city from the others.
“Hey, could we leave the introductions and so on until later?” suggested a blonde girl, whose dragon leather armor was black trimmed with red. “It’s so much easier stripping armor off of corpses if you do it before rigor mortis sets in.”
“Girl’s got a point,” the blond man backed her.
“And you’d know,” Buffy the Vampire Slayer said. Her nose wrinkled. “Hey, Spike, wipe your mouth. You’ve got blood dribbles. Totally gross.”
The man, Spike, ran his tongue around his lips and then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Sorry, Slayer,” he said. “Vicky usually tips me off about things like that but she’s a bit busy right now.”
“It’s not a big deal,” Buffy said, “just, you know, not pretty.” She pursed her lips and then addressed Entreri and Jarlaxle. “I guess we’d better mention this now, just in case you notice later and get all alarmed, and really it’s nothing to worry about ‘cause he’s one of the good guys these days. Spike’s a vampire.”
“Ah,” said Jarlaxle, “that would explain the somewhat… unconventional way in which I saw him slay one of our foes. I had deduced that he was, perhaps, a werewolf.”
“Close, but no cigar,” Buffy said. “He’s definitely a vampire. Trust me on this. It’s kinda my job to know the difference.”
“Standing right here, Slayer,” Spike said. “Can speak for myself.”
“Yeah, but you keep putting in all that British stuff, Doctor Who and Weetabix and whatever, so that nobody but Giles can understand you,” Buffy retorted.
This confirmed Entreri’s deduction. Those two members of the group indeed hailed from somewhere other than the homeland of Buffy and her other colleagues.
“Don’t worry about it, anyway,” Buffy went on. “Spike’s harmless.”
“Mostly harmless,” Spike corrected her.
Entreri’s brow furrowed. “A vampire? How is it, then, that you walk in daylight under the full glare of the sun? Under the trees the leaves might shield you but here in this clearing there is no shade.”
“Good question,” Spike said. “Short answer is, we dunno.”
“Some of us, including Spike, came to Faerûn from another world,” Buffy expanded. “Back home he’d burn up just like any other vamp. It doesn’t work that way here and we’re not sure why.”
“Given up wondering about it,” Spike said. “These days I just enjoy it.” He grinned at Jarlaxle. “As one creature of the dark to another – walking in the sun’s bloody great, innit?”
“Sunlight,” Bodhi sighed. “I’m so excited! To walk in the sun again after so long. It’ll be such fun.” She licked Katrina’s neck. “I wonder how it will work out for you. Will you be immune to sunlight, because of me turning you, or will you be like the other vampires of this world?”
Katrina struggled in Bodhi’s grasp. It was futile against the vampire girl’s overwhelming strength. Bodhi seemed not even to notice.
“We don’t even know for sure if we’re immune,” Tanova reminded Bodhi. She dragged Warren over to the window, tearing the IV out of his arm in the process and ignoring his yelp of pain, and stared out at the sunlit grounds of Sunnydale Hospital.
“There’s only one way to find out,” Bodhi said. “Dinner first.” She opened her mouth wide and revealed her fangs.
“Y-you don’t want to do that,” Jonathan interrupted hastily. “If you kill her you’ll never be able to go home.”
Bodhi paused. “What do you mean?”
Katrina picked up on Jonathan’s meaning. “We’re the only ones who could send you back to Faerûn,” she told Bodhi. “If you kill us you’ll be stranded here.”
“That’s assuming we want to go back,” Bodhi said, “but you would have a point, I suppose, if it wasn’t for one thing. When we’ve killed you you’ll still be able to walk and talk.”
“It doesn’t always work, though, does it?” Warren stopped trying to fight Tanova and joined in the argument. “Sometimes humans just die. You can’t risk it.”
“Damn,” said Bodhi. “He’s right. Maybe we should have brought Anomen. You can’t still do your Laying On Hands trick, can you, Jeroneth?”
“Alas, no, my Lady,” the former paladin replied. “Torm grants no powers to the Undead.”
Bodhi pursed her lips. “Well, it usually works,” she said, “and it obviously doesn’t need all of them to do it, as they sent Warren Mears to Athkatla and brought him back here. We can risk one or two of them dying on us.”
“It does need us all, it totally does,” Andrew protested. “Me and Jonathan for the magic, Warren and Katrina for the computer stuff. We’re a team.”
Bodhi shook her head. “Your words betray you. There is one spare…”
“Hey, guys, did it work?” A voice called from outside the room. It was a voice that Bodhi recognized.
“Willow!” Bodhi hissed. “But how? Tanova, get us out of here! Now!” She tossed Katrina onto the bed.
Tanova released Warren, shoved him away and sent him staggering across the room, and began to cast a spell. Zarbalan back-handed Andrew and knocked him to the floor. Jeroneth, who was holding Jonathan’s arms, did not release him.
Willow and Tara came through the door and stopped dead in their tracks. Tara’s mouth dropped open. Willow’s eyes became huge circles. “What the…?”
Circles of vapor formed in the air around Bodhi, Tanova, Zarbalan and Jeroneth. And Jonathan. They shimmered, faded, and were gone. A micro-thunderclap sounded as air rushed into the vacated spaces.
Warren grabbed at the bed-head for support, caught his balance, and then rushed to Katrina. “Are you alright?”
“I’m okay. Just shaken up. Are you alright?”
“What happened? Who were those people?” Willow asked.
Andrew sat up and rubbed his jaw. “They took Jonathan!”
Katrina scrambled off the bed, with some unnecessary assistance from Warren, and they ran to the window and looked out.
“What happened?” Willow repeated.
“Uh, Warren, your arm’s bleeding,” Tara said. “Didn’t you notice you were on an IV?”
“It came out when Tanova pulled me out of the bed,” Warren told her. “There they are! Still in the shadows.”
“Tanova?” Willow’s brow furrowed and she shook her head. “Who?”
“A Vampyre Mage of great power,” Andrew explained, “although with only a fraction of the might of her Dread Mistress.”
“Dread Mistress?” Willow echoed.
“Bodhi,” Warren said. “She came back from Athkatla with me somehow. They were frigging waiting for me, guys. How the hell did that happen?”
“I don’t know,” Katrina said. She shook her head. “I don’t get it. They’re not real. Okay, they were acting real, but they’re still just, like, bytes of data.”
“Bodhi? The vampire girl out of the Baldur’s Gate game? She’s here and alive?” Willow’s eyes seemed about to pop out.
“Undead,” Andrew corrected her.
“Yeah, she’s here, and she’s brought three of her friends,” Warren said. “This is bad.”
“I’ll find a phone and call Joan and Randy,” Tara suggested. “The vampires can’t get far in the daytime.”
Katrina groaned. “Oh yes they can,” she said. “Bodhi’s just walked out into the sunshine.”
“Total absence of flames,” Warren said. “We’re screwed, guys. Oh, shit. Sunnydale is screwed.”
“Uh, yeah, vampires immune to sunlight are bad, I totally get that,” Willow said, “but not, like, world-ending bad.”
“You don’t know Bodhi,” Warren said. “Once she finds out we’re on a Hellmouth…” He put his hands on the glass and stared out of the window. “Hey! Yeah! They’ve let Jonathan go.”
Andrew sucked in his breath. “Thank you, God,” he said.
“Yeah, right,” Warren said. He turned away from the window. “Let’s get out of this place.”
“Sure thing, Warren,” Katrina said, “but first we get your arm patched up. And,” she added, her gaze travelling over his pajama-clad body, “you’d better put on some clothes.”
“The garb of the locals is somewhat different from what we are used to,” Bodhi remarked.
“Indeed so,” Jeroneth agreed. “Those dresses are extremely short. Rather… immodest.”
“You would look extremely fetching dressed that way,” Zarbalan said. “Your legs are a delight to the eye.”
Jeroneth smiled at him. “You do say the sweetest things.”
“Sickeningly sweet,” Tanova groaned. “And, while I’m thinking about it, what was the idea of letting the little man go? He was going to be our lunch. Was it because you’ve got a thing for short men?”
Jeroneth pouted. “Zarbalan is the only man I have any ‘thing’ for,” she said. “No, I just thought that it would be unfair to kill him, as he had done us a service, even if unwittingly, after all. It would have attracted far too much attention, anyway, if we’d eaten him out there in the open.”
“We’re attracting rather a lot of attention as it is,” Bodhi said. “Our clothes, I presume, as they are so unlike those of the natives.” She turned her head as her gaze followed a car passing by in the road. “Hmm,” she mused. “What propels those carriages? Is it enchantment, I wonder, or cunning mechanisms? There is an odor of burning oil. Mechanisms, I suspect, and therefore Gond must hold sway here. I’ll have to get one of those.” She turned her attention back to Tanova and returned to her original topic. “New clothes must be our second priority.”
“What’s our first?” Tanova asked. “Dinner?”
“No, that’s number three,” Bodhi replied. “Coffins. We must find a graveyard, preferably one with crypts, and prepare coffins for our use in case we are slain and forced to regenerate. That’s why I didn’t want to risk taking on Willow back in that building.”
Tanova shuddered. “Good point,” she said. “We’d have just stayed in gaseous form until we dissipated. Let us, then, seek out their graveyard district.”
“I’ll ask a local,” Jeroneth said. She accosted a passer-by. “Good sir,” she said, “could you direct me, pray, to this town’s cemetery?”
“Which one?” the man responded. “Sunnydale has twelve.”
“Ah, my kind of town,” said Bodhi. “The biggest. Preferably one with crypts, mausoleums, catacombs and the like.”
“Hmm.” The local pursed his lips. “That would be Sunnydale Cemetery. It’s out back of where they’re rebuilding the High School.” He looked the girls up and down and grinned. “Hey, nice costumes. I didn’t know there was a Ren Fair on. Or is it a Sci-Fi Convention?”
“Just direct us to the cemetery,” Bodhi said, “and we shall pay you with gold.”
“Hey, you’re really into the spirit of the thing, yeah? I’m going more or less in that direction. I don’t mind showing you the way.”
Bodhi smiled. “Lead on, then,” she said. She turned to Tanova and smiled. “I think that this good man may well also enable us to take care of priority number three.”
“Ah, that looks, and smells, delicious.” Jarlaxle gazed at the dark red meat and licked his lips. “My diatryma shall serve us as well in death as it did in life.”
“I cooked it like it was an ostrich,” the cleric, Tara, said. “We didn’t have much in the way of spices so I used some Morimatra wine as a marinade.”
“Totally the best way of using the stuff,” Buffy commented.
Jarlaxle raised his eyebrows. “I take it you do not appreciate the traditional wine of my homeland?”
“I guess it has its uses,” Buffy said, “Like, as metal polish for my sword, or to finish off a wounded troll.”
Jarlaxle laughed. “Spoken like a true connoisseur.” He accepted a plate of diatryma meat from Tara and speared a piece with his dagger.
There were two girl mages in the group. Both of them were red-heads, of about five foot three, with fairly similar facial features, but they had very different vocal mannerisms and were obviously not related. One of them had shadows under her eyes, her lips were pale, and she shivered occasionally. Entreri would have thought her to be ill but that seemed incongruous; the band had enough healing power to cope with a medium-sized plague and surely they would tend to one of their own. Perhaps she was simply tired from over-use of spells.
The other one, who he had heard referred to as ‘Willow’, was dressed and equipped in the manner of a mage of great power. She hesitated with a piece of meat half-way to her mouth and addressed Jarlaxle. “Uh, how does your big bird getting killed and, uh, eaten affect the summoning? Does it screw things up so that you won’t be able to do it again?”
“Oh, no, I will still be able to summon a diatryma,” Jarlaxle answered her. “This isn’t the first time it has died in combat. It will be a different one next time, I suppose, but they do not have distinctive personalities. Perhaps another diatryma would be able to tell the difference but I certainly can’t.”
Sorkatani approached the cooking fire, accompanied by two of the female members of her band, and leading the three rescued drow captives. Entreri watched as the drow sat down and were given plates of food. They seemed to be physically over their ordeal, no doubt due to the applications of powerful healing spells, but their faces showed that they were a long way from recovering mentally and emotionally. Their eyes darted about, never still, and they avoided looking at the men in the group.
The female drow member of Sorkatani’s and Buffy’s band took off her veiled hat. Jarlaxle looked at her and narrowed his eyes. “You look familiar,” he said, “and your companions speak our language with a Menzoberranzan accent. Do I know you?”
The female drow fixed her eyes on him. “I do not recall knowing any male with such gaudy taste in clothes,” she said.
“I do know you! You were the heir to House De’Vir,” Jarlaxle said. “Viconia, am I right? I thought you long dead.”
“I am indeed Matron Mother Viconia De’Vir, male,” the woman said, with a haughty tilt of her chin, and then her mouth twitched into an unexpected smile. “Although it is perhaps the smallest House of any, with only twenty-eight members including myself, but it will grow again.” She stared hard at Jarlaxle. “Your voice is familiar. You are of House Baenre, I think.”
“I was,” Jarlaxle admitted, “but I decided that I could do better outside the constraints of a matriarchal hierarchy. I founded my own band of mercenaries, the famed Bregan D’aerthe. I am Jarlaxle.”
“Oh, yes, I remember,” Viconia said. “I take it, then, that your mercenary venture has fallen on hard times, if you are now wandering in the forest with but a single companion?”
“Quite the contrary,” Jarlaxle said. “We prosper mightily. I felt in the mood to adventure on the surface for a while, however, and the members of my band did not share my inclination. I have therefore taken a leave of absence, leaving my lieutenant in temporary charge, and…”
Enteri tuned out Jarlaxle’s account, as he was familiar with the story, and concentrated his attention on the members of the adventuring party. The two girl leaders were… impressive. Both were devastatingly effective in combat, both extremely pretty, and both treated him with an easy friendliness that was unfamiliar and slightly disconcerting. Buffy had a sparkling wit, although he was slightly thrown by her use of cultural references from an alien world, and her smile was dazzling. Sorkatani had shown a gentle and compassionate nature in her dealings with the freed drow captives that was… endearing. If only, Entreri found himself thinking, he was ten years younger; no, he had to be honest with himself, make that fifteen years younger. He let his attention drift back to Jarlaxle.
“I had thought to pay a visit to the city of Ust Natha,” the drow mercenary was saying, “where there is a small outpost of Bregan D’aerthe. Unfortunately we found an army of elves camped around the entrance to the Underdark and so we had to change our plans. Perhaps we’ll get another chance later. My intention had been to combine business with pleasure. There is a Matron Mother, of a minor House, there who has certain, shall we say, outstanding assets and skills.” He shot a sly glance at Entreri. “I was hoping that she could persuade my excessively restrained friend to relax and enjoy life for a while.”
The buzz of other conversation around the fire stopped dead. There was a complete hush. Enteri saw the smiles on the faces of Buffy, Sorkatani, and their colleagues vanish.
“You speak of Evelintra Zaughym. I know this,” Viconia said. Her lips were tight and the expression in her eyes was as hard as flint. “She is dead.”
“We knew her for a few days only,” Sorkatani said, “but she had become our good friend.”
“They used my freaking sword to kill her,” the dark-haired young knight chimed in. “It was…” He set down his plate. “You know, suddenly I’m not hungry.”
“A tasty snack,” Bodhi said. She released the corpse and it fell to the crypt floor. “That should keep us going for a while.”
“One between four isn’t much,” Tanova said, “but it will do, at least for the moment. An hour from now I’ll probably want another one.” She gazed down at the body. “He’s not much of a physical specimen. I don’t think he’ll be much fun as a minion.”
“Looks aren’t everything,” Bodhi said, “but I’ll admit they’re a start. I can’t be bothered with him either.” Her sword blurred through the air and the corpse’s head rolled. “He won’t rise now. Jeroneth, Zarbalan, pick the bits up. We’ll dump them somewhere at the edge of the cemetery. Better not leave any obvious signs at this crypt now that we have it fixed up as our refuge.”
“Of course, my Lady,” Jeroneth said.
“Usstan rothrl – I shall obey, Lady,” Zarbalan said. He grinned delightedly from under the sunglasses, acquired from their late guide, which he now wore.
“Well, that’s priorities one and three dealt with,” Bodhi said, “so now we can get on with priority two. Shopping for clothes.”
“He had almost no coin,” Tanova said. “I wonder. These pieces of paper are numbered, decorated with intricate patterns, and bear the head of a ruler. Fifty dollars, twenty dollars – that word reminds me of danter, or gulder. Yes, look, it says ‘quarter dollar’ on this coin. The paper is money. I’ve heard they use paper money in parts of Kara-Tur and the Hordelands. They must do the same here.”
“An interesting idea,” Bodhi said, “except that I didn’t have any intention of actually paying for anything.” She showed her teeth. “Let’s go and paint the town red.”
• ‘Usstan inbal, ke, jaluk’ = ‘I have indeed, male’
• ‘lu'Usstan inbal screus mzild wun l'szith-tangi nindel udos inbal fridj maunus wun Ust Natha.’ = ‘and I have learned more in the ten-day we have just spent in Ust Natha.’
The characters in this story do not belong to me, but are being used for amusement only and all rights remain with Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, the writers of the original episodes, the TV and production companies responsible for the original television shows, the author of the books, and the game designers and copyright holders. BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER (c) 2002 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved. The Buffy the Vampire Slayer trademark is used without express permission from Fox. ‘Baldur’s Gate 2: Shadows of Amn’ belongs to Bioware and Wizards of the Coast, Inc. Artemis Entreri and Jarlaxle belong to R. A. Salvatore. The snippet of song lyrics sung by Giles comes from ‘Human Slaves (In an Insect Nation)’ by Bill Bailey.