Masquerade of Monsters

By Ariel

Description: Jarlaxle and Artemis Entreri accept what seems to be a typical job; however, their task is complicated by a dangerous encounter with the paranormal. Action/Adventure/Horror.

Disclaimer: Jarlaxle and Artemis Entreri belong to R. A. Salvatore and Wizards of the Coast. No challenge to the copyright is intended or should be inferred. The following story is just for the amusement of the fans and will never make any profit.

A/N: This piece is meant to take place shortly after "Empty Joys." You do not need to have read any of my other fanfics in order to read this piece. However, if you have read my series of stories, The Road to Redemption, then you can keep in mind that this story takes place directly before the events in "Progression of a Killer." Also, this story is independent of my second trilogy of stories, Descent into Darkness, the first installment of which I hope to begin posting in late December or early January. Thanks goes to Alzadea, whose curiosity about an event I mentioned in "Progression" inspired me to write this story.

Chapter One

1368 DR

The wan rose sunset refracted off the glistening waters of the Fire River, casting a pale glow upon the shoreline of Raven's Bluff. As nightfall invaded from the east, silence descended upon the bustling docks while the city's seedier underside seeped into the streets, spreading through the alleyways and hovering around the buildings like a yellow fog. From a tavern into the dying light stepped two such mercenaries, who blended into the shadows at the edges of the cobblestone street only to later approach in full view their destination in the city's richest neighborhood.

Jarlaxle and Artemis Entreri traded skeptical glances as they climbed the marble staircase of the red brick mansion. "Interesting that Lord D'Arca should have us use the front door," the drow commented.

Entreri frowned. "Indeed." Even as the assassin reached for the massive brass doorknocker, which was crafted into shape of a lion's head, the door jolted open, and a manservant bowed them into the foyer.

To Entreri, the interior of the D'Arca mansion proclaimed to all those who entered that both impressive ancestry and affluence graced the family. Each grand, arching room that the assassin passed seemed to comment upon the loftiness of the people within. Once ushered into the parlor, Entreri noted each detail of the expansive wealth around him, even the tinkling of wine goblets, which echoed off the pink marble floor to recoil against the shadowy ceiling. Diamond-inlaid chandeliers hung overhead, extravagant in their intricate design, yet their light failed to push back the darkness encroaching from the corners. The heavy brocade curtains, emerald in hue, had been pulled back to allow in the fading sunset, but Entreri decided nothing could have pierced the pervasive sense of gloom enfolding the room.

Lord D'Arca, their perspective employer, joined them in the parlor moments later. "Welcome, gentlemen," he said, gesturing for them to sit.

"Thank you, milord." Jarlaxle radiated his diplomatic air.

Entreri simply nodded to the man, then sat tense and uneasy by Jarlaxle on a lushly upholstered loveseat. The drow ran delicate fingers over the crimson fabric, exclaiming over the quality, but to Entreri the cheerful elf seemed sorely at odds with their surroundings.

"Such a fine piece!" Jarlaxle was saying, emitting his uncanny charm.

"I thank you." Lord D'Arca seated himself in the chair across from them. "I had the piece handcrafted specifically to fit this room."

Entreri remained mute, giving only the faintest of nods to the manservant who offered him wine. His warrior's intuition buzzed in the back of his mind, urging him to be on guard.

Jarlaxle, on the other hand, daintily sniffed his wine and sipped it, savoring its flavor before swallowing. "Truly, you have fine taste, good man. This cabernet sauvignon is exquisite!"

Entreri shrugged mentally as he sipped his; the wine was satisfactory. He had never been one to fawn over alcoholic beverages of any kind, but if he had to drink wine, he preferred red wine—the drier the better. At that thought, a whisper of a feminine giggle seemed to sound right in the man's ear. Entreri glanced quickly to the side only to find no one had entered the room. Odd, I could swear I heard laughter. Entreri frowned. It is not like me to be given to glitches of imagination.

The lord, a towering man of nearly seven feet, had smiled graciously at Jarlaxle's compliment. "Again, I thank you. The vintage is my family's own, and we would like to think ourselves accomplished at distilling the very best of wines."

Entreri stared at the lord, sizing him up in a matter of moments: washed-out blue eyes held a touch of apprehension; wide streaks of grey overtook platinum blonde hair; worry lines wrinkled the man's brow until the skin seemed to fold over on itself. Lord D'Arca suffered under some great fear or worry. "How may we be of service?" the assassin asked bluntly. "Noblemen such as yourself do not often call upon the likes of men such as we." Entreri smirked. "Or, rather, not so openly as you have."

Jarlaxle shot the assassin an irritated glance.

D'Arca did not seem offended, however; he simply slumped in his chair. "Yes . . . well, I have heard from sources I trust of the quality of your work. And as for my reasons . . . it's a long story—too long to tell and unnecessary for your purposes should you choose to accept this job. Suffice it to say that my great-great-grandfather and his brother had a violent disagreement over their inheritance, with the brother thinking he should inherit this estate instead of my great-great-grandfather. The result has been a multi-generational feud. I have tried many times, as have others, to settle this disagreement, although a truce acceptable to both sides has not been reached."

The man placed his wine goblet on the table beside him and ran both hands over his face. "My wife and I were only graced with a single child: a beautiful daughter, Naomi. It is of great importance that she marry one of her cousins, Joseph, in order to keep the estate out of the hands of our tormentors. Unfortunately, this fact has resulted in several attempts on both Naomi's and Joseph's lives." D'Arca shook his head. "I have reason to believe that my distant cousins have hired an accomplished assassin to kill my daughter, and I feel the best course of action is to add . . . an extra, unusual addition to my daughter's defenders for the time being."

"You wish to hire us as bodyguards?" Entreri paraphrased.

D'Arca sighed, and it was a pitiful sigh, indeed. "Yes, and also to kill the assassin as a message to them that I will not be defeated or intimidated regardless of the methods they use."

Except that you already are intimidated, Entreri thought.

"Will you accept?" the lord asked. "I offer ten thousand gold for my daughter's safety and for the head of the assassin."

The mercenaries traded glances. "Certainly," Jarlaxle answered.

Lord D'Arca visibly relaxed. "Thank Mystra. I will fetch my daughter. You must begin your job immediately." He stood and strode from the room, his demeanor one of great urgency.

"I do not like this," Entreri said the instant the man left hearing-range. "We should have simply returned to Damara."

Jarlaxle turned to him and raised an eyebrow. "Why do you disapprove, my friend?" He grinned. "I have noticed you've been quite tense since we entered this fine mansion—or rather, I should say, more tense than usual."

Entreri scowled at him. "I sense something about this place."

Jarlaxle chuckled. "Indeed, there does seem to be a faint aura of misery or gloom shrouding this home, but I am not convinced it is anything we cannot handle."

Entreri frowned and began to reply, but Lord D'Arca swept back into the room with a young lady in tow. Jarlaxle quickly stood, Entreri following suit.

"Gentlemen," D'Arca said, waving his hand toward the young woman, "this is my daughter, Naomi."

A tall, graceful woman approximately eighteen years of age stepped forward and curtsied to Jarlaxle and Entreri. "A pleasure to meet you," she said in a quiet voice, not making eye contact with the men. Her gown, which was pink silk with a design of lilies sewn about the neck and hem, accented the rosy undertone of her complexion and flattered the strawberry blonde curls which fell over her shoulders.

Jarlaxle's one uncovered eye had gone wide with obvious appreciation of the woman's beauty, and Entreri swallowed a snort as he considered discretely stepping on the elf's foot in order to snap him out of it. "The pleasure is ours," the assassin managed to say in a perfectly even voice, and removing his hat, he bowed deeply to the lady.

"Indeed," Jarlaxle said, apparently realizing he was staring, and he swept off his plumed hat as he bowed just as deeply.

Naomi kept her eyes trained on the floor, but a faint flush rose to her cheeks. Fortunately, her father was too distracted to notice any of the exchange. "We must hurry," the man said, a note of sadness in his voice as he turned away. "Please, follow me. I've received a report that they are already on the move."

As D'Arca and Naomi rushed from the room, Entreri turned to Jarlaxle and whispered, "'They?' 'On the move?' Just how much have we not been told?"

The drow mercenary frowned, then shrugged, and they followed the man and his daughter.

"The basement?" Entreri asked, torch in hand as he followed Jarlaxle down the narrow flight of stairs which D'Arca had claimed led to a secret level beneath the mansion. The lord had locked the hidden door behind them and told them he'd return for them as soon as it was safe.

"It's not so bad as you might think," Naomi answered from behind him. "The basement is a fully furnished floor, and no expense was spared at decorating it to match the rest of our abode."

Entreri snorted quietly, but he relaxed ever so slightly as he saw the glow of a fire ahead of them. As the mercenaries reached the bottom of the staircase and fanned out into the room, they realized Naomi had not exaggerated. A large sitting room greeted them, and a lively fire burned in the fireplace. Elaborately woven rugs, which Entreri recognized as Calishite in origin, covered the expanse of pink marble floors. Delicate cherry wood chairs and tables were arranged tastefully to accent a cerulean velvet loveseat, and ivory statues lined the walls, all of them nudes arranged in graceful poses.

"Such fine taste your family has, milady," Jarlaxle commented.

Naomi inclined her head. "My thanks, good sir. But would you be ever so kind as to tell me your names? My father was in such a rush he forgot to properly introduce us."

Jarlaxle blinked. "Why, you are correct!" The mercenary removed his hat and bowed once more. "I am Jarlaxle, milady, and—"

Entreri interrupted the elf before he could continue. "And I am Artemis Entreri." He tipped his hat to her.

Naomi looked at them fully this time, measuring them up as thoroughly as any man would. Apparently pleased with what she found, she glanced down at her hands, which she'd folded before her. "It truly is a pleasure to meet you. I feel sure you will keep me safe from whatever foul creature my distant cousins have sent to kill me."

Entreri smirked but said nothing.

Jarlaxle walked up to her and took her arm. "Indeed we will, milady." He guided her over toward the loveseat. "Why do you not rest while we canvas the area?"

Entreri turned his gaze toward the ceiling, swallowing the groan that threatened to push past his lips. Lecher! Lord D'Arca should have sent a chaperone. The assassin paused suddenly, caught by the thought. Why indeed did he trust two complete strangers alone in a basement with his daughter? A third thought struck him. Given Jarlaxle's disposition, maybe I am unwittingly the chaperone.

But Naomi had grasped Jarlaxle's arm with both hands. "Oh, do not leave me alone! Can your friend not search the basement alone? I assure you there is nothing down here but dust bunnies anyway, for that is the whole reason we are being hidden here."

Entreri couldn't refrain from snickering this time. The lady needed to work upon her acting skills; her flirting was a bit heavy-handed.

Jarlaxle's grin seemed to light the entire room. "Very well. I will not leave you alone." They sat upon the loveseat, their thighs touching in their closeness.

"Yes, I do believe I will secure the area," Entreri said sarcastically. However, as he turned to leave, he dismissed his irritation since it was unlikely that canvassing the basement would prove difficult. Still, his warrior's sense burned, and the shadows dancing along the ceiling seemed to slither from corner to corner. Entreri stopped and glanced back over his shoulder at the drow and the lady grinning at each other, and then he ran his gaze over the statues, corners, and pastoral-themed oil paintings. Nothing. The assassin headed down the nearest corridor, but he could not shake the feeling that the entire room behind him somehow teemed with unseen life.

A/N: Of course, I must acknowledge the allusion in the first paragraph to T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," one of my favorite poems. Thank you in advance to any who review this piece.