Chapter Three

Entreri struggled against the lich's aura with the very heart of his willpower, instinctively pouring decades of refined self-discipline into defeating the invasive feeling. No matter how great the horror his father and uncle had rained upon him, Entreri had never been one to succumb to terror, had instead been one to fight back with disgust, anger, or even desperation. But fear he had not allowed himself, and from the core of his being, he pushed away the panic now. After several moments, the assassin felt himself breath easier, as though someone had been crushing his chest but had suddenly stopped.

"So you are the pathetic fools who violated my private sanctuary," the lich was saying, flakes of dried skin dropping from her receded lips. She floated before them, fingering the golden pommel of the rapier which hung at her side. Truly, the creature was sight to behold: a maroon velvet gown hung in tatters from her skeletal frame, and an indigo wizard's robe rotted about her shoulders.

"Why do you not kiss her, Jarlaxle?" Entreri quipped, relieved to hear his voice come out steady. "She's beautiful."

The drow managed to shoot him an acidic look.

The lich had looked past the mercenaries to the young woman who had retreated to cower by a statue. "So you are the summation of my progeny. I believe I am insulted."

"Mara?" Naomi whispered. "You are Mara!"

"Mara?" Entreri asked without turning around.

"My great-great-grandmother," Naomi said, her voice still quivering. "I had heard that her ghost haunted the deepest level of our home, but I had never imagined that—that—"

"What have they done to make the once great women of this family so weak?" the lich hissed. "Every woman born to my bloodline should have trained to be a formidable wizard. But you—you are nothing!"

"We must destroy the lich's phylactery," Jarlaxle whispered in drow to Entreri as Mara spoke. "It's most likely a metal box. It's the only way we can destroy her."

Mara's attention snapped back to Jarlaxle as he spoke. "What are you saying, lovely little drow?" Her smiled widened, showing an expanse of blackened, rotting teeth. "Truly, I have never seen such a petite, delicate elf. Surely I could crumble you like brittle parchment."

Beside Jarlaxle, Entreri narrowed his eyes and stiffened, drawing his sword but keeping his gauntlet hand free. The drow followed suit, preparing to draw one of his many wands.

"Please be careful!" Naomi called from behind the men.

Mara laughed and whispered a few arcane syllables as she made tiny circles with two of her fingers; suddenly, it seemed that four Maras rushed the mercenaries, each brandishing a rapier. Entreri charged forward, drawing his dagger as well and meeting the attacks of the first two Maras, which struck from the right. Jarlaxle quickly dropped two daggers from his bracer, whispering the words necessary to elongate them into swords, and met the attacks of the remaining two Maras, who charged him from the left.

Entreri sliced through both of his Maras easily, and as the illusions disappeared, he instantly knew what that portended. He whirled toward Jarlaxle in time to see two Maras slashing at Jarlaxle with their rapiers, while simultaneously muttering under their breath and making a circle with their free wrists. Jarlaxle parried both rapiers, but even as the final illusionary Mara vanished, the real lich pointed her finger at Jarlaxle, projecting a ray of freezing air and ice at his face and chest.

Entreri yelled and jumped forward even as the elf tried to duck, but even though the assassin pushed Jarlaxle aside, causing the ray to miss his vital areas, the damaging cold still nipped their right shoulders. Since the injury was minor, both mercenaries immediately regained their footing, but the cackling lich had drawn a gnarled ebony wand and pointed it at the men.

"What hope do you have, fools, against the likes of one such as I?" She flicked the wand at them, and black beam of crackling energy shot toward the mercenaries.

Jarlaxle and Entreri dived to either side, tucking themselves into rolls. However, as he regained his feet, the assassin knew something was wrong; he felt as though half of his life-force had been drained from his body. He shook off the effect as best he could, but his sword seemed heavier in his left hand. It was like being the victim of his own dagger.

Across from him, Jarlaxle shook himself in a mildly dog-like fashion, apparently trying to resist the spell, then drew a wand of his own, releasing a spray of pulsing blue missiles at the lich. "Find that phylactery!" the elf yelled to Entreri as the lich batted aside the missiles. "I will endeavor to keep her occupied!"

"Yes," Naomi called from her position by the statue. "It holds her life-force!"

Entreri started down the corridor, remembering that one of the recesses had indeed held a table with a metal box on top. The lich, however, screeched in rage and followed him. Entreri heard Jarlaxle's yell of warning, but a presence was suddenly, impossibly at his right shoulder before he could react. A furious burning like a lightning bolt erupted in his already-injured shoulder as the lich's fingers touched him, and he cried out, feeling more of his strength drain from him. Then he heard a harsh thumping noise, and he glanced back in time to see the lich be captured against the wall by a large, sticky web.

Jarlaxle will not be able to stop her for long, Entreri thought, holding in his pain and rushing for the recess in question. Reaching the table with the metal box, the assassin raised his left arm high over his head and slashed Charon's Claw down upon the metal box. A few sparks and metallic chips flew, but that was it. Entreri cursed profoundly and tried again.

Jarlaxle saw Entreri's failed attempts from the corner of his vision, but he didn't have much chance to react, for Mara tore free of his web. Instantly, the lich pulled a small glass cone from inside her robe, aiming it at Jarlaxle as she cast her spell, and the elf dived to the side as a cone-shaped burst of blue ice sprayed in his direction. Jarlaxle felt the ice strike the edge of his boot heel, felt the coldness seep into his ankle, and he stomped his foot hard, resisting the spell with all of his willpower.

Behind Jarlaxle, Naomi suddenly reached up and yanked the amethyst amulet off her neck, breaking the chain. Immediately, the drow felt the presence of a second magical aura, and Naomi quickly pulled a lodestone and a pinch of dust from her bodice, rushing through arcane words and intricate finger movements as she did. Naomi pointed her finger toward Mara, and a thin, green ray sprang forth. The arrogant lich, consumed in its battle with Jarlaxle, did not bother itself to acknowledge the young woman; the mercenary, however, threw himself at the floor at the last instant. Mara screamed as the ray hit her chest, disintegrating her sternum first before starting toward her ribs; however, the lich quickly worked through the motions of a spell, trying to defeat the magic.

From his position down the hallway, Entreri glanced toward the spectacle only briefly, then hefted his demonic sword with both hands, striking down on the metallic box with every ounce of his remaining strength. The fine sword cut through the metal at last, severing the box and the strips of parchment within it.

The disintegrating effect upon Mara seemed to accelerate, racing down her torso and arms and upward toward her skull, stealing the scream of rage from her throat and reducing her to ashes. The ebony wand and gold-plated rapier, the only two remnants of the evil creature, clattered to the floor. Naomi rushed forward and snatched up the wand, safely stowing it in her bodice.

Jarlaxle stood and stiffly bowed to Naomi, keeping a wary eye upon the lady. "You would seem to be something more than your appearance would suggest, milady. I am unsure you needed anyone's protection. Likewise, it would also seem that you have long since answered your own question concerning what type of means you would use to solve your family's problems."

Naomi smiled snidely. "I appreciate your protection and even your advice, dear sir, but you are quite correct. I must now demand that you tell no one of what you have witnessed. My father will compensate you, just as surely as he will have you silenced should you fail to agree to this final term of our agreement."

Jarlaxle decided it best to play along and inclined his head once more. "Of course, milady." He turned then and made his way to Entreri, who sat collapsed against the wall by the destroyed box. Jarlaxle carefully knelt by the assassin and removed his healing orb from a pouch, preparing to heal the man.

"Get me the hells away from here as quickly as you can," Entreri growled under his breath. "I never wish to lay eyes upon this family or their twisted magic ever again."

Jarlaxle smiled and held up his orb. "Of course, my friend. I could not agree more." He concentrated on the magical device, whispering the words necessary to heal his companion. When he finished, he smiled wryly and patted Entreri. However, the look on the assassin's face caused the drow to pause. Entreri regarded him with that odd look again. Was it . . . trust? Or . . .? There seemed to be a subtext passing between them, a hidden current involving protection or safety or trust. But which was it, and what did it mean?

Jarlaxle's smile turned genuine. "Shall we leave this place?"

Entreri pushed himself to his feet. "Yes. But make sure to get our damn gold first. I did not just face such evil for nothing."

"You could take the rapier," Naomi suggested, her demeanor still snide and amused.

Entreri eyed the weapon with distaste. "I already have a superior weapon, and I want nothing more distinguishable than gold coins to remind me of this experience."

Naomi snickered. "As you wish." She scooped up both her amulet and the rapier.

"There was no assassin," Entreri accused. "But you did know the lich was down here, as did your father. He hired us to make sure the lich did not kill you, but he meant for you to face the creature."

Naomi grinned, but her nastiness was replaced by a resigned, if wrathful, determination. "Yes, quite right. My mother had trained me in the arcane arts almost since my birth, but we needed some final advantage over our enemies." She clenched her fists in anger. "With Mara's wand, I can end this wasteful, petty feud forever." She flung her curls over her shoulder and turned, heading back toward the staircase.

Jarlaxle and Entreri traded glances. "Pawns in a greater game," the assassin whispered, and he smirked at the frown that came to the elf's face. Still, Entreri admitted to himself, they might have been greater pawns than they would ever realize, for the assassin was unsure that the bodiless, whispering voice and the lich had been the same entity.

Naomi turned back toward the mercenaries when she reached the bottom stair. "Thank you for your services, dear gentlemen," she murmured, the mask of the dutiful, shy daughter firmly back in place.

"A masquerade and a monster," Entreri said, although it was unclear from his tone how the comment should be taken. Jarlaxle squeezed Entreri's arm, half in warning and half in empathy, but after a stiff pause, Naomi continued up the staircase.

Do you have any trick that can get us far away from here? the irritated assassin signaled roughly in drow hand code behind the woman's back. If not, let's find a wizard and have ourselves teleported.

Jarlaxle smiled at the assassin. We will find a way, my friend, he signaled back.

Entreri nodded, and they climbed the remainder of stairs side-by-side in companionable, if grim, silence.

A/N: Thank you to my beta readers—my fiancé and darkhelmet—and to my reviewers: Semdai, SilverWolf, Nina, Alzadea, Lessiehanamoray, darkhelmet, and the anonymous one. Thanks to Kris, euphorbic (I've used your suggestion on Jarlaxle and Naomi), and mark strickler as well. Hopefully I'll be posting a new story to LE in early January. The story will pick up after where "Face of a God" leaves off (for those of you who've read my other stuff on LE and know what that means).

"Masquerade of Monsters" was finished on Nov. 17, 2004.