Chapter 8

When Socor turned the spell upon Entreri, Jarlaxle acted instantly and without thought. Much like when he'd attacked the red dragon to cover Entreri's and Danica's escape months earlier, Jarlaxle reacted as an ally should. Although he didn't do so with enough force to knock him down, the elf charged the assassin and tackled him, meaning to protect him from the evocation spell the same way he'd shielded the girl Lila the day before. The mercenary threw his arms about the assassin's waist from behind so that when the red tornado of energy hit Entreri's back it would strike the drow as well. Jarlaxle's intuition paid off; his trinkets absorbed most of the spell, giving the pair nothing more than a mild shock. The mercenary smelled an odd smoky scent, much like burning leather, but he didn't see any flames and ignored it. He immediately released Entreri and turned on Socor.

Entreri, in the meantime, was suffering from a different kind of shock. What is the use of having a friend, Entreri had often wondered, when they will only betray and hurt you? Yet this elf had not betrayed him.

But the assassin couldn't spare time for the epiphany; the bone devil aimed its poisonous tail directly at Entreri's chest. The man jumped clear of the strike and slashed outward with his powerful sword, this time connecting cleanly with the creature's side. Charon's Claw sliced through the ribs, and the bone devil howled. Entreri instantly back-slashed, this time cutting deeply into the beast, all the way to the spine. The sword went to work, eating the dying creature from the inside-out. The bone devil collapsed a moment later.

Jarlaxle and Socor, in the meantime, had faced off. "You no doubt believe you can defeat me," the wizard said. "But you shall not. My defenses are impenetrable, and every spell you've absorbed has only furthered my agenda. Richon, obey me! Release yo—"

Jarlaxle dropped his magical silence again, but it was too late. The belt pouch where he carried the token burst into flames. The drow yanked off his belt, but before he could toss it free, it exploded, the token apparently having interacted badly with something else in the pouch. The explosion tore into his thigh, and he cried out, the sound swallowed by the silence, and dropped to the ground.

With the silence, Entreri didn't at first realize anything was wrong. He disengaged his sword, turning just in time to see the explosion. He quickly concluded that the token must have helped absorb the energy of the earlier spells, which Socor had then used against Jarlaxle.

Jarlaxle watched as Socor held up his hand and went through the motions of his new spell, obviously preparing to use it without the verbal component, and the elf knew that if the spell worked, his charms would not be able to absorb another blast of that kind. The drow sat sprawled on the ground, slowly bleeding to death. Even as he desperately searched his mind for a counterstrike, for anything that would save him, Jarlaxle realized the direness of his situation given his earlier argument with the assassin. If Entreri wished, all he had to do to be rid of the mercenary was to allow the wizard to kill him, then defeat Socor himself. Given Jarlaxle's severe injures and near-uselessness, no practical reason remained for the assassin to save him.

He is beyond my control now, Jarlaxle realized. The time has come for the betrayal, for he has nothing to gain by saving me and perhaps believes he has everything to lose.

Entreri was no hero, but he did understand that if he did not save Jarlaxle, no one else would. And he was not about to allow the elf to die. He sheathed Charon's Claw and charged at Socor, forcing him to aim the spell at him instead. Entreri prepared to catch the energy in his gauntlet, but as the wizard cast the spell, something went horribly wrong. The red tornado split down the middle and spiraled out to the sides of Socor's hand. A ball of red energy bloomed outward from his palm then, and Entreri threw himself to the ground, expecting the worst.

The spell backfired, producing a blast that mushroomed upwards and blew the tops out of the trees above the men's heads. The magical silence caved as a thunderous boom seemed to rattle the very stars, and flaming debris rained down into the clearing. Socor screamed, his hand on fire, and disappeared with a puff of grey smoke. Entreri cursed, suspecting that the wizard had teleported again. This did not bode well. Marrin Socor would likely return one day.

Jarlaxle watched Entreri pull himself to his feet and dust himself off. He freely chose to save me, the drow thought, shocked. With nothing at all to gain! Knowing that I have been manipulating him, not trusting me . . ..

In that moment, a stunning realization came to Jarlaxle: for all their exterior show of stoicism or confidence, he and Entreri both manipulated others because they were ultimately ruled by fear. The only difference between them was while Entreri avoided people in order to keep himself safe, Jarlaxle created co-dependency. Yet Jarlaxle had assumed that his way was superior to Entreri's way, and while he still believed he was right, he realized suddenly the arrogance of the assumption.

Then was it possible that he, too, was limiting himself?

For a moment, just a moment, Jarlaxle felt the pain in his body, heard the screams in his mind—a flash of a memory of the abyss, of the Demon Web Pits. No, he could not place real trust in anyone!

Then he looked up at the human assassin walking toward him. A man who had been raped by his father and uncle. A man who had allowed himself to be destroyed by distrust, anger, and bitterness. A man who Jarlaxle had shamelessly manipulated. A man he had angered.

And the man who had saved his life anyway.

Entreri stopped before Jarlaxle and stared down at him, his expression unreadable.

Can he understand my manipulations? Jarlaxle wondered. Can he understand the . . . fear . . . I have of investing any real part of myself into anything?

Perhaps Entreri could understand.

Children sacrificed to evil goddesses and children raped by parents both suffered similar fates: the adults blatantly disregarded the value of the child's life for the sake of amusement or benefits. People who had not lived with such abuse would never understand the panic that relying on others brought, nor would they understand the need for control that such powerlessnesss caused.

Pride. Power. Control.

Of course, everyone ultimately makes their own decisions or chooses to remain in their own hells, and that fact caused Jarlaxle to reaffrim that he did have a gift he could give Entreri: the ability to enjoy and make the most of his life.
"Are you going to stare up at me with wide eyes all night, or do you plan on speaking?" Entreri asked.

Any words Jarlaxle could have spoken flew away with that comment.

"Can you get up?" Entreri asked with apparent impatience. "We need to get back to the inn before anyone comes to investigate. That explosion is likely to draw every curious person in a fifty mile radius."

But the words barely registered with Jarlaxle. "Why did you save me?" he asked, honestly confused and more than a little off-balance.

"Why did you save me?" Entreri returned, kneeling by the elf and carefully examining his leg.

"We are partners and allies," Jarlaxle replied. "And you?"

"Perhaps I decided to wear the mask of a hero," Entreri answered, for once the cryptic one.

Jarlaxle stared up at the man, still confused and quite frustrated. The mask of a hero? There was nothing fake about Entreri's efforts, and there was no possible ulterior motive given that the drow knew his manipulations hadn't been sufficient enough to force such loyalty.

Entreri reached into one of the pouches on his belt and pulled out a roll of bandages. He carefully wrapped Jarlaxle's wounded leg. "Silly elf," he snapped, "you have injured yourself quite badly."

Jarlaxle's already wide eyes grew unnaturally large. Had Entreri just called him . . . silly? Of all the adjectives people had used to describe him in his life, Jarlaxle could not recall that anyone had ever called him silly. He almost laughed.

The assassin glanced at the wide-eyed drow and had to work hard not to snicker. Entreri had never seen the mercenary so baffled! But at least his odd words had jolted the elf out of his apparent daze. "You are never going to make it back to the inn like this," he sighed as he stored his roll of bandages. Then, in an odd reversal of an event a month earlier, Entreri reached out and picked up the drow. It struck him, then, just how slender and delicate the elf really was—that most elves were, he supposed. The mercenary exuded power and confidence, and he was surely dangerous, both with his mind and his daggers. But injured, he seemed small and vulnerable, although Entreri knew better than to believe the latter.

"Put me down," Jarlaxle said. "I have methods. I do not need to be carried."

Entreri couldn't pass up the chance. "Would it mean anything even if you did?" he asked, echoing Jarlaxle's own words a month earlier.

Jarlaxle sighed, and Entreri smirked over his victory. He carried the protesting elf, quite effortlessly, all the way back to the inn.

Entreri managed to get them up the stairs and into their room without being seen, which relieved him greatly. He didn't want anyone asking any questions, and he surely didn't want anyone making any erroneous assumptions about one male carrying another up to a rented room.

"Don't ever do that again!" Jarlaxle snapped when Entreri set him on his bed. "It was very undignified, and if any ladies had been present, they would have gotten the wrong idea." The drow managed a self-depreciating smile.

The assassin smirked. "Consider it revenge for trying to make a fool of me with your game."

"I promise you, my friend, I was not trying to harm you."

"A promise from a self-serving consummate liar? I feel better already."

Jarlaxle sighed. "Artemis," he began.

"If I had decided you really had any malevolent designs, I would have killed you already," Entreri pointed out. "But you only do things for mutual benefit. So what profit is there in your plan to . . . ah . . . 'make me true to myself?'"

Jarlaxle thought on it for a moment, then grinned, seeming more like his normal self. "You'll be less sour and moody," he quipped. "And generally more pleasant to be around. And if you learn to have a bit of fun, then I am quite sure I will enjoy my time on the surface more."

Ever elusive, Entreri sighed to himself, but he found that he believed the spirit behind the words, if not the words themselves. Stranger still, the reminder that Jarlaxle planned to return to Menzoberranzan one day caused Entreri a pang of regret. Yet the assassin had a point to make before he let the issue drop. "If you mean to help me—and I assure you that I neither need nor desire your help—then don't make a game of it." Entreri's tone of voice told Jarlaxle exactly what would happen if he felt threatened again.

Jarlaxle took the threat seriously, although he was pleased that his friend had managed further growth. "You do not wish my help, you say," he felt compelled to say, "and yet your words suggest you won't reject it either."

Entreri smirked, not bothered by the contradiction. "You are far too stubborn and meddlesome for me to stop outright, which means I'll just have to keep an eye on you. After all, if I meant to keep your pointy elf nose completely out of my business, I'd have to leave." He snickered at the look on Jarlaxle's face.

"Then you mean to stay with me," the drow reiterated, recovering.

"Don't bother to threaten me again; I already know that if I cross you, I'll die," Entreri said, echoing their conversation after the destruction of the crystal shard. "Or, rather, you'll die trying to kill me." The man's smile was wry.

"The former, I assure you." Jarlaxle smiled, too, because while on one level they were quite serious, on another it was a game they played so they wouldn't have to admit aloud the truth:

They were friends.

A/N: My deepest thanks to all my reviewers! I appreciate all your feedback. Obviously, I have decided to make this a trilogy, so I hope to start posting a third story, "The Face of a God," in early August.

I would like once again to thank my fiancé for his helpful suggestions and for using his D&D knowledge to help me with the fight scenes. I'd also like to thank darkhelmet for offering very helpful suggestions and comments. hugs her beta readers I'd also like to thank Dave for a few tips he dropped my way.

"The Mask of a Hero" was finished on May 31, 2004.