Description: Jarlaxle seeks the Cleansing Stone, but acquiring the Stone comes with a price. In the process, Jarlaxle and Entreri both have to face their inner fears. Set post-SotS.
Disclaimer: Artemis Entreri and Jarlaxle belong to WotC and RAS. No profit is being made.
A/N: Warnings for brief sexual violence. Contains some fluff and some rather stiff irony.
Set after Servant of the Shard. Pushes against what comes afterward.
The clang of metal ringing against metal filled the air. Artemis Entreri held in a growl as the disembodied sword attacked him; he hated fighting wizards. He slashed through the magical sword, dispelling it, only to find a swarm of magical missiles headed his way. He sheathed his dagger and switched Charon's Claw to his left hand, catching the missiles with his gauntlet and hurling them back at his opponent, Fannagrin.
Fannagrin laughed and deflected them. "I see you're no novice to fighting a wizard. I'll be interested to study that gauntlet of yours once you're dead."
"I'll be interested to study your intestines once I spill them," Entreri retorted, circling the wizard.
Fannagrin fired acidic green arrows at Entreri, who sent those back as well. When Fannagrin dodged the arrows, they hit the tavern's bar, melting part of the counter and two bar stools. The tavern's occupants had vacated quickly when Fannagrin had entered and opened fire on Entreri, so now the assassin faced the wizard alone.
Entreri was not amused in the slightest to be in this situation. Granted, Jarlaxle and he intended to steal a key to a treasure from Fannagrin, but they'd barely launched their plan when Fannagrin had shown up in town and attacked. This left Entreri with two basic questions: one, how had Fannagrin known to attack him; and two, where was Jarlaxle?
The plan had been simple enough. Jarlaxle had discovered Fannagrin's daughter living in town, and he had intended to seduce the woman and get her to show them the back entrance to Fannagrin's tower. Entreri had been required to vacate their inn room, of course, so he'd decided to get a light supper at a nearby tavern. About the time Jarlaxle should have been taking the woman to bed, though, Fannagrin had arrived.
This left Entreri with two basic scenarios to imagine: Fannagrin's daughter had run off and warned her father, somehow slowing Jarlaxle down to buy herself time, or Jarlaxle had successfully carried out his plan and was right now acquiring the key. Both options had problems, however. In the first scenario, Jarlaxle would be hard to injure or trap; the second scenario didn't explain how Fannagrin knew to attack Entreri.
Entreri's suspicious nature left him wondering if he'd been double-crossed, however. Although Entreri wasn't blind to the fact Jarlaxle was offering him friendship, he also suspected that the friendship would only extend so far. And Jarlaxle certainly had a way of dragging Entreri into wild situations that seemed entirely pointless - until Jarlaxle suddenly turned up some magical artifact he secreted away to Kimmuriel.
"You can deflect minor spells with no trouble," Fannagrin commented, weaving magical energy with his hands. "But what about something like . . . this?" He hurled a bolt of blue lightning at Entreri.
Entreri caught the bolt and threw it right back. In truth, he didn't know the extent of the gauntlet's power, and he didn't really want to find out. As Fannagrin dived to the side, avoiding the lightning, Entreri charged, swinging his sword at the wizard in a deadly arc.
The wizard raised his hands quickly, and a giant hand made of green energy appeared. It deflected the sword, giving Fannagrin enough time to escape. As he retreated, floating round shields appeared all around him. "I feel as though I'm at a wizard fair again," he said. "I haven't used so many spells in combat in years."
Entreri circled him again, taking in the shields and working them into his calculations. "I'm complimented," he said dryly. He took a swing at one of the shields, testing it. Green sparks flew off, but the shield held. He suspected he'd have to rain a dozen or more hits on each shield to defeat it, so he bore down on Fannagrin, slashing the same shield repeatedly.
Fannagrin laughed and threw fireballs. The fireballs swooped around the shields, heading straight for Entreri.
Entreri ducked the first one, which crashed through the tavern window and exploded in the street. He deflected the second one, barely, and sent it sideways. He didn't dare throw it back at Fannagrin, after all, with those shields in place. The far side of the room erupted in flames. He now had two choices: defeat Fannagrin immediately or try to run. The fire would spread quickly, and more than that, the room would fill with smoke. He charged Fannagrin again, whacking at his target shield until it gave and then thrusting his sword directly at Fannagrin's chest.
"Too slow," Fannagrin said from across the room.
Entreri's sword slipped right through the illusionary Fannagrin's chest, dispersing it.
The real Fannagrin stood across the room, unharmed. "It's interesting how the eye is deceived, isn't it? Technically, you saw a flicker when I replaced myself and turned invisible, but your eye was unable to convey that information to the brain." As he spoke, he wove magic with his hands. "But enough talk. Now to finish you off."
But then Fannagrin's eyes widened, and blood spurted out of his chest, soaking his robe with a dark bloom. He fell forward.
The wizard's collapse revealed Jarlaxle. The drow mercenary calmly wiped his sword on Fannagrin's back, shortened it back into a dagger, and drew an ice wand. He walked around the tavern, putting out flames.
Entreri sighed and sheathed his sword. He hadn't realized he'd been tensing up his shoulders until they suddenly dropped. Well, he's not dead, and he's not gone forever. The two most extreme potential outcomes had been taken care of.
Jarlaxle finished dousing the flames and turned to the assassin. "I imagine you've had a trying time if every moment with Fannagrin was like that one. Did he spend his time lecturing you?"
"Not precisely." Entreri hopped over the counter and located a mug. He poured himself some honeymead ale and took a swig. "More like he assumed he'd succeed in killing me."
Jarlaxle crossed the room and poured himself a glass of red wine. He took a sip and shook his head. "Fannagrin succeeded in many things for long enough that he thought no one would catch him. For instance, the ruse about having a daughter." He glanced at Entreri. "And yes, it was a ruse. Fannagrin was enamored with illusions all his life. Before becoming a recluse, he would put on shows for the townspeople every Midsummer's Eve. He would act out entire plays for them using illusions. He could make illusions that were so real they had substance. They could talk, interact with the world around them, and even seem to have independent thoughts and feelings."
The drow mercenary shook his head and sipped his wine. "The daughter was one of those. All illusions have a secret connection to the person who creates them. I believe this is how he instantly knew what we were up to and was able to track you down before I realized the woman was a fake."
Entreri leaned against the bar, shocked at Jarlaxle's explanation, although he didn't show it. "An illusion powerful enough to trick you and your magical items? It hardly seems possible."
"The low levels of magical energy that the illusion gives off mimic the static energy of magical items," Jarlaxle said. "Only when she claimed that her necklace was not magical did I understand what I was dealing with." He shrugged. "The only difficulty after that was discovering the source of the illusion and the reason for it. When I also learned Fannagrin's skill with illusion from a story told by the innkeeper, I knew that Fannagrin had created his daughter. Therefore, I came to your aid."
Jarlaxle wagged a finger at Artemis. "As for my magical items, there is a reason why high level illusions fool people. High level illusions are made of living energy. In a sense, Fannagrin split off part of himself to create his daughter. My items could tell me that I was dealing with a living being and a source of magic. That did not clarify matters enough to make Fannagrin's daughter immediately suspicious."
Entreri took another sip of his ale. "I see." He raised an eyebrow at Jarlaxle. "Some items are more trouble than they're worth, it would seem. Although since Fannagrin is now dead, I suppose we may retrieve the key and whatever else his tower has to offer."
Jarlaxle nodded. "I have a few clues about where the back door is hidden, but we shall still need to search." Entreri's words echoed in his mind: Some items are more trouble than they're worth . . . But this one, if it exists, will be worth the trouble. However, if he could beat the odds and get his hands on the item he wanted, then he would be able to stop his cycle of misfortune forever.
Entreri nodded in return. "Very well." He finished off his ale and thunked down the mug. "Shall we?"
Jarlaxle grinned and tossed down enough coin to cover their drinks. "Indeed."
Fannagrin's tower was west of the town, a castle-like structure of grey stone blocks and a conical roof of red shingles. There was a solitary window near the top, marking Fannagrin's study. Somehow, they needed to get up there. They had encountered the tower's magical defenses previously; among other things, no one could fly in the vicinity of the tower.
They circled around to the back of the tower, where there seemed to be a seamless wall. Jarlaxle took a jeweler's loop from his hat and used it, searching the wall inch by inch. Suddenly, he stopped short. "Aha!" He straightened and passed the loop to Artemis. "Look there. A symbol of a grinning gargoyle." He pointed to a particular stone block.
Entreri examined the stone in question, which sure enough sported a grinning gargoyle. "I take it the door is here, then. Or connected to this stone somehow."
Jarlaxle nodded. He took the loop back and knocked on the symbol of the gargoyle three times. A doorway materialized in front of them. Jarlaxle opened the door and let both of them in. As soon as he shut the door, it disappeared. They were now in a plain room with a staircase winding upwards. The tower was lit up with lamps hanging on the wall.
"There are no defenses on the inside, only the outside," Jarlaxle commented, climbing the stairs. "Yet another sign of arrogance from Fannagrin."
Entreri snorted. "Convenient, that. All the easier to plunder."
"Indeed," Jarlaxle said cheerfully.
They found that the tower was all stairs until the top floor. There was a humble bedroom, a bathroom, a kitchen and dining room combined, and the study with the window. Jarlaxle left Artemis to the exploration of the bedroom while he searched the study. They were to call out if they were the one that discovered the key.
Entreri searched through every drawer and cubby. He pocketed quite a few items as he went, discovering several fine pieces of jewelry in silver and gold as well as with precious gems. He also found an ivory-handled knife, which he kept for himself, but he didn't find the key.
Jarlaxle found many magical scrolls in the study, most of them in the drawers of the desk. In the bottom drawer, underneath some loose feathers and other small trinkets, he found a large brass key. He recognized the design of it immediately. "Found it," he called.
He waited for Entreri to enter the room and held the key aloft. "See the design of the oak leaves? It matches the lock on the dungeon door."
Entreri nodded. The treasure in question was stored in the dungeon of an abandoned fortress to the west of the village. "Do you wish to plunder the rest of the tower first or just head out?"
"The tower can wait," Jarlaxle said. "The point of this journey lies ahead."
"Very well." Entreri hardly cared one way or another. Material things had never awed him. The only thing he'd ever coveted was the sword that now hung at his side, and that had never been a matter of greed. In fact, the only reason he had it now was a matter of practicality.
Jarlaxle led the way out. He knew that acquiring this magical item was dangerous for reasons his companion could not comprehend. If he told Entreri those reasons, it would likely only make the danger worse. Soon. Soon, being my partner will not be half as dangerous.
The abandoned fortress was two hours away. Most of the fortress had crumbled, succumbing to the elements. It was only the underground vault that had survived and would survive still. The fortress' wizard had locked away an item he perceived to be cursed and erected safeguards all around the chamber. The wizard had been Fangarin Ironstaff. Or, as he came to be known after the fall of the kingdom two hundred years ago, Fannagrin.
One of those safeguards was the door, a single point of entry locked with a special key.
That was why Jarlaxle had known that Fannagrin would never give over the key; the wizard believed he was protecting the world from something evil. Fannagrin had no way of knowing there was one person desperate for the power the item held.
Jarlaxle and Entreri walked through the ruins of the castle until they found a stairway down. This stairway ended in an imposing iron door with a large keyhole. The door was decorated in a design of oak leaves, exactly the same as the brass key. Jarlaxle took a deep breath of chilly air and drew the key from his pocket, fitting it to the lock and turning it. The tumblers turning echoed deep within the structure. An eerie green glow illuminated the door.
Jarlaxle opened it. The glow ceased, and the stench of stale air rushed forth.
Inside, Jarlaxle saw an ordinary stone chamber with a single wooden door at the far side. The chamber was not particularly large, and it appeared to be empty. He didn't see any traps or secret doors. Being an elf, his senses were sharp enough to pick up such things.
However, Fannagrin had been a master of illusion.
"Allow me to go first," Jarlaxle said. He pulled out a pouch of dust and gently blew a handful of the fine blue powder through the door.
The whole room flared white. Then the far door burst open, and enormous spiders and stumbling zombies poured through.
Jarlaxle let out a yell and whipped out his fire wand, spraying the room with flames. The zombies caught on fire like kindling, and the spiders shrieked and danced in pain. Smoke roiled through the room, choking Jarlaxle with the stench of burning rotten flesh and hair. He coughed, covering his mouth and nose with one hand. "Not again." This brought back the memory of being trapped in Gromph's dimensional pocket with a burning zombie.
Entreri drew his sword and dagger, unnerved by the spiders. He had always hated spiders, and his stay in Menzoberranzan had only deepened his disgust. He now killed every spider he saw just because he could. However, the spiders were curling up on their backs, their legs twitching. Entreri ended up holding one arm against his nose and mouth. "Do try not to kill us with smoke inhalation."
Jarlaxle was too busy having a coughing fit to respond. He switched out his wand for ice and sprayed the room as a fresh wave of spiders and zombies poured through, trampling the damaged ones. "We have to search for a way to turn them off. This is a spell." He waded in, spider legs crunching underfoot. Zombies that were only half frozen clutched at his ankles. He kicked them away and searched for anything magical, using his jeweler's loop. There was nothing. He ducked his head out of the far door and into the hallway.
As soon as he did so, everything in the small room disappeared except for him. Even the ice and the smoke. Jarlaxle froze. Then he checked his wands. They had all their charges back, as if he hadn't drawn them.
He slowly turned to Entreri. "It was all an illusion . . . even everything we did."
Indeed, Entreri's weapons were back in their sheaths.
Entreri glanced down, frowning. "Why zombies and spiders? That's a bizarre mix." He was suspicious.
"Because you loathe spiders, and I loathe undead," Jarlaxle said lightly. He stepped out into the hallway and held the door open just in case. "Are you coming?"
Entreri didn't move. "If the spell generated exactly what we don't like, isn't that a problem? Some of the things I don't like are insanely dangerous, and I assume the same is true for you." Like red dragons, for example.
"But if we know it's an illusion, it can't hurt us," Jarlaxle said. "And if it can't hurt us, then it isn't a very effective trap, now is it? Hopefully this Fannagrin was a one-trick pony, and we can steal our treasure in no time." He wagged a finger. "And if the conditions of the spell are the same every time - in other words, crossing the room and opening the door and traversing beyond will shut the spell off - then we have nothing to worry about."
"Or the conditions of the spell are different every time," Entreri said. "Not to mention that you yourself warned me that an illusion can still kill you." Granted, Jarlaxle had said 'If you believe it's real,' but that was the trouble with illusions: you couldn't tell when they were real or not.
"I will simply search every room that we come to," Jarlaxle said. "I will be able to tell whether the danger is real or not, and I will warn you accordingly." He frowned. "If you don't want to come, you don't have to. You can wait here for me to return or go back to town. I admit that the benefit to this quest is directly mine, although you would see an indirect benefit."
Entreri stared at him with hooded eyes. That admission was more forthcoming than Jarlaxle usually was, and that alone made him wary. Somehow that intensified the danger he imagined was here. "I'll come. I don't want you to fall down a hole when I'm not looking." He smirked at his attempt at levity and joined Jarlaxle.
Jarlaxle snorted and shook his head. "Dark elves can levitate, but no matter." He swept the hallway with a detection wand, but the hallway was inert. They reached the door at the end. Jarlaxle took a deep breath and opened it.
Again, an empty chamber. This time, however, it was larger, a rectangular room twice the size of the last. But it was still empty and still had a single wooden door at the far side. Jarlaxle pulled out his pouch of powder. "If this is an illusion, my powder will activate it."
Entreri drew his sword and dagger before the potential spell could be activated. He'd at least like to be genuinely armed this time.
Jarlaxle nodded. He took a pinch of powder and gently blew it. The room flared white, just like before. "The illusion will -"
He didn't have time for the rest. He was suddenly inside the room, and the room was dark except for two spots of light. Eyes. A drow priestess stood before him, dressed in a form-fitting dress that was black with a pattern of white spider webs on it. He stared at her. What is the illusion of a priestess here for? True, priestesses were unpleasant, but he didn't think himself particularly affected by their presence.
Then she began chanting, and a fiery pain drove him to his knees.
Jarlaxle gasped for breath. "This isn't real!" The pain intensified and centered on his hips. His arms were numb. He looked down and in the darkness, in infravision, could see a lump on either hip, straining at the fabric of his pants.
Suddenly, with a spike of agony as though being scalded, he both felt and saw thin, peaked protrusions break through his pants. He screamed.
The priestess continued chanting.
Jarlaxle crawled for the door on the other side of the room. She just watched him, her crimson eyes trained on him.
The protrusions grew, feeling like pokers shoved through his body, dragging on the ground, shaping into legs. Spider legs. Jarlaxle felt his body bloating, his legs swelling. "This isn't happening!"
He scrabbled against the door, trying in vain to stand, and grasped the doorknob. He twisted it and yanked the door open, his body distending, the pain crushing inside of his skull. With a groan of horror, he crawled through the doorway, only able to use his arms to move himself, his grotesquely changing body dragging behind him.
Then he felt nothing but cool stone underneath him. The pain was gone. After a moment, he thought he could stand.
But he was alone.
In one moment, Entreri was listening to Jarlaxle talking about the illusion; in the next, he was abruptly standing in the room alone.
A puff of breath was the only warning he got. He spun, leveling his weapons, but an explosion of pain ripped through his arm. A great weight crashed into him, knocking his sword from his hand, and he was thrown to the floor. On top of him was a massive wolf, its eyes glowing, its teeth clamped on his arm, filling him with searing agony.
Entreri struck with his dagger, but the wolf released him, jumping away and then circling. Entreri forced himself to his feet, taking the dagger with his right hand and hoisting Charon's Claw with his left. "Not real," he muttered, stepping sideways toward the door on the far side of the room.
The wolf kept pace with him, snarling and growling. Then, to Entreri's horror, its body began elongating, its nuzzle shortening. Bones began popping and cracking, and the assassin didn't have to see the transformation complete to know what it meant.
"Werewolf," he hissed, still edging his way toward the door. If this had been real, he would have fallen on his own sword. He could have never suffered through life in the thrall of a beast's boiling blood always trying to emerge and take control.
A tall, hairy man appeared, naked. He sneered at Entreri. "You will be, too," he said, gesturing to the bite wound.
"Not real," Entreri repeated, making a dash for the door. The man charged him, but Entreri jerked open the door and burst into the hallway beyond.
Jarlaxle grabbed Entreri's arm and yanked the assassin through the moment he saw his partner emerging. Then he let out his breath, dropped Entreri's arm, and continued mopping his forehead with his handkerchief. "That was somewhat worse than the first." In spite of his best efforts to control himself, he hadn't stopped sweating yet.
"Dare I ask?" Entreri said. He'd never seen Jarlaxle so shaken up, and he hadn't seen him sweat like this since battling the temptations of the Shard.
Jarlaxle swallowed and put on a tight smile. "I was transforming . . . " He shook his head and corrected himself. "The illusion was that I was transforming into a drider." The last word came out a harsh whisper. Suddenly, he was angry. What right did Fannagrin have to make him experience this? "I would rather die than transform into such a beast. I would no longer be myself. All of my memories would be forfeit. Erased."
Entreri noticed the theme. "I was transforming into a werewolf," he said. "The only thing worse would have been a wererat, but admittedly that would've been harder for me to believe." He made a mental note about the driders. He had seen a few during his tenure in Menzoberranzan and working with drow. They'd struck him as horrible, but Jarlaxle's comment that he would no longer be himself told him much.
Jarlaxle calmed at knowing there was a generic theme to the experience. He'd merely been unlucky. He mopped his forehead again and stowed his handkerchief. "A fate worse than death for you also, I imagine." He walked towards the door he saw at the end of the hallway. Hopefully, this would be a pattern: room, hallway, room, hallway. The halls gave them a chance to recover.
"Indeed," Entreri muttered, following Jarlaxle. He was beginning to wonder if this item might prove to be more trouble than it was worth after all.
Jarlaxle opened the door and readied the powder, feeling he knew that the next room would be an illusion trap, too. "Get ready. This may be more unpleasant still, khal abbil." He wished briefly that he could explain how important this magical artifact was. If he could only obtain it, he would be free of his people's curse forever. The cycle of misfortune would stop. He could finally come out of the shadow of Lloth and live a life the same as the people of the Surface.
But that explanation involved history, the gods, and magic. It was simpler to obtain the artifact and demonstrate its affect.
"Goody," Entreri said dryly. He realized then that his sword and dagger would do no good. The illusion could make it seem like he drew them; it could make it seem like he sheathed them. It was pointless. Despite that, he couldn't bring himself to put away his weapons.
Jarlaxle took a deep breath and blew the powder into the room.
The room flared white.