LEGACY OF INTRIGUE
By the time he'd left the crumbling tower, Jarlaxle had already secured the magical skull gem in an undetectable place: an extra-dimensional pocket in one of the buttons of his waistcoat designed to shield magical emanations. Even so, the draw wasn't confident that the item would remain undetected, for it verily throbbed with arcane energy.
Still, he took it with him - leaving his familiar waistcoat would have been more conspicuous - when he went to the palace-tower of Ilnezhara soon after the collapse of the Zhengyi construction. He found his employer lounging in one of her many easy chairs, her feet up on a decorated ottoman and her shapely legs showing through a high slit in her white silk gown that made the material flow down to the floor like a ghostly extension of the creamy-skinned woman. She flipped her long, thick blond hair as Jarlaxle made his entrance, so that it framed her pretty face. It settled covering one of her blue eyes, only adding to her aura of mystery.
Jarlaxle understood that it was all a ruse, of course, an illusion of magnificent beauty. For Ilnezhara's true form was covered in copper-colored scales and sported great horns and a mouth filled with rows of fangs each as long as the drow's arm. Illusion or not, however, Jarlaxle certainly appreciated the beauty reclining before him.
"It was a construct of Zhengyi," the dragon-turned-woman stated, not asked.
"Indeed it would seem," the drow answered, flipping off his wide-brimmed hat to reveal his bald head as he dipped a fancy bow.
"It was," Ilnezhara stated with all certainty. "We have traced its creation while you were away."
"Away? You mean inside the tower. I was away at your insistence, please remember."
"It was not an accusation, nor were we premature in sending you and your friend to investigate. My sister happened upon some more information quite by accident and quite unexpectedly. Still, we do not know how this construct was facilitated, but we know now, of course, that it was indeed facilitated, and we know by whom."
"It was a book, a great and ancient tome," Jarlaxle replied.
Ilnezhara started forward in her chair but caught herself. There was no denying the sparkle of interest in her blue eyes, so the drow let the tease hang in the air. He stood calm and unmoving, allowing a moment of silence slip past, forcing Ilnezhara's interest.
"Produce it then."
"I cannot," he admitted. "The tower was constructed by the magic of the book and controlled by the power of a lich. To defeat the latter, Artemis and I had to destroy the former. There was no other way."
Ilnezhara winced. "That is unfortunate," she said. "A book penned by Zhengyi would be most interesting, beneficial... and profitable."
"The tower had to be destroyed. There was no other way."
"Had you killed the lich, the effect would have been the same. The tower would have died, if not fallen, but no more of its defenses would have risen against you. Perhaps my sister and I might even have given the tower to you and Entreri as an expression of our gratitude."
Despite the empty promise, there was more than a little hint of frustration in the dragon's voice, Jarlaxle noted.
"An easy task?" he replied, letting his voice drip with sarcasm.
Ilnezhara harrumphed, waved her hand dismissively, and said, "It was a minor mage from Heliogabalus, a fool named Herminicle Duperdas. Could a man with such a name frighten the great Jarlaxle? Perhaps my sister and I overestimated you and your human friend."
Jarlaxle dipped another bow. "A minor mage in life, perhaps, but a lich is a lich, after all."
Again, the dragon harrumphed, and rolled her blue eyes. "He was a middling magic-user at most - many of his fellow students considered him a novice. Even in the undead state, he could not have proven too formidable for the likes of you two."
"The tower itself was aiding in his defense."
"We did not send you two in there to destroy the place, but to scout it and pilfer it," Ilnezhara scolded. "We could have easily enough destroyed it on our own."
"Pray do, next time."
The dragon narrowed her eyes, reminding Jarlaxle that he would be wise to take more care.
"If we do not benefit from your services, Jarlaxle, then we do not need you," Ilnezhara warned. "Is that truly the course you desire?"
A third bow came her way. "No, milady. No, of course not."
"Herminicle found the book and underestimated it," Ilnezhara explained, seeming as if she had put the disagreement out of her mind. "He read it, as foolish and curious wizards usually will, and it consumed him, taking his magic and his life-force as its own. The book bound him to the tower as the tower bound itself to him. When you destroyed the bonds - the book - you stole the shared force from both, sending both tower and lich to ruin."
"What else might we have done? "
"Had you killed the lich, perhaps the tower would have crumbled," came another female voice, one a bit deeper, less feminine, and less melodious than that of Ilnezhara. Jarlaxle wasn't really surprised to see Tazmikella walk out from behind a screen at the back of the large, cluttered room. "But likely not, though you would have destroyed the force that had initially given it life and material. In either event, the danger would have passed, but the book would have remained. Hasn't Ilnezhara already told you as much?"
"Please learn this lesson and remember it well," Ilnezhara instructed, and she teasingly added, "for next time."
"Next time?" Jarlaxle didn't have to feign interest.
"The appearance of this book confirms to us what we already suspected, " Tazmikella explained. "Somewhere in the wastelands of Vaasa, a trove of the Witch-King has been uncovered. Artifacts of Zhengyi are revealing themselves all about the land."
"It has happened before in the years since his fall," Ilnezhara went on. "Every so often, one of the Witch-King's personal dungeons is found, one of his cellars opened wide, or a tribe of monsters is defeated, only for the victors to find among the beasts weapons, wands, or other magical items of which the stupid creatures had no comprehension."
"We suspected that one of Zhengyi's libraries, perhaps his only library, has recently been pilfered," added Tazmikella. "A pair of books on the art of necromancy - true tomes and not the typical ramblings of self-important and utterly foolish wizards - were purchased in Halfling Downs not a month ago."
"By you, I presume," said Jarlaxle.
"By our agents, of course," Ilnezhara confirmed. "Agents who have been more profitable than Jarlaxle and Entreri to date."
Jarlaxle laughed at the slight and bowed yet again. "Had we known that destroying the lich might have preserved the book, then we would have fought the beastly creature all the more ferociously, I assure you. Forgive us our inexperience. We have not long been in this land, and the tales of the Witch-King are still fresh to us."
"Inexperience, I suspect, is not one of Jarlaxle's failings," said Tazmikella, and her tone revealed to the drow her suspicions that perhaps he was holding back something from his recent adventure in the tower.
"But fear not, I am a fast study," he replied. "And I fear that I - we - cannot replicate our errors with this tower should another one appear." He held up a gauntlet, black with red stitching, and turned it over to show the hole in the palm. "The price of an artifact in defeating the magic of the book."
"The gauntlet accompanying Entreri's mighty sword?" asked Tazmikella.
"Aye, though the sword has no hold over him with or without it. In fact, since his encounter with the shade, I do believe the sword fancies him. Still, our excursion proved quite costly, for the gauntlet had many other valuable uses."
"And what would you have us do about that?" asked Ilnezhara.
"Recompense?" the drow dared ask. "We are weakened without the gauntlet, do not doubt. Our defenses against magic-users have just been greatly depleted. Certainly that cannot be beneficial, given our duties to you."
The sisters looked to each other and exchanged knowing smiles.
"If this tome has surfaced, we can expect other Zhengyian artifacts, " Tazmikella said.
"That the tome made its way this far south tells us that someone in Vaasa has uncovered a trove of Zhengyi's artifacts," Ilnezhara added. "Such powerful magical items do not like to remain dormant. They find a way to resurface, again and again, to the bane of the world."
"Interesting..." the drow started, but Tazmikella cut him short.
"More so than you understand," she insisted. "Gather your friend, Jarlaxle, for the road awaits you - one that we might all find quite lucrative."
It was not a request but a demand, and since the sisters were, after all, dragons, it was not a demand the drow meant to ignore. He noted something else in the timbre of the sisters' voices, however, that intrigued him at least as much as the skull-shaped remnant of the Zhengyian construct. They were feigning excitement, as if a great adventure and potential gain awaited them all, but behind that, Jarlaxle clearly heard something else.
The two mighty dragons were afraid.
In the remote, cold northland of Vaasa, a second skull, a greater skull, glowed hungrily. It felt the fall of its little sister in Damara keenly, but not with the dread of one who had lost a family member. No, distant events were simply the order of things. The other skull, the human skull, was minor and weak.
What the distant remnant of the Witch-King's godliness had come to know above all else was that the powers could awaken - that the powers would awaken. Too much time had passed in the short memories of the foolish humans and those others who had defeated Zhengyi.
Already they were willing to ply their wisdom and strength against the artifacts of a being so much greater than they, a being far beyond their comprehension. Their hubris led them to believe that they could attain that power.
They did not understand that the Witch-King's power had come from within, not from without, and that his remnants, "the essence of magic scattered," "the pieces of Zhengyi flung wide," in the songs of the silly and naive bards, would, through the act of creation, overwhelm them and take from them even as they tried to gain from the scattering of Zhengyi.
That was the true promise of the Witch-King, the one that had sent dragons flocking to his side.
The tiny skull found only comfort. The tome that held it was found, the minds about it inquisitive, the memories short. The piece of essence flung wide would know creation, power, and life in death.
Some foolish mortal would see to that.
The dragon growled without sound.