LOOKING IN THE MIRROR
"You are a weapon of disproportion," Artemis Entreri whispered. He sat on the edge of his bed in the small apartment, staring across the room at his signature weapon, the jeweled dagger. It hung in the wall an inch from the tall mirror, stuck fast from a throw made in frustration just a moment before. Its hilt had stopped quivering, but the way the candlelight played on the red garnet near the base of the pommel made it seem as if the weapon was still moving, or as if it was alive.
It does not satisfy you to wound, Entreri thought, or even to kill. No, that is not enough.
The dagger had served Entreri well for more than two decades. He had made his name on the tough streets of Calimport, clawing and scratching from his days as a mere boy against seemingly insurmountable obstacles. He had been surrounded by murderers all of his life, and had bettered them at their own game. The jeweled dagger hanging in the wall had played no small part in that. Entreri could use it to do more than wound or kill; he could use its vampiric properties to steal the very life-force from a victim.
But beyond proportion, he thought. You must take everything from your victims - their lives, their very souls. What must it be like, this nothingness you bring?
Entreri snorted softly and helplessly at that last self-evident question. He shifted on the bed just a bit, moving himself so that he could see his reflection in the tall, ornate mirror.
When first he had awakened, hoisting the dagger in his hand to let fly, he had taken aim at the mirror, thinking to shatter the glassy reminder out of existence. Only at the last second had he shifted his aim, putting the dagger into the wall instead.
Entreri hated the mirror. It was Jarlaxle's prize, not his. The drow spent far too much time standing in front of the glass, admiring himself, adjusting his hat so that its wide brim was angled just right across his brow. Everything was a pose for that one, and no one appreciated Jarlaxle's beauty more than did Jarlaxle himself. He'd bring his cloak back over one shoulder and turn just so, then reverse the cloak and strike a pose exactly opposite. Similarly, he'd move his eye patch from left eye to right, then back again, coordinating it with the cloak. No detail of his appearance was too minor to escape Jarlaxle's clever eye.
But when Artemis Entreri looked into the mirror, he found himself faced with an image he did not like. He didn't appear anywhere near his more than four decades of life. Fit and trim, with finely-honed muscles and the lean athleticism of a man half his age, few who looked upon Entreri would think him beyond thirty. At Jarlaxle's insistence and constant badgering, he kept his black hair neatly trimmed and parted, left to right, and his face was almost always clean-shaven except for the small mustache he had come to favor. He wore silk clothes, finely cut and fit - Jarlaxle would have it no other way.
There was one thing about Entreri's appearance, however, that the meticulous and finicky drow could not remedy, and as he considered the tone of his skin, the grayish quality that made him feel as if he should be on display in a coffin, Entreri's gaze inevitably slipped back to that jeweled dagger. The weapon had done that to him, had taken the life essence from an extra-dimensional humanoid known as a shade and had drawn it into Entreri's human form.
"It's never enough for you to simply kill, is it?" Entreri asked aloud, and his gaze alternated through the sentence from the dagger to his image in the mirror and back again.
"On the contrary," came a smooth, lyrical voice from the side. "I pride myself on killing only when necessary, and usually I find that to be more than enough to sate whatever feelings spurred me to the deed in the first place."
Entreri turned his head to watch Jarlaxle enter the room, his tall black leather boots clacking loudly on the wooden floor. A moment ago, those boots were making not a whisper of sound, Entreri knew, for Jarlaxle could silence them or amplify them with no more than a thought.
"You look disheveled," the drow remarked. He reached over to the dark wood bureau and pulled Entreri's white shirt from it, then tossed it to the seated assassin.
"I just awakened."
"Ah, the tigress I brought you last night drove you to slumber."
"Or she bored me to sleep."
"You worry me."
If you knew how often the thought of killing you entered my mind, Entreri thought, but stopped as a knowing smirk widened on Jarlaxle's face. Jarlaxle was guessing his thoughts, he knew, if not reading them in detail with some strange magical device.
"Where is the red-haired lass?"
Entreri looked around the small room and shrugged. "I suspect that she left."
"Even with sleep caking your eyes, you remain the perceptive one."
Entreri sighed and glanced back at his dagger, and at his reflection, the side-by-side images eliciting similar feelings. He dropped his face into his hands and rubbed his bleary eyes.
He lifted his head at the sound of banging to see Jarlaxle using the pommel of a dagger to nail some ornament in place on the jamb above the door.
"A gift from Ilnezhara," the drow explained, stepping back and moving his hands away to reveal the palm-sized charm: a silvery dragon statuette, rearing, wings and jaws wide.
Entreri wasn't surprised. Ilnezhara and her sister Tazmikella had become their benefactors, or their employers, or their companions, or whatever else Ilnezhara and Tazmikella wanted, so it seemed. The sisters held every trump in the relationship because they were, after all, dragons.
Always dragons lately.
Entreri had never laid eyes upon a dragon until he'd met Jarlaxle. Since that time, he had seen far too many of the beasts.
"Lightning of the blue," Jarlaxle whispered to the statuette, and the figurine's eyes flared with a bright, icy blue light for just a moment then dimmed.
"What did you just do?"
Jarlaxle turned to face Entreri, his smile beaming. "Let us just say that it would not do to walk through that doorway without first identifying the dragon type."
"For now," the drow teased.
"How do you know I won't change it on you when you're out?" Entreri asked, determined to turn the tables on the cocky dark elf.
Jarlaxle tapped his eye patch. "Because I can see through doors," he explained. "And the eyes will always give it away." His smile disappeared, and he glanced around the room again.
"You are certain that the tigress has gone?" he asked.
"Or she's become very, very small."
Jarlaxle cast a sour expression Entreri's way. "Is she under your bed?"
"You wear the eye patch. Just look through it."
"Ah, you wound me yet again," said the drow. "Tell me, my friend, if I peer into your chest, will I see but a cavity where your heart should be?"
Entreri stood up and pulled on his shirt. "Inform me if that is the case," he said, walking over to tug his jeweled dagger out of the wall, "that I might cut out Jarlaxle's heart to serve as replacement."
"Far too large for the likes of Entreri, I fear."
Entreri started to respond, but found that he hadn't the heart for it.
"There is a caravan leaving in two days," Jarlaxle informed him. "We might not only find passage to the north but gather some gainful employ in the process. They are in need of guards, you see."
Entreri regarded him carefully and curiously, not quite knowing what to make of Jarlaxle's sudden, ceaseless promotion of journeying to the Gates of Damara, the two massive walls blocking either end of the Bloodstone Pass through the Galena Mountains into the wilderlands of neighboring Vaasa. This campaign for a northern adventure had begun soon after the pair had nearly been killed in their last escapade, and that battle in the strange tower still had Entreri quite shaken.
"Our bona fides, my friend," said the drow, and Entreri's face screwed up even more curiously. "Many a hero is making a name for himself in Vaasa," Jarlaxle explained. "The opportunities for wealth, fame, and reputation are rarely so fine."
"I thought our goal was to make our reputation on the streets of Heliogabalus," Entreri replied, "among potential employers."
"And current employers," Jarlaxle agreed. "And so we shall. But think how much service and profit we might gather from a heroic reputation. It will elevate us from suspicion, and perhaps insulate us from punishment if we are caught in an indiscreet action. A few months at the Vaasan Gate will elevate our reputations more than a few years here in Heliogabalus ever could."
Entreri's eyes narrowed. There has to be something more to this, he thought.
They had been in Damara for several months, and had known about the "opportunities" for heroes in the wilderlands of Vaasa from the beginning - how could they not when every tavern and half the street corners of the city of Heliogabalus were plastered with notices claiming as much? Yet only recently, only since the near disaster in the tower, had Jarlaxle taken to the notion of traveling to the north, something Entreri found quite out of character. Work in Vaasa was difficult, and luxuries nonexistent, and Entreri knew all too well that Jarlaxle prized luxury above all else.
"So what has Ilnezhara told you about Vaasa that has so intrigued you?" Entreri asked.
Jarlaxle's smile came in the form of a wry grin, one that did not deny Entreri's suspicions.
"You know of the war?" the drow asked.
"Little," Entreri admitted. "I have heard the glory of King Gareth Dragonsbane. Who could not, in this city that serves as a shrine to the man and his hero companions?"
"They did battle with Zhengyi, the Witch-King," the drow explained, "a lich of tremendous power."
"And with flights of dragons," Entreri cut in, sounding quite bored. "Yes, yes, I have heard it all."
"Many of Zhengyi's treasures have been uncovered, claimed, and brought to Damara," said Jarlaxle. "But what they have found is a pittance. Zhengyi possessed artifacts, and a hoard of treasure enough to entice flights of dragons to his call. And he was a lich. He knew the secret."
"You hold such aspirations?" Entreri didn't hide the disgust in his voice.
Jarlaxle scoffed at the notion. "I am a drow. I will live for centuries more, though centuries have been born and have died in my lifetime. In Menzoberranzan there is a lich of great power."
"The Lichdrow Dyrr, I know," Entreri reminded him.
"The most wretched creature in the city, by most accounts. I have dealt with him on occasion, enough to know that practically the entirety of his efforts are devoted to the perpetuation of his existence. He has bought eternity for himself, so he is terrified of losing it. It is a wretched existence, as cold as his skin, and a solitary state of being that knows no like company. How many wards must he weave to feel secure, when he has brought himself to the point where he might lose too much to comprehend? No, lichdom is not something I aspire to, I assure you."
"Neither do I."
"But do you realize the power that would come from possessing Zhengyi's knowledge?" the drow asked. "Do you realize how great a price aging kings, fearing their impending death, would pay?"
Entreri just stared at the drow.
"And who can tell what other marvels Zhengyi possessed?" Jarlaxle went on. "Are there treasuries full of powerful magical charms or dragon-sized mounds of gemstones? Had the Witch-King weapons that dwarf the power of your own Charon's Claw?"
"Is there no purpose to your life beyond the act of acquisition?"
That rocked Jarlaxle back on his heels - one of the very few times Entreri had ever seen him temporarily rattled. But of course it passed quickly.
"If it is, it's the purpose of both my life and yours, it would seem," the drow finally retorted. "Did you not cross the face of Faerun to hunt down Regis and the ruby pendant of Pasha Pook?"
"It was a job."
"One you could have refused."
"I enjoy the adventure."
"Then let us go," said the drow, and he waved his arm in an exaggerated motion at the door. "Adventure awaits! Experiences beyond any we have known, perhaps. How can you resist?"
"Vaasa is an empty frozen tundra for most of the year and a puddle of muddy swamp the rest."
"And below that tundra?" the drow teased. "There are treasures up there beyond our dreams."
"And there are hundreds of adventurers searching for those treasures."
"Of course," the drow conceded, "but none of them know how to look as well as I."
"I could take that two ways."
Jarlaxle put one hand on his hip, turned slightly, and struck a pose. "And you would be correct on both counts," he assured his friend. The drow reached into his belt pouch and brought forth a corn bread cake artistically topped with a sweet white and pink frosting. He held it up before his eyes, a grin widening on his face. "I do so know how to find, and retain, treasure," he said, and he tossed the delicacy to Entreri with the explanation, "A present from Piter."
Entreri looked at the cake, though he was in no mood for delicacies, or any food at all.
"Piter," he whispered.
He knew the man himself was the treasure to which Jarlaxle was referring and not the cake. Entreri and Jarlaxle had liberated the fat chef, Piter McRuggle, from a band of inept highwaymen, and Jarlaxle had subsequently set the man and his family up at a handsome shop in Heliogabalus. The drow knew talent when he saw it, and in Piter, there could be no doubt. The bakery was doing wonderful business, lining Jarlaxle's pockets with extra coin and lining his notebooks with information.
It occurred to Artemis Entreri that he, too, might fall into Jarlaxle's category of found and retained treasures. It was pretty obvious which of the duo was taking the lead and who was following.
"Now, have I mentioned that there is a caravan leaving in two days?" Jarlaxle remarked with that irresistible grin of his.
Entreri started to respond, but the words died away in his throat. What was the point?
Two days later, he and Jarlaxle were rode sturdy ponies, guarding the left flank of a six-wagon caravan that wound its way out of Heliogabalus's north gate.