A/N: I'm extremely sorry for the delay. Thanks for sticking with me.

A big thank you goes out (in alphabetical order) to Darkhelmet, Euphorbic, Matt, and Rezuri for beta reading. Also, in regards to this particular chapter, thank you to Silverwolf, who saved my butt in a way that shall remain safely secret between the two of us. wink

I must assert a special thank you to Darkhelmet for chapter 7 because she surpassed the duties of a beta reader in helping me put this together. You can thank her that this was ever finished, given my time constraints. She is the co-author of the chapter, having literally written half of it by penning both of the fight scenes. Or, to put it another way: This chapter is brought to you by the Ariel & Darkhelmet Writing Team (ADWT). LOL

A thank you also goes (again, in alphabetical order) to Darkhelmet, Dr. L, Euphorbic, Matt, Rezuri, and Silverwolf for suggestions, ideas, information, trouble-shooting, and/or fine-tuning ideas.

Thank you to all who read and reviewed this story!

The third story, "The Sacrifice for Salvation," is already underway. I hope to begin posting it near the end of Christmas Break.

"I know not yet where I hope to go, what challenges
are left before me, but I do understand now that
the important thing is to enjoy the process of getting there."--A.E.

Chapter Seven

Artemis Entreri sat, his back to a tree, and watched over the silent camp before him. Dawn had pierced the sky, adding the slightest hint of pink to the darkness and announcing morning. Despite the approaching light, the birds were unnaturally still, almost as though nature felt the impending violence that a few hours would bring. Today they would reach the ruins and face Mordecai, Entreri knew, and the drow would feel the agony of having his soul burnt out of his chest.

In this transitional moment, however, between night and dawn, between quiet and fury, lay nothing more than an assassin's thoughts and the shallow breathing of sleepers. Even Jarlaxle, who sat cross-legged on the ground not five feet from Entreri, was silent. The elf had come out of Reverie a half hour before, but in an uncharacteristic show of either compassion or contemplation, had yet to speak. He simply gazed at the nearly-extinguished campfire, apparently lost in thought.

And in this unusual hush, Artemis Entreri found himself gazing at the sleepers, Nyx and Tai. Nyx, who Entreri seemed to inadvertently distract and who seemed to have realized that she could overstep her rights as a friend. Tai, who was sleeping restlessly and about whom Entreri felt an uncomfortable . . . concern.

To care, Entreri thought with an internal smirk. What a fool I am to invite such pain. Yet I will not lie to myself and say that I don't care if Tai survives the fight today. Nor will I lie and pretend that it doesn't matter if Jarlaxle dies. I must even admit that I'd prefer it if Nyx survived. He shook his head. I did not want this. I did not ask for this. For all my life, I have lived without these feelings, and yet I find myself walking inexplicably forward, unwilling to turn back. But why? Why is this happening—or rather, why am I allowing it to happen?

Tai shifted violently in his sleep, revealing that he was trapped in a nightmare. Entreri could guess what torture that dreamscape contained. The movement caught Jarlaxle's attention as well, and the two mercenaries traded glances.

Will you awaken him, or shall I? Jarlaxle asked via handcode.

He will awaken on his own, and shortly, Entreri replied.

Before Jarlaxle could respond, Tai jerked awake, bolting upright and looking around the clearing wildly. His black hair was pasted with sweat against his forehead and neck, and the boy's face was red with emotion. Seeming to catch his breath, the priest frowned and stood, shaking off his cloak in a gesture of irritation. He stalked out of the camp without a backward glance.

Entreri stared at the black cloak left on the ground, not willing to even think about the significance of the fact he'd bothered to have such a thing made for Tai.

"Will you follow him?" Jarlaxle whispered.

Entreri glared at the elf, who tried to look quite innocent but failed.

"He needs you," Jarlaxle replied to that Look.

"But I don't need to be needed," Entreri said, standing. Standing and walking. Walking and following Tai's path of departure.

A soft chuckle from a certain drow rang in his ears as he left.

Once into the cover of the trees, Tai had sprinted a good twenty feet beyond the camp's parameters. Reaching a small clearing, the priest kneeled and wrapped his arms about himself. Even after all the ground he'd gained, all the meditation and communing, all the revelations, he still had such vivid nightmares! Tai unconsciously rocked back and forth for several moments, attempting to calm himself, but his anger still bubbled inside, burning with such intensity he wondered that his skin did not blister.

"Why?" he spat, growing suddenly still. "Why do these nightmares persist! I thought I had conquered this!"

"I told you once already," a stern voice said from behind him, and the priest was startled yet again. "The nightmares will stop. Just maintain your focus."

Tai closed his eyes and grinned self-depreciatingly. "Entreri?"

The assassin knelt beside him. "What?"

"Would you do me a favor and make noise when you approach me from behind? I'm rather tired of being scared witless every time you sneak up on me like that." The priest gave Entreri a glance that was only half-joking in its irritation. "Besides, my comments really weren't meant to be overhead."

The assassin snorted, apparently amused at the priest's show of temper. "Then don't say them aloud. And no, I won't make noise, but I will teach you to be more aware of your surroundings so that others cannot sneak up on you."

Tai stared at the man. Really looked at him, distracted suddenly by his new knowledge. Entreri seemed the same, looked the same . . . but somehow, he wasn't the same. The assassin's anger and bitterness now had an added dimension that Tai could understand, although he still wished he could somehow ease it. But most of all, more than anything . . . more than anything, Tai now knew he was looking upon a fellow survivor. What spoke to Tai's soul more than their shared suffering was their shared survival.

And the priest knew, then. He knew he could make a complete recovery with time. He knew because of the poised, self-confident, strong man beside him.

Entreri was giving Tai a suspicious look. "Why are you gazing at me so oddly?"

Tai opened his mouth to speak, but no sound came out. How to tell the man? Tai simultaneously wanted to thank Jarlaxle and choke him for revealing such a thing about his friend. Actually, the urge to choke the elf for the violation of privacy and trust was winning out. At the same time, the priest couldn't deny that the knowledge was highly comforting in a strange way. But what to say? How to connect to Entreri?

Tai sighed and looked away, staring into the darkness. His entire heart was reaching for Entreri, asking for understanding, asking for friendship, perhaps even asking for a replacement older brother. "I had a talk with Jarlaxle," the priest began, even though he knew there was no way he could reveal what he'd learned. He didn't want to make Entreri uncomfortable or risk his displaced wrath.

"Yes, I know."

The priest swallowed his surprise and didn't dare look at Entreri.

"Jarlaxle said you confronted him," the assassin continued in Tai's silence. "I sensed potential in you when I first met you." He sounded reluctant to hand out the compliment. "I am gratified, if unsurprised, to see that I was right."

Tai smiled, recognizing a vulnerability within himself. This man's words could strengthen or break him; he'd been awed—both delighted and frightened—by Entreri from the first moment they'd met. He'd proceeded with their partnership out of both naivety and perhaps a touch of arrogance, but also out of trust in Hoar, who had urged him to join forces with Entreri and Jarlaxle. And now . . .

And now he looked up to Entreri. But why? Because of his strength? Or was this affection he felt the result of missing his family? Of specifically missing his deceased eldest brother and his uncle?

. . . and how did Entreri feel, effectively having no family at all? Or, rather, a family who had betrayed him?

Tai finally looked up at Entreri. "I'm glad I met you."

"Glad?" The assassin looked vaguely bewildered and a touch uncomfortable.

The priest nearly laughed, for he realized his safest answer would sound very similar to the attitude a certain drow. "Well, you are a gifted swordsman. Should I not consider myself fortunate to have seen you wield your weapons?"

Entreri snickered. "You're fortunate to have seen it but not be on the receiving end."

Tai did laugh this time, but the smile quickly faded from his face. He stared out into the darkness again. "I'm still so angry," he said, resuming his previous topic without warning. "Why am I so enraged? I'll think the anger has receded, only to realize that it's merely simmering beneath the surface."

"Because it is not so simple," a quiet voice intoned beside him. "Your anger is great, and for good cause. Do not expect to shrug it off so easily."

Tai didn't respond at first. "The anger seems to eat my stomach," the priest finally whispered. "I can almost see the holes burning through my gut as the rage consumes me." Rage like you must have felt all your life . . . must have, to have lived the kind of life that I've learned you did. Like the way you pursued that drow Drizzt Do'Urden. I felt disillusioned when I first heard that story in Silverymoon, but now . . .

For several minutes, Entreri didn't speak. In the pause, the sound of creaking branches filled the air, along with the moan of the wind. A cold breeze whipped through the trees, catching a few fallen leaves and whipping them around the kneeling humans. Tai, bereft of his cloak, shivered.

Entreri stared at the priest for a moment, then removed his cloak and draped it across Tai's shoulders.

Tai, too moved to speak by this simplest act of kindness, clutched the cloak, wrapping himself in it, and inhaled the musky scent of pine needles, sweat, and leather. It was oddly comforting, this mixed scent—the smell of a rough man, perhaps, or the smell of a father.

"I know," Entreri finally replied, and the priest believed him. "You must control that anger." The assassin paused. "No—more than simply control it. You must conquer it, one minute at a time if necessary, or it will consume you and rule your life."

Tai recognized the wisdom of the words immediately; in fact, he could have spoken them himself in different circumstances. But knowing something was true and living that truth were not the same. "How?"

Entreri was silent for a long, long time. "By acknowledging the truth and letting go of the lies," he said at last.

"Lies?" Tai had never heard Entreri speak in such a way, and his words were both surprising and curious. "What kind of lies?"

The assassin seemed increasingly uncomfortable. "Perhaps that you are weak. Or that you should have been able to defeat Mordecai and stop what happened. That you are powerless or that you some how brought this upon yourself."

Tai looked up at Entreri. "But I did make a mistake!" I trusted Jarlaxle to look after me. I didn't fight well enough. I couldn't resist Mordecai's spell.

"'You must be perfect. Less than perfect gets you killed,'" Entreri said, almost as though he were quoting someone, and for a moment he seemed far, far away. But then he looked Tai in the eyes. "Humans make mistakes. Die human if you have to, but be human. There is no meaning, no purpose, to not being human."

Tai felt his eyes widen. Such words of wisdom! Did this mean that Entreri had faced his own past and gleaned insight from it? Had he charged in, sword raised, and fought off the pain and humiliation that Tai himself now felt?

Surely so. Entreri was a strong man. But if he had, then why was he so angry and bitter? Why had he not found the path to peace? Stillness of the mind? Joy?

"Well, you are an assassin," Tai mumbled aloud.

Entreri raised an eyebrow, likely assuming the comment was a reaction to his words about being human.

But no. What Tai saw was a man who had embraced darkness, had descended to the depths of hatred and violence . . .

And a man who just wordlessly handed over his cloak because I'm cold.

"I worry for you," Tai said softly.

"Why?" The assassin smirked. "Your heart bleeds too much, my friend." He glanced away momentarily, gazing out into the night. "And mine, not enough." It was a whisper, and the priest decided that the admission had actually been a private one.

Tai clutched the weather-beaten cloak around his shoulders and deeply inhaled the scent of pine needles and leather once again. "It doesn't have to bleed for the whole world," he replied. Just as long as it bleeds for me.

"Which is fortunate," Entreri snapped, "since it doesn't and never will."

But the words were lost on Tai, who was too busy feeling shocked by the possessiveness he was experiencing toward the assassin.

Since when have I coveted someone's friendship? the priest asked himself.

Since I found a survivor like me, his heart answered.

The Kagaor ki Tamal.

The key to power; the key to salvation.

As he led Vren and the Tuin'Tarl soldiers through the winding saurian ruins, Mordecai cherished the thought of his mission, of its meaning and purpose, of its ramifications. To have been given such a task—and to hold such power in his hands—was an honor, a gift, and an opportunity Mordecai could not dismiss. And now, following ancient schematics for an ancient city, the cleric was making his way to the temple of Sseth to claim a powerful weapon in the shape of a mirror.

Mordecai could not keep the smile from his face.

Around the cleric and his companions, the interior of the ruins asserted their formidable presence. The floor was worn with both age and use, stones cracked and dirty from the endless slithering of saurian bodies. The vaulted ceiling arched a mile above their heads, reminding Mordecai of the vast caverns of his home, with one exception: magical torches sprung to life in each corridor the drow entered, unnecessarily lighting their way. However, as he directed Vren and the soldiers to a side passageway, Mordecai found himself impressed with the ruins. Though the buildings likely had been reduced to a shadow of their former grandeur, it wasn't hard for the cleric to imagine the city's splendor in centuries past.

Mordecai was so caught in his thoughts that it took him a moment to realize that Vren had halted. The delicate drow stood in the middle of the corridor, head tilted slightly as though listening. As his brow furrowed in concentration, the Secondboy grabbed one of his many small braids and wrapped it around his index finger.

What do you hear? Mordecai signed in drow hand code.

Vren listened for a moment longer, then shook his head. I don't know. I thought I may have heard footsteps behind us, but I am likely mistaken. These ruins are not stable, and the rocks themselves may shift of their own accord.

Although that was plausible, Mordecai knew better. It was more likely that Jarlaxle and his pets had arrived and were following close behind. He knew the drow mercenary well enough to believe that they had managed to locate the ruins quickly. The thought didn't disturb the cleric, however; defeating Jarlaxle was as simple as locating the Kagaor ki Tamal first and unleashing its power on whomever stood in the way.

Satisfied, Mordecai signed, Continue, then turned his attention to the walls around him.

The five drow moved in absolute silence along the hall, which had begun to slowly narrow, and stopped only to check for or disarm the occasional trap. Using a simple divine spell, Mordecai had drawn upon his god's power to detect traps in the structure. The three soldiers then dealt with them quickly, using their blades to trigger pressure plates in the floor, or—with deadly precision—using their crossbows to set off tripwires.

Mordecai observed with great interest the lack of a reset mechanism on the traps. Apparently the previous inhabitants had not been prepared to deal with more than one attack at a time. Perhaps that was for the better, Mordecai thought with a nasty grin. If Jarlaxle and the human assassin were to be killed, then Mordecai wished to do it with his own hands.

As the group moved deeper into the ruins, the sense of age and decay grew stronger. The walls were also changing, growing heavily ornamented with engravings and paintings. Vast panoramas of humanoid snakes in the midst of combat greeted the drow at every turn; it was obvious that they had moved far beyond the confines of the general residents. The careful detail spoke of much wealth in earlier times.

That wealth became suddenly frustrating, however, as the drow were halted in their tracks. The passageway that they had been in had narrowed to the point that Vren had been forced to carry his double-bladed sword vertically or risk scraping the keen blades against the surrounding stone. In front of them stood a golden door decorated in elaborate script and symbols that reminded Mordecai of the runes that often adorned noble drow houses. Careful inspection showed several acidic dart traps laced throughout the locking mechanism. The handle itself was a small snake, curved in a manner that made it easy to grab.

Nodding to one of the soldiers, Mordecai stepped back as the drow pulled out a lock pick and a block of wood and began work. A feeling of sudden unease swept over the cleric, causing him to reach for the pair of daggers sheathed on his thighs. In Mordecai's back pack, Cat shifted in her sleep, apparently also disturbed by whomever—or whatever—had just entered the passageway behind them. Like Vren, Mordecai now also heard the quiet movements in the vine- and mold-filled chambers and hallways around them.

Be on guard, he signed to Vren, who had raised an eyebrow at him. We are not alone.

The Secondboy nodded, shifting slowly into a fighting stance.

Then the sound came again, louder this time. Glancing around, Mordecai realized that something was out of place. There were holes in the stone, but not nearly large enough to account for the sudden drone that was filling the room. It was almost as though—

Reacting on instinct, Mordecai dropped to his knees as a black cloud burst from the wall to his left, passing over his head with a near-deafening buzz. Calling to his god, Mordecai recited a quick incantation to dispel illusions. Just as he suspected, the walls in the corridor immediately melted away to reveal a larger chamber with columns set where the illusionary corridor had once been.

The source of the attack was also revealed in the large nests that dotted the ceiling and floors of the chamber. The strange creatures that had made their home in the ruins buzzed angrily along the ceiling, their large leathery wings creating an audible flapping sound. With reddish, furry bodies and a two-foot wingspan, the beasts looked like the hybrid offspring of a bat and a mosquito.

There were a half-dozen of the strange creatures, and Mordecai knew—from having seen them once before in the forest—that the drow were lucky to have not stumbled upon a larger infestation. Six was more than enough to deal with.

Arming his crossbow, Mordecai commanded the rest of the drow to do the same. The two soldiers unoccupied with the door surrounded their companion, guarding his back as he worked to disarm the trap. Vren, apparently pleased to have more room to work in, brandished his sword and gave it a brief twirl in the air. The noise of the whirling blade mixed with the sound of flapping wings, a furor that echoed and spread through the chamber.

"Be on guard," Mordecai called out. "They feed upon blood and will pierce you where you are not protected."

Growling, Vren gave his double-bladed sword another twirl. "They will have to reach me first."

Then the creatures struck, launching from the ceiling in a harrowing corkscrew dive. Mordecai summoned a magical shield around himself that deflected one of the creatures to the side. The cleric caught sight of the beast as it passed him and noted the razor-tipped legs and long proboscis.

Wasting no time, Mordecai took aim with his crossbow and fired into the creature as it retreated. The bolt struck it the creature in the gut, breaking through the dirty yellow fur of the belly. The cleric smirked, for he had imbued his quarrels with a special magic to fit his fancy. Sure enough, after a moment, the creature exploded as a magic core in the bolt erupted within its internal organs. The remains crashed into the ground, creating a splatter of blood and mucus.

To the right, Vren had launched into a series of darts and stabs with his double blade, catching one beast through the body and sending another one careening towards the soldiers near the door. The impaled creature flapped frantically until Vren took the blade and smashed it against a pillar, scraping off the dead beast so that it slid along the stone toward the ground.

With two down, Mordecai turned his attention to the creatures that had yet to attack. Three still hovered high in the air, as if biding their time in order to gauge a proper course of action.

Mordecai himself required no time to think. Calling upon the divine power within him, the cleric cupped his hands and set his index fingers to a point, directing the tip towards the nearest of the strange insects. Black energy lanced from his fingers into the creature. The beast gave no indication of pain except to fall from the air and crash onto the flagstones. The remaining two, however, seemed enraged and launched toward Mordecai with growing speed and fury.

However, Vren was there to meet them; a rapid sequence of thrusts had both creatures skewered on his sword. Disgusted, the Secondboy used his foot to clean off the blades, crushing the beasts into a pulp of flesh and liquid under his boot. With a grimace, Vren flipped his braided hair over his shoulder and sneered at Mordecai. "What wonderful creatures to greet us." He patted his hair with one hand, as if to check for damage. "At least I do not have any blood or mucus in my hair."

Mordecai snorted but otherwise did not reply. Glancing back to the door, the cleric saw the sixth creature dead on the floor. One of the soldiers dabbed at a puncture wound on his neck and tossed the beast dirty looks, as though daring it to try and move again.

The third solider had opened the door, though, and the group had managed to escape serious injury. That thought was enough to remove any apprehension from Mordecai's mind, and with a smile, the cleric sauntered through the golden door into the expansive entryway beyond.

"Keep pace," Entreri ordered, tossing aside a tree branch with his arm. The assassin kept the group at a jog as they neared the ruins, and he would have forced them to run the rest of the way if the overgrown forest been less dense.

Nyx didn't respond to the assassin's prodding, although she managed to stay in stride with him, but Tai lagged, no doubt feeling the effects of his less than restful sleep. Jarlaxle had offered to take point for once and preceded the group by ten feet.

Midday was approaching, and Entreri could feel the fact they were running out of time. They needed to reach the ruins posthaste, or they had no chance of reaching Mordecai before he found the Kagaor ki Tamal. Entreri had no desire to see Mordecai attain any magical artifact, but more than that, he had a deep-seated urge to deny the cleric his goal and victory. The assassin had a running list of reasons to slowly kill Mordecai with much pain and torture, not the least of which was the cleric's attempted assault upon him, and with his victim likely so near, Entreri was losing patience.

Jarlaxle broke into a run, then, startling the rest of the companions. Entreri took off after him, outpacing Nyx and Tai in mere moments. Breaking through the tree line, the assassin halted suddenly and found himself overlooking a gaping pit that revealed building roofs and crumbling earth. Jarlaxle stood at the edge, peering over at the hundred-foot drop to the dirt, vines, and ruins below.

"Finally," was the assassin's only comment.

Jarlaxle was grinning, however, which made Entreri suspicious. "Indeed," the elf said, "we have reached our destination, and likely are on the heels of our adversaries. And when we have finished with them and have the mirror in our possession, what other wonders may we find?"

Entreri groaned. "Dare I even ask what you have been dreaming of since the moment you first heard of the mirror?"

Jarlaxle shrugged. "Shortly before Tai showed up and 'hired' us for this task, Kimmuriel had told me that Bregan D'aerthe scouts had been deployed to seek treasure in some surface ruins. I briefly wondered at the time whether these two incidents were connected, and as it turned out, they were. However, just because Mordecai betrayed Bregan D'aerthe and Kimmuriel decided to no longer pursue the artifacts doesn't mean that I can't benefit from said treasure."

Entreri shook his head. "Greedy bastard."

The elf wagged a finger. "Tsk, tsk. We've already established as much."

Entreri didn't reply, but he had to wonder if Jarlaxle had been dreaming of surface empires again, of perhaps trying once more to establish Bregan D'aerthe on the surface, except without the drow.

Knowing Jarlaxle, probably.

The flamboyant drow smiled at Entreri, his uncovered red eye sparkling with mirth, and briefly squeezed Entreri's arm. "No doubt it will be a great and profitable adventure!"

Nyx exited from the trees and walked straight up to Entreri. "What will be a great and profitable adventure? Killing Mordecai?" She snorted. "Great, maybe, but I'm not sure how profitable it will be."

Tai followed Nyx out and stood apart from the others. "Not great, either. Just necessary." He nodded toward the pit. "And we best not delay. How shall we enter the ruins?"

Jarlaxle nodded at the priest, then pulled a scroll from a belt pouch. "That will not be a problem." The elf unrolled the parchment, and Entreri tilted his head to read it. At first, nothing was there, then the plans of a city appeared on the scroll, drawing themselves from left to right. "Right then," Jarlaxle said after a moment. "Follow me."

Artemis Entreri sighed and held back the urge to strangle the elf. "But of course you'd have a map at your disposal. You and your blasted magical items."

Jarlaxle laughed.

The stone floor of the entryway, which Mordecai knew had to lead to the temple, spanned a hundred feet. At the end, the cleric could see a large double door that likely measured twenty feet tall at its arch. Throughout the entryway, thick stone columns reached from floor to ceiling, suspending the roof as well as the dirt above. The far walls seemed to recede into shadow and imbue the room with vastness, yet vines ran along the floor, proof of nature's overwhelming power to reclaim the earth. Still, the truth was that just a few dozen feet away lay the room where, by all accounts, the Kagaor ki Tamal was housed.

Reflexively checking for his daggers in an almost nervous gesture, Mordecai motioned for Vren and the other soldiers to follow him. He trod lightly at this point, making no discernible noise on the worn stone and tangle of rotting vines. The air was stale, musty with mildew and age, and his sixth sense reminded Mordecai they were not alone, although neither he nor his companions could detect signs of pursuit.

A suspended moment, a silent moment, burned forever into Mordecai's mind, hung and then passed. Before him, suddenly, were the towering doors. The wood was thinned and eaten, leaving small holes in the barricade, and the ornamental metal decorating the panels was rusted and even missing in places. Leaning in closely but carefully, wary of further traps, Mordecai brushed slender fingers against a particular carving that had caught his attention. It was a pair of snakes, bodies intertwined.

This is it, Mordecai thought smugly, his heart racing. I have succeeded.

Motioning again, Mordecai signed instructions to his men. Follow closely, but do not touch anything without permission. Make no sudden moves.

Certain after his initial inspection that the entrance was not trapped, Mordecai braced both hands against the doors and pushed. The wood cracked under the pressure, and he felt the doors heave and splinter. A shrill screech penetrated the deep gloom of the inner sanctum, echoing off the stones and causing Vren to cringe and the other drow to reach for their ears. Then the rotted doors tumbled off their hinges to crash against the floor, creating a cloud of dust.

Even before the echo had faded, Mordecai peered into the blackness, using his darkvision to see into the sprawling temple. A high, sloping ramp imposed upon a larger portion of the room, its peak seemingly swallowed by the darkness above. Several banners hung from the walls, tattered and ruined to the point that the symbols on them were unidentifiable, and pieces of wooden furniture were scattered on the floor.

It looked more like a tomb than a temple, Mordecai thought, taking a careful step into the room and feeling the smooth floor for traps even as magical torches sprang to life. Despite the protection spells that he had summoned about him, the cleric still did not feel completely at ease. If the Kagaor ki Tamal was as powerful as it was rumoured to be, then he had little doubt that its owners would have further dangerous mechanisms to guard it from outsiders. There was no sign of a trap under his feet, however, and with this in mind Mordecai began to walk faster. He could sense Vren close behind him and knew that the other three guards were wordlessly holding up the rear.

"This is too easy," Vren whispered, bringing Mordecai to a halt.

Turning to glare at the Secondboy, Mordecai replied, "Nothing is ever easy. The difficulty lies in finding where the danger truly is." He gestured at the stones. "This floor is untouched, unscathed. The walls are worn not from war, but age. This room was well-used and meant to be occupied; tell me, would the Matron Mother trap the floors of her own temple knowing that she and her priestesses would soon be occupying it?"

A flash of anger darkened Vren's expression. "I was merely suggesting caution in the face of your sudden rush."

Mordecai took a great pleasure in the Secondboy's embarrassment. "I assure you, I am forever cautious," he said, resuming his walk. "Now be silent, or may Lolth herself help you if you awaken whatever demons may reside in this place." Feeling Vren stiffen behind him was amusing indeed. As far as the cleric could tell, there was no hint of demons or other extraplanar creatures in the room, but Vren could not know that.

Since Mordecai hadn't the patience to physically search the room for the Kagaor ki Tamal, he had brought with him a faster means of detecting the object he coveted. Reaching a hand into a belt pouch, the cleric withdrew a small garnet which was imbued with the ability to detect magic. The gem pulsed within his grasp, sending tendrils of heat into his fingertips and magical whispers into his mind. As the garnet worked, the room dissolved into a patchwork of blood red lines, pattern upon pattern forming until all Mordecai could see was a grid of moving light around him. The lines came together at an apex, converging at the top of the ramp—which was not limitless, he saw, but in fact magically shrouded—as a blinding red beacon.

Prize in sight, Mordecai snapped the jewel away and, using handcode, told his men to hold their positions. Then, slowly, he put one foot on the ramp. A patch of dust rose with it, thicker than on the rest of the ground, suggesting even less use than the rest of the room had seen. As Mordecai climbed upward, the air took on a strange quality, as though it had been purified of the dust only to be sedated with a thick magical aura. The gloom itself began to close in, and Mordecai found his hand wandering to a dagger if for no other reason than to reassure himself that he still existed in the quickly infringing dark. Determined, he continued upward.

Then, as suddenly as it had appeared, the veil lifted, and Mordecai found himself standing on a raised platform. A golden altar stood before him, covered with engravings, and behind that, set into the wall—

As soon as his eyes landed on the mirror, the trained paranoid inside Mordecai's heart screamed danger; hidden away in his backpack, Cat tensed and growled. The sound of scraping stone assaulted the cleric's ears, and he immediately launched into a prayer, asking his deity for protection and power. Divine might surged through him, feeding his senses further, allowing him to hear quite clearly the slap and thud of flesh against stone. Something other than drow moved in the veil of magical darkness below.

Alert, Mordecai glanced about once, then stalked forward toward the mirror. Arm outstretched, he prepared to utter a spell to summon it to him, only to find himself stopped mid-stride by an invisible force. A snarl escaped his lips, and he drew back, drawing upon the power of his god to expose the problem. A glow revealed the enchanted wall of solid glass before him, and the cleric knew his task would not be easy.

"Damn them," Mordecai spat. He was so close!

The noise of battle below drew the cleric's attention, and he was forced to leave the cursed illusion for more pressing matters. Closing his eyes so that all of his attention was focused on the sounds around him, he stepped off the platform and into the black cloud, daggers in hand and mind racing furiously with strategies for whatever lay beyond. As Mordecai levitated downward, the grunts and commotion of combat drew louder but the dark shroud enclosing the ramp did not fade. When his feet touched the ground, the cleric realized that the unnatural, magical darkness had spread lower, immersing the entire room so that no drow could see through it.

To any other creature it might have been a devastating tactic, but to a drow, the lack of sight was only a minor inconvenience. Attuned hearing and experience with such darkness compensated for the problem, and as Mordecai listened carefully, he was able to make out the general locations of his comrades. Ten feet to his left, something scratched hard against the floor, almost as if metal were scraping against stone, and Mordecai leapt to the side, narrowly avoiding being crushed. He felt the wind as the object passed, and heard the sound of stone being shattered beneath his feet. He also heard one of the soldiers shout, then the sound of a crossbolt quarrel being fired, and finally the first hint of the beast itself. A guttural hiss filled the room, a noise too loud for Mordecai's liking, but familiar nonetheless. A snake.

Mordecai's hearing alerted him to the rushing sound that accompanied an incoming object. Although he was familiar with snakes, he had never encountered any quite as big as the monster that logic suggested made the hiss. To summon that kind of air, the creature had to be at least thirty feet long, with a body the width of a large tree. As the creature approached, Mordecai bent, lowering his center of gravity in an attempt to dodge the snake. However, the tail knocked into his shoulder, sending him crashing to the ground.

Almost instantly the whooshing noise came again, and the bruised Mordecai jumped to his feet and readied himself. Summoning a burst of divine energy through his body and into his daggers, his stabbed upwards, catching scaly flesh. The weapons cut through the skin, sinking in past the hilt and drawing another howl from the creature. Thick liquid ran down the blades and onto Mordecai's hands. Jerking one of the daggers free, Mordecai sheathed it and then traced a divine symbol into the air. Whispering a curse, the cleric then directed his palm upward into the hole where the dagger had been.

As the divine energy blasted from his hand, Mordecai felt the creature melt away from him, upward at first, then back down to him in a spray of blood. The room was beginning to stink of iron, the scent of the blood pervading the room and filling his nose.

The snake shuddered then, and Mordecai was suddenly thrown upward, his remaining hand and dagger still immersed in the creature's body, as the snake arched in agony. As the body fell downward again, Mordecai used his remaining balance to plant his feet firmly on the creature and wrench the dagger out of its flesh. The moment that the creature hit the ground, Mordecai jumped free, using gravity to pull him downward in a tight roll in the direction away from the snake—a roll that reminded him of the growing bruise upon his shoulder. This action also won him a screech from Cat, who clawed free of Mordecai's backpack as soon as he regained his feet and then streaked away.

Behind him, Mordecai heard Vren cursing loudly. There was the sound of swinging metal, then a series of sickening thumps as metal connected again with flesh. Slowly, the hissing of the monster decreased, until its death thralls faded away into silence. The only remaining sound was the beating of Mordecai's own heart, faster than he would have liked, but beating even so. He had survived; that was all that mattered.

Moments later, the black cover lifted, revealing once again the ruined confines of the altar room. Mordecai gazed around at the mess, eyes wandering to the pieces of flesh that were now oozing blood onto the flag stones.

His spell had been effective, he realized, as he gazed upon the snake's carcass. Its middle was all but missing, a tangle of bone and internal organs where the divine power had burned. Several pierce marks drew a line from that towards its triangular head, where an equally bruised Vren stood, poised, his double-bladed sword still crimson. Blood seeped from one of the snake's eyes, a quarrel embedded deep within it, while the other eye glared back at Mordecai, the pupil a shape that was strangely familiar; a cat's eye, he noted, much the same as Cat bore herself.

"Foul creature," Vren spat, staking his sword into the snake's head one last time. The other three soldiers, who were also bruised and even bloodied, seemed to share the Secondboy's sentiment.

"Foul perhaps," Mordecai said, noting with interest the long teeth extending from the creature's mouth, "but only doing what was bid of it. A good servant, you might say, protecting what is now rightfully ours."

Or, he thought with renewed excitement, what was now his. It was only a matter of minutes before the Kagaor ki Tamal was in his hands, releasing him from Vren, the soldiers, and the confines of his falsified mission.

With that thought, Mordecai smirked and turned to the soldiers. His pleasure was short-lived, however, as Vren himself marched up the ramp and stopped parallel to the altar, apparently puzzled.

"There is a barrier here," Vren exclaimed from the stop of the ramp, which was now free of the darkness that had enshrouded it. "One of enchanted glass."

Swearing under his breath, Mordecai surveyed the room in wonderment. Too many delays! How would he disarm this trap?

The cleric frowned as his gaze fell on the snake and lingered on the pointed fangs. Something about them caught his attention, something not quite normal for the teeth of a mortal creature. Curious, Mordecai once again withdrew the magical gem from his belt pack, and he was surprised to see the faint outlines of glowing script on the right fang. The magic looped and swirled around the bone, obviously alive and active compared to the reptile it was bound to.

Snapping around, Mordecai said loudly, "Is there anything on the altar? Any placeholder or keyhole in the top or sides?"

He and the other soldiers watched as Vren checked the golden altar. The small drow paused briefly when he studied the top. He reached a slender hand down to the design in the center—two snakes wound around each other—then frowned.

"There appears to be an opening for some sort of ornament," the Secondboy replied.

Nodding, Mordecai reached out and grasped the snake's tooth in his hands. The bone was still warm to the touch but came out with ease when he applied pressure. A stream of clear liquid ran from the hole in the creature's mouth, and Mordecai jumped aside to avoid being sprayed by the toxic liquid. The tooth was now throbbing in his hands, sending a steady pulse of energy through his body. In his peripheral vision, he could see the soldiers step back, as though they too had felt the invisible tremor. The very life-force of the creature was in his fingers, his body, his very essence, and Mordecai embraced it, relishing in the sense of power and control that it brought him.

Silently, the cleric climbed the stone ramp, his very heartbeat seeming to align with the pulse of the tooth in his hands. When he reached the pinnacle and saw the altar and the hole that Vren had spoken of, Mordecai knew that he had succeeded. The tooth slid into the metallic slot easily, but the effect on the magic in the room was dramatic. The room seemed to mold and shape as Mordecai drew back from the altar. The air rippled and flexed around him, dragging stones and dirt and vines in and out of existence before re-stabilizing.

Electricity crackled in the air around Mordecai as he slowly walked towards the mirror. He passed the altar with no difficulty, as though the barrier had never existed, and did not stop until he stood mere inches from the object of his desire.

The mirror, the legendary Kagaor ki Tamal, glittered in front of him, untarnished by the wear of countless ages, seeping with the force and strength that he desired to wield. Mordecai could feel the wash of its magic around him, engulfing him, renewing the pulse of the snake's tooth tenfold, until all the cleric could hear was the throbbing of his own blood in his veins. Trembling with anticipation, Mordecai closed his eyes and, with outstretched arms, touched the mirror with his fingertips.

The world seemed to stop as he pulled the artifact from the wall. The mirror released an explosion of white light, piercing the room and the eyes of the soldiers. He heard Vren scream in agony, felt as the other soldiers fell to their knees in pain. With the light came another form of sight, a vision that wrapped about his mind, granting him sight from blindness. The power of the Kagaor ki Tamal was laid bare before him; he only need take it.

Unflinching even as his body was wracked with a strange and foreign torture of its own, Mordecai forced himself to look into the radiance, to embrace what was being given to him. The light began to fade then, but Mordecai knew better than to think it gone. He could feel it within him, ready to be unleashed on anyone who chose to oppose him and his masked god. A cry rose in his throat, transforming fast into a bark of laughter that echoed around the room, filling it with sound even as the light extinguished.

Let it begin.