"Certainly there will be conflicts and perhaps very dangerous ones for both parties . . .
But the longer the alliance holds, the stronger it will become,
the more entrenched in friendship."—Drizzt Do'Urden on AE and JB, SotS


Tai ran behind Entreri and Jarlaxle with Nyx alongside him, their destination the forest clearing where the original seal was broken. The final allip trailed in their wake, too weakened by their previous blows to catch them. Above Tai's head, the sky swelled with rolling, blackened clouds that blotted out the moon and stars; jagged streaks of lightning ripped through the darkness, calling forth crashing thunder. Nyx kept glancing up in concern.

"Helm is preparing to summon the second wave of monsters from the forest," Tai said breathlessly, trying to explain the situation as they ran. "He plans to raze the village and punish all the wrong-doers."

"He must have been talking with Hoar when he concocted his punishment," Nyx called back.

Tai felt inclined to agree, although he knew enough about Helm to know he didn't allow his followers to abuse their own creed. But there was no time to ponder theology, no time to explain anything further to Nyx. If the second wave arrived, he and Jarlaxle would be killed because of the threat they represented—the threat of a new seal. So to save Jarlaxle and himself—and likely Entreri and Nyx as well—Tai had to prepare an unfamiliar spell.

Lightning shot through the sky again, illuminating the heavens and revealing a parting in the clouds, as though Helm himself might descend and call forth the monsters in person.

"Hurry!" Jarlaxle yelled back at them.

The group sprinted through the trees and entered the clearing with the splintered rock. Tai raced up to the boulder and began tossing the pouches which held the spell components onto the surface. Jarlaxle, who needed to supply the blood, joined him while the others stayed back and watched for the final allip.

"Light this," Tai said, handing Jarlaxle a candle. He then pulled the spell components out of the pouches, starting with the bowl.

"Are you ready?" Jarlaxle asked, holding the burning candle in one hand.

Tai inhaled and exhaled deeply, trying to calm his racing heart. He'd never had to prepare such a strong spell, never had to prepare any new spell without his uncle's guidance. However, he couldn't hesitate; above his head, the heavens had parted further, revealing a red light. "Yes. Let's do this."

The components of the spell were numerous and complicated, and Tai had to apply them in the correct order—and quickly. First, he took up a bottle of water he'd blessed and poured it in a circle around himself, Jarlaxle, and the boulder, creating a magical defense. As he created the circle, he prayed a simple prayer: "Hoar, I ask that you protect us with your divine strength as I seek to bind this chaos and evil." As soon as the circle was closed, it glowed faintly silver, like a tiny river reflecting moonlight.

Tai nodded in satisfaction and continued the spell. Taking a pouch, he filled the bowl with salt, gold flakes, and a knotted string. Then Tai took out the scroll that Master Garner had given Entreri and read the incantation for the seal, which like his prayer was deceptively simple:

"What was once before must now be again—
I call upon the forces of righteousness and law
To seal this evil and protect this land."

Tai rolled up the scroll and placed it in the bowl. Then he drew the holy symbol of Hoar over the bowl and took the candle from Jarlaxle. He wasn't allowed to speak again until the spell was complete, so he nodded to Jarlaxle, who drew one of his daggers and pricked his finger, squeezing several drops of blood into the bowl.

"Hurry," Jarlaxle whispered as he stepped back, and Tai realized that all of nature had become unnaturally still. Above them, the entire sky was stained blood red, the black clouds having been pushed to the edges.

Panicking, Tai knew he was out of time, and what remained was the hardest part of the spell. He had to use the candle to light the spell components and then grasp each side of the bowl with his hands. Hoar's divine power would be channeled through his body into the fire, and the seal would form. Remembering all too clearly what had happened the last time he'd channeled a great deal of divine power, Tai found himself sweating. But he couldn't stop now; he simply had to trust his god.

Tai reached down and lit the scroll, then shoved the candle back at Jarlaxle. He gripped the bowl and instantly felt the surge of power. A yellow glow seemed to infuse his entire body and race down his arms into the bowl, which shot forth blinding golden rays like a small sun. A faint hum filled the air, growing in volume until the clearing was pierced with a dull roar. The bowl seemed to turn into melted gold, slipping through Tai's fingers and oozing into the boulder like liquid sunlight. The fluid seeped into the cracked seal, causing the entire boulder to shine as it melded back together. Then a ring of light exploded from the rock, accompanied by a loud boom that shook leaves from the trees and momentarily deafened Tai.

The echo of the boom faded along with the sun-like glow, leaving the clearing dark and silent. Before Tai stood a steaming boulder that was whole again. The blood-stained tint faded from the sky, revealing the moon and stars and a clear night.

Tai tentatively put his hand over his heart, but the muscle didn't constrict in pain. In fact, the only side effect seemed to be a tingling in his fingers. He exhaled heavily and slumped in relief, glad that he had saved his friends.

Jarlaxle glanced around the clearing as though checking for any lingering enemies, then he relaxed as well. "We seem to have averted the second wave," he said, grinning and patting Tai on the back. "Well done, my young friend!"

Tai gave him a weak smile, thinking only of sleeping for a solid day. "Thank you."

Entreri seemed to not have relaxed yet, however; instead, he stared with hooded eyes at the edge of the clearing. "I thought the new seal was supposed to take care of all the monsters, including the final allip."

Tai turned toward the assassin in time to see the last allip emerge from the trees like a limping dog. "I was under the impression it would," he said, disturbed. Why had it not been destroyed?

Entreri shrugged and raised his new sword, which had been tagged The Black Widow. "No matter." He stepped forward and with the smooth grace of the trained warrior leveled the greenish blade. For a strange moment, the allip seemed to freeze in place, and Entreri seemed to instantaneously teleport from the center of the clearing to the edge. Simultaneously, Tai's ears popped, and he blinked, wondering what had occurred.

"What in the . . .?" Nyx began, throwing her hands up to her ears.

Jarlaxle laughed as Entreri turned a puzzled look upon them. "Delightful! Your sword can stop time."

"Apparently. It's still revealing its tricks to me," the assassin said, holding the blade up and examining it with a touch of satisfaction. "Perhaps I shall keep it for a while longer."

"I certainly have never seen a weapon do such a thing before," Nyx said, sounding intrigued, and Tai turned his attention to her, remembering that he wanted to ask her about her visions.

But before he could open his mouth, the priest did a double take, stopping to truly look at Nyx for the first time that night. The moonlight had fallen squarely on the clearing, providing ample light, and Tai hardly recognized the woman who was now illuminated. Nyx had apparently left her hair down after washing it, and once set free, her hair had curled. Soft auburn ringlets framed her face, drawing attention to her dark eyes. The curls framed her shoulders and raced down her back to fall below her beltline, and in that moment, Tai realized that his friend was, in truth, quite lovely.

A quick glance to the side told Tai that he wasn't the only male present who had slowed down enough to notice. Jarlaxle was watching Nyx and grinning, no doubt formulating an exasperating quip, but it was Entreri's expression that was remarkable. He stared at Nyx, his gaze unfaltering, as though he'd only now noticed the monk was female.

"Why Nyx!" Jarlaxle exclaimed. "Allow me to take this moment to extol your beauty. I knew you'd have lovely curls. You should forego the crown braids and let your hair move freely—you are breath-taking!"

Nyx snorted. "So my enemies can use my hair against me or it can get in my way as I fight? I think not."

Entreri seemed to have recovered and was frowning at the drow. "We are not out of battle five minutes, and you are already waxing lecherous?"

"Do not claim you did not notice her beauty," Jarlaxle replied, wagging a finger.

Tai smiled. He suspected that neither Entreri nor Nyx had taken the time (or care) to have a lover, and he wondered briefly how awkward they might be about it. Or, in the assassin's case, reluctant. Still, if even the most casual of relationships brought a bit of joy to their lives . . .

Nyx grinned. "I suppose we might cure Jarlaxle's lechery if we had someone hex him to settle down with a nice human woman and have a brood of seven children."

Tai laughed at the mental picture—laughed harder than usual in fact, as though he were dispelling the tension of the last several days. "A horde of hyper children climbing furniture and trees!"

"Who would disappear into the streets all day and sucker other children out of their toys!" Nyx said.

Entreri looked like he was having a waking nightmare. "Who would grow up and build seven empires that covered every nation in Faerun."

"But of course!" said an amused Jarlaxle. "My offspring wouldn't be able to help being great achievers." He stopped and threw his hand up to his chest in mock horror. "Still, how evil of you! Although I assure you, there is no such spell."

"Then we'll find a talented wizard and have him or her create such a spell," Entreri said. "I can just imagine you burping babies and carting off dirty cloth diapers."

Jarlaxle snorted.

"And I can imagine toddlers pulling on your pointed ears and yanking out your earrings," Entreri continued, obviously enjoying torturing the mercenary.

"Don't make jokes about fatherhood, my friend," Jarlaxle cut in, motioning at Tai. "I can simply point out that you—"

"Tassel," Entreri said.

The elf just grinned, and Tai shook his head, deciding Jarlaxle teased Entreri with "Junior" jokes simply to be irritating.

Jarlaxle had stepped in front of the group and was gesturing toward the small dirt road that led back to Withey Township. "Shall we be on our way? We must rest ourselves so we may set out early tomorrow morning. Adventure awaits!"

"And profit," Entreri said.

"Don't forget danger and beautiful women for Jarlaxle to ogle," Nyx chimed in.

"Why, most definitely!" the elf agreed.

Tai chuckled over Jarlaxle's hedonism and followed his friends back to the deserted inn.

Jarlaxle watched his human allies tear into a hearty breakfast of bacon, eggs, fruit, biscuits, and gravy. Some of the villagers had returned home the night before; in fact, a steady stream of villagers had entered the town all night and morning. The innkeeper and a few members of his staff had been among them, and now Jarlaxle and his companions were being treated to a hero's breakfast, all due to the praise of Edwin Garner, the elderly scribe.

"This is better," Jarlaxle said, picking up one of his orange slices. "A hero's treatment, complete with a five course meal."

Nyx shook her head in exasperation, and Entreri glowered at him, apparently still miffed by the mere mention of the word "hero." But Jarlaxle smiled, thinking back to Entreri's stunning speed and agility in battle the night before. Instead of being slowed by age, the shade-infused human was improving—strengthened not only by magical blood but by his commitment to his friends. I was right, the drow congratulated himself. The man's true potential has never been realized—couldn't be realized until he found his heart.

Yet even though the drow had foreseen his friend's true potential, he could not foresee what these changes would come to mean.

"I'm merely glad we are all four alive this morning," Tai said. "Averting the devastation of a prophecy is no small thing."

Jarlaxle turned his attention to the priest. "So you believe prophecies are real? That what happened here really was destiny?"

Tai nodded without hesitation. "Some prophecies are real, certainly. In fact, all divine prophecies come true, provided that such prophecies are given by the deity and not created by power-hungry priests or followers. Yet even fake prophecies may be self-fulfilled, especially when the false prophecy is endorsed by a cult leader."

A dark expression crossed Entreri's face, and Jarlaxle was once again reminded of the man's distrust of priests.

"But people often misinterpret prophecies or read into them what they most want to hear," Tai continued. "In this case, the true prophecy was ignored and therefore circulated in an incomplete from. The villagers ignored the fact that their unlawful behavior would trigger the release of the allips and focused only on the fact it would be a drow who released the seal. However, that makes my point for me: when dealing with true prophecies, one must pay attention to the entire prophecy, word for word, and remember its spirit. For example, a prophecy which reads that an elf will tear down his kingdom and reconstruct it in seven days could very easily be metaphorical, not literal."

"That also suggests that people could open the interpretation so widely that most anything could fit the prophecy," Entreri said.

Tai nodded. "It is a careful line to walk. You have to study the entire text around the prophecy—you cannot isolate it from its context. You also have to make sure the apparent fulfillment of the prophecy fits the established personality and goals of the deity. A prophecy conveyed by a goodly god such as Torm, for example, would never be fulfilled by evil means."

Entreri sighed. "Abstract nonsense."

Jarlaxle laughed. "Not at all! When interpreted correctly, prophecies are quite powerful."

"And prophecies are part of the realm of faith," Nyx said, "which is something not proven by logic. Much like trust and love."

"And we all know how good Artemis is with trust and love," Jarlaxle quipped.

"About as good as Jarlaxle is," Entreri said.

"Now Artemis," the elf began, but he stopped as a figure approached their table.

Edwin Garner, who had been talking to various townspeople throughout the room, had now returned to them. "My apologies for interrupting your meal," he said.

"Not at all!" Jarlaxle replied.

Garner leaned against his staff, which had been carefully carved from white birch. "I know you will soon be on your way, and with our thanks. But before you go, Helm has impressed upon me to give you a warning."

Entreri squared his shoulders and eyed the man with distrust, but Jarlaxle merely continued to smile.

"Yes?" the drow prompted.

"In the future, the four of you will again face a blood prophecy," Garner said. "It is most always about blood, for blood is bound to both life and death. The spilling of blood is a symbol and a sacrament, a simulacrum for worlds to come. The spilling of blood is a revelation and a fulfillment. You cannot hope to move the worlds or touch the divine without blood." He nodded once to them and then moved away.

"Just what I need with my breakfast," Entreri said. "Riddles."

But Tai was frowning, obviously disturbed, and Nyx appeared no less so, likely remembering her visions. The priest and monk had spoken at length about her flashes of premonition on the way back to the inn the night before, but they had not decided why she'd received the visions.

Jarlaxle needed no simulacra, however, no shadows or ghosts. He already knew that real empires were built on real blood, often spilt. And he needed no prophecies to know that he could achieve his goals on the surface, building himself a new organization remotely allied with Bregan D'aerthe yet simultaneously a new home separate from Menzoberranzan.

Freedom, if he dared to call it that.

"Intriguing," was all he said, turning back to his friends and his breakfast with a smile.

Who needed a premonition when one had a plan?

A/N: A huge thanks goes out to Darkhelmetj and Rezuri for beta reading!

I must thank the following people for brainstorming sessions, hints, ideas, and/or inspiration (in alphabetical order): ChichiX, Darkhelmetj, Lord Onisyr, Rezuri, and Silverwolf.

The second and third stories of this series, "Simulacrum" and "Revelation," have long been under way, with "Simulacrum" approaching 7000 words and "Revelation" approaching 5000. I probably won't be able to give sufficient time to "Simulacrum" to drum up chapter one until X-Mas break, though, so don't expect to see the next installment until January. Sorry, folks, but I'm doing the best I can with the time I have (or don't have). Thank you for your patience!