Tai heard a scream from his left and immediately jumped up from the campfire he was building and ran. He had heard Darvin's and Miri's raised voices but not their words, and had decided to stay out of the way. The two half-elves had been friends for a dozen years, and Tai knew any interference he offered could only worsen the situation, especially since he suspected that he was what they were arguing about. At the sound of Miri's scream however, Tai abandoned his resolve.

The priest dodged trees as he raced through the forest, holding up his arms to block the impact of small branches and leaves. How far way had they walked? Was Miri all right? It was deadly silent now; did that mean Darvin had knocked her out? Surely not. She was a tough fighter, trained to defend herself.

A crimson light shone through the brush now, casting a bloody glow upon tree roots and dead leaves. A cold burn shot through Tai's lungs. The illumination was not natural, and the shadows it created appeared darker in contrast, making the braches seem skeletal. The whispering leaves in the breeze sounded like rattling chains.

Tai burst through the undergrowth to find Darvin holding Miri in his lap. Blood streaked down her throat and chest, soaking her pine green shirt. She looked dead. Beside them, a magic vortex swirled in the ground like a bloody whirlpool, which had created a wind that thrashed the trees and had opened a hole that was already a half-foot across.

For an agonizing moment, Tai couldn't react. The scene presented two horrors, two dangers that both called upon his sense of morality. Then his growing feelings for Miri won control. "Miri-sen!" He sprinted to her side and fell to his knees so he could check her pulse.

"I didn't mean to, I swear," Darvin said, not looking up. "It was an accident. I forgot the dagger was in my hand, and I just got mad, you know? She just kept arguing back, you know? She wasn't listening, and I reached out and . . . It was an accident, I swear."

"Shut up!" Tai snapped, enraged by the babbling and excuses. As if there could ever be an excuse for such abuse. Miri was barely breathing! He wanted to thrash the man, scream at him, even execute him in the name of Hoar. But the time was not now.

Darvin did as told, and Tai reigned in his concentration, holding his hands over Miri and praying to Hoar. The burn of healing power seemed to pass through the top of his skull and shoot down his arms into his fingers, and his hands glowed soft gold as the power passed into Miri. The gash in her neck shone white for an instant, and then Tai saw the skin pulling closed. The wound turned pink and then vanished, leaving only a pale golden spot on her neck where Hoar's power had collected.

Miri opened her eyes, and after a moment of looking dazed, focused on Tai. "I failed," she whispered.

The ache in her gaze and voice made tears come to Tai's eyes; his throat felt tight. "Not your fault."

Yet even as he said the words, he noticed the vortex expanding and filling the woods with crimson light and thrashing wind. A few bats escaped from the center hole and screeched as they disappeared into the night.

"We have to go," Tai said. Now that Miri had been healed, all his fear had transferred to the portal.

"Yes, we must go, and quickly," Darvin said, his words belied by his monotone voice; it seemed as enough all his emotions had vanished. "I'm blessed today by Hoar with the gift of speedy travel." He was staring past Miri and Tai at a point in the vortex. "I can get Miri and myself back to Loudwater in a matter of moments." He turned his gaze toward Tai. "I can't call upon enough power to take three, though."

"Back to Loudwater?" Miri sat up, her platinum hair falling disheveled around her face. "Why? And what makes you think I want to go anywhere with you!" She thumped one fist against Darvin's chest. "You nearly killed me!"

Darvin flinched and folded his arms across his stomach as though he'd be ill.

"The damage is done," Tai answered in his place. "Now we have to determine how to close the portal. Mirir, perhaps your family can help us figure out how. Not to mention that you'll need some rest after losing so much blood." He stood and offered his hand. "Besides, I don't think Darvin is a current danger to you, but I know this portal is."

Miri allowed Tai to pull her to her feet, but she didn't release his hand. "Very well. I will go with him. But how will you get there?"

Darvin stood as well, but he just stared at the ground as the question hung awkwardly in the air.

"During my nightly prayers yesterday, I prayed an unusual prayer thanks to our circumstances. I have Hoar's blessing on my travels as well." Tai squeezed Miri's hand and let go. "I'm going to find my friends first, and then I'll—"

"I'll find you," Miri interrupted.

They didn't have time to argue. Miri took Tai's dagger from Darvin, and then Darvin pressed his palms together, praying to his god. From between his palms, a purple light shone forth like a thin beam, and the light flashed outward, slicing the air like a purple knife. The cut widened, opening a small, unstable dimensional door.

Darvin gestured to Miri. "Go quickly; it won't hold for long."

She nodded and jumped through. However, before following her, Darvin handed Tai his copy of the Assurian Codex.

"You may need this." Darvin wouldn't meet Tai's gaze.

Tai accepted the Codex. "Indeed." It was a gesture of peace, he realized, but there was no peace to be had. Darvin could not undo the damage—not to Miri's heart, and not to the world once the portal finished opening.

Darvin nodded at the blunt response and stepped through the doorway, which immediately closed. Tai sighed and prepared himself to channel a gift from his god that he had never wanted to use—one that would force him to allow his feet to leave the ground.

Entreri sighed and then glared at the black stone wall of the Stonar castle. After their escape from the round room and the maze, the assassin had spent thirty minutes brainstorming ways to breach the walls without triggering the enchantment on them. Every idea he'd proposed had been shot down by himself, Nyx, or Jarlaxle. His frustration was mounting.

In the meantime, Nyx had gone into Older Sister Mode over Jarlaxle, which Entreri found ironic since the drow was twenty times her age. Still, she'd bound his swollen ankle and bandaged his cut hand; Jarlaxle had watched her intently as she's applied medicinal herbs to his wound and extracted a few shards of broken glass from his palms. She'd even chatted with him as she'd worked, teasing him about temporarily losing his hat, almost as though she were trying to distract him from his pain.

From the corner of his vision, Entreri could see Jarlaxle smiling at her—true appreciation and not an act. And something in her care reminded Entreri of a long lost memory, a fluttering of past hazy images he couldn't quite call into focus. Strangely, Nyx suddenly seemed human to him, just like Jarlaxle. It was as though Entreri could sense the soul in her chest or see the personality in her gaze. Her auburn curls could be tousled or tangled, her pale skin could be dusty or burnt, and the blood in her veins could drench her leather vest and leave her a corpse. She could live or die, and it would make a difference.

It had been a long, strange day.

But Entreri had to wonder what had he seen in Nyx and Jarlaxle. A moment of fear or care, vulnerability or compassion? And why had that made them seem real? Somehow they had passed from the shadows and simulacra of the mechanical world he had to manipulate in order to survive, and had turned into living flesh that could be caressed or cut, gashed or healed. Entreri had no idea why he was concerned for his comrades, especially when he wasn't sure he saw his own flesh as worthy of such care and treatment.

Maybe that was part of the problem.

Meanwhile, Jarlaxle had focused his attention toward the sky, and Nyx pointed her finger and exclaimed. Entreri turned to see the cause of the fuss and glimpsed an unbelievably large bird flying over the tree tops. Then he realized the wings were shaped wrong; in fact, the wings looked more like a tautly held cape, and—

"That's a person!" Entreri said, shocked.

Nyx shook her head in disbelief. "It's Tai!"

Tai descended and hit the ground with a roll, regaining his feet in one fluid movement. His eyes were almost all black pupil, and the blood had so drained from his face that he looked ashen-yellow.

"Tai!" Nyx shouted, running up to him.

He simply stared at her. "I will never, ever, ever do that again."

Jarlaxle had limped up beside Nyx and was laughing. "That's a shame. It was beautifully executed."

Entreri thought Tai was insane: birds and dragons were made to fly; humans were not. Better to teleport if necessary.

Tai shook himself all over like a wet dog and then held up his hands for silence. "We have trouble. The portal is already open."

Nyx clenched both fists against her chest. "Miri is dead?"

Tai shook his head. "No. I'll explain later. Right now, countless monsters are being released into our world, or so I would assume given how quickly the portal was growing."

Tai and Nyx looked to Jarlaxle, who had been taking the lead in decision making. Jarlaxle, however, glanced at Entreri.

"Well," Jarlaxle said with a small smile. "Ideas? Suggestions?"

Nyx stiffened, apparently remembering that she was supposed to be angry at Jarlaxle for plotting behind their backs. Entreri, though, gave the elf a half smile. Jarlaxle's response told him what he needed to know—the drow was making a true effort to be his partner, at least for now. Time would prove if they had finally reached an understanding.

However, Entreri wasn't sure which would prove more difficult—banging out the wrinkles in his friendship with Jarlaxle or defeating the Stonars and their new monsters.

The assassin crossed his arms and smiled crookedly. "Well, I always have liked a challenge."

Lander sank into the maroon wingback chair beside Melcer's four poster bed and gazed upon his brother, who was propped up on pillows. Despite the healing potions, Melcer was still pale, and his exhaustion was evident from the grey bags under his eyes.

"I will personally kill the man who did this to you," Lander whispered, clasping his twin's hand.

Melcer's black eyes did not turn toward him; he stared across the room at his reflection, which shone in a gilded oval mirror. "I failed you."

"Untrue." Lander squeezed his hand. "We both continually underestimated them because they are young. Besides, in the end we have what we want—after a fashion.

The black eyes refocused on Lander. "The portal is open? How?"

Lander chuckled, released his brother's hand, and leaned back in the wingback. "One of the priests attacked the girl."

Melcer pulled away from the pillows to sit upright. "But the one who opens the portal is the one who controls the monsters!"

Lander grinned. "Yes, I know. And one of our own priests tells me the attack occurred out of male jealousy."

Melcer stared for a long moment, apparently trying to grasp the significance of the observation, then scowled. "You mean to manipulate his jealousy and use him, but I'm not so sure he'll be easily led."

Lander shrugged. "He violently attacked the woman he loves. That tells me all I really need to know."

Melcer shook his hand. "No. No, we shouldn't continue this. We should find out how to close the portal before we are killed. This had become far more dangerous than we imagined, and given how adept these kids have proven, they could figure out how to control the monsters first."

Lander shrugged again. "Unlikely."

"Or figure out how to close the portals themselves."

"No one is completely sure how to do that." Lander crossed his legs and smoothed the folds from his silk tunic. "But the one clue we have suggests a course of action they would never take."

"Kill the girl."

"But of course. It's always about blood. Blood is the cycle of life."

Melcer nodded. "What of the drow and his companions?"

"What of them? They're unbalanced from your room of mirrors, and they've been fighting amongst themselves. If they really can rally, we'll finish them."

Melcer hid his concerns, smiled, and squeezed his brother's arm. His brother had never led them wrong; surely this time would be no different. Lander was the epitome of the successful Zhent. "That's my confident brother. Always sure, always right."

Lander grinned and patted his hand. "And always the victor."

A/N: Thanks to everyone who has read and reviewed. Thank you to Darhelmetj, Chi, and Rezuri, who beta read parts or wholes. I appreciate all the patience, input, and help.

About 7000 words have been written on the sequel, but not in a sequence. I have several key scenes and the climax, but not a solid chapter. It may be some months before I begin posting again, but the trilogy will be completed.