Neverwinter
Author:R.A. Salvatore

And now I am alone, more so than I’ve been since the days following the death of Montolio those many years ago. Even on that later occasion when I traveled back into the Underdark to Menzoberranzan, forsaking my friends in the foolish belief that I was unfairly endangering them, it was not like this. For though I physically walked alone into the Underdark, I didn’t go without the emotional support that they were there beside me, in spirit. I went with full confidence that Bruenor, Catti-brie, and Regis remained alive and well—indeed, more well, I believed, because I had left them.

But now I am alone. They are gone, one and all. My friends, my family.

There remains Guenhwyvar, of course, and she is no small thing to me—a true and loyal companion, someone to listen to my laments and my joys and my pondering. But it is not the same. Guen can hear me, but is there anything I would hear from her? She can share my victories, my joys, my trials, but there’s no reciprocation. After knowing the love of friends and family, I cannot so fool myself again, as I did in those first days after I left Menzoberranzan, as to believe that the wonderful Guenhwyvar is enough.

My road takes me from Gauntlgrym as it once took me from Mithral Hall, and I doubt I shall return—certainly I’ll not return to stand and stare at the cairn of Bruenor Battlehammer, as I rarely visited the graves of Catti-brie and Regis during my years in Mithral Hall. A wise elf lady once explained to me the futility of such things, as she taught me that I must learn to live my life as a series of shorter spans. It is the blessing of the People to live through the dawn and sunset of centuries, but that blessing can serve too as a curse. Few elves partner for life, as is common among the humans, for example, because the joy of such a partnership can weigh as an anchor after a hundred years, or two hundred.

“Treat each parting as a rebirth,” Innovindil said to me. “Let go of that which is past and seek new roads. Perhaps never to forget your lost friends and family and lovers, but to place them in your memory warmly and build again with new friends those things that so pleased you.”

I’ve gone back to Innovindil’s lessons many times over the last few decades, since Wulfgar left Mithral Hall and since Catti-brie and Regis were lost to me. I’ve recited them as a litany against the rage, the pain, the sadness … a reminder that there are roads yet to walk.

I was deluding myself, I now know.

For I hadn’t let go of my dear friends. I hadn’t lost hope that someday, one day, some way, I would raze a giant’s lair beside Wulfgar once more, or would fish beside Regis on a lazy summer’s day on the banks of Maer Dualdon, or I would spend the night in Catti-brie’s warm embrace. I tasked Jarlaxle with finding them, not out of any real hope that he would, but because I couldn’t bear to relinquish the last flicker of hope for these moments, these soft joys, these truest smiles, I once knew.

And now Bruenor is gone and the Companions of the Hall are no more.

I watched him take his last breath. There is closure. There is finality. And only through Bruenor had I kept the dream of Catti-brie and Regis, and even Wulfgar, alive. Only through his determination and steadfastness did I allow myself to believe that somehow, some magical way, they might still be out there. Our journey to Icewind Dale should have disavowed me of that notion, and did so to some extent (and also pushed Bruenor, at long last, into a state of resignation), and whatever little flickers remained within my heart were snuffed out when I watched my dearest friend breathe his last.

So I am alone. The life I had known is ended.

I surely feel the sadness, the regret at things that couldn’t be, the loneliness. At every turn, I want to call out to Bruenor to tell him my news, only to remember that, alas, he is not there. All of it is there, all of the pain that one would expect.

But there is something else, something unexpected, something surprising, something bringing with it more than a bit of confusion and even guilt.

True guilt, and I feel, and fear, myself a cad.

Yet I cannot deny it.

As I turned my back on Gauntlgrym and the grave of King Bruenor Battlehammer, pushing up in my emotions beside the pain and the rage and the helplessness and the replaying of the scenario over and over again to wonder what I might have done differently, was … a deep sense of relief.

I am ashamed to admit this, but to deny it would be to lie, and worse, to lie to myself. For at long last I have a sense of finality. It is time for the past to rest and for me to move forward. It is time, as Innovindil explained to me in a forest far from here, for me to begin anew.

Certainly I’m not relieved that Bruenor has passed. Nor Thibbledorf Pwent, for that matter! A better friend than Bruenor I have never known, and I would wish him back to my side in an instant, were that possible.

But in the larger sense, the greater perspective of my life, there is a sense of relief. I have been ready to let go of Catti-brie and Regis and Wulfgar for a long time now—not to forget them! I’ll never forget them, never want to forget them! They are embedded in my heart and soul and walk with Drizzt Do’Urden every step of his road. But I accepted their loss—my loss—years, even decades, ago, and it was only the stubbornness of an old dwarf, refusing to let go, insisting that they were still to be found and that our wondrous years together would be restored, that forced me, too, to hang on.

I am alone now. I am free? What an awful thought! How disloyal am I, then, to feel any eagerness in looking forward, to a new road, a third life, taking the painful lessons of my first existence in Menzoberranzan along with the wondrous joys of my second life beside the Companions of the Hall. Now I am hardened by the whips of the drow matrons, and softened by the honest love of friends, and settled in what I know is, what should be, and what should never be. As my second life so exceeded my first in joy and purpose, could my third not climb higher yet?

I don’t know, and truly I understand how fortunate I was in finding these four amazing companions to share a road. Will I find such friends, ready to sacrifice all for me, again? Will I love again? Even if I do, will it be the same intensity of that which I knew with Catti-brie?

I know not, but I’m not afraid to find out. That’s my freedom now, to walk my road with eyes wide and heart open, without regret and with a true understanding of how blessed my existence beside these companions has been.

And there is one other freedom now: For the first time in decades, I awaken to discover that I am not angry. Strangely so. I feel as if the rage that has for so long kept my muscles tightened has at last relaxed.

This too stings me with pangs of guilt, and I am sure that those around me will often hear me muttering to myself in confusion. Perhaps I am simply deluding myself. Perhaps the loss of Bruenor has pushed me past the bounds of sensibility, where the level of pain has become intolerable and so I trick myself into something wholly converse.

Perhaps.

Perhaps not.

I can only shrug and wonder.

I can only feel and accept.

I am alone now.

I am free.

—Drizzt Do’Urden





SYLORA SALM STOOD OUTSIDE THE ASH CLOUD OF THE BUDDING Dread Ring, shifting from foot to foot. She knew the stakes. Her scouts had returned confirming her fears: The primordial had been trapped once more by a host of water elementals and the residual magic of the fallen Hosttower of the Arcane. There would be no second eruption of primordial magnitude. The ground was no longer trembling daily beneath her feet.

Her enemies had averted catastrophe.

Sylora stared into the ash and could almost feel it diminish. She had been counting on a volcanic cataclysm to strengthen her magical beast, this Dread Ring that fed upon death.

She continued to shift from foot to foot. If she understood her failure, then so did the being approaching her behind the gray-black veil.

Sylora could hear her heart thumping in her chest. Behind her, Jestry Rallevin, the Ashmadai zealot who had become her closest advisor, swallowed hard.

“I feel him,” he whispered. Jestry Rallevin was no ordinary Ashmadai. Though young, barely into his twenties and quite inexperienced, the man still commanded the attention and respect of all the other zealots, both because of his striking appearance—with his large shoulders, dark hair, and brooding dark eyes—and his willingness to throw himself into the cause with absolute abandon. And he could fight—so perfectly in balance, striking with precision and power. If only she had known of his prowess before the few recent skirmishes with the Netherese forces, Sylora silently lamented. She could have used Jestry to tempt that vile Dahlia and then destroy the witch altogether.

That notion reminded Sylora of Temberle, another strong male consort whom she had shared with Dahlia, and one Dahlia had slain before coming west. She glanced at Jestry, measuring him against Temberle.

No comparison, she believed. This one, a true zealot, would have carved Temberle to pieces had they come to blows. Might he have done, might he do, the same with Dahlia? It was a pleasant and intriguing thought, to be sure.

“Sylora, he’s coming,” Jestry repeated.

Sylora nodded but didn’t reply, afraid to break the muted silence of the dead ash. She had understood the coming of Szass Tam from the moment he had focused his magical energies on her Dread Ring. She slumped her shoulders and waited outside the edge. She wouldn’t go in there to meet him. Within the Dread Ring, the power of Szass Tam was simply too terrible to behold.

Behind her, she heard Jestry licking his lips nervously. She wanted him to stop, desperately so, but she couldn’t bring herself to tell him.

An emaciated humanoid under a heavy black hooded robe approached. Somehow he was darker than the Dread Ring through which he glided.

“I haven’t felt the pleasure of a thousand souls crying out their last,” the lich said in his uneven and scratchy voice. Two dots of angry fire within the shades of blackness stared at Sylora and his form wavered, blurred by the swirl of magical ash. “I haven’t felt the strengthening of my new domain, as you promised.”

Sylora swallowed hard. “We have encountered enemies—”

“I know of your failure,” Szass Tam’s voice reached out like a claw for her heart. “I know of the battle in the dwarven mines. I know it all.”

“There are many reasons,” Sylora blurted. “And the fight is not yet lost!” She paused then and grimaced, thinking her last word choice to be truly foolish.

“I was there,” Szass Tam assured her. “Looking through other eyes. The magic is restored. The primordial of fire is recaptured. It will not be freed again, soon or easily.”

Sylora lowered her eyes, her shoulders slumping further. “I have failed you,” she said. She stood there for many heartbeats, awaiting recrimination, awaiting a terrible death.

“You have,” Szass Tam finally said.

“It was but one battle!” Jestry cried out from behind.

A bolt of black energy flashed out of the Dread Ring, crackling the air beside Sylora. Jestry flew backward to the ground and there he squirmed, his limbs trembling in agony, his hair dancing.

“Is he valuable?” Szass Tam asked Sylora, which was his way, she knew, of asking her if Jestry should be fed to the Dread Ring.

She spent a few moments sorting the riddle. She could throw Jestry to the lich here in the hopes that his sacrifice would suffice …

“He has proven his worth many times over,” she heard herself replying instead. “Jestry Rallevin has slain many Netherese, and has led my warriors to many victories here in the forest. I should like to keep him beside me.”

“You should like to keep him?” Szass Tam retorted. An invisible hand reached out from the ashes to grab Sylora by the throat. She clawed at it, but there was nothing to grab, and yet as insubstantial as it seemed, that magical grasp lifted her up on her toes and began pulling her into the blackness. Suddenly it stopped and she hung there in the air, still scratching, still squirming. Her bulging eyes widened even more when Jestry came up beside her, similarly choked and floating.

“Do not blame me for your doom, poor Ashmadai,” Szass Tam whispered from inside the Dread Ring. “Sylora Salm requested your presence.”

As he spoke his last word, another voice rent the air, a keening sing-song cry of “Arklem! Ark-lem! Greeth, Greeth, oh, where are you! I don’t see you, Arklem. Ark-lem! But you see me … oh, I know you see me! Of course you see me. You see all.”

Sylora dropped to the ground and barely held her balance. Beside her, Jestry crumpled to the ground and lay groaning, still shaken from the black lightning. From within the Dread Ring, Szass Tam laughed.

Continued babbling drew Sylora’s gaze behind her. The lich Valindra Shadowmantle glided among the skeletal remains of many fruit trees. Her half-rotted fingers tapped her chin and she rambled to this unseen companion Arklem Greeth, as if sorting out some deep secret of the world that no one had yet deciphered.

She moved right up beside Sylora before she even seemed to notice the sorceress, the Ashmadai, or even the Dread Ring and the great being standing within.

“Oh,” she said to Sylora. “Well. Good afternoon. Well met. And it is a good day! Have you seen Arklem?”

Szass Tam cackled.

“And who is that? Who is that?” Valindra asked. “Is that you, Arklem?”

“It’s Szass Tam, Valindra,” Sylora said quietly. “The archlich of Thay.”

“There is no introduction necessary,” Szass Tam said. “Hello again, Mistress Shadowmantle. I did so enjoy our communion in the dwarven halls.”

Sylora started to question that, but bit her words back and turned a disbelieving stare over Valindra, Szass Tam’s spy.

“Oh, hello and well met, again!” Valindra replied. “I used it!”

“How?” Sylora asked, looking from Valindra back to Szass Tam. “Used what?” she added, twisting her head back to regard the elf lich at her side.

“I still have it,” Valindra assured Szass Tam, and she opened a fold of her robe and produced the scepter of Asmodeus, a powerful summoning artifact that Sylora had lent her on her journey to the lair of the primordial.

Sylora instinctively reached for the scepter, fearing that the archlich would be outraged indeed that she had given such an item to any of her inferiors.

“Good, Valindra, and well done in bringing forth the pit fiend,” Szass Tam replied, halting Sylora’s reach. “Valindra commanded the pit fiend with ease. With practiced ease. She is possessed of great power beneath her … her condition.”

Sylora nodded stupidly.

“Sylora knows—oh, don’t be silly!” Valindra erupted, and she laughed wildly. “She is my friend. She has been reminding me of the times … oh, why can’t I remember those times of power and play, of magic the same and magic different?”

“Before the Spellplague,” Sylora translated. “Her affliction has confused her, but it hasn’t erased those powers she knew before the collapse of Mystra’s Weave.”

“And why is that important?” asked Szass Tam.

“I bring the past to the present,” Valindra answered before Sylora could, and the female lich’s voice was unexpectedly steady.

“You saw the events within the dwarven mines?” Sylora asked Szass Tam.

“Some.”

“I was told that great enemies came upon my charges,” said Sylora.

“You erred in sending so meager a force,” Szass Tam countered.

“The pit fiend,” Sylora protested. “Valindra! And Dor’crae, who stood as my second.”

“You erred in sending so meager a force,” Szass Tam repeated, biting every word off short for emphasis, as if each was a verdict, a sentence and pronouncement unto itself.

Sylora lowered her eyes. “I did, my lord.”

“More than ample, were it not for the residual power of the Hosttower of the Arcane,” Valindra replied. “The fault is mine, and not Lady Sylora’s.”

Sylora and Jestry gawked in utter confusion at Valindra’s suddenly cogent words.

“I should have known—oh, I should have!” Valindra’s fingers began to tap and her head began to shake. She heaved a great sigh. “It was me, of course. I know the Hosttower—none other! So why didn’t I think it so powerful there and then, in the halls of the dwarves? Oh, Valindra!” She slapped herself across the face. “Oh Arklem! Ark-lem! Ark-lem! Arklem, where are you? Greeth, Greeth, I need you!”

Sylora turned back to Szass Tam and held up her hands helplessly.

“Valindra!” the archlich roared, his voice magically enhanced so that it sounded like the bellow of a dragon and had both Sylora and Jestry wincing and covering their ears.

“Yes?” Valindra replied sweetly, seemingly unbothered by the deafening volume.

“Your fault?”

“I should have warned Lady Sylora.”

“Why didn’t you?”

Sylora winced.

“I needed the power!” Valindra shrieked, shaking wildly and waving her emaciated arms. “Greeth! Greeth! For Greeth, of course.”

Sylora couldn’t tell if she was talking to them, to herself, or to some unseen third party.

“To bring him in. I was a bad girl, not good, not good. Arklem Greeth—Ark-lem! Ark-lem!—in the body of a great fiend. Oh, but how wonderful that would have been!”

“What is she babbling about?” Szass Tam demanded.

“Valindra?” Sylora asked calmly, moving over into the distracted lich’s field of view and forcing Valindra to look at her. “You meant to place your beloved into the corporeal form of the pit fiend?”

“Heresy!” Jestry shouted, or almost finished shouting, before another black bolt of energy slammed him and threw him some twenty feet away. He sat on the ground, hair dancing again, teeth chattering.

“Another word and I’ll eat you,” Szass Tam promised.

“Oh, Arklem in such a mighty body!” Valindra clapped her hands together. “I should have brought him to me, along the Hosttower vines, you know. I had to put him into the corporeal form right as the fiend was weakened. But that Jarlaxle! Oh, wretched drow!”

“Sylora?” Szass Tam demanded.

“She intended to somehow free Arklem Greeth from his phylactery, apparently,” Sylora explained. “To possess the form of the devil she had summoned.”

“Oh! What a warrior he would have been!” Valindra shouted, and she clapped her hands together again. “Any who fled the volcano would have met a darker death indeed!”

Sylora stepped away from her and glanced over at the Dread Ring, expecting Szass Tam to reach out with some unspeakable power to destroy Valindra then and there.

“And oh, what a lover!” Valindra shouted, and Sylora spun back, blinking.

“My love. My love! How I miss my love!” Valindra rolled off into another of her “Ark-lem” choruses.

“We failed in Gauntlgrym because that mad creature desired a pit fiend lover?” Szass Tam groaned.

“Our enemies in the dwarven halls were powerful,” Sylora replied.

“Our enemies, and allies of the Netherese?” Szass Tam asked.

“Nay,” Sylora was quick to point out. “Allies of the dwarven ghosts, it would seem.”

“Why should I not slay you this instant, and destroy this miserable Valindra creature with you?”

“Dahlia!” Sylora answered. “Because it was Dahlia Sin’felle who led our enemies to defend the mines and recapture the primordial. A useless witch, as I feared. Would that we had destroyed her back in Thay!”

“Valindra!” Szass Tam commanded in his magically enhanced voice.

Valindra stood straight and stared directly at the source of the command, her eyes clear, her babbling ended.

“The blame for our failure was yours?” Szass Tam asked.

“I should have warned Sylora.” The lich lowered her eyes.

“Don’t destroy her, I beg you,” Sylora said quietly.

“I am still pondering whether or not I should destroy you,” came the growled response.

“And so I owe to you a catastrophe!” Valindra said. “Oh, and a fine one it will be!”

Sylora could still hardly make out the form of Szass Tam, but she was certain the archlich stared dumbfounded at Valindra.

Singing to Arklem Greeth yet again, Valindra Shadowmantle disappeared into the skeletal remains of the forest.

“I had hoped you would have taken the city by now,” Szass Tam remarked.

“It is fully garrisoned,” Sylora replied, “with hardy warriors.”

“Make of them soldiers in your zombie army,” the archlich ordered, and Sylora nodded and bowed.

“The Dread Ring will lend you power now,” Szass Tam explained. “It is strong enough to enchant, to create, to transform.”

“I didn’t dare take from it, fearing I would subtract from its power,” Sylora replied, her gaze still on the ground.

“Then take from it only to facilitate its strengthening,” Szass Tam said. “You need the help, it would seem.”

Sylora winced, but she tried not to show any further weakness. Szass Tam didn’t tolerate weakness.

“Do you live in the forest?”

She nodded. “We have caves. Occasionally a farmhouse.”

“How charmingly primitive. Ah, if only you had conquered the city by now.…”

Sylora’s eyes flashed with threats despite herself.

Szass Tam laughed. “You are one of my favored lieutenants,” he said. “And you would live in a cave?” She heard his raspy sigh, and something flew out of the ash ring.

Sylora winced again, thinking it was aimed at her, but the missile, a small branch broken from a blackened tree, landed harmlessly at her feet.

Confused, she looked back at Szass Tam then slowly bent to retrieve the object. As soon as she touched it, the woman couldn’t contain a grin, for she could feel a distinct connection to the Dread Ring, and the powers of the strange scepter flashed clearly in her mind: to enchant, to create, to transform.

“Build a fortress!” Szass Tam yelled at her.

“I didn’t want—”

“Do not fail me again!” the archlich commanded. “Either of you!”

There came a crackle and a sharp retort, and a bright flash erupted within the Dread Ring.

And he was gone. The Dread Ring settled into the dull pall of ash once more.

Sylora Salm breathed more easily.

“What just happened?” asked a confused Jestry, daring to move back near to Sylora.

“Valindra just saved our lives,” she replied.

“Indeed she did,” Valindra called, surprising them both. She seemed to slip out of a nearby tree trunk, as two-dimensional as a shadow. She reverted to full form and looked up at the two of them, her eyes clear, her expression lucid. “And now Valindra must create a catastrophe. Oh, what a pleasure that will be!”

Without another word, her expression locked in a wild-eyed and wicked, even gleeful grin, Valindra Shadowmantle glided away yet again.

Sylora swallowed hard.

“Not so crazy,” Jestry whispered after a long, long pause. “Or too crazy.”