Author:R.A. Salvatore

Herzgo Alegni walked tall this morning, more so than in many troubled days. His scouts had returned with the welcome news: The primordial within the ancient dwarven homeland had been put back in its hole, and a host of mighty water elementals swirled around the walls of the entrapping pit. Sylora Salm’s plan had failed. There would be no second volcano to feed her Dread Ring. The tremors would not split the earth beneath his feet, and would not drop his ambitions into a deep black pit.

The tiefling stood well over six feet tall, not counting his curving, ramlike horns. He popped up the stiff collar of his weathercloak, showing its satiny red interior. He liked the way that bright red called out his demonic eyes, and matched, too, the blade of the deadly sword he carried in a belt loop on his left hip. He puffed out his massive chest, pulling wider the ties of his unfastened vest to show off his thick muscles. He let his black cloak fall behind his left shoulder and moved out of his tent with a strong, sure stride.

He strolled across the high bluff and stood in the shadows of a wide-spread oak. There he took note of a group of his Shadovar minions. “Where is Barrabus?” he asked. The three looked to each other, unsure, and obviously fearful.

“Go and find him!” Alegni demanded. “Bring him to me!”

The trio fell all over each other trying to scramble away, and as they scattered, they spoke to other Shadovar they passed, who glanced at Alegni before they, too, ran off.

Herzgo Alegni waited until all were out of sight before allowing himself a grin at the spectacle of his power.

In short order, the one man in his command who didn’t scramble at his every word strolled up to him. Fully a foot shorter than Alegni, and with few ornaments on his small frame—just a diamond-shaped belt buckle and a seemingly unremarkable sword and dagger on opposite hips—this black-haired, grayish-skinned man somehow didn’t seem diminished in the presence of the mighty Netherese tiefling. He stood with one arm cocked so that his forearm rested on the hilt of his sword, the other hanging at his side, his fingers rolling an unbitten green apple, which he occasionally tossed and caught without even glancing at it.

“The scouts have returned from the dwarven halls,” Alegni informed him.

“I know. Our enemies have failed.”

“You spoke with them?” Herzgo Alegni demanded, his red eyes flashing with rage and disappointment. “They spoke with you?”

“They usually do,” he answered anyway.

Barrabus the Gray could barely contain his smile. It pleased him to know that Alegni would severely punish the returned scouts for such a breach of etiquette—perhaps he would even kill a few of them. The thought of a few Shadovar tortured to death didn’t trouble Barrabus the Gray. Quite the opposite.

Of course, he hadn’t spoken to anyone. Why would he need to, to deduce such a simple riddle as the one before him in the form of the puffed-up Netherese lord? The failure of Sylora’s minions was hardly unexpected. He’d seen her enemies, including Drizzt Do’Urden and Bruenor Battlehammer, in Sylora’s own scrying pool.

Herzgo Alegni grumbled a few curses. “The moment is upon us,” he said. “Our enemy is reeling, and would be more so if you had not failed in the task I commanded.”

Barrabus didn’t respond, other than to give a graceful bow. Indeed, he had been sent to kill Sylora, and should have done so, and would have done so had not that image in the scrying pool interfered, filling him with such confusion and rekindling such long-buried emotions that he had nearly dropped from the high branch into the midst of Sylora’s encampment.

He shook that image away, not daring to get caught up in the implications with an angry Herzgo Alegni so close at hand.

“Perhaps I should send you back to her, to finish the deed,” Alegni said.

“The guard, already impenetrable, will no doubt be redoubled.”

“Surely that doesn’t frighten one as cunning and powerful as Barrabus the Gray,” came the sarcastic, and wholly expected, reply.

Barrabus shrugged. “You would rally your charges instead, and assail Sylora’s minions full on,” he reasoned.

“The thought has occurred to me.”

“And to me, and to Sylora as well, no doubt. The sorceress is no fool.”

“You do not think it the time to strike?”

“I think that Sylora must strike, and quickly,” said Barrabus. “She has lost her catastrophe and needs to create a new one.”

Alegni looked at him, curious.

“She serves Szass Tam, or so you’ve told me,” Barrabus explained. “She seeks to complete her Dread Ring. I’ve heard it whispered that Szass Tam does not accept failure well.”

Clearly intrigued, Herzgo Alegni paced to the oak then moved around its thick trunk.

“She’ll attack us?” he asked as he came around to face Barrabus once more.

“And if you were in her position?” Barrabus said. “Your Dread Ring demands to be fed. You need carnage on a large scale, and quickly. Would you attack an army awaiting your ranks?”

A grin spread on Alegni’s face. “With a city full of men and women so near …” he said, catching on. “Sylora will soon go against Neverwinter.”

Barrabus shrugged again.

“Go out and confirm it!” Alegni yelled.

Barrabus the Gray smiled and bowed, more than happy to take his leave. He’d barely gone a few steps, though, when he turned back to regard the tiefling.

“You’re welcome,” Barrabus the Gray remarked.

“I didn’t thank you.”

“But you know my worth. Your frustration reveals as much. That’s thanks enough.”

Alegni scoffed at the notion, and scoffed all the more when Barrabus added, “I will have my dagger back, my master, that I might serve you all the better.”

A scowl enveloped Alegni’s face.

“You’ll come to see the wisdom of it,” Barrabus promised, and laughed, and turned away.

The small man’s mirth faltered as he moved out of Herzgo Alegni’s sight. Truly, he hated that tiefling more than he’d ever hated any living or undead being. But Alegni had the sword, so Barrabus could not go against him. That wretched sword, so attuned to him, knowing his every move before he made it. That vile artifact, so easily dominating him, so easily destroying him if it, or its wielder, so chose.

Were it simply a matter of dying, Barrabus would have forced Alegni’s hand long ago and gladly gone to his elusive “reward.” The sword, now known simply as Claw, would do more than merely kill him, he knew. It would obliterate him and enslave the fragments of his soul for eternity. It would feed upon his life force, and only grow stronger because of the kill.

Or it would kill him and resurrect him, so that it could torment him yet again.

Yes, Barrabus hated Alegni, and hated the red-bladed sword, and hated most of all his helplessness, his servitude. Only once before in the many decades of his life had Barrabus the Gray known such a feeling of helplessness: in Menzoberranzan, the city of the drow. Upon his escape from that dark place, he swore that he would never again serve in such a manner.

The blade they called Claw and the Netherese lords who claimed the sword as their own had ripped that vow from him along with his freedom.

“For now,” Barrabus the Gray promised himself as he wandered through Neverwinter Wood.

He thought of his dagger, a weapon that had been his trademark for most of his life, a weapon that had wrought fear in the hearts of sturdy warriors and other assassins from Calimport to Luskan and everywhere in between. He knew Alegni would never give it back to him—even though he held Claw, Herzgo Alegni was wary of Barrabus the Gray, and wouldn’t lend him any assistance in the form of such formidable magic. Still, he entertained the thought of the great struggle should he ever retrieve that blade. He would use it to draw out Alegni’s life force even as Claw diminished his own. He would be the stronger, he believed, and even if they both died in the battle, it would be an end Barrabus the Gray would consider most fitting.

“For now,” Barrabus said again.

“Sylora doesn’t know I have this,” Valindra Shadowmantle whispered, giggling.

She held up the fist-sized gemstone, shaped as a skull. The fires of her undead existence flared in her eyes and reflected in the hollowed orbs of the gemstone.

“I took it from her,” Valindra explained, apparently to herself, and she giggled all the more.

The skull was her phylactery, her soul’s escape from the frailties of her withering mortal coil. Should Valindra’s body be destroyed, there she would reside until another body could be found.

But this particular gem was much more than that. It was an ancient artifact, one of a pair, and served as a great conduit of magical power. Arklem Greeth—Valindra’s beloved Greeth!—resided in the other, though Valindra knew not where the sister gemstone and Greeth might be.

She had tried to discern that location—that was why she’d dared steal this artifact from Sylora in the first place. She’d looked into the phylactery and her vision had gone forth from there, in the fugue between the lands of the living and the dead, seeking Greeth, but had found someone else instead, a powerful undead spirit, recently disembodied. Fast had that spirit flown, away from this plane of existence, to its just reward or punishment, but faster had Valindra, through the gemstone, reached out to grab the terrified spirit and offer it a home, an anchor, a phylactery.

“Come forth, friend,” Valindra bade, and she rubbed the skull gem. “Come, I have need of you. I know, I know—Greeth, Greeth!—that you cannot fly free of the gemstone for long, but long enough, I think!”

Nothing happened.

“Come forth, or I’ll come in there to find you,” the lich warned, her voice suddenly grim.

The eye sockets of the skull gem flared with red fires and a cold wind blew forth from its skeletal mouth.

The spirit shimmered in the air in front of Valindra, a pitiful thing, terrified and full of rage—helpless rage, for it was just an immaterial ghost, a malevolent, impotent whisper of anger.

“Korvin Dor’crae!” Valindra cackled with glee. “Oh, you must help me!”

Why would I? the disembodied vampire spoke in Valindra’s thoughts.

“Because if you do, I’ll grant you more of the skull gem’s powers,” Valindra teased. “And you can use it to possess another, to steal a body and give form to your … energy.”

The vampire’s ghost didn’t respond in words, but Valindra felt his eagerness, his desperation. She understood that Dor’crae had seen his just reward, and he would do anything, apparently, to avoid that ultimate fate.

“You are my eyes on the wind,” Valindra explained. “Szass Tam demands of me a cataclysm, and so I must deliver one. Seek out Gauntlgrym once more and return to me with word of the primordial.”

It is a long way. I haven’t much time.

“You travel as the wind,” Valindra said with a laugh. “Go! And return! And then you will seek out more. I must know more! Greeth! Greeth! Oh, but I was a bad girl! There is slaughter to be done, so much! I must know more of those around so that I can arrange the cataclysm, and you are my eyes.”

She stopped abruptly and looked curiously at the skull gem. Valindra glanced all around. It took her a few moments to realize that Dor’crae had already gone.

Good, she thought.

“What does it mean?” Jestry asked Sylora privately, less than a tenday removed from their encounter with Szass Tam. A group of Ashmadai stood nearby, engaged in their own conversations about the mission.

“Valindra seeks to please Szass Tam, and we will allow her to find her way to do so.”

“Why would you trust that mad lich?” Jestry replied, shaking his head with every word and obviously disgusted at even mentioning Valindra Shadowmantle.

“You have forgotten our visit with Szass Tam?” came the sarcastic reply.

“No, but—”

“And that Valindra deflected his ire from us, and to herself?”

“You believe she did that for our benefit?” Jestry asked.

Sylora wore a puzzled expression, as if the answer should be obvious.

“I think Valindra is simply insane,” Jestry replied.

Sylora seemed for a moment as if she were about to lay him low with a shock of lightning, or some other powerful spell.

Jestry swallowed hard. He realized he was being quite forward. Dare he speak to her in such a manner?

But she quickly relaxed and nodded. Jestry sighed. Sylora must value him as an honest advisor to allow him to speak his mind.

“She has no idea of the danger involved in admitting such a failure to the archlich.” He couldn’t help but raise his voice for just a moment before catching himself and going back to a whisper. “She was rambling, hardly coherent of her own admission of failure.”

“No,” Sylora said flatly. “You underestimate Valindra Shadowmantle at your own peril.”

“Underestimate? I’m terrified of the creature!” Again his voice rose, and a few Ashmadai glanced his way before wisely turning back to their own conversation.

“You underestimate the power of her mind,” Sylora explained. “She survived the unwitting conversion to lichdom and the Spellplague, and that’s no small thing. I’ve spoken with her at length about her early days after the fall of Arklem Greeth. Yes, she was quite insane, but a drow psionicist helped pull her cogent reasoning back to the fore.”

“She babbles, she sings, she is … inappropriate,” Jestry argued.

“She allows the insanity to spill forth. She releases it, and copes with it, and follows it up with reminders of reality. She saved us from Szass Tam, consciously so.”

“Why?” he asked.

“Because she knows she’s not yet ready to command the Ashmadai of Neverwinter Wood, nor is she capable of bringing the Dread Ring to fruition. Valindra needs me, or she will disappoint Szass Tam far more than did the failure in Gauntlgrym.”

“And when she needs you no more?”

“I will be pleased to accept my victory for Szass Tam and return to Thay, leaving Valindra as Szass Tam’s commander on the Sword Coast.”

“They will destroy you,” Jestry insisted, but Sylora shook her head and wore an expression of complete confidence.

“I’ve spoken to Valindra at length,” she repeated with gravity. “And I’ve studied the history of Valindra Shadowmantle, once a mistress in the fabled Hosttower of the Arcane. She was accomplished in life, and she will become even more powerful in undeath, as her mind heals.”

Jestry stepped back and looked Sylora over carefully. “You see her as a conduit to your own immortality,” he said suddenly, then he gasped, obviously fearing he’d gone too far.

But Sylora grinned. “You are but twenty years old and I near middle age,” the sorceress explained. “You’ll one day understand. Now, go.” She pointed to the path, which seemed a tunnel through the dark trees lining its sides, branches intertwined so tightly that even the light of the full moon failed to penetrate.

“You’re going to perform the summoning of the devils,” Jestry said. “I would wish to witness the glory of your call to the Nine Hells.”

“No summoning tonight,” Sylora assured him. With a knowing smirk, Sylora glanced to her side and nodded as the lich Valindra came drifting out of the shadows, the Scepter of Asmodeus in hand.

“Through some magic I don’t know—perhaps with the scepter’s ties to the Nine Hells, perhaps with the skull gem I allowed her to take from my tent—Valindra has sensed something unusual on the outskirts of Neverwinter,” Sylora announced to Jestry and to the group of Ashmadai standing ready in front of the tree tunnel. “You will escort her as she demands. You will do anything that she demands!” Her voice rose powerfully as she finished, the threat all too clear. Her wide eyes scrutinized each and every member of the party.

“But not you,” she whispered to Jestry out of the corner of her mouth. “You are my eyes and ears and nothing more, whatever Valindra demands. Of you, I ask only that you return to me with a full recounting of the night’s events.” She turned to face him as she stepped back, putting him between her and the other Ashmadai. “I would not have my lover slain by a lich, to be raised horrid and cold and useless to my needs.”

Jestry could hardly draw breath. Her lover? Could it be? Was she at last offering him that which he had most desired since the day Szass Tam had put the Ashmadai war party under her command?

Sylora glanced back at him only once. “Don’t disappoint me,” she whispered in a throaty voice. “We will know great glory here, you and I. And great pleasure.”

She crossed paths with Valindra then, the lich drifting past her and tittering quietly, muttering something the distracted Jestry could not discern—not that he was paying her any heed in any case. He just stood there as Valindra floated past him as well, telling him to “Greeth Greeth, move along!”

But he couldn’t tear his eyes off the spectacle that was Sylora Salm. The high, stiff collar of her black gown perfectly framed her hairless head, her smooth and creamy skin glistening in the moonlight. That head struck Jestry as the perfect orb, held on the pedestal of that collar, and so entranced was he that it took him many heartbeats to allow his eyes to rove down the curving, shapely form, to the high slit in the back of the dress, and there he stared once more, his heart stopping then leaping at each flash of white skin, catching the moonlight with every alluring step.

Her lover, she’d teased.

Her lover.

He had to succeed, had to survive through this dangerous night. Jestry took a deep breath and steadied himself, finding the control required of an Ashmadai. He even managed to tear his eyes away from the departing Sylora, to spin around … and to realize that Valindra and the others had already started away.

He began to sprint, but barely took a step before he found himself glancing back yet again toward the woman he so desired.

But she was not to be seen, having melted into the night.

Jestry Rallevin reminded himself of who he was, and of the danger ever-present around him—danger to him and to his beloved Sylora Salm. They had faced Szass Tam and had barely escaped the archlich’s murderous wrath.

They had to start winning. Sylora needed the carnage to feed her Dread Ring. Jestry had to make it happen for her.

For them.

He ran down the dark tree tunnel toward the distant torchlight.