Author:R.A. Salvatore

Sylora Salm was glad to be alone, at last. She brought forth the strange scepter of black wood from a fold in her cloak and held it up in front of her glistening eyes.

She could feel the energy in it, vibrating with power. This was a conduit to the Dread Ring, a dark scepter for a dark queen.

She glanced back at the cave complex she and her Ashmadai called home and an image came to her. Just to the left of the opening, up behind the front rocks of the cave, sat a small skeleton of a tree, just a single, twisted trunk with a single broken branch pointing forward, looking out like a sentry beside the cave entrance.

Sylora climbed the stones to stand beside the dead tree. She tapped the wooden scepter against the dark trunk and gasped as a blast of energy flowed through her. Her fingers tingled and a burst of ash came forth from her scepter, spraying the dead tree, covering it in blackness.

The ground shuddered violently and to the other side of the small hill, a boulder broke away and tumbled down.

Sylora looked around, not understanding.

The ground shuddered again, and on the other side of the small hill, another boulder broke away and tumbled down.

Sylora looked around, not understanding.

The ground shook again. The skeletal tree began to grow.

The sorceress backed away, nearly tripping and falling to the ground.

The tree widened, and with a great grinding sound, it climbed upward, ten feet, twenty, thirty. The hill grumbled in protest and stones tumbled. There came a cry from inside the cave, and an Ashmadai man stumbled out of the entrance, coughing and covered in dirt.

“Lady Sylora!” he cried.

She stood in front of a tower of ash, a tower that very much resembled a dead, skeletal tree. High above the clearing, beneath what had once been a broken tree branch, an opening had formed in the tower, creating a covered balcony.

The Ashmadai called to her again, but Sylora paid him no heed. She backed down the hillside, her gaze never leaving the ash tree tower. In her hand, the scepter called for more.

So Sylora, giddy with power, complied. She walked out some fifty paces from the cave opening and drew a line in the earth with the tip of her scepter, her conduit to the eager magic of the Dread Ring. By the time she completed the first half of her semicircle, moving to the side of the rocky hill, the initial points of her scratching bubbled with lava as the Dread Ring reached deep into the ground, bringing forth the residual power of the decade-old cataclysm.

She left a ten-foot gap before marking the second half of her creation, and by the time she was done with that curving line, the first wall had begun to erupt from the ground. Molten stone roiled and fell over itself as the wall climbed higher, to ten feet and more.

Sylora giggled like a child at play, and laughed all the more when the zealot called to her again, begging explanation.

His answer came gradually as Sylora Salm completed the wall, building a narrow channel moving out from the gap, turning boulders into smaller structures and two dead trees into smaller guard towers overlooking the wall.

Other zealots arrived from the nearby forest, all looking on with wide eyes, some falling to their knees to offer prayers to their devil god, others rushing in to see Sylora and to ask the same questions.

But she gave them no explanation and merely disappeared into the cave opening.

A few moments later, she reappeared, higher up in the tower, standing in the opening of the broken branch, her balcony.

“My lady?” the first of the Ashmadai inquired again.

There was reverence in his voice. There was awe showing clearly in all of their upturned faces.

Sylora liked that.

“Behold Ashenglade,” she said to them, a name that had just popped into her thoughts. “Finish it!”

She disappeared back into the tower and the zealots looked around in confusion.

“Double gates for the entryway!” one offered.

“And a roof!” said another, and so they went to work.

Inside the treelike tower, complete with three stories and a circling stairway, Sylora Salm reclined and listened to them going about their tasks. For a decade, the sorceress had lived in the forest or in the caves or in one or another abandoned house.

Now she understood—Szass Tam had made it clear to her. Since she had come to Neverwinter Wood, more than a decade ago, she had treated her time there as a step to something else, something grander. That had been her mistake. Now the Dread Ring had shown her the error of her ways, had forced her to take ownership of the mission, of the place, and soon, of Neverwinter itself.

DRIZZT AND DAHLIA FOLLOWED THE COASTAL ROAD NORTH OF Port Llast. Andahar’s steady gait moved them swiftly toward Luskan, his speed and endurance doubling the pace of a normal mount even though he carried two riders. With less than a day left in their journey, Drizzt surprised Dahlia by veering the unicorn from the road, turning west along a side trail.

Dahlia slapped him on the shoulder and offered him a quizzical look when he glanced back.

“I prefer a different gate,” the drow explained.

“Different? They are the same, all three,” the elf protested.

“I was in the city only recently. The guards—”

“Are never the same, and could be at any of the gates in any case,” said Dahlia. “You have not been in Luskan in tendays, and likely all the ships in her harbor are changed, and thus, most of the guards serving the high captains have rotated ship to dock and dock to ship. What matter then, which gate?”

Drizzt didn’t answer, other than to hunch a bit forward and urge Andahar on more swiftly.

Dahlia started to argue once more, but when she looked ahead and saw the rolling farmland, she reconsidered. Given their encounter south of Port Llast, and given what she knew of Drizzt Do’Urden, she could guess why he felt compelled to probe inland, the farmlands, before entering the city.

Even from afar, it was obvious that most of the fields were overgrown with high weeds and grasses. A few trees had even taken root. Saplings showed in many places, and one field sported a small copse that had obviously been growing for decades.

As Drizzt and Dahlia crested on a high rise, they came in sight of a rickety farmhouse and barn, and at last saw some cultivated land, but it covered far less than a single acre. It seemed more of a garden than a farm.

Drizzt held Andahar there for a bit, surveying the spreading lands below for some time. He kicked the unicorn into a slow trot, veering to follow the remains of a broken post fence.

“Look,” Dahlia said, pointing past him, beyond the tall grasses and near the garden to a pair of children. At the same time, the children spotted the riders and split away from each other, fleeing with all speed into the heavy grass. A third child, younger still, came into view near the barn only briefly before crawling into the darkness underneath the low entry porch.

“Not warm to visitors,” Drizzt remarked.

“Can you blame them?” Dahlia replied. “I’m sure that most who come this way are the goodly sort who would help with the harvesting, if not the planting,” she added sarcastically.

Drizzt kept Andahar moving at a slow and unthreatening pace. With a thought imparted to the magical unicorn, he bade the steed to enact the magic of the bell-lined barding, and each subsequent stride filled the air with the tinkling of sweet music.

“You think to tease them out with a happy song?” Dahlia asked.

Drizzt veered the unicorn through a break in the weathered fence, then cut a straight line toward the dilapidated porch of the farmhouse. On a couple of occasions, both riders noticed movement to the side—the sudden shift of grass and once, the brief glimpse of a mop-haired young boy.

But the drow didn’t react to any of it. He just kept his mount walking steadily, kept the bells ringing their song, and kept his eyes straight ahead.

At the base of the porch, he dismounted and casually tossed Andahar’s reins back over the unicorn’s strong neck. He offered his hand to Dahlia, but she fell away from him, rolling backward off Andahar to back flip to her feet on the other side of the steed.

“Of course,” the drow whispered, and lowered his hand. He paused and looked all around, noting some movement in the grass not so far away, and ending with his gaze locked on the eyes of the child under the barn’s entryway. He offered a quick smile before turning and walking up the porch steps. He pulled off his black leather glove and knocked on the door.

“They won’t answer, even if anyone is at home,” Dahlia remarked, coming up beside him. “If anyone even lives here, I mean.”

“The garden is meager, but it is tended,” Drizzt replied. “And there are animals.” He pointed to the side of the barn, to a chicken coop, where a few scraggly chickens walked around, pecking at the dirt.

“Someone might live in a nearby house and come here to reap,” Dahlia said. “Safely watching from a distant point when strangers come knocking.”

“Leaving their children to the whims of those strangers?”

Dahlia shrugged. Desperate people were capable of many things, she knew from long and bitter experience, even regarding the safety of their children.

The elf closed her eyes and fought the memory. She stood atop that cliff again, that long-ago time, a baby in her arms …

“There’s no answer to your call,” she said, a sudden urgency in her tone. “Let us be gone.”

In response, Drizzt pushed open the door and walked into the farmhouse.

It was a fairly large home, with several rooms and even a staircase leading up to a loft. It had once been a decent abode for the floors were not dirt, but made of wide oak planks, which squeaked when he walked into the entryway. A half-burned log lay in the hearth and a metal pot sat on the counter across from a small table. Truly the place had fallen into disrepair, but someone lived there.

“Well met,” he called softly, walking in farther and moving from doorway to doorway. “We’re travelers from the south, and no enemies of the good farmer folk of Luskan.”

No response.

“Let us be gone,” Dahlia said, but Drizzt held up his hand and cocked his head. Dahlia followed Drizzt into a side room. The creaking floor surely betrayed them, but once in that room, the couple waited and listened.

They heard the slightest hushed intake of breath, as if a youngster fought hard to not scream out in terror.

Drizzt moved suddenly, bending low and pulling aside the meager bedding, no more than hay and a blanket. He brushed the floor quickly, studying the creases and lines in the wood, then wedged his fingers in one crack and pulled open a secret hatch.

Then he stood, even more suddenly, leaning back as a trigger clicked and a crossbow bolt rose up from the hole, only narrowly missing his chin before finding a hold in the ceiling above him. Without the slightest hesitation, Drizzt rolled forward, reaching down to snatch the feeble crossbow from the hands of its wielder, then to grab the boy as well, by the collar. With frightening suddenness and speed, the drow plucked both from the hole and set the dirty child down on the floor in front of him.

“Quick to shoot,” he scolded.

The boy, no more than ten or eleven years of age, stared wide-eyed at the exotic drow, his jaw hanging open, in awe of the intruder’s white mithral shirt, the unicorn necklace pendant lying against Drizzt’s neck, at the pommels of his fabulous weapons, one gem-encrusted black adamantine fashioned into the likeness of a hunting cat’s head and maw, the other with a single star-cut blue sapphire set into its silver. Even wider went his eyes when he looked at the drow’s elf companion, with her exotic hair and that mesmerizing woad. He gasped and had Drizzt not been quick to guide him aside, he would have fallen back into the hole.

“Don’t hurt him!” came a shout from the crawl space, a woman’s voice. “Oh, please, good sir … err, good elf sir, don’t you hurt my boy!”

“Now why would I do that, good woman?” Drizzt calmly replied.

“Because it’s all she knows, you naïve fool,” Dahlia said from behind. She stepped past Drizzt and offered her hand to the woman, and to another child, a girl. The older woman hesitated and the young girl shied away.

“Take my hand and come out or I’ll fill your hole with hay and toss in a torch,” Dahlia warned.

Drizzt wasn’t sure if Dahlia was bluffing. For an instant, he thought to shove Dahlia aside and reassure the woman in the crawl space, but he didn’t act at all. For not the first time, and surely not the last, Drizzt found himself perplexed and strangely intrigued by his new companion.

Whether bluff or honest threat, Dahlia’s words worked, and with surprising strength, she tugged the woman from the crawl space.

The woman wasn’t as old as she appeared, with her scraggly, thinning hair, tired eyes, and weathered skin. It occurred to Drizzt that she might be quite attractive, had she been among the aristocracy of Waterdeep or some other city. Life, not age, had taken the luster of her youth, for she was likely but a few years past thirty.

“Are those other children outside yours as well?” Dahlia asked, little tenderness in her voice.

The woman looked at her with suspicion.

“We are not here to harm you or your children, nor to rob you of anything, I promise,” said Drizzt. “In fact, quite the opposite.” He started to reach for a small pouch on his belt, but Dahlia intercepted him with her hand and when he looked at her, she scowled and shook her head.

Drizzt didn’t understand, but he could tell from Dahlia’s expression that she wasn’t preventing his charity out of any selfish reasons, so he held back.

“Your husband is …?” Dahlia asked.

The woman snorted and looked away, giving a quick shake of her head. She didn’t have to say any more for Drizzt and Dahlia to understand that he was long gone, murdered likely.

“Five children,” Dahlia said with a mocking tone. She reached for the woman’s hand and lifted it, turning it as she went so that Drizzt could clearly see the deep calluses, broken fingernails, and seemingly-permanent dirt stains.

Clearly embarrassed, the woman pulled her hand back. Dahlia laughed, shook her head, and walked back to the farm’s rickety door.

“I hope some of your children are old enough to help you around here,” Drizzt said, trying to put forth a better face. He flashed a stern scowl at Dahlia. She smirked.

“We get by,” the woman replied. She squared her shoulders and took a deep breath. “What do you want?”

“Nothing,” Drizzt answered. “We saw the garden, and were—”

“So you want my food, then? You’d take it from the mouths of children?”

“No, no,” Drizzt assured her. “We … I was surprised to see that someone was living here, nothing more. We’re traveling to Luskan, and I was curious as to the state of the farms.”

“Farms,” the woman snorted. “There are no farms.”

“Do you know a man, a farmer, named Stuyles?” Dahlia asked from the doorway.

“I knew someone named Stuyles. A few of them.”

“Oh, and pray tell us what has happened to them.”

Drizzt shot Dahlia another angry glance. He turned back just in time to see the woman shrug. “Those that could go, went,” she answered. “Some to sail with the pirates, no doubt. Some to their graves at the end of a blade, no doubt. Some to other lands, for good or ill.”

“And how many have stayed?” Dahlia asked. “How many like you, living off the land, hoping your garden isn’t raided by highwaymen or soldiers—or goblinkin or wild animals—so you go to sleep without your belly growling too loudly?”

The woman, embarrassed, looked away and didn’t answer.

“Leave them,” Dahlia said to Drizzt. “We’ve leagues to travel and I grow bored with this nonsense.”

Drizzt didn’t know where to turn. He felt more completely at a loss than he had for a long, long time. The world, even around the always wild Luskan, had devolved to such a miserable state. It shook the core beliefs and optimism that had guided him for more than a century.

And there seemed nothing he could do about it, and that was the most troubling and terrifying reality of all.

As he stood there in contemplation, Dahlia grabbed him roughly by the hand and tugged him toward the door. As they exited, the woman shouted after them, “Don’t you steal my melons!”

“If we did, there would be nothing you could do about it,” Dahlia snapped back.

Outside, though, Dahlia didn’t go for the garden, but straight to Andahar, offering only a cursory glance at the three children hiding—badly—nearby, gawking at the sight of the magnificent unicorn.

“Did you have to speak to her in such a manner?” Drizzt asked, climbing up on Andahar’s strong back.

“I was speaking to you,” Dahlia retorted. “I care nothing for her.”

“Perhaps that’s your problem,” said Drizzt.

“More likely it’s your folly,” said Dahlia.

They rode away from the farm and down the road in silence after that, and Drizzt even stopped the magical bells from singing their sweet song, for it seemed out of place there, as if the music would lend neither hope nor joy, but would instead simply mock the broken country.

More farms came into view around every bend, and none were in better repair than the one they’d just left. Most of the farmhouses and barns were simply burned-out shells, and more than one settlement within a sea of overgrown and ruined fields showed nothing more than a few charred beams and the stones of a lonely, abandoned hearth.

“Farmer Stuyles’s home, I wonder?” Dahlia teased at one such ruin.

Drizzt ignored her. On one level, he was angry with Dahlia, but on another level he was worried she was right. He couldn’t find any logic with which to argue against her unstoppable cynicism. All of that, of course, led him back to farmer Stuyles and the band of “highwaymen.” Could he deny their justifications? The obvious truth lay bare before him now: With the fall of any pretense of civilization in Luskan, the surrounding farmlands, neglected by any organized militia, fell victim to bandits and even to minions of the new powers of the City of Sails. Everything those men and women had worked to build, everything their parents and grandparents for many generations had built, had been stolen away. The idea that they could simply pack up and relocate in the now-wild realms of Faerûn seemed preposterous.

So what were they to do? Depend on the magnanimity of the high captains of Luskan? The emissaries of Bregan D’aerthe? The Lords of Waterdeep?

Was it a crime for a hungry man to steal food, a freezing man to steal clothing, in a world where a destitute man had no recourse to law?

Drizzt was glad that he hadn’t exacted punishment on Stuyles and his band, and every former farm they passed reinforced his decision. But that truth did little to dent the pain such a bleak reality presented to the idealistic, optimistic dark elf.

At long last, the walls of Luskan came into view. Drizzt pulled Andahar up and slipped off the side of the unicorn. As soon as Dahlia did likewise, he dismissed the steed, who thundered away, each stride diminishing him by half until he was no more.

“Why did you stop me?” Drizzt asked.

Dahlia looked at him, perplexed, and he tapped his pouch.

“You thought to save the farmer woman with a few gold coins,” Dahlia said.

“Help her, not save her.”

“Damn her, you mean.”

“What do you mean?”

“What might any merchants have thought when a peasant farmer woman or one of her filthy children showed up at market bearing gold?” Dahlia asked.

“I could have given them silver, or copper even,” the drow argued.

“Even so, were she to possess coins, then all the thieves of the land would decide she was worth robbing. This land is filled with thieves, and worse. Are you so blinded by your eternal faith in goodness that you cannot even see that simple truth?”

“You’re my instructor, then?”

“When you need it,” Dahlia quipped.

“And my guardian, my guide to salvation?”

“Hardly that! In truth, given the nature of my lessons, I might be quite the opposite. A demon come to show you the path to … entertainment.”

Drizzt shook his head and started walking down the road to Luskan, showing little amusement at Dahlia’s barbs.

“If you had wanted to help her, you might have hunted a rabbit or a deer for her table,” the elf woman said. “Or simply gathered some firewood.”

“And you knew that and said nothing back at the farm, when we might have done some good.”

“You confuse me with someone who cares.”

Drizzt spun back on her, and seemed on the edge of an explosion.

“Drizzt Do’Urden, saving the world one peasant at a time.” Dahlia spat on the road at Drizzt’s feet, then stood back easily, staff in hand as if inviting him to attack her.

But Drizzt was too buried in the confusion of the day and the shadows of the world. With a helpless snort, he started off again toward the City of Sails. Dahlia caught up to him in but a few strides.

“We’ll find a way, our way,” she said.

“To help?”

“To entertain ourselves at least. And consider, when Sylora Salm’s skull cracks beneath the weight of my staff, the world will be a brighter and better place.” She started to grin, but Drizzt shook his head.

“The light will come earlier,” he promised. “For Sylora will already be dead by my blades by the time you strike.”

“A challenge?”

Now the drow did manage a smile.

“I do so love a challenge, and beware, for I never lose,” said Dahlia.

“Even if you have to kill me first to ensure your personal victory, I expect.”

“Keep thinking that way,” Dahlia played along. “I welcome doubt.”