Author:R.A. Salvatore

VALINDRA STOOD ACROSS A CLEARING FROM A SMALL HOUSE ON the southern reaches of Neverwinter. The glow from a hearth within whispered warmth against the chill of night, but seemed a solitary thing indeed this far from the returning population of the old city.

“In there?” Jestry asked skeptically. “The one you seek? Alone?”

A deathly cold breeze blew by them, and Valindra’s smile widened as she nodded. “Why would she not be?”

“She?” Jestry hugged his strong arms tight to ward off the chill. The path to the cottage could hardly be called a road, and there were no other houses within at least several hundred yards of the place. Neverwinter Wood was in the midst of a war, of course, and the roads were full of bandits—many of the folk who’d come to rebuild Neverwinter were less than respectable. Why would anyone live out there alone? How could anyone survive out there alone?

“Sylora Salm values you,” Valindra remarked, catching the Ashmadai warrior off guard. “I know not why. You seem … dull.”

Jestry scowled at her, but quickly reminded himself that he was dealing with a lich, and one considered quite insane.

“So do—Greeth! Greeth!—come in with me to meet my new friend,” Valindra said.

Jestry blinked and fell back. Her wild incantation in the middle of the sentence threw him off guard, but he thought he detected a bit of a curl to Valindra’s lips. Had she shrieked intentionally to disturb him? That was the thing about Valindra: how could he know?

“I’ll send others and coordinate the sentries,” Jestry replied.

“You will come in with me,” Valindra corrected. “Alive or dead.”

Jestry felt that cold breeze again and he sensed a hunger there.

“I know of one who would covet your lifeless body,” Valindra teased, and Jestry’s eyes widened. It took all of his willpower to stop him from letting out a scream.

“Easy,” Valindra said, but she wasn’t talking to Jestry. She didn’t seem to be talking to anyone! “Even if I kill him, you cannot have him. Not yet.”

“What do you mean?” Jestry demanded.

“Alive or dead?” Valindra teased.

Behind them, the other Ashmadai shifted uncomfortably, and Jestry glanced back for support. But Valindra held the scepter of Asmodeus. Sylora had named her the mission’s leader, and Jestry understood all too clearly that if he tried to disobey the lich, his “friends” would carry out her orders against him, even kill him if she asked.

“You alone,” Valindra said, nodding to herself.

Jestry called back to his fellow Ashmadai. “Guard the path, and all around.” They acted as if they looked upon a doomed man.

Without another word, Valindra glided toward the small cottage, the scepter extended in front of her. Jestry caught up with her just before the porch steps. The front door opened.

“May I help you, O wanderers in the dark of night?” she said as she appeared in the doorway, her form framed by the glow of the fire within. Her voice had a sweetness, an innocence that seemed so very out of place in that dangerous land.

“That is the only question I ever consider,” Valindra replied.

Jestry thought to glance at the lich, but found he couldn’t take his eyes off the woman standing in front of him. She wasn’t beautiful, really, though certainly not unattractive, with a slight frame, an open, round face, and curly hair that shone red even in the dim light. A strange sensation came over Jestry just standing there looking at her, just hearing the innocence and warmth in her voice, just in seeing the playful bounce of her thick hair. He thought of cherry pie.

Cherry pie on a comfortably cool autumn night, with the wind blowing off the lake and his mother and two sisters sitting beside him. He thought of the twin girls at either end of the line pulling on one end or the other of the quilt, which was just slightly too short for the job of covering them all.

He shook his head to compose himself, but the woman then said, “Do come in. I wasn’t expecting visitors at this late hour, but I’ve some fine stew still warm in the cauldron.”

Jestry found himself back again in that memory, staring across the lake in the hopes that he would be the first to spot the torchlight signaling his father’s return from the hunt.

Valindra was almost through the door before the warrior even realized she was moving. He nodded to the red-haired woman and entered the comfortable cottage. As he moved to the hearth, he kept glancing back at her.

Her face and smile were open and warm. There was nothing about her that Jestry would call sexy—certainly she possessed not a single feature that Sylora Salm didn’t possess in a more classically beautiful manner. But somehow, all together, it … worked.

“And what have I given the goodly gods to be graced with such visitors on a dark night?” She closed the door and motioned for Valindra and Jestry to sit in the chairs in front of the hearth while she went to retrieve a third chair for herself.

It all seemed so perfectly normal and natural: a man and a woman travel a road and find respite in a warm house along the way.

Valindra took her seat and held forth her scepter as the woman came over. The woman paused at the sight of that distinctive item.

Valindra smiled.

The woman grinned.

And then it hit Jestry: Valindra was obviously an undead creature. Half her skin was rotted away! The white of bone peeked out from one wrist and even on one of her emaciated cheeks. There was no way this woman, this innocent and gentle creature, couldn’t see that. And yet, she showed no discomfort at all.

Jestry glanced around, searching for an escape.

“My name is Arunika,” the woman said.

“Valindra,” the lich replied.

“And he?”

“No one worth mentioning,” Valindra assured her.

Jestry glanced from the lich to Arunika and saw on her kind face that she didn’t share Valindra’s assessment. He suddenly found himself feeling much more comfortable.

“Why have you come?” Arunika asked.

“In friendship,” Valindra replied. “And you would rather have us as friends!” she shrieked suddenly, and began chirping “Arklem! Ark-lem!” every few beats.

Arunika seemed more amused than frightened. She sat back in her chair and looked at Jestry.

“The Spellplague,” he quietly mouthed.

“Valindra?” Arunika asked as the lich finally calmed.

“In friendship,” Valindra replied as if nothing had happened. “And in kinship.”

“I’m not your kin,” Arunika insisted.

Valindra flashed a wicked smile and held forth the scepter of Asmodeus.

Arunika nodded, her light eyes sparkling at the sight.

“It was given to Valindra by Sylora Salm of Thay,” Jestry dared interject, “who serves Szass Tam.”

“And so you are Ashmadai,” Arunika replied.

“As are you?” Jestry dared ask. Why, after all, were they here in the home of a simple woman, a comely and nondescript commoner by all appearances?

Arunika’s laughter mocked him, but she held out her hand as soon as he began to recoil from it.

“You could say that I am aligned with the Ashmadai, yes,” she admitted.

“And who else?” Valindra insisted sharply.

Now Arunika narrowed her bright eyes and scrutinized the lich. “You have come as emissaries of this Sylora Salm?”

“Yes,” Jestry answered even as Valindra launched into a birdlike squeal, “Greeth! Greeth!”

“I’m not alone, I assure you,” Arunika said then. “I have friends, very powerful friends, nearby.”

Valindra hissed and Jestry thought she might attack Arunika then and there. He resisted the urge to spring up to the woman’s defense, or to shout out in frustration against Sylora’s terrible decision to ever send Valindra on this mission. And why would Sylora have made such a wrong choice? Arunika was no threat. She was a friend, surely, and she didn’t need to be confronted by a powerful and insane lich.

“My friends will be sympathetic to your cause against the Netherese,” Arunika went on, calming Valindra before her agitation could truly bubble over. “Go and tell that to Sylora Salm. I’ll serve as go-between. She knows where to find me.”

As she finished, she glanced at Jestry and motioned to the door, clearly bidding him to be gone. He took no offense, but somehow he knew that Arunika wasn’t asking him to leave, she was telling him, and in no uncertain terms. He looked at Valindra then stumbled out into the night.

He dared pause at the door for just a moment, to hear Arunika talking softly to Valindra, assuring the lich that her friends would help—and Jestry got the distinct impression that Arunika spoke in personal, and not just general, terms.

Jestry rushed away, afraid of being caught eavesdropping, but he did catch one more word: “sovereignty.”

He didn’t know what it meant.

A long while passed before Valindra exited the house. From the porch, she directed the Ashmadai, then floated down behind them on their journey back to Sylora’s base. She clutched the skull gem and the scepter close to her heart, continually giving thanks to their magical powers. The scepter had sensed Arunika, and the skull gem had given her Dor’crae—and with him, the eyes to locate Arunika.

Arunika had hinted at that which Valindra most dearly wanted to find: a way to be rid of the demons of confusion haunting her mind.

Kimmuriel Oblodra had done much to help her, and he was but a mere drow psionicist. What was that against the power of one of the Sovereignty? If Kimmuriel’s powers could keep her from falling over the ledge, surely Arunika’s friend could bring her back from the brink.

Simply discussing the trouble with Arunika now allowed Valindra to keep her focus for a long, long time, all the way back to Sylora’s encampment.

All of the returning team walked those last strides with their mouths hanging open in awe. Sylora had been quite busy in the hours since they’d gone off to find Arunika. The treelike tower dominated the scene, sitting on the hill beside the cave opening, but that was only one part of the risen fortress. Two walls had been lifted from the ground, with several smaller towers and structures evident within.

It was a small city, created of black stone, and raised from the ground in a matter of hours.

Jestry had no reservations about the sight in front of him. He knew instinctively that it was Sylora’s creation. It carried the color, the texture, the smell of the Dread Ring, and was like some of the structures he’d left back in Thay.

As he neared the outer gate, he saw the guards—both Ashmadai and ash zombie servants. Up high and in the distance, he spotted Sylora herself, standing at the tall tower’s balcony, which, now that he considered it more closely, looked much like the stub of a broken branch.

“Go on, go on!” Valindra said, coming up past him.

“Sylora,” Jestry said, pointing up to the distant sorceress.

“Go on, go on!” Valindra said again, then muttered something along the lines of “how beautiful, how beautiful,” though Jestry wasn’t sure if she was speaking of the complex, the tower, or Sylora herself. Nor did it matter, he realized, and he shook all thought of the lich’s foolish rambling away and hurried to follow her into the compound and to the tower.

The entrance to the tower lay inside the cave, where a short stone stairwell in the side wall went up just a few steps to a black stone door.

The door opened magically for Valindra and Jestry, who entered the ground floor of the tower to find it complete with a stocked hearth, obsidian chairs, and a small table covered in furs and set with utensils.

Jestry and Valindra continued up the sweeping stair along the far wall of the circular room, climbing up above the hearth to another black stone door. He pushed through the door to find another chamber, this one only partially furnished, but clearly intended as Sylora’s workshop. The stair continued to wind around the room, going between the outer and an inner wall. The stairs turned here, crossing high above the room, leading to an open trapdoor. The door fed into a low chamber not quite at the third level of the tower, a room that opened out onto the balcony.

Sylora nodded down at the pair through the trapdoor, and motioned for Valindra to go up and join her and for Jestry to follow the other stairwell to the third level, Sylora’s private quarters.

“Well done, Lady,” Valindra greeted, her tone wistful. “So much like the Hosttower, it seems!”

“That was not my intent,” Sylora assured her. She motioned to the scepter. “Did it lead you well?”

“Oh, well!” Valindra exclaimed. “By Greeth … Ark-lem! Ark-lem!”

“Do tell,” Sylora prompted, and she heaved a great sigh, understanding well the meandering direction Valindra’s story would surely take.

It took some time, but Valindra did at last recount Arunika’s words. Then, dismissed by Sylora, the lich wandered the ten feet out along the broken branch balcony to the railing. With a mischievous glance back at Sylora, Valindra lifted herself over the railing and leaped out, floating down to the courtyard below.

“And what did you think of our new friend, Arunika?” Sylora asked when Valindra had gone.

Jestry, crouched in a small hollow just above her, was not surprised at the confirmation that Sylora was aware of his presence. The top entrance of the hollow had been left open, after all, presumably so that he could eavesdrop on Sylora’s conversation with Valindra.

Jestry pushed aside a black cloth, which appeared as part of the balcony wall, and dropped down beside the sorceress.

“An interesting woman,” he said, trying hard to keep the true level of his fascination out of his voice.

Sylora’s grin told Jestry that she recognized his true feelings all too well.

“She is not beautiful,” Jestry blurted, and thought himself incredibly inane.

“Seduced by a smile and a word,” Sylora replied in a mocking tone that showed she was hardly upset. “Young men are such easy prey.”

“No, my lady, my love …”

“Hold your tongue, Jestry,” the sorceress interrupted. “Or I’ll tear it out and hold it for you.” Despite the threat, and the fact that Sylora certainly could carry through with it, the timbre of her voice once more conveyed that she was more amused, even pitying, than upset. She walked out to the balcony rail. “You’re fond of her, then?”

“No, I mean, I did not—”

“Afraid of her?”

“Surely not!” he protested.

“Good, because you might well be in Arunika’s company quite a bit in the coming days,” Sylora explained. “That’s suitable to you?”

“I do as Sylora asks,” the Ashmadai obediently replied. “I do not question Sylora Salm.”

“Good, because I tell you this now and do not disappoint me in it: When you’re with Arunika, you’re to do her bidding. If she tells you to kill yourself, do so.”

Jestry swallowed hard, but nodded. Such was his duty as an Ashmadai.

“And if she wishes to couple with you, do so,” Sylora added.

Jestry swallowed harder, and tried not to nod too eagerly.

“Do you understand?”

“I do …” he started to say, but he couldn’t quite get past the words and wound up shaking his head and admitting, “No.”

Sylora laughed and reached up to gently stroke his face. “My poor, innocent warrior,” she said. “Do you fear that such an act with the likes of Arunika would make me jealous?”

Jestry thought he should say no, and thought he should say he feared to do exactly that, and thought he should blurt out that Arunika was nowhere near as beautiful as Sylora, of course, and that he could only truly love Sylora.

He thought a lot of things.

He said nothing.

She danced away from him then, to the edge of the balcony, where she leaped over, her magical cloak transforming her into the likeness of a giant crow, and she glided down to the courtyard on widespread wings.

Jestry found himself drawn to the railing, watching the woman alight, watching her transform again into the woman he had come to adore.

This was not going well. Evidently Barrabus had underestimated the scouting network of the Neverwinter enclave.

“I have friends in the region,” Barrabus said.

“Shadovar?” Jelvus Grinch asked.

Barrabus smiled innocently. He knew the question to be rhetorical. “My friends are enemies of the zealots who have infiltrated Neverwinter Wood. Is that not enough for you?”

Around him, the crowd stirred.

“We have reason to believe that these zealots, who facilitated the cataclysm that destroyed this fair city, are now building the most awful of necromantic facilities not far from your intended city. They’ve raised an army of the dead culled from the bodies of that cataclysm, and will send them to the”—he paused and glanced around at the rebuilding efforts—“inadequate walls you have constructed.”

“We’re not simple farmers,” one woman protested. “All here can raise a weapon and raise it well!”

That brought a cheer from all around, and Jelvus Grinch, widely considered the first citizen of Neverwinter, couldn’t help but puff out his chest a bit.

But if Barrabus was impressed, he didn’t show it.

“You will be overrun,” he stated flatly. “And even if some of you manage to escape, or somehow hold out, those who are killed will return as zombies to battle from the ranks of your enemies.”

That stole some of their bluster, to be sure.

“And you offer your services?” Jelvus Grinch said, and Barrabus nodded. “And those of the Shadovar, your kinfolk?”

“I’m no Shadovar.”

“But you’re allied—”

“For the time, perhaps. That’s none of your affair.”

“We have no love for the Empire of Netheril!”

“And they care not for you, or for your city,” Barrabus answered. “They have no designs here that concern you.”

“The Netherese were known prominently in Neverwinter before the cataclysm,” Jelvus argued. “Some have said that a Netherese noble dominated the Lord of Neverwinter in the waning days—”

“That was a long time ago.”

“And now they don’t care?” the woman in the crowd yelled.

“It’s only been ten years!” Jelvus Grinch added.

“Have you seen any Netherese within your walls?” asked Barrabus. “Have they made any advances against any of your citizens?”

“Then why are you here?” asked Jelvus. “If your allies have no designs on Neverwinter, then why do they care at all?”

“My allies battle the zealots—you know this. If the zealots overrun Neverwinter”—he turned to speak to all of the gathering—“if you are all slain that you might join the zealots’ undead army, then the struggle of the Shadovar in Neverwinter Wood becomes all the more difficult.”

“Allies of necessity, then?” Jelvus Grinch reasoned when the murmurs had died away.

Barrabus shrugged noncommittally. “If allies at all,” he said, again with little conviction. “I am here to warn you of the possibility of an assault. I offer my services as scout, and my blades in the battle should it come, nothing more, nothing less.”

“Can ye fight, then?” one man called from behind.

Barrabus’s smile was anything but innocent. It was a look he had perfected as a child in Calimport, an expression of confidence unshakable and unnerving. There was no boast, no answer, because there needed to be none.

Jelvus Grinch surely knew the truth, simply in looking at Barrabus’s face.

“I cannot condone an alliance with the Shadovar,” he said.

“But you won’t discourage it,” Barrabus reasoned from his tone. “And I am not Shadovar.”

“Your help would be … appreciated.”

Barrabus nodded and Jelvus broke up the gathering with a call for all to get to work shoring up the meager walls surrounding their rebuilding efforts.

“You really think the undead will come?” Jelvus Grinch quietly asked Barrabus as the pair walked off alone.

“Likely. The zealots attempted a second cataclysm.”

Jelvus Grinch stopped walking and sucked in his breath.

“It was foiled and the volcano put back in its place, by all accounts,” Barrabus assured him. “I doubt you have to fear another eruption.”

Jelvus Grinch looked at him skeptically.

“If I thought differently, would I be here?” Barrabus said, and when that didn’t seem to relax Jelvus, Barrabus the Gray added, “I was here for the first explosion, you know.”

“When Neverwinter was destroyed?” Jelvus Grinch balked. “There were no survivors.”

“There were a few,” Barrabus replied. “The lucky, the quick, and the clever—or, more likely, those who were all three.”

“You were here? When the ash fell and the lava—”

“When the gray flow rampaged through Neverwinter and to the sea, taking almost everything with it. I was there.” He pointed to the Winged Wyvern Bridge. “I watched the river run with molten stone and ash, and bodies. So many bodies.”

“I shouldn’t believe you,” Jelvus Grinch said. “But I find I do.”

“I have better things to do than lie to the likes of you over such an unimportant piece of trivia.”

Jelvus nodded and bowed.

“There’s one more thing,” Barrabus said. “There’s an elf about, a drow of some renown. His name is Drizzt—”

“Do’Urden,” Jelvus finished.

“You know of him,” said Barrabus. “You know him personally?”

“He escorted a caravan here some months ago,” Jelvus answered. “He and a dwarf—Bonnego Battleaxe of the Adbar Battleaxes. Would that he had stayed in these dark times! And we asked, do not doubt. To have the likes of Drizzt Do’Urden beside us now would serve us greatly should the attack you expect come to pass.”

Barrabus nodded and sighed more deeply than he should have. So, the vision he had seen in Sylora’s scrying pool had been accurate, and Drizzt Do’Urden was alive and well and in the North.

“What is it?” Jelvus Grinch asked, drawing him from his thoughts. “Do you know of Drizzt?”

“I do. A long time ago …” His voice trailed off. “I would ask you, as a favor, as a sign of our budding alliance, that you would inform me if Drizzt is seen anywhere near Neverwinter.”

Now Jelvus Grinch looked at him suspiciously, so Barrabus added, “I do loathe most drow elves, and would hate to kill him by mistake.”

That seemed to satisfy the man. Barrabus gave a quick salute and went out from Neverwinter’s gate to see what he could learn.