Author:R.A. Salvatore

HADENCOURT PAUSED OUTSIDE OF ASHENGLADE TO ADMIRE ITS construction, and though he knew it had been created magically, it still seemed impossible to him that so much had been built in so short a time. Hadencourt wasn’t quite as committed to Szass Tam, and by extension Sylora Salm, as he was to the Ashmadai zealots, but he had to give credit where credit was due.

Ashenglade was not the work of Asmodeus or any other denizen of the Nine Hells. It was the work of the Thayan Dread Ring.

As he approached the gates of the fortress, he faced a phalanx of grim-faced Ashmadai guards and a host of zombie minions, but all he had to do was flash his smile—his real smile and not the façade he wore for the peasant bandits in the north. The resistance melted away, and the gates were thrown wide.

“Dahlia and the drow were heading north, to Luskan, they said,” Hadencourt reported when he stood beside Sylora Salm on the second floor of her treelike tower.

“Greeth! Ark-lem!” Valindra shrieked from the corner.

Hadencourt stared at her incredulously.

“Ignore her,” Sylora told him.

That was no easy thing to do, though, and Hadencourt’s gaze lingered over the lich for some time. Valindra stared back at him with a crooked grin.

“The farther they go from here, the better, though I’d love to burn Dahlia to ashes,” Sylora Salm replied to the original point.

Valindra’s expression disappeared and she cocked her head as she studied Hadencourt. She’d noted the great deference in Sylora’s tone, Hadencourt realized, and that, he deduced, was something rarely heard.

“You may get your opportunity,” he replied, turning back to the sorceress. “Dahlia made a point to mention Neverwinter Wood as her intended destination, though her immediate road headed the opposite way. She said there was adventure to be found here. I assume she was referring to you.”

“And her companion?”

“Tried to deflect her from revealing their future path.”

“He was wary of you?” Sylora asked suspiciously, and she turned around to view the hollowed tree trunk she’d excavated and hauled into the back of the chamber. Years before, Sylora had created of the trunk a scrying pool.

Hadencourt shook his head doubtfully. “He was more reserved than she, I would expect. But then, who isn’t?”

Sylora turned back to regard Hadencourt directly, her look as suspicious as her previous question. Hadencourt was a newcomer to Neverwinter Wood, one of the more recent Ashmadai reinforcements. He wouldn’t have known Dahlia from his time there, as she was long gone by the time he’d arrived—that was why Sylora had chosen him to serve as a scout on the northern road.

“I know all about Lady Dahlia,” Hadencourt admitted.

“Who are you?”

The tall man smiled as he’d done outside, revealing long, pointed teeth. He furrowed his brow and a pair of horns sprouted from his forehead.

“I thought you were Ashmadai,” Sylora said, trying to keep her calm façade—no easy task when confronted by a mighty malebranche devil.

“Oh, my lady Sylora, I surely am!” Hadencourt replied. “More devoted than these tieflings and humans, of course. After all, they merely worship Asmodeus, while I witness his glory personally. And let me assure you that he’s every bit as impressive as his hordes of worshipers would have you believe.”

“Does Szass Tam know of your—?”

“Do you think me foolish enough to try to hide something this important from the archlich?”

“And he sent you here anyway,” Sylora remarked.

“Fear not, my lady Sylora,” Hadencourt said with a deep bow. “In this endeavor, I am subservient to Sylora Salm. I am no spy, unless it’s your spy. Such were my orders from Szass Tam, and I honor them with relish.”

Her expression reflected her skepticism.

“Greeth! Greeth!” Valindra chimed in.

Sylora looked past the devil to the lich, and Hadencourt turned as well to regard her—fast enough to see a serious and cogent expression on Valindra’s face, albeit briefly, before she tittered and floated away.

Grinning knowingly—the lich wasn’t as insane as she let on—Hadencourt faced Sylora once more.

“Were I a demon of the Abyss, you would be correct in your doubts, I expect,” Hadencourt said. “But consider my heritage. One does not survive the Nine Hells with subterfuge, but with obedience. I accept my place as your second.”

Sylora cocked an eyebrow, drawing a laugh from the devil.

“As your primary scout, then?” Hadencourt bargained. “Surely you will not expect me to submit to the commands of one of these mortal Ashmadai.”

“You will remain separate from the warriors here,” Sylora agreed.

“Well, then, with your leave, I’ll return to my duties on the north road.” He bowed again, and seeing Sylora’s nod, turned to leave.

“If you wish to truly serve as my second,” Sylora remarked, stopping him before he’d gone more than a couple of steps, “you will relieve me of that nuisance Dahlia.”

Hadencourt turned a sly eye Sylora’s way. “Szass Tam was not as definitive regarding her fate.”

“Szass Tam didn’t understand the depths of her traitorous ways, then.”

They exchanged nods.

“With pleasure, my lady Sylora,” Hadencourt the war devil said.

Sylora Salm had enough experience with devils to know he meant it.

“You would deny me this glory?” growled the Ashmadai warrior, Jestry. “I have earned this moment, and you would see me stand back and allow …” He paused, blowing his breath out in angry gasps as he considered the huddled, ash-covered zombies scrabbling through the forest all around them, heading for the walls of Neverwinter. They were some of the multitudes who had died in the cataclysm—the great volcanic eruption that had buried Neverwinter a decade before. They seemed more like the corpses of halflings, or human children, for the molten fires had shriveled their forms.

“We will not win this night,” Sylora replied. “Not fully, at least. All that we send in will be destroyed.”

“I’m not afraid to die!” Jestry proclaimed.

“Are you eager to die, Jestry?”

The Ashmadai warrior went to strict attention. “If in the service of my god Asmodeus—”

“Oh, shut up, fool,” Sylora said.

Jestry blinked in astonishment, and he seemed wounded.

“If Asmodeus thought you of more service in his presence, then he would drag you to the Nine Hells personally, and immediately,” Sylora teased. “He wants you to fight for him, fearlessly, but not to die for him.”

“My lady, an Ashmadai must be willing—”

“Willing and wanting are two different things,” Sylora interrupted. “Pray do sort out that difference, Jestry. I expect you to die in service to me, if it’s necessary. I don’t want you to die in service to me—not yet, at least—and surely I don’t want you to want to die in service to anyone else, and if you do then know that there will be ramifications.” She matched Jestry’s dumbfounded stare with a glower. “If you die, I can raise your corpse,” she explained, and motioned to the shriveled zombies moving in the forest night. “When I come to believe that you will be of more service to me as such, I’ll kill you myself, I promise you.”

Jestry paused for some time before speaking, “Yes, my lady.” His gaze went back to the northwest, to the distant torch lights marking the low wall of Neverwinter.

“Come along,” Sylora bade him, and she started walking the other way, to the south and deeper into the forest.

“My lady?”

“Be quick.”

“But … the battle against Neverwinter?”

“The servants of Szass Tam know their mission,” Sylora assured him, and she kept walking. Jestry, after another longing look to the distant torchlight, scrambled to catch up.

Valindra Shadowmantle’s fiery red eyes gleamed with hunger as the scrabbling zombies passed her by.

She held the magical scepter, and through it willed the zombie legions out of the forest and across the small clearing. They ran on all fours to the distant wall, oblivious to the many arrows reaching out at them.

A fireball lit up the night on the middle of the field, consuming several of the hunched forms, but Valindra, so amused by destruction, could only giggle.

A group comprised of living soldiers ran up beside Valindra, but didn’t pass.

“Would you have us attack, Mistress Valindra?” asked an Ashmadai woman, a young and pretty thing who had until only recently been the consort of Jestry.

“Let them play! Let them play!” Valindra shrieked in response, and the group of Ashmadai shrank back against the unexpected anger in her voice. “Ark-lem … Ark-lem … oh, which way was it? He will help us, he will. Greeth! Greeth! Greeth!”

The Ashmadai woman looked to her companions and rolled her eyes.

Suddenly, Valindra’s magic hurled the woman up in the air and onto the field, where she stumbled, but managed to hold her footing.

“To the wall!” Valindra commanded her. “Go and kill them!”

Beside the lich, the group of Ashmadai cheered and started to charge, but Valindra turned on them fiercely and held them back. “Not you!” she ordered, and as one, they stopped short.

Valindra turned back to the young woman. “You,” she explained, her voice sinister and thick with vicious amusement.

The woman hesitated and the lich leveled her scepter. Whether out of fear or from the simple reminder of her loyalty to Asmodeus, the warrior woman gave a battle cry and sprinted toward the wall.

Then Valindra waved her scepter and drove on her zombie legions. She nodded repeatedly, happily, as hundreds more swarmed out from the forest. She reached into the scepter, feeling its power, calling on that power to increase, to awaken fully. She held it out in front of her horizontally and closed her eyes, trying to find the tunnel gate to connect this place with the Nine Hells.

She imagined the looks on the faces of those fools in the ruins of Neverwinter when a greater devil, a pit fiend, perhaps, walked into their midst.

The ends of the scepter flared to life. Sylora had told her not to summon forth any denizens of the Nine Hells, but Valindra was too caught up in the moment to remember Sylora’s words, or to care.

She spoke the name of a fiend, and ended with a great, ecstatic exhale as she closed her eyes.

When she opened them again, she expected to see a great devil standing in front of her, but alas, there was none. Just the scepter, its ends still shining, but hardly with the power Valindra expected. She closed her eyes and redoubled her efforts, demanding that a devil come forth.

But as she looked more deeply into the magic, Valindra realized that there was no tunnel to be found.

“Sylora,” she rasped, for Sylora had been in possession of the scepter earlier that day, and had shown some great control over it. Szass Tam had given it to Sylora Salm, not to Valindra, and Sylora had granted it to Valindra for the journey to the dwarven mines. Was it possible that the sorceress knew some other secrets of the item, some internal locks on some of its powers, perhaps?

Valindra tried one more time to bring forth a devil, but she couldn’t—not even a minor manes or some other such fodder creature.

“Clever witch,” she whispered, and she cursed Sylora a thousand times under her breath.

From across the way came the shouts, and the field near the wall lit up with fire and lightning as Neverwinter’s wizards joined the battle. Before the thunderous retorts ended, however, the screams began. Not shouts of glory or cries of rage, but screams of pain.

Zombies wouldn’t cry out in such a manner, of course. And other than the zombies, there was only the one living Ashmadai nearing the battle.

Valindra uttered no more curses at Sylora or anyone else. She basked in the screams, found herself growing more animated by their beautiful pitch. If she’d had a beating heart then surely it would have thumped against her breast at that moment.

She turned to the Ashmadai. “Surround me,” she ordered, and she, too, began drifting out to the open field to join in the battle.

“This is the moment of our glory,” Jestry continued to complain as he and Sylora traveled swiftly south of Neverwinter.

Sylora Salm had heard enough. She stopped abruptly and whirled on Jestry, her eyes and nostrils flaring. “You are my second—and I hold you there above others who are far more powerful than you and quite envious of you.”

“Valindra,” Jestry said.

“Not Valindra,” said Sylora. “Though she could destroy you with a thought. Nay, there are others about, of whom you do not know and will not know.”

The Ashmadai brought his hands to his hips. His pout was just beginning to show when Sylora slapped him across the face.

“You are my second,” she said. “Act as such or I’ll be rid of you.”

“The battle is back there!” Jestry argued. “The moment of our glory—”

“That’s a minor skirmish to placate Szass Tam,” Sylora shot back. Jestry’s eyes widened. “My lady!”

“Are you afraid to hear the truth? Or can I not trust you? Perhaps I should now fear that you will betray me to Szass Tam?”

“No, my lady, but—”

“Because if you so intend,” Sylora went on as if not even hearing him, “then you should consider two things. First, perhaps I’m merely testing your loyalty in speaking so candidly to you, when in truth I’m not speaking candidly at all. And second, you should always be aware that I can kill you—too quickly for even Szass Tam to save you. I can kill you and I can deny you a place at the foot of Asmodeus, do not doubt.”

“I am loyal,” Jestry weakly replied.

“It doesn’t matter, as I’m higher in Asmodeus’s regard than a mere zealot,” she answered.

“I’m loyal to you,” Jestry apologized.

Sylora paused and let it all sink in, nodding for a few moments. “Our attack is merely a feint, Jestry,” she explained. “We must pressure the folk who attempt to rebuild Neverwinter, as I wish to see the limits of their powers. Valindra commands less than a fifth of my zombies this night, and only a small number of your Ashmadai. She will not risk herself against the walls of Neverwinter, for that’s not her mission. Perhaps some of the citizens will die this night, but we will not take Neverwinter, nor tear down her walls.”

“But still, I would be there.”

“We’ll learn—”

“I would learn!” he insisted. “I’m no novice to battle, personal or grand.”

Sylora sighed heavily. “It is naught but a prelude,” she said. “For we’ve now been offered the promise of a greater ally by far, one that might produce the cataclysm Szass Tam and our Dread Ring demands.”

He looked at her curiously.

“You were there!” she yelled at him.

“The lady Arunika?”

“Lady,” Sylora echoed with a knowing little laugh. “Ah, my young zealot, you have so much to learn.”

“Do we go to her now?” he asked eagerly. “We can’t be far from her cottage.”

Sylora grinned, and Jestry stiffened.

“Intrigued?” Sylora asked.

“No,” he blurted. “It’s just—”

Sylora laughed and started away.

Soon enough, they arrived at Arunika’s front porch. The red-haired woman greeted them warmly and invited them in. Never once did she take her impish gaze off Jestry.

He couldn’t return the look. Everything about Arunika seemed right to him. He wanted to bury his face in her curly hair. As he passed her by, her scent filled his nostrils, and he could almost imagine a springtime forest on a warm and sunny day following a gentle morning rain.

“Lady Valindra has told you of your, of our, potential ally?” Arunika asked, motioning for the two to take seats. Conveniently—though out of coincidence, magical prescience, or a prearrangement, Jestry couldn’t know—the woman had set out three chairs that night, two facing one. Arunika took the single chair, opposite Jestry and Sylora.

“I’m intrigued,” Sylora replied. “Such creatures as you described to Valindra are known to me, of course, though I’ve never dealt with one personally.”

“Nor should you,” Arunika replied, and Sylora nodded as if she’d already come to the same conclusion.

Jestry had to work hard to keep up with the conversation, for he kept getting distracted by the mere presence of Arunika, by that springtime smell and her thick, curly red locks. Her allure was something unexpected. At one point, he looked from her to Sylora, and by every standard—her height, her form, her jawline, her nose, her penetrating eyes—Sylora had to be considered far more striking. Jestry had already declared his love for her, and none of that had changed, surely.

But Jestry found that he couldn’t look at Sylora for more than a few heartbeats with Arunika sitting so near. He turned back to face the redhead, and found her staring back at him, a curious grin on her pretty face.

Arunika knew something, apparently, that he didn’t. He tried to break her stare with a look of consternation as she became more intent, but she only grinned more widely.

He felt a bit of panic welling inside him. He looked to Sylora, but found that she wore the same expression as Arunika.

“What …” he started to ask as he turned back to Arunika, just as she stood up from her chair.

The rest of the words caught in Jestry’s mouth as Arunika stepped right up in front of him and reached out with one hand to gently stroke his thick black hair.

He wanted to say something, but couldn’t.

She kept stroking his hair, her other hand working the ties on her plain dress. She loosened it and brought her arms down by her side just long enough to let the dress drop from her shoulders and fall to the floor.

She stood there naked and unashamed, and the incongruity of her actions, of her forwardness, as compared to the quiet temperament she’d shown to this point had Jestry in a near panic.

Not for long, though. He glanced again at Sylora, who smiled and nodded, and turned back to regard Arunika. He could barely keep his eyes open as she again stroked his black hair, her delicate touch sending shivers throughout his body.

She bent down to kiss him and he couldn’t resist, and when he tried to press more passionately, she teasingly drifted back from him, and when he tried to stand to pursue, she used but one small hand to easily hold him in place.

Jestry didn’t fully comprehend this strange strength. Nor did he notice the small horns that had sprouted on the woman’s forehead. Even when her batlike leathery wings suddenly opened wide as she moved down atop him, Jestry took no notice, for it didn’t really matter at that point.

He was lost and he didn’t want to be found.

Barrabus the Gray watched the approaching zombies with a mixture of anticipation and disgust. He’d seen these creatures many times in his battles with the ridiculous zealots, and remained thoroughly horrified by the undead things.

But he itched for battle, a true battle, chaotic and frenzied, where he could lose himself, where he could forget his plight.

All around him on Neverwinter’s wall, men and woman rushed to and fro, calling out orders, organizing their defenses. Archers let fly, which Barrabus considered a waste of time and resources, since those puncturing missiles seemed to have minimal effect on the ashen zombies. More effective were the few wizards, filling the field with fire, lightning serpents, and pelting ice storms.

Barrabus couldn’t help but chuckle as he watched a group of zombies rushing across a patch of ground that had just been iced over. The scrabbling creatures flailed suddenly and spun every which way.

“Kill them when they mass at the base of the wall!” cried one of the guard commanders, standing beside Barrabus.

“You won’t find the opportunity,” Barrabus corrected him.

The man looked at him curiously.

“They’ll not pause for a wall,” Barrabus explained. “Not these creatures.”

“What nonsense are you spouting?” the commander said, staring down at Barrabus with contempt, as if the man had challenged him directly.

Out of the corner of his eye, Barrabus saw a zombie rush up to the base of the wall and climb it so easily that a casual observer might have been shocked to even realize that the plane in front of the running creature had turned vertical. The assassin thought to warn the commander, perhaps even to spring over and push the man out of the way.

But he didn’t bother.

The zombie came over the wall in a rush, leaping onto the proud guard commander’s back before he could even swing around. Together they tumbled into the courtyard, the zombie raking at the commander all the way to the ground.

Another zombie was right behind the first over the wall, this one leaping for Barrabus.

The assassin’s sword flashed, taking off the zombie’s hand. His dagger pierced the chin of the creature as it slammed in to bite at him. With barely a twist, not a hint of wasted motion, Barrabus deflected the skewered creature just enough so that it flew past him instead of taking him with it from the parapet.

As soon as the creature had been turned aside, Barrabus paid it not another thought, for, judging by the panicked cries of city defenders, other zombies were pouring over the wall. Barrabus rushed down to the left, wading into a struggle between a pair of zombies and one overmatched guard. A heavy chop of his sword removed the nearest zombie’s arm. As it tried to turn, he bulled through it, heaving it into the second zombie. It tried to grab at him, but he swiftly took off its second hand with another sword chop.

Barrabus went into a frenzy, sword and dagger working in fluid, circling motions, battering and stabbing and chopping at the pair of zombies, quickly reducing them to piles of gore on the parapet.

Another undead monster came to the top of the wall, right beside him, and tried to leap on him. But Barrabus the Gray was too quick for that. He dropped to his knees and ducked.

The creature flew right over him and into a guard who had foolishly moved beside Barrabus to battle against the other two zombies. Zombie and guard tumbled from the parapet. Barrabus could only grimace that his victory wouldn’t be clean, that his rescue of the guard wasn’t quite complete. Other city defenders rushed over to the fallen man and quickly dispatched the zombie. The fallen guard would live, at least, and that was more than he might have expected if Barrabus hadn’t intervened.

Barrabus took pride in that, and the feeling surprised him. He wasn’t the compassionate type and rarely if ever cared about the fate of another. As his gaze moved back to growing brawl in the courtyard, with zombies and Neverwinter fighters scrambling all around, he shook his head.

He didn’t dare climb down to fight beside the settlers. Their techniques were too sloppy and too unpredictable, and his own need for precision and coordination with those around him would likely get him killed among that crowd.

So Barrabus turned the other way, to the field and the forest and the incoming hordes. With a shrug and a grin, he hopped over the wall.