Author:R.A. Salvatore

An arrow had painfully grazed her shoulder, but that was the least of the Ashmadai woman’s problems. She managed to arrive at Neverwinter’s wall, but while the ash zombies simply climbed it with ease, she could not.

She ran up and down the barrier, looking for some handhold to help her scale it. Neverwinter’s defenders didn’t seem to notice her, for the zombies continued to pour up there for the fight.

In short order, the Ashmadai looked behind her with more concern than when she looked at the wall in front of her. Valindra was there, coming out of the forest with the other zealots. Valindra would see her helplessly, foolishly, running up and down the wall like a mouse lost in a maze.

Desperate, she ran on faster, until she found her salvation in the form of a small man.

He landed from the twelve-foot fall in a beautifully executed sidelong roll. As a group of zombies rushed at him, he rolled over a second time and up he came to his feet, his weapons working with sudden ferocity—so sudden that the hungry zombies hadn’t even the time to lift their emaciated limbs to defend themselves.

The Ashmadai assured herself that she wasn’t impressed, and she charged.

At another point in Neverwinter Wood, to the north of the battlefield, Herzgo Alegni and his Shadovar forces watched with interest.

Many wanted to charge into the fight, particularly when the Ashmadai came onto the field.

But Alegni held them back.

“Let the folk of Neverwinter know pain and loss,” he explained to those nearby. “The later we arrive to rescue them, the more the settlers will appreciate us.”

“The undead easily breached their wall,” a nearby Shadovar remarked. “Many of Neverwinter’s defenders will die.”

“They are expendable,” Alegni assured him. “More will come to replace them, and those who do will find the Shadovar among the settlers—Shadovar declared as heroes of Neverwinter.”

“Perhaps we can greet them on the Herzgo Alegni Bridge?” another Shadovar remarked.

Alegni turned to the woman and nodded.

He hoped for that very thing.

Barrabus rolled and rolled again, taking all the shock from his fall and moving far enough from the pursuing zombies to set his feet properly under him to defend. He came up tall in front of the scrabbling creatures. His sword drove them back with long cuts while his dagger stabbed hard into any who tried to come in behind that sword.

He was surrounded, but that meant nothing to the agile warrior. He spun left to right, his sword slashing and stabbing, and at one point, he even tossed the blade up a bit and caught it with a reversed grip. He turned his wrist then stabbed behind his back to skewer a leaping zombie behind him.

Again he turned, yanking the sword hilt up high so he could bend back in under it, tearing it free of zombie flesh. He flipped it again, caught it with a normal grip and circled it over his head before slashing it across another zombie, shoulder to hip. The weight of the blow stopped the charging creature cold. It crouched as the blade tore down across its chest. Then the zombie bounced once, to the side, before falling away.

Barrabus couldn’t savor the kill, for he stood alone out there and so many zombies sensed him, smelled his living flesh, and came at him without fear.

But he kept moving. He kept swinging. He kept killing.

He couldn’t think, and that was the joy. He couldn’t think of Alegni or the Empire of Netheril, or Drizzt Do’Urden, or who he’d once been or what he’d now become.

He just existed, simply survived, in the ecstasy of battle, lost on the precipice of death itself. His muscles worked in perfect harmony, honed in the practice of a century. Every strike came at the last possible moment, barely quick enough because of the growing enemies around him.

Eventually, even he wouldn’t be quick enough and his enemies would get through to him.

To tear at him. To bite at him. To kill him?

Could they?

Barrabus the Gray was doubly cursed. The years did not diminish him, but he hated his existence.

He couldn’t kill himself, for that sword, Claw, was inside of his mind and wouldn’t allow it. He’d tried—oh, how he’d tried!—in the early years of his indenture to the Netherese, in his service to Herzgo Alegni, but to no avail. He’d even built a contraption that would drop him on his knife to end his life, but it had failed because he had not properly secured the weapon—because that sword, Claw, had deceived him.

Nor did it even matter when, indeed, he had been killed. For that awful sword and the mighty Netherese had not allowed him to easily escape through death. Even as he drew his last breath, his life was renewed, resurrected, by the awful, unrelenting devil sword.

And so Barrabus the Gray was left with battle, wild and ferocious battle, and he believed that this was how he would eventually meet his end. Perhaps one time, the sword would grow bored enough with him to simply let him go.

Would it be this day?

Did he want it to be this day?

The question seemed ridiculous as he surveyed his work: a handful of destroyed zombies and several more flipping absurdly around on the ground, limbs missing or maimed so badly they couldn’t support the creature or answer its crazed call.

Perhaps the curse was his own cowardice, Barrabus thought. Perhaps he couldn’t kill himself or even let himself be killed, or even truly put himself in an inescapably deadly position because somewhere deep inside of his heart and soul, his continual declarations that he wanted to die were all a lie. For if he were slain over and over again, if he proved useless in battle, would Alegni not let him go?

Another enemy neared, and at the last moment, Barrabus looked into her eyes—living eyes and not those of a wretched zombie.

Surely Barrabus, who had been battling Ashmadai zealots for so long, recognized the intensity in those eyes, and he knew to take this foe seriously. She came at him with a high stab of her weapon, one of those familiar red-flecked staff-spears almost all of the Ashmadai employed. As Barrabus moved his sword up horizontally to parry, the woman retracted and dropped her spear lower. Sliding her hands along its length, she spun a full circuit and clubbed at him with the scepter’s thicker end.

Barrabus expected the move. He’d seen this high-feint, low-club maneuver from every Ashmadai who had initiated battle against him, and none but the initial attempt had ever gotten near to hitting him. Even as his sword started its ascent, Barrabus quietly repositioned his feet, and as soon as the woman began her true move, the assassin charged ahead.

She hadn’t even come all the way around when he slammed into her, and in her twisted position, she couldn’t begin to hold her balance against his bull rush. She tumbled, and he simply leaped over her, ignoring her attempts to swipe at him with her weapon. He landed standing above her head and facing her.

She recognized the danger and she thrashed, trying to turn at least sidelong to the man. But Barrabus paced her easily, staying above her head, where any swings or stabs she might try had little effect.

He stared into her eyes. Perhaps it was because they looked so different from the soulless zombies’ eyes, but for some reason, Barrabus didn’t slip his sword past her pathetic defenses and finish her.

She almost clipped his shin with a swing of her scepter but he dropped his leg back in time to avoid it, then kicked out, his boot meeting the club where she gripped it. The Ashmadai howled in pain and the staff-spear went flying.

“Yield!” Barrabus poked his sword tip just below the hollow of her throat. He couldn’t believe the word as it left his lips.

“Never!” she hissed. She grabbed the blade of his fine weapon and blood erupted from her hand.

Barrabus retracted fast—against her pull. His disgust for these zealots heightened in that moment, but still, he didn’t stab down hard to put an end to her.

He sensed a zombie approaching his back and reversed his grip on his sword, thrusting it out behind him and scoring a solid hit in the creature’s gut. He bent down and held his sword firmly, arcing the blade above him. It flew over him, crashing into the zealot as she tried to get away.

Another pair of zombies rushed at Barrabus. He darted forward, sword and dagger thrusting and flashing out to either side, clearing a path so he could rush right between the undead pair. He turned to the left and chopped one to the ground.

His dagger hand worked independently, snapping back and forth to fend off the second zombie’s slapping hands. Step by step, Barrabus fell back, and the hungry beast came on. Suddenly Barrabus stepped forward and drove his dagger straight into the zombie’s eye, all the way to the hilt.

How the creature thrashed! But Barrabus just left the dagger in place and stepped back. Another stubborn enemy was coming his way.

The female Ashmadai hadn’t even bothered to collect her fallen staff-spear. She just came at him with her fists.

Barrabus tossed his sword up into the air, and the woman couldn’t help but let her gaze drift up with it.

When she looked back at Barrabus, she saw only his fist, closing fast. Her nose shattered under the weight of the blow and blood gushed from both nostrils. But she held her footing.

Barrabus ducked her grasp and rolled under her arm. She stumbled forward, and sliding beside her, Barrabus captured her in a head lock. He knew how to kill quickly with such a choke, and knew how to shorten it to incapacitate.

The woman struggled for just a few heartbeats before she fell limp in his grasp. He meant to let her fall unconscious to the ground in front of him, but another zombie came in at him, so he threw her at it. He dived out the other way, into a roll, and retrieved his sword.

He came up and reversed his momentum, charging right back in, slashing at the zombie once as it extricated itself from the Ashmadai.

Barrabus’s dagger still stuck deep into its eye, the other zombie came at him, too, ignorant of his flashing sword and flailing wildly.

Then flailing without hands.

Then without an arm.

Then its head flew free, spinning up into the air.

Barrabus caught the head as it fell, by his own dagger hilt still deep in the eye, and a flick of his wrist sent the gruesome thing spinning away.

He had both of his weapons again and the immediate threats had been eradicated, but Barrabus knew he was in trouble.

Across the field came the more formidable foes, a host of Ashmadai, and the lich he’d seen beside Sylora Salm herself, the lich he knew to be beyond his power.

He glanced back at the city wall and the distant gate. From inside, the sounds of battle echoed loudly. The defenders had hardly put this first assault down.

Barrabus the Gray had nowhere to run.

A streak of blue-white lightning erupted from Valindra’s scepter and sped for Neverwinter. Its glow reflected on the terrified faces of a pair of archers for just a flicker before it struck in a great explosion, blowing the men off the city wall.

The lich wanted to fly up into the air, to get up over that wall and rain death on those inside. She hated them, viscerally. They were alive and she was not, and how she wanted to count them among the ranks of her undead army.

But then Valindra remembered Arunika’s words, and the promise of emotional control. This was one of the tests she and Arunika had discussed, where the hunger of lichdom and prudent caution crossed swords.

Still she found herself drifting toward the wall.

She remembered Sylora’s orders for her: She would use her army to test defenses and soften up the enemy until Arunika’s new allies could be brought in and exploited.

Still she couldn’t stop herself.

But then she saw some fighting at the base of the wall. Zombies scrambled to get at some unseen foe. The Ashmadai she’d sent ahead to die, stubbornly still alive, was going in as well. Other Ashmadai began shouting about the enemy on the field, naming him as the Netherese champion.

Before Valindra could even tell them to catch and kill the champion, the furious zealots had taken the task upon themselves. They stretched their line far down to Valindra’s left and began approaching, the ends of the line curling ahead to seal off any escape by the infamous Barrabus the Gray.

Valindra turned her attention back to the enemy champion and his battle. The Ashmadai woman was down, many zombies lay scattered around him, and now he saw his coming doom.

He would run for the wall, the lich knew, and perhaps someone there would drop him a rope …

Hardly thinking, Valindra reached out with her scepter and a burst of red lights spun across the field. As the last of the missiles flew away, the lich conjured a storm cloud and began pelting Barrabus and the ground around him with ice.

She watched with a satisfied grin as he pulled his cloak tight and hunched low, futilely racing for the wall.

The Ashmadai warriors closed fast from behind.

But then came shouts from the farthest edge of the line, far to Valindra’s left: “Shadovar! Netheril is come!”

To the Ashmadai, no battle cry could sound more encouraging. As one, they forgot their enemies in Neverwinter and turned instead to meet the newest force on the field.

Valindra glanced that way, then at the crawling enemy she’d pummeled, then to the city walls and the continuing fracas within.

“It is him!” an Ashmadai tiefling warrior cried. He pointed to the far end of the line, to the battle with the Netherese.

A large form towered over one of her minions, his huge sword shining red even in the dark of night.

“The Netherese Lord, my lady!” the nearest Ashmadai reported. “The leader of our enemies!”

“A great victory awaits us!” another cried, and charged at the distant form.

Valindra studied the fight and it took only a few moments to understand they couldn’t win. Most of her zombies were inside the city walls, and her Ashmadai force didn’t nearly match up to this approaching enemy. Even worse, the Netherese lord was out in his full glory, his every swing with his large red-bladed sword cutting those nearest zealots apart. The strength of his blows overwhelmed any defenses, swatting scepters aside and driving through skin and bone with ease, and he left a line of severed bodies in his bloody wake.

The lich hissed and turned her attention one last time to the enemy now moving to the base of the wall, the warrior her minions had named the Netherese champion. At least in this, she would claim victory.

She thrust out her scepter and loosed another lightning serpent. Then Valindra, acting so much more like the living, clever Valindra Shadowmantle, Overwizard of the Hosttower of the Arcane, turned and fled the field.

The energy of the missiles took his breath away and nearly knocked Barrabus from his feet as he scrambled for the city wall. All around him, the Ashmadai closed in, and he knew he needed to either find an easy way to climb the wall, as unlikely as that might be, or have someone up there assist him. Judging from the sounds of battle behind the wall, that seemed even more unlikely.

Then came the storm, balls of ice battering him, the ground growing slick beneath his feet. He held his footing but he could barely walk.

He turned to consider his dilemma, to stand and fight, perhaps.

Sounds of battle to his right brought him hope that Herzgo Alegni had at last entered the field, but before he could savor that hope, Barrabus saw the lightning serpent flying across the field.

He flipped over sideways and landed right back on his feet, his hair dancing wildly, but just dodging the magic’s stinging bite.

And then the first of his pursuers came in at him. One slipped to his back before he even got close. Another held her footing and slid toward him on the slick grass. She held out her scepter to parry Barrabus’s swinging sword.

Barrabus neatly sidestepped and the sword went high above her. In the same movement, he reached his dagger hand through the opening at the crook of the woman’s left elbow. She tried to bring her scepter into position for an offensive strike. But as her hand went behind her, he brought it up hard and swung it back over. He turned sidelong to the woman and over she went, unable to resist the throw.

She landed on her feet and even managed to turn enough in mid-air so that she almost faced him. But it did her little good. Barrabus’s dagger arm stabbed out, driving the blade deep into her chest.

At the same time, Barrabus aimed his sword down at the second attacker. The sword slipped into the Ashmadai’s gut, angled to slice through his diaphragm and into his lungs.

Barrabus didn’t pause long enough to consider whether he’d finished either of those opponents. He leaped away in another sidelong somersault, his black cloak flying wide to obscure his form. He landed on slick grass. He leaped again in the same direction then a third time in rapid succession, until finally, he found solid footing.

Another pair of Ashmadai rushed at him, jabbing their weapons, just as the woman he’d stabbed climbed back to her feet and came at him. With a disgusted look, Barrabus brought his sword down and around in front of him, and on the upswing, tossed it into the air so that his hand could grasp and activate his belt buckle dagger.

He flicked his wrist, launching the knife, and caught his sword so fluidly that neither of the two battling him even realized that he’d tossed the sword free of his hand, let alone thrown a knife.

Until the blade stuck deep into the woman’s throat. She crumbled to her knees but kept crawling, praying to her beloved arch-devil with every movement.

Barrabus, heavily engaged with the other pair, didn’t find her zealotry admirable or amusing. Just stupid.

He worked his new opponents into just the right angle. When the crawling zealot reached him, he simply shifted his foot and half-turned, dropping a heavy sword chop on the back of her head.

She fell to the ground as surely as if a large rock had fallen on her from on high, and Barrabus went back to stabbing and parrying and slashing at the other two.

The woman groaned, pulled herself back to all fours, and started crawling again.

One of the zealots battling Barrabus cried out in ecstasy, “Asmodeus!”

He should have concentrated on Barrabus instead, for his distraction gave the agile assassin all the opening he needed. He darted in between the pair, turned, and shoved out, sending the fool stumbling to the side and right over the crawling woman’s back.

He brought his arms back in close, one elbow driving back to hit the other opponent under the ribs, lifting him up on his toes. Barrabus dropped to one knee as the man lurched forward. He brought his dagger hand up over the man’s head, driving him down.

Barrabus hopped back to his feet and stabbed his sword into the hollow of the man’s throat. Behind the crawling woman, the other Ashmadai tried to spring up, but Barrabus’s dagger flew toward him and stuck in his chest, sending him back to the ground, gasping.

The woman stubbornly came at him again. On her knees, head lifted to face the assassin, she cried out, “Asmode—!”

Before she could finish the word, Barrabus decapitated her. Her head spun long into the empty air. It landed facing Barrabus and showed no look of horror there, just defiance.

He rushed past, kicking her kneeling, headless corpse to the ground, and finished off the other attackers. As he bent to retrieve his dagger from the Ashmadai’s chest, he spit on the man’s body.

He sensed others near him, so he leaped around, landing at the ready.

It was not a group of Ashmadai standing in front of him, but a trio of Shadovar.

“Well done, Barrabus the Gray,” one of them remarked. “Master Alegni requests that you return to the city at once, as we will win the field.”

Barrabus glanced across at the Netherese lord.

He trotted to the wall, pausing to collect his belt buckle dagger from the corpse of the decapitated woman, then veered over to scoop up the first Ashmadai he’d defeated this night, the woman still very much alive.

He set her over his shoulder and ran to the base of the wall, calling up for a rope.

When he climbed a few moments later, he took the captured Ashmadai with him. He wasn’t sure why, exactly, except that he knew he didn’t want to leave Herzgo Alegni such a trophy.

HIGH CAPTAIN KURTH WAS WIDELY REGARDED AS THE MOST impressive of the five leaders of Luskan. Standing in front of him, it wasn’t hard for Drizzt and Dahlia to discern why. Unlike the other four leaders of the City of Sails, Kurth had not inherited his station. He’d fought for it and won it, both in a tournament of combat and sailing skills, and in a subsequent vote of the many crewmembers of Ship Kurth. Upon his victory, he, like those before him since the time of Deudermont’s fall, had abandoned his birth name and taken the title of the proud Ship.

“An interesting dilemma Beniago has presented me with, wouldn’t you say?” Kurth asked Advisor Klutarch, the man he’d bested for the position of high captain.

The older man grinned his gap-toothed smile and stroked the sharp gray stubble on his cheeks and chin, nodding all the while. “Beniago angles for his turn at high captain,” Klutarch answered. He turned to face the red-haired Beniago, who stood in front of Drizzt and Dahlia. “Don’t ye, ye sea dog? Or might that ye’d’ve been better off killing the dark-skinned one, as ’twas the light-skinned lady ye was sent to retrieve?”

Drizzt and Dahlia looked at each other with not a small bit of confusion, for the pirates spoke so cavalierly of them, as if they were not present—or still armed.

“Lady Dahlia travels with the drow,” Beniago replied. “High Captain Kurth made clear that he wished to engage Lady Dahlia on good terms, and I didn’t think that a likely outcome were I to kill her companion.”

“Not if all the guards of Luskan fought beside you, idiot,” Dahlia muttered under her breath, and Drizzt flashed her a grin. Beniago heard her too. He glanced back and gave the woman a cold stare.

“Better not to anger Bregan D’aerthe,” High Captain Kurth remarked. “You are of that band, are you not?” he asked Drizzt.

“I’m a well-known companion of Jarlaxle of Bregan D’aerthe,” Drizzt bluffed, the implication a lie though the literal words were true enough.

“Well, where have he and Bregan D’aerthe been?” Kurth asked, not hiding his impatience. “Every month there are fewer sightings, and I fear the whole of the drow presence quickly fades into myth.” Kurth came forward in his chair, his face growing serious. “There are rumors that they plot with one of the five, to elevate him as their puppet ruler of all of Luskan.”

Drizzt did not reply, for while he had no knowledge of any such thing, of course, he couldn’t deny it was a distinct possibility where the drow mercenary band was concerned, with or without Jarlaxle leading them.

“Perhaps you will prove to be an important prisoner, then,” Kurth went on. “Or, better for yourself, a fine spy.”

“Why would Bregan D’aerthe desire such an outcome?” Drizzt asked innocently.

“Do tell.”

“Five weaker high captains are more malleable than a single powerful leader, surely,” Drizzt explained. “Too involved in matters of their own Ships to join in common cause.… We saw that even in the long-past war against Captain Deudermont, did we not?”

Kurth and Klutarch glanced at each other and smiled.

“A single powerful ruler, or even if the five could be of one mind, would be better positioned to bargain more for the benefit of Luskan, yes?” Drizzt went on. “But fortunately, we outsiders rarely had to fear the five high captains being of one mind or purpose. And always, we can count on one having a price to shift his fealty. Other than the war against Captain Deudermont, I cannot think of a time when they’ve all come together for anything more than a shared dinner.”

“Ah, yes, the Luskan Games.”

“And you play a dangerous one now,” Drizzt went on, “to hold a lieutenant of Bregan D’aerthe as hostage.”

“Hostage?” Kurth said, feigning a great insult, even dramatically bringing his hand up to his heart, as if he’d been mortally stung by the words. “My man Beniago rescued you from the villains of Ship Rethnor, did he not?”

Drizzt was about to deny that claim, to assure Kurth that he and Dahlia would’ve won the fight anyway, perhaps even that he had other allies lying in wait before Beniago had made his appearance, but he paused when he noted Kurth and Klutarch again exchanging smiles.

“Well played, Drizzt Do’Urden,” High Captain Kurth congratulated him, and for the first time in the meeting, Drizzt found himself taken off his guard.

“Are ye thinkin’ that ye’re not known within the walls o’ Luskan?” Klutarch asked. “Yerself, who fought beside that dog Deudermont a hundred years ago, and yerself, who’s been in the city many times since?”

“Enough of this foolishness,” Dahlia insisted. “To you, I offer my thanks,” she said, indicating Beniago. “We would’ve prevailed in the square, do not doubt, but your arrival was well-timed and appreciated.”

“We couldn’t let the prized Dahlia and her valuable companion be killed, or fall into the hands of Rethnor,” Kurth explained. He stood up, and to the amazement of Drizzt and Dahlia, bowed deeply. “Good lady, on behalf of three of my peers, I wish to thank you for ridding us of the impetuous Borlann.”

That stark admission had both Drizzt and Dahlia widening their eyes in surprise.

“Would that I had done the same to Borlann’s ancestor, Kensidan,” Drizzt said, “that Captain Deudermont might have prevailed.”

Dahlia’s shocked glance at him bordered on panic, and Beniago and Kurth both shuffled uncomfortably, as did all the other guards in the hall.

“Don’t ye be provoking us needlessly, drow,” Klutarch warned. “The past’s better left past. If we wasn’t believin’ that, then ye’d’ve been killed in the street, and Dahlia’d’ve been taken ‘ere in chains, a great bargaining piece in our continuing diplomacy with Ship Rethnor.”

Drizzt grinned at them, quite pleased with himself, but said no more.

“You wished me here, and so I am here,” Dahlia interjected, “with gratitude for your help in our fight. We have business to attend, however, so if you have anything else to offer, pray do so now.”

“I have much to offer, dear Dahlia,” Kurth replied, “or I wouldn’t have taken such pains to ensure your survival. My actions in the street, with Beniago confronting the second of Ship Rethnor directly, will surely invoke admonitions against me at the next meeting of the five high captains, and perhaps even reparations for those crewmen of Ship Rethnor who were killed or injured due to our interference—and I have no doubt the ever-opportunistic Hartouchen Rethnor will account to me those soldiers you two took down in the battle. But no matter, for I think the gain worth the cost, for all of us.”

“Even though I’m not a representative of Bregan D’aerthe?” Drizzt interjected, drawing a glance and shake of the head from Kurth.

“Perhaps I should use you as a bargaining chip in my dealings with the other four high captains, eh?” Kurth replied, and Dahlia stiffened.

But Drizzt remained at ease, for he knew that Kurth was hardly serious.

“Then why did you intervene?” Dahlia asked when Kurth stared at Drizzt for just a moment, then laughed away the whole notion. “What do you want?”

“Allies,” Drizzt answered before Kurth could.

The high captain looked once more at the drow. “Do tell.”

“By all that I can discern, Bregan D’aerthe has retreated considerably from the day-to-day affairs of Luskan,” Drizzt replied. “If true …”

“It’s true,” Kurth admitted. “Jarlaxle has not been seen in tendays.”

Drizzt tried not to wince at the added confirmation of Jarlaxle’s demise and said, “Without Bregan D’aerthe, there are openings in the commerce and power structures of the city, and no doubt the five high captains will each seek to claim those opportunities for his own. You say I’m known well in Luskan. If that’s true, then my reputation with the blade is so known, as are my alliances and acquaintances with the folk of the nearby towns and cities.”

“Your arrogance leads you to believe I intervened because of you,” said Kurth.

“Dahlia’s recent history with Ship Rethnor is why you intervened,” Drizzt corrected. “You see her position here as tentative, and so you believe you can exploit it to enlist her to your cause.”

When he finished, an uncomfortable silence hung in the air for a short while, and even Drizzt moved his hands near to his scimitar hilts, wondering if he’d gone too far.

“Your companion is wise in the ways of the world.” Kurth smiled at Dahlia, relieving the tension.

“In some things, perhaps,” she replied. “Not so much in others.”

“You will teach him in those, I’m sure,” Kurth remarked, the lewd implications drawing more than a few chuckles around the room.

“Enough of this banter,” Kurth said as he rose from his chair. “I have no interest in any enmity between you two and Ship Kurth, and indeed, as you both know, I do hope for something in exchange for my assistance in your battle with Rethnor—something more than the mere satisfaction of foiling Hartouchen, I mean, though that itself is no small thing!”

More laughter, louder laughter, broke out around the room, along with a few curses thrown at Ship Rethnor, and even a song the crew of Ship Kurth had composed to belittle their rivals.

“Ship Kurth is ascendant,” Kurth assured his two guests. “Allow me to show you a bit of my resources, and perhaps we will reach a bargain for your services.”

Drizzt waited for Dahlia to look at him. When she nodded her agreement with Kurth, he didn’t argue their course.

Kurth led them to the back of the room, pulled aside a curtain, and threw open the double doors leading out onto a balcony. The porch faced the east, where the morning sun was just rising, and from their perch on Closeguard Island, they were afforded a wonderful view of the city of Luskan.

“The docks,” Kurth explained, pointing to the wharves and warehouses. “No high captain has more men along the quayside than I, and even though Luskan sees considerable trade through her land gates, this is the heart of our commerce, and this is where the best deals are to be found. Pirates seeking to off-load booty don’t expect market price, after all. So while Rethnor and the others have focused their efforts on the walls and the merchant section, I’ve aimed at the docks.”

He looked at Drizzt directly. “And at the drow,” he added, “whenever they deign to grace us with their wares. Perhaps you can help me in that area.”

“I know nothing of Bregan D’aerthe’s movements or intentions,” Drizzt answered.

“And of Jarlaxle?”

Drizzt shook his head.

“Good enough, for now,” said Kurth. “They will return. They always return. And in that event, I’ll be glad to count Drizzt Do’Urden among my … allies.”

“And my role?” Dahlia asked. “I am no friend of the pirates or the drow.”

“The docks are my focus, but not my only endeavor. My reach extends beyond these walls—far beyond, and farther will it go. If you think I risked so much merely to sting my rival Hartouchen Rethnor, then you underestimate me, dear lady. I wish to extend my enterprise far and wide, and will need scouts and warriors to facilitate my designs. I can think of no better than Dahlia and Drizzt.”

The two glanced at each other, working hard to keep their expressions noncommittal.

“Come,” Kurth bade them, moving back into the room. “Let me show you other aspects of Ship Kurth, which you might find enlightening, perhaps even enjoyable.”

They moved down Kurth’s small tower and out the front door. A collection of soldiers rushed out ahead of them, crossing the bridge to the mainland and spreading out left and right. Beniago and a pair of wizards remained right behind them while a handful of light-armored warriors formed a rank directly in front of them.

They went into the city and moved along Luskan’s streets, heading toward the merchant section.

“You think it wise to walk with us openly so soon after the fight?” Drizzt remarked.

“Better now than when the extent of it is known to the three uninvolved high captains, and before the fool Rethnor can properly regroup,” Kurth replied with a laugh. “You’re clearly under my protection, of course, and who would go directly against a high captain, especially when that high captain is of Ship Kurth?”

They moved into the merchant square, where many were setting up their kiosks. The smell of fruits and herbs, thick in the air, mixed with other, more exotic scents.

“What is that?” Dahlia asked, crinkling her nose. “Perfume?”

“Of course, my lady. It’s all the rage in Luskan,” Kurth said.

Dahlia wore a skeptical expression. “In Thay, I would expect, but here?” Her expression turned to one of disgust as she looked around at the filth and mud so common in the City of Sails, at the dirty commoners and their ragged clothing.

“Have you ever sailed with pirates … privateers, I mean?” Kurth asked with a grin. “A truly smelly bunch—so much so that many are insisting that their shipmates mask their natural aroma.”

Dahlia returned that grin, though hers was a helpless one, defeated by the high captain’s simple logic.

“And I, of course, was first to note that trend,” said Kurth.

“Note, or foment?” Dahlia asked.

Kurth grinned and bowed. “And so I dominate the fragrance trade,” he said. “Something that might interest you as a benefit of serving in my employ. For yourself, perhaps even for your drow companion.” He looked at Drizzt. “No offense intended, of course, but battle does bring forth the body’s natural oils, and I’m not the first to note that drow carry their own peculiar scent.”

Drizzt remained too incredulous at the entire conversation to take offense.

“Oh, and something else,” Kurth said, as if the notion had just come to him. He stopped and turned to face a squat stone building, its windows still shuttered by heavy metal blinds. “I note, pretty Dahlia, that you have a fancy for shiny stones.” He tapped her left ear, where the ten diamond studs glittered in the morning light, then motioned to the heavy, iron-bound door.

Beniago stepped up to the spot, rapping out a rhythmic sequence. The merchant inside threw the lock and bolts, and in the group went. On Beniago’s warning, they held near to the entrance for a few moments as the merchant picked a careful path across the floor to the side of the room. He pushed through a curtain and the group heard the creak of levers being thrown, followed by the sounds of sliding floorboards.

He was disarming pit traps, Drizzt knew, and the drow looked on slyly, wondering why Kurth had so readily shown them some of the defenses of the place.

As soon as the merchant returned through the curtain and nodded, Kurth led them on a slow walk of the room, showing off rubies and emeralds and many other gems and jewels. Flickering candlelight bathed the room in a soft glow, and the stones glittered in their many glass cases.

“You fancy diamonds, I see,” Kurth said, directing them to one particular case.

Dahlia moved up beside him, her icy blue eyes glittering with their sparkling reflections. She didn’t hide her fascination with one stone in particular, prominently displayed in the center of the case.

“Another benefit,” Kurth offered. “Go ahead, lady, take any one you wish.”

Dahlia looked at him with open suspicion.

“Free of any cost to you,” Kurth assured her.

“Free, other than my agreement to be indentured to Ship Kurth?”

Kurth laughed aloud. “Lady, please,” he said, motioning to the case, but then he paused and motioned again to the shopkeeper, who rushed over and reached under the case to shift a few unseen levers, no doubt incapacitating a trap or alarm of some sort.

Then he motioned again to Dahlia as he opened the hinged top of the case.

Dahlia looked at Drizzt, smiled, and shook her head. “No,” she replied. “But you have my gratitude for your offer.”

“You will not be indebted,” Kurth assured her.

“I’ll feel indebted, and that’s not so much of a different thing.”

“My lady,” Kurth said with exaggerated exasperation.

“Perhaps you would care to purchase an item instead,” the merchant remarked, and the poor man knew as soon as the words left his mouth that he should have remained quiet. Dahlia looked at him incredulously, but that was by far the most benign of the looks coming his way. Kurth and all of his soldiers stared hard at the diminutive man. Beniago even took a step closer to him. The merchant made a little mewling sound and seemed to shrink, appropriately hanging his head.

Dahlia’s gaze went to Drizzt, who moved slightly back and slid his hands to his weapon belt. She nodded.

“Perhaps I shall do so, good jeweler,” she said in a light tone to pierce the tension. “Sadly, however, I’m short of funds at the moment.” She tapped Kurth on the shoulder. “Though that situation might soon be remedied.”

Her teasing hint that she might be open to some employment took the high captain’s mind off the merchant quite readily, something that was not missed by his obedient soldiers.

“He’ll give you the finest deal possible,” Kurth said, casting one disconcerting glare at the small man for good measure.

“You have given me—us—much to consider,” Dahlia said to Kurth. “Will we find you on Closeguard Island tomorrow at midday?”

“This day is only just begun,” Kurth reminded her.

“And I have not rested at all through the night,” Dahlia replied. “Drizzt and I will take our leave here.”

“You may reside on Closeguard Island,” Kurth said. He looked past Dahlia to a pair of burly soldiers, who quickly shifted to block the exit. “I insist.”

“We have much to consider,” Dahlia replied. “You understand that we prefer to discuss our plans in private, of course.”

“You will not be safe anywhere in Luskan, outside of my protection, lady,” the high captain said. “Do you think one minor failure will put off Ship Rethnor?”

“But now we know of the threat,” Drizzt said. “And so we’re not worried.”

“Then you’re a fool.”

“Then why would you want me in your employ?”

That set Kurth back on his heels, and for many heartbeats he just stared at the drow, as if trying to decide whether to lash out or back off.

“Midday tomorrow, then, on Closeguard?” Dahlia asked, and she pressed the point by walking over to Drizzt, who stood closer to the door.

High Captain Kurth looked to Beniago, to his wizards, then to his soldiers, and finally nodded his agreement. The burly soldiers moved clear of the door.

“He’s used to having his way,” Drizzt whispered to Dahlia when they were back on the market square.

“And yet he allowed us to leave, not even knowing our course.”

“Do you think he’s punishing the poor merchant now for daring to speak up?”

Dahlia looked at Drizzt skeptically, as if the notion was ridiculous, which of course, she knew it was not. “Why would he? What would be his gain?”

“His pleasure, perhaps,” said Drizzt.

“Finding one with a good jeweler’s eye is no easy task, particularly this far north.”

“But were it to his gain, he would beat the man to death with nary a concern.”

Dahlia could only shrug.

“It matters,” Drizzt remarked as they walked away.

Drizzt was speaking as much to himself as to her—trying desperately to hold on to beliefs that had carried him through a century of fierce battle, beliefs that shielded him from the grief and pain of so much loss.

He saw the pity in Dahlia’s pretty eyes. But was there something else there, as well?


They went to the Cutlass to get some food and drink, but didn’t remain there for their meal, taking Kurth’s warning to heart. Moving carefully through the shadows of Luskan, they went back to the scene of the fight, and stood in front of the wreckage of the porch, below the door of what had been Jarlaxle’s apartment.

“How strong and agile are you?” Dahlia asked with a wry grin. “You control your blades so well, but can you also control your body?”

“How so?”

“Beyond the practiced movements of swordplay, I mean?”

Drizzt stared at her as if he had no idea what she was getting at, so Dahlia moved through the broken boards to the base of the wall below the door and planted the end of her eight-foot metal staff on the ground. With a nod to Drizzt, the woman leaped up, hands climbing the staff to its top end as she rose, and there she caught a firm hold and rolled her body, inverting at the top of the staff. She pirouetted just a half turn, lining her legs up perfectly with the open portal, and rolled into the room, letting go of the staff as she did.

Drizzt caught it before it fell aside.

“Bring it up with you, if you would,” Dahlia said, poking her head out the door.

Drizzt tightened his belt and his backpack and took a firm hold of the staff. He looked up at Dahlia, thinking to go even higher in his leap, to get all the way into the room standing, perhaps.

Up he leaped, reaching higher on the pole, grabbing hold and inverting … almost.

Before he went over, the drow caught himself, his instincts fighting against his intentions, and he didn’t quite invert. He managed to break his fall by continuing his hold on the staff, and he landed with some measure of dignity back where he’d started.

Dahlia looked down at him from the doorway, obviously quite amused.

Drizzt frowned and leaped again, this time with a growl, throwing himself even higher and with more speed.

But once again, as he neared the break point of his inversion, his instinct resisted, and even though he fought through it this time and forced his upending, that slight break in his movement altered his momentum and his angle. He went upright, feet high in the air, but fell against the wall to the side of the door and failed miserably to grab on.

With great effort, Drizzt managed to catch enough of a hold to spin him back upright before he crashed down. The staff clanged down to the side.

“Do you intend to inform all the city of our whereabouts?” Dahlia teased.

Drizzt pulled himself up to his feet, rubbed a sore elbow, and glared at the smiling elf.

“It’s not unexpected,” Dahlia offered.

But to Drizzt, it surely was—unexpected and disconcerting. He was a warrior who had ridden an avalanche down from the top of a mountain by staying atop the tumbling stone, a warrior not unaccustomed to doing free somersaults in the air in battle, even to leaping over an opponent and turning around to strike as he landed.

This movement didn’t look difficult to him. Dahlia had executed it brilliantly and easily.

“With a running start, you’d have no trouble,” Dahlia remarked.

Drizzt looked around at the broken porch. “I would have to spend an hour clearing the way,” he replied, and with a shake of his head, he went to his pack. “I’ll throw up a rope for you to secure.”

“No,” Dahlia answered before Drizzt had even untied the backpack. He looked up at her curiously.

“You’re strong enough and more than agile enough,” Dahlia explained. “Only your fear holds you back from completing the movement.” She smiled even wider. “And what you fear is being embarrassed, and failing where I succeeded,” she added, and with a laugh, she disappeared into the room.

Drizzt grabbed the staff and leaped with all his strength, catching his high hold and spinning his legs up and over, so high he had but one hand on the very top of the staff, the other out beside him, controlling his balance. He balanced like that, inverted and eight feet above the ground, for several heartbeats before leaning toward the door and pushing off again to gain speed.

He landed on his feet, facing out from the door, the staff in his hand.

Behind him, Dahlia laughed again and slowly clapped her deceptively delicate hands.

“Not so difficult with a bit of practice,” Drizzt remarked, tossing Kozah’s Needle back to Dahlia. He walked past her, pulling off his gloves and undoing the neck tie of his cloak.

“I’ve never attempted anything like that maneuver before,” Dahlia stabbed at him as he walked by her. He stopped and slowly turned on her, unblinking, his violet eyes matched her blue orbs.

Dahlia smiled and shrugged.

Drizzt grabbed her and pulled her close, and she gasped in surprise, just for a moment before her smile returned, and this time, it was an inviting look.

Drizzt moved his lips toward hers, but he hesitated at the last moment. That didn’t stop Dahlia, however, and she fell over him, pressing him in a tight and passionate kiss. She brought her hands to the sides of his head, pulling him tighter, holding him closer. She moved her face back just a bit, just enough so that she could bite at his lower lip then, with a groan, went right back in tight against him, this time with her mouth opened just a bit, just enough for her tongue to tease him.

Finally, suddenly, Dahlia broke the clench and jumped back from Drizzt, moving to arms’ length. She stared at him, her breathing heavy.

Drizzt, hair tousled, stared back. He chewed his lip where Dahlia had nibbled it.

He glanced at the open door.

Dahlia reached out with her staff and used it to push the door closed—as tightly as the damaged threshold would allow. Then she tossed the staff expertly so that one end caught under a raised plank in the door while it fell diagonally, its nearer end settling on the floor. Staring at Drizzt once more, her grin returning, her blue eyes sparkling with anticipation, the elf took one step to her left and stomped down suddenly on the butt end of Kozah’s Needle, the weight of her stamp crunching the metal edge down into the floorboards, firmly securing the door.

She turned back and flicked off her cloak with a snap of her finger, then strode to one of the small beds in the room and sat down facing Drizzt.

She lifted one leg his way, inviting him to help her remove her high black boot.

Drizzt paused—for a moment, it seemed as if he would just fall over, but Dahlia didn’t laugh at him.

He came to her and took her boot in his strong hands, and Dahlia just lay back on the bed, inviting him.