But there is something else, something unexpected, something surprising, something bringing with it more than a bit of confusion and even guilt.
True guilt, and I feel, and fear, myself a cad.
Yet I cannot deny it.
As I turned my back on Gauntlgrym and the grave of King Bruenor Battlehammer, pushing up in my emotions beside the pain and the rage and the helplessness and the replaying of the scenario over and over again to wonder what I might have done differently, was … a deep sense of relief.
I am ashamed to admit this, but to deny it would be to lie, and worse, to lie to myself. For at long last I have a sense of finality. It is time for the past to rest and for me to move forward. It is time, as Innovindil explained to me in a forest far from here, for me to begin anew.
Certainly I’m not relieved that Bruenor has passed. Nor Thibbledorf Pwent, for that matter! A better friend than Bruenor I have never known, and I would wish him back to my side in an instant, were that possible.
But in the larger sense, the greater perspective of my life, there is a sense of relief. I have been ready to let go of Catti-brie and Regis and Wulfgar for a long time now—not to forget them! I’ll never forget them, never want to forget them! They are embedded in my heart and soul and walk with Drizzt Do’Urden every step of his road. But I accepted their loss—my loss—years, even decades, ago, and it was only the stubbornness of an old dwarf, refusing to let go, insisting that they were still to be found and that our wondrous years together would be restored, that forced me, too, to hang on.
I am alone now. I am free? What an awful thought! How disloyal am I, then, to feel any eagerness in looking forward, to a new road, a third life, taking the painful lessons of my first existence in Menzoberranzan along with the wondrous joys of my second life beside the Companions of the Hall. Now I am hardened by the whips of the drow matrons, and softened by the honest love of friends, and settled in what I know is, what should be, and what should never be. As my second life so exceeded my first in joy and purpose, could my third not climb higher yet?
I don’t know, and truly I understand how fortunate I was in finding these four amazing companions to share a road. Will I find such friends, ready to sacrifice all for me, again? Will I love again? Even if I do, will it be the same intensity of that which I knew with Catti-brie?
I know not, but I’m not afraid to find out. That’s my freedom now, to walk my road with eyes wide and heart open, without regret and with a true understanding of how blessed my existence beside these companions has been.
And there is one other freedom now: For the first time in decades, I awaken to discover that I am not angry. Strangely so. I feel as if the rage that has for so long kept my muscles tightened has at last relaxed.
This too stings me with pangs of guilt, and I am sure that those around me will often hear me muttering to myself in confusion. Perhaps I am simply deluding myself. Perhaps the loss of Bruenor has pushed me past the bounds of sensibility, where the level of pain has become intolerable and so I trick myself into something wholly converse.
I can only shrug and wonder.
I can only feel and accept.
I am alone now.
I am free.
Chapter 1: A Promise of Carnage
SYLORA SALM STOOD OUTSIDE THE ASH CLOUD OF THE BUDDING Dread Ring, shifting from foot to foot. She knew the stakes. Her scouts had returned confirming her fears: The primordial had been trapped once more by a host of water elementals and the residual magic of the fallen Hosttower of the Arcane. There would be no second eruption of primordial magnitude. The ground was no longer trembling daily beneath her feet.
Her enemies had averted catastrophe.
Sylora stared into the ash and could almost feel it diminish. She had been counting on a volcanic cataclysm to strengthen her magical beast, this Dread Ring that fed upon death.
She continued to shift from foot to foot. If she understood her failure, then so did the being approaching her behind the gray-black veil.
Sylora could hear her heart thumping in her chest. Behind her, Jestry Rallevin, the Ashmadai zealot who had become her closest advisor, swallowed hard.
“I feel him,” he whispered. Jestry Rallevin was no ordinary Ashmadai. Though young, barely into his twenties and quite inexperienced, the man still commanded the attention and respect of all the other zealots, both because of his striking appearance—with his large shoulders, dark hair, and brooding dark eyes—and his willingness to throw himself into the cause with absolute abandon. And he could fight—so perfectly in balance, striking with precision and power. If only she had known of his prowess before the few recent skirmishes with the Netherese forces, Sylora silently lamented. She could have used Jestry to tempt that vile Dahlia and then destroy the witch altogether.
That notion reminded Sylora of Temberle, another strong male consort whom she had shared with Dahlia, and one Dahlia had slain before coming west. She glanced at Jestry, measuring him against Temberle.
No comparison, she believed. This one, a true zealot, would have carved Temberle to pieces had they come to blows. Might he have done, might he do, the same with Dahlia? It was a pleasant and intriguing thought, to be sure.
“Sylora, he’s coming,” Jestry repeated.
Sylora nodded but didn’t reply, afraid to break the muted silence of the dead ash. She had understood the coming of Szass Tam from the moment he had focused his magical energies on her Dread Ring. She slumped her shoulders and waited outside the edge. She wouldn’t go in there to meet him. Within the Dread Ring, the power of Szass Tam was simply too terrible to behold.
Behind her, she heard Jestry licking his lips nervously. She wanted him to stop, desperately so, but she couldn’t bring herself to tell him.
An emaciated humanoid under a heavy black hooded robe approached. Somehow he was darker than the Dread Ring through which he glided.
“I haven’t felt the pleasure of a thousand souls crying out their last,” the lich said in his uneven and scratchy voice. Two dots of angry fire within the shades of blackness stared at Sylora and his form wavered, blurred by the swirl of magical ash. “I haven’t felt the strengthening of my new domain, as you promised.”
Sylora swallowed hard. “We have encountered enemies—”
“I know of your failure,” Szass Tam’s voice reached out like a claw for her heart. “I know of the battle in the dwarven mines. I know it all.”
“There are many reasons,” Sylora blurted. “And the fight is not yet lost!” She paused then and grimaced, thinking her last word choice to be truly foolish.
“I was there,” Szass Tam assured her. “Looking through other eyes. The magic is restored. The primordial of fire is recaptured. It will not be freed again, soon or easily.”
Sylora lowered her eyes, her shoulders slumping further. “I have failed you,” she said. She stood there for many heartbeats, awaiting recrimination, awaiting a terrible death.
“You have,” Szass Tam finally said.
“It was but one battle!” Jestry cried out from behind.
A bolt of black energy flashed out of the Dread Ring, crackling the air beside Sylora. Jestry flew backward to the ground and there he squirmed, his limbs trembling in agony, his hair dancing.
“Is he valuable?” Szass Tam asked Sylora, which was his way, she knew, of asking her if Jestry should be fed to the Dread Ring.
She spent a few moments sorting the riddle. She could throw Jestry to the lich here in the hopes that his sacrifice would suffice …
“He has proven his worth many times over,” she heard herself replying instead. “Jestry Rallevin has slain many Netherese, and has led my warriors to many victories here in the forest. I should like to keep him beside me.”
“You should like to keep him?” Szass Tam retorted. An invisible hand reached out from the ashes to grab Sylora by the throat. She clawed at it, but there was nothing to grab, and yet as insubstantial as it seemed, that magical grasp lifted her up on her toes and began pulling her into the blackness. Suddenly it stopped and she hung there in the air, still scratching, still squirming. Her bulging eyes widened even more when Jestry came up beside her, similarly choked and floating.
“Do not blame me for your doom, poor Ashmadai,” Szass Tam whispered from inside the Dread Ring. “Sylora Salm requested your presence.”
As he spoke his last word, another voice rent the air, a keening sing-song cry of “Arklem! Ark-lem! Greeth, Greeth, oh, where are you! I don’t see you, Arklem. Ark-lem! But you see me … oh, I know you see me! Of course you see me. You see all.”
Sylora dropped to the ground and barely held her balance. Beside her, Jestry crumpled to the ground and lay groaning, still shaken from the black lightning. From within the Dread Ring, Szass Tam laughed.
Continued babbling drew Sylora’s gaze behind her. The lich Valindra Shadowmantle glided among the skeletal remains of many fruit trees. Her half-rotted fingers tapped her chin and she rambled to this unseen companion Arklem Greeth, as if sorting out some deep secret of the world that no one had yet deciphered.
She moved right up beside Sylora before she even seemed to notice the sorceress, the Ashmadai, or even the Dread Ring and the great being standing within.
“Oh,” she said to Sylora. “Well. Good afternoon. Well met. And it is a good day! Have you seen Arklem?”
Szass Tam cackled.
“And who is that? Who is that?” Valindra asked. “Is that you, Arklem?”
“It’s Szass Tam, Valindra,” Sylora said quietly. “The archlich of Thay.”
“There is no introduction necessary,” Szass Tam said. “Hello again, Mistress Shadowmantle. I did so enjoy our communion in the dwarven halls.”
Sylora started to question that, but bit her words back and turned a disbelieving stare over Valindra, Szass Tam’s spy.
“Oh, hello and well met, again!” Valindra replied. “I used it!”
“How?” Sylora asked, looking from Valindra back to Szass Tam. “Used what?” she added, twisting her head back to regard the elf lich at her side.
“I still have it,” Valindra assured Szass Tam, and she opened a fold of her robe and produced the scepter of Asmodeus, a powerful summoning artifact that Sylora had lent her on her journey to the lair of the primordial.
Sylora instinctively reached for the scepter, fearing that the archlich would be outraged indeed that she had given such an item to any of her inferiors.
“Good, Valindra, and well done in bringing forth the pit fiend,” Szass Tam replied, halting Sylora’s reach. “Valindra commanded the pit fiend with ease. With practiced ease. She is possessed of great power beneath her … her condition.”
Sylora nodded stupidly.
“Sylora knows—oh, don’t be silly!” Valindra erupted, and she laughed wildly. “She is my friend. She has been reminding me of the times … oh, why can’t I remember those times of power and play, of magic the same and magic different?”
“Before the Spellplague,” Sylora translated. “Her affliction has confused her, but it hasn’t erased those powers she knew before the collapse of Mystra’s Weave.”