The Last Threshold by R. A. Salvatore

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  The Year of the Reborn Hero (1463 DR)

  YOU CANNOT PRESUME THAT THIS CREATURE IS NATURAL, IN ANY SENSE OF the word,” the dark-skinned Shadovar woman known as the Shifter told the old graybeard. “She is perversion incarnate. ”

  The old druid Erlindir shuffled his sandal-clad feet and gave a great “harrumph!”

  “Incarnate, I tell you. ” The Shifter tapped her finger against the old druid’s temple and ran it delicately down under his eye and across his cheek to touch his crooked nose.

  “So, you’re really in front of me this time,” Erlindir cackled, referring to the fact that when one addressed the Shifter, typically one was actually addressing a projected image, a phantasm, of the most elusive enchantress.

  “I told you that you could trust me, Birdcaller,” she replied, using a nickname she’d given him when she had met him at his grove many months before.

  “If I didn’t believe you, would I have come to this place?” He looked around at the dark images of the Shadowfell, his gaze settling on the twisted keep and tower before him, with its many spires and multiple—likely animated—gargoyles, all leering at him and smiling hungrily. They had just journeyed through a most unpleasant swamp, reeking of death and decay and populated by undead monstrosities. This castle was not much of an improvement.

  “Why, Erlindir, you flatter me so,” the Shifter teased, and she grabbed him by the chin and directed his gaze back to her face. Her spell wouldn’t last forever, she knew, and she didn’t want any of the unnatural images to shake the druid from his stupor. Erlindir was of the old school, after all, a disciple of the nature goddess Mielikki. “But remember why you are here. ”

  “Yes, yes,” he replied, “this unnatural cat. You would have me destroy it, then?”

  “Oh, no, not that!” the Shifter exclaimed.

  Erlindir looked at her curiously.

  “My friend Lord Draygo has the panther,” the Shifter explained. “He is a warl—mage of great renown and tremendous power. ” She paused to watch the druid’s reaction, fearing that her near slip-up might clue the old one into her ruse. There was a reason that swamp teemed with undead creatures. No druid, charmed or not, would be so eager to help a warlock.

  “Lord Draygo fears that the cat’s master is crafting other … abominations,” she lied. “I would like you to grant him affinity to the cat, that he might see through her eyes when she is summoned home, and cut her bindings to the Astral Plane and anchor her here instead. ”

  Erlindir looked at her suspiciously.

  “Only for a short time,” she assured him. “We will destroy the cat when we’re sure that her master is not perverting nature for his ill intent. And destroy him, too, if needed. ”

  “I would rather that you bring him to me, that I might learn the damage he has already caused,” Erlindir said.

  “So be it,” the enchantress readily agreed, since lies came so easily to her lips.

  “The gates were harder to maintain,” Draygo Quick whispered through his crystal ball to his peer, Parise Ulfbinder, a fellow high-ranking and powerful warlock who lived in a tower similar to Draygo’s in Shade Enclave, but upon the soil of Toril. “And my understudy told me that the shadowstep back to his home was not as easily accomplished as he had expected. ”

  Parise stroked his small black beard—which, to Draygo, seemed curiously exaggerated in the contours of the crystal ball. “They warred with drow, did they not? And with drow spellspinners, no doubt. ”

  “Not at that time, I don’t believe. ”

  “But there were many drow in the bowels of Gauntlgrym. ”

  “Yes, that is what I have been told. ”

  “And Glorfathel?” Parise asked, referring to an elf mage of the mercenary group Cavus Dun, who had disappeared quite unexpectedly and quickly in Gauntlgrym right before the important confrontation.

  “No word,” Draygo Quick said. And he added quickly, “Yes, it is possible that Glorfathel created some magical waves to impede our retreat. We do not know that he betrayed us. Only the dwarf priestess. ”

  Parise sat back and ran his fingers through his long black hair. “You don’t think it was Glorfathel who hindered the shadowsteps,” he stated.

  Draygo Quick shook his head.

  “You don’t think it was the work of drow mages, either, or of the priestess,” said Parise.

  “The shadowstep was more difficult,” Draygo argued. “There is change in the air. ”

  “The Spellplague was change,” Parise said. “The advent of Shadow was change. The new reality is now simply settling. ”

  “Or the old reality is preparing to return?” Draygo Quick asked. At the other end of the crystal ball, Parise Ulfbinder could only sigh and shrug.

  It was just a theory, after all, a belief based on the reading by Parise, Draygo Quick, and some others, of “Cherlrigo’s Darkness,” a cryptic sonnet found in a letter written by the ancient wizard Cherlrigo. Cherlrigo claimed he’d translated the poem from The Leaves of One Grass, a now-lost tome penned nearly a thousand years before, based on prophecies from almost a thousand years before that.

  “The world is full of prophecies,” Parise warned, but there seemed little conviction in his voice. He had been with Draygo when they had retrieved the letter, after all, and the amount of trouble and the power of the curses they had found along with the page seemed to give its words some measure of weight.

  “If we are to take Cherlrigo’s word for it, the tome in which he found this sonnet, was penned in Myth Drannor,” Draygo Quick reminded Parise. “By the Dark Diviners of Windsong Tower. That is no book of rambling delusions by some unknown prognosticator. ” “Nay, but it is a book of cryptic messaging,” said Parise.

  Draygo Quick nodded, conceding that unfortunate fact.

  “The proposition of the octave calls it a temporary state,” Parise went on. “Let us not react in fear to that which we do not fully comprehend. ”

  “Let us not rest while the world prepares to shift around us,” the old warlock countered.

  “To a temporary state!” Parise replied.

  “Only if the second quatrain is decoded as a measurement of time and not space,” Draygo Quick reminded.

  “The turn of the ninth line is a clear hint, my friend. ”

  “There are many interpretations!”

  Draygo Quick sat back, tapped the tips of his withered fingers together before his frown, and inadvertently glanced at the parchment that lay face down at the side of his desk. The words of the sonnet danced before his eyes, and he mumbled, “And enemies that stink of their god’s particular flavor. ”

  “And you know of just such a favored one?” Parise asked, but his tone suggested that he already knew the answer.

  “I might,” Draygo Quick admitted.

  “We must watch these chosen mortals. ”

  Draygo Quick was nodding before Parise began to utter the expected reminder.

  “Are you to be blamed for the loss of the sword?” Parise asked.

  “It is Herzgo Alegni’s failure!” Draygo Quick protested, a bit too vehemently.

  Parise Ulfbinder pursed his thick lips and furrowed his brow.

  “They will not be pleased with me,” Draygo Quick admitted.

  “Appeal privately to Prince Rolan,” Parise advised, referring to the ruler of Gloomwrought, a powerful Shadowfell city within whose boundaries lay Draygo Quick’s own tower. “He has come to believe in the significance of ‘Cherlrigo’s Darkness. ’ ”

  “He fears?”

  “There is a lot to lose,” Parise admitted, and Draygo Quick found that he couldn’t disagree. At a sound in the corrido
r outside his door, the old warlock nodded farewell to his associate and dropped a silken cloth atop his scrying device.

  He heard the Shifter’s voice—she spoke with one of his attendants still some distance away—and knew that she had brought the druid, as they had arranged. With still a few moments left to him, Draygo Quick picked up the parchment and held it before his eyes, digesting the sonnet once more.

  Enjoy the play when shadows steal the day …

  All the world is half the world for those who learn to walk.

  To feast on fungus soft and peel the sunlit stalk;

  Tarry not in place, for in their sleep the gods do stay.

  But care be known, be light of foot and soft of voice.

  Dare not stir divine to hasten Sunder’s day!

  A loss profound but a short ways away;

  The inevitable tear shall’t be of, or not of, choice.

  Oh, aye, again the time wandering of lonely world!

  With kingdoms lost and treasures past the finger’s tip,

  And enemies that stink of their god’s particular flavor.

  Sundered and whole, across the celestial spheres are hurled,

  Beyond the reach of dweomer and the wind-walker’s ship;

  With baubles left for the ones the gods do favor.

  “Of which god’s particular flavor do you taste, Drizzt Do’Urden?” he whispered. All signs—Drizzt’s affinity to nature, his status as a ranger, the unicorn he rode—pointed to Mielikki, a goddess of nature, but Draygo Quick had heard many other whispers that suggested Drizzt as a favored child of a very different and much darker goddess.

  Either way, the withered old warlock held little doubt that this rogue drow was favored by some god. At this point in his investigation, it hardly mattered which.

  He replaced “Cherlrigo’s Darkness” face down when he heard the knock on the door, and slowly rose and turned as he bade the Shifter and her companion to enter.

  “Welcome, Erlindir of Mielikki,” he said graciously, and he wondered what he might learn of that goddess, and perhaps her “flavors” in addition to the tasks the Shifter had already convinced him to perform for Draygo.

  “Is this your first visit to the Shadowfell?” Draygo Quick asked.

  The druid nodded. “My first crossing to the land of colorless flowers,” he replied.

  Draygo Quick glanced at the Shifter, who nodded confidently to indicate to him that Erlindir was fully under her spell.

  “You understand the task?” Draygo Quick asked the druid. “That we might further investigate this abomination?”

  “It seems easy enough,” Erlindir replied.

  Draygo Quick nodded and waved his hand out toward a side door, bidding Erlindir to lead the way. As the druid moved ahead of him, the old warlock fell in step beside the Shifter. He let Erlindir go into the side chamber before them, and even bade the druid to give him a moment, then shut the door between them.

  “He does not know of Drizzt?” he asked.

  “He is from a faraway land,” the Shifter whispered back.

  “He will make no connection with the panther and the drow, then? The tales of this one are considerable, and far-reaching. ”

  “He does not know of Drizzt Do’Urden. I have asked him directly. ”

  Draygo Quick glanced at the door. He was glad and a bit disappointed. Certainly if Erlindir knew of Drizzt and Guenhwyvar, this task could be troublesome. He could recognize the panther and such a shock might well defeat the Shifter’s dweomer of enchantment. But the gain could well outweigh the loss of his services, because Erlindir might then have offered, under great duress of course, the information regarding Drizzt’s standing with the goddess Mielikki.

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