Fyre’s burning toy dances around her palm like a little ballerina. She stopped talking a while ago, allowing a moment of silence for both of them. Fedrel stares at her dancing flames, both he and his green-skinned guest lost in thought. He watches the flame as it leaps in her hand, but then Fyre closes her fist around it, extinguishing the fire. This abrupt movement startles Fedrel out of his reverie, and he looks up to the mage.

She gazes at him, a bit of anger playing with her features. She holds her angry glare for many seconds before speaking again:

Her name was Beslae of the house Mlezzond. Her house wasn’t one of the major houses in Menzoberranzan, but it was prominent enough to afford some slaves. Beslae was the only high priestess in her family and was also the matron of Mlezzond.

She only had one daughter, Bautha, and it was her responsibility to manage the slaves. She had several sons who were treated terribly, except for her son Elkzyr, who was gifted in wizardry. I spent a lot of time with Bautha, and she taught me the drow tongue. My first year with Bautha was perhaps the worst of the years spent with them, for they trained us with cruelty and fear.

It’s true that I feared for my life every day, but I never lost my desire for freedom, so I played the role of slave, rebelling only when I thought I could get away with it.

I learned their tongue quickly, so quickly that Bautha had me working in Elkzyr’s study organizing his books and running messages for him. I had learned a little from my short time with Marthus and Sornin, but they spoke to me mostly in goblin.

I learned my first cantrips while working for the Mlezzonds, but I had to be especially careful, because if I were caught studying Elkzyr’s books, they would have executed me. However, they thought I was a natural caster, and thus, I became very valuable to them.

Still, they were cruel, and I was sometimes whipped for very unjust reasons. Not that any of it was just.

One day, years after I had been sold to Beslea, Elkzyr tore through his study, pulling one book after another off his shelf. I followed him as he piled each of them into my arms. His white hair was tightly coiled into a bun, and he wore the cloak that so many drow are known for.

As he flipped through each book, he mumbled to himself, “Where is it? Where is it? I need to make that blasted wand before noon tomorrow!” I knew where every book in his library was, for I had a knack for remembering things quickly, and since I shelved the books for him, I was certain that I could tell him exactly where the book was . . . if only I knew the title.

I debated whether I should ask him if I could help, short of acting like a book stand. The problem was that I didn’t want to get beaten for anything. However, the longer he took, the more irate he became, to the point that I was scared that he might beat me anyway.

“Excuse me, master, but what is the book called?” I asked timidly. He turned toward me. A deadly scowl seared through me, and I dropped my gaze to the floor as fast as I could.

“Why do you ask?” His voice was low and edged with a deep wrath. I tensed, knowing that the beatings were about to ensue.

“Master, you have 342 books on the creation of wands, each book in your collection is organized alphabetically by the author’s last name, if applicable, and you task me with organizing them,” I said quickly, dropping and putting my cheek to the floor at his feet.

“Get up!” he shouted, kicking me in the shoulder. “The name of the book is ‘Advanced Wands by Kharza-kzad Xorlarrin.'”

My shoulder smarted, but I stood up, keeping my head turned toward the floor without flinching. “Master, many of your books are written by Xorlarrins, especially Kharza-kzad. However, I saw you reading that particular book just yesterday, and you carried it off when you left.” I flinched as soon as I said this, which was followed up by a slap that knocked me to the floor.

Michael C. Sahd, author of The Unfettered Child and Assassin Marked

Fedrel pours himself some more wine, his hands shaking, and a frustrated scowl tugging at the corners of his mouth. After filling his glass, he stands up and starts pacing the room. Fyre’s golden eyes follow his movements, her slitted pupils tracking back and forth. Fedrel finally stops in front of a bookshelf and studies the books inlaid at eye level, his back to Fyre.

Lifting his wine glass to his frown, he downs the entire glass of wine in a couple of gulps, then abruptly turns on his heel and advances to his chair. He sits down and leans toward Fyre, looking her directly in the eyes. She returns his stare with her maniacal smile. “Please!” he says, “Your tale is already so grim; don’t tell me it gets worse.”

Fyre blinks and sits back in her chair, turning her attention back to the fire. Reaching for the flames, a flickering ball of the conflagration glides to her hand and dances above her palm. She uses magic to change its color and shape, and eventually begins to speak while playing with her burning toy:

It gets worse before it gets better. It always seems to get worse before it gets better. The drow, of course, whipped me after my feeble attempt at a rescue, and Marthus was also whipped for trying to intercede. We spent our final hour together strapped to a whipping post. Marthus and I looked into each other’s eyes before I lost consciousness.

When I awoke, I found myself inside a cage with other children, but Marthus and Sornin were nowhere in sight. The excruciating pain that straddled my back made it difficult to move. Looking around, I found that the cage was situated in a nondescript, wooden room, but stairs along the longest wall led up to a platform that extended out of the room, and I could see skulls floating around the underground complex I had seen a year ago.

A drow in impressive finery flitted around the stage, speaking rapidly and pointing off the opposite side of the stage. Next to him stood a child held fast with a steel collar attached to a chain. The child’s head bowed dejectedly, his chin against his chest.

Other voices carried over the stage, but I could not see the source from my vantage. Eventually, another drow in chain armor walked into view, grabbed the leashed child, and dragged him off the opposite side of the stage, while the finely dressed dark elf took the opportunity to sip from a waterskin.

When the armored drow returned, he headed straight for the cage I was in, holding an empty collar at his side. He grabbed my ankle and dragged me out of the cage, my back dragging on the ground, and I screamed in pain, almost losing consciousness. Turning me over, he mumbled something I couldn’t understand, and I felt almost instant relief in my back. Then he fitted the collar around my neck and dragged me toward the stage.

When I peaked the stairs, I saw what the drow in finery was pointing at. When he rattled off something, a person in the crowd would shout something. Then he would point at the person and rattle off some more, and another would raise their hand, and he would point again. This strange ritual continued for quite a while, until just two in the crowd raised their hands alternately: a drow female surrounded by an entourage of armored guards and a dwarf in heavy steel armor with a gigantic axe over his shoulder.

Eventually, when the drow female raised her hand, the crowd went silent. The one next to me smiled and I was dragged over to the female. When I reached her group, she grabbed my chin, studying me like one would study fruit at market. I smiled at her and was rewarded with a stinging slap to the face.

Michael C. Sahd, author of The Unfettered Child and Assassin Marked

From across the road, I saw the dwarf charge toward the undead beast. His hammer pumped wildly in front of him as he beelined between the retreating pedestrians, shouting, “Out of the way, before ye accidentally get hurt. Move! Clear a path!”

Deciding that I needed to help, I looked around for high ground so I could hit the monster better. I leapt up and grabbed the awning over the inn door, then climbed the rest of the way to the top. By the time I readied my bow and peered down, the dwarf had reached the ghoul, and several towns guardsmen surrounded it.

The dwarf swiped with his hammer, but the thing moved unbelievably fast, dodging out of the path of the blunt strike. Leaping onto a guard and biting him in the face, the monster tipped the guard over and pinned him to the ground. My advantage was temporarily hampered by the group surrounding the prone figures. Not wanting to accidentally hit the wrong target, I continued to wait.

The dwarf swung his hammer, aiming for the ghoul’s head, but it lifted its arm and blocked the brunt of the blow. A loud crack filled the air, and the beast rolled off the fallen guard, leaping to its feet, it’s arm hanging limply at its side. It opened its mouth and released a terrifying roar, as if in challenge to its attackers. This provided me with a clear shot, and my arrow plunged into the back of the foul creature.

The guards came forward, jabbing the monster with their spears, but the undead thing seemed impervious to the injuries. It darted under a lunge from one of the guards and grabbed his leg, knocking him backward. The beast lunged for the prone guard’s throat. Its teeth sank into the exposed flesh, and the guard’s death cry carried over the din. The remaining four guards surrounded the ghoul, with the dwarf squeezing into the circle.

Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted the first downed guard twitch. My attention switched over to him. I watched him arch his back and then flail on the ground before standing. His back was now hunched, and his face leaked blood at an alarming rate. For a brief second, I felt relieved that the man had lived through his attack, but when he advanced jerkily toward the circle of town guards, I had a feeling something was wrong.

In retrospect, I should have trusted my instincts, but I had never encountered anything like this, and I didn’t know what to expect. The re-risen guard lunged at the back of one of his compatriots and bit him on the back of his neck. A startled cry of pain and shock escaped the guard’s lips as the new attacker ripped off flesh with his teeth.

From below me, I heard Jerry shout something and three rays of magic shot toward the . . . the what? Zombie? I had no idea what it was, but it took the blasts directly into the back of its head and let go of the guard.

The injured guard shuffled away, screaming in pain and holding his wounded neck, which gave me the opportunity to land an arrow through the mouth of the one that had bit him. It twisted from the impact, then fell to the ground and didn’t move again.

The dwarf had just finished crushing the head of the first undead thing with his hammer when the other guards went to the aid of their bitten compatriot. The dwarf turned to follow. While they were fussing over the injured guard, I watched as the second guard that had died stood up and lumbered toward the group. I let an arrow loose at it, but it only stumbled. “Watch out!” I shouted.

The dwarf turned and swiped his hammer across the knees of the beast, knocking it to the ground. He continued swinging after that and crushed the monster’s head.

“What a disaster!” the captain of the guard said. “Get that man to a healer, quick. Send help to get this cleaned up.” The other guards scrambled away, acting on their captain’s orders, carrying away their screaming companion.

Leaping off of the roof, I landed near the captain and asked, “Is there anything I can do to help?”

The captain rubbed his hands through his hair and let out his breath, surveying the deceased guards. “What am I going to tell their families?” he moaned. Then he looked up at me, his eyes wide with stress. “You?” he asked, then pointed at one of my arrows, “You? Are these your arrows?”

Michael C. Sahd, author of The Unfettered Child and Assassin Marked

Leaning on the bar, I said, “You surprised me with that dazzling smile.”

“Oh no ye don’t, darlin’,” she said, smiling despite her protest. “Ol’ Chrissy’s been around long enough to ken a scoundrel when she sees one.”

“A scoundrel?” I protested, feigning indignation.

Pointing an accusing, thick finger and jabbing it toward me, she said, “Aye, that’s right. You’ve broken many hearts in yer recent past. I can tell.”

Shrugging, I said, “I hope not.”

“Now that, I’m sure is true,” she responded. “Now tell me. What did you name those darlin’ kittens?”

“Er,” I turned to Jerry, who shrugged. “No names.” I smiled again. “We left that honor for you.”

Chrissy let out a bellowing laugh. “Oh, ye are such a liar.” She moved over to some mugs. “Now what can I get ye, darlin’s.”

“I’ll take a mug of your best ale, and whatever dinner you’re serving this evening,” Fred said.

“Me too,” Jerry chimed in.

Fred grabbed the mug she proffered. “This scoundrel found us on the road and helped us rid the gorge of some goblins. His name is Elohel, by the way.” He turned toward me. “Hey Elohel, can I get you some ale and dinner?”

“Sure, but no ale, I’ll take some tea if you have it,” I responded, then sat next to him at the bar. “You’re very charitable, Fred. Thank you!”

“You’re welcome. I like helping people, but I especially like helping people that can help me. I knew when I saw the bow on your back that you could probably help us. Now I know that our dwarf is slow to trust people, but I’ve got a real knack for it.” At this point, Fred ran out of breath and paused briefly to suck in some air. “I don’t just give stuff to anybody; they have to have a vibe about them.” He finished with a deep-throated laugh.

He was one of those talkers who could go on and on before needing to come up for air. I’ve met a few, so I tuned him out a bit.

I had finally made it to Nicodranas, and now I had to figure out what I could do here. The group I came in with already accepted me to travel with them on a job here and there, but I wanted to make Nicodranas my home. I knew eventually I would have to live somewhere other than at an inn, but I had never bought a house before and had no idea where to start. Nor did I have the funds for it. My coin bag had enough gold to keep me at the inn for some time, especially with Fred’s contribution.

Running through an inventory in my head of what I might need to help Jerry, Fred, and the dwarf, I decided that I needed to use some of my gold to purchase some supplies, like some armor. Probably a supply of dry rations for the road, as well.

However, the most important order of business, I realized, was getting to know people, and building some connections.

I was just about to jump out of my seat to go wander around the city when Chrissy slipped through the kitchen doors and dropped a plate of roast in front of me. “Here ye go, darlin’s.” She had two more plates balanced on her arm and deftly passed those out to Jerry and Fred. The food smelled absolutely delicious, so I delayed my exploration to dine with my new friends.

Fred finally stopped talking in favor of the food. “I think I’m going to go explore the city after this,” I said, between bites of food.

Jerry lit up. “You need to see Bearty Bahts. She carries everything!”

“That sounds perfect. Will you show me?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said, while biting into a chunk of beef.

I had almost finished as much as I could of my roast when we heard several screams mingled with shouts and shuffling feet, followed by a monstrous snarl. I leapt out of my seat, and charged to the door, Jerry and Fred on my heels. I reached the streets to observe a corpse charging closer from down the road.

Michael C. Sahd, author of The Unfettered Child and Assassin Marked