When it came time to choose an excerpt to post as a reward for reaching $750 in donations for Children’s Miracle Network and Extra Life, this is the one that leapt to mind. It treads on the edge of being spoilery, but doesn’t cross it. Though I don’t promise it won’t make you think about what might be happening.
It starts with a drow…
Not that drow!
At this point in the story, Dahl is trapped in a strange village he can’t escape. The people in the village are pretty strange too—and if you’ve listened to the reading from Thurber House’s Sundering event, you know what they think is going on. At any rate, Dahl needs someone to help him get into the fortress in the middle of the camp—and short of going back in time and establishing himself as someone willing to come in and scrub floors, he can’t do that alone. He needs an ally.
“I don’t want them to be human,” I told my editor, Nina, and Matt, the “lore master” at WotC. “But I want to associate them with someone sneaky. I’ve found a couple…” I didn’t want to ask, because I didn’t want them to say no. “Can I use a drow? Please?”
Weeeeelllll…did I need to? Drow should be rare on the surface. They should be dangerous and scary and not the kind of folk you want to go sneaking around in the dark with. A good drow—
No, no, no, I said. He’s not good. He’s not good at all. He’s just behaving for the moment. Biding his time. He’s in the same mess as everyone else. After all, there’s a difference—as my drow would eventually point out—between being crazy and being stupid.
“Also,” I asked Nina, “do you think Matt would mind if I named him Phalar?”
Once upon a time, Farideh was the name of my PC in a Realms game I played at work, with the rest of the novels department (and some of the folks who worked on the Realms in RPGs). This was the best game I ever played, largely because these people were among the best I’ve ever worked with: Phil Athans was the DM; Susan J. Morris played my sister, Tamurra; Nina Hess was the wizard, Squasha; Fleetwood Robbins played Brother Robert, an NPC made PC, and after he died, a hilarious dwarf Shaman called Rangrim. Bruce Cordell was an elf barbarian called Red Wolf, who wouldn’t stop tasting strange mushrooms. And Phalar Velve was our art director, Matt Adelsperger’s drow swordmage.
I don’t think Phalar and Farideh ever got along. I’m 100% sure he called her “Frito Bandito” on the regular. It’s possible she called him “Failer” back. When I made Farideh into a character suitable for a novel, Matt gave me trouble about making sure Phalar was shown in a good light, and I told him it would have to wait for the sequel, Brimstone Angels: Phalar and Phriends.
We’re going to call this “close enough.”
To be fair, Book-Phalar is not Game-Phalar. Book-Phalar would not almost sacrifice himself chasing a carrion crawler down a corridor. He definitely wouldn’t split loot fairly. Also, he’s not a swordmage, so if anyone wants a mini of Book-Phalar, they don’t have to glue another mini’s swordarm onto a Drow Wand Mage. Maybe just an extra dagger.
But I like to think of him as a little homage to the game and the folks who started it all for me.
Some time later, Oota paused in front of a little shack, glancing around for errat guards before knocking five times on the wooden door. She looked back at Dahl. “This is as far as I’m sure I’ve still got them on my side.”
“What else is there?” Dahl asked.
“The elves to begin with,” she said. “Few packs of dwarves playing the odds. And the stragglers in between—don’t want to throw in with the rest of us, just want to keep pretending everything’s going to right itself one morning.”
Oota looked at him out of the corner of her eye. “I didn’t say that.” She knocked again, harder.
The door opened and shut so quickly that the squat dwarf man who stepped out seemed to appear out of thin air. He scowled up at Oota, and ran a hand over his bristly black beard. “Did Tharra send you to pester me about that third level?” he asked. “I don’t know if the ground—”
“Tharra doesn’t send me anywhere. You know the dirt. Do what needs doing. Let us in.” Oota looked back at Dahl once more, as if to remind him to keep his mouth shut. The dwarf followed her gaze.
“That the Harper?”
“Let us in, Torden,” Oota answered. “I need to talk to Phalar.”
Torden snorted and threw the door open, ushering them down a roughhewn stairway that led deep into the ground. The entire building had been filled with excavated dirt. Dahl thought of the other buildings, all shut up tight, and wondered how many had been similarly used.
Despite being built of pounded dirt and uneven, the stairs were blessedly stable. They ended in a level tunnel, where Torden lit a lantern that smelled of old cooking oil and handed it to Oota.
“The bastard’s in a right mood today,” he said. “Don’t let him fool you—he’s bored and he wants to get out.” He looked at Dahl. “Best of luck.”
“Many thanks,” Dahl said, wondering privately at a dwarf guarding a hidey-hole in the territory of a half-orc chieftainess everyone seemed to listen to. Stranger and stranger.
Oota started off, leaving Dahl to follow past several doors. “This is where we hide the ones who’ve manifested. The ones we can catch before the guards do.” She shook her head to herself. “It’s not enough.”
“You do what you can,” Dahl said. “Someone down here can help us get into the fortress; that’s a good start.” He considered the doors they passed. “If you managed to dig this passage, why not dig under the wall?”
“That’s what we were doing,” Oota said. “The magic goes deep, deeper than we could manage without drawing too much notice. Torden keeps going, a little at a time. It’s a lot of dirt to hide.” The tunnel ended shortly after, in a makeshift door. Oota turned to face Dahl, sizing him up. “Son, I need you to promise that you won’t panic.”
Dahl frowned. “Why would I panic?”
Oota smirked, and by way of answer, unlatched the door. The lantern’s light fought its way into the room beyond, illuminating a large cell and a slight man with ebony skin and moonlight hair, flinching away from the light.
“Put that iblithl light out, you one-eyed brute,” he snarled, brandishing the book he’d been reading at Oota. “I thought we agreed to be civil.”
Dahl only just stopped himself from shouting “Drow!” and drawing weapons. If one didn’t take chances with shadar-kai, one certainly didn’t ask for favors from the spider-worshiping elves of the Underdark, unless one wanted to be tortured and sacrificed. Still he took a step back.
Phalar placed a cupped hand over his pale eyes. “Tell me what you want, cahalil, and get out.”
“Dahl,” Oota said, “this is Phalar. Phalar, this is Dahl. He wants a favor.”
Phalar chuckled to himself. “Does he?” He spread his fingers just wide enough to see through, making a mask of his hands. “Oh. You didn’t tell him who I was, did you?”
“I hear you can get me into the fortress,” Dahl said, making himself look at the drow. “That you’ve got some skill with breaking into places.”
“You could say that,” Phalar said. “In fact, in certain company that’s all you should say.” Dahl frowned.
“Dahl didn’t come here like the rest of us,” Oota said to Phalar. “He got pulled in by accident with the wizard’s new associate.” Dahl could hear the words Oota hadn’t said buried in that comment. “If you get him into the fortress, he thinks he can stop the wizard. And maybe get us some weapons.”
“That,” Phalar said, “is the stupidest thing I’ve heard all day. And Tharra was here earlier, trying to convince me to help my jailor dig holes.”
“All I need is someone to get me in,” Dahl said stiffly. “The rest is my problem.”
“Cocky, aren’t you? What’s in it for me?”
Dahl shrugged. “Escape?”
“If your plan succeeds. If you find your ‘associate.’ If the guards don’t flay you alive.” Phalar peered at Dahl through the mask of his fingers. “You almost certainly think I’m mad, but you still have to know the difference between mad and stupid.” He dropped his hand, wincing at the light. “Give me your dagger.”
“Give a drow a dagger, then follow him into a fortress under cover of night?” Dahl said. “I’m not stupid either.”
Phalar’s chuckle sent a shiver up Dahl’s back. “Oh good. I assumed you were like the rest of them, thinking I’m tamed because I’m trapped here too. But it’s the dagger or nothing. I don’t have to help you. It’s not as if I came to the surface to make friends. Give me the dagger when we part. Then all you have to do is stay out of my way.”
Dahl glanced at Oota out of the corner of his eye. Giving the drow a weapon might upset the careful balance she had crafted. But Oota merely shrugged.
“Fine,” Dahl said. “After.”
Phalar smiled. “Aren’t you going to ask me to promise I won’t try to kill you?”
“Why should I?” Dahl asked coolly. “You said it yourself: you aren’t stupid. You won’t try.”
“Be careful with Phalar,” Oota said as they climbed the dirt stair once more, a secretive smile playing on her mouth. “He tends to make people act a little”—she blew out a breath—“rash.”
“I’m not afraid of him,” Dahl said too quickly. Oota glanced back at him.
“I mean,” he amended, “I can keep my head.”
“You have to be a little afraid, or he acts up. But he’s no fool—whatever he’d like to do to the lot of us, he’s outnumbered in the end, and he needs what people will trade him for the use of his powers. He’s only alive because of my good graces and Tharra’s silver tongue. He can’t afford to go around stabbing people and he knows it.”
“Why else would he want a dagger?”
Oota stopped walking. “You’re trapped in enemy territory full of people you don’t think much of, who are always arguing about whether they ought to just kill you and be done with it? You’d want a dagger too.” They slipped out the door and waited while Torden latched it behind them. “All the same, you get Torden a good crossbow when you find that armory. He’ll bury Phalar if he decides to prove me wrong with that dagger and then the whole tunnel will end up collapsed. Everybody would rather Torden just shot him in that case.”
Want to read more? The Adversary is available December 3, 2013, by pre-order at all fine booksellers. You can also get signed copies here on slushlush.com.
Want to get in on Extra Life’s campaign to raise money for Children’s Miracle Network? Donate here, or go to extra-life.org to find out how you can get involved nex year. And don’t forget to watch our D&D game on Twitch tomorrow!