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Authors: Scott Ciencin


BOOK: Shadowdale
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Book I:

Helm, He of the Unsleeping Eyes, God of Guardians, stood vigilant, watching his fellow gods. The assemblage was complete. Every god, demigod, and elemental was in attendance. The walls of the great pantheon that hosted the gods had long ago vanished, but the windows remained, hanging on the empty air, and through them Helm looked out onto a universe crumbling into decay. The pantheon, with its many unfinished altars, was located in the heart of the cancerous decay; it had been constructed on an isle that was only large enough to house the meeting place of the gods.

A path made of crumbling gray stepping stones floated outward across the sea of decay to a destination that lay beyond the vision of the gods. It was the only avenue of escape from the pantheon, but none of the gods had been foolish enough to take the first step upon those craggy stones, fearing the path might lead them to a place even more terrifying than this one.

The air around the isle was a white canvas dotted with ebon stars. Streaks of light, so bright that even the eyes of a god could not look into them for long, burned into the ivory tapestry. The streaks formed runes, and Helm shuddered as he read them.

All that has been, is gone. All we have known, all we have believed, is a lie. The time of the gods is at an end.

Then the runes vanished. Helm wondered if one of the summoned gods had sent the cryptic message in an effort to frighten the others, but dismissed the idea. He knew that the runes had been sent by a power greater than any of the gods around him.

Helm listened to the dull roar of thunder as mammoth gray clouds with veins of black lightning rolled in and shadows fell across the pantheon. The pure white sky was obscured by the clouds, and the stepping stones that drifted outward from the pantheon crumbled and fell away into the vast sea of decay.

Helm had been the first to be summoned. One moment he was in his temple, ruminating over his recent failings as guardian to Lord Ao. The next moment he was standing alone in the pantheon. Soon his fellow gods began to appear. The gods had seemed disoriented, weakened by the journey to this place that was apart from all that was known.

The summons had come wearing the face and form of that which each of the gods feared most. To Mystra, Goddess of Magic, it appeared as a harbinger of magical chaos. To the beautiful Sune Firehair, Goddess of Love and Beauty, it appeared as a haggard, cancer-ridden creature, crying out against its fate while delivering Sune to hers. To the Black Lord, Bane, the summons came in the guise of absolute love and understanding, its light searing his essence as it carried him from his kingdom.

Helm had only to shift his gaze slightly to see Lord Bane, Lady’ Mystra, and Lord Myrkul in a heated discussion that climaxed with Mystra storming off to seek more appropriate company. Glancing in another direction, Helm saw Llira, Goddess of Joy, wearing a slightly worried expression, wringing her hands without thought, then catching herself and staring down at her hands in horror. Standing beside her, Ilmater, God of Suffering, could not contain a steady stream of laughter as he danced in place, whispering knowing comments to no one in particular.

As Helm studied the faces of the gods, a small group of deities who had not been affected so traumatically by the summons surrounded him. The God of Guardians tried to ignore the pleas of these gods, whose dignity apparently no longer mattered to them, as they whined and clawed at him for more information.

“My home was destroyed! My temple in the Planes was shattered!” God after god repeated the complaint, but Helm was deaf to their words.

“Ao has issued a summons. All will be made clear in time,” Helm told each of them, but he soon grew tired of repeating himself and eventually warned the small group of gods away. Change was coming. Of that there could be no doubt. Helm concluded as he pondered the will of his immortal liege, Ao.

Ao’s will had been so great that he rose from the swirling mist of Chaos at the beginning of time and set about to create a balance between the forces of Law and Chaos. From this balance came life: first with the creation of the gods in the heavens, then with the mortals in the Realms. Ao, Maker of All Things, had chosen Helm to be his right hand. And Helm knew that it was the power of Ao that brought the gods to this place of madness and confusion.

As Helm stood quietly in thought, Tales, God of Storms, surged forward. “An end to the trickery, I say! If our lord wishes to make a point, let him speak, let his wisdom fill our bankrupt hearts and empty minds!” Talos said “wisdom” with as much contempt as he could muster, but the others were not convinced. His fear was as evident as theirs.

The challenge of Talos was not met, and all who stood within arm’s reach of the God of Storms moved away from him. In the silence that followed Talos’s outburst there was an answer more unnerving than any proclamation; in the silence was heard the finality of Ao’s judgement. It was then that the gods understood that their fate, whatever it would be, had been sealed long before this summoning. That terrible silence filled the great hall, but it was soon shattered.

“Keepers of the Balance, I address you one and all!”

It was Ao’s voice, and in that voice was heard the power of a being so great that the gods fell to their knees in response. Lord Bane alone managed to place only one knee on the pantheon’s cold floor.

“Most noble was your heritage! Yours was the power to stave off the ever-present threat of imbalance between Law and Chaos, and yet you chose to act like children, resorting to petty thievery in your quest for power…”

Bane suddenly wondered if the being who had given the gods life long ago had called his creations to this place to undo his mistake and begin anew.

“Extinction may be your future yet, Bane,” Ao proclaimed, as if the Black Lord’s thoughts had been spoken aloud. “But do not let it concern you, for that fate would be most merciful compared to what shall soon befall you — and the other gods that betrayed my trust.”

It was Helm who then stepped forward. “Lord Ao, the tablets were in my keeping, let it be —”

“Silence, Helm, lest you suffer a fate such as theirs.”

Helm turned and faced the assemblage of gods. “You should know your crime, at least. The Tablets of Fate have been stolen.”

A beam of light erupted from the darkness and enveloped the God of Guardians. Wisps of white flame encircled Helm’s wrists and ankles, and he was lifted up an unknowable distance, almost beyond the senses of the other gods, who gasped as they watched. Helm, who had never been borne off his feet before, grit his teeth helplessly as he stared into a patch of darkness greater than any darkness ever seen, a darkness that lived and sought to consume, a darkness that was the anger of Lord Ao.

“Stand you with your fellows and not your liege, good Helm?”

Through gritted teeth, the god responded. “Aye.”

Suddenly Helm was cast down, his descent too quick and too brutal to be tracked by the senses of the other gods. Bloodied and bruised by the impact, Helm struggled to rise and again face his lord, but the task was beyond him. His fellow gods made no move to help him, nor did they meet his imploring eyes as he fell, face down, to the stone floor of the pantheon.

Occasional flashes of light revealed black bands of energy that moved ever closer to the gods.

“No longer will you sit in your crystal towers, looking down upon the Realms as if they had been created simply to amuse you.”

“Exile,” Bane murmured breathlessly.

“Aye,” said Lord Myrkul, God of the Dead, a chill finding the core of even his lifeless soul.

“No longer will you ignore the very purpose for which you were given life! You shall know your transgressions and remember them for all time. You have sinned against your liege and you will he punished.”

Bane felt the coils of darkness approach.

“The thief!” Mystra shouted. “Let us discover the identity of the thief for you and return the tablets!”

Tyr, God of Justice, raised his arms imploringly. “Let us not pay in kind for the foolishness of but one of our brethren, Lord Ao!” Darkness, like the lash of a whip, slashed across Tyr’s face, and he fell back, screaming and clutching at his now useless eyes.

“You see nothing but the salvation of your own skins!”

The gods were silent, and the dark bands darted between them, drawing the gods closer to each other, as if herding them together to create a single target for Ao’s wrath. The gods cried out — some in fear, some in pain. They were not accustomed to such treatment.

“Cowards. The theft of the tablets was the final affront. You will return them to me. But first, you will pay the price for a millennium of disappointment.”

Bane stood his ground against the bands of energy, and suddenly the biting strands of darkness erupted into blinding flames of cold blue light that seared him. He turned from the light and caught a glimpse of Mystra as she, too, held her ground, a slight smile etched across her features. Then the bands caught Bane, and his world became pain such as only a god could imagine or endure.

After an eternity of torment, all the gods were caught in the dark bands of power and drawn tightly together. Only then did the deities find movement and thought once again possible.

And fear. This they knew intimately.

Finally, Lord Talos managed to speak. His voice was weak and hoarse, his words escaping in frightened gasps. “Is it over? Could that have been all?”

Suddenly the pantheon seemed to vanish and the gods, still bound together, found themselves staring full into the face of what frightened each the most — chaos, pain, love, life, ignorance. And each god saw his or her own destruction there, as well.

“That was but a taste of my anger. Now drink deep from the goblet of a true god’s rage!”

A sound was heard then unlike any other.

The gods screamed.

Mystra struggled to retain some vestige of control as she found herself plummeting through a fantastic vortex that defied reality. She suffered unbearable pain as godhood was ripped from her. But the Goddess of Magic was not alone in her torments. All the gods, save Helm, were cast from the heavens.

After a time, Mystra awoke in the Realms. She was startled to find that her form had been reduced to its primal essence. Her body was little more than a glowing mass of blue-white light.

“You will take an avatar.” Ao’s voice resounded in her mind. “You will possess the body of a mortal and live as a human. Then perhaps you will appreciate what you once took for granted.”

Then she was alone.

The fallen goddess hovered for a moment as Lord Ao’s words turned over and over in her mind. If she had to take an avatar, possess a body of flesh and blood, then Ao really did intend on keeping the gods out of the Planes. Though Mystra had suspected Ao would punish his servants for their failings — and she had even planned for the event by secreting a shard of her power in the Realms — the goddess simply couldn’t comprehend the loss of her status, the loss of her beautiful palace in the heavens.

Mystra looked around and came as close to shuddering as she could in her formless state. The land around her would be quite attractive to mortals: rolling hills stretched out around the Goddess of Magic, and an ancient, crumbling castle dominated the horizon to the west. Yes, most humans would find this scene peaceful, Mystra thought, but it is a repulsive eyesore when compared to my home.

Nirvana, the plane of ultimate Law, held Mystra’s domain. It was a perfectly regimented, infinite area where light and darkness, hot and cold, were ideally balanced. Unlike the chaotic landscape of the Realms, Nirvana was structured like the insides of a huge clock, with equal, ordered gears meeting in ideal junctions. On each of these gears rested the realm of one of the lawful gods that inhabited the plane. Of course Mystra saw her realm as the most beautiful in Nirvana, in all the Planes, in fact.

The Goddess of Magic studied the ruined castle for a moment, then silently cursed Ao. Even when that ruin was newly built, it was but a closet in my home, Mystra thought bitterly, and the image of her magnificent shimmering palace came unbidden to her mind. The castle that filled her realm was built of pure magical energy, drawn directly from the weave of magic that surrounded Faerun. Like everything else in Nirvana, the palace was perfectly structured and eternal. Its towers were all the exact same height, its windows the same dimensions. Even the magic-woven bricks that made up the castle were identical to one another. And in the center of Mystra’s home stood her library, which contained every book and scroll, listing every spell ever known in the world, and some that had not yet been discovered.

Mystra turned her gaze to the dark storm clouds that filled the sky. “I will have my home again, Ao,” she said softly. “And I will have it soon.”

As the Goddess of Magic stared at the rolling clouds, she caught a glimpse of something glowing in the air. When she tried to focus on the beam that seemed to hang from the clouds, she felt dizzy. I’m still addled from Ao’s attack, she thought, and tried again to see what was flickering from the sky to the ground near the ruined castle. In a moment, her vision cleared and she recognized the wavering image before her.

A Celestial Stairway.

The stairway, which changed its shape continually as Mystra watched it, was a common path for the gods to travel between their homes in the Planes and the Realms. Though Mystra had rarely used the bridges to Faerun, she knew that there were many of them throughout the Realms and that they led to a nexus in the heavens. The nexus, in turn, led to all of the gods’ homes.

The stairway changed from a long wooden spiral to a beautiful marble ladder as Mystra, still bleary-eyed, watched it. Then the goddess suddenly realized why it was so hard for her to focus on the Celestial Stairway: It was only visible to gods or mortals of very great power. She was now neither.

That realization spurred the fallen goddess to action, and she set about to recover the shard of power she had hidden with one of her faithful in the Realms in the hours before Ao’s summons. Mystra started to cast a spell to locate her cache of power. Even in her nebulous form, the Goddess of Magic easily completed the complicated gestures and spoke the incantation necessary for the spell. But when she was done casting, nothing happened.

BOOK: Shadowdale
2.27Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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