Read Shadowdale Online

Authors: Scott Ciencin

Shadowdale (2 page)

BOOK: Shadowdale
11.05Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

“No!” Mystra cried, and her voice echoed over the hills. “You cannot rob me of my art, Ao. I will not stand for this!”

The goddess tried to cast the spell again. A pillar of green energy erupted from the ground and moved quickly to engulf Mystra. She screamed as the energy struck her insubstantial form. Bolts of green light shot through the misty blue-white cloud that was the Goddess of Magic, causing Mystra to scream in pain. Her vision rested on the black clouds swirling around the glowing Celestial Stairway in the seconds before she lost all consciousness.

At the top of the stairway, at the nexus of the Planes, Lord Helm, God of Guardians, watched as Mystra was knocked unconscious by the misfired spell. Helm was still bruised and bloodied from Ao’s wrath, but unlike the other gods, he still retained the form he usually took in the Planes: A huge, armored warrior, with unblinking eyes painted on his steel gauntlets.

Helm’s eyes were clear, but they reflected his sadness as he turned and looked up at the pulsating black cloud that hung over him. “What of my punishment. Lord Ao?”

There was silence for a time. When Ao spoke, Helm nodded slowly. The answer to his question was not unexpected.

 

Awakenings

 

In Zhentil Keep, the heaviest rainfall the city had suffered in almost a year engulfed the narrow streets, but Trannus Kialton did not notice. Nothing could disturb his slumber. The shutters of the small rented room he shared with the beautiful but lonely Angelique Cantaran, wife of the most wealthy importer of spices for the city, quaked unnoticed against the forces that raged outside. Only a cool breeze that seemed to suddenly acquire form and coalesce in the darkness threatened to wake him, and then only when it had already floated across the room to the sleeping man and vanished between his partly opened lips.

Thunder roared, and Trannus dreamed of a darksome place where only the cries of the dying brought warmth to the resident lord, who was himself a shadowy figure on a throne made of jewel-encrusted skulls. Fiery red vapors flitted in and out of the skulls’ eye sockets, then vanished within the opening and closing jaws of other skulls that seemed to scream even now, long after their agonies should have ended.

The figure on the throne of skulls was too large to be a man, yet it had a vaguely human appearance. What garments it wore were black on black, with only the occasional streak of red to break the monotony. On its right hand, the creature wore a jewel-encrusted gauntlet, streaked with blood that would never wash off.

The room surrounding the throne was enshrouded by bluish mists. Although there seemed to be no walls, no ceilings or floors, there was a sense of oppression that smothered those unfortunate enough to be delivered to the hellish room before their final moments of life elapsed and they looked upon the true face of the hideous creature on the throne.

Yet now the fearsome being seemed content to sit alone, staring down into a golden chalice filled with the tears of his enemies. The lord of this terrible place, the god Bane, suddenly looked up at the dreamer and raised his cup in a toast.

Trannus woke with a start, gasping for air. It was as if he had been so engrossed in the dream that he had forgotten to breathe. Madness, he thought, and yet his hands and feet were numb, and he had to climb out of bed to stamp full sensation back into his tingling limbs. He felt a sudden urge to dress, and the cold touch of leather soon fell upon his skin. Angelique stirred, reaching out to him with a grin.

“Trannus,” she called, unsatisfied with only the warmth his body had left upon the silken sheets as a companion. She reached up and brushed the hair from her eyes. “You’re dressed,” she said, as if trying to convince herself of that fact and fathom a reason at the same time.

“I must go,” he said simply, although he had no idea of his destination. All he felt was an urgent need to be free of the confines of the building.

“Hurry back,” she said, settling into the comforting embrace of the feather-soft mattress, her dreamy expression echoing her confidence that he would return. Trannus looked at her and was suddenly taken with the knowledge that he would never see her again. He closed the door behind him as he left.

Outside, the heavy rain soaked him to the skin, and in flashes of lightning the streets of the city were revealed to him. He appeared to be alone, but he knew better than to trust appearances. The streets of Zhentil Keep were never truly deserted; they simply bore the illusion with the practiced grace only cutthroats and thieves could have taught them. In Zhentil Keep, the shadows lived and breathed, and monsters chattered in sharp, high-pitched tones from their dark hiding places. Strangely, he was left alone and allowed passage through the dangerous labyrinth as if the way had been cleared before him by a herald none would dare stand against.

Throughout his journey, Trannus thought of the dream. He imagined the streets were slick with the blood of his enemies, and the rain that fell caressed him like the tears of their widows. Lightning struck and loosed a section of a wall nearby, and debris crashed to the ground around him. And still the cleric traveled on, oblivious to everything except the siren call that gave strength to his weary legs, purpose to his sodden brain, and desire to his deadened heart. Trannus only wondered why he, a lowly priest in the servitude of Bane, had been given this vision, blessed with this desire.

Ahead lay the Temple of Bane, and Trannus stopped for a moment, mesmerized by the sight. The Dark Temple was a silhouette against the night sky, its imposing towers jutting upward like black serrated blades waiting to impale an unsuspecting enemy. Even when lightning flashed and the world was cast in sharp light, the temple was black, revealing not a single crevice in its granite facade. Rumors abounded that the temple had been constructed in Acheron, Bane’s dark dimension, then brought to Zhentil Keep, stone by stone, a river of blood and suffering the glue that cemented the temple together.

Trannus was surprised to find no guard stalking the temple’s perimeters. Then he heard the drunken laughter of the guard and his companion as it drifted toward him from the shadows. The sound filled him with a rage that was echoed by the storm’s fury.

Trannus looked up, and through the rain he could see heavy clouds race across the sky, moving impossibly in directions counter to one another. Suddenly the sky exploded and the great white clouds parted as streaks of black lightning issued forth. The heavens were on fire, the stars struck from view. Huge spheres of flame were hurtled from the sky, and one fireball came sailing down, ever closer, and grew to horrible proportions as Trannus realized it was headed for the temple.

There was no time to shout out a warning before the sphere struck the Dark Temple. Trannus was rooted to the spot, and he watched as the granite spires glowed reddish yellow, then sank into a molten heap. Bits of debris sailed to each side of him, but he was left unharmed. Then the cleric watched as the walls collapsed inward and the Dark Temple glowed red, the blood and torment of its past victims seemingly taking form and bubbling over as brick, metal, and glass were reduced to glowing ash and slag in a matter of seconds.

In the end, there was nothing but a flaming ruin where once there had stood a temple. Trannus moved forward, toward the wreckage of the temple, and wondered if he were still dreaming. The steaming, molten slag beneath his feet did not burn him, and the raging fires that filled his sight merely crackled and died away as he approached, allowing him a pathway to the center of the disaster. The flames reformed and resumed their dance once he had passed.

From the partially standing walls, Trannus knew that he was close to the throne room of his lord, and he stopped as the object of his quest rose up before him. The black throne of Bane had been left untouched. Soft, white mists drifted toward Trannus, and phantom shapes gently encircled the priest’s wrists as he was led forward without force until he stood directly before the throne. It was a throne only a giant could have rested in comfortably, and beside it sat a replica, this one constructed for the use of a man.

The jewel-encrusted gauntlet from Trannus’s dream rested upon the smaller throne.

Trannus smiled, and for the first time, his heart knew joy, his spirit release. This was his destiny. He would rule an empire of darkness. His dreams of power had been rewarded.

Dutifully he picked up the gauntlet and felt tremors of power surge through him. One of the jewels suddenly became a single red eye that flashed open, then followed the movements of the priest, although Trannus was blissfully unaware of the trespass upon his private ceremony.

Arcane rivulets of gold and silver flowed down from the gauntlet when Trannus gingerly slipped it on, and a biting pain pierced his arm as an evil fire corrupted his bloodstream. A darkness closed over the cleric’s wildly beating heart, and his blood became ice that flowed to his brain and washed away any traces of the man’s former consciousness. The words “my lord” escaped from Trannus’s lips as his soul was exiled from his body in a puff of white mist.

 

The Black Lord looked out through frail human eyes and felt a sudden weakness. He clutched the black throne for support and his mind, now pitifully limited to human understanding, reeled as he attempted to comprehend the changes taking a human avatar had wrought. No longer could he see beyond the mortal veil, and read or influence the moment and manner of his followers’ deaths. No longer could he see beyond lies and hapless circumstance, or bore heavily into a man’s soul and know the truth only found in the lower consciousness. And no longer could he witness a near infinite number of occurrences simultaneously, commenting and acting upon them in perfect concert as he occupied his mind with other pursuits.

“Ao, what have you done?” Bane cried, and felt the soft stone of the throne crumble beneath his powerful fingers. He struggled to maintain control of his rage. The others would come soon, the hundreds of other worshipers upon whom he had visited the dream, and Bane would have to be prepared.

The God of Strife sat upon the small black throne, attempting to ignore its counterpart that had once been his. My followers will look upon me and see only a human form, he thought, one of their kind gone mad with claims of visitations and possession by their god. They will put this body to death, once they finish torturing it for information on who truly leveled this temple.

The Black Lord knew then that he had to appear more than human in order to inspire his worshipers. He recalled the visage he had given himself in the dream and set about making it flesh. From contact with his followers, Bane knew that a treasure room was located somewhere beneath the temple, and he formed the image of a jade circlet and delivered a spell that would transport the object to his waiting hand. A moment later, armed with the circlet, he began to recite a shape change spell, his movements perfect and graceful, just as the spell required.

He began with the eyes, setting the orbs aflame within the human’s skull. The skin surrounding the avatar’s eyes could not accept the strain, so Bane altered the pale flesh until it became black and charred, then leathery with flaps that partially revealed secret hidden ruinations. The skull itself then grew sharp spikes that jutted from the blackened flesh, and the visage realigned itself to the most bestial configurations imaginable while still remaining human.

Bane’s hands became talons capable of rending flesh and bone or shattering steel. It became painful to wear the gauntlet, but Bane knew he had no choice if he wished to impress his worshipers. And he could already hear the plodding footfalls of his priests, soldiers, and mages as they made their way through the ruins toward the shattered throne room.

Bane sensed that something was wrong with the spell. He was certain he had performed the casting perfectly, yet the force that moved through him, effecting the changes he desired, had built up momentum and would not subside, despite his mental commands. The air surrounding him felt as if it had solidified, and would soon crush the life from him. He knew a moment of pure human panic and sought to end the spell. Instead, Bane found his new form dressed in black leathers and caked with unholy reddish blood.

The Black Lord shattered the circlet in an attempt to negate the spell, which had moved completely beyond his control. Instead of regaining his human form, Bane found that the effects of the spell had not vanished and he retained the monstrous form he had created.

Bane did not have time to ponder the spell’s curious behavior. The first of his flock appeared, armed and ready to destroy the desecrater of the Dark Temple. The Black Lord didn’t even give his follower a chance to speak before he stood upon the throne and spoke.

“Kneel before your god,” Bane said simply, and held the sacred gauntlet up over the hideously grim head of his avatar. The cleric instantly recognized the artifact and did as he was told, a shocked expression on his face. As more worshipers rushed into the ruined temple, they did the same.

Bane looked into the fearful faces of his followers and held back the laughter that raged within him.

 

Midnight closed her eyes and felt the morning sun wash over her, gentle fingers of warmth caressing her face. It was in these simple moments when a remembrance of life’s tender side overtook the magic-user and she was able to luxuriate in blissful forgetfulness of the trials she had recently faced. For close to twenty-five summers, Midnight had walked the Realms, and there was, she believed, little left that held the power to surprise her. Experience should have taught her better, she knew, especially since her current circumstances were, at the very least, quite unusual.

She had woken in a strange bed, in a place she could not remember coming to. Outside the window she saw a small clearing with a thick forest beyond. Wherever she was, she had not reached her destination: the walled city of Arabel, in northern Cormyr.

Her clothes, armaments, and books had been neatly piled upon a beautifully crafted dresser at the far side of the handsomely adorned room, as if whoever had handled them wanted Midnight’s possessions in plain sight. Even her daggers were left within reach. Stranger still, Midnight found herself dressed in a beautiful nightgown made of fine silks, the color of a winter’s first frost, white with traces of pale blue.

BOOK: Shadowdale
11.05Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

El retorno de los Dragones by Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman
Extinct by Charles Wilson
Almost Innocent by Carina Adams
A Lost Kitten by Kong, Jessica
The First Kaiaru by David Alastair Hayden
Captive by Brenda Rothert
The Ocean Between Us by Susan Wiggs
Christietown by Susan Kandel