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Authors: Paul Kemp

Shadow's Witness

BOOK: Shadow's Witness
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SEMBIA, BOOK TWO

SHADOW’S WITNESS

By Paul S. Kemp

CHAPTER 1
THE SUMMONING

The month of Hammer, 1371DR, the Year of the Unstrung Harp

 

The dim light from the guttering torches in the stairwell stopped at the edge of the doorway as though blocked by a wall of magical darkness. Conscious of Riven beside him and unwilling to show the assassin the nervousness which had him sweating beneath his robes, Krollir stepped briskly through the doorway and into the summoning chamber. Riven followed, wary and apprehensive.

When both had stepped through the archway, Krollir turned and closed the door behind them. Instantly, darkness as thick and impenetrable as scribe’s ink cloaked the room. The iron portal’s immense latch fell into place with an ominous, resounding click.

Familiar from long habit, Krollir felt around

in the blackness for the wrist-thick iron deadbolt, quickly found it, and slid it home. The shrieking grate of metal against metal set his teeth on edge. He quelled the apprehensive quaver that fluttered in his gut. I will succeed, he assured himself. I am the chosen of Mask.

Invisible in the darkness beside him, Riven’s breath came harsh and rapid. Blindness apparently made the assassin nervous. He no doubt suspected an ambush.

Krollir smiled behind the black felt of his ceremonial mask. His lieutenant’s nervousness amused him. Riven’s breathing reminded Krollir of the frightened pant of a wary cur.

Despite Riven’s earlier protests, Krollir had forbidden the assassin from bringing a torch or candle, even while descending the dimly lit stairs. Unsanctified light brought into the Shadowlord’s summoning chamber spoiled its holiness. Only certain spells and specially prepared forms of luminescence could safely light this room. His thoughts turned to the candles he had specially prepared for this night. He had spent months painstakingly Grafting them and carefully instilling them with power.

Though blind in the darkness, Krollir knew his lieutenant well enough that he could imagine perfectly Drasek Riven’s stance—a ready crouch with his back to the wall—his single eye darting about the darkness and both callused hands resting familiarly on his enchanted saber hilts.

Spitefully, Krollir let him simmer nervously in the soup of pitch darkness for a few extra moments. Let him wonder and fear, he thought. He had told Riven nothing; he required the assassin’s presence but left his purpose unexplained. He enjoyed keeping bis lieutenant off balance and making him nervous. Like all dogs born vicious, Riven occasionally had to be reminded of his master’s authority.

The summoning chamber of Mask—Krollir’s patron deity—fairly stank of power. Behind the stale must, the magical residue of past conjurations lingered in the dry air and ran tingling along Krollir’s nasal passages. No doubt Riven sensed it too, in his own thick way.

Inhaling deeply, Krollir drank in the sheer energy of the room while letting Riven stew in the dark.

The sinister majesty of the summoning chamber served as a pointed reminder to the one-eyed assassin that Krollir Venastin—the Righteous Man—was not only the guildmaster of the Night Knives but also a powerful servant of Mask the Shadowlord. Krollir was a man not to be challenged, even by the most dangerous of dogs. Riven’s nervousness indicated that he still grasped that point. The cur yet remained at heel.

Krollir allowed himself another satisfied smile that vanished when thoughts of his other lieutenant, Erevis Cale, entered his mind. Three days ago, he had sent word via messenger to Riven and Cale that they must attend him tonight. Riven had obeyed; Cale however, had sent the messenger back with word that he could not attend, that Thamalon Uskevren had an important business meeting that Cale could not miss without compromising his cover.

Krollir frowned thoughtfully. He fidgeted with a platinum coin in his robe pocket. Was Cale still loyal? The answer to that question was becoming increasingly unclear. Cale had an obvious fondness for the Uskevren, the noble family he was spying upon —an unfortunate but understandable fact—but did his ultimate loyalty still reside with Krollir and the guild?

Unsure of the answer and uncomfortable with the uncertainty, Krollir decided to put a tail on Cale. A guildsman to spy on the spy.

Though he highly valued Cale’s intellect and ruthlessness—the bald giant had served the Night Knives well for many years with his cutthroat schemes—he nevertheless realized that those same qualities made Gale a potential loyalty problem—a potential rival for Mask’s favor. Far more so than Riven. But would he dare an open challenge? Certainly Cale feared little—

“How about a blasted light?” Riven’s hoarse, disembodied voice interrupted Krollir’s chain of thought. “It’s as black as a devil’s heart in here. I can’t see a godsdamned thing.”

The tension in the assassin’s voice dispelled the disquieting thoughts of Cale and returned a smile to Krollir’s face. This cur, at least, remains obedient. Perhaps I should turn him loose on Cale he thought. That would make for an interesting dogfight.

Riven’s breath continued to come fast. Krollir fancied he could hear the assassin’s teeth grinding. He waited a moment longer before replying.

“Be at ease, lieutenant. You stand in the summoning chamber of Mask the Shadowlord, in the presence of Mask’s most prized servant.” He smiled and mentally added, In the presence of he who soon will be Mask’s Champion.

Riven replied through gritted teeth, “Grand. But I still need to see.”

Krollir chose to ignore the assassin’s sarcasm and softly intoned the words to a spell. Upon completion, a soft, diffuse glow filled the large chamber, enough light to create a patchwork of shadows but not enough to fully dispel the darkness.

The rough-hewn limestone walls of the chamber glowed softly in the pale light of the spell. Krollir turned to face Riven. As he had suspected, the assassin stood in a fighting crouch with both saber hilts clenched in white-knuckled fists.

“In this chamber, this light alone is acceptable to the Shadowlord.”

Riven nodded but made ao reply. His one good eye must have adjusted quickly to the darkness, for his gaze darted warily about the chamber, still suspicious. Krollir observed his hunting dog with professional detachment. He tried to follow Riven’s thinking as the assassin’s one-eyed gaze scanned the room.

The summoning chamber had but one means of entry and exit, something a professional like Riven necessarily disliked—predictable entry; predictable retreat. Thick hinges as long as daggers and bolts as thick as a man’s thumb affixed the door to the limestone. The great slab of blackened, cast iron looked able to resist a siege engine.

In the center of the chamber, strips of platinum inlaid into the smooth, polished floor formed a triangle. Flesh-colored candles as thick as a man’s forearm stood at each of its three corners. Riven would not know that the thaumaturgic triangle served to cage the extra-planar creatures that Krollir summoned to do his bidding.

He watched with a satisfied smirk—hidden by the felt cloth of his mask, of course—as Riven’s gaze took in the binding triangle and summoning candles. The assassin’s one good eye widened slightly, his fear of spellcraft evident in his expression.

I know you too well, lieutenant, Krollir smugly thought.

Riven understood little of spellcraft and its practice made him uneasy. As long as Krollir demonstrated the power of his magical arts from time to time, the assassin would never present a loyalty problem. Riven would never even aspire to become Mask’s Champion.

A plain, mahogany lectern stood at the apex of the

triangle. An open tome sat atop it, thick with knowledge and yellowed with age—the Shadowtome—a holy book of Mask that allowed Krollir to reach beyond this reality and summon…

“What are we doing here?” Apparently having recovered himself, Riven now sounded strangely calm, though he remained near the door and kept his back to the wall.

“All in time, lieutenant,” Krollir replied. He turned his back on Riven and walked ceremoniously across the room. The velvet of his gray robes softly whispered as he strode around the triangle and took position at the lectern. Gripping the cool, smooth wood on either side of the Shadowtome, he steadied himself for the ordeal ahead. When he felt ready, he ordered over his shoulder, “Come forward and light the candles, Riven. But do not disturb their position.”

He had expected the assassin to protest—for surely Riven would fear to take a direct hand in a summoning—but after only a moment’s hesitation, Riven walked calmly to the binding triangle, took a tinderbox from bis belt pouch, and struck flint to steel. Krollir watched him intently; he prided himself on his ability to read a man from the subtlest of actions.

Surprisingly, the assassin’s hands did not shake as he held a flaming cloth to each candle in turn. The corners of Riven’s thin-lipped mouth curled slightly upward. His goatee masked what could have been either a fearful grimace or a secret smile.

Strange, Krollir thought, but not entirely out of character. He had learned long ago that Riven masked fear with a show of calm bravado. Inside, the assassin’s guts were no doubt roiling like a butter churn.

Careful to disturb neither the candles nor place his hand within the platinum borders of the binding triangle, Riven soon had all three of the thick wax

towers lit. Wisps of stinking black smoke snaked from the dancing flames and rose toward the invisible vents in the ceiling. The room rapidly filled with the smell of rancid meat.

“What in the Nine Hells did you use to make these candles?” Riven asked. “They stink like horse dung.”

Krollir smiled softly—the materials used to craft the candles had been hard bought. He made no reply to the question. He inhaled deeply, steeled himself. He had summoned lesser demons many times before, but what he would attempt now…

Is suitable for Mask’s Champion, he reassured himself. “Stand away, Riven,” he commanded.

At his authoritative tone, the assassin shot him an irritated glare but nevertheless obediently backed away from the binding triangle. He padded back to his position near the door, behind and beside the lectern.

“You still haven’t explained what we’re doing here.”

Angered by the incessant questions, Krollir turned from the lectern to face the assassin. He spoke in a soft voice pregnant with power and heavy with threats. “Do I owe you explanations, lieutenant?” He emphasized the last word slightly, explicitly referencing Riven’s status as a subordinate; a replaceable subordinate.

The assassin’s good eye narrowed, but he swallowed whatever angry retort he might have been considering. His gaze went to the binding triangle and the unusual candles.

See in them my power, lieutenant, Krollir silently advised, and consider well your next words. If necessary, he would kill Riven where he stood.

Riven’s gaze returned to meet Krollir’s. His mouth remained a defiant rictus in the hairy nest of his goatee, but his words bespoke submission. “No. You

don’t owe me an explanation. I was curious, is all.”

Krollir smiled behind his mask. Heel, cur. He decided to drive another verbal splinter under Riven’s fingernails. “It is regrettable that Cale is not here,” he said, as though in passing. “I would have him share my moment of triumph.”

the assassin visibly stiffened at the mention of his rival Erevis Cale—and at the implicit recognition in Krollir’s statement of Cale’s superior status in the guild—but he ignored the bait. Instead, he asked, “Triumph?”

Krollir ignored Riven’s question. He enjoyed the assassin’s discomfiture at the mention of Cale. He had long encouraged the rivalry between the two men. He had chosen them as his lieutenants for that very reason. The hate that they held for one another lessened the threat to him that either alone would present. The two could never ally to overthrow him— one would always betray the other. When the time came—and it was coming soon—Krollir would kill them both. For he alone would serve as the Champion of Mask. The Champion destined to restore the faith of the Shadowlord to the status it enjoyed before the Time of Troubles, before the coming of the pretender god Cyric the Dark Sun. All of Krollir’s augurs and dreams had indicated that Mask would choose a Champion soon from among the Night Knives in the city of Selgaunt. Taking nothing for granted, Krollir had decided to assure his selection with the summoning tonight.

“Alone you will have the privilege of bearing witness to these events, Riven,” he grandly announced. “With this one act, the Zhentarim will be destroyed and our guild—my guild—will be elevated to preeminence in Selgaunt. Mask has mandated this course, and I obey.”

He waited for an appropriate reply but Riven held his silence. Krollir went on.

“With the power of the Shadowtome, I will reach beyond this reality into the darkest layer of the Abyss and summon forth a dread. I dare this in the name of Mask! I dare this for the guild I lead! Do you see, Riven?”

He had expected Riven to protest or recoil upon learning Krollir’s intent to summon a demonic dread— had hoped for it, in fact—but the assassin stood his ground, expressionless.

“I see,” he replied noncommittally. Though Riven spoke in a steady voice, he looked coiled as tight as a dwarf’s beard braid.

He is more nervous now than ever, Krollir thought with satisfaction.

He turned from Riven to stand over the lectern and peruse the pages of the Shadowtome. He had acquired the magical artifact from an ignorant curio dealer in Arabel. The oblivious fool had not been able to decipher the script and so had not known what he possessed. Krollir had sent Riven to purchase the tome, eliminate the dealer, and escort the prize back to Selgaunt. In all of the city, perhaps in all of Faerun, only he and Riven knew of the Shadowtome’s existence, and the assassin was too unschooled in the magical arts to appreciate its significance.

Within its pages of ancient, coded text, the Shadowtome contained the description and proper name of a mighty dread, the name and nature of its abyssal abode, and the means to summon and properly bind it. The dread named hi the tome dwelled in Belistor, a layer of the Abyss, a void of nothingness empty of normal life, but not empty of all life. Dreads resided there, greater and lesser, as did certain powerful undead. Because the denizens of Belistor existed in

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