Authors: Elaine Cunningham
Counselors and Kings, Book One
The wizard’s shoulders burned with fatigue as he forced himself to lift the machete one more time. He hacked at the flowering vines, but the tangled mass was so thick that it seemed to shrug off his blows. A burst of shrill, mocking laughter erupted from the green canopy overhead, a maniacal sound that held a rising note of hysteria. Several of the men with him froze, their dark eyes glazed with trepidation.
“Nothing but a bird,” the wizard snapped, desperately hoping that he guessed correctly. “Are you masters of magic or timorous milkmaids? Has Akhlaur’s treasure lost its allure? Perhaps you’d prefer to pass your remaining days as a magic-dead wench crouched beneath a cow’s udder? I assure you,” he added darkly, “that could be arranged. Now, get back to work.” He punctuated his command with another angry whack.
He focused on his anger and goaded his men into doing the same. Anger kept them moving. Fear was something they ignored as best they could, for in the Swamp of Akhlaur, even a moment’s hesitation could be deadly.
An enormous, luminous green flower snapped at the wizard, missing his ear but dusting him with pollen that glowed softly and smelled like mangoes and musk. He sneezed violently and repeatedly, until he feared that the next explosion would surely expel his liver through his nostrils. When at last the spasms passed, he lashed out with his machete and sliced the blossom from the vine. He knew better than to kick the massive flower, but he dearly wished to.
The wizard had come to loathe the swamp and everything in it, but for these flowers he reserved a special enmity. Monstrous in size and appetite, the swamp blossoms snapped randomly and unexpectedly. Their cup-shaped blossoms were ringed with thorns that curved like a viper’s fangs and held poison as deadly as venom. What they caught, they kept. A spray of iridescent blue tail feathers protruded from one tightly clamped blossom. On the ground nearby, low-growing vines entwined the nearly skeletal form of a wild boar. Tendrils of green spiraled around exposed ribs. A flower bud nodded over the juncture of a dagger-sized tusk and massive skull, like a child admiring the work of its deadly parents.
The wizard redoubled his assault on the vines. His hair clung to his forehead in wet strings, and his fingers itched with the desire to cast a spell that would wither the dangerous green barrier into dry and crumbling twigs.
But he dared not. He had brought a company of wizards into the Swamp of Akhlaur, armed with enough spells and potions and enchanted weapons to take them from one new moon to the next-or so he had thought. Already their store of magic ran dangerously low.
How was it possible that in just three days they were forced to replace magic with muscle? What other equally vital errors might he have made? What secrets did the swamp hold that might prove beyond their dwindling powers?
Doubts plagued the wizard as he and his men hacked their way through the thick foliage. Three days in the Swamp of Akhlaur had thinned his patience, his confidence, and his ranks. Twenty men had followed him into the swamp, only thirteen had managed to stay alive. That was no small accomplishment, not when every day brought unexpected dangers and merely breathing was a great effort. His chest throbbed with a dull, heavy ache from battling air as thick and hot as soup.
The wizard had thought himself well accustomed to heat, for Halruaa was a southern land where seasons were denned by patterns of the rains, the winds, and the stars. But never, never had he known such heat! The swamp was a cauldron, a fetid, foul thing that simmered and bubbled and spat.
Water was everywhere. It dripped from the leaves, it enshrouded the shallow waters with mist, it sloshed about the men’s ankles. At present they skirted a strangely brooding river. The surface of the water rose in slow, green bubbles that spewed stench and steam into air too moisture-laden to receive either. Odors lingered in the stagnant air, as land-bound as shadows, commingling but still distinct enough to identify: swamp gas, decay, venom flowers, sweat, fear.
Fear. The wizard could taste the sharp, metallic bitterness of it in his throat and wondered why. He, Zilgorn of Halruaa, was no coward. Wizardry was a demanding and difficult path, and no wizard without a strong will and a stronger stomach could become a necromancer. Zilgorn courted death, he bought and sold death, he shaped it to his will. It seemed reasonable to him that he should succeed in the deadly swamp where so many other wizards had failed.
He glanced at the ancient, sweat-stained map he clenched in one hand. His first master, Chalzaster, had spoken of his ancestors’ lost village as a place on a hill overlooking a fair meadow, with the swamp beyond. The meadow and village were long gone, swallowed by the eerily growing swamplands, but a hill was a landmark worth seeking. It was all Zilgorn had-that, and the legends that whispered of magic-rich treasure, and the knowledge that many had died trying to claim the legacy hidden in the swamp.
“How much longer?” demanded one of his apprentices. The young man squinted up into the thick green canopy. “We’ve been working since dawn, and it must be nearly highsun. Yet how far have we gone? A hundred paces? Two hundred?”
“Would you rather swim the river?” snapped Zilgorn.
His retort drew no response but sullen stares. The apprentice shrugged and lifted his machete high overhead. He swung hard, and his blade grated against hidden stone.
Several of the men exchanged hopeful glances. “Akhlaur’s tower?” one of them breathed.
The wizard chuckled without mirth. “Hardly! If this quest was so easy, why has no one yet succeeded?”
His followers looked doubtful. This, easy? In three days, they had spent more time in battle than in exploration. Two men had been lost in sinkholes, and another had been crushed and swallowed by a giant snake. Four battle-scarred figures shuffled along behind them with the obedient, mindless gait of the animated dead. The presence of these zombies, their former companions, unnerved some of the younger members of the party, but Zilgorn knew better than to leave the dead lying around untended.
“Not Akhlaur’s tower,” he said in a milder tone, “but worth exploring all the same. Strip the vines from the stone.”
They fell to work, grunting and sweating as they attacked the foliage, ripping at it with knives and their bare hands. Suddenly one of the wizards fell back with a startled oath.
Zilgorn hurried over for a better look. The skeleton of a tall man stood erect, arms held out dramatically high as if to cast a final spell. Vines twined through the dead man’s empty chest, and his skeletal back was propped against a tall, rune-carved stone. Lying amid the moldering tatters of his robes was a tarnished medallion. Zilgorn could barely make out the engraving: a rising flame in a circle of nine stars, the symbol of Mystra, goddess of magic. He turned the medallion over and studied the sigil, a magical design unique to a particular wizard, that was engraved upon the back. It was a mark he knew well.
“Chalzaster,” he murmured, lifting his gaze to the empty eyes of his first master. “So this is what became of him.”
A heavy silence fell over the group. The name Chalzaster was familiar to them, for they had seen it on many a spell scroll. An archmage of the illusionist school, he was most famous for creating defensive spells against attacks by sea. Many would-be invaders had been kept at bay by his illusions of pirate ships, sea monsters, and waterspouts. His name had become proverbial: “Chalzaster’s shadow” was a catchphrase for anything fearful but insubstantial.
“The swamp killed the archmage Chalzaster,” one of the men muttered. His tone and his eyes were hopeless, defeated.
“Yes,” Zilgorn agreed evenly. “This is an unexpected bounty. You, Hazzle. Collect the finger bones.”
The young wizard set to work without hesitation. He was well on his way to learning the necromancer’s art, and so he understood that the bones of an archmage were most likely components of some rare and powerful spell. After a few moments, Hazzle spilled the grim treasure into his master’s hands.
Zilgorn carefully slipped the bones into a bag tied to his belt. “Look around. Who knows what Chalzaster might have found before he died.”
They worked until the shadows turned dusky and deep, until the distant snarls of night-hunting creatures heralded a rising moon. At last they freed Chalzaster’s bones from the vines. The great wizard had died guarding the portal to a large, crumbling stone building that had long ago been swallowed by the swamp.
Zilgorn thrust the skeleton aside and peered into the darkness. “Bring a light. Quickly!”
It occurred to him, too late, to specify that he wanted a mundane torch, an oil-soaked reed set aflame by sparks from flint and steel. Out of habit, one of the wizards conjured a floating sphere of soft blue light. The glowing sphere bobbed gently, then glided into the room.
Zilgorn’s reprimand died unspoken as azure light fell upon the room’s grim occupants. Chalzaster had not died alone.
The bones of at least a dozen large humans and the more delicate remains of three half-elves lay sprawled on the floor, the skeletons strangely intact. Bony fingers still curled around valuable weapons: swords, pikes, and daggers. These people had died quickly, and they had been left to lie where they fell.
The wizard glanced around the room in search of some explanation. The walls, though ancient and crumbling, were decorated with remnants of carvings depicting legends told of the goddess Mystra. Zilgorn could barely make out a shattered marble altar amid the heap of stones against the far wall. From one tilting pillar dangled a hanging censer designed for the burning of incense, but which now held an abandoned bird’s nest. Clearly this had once been a Mystran temple, and most likely the ancient site from which Chalzasters forebears had come. Apparently the archmage had returned to his ancestral village. But why had he died here?
Zilgorn stooped to tug a sword from a crumbling fist. He studied the markings on the blade. They were magical, of that he was certain, but he felt no pulse of life within the steel. A very fine tiger’s eye, a golden gem nearly the size of a pullet’s egg, had been set into the ornate hilt. But the stone was dull and milky, as if the sword had been blinded.
“Not blinded,” Zilgorn murmured with sudden understanding. “Drained.”
“Master, look at this!”
Hazzle’s voice blended excitement and awe. The necromancer dropped the magic-dead sword and strode across the room. His apprentice pointed toward a crystalline statue, a transparent, life-sized image of an elf warrior frozen in a battle-ready crouch, muscles tensed for a sudden charge.
The statue was female, exquisite in the beauty of its subject and the artistry of its crafter. Zilgorn had never seen its equal. Yet certain things about the statue troubled him. The elf woman’s lovely features were frozen in a rictus of pain, and her crystalline hair hung strangely lank.
Absently he brushed at his own damp black locks. A horrible suspicion took root in his mind and began to blossom.
“The warriors fell with their weapons,” he mused. “Chalzaster, an archmage, died on his feet But what of this elf woman?”
“Elf woman?” Hazzle was clearly disconcerted by this notion. “This is but a statue, a treasure from some long-lost time.”
“Is it?” said Zilgorn with dangerous calm. He fisted his hand and drove it toward the crystal warrior. As he suspected, his hand plunged deep into the translucent image. What he did not expect was the bitter chill that assaulted him, not merely the cold of death, but the utter absence of warmth that spoke of a void, a frigid absolute emptiness. Zilgorn jerked his hand free and showed his student the blue-white skin.
Hazzle sucked air in a quick, startled hiss, and several of the men made signs of warding-a superstitious, peasant-brained response to the unknown, something that would have irritated Zilgorn had he not been consumed with more important matters.
The wizard shook his hand until a measure of warmth and feeling returned. He tore a corner from the parchment map and walked back to the bones of his former master. Taking Chalzaster’s medallion in one hand, he pressed the parchment against the sigil. During his apprenticeship, he had been magically empowered to affix Chalzaster’s sigil to the spell scrolls he copied, thus marking them as authentic copies of the archmage’s work. This power was his to command until the day he died, so by this reasoning the sigil should burn a glowing red shadow of itself onto the parchment
But it did not. Whatever magic the medallion had once held was long gone.
Zilgorn rocked back on his heels and considered this. Chalzaster had no patience for anything mundane or magic-dead, so every person with him had surely been a wizard, or possibly a cleric. All had died quickly, according to the power they held: most of them in the act of attacking, the great Chalzaster in mid-spell. But the elf woman, a creature whose essence and body and soul were fashioned of magic as surely as a rainbow was made of light, had been drained so quickly that she had left nothing but a transparent, profoundly empty image. Zilgorn had never heard of such a thing, but he knew death well-well enough to see his own death foretold by the bones of Chalzaster, and his pretensions of magical power mocked by the elf’s frozen ghost.
The necromancer stiffened. “Away from here! Flee this place at once!”
The panic in his voice lent wings to the other men’s feet. They charged from the ruined temple and stumbled frantically down the narrow path.
They pulled up short at the water’s edge, eyeing the dark, simmering surface as they struggled to calm their frenzied breathing and quiet their pounding hearts.
It occurred to Zilgorn suddenly that the swamp had become eerily silent At twilight, the swamp usually seethed with life, but no crocodiles roared from the shallows, no birds shrieked or twittered in the canopy, no monkeys scolded. Even the insects had stopped humming. The swamp itself seemed to be huddled down, wary and watchful.
Then a terrible thrumming roar ripped through the air, at once both as deep as thunder and as shrill as a falcon’s cry. Zilgorn, dazed and defeated though he was, thought he heard a dissonant chorus of lost voices reverberating through the inhuman roar. One of those voices he knew well.