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Mark Anthony

Crypt of the Shadowking

Prologue

The thief made his way through the dark, labyrinthine sewers far beneath the city of Iriaebor. The foul, murky water swirled around his thighs, sucking at his boots with every step. He hugged the tunnel's slimy tiled wall as he moved. Darkness was a thief's best friend, and he wore it like a soft, enshrouding cloak.

The tunnel ended in a vaulted chamber, a junction where several pipes spewed their filthy contents into a larger passageway. A few wan beams of light filtered down from a narrow iron grating above, and the thief froze. His small, close-set eyes glittered like hard, black stones. Voices drifted down from above with the torchlight.

'I tell you, if we don't find the little thief there's going to be the Abyss to pay.'

'Worse than that, there'll be Bron to pay. The city lord won't take kindly to hearing a prisoner's escaped his dungeons. Gods know, it'll give every rat in the whole bloody place the notion to try to escape.' The raspy voices drifted away with the sound of booted feet, and the thief relaxed.

He saw now that one of the tunnels opening into the junction was dry inside. Perhaps it led to some unused part of the dungeon, or maybe even beyond. At any rate, it would be better than forcing his way through the stinking swill that flowed through the rest of the sewers. He climbed up into the empty tunnel, relieved to be where it was dry. The tunnel was tall enough that he could run in a hunched position, his fingers lightly brushing the sides, warning him of any turns. He quickened his pace, sensing freedom ahead.

There was no way in the blackness that the thief could have seen the wide, jagged crack that crossed the tunnel before him. When his foot struck the crack's edge he nearly managed to catch himself, but then the rotting tiles beneath his feet crumbled. The thief screamed once. Then he was falling, down into endless dark.

How long he had lain there on the hard stone, the thief did not know. A day, maybe more. His tongue was parched and swollen, and the blood on his face had dried into a hard, painful mask. That he was dying was certain. He could not feel his left leg, and his right arm was shattered. The ragged breaths he drew were labored, shallow, tasting of blood. Each one was agony.

He didn't think he was in the sewers anymore. The stone beneath him was rough and jagged, not hewn by human hands. More likely it was some natural cavern, far below the city. He wondered if anyone had ever come this way before. Perhaps, he told himself. Perhaps not.

With great effort he managed to crack open his eyes. It was several minutes before he realized that he could see. Here, where there should have been only darkness, there was light. Welling up from the stone some distance before him was a dull, red glow. Hope flared in his heart. Was there someone there, someone who would get him out of this blasted hole? Somehow, using his one good leg and his unbroken arm, he managed to inch his way at a snail's pace toward the light. The pain was dizzying, threatening to tear him apart, but he went on. He would do whatever it took to survive.

Finally, after what seemed a lifetime, he reached the edge of the ruddy illumination, and his head sank to the stone in despair. He had reached the edge of a chasm. He could see the other side, a dozen feet away in the dimness, but it might as well have been a league. There was no going onward. There was nowhere he could go, except down.

He peered into the chasm. It was from here that the faint, red glow rose, like a fine vapor on the still air, but from what source the illumination sprang he could not say. The chasm seemed to delve down into the earth forever.

He felt a sharp pain in his hand. He turned his head and found himself gazing into the bright crimson eyes of a rat. It was chewing ravenously at his thumb.

'Curse you,' he croaked, trying to brush the rat away. The creature simply sidestepped his feeble motion and continued to gnaw at his battered flesh. The thief could not defeat it. He laid his head down, willing the darkness to take him.

The rat squealed in agony.

Startled, the thief cracked his eyes open once again. The rat writhed in pain before him, bathed in the dull red glow emanating from the chasm. In moments its struggling ceased, and it lay dead. That was when the voice spoke.

Serve me, and you shall be made whole.

It was a dry voice, as dusty as old death. The thief shrank from the sound of it. He could not tell where the voice came from, only that it was there.

Serve me, and I shall make you whole, thief.

The words came from the chasm itself, he realized, rising up from the unthinkable depths with the haze of blood-red light. The voice was ancient, enormous, and the thief shriveled beneath it. Yet its words lit a spark of dark hope in his heart.

You are dying, thief. Will you accept?

He tried to wet his lips, but his tongue was as dry as sand. Finally he managed to croak a few words. 'Who are you?'

I am darkness.

The thief shuddered at those words. For a moment his mind caught a glimpse of something vast and terrible, ancient yet alive, and hungry, so enormously hungry. He realized this voice reaching up was just a thin tendril of the entire being that waited, down there in the darkness. The thief felt his soul withering. His whole being screamed to let death consume him.

But he had vowed to survive.

Do you accept?

With agonizing effort the thief lifted his head and peered unblinking into the endless depths of the chasm. 'Yes,' he croaked. There was a vast rumbling deep below, almost like laughter.

Then be made whole, thief!

From the depths of his broken body, the thief screamed. His back arched rigidly, lifting him off the cold stone. White-hot fire seared through him, burning away all that he was. But then cool darkness quenched the fire, drowning him, and he knew no more…

… for a time.

One

The purple gloom of twilight was deepening into night as the traveler rode toward the gates of the city. Torches flickered on the high stone wall that stood on the far bank of the slate-colored river, and beyond, on the dark crag looming above the city's center, a thousand spires rose like silent sentinels into the leaden sky.

The hooves of his mount-a pretty gray mare with a fine, noble head-thudded dully against the damp stones of the road. She was weary, her flanks stained with the sweat and mud of a long journey. Her rider leaned forward to scratch her roughly behind the ears, an action which brought a soft nicker of appreciation.

'Not much farther, Mista,' the rider told her. 'We're almost home.' As if she understood the words-and in truth the rider was not at all certain that she didn't-the horse quickened her pace, lifting her delicate legs a bit higher off the rain-slickened cobblestones. The rider took a deep breath of the moist air. The fine, steady rain had ended only an hour ago, and his midnight blue traveling cloak was dusted with tiny, pearl-gray droplets. The cloak was worn and faded, stained with long years of travel, and in places it was more patches than anything else. But it was a good cloak, its wool still thick and warm, and in this it was much like the man who wore it. He was not a young man. Seven years of wandering the Realms had carved their mark upon his angular, almost wolfish face, and though his green eyes were clear, their color was as faded as the cloak thrown over his broad, sharp-edged

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