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Richard Awlinson

Tantras

Prologue

Forester had lived in Shadowdale all of his life, and in the recent battle against the forces of Zhentil Keep, he had fought bravely to defend the bridge over the Ashaba River on the western edge of the dale. Now he toiled alongside his friends and neighbors, hefting bodies onto carts, trying to identify dead dalesmen. A cleric of Lathander who could write almost as well as Lhaeo, the scribe of the late Elminster, took down the names of the dead as the burly fighter called them out.

'Here's Meltan Elventree, Neldock's son,' Forester said flatly as he grabbed the dead boy by the arms. The fighter had ceased to feel miserable after he'd moved his dozenth corpse. Now, after having hefted over fifty dead bodies, including close friends and even relatives, Forester really only took particular notice when someone was noticeably heavy or light.

'Poor lad,' the cleric sighed. He moved his face close to the wax tablet he held and inscribed the name of the farmer's son. 'Neldock will be heartbroken.'

'He has another son,' Forester said coldly as he lifted the body into the rough wooden wagon that stood next to him. 'You know, Rhaymon, I thought you'd handle this much better. Lathander is the God of Renewal, right? You should be happy all these men are getting a fresh start.'

Rhaymon ignored Forester's sarcasm and read over the list on his tablet. 'So many young lads,' he said softly. 'So much wasted potential.'

After placing Meltan Elventree in the wagon, the giant-sized fighter stopped for a moment and wiped his long, stringy black hair out of his eyes. Like everyone else on the corpse detail, Forester was covered with sweat and blood and smelled of smoke and death. He brushed his calloused hands over his dull brown tunic and looked out over the scorched area around him.

A blue-gray haze hung over the forest outside the small town of Shadowdale. The fires that Lord Bane's troops had started with their flaming arrows and foolish magic had been doused by a miraculous rainfall, but smoke still hung in the air. Forester didn't even wonder about the huge eye that had suddenly appeared over the dale and shed a tear that saved the town and the forest from fiery destruction. After all, the gods now walked the Realms, and such wonders were almost commonplace. The tear from the heavens was no more or less awe-inspiring to the dalesman than the attack on the town had been, even though the God of Strife himself had led the enemy army to their doorsteps.

In fact, the residents of Shadowdale, like most of the men and women who lived on the continent of Faerun, felt numb, almost oblivious to the chaos that had surrounded them since the time of Arrival. On that day, all of the gods were cast out of the Planes and took over human hosts, or avatars, in various places throughout the Realms. Since then, everything that people had always regarded as constant had proved to be unstable.

The sun was erratic in its course. On some days, it didn't rise above the horizon, while on others four suns would appear and rise into the air like fireworks. One moment snow fell from the sky, and the next it was literally raining cats and dogs. Plants, animals, and even people were totally unpredictable-sometimes mutating into beautiful, magical things, sometimes changing into terrifying abominations.

Worst of all, the ancient art of magic had become completely unreliable, even dangerous to those who tried to use it. The mages, who should have been the ones to rectify the mysterious chaos in the Realms, instead became feared harbingers of it. Most magic-users simply hid away to meditate about the problem, but those who were reckless enough to try to cast a spell — any spell — found that their art was more unpredictable than the sun. There were even rumors that Mystra, the Goddess of Magic, was dead and that the art would never again be stable throughout the land of Faerun.

Even the great Elminster, the most powerful mage in the entire Realms, had fallen victim to the chaos. He was dead, supposedly killed by two strangers to the dale who had been sent with him to defend the Temple of Lathander. People all around the small town were demanding that the strangers be punished for the murder, that Elminster be avenged. Unlike the chaos rampant in the world around them, this crime was something the people of Shadowdale felt they could do something about.

For most people now accepted the chaos as a part of their lives. It only took a few scant days after the fall of the gods for the men and women of Faerun to realize that they had little control over their world, so they had best get on with their lives. Farmers once again tried to grow their crops, and craftsmen returned to their trades — even though their plants now talked to them occasionally, or their tools suddenly turned to glass and shattered to pieces.

In Shadowdale, the dalesmen had learned of the impending attack from Zhentil Keep, their ancient enemies from the North, and fought the battle with the evil armies as they did any other. Many brave men had died, and had it not been for the Knights of Myth Drannor and the Riders of Mistledale, Shadowdale itself might have been overrun. But the dalesmen had somehow managed to drive the invaders off. Now, as with any battle, the survivors were left to bury the dead and repair the damages.

The trade road leading northeast from Shadowdale, little more than a well-used dirt path, was filled with townsfolk and soldiers as they solemnly moved into the forest to stack corpses and dismantle the traps they had set for the Zhentish. The road crawled through the worst of the scorched forest and, since it was the site of much of the daylong battle between the dalesmen and the army from Zhentil Keep, most of the destruction wrought by the combatants was centered upon it.

As some of the men from the dale used teams of draft horses to topple barricades, others, like Forester, handled the unlucky task of gathering the bodies of their comrades and loading them onto the wagons. Most of the wounded dalesmen had already been moved from the battlefield to a makeshift hospital in the center of town, but occasionally someone would start to clear a stack of bodies only to find someone alive underneath the pile.

Forester realized he was staring at a pile of bodies and shook his head, as if to dislodge any unwanted thoughts from his mind. The fighter rubbed his dirty, sweaty neck and turned to the next corpse.

'Hey, Rhaymon! I need your help to move this one,' the fighter called to the cleric. 'He's too heavy for me to lift.'

'Who is it?' the cleric of Lathander asked softly. Ash and sweat covered his square jaw and wavy blond hair.

'I think it's Ulman Ulphor. No, wait… it's Bertil, not Ulman,' the fighter grunted as he took the sword out of the corpse's hand and took a firm grip on the body. 'I thought he wasn't trusted with weapons.'

'He wasn't,' the cleric sighed. 'But everyone who didn't leave town before the battle was armed.'

Rhaymon carefully placed the flat scrap of wood that held his wax tablet on the wagon, along with his stylus. The tablet held a list of the dead who had been identified, which Rhaymon composed in rough shorthand. Later he would transfer the list to parchment. That would normally be done in his room at the Temple of Lathander, but the temple had been destroyed in the battle. The cleric frowned as he thought of the ruined temple.

'Let's get at it,' Forester snapped. 'I don't want to be out here when darkness comes.'

Rhaymon grabbed the rotund corpse by the feet and helped the fighter toss it onto the wagon. As the cleric picked up his tablet and stylus again, a howl echoed through the woods. Rhaymon looked around nervously, but Forester chuckled softly and wiped his hands on his tunic.

'It's only a scavenger… some big cat or a wolf drawn by the smell of blood.' Forester shook his head and turned to the next body. When he saw that it was a young Zhentish soldier dressed in the black armor of the Zhentilar, elite army of Zhentil Keep, the fighter cursed. He dragged the body to the side of the road, where it would remain until the men collecting the corpses of the Zhentish picked it up. But as Forester turned back toward the cleric, the Zhentilar moaned softly.

'Damn!' Forester hissed. 'He's still alive.' He moved to the unconscious Zhentish soldier, took out his dagger, and slit the young man's throat. 'There's another who won't get away.'

Rhaymon nodded in agreement and motioned for another dalesman to come and move the wagon a little

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