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Richard Lee Byers

Whisper of Venom

PROLOGUE

19 MIRTUL, THE YEAR OF THE AGELESS ONE (1479 DR)

Is this wise?” Ananta asked.

Surprised, Brimstone turned, and his tail whispered across the cavern floor. Though the chamber was spacious, Ananta stood against the wall, her sturdy, scaly body wrapped in a gray cloak and her blackwood staff in her hand. In the course of her duties as guardian of Dracowyr, she’d no doubt learned to give wyrms room lest they accidentally step on her.

“Why, Ananta,” Brimstone said, “I didn’t know you cared.”

The guardian responded with what Brimstone had come to recognize as a frown, a slight baring of the fangs coupled with a twitch of the frills on the sides of the saurian head. The facial expressions of the strange new creatures called dragonborn had much in common with those of true dragons.

“My lord Skalnaedyr commanded me to look after you,” Ananta replied, “and so I do.”

The explanation lacked a certain warmth. Still, it pleased Brimstone to think that Ananta was at least getting used to him. Given his vampirism, perhaps that was much as he could expect.

“Well,” he said, “to answer your question, I survived the first time, and even if the magic misbehaves just as badly tonight, I daresay I can bear up again. And we needn’t assume it will. I’m a highly competent scryer, even if you couldn’t tell from my performance thus far.”

“Yes, milord,” Ananta said.

Brimstone turned back to the pool, if one cared to dignify it with that term. It was really more of a shallow puddle in a low place in the floor. A mirror or crystal orb might have suited him better, but it took time to import the amenities when one chose to lair in an earthmote, an island floating in the sky high above the wilderness known as the Great Wild Wood.

He stared into the water, focusing his will on it. He whispered incantations that both gathered mystical energy and helped put him in the proper receptive frame of mind.

In time, nothing remained but the pool and his desire to see what it could show him. Then the surface of the water turned gray with red sparks shining inside it. As it rippled, it looked like his own smoky breath weapon streaming forth from his jaws.

The water smoothed and cleared, becoming like a window opening on a deep, rocky bowl in the earth with crags and spires jutting from the top like the points of a broken crown. Their scales glinting in the starlight, dozens of dragons perched on ledges and outcroppings. Brimstone was peering out from the same high shelf he’d occupied when the convocation had happened in reality.

He stared at what appeared to be an empty balcony. He knew it wasn’t really, and after a moment two shadows appeared there, framed in an arched opening to the warren of passages honeycombing the rock. It was impossible to tell if they were ghosts or the spirits of living folk who’d temporarily left their bodies. Impossible as well to make out their blurred, wavering features.

When the event had really happened, Brimstone had attacked the phantoms, and they’d escaped. In the recreation, he simply gazed, whispered words of command, and willed their features to come clear.

The bulkier of the two figures resolved itself somewhat into what was probably a powerfully built human male. The implement in his hand was a staff. No, a spear.

His companion-

The view exploded into blazing light and heat. Seared and dazzled, Brimstone recoiled, and then, mercifully, the puddle was just a puddle again.

“What was that?” a deep voice snarled.

Startled, Brimstone whirled and beheld the newcomer. Alasklerbanbastos filled the opening between that cavern and the next. Perhaps the Great Bone Wyrm didn’t want to come all the way through because he feared his skeletal wings would snag and scrape on the rim.

Brimstone hated it when anyone sneaked up on him. He was supposed to do the sneaking. And it seemed especially unfair that anything as huge as Alasklerbanbastos could do it. Why didn’t all those bare bones clink together?

Frustrated by the failure of the divination, pained by the burns on his face and neck, Brimstone had to strain to maintain civility and to remember that he had no particular reason to hate dracoliches anymore. He could lay that quarrel to rest along with Sammaster, who’d created the undead wyrms.

“Greetings, Lord of Threskel,” Brimstone said.

Alasklerbanbastos came a stride deeper into the chamber. Sparks jumped and popped on his bones, and the air started to smell like the advent of a storm. Ananta backed away to give him extra space.

“I asked what that was,” the undead blue dragon said.

“Well,” Brimstone said, “you remember our convocation, when I laid out the precepts, and everyone agreed to them.”

“Of course,” Alasklerbanbastos said.

“I’m trying to use divination to discover the identity of the phantoms who came to spy on us. Unfortunately, some Power is opposing me.”

Alasklerbanbastos gave a disgusted-sounding grunt. “That was true daylight bursting forth from the pool.”

“I know,” Brimstone said. “Given my nature, the burns it inflicted are something of a giveaway.” He felt a tickle partway down his snout as one of the chars started to heal.

“I meant,” the dracolich rasped, “that the specific nature of the Power may provide a clue to the trespassers’ identities.”

“In theory, I agree. Unfortunately, Faerun abounds in spellcasters who can evoke sunlight. Now, my lord, what brings you here? Surely you didn’t travel so far just to assist my inquiry, especially since you didn’t know I’d undertaken it.”

“I came about Tchazzar.” Alasklerbanbastos hesitated. “You know he’s reappeared?”

“Yes,” Brimstone said.

“I want your assurance that he isn’t a part of this. That you won’t allow him to take part.”

“Thus condemning him to eventual servitude, exile, or worse.”

Logic indicated that it was impossible for Alasklerbanbastos’s fleshless, wedge-shaped skull of a head to smile, but Brimstone could have sworn that it did so anyway. “If you want to put it like that.”

“I regret,” Brimstone said, “that I can’t oblige you.”

The smile, if it had ever been there, vanished. A blue glow flared in the dracolich’s eye sockets, and more sparks leaped and crackled on his bones.

Ananta unobtrusively hefted her staff. It was her responsibility as guardian to enforce the truce that was supposed to prevail on Dracowyr. And though her weapon had formidable powers, her tense features made it plain that she didn’t relish the prospect of trying to subdue the colossal undead blue.

Brimstone didn’t feel especially enthusiastic about it either.

“Tchazzar didn’t attend the first assembly,” Alasklerbanbastos said.

“That doesn’t preclude his participation,” Brimstone said, meanwhile trying to decide which spells to cast, and in what order, if it came to a fight. “Not according to the rules.”

“Rules you cite without warning, as it suits you.”

“Complicated rules. Would you like me to teach you the entire codex? Do you have a few years?”

“Don’t mock me.”

Brimstone’s breath weapon burned painlessly in his chest and throat. He struggled with a spasm of anger,

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