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Bruce R. Cordell

Stardeep

CHAPTER ONE

Stardeep, Throat

Midwinter, 1375 DR

The Traitor lunged against his millennial bonds. Ethereal fires burned him, esoteric wards caught him, and synaptic blights stung him. His struggles availed him nothing but pain-but never enough pain to stop his heart. No, he transcended mortal weaknesses, including vulnerability to simple wounds, and even the need for food and water. His inability to perish due to neglect worked against him now.

Eldritch shackles allowed the prisoner to gesticulate, scream, and curse the black heart out of a demon, but only once during his long confinement had they failed to hold his physical form. He had nearly accomplished his life's goal in that instant. He had almost roused the old ones who slept away the ages.

But his wardens corralled him soon enough to thwart his catastrophic intention. His breakout was too short- lived for him to fulfill the ghastly deed that consumed his every thought. The Sovereignty. .

After his near success, the Traitor's chains were replaced with manacles of magic guaranteed unbreakable. He was sealed away once more in the hollow Well beneath a shimmering layer of warding sorcery.

For all the prisoner's frenzied writhing and threats of apocalypse, only light escaped the containment, harsh and exuberant with hate. It danced up the sheer sides of the Well. Colors bloomed into elaborate designs on the Well's circular interior. Now and then, violent prominences escaped the translucent, fiery barrier, illuminating the shaft for moments of stark clarity. The crash as of breakers on the beach murmured constantly up and down the shaft.

The boundary layer at the bottom of the Well, for all its agitation and turbulence, remained inviolate.

Which meant the Traitor remained secure, reflected Delphe.

'All's well in the Well,' she said aloud, her daily litany. Since she'd initiated the verbal routine, the prisoner had made no credible escape attempts.

She shook her head at such foolishness. Speaking aloud those few syllables each and every day was fallacy, she recognized, yet she indulged in it all the same. What of it? Of course, she'd never admit the silly ritual to her fellow Keepers, Telarian or Cynosure. They wouldn't grasp the humor in her few mumbled words, but instead would see them as a waste of mindspace, each for their own reasons. Telarian was too humorless, Cynosure too unimaginative.

Then again, you couldn't argue with success. She smiled. The few words she daily spoke were a comfort, a comfort built by habit.

From her crystalline chair poised over the Well's lip, Delphe saw at least three, but perhaps as many as seven different protective wards and guardian impulses sleeting through the ectoplasmic barrier layer at the Well's bottommost depth. The intensity and color of the images varied from day to day, and even from moment to moment, but all were within parameters she was trained to recognize.

Two vertical lines creased Delphe's brow. On closer examination of the barrier, she noticed that a particular orange hue of the prominences spiking up from below was. . unfamiliar.

Thankfully, Delphe had tools more potent than even her own arcane competency.

'Cynosure,' she said, 'what am I looking at right now? Is it new?'

A thin, cultured voice answered Delphe. 'Not new, but perhaps a mixture novel to your experience.'

The voice emerged from a ten-foot-tall humanoid forged of stone, iron, and crystal. The figure's stiff back was sealed to the ceiling above the Well, allowing it to stare unblinking into the containment fires. In all the years Delphe had served as Keeper, this particular homunculus of the many that composed Cynosure had never moved.

'Explain,' said Delphe.

'Of course,' Cynosure replied.

In truth, Cynosure's voice emanated from a circular crimson disc in the ceiling from which the figure hung. It was merely easier for Delphe to imagine the voice issuing from the stone figure instead of the ceiling. The voice continued. 'Notice the glyphs at the edges?'

'All the time.'

'They signify the containment layer is in good balance. They are potent restraining strictures, residue of the first delving,' described the voice.

'Yes, of course. I was referring to the orange prominences.'

'Certainly. I am providing background, so you'll understand what I say next.'

Delphe smiled. Hard to take offense with the simulated entity. Cynosure's mind wasn't confined only to the figure above, like a construct or golem. In fact, Delphe doubted Cynosure wasted any but a fraction of its precious sentience occupying the statue. After all, its arcane awareness stretched insubstantially between dozens of other effigies and red circular nodes scattered throughout the halls, tunnels, and galleries of Stardeep. Cynosure, a sentient construct with multiple awarenesses, was the perfect warden of the dungeon stronghold where the Traitor served his eternal sentence.

Cynosure continued. 'What you probably can't perceive, though I can, are wards swarming up from below the barrier interface. My wider, psi-assisted perception reveals these wards as yellowish sigils, teeming like fish. Simple mixing with the red-'

'Creates an orange hue? Are you serious?'

The shapes and colors visible upon and within the barrier were merely visual representations of a protective magical weave. Previous generations of Keepers had laid down disparate layers of security, all of them potent, though not all necessarily compatible. Still, instability of the barrier or activity on the Traitor's part would be visually detectable. So was it feasible for Cynosure to describe the activity in terms of mixing colors from the color wheel? She was a wizard of no little repute, and one trained specially in understanding the intricacies of the Well. If the. .

She paused.

The runic entity had a ponderous, but definite sense of humor, Delphe knew from past experience. A few years earlier it had insisted a singing chicken was assaulting the Causeway Gate humming the ballad King of Stars, and seemed to draw immense glee with each pronouncement of the patently ridiculous statement. Was it joking now? The mental construct forged when Stardeep was first delved had evolved many personality-like traits since its creation, if the oldest records in the annals could be trusted.

'Are you having me on?'

'Sorry, Delphe.' The voice relayed mischievousness.

'Do you think the Well is something that can safely be joked about?' Heat flushed her cheeks. Truth to tell, she was still slightly miffed by the chicken-on-the-Causeway incident.

'No, no! I merely implied the activity is not worth worrying about,' insisted the construct. 'Were it a true problem, making light of it would be my very last strategy.'

She rubbed her chin, the lights thrown up from the Well giving her face a pumpkin glow. 'Very well. Please keep an eye on it, will you?'

'What else would occupy me?'

Delphe sighed then finally chuckled. She shifted back in her seat. In some ways, her presence in the Well's Throat, or the presence of any living Keeper, seemed silly when compared to the resources Cynosure could bring to bear, both for watchful perception and raw physical power. Cynosure's mind and abilities were magnified-it was more than the sum of several constructs and nodes that shared the same consciousness, despite each being in a separate location around the stronghold. But the flexibility of a living Keeper had proven necessary, too. Elf Keepers were able to stem problems that a construct, no matter how advanced, was simply too constrained to deal with,

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