itu ne cede malis sed contra audentior ito
Whenever I think I can relax at last, someone hastens to brutally point out to me that I've fresh work to do: it's time to save the world again.
— Storm Silverhand
The sunset on the rugged flanks of the Thunder Peaks was glorious, but young Lord Summerstar did not give it a second glance. There'd be other sunsets to gaze at when he wasn't in such a hurry. He turned away from the window, not knowing he was turning his back on the last sunset he'd ever see.
But then, all too few folk know which sunset will be their last. And who's to say it isn't worse for those who do?
Once the sun was gone, the cold would draw down swiftly from the mountains, and folk all over Firefall Vale would go in to where it was warm, by a fire, and declare the fourth day of Flamerule in the Year of the Sword done.
Athlan Summerstar loved the vale-tucked away in the angle where the marching trees of the Hullack Forest met the western slopes of the Thunder Peaks-and why not? It was all his! Even so, richer, prouder nobles and knights in Suzail dismissed it as a backwater, if they knew of it at all. Soon that would all change. Soon men would speak with awe of the Summerstars of Firefall Keep.
Soon, he would master the book that floated in the glowfield in the hidden room at the heart of the Haunted Tower. The book was almost as tall as he, open to two fascinating pages of runes that crawled and writhed under his scrutiny. The tome fairly crackled with magic. It must have been floating there in its hiding place at the heart of the oldest tower of Firefall Keep since the death of his eldest uncle, Orm Hlannan Summerstar-or perhaps it had been a treasure brought back from dragon hoards in far lands by Athlan's father, Lord Pyramus. Athlan wished he could ask his father about it-he wanted to ask his father a lot of things, but that warm, strong voice was silenced forever now.
The seneschal of Firefall Keep had ridden with his father for years. Shoulder to shoulder, they wet their blades in battles for king and country. Better than anyone else alive, the seneschal probably remembered the laughing, stern-eyed, neatly bearded Pyramus….
Somehow, though, Athlan didn't want old Renglar to know about the book just yet. The scarred old seneschal had been a Purple Dragon for years before agreeing to serve the House of Summerstar. Whenever warriors of Cormyr came across any magical thing that had even a whiff of secrecy about it, they had a disconcerting habit of running to the same war wizards they grumbled so much about. This book might be no more than a patiently floating wizard's plaything, hidden away in Firefall Vale for years-but no doubt Renglar would judge that the 'security of the realm' hinged on it. . Then the place would fill up with grandly robed old wizards who'd eat and drink like warhorses, pinch maids' bottoms, deliver stern lectures to the unwashed bumpkins around them, and look down their noses at everything in sight.
As he approached the book chamber, Athlan snorted at the thought. The great Storm Silverhand had shown him a lot of things when she trained him-things that would make those pompous wizards faint dead away and fall over backward like toppled dolls. Why, if even his fellow knights of the realm knew half the things the Harpers hereabouts worried about every night, they'd ride hard and fast back to Suzail and never again dwell so close to mountains where ancient dragons slumbered, and towers where ghosts walked, and-
He came to a sudden, shocked halt, and raised his lantern to peer about the long-hidden room behind the statue, just to make sure. It took only a few glances to confirm what he already knew: the book was gone.
There was the smallest of sounds, off to his left. Athlan whirled to face it, hand going to the dagger at his belt. He'd seen a thing or two to make the servants' whisperings about the Haunted Tower seem a little more than empty fancies, but. . there was nothing there.
Athlan took a wary step back, and looked to his right. Nothing. A boot scraped on stone very close by to his left, and he whirled-in time to meet a dagger cutting hard into his tongue.
He tried to roar, or scream, or-but all he managed was a gurgle. Something smooth and sharp and icy slid into his spine, and on into his vitals, to burst forth from his chest dark and wet with his own blood…He stared in disbelief at the slim sword-was that all? An instant and he'd be … dead?
The young Lord Summerstar sagged as the chill became a sudden fire that seemed to burn away all the strength he had left, and … Firm hands held him up.
The white fire blazed up and into his brain. He looked into the two dark, watching eyes of his murderer. Then the white fire told him things, and he wanted to scream.
He struggled to cry out, choking and heaving and… drifting away on the flowing white fire. It was too late for young Athlan. Too late …
The lantern fell from failing hands. It burst on the stones with a brief roiling of flame.
'Athlan Summerstar,' a voice murmured in the sudden darkness that followed. 'Head of a minor noble house. Harper, knight-and dreamer, like all of them. Perfect.'
The body of the young noble seemed to shrivel. Trickles of ash fell from where eyeballs had once been.
The calm voice Athlan could no longer hear continued, 'Almost worth spending a day as a floating book for. Almost.' The flames brought the speaker childish memories of beautiful women and riding in the vale and so-so sword skills, and … complete, room-by-room knowledge of Firefall Keep.
'So there are ghosts,' the voice said into the darkness, in tones of surprise-as a light husk of a body slumped to the floor. 'And I guess I'm one of them.'
The snake-woman screamed, a shriek of rage that echoed through the temple.
Storm Silverhand turned her head toward the sound. With a vicious backhand slash of her blade, she struck aside the cruel, long-eared face of the cambion she fought.
She saw Maxer's blade cut down on the snake-woman. A spurt of black blood caught fire. One of the marilith's shapely arms, still clutching its sword, flew away, spinning in the air amid flaming gore.
Storm whimpered as she turned back to strike away the cambion blade that sought her own throat.
'No!' she cried, knowing what was coming. 'No!'
But she was spared nothing. With dreadful slowness, as she snarled in desperation and kicked away the last foe in her path, beginning her charge too late and too far back, she saw the marilith's snakelike tail rise into view…. Behind him. Behind her beloved. He fought on, unaware. Sparks flew around him as, with powerful swings of his sword, he beat back her three thrusting blades.
Storm slashed out behind her, felt her blade strike something, heard the same squalling scream that always sped her on her vain charge, and wept aloud as she leapt and ran and leapt again, knowing she would be too late.
She was always too late.
With almost loving gentleness, the snakelike tail curved, its tip twitching-and then struck. Maxer rose for a moment, eyes bulging in alarm as he fought to turn and hack at this new peril. The snaking bulk quivered, swayed fully upright, and surged powerfully.
'No!' Storm cried, running for all she was worth.