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Jeff Grubb

Lord Toede

Prologue

In which we do not meet Our Protagonist, exactly, but in which we witness a wager being made in lands far from our own.

The face of the Abyss was the face of its goddess. Takhi-sis was the land, and the land reflected her moods. A light, pleased smile became an earthquake, a furrowed brow a new rise of mountains, a sudden irritation a thunderstorm of blood and dead creatures sweeping across her features.

And yet the face of this goddess was inhabited, for life crawled and scrabbled and clawed its way across her surface like fleas and mites across a seasoned world-traveler. Here the fiends prowled, the tanar'ri bathed in the blood of their victims, and the yugolotjhs capered with gleeful intensity. Here the moondarks sweptMow, hoping to snare some rising soul from the terrain, and the ground roiled with the passage of the bulette-liches, their bone- white carapaces knifing the soil from below. Here the pindizzers spun in their dervish-dance, the kothmew sharpened their scissorlike mandibles, and the eloda, blinded, hunted the damned by the reek of their souls.

Here in all its deadly splendor was the Abyss. For two observers, looking out on the blasted landscape, it was home. By rights, said observers should have been working on some soul-wrenching plot or Krynn-destroying plan, but even fiends from the lower planes take their five-minute breaks, their long lunches, their extended afternoons, hoping that their Abyssal masters do not need them (or at least do not notice them missing). Were these observers a pair of dwarven roustabouts, human idlers, or kender finders, no further notice would be taken of them, but they were not dwarves or kender or even men, but abishai, the chosen of Takhisis, the most mischievous and foul of the creations under her command. The pair resembled lizards, after a fashion, with long, fanged, crocodile heads and thick batlike wings, and they resembled men in their upright stance and cognizant eyes. Blood sweated from their scaled black hides and hissed as it struck the ground. They regarded the Abyss as servants would their master's house, with respectful awe and not a small bit of personal pride. Indeed, if not for them, who would look after things, keep matters in order, dust the odd crevice, and whatnot?

One abishai was long and lean, the result of too many turns of the rack. He had to stoop, his long knuckles grazing the ground, to bring his soft, whispering voice to the ears of others. He was one of the Abbots of Misrule, and his portfolio was to journey into the world of Krynn and dispense bad advice and terrible truths. By rights he should have been in Taladas, nosing softly into the dreams of a corrupt accountant the evening before a surprise audit, assuring said coin-counter that his embezzlement was perfect and none would catch him, so why not take a little bit more?

Instead, this particular abbot was taking a break, the dark equivalent of sneaking out to the alley for a few puffs with the mates. The tall reptilian creature surveyed the pandemonium around him and let out a contented sigh, stretching like a cat to his full height. 'Another day in paradise,' he said. His companion was shorter and more potbellied. This abishai's task was to maintain the souls of the truly and justly damned, the most evil of the evil, to contain them and prevent any chance of rivals to their dark mistress arising in the pits of the Abyss. For Takhisis knew the deadly danger of evil turning upon itself, and brooked no competition. Making sure, that was the fat abishai's task, he who was called the Castellan of the Condemned. The weight of this task was only exceeded by the sheer spine-numbing boredom of it all. The Castellan of the Condemned did not dwell on his lot in eternity, the fact that he remained in place while his companion got to jolly-ride about, spreading bad advice. Not often, at least.

At the moment, the Castellan just grunted and waved a claw at a nearby hillock. 'Looks like we have a tourist.'

The taller abishai grunted in agreement. A bright light had manifested halfway up the low rise, as if a star of pure radiance had been brought to the surface of the land. Its brilliance cast hard shadows on the surroundings, and the lesser creatures of the Abyss, unaccustomed to such a glow, fled squealing from its purity, tunneling deep into lairs or tumbling downhill to darker, more secure locations.

At the center of the radiance was the glittering white and steel form of a mortal, human-sized, with a great sword of solid crystal.

'Paladin?' guessed the taller abishai, shading his eyes with his overlong knuckles.

'Seems as if,' said the shorter one, squinting intalhe light. 'Definitely not subtle.'

'Storming the gates of the Abyss never is,' said the other. 'Here comes the first of the Heavy Brigade, representing our team.'

The bright light was eclipsed, if only for a moment, by the rising form of a charging fiend. A large specimen, such fiends served as the pit bulls of the Abyss, and this one had horns that would make a minotaur blush in inadequacy.

The observers did not see the paladin move, only the bright afterimage as the crystal sword traced a lightning-like arc through the fiend. The pit-creature fell away in identical halves, carved down the center.

'That had to smart,' said the Abbot. His companion grunted in agreement.

A second fiend took the first one's place and met a similar fate as the first, this one's separation being horizontal as opposed to vertical.

'Looks vorpal to me,' said the squat Castellan.

The taller one nodded, though neither showed any movement toward the scene of battle. 'Bet he shan't last five minutes,' said the Abbot.

'Bet he can,' said the shorter abishai. 'He's got the armor, fche sword, and the attitude. How about a cup of saint's blood against a breeze of a mortal's summer?'

The Castellan's tall companion nodded, his crocodile-like head turning the nod into an exaggerated bob. 'Bet taken. Starting now.'

The pair made themselves as comfortable as possible on a broken pile of smoldering rocks and watched the battle unfold. The Abbot of Misrule counted the seconds off on his fingers. Ten, then ten again, then ten again and so forth, ticking off the time.

Across the low valley, the legions of the Abyss marshaled themselves against the invader. Two more fiends tried to bring the new arrival down and were rewarded for their efforts with lost limbs and severed heads. A yugoloth met a similar fate. An abishai (for not all were malingerers) tried to sneak up from behind and aloft and was skewered for its effort.

'Was that the Padre of Pain?' asked the short observer.

'Probably,' said the tall one. 'He's always sucking up for attention and battlefield merits. One minute.'

Two more yugoloths fell in quick succession, along with another abishai whose blood-red wings were severed from his body. A wormlike beshak wrapped around the paladin's leg and exploded in a million shards from proximity to so much goodness.

'Two minutes,' said the Abbot.

The ground erupted beneath the paladin, and the chiti-nous maw of a bulette-liche broke the surface, seeking to swallow him in one gulp. The shining paladin jumped on the beast's snout, driving the sword deep into the decaying rot that was the creature's brain. The undead land-shark gave a sharp spasm and perished immediately. The paladin retreated up the beast's crenelated back as more creatures poured out of their lairs.

'I think he's dimming,' said the Castellan, a note of concern in his voice.

'That's just blood covering the armor. Three minutes,' said the Abbot.

A dark wave rose as the combined mass attack of twisted creatures sought to overwhelm the paladin. The armored human took out the closest rank of the beasts, stepped backward, nearly lost his balance, took out the next rank, and retreated again, until he was perched cen-termost on the body of the undead landshark that was resting on an ever-increasing number of other lower planar creatures.

'What is it that gives creatures like that such power?' asked the short observer, almost in admiration.

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