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Douglas Niles

The Coral Kingdom

Prologue

An evil god was Malar, the Beastlord-master of marauding monsters and misshapen creatures, deity of those who existed to kill, who relished slaying innocent, helpless victims. The grotesque shape of his immortal body resembled that of a monstrous black beast, like a malformed bear, with long, ripping claws and a coarse coat that dripped fresh blood. The essence of his evil soul formed a staunch pillar of darkness in the pantheon of the gods of the Forgotten Realms.

Restless, Malar seethed within the seat of his immortal throne. Fury fueled his foul nature, boiling, churning within him, compelling as release a savage depredation across the mortal lands beneath his sway.

And as was so often the case when Malar's hatred erupted, his target became the mortal race toward whom he felt a special enmity: the elves.

This is not to say that many dwarves, humans, halflings, and other benign creatures had not perished beneath the brunt of this foul god's wrath, but unquestionably elves were his favorite prey. So favored were they, in fact, that the Beastlord maintained a pet creature expressly for the purpose of slaying the members of that sylvan race. This was Ityak-Ortheel, the Elf-Eater.

In his vindictive hatred, Malar decided that Ityak-Ortheel should once again walk the paths of the Realms. The Beastlord summoned the monster from its mire-choked lair far down among the Lower Planes. The Elf-Eater arose from the sludge, revealing a huge mass of tentacles surrounding a domed carapace and one wide, mucus- streaked mouth-a maw where countless elves had perished in the past.

Malar knew of an elven land that was ripe for his onslaught, for it lay in a valley on a continent in flux, a place where new human cultures invaded, clashing with the old. As was always the case, such conflicts among humans created great dangers for the elves caught in the violence. Regardless of which human force prevailed, it would act vigorously to secure its borders. Any elven communities in the area faced automatic jeopardy.

For his target, this time, the Lord of Bones selected an elven tribe known as the Thy-Tach. The community had existed in peace for more than two millennia among the stately oaks of its pastoral vale. Far from the intrigues of Toril and Kara-Tur, the Thy-Tach elves had prospered without bloodshed or violent conflict for a very long time. They carved tall totems of wood and stone, placing these in honored sites throughout the forest, nourishing and tending the woodlands and wild creatures of the valley for many harmonious centuries.

Ityak-Ortheel changed that status very quickly. Transported through gates of arcane passage, the beast arrived in the midst of the peaceful village as evening approached, appearing with the quickness of a blinking eye. Tentacles flailing, the Elf-Eater lumbered through a pair of wooden houses, smashing them to splinters and quickly gobbling up the female and young elves cowering there. The Elf-Eater's huge bulk balanced upon a trio of legs-each club-footed, of huge girth-and this physical structure gave the monster a rolling appearance as it rumbled forward.

Screams of sheer terror rent the pastoral valley. Wooden walls splintered into a thousand pieces, while horrible tentacles probed, as if they had intelligence of their own, through the wreckage for survivors. When a tendril seized upon an elf-young or old, male or female-the terrified victim faced the consummate horror of the monster's mouth. The blood-red aperture gaped, and the last sights witnessed by the doomed elves were the churning plates of cartilage that thrashed, like giant tongues, within that horrid maw.

With a grotesque bellow, the monster roared through the village, crushing buildings, smashing the priceless totems, seizing elves with its snakelike tentacles. Cookfires sizzled and died, squashed by the beast's clublike feet. Great works of art, created from patterns of leaf and crystal, shattered beneath uncaring blows.

Some of the elves tried to fight. The bravest of them, males and females alike, took up bows or spears tipped with enchanted iron heads. The Thy-Tach fired these in courageous futility, watching as the sharp metal bounced harmlessly from the monster's rough carapace. Most of the attackers quickly felt the lashing of a tentacle around the ankle, precursor to a sudden and gruesome death.

Elven clerics, spiritual leaders of the tribe, struggled to gather the surviving Thy-Tach, fleeing into the darkness that settled over the forest. Stragglers fled the ruin of their town, gaining a precious few moments of time while Ityak-Ortheel searched the rubble for survivors-a few of which it found and quickly devoured. But within minutes, the monster knew that the village was empty and turned toward the forest in pursuit of the fleeing survivors.

The chief cleric, a matriarch nearly a thousand years old, led her people up the steep slopes of the valley toward a notched hilltop that had long been a place of honor and meditation among the Thy-Tach. Now, she knew, that place provided their only hope of escape. The cleric held before her a gleaming shape, like a platinum triangle balanced on its point, crossed by a spiderweb of silver threads. Now these threads glowed, and the cleric followed the direction indicated by their emanations.

The horrendous roars of the monster followed them, growing closer by the moment, as the stronger elves helped the weakest, both very young and very old, to make the difficult ascent. Trees splintered behind them, clearly marking the path of the pursuing beast. Seizing vegetation with its tentacles, the bulky monster barged up the slope, uprooting huge trees with the force of its enraged pursuit.

Reaching the hilltop, the priestess raised a powerful prayer to the elven gods, protectors of her race even as elven numbers dwindled across the Realms. The platinum talisman flared into light, and the deities of elvendom heard and granted their favor.

The hilltop surged into brilliant illumination, casting golden light across the darkened hills, opening as a shining passageway before the desperate elves. A broad path appeared, leading upward into the night sky, framed by a silvery arch of gleaming, translucent brilliance. In a single column, the Thy-Tach passed through this gate as the roars of the Elf-Eater grew louder. Infuriated, the creature watched in frustration as its prey slipped from its grasp.

The venerable priestess stood at the rear of the file as the monster loomed out of the darkness, and as the last of her people fled, she passed the gleaming triangle to a younger priest, the last elf to pass through the gate.

Finally the priestess stood alone before the mountainous presence of the Ityak-Ortheel. Serenely she turned to face the hideous form. As bloody tentacles enwrapped her, dragging her to inevitable doom within the monster's cavernous maw, the cleric's face relaxed into an expression of quiet bliss. Then the gate behind her faded, slowly replaced by the star-speckled vista of the night sky.

The monster flailed madly, thrusting its tentacles into the closing aperture. The young priest recoiled as he disappeared from view, but one grasping tendril actually touched the platinum icon before the male cleric stumbled away. Then, as the priestess perished, the light paled and the magical gate shrank into nothing.

The rage of the Elf-Eater was a thing that shook the world to its roots. The monster flailed about the mountaintop, knowing from past experience that its quarry was gone, for this was not the first time the monster had witnessed that hated triangle, had watched a tribe of elves escape through such a magical aperture.

Finally Malar called his pet back to the Lower Planes, where it could wallow in its filth and digest the victims who had failed to reach the glowing gate.

And while the Elf-Eater seethed in hatred, Malar pondered the elven escape. Too often had he been thwarted thus, and frustration was not a pleasurable sensation to a chaotic and vengeful god. He roiled and festered in his rage, trying to focus his fury into a grim determination.

But through his anger burned the memory of the gleaming triangle, the tool that allowed the elven escape. Never had the Ityak-Ortheel come so close-it had actually touched the thing! The god sensed the essence of the talisman through the touch of Ityak-Ortheel. Now its image burned in his immortal mind, compelling him to find it, for he knew that if he could follow the path of the talisman, he would be able to pursue the elves who dared to frustrate him by their escape.

One day, he vowed, he would learn the path of those who escaped him, and then vengeance would be

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