The Spectral Blaze

Richard Lee Byers



Cera Eurthos and her two companions had locked the spirit of Alasklerbanbastos, the Great Bone Wyrm, in the charred, rotting corpse of Calabastasingavor, a younger, smaller blue dragon. Yet the undead horror at the bottom of the big, open grave seemed scarcely less menacing for that. He gave a rasping laugh, and despite herself, Cera flinched.

Alert for any hint that the dracolich was about to attack, Aoth Fezim had his glowing blue eyes locked on him. Yet somehow he sensed Cera’s pang of fear, reached out, and gave her forearm a reassuring squeeze.

“All right, human,” Alasklerbanbastos said. “I’ll tell you what you want to know. But I warn you. You won’t like it very much.”

A surge of excitement washed Cera’s fear-although not her caution-away. Ever since Chessenta’s troubles began, she, Aoth, and their allies had sensed hidden forces acting beneath the surface of events. Amaunator had tasked her, his priestess, with solving the puzzle. The mission had taken her through captivity, torture, and constant danger. But it appeared she’d groped her way to the truth at last.

“We dragons,” Alasklerbanbastos continued, “are playing a game.”

“Please,” said Gaedynn Ulraes. He was as tall and lanky as Aoth was short and burly, and his impeccably brushed and combed hair gleamed even in the pale moonlight, although night had dulled it from coppery red to gray. “We didn’t haul your scaly, decaying arse back into the mortal world so you could put us off with trite metaphors. Cera, give him another dose of your light.”

Cera focused her will on the black, egg-shaped gem in her hand. At certain moments it looked solid, and at others like a shadow with tiny blue lightning bolts flickering inside it. Mostly it was cold, although occasionally it gave her a sudden hot sting. But however it looked and felt, it was ever the source of the dracolich’s immortality and his tether to earthly existence. And she, Aoth, and the wizards in his service had altered it so she could infuse it with Amaunator’s holy sunlight and wrack Alasklerbanbastos with pain.

“That’s unnecessary!” Alasklerbanbastos snapped. Sparks, a petty manifestation of the lightning that was part of a blue dragon’s essence, jumped and popped on his torn and slimy hide. “I’m speaking the truth as plainly as I can, whether or not you have the wit to understand it. We wyrms are literally playing a game.”

Aoth pressed a fingertip to his mail-covered chest. Cera assumed he was activating the magic in one of the tattoos that covered his body and face. Then, spear held ready, he stepped closer to the pit. “Explain,” he said.

“In primordial times,” Alasklerbanbastos said, “dragons ruled Faerun.”

Gaedynn snorted. “Maybe you should skip ahead a little.”

Aoth raised a hand to tell the archer not to interrupt.

“The problem,” the dracolich continued, “was that we were as contentious a people then as we are now. We often disputed among ourselves, largely because we wanted to dominate one another as we did the lower orders. Yet if we had simply set about slaughtering our fellows whenever we felt so inclined, the resulting chaos might have threatened our control of the lesser races. It might even have brought us to the brink of extinction.”

“And wouldn’t that have been a pity,” Gaedynn murmured. Perhaps that was unwise, because wyrms had notoriously sharp senses, and Alasklerbanbastos shot him a glare before pressing onward with his tale.

“Fortunately our ancestors found a way to manage the struggle. They vied for dominance by manipulating lesser beings like pawns on a game board, and scored points when their agents eliminated the minions of a rival.”

Aoth frowned. “You say ‘manipulating.’ But if they ruled kingdoms, couldn’t they just order their subjects to go out and fight for them?”

“They could,” Alasklerbanbastos replied, “but the game was played on multiple levels. Players scored points for guile and subtlety as well as simple success. For that reason, even a dragon’s chief agents-his exarchs-often didn’t understand the true purpose of their various missions.”

“And this actually worked?” asked Aoth.

“So we are told,” said the dracolich, and to Cera’s surprise, there was a hint of amusement in his hiss of a voice. “You understand that, ancient as I must seem to mayflies like you, I wasn’t there to witness it myself. The dragon kings still fought outright wars on occasion but not the endless, devastating wars that might otherwise have been.

“Then the madness of the Rage changed the face of the world,” Alasklerbanbastos continued. “Dragons lost their thrones and other things besides, including knowledge of xorvintaal, the Great Game.”

“But now the Rage is over,” said Aoth, “or at least that’s what the stories say. A song dragon named Karasendrieth and her friends figured out how to cure it to keep you wyrms from tearing the world apart.”

“Indeed,” said Alasklerbanbastos, “and with that cloud lifted from our minds, we remembered that we are the rightful lords of all Faerun. But we didn’t know how to reclaim our thrones. A few of us possess armies but none powerful enough to overrun the continent. And the possibility of conquest confronted us with the same problem as the dragons of old. Who among us would be an emperor, and who a mere duke or count? How could we decide such things except by the wholesale butchery of one another?”

“Let me guess,” said Gaedynn, a crooked smile on his lips. “Just when you needed it most, somebody rediscovered your nasty little game.”

“Yes,” said Alasklerbanbastos. “Karasendrieth’s song cycle says that her companion, the vampire drake Brimstone, perished in the final battle with Sammaster. But unbeknownst to her or any other, he actually survived, and stayed in the ruined citadel to search for secrets. Ultimately Tiamat led him to the rules-the Precepts-of the Great Game. And now he’s returned to share it with his kin.”

“And this-everything that’s been happening-is it?” asked Aoth. For a moment, the battle magic stored inside his spear made red light flow along the razor edges of the head. “It doesn’t seem to have kept many dragons from getting killed. Including you.”

Alasklerbanbastos shifted his leathery wings, and Cera caught a whiff of his rotten stench. Some of the dirt that had covered him smelled like the bottom of the grave. “The rules don’t forbid dragon to fight dragon in all circumstances. Not if one issues a challenge and the other accepts. And you surely know how Tchazzar and I hate one another.”

“And once you agreed to come out and fight, your dragon underlings had no choice but to do it too.” Gaedynn grinned. “Bad luck for them.”

“Something like that,” said the undead blue. “Don’t imagine you can truly comprehend the Precepts. It takes a dragon’s intellect and long years of study.”

Gaedynn’s grin widened. “I’m guessing that means you don’t understand them, either. You have to take this Brimstone’s word for it as to what they really mean. Interesting.”

Without so much as a twitch to hint at his intentions and fast as a striking viper despite his broken, tattered from, Alasklerbanbastos scrambled up the side of the pit. Lined with fangs the size of short swords, his jaws gaped as he lunged at Gaedynn.

The archer leaped backward, and the reptile’s teeth clashed shut on empty air. Gaedynn nocked an arrow as he continued to retreat. But nimble as he was, the dracolich was faster and closed the distance before he could draw the fletchings back to his ear. The wyrm raised a forefoot to rake and stamp.

Aoth bellowed a word of power, and the point of his spear burst into flame. He rammed it into Alasklerbanbastos’s neck, and the dragon froze.

It lasted for only a heartbeat, though. Then with a fast, sinuous motion bewildering to the eye, he whipped his neck free of the burning point and twisted his frilled, wedge-shaped head around to glare at Aoth. White light flickered in his mouth, and a smell like an oncoming storm suffused the air as he prepared to spit lightning.

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