Richard Lee Byers



5 Mirtul, the Year of Risen Elfkin (1375 DR)

Like any wizard worthy of the title, Druxus Rhym could distinguish reality from dream and knew he was experiencing the latter. Thus, when people started screaming, the clamor in no way alarmed him.

It did, however, intrigue him. Perhaps an amusing spectacle lay in store. Maybe the dream even had something to teach him, some portent to reveal. Oneiromancy was a specialty of the Red Wizards of Divination, while he'd devoted the bulk of his studies to the art of Transmutation. But he was a zulkir, the head of his order and so one of the eight rulers of the land of Thay, and no one rose to such eminence without achieving mastery of many forms of magic.

He extricated himself from his tangled silk sheets and fur blanket and rose from his enormous octagonal bed with its velvet canopy and curtains. Magic had kept the air in his apartments warm just as it did in the real world, and when he murmured the proper command, it likewise lit the globular crystal lamps in their golden sconces.

The pulse of light splashed his reflection in the mirror, complete with weak chin and bulge of flab at the waistline of what was otherwise a skinny, stork-legged frame. Reflecting that it seemed unfair a fellow had to be homely even in his dreams, he ambled toward the door and the shrieking beyond. Some of the cries were taking on a choked or rasping quality.

He opened the door to behold eight sentries, four men-at-arms and four wizards, none of whom was any longer capable of guarding anything. Most had collapsed to their knees or onto their bellies, though a couple were still lurching around on their feet. All were melting, flesh, hair, clothing, and armor liquefying, blending, streaming, and dripping down to make multicolored puddles and splatters on the floor. Their screams grew increasingly tortured then fell silent, as mouths, throats, and lungs lost definition.

Her eyes and even their sockets gone, her nose sliding down her chin like molten candle wax, one young wizard extended a buckling arm in mute appeal for succor. Despite his comprehension that none of this was real, Druxus stepped back in reflexive distaste.

Once entirely melted, the puddles that had been the guards began to steam, dispersing their substance into the empty air. At the same time, the walls and ceiling started to dribble and flow. Druxus's forehead tingled and stung, and a viscous wetness slid down over his left eye.

Dream or no, the sensation was repugnant, and he decided to end it. Exerting the trained will of a mage, he told himself to wake, and at once he was back in his bed in his still-dark chamber where, heart thumping, he lay trying to slow his panting.

Strange, he thought, that he should have such a nightmare, and stranger still that it had been so vivid as to actually unsettle him in the end. It almost inclined him to think he ought to take it seriously as a portent or even a warning, but he didn't see how it could be, because he understood the subtext: He'd been dreaming about the book.

The book was nonsense. Or to give it its due, it was a bold and brilliant exercise in arcane theory but of no practical significance whatsoever. Why, then, should it trouble his unconscious mind?

He was still pondering the matter when invisible but powerful hands clamped around his throat.

The crushing grip instantly cut off his air. At the same time, a ghastly chill burned through his body, making his muscles clench and threatening to paralyze him.

He thrust shock aside to focus his will. Reckless foes had tried to assassinate him before, and even when surprised in his bed, he was never unarmed or helpless. The rings on his fingers, the silver-and-obsidian amulet around his neck, and the glyphs tattooed on his body were repositories of magic. He had only to concentrate and one or another of them would infuse his spindly frame with a giant's might, turn his attacker to stone, or whisk him across the realm to a place of safety. He decided on the latter course of action, and then the phantom heaved him up off the feather mattress and bashed his head against a bedpost.

The impact didn't kill him or even knock him unconscious, but it smashed his thoughts into a sort of numb, echoing confusion. The phantom ripped the talisman from around his neck then slammed his head against the obstruction once more.

Something banged. Druxus realized the door had flown open to hit the wall. Voices babbled and footsteps pounded. His guards had heard the sounds of the struggle and were rushing to save him.

Unfortunately, the phantom heard them coming as well. He threw Druxus onto the floor then rattled off an incantation.

Power crackled through the air, and a mote of light flew at the onrushing sentries. When it reached them, it boomed into a sphere of bright yellow fire, exploding with such violence as to tear some of its targets limb from burning limb.

The diversion gave Druxus a final opportunity to use his magic. He strained to focus, to command the proper tattoo to translate him through space, felt the power stir, then his assailant hit or booted him in the jaw. It jolted the stored spell out of his mental grasp.

The phantom continued to pound him until he was thoroughly dazed with agony, until he had no hope of using wizardry or doing anything else. He expected the beating to continue until he died.

After a while it stopped, and he felt a desperate pang of hope. Was it possible his assailant wasn't going to kill him after all?

'I'm sorry for this,' the phantom said, his deep, cultured voice now sounding from several paces away, 'but it's necessary.'

He spoke the same words of power he'd employed before. Another spark flared into being then sprang at Druxus's face.

Armored from head to toe in blue-enameled plate, mounted on a hairless, misshapen, slate gray war-horse infused with the blood and ferocity of some demon-beast from the Abyss, Azhir Kren, tharchion of Gauros, watched with mingled impatience and satisfaction as the combined armies of her province and Surthay waded the river. Impatience because fording a watercourse was always tedious and in theory dangerous: a force was divided and so vulnerable. Satisfaction because the army-a force made up of humans; towering, hyena-faced gnolls; blood orcs with their tusks and piggish features; scaly lizardfolk; and animated skeletons and zombies-made such a brave sight, and because she was confident they'd cross successfully.

Some might have considered her overconfident, for over the years, Thayan armies had often traversed this deep gorge with its maze of secondary canyons in order to invade Rashemen, their neighbor to the north. Thus, the Iron Lord, the witches, and their barbarous ilk surely expected another such incursion to come someday, but not this early in the year when, by rights, the spring thaws should have made the River Gauros too deep and swift to ford.

It wasn't, though. Azhir's wizards had tamed the torrent, though she didn't understand why, if they could do that much, they couldn't dry it up altogether. Still, the important thing was that the legions could cross and do so unmolested. Nobody was on the north side of the river to oppose them.

Laden like pack mules, gray-faced, empty-eyed zombies waded ashore. On the south side of the river, Homen Odesseiron, tharchion of Surthay and Azhir's co-commander, waved a company of blood orcs forward, and the officers relayed the order to their underlings. The bellowing carried easily above the murmur of the river and the babble of soldiers closer at hand and hinted at the terrifying war cries the creatures screamed in battle.

In truth, Azhir didn't particularly enjoy contemplating Homen with his wizard's robes, warrior's sword, lance, destrier, and perpetually dour, expression. She didn't dislike him personally-since they were both governors of relatively poor and sparsely settled tharchs, denied a fair portion of the immense wealth and resources of southern Thay, she actually felt a certain kinship-but it vexed her to share command with him when this venture was entirely

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