Richard Lee Byers



11 Hammer-16 Ches, the Year of Blue Fire (1385 DR)

Sometimes even archmages have to wait, and so it was for Szass Tam, standing on the wide, flat roof of the castle's highest tower. He passed the time gazing out at the chain of volcanic peaks his people called the Thaymount, at other fortresses perched on lofty crags, mining camps clustered around yawning pits and the black mouths of tunnels, and, here and there, leaping flame and trickling lava. The cold winter air smelled of ash.

Beyond the peaks lay farms and parklands, cloaked in snow. Except for the leaden overcast sky, which once would have seemed an aberration in a realm where sorcery managed the weather, the view was much as it had always been throughout Szass Tam's extended existence.

He smiled appreciatively at the geography, as one smiles at a favored pet. During the first two years of the war, his troops had fought savagely to dislodge his enemies from their estates on the plateau, and in the wake of his army's success, High Thay had become his secure redoubt. His foes were evidently sensible enough to deem it unassailable, for they'd never sought to clamber up the towering cliffs of the Second Escarpment to challenge him. Rather, they fought him on the tablelands beneath, and on the lowlands between the First Escarpment and the sea.

Footsteps roused him from his musings. He turned toward the doorway and four blue-bearded frost giants shambled forth from the shadows beyond. The grayish tinge of their ivory skins, the slack-jawed imbecility of their expressions, and the smell of rot surrounding them identified them as zombies.

They carried a platform of oak affixed to two long poles. Atop the square surface was a transparent, nine- sided pyramid composed of crystallized mystical energy. Within it rested Thakorsil's Seat, a high stone chair with arms carved in the shapes of dragons. Seated thereon was Yaphyll, a woman of youthful appearance, small for a member of the long-limbed Mulan aristocracy, with an impish face.

As the zombie giants set her down, Yaphyll shifted and adjusted her robe. 'As litter bearers,' she said, 'your servants lack a certain delicacy of touch. Especially when carrying their passenger up flight after flight of stairs.'

'I apologize,' Szass Tam replied, 'but I hoped you'd enjoy a change of scenery. Aren't fresh air and this magnificent vista worth a bit of bouncing around?'

'If you had only freed me from the pyramid,' she said, 'I would have been happy to walk up under my own power. After so much sitting, I would have enjoyed the exercise.'

'I'm sure you would,' he replied, 'just as I'm sure that you would have found some way to turn the situation to your advantage. That's why I took the trouble to confine you in a prison built to hold an infernal prince.'

'I appreciate the compliment. Someday I hope to show you how much.'

'No doubt. Meanwhile, consider the view.' He waved his hand at the mountains and the shadowed gorges between. 'This is the highest point in all Thay. Legend has it that a person can gaze out from here and observe everything transpiring across the land. That's nonsense, of course, or at least it is for most of us. But I wonder what the eyes of the realm's greatest oracle can see.'

'Burnt villages and plundered towns,' Yaphyll said. 'Fields returning to wilderness. Famine. Plague. Armies preparing for another season of ruinous war.'

'I had hoped you'd grace me with a genuine exhibition of your skills, not a banal recitation of common knowledge.'

'As you wish.' She sketched a sign on the air. Her fingertip left a shimmering green trail. 'Some of your troops are besieging a castle east of Sekelmur. A company of our raiders has attacked a caravan of supply wagons on the Sur Road. Neither action looks important, but then, they never are decisive, are they? Thus the game drags on and on and on.'

'Perhaps if we work together, we can change that.'

'I'm willing to try. That was why I forsook the other zulkirs and joined you. Anything to shift the balance of power, break the stalemate, and bring the war to an end before it cripples the realm beyond recovery.'

'I had no idea your motives were so patriotic. I thought you simply decided I was going to prevail and preferred to be on the winning side.'

Yaphyll grinned. 'Perhaps there was a bit of that as well.'

'Yet eventually you elected to turn your cloak again, and nearly succeeded in slipping away. Because you found my strategy and resources less impressive than expected?'

'Not exactly. But the stalemate endured, and in time I realized I'd rather stand with the living than the dead. With lords who, whatever their excesses, refrain from massacring their own subjects to turn them into ghoul and zombie soldiers.'

Szass Tam shrugged. 'It was scarcely indiscriminate slaughter. I only did it when necessary.'

'If you say so. At any rate, now that you've made me your prisoner, such details no longer concern me. I need to look after myself. So please free me, and I promise to serve you loyally.'

'And how could I possibly doubt your pledge, paragon of honesty and loyalty that you are?'

Yaphyll took a deep breath. 'All right. If you feel that way about it, bind me into your service.'

'I'm afraid the usual ritual wouldn't take, at least not permanently. It's one thing to shackle a common Red Wizard, but another to trammel the mind of the zulkir of the Order of Divination.'

'Then turn me into a lich or one of your vampires, something your necromancy can control. Better that than to stay in this box!'

'I've considered that, but the passage from life into undeath alters the mind, sometimes subtly, sometimes significantly. I won't risk compromising the clarity of your vision. Not yet. We have a war to win.'

'If you won't release me from the chair, I won't help you.'

'Please, don't be childish. Of course you will.'

He held out his hand and the Death Moon Orb appeared in his palm. Coils of black and purple swam on the surface of the sphere. The orb changed size from time to time. Currently, it was as big as a man's head, which made it seem an awkward burden in such a frail-looking hand. But despite their withered, mummified appearance- the only visible sign of his undead condition-Szass Tam's fingers were deft and strong, and he managed the sphere easily.

He lifted the orb to the level of Yaphyll's eyes. 'Look at it,' he said.

She did. The power of the orb had compelled her into Thakorsil's Seat, and she found it as irresistible as before.

'You will tell me,' he said, 'when and where to meet the legions of the other zulkirs in battle to win that decisive victory which has thus far eluded us all. I command you to cast the most powerful divination known to your order, no matter the peril to your body, mind, or soul.'

'Curse you!' Yaphyll gasped.

'I'm sure you will if you ever get the chance. But for now, does the spell require arcane ingredients? I daresay my own stock contains whatever you may require.'

'Panacolo.' Yaphyll spat. 'Haunspeir. Dreammist. Redflower leaves. The eyes of an eagle, a beholder, and a medusa. A mortar and pestle, and a goblet of clear water.'

That combination of narcotics and poisons would kill any living woman under normal circumstances. Szass Tam wondered if it would kill her, too, or if her mastery of her art would enable her to survive. It would be interesting to see.

He sent a pair of apprentices to fetch the spell ingredients, then opened the pyramid long enough to hand them to her. Her features twisted with reluctance, she then proceeded with the ritual.

Gray fumes of dreammist twisted through the air. Yaphyll chanted as she pulped and powdered the other

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