Ten: Proposition

Alabaster towers piercing the sapphire sky, the castle of the Lords of Waterdeep sat like a quiet protector upon a gently sprawling hill, its majesty visible from miles around and central to the mighty seaside city. It was common knowledge that Waterdeep's rulers kept watch over distant affairs from the lofty peak of the tallest spire, but the tower also played host to any number of powerful spellcasters from all over the Realms. Ristel wasted no time in bringing not only Phendrana, but all of the company from Baldur's Gate up to speed as he led the way through the sprawling avenues.

"The seven sisters of Mystra have all studied here – all Chosen of the goddess, and all unbelievably adept in the Art," the water genasi explained, his voice quavering with uncharacteristic excitement. "Lady Alustriel of Silverymoon herself, and Lady Laeral Blackstaff, as well as Laeral's famed husband Lord Blackstaff, Khelben Arunsun. It is even rumored that Elminster spent a year or two here in the midst of his travels."

He's like a child at the turn of the year festival, laughed Alax good-naturedly, and he wasn't the only one amused by Ristel's excitement; Ivy was gazing interestedly up at the elemental savant as though hanging on his every word, and Aust, all but foreign to the ways of magic, gaped open-mouted at Ristel's back.

Pacing about the cavernous expanse of his subconscious mind, Phendrana was grateful that Ristel was occupying his friends' attentions so he could use the opportunity to mentally prepare himself for the crucial meeting that neared. Whether for good or ill he had decided to trust the Twelfth Prince of the City of Shade and attend the meeting between the Lords of Waterdeep and the Princes of Shade, and the others were now placing their faith in him by following his lead to Waterdeep Tower. The mindmaster had been over the scenario many times in his mind and could not for the life of him determine what business Thultanthar had with the Lords of Waterdeep, but on Brennus's suggestion he was willing to be a part of all that transpired.

We will uncover the truth of this council together, Zerena assured him with her typical cool composure, and Phendrana offered her a smile but did not break stride.

It is not often that I haven't a clue what to expect, what with my unusual yet undeniably useful talents, the doppelganger admitted grudgingly. If I had even a hypothesis, the very faintest notion of what to expect from this gathering, I could make my assumptions and better prepare us all. But ambassadors from Shade meeting peaceably with the Lords of Waterdeep? It is an unexpected move from them. It casts all I thought I knew of them out of balance.

Regardless, broke in Alax, clearly something of great importance is unfolding here today – something we were meant to see. Let us keep our counsel for now, Phendrana, and learn what we may as we observe.

It was a passive and intellectual suggestion, the kind of decision Phendrana himself generally made, but it gave him no comfort and his mind remained uneasy. Zerena began placidly plucking at the strings of her harp in an attempt to soothe him.

All the while Ristel remained alert as they drew near to the sharply-angled archway that served as Waterdeep Tower's primary entrance, for it became apparent in the last leg of their approach that a solitary figure awaited them at the gate. Coming closer they were met by a stern-faced wizard with hawkish eyes and a severely pointed nose, who watched them interestedly from beneath the hood of his somberly-colored cloak. Feeling Phendrana's uneasiness intensify Ristel raised one hand and bade the others to wait, approaching the figure alone to better gauge the man's intentions.

The wizard brushed his hood back to greet Ristel, at precisely the same moment the water genasi recognized the gnarled ebony staff the man carried. "Well met. So you are the doppelganger Phendrana? I elected myself to escort you inside. You are expected."

Ristel looked as though his birthday had come early when he breathed, "You are Khelben Arunsun, Lord of Blackstaff Tower!"

"Indeed," confirmed Khelben simply, eyeing Ristel the way a sane person studies a man whose mental health seems questionable. "Are you not the mindmaster Phendrana?"

Before Ristel could embarrass him or his companions any further Phendrana wrested control of his body away from the elemental savant, seizing control of his motor functions and shifting to his natural form in an instant. Adjusting his deep jade vestments Phendrana cleared his throat and politely bowed, hoping Lord Blackstaff was not too put out by such an unorthodox reception. "Forgive me, Lord Blackstaff – I meant no disrespect. My comrade Ristel Clearsea is quite enamored of the Chosen of Mystra and holds each of you in the highest esteem. And yes – I am Phendrana. I am honored by your salutation."

"As are we all," added Rosalles, mystified, and on a prompt from the seafaring mercenary the others copied Phendrana and offered Khelben Arunsun a bow.

"It is no trouble," assured Khelben with a light chuckle, turning for the entrance and beckoning for them to follow. "The honor is mine. But for now, come. It would not be well for you to be late on such an important occasion. The delegation from Shade will be here at any moment."

Delegation? Kiora echoed instantly, but Phendrana understood.

Away from the City of Shade, one Shadovar would not be taken very seriously at court with Waterdeep's rulers – even a shade of noble birth, Phendrana explained. But it seems the ruler of Shade has appointed several of his most trusted emissaries to keep this meeting from becoming a mere farce. This can mean only one thing: Shade is coming here to negotiate with Waterdeep.

On what matter? Xanther pressed concernedly.

Phendrana sighed. That has yet to be seen.

Khelben led them up the largest stairway to the tallest tower, to an ovular room that had the air of a quiet reception area; this room he passed right over, seeking the only door at the opposite end of the chamber. Upon entry, Phendrana and the others had only a moment to perceive the masked men seated in a semicircle at the northern end of the audience hall, and then the chamber darkened as the delegation from Thultanthar shadow-walked right into their midst.

They came with a pageantry, with a kind of beauty.

Impossibly tall yet graceful and robust was the first, the regal-looking shade that Phendrana instantly recognized as the shade that Soleil had taken the phaerimm egg for at Shadowdale. He was outfitted in full battle raiment complete with a breastplate of mithril outlined in amethyst, the standard of Thultanthar; a massive sword lay nestled against his back, a blade so large that Phendrana wouldn't have been able to lift it with all his physical strength, and his eyes shone copper within the gloom.

Smaller and more compact, the second shade was dressed quite differently than the first. He was hooded and cloaked so secretively that only his burning silver eyes were visible within his murk-swaddled face; he wore the garb of a master assassin but richly-woven, hinting at his noble birth and proud lineage. No weapons were visible upon his person, but no one was foolish enough to believe that he carried none.

The third shade was slightly taller than the second, but much lither than his two brothers – a spellcasters' build, Phendrana surmised immediately. He wore rippling robes of a violet hue so deep it could nearly be misconstrued as black, and his pewter eyes pierced through the lingering shadows with startling clarity.

The last of them was the only one Phendrana really recognized – the smallest shade of the group, the one with the curiously intelligent face and the unusual bronze eyes who called himself Twelfth Prince Brennus. Like his brother that had come before him he wore floor length robes of a charcoal gray, but emblazoned with odd runes the doppelganger did not recognize and couldn't even begin to translate. Their eyes met for a split second as the darkness billowing from the trans-dimensional rift through which they had traveled began to fade, during which Brennus offered Phendrana the barest nod of recognition.

"My Lords," began the tallest of the Shadovar, with a bow that seemed far too gracious of him. "We are deeply honored by your acceptance of our offer of counsel. May I introduce the delegation that the Most High has sent to do his bidding: this is Fourth Prince Aglarel – " He indicated the cloaked shade, " – Ninth Prince Vattick – " He gestured toward the shade with the spellcaster's build, " – and Twelfth Prince Brennus. I am First Prince Escanor. You honor us with your audience." At Escanor's signal his three brothers bowed low in greeting; the First Prince's salutation was met with silence and a bitter, barely audible snort that may have come from Fourth Prince Aglarel.

Ivy's eyes grew wide during the introductions, until at last she whispered in trepidation, "More Princes of Shade!"

"And the First Prince," Aidan murmured back to the excitable halfling, carefully memorizing the faces of each shade. "Clearly this meeting has greater significance than most of us might have anticipated."

The Open Lord, a sage by the name of Piergieron Paladinson, took his place with a grand sweeping of his robes in the center of the line of unmoving Masked Lords, though his grandeur seemed lackluster with the mighty Princes of Shade in the room. "Welcome, Princes of Shade – we are honored by your visit." Paladinson then turned to Phendrana and his companions and bade them welcome. "We have all heard tell of the mindmaster doppelganger and his companions, who have brought peace and prosperity back to the Sword Coast after it was besieged for many months by pirates. Phendrana, you are most welcome here. Perhaps your companions might introduce themselves?"

Phendrana nodded in acquiescence – after all, this seemed a reasonable and harmless request – and his eyes flitted instantly to Aidan; the tiefling lowered her head slightly, the most obeisance she had ever paid anyone. "Aidan Alderoak, of Chult."

Ivy curtsied politely. "Ivy Meehan, of the Dalelands."

Aust was not at all interested in diplomacy – or politics at all, for that matter – and so only crossed his arms across his chest in a most inhospitable fashion and said, "Aust."

Rosalles bowed, a sweeping gesture that also seemed more than their host deserved. "My name is Alvaro Rosalles, Captain of the Water Falcon under the command of Duke Eltan of Baldur's Gate."

"Now that we are all acquainted," pressed Phendrana, anxious to get to the crux of the matter, "might I inquire as to the nature of this council? What is it that the City of Shade has come to negotiate with Waterdeep?"

The general hush in the audience chamber grew even more profound; First Prince Escanor gaped at the mindmaster, as though he could not wrap his mind around the question. "Were you not told?" inquired Ninth Prince Vattick, aghast at the prospect. "We are here on behalf of the Most High to attempt to form a peaceable alliance with Waterdeep."

"Though if these negotiations prove just as disastrous as the last, the Most High will certainly be displeased by our efforts upon our return," drawled Fourth Prince Aglarel, his eyes severe.

"There have been others?" marveled Ivy. "These aren't the first?"

"Tell me, Ninth Prince Vattick of Shade," snapped Paladinson, overriding Aglarel's mild outburst and Ivy's musings. "How do you believe that we can come to a peaceable arrangement?"

Vattick glanced up at Escanor as though seeking permission, and Escanor nodded encouragingly so the Ninth Prince answered without hesitation. "Your Eminence, Waterdeep only stands to gain from a mutual arrangement with the great enclave of Thultanthar. We are a mighty force; our armies are strong of arm and will, and our arcanists wield magics that are foreign to most other nations. In the event that Waterdeep ever became imperiled, you would benefit greatly from having such a strong ally beside you should the conflict come to blows."

The Ninth Prince stepped back in line beside Aglarel; Brennus beamed at him, and he smirked victoriously to himself. Lord Paladinson shifted on his feet, looking distinctly unsettled. "Informative, appealing, and a threat all at once. Very well spoken, Prince. But let us say, for argument's sake, that we do come to such an alliance. There are many rumors circulating through Faerun concerning your city. Such rumors are difficult to quell… especially where the misinformed are concerned."

Brennus cleared his throat politely as he glanced inquisitively up at Escanor, and when he had permission to speak he turned to the Open Lord and spoke coolly. "Let us say for the sake of this discussion, Lord Paladinson, that we are unfamiliar with the rumors you speak of."

"Then allow me to speak plainly," Paladinson snapped impatiently. "There are rumors that your city plans only to bring about mass destruction and genocide wherever your High Prince sets his sights, and that every peaceable alliance you might seek to form can only end with that nation's unceremonious end."

"What are you insinuating?" roared Aglarel, stalking forward a single step in his fury, but thankfully Vattick caught him by the wrist and stopped him in his tracks. "That we are demons and heretics? That Thultanthar is a cancer to Faerun, a plague upon Toril, and that our noble Netherese ancestors should be denied their very birthright?"

Escanor's voice was a growl when he snapped his copper gaze upon the Fourth Prince and said, "Peace, Aglarel!"

Phendrana chose to speak up bravely, before those gathered could erupt into all-out hostility. "Explain to me this – would not forging an alliance between your two great nations pacify your populace? Could you not quell these rumors with one simple action?"

"Not in the slightest," Vattick answered, his tone a bit steely in his reply. "Greater Faerun would then begin to question the leadership of Waterdeep, and their alliance with the Lords of Shade. Waterdeep's treasured reputation would likely be tarnished."

"Paladinson knows this, and that is why he shies away from our offer despite the potential gains," sneered Aglarel.

The Unmasked Lord was careful to regard Phendrana, and only Phendrana, when he responded. "In a rational and logical world you would be speaking the truth… however, we do not live in such a world. For now I will say only that the Masked Lords and I have much to consider here."

"Then allow me to state our business, that we might better negotiate these affairs," Escanor broke in smoothly, in effect ending any forthcoming debate. "My Lords, here now is the Most High's express wish – it is his intention to begin a large-scale conquest of the Heartlands, effective without delay."

Phendrana staggered back a step, reeling at the proposal set forth by the Shadovar, as at the same moment Alax murmured, So here is the true reason. Glancing feverishly from one side to the other, Phendrana found himself less surprised by Escanor's confession and far more shocked by Paladinson's reaction – an expression of blatant boredom, as though he had heard all these words before. "And you believe that this is the best course of action, why?"

"That is simple," Aglarel answered hotly. "Because we will be taking back what is rightfully ours!"

"According to whom?" snarled Lord Paladinson, no longer interested in maintaining his façade of overall courtesy. "Or what, for that manner? Ancient texts that are near disintegration? It would be extremely difficult to find anyone who was alive when the Netherese kingdom was at its height to vouch for such a bold statement."

Brennus pointedly cleared his throat, and all eyes inevitably fell upon him. "As it happens, Lord Paladinson, one yet remains within Thultanthar who remembers well these events as they occurred."

"One man will be difficult to believe," scoffed Paladinson negligently. "And you can hardly expect this congregation to assume your words are true as you speak them!"

"You would dare question the word of Most High Telamont Tanthul?!" shouted Brennus, stalking toward the Open Lord with sparks of rage flying from his bronze eyes, but fortunately Escanor was there to seize him by the elbow and keep him from doing anything rash. "Most High Telamont, the very same Lord Shadow of legend?! Most High Telamont, he who extricated Thultanthar from the Material Plane just days before Karsus's Folly destroyed all the rest of the Netherese Empire?! Most High Telamont, he who labored for seventeen centuries to return the last of the proud Netherese Imperium to the land from which they sojourned?!"

"You dare belittle the Dark Father of Shade?!" Vattick joined in, his pewter eyes on fire.

"There is no need for hostilities," said Paladinson with more than a little disdain. "I am merely stating the skepticism of myself and the other members of this council."

"And yet you are denying a witness in a council?" Aidan observed.

Seeing that their group of neutral observers was beginning to favor the Shadovar on such a great matter, Paladinson attempted to backpedal. "If you truly believe that he holds the truth of this matter, then bring him forth. We would be delighted to make the acquaintance of the Most High Prince of Shade. Perhaps he could shed a little… ah… light on the matter."

Humor? drawled Ristel distastefully. Really?

Phendrana watched the Lords of Waterdeep as they chuckled at Paladinson's tactless jest, amazed and reeling inside, for the tables had turned on everything he thought he had known to be true. Now that the veil of perceptions had been torn away, Waterdeep seemed to be the clear transgressors.

"Lord Paladinson," First Prince Escanor broke in, in a voice that was quieter but somehow far more dangerous than his brothers'. "With the greatest possible respect, you cannot expect us to sit idly by and allow you and your fellow councilmen to slander the Most High in such a manner. I can no longer abide to be in your presence. Here, now, are our terms: the City of Shade wishes to begin overtaking the regions of the Heartlands, including Cormyr, the Silver Marches, and Tilverton, without delay. We have already pledged to aid Waterdeep in any future hardships it may incur. In exchange, we will expect Waterdeep to support us as we labor to regain that which is rightfully ours." Escanor drew in a breath, presumably to calm himself, before he continued. "The Most High is generously granting your council three days to reach a decision. At that time, a delegation will return to hear your verdict."

"For now, we must return to the City of Shade to consult with the rest of the Shadow Court," finished Vattick impatiently. "The Most High awaits."

A gout of shadow poured from an extadimensional shift in the room, and as the Most High's emissaries prepared to shadow walk back to the enclave Aglarel turned back and growled, "Be warned, Lords – the Princes of Shade will not tolerate one more insult to the Most High's honor. Hold your tongues when next we meet, or you may find yourselves without them."

The clouds of shadow gradually dissipated, leaving no evidence that the delegation from Thultanthar had ever been among them, and Phendrana wordlessly led his companions out of the audience chamber.

In the bleak darkness that was the Shadow Realm, Twelfth Prince Brennus heard the voice of his patron speak to him.

Now is the time for you to sow the seed of doubt in Phendrana's mind, my son – the seed that, by the divine grace of Shar, will grow into a great symbol of Thultanthar's wrath and retribution. Do not fail me.

And so Brennus bowed to his three older brothers by way of farewell, and turned back for Waterdeep.

Only on an insistent suggestion from Aust that they partake in a lighthearted activity did Phendrana concede to follow his companions into one of the livelier gambling establishments that lined the busiest lane of Waterdeep. The others seemed grateful for the opportunity to relax but Phendrana wished he were alone – he desperately needed time with his thoughts, time to make sense of all that had transpired at Waterdeep Tower.

The Princes of Shade, from all he had witnessed, were arrogant in their everlasting secrecy and prone to bouts of spontaneous pride, but their attempts to negotiate with the Lords of Waterdeep had cast the two opposing sides into the revealing light of truth. The careless disrespect with which Piergieron Paladinson had treated the delegation from Thultanthar was appalling to Phendrana – weren't the Lords of Waterdeep supposed to be righteous leaders whose greatest aspiration was to strive for universal peace? Did they not claim to regard all races with fairness and generosity? It made Phendrana sick to his stomach to think that not only had the ruling body of Waterdeep fallen embarrassingly short of their almost saint like reputations, he himself had believed the jaded murmurs spoken of both sides until witnessing the truth with his own eyes. And was Prince Aglarel being honest? Had Shade proposed an alliance with Waterdeep before? Had the Open Lords conducted that council with a similar air of injustice?

Questions with no answers chased themselves throughout every crevice of Phendrana's conscious mind, so disorienting that they stifled the voices of the other six, and when at last Phendrana became acutely aware of his surroundings he found himself face to face with the bronze eyed prince called Brennus.

Was this a coincidence? The mindmaster glanced around the gambling hall in what he hoped was a surreptitious manner – perhaps the shade prince was expecting one of his kin? Seeing no one that fit the description of the Shadovar, though, Phendrana glanced back at the shade with open curiosity; the prince nodded and beckoned to him, his eyes on the doppelganger's expectant. Phendrana approached with a measure of uncertainty.

"You are considering that which you bore witness to with great care, I see," greeted Brennus. "Did you find your visit to Waterdeep Tower enlightening?"

Phendrana considered, but answered honestly after a measured silence. "The afternoon did not progress as I had expected, I must admit."

"The Most High expected you would react that way," admitted Brennus knowingly, surveying Phendrana keenly with those unusual bronze eyes. "That is why he made certain to extend to you and your companions a special invitation to these meetings."

"It was you who brought the event to my attention," Phendrana pointed out suspiciously.

The Twelfth Prince merely laughed at first, then explained, "All decrees come directly from the Most High, whether it is apparent or not. I am just as loyal to the High Prince as his other eleven sons are."

"There are… twelve?!" gaped the doppelganger, his eyes widening in surprise.

"The Most High is more than three millennia old, and is just as healthy now as he was in the previous age," assured Brennus with a bemused smile. "By the blessing of Shar he has fathered twelve sons, all of pure Netherese descent, thus securing his legacy. But enough of that for now – I did not come here to share with you my father's life story. I am here for a bit of sport, and to deliver a proposition to you."

They had been walking for the duration of their idle chatter, and they stopped now at a vacant table in a relatively secluded corner of the gambling hall upon which was stacked a deck of cards for a game of strategy that Phendrana had often played with Aust in the taverns in Baldur's Gate, a game called Three Dragon Ante. His eyes flitted back to Brennus's, and his voice was dubious when he spoke. "Am I to understand that you are challenging me to a battle of wits, Prince? Because if you are, I must stress upon you the gravity of the mistake you are making."

Brennus's bronze eyes glinted mischievously as he gestured for the mindmaster to take up the seat across from him. "Allow me to be the judge of that."

"Fair enough," Phendrana conceded, and he sat. "Your proposition?"

The cards levitated off the table and effortlessly shuffled themselves before dealing out two hands of seven cards each and settling innocently back upon the wooden surface; Brennus took up his hand and gave it a brief once over, as though nothing extraordinary had taken place. Phendrana copied him, though with a certain measure of reluctance. "What I have to say comes directly from the High Prince himself, Phendrana, and be warned – it will likely take you completely by surprise."

Thinking of his six deceased friends Phendrana laughed once and said, "I am seldom surprised in my line of work."

"Then you will not be surprised to hear that the Most High wishes you to join his esteemed Shadow Court by becoming a shade."

To his credit, Phendrana's eyes widened only slightly at this news, and his gasp of shock was slight. Brennus played his first card with a thin-lipped smile.

Phendrana, warned Alax softly, you should leave at once. The Princes of Shade have gone too far this time.

It was sound logic – that much the mindmaster couldn't deny – but he found that the intrigue was just too strong. Curiosity kept Phendrana rooted to his seat, staring down at the card Brennus had played with perfect incredulity, before exclaiming, "You have the audacity to even consider stripping me of my identity?!"

"Of course not," the Twelfth Prince chuckled idly. "The Most High is never audacious."

Their eyes met, Phendrana's fuming and affronted, Brennus's bemused, before the doppelganger conceded to lay a card of his own. Every fiber of his being begged him to turn his back on the proposal, but for reasons he couldn't explain he instead remained perfectly still. "What does the High Prince want with me? Compared to his emissaries I am utterly insignificant."

Brennus laid a second card – even this early in the game Phendrana could clearly recognize the prince's skill. Ristel and Alax, both particularly adept at games that were steeped in probability and odds, set to devising a strategy while Phendrana considered Brennus's next words. "Ah, but you belittle your own talents. Your list of accomplishments is long for one so young."

"Young? Phendrana echoed incredulously. "I have seen one hundred and twenty winters."

"Yes, and I have seen one thousand, two hundred and seventy two." Brennus snickered but moved on almost at once. "The point, Phendrana, is that the Most High has divined a use for you, one that he believes you would fulfill to the best of your considerable abilities."

Now Phendrana was feeling confrontational, sparked by the High Prince's many lofty suppositions; he leaned forward across the table, his face barely inches away from the prince's, who did not shrink back even a millimeter. "The Most High presumes much, considering I have not yet become acquainted with him and still he is plotting a place for me in his enclave."

"Then tell me, Phendrana – is it not your personal mission to assist others in achieving their endeavors? Do you not search far and wide for a place where your valorous nature will do the most good in assisting the forces of righteousness? Is it not your single greatest aspiration to be a hero yourself?"

Phendrana glared back, defiant yet momentarily cowed, and said nothing; Brennus chuckled again. "And the Most High can give me that?"

"And more. All your dreams in exchange for your support and servitude."

Phendrana raised his head and squared his jaw. "I am no one's slave."

Brennus played out the last of his hand, easily obliterating Phendrana's feeble attempts at winning the round; in the back of his mind, Phendrana clearly heard Alax and Ristel devising a new strategy. "Of course you're not. You are an uncharacteristically talented individual on the brink of becoming an integral cob in a seamlessly-working machine."

It was a striking thought; curiosity got the better of him, and Phendrana couldn't help asking, "How does one become a shade, Prince?"

He couldn't be positive, but Phendrana thought he saw Twelfth Prince Brennus shudder delicately. The Shadovar noble placed the cards in his hand facedown upon the table, collecting his thoughts before answering the question as best he could. "The process of becoming a shade is so involved, so precarious, that only the Most High himself can successfully complete it without utterly destroying the intended recipient. In Thultanthar, it is the very highest honor a Shadovar can receive. The most notable step in the procedure is this – in order to become a shade, one must surrender one's soul in exchange for the pure essence of shadow."

Phendrana stared back, horrified. "What is it… like?"

Brennus's eyes were focused on a point very far away; he seemed to have forgotten Phendrana's presence. "I only vaguely recall it… I do remember that I have never endured such pain before, and I suspect I never will again. My brothers would tell you the same."

"May I ask one more question?"

Brennus's unfocused gaze cleared. "If I can answer, I will."

"If Soleil is truly in the High Prince's favor, why does she remain a half elf in the presence of so many shades?"

"There are many reasons. Firstly, as a mountebank Soleil is no longer in possession of her own soul – she pledged it to the Most High and received inconceivable powers in return. Secondly, there are certain advantages we retain in keeping Soleil as she is. And thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, it is a law in our city that only those of Netherese descent may become shades. Unfortunately, Soleil does not fulfill that requirement."

Phendrana blinked confusedly. "Nor am I, so how then does the Most High presume to - ?"

The Twelfth Prince interrupted him smoothly. "Were you not born in Cormyr, the very same fabled city that was once a cornerstone of the Netherese Imperium?"

The very breath froze in the mindmaster's lungs. "How did you - ?"

"I have told you," Brennus interrupted again. "The Most High knows all. You are descended from the Netherese archwizards who once ruled supreme over the Heartlands. If it is within your heart's desires to become a shade, the High Prince will see it done."

The loremaster started then as though he had remembered something important, and slipping one hand into the concealed breast pocket within his robes he withdrew a black envelope embroidered with silver lettering penned in a distinctly elegant hand; this he passed across the table to the stunned mindmaster, not at all put out when Phendrana simply gazed down at it, dumbfounded. After a time Phendrana seemed to recover himself and took up the envelope with a slightly-trembling hand, and tugging a sheaf of black paper out of the unsealed envelope he briefly skimmed its contents.

"The High Prince has requested your presence at his upcoming birthday celebration," Brennus explained helpfully, studying the doppelganger's face carefully for any hint of emotion, and their eyes met over the topmost edge of the invitation. "He does not often leave the unrivaled protection that Shade Enclave has to offer, but has expressed his desire to meet you in person." Phendrana opened his mouth in a sure sign of protest, but Brennus had anticipated his fears and overrode him. "Your companions are, of course, welcome to accompany to this joyous occasion, and you will find all of the details included in your invitation." He paused long enough to flash Phendrana a smile that included one last brief glimpse of his ceremonial fangs before finishing, "The Most High hopes that, in meeting face to face, he will be able to answer many of your inquiries and assuage any lingering fears you may have."

Phendrana watched, utterly shaken, as Brennus abandoned his chair and stole along the side of the table to the doppelganger's side, whereupon he paused to add in a conspiratorial undertone, "Consider the proposition you have been offered carefully as you continue upon your way, and do not concern yourself with keeping in touch. When it is prudent that we speak again, the Princes of Shade will find you."

Phendrana nodded numbly to himself long after Brennus had vanished into the crowds, and did not become aware of his surroundings until the image of a shadow-swathed, silver-eyed doppelganger drove him from his morbid thoughts.