This story is set in or about the Year of the Wave (1364 DR). It will consist of nine chapters when finished. The Company of the Catlash is from The Ruins of Myth Drannor boxed set, published in 1993. All major characters in this story are the creations of Ed Greenwood. The Forgotten Realms and everything in them are the property of Wizards of the Coast.
* * * * *
Alustriel floated, bodiless, in a world of patterns. All about her, bewildering currents and networks of force swirled, without color or solidity, making a sound that could be perceived but not heard. This grid of raw magical energy would seem, to the uninitiated, a terrifying abyss of silently howling terror, with no end in any direction. To Alustriel, it was home.
She hummed joyously to herself, in time to the silent thrumming. Already, as she looked about with her mind, the hopeless tangle began to resolve itself into recognizable patterns, like marked paths through an endless labyrinth. These were the magical spells that were given to her by the grace of Mystra, the goddess of magic, and they required no effort on Alustriel's part to discern. There was a spell to read minds, one to change one's shape, another to transport onesself to a distant location – all of these and more snapped into being in Alustriel's mind like something that has been momentarily forgotten, then remembered again after a moment's mind-searching.
The chaos now seemed to Alustriel more to resemble a road map, filled with clearly-marked paths that were impossible to miss or to forget. She swept the scene once more with her mind to see that everything she wanted was there, and then she allowed herself to slip back into herself, with the regret of one who must leave a particularly beloved place to return to another day of drudgery.
She heard a strange music, and gradually realized that it was her own humming combined with the deep, rhythmic ticking of the great Lantanna pendulum-clock that stood at the far corner of her bedchamber. She became aware of her own hands, long white fingers with short, red-painted fingernails, resting upon the open pages of her spellbook. Then she became aware of the stiffness in her back and stood up from the chair to stretch.
As if on cue, there came a knock at the chamber door: four high and one low. Alustriel recognized the signal of Taern "Thunderspell" Hornblade, chief of the palace Spellguard and her most trusted advisor. She whispered a word that dropped the magical defenses insulating the room.
"Enter, Greybeard," she called gaily.
The door opened and Taern entered the room, smiling at Alustriel's use of the nickname. His beard was indeed well on the far side of grey. His face bore a few more lines than it had the year before, and his hands were flecked with a few more of the dark spots of advancing age. He was a man who had seen well upwards of sixty years. Alustriel, by contrast, was a maiden in the most glorious bloom of youth. Her skin was fair and flawless, and her hair was a brilliant, lustrous silver that hung to her waist in a shimmering cascade or a long braid, depending on the occasion and her mood.
Taern always found it amusing to consider the fact that Alustriel had already been several centuries old when he was born.
"Ahem. The ambassadors request the honor of your presence for food, drink and pleasantries in the great hall, my Lady. You'd best hurry while there's still some food, drink and pleasantry left to be had. They're an enthusiastic bunch, I must say."
"Ah, yes," sighed Alustriel, brushing some stray locks of silver hair into place. "My potential recruits into the Lords' Alliance. An informative lot."
"But you've barely spoken to any of them yet."
"I haven't had to. The reception last night gave me a wealth of information. The dwarven emissary from Mithril Hall pretended to be drunk after only three tankards of beer. Every dwarf I've ever met could down four times that much without setting a hair of his beard askew. That clumsy attempt at deception means he doesn't trust us, and hopes that we'll write him off as a lightweight fool and underestimate him."
Taern shook his head. "And that ambassador from Luskan – the one who can't sing on key..." (Alustriel stifled a giggle.) "Was he trying to divine your intentions as well?"
"No, he was really drunk." Now it was Alustriel's turn to shake her head. "He kept trying to look down my bodice all night."
"Truly?" Taern arched his eyebrows, counting on his beard to mask his grin. "That must be why Lady Mystra made you so tall. The Luskanite ambassador is certainly not a man of imposing stature."
"He stood on tip-toe. Subtlety is not a virtue in Luskan. How do I look?"
"Like an enchantress, as always," said Taern, almost with reverence.
"Then it's time to go and enchant my handsome princes. And princesses," said the High Lady of Silverymoon grandly. Taern followed her out of the chamber, as usual not quite sure whether his mistress was serious or not.
* * * * *
Alustriel knew something was wrong when she realized, an hour after her arrival at the ambassadors' reception, that she was not enjoying herself. As ruler of the City of Silverymoon, diplomacy was her foremost duty. Only through careful cooperation could the civilized communities of the North hope to hold off the hordes of enemies – orcs, trolls, and worse – that seemed to loom just beyond the torchlights of every city gate. Silverymoon was a center of learning, a model of tolerance and diversity, a source of military and – far more importantly – magical might. Silverymoon was the linchpin that held civilization in the North together, and Alustriel was Silverymoon. Her people called her Lady Hope, and loved her. Her enemies called her darker things, and respected her.
Almost every day of her life, Alustriel faced decisions that could mean life or death for many. Agonizing decisions and bewildering moral dilemmas were everyday occurrences to her, and her composure under such pressures was legendary. This diplomatic gathering, while important, held no particular risks, no danger of great failure. It was routine.
So why, then, did she have such a throbbing headache?
She was one of Mystra's Chosen, endowed with virtual immortality and immunity to all the diseases that afflicted other humans. On some occasions (and for Alustriel these occasions were very rare) she might find herself in such mental distress that actual physical pain manifested itself, but this little reception was certainly no such occasion.
Only two or three times in her long, long life had Alustriel experienced such a sensation. On each occasion the cause had been magic – strong magic, and personally involving her.
She stayed long enough at the reception to satisfy the demands of duty, and then excused herself. In hopes that fresh air might make her feel better, she made for an open gallery high in her palace, which looked out westward over the city. A chilly breeze blew, and in the deep twilight she could just make out the treetops of the Silverglen, rising among the city buildings in the distance.
Here in the quiet, Alustriel realized that the pain in her head was accompanied by an odd buzzing, just within the range of hearing. If she concentrated intently, the sound almost seemed to resolve into something meaningful, but just beyond her grasp.
She started toward her bedchamber, and as she neared it the buzzing in her head grew louder and more distinct – a voice, perhaps? Dry and husky, barely coherent, but most definitely a voice. The pain in her head grew along with the sound.
Something dawned on her then – something not entirely pleasant. She hurried to her chamber.
* * * * *
The box was still there, underneath her dresser. The trustworthy halfling chambermaid had never disturbed it. Now the sound came at her in deafening waves, from all directions. Alustriel resisted the urge to cover her ears – she knew it would do no good. The sound was in her head alone, and the pain that went with it now brought tears to her eyes. The sound was most certainly a voice now, a voice she recognized. Yet it seemed to be split into a thousand different parts, all saying the same thing at different speeds, in varying registers. She couldn't make out what it said.
She fumbled at the box, the pain and confusion making her desperate. There was a little, ornate key, if only she could find it...
There it was! She turned it in the lock on the front of the box and opened the lid. Inside was a black opal, as big as a child's fist, worth a fortune. But its value didn't matter. She reached out her hand and closed it around the jewel.
The thunderous noise and the pain shut off as if a faucet had been turned. A single voice spoke in her head, clearly. "Bright Eyes," it said, "Come to me. I fear my doom is upon me." Then all was silent.
Alustriel knelt there on the carpet of her bedchamber for just a moment. Taern would have been alarmed indeed, if he could have seen the troubled look in her eyes at that moment.
"I'm coming," she whispered. Then she wasted no more time.