Chapter One Returning to the Loom
The tavern's door burst open, and six pale shadows slipped in from the night. All movement simply…ceased. The door slammed shut, the sound racking the silence.
Isieron lowered the hood of his white cloak, red eyes sweeping patrons along the bar without a shred of mercy in them. Drunkards and wretches. I should've known the thieves would return to a place like this. The priest of Helm strode forward determinedly, his smooth, liquid movements silenced by the magic of his plate. His escort followed with an equal measure of tranquility, slipping into formation behind him.
There was no one in the common room, not even any invisible presences. "Search the rooms upstairs," he said in his ringing, commanding baritone, and the shadows obeyed wordlessly.
"Get back, demon!" yelled a bearlike fellow, dried drink crusted over his stubble. With a wild yell, the brawler lunged at the priest.
Isieron brought up his gauntleted left hand and smashed his metal fist into man's face. The sop's pulped features were splayed with blood as he toppled backwards, unconscious.
I shouldn't have done that, thought Isieron briefly, shaking the red off his pristine armor. It wasn't…just. But that cry…"demon!"...
It brought back too many memories, too much pain, too much…
No! That was back then. This is now. Stop thinking, damn it, and concentrate…find the desecrators. Find the thieves. And then, then you can vent your rage all you want…
"I am a holy vassal of Helm," said Isieron, baring his demonically sharp teeth, which stood out in his face even more as he tied back his long red hair, revealing every inch of the skin stretched over the bones of his face. The patrons shrank back before his infernal visage. With a ringing metallic screech, the cleric drew his blazing blade.
"All who doubt my honor…step forward." Unsurprisingly, none did. "I seek a trio of thieves. Divine guidance has told me that they are here. Reveal them, if you know where they are." He set about describing him. But no one responded; they were either to drunk to care…or obstructers of justice.
The shadows returned; one of them held a dirty pack. "We found this," she murmured. "Travel pack. If they fled, they didn't take their belongings with them."
"The artifact?" said Isieron, and his fellow Helmite rent the pack in two, dumping its contents on the floor.
There! A single statue, of a knight holding an upraised sword, stood out amongst bars of food, rope, and other mundane things. He picked it up with his free hand; he could feel the holy power infused in it. His red eyes narrowed; if they'd fled, why hadn't they taken the statue with them? Surely, they knew what it was worth…the secret magic contained within was rare and powerful; Isieron himself had trouble using it.
"Make safe the statue," he ordered his shadows, sheathing his unblooded sword. I have to find these strange thieves. There will be answers there with them.
And a reckoning.
"What the hell?" rasped Dev irritably, staring around the small, bare room. He tapped a finger against the dark grey walls. Adamantine. I'd know that feeling anywhere. Crome's sword and armor, and Em's weapons, had been forged from the impossibly hard material. Strong. And expensive. And it had been magically enhanced –a strange glow emanated from the stone, providing the light in the room. "Where is this?"
Alam's voice cut through the former Captain's thoughts. "It's extradimensional." Dev whirled –the mage and his wife were standing behind him, completely bewildered. Alam's staff was humming with magical power, and Lis' hands were locked across the hilts of her blades. "I can taste it."
"Oh, calm down," said the woman at Dev's side.
Dev noticed a giant of a man in a green cloak draped over brown hides, leathers, and a bandolier of knives standing behind his two comrades. His arms were tightly corded, and too large in proportion to his body –perfect for wielding the two huge swords strapped to his back. The giant ran a hand over his shining bald pate, and nodded at the woman.
Lis inched away from the man. "Dev?" she said questioningly. All these years, and I'm still the Captain, the leader.
"Not yet," said Dev. He glanced down at his right hand; his sword was still drawn. If she'd wanted to kill me, she could've done so at the tavern. A mage with power enough to transport me to another dimension-
"I'm no mage," said the woman, chuckling.
Rage reared in Dev's heart like a dragon, and it flashed angrily in his eyes. She can read my mind. The insolent-
His scarred lips tightened, and with sudden, iron will, the fighter rammed his mental strength against hers. Get OUT!
She stumbled back, physically, eyes wide, but recovered her posture extremely quickly. And Dev knew that there was nothing in his head but the ghosts of his past.
"Where'd you learn to do that?" said the woman. She sounded more curious than offended.
"When you live without magic, you learn to do things. Or you die." Dev considered his sword, sheathed it, and folded his arms across his chest. "Now. Names."
"Fair enough," she said, with a mocking curtsey. "Well met, Captain Dev. I'm Dare, mind mage of Loke's Thieves Guild. The mountain of muscle there's called, for obvious reasons, Rockarm. Loke's enforcer."
Dev nodded slowly. She's a psion. And considering that the giant over there managed to bring Lis and Alam along for the ride, he's got a power of his own, besides those blades. She's fit; I'd guess her to be more than just a mind mage. I've seen assassins with less grace than her movements. Damn, but they're a dangerous pair. "So…a pair of mental giants from the local thieves guild want us to go back home and fight."
"What?" growled Alam. "Is that what this is about?"
"What happened to you? How'd you get here?" said Dev.
Lis shrugged. "I don't know. We were talking about you. And then this ugly bastard walks up behind us, puts a hand on out shoulders, and we're standing here."
"You're psions both," accused Dev. "Start answering." His right hand clenched, and one didn't need to be a mind reader to figure out the unspoken part of his statement.
"I wouldn't start swinging," said Dare lightly. "How do you plan to get out of here if we're dead?"
Dev sneered. "Alam!"
The war wizard smiled thinly, and raised his staff. "Just say the word."
"A war wizard must be skilled in transport," said Dev. "Getting troops from here to there requires skill in magery." Me, I prefer horses. Leading the distractions, the suicide attacks that gave Crome the time to sneak in his soldiers with magic and outflank our enemies. "But I'm sure you know all about that, seeing how you seem so aware of our military past."
Dare raised her hands. "Let's just forget that. We're not here to fight you."
"Will you just start talking?"
"I've told you a bit already, you know. Tempted to help?"
"I'm tempted to shove my sword into your stomach, now tell me what I want to know. What's happening back home? And why do you even care? And why…why us?" Why me, actually.
Alam lowered his staff, and chuckled. "This should be good," he muttered darkly.
Dare twisted a loop of hair around her finger, tugging on it. "It's…not really very simple. But you need a history lesson. Loke's fought long and hard to carve out a foothold in this part of the world. We're not just part of this city; our organization is a web that spans leagues upon leagues. We even have island storage houses-"
"There'd better be a point," warned Dev.
"There is. An organization of our size doesn't exist without attracting competitors. We've been warring against other guilds for…well, for a long time. In any case, we…kind of…"
"Screwed up," said Rockarm in a surprisingly light voice. Dev's pale eyes turned and met his dark ones. "We needed help, fighting against a coalition of enemy guilds. They'd turned a boneyard into a necromantic party. Made ghouls and ghasts out of every single poor bastard buried in the 'yard. There were so many…too many. It would've been too costly to hire an equal amount of necromancers to shut them all down, or destroy them with conventional means. So…"
Dare laughed shakily. "It was my idea to get a necromancer. Oh, we could've destroyed the undead, yes, but turning them to our control…a priest might've done, but a necromancer would've been better. They specialize in these things."
And then, Dev knew. His mouth dropped open. "You bastards," he whispered, stunned. You arrogant bastards, you thought you could control him. You thought that he was broken forever. Oh, damn you to the lowest layer of the Abyss, but he was locked in that chamber for a reason! I couldn't kill him, he was too much of a power, destroying his body, yes, it was the best I could do. And then we imprisoned him, Reel and I; we were the last ones standing. Besides Crome, of course. Blood of the gods, but you couldn't have-
"We're psions," said Dare, laughing nervously. "Magical wards…they're meaningless to me. I'll break through them with my mind while sleepwalking. All of Mage Commander Reel's wards were simply nothing. He didn't design them for a psion." He didn't have time, damn it, his guts had been gripped in the cold, shackled hands of the Chained Warlord and ripped straight out!
Dev was almost physically choked with anger, and his voice was nothing but a hoarse echo, carrying through the adamantine refuge. "I beat him," he said. "I crushed him to a bloody pulp, broke all of his power, but I couldn't kill him. No one could. The imprisonment spell was supposed to hold, but no, you just had to go for him…" And they question why I hate these unnatural powers?! They call me the madman?!
"We freed The Puppet Master with full intent of controlling him!" shouted Dare, reddening. "I thought we could-"
"You thought. You, the expert? Damn you and your thoughts, but you were wrong, weren't you?"
She looked away, tearing her gaze from his war worn face. "He…he was stronger than I thought. He'd had years and years to recover; and just as magic had little defense me, I had little defense against magic."
Dev laughed harshly, sitting on the cold floor. Bewilderment floated through him. People are still…so stupid. Dare was still talking, something about how The Puppet Master had decimated both their guilds, but Dev was back in his past. So you're back, old friend? Wandering the world, jerking the strings of us mere mortals? You think you can just waltz back as if nothing's happened? Create more of your brain-dead Chained Warlords, unleash their skill honed in idiocy upon the world? I'll put you right where you belong, Puppet Master; I'll hunt down your very soul…if you have one.
"So?" said Dare, looking at Dev nervously.
He shook his head slowly. "You're all the same. Those with 'power' and 'gifts.' You think you can just…shape the world, and when things go wrong, you want someone else to fix it."
"You did it before, Dev," she said.
He laughed. "And I had Em at my side, and Stone. I don't care how strong you think your friend is, Stone was better. And he…well, he and Em and I, we weren't…you couldn't stop us. Not with magic, not with force. And I had Reel, and Tunnels. Good old Tunnels and his alchemy and his bombs. But the Puppet Master had his own allies; I'm sure you have stories of the Chained Warlord in your heads. It wasn't that long ago." He stretched, standing up. "Problem is, even though I killed the Chained Warlord, the Puppet Master can make another. He's powerful enough. But I can't have another Em, another Reel, another Stone, another Tunnels." Dev glanced back at his comrades. All I have is a mage who was sick on the day of Korablin's Gulch, and a forward scout who I suspect played dead at the start of it all. Blood of the gods, but you want me to go back against he Puppet Master with them…?
"He couldn't make a Chained Warlord!" said Dare. "He's not that strong yet. His imprisonment and corporal destruction sapped some of the energy from him."
"He blew Em to bits with a wave of his finger!" rasped Dev. "He could make armies of the dead with merely a hand! You're telling me he lost all that power?"
Dare was silent. Rockarm chuckled morbidly. "Not quite," he said. "He still had necromantic energy surrounding him, built up over the years, but it was energy he couldn't have used before, thanks to Reel's wards.
"When he fled our slippery clutches, we followed him, racing to Korablin's Gulch. But we didn't make it in time. Even if we had…it wouldn't have mattered."
No. No, he couldn't have…
Dare picked up the tale. "I'm sorry, Dev. But it's true. You know that many of the Third's bodies were never found; not those under the avalanche." Of course. I remember so well. It was my idea, actually. Putting the rest of Tunnel's alchemy under the rocks, and blowing up the other army. But Crome, you bastard, you deployed too early. I was in charge there, not you, why'd you give the order-?"
"He raised them," said Dev tonelessly.
"He raised them," said Dare. "And Dev; Marhsal Crome, his body-"
"You should be." Dev laughed; it was an eerie noise. "Oh, gods, you should be. Do you know what you've done? Do you have any idea?" And this was for a Thieves Guild. He kept laughing until his stomach and throat ached. Oh, you're all so unbearably stupid…
Dare shot a glance at Rocharm. "Crome's body rose along with something around four hundred twenty or thirty of Third Company. But Crome's unchained, completely. The Puppet Master doesn't control him. Not yet. But death has a corrupting aura about it. He's on the march, Dev. With his army. Blighting everything in his path. A black stain across the face of Faerun…"
Dev was silent for a moment, running a hand over his weathered face. "And Puppet Master?"
Dare shook her head helplessly. "No idea."
Dev laughed hollowly. "No idea." His ghostly eyes had a haunted look about him. "I labored…so long, to bring that creature to the point of death. And now, he's loose. And you have no idea where…"
"We screwed up!" said Rockarm. "Humans do."
"Mages do," growled Dev, rather loud for a man with a slit throat. "Your manipulation, your unnatural manipulation…look at what it brings. Just look."
Rockarm stared to respond hotly, but Dare shot him a look, and he fell quiet. "Dev, the point is…we need your help. Loke's Guild is exhausted; we've lost everything between the Puppet Master venture and our feuds with a thousand other Guilds."
"Call out the armies. Of a hundred nations, if be-"
"And be executed for this crime? No. We needed someone, Devoid. Someone like you."
"You've done it before," added Rockarm. "Everyone knows that. You can do it again…"
It's not that simple. But Dev looked at the tattered threads of his life. What am I? A mercenary? Raiding temples of a god I once looked up to? For what, money? So I can survive? I don't want to do this, though. I don't want to go back. It's…
Yeah. Scary, Dev. It's scary.
Screw your fright. The Puppet Master…and Crome. Crome, with all his genius. Oh, he can be stopped by armies, yes, but with Crome leading four hundred some undead and the Puppet Master nearby…no. That…that can't be allowed.
"Dev?" prompted Dare gently, kneeling before him. "Dev, I'm…I'm b-"
"Get up," he rasped, gripping her arm and hauling her up. "We'll need supplies. And we'll need to get out of here."
Her eyes widened, and her mouth formed the word We?
Dev laughed grimly, and his pale eyes looked past adamantine walls, into his past.
The loom was spinning, weaving again.