One: Fringe

The flash of blue-white light was the last thing Xarroth saw before his entire world ended. It wasn't at all what he had anticipated the end of his life would be like, just a flash so intense that it might have been a solar flare, and then nothing. No light, only an impenetrable darkness—no sound, only a quiet so profound that it pressed in upon his sensitive ears like an almost tangible weight.

This moment of complete and utter nonexistence lasted for just that—merely an instant, barely the span of a heartbeat, but it would forever remain the most terrifying moment in all of Xarroth's life. Not only that, but it would serve as the catalyst for every thought, every action, every life-altering decision that would follow thereafter.

Suddenly, where before there had existed only a maddening silence, Xarroth's ears were filled with a rushing sound that he knew, instinctively, was neither random nor coincidental. His arrogant, brilliant mind cast all around for an explanation, until his failed heart sputtered its first feeble beat in what seemed to be an eternity and at last he could give the rushing sound a name.

Blood coursing through his veins.

There was no melody and no harmony, no point and no counterpoint, but to Xarroth it was the sweetest, most delectable music he had ever heard. He greedily cherished every beat of his heart as it slowly awakened the rest of his body to life, marveling at how strong each new beat seemed when compared to its predecessor. The sound of his blood pumping into every crevice of his being became central to his universe, more important than sun and sky and stars, and then something miraculous happened.

His lungs drank in their first breath of air since his life had ended; with the delicious taste of oxygen lingering upon his tongue, Xarroth opened his eyes.

The ovular chamber that served as his private quarters, and all of the trinkets lining the walls and the shelves of that space—everything that had molded him into who he was, all that made him a person—seemed completely obsolete now. He glanced around the room that had been his safe haven for the last decade of his training, and deemed it not only unnecessary, but unworthy. Glancing down he noticed that the outline of his own body was still clearly visible, the indentation from where he had fallen still easy to see in the rug he often used for meditation.

This was negligible. He no longer needed any of these things. He had already taken all that was necessary from the scene: the memory of the blue-white light felling him, knowing that that had been the end of his life, and the understanding that not only had he somehow been granted a second chance, the man who had cast the spell had intended it to destroy Xarroth for good.

Yuki, the man who had taken him in and taught him the subtle yet devastating art of spellcasting, the man whom he had loved as a child loves a father, had attempted to end his life.

Xarroth did not question the logic behind Yuki's decision or even try to rationalize the choice. All he knew was that this was an indiscretion that he was not prepared to abide. He had endured his own death—could Yuki do the same?

The answer, as it turned out, was no.

A powerful and capable master of the arcane arts Yuki may have been before, but Xarroth's newfound appreciation for life was more than a match for the now-withered wizard. He regretted the deed now, more and more as he wended his way aimlessly through the lightless and uncharted labyrinthine passageways of the Underdark—not the deed itself, of course, but the manner in which he had performed it. It had been over before he had begun to enjoy it, really—he had been so consumed with his anger, so tormented by the feeling of betrayal, that he hadn't tempered his desire to just murder his old mentor and be done with it in order to truly appreciate the subtleties of the act. In the future, Xarroth promised himself, he would practice some self control. It would be needed if he truly wished to savor the shameless pleadings and final screams of his adversaries.

All these things Xarroth considered as he wandered through the vast expanse of the World Beneath the Surface, trusting to his intuitive sense of direction to deliver him unto the place where he was to begin his new life. It needed to be someplace grand, he knew, but with a touch of chaos and a sense of the macabre. For without that sense of order unrealized, how would Xarroth find the drive to establish himself and rise to prominence and power?

Young and inexperienced in both the ways of the Art and the upbringing of his Imaskari ancestors, self-assured Xarroth still knew precisely what he had been searching for the moment he set his eyes upon it.

At first it seemed to be simply a stretch of wood, a forested area made fearsome by virtue of the fact that all of its trees were devoid of foliage and had a skeletal quality to them. A mournful moaning issued from the depths of the wood, a sound like a lonesome beast even though the wind did not blow, but soon Xarroth was able to pry his eyes from that sight and observe what lay beyond. For there was some sort of hamlet on the other side of the trees, though at present it seemed lifeless.

Great towers sprang from the featureless ground upon which he trod, structures made of ivory, alabaster, jet and onyx; their architecture was unlike any Xarroth had ever glimpsed in his fifty-nine years of life, or would see ever again. As he crested a rolling hill in the mundane gray expanse south of the eerie wood he was afforded a better view of the place; wide cobblestoned streets constructed of large white marble stones joined each of the unmatching but complimentary buildings, sconces lit with magical fire lined every street corner, and peoples of all races intermingled peaceably within the winding avenues. Unexplainably, many of these individuals seemed to be somewhat translucent—they were clearly beings still in existence, but somehow less so than Xarroth himself.

And as he watched their interactions, narrow-minded Xarroth came to understand: these translucent creatures were actually the souls of people that had passed beyond the World of the Living, yet lingered still on the metaphorical fringe that separated the Material Plane and the Land of the Dead, unwilling yet to pass on to their final fates.

Xarroth's knees almost buckled despite himself, and he had to labor for many long moments to catch his breath. He had heard of this place in Yuki's teachings, but never had he allowed himself to believe that such a city actually existed.

The final way-station, the gate to the Veil of Souls. The only place in all of Faerun where living and dead could co-exist.

The city of Manifest.

Xarroth sat upon the gently-sloping hill overlooking Manifest for many hours, slender chin balanced thoughtfully in one long-fingered hand, mulling over his options. Undoubtedly this was the place he had been meant to find, and now that he had arrived he needed to devise some manner of grand scheme to reshape the future of this fabled city. But how to go about it?

As much as he hated to admit it even to himself, Xarroth was only a novice spellcaster who had completed barely one-third of his mage's training at Yuki's instruction; while he was devoted to furthering his talents in the Art, he no longer had the means to continue his studies and knew no one within Manifest's walls whose talents he could exploit to his benefit. As yet he was on his own, and until he came up with some sort of master plan, his newfound existence was being wasted.

Begrudgingly he dredged up Yuki's earliest teachings, the first tendays the old man had spent introducing a much younger, more impatient Xarroth to the many sacred sects of magic that coalesced into the harmonious whole that was the Weave. A few of these stood out keenly in Xarroth's mind—the scriptures of Ancient Imaskar, laid down by his ancestors many thousands of years ago, and one other, a form of magic that was even today considered too powerful to be incorporated into the teachings of most cultures.

The very antithesis of the Weave, created by the dark queen Shar in her age-old feud against her divine sister Selûne—the Shadow Weave.

The magic practiced only by the archwizards of the lost empire of Netheril.

It was perfect, Xarroth assured himself with a thin-lipped smile. The Netherese Imperium was mighty, so much so that it had survived a near-apocalypse and was even now threatening to become a major power in Faerun. All across the face of Toril, those less learned in the ways of the Art than he were endeavoring to locate a lost piece of Netherese magic, knowing that even a scrap of that power could be enough to reshape the world as it was known today.

Fitting for someone who had championed death, Xarroth thought smugly.

Rising from the gray hill he dusted himself off and made his way toward Manifest, the first stages of the plan already forming as he took his first steps. Netherese archwizards had penned their arcane findings for later generations to study, texts reverently referred to as the Nether Scrolls. It didn't matter how, but one way or another Xarroth knew he would come into possession of one of those scrolls. With it, he would complete his training and transcend his feeble title of apprentice until he had risen above all others who dabbled in the Art.

He would begin his uprising in Manifest, no matter what it took.

Perched precariously upon a spire of Piran Sedestadel, her black velvet wings wrapped comfortingly around her own delicate shoulders, the gloaming Zerena Desini plucked out a somber arietta on her miniature harp. Her sorrowful eyes were not upon the streets below, interestedly observing the many strange faces as they came and went in Manifest, but upon her own dexterous fingers—pale and luminous as they had been in life, but slightly see-through.

She wondered if she would ever get used to the sight.

It wasn't time to depart Manifest yet, though her weary spirit often cried for her to make her last journey—none of the others had passed on yet, she knew, despite the fact that she had not had direct contact with any of them in… how much time had passed? Two weeks? Three? If their restless souls were content to wait in this place, she would endure also. Even though it often caused her great remorse to remain, and the longing to pass through the Veil of Souls intensified every day, she knew that that desperation would increase tenfold for the one she would leave behind if she chose to depart prematurely.

So Zerena sat upon her familiar but lonely perch, absentmindedly making despondent music, and waited for Phendrana to find his way to Manifest for the very last time.