Five: Pursuits, Political and Personal
Though Second Prince Rivalen was the single most devout Shadovar in all of Thultanthar, he often communed with the goddess Shar far more when he was away from her grand chapel. Worship of Shar was required for all Shadovar residing within the enclave, something that each and every one of them considered a great honor, but unfortunately for Rivalen that usually meant that his divine wisdom was constantly being sought by all manner of common rabble throughout public communion. Morning worship on that day was no exception, and by the time Rivalen returned to his private residence he was so desperate to speak with his goddess privately that he pointedly locked the door to his prayer room and all but flung himself down before the altar he had erected centuries before in Shar's praise.
He had felt the unrest in his mind for hours, the mental chaos that could only signify Shar's insistence that he commune with her at once. His first words to her spilled from his lips in a rush. "Speak to me, Exalted Lady. Deliver unto me your will that I might better serve you."
The echo of Shar's voice in Rivalen's mind was supremely refreshing, rather akin to a man dying of dehydration taking his first sip of life-giving water. Today is an important day for you and your city, mortal. Are you aware as to why?
Rivalen had learned in all his centuries of dealing with the Dark Lady of the Shadow Weave that it was far better to seem ignorant than to come across as all-knowing; Shar derived a great deal of enjoyment from enlightening her followers, and the High Priest of Thultanthar was certainly no exception. "No, Blessed Mother. I beg of you, enlighten me."
Today Lord Shadow intends to take great strides toward advancing your inconsequential enclave, servant. The cities of Waterdeep and Silverymoon will play host to two of the High Prince's delegations as they seek peaceable alliances, and a third contingent will visit the Dragon Coast in your monarch's efforts to secure powerful allies for the inevitable conflicts that will follow. None of these meetings will play out as Lord Shadow expects.
With the exception of Shar's ever-cryptic insight into the outcome of the High Prince's affairs, these were all things that Prince Rivalen was well aware of. He would be making the journey to Waterdeep himself at the conclusion of the dawn gathering of the Shadow Council. Nevertheless, he made a mental note to pass along the goddess's enigmatic clue to the High Prince. "I have faith that our efforts will be guided along by your nurturing hand, Dark Mistress."
I have come to commune with you about none of these things, thrall. I have sought your ear to depart tidings of an unrelated matter.
At these words, Rivalen sat up a little straighter. "What matter, Divine Lady?"
Several among you have exhausted multiple resources in a futile search for information regarding Lim Tal'eyve, the Bitch Queen's favored pet. The venom in the goddess's disembodied voice was impossible to misinterpret – but then, Shar and Lolth had opposed one another on all matters for eons. Lolth plans to grant him yet another half-life, and allow him to walk the Material Plane once more.
Rivalen's eyes snapped open, luminous silver pinpricks in the gloom. "When?!"
Today is his test. The Spider Queen means to allow the drow's essence to choose its own form – if he can succeed in this, she will return him to lichdom. I warn you, servant – if you do not put a stop to this plot, your entire enclave will suffer my wrath.
Now Rivalen was on his feet, prepared to shadow walk out of his private residence and directly into the meeting hall of the Shadow Council – he was already late for the dawn gathering as it was. "Who does the drow mean to use as his sacrifice?!"
The goddess's disembodiless voice grew cold. The Mistress of the Night does not grant information that is already known!
Abruptly the Second Prince felt very alone, and he took this to mean that his goddess had left him. Without further ado he turned sharply on his heel and dissolved into his own shadow, navigating the vast expanse of the Shadow Weave until he located the familiar rift in the fabric of proverbial darkness that was the Shadow Council's meeting hall. When he next materialized and took on his corporeal form he was standing just behind his seat at the table, facing the Most High, his eleven brothers, Hadrhune, and Soleil.
The High Prince made his displeasure known at once – Telamont detested tardiness for any reason. "I trust there is a good explanation for your lateness, Rivalen? Surely you recall well enough the great importance of this particular day?"
Rivalen did not even bother to take his seat, instead directly facing the Most High and delivering his information without so much as requesting permission to give it. "High Prince, I have just communed privately with the Mistress of the Night. The Exalted Lady has informed me that the Spider Queen Lolth will be unleashing Lim Tal'eyve's essence upon the face of Faerun today."
The irritation in Telamont's face was wiped clean by this news, replaced with just a touch of incredulity. "And did the Dark Lady divulge the reason for her generous gift of knowledge?"
"No, Most High One, her reasoning was not clear. She would say only that if we do not put a stop to the lichdrow's resurrection ourselves, she will rain her wrath down upon Thultanthar."
Twelfth Prince Brennus had his hands braced upon the table in front of him, his handsome bronze eyes slitted with sudden strain. "How is it possible for us to put a stop to this?! I need not remind any of you just how vast Faerun is! Lim Tal'eyve may choose anyone to serve as his sacrifice!"
Sixth Prince Yder shot a glare Rivalen's way. "Did you not think to beseech Mistress Shar to unveil the name of the drow's vessel?"
The Second Prince cast his two younger brothers a withering look. "Do not insult my intelligence. Of course I asked for the name of the lichdrow's target. Unfortunately in this, the Dark Lady was as cryptic as ever. She insisted that she would not give me the answer because the answer is known to one among our number already."
For those among the Shadow Council who were not privy to the events of the previous night, what occurred next was very strange; Escanor, Lamorak, Aglarel, and Clariburnus snapped their shrewd gazes upon the seneschal Hadrhune, who had been sitting in his chair at the foot of the table in a rather sober state of unnatural silence. The moment the last of Rivalen's words had left his mouth Hadrhune sat up straight, his amber eyes burning within the darkness of his face, and said, "The lichdrow's target is known to me. He will choose Aveil Arthien."
The utter confusion was apparent in more than one face – including Soleil, who voiced the obvious question. "…Who?"
"The Archmistress of the Citadel of Assassins," Hadrhune clarified in a stiff voice. "A psionist of renown and uncrowned queen of snow elves."
"What is the lichdrow's tie to this woman?" inquired Eleventh Prince Melegaunt, but Most High Telamont had heard enough.
"Sit and be silent, all of you," commanded the High Prince, in a voice that held no room for leniency, and the moment that the fourteen other members of the esteemed Thultanthar Shadow Council had obeyed he continued to address them. "Here now is my will: Rivalen, you will be in charge of the follow up negotiations with the Lords of Waterdeep, who have by now reached their final decision and are prepared to deliver their verdict. I suspect that they will accept our proposal and choose to ally with the City of Shade, for the alternative is to openly oppose our conquest of the Heartlands and Open Lord Paladinson is well aware that his armies would crumble before the army of Shade. To accomplish this, I grant you the services of Mattick, Vattick, and Brennus. I trust your brothers will serve you well.
"Escanor, you must now turn your attentions upon the city of Silverymoon, where the venerable Lady Alustriel awaits the arrival of the delegation from Thultanthar. It is my hope that she will accept your offer of goodwill and friendship, but I do not expect her to be so optimistic in the end. Lamorak, Rapha, and Melegaunt will go with you – Alustriel will appreciate their collective… charm.
"Aglarel, it falls to you to lead the operation on the Dragon Coast. The current usurper, a particularly malevolent wyrm called Shaepulanderex, will receive you most rudely and will more than likely not warm up to your presence as the meeting progresses. Doubtless the confrontation will come to blows, though by now you have deduced as much on your own – I give you Clariburnus, Yder, Dethud, and Soleil to overthrow the wyrm and claim his armies in the name of Thultanthar. I have little doubt that we will need them for the many conflicts that will soon arise."
"Would you prefer that I brought the dragon to you in chains," asked Aglarel idly, "or in pieces?"
The High Prince flashed a brief fang-filled grin. "Red dragons rarely form lasting alliances, and almost never taste good in soup."
Hadrhune opened his mouth in protest, saying, "Most High One, you have not yet told me where I might best serve your designs."
"Is it not obvious?" drawled Telamont, the mirth vanishing from his face as quickly as it had appeared. "Your mission today is a solitary one – you will make your way to Neverwinter, where Archmistress Arthien keeps her current residence. If it is the will of Shar that Lim Tal'eyve be thwarted, I can think of no better man for the job. After all, is it not thanks to you that we seem to have landed ourselves in this predicament?" When Hadrhune said nothing, Telamont finished coolly, "It seems that, at present, the only way to put a stop to the lichdrow's return is to offer our protection to the sorceress Aveil – and since you were so eager to do so before, you shall do so now, at your peril."
The seneschal bowed his head. "If it pleases the Most High, it shall be done."
"We are finished here," concluded Telamont, motioning for them to rise. "You have your assignments. There is little room for error, as you well know – as you value your lives, do not fail me."
Rivalen beckoned to Brennus and the twin princes Mattick and Vattick, who hearkened to his gesture at once and moved to his side. "Let us depart," the High Priest of Shar said to them. "It would not do for us to keep Open Lord Paladinson and his sycophantic advisors awaiting our arrival for long."
The other three nodded their heads assent, and the four princes stole into the Shadow Weave and vanished in a wisp of black mist.
First Prince Escanor circled the table to Soleil's side at once and drew her into his arms, tilting her head back with his index finger so that he could look her in the eye. "Red dragons are the most volatile of their kind, Soleil, as I'm certain that you know. I am sorry I cannot accompany you."
Soleil waved a hand behind her, to the corner of the conference room where Aglarel, Clariburnus, Yder, and Dethud stood waiting. "Perhaps if the Most High insisted upon sending me by myself I would be concerned, but as you can see I have been given far more than merely average protection. Do not fear for me, Prince." She broke off with a sly wink, finishing, "I believe I am far from worthless – have I not proven as much on many occasions?"
Escanor looked flabbergasted by her words, perhaps even a touch embarrassed; behind him, his remaining brothers laughed aloud at his expense. Even High Prince Telamont allowed the smallest of smiles to flash fleetingly across his face, adding, "Let the girl go, Escanor. She is the Left Hand of the Most High, after all – shade or not, she if far more capable than most."
The mountebank offered Lord Shadow a deep bow in thanks and a kiss on the cheek to the First Prince, and then accepting Prince Clariburnus's elbow she shadow walked out of the meeting hall with the rest of the delegation bound for the Sword Coast. Only Escanor, Lamorak, Rapha, Melegaunt, and Hadrhune had yet to depart.
"Yours is perhaps the most crucial mission of all," Most High Telamont said to his eldest son, his grave tone aptly reflecting the seriousness of the situation. "Lady Alustriel is a queen in a world dominated by powerful and influential Faerunian kings; her wisdom and fairness have earned her not only the supreme respect of her subjects, but a place in the annals of history. Her curiosity for all things she does not understand and her empathy for the so-called imperiled races will make her the most sympathetic to our cause, but do not take that to mean that the decision is already made. It will take all of your knowledge of diplomacy to convince Alustriel to lend her support to Thultanthar – I need not remind you that if we gain Silverymoon, we hold sway over the Silver Marches… perhaps all of the Northwest."
First Prince Escanor bowed to his father's wishes, and his three younger brothers hastened to follow suit. "I will not disappoint you, Most High One." And beckoning to the others Escanor added, "Let us away." Then the last of the Twelve Princes of Shade shadow walked out of the great meeting hall.
Hadrhune stood hunched over his chair, unaware that he gripped the high back tightly with both of his hands until Telamont approached him and said, "We all have our parts to play, Hadrhune. Shar calls for me to relinquish each and every one of my own sons to her service this day – perhaps none of them will return. Perhaps the great City of Shade will fall tomorrow." When the seneschal glanced up into the eyes of the High Prince of Thultanthar, alarm sketched all over his face, Telamont hitched a crooked sort of half smile onto his dark lips as though grimly amused. "It may be that our magnificent empire will collapse as all those of our ancient Netherese ancestors did before it, or it may come to pass that you will be responsible for the complete eradication of the cancer that is Lim Tal'eyve. We have no way of knowing what will be – all we can do is decide to act, or to be idle. And in its own way, inaction is far worse than outright failure." Telamont watched Hadrhune's face carefully, watching each and every word as it was processed behind the seneschal's amber eyes, and felt a strange kind of pride stirring within his chest when his emissary at last answered.
"You are correct, my sovereign, as you always are – it may be that the lichdrow will best me today, and that I will lay my life down in the defense of Thultanthar." Suddenly, Hadrhune's eyes blazed with amber flame. "But as long as there is life left in me, Lim Tal'eyve will fear me."
Telamont offered a rare smile, one that showed every single one of his ceremonial fangs. "Then go, and may the Mistress of the Night keep you."
Hadrhune bowed, sweeping the hem of his shadow shroud out wide with one hand as he did so. "As you command."
And then the last of the Shadow Council members had gone, leaving High Prince Telamont with nothing to do but retreat to the world window and await the final verdicts of their endeavors.
It was a solemn tread that brought Hadrhune to the rift in the Shadow Weave, the rift that would lead him back to the corporeal plane and into Neverwinter. This was the first time since his own self-imposed exile that he would set foot in the city of his birth since… just how long had it been? The years fell away from him as he allowed himself to recall simpler, much younger days – the years prior to his transmutation into a shade were often the most difficult to remember. Eighteen decades? The elf who called himself Hadrhune had been little more than a boy then, eager to carve for himself a legacy that wouldn't soon be forgotten but all but clueless as to how.
He tightened his grip upon the darkstaff, the cherished weapon that had been the Most High's treasured gift to him on the eve of his transmutation. He was no longer a boy, but a man – he was not a feeble, mortal creature, but a being of superior import. It was not Lim Tal'eyve, servant of the Spider Queen Lolth, that would be securing his legacy today, but the Right Hand of Most High Telamont.
With all of these things in mind Hadrhune exited the Shadow Weave through the miniscule tear in the rift, setting foot on the intricately carved cobblestones of the Winged Wyvern, one of the three bridges spanning the Neverwinter River and leading into the heart of the city's many meandering avenues. It was mid morning over the Lands That See the Sun; the sunlight glared down in full from its place in the sky just east of its zenith, bathing the cobblestones in a dry heat that was almost unbearable. Hadrhune had armed himself with daylight-repellant enchantments, though, and the ever-present darkness that wreathed his form had deepened to its blackest protective murk the moment he had exited the Weave. He made his way cautiously to the central pavilion, and once there he paused and took a look around.
"Where are the people?" he mused beneath his breath, his brow creasing with suspicion. "At midday, in this weather… the pavilion should be crowded. And yet there isn't a soul…"
Hadrhune turned on his heel and stalked from one end of the pavilion to the other, beating an unfamiliar path down one gently winding cobblestoned avenue that led into a cul-de-sac of private lodgings. Before departing Thultanthar he had whisked himself to the world window in the Most High's audience hall, for though he was certain that Aveil currently resided somewhere in Neverwinter he hadn't a clue as to where. He recalled the moment the fog had cleared over the world window and shown him the image of the angel-faced sorceress he sought, and the image that greeted him nearly took his breath away: Aveil was alone in her home and peacefully asleep, her lovely alabaster face almost innocent as she dreamed. It was only by reminding himself that soon he would be seeing her in person that the seneschal was able to tear himself away from the image and complete the shadow walk to Neverwinter.
He stood before her abode now with his eyes narrowed and his thumbnail gouging another rivet in the well-worn groove in his darkstaff, unable to shake the feeling of uneasiness that gripped him, certain beyond the shadow of any doubt that something was amiss.
That was when the front windows shattered into millions of shards of glass, and an unearthly howl resonated in his sensitive elf ears.
Only Twelfth Prince Brennus noticed the slight stumble to Rivalen's step and took note of the flash of indignation that crossed his face; the High Priest of Shar turned to face them, his features impossibly obscured by the perpetual veil of darkness that surrounded them as they passed through the immeasurable Shadow Weave. The displeasure saturating his voice was the only thing left unmasked by the gloom when he said, "It seems that the Lords of Waterdeep mean to deny us entrance."
Brennus narrowed his eyes, rage bubbling up in his chest; nearby Mattick and Vattick, indistinguishable from one another for the moment, exchanged a mutinous glance. "How can that be?" asked the loremaster. "First Prince Escanor spoke with the Open Lord only yesterday. Paladinson assured that the delegation from Shade would be received graciously – or what the Waterdhavians name as gracious these days."
Rivalen gestured to the miniscule tear in the fabric of the Shadow Weave, the point where he meant to lead his brothers back onto the Material Plane. It became apparent the moment Brennus leaned around him to inspect it that the rift had been somehow sealed, barring their entrance. Having been present at the first round of negotiations with the Lords of Waterdeep, Brennus was familiar with this rift in the Shadow Weave – the precise location of the audience hall from which the Lords decided affairs of state as a single cohesive unit.
He whirled on Rivalen, bronze eyes burning in the dark and ceremonial fangs bared in an unattractive snarl. "They wouldn't dare refuse an audience with the Most High's own sons!"
Second Prince Rivalen snorted, a most undignified sound that very clearly suggested he was not at all surprised. "It seems that is precisely what they mean to do, young brother."
Ninth Prince Vattick retreated a short distance away from his three brothers, though his twin lingered close at hand. After allowing Rivalen and Brennus to debate the issue for a moment longer the illusionist straightened and interrupted smoothly, saying, "We did not come here to submit ourselves to such petty squabbles – nor do we wish to return to the Most High before our mandate has been fulfilled. Here is our solution." He broke off by pointing to yet another tear in the delicate fabric of the blackened void; a moment's recollection was all it took for Brennus to catch on to his meaning.
"The front gate of Waterdeep Tower – you mean to confront them for this?"
"You would allow their blatant disrespect for the High Prince's will to pass uncontested?" Vattick fired back, and he crossed his arms. "This non-reception of theirs is proof enough of their intentions – they mean to shun the Most High's generous proposal of alliance. They mean to oppose the City of Shade."
Unsurprisingly, Mattick threw his lot in with his twin almost at once. "There can be no question in this. They must have gone through great lengths to bar our passage through the use of the Shadow Weave."
"The Most High wished to form an alliance with Waterdeep!" Brennus hissed. "Not to erase any progress we have made toward securing their support for the enclave's future endeavors!" The loremaster rounded on Rivalen, hoping that the eldest prince among them would see reason. "Rivalen, I beseech you – surely you understand that this is not the way?"
Rivalen's gaze was somehow vacant, as though he had caught a glimpse of something the others could not see. Refocusing on the issue at hand he murmured, "Lady Shar was quite clear when she told me that none of these affairs will play out in the way the Most High has determined. He was certain that the Lords of Waterdeep, in their ultimate cowardice, would balk at the idea of crossing swords with the armies of Shade and thus ally with the enclave in order to preserve their pitiable way of life. This is no longer the case, Brennus. As the extension of the Most High's will in this matter, it falls to me to decide how to respond to this unforeseen circumstance." The Second Prince stepped right up to the rift in the realm of shadow, the tear in the fabric between worlds that would lead them to the doorstep of Waterdeep Tower, and said, "We will punish them for their insolence."
Brennus attempted to protest further. "But – "
The Second Prince whirled on him, silver eyes burning within his shadow-swathed face, and hissed, "If you are so opposed to my agenda then by all means – return to the Most High. Tell him that you disobeyed the express wish of your elder brother and see if he favors your cause when I return!" And without awaiting a reply Rivalen stepped through the tear in the Shadow Weave and vanished, presumably to appear before the front gate of Waterdeep Tower.
Mattick followed with a sympathetic glance cast his youngest brother's way, and Vattick laid a hand bracingly down upon Brennus's narrow shoulder. "We do not have the authority to dispute our brother's claim on this," Vattick murmured softly. "The Most High sent us here to accomplish this task, knowing that we would have to answer to Rivalen in the event that something went awry. What will you do? Will you truly turn back? The Most High will only be displeased."
Brennus looked up, his bronze eyes skeptical and wary. "Of course I will follow Rivalen's will – I am bound to the hierarchy of the Twelve Princes of Shade the same as any of you, and follow it just as faithfully. But make no mistake – this errand can only end in failure, or worse, disobedience. You know as well as I our older brother's penchant for vengeance; if the Lords of Waterdeep have really made the mistake of denying us audience and are merely holed up within their tower, Rivalen will slaughter them all."
"Then Rivalen's word is law here – and it is Rivalen who will suffer if the High Prince is displeased with his decision." Vattick beckoned toward the rift in the Shadow Weave. "For now, come. We will participate where necessary. Following orders is not a crime, brother."
They stepped through the tear in the black spatial fabric together, just in time to see the hem of Mattick's purple-black illusionist robes whip through a crack in the great double doors leading into Waterdeep Tower. Exchanging a mildly apprehensive glance Vattick and Brennus hastened to follow, slinking through the door that remained slightly ajar and admitting themselves into the grand foyer. Inside they were met with a startling sight – the palace guards standing watch in the foyer had all been slain, and their corpses lay strewn in grotesque disarray at Rivalen's feet.
"What is this?!" demanded Brennus, eyes wide as he regarded the carnage that his older brother had wrecked within the foyer. "Rivalen! Have you lost your senses?! What do you hope to gain in murdering all of these men?!"
Vattick's eyes were narrowed now as well, and he took a smooth step in front of Brennus as though to conceal him. "Do you think the citizens of Waterdeep will not retaliate when they discover what has happened here? Will you put an end to all of their lives as well, and deliver the Most High a graveyard over which to rule?"
Rivalen bent to wipe the ebony blade of his ceremonial dagger on the tunic of the slain Waterdhavian guard nearest to him, his eyes shimmering with rage. "Why do you question me?! Have I not made it perfectly clear that in this, you are to follow my word?!"
"We follow your word in all things!" Brennus bellowed, skirting around Vattick to stand up to his brother. "But in this, your word is madness!"
"Enough of this," sighed Mattick, crossing his arms and looking bored, and on closer inspection it became apparent that there was a thin iron wand hanging loosely from the fingertips of Mattick's left hand – had he participated in the slaughter? "I will endeavor to bring this into better perspective for all of you: it says nothing for the strength and conviction of Thultanthar if we do not respond to the rudeness with which the Lords of Waterdeep have handled this negotiation. There can be no question that we must confront them and at the very least demand an explanation for their actions. You are all correct – it would be counter-productive for the four of us to make the whole of Waterdeep suffer for the transgressions of their ruling body, but neither can we sit idly by and allow these so-called Lords to insult our city so. The conclusion is clear: we would do well to make an example of the cowards who dare to call themselves the Lords of Waterdeep, while appearing 'merciless' in the eyes of the common rabble."
This explanation was met with relative silence as Rivalen, Brennus, and Vattick considered Mattick's proposed middle ground, but it did not need much consideration. At length, Rivalen condescended to speak. "Well said, brother. That is precisely what we should do." He snapped his silver eyes upon Brennus, who regarded him with mild disdain. "Will you argue still? Or will you stop questioning my authority and follow orders, as you should have done from the start?"
Brennus knew that to argue further on this point would surely lead him to punishment when they returned to Thultanthar, and so he spread his arms in obeisance as he bent slightly at the waist. "I grant you my support, but I warn you – if your 'punishment' seems excessive, I will re-evaluate my stance on the matter."
"As will I," Vattick promised, and Rivalen couldn't help but roll his eyes.
"There is little room in the City of Shade for petty squabbles and melodrama," Rivalen snapped, and slipping the ceremonial dagger back into a fold of his cleric's robes he beckoned them onward. "For now, come. All that remains to deter us from our goal is one staircase, and perhaps a door behind which the cowards think they are safe."
The four dark figures fell in together and began to scale the white marble spiral staircase at a leisurely pace, unconcerned for what awaited them at the top, and it was as they were making the climb that Mattick glanced back at the youngest among them and asked, "You were here with Escanor when the first round of negotiations took place, were you not? Did Escanor not say how rude the Lords were?"
Brennus nodded. Not only had Escanor spoken similar words when recounting the tale to the Most High, the others who had been present for the negotiation had protested vehemently as to the Waterdhavian's appalling behavior toward the delegation from Shade. Even the doppelganger Phendrana had confessed to being quite taken aback by the treatment of the Most High's sons. "This is all true."
"Then why do you protest? Surely you are at least in part pleased that the Lords of Waterdeep are about to receive their just rewards?"
"Of course I am," Brennus sighed. "I am just as firm a believer as any of you in the idea that all things owed to Thultanthar should be delivered – respect perhaps foremost among these things. However, I am an even stronger advocate for the unfaltering loyalty owed to the Most High. We owe that to him first and foremost, and until my dying breath, I will give it."
Rivalen clucked his tongue by way of protesting but otherwise did not respond. The four Shadovar princes then crested the spiral staircase and found themselves in the circular reception hall where audiences usually awaited a meeting with the Open Lords of Waterdeep; here the floor was white marble inlaid with rivulets of gold and silver, and the walls were lined with handsomely sculpted busts of each of the Lords currently serving in office. The door at the opposite end of the chamber was firmly closed, and they all supposed it was securely locked also. The twins strolled right up to the door and examined it wordlessly for a moment before turning back.
"Locked," Vattick confirmed, matching Rivalen's deep scowl. "With your permission?"
"At your leisure," Rivalen acquiesced.
Ninth Prince Vattick shook the sleeve of his illusionist's robes back from his right hand and extended his littlest finger, upon which he wore a thin golden band that wound intricately around a small, opaque opal that flashed pale pink in the light from the chandelier overhead. He extended his hand and leveled the opal in line with the lock, and as they watched the stone fashioned itself into a mold of the key required to open the door. Vattick inserted the mold and turned his wrist slightly, and the door swung open. The ring returned to its natural shape, glittering placidly as Vattick gestured to the door with a sweep of his other arm.
"After you, brother," said Vattick with a smile, and Rivalen snickered beneath his breath and led the way inside.
It was just as they had assumed – there sat the nine Lords of Waterdeep in their high-backed and bejeweled thrones, holding their masked heads high as though they had just accomplished something grand. It was almost laughable how the atmosphere changed the moment Second Prince Rivalen stalked into their midst with his three younger brothers behind him – the warmth in the room all but evaporated, to be replaced with a nearly-tangible chill, and the Lords' shoulders hunched as they cowered back into their grand thrones in fear. Only the Open Lord, Piergieron Paladinson, managed not to regard the delegation from Shade with trepidation, though he did have to work to hide his scowl of complete loathing. Rivalen swept wrathfully right up before the Open Lord's throne and halted barely ten feet away, bidding his three brothers to wait just behind him with the smallest ripple of the fingers of his right hand.
Piergieron Paladinson rose from his throne as though outraged. "What is the meaning of this intrusion?! You admit yourselves into the audience chamber of the Lords of Waterdeep unannounced, and you do not even offer us the respect deserving of our stations?! I pray there has been some oversight, for your sakes!"
In that moment, as the discourteous greeting of the Open Lord washed over the four Princes of Shade, their disagreements from the recent past were all but forgotten. Silently and unanimously they all vowed to protect one another in whatever way seemed necessary, and to unite against the injustices they now faced. Rivalen took yet another step forward, his face composed and almost deceptively serene. "You speak as though we are the transgressors, when we all know that it is you who is at fault here! You agreed to host this delegation – you gave the Most High himself your word! We come to honor your summons, and what do we find? The rift in the Shadow Weave sealed, the door to your great chamber locked – you would deny us the right to counsel that we have already been granted, and then cower behind your doors?"
Rivalen's form blurred out of sight for a moment, his figure barely more than a shadow, only to rematerialize behind the throne of the Masked Lord on Paladinson's immediate right. He draped himself over the back of the regal chair almost lazily, his sudden proximity rooting the seated Masked Lord to the spot.
"As if a mere door could keep us out," he hissed in the man's ear. "As if we, the Princes of Shade, would allow this affront to stand uncontested."
Then the sacred ebony blade of Shar's high priest entered the Masked Lord's back, tearing easily through muscle and sinew as it slid between his ribs and slashed out a lung. Rivalen smiled down at the twitching body of the man impaled upon his blade, his ceremonial fangs glinting diamond-white in the light from the sun streaming in from the floor-to-ceiling windows, and tore the dagger from the Masked Lord's flesh in a way that dislodged him from his great throne; he sprawled face-up on the white marble floor, his mask slipping from his face as blood blossomed around him. It was obvious in the vacant set of his eyes that the life had already flown from his body.
The other Lords leapt from their thrones with a collective roar of fury and loss, but Rivalen seemed unconcerned as his eyes flitted to regard his three fellow princes. "Eliminate them. Leave Paladinson to me."
A casual onlooker blinking at the wrong moment would easily have missed the carnage that followed. One moment the Masked Lords were on their feet and clambering for weapons, and the next the Princes of Shade had succeeded in plunging the room into horrific and sudden silence. The corpses of the Masked Lords lay precisely where they had stood just a second before, bodies contorted painfully and pools of blood intertwining until the white marble was covered with a morbid crimson canvas. Mattick, Vattick and Brennus stood flanking Rivalen in the moment after the massacre, faces emotionless, bodies unexerted, enchanted daggers dripping ruby droplets at their sides.
Rivalen faced Paladinson, the left side of his mouth crooked upward in a smirk as he tucked his bloodied blade away. The Open Lord's face was as pale as newly fallen snow.
"This is Thultanthar's judgment, decided upon by the Twelve Princes of Shade and carried out in the name of Most High Telamont." Rivalen swept one arm out behind him to indicate the mess of torn bodies that littered the floor of the audience hall, his face devoid of any remorse. "We regret very much having to leave the governing body of Waterdeep with so little political support, but the Princes of Shade are not barbarians. It is fortunate that the people have you to look to in the days to come, and that they are not leaderless – especially now that Thultanthar is declaring war upon Waterdeep."
Paladinson stumbled forward a step, his hands held palms-up before him as though pleading. "Please! I beg of you! You can't – "
"But we can," Rivalen overrode him, "and we will. Whether by treaty or by sword you will bow to the City of Shade – I trust you will make the right decision."
And without another word the Princes of Shade shadow-walked out of Waterdeep, leaving Open Lord Piergieron Paladinson alone with the bodies of the men who, until just a minute before, had been standing right beside him.
First Prince Escanor paced the length of the tranquil, sparsely furnished audience chamber with his hands clasped behind his back and his mouth set into a perpetual snarl. The negotiations with the city of Silverymoon were progressing just as the Most High, in his infinite wisdom, had anticipated: so far Lady Alustriel was had received them just as they had come to expect. Compared to the other monarchs of great nations Escanor had visited Alustriel was far more accommodating – she had greeted the four Princes of Shade most graciously and welcomed them into the Ivory Tower pleasantly enough. Though conversing with her was natural and their fears of being disrespected had long since been assuaged, Alustriel had been quick to make one thing perfectly clear: she had no intention of pledging her kingdom to a long-standing alliance with Thultanthar, and it was unlikely that her stance in the matter would change for any reason.
About an hour into the process one of the Lady's advisors actually interrupted them, begging their forgiveness and bowing feverishly half a dozen times before whispering rapidly into Alustriel's ear. Though the Lady of Silverymoon was always careful about giving anything away her luminous emerald eyes widened a fraction at whatever news her advisor was divulging, and after a hurried apology she excused herself to attend to matters unknown. They had been awaiting her return for a quarter of an hour now with no word as to her whereabouts.
Eleventh Prince Melegaunt watched his oldest brother pace as he relaxed back in one of the chairs that lined the audience chamber, one corner of his mouth curled back in a smirk. "What has you so harassed? The Lady is simply stalling, that is all."
Escanor cocked his head irritably in Melegaunt's direction. "Stalling?"
Melegaunt stretched out luxuriously, seeming perfectly at ease. "It is a legitimate negotiation technique. When the hosting party begins to feel uncomfortable with the proposed terms or a particular topic of the compromise she practices avoidance. This can take many forms, from changing the subject to excusing oneself to attend to an unrelated matter. One hopes that this will result in the visiting party growing exasperated and ultimately dismissing itself, and so the negotiation remains unresolved – which is far more favorable to the hosting party than agreeing to unfavorable terms."
Anger shone in Tenth Prince Rapha's eyes. "Surely she wouldn't be foolish enough to practice such uncivilized behavior when Thultanthar is involved?!"
Third Prince Lamorak crossed his arms and hunkered down in his seat, his brow creased as he considered. "Surely not. Lady Alustriel is wise beyond her years. Doubtless she would see the folly in such a foolish choice."
Escanor resumed his pacing, saying only, "We will see."
As if on cue Alustriel's advisor, a wizened dwarf in simple white cleric's robes leaning heavily upon an ornate staff, came shuffling back into their midst. Four sets of bejeweled eyes wreathed in perpetual darkness watched him make his way into the center of the audience chamber, and once there he bowed politely. "The Lady beseeches you to forgive her rudeness, and wishes me to inform you that her business elsewhere is nearly concluded. She prays that you will grant her just a little more patience and thanks you for your time."
Escanor recovered himself quickly, offering the tidy little dwarf a warm smile before saying, "But of course. Silverymoon is no hamlet – doubtless the esteemed Lady has matters far more pressing than these. We continue to be grateful to her for accepting us here."
"Not at all," murmured the dwarf advisor placidly, and with another of his small bows he excused himself.
Rapha was up in arms the moment the door had closed behind him. "This is unacceptable. Must we continue to wait? It is clear that Alustriel has no intention of honoring the Most High's generous proposal with a response. Let us declare war upon this hovel and be done with it."
"We will do no such thing," snapped Escanor. "Now hold your tongue, young brother. I refuse to allow your ill temper to cost Shade this alliance."
"The First Prince's words carry great wisdom," Lamorak agreed. "Be at peace."
Melegaunt, who had been on the verge of dozing off for the last several minutes, suddenly sat up a bit straighter. "The Lady comes now."
The great double doors separating the private audience chamber from the rest of the east wing of the Ivory Tower were thrown open then, and Alustriel hurried in. The moment she was among them it was clear that something was amiss; her protuberant emerald eyes were wild with fear, her face was a shade whiter than was considered normal, and her breathing was rapid and shallow. Melegaunt and Lamorak leapt to their feet in alarm, but Escanor threw out an arm to keep them in place. "My Lady, what – "
Alustriel held out a hand, palm up, to stay his words; her fingers were trembling slightly. "Prince Escanor, please inform the Most High upon your return to Thultanthar that I accept his offer of alliance."
Escanor could not contain his shock. "Truly?!"
"I will negotiate my terms at a later date." Alustriel's eyes flashed then – in warning? "I will do all that I may to satisfy your monarch – I beg of you, leave these people be. Silverymoon is a good place, filled with good people. I only wish that no harm come to them."
The First Prince glanced over his shoulder at his three brothers, not at all surprised to find them wearing expressions identical to his own – complete and utter perplexity. Turning back to face The Lady of Silverymoon Escanor spread his hands and shook his head slowly as he said, "Has there been a misunderstanding, Lady? Allow me to remind you that this offer of alliance is a peaceable one. You and your subjects are in no danger - there is no reason to be wary. The Most High would never wish for you to accept his proposal out of fear."
Alustriel's face darkened, and suddenly her rage was impossible to misread. "Did you speak similar words to the Masked Lords of Waterdeep?"
Unease curled in the pit of Escanor's stomach as he dropped his hands, and his brow furrowed as he insisted, "Forgive me, Lady, but I do not understand."
"I have just spoken to Open Lord Piergieron Paladinson, who was aware that your delegation would be arriving today to speak with me." Alustriel narrowed her eyes. "He has informed me that the Princes of Shade declared war upon Waterdeep – moments after they murdered the Masked Lords in cold blood!"
The awful howl still reverberating in his ears Hadrhune all but lunged himself at the broken window, just as Aveil Arthien reached it and gripped the twisted frame with both hands to keep herself from swooning. Her hair was matted to her forehead and damp with sweat, her face as white as newly fallen snow; Hadrhune seized her hands in his own and nearly recoiled from her when flesh met flesh, for she was chilled to the bone and brought to mind a corpse.
"What has happened?!" Hadrhune barked, and with his index finger he tipped her chin back in an attempt to look her in the eye. Aveil's normally luminous violet pupils were dull and somehow lifeless – the sight terrified him in a way he could not express. "Aveil, look at me! Are you alright?!"
When at last her eyes settled upon his Aveil drew in a shuddering breath, as though shocked to see him there. "Oh," she breathed, the syllable saturated with relief. "It's you." And then she fell limp, leaving the seneschal with no choice but to haul the slight sorceress through the warped window frame and into his arms.
Without the half elf to fill the window, Hadrhune at last had a clear view of just what had caused her to collapse. A translucent figure hovered near Aveil's now-vacant bed, barely more corporeal than a wraith; it turned slowly to face Hadrhune as the seneschal backed quickly away from the window, and the shock of the amber eyes that so resembled his own nearly caused the seneschal to gasp aloud. The shadowy form drifted nearer to the window before blinking out of sight for a moment, only to reappear outside of Aveil's home leaning almost nonchalantly against the twisted window frame. The misty figure was slight of build and of medium height, with a cruel grin and the dark skin of a drow.
Quickly, Hadrhune came to understand. "You are Lim Tal'eyve, are you not?"
The translucent apparition stood a little straighter at those words, as though surprised to have been identified so readily. He cocked his head to regard Hadrhune curiously as he crossed his arms over his incorporeal chest, his amber eyes narrowed into quizzical slits. "I confess myself to be in disbelief – I was certain none in Neverwinter would be mindful of my coming, or be acquainted with me at all. Who, may I ask, are you?"
"Who I am is of no consequence to you," Hadrhune snarled. "All you need know is that I am about to end this cursed half-life your lesser goddess has granted you."
The wraith's upper lip curled back over his teeth as he bared them, but otherwise he made no hostile moves. "Lesser goddess, you say? How ironic that you, clearly a member of the Netherese Imperium and thus a worshipper of Shar, would consider yourself above me. Have you suffered not one death, but two? Have you endured years of unending torture at the hands of the Spider Queen, surviving only for the hope that perhaps one day you will be granted another chance at securing your redemption? I am Lim Tal'eyve, you foolish creature, and nothing will keep me from accomplishing what I came here to do!"
Hadrhune considered this very carefully before wording his response. "It is true that I have never died, pitiful spirit – though I confess that once I was unmade, and reborn the soulless creature that now stands before you. As for suffering… well, I endured seventeen decades of endless night within the Realm of Shadow. Is there anything else so dreadful in all the world?"
Lim Tal'eyve threw his head back and laughed; the sound was a shriek like a banshee's but as formless as his body, with no real substance behind it. His expression was more agreeable when next he regarded Hadrhune. "I have decided that I like you. Tell me your name, that I may tell the exalted Lady Lolth just who was stupid enough to lay down his life in the defense of a murdering, treasonous wretch like Aveil Arthien."
With exaggerated care Hadrhune bent at the waist and laid Aveil's body out on the sun-warmed cobblestones, and when he smoothed the damp strands of dark hair away from her forehead her eyes fluttered open, searching wildly for him. One of her ice-cold hands darted out and seized the collar of his shadow shroud as he began to draw back, and before he could ease her back down Aveil had her lips at his ear.
"Don't," she pleaded weakly, a tremor in her voice. "Stay away from him, I beg of you. He is the most foul… The darkest, most loathsome creature.…"
"That is where you are mistaken, Lady Arthien," murmured Hadrhune, and with one hand he easily broke her grip upon his shroud and eased her back down into a more comfortable position. When he was certain that she would not attempt to rise a second time he straightened, and his ceremonial fangs flashed white in the sun when he finished, "It is I who is most foul."
Then he rounded on the wraith that was Lim Tal'eyve and lifted his darkstaff, saying, "I am Hadrhune, the Right Hand of Most High Telamont Tanthul, and by the High Prince's decree I will protect this woman with my life."
The smirk Lim wore widened with each word spoken, until he was openly chuckling by the end of Hadrhune's self-introduction; he regarded the seneschal's darkstaff mildly, as though hardly concerned with the power the staff was enchanted with, before uncrossing his arms and standing up a little straighter. "I do indeed like you, Hadrhune. You are proof that Aveil's reach extends higher than even I had dreamed. And when the Spider Queen has restored me both body and soul I will be certain to tell your High Prince that his trusted emissary died needlessly!"
With that the wraith that was Lim Tal'eyve disintegrated into millions of shadowy particles, leaving only his laugh to suggest that he was still very real and very, very deadly.
The journey through the Shadow Realm was quite long; twice Soleil felt her body begin to fatigue and her grip upon Clariburnus's arm start to weaken, so that near the end of their shadow-walk Clariburnus had no choice but to throw one arm around her to keep her rooted close to his side. Being of the Material Plane with no physical ties to the Shadow Realm meant that Soleil was susceptible to the dark matter that was the overall composition of that plane – Telamont had warned his sons long ago that if Soleil was ever lost while they walked upon that dark plane that it would be next to impossible to recover her. When at last they reached their destination Soleil gulped in great lungfuls of fresh air gratefully, leaning most of her weight heavily against Clariburnus as he kept her from collapsing.
"Are you alright?" asked the Fifth Prince concernedly.
Soleil lifted her head and nodded, albeit a little weakly. "I hadn't anticipated the journey to be quite so taxing. I'll be alright in a moment."
"I set a grueling pace," Aglarel admitted, his face hidden beneath his cowl as usual. "I apologize."
Dethud stood at the head of their group with Yder only a step behind him; their backs were turned to their fellow council members as they surveyed the area, until Dethud's little-heard voice wafted back to them in its hushed undertone. "We have little time to rest… Doubtless our quarry has already sensed our presence, and may be even less welcoming than we had originally anticipated if we do not move quickly. Simply traversing the terrain to reach the wyrm will be a difficulty in itself."
Soleil found this explanation puzzling and lifted her head to study their new surroundings. Only when she pushed her comprehension beyond her own personal fatigue did she realize that the air veritably smoldered around them, and squinting through the gloom she came to understand why. The great red dragon Shaepulanderex had made its lair at the base of an active composite volcano, one of many such phenomena that dotted the landscape of the Dragon Coast. Even now the volcano was oozing magma; the white-hot substance ran past them in small rivulets, and ash fell from the sky like snowflakes.
Aglarel motioned for them to draw near, and the five of them gathered around to discuss their plan of attack. "Dethud, you have prepared the necessary enchantments?"
"Wards against fire," the necromancer rasped, his voice barely more than a whisper, and with a wave of his black hand he enacted the protective magics around himself and his kin. For a moment their bodies appeared to be outlined in a thin crimson haze, and then they all returned to their natural appearances. "The red dragon utilizes fire as its breath weapon, as I am certain you all know. The ward is strong and will withstand all but the hottest temperatures – it will not protect you if you are struck at point-blank range, or if you are dense enough to fall into the lava."
Yder and Clariburnus snickered at this, but Soleil was too nervous to join in. Fourth Prince Aglarel's eyes fell upon her appraisingly when he asked, "And your link is strong enough?"
The mountebank closed her eyes, mentally stretching out her empathetic link the way one might physically test the elasticity of a rubber band. Only High Prince Telamont knew that her link to each member of the Shadow Council varied in strength, a secret that she had kept ever since making the discovery on her own. Certain of the Princes of Shade she could feel subconsciously at all times, even when hundreds of miles separated them, and still others she had to make a conscious effort to hone in on at all. The pull she felt to her sovereign was by far and away the strongest – she had long since considered Telamont her father figure, and her love for him was, in a word, endless – and even as distant as the Most High was she could still feel that he was safe within the confines of the Palace Most High. Twin princes Mattick and Vattick were the next easiest to trace, as they had worked the hardest to make Soleil feel welcome within their ranks from the very start and were the closest to brothers she had ever known, and almost immediately afterward she felt Hadrhune's presence in Neverwinter. Her discipline faltered when she considered her link to Hadrhune, for it was evident right away that he was in more physical danger than any among them.
"Hadrhune has met resistance in Neverwinter," she murmured, her voice uneasy, and beside her Clariburnus squeezed her arm tightly at the base of her elbow.
"Do not lose focus," the Fifth Prince beseeched her, and Soleil battled back the natural instinct to aid Hadrhune and stretched her empathetic link out even further. The warm pinprick of light in her subconscious that she associated with First Prince Escanor's presence came as a relief to her then, and almost simultaneously she felt Brennus and Clariburnus fall into the radius of her influence, the two truest friends she had had in her life.
"I have you," she said to Clariburnus, and with a great surge of willpower she forced the canopy of her empathetic link out even wider, searching for the rest of her companions to bring under her protection.
Aglarel came into her comprehension next, for she had trained in the art of stealth under him for many years and was at the very least familiar with the air of mystery she associated with his presence. She felt Lamorak and Melegaunt faintly afterward, for they had always been friendly with her and she enjoyed their company; she was acquainted with Dethud perhaps the least of all of Telamont's sons, but because she held no reservations against him and he stood only ten feet from her she could feel him all the same. She held little love for Rivalen, Rapha, and Yder, but with one last shove at her mental discipline she managed to drag Yder into the comprehension of her link also. Distance was too great of a factor for her to include Rivalen and Rapha, but she supposed that this was good enough for the time being.
At length Soleil opened her eyes again. "I have all four of you. Aside from the disturbances I feel associated with Hadrhune's presence, the others seem to be safe enough."
"And the Most High?" inquired Yder.
"Safe," Soleil assured. "Watching and waiting at the world window, it seems."
"Then let us commence," Aglarel told them. "Doubtless this encounter will play out in the manner that the Most High suspects: the wyrm will grant us audience but should have little interest at forming a lasting alliance with Thultanthar, in which case we will annihilate him. According to reports, Shaepulanderex commands the largest army of chromatic dragons know to the Dragon Coast – if the red wyrm falls to us, it is likely that the rest of its kin will pledge themselves to Shade if only to preserve their lives."
"They will surely demand compensation for the promise of their allegiance," Yder pointed out, but Aglarel waved a hand negligently as though this was a matter of little importance.
"There will be riches aplenty to divide amongst those faithful to the High Prince," said Aglarel disdainfully, as though disgusted at the prospect of buying allies for Shade. "The Most High has little love for things such as wealth, and will be willing to part with it easily. Power and prestige are the things that he craves." And beckoning to them the Fourth Prince led the way up the winding foothills toward the blunt plateau where Shaepulanderex had made its lair.
The gentle slope on the south side of the volcano leveled out into a relatively flat shelf of volcanic rock, which over time Shaepulanderex had hollowed out into an alcove to serve as sleeping quarters. Lava poured down one side of the parasitic cone that sheltered the great dragon from the elements, pooling off to one side and forming a small lake of molten fire. The dragon's trove, they suspected, was nearer to the summit, perhaps even situated in the vent to discourage thieves from stealing the dragon's treasures. Shaepulanderex was awaiting their arrival the moment they crested the plateau, its great spiked tail waving lazily in the air behind its massive reclining body.
It occurred to Soleil the moment she set eyes upon the elder red dragon that she had never engaged one of its kind in combat before.
Aglarel signaled for the others to stay put and took a few steps toward the great wyrm to distinguish himself from the rest of the group; as he isolated himself from them Soleil could feel her link to him growing ever more poignant, the urge to protect him instinctual and strong. The Fourth Prince bent at the waist in a bow, though he never exposed the back of his neck to the dragon. "Felicitations, mighty wyrm. I am Fourth Prince Aglarel of Thultanthar, and I am here with a delegation of Most High Telamont's most trusted advisors to seek out a peaceable alliance between the City of Shade and the army of the Dragon Coast."
Shaepulanderex lifted its head and surveyed them with golden eyes filled with a kind of malevolent wisdom, its nostrils flaring as though it was considering roasting them with its flame. For the first time Soleil found herself silently praying that Dethud's ward against fire would be strong enough to protect them. "Thultanthar?" rumbled Shaepulanderex, cocking its head to one side as it considered the term. "Yes, I am familiar with the City of Shade. I have heard tidings of its grandeur, and of your monarch's insatiable lust for power. He insults me by sending such rabble to negotiate the terms of an alliance."
Yder gritted his teeth mutinously and stalked one vengeful step forward, but Clariburnus wisely threw out an arm and caught him at the chest. Soleil threw every ounce of her mental focus into maintaining strong links with the four of them, pleased when she was able to hone in easily on Yder's heartrate as it accelerated in time with his escalating rage. She also felt the slight stiffening of Aglarel's posture at the dragon's words, but otherwise the Fourth Prince kept his feelings in check rather admirably.
"Were the Most High among us, I am certain he would apologize for not seeing you himself," Aglarel said coolly. "Unfortunately, the High Prince rarely leaves Shade Enclave himself. Thultanthar is feared far and wide, and there is no end to those who would end his existence if given the fraction of an opportunity. Surely you can understand the High Prince's desire for self-preservation."
"Indeed," grumbled the dragon, though he still seemed sullen at meeting with the lesser nobles of Shade Enclave. "So you have come here at your monarch's command to beg me to join forces with you, is that it?"
"That is more or less our purpose here," answered the Fourth Prince disdainfully.
Shaepulanderex stretched its wings luxuriously, and the delegation from Shade marveled at the creature's impressive wingspan; it then yawned as though quite bored with the proceedings, and its teeth, they noticed, were razor-sharp and longer than any one of their arms from shoulder to fingertip. Neither of these seemingly mundane actions were simply coincidental, they knew – the dragon was wordlessly intimidating them. "What is it that your magocracy can offer me, do you suppose, that would interest me to the point of pledging to you my entire army? Scores of dragons are seldom won over by words alone, and promises mean little to creatures as long lived as we are. The price we will demand for our services will be very high, I assure you – just how much is your monarch prepared to pay?"
"Name your price," Aglarel responded idly. "If it is merely a question of monetary value, rest assured the Most High will certainly exceed your expectations with his generosity."
"My price is a king's ransom in gold and jewels," Shaepulanderex demanded, "and an equal share of the Heartlands, should Thultanthar succeed in its conquest."
Aglarel rocked back a step as though he had been shoved as behind him Soleil sucked in a breath of unspeakable shock. Wealth and riches were abundant to the Netherese archwizards who claimed rulership of the City of Shade – after all, they were one of the longest lived races yet alive upon Faerun, and they coveted priceless treasures whose origins were exotic and unknown. But if the dragons of Shaepulanderex's army were expecting to lay claim to half of the Heartlands when Telamont's grand conquest at last proved successful, there was no question that the Princes of Shade would first attempt to take the dragon army by force.
Sensing that his brothers were seething at the dragon's audacity, Aglarel spoke his mind quickly as a way of staving off their insults. "You will have your king's ransom and more, wyrm - if that is what your heart truly desires, the Most High will see it done. But you are foolish beyond your many millennia of life if you think you can stake your claim on the Heartlands and expect to be rewarded thusly when all is said and done. These are countries that rightfully belong to the descendants of the Netherese – which of course my three brothers here and I most definitely are – and I speak for all of them when I say that we have not shed sweat and blood and tears over the course of the last seventeen decades to see our homeland delivered into the hands of the unworthy. No, great dragon – the Heartlands belong to the Netherese Imperium, and if that is your price I am afraid that the Most High will most certainly decline your proposal. We can offer your kind riches and glory beyond your wildest dreams, but the soil of the Heartlands… That is something that is not up for negotiation."
Shaepulanderex whipped its tail and snarled, shooting small sparks of flame from its flaring nostrils. "Do you name me unworthy, shadow-dweller?!"
Aglarel glared up at the great red dragon, his silver eyes flashing angrily when he said, "If you would name yourself usurper of the lands that rightfully belong to the descendents of Netheril, unworthy is only the first of the things that I would name you."
The Fourth Prince's words would serve as the catalyst for their battle with the wyrm, for in the next instant Shaepulanderex roared and lashed his tail out to strike at them; the four princes dissolved into shadow particles in order to avoid it, and Soleil had little difficulty activating her ring and jaunting to a safer location. They met at the base of the volcano, not far from the magma lake that was pooling off to one side, and the great red dragon spread its massive wings and took to the sky above them.
"At the ready!" barked Fourth Prince Aglarel, and he drew his ensorcelled dagger from a fold of his assassin's garb. "The ash will obscure the dragon from view."
Even as he said this Shaepulanderex dove from the thickening cloud of ash wreathing the volcano's crater, its cruel claws outstretched and its maw opened wide; it exhaled as it soared overhead, and the gout of flame engulfed Dethud and Yder as the wyrm raked at Clariburnus with its claws. The Fifth Prince managed to sidestep the claws and thrust his glaive upward, and the weapon pierced the scaly flesh of the dragon's claw. It roared and emitted another cone of fire from its open jaws; the intense heat washed over Soleil's face as she stared on in a kind of terrified awe, and before any of them could rally into the offensive the dragon beat its wings and lifted itself out of their reach.
When the smoke and flames had mostly cleared it was plain to see that Dethud's robes were badly singed; he was holding a thin obsidian wand in the fingers of his right hand, and his expression was stony. "It seems I underestimated the strength of this wyrm… It must be far more wizened than I imagined. Avoid its flames at all costs – the protective enchantments I cast will not be enough to save me a second time."
Soleil extended a hand out to Clariburnus, saying, "Hold on to me. If I focus hard enough and time the move just right, I may be able to get us onto the dragon's back."
"The Night Mother be with you," Aglarel told them, in a tone that suggested he did not wholly approve of the proposed course of action, but the dragon was even then plummeting through the thick cloak of ash toward them and so Clariburnus chose to ignore it. He thrust his hand into Soleil's and the mountebank lifted her free hand, the dark sapphires set in the jet band flashing crimson in the light from the boiling magma, and they vanished from the spot.
There was a terrible moment during which both the mountebank and the Fifth Prince experienced a free-falling sensation, and then their feet touched ground about halfway up the dragon's spine. The jaunt through the trans-dimensional rift was instantaneous, and they found that Shaepulanderex was just about to complete his dive; the dragon inhaled deeply and they could feel its external temperature rising as it prepared to utilize its killing fire –
Clariburnus hefted his glaive and stabbed the black glass head deep into the dragon's back; the weapon tore through the intricate overlapping red scales and punctured the tender flesh beneath, wringing an agonized cry from the wyrm and throwing the creature's flight path slightly off-balance. Soleil clung to the Fifth Prince's middle as Shaepulanderex spasmed mid-flight, and with his glaive Clariburnus kept them both rooted to the spot as below Fourth Prince Aglarel and Sixth Prince Yder lashed out with daggers and chakra. Aglarel managed to stab his poisoned-tip dagger deeply enough into the palm of the dragon's claw that he could use the weapon as leverage to hoist himself off the ground, and as the wyrm frantically beat its wings to regain altitude the Fourth Prince swung himself precariously over the dragon's cruel claws and gained his footing upon its spindly front leg.
Soleil released Clariburnus as he tore the glaive free, spattering the wyrm's crimson scales with its own lifeblood, before thrusting the weapon down again, this time many inches deeper than the first puncture. The dragon's resulting shriek was deafening, prompting Soleil to clap her hands over her delicate ears. She almost didn't hear Clariburnus when he bellowed, "Get to its head! Aglarel will need your help!"
The mountebank was off and running, following the severe ridges of the dragon's spine up to its prominent black horns, and she had almost reached her destination when Shaepulanderex rolled right over in mid-air. Clariburnus remained rooted to the spot by his glaive and Aglarel clung easily to the dragon's grasping claws, but Soleil had nothing to secure herself to and plummeted for the ground.
She may have found the mental discipline to jaunt through another trans-dimensional rift and deliver herself to safety upon the ground, but the dreaded dragon chose that precise moment to swing its great body right side up and inhale in preparation for its next breath attack; beads of flame wreathed the dragon's nostrils, smoke trickled from between the wyrm's blade-like teeth –
Soleil's empathetic link to the Princes of Shade nearly tore her apart the moment after when it stretched in four different directions, compelling her to give all of herself and more in defense of the Most High's progeny.
What occurred as a result of that need was something that Soleil herself could not explain.
Turning over in mid-air the mountebank came face to face with the terrible wyrm, and in the face of its smirking superiority she sucked in a sharp breath to brace herself; the instant Shaepulanderex exhaled the molten flame from its lungs Soleil's lips parted as if to emit a scream, but instead another sound entirely could be heard. It may have been a word or two, but the syllables were unlike any language the Princes of Shade had ever heard. The voice itself sounded nothing like the confident but undeniably feminine timbre they were used to hearing when Soleil spoke: the voice she used now was all guttural, almost otherworldly tones, the tremor of something ancient and strong present in every inflection. The words she spoke echoed off the slope of the volcano and sent tremors running down their spines; it sent flecks of lava splashing away from the magma deposit at the volcano's base, and the princes felt the words deep down in their chests. And then something else happened that prompted the Most High's sons to regard the Left Hand of the Most High with nothing short of awe: Soleil's words transformed themselves into pure arcane power, and from her parted lips erupted a killing blast of sheer unbearable cold. It collided with the cone of flame that the dragon had breathed – tiny tendrils of ice snaked up the magma, solidifying it at a shocking rate – before rendering the dragon's breath weapon absolutely useless. Shards of frozen lava fell from the sky and rained down upon the ground, and in the span of only six heartbeats Soleil had encased the entirety of the dragon's body in an impenetrable layer of ice.
Aglarel and Clariburnus managed to spirit themselves into the safety of the Shadow Realm just instants before they too became trapped in the ice, joining their two younger brothers on the ground; Soleil at last regained the presence of mind to jaunt through the extra-dimensional space created by her ensorcelled ring, and she materialized in between Aglarel and Dethud just as the frozen dragon crashed to the ground and shattered into millions of pieces.
"By the Moon," breathed Aglarel, because there simply wasn't anything else to say.
Hadrhune breathed deeply and allowed his eyes to drift closed, relying solely upon his keen sense of hearing and his attunement to all things magical to locate the essence of Lim Tal'eyve. Even despite the numerous outside distractions the seneschal could veritably feel the lichdrow's malicious presence lingering in the air all around him, perhaps searching for the most opportune place to solidify… The only other disturbance strong enough to impede upon Hadrhune's concentration was Aveil's slight breathing as she hovered between the waking world and unconsciousness. He wanted to go to her; he wanted to make ensuring her safety his first and foremost priority.
But the Most High had charged him with thwarting Lim Tal'eyve, and that singular order made all of Hadrhune's personal desires suddenly obsolete.
The lichdrow's hazy form became visible about ten feet away and far to Hadrhune's left side; the seneschal opened his eyes, and snapping his gaze in that direction he brought the darkstaff to bear and let loose a bolt of jet-black lightning. The bolt seemed to slice right through the lichdrow's partially-corporeal form, but upon impact Lim Tal'eyve merely dissolved into dozens of particles of midnight again.
"Fool," whispered the lichdrow's disembodiless voice, seeming to echo from every which direction. "This life I have is a cursed half one, do you not recall? Conventional methods cannot stop the Spider Queen's wraith."
He reappeared a second time, now barely five feet from the Most High's favored shadow sorcerer; Hadrhune growled low between gritted teeth and lashed out with his non-dominant hand, raking through the lichdrow's translucent image with the transmuted serrated shadow claws. He felt rather than saw the moment when his wicked claws passed through something that was perhaps a little denser than air, but if the strike caused the lichdrow any sort of discomfort he did not react to it; an explosion of shadowy particles was all Hadrhune had to show for his efforts.
"You waste your time!" howled Lim Tal'eyve. "I will have her!"
Hadrhune reflexively took a step backward, nearer to the spot where Aveil lay unconscious upon the sun-baked cobblestones. "If I spent as much time talking and as little time acting as you do, the Most High would have no use for me. I find it amusing that your wretched Spider Queen places so much stock in such an incompetent subordinate."
The wraith's resulting shriek was enough to make the seneschal's blood run cold, and when next he appeared he was close enough to reach out and make physical contact. Before Hadrhune could flinch away the lichdrow's hand had passed through his shoulder and seemed to melt deep into his chest; there followed a terrifying sensation as though the dark orb Hadrhune retained that served as a heart were being enveloped by the lichdrow's translucent hand, and then a pulse of pure sunlight erupted from Lim Tal'eyve's hand into the center of the seneschal's being.
It was agony unlike anything Hadrhune had ever experienced, rivaled only by the moment he had traded his soul for the very essence of shadow; the blast of light crippled him from the inside out, sapping him of his strength and forcing him to his knees. He crumpled to the ground with a thin moan of protest, barely clinging to life.
Lim Tal'eyve's essence regained its shape then, kneeling over the once-great shadow sorcerer as he studied his handiwork. "An incompetent subordinate would have had much more difficulty laying low the Right Hand of the Most High… wouldn't you agree?" Then he turned his attention upon Aveil, who had yet to regain consciousness, and bared his teeth in a malevolent, victorious grin. "And now, Lady Arthien… where were we?"
He reached out and laid one hand almost lovingly against the wizard's pale cheek, and almost immediately it seemed that her skin grew whiter. In response to the extended contact Aveil's body began to seem much less corporeal; her skin faded and became slightly see-through, as at precisely the same moment the essence of Lim Tal'eyve brightened and came into a somewhat sharper focus.
He was going to steal the life from her, until there was nothing left for him to steal.
Hadrhune fought groggily within his own unresponsive body, vaguely aware of the terrible deed that was occurring right in front of him but powerless to change it. He thought of the Most High and how he would unleash the full weight of his terrible wrath if he learned that his trusted emissary failed to accomplish what he had charged him with. He thought of the plague that would surely be released upon the face of Faerun if Lim Tal'eyve returned to the world of the living. He thought of the chaos that would follow in the lichdrow's wake as he carried out the every whim of his depraved Spider Queen. But most of all he thought of the woman lying next to him and how if he could not find the strength to act, she would certainly pass out of this world and leave him alone with nothing but his inconsolable wrath to give him comfort.
Reaching deep within himself Hadrhune found the strength to act; he was far too weak to use magic of any kind and the location of his darkstaff was unknown to him, and so he did the only thing he could think to do – he flung himself over Aveil's motionless body and groped for the lichdrow's hand. The moment the contact with Aveil was broken her body began to warm and color slowly returned to her cheeks; already deep in the throes of leeching the life from his chosen vessel, Lim Tal'eyve was powerless to stop the flow of energy now coming off of Hadrhune.
He had only one choice. He recoiled.
The flow of life energy was suddenly broken; Lim Tal'eyve's body paled and dissolved back into thousands of shadow particles, scattered away upon a light breeze, and abruptly it was silent in the sunlit pavilion of Neverwinter.
Aveil hefted herself up onto one elbow and rolled the seneschal over onto his back. The darkness enchantments he had cast upon himself in order to sustain his shade's body against the sunlight were beginning to unravel; beneath the clouds of billowing shadow Hadrhune seemed frail and fragile, his breathing slight. She laid a hand upon the shaft of his treasured darkstaff but snatched her hand back almost instantly as a strong electric current jolted through her fingertips – she should have known that the Most High had enchanted the staff of his chosen emissary to respond only to the seneschal's touch. Instead she quickly plucked a strand of black gossamer from a small pouch of spell components and uttered a swift trigger phrase, and the protective shadows enveloping Hadrhune's body suddenly grew considerably darker.
Two slits of amber appeared within the clouds of darkness – Hadrhune's eyes, now the only physical feature that remained visible. "Save… your strength."
"What are you doing here?!" Aveil demanded angrily, but the brightness of her eyes and the color rising in her cheeks belied her true feelings. "What in the Nine Hells do you think you are doing?! Did I not tell you that crossing paths with Lim Tal'eyve could lead only to ruin?!"
An anemic-sounding chuckle was the seneschal's only response.
Aveil felt around within the billowing clouds of darkness for Hadrhune's hand, shocked at just how cold it was when she located it, and held it close to her chest. "We have thwarted him temporarily, it's true, but… at what cost? We must get you out of the sunlight… can you stand?"
An ear-ringing silence followed Aveil's words, and panic gripped her heart like a vice; she dropped one hand down upon the seneschal's chest, and there was no rise and fall.
She slid her hand up his chest, along the gentle curve of his neck and over his cheek until her fingertips hovered near his nostrils; she waited the span of ten heartbeats, and never once did she feel the stirring of his breath upon her palm. She cried his name as the tears began to fall from her eyes, and though she cast her frantic gaze all around there wasn't a soul to be found in the empty sprawling streets of Neverwinter. That left her with only one choice.
It was the favor of the goddess Mystra that had bestowed upon Aveil the ability to harness the magic of the Shadow Weave, though of course she had told not a soul how she had come by such powers. The ability to shadow walk through that little-traversed realm was a skill that very few of Shar's faithful were privy to, much less anyone who worshiped Shar's most hated enemy, but Aveil's accolade of Dark Chosen of Mystra granted her powers she normally wouldn't have access to. She knew full well what this decision would cost her, but the only other alternative was to let the seneschal die and she could not allow that.
Aveil gathered Hadrhune into her arms as best she could, tucking his lolling head in close to her shoulder, and sought the nearest rift in the Material Plane that would grant her admittance to the Plane of Shadow; upon locating it she compelled her weary body to rise, and they passed into the darkness of that unstable realm together.
Lingering near the world window in the Palace Most High, Telamont Tanthul recalled the cryptic tidings of Dark Lady Shar. It occurred to him as he was watching his carefully-laid plans fall by the wayside that things were playing out precisely as the Goddess of the Night had intended, leaving him to wonder how many of his loved ones would lose their lives this day, and whether the Netherese Imperium was meant to rise again at all.