Authors: Mark Anthony
Crypt of the Shadowking
The thief made his way through the dark, labyrinthine sewers far beneath the city of Iriaebor. The foul, murky water swirled around his thighs, sucking at his boots with every step. He hugged the tunnel’s slimy tiled wall as he moved. Darkness was a thief’s best friend, and he wore it like a soft, enshrouding cloak.
The tunnel ended in a vaulted chamber, a junction where several pipes spewed their filthy contents into a larger passageway. A few wan beams of light filtered down from a narrow iron grating above, and the thief froze. His small, close-set eyes glittered like hard, black stones. Voices drifted down from above with the torchlight.
“I tell you, if we don’t find the little thief there’s going to be the Abyss to pay.”
“Worse than that, there’ll be Bron to pay. The city lord won’t take kindly to hearing a prisoner’s escaped his dungeons. Gods know, it’ll give every rat in the whole bloody place the notion to try to escape.” The raspy voices drifted away with the sound of booted feet, and the thief relaxed.
He saw now that one of the tunnels opening into the junction was dry inside. Perhaps it led to some unused part of the dungeon, or maybe even beyond. At any rate, it would be better than forcing his way through the stinking swill that flowed through the rest of the sewers. He climbed up into the empty tunnel, relieved to be where it was dry. The tunnel was tall enough that he could run in a hunched position, his fingers lightly brushing the sides, warning him of any turns. He quickened his pace, sensing freedom ahead.
There was no way in the blackness that the thief could have seen the wide, jagged crack that crossed the tunnel before him. When his foot struck the crack’s edge he nearly managed to catch himself, but then the rotting tiles beneath his feet crumbled. The thief screamed once. Then he was falling, down into endless dark.
How long he had lain there on the hard stone, the thief did not know. A day, maybe more. His tongue was parched and swollen, and the blood on his face had dried into a hard, painful mask. That he was dying was certain. He could not feel his left leg, and his right arm was shattered. The ragged breaths he drew were labored, shallow, tasting of blood. Each one was agony.
He didn’t think he was in the sewers anymore. The stone beneath him was rough and jagged, not hewn by human hands. More likely it was some natural cavern, far below the city. He wondered if anyone had ever come this way before. Perhaps, he told himself. Perhaps not.
With great effort he managed to crack open his eyes. It was several minutes before he realized that he could see. Here, where there should have been only darkness, there was light. Welling up from the stone some distance before him was a dull, red glow. Hope flared in his heart. Was there someone there, someone who would get him out of this blasted hole? Somehow, using his one good leg and his unbroken arm, he managed to inch his way at a snail’s pace toward the light. The pain was dizzying, threatening to tear him apart, but he went on. He would do whatever it took to survive.
Finally, after what seemed a lifetime, he reached the edge of the ruddy illumination, and his head sank to the stone in despair. He had reached the edge of a chasm. He could see the other side, a dozen feet away in the dimness, but it might as well have been a league. There was no going onward. There was nowhere he could go, except down.
He peered into the chasm. It was from here that the faint, red glow rose, like a fine vapor on the still air, but from what source the illumination sprang he could not say. The chasm seemed to delve down into the earth forever.
He felt a sharp pain in his hand. He turned his head and found himself gazing into the bright crimson eyes of a rat. It was chewing ravenously at his thumb.
“Curse you,” he croaked, trying to brush the rat away. The creature simply sidestepped his feeble motion and continued to gnaw at his battered flesh. The thief could not defeat it. He laid his head down, willing the darkness to take him.
The rat squealed in agony.
Startled, the thief cracked his eyes open once again. The rat writhed in pain before him, bathed in the dull red glow emanating from the chasm. In moments its struggling ceased, and it lay dead. That was when the voice spoke.
Serve me, and you shall be made whole.
It was a dry voice, as dusty as old death. The thief shrank from the sound of it. He could not tell where the voice came from, only that it was there.
Serve me, and I shall make you whole, thief.
The words came from the chasm itself, he realized, rising up from the unthinkable depths with the haze of bloodred light. The voice was ancient, enormous, and the thief shriveled beneath it. Yet its words lit a spark of dark hope in his heart.
You are dying, thief. Will you accept?
He tried to wet his lips, but his tongue was as dry as sand. Finally he managed to croak a few words. “Who are you?”
I am darkness.
The thief shuddered at those words. For a moment his mind caught a glimpse of something vast and terrible, ancient yet alive, and hungry, so enormously hungry. He realized this voice reaching up was just a thin tendril of the entire being that waited, down there in the darkness. The thief felt his soul withering. His whole being screamed to let death consume him.
But he had vowed to survive.
Do you accept?
With agonizing effort the thief lifted his head and peered unblinking into the endless depths of the chasm. “Yes,” he croaked. There was a vast rumbling deep below, almost like laughter.
Then be made whole, thief!
From the depths of his broken body, the thief screamed. His back arched rigidly, lifting him off the cold stone. White-hot fire seared through him, burning away all that he was. But then cool darkness quenched the fire, drowning him, and he knew no more …
… for a time.
The purple gloom of twilight was deepening into night as the traveler rode toward the gates of the city. Torches flickered on the high stone wall that stood on the far bank of the slate-colored river, and beyond, on the dark crag looming above the city’s center, a thousand spires rose like silent sentinels into the leaden sky.
The hooves of his mounta pretty gray mare with a fine, noble headthudded dully against the damp stones of the road. She was weary, her flanks stained with the sweat and mud of a long journey. Her rider leaned forward to scratch her roughly behind the ears, an action which brought a soft nicker of appreciation.
“Not much farther, Mista,” the rider told her. “We’re almost home.” As if she understood the wordsand in truth the rider was not at all certain that she didn’tthe horse quickened her pace, lifting her delicate legs a bit higher off the rain-slickened cobblestones. The rider took a deep breath of the moist air. The fine, steady rain had ended only an hour ago, and his midnight blue traveling cloak was dusted with tiny, pearl-gray droplets. The cloak was worn and faded, stained with long years of travel, and in places it was more patches than anything else. But it was a good cloak, its wool still thick and warm, and in this it was much like the man who wore it. He was not a young man. Seven years of wandering the Realms had carved their mark upon his angular, almost wolfish face, and though his green eyes were clear, their color was as faded as the cloak thrown over his broad, sharp-edged shoulders.
But despite the rider’s frayed appearance his dark hair bore no trace of gray, and the muscles knotted about his rather large and bony frame were surprisingly strong and quick, as more than a few highway bandits had learned to their dismay over the years. The rider’s name was Caledan, and once, before his years of wandering, he had been a Harper.
The Harpers were the meddlers of the Realms. Troubadours and mages, warriors and thieves numbered among their ranks, along with men and women of all races and crafts. Theirs was a small, secret fellowship whose members vowed to work against villainy and wickedness. But instead of relying on brute force, the Harpers used more subtle means to accomplish their aims. Often single agents were given the task of slipping stealthily into areas that had fallen under shadow’s sway, from the halls of kings to the dens of thieves. There they did all that one being alone could do to loosen evil’s grip, and not a few had given their lives in the course of their missions. But the sacrifices were not in vain. These days more Realms shone in the light beneath the banner of freedom than festered beneath the dark cloak of evil.
Caledan had once been a bard of great ability, but he hadn’t played a note of music since the day he left the Harpers, and he didn’t suppose he ever would again. He’d begun his wanderings long ago, and he considered the Harpers a good riddance.
A narrow wooden bridge of five separate spans crossed the great serpent of the River Chionthar, and Mista’s hooves thumped hollowly on the stout wooden planks. A dozen ships drifted on the dull water, looking like ghosts in the dusky air. Iriaebor was the farthest point that trade ships sailing from the Sword Coast in the far west could travel up the Chionthar. Here merchants were forced to unload their goods and transfer them to overland caravans traveling to the great kingdoms of Cormyr and Sembia to the east, and in this lay Iriaebor’s fortune.
Mista stepped off the last planks of the bridge. The south wall of the city loomed in the dimness above Caledan. The great iron-bound gates stood open, as they always had, for commerce kept no set hours in a trade city this large. A torch burned brightly to either side of the gates, and thick coils of smoke rose up against the soot-blackened stones. Caledan guided his gray mount toward the great, arched portal.
‘Too important to stop for the guards, are we, lordship?” a coarse voice taunted. Caledan reined Mista to an abrupt halt as a man clad in a leather jerkin stepped from a dim alcove to stand before him. He was an unsavory fellow, missing the better number of his teeth. He reeked of sour sweat mixed with the unmistakable odor of strong drink.
“I beg your pardon,” Caledan replied, assuming a cheerful, almost simpleminded manner. “I don’t recall that the gates of Iriaebor were ever guarded in the past.”
“Well, they are now. Leastwise since Cutter’s been in the High Tower, that is. Now you’d best be telling me who you are and what you’re about. Tis a cold night to be a corpse.”
“Indeed,” Caledan replied dryly. He noticed the glitter of torchlight reflecting off a pair of eyes in the shadows by the gate. It seemed the guard had a friend there. He would have to keep that in mind if things went awry.
“I’m Symek of Berdusk,” Caledan lied smoothly, “a merchant of jewels by trade.”
“A jool trader, eh?” the guard said dubiously. “You don’t look like a jool trader, friend.” He squinted suspiciously at Caledan.
“These are hard times for all, aren’t they?” Caledan lamented with a dramatic sigh.
The guard seemed to consider this, rubbing his unshaven jowls with a grubby hand, and then he nodded. “All right, Symek of Berdusk. I suppose yours is the sort of business Cutter wants in the city, though watch you mind the rules, unless you want to meet Cutter face-to-face in the dungeons. And I’m telling you that’s not something you want to do.”
“I can pass then?”
“Aye,” the guard answered, and then a sly smile crept across his scurvy features. “But first you’ve got to grease the gates, if you know what I mean, jool trader.”
Caledan cast a distasteful look at the guard, who held out a grimy paw. This was getting tiresome.
“You really should wash that hand, my friend,” Caledan said in a conspiratorial tone, leaning down toward the guard. “It’s much healthier that way, you know.”
The guard’s expression darkened. “I’ve had just about enough of you, Symek,” the guard said, reaching for the hilt of his sword.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” Caledan replied pleasantly. The guard’s eyes widened, and he looked down to see the sharp, glimmering point of a knife just pricking into the chest of his worn leather jerkin. Caledan smiled broadly at the trembling man. “Like you said, it’s a cold night to be a corpse.”
The guard nodded wordlessly, and Caledan touched his heels to Mista’s flanks, slipping the sharp dagger back into its sheath in his boot. The horse walked forward, and as she passed the guard she bared her big teeth, nipping his shoulder. The fellow cried out in pain and stumbled backward. The other guard took a hesitant step forward, unsure whether to draw his sword or not.
“I wouldn’t recommend it,” Caledan advised cheerfully.
“Milord!” the guard said in a quavering voice, apparently deciding he was safer with his blade firmly sheathed. Caledan passed through the arched portal and into the dim, torch-lined streets of the city.
‘That was hardly necessary, you know, Mista,” he told his mount. “That fellow wasn’t much of an opponent.”
The horse nickered defiantly.
“I know,” Caledan said with a grin. “I enjoyed it, too.” He frowned then. What in Milil’s name were guards doing bothering travelers at the gates of the city? Iriaebor had always been a free and open place in the days when Caledan had dwelt here. Merchants and wayfarers came at all hours of the day and night. There had never been any need for guards.
“Perhaps there have been more bandits on the road of late,” Caledan said aloud, and Mista snorted softly as if to question this.
True. Those two were hardly the sort I would want to depend on to keep me safe from marauders. If you’re going to go to all the bother of putting guards at the gate, why use a pair of buffoons?”
But Caledan was weary, and his throat was in sore need of a mug of ale. He resolved to think about it later.
Horse and rider made their way through the open avenues of the New City. Before them, in the city’s center, loomed a high, rocky hill. The Tor, which was perhaps a half-league long, rose a full three hundred feet above the rest of Iriaebor, and Caledan could see the lights of the Old City flickering like golden stars in the darkness above him. Over the years, space on the narrow hilltop had been at a premium. Within a hundred years of the city’s founding, the only direction left in which to build upon the Tor was I up. The result, after several centuries, was a profusion of tall, spindly towers stretching toward the sky, bound together with countless bridges that arched precariously between them like so many spiderwebs.