Authors: Troy Denning
Copyright 1989 TSR, Inc. AH Rights Reserved.
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First Printing: April, 1989
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Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 88-51723987
All characters in the book are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead are purely coincidental.
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The patrol had been from Marsember, charged with protecting the coastal farms around the tear-shaped grove called Hermit’s Wood. The sergeant, Ogden the Hardrider, was one of Cormyr’s best, well known for keeping his sector free of brigands.
Twelve riders had served under Ogden. They were typical soldiers: half-dozen youthful good-for-nothings, two drunks, two good men, and two murderers. Ogden gave the dangerous assignments to the murderers. Predictably, the pair was insubordinate and had made a pact to add Ogden to their short list of victims - though neither one had ever gathered the courage to attack the sergeant.
Now, they would never have the chance. Ogden’s patrol lay a hundred yards north of Hermit’s Wood, dead to the last horse. The Purple Dragon, the crest of King Azoun IV, still glimmered on their shields, and their armor still gleamed whenever the moonlight slipped past the stormclouds and played over their corpses.
Not that spit and polish mattered now. The jackals and crows had come yesterday, leaving a gruesome mess in their wake. Ira’s ears were gone. Phineas’s toes had been gnawed off. Ogden had lost an eye to the crows. The rest of the patrol had fared worse. Parts of their bodies were scattered all over the field.
Even without the scavengers, the patrol would have been a grisly sight. They had been riding through the field when the ground started belching poisonous black gas. There had been no reason for the deadly emission. The field wasn’t located close to any volcanoes, near any fens or bogs, or even within a hundred miles of a cavern where fumes might collect. The black vapor was simply one more example of the chaos plaguing the Realms.
That had been two hot days ago, and the patrol had been lying in the heat since. Their limbs were bloated and swollen, sometimes twisted into odd shapes where the riders had broken them. The sides of the bodies closest to the ground were black and puffy with settled blood, while the sides closest to the heavens were doughy gray. The only sign of life that remained in Ogden’s patrol was the unsettling red tint that burned in their eyes.
Because their spirits had not yet departed, the soldiers were completely aware of their condition. Being dead was not at all what they had expected. They had been prepared to take positions with the glorious hosts of Tempus, God of War, or to find eternal sorrow beneath the cold lash of the Maiden of Pain, the goddess Loviatar. They hadn’t expected their consciousness to linger in their corpses while their flesh slowly decomposed.
So, when Ogden received the command to rise and form a line, he and his soldiers were relieved to find that they could obey. The men and the horses stood, stiffly and without grace, but they stood. The soldiers took the reins of their dead mounts and arranged themselves into a perfect row, just as they would have done had they been alive.
The command to rise had come from the city of Waterdeep, where ninety apostles of wickedness and corruption kneeled in a dimly lit temple. The room was just large enough to hold them all, and looked more like the inside of a moldy crypt than a temple. Its stone walls were black with mildew and slime. The room was lit only by two oily torches set into sconces behind the huge stone altar.
The apostles wore brown ceremonial robes of filthy, coarse material. They stared at the floor, so fearful of disturbing the figure at the bloody altar that they scarcely dared to breathe.
The man at the altar was tall, emaciated, and leprous. His deformed face was lined by deep wrinkles and covered with lumpy lesions. Where minor injuries had destroyed the diseased skin, patches of stinking gray flesh hung off his face and hands. He had made no attempt to hide his condition. In fact, he cherished his maladies and left his affliction exposed for all to see.
This unusual attitude toward disease wasn’t surprising, though, for the figure at the altar was Myrkul, God of Decay and Lord of the Dead. He was deep in concentration, telepathically spanning the continent to give his orders to Ogden’s patrol. The effort was taxing on Myrkul’s strength, and he had been forced to take the spirits of five faithful worshipers to give him the power he needed. Like the other deities of the Realms, Myrkul was no longer omnipotent, for he had been exiled from the Planes and forced to take a human host - an avatar - in the Realms.
The reason was that someone had stolen the Tablets of Fate, the two stones upon which Lord Ao, overlord of the gods, recorded the privileges and responsibilities of each deity. Unknown to the other gods and Ao, Myrkul and the late God of Strife, were the ones who had stolen the two tablets. They had each taken one and concealed it without revealing its hiding place to each other. The two gods had hoped to use the confusion surrounding the tablets’ disappearance to increase their power.
But the pair had not foreseen the extent of their overlord’s anger. Upon discovering the theft, Ao had banished the gods to the Realms and stripped them of most of their power. He had forbidden his subjects to return to the Planes without the tablets in hand. The only deity spared this fate was Helm, God of Guardians, whom Ao charged with guarding the Celestial Stairways leading back to the Planes.
Myrkul was now a mere shadow of what he had been before the banishment. But, relying upon the spirits of sacrificial victims for energy, he could still use his magic. At the moment, he was using that magic to inspect the patrol of dead Cormyrians, and he liked what he saw. The soldiers and their horses, which were beginning to decompose nicely, were clearly corpses. But they were not exactly inanimate. Myrkul had been lucky, for he had discovered the patrol before their spirits strayed from their bodies. These zombies would be more intelligent and more graceful than most, since they had died a relatively short time ago. If the soldiers were to accomplish what Myrkul wanted, they would need those extra advantages.
Myrkul had Ogden point toward Hermit’s Wood then gave the patrol its orders telepathically. There are two men and a woman camped in that grove. In the saddlebags they carry, there is a stone tablet. Kill the men then bring me the woman and the tablet.
The tablet was, of course, a Tablet of Fate. It was the one Bane had hidden in Tantras, which was in turn discovered easily by another god and a few humans. The Black Lord had desperately tried to regain the artifact by mobilizing his army. This grand scheme was his downfall. Bane’s marauding hosts had alerted his enemies, who gathered their forces and defeated the God of Strife - permanently.
Myrkul was determined to pursue a safer course. Where Bane had used an army to retrieve the tablet, Myrkul would send a patrol to recover it. Nor would Myrkul make the mistake of believing that once the tablet was in his grasp, keeping it would be an easy matter. At this very moment, the trio bearing Bane’s tablet was being pursued by a ruthless betrayer. This traitor would stop at nothing to steal the tablet from them or even from Myrkul’s zombies. But the Lord of the Dead knew of the cutthroat’s plans, and he had already sent an agent to discourage the traitor.
As Myrkul pondered all these things and more, a golden, shimmering disk of force appeared in a part of Waterdeep far removed from Myrkul’s moldy temple. The immaculate tower stood nearly fifty feet tall, and was built entirely of granite blocks. Even near the top, it had no visible entrances or windows, and resembled nothing quite so much as a pillar of polished stone.
An ancient man stepped out of the golden disc, then turned and dispersed the portal with a wave of his hand. Despite his age, the man appeared robust and fit. A heavy maroon traveling cloak hung off his bony shoulders, not quite disguising the leanness of his form. His face was sharp-featured and thin, with alert, dancing eyes and a long straight nose. He had a head of thick white hair, and a beard as heavy as a lion’s mane.
“Whom may I say is calling?” The imperious voice came from the tower’s base, though no speaker was visible.
The old man regarded the tower with distaste, then said, “If Khelben no longer knows his teacher, then perhaps I’ve come to the wrong place.”
“Elminster! Welcome!” A black-haired man stuck his head and shoulders right through the tower’s second story wall. He had a neatly trimmed black beard, steady brown eyes, and handsome features. “Come in! You remember where the entrance is?”
“Of course,” Elminster responded, walking to the base of the tower and stepping through the wall as if it was a door. He stopped in a neatly arranged sitting room cluttered with dragon horns, iron crowns, and other trophies from the wizard’s adventures. Elminster withdrew his meerschaum pipe from his cloak, lit it from a burning candle then sat down in the room’s most comfortable chair.
A moment later, Khelben “Blackstaff” Arunsun rushed down the stairs, hurriedly pulling a purple cloak over the plain robe of white silk he usually wore while alone in his tower. The dark-haired mage wrinkled his nose at the overly sweet odor from the pipe then took a seat in the chair usually reserved for guests. “Welcome back to Waterdeep, my friend. What brings you-“
“I need thy help, Blackstaff,” Elminster said, pointing his pipe stem at the younger wizard.
Blackstaff grimaced. “My magic’s not been-“
“Don’t ye think I know that?” the old sage interrupted. “It’s the same all over. Not a month ago, my favorite pipe blew up in my face when I used a pyrotechnics spell on it, and the last time I tried a rope trick I had to cut myself loose.”
Blackstaff nodded sympathetically. “I contacted Piergeiron the Paladinson telepathically and ended up broadcasting our thoughts to the entire city of Waterdeep.”
Elminster stuck his pipe back in his mouth and puffed on it several times. “And that’s not the worst of it. Chaos is running rampant through the land. The birds of Shadowdale have started digging burrows, and the River Arkhen is full of boiling blood.”
“It’s the same here in Waterdeep,” the younger wizard said. “The fishermen won’t leave the harbor. Schools of mackerel have been sinking their boats.”
The old sage absent-mindedly blew a green smoke ring then said, “Ye know the reason for all of this trouble?”
Blackstaff looked uncomfortable. “I know it started when Ao cast the gods out of the Planes for stealing the Tablets of Fate. I’ve had trouble learning more than that.”
Elminster sucked on his pipe thoughtfully then said, “Fortunately, I haven’t. Shortly after the Arrival, I was sought out by a company of four adventurers - a female mage named Midnight, a cleric called Adon of Sune, a fighter named Kelemvor Lyonsbane, and a thief who went by the name of Cyric. They claimed they had rescued the goddess Mystra from Bane’s grasp. Afterward, Mystra had tried to return to the Planes, but had perished when Helm refused to let her pass. With her dying breath, they claimed, Mystra had sent them to warn me that Bane would attack Shadowdale, and to seek my help in finding the Tablets of Fate.
“At first I didn’t believe them,” Elminster continued, pausing to puff on his pipe twice more. “But the woman presented a pendant that the goddess had given her. And, as they had promised, Bane attacked Shadowdale. The four comported themselves very well in the dale’s defense.”
The sage purposely left out any mention of the hardship the heroes had suffered as a result of his own disappearance during the Battle of Shadowdale. The townsfolk had accused Midnight and Adon of murdering him. Fortunately, that matter had been cleared up.
“In any case,” Elminster noted, “I soon learned that one of the tablets was in Tantras. After briefly being separated as a result of the Battle of Shadowdale, I once again met Midnight, Kelemvor, and Adon in Tantras.”
“What of the thief - Cyric, did you say?” Blackstaff asked. He was a keen listener and had not missed the fact that Elminster had left Cyric’s name out of his last statement.
“The thief left the party on their journey to Tantras. I’m not sure what happened, but it seems he may have betrayed his fellows. In any case, he’s not important to what came next. Bane followed Midnight and her friends to Tantras then tried to recover the tablet himself. The god Thorm, who had taken up residence in the city, met Bane in combat. The resulting battle threatened to destroy Tantras, but Midnight rang the Bell of Aylan Attricus-“
“She what?” Blackstaff interrupted, rising to his feet. “Nobody can ring the bell - not even me!”
“Midnight did,” Elminster confirmed. “And she activated the anti-magic shield surrounding the city. The avatars of both gods were destroyed.” The old sage sat quietly puffing on his pipe.