Eltabbar, Thay, 1460 DR
'In a land such as Thay, the dead suffer the presence of the living only in their role as a self-perpetuating source of fresh corpses.'
-Archivist Lennet, Royal Library of Waterdeep
It was a difficult birth. The child's mother lay alone at first, the only member of the slave barracks not either hard at work or dead to the world in a more figurative sense than is normal for a land ruled by animated corpses. Finally, her screams and curses attracted more than semiconscious grunts; one of the laborers outside slipped away from his tasks and back in to lend his admittedly inexpert aid to the process. An interminable period later the mother lay with a wailing newborn son held to her chest, exhausted by her long ordeal. As the man reached down to touch the child, the door to the barracks longhouse creaked open and thudded shut again, accompanied by a billow of rot on the air.
The child, his features still scrunched up and his eyes not yet open, fell silent. Even without a name for the scent, even without a concept to attach it to, the stench of undeath struck him as somehow wrong.
The walking corpse's excellent preservation and well-made leathers clearly denoted it to be a creature of station, of power; it's even easily evident that before death the creature was a woman. Aside from the sickly greenish-white pallor of its skin and the brittle stringiness of its hair, it could almost be mistaken for one of the living save for the odor of corruption that wafted before it. That and, of course, the fact that it held a weapon, a glistening black rod, something that none but the dead were permitted to do in Thay. It paused just inside the door, head turning back and forth to survey the barracks, and then stepped unerringly towards the trio. The overseer stretched out its hand and touched the rod to the fear-frozen man's temple.
With a low sigh of escaping air, the man crumpled limply to lie on the floor, every sign of life extinguished between one heartbeat and the next. The mother, clutching the newborn child close against her, let out a sharp gasp and began to breathe quickly. Her eyes tracked the animated corpse, too exhausted to rise from the bloodstained bed even with murder mere inches away.
With casual, unthinking strength, the man's killer began to inscribe runic symbols on its victim's skin with nothing but a claw-like fingernail, tearing clothes from time to time to expose this or that piece of flesh. After a few minutes, the creature spoke for the first time in a hoarse, whispering tone, chanting syllables that slithered past the mind of anyone lacking in arcane arts without ever really being heard or understood. The rod was pressed to the newly-dead form once again, this time over its heart, and without any further effort the figure stumbled up to its feet and turned in a circle as if surprised that it has surroundings to inspect.
The instant the rod discharged and the dead body began to rise, the newborn let out a shrieking wail of dismay, reacting to the reanimation at some level. The overseer stood alongside the stumbling figure, then stared down at the crying child for a long, slow moment. With casual strength, it reached down to pull the baby away from the mother and passed it to the newly-raised undead with a simple direction, “Take it to the creche.”
Without another word, both of the corpses left, the newly-made one tottering unsteadily in stark contrast to the confident stride of the overseer. The mother was left crying quietly in their wake, ignored. Healing magic in Thay could easily be called nonexistent; whether the mother lived or died there would be a use for her.
Faced with the question of how to attract living magi to support their burgeoning army, the necromancers of Thay elected to simply grow their own.
-Archivist Lennet, Royal Library of Waterdeep
Eltabbar, Thay, 1467 DR
“You are free to leave.”
With that hoarse and gravelly phrase, the door to the testing chamber slammed shut with a resounding clunk and plunged the space into utter darkness. In the wake of the echoing thuds of bolts sliding home, the only sound left to fill the darkness was a quiet sniffling sound, a child alone and confused and afraid. He reached out blindly, feeling at the heavy iron bars of the cage holding him and then running along them one at a time. Questing fingers first settled on a hinge, tracing around the closed door carefully and finally wrapping around the hasp on the opposite side of his prison's door. Small hands stretched in between the bars; the child grasped the heavy lock clamped in place and yanked at it a few times before sagging back against the far side of the tiny cage with a quiet sob.
You are free to leave, the boy heard replayed in his mind, hearing the rough voice and its contradictory words and remembering the sight of the heavy door thudding shut and taking with it the only light the stone-walled chamber had known. He reached up, feeling the bars just above his crouched, huddled form and following them down to either side where they crowded in bare inches away. Straw rustled beneath him as he shifted position, moving to keep its meager insulation between his bare feet and the chill stone floor. As the initial shock of his abandonment faded, the smells of the small room began to register; underlying the ever-present miasma of undeath was a stomach-turning cocktail of sweat, fear, bodily waste, and decay. Sobbing quietly in the oppressive darkness, the imprisoned child was brought face to face with the simple realization that others had sat where he did now, sat and pissed themselves and starved and died and rotted in the exact same spot.
“P—please... is anyone there?” his high-pitched, frightened voice rang out into the darkness, surprisingly loud in the absence of any other noise.
“Let me out...I want to go back to the library, I'll study!”
“Someone? ...Anyone? Please, open the door...”
He was still crying when the door to the cell opened again, light stabbing at his dark-adapted eyes after an unknown time locked away in the black cell. A figure stood silhouetted in the open doorway, a woman in a simple dress, a familiar face visible as the child's eyes adapted. With a finger pressed to her lips, the slave matron stepped closer and crouched in front of the cell and lifted a keyring up to the lock. As the boy looked on with relieved excitement, the woman picked out a key and raised it towards the cage door with a gangrenous, rotting hand. At the sight, he recoiled backwards and slammed into the far wall of the cage with a wordless outcry of shock. Lesions spread across his rescuer's skin, a putrid scent released into the stale, sour air as flesh sloughed away to reveal rotted muscle and yellowed bone. Speaking with a hissing cough and spitting fragments of teeth with each word, the figure grated out a single sentence before vanishing.
“You are free to leave.”
The child thrashed and slammed his head into the bars of the cage with a wail as he tore loose of the nightmare into the cold impersonal reality of the pitch-black cell. His simple tunic and trousers were clammy, sweat soaking into them as he slowly tried to steady his breathing.
With only the sound of his own erratic breathing to track the passage of time by, the boy had no way of estimating how long he'd been awake and even less how long he'd slept. Slowly, or perhaps quickly, the fear receded, retreating under the advance of anger. He began to fidget and press against the bars, finally starting to shout into the silent room in a voice roughened by unheard cries during his own dreams.
“I've been good! I studied! I don't argue, and you won't even tell me why you're punishing me! It's not FAIR!” He began to slam against the bars of the cramped cage, throwing himself back and forth and shouting over and over again, “IT'S NOT FAIR!” Before long, his cries weren't even coherent, just angry, high-pitched childish yells as he thrashed and hammered against the bars. His struggles continued until finally pain pierced through the haze of frustrated, brittle anger; he was covered in bruises, his knuckles were bloodied, his head rang and throbbed from several direct encounters with the cage door. He whimpered and began to cry as the insulation of his own anger dissipated and left him to face the unpleasant results of attacking iron with flesh.
He flopped to one side and sprawled on his side with a groan of pain as the cage simply collapsed, already-bruised flesh falling against a loose grid of iron bars strewn across the floor. He shook his head and started to scramble across the floor away from the wreckage of his prison. Without a destination in mind, he simply attempted to put some distance between himself and the ruined cage. As he neared where he vaguely expected to find the wall, something grabbed at his ankle; a tentacle of cold iron lashed in place and beginning to drag him backwards towards the ruined cage. A dismayed cry echoed back in upon itself as metal coils rippled up his legs and around his body, dragging him back to where the ruined cage had sat. He was forced to curl up into an upright ball and then a shriek of metal battered at his ears, the sound of the cage reconstructing itself around him.
The boy started abruptly and banged his head on the bars to his cage, awake and seeing bursts of colored light spalling his vision from the abuse to his already-battered skull. The ringing in his head subsided slowly, taking on a pattern, a cadence, a meaning, until he was left with a single phrase echoing through his mind.
"You are free to leave."
Eltabbar, Thay, 1467 DR
'While wizardry is not terribly uncommon, Thay has little use for anything but battlemages or necromancers. Accordingly, their training regimens are quite harsh; anyone who cannot survive them wouldn't make the 'right kind' of wizard in any case.'
-Archivist Lennet, Royal Library of Waterdeep
The child was hungry. He was also thirsty, bruised, soiled, and emotionally exhausted. On top of everything else, his head was still throbbing where he'd struck it on the cage bars. Despite all that, however, he'd been able to catch some quantity of sleep several times before being awoken by nightmarish visions. He sat in the cramped prison, quiet, still, wide awake, and too emotionally drained to do anything but think. For hours, his mind wandered through the past, sometimes just recalling people and places, sometimes speculating on things that might be, but always returning to his current situation.
He ran through the events of the morning over and over again, the pitch black room providing a handy backdrop for remembered images to play out on. He had been on his way to the library to study when his instructor intercepted him and ushered him into a small room. Ignoring any questions, the animated body had placed the boy inside a tiny cage, then simply walked out. Nothing else presented itself to his memory, which inevitably lead him to ask the darkness around him a single, simple question again and again.
Why would his instructor, his teacher do this to him. Why would he be punished for no crime he could recall. Why would would he be left alone like this, for what reason. The overseers already possessed the power to kill in seconds; there would be no need for that, so why would his instructor...
A sharp gasp escaped the boy's parched lips to stir the cell's stale air, a sudden flash of realization coming to him. “A test...” he breathed out, shifting and grabbing at the dangling lock with his fingers again. A few determined twists and tugs established for the dozenth time that it was quite secure, certainly beyond his ability to pry open. He leaned back again, settling against the rear bars with his mind racing through one possibility after another. The bars felt like solid iron, so it wasn't a test of strength. The lock was equally solid, and the hasp well-anchored.
“There has to be something...” the child murmured to himself, once again running through memories at a breakneck pace. His eyes narrowed, unseen in the utter darkness, at a particular memory; a section of the library that had just recently been opened to his studies. The tomes there had been difficult in the extreme to comprehend, full of precise technical notations, strict geometric instructions, mathematics far beyond any he understood...but a few of the simple mental exercises and chants and the like had been comprehensible. One book, in particular, had been left out and open when he first entered. One that dealt with simple magics, basic building-blocks and cantrips to serve as a starting place.
Something in the tome had called to the young boy and now he struggled to remember something, anything from it. “Light...maybe if I can see...” he muttered quietly to himself, picturing the page of the text that held the relatively simple incantation. Syllables slipped out of his lips in a liquid, flowing tongue, his hand making the same pass illustrated on the carefully-inked instruction. When nothing of note occurred, he gritted his teeth in frustration, but tried again with a slightly different cadence. And then again. And again. And again.
An untold time later he finally sagged to one side, laying his head on the bars and coughing hoarsely; his throat was parched and rough after chanting and calling for who knew how long without water. He glanced at the bars on the far side of the cage, just barely visible in the thin, gray light.
Light. Light? Light!
With a startled yell, he straightened up in place, only to be plunged into darkness again as his loss of concentration sundered the fragile spell. A rough, raspy moan of dismay rose from his throat, the simple knowledge that his attempt could succeed drove him forwards. A half-dozen recitations later, one of the cage's bars under his hand started to gleam with a clear, white light, sending a crazed pattern of light and shadow shooting all over the room as it filtered through the bars of the cage itself and his own grasping fingers. Eyes narrowed to slits against the radiance, the boy let out an exultant cheer, then struggled up to a sitting position to inspect his own prison at last.
At first, everything appeared as flat black or white, his dark-adapted eyes rebelling against the stark light finally intruding into his prison. For a moment, he considered attempting to dim the source, but the memory of his first attempt's sudden failure dissuaded him from attempting to alter the gleaming bar. Finally his eyes adjusted enough to discern the contents of the cell outside his cage, or more precisely the lack of contents; the cell had no furnishings at all aside from the cage itself. His heart sank at the sight, but then a reflected gleam drew his gaze upwards, to the keyring with a solitary key dangling from a thread directly overhead. He thrust an arm through the bars above him, stretching and waving it about, but it hung motionless just out of reach.
Sighing heavily in frustration, he sat back against the cage bars, mulling over the contents of the tome for some solution to this predicament as well. A grunting chuckle whispered through the cell at a thought soon voiced out loud, “That book was left out for a reason.”
After a short time, he began to murmur more of those alien sounds, making a plucking motion after each attempted recitation, until finally the thread parted with an inaudible snap and sent the keyring clanging down through the bars to land with a quiet thump in the sodden straw lining the floor of the cage. Eager fingers gripped at the key, fumbling at the lock and then sliding it in, twisting first one direction and then the other. With a clunking sound, the padlock popped open followed shortly by the door as the boy threw the lock away and tumbled out onto the stone floor of the cell.
For a time, he just lay flat on his back, luxuriating in simple being able to stretch out without cramming something into close-set iron. Eventually though, the pangs of hunger and thirst made themselves known and he scrambled to his feet to address the heavy-looking metal door. The lack of a handle drew him up short, leaving him frowning at a bare expanse of iron until finally he shrugged and tries the obvious thing. One hand hammered at the door, a low clunking sound echoing through the room and, presumably, into the hallway he recalled walking down on the far side.
The lack of a response was all the explanation he needs to confirm that this must be another test. He stared at the door, pacing back and forth in front of it and yet again calling the book to mind; it solved the other two tests, surely it has to hold the secret to this one as well. Finally, with a sigh, he squared himself off facing the door and simply lashed a hand out towards the door with an open palm, fingers splayed at precise angles.
Again and again he attempted the simple motion, fingers at slightly different angles, his hand twisting more or less, trying to change just one thing at a time, trying to determine exactly what he was doing wrong. At the same time, his face settled into a mask of fierce concentration; this particular passage had been longer than the rest, and it'd spoken of things he comprehended poorly, if it all. No simple chants and hand passes this, the pages had spoken of 'drawing power' and 'channeling' and 'focal shaping.' Still, it had been well diagrammed and explained in excruciating detail and he could feel something, something similar to what the text referred to, something that kept him attempting the simple gesture and the far more complex mental manipulation repeatedly.
No one could be more surprised than the boy himself when, in response to another of an innumerable sequence of attempts, the door in front of him dented outwards and flew open with a loud bang and a splintering crack as the light bolt on the far side tore free of the wooden frame. He swayed on his feet and stumbled against the door frame, sudden exhaustion striking him in the wake of the successful evocation. His last sight before crumpling to the floor in the doorway was his teacher standing in the hallway with a bemused expression across its well-preserved face. A gravelly, bone-dry voice rasped out words that chased him into dreams.
“Most young wizards settle for sliding back the bolt. Welcome, Apprentice Darren.”
Eltabbar, Thay, 1479 DR
'The necromancers of Thay are faced with an issue of delicate timing with regards to their training of young wizards. Raise one too early, and he will lack sufficient understanding of the Art to be useful. Attempt to slay and reanimate one too late, and they run the risk of a confrontation with a wizard in full control of his powers.
-Archivist Lennet, Royal Library of Waterdeep
Preparation was crucial. Research, logical inference, and no small amount of skulking about had left Darren quite aware of his eventual fate at the hands of the necromancers of Thay. The leftover notes of other students of wizardry all simply ended at nineteen. None of the slaves serving in and about the teaching compound were above perhaps the mid twenties. Darren himself had witnessed the death and raising of several people from shadowed corners and through his own crude scrying techniques. All of that provided a strong motivation for him to prepare for the day on which the dead of Thay came to claim him as well.
Hence the pit trap.
When the robed corpse stepped into his small sleeping chamber with a necromantic rod in its hand, the young wizard didn't hesitate. Responding to his honed will and endlessly practiced gesture, fists of unseen force battered at the floor beneath the undead's feet and smashed through the carefully-weakened wood beneath. Caught off-guard by the sudden attach and unprepared to intercept a strike aimed away from itself, the would-be assassin simply vanished from sight amidst splintering planks and beams. A wet crunching noise followed on the heels of the sudden burst of violence, the sound of a body striking the stone floor of the storeroom far below.
Sparing the time for a single vehement curse, Darren braced one hand on the wall of his quarters and dragged his cot aside. Another bolt of force crashed out, this one breaking the thin planks covering the hidden compartment beyond. Withdrawing a dusty, splinter-covered knapsack from the hiding place he'd carefully constructed and hidden, he quickly slung it onto his shoulders and then squatted to fish around through the hole in the wall. With a satisfied grunt, he withdrew a short, narrow length of rune-carved wood. With his hand firmly gripped around the rough wand, an expression of determination settled across his face; resolution layering over the lingering dread he couldn't avoid.
Time was not on his side. His disposal of the corpse sent to collect him had not been quiet, so he quickly moved to the next step of his long-planned escape: preempt the alarm. Stepping carefully around the ragged hole in the floor, he turned to face the room he'd called home for most of his life. After a moment's hesitation the renegade wizard raised his wand, barked out arcane syllables in a voice laden with anger, and lit his home on fire. Flames rushed outwards from the shattered hole in the wall, quickly catching on the thin mattress of the nearby cot and licking at the structural beams inside the wall itself through the hole.
Before stepping through the open doorway, he quickly touched the wand to a few spots on his simple gray robe and set them alight before smothering them to produce a pattern of superficial scorch-marks. He paused at the threshold, then grinned fiercely and turned back to the hole in the floor. Chaos and confusion are his only real hope of survival, and a hurried incantation causes the storeroom below to burst into flame in short order.
Despite all his careful planning, he hadn't counted on how quickly the room would fill with smoke. His choking coughs weren't even feigned as he stumbled into the hallway beyond. He paused briefly to clear his lungs and get a breath of relatively fresh air before he set off down the corridor at a dead run.
“FIRE! FIRE IN THE DORMITORY!”
Heads had already begun to stick out of open doors at the racket of Darren's confrontation with the proctor. More followed at his shouted warnings, confusion and curiosity and suspicion giving way to alarm at the sight of smoke pouring into the hallway. His early exit placed him ahead of the growing press of younger student magi, crashing through the door to the stairwell and leaping down the stairs three and four at a time. At the bottom of the stairs, he burst into a hellish scene wholly outside his carefully-laid plans.
Half of the first floor was ablaze, the rear wall of the commons covered in a sheet of furiously leaping flames. Darren skidded to a halt, taking in the rapidly-spreading inferno with a dumbfounded look on his face as he struggled to think of what could have caused his simple distraction to spread so quickly. He only had time to speculate about something in the storeroom catching fire, however, when one of the school's instructors came running out of a side room and pointed to the double doors leading out into the cold winter night. The undying wizard's eyes suddenly lowered, looking down towards Darren's hand.
No. Towards the wand he'd forgotten to hide. With barely a moment's warning provided by that realization, Darren wasn't able to raise his wand in time to attempt to counter the sudden attack. He let out a hoarse cry, his throat raw from smoke inhalation, as a hammerblow of force crashed against his side. He felt ribs crack under the impact, but the impending threat of a followup attack forced him to raise his wand and focus on his opponent.
No sooner did he square off against the robed corpse than another flicker of distorted air slashed across the intervening space between the two, forcing him to sidestep frantically to avoid it. His opponent batted aside a return strike aside contemptuously with a simple sweep of a hand, and another volley lashed towards him in the same heartbeat. He backpedaled frantically, barely managing to deflect the far more experienced mage's assault and sustaining a throbbing bruise across his left forearm in the process. His wide eyes were flickering back and forth, looking for something he could use to his advantage, when the door to the stairwell slammed aside and the first terrified apprentices flooded into the blazing hall.
Darren ducked low, hiding his six-foot frame behind the younger students and hurrying along with them towards the academy's exit. His cracked ribs protested at the bent-over position as he ran along with the panicked crowd, causing him to stumble and hiss air in past his teeth at the sudden stabbing pain. Moments later, a high, tearing death-cry rising above the babble of frantic voices, then another within a few seconds, then a third as the enraged necromancer began to flay the mob of student wizards with bone-shattering spears of barely-visible force. Each scream was preceded by a sickening crunch and a wet slapping sound as bones snapped and flesh ripped apart under the impact of the furious undead.
At the sound of the rising screams, Darren gritted his teeth and stopped in place, turning rising from the mass of fleeing figures. The corpse-mage grinned coldly and raised its hand to strike once again, but before it could launch an attack a bolt of flickering yellow-green lighting speared from the upraised wand. The proctor grinned triumphantly as the attack sailed well clear of it, but then abruptly jerked its head back to stare upwards at the sound of groaning wood. Its gaze rose just in time to meet a good portion of the second floor descending, the fire-weakened structure having collapsed when Darren's desperate strike sawed clear through a supporting beam.
With a weary but triumphant grin, he turned to stumble off towards the gaping door in the wake of the fleeing students.
Eltabbar, Thay, 1479 DR
'Thay values its secrets and will go to almost any length to keep them. More than one war has been fought in the name of silence.
-Archivist Lennet, Royal Library of Waterdeep
Two crowds gathered as the academy burned.
Displaced and injured students milled around the snow-covered ground in front of the stricken building, many huddling together for warmth. Most were caught barefooted and lightly dressed when the fire broke out and simply ran for safety. A few appear to have been sleeping naked, or else not sleeping at all. Unsurprisingly, the occasional figures wearing warmer clothes and boots tended to be the ones sporting scorched robes and burned, blistering skin. Darren moved through the huddled figures as quickly as he dared, belatedly remembering to slip his crude wand inside his belt pouch. He paused just short of the fringe of the first crowd and crouched to blend in with the others as he observed the second.
Undead of every description streamed towards the rapidly disintegrating structure. Far from the relatively human corpses that served as slave overseers and instructors, a bewildering variety of undying things had responded to the bone-shivering toll of the alarm bell. Darren watched them amass, tension building as the expected trigger for the next stage of his escape delayed longer and longer. Finally, a figure in elaborate robes joined the assembly and began to direct the efforts of the massed creatures into combating the blaze.
Fire lashed against the piled drifts of snow, rapidly concealed behind a billowing cloud of steam as the ice directly beneath the sorcerous flames flashed directly into vapor. Further away, the snow began to turn to slush and then to water, scooped up by a veritable army of bucket-wielding skeletons. As the legions of undead firefighters began to form a bucket chain towards the blazing building, a loud cracking sound split the air. Ice solidified around the center of the inferno, crystallizing under the impetus of powerful magic, then shattering apart almost immediately into a spray of water and splinters. Again and again frost rimed the hottest parts of the ruined school building, quickly burned away but still serving to dampen and slow the progress of the blaze.
With the attention of the Thayan guards and wizards that would normally have barred his path focused elsewhere, Darren simply slipped away from the shivering apprentices and strode purposefully towards the forbidding spire that overlooked the entire compound. As he approached the now-unguarded door, his lips quirked in a wry smile at a thought. Apprentices were forbidden access to the tower on pain of death, which would be an effective deterrent on any day but this one. He didn't bother to look over his shoulder as he mounted the broad steps leading up to the gates; if he wasn't able to escape now, his life was forfeit and his undeath assured in any case. With a hand braced against one side of the door, he grasped the other handle and grunted with the effort required to drag it open far enough to slip through.
Inside, Darren leaned back against the inside of the door with a sharp gasp, the simple exertion filling his chest with a stabbing pain as his cracked ribs protest the strain. With a grimace, he forced himself to straighten up and look around, stumbling forwards into the tower and towards the most uncertain part of his planned escape. The tower was warded against scrying, or at least any divination he'd been able to perform, and he'd never even laid eyes on the inside before; his only choice was to begin a methodical search for the objective he could only hope actually existed.
The ground floor proved to be little more than an entry hall, one large open area surrounded by several smaller booths separated by thick curtains. The rug covering the stone floor was ornate and colorful, as were the wall hangings; Darren was taken aback by the almost human touch evidenced by the luxurious decorations. Somehow he had always pictured the deathless masters of Thay as austere, heartless automatons, an image greatly at odds with the inside of the tower. He shook himself free of idle speculation with a glance over his shoulder at the closed door. The bottom floor of the tower didn't hold what he needed and he was quite eager to get out of sight of the front door in case anyone returned before he could escape.
He hurried to the closed door on the far side of the welcome hall from the front gate, pulling it open and quickly closing it again with a relieved sigh. Once again, the sight of the red-carpeted spiral staircase brought a bemused expression to his face, but he banished it with a shake of his head and hurried up the steps to the second floor. It proved to be just as deserted, filled mostly with individual workrooms. At first, his heart leaped at the sight of a circle chalked into the floor of one of the shielded compartments, but he soon recognized the sigils ringing it as belonging to a simple rite of divination.
With a frustrated grumble, he headed back to the staircase and mounted it again, climbing up towards the third floor. At the small landing, he sagged against the wall, panting shallow breaths to avoid aggravating his already-throbbing chest. After a brief rest, he reached out to grasp the handle of the door, then paused with a frown on his face. He murmured to himself, his brow furrowing with thought, “Where would I put a teleportation circle... If it's not on the first floor, then probably at the top...” Without even opening the door, he turned away and hurried up the stairs.
Two gasping rest stops later, the battered wizard reached the top floor of the local necromancer-lord's tower, pushing open the door carefully and slipping into the chambers beyond. Easing the door shut, his eyes flickered about in a careful inspection of the opulent chambers, wary of the wardings its owner may have laid upon it. He hung back by the door to the staircase, probing for the tingle that would indicate an active magical sensor of some kind. One heavy steel-bound door on the far side of the room set his senses alight with the defenses worked into it; he grunted and muttered quietly to himself, “Hope the blasted thing's not behind there or this is going be a short trip...”
Finally his eyes snapped to a symbol inlaid in alabaster and some red stone he didn't recognize above a door in the far wall. With a weary grin on his face, he picked his way across the room, carefully avoiding both anything that he could sense as actively enchanted and anything that he could accidentally disturb to leave a trace of his presence. Reaching the door, he paused before it to study it one last time for alarms before pushing it open and stepping through.
The portal was inactive. Darren swore in disappointment; there was never much chance of finding a live portal left unattended in the teleportation circle, but that hadn't prevented him from hoping. He walked slowly around the room, inspecting everything for signs of a hiding place and finally settling on a wardrobe stocked with travel robes. He paused in front of the open dresser, considering trading in his own scorched and worn gray one, but then sighed and closed the door again; that would be a wonderful way to draw attention to his presence. Shrugging the knapsack off his shoulders and pulling it after him, he slipped into the gap between the wardrobe and the corner of the room. A few quiet grunts echoed about the room as he tried to find a more comfortable position, fading as he settled in to wait.
Eltabbar, Thay, 1479 DR
'The undead are nothing if not persistent. Not all of them sacrifice their tastes for the finer things in life, but seemingly none of them forgo the desire for revenge.
-Archivist Lennet, Royal Library of Waterdeep
Time passed slowly in the windowless, stone-walled chamber. Lit by steadily gleaming stones set in ornate iron wall fixtures, the shadows lacked even the familiar flickering of torchlight to animate them. The air slowly grew stale as they night wore on outside, a lack of ventilation becoming noticeable in a structure designed and erected by beings long since divorced of the need to draw breath. At first, Darren attempted to mark time by counting heartbeats, but that number swiftly grew unmanageable and he was forced to simply wait. The passage of time served as a double-edged sword, it would calm those who had so recently fought the blaze outside, but Darren himself was swiftly growing stiff, sore, and exhausted.
He didn't dare sleep. The undead certainly wouldn't, and the odds of remaining unnoticed while slumping out from behind the wardrobe he sheltered beside or snoring into the silent room were quite poor. In the wake of his adrenalin-fueled escape, though, his eyelids kept sliding closed only to flicker open with a burst of alarm. Each time, he was left wondering how much time had passed, perhaps only a moment, perhaps hours.
His eyes snapped open at the thump of a closing door. Stiff, cramped muscles tensed up as booted footsteps thumped across the stone floor, accompanied by a constant swishing sound he quickly associates with a robe of some sort. A wizard. Someone who could work the teleportation circle set into the center of the floor, someone who could only be in here for that purpose.
Or someone searching for an escaped slave.
The footsteps grew louder, Darren's alarm growing as the unknown presence approached the wardrobe directly. His breath hung in his throat, breathing in and out in measured gasps only when the room's other occupant made enough noise to cover his own. It stopped altogether when the door to the wardrobe swung into view across his narrow view of the rest of the room, remaining perfectly still as the unseen undead removed something from the rack within. A swirling, flapping sound followed, and then the wardrobe door shut again with a hollow thud that rattled his hiding place.
The owner of the booted feet moved away again, then began to slowly move about the rune-carved circle on the floor with a carefully measured stride. A scratching sound filled the silences between steps, chalk marking the circle and sparking frustration within the hidden escapee. Lips tugging in a wry smile, he suppressed a chuckle at the irony; if he could see and learn the ritual to power and target the circle, he wouldn't have needed to remain in such a dangerous, precarious hiding spot all this time, but if he wanted to watch the rite performed, he'd have to effectively commit suicide in any case and render the whole effort pointless.
A prickling sensation at the back of his mind brought Darren out of his brief introspection, a thrill shivering through him at the realization that the portal was open. At long last, he was close to escaping Thay, albeit to somewhere else that undoubtedly fell under its influence. His lips twisted in a grim grin as adrenalin once again flooded his veins. Uncertain death beat certain death any day of the week.
The footsteps resumed for a few seconds, then cut away suddenly with a low thrumming noise and a shiver of barely-perceived power. Quickly, Darren forced his way out of his hiding place, ignoring the protests of his battered ribcage as he slung his knapsack into place. He didn't have long to waste, but he'd be worse off without the meager supplies he'd managed to hide away before his flight. With his rough wand in hand once again, he pushed off and hit the portal speeding up into a dead run. Between one footstep and the next, the room--
--changed. The stone floor was rough and unpolished, the walls set further away, the light dimmer and flickering. He emerged just behind the red-robed figure, who had traveled at a more sedate pace, and made no attempt to check his own plunge. With one shoulder lowered, he swerved slightly and slammed up against the thin Thayan before it could react to the sudden thunder of footsteps behind it. As the undead spun aside under the impact aside, Darren realized that it wasn't just thin, it was skeletal, no more than animated bones inside a robe. Even his own spindly frame easily outmassed it and shouldered it into the floor.
He staggered unsteadily for a moment with his ribs stabbing pain through his chest at the shock of impact, then forced himself to ignore it and swerved towards the first possible escape route that he saw. Mounting the stairs two at a time, he stormed up out of what looked to be a basement storage room towards the door at the top, reaching for the handle and yanking it open frantically. Fortunately, it wasn't locked. Unfortunately, he caught a glimpse of the skeletal mage on the floor below already climbing to its feet and turning empty eye-sockets towards his avenue of retreat. He lunged through the door and slammed it behind him hurriedly.
A quick glance revealed only a keyhole, no lock he could make use of, and he grunted an out-of-breath curse as he turned to sprint away. No sooner had he begun to form a brief impression of the luxurious mansion-styled construction of the unknown building than the door to the basement iced over and shattered with a convulsive cracking sound. A hail of frost-rimed splinters from the ruined door lashed at his retreating back, sticking in his robe and scratching at exposed skin. Darren didn't look back, just gritting his teeth and pouring on as much speed as he could in an attempt to get away before the furious undead could reach the frost-rimed doorway.
The thunder of steel boots on stone suddenly mounting behind him served as a warning that a single mage was far from his only problem.
As he passed through an open doorway to a larger hall, he turned sharply and risked a glance backwards before he charged out of sight of the basement door. Panic bolted through him at the sight that greeted him there, a squad of skeletons and animated corpses in chain and plate boiling out through the wrecked hole in the wall. Behind them, the robed figure stalked forward with a staff in its hand and a malicious grin upon its face. It was, however, a skeleton, so the grin was perhaps to be expected, but the cold blue light throbbing in its eye sockets made up in vicious demeanor what its facial expression lacked.
Darren turned his attention forwards once again just in time to swerve to one side to avoid a nearly-human guard that had just emerged from a side corridor, presumably to investigate the noise. The corpse was surprisingly well-preserved and could easily pass muster as a living human to people who hadn't grown up surrounded by many, many more undead than the living. Equally, the astonished expression on the armored figure's face gave the fleeing wizard hope as he slid past and charged towards the unguarded double doors at the far end of the hall. The only reason for an undead still fully in command of its own emotions to be serving as a guard instead of a mindless skeletal warrior or a ghoul was that it could pass as human.
That meant there was someone to fool. Someone alive. Someone Thay didn't control.
A shout of alarm from behind him was accompanied by running feet, the surprised guard reacting to his flight by giving chase. Answering shouts sounded from doorways and halls spaced along the hall, followed by pounding feet and jingling chain as the commotion drew scattered guards from about the building. Gasping for breath, he sprinted the last few feet to what looked like the front door and threw himself against it with a grimace as he braced for the pain in his ribs. No time to check the lock without being caught. No chance to slow down. His hurtling body struck the door, drawing a ragged cry from his abused lungs, and burst through it out onto the cobbled street of an unfamiliar city.
Veltalar, Aglarond, 1479 DR
'Kelemvor's mortal servants have no more love for the undying than the god himself. Unsurprisingly, his followers tend not to coexist peaceful with representatives of Thay.'
-Archivist Lennet, Royal Library of Waterdeep
The sight of a haggard young man in a scorched gray robe bursting out of a wealthy merchant's mansion was enough to draw attention almost anywhere. As Darren's exhausted legs stumbled on the uneven cobbles, street traffic slowed as eyes turned towards him. Wild-eyed, he gestured behind him at the gaping door just in time to draw attention to the chain-armored figures hurrying through it, heavy armor concealing their lifeless natures. The same could not be said of the half-dozen heavily armed skeletal warriors that followed them.
For the second time in a day, the escaped slave found himself surrounded by a screaming crowd. Panic lent the occupants of the rapidly-clearing street a turn of speed that his heaving chest and aching, throbbing legs simply wouldn't be able to match, so he didn't try. With a tight smile that looked more than a little akin to the rictus grin of the corpse-soldiers marching towards him, he extended his wand in a fencer's grip and waited for the street to clear. With travelers still streaming clear of the sudden confrontation, the armored figures charged ahead and began to bludgeon and hack their way through the few unfortunates who failed to get out of their way in time.
The first attacker to clear the dispersing crowd was rewarded with a faintly-glimmering bolt of force that hammered into its chest and sent it staggering backwards in a shower of bloodless gore. Flesh tore under Darren's furious assault, but the animated corpse remained upright and stumbled onwards with an newly-unsteady gait. A savage lash of his wand sent another bolt flashing across the intervening cobblestones at at hip level. Bones shattered with a loud crunching sound as the body tumbled backwards to land on the cobbles in a jingling, ringing heap of steel and mangled flesh.
In the time it took him to dispatch one of the warriors, the others had closed the distance with startling speed. Before they could reach him, brief bursts of violent yellow-orange fire began to bloom among them again and again in response to short, choppy gestures from the wizard who was by now the only living being left on the street. Charred cobblestones and scorched, splintered bones littered the street in the wake of the charge as the cornered wizard hurled power about with wild abandon. With each spell he backed up further, slowly working his way down the street and away from the ruins of the decimated skeletons.
As a stiff breeze carried the haze of smoke away, Darren's heart sank. Standing on the far side of the killing ground, the red-robed skeleton began to stalk across the wreckage of the earlier charge. On either side of it, hulking bodyguards in matte-black full plate armor lumbered forwards with heavy tower shields held in front of them. The strange, dull metal, or more likely some enchantment layered into it, simply drank the impact of Darren's attack, silvery-clear lances of power deflecting away from the guards or simply soaking in to no effect.
With his attention focused on the two monstrous warriors, the delicate-looking beam of frigid blue-white energy from the undead wizard took Darren off-guard. A strangled cry burst from his throat as ice raced across his robe, hanging from his trimmed beard and crackling in his shaggy black hair. His breath hissed out in a cloud of fog as the rime spread downwards, rooting him to the cobblestones even as he struggled to breathe under the onslaught. The sound of armored boots striking stone filled his ears as the huge bodyguards finally reached him before he could break free of the chill grasp. As the gleaming crescent-shaped axes rose, he cringes away from them, unable to move out of their way and certainly not capable of withstanding their attack.
No one could be more surprised then he at the sudden bellow that rang out from his left, a deep brassy baritone screaming a single name as its owner smashed headlong into one of the armored assassins.
The new arrival was clad in polished steel plate, gleaming in the morning light in an utter contrast to the soot-black armor of the two Thayan soldiers. Sword sheathed at his side and his shield still slung across his back, he bowled the first attacker into the other and collapsed with them in a clamor of steel and stone ringing against each other. Echoing the first rescuer's war cry, a second steelclad figure hammered past the entrapped wizard and lashed downwards with a mace as the first rolled clear. The moment the weapon struck, a burst of white light flared into view and vanished as quickly. The effect on the undead warrior was far more dramatic; the previously-silent figure concealed within the heavy plate screamed, an unearthly wail tearing through the street and rattling windows in their frames nearby.
Glowing eyes narrowing to tiny pinpricks of cold blue fire, the necromancer staff rose in preparation for an incantation of some sort, but a searing bolt of pure light lashed across the street and sent the robed figure tumbling backwards before the butt of the staff made it six inches clear of the cobbles. Emerging into Darren's limited field of view, a figure in a simple chain surcoat marched forwards with an ornate set of bone-and-gold scales held outstretched in one hand. As he watched the brutal exchange with wide eyes, the red-robed undead abruptly lashed out not at the cleric, but at Darren himself. Still unable to dodge and in no condition to attempt deflecting the assault such a powerful mage, he could only watch as a blast of bone-breaking force smashed him full in the chest.
With the breath driven from his lungs by the brutal impact, his mouth gaped open in a silent scream as he toppled backwards to land heavily on the cobbles. Pulverized ribs grated all throughout his torso, making every one of the fortunately few moments before he blacked out an exercise in stunning pain.
Veltalar, Aglarond, 1479 DR
'Those few living souls who manage to escape Thay are often entirely uneducated. Less common and more intriguing are those who are exceedingly well-read, but possess broad gaps in their knowledge of the world.'
Archivist Lennet, Royal Library of Waterdeep
“Ah, you're awake.”
Ironically enough, those words brought Darren awake, rather than the other way around. His lips twisted in a wry smile as he opened his eyes to look up at a arching stone ceiling, replying in a dry tone, “Well, I am now.” He started to sit up, only to grimace and lie back again as a stiff tenderness in his ribs made itself known. That brought a flood of memories along with it, the long flight from Thay, the duel with the academy proctor, the running battle through the streets of an unknown city, the final blow that sent him reeling into blackness. He spoke again as he methodically took an inventory of his condition.
“I feel pain, I have apparently slept, I'm...” he paused for a moment to lift a hand up in front of his mouth for a few moments, “Still breathing, and whoever you are, you don't sound like a corpse.” He sniffed a few times, “Nor do you smell like one. The balance of probability dictates that I am not an undead.” A manic grin spread across his face despite the analytical tone of his voice, and as he voiced his conclusion, he let out a triumphant whoop that promptly dissolved into a coughing fit.
When it finally subsided, he added sheepishly, “Although perhaps not in the best of shape.” He carefully turned his head aside, coming face to face with his benefactor. Darren's expression betrayed no surprise at the sight of the unfamiliar cleric who'd intervened against the necromancer during the running street battle. He inclined his head towards the rather bemused figure with a smile, his tone serious as he spoke, “Thank you, friend. I hadn't planned on any help, but I would have been lucky to end up dead without yours.”
The cleric, now clad in simple white robe, replied in a warm, deep voice, “Just as well, I'd be obligated to kill you if you were undead. And your thanks are accepted, but unnecessary, I could hardly allow the blasphemous to rampage through the streets here. Besides,” he added with a smile of his own that transformed his aged, craggy face into something far more welcoming, “Anyone Thay wants dead that badly interests me. Or is that 'wants undead?” He stopped with a somewhat chagrined look across his face, then said, “Or I could introduce myself. My name is Karden Morlenn, and I am a doomguide of Kelemvor.”
Darren couldn't help but look bemused at the rambling cleric, staying quiet until the obvious prompt for him to introduce himself. He inclined his head and began to answers the unspoken questions hovering behind his rescuer's lips, “My name is Darren, late of Thay. Darren...Living, I suppose you could call me.” His lips quirked in a private smile at some thought as he continued, “And 'wanted undead' is most definitely the c--” A cough cut off his reply, reaching for the mug he'd seen on the table beside his bed. With the priest's help, he levered himself up to a half seated position and took a few long sips of water before setting it down and picking up where he left off. “As I was saying, 'wanted undead' is quite definitely the right phrase. As you might imagine by the fact that I'm here, and not in Thay, I objected.”
He snorted and added, “Quite strenuously, in fact. I suppose they'll rebuild the school before long. Now, friend, would you mind a question?” At Karden's simple head shake, his head tilted aside inquisitively, “Who's Kelemvor? I presume he or she is a deity, for you are clearly a cleric, but I'm not familiar with the name.”
The cleric's shocked expression at his ignorance tells him most of what he needs to know, and he continues, “You clearly expect me to know who that is, so it must be common knowledge. I'm familiar with quite a number of gods, and you mentioned both an obligation to destroy the deathless and a clear antipathy for Thay. Based on the inference that the two are enemies, I'm going to guess...either death god or goddess of rebirth. That seems to be how the genders play out. Could be a simple chaotic deity as well, that would explain the dislike for Thay's civilization, but that wouldn't cover the whole 'hatred of the undead' aspect.”
“So, rebirth or death, which one? I'm gambling on death, what with the 'Doomguide' title.”
“The...er...the latter.” is the response from the somewhat shellshocked cleric.
“Sensible enough, I'm not surprised that Thay suppressed his existence. Er...Kelemvor is a god, yes? Not a goddess?” At the nod of confirmation, Darren forged on, “Good, didn't want to blaspheme against my savior's patron by accident. Anyway, that's sensible enough, Thay wouldn't want the existence of an implacably hostile deity to become general knowledge.” He lapsed into silence for a while, then spoke up again just as Karden began to open his mouth, “Once I'm up and around, would you mind if I inspected your library? Assuming you have one, of course, otherwise I'll have to find a local wizard I suppose.” He shrugs, then instantly regrets it with a gasp, “Of course that might be a while... still, I need to figure out what I don't know.” At the doomguide's questioning look, he only smiled and added, “About everything.”
“I'm sure something can be arranged for you. And yes, we have a library here within the temple grounds. A modest one, but it should last you at least a few...” The cleric trailed off for a few moments, then snorted, “I was about to say months, but I'm getting the impression that I should say 'weeks' instead. In any case, you need to rest and I'm not helping you do that by staying here.” He stood, sliding the wooden chair back against the wall, “We don't treat the living often here, I'm sure you understand. Most families are somewhat nervous in the house of the god of death, and even more so about leaving a loved one here. Still, you're through the worst of it, now you just need time to heal.” With a slight bow of his head, he started to walk away, but then turned back with a twinkle in his eye.
“Until then, I'll bring the library to you. History first, I'm looking forward to finding out what Thay wants hidden from their own people.”
Veltalar, Aglarond, 1479 DR
'The only thing a nation as brutal as Thay produces in quantities greater than the undead are enemies.'
-Archivist Lennet, Royal Library of Waterdeep
With great reluctance but equal resolve, Darren closed the door to Veltalar's Temple of Kelemvor behind him. He'd spent the better part of a season sheltered behind its walls, recuperating and devouring its library en masse. He left it painstakingly organized and one text richer, having penned a tome containing all he could remember from his experiences atop the high mesa of Thay. In return, he took with him a plain black initiate's robe to replaced his torn and blasted gray one and a small replica of Kelemvor's holy symbol on a chain, a skeletal hand balancing a pair of scales. He reached up and pulled the silver pendant out to rest against his chest.
Part of his time had been spent refining the wand that had served him so well on his flight out of Thay. No longer was it rough, unpolished wood, although he'd refused to replace the purloined chair leg that he'd whittled down into a proper wizard's weapon. The polished, rune-scribed length of wood hung from his belt by a leather thong wrapped snugly around one end as a grip and looped through a hole through the wood to ensure it remained attached.
As he hefted the leather backpack that replaced his worn cloth knapsack, he reflected over his friend and mentor's last advice before he'd stepped through the door and out into the world once again. If you must leave, never be alone. Thay won't give you up that easily. Find friends. You'll need them more than anything else. Watch someone else's back so they can watch yours.
For now, he'd do that. But someday, Thay would rue the day...
With a snort, he cut off his own melodramatic monologue, barking a quiet laugh at himself as he set off down the cobbled street.
: Time warps around the poster. The thread topic winks out of existence and reappears in 1d10 posts.
Out of Context Theatre, this week starring BKTiel.
-'Have you considered a career as a Roman emperor?'
Fiction!: The Final War (Bolo/Lovecraft) (Ch 7 9/15/11)
, Living (D&D, Complete)