Authors: James P. Davis
A Book in The Wizards Series
A Forgotten Realms Novel
By James P. Davis
Proofread and formatted by BW-SciFi
Ebook version 1.0
Release Date: January, 28th, 2009
For my Megan.
I’d like to thank Peter Archer and Phil Athans
for getting me started, and Susan Morris, my
wonderfully patient editor, for all of her help and
hard work along the way.
The Year of Lightning Storms (1374 DR)
Early Autumn (Uktar)
Nuressa clung to the low stone wall, facing the sea. She stared at dark ships that approached on reddened waves as chaos erupted in the streets behind her. Shouts, screams, and inhuman roars faded into the background as the tide swelled, carrying its ominous burden closer.
The crimson light of early sunset grew deeper and more inflamed, casting the small town of Logfell in tones of blood as she struggled to pull herself up on weakening legs. Her pale, sickly skin was covered in red welts and painful lesions, signs of the blush, a plague that had sprung to grim life a little over a tenday ago.
Clouds of steam rolled atop the lethargic waves of the Lake of Steam, carrying the handful of strange longboats closer. But Nuressa’s eye was drawn by a lone figure clad in tattered red robes walking barefoot upon the sea ahead of the shadowy fleet. It was a woman with flowing dark hair and eyes that were flooded with red. The woman extended her arms outward as she neared, as if gathering the town in a distant embrace.
Warmth flowed across Nuressa’s lips and she tasted blood. Her nose dripped, succumbing to the bleeds the blush induced as its grip grew stronger.
A droning chant drifted on the air, emanating from the longboats behind the woman in red. No words could be made out in the menacing litany, but power rippled in the syllables that reached her. The sound of the deep voices rose gooseflesh across Nuressa’s body, and the chant drove a chill wind, early for the season. Nuressa shivered.
The steady drip of Nuressa’s nose became a bloody stream as the woman in red’s voice joined the macabre chorus. The waves around the woman pulsed in a circle as she spoke harsh words in an arcane language. Blood spilled from her eyes and curled across her cheeks in unknown symbols and sigils, runes of power that changed from one to another as she spoke.
The fear and terror Nuressa had been numb to just moments ago returned with a vengeance. She gasped as pain lanced through her chest, arms, and legs, a dull ache that crawled up her neck as the chanting grew louder. The chorus washed across the town and raised screams from the maddened masses behind her. Paralyzed by horror, she could not tear her eyes away from the woman in red, who rose in the air, her toes barely touching the water. Closer now, Nuressa could see strange, scarlike designs and markings on the woman’s body, horrific and beautiful, like a poem of fine lines and old pain.
The chant reached a crescendo that throbbed behind Nuressa’s eyes, and just as she considered acting on her fear and running away to find shelter or sanctuary, the noise stopped. Silence crashed across Logfell as the woman in red tossed her head and arms backward, arching her back in ecstasy or pain, the focal point of some dark working.
Then the blooded eyes lowered, seeming to meet Nuressa’s. Crimson lips smiled and whispered a single syllable, releasing an energy that thundered across the water’s surface in an ever-widening wave. The ground shook as the force crashed against the coast, flooding across the town like a choir of swarming locusts.
Nuressa fell from the low wall, trembling as her veins pulsed and became visible beneath her skin. Muscles throbbed and strained against tendons and bone. Her mind was full of the sound of the chant, unable to escape it as she crawled toward the mass of limbs and stampeding terror that filled the street in front of her.
Her friends and neighbors had become like animals, clawing and biting at one another to reach the gates. Nuressa did not look at their faces, pale shadows of the people they’d once been. She focused on going home, finding her daughter, and praying for release from this incursion of chaos, pushing and screaming through the crowd, and trampling across the bodies of the fallen as she passed.
The same scene lay in the streets beyondpeople fleeing or fighting one another. All of them were held in the grip of the blush, the plague excited to growth by the chant they could all hear playing in their minds. Nuressa stood and stared at her small home for several moments, searching her memory, unable to imagine what it must have looked like before the blush. Frustrated, she pulled the door open and fell to her hands and knees inside, holding her breath as fresh pain washed through her head, and gulping for air as it passed.
On her stomach, she crawled through the simple kitchen, pushing chairs out of her way in the dark. Down the hallway, darker still, the bedroom door was open, allowing the dying light of the sun to illuminate her path.
Whispers surrounded her and she realized they were her own, a stream of nonsense, spilling out the contents of her mind in a rush so fast she could not cling to one thought before the next was gone. An emptiness hovered in the back of her mind, growing larger as she poured out the myriad details of her life, until the empty thing filled her head.
She imagined it behind her, some creature crawling and mewling in infantile tones as it pawed at her ankles in the dark. It seemed she could hear its claws echoing her own fingernails as they strained to pull her weight. She sobbed in pain and fear as she reached the doorway at the end of the hall. Gripping the frame, she slid her body into the room and kicked the door shut against the imagined demon that hounded her.
She pulled herself to a sitting position and winced as the dim sunlight found her eyes. A growing twilight colored the sky in violets and reds as she muttered uncontrollably, trembling and shaking as pain wracked her body. Her eyes rolled, trying to recognize the room she sat in, seeking some memory to link it to herself. Her whispering slowed and the words became meaningless and distanta language she could not recognize though she’d spoken it all her life. The last dregs of her mind bled out as silence surrounded her.
The stabs of pain intensified, but she was no longer fully aware of their ebb and flow, nor could she identify where she hurt. Her eyes, now blank and unmoving, stared at the darkening sky, and though her heart still pounded madly, her head slumped forward, limp and lifeless, privy only to the darkness.
Soft scratching came from beneath the bed and small hands appeared at its edge. Young eyes, rimmed in tears, peered over the rumpled blankets at the intruder whose lifeless head now slumped forward. The girl, frightened and alone, stared at the body of the strange woman who’d entered her home. Listening carefully, she could no longer hear the droning chant or the screams and wails outside.
She stood, tiptoed to the door, and eased it open, wincing as it creaked. The door was soon ajar just enough that she could slide her small figure through the crack. She stared down the hall, shaking in fear, the darkness of early evening undisturbed by candle or lantern. Moments passed like decades as she gathered the courage to step out into the ebony terrain.
Slow footsteps thumped by the door to the outside, and the girl froze in place, listening and waiting. She stared into shadows that danced with the shapes of imagined beasts. A low moaning rose on the wind, and she knew this would not be her mother or father coming home.
She turned away, easing herself back into the bedroom, intent upon returning to her hiding place. Halfway through, she glanced at the fallen woman against the bed, and in the soft darkness of early evening, found glossy eyes staring back at her.
He remembered playing games as a child. Or rather, watching other children play games as he stood alone.
Quinsareth threw himself into a dive, sailing over the rail around the high balcony of the Red Cup Inn. His tattered cloak trailed behind him like a shred of shadow, twisting with his tumbling form as he negotiated the fall. He prepared his outstretched arms for impact with the stone floor below. Flashing knives followed his descent, spinning and whistling past him, narrowly missing. He could almost hear the clicking stones of the Fate Fall, its intricately carved pieces falling to the ground, as the floor rushed up to meet him.
His fingertips touched down and he rolled, somersaulting and catching himself in a low crouch as knives clattered to the ground around him.
The Fate Fall had been the game of choice among those petty children. He had not been allowed to play, but he had watchedand learned.
Those startled few drunks still in the common room stared wide eyed at his cloaked figure, surrounded by several lazily spinning blades on the stone floor. A quick glance beneath the rim of his well-worn hat told them it was time to leave, and the almost inhuman voices cursing from the balcony above punctuated the idea with sobering clarity.
Glancing over his shoulder, he watched the shadows on the ceiling as his foes gave chase. He stood and leaped toward the front door, shoving several stumbling drunkards ahead of him, making sure that all those capable of escape did so. The others, too long in their cups for the evening, snored in blissful ignorance. These he forgot as Vesk, leader of the assassins known as the Fallen Few, reached the balcony’s railing, near the ancient altar that gave the Red Cup its name, and stared down with black eyes and readied daggers. His three companions joined him, their horrific appearances made more so in the guttering light of the torches below them.
Quinsareth turned back to face them, breathing calmly. The game had become both his meditation and his mantraa game he’d never played with stones that he watched resolve in blood and steel.
The striking blue eyes of the pale one were on him. Sniffing the air and spitting, Blue-Eyes’s wide mouth scowled as his raspy voice broke the silent standoff.
“Sweetblood,” Blue-Eyes muttered.
The game began by placing the small rectangular stones on end, one at a time, in neat little rows and twirling designs across the ground.
Quinsareth held his head low and walked backward as the assassins descended into the common room, drawing cruel weapons and moving into place. Vesk walked down the stairs behind Blue-Eyes, who in turn followed a hulking brute with scaly gray skin and a jaw and brow lined with little spines. Their fourth crawled along the opposite wall, hidden in a living cloak of shadows.
Each stone in the game each held a different meaning, inscribed in a symbol or rune.
Quinsareth could feel their hate, like an aura reaching for him with clawed fingers, eager to squeeze the life from this “sweetblood,” a devil’s term for the angel-touched, the aasimar. His feet found the small wooden bridge that separated the entrance from the common room and he continued, stopping about halfway across.
The game the children played was random, unknowing of the rules and nuances of the game.
He could see the brief look of confusion on Vesk’s face and he pitied them, his celestial blood stirring at their nearness even across the stone floor of the broad inn. Obviously, they’d thought he would take flight into the darkness of the ruins outside. Vesk’s right hand formed a swift and intricate gesture, a sign in the quiet language of rogues and thieves meaning “caution,” and his companions halted and spread out, forming a semicircle around the bridge and their quarry.
But Quinsareth knew the game’s secret sense, reading the tales and stories in their chaotic patterns.
Beneath his cloak, Quinsareth searched a small interior pocket and withdrew a small sphere, holding it before him in the palm of his right gauntlet. Its surface was glass, but within, it looked rotten, veins of ochre tracing through the dark mass. Vesk raised a knife, prepared to throw but watching for the slightest hint of magic from the sphere. The dark tattoos across his neck and shoulders squirmed and twisted in anticipation.
Quinsareth turned and hurled the sphere at the front door, his left hand already resting on the hilt of the curved bastard sword at his side. Glass shattered on the doorframe, and he drew his blade, turning back as viscous liquid burst forth from the broken globe, the alchemical mixture reacting explosively as it gulped air. The liquid grew thick and tough, and roping tendrils of goo covered half the door in moments, sealing the entrance.
The sword he drew screamed in rage, a piercing shriek that pulled sweat from his skin. He swung the blade in a wide arc, deflecting Vesk’s thrown knife and sending it splashing into the dark waters of the reflecting pool beneath the short bridge. The two locked stares for a brief moment, Vesk’s black eyes meeting Quinsareth’s pearly gaze, then the scaled brute charged, raising a serrated long sword to attack.
Quinsareth reversed his swing, knocking the brute’s sword aside, and spun. Crouching low, he brought the blade around to cut into his attacker’s hips. The sword wailed as it passed neatly through the tough layer of thick scales and bit the soft flesh beneath. Humming in pleasure, it cleaved all the way through, spilling foul, black blood to the boards of the bridge.
Quinsareth had always watched that first stone, wondering at its simple descent, catching the image in his mind just before it struck the next piece.
The brute’s top half fell into the dark water below, splashing into its rippled surface and following Vesk’s knife to unknown depths, his legs left behind on the bridge. Quinsareth stood, raising the bloodied edge of the long, curved sword known as Bedlam in a defensive stance, and eyed the faltering resolves of his remaining enemies.
The first stone had fallen, now must they all.
Blue-Eyes hissed, his toothless maw opening wide as he spit forth a cloud of foul-smelling mist. It swelled quickly, turning a yellowish color and smelling of sulfur. Though he couldn’t see them through the mist, Quinsareth could hear them retreating to the balcony, taking the higher ground. He sprang through the thick cloud, his lungs burning and eyes watering in the noxious vapor. Once through, he saw Vesk and Blue-Eyes running up the stairs. Blinking the moisture from his blurry eyes, he moved to follow them. He stopped as movement on his left caught his attention.