Authors: Philip Athans
Watercourse, Scream of Stone
By Philip Athan
THE STORY THUS FAR
With construction of the canal well under way, all eyes point to Innarlith and to the laconic genius Ivar Devorast. Devorast, more concerned with the deed itself, pays too little attention to the forces aligning against him. All he wants to do is dig a canal, but instead he’s had to defend himself against everyone from the Red Wizards of Thay and the Zhentarim to Phyrea, a woman who loves him so much that she wants nothing more than to see him destroyed.
Still haunted by the ghosts of her family’s country estate, Phyrea slips ever deeper into madness, clinging to her sanity by the thinnest of threads.
The genasi senator Pristoleph set his sights on the Palace of Many Towers, but he paused along the way to steal Phyrea from her arranged marriage to Willem Korvan.
Willem, heartbroken and confused, sought solace with his mentor, the Red Wizard Marek Rymiit. But Marek has more planned for Willem than just a marriage to the master builder’s daughter. Willem, who has done nothing but follow orders, has been transformed by Marek Rymiit into an undead creature, a creature designed to do only one thing: kill.
1 Hammer, the Year of the Gauntlet (1369 DR) Second Quarter, Innarlith
A sound at his bedchamber door woke the master builder. Eyes still closed, head heavy with sleep, he rolled over and called out, “Yes … what is it?”
No answer, and he could feel himself starting to move from the confusion of interrupted sleep to the annoyance of being ignored by his own servants. It couldn’t have been anyone but the upstairs maid, but she would have answered. She would have opened the door and walked in. But she had never done that before. No one had ever thought to roust him from a dead sleep in the middle of the night.
He sighed and rubbed his face with sleep-weak hands and thought he must have been dreaming. He hadn’t heard
His breath caught in his throat. The sound was unmistakable. It still echoed in his ears. Then came the scraping, ragged nails dragged down the length of the heavy oak door.
Could it be one of the dogs? Inthelph thought, but no, it couldn’t be.
The scraping stopped, and again Inthelph thought he might have dreamed the sound, but it was less a thought and more a hope.
Louder, but shorter, as though the claws sank deeper into the wood. He imagined the deep furrows that must have been cut into his door.
His hands shook, and he clutched at his bedclothes.
There were guards in his house, and the staff. No one who meant him any harm could have gotten as far as his bedroom door. It was why he’d never bothered to have a lock installed. Anyone who could get as far as his door was surely
His door was not locked.
The tap came again, but louder, the tips of hard, heavy talons digging into the woodthen the scratching, louder, more insistent.
The master builder reached for the drawer in his bedside table. He had a dagger there, the blade enchanted so that even he would seem a formidable fighter with it in his hand. The drawer squeaked on its tracks and clunked open so loudly Inthelph winced. He fumbled for the knife, making even more noise, then there was the tap again, a knock, a thud, scratching.
“I have a knife,” Inthelph said, even though his probing fingers hadn’t yet found the blade.
The scratching stopped. Inthelph’s fingers closed on the dagger’s handle and he drew it out of the drawer. He sat up in his high, soft feather bed, holding the dagger in front of him in a shaking hand. His mouth was dry, but he tried to swallow anyway. Pain and fear made him whimper, and the whimper made a cold sweat break out on his forehead and between his legs.
“For the love of… for goodness’s sake, who is it? What do you-?”
“Inthel” a voice from beyond the door interrupted.
The voice was familiar. At first he thought it was Willem Korvan, but it couldn’t be. The voice was raspy and weakan old man’s voice.
The scratching noise came again, and Inthelph thought
he detected a trace of desperation in the sound of the claws on the door.
“Willem?” he said, but it couldn’t be.
“Inthelph. Help me.”
It was Willem. His voice was weak, barely above a whisper, but it was Willem Korvan.
Inthelph slipped out from under the covers and dropped to the floor. The chamber was cool and damp, the fire having long since burned to smoldering orange embers in the untended fireplace. Where was the maid?
“Willem?” the master builder called out, the dagger still in his hand, but largely forgotten. “Are you injured, my boy?”
No answer, but Inthelph thought he could hear a scuffling of feet in the corridor beyond. He sensed hesitation.
The door handle turned. Well-oiled and polished, it made no sound, but caught the dim orange light from the spent fire.
The master builder rubbed his eyes and stood. He stepped away from the bed, closer to the door, but still held the dagger in front of him. He squinted in the darkness and cast about for a candle. He’d never had to light one himselfwhere was the upstairs maid?and he wasn’t quite sure where they were kept. Anyway, he had no flint and steel.
He tried to swallow, but his throat hurt. He coughed. Spittle dripped onto his chin, but he didn’t have the strength to wipe it away. He shook in more than his hands, his whole body reacting to the cold and the fear.
“Help me,” Willem whispered from the darkness behind the door, which had come open a crack.
The fear began to diminish, and the master builder took a step closer to the door. Willem was injured, that much was plain in his voice, but Inthelph had nothing to fear from the young senator who had been his protege.
“Willem, I” Inthelph said, stopping short when the door opened and Willem Korvan stepped out of the darkness of the unlit corridor.
“Willem,” Inthelph whispered, “what’s happened?”
Willem stepped in, his knee almost giving out under his weight. What clothes he wore were dirty, tattered rags. Gore had soaked into most of them, and Inthelph was hit by the overwhelming stench of dried blood. Inthelph lifted one foot to step forward, but he couldn’t. He stood his ground, the dagger in front of his chest.
Willem took a step closer, then another. His head sat to one side on a neck that seemed incapable of supporting the weight. When he walked his knees didn’t bend. Inthelph’s eyes grew more accustomed to the dark, and he stepped closer to see Willem’s face.
Inthelph gasped in a breath and held it.
Willem’s lips had curled over his blackened gums, which in turn had receded off of teeth that were yellow and cracked. One of his eyes had rolled off to one side, the other locked on Inthelph and burned with a cold fire that made the master builder shiver. The smell washed over him. The cloying aroma of exotic spices mixed with the stench of rotting flesh. Willem reeked of the grave.
“What’s happened to you?” the master builder whispered.
Willem reached out and batted the dagger from the old man’s hand. The blade cartwheeled across the room and came to rest in a puff of orange sparks on the floor of the fireplace. Inthelph’s hand went numb, and when he tried to bend his fingers he heard a popping noise and a dull shot of pain arced up his arm. He hissed.
“Marek Rymiit,” Willem growled.
“Oh, no, Willem.”
Willem hit him in the chest so hard that purple and red lights flickered in Inthelph’s eyes. He felt the contents of his lungs pass his lips, and when he tried to inhale, it was as though the weight of the entire city had been laid on
his chest. Staggered, he tried stepping back but fell on his behind in an ungainly and embarrassing way.
Try as he might to speak, the master builder could only gasp for air that refused to enter his collapsed lungs. Willem stepped over him and crouched, his knees snapping like dried twigs.
“Marek Rymiit,” the thing that had once been his most promising protege said again. His breath smelled of maggots and saffron. “Hate.”
Willem reached down and Inthelph tried to kick him. It was a feeble, comedic attempt to fight back, but Willem didn’t laugh. Hard, dry fingers closed around the master builder’s calf and squeezed so hard Inthelph felt cold talons puncture his skin.
Inthelph’s lips moved but he couldn’t speak. He wanted to ask what Marek Rymiit had done to Willem. He wanted to know why the Thayan wizard would want him dead, and why he would send Willem Korvan to do it.
Or was it Willem Korvan? If it was, the promising young senator the master builder knew was dead.
The thing pulled on his leg and the pain rumbled through the master builder’s body like a thunderstorm raging across a summer plain. When the Shockwave reached his head he reeled and almost fainted.
He wished he had.
The sensation of his leg coming away at the knee, the stretching and tearing of tendons, the grind of bone on bone, the ruin of flesh made his chest convulse and his vision narrow until all he could see was Willem’s ruined face.
His own foot hit him in the mouth. Willem drew the leg up and smashed it down again. Inthelph’s jaw cracked and one of his eyes went blind. His head vibrated and he felt pressure build and build until he was certain his skull would burst from within.
“I’m…” Willem whispered from his dry, dead mouth, “so… so sorry.”
It was the last thing Inthelph heard. When his skull cracked in two he was already unconscious. When his own foot came down again and pulped his brain, he was dead.
4 Hammer, the Year of the Gauntlet (1369 DR) The Thayan Enclave, Innarlith
Iristoleph looked over Marek Rymiit’s shoulder as they both sat. The thing that stood in the corner shifted its weight from foot to foot. It was a man, or at least it used to be. Marek turned his head ever so slightly to one side, following Pristoleph’s gaze. Their eyes met and the Thayan smiled.
“Please don’t mind him,” Marek said. “He isn’t listening and only understands what I tell him to understand.”
“You feel you need a bodyguard to meet with me?” Pristoleph replied. “And I thought we were friends.”
Marek twitched a little at the sarcasm, and Pristoleph smiled at him. The thing in the corner didn’t respond in any way, and Pristoleph wondered if Marek was actually telling the truth. It didn’t seem as though the thing was aware of their presence at all. It had a black leather hood over its head, tied tightly around the neck with a length of rope, so it couldn’t see them. The fact that it was dead was obvious from its demeanor and its smell.
“You get used to it,” Marek commented, and not for the first time Pristoleph wondered if the Thayan could read his mind.
“The dockworkers seem to have,” Pristoleph said, drawing them to the matter at hand.
“It warms my heart to know that I have been of service to you, and that I have been of service to my adopted home.”
Pristoleph spared the Thayan another smile, just to show that he didn’t believe a word of it.
“Is there anything at all I can get for you?” Marek asked. “A drink, perhaps? Some food?”
“No, thank you,” replied Pristoleph. He wasn’t hungry, and couldn’t have eaten in the presence of the animated corpse anyway. He nodded at the thing in the corner. “Is this something you want to show me? Something for the docks?”
“Oh, no, no,” Marek said, once again glancing back over his shoulder. “This one is special. This one I’m keeping for myself.”
“But you wanted me to see it.”
Marek looked him in the eye, and Pristoleph held his gaze. He had been sized up before. Pristoleph could pass for human easily enough, but not everyone he encountered failed to notice at least something otherworldly about him. He sat there patiently and waited for a reply.
“I’m showing off again, aren’t I?” the Thayan said with a wide, but self-conscious grin. “I hope that the workers I’ve been providing thus far have been of service to you on the docks. If you are less than satisfied with any of the services I’ve provided you, I hope you’ll give me an opportunity to rectify the situation.”
“The zombies work slowly but steadily,” Pristoleph said. “The men have gotten used to them. Even the captains have stopped complaining.”
Pristoleph, with Marek’s help, had insinuated himself into the quay, taking advantage of the chronic dissatisfaction of the dockworkers to seize control of everything that came in and out of the city through the ports.
“You require additional hands?” the wizard asked.
“Twenty,” replied Pristoleph, “to serve the caravans at the southern gate.”
“The southern gate?”
“I’ve been in contact with parties to the south,” Pristoleph said. “I will be bringing various exotic and valuable trade goods up from the Shaar.”
Marek nodded and smiled again. Pristoleph didn’t elaborate any further. The Thayan didn’t need to know
about the wemics. The strange creatures, like lions with the souls of barbarians, were a temperamental lot, but Pristoleph could see the potential for powerful allies.
“Twenty of the dearly departed …” Marek mused. “I see no problem with that, but we will have to discuss a new rate.”
Pristoleph raised an eyebrow.
“The canal, you know,” the Thayan said. “Demand has risen sharply.”
Pristoleph shrugged and said, “I’m sure we won’t allow a few gold coins here or there to come between us.”
The Thayan dipped forward in a mock bow and they both laughed. Pristoleph looked away, not wanting to watch the jiggling girth of the rotund wizard shake with his girlish cackling. Perhaps sensing Pristoleph’s discomfort, Marek stopped laughing.
“I must say, my dear Senator Pristoleph, that you’ve come here this evening for more than another score of zombies to unload crates.”
“Weapons,” Pristoleph said, and Marek raised his eyebrows, waiting for him to go on. “I require enchanted weapons. Any variety will do, but I’ve been asked for polearms of various descriptions.”
“Ah,” Marek breathed. “Of course, Senator. Anything you like.”
Pristoleph looked at the undead thing still shifting from foot to foot in the corner.