The Ring of Winter

The Ring of Winter

Book 5 of The Harpers series
A Forgotten Realms novel

By James Lowder

 

A ProofPack release

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Ebook version 1.0

Release Date: October, 1st, 2005

Prologue

The creature had sixteen eyes, and all of them stared hungrily at the man in the center of the circular room. The would-be victim’s name—though the creature could not know this— was Artus Cimber, lauded throughout Faerun as an explorer, historian, and seeker of adventure. At the moment, Artus was crouched in front of a short stone pedestal, appraising with a practiced eye the silver statue that rested there.

With slow, careful movements, the explorer circled the pillar. He held an ancient dagger before him, the gem in its hilt casting a soft radiance over the statue. The dagger had been given to him four years past by the centaurs of Tribe Pastilar in Lethyr Forest, a reward for recovering the chieftain’s sacred staff of judgment. Magical light was just one of the weapon’s strange properties. And at the moment, the bared blade was the only thing preventing the creature from dropping down on Artus, for the hunter’s mind was agile enough to recognize such an unusual threat.

“There’s no evidence the ring was ever in these ruins, Artus. Perhaps it would be best if we dusted ourselves off and went our way.”

Artus glanced up at the lone entrance to the chamber just as a white-haired head appeared around the crumbling stone doorjamb. “Well,” the older man asked mildly, his breath turning to steam in the frosty air, “what do you say we head for camp?” His mouth was set in a vague smile, and his bushy white brows hung like clouds over eyes the color of sapphires.

“Come have a look at this, Pontifax,” Artus murmured, his attention instantly drawn back to the statue. “It’s Mulhorandi from the looks of it, and very, very old, too.”

A frown of concern crossed Pontifax’s face, and he stepped into the room. “Mulhorandi, you say? For Mystra’s sake, don’t touch the thing until you’ve examined it under better lighting. You know what happened to Grig of Armot when he bought that blasted magical model of a Mulhorandi pyramid at the magefair. Still trapped inside, don’t you know. Why, his own son—also named Grig, I believe …”

Without breaking off his narrative of the elder Grig’s unhappy fate, the white-haired man lowered a sack full of less spectacular artifacts recovered from the ruins, then hefted the stump of a torch. The wood burst into flame, filling the circular chamber with light. On the ceiling, the creature tried to shrink back into the shadows. Finding none, it froze, hungry yet frightened by the dagger Artus wielded.

“Pontifax,” Artus whispered, “it’s absolutely priceless. I’ve never seen its like.” He stood transfixed by the artifact, his gloved fingers held perilously close to its surface.

The glittering silver statue stood about two feet tall. The figure, despite the extra pair of arms extruding from its sides, was human and clad in the sandals and loincloth still favored by the natives of Mulhorand. A simple circlet rested upon its brow, as if to make up for the utterly bald pate. Around the statue’s base, a series of complicated picture-glyphs marched in a regulated line.

“Can you read what it says?” Pontifax asked, leaning close. “Maybe it’ll tell you why a Mulhorandi statue is sitting in the basement of a ruined keep here in Cormyr.”

Artus shook his head. “The glyphs are older than any I’ve seen. I could make a guess, but …” He sheathed his dagger in his boot and rubbed the stubble on his chin. “I think you were right about this being magical, though. The silver isn’t tarnished in the least.”

At that instant, Pontifax’s lower back decided to voice a painful complaint. He straightened with a groan, just in time to glimpse a dark shape dropping quickly and silently from the ceiling high above. “Artus!” he cried.

Sir Hydel Pontifax had been a soldier forty years past, and a mage-for-hire for much of the time since then. His mind knew, therefore, that he should shield Artus from the first assault. After all, the younger man had his back to the attacker and was still resting in a crouch, a terrible position to launch any kind of respectable defense. Sadly, Pontifax’s body could only vaguely follow the orders his mind rattled off; he took a single step toward Artus, but instead of shielding him, the mage knocked his comrade into the pillar.

A colorful curse half-formed on his lips, Artus felt his shoulder strike the stone pillar and that stone give way just slightly. It was enough. The silver statue tottered on its base, then toppled. Had Artus’s reflexes been as dulled as Pontifax’s, he might have saved himself a great deal of trouble. Yet Artus was still a young man, just over thirty-five winters old. His mind told him to save the priceless statue from harm, and his hands did just that.

As the multi-eyed creature slammed into Pontifax, the statue touched Artus’s skin. A flash of silvery light filled the room. The explorer could only hope that he’d broken the artifact’s fall, since the flash left his eyes useless and the statue had somehow slipped from his grasp. He didn’t bother to grope about for the lost artifact, though. What concerned him more was the sound of a scuffle going on close at hand.

“Pontifax?” Artus asked, stumbling to his feet.

“Behind you, my boy,” came the reply. “Seems this blasted creature wants us for dinner.”

An animalistic growl followed, as did the sound of a body hitting the floor. Artus drew his dagger and waved it before him. With his other hand he rubbed his eyes, hoping to banish the moving blotches of light that clouded his vision. “Pontifax?”

No answer came, only the scrape of a heavy object being dragged across the dirty stone.

When Artus’s eyes cleared, he saw that the room was dark save for the wan light cast by his blade. The smoking stump of Pontifax’s torch lay on the ground nearby, next to the toppled pillar. From there, a wide trail of disturbed dust and rubble led to the doorway. Artus tensed for a confrontation, then took a step toward the dark archway.

“Blasted creature,” came Pontifax’s voice from the hallway.

“Thank Tymora’s luck, you’re all right,” Artus breathed. As he took a step into the hall, he moved to once more sheathe his dagger. “How about a little light, my—”

It was not Pontifax awaiting Artus. The mage was laid out in a bloodied heap, his steady breathing rising from his nose like puffs from a steam kettle. No, the multi-eyed creature squatted there, repeating Artus’s name with the voice of his old friend. Fortunately, Artus’s dagger was still bared. The light it cast was sufficient for him to get a very clear look at the stunningly ugly thing before it sprang.

Two legs and two arms radiated out from a round torso. Its skin was dark and smooth, as devoid of hair as the silver statue’s pate. Like its body, the beast’s head was bulbous and bloated, with sixteen heavy-lidded, evil looking eyes scattered about it. The source of its noiseless flight became clear the moment it moved an arm; a thin, almost transparent membrane stretched from this appendage to its side. The creature flaunted long, dirty claws and needlelike teeth.

Later, Artus would facetiously describe the beast as looking quite a bit like the animals made by street entertainers in Halruaa, using gas-filled bags they called balloons. Actually, the thing was just very well fed, having killed every man, elf, goblin, or orc foolish enough to wander into the depths of the ruined keep. And it was fully intent upon adding Artus Cimber and Hydel Pontifax to that sad roster.

Using the same tactic that had worked so well on the elder man, the creature leaped at Artus in an attempt to bowl him over. The explorer sidestepped the beast’s lunge, then planted a vicious kick to its stomach—at least to where he assumed its stomach to be. Anatomy aside, Artus knew he’d hit something vulnerable from the almost-human groan the blow elicited. That noise, too, sounded like Pontifax. The thing most likely picked the noise up when it clubbed the poor old fellow, Artus decided morbidly.

Keeping a wary eye on the glowing dagger, the creature stumbled to its feet. It crouched again, preparing for another go at Artus.

“Just so long as my friend’s none the worse for it, we can call this over right now,” Artus said. “If the statue’s yours, we’ll gladly leave it here.” He hoped to see the glimmer of intellect in any of the sixteen eyes squinting at him. He didn’t.

They circled each other now. Arms outstretched, claws and dagger raised, they looked for all the world like two young hoodlums dueling in a back alley in Suzail or Waterdeep or any other large city in Faerun. Artus gave up hope that the creature might be intelligent enough to reason with when it started repeating the words “none the worse for it” using his own voice. It was most unsettling.

Artus edged toward the door, hoping to catch another glimpse of his friend. He kept the dagger held before him in much the same way a good priest presents a holy symbol to the forces of darkness.

This ploy was too much for the creature. To its limited intellect, it was obvious that the meal with the glowing weapon was going to pilfer its food. Desperate at losing both victims, it let its hunger override its fear. The cry the beast made as it lunged possessed no fragment of mimicked human speech, only bestial outrage and fury.

Artus, too, made an inhuman noise as he choked back a shout of surprise. When the beast charged forward, he planted one hand atop its head, breaking its momentum. With the other he planted his dagger up to the hilt in the creature’s chest. The force of the blow lifted the beast off the ground. Artus expected it to shriek in pain or, perhaps, topple over. It did neither. It remained stock-still for an instant and looked at the weapon embedded in its flesh, almost as if it, too, was surprised that the attack had done little except spill some bluish gray blood.

Weaponless, Artus backed away, wishing he had struck at its stomach. The creature knew now it had little to fear, and it grabbed one of Artus’s arms with its long fingers. Dirt-encrusted claws tore five holes in the explorer’s thick winter coat and five bloody gouges in the skin below. With the flat of his palm, Artus struck the beast in the forehead. Far from being blinded by the attack, the creature growled in anger. Its eyes seemed as immune to damage as its chest. Teeth dripping with saliva, it opened its mouth-wide, wider—and moved toward Artus.

“See here, you damned nuisance,” Pontifax mumbled from the doorway. A glowing ball of light appeared near the ceiling, illuminating the entire room.

The creature turned its head just in time to see an azure bolt flash from the mage’s stubby fingers. The blast of arcane energy did not strike the beast and paralyze it, as Pontifax had intended. No, the bolt swerved violently around its target and struck Artus in the chest. But it did not paralyze him either.

With a shudder, Artus began to grow.

In moments, he was twice his normal six feet. In an instant more, three times that height. He had to drop to his side to avoid the roof, and still he continued to grow.

Needless to say, the creature was suitably flustered. Its viselike grip broken by Artus’s rapid change in size, the beast tried to clamp its jaws down on him. All it got for the attempt was a mouthful of wool-lined leather. Gagging, for Artus’s clothing also continued to expand, the creature rolled about the floor. At last it spit out the shredded garment. Without pause, it clambered over Artus’s legs and dashed past Pontifax. The magical dagger, dislodged by the creature’s haste, clattered to the floor.

“Make me stop before I bring the roof down,” Artus shouted, his voice rumbling through the room. His head was propped uncomfortably against one wall, his feet just short of the other. He stopped growing just before his heels touched stone.

“Thanks,” the explorer murmured. “Now, can you see about getting me down to normal height before that thing comes back with its friends and family?”

“I didn’t stop your growth, Artus, just as I didn’t cause it. The spell I cast was aimed at the beastie, not you, and it should have frozen him in his tracks. This shouldn’t have happened.” Pontifax rubbed his chin, a frown on his jowl-heavy face. “Let me come around and take a look at you.”

The mage squeezed through the space between Artus’s feet and the wall. His frown was matched by the one on the younger man’s face, though Artus’s was four times larger. Hydel walked slowly from one end of the room to the other, studying the unfortunate giant. “Ah, there’s the culprit, I would imagine.”

He pointed at the gaping hole in the front of Artus’s coat, where the creature had bitten through. There, dangling on a fine silver chain, was a medallion emblazoned with the image of a bald, four-armed man. The silver disk gave off a wan white radiance, even in the direct glare of Pontifax’s conjured globe of light. “You touched that Mulhorandi statue, didn’t you?”

“Oh no!” Artus opened the collar of his coat and tried to remove the chain. It wouldn’t budge.

“Leave it alone, Artus.”

“But we can’t leave me—”

“I need to think about this for a moment,” the mage said. “Now, be a good soldier and stand down.” His command had a biting edge, one gained from years in the Cormyrian army. Though the young man’s frown deepened, he did as he was told.

Pontifax nodded and studied the medallion for a time. “Does it burn where it touches your skin?”

“No.”

“Tingle?”

“No.”

“Hmmmm.” The mage steepled his fingers and stared at the silver disk. Then he stepped forward, murmured a few words of magic, and grabbed the medallion’s edge. Nothing happened.

That experiment complete, Pontifax dusted a patch of floor and sat down. “The statue itself is gone, so it must have transformed somehow. I don’t think it’s got a curse on it, so the chain probably won’t constrict until it strangles you or some such grisly thing. Still, the enchantment’s not altogether friendly. It must have warped my spell somehow, just to make you grow.”

Artus examined the medallion. “At least that little stunt frightened away the creature.”

Pontifax nodded. “As I said, I don’t think the thing’s cursed. Still, it would be best if we found a wizard more familiar with Mulhorandi magic before we try to remove it.”

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