Authors: Troy Denning
Return of the Archwizards, Book One
Nightal, the Year of the Unstrung Harp (1371 DR)
Like every burial cairn Galaeron Nihmedu had ever entered, this one stank of the bodies and breath of those who had opened it. The air was permeated by the odor of saddle soap and camp smoke, and the reek of musty human armpits and sour human breath. What Galaeron did not smell was blood, which meant these crypt breakers were more skillful than most. Usually at least three fell to traps and magic during the entranceway excavation.
As Galaeron led his patrol deeper into the cairn, his dark sight began to illuminate the passage walls in shades of cool blue. Inscribed into the flat wall stones were ancient elven glyphs recounting the lives and deeds of the ones buried within. Like most entrance tunnels, this one was low and narrow, with just enough height to stand upright and barely enough room for an elf s slender shoulders. How the burly humans had found room in the cramped space to clear the corridor he could not imagine, but they had deftly spanned the death pits with rough hewn planks and braced the deadfalls with oak posts.
Galaeron followed the tunnel to the burial chamber. He was surprised to find the room both quiet and dark, given that a pair of his elves were outside guarding twenty shaggy horses and three red-faced sentries. Nor could there be any doubt the humans had reached the crypt. The bronze shield that had once served as a door had been melted almost into nothingness, a crude but effective entry that hinted at plenty of magic.
Galaeron slipped cautiously into the chamber. Seven elf dead lay undisturbed on their ancient biers, their flesh and hair perfectly preserved by the crypt’s now shattered magic. Their bejeweled weapons and gold-trimmed armor were lying untouched beneath a thick layer of dust. By their amber skin and ornate bronze armor, Galaeron knew these to be Aryvandaaran nobles, high lords of the aggressive Vyshaan clan who had touched off the First Crown War and plunged the entire elf race into three thousand years of carnage. Though he wished them no peace in their sleep, he would bring their crypt breakers to justice. As a tomb guard, he had sworn to protect all elven burials.
In the tomb’s far corner, Galaeron found a knotted rope leading down into a freshly opened hole. The shaft had been excavated by the same magic that destroyed the bronze door, for there was no dirt or rubble heaped around the collar. Trying to imagine what the greedy humans might be seeking down there more valuable than the priceless armor and enchanted weapons of the Vyshaan lords, he led the patrol down the rope.
Thirty feet later, the shaft opened into a labyrinth of low, square-cut dwarven tunnels. By the looks of the working, it had been old when Evereska was young. Dust clung to the walls two fingers thick and lay on the floor a foot deep. The humans’ path twined its way eastward through the powder, looking for all the world like a trail through snow.
Galaeron sent two scouts ahead, then, as the last faint light from outside faded, he took a pinch of Stardust from his pocket and flung it into the corridor ahead. Though the phosphorescent dust was too faint to be seen by humans, it provided light enough for the sensitive eyes of elves. Recalling the care his quarry had displayed in defeating the crypt traps, he ordered a three-elf rear guard to follow behind. Stooping almost double beneath the low dwarven ceiling, the patrol moved into blackness. Galaeron left his sword in its scabbard and took his customary position three places back from the leader. Though all tomb guards could fight with both spell and steel, he usually served as the patrol’s primary magic-user. Not only was his magic more versatile than that of most elves, he had learned in his few battles that crypt breakers often targeted spell-flingers first, and he preferred to shoulder that burden himself.
The human trail ran eastward for a thousand yards, circling past a dozen ancient cave-ins. Narrow seams of sand began to appear in the ceiling, suggesting to Galaeron’s experienced eye that they had crossed under Anauroch itself. Not long after, the distant clatter of falling rock started to echo through the tunnels, and his favorite scout returned to report.
We must be careful with these spiders. They look to have venom. A svelte Wood elf with a cupid’s bow smile and brown eyes the size of a doe’s, Takari Moonsnow’s slender hands streaked through the near darkness in finger talk. And their pet has fangs of its own.
Pet? Galaeron’s fingers weaved a basket of lines before him. What kind of pet?
Takari smiled coyly. Better you should see for yourself
She spun away and started up the passage, leaving Galaeron knowing little more than he had before her report. He shook his head and followed. If he wanted a Wood elf for a scout, Takari had to be allowed her fun.
Aragath, the second scouta moon elflay near the inside wall of a gentle curve, his head silhouetted against a flickering blue glow that filled the tunnel ahead. The clatter of falling rock was louder, punctuated by the gruff talk of men at work. Galaeron lay on his belly and crawled up beside Aragath. After stooping so long, it was a relief to stretch out on the floor even if it did mean breathing through his fingers so the dust did not make him sneeze.
Galaeron peered around the corner and almost cried out in shock. Less than ten paces away hovered a leathery orb of gray-green flesh, nearly three feet in diameter and shaped more or less like a head. A huge eye bulged out from the center of its face, and beneath that gaped an enormous mouth filled with sharp teeth. Atop its pate writhed ten thick tentacles, each ending in a single bulbous eye. Nine of these tentacles had been folded over a small length of wood and bound so that the eyes could look only at the top of the gruesome head. The tenth tentacle was sweeping back and forth, spraying a brilliant blue beam across a four foot width of stone wall. Wherever the light touched, six inches of stone deteriorated into yellow smoke.
Galaeron swallowed, hardly able to believe what he saw. The creature was an eye tyrant, one of the rarest and most feared killers of the Underdark. Galaeron had never fought one himself, but he had seen a trophy specimen in the Evereskan Academy of Magic. According to the Histories, the monster had taken possession of King Sileron’s crypt in the Greycloak Hills, then gorged itself on two patrols of tomb guards before the great Kiinyon Colbathin finally killed it.
So stunned was Galaeron that he barely noticed the creature’s companions until a section of roof collapsed and several men crawled forward to clear the rubble. All were heavy-boned and huge, with thighs as large as an elf s waist and dark braids of hair swinging about their shoulders. Their high boots and battle-worn scale mail were trimmed in black sable, while the belts that girded their thick middles were made from white dragon scales.
As the men worked, the eye tyrant’s blue gaze drifted downward, cutting a swath of smoking emptiness inches above their backs. They dropped to their bellies and grunted something in a harsh, rasping language, then a small fist appeared on the other side of the monster and clasped one of its bound eyestalks. Though the hand was hairless and smooth, it was also strong, pulling so hard Galaeron thought the tentacle would pop off.
“Shatevar!” a voice called,
A female face appeared in the narrow gap between the ceiling and eye tyrant’s head. Her features were heavy and rough by elven standards, yet striking and surprisingly beautiful, with hair the color of honey and eyes as blue as tourmalines.
Her second hand came into view and pressed a dagger to the trapped eyestalk, then she said in Common, ‘Try that again, and I’ll make a cyclops of you.”
“Then keep your oafs out of my way.” The eye tyrant’s voice was deep and gurgling. “I’m too tired to watch them.”
‘Tired or dead, your choice.”
As the two argued, Galaeron tried to take count of the humans. Behind the eye tyrant stood two men holding what appeared to be glassy black swords. The weapons might have been obsidian, save that they were perfectly molded, with shadow-smooth blades and none of the conchoidal flaking marks he would have expected. Four more men squatted along the near wall, their scabbards resting across their knees. Judging by their shimmering pommels, these weapons were also made of black glass. It was impossible to see how many men might be lurking beyond the eye tyrant, for the brilliance of its disintegration beam washed out Galaeron’s dark sight. Still he did not think his patrol too badly outnumbered. There had only been twenty horses outside.
Galaeron backed away from the corner then issued his orders in finger talk. He did not relish trying to capture someone who made slaves of eye tyrants but had little choice in the matter. Word of such a strange encounter was bound to
circulate through Evereska, and any leeway given the humans would reflect badly on the entire patrol. The matter would not trouble Galaeron overmuch. It was his reputation as a malcontent that had landed him a posting along the Desert Border in the first place, but there were some among his elves who still hoped to make names for themselves in the Tomb Guard.
Once his warriors had readied themselves, Galaeron used a spell to turn himself and four more tomb guards invisible. Trusting the rest of the patrol to follow, he led the way around the corner, the magic of his boots smothering all sound as he skulked along opposite the crouching humans.
Unfortunately, even magic spells and elven boots could not keep dust from billowing when someone walked through it. Two paces from the eye tyrant, one of the humans pointed at the gray cloud around Galaeron’s feet and spoke in his harsh language. When the warrior started to rise, the heavy pulse of bow strings throbbed through the passage. Four white arrows streaked out of the empty air and struck their targets in the unarmored calves, the heads sinking only to the depth of a fingertip. The astonished humans leaped up, hanging their skullcaps on the low ceiling, then their eyelids rolled down and they collapsed facedown into the dust.
Rendered visible by their attacks, Takari and three more elves rushed forward, exchanging bows for swords and pausing to turn the heads of the sleeping warriors sideways so they would not smother in the thick dust. Behind them, another half dozen elf archers appeared in the low tunnel, three kneeling in front and three standing hunched behind them.
“Elves!” hissed the female human, still the only woman Galaeron saw in the band. A trio of threatening arrow tips appeared out of the darkness to each side of her broad shoulders, and she glared over the eye tyrant at Takari. “My men better be alive.”
“They are only sleepingas are the sentries you left outside,” Galaeron said. Trying not to let the woman’s apparent lack of alarm worry him, he annulled his invisibility spell. He
signaled Takari and the three elves with her to wait against the opposite wall, then waved at the sleeping men. These are now our prisonersas are you. Lay down your weapons and explain”
The interruption took Galaeron by surprise. “What?”
“I said no.” The woman spun the eye tyrant so that its largest eye faced Galaeron. “We will not lay down our weapons, and we have no need to explain anything to you.”
“You have broken a crypt,” he said. “In these lands, that gives you much to explain. Surrender now, or you will be the first to fall.”
The woman merely looked past Galaeron’s archers and called, “Sterad?”
A trio of muffled thumps sounded from the rear of the tunnel. Galaeron glanced back and was relieved to see his archers still standing. He was not so relieved to see a pair of burly human warriors standing behind them, looming over the unconscious bodies of the rear guard he had assigned to watch the patrol’s back.
“Your rear guard will have a few lumps when they wake,” said the woman. “Their headaches will trouble them no more than the wounds in the legs of my men.”
As she spoke, the front rank of elf archers spun on their knees to aim at the newcomers. The rear rank ignored the peril at their backs and continued to train their arrows on the woman. If she noticed, she did not seem to care. She said something in her own language to the two men who had delivered Galaeron’s rear guard, and they laid their black swords across their breasts. Though the move was not overtly threatening, Galaeron noticed that it placed their weapons at a good height for hacking his archers in the neck.
The woman looked back to Galaeron. “You’ve no idea what you’ve blundered into here, elf, but know I mean no harm to you or your people. You may leave while that remains so.”
“Pay her no heed, my princep,” said Louenghris, one of the archers in the rear rank and the patrol’s only Gold elf. “Let them cut my throat My aim will still be true.”
Thank you, Louenghris, but it won’t come to that,” said Galaeron, hiding his annoyance. At only a hundred and ten, Louenghris was the youngest of the patrol’s elves and still foolish enough to put the humans on their guard by inviting such things. Allowing a nugget of coal to drop from his sleeve into his palm, Galaeron looked back to the woman. “Perhaps you meant no harm, but in breaking the tomb’s seal, you have caused it. Now you must come before the erlagh aneghwai gilthrumr.”
Slipping smoothly into a spell incantation, he crushed the coal nugget and brought his hand forward. A fan of pink radiance shot from the eye tyrant’s huge central eye, speckling Galaeron’s vision with pale light. Even through the red spots in his eyes, he could see that the tunnel remained as bright as before.
The woman tapped her dagger above the monster’s huge central eye. “Haven’t fought many beholders, have you? Magic’s not much good around Shatevar.”
“I am aware of an eye tyrant’s power.” Galaeron lowered his gaze to address the creature directly. “But I had not heard they were such faithful slaves. We have no quarrel with you, Shatevar.”
Shatevar twisted his toothy maw into a sheepish grin. “Sadly, your warriors are not the ones holding darkswords to my back. Should that change, rest assured I will serve you as loyally as I have Vala.”