Authors: Richard Lee Byers
The Haunted Lands: Undead
Richard Lee Byers
11 Hammer-16 Ches, the Year of Blue Fire (1385 DR)
Sometimes even archmages have to wait, and so it was for Szass Tam, standing on the wide, flat roof of the castle’s highest tower. He passed the time gazing out at the chain of volcanic peaks his people called the Thaymount, at other fortresses perched on lofty crags, mining camps clustered around yawning pits and the black mouths of tunnels, and, here and there, leaping flame and trickling lava. The cold winter air smelled of ash.
Beyond the peaks lay farms and parklands, cloaked in snow. Except for the leaden overcast sky, which once would have seemed an aberration in a realm where sorcery managed the weather, the view was much as it had always been throughout Szass Tam’s extended existence.
He smiled appreciatively at the geography, as one smiles at a favored pet. During the first two years of the war, his troops had fought savagely to dislodge his enemies from their estates on the plateau, and in the wake of his army’s success, High Thay had
become his secure redoubt. His foes were evidently sensible enough to deem it unassailable, for they’d never sought to clamber up the towering cliffs of the Second Escarpment to challenge him. Rather, they fought him on the tablelands beneath, and on the lowlands between the First Escarpment and the sea.
Footsteps roused him from his musings. He turned toward the doorway and four blue-bearded frost giants shambled forth from the shadows beyond. The grayish tinge of their ivory skins, the slack-jawed imbecility of their expressions, and the smell of rot surrounding them identified them as zombies.
They carried a platform of oak affixed to two long poles. Atop the square surface was a transparent, nine-sided pyramid composed of crystallized mystical energy. Within it rested Thakorsil’s Seat, a high stone chair with arms carved in the shapes of dragons. Seated thereon was Yaphyll, a woman of youthful appearance, small for a member of the long-limbed Mulan aristocracy, with an impish face.
As the zombie giants set her down, Yaphyll shifted and adjusted her robe. “As litter bearers,” she said, “your servants lack a certain delicacy of touch. Especially when carrying their passenger up flight after flight of stairs.”
“I apologize,” Szass Tam replied, “but I hoped you’d enjoy a change of scenery. Aren’t fresh air and this magnificent vista worth a bit of bouncing around?”
“If you had only freed me from the pyramid,” she said, “I would have been happy to walk up under my own power. After so much sitting, I would have enjoyed the exercise.”
“I’m sure you would,” he replied, “just as I’m sure that you would have found some way to turn the situation to your advantage. That’s why I took the trouble to confine you in a prison built to hold an infernal prince.”
“I appreciate the compliment. Someday I hope to show you how much.”
“No doubt. Meanwhile, consider the view.” He waved his hand at the mountains and the shadowed gorges between. “This is the highest point in all Thay. Legend has it that a person can gaze out from here and observe everything transpiring across the land. That’s nonsense, of course, or at least it is for most of us. But I wonder what the eyes of the realm’s greatest oracle can see.”
“Burnt villages and plundered towns,” Yaphyll said. “Fields returning to wilderness. Famine. Plague. Armies preparing for another season of ruinous war.”
“I had hoped you’d grace me with a genuine exhibition of your skills, not a banal recitation of common knowledge.”
“As you wish.” She sketched a sign on the air. Her fingertip left a shimmering green trail. “Some of your troops are besieging a castle east of Sekelmur. A company of our raiders has attacked a caravan of supply wagons on the Sur Road. Neither action looks important, but then, they never are decisive, are they? Thus the game drags on and on and on.”
“Perhaps if we work together, we can change that.”
“I’m willing to try. That was why I forsook the other zulkirs and joined you. Anything to shift the balance of power, break the stalemate, and bring the war to an end before it cripples the realm beyond recovery.”
“I had no idea your motives were so patriotic. I thought you simply decided I was going to prevail and preferred to be on the winning side.”
Yaphyll grinned. “Perhaps there was a bit of that as well.”
“Yet eventually you elected to turn your cloak again, and nearly succeeded in slipping away. Because you found my strategy and resources less impressive than expected?”
“Not exactly. But the stalemate endured, and in time I realized I’d rather stand with the living than the dead. With lords who, whatever their excesses, refrain from massacring their own subjects to turn them into ghoul and zombie soldiers.”
Szass Tam shrugged. “It was scarcely indiscriminate slaughter. I only did it when necessary.”
“If you say so. At any rate, now that you’ve made me your prisoner, such details no longer concern me. I need to look after myself. So please free me, and I promise to serve you loyally.”
“And how could I possibly doubt your pledge, paragon of honesty and loyalty that you are?”
Yaphyll took a deep breath. “All right. If you feel that way about it, bind me into your service.”
“I’m afraid the usual ritual wouldn’t take, at least not permanently. It’s one thing to shackle a common Red Wizard, but another to trammel the mind of the zulkir of the Order of Divination.”
“Then turn me into a lich or one of your vampires, something your necromancy can control. Better that than to stay in this box!”
“I’ve considered that, but the passage from life into undeath alters the mind, sometimes subtly, sometimes significantly. I won’t risk compromising the clarity of your vision. Not yet. We have a war to win.”
“If you won’t release me from the chair, I won’t help you.”
“Please, don’t be childish. Of course you will.”
He held out his hand and the Death Moon Orb appeared in his palm. Coils of black and purple swam on the surface of the sphere. The orb changed size from time to time. Currently, it was as big as a man’s head, which made it seem an awkward burden in such a frail-looking hand. But despite their withered, mummified appearancethe only visible sign of his undead conditionSzass Tam’s fingers were deft and strong, and he managed the sphere easily.
He lifted the orb to the level of Yaphyll’s eyes. “Look at it,” he said.
She did. The power of the orb had compelled her into Thakorsil’s Seat, and she found it as irresistible as before.
“You will tell me,” he said, “when and where to meet the legions of the other zulkirs in battle to win that decisive victory which has thus far eluded us all. I command you to cast the most powerful divination known to your order, no matter the peril to your body, mind, or soul.”
“Curse you!” Yaphyll gasped.
“I’m sure you will if you ever get the chance. But for now, does the spell require arcane ingredients? I daresay my own stock contains whatever you may require.”
“Eanacolo.” Yaphyll spat. “Haunspeir. Dreammist. Redflower leaves. The eyes of an eagle, a beholder, and a medusa. A mortar and pestle, and a goblet of clear water.”
That combination of narcotics and poisons would kill any living woman under normal circumstances. Szass Tam wondered if it would kill her, too, or if her mastery of her art would enable her to survive. It would be interesting to see.
He sent a pair of apprentices to fetch the spell ingredients, then opened the pyramid long enough to hand them to her. Her features twisted with reluctance, she then proceeded with the ritual.
Gray fumes of dreammist twisted through the air. Yaphyll chanted as she pulped and powdered the other items one by one, then stirred them into her cup. When she’d mixed everything, she shouted a final rhyme, raised the cup, and drank the narcotic concoction.
She convulsed so violently that only the magic of Thakorsil’s Seat kept her upright, thrashing against that invisible restraint. Her dainty fist clenched and the pewter goblet crumpled. Then her fingers relaxed and the ruined cup slipped from her grip to clank on the oak platform. Her body slumped and her head lolled to the side.
“Are you still conscious?” asked Szass Tam. “If so, tell me what you see.”
Yaphyll blinked and sat up straighter. “I see …” “What? I explained what I need.”
She shuddered, bumping her head against the high back of the chair, and then the shaking subsided. “Come spring, send word to Hezass Nymar that you mean to march the legions of High Thay to lay siege to the Keep of Sorrows. Summon him and his legions to rendezvous with you there.”
Szass Tam frowned. Hezass Nymar, the tharchion of the province of Lapendrar, had switched sides five times since the war for control of Thay had begun, which branded him as faithless and unreliable even by the shabby standards of this chaotic conflict. “Such an assault would put my strongest army deep in enemy territory, drawn up in front of a formidable fortress, with the River Lapendrar and the First Escarpment limiting our mobility. On first inspection, I don’t see that idea’s merit.”
Yaphyll grinned, a flicker of her usual impudence shining through the daze induced by magic, drugs, and poison. “You’re right to be skeptical, for Hezass Nymar is about to change sides again. He’ll betray your intentions to the Council of Zulkirs, and if he opts to march his army to the battle, it will be to fight on their side.”
Szass Tam nodded. “I doubt I would have blundered into this trap in the first place, but I appreciate the warning. Still, it isn’t the answer to my question. When and where can I bring your peers to battle to tip the balance in my favor for good and all?”
Yaphyll’s back arched, and she raised her trembling hands before her face as if she meant to claw at it. “You have your answer. The other zulkirs will leap at the chance to catch you. They’ll field every soldier who can reach the Keep of Sorrows in time. But, knowing the situation is a snare, you can plan accordingly. You can turn it around against your enemies, and when you defeat such a large number, you’ll cripple them.”
“Interesting.” It seemed a mad scheme altogether, and yet
Szass Tam knew that where augury was concerned, she was a better wizard than he was. He was also confident that, compelled by the Death Moon Orb, she couldn’t lie. What if
Yaphyll’s laughter jarred him. Or perhaps she was sobbing.
“The white queen is troubled,” she said, “but can’t say why.”
“What queen is that?” Szass Tam asked, without any sense of urgency. Since Thay didn’t have kings or queens, the remark was cryptic, seemingly without relevance to his question. Now that Yaphyll had obeyed his command, he suspected her mystical sight had drifted to some unrelated matter.
“The black queen hates the white,” Yaphyll continued, “and gives the assassin a black cloak. The assassin steals up on the white queen. She can’t see him gliding through the shadows.”
“Who are these people?” asked Szass Tam.
“The sword screams,” Yaphyll continued. “The white queen falls. Her city falls. Stones fall in the cavern to crush the soothsayer.”
“It sounds like a bad day all around.”
“The tree burns,” Yaphyll said, “and thrashes in agony. Branches break. Branches twist and grow togeth”
Tendrils of blue flame erupted down the length of her body, from her hairless scalp to the tips of her toes. She screamed and thrashed.
Szass Tam took a step back. Had her spell escaped her control? He’d save her from the consequences if he could, in the hope she’d prove useful again. He spoke the word that dissolved the crystal pyramid into a fading shimmer, then prepared to conjure a splash of water.
The flames went out of their own accord, leaving behind spots where flesh, silk, and velvet had melted and flowed like wax. Indifferent to the bizarre injuries, Yaphyll giggled and rose from Thakorsil’s Seat.
Szass Tam was astonished, but didn’t delay. He thrust the Death Moon Orb at her. “Sit down.”
“Thank you,” she said, “but I’d rather stand. You bade me split myself in two, and send one half into tomorrow. Your silly globe can’t touch that half.”
She waved her hand and a gout of acid flew at him and splashed across his chest. But fortunately, he was never without his defenses, and although much of his robe sizzled and steamed away, he felt only a little stinging.
Which didn’t mean he was inclined to let her try again. He lunged at her and grabbed her by the wrist.
When he willed it, his grip could paralyze, and she stiffened as he expected. But then, to his chagrin, he sensed the life vanish from her body like a blown-out candle flame. After the poison she’d already taken, the malignancy of a lich’s touch had proved an unendurable strain. Such a waste.
He dropped her and turned to the zombie giants. “Return Thakorsil’s Seat to its chamber,” he said, “then take this corpse to Xingax.”
For his part, Yaphyll had left him with a mystery to ponder and, he supposed, a campaign to plan.
“It knows we’re coming,” Brightwing said.
As he often did when they flew by night, Aoth Fezim had married his senses to the griffon’s. Even so, he couldn’t tell how she knew, but he didn’t doubt her.
“Is it in the air, too?” he asked, adjusting his grip on the spear that served him as both warrior’s weapon and wizard’s staff.
“I can’t tell yet,” Brightwing said, then hissed when the base of her right wing gave her a twinge.
With their minds coupled, Aoth felt it too. “Are you all right?” he asked.
“Are you sure?” He’d almost lost her last autumn, when one of Szass Tam’s undead champions drove its sword deep into her body, and he didn’t want to take her into battle if she hadn’t fully recovered.
“Yes! Now stop fretting like a senile old granny and tell your friends what I told you.”
She was righthe needed to relay the information. His familiar spoke Mulhorandi, but with a beak and throat poorly shaped for human speech, and for the most part, only her master could understand her.
Flying on his own griffon, Bareris Anskuld acknowledged the warning with a curt nod. As the bard’s fair complexion and lanky frame attested, he was of Mulan stock, but he sported a tangled mane of blond hair that shone bone white in the moonlight. He’d abandoned the habit of shaving his head during his travels abroad and had never taken it up again.