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DRAGONS OF A Fallen Sun
By Margaret Weis
Wizards OF THE COAST The Song of Death
Copyright © 2000 Wizards of the Coast, Inc..
All rights reserved.
The dwarves named the valley Gamashinochthe Song of Death. None of the living walked here of their own free will. Those who entered did so out of desperation, dire need, or because they had been ordered to do so by their commanding officer
They had been listening to the "song" for several hours as their advance brought them nearer and nearer the desolate valley. The song was eerie, terrible. Its words, which were never clearly heard, never quite distinguishable-at least not with the earsspoke of death and worse than death. The song spoke of entrapment, bitter frustration, unending torment. The song was a lament, a song of longing for a place the soul remembered, a haven of peace and bliss now unattainable.
On first hearing the mournful song, the Knights had reined in their steeds, hands reaching for their swords as they stared about them in unease, crying "what is that?" and "who goes there?"
But no one went there. No one of the living. The `Knights looked at their commander, who stood up in his stirrups, inspecting the cliffs that soared above them on their right and the left.
"It is nothing," he said at last. "The wind among the rocks. Proceed."
He urged his horse forward along the road, which ran, turning and twisting, through the mountains known as the Lords of Doom. The men under hiscommand followed single file, the pass was too narrow for the mounted patrol to ride abreast.
"I have heard the wind before, my lord," said one Knight gruffly, "and it has yet to have a human voice. It warns us to stay away. We would do well to heed it."
"Nonsense!" Talon Leader Ernst Magit swung around in his saddle to glare at his scout and second-in-command, who walked behind him. "Superstitious claptrap! But then you minotaurs are noted for clinging to old, outmoded ways and ideas. It is time you entered the modern era. The gods are gone, and good riddance, I say. We humans rule the world."
A single voice, a woman's voice, had first sung the Song of Death. Now her voice was joined by a fearful chorus of men, women, and children raised in a dreadful chant of hopeless loss and misery that echoed among the mountains.
At the doleful sound, several of the horses balked, refused to go farther, and, truth told, their masters did little to urge them.
Magit's horse shied and danced. He dug his spurs into the horse's flanks, leaving great bloody gouges, and the horse sulked forward, head lowered, ears twitching. Talon Leader Magit rode about half a mile when it occurred to him that he did not hear other hoof beats. Glancing around, he saw that he was proceeding alone. None of his men had followed.
Furious, Magit turned and galloped back to his command. He found half of his patrol dismounted, the other half looking very ill at ease, sitting astride horses that stood shivering on the road.
"The dumb beasts have more brains than their masters," said the minotaur from his place on the ground. Few horses will allow a minotaur to sit upon their backs and fewer still have the strength and girth to carry one of the huge minotaurs. Galdar was seven feet tall counting his horns. He kept up with the patrol, running easily alongside the stirrup of his commander.
Magit sat upon his horse, his hands on the pommel facing his men. He was a tall, excessively thin man, the type whose bones seem to be strung together with steel wire, for he was far stronger than he looked. His eyes were flat and watery blue, without intelligence, without depth. He was noted for his cruelty, his inflexiblemany would say mindlessdiscipline, and his complete and total devotion to a single cause: Ernst Magit.
"You will mount your horses and you will ride after me," said Talon Leader Magit coldly, "or I will report each and every one of you to the groupcommander. I will accuse you of cowardice and betrayal of the Vision and mutiny. As you know, the penalty for even one of those counts is death."
"Can he do that?" whispered a newly made Knight on his first assignment.
"He can," returned the veterans grimly, "and he will."
The Knights remounted and urged their steeds forward, using their spurs. They were forced to circle around the minotaur, Galdar, who remained standing in the center of the road.
"Do you refuse to obey my command, minotaur?" demanded Magit angrily. "Think well before you do so. You may be the protege of the Protector of the Skull, but I doubt if even he could save you if I denounce you to the Council as a coward and an oath-breaker."
Leaning over his horse's neck, Magit spoke in mock confidentiality. "And from what I hear, Galdar, your master might not be too keen on protecting you anymore. A one-armed minotaur. A minotaur whose own kind view him with pity and with scorn. A minotaur who has been reduced to the position of `scout.' And we all know that they assigned you to that post only because they had to do something with you. Although I did hear it suggested that they turn you out to pasture with the rest of the cows."
Galdar clenched his fist, his remaining fist, driving the sharp nails into his flesh. He knew very well that Magit was baiting him, goading him into a fight. Here, where there would be few witnesses. Here where Magit could kill the crippled minotaur and return home to claim that the fight had been a fair and glorious one. Galdar was not particularly attached to life, not since the loss of his sword arm had transformed him from fearsome warrior to plodding scout. But he'd be damned if he was going to die at the hands of Ernst Magit. Galdar wouldn't give his commander the satisfaction.
The minotaur shouldered his way past Ernst Magit, who watched him with a sneer of contempt upon his thin lips.
The patrol continued toward their destination, hoping to reach it while there was yet sunlightif one could term the chill gray light that warmed nothing it touched sunlight. The Song of Death wailed and mourned. One of the new recruits rode with tears streaming down his cheeks. The veterans rode hunkered down, shoulders hunched up around their ears, as if they would block out the sound. But even if they had stuffed their ears with tow, even if they had blown out their eardrums, they would have still heard the terrible song.
The Song of Death sang in the heart.
The patrol rode into the valley that was called Neraka.
In a time past memory, the goddess Takhisis, Queen of Darkness, laid in the southern end of the valley a foundation stone, rescued from the blasted temple of the Kingpriest of Istar. The foundation stone began to grow, drawing upon the evil in the world to give it life. The stone grew into a temple, vast and awful; a temple of magnificent, hideous darkness.
Takhisis planned to use this temple to return to the world from which she'd been driven by Huma Dragonbane, but her way was blocked by love and self-sacrifice. Nevertheless she had great power, and she launched a war upon the world that came near to destroying it. Her evil commanders, like a pack of wild dogs, fell to fighting among themselves. A band of heroes rose up. Looking into their hearts, they found the power to thwart her, defeat her, and cast her down. Her temple at Neraka was destroyed, blasted apart in her rage at her downfall.
The temple's walls exploded and rained down from the skies on that terrible day, huge black boulders that crushed the city of Neraka. Cleansing fires destroyed the buildings of the cursed city, burned down its markets and its slave pens, its numerous guard houses, filling its twisted, mazelike streets with ash.
Over fifty years later, no trace of the original city remained. The splinters of the temple's bones littered the floor of the southern portion of the valley of Neraka. The ash had long since blown away. Nothing would grow in this part of the valley. All sign of life had long been covered up by the swirling sands.
Only the black boulders, remnants of the temple, remained in the valley. They were an awful sight, and even Talon Leader Magit, gazing upon them for the first time, wondered privately if his decision to ride into this part of the valley had been a smart one. He could have taken the long route around, but that would have added two days to his travel, and he was late as it was, having spent a few extra nights with a new whore who had arrived at his favorite bawdyhouse. He needed to make up time, and he'd chosen as his shortcut this route through the southern end of the valley.
Perhaps due to the force of the explosion, the black rock that had formed the outer walls of the temple had taken on a crystalline structure. Jutting up from the sand, the boulders were not craggy, not lumpy. They were smooth-sided, with sharply defined planes culminating in faceted points. Imagine black quartz crystals jutting up from gray sand, some four times the height of a man. Such a man could see his reflection in those glossy black planes, a reflection that was distorted, twisted, yet completely recognizable as being a reflection of himself.
These men had willingly joined up with the army of the Knights of Takhisis, tempted by the promises of loot and slaves won in battle, by their own delight in killing and bullying, by their hatred of elves or kender or dwarves or anyone different from themselves. These men, long since hardened against every good feeling, looked into the shining black plane of the crystals and were appalled by the faces that looked back. For on those faces they could see their mouths opening to sing the terrible song.
Most looked and shuddered and quickly averted their gaze. Galdar took care not to look. At first sight of the black crystals rising from the ground, he had lowered his eyes, and he kept them lowered out of reverence and respect. Call it superstition, as Ernst Magit most certainly would. The gods themselves were not in this valley. Galdar knew that to be impossible; the gods had been driven from Krynn more than thirty years ago. But the ghosts of the gods lingered here, of that Galdar was certain.
Ernst Magit looked at his reflection in the rocks, and simply because he Shrank from it inwardly, he forced himself to stare at it until he had stared it down.
"I will not be cowed by the sight of my own shadow!" he said with a meaningful glance at Galdar. Magit had only recently thought up this bovine humor. He considered it extremely funny and highly original, and he lost no opportunity to use it. "Cowed. Do you get it, minotaur?" Ernst Magit laughed.
The death song swept up the man's laughter and gave it melody and tonedark, off key, discordant, opposing the rhythm of the other voices of the song. The sound was so horrible that Magit was shaken. He coughed, swallowed his laughter, much to the relief of his men.
"You have brought us here, Talon Leader," said Galdar. "We have seen that this part of the valley is uninhabited, that no force of Solamnics hides here, prepared to sweep down on us. We may proceed toward our objective safe in the knowledge that we have nothing from the land of the living to fear from this direction. Let us now leave this place, and swiftly. Let us turn back and make our report."
The horses had entered the southern valley with such reluctance that in some cases their riders had been forced to dismount again and cover their eyes and guide them, as if from a burning building. Both man and beast were clearly eager to be gone. The horses edged their way back toward the road by which they'd arrived, their riders sidling along with them.
Ernst Magit wanted to leave this place as much as any of them. It was for precisely that reason that he decided they would stay. He was a coward at heart. He knew he was a coward. All his life, he'd done deeds to prove to himself that he wasn't. Nothing truly heroic. Magit avoided danger when at all possible, one reason he was riding patrol duty and not joining with the other Knights of Neraka to lay siege to the Solamnic-controlled city of Sanction. He undertook to perform cheap, petty actions and deeds that involved no risk to himself but that would prove to himself and to his men he wasn't afraid. A deed such as spending the night in this cursed valley.
Magit made a show of squinting up at the sky, which was a pale and unwholesome yellow, a peculiar shade, such as none of the Knights had ever before seen.
"It is now twilight," he announced sententiously. "I do not want to find myself benighted in the mountains. We will make camp here and ride out in the morning."
The Knights stared at their commander incredulously, appalled. The wind had ceased to blow. The song no longer sang in their hearts. Silence settled over the valley, a silence that was at first a welcome change but that they were growing to loathe the longer it lasted. The silence weighed on them, oppressed them, smothered them. None spoke. They waited for their commander to tell them he'd been playing a little joke on them.
Talon Leader Magit dismounted his horse. "We will set up camp here. Pitch my command tent near the tallest of those monoliths. Galdar, you're in charge of setting up camp. I trust you can handle that simple task?"
His words seemed unnaturally loud, his voice shrill and raucous. A breath of air, cold and sharp, hissed through the valley, swept the sand into dust devils that swirled across the barren ground and whispered away.
"You are making a mistake, sir," said Galdar in a soft undertone, to disturb the silence as little as possible. "We are not wanted here."
"Who does not want us, Galdar?" Talon Leader Magit sneered. "These rocks?" He slapped the side of a black crystal monolith. "Ha! What a thick-skulled, superstitious cow!" Magit's voice hardened. "You men. Dismount and begin setting up camp. That is an order."
Ernst Magit stretched his limbs, making a show of being relaxed. He bent double at the waist, did a few limbering exercises. The Knights, sullen and unhappy, did as he commanded. They unpacked their saddle roils, began setting up the small, two-man tents carried by half the patrol. The others unpacked food and water.
The tents were a failure. No amount of hammering could drive the iron spikes into the hard ground. Every blow of the hammer reverberated among the mountains, came back to them amplified a hundred times, until it seemed as if the mountains were hammering on them.
Galdar threw down his mallet, which he had been awkwardly wielding with his remaining hand.
"What's the matter, minotaur?" Magit demanded. "Are you so weak you can't drive a tent stake?"
"Try it yourself, sir," said Galdar.
The other men tossed down their mallets and stood staring at their commander in sullen defiance.
Magit was pale with anger. "You men can sleep in the open if you are too stupid to pitch a simple tent!"
He did not, however, choose to try to hammer the tent stakes into the rocky floor. He searched around until he located four of the black, crystal monoliths that formed a rough, irregular square.
"Tie my tent to four of these boulders," he ordered. "At least I will sleep well this night."
Galdar did as he was commanded. He wrapped the ropes around the bases of the monoliths, all the while muttering a minotaur incantation meant to propitiate the spirits of the restless dead.
The men also endeavored to tie their horses to the monoliths, but the beasts plunged and bucked in panicked terror. Finally, the Knights strung a line between two of the monoliths and tied the horses up there. The horses huddled together, restive and nervous, rolling their eyes and keeping as far from the black rocks as possible.
While the men worked, Ernst Magit drew a map from his saddlebags and, with a final glare around to remind them of their duty, spread the map open and began studying it with a studious and unconcerned air that fooled no one. He was sweating, and he'd done no work.
Excerpted from DRAGONS OF A Fallen Sun by Margaret Weis. Copyright © 2000 by Wizards of the Coast, Inc.. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.