“Supercharged action and attention to detail that will undoubtedly satisfy Greenwood's core audience. There's more than enough arcane magic, pumped-up swordplay, and gory injury for the most dedicated gamer.” Quill & Quire on The Kingless Land
The Dragon's Doomby Ed Greenwood
The Serpent is vanquished, and the Dragon is dead ...but has the endless strife that kept Aglirta a Kingless Land finally ended?
Hawkril the mighty warrior, Embra the beautiful sorceress, and Craer the crafty thief mourn their lost companion, but now must forge new alliances in their role as overdukes of Aglirta, a land that has been torn asunder by double/i>
The Serpent is vanquished, and the Dragon is dead ...but has the endless strife that kept Aglirta a Kingless Land finally ended?
Hawkril the mighty warrior, Embra the beautiful sorceress, and Craer the crafty thief mourn their lost companion, but now must forge new alliances in their role as overdukes of Aglirta, a land that has been torn asunder by double-crossing royals, savage warlords, and sinister high priests.
Now the kingdom is threatened by a mystical berserker plague that is promoting anarchy among the citizenry while serpentine acolytes move in the shadows to try and resurrect a new Serpent.
Will a new dragon rise to vanquish it, and if so, who will it be, and can it avoid the fate of its predecessor?
The fate of Aglirta lies in balance in the triumphant conclusion of this cycle of Band of Four novels!
“Supercharged action and attention to detail that will undoubtedly satisfy Greenwood's core audience. There's more than enough arcane magic, pumped-up swordplay, and gory injury for the most dedicated gamer.” Quill & Quire on The Kingless Land
In the realm of Aglirta, the Serpent has been vanquished and a new king rules the Kingless Land. But even though the legendary Band of Four travel the land as overdukes, ferreting out rogue wizards and remnants of the Serpent cult, peace and prosperity are still distant dreams.
Ingryl Ambelter, the undead former Spellmaster of Silvertree, is doing everything in his power to dethrone the Boy King, Raulin Castlecloaks, and finally do away with the king's overdukes. Ambelter's plan is to found a new Aglirta, a kingdom ruled by a council of wizards. The revolutionary plotting isn't limited to rogue wizards; priests of the Serpent cult have released a pathogen into the drinking water throughout Aglirta that either drives people into a homicidal rage or turns them into nightmarish beasts. They plan to blame the plague on the Boy King's inability to rule.
As the Band of Four -- the giant Hawkril, the war captain Baron Blackgult, the master thief Craer, and the beautiful sorceress Embra Silvertree -- travel the Vale, smoldering tensions ignite a firestorm of treachery and magic.
Fans of epic fantasy who haven't yet read Greenwood's Band of Four series (The Kingless Land, The Vacant Throne, and A Dragon's Ascension) should definitely give this saga a try. Paul Goat Allen
Read an Excerpt
To Conquer a Kingdom
The rattle of keys awakened an echo in that dark and stone-walled place, and then a heavy door scraped open, flooding torchlight into a damp darkness that had lasted for decades. Old Thannaso, who kept the locks and hinges—and the manacles that waited on the gigantic wall wheel within, gleaming now in the leaping flames—well oiled, was as blind as deep night, and so had no need to light his way when he worked.
A lithe, slender man who wore skintight garb of soft, smoky-gray leather on his body and a half-smile upon his darkly handsome face held the torch high and behind his own shoulder, to peer into all corners of the cell. A little water was seeping in high on the south wall, glistening as it ran down the stone, but of intruders—beyond a small, scuttling legion of spiders—he saw none. Craer Delnbone was one of the best procurers in all Asmarand…which is to say that after too many years of escapades enough for a dozen thieves, he was still alive. If Craer's bright eyes saw no intruder, none was there.
The woman who followed at his elbow saw nothing either. She was much of Craer's size, and moved against him with the familiarity of intimate companions, but she was no thief. Tshamarra Talasorn was a sorceress from a proud family of Sirlptar, the last of her line—and her tongue could be every bit as sharp as her wits, as Craer had learned to both his fascination and cost. His “Tash” wore garments cut like his but of shimmerweave and silk, that flashed back torchlight every bit as much as her large and alert eyes. She, too, saw no peril in the cell—though most of her thin-lippedattention was bent upon the burden being carried behind her.
That burden was a large, stout man in rich garments, frozen in a pose as stiff and rigid as stone save for his furious eyes—eyes that darted this way and that, seeking to see all as one does who knows he will soon have very little to look upon at all. An armaragor of great size and thews carried the straight, immobile man, with the legs-steadying aid of a slightly smaller, older warrior who strode along with the easy authority of one born to command.
Hawkril Anharu was a gentle giant of a man, unless one crossed blades with him in battle. He carried their captive as lightly as if the man weighed nothing, and had to stoop and turn his broad shoulders at an angle to pass through the narrow door of the cell. He resembled an amiable bull in armor more than anything else.
The formerly raven-dark hair of the older armored man behind Hawkril was going gray and white now, but Ezendor Blackgult—once infamous across Asmarand as “the Baron Blackgult,” a dashing warcaptain, decadent noble, and seducer of ladies high and low—was still handsome…and every bit as alert, as they moved through the dungeons, as Craer at the front of the band.
A radiance far paler than the torchlight flickered about their captive's head—the light of magic, lancing forth from a mottled stone carried in the palm of a tall, slender woman who walked at the rear of the group. Above a slight frown, her eyes were also fixed upon her captive.
Embra Silvertree had once been best known as “the Lady of Jewels” for her elaborately decorated gowns, but she much preferred the simple leather breeches, warriors' boots, and open silk shirt she was wearing now. Her long, dark hair swirled untamed down her back as if it was a half-cloak, and men best knew her now in Aglirta as the most powerful sorceress in the land.
Like the others who walked with her, she was an Overduke of Aglirta—and like them, she was carrying out a distasteful but necessary duty this day. Her gaze never left their dark-robed captive as Hawkril swung the frozen-limbed man upright—boots uppermost—as if he weighed no more than the petals of a flower.
Craer and the Baron Blackgult deftly plucked and fitted dangling manacles, the slender procurer trying the smaller key Thannaso had surrendered to him in each cuff. They locked and unlocked flawlessly, and with a nod to the baron, Craer fitted them to the arms of their captive, then accepted Blackgult's cupped hands to boost him to where the procurer could reach higher manacles, and so secure their captive upside down to the great wheel on the cell wall.
A tremor ran through those limbs as they were secured—gods, but the man must be part dragon, to struggle so in the thrall of Dwaer-magic!—and Embra let out a sigh of pain. Hawkril gave her a quick glance as he stepped back from the chained man, but she gave him a reassuring smile through the ribbons of sweat now running freely down her face.
“I'm ready,” the shorter, darker woman murmured at Embra's elbow, and the sorceress gasped and nodded, gesturing to her to proceed. Tshamarra Talasorn smoothly cast a spell, stepping forward at the end of her weaving to hold her spread hands on either side of the chained man's head—just outside the flickering aura of Embra's Dwaer-spun magic.
That light promptly faded and died—only to be replaced by a brighter, more golden radiance flooding from Tshamarra's fingers.
“Spare your trouble,” the chained man said, more wearily than bitterly. “I'm not going to try anything—not with a Dwaer-Stone that can blast me to spatters, or cook my mind like spittle sizzling into a fire, close enough to almost brush my nose. I'm guilty of occasional ambition, not utter foolishness.”
“Indeed. Wizards rise and fall in the Vale as the years pass,” Baron Blackgult said, “and the Serpent returns, and the Faceless and outlander mages alike clash and scheme—and yet the Master of Bats lives on. Powerful enough to hurl back those who'd seize your power by force, and wise enough not to step into anyone's trap.”
“Save yours, Band of Four—and Blackgult. Or are you a member, good Baron, and this wench whose magic now constrains me the fifth, the outsider? I'd not heard that the boy king was proclaiming new overdukes…but then, I've not had the leisure to hear or see much of anything in the Vale this last while, with you hunting me. And if, as you say, I'm so wise as not to put a foot wrong, why this chasing and capturing? I was unaware that I'd slighted the Young Majesty. What quarrel has he with me?”
“None to speak of, Huldaerus,” the Baron Blackgult replied grimly. “Yet your power is a danger to Aglirta of the sort we can no longer ignore. With shapeshifters busy and dozens of threats still menacing the River Throne like drawn blades, it's time—and past time—to scour the realm, collecting foes of the crown…or wizards who refuse to kneel to King Raulin and pledge loyalty. Your refusal was, you must admit, rather spectacular.” He examined one of the chains critically, and told it, “At last, we're gathering enemies before they show up in the Throne Chamber with swords or flaring spells in their hands.”
The Master of Bats made a face, his hands trembling from the force of a surreptitious attempt to tear free of his manacles. “So if I go upstairs right now and kiss the royal slipper and say the right words, I can go free? Surely 'twould have been easier to try that first, ere—”
“No, Arkle Huldaerus,” the Lady Silvertree said softly but firmly. “things might be different if you meant your pledge, and so swore loyalty in all heartfelt honesty, but this Dwaer can power spells I'd not dare to weave—or trust—by myself, and it has told me one thing very clearly, more than once since your capture: You feel no shred of loyalty or fair feeling to the King, or to Aglirta.“
“So that's why you were forever asking me to swear fealty, or if I would—or could,” the chained wizard murmured, his face now flushed deep red from his inverted position. “I thought you meant it as some sort of taunt.”
“No,” Embra told him calmly, “you thought nothing of the kind. You thought we were trying a new spell on you, to urge you to loyalty. You also thought that we were a lot of fools who'd be tyrants if we weren't so addle-witted, that this Dwaer was wasted in our hands, and that you'd been very clever thus far to hold back when Serpent and Dragon were contesting on Flowfoam, and in the troubles before that. You then went on to think that you were quite clever enough to weather this latest-storm of foolishness on our part, and break free with the aid of the three bats that, even now, you're concealing upon yourself.”
“My, my, that unlovely lump of rock shows you everything, doesn't it?” the Master of Bats replied, more wearily than mockingly.
“Three bats?” Craer snapped. “Where? I felt him all over, good and proper, and graul if I think he could have hidden even one of the little chitterers from me. Where did he hide them?”
“Right now,” Embra replied, “they're under his manacles, where the metal will best hide them from us. Before, when you were searching, they were in a dark place we all have, that's fashioned for expelling what our bodies are ready to be rid of.”
“Why,” Tshamarra murmured, “am I unsurprised?”
She watched Craer slip a long dagger under one manacle and slide it around the trapped wrist swiftly. A dark wing twitched momentarily into view, and then its owner exploded out of the other side of the manacle—and burst into blood that became threads of smoke in an instant, as Embra frowned, waved a hand, and her Dwaer flashed.
Anger darkened the face of the chained man, but he launched no futile struggle this time. Craer drove forth the other two bats, and they met similar ends. “He can fashion more of them from this, can't he?” he murmured, plucking at the wizard's dark and much-crumpled robes, and holding up his knife meaningfully, but Embra shook her head.
“No, Craer,” she said. “I'm not going to be so cruel as to leave a man bared down here, to shiver in the dark and be dead in two hand-counts of days.”
“No,” the wizard told her flatly, “you're only going to be cruel enough to let me starve here, forgotten, until my bones fall out of these chains one by one onto yon floor—unless, of course, this dungeon has crawling gnaw-worms or other little welcoming beasts who'll come out to feed as soon as you take the torch away.”
“I've almost as little liking for this as you do,” Ezendor Blackgult told him heavily, “believe me. Or not, as is your right. You'll be fed regularly, rotated upright, and we will visit you from time to time, to ask questions—and perhaps, if your manner permits it, share news with you of events in the Vale.”
“You realize,” the wizard asked calmly, eyes moving from face to face, “how dangerous a foe you're making, don't you?”
“Huldaerus,” the Lady Silvertree replied coolly, “we know how dangerous a foe you already are. You may have forgotten your casual cruelties at Indraevyn and since—as they seem to matter so little to you—but I haven't.”
Eyes that held coiling flames of fury fixed on hers, but their owner's voice was as icily calm as Embra's as he responded, “And so 'tis time for you to practice casual cruelties upon me now, is that it?”
“I can cast a spell upon you that will keep you in dreams, if you desire,” the Lady of Jewels replied gently. “It will seem as if no time is passing, in the times when you're not being actively roused by someone.”
“No,” the Master of Bats said firmly, “I would rather hang here and brood. Perhaps I can come to see my folly and even to embrace King Raulin Castlecloaks in my heart, if you leave me here long enough. Perhaps.”
“You're refusing a spell of dream-sleep,” Tshamarra Talasorn asked carefully. “Are you sure you want to do that, Master Wizard?”
“Quite sure, Lady,” the upside-down man chained to the wheel replied politely. “I am the King's captive, arrested and brought here to my imprisonment by his loyal overdukes, my freedom taken from me to make Aglirta the safer. I want time to think on that.”
“Very well. We shall depart, and leave you to it,” the Baron Blackgult said, and turned away.
Craer watched the chained man carefully, and saw what he'd expected: Huldaerus open his mouth to say something—anything to keep their company longer. Thereafter followed the next thing he'd expected to see: the wizard close his mouth again without saying a word, and smooth his face over into careful inscrutability once more.
Oh, yes, the Master of Bats was good at what he did.
Conferring with a few swift, wordless glances, the Band of Four and Tshamarra reached agreement and paced to the cell door together. Hawkril and Craer drifted to the rear, hands on hilts, to watch their prisoner narrowly.
He stared right back at them, his expressionless gaze almost a challenge. As Craer started to swing the cell door closed, the torch already behind him and the darkness coming down, the procurer saw the captive wizard's mouth tighten in angry anticipation of whatever taunt Craer might leave in his wake.
Craer shook his head, and said as gently as a nursemaid, “I wish you well, Arkle Huldaerus.”
The heavy cell door boomed, and the Master of Bats was alone with the chill darkness. Not a kingdom many would choose to rule.
He waited, listening intently for the scrapes of their boots on stone to die away, as the darkness grew both heavy and deep around him.
And waited, growing used to the small, faint sounds of his new home. The whisper of seeping water flowing down stone, the slight echoes his own breathing awakened.
When at last he judged that time enough had passed, and young and triumphant overdukes of the kingdom couldn't possibly have patience enough to still be lingering outside the cell door of a prisoner they knew to be helpless, Arkle Huldaerus murmured the word that released a spell he'd cast a dozen years back—and held ready from that day to this, through all the tumult since. “Maerlruedaum,” he told the darkness calmly, and patiently endured the creeping sensation that followed. Hairs pulled free of his scalp and slithered snakelike up his imprisoned limbs, to the place on his left shin where the legging under his boot had been so carefully soaked in his own blood: a place where that dark fabric was already stirring and roiling, rearing up…
Three bats lifted away from his manacled body, whirring reassuringly past his face at his bidding, and the Master of Bats smiled into the darkness. There was a jailer's slot in that door, to let someone outside peer in at prisoners, and in a moment or four his three little spies would be out and about in the cellars of Flowfoam, watching and prying. He'd have to take great care to keep them unseen as he saw where the little thief Delnbone returned those keys to, but th—
Sudden fire exploded into his mind, and in its shattering pain he felt first one bat, and then the next, torn apart. Desperately he tried to claw at the last one with his will, snatching it back from-from—
“Not so subtle after all, Master of Bats,” Embra Silvertree whispered in his mind, as the last of his bats flared into oblivion. “I barely had time to get comfortable out here.”
Furiously the manacled wizard thrust out at the sorceress with his will, seeking to hurl her out from behind his eyes, but the magic that had lanced into him, leaping back along the links of his own casting, seared agonizingly wherever it went, and he was failing, quailing…
“I'm not here to melt you witless,” the lady baron said crisply, “or to bring you torment, Huldaerus—just to relieve you of all the magics you have ready to work mischief with. My thanks for providing so swift a road into your mind. This at least means I can leave you wits enough to remain yourself, and able to work magic in years to come.”
“Mercy,” the chained wizard hissed, his voice thin with warring fear and hatred, “I…I beg of you, wench!”
“Most charmingly begged, to be sure. Rest easy, Huldaerus. I'm not here to work you any personal harm, just to do away with any other little surprises you may have for us…there!”
The Master of Bats felt several tiny, icy jolts as other prepared magics were forced info wakefulness and then broken and drained away ere they could take effect—and then a curtain seemed to roll back in his mind, and he was left with a fair and sunlit view down the Vale from Flowfoam not long after dawn, as the last mists stole away like hastening wraiths above the mighty Silverflow on some day in the past. The tiny figures of women come down to the banks to do their washing could be seen at the first bend. He peered at them, trying to see their faces and hear the chatter amid their laughter, as a waterswift flew past overhead, and…
“I'll leave you this scene to brood upon,” Embra's voice said to him, with a warmth and closeness whose affection shocked Arkle Huldaerus.
That and the shock of the blow of Craer's flung frying pan that had felled him hours before in the midst of his spells, with the Four all around him, had shaken the Master of Bats more than all the events of the year before this day. He shivered helplessly.
And then she was gone, and he was alone.
Truly alone, the last of his ready magic stripped from him and with no bats left whose eyes he could borrow. He plunged once more into that view of the Silverflow, with mists he could almost smell and merry converse he could almost hear—and then thrust it away again angrily. There would come a time when he would need its solace to keep away despair or even madness, but for now he had better things to think about.
The bitch had at least been true to her word. She'd refrained from blasting his mind and leaving him unable to work magic or know who he was. Ah, no. He knew all too well who he was.
He was a helpless, spell-drained wizard chained upside down in a dungeon cell under Flowfoam Palace. The beginnings of a dark storm of a headache were beginning to rage now, as the echoes of that frying pan blow were made monstrous by the blood pounding in his head. The Master of Bats clenched his teeth and spat a single furious obscenity into the surrounding darkness.
Rage and pain clawed at each other, doing battle inside him as he hung heavy in his chains, numb in some places and throbbing in others. Groaning from time to time, Arkle Huldaerus drifted in their stormy grip, letting himself be driven this way and that…
He slept, or thought he did. Yet it seemed that he'd not been alone with the darkness all that long when light arose around him again.
A cold, blue-white glow this time, with none of the warmth of firelight. It came from the wall of the cell across from him, hitherto hidden in the darkness, and it was moving. Moving?
Huldaerus stared at the glow. Was he asleep, and this a dream-fancy, or was that bitch Silvertree—or the other one, her slyskirt sidekick—at work with spells on his mind, trying to drive him into raving?
The glow had a shape now, as it stepped silently out of the solid wall—the shape of a skeleton, with two tiny stars of cold flame twinkling in its eyesockets. Those eyes looked at him, and the chained wizard knew an old and fell intelligence lurked behind them, mirth that betokened good for no creature alive within them. A hand whose floating bones should all have clattered to the floor waved jauntily at him, the bony feet strolled across the cell, and the hand sketched another wave in his direction as the skeleton melted into the waiting stones, its glow dimming, and…was gone.
Arkle Huldaerus blinked at the darkness that reigned unbroken under his nose once more, shook his head, and sighed. This had not been a good day, nor did the morrow hold bright prospect.
He almost envied that skeleton its freedom to walk through walls.
The young man's bald head was slick with sweat despite the chill of the cavernous chamber. The snake fang-adorned bottom edge of his high-collared robe swirled above bare feet as risen magic played dancing white fires around them, shimmering across the mirror-smooth floor of the vast room. A pattern of intertwined serpents, jaws agape, encircled his wide sleeves, and scales were visible on the glistening flesh of his forearms and the backs of his hands.
The man took two measured steps forward, murmured an incantation, and flung up his hands as if to cradle a large globe of empty air. White sparks crawled tentatively from his fingertips to shape that sphere…and swirl about it…and then rise in tendrils around the Serpent-priest, building to silently raging brightness.
That growing light was reflected in the steady, watching eyes of two tiers of benches of expressionless priests along the chamber walls, well back from the spellweaving priest.
The cold radiance brightened as the incantation crafting it rose in volume—brightened and grew, becoming slowly writhing spirals of tentacles around the priest…and then coalescing into serpentine bodies shaped all of sparks. As those swaying serpent-forms grew snake-heads, they began to glide around and around the bald priest in an undulating, quickening dance.
The watching priests made not a sound, but some leaned forward eagerly. Not one looked away, even for an instant, as swiftly building spells erupted into bright bursts, one flaring atop another as the priest who stood alone at their heart cried phrase after phrase, his voice loud now with confidence, his fingers writhing like excited snakes in ever more rapid weavings.
White sparks sheathed the spellweaver's body, drawing in about him in thick coils, until it seemed a forest of large and ever larger serpents was lovingly encircling their creator. Their twining force slowly lifted the priest off the floor until he stood upright on empty air almost his own height off the ground, hands still furiously shaping spells.
Each new magic reached up, straining toward the lofty ceiling of the chamber. The unfolding spells seemed to draw upon something up there, unseen in the darkness, that sent down spiderweb-thin lines of force—force that blossomed into cold, bright fire when it touched the silently raging serpents woven by the lone priest.
In the heart of the light his incantations gasped and stammered on. Sweat drenched him, and his racing fingers were trembling now, his body shuddering as if fighting to stand against the snatching gusts of a gale.
A spell burst into a sudden shower of sparks, and there came a sudden, brief murmur—part consternation, and part satisfaction—from the watching clergy as the bald priest convulsed, shrieked something despairing, and clawed at the air as if to ward off a pouncing monster.
Sparks fell, and there came another explosion, bright and then dark, motes of fire raining down in all directions as the spellweaving priest sobbed bitterly. Burst after burst, in swift succession, tore the dancing serpents into a swirling cloud.
At its flickering heart the lone, sweat-soaked figure frantically waved fingers grown impossibly long, trying to shout words with a voice that had suddenly tightened into a loud hiss. A forked tongue darted from grimacing lips as the sparks raced aloft to shape many bright serpent heads— which then struck in unison, lashing down at the wildly gesturing man with terrible speed.
The bald priest screamed under those fangs of light, high and shrill. His suddenly long and rubbery arms flapped helplessly in the brightly boiling radiance—and then caught fire in a long gout of flame.
He screamed again, dancing grotesquely in the rushing conflagration, flesh melting and receding from bones with horrible swiftness. Smaller explosions bloomed and rolled all around that capering figure, and in the wake of each a freed spell fell away from the doomed priest and became a ghostly white serpent of flickering force, writhing and undulating in uncanny silence.
Within this ghostly circle of swaying heads and lashing coils, the dying priest danced on, his flesh melting. His screams became raw, faint and feeble…and he sank to the floor, still dancing—jerking back and forth, helplessly and horribly, like a stick puppet flailed about at a market fair for the amusement of small children.
Sprawled on the dark stone, the priest melted swiftly down to near bones—and as he became more skeletal, the freed, slithering spells dancing around him moved in, coiling into and out of the writhing bones. Where they passed, bones parted, dissolving into streamers of smoke, and shifting…twisting….
The skeleton was soon little more than a flaming skull atop a whirlwind of tumbling bones—remains spun into the undulating shape of a serpent by the ghostly Serpent-spells.
The fading serpent-shape coiled, reared menacingly—and the skull atop it exploded in a puff of bone-dust. The bones below faded, and out of that writhing collapse rose the last glowing wisps of magic, drifting up to whatever it was that hung high overhead in the darkness.
There they shone for one whirling moment around a mottled, hand-sized stone floating alone in midair. Glowed, and then sank into the stone, to glow no longer.
As darkness returned to the ceiling, the watching priests looked down from where the wisps had gone, tightened lips grimly, and sighed—some with wistfulness, and many more with relief.
“This failure was not unexpected,” one man said into the silence, his cold tones loud, firm, and flat. “Shall we resume?”
Another priest lifted a hand. “We shall—and with Ghuldart gone, and his boasts and claims with him, one thing is certain: None of us has the might to master the Thrael. The Great Serpent is come not back among us. Yet.”
A third, younger priest asked, “Could some of us not cast a few spells of the Thrael each, and so weld together a ruling council from among our ranks? Need it be one man?”
The first priest rose to his feet and replied, “There I hear the voice not just of you, Lothoan, but of all your ilk: the young, eager, and restless amongst us, who thirst for power and see change as no concern at all if it wins us more power swiftly. Hear me, now, all of you younglings. Hear and learnt.”
Caronthom “Fangmaster” turned slowly to survey all the robed men on the benches. No women sat in the chamber; he and the knives of elder priests of like mind had seen to that. She-priests were vicious and treacherous, but alluring; there would be time enough to empower such when it came to open strife, and such qualities could serve the Brethren—and be the ready excuse for slaughtering the women as soon as it became needful.
“The Serpent who spawned us all was never a god. He was a mortal man, a great wizard—as were all his successors, Great Serpent after Great Serpent. None of us particularly loves serving a tyrant, but this is how it must be. Only one being can be master of the' Thrael at a time. Once cast, the Thrael exists as a web of magic whose backlashes slay many linked to it if someone tries to wrest control of the Thrael from its creator, or craft a second Thrael that comes into contact with the first. When we pray to the Great Serpent, we send calls along the Thrael to him, calls he can hear. If he chooses to do so, he sends us back spells or healing energy or raw power, drawing on his own manifest power—which is that of all of us who are touched by the Thrael. Literally, our lives, and those of the sacrifices we slay in specific ways, empower the Thrael and the Great Serpent, and he returns power to us as he sees fit. Forgive this blunt speaking, but 'tis time and past time you heard it shorn of all the ‘holy' nonsense we must always cloak it with, to conceal this central secret from lay believers.”
Caronthom sighed, threw back his head, and continued, “So I say again: The Serpent was a man, not a god. Great elder magics create his recurring manifestation, and that of the Dragon who opposes him. Divine magics, if you prefer—magics we no longer understand or know how to control, augment, or destroy. From the Serpent we have his teachings, the secrets of the Thrael spells and of its working—and the sacred writings of what has gone before, which stand as lessons to us in what to do and not to do to win power.”
He strode slowly along the benches, meeting the gazes of some priests thereon directly, and added, “Wherefore this council is met. As always, we must scheme and work and refine our plots, when seeking to win greater power in Aglirta—for no god aids us. We all saw Ghuldart try and fail to craft the Thrael, and witnessed his fate—and I feel no shame in admitting that, overambitious foolishness aside, Ghuldart was the most confident and powerful seeker amongst us who desired to master the Thrael. None of us is powerful enough to survive those castings.”
The second priest rose. “Every word you utter is blunt truth, Caronthom. It should be clear to even the youngest and most restless amongst us that this council's most urgent business has now been determined.”
He began his own slow walk along the benches. “You know me as Raunthur the Wise. Hear now my latest wisdom, and know it for no more than truth. We came here to discuss how to win power in the Vale, but could decide nothing until we saw if Ghuldart could ascend to the rank of Great Serpent over us. His failure means we must find and recruit a wizard powerful enough to become the new Great Serpent, so as to conquer Aglirta at last. Each of us—even as we work against the officers and authority of the boy king—must seek suitable men to become our leader. To borrow the words of the Old Viper who taught Caronthom and myself, 'the tyrant we must obey must be found.'”
One of the younger priests moved restlessly, and Caronthom pounced.
“Yes, Thuldran? Speak!”
The young priest flushed and looked down. Both elder priests moved to stand side by side and glare at him. After a long, unwilling time of glancing up into their hard gazes and shrinking away and then looking up again to find their stares still fixed on him, Thuldran said reluctantly, “I-I like this not. We're to invite an outsider to power over us? Risking possible betrayal, and a rule none of us may favor?”
“Well said,” Raunthur replied. “Of course none of us welcomes this situation. 'tis right not to want or trust an outsider as our Great Serpent. To avoid disaster, all of us elder priests know very well that we must choose the right outsider. Finding and guiding him into office over us will be neither swift nor easy.”
“In the meantime,” Caronthom added, “be aware that we shall be ruthless in purging all misdirected ambitions from the Brotherhood. We elders are mages of some accomplishment; those who were not were the ones who perished. We may cower before the Thrael, but until it has been raised anew by a Great Serpent, we shall rule the Brotherhood. Speak freely, dispute freely—but obey when we speak orders, or we shall strike you down. In this leaderless time, treachery and internal strife are weaknesses we can neither afford nor tolerate. Heed my words, or die.”
There was a stillness along the benches now that sang with tension. Raunthur smiled softly into it. “That's not to say we desire any of you to sit in hiding and wait for a new Great Serpent to come calling. Far from it. As we sit gathered here, we're still the strongest, smartest force in Aglirta, and we shall not be idle. If blustering idiot barons can hold power in the Vale, so can we.”
“And so,” the Fangmaster added smoothly, “we desire every one of you to aid in our chief plot to bring down the boy king. Some few among you, I've no doubt, have already gained hints of what this is. More than one of you is guilty of excessive prying in this regard that I'll henceforth reward with death. To quell consuming curiosity, know that before departing this place you'll be furnished with a spell. Others will follow, brought by fellow Brothers of the Serpent along with strict instructions as to when to use them and when they are not to be employed.”
For the first time, the old priest who'd taught so many of them allowed a smile onto his face. “The first spell infects drinkables with something akin to the venom of some rare sorts of snakes, but stronger. Most who imbibe succumb to ‘the Malady of Madness' told of in ancient times, the Beast Plague that makes victims lash out at others ere they die. Spread among Aglirtans with the words of ‘divine punishment for misrule' you shall whisper, this will serve to weaken the rule of Flowfoam. When the time is right, all of you shall be properly placed, up and down the Vale, to supplant the local authority of the boy king.”
Raunthur spoke up. “So much is the plan—so let your various spyings cease. You shall all hear the unfolding details anyway. Salaunthus?”
An old priest with a scarred face rose from the benches, nodded respectfully to Raunthur and Caronthom, cleared his throat, and said stiffly, “My tests have been a success. The spells I've worked with can now break the effects of the venom-spell, repeatedly and reliably. I—ah—there is no more to say.” He sat down again.
The Fangmaster nodded. “Arthroon?”
A darkly handsome priest rose, smiled coldly, and announced, “Belgur Arthroon, from Fallingtree. The village is small, and accordingly I've been careful to enspell only a select few wine decanters and buckets of water. The results thus far are: success in every attempt. I'll soon be able to report fully on dosages and amounts of various sorts of drink to achieve specific results. As with all such castings, one must follow specific instructions or practice much to acquire a feel for the task.”
The Fangmaster nodded, and Arthroon sat down again. “We've been absent from our holds and posts around the Vale long enough,” Caronthom said firmly, “so let this council now entertain any other questions, concerns, or desires of the Brethren. Speak, Brothers, ere we break this assembly and confer upon each of you a scroll that holds the venom-spell.”
No one rose, but an eager restlessness fell upon the benches. More than one priest leaned forward as if the promised scrolls could be snatched from empty air as a hawk takes a field rat. Caronthom watched, and smiled again. “Then let this council be at an end. Raunthur?”
The elder priest who was called the Wise strode to a door that glowed briefly as he placed his hand on it and then groaned slowly open by itself. “Scrolls, one to each,” he said curtly. “No pushing.”
Had any priest there dared to demonstrate so fatal a failing as a curious eye, he might have seen a younger priest clutching his precious scroll stride swiftly down a dark and little-used passage, duck through a lightless door and up a stair, and then pass through another door that glowed with guardian-spells every bit as powerful as those Raunthur had used to safeguard the scrolls. Once through it, the young priest extended an arm that reached a full three feet farther than his other arm—or the arm of any human—should have, been able to, and pushed at one end of a particular block in the stone wall. It pivoted, swinging open to reveal a cavity behind, and into this he thrust the scroll—and after it, his Serpent-robes.
Once the block was closed again, the naked priest turned away, his face and body sliding into something quite different than it had been. Again he reached out an arm that became much longer than any human arm had any right to be, and opened another pivoting block. A smock, trews, and boots were plucked into view and donned, deft fingers sketched guardian spells over both blocks and the inside of the door that had allowed admittance to this passage, and a farm laborer took six steps, made a particular gesture, and caused a whirlwind of coiling light to spiral into being in the empty air. Through it he stepped—and vanished, the spiral eating itself in his wake.
Only then did a dark, unseen watching eye floating high in one corner of the passage end blink twice, and perform its own vanishing act.
Its far end winked out in another chamber not far away, where another priest stood holding the scroll he'd just been given. “Well, well,” he murmured. “A dangerous shapeshifter amongst us. Dear me. Something will have to be done about that.”
His face melted and slid into quite a different visage. “Competition can be so harmful.”
“Remind me,” Hawkril rumbled, “why we must go riding blindly through the Vale again, offering ourselves as targets to all, to search out Dwaerindim. Can't you just use your Stone to seek them from afar?” .
Embra sighed. “I can, yes, but unless the bearer of a Dwaer uses it for a very great magic, or is in the act of calling forth its power, or knows no better and is carrying it awake and aflame—for a light in a dark place, say—I cannot see it. If I touch not the powers of my Stone, and keep it hidden, someone using another Dwaer to seek it could stand beside me and not know I carried it. Some tricks offer themselves to anyone who can use two Dwaer in a search, but even then, must be very close to a sought Stone.”
Tshamarra nodded. “More than that: One can only see raw Dwaer-power from afar—if its wielder uses it only to power spells of their own casting, one sees nothing.”
“What if we sat you in a tower somewhere, guarding and feeding you, and you spent days using your Dwaer to search?” Craer asked.
Embra gave him a smile that held little mirth. “My Stone would be awake all that time. Someone—or something—would almost certainly see me, and come to snatch a Dwaer and slay.”
“Thereby coming within our reach,” the procurer responded triumphantly, “and allowing us to choose the battlefield!”
The Lady Talasorn sighed. “I doubt they'd herald their arrival, my lord. They'd watch and see just where we all were, and how best to slay us. The first you'd know of any battle would be a Dwaer-blast separating you from your bones.”
Craer looked at her—and suddenly beamed from ear to ear, saying brightly, “My, but the Vale's lovely this time of year! I feel a sudden longing to take horse and ride.”
Blackgult had said nothing, and continued to do so, but he did—almost—smile.
Copyright © 2003 by Ed Greenwood
Ed Greenwood is the bestselling author of the Band of Four series and creator of the bestselling and award-winning Forgotten Realms role-playing campaign setting. He lives in the Ontario countryside.
Meet the Author
Ed Greenwood is the bestselling author of the Band of Four series and creator of the bestselling and award-winning Forgotten Realms role-playing campaign setting. He lives in Colborne, Ontario.
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This book is a whilwind of action, intrige, and adventure. Greenwood does will to write action in this book, although at times it seems he is writing to take up space. The ending was O.K. however, after four books I expected more.
Though now overdukes, sorceress Embra, warrior Hawkril, thief Craer, and sorceress Tshamarra along with ex-regent Ezendor Blackgult cannot rest on their laurels. To bring peace to the realm, the Overdukes must confront those who oppose their monarch. They must fight the priests of the Serpent and the wizard Ambelter as well as their supporters if they are to make Aglirta safe. Currently the priests and their minions are posing the greatest threat. They are using a nasty form of a plague to send innocent people into a killing frenzy. Those who survive the berserker spree become mythical creatures enslaved by the priests to reuse again. With their work cut out to just avoid becoming victims of the bloody plague, let alone going on the offensive, the Band of Four still wield the Dwaer stones to embellish their counter spells in order to defeat their enemies. However, it looks bleak and hopeless. The latest Band of Four adventure is not a cozy as this blood and sorcery tale flows red rather freely. Fans of the series will appreciate the gore that is cleverly interwoven into an exciting story. Besides a warning label to the anemic, the audience will know the quartet remains true to their respective essences so that the apparent series final, THE DRAGON¿S DOOM, is a reader¿s joy. Harriet Klausner