He did not speak; as his new master was teaching him, he projected his thoughts, struggling to limit their range to his travelling companion. It was the mental equivalent of a whisper, and it wasn’t as easy as Ergon made it look.
Ergon turned his chill gaze on his apprentice. Glittering points of light sparkled in the depths of empty eye sockets. I advise you to gather your wits, the lich replied. There was no expression on the skinless face, and no emotion in the tonelessness of the undead creature’s mindspeech. This is not a good moment for you to act the dullard.
Truer words were never spoken, the young mage thought bleakly.
They had been summoned to the Vendimadh, the thronehall of the mistress of Negrenoctis, Valtias Kuolema Karventää – Lady Deathscorch herself. I suppose my flesh would be crawling, if I had any flesh left to crawl, Qaramyn snorted to himself.
“That’s not what I meant,” he said in normal speech, speaking the elven tongue as he knew the ancient lich preferred. His voice echoed oddly, reverberating against the stone walls of the passage. He still wasn’t used to its eldritch timbre.
The two companions could not have been more oddly matched. Ergon, a fleshless skeleton with glowing, silver-white eyes, carried an iron staff longer than he was tall, capped with a representation of a leering demon wrought in mithral. He was wrapped in thick robes of ebon wool. They had never been laundered, and crawled with vermin, which he didn’t seem to mind. He only replaced the costly garments when they rotted off what was left of his body – which took a long time, as he tended to repair them arcanely, if only to keep mould out of his alchemical preparations, and threads from dragging through the ink when he was scribing scrolls.
He must have been wearing some sort of footwear, because the bare calcaneus bones where his heels had once been made no noise against the stone floor. Qaramyn wasn’t certain, though; he had never seen his master’s feet.
As a result of his decaying garb, a rich, feculent stench of rot surrounded the ancient lich. Neither of the pair noticed it; both had sacrificed their natural olfactory senses, and both were sufficiently attuned to the flux to be able to ignore the signals from the arcane senses that had replaced them. Qaramyn knew that his master smelled awful, but he didn’t care. He no longer had a stomach to upset.
Qaramyn, the younger and by far the less powerful of the two, was if anything even more bizarre to behold. His robes were equally rich, but were the deep maroon hue of oxygen-starved blood. He bore no staff. To be sure, he had one, and it was a mighty tool of magic; he had yet to unlock even the tenth part of its potential power. But given who he was going to see, and what she desired above all other things in the vasty universe, he had not brought it with him. It was locked back in his chambers in Ergon’s sanctum, woven about with all of the spells of deception and concealment that were his to command. He didn’t need it anyway; if the Lady decided to destroy him, even the staff’s power would not be sufficient to save him.
Unlike Ergon, his flesh had not yet entirely deserted him. Shrunken scraps of drying skin still clung to his skeleton. The effect on his face was particularly ghoulish; he looked like an unwrapped mummy. The vestiges of some terrible wound still showed in the gaping hole in his left cheek. That wound, however, was obscured by his most visible and alarming characteristic: his skull, and indeed his entire body, were wreathed in wispy, blue-red flames. A palpable heat radiated from him, but consumed neither his clothes nor his bones, nor even the few remaining scraps of flesh that still clung to them. He liked the effect; fire had always been his ally, and his preferred method of destroying things or people that got in his way. Now it was his defender as well.
Qaramyn still wore boots. He had tried going without them – he no longer felt heat, cold, or discomfort, after all, and had no need to protect what was left of his feet against injury – but he had found that nearly-bare bones offered poor purchase on stone floors. He was on the path to achieving ultimate arcane might, and did not want to make a fool of himself by slipping and falling like a clumsy jongleur.
Ergon folded his bony hands into the sleeves of his robe. “What did you mean?”
Qaramyn shook himself, trying to remember what he had asked. “Why did we plane shift into the foyer? Why not transleap directly from the Sanctum to the throne hall?”
That earned him another glance. “I used to,” the lich shrugged, “but Karventää asked me to stop.”
“ ‘Asked’ you?” Qaramyn chuckled. It was an eerie, hollow sound.
Ergon stopped walking. He turned the full force of his gaze on his apprentice.
Qaramyn immediately began running through abjurations in his mind.
One day, the ancient lich hissed, I will try my power against hers. When I do, I would prefer that it were over a matter of somewhat greater import than selection of teleportation coordinates.
Qaramyn bowed submission. The two continued walking.
The younger lich was immune to fear, but not to nervous anticipation. It would be only the second time he had ever been in the Lady’s presence. Ergon had presented him to the great dragon shortly after the two had struck their infernal bargain, before Qaramyn had surrendered the flesh and embraced the Curse of Boorn as the path to true power and mastery.
Ergon had transleaped both of them to Negrenoctis. The horror and pain of the Lady’s palace had not, of course, surprised him; it had been his second visit, and he knew what to expect: fire and ash, the stench of sulphur, blood and screams, cavorting fiends, and an atmosphere that had scorched his lungs, shrivelled his hair, and tightened the skin over his damaged visage.
He had met the Lady face to face, kneeling before the basalt majesty of her throne, his mind gibbering insanely both at her impossible immensity and the palpable aura of menace radiating from her sprawling form.
When Ergon had introduced him, her mind had reached out, brushing his own with the power and subtlety of a titan’s maul. Had she wished it, she might have snuffed out his consciousness, extinguishing his very soul like a grape beneath an elephant’s heel.
Instead, to his eternal relief, she had snorted in irritation, as if Ergon had shown her an especially talented cockroach.
YOUR PETS ARE NO CONCERN OF MINE, REVENANT. Her mindspeech had thundered, shattering the air like iron trumpets, nearly caving in Qaramyn’s heart. HAVE YOU COMPLETED THE TASK I SET YOU?
This one will be assisting me in my researches on your behalf, Ergon had replied, his icy words dripping with unaccustomed unction. I ask that you grant him the use of your palace, and of the Hall of Bones in particular.
FIND WHAT I SEEK, the Lady had thundered. I DO NOT CARE HOW YOU DO SO OR WHAT ANIMALS YOU MUST EMPLOY. JUST GET IT DONE.
Then, to Qaramyn’s terrified alarm, she had turned her gaze on him. Her eyes, he recalled, whirled like maelstroms in pools of lava. I CARE NOTHING FOR OATHS, MORTAL, she had said. SERVE ME, AND PROSPER. BETRAY ME, AND I SHALL DESTROY YOU.
Qaramyn had uttered his only words of the interview, coughing around the strangling stench of brimstone. “I understand.”
That, it seemed, had been sufficient. The great dragon had looked away again. She had spoken only two more words to him: GET OUT.
Now, returning to the Vendimadh more than a month later, he was wondering what she could possibly be seeking to learn.
Damn it, he thought, angry at his nervousness. Why shouldn’t I just ask him? “Master,” he said tentatively, “do you know what she wants with us?”
Yes. The lich continued walking.
Qaramyn waited a moment. At last he said, “Are you going to tell me?”
No, Ergon replied. There was a mocking lilt to his mindspeech. I’m going to let you puzzle it out. It’s good for you to use your head. While you still have one.
Qaramyn snorted, a blast of arcane fire billowing from his skinless nostrils. “Why does having a head matter?” he asked.
“Does your consciousness still reside inside your skull?” the younger lich asked. “I mean, your brain is gone. It rotted away millennia ago, didn’t it? So where do your mind, your power, and your spirit reside?”
The same place as yours, Ergon replied. There was something ominous in his tone. In my phylactery.
“Really?” Qaramyn pressed. “Because I thought the phlyaxis was just a refuge. A place for the consciousness to retreat to, if the body is destroyed. Where do our spirits reside when the body still exists? In an empty bucket of bone?”
That brought Ergon up short. “You know,” he mused, switching conversationally to the elven tongue again, “that’s an excellent question. I’ve never researched that. Why not look into it, and let me know what you find out?”
Qaramyn sighed. “I’m a little busy right now, what with trying to work out how to…”
His voice trailed off. Ergon was staring at him.
Qaramyn would have pursed his lips, if he still had any. “That wasn’t a request, was it?”
“Yes, master,” the younger lich said immediately. “I’ll get right on it.”
Good. Ergon kept walking.
“How soon do you want an answer?”
Ergon barked a laugh. Whenever you have one.
Qaramyn nodded. Neither man was pressed for time. Not anymore.
They walked on in silence. The Lady’s palace was enormous; a vast, soaring pile of basalt and obsidian perched precariously on the cliff over which Ebon Night’s endlessly-flowing river of molten rock plunged, hardening into flowstone as it fell, then cracking and smashing into the cliffs, the rock shrieking its death agonies into the eternal darkness of the spaces between the outer planar realms like some demonic chorus of castrati.
The palace wasn’t empty, of course; Karventää had thousands upon endless thousands of servants – not only fiends and revenants, dragons and mortals, but also many things that defied description. Things that had crawled from the festering horror of the Abyss, or that had been wrenched by accursed magic from the uttermost depths of the Nine Hells. But despite Her myriad slaves and sycophants, they encountered no-one.
Qaramyn knew why. He had felt it himself, once upon a time. Ergon’s very being radiated an aura of blinding terror that was so potent as to be almost visible. Everything in the palace, except for the Lady herself, quailed before the lich. Even Baulfekna, the one-time general of Bardan’s armies who had defied the Dark Ender, abandoning his service for reasons of love and betrayal, and who now served the Dark Queen as messenger and herald, hesitated to spit his vulgarities in Ergon’s face – and he even dared to offer spite and defiance to the Lady, now and again.
But Qaramyn felt nothing. That, he thought to himself, is possibly the greatest benefit of the Curse of Boorn. Reborn from self-imposed death as a lich, the first thing that the young mage had noticed was that the shattering terror of Ergon’s presence was gone. He now felt nothing when his master approached; nothing save for continued nervousness about the fate his master had planned for him, and a grim respect for the ancient wizard’s cunning, the span of his knowledge, and the measureless immensity of his arcane power.
That reminded him. “Where do you keep your phylactery, master?” Qaramyn asked.
Swifter than thought, he felt himself grasped in fingers of arcane force, lifted into the air, and hurled into the stone ceiling overhead with bone-crushing force. He heard rather than felt his ribs and pelvis shatter, and saw stone splinters trickle down before his face. There was no pain; only a record, stored and interpreted by the arcane forces that had replaced his living metabolism, of the damage his physical body had suffered.
He noted the damage as an alchemist might have noted data from an experiment. It was not serious. Not yet, anyway.
He glanced down. A half-dozen paces below, Ergon glared up at him. He had not so much as raised a finger. “I apologize, master,” Qaramyn said. “How did I offend?”
We do not ask that question, the lich replied, coldly furious. Not ever. The phylaxis is our only guarantee of immortality. Its location, and its defences, are your most closely-guarded secrets. Anyone who possesses it owns your future and therefore may command your service. Anyone who evinces interest in where it is kept must be destroyed immediately, without question or delay. Hesitate an instant, and you are lost.
“I understand,” Qaramyn replied.
Ergon turned away, and the arcane forces holding the younger lich against the ceiling vanished. He fell to the floor in a clatter of bones, wincing as his damage log climbed slightly.
Ergon resumed walking. Qaramyn struggled to his feet, brushing the dust and cobwebs from his robes. He muttered a swift incantation under his breath; necromantic forces swirled around him, knitting shattered bones together again. When the spell ended, he hurried to catch up with his master.
Ergon, it seemed, was not done. He turned on the younger lich. Guard the phylaxis with every scrap of knowledge and cunning you possess, he said, poking his apprentice in the chest with a bony finger. Hide it, conceal it, trap it, replace it with decoys, surround it with slaves and spells and arcane terror. Obliterate anyone or anything who comes near it.
Lose it, he growled, and you will spend eternity as your enemy’s errand-boy.
Qaramyn regarded his master with calm equanimity – although, had he still possessed lungs, he would have taken a deep breath before speaking his next words.
Ergon sensed his student’s hesitation. What is it? he snapped.
Qaramyn braced himself. How long ago, master, he asked, did Karventää acquire your phylactery?
The ancient lich regarded his pupil for a long moment. Qaramyn felt a hint of the old fear creep into his bones. At last, though, Ergon turned and stalked away up the corridor.
Qaramyn walked slowly after him. Had he still possessed lips, he would have smiled.
♦ ♦ ♦
To his infinite relief, Qaramyn, protected by the cloak of his Unlife, felt nothing of the sheer terror that the ancient dragon emanated. He saw her size; he noted her scimitar claws, the vast shears of her fangs, the wings which, although folded, were each far larger than a dromond’s mainsail. He stood without fear before the whirling, eons-old majesty of her gaze, awed by her colossal bulk, calculating her capacity in combat, realizing that he would last only seconds against her teeth and talons, wondering whether he would be able – if it came to that – to defend against the blazing chiaroscuro of her breath, to overcome her natural resistance to hostile magic, to defend against her own manipulation of the flux…to even penetrate that ancient, scar-strewn hide.
Together, the two sons of Boorn approached the dais, halting – as per custom – within reach of the Lady’s fangs, and bowing from the waist. The vast head swivelled downwards, regarding them with evident interest, the armoured brows drawing together.
Ergon spoke first. You summoned us, Lady. What service can we –
The mind-shout was accompanied by a shattering roar. Ergon paused. All around them, the Lady’s servants and bootlickers, clustered closely around the dais, turned and fled as one. The lesser sycophants scattered like cockroaches, while the greater ones, those capable of flux-leaping, vanished with a succession of cracks.
Karventää turned her vast, skull-like face towards Qaramyn. YOU LIED TO ME.
The younger lich blessed the immunity to fear granted by his new status. He decided to reply in the elven tongue, not daring to risk wyrm-speech. He thought he was clever enough to evade its self-imposed prohibitions on uttering falsehood, but didn’t think that Lady Deathscorch was the first dragon he should try lying to. “How, mistress?”
MORTALS INVADED THE DWARVES’ REALM. THEY RECOVERED THE SHAFT OF BÎARDATH’S WAND, AND DESTROYED THE THING IT HAD SUMMONED.
YOU WERE AMONG THEM.
“I was,” he admitted.
WHY DID YOU NOT TELL ME THIS? she shrieked, the throne-hall shivering to the reverberations of her fury.
“You didn’t ask,” Qaramyn replied easily.
Beside him, Ergon started. The older lich made an unobtrusive gesture. Qaramyn felt a tingle of power as his master raised a sphere of defensive energy. The sphere, the younger lich noted wryly, did not include him.
Karventää extended her forelimb and snatched him up in one claw. She tightened her grip until his bones began to splinter. As before, Qaramyn felt no pain; he merely noted the accumulating damage with distant interest.
WHERE IS THE SHAFT? the colossal wyrm howled.
Qaramyn would have spread his arms, but they were locked in the dragon’s grasp. “I don’t know, mistress,” he lied. “I suppose my…my former colleagues kept it.”
Below, Ergon glanced up, the glimmering points of his eyes twinkling in the darkness.
The nictitating membranes beneath Karventää’s eyelids lowered and raised once, the draconic equivalent of a considering blink.
“Unless,” Qaramyn continued, giving in at last to his customary loquacity, “they tried to destroy it. Perhaps by throwing it into the fires of the First Forge. That’s what they intended to do with the relics they had recovered from Glyocomondas, the Sorceror-King of the Drow whom they de–”
Karventää’s howl of fury was accompanied by a scorching blast of fire. The wave of heat, hotter even than complete immersion in the Forge-fires would have been, washed over the young lich like a tsunami of incinerating devastation. Had it not been for the cloak of arcane flame enveloping his body, he would have instantly been destroyed; but protected as he was, the dragon’s fire did not touch him.
Except…interesting. His perception of damage rose slightly, and his astonishment rose with it. Some deadly theurgy behind her fiery breath was eating away at the foundations of his being. He examined it closely, his arcane senses peering deep into her, and at last determined what it was.
She is a corrupted soul! A true servant of the Uruqua, her being infused with the terrible power of the Dark. That profane poison had leached into every fibre of her mortal existence, suffusing her power with a consuming strength inimical to all life. He was himself, now, he knew, a creature of Darkness; but his damnation was nothing to hers. It was a thing so terrible and so profound that it was capable of harming even his arcanely-sustained physical form.
And so that’s it, he exulted internally. That’s the answer! That’s why she wants the Wand! She had to stave off the Twilight; she had to deny death, for once death came to her, she would be eternally damned. The corruption meant that she had sold herself, and the whole of her immortal soul, to the Uruqua in exchange for her power. When she died, she would become the least of beings, the chattel of whichever one of the Powers of Dark had granted her this might. Probably Ekhalra, he speculated, as the dragon’s terrible fire swirled around him.
His heart – or at least, the arcane forces that now stood in for his heart – leapt with exultation.
I have her!
The fiery blast trailed off. Qaramyn cocked his head at her quizzically, unable to keep the glee out of his voice. “Was that a question, mistress?”
Enraged beyond reason, Karventää screamed a wordless obscenity and hurled the young lich’s body at a nearby wall. Qaramyn, however, was ready this time. Tightening his concentration, he muttered a quick spell under his breath, arresting his headlong career and settling lightly to the floor.
Karventää turned to Ergon. THIS IS YOUR FAULT, FOOL, she hissed. HAD YOU FOUND THE LAST OF THE SHARDS AS I COMMANDED, THIS WOULD NEVER HAVE HAPPENED. NOW WHAT AM I TO DO?
Calm yourself, Ergon replied coldly. He looked over at Qaramyn, eyeing him consideringly. The skeletal mage was brushing quantities of ash from his robes, regarding with irritation the long gashes torn by the dragon’s claws.
Turning back to Karventää, Ergon snapped, The Shaft of the Wand is still intact. It has not been destroyed. Indeed, it cannot be destroyed, not by any craft or power that I possess.
Karventää glared at the two skeletal wizards. ONE OF YOU IS LYING TO ME! she shrieked.
Ignorance is not falsehood, Ergon replied soothingly. Nor is speculation. My apprentice is new to the Curse of Boorn, and is still a relative novice at the arts of divination. He told you what he believed to be the truth.
I know differently. I have locked my perceptions to the Shards. I know that the Shaft still exists.
THEN WHERE IS IT? Karventää asked, her ire abating somewhat.
My student’s former colleagues may know where it is, Ergon replied smoothly. He looked over at Qaramyn. Don’t you think?
Qaramyn nodded, impressed by the cleverness with which his master avoided having to risk a lie. “They may,” he confirmed. “They very well may. Shall I go and ask them?”
The dragon snorted a gout of flame. HARDLY. I SHALL SEND SERVANTS I TRUST.
She pushed her snout towards Qaramyn again. THESE…COLLEAGUES. WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
Ergon turned to his apprentice, wondering what the younger lich would say.
Qaramyn did not hesitate even an instant. “The Elfrealm,” he replied.
Karventää nodded. She turned back to Ergon. FIND THEM.
♦ ♦ ♦