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8 Eleint, the Year of the Banner (1368 DR)


One foot in front of the other ...

Druhallen of Sunderath told himself that as he pushed his companions through the empty tunnels of Dekanter. They had the scroll, they had one anothereven their goblin whose heartbeat was weak but steady whenever he checked it.

As for the other goblins, Ghistpok's goblinsGhistpok was dead, seared in his own fat, and his starving tribe was doomed. Its doom, though, had been sealed long before this chilly night, long before the obese Ghistpok took command. Perhaps the tribe had been doomed from the moment the alhoon claimed the mines for its own. Certainly they'd been doomed once it found a golden scroll from Netheril.

The eastern Greypeaks were brightening when the survivors stumbled through the great dwarf-carved gate. Sunrise and dimmed stars had never looked so beautiful. The driving need to be gone from this place relaxed for a moment. Dru raised his eyes, as if heavenly light could heal his face or his memories of this night.

Only time and distance, mostly distance, could dull the remembered agony, the sense of violation and helpless rage he'd felt when the Beast Lord had overwhelmed his spirit. This night, Druhallen of Sunderath had experienced cruelty, hunger, and degradation on a scale he'd not imagined possible; he was not grateful for the lesson, which was worse in reflection than it had been in reality. Were it not for Rozt'a, Tiep, and the goblin he carried on his back, Dru would not have returned to the light.

"The horses, Dru," Rozt'a whispered. "Get the horses."

She'd reclaimed her sword belt on the way out. Shortly after that, she'd rediscovered her voice. Dru didn't know what she had endured in the last hour and would never ask. She was shivering now, from cold and memory. He would have held her close, if his arms hadn't been locked behind his back supporting the goblin.

Tiep walked a bit apart from them and added distance as the sky grew brighter than the light spella feeble effort, ruddy with desperationthat had guided them away from the pool chamber. Dru owed his life to Tiep. If the youth hadn't risked everything in his brave, senseless attempt to slay the Beast Lord, Dru would be a fading part of the alhoon's memory. Tiep's reward had been the Beast Lord's embrace.

Druhallen didn't know what to say to his bloodied foster-son; he didn't know what to say to himself.

They reached the carved steps to the High Trail, which, like many stairways, were higher and steeper going up than coming down. Dru's legs were jellied halfway through the third tier. He called a halt when they reached the top.

Dekanter's clouds were reassembling in the north and west. There'd be rain in the quarry by mid-morning, but for now it was sun-streaked and quiet. Nothing moved on the mounds or showed its face at the gaping mine entrance. He didn't particularly want to see the remnants of Ghistpok's tribe and suffered a visceral fear when he imagined the Beast Lord or its living kin, but the silence spoke of tragedy, at least for the goblins who were guilty of no crime other than being born in Dekanter.

Their horses were restless with hunger. Tiep went to work spreading the last of the grass they'd brought up from the bogs while Rozt'a ransacked her gear for clothing and Dru settled Sheemzher on the rock. The goblin's left eye fluttered open.

"Sky," he murmured.

"We made it out of there," Dru assured him. "All of us."

"People, too?"

Dru dodged the question. "Save your strength, little fellow. We'll take care of you."

Sheemzher closed his eye and appeared to sleep. Rozt'a came over. She'd dressed herself in layers of everything. Her movements were calm and confident as she washed the goblin's wounds with water from the run-off. "He's lost the eye," she said, bandaging it. "And a lot of blood. A hole like that" She indicated the thrust wound in Sheemzher's right flank."Is beyond my skill."

"Wyndyfarh will heal him."

It was the least Lady Mantis could do.

The very least she would do after they delivered the golden scroll and reclaimed Galimer Longfingers from her behind-the-waterfall glade.

"How will we get there? Which way should we go? Back through the rocks and bogs? Or the other way?"

The other way was back to the High Trail, down the steps, and across the quarry to the eastward gorge. Did they want to take their chances with the Zhentarim on the Dawn Pass Trail? Or with the gods-knew-what on the bogs?

"We'll go faster astride on the trail."

Rozt'a looked east. "If we get that far."

There were new words for fear written on her face. Druhallen imagined similar words were written on his own beneath the blood and swelling.

"We'll get through while the sun's shining. They're creatures of the Underdark. They won't come into the light."

Clouds were thickening in the north and west.

"We'd best hurry," Rozt'a concluded.

"I'll get the gear loaded while you patch him up as best you can."

"What about you?"

He wasn't ready to think about his own wounds. "Later. Talk to Tiep. Help him if you can. He's young enough to care what the ladies think about his nose. Me? As long as my mother can recognize me when I'm hung"

"Druhallen, it's been twenty-five years since you've seen your mother. She wouldn't know you if she fell over your corpse!"

Rozt'a sounded like her old self when she mocked him. He tried to return the favor with a laugh, but turned away, wincing as the effort opened the lacerations.

Sheemzher was unconscious and rust-colored when Rozt'a finished binding his wounds. The horses were saddled and packed, but there'd be no riding until they got down the quarry steps. They rigged a blanket-sling over Dru's shoulder to leave his arms free for leading a horse while he carried the goblin.

The quarry remained deserted with a wall of clouds a few shades lighter than the mountains themselves squeezing down. Rain fell before they reached the bottom, a hard rain with heavy wind behind it and lightning, too. They mounted and headed east, glancing north and west over their shoulders until they were out of the quarry. By mid-afternoon they'd ridden from rain into warm sunshine.

It was like waking up from a nightmare.

Sunset found them on the abandoned portion of the Dawn Pass Trail. Sheemzher had stirred twice during the day. They'd given him water both times and told one another that he was holding his own against his injuries, which was a lie. Tiep's ravaged face was swollen and purple. He'd shut both eyes and ridden blind. Dru was tempted to do the same before Rozt'a called a halt.

"We've gone far enough," she said.

Druhallen's lips were too big and sore to argue. He handed Sheemzher downlet him drop into Rozt'a's arms, if the truth were toldand flopped out of the saddle like a top-heavy sack of grain. A season's worth of grass grew trail-side. Dru hobbled the horses in it and made rough sheaves to form a pallet for Sheemzher before hauling their empty waterskins to a brook on the low-ground side of the trail.

Glancing west, Dru saw clouds towering over the Greypeaks. It was raining in Dekanter as it did almost every day, but their campsite was dry and the brook was seasonably low. He had to climb down the bank and rearrange some rocks before he could fill the skins. The first skin was bloated, tied, and sitting atop the bank and he was working on the second when Rozt'a shrieked.

Drawing on a reserve of strength he hadn't suspected, Dru leapt the bank and raced across the trail, looking for trouble as he ran. The trail was clear of monsters and Zhentarim, but Tiep was in the midst of a seizure. The youth was sprawled on the ground, his heels pounding the ground and his arms flailing through the air. Druhallen dropped to his knees to help Rozt'a restrain him and took a fist on the nose. The pain was exquisite and for several moments he could do nothing at all. When his muscles unlocked, Tiep was lying quiet.

"Are you all right?" Rozt'a asked.

He didn't bother answering as blood leaked from his nose and tears burned his cheek.

Rozt'a brushed her hands vigorously as she stood. "That's it. I'm steeping Wyndor's herbs for both of you."

Dru winced. Wyndor's herbs were a last resort, a very bitter last resort that tortured a man as they healed him. "If you do that, we'll be stuck here until tomorrow night plus the day after if we wait for the sun to ride."

"If I don't, you might be dead," Rozt'a countered as she flipped open their medicine chest, "or too sick to drink it."

That was another problem with Wyndor'sif the patient were too far gone, the herbs would kill before they healed.

"We've got to keep moving, Roz. As little as I wanted to bump into Amarandaris before, I want to see him even less now when we're traveling with that golden scroll. It's a miracle he hasn't caught up with us before this. We used up our miracles last night."

"That's why I'm steeping the Wyndor's. Don't argue with me, Druhallen. You're in no condition to win. Did you leave the skins by the stream?"

He stood up. She was right about his condition but he hadn't reached the point where he couldn't haul two waterskins back to their camp.

Tiep, whose eyes had opened during his exchange with Rozt'a, wobbled up and followed him.

"You don't have to worry about Amarandaris," the youth said from the top of the stream bank.

Dru braced the skin in the cool water and, while the water flowed into it, bathed his throbbing face. "You know something about him that I don't?"

The youth didn't answer right away. Dru worried he might be having another fit, but what he saw when he looked up was worse: guilt, deep and old.

"He pretty much told me I was on my own. He figured you'd find a way out of Parnast before he was ready to leave. Told me what to look out for, with you and the goblins and all, and told me to leave a written message in Yarthrain. He wouldn't have given me the name of someone in Yarthrain if he thought he'd catch up with youusbefore we got there."

Druhallen let the waterskin slip through his ankles. "You think that, do you?"

Tiep nodded.

"How long you been working for them?"

"Two, maybe three, years."

Anger quickened Dru's pulse; his lacerated face burned. "Come on, Tiep. I'm not a fool. What is it? Two years or three?"

"I tried to tell you! I've tried every time they ask me a favor. I knew how you'd react so I didn't dareuntil now. It's safe to camp a day or two. Safer than on the main trail. No one's coming here."

"Amarandaris isn'tif I believe you. That doesn't say no one's coming."

The youth bolted for the camp. Dru let him go. He tied off the waterskin and hoisted one to his left shoulder, opposite the pain, the other under his right arm. Rozt'a had a fire going and was waiting with a pot for the water to steep Wyndor's herbs. He had half a mind to tell her to prepare half the amount she'd measured out, but that would mean that he'd be telling her what Tiep had been up to, and he wasn't feeling that generous.

"You tell her what you've told me," he whispered to Tiep as he walked past the sullen, shaking youth, "and be quick about it, or you'll wish you'd never been born."

"I've wished that for years."

He didn't say anything while Rozt'a steeped the bitter herbs or when she handed them each a steaming mug. Tiep emptied the mug in three gulps; Dru had never seen anyone gulp Wyndor's. The stuff was as potent as any brew this side of magic. His was cool by the time he finished it, and by then the herbs were starting to take effect. He said he'd take the first watchhe thought he could fight the seediness until midnight, hoped he could memorize a spell or two before the shakes and nausea overwhelmed him. Rozt'a put her hand on his shoulder and guided him to his knees. "Sleep it off. You can stay up all night tomorrow."

Dru's thoughts were an unholy amalgam of Amarandaris, Tiep, and the Beast Lord as he slipped into delirium. He lived the rest of the night and all of the next day in a twilight of dreams and memories. In his few moments of lucidity he craved water, which Rozt'a gave him, and raved about the pain from a spike driven upward through his skull.

He was clear-minded, though empty-minded, when he sat up at sunset. The taste of death and rot thickened his tongue. He'd hawked and spat before he'd considered the wisdom of the act. Pain set him on his back again, but it was nothing like the pain before Wyndor's. He touched his face and the crusted cuts around his nose. The herbs had done their workhis body had done a week's worth of healing in a day. He had the appetite to prove it.

Rozt'a's cook pot called him as flowers called bees. She ladled something pale and lumpy into a bowl. He was ready for more before he asked what he was eating.

"Frog soup."

Dru looked at the lump in his spoon and swallowed it down without hesitation. He'd collected his thoughts by the time he'd sated his hunger. The edge was off his memories of Dekanter, as well, but not his last conversation with Tiep. He asked about Sheemzher first, because he'd spotted the goblin lying under a tent rigged from their blankets.

"Same as before. I'd've given him Wyndor's, if I didn't think it would kill him. The wound hasn't festered; that's a good sign. They're tougher than us, I guess, when it comes to disease."

"They'd have to be," Dru replied, and asked the harder question, "What about Tiep? Is he awake? Talking?"

Rozt'a shook her head. "I gave him a smaller dosewhat I'd give myself. He should have come through before you. It's as if he's fighting something. Reliving it. I've lost track of the number of times he's called your name."

"No sign of trouble, though? No visitors?"

She stirred the soup for her answer and dribbled a cascade of meat back into the pot.

"Get some sleep," Dru suggested. "You're tired. I'll take the watches tonight."

"I dozed. I'll be fineread your scroll, if you can, Druhallen. I know better than to come between a magician and his magic. This way you won't have to divide your attention."

He mumbled his thanks and retrieved the cloth-wrapped bundle from his gear. Midnight had passed hours ago. Dru could glance at the words of his light spell, cast it a moment later, and know he'd get another chance when midnight returned. He was impressed by the precautions Tiep had taken to protect the scroll with his shirt

The better to impress Amarandaris and the unknown Zhentarim contact in Yarthrain?

Druhallen sighed. Though his anger was real and justified, he knew Tiep's slide into the Network fell short of conscious betrayal. Somewhere in one of the cities they visited or in Scornubelwhich was more likelythe youth's luck had run out. He'd crossed a line that couldn't be crossed. Since the beginning in Berdusk, he, Rozt'a, and Galimer told their youngster to come to them when he got in trouble and tell them about his mistakes before they became flash point crises.

It was a rare boy who took that advice to heart. Dru thought of himself. He'd never willingly admitted an error to his fatherwhy volunteer for a thrashing? And after he'd left Sunderath, when his situation with Ansoain hadn't been so very different from Tiep's, he'd have died before risking the future with an untimely confession to his foster parent. Of course, he'd also bent over backward to stay out of trouble.

He was a carpenter's son. Both his grandfathers had been carpenters, too. He was an odd seed in Sunderath, but he knew his roots. The gods knew what Tiep had for ancestors, and they weren't telling.

With a sigh, Druhallen unrolled the layers of shirt and scroll. The first, most obvious, thing he noticed was that scroll wasn't parchment backed with gold-leaf, as he'd expected, but gold throughout and polished to a sheen that sparkled in his light spell and hurt his eyes. He noticed the script next. Dense columns of Netherese script that floated on the gold. Dru could read the letters, but not casually, not without concentration, and there was no guarantee he'd make sense of the words. His dark glass disk slipped out next, warmer than it had ever been before.

Odd that it was the object which had brought him to this forsaken corner of Faerun only to become uninteresting once he'd arrived. Dru was almost certain now that the disk had nothing to do with Thayan circle-magic but, instead, had something to do with hiding objectspeoplein plain sight. He guessed now that the Red Wizards had held onto it tightly until they were ready to begin their ambush, then they'd thrown it down. Why they hadn't retrieved it was, and might remain, a mystery, but a minor one compared with the meaning behind the words in front of him.

He picked the disk out of the grass and returned it to its silken sack and snug compartment within the folding box. There might be a use for it, yet. Amarandaris had told him to name his price. If the offer held, he could think of something the Zhentarim could return to him.

When the box was folded shut, Dru once again looked at the scroll. Twilight was passing quickly on this crisp, cloudless night and he'd had to dim his light spell. Dru wasn't sure he could trust his eyes, but yesby means and magic he could not explain, the floating words on the scroll had become rusty marks across the back of Tiep's homespun linen shirt.

Too bad the boy didn't dress in silk as Galimer did. A more finely woven fabric would have recorded the ancient words more clearly, but they could still be read, albeit as reversed mirror-writing. ArcArcanArcanium? The shirt's script was imprecise. Far easier to look at the floating script. The gold made its own light. Druhallen squelched his spell entirely and found the Netherese letters instantly clearer.

Arcanum Fundare Tiersus: Of fundamental or basic magic or mystery, the third lesson or chapter.

Druhallen translated the first line of the first column: Things are not as they seem. Seeming is illusion. Illusion is change. Things change.

He was disappointed: the wisdom of millennia reduced to a schoolboy's truism. Then it came to him that all magic was illusion and, more than that, a reagent was the illusion of magic: a thing that was not what it seemed to be. A spell was the destruction of illusion. A spell was the ultimate revelation of truth.

A spell was naked truth!

Dru sat up straight, stunned by the insight sweeping through his mind, changing the way he thought about magic. The sky was black, the stars were brilliant jewels; midnight had come and gone since he'd translated the first line. There were a thousand lines or more floating on the gold. He did the math then started on the second line. The words were there, but the magicthe truth within illusionwas not.

Some things did not change. Reading the Nether scroll was like studying spells. He could read or study at any time, but true learning happened only once each day. Disappointment singed Dru's spirit. In a few days time he wouldhe definitely wouldtrade the scroll for Galimer. Before then, he'd read another line, perhaps two more, not more than four. A far cry from a thousand.

Dru picked up the shirt and held it close. Things are not as they seem ... The words, not the magic. Would the magic be there tomorrow? He folded Tiep's shirt carefully, separately from the scroll which rolled up tighter than his little finger. Then, because for a wizard thwarted curiosity hurt worse than any wound, Dru opened his folding box to the compartment where he kept powdered sulfur.

Light was a fast kindling spell that consumed its red or yellow reagent when he committed it to memory. Usually he balanced a bit of powder on a fingernail that had been black since he left Sunderath. Tonight he left the powder in the compartment and, rather than read the writ from the wooden panel, Dru closed his eyes and remembered it while holding a harmonic thoughtthe reagent is the illusion, the truth is light.

The power was in his mind. After decades of practice, Druhallen knew when he'd learned a spell after midnight. He remembered his simplest flame spell which had always required an ember before it would kindle. Like pure light, flames appeared in Dru's mind. It felt different, as if the ember were there also. He had to know ...

A flaming streak shot from Druhallen's hand. It brought Rozt'a at a run.

Dru was exhilarated. He'd cast a spell by will alone, without literal study, reagents, or a kindling gesture. Readinglearninga single line from the Nether scroll had ushered him across the threshold that separated good wizards from great ones.

Rozt'a was in a panic, fearing that the mind flayers, dead and alive, had returned to finish their feast. She had harsh words for a wizard who'd terrified her out of curiosity. Dru endured the tongue lashing, which did not dent his enthusiasm.

"One look at the Nether scroll and I've learned what a spell is. I've been collecting spells as if every one were different. That's illusion; Rozt'a, spells are all the same. They're all a path through illusion to truth. One look, and I've seen the fundamental truth of magic."

She narrowed her eyes. "All spells are the same? That's the fundamental truth of magic?"

"You'd have to see it from your mind. And if you could read the Netherese script, you would. This scroll" He held it up "could turn even you into a wizard."

The prospect did not delight her. She snatched the scroll from his hand. "One look you say, and you're casting spells from your mind. If you're not stark, raving mad then forget your glass disk. This is the thing that could unhinge Faerun. You say there are a hundred of them?" Rozt'a swore by Helm and Ilmater, her god of last resort.

She had a point. "Even though there were only fifty, legend says Netheril was founded on two identical sets of golden scrolls. Both were lost before the Empire fell."

"And good riddance. Magic shouldn't be easy."

Another point. Dru purged his wild enthusiasm with a sigh. "We're exchanging it for Galimer."

"Solving our problem and giving the world a bigger one."

"I doubt it. I don't think there's anything in that scroll that the bug lady doesn't already know."

Rozt'a glowered at the scroll before handing it back. "I'm glad for you, Druhallen, if you've seen the truth of magic, and I pray to all the gods that you're right, because we are exchanging it for Galimer."

"No question," Dru agreed. His excitement rekindled the instant his fingers touched the warm, shining gold. He was a boy again, freshly apprenticed to Ansoain and she couldn't teach him fast enough. "Sit with me a moment. I want to try something."

"Druhallen ..." her voice was ominous, distrusting.

"I'm not going to open the scroll. I'm not going to touch it. Here, you can hold it."

She took it reluctantly. "Druhallen, what's going on in your mind?"

"I cameWe came all this way to cast a single spell, and I didn't cast it. I never found the time, never found the place, and when it came time to leave, it never even crossed my mind. I still have all the reagentsthe dragon's blood, the mummy's bone, the perfect pearl. They're going to waste"

Rozt'a opened her mouth, then shut it.

"Rozt'a, I want to cast the Candlekeep spell on the scroll. I'm going to cast it, but it's the kind of spell that's safer with an anchor, someone to keep an eye on things and stop the magic if it goes awry."

"How will I do that?"

"Just take the scroll away. You'll be holding it. It won't be difficult."

She was skeptical, but eventually agreed. Dru committed the spell to memory, then made the preparations.

"You're sure I can just walk away?"

"It's a passive spell, Rozt'a. Nothing happens here."

Dru sat outside the circle with a clear view of the scroll and spoke the words that Candlekeep's blind scryer had taught him, meaningless words that belonged to no language he could name. Nothing happened at first, and he suspected the ultimate irony: After all this, he'd gotten some minor aspect wrong and the spell would not kindle. Then Druhallen's thoughts let go of time.

Slowly at first, but soon with dizzying speed, Dru's awareness moved against time's flow to the beginningthe very beginningof light, heat, and majesty. The time stream caught him and carried him on a lightning bolt through the scroll's history. Druhallen had visions of huge sparks and larger explosions, none of which had meaning to him, except that the scroll was old. Its history was older than humanity, older than Faerun and when the lightning bolt carried him through those moments, it was moving too fast for him to collect any impressions of Netheril, Dekanter, or his own past. It was traveling too fast to stop and carried him into the future, where no mortal mind should travel but where the scroll had place and presence.

He'd perceived a return to pure light, pure heat, and majesty when it ended and he was sitting in the grass beside an abandoned trail, staring at an empty circle in the dirt. "You were getting weird," Rozt'a said from behind his back. "Your eyes were starting to glow. I figured it was time to stop. Are you yourself?"

Dru turned around. "Of course I"

Rozt'a had her sword drawn, ready to lop off his head. "You're absolutely sure?"

"It was a scrying spell, Roz. Like reading a book or looking at a pictureexcept I couldn't understand the words and the pictures didn't make much sense either."

She lowered the sword and laughed at him.

| The Nether Scroll | * * *