The Gilded Rune
MORNDINSAMMAN'SAGA, TABLET THE FIRST
“Better than gold is a tale rightly told.”
At the beginning of Creation, there was naught but darkness and void. Then came light: a single lump of coal, glowing red.
Moradin the Creator breathed upon the coal, and it grew hot. He plucked it from the firmament with his tongs, and placed it into his forge. There it burned brightly, neither dimming nor diminishing in heat for a tenday.
Moradin scooped clay from the earth, and from it made a mold in his own image. He worked the soft clay with his fingers, denting it to create hollows into which molten metal would flow. A thumbprint became a face, surrounded by nail-scored lines for the hair. The chest was a deeper hollow, with more lines upon it that would be the beard. The body he made stout and solid, so that his creation might hold its ground in the face of adversity, as unmoving as a mountain. The legs were the length and breadth of Moradin’s thumb; the arms the length of his strong forefinger.
When the two halves of the mold were done, he set them by the forge to dry.
Once the pieces of the mold were hard, Moradin lifted them and bound the two halves together with a strand of his own hair. He set a crucible upon his forge, and into it put the four noble metals: silver, gold, platinum, and mithril. Those he heated and stirred, until the mixture of molten metals was pleasing to his eye. Then he lifted the crucible from the forge, and poured the swirling liquid into the mold.
When the pouring was done, Moradin set his crucible aside and lifted the mold to his lips. He blew upon it, cooling it. Then he opened the mold, lifted the figure he had made, and cut off the sprue, leaving a mark in the middle of the figure’s belly. He looked upon what he had made, and saw that it was good and true.
Berronar Truesilver, bride to Moradin, came to him then and placed a hand upon her husband’s arm. She, too, looked upon the casting. It was she who said that a man without a companion on life’s path was like a pick without a pail: each was equally needed to mine the earth’s wealth.
Moradin realized the wisdom of her words, and fashioned a second mold in Berronar’s image, with hips suitable for bearing children and breasts for suckling babes. And thus the second casting created woman.
For a tenday, the coal glowed in the forge. For a tenday, Moradin worked-pouring, casting, cutting, and cooling. From his forge sprang men and women, some with hair of gold, some with hair of silver, or hair a fiery copper red, or hair as dark as soot. Moradin took special joy in that adornment, and commanded his creations neither to cut their hair nor to let it grow unkempt, but to braid it and keep it in a manner similar to his own luxuriant beard.
He further commanded his people to spread across the land and multiply, for the riches of the earth were wide. He gave unto his creations the knowledge of mining, smelting, and smithing, of working stone and gemcutting, that they might prosper.
Moradin then breathed into their ears all the secrets of the earth, all the mysteries of the places deep in stone. He set them upon the face of Faerun, and bid them always to worship him, to keep him as secure in their hearts as a gem within its setting.
Thus was the dwarf race forged.
1480 DR THE YEAR OF DEEP WATER DRIFTING
“All that glitters is not gold.”
Torrin froze, one hand on cool stone, the other gripping his mace, as an eerie moan echoed out of the cavern ahead. Strong and insidious, it vibrated his body like a struck gong. The tunnel he’d been climbing leveled off ahead into a ledge overlooking a chasm hundreds of paces high and deep. A shape swept downward across the empty space beyond the ledge. A flying creature fluttered there like a flung cloak, its back as black as the darkness of the cavern, its belly as white as bone. Twin points of red-the creature’s eyes-glowed above a gaping mouth. A tail snapped like a whip in the creature’s wake, and then the thing was gone.
A cloaker, hunting.
“By my beard,” Torrin whispered. “That was close.”
His stomach felt loose and fluttery with nausea. His thoughts skittered about like frightened mice and took several moments to ebb. Even protected by his ring, Torrin had nearly succumbed to the cloaker’s magical call.
The moan came again, but from farther away. Then a third moan, still fainter, followed by the shrill cry of a cave bat, abruptly cut off.
Torrin felt nervous sweat trickle down his sides. Had he arrived at Needle Leap just a little earlier, he might have been the cloaker’s lunch.
Torrin stroked his braided beard. The touch of the tiny silver hammers at the end of each braid calmed him. He whispered a quick prayer of thanks to Marthammor Duin, the god that watched over adventurers like himself. Even though Torrin was human by birth, the dwarf god was clearly aiding him.
Torrin prayed that the god’s protection would also extend to the fellow he’d come to the desolate place to meet. Not only were there cloakers nearby, but the passageways through that section of the Underdark were thick with drow marauders. If Torrin had been given any choice in the matter, he would have taken the long way around to Needle Leap. But the dark elves had cut off the longer, safer route, leaving Torrin no other choice but to chance the jump.
He hoped that Kendril would fulfill his part of the bargain, and show up with the runestone. Arranging to purchase it had been a lengthy process-and an expensive one-involving numerous coded messages back and forth, via middlemen of questionable character.
No, Torrin told himself. Kendril had sworn, by Moradin’s beard, that he would deliver, and that was good enough. A dwarf would never renege on an oath like that. In a short time, the magical runestone would at last be in Torrin’s hands.
In the meantime, it was time to cross Needle Leap. Before the cloaker finished enjoying its meal.
Torrin crept out onto the ledge and studied the gap ahead, peering through the magical goggles that allowed him to see in the dark. The chasm extended as far above and below as the eyes could see, as well as to the right and the left. The gap between the ledge on which Torrin stood and the one that opened onto the tunnel leading to Helmstar was dozens of paces wide. And at the center of that gap was a narrow spire of stone-the Needle-whose mostly flat top served as an all-too-narrow landing point between Torrin’s ledge and the tunnel across from him.
At some point in the past, there had been a rope bridge across Needle Leap. But the rogues and outcasts who called Helmstar home had cut the bridge down years before. Moldering strands of rope hung from the pitons that had once secured them. Torrin had a rope, but he had been told not to trust the easily fractured rock. After noting how loosely anchored the rusted pitons were, he thought it wise advice.
Instead, he’d jump. There was just enough room on the ledge to get a good running start, but the gap between the ledge and the Needle was wide. Too wide for more than one young daredevil who had learned it at the cost of his life, after being so unwise as to accept a dare. Even with his longer human legs, Torrin estimated, he’d only just be able to make it. On top of that, the stone here was dewy with condensation from the damp air. Slippery. It would be a treacherous leap.
Torrin slid his mace into the loop on his belt and ensured that his backpack was snug; he didn’t need it sliding about and throwing off his balance. He whispered a quick prayer to the Watcher over Wanderers and kissed, for luck, one of his beard’s tiny silver hammers. Then he ran.
A leap… and he was sailing through the chill air, with nothing between himself and the jagged rocks far below. With his arms windmilling for balance, Torrin threw his body forward into a run the moment his foot touched the Needle. Still sprinting-one step, two, three-he leaped a second time.
Sudden movement to the right and far below caught his eye. The cloaker was winging its way upward! The distraction threw off his landing, and he stumbled badly on the distant ledge, his lead foot twisting off the edge. He crashed down, half on and half off the ledge, sliding backward. He scrabbled for a crack, any crack, to jam his fingers into. No use-he couldn’t stop his momentum! Rough stone scraped his cheek and wrenched the goggles away from his eyes, sending them clattering onto the ground beside his head. Blinded, he slid until his clawing fingers were all that kept him from going over the edge. The rest of him dangled in empty space.
“Marthammor,” he gasped, knowing that in a moment more his trembling hands would betray him. “Why have you forsaken me?”
Hands seized his left wrist, just below his bracer, and pulled hard. As he was dragged bodily up and onto the ledge, Torrin at last found a knob of stone with one foot. He hiked himself up the rest of the way and rolled onto his back. Safe!
The hands released his wrist. Panting, Torrin lay arched uncomfortably over his backpack, sweat trickling down his temples. He felt the rough hands of his rescuer touching his beard and then patting their way down across his shoulders, chest, and legs.
“You’re no dwarf,” his rescuer rasped. “You talk like one, but by the feel of your limbs, you’re human.”
Torrin sat up. He felt around for his magical goggles and heaved a sigh of relief when he found them. They allowed him to see only in shades of black, white, and gray, but that was far better than blindly stumbling about the Underdark.
He looked up at his rescuer. The fellow who’d just pulled him to safety was a dwarf with patched, dirty clothes and a beard in need of combing. He had shoulders even broader than most, but moved stiffly. He wheezed like an old forge hand, his chest audibly rattling as it rose and fell. His breath smelled slightly off, with an odor like damp clay. His eyes, however, were the most disturbing. They were a pale, pitted white, like chipped marbles-and they weren’t moving. The skin at the corner of each eye was deeply creased. In normal light, it was likely a painful red.
“You’re blind!” Torrin gasped. “How did you know I was-”
A hand, as rough as chipped stone, grabbed Torrin’s neck. A dagger point pricked his throat, silencing him. “Who are you?” the blind dwarf rasped.
Torrin swallowed. Carefully. “Torrin Ironstar,” he replied. He started to raise an arm to show off the star on his bracer, then remembered the dwarf wouldn’t be able to see it. “Are you Kendril, son of Balund?”
The blind dwarf frowned. Then he laughed and released Torrin’s throat. He felt for his sheath with one hand, and slid the dagger into it. “I am,” he replied, sighing heavily. “Just as well, really, that you’re human.”
“Actually, although I may not look like it, I’m a dwarf,” Torrin corrected. “Moradin recast my soul in a human body this time around. I’d have told you that during our negotiations, but I didn’t think you’d trust me if I did.”
“Pull my beard another time, human,” Kendril said with a grunt. His head cocked slightly to one side. “Did you hear that moan? There’s a cloaker somewhere nearby. And we’ve business to conclude.”
Torrin stood and glanced down over the edge. He was on solid ground-but someone needed to tell his pounding heart that. He couldn’t see the cloaker, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t still down there, somewhere. “You’re right. We should get back from the edge. Are you able to find your way?”
“I found you, didn’t I?” the blind dwarf said, wheezing. Feeling his way along with one hand on the wall, Kendril led Torrin into the tunnel. After a dozen or so steps he halted. “This should be safe enough, for now.”
Grunting with what sounded like pain, Kendril reached stiffly inside his shirt and pulled out a worn leather pouch. He teased open the pouch strings with shaking fingers and pulled out a fist-sized oval of bloodstone. He felt for Torrin’s hand and pressed the stone into it. “Here’s what you paid for.”
Torrin felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise as he took the runestone. Was it just his imagination, or was its magic making his hand tingle?
“You can feel its magic, can’t you?” Kendril asked.
Torrin nodded, then remembered to speak aloud. “I can.”
He held the runestone up and peered closely at it through his goggles. One side was blank. The other was inscribed with two runes, barely visible thanks to the many chips, scuffs, and cracks the runestone had acquired in the hundreds or even thousands of years since its creation.
“ ‘Earth magic?’ ” Torrin wondered aloud.
Kendril’s eyebrows rose. “You know how to read Auld Dethek?”
“Enough to make out simple words like these,” Torrin said. He took a cloth from his pocket and wrapped it around the runestone. “You said this stone would teleport me to wherever I wanted to go. How do I do that?”
“You’ll have to figure that out for yourself.”
“But you said-”
“I said I would sell it to you,” the dwarf said. “And I have.”
“But you must know how to use it,” Torrin said. “How else would you have gotten here? You can’t see.”
“Quite true. But teaching you how to use the runestone wasn’t part of our bargain.”
“What if I paid you more?”
Kendril sighed. “I don’t need your coin,” he said. “Or anything else you think to offer. Not any more. Our transaction is done.”
Torrin fumed. It was clear that Kendril wasn’t going to budge, and there was little Torrin could do about it. He wasn’t about to threaten a fellow dwarf, let alone one who was blind and obviously unwell. Kendril had stuck precisely to the wording of their bargain, and that was that.
Torrin wished that he’d anticipated such an obstacle. Figuring out how to use the stone would mean a consultation with a loremaster. And that would require payment-coin he didn’t have. He should have known better than to agree to purchase what was-he was starting to suspect-stolen property that Kendril himself didn’t even know how to use. Torrin had compromised his principles, and would have one more thing to answer for when his life was done.
“Where is it you want to go, anyway?” Kendril asked.
“The Soulforge,” Torrin replied.
Kendril rasped out a laugh. “The Soulforge?” he repeated. “If that’s what you’re looking for, step off that ledge, human. Test that theory of yours. If your soul really is that of a dwarf, it will wind up at Moradin’s forge soon enough.”
“The Soulforge I’m looking for is the one here on Faerun,” Torrin said. “It’s the one the dwarves emerged from when they entered this realm.”
“That’s an even harder beard pull,” Kendril said. “Next thing you know, you’ll be telling me you’re going to forge a new race of dwarves with it-that you’re the Dwarffather himself.”
Torrin made no comment. He was used to people mocking his holy quest. He shrugged off his backpack, tucked the runestone inside, and carefully tied the flap shut. “Your clanfolk received the fee,” he told Kendril. “In gemstones, as you specified. I had to sell everything of value I had, but-”
“I may be blind, but I still have eyes in Eartheart,” Kendril said. “I wouldn’t be here with you now if it hadn’t been paid.” He turned his face, seeming to peer at Torrin with those eerie, marble white eyes. “You’re certain they won’t be able to trace the gems back to me?”
“I’m sure,” Torrin replied. “I had a middleman deliver them to your brother’s wife. As you specified, he explained that they were part of the trove that had been overlooked during the division of the Sorndar estate. She seemed to believe that story, and didn’t question it.”
“And you delivered my message?”
“Yes. In person.”
“How did my brother receive it?”
Torrin hesitated, remembering the shove that had nearly sent him tumbling down the rampart stairs. “He… ah… He didn’t exactly listen to it.”
“Lightning smite the old fool!” Kendril exclaimed. “Does he still have only stone between his ears?” He smacked a fist into the rock wall beside him. It struck with a dull clunk. A piece of something gray splintered off and flew away. A fragment of loose stone from the wall? Torrin wondered.
No, he realized. That had been Kendril’s little finger-and the dwarf hadn’t even noticed. Dark blood oozed from the stump, slowly dripping onto the ground.
“You’ve… injured yourself,” Torrin said, feeling as if he were about to be sick.
“Have I?” Kendril asked. He felt the place where his finger had been but made no step to staunch the blood.
Torrin took an involuntary step back. “Your eyes… Your hand… Are you ill, or was it a spell that did that to you?”
Kendril’s bitter laugh skittered along the edge of sanity. “Don’t you worry, human. You’re not going to catch it from me.”
Torrin guessed that was supposed to put him at ease. It didn’t. But Kendril was a fellow dwarf, someone who quite clearly needed aid. More aid than Torrin could deliver, but he was bound by the code of the dwarves to at least do what he could. “Let me bind that wound,” he said.
“Too late for that,” the dwarf said.
Kendril lurched forward suddenly and seized Torrin’s hand with his own, undamaged one. Torrin shuddered and tried to pull away, but Kendril’s grip was as strong as stone, despite the dwarf’s trembling.
“If you can’t convince Jorn, speak to his wife,” Kendril said. His foul-smelling breath panted up into Torrin’s face. “Tell her! They need to get as far away as possible, and as quickly as possible, or they’ll wind up like me.”
Torrin glanced uneasily down at Kendril’s oozing hand. If it was some sort of sickness that Kendril was suffering from, was it in his blood?
“Just tell them to get out of Eartheart-to get as far from the East Rift as they can,” Kendril said, pleading. “And tell Jorn I am his brother, still. Despite… everything. That I will carry my regrets to my grave.”
Torrin tried to ease his hand free. “Why must they leave Eartheart?” he prompted. “Tell me more. Tell me what the danger is.”
“Too late,” the dwarf said.
“Shh.” Kendril cocked his head, listening. A low moan welled up from the cavern behind them. “That cloaker’s coming back.”
Finally, he let go of Torrin’s hand.
“We’d best be going, then,” Torrin said, backing off a pace. “Will you be able to find your way back to Helmstar on your own? Can I… guide you?”
In truth, Torrin wanted to turn and run the other way. Chance Needle Leap a second time, despite the cloaker. Run all the way home to Eartheart, and tell someone, anyone, of his strange encounter and ask them what it meant.
“I’m not returning to Helmstar.” Kendril said. “My destiny lies in another direction.” He took a deep breath, then turned his face up toward Torrin’s. “I was a cleric, once. Did you know that?”
“Really?” Torrin replied. Belatedly, he admonished himself for letting the word slip out. It wasn’t his place to mock a fellow dwarf, no matter how low the fellow might have fallen. Torrin knew how mockery could sting.
Kendril abruptly clenched both fists and banged his right hand down atop his left-the sign of Moradin’s hammer striking the anvil. “May the Soul Forger find a vein of worthiness, amid my dross, and forgive me for what I’ve done.” Then he sprinted away-straight toward the chasm.
“Kendril!” Torrin exclaimed. “Stop!” He started after the blind dwarf, but it was too late. Kendril ran straight over the edge, hurtling forward. Screaming the Dwarffather’s name-“Moradinnnnn!”-he plunged into the chasm.
“No!” Torrin gasped. He heard the sickening thud and crack of Kendril’s body striking a wall, followed a moment later by the rustle of a cloaker enveloping its prey. There was no scream. Torrin prayed that meant that Kendril had been knocked unconscious before being devoured.
“Moradin’s blessing upon you, Kendril,” he whispered as he backed hurriedly away from Needle Leap. “May you be reforged anew.”
Torrin turned and ran down the tunnel that followed the longer route to Eartheart, bypassing Needle Leap. As he ran, conflicting emotions clanged through him like hammers all trying to strike the same anvil at once. He was elated to have at last acquired the runestone, but at the same time a rising sense of dread filled him. What had been wrong with Kendril? Obviously some strange new disease that the blind dwarf feared would spread to his family. But why-and how? By his own admission, Kendril hadn’t spoken to his brother’s family in years.
And why had Kendril killed himself? Yes, the cloaker had been had been headed back, and might even have squeezed itself into the tunnel, but surely Kendril wouldn’t have felt it necessary to create a distraction that would save Torrin, a complete stranger to him. Such a sacrifice was something one would expect only of a shield brother.
Which, Torrin suddenly realized, was exactly what Kendril must have been doing: protecting his fellow dwarves by killing himself, so whatever it was that had afflicted him wouldn’t spread.
Torrin realized he was wiping his hand against his trousers as he hurried along. “Might as well try to blow out a forge with a breath,” he said, admonishing himself. If Kendril’s touch had left disease on Torrin’s hands, he’d need a blessing to expunge it. It wasn’t about to be brushed off like dust.
A cleric, he decided. A cleric was what he needed. The temple of the Lady of Mercy in Hammergate, just outside of Eartheart, would be his first stop. And he wouldn’t touch anyone, or anything, until he reached it.
“Gold is where you find it.”
Torrin strode, naked, into the glacial pool in the temple’s chamber of healing. He winced as the numbingly cold water reached his genitals, and shivered as he descended the steps into chest-deep water that took his breath away. “Sharindlar,” he whispered through clenched teeth. “Lady of Mercy, I beg a boon: cleanse me.”
He ducked underwater, his shivers bone-deep. Praying silently, he tipped his head back and held himself underwater with powerful strokes of his arms. Through the water above him, he saw the red-robed cleric gesture, one of her hands sweeping across the water, palm down. A sheet of blood red flame spread across the surface of the pool, obscuring everything else from sight. Torrin counted one heartbeat, two, three-and then stood upright. Flames flickered across his hair, face, and shoulders-warming but not burning him-and spread down his body as he strode forward to the edge of the sacred pool. The sweet scent of burning frankincense filled his nose as he climbed the stairs and stepped out, leaving wet footprints that danced with tiny red flames. Then the cleric clapped her hands together, and the flames on both his body and the pool went out with a loud hiss-extinguishing his worries along with them. Whatever illness Kendril had been suffering from, any lingering taint that had rubbed off on Torrin was gone.
He bowed before the statue of the goddess that dominated his side of the room. Twice as tall as a dwarf and carved from a single piece of fire opal, it depicted the goddess dancing, her red robes swooshing to the side as she spun.
He rose from his bow. His body prickled, both hot and cold at once, as he waited for the Merciful Maiden to pronounce the tithe that would be demanded for the cleansing. At the same time, he snuck a look at her.
The priestess looked as though she were in her late teens, but with dwarves, who aged much more slowly than humans did, appearances were deceiving. She was likely in her late twenties, closer to Torrin’s age. And she was quite beautiful. Dark eyes, a full, curvy figure that filled out her robe, a dimpled chin, and a few stray black ringlets that had escaped the blue headscarf holding back her hair. Sharindlar’s silver disk rested gently on the portion of her breasts not covered by her robe.
It wasn’t generally known, outside the dwarf clans, that the goddess Sharindlar’s second, secret aspect was fertility. The Merciful Maiden was naked under that robe. And she was looking at Torrin far more directly than she needed to.
“Fifty Anvils,” she announced.
Torrin blinked, startled out of his sidelong appraisal. Fifty gold pieces! How was he to get his hands on that much coin? The only thing he had left of value, after paying for the runestone, was his mace. And he wasn’t about to part with that. The magic of the mace was what had led him to discover who he really was. He’d rather part with one of his arms.
Despite his consternation, he kept his composure. “Done,” he agreed. “Although I’ll need some time to raise the coin.”
“You have until Midsummer Night,” she replied.
Torrin groaned inwardly. Midsummer wasn’t that far off. If it wasn’t for his human body, he’d have been given as much time as he needed to pay the tithe. Quite possibly, he wouldn’t have had to pay it at all.
“I so swear.” Torrin clapped his right arm across his chest, his fist over his heart, and spoke the sacred oath. “My word is my shield,” he quoted. Then, with a grin, he added, “Without it, I am naked.”
“Indeed you are, Torrin Ironstar. But your words wear a pretty costume.”
Torrin’s eyebrows rose. She’d used his dwarf name! Was it just his imagination, or did he see an appraising look in her eye?
“Perhaps you’ll honor me with a dance at the Midsummer Festival?” he ventured to say. “It will be Fullmoon, after all.”
The Merciful Maiden didn’t answer. She pulled a thin strand of blue silk ribbon from her pocket and wrapped it around Torrin’s left wrist, tying its ends off in a knot. She’d tied it a little too tightly-likely distracted by regions that lay further south.
“A reminder,” she told him.
“Of my promise to dance with you?” he asked, smiling.
“Of your debt, and the trust the temple has extended to you.”
Torrin stroked his full red beard, purposefully drawing her attention to the silver hammers tied into its braids. “You mistrust me, because of this human body that I wear,” he said. “But I need no magical compulsions to seek you out a second time.”
She made no reply to his banter.
“Could you tell me your name?” he asked.
“I’d like to deliver the tithe to you in person. Prove to you I’m a dwarf who pays my debts.”
She stared at him a moment before answering. She was coy. He liked that.
“Maliira,” she said. “Clan Gallowglar.”
She seemed to be waiting for him to say something. Or, perhaps, to do something. Torrin glanced around the pool room, which was empty save for the two of them. A soft rain had begun to fall through the portion of the ceiling that was open to the sky; it pattered on the water behind him. A murmur of voices echoed down the corridors leading to the temple’s guest rooms, hinting that the privacy they shared was fleeting. But the way she was looking at him… Had the stories he’d heard about the Merciful Maidens really been true? Some dwarf women had a taste for the exotic, after all.
Footsteps sounded from one of the corridors. Maliira turned in that direction. “Another supplicant is coming,” she said. “You should leave now, Torrin Ironstar.” She gestured at the corridor that led to the room where he’d left his clothes and equipment, then turned her back on him.
Torrin nodded to himself. Patience. That was what the goddess was demanding of him. He slipped into the corridor that led to his change room, casting one last, longing glance back over his shoulder at Maliira.
Her back was to him. She was busy greeting the next visitor to Sharindlar’s sacred pool. Torrin saw that it was Ambril, a cousin of Eralynn, the woman who’d spoken in Torrin’s favor when he’d first applied to join the Delvers. Ambril was in the final month of her pregnancy. Her belly was so distended she had to lean back, hands on hips, to counterbalance the weight as she waddled into the room. Twins, the midwives had said, but whether girls or boys-or one of each-was still a matter of much debate.
It was no surprise to see Ambril in the temple. Ever since learning she was pregnant, she had imagined herself to have one ailment or another, and had made trips to a shrine at least once a tenday. Her husband, Haldrin, had gritted his teeth each time he’d opened his coin pouch, but he indulged Ambril, just the same. Likely the thinness of his pouch was what had caused Ambril to seek out blessings at such a lesser temple, outside of Eartheart proper.
Torrin made his way to the change room, all thoughts of the lovely cleric washed from his mind. He whispered a prayer of thanks that he hadn’t run into Ambril before his cleansing, when he still had the taint of disease upon him.
The gods had just sent a sobering reminder of how important Torrin’s visit to the temple had been. Whatever Kendril had been afflicted with might have been passed not only to the living, but also to those generations of dwarves yet to be born.
Torrin pushed open the doors of the Delver’s Roost and strode into the room, ducking under the heavy wooden ceiling beams that were just at his forehead height. The curtains on the far wall were drawn-as always-across the window, hiding what would otherwise be a spectacular view of East Rift and the Underchasm beyond. Delvers were a secretive bunch and liked to keep their doings from prying eyes.
The other Delvers looked up from their maps and ale glasses, and a familiar rustle of whispers broke out in Torrin’s wake. One fellow, whose red face suggested he’d had a little too much ale, rose to his feet, slung his beard over his shoulder, and stepped into Torrin’s path. “What’s this?” he asked loudly. “Has our order adopted a pet human?”
Torrin bit back his anger. He turned slightly, so the fellow could see his backpack. “My apologies,” he told the other Delver. “I didn’t realize you couldn’t read. Shall I tell you what rune is on my pack? It’s a ‘D.’ You must know what that means, since there’s one on your pack, as well.”
The dwarf’s eyes narrowed. “A beard and pretty bracers don’t make a dwarf.”
Torrin stared pointedly at the ruby set into the pommel of the dagger the other Delver wore on his forearm. “Nor does a pretty blade make a sharp wit,” he replied. “Sharpening it would be a better use of your time; you’ve clearly dulled it on me.”
Some of the dwarves at nearby tables chuckled. The face of the Delver who’d confronted Torrin grew even redder.
“Let him be, Nardor,” one of the others at his table called out. “He’s not worth your time.”
“You’re right,” Nardor said. “I’ve ale to drink.” Muttering one last insult into his beard, he returned to his table.
Torrin smiled at his fellow Delvers as he continued through the room, but despite the fact he’d held his own, he still felt the sting of the fellow’s taunt. One day, he’d just like to walk into the Delver’s Roost and not be challenged-just walk in, unnoticed and unremarked upon, like any other Delver.
An ale would help, he decided. He made his way to the everful cask at the center of the room, lifted his ceramic cup down from the hooks above-most of which held mugs of pewter or etched glass with gilded rim-and held it under the spigot. Frothing ale rose in his mug. When it was full he carefully turned the spigot back. He fished out the last coins in his pocket, counted out ten copper bits, and tossed them into the money jar.
He sniffed. The room smelled better than it had. Two months before, Torrin’s friend Eralynn had been blamed for breaking the spigot-an unfortunate occurrence that had flooded the room ankle-deep in ale. The bottom edges of some of the wall maps had been damaged, but fortunately the maps were only copies of common views of the East Rift and the surrounding lands. The flood hadn’t done any real harm, other than lending a musty odor to the carpet, but it had taken more than a tenday to dry the room out. And the other Delvers had yet another reason to whisper about Eralynn behind their beards, gossiping about how “unlucky” she was. They were always commenting on her spellscarred hands. Useful though the magic a spellscar granted might be, few among the Delvers were willing to overlook the fact that the “taint” on Eralynn’s hands was the same blue fire that had almost torn the world apart, nearly a century before.
No matter how Torrin had tried, he hadn’t been able to convince them that the flooded room wasn’t Eralynn’s fault, that it had been mere coincidence she’d been the last to use the keg the night it broke. The other Delvers, however, had listened with stoppered ears. Had Delvemaster Frivaldi himself come to Eralynn’s defense, it likely wouldn’t have made much difference. The others had already made up their minds that the flood was Eralynn’s fault-just as they’d decided, years before, that she’d been responsible for her delving partner’s death.
Torrin carried his mug to the table where the Delvemaster sat. The head of the local chapter of Delvers was one hundred and thirty-five years old with a waist-length beard, but he had a boyish look about him, just the same. His unruly black hair kept falling over his eyes, and he flipped it back with an impatient head toss. His eyes sparkled with suppressed mirth that threatened to bubble out of him at any moment.
Torrin repressed a pang of jealousy. With his human body, he’d be lucky to see eighty summers, let alone two or three hundred.
As Torrin approached, Frivaldi set down the blacksmith’s puzzle he’d been toying with, raised his slender fingers to his temples, and closed his eyes. “Say nothing, say nothing-yes, there it is,” he intoned. “I can hear your thoughts clearly now: ‘I’ve located it at last, Delvemaster Frivaldi. The Soulforge. All I need is the coin to equip an expedition.’ ” Frivaldi opened his eyes. “Am I right?” he asked.
“Close,” Torrin said. His mouth broke into a beard-splitting grin. “What I have found is a runestone that will teleport me directly to the Soulforge. May I join you?”
The Delvemaster nodded.
Torrin unslung his pack and settled on the three-legged stool across from Frivaldi. He pulled out the runestone Kendril had sold him. After glancing around to ensure that none of the others were looking, he unwrapped it and set it down carefully on the table between them.
The Delvemaster leaned forward and examined the stone. “Are you sure this runestone is what you think it is?” he asked. “Those runes say ‘earth magic.’ It looks more like something a wizard would use to summon an elemental spirit.”
Torrin shook his head. “It’s teleportation magic. The man who sold it to me said so. Ancient magic, the like of which we don’t see today.”
“Ancient?” Frivaldi said as he sat back. “Those scratches look fresh. Almost as if someone made them deliberately, to make the stone look older.” He pushed the runestone back across the table. “How much did you pay for it?”
“Every coin I had.”
“I just need to know how to use the runestone,” Torrin continued as he wrapped it up again and tucked it back into his pack. “A loremaster can tell me that. If our order could foot the bill, I could pay back the coin. Eventually. I know I’m onto something this time. This stone is special. I can feel it.”
Disappointment settled on Torrin’s shoulders like a heavy stone. “You’re going to say no, aren’t you?” he asked.
Frivaldi smiled. “Not necessarily.” The Delvemaster picked up the tangle of interconnected wrought iron loops he’d been playing with. It was the most complicated blacksmith’s puzzle Torrin had ever seen: close to two dozen different rings, loops, twisted bars, and triangles, all interlocking. Frivaldi, however, undid it in a matter of moments, reducing the puzzle to a simple chain.
He peered past the chain at Torrin. “Got it?” he asked.
“Almost,” Torrin said-a word that was about as close to the truth as mud was to a diamond. “You went a little fast.”
“Think you can do it?” Frivaldi asked.
Torrin nodded, not wanting to admit otherwise.
Frivaldi clanked the pieces back together, resetting the puzzle, and put the tangled mass on the table between them. “I’m going to make you an offer. Untangle that, and I’ll give you the coin you need to pay for the loremaster.”
Torrin’s pulse quickened. “You’re serious?”
Frivaldi smiled. “Have you ever known me to say something I don’t mean?”
“Not in this lifetime,” Torrin said with a grin. He picked up the puzzle and worked the pieces back and forth, back and forth, pursing his lips ever tighter as the right combination continued to elude him. At one point he thought he had it-six of the center pieces fell apart from the rest to form a linked chain-but the next twist brought them back together again.
He persevered, his ale forgotten, only dimly aware that Frivaldi had risen to refill his own mug. Frivaldi returned to the table and sat down again, his arms folded across his chest. Torrin noted that a handful of other Delvers had followed. He heard them talking softly behind him, and the clink of coins changing hands. His determination grew as he realized they were wagering on the outcome. A bead of sweat trickled down his temple and dripped onto the table. He kept working at the puzzle, and working at it, but at last he realized it was no use. He threw the clanking mass down on the table in disgust.
The other Delvers laughed or groaned, depending upon the bet placed, and coin changed hands. As they drifted back to their seats, Frivaldi uncrossed his arms and picked up the puzzle.
“Go easy on yourself, Torrin,” the Delvemaster said. “This puzzle is something even the most deft-fingered rogue would have trouble with. It took me years to learn it.”
“You knew I’d fail,” Torrin said.
“I knew it was highly likely. More to the point, I hoped you’d learn that life rarely offers us instant, easy solutions to the problems we encounter. That was something I had to learn the hard way by trial and error-and some of them were expensive errors.”
Frivaldi set the puzzle aside and took a sip of his ale. “Did I ever tell you about Durin, and the very first delve I partnered with him on, more than a century ago?”
Torrin nodded. It was Frivaldi’s favorite story. “Many times.”
“I thought he was a plodding old fool,” Frivaldi said. “All those stupid acronyms. Did you know he wrote an entire chapter of the Delver’s Tome-the one on standard delving procedures?”
“Yes. Basics of Reconnoitering and Exploration. BORE. The chapter you’re always quoting from.”
“What I didn’t realize, back then, was that his acronyms were deliberately ridiculous. They stick in the mind better, that way.”
“You also said you refused to heed them.”
“That’s true. And I’m still just as impatient as I ever was. But I don’t expect instant solutions, the way I once did. And when I delve, I always make sure I partner with someone who delves like Durin did. Someone slow and plodding, who thinks things through at least three times before proceeding-and then pauses to think them through again.” Frivaldi raised both hands, palms up, and moved them up and down, mimicking the motion of a scale. “It balances things. Quick and daring, versus methodical and cautious. Dugmaren lends his blessing to both kinds of Delvers. There’s a reason we have each, within our ranks.”
Torrin sighed. “The only trouble is, I don’t have a delving partner,” he said. “Nobody’s willing to commit to my quest.”
“Not even Eralynn?” the Delvemaster asked.
Torrin shook his head. “One day, I’ll convince her. But for now, she’s… too busy with her own delves.”
“Perhaps you could join other delves,” Frivaldi said. “I’m sure there’s more than one among us who’d be pleased to have a partner so willing to take on a challenge. They know you’re just as committed to the Order of Delvers as any dwarf. Loyal as a shield brother.” He glanced around the room, then nodded at a gray-bearded dwarf sitting next to the curtained window. “Dorn, for example, could use some help. He’s hoping to find the tomb of Velm Dragonslayer. That’s a quest that will take more than one swing of the hammer.”
Torrin shook his head. Why couldn’t the Delvemaster understand? “No other delve will teach us as much about our history,” he said with dogged insistence. “The Soulforge is where it all began-the portal through which the dwarf race entered Faerun. It can tell us everything about the origins of our people.”
“Lesser finds are also worthwhile,” said Frivaldi. “Every artifact we uncover, every scrap of lore, is a piece of the larger puzzle.”
“It will take more than ‘scraps’ to make the others overlook this,” Torrin replied, gesturing at his human body. “Unless I find the Soulforge, I’ll always be among the second rank.”
Frivaldi paused, as if weighing his words. “You’ll still be human, Torrin. And that means you’ll always be in the second rank, no matter how spectacular your delves.” He took a sip of ale. “Have you ever considered, Torrin, the fact that you might have deliberately chosen your ‘sacred quest’ for the very reason that it is impossible to achieve?”
Torrin clenched his teeth. Frivaldi might be the Delvemaster, but that was bordering on an insult. “I will succeed, this time. The Soulforge-”
“Is in Moradin’s domain.” Frivaldi said sharply, cutting him off. “How else would the god reforge our souls, if it weren’t?”
“Begging your pardon, Delvemaster, but you’re wrong. The Soulforge is here, on Faerun. If you read the ancient sagas-”
“Yes, yes, Torrin. I’ve heard your ‘evidence’ before.”
“And one day,” Torrin persisted, “I’m going to find it.”
Frivaldi sighed. “I see more than a little of Durin in you, Torrin. You’ve got a stubborn vein running through you a league wide, and as hard as granite. Maybe you are what you claim to be, after all.” He rose to his feet. “I’ll leave you to think about what I’ve just said. In the meantime, I must go and prepare for tonight’s Council.”
“The Deep Lords are meeting tonight?” Torrin asked.
“What’s it about?” Torrin added. “Are the drow massing at our gates? Has spellfire boiled up out of the Underchasm?” The retort bordered on rudeness, but Torrin was feeling more than a little petulant, after the blunt tone that the Delvemaster had taken with him a moment before.
“Hopefully nothing so serious as that,” Frivaldi said with a laugh. “I’ve only been told that a problem has arisen, and that the Lord Scepter has ordered the heads of each of the city’s guilds and orders to attend. You know as much as I do, at this point.” With that, he took his leave.
Torrin brooded over his empty ale cup, wondering how he’d ever scrape together enough coin to pay a loremaster. As he stared at the table, he suddenly realized that Frivaldi had forgotten something. “Delvemaster Frivaldi!” he called, turning. “Your puzzle!”
Too late. The Delvemaster was gone.
Torrin poked at the links, wondering if the Delvemaster had left the puzzle behind on purpose. Was he trying to tell Torrin that the answer to his puzzle was right in front of him, all tangled together? That if he just kept working at it, he’d solve the puzzle of the runestone on his own?
“Trial and error,” Torrin said, giving the puzzle another poke.
One link shifted against another, and a bar slid out of place. But if the puzzle was any closer to a solution, Torrin wasn’t able to see it.
“Better a friend at court than gold on the finger.”
Torrin nervously stroked his beard as he waited outside the Council chamber. The murmur of deep voices came from behind heavy oak doors embossed with the crossed axes of Clangeddin Silverbeard. To either side of the closed doors stood a Steel Shield guard, one of the thousands-strong contingent of dwarf knights who patrolled and protected Eartheart. Each stared with cold eyes at Torrin, openly suspicious of the “human” who had been summoned to Eartheart’s inner sanctum.
Two more Steel Shields flanked Torrin, their plumed helmets level with his chest.
Torrin had been forced to leave his Delver’s pack behind, together with his mace. He was, however, permitted to keep his wrist bracers, after a thorough inspection proved them to be non-magical. He’d polished them until the iron shone, and made sure they were turned so that the star embossed on each was visible. The Deep Lords could think what they might of Torrin, but he wore his bracers with pride. He was a true reincarnation of the long-vanished Ironstar clan.
A knock sounded from inside the doors-the signal that the Council was ready for him. Torrin squared his shoulders and took a deep breath. “I am your tool, Dwarffather,” he whispered. “Temper my heart. Give me courage, so that I might speak bravely.”
The doors opened, revealing a large, circular chamber. Ringing its periphery were the Deep Lords who governed Eartheart. The benches they occupied were raised from the floor, three rows high, with a spot directly opposite the door for the Lord Scepter Mariochar Bladebeard. Every seat was filled, and every eye was on Torrin as the Steel Shields escorted him through the doors.
The Deep Lords wore black silk hoods that hid their faces and beards-a means of protecting their identities from the likes of Torrin. They stared at him through eye holes in the hoods. The Lord Scepter was the only one whose face was bare. He scowled down from his seat; his dark eyes as hard as flint, and his steel grey beard plaited in three braids like a pitchfork. His thread-of-gold official robe all but engulfed his stocky body, but his breastplate was visible beneath it-polished mithril reflecting the light from the massive chandelier that dominated the ceiling. The sweet smell of beeswax candles filled the chamber. The room echoed with the whispers of the assembled Deep Lords.
Torrin halted on the spot where he’d been told to stand during his briefing. He bowed deeply. Below his feet was an enormous sigil whose tightly contained magic, he’d been warned, would burn him to ash in an instant, were he to make any threatening moves. Had the Deep Lords been able to see into his heart, they’d have realized how unnecessary that warning was. His appearance before them was his duty, one he took as seriously as would any other dwarf of Eartheart. It was yet another reminder of how hard Torrin had had to work every day to earn the trust of his own people.
As Torrin rose from his bow, the Lord Scepter raised a gauntleted hand. The whispers stopped. “You are the human Daffyd Raltin, who now calls himself Torrin Ironstar?” he said.
“I…” Torrin hesitated, wary of giving offence. It wasn’t his place to correct the Lord Scepter, but he would speak the truth. He had sworn an oath to Moradin to do just that, no matter what the cost. Feeling the eyes boring into him from every side, he carried on. “I am Torrin Ironstar, a member of the Delvers, an order in the service of Dugmaren Brightmantle.”
A buzz of whispers followed. Once again, the Lord Scepter silenced them. “Delvemaster Frivaldi said you had some information about the plague that you wanted to share with us.”
Nervous sweat trickled down Torrin’s sides. He resisted the urge to touch the silver hammers in his beard. “It’s about the quarantine you imposed yesterday,” he said. “A few days ago I had… dealings with a fellow dwarf who was suffering from the illness that the proclamations described.”
Angry shouts filled the air.
“Why was this human permitted into our chambers?”
“He brings plague among us!”
“How dare he!”
“Arrest him! Lock him away!”
“Execute him, before it spreads!”
The knights on either side of Torrin stepped back a pace, at the same time distancing themselves from him and flanking him, their axes at the ready. They glanced at the Lord Scepter, waiting for orders. Torrin stood utterly still, careful not to even twitch a finger, acutely aware of the magical symbol under his feet.
“Enough!” the Lord Scepter said. The word sliced through the angry shouts like a blade through ripe fruit, reducing them to a splatter of mutters and whispers. “We will hear what this human has to say, then decide his fate.”
Torrin shivered, the sweat on his body suddenly as chill as ice water. “Thank you, Lord Scepter.”
“Don’t thank me yet, human,” the Lord Scepter said. “If you have brought plague among us, your life will be forfeit.”
Torrin met his eye. “If I have carried plague to Eartheart, I will gladly bare my neck for the blade,” he replied in a steady voice. “If it is established that I have caused harm to my friends and family, death will be a mercy. Moradin willing, I will be reforged anew, and receive a second chance to atone for any suffering I might have caused them.”
The Lord Scepter’s eyebrows rose. He likely hadn’t expected that reply. “Tell your tale,” he ordered.
Torrin nodded, and began the story of his meeting with Kendril, a recitation he’d been going over and over in his head, ever since the quarantine had been imposed.
Immediately following the meeting to which Delvemaster Frivaldi had been summoned, a proclamation had been carried throughout the city by the Steel Shields. The Lord Scepter had decreed that the city would close its gates in a bid to protect Eartheart from a strange new illness that had broken out in the smaller settlements scattered through the Deeps to the east and north of Eartheart. Those who wanted to leave were permitted to do so, but no one would be let back inside the city without first being cleansed by Sharindlar’s clerics. As an added precaution, Berronar’s clergy were carving protective sigils into the walls and the streets, as well as wards preventing teleportation, to keep the city safe.
As soon as he’d heard the proclamation, Torrin had felt a hollow open inside him. He’d known, without asking, what the illness was: the horrifying affliction that had led Kendril to kill himself. Torrin immediately went to Delvemaster Frivaldi and told him the rest of the story-the part he should have told the Delvemaster before.
According to Frivaldi, similar afflictions had been reported in Velm’s Brace, Wildstar, Sundasz, Magkstok-even as close as Daunting and Tarnhall. Just a handful of cases, but the descriptions were enough to make the boldest dwarf’s beard turn gray. The illness even had a name already: the “stoneplague.”
And so Torrin was standing before a hastily convened meeting of the Council of Deep Lords, telling them the little he knew of the sickness.
They questioned him at length, wringing out every detail of Kendril’s affliction. They seemed particularly interested in the part where Kendril had told Torrin that the stoneplague wouldn’t affect him, probing for clues as to what that statement meant. Torrin was at a loss, and could only venture a guess: that Kendril seemed to feel his illness was a punishment from the gods, for having either abandoned or been excommunicated from his faith.
Kendril’s brother-Jorn, son of Balund, a sergeant in the Steel Shields-was called to the Council chamber and questioned. He shot an angry look at Torrin, no doubt remembering Torrin’s attempt to have Jorn heed his brother’s warning to leave Eartheart. The twin brothers had both been sworn servants of Clangeddin Silverbeard-Jorn as a knight, and Kendril as a battle cleric. They had parted ways, decades before, after a bitter dispute over a point of faith.
The Council prodded, wanting to know more. Was Kendril’s supposed heresy the cause of the stoneplague?
“My… brother believed that Moradin’s breath ‘fired’ the Soulforge,” Jorn explained. “When clearly the scriptures say it ‘cooled’ the noble metals from which our race was forged. The lowliest novice of any of the Morndinsamman can tell you that the first dwarves were in solid, immutable form before being tipped from the Soulforge; yet Kendril insisted that they were tipped out of the mold while still warm, and acquired imperfections during the cooling process. It was heresy!”
“I see,” said the Lord Scepter. The other Deep Lords began talking quietly to each other, clearly no longer interested in what must have appeared, to them, to be a relatively minor point of doctrine.
Torrin, however, hung on every word, wishing he’d known earlier that Kendril had been so knowledgeable about the Soulforge. Kendril might have been, it would seem, a kindred spirit, also expressing opinions about the Soulforge that strayed beyond the narrow bounds of conformity. Torrin wished he could have met him under better circumstances, found out which texts the former cleric had read. What else might they have revealed?
Jorn explained that he and his brother had eventually come to blows over whether the Dwarffather’s breath had heated or cooled the noble metals from which the dwarf race was formed. And the brothers had refused to speak to each other after that. As a result, Jorn had no idea of what had become of his brother after Kendril had departed the main temple in Eartheart to pursue his “heretical” studies in Sundasz. Nor did he show any emotion as Torrin was called upon to describe, for the second time that night, the circumstances of Kendril’s death.
Jorn was then dismissed, and took his leave from the chamber. As he did so, he glared at Torrin and muttered just loud enough for him to hear. “Thought I would abandon my post, did he?” he said with a snort. “Kendril was a fool to the end, I see.”
Torrin said nothing. Fortunately, Jorn hadn’t been present when Torrin had told the Council about the nature of his dealings with Kendril. Nor had the Deep Lords asked what Torrin had paid for the runestone. If they had, Torrin would have been forced to choose between two oaths: his promise to Kendril not to reveal the source of the gems Jorn’s wife had been given via an intermediary, and his sacred vow to Moradin to speak the truth before the Council.
Delvemaster Frivaldi was summoned next. He spoke about how Torrin had shown him a runestone the other night in the Delver’s Roost. The runestone, he added, had since been examined by Dugmaren Brightmantle’s clerics, and declared free of contagion.
Torrin listened avidly, temporarily forgetting the dire circumstances he was in. He had hoped the clerics’ examination might have revealed some clue as to the runestone’s function, but Frivaldi made no mention of whether the clerics had probed its magic. Nor did he so much as glance at Torrin, even when he turned to leave. There was no encouraging nod, no sympathetic look.
But Torrin understood why. If a member of the order had indeed brought plague to the city, the Delvers would be disgraced, even reviled. The fact that Torrin was a second-rank member, a mere “human,” would have little bearing.
Torrin’s shoulders slumped. He’d hoped Frivaldi would support him. But it was as if the Delvemaster had mentally closed the door on Torrin, no longer recognizing him as a member of the order. That stung. One day, assuming he survived the Council meeting, Torrin would prove to Delvemaster Frivaldi that he was, indeed, still worthy of being called a Delver.
Maliira was the next one called to the Council chamber. Questioned by the Deep Lords, the priestess confirmed that Torrin had sought a cleansing at the temple in Hammergate before entering Eartheart proper. She assured the Council that the cleansing had been properly performed, and that Torrin had been free of any contagion when he left the temple.
“And did he pass directly through the city gates afterward?” asked a Deep Lord in the front row who wore a red doublet.
“That I cannot say,” Maliira admitted. “I was busy with another supplicant.”
The Deep Lord nodded behind his hood, as if that was significant. “So for all we know,” he continued, “he may have had dealings with others who carried the stoneplague during his walk between the temple and the city gates?”
“My Lords,” Torrin protested. “I assure you, I did not. I came directly-”
“You will speak only when bid, human!” another Deep Lord thundered back. He shook his finger at Torrin, his sleeve falling back to reveal an elaborate silver bracer.
Torrin’s jaw clenched in frustration. Seething inside, he bowed his head. “My apologies.”
The Deep Lord who’d just spoken glanced around at his fellows, his eyes glittering from behind his hood. “It will shock you to learn that yesterday, a man believed to be suffering from the stoneplague was reported within Hammergate itself,” he said. “A suspicious looking dwarf with a gray tinge to his skin. Could he have been another of this human’s companions, I wonder?”
“More to the point,” a Deep Lord seated just to the left of the Lord Scepter added, in a quavering voice that betrayed his age, “the human admitted having had dealings with this Kendril fellow long before his misadventure at Needle Leap. It’s entirely possible these ‘negotiations’ carried the stoneplague to our doorsteps a tenday ago!”
Torrin opened his mouth to protest that his earlier negotiations with Kendril had been through a third party, not in person. Then he realized that, no matter what he said, the Council wouldn’t listen. Not at the moment. He closed his eyes to steady himself as whispers of suspicion chased each other around the room. When they stopped, he tried to gauge the reaction of the Lord Scepter, but the head of the Council was glaring off into space, not looking in Torrin’s direction.
The Council had no further questions for Maliira. She, at least, met Torrin’s eye as she left, but with so fleeting a glance that he couldn’t tell if it was meant to express sympathy-or sorrow.
As the doors closed behind her, the Lord Scepter raised a hand. Silence fell upon the room. “By show of hands,” he said, “who believes this human to be at fault, to have brought the stoneplague to our city?”
Torrin glanced quickly around the room and saw more than one Deep Lord-in fact, most of them-shifting slightly in their seats, starting to raise their hands. Torrin could contain himself no longer. “Lord Scepter!” he cried. “If you’re going to sentence me to death, I must know how to reply to Moradin, when he asks me to list my sins! I invoke the Treaty of the Hammer, which allows a condemned man-no matter what his race-to ask a single question, and have it answered.”
Silence fell. Heads turned.
“And your question?” the Lord Scepter asked.
Torrin drew a deep breath. “ Is the stoneplague in our city?”
Several Deep Lords gasped behind their hoods. The two knights flanking Torrin bristled, their weapons ready. But, Torrin noted wryly, they seemed as interested in the answer as he was.
The Lord Scepter patted the air. “At ease, knights,” he said. His chuckle surprised Torrin-and more than a few of the Deep Lords, judging by the way the hooded heads turned. “He may be human, but he knows our laws. And more to the point, there is no harm in answering him.”
He stared down at Torrin. “The quarantine has done its work. Not a single case of the stoneplague has been reported in Eartheart. Nor has it been confirmed, I might add, that the man spotted in Hammergate yesterday actually had the stoneplague. That, as far as I am aware, is mere rumor.”
Torrin nodded. “Thank you, Lord Scepter,” he said with a bow. “Do with me what you will.”
Lord Scepter Bladebeard stared down at him for several moments. Then he spoke. “By show of hands-Who believes this human to be innocent?”
Torrin’s eyes widened. Had he heard correctly? The change in the Lord Scepter’s question was subtle, but significant. “Innocent,” he’d said. Several of the Deep Lords also appeared startled by the shift in emphasis.
“I might also point out,” the Deep Lord continued, “that if this man’s dealings had resulted in contaminated objects entering our city, we would surely have seen evidence of the stoneplague within our gates by now. As well, we have heard how he sought out a cleansing in Sharindlar’s sacred pool. Does that sound, to any of you, like the action of a man who cares nothing for our welfare?”
Lord Scepter Bladebeard’s eyes swept the chamber, lingering momentarily on the hooded face of each of the Deep Lords present. Slowly, a smattering of hands rose. Then more, and still more, until the majority of the Deep Lords had their hands in the air.
Torrin let out a relieved sigh. He wanted to laugh aloud, but that would be unseemly. Instead he assumed a suitably dour expression-but inwardly he wore a beard-splitting grin.
“Delver Torrin,” the Lord Scepter said. “You are absolved of any wrongdoing. Your sole fault is for not coming forward sooner. We bid you now to leave our Chamber; we have much to discuss.”
The knights on either side of Torrin snapped to attention. They barely allowed Torrin to bow his thanks-low and deep, until the silver hammers in his beard brushed the floor-before grabbing his elbows and hustling him from the Council chamber.
Torrin walked down the hallway with a newfound confidence. The Deep Lords had the matter in hand. The stoneplague would not spread to Eartheart, despite Torrin’s tardiness in coming before them.
“Praise Moradin,” Torrin whispered. “We’re safe.”
It was only after he was back on the city streets that he realized something. Lord Scepter Bladebeard had called him by his dwarf name. Not Daffyd, the name Torrin’s human parents had given him, but Torrin.
Moradin had indeed bestowed a blessing today.
“Uncle Torrin!” Kier cried, leaping up from the breakfast table and nearly tripping over the bench in his excitement. “I heard you were ordered before the Council last night. Tell me all about it! What happened?”
“Kier!” his father Haldrin chided. “Mind your manners. Torrin may not want to speak of it.” But from the way Haldrin leaned avidly forward, peering at Torrin from behind his spectacles, he was obviously hoping to hear Torrin answer the question.
Torrin chuckled to himself and tousled Kier’s hair. “He’s still a boy, Haldrin.”
“He’s old enough to know his manners,” Haldrin replied. “Being summoned by the Council is no light matter. Are you all right? Did they…” As if suddenly realizing he too was asking questions, he changed the topic abruptly. “Sit down. You look exhausted. You must be famished.”
Torrin did so. He was grateful to be sitting down, despite the fact that his knees knocked the underside of the table. He accepted a bowl of cinnamon-scented oat porridge from Gimrick, the gnome who served Clan Thunsonn.
“It wasn’t so bad,” Torrin answered. “They met to discuss the stoneplague. They were worried that I…”
Just at that moment, Ambril entered the room. She settled herself on the bench beside her husband, her pregnant stomach making her awkward and unbalanced.
Torrin quickly amended what he’d been about to say. “They knew I’d recently had dealings with a fellow from Helmstar,” he continued. “The stoneplague is as thick as fleas in an unwashed beard there, and they wanted to ensure I’d been properly cleansed before entering Eartheart.”
“Were you?” Ambril asked. She leaned back from the table, staring in wide-eyed alarm at the spoon Torrin had just taken a mouthful of porridge from, as if it were a venomous serpent.
“There’s nothing to worry about,” Torrin assured her, even though he knew it would make little difference. “The Deep Lords themselves decreed that I posed no danger.”
Haldrin patted his wife’s shoulder. “There,” he said. “You see? Nothing to worry about, dear.”
Kier settled himself on the bench beside Torrin, ignoring his mother’s frantic hand signals to sit somewhere else. “Were they all wearing hoods, Uncle?”
“All except the Lord Scepter,” Torrin replied.
The boy shook his head. “Ridiculous! What did they think you were-some sort of drow assassin?”
Torrin lowered his spoon with a sigh. “It’s what they thought I wasn’t,” he said.
Kier nodded as his eyes gleamed with boyish indignation. “You should have taken me along,” he said. “I would have told them you’re no human.” Just eight years old, Kier was a long way off from sprouting the first hairs of a beard like his father’s, yet Torrin often caught glimpses of the boy’s grandfather in him. Kier had the same daring that had made Baelar Thunsonn one of the most renowned of the knights colloquially known as “skyriders.” No doubt Kier would become a Peacehammer and ride a griffon himself, one day.
Torrin noted the uncomfortable silence that had descended upon the other side of the breakfast table. Ambril and Haldrin were suddenly very interested in their porridge.
Torrin sighed. The Thunsonn Clan had taken him in and given him a home within the city. But that had been an act of charity, prompted by his friendship with Eralynn and cemented by his acceptance into the Delvers. To most of Clan Thunsonn, Torrin might act and dress and pay fervent homage to the Morndinsamman, but he was just a peculiar human.
“Thanks, Kier,” Torrin said. “I’d have been proud to have you by my side.” He grinned across the table at the boy’s parents. “Fortunately, it wasn’t necessary.”
“You’re not being banished, then?” Haldrin asked, finally looking up.
“You’re not rid of me yet,” Torrin said jokingly.
“That’s good,” Haldrin replied, his voice equally deadpan. “If we did lose you, we’d have no one to reach items down from the highest shelves. Poor Gimrick would have to resort to his ladder again-and we all know what a fright that would put into him.”
Everyone around the table chuckled-even Ambril, who at last seemed to have reassured herself that Torrin was not, indeed, a danger to her unborn babes. The family resumed their breakfast in companionable silence.
As they ate, Torrin eased his pack from his shoulders and set it on the bench beside him. The runestone, having being thoroughly examined by the clerics, had been returned to him, and was back inside his pack.
“I do have other news,” Torrin told them. “Soon enough, if the gods are willing, I’ll be setting out on my quest for the Soulforge. I finally have what I need to find it.”
Ambril and Haldrin nodded, only partially listening. Ambril’s twin sister Mara had just come into the room, and was enquiring about the pregnancy. Fair enough-the Thunsonn Clan had heard Torrin go on more than once about his quest.
Kier, however, was all ears. “What, Uncle Torrin?” he asked. “What have you got? Tell me!”
Pleased by the boy’s interest-and understanding how hard it was to be a singleton, in a race where Moradin’s thunder blessing consistently produced twins-Torrin dropped his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “A magical runestone,” he confided. “Want to see it?”
Kier’s rapid nod was all the encouragement that Torrin needed.
“It’s going to be the greatest delve of all,” Torrin told him as he undid his pack. “And this-” he took the runestone out and unwrapped it “-is going to lead me straight to it.”
Kier studied the runestone. “How?”
Torrin shrugged. “I still have to figure that one out.”
“Can I hold it?” Kier asked.
“Why not? Here you go.”
“I’ve planned a delve of my own,” Kier said as he avidly examined the runestone.
“Oh really? Where to?”
“It’s a secret.”
“Even from me, your favorite delving partner?” Torrin chided, humoring the boy.
“You can’t come, Uncle,” the boy said. “I have to do this one solo. There… isn’t room for you.”
Torrin chuckled, wondering which unwatched pantry or dusty storeroom was going to be the subject of the boy’s “delve.” Gimrick had better count his carving knives, lest some “ancient dagger” be plundered. “I hope you’ve made all your preparations,” he told Kier.
“I’m ready,” the boy assured him.
“And that you’ll show me what you’ve delved, once you’re back.”
“Of course. You’ll be the first to see whatever I find!”
Torrin smiled. If only the Delvers would show as much enthusiasm! Yet despite Torrin’s fervent prayers, the gods had yet to convince anyone from the order to join Torrin’s quest for the Soulforge. Likely, he thought ruefully, he’d have to wait for Kier to become a man, in order to finally have a delving partner.
He shook his head. “Moradin grant it,” he said to himself, “that my quest is complete before the boy is as old as that.”
“The gold you have yet to win gleams the brightest.”
"You’re in trouble, ” a childlike voice said.
Torrin turned and saw Gimrick hurrying up the stair behind him. The gnome servant kept one hand on the iron handrail that was set into the wall. His eyes remained firmly on Torrin, never once glancing down at the canyon floor where the Riftlake sparkled in the sunlight, far below. Gimrick’s face was pale under his short gray beard. Whatever he’d come to tell Torrin, it must have been urgent. Otherwise, Gimrick would have used one of the interior spiral staircases instead.
Torrin squatted on the steps. “What’s wrong?” he asked.
“Ambril’s looking everywhere for you. She’s furious!”
A dwarf squeezed past them on the stair. Gimrick clung with both hands to the handrail and closed his eyes as she brushed past. “You were supposed to take Kier with you to the market today,” he said.
Torrin smacked his forehead. “I forgot. And I promised him a toy shield, too.” He started to rise. “I’ll go back and fetch him, then.”
“You can’t,” said the gnome.
“That’s the trouble. Kier’s vanished. Ambril can’t find him, and she says it’s your fault for not minding him.”
Torrin sighed. Kier was always wandering off somewhere, but the boy didn’t need minding. He was eight years old and big enough not to trip over anyone’s beard. “He’s probably just hiding again,” Torrin said with a laugh. “That’s Ambril for you, making mineshafts out of dungholes. Always worrying. Remember the last time, how she was convinced the drow had kidnapped Kier for sacrifice? Turned out he was in the armory, trying on helms. Safe and sound, aside from the bump he got when the shield fell on his head.”
“But what if he’s left the city?” Grimrick said, fretting. “With the quarantine, it could be a tenday or more before he gets back in again. The clerics can’t keep up with the new arrivals, especially now that the caravan’s arrived from Delzimmer. They say the tent city has attracted a number of unscrupulous characters. Kier could run afoul of a rogue.”
“That would be bad,” Torrin said with a frown. Then he shrugged. “But even Kier would know better than to leave the city when there’s a quarantine in place.”
“He’ll turn up, Gimrick,” Torrin assured the gnome. “I’m certain of it.”
Torrin sighed. Despite his reassurances that the Council had proclaimed Eartheart free of the stoneplague, the contagion elsewhere in the Deeps had taken its toll on Ambril. In the days since the gates had closed, she’d been imagining her only child in the clutches of a plague-wracked denizen of the Deeps who’d slipped in past the guard. Her pregnancy only made it worse. Her shrill tirades followed Kier everywhere, like a shadowing cloaker. Don’t touch anyone, even tallfolk. Don’t touch the handrail when climbing the stair. Don’t accept food or drink from strangers. On and on she went. Torrin was certain that most of it went in one ear and out of the other. Kier had an independent streak and had always forged his own path, no matter what anyone said. It probably came from being a singleton.
Torrin turned to go back down the stair, resigned to searching for the boy. “Thanks for letting me know about Kier, Gimrick. Tell Ambril I’ll find him. I’m sure he’s in the clanhold, somewhere.”
The gnome caught his arm-with both hands. “No, wait! There’s something I haven’t told you yet,” he said. “Baelar’s griffon is missing from the eyrie. I think Kier took it.”
“What makes you say that?” Torrin asked, startled.
“Just… Opel acted strange when I asked him why the boy wasn’t helping him muck out the eyrie. He claimed not to know where Kier was, even though those two are as tight as rogues. And he paused to think a moment when I asked where Baelar’s griffon was.”
“Smite me with a hammer, Gimrick!” Torrin exploded, shaking off the gnome’s hands. “When will you ever learn to put the most important point first? If Kier has taken the griffon, he’s in real trouble!”
“I’m sure he’ll put the griffon back. No harm done.”
“You’re not thinking this through, Gimrick. When Kier returns to the eyrie, they’ll think he’s trying to break the quarantine. If he doesn’t heed their warnings to land, he could be shot down!”
The gnome glanced out across the East Rift, blanched, and grabbed the railing. “Kier may not have taken Baelar’s griffon, of course,” he sputtered. “Maybe I’m wrong. Perhaps Baelar is on duty.”
“Did you check?” asked Torrin.
“Well no. I thought maybe you could-”
Exasperated, Torrin charged down the stair, shouting at those coming up to get out of his way. When they saw the look in his eye, they flattened against the wall, letting him pass. He entered the corridor at the bottom of the stair and hurried to where the Peacehammers kept their mounts.
As Torrin barged in, Opel, the mucker, whirled, scat-shovel in hand. He gaped at Torrin and backed up a step. “I don’t know anything!” he cried.
Never breaking his stride, Torrin bore down on the fuzz-bearded boy. “Clearly you do, Opel, or you wouldn’t have opened your mouth just now. Out with it. Where’d Kier go?”
Above, the griffons shifted on their iron-rail perches, their nails scraping against the metal. One screeched, and a downy golden feather drifted down from above. The shovel shook in Opel’s hand, and he refused to meet Torrin’s eye.
“A new earthmote rose out of the Underchasm,” he whispered, cocking his head toward the balcony. “It drifted over the Rift this morning. Kier wanted a closer look.”
“The fool!” Torrin shouted. He grabbed Opel’s shoulders. “How long ago did he set out?”
Opel flinched. “Not long,” he said. “Just after lunch.”
Torrin rushed to the balcony and peered out. He could see the new earthmote in the distance to the northwest, partially obscuring the spire of rock known as Sadrach’s Splinter. A small moving dot to the right of it, near the edge of the Rift, might have been a flying griffon. If that was Kier, he was already well beyond the city walls. And he was going to need Torrin’s help getting back.
“Fetch me a saddle,” Torrin ordered.
“You can’t!” Opel said. “These are Peacehammer mounts!”
“Do as I say,” Torrin commanded. “Now!”
A guilty Opel rushed to obey.
Torrin grabbed a bridle and climbed the ladder to the nearest griffon’s perch. The enormous creature gave him a sidelong look and flared its wings. It clearly wasn’t used to being approached by someone so tall. Fortunately, it didn’t snap at Torrin. Its lion’s tail lashed back and forth behind it, sending up a cloud of dust that smelled of straw, feathers, and fur.
“There, there, birdie,” Torrin said soothingly as he lifted the bridle into place. “We’re just going for a nice little ride, you and I.”
“Her name’s Mischief,” Opel said.
“Wonderful,” Torrin said under his breath. “Just what I need-more mischief to worry about.”
“Careful what you say,” Opel called up from below. “She understands every word.”
The griffon glared at Torrin, but allowed him to slide the bridle over her head and buckle it. Opel, meanwhile, labored up the ladder, weighed down by a heavy, padded saddle. Torrin plucked it from his shoulders and lifted it into place atop the griffon’s back at the spot where her lionlike hindquarters met her eagle chest and wings. He reached under the griffon’s belly for the strap and cinched it tight. Then he swung up into the saddle and fastened the restraining straps over his own thighs. He’d never ridden a griffon before, but he had ridden horses-including some very spirited mounts. Controlling a griffon, he was certain, couldn’t be that much different.
“Release her,” he ordered.
Opel unbuckled the bands around the griffon’s forelegs, setting it free.
“Away!” Torrin ordered. “Fly!”
The griffon edged her way along her perch in a series of quick hops, out over the balcony. Then she unfolded her wings, crouched slightly, and sprang into space. Torrin’s stomach lurched as the griffon first dove, then climbed sharply upward with powerful strokes of her large, golden wings. He tugged the reins and nudged the griffon’s foreflank with his right knee, trying to get her to turn, but the beast didn’t respond. Perhaps he was being too gentle. He tried again with a stiffer yank on the reins. The griffon responded, turning to the northwest in a smooth bank.
“That’s it, birdie, now you’re-”
Without warning, the griffon swerved straight up, leaving a startled Torrin clinging to the saddle horn. “What are you doing?” he shouted. He kicked the creature’s flanks. “Stop! Level out!”
The griffon wasn’t responding. Instead of leveling out at the top of her climb, she did a loop that wrenched Torrin’s hands from the saddle horn, nearly flinging him off. Dangling upside down, the straps across his thighs the only thing preventing him from falling to his death, Torrin fought to reach the saddle horn again. The iron mace that hung from his belt cracked against his head, causing him to see stars.
Then the loop turned into a dive. Torrin was hurled backward with such force that he nearly vomited. The dive was so steep that the rush of air tore tears from Torrin’s eyes and sent his hair pluming out behind him. Then, with a swoop, the griffon was flying level again. The beast let out a laughlike scree.
“All right!” Torrin shouted. “I understand. You’re the boss. And… I won’t call you ‘birdie’ again.”
Scree. The griffon’s neck feathers ruffled, then flattened again.
Torrin tried a gentle tug on the reins. That time, the griffon responded smoothly.
Within just a few moments, Torrin was over Eartheart’s wall. The guards atop its towers looked up as he sailed over them, and trained their ballistae upon him as soon as he was outside of the city limits. He waved to them, but instead of waving back they began pointing and shouting. But there was no time to worry about that.
Torrin flew toward the new earthmote. He could no longer see the dot that might have been Kier’s mount. If that’s where the boy was headed, he would likely have already landed atop the mote.
Torrin flew past the edge of the East Rift and out across the Underchasm. The East Rift itself was several hundred paces deep, but the Underchasm was far deeper, plunging to the very depths of the Underdark. The enormous sinkhole, easily the size of a small kingdom, stretched nearly one hundred leagues north to south, and was almost as wide. Narrower canyons splintered outward from it like cracks around a footprint in dried mud.
The Underchasm had formed when a vast expanse of the dwarf lands, weakened by spellfire, had collapsed into the Underdark below. Earth motes drifted above the leagues-deep chasm, throwing long shadows that stretched all the way back to East Rift.
As Torrin flew, he tried to decide what to do once he had found Kier. The best course of action would be to fly back to Hammergate, the town just outside Eartheart’s walls where Torrin had grown up. It had become more of a “foreign quarter” for the tallfolk who’d been drawn by Eartheart’s prosperity, and it was not subject to the quarantine. Kier could stay with Torrin’s parents while he waited his turn at the temple.
Torrin glanced back at Eartheart and saw that another griffon had taken off from the city. The flutter of a yellow-and-red striped cloak told him who rode it: a Peacehammer, one of the elite city guard. They, it would appear, were still allowed in and out of the city. And that one was headed straight for Torrin. Thankfully, Torrin would reach the earthmote long before the skyrider intercepted him. After that, well… surely the rider would listen to reason, and understand why Torrin had been forced to borrow one of the griffons.
As Torrin drew closer to the earthmote, he saw that it was small, no more than a few hundred paces across. Like most of the floating splinters of stone, it was tooth-shaped, relatively flat on top with a pointed base. Trees sprouted from the top, and a tangle of roots and vines hung in a fringe over its edges. A hole near the mote’s midpoint appeared to be a natural cavern at first, but as Torrin drew nearer, he noted its regular shape. The mote spun as it drifted, and the opening rotated out of sight. A short time later, a similar hole, closer to the top of the mote, rotated into view. Torrin realized he was looking at a section of staircase-one that had likely descended from the surface, before the mote had broken away from wherever it had originated.
There was no sign of Kier on top of the mote, but a saddled griffon sat under a tree near the edge, snapping its beak at the crows that swooped and dove on it. The griffon would have made short work of them had it not been tethered.
Torrin spotted the Thunsonn crest on the tooled leather back of the other griffon’s saddle. “That’s Baelar’s griffon, all right,” he muttered. “Kier’s here. But where?”
Torrin landed near the other griffon, tied off his own mount to another tree, and walked-slightly bowlegged from the ride-toward the first griffon. “Kier!” he called through cupped hands. “Where are you?”
He realized he was walking at a kilter. The rotation of the mote was making him slightly dizzy. Strange-motes didn’t usually spin. They usually just bobbed up and down, or rocked slightly from side to side, with residual motion from their plunge off whatever cliff had spawned them.
A rope was tied to the tree where Kier had tethered his griffon. It extended over the edge of the mote, down to the spot where the staircase began. Torrin tugged gently on the rope. Though it was slack, it didn’t hang free. Tied off somewhere near the top of the staircase, he guessed.
Torrin descended the rope to the inside of the staircase. It was a perilous climb, but one that Kier had successfully negotiated, since the end of the rope was secure-assuming that it was Kier who had tied it. Once inside the staircase, Torrin swung down from the rope. With his feet firmly on the stairs, he let go. Thrown off balance by the earthmote’s spin, he immediately threw out a hand to steady himself against the wall. The stone felt cool. The wild magic that kept the mote suspended crackled slightly against Torrin’s palm.
Torrin followed the staircase as it spiralled downward, one hand still on the wall. The deeper he went, the dizzier he felt. The light from above grew dimmer with each turn, but he could still see well enough, even without his goggles. A bit of light filtered up from somewhere below, as well.
“Kier?” he called out.
No answer. A breeze drifted up the staircase, cooled by the stone’s chill.
Torrin continued down the stairs and came to the lower opening. As his foot touched the bottommost step, a chunk of stone broke free and drifted away. Torrin lurched back, then steadied himself. “Moradin smite me,” he swore. “I hope Kier didn’t fall!”
Though he knew it was futile, he scanned the landscape below. The bottom of the Underchasm lay deep in shadow, too far away to make out any detail.
No. Kier was smarter than that. He was probably hiding somewhere atop the mote, laughing at Torrin’s attempts to find him. He might even have flown off already, perhaps taking the second griffon with him as an added joke.
Torrin made his way back up the stairs.
Halfway up, he stopped to take a better look at something he’d bypassed at first. One of the steps was twice the width of the rest, forming a sort of landing. On one side of it stood two pedestals that must once have supported twin statue-columns. Not much remained of the statues. The one on the right extended only as far as the knees, which were covered by what looked like the hem of a blacksmith’s apron. Next to one foot was a smashed lump of stone that was vaguely anvil-shaped. All that remained of the other statue was a pair of feet, protruding from under the hem of a dress.
Torrin’s eyes widened as he realized whom the statues had once depicted: Moradin, father of the dwarf gods, and his bride, Berronar Truesilver. He immediately bowed, honoring what was left of them.
The destruction had been deliberate. Torrin could see the gouges left by hammers. And it had most likely taken place long before, since there was no rubble on the floor. The mote, Torrin realized, had likely been part of a dwarf city-perhaps part of ancient Underhome. If so, the statues had probably been destroyed by the drow who had overrun that city, long before.
“Gods smite their dark hearts,” Torrin said through his clenched teeth.
The rusted nub of an iron bar protruded from the wall, just above the broken throne of Moradin’s statue. At first Torrin took it to be a reinforcing bar that had held the statue upright, but then he realized dwarf stonemasons would have done better work than that. Not only that, but the ceiling above was stained with soot, as if someone carrying a torch had stood in that spot for a while.
Torrin grabbed the iron stub and gave it a tug. The wall pivoted with a grinding noise, revealing a small hidden chamber. It was dark inside. Torrin took a moment to pull on his goggles.
His stomach gave a lurch as soon as he saw what was within. A pace or two in front of him lay Kier on the floor, next to a wooden strongbox half-filled with gold bars, each the size and shape of a stick of butter. Each was easily worth fifty gold coins. More gold bars were scattered across the floor. A fortune! Easily enough to pay for Torrin’s cleansing, a loremaster, or anything else Torrin desired.
Torrin’s elation was gone as quickly as it had come, however. Kier was hurt. He needed help.
Torrin stepped into the room and kneeled beside the boy. Immediately, a piercing cry like a woman’s scream filled the air. The sound came from a cluster of tiny white mushrooms that had rooted in a rotted beam that had fallen from the ceiling long ago. Also rooted in the beam were larger mushrooms of a vivid purple, with hairlike filaments waving above their spotted caps. Poisonous mushrooms-and Kier must have touched them.
“Mother of Safety!” Torrin cried. “By your sweet mercy, let the boy be alive!”
Torrin lifted Kier. The boy’s body was not yet cold-a hopeful sign. Gold bars clinked as Torrin kicked them out of the way. There was enough gold here to make a rogue weep, but Torrin cared nothing for it any longer. All that mattered was Kier.
He shouldered open the secret door and ran up the stairs, the boy limp in his arms. The purplish mushrooms were small-a fully grown specimen of the violet fungus stood twice the height of a dwarf-but there had been dozens of them in that room. Kier, praise Sharindlar, was still breathing, although the raspiness of his breath alarmed Torrin.
When Torrin got to the top of the stair, he saw the rope jerking sharply. He wondered what fresh crisis that implied, then realized that it was likely the skyrider who’d followed him to the mote, giving the rope a tug.
“Down here!” Torrin cried. “Bring your medicine pouch. We need help!”
Moments later, he heard wingbeats. The skyrider’s griffon came into view, tossing its horselike head and ruffling its feather mane as it hovered just outside the opening. The Peacehammer riding it had black hair, a beard whose lower half was encased in a tight golden tube, and a nose that looked as if it had been flattened in a fight.
When he saw Torrin he raised his crossbow. “Set the boy down, thief,” he ordered. “Gently, or I’ll put a bolt through your chest.”
“It’s not what you think,” Torrin said. “I’d never harm Kier. The boy’s my nephew.”
The skyrider snorted. “And I’m his mother,” he said as he sighted down the crossbow. “Put the boy down. Now. And when you’ve done that, you can unlash your mace and toss it to me. You’re under arrest, for the theft of a griffon.”
Torrin set Kier down. Gently. He fumbled at the straps that held his mace. “The boy’s been poisoned,” he said. “He touched a violet fungus. He needs a healing potion.”
“Your mace,” the skyrider repeated. “Toss it to me.”
Torrin at last got the weapon free and threw it to the skyrider, who caught it in one hand and deftly tucked it into a loop in his saddle.
“This boy’s grandfather is a Peacehammer,” Torrin told the skyrider. “Baelar Thunsonn. The boy took his mount-you must have seen the Thunsonn crest on the saddle. That’s why I borrowed the other griffon-to fetch the boy back so he wouldn’t be shot down for breaking quarantine. Please! If we don’t heal Kier quickly, he’ll die!”
The skyrider hesitated. Still holding his crossbow in one hand, he reached into the saddlebag behind him, never once taking his eyes from Torrin. He pulled out the medicine pouch that all skyriders carried, and pulled a metal vial from it. “Catch!” he called, tossing it to Torrin.
Torrin snatched it out of the air. He wrenched the cork out of the vial with his teeth and spat it aside. He squatted and gently lifted Kier’s head. He parted the boy’s lips, noting with more than a little alarm that they were turning blue. He poured in the potion and tipped Kier’s head back, hoping that the liquid wouldn’t slide down the boy’s airway and choke him.
Torrin heard the flap of wings and felt a gust of air from their downbeat. The skyrider was backing his mount away from the entrance. He had raised something round to his mouth and was speaking into it: one of the magical “sending stones” that allowed the Peacehammers to communicate with their commanders in Eartheart.
Kier coughed. Faintly. A moment later his eyelids fluttered open. He looked blearily around. “Uncle Torrin,” he said weakly. Then he retched, and threw up.
Torrin gently wiped Kier’s mouth with his sleeve. “That was a close one, lad,” he said. “Don’t scare me like that again.”
Kier struggled to sit up. “I found gold, Uncle!” he cried. “A king’s fortune in gold.”
“Indeed you did,” replied Torrin, “but not nearly enough to be worth your life.” He glanced at the skyrider, who was still speaking into his magical stone. “Now keep your voice down. We don’t want others chiseling in on our delve.”
Kier also glanced at the skyrider and dropped his voice to a whisper. “This mote was part of Underhome,” he said, looking steadily pinker as the skyrider’s potion did its work. “That box I found… Maybe it held more than just gold. Maybe there’s something else inside it. Something ancient.”
Torrin doubted it. The strongbox had looked brand new. “Do you feel strong enough to stand?” he asked Kier. “We should go.”
Kier rose to his feet; the potion had indeed completed its work. “I’m not leaving all that gold behind.”
“Yes you are,” Torrin replied firmly. He nodded in the direction of the skyrider, still engrossed in his communications with his commander. “Verdagain has blessed us this day by providing us with an escort-one who’s going to be so busy taking me into custody for stealing a griffon, he won’t have time to explore the mote. I’ll come back for the gold later.”
“How can you do that without a griffon?” Kier asked.
“Remember my runestone? Once I figure out how to use it, I can teleport here any time I like.”
Kier’s eyes gleamed.
“In the meantime,” Torrin said, “we’ve got some quick talking to do if we’re going to persuade that guard not to lock me up and throw away the key. I don’t want to be behind bars when your little sisters are born.”
“Little brothers,” Kier corrected. “Mother says they kick like boys.”
“Sisters,” Torrin said. He winked. “I’m going to win our bet, remember? You’re going to be sweeping my room for a month.”
Kier snorted. “If I lose, I’ll pay someone else to do it. I’m rich!”
Torrin felt a gust of wind as the skyrider flew closer again.
“You’re in luck, human,” the guard announced. “Captain Baelar has vouched for you. There’s still the matter of the stolen griffon to be dealt with, but for now I’m going to trust you. Is the boy strong enough to climb back up the rope?”
“I am!” Kier said.
“Then up to the top of the mote, the two of you,” said the skyrider. “We’re flying back.”
Torrin bowed, elated. “My thanks!” he called back.
“Don’t thank me-thank the boy’s grandfather,” replied the guard.
“When will I get my mace back?” Torrin asked.
“When we land in Hammergate,” he replied.
Torrin groaned inwardly. Hammergate? He didn’t want to sit outside the walls for days on end, waiting his turn to be cleansed. Not with the door to the earthmote’s secret room standing open, and the gold inside it just lying around for the taking. Still, what choice did he have? “Fair enough,” he said.
“Now climb,” the skyrider ordered. “The boy first, then you.”
Torrin glanced down at Kier and saw that the boy’s eyes were twinkling. Torrin could guess why. “Don’t think you’re getting up to more mischief,” he warned. “I’m going to have my eye on you every single moment we’re in Hammergate. There’ll be no chats with outlanders and tallfolk, no trips to the Gatehouse Inn. Just days and days of sitting around, doing nothing, waiting for our turn in the temple pool.”
Kier pouted in silence. It seemed to have finally sunk in that his adventure was at an end. Being poisoned hadn’t brought it home, but the prospect of several days of tedium had.
With Kier safe, Torrin’s thoughts turned back to the gold below. A single bar would be enough to pay the tithe for his previous cleansing, if only he could recover the gold. Another bar would pay for the cleansing to come. And there had been far more than just two gold bars-more than enough to equip an expedition to the Soulforge!
All Torrin had to do was figure out how to use the runestone-and quickly-before someone else visited the earthmote and found all that gold.
Torrin placed both of his hands on the dusty counter and leaned in closer to the head stonecutter. “I swear, by Moradin’s beard,” he said vehemently. “There’s a small fortune in it for you. Just loan me one of your motediscs for the day and I’ll cut you in on the profits from my delve.”
The foreman folded his burly arms across his chest. He was short, even for a dwarf, with a forked beard whose two braids had been pulled to the top of his head and clipped together-a peculiar style that no doubt raised more than its share of snickers. But judging by the defiant glint in the foreman’s eye, he enjoyed a good fight.
“No credit,” he repeated. “Especially for humans.” He picked up his hammer and chisel and glared at Torrin a moment more, as if daring him to provide an excuse to use the tools on Torrin’s skull. Then he turned toward the workroom where knappers banged away at slabs of earthmote that had been secured to worktables with vises, so they wouldn’t drift away.
Torrin swore under his beard. He was knee-deep in irony. He’d invented the motedisc-not that anyone ever believed him when he told that tale. Four years after he’d discovered he was really a dwarf recast in a human body, he’d sought out an apprenticeship in a suitably honorable trade, as a stonecutter at a quarry near Glitterdelve. Wielding a hammer and a chisel all day throughout his teenage years had given him his bulging biceps. The smell of stone dust still took him back to the days before he’d taken up an adventurer’s life.
One day, during an all-too-rare visit to the surface permitted during his apprenticeship, Torrin had noted that the chunks of stone that sometimes crumbled from an earthmote continued to float for some time, after calving off from the main body of the mote. Inspiration struck. What if, he thought, he could find an earthmote comprised of flint or chert-stone that split easily into sheets-and then split off chunks of it and shape them into circles. The shield-sized floating discs would be similar to the metal “driftdiscs” the drow crafted with their dark magic.
It had taken some time to push past the stubborn resistance of Ryordin Hammerfist, the quarry master. He’d insisted, at first, that the idea “stank like something drow.” Eventually, however, he’d realized there was coin to be made-especially once the chips of earthmote were “tempered” in the magic of a particular earth node near Glitterdelve, ensuring that the magic that kept them bobbing about didn’t bleed away from the worked stone.
The motedisc had been Torrin’s idea, yet he hadn’t seen a single copper of profit from it. And he couldn’t even afford to buy one.
The motedisc factory was located at the very edge of Hammergate, at a spot that afforded a view of the Underchasm. As Torrin stepped out into the rain, he could see the earthmote that he and Kier had visited two days before. He stared forlornly at it, wondering how he was ever going to reach it again. His plan had been to secure a motedisc big enough to support him, then wait until the wind was blowing in the right direction. He’d rig a sail that would catch the wind and ride the motedisc to the earthmote.
Today, the wind was perfect. But he was back to where he’d started-scratching his head and trying to figure out how the runestone worked, so he could use it to teleport to the earthmote, instead.
“Depressing, isn’t it?” a voice asked from near his elbow.
Torrin turned. Few people were on the streets on such a wet, blustery day. He glanced down at the dwarf who’d stopped beside him to also stare out across the Underchasm. His clothing was worn, his posture stooped. His head was balding on top, with scraggly hairs on the sides, and his movements were slow and stiff.
The dwarf gestured at the Underchasm. “So much of our heritage, lost in the collapse,” he said sadly. Then he glanced up at Torrin’s backpack, and his eyes widened. “By Moradin’s beard!” he exclaimed. “You’re a Delver? Yes, yes, of course. I’ve heard of you. The human delver who spoke to the Council the other night. I hear you made quite the impression on the Lord Scepter.” He extended a hand, grunting with the effort. “It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance. What was your name again?”
Torrin reached down to clasp the dwarf’s hand. “Torrin Ironstar. Pleased to-”
Something smashed into the left side of Torrin’s head. Stars exploded across his vision. As he collapsed, he caught a brief glimpse of a human who’d snuck up behind him. The man held a weighted leather sap-a rogue’s weapon. Torrin fell to the ground, fighting to stay conscious, trying to reach his mace. He heard footsteps running away-the dwarf who’d distracted him while the rogue crept up behind.
The rogue grinned, revealing a missing tooth. “Nighty night,” he said.
He slugged Torrin a second time. Consciousness fled.
“Torrin! Wake up. Gods have mercy, don’t let him be dead!”
Kier’s voice finally pierced the heavy red throbbing that filled Torrin’s head. Torrin groaned.
“Praise Moradin!” he heard Kier cry. “He’s alive!”
Torrin winced. He felt cold, wet cobblestones under his right cheek. Rain struck his left temple, where he’d been hit with the sap, each droplet a tiny hammer of agony. The water trickled down into his mouth, carrying the taste of blood.
He felt Kier’s small hands under his armpits, urging him to rise. He sat up, and nearly collapsed again. Vomit rose in his throat. He swallowed it down and blinked, trying to focus.
“Uncle? Uncle!” Kier cried shrilly.
“I’m… all right,” Torrin said. The lie seemed to satisfy Kier. Shakily, Torrin rose to his feet and touched his temple. His fingers came away bloody. His head rang like a struck gong, but at least the nausea was ebbing. Moment by moment, he felt more steady on his feet. Those were good signs.
He realized someone else was standing next to Kier-the foreman from the motedisc factory. He was staring down the street with a furious scowl, his stonecutter’s hammer still raised. “And stay away!” he shouted to an empty street.
He turned to Torrin. “You all right, human?”
Torrin nodded, wincing. “I think so,” he replied. He glanced down and was relieved to see his mace was still on his belt. The rogues hadn’t stolen it. Moradin had shown one small mercy, that day.
Bearded faces peered out of the motedisc factory.
“Back to work, you lot!” the foreman shouted. “The entertainment is over.”
The faces disappeared.
“Any excuse to slack off,” the foreman grumbled. He stomped back to the factory.
Aside from Torrin and Kier, the rain-slick street was empty. There was no sign of the rogues. Torrin’s clothes were wet, but not yet fully soaked through. He hadn’t lain there long.
Kier looked up at him with an anxious expression. “I saw him, too, Uncle,” he said. “A human. He was trying to get something out of your pack.” He pointed in the direction the foreman had shouted. “He ran off when the stonecutter ran into the street. He went that way.”
Torrin clasped the boy’s shoulder, both to steady himself and to hold Kier back. The boy scowled as if he wanted to run after the rogue and teach him a lesson. “You showed the wisdom of a longbeard by not challenging him yourself,” he said. “Those two were professional rogues who knew their business; I was taken in by the old talk-and-tap.”
“Should we call the Peacehammers?” asked Kier.
“Too late for that,” Torrin said. “The rogue and his accomplice will already be long gone. And they didn’t get anything.” He jerked a fist over his shoulder. “Not from my pack, anyway.”
Of that, Torrin could be certain. He might be a Delver of the second rank, but his pack was the same as any worn by a first-rank member. It would only release its contents to the Delver to whom it had been keyed. Anyone else who reached inside would feel only emptiness.
“Why did they attack you?” Kier asked. “Was it-” he glanced around furtively and dropped his voice to a whisper-“Was it because of our delve? Do they know about the gold?”
“I doubt it,” Torrin said. He gently touched his aching head. “I think it was my runestone they were after.”
It all fit. The older dwarf had mentioned the Council meeting. And as soon as Torrin had confirmed that he was the one who’d appeared before the Council, the attack had come. Someone who was at that meeting must have commented on Torrin’s runestone afterward, either within earshot of the rogues or to someone they knew.
It couldn’t have been Kendril’s brother Jorn or the cleric Maliira. Neither had been in the Council chambers when Torrin had spoken of his transaction with Kendril. Nor was it likely that Frivaldi had said anything to tip off the rogues. Torrin might be human, and only a second-rank member, but a Delver’s lips were sealed, when it came to fellow members of his order. And the clerics who’d examined the runestone were also bound by oaths to keep silent about the Delvers’ business.
It had to have been one of the Deep Lords who’d let it slip.
Accidentally, of course. The Deep Lords were honorable to the core. Stout and true… but perhaps, Torrin realized, not when a “human” was involved. And that’s what they had seen, when they had stared down at Torrin. A human.
He sighed. “We’d best get cleansed and into Eartheart, Kier. And as quickly as possible. Darkness only knows what those two rogues might try next.”
“A golden key will open every lock.”
Two days after his run-in with the rogues outside the motedisc factory, Torrin was easing his way down a rope toward the spot where his friend, Eralynn, stood. They’d begun their descent into the East Rift at dawn, and only at dusk were finally level with the floor of that vast canyon. High above on the Rift’s edge, the towers of Underwatch-a remote outpost of Eartheart-glowed in the light of the setting sun.
Torrin dropped next to Eralynn, and spoke the command word that caused her magical rope to unfasten itself from the piton they’d driven into the rock above. The rope snaked down toward him, coiling itself neatly at his feet. He picked it up and passed it to Eralynn.
“Do we have much farther to go?” he asked.
Eralynn shook her head. “We’re here,” she said with a jerk of her chin, indicating a spot farther along the canyon floor. “Wyrmtrap portal is just around that spur of rock.” She shoved the rope into her pack, then loosened the bindings on the short sword that hung from her belt. She also checked the throwing dagger that was strapped to her ankle over the leg of her loose-fitting, stone gray trousers.
Torrin glanced around. They were some distance from Eartheart, which lay to the southwest, its own towers looking like a massive cluster of stalagmites on the lip of the great canyon that comprised East Rift. Hammergate was a smaller knob, pressed tight to one of Eartheart’s massive city walls. Directly west, the sun was a ball of orange light above the western wall of the Underchasm.
Torrin shielded his eyes from the sun and tried to pick out the mote that he and Kier had flown to. Had anyone else visited it yet? Was the gold gone? The thought had gnawed at him, day and night, ever since his return to the city.
“What are you looking at?” Eralynn asked.
“Nothing,” Torrin lied. Eralynn was the one person, out of all of his dwarf friends, who came closest to being his shield brother. Or, to be more accurate, his shield sister. He’d been struggling with whether to tell her about his find. Did he really want to split the gold with her? It was a greedy thought, that, and one that made him feel guilty. He’d never thought of himself as a person who could be seduced by the lure of gold. Then again, every last bar of that gold would go toward equipping his expedition to the Soulforge. Surely that was a noble enough cause. What’s more, the Thunsonn clan would be getting a good share of the gold, in any case-Kier’s share. Some of it would wind up in Eralynn’s pockets. Eventually.
Torrin followed Eralynn, stepping carefully over the clutter of stone that littered the canyon floor. They rounded the spur of rock that she’d indicated. Beyond it was an enormous, circular opening in the cliffside, obviously once part of the tunnel system of ancient Underhome. Ten times as tall as Torrin and equally as wide, the opening was ringed with a band of runes. Beyond those, the tunnel curved around to the right, out of sight. Its floor was littered with jagged bits of rock-debris that had fallen from the ceiling, either during the creation of the Underchasm nearly a century ago, or in its aftermath.
“I thought all of the entrances to Underhome were sealed,” Torrin said. He cast a glance at the towers above and folded his arms across his chest. “I’m not going to let you defy the edicts!”
“ ‘Let’ me?” Eralynn said. Her eyes narrowed, and her fists went to her hips.
Torrin swallowed. Eralynn might be only as tall as his chest, but her rages could knock the stoutest dwarf back a pace or two. Still, Torrin stood his ground. “The Lord Scepter has decreed that-”
Eralynn laughed, startling him. “Oh, Torrin. Sometimes you can be so… ridiculously stubborn.”
He smiled, relieved to see that the storm had broken before it had begun. “Well, I am a dwarf, after all,” he said with a shrug. “We have a reputation for that.”
Eralynn smiled. “You don’t need to worry,” she said reassuringly. “We’re not going to do anything illegal, amusing though that might be. This portal led out of Underhome, not into it.”
“Are you finally going to tell me where it goes?”
Eralynn’s eyes glittered with anticipation. “The Wyrmcaves.”
“The Wyrmcaves!” Torrin gasped. “Why would our ancestors build a portal that led there?”
“As a trap,” she replied. “Whenever a dragon attacked, Underhome’s soldiers would pretend to flee through this portal. It links to a cavern barely big enough to accommodate a dragon, with a connecting bolthole just large enough for the soldiers to escape through. All they had to do then was wait for the dragon to die.”
Eralynn laughed. “Not quite clever enough. Some of the smaller dragons escaped. According to some of the runelore I’ve read, that may be how the Wyrmcaves became a lair to dragons in the first place.”
“The wrym biting its tail full circle, hmm?” Torrin said. He stepped forward to examine the runes.
Eralynn grabbed his arm, yanking him back. “Wait!” she warned. “It’s protected by magic.” She released his arm and handed him two pieces of candle wax. “Use these to plug your ears and stand over there. And brace yourself.”
Torrin did as she’d instructed. Eralynn was the more experienced Delver, and he respected her greater knowledge. Some might find her too bossy, but it was her delve, after all. Torrin was simply along as an observer. He firmly pushed a ball of wax into each ear and stood where she’d indicated, then pulled from his pack the runestone he’d purchased from Kendril.
Eralynn walked toward the portal and raised her hands. As they entered the space between the circle of runes, thunder boomed out of the tunnel with such force that Torrin staggered back several paces. The faint lines of magical energy that glowed like veins on the backs of Eralynn’s hands flared outward, creating a shimmering blue wall of magical force in front of her. Even with his ears plugged, Torrin could hear the thunder reverberating back and forth between her magical shield and the bend of the tunnel.
A moment later, the magical shield faded away. Torrin dug the wax out of his ears. A chunk of rock fell from the ceiling of the tunnel, smashing to pieces on the floor. To Torrin, whose ears were ringing despite the protection, it sounded like a muffled thud.
Eralynn said something. Torrin only caught the last couple of words: “… not lethal,” she said.
“What?” he asked.
Eralynn grinned. She was busy tying back her hair, trying to rein in her mop of unruly blonde braids. As she pulled on a padded leather helmet, blue fire crackled in faint lines across the backs of her hands-the residue of the magic she’d just invoked.
“I said… not lethal,” she repeated. “When they built… portal, they… glyphs… look as though… portal led… important, somewhere… magical protection.”
Torrin shook his head and cracked his jaw. It didn’t help. The ringing in his ears was ebbing, but he still wasn’t hearing properly. “Is it safe to approach now?” he asked, realizing belatedly that he was shouting.
“Are you questioning my ability to deactivate a glyph?” she asked sternly.
He’d heard the whole sentence that time. “Of course not,” he said with a grin.
Eralynn’s leather armor creaked as she unslung the shield that was her trademark: a shield made from a single, enormous red dragon scale, rimmed with silver. Having found out where the portal led, Torrin could guess where she’d acquired that scale.
As Eralynn made her preparations, Torrin took a good look at the runes surrounding the portal. The inscription was a passage from an ancient dwarven saga: “Ready now, with swords in hand / Onward march, at my command / Soon, perhaps, to fight once more / Safe against the dragon’s roar.”
Torrin frowned. The first two lines were wrong. “Shouldn’t it be ‘Steady now, with swords in hand / Soldiers march, at my command?’ ” he asked.
Eralynn looked up from her preparations. “You’ve memorized the Faern sagas?” she said grinning. “You never cease to surprise me, Torrin. You’ve got a better memory for obscure poetry than most dwarves I know.”
“Is the inscription a clue to the incantation used to activate the portal?” he asked.
“That’s twice your hammer’s landed true,” Eralynn said with a wink.
“So what are the activation words?”
“I only said I’d show you a portal, and that I’d let you watch while I used it. You’re not coming through with me.”
“The Wyrmcaves are no place to wander around in.”
“Exactly my point,” Torrin said, patting the mace at his hip. “It never hurts to have a second weapon, backing you up. Especially a magical one.”
“This is a solo delve, Torrin,” Eralynn replied. She pointed at the lip of the Rift, far above. “That’s your way back.” She glanced up at the sky. “It will be dark soon. I suggest you wait until morning to make the climb.”
“I’ll wait for you here.”
“No, you won’t,” she said, nodding at the portal. “That’s a one-way portal. I won’t be coming out of it again. The only way back is to hike back through the Deeps. I’ll see you in a few days’ time.”
“But you’ll miss the Festival of Remembering!”
The smile vanished from her eyes. “I prefer to be alone for that. And rest assured, honoring the dead is the observance that I never forget.”
Torrin bowed. “My apologies. I’ve offended you. That was crass of me, to imply that you’d neglect to honor your parents.”
“I may never have known them, but I carry them here,” Eralynn said, touching the heart-shaped glass pendant that hung at her throat. “And here,” she added, touching the spot over her heart. She blinked several times, her eyes glistening.
Torrin bowed again, mortified at having upset her. “Again, my apologies. I trip over my words, it seems, as frequently as an ale-addled longbeard trips over his braid.”
He was relieved to hear Eralynn chuckle. Her fist punched his forearm affectionately. She had, it would seem, forgiven him.
“Let’s just hope your experiment works,” she told him, nodding at the runestone. “I’ve already thought up a list of ruins I’d like to teleport to and explore. A long list.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll keep my part of the bargain,” Torrin said.
“I know,” Eralynn said. “You’re a man of your word. It’s nice to know I can count on that.”
“I’ll see you in a few days’ time, then,” Torrin told her. “Good luck with your delve.”
Eralynn nodded and motioned Torrin back. Then she drew her sword and approached the portal.
Torrin kept glancing back and forth between the runestone and Eralynn as she halted just in front of the portal. He heard her whisper in a voice too low for him to make them out. The tunnel beyond the runes blurred slightly, as though seen through streaked glass. Eralynn stepped in and vanished from sight, the glow on the back of her hands leaving a faint smear of blue static that crackled for a heartbeat, then was gone.
Torrin stared hard at the runestone. But, to his great disappointment, he could see no obvious change in it. He’d hoped that the magic within might be activated by the wash of magical energy from a portal opening, that some sort of henceforth invisible command rune might appear on the runestone’s surface, or that perhaps the runestone might orient itself with a particular compass direction, or some other clue manifest. Yet nothing like that had happened. His experiment had been a failure. And a costly one.
Once again, he was outside the city walls. Once again-for a third time-he’d require a cleansing to get back into Eartheart.
Sharindlar’s clerics were performing cleansings on dwarves at a fee of whatever the dwarf could afford, with the balance of each tithe being paid from the city coffers. Tallfolk, however, had to pay the full cost out of their own pockets. And try as he might, Torrin had yet to convince Sharindlar’s priestesses that he was a dwarf.
Thanks to Kier’s little adventure, Torrin owed the temple for not just one cleansing, but two-the silk ribbons around his wrist were a reminder of that. The second time he’d visited the temple, the clerics had made it clear that credit would not be extended to him a third time. Unless he could figure out how his runestone worked, he’d be stuck outside the gates until he found a way to get the gold from the earthmote.
Lowering the runestone, he walked up to the tunnel mouth tentatively, afraid he might activate the thunderclap that had sounded before. He traced his fingers along the runes. The stone felt cool and weathered, but gave no hint of magical energy. Nor did his runestone.
Had he only been imagining the feel of magic, the day that Kendril had handed it to him? Had Frivaldi been correct in his skepticism about the runestone’s worth?
No, wait. If he concentrated on it, Torrin could feel a tingle against his palm. He moved the runestone a little closer to the opening, and the feeling intensified. Something was definitely happening, although there was no visible change in the runestone. He moved his hand still closer. “Trial and-”
Thunder boomed out of the tunnel, knocking Torrin flat on his back. With his ears ringing and his head aching, he staggered back to his feet. He suddenly realized his hand was empty. The runestone was gone!
“Moradin smite me!” he shouted. At least, he assumed he was shouting. He couldn’t even hear his own voice. Just a throbbing ringing that threatened to split his head like hammer-struck stone. He looked frantically about, but couldn’t spot the runestone anywhere. For one horrified moment, he thought it might have been hurled into the Great Rift. Then he realized where it must be. When the thunderclap had sounded, his hand had been partially inside the tunnel. Fortunately, objects that weren’t being held by a living creature couldn’t pass through a portal on their own. If it had fallen from his hand, it would be there still.
He moved closer. Yes, there it was. He could see the runestone just inside the tunnel. He plugged his ears again with wax, then unslung his mace and poked it slightly into the tunnel, bracing himself. So far, so good. The mace didn’t trigger the thunderclap. But try as he might, he couldn’t snag the runestone and drag it out. His mace seemed to be passing through it, as if the runestone weren’t there. Belatedly, he realized that the runestone was shimmering-partially there, and partially not.
He’d have to pass through the portal to reclaim it.
He stood, chewing his lip in consternation. He had promised Eralynn he wouldn’t follow her. He could wait for her in Hammergate, of course, then bring her back to the canyon floor and get her to enter the portal and fetch the runestone, but in the meantime someone else might claim it. Despite the care he and Eralynn had taken in coming here unnoticed, he couldn’t be absolutely certain that no one had followed them here. If they had been followed, the rogue who’d attempted to steal the runestone from Torrin earlier would be able to get his hands on it in Torrin’s absence-assuming he figured out how to activate the portal.
“I suppose it will be twice Eralynn will have to forgive me,” Torrin muttered, digging the wax out of his ears.
He’d already figured out the answer to the riddle. The key was to speak the two correct words that had been mis-scribed in the inscription above.
Torrin settled his goggles into place over his eyes, unslung his mace, and spoke the words: “Steady, soldiers.” Then he walked through the portal and felt his body wrenched between here and there.
The stench was the first thing Torrin noticed as he glanced around the dead-end tunnel he’d been transported to. A century might have passed since the portal was last used to trap a dragon, but the tunnel still smelled faintly of dung. He saw, to his vast relief, that the runestone lay at his feet, and that it was no longer shimmering. He picked it up and spent a moment examining it, but even though it had passed fully through a portal, there was no obvious change. Disappointed, he placed it in a pouch and secured the pouch in his backpack.
He spent a moment listening, but heard nothing-neither the sound of Eralynn’s footfalls nor any other sounds of movement. Readying his mace once more, he rounded the curve in the tunnel and entered the bolthole Eralynn had told him about. He had to crawl through it on his hands and knees; it was low enough that even a dwarf would have to stoop to pass through it. Torrin wondered how the soldiers of old had managed to move quickly enough through it to escape a dragon that was hard on their heels.
The bolthole led to a large cavern whose uneven floor sloped steeply down to the right and up to the left. Natural pillars of limestone joined floor to ceiling. Torrin sniffed the air. The smell of dung was stronger. Several of the limestone pillars had deep gouges on them-scrape marks left by something big that had squeezed between them at some point.
They weren’t recent marks, Torrin noted. The scratches had been blurred by successive layers of limestone. Whatever wyrm had passed that way had done so years before, maybe even decades before.
Torrin stroked his beard, debating which way to go. Despite his many journeys through the Underdark surrounding Eartheart, he had never ventured into the Wyrmcaves before. The dwarves had avoided them for millennia, since everyone agreed there were no artifacts to be delved there. Yet Torrin knew that they contained more than one exit to the surface-exits large enough for a dragon, and, presumably, climbable.
He licked a finger, held it up, and waited. After a moment, one side of his finger felt cooler-a faint breeze, coming from upslope. The breeze was fresher than the rest of the air down there, but it was as good a direction to choose as any, especially since it led in the opposite direction Eralynn had taken, judging by the boot scuffs leading downslope. Torrin whispered a prayer to Marthammor and slung his mace; he’d need both hands for the climb. Then he scrambled up the slope.
He wandered through the Wymrcaves for what felt like at least half the night, climbing up chimneys and down crevices, edging along ledges, wading through icy underground streams, squeezing through vertical fissures, and belly-worming his way through horizontal cracks. After all that, he had found himself once more at the upper edge of the sloping cave the bolthole connected to. He’d gone in a complete circle. Fresh air still sighed past him-from somewhere behind him-but he hadn’t been able to find its source.
He sat down, exhausted, on a grimy lip of stone. “You’ve led me on a merry chase for pyrite, Vergadain,” Torrin said, shaking his head. The trickster god was like that, sometimes.
There was nothing else to be done. Torrin had to go in the direction Eralynn had taken. With luck, he’d be able to sneak past whatever spot she was delving and respect her desire for privacy. Except that Vergadain wasn’t handing out luck. Not tonight.
The realization that it must be close to dawn filled Torrin with even greater weariness. He needed to rest. He decided to lie down, just for a few moments. He cast about for a suitable spot and found a horizontal fissure big enough to squeeze into. He settled into it, his mace in one hand, determined to rest for just a little while. Within moments, however, he was sound asleep.
The sound of something scraping against stone awakened him. He lay in the darkness, his heart pounding. The scrape came again-closer-and as he heard it, Torrin realized the air had changed. The lizard smell was stronger. Barely daring to breathe, he slowly turned his head and saw, through his goggles, an eye as large and as round as a dinner plate.
A pant of warmth enveloped him-the dragon’s breath. The burned-meat stench of it made his nose prickle and his eyes water. But the dragon hadn’t spotted him yet. A moment later, Torrin realized why. The dragon’s “eye” was actually a gaping hole where an eye had once been. The dragon was blind! Yet surely it would smell him, soon enough.
Torrin’s mace was still in his hand. Its magic just might be enough to lay even a dragon low, but he’d never be able to spring out of the crevice and ready his weapon in time to get in a blow. He squeezed his eyes shut, knowing it was likely he was about to die. Moradin, he prayed silently, I convey my soul to your forge. May you find it worthy of recasting anew. And if you would, O Dwarffather, let me be reborn among the clans, this time around. For I have served you well, and…
Just a moment. The cavern felt… different. Torrin opened his eyes. The dragon was gone! It had passed him by! He could hear it slithering away.
Slithering in the direction Eralynn had taken!
Torrin reared up, banging his forehead on the stone above. He heard a sharp crack. Cursing his stupid mistake, he rubbed his forehead. There’d be a bruise there, soon enough, but that wasn’t his main worry. Feeling slightly lower, he touched his goggles. Something sliced into his finger, confirming his fear. The right lens of his goggles had broken.
He rolled out of the fissure and shook the broken glass out of his goggles, still cursing. He carefully checked that there were no more shards. Being temporarily blind in one eye due to the lost lens would be an inconvenience, but being permanently blind would be a disaster. Then he pulled on his goggles. He struggled downslope, seeing only out of his left eye, all depth perception gone. He had to be careful, lest he make a mis-step that would alert the dragon to his presence. Then again, that might not be such a bad thing. If the dragon turned to attack him, Eralynn would hear the sound and be forewarned.
He maintained a cautious distance behind the dragon for some time, fighting down the sick feeling in his stomach and feeling nervous sweat soak through his shirt. He had to keep close enough to the wyrm to see where it went, but far enough back that it wouldn’t hear or smell him.
At one point, Torrin passed a fissure in one wall that opened onto a large cavern whose floor was covered in chunks of rubble. As he passed the fissure, Torrin spotted a faint blue glow inside the cavern, momentarily silhouetting a dwarf figure. The glow had to be coming from Eralynn’s hands, appearing and disappearing as she moved about. A moment later, Torrin saw a soft yellow light as a candle was lit.
Why would Eralynn be lighting a candle, when she could-as all dwarves were able to do-see in the dark?
Still, who else would it be but Eralynn?
So far, she’d been lucky. If she’d struck steel to flint sooner, before the dragon had passed that spot, it might have smelled the candle smoke.
Torrin hesitated, wondering what he should do. Warn Eralynn? Reveal the fact that he’d followed her through the portal, despite her orders not to? Eralynn must have known there were dragons down there, he reasoned. They were the Wyrmcaves, after all. She’d been prepared to enter the Wyrmcaves alone-and she’d made it abundantly clear that it was a solo delve. Torrin had to respect that.
He decided to follow the dragon. He was certain it would eventually lead him to an exit.
A short time later, Torrin heard the whooshing flap of leathery wings. He crept to what turned out to be the opening to an enormous cavern, and peered inside. The dragon had taken flight and was making its way to a ledge at the far end of the cavern. When it landed, Torrin heard a series of high-pitched shrieks from the ledge. Two heads peeked out from a rounded heap of baked mud: the dragon’s young.
At the opposite side of the cavern, a hole pierced the ceiling. A beam of rose-tinted morning sunlight shone down through it, illuminating the floor below.
Torrin shook his head. Was that how Eralynn planned to leave the Wyrmcaves? By tiptoeing through a dragon’s lair? Yes, the dragon was blind, but its young could see. And Eralynn might not realize they were there.
Torrin’s duty was clear. The Morndinsamman themselves must have placed his feet on the path. Solo delve or not, it was Torrin’s responsibility to warn Eralynn of what lay ahead.
Back at the opening to the rubble-filled cavern, he saw that it was indeed Eralynn. She’d lit not one, but two candles. Their faint glow produced starlike reflections in the veins of clear quartz in the rubble-a sight Torrin might have admired, had it not been for the dangers of the Wyrmcaves. He’d expected to see Eralynn moving about, perhaps searching. But if she was on a delve, she was certainly going about it in a strange manner. She’d set the candles on the tablelike slab of stone on which she stood, and was standing next to them, her arms folded tight against her chest, her head bowed. A flask sat on the rock at her feet, a cup next to it.
Torrin made his way toward her. Clambering over the loose stone, it was impossible not to make noise. By the time he had reached the spot where she stood, she was glaring down at him.
“I told you not to follow me!” she cried. Her voice was furious, but her face looked anguished, rather than angry. Torrin noticed tear streaks in the dusting of grit that covered her face.
He clambered up onto the slab of stone, noting that it was covered in puddles of long-cold wax that had once been candles. He prayed Eralynn wouldn’t shove him off; she looked so upset he half expected her to.
“I didn’t mean to follow you,” he explained. “It was an accident. But that’s not what matters right now. There’s a dragon in the next cavern, not far from here. A red, by the smell of its breath. I came to warn you that-”
“Get out,” she said abruptly.
“Now. You’re intruding on something private.”
“But the dragon-”
“You think I didn’t know about it? What kind of fool do you take me for?” Eralynn said, shaking her head. “That red was blinded, years ago.”
“Did you know that she’s got two young in her nest?” Torrin asked.
“Of course. It’s a breeding year.”
“You… knew?” Torrin bowed his apologies. Yet he couldn’t help but blurt out, “Then why delve now, of all times? Surely you could have come here some time when the dragon wasn’t sitting on its nest?”
Eralynn heaved a heavy sigh. “No, I couldn’t,” she said. “I’m not here to delve. I’m here for the Remembering.” One hand clenched the heart-shaped pendant at her throat.
“Oh,” Torrin said, suddenly realizing why Eralynn always seemed to vanish around the time of the Festival of Remembering. “This is where you disappear to each year, isn’t it? This is where your parents died. Here. In the Wyrmcaves.”
Eralynn nodded. She stared off into the darkness beyond the candle glow, her eyes glistening. After a moment’s silence, words-and tears-began to tumble out. “My parents were part of a merchant caravan, headed for Harlending through the Deeps,” she said. “They had to travel slowly, for fear of breaking Mother’s glasswork. The others didn’t like that, especially when they got closer to the Wyrmcaves. The rest pressed on ahead, together with the guide. My parents missed the passage and blundered into this cavern-into the Wyrmcaves.”
She wiped away a tear with the back of her hand. “When the dragon attacked, my father used his magic to bring a portion of the ceiling down upon it. He didn’t realize this cavern housed a powerful earth node. It magnified his spell, and the entire ceiling fell.” She gestured at the rubble. “My mother was only partially buried. She survived long enough to tell the rescue party her tale. Then she died. Her body was taken back to the clanhold, in Eartheart. But this is my father’s only tomb. It’s why I come here each year.”
“Despite the dragon,” Torrin said softly.
Eralynn’s head jerked up. The fury in her eyes startled him. “ Because of the dragon. That red is the one that attacked my parents. The rockfall blinded her. One day, when I find the right weapon, I’ll finish her off.”
“So that’s why you delve,” Torrin said.
Eralynn stared out over the rubble, saying nothing.
Torrin nodded down at the flask. “Can I join you?” he asked. “The Remembering isn’t something you’re meant to do alone.”
“I was their firstborn, and a singleton. It falls to me, alone, to raise the glass to my parents.”
“Not any more. I’m here.”
Eralynn suddenly laughed. “Why not?” she said. “At least you’ll have actual names to speak, this year, instead of just ‘Clan Ironstar.’ ”
Torrin smiled. He took a cup out of his backpack and held it out. Eralynn filled it from the flask, then filled her own cup. The smell of ale, flavored with honey and bitters-sweetness and sorrow, in one cup-filled the air.
“Ambert and Vakna Thunsonn, I remember you,” Eralynn intoned as she raised her glass. “Your flames have been extinguished. Moradin grant that one day they be kindled anew.”
Torrin echoed her words. Together, they drank. As he tipped back his cup, he glanced at the entrance to the cave and suddenly froze. Was that movement he’d just seen? He closed the eye that didn’t have the benefit of the lens. Yes. Movement. He was certain of it. Something gleamed dully in the faint light of the candle-the dragon’s scales.
He tapped Eralynn’s shoulder and pointed at the entrance. “Dragon,” he mouthed. He pointed down at the still-burning candles, and at his nose. The dragon must have smelled the candle smoke. Fortunately, not only was the wrym too large to fit through the opening, she hadn’t heard them-yet.
Eralynn nodded. Moving slowly, she set her cup down on the stone. Slowly and carefully, she drew her sword. She whispered something. Torrin heard the name Clanggedin Silverbeard, and realized she was readying for battle.
He didn’t like the thought of that. “Isn’t there another way out?” he whispered.
Eralynn shook her head.
“Right,” he said, untying his mace. “That’s it, then. We fight our way out.” If he managed to strike the dragon on the head and shout the word that activated the magic in his mace at just the right moment, they just might live to see another delve. He pointed at the entrance where the dragon waited, likely thinking its prey hadn’t noticed it yet. “You on one side, and me on the other,” Torrin whispered. He handed her his cup. “When we’re in position, throw this. When the dragon hears the noise, and sticks her head in, I’ll stun her. Then you can finish her with your sword.”
She shoved the cup back into his hand. “Stay where you are,” she said. “This is my fight.”
“I won’t let you take on a dragon alone.”
Her look grew cold. “You won’t ‘let’ me?”
He stared back at her and quoted from the Delver’s Tome. “ ‘Unless it is the only way to complete the delve, no Delver shall abandon his partner, or allow him to face danger alone,’ ” he whispered.
“This isn’t a delve,” she retorted, her face growing red. “Nor are you my ‘partner.’ You’re just a sadly deluded-”
A bellowing roar cut off the rest of her insult. A gout of flame billowed into the cavern-the dragon’s fiery breath. A blast of heat washed over them, searing the bare skin on Torrin’s forehead and arms. The smell of singed mustache filled his nostrils. “Down!” he shouted. No need for silence any longer. The red had heard them arguing and knew they were there.
Eralynn didn’t need to be told. She was already springing off the slab of rock. Together, they threw themselves prone in the lee of it, just as a second blast of flame flared across the cavern, even hotter than the first. Melted candle wax dribbled down onto Torrin’s bracer and ran down to his elbow, burning through his heavy shirt and searing his right arm. He cursed and slapped at his sleeve.
“What now?” he gasped. “If we try to get any closer, we’ll be cooked meat.”
Eralynn coughed. The air was thick with smoke. “If we wait here, we’ll suffocate,” she said.
Torrin touched the silver hammers braided into his beard as another roaring gout of fire filled the cavern. The air grew still more stifling. His entire body was bathed in sweat, his singed beard limp, and his hair plastered against his scalp. Eralynn didn’t look much better. Hot, sooty air rasped down Torrin’s throat like a sawblade as he tried to draw breath.
“Torrin,” Eralynn said. “I’m sorry.”
Torrin forced a grin. “Everyone has to die, sometime.”
“Not that,” she said with a cough. “About what I said.”
He waved a hand. “You can apologize later.” He coughed again. “In the next life, when we meet again.”
“Small chance of that,” she gasped. “We won’t even recognize each other.”
Torrin hung his head closer to the ground, trying to find cooler air. With all the smoke in the air, it was getting difficult to see. Eralynn struggled to rise, her sword in her hand, but another blast of flame forced her back to her knees.
Then Torrin noticed something-a blue glow. Lines of magical energy were flowing toward the spot where he and Eralynn were crouched, converging on them as though they were the hub of a spoked wheel.
“What’s happening?” he asked.
“Something’s activated the earth node,” Eralynn said. “It’s channeling spellfire.” She lifted her hands and squinted at them through the smoke. The glowing veins of blue were no brighter than usual. “But it’s not me. Something other than my spellscar must be drawing it.”
Torrin saw, to his surprise, that the beams of crackling blue energy were converging on the spot where he crouched. “It’s focusing on me!” he gasped back. “But I’m not spellscarred. Why would it-”
Wracked with coughing, he couldn’t continue.
“Your runestone!” Eralynn cried.
Of course! Why hadn’t he made the connection before? The words on his runestone were “earth magic,” and they were at the heart of an earth node: one of the places where the invisible lines of elemental energy that ran the length and breadth of Faerun converged. And perhaps-just perhaps-it would be their salvation. Mages used earth nodes like stepping stones, teleporting from one to the next with a mere thought. Perhaps the runestone would allow even someone without knowledge of magical rituals to do the same. And not just from one earth node to the other, but to-as Kendril had said-“anywhere you want to go.”
Torrin ripped off his pack and fumbled with the runestone. Immediately, the sparkling lines centered on it. A ball of blue light formed around the runestone, sending tingling shivers up Torrin’s arms.
“What should I do now?” he shouted.
“I have no idea!” Eralynn rasped out between coughs. “Try concentrating on somewhere else.” Yet another wave of heat and smoke boiled over them as the dragon exhaled again. “Anywhere else!” She cupped her hands around Torrin’s, and the blue glow intensified. Crackling veins sprang into bright relief on the backs of her hands.
“Hold on!” Torrin shouted. He squeezed his eyes shut, one hand on his pack and the other holding the runestone. Out of here, he thought fiercely. Get us out of here. Take us-
Fire curled over the slab as the dragon exhaled its most powerful breath yet, the flames licking down over the lip of the stone. As they seared Torrin’s scalp and smouldered his hair, he screamed in pain. “Home!”
He felt a sudden wrench.
A twisting sensation followed-a long spinning slide along lines of blue fire. Then a sudden thud, blessed coolness, and the press of wooden boards against his cheek.
He lifted his head and saw Eralynn lying unconscious-but, praise Moradin, still breathing-beside him on the floor of his parents’ shop in Hammergate.
“We made it,” he gasped.
Then he collapsed.
“Even the just may sin with an open chest of gold before them.”
Torrin hissed in pain as something cold touched his forehead. He reared up, wincing at the sting, and a wet cloth fell from his forehead, into his lap. He glanced around stiffly, and saw that he was in the attic loft above his parents’ shop in Hammergate.
“Welcome home, Daffyd,” a voice beside him said. Torrin glanced to the side and saw his mother. She picked the cloth up from the bed, dipped it into a basin of ice water, and wrung it out. “We’ve seen you, what-twice? — these past ten years, and suddenly you decide to barge in on us out of thin air.” She shook her head and feigned a laugh. “Decided to test the shop’s protective wards, did you?”
“You’ve added wards?” Torrin asked. “Business must be good.”
“As it turns out, no,” his mother replied, suddenly serious. “The dwarves have sealed the gate to Eartheart. None of them are venturing out to Hammergate any more. They’re all trembling, right to the tips of their beards, about this new disease. The stoneplague, they call it. Thank goodness it doesn’t seem to affect… us.”
Torrin’s mother had aged since he’d seen her last. The hair that was pulled up in a neat bun was a solid gray, and the lines beside her mouth had deepened. She was also heavier than Torrin remembered-the stool she sat on creaked as she leaned forward. But although her tone was as chiding as ever, her touch was gentle as she laid the cold cloth on Torrin’s scorched arm.
“Where’s Eralynn?” he asked. “Is she all right?”
“That dwarf woman you teleported in here with?” his mother replied. “The one with the strange hands?” Her lips turned down in a barely suppressed frown. “She’s spellscarred, you know.”
“Really?” Torrin snapped back, falling back into his old habit of sarcasm. “How could you tell?”
His mother ignored his retort. “She’s gone back to Eartheart, I suppose. Assuming she found enough gold for the cleansing. The temple is charging whatever the market will bear, I’m told.”
Torrin winced, and immediately regretted it. The portions of his face that hadn’t been protected by the goggles or his beard stung from his burns. What stung worse was the news that Eralynn had just walked out on him. “When did she leave?” he asked.
Torrin blinked. “I’ve been unconscious that long?”
His mother’s lips tightened. “I was worried about you,” she replied. “But your dwarf friend said you’d be fine, once the backlash from the spellfire wore off. What were you up to? You didn’t blunder into a pocket of spellfire, did you?”
“Nothing like that.” Torrin said, looking around the room. His toys and clothes had been packed away years before. All that remained of his childhood furnishings was the bed. Sunlight filtered through the room’s single grimy window-the one through which he’d snuck out onto the rooftop as a boy, to look down on the crowded streets below. Beyond the rooftops, he could see the high walls of Eartheart proper. There were more knights than usual patrolling the battlements. Making sure no one tried to slip past the quarantine, Torrin supposed.
The attic was filled with crates and boxes. It had become a storeroom. But near the window was a crude drawing he’d done of himself, back when he was six-the year before he’d realized he was a dwarf born into a human family, and not a true human at all. The beardless boy that stared back at him from that drawing seemed as distant from the man he had become as the stars were from Faerun.
“Where’s the runestone I was holding when I teleported here?” he asked.
“Your friend put it in your pack-which is over in the corner there. Safe,” his mother said reassuringly.
“And my mace?”
After a moment’s strained silence, she answered, “Also safe.”
His mother stared at the silver hammers in his beard. “I see you’re still worshiping dwarf gods.”
“Of course,” Torrin replied. “Why shouldn’t I worship my maker?”
His mother closed her eyes and whispered something in a strained voice. Then she stared an age-old challenge into his eyes. “I’m your mother.”
“I’ve never disputed that,” Torrin said.
She held up a silencing finger. “For nine months, I bore you inside me,” she continued. “For seven years, you were a normal boy, with none of these flights of fancy. If I could only step back in time, I would never have taken that horrible weapon in trade.” She leaned forward, her eyes intense. “It was the mace that whispered its command word into your mind that day, Torrin. It had nothing to do with you. You’re not a dwarf.”
Torrin sighed. Their conversation was familiar ground, so well trodden he could have been blindfolded and still followed the footprints of the words that would come. “The mace wouldn’t have spoken to me if I wasn’t of the Ironstar clan,” he said.
“That’s where you’re wrong,” his mother replied. “And if you don’t believe me, perhaps you’ll believe one of those ‘longbeards’ you’re in such awe of. Your father consulted a loremaster, one you’ll have a great deal of respect for. According to Loremaster Indersson, it’s entirely possible for a human-a full human, not a whiff of dwarf anywhere about him-to use a weapon enchanted with dwarf magic. An enchanted weapon will speak to any who wields it, even a human, if his will is strong enough and the need is great. The loremaster assured your father that Moradin would never send a dwarf soul back to this realm in a human body.”
“Yet it happened,” Torrin said, staring out of the window. “And it was done for a reason. I know it.”
“You know nothing of the sort!” his mother said.
He turned back to her. “I know you would have died that day, if I hadn’t killed that robber. I know that no seven-year-old human boy should have been able to do what I did.” He rose, stiffly, from the bed.
“Torrin,” she said as she caught his hand. “Just tell me why. Did you need to be something more than the son of shopkeepers? Was that not enough for you? You’re a grown man now. It’s time to leave your childhood fantasies behind. Your father’s not getting any younger, you know. He could use your help.”
Torrin gently removed her hand from his. “Where is Father?”
“He didn’t want to speak to me?”
“He has a shop to run. But he looked in on you, as you lay unconscious. He was just as worried as I was.”
Torrin nodded. “And my bracers? Where are they?”
His mother’s head drooped as she pointed at a corner of the attic room. “Over there.”
Torrin gently patted her hand. “You’re still my mother,” he said reassuringly. “You still bore me. I’m just… not your son.”
His mother made a choking sound and abruptly rose from her stool. As she hurried from the room, Torrin suddenly realized how those words must have stung. “Mother, I-”
Too late. She was gone.
“I never meant to hurt you,” Torrin finished. With a heavy sigh, he made his way over to the corner to collect his things.
He was a dwarf. He was as certain of it as he was of the fact that he was alive. Yet one thing troubled him. “Home,” he’d told the runestone. The word had had come to him, out of nowhere-just as the command words for his mace had just popped into his head, those many years before. And he’d spoken it in Dwarvish. Faern, he’d said.
Yet the runestone had brought him not to the Thunsonn clanhold, but to his parents’ shop, to his childhood home.
“Torrin! Over here!”
Eralynn waved to him from the long lineup that snaked its way back from the temple Torrin had visited upon his return from Needle Leap. The temple was an outreach to the tallfolk of Hammergate, and occupied what had once been a squat stone warehouse near one of the city gates. It was much lower than the woodframe shops on either side whose upper stories jutted out over the streets below.
On each of the four corners of the temple’s rooftop, Sharindlar’s clerics had erected a steel needle like the ones used by lay healers to stitch wounds back together. But one in particular was as thick as a man’s arm and encased in perpetual flames-the goddess’s symbol. Magical mosaics on the walls below depicted Sharindlar, her arms raised and her dress flaring, giving the appearance that the goddess was dancing around the exterior of the temple.
A knot of people clustered at the main entrance, demanding attention. A harried-looking novice did her best to reply to the crush of demands-the loudest of which seemed to be coming from a gray-bearded caravan master who kept shouting, over and over again, that he had a schedule to keep.
Torrin pushed his way through the crowd, keeping an eye out for the two rogues who’d waylaid him, or anyone else who looked suspicious. But if anyone was following him, he was unable to spot them.
There were two lines in front of the temple. A much longer one consisted of dwarves-most of them from settlements beyond Eartheart, judging by their dusty clothes. The other held a dozen or so humans, elves, and various other tallfolk races. Although there had been no reports of tallfolk succumbing to the stoneplague, the Deep Lords weren’t taking any chances. Everyone who entered the city had to be cleansed.
Eralynn was near the front of the longer line, a few paces behind the bellowing caravan master and some husky dwarf bearers who were sitting on their packs, playing tumblebones. The caravan master was arguing that, since his bearers were only half human, they qualified as dwarves, and were entitled to have their tithe paid for out of the city coffers. Or at the very least, half of it.
When he was even with the outdoor privies that had been set up to accommodate the needs of those in line, Torrin wrinkled his nose at the sour smell of excrement and unwashed bodies.
“Eralynn!” he shouted, ignoring the grumbles of those who thought he was trying to butt into the wrong line. “I’m glad to see you’re all right. Why didn’t you wait for me?”
“Do you see this line?” she called back. Her eyes had dark circles under them, and she looked weary beyond words, he saw as he reached her side. “All day I’ve stood here, waiting my turn to go inside,” she continued. “You were in good hands, and I knew you’d catch up to me once you recovered, likely long before I made my way to the front of the line.”
She peered up at him, frowning slightly. “The magic we invoked was strong,” she said. “It didn’t… leave its mark on you, did it?”
Torrin glanced down at the hand that touched his. The magical energy that flickered across the back of Eralynn’s hands had faded to its usual dull glow.
Torrin was touched by her concern. “No scars,” he said. “I’m-” He’d been about to say he was “clean.” He was glad to have stopped himself in time. “I’m fine,” he continued.
Eralynn nodded. The line moved forward slightly as the bearers shouldered their packs and followed the caravan master into the temple. Some sort of agreement, it would appear, had at last been reached.
“There’s a rumor they’re going to up the price for tallfolk,” Eralynn said. “There’s even talk they’ll fix a rate for the tithe for dwarves as well.” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “Gougers. Making a profit out of the stoneplague.”
“Don’t say that!” Torrin said, warning her. He glanced nervously at the main entrance to the temple, where the priestess stood. “Even if the Merciful Maiden doesn’t hear you, the goddess might!”
“It’s not Sharindlar I’m criticizing,” Eralynn whispered back fiercely. “For all you know, the goddess is thinking the same thing.”
Torrin doubted it, but he didn’t want to continue so potentially blasphemous an argument. He changed the subject instead.
“At least I know how my new trinket works now,” he told Eralynn, keeping his voice low in case anyone was listening. Elation filled him. “At long last, I can complete my quest!”
“Please tell me you’re not going back to the Wyrmcaves,” Eralynn said.
“No need,” he replied. “I’m sure there are other earth nodes I can use. I’ll just need to find a guide who can take me to one of them. To a safe node, this time.”
“And if it doesn’t work?” Eralynn asked. “What if you say, ‘Take me to the Soulforge,’ and nothing happens? Or worse yet, the runestone takes not you, but your soul, straight to Moradin’s realm?” She glanced down at her hands. “Playing around with earth nodes can be a dangerous business, you know.”
“I’m not asking you to come.”
She glared up at him. “I’m not offering.”
Torrin shifted uncomfortably. Had he insulted her? As he pondered that, his eye fell on a boy carrying fresh roasted mushrooms on a stick, one of the street vendors selling food and drink to the crowd. The boy was scrawny-barrel chested when compared to a human of a comparable age, but small compared to other dwarf boys his size-with hands stained yellow from mushroom picking. His clothes were poor and ill-fitting, but the coin pouch at his hip bulged. Business had obviously been brisk. Eralynn licked her lips and reached for her coin pouch, but Torrin wrinkled his nose at the smell.
“What’s the matter?” Eralynn asked.
“I visited Araumycos once,” Torrin explained. “Ever since then, the smell of mushrooms has made me sick.”
“Oh,” she replied with a laugh. “For a moment there, I thought that maybe the boy had the stoneplague.” She waved at the mushroom seller. “You there, boy. Wait a moment!”
Torrin noticed that he was suddenly no longer being jostled by the others in the line. A gap had opened around where he and Eralynn stood. A buzz of voices broke out all around them.
“The stoneplague,” someone ahead of him whispered. “Did you hear? The boy has the stoneplague.”
A moment later, the word rippled up and down the line.
“The stoneplague!” a man just behind them shouted in a shrill voice. “The mushroom seller has the stoneplague!”
Eralynn’s eyes widened. “No!” she insisted. “He doesn’t. I was just-”
It was too late. The line surged backward, people tripping over one another in their haste to escape. Men shouted, one woman screamed, and an elderly man several paces away broke into a loud, quavering prayer. The once orderly line suddenly descended into a milling mob, people running to and fro. Eralynn, caught up in the surge, was swept away from Torrin’s side. Above it all, Torrin heard the temple cleric’s shrill voice, shouting for order. And, much closer at hand, the metallic snick of steel being drawn. It was the man who’d shouted that the boy had the stoneplague-a black-bearded dwarf with a dagger in his hand and a malicious look on his face. He bore down on the mushroom seller, his hard eyes firmly fixed on the boy’s coin pouch.
Torrin didn’t have time to unfasten his mace from his belt. Instead he dove at the would-be thief’s back, tackling him. The rogue was tougher than Torrin had expected. He didn’t go down, but whirled, spinning Torrin off his feet. Torrin clung to the man, his feet scrambling for purchase, and finally managed to bring him down. The rogue twisted in Torrin’s grip like a greased eel, and Torrin felt a flash of pain as the blade of the knife nicked his ear. He flung himself sideways, both hands on the rogue’s knife hand now. They struggled, pitting strength versus strength, the rogue sputtering curses. From several paces behind him, Torrin heard Eralynn shouting to hang on, that she was coming. Then the rogue looked at Torrin. Torrin saw that the rogue’s eyes had a touch of the same dull, glassy look that Kendril’s had shown, and he felt an icy rivulet of fear course through him. The rogue’s eyes weren’t clouded enough yet to blind him, but the skin at the corners was the same: deeply cracked and as dark as mud.
“Yes,” the thief hissed up at him. “I’ve got it.”
He spat in Torrin’s face.
Torrin let go of the man and flailed back, frantically rubbing the rogue’s spittle from his forehead. Had it run into his eyes? Was he going to catch the stoneplague and go blind?
“That man has the stoneplague!” he screamed, pointing at the thief who was already several paces away and running hard. “Stop him!”
It was the wrong thing to have said. The crowd, whipped into an even greater hysteria by the second mention of the stoneplague, elbowed, shoved, and screamed at each other in their increased urgency to get away from not one, but two possible sources of contagion. One or two fell, and were nearly trampled as the mob surged back and forth. Torrin floundered to and fro as dwarves crashed into him, sending him staggering. By the time he had fought his way to where Eralynn stood, the street in front of the temple was rapidly emptying.
Soon everyone was gone, except for the mushroom seller, who lay face down on the cobblestones, blood trickling from his nose. Mushrooms lay scattered about the street all around him, stamped into a slippery mush by the feet of the fleeing crowd.
Eralynn’s eyes widened. “Moradin have mercy,” she said in a strained voice. “What have we done?”
Torrin ground his teeth as he saw that the boy’s coin pouch was gone. Ordinarily, he’d have assumed that one of the tallfolk had taken it. He liked to think that dwarves had more honor than to steal from their own kind. But that didn’t seem to be the case.
He glanced around but saw no sign of the rogue. He rubbed his stinging ear. Despite the attack, he didn’t think the fellow was connected to the two who’d jumped him. The theft from the mushroom seller had appeared spontaneous, prompted solely by greed.
The cleric from the temple hurried forward to examine the fallen boy. She knelt beside him and gently lifted his head.
Eralynn kneeled down beside her. “Is he-”
“He’s alive,” the red-robed cleric said.
“But he’ll need healing,” the Merciful Maiden added. “And soon. His skull is cracked.”
Torrin, meanwhile, was thinking of the spit that had struck his face. He reminded himself that no human had yet succumbed to the stoneplague. Yet he wondered if that were also true of a human with a dwarf soul. In any case, a cleansing would take away whatever degree of illness the dwarf’s spittle had held. That was one thing Torrin could be certain of.
He walked toward the cleric and the injured boy, feeling sick at the thought that his reaction to the stench of mushrooms had caused the situation. Eralynn must have felt equally guilty. He saw her open her coin pouch.
“Please,” Eralynn said, insisting. “Let me pay for his healing.”
As Torrin drew closer, he was surprised to see that it wasn’t coins Eralynn had inside her pouch, but a bar of gold, exactly the same size and shape and color as those he’d seen in the earthmote!
The Merciful Maiden waved it away. “No need,” she said. “We can afford to extend a little charity.”
As the priestess carried the boy into the temple, Torrin caught Eralynn’s eye. “Where did you get that?” he asked, nodding at the pouch.
Eralynn, he noticed, had taken a step back from him, probably uncomfortable with the fact that he’d just wrestled with someone who had the stoneplague. “Why do you ask?” she said.
She sounded evasive. Torrin could guess why. She’d obviously explored the earthmote herself and found the gold. Just as he had, she’d kept quiet about it, not even telling her best friend. Instead, she’d taken the gold for herself. And Torrin would be left, cap in hand, begging for a portion of what they might instead have shared equally, if only he’d told Eralynn about his find.
“Did you take all of it?” he asked in a defeated voice.
“All of what?” Eralynn asked. “The rope?”
“What rope?” he asked.
One of Eralynn’s eyebrows rose. “Are we talking about the same thing?”
“The earthmote,” Torrin said. “You found it, right?”
Torrin felt his eyes widen. “The… Ah…”
Eralynn waited, tapping her foot. “What earthmote?” she repeated. “Or is that some secret delve of yours you’re not going to tell me about?”
“Not my delve-Kier’s,” Torrin replied.
“ What? ” Eralynn hissed.
Dropping his voice to a whisper, Torrin quickly told her the story of Kier’s flight to the earthmote, and what they’d found inside. He didn’t get far, however, before she halted him.
“Oh, Torrin,” she said. “You didn’t hear. The Peacehammers found your gold yesterday. Uncle Baelar said they claimed it for the city coffers, in the name of the Lord Scepter. It’s helping to pay for the cleansings.”
Torrin opened and closed his mouth, unable to speak. “It’s… gone? All of it?”
“Why didn’t you tell me about it sooner?” Eralynn asked.
“It… I…” He hung his head and gave a rueful sigh. “Greed. And now the gods have punished me for it.”
She stared at him in silence for several moments. Then she surprised him by laughing. “I’d have done the same.”
“Really?” he asked, meeting her eye.
“Really. That much gold would tempt anyone.”
“So… where did you get that gold bar?”
“I got it in change, when I purchased the rope we used to descend to Wyrmtrap portal. Mercuria said he didn’t have any gold coins, and he gave me the gold bar instead.”
“Mercuria?” Torrin echoed. “You bought that rope at Mercuria’s store?”
“Now just a moment,” Eralynn retorted. “Don’t go lecturing me about dealing with a tiefling. I know full well where his merchandise comes from, and I don’t care. He’s got the best prices in town. All of the Delvers buy from him.” She glanced down at the gold bar. “But you’re right. I should have been more cautious. The exchange rate was a little too favorable.”
She glanced up again as she continued. “I wasn’t a complete babe in the wolf’s den, however. I figured the talismonger might be trying to pass off gilt over dross. But when I scratched the bar with a nail, it was soft as butter-solid gold, all right. Or at least, I think it was.”
She stared down into the pouch. “You’re going to tell me this is really lead, aren’t you?” she said. “That Mercuria used magic to trick me.”
“Let me see it,” Torrin said. Keeping the gold bar inside the pouch, where it wouldn’t attract so much attention, he examined it. He spotted something amiss right away. “See this rune, next to the purity stamp?”
She peered at it. “What of it?”
“It’s been carelessly done,” he replied. “One of the lines in the ‘one hundred’ rune is shorter than the others. And the horns on the crescent that marks it as being from the Waterdeep mint have the wrong curve. This might be gold, but the minter’s mark is a forgery. I’ll bet someone shaved the original bar down, then recast it with just enough of another metal in the mix that a casual observer wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.”
Eralynn raised an eyebrow. “How do you know so much about currency?”
“I used to help my human parents tend the store, remember?” Torrin replied. “We had to be careful what we took in trade.” He yanked the pouch’s drawstrings tight. “The real question is, how did one of the bars from the earthmote wind up in Mercuria’s possession?”
“That’s easy enough,” Eralynn said. “You said yourself how alluring gold can be. One of the skyriders pocketed it, then used it to buy something at Mercuria’s shop.”
“No skyrider would do such a thing!” Torrin said in protest.
Eralynn shook her head. “You may be a dwarf at heart, Torrin, but there’s much you’ve yet to learn about the hearts of dwarves.”
Torrin tried to hand the pouch back to her, but Eralynn refused it. “Keep it,” she said.
“But it’s valuable!” he said.
“You need to pay for your cleansing,” she replied as she shook her head. “If your mother had given me a chance, I would have left the gold with her to pass along to you. But she wasn’t very polite.” She glanced down at her hands and sighed. “Not that I’m unused to that.”
“It wasn’t your hands,” Torrin told her. “She just… has a bit of trouble talking to dwarves, sometimes. She blames the stout folk for… Well, for this.” He gestured at his beard.
“Ah,” Eralynn said, looking somewhat mollified. “Still, even if the bar isn’t full value, it’s enough to pay your tithe. So keep it.”
Torrin opened his mouth to thank Eralynn, but his eyes fell, just then, on the Merciful Maiden who had just appeared at the entrance. Maliira. Torrin held up his left hand to display the ribbons, and waved. Maliira nodded back at him. Was she smiling? He couldn’t tell. She crooked a finger, beckoning him closer.
“You know her?” Eralynn said.
“A little. Not as well as I’d like,” he replied.
Eralynn suddenly turned and walked away.
Torrin was taken aback by her abrupt departure. “Wait!” he called after her. “I wanted to thank…”
But Eralynn had turned the corner. Torrin scratched his head. If he hadn’t known better, he might have guessed that she felt affection for him. But she’d made it clear many times in the past that they were just friends. Fellow Delvers, nothing more.
He shrugged, then strode to the spot where Maliira stood. “You wanted to talk to me?” he asked her.
“It’s your turn for a cleansing, it would seem,” Maliira told him. “Since you’re the only one left in line.”
Torrin smiled. “Will you administer the blessing?”
“No,” she replied, waving a hand at the people who were starting to venture-albeit timidly-back to the street in front of the temple. The line was beginning to reform. “I’m needed here, to keep order until the Steel Shields arrive. Some idiot, apparently, accused someone else in line of having the stoneplague, and nearly started a riot.”
Torrin was thankful his beard hid the flush of his cheeks. “Ah. Yes. Stupid thing to do,” he said.
“What he should have done was quietly pull the afflicted person aside and bring him to the front of the line, so we could heal him,” Maliira continued.
“Yes, yes, of course. That’s exactly what he should have done,” Torrin agreed.
Was it just his imagination, or was she giving him an accusing look?
He needed to change the subject. “This time, I’ll be able to pay my tithe,” he said. He lifted the pouch Eralynn had given him and opened it with a flourish, drawing out the gold bar.
Maliira took it from him and stared at it thoughtfully. For a moment, Torrin thought she was going to reject it as payment. She further alarmed him by glancing around somewhat furtively, and drawing her dagger.
“What’s wrong?” he asked. “Is my tithe… insulting in some way?”
“Quite the contrary,” she said. “It’s very generous. Now hold out your left hand.”
Torrin did as he was bid.
She sliced the two ribbons off his wrist. “Your debt is absolved,” the priestess said.
Torrin rubbed his bare wrist. “But… I promised to pay for the previous two cleansings,” he said. “And I always keep my oaths.”
Maliira didn’t seem to be listening to his protests.
“I was told what you said in the Council chamber,” she said, sheathing her dagger. “You were very brave.”
“I was merely doing my duty as a citizen of Eartheart,” he replied.
“Yet you’re not a citizen. You’re human.”
“That’s where you’re wrong. As I told you the first time we met: I’m a dwarf.” He thumped his chest. “Here. On the inside.”
“Regardless of whether that’s the truth or a pretty fantasy, you have the honor and the courage of a dwarf. It seems unfair you should pay when you’ve already done so much.”
“Nevertheless, I will pay,” Torrin insisted. “As promised.”
The corner of her mouth twitched. “Is your insistence on payment just an excuse to dance with me on Midsummer Night?”
Torrin grinned as he replied, “Does the coal in a forge glow red?”
Maliira smiled. “Off you go, then,” she said. “Get cleansed. That way, they’ll have no excuse to haul you before the Council again.”
“Until Midsummer then,” Torrin said.
Torrin entered the temple, still grinning. He might have lost all of the gold in the earthmote, but somehow, ironically, his footsteps felt all the lighter. The weight of the gold had lain upon his shoulders, filling him with anxiety and guilt. In truth, he was glad to be rid of it. And he had something much, much better to look forward to.
He still had to raise the hundred Anvils he’d stubbornly insisted on paying, but as a result of his foray into the Wyrmcaves, he realized the solution to that problem was already at hand. Once the other Delvers learned that the runestone was capable of taking them anywhere they wanted to go, they would pay Torrin whatever price he asked to transport them to their delves. Dorn, for example, would pay a pretty price to find the lost tomb of Velm Dragonslayer-and he was just the start.
Whistling cheerfully, Torrin made his way to the temple’s lower level. After seeing Maliira again, a plunge into an ice-cold sacred pool was just the thing he needed.
1306 DR THE YEAR OF THUNDER
“A babe is more precious than gold. And twin babes, twice as precious.”
Moradin sat upon his throne, his warhammer resting across his knees, his bracers gleaming redgold in the light of the Soulforge. His long white beard lay against his chest and lap, hiding his smith’s apron and leather leggings. His expression was grim as he stared down upon the face of Faerun.
“My children,” he observed. “They are diminishing.”
Berronar Truesilver, matron of home and hearth, sat on her own massive stone throne beside her husband. She stared down at the clanholds of the dwarves, a hand stroking one of the four neat plaits of her beard. Her lips moved in silence as she counted. “I am saddened, my husband,” she noted. “Not since the fall of Bhaerynden to the drow have we seen so many empty clanholds.”
“Many souls have been lost,” Moradin observed. He gestured toward the Soulforge, at the ghostly dwarves who stood in line behind it, awaiting their turn to be reforged. “Fewer of them return to us each year, and thus fewer each year are reborn. Something must be done.”
He raised a clenched hand. A shield appeared in it. Moradin lifted his warhammer, and struck the shield. It rang like a gong, summoning the lesser deities who served him. Clanggedin Silverbeard was the first of the Morndinsamman to appear. He materialized at the right hand of Moradin, garbed for battle in blood-splattered chainmail, with a matched set of mithril axes in his hands. His eyes darted back and forth. “Am I summoned to battle?” he cried with a ferocious scowl. “Where is the enemy?”
Moradin lowered his hammer and shield. “Stand easy, Lord of Battle,” he told Clanggedin Silverbeard. “I call you not to a contest of arms, but to a conference.”
Clanggedin heaved a great sigh, disappointment etched plain on his face. He lowered his axes. “Very well, my Lord.”
Dugmaren Brightmantle came hurrying in next, a heavy, leather-bound book tucked under one arm, his bright blue cloak fluttering behind him. The god of scholarship wore round-lensed spectacles, although, being divine, he had no real need for them. His long hair was thinning on top, and recessed at the temples. “You have need of my knowledge, my Lord?” he asked. His voice was a contradiction: a whisper that carried clearly.
“Or my gold?” another voice asked. The speaker was Dumathoin, god of buried wealth, and the patron deity of those who mined and worked the earth’s noble metals and precious gems. Dumathoin was barrel-chested, with earth-brown skin and eyes that gleamed like silver. His arms were as well-muscled as those of a miner or a smith, and he carried a mattock in one hand. Rock dust smudged his face.
“Indeed I do!” boomed a voice that was a duplicate of Moradin’s own. “Give it to me; I command you!” A hand thrust out from behind Moradin, pushing between his right arm and his side, pretending to be Moradin’s own.
Moradin turned, and saw Vergadain crouching behind his throne. The trickster god let out a peal of laughter as he pulled his hand back.
Moradin would have chastised Vergadain, but was distracted as Sharindlar danced lightly into view. The goddess of healing and mercy was seductive in every movement, from the slightest toss of her flame red hair to the twitch of her delicate fingers. Desire rose in Moradin as his eyes lingered upon her curves-desire that he only just managed to quench as Berronar cleared her throat to remind him that his wife was seated next to him.
Moradin turned and gave Berronar a rueful smile. Out of the corner of his eye, however, he continued to watch Sharindlar’s dance, as smitten as any mortal by her beauty.
Abbathor was the final deity to respond to Moradin’s summons. He strolled in languidly, seemingly more interested in cleaning his fingernails with the point of his diamond-bladed dagger than in whatever the Lord of the Morndinsamman had to say. He would likely be of little assistance; Abbathor was well known for only being of aid when there was something he could gain in return.
“I have summoned you on a matter that is vital to us all,” Moradin told the assembled gods. “Behold Faerun. The dwarves who dwell upon it are fewer in number than ever in their history. Our worshipers are diminishing. Should they decline too dramatically, it could spell our doom. For what are we gods, without mortals to pay us homage?”
With that, he had even Abbathor’s attention.
“I have done an accounting,” said Dugmaren. He opened his book and pushed his spectacles up with a finger so that they sat a little more firmly on his nose. “The trouble lies in the fact that not every dwarf soul reaches our realm. A certain portion are lost each year from the Fugue Plain. Some are snared by demons before we can claim them; others are lacking in faith and so stray from the path and lose their way. Still others are lost because they have sworn their allegiance to other deities, and thus are claimed by those gods.”
“It fills me with such sorrow,” Berronar said, “to think that there are dwarves who lose their way back to hearth and home.”
Moradin’s mind, however, was fixed on the latter point Dugmaren had raised. He stared down at the assembled Morndinsamman with a steely eye. “We Morndinsamman must work harder to keep our chosen people within the fold,” he said. “I will not have the fruits of my labors stolen from me!”
“I must point out that only a small fraction of souls are lost to other gods,” Dugmaren hastily amended. “The greater number are lost because so many are dying in battle. There are simply too many dwarf souls wandering the Fugue Plain for us to collect them all.”
“We must smite the enemies of the dwarves!” Clanggedin suddenly shouted. “Lay waste to those who are decimating the clanholds. Permit me to manifest on Faerun, Lord Moradin, and I shall lead the dwarf armies to victory!”
“Fool,” Abbathor spat. “Leading the dwarves into battle will only cause them to die in even greater numbers. And then where will we be?” He pointed his dagger at the Soulforge. “Even more souls will be lost to the perils of the Fugue Plain. And those souls that do find their way here will be lined up at the Soulforge a thousand deep. There won’t be any dwarves left alive to worship us.”
Clanggedin whirled to face Abbathor, his face red with wrath. “Since when do you care about the souls of the dead?” he shouted. “All you care about is how many offerings the living can heap upon your altars.”
Clanggedin raised his paired axes. Dull red forge light glinted off their mithril blades. Abbathor roused from his slouch, his dagger at the ready.
“Clanggedin! Abbathor!” Moradin shouted, his voice pealing like thunder. “I must remind you of your sworn oaths. Lower your weapons, the pair of you.”
The two lesser deities held their glares a moment more. Then each did as Moradin had bid.
Sharindlar broke the silence that followed. “It is not death we should be contemplating, but birth,” she said in a melodious voice. One hand strayed to her belly and caressed it, like a pregnant woman feeling for the life within. “The more dwarves who are born, the more worshipers we shall have.”
“And how will we manage that?” Vergadain countered, leaning, somewhat irreverently, on the arm of Moradin’s throne. He strode over to the line of souls who waited before the Soulforge, approaching one near the front of the line-a graybeard whose ghostly form held a hand to the small of his back, as if he could still feel the aches a lifetime of toil had produced.
Vergadain pretended to tap the graybeard on the shoulder; his fingers poked into the waiting soul. “Excuse me, good sir, but could you hurry up and be reborn?” he asked. “We Morndinsamman would appreciate it. Come to think of it, we’d appreciate it even more if you could find a way to be reborn twice over!”
Vergadain laughed at his own joke. The other deities joined in the merriment. Even the normally dour Clanggedin laughed so hard he had to transfer his paired axes to one hand, so he could wipe the tears of mirth from his eyes with the other.
Moradin suddenly leaned forward, his attention rapt as he stared at the identical axes Clanggedin held. His eye wandered to Sharindlar, who still had a hand on her belly, and he broke into a smile.
“My thanks, gods of the Morndinsamman,” he said. “You have given me my answer.”
“They have?” Berronar asked.
Moradin rose from his throne. The graybeard who’d been the butt of Vergadain’s joke was at the head of the line. In a moment more, his soul would step into the Soulforge and be reborn. Moradin took the ghostly greybeard’s arm, and turned him. The soul, feeling the Dwarffather’s hand on his elbow, startled and turned. Then his eyes widened, and he trembled. A look of rapture flushed his face, and his eyes leaked tears of joy.
“Dwarffather!” he exclaimed.
Moradin held out a hand. “Clanggedin,” he demanded. “I have need of one of your axes.”
Clanggedin didn’t hesitate. He extended the weapon.
Moradin took the axe and raised it. The soul of the graybeard glanced up at the blade, not in fear, but in puzzlement. “Dwarffather,” he said in a voice as soft as mist. “Have I displeased you?”
“Quite the contrary,” Moradin answered. He looked into the graybeard’s soul and saw much that pleased him: a lifetime of hard work, honest words, and respectful worship. “I am going to reward you. Your soul will be reborn not once, but twice.”
Moradin released the graybeard’s arm. “So be it!” he cried, bringing the axe down in a powerful swing. It cleaved the graybeard in two equal, identical parts-two halves of the same mold.
Before either could fall to the ground, Moradin dropped the axe and caught each half of the soul in a hand. Like a father lowering a babe to bed, he gently placed them into the Soulforge, one at either end of it.
“Be reborn,” he intoned, his breath fanning the fires of the forge. “Not as one, but two. As twins.”
The souls disappeared from the forge, already on their way back to Faerun. As they streaked like bolts of lighting toward the realm where mortals dwelled, thunder rumbled through the skies above a dwarf clanhold. In that clanhold was a dwarf woman whose womb would quicken not with one life, but with two.
The Thunder Blessing had begun.
“Gold is tried by fire; men by adversity.”
In the dream, he sat at one end of a massive feast table in the great hall of Underhome, a place he’d heard the bards sing about. In his dream, it was still whole, not yet in ruin and overrun by drow. The walls were intact, and the furniture and chandeliers were unbroken. The intricate tapestry against the far wall, depicting the Morndinsamman grouped around Moradin’s throne, was vibrant and unfaded.
A host of dwarves was gathered around the table where Torrin sat, feasting and chatting. Though he spoke Dwarvish fluently, Torrin couldn’t make out a word they said. Their voices were muffled, indistinct. Nor could he see them clearly. Their bodies wavered like candle flames seen through thick, wavy glass.
His own body was clear enough, though. Glancing down at himself, he saw that his chest was thicker, his legs shorter. The fingers that gripped his feast cup were short and blunt.
He was a dwarf!
Before he had time to rejoice at that, someone tugged at his sleeve. He glanced to one side and saw-clearly-a dwarf whose white beard trailed so far behind him that it stretched out of the door. The longbeard wore a blacksmith’s leather apron and leggings, and bracers of solid gold. The smell of charcoal smoke clung to him. He placed a wooden strongbox on the table in front of Torrin.
“What’s inside?” Torrin asked, nodding at the box.
“A puzzle,” the blacksmith said.
Torrin opened the box. Inside was the runestone he’d purchased from Kendril-except that it was made not of stone, but of gold.
Torrin lifted it out.
Suddenly, the runestone turned red hot. Torrin gasped and dropped it on the table, where it turned into a puddle of molten gold. The chest and table became an enormous pile of kindling, which went up in flames. The dwarf revelers who had been seated around it likewise burst into flame and melted in an instant to glowing heaps of slag.
Torrin turned to the blacksmith, seeking an explanation, but the longbeard had turned into a statue. He stood, stiff and gray, with cracked-mud skin and eyeballs like chipped white marbles. Soon his statue crumbled into a heap on the floor, leaving only the apron, leggings, and bracers behind. A moment later, the bracers melted into twin puddles of molten gold, just as the runestone had.
Curiously, though the blacksmith was gone, he still could speak.
“You must help me,” the statue dwarf pleaded in a voice like cracking stone. “No one else can.”
“How?” Torrin said. “How can I help you?”
Silence whispered through the great hall, stirring up nothing but dust.
Torrin awoke with a start, his heart thudding. That dream! What had it meant? Trouble, obviously-he could feel it-but in what form? And from where?
He sat up in bed. The blanket lay in a heap in his lap. He stroked his beard fretfully. The blacksmith had worn golden bracers and had an impossibly long beard-he’d been a dream manifestation of Moradin. The Dwarffather himself was sending Torrin a warning. Something to do with the runestone. But what? Should Torrin use it? Not use it?
He glanced at the shutters. No light came through the cracks. It was still night. The middle of the night, judging by the stillness that hung over the clanhold.
He rose from the bed, splashed his face with water from the bowl on his bedside table, and dried his beard with a towel. A walk would help clear his mind, he decided. He pulled on his breeches and picked up a shirt, only half noticing, from the singed smell of the wool, that it was the one he’d been wearing in the Wyrmcaves. Ah well, no matter. At that time of night, he didn’t expect to run into anyone, anyway.
As he pulled the shirt on, something sharp scratched his arm. There seemed to be a shard of something caught in the fabric of the sleeve, near a burn hole. Torrin poked a finger through the hole and dug out a jagged-edged fragment of metal the size of a fingernail, soft enough to bend. His eyes widened as he saw what it was: a thin piece of gold, obviously once molten but hardened.
“Smite me with a hammer!” Torrin exclaimed, his hand trembling. “Was the dream real?”
No, he realized. That wasn’t it. Thinking back to the Wyrmcaves, he remembered he’d felt something hot splatter onto his bracer and run down it, onto his left arm. Not candle wax, as he’d thought at the time, but molten gold.
The cavern where the dragon had cornered Torrin and Eralynn had been heavily veined with quartz, a stone often found with gold. The dragon’s fiery breath had likely melted a vein of gold in the ceiling and caused it to drip onto the spot where Torrin and Eralynn had taken shelter. Some part of Torrin’s mind must have realized that, and woven it into the fabric of his dream.
“Except,” Torrin told himself, “that it can’t be that simple. That dream was a message from Moradin. I’m sure of it.”
He fingered the hardened splatter of gold. It held the answer to the question. Of that, he was certain. Yet the metal was mute. And he still didn’t understand what the dream message meant.
Haldrin was the one to ask, Torrin decided. Haldrin was the most learned person that Torrin knew, aside from a loremaster. That’s what came of being a scrivener-you picked up all sorts of odd bits of information from the texts you copied. What’s more, Torrin thought with a wry smile, Haldrin was also the most likely person to be awake at that time of night. He was always complaining about Ambril’s fretful tossing and turning. Odds were, his pregnant wife’s fretfulness had him up out of bed and pacing the halls, yet again.
Torrin slipped out of his room and headed for the portion of the clanhold where Haldrin and Ambril resided. As Torrin walked, he felt slight vibrations under his feet. Though the Thunsonn clan had been generous enough to give Torrin a place to stay, his room wasn’t exactly in the best section of Eartheart. It was close to the smelters, which operated day and night. The smell of soot and hot metal lingered constantly in the air. The corridors there were narrow and rough cut, a far cry from the grandiose halls elsewhere in the dwarf city. Ceiling lanterns, their wicks trimmed low to save oil, filled the corridor with a reddish light that flickered like the dim light from a forge.
As Torrin drew closer to Haldrin and Ambril’s chambers, a door to his right opened suddenly. Mara, Ambril’s sister, stepped out, nearly colliding with him.
“Torrin!” she exclaimed. “You heard it, too?”
“Heard what?” he asked.
“She’s in pain.”
Mara, wearing a misbuttoned robe over her nightgown, looked as though she’d also just gotten out of bed. Her auburn hair exploded in an unbraided tangle from the edges of her night coif. She stared in the direction of Ambril’s room, her eyes wide and alarmed.
Torrin glanced in that direction. “I don’t hear anything.”
“The babies,” Mara said. “They’re coming.”
Oh, Torrin thought. So that was it. Mara’s cryptic comment at last made sense. Ambril must finally be giving birth. The sisters always seemed to know what the other was feeling or thinking-dwarf twins were like that. And Ambril and Mara were a typical pair. They never bothered to explain anything. They just jumped into a story mid-stride and looked at anyone who couldn’t follow as if they were simpletons.
Mara’s husband Sandor followed her out into the corridor. He yawned and rubbed the small of his back. He looked exhausted, and had every reason to be. Ore hauling was heavy work. “What’s the commotion?” he asked.
“Ambril,” Mara said tersely. Her expression grew strained. “It’s hurting. More than it should.”
At last, Torrin heard a muffled groan from the direction of Haldrin and Ambril’s room. Mara winced, then hurried toward it. “Run to the temple,” she shouted back over her shoulder at Sandor. “Bring back one of the Merciful Maidens. We’re going to need her!”
Torrin exchanged a glance with Sandor. “Would you like me to do it?” he asked, partially in sympathy, but also because it might be an excuse to see Maliira again.
Sandor shook his head. “That’s all right,” he replied. “I can sneak back to bed once I’m back from the temple. I doubt Mara will even miss me.” He hurried away.
Torrin’s dream nagged at him, and the anxiety in Mara’s voice had put him on edge. He yearned to be doing something to help, even though he knew he should go back to his room. A birthing was no place for a man-least of all, a man who wasn’t the husband. But then he spotted Kier up ahead, creeping down the hallway to his parents’ room. The boy peeked in through the door Mara had left ajar, his expression a mixture of curiosity and worry. Mostly worry.
Perhaps Torrin could be useful, after all.
He made his way to Kier’s side. The boy jumped as Torrin touched his shoulder, startled by Torrin’s approach.
“Back to your room, Kier,” Torrin said sternly. “You’ll only be underfoot here.”
As he spoke, Torrin glanced into the bedchamber. Ambril was stumbling across the room, alternately groaning and sobbing, supported by Haldrin on one side and Mara on the other. A sick smell wafted out of the door.
“I’m not leaving,” Kier said. Unlike the adults, the boy was fully dressed. One hand was thrust into his pocket, worrying something. Likely his “lucky” stone, the quartz crystal with the double point.
Mara glanced at the door. “Torrin!” she shrieked. “What are you doing here? Where’s the Merciful Maiden?”
Kier ducked back out of sight.
“Sandor’s gone to fetch her,” Torrin explained.
“He’d better hurry,” Mara replied.
Ambril groaned as a contraction shuddered through her body. She looked terrible. Her face had a grayish cast, and her nightgown was soaked with sweat. She gasped weakly between each brief, stumbling step. Her stomach, enormous with the twins, would have toppled her forward, had her sister and husband not been clinging to her arms.
Even though Torrin hadn’t seen a birthing before, it didn’t look right to him.
“Is Mother going to die?” Kier whispered.
“No,” Torrin said. He put a reassuring hand on the boy’s shoulder. “As soon as the cleric arrives, your mother will be in good hands. The Merciful Maiden will shoulder her pain, and use her prayers to help the babies come. Your mother will be fine.”
Ambril gave a low, creaking groan and sagged. Her arms slipped from Mara’s and Haldrin’s grasp, and she fell to her knees. Her entire body shuddered, and a rush of liquid puddled beneath her. Torrin smelled blood.
Haldrin-a smaller, bespectacled version of his brother Sandor-spotted Kier peeking into the chamber. He glanced up at Torrin with a strained look on his face. “Get him away from here,” he shouted. He reached for the door and yanked it shut.
Kier’s shoulders shook.
Torrin steered the boy away down the corridor, toward his room. “Don’t take it personally, Kier,” Torrin said to the boy. “Adults do strange things when babies are being born. Soon enough, your father will be laughing and happy, with a baby girl in either arm.” He waited. “Your sisters.”
Kier didn’t rise to the bait. He trudged along in front of Torrin, sniffing back tears. Torrin heard running footsteps, and pulled Kier aside as a Merciful Maiden hurried past them in her red robe and blue sash.
She didn’t return Torrin’s nod of greeting. She ran to the bedchamber, holding the holy dagger used to cut the cord that linked mother and newborn child. Her prayer had already begun. “Revered Mother, hear me,” she said. “Lend your blessing this night. Have mercy on the mother-to-be and her children…”
The door opened on screaming and Haldrin’s panicked shouts that the cleric do something and do it now. It closed again, muffling Ambril’s cries.
Torrin guided Kier into his room and closed the door behind them. Like the rest of the rooms in the clanhold, the bedroom was small, barely big enough for a bed and a small chest of drawers. The floor was covered with toys. A small army of cast-lead dwarf warriors lay strewn in front of three paint-scuffed wooden dragons. Chipped glass “gemstones” lay beside a brightly painted wooden chest, and a toy drum and bell-shaker were near the door.
Torrin stepped carefully over an articulated toy dragon with a clockwork mechanism in its belly and sat with Kier on the bed. The blankets, he saw, had been mounded over Kier’s imitation Delver’s pack, to make it look as though the boy were still in bed. Torrin pretended not to notice the fact that Kier had been out on another of his illicit late-night rambles. It was not the time for a reprimand.
“Show me your new dragon,” Torrin said, nodding at the toy on the floor. “What’s his name? Does he breathe fire?”
Kier snuffled back a tear and shook his head. “Lightning,” he said. He picked up the dragon and showed it to Torrin. “See? He’s blue, not red.”
“Oh. I see that now.” Torrin’s mind, however, was on what was happening down the hall. Perhaps Ambril’s worrying hadn’t been all a flight of fancy. Perhaps she’d sensed quicksand, instead of bedrock, under her feet. If she didn’t survive the birthing…
Torrin heard the toy dragon’s wing creak, and realized he was gripping the toy too tightly. He passed the dragon back to Kier and whispered a prayer to Sharindlar, begging the goddess to intervene.
“What did you say?” Kier asked.
“Nothing,” Torrin demurred. “Just thinking out loud.” He picked up the wooden chest. “You’d better clean up, Kier,” he said. “When your mother comes to show off the babies, she’s going to step on your toys.” One of the fake gemstones rolled away from his hand. Torrin bent down to scoop it up, and spotted a pouch under the bed. He picked it up, intending to put the gemstone inside.
Kier bounded off the bed. “Don’t!” he cried. “I’ll do it, Uncle Torrin. I’ll pick them up!” He clumsily jerked the pouch out of Torrin’s hands. Something heavy fell out of it and landed with a thud on the floor: a bar of gold.
Kier looked as though he were about to cry as Torrin picked up the bar. Torrin didn’t need to ask where it had come from.
“Kier,” Torrin said. “I had a thought, just now. Perhaps the gods led you to that secret chamber in the earthmote. Maybe they knew your mother would need not just a blessing from the Merciful Maidens this night, but expensive healing potions afterward.”
Kier brightened immediately. “Do you think that’s enough to pay for them?” he asked.
“Of course,” Torrin replied, tousling Kier’s hair. “Your mother will have you to thank for her well-being, Kier.”
The boy beamed.
Torrin slipped the bar of gold back inside the pouch and rose to his feet. “Wait here,” he said. “I’m going to see how your mother is doing.”
Torrin slipped out and closed the door behind him. He hurried back to Ambril’s bedchamber. His pace quickened as he heard sobbing coming from behind the closed door. Worried, he knocked. No one answered. After knocking again unsuccessfully, he let himself in.
Ambril lay on the bed, pale and still. The smell of blood was even stronger, almost overwhelming. Blood dripped from the bed onto the floor. Torrin’s heart lurched. When Ambril moaned, he whispered his thanks to Sharindlar that she was still alive.
Mara held Ambril’s hand. She was the one who was crying. Sandor stood behind her, gripping her shoulders. He glanced at Torrin and grimly shook his head.
The Merciful Maiden bent over Ambril, praying softly. She held her hands over Ambril’s stomach, lacing her fingers together in a complicated pattern. The embossed silver disk that was her holy symbol swung slowly back and forth on its chain, like the pendulum of a clock winding down.
Haldrin sat on the ground, his back against one wall. He stared at the floor, his hands drooping between his knees. He didn’t even look up as Torrin entered.
Torrin approached the bed. As he drew closer, he saw a bloody knife on the floor. The Merciful Maiden had used it to performed a knife-birthing. The prayers she was using would knit Ambril’s stomach back together again, and ease the pain. The cleric’s face was pinched and pale. She had taken on most of Ambril’s pain during the cutting, something Sharindlar gave her clergy the strength to do.
Torrin suddenly realized what was missing: the sound of an infant’s cry. Two lumps lay on the bed, each wrapped in a bloodstained cloth. Neither was moving.
Mara caught his eye. “Dead!” she said in a strained voice. “Moradin has taken them both!”
Torrin halted as abruptly as if he’d been dashed with ice water. Then he remembered what everyone else seemed to have forgotten. The Merciful Maidens knew rituals that could raise the dead. The magical unguent needed for the ritual was terrifically expensive. Yet surely the gold bar in his hand would help cover the cost.
He stepped forward, trying to catch the Maiden’s eye. He held up the pouch. “This gold will pay for the unguent you need to resurrect these babes, and I’ll have more gold in short order. Thanks to the delves I’m planning, I should be able to raise several hundred Anvils, if not more…”
His voice trailed off as he realized the cleric wasn’t listening. Nor was anyone else. There should have been smiles and cries of relief. Instead, Mara whirled angrily on him.
“How dare you!” she cried. “Coming in here and bragging about your delves. Can’t you see it’s no use!”
“I…” Confused, Torrin turned to Sandor for an explanation.
Sandor stepped away from the bed and pulled Torrin aside. “They can’t be resurrected,” he said. He glanced back at Ambril and lowered his voice. “They’ve been dead too long. The Merciful Maiden says they’ve been dead for a tenday, maybe more.”
The Merciful Maiden finished her prayer. She touched Ambril’s head in a brief blessing and turned to the door.
Torrin hurried to her. “Merciful Maiden,” he said, “begging your pardon, but is there a chance you’re wrong about how long the babes have been dead?”
The cleric’s lips tightened. Her eyes were shadowed. “As I told the others, there’s nothing I can do.” She reached for the door.
Torrin caught her arm. He felt ridges under her sleeve, as if she were wearing chainmail beneath her robes. Strange. “Won’t you at least try?” he asked.
The cleric looked pointedly at her arm. Torrin hurriedly removed his hand.
“There is nothing I would like better than to save them,” she told him. “But… I can’t.”
She touched the disk that hung against her chest and turned briefly back to the bed. “May the gods bless this clanhold, and all in it,” she intoned. “A swift flight to the souls of the departed. May the gods greet them at Dwarfhome, where they will be forged anew.”
She left the room.
Torrin turned back to the others, still holding the pouch. “I don’t understand,” he said. “Sharindlar blessed this pregnancy-several times over. Ambril visited her temple every other day.”
“It’s the stoneplague,” Sandor said, his voice tense. “It’s here. In Eartheart.” His eyes fell to the bed. “That’s what killed them.”
Torrin felt as if he were going to be sick.
Ambril, still pale but healed, sat up suddenly. “My babies!” she wailed. “My babies!” She clawed for the bundles at the end of the bed. Mara grabbed her shoulders and yanked her back. “Don’t touch them!” Mara cried. “You’ll catch it too.”
“Show some sense, Mara,” Sandor retorted. “They were inside her. Touching them now won’t make a pebble of difference.”
Glaring back at him, Mara let go of her sister. Ambril grabbed the bundles and held them to her chest. A tiny foot, as gray and mottled as granite and covered in a froth of blood, peeked out of the end of one bundle. Ambril rocked back and forth on the bed, crying.
Torrin’s mouth felt dry. The stoneplague. Did the air in the bedchamber carry the disease? He fought down the urge to cover his mouth with his sleeve.
A second, even more chilling thought occurred to him. Was this all his fault? Had he somehow brought Kendril’s stoneplague back to Eartheart, despite his cleansing?
No, he told himself sternly. He’d been cleansed by Sharindlar. Unless… He glanced down at the gold bar in his hands. Was the one he’d used to pay for his third cleansing actually a worthless fake, as Eralynn had suspected? Had the goddess removed her previous blessings from him in retaliation for her tithe being paid in pyrite?
No, Torrin thought, staring at the dead babes. The goddess of mercy would never be so cruel. Long before she’d harm an innocent babe, she would strike Torrin himself down.
Sandar stood apart from the others, hands wringing the tip of his beard. “They’re going to quarantine us,” he said in a hoarse voice. “In this room. We won’t be allowed out.” His eyes were wide as he glanced around the room. He’d been in a cave-in, years before, and had lain a tenday with his legs trapped by fallen stone, surrounded by the groans of the dying and the reek of the dead. It had left him with a morbid fear of being closed in.
That, at least, was something Torrin could help with. “Ease yourself, Sandar,” he told Mara’s husband. “They may quarantine the clanhold, but they won’t lock us in just one room. And it will only be until the Merciful Maiden comes back to cleanse us.”
“She’s not coming back,” Haldrin spat.
The others all turned to stare at him. Haldrin still sat on the floor by the wall. Finally, he raised his head. His eyes were red with tears, and his laugh was bitter. “You heard what the Merciful Maiden said,” he continued. “She can’t cure the stoneplague. We’re all going to die.”
Mara visibly fumed. “Nonsense,” she said, hugging her sister’s shoulders. “That’s not what she said. She couldn’t resurrect the babes because they’ve been dead too long.”
“Weren’t you listening?” Haldrin said. His red eyes glared defiantly. “The Merciful Maiden never spoke those words herself. She just nodded when you asked if that was the reason. It’s not commonly known, but a cleric can raise someone who’s been dead a month-or even longer-if a Ritual of Repose is cast on the body. The Merciful Maiden wasn’t lying about being unable to save the babes, but she wasn’t telling us the truth about why. The truth is, Sharindlar’s clerics can’t cure the stoneplague.”
“That’s ridiculous!” Mara cried. “Sharindlar would never withhold her healing magic, especially from innocent babes. Moradin himself wouldn’t permit it.”
Haldrin’s laugh had a wild edge to it. “Just like he wouldn’t permit the collapse of the Rift, or the fall of Underhome?” he cried. He flung out a hand, pointing. “Moradin let my babies die! What kind of god countenances that?”
“Stop it!” Mara cried. “You’re sounding like Father now.”
“Maybe your father was right,” Haldrin spat back. “The gods care as little for us as we do for the ants underfoot.”
“I won’t hear it!” Mara screeched. “Stop this blasphemy! You’re going to bring the stoneplague upon us all!”
Sandor was breathing heavily. He edged to the door. “I won’t,” he gasped. “I won’t be trapped here. I won’t.” He yanked the door open and bolted from the room.
Ambril sat on the bed, rocking the bloody bundles. “Sunder and Sorn,” she moaned. “That’s what we were going to call you. Oh, my babies. My little ones.”
A part of Torrin’s mind registered the fact that they were boys’ names, and that he’d lost his bet with Kier. Not that it mattered any more.
“Their souls are with Moradin,” Mara said, trying to ease the dead babes out of her sister’s arms. “In his realm. Coddled and protected by the gods. They’ll return to the world again one day. Take comfort in that.”
“Your father didn’t find any comfort in that,” Haldrin said. “Why should we?”
Torrin turned, unable to listen any more. As he did, something crunched underfoot-a chunk of dried mud on the floor. He glanced down at it, wondering whose boot it had come from. Then he realized that the spot had been where the Merciful Maiden was standing when he grasped her arm-the arm that had felt so strangely rough. His mouth went dry as he realized what he was staring at. It was a chunk of calcified flesh, the same color and texture as Kendril’s broken finger.
The Merciful Maiden the temple had sent to aid Ambril with the birthing had the stoneplague.
He used his foot to scuff the chunk of tainted flesh into a corner, where it wouldn’t be stepped on by anyone else. Not that it really mattered. Everyone in the room had either touched the dead babes already, or had breathed in their taint.
Ambril’s voice rose to a wail again. Her rocking grew more violent. “My babies!” she cried.
Mara and Haldrin were shouting at each other in a stupid, pointless argument about Moradin and whether he was truly merciful, about whether Haldrin echoing her father’s “blasphemous” beliefs had brought the curse of the stoneplague down upon their clanhold. If they weren’t careful, they would indeed prod Moradin into hurling a curse down upon them.
“For the love of the gods!” Torrin bellowed. “Haldrin, your wife needs you. Tend to her. And you, Mara. Go after your husband and stop him before he panics everyone in Eartheart!”
Both blinked, chastised. Without bothering to see if they did as he’d ordered, Torrin whirled and ran out of the door. His first impulse was to follow Kendril’s advice, to hurry those he loved out of Eartheart, as far from the city as they could run. Instead he ran past Kier’s room, in the direction the Merciful Maiden had gone.
He caught up to her in the Hall of the Fountain, a vast room that echoed softly with the sound of splashing water. During the day it would have been filled with people, coming to fill water kegs at the fountain’s brass taps. At that hour of the night, it was empty.
“Merciful Maiden!” he shouted.
She kept walking.
Anger flushed his cheeks. “I know you have the stoneplague!” he called.
She halted abruptly. Slowly, she turned. “That’s not something you should be shouting,” she said in a low voice.
Torrin moved in front of her, panting slightly from his run. “You admit it,” he said.
She touched the disk at her chest. “Sharindlar will not permit a lie.”
“What in the Nine Hells was your order thinking?” Torrin blurted out. “They sent a cleric who’s diseased-to a birthing!”
The Merciful Maiden raised a hand as if to touch his shoulder in sympathy, but let it fall to her side as Torrin glared her down. “I pose no danger,” she said. “The stoneplague isn’t spread by touch or by breath. Nor by spittle or by blood.”
Torrin bit back the urge to shout that she was lying. “How can you know that?” he asked.
“The woman who gave birth tonight wasn’t the first one afflicted,” the cleric replied. “Dozens of others, here in Eartheart, have come down with the stoneplague in the past few days. The family members who’ve tended them have all remained healthy, even without the benefit of a healing ritual. In contrast, the Merciful Maidens who have fallen ill-who continued in their duties, unaware that they were afflicted with the stoneplague-did not spread the contagion to those they ministered to.”
“You’re not the only Merciful Maiden with the stoneplague?” Torrin asked, horrified.
“But why don’t you heal yourselves?”
The cleric sighed wearily. “We’ve tried. We can’t. Much as it pains me to admit it, Sharindlar appears to be powerless over this illness. But you needn’t worry. We’re not spreading the stoneplague. That’s the one thing we’re certain of.”
“What about… other gods?” Torrin asked as diplomatically as he could. “Couldn’t a cleric from Berronar Truesilver’s temple heal you?”
“When it seemed Sharindlar had turned her face from us, we tried just that,” she said. “We also took one of the afflicted to an elf healer, but it was no use. The cleric’s prayers to Corellon also went unanswered. Nor were magical potions effective.” The Merciful Maiden looked on the verge of tears. “There’s nothing any of us can do.”
Her words turned Torrin’s veins to ice. If the Maidens couldn’t even heal themselves, Haldrin was right.
Eartheart was doomed.
“More gold has been mined from the thoughts of men than has been taken from the earth.”
Kier sat at the table in the clanhold’s common room, frowning down in concentration at the soft wax tablet. He moved the stylus with slow, deliberate strokes, copying the runes from the story tablet. Torrin stared over the boy’s shoulder, supervising the lesson, occasionally reaching down to rotate the round wax tablet so that the inscription would spiral inward correctly.
“That’s not bad,” Torrin commented. “But if you’d just take off those gauntlets, you’d have an easier time of it.”
Kier shook his head without looking up.
Torrin sighed. The gauntlets-toy replicas of those worn by the Steel Shields-were made of leather, but even so they hindered Kier as he tried to write. The boy insisted on wearing them all the time, even to bed. No one reprimanded him, however. The family was still grieving the death of the newborn twins, and Ambril herself had fallen ill with the stoneplague. It was as if the disease, no longer having babes to feed upon, had turned its attention to the mother instead. Ambril was too ill to rise from her bed, and Haldrin was run ragged caring for her, nearly frantic with worry he’d lose her, too. It had fallen to Torrin to watch over Kier, to keep some sense of order and routine in the boy’s life.
Torrin stared down at what Kier had just written. “It’s delvar, ‘to dig,’ ” he corrected. “You’ve scribed deladar, which means ‘to descend.’ Here, let me show you.” He tried to take the stylus.
“No!” Kier shouted. “I’ll do it.” He yanked the stylus back with such force that his hand knocked over a drinking mug that had been on the table beside him. Ginger beer spilled everywhere, splashing onto the tablets and soaking Kier’s sleeves.
“Now look what you made me do!” Kier shrilled.
Torrin kneeled beside the boy. “It’s all right, Kier,” he said. “We’ve done enough for today. Let’s stop.” He picked up the stylus rag and dabbed at the tablets. But when he tried to pat dry Kier’s gauntlets, however, the boy reared back. It was as if he didn’t want Torrin to touch his hands.
Torrin suddenly felt his face pale. “Kier,” he said in a low firm voice. “Take off your gauntlets.”
“No!” Kier cried as he shot to his feet, nearly knocking over the bench.
Torrin clasped his shoulder gently. “Kier, you can trust me. I’m your delving partner, remember? Your uncle. Whatever’s wrong, you can tell me.”
Slowly, jerkily, Kier took off his left gauntlet. Torrin knew, the instant he saw the first wince of pain, what he would see. The sight, however, still made him ill, made him feel as if he’d been punched in the stomach hard enough to make him vomit. Kier’s fingers were crooked and gray; the discoloration had spread up his hands, almost to the wrists.
“Oh, Kier,” Torrin said in a hoarse whisper. He held out his arms. Kier fell gratefully into them, allowing himself to be hugged. To be touched.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Torrin asked.
Kier buried his face in Torrin’s shirt. “Everyone’s so scared,” he said in a muffled voice. “I worried what people would do to me. People are acting so… badly. I’ve seen what they do.”
Torrin felt his anger rise. He pulled back slightly so the boy would meet his eye. “Nobody’s going to hurt you,” he said. “If they try, I’ll-”
“Moradin is punishing me, isn’t he?” Kier whispered, an anguished look in his eyes. “I’ve offended the Dwarffather.”
Torrin grasped the boy’s shoulders firmly. “Nonsense,” he said. “You’re a fine boy. What could you possibly have done?”
“I… don’t obey my parents,” Kier whispered, his eyes locked on the floor. “I sneak out. And… I took grandfather’s griffon-and that gold bar. Now the gods are punishing me. The very next day after I flew to the earthmote, my fingers started to feel funny.”
“Kier, listen,” Torrin said. Gently, he lifted the boy’s chin. “That gold bar was yours by law. It was an honest find. You know what they say: ‘Delvers, keepers.’ I was there, too, and the stoneplague hasn’t touched me.”
“Of course not,” Kier said, meeting Torrin’s eyes briefly before glancing away again. “Because you’re…”
The unspoken word hung in the air between them for an uncomfortable moment.
“Human,” Torrin said at last, the word coming out as a sigh. In all those years, Kier had never once called him that.
Kier gave the slightest of nods, further twisting the dagger in Torrin’s heart. “Everyone knows the stoneplague only strikes dwarves,” he said.
Torrin opened his mouth to protest. But no words came. He was a dwarf, no question of that. Until that moment, he’d fully expected to eventually succumb to the disease. And yet, he was forced to admit, his body was indisputably human, and thus he likely would never have to fear the stoneplague. He…
“Moradin smite me,” Torrin cried as the implication struck home. “ That’s why he did it!”
Torrin’s sudden burst of wild laughter made Kier back up a step. “Uncle?” the boy asked. “Are you…?”
“Quite sane, I assure you,” Torrin said, wiping tears from his eyes. It was all clear to him: why Moradin had recast his dwarf soul in human form, why he’d sent Torrin that cryptic dream. Torrin was immune to the stoneplague. Immune. Yet he was a dwarf!
He knew his destiny, at last. He must save his people. But how?
Torrin stared across the room, thinking hard. He felt certain that the answer was buried somewhere in the dream he’d had. The runestone was a “puzzle,” the god had said, and the clue was that the runestone was gold. Molten gold. When Torrin had used the runestone, back in the Wyrmcaves, molten gold had dripped on his arm. Yet the more he twisted that fact back and forth, the more tangled the puzzle became.
Gold bars with a counterfeit mark. Gold that had been melted down, and recast. Could that be the clue?
Torrin might not have figured out the entire puzzle yet, but a link had just fallen into place. He knew where to begin his search for answers: Sharindlar’s temple, in Hammergate.
“Don’t worry, Kier,” he said. “I’m going to find a way to cure you. I swear it. By Moradin’s beard, I will not rest until I do.”
Kier stared up at Torrin. Hope glimmered behind his tears. “I believe you, Uncle.”
Torrin passed through the gates that led from Eartheart proper to Hammergate, and started toward the temple of Sharindlar. In contrast to the near-empty corridors of Eartheart, Hammergate was bustling.
With the arrival of the stoneplague-not just in the Thunsonn clanhold, but in clanholds throughout the city-a significant number of its fifty thousand occupants had either fled or retreated behind their doors. Even when the general quarantine that had closed the city’s gates was lifted, those who had yet to succumb barricaded themselves inside their clanholds, barring the doors and refusing to emerge.
It was generally acknowledged that the stoneplague struck only dwarves, and the tallfolk were reaping the reward. Far and wide, the word spread about how the dwarves of Eartheart would pay good coin-no matter how steep the asking price-for food and water from outside the city, guaranteed not to have been touched by dwarf hands, delivered to their clanholds by tallfolk. In response, outlanders flocked to Eartheart like crows, drawn by the ready coin.
As he walked, Torrin passed nomads from the western Shaar, their breeches and felt hats dusty from the desert, leading pack-laden horses through the crowds. Elves from the Riftwood trod lightly in their in forest-dapple clothing, with small recurve bows strapped across their backs and bulging coin purses on their belts. Well-dressed merchants from the distant port city of Delzimmer, gold rings glittering in their ears, supervised gangs of packers whose ponies carried baskets of brilliantly colored textiles, aromatic lamp oils, exotic fruits from the south, and spiced cheeses made by those few halflings who’d survived Lurien’s deluge.
It was an open secret that neither rituals nor magical potions would cure the disease, yet people still sought magical preventatives or curatives. And the tallfolk were more than happy to supply them at grossly inflated prices. Perversely, those who sought out preventative blessings most avidly were typically the next to fall ill.
Every day, the stoneplague spread. Every day, dozens more fell ill. Torrin had observed, first hand, its dire results. Sometimes it started with the calcification of the eyes-slowly, the victim turned blind. Others seized up like arthritic old folk with brittle bones. Still others suffered as Kendril had-their skin grew crusty and flaked away like slate. Their gaping sores oozed blood the consistency of mud.
The Merciful Maiden who’d attended Ambril that terrible night was right. The stoneplague seemed to pick its victims at random. A husband would fall ill, yet the wife who shared his bed remained unafflicted. In some clanholds, only one or two people succumbed; other clans saw one after another sicken. Strangely, the latter tended to be the wealthier families. It was as if the gods had suddenly decided to punish hard work and thrift.
Rumors about the cause of the stoneplague washed through the city like dirty tides. Some said it was spread by fleas; a purge of rats followed. Others blamed bad water or miasmic air; that prompted a steep climb in the price of drinking water and face scarves. One loremaster opined that it was a second flaring of the spellfire that had wreaked such havoc upon the land nearly a century before. As a result, still more families fled Eartheart, fearful of another collapse like the one that had taken Underhome.
So far, the stoneplague had nearly always struck adults. Only a handful of children had succumbed. That lent credence to the belief that the disease was Moradin’s will. Children, after all, were innocents, without sin in the eyes of the gods. Believing that the Morndinsamman were punishing the dwarves for flagging in their worship, people flocked to their temples and heaped offerings upon the altars. Yet still the stoneplague continued.
When Torrin reached Sharindlar’s temple, he had to knock several times at the front entrance before someone responded. The Merciful Maiden who opened the door was an older woman with an ample figure and long gray hair that hung loose against her back. Deep worry lines etched her forehead-deeper than before, no doubt, thanks to the stoneplague. Dark gray circles shadowed her eyes. Perhaps, Torrin thought with a shudder, it was the start of the stoneplague.
“If it’s healing you want, human, go elsewhere,” she said in a weary voice. “We have enough of our own to tend to.”
Torrin let that slide. “I’m not here for healing,” he said. “I need to speak to the Merciful Maiden named Maliira.” He gestured at his star-embossed bracer. “Tell her Torrin Ironstar is here, to discuss an urgent matter.”
“Maliira,” the cleric said, as if trying to place the name.
“Maliira of Clan Gallowglar,” Torrin said. “She’s a devotee of the Lady of Life. Here, at this temple.”
The cleric shook her head. “She’s ill. The stoneplague.” She started to close the door.
Torrin groaned. Not Maliira, as well.
“I think I know what caused the stoneplague,” Torrin insisted.
“Oh you do, do you?” the cleric said, weariness weighting each word like a stone. “Tell me then, human. What is it the most learned dwarf clerics and sages and loremasters have thus far overlooked?”
“I can’t tell you that yet. Not until I’m certain.”
She sighed. “Just as I suspected.”
Torrin wedged his foot in the door. “Please!” he cried. “I need to talk to Maliira for a few moments. Then I’ll know if my guess is correct. In return, I’d be happy to assist the temple in whatever way I can.” He gestured at the silver hammers in his beard. “I’m a devout follower of Moradin. I pay homage to all of the Morndinsamman; I’ll do nothing disrespectful. Surely the temple can use an extra pair of hands.”
The cleric at last relented. “That we can,” she said.
She led him to the sickroom where Maliira lay, after stopping at the kitchen where Torrin, at her order, collected a tray with soup and bread. When they reached Maliira’s room, the older cleric hurried away. Obviously, she was needed elsewhere. And just as obviously, she was uninterested in his theories.
Torrin hesitated in the doorway, shocked at how ill Maliira looked. Her hair was disheveled, and her cheeks looked gray. A faint odor like damp clay-the distinctive smell of the stoneplague-filled the air. Maliira rose slightly from her bed, propping herself up on an elbow. Her beautiful dark eyes had turned nearly solid white. “Who’s there?” she asked, her voice faint. “Have you brought supper?”
“I…” Torrin said, swallowing hard. “I have.”
He glanced away. He wanted to look anywhere but at those marble white eyes. A wardrobe held robes and other personal belongings. A portrait of an older dwarf couple, likely Maliira’s parents, stood in a silver frame on the bureau. A jumble of scrolls and rune tablets on a nearby desk suggested that Maliira liked to read. Torrin felt a pang-the pleasure had been stolen from her.
“Torrin!” she said. “I thought I recognized your voice. I just wish you didn’t have to see me like…” she gestured at her face. “Like this.” She looked embarrassed. She struggled to a sitting position as Torrin placed the tray on a table next to her bed. “If you’ve come to dance with me, you’re too late.”
Torrin straightened. “What do you mean?”
“Midsummer Night was last night,” she replied.
“Oh… Yes. I’m sorry. I should have remembered. With all that’s been happening…”
“Not that it matters. I’m in no condition to dance. And I’m… not exactly pleasing to look at any more, am I?”
“It’s what’s inside that matters,” Torrin answered truthfully. “Believe me-I know. But that’s not what I came to talk about. I came to offer you an apology.”
“For what?” she asked, a hint of bitterness creeping into her voice. “Have you offended the gods, as we seem to have done?”
Gently, he guided one of her hands to the bowl of soup and handed her a spoon. “I think I know why you came down with the stoneplague,” he said.
“Then tell me what Sharindlar cannot,” Maliira responded angrily, her soup as yet untouched. “Why is the goddess punishing us?”
“I don’t believe it’s a punishment,” Torrin said. “There’s another reason why the Merciful Maidens are coming down with the stoneplague.”
Maliira sipped her soup quietly. But she was still listening.
“Tell me when you first felt ill,” Torrin prompted. “When did you notice the first signs of the stoneplague?”
Maliira thought a moment. “It was just after you came to the temple for that third cleansing. The day that poor boy was beaten by the mob. A day or two afterward, I noticed my eyesight was dimming.”
Torrin nodded. Her answer was exactly what he’d expected and exactly what he’d dreaded. He wanted to slam a fist into the wall, to rage around the room shouting. Instead, he gently touched Maliira’s hand. “It’s as I feared,” he said. Your illness was… my fault.”
“Your fault?” Maliira shook her head. “How? You weren’t unseemly during your visits to the temple. I noticed your desire, but you gave no offense to Sharindlar. You even paid the tithe that third time, despite my absolving you from payment.”
“That’s what I’m talking about. The tithe,” Torrin said. He rose to pace the room, too restless to stand still. “The stoneplague is only affecting some of the Merciful Maidens. Is that right?”
“It’s striking down those of your order who handled the tithes paid by the city, isn’t it?” he continued. “Those who touched the gold bars that were identical to the one I gave you.”
Maliira stared up at him with unseeing eyes. “How do you know this?”
“Clues. Observations. Dreams.”
“Never mind,” Torrin said. “The point is, the vast majority of those in Eartheart who fall ill are wealthy-people who handle a lot of gold. Several Peacehammers are also ill, I’m told-those who recovered the gold bars found in the earthmote. And then there’s Kendril. I wondered why he wanted his clanfolk paid in gems, why he seemed so certain I wouldn’t catch the ‘illness’ from him. Now I know.”
Torrin continued to pace. “I could list other clues: the fact that, for example, the stoneplague almost never strikes down children because they aren’t typically entrusted with gold. But it doesn’t matter. The stoneplague isn’t a disease; it’s some sort of necrotic magic at work. Those gold bars were cursed. They’re what we need to quarantine. Lock them away and never let anyone near them. They’re the source of the contagion.”
He heard a loud crash behind him. Maliira was standing, the table and soup overturned on the floor. She was trembling, a stricken look on her face.
“I’m so sorry,” Torrin said. He wondered if he should go to her side and comfort her. “Will you ever be able to forgive me?”
“We didn’t know,” she said in an anguished voice. “We didn’t know!”
“Of course you didn’t,” he replied. “Nor was it your fault. It was mine. I was the one who caused that gold to be found by the skyriders.” Kier and I, he thought, but he didn’t say that.
“That’s not what I meant!” she said, her face wild. She clenched her fists, tears streaming down her face. “You’re not an initiate in the mysteries, so you can’t know. The tithes we’ve been collecting… We use the gold in our rituals. Every full moon, we sacrifice a portion of what we take in. The tithes are melted down and poured as offerings.”
“Poured? Where?” Torrin asked.
“Into the sacred pools,” Maliira replied. “Here, at this temple. At the temple in Eartheart.” She sagged onto the bed. “No wonder our healing rituals haven’t worked. We haven’t been cleansing people-we’ve been cursing them. Sharindlar have mercy. We’re the cause of this!”
Torrin felt as if he were going to be ill. So that was how Ambril and her stillborn twins had become infected.
His thoughts turned to Eralynn. He hadn’t seen her since the day they had stood in line outside the temple. Surely she’d succumbed already-she’d had one of the gold bars in her possession and had, presumably, gone for a cleansing in the temple later that day. Or had she? Eralynn hadn’t returned to the clanhold, and no one seemed to know where she was. Maybe she lay ill somewhere, slowly dying?
The thought was too much for Torrin to bear.
“Forgive me for asking this,” he said. “Shouldn’t pouring the gold into the sacred pools have removed its curse?”
“Normally, yes,” Maliira said, shaking her head sadly. “I can only guess that the tainted offerings must have deeply offended the goddess. She has turned her face from us until we reverse our blunder.” She fumbled her way across the room. “We need to alert the High Maiden. Tell her what you just told me. We must drain the sacred pools, recover that gold, and perform rituals over it that will purge whatever curse it holds. Then we’ll be able to cure the sick!”
Though Torrin nodded, something still nagged at him. He knew he was treading on dangerous ground by even thinking it, but Sharindlar was the goddess of mercy. Punishing her worshippers for an error her clerics had made didn’t seem like the sort of thing she’d do.
Then again, who was Torrin to know the minds of the gods? Perhaps Sharindlar had been commanded by Moradin himself to withhold her healing. The Dwarffather was powerful. His command might have been heeded by the other gods, whose clerics’ rituals had also proved ineffectual in removing the curse. But soon penance would be done, and the stoneplague would end.
Or… would it?
Putting the contaminated gold from the earthmote under lock and key would halt the spread of the stoneplague within Eartheart. Yet Torrin had a gnawing suspicion that those bars weren’t the only source of the contagion. Dwarves in communities outside of Eartheart had fallen ill long before Kier had discovered the gold bars; there had to be more cursed gold out there, somewhere. That gold was likely still circulating and still spreading its fell curse. Like the gold that was poured into the temple pools, it wouldn’t necessarily be in its original form. It might have already been melted down and made into jewelry, or recast into coins. The cursed gold might be spread across the length and breadth of Faerun. Finding it and rounding it all up would be a near-impossible task. Some of it would always be out there somewhere.
For the moment, though, there was one gold bar Torrin knew about-the one that had spread its foul curse to Kier. At least Torrin could do something about that.
Torrin handed Wylfrid the gold bar Kier had taken from the earthmote. A tall, thin man with thick white brows that came together in a furrow over his nose, Wylfrid was not only an alchemist, but was also skilled at casting magical rituals. More to the point, he was human, and thus immune to whatever curse the gold held.
Wylfrid placed the bar on the pitted marble slab of his workbench and peered at it through his thick-lensed spectacles. Then he picked up a small vial of acid and opened it, letting a drop of the acid fall onto the bar. The gold sizzled, and an acrid stench rose.
“Well?” Torrin asked. “Has the gold been contaminated? What else is in it?”
“Patience,” Wylfrid said. With a rag, he wiped the froth of acid from the bar. Then he cleaned his fingers on the bottom of his shirt, which already bore holes and stains from his alchemical experiments.
Wylfrid’s home, just a few doors down from Torrin’s parents’ shop, looked equally ill-kempt. Scraps of moldy food dotted the plates and cups stacked in the sink next to the hand pump. In a corner, dust covered an untidy heap of sacks and crates. The ceiling was black with soot, and something sticky and sweet-smelling was smeared on the floor where Torrin stood. Torrin shifted away from it, hoping it wasn’t going to eat through the sole of his boot. Then again, he thought, it was likely spilled wine, judging by the smell.
Wylfrid liked his wine.
Though untidy and sometimes unsteady, Wylfrid was a highly competent alchemist. He picked up a fragment of unglazed porcelain and scraped a corner of the gold bar against it. The bar scritched against the porcelain, leaving a gold streak. He compared that streak to one on another piece of porcelain that he’d pulled from a drawer, then picked up a beaker of acid and poured it over the streak the gold bar had made. “No color change,” he noted.
Wylfrid set the porcelain aside and picked up a fist-sized dark chunk-a lodestone. He touched it to the gold bar, crouched so he was eye level with the workbench, and slowly lifted the lodestone.
“No other metals,” he said. “It’s not an alloy, either.”
“Are you certain?” Torrin asked. He’d expected the curse to be on some base metal that had been added to the gold.
Wylfrid sniffed. “I know my business,” he said. “This is pure gold. But there’s one more test, yet.”
Using a fine-bladed saw to cut a vellum-thin slice from one end of the bar, he then placed the slice between two sheets of fine cotton and used a mallet to pound the flake of gold even thinner. After several loud thumps, he lifted the top layer of cloth and used wooden tweezers to carefully lift the small sheet of gold foil he’d created. He pressed it against one end of a metal tube the thickness of his thumb and creased the edges over the end of the tube. Then he aimed the foil-covered end of the tube at a grimy window and peered through it.
“Interesting,” he said. He handed the tube to Torrin.
Torrin lifted the metal tube to his eye. “What am I looking for?”
“You understand how prisms work?” asked the alchemist.
Torrin nodded. “They split light into its constituent colors.”
Wylfrid gestured at the tube. “Light that passes through gold leaf normally assumes a greenish tinge,” he said. “The gold acts like a filter, blocking all of the colors of light except green.”
It took Torrin’s eye a moment to adjust to the dim light inside the tube. It wasn’t green at all. It was dull red, veined with black lines. And pulsing.
“So why is this gold passing red light, instead?” Torrin asked.
“It must be the curse,” Wylfrid replied.
Torrin lowered the tube, shuddering. Carefully, he placed the tube back on the workbench, beside the gold bar. “Can you remove it?”
Wylfrid sniffed, as if Torrin had just asked if he could drain a beaker of wine in one draught. “Of course,” he said as he rubbed stained his fingers together and smiled. “If you have the coin. Seven hundred Anvils is the going rate for a ritual to remove curses. Expensive, but I’m sure you’ll find it.” He eyed Torrin’s mace. “Somehow.”
Torrin barely suppressed his anger. He’d hoped Wylfrid, who’d known Torrin’s human family for many years, would be motivated by sympathy alone to perform the necessary rituals. But Torrin saw how the ground lay. Wylfrid was just like the rest of the tallfolk, grasping greedily for whatever profit the stoneplague could bring. Torrin should have expected as much from a human.
Torrin glanced down at his mace. It was everything to him. Not just a powerful magical weapon, but a link to his true past. Solid proof of who he was- what he was. But he’d pinned his hopes on Wylfrid. The gold bar that lay on the workbench was what had spread the curse of the stoneplague to Kier. If Wylfrid could remove the curse from that particular bar of gold, Kier could be healed. Torrin was certain of that.
With Kier’s life hanging in the balance, the decision was easy. Torrin started to untie his mace from his belt.
Then he paused, as an idea struck him. He glanced up at Wylfrid. “How about seven thousand Anvils-or better yet, seven hundred thousand?” he asked. “Would you be willing to defer payment, if that was the amount of coin you’d make?”
Wylfrid snorted. “What nonsense are you spouting now?”
Torrin nodded at the gold bar. “The Steel Shields are confiscating gold,” he replied. “So much gold it’s going to take dozens of wizards, casting rituals morning, noon, and night, to purify it. Those wizards won’t be expected to perform their rituals for free. Just as they paid the tithes for Sharindlar’s cleansings, the Council will pay for the rituals.”
Wylfrid’s eyes glittered behind his smudged lenses. He was probably already performing the calculations in his head.
“You may have heard that I was summoned before the Council the other night, to speak to them about the stoneplague,” Torrin continued. “I spoke with the Lord Scepter himself. If I were to mention your name to him, I’m sure he’d take heed. Especially if I were able to tell him you’d already demonstrated the ability to perform the necessary ritual.”
Wylfrid smiled. “Even if I were to charge a pittance above the actual cost of the ritual’s ingredients, I’ll turn a tidy profit.”
Torrin returned his smile, though it galled him to do so. “You certainly will,” he replied. Kier, he reminded himself. This is for Kier. He made a show of starting to retie his mace. “So we have an understanding?”
“We do,” replied the alchemist. “Let’s get started.”
It took Wylfrid some time to set up the necessary paraphernalia. He shoved the clutter off his workbench, drew patterns on it with greasy chalk, and sprinkled those with powdered herbs that smelled like the inside of a bat-infested cave. Then he poured a dusting of what looked like white ash and smelled like sulfur between the lines. All the while, he kept consulting a thick, leather-bound book. When Torrin tried to glance at the page Wylfrid was reading, the alchemist waved him away. Wylfrid continued his preparations, interrupting his work from time to time to quaff a glass of wine from a grimy goblet. He didn’t offer any to Torrin. For that, Torrin was thankful.
When all was ready, Wylfrid placed the bar of gold and the metal tube at the center of the patterns he’d drawn. Then he pushed up his frayed sleeves. “Stay out of the way,” he warned.
Wylfrid picked up a vial and tipped it, letting just a single drop of silvery liquid fall from it. As the drop struck the pattern, he spoke a word. The pattern flashed white, so bright it dazzled Torrin’s eyes. He blinked furiously, and slowly the room came back into focus.
He saw Wylfrid holding the tube to one eye, staring through it at the window. The alchemist didn’t say anything. He moved closer to the window, and threw it open with one hand, still peering through the tube.
“Did it work?” Torrin asked.
Wylfrid hurled the tube onto the workbench. It rolled off, clattering onto the floor. He scooped up his goblet, slopping wine on the ash residue the ritual had left, and skulked over to an armchair in the corner. He sank into it, raising a cloud of dust, and drained his goblet.
He stared up at Torrin accusingly. “I should have guessed it,” he said, shaking his head. “The curse is as stubborn as the stoneplague itself. It can’t be removed.”
“No!” Torrin exclaimed. “You said the ritual would work.”
“Well, it didn’t,” Wylfrid said. He waved blearily at the tube. “If you don’t believe me, look for yourself.”
Torrin picked up the tube and held it to his eye. He saw the same red light as before, still pulsing. With each pulse, his heart sank still lower. He’d been so certain the ritual would remove the curse, would allow Kier, at least, to be cured. He’d prayed it would be so. Yet his prayers had gone unanswered.
Slowly, he lowered the tube. He stared at the bar of gold, still reeking with contagion. Still cursed.
Was there nothing that would remove the curse? Surely a ritual that had been done could be undone.
Somehow. By… someone.
Suddenly, Torrin realized his next step. He needed to find out how the gold had become cursed in the first place. He needed to find the people who’d cast the spell, and force them to tell him how it had been done. Then the curse might be lifted.
But how to do that?
The answer lay in front of him: the gold bar. The gold had to have been placed in the earthmote by someone. Maybe that someone could be found, and could lead Torrin back to the curse’s originator. The earthmote itself would be a logical starting point, but Torrin doubted there were any answers there. The entire city had heard of the skyriders’ spectacular find. Whoever had hidden the gold in the earthmote would already know that it was gone. They weren’t likely to return to that hiding spot.
There was one other possible source of information, however. The talismonger Mercuria, who’d given Eralynn one of the gold bars in trade, might have some answers.
The lead was as thin as thread, but it was the only one Torrin had.
Baelar let out a long, slow sigh as Torrin finished his tale. “So it was the gold,” he said. “But why? How?”
“That’s what I hope to find out,” Torrin replied.
He had caught up to Baelar, Kier’s grandfather, in a corridor that led to one of Eartheart’s armories. The skyrider must have been on his way to his post or returning from it. He carried his plumed helmet in the crook of one arm, wore the distinctive Peacehammer cloak, and had a battle-axe strapped to his back. He wore different armor than usual, however. The breastplate had a wavy, flamelike pattern embossed on its black surface. Baelar’s long gray hair was tightly knotted at the back of his head, and his beard was tucked into the leather bead bag that blacksmiths wore for protection against sparks.
“I need your help,” Torrin continued. “I need a sending stone.”
“What will you do with it?” asked Baelar.
“There’s someone in Hammergate who might be able to tell us where the gold bars came from-a shopkeeper of disreputable character who was handing them out in trade. I have one of the gold bars in my possession, one the Peacehammers didn’t find. I’m going to use it to confront the shopkeeper and trick him into saying something that will lead us to whoever hid the gold in the earthmote. If we can track the gold back to its source, maybe we can learn how the curse was invoked, and how to remove it.
“Obviously, I can’t take a Peacehammer with me. That will only scare the shopkeeper off. But you could listen in with your sending stone and pounce when the moment is right. And if I should be injured or killed, well…” He shrugged. “At least you’ll have the benefit of whatever I find out.”
Baelar stood, thinking. “So that’s why the Council was convened,” he said at last, nodding to himself. “They’ve likely started rounding up the gold already. They’ll want that gold bar you’ve got. It’s my duty to report it.”
Torrin’s breath caught. Had he made a mistake in confiding in Baelar?
Baelar’s voice dropped to a low growl. “But if you’re certain you can learn more about whoever is behind this, and do everything in your power to ensure that no one but you and the shopkeeper touch that gold bar, and if you turn it in immediately afterward…”
“I’ll swear a thousand oaths if I have to,” Torrin said. “One for every hair in Moradin’s beard. I’ll ask him to smite me with every misfortune imaginable, should I fail, even though the weight that’s already upon my shoulders is heavier than any anvil.” His jaw clenched, as he thought of Ambril and her babes, of Kier, of Maliira. “I’m responsible for enough suffering already.”
Baelar sighed. “It wasn’t your fault, Torrin. Nor was it Kier’s. The gold would have been found, regardless of my grandson’s misadventure. The new earthmote had been noted. The Peacehammers had already been ordered to investigate it, after they realized its drift would carry it over the city. Our knights are skilled in the art of detection. They would have found the secret room themselves.”
The sound of booted feet interrupted them. Two Steel Shields marched up the corridor. As they passed, they gave Torrin a baleful look, then bowed to Baelar. He waved the knights on with a gauntleted hand.
“I suppose you’re right,” Torrin said in agreement. He thought a moment. “Perhaps I was meant to find that gold. Moradin led me to the earthmote, showed the gold to me, then gave me that dream. I am, after all, the one dwarf who can handle the gold without succumbing to its curse. I was reincarnated into this body because Moradin foresaw that I’d need this form, in order to save my people.”
Baelar nodded, but appeared unconvinced.
“Do you believe the Morndinsamman led me to that gold?” Torrin asked. “That Moradin himself has chosen me to save my people?”
Baelar opened his mouth as if to answer, seemed to reconsider, and shrugged. “When Eralynn first introduced me to you, all those years ago, I thought you were delusional,” he said. “You are clearly not a dwarf, no matter how much you might try to look and sound like one.”
Torrin’s shoulders slumped.
“But the heart that beats within your chest is as stout as that of any dwarf, and as true,” Baelar continued. “I first realized that after Eralynn told me how you’d refused to plunder the tomb she followed you to. How you drew that magical mace of yours, and threatened to use it to bring down the ceiling of the tomb, burying the both of you, if she plucked so much as a single garnet from the walls. That gave her pause. And not just because her parents died in a similar manner.”
Torrin smiled. “Eralynn still thinks I’m crazy.”
“That she does,” Baelar replied, nodding. “As do I, much of the time. But you struck gold, if you’ll pardon the expression, in puzzling out the truth about those gold bars. You’ve saved many lives this day, and that’s a fact. There are veins of truth to be uncovered yet, I’ll warrant. The stoneplague won’t affect you, and that gives you a chance to dig up that truth, to find out what’s behind this.
“But no time for chatter,” Baelar continued. “I’ll get that sending stone for you. And I’ll arrange for one of the Peacehammers-someone I trust-to listen in as you confront that shopkeeper.”
Torrin’s eyebrows rose. “But I thought you yourself would-”
“Not possible,” Baelar said. He patted his sword. “I’ve a cure to find.”
“You know of a cure for stoneplague?” Torrin asked, startled.
“Shh,” said Baelar, raising an armored finger to his lips. He beckoned Torrin closer. In a low voice, he said, “Dragon’s blood.”
Torrin’s eyebrows rose. Had Baelar gone mad? “But that’s… just a children’s tale,” he said, choosing his words carefully so he wouldn’t offend the longbeard. “If dragon’s blood did everything the sagas claim-instantly healing all wounds, driving all poison from the body, making old men young again-the stoneplague would have been cured long ago. Why, there’d be no need for clerics!” Torrin shook his head. “Everyone knows dragon’s blood is just… blood.”
Baelar’s jaw clenched. “Just as everyone knows,” he said in a low voice, “that the Soulforge is in the Dwarffather’s domain, and not here on Faerun.”
Torrin swallowed hard. That stung. But the point was taken. What’s more, Baelar was the head of Clan Thunsonn, and Torrin’s patron. He deserved respect.
“My apologies,” Torrin said, bowing low.
Baelar sighed. “You’re quite right, of course. It likely will turn out to be just a children’s tale. But I’ve got to try.”
Torrin recognized the pained look in the old dwarf’s eyes. His own face was set in the same weary lines. “Where will you get dragon’s blood?” he asked.
Baelar laughed. “Don’t you remember? You gave me the answer yourself, when you told me about your misadventure with the red dragon a few days ago. With a little luck, those wyrmlings shouldn’t prove too hard to kill. Their mother, however, will be another story. You and Eralynn were blessed by the Luckmaiden that day you escaped her.”
“I suppose so,” Torrin replied.
“What’s more, I’m not the only one to grasp at this straw,” Baelar said as he glanced up and down the corridor. “It’s gone unnoticed in the general commotion, but several of the Steel Shields and Peacehammers have vanished,” he whispered. “Some say they’ve abandoned their posts-taken their families and fled-but that’s not true. They’ve gone to the Wyrmcaves, chasing the very thing I’m seeking, and the dragons have killed them. But they didn’t know about the two young wyrmlings. Nor did they have a frost axe, or magical armor ensorcelled to shield against fire.” He thumped his breastplate and jerked a thumb at the axe strapped across his back, a weapon with an icicle-shaped sliver of clear topaz set into the top of its shaft, between the double blades.
“I’ll succeed where all those others have failed,” Baelar continued. “I know my way around the Underdark. I have magic to silence my footfalls. That wyrmling’s throat will be slit, and I’ll be on my way back with its blood before the mother dragon even realizes it.”
Baelar shook his head. “My mind is set,” he said. “And keep your mouth shut about where I’m off to. Just concentrate on your part of it. You’ve got your own quest ahead of you-learning where that gold came from. That, my lad, is what the Morndinsamman intended for you.”
Baelar straightened. “Now let’s get you that sending stone and arrange for someone to listen in while you confront the shopkeeper. May Vergadain the Trickster grant you a silver tongue, and words that slide from it like silk.”
“My thanks for the blessing,” Torrin said. Although he knew Baelar’s quest would likely prove futile, he returned the blessing. “And the same to you. May Clangeddin Silverbeard make your axe strike true. And may Marthammor Duin speed your steps.”
“As every thread of gold is valuable, so is every moment of time.”
Mercuria’s shop, at the edge of a cobblestone plaza, was in one of the oldest permanent buildings in Hammergate. According to Eralynn, the door that led to it was magical. Knock once with the left hand, twice with the right, and thrice with the left, and the door would open onto Mercuria’s shop. Any other combination, and it revealed the soakroom of a tannery, a place with a stench so vile no one entered if they could possibly avoid it.
Torrin knocked correctly, and opened the door. The combined smells of sharp spices and dust filled his nostrils as he stepped into the cluttered shop. The shelves were packed with the varied ingredients of ritual casting: animal skulls of every description, rolls of bark, squares of fur, jars filled with powdered ore, ground horn, and dried berries. Herbs hung in bunches from the rafters. Needles from a dead pine branch covered the floor’s threadbare carpet, partially obscuring its faded pentagram. Nothing looked terribly valuable; the real merchandise was said to be stored in a distant location that was linked to the shop by magic.
Behind the counter, the talismonger leaned back against the wall in his wooden chair. His gray hair was shaved close to his scalp, save for two tufts that sprouted like wings above the place where horns emerged from his temples. He glanced up from his book as Torrin entered, his blood red eyes lingering on the magical mace at Torrin’s hip. “Buying or selling?” he said.
“Buying,” Torrin said firmly. He watched Mercuria’s eyes. They didn’t so much as stray to the sending stone that hung from a leather thong around Torrin’s neck. A simple enchantment had cloaked its magical properties. Hanging it around his neck in plain view would further make it seem an innocent ornament.
“Who taught you the knock?” Mercuria asked.
“The Delver Eralynn,” Torrin replied.
The tiefling laid his book on the counter. “The magical rope worked to her satisfaction, I trust?”
“It did,” Torrin answered.
“What would you like?”
“A nephew of mine has the stoneplague. He needs something that will halt the spread of the disease.”
Mercuria smiled, revealing hooklike teeth. “Which will it be?” he asked. “A jar of Keoghtom’s ointment? A potion of life restoration? A regenerative ring?”
Torrin knew that none of those would cure the stoneplague. Yet he played along. “How much for a simple healing potion?”
“How much have you got?” asked the talismonger.
Torrin opened his pouch and tipped out the gold bar Kier had given him. It landed with a dull thud on Mercuria’s counter. Torrin had smoothed off the end Wylfrid had cut; the saw marks were no longer visible.
The tiefling didn’t even glance at the gold bar. “Not enough,” he said.
“Yes it is,” replied Torrin. “A simple healing potion’s just fifty Anvils. That bar is easily worth that.”
“The price has gone up.”
“That’s where you’re wrong. The price has gone down. Healing potions don’t work. I’ve just offered you the equivalent of fifty Anvils for something that’s worthless against the stoneplague, and you won’t touch my gold.”
“I don’t need your gold.”
“No, you don’t, and I’ll tell you why,” Torrin continued. “I’ve spoken to the other Delvers. They tell me you’ve been handing these gold bars out to customers, whenever you need to make up the difference on an expensive trade. You’ve been claiming to have no coin, no gems in your coffers, just gold bars. You want to get rid of them. Why is that?”
Mercuria just stared at him, his red eyes like two glowing coals.
“I think we both know the answer,” Torrin continued. “The stoneplague. The gold bars are causing it. They’re cursed.”
Mercuria’s eyebrows rose. His surprise almost looked genuine. “Really?”
“Don’t even pretend you didn’t know,” Torrin said.
Mercuria rose from his stool as swiftly as an uncoiling serpent. He whipped out a black iron wand, tipped with what looked like a fang, and pointed it at Torrin’s chest. In that same moment, Torrin wrenched the magical mace from his belt and raised it.
They stared at each other across the counter.
“You aren’t going to use that wand,” Torrin said. “There’s something else staying your hand, other than my raised weapon. You need to know something-whether or not I’m the only one who knows you’ve been distributing those gold bars.”
“I won’t insult your intelligence further by asking that question,” Mercuria answered. “Obviously, someone else knows you’re here, and quite obviously they’ll tell the Steel Shields I’ve murdered you if you don’t come back. What’s more, you’re not going to use that mace, since you need me alive in order to learn anything. But you were wrong, when you accused me of knowingly spreading the stoneplague. I knew there had to be something wrong with those gold bars, but not that. Otherwise, I’d never have touched them, no matter how much profit was involved.”
“If that’s true, you’ll have no problem telling me who gave you that gold,” Torrin said, still brandishing his mace. “Tell me who traded you those bars, and I’ll keep my mouth shut about your role in this.”
“Swear it,” said Mercuria. “Swear by Moradin’s beard you’ll keep your word.”
Torrin hesitated. Swear a false oath? Would the Dwarffather understand?
The tiefling snorted. “I thought so,” he said. “You’re lying. Even so, I’ll tell you.”
“So who was it, then?” Torrin asked. “One of the drow? Was this a plot to weaken our city, so that they could attack it?”
Mercuria shook his head. “The gold came from a human, actually. He seemed desperate to divest himself of it. He practically gave the gold to me, at a fraction of its worth by weight. He goes by the name of Vadyr. Assuming he’s still alive, you’ll find him in Helmstar. That’s where he said he was from.”
Interesting. Helmstar was where Kendril had come from, too.
“What makes you think this Vadyr fellow might be dead?” Torrin asked.
Mercuria shrugged. “You’re not the first to come sniffing around after his gold,” he said. “A duergar came into the shop a few days ago, also wanting to know where I’d gotten the gold bars from.”
Torrin’s eyebrows rose. A duergar in Hammergate? Torrin knew the history of that race well; he’d read about it extensively. The duergar had once been dwarves and were still distantly related, but they were a race of evil disposition and foul habits. They’d arisen in Faerun between four and eight millennia before, in the wake of the disastrous Mindstalker Wars. When the city of Barakuir fell, the surviving dwarves of Clan Duergar were taken prisoner, and enslaved. Centuries of illithid experiments had warped their descendants’ bodies, minds, and souls. The twisted caricatures turned their faces away from the Morndinsamman to worship a cruel and corrupt god. By doing so, they condemned their very souls. Moradin would accept a drow at his forge long before he’d accept a duergar.
The duergar were sworn enemies of the true dwarves. Any duergar who dared show his face in Eartheart-or Hammergate, for that matter-would be slain on sight. Torrin wondered how one had managed to find his way to Mercuria’s shop.
“Did you tell the duergar about Vadyr?” Torrin asked.
“No,” Mercuria replied, nodding at Torrin’s mace. “He wasn’t nearly as… persuasive as you are. I told him I’d long since given out the last of the gold I’d taken in trade, and sent him on his way empty-handed.”
Torrin thought about what he’d just been told. Whomever the duergar was, Torrin wouldn’t let himself be distracted by him. He returned to the matter at hand. “How will I recognize this Vadyr?” he asked.
“He’s missing one of his front teeth. His name may change, but that won’t.”
Torrin blinked in surprise. Human and missing a tooth-that sounded like the rogue who’d knocked him out! He smiled grimly. Mercuria’s words were said to be as thick as flies in a latrine, and typically sprang from the same source. But that time, Torrin felt, the tiefling was telling the truth.
“I see you believe me,” Mercuria said. “But we still seem to be at a stalemate. You have no plans to let me go without a fight, do you?”
“People have died because of you, tiefling,” Torrin replied. “You deserve to be punished.”
“Would you be saying that if I was a dwarf, instead of a tiefling?” Mercuria asked. He shook his head. “Don’t you realize you can’t judge a scroll by the ribbon that ties it?”
“I judge you by the company you keep.”
Mercuria waved his free hand dismissively, still keeping the wand level. “People might say the same of the Delvers, for associating with me,” he replied. “But these philosophical debates are tiresome. So let’s cut to the quick, and see if I can’t change your mind about me with actions, rather than words.
“I saw the anguished look in your eyes when you told me about that ‘nephew’ of yours. Someone you care about has the stoneplague. I have something that can help. Not a cure, but an ointment that can stop time. Exceedingly rare and expensive. It’s yours if you’ll lower that mace.”
Torrin felt his eyes widening. He’d heard rumors of such a thing; some of the Delver texts had mentioned there was a magical unguent that was occasionally used to preserve very rare, very precious artifacts and scrolls from rot and decay. But would it work on a living being?
“How do you use it?” he asked.
Mercuria smiled. “Just rub it on the body,” he replied, “taking care not to get any on yourself, in the process. That person becomes frozen in time until the unguent’s magic is dispelled. It’s not a cure, but it will keep your ‘nephew’ alive until a cure is found.”
Torrin knew his duty. He’d come here intending to learn if the tiefling was guilty, and if he was, to speak the previously agreed upon word that would summon the Peacehammers to arrest him. But when he thought of Kier, the balance tipped the other way. If the ointment worked as Mercuria had said, surely it was worth risking whatever trickery the tiefling had up his sleeve.
Slowly, Torrin lowered his mace until its head touched the floor.
Keeping his wand pointed at Torrin, Mercuria reached below the counter and brought out an iron hoop. It was a thin belt of black metal, the same size and shape as a barrel hoop. As Mercuria laid it down, the countertop inside the circle blurred, as if seen through a thick, uneven pane of glass.
Mercuria leaned over the hoop, one eye still on Torrin, and whispered. He cocked an ear to the hoop, as if listening, then straightened. “This may take a moment,” he said.
Torrin waited, his stomach in a knot. Was he doing the right thing? There was no turning back The wand was still pointed at his chest, and Torrin would never be able to bring his mace to bear in time.
Torrin smelled sulfur. A tendril of yellow smoke wisped up from the center of the hoop. Suddenly, a greenish, three-fingered hand thrust upward, seemingly out of the counter top. The hand was covered in small spines that wept blood. And it held what looked like a hollow bone, slightly longer than Torrin’s forearm. Its ends had been sealed with red wax and a layer of black lead foil.
Mercuria plucked the bone from the hand. Immediately, the hand opened in a demanding gesture. The tiefling turned to Torrin. “Now it’s up to you,” he said. “Choose your payment.”
“You never said anything about payment!” Torrin protested.
“There’s always a price to be paid,” Mercuria said. “You have two options, either of which will be acceptable to my suppliers. Your weapon…”
Torrin shook his head firmly.
“Or… that,” Mercuria said. pointing at the sending stone around Torrin’s neck. He raised a finger to his lips. “And if it is the latter, I won’t hear a single word of protest, will I? And you’ll maintain that silence for the duration of our negotiations, or the deal is off.” He stared meaningfully at Torrin. “Nod, if that’s clear.”
Suddenly, Torrin didn’t feel as clever as he had when the exchange had begun. Mercuria had been playing with him, all along. By forcing Torrin to hand over the sending stone, the tiefling would ensure he’d get a good enough head start to elude the Peacehammers. Torrin might come up with a clever story to explain how he’d lost the sending stone, but sooner or later, he was certain, it would be discovered to be a lie. The consequences might be severe. But if the ointment really worked as Mercuria said it did…
Without speaking, Torrin lifted the thong from around his neck and handed Mercuria the sending stone. The tiefling took it with a smirk, and let it fall toward the hoop. The hand caught it and disappeared back into the countertop.
Mercuria handed the bone to Torrin.
Torrin took it. The bone felt warm, as though it had just come from an oven. “This had better be the real thing,” he said.
Mercuria glared down his nose at Torrin. “Don’t insult me. And don’t even think of threatening me again.” He raised his hoop. “I have powerful friends.”
“Friends like that are only friends until the day you cross them,” Torrin retorted.
With a chuckle, Mercuria raised the hoop above his head and let it fall over himself. Torrin whipped up his mace, hoping to knock it aside, but it was too late. Mercuria was gone, already teleported away to some foul realm. The hoop landed on the floor with a clatter and vanished; the only trace of it was a round scorch mark on the floorboards.
A wisp of yellow smoke rose from that spot, then vanished.
Torrin dropped a moonflower into the offering font that was already overflowing with white flowers, gems, and silver coins. He murmured a prayer to Berronar Truesilver, the goddess of home and hearth. Following the abrupt closure of Sharindlar’s sacred pools-the reason for which had yet to be revealed to the general populace-it had fallen to the clerics of Berronar to tend to those afflicted by the stoneplague. Her main temple had been turned into a hospice for the dying. Berronar was less commonly associated with comforting the sick, but home in the goddess’s embrace was preferable for those waiting the journey to their next life.
Torrin made his way through the cavern, past the hundreds of mattresses of living moss on which the afflicted lay. The smell was almost overwhelming-a mix of vomit, urine, and stale sweat. Harried-looking Revered Sisters and Revered Brothers bustled back and forth, directing the tallfolk servants who’d been hired to tend the sick. Despite the Lord Scepter having thrown open the treasury for the duration of the crisis, there weren’t enough helpers. The tallfolk not only didn’t have to fear the stoneplague, they didn’t have to face it if they didn’t want to.
Despite Torrin’s discovery that the cursed gold was the cause of the stoneplague, the most renowned of Eartheart’s wizards, alchemists, loremasters, and sages-working in secret, under order from the Deep Lords-had yet to find a way to purge its curse. They had used magic to destroy a large pile of the gold that had so far been recovered, but even though that gold was gone, the curse lingered. Not a single person among the afflicted had responded to a curative spell. Clerics from dozens of faiths had tried to cure the afflicted, but failed.
The Morndinsamman seemed indeed to have turned away from their chosen people. All their clerics could do was comfort the dying.
Likewise, the information Torrin had wrested from Mercuria had proved to be a dead end. The Steel Shields had immediately scoured the streets of Hammergate for Vadyr, but had no success in running the rogue to ground. A squad had departed for Helmstar, to see if he might be found there, but proved futile, too. They had, however, managed to confirm that a human by that name had until recently resided there-a suddenly extremely wealthy human, to no one’s surprise. “Spending gold like copper,” as tavern talk had it.
Eartheart’s wizards had used their magic to scour all the Deeps for Vadyr, but the rogue had so far proved impossible to find. No doubt he was screened by expensive magical wards against scrying, paid for with all that gold.
Despite those disappointments, Torrin still had one nugget firmly in hand-the ointment the tiefling had given him. Sadly, the time had at last come to try it, to see if it would do what Mercuria had claimed, or whether it was just fool’s gold.
He picked his way across the cavern, to the spot where Kier lay. The living carpet had been worn down to bare stone in many places by the constant coming and going; the tiny white flowers in the moss were wilted from lack of watering. Luminescent lichen still sparkled prettily on the ceiling, but the temple’s gemstone-encrusted altars had long since been packed away-not for fear they’d be stolen, but simply to prevent them from being knocked over.
A statue of the Mother Goddess dominated the center of the room. Seated on her throne, with her mace across her lap, Berronar stared with a placid expression at the groaning, weeping, and all-too-silent victims who filled the cavern.
Kier lay propped up with pillows and covered by a blanket. He held his toy dragon in one hand, but wasn’t playing with it. He just stared at the far wall, his mouth slightly open.
“Kier?” Torrin called. “It’s me, Uncle Torrin.”
Kier turned his head slightly. Torrin repressed a gasp at how much the boy had deteriorated. His hands and arms were a solid gray, already calcifying and no longer capable of movement. His eyelids were red and swollen. A mass of brittle gray flakes covered his cheeks and forehead. The salve the healers had spread on his cracked lips had done little good; it glistened moistly but failed to soak into the skin.
“Unh… Ahh…” the boy said. His hand flopped listlessly against the blankets.
Torrin felt sick to his stomach. He caught the attention of one of the Revered Sisters-an older woman with silver hair and dark circles under her eyes. “This is my nephew,” Torrin told her. “I’m taking him home to his own bed. His family will care for him from this point on.”
The cleric nodded absently. By Berronar Truesilver’s grace, it was impossible to speak a lie in the cavern. Nor was it possible to steal. She had no cause to think the boy would come to further harm. Or maybe she was too exhausted to care.
Torrin slid his arms under Kier and lifted. The boy felt twice as heavy as he should; Torrin grunted under the strain. He picked his way through the cavern, steadfastly ignoring the pleas of the others.
“Muh… muh-hah…” Kier croaked.
“Your mother is-” Torrin halted himself just in time, before Berronar’s magic could force the truth out of him. His eyes and nose prickled. He bit his lip, refusing to let the tears come. Ambril had died yesterday, vomiting blood that looked like tar and smelled like mud. Kier would have to be told that his mother had died, but his father should be the one to tell him that sad news.
Torrin carried Kier toward the Thunsonn clanhold. They passed the empty steam caverns. No one wanted to chance sitting on a bench next to someone who might have the stoneplague, breathing the same steamy air, despite all assurances that it was impossible to catch the stoneplague that way. He made his way by side cavern to the clanhold, hoping to pass fewer people. And he wore his dagger at his hip, just in case a confrontation turned ugly.
He needn’t have bothered. The few people he did pass refused to make eye contact. They shied against the far wall or turned and walked swiftly the other way.
At last Torrin reached Kier’s room. He went inside, closed the door with his foot, and laid Kier on his bed. Torrin’s back creaked as he straightened. It had been a long walk. “I’m going to take off those stale clothes, Kier,” he told the boy. He stripped Kier, took one look at the hollow looking stomach and staring ribs, and pulled a blanket over the boy.
He prayed he was doing the right thing. And that Kier, in his next life, would forgive Torrin if he were wrong.
Haldrin arrived a few moments later. Dust from Ambril’s burial still smudged his hands. Kier turned his head. “Fah…” he began.
“Hush, Kier,” Haldrin said. “Don’t try to speak.”
“Muh…?” the boy asked.
Haldrin’s eyes filled with tears. He sat on the edge of the bed and took Kier’s hand in his. “She died yesterday,” he said.
Kier let out a soft cry.
Torrin forced down his own anguish. Kier needed comfort-which his father was providing-and hope, which was what Torrin could offer. Torrin pulled out the ointment Mercuria had given him and peeled the lead foil from one end. The bone was sealed with a wax plug; he punctured it with the tip of his dagger. He caught Haldrin’s eye. Haldrin nodded.
“I’ve got a magical ointment here, Kier,” Torrin said. “It’s going to suspend time for you and stop your illness from progressing. Keep you alive until they find a cure for the stoneplague. As soon as they do, we’ll ‘wake’ you by dispelling its magic. In the meantime…” Torrin paused, his throat tight. “The oil numbs the body,” he continued. “Stops the pain. But it doesn’t halt the mind. You won’t be able to see or hear, but your mind will still work. If you want it to stop-if you want to ‘wake up’-you’ll have no way to tell us.”
Haldrin gently stroked his son’s hair as he said, “If you’d rather just… If you’d rather go to Moradin, son, I’ll understand. It’s your choice. I won’t…” He visibly pulled himself together and went on. “I won’t be angry, if that’s what you choose. But I’ll miss you.”
Torrin stared down at Kier, feeling the same way. Eight years of life just didn’t seem enough, even by human standards. Yet was using the ointment really the right thing to do? If Kier died, his pain would end. His soul would fly to the realm of the Morndinsamman, and be forged into a new body by Moradin. He’d return to the world.
But Torrin would never again know him. Not as Kier.
Am I just being selfish? he wondered.
“Your mother’s soul will have reached the Fugue Plain, by now,” Torrin told the boy. “It will be a while yet, before Moradin claims her. You might want to…” His eyes filled with tears. He wiped them away, angry with himself. He was supposed to be strong. Set an example for Kier to follow. “You might want to go to her.”
Kier’s head moved fractionally right then left. “Nuhm,” he said emphatically. “Yuh… will find… summfin… delf… summfin… cure… me.”
Torrin closed his eyes. Such faith! Kier expected Torrin to find an artifact that could cure him. Just like that. Torrin realized he had become a hero in the boy’s eyes. It was an honor he’d yet to earn.
Torrin was humbled. Kier was willing to take the risk-spend months, even years trapped in his ailing body-all for a faint hope.
Torrin caught Haldrin’s eye and raised the bone.
“All right, then,” Torrin told him. “Ease Kier into as comfortable a position as you can.”
Haldrin pulled back the blanket and gently arranged his son’s limbs.
“Here goes,” Torrin said as he tipped the bone. The ointment was as white as milk. He poured a thin line of it onto Kier’s forehead and nose, over his lips, chin, neck, and body, down one leg, then the other, and then down his arms. The magical oil spread itself evenly over the boy’s skin, coating it. Even Kier’s hair and eyeballs turned white. After a few moments, his raspy breathing halted in mid-breath. The potion had done its work.
Haldrin stared at his seemingly dead son, little gasps catching in his throat with each breath. Torrin gave his shoulder a squeeze. “It can be dispelled at any time,” he told Haldrin. “Any wizard or cleric can do that for you. If it stretches into tendays, or months, you may want to consider-”
Haldrin shook his head. “I’ll make that decision when the time comes,” he said.
Torrin nodded. Then, even though Kier wouldn’t feel the cold, Torrin pulled the blanket back over the boy’s body. He started to touch Kier’s hair, then stopped. The ointment had soaked into the boy’s skin-the white color was already fading-but disturbing it wouldn’t be a good idea.
Torrin picked up his pack. Time to leave Haldrin with his son. He paused, one hand on the door latch. “Rest easy, Kier,” he said. “Rest until I find the cure.”
Torrin walked, heavy-hearted, down a staircase that connected to a back entrance to the Thunsonn clanhold. It was barely used at all any more with so many of the clanfolk ill or dying, and it was devoid of passersby that night.
With Kier suspended between life and death and so much riding on Torrin finding a way to cure him, being alone suited his brooding mood.
“Delver Torrin,” came a whisper from seemingly empty space. Instantly on his guard, Torrin yanked his mace free. He swept it in a lethal arc behind him, through the spot where he expected an invisible assailant to be standing. Was it another attempt on the runestone?
The mace swung through empty air. There was no rogue behind Torrin, waiting to knock him down while his attention was diverted.
Torrin stepped back, putting his back against the wall. He kept his mace ready. “Who are you?” he asked.
“A friend,” the voice said. “There’s no need for that weapon.”
The voice was male and not a young man, by the sound of that deep rumble. It came from waist height-either a dwarf or one of the tallfolk squatting, pretending to be a dwarf.
“They’re coming for you,” the voice said. “Who is?” Torrin asked.
“The Steel Shields. The order has gone out for your arrest.”
Torrin tensed. “Why?”
“You took a bribe. As a result, someone they hoped to question escaped.”
A hollow sensation gripped Torrin’s stomach. Any denials would have been futile. “I see,” he said.
A mithril brooch seemingly materialized out of thin air as it sailed toward Torrin. It landed with a clatter on the stairs.
“Put it on,” said the voice.
Torrin glanced down at it, still not lowering his mace. The brooch was shaped like a mountain, encircled by a band of braided mithril, gold, and silver wire. A pebble-sized geode, cut in half to reveal the amethyst crystals within, was set into the center of the mountain like a gemstone.
The mountain-and-gem motif was the symbol of Dumathoin, keeper of secrets under the mountain. A dwarf god. Even so, Torrin let the brooch lie there.
A spark of magical energy leaped out of the space the voice had come from, stinging Torrin’s hand. He startled.
“If my intentions were ill, you’d already be dead,” the voice told him. “Put on the brooch. I have something I want to say to you, away from scrying eyes and ears. They’re likely not listening-yet. But they will be, soon enough. The brooch will protect our privacy.”
At last, Torrin relented. He tied his mace to his belt, then picked up the brooch.
“Pin it to the inside of your shirt, said the voice.”
Torrin did as instructed. He glanced up and down the staircase; still, there was no one in sight.
“Letting the talismonger escape is just an excuse,” the voice said. “The real reason the order has gone out for your arrest is because the Deep Lords don’t want you revealing why gold is being confiscated. They’ve already arrested the alchemist you visited yesterday. You’re next.”
“But we have to warn people!” Torrin said. “The gold bars won’t be the only source of contagion. Some will have already been melted down and-”
“Poured into sacred pools, among other things,” the voice said wearily. “We know. But consider this. With our citizens already in a panic, is it truly wise to heap fresh coal upon the forge? An economic crisis is the last thing Eartheart needs. And it’s just what our enemies want. Moreover, there are always profiteers who seek to make the most of such a crisis. Gold being secretly stockpiled for more stable times is something we must avoid. Any cursed gold that’s hidden away won’t be cleared of its taint.”
“Secrecy isn’t the answer,” Torrin insisted. “We dwarves are a sensible race. We won’t panic or riot. If the Council explains why-”
“That argument failed to sway the Council,” the voice said, sounding older, more tired. “We’re doing what we can. Gold is being rounded up and examined, and any that isn’t cursed will be returned to its rightful owners once the crisis has passed. The stoneplague is being contained. Here in Eartheart, at least.”
Torrin was shocked by what the words hinted at. “And the clans elsewhere in the Deep Realms?” he asked. “What about them?”
“The vote was taken-the outlying communities were deemed at fault,” the voice replied. “They’ll be left to find their own solutions until we deem it the right moment to tell them. The vote passed by the narrowest of margins, despite my urging. But… it passed.”
As the silence stretched, Torrin realized the subtext of what the invisible speaker was telling him. It was one of the Deep Lords he was speaking to, one of the dissenting voters.
The voice sounded familiar, but not overly so. It was as if the speaker were deliberately disguising his voice. Even so, Torrin eventually placed it. When he did, his eyes widened. He suspected that, were he to touch the invisible dwarf’s beard, he’d feel three braids. If his guess were correct, it wasn’t just any Deep Lord, but the Lord Scepter himself!
“Why are you warning me?” Torrin asked. “Why don’t you want me arrested?”
“Last night I had a strange dream,” said the Lord Scepter. “I was standing in a foundry, in front of a melting pot that held molten gold, holding a star in my hands. A star made of black iron. I knew that it eventually had to go into the melting pot, but that the time wasn’t right. The fire was only hot enough to melt gold, not iron. I stood, wondering what I was supposed to do with it. Then a hand reached down from the sky-a hand attached to an arm that wore a gold bracer.”
“Moradin,” Torrin breathed.
“The Dwarffather,” the Lord Scepter agreed. “He wanted the star, but couldn’t reach me; something was preventing him from moving properly. It was as if he himself had the stoneplague, and had been crippled by it. I stretched as far as I could, but wasn’t able to place the star in that mighty hand. It was too far above me, lost among the stars. Then, suddenly, I realized what I must do. I let go of the star, and it sailed up into the sky.”
Torrin was hanging on every word. The Deep Lord had also experienced a prophetic dream involving Moradin! And clearly, judging by that iron star, a dream about Torrin. Was the melting pot in the Lord Scepter’s dream the Soulforge that Torrin had dreamed about finding for so long?
Torrin felt his heart pounding in his chest. A prickle of pure excitement shivered down the back of his neck. “You released the star and then… What happened then?”
The Lord Scepter chuckled. “I woke up,” he said.
Hope rushed out of Torrin like water from a punctured waterskin.
“What do you think the dream means?” Torrin asked.
“I have no idea,” the Lord Scepter admitted. “But I infer the ending to mean that you must remain free, for the good of the dwarf race. You need to leave Eartheart. At once.”
Torrin bowed. He started to unbutton the brooch, intending to hand it back to the Lord Scepter, but he interrupted. “Keep it,” he said. “Whatever task the Dwarffather has in mind for you, I have a feeling you’re going to need it.”
“Silence is golden.”
Torrin crossed Silvershield Bridge by night and headed for the city’s southern gate, his conversation with the Lord Scepter still echoing through his thoughts. He saw one of the Steel Shields coming toward him across the bridge. His helmet plume was bobbing, and his armor glinted in the starlight. As the knight approached, Torrin lowered his head so his hood shadowed his face, and slowed his pace. He didn’t want to enter the lantern light just yet. “Dumathoin, shield me,” he prayed. “Keep my secret this night.”
The Steel Shield barely glanced at Torrin as he passed by. The knight’s boots thumped steadily against the stonework as he marched away into the night.
Torrin sighed in relief.
Ahead, at the spot where a lantern illuminated the apex of the bridge, he saw a dwarf walking slowly, one hand on the stone bridge rail and his back to Torrin. He seemed to be blind, feeling his way along. As Torrin watched, the dwarf’s hand bumped against one of the silver-plated shields that gave the bridge its name. Abruptly, he stopped and cradled his bruised hand against his chest.
Like Torrin, the dwarf wore a hooded cloak. In itself that was nothing unusual; it was a chilly night. But as the dwarf stood nursing his hand, the hood slipped back, revealing a bald spot on the back of his head that shone in the lantern light. With a start, Torrin realized that it was the dwarf who’d waylaid him outside the motedisc factory.
The rogue yanked his hood back into place, and continued walking.
Immediately on guard, Torrin glanced quickly around. Aside from the rogue, the bridge was empty. There was no sign of Vadyr-although that didn’t mean the human rogue wasn’t invisible.
Torrin drew his mace. Openly wielding a weapon would invite the attention of any other Steel Shields who happened by on patrol, but he was willing to risk that. He wasn’t about to get knocked out a second time. The balding dwarf was laying it on thick, moving even more slowly and stiffly than when Torrin had first had the misfortune of making his acquaintance. Putting on a show, for Torrin’s benefit.
Torrin didn’t let it distract him. He stood, his mace ready, his back against the bridge railing. “Show yourself, coward,” he called out. “If you want the runestone that badly, let’s see you try to take it.”
Several moments went by. Nothing happened. Torrin started to feel foolish standing there with his mace raised. He suddenly sprinted across the rest of the bridge, in the direction the balding dwarf had gone. He reached the deeper shadows at the base of the bridge and ducked into an alcove that held a stone statue of Clangeddin Silverbeard. The god’s twin axes poked into Torrin’s lower back.
Torrin waited. No footsteps approached. No second assailant attacked.
He stepped out of the alcove. He realized that it might not be a setup-that the dwarf rogue might indeed have suffered a blinding injury and then been subsequently abandoned by Vadyr. He ran in the direction the rogue had gone, and spotted him as he passed through slits of light emitted from a shuttered window.
The dwarf heard him coming. He whirled when Torrin was a pace or two away.
“Don’t come any closer!” he cried in a shrill voice. “I have the stoneplague!”
Torrin stared in horror. The light slanting through the shutter cracks fell across the rogue’s face. His eyes were as white as limestone-two shrivelled marbles in their sockets-and his face was as gray as slate.
Torrin steeled himself. There was no time for hesitation. He poked the fellow in the chest with the tip of his mace, jostling him. The man staggered, nearly fell.
“By Moradin’s beard, show mercy!” the fellow cried. “You wouldn’t steal from a blind man, would you?”
“That’s an odd plea, coming from a thief,” Torrin growled. “And as for your blindness, it looks like you got what you deserved. Your gold was the cause of it.”
“What?” the rogue asked, looking wildly around, one arm raised to defend himself. “What are you talking about?”
Torrin moved suddenly. He grabbed the rogue’s throat with his free hand and slammed him against the wall. He kept his mace ready, and one eye on the street. “Tell me who cast the curse,” he told the blind dwarf in a low growl, “and I’ll let you live.”
“Please,” the rogue gasped. “I don’t know what you’re talking about! Who are you? By all the Morndinsamman, please, have mercy!”
Torrin laughed as he said, “You didn’t show me any mercy, thief, that day outside the motedisc factory.”
The rogue’s face turned even grayer as that memory sank in. “I’m… no thief,” he wheezed. “Just… a sick man… desperate enough… to do anything… to raise enough coin… for a cure. For me and… my family.”
Torrin’s eyes widened. That wasn’t what he’d expected to hear. He eased up the pressure on the man’s throat. The words spilled out.
“I knew what I was doing was wrong,” the dwarf said in a quavering voice. “But the human offered so much gold, and for such a simple thing. Just to recite a few words to you, and clasp your hand. I didn’t realize he was going to hit you, to hurt you. And now I’m being punished for what I’ve done. The Morndinsamman have turned their backs on me, and my brother and his wife are dying.” He croaked out a bitter laugh. “All that gold… And the ‘cure’ it bought was worthless. Worthless!” The dwarf’s shoulders shook as he sobbed.
Torrin released him. “May the Dwarffather forgive me,” he said, ashamed at how he’d roughed up an innocent man. The anger that had flamed through him a moment before was gone, replaced by the cold ash of regret. “I’m… so sorry.”
The blind man said nothing. Torrin thought of how Kendril had flung himself from Needle Leap. The fellow looked likely to do something similar. Torrin wanted to say more-to do more. But he knew he could offer the man no solid hope, only promises.
“I forgive you,” Torrin said at last. “And so shall Moradin. Don’t lose hope.”
The dwarf nodded, but his head still hung low.
Torrin glanced around the plaza. So far, he’d been lucky; no one had responded to the altercation. But he didn’t want to press that luck. For all he knew, the people he could hear talking inside the building next to him had already sent out a runner to fetch a patrol.
Feeling like a rogue himself, Torrin slipped out of the plaza. He made his way out through the city’s southern gate, into the night.
Torrin surveyed the cavern where he and Eralynn had been trapped by the red dragon, near the slab of rock where they’d raised a cup in memory of her dead parents. It still smelled of smoke. Every surface was covered with the soot that also coated Torrin’s hands and clothes.
Getting back into the Wyrmcaves had been the easy part; the portal had opened as readily as before. Sneaking through the tunnels that led to the cave had given Torrin a few anxious moments, when he’d thought he heard the sound of slithering behind him. But if the red dragon was nearby, she hadn’t shown herself yet. Torrin had even peeked into the cave where she had made her lair, but nothing moved up in the nest. He hadn’t seen any sign of Baelar, either-although the air in the wyrm’s cavern stank of fresh smoke. As he’d made his way back to the cavern with the earth node, all had been ominously silent.
He took the runestone out of his pack and held it out in front of him. He waited, wondering when the spellfire would begin-praying that it would begin, that the runestone would work a second time. In order to see in the absolute darkness, he had to keep his right eye shut. He hadn’t had the time-or the coin-to get his magical goggles repaired.
“Take me to Vadyr,” he commanded.
Nothing. No spellfire.
He tried again, concentrating on the brief glimpse he’d had of the human with the missing front tooth. Yet his mind kept straying. Every time he thought of the rogue’s part in the affair, anger boiled inside him. Bitter anger, at the deaths of Ambril and her babes, and a boiling rage stirred by the realization that Kier might die, too.
“Vadyr,” he said again through gritted teeth.
Still no spellfire.
He at last realized it wasn’t going to work. He wasn’t about to succeed where the most powerful wizards in all Eartheart had failed. But that was all right. There was a second reason he’d returned to the Wyrmcaves.
Increasingly worried about where Eralynn had disappeared to, he’d been making enquiries. Mara had let slip that Eralynn had told her not to worry-that she knew where she’d go for healing if she succumbed to the stoneplague. She wouldn’t go to one of the clerics who’d already tried to cure the stoneplague, and failed, but to clerics of a goddess whose name, she said, she was certain Mara would never recognize. When Mara had pressed her for details, Eralynn had refused to say more.
Delvemaster Frivaldi, meanwhile, had revealed that Eralynn had borrowed his map of the northernmost reaches of the Deep Realm, showing the region surrounding Sundasz. It was a small dwarf city, but one with an unsavory reputation. Some whispered its wealth came as a result of a clandestine trade with duergar or even drow.
Torrin didn’t believe it. Likely, the rumors were fuelled by nothing more tangible than jealousy. The dwarves of Sundasz were not only secretive, but had always been very wealthy. Still, if Eralynn was headed to Sundasz, she could benefit from a friend to shield her back.
And if she knew of a cure that no one else had yet tried, Torrin wanted to hear about it-for Kier’s sake, and the sake of all Eartheart.
He raised the runestone again, and concentrated on Eralynn, on the details of her hair, her face. Despite the fact that no one had seen Eralynn in more than a tenday-which might very well mean she had succumbed to the stoneplague after handling the cursed gold bar-Torrin refused to imagine her as a corpse or even sick. He pictured her alive and well, rolling her eyes at his “wishful thinking” that the Soulforge was here on Faerun. She might consider his ideas foolish, but she’d always listened, and had, perversely, stood up for him when the other Delvers had called him ignorant or misguided. She’d been there for him, and he was going to return the favor for his shield sister.
“Eralynn,” he commanded. “Take me to her.”
Was that a tingle he felt in his hand? He closed both eyes, gripped the stone tightly, and repeated his command more forcefully.
He was certain he felt it-a rush of prickly hot and shivery cold energy that made his hand feel as though it was simultaneously in an icy pond and in a fiery blast of dragon’s breath.
Blue light flared against his eyelids. He opened his eyes and saw spellfire. It streaked across the walls and the ceiling, and shone upward through the gaps in the rubble on the cavern floor. “Praise Moradin!” Torrin cried. “It’s working!”
The spellfire crackled downward from the ceiling, upward from the floor, and inward from the walls, coalescing around the runestone in his hand. Something hot splattered onto the stone near Torrin’s boot. It was molten gold, he realized, dripping out of cracks in the ceiling above his head. With spellfire illuminating the cavern, he saw that the slab of stone he stood on was crusted with similar splatters: dribbles of gold, hardened like candle wax.
But he mustn’t let that distract him. He locked his gaze on the runestone, seeing it in livid blue and searing white, through regular vision and through the single lens of his goggles.
“Take… me… to… Eralynn!” he shouted.
A sudden twist. His body felt impossibly thin, poised between one place and the next. For a moment, it seemed to stretch to infinity. Then he was borne along on a bright blue ribbon of spellfire that dazzled his eyes and filled his mind with a bright buzzing. Elation filled him. He’d done it! Activated the runestone!
He landed with a jarring thud in knee-deep, icy water that filled his boots and soaked his trouser legs. He staggered sideways and nearly fell. His shoulder struck something hard. Whatever place he’d entered was dimly illuminated by a flickering torchlight that came from behind the enormous pillar into which he’d just staggered. Briefly, he caught a glimpse of a vast room awash with water and filled with dozens of other pillars, each as thick as a centuries-old tree. When he glanced upward, he saw a ceiling covered in stalactites of dark, gooey, dripping slime.
Then the light went out.
A hissing noise like the spray of a waterfall filled his ears, accompanied by a steady, rhythmic pounding. Each thudding beat vibrated his entire body. The air was cold and smelled of wet stone and mildew.
Where was he?
The torchlight-if that’s what it had been-was gone. The only remaining light came from the runestone in his hand. A few sparkles of spellfire clung to it still, bleeding off into the darkness. Then they were gone. He shoved the stone into a pocket. Had that light been a torch, carried by Eralynn?
He cupped his hands to his mouth and shouted, “Eralynn! Are you here?”
He could barely hear his own voice over the steady pounding and constant, hissing spray. He realized the pounding came from inside the nearby pillars, which reverberated like hollow logs struck by a mallet. One of them was cracked down its length; water sprayed from it in a thin sheet. The sheet pulsed in time with the steady pounding, the spray intensifying in force with each beat, splattering onto a nearby pillar. It was covered in crusty white patches of tiny crystals: salt.
Suddenly, Torrin realized he must be in a portion of the Pumps of Pyraddin-a millennia-old marvel of dwarven engineering that drew water from Azulduth Lake, up on the surface. The pumps pushed the water through a series of charcoal beds far below that filtered out the salt. The purified water then ran through a series of bored tunnels for two hundred and fifty leagues, all the way to East Rift. Built when Underhome was first constructed, the pumps had continued to function ever since, and were still a major source of drinking water for Eartheart.
Why had Eralynn come to this place? Assuming she was at the Pumps. Torrin couldn’t see any trace of her.
“Eralynn!” he shouted again.
A flash of motion, to his right. Something plucked at his sleeve and struck the pillar beside him. An arrow or a crossbow bolt! Torrin whirled. He squinted his right eye shut so he could see through the lens of his goggles. Barely visible through the spray, he saw someone crouched low behind a pillar with one arm raised. Black face, white hair. A drow, aiming a wristbow at him!
Torrin ducked behind the pillar. The thudding of the pumps and the hiss of water made it impossible to hear anything, but Torrin saw a second bolt punch through the spray where he’d just been standing. It disappeared into the darkness beyond. Belatedly, he realized that the rush of water had saved him. It had deflected the first bolt just enough for it to miss.
“Marthammor be praised!” Torrin whispered. The god who watched over wayfarers was protecting him.
Torrin was safe-but only for the moment. He wrenched his mace from his belt and readied it, wondering which direction the next attack would come from. The drow had been wearing a cloak over his shoulders, likely one that would render him all but invisible in the darkness. Keeping his back to the pillar, Torrin peered left and right through the one good lens, desperately trying to watch in two directions at once as vibrations from the pillar shuddered through his back.
A ripple to his left alerted him to-the drow, invisible, wading through the water.
“ Thuldnoror! ” Torrin shouted, swinging his mace.
The mace swept through empty space-the drow wasn’t there! — and smashed into a pillar. As the weapon’s magic activated, thunder boomed, louder than the thudding of the pumps. The mace smashed a hole in the pillar, releasing a spray of water. As Torrin wrenched the mace free, cursing, pain stabbed through his right leg. He twisted, and saw the black-fletched end of a wristbow bolt protruding from the back of his thigh. The drow had gotten behind him!
Torrin whirled around, waiting for his opponent to close, but the drow held back. Torrin immediately realized why, as his thigh went numb. Drow sleep poison! His thoughts slowed, and gray spots clouded his vision as it started to take effect.
A short distance away, the smirking drow suddenly became visible, no longer bothering to conceal himself. Torrin lifted his mace. It felt as heavy and as unwieldy as a sack of anvils. As he sloshed toward his assailant, his legs buckled and he fell face-first into the ice-cold water. His mace slipped from his numb fingers. He sank to the floor, completely submerged. Shivers coursed through his body as the water stung his eyes, filled his nose, and clogged his throat. He couldn’t breathe or even cough the water out. The poison had sapped the strength from him, leaving him as weak as a babe.
He was going to drown.
I’ve failed you, Kier, he thought.
Distantly, he felt hands yank at his pack, lifting him partially out of the water. The drow was looting him.
Dwarf… father, Torrin prayed, each thought as heavy as a boulder. I… convey… my… soul…
Torrin felt his body rise and fall, rise and fall. There was the sensation of moving through space, as though he drifted among clouds-cold clouds that chilled him to the core. He must be dead, he thought, his soul detached from its human husk and on its way to Moradin’s realm to be reborn. Had he a voice, he would have laughed bitterly. He was on his way to the Soulforge, but not as he’d intended.
Moradin grant that I be recast as a dwarf, this time around, he prayed.
Someone spoke in a language Torrin didn’t understand. It was a harsh-sounding language, but with melodic overtones.
That was odd. The pain in his leg was odd, too, as was the sensation of something scratchy and hard under his right hip and shoulder. If he were dead, why did it feel as though he still had a body?
Torrin realized he could open his eyes. Rough stone slid past a short distance away. A dull yellow, flickering light illuminated a wall, casting dancing shadows.
A horizontal line bisected Torrin’s field of view-a curved metal edge. He realized he was lying on one of the magical driftdiscs used by the drow. The oversized floating disc moved steadily forward, bobbing slightly.
The white-haired drow who’d shot Torrin walked a pace or two behind, just at the edge of Torrin’s vision. His black skin gave him a natural camouflage against the dark stone of the tunnel they were passing through, yet he was close enough that Torrin could make out details of his face. He looked old; his face was deeply lined.
The drow turned his head, shielded his eyes from the light with one hand, and stared at Torrin. Then he said something in the same language Torrin had just heard.
Torrin fought to marshal his thoughts. They came sluggishly, as though he were still only half awake. That was the drow sleep poison, he knew, from the wristbow bolt. But the drow hadn’t let Torrin die, after all. He’d been pulled from the water. Why?
Torrin’s leg ached. He moved a hand to touch the wound, to feel whether the bolt was still in his leg. His hand fumbled on his goggles, lying on the driftdisc beside him. They reminded him of another mystery. Why would drow be using torches to light their way? The black-skinned elves could see as well in the dark as any dwarf.
Torrin at last touched his wounded thigh, He winced. No bolt protruded from it. Instead, his leg was bandaged. He was naked, he realized. A blanket had been wrapped around his body, covering all but his head. Though his body was dry, his hair and beard were still damp. It had been some time, then, since he’d fallen into the water.
Slowly, by degrees, Torrin eased onto his back and turned his head the other way. He saw two elves, a man and a woman. Their dark skin at first made him think they were drow, but then he realized their skin was deep brown, rather than true black. And their hair was black, rather than white. They had deeply lined faces, too, and the man’s hair was thinning. Torrin would have guessed their age at about sixty, had they been human. The two were likely in their second century of life, possibly older. Both wore black trousers and shirts, and high-collared cloaks of the same mottled fabric as the drow’s. The man was armed with a wristbow and had a sword sheathed at his hip; the woman also had a sword at her hip. Carrying a torch in one hand, she led the group.
Between them, a second driftdisc floated along. A dwarf with braided blonde hair lay on her side atop it, her back to Torrin. She was also covered by a blanket, and a backpack lay next to her. Torrin could just see the top of a rune: an elaborate D. A delver’s pack!
“Eralynn?” Torrin said weakly.
The blonde head turned. Slowly. “Torrin,” she said. She closed her eyes and sighed. In a weak voice, she added, “You shouldn’t have followed me.”
“What…” Torrin coughed, clearing his throat. He glanced again at the strange, dark-skinned elves. “What’s happening?”
Eralynn rolled over to face him. One hand emerged from beneath the blanket. The fingers were curled tight, the skin gray. It looked more like a rock than a hand. The only way Torrin would have recognized it as Eralynn’s was by the veins of blue spellfire that crackled across it.
Torrin felt as though a cold fist had just squeezed his heart. “You’ve got the stoneplague,” he said.
“Yes,” Eralynn replied, letting her hand fall. It thudded down onto the driftdisc.
“And these… drow?” Torrin asked. “Who are they?”
“Friends,” Eralynn said. She rolled onto her back, grunting, obviously in pain. “They’re helping me get to Sundasz.”
Torrin felt less woozy. He rose slightly, propping himself up on one elbow on the driftdisc. He saw his own pack near his feet, together with his wet clothes and boots. “Helping you how?” he asked, still not quite believing what was happening.
The drow were their sworn enemies, a brutal race who worshipped evil gods and were perpetually at war with the dwarves. They’d swarmed into what remained of Underhome like cockroaches after the collapse of the Great Rift, slaughtering women and babes. They were foul and cruel and could be trusted even less than demons.
And yet the drow who’d shot Torrin hadn’t let him drown, nor had he and his two companions slit his throat. Instead they had bound his wound and wrapped him in a warm blanket. And they were carrying him somewhere.
“They’re going to cure me,” Eralynn said, at last mustering the strength to answer Torrin’s question. Her eyes were closed, her expression strained. Torrin could see that speaking was difficult for her. She struggled to draw breath.
“But they’re drow!” Torrin protested. He spotted his mace, down by his boots. Before he could even think of how he’d reach for it without being noticed, a hand roughly shoved him flat.
“No lift up, you,” the dark-skinned elf with the sword said in heavily accented Dwarvish. He was walking beside the driftdisc, his wristbow pointed at Torrin. Still keeping a watchful eye on Torrin, he spoke in his own language to the woman. She answered him with a flick of her hand, the silent speech used by the drow. The man’s nostrils flared. He lowered his wristbow and fell back into place behind the driftdisc.
“We were once drow, it’s true,” the woman said.
Torrin blinked in surprise. Her Dwarvish was flawless.
“For us, the Descent was undone,” she continued. “A few hundred of us-those without taint-returned to our original forms a century ago. We are Miyeritari once more.”
Torrin had no idea what she was talking about. “Who are you?” he asked. “Your name, I mean.”
“Val’tissa, priestess of Corellon,” the woman replied. She lifted a pendant that hung against her chest, showing him. It was an eight-pointed silver star-the holy symbol of the elf god. A second pendant also hung against her chest-a miniature silver sword, tarnished black. Torrin had no idea what it signified.
“Where are you taking us?” he asked.
The woman paused, as if considering whether to answer. “To the temple in Sundasz,” she said. “Your friend needs healing.”
Torrin felt a stab of jealousy. When Eralynn had fallen ill with the stoneplague, why hadn’t she come to him for help? Instead she’d done what she always did and stubbornly gone off on her own. To drow, of all people. Or rather, to dark-skinned elves who had once been drow, if Val’tissa was to be believed.
“Corellon’s clerics already tried their healing rituals,” Torrin told her. “They didn’t work.”
“Ours are different,” Val’tissa replied.
“Some of us still remember the old ways. The songdance will succeed where other rituals have failed.”
“What’s a songdance? I’ve never heard of it.”
“It is ancient,” Val’tissa said. “Not commonly practiced, anymore.”
Torrin touched the cloth bandage on his leg. The bolt wound still ached, but when he worked a finger under the bandage, he felt puckered skin, rather than a fresh wound. “Did you heal me?” he asked.
Val’tissa nodded. “Eralynn insisted on it.”
The drow walking beside Torrin’s driftdisc said something in his own language, a growl of anger in his voice.
“Tzoth wanted to kill you,” Val’tissa said. “Especially after you barged in on us like that, and tried to kill him.”
“He shot at me!” Torrin protested.
“He aimed for the arm, then for the leg,” she said. “Non-vital spots. We were going to render you senseless and leave you where you were, but out of the water, so you wouldn’t drown. But Eralynn recognized you, and said you were her friend. She urged us to bring you along.” Val’tissa shrugged. “It’s her decision. If she wants us to drag you along, that’s up to her.”
They were climbing a slope. At the top, the drow said something to the two dark elves. Coin changed hands. The drow departed the way they’d just come, slipping off into the darkness.
“Imyr,” Val’tissa said, catching the other dark elf’s eye. Torrin guessed that to be his name. Val’tissa spoke quietly, and her companion moved to the side of Eralynn’s driftdisc. Then he pulled the blanket up over Eralynn’s head.
Torrin sat bolt upright, causing his driftdisc to bob up and down. “What are you doing?” he cried. “Is she…”
“She sleeps,” Val’tissa said. “Now be silent. Say nothing that will give Eralynn’s condition away, or the dwarves will panic. If anyone asks, your leg was broken in a fall from a ledge, and Eralynn died of a broken neck after falling while trying to rescue you. Now lie still, and pretend to be in pain. Say nothing of the stoneplague.”
Torrin chafed at the blunt instructions, but did as she suggested. He lay back down on the driftdisc, allowing himself to be borne along. If Eralynn had arranged matters-and there was no reason to believe she hadn’t-he didn’t want to spoil whatever chance of healing the strange elves could offer. Perhaps they would succeed, where all others had failed.
They emerged into a wide canyon whose high walls had been carved into a series of switchback stairs punctuated by balconies-the settlement of Sundasz. Windows, some filled with soft yellow candlelight, dotted the canyon walls. Far overhead, the canyon closed to a narrow crack, through which Torrin could see the starry night sky. A warm breeze blew down from above, carrying the smell of woodland. Closer at hand, the air smelled of coal smoke.
A handful of dwarves made their way back and forth across the canyon floor. Others were climbing or descending the stairways, or could be seen through the windows, inside the residences above. As the dark elves made their way through the canyon, Torrin spotted people of other races: humans, some fair-skinned elves, more than one person who was an obvious mix of elf and human, even a tiefling or two. Though several people turned to stare at Torrin and sadly shook their heads at the driftdisc that held Eralynn’s “corpse,” no one seemed at all surprised to see the two dark elves in their settlement.
Val’tissa and Imyr continued across the canyon floor to one of the staircases, with the two driftdiscs floating between them. It was a long climb up the stair. Close to the top, they turned into an arched tunnel just wide enough to accommodate the discs. From there, they entered a wider corridor, ascended a broad flight of stairs flanked by an intricate mosaic of a forest, and at last passed through stout wooden doors into a cavern open to the sky.
The canyon walls were thick with ferns. A grove of oak trees wove their branches together high overhead into a natural lattice through which the stars peeped. Torrin smelled dew-wet grass and night-blooming flowers. The dark elves made their way to a white marble statue that gleamed in the moonlight. The statue was of a tall, thin elf wearing armor and carrying a shield. The elf’s face looked both male and female. It was Corellon Larethian, high lord of the elf gods.
Val’tissa gestured. The disc carrying Eralynn drifted to the statue and settled on the grass at the god’s feet. Imyr sent Torrin’s driftdisc slowly to the ground nearby.
“Up now, you,” he told Torrin. “Clothes and pack.”
Torrin rose and pulled on his shirt and trousers. After the long ride on the driftdisc, he felt as though he were still rising and falling, even though he stood on solid ground. As he fastened his belt and tied his mace to it, he watched as Val’tissa kneeled beside Eralynn. “Is she… alive still?” he asked, a catch in his voice.
Val’tissa gently pulled the blanket down from Eralynn’s face. It looked gray in the moonlight. “She lives,” Val’tissa said as she stood. “We will perform the ritual as soon as we are ready. Go with Imyr. He will take you to one of the local inns. We will send word to you there, once Eralynn has been healed.”
Imyr touched Torrin’s shoulder, but Torrin shrugged his hand off. “I’m staying,” Torrin protested. “Right here, with Eralynn.”
“The spellsong is a secret ritual,” Val’tissa said, gesturing at the forest. “We normally would not have allowed someone who’s not one of the faithful to come even this far. But we made an exception this night, for Eralynn’s sake. She and I have known each other for many years, ever since she saved my life-something few other dwarves would have done. I always said I’d repay her, if I could. Tonight I shall honor that promise.”
Again, Torrin felt a stab of hurt. Eralynn had known these dark elves for years, and had never once told him? All that time, he’d thought he was her shield brother, that she would confide anything to him. He’d been wrong. She was even more of a loner than he’d thought.
“Now leave her,” Val’tissa said. “And know that she’s in Corellon’s hands.”
“All right, I’ll go,” Torrin said. “But there’s something you need to know before you attempt your ritual. The stoneplague isn’t a disease.”
“How do you know this?” Val’tissa asked. “That’s not what Eralynn told me.”
“She left before we discovered the true cause.”
Torrin hesitated. Should he tell her the truth?
He thought back to what the Lord Scepter had said to him on the staircase. The Deep Lords had acted sagely when they’d kept secret the reason why gold was suddenly being confiscated. Letting the general populace know that gold was the source of the stoneplague would indeed have thrown the city into panic, despite the natural stoicism of the dwarf race. What’s more, it would have opened the door for unscrupulous rogues to buy gold-especially cursed gold-at a fraction of its value. Gold that would later come back into circulation, spreading the stoneplague once more. And should people learn the unwitting role Sharindlar’s temples had played in the spread of the disease, clerics like Maliira would be in danger.
All that meant there was a need for secrecy. Yet the Lord Scepter hadn’t ordered Torrin to remain silent. Instead, he’d set him free to do as he saw fit, just as he’d freed the star in his prophetic dream.
Torrin glanced at Eralynn’s gray face. If it would help, he decided, he’d speak. Her life wasn’t the only one hanging in the balance. Kier needed a cure, as did hundreds, perhaps even thousands of others.
“A curse caused the stoneplague,” Torrin began. “A curse that was placed on gold.” He told the dark elf about the gold bars from the earthmote, and the unusual way in which the “stoneplague” had spread throughout Eartheart, a pattern of infection unlike any regular disease. He paused at that point, loathe to reveal how Sharindlar’s clerics had inadvertently exposed supplicants to the gold, but after a moment’s hesitation he plunged on. He would tell all, he decided. Eralynn’s life might depend upon it. He wound up by describing the experiment Wylfrid had performed, describing the way the gold foil had pulsed with red, and the strange black pattern that looked like veins he’d seen through the tube.
“Thank you for that information,” Val’tissa said. “But curse or plague, with Corellon’s blessing, our spellsong will remove Eralynn’s affliction.”
Though far from certain, Torrin nodded.
“Now go,” Val’tissa said. “I’ll send word when we’re done. But know that it may take some time. The rest of the night, at least.”
Torrin saw movement in the forest. About a dozen other women, dark elves like Val’tissa, moved toward them through the trees. Val’tissa called out a greeting in drow, and they answered.
Once again, Imyr took Torrin’s shoulder, his grip firm.
Torrin let the dark elf lead him away from the statue. Away from Eralynn.
Torrin glanced back at her, lying so still under that blanket. As he left, he whispered a fervent prayer to Moradin, begging the god to permit one of his own to be healed by those strange, dark elves.
“Truth, like gold, is to be found by washing away from it all that is not gold.”
Torrin was tired of waiting. For the remainder of the night, he’d sat in the inn, nursing an ale and using it as an excuse to nod off at his table and get some much-needed rest. Fortunately, the barkeep hadn’t thrown him out. Unfortunately, Imyr hadn’t yet returned to tell him how the spellsong had gone, and whether Eralynn had been cured. Torrin had eventually tried to return to the grove-filled cavern, but its doors were locked, and none of the people he’d spoken to had known how to contact Val’tissa. Torrin had considered trying to force his way in, but decided against it. With Eralynn’s life hanging in the balance, he didn’t want to anger the dark elf clerics.
Torrin restlessly walked the canyon floor of Sundasz, watching the orange-pink light of dawn filter down through the fissure that led to the surface. Several of the doors he passed had the hourglass-shaped rune for Q painted on them, and the distinctive smell of the stoneplague leaked out from behind them. As before, there were few people out on the main thoroughfares. Most were likely cowering in their residences, fearful of the stoneplague.
Torrin needed a way to pass the time, something that would occupy his fretting mind.
Absently, he touched the coin pouch that hung at his belt. It held few coins-that was why he’d been forced to doze in the inn’s taproom, rather than in a soft bed-but it did hold something even more precious: the runestone that had conveyed him to Eralynn. What with the stoneplague, Torrin had set aside his quest to find the Soulforge. But with time on his hands and desperately needing something else to think about, perhaps it was time to pluck at that thread.
The Delvers didn’t have a chapter in Sundasz, but the settlement did have a library dedicated to the scholar god Dugmaren Brightmantle, the patron deity of Delvers. Poking through its texts would keep Torrin’s mind occupied. He made his way there.
The library was deep inside one of the canyon walls, at the bottom of a spiral staircase. Its low ceiling forced Torrin to stoop as he entered a room containing a marble statue of Dugmaren Brightmantle. The god was seated cross-legged atop a runestone, staring down as if reading it. One finger pointed to the word “truth.”
“May my wanderings bring me wisdom,” Torrin intoned as he bowed to the statue. As he crossed the room, he bent down to stroke the edge of the runestone on which the god sat. His fingers slid along a groove worn by countless other hands.
The entrance to the main part of the library was a diamond-shaped doorway. The inscription framing it emitted a low hiss of magic-a ward that prevented visitors from removing the texts. The doorway opened into a large, hexagonal room with a high ceiling, illuminated by magically glowing spheres of light that bobbed in mid-air. The room smelled of old leather, dust, and ink. The outer walls were lined with tall wooden bookshelves and rolling ladders to access the books and scrolls written by humans and elves, shelved up high. Lower down were drawers that held the baked-clay tablets preferred by dwarves. A second floor-to-ceiling hexagonal arrangement of shelves stood just inside the first, and a third inside that. Narrow openings pierced the shelves, none much higher than a dwarf’s head, connecting each hexagonal aisle to the next, and on into the heart of the library.
Torrin wandered along the outermost aisle, getting a sense of how it was organized. Or rather, disorganized. Books were stacked haphazardly on the floor, in towering piles that threatened to tumble over as Torrin squeezed past. A runic tablet clattered as Torrin accidentally kicked it. Like the rest of Sundasz, the library was a disorderly place. Torrin had no idea which section might hold the texts dealing with earth nodes and teleportation rituals.
He heard a murmuring, deeper in the library. He bent down to peer through one of the openings that led to the center of the room and saw three figures seated on stools around a hexagonal table. Two were dwarves, but the third was too tall, judging by the way the knees bumped up against the underside of the table.
One of the tallfolk, at Dugmaren Brightmantle’s library? That boded well-the two dwarves likely wouldn’t question Torrin’s presence, either. Crouching, he made his way to the center of the room.
One of the dwarves was a cleric of Dugmaren Brightmantle. He wore the order’s distinctive bright purple sash and a silver pendant in the shape of an open book. He was elderly, with sparse white hair, and his beard was tucked into a beard bag. Gold rings adorned several of his ink-stained fingers. He briefly glanced at Torrin, then returned his attention to the book he was reading.
The second dwarf had the look of an adventurer with his frayed clothes and weather-stained knapsack. He was younger, with unruly black hair and a short beard with at least two-dozen braids that twisted at odd angles from his cheeks and chin, like rearing snakes. He had several maps spread across the table in front of him. As Torrin approached, he pulled one of them over a section of the largest map, as if he didn’t want Torrin to see what he’d been looking at.
“Greetings,” Torrin said to the dwarves. “Are either of you Delvers, by any chance?”
Snake-beard stared at Torrin’s beard, with its tinkling silver hammers. “Who wants to know?” he asked.
“Torrin Ironstar,” Torrin replied. He turned slightly, so that they could see the D on his own backpack. “Member in good standing of the Order of Delvers, Eartheart chapter. I’m looking for information on earth nodes. Can you tell me what section of the library holds texts on that subject?”
Snake-beard responded by narrowing his eyes. He nudged the top sheaf of vellum a little further over the map he’d been studying. “Find it yourself.”
Torrin felt his face flush. Such rudeness from a fellow dwarf!
“Aisle one, right two, third shelf from the bottom,” the third man at the table said.
Torrin turned. The speaker was yet another dark elf. Sundasz was thick with them, it seemed. The fellow was tall and thin, even for an elf, with tightly kinked hair that stood out from his scalp in a steel gray fuzz. He was dressed in a black robe with thread-of-silver embroidery that kept shifting from one geometric pattern to the next: a wizard’s magical robe. He had a number of runic tablets spread out on the table, but instead of reading them he kept rearranging them, sliding them back and forth across the table. He slid one midway between the others and spoke a word in what sounded like High Drow. The tablet rose into the air and started to spin. The dark elf stared at it, nodding and muttering to himself.
Torrin stared at him. Had he, like Val’tissa and Imyr, once been drow? Torrin’s hackles rose; he’d have to be careful around the fellow.
The cleric glanced up from his book. “You can trust Zarifar,” he said. “He’s as close to a bibliothecary as we’ve got.”
“Are you serious?” Torrin asked incredulously. He could understand the tallfolk races patronizing the library, perhaps even serving as its unofficial bibliothecary. They were in Sundasz, after all. But not someone of a race that-if Val’tissa was to believed-had once been drow.
Still staring at the spinning tablet, the dark elf flicked his fingers in a complex gesture.
This way, a voice whispered from a different exit. Torrin blinked in surprise, then realized the dark elf wizard had created the magical voice. This way, it said again.
Torrin swallowed down his distrust. If one of Dugmaren Brightmantle’s clerics vouched for the dark elf, that bode well.
Torrin ducked through the exit and followed the whispering voice to a section of the library in the outermost aisle. It led him to the second wall to the right of the main entrance, then faded away. There he found a handful of texts with titles like Magical Pathways of Faerun and Forces of the Four Elements. A leather-bound volume of the Delver’s Tome — the one dealing primarily with wayfinding and mapmaking-was also in the section, shelved separately from the rest of that great work. Torrin picked it up as well. As he did so, a couple of smaller books tumbled from the same shelf. Torrin put one of them carefully back into place, but couldn’t find the second. It was lost, he presumed, somewhere in the jumble on the floor.
Torrin gathered up an armful of scrolls and books, balancing the tablets he’d chosen on top, and returned to the center of the library. He placed the pile opposite the suspicious black-bearded dwarf. Torrin didn’t want to rile him further.
The dark elf lowered the spinning tablet. Then he drew glowing lines across the tabletop, and Torrin could detect the faint smell of charring wood. It drew a stern look from the cleric, who tsk-tsked and shook his head. The dark elf ignored him. The cleric half rose from his stool, then sat down again, as if deciding that chastising a wizard wasn’t a good idea. Snake-beard rolled up the map he’d been concealing from Torrin and shoved it under one arm. He slunk away down one of the aisles, grumbling.
Torrin tried to concentrate on his reading, but couldn’t. The wizard had snuffed out the glowing lines with a wave of his hand, and was holding up each of the tablets in turn and striking it with a tuning fork. The soft ping, ping, ping sound was exasperating, especially after a night of little sleep and much worry.
“Do you mind?” Torrin blurted out.
The wizard stared at him without blinking, saying nothing.
The cleric’s head jerked up. He glanced back and forth between Torrin and the wizard. Then he eased his chair back from the table, its wooden legs scraping the stone floor, and looked as if he were getting ready to leave. Torrin suddenly wondered if interrupting the wizard had been a healthy thing to do.
“Mind,” the dark elf repeated. He cocked his head to the side and lifted his left hand. Torrin shied back, but the wizard didn’t touch him. Instead, he pointed with a slender finger at the Ironstar symbol on the bracers Torrin wore.
“Your mind matches that mark,” he said in a soft voice.
Torrin blinked. “I… I am a dwarf, it’s true,” he said. He leaned forward. “You could sense that?”
The wizard’s fingers traced a star in the air. “Patterns,” he said.
The cleric snorted. Relaxing once more, he returned his attention to his reading.
The wizard touched the bracer on Torrin’s left arm, his finger briefly tracing the groove that had been gouged into the iron during Torrin and Eralynn’s scramble to get away from the red dragon. “Patterns,” he repeated.
Torrin inclined his head in a bow. “Torrin Ironstar,” he said, introducing himself a second time. “And you are…?”
“Zarifar,” the wizard replied, nodding at the tablets he’d been playing with. “A geomancer.”
Torrin hesitated. He was loath to trust a former drow, yet the wizard who studied earth magic might be able to tell him a few things. And for all Torrin knew, the Morndinsamman had caused their paths to cross. “Do you mind if I ask you some questions?” he asked.
The dark elf gave a vague wave of his hand. Torrin hoped that it meant yes. “What do you know about earth nodes?” he asked.
Zarifar smiled. “Everything.”
“How do they work?” asked Torrin. “How do they allow people to teleport, I mean.”
“You mean why do they work,” the wizard said. He stared across the room, as if looking at something far beyond it. “The lines. The angles they form where they cross. It’s all… in the numbers. The equations, the formulae. The vertex, and how the chords of the circle and the tangential lines align.”
The cleric chuckled and caught Torrin’s eye. “You’re sorry you asked, I’ll wager,” he said.
Torrin ignored him. “Could you explain that again, in lay terms?” he asked.
“I was a teacher once, you know,” Zarifar said. “At the College of Ancient Arcana, in Sshamath.”
The drow city. Torrin struggled to keep the distaste from his expression. He needed information from Zarifar.
Torrin was setting aside his principles a lot lately. But it was for the greater good. He might learn something from the wizard that would help Kier-help everyone. Surely Moradin would understand.
“What I want to know,” Torrin told the wizard, “is how to more reliably activate the teleportation magic of an earth node. I find that sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. Could that be due to a warding ritual, or some magical device that blocks teleportation, carried by the person I’m trying to teleport to?”
The cleric spoke again. “So now you’re a wizard, as well as a Delver?”
“I’m no wizard,” Torrin answered over his shoulder. “Although I am a dwarf. But that’s another tale.”
The cleric chuckled and set his book down, giving Torrin his full attention. “This gets better and better,” he said.
“I hoped to find the answer in these texts,” Torrin said, gesturing at the stack of books in front of him, “but the solution still eludes me. I was hoping that you might offer some suggestions. You must know a thing or two about teleportation.”
“Doors within doors,” Zarifar said. He placed his palms, fingers spread, each touching their counterpart on the opposite hand. “The patterns must match precisely. If they don’t-” he shifted one hand slightly, so his fingers were no longer lined up “-there’s only emptiness where an alignment should be.”
Torrin nodded respectfully. He already knew about the linked portals wizards could create: how the runes around each of the circles had to be inscribed in exactly the right order, using the same color of chalk, to forge a link from one to the next. But he was no wizard.
“What I want to know is this,” he continued. “Supposing someone wasn’t a wizard, but he had a magical device that could activate an earth node’s magic, and allow him to teleport? Could he go anywhere he wanted, or would the destination have to meet certain conditions?”
“You have such a device?” the cleric asked, his eyes glittering.
Torrin hesitated. If the fellow had been anything other than a cleric of the Delver’s patron god, Torrin might have hesitated. But he was a fellow dwarf, and one of the brotherhood. Torrin could trust him.
The cleric obviously sensed Torrin’s hesitation. He introduced himself. “Rathorn Battlehammer, son of Horatio Battlehammer and grandson of Rornathoin the Third,” he said. “A pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
“Torrin Ironstar,” Torrin repeated, clasping the cleric’s arm in the traditional dwarven greeting. “And no, I don’t have such a device-but I know of one.”
Rathorn chuckled. “No need for subterfuge,” he told Torrin. “As I said before, you can trust Zarifar. He’s no rogue, and he’s as honorable as any of the stout folk. I swear it, by the gleam in Dugmaren’s eye.” He touched the holy symbol that hung about his neck.
Torrin took a deep breath. “All right, then,” he said, after one last wary glance at the wizard. “Yes, I have such a device.” He pulled the runestone from his pouch and showed it to the cleric.
Rathorn studied it a moment, then pushed it back to Torrin. “Interesting. But Zarifar knows more about these things than I do, though I am chagrined to admit it.”
Zarifar started to reach for the runestone.
“It also draws spellfire,” Torrin warned.
The wizard’s hand jerked to a stop. He sat back, leaving the runestone where it was.
“But only when it’s in an earth node,” Torrin continued.
“Spellfire,” Zarifar said softly. He moved one finger back and forth across the table in a seemingly aimless fashion, mumbling to himself in a low voice, speaking in drow. He stared dreamily up at the ceiling.
Torrin waited while the wizard mused.
“Not possible,” Zarifar said abruptly, his hand jerking to a halt.
“What isn’t?” asked Torrin.
Zarifar traced lines across the table with his finger, each line ending at the tablet he’d spun in the air earlier. “Magic follows lines,” he said. “Spellfire…” He lifted his hand suddenly from the table and waggled his fingers. “Does not.”
Torrin gritted his teeth.
Rathorn chuckled. “What Zarifar means is that the lines of magical energy that come together at the locations we call ‘earth nodes’ each run along a fixed course through the earth,” he explained. “Spellfire, on the other hand, is wild magic that can neither be constrained nor channelled. It explodes into this realm at random, disfiguring flesh and grossly distorting spells. It is a force of chaos, and as such would be utterly antithetical to the tightly controlled and constrained magic of an earth node. That’s what Zarifar is trying to say-isn’t that right, Zarifar?”
The mage nodded down at one of the runestones on the table. “Order,” he said, flipping it over, blank side up. “Disorder.” Then he paused, and stared hard at the back of the tablet. “And yet… patterns, within the grain of the stone itself.” He seemed to have forgotten that Torrin was even there. He flipped the tablet faceup again and mumbled to himself.
“Yet channelling spellfire is possible,” Torrin insisted. He thought of the blue fire that crackled through Eralynn’s hands. “The spellscarred do it all the time when they work their magic. Why couldn’t a magical runestone do the same?”
“Impossible,” Rathorn said. He was obviously one of those dwarves whose tightly tied beliefs were impossible to unknot. “Next you’ll be telling me it’s possible to wring water from a stone.”
Torrin smiled and said, “Funny you should say that.” He lifted his pack and pulled out a stone he’d collected from Araumycos, long before he became a Delver. He carried the stone around with him still, as a souvenir. It was about the size of a walnut, and porous, like volcanic rock. Torrin shook it, then held it above the table. A dribble of water trickled out-more water than the holes alone could have held. The water puddled on the table and dribbled down onto the floor, prompting a frown from Rathorn.
Zarifar’s attention was immediately captured. “A rock gourd,” he said.
Torrin nodded. It was one area of geomancy in which he was well versed. “Rock gourds are valuable, if they’re large enough,” he said. “Kind of like a never-empty waterskin. But this one’s hardly big enough to quench a mouse’s thirst. Still, the point is made.”
Rathorn folded his book shut. His cheeks were pink above the beard bag. He stood. “That’s enough for me,” he said. “Good night, Zarifar.”
The dark elf didn’t answer. He was still staring at the rock gourd, his lips moving silently as he counted the drops falling from it. One finger moved downward, drip by drip, as he traced their fall.
“Good night, Delver Torrin,” the cleric added. “And… good luck with your quest for knowledge.” With that, Rathorn took his leave.
Torrin scrambled to his feet and bowed. He realized he’d embarrassed the cleric, for which he was sorry. But lately, it seemed even dwarf clerics didn’t have all the answers. As Rathorn left, Torrin turned back to the dark elf, who’d fallen silent.
Zarifar stared off into space, one hand idly playing with the tablet he’d been spinning earlier. “It just might be possible,” he said.
“What?” Torrin asked.
“Channelling spellfire,” replied the drow. He nodded at the runestone. “Grooves cut deep in stone expose the patterns within. Spellfire could leak into them and flow, like water through a trough. But only if the caster dug deep.” He pointed at Torrin’s chest. “Deep inside himself.”
Torrin stood for a moment, lost in thought. “Emotion?” he guessed.
So that was what triggered the runestone’s magic when it was within an earth node. Strong emotion. The first time, it had been Torrin’s fear and his desperate need to be safe, to be home. The second time, it had been his concern about Eralynn. But the runestone hadn’t worked when he’d tried to find Vadyr, despite the fact that Torrin’s hatred for him smoldered. That emotion should have been enough to carry Torrin past any magical wards the rogue had surrounded himself with. Yet it hadn’t.
That mystery notwithstanding, Torrin was making progress. The Dwarffather himself, it would seem, had steered him to Sundasz, the library, and a meeting with the strange dark elf. For that, Torrin gave praise. He was one step further along the path that he hoped would save Kier.
Zarifar yawned. He pushed his stool back from the table, as though getting ready to leave.
“I have one more question,” Torrin said hurriedly. “If you’ll indulge me?”
Zarifar had half-risen, but the stones seemed to catch his attention once more. He sat down again and began lining them up in a column, largest to smallest.
“When I used the runestone and it drew spellfire,” Torrin said, “something else happened. Gold dripped from the ceiling of the earth node cavern. The first time, there was an explanation. A red dragon was attacking, and I assumed its breath had melted a vein of gold. But the second time I used the runestone, gold also dripped from the ceiling. What might have caused that?”
“Gold,” Zarifar said, not looking up. His finger traced a line through the water left on the table by the rock gourd, dragging a wet smear across the wood. “Molten gold. Flowing. Spellfire, flowing. Patterns atop patterns.”
Abruptly, Zarifar tapped the wet finger against one of the books Torrin had taken from the stacks. “This one,” he said. “Page two hundred and sixty-four.” He pushed the tablets he’d aligned into an untidy pile and stood. Before Torrin could protest, he exited the center of the library and was gone, leaving without so much as a farewell.
Torrin picked up the book the wizard had indicated. It was a small book, its leather binding flaking with age. It was titled Moradin’s Mysteries and had a hammer and anvil, symbols of the Dwarffather, embossed on the cover.
Torrin frowned. He didn’t remember pulling it from the stacks.
He opened the book carefully. The vellum pages were loose in their bindings, spotted with age, and musty smelling. Several were missing, and others were hanging by their binding threads. Page two hundred and sixty-four was still there, but was loose. The page began with one of the standard prayers to Moradin, written in Auld Dethek. The runes were scribed in a small cramped hand that made them difficult to read. Torrin had to decipher the prayer rune by rune. Grant me the strength of heart, O Moradin, to do something good this day. Something useful, something of lasting worth… Torrin knew the prayer by heart; he said it every morning. He skipped past it, to the bottom of the page. What was written there immediately caught his attention.
One of the lesser known wonders by which Moradin makes his blessings manifest upon Faerun is the River of Gold. Glory to those who cross its ever-changing path! For not only shall they bask in Moradin’s presence, but shall be rewarded with riches the like of which have not been seen on Faerun since the coming of our people to this Realm! But beware, treasure seekers, the River of Gold is a difficult vein to tap. Use only stone vessels to draw from its current, for it melts all base metals that come in contact with it.
Torrin paused, thinking. A river of molten gold? He’d had never heard of such a thing. Gold might be melted by proximity to a volcano, perhaps-or by the breath of a red dragon, or by spellfire-but once it flowed away from the source of the heat, it cooled and hardened. It didn’t keep flowing through all the earth like a river. That wasn’t possible. Or was it?
He leaned forward to read on, his arms crossed. His right hand rested atop his left bracer, his fingers picking at the groove in it. The groove wasn’t sharp-edged, but smooth, like a line traced through sand. A groove made by flowing water.
Or by flowing gold?
He thought back to the piece of hardened gold he’d plucked from his scorched sleeve. Had it come from the River of Gold?
He picked up the magical runestone, the hairs on the back of his neck shivering erect. He could almost feel the Dwarffather standing beside him, watching. Waiting.
He was on to something-something important. Another piece of the puzzle that the dream-Moradin had urged him to unearth. He placed the runestone back on the table and read on eagerly.
No map exists of the River of Gold, nor will it ever be found in the same location twice. It flows as the Dwarffather wills. It ever must be hunted anew, in the deepest and most remote regions of the earth. It alters course continually, from channel to channel, following the magical conduits that were forged, eons ago, at the time the gods themselves first took form. Some runemasters claim to be able to direct its flow, to temporarily pull…
There, the text ended, at the bottom of the page. The page that should have followed was missing-as were fully a dozen other pages. They’d been deliberately removed, by the look of it. The threads that had held the signature in place were cleanly cut, and there was a small nick at the inside edge of the page that followed, likely made when the signature was cut free.
Torrin flipped pages, hoping to find another reference to the mysterious River of Gold, but the rest of the book contained only prayers and notes on caverns of great natural beauty. Nor was there any mention of earth nodes, or, for that matter, of the Soulforge. Just that one cryptic reference to a river of molten gold that flowed through the earth in a constantly shifting vein.
A vein that could, he was willing to wager, be “pulled” to any spot on Faerun by the runestone that lay on the table in front of him.
Torrin stared at the runes carved into the stone. “Earth magic,” they read. The runestone, he decided, must act like a lodestone, drawing not one but two sets of magical “filings” to it: the wild magic of spellfire, and the River of Gold. But only, it would seem, when it was activated within the magical lines of force that crisscrossed Faerun and converged to form earth nodes.
Any other dwarf might immediately have turned his thoughts to the limitless wealth the runestone could convey. Torrin, however, was delving deeper than that.
He thought about what he’d learned so far.
Someone-likely some enemy of the dwarves-had invoked the powerful curse that caused the stoneplague. That curse might have been placed on any object. Copper coins, for example, would have been a better choice, since they’d guarantee a wide and rapid distribution throughout the dwarf settlements. Yet the spellcaster had chosen the noblest metal of all. Why?
The answer might be as simple as the fact that dwarves coveted gold, something the caster of the curse would have in abundance. Armed with the runestone and the missing pages from the book, the spellcaster had called the River of Gold, tapped it, and cast the gold into bars, before fouling them with the curse.
Kendril, the dwarf Torrin had purchased the runestone from, was likely the one who’d removed the pages from the book. His brother had mentioned that Kendril came to Sundasz to study after their falling-out. Kendril had been a cleric at the time; he would have had an interest in such texts. The prospect of wealth without limit must have tempted him. And somehow, the secret Kendril had uncovered in that book wound up in the hands of the person who’d cursed the gold. Later, after Kendril realized the use the pages had been put to, he’d felt remorse for his role in creating the stoneplague. But instead of reporting what he’d done, he’d stolen the runestone and sold it, so that his own clan might be saved.
Given Kendril’s affliction, he was probably an unwitting pawn, unaware until it was too late that a curse had been placed upon the gold. Which explained Kendril’s deep remorse. A dwarf, Torrin knew, would never willingly condemn his race to so dire a fate.
Vadyr, as well, was likely only a minion of whoever had cursed the gold. If he’d been powerful enough to invoke a ritual capable of producing so strong a curse, he would have used magic to lay Torrin low, not a rogue’s sap.
There was someone else-some powerful wizard-lurking in the shadows behind those two. Torrin was certain of it.
That was all well and good, but it still left Torrin wondering what to do next. The puzzle, like the one Frivaldi had challenged Torrin to solve, seemed no closer to a solution, despite the fact that more than one link had just fallen into place.
One thing was certain, however. Torrin’s runestone was a lot more valuable than he’d thought. Literally priceless, since using it could make a person wealthy beyond even the greediest prospector’s wildest dreams.
He idly gave the runestone a twist, and listened to it rasp against the tabletop as it spun. Which direction next, he wondered? Back to the Wyrmcaves or some other earth node, to try once more to teleport to Vadyr? On to Helmstar to make enquiries about Kendril, to see whom he’d associated with there? Whatever course of action Torrin embarked upon next, he’d have to be as stealthy as a rogue, even with the brooch the Lord Scepter had given him pinned inside his shirt. As soon as word got out of the runestone’s capabilities-which it surely would given that Torrin had told Zarifar about it-Vadyr wouldn’t be the only rogue going after it.
That raised a question. Why hadn’t other rogues tried to grab the runestone? Surely the wizard who’d invoked the curse had enough gold to hire every rogue on Faerun, and could have sent countless hirelings on Torrin’s trail. The only answer Torrin could think of was that Vadyr must have gotten greedy. Rather than telling his master the location of the runestone, he’d made a grab for it himself.
If that was what had happened, whoever had cast the curse might not know about Torrin yet.
Dumathoin grant that it stays that way, Torrin thought.
He caught the spinning stone, halted it, then spun it in the other direction. Caught it, and spun it again the other way, watching its shadow wobble across the tabletop. Caught it and…
Suddenly, he realized the answer.
“Of course,” he said, grinning at himself for sounding like Zarifar. “The opposite direction.”
He tucked the runestone into his pack, where it would be safer, and hurriedly departed from the library.
“Better an ounce of happiness than a pound of gold.”
Torrin counted out the last of his coins onto the merchant’s counter. He had just enough to buy wayfarer’s bread and a round of cheese. Behind him, he heard a woman calling his name. He turned and saw Val’tissa striding through the market toward him. The dark elf wove her way through the stalls heaped with truffles, dried apples, cured meats, and bags of spice, skirting around the dwarves and tallfolk who crowded the narrow walkways. She moved with the grace of a dancer.
Torrin braced himself as she drew closer. “What news?” he asked.
Val’tissa’s expression was grim. “It was as you feared. Our ritual couldn’t cure her.”
Torrin felt as though ice water had been poured down his back. His hands shook. “Eralynn is…”
Val’tissa said what he couldn’t. “Dead.”
Torrin closed his eyes and wept, tears streaming down his face. Another of his clanfolk, gone! Eralynn had been so certain the dark elf’s magic would save her. But she had died, far from clan and hearth. If only Torrin had more of the ointment Mercuria had sold him, he might have prevented it! He might have kept death at bay, as he’d done with Kier.
He’d been wrong to place his trust in the dark elves.
“I’ll…” He swallowed. Forced the words out. “I’ll take her body home. For…”
For burial, he’d been about to say. But he couldn’t get the words out.
Eralynn’s soul would already be on the Fugue Plain, waiting for Moradin’s messengers to convey her to his realm. There, she would dwell until the time came for her to be reborn. When that time came, her soul would return in a new body forged by the Dwarffather and filled with the breath of life. She’d live again-of that, Torrin was certain. Yet that promise held as little comfort as cold ash. As Eralynn had herself said, Torrin would likely never recognize her, in her next incarnation. And she would not know him.
Torrin wiped his cheeks with the back of one hand. “Take me to her,” he said in a husky voice. “Prayers need to be spoken.”
Val’tissa nodded, as if she’d been expecting that. Together they left the marketplace and made their way through Sundasz to the sacred cavern of Corellon. The sun was overhead, streaming golden light that turned the oak leaves a vibrant green-the color of life budding anew. The beauty of the grove did little to cheer Torrin, however. All he could focus on, as he walked to the statue of the elf god, was Eralynn’s body.
She lay on a bier that Val’tissa and her fellow clerics must have constructed-a platform of living tree roots that had been magically drawn from the earth and woven together. She was on her back, her blonde braids tamed at last and lying neatly across each shoulder. The spellfire that had once crackled across those poor, gnarled hands had fled. Her face, so determined and defiant in life, was stiff and gray in death, her mouth open slightly. Val’tissa had closed the eyes, for which Torrin was grateful. He didn’t think he could bear Eralynn’s reproachful stare-a stare that would demand why he’d not yet found a cure, as he’d sworn to do.
Torrin knelt beside the bier and held his hands above Eralynn’s body, his fists clenched. As Kendril had done on the day Torrin had met with him near Needle Leap, Torrin brought his fists together-hammer on anvil. “Dwarffather, hear my prayer,” he said. “Convey to your realm the soul of this, my fellow Delver. May she bask in the warmth of your forge, may her soul prove to have more about it that is pure than dross, may it prove worthy of being cast anew.”
With his voice cracking at times, he continued the ritual prayer. When it was done, he stood and stared at Eralynn’s pack. It would need to be taken to Eartheart, to Delvemaster Frivaldi-assuming that he too hadn’t also succumbed to the stoneplague. As for her short sword, dagger, and shield, they would need to be conveyed back to Clan Thunsonn’s armories. The one thing that had been Eralynn’s alone was the heart-shaped glass pendant made by her mother.
Torrin lifted the leather thong that held the pendant over Eralynn’s head-carefully, as if Eralynn were sleeping, and he might disturb her. He slipped the thong over his own head and let the pendant fall. It came to rest below the spot in his throat where a painful lump of emotion welled within.
He touched Eralynn’s shoulder. “Goodbye, my shield sister,” he said.
Val’tissa waited a respectful distance away.
“I need to convey her body back to Eartheart for burial,” Torrin said. “And her weapons, and gear. But I’m not sure when I can-”
“No need for haste,” Val’tissa said. She gestured at the bier. “She can rest here until you are ready. We will cast a preservative ritual upon her body.”
Torrin sighed as he said, “Thank you.”
“What will you do now?” Val’tissa asked.
“Find the people who did this,” Torrin said, his jaw clenching as he looked down at his dead friend. “Force them to tell me how the curse can be lifted.”
“How will you do that?” asked the drow.
“I have something that was stolen from them,” he replied. Something they want back. My runestone.” He turned to Val’tissa. “That will be the bait. But I’ll need your help.”
Three days later, Torrin walked into an inn-one of the more opulent in Sundasz-and headed straight for the polished teak bar with its carved griffon heads on the corners. He motioned the barkeep over. “A pint of Samman, if you please,” he said.
The barkeep-a dwarf with close-cropped hair and a single-plait beard that he wore tossed over one shoulder-held a mug under the spigot. Meanwhile, Torrin glanced around the room. The small inn was crowded. Pipe smoke swirled blue against the ceiling, and a fire crackled in a hearth in the far wall. About two dozen patrons, several of them tallfolk, sat at heavy wooden tables. Torrin wondered which of them was the one who’d responded to his offer. The message he’d received-delivered by middlemen-hadn’t provided any details. Any one of the inn’s patrons might be the rogue who’d journeyed from Helmstar to meet Torrin that night.
Val’tissa was also somewhere in the room. Cloaked by invisibility, she’d slipped into the inn behind Torrin. He wondered where she was. Over by the window? Was that rustle of curtains a breeze from outside, or had she brushed against them? Or was she in that blank spot along the wall, next to the door that led to the storeroom?
Torrin continued his covert survey of the room. He was careful to not let his eye linger on any one table overly long, but his “idle” glance was enough to spot the person most likely to be the one he’d come to meet-a half-elf sitting with two dwarves near the fireplace. The three were playing tumblebones at a table heaped with gold coins. Dice clattered, landing between the ale mugs and fluted wine glasses. Laughter and loud groans followed. Clinking coins changed hands, mostly passing from the half-elf to the dwarves.
Elsewhere in the room, other patrons watched from behind their mugs, more than one of them staring greedily at the gold.
Torrin had instructed the middlemen to circulate his offer amongst Sundasz’s rogues, especially any found suddenly spending gold by the handful. The half-elf certainly seemed to fit that description.
“Barkeep!” the half-elf shouted. “Another round of your best for my friends and me. No, make that a round for everyone!” He swept a hand through the air, indicating the rest of the room. The other patrons grinned, raised their mugs in salute, and drained them.
The barkeep hastily thudded Torrin’s ale down on the counter, reached for fresh mugs and glasses, and filled them. Then he carried three to the half-elf’s table and collected payment. The half-elf waved away the change, and the barkeep bowed his thanks. There was a big smile on his face as he returned to the bar, obviously pleased with the large tip.
“Is my ale paid for, too?” Torrin asked.
“That it is,” replied the barkeep. “Let’s hope the elf’s generosity continues.” He carefully tucked the gold Anvils away in his strongbox as the other patrons lined up at the bar, thirsty for refills. “Funny that he’s so cheerful, even when he’s losing. Still, if he wants to toss away his coin…”
Torrin nodded, no longer listening. Those gold Anvils could very well be forgeries, struck from the cursed gold. Torrin pictured spellplague seeping into the barkeep’s blunt fingers, worming its way toward his heart. It would do the same to any dwarf patron who bought the expensive ales and wines offered by the inn-expensive enough to warrant receiving an Anvil or two as change.
Torrin, however, said nothing, gave no warning. It was for the greater good, he told himself. Yet keeping silent was as painful as trying to swallow a jagged shard of slag.
He made a show of staring at the fire and shivering. His cloak was dripping from the heavy rain in the open canyon outside. He rubbed his hands together, then picked up his mug and made his way to the hearth. He stood before the fire, warming himself and drying his cloak, using it as an excuse to get a closer look at the half-elf.
The fellow was well dressed, in what looked like brand new leather breeches and boots with brass buckles. His velvet doublet was embroidered with thread-of-gold and had a high ruff collar, slashed sleeves, and silver buttons on the cuffs. The clothes, however, didn’t match the rest of him. The half-elf’s hands were calloused, with grime under the fingernails. His graying hair was greasy. He took a long drink of wine, and wiped his lips with the back of a stained cuff.
He noticed Torrin looking at him, and held his eye for a moment, obviously sizing him up. Torrin raised his mug in salute.
The two dwarves at the table were as well dressed as the half-elf, but better groomed. They seemed far more comfortable in their clothes, and less coarse in their habits. One had a pipe in his mouth that had long since gone cold. The other drank wine from a fluted glass, like the half-elf. Torrin saw, to his horror, that the wine contained tiny flakes of gold. Elven “gold dust” wine, they called it. Very expensive stuff. And, if that was cursed gold, ultimately lethal.
A third dwarf sat slightly back from the table, but close enough to the half-elf that he was obviously with him. He was roughly dressed, with a sword slung across his back on a bandolier, and two daggers on his belt. He was a broad-chested man even for a dwarf, with hard black eyes, a shaved head, and long gray beard. His nose looked as if it had been flattened more than once. Numerous small scars criss-crossed his hands, which, Torrin noted with alarm, had a slight grayish tinge to them. The stoneplague?
The third dwarf was, Torrin decided, likely a bodyguard for the half-elf. Hired with cursed gold and showing the first signs of stoneplague. Oddly, the two gamblers didn’t seem to take any notice of his gray-tinged hands, despite the fact that dozens of dwarves in Sundasz had succumbed to the stoneplague.
The bodyguard glanced in Torrin’s direction and made a show of scowling, as if he’d just noticed Torrin. Yet Torrin had seen the sidelong look the dwarf had given him earlier, as Torrin had approached the hearth. The bodyguard nudged the half-elf and said something in a low voice.
The half-elf glanced in Torrin’s direction. “You there, by the fire!” he called out in a jovial voice. “You look like a man who likes to wager. Come. Sit down. Join us.”
Torrin made a show of eyeing the stacks of Anvils on the table. “You’ll be sorry,” he said with a grin. “Get ready to lose some of that gold.”
The two dwarf gamblers made room at the table, and Torrin sat between them, wondering whether they were acting the role, or whether they were just what they seemed: unwitting pawns in the half-elf’s real game.
Torrin drained his ale and set the empty mug on a table behind him. He didn’t want the same trick he was about to pull being used on him.
“I’m Tril,” the half-elf said, introducing himself.
“Gond,” Torrin said, giving a false name. A human name, and one as common as quartz.
The pipe smoker introduced himself as Bran; the other dwarf, as Hathar.
“Another ale?” Tril asked as he handed Torrin the dice.
Torrin shook his head. “No, thank you,” he replied. “I prefer to keep a clear head for these matters.”
“What will you wager?” Bran asked.
“An equal share in a fortune,” Torrin answered, rattling the dice in cupped hands. “A veritable river of gold, just waiting to be tapped.”
The half-elf didn’t react. But rogues were like that-good at keeping a straight face.
Torrin nodded at the stacks of coins. “Here’s my offer,” he said. “Each of you spot me thirty Anvils, and when I’ve lost the last of them, whoever’s still in the game is in on the delve.” He glanced around the table. “Do we have a deal?”
Bran burst out laughing. His pipe fell from his mouth, struck the table, and scattered ash. Hathar turned to stare at Torrin, his expression making it clear he thought Torrin had just lost his mind. “What do you take me for, human?” he cried. “Some sort of beardless imbecile?”
Tril, however, shoved a stack of Anvils across the table-more than half of what he had left. “Done!” he cried.
The two dwarf gamblers exchanged looks. Hathar raised an eyebrow. Bran nodded, picked up his pipe and tucked it into a pocket, then began scooping his winnings into a coin pouch. “We’ll take our leave,” he said.
“What, now?” Tril cried. “Just when the game has gotten interesting?”
He was slurring his words slightly-likely for Torrin’s benefit.
“Tempting though it is to continue to enjoy your hospitality and relieve you of the last of your gold, I too must decline,” Hathar said, also collecting his winnings. He drained the last of his glass and bowed his farewell.
Torrin rattled the dice. “Your call,” he told the half-elf. “Should we play dice-or turn our attention to the real game?”
The bodyguard tensed. His hands were seemingly at ease on his lap, each close to a dagger. Tril, suddenly looking much more sober, flicked a hand. The bodyguard relaxed-slightly.
“You have a runestone for sale,” Tril said.
“Prove to me you’ve got it,” the half-elf continued. “That we didn’t come all this way for nothing.”
Torrin’s pulse beat in his ears. He was acutely aware of the bodyguard sitting across the table. One of those knives would find his heart before he could blink, if their exchange went the wrong way. For that matter, any of the other patrons trying so hard to pretend they weren’t straining to listen in on the conversation might also be in league with the half-elf.
Willing his hands to stay steady, Torrin untied a coin pouch from his belt. “Are you familiar with the duplication ritual?” he asked, whispering a silent prayer that they were. Well-known to shopkeepers like his parents who took in magical items in trade, it was a spell used by rogues to pass off non-magical duplicates of a ring, a wand, or some other small item as the real thing. The transformation lasted less than a day before the item reverted back to its true form-just long enough for the rogues to leave town.
“I’ve heard of it,” the half-elf admitted.
“I’m about to show you a copy of the runestone,” Torrin said. “A replica, made using that ritual.” In fact, what he was about to show them was the real thing. He paused a moment, giving Val’tissa time to get into position. Torrin wasn’t worried about the half-elf using the runestone to teleport away, as the inn was a long way from the nearest earth node. But if Tril made a grab for the runestone and ran, she’d be there to stop him.
Torrin turned the pouch upside down. His runestone thudded onto the table, scattering gold coins. Tril’s eyes widened. He started to reach for the stone.
The bodyguard caught the half-elf’s arm. “Touch it,” he told Torrin.
Torrin raised an eyebrow.
“You spilled it from the pouch without touching it,” the bodyguard said. “That makes me wonder if it’s ensorcelled.” He nodded down at the runestone. “Touch it.”
Torrin laid down the dice and picked up the stone. “Satisfied?” he asked as he placed it back on the table.
The bodyguard released his master’s arm, then picked up the runestone himself. After a quick examination, he passed it to Tril. The latter barely glanced at it before placing it back on the table.
So far, so good.
Tril leaned back in his chair, toying with his wine glass once more. His movements seemed idle, but his fingertips were white against the stem of the glass. “Where’s the real thing?” he asked.
“In my pack,” Torrin lied. “If you know anything about Delvers’ packs, you’ll know that I’m the only one who can remove anything from it, as Vadyr already found out. And just in case you’re thinking about it, little tricks like dispelling the pack’s magic won’t work. Everything inside it will just… vanish. Permanently. Killing me and reaching in with my dead hand won’t work, either. It’s my will that causes the pack to deliver its contents into my hand. And should you try to magically compel me to pull something out, well, let’s just say the pack will sense the difference, and act accordingly. Whatever I pull out will be a very unpleasant surprise, believe me.”
The last was just a myth the Delvers liked to spread, but the rogues wouldn’t know that. And for all Torrin knew, it might even be true. The manufacture and enchantment of a Delver’s pack was a closely guarded secret that only Delvemasters were privy to.
“Is that what happened to Vadyr?” Tril asked, his eyes cold. “An ‘unpleasant surprise?’ ”
“I have no idea what happened to your… associate,” Torrin said carefully, hoping his honest reply would be believed. “After he tried to steal the runestone from me in Hammergate, Vadyr disappeared. I never saw him again. Although I do know this-a duergar was enquiring about him around the same time.”
The half-elf started to glance at his bodyguard, but abruptly checked himself. He released the wine glass, which wobbled and threatened to fall. He caught the glass again, steadying it. His hand trembled just enough that Torrin noticed.
“What did the duergar look like?” Tril asked. “Did he have any tattoos?”
“I don’t know,” Torrin said. “I never saw him, myself. Just heard about him.”
Whoever the duergar was, it was clear the half-elf recognized him. Perhaps the duergar had been on the trail of the half-elf, as well. Making enquiries about the gold, and perhaps killing when he didn’t get the answers he wanted. A duergar in Sundasz wouldn’t surprise Torrin. Tallfolk, dark elves… anyone was welcome, it seemed.
Tril had regained his composure. He nodded at the runestone on the table. “How did you acquire that?” he asked. “The real one, I mean.”
“A dwarf named Kendril sold it to me,” Torrin replied.
Tril’s mouth twitched slightly. “And what happened to him? Did he just… disappear, the way Vadyr did? Or did you have something to do with it?”
“I may be a rogue, but I’m no murderer!” Torrin said vehemently. “Kendril took his own life. When we met to conduct our transaction, he was blind and crippled with the stoneplague, and begging the Dwarffather to forgive him. Then he jumped off Needle Leap.”
“Pushed, more likely,” the bodyguard growled.
“No!” Torrin said. “By Moradin’s beard, I swear it. I tried to stop Kendril from jumping, but he wouldn’t listen to me.”
“Well, then,” Tril said, suddenly breaking into a wide smile. “That certainly clears things up.”
“Clears what up?” Torrin asked, uncertain what had just caused the half-elf’s sudden change of demeanor.
Tril waved the question away with a slender hand. “Another drink is in order, I think,” he said. “To celebrate the start of a new relationship.” He snapped his fingers. “Bartender! More wine for me, and two ales for my companions, if you please!”
Torrin smiled to himself. The half-elf had just saved him a lot of bother. He’d been worried about how he’d get him to order another round, but the fellow had solved that problem. Torrin clenched both fists-the signal for Val’tissa to move to the bar and tip a potion into the half-elf’s glass as the bartender filled it.
“Then you’re satisfied with what’s being offered?” Torrin asked. “You’re willing to buy?”
Tril stared across the table at him. “What’s the asking price?”
The bartender arrived with their drinks. The conversation paused as the half-elf paid him.
“I want to know about the curse,” Torrin said. “Who cast it, how it was done. And how it can be undone.”
Tril stared at his wine glass, idly turning it. “That’s asking a lot,” he said.
Torrin felt sweat trickling down his back. Drink it, he silently pleaded. “The runestone’s worth a lot.”
Tril started to smile, but then hid it by taking a sip of wine. It took everything Torrin had not to sigh in relief. The half-elf was obviously about to lie to him. Thanks to the potion, however, he’d be compelled to speak the truth. Assuming Val’tissa had been successful.
“We were wondering ourselves what caused the gold to become cursed,” Tril said as he lowered his glass. “Kendril thought it was because Moradin was angry. But Cathor here-” he jerked a thumb in the direction of the bodyguard “-said it was probably something the duergar did.”
The bodyguard sat forward abruptly. His left hand was hidden under the table, and one of the sheaths on his bandolier was suddenly empty.
Torrin prayed Val’tissa would notice and position herself accordingly. He couldn’t signal her. A single flick of a finger might be his last. Cathor looked ready to strike. And he was obviously more than he’d seemed-more than a mere bodyguard.
“What duergar?” Torrin asked, his mouth suddenly as dry as rock dust.
“The ones in Drik Hargunen,” the half-elf replied. “The place where Cathor-”
Tril’s face suddenly went white. Several things happened then in rapid succession. Tril clutched himself as something sticky and wet-blood? — sprayed onto Torrin’s knee, soaking his trousers. Cathor lunged out of his seat and tried to grab the runestone. Before he could reach it, a wristbow bolt, shot by the invisible Val’tissa, thudded into his hand and pinned it to the table.
Cathor grabbed at the runestone with his other hand, but Torrin dived across the table and grabbed the front of his shirt, shoving him back.
Cathor was shorter than Torrin, but stronger. He forced himself forward. His hand closed around the runestone. He shouted something in a language Torrin didn’t understand.
Waves of blue spellfire erupted out of the floorboards and streaked toward the runestone. Terrified, the inn’s other patrons scrambled to get away. Shouts and screams filled the inn.
Torrin’s jaw dropped. Cathor had activated the runestone! How was that possible?
Val’tissa, now visible, raced to their table. “Torrin!” she shouted.
Torrin felt a sudden, familiar wrench. Still clutching the front of Cathor’s shirt, he was yanked sideways by the magic of the runestone. As the pair of them twisted into the space between the inn and wherever they were teleporting to, tumbling end over end together with the table, Cathor’s hand tore free of the bolt that had pinned it. His howl of pain echoed eerily as he and Torrin spun through space. Torrin saw a flash of steel. Despite his injured hand, Cathor had drawn his second dagger! Torrin’s mace was at his hip, but he couldn’t reach for it. He had to keep hold of Cathor or the Morndinsamman only knew where he’d wind up.
“Moradinnn!” Torrin screamed, his wail drawing out the way that Kendril’s had, that terrible day at Needle Leap. “Aid meee…”
Torrin and Cathor landed in darkness, crashing in a heap onto a rough stone floor. An eyeblink later, the table landed on them. Smashed prone, Torrin lost his grip on Cathor’s shirt. Something clattered away in the darkness. Cathor’s dagger? The runestone?
Torrin clambered to his feet. He couldn’t see! Damn his human eyes! He heard a faint noise, down and to his left where the table had landed. He yanked his mace from his belt and smashed downward, shouting the word that activated the weapon’s magic. Thunder boomed, echoing off the walls of wherever they’d teleported to. Torrin felt his weapon strike something that gave way with the crunch of breaking bone. Belatedly, he realized that Val’tissa also might have been caught up in the teleportation. He prayed it wasn’t her he’d just killed.
Torrin stood, panting, and straining to hear any sound. But all he heard was his own harsh breathing. Every muscle in Torrin’s body tensed. He anticipated a dagger thrust at any moment. He swung his mace back and forth and turned abruptly to and fro. One foot bumped something on the floor, and he stumbled and nearly fell. Despite his vulnerability, the attack he anticipated didn’t come.
Cautiously, Torrin shrugged out of one of the straps of his backpack. Another shrug and the pack was hanging against his chest. Holding his mace ready with one hand, he fumbled open the pack and reached inside. “Goggles,” he commanded. They rose to find his hand. He dragged them over his eyes, and suddenly he could see out of his left eye.
He stood in a natural cavern about a dozen paces wide and a hundred long. The floor was littered with stone molds, iron tongs, and stone dippers with long wooden handles. Rough flash-the solidified spill left over from casting-was splashed everywhere on the floor, and was so soft that it bent when he trod on it. A neat slit had been cut into one wall of the cavern. More solidified metal hung from the bottom of it like icicles from the edge of a roof. A warm breeze blew in through this gap.
The table from the inn lay nearby, partially covering a body with a staved-in head. Torrin recognized Tril by his blood-soaked doublet. He was dead. What Cathor had started with his dagger, Torrin had finished with his mace.
The “bodyguard”-who Torrin realized must be yet another rogue in the hire of whoever had cursed the gold, if not the wizard himself-lay a pace or two away, his wounded hand just shy of the runestone in a smear of blood, his other hand slack around his dagger. Torrin heaved a sigh of relief, realizing the sleep poison on Val’tissa’s bolt had done its work just in time. Had Cathor remained conscious a heartbeat or two longer, he might have activated the runestone a second time and teleported away.
Torrin shook his head, amazed at what had just happened. He’d been wrong. It wasn’t necessary to be in an earth node to activate the runestone. Its teleportation magic, it would seem, could be commanded from anywhere on Faerun.
Torrin crossed the cavern and picked up the runestone. He wasn’t about to make the same mistake twice. He tucked it away in his pack.
He picked up Cathor’s dagger and sword and put them in his pack as well, for good measure. Then he stripped the rogue naked-there was no telling what form a magical amulet might take-and bound his wrists behind his back, using rope from his Delver’s pack. He tied Cathor’s ankles as well. Finally, just in case the rogue was capable of magic, Torrin stuffed a gag in his mouth.
All Torrin had to do next was wait for the sleep poison to wear off. Meanwhile, he prayed that Cathor didn’t have accomplices nearby. The cavern they’d teleported to, however, was as quiet as a crypt. And, Torrin saw as he walked its circumference, it had no visible exits, aside from the narrow fissure in the wall, which was too narrow for a person to squeeze through. No matter. The runestone was Torrin’s way out-assuming he could figure out how to use it.
Torrin nudged Cathor with his foot. The dwarf was still unconscious, but alive. “Don’t claim him yet, Moradin,” Torrin prayed. “Not until I’m done with him.”
He pulled a lantern from his pack and lit it, then slid his goggles up onto his forehead. He turned his attention to the objects littering the floor. The flash was solid gold, as he’d expected from the way it bent under his boots. The molds were the ones used to cast the cursed gold bars. He inspected the slit in the wall and saw that it led to an almost perfectly round tunnel, perhaps a pace wide, whose walls were coated with a crust of hardened gold. Torrin sniffed and caught the faint scent of molten metal.
“The River of Gold,” he breathed.
He glanced around, shaking his head in wonder. A fortune lay at his feet, splashed all around him like waste slag. Even though he knew its role in spreading the stoneplague, he couldn’t help but feel a twinge of pure greed at the sight of it. All that wealth made his heart pound. His people had a name for what he was feeling: aetharn or “gold lust.” With that much gold, he could go anywhere, do anything. Fund the most exotic delves anyone had ever dreamed of.
Then he thought of Eralynn, Kier, Ambril and her stillborn twins, and the hundreds of other dwarves who’d succumbed to the stoneplague, and the taste of his fantasies soured. He’d trade all the gold in the cavern-all the gold in the world-for them to be alive again.
He heard a faint movement behind him. Cathor had woken up. He was feigning sleep, but his shivers betrayed him.
Torrin squatted next to the dwarf. His anger banked as he stared at him. Rather than fan it red hot, Torrin let it smolder. The time for vengeance-for justice-would come later.
Cathor’s eyes opened. He strained at his bonds and shivered violently, either from the feel of cold stone against naked flesh or from fear. He shook his head and tried to say something. But all that got past the gag was a moan.
Torrin stared down at his captive. He pulled a tiny glass vial from his pack and showed it to Cathor. “This potion is the same as the one that forced your half-elf friend to talk, back at the inn,” he said. “One way or the other, you’re going to drink it. If I have to, I’ll kneel on your forehead and slice your lips open with my dagger. Or we can do it the easy way, and you can just swallow it.”
Cathor stared up at him, a glimmer of hope in his eyes. Perhaps he believed Torrin would free him once he had talked, or perhaps he thought he might yet use the runestone to escape. Whatever the reason, he grunted his assent.
“Good,” Torrin said. He took the gag from Cathor’s mouth. Cathor opened his mouth, and Torrin poured in the potion. Just in case Cathor was lying about being cooperative, Torrin immediately pinched the rogue’s lips shut.
Cathor glared, but swallowed down the potion. Torrin released his hold on the fellow’s lips and stood up.
“And now,” Torrin told his captive, “we’ll talk.”
“Truth comes to us from the past, like gold washed down from the mountains.”
Torrin stared down at his captive.Since the truth potion would only last so long, he decided to ask Cathor the most important questions first. He folded his arms across his chest. “How, exactly, was the gold cursed?”
“I don’t know,” Cathor said.
Torrin silently fumed, then realized he needed to back up a step. Cathor might be nothing more than a minion, after all. He might not know the details. Torrin had to take this step by step. “All right, then, let’s try again,” he said. “Let’s start with this: who cursed the gold?”
That, it seemed, was a question his captive could answer. “The duergar,” Cathor replied.
“The one who was trying to find Vadyr? What’s his name?” Torrin asked.
Cathor shook his head. “I have no idea.”
“Perhaps I should be more clear,” Torrin said. “What I want to know is this: What’s the name of the duergar who invoked the curse?”
“Perhaps I should be more clear,” Cathor said mockingly. “I don’t know.”
Torrin grit his teeth. He tried again. “Where can I find the duergar who cursed the gold?” he asked.
Cathor’s jaw muscles bunched as he tried to keep himself from speaking. The potion, however, forced the words out. “In Drik Hargunen,” he said.
“That’s better,” Torrin said. It took him, however, a few moments to place the name. He at last remembered there was a duergar city by that name, somewhere in the Underdark. Torrin had stumbled across the name once, when researching rune magic. He dredged the phrase up from memory: the runescribed halls of Drik Hargunen.
Torrin reframed the question he’d asked earlier. “What did the duergar use curse the gold?”
“Rune magic,” Cathor said.
That much, Torrin might have guessed. “How can the curse be broken?”
The dwarf glared. “No idea,” he said. “Why don’t you go ask the runescribes yourself?”
Torrin balled his fists. He reminded himself that the rogue was answering his questions truthfully. He could see Cathor struggling not to speak, yet being compelled to. Yet the answers weren’t nearly as informative as Torrin had hoped they would be. He decided to dig in a different direction. He gestured at the gold-crusted slit in the wall. “Who used the runestone to call the River of Gold to this cavern?” he asked.
“We did. Me and Kendril,” Cathor replied.
“Who tapped it and cast the gold bars?”
“The same: me and Kendril.”
“Whose idea was it to distribute them in Eartheart?” After a moment’s silent struggle, the word popped out. “Mine.”
“And the other two rogues? Vadyr and Tril? What part did they play in this?”
“They were hired to distribute the gold. Tril, in the smaller settlements. And Vadyr, in Eartheart.”
That fit. Only tallfolk could safely handle the cursed gold. Torrin stared down at Cathor’s gray-tinged skin. The two dwarf rogues must have been careless, to let themselves be afflicted by the stoneplague.
Time to get back to that line of questioning.
“Whom did the four of you take your orders from?” Torrin asked. “Who told you to make the gold bars?”
“No one,” said Cathor. “It was my idea. Mine… and Kendril’s.”
“So you and Kendril hired the duergar to curse the gold?”
Cathor shook his head. “No. They’d done it already. We just mined it.”
Torrin frowned in confusion. He looked at the cut in the wall. “So the duergar cursed the River of Gold,” he ventured, “before you mined it?”
“Yes,” said Cathor.
“And you knew it was cursed, yet mined it anyway?”
Torrin felt as though a hollow had opened inside him. It took all of his self-control not to strike his captive. He stared down at Cathor in disgust. A duergar might have cast the curse, but Cathor and Kendril-two dwarves — had spread the stoneplague. They’d knowingly afflicted their fellow dwarves with a fatal disease.
Torrin no longer felt sorry for Kendril. The fellow had deserved his affliction, had deserved to die. He was pure dross. So was Cathor.
Torrin spat on the dwarf.
Cathor’s nostrils flared. He stared defiantly up at Torrin, as if he was still worthy of looking a fellow dwarf in the eye. It was all Torrin could do to not stamp out that smug look with his boot.
“Where did you get the runestone?” Torrin asked instead.
Cathor once again tried to clench his jaw shut, and failed. “I stole it,” he said.
“Be more specific.”
A smug smile crept into Cathor’s eyes. “Right out of Laduguer’s temple. From its library.”
“Laduguer,” Torrin breathed. God of the duergar. Enemy of the true dwarves, who would see them all enslaved.
“A foul god,” he continued. “Deserving of his banishment from the Morndinsamman.”
“That may be,” said Cathor. “But Laduguer will be avenged, soon enough.”
“What are you talking about?” Torrin asked.
“Moradin,” Cathor said, jerking his head at the slit in the wall. “The River of Gold is his vein. His life blood. The duergars’ rune magic has poisoned it. Moradin is dying.”
Torrin felt the blood drain from his cheeks. A shiver of dread coursed through him. He remembered how it had been in his dream, the way the Dwarffather had turned gray with the stoneplague, then crumbled. Could it be true? Could Moradin actually be dying?
“That’s right,” Cathor said, the gleam back in his eye. “It will all be over, soon enough. The dwarves are going to lose their patron god. You can kiss those hammers in your beard goodbye, human.”
“Blasphemer!” Torrin shouted. He kicked Cathor in the ribs and revelled in the man’s grunt of pain. With all of his heart, Torrin wanted to believe the truth potion had worn off, that Cathor was lying. Or, at the very least, that his captive was wrong, and only thought he spoke the truth. Surely Moradin could not die! But other gods had died, in Faerun’s long history. And other gods would yet die, as the millennia marched on.
Torrin didn’t want to believe what he’d just heard, yet Cathor’s words had driven an ice-cold spike of doubt into Torrin’s very soul. And that spike was being driven deeper with each chuckle his captive uttered.
Everything Torrin had ever learned by reading scripture fit with what Cathor had just told him, like a casting fit a mold. According to the holy texts, Moradin and all the other Morndinsamman had sprung from the stone of Faerun itself, back when the world first formed. The scriptures went on to say that it wasn’t blood that ran through Moradin’s veins, but noble metal. Gold.
Torrin had always thought that to be a metaphor for the god’s purity of purpose, but he realized it must be truth. It made sense that Moradin would be bound to the land in some way, that he would choose to stay rooted in the stone his people worked and drew their livelihood from. If the River of Gold were part of the Dwarffather, it explained why the molten river was constantly shifting. The Dwarffather manifested throughout Faerun, wherever there was rock to be mined.
And his life’s blood had been poisoned. Cursed, by the duergars’ foul rune magic.
That was why the cursed gold continued to spread the stoneplague, regardless of whether it was melted or subjected to magical ritual. Until Moradin himself was healed, the gold would remain tainted. It also explained why no cleric-even those who served the gods of the tallfolk-could cure the affliction. The blood of the Dwarffather flowed not only throughout Faerun, in the form of the River of Gold, but also, indirectly, through the blood of the race he’d fashioned in his forge.
The meaning of Torrin’s prophetic dream was suddenly as clear as a gem from which the surrounding rock had been chipped away.
Moradin, lord of the Morndinsamman and patron god of the dwarves, was dying. Until the god himself was cured, there would be no cure for the spellplague.
And if the god died…
Torrin couldn’t bring himself to contemplate what that might mean. He shuddered, and struggled to pull himself together. “Moradin…” he began to pray. Then he realized the futility of his prayer. The Dwarffather had been trying to tell him, all along, that no help would be forthcoming from him. Torrin was on his own.
He stared down with righteous fury at Cathor. He wasn’t the one who had poisoned Moradin using rune magic, but by Cathor’s own admission, he’d committed a crime even more vile. He’d knowingly afflicted his own race. And for the most base of reasons: simple greed.
“How could you?” Torrin said through gritted teeth. “You’ve killed hundreds, perhaps thousands of your own people.”
Cathor sneered as he said, “They deserved it.”
“No one deserves this,” Torrin said, pointing at Cathor’s gray skin.
Cathor broke into wild laughter. “You idiot!” he cried. “You think I’ve been afflicted, don’t you?”
Torrin suddenly questioned what he saw. “But… you’re a dwarf,” he said. “And… you are afflicted, just like Kendril was. Just like everybody else. Aren’t you?”
“That would be true, if I was just like everybody else. But I’m not.”
“What do you-”
“Figure it out yourself, human. I saw how you looked at me. You don’t just dress like a dwarf, you think like one. You hate like one.”
Torrin suddenly realized that Cathor’s skin wasn’t gray because of the stoneplague. Nor was his head bald because he’d shaved it. That strange cast to his eyes. His wiry frame. “You’re… duergar?” he asked.
“One-quarter,” Cathor replied bitterly. “And that was the only quarter that counted. I’m an enemy. Someone to be reviled, to be driven out.” He smirked. “But I’ve had my revenge. And it was sweeter than anything else the gold might have bought. So go ahead and kill me. I’m tired of this life. And these ropes hurt.”
Torrin stared down at his captive. The time had indeed come for justice. And Cathor was all but begging for it. Yet how should Torrin kill the duergar dross that lay at his feet? Perhaps, he mused, with the rogue’s own dagger. Slash his wrists and let him bleed out. Whittle him down slowly, as the stoneplague whittled down its victims. Or perhaps Torrin should smash in the fellow’s head with his mace. It would be a quicker death, but one that would activate the weapon’s ancient dwarf magic. Either would be equally appropriate, not to mention satisfying.
The mace, Torrin decided. He lifted the weapon above his head. His hands were sweaty on the grip. He felt like Moradin, raising his hammer to strike a blow and making a holy pronouncement. His pulse beat in his throat against Eralynn’s pendant. “I strike this blow for Eralynn,” he intoned. “My shield sister. And for Kier, my nephew. And for Ambril, the boy’s mother. Clanfolk, all. I strike this blow in Moradin’s name, for all of the hundreds or even thousands of innocents you so callously afflicted. Utter your final prayer now, to whatever god you think might claim your soul, and-”
A whimper interrupted his pronouncement. Torrin smelled urine, and realized Cathor had just relieved himself like a cowering dog. Despite the bravado of a moment before, the rogue’s eyes were filled with tears. He was crying. Like a child.
“There is no god to claim me,” he whispered. “Only the anguish of the Nine Hells awaits.”
Torrin scowled. “You should have thought of that before committing your foul crimes.”
Cathor looked up, his face twisted with anguish. “You don’t understand,” he said. “You couldn’t. None of the Morndinsamman will take me.”
“That’s not true,” Torrin answered. “Your soul might have been reforged anew, had you repented, instead of gloating over what the duergar did. Moradin would have shown mercy.”
“Moradin, a god for the ‘true dwarves,’ ” said Cathor, his lips twisting with the words. “Not those with duergar blood muddying their veins.”
“Nonsense,” Torrin argued. “Look at me. My body may be human, yet Moradin will welcome me at his side, when the time comes for my soul to be reforged.”
Cathor gave a bitter laugh and said, “You’re such a fool, human.”
“You’re the fool,” Torrin replied, raising his mace again, preparing to finish Cathor. He’d killed before-the half-orc who’d tried to rob his parents’ shop, back when Torrin was just a boy. And the drow he’d slain in battle, during his misadventure in Araumycos with Gamlin and Farrik. Just a few moments before he’d accidentally finished off the dying half-elf. But those had all been in the heat of the moment. The man he was about to kill lay bound and helpless before him.
The rage that had filled Torrin a moment before was leaking out, being replaced by a sick feeling that was mixed with a twinge of pity as he stared down at the crying rogue. Torrin found it all too easy to understand what had stoked the forge of bitter anger inside Cathor. Torrin himself knew what it felt like to be mocked, to not fit in. To not be accepted by his own people.
Yet unlike Cathor, who’d let those hurts fester, Torrin had managed to pull himself away from the self-destructive path he’d been walking, back when he was trying to drink away his confusion and hurt in the years before joining the Delvers. Cathor, in contrast, had turned on his own people, embarking on a horrific scheme of misplaced revenge that had ultimately led to his own destruction.
What had made him walk so different a path?
Perhaps, Torrin thought, Cathor’s hurt was deeper. Torrin could shrug off insults, and had always believed that, if he only tried hard enough and long enough, people would see past his human body and realize that he was, indeed, as much a dwarf as any of the clanfolk. The Thunsonn clan, the Delvers-both had accepted him. But Cathor, with his bald head and gray skin, wouldn’t even have been given the benefit of the doubt.
What Cathor had done-his role in spreading the stoneplague to Eartheart-filled Torrin with revulsion. But did that make what Torrin was about to do the right thing, in the eyes of Moradin? Did it condone the fact that Torrin was now contemplating killing a helpless captive in cold blood? That was the antithesis of all that dwarves stood for. And dwarf law had a word for an execution performed without benefit of trial by council.
Was that what Torrin was about to become? A murderer?
He lowered his mace. He would not stoop to the level of his captive. He would instead hand him over to the authorities in Eartheart. Cathor would certainly still be condemned to death, but it would be done in a legal, civilized fashion and according to the law, not at one man’s whim.
Torrin realized something then. He heard a voice, whispering. It wasn’t coming from his captive. It was coming from… He cocked an ear. Inside his shirt?
Torrin pulled up his shirt so that the brooch the Lord Scepter had given him was next to his ear. The stone set into the brooch was definitely emitting a voice.
“… still alive?” it said. “If you can hear me, please answer!”
Torrin blinked in surprise. “Lord Scepter?”
“Yes,” said the voice. “My thanks, Torrin Ironstar. You’ve provided an invaluable service to your city this night.”
Torrin stared at the brooch and shook his head. That geode wasn’t mere decorative element; it was a sending stone! The Lord Scepter had been listening in on everything Torrin had said and heard, ever since he’d left Eartheart! At first, Torrin felt outrage. The Lord Scepter had tricked him into wearing the brooch, had listened in on his most private moments! But then he realized the wisdom of the deception, the necessity of it. Had Torrin known what the brooch actually did, he might have worried about what the listener was thinking, might not have pulled things off nearly so well.
The stone in the brooch was talking again. “Can you describe the cavern you’re standing in? A detailed description?” it said.
“Why?” Torrin asked.
“We’re about to open a portal to your location,” the Lord Scepter told him. “The Steel Shields are coming through to take charge of your captive.”
Torrin thought back to the Lord Scepter’s earlier warning. “Will they arrest me as well?”
The voice from the brooch chuckled. “That order has been rescinded.”
“Very well, then,” Torrin said. He described the cavern’s dimensions, its gold-crusted walls and floor, the cut in the wall. He started to describe the objects scattered across the floor and their placement, relative to one another, but the Lord Scepter interrupted. “That’s enough,” he said. “Stand still, and don’t move.”
“I won’t,” Torrin replied.
He heard a soft popping sound-the rush of displaced air. A cleric of Clangeddin Silverbeard appeared in the middle of the cavern, holding above his head the twin axes that were both the symbol of his faith and his chosen weapons. His silver-plated armor glowed with the blood-red radiance of the battle god’s magic. The light flushed his face, turning his cheeks ruddy, and stained his white beard red.
Four Steel Shields materialized next to him an instant later, their maces drawn and their shields at the ready. They fanned out into the cavern at a nod from the cleric, who was obviously their commander. Meanwhile the cleric, his eyes burning with battle lust, strode to where Cathor lay on the floor. For a moment, Torrin thought the cleric was going to hack the rogue to pieces on the spot. Cathor must have felt the same, for he twisted violently and tried to roll away. But instead of killing the rogue, the cleric stamped a boot down onto Cathor’s chest, pinning him to the ground.
He turned back to Torrin. “Where’s the runestone?” he demanded, his gaze as piercing as a crossbow bolt.
Torrin opened his pack and pulled it out. Although he was reluctant to part with the runestone, he handed it over obediently.
The cleric glared down at it. “Dwarven,” he observed. “Ancient. Yet a powerful weapon, in the hands of our enemies.”
The four Steel Shields had finished searching the perimeter of the cavern. “All clear,” one shouted. The other three echoed his findings. The four knights seemed to be stout, steady soldiers-all longbeards at least a century or two old. Yet they kept glancing uneasily at the gold-crusted floor. They must have known, Torrin thought, that the gold was cursed, that by exposing themselves they’d succumb to the stoneplague. Yet they’d come on this mission just the same.
Looking at them, Torrin felt fiercely proud of his race. Just like the heroes who’d given their lives at the Gates of Underhome, millennia before, those dwarf knights and their leader were prepared to sacrifice themselves so that the people of Eartheart might survive.
At their commander’s nod, two of the Steel Shields slung their shields over their backs and sheathed their maces. One grabbed Cathor by the ankles while the other lifted him by the shoulders. Although he struggled, they carried him easily.
The other two knights flanked Torrin.
“We’ll be returning now,” the cleric told him.
Torrin’s heart pounded. He glanced at the runestone the cleric held. It was such a wondrous thing, the type of artifact a Delver might spend a lifetime searching for. And not just any artifact, but one that that was linked to the very lifeblood of the Dwarffather. Torrin needed it to complete his sacred quest. The runestone would allow him, at long last, to find the Soulforge. To make his place in the world. Yet it was about to slip out of his grasp.
“You aren’t going to use the runestone to teleport, are you?” Torrin asked.
The cleric glanced up at him and said, “Why do you ask?”
Torrin gestured at the slit in the wall. “If you do, it may call the River of Gold. Molten gold could flood in and burn us.”
“No need for that,” the cleric said. “We’ll depart the way we came. Clangeddin Silverbeard will open a way home for us.”
“The runestone,” Torrin began, still staring at it. He took a deep breath, and plunged on. “The Lord Scepter ordered me to keep it safe.”
The cleric barely glanced at him. “Don’t worry, human,” he said with a chuckle. “It’s in good hands. Your part in this is done. Once we get back to Eartheart, you’ll be free to return to Sundasz, or wherever else you’d like to go. The Steel Shields will take up it from here.”
Torrin bristled. He was going to be set aside, like a chisel that had proved just the right tool for the job, but was no longer required. The cleric would never have spoken that way to him, had he known Torrin was a dwarf. “You don’t understand,” he protested. “I may look like one of the tallfolk, but…”
The cleric wasn’t listening.
“ I’m the one the Lord Scepter sent on this mission,” Torrin continued, desperation suddenly making the words tumble from his mouth. “I’m the one to whom he entrusted the artifact. Lord Scepter Bladebeard’s specific orders were that I be the one to place the runestone in his hand, when my mission was done. And I swore an oath by Moradin’s beard that I would do precisely that.” He raised a clenched fist to his heart. “Would you have me break my oath to the Dwarffather? Or defy the commands of your Lord Scepter?”
The cleric raised his eyebrows. Behind him, the other Steel Shields exchanged glances. Torrin waited, his heart pounding. One didn’t lie to a cleric of the Father of Battle, especially one who’d been gripped by kuldtharn just moments before and still had his axes in hand. Yet Torrin just had.
The cleric at last nodded. With a look of amusement in his eye, he handed the runestone to Torrin. “Very well, then,” he said. “The Lord Scepter will be waiting for us, when we return. You can give it to him when we reach Eartheart.”
The cleric glanced around at the gold-crusted walls and floor, and shuddered. “Knights, prepare yourselves.”
The knights stilled, like soldiers preparing for inspection. The cleric swept his axes up, and crashed their blades together. “ Faern! ” he shouted-the same word Torrin had used the first time he’d activated the runestone’s magic.
The cavern, still illuminated by Torrin’s lantern, disappeared in a final flash of gold as the group was whisked by the cleric’s magic back to Eartheart.
Torrin stood off to the side in the High Commander’s office, his hands clasped respectfully behind his back. He was in the office of High Commander Vorn Steeleye, who was flanked by a dozen or so top ranking officers, as well as the Lord Scepter. Cathor lay on the floor at the High Commander’s feet. Primed with yet another truth potion, the captive filled in more of the story he’d told Torrin.
Cathor, it seemed, had gone to Drik Hargunen at Kendril’s behest. There had been some texts in the temple library, unearthed decades before, at the close of the War of Gold and Gloom, that Kendril had wanted to study. Able to pass as a duergar, Cathor had applied to study at the library and had been accepted.
Students weren’t permitted to handle any of the runestones the library contained; only the librarians could do that. So he struck up a friendship with one, and that was how he heard about the library’s magical runestones — one of them, in particular.
The librarian had boasted that the library contained many powerful runestones, including one that could summon the River of Gold-Moradin’s vein, his manifestation on Faerun. By doing so, Laduguer’s clerics had been able to strike the Lord of the Morndinsamman in his one vulnerable spot. They had inscribed a rune so powerful, it could kill even a god.
With Moradin dead, the librarian chortled, Laduguer’s clerics would at long last have their revenge.
At that point, Cathor’s motivation for stealing the runestone had been simple greed. He wanted to mine the River of Gold. The librarian had been of a like mind. Once Kendril, back in Sundasz, had learned that the runestone could also be used for teleportation magic if the correct words were spoken in Auld Dethek, Cathor and the librarian had used the runestone to spirit themselves-and it-out of the library. “As simple as that,” Cathor boasted.
When they’d arrived at their destination, Cathor had slit the librarian’s throat.
It wasn’t the first time the rogue had gotten blood on his hands. Nor would it be the last. Once mining had begun, he’d seen what handling the cursed gold did to dwarves-and had made the decision to continue.
The rogue provided much detail of the portions of Drik Hargunen he’d visited, as well as the layout of the library itself. Yet he was unable to give any information about where the rune that had poisoned Moradin might have been inscribed. Despite being questioned repeatedly, despite the truth potion, Cathor’s only answer was a shrug.
When the questioning ended, guards dragged Cathor away to a cell. By that time, sunlight was slanting in through the slit windows of the High Commander’s office. Torrin expected to be dismissed himself, but the Lord Scepter motioned for him to stand over by a side wall.
Torrin obliged, bowing his head slightly to hide a yawn of exhaustion. High Commander Vorn Steeleye and his officers discussed what they’d just heard, while Torrin stood and fretted, glancing between the Lord Scepter and the runestone on the commander’s desk. When the meeting was done, it would be locked away in a magically sealed vault, so it could do no further harm. Then the Lord Scepter would depart to convene the Council, so that the Deep Lords could ratify whatever course of action the military commanders decided upon.
Torrin kept hoping to find a quiet moment before then when he might approach the Lord Scepter and ask to use the runestone one last time, once everything was all over, to search for the Soulforge. So far, that opportunity had yet to present itself.
Torrin sighed. He picked at the food that had been laid out to sustain the officers: roast boar and cooked apples, spiced tubers and surface greens, along with jugs of dark brown ale. He plucked a sweetbread from one of the platters and munched on it. The sweet taste of aniseed filled his mouth, scouring away the sourness his breath had acquired.
Voices ebbed and flowed as the officers argued about what course of action to take.
Attack Drik Hargunen and smash it into dust? That seemed to be the favored option, but there were some who argued it was simply not possible. The duergar city was more than three hundred leagues away. Teleporting an entire army to the area would not be feasible; they’d be faced with more than a tenday’s march across the surface realms, longer through the Underdark. Provisioning the army would add still more delay.
Send in an elite squad of Steel Shields-like the one that had extracted Torrin from the cavern-to try to locate the rune? Faster and stealthier, the commanders agreed, but the squad would need to include wizards trained in runemagic, as well as rogues. Who to include was a matter of much debate.
As his officers skirmished verbally, Commander Steeleye bent over a map that was spread across his desk, its curled edges held down by stone weights. Torrin was used to seeing him in armor, helm, and shield, but the commander wore a leather jerkin with a high ruffled collar, upon which the tight coils of his beard rested; and tight-legged trousers that flared at the hip, like those the skyriders wore.
The map showed Drik Hargunen-or rather, what little was known of its layout. Much of the map was blank, or bore captions that were guesses at best, since no true dwarf had ever set foot in the duergar city. But the general layout was hinted at, and Cathor’s answers had resulted in a few more of the blank spots being filled in. Drik Hargunen was laid out around a natural chimney that twisted down through the rock; the city’s corridors splayed out like twisted spokes around that central shaft. It was also joined to the Runescribed Hall of Laduguer’s Graving, the temple whose library Cathor had stolen the runestone from. That temple was, presumably, where the runic magic that had cursed the River of Gold had been invoked.
Or so the thinking went.
“It’s unfortunate,” Commander Steeleye said, “that our duergar captive was so vague about the runic protections on the approaches to the temple.” He gestured at the lines leading to the central portion of the map. “Telling us ‘they’re everywhere’ doesn’t help us much.”
“Patience,” Lord Scepter Bladebeard counselled. “The tablets from Iltkazar may yet hold some clues.” He gestured at a cleric of Dugmaren Brightmantle who sat in a corner, hunched over two large baskets of runic tablets that had been carried into the room earlier. The cleric, a fellow with sparse white hair and spectacles balanced precariously on the end of his pinched nose, was reading furiously, the tablets making clicking noises as he hurried through them.
“In the meantime, our people are still dying of the stoneplague,” Commander Steeleye growled. He sighed and rested his hands on the desk. “Gentlemen, I’ve reached my decision. We’ll send in a single elite squad to scout the city and learn what we can by infiltrating the temple. Their mission will be to learn precisely where the rune that cursed the River of Gold was inscribed, and to dispel its magic if they can.”
The officers who’d advocated for a scouting party broke into triumphant grins.
“A scouting expedition is not enough!” one of the officers shouted over the others. His face was scabby and gray from the stoneplague; part of his beard missing. The other officers all stood at arm’s length from him, obviously not wanting to get too close. “We need to make the duergar pay for what they’ve done. The army must march!”
“Agreed,” the High Commander said. “But first, we need to know if the duergar are themselves preparing to mount an attack. Crippling us with the stoneplague may have been merely the first thrust. Before we move our army out, we need to probe the Deeps and make sure the duergar and their allies aren’t massed there, waiting for us to march away so they can storm our gates.”
There was some muttered protest at that, but most of the officers nodded their agreement. Dwarves were a careful folk, who never tried to cut a stone without taking a good look at the grain of it first.
“The only question remaining,” Commander Steeleye said, his eyes ranging across his officers, “is which of you will be on the squad.”
Torrin expected the officers to all shout out at once, but instead a hush fell. Each squared his shoulders and smoothed his beard, doing his best to look as though he were on military parade. Each man’s eyes silently pleaded for the High Commander to bestow the honor upon him.
Torrin moved into position just behind the officers and tried to catch Commander Steeleye’s eye. When that failed, he cleared his throat. Still the High Commander ignored him, his eyes looking over every man in the room but Torrin.
The Lord Scepter, however, glanced in Torrin’s direction and gave a slight nod. “High Commander,” he said. “If I might make some observations as to worthy candidates?”
Commander Steeleye nodded. “You may,” he said.
Torrin looked expectantly at the Lord Scepter.
“We need not only stalwart officers, but men who have skills in other areas,” the Lord Scepter said. He nodded at an officer whose beard was an uncombed brown fuzz against his cheeks. “Captain Blackhammer, for example, was instrumental in taking down that nest of rogues a few years back. I’m told he’s not only a master of disguise, but also has as much of a nose for hidden passageways as a boar does for truffles.”
Blackhammer beamed and tapped his nose in acknowledgement.
“And Captain Stoneshield, I understand, has a talent for magic,” the Lord Scepter continued. “They say he can open a passage through solid stone and close it again with no more than a whisper-something that will prove highly useful in penetrating the mazelike warrens of a hostile city, especially one whose every wall is said to be protected by rune magic.”
Stoneshield bowed and came up grinning.
“I would also recommend Delver Torrin Ironstar,” the Lord Scepter continued.
Heads turned. Eyes narrowed.
“He has labored ceaselessly toward finding a cure, and was instrumental in learning the cause of the stoneplague,” the Lord Scepter continued. “What’s more, he’s a human, and thus is less likely to trigger Drik Hargunen’s protective wards, the vast majority of which are set to react to dwarves.”
Torrin flushed with pride. He bowed and rose smiling. “I’d be honored to serve my city, High Commander Steeleye.”
“Thank you, Lord Scepter,” the High Commander replied. “But we need men of the same size and stature as a duergar, in order for the disguise spells to work. That means dwarves only.”
“But High Commander, I need no disguise!” Torrin protested. “Humans are welcome in-”
“Dwarves only,” Commander Steeleye repeated coldly.
Torrin bit back his retort. Clearly, no matter what he said, he wasn’t going to be included on the squad. Yet he must! Moradin himself had decreed that Torrin had a role to play in ending the stoneplague. Was that role really to come to such an abrupt end? Torrin couldn’t just sit idle in Eartheart. Kier was depending upon him.
The Lord Scepter glanced at Torrin, then away. Was that disappointment in his eyes? The knowledge that the Lord Scepter had faith in him was cold comfort to Torrin. He needed to be on that squad.
As the debate continued, the door to the office opened. Torrin turned to see who the newcomer was. His eyes widened as he saw Baelar.
The older dwarf was wearing his Peacehammer armor and cloak, but no helm. His frost axe was strapped to his back. The right half of his scalp was bare, with fresh pink skin where his long gray hair should have been. His right cheek was likewise pink, and there were scorch marks in his beard. He carried his right hand close to his side, his fingers curled tight; the skin on them also looked new. Baelar had obviously suffered some grievous injuries, and only recently been magically healed.
Had he been burned by the blind red dragon in the Wyrmcaves?
Torrin knew better than to ask. He met Baelar’s eyes as the skyrider strode into the room, and lifted one eyebrow in a silent question. Baelar gave a slight shake of his head. The disappointment and frustration in his eyes gave Torrin his answer. Baelar had failed in his quest to secure the wyrmlings’ blood.
“Captain Thunsonn,” Commander Steeleye said, acknowledging Baelar’s arrival. “I hadn’t expected to see you up and about so soon.”
“When my city calls, I answer,” Baelar said. He bowed, stiffly, to the High Commander and to the Lord Scepter, who nodded back. Baelar then joined the officers.
The High Commander was starting to make his selections. Yet he hadn’t decided who would lead the squad. It would have to be, he noted aloud, someone capable of finding their way about the duergar city. And that gave Torrin an idea.
A brooch identical to the one the Lord Scepter had given Torrin was pinned to the Lord Scepter’s chest. Torrin turned slightly aside, and spoke in a low voice into his brooch. “Lord Scepter? Can you hear me?” he said.
Out of the corner of his eye, Torrin saw the Lord Scepter nod.
“Do you want me on that squad?” Torrin continued. “Do you believe that’s what Moradin wants?”
“I did what I could,” the whisper came back. “This is a military matter. It’s out of my hands.”
“There’s still a way,” Torrin said. “If Baelar leads the squad, I’m certain I can convince him to take me.”
Torrin spoke quickly. When he was finished and turned back to the group, he saw that the Lord Scepter’s eyes were gleaming.
“I have one further recommendation for the squad,” the Lord Scepter announced. “Captain Thunsonn.”
“With all respect, Lord Scepter, he’s still healing,” the High Commander noted. “Barely able to hold an axe, let alone swing one.”
“That may be so,” the Lord Scepter continued. “But Captain Thunsonn has perhaps the most useful skill of all, although I doubt that any of you know of it. Many years ago, not long after his beard first sprouted, he lived for nearly a year in the duergar city of Gracklstugh. He was a weapons trader, dealing in duergar steel, and knows a thing or two about the gray dwarves.”
There was a heartbeat of stunned silence. Even Commander Steeleye visibly stiffened.
“Is this true?” he asked, fixing his stare on Baelar. “You lived among our enemies?”
“Disgraceful,” one of the officers hissed.
Baelar paled. Fortunately, he didn’t glance in Torrin’s direction. Torrin wouldn’t have trusted himself to keep a neutral face, if he had. He felt a deep sorrow at having to put Baelar in such a position. Yet what the Lord Scepter was about to add would make everything right again for Baelar, if only the others would listen.
“Gentlemen!” the Lord Scepter said, his voice ringing out in the strained silence. “Let me finish. Captain Thunsonn lived in Gracklstugh at the Council’s order. He was a spy!”
The officers fairly tripped over themselves in their haste to make their apologies to Baelar. Several bowed in his direction.
Baelar acknowledged them by bowing himself. His face was still pale when he rose, however.
“As a result of his assignment,” the Lord Scepter continued smoothly, “Captain Thunsonn became fluent in the duergar dialect.” He turned to Baelar. “You do still speak it, don’t you, Captain?”
Baelar’s head jerked in a nod. “I do, Lord Scepter,” he said.
“I therefore recommend Captain Thunsonn be assigned command of the squad,” the Lord Scepter concluded. “As the only one of you who speaks the duergar dialect, he will be able to answer any challenges the duergar make-challenges that are certain to be directed to the group’s visible leader. I further recommend that he be given a free hand in the final selection of the squad. There may be others who also possess talents like Captain Thunsonn’s-talents they don’t openly speak of.”
Commander Steeleye was staring at his men, a slight frown on his face. As the officers voiced their approval, however, he glanced at the Lord Scepter. The two locked eyes a moment, and then Commander Steeleye returned his attention to his officers. “Very well, then,” he said. “Captain Thunsonn will command the squad.”
The Lord Scepter smiled.
“My thanks,” Torrin whispered into his brooch.
“Thank Moradin, Delver Torrin,” the whisper came back. “And serve him well. And… one other thing. When this meeting is over, come see me in my chambers. There’s something I want you to have.”
“The man who treasures his friends is usually solid gold himself.”
As the meeting broke up and the selected officers departed the High Commander’s office to make their preparations, Torrin made his way to the Lord Scepter’s chambers. He was stopped several times by Steel Shields and questioned, but as soon as he identified himself they nodded him past. He reached the Lord Scepter’s chambers at last, and knocked on the door.
“Enter,” came the reply.
Torrin pushed open the door. He was surprised to see a human in the room-a wizard, by the look of his wand and his robes. Like Torrin, the fellow wore his beard braided in the dwarven fashion. Rings decorated every one of his rather pudgy fingers. Standing next to a table, he passed his wand over what looked like a lump of red clay and whispered to himself. When he shifted position slightly, Torrin saw the runestone lying next to the lump of clay.
Torrin’s mouth fell open. “What is he-”
Lord Scepter Bladebeard raised a hand, commanding silence. Torrin bit back the rest of what he’d been about to say. The wizard completed his spell, and the lump of clay assumed a flat, oval shape and an entirely different color. It appeared to have been transformed into bloodstone. And not just any piece of stone, but an exact duplicate of the runestone.
The Lord Scepter smiled and touched his brooch. “It was you who gave me the idea, Delver Ironstar,” he said. Then he turned back to the wizard, who was tucking his wand into his belt. The Lord Scepter handed the fellow a heavy looking coin pouch, but paused for a moment before releasing it.
“Not a word of this to anyone,” the Lord Scepter told him. “Not even members of the Council.”
“Of course,” the wizard answered. “My discretion is assured, as always.” As he left the chambers, he slid a sideways glance at Torrin.
Torrin waited in dry-mouthed silence as the door closed. He could understand why a human wizard had been called to the Lord Scepter’s chambers. For one thing, dwarf wizards were few and far between. More importantly, they were more likely than a human was to tip the ore cart, and let tumble what had just been done.
The Lord Scepter picked up the real runestone. “I want you to take this,” he said.
“You honor me by entrusting it to me, Lord Scepter,” Torrin replied as he bowed.
The Lord Scepter passed the runestone to Torrin. “What better place to keep it, than in a Delver’s pack?” he said. He gestured at the strongbox in a corner of his chambers, next to an opulent marble table. “Even a magically sealed strongbox is susceptible to thieves,” he said. “If those thieves are looking in the wrong place, there’s even less chance they’ll find what they’re after.”
“What thieves?” Torrin asked, suddenly worried.
The Lord Scepter’s eyes turned serious. “The duergar, for one,” he said. “Who’s to say they haven’t already pulled the same trick we’re about to-that they haven’t already sent spies to Eartheart, disguised as true dwarves. It would be easy enough to do.”
Torrin raised a fist to his chest. “I’ll keep the runestone safe, Lord Scepter. By Moradin’s beard, I swear it.”
“That you will, Delver Torrin. I’m certain of it,” the Lord Scepter said, staring up at Torrin. “One thing more. The brooch I gave you-I want you to keep it, as well. You will be my ears, in Drik Hargunen.”
Torrin nodded, although the words made him thoughtful. Surely High Commander Steeleye would keep the Lord Scepter appraised of the squad’s progress. There was something more afoot here.
“Is there anything in particular you hope to hear?” he asked.
The Lord Scepter spread his hands. “Just keep close to the squad,” he said. “If anyone starts behaving… strangely, I want to know about it.”
A nasty thought occurred to Torrin. “Do you think the duergar might try to infiltrate the squad?” he asked. “In disguise?”
“That’s certainly something to watch for,” the Lord Scepter answered. “But there’s more to it than that. If anyone’s loyalties seem to be shifting, let me know at once.”
Torrin nodded. There was clearly someone on the squad that the Lord Scepter didn’t trust. But whom? Torrin knew better than to ask. The Lord Scepter would have told him the name already, if he’d had any intention to reveal it.
The Lord Scepter held Torrin’s eye a moment more. “I want you in Drik Hargunen,” he said. “With that squad. No matter how you get there.” His eye lingered a moment on the runestone in Torrin’s hand. “I assume you overheard the words that activated it, when our captive was being questioned?”
“Good,” the Lord Scepter said. “But let’s pray that isn’t necessary.”
He gestured at the door. “Now hurry, and find Baelar,” he added. “Convince him, as you said you could, to include you on his squad.”
“As you command, Lord Scepter,” Torrin said. His heart pounded with excitement. It no longer mattered that the High Commander had overlooked him, that his officers and knights regarded Torrin as a mere pretender. The Lord Scepter himself had placed his trust in Torrin.
Torrin hurried back to the headquarters of the Steel Shields, the most likely place to find Baelar. He spotted the captain striding through the building’s central chamber, under its great translucent dome.
“Baelar!” Torrin called out. “A moment of your time. We need to talk about the scouting expedition.”
Baelar didn’t reply. Perhaps, Torrin thought, his hearing had been damaged in the dragon’s attack.
It was only after Torrin touched his shoulder that Baelar turned to face him. His face was flushed, his good hand balled in a fist. “How dare you!” he hissed.
Torrin jerked to a halt. “What-”
“You were the only one who knew I once lived in… that place,” Baelar said, after a quick glance at the knights who bowed as they passed. “I trusted you with that confidence, as an illustration that any man might rise above what he had once been. And you used it against me by telling the Lord Scepter, of all people!”
His accusing stare made Torrin feel odd. It was as if their relative statures had suddenly reversed, as if he was a mere boy, staring up at an angry grandparent.
“I had to,” Torrin said. “You’re a natural to lead the squad-and you’d never have volunteered that information yourself.”
“Of course not! You saw how the others reacted when they heard I’d lived in Gracklstugh.”
“But the Council ordered you to go,” Torrin protested. “You were a spy.”
“You beardless boy,” Baelar spat. “That part was a lie.”
Torrin’s mouth fell open. He swallowed, suddenly sheepish. “At least the Lord Scepter made certain there was no shame attached to it, by saying you’d done it at the Council’s command,” he said.
Baelar winced. “And how long do you think they’ll believe that?” he asked. “They’ll do the calculations, and realize that Bladebeard wasn’t even on the council when I was supposedly given my orders.”
“He could have heard about it after the fact,” Torrin said. “And once the scouting mission is a success, and the curse is lifted, you’ll be a hero. No one would dare besmirch your honor.”
“What does it matter what they say? They’ll know.” Baelar said, gesturing angrily. “And the men under my command won’t trust me. Not fully. Nor will High Commander Steeleye.”
Torrin suddenly felt hollow with remorse. He suddenly understood the cryptic comments the Lord Scepter had just made about keeping an eye on any squad members who didn’t appear fully ‘loyal.’ The Lord Scepter had seen the wisdom of putting a captain who spoke duergar in charge of the mission, yet he still had his reservations about Baelar.
And, thanks to Torrin, so would everyone else.
Baelar shook his head. “What you’ve done can’t be undone,” he said. “There’s nothing I can do about it now. The part that really stings is that you betrayed my trust. And if you think that’s going to earn you a place on the squad-which will have trust as its very foundation-then you’re even less of a man than I took you for.”
Baelar glared up at Torrin. “No dwarf would ever do what you did, back there in the High Commander’s office. No dwarf with any honor. Honor is the marrow in our bones.” Ruefully, he shook his head. “That’s something no human will ever understand.”
With that, he turned on his heel and walked away.
Standing in the echoing hall, Torrin felt like a clod of dirt tossed into a puddle. All the pride he’d felt a short time before, in the Lord Scepter’s chambers, had just leached out of him. He stood as if rooted to the spot, not acknowledging the Steel Shields who passed by-officers who’d heard how he’d discovered that the duergar were behind the stoneplague; officers who honored him with their bows. Yet Torrin felt as empty as the dome above his head.
“Baelar,” he whispered, “I’m sorry.”
But Baelar was gone.
Torrin had been so certain he’d done the right thing. But had he?
He was even questioning the belief that was at his very core. Was Baelar right? Was Torrin truly a dwarf? Or had he been deluding himself all those years?
Perhaps it was all just wishful thinking, as the loremaster his mother had consulted had said. Perhaps knowing how to use the mace didn’t mean anything. Perhaps he was just what everyone said.
He glanced down at the bracers on his wrists. At the star that he’d believed with his whole heart, right up until that moment, marked him as a reincarnated soul from the fabled Ironstar clan. Did he truly deserve to wear them?
Torrin closed his eyes and hung his head.
“Am I truly a dwarf reforged, Moradin?” Torrin whispered. “Is it truly your will that I should continue to walk this path? I pray, Dwarffather, show me a sign.”
The chamber brightened. Torrin opened his eyes and glanced up. The sun had risen directly above the center of the dome. It shone in through the dome’s central panel-the only clear pane of glass in the ceiling. A beam of sunlight transfixed the spot where Torrin stood. He looked down and saw that he stood on a pace-wide circle of mithril at the center of the chamber. The precious metal gleamed like a mirror under his feet, catching and holding his reflected image. A quirk of the reflective surface made it look as though Torrin was half his height, his body broader and thicker than it actually was. Short and stout: a dwarf.
Torrin fell to his knees, the silver hammers in his beard twinkling in the sunlight. “So be it, Dwarffather,” he vowed. “I shall serve as you command.”
Torrin took a deep breath, steeling himself. He’d made his preparations. His Delver’s pack was secure on his shoulders, hidden by his cloak; his goggles were positioned on his forehead, ready for use. The magical potions and ring he’d coaxed out of Delvemaster Frivaldi were secure in his pockets and on his finger.
He stood just outside the city, not too far from the spot where Eartheart’s massive stone walls met the edge of the East Rift. As a boy, he’d often visited the natural lookout point. In the distance, a Peacehammer rode his griffon, their shadow streaking across the glittering expanse of the Riftlake, far below. A haunting screee drifted on the wind.
The sun was setting. The moment had come. He glanced around, making sure he was the only one on the lonely ledge. Then he kneeled. “Marthammor Duin,” he prayed, “Watcher over Wanderers, guide my steps. Find the way for me, and make my path smooth.”
He pulled his goggles into place, closed his eyes, and formed a mental image of the library cubicle as Cathor had described it-a small chamber with a thick pane of glass that looked into the library proper. Below that connecting window was a counter with a glass top. When a patron of the library wished to study a particular tablet, the librarians would slide it into a drawer in the counter, and the patron viewed it through the glass. Runes etched into the countertop ensured that patrons didn’t use magic to reach through and touch a tablet; those who tried triggered lethal magical effects.
Now that he knew the command words that activated the runestone, it should be possible, Torrin thought, to teleport into the cubicle. The temple’s library was open not only to duergar, but also to their allies-the handful of humans, deep gnomes, and derro that called Drik Hargunen home. The chamber would certainly bear wards against true dwarves, but someone like Torrin-a dwarf with an indisputably human body-should be able to slip through.
“The library of the Runescribed Hall of Laduguer’s Graving,” he commanded the runestone. “By blood and earth, ae-burakrin, take me to it, now!”
Spellfire flared around him, its blue glare bright against his closed eyelids. Torrin felt the twist as he slid between one place and the next. A moment later, he landed, still kneeling, on a rough stone floor. He opened his eyes. Through the one lens that remained in his goggles, he saw that he was in an unlit room with a ceiling low enough that his head would have brushed it, had he been standing. The room was covered in overlapping lines-a myriad of glyphs carved into the stone. The small chamber had a dwarf-high door in one wall and a window set into the opposite wall at what would have been the level of his chest. Below the window was a glass-topped counter.
He’d done it! He was inside Drik Hargunen!
Spellfire crackled around his knees, bleeding away into the floor. The stone under his knees was warm, but the warmth dissipated rapidly. Torrin scrambled over to the window and peered into the library proper. Duergar librarians bustled back and forth between the shelves, but none seemed to have noticed his arrival. So far, so good. He put the runestone inside his pack to keep it safe. Then he made his way to the door, and opened it a crack.
A hallway ran right and left. It had doors similar to the one he was peering through, likely leading to other cubicles. Faint murmurs came from behind some of them, probably the voices of library patrons. At the end of the hallway was a black metal door, inscribed with a large glyph surrounded by a multitude of smaller inscriptions. In fact, the hallway was covered in glyphs, too. Any one of them might trigger a magical alarm or a deadly trap.
Torrin reached up to stroke his beard, and halted as his hand touched blunt-ended braids. He’d had to remove Moradin’s hammers from his beard; the braids ended where he’d cut them. Likewise, he’d reluctantly left behind his bracers, lest their distinctive Ironstar rune give him away. His forearms felt naked without them. His mace, however, was at his hip. Though it was a mission that required stealth, he couldn’t very well walk through an enemy city without some protection.
He pulled a thumb-sized vial out of his pocket, uncorked it, and drank. The potion would temporarily allow him to spot anything that was ensorcelled. It tasted faintly of mushrooms. He gagged it down with a shudder.
Within a heartbeat or two, the potion took effect. Several of the inscriptions in the hallway acquired a faint, sparkling glow.
Cathor had said the exit lay to the right. Moving cautiously, careful not to tread on any magical inscription, Torrin made his way to that door. He could stand upright there; the arched ceiling was at least a handspan above his head. He glanced around as he walked, taking care not to let his shoulders brush the walls, and found he could read many of the inscriptions. The duergar spoke a separate dialect, yet they wrote with the same runes as the dwarves. Most of the inscriptions appeared to be prayers-the name Laduguer was repeated over and over again. None of the names bore a magical glow, but Torrin took care not to touch them anyway.
He reached the door without incident and eased it open.
The door led to a balcony with an iron floor and roof that were bolted onto the wall of an enormous natural chimney in the rock. The vast vertical tunnel was honeycombed with corridors leading into the rock and fronted with similar balconies. Arching ramps, also made of iron, connected each balcony to a spiral staircase at the center of the chimney. Scores of bald-headed duergar moved up and down the central staircase, intent on their business, passing across the bridges to the corridors bored into the rock. They moved for the most part in silence, barely acknowledging each other as they passed. Their hobnailed boots clanked on the metal steps. The only other sounds were the hiss of the chill, soot-tinged air through the cavern and the steady thud, thud, thud of something heavy and mechanical far below. Huge inscriptions, each glyph taller than a cottage, spelled out words on the chimney walls: “Silence. Toil. Obedience.”
Torrin rested his hands on the balcony’s grimy railing and leaned out, looking up. Just above was the rest of the Runescribed Hall of Laduguer’s Graving, temple to the god Laduguer. Its outermost walls were made of iron and bolted to the natural rock. They bulged out from the wall like an angular shield, protecting the corridors and rooms within. Two enormous metal doors, each bearing a brightly glowing glyph, marked the temple’s entrance. They were closed, likely locked and warded. Torrin hoped to get inside by subterfuge. His plan was to pose as a human slaver who needed the services of a cleric to scry out a particularly valuable escaped slave. But if that didn’t work-if he couldn’t convince Laduguer’s clerics to let him inside-there was always the magical ring that Delvemaster Frivaldi had loaned Torrin. All he had to do was knock, and any lock would open.
Torrin stepped back, brushing the soot from his palms. It was going to be dangerous. But he had to try.
He crossed the bridge to the central staircase and made his way up the wide metal stairs. Each step was a grill of metal, and the view below was dizzying. Torrin passed several duergar, each of whom lifted his or her normally downturned head to stare sullenly at him as he passed. Their eyes bored into his back as he climbed. The women were bare-cheeked, and the men wore beards that reminded Torrin of animal quills-each strand of hair was as thick as the spine of a feather and bristling stiffly from cheeks and chin. All had black eyes and dull gray skin. Torrin repressed a shudder. He reminded himself that it was their natural coloration and not the stoneplague.
Other creatures moved up and down the staircase as well. Grimlock slaves, a full head taller than the duergar, walked bent over as if worn down by their servitude. They had normal noses and mouths, but no eyes-just empty sockets covered by flaps of skin. Large, cupped ears helped compensate for their natural blindness. Most carried heavily loaded baskets or other burdens.
The grimlocks wore clothing little better than rags, tattered and stained. Lash marks-some healed, some fresh and weeping-covered their shoulders and backs. One grimlock stank of rotting flesh; maggots squirmed in an untended wound on his mangled hand.
Torrin swallowed down his bile. The sight of how the duergar treated their slaves made him sick. He started to whisper a prayer for the wretched slaves’ souls, but halted himself just in time. With his eyes down, he plodded on up the stairs.
Just above was the bridge leading to the temple. A pair of duergar wearing gray hooded mantles and riding boots and carrying lances over the shoulders had just started across to the temple. Torrin decided to wait until they had disappeared into the temple before trying to enter himself. He slowed down and let other duergar pass him. One hurried up the stairs, elbowing aside a grimlock. Already unbalanced by a basket filled with tubers, the slave stumbled sideways and threw out a hand to steady himself. He was about to touch one of two nearby runes that glowed with magic. Not the benign sounding burakrin, meaning “passage,” but the one that read bazcorl — “fiery death.”
Before the slave’s hand could make contact with the rune, Torrin shoved him. The slave lurched forward, and his hand came to rest on a non-magical part of the wall, instead. Unfortunately for him, he stumbled into the duergar who’d elbowed him aside. Tubers spilled from the slave’s basket and bounced off the duergar’s head and shoulders before rolling down the stairs. Some tumbled off the edge of the staircase and spun away out of sight.
The duergar whirled and spat out angry words. Torrin couldn’t understand the dialect, and at first thought the duergar was berating the slave. One word, however, he recognized: “human.” The sneer on the duergar’s lips made it clear he intended it as an insult. And he was staring down at Torrin!
Torrin had no idea what was expected of a human in Drik Hargunen. Should he answer the fellow’s insult with one of his own? Bow meekly and ask forgiveness? The duergar carried himself as if he were someone important-a noble, no doubt. He wore an expensive-looking cloak and several gold rings, some of which were glowing to Torrin’s potion-enhanced eyesight. His spiky beard glowed with magic as well.
Torrin bowed his head. “My apologies,” he said in Dwarvish. “I tripped.”
The noble’s eyebrows rose. With his quill beard bristling, he shouted something at Torrin. Immediately, the slave fell to his knees, trembling. Above, one of the duergar who’d been crossing the bridge to the temple glanced back at what was happening and halted abruptly. On the staircase below Torrin-all around him in fact-other duergar had gathered. They were staring at him with each passing moment, nudging each other, and muttering.
Torrin swallowed. He bowed again at the highranking duergar and tried backing away down the stairs. But something pressed into his back, blocking his path. He glanced behind him and saw what must have been one of Drik Hargunen’s guards, wearing an iron breastplate and a small round helmet. He’d turned his quarterstaff sideways, to block Torrin’s path.
Meanwhile, the hooded duergar who had halted on the temple bridge waved his companion on and headed back to the staircase, his lance at the ready. He shouted something at the noble, who shook his head and gestured angrily at Torrin as the tips of the quills oozed a blood red substance that let off tiny wisps of sulfurous smelling smoke. Poison?
Things weren’t going at all well.
“I’m newly arrived in Drik Hargunen,” Torrin explained in Dwarvish, hoping the noble could understand him. “I meant no offense. I’ll just be on my way now.”
The gray-hooded duergar with the lance had reached the staircase. The knot of onlookers parted for him. Clearly, he was someone important, too. The lance alone looked valuable, with an intricately carved shaft and a large black star sapphire set into the shaft just below the blade. The gem had a crack running through it that had nearly split it in two. It reminded Torrin of something. Laduguer’s holy symbol was a broken crossbow bolt… Was the broken gemstone something similar? Was he a cleric of Laduguer?
“You there,” the cleric said in Dwarvish, pointing down at Torrin. “Slaver. Discipline your chattel.” He jutted his chin in the direction of the cowering slave.
Torrin was grateful for the cleric’s mistake. If they thought the grimlock was his slave, it would make things easier. Torrin had planned to pose as a slave trader, and the grimlock was opportunity to make himself look legitimate. He forced a scowl onto his face and kicked the cowering grimlock. “Apologize for your clumsiness, slave!” he bellowed.
The grimlock let out a howl.
The noble sneered and said something to the guard who stood behind Torrin. The quarterstaff nudged Torrin forward. He stumbled up a step.
The cleric flicked a hand, catching Torrin’s eye. “Stupid human,” he shouted. “Do you think you’re invincible — that you’ve been drinking dragon’s blood? Kill that grimlock, or your life is forfeit. Your slave has touched a klegesk! You’re both about to be quilled!”
Torrin blinked in surprise. Dragon’s blood? He suddenly noticed the cleric’s gnarled hand. That was no duergar. That was Baelar, in disguise! He’d just risked the entire mission to intervene, despite what Torrin had done earlier.
“Quit trying to protect your property, human!” Baelar commanded. “Throw him off the staircase. Now!”
Torrin was appalled. Surely there was some other way to escape than murdering an innocent slave! Baelar obviously didn’t like it much, either. Torrin could see the sadness in his eyes that belied his apparently firm, commanding voice.
Torrin swallowed. He knew what was expected of him. The mission depended on it. The lives of people like Kier depended upon it. Yet he just couldn’t kill the slave. Not when there was another way out.
“I’m sorry,” he said again. And he meant it. It was something else Baelar would have to forgive him for. He smacked a hand against the second magical rune on the wall beside him, the one that read “passage.” Instantly, he felt the familiar wrench of a teleportation spell.
As it whisked him away, he heard shouts. The noble’s beard exploded quills that left streaks of smoke as they sped toward him.
Torrin vanished from the bridge, the quills shattering against the wall where he’d stood.
Torrin landed face down in something warm and squishy. He came up sputtering and spitting, frantically wiping the stinking mess from his face. It smelled as though he’d landed in a latrine. The taste of it on his lips made him gag. He heard more than one large creature moving nearby, and low-throated grunts. He dragged a sleeve across the one lens of his goggles. Suddenly, he could see in the darkness.
He’d been teleported to what looked like a slave pen. The walls were gray granite; the floor in the corner where he’d landed was slippery with feces. Between Torrin and the padlocked iron grate that closed off the pen, three huge, muscular ogres stared at him, dull-eyed with surprise. One scratched its head, the chain connecting its wrist to the wall clanking as its hand moved. The other two bared vicious tusks. Drool dribbled from their mouths. Like the first ogre, they were chained to the wall. Yet that chain was plenty long enough for them to reach Torrin.
One of the ogres lurched at him, surprisingly fast. Torrin barely got his mace up in time. He swung it, shouting its command word. Thunder boomed as the weapon connected with the ogre’s reaching hand, smacking it aside. The ogre howled its rage and backed away rapidly, its hand tucked tight against its chest. Blood dribbled from the spot where its fractured fingerbones protruded through its flesh.
The other two ogres barely glanced at the injured one. They advanced more cautiously, fanning out on either side of Torrin, flanking him. Struggling to keep his footing in the slippery muck, Torrin backed up a step. If only he could reach for his runestone, he could teleport out of there! But it was inside his pack, and there was no time to get it out. He’d have to fight his way clear, instead. And he’d have to do it before the duergar official he’d offended on the staircase sent men after him. The duergar would know, after all, where Torrin had wound up. It was their rune that had teleported him there.
But first, he had to deal with the ogres. “It’s not your dinner time quite yet,” Torrin said to them through gritted teeth. He gripped his mace with sweaty hands-wary, yet confident in its ability to protect him. “Now then… Who’s next?”
One of the ogres moved a step closer. Torrin shifted his mace. The other moved closer still, crowding Torrin. Yet still they didn’t attack. What were they waiting for? Were they trying to goad Torrin into charging them, hoping he’d slip and drop his weapon? Ogres weren’t that clever. Or were they?
One of the ogres barked something over its shoulder at the injured one. The latter thrust its good hand out through the grate and slapped the wall outside. Belatedly, Torrin realized that the spot on the wall was glowing faintly. The potion Torrin had drunk was wearing off; the glow indicating the rune’s magic was so dim he’d missed it earlier.
As the ogre’s meaty hand slapped the rune, a wave of magical energy shimmered through the cavern. The ogres grunted in pain and fell to the ground as it swept across them. The injured ogre let out a low moan as its hand struck the floor. Then the wave of magical force reached the back of the slave pen. As it struck Torrin, he felt as though his arms and his legs were suddenly boneless. He crumpled where he stood, the mace falling from fingers that could no longer grip. Helpless, he lay on his side in the muck, unable to move. Even breathing was a struggle. It felt as though his lungs were about to collapse in upon themselves.
“Mar… tham… mor,” he prayed, barely able to force the words out. “Aid… me…” His mind screamed at his body to crawl through the muck to his mace. But all he could do was lie there, as weak as a newborn.
The ogres began to recover from the magical effect before Torrin. They were bigger than him, tougher. Though still shaky, they rose to their hands and knees. One of them crawled to Torrin’s mace and hurled the weapon behind it; it struck the grate with a loud clang. The other flipped Torrin over roughly. Torrin felt large hands ripping his clothing, pawing at his pack, and tearing it off his back. Claws raked his shoulder, and he cried out in pain. Blood streamed down his back. He struggled to rise, but a heavy hand slammed him down. He heard the ogres grunting, panting out a single word in Dwarvish over and over again as they tore at his pack and pockets: “Key, key, key.”
Torrin found enough strength to twist one hand out. “Key!” he shouted at them, trying to raise his magical ring. His other hand groped for the wrist of the nearest ogre, and the manacle enclosing it. He rapped his ring hand down sharply on the manacle and spoke the ring’s command word.
The manacle burst open, falling away from the ogre’s wrist.
Suddenly, the ogres were no longer mauling him.
Torrin rolled aside and sat up. He pointed to his finger, indicating the ring. “Key,” he said. He pointed at the manacle on the wrist of the second uninjured ogre, then made a beckoning motion. “You. Come. Key.”
The freed ogre stared down at its bare wrist with a sloppy grin on its face. The ogre beside it glanced at the first, then extended his arm to Torrin.
“That’s right,” Torrin said. “Play nice and I’ll help you.” He knocked his fist against the manacle, and it fell away.
The ogre with the shattered hand stood near the grate. It had Torrin’s mace in its uninjured hand, and was savagely taking out its anger by biting one end of it; its teeth ground against the iron-hard handle. Cautiously, Torrin made his way to it.
“Mace,” he ordered, pointing at the weapon, praying that the word was the same in the duergar dialect as it was in Dwarvish, and that the ogre would understand it. He gestured at the floor. “Put the mace down,” he said. He held up his fist and pointed at his ring. “Key,” he repeated. He was acutely aware of the other two ogres crowding in behind him, breathing down the back of his neck. He pointed first at the manacle, then at the locked grate. “Key.”
The ogre stared dully at Torrin for a long moment. Then it spat the mace out and held up its wrist.
Torrin expended another of the ring’s charges freeing the slave. Then he turned and knocked his fist against the padlock. The grate swung open on squealing hinges.
The three ogres stared at the open grate for one heartbeat, two… and then all tried to barge through it at once. After a brief scuffle, the two uninjured ones erupted out of the slave pen. The third ogre ran after them, clutching its wounded hand to its chest.
Torrin heaved a huge sigh of relief. He scooped up his mace and hurried to the back of the cave where his pack lay. The buckles were dangling, and the straps were shredded; but although the main flap had been ripped open, the ogres had gotten nothing out of the pack. Torrin plunged a hand inside and commanded the runestone to his hand.
He pictured the cubicle in the library he’d teleported into earlier. It was uncomfortably close to the stairs and the duergar official who’d confronted him, but that might be a good thing-the duergar wouldn’t expect Torrin to return there so soon. He’d clean up with water from his waterskin, put on fresh clothes from his pack, and try again.
With Marthammor Duin’s blessing, Baelar and the others would be inside the temple already, searching for the cursed rune. Maybe Torrin could do something to help them, rather than hinder them.
He pictured the empty cubicle. The image came clearly to mind. “The library of the Runescribed Hall of Laduguer’s Graving,” he said. “By blood and earth, ae-burakrin. Take me there.”
“The cubicle in the library-the one I teleported to a short time ago,” he repeated. “By blood and earth, ae-burakrin. Take me there. Now!”
Light flared beside him as a rune in the wall blazed to life. Torrin turned to look at it. “ Thulkrin,” it read. “Blocked passage.”
Torrin’s heart sank. The runestone wasn’t going to get him out of there. The rune had obviously been put into place to put slaves from escaping-or from being stolen.
Slowly, Torrin lowered the runestone. The corridor outside would certainly be similarly warded, as would anywhere else the slaves passed through.
“By Moradin’s beard,” he whispered, “Now what?”
He’d better decide quickly, he thought. Judging by the shouts coming from farther along the tunnel, either the three escaped ogres had just been spotted, or the duergar he’d angered on the staircase had sent guards to collect the wayward “human slaver.” Either way, Torrin didn’t want to stick around.
“Gold is gold, though it be in a rogue’s purse.”
Torrin rushed down the tunnel, away from the shouts. He soon realized the ogres’ cave was just one of many slave pens. He kept passing similar caves, each with a padlocked grate.
The corridor looked as though it had once been part of a mine. The walls were cut stone, and heavy timbers shored up the ceiling. Inscriptions were everywhere. Large runes marked the entrance to each slave pen-likely similar to the one the ogre had activated. Other runes had been carved into the timbers and walls, still others into the floor. Whether they were magical or merely directional, Torrin had no idea. But he took no chances. He jumped over all of them.
As he ran past their slave pens, the ogres, orcs, and goblins confined within ran forward, some shouting at Torrin, others banging their manacles against the grates. Torrin rapped his fist against as many manacles and padlocks as he could-each of the locks fell open as his ring worked its magic. Freed slaves poured out, whooping with glee. Others shouted for him to free them, too. But as much as he’d like to, Torrin couldn’t free them all. There just wasn’t enough time. Nor did he want to use up all the charges in his ring. According to Delvemaster Frivaldi, the ring had held twenty-eight charges when he’d given it to Torrin. And Torrin had used up… How many by now? Twenty? Twenty-two? He’d lost count. He had better not use it again unless he had to.
By the sound of the shouts, the duergar guards were drawing closer. Hopefully, the milling knot of freed slaves would slow them down.
As he leaped over a rune on the floor, the jump carried him a little too close to one of the smaller slave pens. Its lone occupant, a snout-nosed orc with braided hair and ears that suggested he was at least part human, thrust a hand through the grate and caught Torrin’s arm. When Torrin tried to yank free, the orc’s filthy claws dug painfully into his arm.
“Free me,” the orc grunted in Undercommon, a pidgin language cobbled together with words from more than a dozen underground-dwelling races. “I pay.” Still holding Torrin, he dug a palm-sized sheet of ragged-edged metal out of the filthy leggings that wrapped his lower legs. He held it up. “Gold!” he panted. “I pay.”
The shouts behind Torrin were getting ever closer. “Let go!” Torrin cried. “There’s no time.” He wrenched his arm free and ran. Blood dribbled down his arm from the scratches the orc had gouged in it.
The orc’s pen turned out to be the last. Torrin ran on into a section of mine that had no side caves. He reached a spot where the tunnel branched, and chose a direction at random. More side caves appeared, those ones filled with stone-cutting equipment: picks, shovels, drill bits, and ore buckets on shoulder yokes. It was an active mine, not an abandoned one. That explained the slaves.
Suddenly, Torrin realized that the shouts behind him were staying in one spot. It was likely the duergar guards had run into the fleeing slaves. Nearly out of breath, Torrin slowed to a walk. Just as his breathing was returning to normal, he heard a clicking noise, like the sound of claws on stone, coming along the tunnel he’d just run through. The clicking grew louder, closer. He ducked into one of the side caves and hid behind some ore buckets, readying his mace. Peering out, he saw a spider the size of a dining table scuttle into view across the tunnel’s ceiling. A duergar sat in a saddle cinched to its bulging abdomen. The hood of his gray mantle hung down, brushing the floor. He wore riding boots and held a lance like the one Baelar had been carrying, with a fist-sized gem set into its blade.
The spider scuttled out of sight, and silence returned. As Torrin eased himself out from behind the ore buckets, one of them shifted slightly, threatening to fall. He caught it. To his surprise it was made of stone, not metal, and was terribly heavy. Grunting, he eased it back into place. As he did, what felt like a lip of hardened slag on the edge of the bucket bent easily under his hand. Gold? He reached for a pick and tested its point on the slag. The metal scratched easily.
He was certain: it was gold.
Had the bucket been used to carry molten metal from the River of Gold? That would explain why it was made of stone. It would also explain why a guard bearing religious regalia was down there in the mine.
Perhaps the slaves would be worth talking to.
Torrin doubled back the way he’d come, praying the spider-mounted guard wasn’t doing the same thing. Fortunately, he reached the orc’s slave pen without incident. The orc stared hopefully at Torrin through the grate.
“I’ve changed my mind,” Torrin told him. “I’m going to set you free.”
The orc grinned.
“But not until you answer some questions,” Torrin continued. He showed the orc his mace. “Now back away from the grate. Go to the rear of your cave. Do exactly as I say, and I won’t use this.”
The orc gave Torrin a long, appraising look. Then he nodded and moved back, limping slightly. Still holding the mace, Torrin knocked the padlock open with his magical ring, opened the grate, and stepped inside. He replaced the padlock, adjusting it so that it appeared to be closed, and joined the orc. He held his weapon close to his chest to keep it hidden. With his clothing torn and filth-splattered, he’d pass for a fellow slave at a casual glance, should any guards come their way.
The orc stood, rubbing his manacled wrist. “What you want to know, human?” he asked.
“That gold you showed me,” Torrin said. “You picked it off one of those stone ore buckets, didn’t you?”
The orc’s eyes narrowed, and he darted a wary glance at the exit.
“I don’t care about you stealing,” Torrin said. “What I want to know is where the gold was mined. Did it come from a flow of molten gold that moved through the earth like lava?”
“Ah,” the orc said, suddenly at ease again. His eyes gleamed. “You want gold. Come here steal.”
“That’s right,” Torrin said. If playing the part of a rogue would earn the orc’s trust, he was happy to oblige.
“No good,” the orc said, shaking his head. One of his braids flopped over his face; he flicked it back with a grimy hand. “Go there, get scar. Spellfire.”
Sounds of footsteps approached the pen. Torrin heard voices, repeating a single word every few moments, in duergar. The word was close enough to Dwarvish that he understood it. “Secure. Secure.”
Guards, checking the slave pens! Torrin eyed the padlock and suddenly regretted not having properly closed it. The guards would reach the orc’s pen at any moment.
The orc saw where Torrin was looking. “Down!” he hissed. He scooped a ragged blanket from the floor. “Hide under blanket. I close lock-you open again?”
Torrin nodded. Then he lay on the floor and let the orc cover him. The orc’s chain rattled as he moved across his pen. Then Torrin heard the click of the padlock closing and another rattle of chain as the orc came back again. A sudden weight landed on Torrin’s scratched back. The orc was sitting on top of him. Torrin bit back a groan of pain.
He heard footsteps outside the pen and the squeak of the padlock being lifted. “Secure,” a voice said in duergar. Then a clank. The padlock fell back into place against the grate, and the footsteps went back the way they’d come.
A moment or two later, the pressure on Torrin’s back eased. The orc whisked off the blanket.
“Thanks,” Torrin said, climbing to his feet.
The orc held out his manacled wrist. One eyebrow lifted in a silent question.
Torrin knocked his ring against the manacle. It fell open. As the orc eased it to the floor, Torrin took a step back, still holding his mace. There was no sense in being too trusting.
“One more question,” he said. “After the molten gold was tapped, where did you take it? To the temple in Drik Hargunen?”
The orc snorted. “No allow slaves in city,” he said. “Only allow blind slave.”
“Where did you take the gold?”
The orc shook his head. “Not take.”
“I don’t mean the gold you stole,” Torrin said, thinking the orc must have misunderstood. “I mean the gold you collected in the ore buckets. The molten gold. Where did the duergar tell you to carry it to?”
“Nowhere,” the orc said. “Just pour. Into lines in floor.”
Torrin’s heart beat a little faster. “Lines?” he repeated.
“Scratches. Deep.” The orc traced imaginary lines on the floor with a cracked claw. “Duergar cut floor.”
Torrin couldn’t believe his ears. The “scratches” in the floor had to be rune magic. The rune that had poisoned Moradin hadn’t been inscribed in the temple in Drik Hargunen. It was there in the mine. Somewhere nearby!
“Those scratches-the ones you poured the gold into,” Torrin told the orc. “Take me to them, and I’ll teleport you to wherever you want to go, anywhere on the face of Faerun. I swear it, by every hair in Moradin’s beard.”
The orc shook his head. The wary look was back in his eye. “No can go there,” he said slowly, as if speaking to a child. “Spellfire.”
“Then just show me the way,” Torrin said. “Take me as close to the spot as you dare, and then you can go.”
The orc’s expression grew even more anguished. “No, listen, human. Go there, get spellscar!”
He bent over and undid the rag that bound his calf and foot. Torrin saw a blue glow-veins of spellfire crackling across the orc’s foot and ankle.
“Spellfire,” the orc said in a strained voice. He rewrapped his foot again, hiding the blue glow from sight. He jerked his chin at the padlock. “Open it, I tell you how to go. Draw map.” He shrugged. “You want scar, human, you have.”
“Very well,” Torrin said. He eased off his pack and drew from it a roll of parchment and a slender length of charcoal. “Draw me a map. And hurry, in case the guards return.”
The orc obliged. Torrin watched over the orc’s shoulder as he sketched. If the map was even close to scale, the cavern where the rune magic had been invoked was enormous. Fortunately, by the look of it, it wasn’t too far.
The orc finished his work and picked up the map. Torrin took it. “My thanks, ah…” He suddenly realized he’d never asked the slave’s name.
“Grast,” the orc said.
Torrin pulled his dagger out of his pack and offered it to the orc. “It’s not magical,” he explained. “But at least it’s something. It might help you get out of here.”
Grast juggled the blade in one hand, testing its balance. Torrin, meanwhile, peered cautiously into the corridor-which, praise Moradin, was empty of guards-and used his ring to once again knock open the padlock. He swung the grate open slowly, making sure it didn’t squeak, and stepped out of the slave pen. Grast followed close on his heels.
“No go cave, human,” the orc cautioned again as he eased the grate shut and replaced the padlock. “Gold no worth it.”
“I’m a dwarf, actually,” Torrin said. “And yes, it will be worth it.”
Grast gave him one last puzzled look. Then he shrugged and hurried away.
Torrin glanced around. Then he spoke into his brooch. “Lord Scepter. Can you hear me?”
“I’ve learned where the rune was inscribed,” he continued.
Still no response. Torrin grimaced in frustration. Was the Lord Scepter simply not listening, or was some rune in the tunnel blocking the brooch’s magic? Just in case the Lord Scepter could hear him, Torrin quickly told what he’d just learned, keeping his voice low. He whispered a quick prayer that the Lord Scepter had heard him, and would find a way to communicate the information to the squad.
In the meantime, Torrin was on his own. He had to assume that the orc hadn’t lied to him, and that he was correct about the rune’s location.
Torrin headed for the tunnel where the spiderriding duergar had passed him. Assuming Grast’s map was accurate, that tunnel eventually connected with the large cavern where the rune had been inscribed.
He wondered, as he hurried along, if he shouldn’t head back to Drik Hargunen proper and instead try to find Baelar and the other members of his squad. But he had no idea which tunnel led back to the city. What’s more, he’d have a tough time recognizing Baelar or the other squad members. More likely than not, Torrin would just blunder about and give the game away.
Instead he made his way down the tunnel, following the map to a cavern that, according to the orc, was filled with enough spellfire to scar him.
Torrin snorted. A little spellfire wasn’t going to scare him off. If he wound up like Eralynn, so be it. A spellscar was one more excuse for people to dislike and mistrust him. And Torrin was used to that. Spellfire or no, he was going to find that rune.
And when he did… Well, he’d figure that part out as he went along.
Torrin heard a faint click and felt the floor shift slightly under his foot. A pwuff, pwuff, pwuff sound came from the right. Pain speared into his right calf and forearm as darts shot from the wall next to him and struck home. Instinct screamed at him to leap to the side, but he resisted. The trap his foot had just triggered might be a double-trip pressure plate that would trigger still more darts upon release.
Gritting his teeth against the searing pain, careful not to shift his weight too much, Torrin raised his right arm to inspect the damage. The dart was no longer than a human finger and as slender as the spine of a quill. It had pierced the skin without penetrating much muscle. The wide metal flanges of its tail prevented the dart from going all the way through, and it hung from his arm. Drawing it through would only make the wound worse. Nor did Torrin have any way to cut through the dart’s metal shaft, having given his dagger away. That left one course of action. Steeling himself, he yanked the dart out, tearing the flap of skin. Blood dribbled from his arm.
He peered at the black metal dart through his goggle lens. The barbed head had something gummy smeared on it, underneath the blood.
Dwarfbane, he guessed.
Would he succumb? The duergar’s trademark poison was specifically designed to kill dwarves; the duergar themselves were immune to it. Torrin’s human body, thankfully, was also immune. Yet the two puncture wounds burned as if the darts themselves had been forge-hot.
Torrin threw the dart aside; it clattered away on the tunnel’s stone floor.
He glanced down. The second dart had been slowed by his boot. The tip of it had barely pierced his calf, yet the tiny wound stung as fiercely as the first had. Torrin left the dart where it was for the moment, as it would take some effort to yank it back through the leather. He didn’t want to blunder into additional triggers while taking his boot off.
The third dart, Marthammor Duin be praised, had missed.
Torrin wished he’d brought a shield with him. Or, for that matter, his iron bracers, he thought ruefully as blood dribbled from the torn skin of his forearm. There was no time for regrets, however. Still moving slowly, he bent his knees slightly. Then he leaped backwards and away from the trigger. As he’d suspected, more darts exploded from the wall, streaking through the air at a dwarf’s chest height. They slammed into the opposite wall and skritched off into the darkness.
Away from the pressure plates at last, Torrin paused to remove his boot. He yanked the dart out of it and put the boot back on again. He’d have to be careful, he thought.
He drank the last of his potions. As took hold, the glow around anything that was ensorcelled intensified. A large rune on the wall just ahead, for example, glowed brightly. Yet his magically enhanced eyesight wouldn’t reveal ordinary pressure traps like the one he’d just trod upon. Nor had the orc given any warnings about traps when drawing his map. Likely, the traps had been installed after the rune was inscribed, to keep intruders like Torrin out.
Torrin had read extensively about traps in the Delver’s Tome, and had encountered more than one type, in the course of his years of delving. There was always a way to disarm or bypass any trap. Otherwise, those who’d installed it wouldn’t have access to their own strongholds.
He inspected the timbers that held up the section of the tunnel, and studied the floor, the walls, and the ceiling. He saw no evidence of a hidden lever or a secret passage to bypass the trapped section of tunnel. Either the duergar trap makers had done their work too well for Torrin to find their handiwork, or they’d never intended to use that way in.
Did that mean there was a second way to access the cavern where the rune was inscribed?
The obvious way to bypass the dart trap would be to crawl along the floor, below the level of the darts. Yet the trapmakers would have thought of that and prepared for it. Likely, just up ahead, the darts shot out at a height that would strike a crawling intruder-possibly in the eye. Or else some other, more deadly trap would be sprung.
Torrin could run through the hail of darts and suffer only minor damage-it was apparent the dwarfbane wasn’t going to kill him-but in his haste he might blunder into even more dangerous traps, triggered by spidersilk tripwires or the disruption of a current of air. There was no sense taking chances, especially given that he was so close to his goal. According to his map, the rune cavern was just a little farther ahead, at the tunnel’s end.
Through his remaining goggle lens, he could see some distance down the tunnel-about fifty paces or so. The magical rune he’d spotted was about half that distance away, and the area at the limit of his vision looked clear. There was one way to reach that clear spot without triggering any more traps.
He pulled the runestone from his backpack. It would likely work again, now that he was away from the slave pens, but did he dare use it? Teleporting such a short distance, to a spot he could clearly see, would be easy enough. But if he landed on a trigger, could he teleport away in time?
As he contemplated that, he heard a rustling noise behind him. The tunnel grew lighter, awash with a faint blue light. He whirled and saw what at first appeared to be a flowing mass of blue fire that humped and bulged as it flowed toward him. As it drew closer, he recognized it as dozens of rats whose fur crackled with faint blue light.
There was no longer any time for debate. The swarm would be upon him in an instant. An individual rat he could easily kill with his mace. But there were scores of them, with enough teeth to gnaw him to bloody bone in a matter of moments.
He fixed his eye on the apparently safe stretch of tunnel up ahead and pointed at it for good measure. “By blood and earth, ae-burakrin, take me there,” he commanded.
He felt a twist, then a prolonged stretch as he was pulled by magic to the spot. The walls blurred on either side, glowing with the blue spellfire the runestone was channeling. Then he landed. A pressure plate clicked underfoot. Barely in time, he threw himself aside. A blade scythed out of the ceiling and swept across the tunnel, jarring as it caught his pack and sliced off a buckle. As the blade continued to swing back and forth, swishing in a deadly arc, he glanced behind and saw the rats swarming up the tunnel toward him, drawn by the scent of fresh blood. Darts erupted out of the walls as they ran, clattering in a hail against the opposite wall.
Torrin whirled, gave the corridor beyond the spot where he’d landed a quick scan, and chose his next landing spot. Again, he activated the runestone. He teleported just in time, as the blue glowing rats swarmed under the swinging blade. He landed on something soft and invisible. The stench of squashed mushroom filled his nose even as spores erupted all around him in a suddenly visible cloud. Were they toxic? He couldn’t run the risk that they were. As the spores swirled upward to his chest and face, he frantically chose his next landing spot, on the near side of an area of tunnel that glowed brightly with magic. Did it hold yet another deadly trap? He had to take the chance. In another moment he’d be breathing in potentially deadly spores.
In the nick of time, just as the spores swirled level with his chin, he teleported to the spot he’d chosen. That time, praise Moradin, he landed without triggering a trap. He held his breath and shook spores from his clothes and his hands; they drifted lazily down to his feet. Still not daring to breathe, he stepped back a pace.
His heel bumped something on the floor. He stumbled and fell backward into an area that glowed with magic, landing on top of what felt like a pile of jagged rubble. He threw his body into an awkward roll, trying to escape the glow, knowing that, even as he did so, it was probably too late. The magic, however, proved to be benign. An illusion. What had appeared, a moment before, to be a continuation of the tunnel was revealed to be a collapsed dead end, as the illusion that had hidden the cave-in from sight winked out.
The rustling swarm of rats drew closer. Torrin sprang to his feet. Should he use the runestone to try to teleport back the way he’d just come, once they reached him? He wasn’t sure if teleporting past the rats would be possible; the glowing swarm stretched down the tunnel as far as he could see. He switched the runestone to his left hand and hefted his mace in his right. If he had to teleport into their midst, he’d need it.
The rats hit the spot where the cloud of spores still swirled. More spores exploded into the air as they struck others-invisible puffballs. The cloud grew denser. From inside it came harsh squeals and a frenzied rustling. Rats collapsed, asphyxiated by the deadly spores. Still more rats plunged on into the cloud and piled atop their fellows. At last, dimly sensing the danger, most of the swarm wheeled and scuttled the other way, flowing away down the tunnel in a glowing, ragged stream.
One or two rats burst out of the cloud and ran to the spot where Torrin stood. He readied his mace. Just before they reached him, a sheet of flame erupted out of the floor, filling the tunnel with a blaze of redorange light. It was barely a pace away from Torrin. He felt its intense heat on his face and smelled his beard singe. For a moment, the sheet of fire blazed brightly. Then it vanished, leaving behind blackened lumps that stank of charred flesh and fur.
“By Moradin’s beard,” Torrin whispered, mopping sweat from his forehead with his sleeve. “That was close.”
Marthammor Duin, finder of trails, had truly lent Torrin his blessings. Still trembling slightly, Torrin whispered a prayer of thanks to the Watcher over Wanderers.
He shook his head and contemplated the dead-end corridor. What to do? It was clear that the duergar had taken great pains to ensure that no one could use the corridor to reach the cavern where the rune had been inscribed. They’d obviously anticipated that someone might learn of the corridor from the slaves. Torrin wondered why the duergar hadn’t killed the slaves to ensure their silence. That was the sort of thing they usually did.
The more important question, however, was whether the duergar had collapsed just that tunnel, or the entire ceiling of the cavern beyond, burying the curse rune under masses of rubble that would be impossible to excavate in time.
Torrin squinted his right eye shut and peered through his remaining goggle lens. The rubble ranged from jagged slabs of rock the size of a table down to smaller fragments no bigger than his fist. They were locked together in a tight mass that filled the end of the tunnel from floor to ceiling. Over the spot where Torrin stood, the ceiling was a concave hollow.
Torrin grabbed a loosely placed chunk of rock. After several moments of straining, he managed to pull it free. It landed with a thud on the floor beside his foot. All was silent for a moment. Then a sharp crack sounded just overhead as a split appeared in the ceiling. Torrin started to take a wary step back, but remembered the flame trap just in time and jerked to a halt. A chunk of stone the size of his head fell, shattering on the floor at his feet.
Torrin stood still, barely daring to breathe, until he was certain no more rock would fall. Clearly, he couldn’t go forward.
Nor could he go back. Between the traps and the rats, Torrin would be lucky to make his way back to the slave pits alive, let alone to Drik Hargunen. What’s worse, his magical potion was wearing off. He could no longer see the glow of the magical rune he knew was just a hundred paces or so down the corridor.
With his eyesight no longer magically enhanced, Torrin noticed something. A faint blue glow was coming from the spot he’d just pulled the stone out of. He groaned. Were more of the spellscarred rats headed his way? He squatted and peered through the gap. No, it wasn’t rats. The glow pulsed slightly, but it wasn’t moving toward him. Through a gap in the rubble he saw an open space, perhaps half a dozen paces beyond where he squatted. The blue light came from there.
With his heart pounding, Torrin reached into the gap he’d created in the rubble. If he could just move that one chunk that blocked the view, he’d be able to see more. Slowly, praying under his breath the whole time, he pushed the mace’s handle into the gap and carefully levered the chunk of rock aside. As it fell into a gap in the rubble, the blue glow intensified. With it came a hot, metallic scent, like forge-heated metal.
Torrin’s heart beat faster. The map had been right! The cavern with the rune lay just beyond the rubble. And it looked as though there was a space big enough to teleport to!
He grinned. A section of collapsed tunnel wasn’t going to stop him. not when his runestone could teleport him to the other side. But as he contemplated that, a shiver coursed through him. What awaited him next? More swarms of spellscarred rats? Even more horrific creatures and still deadlier traps?
He pushed those thoughts aside. Kier was depending upon him. The memory of the boy’s anguished eyes and stone gray face was all the prodding he needed.
He stared at the open space on the other side of the rubble. “By blood and earth, ae-burakrin, take… me… there,” he commanded the runestone.
Spellfire shot out of the gap in the rubble and swirled in a tight spiral around the runestone. Its tingle was so intense it numbed his hand, and Torrin nearly dropped the runestone. The spellfire twisted up his arm and into his chest. He felt his heart flutter and saw dark spots swimming before his eyes. Then the runestone yanked him from where he stood, twisting him beyond the rubble to the cavern beyond.
He landed on his hands and knees on sharp rock; the runestone clattered onto the cavern floor. For several moments, he couldn’t see. Flashes of blue spellfire filled his vision, pulsing to the rapid beat of his heart. As those cleared, he saw that the fingers of his right hand-the hand that had held the runestone-had turned blue. Spellfire blazed within the flesh, turning it translucent. Dark shadows hinted at the bones within.
There was no time to worry about that. He crawled carefully to the runestone and snatched it up. It still leaked blue fire-something else he’d worry about later.
He forced himself to his feet and looked around. The sight that met his eyes might have taken his breath away had it not already been wheezing in and out of his chest.
The cavern was even larger than the orc’s map had indicated. A small town could have fit inside it with room to spare. And it was an enormous geode-the largest Torrin had ever seen. Every surface was studded with quartz crystals, some clear, others clouded. Finger-sized crystals crunched underfoot every time Torrin took a step. Those that broke off floated upward like earthmotes to join scores of other broken crystals already drifting through the air. The moving crystals reflected the spellfire, refracting the light in millions of glittering blue flashes, like sunlight sparkling on snow.
The source of the blue light lay at the center of the cavern-an enormous dome of raw spellfire the size of an assembly chamber. Streaks of blue lightning crackled upward from it with each pulse, striking the ceiling overhead. Even at a distance, Torrin could feel its fell effects. He felt weaker already-a fatigue that went deeper than mere exhaustion or the debilitating effects of the cuts and bruises he’d suffered. He felt weary to his very core. Burned hollow, from within.
Eralynn must have felt the same thing, the day she’d blundered into the spellfire that had scarred her hands.
Just outside the blue glow, a wide hole had been bored into the floor. As Torrin watched, a splatter of what he at first took to be lava erupted out of it and landed on the floor, filling the air with the smell of hot metal. No, not lava. Molten metal. It bore a greenish tinge, thanks to the crackling blue glow that filled the cavern, but Torrin knew what it must be.
Gold. That hole was a well, tapping the River of Gold.
He searched for the spot where the duergar had cut their rune. At first, he didn’t see it. Then he realized it must lie under the dome of spellfire. It was difficult to see through the crackling blue haze. Yet by staring at the spellfire intently, first through his goggle lens and then through his uncovered eye, Torrin could barely make out wide grooves on the cavern floor, filled with the same green-gold metal. Those were the rune lines the duergar had carved, filled with gold taken from Moradin’s lanced vein.
“Moradin smite me,” Torrin whispered. “What am I supposed to do now?” He reached with a trembling hand to touch his beard. Once again, he winced at the unfamiliar feel of the blunt end.
He was so close. Yet he might as well have been on the opposite side of Faerun for all the good it would do. That dome of spellfire was enormous. And deadly. If he went any closer to it, he’d likely be incinerated, reduced to ash before he got halfway there. Even though it was all the way across the cavern, the raw magic was taking its toll. A wizard protected by powerful magic might last a day or two before succumbing to the deadly wash of energy. Torrin would be lucky to last half a day.
Should he retrace his steps? Try to find Baelar and the others? See if they could think of a solution? Yet doing that would mean admitting he’d been wrong. Admitting that he wasn’t capable of undoing the rune magic on his own.
“Moradin,” he whispered. “Am I the one who is to be your savior?”
No answer came. Torrin hadn’t expected it to.
As he stood there with the runestone, wondering what to do next, a faint sound reached his ears: a clanging, like metal on metal. Was that really the clash of weapons? He paused, listening, and at last pinpointed the sound. He stared in that direction, squinting against the harsh blue light of the spellfire, trying to make out what was happening.
There! At the side of the cavern! About a dozen moving figures emerged from a tunnel to his left that definitely hadn’t been there a moment before. It was likely that the tunnel mouth had been cloaked by an illusion. Torrin saw two groups, locked in combat. The glare of spellfire made their outlines wavering and indistinct, but Torrin could make out that those on foot were being pushed into the cavern by attackers mounted on what looked like giant spiders.
Escaped slaves, being herded into the deadly spellfire by duergar?
Then he heard a sound like the wail of an icy wind, and saw a cloud of what looked like swirling snow-flakes erupt around a standing figure who’d just landed a blow. Torrin had seen that magical effect before. And he knew the weapon that produced it-a frost axe.
“By Moradin’s beard!” Torrin gasped. “That’s Baelar!”
He jammed the runestone into his pocket. Then he sprinted, crystals crunching underfoot, to the spot where the battle raged.
“Pure gold does not fear the fire.”
Torrin raced to the battle, his mace in his hand, ploughing through the floating crystals that crowded the air like floating hail. He wanted to shout Baelar’s name, to let the dwarves know he was headed their way, but that would draw the duergar’s attention as well. In the hazy, crackling light, there was just a chance that they wouldn’t notice him, or would think him some shadow or trick of the light.
As he drew nearer, he could see more clearly through the spellfire-hazed air. Just ahead, four dwarves battled three spider-mounted duergar. The dwarves were being pressed hard. They’d been forced out of the tunnel and into the cavern, where crystals on the floor made the footing treacherous. The crystals didn’t slow the spiders at all. One scuttled out of the tunnel and up onto the ceiling, where its rider rained arrows down at the dwarves. Another raced lightly along the wall and jumped down several paces beyond the entrance, flanking the four dwarves. The third spider leaped out of the tunnel and, as one of the dwarves stumbled and lowered his axe, grabbed him in its jaws.
The dwarf screamed in agony as the jaws scissored shut. He suddenly went rigid, and his axe fell from his hand.
Baelar ran at that spider, brandishing his axe. He shouted and swung. The blade sliced off one of the spider’s legs. Frost exploded in a cloud as what remained of the leg froze solid then shattered, wrenching a chunk of the body off with it. The spider released its hold on the dwarf and crumpled. Baelar’s second blow cracked its head wide open.
The dwarf who’d been bitten fell in a stiff-limbed heap to the ground and didn’t rise. Baelar glanced at him, then pressed home his attack on the rider who’d just leaped off the spider’s back. Baelar’s next axe swing, however, passed through empty air as the duergar did a peculiar leap backwards, twisting as he jumped. The foe suddenly appeared behind Baelar. His axe descended in a deadly arc…
But in that moment, Torrin reached the battle. “ Thuldnoror! ” he cried, swinging his mace. Thunder boomed as the mace smashed into the side of the duergar’s head, shattering the duergar’s skull like weakened stone in an explosion of blood and brains.
Baelar stared at Torrin for a heartbeat, his eyes wide. He gave the briefest of nods and pointed at the rider who’d landed his spider behind them. “That one!” he ordered.
Torrin scrambled to the spot where one of the other dwarves-Captain Blackhammer-was fighting the duergar rider who’d flanked them. Blackhammer was trying to lop the legs off of the spider as Baelar had done. But before he could, the duergar rider hurled his lance. Blackhammer dove under the spider and rolled, emerging beyond its claw-tipped legs. The lance clattered off the crystal floor and skittered away.
“Stoneshield!” Baelar shouted from somewhere behind Torrin. “Close the tunnel!”
Torrin could see Captain Stoneshield out of the corner of his eye. The gray-bearded knight punched a fist into the air above his head. An arrow that had just been shot by the rider on the ceiling shattered into harmless splinters as Stoneshield’s magic struck it.
“But the others!” Stoneshield shouted back at Baelar. “They won’t-”
“Now!” Baelar shouted. “Do it!”
Torrin risked a second glance at the tunnel behind him. He spotted another dwarf inside it, sprinting for the cavern and shouting at them to wait. Three more duergar on spiders were close on his heels, about to overtake him. Baelar shouted again at Stoneshield to close the tunnel. Stoneshield continued to hesitate. At the last possible moment, just as the running dwarf burst into the cavern, Stoneshield slapped his hands together.
The walls slammed shut, crushing the three spiders. Colorless blood squirted out in a spray from between the rock. A clawed foot caught in the rock twitched, then was still.
Then an arrow plunged down into Stoneshield’s neck. He crumpled wordlessly, slain where he stood.
Baelar shouted and hurled his axe. The weapon whirled through the air, blades flashing, and buried itself in the chest of the rider above. The duergar rocked backward, then slipped from the saddle to dangle from a stirrup, his twisting corpse spurting blood that froze to red hail as it fell. The spider scuttled away across the ceiling.
Torrin reached the last rider just as that duergar’s spider crouched for a leap. Shouting “ Thuldnoror! ” once more, he slammed his mace into the spider’s twitching abdomen. Thunder boomed, rupturing the abdomen and sending blood, strands of guts, and fragments of bristle-haired chitlin everywhere. Spider blood splattered onto Torrin’s face, blinding him. He danced back, frantically wiping a hand across the lens of his goggles and spitting out the foul-tasting liquid. As he moved, he heard a scream above. He whipped up his mace to parry the expected blow, and heard the thud of a body landing beside him. Another wipe of his goggles cleared them. He saw it was the rider who’d fallen, pierced by his own lance. Captain Blackhammer stood a pace away, panting. He must have been the one who threw the lance. Baelar was cursing as he watched his prized axe, still buried in the body of the rider he’d thrown it at earlier, being carried away by the fleeing spider.
Torrin grinned through the muck that covered his face. They’d done it! Killed the three duergar riders and their mounts, and sent the one surviving spider scuttling away. The squad had paid a heavy price, having lost Captain Stoneshield and the knight who’d been killed by spider venom, but three of them remained: Baelar, Captain Blackhammer, and a third dwarf who stood next to the spot where the tunnel had been, holding an axe in his hand.
Torrin stared at the third dwarf, trying to place him. He must be a captain, yet Torrin didn’t recognize him. And he was holding his axe in an odd manner, straight out ahead of him like a wand. There was also something odd about the way the dwarf was smiling. He looked… smug?
Torrin squinted, and the axe in the dwarf’s hand seemed to waver. That was a wand he was holding.
Baelar glanced in the direction Torrin was staring. He startled. “That’s not one of-”
A beam of green light streaked from the wand and slammed into Blackhammer’s chest. Blackhammer grunted, glanced down, and saw that his body was bathed in a sickly green light. A hole opened in his chest, and in the space of a blink it widened until it had split him in two. As the axe he’d been holding clattered to the floor, the sickly green glow flashed up to Blackhammer’s head and down to his boots, consuming him as it soundlessly burned. A heartbeat later, there was only a dwarf-shaped puff of greasy green smoke where he’d been standing.
Captain Blackhammer was just… gone. Killed by the dwarf who’d just dropped the illusion that had been cloaking him. Not a dwarf, Torrin saw, but a duergar whose body was covered in tattooed runes.
Their enemy grinned and shifted his wand.
Time seemed to slow to a crawl. Torrin heard his heart thud in his ears. He saw Baelar dive for Black-hammer’s axe. He heard his heart thud a second time. Torrin started to shift his mace, and realized he’d never reach the duergar wizard in time. He heard his heart thud again. Saw green light blossom at the tip of the wand, which was tracking Baelar as he dove.
Torrin felt a strange detachment. He heard his own voice shouting “No!” and felt his body, as if in a dream, leap into motion. His right hand-the one crackling with spellfire-reached out to block the beam as it streaked toward Baelar.
Spellfire flared outward from Torrin’s palm, expanding into a glowing blue shield. The green light struck it and reflected, streaking back to the duergar holding the wand. The duergar’s mouth opened in surprise as he was consumed from within by the noiseless green fire, just as Blackhammer had been. A heartbeat later, only greasy green smoke remained. The smoke drifted away and was gone.
Baelar rose shakily to his feet, Blackhammer’s axe in hand, and gaped at Torrin. “How did you do that?” he said.
“I have no idea,” Torrin said in a faint voice. “It just… came to me.” He stared in wonder at his spellscarred hand. What else might it be capable of? If only Eralynn were alive, he might have asked her. The thought saddened him.
“By the gods,” Baelar said, shaking his head. “You’ve just pulled me out from between hammer and anvil. One moment more…”
“Yes,” Torrin answered.
One thing was clear. The duergar whose spell Torrin had turned must have been the one Tril had asked about, back in the tavern in Sundasz. The half-elf had mentioned tattoos. Now Torrin understood what had frightened the rogues so. He could also guess where Vadyr had disappeared to-why magic couldn’t find him. Like Blackhammer, he’d been consumed by the wand’s foul magic. That was why Eartheart’s mages hadn’t been able to locate Vadyr, and why Torrin hadn’t been able to teleport to him. He was simply… gone.
Baelar bowed until his beard touched the floor. “My thanks, Torrin Ironstar,” he said. “My profound thanks. You have indeed proved yourself as stout-hearted as any dwarf this day. And every bit as honorable.”
Torrin nodded in reply. Then the trembles began. He clutched his mace tightly, by sheer will alone forcing the shaking to stop. There was still work to be done.
“How did you find this cavern?” Torrin asked.
“That was your contribution, Torrin. Your message got through. The Lord Scepter relayed the information to us. He’s no doubt listening, even now.”
Torrin whispered a heartfelt prayer of thanks. “The rune that cursed Moradin’s vein,” he told Baelar, nodding at the center of the cavern. “It’s under that dome of spellfire.”
Baelar nodded too. “I guessed as much,” he said. “Dangerous stuff. Still, it’s only necessary to survive long enough to dispel the rune’s magic.”
“With what?” Torrin asked.
Baelar pulled out a coin pouch that hung around his neck under his shirt. From inside it, he took a feather with a golden shaft and mithril vanes. Baelar held it near the base of the shaft, as if it were a quill pen. “Eartheart’s mages crafted this,” he said. “It can dispel even the most powerful magic. One flick of the wrist, and the rune will be erased.”
“But we can’t even reach the rune,” Torrin protested. “We’ll be reduced to ash before we’re even halfway there.”
Baelar stared at the dome of spellfire for a long moment. Then he turned and walked back to the duergar Torrin had killed. Torrin, following, heard the captain grunt in satisfaction. Baelar squatted and began pulling off the duergar’s boots. “Teleportation magic,” he said. “With these, I’ll be able to reach the rune in a heartbeat. By the grace of the Morndinsamman, I’ll live long enough to work the feather’s magic.”
Torrin’s fingers were still tingling. He glanced down and saw that his entire hand was wreathed in spellfire. Even as he watched, the bright blue glow crept past his wrist.
“Baelar, wait,” he said. “I’ll do it.”
Baelar, still tugging at the duergar’s boots, shook his head. “No. It’s my duty,” he replied. “Besides, you don’t know how to use the feather.”
“It sounds simple enough,” Torrin said. “Just a ‘flick of the wrist,’ you said. And I know you’re no wizard. That means any dwarf could use it.”
Baelar rose, holding the teleportation boots. He opened his mouth as if to say something, then shut it again. “No,” he said firmly. “I’m old. If it’s my time to be reforged, then so be it. You, on the other hand, are still a boy-by dwarf standards, that is. And you have no guarantee of living again. If anything were to happen to you, Kier would miss you terribly. And we both know how angry Eralynn would be if I ‘sent you to die.’ I’d never hear the end of it.” He started to chuckle, then noticed the anguished look on Torrin’s face.
“What’s wrong?” Baelar asked suddenly. “What happened?”
Torrin pulled Eralynn’s pendant out from under his shirt. “She’s dead,” he said. “There was no time to tell you before now.”
For several moments, the two men stared at each other in silence. Then a tear slid down Baelar’s face, into his beard. “How?” he whispered.
“The stoneplague,” he replied.
Torrin turned to stare at the dome of spellfire, giving Baelar a moment of privacy to grieve. Still not looking at Baelar, he spoke. “Long ago, back when the stoneplague first came to Eartheart, Moradin spoke to me in a dream. ‘No one else can help me,’ he said.” He stared at the dome of blue fire. “This is my destiny.”
“No, Torrin,” Baelar said. “It’s not.”
Torrin turned and saw Baelar with the metal quill in hand and the duergar’s teleportation boots on his feet. “Raise a glass for me, won’t you, at the next Festival of Remembering,” he said. Then he blinked out of sight.
Torrin whirled to face the spellfire and lifted his hands to shade his eyes from its harsh glare. He spotted Baelar at once, a black silhouette against the blue blaze. And he immediately realized something had gone wrong. Baelar hadn’t teleported into the dome of spellfire; he wasn’t even close to the spot where the rune had been inscribed. As Torrin stared, tense with worry, the dwarf vanished from sight and reappeared a few paces from where he’d been standing, no closer to the rune. Baelar blinked away a third time-trying once more to teleport to the rune-and reappeared almost exactly where he’d started, once again.
“By Moradin’s beard,” Torrin breathed. “He can’t reach it. Something’s preventing him.”
Baelar’s shout of frustration echoed back to Torrin across the cavern. Giving up on teleportation, Baelar hunkered over. Like a man battling his way forward against a hurricane, he began to march. Torrin, watching, clenched his fists and counted Baelar’s steps. One… two… three…
Baelar wavered. Then he sagged to his knees. Blue spellfire raged around his silhouette, feeding like flames on his hair, his clothes.
“No!” Torrin shouted. He plunged a hand into his pocket and yanked out the runestone. Sparks of spellfire immediately leaped from the crystals at his feet, streaking up to the runestone like bright blue fireflies. “By blood and earth, ae-burakrin. Take me to Baelar!” Torrin cried.
Fuelled by spellfire, the runestone activated so quickly that Torrin barely managed to complete Baelar’s name. With a twist that left him dizzy, he landed next to the fallen man. Torrin stumbled sideways, crystals crunching underfoot. The rune was still several paces away, yet Torrin was deep inside the dome of spellfire. Baelar was a barely visible heap at his feet, obscured by zigzagging streaks of crackling blue. The spellfire washed over Torrin like heat from an over-stoked forge as streams of smoke erupting from his smoldering clothes. The hole the duergar had bored in the floor was several paces ahead and to the right, adding its own heat to the air. He bent over and grabbed Baelar with his free hand, but saw that he was already too late. Baelar was dead. His hair and clothes were gone, his skin already turning to blue-tinged ash.
The sight sent a sharp pang of dismay through Torrin. Yet there was no time to grieve. Leaving the body where it lay, he scooped up the magical feather instead. The metal shaft was so hot it glowed and burned his fingers. He hoped it wasn’t about to melt.
Torrin squinted his eyes almost shut, peered into the blazing inferno, and spotted the rune that had been carved into the cavern floor between the growth of crystals. It was enormous, perhaps five or six paces long, and filled with molten gold through which tidal ripples flowed, bulging its surface as they flowed first in one direction, then another, as if seeking an exit.
Torrin felt his strength flagging. His clothing was full of holes now, the fabric falling away in puffs of ash. Sharp crystals poked into his thinning boot soles. Spellfire consumed his beard and eyebrows, turning them to clouds of ash that drifted into his eyes and clogged his nose. The skin on his arms and cheeks was starting to flake away. The pain was almost unbearable. The spellfire that had blossomed around the hand that held the runestone was a bright blaze that engulfed his arm from fingers to shoulder. His fingers felt like dead things.
He quickly transferred the runestone to his left hand, awkwardly gripping both it and the magical feather. “By blood and earth, ae-burakrin,” he gasped, “take me to the rune.”
Nothing happened. The runestone, like the teleportation boots, wasn’t working properly. Wasn’t working at all, in fact. The teleportation boots had at least shifted Baelar around a little when he’d tried to reach the rune, but the runestone was completely failing to activate.
Torrin’s left hand and arm were also ablaze with spellfire from within. If he survived it, he’d be spellscarred on both sides of his body. He shifted his grip on the runestone, and cried out in dismay as the magical feather slipped from his fingers. He tried to catch it, but then suddenly the runestone activated. Torrin felt a wrench, and an instant later found himself standing several paces away from where he’d just been. The blue glow was so fierce that he could barely see his feet, yet a dim gold-green glint beside his right foot told him where he’d landed-directly beside the gold-filled rune.
The spellfire so close to the rune was even more intense. Torrin felt it sear into his lungs, felt more of his skin burn away. In a few moments more, he’d be nothing but bones cloaked in ash. He realized, in that instant, what had been keeping Baelar from reaching the rune. The duergar must have placed wards that prevented the approach of any magical device capable of dispelling the rune’s magic. The feather was no use. It was impossible to bring it close enough to the rune to activate it. All of their efforts, everything they’d been through so far-Baelar’s death, Torrin’s imminent death-all had been for nothing.
Torrin would have wept, except that his eyes were as dry as sun-hot stone. “Moradin,” he prayed as he sank to his knees. So great was his agony, within and without, that he barely felt the crystals on the floor spike into his flesh. “Forgive me.”
He raised the runestone and squinted, trying to see the wall of the cavern. There was one last thing he might try-to teleport to the spot where Baelar and his squad had entered the cavern. If any of the other squads made it that far, and found the runestone, there was the faintest of chances they could-
Torrin screamed as a fresh agony forced itself upon him. His knees were on fire, flaring with the most intense pain he’d ever felt!
He glanced down and saw a shiny puddle. The gold filling the rune had overflowed the edge closest to him and was touching his knees. Burning them. Still more gold was flowing out of the rune toward him.
No. To the runestone clenched in his left hand. He moved it to the side, and saw the puddle of gold follow it. A hysterical laugh bubbled out of him.
“By Moradin’s beard!” he cried. “That’s it! That’s how it can be undone!”
The agony of his knees and shins reached a point beyond comprehension. The pain was so intense that his mind was no longer capable of registering it. He collapsed, halting his fall by slapping his right hand onto the cavern floor, directly into the flowing gold. The skin was immediately charred-a fragment of white knuckle bubbled to the surface-but Torrin didn’t care. With something between a laugh and a scream, he turned and hurled the runestone toward the hole that had been bored into the floor. Spellfire sped after it as it landed with a splash inside the well, and molten gold from the rune followed, flowing past Torrin in a wave that sealed his doom. He saw the hole in the floor begin to close, to scab over the molten metal that was flowing back into it. Then he fell onto his side, splashing down into the last of the flow leaving the rune. The last sensation he had was the smell of charred flesh and hot metal. He sighed in contentment as he died, knowing his work was done.
The rune was empty, the gold flowing back into Moradin’s vein. The Dwarffather would live.
The stoneplague would end.
The first sensation was a white radiance. Cooling. Soothing. Pure.
He felt it more than saw it. The glow surrounded him. Sustained him.
Slowly, the radiance dissipated. A second sensation replaced it-the sound of metal on metal. Each blow reverberated slightly. A hammer, striking forge-heated steel on an anvil.
How he knew that, he could not say.
He realized he was standing. A massive, calloused palm was the floor on which his feet rested.
No. That wasn’t quite right. He had no feet, no legs, no body. Just… self.
Where am I? he asked.
Then a more pressing question. Who am I?
“You were known, in your last lifetime, by two names,” a voice that boomed like thunder said. “You preferred your dwarf name.”
I am Torrin Ironstar, he realized. But no, that was slightly wrong. I was Torrin Ironstar. A delver, of Eartheart. I am he no more.
“Yes,” said the voice.
The clang of hammer on steel continued, as steady as a heartbeat. Sights joined that sound. The soul that had been Torrin could see around itself. The palm that supported him was joined to an arm, and that arm to the shoulder of a figure seated on a throne-a dwarf, with a gleaming white beard that flowed down onto his chest, across his apron-covered lap, to touch the floor between his boots.
A god, seated on his throne.
The soul that had been Torrin bowed low. Silver tinkled, reminding him that he’d once worn the Dwarffather’s hammers braided into a bright red beard. Flashes of memory returned, as fragmentary and as glittering as shards of broken glass. Recollections of dwarves, their faces gray and stiff, dead of a curse masquerading as a plague. One of these faces evoked an especially sharp pang-a boy’s face, twisted with pain. Eyes closed, thin body covered with a blanket. Kier.
Does he live? Did I save him? The clamor of the hammer strikes sped up a little, like an anxious heartbeat.
“You did,” said the voice. “Observe.” Moradin’s other hand lifted. The gold bracer around the god’s left wrist shone as brightly as a mirror. Reflected in its gleaming gold depths was the image of a father embracing his son. The boy was healthy, healed. Awake and alive, and free of the stoneplague. Just behind him stood a cleric, her hand rising and falling in a healing blessing. Maliira, also healed of the stoneplague. The sight of them filled the very air with joy. The soul that had been Torrin felt his cheeks and beard grow wet with tears.
Kier asked a question of his father then. The boy’s lips moved, but the reflected image conveyed no sound. Haldrin’s face grew grim, and then he answered. Kier burst into tears and pulled something across the bed-a boy-sized pack with the letter D embossed upon it. An imitation Delver’s pack. Kier clutched it to his chest, sobbing.
He mourns me.
“You two will meet again.”
But will he know me?
“Perhaps one day. While your mace still lies in the cavern where the duergar inscribed their foul rune, your bracers remain in the Thunsonn clanhold, where you left them. If the boy you will become stumbles across them, he may recognize them. But what truly matters is that Kier will call you ‘Son.’ He will love you and protect you, just as you loved and protected him.”
The soul that had been Torrin should have been comforted, yet a tinge of sorrow tainted the good news. That will be many years from now, he observed, perhaps decades.
I’ll miss what remains of Kier’s childhood.
“It is as it must be.”
A second memory drifted to mind, causing a lump to form anew in Torrin’s throat: a heart-shaped lump, as smooth and as cool as glass. He remembered a woman’s face. In his memory, she was laughing, one hand brushing back unruly hair. The hand crackled with a blue spellscar.
“She, too, passed through my halls,” Moradin said. The god’s breath was as warm as a coal fire, as cool as quenching water, all in one. “An impatient one, she was; she couldn’t wait to be reforged anew. Even now, her soul quickens in the days-old body of a child who will not be born for many months yet.”
A dwarf child?
Moradin smiled. “Of course.”
The question was an important one. Vitally important. Or so the soul that had been Torrin believed. And… what of me? he asked. Am I to be cast a dwarf, this time?
Moradin’s flinty eyes stared down at Torrin, peering into the very heart of him. “That was your most heartfelt wish, was it not? Why you sought so desperately, throughout your past life, for something you hoped could be found where mortals dwell?”
I sought… He paused, grasping at the memories that flitted about like wayward candle flickers. I sought your Soulforge.
“And there it lies,” Moradin said, gesturing in the direction of the hammer-on-steel sound.
Torrin turned and stared at a dull red glow he hadn’t noticed before. It emanated from a massive forge a few paces distant from the Dwarffather’s throne. A long line of ghostly shapes stood behind it, some larger, some smaller. The souls of dead dwarf adults and children, waiting patiently to be reforged. Torrin recognized one of them, farther back in the line, as a man he’d known in the life that had just ended-an older dwarf carrying a plumed skyrider’s helm.
Baelar, he breathed.
The soul that had been Baelar glanced up at him and smiled.
The soul closest to the forge-a woman Torrin didn’t recognize-ghosted into it and lay down amid the glowing red coals. Her soul wavered a moment, then melted away into a bright puddle of glowing mithril. Moradin waved his free hand, and the molten metal rose into the air. The god caught it and clenched his hand around it like a mold. He blew onto his fist, and steam escaped from his fingers with the bubbling hiss of forge-hot steel plunged into a bucket of water.
After a moment, Moradin’s fingers opened. Inside them was a diamond that sparkled myriad colors in the light of the forge. Moradin lifted the diamond to his mouth and blew a second time, releasing a gust of warm breath that smelled of rich, life-sustaining blood. The diamond tumbled off his palm and vanished-a soul, seeking its next lifetime.
The soul that had been Torrin watched, awestruck. So beautiful, he breathed.
“What you sought never did exist on Faerun,” Moradin told him, at last answering the question he had asked earlier. “There is only one Soulforge-here, in my realm. Yet you were correct, in one regard. There is a place on Faerun that is the equivalent of my forge, a place from which the dwarf race emerged onto that world. A navel, through which the first dwarf people passed.”
Moradin chuckled. “Always the curious soul, weren’t you?” he said.
Always the Delver. And as he said it, Torrin realized it was true. He’d been a Delver in his last life-and would be in his next, thanks to Kier. Like his “Uncle Torrin,” Kier would choose a Delver’s life. And he’d pass along that love of adventure to his son, who one day would teach it to his own son. And around and around the wheel would go.
Tell me, he cried, his excitement building as he imagined the delves to come. Where is the place the dwarves emerged onto Faerun?
“You won’t remember.”
Tell me anyway.
“It’s in the Yehimal Mountains. From it, the dwarves spread across all of Faerun, in the days long before the founding of Bhaerynden.”
Had the soul that had been Torrin still had a heart, it would have quickened at that revelation. A portal? he guessed. Leading where?
Moradin’s eyes crinkled as he smiled. “That may take you many lifetimes to discover,” he said. “Or, if you’re as determined to get on with your quests as your friend Eralynn proved to be, perhaps only one more lifetime.” The god shrugged. “That remains to be seen.”
Moradin’s face settled into a solemn expression as he stared down at Torrin. “You’ve done me a great service,” he intoned. “A service beyond price. I might have died were it not for your valiant actions. I will thus watch over you for all of your lifetimes and aid you whenever you call.”
Torrin bowed again. And I will honor you, in all of my lifetimes.
“I know.” the god said, smiling. “There are many things a god can foresee, and that is one of them.”
Moradin rose from his throne. He moved toward the soulforge, still carrying the soul that had been Torrin on his palm. The souls waiting in line at the forge paused, all eyes turning upward. “And now the time has come for you to be reborn,” Moradin said.
Torrin startled. Had he heard correctly? But you said I would be Kier’s son. Has that much time really passed? Is he a grown man already?
The god’s eyes twinkled as he said, “Time is flexible here.”
The soul that had been Torrin breathed a long, slow sigh of relief. In his next lifetime, he would be a dwarf. Kier’s son. Although the boy would never know him, that was something. My thanks, he said.
“No thanks needed,” said Moradin. “It is as it should be.”
It was indeed.
As the god lowered him to the forge, the soul that had been Torrin was bathed in sustaining warmth. Then the hand closed, and he saw only a dim red glow through the cracks between Moradin’s closed fingers. The pounding of the hammer on metal dulled to a muffled thud, thud, thud of a heartbeat heard through sustaining blood and cushioning water. Torrin felt himself squeezed, compressed, crystallized down to his soul’s essence. Then he felt the closed fist rise to the god’s mouth, and heard the rush of Moradin’s exhaled breath. The gust of warm air pushed him tight against the god’s clenched fingers.
What will I look like, this time? he wondered.
The breath at last forced the fingers open. He was carried along with it in a rush of sensation and sound.
Wet, shivering-yet cradled in loving hands-he opened his eyes on a new lifetime.
Kier, a grown man, peered over the midwife’s shoulder at the newborn babe the midwife had just placed in his mother’s arms. “Look at that red hair,” he observed. “And he’s a stout one, too. Just look-he’s not even crying.”
For just a moment, the soul that had been Torrin remembered its last life. There had been a woman he’d loved as a shield sister, a boy he’d loved as a son, a family who’d taken him in when all others had ridiculed him…
As the midwife wiped the bloody afterbirth from his face, the sharpness of those memories dulled, then fled.
The newborn babe nuzzled against his mother’s breasts, found the milk he’d been searching for, and suckled, content at last.