The Crystal Shard 10. The Gathering Gloom
Torga the orc faced Grock the goblin with open contempt. Their respective tribes had been warring for many years, as long as any living member of either group could remember. They shared a valley in the Spine of the World and competed for ground and food with the brutality indicative of their warlike races.
And now they stood on common ground with no weapons drawn, compelled to this spot by a force even greater than their hatred for each other. In any other place, at any other time, the tribes could never have been this close without joining in fierce battle. But now, they had to be content with idle threats and dangerous glares, for they had been commanded to put aside their differences.
Torga and Grock turned and walked, side by side, to the structure that held the man who would be their master.
They entered Cryshal-Tirith and stood before Akar Kessell.
* * *
Two more tribes had joined his swelling ranks. All about the plateau that harbored his tower were the standards of various bands of goblins; the Goblins of Twisting Spears, Slasher Orcs, the Orcs of the Severed Tongue, and many others, all come to serve the master. Kessell had even pulled in a large clan of ogres, a handful of trolls, and two score rogue verbeeg, the least of the giants but giants nonetheless.
But his crowning achievement was a group of frost giants that had simply wandered in, desiring only to please the wielder of Crenshinibon.
Kessell had been quite content with his life in Cryshal-Tirith, with all of his whims obediantly served by the first tribe of goblins that he had encountered. The goblins had even been able to raid a trading caravan and supply the wizard with a few human women for his pleasures. Kessell’s life had been soft and easy, just the way that he liked it.
But Crenshinibon was not contented. The relic’s hunger for power was insatiable. It would settle for small gains for a short time, and then demand that its wielder move on to greater conquests. It wouldn’t openly oppose Kessell, for in their constant war of wills Kessell ultimately held the power of decision. The small crystal shard bridled a reserve of incredible power, but without a wielder, it was akin to a sheathed sword with no hand to draw it. Thus Crenshinibon exerted its will through manipulation, insinuating illusions of conquest into the wizard’s dreams, allowing Kessell to view the possibilities of power. It dangled a carrot before the nose of the once-bumbling apprentice that he could not refuse – respect.
Kessell, ever a spit bucket for the pretentious wizards in Luskan – and everyone else, it seemed – was easy prey for such ambitions. He, who had been down in the dirt beside the boots of the important people, ached for the chance to reverse the roles.
And now he had the opportunity to turn his fantasies into reality, Crenshinibon often assured him. With the relic close to his heart, he could become the conqueror; he could make people, even the wizards in the Hosttower, tremble at the mere mention of his name.
He had to remain patient. He had spent several years learning the subtleties of controlling one, and then a second, goblin tribe. Yet the task of bringing together dozens of tribes and bending their natural enmity into a common cause of servitude to him was far more challenging. He had to bring them in, one at a time at first, and ensure that he had enslaved them to his will wholeheartedly before he dared summon another group.
But it was working, and now he had brought in two rival tribes simultaneously with positive results. Torga and Grock had entered Cryshal-Tirith, each searching for a way to kill the other without bringing on the wrath of the wizard. When they left, though, after a short discussion with Kessell, they were chatting like old friends about the glory of their coming battles in the army of Akar Kessell.
Kessell lounged back on his pillows and considered his good fortune. His army was indeed taking shape. He had frost giants for his field commanders, ogres as his field guard, verbeeg as a deadly strike force, and trolls, wretched, fear-inspiring trolls, as his personal bodyguard. And by his count thus far, ten thousand fanatically loyal goblin troops to carry out his swath of destruction.
“Akar Kessell!” he shouted to the harem girl that manicured his long fingernails as he sat in contemplation, though the girl’s mind had long ago been destroyed by Crenshinibon. “All glory to the Tyrant of Icewind Dale!”
* * *
Far to the south of the frozen steppes, in the civilized lands where men had more time for leisure activities and contemplation and every action wasn’t determined by sheer necessity, wizards and would-be wizards were less rare. The true mages, lifelong students of the arcane arts, practiced their trade with due respect for the magic, ever wary of the potential consequences of their spellcastings.
Unless consumed by the lust for power, which was a very dangerous thing, the true mages tempered their experiments with caution and rarely caused disasters.
The would-be mages, however, men who somehow had come into a degree of magical prowess, whether they had found a scroll or a master’s spellbook or some relic, were often the perpetrators of colossal calamities.
Such was the case that night in a land a thousand miles from Akar Kessell and Crenshinibon. A wizard’s apprentice, a young man who had shown great promise to his master, came into possession of a diagram of a powerful magic circle, and then sought and found a spell of summoning. The apprentice, lured by the promise of power, managed to extract the true name of a demon from his master’s private notes.
Sorcery, the art of summoning entities from other planes into servitude, was this young man’s particular love. His master had allowed him to bring midges and manes through a magical portal – closely supervised – hoping to demonstrate the potential dangers of the practice and reinforce the lessons of caution. Actually, the demonstrations had only served to heighten the young man’s appetite for the art. He had begged his master to allow him to try for a true demon, but the wizard knew that he wasn’t nearly ready for such a test.
The apprentice disagreed.
He had completed inscribing the circle that same day. So confident was he in his work that he didn’t spend an extra day (some wizards would spend a week) checking the runes and symbols or bother to test the circle on a lesser entity, such as a mane.
And now he sat within it, his eyes focused on the fire of the brazier that would serve as the gate to the Abyss. With a self-assured, overly proud smile, the would-be sorcerer called the demon.
Errtu, a major demon of catastrophic proportions, faintly heard its named being uttered on the faraway plane. Normally, the great beast would have ignored such a weak call; certainly the summoner hadn’t demonstrated any ability of sufficient strength to compel the demon to comply.
Yet Errtu was glad of the fateful call. A few years before, the demon had felt a surge of power on the material plane that it believed would culminate a quest it had undertaken a millenium ago. The demon had suffered through the last few years impatiently, eager for a wizard to open a path for it so that it could come to the material plane and investigate.
The young apprentice felt himself being drawn into the hypnotic dance of the brazier’s fire. The blaze had unified into a single flame, like the burn of a candle only many times larger, and it swayed tantalizingly, back and forth, back and forth.
The mesmerized apprentice wasn’t even aware of the growing intensity of the fire. The flame leaped higher and higher, its flickering sped up, and its color moved through the spectrum toward the ultimate heat of whiteness.
Back and forth. Back and forth.
Faster, now, wagging wildly and building its strength to support the mighty entity that waited on the other side.
Back and forth. Back and forth.
The apprentice was sweating. He knew that the power of the spell was growing beyond his bounds, that the magic had taken over and was living a life of its own. That he was powerless to stop it.
Back and forth. Back and forth.
Now he saw the dark shadow within the flame, the great clawed hands, and the leathery, batlike wings. And the size of the beast! A giant even by the standards of its kind.
“Errtu!” the young man called, the words forced from him by the demands of the spell. The name hadn’t been completely identified in his master’s notes, but he saw clearly that it belonged to a mighty demon, a monster ranking just below the demon lords in the hierarchy of the Abyss.
Back and forth. Back and forth.
Now the grotesque, monkeylike head, with the maw and muzzle of a dog and the oversized incisors of a boar, was visible, the huge, blood-red eyes squinting from within the brazier’s flame. The acidic drool sizzled as it fell to the fire.
Back and forth. Back and forth.
The fire surged into a final climax of power, and Errtu stepped through. The demon didn’t pause at all to consider the terrified young human that had foolishly called its name. It began a slow stalk around the magic circle in search of clues to the extent of this wizard’s power.
The apprentice finally managed to steady himself. He had summoned a major demon! That fact helped him to reestablish his confidence in his abilities as a sorcerer. “Stand before me!” he commanded, aware that a firm hand was necessary to control a creature from the chaotic lower planes.
Errtu, undisturbed, continued its stalk.
The apprentice grew angry. “You will obey me!”‘ he screamed. “I brought you here, and I hold the key to your torment! You shall obey my command, and then I shall release you, mercifully, back to your own filthy world! Now, stand before me!”
The apprentice was defiant: The apprentice was proud.
But Errtu had found an error in the tracing of a rune, a fatal imperfection in a magic circle that could not afford to be almost perfect.
The apprentice was dead.
* * *
Errtu felt the familiar sensation of power more distinctly on the material plane and had little trouble discerning the direction of the emanations. It soared on its great wings over the cities of the humans, spreading a panic wherever it was noticed, but not delaying its journey to savor the erupting chaos below.
Arrow-straight and with all speed Errtu soared, over lakes and mountains, across great expanses of empty land. Toward the northernmost range in the Realms, the Spine of the World, and the ancient relic that it had spent centuries searching for.
* * *
Kessell was aware of the approaching demon long before his assembled troops began scattering in terror from under the swooping shadow of darkness. Crenshinibon had imparted the information to the wizard, the living relic anticipating the movements of the powerful creature from the lower planes that had been persuing it for ages uncounted.
Kessell wasn’t worried, though. Inside his tower of strength he was confident that he could handle even a nemesis as mighty as Errtu. And he had a distinct advantage over the demon. He was the rightful wielder of the relic. It was attuned to him, and like so many other magical artifacts from the dawn of the world, Crenshinibon could not be wrested from its possessor by sheer force. Errtu desired to wield the relic and, therefore, would not dare to oppose Kessell and invoke Crenshinibon’s wrath.
Acid drool slipped freely from the demon’s mouth when it saw the tower image of the relic. “How many years?” it bellowed victoriously. Errtu saw the tower’s door clearly, for the demon was a creature not of the material plane, and approached at once. None of Kessell’s goblins, or even giants, stood to hinder the demon’s entrance.
Flanked by his trolls, the wizard was waiting for Errtu in Cryshal-Tirith’s main chamber, the tower’s first level. The wizard understood that the trolls would be of little use against a fire-wielding demon, but he wanted them present to enhance the demon’s first impression of him. He knew that he held the power to send Errtu away easily enough, but another thought, again implanted through a suggestion of the crystal shard, had come to him.
The demon could be very useful.
Errtu pulled up short when it passed through the narrow entryway and came upon the wizard’s entourage. Because of the remote location of the tower, the demon had expected to find an orc, or perhaps a giant, holding the shard. It had hoped to intimidate and trick the slow-witted wielder into surrendering the relic, but the sight of a robed human, probably even a mage, threw a snag into its plans.
“Greetings, mighty demon,” Kessell said politely, bowing low. “Welcome to my humble home.”
Errtu growled in rage and started forward, forgetting the drawbacks of destroying the possessor in its all-consuming hatred and envy for the smug human.
Crenshinibon reminded the demon.
A sudden flare of light pulsed from the tower walls, engulfing Errtu in the painful brightness of a dozen desert suns. The demon halted and covered its sensitive eyes. The light dissipated soon enough, but Errtu held its ground and did not approach the wizard again.
Kessell smirked. The relic had supported him. Brimming with confidence, he addressed the demon again, this time a stern edge in his voice. “You have come to take this,” he said, reaching within the folds of his robe to produce the shard. Errtu’s eyes narrowed and locked onto the object it had pursued for so long.
“You can not have it,” Kessell said flatly, and he replaced it under his robe. “It is mine, rightfully found, and you have no claim over it that it would honor!” Kessell’s foolish pride, the fatal flaw in his personality that had always pushed him down a road of certain tragedy, wanted him to continue his taunting of the demon in its helpless situation.
“Enough,” warned a sensation within him, the silent voice he had come to suspect was the sentient will of the shard.
“This is none of your affair,” Kessell shot back aloud. Errtu looked around the room, wondering who the wizard was addressing. Certainly the trolls had paid him no heed. As a precaution, the demon invoked various detection spells, fearing an unseen assailant.
“You taunt a dangerous foe,” the shard persisted. “I have protected you from the demon, yet you persist in alienating a creature that would prove a valuable ally!”
As was usually the case when Crenshinibon communicated with the wizard, Kessell began to see the possibilities. He decided upon a course of compromise, an agreement mutually beneficial to both himself and the demon.
Errtu considered its predicament. It couldn’t slay the impertinent human, though the demon would have truly savored such an act. Yet leaving without the relic, putting off the quest that had been its primary motivation for centuries, was not an acceptable option.
“I have a proposal to offer, a bargain that might interest you,” Kessell said temptingly, avoiding the death-promising glare that the demon was throwing him. “Stay by my side and serve as commander of my forces! With you leading them and the power of Crenshinibon and Akar Kessell behind them, they shall sweep through the northland!”
“Serve you?” Errtu laughed. “You have no hold over me, human.”
“You view the situation incorrectly,” retorted Kessell. “Think of it not as servitude but as an opportunity to join in a campaign that promises destruction and conquest! You have my utmost respect, mighty demon. I would not presume to call myself your master.”
Crenshinibon, with its subconscious intrusions, had coached Kessell well. Errtu’s less-threatening stance showed that it was intrigued by the wizard’s proposition.
“And consider the gains that you shall someday make,” Kessell continued. “Humans do not live a very long tine by your ageless estimations. Who, then, shall take the crystal shard when Akar Kessell is no more?”
Errtu smiled wickedly and bowed before the wizard. “How could I refuse such a generous offer?” the demon rasped in its horrible, unearthly voice. “Show me, wizard, what glorious conquests lie in our path.”
Kessell nearly danced with joy. His army was, in effect, complete.
He had his general.