The Crystal Shard 13. As the Wielder Bids

The Crystal Shard 13. As the Wielder Bids

“Gather together your people and go, Biggrin,” the wizard told the enormous frost giant that stood before him in Cryshal-Tirith’s throne room. “Remember that you represent the army of Akar Kessell. You are the first group to go into the area, and secrecy is the key to our victory! Do not fail me! I shall be watching over your every move.”

“We’ll not fail ye, master,” the giant responded. “The lair’ll be set and readied for your coming!”

“I have faith in you,” Kessell assured the huge commander. “Now be off.”

The frost giant lifted the blanketed mirror that Kessell had given it, gave one final bow to its master, and walked out of the room.

“You should not have sent them,” hissed Errtu, who had been standing invisibly beside the throne during the conversation. “The verbeeg and their frost giant leader will be easy to mark in a community of humans and dwarves.”

“Biggrin is a wise leader,” Kessell shot back, angered at the demon’s impertinence. “The giant is cunning enough to keep troops out of sight!”

“Yet the humans would have been better suited for this mission, as Crenshinibon has shown you.”

“I am the leader!” screamed Kessell. He pulled the crystal shard out from under his robes and waved it menacingly at Errtu, leaning forward in an attempt to emphasize the threat. “Crenshinibon advises, but I decide! Do not forget your place, mighty demon. I am the wielder of the shard, and I shall not tolerate your questioning my every move.”

Errtu’s blood-red eyes narrowed dangerously, and Kessell straightened back in his throne, suddenly reconsidering the wisdom of threatening the demon. But Errtu calmed quickly, accepting the minor inconveniences of Kessell’s foolish outbursts for the long term gains it stood to make.

“Crenshinibon has existed since the dawn of the world,” the demon rasped, making one final point. “It has orchestrated a thousand campaigns much grander than the one you are about to undertake. Perhaps you would be wise to give more credence to its advice.”

Kessell twitched nervously. The shard had indeed counseled him to use the humans he would soon command in the first excursion into the region. He had been able to create a dozen excuses to validate his choice of sending the giants, but in truth, he had sent Biggrin’s people more to illustrate his undeniable command to himself, to the shard, and to the impertinent demon, than for any possible military gains.

“I shall follow Crenshinibon’s advice when I deem it appropriate,” he told Errtu. He pulled a second crystal, an exact duplicate of Crenshinibon and the crystal he had used to raise this tower, out from one of the many pockets of his robe. “Take this to the appropriate spot and perform the ceremony of raising,” he instructed. “I shall join you through a mirror door when all is ready.”

“You wish to raise a second Cryshal-Tirith while the first still stands?” Errtu balked. “The drain on the relic shall be enormous!”

“Silence!” Kessell ordered, trembling visibly. “Go and perform the ceremony! Let the shard remain my concern!”

Errtu took the replica of the relic and bowed low. Without a further word, the demon stalked out of the room. It understood that Kessell was foolishly demonstrating his control over the shard at the expense of proper restraint and wise military tactics. The wizard did not have the capacity or the experience to orchestrate this campaign, yet the shard continued to back him.

Errtu had made a secret offer to it to dispose of Kessell and take over as wielder. But Crenshinibon had refused the demon. It preferred the demonstrations that Kessell demanded of it to appease his own insecurities over the constant struggle of control it would face against the powerful demon.

* * *

Though he walked among giants and trolls, the proud barbarian king’s stature was not diminished. He strode defiantly through the iron door of the black tower and pushed through the wretched troll guards with a threatening growl. He hated this place of sorcery and had decided to ignore the calling when the singular spinet of the tower appeared on the horizon like an icy finger risen from the flat ground. Yet in the end he could not resist the summons of the master of Cryshal-Tirith.

Heafstaag hated the wizard. By all measures of a tribesman Akar Kessell was weak, using tricks and demonic callings to do the work of muscle. And Heafstaag hated him even more because he could not refute the power that the wizard commanded.

The barbarian king threw aside the dangling, beaded strands that sectioned off Akar Kessell’s private audience hall on the tower’s second level. The wizard reclined on a huge, satin pillow in the middle of the room, his long, painted fingernails tapping impatiently on the floor. Several nude slave girls, their minds bent and broken under the shard’s domination, waited on every whim of the shard’s wielder.

It angered Heafstaag to see women enslaved to such a puny, pitiful shell of a man. He considered, and not for the first time, a sudden charge, burying his great axe deep into the wizard’s skull. But the room was filled with strategically located screens and pillars, and the barbarian knew, even if he refused to believe that the wizard’s will could deny his rage, that Kessell’s pet demon wouldn’t be far from its master.

“So good that you could join me, noble Heafstaag,” said Kessell in a calm, disarming way. Errtu and Crenshinibon were close at hand. He felt quite secure, even in the presence of the rugged barbarian king. He fondled one of the slaves absently, showing off his absolute rule. “Really, you should have come sooner. Already many of my forces are assembled; the first group of scouts has already departed.”

He leaned forward toward the barbarian to emphasize his point. “If I can find no room for your people in my plans,” he said with an evil snicker, “then I shall have no need for your people at all.”

Heafstaag didn’t flinch or change his expression in the least.

“Come now, mighty king,” the wizard crooned, “sit and share in the riches of my table.”

Heafstaag clung to his pride and remained unmoving.

“Very well!” snapped Kessell. He clenched his fist and uttered a command word. “To whom do you owe your fealty?” he demanded.

Heafstaag’s body went rigid. “To Akar Kessell!” he responded, to his own repulsion.

“And tell me again who it is that commands the tribes of the tundra.”

“They follow me,” Heafstaag replied, “and I follow Akar Kessell. Akar Kessell commands the tribes of the tundra!”

The wizard released his fist, and the barbarian king slumped back.

“I take little joy in doing that to you,” said Kessell, rubbing a burr in one of his painted nails. “Do not make me do it again.” He pulled a scroll out from behind the satin pillow and tossed it to the floor. “Sit before me,” he instructed Heafstaag. “Tell me again of your defeat.”

Heafstaag took his place on the floor in front of his master and unrolled the parchment.

It was a map of Ten-Towns.