The Crystal Shard 24. Cryshal-Tirith

The Crystal Shard 24. Cryshal-Tirith

Drizzt soon came upon the battered ground where the army had crossed. The tracks came as no surprise to the drow, for the smoke pillars had already told him much of what had transpired. His only remaining question was whether or not any of the towns had held out, and he trotted on toward the mountain wondering if he had a home to return to.

Then he sensed a presence, an otherworldly aura that strangely reminded him of the days of his youth. He bent to check the ground again. Some of the marks were fresh troll tracks, and a scarring on the ground that could not have been caused by any mortal being. Drizzt looked around nervously, but the only sound was the mourn of the wind and the only silhouettes on the horizons were the peaks of Kelvin’s Cairn before him and the Spine of the World far to the south. Drizzt paused to consider the presence for a few moments, trying to bring the familiarity he felt into better focus.

He moved on tentatively. He understood the source of his recollections now, though their exact details remained elusive. He knew what he was following.

A demon had come to Icewind Dale.

Kelvin’s Cairn loomed much larger before Drizzt caught up to the band. His sensitivity to creatures of the lower planes, brought about by centuries of associating with them in Menzoberranzan, told him that he was nearing the demon before it came into sight.

And then he saw the distant forms, a half-dozen trolls marching in a tight rank, and in their midst, towering over them, was a huge monster of the Abyss. No minor mane or midge, Drizzt knew at once, but a major demon. Kessell must be mighty indeed if he held this formidable monster under his control!

Drizzt followed them at a cautious distance. The band was intent on their destination, though, and his caution was unnecessary. But Drizzt wasn’t about to take any chances at all, for he had many times witnessed the wrath of such demons. They were commonplace in the cities of the drow, further proof to Drizzt Do’Urden that the ways of his people were not for him.

He moved in closer; for something else had grabbed his attention. The demon was holding a small object which radiated such powerful magic that the drow, even at this distance, could sense it clearly. It was too masked by the demon’s own emanations for Drizzt to get any clear perspectives on it, so he backed off cautiously once again.

The lights of thousands of campfires came into view as the party, and Drizzt, approached the mountain. The goblins had set scouts in this very area, and Drizzt realized that he had gone as far south as he could. He broke off his pursuit and headed for the better vantage points up the mountain.

The time best suited to the drow’s underworld vision was the lightening hours just before sunrise, and though he was tired, Drizzt was determined to be in position by then. He quickly climbed up the rocks, gradually working his way around to the southern face of the mountain.

Then he saw the campfires encircling Bryn Shander. Further to the east, embers glowed in the rubble that had been Caer-Konig and Caer-Dineval. Wild shouts rang out from Termalaine, and Drizzt knew that the city on Maer Dualdon was in the hands of the enemy.

And then predawn blued the night sky, and much more became apparent. Drizzt first looked to the south end of the dwarven valley and was comforted that the wall opposite him had collapsed. Bruenor’s people were safe at least, and Regis with them, the drow supposed.

But the sight of Bryn Shander was less comforting. Drizzt had heard the boasts of the captured orc and had seen the tracks of the army and their campfires, but he could never have imagined the vast assemblage that opened up before him when the light increased.

The sight staggered him.

“How many goblin tribes have you collected, Akar Kessell?” he gasped. “And how many of the giants call you master?”

He knew that the people in Bryn Shander would survive only as long as Kessell let them. They could not hope to hold out against this force. Dismayed, he turned to seek out a hole where he could get some rest. He could be of no immediate help here, and exhaustion was heightening his hopelessness, preventing him from thinking constructively.

As he started away frown the mountain face, sudden activity on the distant field caught his attention. He couldn’t make out individuals at this great distance, the army seemed just a black mass, but he knew that the demon had come forth. He saw the blacker spot of its evil presence wade out to a cleared area only a few hundred yards below the gates of Bryn Shander. And he felt the supernatural aura of the powerful magic he had earlier sensed, like the living heart of some unknown life form, pulsating in the demon’s clawed hands.

Goblins gathered around to watch the spectacle, keeping a respectable distance between them and Kessell’s dangerously unpredictable captain.

“What is that?” asked Regis, crushed in among the watching throng on Bryn Shander’s wall.

“A demon,” Cassius answered. “A big one.”

“It mocks our meager defenses!” Glensather cried. “How can we hope to stand against such a foe?”

The demon bent low, involved in the ritual to call out the dweomer of the crystalline object. It stood the crystal shard upright on the grass and stepped back, bellowing forth the obscure words of an ancient spell, rising to a crescendo as the sky began to brighten with the sun’s imminent appearance.

“A glass dagger?” Regis asked, puzzled by the pulsating object.

Then the first ray of dawn broke the horizon. The crystal sparkled and summoned the light, bending the sunbeam’s path and absorbing its energy.

The shard flared again. The pulsations intensified as more of the sun crept into the eastern sky, only to have its light sucked into the hungry image of Crenshinibon.

The spectators on the wall gaped in horror, wondering if Akar Kessell held power over the sun itself. Only Cassius had the presence of mind to connect the power of the shard with the light of the sun.

Then the crystal began to grow. It swelled as each pulse attained its peak, then shrank back a bit while the next throb grew. Everything around it remained in shadow, for it greedily consumed all of the sunlight. Slowly, but inevitably, its girth widened and its tip rose high into the air. The people on the wall and the monsters on the field had to avert their eyes from the brightened power of Cryshal-Tirith. Only the drow from his distant vantage point and the demon who was immune to such sights witnessed another image of Crenshinibon being raised. The third Cryshal-Tirith grew to life. The tower released its hold on the sun as the ritual was completed, and all the region was bathed in morning sunlight.

The demon roared at its successful spellcasting and strode proudly into the new tower’s mirrored doorway; followed by the trolls, the wizard’s personal guard.

The besieged inhabitants of Bryn Shander and Targos looked upon the incredible structure with a confused mixture of awe, appreciation, and terror. They could not resist the unearthly beauty of Cryshal-Tirith, but they knew the consequences of the tower’s appearance: Akar Kessell, master of goblins and giants, had come.

* * *

Goblins and orcs fell to their knees, and all the vast army took up the chant of “Kessell! Kessell!” paying homage to the wizard with a fanatical devotion that brought shivers to the human witnesses to the spectacle.

Drizzt, too, was unnerved by the extent of the influence and devotion the wizard exerted over the normally independent goblin tribes. The drow determined at that moment that the only chance for survival for the people of Ten-Towns lay in the death of Akar Kessell. He knew even before he had considered any of the possible options that he would try to get to the wizard. For now, though, he needed to rest. He found a shadowed hole just back from the face of Kelvin’s Cairn and let his exhaustion overtake him.

Cassius was also tired. The spokesman had stayed on the wall throughout the cold night, examining the campsites to determine how much of the natural enmity between the unruly tribes remained. He had seen some minor discord and name-calling, but nothing extreme enough to give him hope that the army would fall apart early into the siege. He couldn’t understand how the wizard had achieved such a dramatic unification of the arch foes. The appearance of the demon and the raising of Cryshal-Tirith had shown him the incredible power that Kessell commanded. He had soon drawn the same conclusions as the drow.

Unlike Drizzt, though, the spokesman from Bryn Shander did not retire when the field calmed again, despite the protests of Regis and Glensather, concerned for his health. On his shoulders, Cassius carried the responsibility for the several thousand terrified people that lay huddled within his city’s walls and there would be no rest for him. He needed information; he needed to find a weak link in the wizard’s seemingly impregnable armor.

And so the spokesman watched diligently and patiently throughout the first long, uneventful day of the siege, noting the boundaries that the goblin tribes staked out as their own, and the order of hierarchy that determined the distance of each group from the center spot of Cryshal-Tirith.

* * *

Away to the east, the fleets of Caer-Konig and Caer-Dineval moored alongside the docks of the deserted city of Easthaven. Several crews had gone ashore to gather supplies, but most of the people had remained on the boats, unsure of how far east Kessell’s black arm extended.

Jensin Brent and his counterpart from Caer-Konig had taken full control of their immediate situation from the decks of the Mist Seeker; the flagship of Caer-Dineval. All disputes between the two cities had been called off, temporarily at least – though promises of continued friendship were heard on the decks of every ship on Lac Dinneshere. Both spokesmen were agreed that they would not yet leave the waters of the lake and flee, for they realized that they had nowhere to go. All of the ten towns were threatened by Kessell, and Luskan was fully four hundred miles away and across the path of Kessell’s army. The ill-equipped refugees couldn’t hope to reach it before the first of winter’s snows caught up with them.

The sailors that had disembarked soon returned to the docks with the welcomed news that Easthaven had not yet been touched by the darkness. More crews were ordered ashore to collect extra food and blankets, but Jensin Brent played it cautiously, thinking it wise to keep most of the refugees out on the water beyond Kessell’s reach.

More promising news came a short time later.

“Signals from Redwaters, Spokesman Brent!” the watchman atop the Mist Seeker’s crow’s nest called out. “The people of Good Mead and Dougan’s Hole are unharmed!” He held up his newsbearer, a small glasspiece crafted in Termalaine and designed to focus the light of the sun for signaling across the lakes, using intricate though limited signaling codes. “My calls have been answered!”

“Where are they, then?” Brent asked excitedly.

“On the eastern banks,” the watchman replied. “They sailed out of their villages, thinking them undefendable. None of the monsters have yet approached, but the spokesmen felt that the far side of the lake would be safer until the invaders have departed.”

“Keep the communication open,” Brent ordered. “Let me know when you have more news.”

“Until the invaders have departed?” Schermont echoed incredulously as he moved to Jensin Brent’s side.

“A foolishly hopeful assessment of the situation, I agree,” said Brent. “But I am relieved that our cousins to the south yet live!”

“Do we go to them? Join our forces?”

“Not yet,” answered Brent. “I fear that we would be too vulnerable on the open ground between the lakes. We need more information before we can take any effective action. Let us keep the communications flowing between the two lakes. Gather volunteers to carry messages to Redwaters.”

“They shall be sent off immediately,” agreed Schermont as he headed away.

Brent nodded and looked back across the lake at the dying plume of smoke above his home. “More information,” he muttered to himself.

Other volunteers headed out later that day into the more treacherous west to scout out the situation in the principle city.

Brent and Schermont had done a masterful job in quelling the panic, but even with the substantial gains in organization, the initial shock of the sudden and deadly invasion had left most of the survivors of Caer-Konig and Caer-Dineval in a state of utter despair. Jensin Brent was the glowing exception. The spokesman from Caer-Dineval was a courageous fighter who steadfastly refused to yield until the last breath had left his body. He sailed his proud flagship around the moorings of the others, rallying the people with his cries of promised revenge against Akar Kessell.

Now he watched and waited on the Mist Seeker for the critical news from the west. In mid-afternoon, he heard the call he had prayed for.

“She stands!” the watcher on the crow’s nest cried out ecstatically when the newsbearer’s signal flashed in. “Bryn Shander stands!”

Suddenly, Brent’s optimism took on credibility. The miserable band of homeless victims assumed an angry posture bent on vengeance. More messengers were dispatched at once to carry the news to Redwaters that Kessell hadn’t yet achieved complete victory.

On both lakes, the task of separating the warriors from the civillians soon began in earnest, with the women and children moving to the heaviest and least seaworthy boats, and the fighting men boarding the fastest vessels. The designated warships were then moved to the outbound moorings, where they could put out quickly across the lakes.

Their sails were checked and tightened in preparation for the wild run that would carry their brave crews to war.

Or, by Jensin Brent’s furious decree, “The run that would carry their brave crews to victory!”

* * *

Regis had rejoined Cassius on the wall when the newsbearer’s signal had been spotted on the southwestern banks of Lac Dinneshere. The halfling had slept for most of the night and day, figuring that he might as well die doing the thing he loved to do best. He was surprised when he awakened, expecting his slumber to last into eternity.

Cassius was beginning to view things a bit differently, though. He had compiled a long list of potential breakdowns in Akar Kessell’s unruly army; orcs bullying goblins and giants in turn bullying both. If he could only find a way for them to hold out long enough for the obvious hatred between the goblin races to take its toll on Kessell’s force ….

And then, the signal from Lac Dinneshere and subsequent reports of similar flashes on the far side of Redwaters had given the spokesman sincere hope that the siege might well disintegrate and Ten-Towns survive.

But then the wizard made his dramatic appearance and Cassius’s hopes were dashed.

It began as a pulse of red light circling within the glassy wall at the base of Cryshal-Tirith. Then a second pulse, this one blue, started up the tower, rotating in the opposite direction. Slowly they circled the diameter of the tower, blending into green as they converged, then separating and continuing on their way. All who could see the tantalizing show stared apprehensively, unsure of what would happen next, but convinced that a display of tremendous power was forthcoming.

The circling lights speeded up, their intensity increasing with their velocity. Soon the entire base of the tower was ringed in a green blur, so bright that the onlookers had to avert their eyes. And out of the blur stepped two hideous trolls, each bearing an ornate mirror.

The lights slowed and stopped altogether.

The mere sight of the disgusting trolls filled the people of Bryn Shander with revulsion, but intrigued, none would turn away. The monsters walked right to the base of the city’s sloping hill and stood facing each other, aiming their mirrors diagonally toward each other, but still catching the reflection of Cryshal-Tirith.

Twin beams of light shot down from the tower, each striking one of the mirrors and converging with the other halfway between the trolls. A sudden pulse from the tower, like the flash of a lightning stroke, left the area between the monsters veiled in smoke, and when it cleared, instead of the converging beams of light, stood a thin, crooked shell of a man in a red, satiny robe.

Goblins fell to their knees again and hid their faces in the ground. Akar Kessell had come.

He looked up in the direction of Cassius on the wall, a cocky smile stretched across his thin lips. “Greetings spokesman of Bryn Shander!” he cackled. “Welcome to my fair city!” He laughed wryly.

Cassius had no doubt that the wizard had picked him out, though he had no recollection of ever seeing the man and didn’t understand how he had been recognized. He looked to Regis and Glensather for an explanation, but they both shrugged their shoulders.

“Yes, I know you, Cassius,” Kessell said. “And to you, good Spokesman Glensather, my greetings. I should have guessed that you would be here; ever were the people of Easthaven willing to join in a cause, no matter how hopeless!”

Now it was Glensather’s turn to stare dumbfounded at his companions. But again, there were no explanations forthcoming.

“You know of us,” Cassius replied to the apparition, “yet you are unknown to us. It seems that you hold an unfair advantage.”

“Unfair?” protested the wizard. “I hold every advantage, foolish man!” Again the laugh. “You know of me – at least Glensather does.”

The spokesman from Easthaven shrugged his shoulders again in reply to Cassius’s inquiring glance. The gesture seemed to anger Kessell.

“I spent several months living in Easthaven,” the wizard snapped. “In the guise of a wizard’s apprentice from Luskan! Clever, don’t you agree?”

“Do you remember him?” Cassius asked Glensather softly. “It could be of great import.”

“It is possible that he stayed in Easthaven,” Glensather replied in the same whispered tones, “though no group from the Hosttower has come into my city for several years. Yet we are an open city, and many foreigners arrive with every passing trading caravan. I tell you the truth, Cassius, I have no recollection of the man.”

Kessell was outraged. He stamped his foot impatiently, and the smile on his face was replaced by a pouting pucker. “Perhaps my return to Ten-Towns will prove more memorable, fools!” he snapped. He held his arms outstretched in self-important proclamation. “Behold Akar Kessell, the Tyrant of Icewind Dale!” he cried. “People of Ten-Towns, your master has come!”

“Your words are a bit premature – ” Cassius began, but Kessell cut him short with a frenzied scream.

“Never interrupt me!” the wizard shouted, the veins in his neck taut and bulging and his face turning as red as blood.

Then, as Cassius quieted in disbelief, Kessell seemed to regain a measure of his composure. “You shall learn better, proud Cassius,” he threatened. “You shall learn!”

He turned back to Cryshal-Tirith and uttered a simple word of command. The tower went black for a moment, as though it refused to release the reflections of the sun’s light. Then it began to glow, far within its depths, with a light that seemed more its own than a reflection of the day. With each passing second, the hue shifted and the light began to climb and circle the strange walls.

“Behold Akar Kessell!” the wizard proclaimed, still frowning. “Look upon the splendor of Crenshinibon and surrender all hope!”

More lights began flashing within the tower’s walls, climbing and dropping randomly and spinning about the structure in a frenzied dance that cried out for release. Gradually they were working their way up to the pointed pinnacle, and it began to flare as if on fire, shifting through the colors of the spectrum until its white flame rivaled the brightness of the sun itself.

Kessell cried out as a man in ecstacy.

The fire was released.

It shot out in a thin, searing line northward toward the unfortunate city of Targos. Many spectators lined Targos’s high wall, though the tower was much farther away from them than it was from Bryn Shander, and it appeared as no more than a flashing speck on the distant plain. They had little idea of what was happening beneath the principle city, though they did see the ray of fire coming toward them.

But by then it was too late.

The wrath of Akar Kessell roared into the proud city, cutting a swath of instant devastation. Fires sprouted all along its killing line. People caught in the direct path never even had a chance to cry out before they were simply vaporized. But those who survived the initial assault, women and children and tundra-toughened men alike, who had faced death a thousand times and more, did scream. And their wails carried out across the still lake to Lonelywood and Bremen, to the cheering goblins in Termalaine, and down the plain to the horrified witnesses in Bryn Shander.

Kessell waved his hand and slightly altered the angle of the release, thus arcing the destruction throughout Targos. Every major structure within the city was soon burning, and hundreds of people lay dead or dying, pitifully rolling about on the ground to extinguish the flames that engulfed their bodies or gasping helplessly in a desperate search for air in the heavy smoke.

Kessell reveled in the moment.

But then he felt an involuntary shudder wrack his spine. And the tower, too, seemed to quiver. The wizard clutched at the relic, still tucked under the folds of his robe. He understood that he had pushed the limits of Crenshinibon’s strength too far.

Back in the Spine of the World, the first tower that Kessell had raised crumbled into rubble. And far out on the open tundra, the second did likewise. The shard pulled in its borders, destroying the tower images that sapped away its strength.

Kessell, too, had been wearied by the effort, and the lights of the remaining Cryshal-Tirith began to calm and then to wane. The ray fluttered and died.

But it had finished its business.

When the invasion had first come, Kemp and the other proud leaders of Targos had promised their people that they would hold the city until the last man had fallen, but even the stubborn spokesman realized that they had no choice but to flee. Luckily, the city proper, which had taken the brunt of Kessell’s attack, was on high ground overlooking the sheltered bay area. The fleets remained unharmed. And the homeless fishermen of Termalaine were already on the docks, having stayed with their boats after they had docked in Targos. As soon as they had realized the unbelievable extent of the destruction that was occurring in the city proper, they began preparing for the imminent influx of the war’s latest refugees. Most of the boats of both cities sailed out within minutes of the attack, desperate to get their vulnerable sails safely away from the windblown sparks and debris. A few vessels remained behind, braving the growing hazards to rescue any later arrivals on the docks.

The people on Bryn Shander’s dock wept at the continued screams of the dying. Cassius, though, consumed by his quest to seek out and understand the apparent weakness that Kessell had just revealed, had no time for tears. In truth, the cries affected him as deeply as anyone, but, unwilling to let the lunatic Kessell view any hints of weakness from him, he transformed his visage from sorrow to an iron grimace of rage.

Kessell laughed at him. “Do not pout, poor Cassius,” the wizard taunted, “it is unbecoming.”

“You are a dog,” Glensather retorted. “And unruly dogs should be beaten!”

Cassius stayed his fellow spokesman with an outstretched hand. “Be calm, my friend,” he whispered. “Kessell will feed off of our panic. Let him talk – he reveals more to us than he believes.”

“Poor Cassius,” Kessell repeated sarcastically. Then suddenly, the wizard’s face twisted in outrage. Cassius noted the abrupt swing keenly, filing it away with the other information he had collected.

“Mark well what you have witnessed here, people of Bryn Shander!” Kessell sneered. “Bow to your master, or the same fate shall befall you! And there is no water behind you! You have nowhere to run!”

He laughed wildly again and looked all about the city’s hill, as though he was searching for something. “What are you to do?” he cackled. “You have no lake!”

“I have spoken, Cassius. Hear me well. You will deliver an emissary unto me tomorrow, an emissary to bear the news of your unconditional surrender! And if your pride prevents such an act, remember the cries of dying Targos! Look to the city on the banks of Maer Dualdon for guidance, pitiful Cassius. The fires shall not have died when the morrow dawns!”

Just then a courier raced up to the spokesman. “Many ships have been spotted moving out from under the blanket of smoke in Targos. Newsbearer signals have already begun coming in from the refugees.”

“And what of Kemp?” Cassius asked anxiously.

“He lives,” the courier answered. “And he has vowed revenge.”

Cassius breathed a sigh of relief. He wasn’t overly fond of his peer from Targos, but he knew that the battle-seasoned spokesman would prove a valuable asset to Ten-Towns’ cause before all was through.

Kessell heard the conversation and growled in disdain. “And where shall they run?” he asked Cassius.

The spokesman, intent on studying this unpredictable and unbalanced adversary, did not reply, but Kessell answered the question for him.

“To Bremen? But they cannot!” He snapped his fingers, beginning the chain of a prearranged message to his westernmost forces. At once, a large group of goblins broke rank and started out to the west.

Toward Bremen.

“You see? Bremen falls before the night is through, and yet another fleet will scurry out onto their precious lake. The scene shall be repeated in the town in the wood with predictable results. But what protection will the lakes offer these people when the merciless winter begins to fall?” he shouted. “How fast shall their ships sail away from me when the waters are frozen around them?”

He laughed again, but this time more seriously, more dangerously. “What protection do any of you have against Akar Kessell?”

Cassius and the wizard held each other in unyielding glares. The wizard barely mouthed the words, but Cassius heard him clearly.

“What protection?”

* * *

Out on Maer Dualdon, Kemp bit back his frustrated rage as he watched his city tumble in flames. Soot-blackened faces stared back to the burning ruins in horrified disbelief, shouting impossible denials and openly crying for their lost friends and kin.

But, like Cassius, Kemp converted his despair into constructive anger. As soon as he learned of the goblin force departing for Bremen, he dispatched his fastest ship to warn the people of that distant city and to inform them of the happenings across the lake. Then he sent a second ship toward Lonelywood to beg for food and bandages, and perhaps an invitation to dock.

Despite their obvious differences, the spokesmen of the ten towns were in many ways alike. Like Agorwal, who had been happy to sacrifice everything for the good of the people, and Jensin Brent, who refused to yield to despair, Kemp of Targos set about rallying his people for a retaliatory strike. He didn’t yet know how he would accomplish the feat, but he knew that he had not had his final say in the wizard’s war.

And poised upon the wall of Bryn Shander, Cassius knew it, too.