The Crystal Shard 27. The Clock of Doom

The Crystal Shard 27. The Clock of Doom

Bremen was torched at dawn.

The people of the small, unwalled village had known better than to stand and fight when the wave of monsters rolled across the Shaengarne River. They put up token resistance at the ford, firing a few bursts of arrows at the lead goblins just to slow the ranks long enough for the heaviest and slowest ships to clear the harbor and reach the safety of Maer Dualdon. The archers then fled back to the docks and followed their fellow townsmen.

When the goblins finally entered the city, they found it completely deserted. They watched angrily as the sailing ships moved back toward the east to join the flotilla of Targos and Termalaine. Bremen was too far out of the way to be of any use to Akar Kessell, so, unlike the city of Termalaine which had been converted into a camp, this city was burned to the ground.

The people on the lake, the newest in the long line of homeless victims of Kessell’s wanton destruction, watched helplessly as their homes fell in smoldering splinters.

From the wall of Bryn Shander, Cassius and Regis watched, too. “He has made yet another mistake,” Cassius told the halfling.

“How so?”

“Kessell has backed the people of Targos and Termalaine, Caer-Konig and Caer-Dineval, and now Bremen into a corner,” Cassius explained. “They have nowhere to go now; their only hope lies in victory.”

“Not much of a hope,” Regis remarked. “You have seen what the tower can do. And even without it, Kessell’s army could destroy us all! As he said, he holds every advantage.”

“Perhaps,” Cassius conceded. “The wizard believes that he is invincible, that much is certain. And that is his mistake, my friend. The meekest of animals will fight bravely when it is backed against a wall, for it has nothing left to lose. A poor man is more deadly than a rich man because he puts less value on his own life. And a man stranded homeless on the frozen steppes with the first winds of winter already beginning to blow is a formidable enemy indeed!

“Fear not, little friend,” Cassius continued. “At our council this morning, we shall find a way to exploit the wizard’s weaknesses.”

Regis nodded, unable to dispute the spokesman’s simple logic and unwilling to refute his optimism. Still, as he scanned the deep ranks of goblins and orcs that surrounded the city, the halfling held out little hope.

He looked northward, where the dust had finally settled on the dwarven valley. Bruenor’s Climb was no more, having toppled with the rest of the cliff face when the dwarves closed up their caverns.

“Open a door for me, Bruenor,” Regis whispered absently. “Please let me in.”

* * *

Coincidentally, Bruenor and his clan were, at that very moment, discussing the feasibility of opening a door in their tunnels. But not to let anyone in. Soon after their smashing success against the ogres and goblins on the ledges outside their mines, the fighting longbeards had realized that they could not sit idly by while orcs and goblins and even worse monsters destroyed the world around them. They were eager to take a second shot at Kessell. In their underground womb, they had no idea if Bryn Shander was still standing, or if Kessell’s army had already rolled over all of Ten-Towns, but they could hear the sounds of an encampment above the southernmost sections of their huge complex.

Bruenor was the one who had proposed the idea of a second battle, mainly because of his own anger at the imminent loss of his closest non-dwarven friends. Shortly after the goblins that had escaped the tunnel collapse had been cut down, the leader of the clan from Mithril Hall gathered the whole of his people around him.

“Send someone to the farthest ends o’ the tunnels,” he instructed. “Find out where the dogs’ll do their sleepin’.”

That night, the sounds of the marching monsters became obvious far in the south, under the field surrounding Bryn Shander. The industrious dwarves immediately set about reconditioning the little-used tunnels that ran in that direction. And when they had gotten under the army, they dug ten separate upward shafts, stopping just shy of the surface.

A special gleam had returned to their eyes: the sparkle of a dwarf who knows that he’s about to chop off a few goblin heads. Bruenor’s devious plan had endless potential for revenge with minimal risk. With five minutes notice, they could complete their new exits. Less than a minute beyond that, their entire force would be up in the middle of Kessell’s sleeping army.

* * *

The meeting that Cassius had labeled a council was truly more of a forum where the spokesman from Bryn Shander could unveil his first retaliatory strategies. Yet none of the gathered leaders, even Glensather, the only other spokesman in attendance, protested in the least. Cassius had studied every aspect of the entrenched goblin army and the wizard with meticulous attention to detail. The spokesman had outlined a layout of the entire force, detailing the most potentially explosive rivalries among the goblin and orc ranks and his best estimates about the length of time it would take for the inner fighting to sufficiently weaken the army.

Everyone in attendance was agreed, though, that the cornerstone holding the siege together was Cryshal-Tirith. The awesome power of the crystalline structure would cow even the most disruptive orcs into unquestioning obedience. Yet the limits of that power, as Cassius saw it, were the real issue.

“Why was Kessell so insistent on an immediate surrender?” the spokesman reasoned. “He could let us sit under the stress of a siege for a few days to soften our resistance.”

The others agreed with the logic of Cassius’s line of thinking but had no answers for him.

“Perhaps Kessell does not command as strong a hold over his charges as we believe,” Cassius himself proposed. “Might it be that the wizard fears his army will disintegrate around him if stalled for any length of time?”

“It might,” replied Glensather of Easthaven. “Or maybe Akar Kessell simply perceives the strength of his advantage and knows that we have no choice but to comply. Do you, perhaps, confuse confidence with concern?”

Cassius paused for a moment to reflect on the question. “A point well taken,” he said at length. “Yet immaterial to our plans.” Glensather and several others cocked a curious eye at the spokesman.

“We must assume the latter,” Cassius explained. “If the wizard is truly in absolute control of the gathered army, then anything we might attempt shall prove futile in any case. Therefore, we must act on the assumption that Kessell’s impatience reveals well-founded concern.

“I do not perceive the wizard as an exceptional strategist. He has embarked on a path of destruction that he assumed would cow us into submission, yet which, in reality, has actually strengthened the resolve of many of our people to fight to the last. Long-standing rivalries between several of the towns, bitterness that a wise leader of an invading force would surely have twisted into an excellent advantage, have been mended by Kessell’s blatant disregard of finesse and his displays of outrageous brutality.”

Cassius knew by the attentive looks he was receiving that he was gaining support from every corner. He was trying to accomplish two things in this meeting; to convince the others to go along with the gamble he was about to unveil, and to lift their outlook and give them back some shred of hope.

“Our people are out there,” he said, sweeping his arm in a wide arc. “On Maer Dualdon and Lac Dinneshere, the fleets have gathered, awaiting some sign from Bryn Shander that we shall support them. The people of Good Mead and Dougan’s Hole do likewise on the southern lake, fully armed and knowing full well that in this struggle there is nothing left at all for any survivors if we are not victorious!” He leaned forward over the table, alternately catching and holding the gaze of each man seated before him and concluded grimly, “No homes. No hope for our wives. No hope for our children. Nowhere left to run.”

Cassius continued to rally the others around him and was soon backed by Glensather, who had guessed at the spokesman’s goal of increasing morale and recognized the value of it. Cassius searched for the most opportune moment. When the majority of the assembled leaders had replaced their frowns of despair with the determined grimace of survival, he put forth his daring plan.

“Kessell has demanded an emissary,” he said, “and so we must deliver one.”

“You or I would seem the most obvious choice,” Glensather intervened. “Which shall it be?”

A wry smile spread across Cassius’s face. “Neither,” he replied. “One of us would be the obvious choice if we intended to go along with Kessell’s demands. But we have one other option.” He turned his gaze squarely upon Regis. The halfling squirmed uncomfortably, half-guessing what the spokesman had in mind. “There is one among us who has attained an almost legendary reputation for his considerable abilities of persuasion. Perhaps his charismatic appeal shall win us some valuable time in our dealings with the wizard.”

Regis felt ill. He had often wondered when the ruby pendant was going to get him into trouble too deep to climb out of.

Several other people eyed Regis now, apparently intrigued by the potential of Cassius’s suggestion. The stories of the halfling’s charm and persuasive ability, and the accusation that Kemp had made at the council a few weeks earlier, had been told and retold a thousand times in every one of the towns, each storyteller typically enhancing and exaggerating the tales to increase his own importance. Though Regis hadn’t been thrilled with losing the power of his secret – people seldom looked him straight in the eye anymore – he had come to enjoy a certain degree of fame.

He hadn’t considered the possible negative side effects of having so many people looking up to him.

“Let the halfling, the former spokesman from Lonelywood, represent us in Akar Kessell’s court,” Cassius declared to the nearly unanimous approval of the assembly. “Perhaps our small friend will be able to convince the wizard of the error of his evil ways!”

“You are mistaken!” Regis protested. “They are only rumors ….”

“Humility,” Cassius interrupted, “is a fine trait, good halfling. And all gathered here appreciate the sincerity of your self-doubts and appreciate even moreso your willingness to pit your talents against Kessell in the face of those self-doubts!”

Regis closed his eyes and did not reply, knowing that the motion would surely pass whether he approved of it or not.

It did, without a single dissenting vote. The cornered people were quite willing to grab at any possible sliver of hope they could find.

Cassius moved quickly to wrap up the council, for he believed that all other matters – problems of overcrowding and food hoarding – were of little importance at a time like this. If Regis failed, every other inconvenience would become immaterial.

Regis remained silent. He had only attended the council to lend support to his spokesmen friends. When he took his seat at the table, he had no intentions of even actively participating in the discussions, let alone becoming the focal point of the defense plan.

And so the meeting adjourned. Cassius and Glensather exchanged knowing winks of success, for everyone left the room feeling a bit more optimistic.

Cassius held Regis back when he moved to leave with the others. The spokesman from Bryn Shander shut the door behind the last of them, desiring a private briefing with the principle character of the first stages of his plan.

“You could have spoken to me about all of this first!” Regis grumbled at the spokesman’s back as soon as the door was closed. “It seems only right that I should have been given the opportunity to make a decision in this matter!”

Cassius wore a grim visage as he turned to face the halfling. “What choice do any of us have?” he asked. “At least this way we have given them all some hope.”

“You overestimate me,” Regis protested.

“Perhaps you underestimate yourself,” Cassius said. Though the halfling realized that Cassius would not back away from the plan that he had set in motion, the spokesman’s confidence relayed an altruistic spirit to Regis that was genuinely comforting.

“Let us pray, for both our sakes, that the latter is the truth,” Cassius continued, moving to his seat at the table. “But I truly believe this to be the case. I have faith in you, even if you do not. I remember well what you did to Spokesman Kemp at the council five years ago, though it took his own declaration that he had been tricked to make me realize the truth of the situation. A masterful job of persuasion, Regis of Lonelywood, and moreso because it held its secret for so long!”

Regis blushed and conceded the point.

“And if you can deal with the stubborn likes of Kemp of Targos, you should find Akar Kessell easy prey!”

“I agree with your perceptions of Kessell as something less than a man of inner strength,” said Regis, “but wizards have a way of uncovering wizardlike tricks. And you forget the demon. I would not even attempt to deceive one of its kind!”

“Let us hope that you shall not have to deal with that one,” Cassius agreed with a visible shudder. “Yet I feel that you must go to the tower and try to dissuade the wizard. If we cannot somehow hold the gathered army at bay until its own inner turmoil becomes our ally, then we are surely doomed. Believe me, as I am your friend, that I would not ask you to journey into such peril if I saw any other possible path.” A pained look of helpless empathy had clearly worn through the spokesman’s earlier facade of rousing optimism. His concern touched Regis, as would a starving man crying out for food.

Even beyond his feelings for the overly pressured spokesman, Regis was forced to admit the logic of the plan and the absence of other avenues to explore. Kessell hadn’t given them much time to regroup after the initial attack. In the razing of Targos, the wizard had demonstrated his ability to likewise destroy Bryn Shander, and the halfling had little doubt that Kessell would carry out his vile threat.

So Regis came to accept his role as their only option. The halfling wasn’t easily spurred to action, but when he made up his mind to do something, he usually tried to do it properly.

“First of all,” he began, “I must tell you in the strictest of confidence that I do indeed have magical aid.” A glimmer of hope returned to Cassius’s eyes. He leaned forward, anxious to hear more, but Regis calmed him with an outstretched palm.

“You must understand, however,” the halfling explained, “that I do not, as some tales claim, have the power to pervert what is in a person’s heart. I could not convince Kessell to abandon his evil path any more than I could convince Spokesman Kemp to make peace with Termalaine.” He rose from his cushioned chair and paced around the table, his hands clasped behind his back. Cassius watched him in uncertain anticipation, unable to figure out exactly what he was leading up to with his admission and then disclaimer of power.

“Sometimes, though, I do have a way of making someone view his surroundings from a different perspective,” Regis admitted. “Like the incident you have referred to, when I convinced Kemp that embarking upon a certain preferable course of action would actually help him to achieve his own aspirations.

“So tell me again, Cassius, all that you have learned about the wizard and his army. Let us see if we might discover a way to make Kessell doubt the very things that he has come to rely upon!”

The halfling’s eloquence stunned the spokesman. Even though he hadn’t looked Regis in the eye, he could see the promise of truth in the tales he had always presumed to be exaggerated.

“We know from the newsbearer that Kemp has taken command of the remaining forces of the four towns on Maer Dualdon,” Cassius explained. “Likewise, Jensin Brent and Schermont are poised upon Lac Dinneshere, and combined with the fleets on Redwaters, they should prove a powerful force indeed!

“Kemp has already vowed revenge, and I doubt if any of the other refugees entertain thoughts of surrender or fleeing.”

“Where could they go?” Regis muttered. He looked pitifully at Cassius, who had no words of comfort. Cassius had put on a show of confidence and hope for the others at the council and for the people in the town, but he could not look at Regis now and make hollow promises.

Glensather suddenly burst back into the room. “The wizard is back on the field!” he cried. “He has demanded our emissary – the lights on the tower have started again!”

The three rushed from the building, Cassius reiterating as much of the pertinent information as he could.

Regis silenced him. “I am prepared,” he assured Cassius. “I don’t know if this outrageous scheme of yours has any chance of working, but you have my vow that I’ll work hard to carry out the deception.”

Then they were at the gate. “It must work,” Cassius said, clapping Regis on the shoulder. “We have no other hope.” He started to turn away, but Regis had one final question that he needed answered.

“If I find that Kessell is beyond my power?” he asked grimly. “What am I to do if the deception fails?”

Cassius looked around at the thousands of women and children huddled against the chill wind in the city’s common grounds. “If it fails,” he began slowly, “if Kessell cannot be dissuaded from using the power of the tower against Bryn Shander,” he paused again, if only to delay having to hear himself utter the words, “you are then under my personal orders to surrender the city.”

Cassius turned away and headed for the parapets to witness the critical confrontation. Regis didn’t hesitate any longer, for he knew that any pause at this frightening juncture would probably cause him to change his mind and run to find a hiding place in some dark hole in the city. Before he even had the chance to reconsider, he was through the gate and boldly marching down the hill toward the waiting spector of Akar Kessell.

Kessell had again appeared between two mirrors borne by trolls, standing with arms crossed and one foot tapping impatiently. The evil scowl on his face gave Regis the distinct impression that the wizard, in a fit of uncontrollable rage, would strike him dead before he even reached the bottom of the hill. Yet the halfling had to keep his eyes focused on Kessell to even continue his approach. The wretched trolls disgusted and revulsed him beyond anything he had ever encountered, and it took all of his willpower to move anywhere near them. Even from the gate, he could smell the foul odor of their rotting stench.

But somehow he made it to the mirrors and stood facing the evil wizard.

Kessell studied the emissary for quite a while. He certainly hadn’t expected a halfling to represent the city and wondered why Cassius hadn’t come personally to such an important meeting. “Do you come before me as the official representative of Bryn Shander and all who now reside within her walls?”

Regis nodded. “I am Regis of Lonelywood,” he answered, “a friend to Cassius and former member of the Council of Ten. I have been appointed to speak for the people within the city.”

Kessell’s eyes narrowed in anticipation of his victory. “And do you bear their message of unconditional surrender?”

Regis shuffled uneasily, purposely shifting so that the ruby pendant would start into motion on his chest. “I desire private council with thee, mighty wizard, that we might discuss the terms of the agreement.”

Kessell’s eyes widened. He looked at Cassius upon the wall. “I said unconditional!” he shrieked. Behind him, the lights of Cryshal-Tirith began to swirl and grow. “Now you shall witness the folly of your insolence!”

“Wait!” pleaded Regis, jumping around to regain the wizard’s attention. “There are some things that you should be aware of before all is decided!”

Kessell paid little attention to the halfling’s rambling, but the ruby pendant suddenly caught his attention. Even through the protection offered by the distance between his physical body and the window of his image projection, he found the gem fascinating.

Regis couldn’t resist the urge to smile, though only slightly, when he realized that the eyes of the wizard no longer blinked. “I have some information that I am sure you will find valuable,” the halfling said quietly.

Kessell signaled for him to continue.

“Not here,” Regis whispered. “There are too many curious ears about. Not all of the gathered goblins would be pleased to hear what I have to say!”

Kessell considered the halfling’s words for a moment. He felt curiously subdued for some reason that he couldn’t yet understand. “Very well, halfling,” he agreed. “I shall hear your words.” With a flash and a puff of smoke, the wizard was gone.

Regis looked back over his shoulder at the people on the wall and nodded.

Under telepathic command from within the tower, the trolls shifted the mirrors to catch Regis’s reflection. A second flash and puff of smoke, and Regis, too, was gone.

On the wall, Cassius returned the halfling’s nod, though Regis had already disappeared. The spokesman breathed a bit easier, comforted by the last look Regis had thrown him and by the fact that the sun was setting and Bryn Shander still stood. If his guess, based on the timing of the wizard’s actions, was correct, Cryshal-Tirith drew most of its energy from the light of the sun.

It appeared that his plan had bought them at least one more night.

* * *

Even through his bleary eyes, Drizzt recognized the dark shape that hovered over him. The drow had banged his head when he had been thrown from the scimitar’s hilt and Guenhwyvar, his loyal companion, had kept a silent vigil throughout the long hours the drow had remained unconscious, even though the cat had also been battered in the fight with Errtu.

Drizzt rolled into a sitting position and tried to reorient himself to his surroundings. At first he thought that dawn had come, but then he realized that the dim sunlight was coming from the west. He had been out for the better part of a day, drained completely, for the scimitar had sapped his vital energy in its battle with the demon.

Guenhwyvar looked even more haggard. The cat’s shoulder hung limp from its collision with the stone wall, and Errtu had torn a deep cut into one of its forelegs.

More than injuries, though, fatigue was wearing on the magical beast. It had overstayed the normal limits of its visit to the material plane by many hours. The chord between its home plane and the drow’s was only kept intact by the cat’s own magical energy, and each passing minute that it remained in this world drew away a bit of its strength.

Drizzt stroked the muscled neck tenderly. He understood the sacrifice Guenhwyvar had made for his sake, and he wished that he could comply with the cat’s needs and send it back to its own world.

But he could not. If the cat returned to its own plane, it would be hours before it would regain the strength required to reestablish a link back to this world. And he needed the cat now.

“A bit longer,” he begged. The faithful beast lay down beside him without any hint of protest. Drizzt looked upon it with pity and petted the neck once again. How he longed to release the cat from his service! Yet he could not.

From what Errtu had told him, the door to Cryshal-Tirith was invisible only to beings of the Material Plane.

Drizzt needed the cat’s eyes.