A landmark of wonder marked the very center of the City of Sails, a strange building that emanated a powerful aura of magic. Unlike any other structure in all the Forgotten Realms, the Hosttower of the Arcane seemed literally a tree of stone, boasting five tall spires, the largest being the central, and the other four, equally high, growing out of the main trunk with the graceful curving arc of an oak. Nowhere could any sign of the mason be seen; it was obvious to any knowledgeable viewer that magic, not physical labor, had produced this artwork.
The Archmage, undisputed Master of the Hosttower, resided in the central tower, while the other four housed the wizards closest in the line of succession. Each of these lesser towers, representing the four compass directions, dominated a different side of the trunk, and its respective wizard held responsibility for watching over and influencing the events in the direction he overlooked. Thus, the wizard west of the trunk spent his days looking out to sea, and to the merchant ships and pirates riding out on Luskan's harbor.
A conversation in the north spire would have interested the companions from Ten-Towns this day.
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"You have done well, Jierdan," said Sydney, a younger, and lesser, mage in the Hosttower, though displaying enough potential to have gained an apprenticeship with one of the mightiest wizards in the guild. Not a pretty woman, Sydney cared little for physical appearances, instead devoting her energies to her unrelenting pursuit of power. She had spent most of her twenty-five years working toward one goal - the title of Wizard - and her determination and poise gave most around her little doubt about her ability to attain it.
Jierdan accepted the praise with a knowing nod, understanding the condescending manner in which it was offered. "I only performed as I was instructed," he replied under a facade of humility, tossing a glance to the frail-looking man in brown mottled robes who stood staring out of the room's sole window.
"Why would they come here?" the wizard whispered to himself. He turned to the others, and they recoiled instinctively from his gaze. He was Dendybar the Mottled, Master of the North Spire, and though he appeared weak from a distance, closer scrutiny revealed a power in the man mightier than bulging muscles. And his well-earned reputation for valuing life far less than the pursuit of knowledge intimidated most who came before him. "Did the travelers give any reason for coming here?"
"None that I would believe," Jierdan replied quietly. "The halfling spoke of scouting out the marketplace, but I - "
"Not likely," interrupted Dendybar, speaking more to himself than to the others. "Those four weigh more into their actions than simply a merchant expedition."
Sydney pressed Jierdan, seeking to keep her high favor with the Master of the North Spire. "Where are they now?" she demanded.
Jierdan didn't dare fight back against her in front of Dendybar. "On the docks...somewhere," he said, then shrugged.
"You do not know?" hissed the young mage.
"They were to stay at the Cutlass," Jierdan retorted. "But the fight put them out on the street."
"And you should have followed them!" Sydney scolded, dogging the soldier relentlessly.
"Even a soldier of the city would be a fool to travel alone about the piers at night," Jierdan shot back. "It does not matter where they are right now. I have the gates and the piers watched. They cannot leave Luskan without my knowledge!"
"I want them found!" Sydney ordered, but then Dendybar silenced her.
"Leave the watch as it is," he told Jierdan. "They must not depart without my knowledge. You are dismissed. Come before me again when you have something to report."
Jierdan snapped to attention and turned to leave, casting one final glare at his competitor for the mottled wizard's favor as he passed. He was only a soldier, not a budding mage like Sydney, but in Luskan, where the Hosttower of the Arcane was the true, secretive force behind all of the power structures in the city, a soldier did well to find the favor of a wizard. Captains of the guard only attained their positions and privileges with the prior consent of the Hosttower.
"We cannot allow them to roam freely," argued Sydney when the door had closed behind the departing soldier.
"They shall bring no harm for now," replied Dendybar. "Even if the drow carries the artifact with him, it will take him years to understand its potential. Patience, my friend, I have ways of learning what we need to know. The pieces of this puzzle will fit together nicely before much longer."
"It pains me to think that such power is so close to our grasp," sighed the eager young mage. "And in the possession of a novice!"
"Patience," repeated the Master of the North Spire.
* * *
Sydney finished lighting the ring of candles that marked the perimeter of the special chamber and moved slowly toward the solitary brazier that stood on its iron tripod just outside the magic circle inscribed upon the floor. It disappointed her to know that once the brazier was also burning, she would be instructed to depart.
Savoring every moment in this rarely opened room, considered by many to be the finest conjuring chamber in all the northland, Sydney had many times begged to remain in attendance.
But Dendybar never let her stay, explaining that her inevitable inquiries would prove too much of a distraction. And when dealing with the nether worlds, distractions usually proved fatal.
Dendybar sat cross-legged within the magic circle, chanting himself into a deep meditative trance and not even aware of Sydney's actions as she completed the preparations. All of his senses looked inward, searching his own being, to ensure that he was fully prepared for such a task. He had left only one window in his mind open to the outside, a fraction of his awareness hinging on a single cue: the bolt of the heavy door being snapped back into place after Sydney had departed.
His heavy eyelids cracked open, their narrow line of vision solely fixed upon the fires of the brazier. These flames would be the life of the summoned spirit, giving it a tangible form for the period Dendybar kept it locked to the material plane.
"Ey vesus venerais dimin doer," the wizard began, chanting slowly at first, then building into a solid rhythm. Swept away by the insistent pull of the casting, as though the spell, once given a flicker of life, drove itself to the completion of its dweomer, Dendybar rolled on through the various inflections and arcane syllables with ease, the sweat on his face reflecting eagerness more than nerves.
The mottled wizard reveled in summoning, dominating the will of beings beyond the mortal world through the sheer insistence of his considerable mental strength. This room represented the pinnacle of his studies, the indisputable evidence of the vast boundaries of his powers.
This time he was targeting his favorite informant, a spirit that truly despised him, but could not refuse his call. Dendybar came to the climactic point in the casting, the naming. "Morkai," he called softly.
The brazier's flame brightened for just an instant.
"Morkai!" Dendybar shouted, tearing the spirit from its hold on the other world. The brazier puffed into a small fireball, then died into blackness, its flames transmuted into the image of a man standing before Dendybar.
The wizard's thin lips curled upward. How ironic, he thought, that the man he had arranged to murder would prove to be his most valuable source of information.
The specter of Morkai the Red stood resolute and proud, a fitting image of the mighty wizard he had once been. He had created this very room back in the days when he served the Hosttower in the role of Master of the North Spire. But then Dendybar and his cronies had conspired against him, using his trusted apprentice to drive a dagger into his heart, and thus opening the trail of succession for Dendybar himself to reach the coveted position in the spire.
That same act had set a second, perhaps more significant, chain of events into motion, for it was that same apprentice, Akar Kessell, who had eventually come to possess the Crystal Shard, the mighty artifact that Dendybar now believed in Drizzt Do'Urden's hands. The tales that had filtered down from Ten-Towns of Akar Kessell's final battle had named the dark elf as the warrior who had brought him down.
Dendybar could not know that the Crystal Shard now lay buried beneath a hundred tons of ice and rock on the mountain in Icewind Dale known as Kelvin's Cairn, lost in the avalanche that had killed Kessell. All that he knew of the tale was that Kessell, the puny apprentice, had nearly conquered all of Icewind Dale with the Crystal Shard and that Drizzt Do'Urden was the last to see Kessell alive.
Dendybar wrung his hands eagerly whenever he thought of the power that the relic would bring to a more learned wizard.
"Greetings, Morkai the Red," Dendybar laughed. "How polite of you to accept my invitation."
"I accept every opportunity to gaze upon you, Dendybar the Assassin," replied the specter. "I shall know you well when you ride Death's barge into the darkened realm. Then we shall be on even terms again..."
"Silence!" Dendybar commanded. Though he would not admit the truth to himself, the mottled wizard greatly feared the day when he would have to face the mighty Morkai again. "I have brought you here for a purpose," he told the specter. "I have no time for your empty threats."
"Then tell me the service I am to perform," hissed the specter, "and let me be gone. Your presence offends me."
Dendybar fumed, but did not continue the argument. Time worked against a wizard in a spell of summoning, for it drained him to hold a spirit on the material plane, and each second that passed weakened him a little bit more. The greatest danger in this type of spell was that the conjuror would attempt to hold control for too long, until he found himself too weak to control the entity he had summoned.
"A simple answer is all that I require from you this day, Morkai," Dendybar said, carefully selecting each word as he went. Morkai noted the caution and suspected that Dendybar was hiding something.
"Then what is the question?" the specter pressed.
Dendybar held to his cautious pace, considering every word before he spoke it. He did not want Morkai to get any hint of his motives in seeking the drow, for the specter would surely pass the information across the planes. Many powerful beings, perhaps even the spirit of Morkai himself, would go after such a powerful relic if they had any idea of the shard's whereabouts.
"Four travelers, one a drow elf, came to Luskan from Icewind Dale this day," the mottled wizard explained. "What business do they have in the city? Why are they here?"
Morkai scrutinized his nemesis, trying to find the reason for the question. "That is a query better asked of your city guard," he replied. "Surely the guests stated their business upon entering the gate."
"But I have asked you!" Dendybar screamed, exploding suddenly in rage. Morkai was stalling, and each passing second now took its toll on the mottled wizard. The essence of Morkai had lost little power in death, and he fought stubbornly against the spell's binding dweomer.
Dendybar snapped open a parchment before him.
"I have a dozen of these penned already," he warned.
Morkai recoiled. He understood the nature of the writing, a scroll that revealed the true name of his very being. And once read, stripping the veil of secrecy from the name and laying bare the privacy of his soul, Dendybar would invoke the true power of the scroll, using offkey inflections of tone to distort Morkai's name and disrupt the harmony of his spirit, thus racking him to the core of his being.
"How long shall I search for your answers?" Morkai asked.
Dendybar smiled at his victory, though the drain on him continued to heighten. "Two hours," he replied without delay, having carefully decided the length of the search before the summoning, choosing a time limit that would give Morkai enough opportunity to find some answers, but not long enough to allow the spirit to learn more than he should.
Morkai smiled, guessing the motives behind the decision. He snapped backward suddenly and was gone in a puff of smoke, the flames that had sustained his form relegated back to their brazier to await his return.
Dendybar's relief was immediate. Although he still had to concentrate to keep the gate to the planes in place, the pull against his will and the drain on his power lessened considerably when the spirit had gone. Morkai's willpower had nearly broken him during their encounter, and Dendybar shook his head in disbelief that the old master could reach out from the grave so mightily. A shudder ran up his spine as he pondered his wisdom in plotting against one so powerful. Every time he summoned Morkai, he was reminded that his own day of reckoning would surely come.
Morkai had little trouble in learning about the four adventurers. In fact, the specter already knew much about them. He had taken a great interest in Ten-Towns during his reign as Master of the North Spire, and his curiosity had not died with his body. Even now, he often looked in on the doings in Icewind Dale, and anyone who concerned himself with Ten-Towns in recent months knew something of the four heroes.
Morkai's continued interest in the world he had left behind was not an uncommon trait in the spirit world. Death altered the ambitions of the soul, replacing the love of material or social gains with an eternal hunger for knowledge. Some spirits had looked down upon the Realms for centuries untold, simply collecting information and watching the living go about their lives. Perhaps it was envy for the physical sensations they could no longer feel. But whatever the reason, the wealth of knowledge in a single spirit often outweighed the collected works in all of the libraries in the Realms combined.
Morkai learned much in the two hours Dendybar had alotted him. His turn now came to choose his words carefully. He was compelled to satisfy the summoner's request, but he intended to answer in as cryptic and ambiguous a manner as he possibly could.
* * *
Dendybar's eyes glinted when he saw the brazier's flames begin their telltale dance once again. Had it been two hours already? he wondered, for his rest seemed much shorter, and he felt that he had not fully recovered from his first encounter with the specter. He could not refute the dance of the flames, though. He straightened himself and tucked his ankles in closer, tightening and securing his cross-legged, meditative position.
The ball of fire puffed in its climactic throes and Morkai appeared before him. The specter stood back obediently, not offering any information until Dendybar specifically asked for it. The complete story behind the visit of the four friends to Luskan remained sketchy to Morkai, but he had learned much of their quest, and more than he wanted Dendybar to find out about. He still hadn't discerned the true intentions behind the mottled wizard's inquiries, but felt certain that Dendybar was up to no good, whatever his goals.
"What is the purpose of the visit?" Dendybar demanded, angry at Morkai's stalling tactics.
"You yourself have summoned me," Morkai responded slyly. "I am compelled to appear."
"No games!" growled the mottled wizard. He glared at the specter, fingering the scroll of torment in open threat. Notorious for answering literally, beings from other planes often flustered their conjurors by distorting the connotative meaning of a question's exact wording.
Dendybar smiled in concession to the specter's simple logic and clarified the question. "What is the purpose of the visit to Luskan by the four travelers from Icewind Dale?"
"Varied reasons," Morkai replied. "One has come in search of the homeland of his father, and his father before him."
"The Drow?" Dendybar asked, trying to find some way to link his suspicions that Drizzt planned to return to the underworld of his birth with the Crystal Shard. Perhaps an uprising by the dark elves, using the power of the shard? "Is it the drow who seeks his homeland?"
"Nay," replied the specter, pleased that Dendybar had fallen off on a tangent, delaying the more specific, and more dangerous line of questioning. The passing minutes would soon begin to dissipate Dendybar's hold upon the specter, and Morkai hoped that he could find a way to get free of the mottled wizard before revealing too much about Bruenor's company. "Drizzt Do'Urden has forsaken his homeland altogether. He shall never return to the bowels of the world, and certainly not with his dearest friends in tow!"
"Another of the four flees from danger at his back," Morkai offered, twisting the line of inquiry.
"Who seeks his homeland?" Dendybar demanded more emphatically.
"The dwarf, Bruenor Battlehammer," replied Morkai, compelled to obey. "He seeks his birthplace, Mithril Hall, and his friends have joined in his quest. Why does this interest you? The companions have no connection to Luskan, and pose no threat to the Hosttower."
"I did not summon you here to answer your questions!" Dendybar scolded. "Now tell me who is running from danger. And what is the danger?"
"Behold," the specter instructed. With a wave of his hand, Morkai imparted an image upon the mind of the mottled wizard, a picture of a black-cloaked rider wildly charging across the tundra. The horse's bridle was white with lather, but the rider pressed the beast onward relentlessly.
"The halfling flees from this man," Morkai explained, "though the rider's purpose remains a mystery to me." Telling Dendybar even this much angered the specter, but Morkai could not yet resist the commands of his nemesis. He felt the bonds of the wizard's will loosening, though, and suspected that the summoning neared its end.
Dendybar paused to consider the information.
Nothing of what Morkai had told him gave any direct link to the Crystal Shard, but he had learned, at least, that the four friends did not mean to stay in Luskan for very long. And he had discovered a potential ally, a further source of information. The black-cloaked rider must be mighty indeed to have set the halfling's formidable troupe fleeing down the road.
Dendybar was beginning to formulate his next moves, when a sudden insistent pull of Morkai's stubborn resistance broke his concentration. Enraged, he shot a threatening glare back at the specter and began unrolling the parchment. "Impudent!" he growled, and though he could have stretched out his hold on the specter a bit longer if he had put his energies into a battle of wills, he started reciting the scroll.
Morkai recoiled, though he had consciously provoked Dendybar to this point. The specter could accept the racking, for it signaled the end of the inquisition. And Morkai was glad that Dendybar hadn't forced him to reveal the events even farther from Luskan, back in the dale just beyond the borders of Ten-Towns.
As Dendybar's recitations twanged discordantly on the harmony of his soul, Morkai removed the focal point of his concentration across hundreds of miles, back to the image of the merchant caravan now one day out from Bremen, the closest of the Ten Towns, and to the image of the brave young woman who had joined up with the traders. The specter took comfort in the knowledge that she had, for a while at least, escaped the probings of the mottled wizard.
Not that Morkai was altruistic; he had never been accused of an abundance of that trait. He simply took great satisfaction in hindering in any way he could the knave who had arranged his murder.
* * *
Catti-brie's red-brown locks tossed about her shoulders. She sat high up on the lead wagon of the merchant caravan that had set out from Ten-Towns on the previous day, bound for Luskan. Unbothered by the chill breeze, she kept her eyes on the road ahead, searching for some sign that the assassin had passed that way. She had relayed information about Entreri to Cassius, and he would pass it along to the dwarves. Catti-brie wondered now if she had been justified in sneaking away with the merchant caravan before Clan Battlehammer could organize its own chase.
But only she had seen the assassin at work. She knew well that if the dwarves went after him in a frontal assault, their caution wiped away in their lust of revenge for Fender and Grollo, many more of the clan would die.
Selfishly, perhaps, Catti-brie had determined that the assassin was her own business. He had unnerved her, had stripped away years of training and discipline and reduced her to the quivering semblance of a frightened child. But she was a young woman now, no more a girl. She had to personally respond to that emotional humiliation, or the scars from it would haunt her to her grave, forever paralyzing her along her path to discover her true potential in life.
She would find her friends in Luskan and warn them of the danger at their backs, and then together they would take care of Artemis Entreri.
"We make a strong pace," the lead driver assured her, sympathetic to her desire for haste.
Catti-brie did not look at him; her eyes rooted on the flat horizon before her. "Me heart tells me 'tisn't strong enough," she lamented.
The driver looked at her curiously, but had learned better than to press her on the point. She had made it clear to them from the start that her business was private. And being the adopted daughter of Bruenor Battlehammer, and reputedly a fine fighter in her own right, the merchants had counted themselves lucky to have her along and had respected her desire for privacy. Besides, as one of the drivers had so eloquently argued during their informal meeting before the journey, "The notion of staring at an ox's ass for near to three-hunnerd miles makes the thought o' having that girl along for company sit well with me!"
They had even moved up their departure date to accommodate her.
"Do not worry, Catti-brie," the driver assured her, "we'll get you there!"
Catti-brie shook her blowing hair out of her face and looked into the sun as it set on the horizon before her. "But can it be in time?" she asked softly and rhetorically, knowing that her whisper would break apart in the wind as soon as it passed her lips.
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