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Authors: Murray J. D. Leeder

son of thunder

Son of Thunder

A Forgotten Realms Novel

The Fighters Series

By Murray J.D. Leeder

 

Proofread and formatted by BW-SciFi

Ebook version 1.0

Release Date: July, 10th, 2008

Dedication

To Campbell, Roy, and my sister what’s her name (and Alastair too!), for putting me up and putting up with me in Bournemouth for a large portion of the time during which this book was written.

Acknowledgements

Thanks must go to my editors, Phil Athans and Susan Morris. Also to Steven Schend, Eric L. Boyd, and Ed Greenwood for their enthusiastic furnishing of Realmslore—published and otherwise—when I asked for it; to Jesse Decker for the loan of Rask Urgek (a definite case of borrowing the car and failing to bring it back in one piece); and also to Elaine Cunningham for all her help and advice. And finally, thanks to Paul Jaquays, the creator of the Uthgardt, and all the other game designers who have detailed them over the years, without whom I’d have had nothing to play with.

PROLOGUE

Another bone cracked beneath Gan’s foot.

“Ours wasn’t the first army massacred in this place,” the big hobgoblin growled at Thagalan Dray, one of the few humans sent on the most recent, ill-conceived expedition. Wearing a purple cloak over his scale mail, Dray was one of the Lord’s Men of Llorkh, Zhentilar in all but name. So far as they knew, the two of them were the only survivors.

Dray ignored Gan and bent over to pick up one of the bones.

“Orc,” he said, inspecting a thigh bone. He tossed the bone away and it clattered as it struck another one, half buried in the dirt. “This answers much.”

“What do you mean?” Gan rumbled.

“This place used to crawl with orcs. Sometimes they’d come down and harass our caravans near Parnast. But in recent years the activity has ceased. I think we’ve found the reason.” The whole plain around them was covered with similar bones and rusted scraps of armor and weapons. A massacre had occurred here.

“The shades?” asked Gan.

“As likely a candidate as any,” Dray said grimly. “But there are more than enough threats in this awful place.”

The shades were the reason that Dray and Gan walked the battlefield on the western rim of Anauroch. Lord Geildarr had sent a force of Zhentilar troops into this gods-forsaken strip of moor—a place called the Fallen Lands. Their orders were to locate a Netherese ruin where the Empire of Shadow was encamped, and to excavate the site to discover ancient artifacts.

But Geildarr refused to commit his own men, beyond a few out-of-favor Lord’s Men to serve as consultants. Instead he recruited humanoids—a local hobgoblin tribe that laired along the Dawn Pass, and some gnolls from the Southwood. This patchwork army never reached the ruin. The Shadovar forces attacked at night when they had all the advantages, and their smoky magic overwhelmed Llorkh’s troops in no time.

So Dray and Gan found themselves trotting through endless dead fields of the Fallen Lands, facing an uncertain future back in Llorkh.

“What will Geildarr do when we return?” asked Gan.

Dray chuckled. “Return? We’d be mad to go back like this. He’ll want explanations, and he’ll want examples. We’ll be hanging from a noose in front of the Lord’s Keep the moment we set foot back in Llorkh.”

“I could return to my tribe,” said Gan, more ore bones cracking beneath his feet.

“And are tribal hobgoblins more tolerant of failure than Zhentarim?” asked Dray. “Perhaps this place is the answer,” he said, looking over the dead plains. “Everyone knows that the Fallen Lands are full of lost magic. If we could stay alive long enough to find some of it, that is. But if we could provide Geildarr with something new, he might forgive us.”

“You say ‘we,’ human,” the hobgoblin said. “If you find magic of such power, why not wield it yourself?”

“The truly useful magic can be unlocked only by mages like Geildarr. Such power would be lost on us. This battle didn’t happen so long ago. Perhaps there’s something here worth salvaging. Geildarr sponsors groups of adventurers to search lost ruins and dungeons for old magic—jobs that he doesn’t trust to Lord’s Men like us.”

Gan snorted. “With good reason.”

Dray ignored him. “There’s a group of adventurers Geildarr’s nicknamed the Antiquarians—he often hires them to search ruins and the like. I think they’re somewhere down on the High Moor now. Geildarr’s mad about ancient artifacts, especially things Netherese. Apparently the Fallen Lands were once a Netherese survivor state called Hlondath.” He frowned. “I guess our whole army died to satisfy his hobby.”

They spent a long time searching the battlefield. Orc skeletons by the hundreds covered the barren ground. Near the center of the field they found a small ancient ruin, little more than a few broken and fallen walls concealing nothing of value. Curiously, amid the nearby dead lay the cracked exoskeletons of two umber hulks, and what they guessed were the bones of a giant snake. But any weapons of interest were broken or rusted. Dispirited, Gan and Dray limped home.

Soon after, Gan noticed something glinting in the distance and pointed it out to Dray. “A trick of the light,” Dray said, but as he studied the flash, he judged that it was the distinctive shine of metal. He and the hobgoblin raced toward it to find a most curious discovery.

“Tymora smiles today!” cried Dray. A collection of weapons and armor lay strewn across the dirt or half buried. All counted, at least twenty items awaited discovery.

“Nobody lost these weapons,” Gan said, looking down warily upon their find. “They were thrown away. Probably for good reason. They’re cursed, maybe.”

Dray picked up a small silver helmet with an unfamiliar emblem on the side, then he dropped it into the dirt. “No, not cursed,” he said.

“Perhaps they were so damaged that someone wanted to get rid of them,” the hobgoblin offered. But the equipment, though covered by layers of grime, looked to be in fine condition.

“Or perhaps Cyric or some other power placed them here for us to find.” Dray attacked the pile, throwing aside shields and hammers. At the bottom, buried in dirt, he uncovered a battle-axe, heavy and with a huge head of glimmering steel.

It was a weapon to inspire confidence and intimidate enemies—a leader’s weapon. How many foes must have fallen to its thick blade? What battles had it seen? Gan could sense its age and its value, and he wondered what great heroes must have clutched it. Though the hobgoblin had only the faintest conception of such things, he wondered what dim forgotten age must have spawned it.

Dray anxiously rubbed off the dirt and then smiled up at the hobgoblin. “Does this look like a weapon someone would just throw away?” he asked. But as the Lord’s Man went to lift it, he found the axe was beyond his strength, and he dropped it with a thud onto the ground.

Gan cast Dray a glare as he mishandled the weapon, then reached down and scooped it up himself, comfortable with its weight. A stiffness filled the hobgoblin’s muscles as he held it, and a smile crossed his ugly face.

Dray inspected it closely as Gan held it up.

“Dwarven manufacture, I think. And look, it’s probably been here for years, and there’s no damage to the blade. I bet there’s some dweomer on this.”

“You think Geildarr will like it?” asked Gan.

“Well, magic weapons aren’t really his favorites,” Dray said, “but considering that if we stay here too long we’ll probably be eaten by leucrotta or slaughtered by shades, I think this may be just the thing to save our skins.”

“What kind of leader is Geildarr?” asked Gan.

“What do you mean?” asked Dray.

“Is he a strong ruler, worthy of service?”

“I suppose so,” Dray said.

Gan looked at him more closely. “You say that if we give this axe to Geildarr, he will let us live? Grant me a place in his service?”

“What did I just say?”

“I just wanted to be sure,” said Gan. Before Dray could react, Gan brought the axe down in the middle of Dray’s head. The axe smashed his skull and cleaved deep into the soldier’s chest. The purple cloak around Dray’s armor snapped free from his shoulders and fluttered to the ground.

The hobgoblin dislodged the bloody axe from Dray’s body and examined it. He snatched up Dray’s cloak and used it to wipe the blade clean.

“A fine weapon, indeed,” he said, tossing the gory rag aside. But something felt wrong. He felt unworthy of wielding the axe. It was for a hero of the epic sagas, not for him. Steel such as this could lead armies.

It must be taken to one sufficiently worthy.

Till I find him, Gan promised himself, I wield it on his behalf.

With the axe clutched tightly in both hands, he set off for Llorkh.

CHAPTER 1

Vell the Brown tried to recall the last time he was at Morgur’s Mound. He had been so very young back then. On this visit, he was met by distant feelings and scraps of memory. He recalled the roar that arose from the tribe as King Gundar stood before the altar, raising the great ceremonial axe above his head. In his mind, Vell saw his parents standing straight and attentive, gazing up at the cairn nestled amid the Crags. Because of all the stories his parents had told him, and all he had heard in the songs of the Thunderbeast skalds, he knew the cairn was the tribe’s ancestor mound. Morgur’s Mound was the most important place to any Thunderbeast, even one who had never seen it.

Surmounted by menhirs and within the rings of the outer mounds, lay the altar mound. It was here, said the skalds, that Uthgar died fighting Gurt, king of the frost giants. Other tribes claimed that this cairn held Uthgar’s mortal remains, but Thunderbeast legend held that no body was left behind when Tempus elevated Uthgar to godhood.

A ring of bones at the edge of the mounds, great thick bones—incomprehensibly large and set rigidly in the ground—were the bones of the Thunderbeast itself: a great behemoth lizard of legend and the totem spirit of the tribe. Some of the bones had been damaged or removed over the decades by vandals or enemies of the Uthgardt, but few dared disturb so sacred a site, protected as it was by magic and curses of old.

Atop a pike in front of the altar mound stood the skull of the Thunderbeast. Its empty eye sockets gazed out at visitors as a solemn reminder that although the place was held in reverence by all Uthgardt, the Thunderbeasts were closest to it. In turn, said the Thunderbeasts, they had the closest relationship to Uthgar, and he to them. As if in proof, the altar mound itself was shaped in the form of a great behemoth.

As a child told of these things by his parents, Vell had felt a swell of pride that had never been equaled. He loved his tribe and felt a deep connection to its history. While in his youth, his young heart had felt as if it might explode with the feeling.

Vell tried to dredge up those memories in the hope of finding the same feeling now. He reached into the past to try to silence his fears of the present, and he wondered how many others of his tribe were doing the same.

For most people of Faerun, this day was celebrated as the feast day of Highharvestide, but to the Uthgardt, the day had a different name and significance. This was Runemeet, the holiest day of the year, most often celebrated with a Runehunt: a campaign against a ritual enemy. But this year, chieftain Sungar Wolfkiller had declared that the entire tribe should travel to Morgur’s Mound for a rare ritual.

Word had gone out to all outlying clusters of the tribe, and now all were assembled at Morgur’s Mound. Even the druid Thanar, green-robed and thick-bearded, had reappeared. Nobody knew how many years had passed since he had left the tribe to patrol the wilds, and no one had made contact with him since. In all, some six or seven hundred warriors, and just as many women and children, crowded the foot of Morgur’s Mound. Their tribal relation was evident in the black hair and blue eyes of most all who were assembled.

Not even King Gundar, during his auspicious rule, had dared send out such a decree. But then, he had never needed to.

The gathering was joyous, but all present knew a strong tribe would have no need for such a ritual. The Thunderbeasts also knew they were not a strong tribe. As soon as they had arrived, they had met with the Sky Pony tribe—more frequent visitors to Morgur’s Mound than the Thunderbeasts. The Ponies had been cordial and friendly, agreeing to Sungar’s request that they stay away from the mound while the Thunderbeasts were assembled. King Gundar would have never needed to voice this concern. The Sky Ponies were almost as in awe of Gundar as his own tribe.

As the last light faded on Runemeet, the tribe stood within the bone boundary at the foot of Morgur’s Mound. Atop the altar mound stood Sungar, just as Gundar had in Vell’s memory, but without the traditional axe. Alongside him stood the ancient, thin-skinned Keirkrad Seventoes, the white-haired shaman of the tribe, and the Thunderbeasts’ other priests and druids. Only with all of their combined might could they accomplish this ritual.

“Thunderbeasts!” shouted Sungar. “The beast is our guide, our light. It is our route to Uthgar, and it is our route to ourselves. It represents all that we are, and what we should be. King Gundar is with the Thunderbeast now, and I know that he will help us find the answer we seek.”

A cheer went up from the assembled tribe at the very mention of Gundar. For many Thunderbeasts, Gundar and Uthgar were held in nearly the same regard. Whatever kind of leader Gundar’s successor Sungar would prove to be, he would never escape Gundar’s shadow.

As black clouds swirled overhead, and the residual light was finally extinguished, Sungar marched down the mound and stood with his warriors, signifying that he was one of them—a message he always tried to project. Keirkrad, dressed in ceremonial white rothehide, turned to face the assembled tribe. He was so old that he could not summon his voice beyond a weak rasp. Only those standing closest heard him call upon the tribe members to focus their attention on the mound and lend something of their own souls to the ritual of communing.

“The Thunderbeast lives in all of your hearts. Now, you must let it free,” he concluded solemnly.

With that, Keirkrad turned toward the altar stone, his head bowed and his arms extended. Specks of light coursed between his outstretched fingers and those of the other priests. A greenish ring of magic flowed between them, pulsing and glowing, lighting up the night with divine energy. The assembled Uthgardt stood straight and tall as the area filled with the crackle of magic, raising the hairs on their necks and arms, and releasing strange vibrations beneath their feet. The magic drifted to the bones at the mound’s edge and set them trembling, the crackling rising until its crescendo crashed like thunder off the neighboring crags. Vell clenched his palms tightly and felt them fill with sweat.

The tribal assembly murmured with wonder. A tingling anticipation electrified the crowd. They awaited an explanation of why their number declined; they waited for their path to be shown to them.

But no response came. The racket dwindled to nothing, the skies parted above, and the ring of magic binding the spellcasters together winked out. A murmur of confusion wormed through the barbarians, and Sungar’s face became a mask of shame. Vell’s heart leaped in his chest. The worst suspicions whispered among the Thunderbeast tribe were true. They had lost their totem’s favor. Uthgar had forsaken them.

Without warning, the bones came to life. They rose from their places ringing Morgur’s Mound and lifted high above the assembly, swirling in the air together, frantically trying to find the shape they had held in life. They eventually came together in the familiar form of a wingless dragon, a great bulky shape with a long serpentine neck. A collective gasp spilled from the tribe. Most had never seen the Thunderbeast before, but knew its shape well from the images that many of them tattooed on their bodies.

Vell’s mouth opened wide. The Uthgardt were not trained to bow and cower in the face of their god, but to stand tall and stare in reverence. Vell felt his knees weaken and tremble at the spectacle of the totem come to life.

The skull was last to rise from its pike and find its place. Two brown lights flared into life within the vacant eye sockets, and they scanned the assembly, shining their radiance in the darkness. Swooping uneasily, the Thunderbeast encircled Morgur’s Mound, casting its eyes over the throng. It turned to the altar stone and looked intently at Keirkrad. The shaman stood, his arms outstretched, his eyes closed in rapture, waiting to commune with his totem.

But the link never came. The Thunderbeast pulled away from Keirkrad and the altar mound, turning instead to the throng at the mound’s foot. Its flaring eyes scanned the tribe, examining Sungar and many others as it slowly gazed upon the assembly. At last the creature came to rest in midair, its eyes trained directly on Vell.

Though his limbs trembled, Vell did not look away. The sounds of the world around him—the gasps of the warriors standing alongside him, the gentle wind blowing overhead—vanished. The unblinking gaze pulled Vell in. Something inhuman awakened in him, and he began to scream as he felt his own identity milked away. But his scream was cut short, and he stood rigid as a post: his face blank and his eyes empty.

Above, the bones of the Thunderbeast hovered but did not move, and the brown light vanished in its eyes. Most of the Uthgardt could not see Vell or the beast. A wave of confusion spread through them. Sungar pushed his way through the gawking Uthgardt to reach Vell.

“Can you hear me?” the chieftain cried, grasping Vell’s face.

Keirkrad rushed down the altar mound to join them, his old bones carrying him through the throng with surprising speed. The shaman looked carefully into Vell’s brown eyes.

“The beast has chosen a receptacle,” he declared to the assembly. “This warrior—one of you—has received the beast’s blessing. Let Uthgar be praised.” His voice was tinged with astonishment and disappointment.

Sungar looked to Keirkrad for confirmation. “Speak to him,” the shaman said. “Speak to him. He is the voice of the Thunderbeast.”

Sungar looked Vell straight in the eye. “We beseech you. Our tribe needs guidance. We must know your will.”

Vell’s features remained impassive, and he showed no sign of comprehending or caring.

“What should we do to please you?” Sungar pleaded.

Vell’s lips opened slowly. Sungar leaned closer.

“Find the living,” Vell said. The voice was his, but the words were not.

“Find the living?” repeated Sungar. But no explanation came, nor any further words from Vell’s mouth. His eyes closed, and he fell backward into the arms of some of his fellow warriors. Keirkrad leaned forward to tend to him. Above, the hovering construct tore apart in a whirlwind of bone, the skull taking its place on the pike once again, and all the other massive bones resuming their original places around Morgur’s Mound, set and immovable in the earth once again.

“Is he safe?” Sungar whispered to Keirkrad. Keirkrad nodded. Sungar climbed the altar mound and looked out over the massive assembly of his tribe, all waiting for his words.

“The spirit has spoken!” he shouted. “It has told us to find the living.”

A murmur of confusion spread through the throng.

Sungar yelled, “And find them we shall!”

A cheer went up, rolling off the distant crags and echoing into the night. The orders of the Thunderbeast were rarely forthcoming. Even words as cryptic as these were cause for much celebration.

 

 

A strange rattle sounded—faint at first, but growing louder as it echoed off the stone walls. It disturbed Kellin Lyme, asleep at her desk before a stack of books, her candle burned down to a stump. Since early morning she had been studying the account of Yehia of Shoon and his interactions with the Uthgardt during their early history, attempting to assess its historical veracity. Now, out of her window, she could see that the Way of the Lion was dark. But large portions of it would soon be awake if that rattling kept up.

Shaking the fog from her mind, Kellin paced the library—her father’s own writings plus his collection, mixed with an increasing number of her own additions—looking for the source of the sound. She traipsed down the stairs into the archives, where she searched through the multitude of boxes collected by her father decades earlier. She was forced to open each crate carefully, to protect the priceless relics within. The noisy culprit was hidden at the bottom of a large stack. By the time she found it, she scolded the crate, telling it that every monk and scholar in the whole of Candlekeep was probably awake.

Kellin tore open the crate and found a heavy petrified bone rattling against the hardwood sides. It had already smashed and destroyed whatever other artifacts were stored with it, and when the lid came off, the bone jumped into midair. Almost automatically, Kellin reached out and grasped it, and when she did, the object’s mysterious animation subsided.

Find the living. The words flashed through her mind as she clutched the bone. Something else came with it: an impression of terrible need and danger that washed over her and set her trembling. It would be a long time before she would feel right again.

Kellin held the bone up to her face and muttered, “Thunderbeast.”

CHAPTER 2

Geildarr Ithym, Mayor of Llorkh, made his way back from the Ten Bells tavern flanked by a few of the Lord’s Men. He cursed that even his own drunken stumble home had to be moderated by troops, but security was always of the essence. No sooner had Hellgate Keep fallen, eliminating one threat, than another—Shade—had appeared in the desert in the form of a floating city. And Shade was hardly the only threat Llorkh faced. Agents from the Silver Marches, Harpers and Moonstars, rival wizards from the Brotherhood of the Arcane in Luskan, and rebellious townsfolk who remembered a time before Llorkh was under Zhentarim rule—all these threatened. Plus there was the present danger of insane dragons sweeping out of the Graypeaks or the High Forest. It wasn’t so long ago that the phaerimm sent a force of bugbears against the city, and not long after that a rabble of dwarves thought to retake their old mines and stronghold—though their conspiracy was put down before any damage was done, it served as a grim reminder of how fragile Geildarr’s rule really was.

Geildarr took his leave of the guards at the gateway to the towering Lord’s Keep: his residence as Mayor of Llorkh, and the city’s seat of power. The windowless Lord’s Keep was the tallest building in Llorkh, and perhaps the dullest in a town filled with plain, utilitarian structures of stone. Beneath it was an extensive complex of tunnels and dungeons, the residence of many of Llorkh’s enemies over the years. He could hear a few muffled screams from the torture chambers even now. Just before the gates, Geildarr lingered a moment at the spot where the previous lord, Phintarn Redblade, was found dead all those years before.

Lord’s Men opened the iron doors. In the front foyer, a large painting of Geildarr hung on the wall, depicting him standing before the Lord’s Keep and smiling as the happy people of Llorkh crowded around him. Geildarr climbed the staircase several floors to his private residence. He passed his custom-made golem in the anteroom and opened the sturdy iron door into a long hallway dotted with wall hangings and pedestals. Each bore an assortment of arcane and mundane relics, most recovered from the nearby ruins. Geildarr had personally studied each of them, learned something of their history and power, and applied many of their principles in the new magical items and weapons he designed. He relished being wrapped in antiquity. The items here hailed from dwarf kingdoms, elf kingdoms, and human kingdoms—all of them fallen and gone, remembered only by historians.

Lately, Geildarr had been wondering when he’d fall along with them.

A chill draft from his balcony greeted him when he reached the door to his wood-paneled study at the end of the hall. He found a missive waiting for him, likely arrived on the latest caravan from Zhentil Keep. It was marked with the new symbol of the Zhentarim—Fzoul Chembryl’s symbol, Geildarr laughed bitterly—featuring Fzoul’s own Scepter of the Tyrant’s Eye.

This was the greatest threat to Geildarr’s leadership in Llorkh: not the shades or any other external force, but his own superiors across Anauroch. He snatched up the letter and broke the seal.

“I can tell you what it says,” came a voice from behind him. Geildarr spun to face the corner of the room and a tall man standing there in long, blue and purple robes, clutching a staff with a bat at its top. The wizard wore a smirk that showed just how pleased he was to have caught Geildarr by surprise. But Geildarr held his reaction in check and sized up the intruder with an aloof eye instead.

“I wonder,” Geildarr mused, his voice slightly slurred from his earlier drinking, “am I drunker than I think, or is this Sememmon I’m seeing?”

“Is that all you have to say?” the raven-haired wizard asked. “There was a time when you would fall on your knees at my very presence.”

“But I am not addressing Sememmon,” answered Geildarr, “am I?” He began to gesture a spell of dispel, but Sememmon extended his hand.

“No need,” he said. “Let’s drop the masks.” The form of the imperious wizard melted all around him, leaving a body half its height. A red tricorn hat topped a plump-cheeked gnome face. The figure wore robes of rich crimson—a small parody of nobility. The gnome clutched a thin blackwood cane at his side, and a mad, merry nature twinkled in his green eyes.

“What brings you here, Moritz the Mole? Do you need somewhere to sleep or something?” This wasn’t the first time this peculiar emissary of the wizard Sememmon had dropped in on Geildarr unannounced since Sememmon had fled from the Zhentarim’s prime western stronghold of Darkhold.

In the intervening years, Sememmon and his elf ladylove Ashemmi had scarcely been seen by anyone. Last he heard they were living in seclusion and traveling Faerun, collecting magic and cementing allies for some endeavor as yet unrevealed.

Geildarr knew them both well from his own trips to Darkhold over the years, but never really came to understand them. Ashemmi was a heart-stopping beauty with flaxen hair and almond-shaped eyes. How had an elf woman ended up in the Zhentarim? He had heard she had been corrupted to evil by magical means. Geildarr couldn’t even guess at the truth of this. What was clear to him, though, was that Sememmon and Ashemmi were utterly devoted to each other. Even such dark-hearted creatures as this pair were bound together by love. Geildarr yearned to trust another so completely.

Moritz laughed heartily in typically gnomish fashion. “I always enjoy visiting you because of that tongue of yours. You really ought to welcome my presence, for I come with a warning. Fzoul blames you for your failed incursion into the Fallen Lands.”

“My failed incursion,” Geildarr snorted. The plan had been Fzoul’s order. “Doomed to failure. I minimized the damage. And now he thinks to make me his sacrificial animal.”

“Fzoul courts dangerous enemies,” Moritz said. “The might of Shade has Elminster shaking in his tower. But then again, you’ve served Fzoul well. Under your mayoralty, Llorkh has been one of the most trouble-free places under Zhentarim control. Most likely he’ll keep you around a bit longer.” Moritz took a step closer to Geildarr. “But let me ask. Have you ever considered working for another power?”

“Does Sememmon’s customary offer follow? Am I to cast my lot against Fzoul? Hide in the dark like Sememmon?”

“I suspect it’s this town you love, Geildarr,” said Moritz. “You love being mayor, having that control. Llorkh is an inglorious post, but you love it all the same. I can respect that. You don’t care too much for the Zhentarim any longer. That’s why you refuse to sponsor that little girl Ardeth for membership. Or do you have other reasons for keeping her close to you?”

Geildarr’s head swirled from the drink, and he was tired of playing games.

“Why have you come here, Moritz?” he asked testily.

“I may just be the truest friend you have, Geildarr. I’ve come here to tell you something. Fzoul wants a few changes in Llorkh. You can work with them, or end up like your predecessor Redblade.” He extended his blackwood cane and used it to poke Geildarr in his pendulous belly.

“What kind of changes?” Geildarr asked, taking a step back.

“The same changes that are sweeping the Zhentarim. Bane is back. Would you like to see the Dark Sun replaced by the Black Hand?”

Geildarr shook his head grimly; he understood exactly what Moritz meant. The Dark Sun was both a title for Cyric, and the name of the god’s temple in Llorkh. But Cyricists like Geildarr were growing unpopular within the Zhentarim as Fzoul—Bane’s Chosen, and his mightiest priest—solidified power. This was a factor in Sememmon’s flight from Darkhold.

“All this you know,” Moritz went on, “but what you may not know is this: rumor has it that Mythkar Leng has already cut a secret deal with Fzoul to take your place as mayor of Llorkh.”

“Leng!” protested Geildarr. The high priest of the Dark Sun had long been Geildarr’s conduit to the Zhentarim leadership, charged with keeping him informed of directives from Zhentil Keep. Though Geildarr was officially a member of the Zhentarim, he was largely content to function as mayor of Llorkh, letting Leng handle the Network’s day-to-day operations in the region. Leng would keep him advised on the Zhentarim’s ever-shifting agenda, and Geildarr would try to react accordingly. “Why would they let Leng be mayor?” Geildarr demanded. “He’s a Cyricist too!”

“Is he?” asked Moritz. “Cyric is Lord of Illusion—who would know better than I?—and Prince of Lies as well. Perhaps Leng learned the art of deception so well that he can fool his own god. It has been done before, after all. Leng was a priest of Bane before the Godswar, as you’ll remember, and old habits tend to stick. But as I said, I know this only as a rumor. Something for you to investigate. If you wish to keep your job, I suggest taking it up with Leng.

“On the other hand,” Moritz chuckled, “if you wish to keep your life, Sememmon offers his protection. Either way, he extends a message to you. I believe it was, ‘Try to keep this town of mine in one piece.’”

“Llorkh?” asked Geildarr. “Sememmon’s?”

“As much as it is yours, truly,” Moritz said. “I’d wager you harbor fantasies of Llorkh passing from the Zhentarim as your private fiefdom. It’s good to have dreams. The difference between you and Sememmon is his dreams have a chance of coming true.”

“If you believe Sememmon has a prayer of wresting anything from Fzoul and his pet clone,” Geildarr said, “then it’s clear that all this toying with illusion has finally estranged you from reality. Bound to happen, really.”

The gnome frowned. “You have no idea what kind of power Sememmon hoards. But know this—” Moritz aimed his cane upward at Geildarr’s face “—Sememmon’s patience is finite. His offer will be made only so many times, and you may find his friendship withdrawn just when you need it most.”

“Then let your master show up here in person for once,” Geildarr said. “Maybe I’ll catch him in a bottle and hand him over to Fzoul as a present. I wager that would help preserve my rule in Llorkh.”

Moritz cackled, bending over with laughter at this thought.

“And I’m the delusional one? Hear it and know it true, Geildarr—you may have some fun toying around with magical objects, but you are not the wizard Sememmon is.”

And at that, he vanished from the spot, leaving Geildarr to his spinning head.

 

 

Thluna found Sungar just where he expected—standing on the outer ring of Morgur’s Mound at the freshest cairn. The rest of the tribe was encamped just outside the Crags; it was forbidden among the Uthgardt to make camp at any ancestor mound, though the decadent Black Lion tribe had violated that rule by settling near Beorunna’s Well. Thluna slowly stepped up to his chief and joined him in reverence of the dead.

In the last two years, young Thluna, son of Hagraavan, had become closer to Sungar than any other Uthgardt. Thluna had wed Sungar’s daughter Alaa, and now stood to succeed him as chieftain, though such lines of succession were not always clearly drawn. Sungar and Thluna were among the few who had survived the shame and devastation brought down upon their tribe in the Fallen Lands. But more importantly, Thluna, though little more than a boy, was the sole member of his tribe who always told Sungar the truth.

“Has King Gundar any answers for you today?” asked Thluna.

“Silence only. I asked him how he became so loved by his people,” Sungar told him. “Even those who disagreed with him. The songs don’t tell that. Hazred and the other skalds tell of how he so impressed the Red Tiger tribe by slaughtering a leucrotta, armed only with one of their ritual claws. And of the time he and his warriors lay siege to the Black Raven aerie near Raven Rock, and smashed fifty raven eggs.”

“Weren’t you with him that day?” asked Thluna. “Was it truly fifty eggs?”

Sungar smiled. “That legend is for Gundar, not me.”

“You must forge your own legends,” said Thluna. “The Thunderbeast has told us how.”

“No easy directive,” Sungar said. “The shamans tell us that the behemoths still live in the depths of the High Forest, but they also say nobody has seen them since before the time of Uthgar.”

“A great adventure in the making,” Thluna said. “A chance to undo what has been.”

“We did nothing wrong!” Sungar’s voice echoed across the Crags.

“They don’t see it that way,” Thluna informed him, pointing toward the camp in the distance.

“They weren’t there.”

“No,” Thluna said, “but they’ve heard the story. No songs will be sung of it, but the whispers will linger for a long time.”

“Then we must find something for them to sing,” Sungar declared, “and sing proudly. When we return to Rauvin Vale, I will pick a party and lead it into the High Forest. The Thunderbeast would not assign an impossible task. Now, how fares the chosen vessel?”

“Vell? He has not yet roused, but Keirkrad believes he is himself again.”

“Odd that the beast should choose him. What do they say about Vell the Brown?”

“Apart from the color of his eyes, there’s little exceptional about him. He is one of the warriors who generally stays behind to guard the camp during expeditions.”

“By his own choice?” asked Sungar.

“I don’t know,” Thluna admitted. “He has few close friends. Though he has already reached the age to claim a mate, he has not. He defers to the warriors with more glory to their names.”

“He may find himself with more friends after this, and women besides,” Sungar said. “The beast chose him, and when we go into the High Forest, Vell will be with us.”

Thluna nodded. “I will let him know when he wakes. For the moment, I have a recommendation.” He looked down at the grave of King Gundar. “We are but a day’s ride from Grunwald. Some of the men plan to visit it. Most of them were born there.”

Grunwald was the abandoned dwarf hold on the edge of the Lurkwood, discovered and settled by the Thunderbeasts. For a few generations they forsook their nomadic ways and thrived at tree felling and lumber cutting. But when Gundar died, the first act of his successor Sungar was to withdraw from Grunwald.

“If orcs have settled in Grunwald,” said Thluna, “then the men wish to clear them out.”

Sungar stroked his beard. “They may go, if they wish. I will not prevent them.”

“You should go, too,” advised Thluna. “The men were denied a Runehunt, so let them have this instead.”

Sungar cocked his head. “Is a chief to obey his warriors, or the other way around?” he asked, a trace of annoyance in his voice.

“Both, when the cause is right,” said Thluna. “But a chief should not put his own considerations above those of his tribe.”

“Is that what you think I’m doing?” snarled Sungar.

“No,” Thluna said firmly. “But there are those who might.”

Sungar paced. He saw the wisdom of Thluna’s words.

“Why should I go to Grunwald?” asked Sungar. “To invite more comparisons between me and Gundar; or to let them all plead to move the tribe back there?”

“Neither. Show them you’re above those concerns,” Thluna said. He paused a moment, gauging Sungar’s reaction. “You cannot make them forget Grunwald. Many of our people never had the opportunity to properly leave it behind. You need to give them that now. It is like a fallen comrade. Only when he is buried and grieved for, can we move on.”

For a long time Sungar and Thluna stared silently at King Gundar’s cairn. Though neither of them spoke, both thought of their dead fellows, buried so far away in the dismal earth of the Fallen Lands. They, too, could never be mourned properly.

“This whole trip is about embracing our history,” Sungar said. “Consulting our ancestors to find our present path. Grunwald is part of that history.”

“So we’re going to Grunwald?” Thluna said. He erupted in a wide smile that betrayed his youth.

“You forget,” said Sungar. “I was born there, too.”

 

 

Images and thoughts swirled through Vell’s mind as he floated in heavy unconsciousness. Something was lost when he awoke. When the darkness parted, Vell sensed places, faces, and ideas that he could not quite seize, though they would haunt the edges of his mind in ways he could never speak of with a fellow Uthgardt. He seemed to recall dreams of escape—of widening his horizons beyond his tribe and its way of life. These were not new dreams, but traces of something that was always there, now bursting into light.

When he awoke, he pushed those feelings deep inside himself. The sensation scared him. Something had changed in him—but what?

Vell found himself in a tent full of ceremonial animal horns. The air smelled sweet from wild sage. This was a tent of honor, he realized. He rose and strode from the tent into the Thunderbeast encampment tucked among the rugged Crags. The sun blazed brightly. Vell’s muscles felt tight, and a new energy swelled in his limbs. All around him, Uthgardt he had known all his life looked at him in a new way. They greeted him with eagerness, even with reverence, but with fear as well.

Vell had dreamed not of being somewhere else, but of being something else. That image stayed with him even after the dream itself was gone. Now in his waking, he felt as if something of himself was lost; yet he did not feel empty, but overstuffed. His psyche felt as if some new identity had been crammed into him and was preparing to burst out from his muscles. But what was it?

Keirkrad rushed up to him. Despite his astonishing age, the shaman could move with catlike speed.

“Vell!” he said. His old frame could not keep still, he was so excited. “What do you remember?”

“The eyes of the beast staring at me from above,” he said. “And then… nothing.”

“You have been touched by the Thunderbeast,” Keirkrad told him, resting a gnarled hand on Vell’s shoulder. “Our totem chose you as his vessel. This is the greatest honor an Uthgardt could receive! How do you feel?”

“Different,” said Vell. He ran a hand over a tense muscle. “Like I could fell a giant single-handed.”

“You have seen the Battlefather’s favor as few ever do. Your destiny is assured,” Keirkrad said. Through all his kind words, he was peering deeply at Vell with his watery blue eyes, trying to gauge him and figure him out. Vell had experienced this often in his childhood; his brown eyes were so rare among his people. He sometimes found that Uthgardt who seemed to be looking at him were merely looking at his eyes.

At that moment, Thluna arrived. The young warrior commanded enormous respect within the Thunderbeasts, even among those much older and more experienced—perhaps even more respect than Sungar.

“Vell, you have risen!” he said. “Have you further messages for us?”

“Messages?” Vell asked, puzzled.

“The beast spoke through you,” Keirkrad said. “It said ‘find the living.’”

“‘Find the living’?” repeated Vell. “What does it mean?”

Thluna sighed. “If you do not know, we surely do not.”

“It means the Thunderbeast wants us to find the living behemoths that still dwell in the High Forest,” Keirkrad supplied, chin held high. “Surely that should be clear.”

“It is a matter of some discussion,” said Thluna. “We had hoped you might clarify.”

“No,” said Vell, shaking his head. “I’m afraid not.”

“Vell has been touched by the Thunderbeast,” Keirkrad said. “He may know more—or be capable of more—than he realizes right now. Sungar should keep him close at hand.”

“Yes, he does,” Thluna said. He lowered his voice slightly. “He plans an expedition into the High Forest, for a select group from the tribe—he’s still debating who, but it includes both of you. Do not share this for now.”

Keirkrad’s ancient, lined face broke into a wide grin.

“The chieftain is wise. I only wish we could have done this years ago.”

“But why should I be included?” asked Vell. “I am honored, but…”

“Surely the Thunderbeast chose you for a reason,” Thluna told him. “It may not have been as simple as delivering a message—Uthgar may plan a further role for you. We shall see. But in the meantime, Sungar has planned something else.” Thluna turned from the two of them and addressed the tribe at large. “Hear me, Thunderbeasts!” he cried. Soon dozens of warriors were assembled before him. Thluna’s voice was not deep, but he spoke clearly and well.

“Spread the word. Our assembly at Morgur’s Mound has been successful beyond our dreams—successful thanks to your faith. An additional pilgrimage will be made. We came here to seek our history and our heritage: to learn something about ourselves by knowing where we have been. So we shall take down this camp and make the path to Grunwald.”

A deafening roar came up from the tribe. Keirkrad led Vell aside and up a low hill on the edge of the Crags, where they could look down on the camp being disassembled for the journey to their new destination.

“Vell,” he said. “You heard Thluna. We shall go into the High Forest seeking to regain the Thunderbeast’s favor for our tribe.”

“A task for heroes of legend,” Vell said. “I can’t imagine myself in that company.”

“What man can know his own destiny?” asked Keirkrad. “Yesterday you were but a voice in the chorus, and one weaker than most. Now you shall stand close to Sungar, and have his ear. He shall respect your counsel as he respects that of the boy Thluna.”

“And as he respects yours,” Vell added.

“Less than you may think.” Keirkrad shrugged. “I am an old man.” A frown crossed his ancient brow. “We are alike, you and I. I felt the calling of the Thunderbeast at a young age. Once, I left my parent’s tent at night and went wandering into the Lurkwood in a blood trance. For days I walked in the cold of deepwinter; not for nothing am I called Seventoes. I saw orcs, ettins, and a hunting party of the shapechanging Gray Wolves, but none of them saw me. By Uthgar’s grace, I was invisible to them.

“Then, as I lay in an animal’s burrow freezing to death, I saw a vision of Morgur’s Mound—when I first saw the mound itself years later, it was exactly as I had seen it in my mind. Then in the bitter cold of the burrow, the strange, radiant force of the Thunderbeast reached out and touched me, and I returned to my parents and our tribe, warm and with a calling. I knew I would be shaman.