Silenius watched silently from afar as the ceremony took place, interring old Solotharius Viscum into the Memory Tree. The Tree, a stout Rowan sapling brought back from the Altan Forest, seemed to rise up toward the brisk sunlight slatting though the surrounding forest with each crescendo of song. Falen Whisperrose led the ceremony, a dozen Grugach wood-priestesses lending her their power as she channeled the magical and natural forces together into one purpose.
Admittedly, Silenius was distracted. He was standing well back from the elves clustered around the copse where the head of House Viscum would be laid to rest. His thoughts at once dwelled not on the activities of the present, but rather those of the recent past, and moreso, those yet to come. Silenius felt even more ill at ease here in Viscum than he had the last time he’d tarried here, some weeks before. More than ever, he felt the burden of Otherness, of being an Outsider.
“Sword-bearer,” came a low mumble from behind Silenius. He turned, his preternatural reflexes flipping him from forward to back in an owl’s eyeblink, hand already around the hilt of the Corellon’s Blade as his opaque eyes took in the form of Laucien Galonodel, Lord High Clerister of Corellon-At-Viscum. “You do not wish to witness the ceremony with Viscum’s sons?”
Silenius relaxed with a nearly audible snap. “My Lord Clerister,” he greeted Laucian, and gave a small bow. “I apologize. I did not hear you approach.”
“That is because I made no sound, Silenius,” explained Laucian a bit peevishly. “Observe my feet, Sword-Bearer.”
Silenius eyes lowered and saw that the High Clerister’s feet were at least a foot off the ground and, as he continue to approach, was of sufficient height to nearly meet Silenius’ gaze evenly. ‘Milord airwalks,’ Silenius thought. He gave the now closer high priest a terse nod, but said nothing.
“I’ll ask again, then: you do not take part in this ceremony?”
“I am neither needed nor, in truth, wanted,” Silenius replied a bit stiffly. “My presence at all is a mere formality, due to my having been privileged to add my small talents to the goal of acquiring the appropriate documents and materials. Nothing more.”
“You sulk, Silenius?”
“My flesh may be green, milord,” Silenius said with a small, tense grin. “But it’s tincture is not sourced in envy.”
“Good, Sword-Bearer. Petulance does not become you. If your formal duties do not require you…” Galonodel gestured toward the copse with his staff. “… then tarry with me a moment, and deliver to me a report of your activities of recent note.”
“Of course, milord.” Together, the two turned from the ceremony and began walking the paths of Viscum. They were an odd pair: the High Clerister, a wizened ancient clad in plain robes and leaning heavily on his staff, as curmudgeonly as he is frail, one disfigured eye, and yet? Feet, walking a path two hands-breadths above the ground. And at his right, a tall swordsman clad is simple travellers’ garb, his apparent profession betrayed only by the long, ornately hilted sword that hung in a new leather sheath at his hip. Grotesquely high ears for an elf; skin a deep, unearthly green; and eyes that seemed both cut of opal-stone and, yet? Ferally, calculatingly alive. The large swordsman seemed to have a protective interest in the smaller, older elf. An experienced assassin would notice, when a startled fox skittered through the underbrush as the pair passed by, the larger moved – exceeding swift, yet carefully measured – into a prelude to a defense of the older. A Viridistani duellist might recognize the maneuver as a variant of the af arenti maligni, an ancient bodyguard’s posture. Silenius considered it, when he thought of it at all, a simple, nearly automatic alert station.
“Tell me of the city,” ordered Laucian.
Silenius paused, then: “It is a horror, milord. Cormanthyr is an elven city, the likes of which I had never seen – it makes the City of Thorns look like a tramps encampment – or, at least, it did, two millenia ago. All this…” Silenius waved a hand dismissively in the direction of Viscum proper and, beyond, the kingdom of Ravenwind. “All this is a shadow compared to what Cormanthyr once was.
“But a thousand years have past since last an elf fought in Cormanthyr’s defense,” he continued. “I’ve stood many a’watch in the city, and at night, near the center, demonsong fills the air to its very corners.” Silenius let that sink in a bit. “Kerrick of Onnwall knows some of their speech, and translated. It is… fierce. They gloat in their strength. And they are legion.
“Alas, if ’twere only demons and devils,” Silenius sighed. “The demonfey have returned – I slew one, and Corellon allowed me to drag its wretched spirit back from the Hells so that Kerrick could put it to the question. They apparently, among other depredations, mean to return to Cormanthyr, which they refer to as their ‘ancestral homeland.'” Silenius nearly spat the last two words. “I also saw the hole of an ancient red wyrm, open to the sky as if ’twas an offal pit. The beast overflew us, so close the wind from its wings touselled our hair.”
“There are yet elvenfolk in Cormanthyr, I might add,” Silenius went on. “The last surviving member of House Symbaeren was our host while we were in the city. He is an excellent conversationalist – his stories are fascinating, and he has many of them to tell. I imagine this is so because I reckon him to be, perhaps, twice as old as Solotharius is. Mayhap a milennia more.”
“Silenius, I have known you a full century, and I have always approved of your slowness to jest,” Laucien growled. “Pray, do not begin disappointing me by spouting inanities.”
“I did miss-speak, milord; I apologize,” Silenius said. “Symbaeren is not entirely an elf – a couple dozen centuries ago, he through various puissant magicks became a ‘baelnorn,’ which I learned is a sort of pleasanter version of lich. I accidentally slew some of his undead servants, but we came to an understanding. He’s quite engaging.”
The High Clerister said nothing.
“And there are also the Phaerimm. They are a nightmare unto themselves,” Silenius slowed a bit, allowing Laucian a moment to gain back step-and-a-half he’d lost to the taller elf during their conversation. “I managed, with a large bit of Corellon’s blessing, to slay one of these as well. It was well that Ubik Tarragon was there, else a more difficult time would have been had by all. The Phaerimm are mages of exceptional skill – truly exceptional. Archmage-caliber, and pitiless abominations to boot. One we fought; another stood against the wyrm we saw. I know not what fortune befell him, but I suspect that, whatever his fate, I’ll wager he did not depart easily from this plane.”
“This Phaerimm you slew, his lair was the source of the myriad treasures your companions returned with?” asked Laucian.
“Indeed. If it weren’t for Ashrem Grey-cloak, we’d have never retrieved them,” Silenius answered. “It was the Bard that sussed the nature of the enchantment that protected the Phaerimm’s trove.”
Laucian raised a single eyebrow.
“‘Tis true, milord.”
“I know, Sword-Bearer,” Laucian said. “If you dared to lie to me, I’d know of it before you spake the words. What did you find?”
“Much,” Silenius admitted. “Firstly, the details of the ceremony that even now is lodging Solotharius in the oerth, and a mythil-weave for young Whisperrose. Then, a staff, carved of burntwood and bearing a wyrm’s head at the apex; it is named ‘Infernio,’ and is laden with spells for controlling fire. The Grey-cloak bears it. Then, we found a sword of remarkable antiquity, called a khopesh. It is crafted and ensorcelled, with prodigious efficacy against wyrms. Falen Whisperrose bears it on her hip even now.”
They walked a dozen steps further. “Tell me of the circlet that the Fenlock scholar now wears,” said Laucian pointedly.
Silenius paused briefly to gather his thoughts. “It is by far the most powerful thing we retrieved from the Phaerimm’s trove,” he began. “Symbaeren had, weeks before, told us a story regarding these. In the days when Cormanthyr was young, the number and power of the mages who dwelt there were prodigious, far greater than any city now, save for, perhaps, sprawling Greyhawk, half a world away, in the heart of the northern continent. In those days, the greatest and most powerful of those mages differentiated themselves from their fellows by crafting and wearing crowns of surpassing beauty and efficacy. These crowns were not only magical items of tremendous power, but also symbols of the greatest Houses of Cormanthyr.
“Now, told Symbaeren, in those days the elves were unified – high, grey, wood, drow, all lived in the sun, and all lived together with respect and affection – or so each thought. But jealousies festered, animosities fed on burgeoning hate, and grew over time to enormity. The drow lashed out, and thus? The Crown Wars, during which dark days elf fought elf, fell powers were unleashed with impunity, and the races of elvenfolk were scattered. Eventually, the very sky was sundered, and the Rain of Colorless Fire turned the greatest territories of the Oerth into a wretched wasteland.
“What the Fenlock sage now wears is a legacy from that lost epoch,” Silenius said. “It is beyond ancient, and supremely powerful. It was found in a box of glorious workmanship, covered in moonstones, and represents a crystalization of the power and perspicacity of the ancient elves. It works best in the footprint of a mythil, but is strong nonetheless anywhere. I would imagine…” Silenius speculated thoughtfully, “… that to take the crown from the young scholar would require taking his head as well.
“Symbaeren also wore such a crown.” Silenius said. “It was markedly different from that the Fenlock now bears. Symbaeren’s had several gems that circled his crown, evincing strong magic in their own right. They are, generally speaking, staggeringly powerful items.”
“Is that all?” asked Laucian, eyes narrowing impatiently.
“The last thing we pulled from the Phaerimm’s hovel was hidden in a small niche,” Silenius answered. “I am unsure whether the Phaerimm know it was there hidden there or not. In any event, it was a book, strangely bound, in an unknown language. Falen was the first to peruse it, but the contents were so virulent that, had I not been near enough to render aid, she’d have been killed. I read the book next, or tried to. It was as if the very words drew black lightning up from the ground to steal the life from me. I awoke dazed and shaken a few moments later, the book on the ground at my feet.”
“But such is the nature of the place that even doughty elves, who have learned caution in the classroom of the Drow homelands, throw that caution to the wind when such treasures are found,” Silenius sighed. “Tecumseh, Drenden, Ashrem – each in turn read the book, even as the one before slumped to the ground at the first sight of the page, teeth gritted, eyes rolling into white. Finally, Kerrick of Onnwall read it, and it was gladly awarded to him. I believe it has instruction on how he might discipline the dragon-blood inside him to weave the mythil.”
The pair silently walked along the worn pathways of Viscum, approaching the village proper. Birds swooped and dove amongst the trees to either side; children scampered away laughing in fear and mock; the sweet aroma of leafsmoke rose up.
Finally, the High Clerister spoke.
“And what of you, Master Varanasi,” Laucian rumbled. “Have your recent travels garnered you further insight into the will of the All-Father?”
“Milord, the nature of the corruption of Cormanthyr’s mythil is such that I cannot divine Corellon’s will on these subjects as I normally would,” Silenius explained. “As such, I have had only my own counsel to keep. And my thoughts grow… more alien, even as my outward appearance has already changed.”
“Have you arrived at any conclusions, then, with all this cerebration?” Laucian asked, a bit testily.
“Alas, not,” Silenius said evenly, ignoring the older elf’s growing pique. “But some things I do know. For one, that I can never go back to my House concern. I’ve no more merchant in me now, and would be no aid to my kin if I assayed to.”
“I doubt that the Father of Elves went to the trouble of bringing you to the Sword, only to have you return to shopkeeping,” Laucian said sardonically.
“Indeed, milord,” said Silenius. “I yet keep my apartments in House Varanasi, and my father and brothers are cordial, even jovial, to see me return. But it is not as it once was.”
“Did you imagine it would be, Sword-Bearer?” said Laucian. “Did you imagine that, upon your return from the Land of the Drow, you would simply hang Corellon’s Blade on a valet and be done with it?”
“I suppose not,” Silenius said wryly.
“Do you still intend to levy a squadron of dragoons and form a company?” Laucian asked.
Silenius paused a moment. “I do not recall ever mentioning that intention to you, my Lord Clerister,” he said.
“Were I to wait for your briefings, I would barely learn when you deigned to return to the Forest, let alone your intentions,” Laucien said. “Instead, I have agents, and they pose queries. You are not the only priest in the wood, nor the only elf that calls me ‘Lord Clerister’. Now, as my agents tell me, while to the Council, at least while Solotharius yet sat upon it, you proclaimed that were e’er a servant of the Elves of the Viscum Wood, and would abide by any and all lawful charges put to you by them, even unto delivering up the Sword. As you might imagine, since you were even then unwilling to offer it up to me as your Master, I found this utterly unconvincing.
“You are not yet so separated from the foibles of this plane that you cannot, occasionally, be found in your cups,” Laucian went on. “Once, when you and young Viscum lingered over a second bottle of fireamber, you laid claim to the title of ‘defender of the faith’ and swore to raise a cadre of desert elves from afar and, thus backed, rush hither and yon, righting wrongs and watching the denizens of the continent tremble as the oerth turned black in your bootprints. It was quite a glorious plan, as I recall, Sword-Bearer.”
Silenius’ skin color deepened briefly at the rebuke, but his voice remained even. “‘Tis a plan which I have not entirely abandoned, milord, albeit I have since eschewed the notion of assuming the mantle of warpriest,” Silenius allowed. “When I first encountered the desert elves, exiled long ago to the wasteland on the other side of the Dragonteeth, I even then knew they might become valuable allies. They are stealthy, prodigious fighters, and find hunting drow raiders a fine sport. And they have not forgotten the worship of Corellon. I daresay I could raise a squadron of them, were I to return to their lands and show myself Sword-Bearer. Indeed, they said as much ‘ere I departed. If ’tis the All-Father’s will that I devote my efforts toward the harrowing of Cormanthyr…” Silenius paused, bestowing on Laucien a meaningful glance “… then five-score desert elves at my command would assist mightily in the endeavor.”
“Succintly put, Master Varanasi,” Laucian said. “And perhaps you are correct, if it comes to defeating the orcish hordes that surround the Most Ancient City. But it seems to me that your next order of business would be the defeat of the demonfey. The offal styling itself ‘the Master’ has already struck at our heart, Sword-Bearer. He has entered the Wood, at Seker; he has slain our brothers and sisters; and he has raised more of his despicable fellows, from below our land. The entirety of Viscum screams out for vengeance.
“And that, my accomplished pupil, is the task set before you now,” Laucian continued, punctuating his points with raps to the ground with his staff. “Where you have sought your own counsel, amongst the foetid denizens of Cormanthyr? I have plumbed our Father’s will on this. And His will guides the hand of the High Council: revenge! The demonfey are an abomination on this oerth, an affront to every good elf. Before Cormanthyr can be harrowed, before the phaerimm slain and wyrms, alive or dead, dispatched and demons returned from whence hellpits they have come and the infernal gates closed – indeed, I know of your bargains, Sword-Bearer, with the Beautiful Ones – this Corellon must have: the oerth must be cleansed of demonfey. House Delegas must fall, and completely so!”
Silenius saw the truth in Laucian’s words, even as his myriad doubts and misgivings cleared away like fog burning off a morning-lit meadow. “I am the Sword of Corellon,” Silenius whispered. “I am the Instrument through which the All-Father makes known His fearsome wrath. I will not fail.”
“You dare not fail, Sword-Bearer,” Laucian agreed. “Go, then. You have three-score days to prepare, certes no more than that. Gird yourself for battle. Prepare yourself, and your comrades, in all ways. Then go, bring justice to House Delegas, and redden the soil with their blood wherever you find them – in Viscum, Cormanthyr, or about the multiverse. Give them no respite, even should they flee as far as the surface of the Celene moon. Run them like sheep before the baying hound. Leave not a single one alive. Not. One.”
Silenius drew the Sword of Corellon, laid it cross his palms, and kneeled. “It will be done, my Lord Clerister. I do so swear, on the All-Father’s blade.”
Laucian touched Silenius once atop the head with a single finger. “Your oath is noted, Sword-Bearer. Go now and prepare. Visit me at the Temple ‘ere you depart.” And with that, Laucian disappeared, leaving Silenius alone along the path, silence surrounding him.
Silenius rose, sheathed the Sword, and moved off west, toward House Viscum. ‘Methinks the Council will seek me soon,’ he thought. ‘There is much to do.’