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Authors: Michael Williams

Tags: #Fantasy, #Science Fiction

Before The Mask

BOOK: Before The Mask
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Dragonlance - Villains 1 - Before the Mask
Dragonlance - Villains 1 - Before the Mask

Dragonlance - Villains 1 - Before the Mask Williams, Michael

For Lisa, Colleen, and Bonnie, the first friends to listen to my stories. And for Terri,
Brad, and especially Michael, who listen to them now.

T.W.

For Phil and Ann Swain.

M.W.

Dragonlance - Villains 1 - Before the Mask
Acknowledgments

Thanks to Margaret Weis for her kind, generous, and supportive spirit.

Mary Kirchoff was of great help at the outset of the project; we wish her all the best in
upcoming projects of her own.

Pat McGilligan has been there for us over the last four years with a steady, no-nonsense
brilliance, shaping rough work toward vitality and life.

Scott Siegel, our agent, continued to believe and to pound the pavement ingeniously.

Pat Price's erudition and insight steered us to several invaluable sources on Teutonic
rune-lore. Our version of this is impressionistic and no longer resembles its ancient
original. But we would never have found the way without Pat.

Kim and Sammy Soza ran the most hospitable convention in the SouthwestZiacon I. Stay in
the saddle, folks!

Thanks to Terri Miller for our wonderful portrait photo on the inside back cover.

Thanks also to David Kirchhoff, Dorothy Westcott, and especially Mort Morssall of Daylily
World in Sanford, Florida. They were ever ready with solid, detailed information and
superb plants. In the fall of 1993, Mort will introduce his new “Runemark” cultivarthe
daylily upon which the flower in our book is based.

Finally, to our community of faith, thanks for your continued support and prayers. God
bless all of you.

Prologue

In the small patch of cold sunlight on the hill abopc bÇr cape, the druidess L'Indasha
Yman bent to the spring planting with a worn-out spade and a weary heart. For three
thousand years, winters had ended in jubilation for her. When she set the season's first
seed into the newly turned ground or found the first shoot of returning growth in her
daylilies, she would forget utterly the cold, the storms, her hunger for green, for bloom.

But this year, the winter would not leave. This spring, there was little pleasure for her
in the promise of the seeds, and her labor in the garden today was producing mostly
scratches and blisters.

“There's the rub,” she mused aloud, looking down at

the splintering oak handle of the spade. “I should have mended you long ago. Five hundred
years of gardens can be too much even for oak.”

And too much for me, she thought. I will go on and on and keep the Secret and all the
world will change, is changingbut in me now there is no change. My life is a removal. But
I chose it full knowing.

She turned to a clump of daylilies and sat back on her heels, peering into the lavender
blue face of an early bloom. At Paladine's command, she had planted these everywhere she
lived or traveled. They were her particular love in the green kingdoms, for every morning,
there was a new, extravagant grace and outpouring of beauty in their flowers, a grace and
beauty that would last only for the day. She traced the triangular bloom with her finger
and left a trail of silver light in the air.

To her surprise, the light spread, filtering through the careful rows of emerging
sunflowers to the distant new leaves of the encircling vallenwoods, until the garden was
aglow in silver and white.

“Cheer up,” said a voice from the lavender-blue heart of the lily. “All of this mutter
about loneliness and beauty that will fade is matter for bards, not gardeners.”

L'Indasha smiled. “I've missed you. How long has it been?”

“But a day,” the lily replied. “You've just been listening to your own world-weary drone.
I was here yesterday, but you didn't look at me. See that shriveled flower to my immediate
left? I waited all day in there for you to sit down and stop moping. Two bees and a
grasshopper came by, though.”

The eye of the lily winked at the druidess, and then she felt a hand on her shoulder.

Whirling about and rocking backward, she looked full in the face of a kindly old man,
white-haired and bearded, a silver triangle pinned to the crown of his broad-brimmed

hat. A gaudy purplish smear colored one side of his nose. “Lord Paladine,” L'Indasha began
reverently. “You” The old man raised a finger to his lips.

“Hush,” he breathed. “You'll wake the neighbors.” “I just wanted to tell you that”

“Shh.” The old man sat down on the freshly hoed furrow, his silver robes swirling with sun
and shade. “A change has come,” he announced quietly, smiling. “I'm sending you a
companion. Some help.”

“Some help?”

“Oh, not that there's aught wrong with the work you've done. I'm really very pleased.
Thirty centuries, and Takhi-sis has not unmasked the rune. It's a splendid job, my dear.
Worth enduring this long, wearisome immortality.”

He held up the daylily bloom, now somehow missing its blue-purple center. He grinned.
L'Indasha cleared her throat. “Lord Paladine, I simply wanted to tell you ...”

“Your helper is coming,” he went on, “coming by a roundabout way. Well, very roundabout
twenty years in the doing. These things take timegrowthdue season, you know. But that will
be clear to you soon enough. And when help arrives, there will be important choices to
make.”

“Twenty years?” the druidess asked apprehensively. Twenty years seemed like days, even
hours, after her vigil of three millennia. “How? Why?”

Lord Paladine waved his hand. “The Dark Lady's spies are everywhere. So my devices move
slowly and quietly these days.” He pointed to an overhanging vallenwood. “Like the growth
of a large tree.”

“I see,” the druidess replied. “Rushed and suspicious eyes will not notice.” Lord Paladine
nodded. “You be patient as well. Remember how I love you.” “How much shall I tell when the
helper comes?” L'Indasha asked. “Surely not everything.”

“Oh, goodness, no!” the old fellow exclaimed. “It'd take forever, and my borscht recipe
would get out!”

L'Indasha chuckled. “As if anyone would want it.”

“Well, perhaps not,” he mused, “but someone wants the Secret. More than at any time since
I first hid the symbols on the faceless rune from herfrom all the world and entrusted them
and that Keeper's pendant to you.”

L'Indasha glanced down at the blue-purple stone about her neck. The warding stone that
kept the Keeper.

Then all merriment vanished in Paladine's bright eyes. “Double your vigilance. Plant
against famine and fire and the next winter. The barren season will last a very long time
indeed. Unless...”

“Unless?”

Paladine crouched beside the druidess. “Unless the ages are accomplished,” he whispered.
“Soon the faceless rune will have two faces. They will be opposites, and they will be the
same. If they balance each other, work together in their opposition, your job will be
done. They can receive the Secret from you and defeat darkness forever. For they are
Huma's kin.”

“Children,” the druidess breathed. “From the line of Huma ... it will be full circle then.
So these are the last of my quiet days.”

The old man nodded and rose. The sunlight faded and dappled as a roiling cloud bank moved
overhead. In the distance, heat lightning flashed, followed by a low rumble. “Provide. The
storm is coming.”

He turned to go, but L'Indasha beckoned him gently once again. “Lord Paladine...?” “Yes?”
he asked. “You have lily on your nose.”

Dragonlance - Villains 1 - Before the Mask
Chapter 1

The winter of the old man's warning came even more quickly than she had expected,
collapsing the autumn of that peaceful year into a matter of days, freezing the unfallen
leaves to their branches.

This day, from her sheltering cavern, L'Indasha Yman kept vigil with the rising new storm.
Harsh winds from the westfrom Taman Busukwhipped through the Khalkist Mountains, bringing
dark, churning clouds and the faint, watery smell of winter lightning.

The druidess peered deeply into a bucket of cinder-clouded ice, rapt in her winter
auguries. Somewhere out in the mountain passessomewhere north and west, she could tell by
the smoky crazing of the icesomeone was

trudging through the biting snow, through the plunging cold and the rising night.

Darkness would soon overtake him, whoever he was. And with the darkness, the infamous
Breath of Neraka the murderous mountain night winds. On nights such as this, the Breath of
Neraka was cruel. . . merciless. Horses froze in midstride. Trails vanished in sudden
avalanches. Once, not long after she had moved here, the high winds had sealed an entire
party of bandits in an impenetrable shell of ice.

And that was part of it, toopart of L'Indasha Yman's unsettled vigil in the oncoming
night. Between the cold and the brigands, this was deadly country, these mountains between
Neraka and the plains of Estwilde, mountains that encircled the shrines of the ancient
gods.

What was it the old texts had said? Forbidding. Impossible passage. And yet someone was
trying to pass.

The wind switched directions near the entrance to the cave. Dry snow whirled in thin
columns, spiraling upward into the darkness as two icy gusts seemed to war for the waning
light. Then one gave way to the other, and the snow began to settle and drift as total
darkness sealed over the Nerakan passes.

L'Indasha pored over the ice. It was her particular divinationthe old word for it
something like geletnancy, something about the memory within ice. She kept the bucket of
clean water by the mouth of the cave, and on cold nights, when it glazed over, it captured
the past and the present in glittering strata. Tonight the ice was difficult to read. The
sudden wind had brought ashes from old fires, the obscuring haze of cinders and burning.
The black particles had gathered and settled in the ice to hide the greater part of the
vision, and they were melting it very quickly.

Carefully the druidess brushed at the blemished sur-

face of the ice, and she saw two broad paths through the mountainsone from Estwilde, the
other from Gargath. Nothing else. And even that vision was fading, the ice now etched and
buoyant.

He is nearby. He is almost here. I know it, she told herself. Ah. More than one of them, I
think. L'Indasha's fingertips tingled and pricked. She drew up her shawl and bent lower
over the bucket to see more clearly. Half a mile from the Nerakan road, wandering
aimlessly north through the barren trees and the knee-deep snow, a man lurched into view.

Solamnic. She could tell by the insignia. Cloaked thinly against the terrible weather,
dressed in useless armor. He was wandering, clearly lost, just far enough from the trail
to be very near her cave.

The wind ripped through his robes. His beard, his gloves, and the leather lacings of his
breastplate were crusted and stiff with ice, as though he had been carved from the
mountain or born of the winter sky.

Solamnic, the druidess repeated to herself, lifting her eyes from the oracular ice.
Probably searching for bandits. Following the sword and that pitiful code of hisbloody
vows of honor and life. Let him go. She was no fool to meddle in the workings of pride and
vainglory.

As she watched, the knight passed into shadow and cloud, lost at the edge of her auguries.

Let him go. Let him freeze in foolhardiness, along with his troops and followers.....

Followers. Almost at once, she dismissed her scorn and resentment. No matter his
foolishness and Solamnic vanities, she thought, it is a merciless night for them.

Then, as though her compassion itself had summoned them, the other two staggered into her
view. Two smaller forms desperately followed the knight, their gilded, embroidered
clothing already tattered by the rending wind. Then the ice abruptly cleared, the cinders
dropped

to the bottom of the bucket, and the vision went black.

The druidess reached for her cloak and, with a brief pass of her hand and an ancient, dry
mutter, deftly lighted a torch. The green light flashed and rose and steadied in her
grasp. It was a dim fire, scarcely a guide on a night like this, but the magic would keep
it aglow in the terrible wind.

Daeghrefn turned to see where they were. The wind struck him full in the face, stinging
the back of his throat and leaving him breathless.

In the swirl of snow and shadow behind him, he could see his family barely outlinedwoman
and boy, shadows against the dark sky. Abelaard was struggling bravely, of course. He
guided the woman, coaxing and urging her, but the stiff wind staggered them both, and the
woman stumbled, pulling the lad backward into the snow. A strange, cold peace passed over
Daeghrefn as the wind switched directions, as the stragglers labored to their feet.

The woman is weakening. Upright or fallen, she is nothing to me now. If the gods will that
she survive the storm, she will do so. But my son walks beside her, and he will live
through this night. By Oath and Measure, that much is true. I shall see to it with the
last of my own strength.

Daeghrefn tried to double his fists, but his frozen gloves would not crease. The screaming
wind switched direction againthis time from due east, lancing from the top of the range
down mountainside and foothill, rattling branches in the desolate Nerakan Forest and
plunging straight into the path of the dazed and snow-baffled knight. He gasped and
cursed, staggered again in the snow.

And then the torchlit form was in front of him, a dark

outline of human or goblin or ...

Clumsy as an old, besotted man, he groped with useless and disobedient fingers for his
sword.

“No,” said the voice at the heart of the shadow. “Come to shelter.”

It was the voice of a woman, unfamiliar and young, strangely accented with the sharp,
fluid music of Lemish.

“Begone!” the knight shouted.

“Don't be a fool!” the shadow urged, gesturing sweep-ingly in the blinding snow. Now she
was motioning him somewhere ... somewhere to the south ... to shelter....

“No!” Daeghrefn roared. “He'll not have this victory as well!”

“Don't be a fool,” repeated the shadow. She extended her hand toward the struggling knight.

Again, Daeghrefn's hand grappled for the ice-crusted hilt of his sword. “Begone!” he
hissed, the exclamation lost in the roar of the wind. He grunted and shouted as he tried
to draw the blade, but the sword hung frozen at his belt, sealed to the sheath by an
absurdly thick layer of ice.

He would have struggled there forever, until the snow took him or the shadow descended,
had not Abelaard called to him over the clamoring storm.

“May we stop, Father?” the lad shouted, his voice thin and uncertain. “May we stop? We're
very tired and cold.”

It was a druidess, of course, who led them out of the blinding snow and into the warmth
and shadow and dodging light of a nearby cavern. The heat from the fire smarted on
Daeghrefn's storm-burned skin. Blinking stupidly in the sudden brightness, he glanced from
wall to cavern wall, where cascades of dried lavender and rosemary hung amid comfrey and
foxglove, alongside mush-

rooms as gnarled and black as severed hands. Two cats, lean and ancient, wrestled solemnly
in a shadowy corner. The place smelled of forest, of the deep glades of Lemish and elf
country.

He should have known the woman was a druidess, Daeghrefn told himself. Celebrant of the
dead gods and the dead year. Instantly his caution magnified. If druidess she was, there
was danger in her. They were never what they seemed, with their woodsense and muttering
and their irritating mysteries. He had heard they stole babies. Now there was a thought.

“Why?” asked the druidess L'Indasha Yman, shaking the snow from her robes. She was younger
than he expected. Quite lovely, for that matterauburn-haired and tall and dark-eyed as
well. The cave light did not reveal the finer details of her face, and his eyes were too
frost- and wind-burned to study her clearly.

He crouched by the fire and extended his hands, regarding the druidess warily. His eyes
played over the soft, dark skin of her neck, the purple pendant at her throat that
filtered the firelight as stained glass catches the sun. He would not trust beauty such as
this. It was entangling, beguiling....

L'Indasha noticed the stormcrow brooch, ice-encrusted, that held the man's cape
uncertainly about his throat.

“You are Daeghrefn of Nidus,” she noted, drawing a small iron kettle from a shadowy nook
in the rocks. “The dayraven. The stormcrow. Your castle is not far from here. Why? Why do
you travel on a night such as this? Where did you think you were?”

The woman cried out softly to Abelaard. The boy helped her closer to the fire.

Daeghrefn ignored them, his eyes fixed on the druidess. “You know already who and why and
where,” he muttered, “and you've augury enough to know more. Why ask?”

L'Indasha glared at him and stalked into the darkness, returning with the kettle brimful
of water. “It would take more than augury to sound this foolishness,” she said, soothing
the man's wife with a soft brush of her hand. “Out in the Khalkists on the worst of winter
nights, your wife and small son behind you like a straggling infantry. What could have .
.. ?” Like the melting of ice or the settling

of ashes, a slow awareness seeped into LTndasha's mind. She tried to hide her face when
the truth came to her, but Daeghrefn saw it.

“Ah,” she breathed. “You've been cuckolded, haven't” The druidess glanced down at the
woman. The thin cloak had fallen and now revealed the source of the woman's crying. She
was about to give birth.

L'Indasha didn't finish the sentence. Daeghrefn lurched up angrily with a clatter of
breastplate and greaves.

“It is not your concern, druidess,” he growled. He wished for a secret blade, for a sudden
lapse of the Oath, and surprised himself with his own edged and ready anger. “Nose into
your vegetation and your failed gods if you want,” he murmured, his voice deep and
menacing. “Pry into the heart of the oak and the phases of the moon, into whatever
mysteries and omens you consult when your wits fail you. But keep out of my affairs.”

The druidess stared at him darkly. Brown, he thought absently as the wind outside whistled
and eddied. Her eyes are brown ...

His wife cried out again in Abelaard's small arms. “Too soon!” she wailed, her long scream
rising in pitch and volume until it became deafening, as chilling as the wind in the
mountain passes below.

Daeghrefn covered his ears as L'Indasha rushed to attend the woman. And then, as suddenly
as it began, the scream cut off. One of the cats yawned in the cave's far corner.

L'Indasha's face was grim. The woman's pulse fluttered

and faded, then surged again as she cried out in agony. Reaching for the kettle, for
soothing herbs for anythingthe druidess cast her eyes on the bucket by the mouth of the
cave.

The last of the moonlight played almost cruelly over the ice. On the glazed surface of the
water, the light took the form of thick stone, the snow like white robes swirling around a
distant childbed....

Another child. Another child was being born tonight. It was the other face, the brother to
this bastard child. Somewhere, in some warm and nurturing country. But this poor woman lay
moaning in an icy cavern, her first son young and helpless, her husband unbalanced and
venomous. . . . L'Indasha Yman fought down her anger and bent to the work of the night.

Huma's kin were being born.

Somewhat later, in the uncanny silence, something in the depths of the cavern stirred from
its hibernation with a stifled, painful cry. Daeghrefn strained to make out the distant
sound as the creature scuttled deeper into the cave, where its cry echoed and redoubled
back.

“... and you have all but killed her! The child was not ready. It is turned about wrong
and cannot come forth!”

He startled. It was L'Indasha Yman shouting in his ear. | How long had she been there
railing at him some gibberish about the woman, about the child she was bearing? Daeghrefn
closed his ears to the wailing, to the druidess's words. He turned toward the mouth of the
cave, put his back to his son and the two women, and reckoned out an old impartial
calendar.

Too soon. The wretch had said too soon. Yes, it was. He had found her out much too soon.
She had thought to fool

him, but “I need your help!” the druidess shouted, penetrating his icy wall of silence,
her voice colder still. “Ask your gods,” Daeghrefn insisted, his back to her.

The druidess sighed. Daeghrefn seated himself at the cave's entrance. Silent, unmoved by
her incessant pleas for help in the lifting and pushing, by the rustle and clamor of
Abelaard's clumsy assistance, the knight drew his sword and stared into the wheeling snow.
The moonlight broke fitfully through the mountainous clouds, silver on red, and for a
moment, he thought he saw the strange black magelight of Nuitari.

An hour passed, or more.

Finally the cry of the infant broke in the stormy air. It was muted, desperate, as though
the newborn child had fallen into the depths of the cave.

“You have a son,” the haggard druidess announced coldly, holding a swaddled thing toward
the fire for warmth.

“I have a son?” Daeghrefn replied sardonically. “That is no news. He followed me to this
cavern. He served you bravely, where even a midwife would have faltered.”

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