Canticle by R. A. Salvatore

  Version 2.0: Proof-read without the real book. Correct a lot of scanning errors. –BW-SciFi

  Cleric Quintet Book 1: "Canticle"

  By R.A.Salvatore


  Aballister Bonaduce looked long and hard at the shimmering image in his mirror. Mountains of wind-driven snow and ice lay endlessly before him, the most forbidding place in all the Realms. All he had to do was step through the mirror, onto the Great Glacier.

  "Are you coming, Druzil?" the wizard said to his bat-winged imp.

  Druzil folded his leathery wings around him as if to privately consider the question. "I am not so fond of the cold," he said, obviously not wanting to partake of this particular hunt. "Nor am I," Aballister said, slipping onto his finger an enchanted ring that would protect him from the killing cold. "But only on the Great Glacier does the yote grow." Aballister looked back to the scene in the magical mirror, one final barrier to the completion of his quest and the beginning of his conquests. The snowy region was quiet now, though dark clouds hung ominously overhead and promised an impending storm that would delay the hunt, perhaps for many days.

  "There we must go," Aballister continued, talking more to himself than to the imp. His voice trailed away as he sank within his memories, to the turning point in his life more than two years before, in the Time of Troubles. He had been powerful even then, but directionless.

  The avatar of the goddess Talona had shown him the way.

  Aballister's grin became an open chuckle as he turned back to regard Druzil, the imp who had delivered to him the method to best please the Lady of Poison. "Come, dear Druzil," Aballister said. "You brought the recipe for the chaos curse. You must come along and help to find its last ingredient."

  The imp straightened and unfolded his wings at the mention of the chaos curse. This time he offered no arguments. A lazy flap brought him to Aballister's shoulder and together they walked through the magical mirror and into the blowing wind.

  * * * * *

  The hunched and hairy creature, resembling a more primitive form of human, grunted and growled and threw its crude spear, though Aballister and Druzil were surely far out of range. It howled again anyway, triumphantly, as though its throw had served some symbolic victory, and scooted back to the large gathering of its shaggy white kin.

  "I believe they do not wish to bargain," Druzil said, shuffling about from clawed foot to clawed foot on Aballister's shoulder.

  The wizard understood his familiar's excitement. Druzil was a creature of the lower planes, a creature of chaos, and he wanted desperately to see his wizard master deal with the impudent fools―just an added pleasure to this long-awaited, victorious day.

  "They are taer," Aballister explained, recognizing the tribe, "crude and fierce. You are quite correct. They'll not bargain." Aballister's eyes flashed suddenly and Druzil hopped again and clapped his hands together.

  "They know not the might before them!" Aballister cried, his voice rising with his ire. All the terrible trials of two long and brutal years rolled through the wizard's thoughts in the span of a few seconds. A hundred men had died in search of the elusive ingredients for the chaos curse; a hundred men had given their lives so that Talona would be pleased. Aballister, too, had not escaped unscathed. Completing the curse had become his obsession, the driving force in his life, and he had aged with every step, had torn out clumps of his own hair every time the curse seemed to be slipping beyond his reach. Now he was close, so close that he could see the dark patch of yote just beyond the small ridge that held the taer cave complexes. So close, but these wretched, idiotic creatures stood in his way.

  Aballister's words had stirred the taer. They grumbled and hopped about in the shadow of the jagged mountain, shoving each other forward as if trying to select a leader to start their charge.

  "Do something quickly," Druzil suggested from his perch. Aballister looked up at him and nearly laughed.

  "They will attack," Druzil explained, trying to sound unconcerned, "and, worse, this cold stiffens my wings."

  Aballister nodded at the imp's rationale. Any delay could cost him, especially if the dark clouds broke into a blinding blizzard, one that would hide both the yote and the shimmering doorway back to Aballister's comfortable room. He pulled out a tiny ball, a mixture of bat guano and sulphur, crushed it in his fist, and pointed one finger at the group of taer. His chant echoed off the mountain face and back across the empty glacier ice, and he smiled, thinking it wonderfully ironic that the stupid taer had no idea of what he was doing. A moment later, they found out.

  Just before his spell discharged, Aballister had a cruel thought and lifted the angle of his pointing finger. The fireball exploded above the heads of the startled taer, disintegrating the frozen bindings of the ice mountain. Huge blocks rained down, and a great rush of water swallowed those who had not been crushed. Several of the band floundered about in the ice and liquid morass, too stunned and overwhelmed to gain their footing as the pool quickly solidified around them.

  One pitiful creature did manage to struggle free, but Druzil hopped off Aballister's shoulder and swooped down upon him. The imp's claw-tipped tail whipped out as he passed by the stumbling creature, and Aballister applauded heartily.

  The taer clutched at its stung shoulder, looked curiously at the departing imp, then fell dead to the ice.

  "What of the rest?" Druzil asked, landing back on his perch. Aballister considered the remaining taer, most dead, but some struggling futilely against the tightening grip of ice.

  "Leave them to their slow deaths," he replied, and he laughed evilly again.

  Druzil gave him an incredulous look, "The Lady of Poison would not approve," the imp said, wagging his wicked tail before him with one hand.

  "Very well," Aballister replied, though he realized that Druzil was more interested in pleasing himself than Talona. Still, the reasoning was sound; poison was always the accepted method for completing Talona's work. "Go and finish the task," Aballister instructed the imp. "I will get the yote."

  A short while later, Aballister plucked the last gray-brown mushroom from its stubborn grasp on the glacier and dropped it into his bag. He called over to Druzil, who was toying with the last whining taer, snapping his tail back and forth around the terrified creature's frantically jerking head―the only part of the taer that was free of the ice trap.

  "Enough," Aballister said firmly.

  Druzil sighed and looked mournfully at the approaching wizard. Aballister's visage did not soften. "Enough," he said again.

  Druzil bent over and kissed the taer on the nose. The creature stopped whimpering and looked at him curiously, but Druzil only shrugged and drove his poison-tipped stinger straight into the taer's weepy eye.

  The imp eagerly accepted the offered perch on Aballister's shoulder. Aballister let him hold the bag of yote, just to remind the somewhat distracted imp that more important matters awaited them beyond the shimmering door.

  The White Squirrel's Pet

  The green-robed druid issued a series of chit-chits and clucks, but the white-furred squirrel seemed oblivious to it all, sitting on a branch in the towering oak tree high above the three men. "Well, you seem to have lost your voice," remarked another of the men, a bearded woodland priest with gentle-looking features and thick blond hair hanging well below his shoulders.

  "Can you call the beast any better than I?" the green-robed druid asked indignantly. "I fear that this creature is strange in more ways than its coat."

  The other two laughed at their companion's attempt to explain his ineptitude.

  "I grant you," said the third of the group, the highest-ranking initiate, "the squirrel's color is beyond the usual, but speaking to animals is among the easiest of our abilities. Surely by now―"

all respect," the frustrated druid interrupted, "I have made contact with the creature. It just refuses to reply. Try yourself, I invite you."

  "A squirrel refusing to speak?" asked the second of the group with a chuckle. "Surely they are among the chattiest..."

  "Not that one," came a reply from behind. The three druids turned to see a priest coming down the wide dirt road from the ivy-streaked building, the skip of youth evident in his steps. He was of average height and build, though perhaps more muscular than most, with gray eyes that turned up at their corners when he smiled and curly brown locks that bounced under the wide brim of his hat. His tan-white tunic and trousers showed him to be a priest of Deneir, god of one of the host sects of the Edificant Library. Unlike most within his order, though, this young man also wore a decorative light blue silken cape and a wide-brimmed hat, also blue and banded in red, with a plume on the right-hand side. Set in the band's center was a porcelain-and-gold pendant depicting a candle burning above an eye, the symbol of Deneir.

  "That squirrel is tight-lipped, except when he chooses not to be," the young priest went on. The normally unflappable druids' stunned expressions amused him, so he decided to startle them a bit more. "Well met, Arcite, Newander, and Cleo. I congratulate you, Cleo, on your ascension to the status of initiate."

  "How do you know of us?" asked Arcite, the druid leader. "We have not yet reported to the library and have told no one of our coming." Arcite and Newander, the blond-haired priest, exchanged suspicious glances, and Arcite's voice became stern. "Have your masters been scrying, looking for us with magical means?"

  "No, no, nothing like that," the young priest replied immediately, knowing the secretive druids' aversion to such tactics. "I remember you, all three, from your last visit to the library."

  "Preposterous!" piped in Cleo. "That was fourteen years ago. You could not have been more than ..."

  "A boy," answered the young priest. "So I was, seven years old. You had a fourth to your party, as I recall, an aging lady of great powers. Shannon, I believe was her name."

  "Incredible," muttered Arcite. "You are correct, young priest." Again the druids exchanged concerned looks, suspecting trickery here. Druids were not overly fond of anyone not of their order; they rarely came to the renowned Edificant Library, sitting high in the secluded Snowflake Mountains, and then only when they had word of a discovery of particular interest, a rare tome of herbs or animals, or a new recipe for potions to heal wounds or better grow their gardens. As a group, they began to turn away, rudely, but then Newander, on a sudden impulse, spun back around to face the young priest, who now leaned casually on a fine walking stick, its silver handle sculpted masterfully into the image of a ram's head.

  "Cadderly?" Newander asked through a widening grin. Arcite, too, recognized the young man and remembered the unusual story of the most unusual child. Cadderly had come to live at the library before his fifth birthday―rarely were any accepted before the age of ten. His mother had died several months before that, and his father, too immersed in studies of his own, had neglected the child. Thobicus, the dean of the Edificant Library, had heard of the promising boy and had generously taken him in.

  "Cadderly," Arcite echoed. "Is that really you?"

  "At your service," Cadderly replied, bowing low, "and well met. I am honored that you remember me, good Newander and venerable Arcite."

  "Who?" Cleo whispered, looking curiously to Newander. Cleo's face, too, brightened in recognition a few moments later.

  "Yes, you were just a boy," said Newander, "an overly curious little boy, as I recall!"

  "Forgive me," said Cadderly, bowing again. "One does not often find the opportunity to converse with a troupe of druids!"

  "Few would care to," remarked Arcite, "but you ... are among that few, so it would appear."

  Cadderly nodded, but his smile suddenly disappeared. "I pray that nothing has happened to Shannon," he said, truly concerned. The druid had treated him well on that long-ago occasion. She had shown him beneficial plants, tasty roots, and had made flowers bloom before his eyes. To Cadderly's astonishment, Shannon had transformed herself, an ability of the most powerful druids, into a graceful swan and had flown high into the morning sky. Cadderly had dearly wished to join her―he remembered that longing most vividly―but the druid had no power to similarly transform him.

  "Nothing terrible, if that is what you mean," replied Arcite. "She died several years back, peacefully."

  Cadderly nodded. He was about to offer his condolences, but he prudently remembered that druids neither feared nor lamented death, seeing it as the natural conclusion to life and a rather unimportant event in the overall scheme of universal order.

  "Do you know this squirrel?" asked Cleo suddenly, determined to restore his reputation.

  "Percival," Cadderly replied, "a friend of mine."

  "A pet?" Newander asked, his bright eyes narrowing suspiciously. Druids did not approve of people keeping pets.

  Cadderly laughed heartily. "If any is the pet in our relationship, I fear it is I," he said honestly. "Percival accepts my strokes―sometimes―and my food―rather eagerly―but as I am more interested in him than he in me, he is the one who decides when and where."

  The druids shared Cadderly's laugh. "A most excellent beast," said Arcite, then with a series of clicks and chits, he congratulated Percival.

  "Wonderful," came Cadderly's sarcastic response, "encourage him." The druids' laughter increased and Percival, watching it all from his high branch, shot Cadderly a supercilious look.

  "Well, come down here and say hello!" Cadderly called, banging the lowest tree branch with his walking stick. "Be polite, at least."

  Percival did not look up from the acorn he was munching.

  "He does not understand, I fear," said Cleo. "Perhaps if I translate ..."

  "He understands," Cadderly insisted, "as well as you or I. He is just a stubborn one, and I can prove it!" He looked back up to the squirrel. "When you find the time, Percival," he said slyly, "I left a plate of cacasa-nut and butter out for you in my room ... ." Before Cadderly even finished, the squirrel whipped off along a branch, hopped to another, and then to the next tree in line along the road. In a few short moments, the squirrel had leaped to a gutter along the library's roof and, not slowing a bit, zipped across a trail of thick ivy and in through an open window on the northern side of the large structure's third floor.

  "Percival does have such a weakness for cacasa-nut and butter," Cadderly remarked when the druid's laughter had subsided.

  "A most excellent beast!" Arcite said again. "And yourself, Cadderly, it is good to see that you have remained with your studies. Your masters spoke highly of your potential fourteen years ago, but I had no idea that your memory would be so very sharp, or, perhaps, that we druids had left such a strong and favorable impression upon you."

  "It is," Cadderly replied quietly, "and you did! I am glad that you have returned―for the recently uncovered treatise on woodland mosses, I would assume. I have not seen it yet. The headmasters have kept it secured until those more knowledgeable in such matters could come and appraise its value. You see, a band of druids was not wholly unexpected, though we knew not who, how many, or when you would arrive."

  The three druids nodded, admiring the ivy-veiled stone structure. The Edificant Library had stood for six hundred years, and in all that time its doors had never been closed to scholars of any but the evil religions. The building was huge, a self-contained town―it had to be, in the rough and secluded Snowflakes―more than four hundred feet across and half as deep through all four of its above-ground levels. Well staffed and well stocked―rumors spoke of miles of storage tunnels and catacombs beneath―it had survived orc attacks, giant-hurled boulders, and the most brutal mountain winters, and had remained unscathed through the centuries.

  The library's collection of books, parchments, and artifacts was considerable, filling nearly the entire first floor, the library proper, and many smaller study chamb
ers on the second floor, and the complex contained many unique and ancient works. While not as large as the great libraries of the Realms, such as the treasured collections of Silverymoon to the north and the artifact museums of Calimport to the south, the Edificant Library was convenient to the west-central Realms and the Cormyr region and was open to all who wished to learn, on the condition that they did not plan to use their knowledge for baneful purposes.

  The building housed other important research tools, such as alchemy and herbalist shops, and was set in an inspiring atmosphere with breathtaking mountain views and manicured grounds that included a small topiary garden. The Edificant Library had been designed as more than a storage house for old books; it was a place for poetry reading, painting, and sculpting, a place for discussions of the profound and often unanswerable questions common to the intelligent races. Indeed, the library was a fitting tribute to Deneir and Oghma, the allied gods of knowledge, literature, and art.

  "The treatise is a large work, so I have been told," said Arcite. "Much time will be expended in examining it properly. I pray that the boarding rates are not excessive. We are men of little material means."

  "Dean Thobicus will take you in without cost, I would expect," answered Cadderly. "Your service cannot be underestimated in this matter." He shot a wink at Arcite. "If not, come to me. I recently inscribed a tome for a nearby wizard, a spellbook he lost in a fire. The man was generous. You see, I had originally inscribed the spellbook, and the wizard, forgetful as most wizards seem to be, never had made a copy."

  "The work was unique?" Cleo asked, shaking his head in disbelief that a wizard could be so foolish with his most prized possession.

  "It was," Cadderly replied, tapping his temple, "except for in here."

  "'You remembered the intricacies of a wizard's spellbook enough to recreate it from memory?" Cleo asked, stunned.

  Cadderly shrugged his shoulders. "The wizard was generous."

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