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The Howling Delve

A Book in the Dungeon Series

A Forgotten Realms Novel

By Jaleigh Johnson

CHAPTER ONE

Esmeltaran, Amn

12 Eleasias, the Year of the Sword (1365 DR)

Kall swung the staff high, angling it at his best friend's head. Kall's fourteen-year-old limbs were all bone and wire, but the sapling was light and made a whistling sound as it cut the air above the waters of Lake Esmel.

Aazen ducked, crouched, and sprang to an adjacent rock, losing only briefly the rhythm of the violin he had tucked under his chin. The feint at his head didn't seem to faze the boy or affect his balance in the slightest.

Undeterred, Kall matched his friend's path stone for stone, taking them farther from the shore. The water turned deep blue, marking the shelf where the bottom dropped away.

"Too light," Aazen commented as the music—wire screeching, to Kall's ears—died away. He pointed to the staff. "Needs proper balance."

Kall rattled the makeshift weapon, watching its ends bounce. "It doesn't need a 'proper' anything—it's a stick."

"Heavier would give you more control." Aazen picked up a livelier tune now that he no longer had to fend off attacks.

"If I'd chosen a stouter branch, I might have hurt you," Kall pointed out, snickering. "Or broken that pretty stick of yours."

This time Aazen's music did falter under an inelegant snort. "My thanks, but I'm secure where I am."

"Oh? And you with no more rocks to flit to?" Kall asked innocently.

Still playing, Aazen turned, and Kall swung as he did so, this time aiming for the ankles with a broom-sweep that would send his friend into the water.

The staff whistled through empty air as Aazen jumped, tucked his legs into his stomach, and—damned if he didn't make it look simple—landed gracefully on the same rock he had just been standing on. He flashed a rare grin at Kall and finished the tune with an enthusiastic flourish.

"Well played," Kall was forced to admit. He regarded his friend while the flames of Highsun beat down on their necks. Aazen stared back. Both contemplated another round of the game.

The steady trickle of sweat running down Kall's back decided him. He stripped off his tunic and the padded armor his father insisted he wear outside the Morel estate. The staff he laid carefully across the rock, and saw Aazen doing the same with his instrument as he too stripped down, then they both plunged into the calm waters.

"How much time, do you think?" Aazen asked when he resurfaced.

"Before they miss us?" Kall glanced at the sun. "Enough to get back, I think. If I'm wrong.. ." Concern flooded his smooth features. "Maybe we ought to go. This was my idea. I don't want there to be trouble for you."

The boys exchanged glances. "Trouble" bore a very different meaning for Aazen where their fathers were concerned. Kall could see the scars on his friend's bare back, though neither ever spoke of where they came from.

"You promised me a swim," said Aazen, shrugging off Kall's concern. "That's the only reason I let you drag me out here."

"Hah. I didn't hear you arguing very loud." Kall leaned over to splash his friend and saw movement on the beach.

Kall looked over Aazen's shoulder, squinting. Standing along the shoreline, like dark diamonds against the sun, was a line of men. He recognized them immediately. They were his father's guard, nothing less than his personal retinue. The boys' afternoon of play was over. Guiltily, Kall raised a hand to call them.

A loud whistle cut the air, beating sharply against Kall's eardrums. He never saw the missile's flight, but he heard its impact. The arrowhead and a bit of shaft were just visible through a muscle in Aazen's shoulder.

Dencer's arrow, Kall realized, shocked. He and Aazen had watched and occasionally helped the man fashion the arrowheads into that signature, barbed shape. At the time, Dencer had explained how painful a wound such tips would make, and warned them never to use the weapons for hunting, for it was cruel to cause an animal undue pain.

The cry that burst from Aazen was certainly animal-like, and the impact of the arrow drove him back into Kall's chest.

* * * * *

Footsteps stirred Dhairr Morel from the drawings in front of him.

Three small, open arches behind his desk overlooked the central garden of his Esmeltaran estate. Visitors approaching his private office had to pass through the garden on stone walkways or wade among dense ferns and orange trees. He made sure he could always hear them coming. While dust gathered on a sketch of a peridot and opal ring, Dhairr listened, hearing every subtle alteration in the rhythm of that outside world.

"Balram," he said as the man entered the office without knocking. "Well?"

"The house remains secure, my lord," Balram Kortrun replied.

"I am always assured of that, Captain. Was that the task I set for you?"

"No, my lord."

Dhairr smiled faintly. "Then let us come to the point."

"My sources tell me someone plots your death," said Balram.

Dhairr eased back in his chair at the blunt pronouncement, but he was not, in truth, surprised. The surge in his blood came from excitement, not fear. He had always known they would try again.

His hand strayed involuntarily to his throat, where a cordlike ridge of flesh had healed the slash the assassin had given him. Like the carved ivory reliefs adorning the walls of his office, his body told the story of how close he'd come to death.

He looked his captain in the eyes. "Who?"

That was the question that haunted him. His assailants had been faceless walking shadows. To kill them, he'd been forced to sit patiently, awaiting their next strike. Dhairr had waited almost twelve years for this day, but he had not idled in that time. He was well prepared.

He repeated his question, slow and deliberate. "Who comes for me?"

Balram hesitated. "We do not know, my friend," he said, but hastened to add, "Your men stand with you. They surround the house and await any call for aid. No one who enters this house will escape masked ... or alive."

"They are well trained. I have no doubt. Thank you, Kortrun," Dhairr said. A new thought struck him. "What of Kall?"

Balram shifted, and Dhairr's eyes narrowed. "We believe he and my son are outside the estate, my lord."

Dhairr thrust himself to his feet, his chair scraping stone, but Balram locked a restraining hand on his friend's arm. He ignored the blazing look in the lord's eyes. "Do not. I have sent whatever men could be spared to retrieve them, but if the attack comes soon, the lake and environs are the safest places."

Dhairr jerked his arm free and turned away, a clear sign Balram would win the argument. He seldom lost. "However it ends, you will see to him?" Dhairr asked.

"Yes. As you will see to Aazen, if the reverse is true," said Balram.

Dhairr nodded and sank back into his chair, staring at nothing. "Kall has always been defiant—like his mother. There are days .. . nights more than morns," he said, and paused. Another memory flitted before his eyes, but the scars this time were invisible specters. "I should not have sent her away."

"Alytia was a wizard," Balram said flatly.

Dhairr chuckled. His friend—the whole of Amn—predictably reviled the Art. His mirth quickly died. "You have also raised a motherless child. Was it so simple for you, Captain?"

Balram's lips tightened. "My son has never wanted for anything, my lord, and neither has yours." The remark held an edge of bitterness that Dhairr failed to notice. "By removing your wife, you have taken all magic, and the danger that inherently follows such power, from your house and from your son's eyes. Is that not worth whatever deprivation he may have suffered?"

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