THE STAFF OF VALMAXIAN

Philip Athans

The 23rd Year of the Sapphire (-7628 DR)

The heat from the explosion seared Valmaxian’s unsuspecting lungs from precisely five hundred ninety-eight feet, seven inches away. It burst into a perfect sphere of orange fire, traced with veins of red and flashes of yellow, and a painful white at its heart. It rolled out of its central point to a diameter of forty feet in the time it took for Valmaxian to close his eyes against the blast. He put his hands to his face and felt the Shockwave tousle his long blue-green hair and whip his plain white satin robe around him.

“Oh, no,” he breathed, then coughed once, trying to hold the rest of the coughs in.

The Shockwave passed, but residual heat washed over him and drew sweat out of every pore in his trembling body to plaster the silk robe tightly to him.

“Well,” his mentor said over a sharp exhale, “that was… less than successful.”

Valmaxian let his hands fall to his side, his fingers balled into tight fists. He blinked open his eyes and waited for the spots to clear, listening to his mentor’s footsteps approach. The spots cleared, and Valmaxian could see the fine gold inlays in the green marble floor. The gold traced a series of precise lines and arcs that marked the distance from the center of the room and defined various angles. It was how he knew with such precision how far away from the center of the blast he stood.

Valmaxian looked up, ignoring the scope of the enormous chamber. The domed ceiling soared twelve hundred feet above his head, the inside of the dome likewise marked with radii and calibrations. The round casting chamber-his mentor’s private studio-was exactly two thousand feet in diameter, the centerpiece of the fifth largest building in the Western Provinces of Siluvanede, the kingdom of the Gold elves and all that remained of the past glory of mighty Aryvandaar.

Valmaxian’s almond eyes settled on the thin form of his mentor, who stood at the lip of a bowl-shaped depression in the center of the room. The green marble there had been scorched black.

“Is it…?” Valmaxian asked his mentor’s still back.

“Your precision is improving, at least,” Kelaerede said, his voice echoing a thousandfold in the columned vastness of the casting chamber. “You’ve centered the fireball in a rather precise manner.”

“The wand?” Valmaxian asked, knowing the answer.

Kelaerede stood, turned around, but didn’t look at his student. “You’re young,” he said, his voice devoid of accusation.

Valmaxian sighed and walked forward. His boot heels tapped out what sounded to Valmaxian like a funeral march. He came to the edge of the central bowl and looked across at a raised column that rose from the center to the height of the floor. On its eighteen-inch round surface lay a thin strip of molten silver, maybe a foot long. The metal still bubbled around the edges.

“Damn it,” Valmaxian breathed.

“There will be other wands,” Kelaerede said.

Valmaxian turned and saw Kelaerede standing next to a small table, pouring a glass of water from a sweating crystal decanter.

“It took the artisans of Guirolen House three years to craft that from silver mined from Selune herself,” Valmaxian reminded his teacher. “It cost a king’s ransom.”

Kelaerede shrugged in that entirely too-forgiving way he had of shrugging and said, “Then it’s fortunate that our own beloved king is not being held for ransom.”

Valmaxian let a breath hiss out through his nose and said, “My failures amuse you.”

Kelaerede looked up, his face serious, and a cold chill ran down Valmaxian’s still sweating back.

“Not at all,” the older elf said, his quiet voice carrying well in the still air. “It is not the simplest thing, Valmaxian, though you seem to think it ought to be.”

“It took the staff a tenday to prepare the bat guano alone,” Valmaxian reminded him. “It was a waste.”

“Yes, it was,” Kelaerede answered.

They looked at each other for a long second before Valmaxian turned back to the blackened central bowl of the casting chamber.

“I can’t do it,” he said. “Not this way.”

“You can’t learn from me?” the teacher asked. “You can’t try, fail, try again, then-“

“What?” Valmaxian interrupted. “Then what? Fail again, try again, fail again, try again, fail again, and again and again until all the silver has been mined from the moon to the western continents and back again and I still haven’t finished a single, simple, ridiculous little wand of fire?”

“The fact that you don’t allow for the possibility that you might succeed is at the heart of why you fail, my son,” Kelaerede answered. “You’ve always been harder on yourself than I have been on you, and I’m known as a difficult teacher. You’re quick to punish yourself, but like everything else you keep that punishment inside. I’ve been trying to show you that in order to create an item of true power, you’ll need to give something of yourself, you’ll need to open up and let some of what is-“

“There are other ways,” Valmaxian interrupted again. “There’s another way.”

“My students and teachers alike consider it rude for a student to interrupt his mentor,” Kelaerede replied. “We’ve discussed that, Val, and I’ve made my feelings on the matter clear.”

“I know,” Valmaxian said, still looking down at the scorched marble.

The spell wasn’t supposed to actually go off. It should have been absorbed into the rare silver wand. It was a simple task, but one he found himself unable to complete. Valmaxian, in his own eyes if not in Kelaerede’s, was a dismal failure. But he didn’t have to be.

“Valmaxian,” Kelaerede warned, “you have promised me that you will not pursue that path-that you’ll never pursue that path.”

“I have,” Valmaxian said, turning to offer a weak smile to his teacher. “I apologize.”

Kelaerede returned Valmaxian’s weak smile with a strong one. “You’re young and impatient, Val. You’re merely five hundred years old-you know that, don’t you?”

“You’ve told me.”

“It’s true,” Kelaerede said. “I could have made the same mistake myself at that age. When I was as young and frustrated as you are I might have done what you’re considering doing now, but I didn’t. I was warned away by my own teacher the same way I’m warning you now. Decades pass fast enough for our people, Val, and it may be decades before you are able to do what you set out to do today. It could be decades more before you’re ready to go out on your own-a century maybe-but you will do it, Val. You will succeed.”

Valmaxian looked up at the dome so far above his head and forced another weak smile.

“Yes,” he said, “Yes, I will succeed. Yes, I will.”

In a much smaller room, a tenday later, Valmaxian spread a scroll out on a rough flagstone floor. The scroll had been cut from a lamb’s hide, carefully tanned to a nearly paper thinness. The writing on it was in Kelaerede’s careful hand. Only a handful of elves on all of Toril could have written the runes, sigils, and fell diagrams inscribed there.

He glanced around the simple chamber, checking one last time that everything was ready. The furniture had been moved out, a single thin taper burned in an iron candlestick, and he’d firmly shuttered the narrow arched window.

Valmaxian wore a common robe of rough wool. His hands were shaking. He drew in a deep breath and held it, counting to twenty before exhaling. He sat on his knees on the cold stone floor, a third of the way into the room with the single locked door at his back. In front of him, past the expanse of the scroll, was nothing: fifteen feet or so of floor then blank wall. The thirty-foot high ceiling seemed excessive for so small a room, but it was one of the reasons he chose it.

The gate would be twenty feet in diameter.

He rubbed his eyes, took three quick breaths, and started to read.

It was difficult going. The words were hard to say. Instructions not meant to be read aloud were interwoven with them, advising on proper cadence, tone, timbre, even earnestness and enthusiasm. Likewise there were instructions for the proper gestures. His hands and fingers had to move in a very precise way and at very specific intervals.

At least three times in the course of the minute it took to cast the spell Valmaxian almost stopped. He knew he should stop but also knew he had to go on.

The last word echoed into silence in the still air and Valmaxian dropped his shaking, sweating hands to the floor. He didn’t know what to do with them.

He blinked when the light first appeared-a soft violet traced with blue-and it didn’t so much grow brighter as more plentiful. It formed a ball first, about the size of Valmaxian’s fist. The young elf looked at it with increasing anxiety.

He’d started it, and there was no way to stop it.

The ball of light continued to grow. It was as big as Valmaxian’s head when it started to spin. As it spun faster, the ball flattened out on top, becoming a whirling oval of blue-violet light. Flashes of white appeared, smearing into traces of brilliance. The light grew rapidly and became a flat disk that slowly tipped up on one edge. It held its place perpendicular to the floor eight feet from the tip of Valmaxian’s nose. There was no heat, but the young Gold elf perspired all the same. He blinked but never looked away.

All at once the disk opened in the center and spun itself to form a ring. Beyond it, Valmaxian was able to make out irregular shadows. The light from the spinning ring interfered with his natural ability to see in the dark. He strained to focus on the space in the center of the ring, and after a few blinks he was sure he was looking at a wind-carved boulder. The curved rock had almost the shape of a woman, at least as tall as Valmaxian. The ring reached its full diameter of twenty feet and the violet light dimmed. Valmaxian saw more of the misshapen rocks loosely sprinkled across a broken landscape of talus and coarse sand. The deep red sky was striped with clouds of black dust whipped by a buffeting wind.

Another shape formed in the swirling dust: a shadow two heads taller than the tallest elf. It walked on two legs, swinging long, apelike arms at its side, its head and shoulders studded with irregular horns and spikes.

Valmaxian held his breath as he watched the demon step through the gate into his little room. The spell had been specifically designed to call but one creature from all the endless malignancy of the Abyss, one nabassu, one thing.

It looked like a gorilla, but with huge, batlike wings rustling behind it. Its broad, flat face was dominated by a wide mouth held open by two upturned tusks. Its little nose was pushed back between two startlingly intelligent, silver eyes that seemed to reflect the light of the candle and the spinning magic gate as though they were made of polished platinum. Grotesquely naked, its skin was blotchy and gray.

Valmaxian tried to swallow but couldn’t. His throat closed tight. The demon noticed that and smiled, drawing back half a step.

“En-” Valmaxian started to say, then coughed. He made sure to keep his eyes from meeting the demon’s. “En’Sel’Dinen.”

A low growl rolled out of the fiend’s mouth, followed by a drifting mist of green vapor. “Ah… you called…” the beast said, its voice like thunder heard from the bottom of a well.

“I am Valmaxian,” said the elf, forcing a confidence into his voice that he didn’t really feel.

“Well,” the demon replied, “good for you. And Kelaerede?”

Valmaxian managed to swallow finally then said, “He forbade me from calling you. I had to steal the scroll.”

The demon made a sound that Valmaxian thought must be a laugh.

“I require your service,” the elf said.

“Ah,” said the demon, “and I thought this was a social call.”

Valmaxian felt his face flush. He kept his eyes to one side.

“You know enough not to look me in the eyes,” En’Sel’Dinen observed. “Kelaerede-he’s your master?” “He is my teacher.”

“And what has he taught you about me?” the demon asked.

“Enough,” Valmaxian said, his eyes wandering over En’SePDinen’s misshapen toes. A tiny insect scurried under one ragged yellow toenail.

“Wealth, then, is it?” the demon asked. “Power? Magic?”

“Yes,” Valmaxian whispered.

The demon laughed.

Valmaxian cleared his throat and said more clearly, “Magic. The others will follow.”

The demon stopped laughing and leaned slightly forward. “Nothing comes without a cost,” it said. “What are you willing to spend?”

“Anything,” Valmaxian said. “I don’t know.”

“Neither do I,” the demon replied, “but I’ll think of something. A single sacrifice. A sacrifice to be decided later.”

Valmaxian felt his own mouth curl up into a smile, though deep down he didn’t want to smile. “Anything,” he said again. “Anything.”

The 76th Year of the Amethyst (-6964 DR)

The fireball exploded in the exact center of a circle formed by freestanding columns of bleached marble, simple cylinders each a thousand feet tall. The circular expanse of the interior was a floor of identical white marble a mile in diameter. Valmaxian sat on a ladder-back chair of polished mahogany far enough away from the explosion that his spidersilk robe wasn’t ruffled by the wind from the Shockwave. He couldn’t feel the heat, either.

“Did you melt it?” Valmaxian asked in a quiet, relaxed voice.

An enchantment he’d created himself took hold of the soft tones and transported his voice clearly across the marble surface to the ears of Third Apprentice Yulmanda.

The apprentice, a Gold elf girl less than a century old, walked quickly to the center of the casting circle and looked down. Valmaxian heard her quiet sigh.

“That was the last of the silver from Selune,” Valmaxian stated without emotion.

Yulmanda turned toward him but kept her eyes on the floor. “Master, I-“

“Failed!” Valmaxian shouted, his voice rolling over the smooth floor like waves crashing on a beach. “You failed, because you are a stupid, useless girl.”

“Master-“

“Shut up,” Valmaxian roared, holding up a hand as if to hold back the sound from the apprentice’s mouth. “Get out of here. Leave my studio immediately and do not return. Your father will receive a bill for the materials you so foolishly wasted. You’re not fit to touch the Weave.”

He heard the girl sob, even heard the first of her tears tick onto the marble floor at her feet. Valmaxian looked away, up at the deep azure sky over Siluvanede. He could tell the girl was trying to think of something to say, some defense that could save her place as one of Valmaxian’s students-the most coveted position for the young Gold elves of Siluvanede. Valmaxian’s studio was unparalleled. The items he enchanted there were sought after throughout the elf lands all around the High Forest and beyond.

Yulmanda didn’t bother arguing. Crying, she walked quickly past him and to the broad steps at the edge of the casting circle. The steps would lead her a hundred feet down the elf-made tor on which the casting circle had been built. It would then take her the better part of the day to cross his compound and pass through the gates into the city proper.

As Yulmanda’s footsteps touched the top of the stairs, Valmaxian heard another set approaching. He kept his eyes fixed on a single cloud lazily wandering across the perfect sky and waited for the newcomer to approach. It would be a long walk.

The wand that Yulmanda had ruined was, of course, a minor trinket, intended as a gift to a wealthy collector more interested in the rare silver than the enchantment. The collector had several of Valmaxian’s finest pieces and had recently begun to collect his work to the exclusion of all others.

“Master Valmaxian,” a voice behind him called.

“Who are you?” Valmaxian asked without bothering to look at the intruder.

“Piera-” the young elf started to say then obviously realized Valmaxian wouldn’t care what his name was. “A messenger, sir, with disturbing news.”

“The staff?” Valmaxian asked, his blood running cold. The look he gave the messenger sent the boy back two steps.

“Staff, Master?” the messenger asked, his face pale and his eyes bulging. “N-no, Master Valmaxian.”

Valmaxian sighed and put a hand to his chest. His heart beat rapidly, and his palm was sweating.

“Master?” the messenger asked. “Are you feeling unwell? Should I fetch-?”

“Be still, boy,” Valmaxian barked, turning his face back up to the azure sky. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes.

The messenger cleared his throat.

Without opening his eyes, Valmaxian said, “You are still here.”

“Yes, Master,” the messenger replied. “I was told to deliver a message.”

“Then deliver it with haste and be on your way,” Valmaxian said, eyes still closed, “or are they paying you by the hour?”

The messenger let loose a terrified chuckle and said, “Oh, no, Master. I am paid by the message.”

Valmaxian let a long sigh hiss through his teeth and heard the boy take another step back.

“Master,” the messenger said, “it’s Lord Kelaerede.”

Valmaxian opened his eyes. The little cloud had passed from his field of vision. He didn’t look at the boy.

“Master, Lord Kelaerede lies on his deathbed. He has asked for you.”

Valmaxian rolled his head slowly to one side, his eyes straight forward so the boy tilted lazily into view.

“Kelserede’s dying?” the wizard asked.

“Presently, Master,” the boy said, nodding. “Or so I was told.”

Valmaxian looked back up at the sky and the boy said nothing for the space of four rapid, ragged breaths. Valmaxian said, “Well, then, I guess I must be off.”

Kelaerede looked fine. Valmaxian could see no difference in the elfs face, or in the fine veins on the back of his hand. It had been closer to seven hundred years than six hundred since Valmaxian had seen his former teacher, but the look of disappointment was as plain in Kelserede’s eyes on his deathbed as it had been the day he’d turned Valmaxian out.

Valmaxian sat on a stiff-cushioned chair next to Kelserede’s narrow, low bed. The old elf sat propped up with pillows. Valmaxian avoided the dying elfs eyes. Instead he looked around the simple bedchamber. They sat in silence for a long time. Kelserede’s breathing came labored and slow, and his legs didn’t move the whole time.

“You have done well,” Kelaerede said finally, his voice as thin as a reed. He looked the same, but sounded different.

Valmaxian nodded in response.

“I wanted to see you,” Kelaerede said, “one last time.”

Valmaxian looked his former teacher in the eye and asked, “To make peace? After so long?”

Kelserede’s breath whistled out of his nose and the old elf shuddered. “You could have been one of the finest craftsmen Aryvan-” The old elf stopped to cough, then smiled. “I was going to say ‘Aryvandaar.’ Old habits.” He coughed again and said, “You could have been one of the finest.”

“I am the finest,” Valmaxian said. He sighed when he realized how he sounded. So much time had passed but Kelaerede could still make him feel like a child.

“You made the bargain, didn’t you,” Kelaerede said.

“I did what I had to do,” Valmaxian answered.

“Regardless of the consequences?”

“Consequences?” Valmaxian asked. “The items I craft are the most sought after in Siluvanede. That was the consequence of my actions. I cast a spell-from a scroll you wrote yourself. I solved a problem using the Weave. Isn’t that what you always taught me to do?”

Kelaerede shook his head. “I always told you that you could be everything you ever wanted to be but that it would cost you something of yourself.”

“I thought that was what you warned me against,” Valmaxian replied. “You told me the demon would require payment, then you tell me I should have spent ‘something of myself.’ I spent all I needed to spend, and the bill has not come due in over six and a half centuries.”

Kelaerede coughed through a bitter laugh and said, “That doesn’t mean it will never come due, and there’s a difference between spending a single thin copper of your own essence every day and the price that En’SePDinen will surely ask.”

“And you would know, I suppose,” Valmaxian said. “It was you who bound that demon to service the first time.”

“And I who sent it back to the Abyss where it belongs,” Kelaerede said.

“It was my decision,” Valmaxian said. He stood, his knees shaking. “I have been fine without you. You were holding me back.”

“I was teaching you,” the old elf whispered.

“You were wasting my time,” Valmaxian almost shouted. His voice echoed against the bare walls. “You’re wasting my time now.”

“Am I keeping you from your work, then?” Kelaerede asked. “I understand it’s a staff.”

The blood drained from Valmaxian’s face, and he felt warm, though he knew he should have expected Kelaerede to be following his work.

“A staff, yes,” Valmaxian said. “It will be my masterpiece.”

“Your masterpiece…” Kelaerede said around a harsh laugh. “A masterpiece I hope you’re prepared to lose. If En’Sel’Dinen knows it means anything to you, that’s what he’ll want.”

Valmaxian opened his mouth to argue, to scream at the dying elf, but no words came out. His knees trembled, and he loathed the feeling. He forced himself to turn away from the bed.

“This disease has confounded all the priests. Every last one of them. My body has failed me so I Journey West, Val. This is the last time you will ever see me,” Kelaerede said to Valmaxian’s back. “You can’t tell me I was right? You can’t promise me you’ll undo what you’ve done?”

Valmaxian turned his head, but not enough to see his former teacher, and asked, “Is that why you sent for me? So that after all this time I could tell you you were right? Or were you hoping to hear that the demon had extracted some hideous price from me so that you could say ‘I told you so’?”

“Is that what you think I want?”

“Isn’t it?” Valmaxian asked.

“You were like a son to me.”

“I’m not your son,” Valmaxian said. “I never was.”

He lifted one foot and it felt as if it weighed a thousand pounds, but when he lifted the other it felt a little lighter. He found himself storming out of the room. Kelaerede said nothing to stop him. The old elf didn’t laugh, cough, or call out.

Valmaxian passed through the door with his eyes down and brushed past someone in the corridor. He stopped when he felt a hand on his arm.

His eyes met the gaze of a young elf woman. Her long chestnut hair was pulled back and tied behind her head, her simple cotton blouse and breaches revealed a perfectly formed figure with slim hips and ample breasts, but her full lips were pressed into a tight line and her crystal blue eyes narrowed in accusation.

“You’re Valmaxian,” she said, her voice like music, though anger and resentment were plain.

For the second time that day, the second time in over six hundred years, Valmaxian was speechless.

The woman sighed and said, “What did you say to him?”

“I…” Valmaxian started. “Who are…?”

“Chasianna,” she said, folding her arms across her chest and setting her jaw even tighter. “He’s my grandfather. He asked for you. He’s spoken of you. You broke his heart.”

“We had a difference of opinion,” Valmaxian said. “That was a long time ago.”

“A long time ago, maybe,” she said, “but there’s not a long time left to go. He wanted to make peace with you. I have no idea what you did or what he did… what happened… but I will not have him Journey West without having made his peace.”

Valmaxian realized he wasn’t breathing. He felt strange: embarrassed, angry, and ashamed all at once. He shook his head and said, “Do you know who I am?”

“I don’t care who you are,” Chasianna said. “I love my grandfather.”

Valmaxian drew in a breath to protest. Chasianna tipped her head to one side, widened her eyes, and seemed ready for any response.

“You can go back in,” she said, her voice softer, hopeful. “It’s not too late.”

Valmaxian closed his mouth, and that made Chasianna smile. He found his lips curling up to return her smile, and he glanced back at the door to Kelserede’s bedchamber. Without a word to Chasianna he turned around and went back to the door.

“Say anything,” she said. “Just say anything to make it right for him, even if it isn’t right for you.”

Valmaxian went back into the room and walked to the side of the bed. For the first time since coming back to his former teacher’s studio that day he knew what he wanted and had some idea how to get it.

“Kelaerede,” he said.

The old elf looked up at him with eyes that seemed even more dull than they had only moments before.

“Kelaerede, you were right,” Valmaxian said. “I wanted more than I should have had. I wanted a life I wasn’t willing to earn. I should have stayed with you. I should have taken the decades, if you thought that’s what I required. I should not have stolen the scroll. I should not have summoned the demon.”

Kelaerede opened his mouth, but didn’t say anything.

“Journey West, my teacher,” Valmaxian said when he heard Chasianna step into the doorway behind him. “Journey West knowing that I will undo what I’ve done.”

One corner of Kelaerede’s dry lips lifted to indicate a smile then the life slipped away from his face.

Valmaxian sighed, satisfied that both Kelaerede and Chasianna had not only heard him but believed every insincere, lying syllable. Kelaerede was dead, leaving only one true master.

The 78th Year of the Tourmaline (-6962 DR)

Valmaxian had had traced out on the marble floor of the casting circle in dwarven mithral an inlay marking out a gentle arc. Spaced exactly fourteen feet, eleven inches apart were five circles. Lines extended from the centers of the first and fifth circles that met at a point precisely one hundred and eighty-nine feet, eleven inches from the farthest of the small circles in the center of the arc. In each of the five circles stood a single, inexpensive clay golem. He’d told the featureless humanoid forms to stand still, and since they possessed no minds of their own, that’s exactly what they did.

Valmaxian surveyed the scene from the top of one of the pillars upon which was built a small platform with no railing. A narrow staircase of elven steel curved from the platform and wrapped around the pillar all the way to the white marble floor a thousand feet below. Valmaxian had to look through a complex series of lenses hung on golden frames to see what was happening on the floor and be seen from there.

An apprentice-Merellien was his name-stepped out onto the floor, the staff cradled in the crook of his arms. He walked with care and haste across the mithral-traced marble, glancing up only once at Valmaxian, who offered him a curt nod.

Valmaxian smelled chypre and heard footsteps at the top of the stairs. He smiled, like he always did in the presence of Chasianna. In the two years since the death of her grandfather, they’d become all but inseparable. He turned, still smiling, and her beautiful face beamed. She stepped onto the platform next to him, touching his elbow. She was nervous about the height and the lack of railings, even though she wore the feather falling ring he’d given her months before. Valmaxian found that nervousness, like everything about Chasianna, charming.

“The staff?” she asked.

Valmaxian nodded and turned back to watch Merellien step into the circle at the point of the cone.

“Should I shield my eyes?” Chasianna asked.

Valmaxian chuckled and said, “No, no. No lightning this time. Just a spray of magic missiles… I hope.”

“You hope?”

The apprentice looked up at Valmaxian, who nodded once. Merellien faced the golems, raising the staff in both hands in front of him. He exhaled, then spoke a single command word. Three jagged-edged bolts of blue-white light shot out of one end of the staff and flashed unerringly to the middle three golems. The first missile exploded onto the chest of the second golem, the second missile into the middle golem, and the third bolt burst onto the midsection of the fourth golem. The creatures jerked back, but remained standing. “Damn it,” Valmaxian sighed.

Chasianna said, “You can’t expect a magic missile to kill a golem. Not just one.”

Valmaxian rubbed his eyes, avoiding the expectant gaze of the apprentice so far below, and said, “That’s not the point, though, is it? Only three of them came out.”

“And it should have been five?” she asked.

“I know what you’re going to say.”

“You did it your way, didn’t you?” she asked, though he knew she knew the answer. “You did it your fast way.”

“My way works,” he said then realized that she’d just seen it fail. “It has worked before. I’m just… it’s…”

“Will you let me show you?” she asked.

He smiled at her and said, “You can’t make it any worse.”

Valmaxian held out his hand and mumbled a few syllables. The staff leaped from Merellien’s light grip and soared up through the air and into Valmaxian’s hand. He turned and handed the staff to Chasianna.

She took it with the respect Valmaxian felt the staff deserved. It was unfinished still, but it would prove to be his masterpiece. Chasianna placed it carefully on the floor of the platform and shooed Valmaxian back a couple steps.

She looked up at him and asked, “Magic missiles?”

He nodded, and she looked down at the staff, holding her left hand half an armslength above its smooth, polished surface. He watched her enchantment with enormous interest and unconcealed respect. An artist in her own right-certainly not as adept as he, but a capable mage-still, he doubted she’d be able to overcome whatever flaw it was in the staff that caused the enchantment to limit itself to the ability of the user. It should have been able to do what Valmaxian himself was capable of.

It took her a while, but Valmaxian watched her the whole time. When she was almost done she touched the staff and there was a flash of light that, even though he was expecting it, made Valmaxian flinch. The color drained from Chasianna’s fine-boned face and her arm twitched.

Valmaxian stepped forward and fell to one knee. He touched her on the shoulder, and Chasianna twitched back. She looked up at him, and the dullness in her eyes made Valmaxian’s flesh go cold. She was sweating, and she had a streak of gray in her hair where no such flaw existed before. Her hands shook, and when she spoke her voice was quiet and forced.

“It’ll… work now.”

“Chasianna…”

She smiled, leaning back and sliding into a prone position on the round platform. He helped her down, and made sure her head didn’t strike the stone.

“How many times did he tell you?” she asked.

Valmaxian blew a breath out through his nose and glanced up at the overcast sky. “Nine hundred and forty-three times,” he said. “I counted.”

“I’m sure you did,” she said, then coughed.

He shook his head and told her, “It’s not the only way.”

“Try it. Try the staff.”

Valmaxian lifted the staff from the platform floor. It felt warm to his reverent touch.

“Merellien,” he called, then tossed the staff at the apprentice. Valmaxian mumbled an odd-sounding word, and the staff drifted to slip easily into Merellien’s hands.

The apprentice turned to the clay golems, lifted the staff, and glanced up at Valmaxian, who looked down at Chasianna. Though still weak, she smiled at him. Valmaxian turned back to the apprentice and nodded.

Merellien faced the golems, held up the staff, and repeated the command word. Five bolts of blue-white light shot from the tip of the staff, and one struck each of the golems dead center. Two of the automatons staggered back.

Valmaxian’s heart leaped. One more functionality of the staff successfully enchanted and-he hadn’t done it. It was Chasianna and her grandfather’s ridiculous notions of self-sacrifice and transference of personal energies.

He turned back to Chasianna and saw that she had lost consciousness. Her breathing was shallow. He kneeled next to her and scooped her up in his arms. She smiled but didn’t open her eyes.

Three nights later Valmaxian sat on the cool marble floor of his open-air casting circle, gently rocking the staff in his arms and staring up into the star-spattered sky. Chasianna had begun to regain her strength and he was able to get back to work, but the last day had been spent facing more dissatisfying results.

He knew he could have gone down the path that Kelaerede and Chasianna would have had him take, the one that seemed to work for them, though in a way that held them back as well. Every time they put some parcel of themselves into the enchantment of an item, that was a part they lost. So they had to lose something to gain something. A zero-sum game never interested Valmaxian. It hadn’t interested him six hundred years before when Kelaerede insisted on it and it didn’t interest him when Chasianna, in her own sincere way, did the same thing.

To add to the staff, he needed something more. To that end he had had two of his most trusted apprentices make certain preparations. Circles were drawn on the marble with fine chalk. Candles sat cold, but ready. Ready for a summoning.

It was something he hadn’t done in what for even an elf was considered a very long time. The results of the first summoning had satisfied Valmaxian’s needs for that long, but there was the staff, and that needed more.

Valmaxian set the staff on the marble floor next to him and drew in a breath to start the spell. Before he could utter even the first syllable, the gate opened. It was the same as the first time-the same colors, the same intensity of light and motion-but it happened faster, and it happened before he’d made it happen. He was not in control of any of it. The demon was just there.

“Valmaxian, my old friend,” the creature said, his voice somehow still echoing though they were outside. “How can I be of assistance to you this time?”

Valmaxian put a hand on the staff and tried to make it stop shaking-his hand, not the staff. The staff just sat there, cold and indifferent.

En’SeI’Dinen’s freakish eyes drifted down to the staff and widened. One corner of the beast’s twisted mouth pulled up.

“Ah,” it growled, “the staff. The Staff of Valmaxian.”

Valmaxian’s heart skipped, and he shook his head.

“The Staff of Valmaxian…” the elf repeated. Yes, it would bear his name, Valmaxian decided then, and it would roar his legacy to the ages.

“What is your pleasure, sir?” the demon hissed.

“The retributive strike,” Valmaxian said, taking up the staff and rising to his knees in front of the enormous creature. “The retributive strike, the Fire of All, the Will, the Ego, the Presence. It must live. It must be aware. It must know itself and its creator and it must revel in its own power and mine. It must live, and it must live forever, and it must be fit for the hand of a god.”

The demon grinned, showing a horror of jagged fangs, and said, “A tall order.”

“Worth anything,” Valmaxian almost gasped. All restraint and even common sense fled him, replaced by pure ambition. “The staff will be worth a king’s ransom-a god’s.”

The demon took a step closer, but Valmaxian didn’t flinch.

“Those years past I asked for a price from you for what I gave,” En’Sel’Dinen said. “Axe you prepared to balance our ledgers tonight?”

Valmaxian scoffed, smiled, and said, “You have no-“

“I gave,” the demon barked.

Valmaxian stood, drawing himself straight, and lifted one eyebrow. “You served my master before me, then you served me. You’ll serve me again.”

“I claim my price, elf,” was the demon’s only reply.

Having no intention of giving the miserable, bound creature anything, Valmaxian shrugged and said, “Name your price, and let us be on with it.”

The demon snorted a puff of noxious yellow fumes and said, “Chasianna.”

Despite his confidence that the demon could hold nothing over his head, was bound by the spell to do his bidding, Valmaxian’s blood ran cold.

“What did you say?” he asked.

“The girl,” the demon growled. “Chasianna. You know of whom I speak.”

“Why?” Valmaxian thought to ask. The fact that En’Sel’Dinen even knew her name started to shake his confidence.

“Her skin,” the demon almost whispered. “Is it soft? Soft to the touch? Warm and pleasing?”

Valmaxian tipped his head, and the demon laughed at him. The sound made Valmaxian’s stomach turn.

“You’ll pay me,” the demon said. “I am bound no more-was never bound to you. Your teacher, that bastard Kelaerede, he tried to warn you, didn’t he? Tried to tell you that you could never control me. He tried to tell you that anything gained from me would have a cost.”

“Go back,” Valmaxian said, a slight lilt in his voice betraying his lack of confidence. “Return to the Abyss, and come no more to this-“

“Fool,” En’Sel’Dinen interrupted. “I will have her soft skin and her yielding lips and her heaving-“

Valmaxian coughed out the command word and the shimmering darts of magic leaped from the tip of the staff, crossing the handful of paces between the elf and the demon in less than the time it took for Valmaxian to close his eyes against the sudden light.

It was too bright. Valmaxian knew that right away. The missiles wouldn’t generate that much light.

He opened his eyes, blinking rapidly. The purple splotches cleared soon enough, and the demon was gone. The missiles might have hurt it, certainly hadn’t killed it, couldn’t possibly have disintegrated it, but it was gone.

“Chasianna,” Valmaxian breathed, then turned and ran for the stairs, muttering the words to the spell that would take him in a flash to the home of the only elf on Toril he’d ever truly loved.

Valmaxian stepped into Chasianna’s home through the last of a series of dimension doors, holding the staff out in front of him. He expected to see the demon En’Sel’Dinen there, expected that Chasianna and her house retainers would be fighting the creature off. He expected to join the fight. The last thing he expected was nothing, but that was exactly what greeted him.

The tastefully appointed sitting room into which he stepped was dark and quiet. A gold filigreed end table had been tipped over, a crystal vase shattered on the floor next to it, and a single long-stemmed lily lay already wilting on the damp rug.

“Chasianna!” Valmaxian shouted, letting his voice echo in the sitting room’s domed ceiling.

He held his breath waiting for a reply, but none came. He scanned the room and saw nothing else out of place. The room was sprinkled with valuable antiques, some enchanted by Kelaerede himself. Valmaxian had come to know every one of them, and none were missing.

He crossed quickly to the wide doorway that emptied into the foyer. He stepped out onto the checkerboard marble tiles, his boots clicking and sending a rattle of sharp echoes up the soaring stairway.

“Chasianna!” he shouted again, waiting as his voice followed the footstep echoes up the stairs. Again, there was no answer.

Something madehim keep walking, stopping at the foot of the stairs. He’d opened his mouth to shout for her again when he heard it. At first it sounded like a scream, and that sent a cold chill racing down Valmaxian’s spine. It wasn’t a scream, though. It was a less natural, less elven sound. It sounded like wind whistling through-through what? Rocks? A narrow canyon?

Valmaxian didn’t stop to think why he might have drawn that specific conclusion. Instead he raced up the stairs trailing his robe and the staff-held firmly in one hand, the other sliding up along the banister-behind him.

“Chasianna!” he shouted at least once more as he ascended the stairway.

His legs began to ache as he rounded the top of the stairs, but he ignored the pain. He came to the wide double doors-closed-to Chasianna’s bedchamber and realized two things at the same time: the upstairs maid was not there to open the doors for him, and there was a bright red light-wholly unlike the warm orange glow of Chasianna’s hearth fire-burning from under the door.

Valmaxian put a hand to the wrought-iron door handles and recoiled from the heat. He cursed and gathered up a corner of his robe, using it like a potholder to open the door. He stepped into a blast furnace.

Chasianna’s personal suite was large, befitting a woman of her class. Where Valmaxian expected to see a wall some hundred feet in front of him, where the bed would be, there was nothing. It seemed as if the whole side of the house, with the servant’s wing behind it, had been broken off. The room had been opened to the outside, but it was not Siluvanede Valmaxian saw there. The “outside” was a blasted landscape of sand and rock-dead, barren, and bathed in a blood-red light. The wind poured out of it in unnaturally sustained waves of near-blistering heat. The air held a foul odor-no, a thousand foul odors-and searing grains of white-hot sand.

Valmaxian stood at the doorway of his lover’s bedchamber and stared straight into the depths of the Abyss itself.

“Chasianna!”

A figure stepped out from behind a twisted spur of wind-carved rock.

Valmaxian stepped forward, the staff tapping the floor next to him, and said, “Chasianna… is it you?”

A second figure eased from around another rock, then a third, and a fourth. Valmaxian stepped forward again, his heart beating rapidly, sweat beginning to pour from him in sheets.

More of them appeared from the sand-blown air of the Abyss. They were bent, bloated forms not unlike elves in that each had two arms, two legs, and a head. The comparison stopped there. None of them stood more than four feet tall. Their pale, gray skin shone almost purple in that hellish light. Their mouths hung open, revealing irregular rows of serrated fangs. From the tips of their chubby, almost childlike fingers grew long, heavy claws. There were more than a dozen of them, and when Valmaxian stopped moving they rushed forward.

Valmaxian thrust the staff out in front of him and spoke the now-familiar command. Bolts of arcane energy spat from the tip of the staff-five of them-and split into separate paths on their way to the bloated humanoids. Five of them fell, but the others came forward, so Valmaxian sent five more missiles into their midst and dropped five more.

He could kill many of them that way, but for every five that fell, seven or eight more appeared from the rocks and concealing wind behind them. Valmaxian spoke a different command. The first little demon that touched what Valmaxian had conjured in front of him recoiled in unhurt surprise from the solid wall that was there but could not be seen. The other little demons-dretches, Valmaxian recalled-railed against the wall, pounding at what looked like thin air, scratching at it, even biting it.

Valmaxian stepped through the gate and felt as if he was falling. The effect passed a heartbeat later and he was aware of the heat radiating from the coarse sand. It started to burn his skin, as hot as a summer sun, and he could feel it on the soles of his feet even through his sturdy boots.

Valmaxian looked up and caught the eye of a particularly bulbous dretch on the other side of the invisible wall. The thing bared its spiny teeth at him. Its eyes bulged and its nostrils flared. Valmaxian felt a shiver course through his sweating arms. He drew in a breath and held it, then realized the thing was using magic. Valmaxian shrugged it off. He would not be scared away that easily. He would not be scared at all.

Valmaxian smiled and started to utter the complex words of a spell. The dretch wanted to scare him, but Valmaxian knew how to scare people too, and he knew how to do it better. The spell rolled off his tongue, and his hands traced the intricate patterns in the air in front of him. Valmaxian could feel the energy burst out of him. He couldn’t see anything, but he knew the dretch and several of its rotund companions could. They saw their worst nightmares, their most vile imaginings, the terror that consumed their hearts, smash into their fragile psyches and explode. They ran, losing their water on the burning sands, screaming, gibbering in some freakish Abyssal dialect that Valmaxian was glad he couldn’t understand.

Not all of them ran, though. There was a way around the wall of force and a few of the dretches found it. That was enough to lead the others in that direction. Dozens more kept drifting out from behind stones, and a few even dug their way from under the sand like zombies rising from the grave. Valmaxian peppered them with glowing missiles of concentrated Weave. He dropped five at a time: five, ten, fifteen, twenty…

One dretch got within a few paces of Valmaxian and spat out a cloud of gas. The vapor seemed to stick in the wind, moving with it but not as quickly as the sand that passed through it. It coalesced into a cloud of greenish gray smoke that looked like a miniature thunderhead. Valmaxian could smell the cloud from several paces away, and it almost made him gag. The smell was indescribable. Valmaxian rattled through another spell and held his arms out on each side of him. He roared an incoherent challenge, and a rush of wind spread out, knocking a few of the little demons off their feet and sending the roiling cloud of reek scattering into the blowing sand.

He’d had to concentrate at least a little to cast the spell, and in the time his attention was occupied a dretch drew sharp, jagged claws across his midsection. Valmaxian hissed in pain and struck out at the dretch with the staff. The fine weapon pulped the creature’s head, spraying green and gray fluids across the sand in front of Valmaxian. Another of the little demons came up to take the headless dretch’s place, and Valmaxian swung the staff around, smacking it into the thing’s chest hard enough to shatter ribs, break skin, and spill out the fiend’s stomach. It died squealing, then everything went dark.

It wasn’t a natural darkness. It wasn’t night, and Valmaxian wasn’t blind. It was a darkness that only the Weave could create. Valmaxian reacted quickly. He could hear more of the things near him and getting closer. He hissed through a spell and felt his skin tighten, felt something touch him in an angry, violent manner, but it didn’t hurt. There came a clang like something hard banging on steel. Valmaxian smiled, though it wasn’t easy since his spell had turned his skin to iron.

A dretch grabbed his right leg, but Valmaxian couldn’t see it. He felt another hand on his side, an arm beginning to encircle his waist. He muttered a command word, and the lighting returned to its normal dull red as he used the staff to kill the dretches that were trying to drag him down. Their brains were smooth and yellow.

With magic missiles he dropped a few more that had dared to come close under cover of the darkness. Valmaxian knew he had to face the fact that the dretches would always be more afraid of En’Sel’Dinen than they would be of him, no matter how many spells he cast or how many he killed.

The elf mage looked up and counted the dretches as they came at him. He dropped a few with magic missiles as they came too close, but he stepped back to buy himself time as well. He watched where they were coming from, how they all moved just a little bit to one side, how they congregated in the entrance to a narrow, windswept gorge. He saw them blocking his way, but only in that direction. Valmaxian was smarter than he needed to be to understand that the dretches were guarding the gorge-guarding the way to En’Sel’Dinen, and Chasianna.

Valmaxian turned that way and started walking. Some of the dretches in front were brave enough or scared enough to lunge at him. He killed some by smashing the staff into their heads. Others he killed with magic missiles. Some he killed with spells. The smell of the internal organs of the little fiends, their sweat, panic, and blood filled the stinging air along with the sand. Valmaxian didn’t bother counting how many he killed. It might have been thousands.

It just went on and on.

The demon had torn off all of her clothes, and Chasianna’s skin blazed red in the oppressive heat of the Abyss. Her hands were bound behind her back and she was gagged to keep her from casting spells. En’Sel’Dinen held her long hair tightly in one of his massive hands. A tear traced a path down one of her grimy cheeks, and her eyes were red and puffy. Deep cuts crisscrossed her arms, and her knees bled. Bruises blossomed all over her. She was a mess, but the fact that she was alive made her the most beautiful thing Valmaxian had ever seen.

“Demon” Valmaxian called, tensing his chest to hold back a body-racking cough.

En’Sel’Dinen smiled. The dretches surrounding him scurried into hiding among freakish stone statues that littered the wind-blasted plain. The demon’s silver eyes shone red in the deep orange light that seemed to come from the sky itself. There was no sun. There was nothing so logical and steadfast as that in the chaotic depths of the endless Abyss.

“Ah, Valmaxian,” En’Sel’Dinen rumbled, “at last. Bravo on the dretches, my old friend. It’s been hours since I’ve seen so many dispatched so quickly.”

Valmaxian ignored the demon and looked at Chasianna. “Are you-?” he started to ask.

“She won’t be answering, elf,” the demon interrupted. “She belongs to me now-in body if not in soul.”

Valmaxian, Chasianna’s voice rang in the Gold elfs head, blink if you can hear me.

Valmaxian blinked, and Chasianna let her head fall in relief.

How are you doing this? Valmaxian thought.

“I was right about her skin, my friend,” the demon growled. “It’s soft as the guts of a dragon. But I will have to empty her willful mind.”

He’ll hear soon, Chasianna answered. You can defeat him, but it will mean draining the staff.

“I know,” Valmaxian answered aloud.

En’Sel’Dinen looked down at Chasianna, the twisted smile fading quickly. “Bitch,” the demon growled. “That little trick will be the first to go.”

The demon opened his fang-lined mouth and leaned toward the girl at the same time he pulled her closer to him.

Valmaxian shouted a command word, and a flurry of white-hot spheres blasted from the staff and pounded into the demon with enough force to topple a keep on Toril.

The demon shrieked, more in surprise than pain, and tossed Chasianna to the burning ground.

The fiend spun on Valmaxian and screamed, “She’s mine! You were paid in full!”

“I’m ending our arrangement, demon,” Valmaxian said, “and I’m taking her with me.”

En’Sel’Dinen lunged forward and his eyes blazed. Valmaxian felt his heart skip a beat, and a wave of pain twisted his chest and drove him to his knees. He tried to breathe in but couldn’t. The skin on his face burned. His right hand tightened on the staff, causing his forearm to cramp.

“Heartstop,” the demon said, “is what the humans on your world call it, elf. You have seconds to live.”

Valmaxian couldn’t speak, couldn’t even stand. He looked up at Chasianna lying on the sandy ground, her eyes wide and terrified. He could almost see himself, weak and dying, reflected in those eyes.

He broke the staff.

Retributive strike-it was a power he’d hope to gain from the demon but had always had inside him. He could have added it to the staffs many powerful enchantments himself, but it would have required such a sacrifice of magic and personal energies that it would have left him with hardly the power of a novice spellcaster. He’d traded Chasianna’s freedom, her body, and his own soul for it, but he had one chance to take it all back.

The staff broke apart, and the sound was almost enough to drown out the demon’s scream.

Valmaxian felt a wave of cold wash over him. The pain in his chest eased just enough for him to force a gasp of air into his lungs. He felt a rough, hot hand on his shoulder, felt himself tossed to one side to land with a scraping skid on the coarse sand. He felt the staff fall from his hand. He heard the demon scream again, and there was a shouted string of words so arcane and foul Valmaxian’s ears began to bleed from the sound of them.

“Chasianna,” Valmaxian gasped, “I’m sorry.”

The sound stopped all at once and silence fell over them like a shroud. The pain and tightness in Valmaxian’s chest was gone, and he found he could breathe. The cold was gone too, replaced by the scorching dry air of the Abyss. Valmaxian spat out a mouthful of burning sand and coughed enough to make his vision blur. He blinked away the tears that filled his eyes and looked up. Chasianna struggled to a sitting position. New bruises, cuts, and scrapes covered what little of her hadn’t been bruised, cut, or scraped before. She coughed too, but managed to catch Valmaxian’s gaze. The gag hung off her face. She opened her mouth to speak, but it was the demon Valmaxian heard.

“That was very, very close, elf,” the monster said, its voice somehow less forceful, quieter.

Valmaxian looked over at the source of the voice and had to struggle to keep from retching. The demon had been blasted into pieces-chunks really-by the force of the staffs retributive strike. Blood so dark red it was almost black had splattered everywhere, and one of the demon’s powerful legs twitched on the sand a good ten yards from the hip it had once been attached to. The demon looked at Valmaxian with only one eye, the other lost to the ruin the left half of the creature’s face had become. His head, attached to only one shoulder and one arm, rolled on the gore-soaked ground. The demon’s torso had been split diagonally down the middle, and his right arm was nowhere to be seen. In his left hand he held the shredded, shortened remnants of the staff.

Valmaxian struggled to his feet, but found himself falling more than walking to Chasianna’s side.

“You are a fool,” the demon called after him. “What’s left of your greatest creation will make a mockery of your wasted life.”

Valmaxian ignored him. Pain flared in dozens of places around his body and he could feel a palpable sense of emptiness. Valmaxian would return to Siluvanede and his studio with less command of the Weave than any of his assistants, and no staff to show for it. He would indeed be ruined.

“Valmaxian,” Chasianna said. “Untie my hands.”

“Ruined,” the demon muttered, with perhaps the slightest trace of regret. “The great Staff of Valmaxian in splinters.”

Valmaxian struggled with the bonds, but Chasianna’s hands soon came free. She drew in a breath and started to work a spell.

“Hold on to me,” she whispered in his ear.

“Ruined!” the demon shrieked in impotent rage, unable to stand, unable to kill the two elves who were already fading from sight. “You have nothing!”

“Hold on to me,” Chasianna whispered again as the sound of the wind faded around them. “We’re going home.”

Valmaxian closed his eyes, held on tight, and smiled.

The last sound they heard in the Abyss was the demon En’Sel’Dinen, lying in pieces on the sand, screaming, “You have nothing, elf! You have nothing!”

The demon was wrong.

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