The Books That Kill

The Books That Kill

Arabel is filled with merchants, bards, and travelers, all of them carrying the latest news and gossip from far off lands. Most of this information is passed along by word of mouth, but much of it is written down in chapbooks and tomes sold individually or in bulk to buyers ranging from day laborers to the most jaded of nobles. Not all books sold in Arabel are about news and gossip, nor do they come from other places; it’s quite legal, for example, to copy the stories of others without attribution, or to make changes and combine parts from multiple works, and resell the result—this being one reason why Arabel produces nearly as many new tomes as it takes in, these works bumping along in merchant wagons departing the Caravan City for destinations beyond Cormyr.

A few priests of the Binder object to the practice of copying the work of others in this way, but they claim no part in the string of strange deaths of guild heads and booksellers in Arabel. Nor have they an explanation for the appearance of persons claiming the identity of characters right out of the most popular of books and plays, all bent on murder. Who are these people? And who is slaying purveyors and printers of books? Is this the wrath of the Lord of Knowledge? Or the work of outlander merchant cabals?

Maxralam’s Demise

Maxralam “the Weathered,” owner of Maxralam’s Curios and frequent visitor to the Old Red Sword tavern, is dead.

In addition to the Curios, which stands a longbow shot north of the High Horn Gate in Arabel, Maxralam held part ownership of several caravan ventures, the majority traveling west into the Heartlands. He was a trustworthy businessman and easily recognized, for his was the face of a veteran caravan guard, the features worn smooth by hard winds, bad weather and long days spent in the sun. Some decried Maxralam as careless for selling almost anything out of his shop, the accusations relying on the occasional mishap suffered by those who bought one of the odd somethings found in the Curious that did more than buyer or seller expected.[1] These complaints never found attentive ears next door at the Old Red Sword, where Maxralam held court nightly, his drinks paid for thanks to his booming voice, which attracting passersby into the establishment as he shared stories told to him by the many caravan masters and warriors who visited Maxralam’s shop to sell items they couldn’t find a buyer for anywhere else, and to check in on an old friend. Until recently, visitors to the Sword could be expected to show up the next morning at the Curios, there to purchase whatever interesting item they heard Maxralam talking about the night before.

The floor above the Curios is occupied by Maxralam and his personal collection of items acquired far and wide, the center of the room filled with a large bed covered in a riot of mismatched pillows and furs that Maxralam did not sleep in so much as disappear into. The foot of the bed faces a trapdoor that leads downstairs, the remainder of the floor and walls filled with shelves, oddments and a small desk, this last made of sturdy duskwood and just tall enough for Maxralam to stand on and reach a trapdoor overheard. His old body protested the climb onto the roof, but such pains were easily forgotten when Maxralam sat down to take in the view of Arabel and to look east to the Gate, his thoughts drifting inward as he pondered the world beyond.[2]

The old duskwood easily supported Maxralam’s weight, and it held him gently enough on the day Darlock Dreadsword walked into the Old Red Sword, announced his presence to all and commenced to slaying. Darlock was cornered and felled, but he’d taken a half-score patrons with him before a sword in the throat ended his rampage. None thought to ask about Maxralam that night, nor the following night when Darlock returned to commence slaying anew. By the third night the Sword was filled with Purple Dragons and a pair of war wizards; they captured a newly risen Darlock just after he stepped out of the Curios, a search of which revealed Maxralam facedown on the duskwood, his emaciated torso laying atop on an open book of plays.[3]

Weary Dragons kept onlookers away as war wizards searched the Curios, and the street outside stood silent as friends of Maxralam spoke in whispers inside the Old Red Sword. Most of the Sword’s patrons were asleep in their cups when shouts rang out overhead. Two of the watch Dragons left to guard the Curios overnight made their way onto the roof of the shop, but were too late to apprehend the hooded form they’d been chasing, for he (or she) had already made the roof of the Old Red Sword, and then leapt onto the rooming house next door before disappearing into the night.

An angry Wizard of War was overheard to say, “Only the books. He took the books and nothing else.”[4]

A Rare Find and Deaths In Abundance

“Thieves thieving the dead and dying with their writings!” This headline graced the top of The Handkeg Hears All, a daily broadsheet familiar to the residents of Arabel, the morning after the robbery within the Curios. A fierce call rang out for the head of Maxralam’s killer—one the Purple Dragons answered later that day when they found the thief who’d escaped over the Old Red Sword’s rooftop. His body was discovered halfway up a wall and motionless, the corpse transfixed by crossbow bolts fired with such force that they penetrated the stone wall the thief was climbing when he was shot. That wall and the small but grand castle it was a part of belonged to the House of Baerlear, long a merchant family and now the seat of power for the Guild of Binders, Printers and Copyists in Arabel. Servants of the House observed a Purple Dragon garbed in chain armor and sword climb up the crossbow bolts readily enough to inspect the corpse, then continue his climb to an open window. The Dragon was too large to fit through the window frame, but War Wizards assisting in the investigation concluded it must have served the dead thief’s competition well enough, because someone found their way inside, robbed the Guildmaster of his life, and departed with a collection of priceless tomes from the Guildmaster’s personal collection.

Crown investigators surmised the Guildmaster—one Nelezmur “the Book Tyrant” Baerlear—must have caught an intruder unawares, and paid for that surprise with his life. He was found dead at the end of a long passage, the door to his office propped open by his feet, with a hole in his chest where a crosswbow bolt passed through before lodging deep in the bust of a former King’s Lord of Arabel that graced the far end of the hallway.[5] The investigators discovered an open, empty coffer set into the floor of Nelezmur’s office. Under questioning the Baerlear seneschal affirmed that none of the rare books and treasures to be found in the House were missing, and that the coffer held a few simple blank tomes that Nelezmur treated as though they were made of platinum and jewels. According to the seneschal, Nelezmur could be found some nights with one of the blank tomes open to the first page, writing quill in hand and inkpot at the ready, but he always seemed to think better of it and put the book away.

When asked about recent visitors to the House of Baerlear, the seneschal was quick to point out that representatives from far off Candlekeep regularly called on Nelezmur, whether he was interested in seeing them or not. The visitors were all monks by their dress, but carried themselves like adventurers; the seneschal claimed he had to threaten them every time to surrender their weapons and magic before he would let them anywhere near the Guildmaster. The first meetings were cordial, having to do with matters of book trade and the continuation of the Baerlear tradition of sending one wagon per year loaded with first printings of new works to Candlekeep. But in the days that followed the meetings turned nasty, demands were issued, accusations were made and then parried by recriminations. The last meeting ended with Nelezmur declaring henceforth that no book printed in Arabel would ever find its way to Candlekeep.

The seneschal claimed no knowledge of the source of disagreement, as Nelezmur did not confide in his servants, and could only provide snippets of conversation overheard when he entered the meeting room.[6] These were: a matter of the protection of Candlekeep; requests for donations to pay for the renewal of its magical defenses; word spreading that Candlekeep’s walls were not so impregnable as many believed; whether or not Candlekeep should disperse its collection to better defended places (such as the House of Baerlear) in the short term; thefts of priceless works from Candlekeep; feuding among the monks amid accusations of betrayal, heresy, and even murder.

All Eyes Look To Candlekeep

The same day the seneschal was questioned, an All Horns Hunt was called for the capture of the monks from Candlekeep. Agents of the Crown searched from one end of Arabel to the other, but no sign of the monks turned up until three days later, when a furious Daluthra Ravendarr stabbed her father through the eye in the common room of the High Moon Inn.

According to one of the hireswords employed at the Inn, Daluthra and her father kept separate rooms at the High Moon, and deigned only to speak to each other in public. There’s were a series of increasingly heated, nightly exchanges in the common room that culminated in Daluthra producing a dagger and plunging it into her father’s head.[7] The hiresword’s description matched that of the other guests, their accounts ending in unison with the recital of the last words of one Resaugiir Ravendarr, shouted into his daughter’s face ere she struck, “Is there not Hell enough awaiting you, that you must go seeking it in books and spells and consorting with strange wizards!?”

While Daluthra was being restrained, a quintet of green and black robed individuals, their faces obscured in deep hoods, stood up from their table and padded upstairs on soft slippers. According to a serving lass working the topmost floor of the Inn, the five robed figures forced open the entrance to Resaugiir’s rented room, then two of their number promptly died in a fusillade of crossbow bolts. One of the survivors produced a large tome and flung it into the room, a bright flash like lightening erupted from it and out into the hallway, and with it came an end to the brief conflict.

The Purple Dragons had arrived by then, and followed the commotion upstairs. By the time they entered Resaugiir’s room (after being guided by fearful guests exposing just enough of their hands and fingers to point through cracked open doors in the direction of trouble), the Dragons encountered two men and a woman, hands empty and palms facing forward, and three corpses: two wearing cloaks matching the survivors, and the body of a woman laying on a bed, a book of plays clutched in her thin, emaciated hands.[8]

Were there dueling factions from Candlekeep warring with each other in Arabel? Had someone hired Nelezmur’s slayer, only to be double-crossed? These and other questions were on the minds of senior Dragon officers and Wizards of War as the monks from Candlekeep were manacled at hands and feet, and led away from the High Moon Inn.

A Warning From the Monks

A cast of characters was already imprisoned in the Citadel when the three monks from Candlekeep were led inside. Questioned separately, each monk began his or her tale the same way: they were trying to save a life, but were too late.

According to the monks, the book of plays resting atop the dead woman was what slew her, and it is just one example of several such tomes circulating in Arabel, each a dangerous object capable of trapping an unwary reader and slowly draining his or her life force.[9] The monks insisted the books are not cursed, rather that their purpose is to provide the most realistic of performances possible. They do this by causing the scenery and characters from the plays collected in each book to come to life—literally—and that life essence of a reader makes this possible.

None of the monks claimed to be able to control the magic of the books, but each swore the tomes were the property of Candlekeep. They warned that anyone reading a book was doomed, and that without a mind to control them any characters conjured forth were sure to go mad.

 

A motley force of crofters, merchants and swordsmen led by a white-haired woman wearing out of date clothing and wielding an elegant longsword with a wolf’s head pommel somehow made their way into the Citadel without being seen. They fell upon the Crownsworn men and women charged with investigating the mystery of the recent deaths in Arabel as they were questioning the monks of Candlekeep. The battle that followed was close quarters and bloody. The tide turned in favor of the Crownsworn when their attackers started screaming and howling, and began stabbing and hacking at each other. Only the white-haired woman, bloodied from the fray but unwounded, survived the frenzy. She regained her composure, took in the sight of the dead all around and announced, “I am Lady Halaunt, Lady Lord of Oldspires and matron master of the House of Halaunt. You may address me as Lady Oldspires. To whom do I address myself?”

A Naga Gets Loose

At about the same time that Lady Oldspires turned on her followers, an enormous naga crashed through the floor of a warehouse standing two buildings over from the Bent Bow Tavern. According to Bow patrons and onlookers, the snake-like creature’s roars could be heard from inside the warehouse; they became all the louder when it tore through a section of warehouse wall, its momentum broken by its impact with the much sturdier wall that surrounds Arabel. The naga fell over and howled in agony as it clawed at a sphere of blue that floated within reach of its face. Purple Dragons responding from High Horn Gate watched the naga’s tail spasm and thrash; its whole body shriveled as it died. Whatever was in the sphere fell atop the naga’s gaunt face as the magic holding it winked out of existence. War Wizards found it to be a simple book of plays that lay open next to the creature’s fresh corpse.[10] Other war wizards enspelled the creature’s corpse and floated it atop a long wagon destined for the Citadel, while soldiers made for the hole in the warehouse. Inside they found underground cellars filled with floor to ceiling iron cages populated with nagas and other intelligent creatures. A tunnel ran from the cellars to another cellar dug out from the earth beneath an abandoned building that stood between the Bent Bow and the warehouse. The soldiers must have set off a trap when they entered the building, for a blast of fire erupted from inside and set it to blazing. The Dragons were competent enough to fill their hands with whatever was in reach as they fled, including stacks of tomes.

In the days that followed Arabel stirred like an ant hive kicked over. The Six Coffers Market Priakos—owners of the warehouse damaged by the naga, as well as the next three warehouses along the city wall—were hauled in for questioning, while their buildings were searched top to bottom. Guard details were doubled at all of Arabel’s Gates, all carts and wagons carrying printed materials of any kind were made to pull aside for inspection by cautious war wizards. The King’d Lord of Arabel dispatched criers to warn against reading any of the tomes found to have slain residents of the city, and books of plays in general.

{Back to My Eye on the Realms}

[1] The incident depicted in the popular chapbook The Lady Turns Blue, as well as the coughing sickness that briefly infected a score or more of Purple Dragons (causing them all to croak like swamp frogs for a tenday), are widely attributed to items purchased at the Curios.

[2] Sitting on rooftops is a popular pastime in Arabel on summer nights, this activity punctuated by the rumbling sound of thunder rolling in from the north while viewers take in the varicolored displays of lightning.

[3] Maxralam had been reading the play Dread Triumph and Fall, featuring the character Darlock Dreadsword, among others. This information was coupled with a description of Maxralam that indicated his body was desiccated and lifeless, and forwarded to Crown officials in the Citadel. This report sat atop another, indicating the Crown had possession of two bodies of individuals who looked and were dressed exactly alike, both having claimed to be Darlock.

[4] This brief statement, made by the war wizard Authkant “Old Codpiece” Melevor, prefaced an outburst aimed at the watch Dragons, as follows, “Next time let me through, idiots! I can’t blast someone off a roof if I can’t see anyone to blast!”

[5] Nelezmur had a reputation as a voracious reader and a fearsome Guildmaster. He filled his home to the ceiling with books and tomes from all over the Realms, and he treated guild members like family, but this treatment clashed with his requirements for the very best work from all he employed, and the nigh-endless workdays required to meet his demands. Some say Nelezmur hired bullyblades to pay a call on individual printers and copyists who combined parts of the best works of the Guild and resold it all under a new title to fill their pockets with coin, even though Nelezmur had made an art of doing this very same thing with works sourced from outside of Arabel. His feuds with rivals in Suzail had many convinced the man was marked for financial ruin, if not death. Whether Nelezmur’s plans to fund the construction of a temple to Oghma in Arabel will come to fruition is anyone’s guess.

[6] A regular practice of the seneschal, who had leave from Nelezmur to interrupt whenever a meeting turned sour or was about to get violent (that is, if the seneschal could hear shouting through closed doors—usually the voice of the Guildmaster), as well when Nelezmur yanked a pull rope beneath the desk he sat at while conducting meetings, that sounded a bell where the seneschal was stationed.

[7] “With all the speed of a striking snake,” according to the hiresword, one Orndamar Windwise, who is one of a handful of individuals charged with keeping order at the Inn and preventing trouble from spiraling out of control.

[8] The book open to the last lines of the play Bold Hearts Broken, by Nargustarus Grithym, playwright of Athkatla. The hands holding the book belonged to the seller of rare books Lathlandra Gelzunduth, an Arabel-based bookseller who insisted on meeting other buyers and sellers of rare and hard to find tomes in the cloaked and curtained tables of exclusive eateries and the finest rooms of Arabel’s best inns, so as to appear far more sinister and mysterious than she actually was.

[9] “This much is truth,” according to the rotund Wizard of War and dragon expert Imdar the Stout. “A few dragons have mastered such magic down the centuries, some reading the plays and fueling the tomes with their own life force—and then reclaiming it by eating the cast of characters and scenery—while others formed cults from which to draw the most talented of readers. Some dragons enslaved sturdy beings such as dwarves to power the books–dwarves were the first to invent them, in fact. In any case, trained readers can direct the flow of their life energy to and from a book, willing various elements of the play into and out of existence. This last is essential as the play comes to a close, otherwise a reader cannot hope to survive the experience.”

[10] The tome open to the last pages of the play Lady Oldspires Has Her Revenge. Commissioned by admirers of a noblewoman who disappeared under mysterious circumstances, this play claims to depict the last days of Chalassandra Halaunt, known in her day throughout Cormyr as Lady Oldspires. One other play makes a similar claim: Lady Oldspires: The True Telling of Her Life and Good Works. This play was commissioned by the Lady’s fifth and youngest son, Hornsar, who was named after the Lady’s older brother, who by all accounts died in a conflict that erupted between adventurers and Halaunt elders on the ground floor of Oldspires some two centuries past, yet the True Telling hints strongly that Hornsar the elder survived, and even had a hand in Lady Oldspires’ disappearance.

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