Gulls wheel and caw in the blue sky above as you dock in the bustling port city of Urmlaspyr. Although dark clouds on the horizon warn that the autumn rains will soon return, for the moment the weather is pleasantly cool. You note with approval that the docks are in good repair and as clean as docks ever are. The sailors, longshoremen and merchants who crowd the area are busy and industrious, but many call out friendly greetings as you pass. Sembians have a reputation for haughtiness, but Urmlaspyr would seem to be an exception.
Your guide is a middle-aged man whose pale skin, brown hair, comfortable belly, and elaborate costume of vest and trousers mark him as almost too typically Sembian. Movori, as he calls himself, is an amiable, talkative man but says nothing of real consequence. He leads you along a canal into the heart of the city, through a noisy and colorful marketplace, to a handsome mansion on the city’s edge. In typical Sembian style, the house is stuccoed and whitewashed, with a roof of orange tiles. The guards recognize your guide; they relax their grips on their halberds and open the black-iron garden gate.
The gardens are meticulously maintained; not a blade of grass seems to be out of place. Flower beds are arranged to supply a pleasing vista from every angle; both the view and the aroma change every few steps along the winding garden path. From time to time you catch a glimpse of the mansion’s private canal, where a beautiful riverboat is docked next to an aging boathouse. The garden path ends at an elegant patio shaded by a green-and-white striped tent. Guests dressed in the styles of half a dozen nations mingle and sample a generous selection of snacks and wines. Although Sembians are in the majority, a large number of Cormyreans are also present.
Movori leads you through the marble-floored salon and up a sweeping staircase to the second floor. He knocks on an elaborately carved double door of some dark exotic hardwood. The doors open onto a spacious, airy library, containing hundreds or thousands of tomes of all descriptions. Although the room is flooded with natural light, it offers no view of the outside; all the windows and skylights are of pebbled glass.
At the other end of the library stands your host, Miklos Selkirk, the Silver Raven. Miklos is a retired adventurer, a scion of one of the wealthiest families of Sembia, and by all reports is a patriot deeply devoted to his country’s prosperity and independence. He’s a fit, middle-aged Sembian with a striking blaze of silver in his dark hair. He dresses in fine blue silk but wears a rapier by his side. Nearby, a raven perches on a bust of Lathander; disappointingly, however, it is an ordinary black raven. Its beady black eyes follow each of you as you enter the room. Movori bows out, leaving you alone with Miklos and a couple of lean, wiry, well-armed men who pace the room and watch you warily. Miklos ignores their presence.
“Greeting, my friends,” he says with a white-toothed smile. “As you may know, I’m a man with an eye for talent. I’ve been looking for people who have talent, initiative, and a grudge against this Empire of New Netheril. I’ve been hoping to speak to you for some time. For those of us who wish peace and freedom in the Sea of Fallen Stars, this is a dark time.
“The Empire is only two years old, and already dominates more than half of our Sea. No one ever expected Cormyr or Halruaa to throw in with Thay, a nation that both of them have long mistrusted. And all the smart money was on Mulhorand conquering Unther – certainly not the other way around! We’ve always counted on Aglarond to hold back Thayvian aggression, but the – they can’t do the job alone, not this time. Most of the other states around the Sea are too weak or disorganized. Only Sembia can take the lead in fighting off their aggression.
“Fortunately, we have a few advantages. Many Cormyreans are dissatisfied with their new King and his alliance with New Netheril. Some of them have already moved here, to Daerlun or Urmlaspyr, and they’ve brought their intelligence and resources with them. And my Silver Ravens have been working tirelessly for the benefit of the state. We’ve been spying on the Empire’s activities all over Faerun. We’ve learned a lot about their activities.
“If you know Thayvians, you might not be surprised to learn that the Emperor is a puppet, and that wizards are the ones really running things. And to the wizards, conquering us is – as galling as it is to say – only a sideline. They’re really after something else.
“But I don’t know what. My agents have thus far failed to learn the real identity of the wizards’ leader, much less his plans. That’s what I’m hoping you can help me with.”
Miklos unfurls a map. In the background, you hear a rumble of distant thunder. The raven startles and looks around nervously.
“My agents have been able to report on Imperial activity in most areas,” he explains, “but a few areas have been too heavily guarded, and it’s precisely these areas that I think hold the secrets of what this so-called “New Netheril” is really up to.”
He points to the Sunrise Mountains on the eastern side of Thay. “My spies report intense activity around this mountain peak. Both heavy labor and high-level magics. But the area is too remote, too heavily guarded, for them to get any more information.” Thunder booms again, closer this time. “Do you know what’s special about this particular mountain?
“Nothing! Faerun is full of ancient ruins, treasure hoards, historic sites, and monster lairs. But no sage in Sembia knows anything in the least unusual about this mountain. So why are wizards of the first rank of power – and from the description of my scouts, there must be at least three archmagi involved – so interested in it?
“I want to know, and I think that your talents are uniquely suited to the plan I’ve come up with. You see – ”
The boom is loud and close, this time. The raven caws loudly. Miklos frowns. “Wait a minute,” he says. “That’s not thunder!”
Then the screaming starts. Cries of pain and fear, throat-wrenching howls of agony, sound from the garden below. Flickering orange light plays through the windows.
Your host’s jaw drops in horror. “That can only be – ”
Then, with a crash, the ceiling caves in. You look up to see a flaming roof beam swinging down at your head. Then everything goes black.