The wind howled in the darkness outside Garret Cain�s window. A black figurine on the table hummed in time with the fierce gusts. The bald wizard sat in his chair near the hovering crystal in the corner of the room. He contemplated its facets intently, but tonight it was dark and clear. The Three had shielded the magical device from use after his last audience with them. It was too late for them, however. The preparations he had made prior to their lecture were bearing fruits already. This storm was special, and he doubted those hovering jesters understood why it was.
There was a single sharp rap on his door. Cain waved a finger; the bolt on the portal undid itself and swung open noiselessly. Soft footsteps behind him stopped several feet from his chair. He smiled to himself in anticipation, for he knew before the words were spoken that at last the time had come.
"Master Cain," a voice said softly "we have completed the required sigils. Jihoden awaits you in the central cavates."
Garret stood and uttered the command word that called his Focus to him. The polished ebonwood staff appeared in his hand from its extra-dimensional storage space with faint rush of quickly expanding air. Nonchalantly, he brushed a bit of dust off its green crystal cap with his sleeve and then motioned for the mage who had come for him to lead the way out.
The Order of the Highrobe�s keep was a large brick and mortar structure five stories in height, but it was even larger than it seemed from the outside. A veritable labyrinth of crisscrossing tunnels and chambers existed underneath the ground. Their existence was twofold in purpose: it provided a means of refuge and escape should the city ever fall under siege again, and secondly, dangerous summonings and rituals could be performed in the depths without fear of damaging the city, or endangering its people. Cain also suspected that many things magical took place underground to keep them secret from those same people, who by in large were still as distrustful of magic and mages as mice were of cats.
He and the mage traveled these halls in silence, their footsteps echoing off the magically shaped stone. Finally they came to a large stone door with etchings of lead and silver. The mage with him pressed his palm against the central pattern of metal and with a hiss, the portal turned transparent like smoked glass. They stepped through the changed doorway, its structure rippling around them like water. Once they stepped out on the other side, the stone reverted back, leaving a seamless wall behind them.
The inside of the cavates was smooth, magically polished stone. It was circular in shape with a slightly domed ceiling and a floor shaped into a matching bowl. Standing inside were eight mages, one for each point of the Xe�Tetran. They came from every sect, including his own. They had been lured into helping Garret with his plans by promises of power once he had taken control of the guild. They were useful tools, and he suspected many of them would use up that usefulness tonight, but that was neither here nor there. Once he was in control, he would offer those who survived an illusion of the power they sought, and most of them would probably take it. Cain had chosen his tools for their strength in channeling, not for their keen insights or strong wills.
All along the floor of the chamber, complex sigils had been drawn. Garret examined each one and noted with satisfaction that human blood had indeed been used on the proper symbols. Two of the mages present sported a bandaged wrist apiece as proof of their sacrifice.
"Good work," Cain said to the assembled mages. "We can begin the ritual immediately."
Tav and Adere rode against the vicious night wind. Unable to contain them, their cloaks billowed out behind them as their horses trotted wearily, heads down to ward the stinging gusts from their eyes. For roughly the twentieth time in thirty minutes, Tav cursed loudly, first at the wind, then at their missing companion, Kyle.
"That dirty gork tupper!" Tav swore. "When I get my hands on him I am going to beat in his snide face!"
Adere sighed. Kyle had abandoned them in the night about a week back, shortly after they had parted with Edgar at the southern trade road. Tav had been in a fury ever since. He reached down to rub his wound. It had healed somewhat, but it ached terribly and walking was a problem some days. He hoped they reached West Hold, or at least caught up with General Paderishal soon so that he could see a proper healer.
"Leave over, High Blade sir." Adere said wearily, straining to be heard over the wind. "There was not a thing to be done about it; it will do you ill to brood over it."
"I�m not brooding!" snarled Tav over his shoulder.
Adere shook his head but remained silent. Tav was a good fellow, but he took his position as Blade Leader Gilroth�s second far too seriously for his own good. Kyle was a slink and a coward; he had probably run back to his family or left the western territories. The Sunblades did not take kindly to those who broke contract. They would report him as a deserter, then it would no longer be their problem, but Tav seemed to be taking it very personally.
"We�ll have to stop soon." Tav announced. They should have stopped hours ago, but the High Blade was in such a rush, that even sunset did not deter him from pressing on. Adere was glad, he wanted to be done with this as well, but his wound was hurting him.
They stopped at a farmstead with the Sun and Sword etched on the gatepost. It was the home of a retired Sunblade and his family; Tav had noticed it on their ride out from West Hold. The old codger that answered the door eyed them suspiciously for a moment then allowed them inside, muttering something about the evil wind they were having.
Adere excused himself to the nearest chair offered to them while Tav took their mounts to the barn. The old soldier and his wife watched him expectantly. It was really Tav�s place to explain things, but he figured it was rude to keep them waiting.
"Thank you, Master Blade, for your hospitality this eve. Brothers in arms forever." He said, speaking the ritual formality. The old man nodded and his wife excused herself to fetch tea for them. The last line was normally spoken in the Old Tongue, but Adere was terrible at that language so he spoke it in common instead. His host didn�t seem to mind.
"What brings the two of you out on a night as foul as this, and wounded as you are?" the old man asked, pointing to Adere�s leg.
The big man shifted uncomfortably. He wasn�t really sure how much he should tell anyone. "We are returning to West Hold with news for General Paderishal and the acting Guild Marshall. My wound I received in fighting to the south." There, not really the whole truth, but not a lie either.
"I saw his contingent pass by not three days ago. You�ll likely catch up to him just before West Hold bridge by mid-morning tomorrow if you leave early." The old man said.
That was good to hear, they were getting close. Adere was starting to wonder. It was uncanny how quickly Paderishal�s force was moving, with all the foot they had trailing their cavalry, he and Tav should have caught them days ago. "Thank you for that." Adere replied. "It�s good to know we are close then."
They sat silently for a bit until Tav came in the door, closing it behind him hard to keep the wind from blowing it back open. He turned to the old farmer and spoke the ritual thanks as Adere had, but with the proper Old Tongue at the end. The man nodded to him and motioned for him to have a seat. "Your man says you are messengers." He said to Tav. "If it�s not a secret, what message are you carrying?"
The lady of the house returned from the kitchen with a wooden tray and four mugs of steaming tea. Tav accepted his gratefully and took a sip before answering. "It will probably be all over the countryside by week�s end anyhow, so I will tell you." He paused for a moment considering his drink. Probably searching for the words to describe what they had seen, Adere supposed.
"Ret Hold," Tav began, faltering slightly, "Ret Hold has fallen."
The old woman gasped putting her hands to her mouth as her tea mug clattered to the ground, spilling its contents. The old man set his own cup down and placed a comforting arm across his wife�s shoulders.
"We have kin there." He explained softly, "Please excuse us, this is bad news if it is true."
Tav looked away, "It is true, Master Blade. We were there as a special detachment, the city is ruined and overrun. All of its people have fled or been killed. I wish I could tell you with certainty the fate of your kin, but we do not know how many escaped."
The old woman had begun to weep softly. Her husband patted her gently to try and console her. He turned back to Tav, "Overrun how?" he asked. The tone of his voice had changed. He wasn�t asking as a commoner would for gossip, he was asking as one soldier to another. He wanted details.
Tav took another drink of his tea. "The western gate was battered down; most of the outlying farms were razed by fire. The city inside was assaulted from the west and perhaps from the east as well, we didn�t explore it enough to find out. There were no guards on the walls; they were attacked in the night."
Now the old man looked astonished. "No guards?" He grew silent as the implications seemed to grow on him. Adere suspected this fellow had been a crack tactician in his younger days, he didn�t miss much.
"Paderishal." the old man hissed. "I knew they never should have made a stinking Olgothian a general! He left no guards on his own walls and let and entire Hold be overrun by rabble! Shameful! Inexcusable!"
"Not rabble, sir, something far worse." Tav said solemnly.
"Worse?" The man asked, fury barely constrained in his features, "What is worse?"
"The Unclean have risen up. It was Goblins that sacked Ret Hold." He replied.
The old man mouthed the word "Unclean" silently. His wife had stopped crying and stared at him with a look of pure terror in her eyes. This old man knew what they were. No doubt he had fought them as well in his younger days, during the occasional uprisings along the containment forts to the south.
Nothing more about it was said that night. The old farmer, whose name was Yestrin, gave them their spare room to lay their bedrolls in and his wife prepared them a meal before they slept. She also fetched a salve for Adere�s wound and made a remark about how well it had healed so far without previous treatment. It would scar, but would not need stitches. Adere thought of the strange herbs the elf-woman had used on his leg and vowed he would find out more about them; they had probably saved his life.
Before they turned in, he spied Yestrin pulling a wrapped bundle out of and chest in the central room. He undid the strings and the cloth fell away to reveal a long sword in a finely wrought sheathe. The hilt was emblazoned with a double sunburst and three stars. The man had been a Blade Captain! No wonder then he was a sharp old bird. His wife approached him from behind and said something Adere couldn�t hear, but Yestrin shook his head in response and buckled on the sword, then opened the door and stepped out into the howling, black night. Adere mused over this for a minute. He obviously didn�t care for Paderishal, or Olgothians in general it seemed, but they still had no proof that the High General had done what he did intentionally. He hoped the old man wouldn�t do anything rash.
His wife leaned against the closed door and wept.
Hussan Paderishal leaned over the map on the table before him, glaring intently at the small black and red markings made on it by his aides. Those men, two Field Commanders and four Blade Captains, stood by silently in the command tent with him as he scowled at the layout. The logistics of laying siege to a city like West Hold were troublesome. The city stores would last for a very long time, and while his men could live off the surrounding area for even longer, they had no siege equipment. If it came to a full-scale siege of the giant city, it would mean having to conscript engineers from the local populace somehow to build what was needed.
The wizard, of course, had made guarantees that no such things would be needed to take West Hold, but he had also not bothered to give Paderishal many details about what he intended either. In the meantime, he would prepare to do things his way if necessary.
"I do not think placing towers here would be effective." He said, rubbing his chin as he pointed to a spot on the map. "The large breaks in the crenellations here are intended for the ballista used during the war against the Giants. They don�t take as many men to operate as you would think, and they could be used to attack the towers. They need to be moved elsewhere."
One of the Blade Captains spoke, "But sir, if we move them too far to the sides, it will make taking the upper gatehouse extremely difficult."
"Then obviously you had better adjust your plans for taking that gatehouse appropriately." Paderishal shot back. These men aggravated him. They expected everything to be so easy. Only his cavalry leader, Mitterven, understood what they were up against. He had trained in West Hold, at the guild house Harbind ran.
The Captain snapped to a straight-backed position. "Yes sir. I will make changes accordingly sir."
"This is all, of course, assuming that your man on the inside fails to deliver, General." commented one of the Field Commanders.
Paderishal glowered. These men knew that he had a deal worked with someone influential inside West Hold, but they didn�t know that this person was a wizard. They were all ambitious men, who thought as little of General Harbind and the council of West Hold as he did, but they also mistrusted the High Robes as much as him, and it wouldn�t do to have them thinking he had sold out to anyone they didn�t like. "Indeed." He replied. "But we all know how reliable those with political power in this land are."
There was a murmur of agreement from the six men. They had all been shorted by the system at some point or another. Denied promotion, lost family lands to council appropriations, forced to endure humility rather than glory; these men would follow him into the Pit itself if it meant that the Council of West Hold would suffer.
The tent flap opened and a runner, breathless from his dash across the encampment, stepped in and stood as straight as he could by the opening.
Paderishal, squelching his annoyance at the intrusion spoke, "Report."
The runner relaxed a little and spoke quickly, "General, the guards at the east picket line have detained a rider who was approaching the camp. He is dressed as a Sunblade of West Hold, and claims that he has news to deliver directly to you from Ret Hold..." The boy�s voice faltered a bit at the last.
Paderishal hackled. Had the bastard actually come back to report to him as he ordered? It was highly unlikely, knowing who he was seeking, that he would report to anyone but Harbind. However...
"Have him brought here immediately." Paderishal said sharply. The runner saluted, turned on his heal and dashed out of the tent to relay the message.
"A West Hold Sunblade, sir?" asked one of the Blade Captains, "Reporting from Ret Hold? What of our own runners?"
"I�m not sure." Paderishal said, stroking his moustache as he gripped the handle of his varesh with the other hand. The fact that the runners he had sent to Urell Hold and Grelhalden had not reported to him yet made him uneasy. "We shall hear what he has to say."
A few moment�s later, two Ret Hold Sunblades entered the tent with a third young man between them. He seemed familiar to Paderishal, but he couldn�t immediately place him. "Report, Blade." he said as the two Ret Holders left.
The young man saluted before he spoke. It seemed to Paderishal that he had a manic gleam in his eyes, and when he spoke his voice was tinged with a barely hidden sarcasm that greatly annoyed him. "Blade Kyle Haventris, reporting...sir." The last word seemed almost an afterthought. "I have been asked by a mutual acquaintance of ours to bring you word of events in Ret Hold."
"So I was told." Paderishal growled in reply. "Get on with it."
His ire seemed to slide off the boy like water off a duck. He continued on as if he was having a normal, pleasant conversation with an old friend rather than a superior officer. "Ret Hold has been overrun. It�s quite a mess there right now. Everyone in the city has been run off or killed."
The six men at the back of the tent all began talking at once:
"Be quiet!" roared Paderishal without turning his head, and all of them fell silent. He eyed the boy suspiciously. "This had better not be a game concocted by that fool Blade Leader of yours." He said softly, menace filling his voice. He remembered where he had seen this one now. He had been with the bastard�s squad on the road from Ret Hold.
"Oh, I�m quite serious." Kyle said, folding his arms and glaring back at Paderishal. "And right now there are runners from my old squad on the way to Harbind and to Le�Corbin with news that incriminates you in this matter. I couldn�t do anything about the one heading south, but I managed to get here ahead of the other two."
For a long moment it was dead silent in the tent. The wind outside was rising, and it made a low whistling sound as it passed over the tent�s smoke-hole.
"Who did this?" Asked Paderishal finally. "There were no armies I knew of anywhere near Ret Hold."
Kyle smiled and the look on his face sent an uncontrollable shiver down Paderishal�s spine. "Not who. What." he said. "It was Goblins that sacked Ret Hold."
At least one of the aides openly gasped. Paderishal was thunderstruck. The Unclean? That far north? Impossible!
The boy had mentioned a mutual acquaintance. There was only one person with the ability to speak over long distances with such speed that it could be. The wizard was probably using this one to keep tabs on the Gilroth brat. So why send him here then?
"Where is Blade Leader Gilroth now?" Paderishal asked. Dead by goblins, he hoped, if this boy's information was real.
"He escaped to the south with an elf woman and deserted us." Kyle said matter-of-factly. "I always thought he was unfit to lead."
"Indeed." said Paderishal noncommittally. "So he ran off with this elf and the rest decided to report back to their commanders that I had betrayed an entire Hold to the Unclean?"
"Yup." Kyle said, examining his fingernails. "Of course, I don�t believe you did that, but we all know about your bad blood with Harbind, and I�m fairly certain that boot-lick Le�Corbin would take that news along with the fact that your army is sitting right outside West Hold to mean that you intended to join forces with the Unclean and invade."
"Indeed." Paderishal said again. He wished there were chairs in this tent; he wanted to sit down.
One of the Field Commander�s spoke, "Sir, perhaps we should return to Ret Hold."
Return? When they were this close? No. Unthinkable. "We will remain here, Commander."
"We will remain here, Commander!" Paderishal said loudly, stepping on the other�s complaint. "Even if we began the march back tonight, by the time we arrived the enemy would be so deeply entrenched that we would not be able to rout them short of burning the entire city to the ground."
"That�s mostly been done already." Kyle said casually.
A few of the aides looked ill. The wind was beginning to howl even more. Paderishal gripped the handle of his sword so hard his knuckles were white. "How far behind you are the two runners you say are heading to West Hold?" he asked.
"Half a day perhaps." Kyle answered. "They are moving slowly since they are carrying the body of one of our squad mates killed at Ret Hold."
"I see." said Paderishal. "Since you know our mutual 'acquaintance' I am assuming you also know why I am really here?"
"Then you must also know that we can�t afford to have those two creating any resistance in the city until we are ready to strike. Right now they believe we are here as re-enforcements, their 'news' could be damaging to our plans."
"I totally agree." said Kyle, closing his eyes and nodding vigorously.
Paderishal was becoming irritated with the boy again. He hadn�t even addressed him by his rank once. "In the morning, you will accompany a squad of my men to find these two and apprehend them. On charges of desertion perhaps. If they resist...kill them."
Kyle opened his eyes and grinned at Paderishal malevolently. Then he saluted again. The first real sign of respect he had shown at all. "It will be as you say...General." His smirk that accompanied the last word was infuriating. The boy turned and strode out of the tent without being dismissed. He seemed to think that his connection with the wizard put them on equal terms. Paderishal resolved to disabuse him of that notion very soon. He turned to his aides, a couple of whom were looking rather white. "Don�t think I am going to forget this, gentlemen. Someone will pay for this treachery against Ret Hold, but it will not be us. You all have your orders." This dismissal instigated a quick shuffling exit from the gathered officers. As they left he reached out to grab the arm of one of the Captains. "You. I want to you go with that squad tomorrow and keep an eye on that insubordinate little turncoat. If it even seems for a moment he is trying to entrap or trick us, make sure he joins his squad in the After."
The Captain swallowed and nodded then hurried out after his fellows.
"A curse on all wizards and things of magic!" growled Paderishal. When all was said and done, if things in the east really were as this boy claimed, Wizard Cain had much to answer for.