Chapter 1-6 | Chapter 7-11 | Chapter 12-14 | Chapter 15-17 | Chapter 18-22
"Soon the glory of Chaos shall shine all across the Empire!"
Even hours after they were spoken the words still echoed through Ezra's mind, and not just the words, but their tone and volume. As if a second wave of Chaos was something to be greeted with jubilant anticipation. Ezra shook his head, hoping to fling away the clinging memories. Only you, Ezra, son of Standish, he thought to himself, would intentionally surround yourself with such willful stupidity. Still, he couldn't deny that he was the one who, when approached by Shadow Agent Targin, had volunteered to perpetrate this, the ultimate con.
Not so long ago Ezra had still been wandering from town to town, using his skill at gambling to survive. Many small towns would accept visits from a Master Gamesman like himself if only to enjoy a diversion from the expected monotony of life. Yet it seldom took more than a week or two for most to grow tired of losing their hard earned wages. Ezra's mother, Maude, would no doubt lecture him that the best profits were earned in big cities with confidence schemes, not gambling in small towns and villages. But Ezra, who preferred not to be hung for fraud, confined himself to more legal moneymaking activities. In fact, one of his best sources of income was to approach a community's constable or town council, and with their consent, offer classes to the populace on how to spot cheats and con artists, for a small fee of course. The lessons were generally well received and Ezra had been invited to return to several communities. He had also received letters from two Constables who informed him that his tips had saved several families from financial hardship and in one case led to the arrest of team of con artists. No doubt they had cursed Ezra's name all the way to the gallows.
Then a messenger tracked him down bringing news of the death of Baron Bradach, Ezra's second stepfather. Expecting little more than a few books in inheritance, Ezra's main concern was for the Baron's last blood heir, Breelin. How would Bradach's already orphaned granddaughter cope with the loss of yet another loved one? A steward and a lawyer greeted his arrival at the Tarris stronghold, Tarhold Estate. The lawyer gave Ezra a copy of the will and a letter left by the Baron. According to the will, Ezra was not only the new owner of Tarhold Estate and a town home in the capitol, Herkopolis, but he was also now a titled Baron. The letter explained that Breelin, now happily settled with her husband, Duke Darren, had no wish to take on the duties of a barony or the estate that came with it. So Bradach settled a country retreat, in Garik and a few family heirlooms on Breelin, and left the rest of his wealth to Ezra. After all, Ezra had been not only an intelligent and attentive stepson, but also a loyal friend of the family even after Maude moved on to greener pastures. Bradach had even added an addendum to the will to ensure that Maude would have no claim.
After inspecting his new holdings and moving his meager belongings, Ezra went to visit Breelin in Herkopolis in an attempt to adjust to his new status. Breelin was eager to introduce her "Uncle" around court. And Duke Darren was surprisingly willing to accept Ezra presence despite his decidedly shady past. Ezra tried to return their hospitality by restraining some of his more malicious gaming tactics. After all, it wouldn't do to financially ruin any of Darren's political allies. He also made it quite clear to any who challenged him, whether it be cards, dice or some other sport of skilled chance, that he was a master gamesman and they challenged him at their own risk. The combination of both his skill and his charisma made him quite a popular guest at the many parties held around the capital. Ezra even found himself, for the first time in years, playing for the fun of it. But the thing that surprised Ezra the most was that within a few weeks of entering his new life he found himself to be bored. It just didn't make sense. He was independently wealthy, a landowner who could afford to live off the bounty of his estate even as he spent the majority of his time chasing idle pursuits. All of his life he had imagined the things he would do when he finally reached his goal of prosperity. Yet now that he was actually doing those things, he found them to be not only idle, but also frivolous and empty. Uncertain how to remedy the situation, Ezra sought council from Breelin and Darren. Breelin immediately suggested he open his own business, reminding him of his childhood dream of owning 'the finest gambling establishment in all the Empire'. Darren suggest that he seemed to have a natural gift for teaching, and by combining that with his Games Master badge he could easily open a small private school. He could offer lessons on various games of chance and skill and educate people on how to prevent themselves and others from becoming taken advantage of. Both ideas held some appeal but neither seemed more compelling than the other. So Ezra decided to give himself until the turn of the New Year to consider the pros and cons.
For New Year's Eve, Ezra was handsomely dressed in a silver jacket with white, emerald-accented pants, the perfect garb for attending his first Royal Ball. Joining his step-niece and her husband, they had all entered the Palace ready to welcome in the Year of the Griffin.
They entered on the southeast side of the Imperial Ballroom. Ezra was most immediately impressed with its size. To call the ballroom huge was a vast understatement. Next to them on the south wall, as well as on the north, there were long lines of tables bearing every kind of food he could imagine, including a few he hadn't known existed. The east wall consisted of giant pillars reinforcing a glass wall. Several glass doors led outside to the snow covered gardens. It was the center of the west wall that held a dais containing one large chair and four smaller ones. Behind the chairs was a set of bronze doors embossed with the Emperor's crest. The expansive white marble floor's sole decoration was the onyx Imperial crest in its center. Intricate tapestries hung on the north, south and west walls. Magic light radiated from crystal chandeliers reflecting entire constellations on the glass barrier to the east.
On the dais the Chamberlain appeared, dressed in the prerequisite silver and white. He held in his hand a wood staff shod in steel. Pounding it against the marble twice to gather everyone's attention, he announced the Royal family: Emperor Thetys V, his mother Dejanna, brother Crown Prince Lan and finally Princesses Eriat and Nassia.
Caught in the middle of their teens, Prince Lan and his twin sisters looked like they could just as easily be attending a school dance as a royal ball. Though Lan, the royal heir, carried himself with some maturity, it was clear that none them had yet abandoned their youth. Emperor Thetys had not yet left his teens, himself, but something in his eyes told Ezra that he would be both fierce and resolute in the protection of his Empire. The Emperor stepped forward to speak, welcoming all to the first New Year's Eve Ball of his reign. He quickly declared he'd forgo the typical long-winded speech to begin the celebration at once. Leading his mother onto the dance floor, Thetys signaled the musicians to begin the Ceremonial Dance.
A crash of thunder erupted in the heart of the ballroom, its shockwave knocking most to the ground, leaving even the strongest on their knees. In its epicenter a black fog formed into a horrifying creature. Its cloak was a ragged, mossy thing, its head a pattern of silver and white flesh pulled taunt over its own bones, and its eyes were the very embodiment of decay.
Ezra quickly moved the lady he had been preparing to dance with behind him, and wished desperately for the small dagger he usually secreted up his sleeve. He was moderately surprised to hear the Emperor order the party crasher to leave. He wasn't sure he'd be so brave standing before that monster.
Ezra glanced towards Breelin and was relieved to see that Darren, who because of his years of service as a Chaos Rider was permitted to wear a ceremonial sword, had drawn his blade and moved into a ready crouch. Yet, when he surveyed the rest of the ballroom he recognized only a dozen others who had gathered themselves enough to identify the threat. Most of that dozen were Chaos Riders, though three looked to be imperial soldiers. Everyone else appeared too shocked or afraid to take action. A dozen warriors, even battle-hardened Chaos Riders, couldn't hope to defeat such a powerful sorcerer. In fact, Ezra was quite certain that only one being could intrude past the palaces many physical and magical barriers. The creature before him could only be Fialchar, Lord Disaster, the creator of Chaos. Ezra missed the initial exchange between Fialchar and Thetys, but when the Emperor stood to face his foe, Ezra heard Thetys again order Fialchar to leave.
Fialchar refused, instead commanding the musicians to play him a tune. When they refused he cast a spell that left all of them unconscious, causing one poor fellow to fall off the landing to his death. The instruments rose up, enchanted, to play a wicked, shrieking melody. Fialchar swirled his staff in a circle. As he did Ezra felt a wave of crippling weakness wash through him. The second pass of Fialchar's staff brought a tensing of muscles. A third pulled Ezra's muscles taunt to the point of cramping. From the moans and cries heard from other men, Ezra knew he was but one of many who suffered. The ladies seemed to be untouched by the spell, at least physically. Ezra's dance partner, wasn't she the daughter of a wine merchant, had collapsed into a sobbing heap of hysteria. Breelin, however, had taken up her husband's sword and now held it in an awkward and probably futile attempt to protect herself and her loved ones. The Forth swing of the staff made it impossible for Ezra to observe anything but his own agony. Every muscle in his body locked, while his back and neck bowed in torment.
Fialchar gestured with his left hand and a hundred gold threads flew from his fingertips arching the foreheads of the women. Eyes glazed over, and the ladies as one began the Ceremonial Dance. Their movements at first were mechanical, but quickly became more relaxed and then turned blatantly erotic.
Ezra felt the pain ease throughout his body and was overwhelmed with thankfulness for Fialchar's mercy. No! That's not right. Fialchar was the source of his pain; he should hate him, not thank him. Yet, when Ezra accessed his rage he found it directed not at Fialchar but at the other men in the room, for they were staring lustfully at the ladies, his ladies. How dare they? Didn't they realize these females moved only for him? Their seductive spins and wanton arches were a mating dance. And each lady here was vying to be the first to win Ezra's favor. He would sample them all before the night was through, and rip out the throat of any male that interfered. No! No! It's wrong again. These weren't his thoughts. They didn't belong in his mind. But try as he might he couldn't separate his thoughts from the deviant ones. Then a barely heard chant whispered past him.
" . . . all is lost, brave heart have you, and evil's thrall will then be through!" (*1) Suddenly Ezra found himself on his knees, listing heavily to the right. He was still trying to regain his equilibrium when he saw the golden threads that held the women in thrall sever and flail about as the women collapsed. He scrambled to catch his dance partner before she hit the ground.
When he looked up he saw not the dozen Imperial mages he expected, but a lone man standing defiant before Fialchar. The man looked even younger than the Emperor, perhaps eighteen. And his dress and ceremonial dagger clearly marked him as a warrior not a mage. It was also clear that Fialchar was more than a bit surprised by the fledgling warrior's audacity.
Fialchar turned back to the Emperor and declared, "Little tricks will not save you or your throne. It will be mine, and you will give it to me. I have played for you a tune, and in a year I will collect your Empire as payment for it." He raised his staff in both hands above his head, then drove the point down into the floor. (*2)
For the second time that evening Ezra was knocked off his feet by the shockwave of thunder. Upon regaining his feet, Ezra could find only a scattering pillar of smoke with a flickering green flame at its base. Ezra quickly escorted his dance partner back to the security of her parents and then returned to Breelin and Darren. After meeting Darren's eyes he had no doubt that Fialchar's spell had worked its corruption on all who attended the ball. He didn't even want to think what poison had been forced into the minds of Breelin and the other women. The magnitude of Fialchar's violation was simply too staggering to contemplate. Needing to move past the profane thoughts still muttering in the dark corners of his mind, Ezra asked Darren, "Did you recognize the man who stood against Fialchar?"
"Yes, his name is Lachlan. He's the youngest son of Cardew. It would appear he may have his father's talent for foiling Fialchar's machinations," answered Darren. Then he looked to his wife. "Breelin," he started.
"You don't have to say anything. I know you pledged your life to the Empire long before you pledged your heart to me. And right now the Empire needs you." Breelin finished with a kiss on his lips.
Darren adjusted the grip on his sword, turning to offer the handle to Ezra. "I noticed you were one of the few people ready for action in the initial seconds after Lord Disaster's appearance. And I'd feel better if I knew Breelin was well guarded in my absence. I should be home by dawn."
Ezra froze for a second as the significance of Darren's request raced through his mind. Darren had shown great willingness to welcome Breelin's 'uncle' into their family despite Ezra's lack of true blood ties. But there was a great difference between inviting someone to dinner and giving them your sword. Especially for a former Chaos Rider, who would be unlikely to trust those with unproven abilities. Both honored and humbled Ezra accepted the hardened steel and promised, "I'll do my best."
He offered Breelin his arm and escorted her towards the crowded exit. There were several healers both magical and mundane who moved through the crowd offering what assistance they could. Ezra also noticed the Empress and her daughters trying to give reassurance to the shell-shocked revelers. The Emperor and his brother/heir were notably absent as were several of his most valued advisors. No doubt they were, even now, planning counter measures while debating the 'appropriate response'.
Hours later, after Breelin had retired to her rooms and the staff had retreated to their quarters, Ezra sat in the study with ink and paper, making notes as he recalled the events of the evening. He had scratched out his impressions of Fialchar, made an assessment of the reactions of various guards, soldiers and warriors, and puzzled over the rather startling lack of a magical reply from any Imperial mage. True, Fialchar was old, experienced and quite probably the most powerful sorcerer in either Chaos or the Imperium. But with clairvoyance, as one of the eight collages of magic, surely someone, somewhere should have had some warning.
Movement outside instantly brought Ezra to his feet. He followed the noise towards the front of the house and waited silently in the shadows of the front hall. His weight balanced evenly on the balls of his feet and the sword held loosely in his left hand. The sound of a key entering a lock was somewhat reassuring, but it wasn't until Ezra saw Darren lead another man into the house that he left the shadows to return the blade to its master. "Breelin is upstairs sleeping though I'll make no guarantees to the restfulness of her dreams."
"Thank you, Ezra. Allow me to introduce Targin. Targin, this is my wife's step-uncle Ezra. Ezra, would you be willing to stay up a bit longer? Targin has a proposal for you." Ezra's eyebrow arched in surprise, but he nodded. Darren led the way back to the study. Noticing the papers Ezra had created he asked, "May I?" At Ezra's nod he started to read. Ezra settled into a chair and Targin sat on the settee across from him.
"We don't usually approach people in this manner," began Targin, "But obviously after this evening's disaster, we need to re-evaluate our methods. The Lord of Shadows has sent me to recruit you as an Infiltration Agent."
"I wasn't aware that the Lord of Shadows even knew of my existence," Ezra's voice held more than a bit of disbelief. Lord of Shadows was the title of the Law-lord, the person who controlled the Empire's internal security. Constables and their deputies who protected towns and cities, and Rangers who patrolled the forests and mountains all served under the Lord of Shadows. Spies and counter spies also worked at this lord's behest. Who the Lord of Shadows was remained a mystery to most. Only the Emperor and a few trusted councilors knew his, or her identity. The policy of secrecy had been in place for almost two hundred years, after the assassination of two Law-lords in as many weeks. Now it had become something of a game at court to guess who might be the true Law-lord.
"Actually there are records on you from various Constables and Agents back to your early childhood. Your mother has never been convicted for her more ambitious cons, but we were still aware of many of her activities. Her use of a child in those scams was hard for many to swallow. In fact, one Constable had begun procedures to remove you from her custody when she chose to leave you with a Sunbird Priest. In truth, I think your father's career and the manner of his death made the way you were being raised that much more difficult for many of my badge to accept."
"What about my father's career as a failed gambler or his death in a bar brawl would make my admittedly unconventional upbringing difficult to accept?" asked Ezra. He didn't see why Targin would mention a father Ezra couldn't even remember when seeking to entice Ezra into a dangerous new line of work.
Targin for his part looked equally confused, "A failed gambler?" Then understanding seem to dawn. "I think we may have underestimated Maude's ability to manipulate the truth."
"Well, you wouldn't be the first," confirmed Ezra.
"Sir, your father was ranked as a Master Gamesman just like yourself. It's true that he didn't make his living by gambling, but that isn't because he couldn't. He simply preferred to work as a constable."
"I suppose, next, you'll tell me he didn't die in a brawl," Ezra's voice had become dangerously quiet.
"I brought with me a copy of every file or notation made on you and your family. Your father was the constable of the town of Purgatory. It's located on the border between Tarris and Menal, near the Ward Wall. The last contact between him and his superiors was a request for soldiers. He said he had located a Black Church stronghold in an abandoned building just outside of town. By the time his back-up arrived he was already dead. They found his beaten body in the believed stronghold, but his murderers were never caught." Targin handed over the files for Ezra to examine.
Ezra quickly located the papers regarding his father. He scanned them for several seconds before speaking. "And now the Lord of Shadows wants to offer me a position infiltrating the Black Church," Ezra guessed.
"Yes. Your experience with cons and scams can only work to your advantage. You're calm under pressure, we saw that tonight." Targin explained.
"And how did you see that? I did nothing," insisted Ezra.
"You observed the threat, sought potential allies, gathered information and waited for the right moment to act. That Fialchar was too canny to provide such an opportunity is not your fault. 98% of the work of an infiltration agent is observation and intelligence gathering. Then you relay your knowledge to us and let us eliminate the threat."
"Assuming, of course, that your people can respond with the appropriate urgency," countered Ezra. Knowing that a slow response had led to his father's death, Targin accepted Ezra's implied criticism in silence. "So I get the privilege of surrounding myself with traitors and murders, while having no one and nothing but myself to count on for weeks and possibly even months at a time." Raising his gaze to meet Targin's he said, "I'm in. Where do I sign?"
"No," interrupted Darren. "Targin, forget you heard him say that, at least for now. Ezra, we've all had a rather intense couple of hours. You need to take some time, at least a day, to consider this seriously. If you feel the same tomorrow Targin can show you what steps should be taken next. Agreed?" Ezra nodded and went back to examining the files. Targin excused himself.
In the end, the extra day of thought didn't alter Ezra's decision. So, here he was months later, wishing he were anywhere else. He had already passed on the names of many traitors. He had created maps of their underground tunnel networks and made lists of their supplies and weapons. Yesterday, he had finally learned the true name of the Black Church wizard who had led this church cell. But he had found it impossible to get away long enough share Marquay's identity with his contact. Hopefully there would be a chance to sneak away before dawn. JD was usually quite easy to tract down.
The door to Ezra's tiny room flew open and Blain rushed in. "Erik, I have wonderful news! Marquay has selected us to prepare the sacrifice. Isn't it wonderful?"
"What sacrifice?" asked Ezra as he struggled to slip back into his Black Church persona.
"Well, he wasn't specific but I do know it's to be a gift for our Chaos brethren." Blain's angelic smile was at odds with his words. "All of our hard work is being paid off. Marquay has recognized our loyalty and is rewarding us for it."
Securing his sword, daggers and cloak Ezra said, "Then it is best if we don't keep Mage Marquay waiting." Time to bring this con to its close. The two men left the room.
Josiah tugged weakly on the manacles and chains that held him. The cell he shared with the still unconscious Nathan was incredibly small; four foot squared at best. Its size made it impossible to stand or stretch in any comfortable manner. The cold, smooth rock that surrounded them had long since sucked the last remnants of warmth from his body. The manacles and chains that imprisoned both his wrists and ankles were secured to a glowing anchor ring imbedded in the middle of the floor. Nathan, who was also chained, was slumped awkwardly against one of the walls. No doubt he'd been in the same position since they'd been dragged to their cell. Josiah's one hesitant attempt at magic had resulted in the manacles on his wrists doubling in size, showing clearly that they were spelled to siphon off magical energies and use them to their captive's disadvantage.
Josiah's thoughts were torn between the rage he felt for his jailer and the anger he directed at himself. Nathan had tried to warn him. But Josiah's insatiable quest for knowledge, the apparent link to the demon army and the implied urgency of the whole situation had all combined to make Josiah act in haste. And that buffoon Wood had certainly baited the trap well, with just the right mix of knowledge and incompetence. Josiah wondered for a moment how much truth there had been in Wood's story about Marquay. It seemed to fit so well with everything that was happening. After all, why bother to lie when the truth will get you what you want? It had certainly been enough to get Josiah to drop his guard. Marquay was probably the one who created the capture spell. Josiah was more than a bit peeved that his own detection spell had been so utterly useless. But it was for Nathan's imprisonment that Josiah truly cursed himself. He shouldn't have disregarded Nathan's concerns.
Josiah wasn't even sure why Nathan had been taken. If their jailer had wanted to eliminate a witness it would have made more sense to kill him and hide or destroy the body. If this was part of a vendetta against the Church of the Sunbird, Nathan was clearly not a member. The only clue Josiah possessed was Wood's repeated demand that Josiah prove his mage abilities. It was possible that he only wanted the Sunbirder to trigger the trap. But Josiah had cast several low-level spells without ill effects, which indicated that only a fairly powerful mage would have fallen victim. And Nathan, despite his occasional self-recriminations, was a gifted healer. What he lacked in schooling, he more than made up for in natural talent. So Wood and his cohorts, probably Marquay, had sought to capture a high level mage and ended up with two.
The next question was, what were they planning to do? It was unlikely that they thought they could turn either man against the Empire. Despite a few legends depicting good people falling victim to mind control, the truth was such spells were not only extremely difficult but also quite limited in their effectiveness. The best of these could confuse or seduce a person, but someone of strong will or focused thought could often counter such enchantments. It didn't even require magic to do so. When Fialchar had cast his spell on the assembly at the Royal Ball, the only true case of magical mind control reported in the last fifty years, he had clearly been trying to flaunt his power. Yet it hadn't taken another Mage to break the spell. It had merely taken an eighteen-year-old, who upon realizing that his thoughts were being tampered with, had found refuge in a child's rhyme against evil. Focusing all his thoughts on speaking the rhyme had broken Fialchar's control over him and created a cascade effect that had freed all the partygoers.
No, in all probability Marquay was planning some mighty, and draining, spell. Spells required energy from the spell caster, the more powerful the spell the greater the energy drain. Marquay might hope to offset the drain to himself by using a leech spell of some sort to funnel Nathan and Josiah's energies wherever he wanted them.
A moan from Nathan interrupted Josiah's thoughts. It appeared his friend was finally rousing. The chains jingled as he tried to stretch into a more comfortable position. When the manacles stopped his movements mid-stretch Nathan's eyes jerked open and his muscles tensed, ready to fight.
"Easy now, Brother, best to save that for our enemies," said Josiah. "It would appear that I allowed Wood to capture both of us, and for that I apologize my old friend."
"There's nothing to apologize for. You can't protect the Empire and her people without taking risks," insisted Nathan. "Besides, it was my job to rush in and rescue you if things went bad. I managed to kill Wood, but I was downright useless against the mage."
"You saw Marquay?" Josiah straightened a bit. "What were your impressions? What sort of a wizard is he?"
"Powerful, arrogant, he didn't tell me what his plans were if that's what you're hoping. But he did seem pleased to have two of us captured," described Nathan.
When he saw Josiah's features darken, he asked, "Does that mean something to you?"
"I've been thinking out our current situation and the most logical reason for a magic user to kidnap other magic users is if he or she were planning a spell of such magnitude that they couldn't hope to fuel the spell and still survive," said Josiah.
"So you think he's going to use our energies to power his magic? Josiah we can't let that happen. Who knows what he's going to do. With that demon army massing he could be planning to take down the Ward Wall and let them march right into the empire. We've got to stop them." Nathan tone was becoming increasingly upset.
"I know, Nathan, I know. We still have our wits, even if we don't have our freedom. If we can remain aware of our surroundings we will be more ready to act when an opportunity arises. Hope does, after all, spring eternal. Though I wouldn't be offended if the Sunbird were to offer us a bit more concrete assistance." For the last part Josiah raised his eyes in plea to his patron deity. As if in answer, there was a sudden muffled noise just beyond the wall to Josiah's left. The cramped quarters and too short lengths of chain made moving into a traditional fighting stance impossible. But both men did their best to maneuver into a position next to each other that was at least somewhat defensible. The wall before them seemed to turn liquid as it parted down the middle then drew pack on the sides. The anchor ring that secured their chains began to slide forward towards the opening, dragging an unwilling Josiah and Nathan with it.
The light in the new chamber momentarily blinded both men. When a set of hands grabbed his arm, Nathan instinctively began to struggle. Several arcane words were spoken and the manacles binding Nathan's wrists slammed to the floor. Nathan was able to twist his body a bit but his hands were locked into place. As eyesight returned, Nathan saw his right sleeve pulled up and his own dagger cut a line from his wrist to his elbow. He couldn't contain his gasp of pain, and it seemed to intensify Josiah's struggles beside him. As another set of hands tempered his struggles, a challis was placed just bellow his wrist to catch the scarlet flow. The same procedure was repeated with his friend even as Josiah shouted every Sunbird curse he could think of.
"Your cursing won't help you. The truth is that even if your God did bother to listen, it wouldn't act. I learned long ago, the Gods simply don't care. All that nonsense about divine retribution is just propaganda to keep the cattle in line. Thank you, Doarg." The leader, whom Nathan recognized as the mage from the valley, accepted the challis from one of his underlings. "Since you were unconscious the last time we met, Brother Sanchez, I will introduce myself. I'm Marquay, wizard and servant of Chaos. You shouldn't feel too bad about not detecting me earlier. I've managed to hide myself from the City of Sorcerers for almost twenty years. You really had no hope of finding me until I wanted to be found."
"Yet, your current actions, the kidnapping of a Chaos Rider and a Sunbird Priest, are sure to draw a lot of attention. What can you possibly hope to gain?" demanded Josiah.
"By the time your absence is noticed in the capital it will be too late to help anyone," assured Marquay.
"You're going to pull down the Wall somehow, and give free rein of the Empire to all those demons," accused Nathan.
"You flatter me. Even I couldn't bring down the entire Wall. Besides, a little crack or two is all we need to let our demon allies seep through. How did you know about our army anyway?" wondered Marquay. "Are you one of escaped Chaos Riders that I heard about?" Taking Nathan's silence as confirmation, Marquay smiled. "See this is yet another example of how Chaos works even within the Empire. Having circumvented the demons and reached the Empire you should have been safe, but instead you were taken in your own stronghold. Taken to be turned over to you enemies." Marquay tone turned malicious, "Once my spell has drained you of nearly all of your magic and life I will be giving you to Storm War Queen Tsvala as a gift. And, if you harbor any fantasies about escape let me assure you, now that I have your blood there is nowhere you can go that will keep you safe from the draw of my magic. As a bit of mercy on my part I will tell you that your end will come in a little under one cycle of a day. You should make what peace you can in the time you have left."
The soft scuffling of boots behind Marquay brought attention to two new arrivals. "Blain, Erik, you're just in time. Our guests will need to be stripped and bathed. And don't forget to clean and bandage their wounds; it wouldn't do for them to die before they have outlived their usefulness. Doarg, you will stay and guard them until they are returned to their hole. Keep them chained to the ring and these commands," Marquay handed him a slip of paper, "will move them where you wish. The ring draws its magic from its prisoners so you don't need to worry about them getting too frisky. I want them clean and presentable when I give them to Tsvala. The rest of you are with me." Marquay turned with a swirl of his cape, but bumping into one of the new arrivals marred his attempt at a dramatic exit.
"My most humble apologies, Sir," drawled the cloaked figure, "I should have moved out of the way faster." Marquay stared at the man for perhaps a second or two before he continued to depart. When the door closed the two new arrivals finally pulled back the hoods of their cloaks. Josiah had to struggle for a moment to maintain a suitably impassive face.
"Are you going to strip them here or do you want me to move them over to the well first?" asked Doarg.
"I'm not sure," quibbled Blain. "What do you think, Erik?"
The other man lowered himself into a crouch examining the captives much like a spider watches its prey. "We should probably tend the wounds first. There's no point in cleaning them up if they're just going to bleed all over themselves again."
"Good idea, Erik," enthused Blain. He promptly leaned down beside Josiah and began to wipe away the blood with the end of his cloak. When his friend tried the same with Nathan, Nathan jerked away.
"Don't you touch me," shout the Chaos Rider.
"It looks as though I may need a bit of assistance," decided his tormentor. "Doarg, would you mind?"
"Not at all," Doarg said as he tucked the paper into his pocket. He was only too happy to put a servant of the Empire in his place. With a crushing grip Doarg grabbed Nathan's shoulders and held him immobile. "How's this?" he asked giving Nathan a violent shake. "Is he where you want him now?"
"Indeed," was the reply from beside him. A second later Doarg felt a burning pain slice up under his ribcage and into his chest. Doarg had time to do little more than gurgle before he died.
"Erik! What have you done?" cried a shocked Blain. Josiah took advantage of his lapse and swung his legs into the back of Blain's. The chains around his ankles hindered his movement, but it was enough to knock Blain off his feet. As he fell backwards his head struck the stone wall with sickening thwack.
Nathan turned to see their remaining guard frisk Doarg's body. Pulling out Marquay's paper, he said, "Every command but release. Well, I guess it's a good thing that I liberated the key from Marquay. By the way, Josiah, how did you end up in such a sorry state?" As he spoke he unlocked the manacles around Josiah's ankles and wrists.
"Would you believe me, Ezra, if I said I was looking for you?" Josiah's question caused both men to chuckle. Nathan let himself feel a small glimmer of hope.
Vin crept forward several inches before settling, his prone form melding seamlessly with the barren landscape. He had moved no more than a few feet in the last several hours. In part, because his perch near several large boulders was about as close to the Glass Cliffs as one could get with out being on the glass itself. Personally, Vin preferred to avoid the razor edges and piercing tips, not to mention the fact that its reflective surface would often give your location away to your opponents. Another reason for Vin's still surveillance was the steady flow of demons passing him on all sides. The canine Storm demons, multi-limbed ape like Hob demons, and Vin was certain he had seen the reflection of at least a dozen Flame demons lower down the cliffs. Then about three hours ago, Vin had witnessed a clan of Storm warriors lead two wounded Viper demons towards the cliffs. They had taken a winding path through the jagged glass to a sleek precipice. There the group waited near a cluster of dark, glossy tunnels. After a few minutes, a Storm War Queen approached the injured serpents. She placed something on their crested heads and then began to talk to them in a series of growls and barks. The Viper hissed a reply and the War Queen barked towards a near cave. Seconds later, an Elf, clearly a Black Churcher, joined the group. She healed both of the Vipers' injuries then offered them freshly slain mutton. When the creatures had eaten their fill they were given safe passage back to their territory.
Part of Vin had wanted to leave right then and get word back to the Empire. After all, this was what he had set out to do. He had wanted to find out how many demon tribes were involved in the alliance and after watching then for an entire day and night he felt he had a good idea. The heart of the alliance was between the Storms and Hobs. There were Flame demons involved but not in any great numbers. And the Vipers had been contacted but hadn't brought in troops yet. But, another part of Vin whispered that there was more to learn, more the Empire needed to know.
He hadn't intended to take on this dangerous scout, but things never went as intended in Chaos. Vin had been returning from a deep Chaos recon when he happened upon the tail end of a battle. In the distance, he could see three Chaos Riders riding hard as both Storm and Hob demons chased after them. Vin figured the poor devils must have somehow stumbled into a demon skirmish. Hearing a bit of noise nearby, he cautiously moved forward to investigate. He quickly spotted two Hob demons stripping the bodies of three other Chaos Riders. From the amount of burn markers and blood, both human and demon, it was clear that quite a battle had been fought. Once Vin was certain the Hobs were alone, he leapt forward, blades out, silencing the Hobs before they could voice a single screech. A wet gurgle behind him caused Vin to spin. His eyes met those of a Chaos Rider who was still alive, if just barely. The warrior reached for Vin. Vin took a quick glance around to confirm that there were no more demons, then moved to the man's side. He gently placed a discarded saddlebag under the man's head in an attempt to make him more comfortable. He didn't bother trying to stop the bleeding. Vin was no healer, and even if he were the injuries were so serious and numerous that it would likely take several healers to properly repair the damage. The man before him was going to die, probably within a matter of minutes, and they both knew it.
"Chr- . . . Christopher escape?" the question was half demand, half plea.
"I saw three riders being pursued from here. They had a good lead and it seemed to be getting better." The man's relief was obvious so Vin didn't add that the Riders had been cut off from the Ward Wall and were heading deeper into Chaos. "Have you got a name, Pard?"
"Jon. Bella and Silva were others." Jon motioned weakly towards the bodies near him. Fumbling in one of his pockets Jon pulled out a small velvet bag. He stared at it for a second before pressing it into Vin's hand. "For my lady Gwen . . . in Kasha. Bella's saddlebag . . . pictures for her girls. And Silva . . . enchanted flute . . . sell for orphans fund."
"I understand," assured Vin. "It will all be taken care of."
"Bring the others . . . closer. I'll finish it." as Jon spoke a small flame jumped from his fingertips. "Won't . . . be demon fare."
"Are you sure?" asked Vin. He knew what the man was planning was sure to make his last seconds pure agony. Jon just nodded, his eyes falling closed. Vin moved the bodies of the fallen Chaos riders to Jon's side. He took the pictures from the dead mount's saddlebag and pulled the flute from its place in Silva's belt. He also took a coarse hair-string decorated with demon claws from around Bella's neck. It wasn't as valuable as an enchanted flute but it would still bring a fair amount of coin in the empire. There were always those who wanted 'genuine Chaos souvenirs'. He would see the coins got to Bella's daughters. Once the bodies had been moved and the personal effect collected Vin reached over to Jon and gently shook his shoulder.
"Must warn . . . the Empire," Jon roused with a hoarse whisper.
"It's okay, Jon," soothed Vin. "Three of your pards got away. The Empire will know what happened here."
"Not enough," gasped Jon desperately. "If Chris is caught . . . Empire must know . . . demon alliance!"
The last two words made every muscle in Vin's body clench. Vin raised his eyes to the surrounding battlefield once more. He had assumed that his fellow riders had accidentally crossed paths with two already warring demon tribes. But now that he examined the arena of combat he saw several points that were inconsistent with his previous assumption. The Hob bodies lacked the distinctive wounds made by the thick sabers that Storm demons favored. Nor were the Storm bodies pierced with spears or crushed with clubs as Hobs usually fought. Then there was the placement of the bodies. Instead of the Hobs coming from one direction and the Storms another, it looked as though the demons were mingled together with all of their violence focused on the Chaos Riders. How was this possible? Vin shook his head. In Chaos, the impossible was not only possible it was commonplace. How was irrelevant.
"I understand," said Vin. "One way or another the Empire will be told of the alliance." His assurances seemed to set Jon's mind at ease. "You've fulfilled your duty and shown purpose for your life. I'm honored; to be granted your last words." Vin spoke from the traditional Elvin last rights. He didn't know what words humans used under such circumstances, but Jon didn't seem to mind.
"You should move back," whispered Jon. His face took on a sudden glow of defiance. "I intend . . . to go out with a BANG!"
Vin rose to his feet and gathered his belongings. "I'll be close by until it's over," said Vin. Too many Riders died alone and unmourned. Standing vigil was an easy thing to do.
"Not . . . too close. Demons drawn by . . . flames," warned Jon. Vin nodded an acknowledgement. Vin could see Jon's lips continuing to move but the magical chant was too quiet to be heard. For almost eight minutes Vin stood in silent regard, protecting Jon and his lost companions while the young warrior mage gathered the strength for one final spell. One moment Jon was chanting his spell, the next all three were consumed by a giant ball of fire. There were no screams, so Vin hoped that meant that Jon had died while casting the spell, before the flames engulfed them.
Knowing the flames would indeed draw unhealthy attention, Vin began to move, covering his tracks as he went. He probably should have headed straight for the Ward Wall. The majority of the demons in the area would be chasing Larabee's group and Vin knew he could sneak past the few that remained. But what if there was more to be learned. There were places into which an individual could sneak that a group couldn't hope to go. The more information the Empire had the better prepared they would be for the threat.
So it was that Vin crept, evaded and crawled his way deep within the demon stronghold. He had left his horse several miles back in a closed valley. The mount was reasonably safe there since few could scale its sheer walls. The entrance to the valley was blocked with boulders and only a mountain goat, or Chaos mutated goat-horse like Peso, could get into the valley.
A flurry of movement on the precipice brought Vin back to the present. The Elvin mage was exiting one of the tunnels again, this time in the company of another mage. He looked to be an older human, maybe in his fifth decade. And the Elf mage was clearly deferring to him. The couple was approached by the Storm War Queen, who carried on an exchange with the head mage before motioning others to join them. Two Storm mages and a Flame demon approached. The larger of the Storm mages gestured and storm clouds began to form. Seconds later the small cloud was producing rain wind and small bolts of lightening; all the while the human mage watched closely. After several demonstrations the Human began to mimic the Storm mage, creating a duplicate storm. Vin could see a crisp red tint to the spell effect, which could only mean Chaos magic, something that all Imperial mages were forbidden. When they were done with their storm clouds, the Flame demon moved forward. It began to make the flames on its body shift and grow in different directions. This time it was the Elvin sorceress who copied the demon's magic. This was not good. Vin couldn't remember ever having heard of Imperial mages actually using Chaos magic. Then the Human started making lightening bolts and fireballs, this time using shimmering blue Imperial magic. Soon the demons were following his lead. He was teaching them Imperial magic!
It was time to retreat. Vin had to pull back and get word to the Empire. The level of magic being used was far beyond his ability to combat. Swift, yet elusive, Vin took the next several hours to work his way back to Peso. Once the two were rejoined Vin headed due south. It would be a hard ride, straight for the Ward Wall.
Ezra finished unlocking the manacles around Nathan's limbs only to re-secure them around the ankles and wrists of an unconscious Blain and the now dead Doarg.
"I hope our presence isn't putting you in too much danger," said Josiah.
"I believe that it is Mr. Marquay's presence that puts myself and so many others in jeopardy. Speaking of which, are you capable of neutralizing the connection between yourself and the blood Marquay has taken?" As Ezra asked this, he continued to work. He stripped the cloaks off of Blain and Doarg. And used Blain's sash to wipe away the blood from Doarg's wound. Across the room Nathan had been in the process of retrieving their weapons, but he stilled to hear the more experienced mage's response.
"Capable, yes, but it will involve rituals that will take several hours to complete. Marquay will probably know this. When he learns that we've escaped he'll likely move up his plans to ensure that I don't have time to finish those rituals," admitted Josiah.
Ezra nodded thoughtfully. Glancing again at the scrap of paper Marquay had left with his guard, Ezra spoke the word "withdraw". The glowing anchor ring pulled the two men's bodies into the cramped hole in the wall. It moved slower than before since it only had one life to draw its energy from, but soon they were in place. A bit of shoving and the limbs were forced to fit. "Confine," said Ezra, and the wall sealed. Turning back to Josiah, Ezra asked, "What if the challis were emptied somehow?"
"Well, pouring the blood out wouldn't be enough. It would have to be cleansed of all traces of our blood. Preferably with alcohol or a cleaning fluid of some sort. And the blood itself would have to be disposed of in a manner that would make it impossible for Marquay to retrieve it," explained Josiah.
"I'll deal with the challis, but first we need to get the two of you out of here." Ezra shook out the two cloaks he had just filched. "These will probably be a bit small for you gentlemen, but it's the best I can do on short notice."
"Now wait just a minute. Nathan and I aren't going to leave you here by yourself. When our escape is discovered Marquay will know that you're to blame. We should all leave now," said Josiah as he accepted his weapons from a silent Nathan.
"No," said Ezra. "The blood in that challis needs to be destroyed, and not just because it will be used to suck both the magic and the life from the two of you. Without access to your blood and hence your magic, Marquay will be forced to either power the spell himself and risk his own death, or postpone, for at least a little while, his plans to break the Ward Wall. Besides I need you gentlemen to assist with another task. Marquay has insisted that the members of the Church of Chaos Encroaching be present for his 'grand triumph'. Many, too many, of those members have brought their families into the tunnels. That includes children whose only crime was being born to the wrong parents. Just imagine what will happen to them if Marquay succeeds and Chaos demons pour into the Empire through these tunnels."
"They'll be slaughtered!" exclaimed Nathan. The danger of their situation was the only thing that kept him from cursing Marquay and the Black Church at the top of his lungs.
"Precisely," agreed Ezra. "I need the two of you to escort the children out of the tunnels. A wizened crone by the name of Nettie has agreed to provide safe haven to any children I send her. Meanwhile, I will find the challis and wash away all traces of your blood. I'm well trusted by most here and no one will question my movements. By the time someone discovers Blain and Doarg, I will be in Corners with Constable JD calling for reinforcements."
"Son, I don't like leaving you here with no one to help you." As soon as the words were out of Josiah's mouth he wished he could recall them. The last thing he wanted to do was restart an old argument. But Ezra didn't react with his typical sarcastic anger.
"Josiah, you should realize I'm a long way from the child you once protected," Ezra spoke with a resignation that indicated he was not proud of the intervening years. Nathan, now rearmed and somewhat disguised in Blain's too short cloak, waited patiently as the two men spoke. It occurred to Nathan that this was hardly the ideal location for a long desired reunion. But, having lost his mother and suffered a long estrangement from his father, Nathan could understand Josiah's need to reconnect.
"True," admitted Josiah. "I had so many hopes and expectations for that child." At Josiah's confession, Ezra seemed to shrink a bit. Locking his gaze on Ezra, Josiah added, "but the man I see before me has far exceeded those expectations and what's more, he has done it on his own."
Ezra was absolutely still for a moment as he absorbed the compliment. A second later he straightened, bringing himself back to the situation at hand. "Then you'll trust me to deal with the challis while you safeguard the children." Realizing that Ezra wasn't going to budge, Josiah nodded his acceptance. "Good," said Ezra, "Now that you have rearmed yourselves, I believe we should vacate the premises. Be sure to keep the hoods of your cloaks up. We don't want to attract unwanted attention."
Ezra opened the door a crack to check the hallway. Seeing it was clear he motioned for the others to follow him. Josiah and Nathan both tried to keep track of the twists and turns they were taking but it was not easy. Josiah had the feeling that Ezra was taking them through side passages to avoid the main corridors. The architecture of the tunnels was much like a typical mine. Dirt and rock surrounded them, broken only by support beams and a few rough doors. Ezra stopped them at an intersection, saying, "stay here." He swung around the corner and moved several feet to a door. Knocking twice he opened it saying, "Please excuse my interruption, ladies, but Teresa's particular experience is required by the smithy." Since the women inside knew of Terry's training by her father, a locksmith, they merely said goodbye promised to save a meal for her. Closing the door Ezra led Terry back to Josiah and Nathan.
"We're getting the children out?" asked Terry before Ezra could begin introductions.
"Yes," said Ezra. "Gentlemen, this is Teresa, more commonly known as Terry. Teresa, Josiah and his friend will protect you and the children should someone discover you before your freedom is achieved. We need to get moving before the next shift change."
"What I'm wondering is, what time is it? We've seen lots of people moving around but it feels like it should be the middle of the night," said Nathan.
"It is the middle of the night. Could you sleep if you knew the Ward Wall was about to be opened?" countered Terry. She was a blond with fair skin and gentle eyes that seemed very out of place in their dark burrow.
"I suppose not, Ma'am," agreed Nathan. "I'm Nathan Jackson." He extended his hand. After they shook, Josiah did the same.
"Marquay has been keeping everyone on rotating shifts. There are always tunnels to be dug. He insisted that our 'demon allies' will need them for a successful invasion." informed Ezra. He led the group back the way they came, then veered into a side shaft to the left. Halting once again he asked, "Are you ready, Miss Teresa?"
"For Olivia, I'm ready for anything," she responded. Then she approached another door. Opening it she greeted a Glynis and stepped inside.
"How did Terry get involved in this mess?" asked Josiah as the men waited in the hall.
"Terry lost her husband about a year ago to a riding accident. Since then she's lost their land and stock to one of the less reputable cattlemen in the area. She was reduced to begging handouts to feed her daughter, Olivia. She was seriously considering following her father's career as a safecracker. Then a scoundrel by the name of Riordan promised a safe home for her and Olivia in exchange for completing a series of locks. It wasn't until they'd moved into their new dwelling that Teresa realized that not only was she working for the Black Church, but that she had taken up residence in their stronghold. She parroted their views so they wouldn't see her as a threat, but Riordan still doesn't trust her. Despite, or perhaps because, he was the one who manipulated her cooperation, he's been quite paranoid about her loyalty to the cause. The few times Terry's been permitted to leave the tunnels, Riordan has made sure that Olivia was forced to stay behind."
The door opened and Terry motioned them to join her. Inside they found a bound and gagged Glynis and fourteen children ranging in age from fifteen to just a year. A young brunette held Terry's hand and glared fiercely at the two strangers. Despite the difference in hair color Josiah found enough of a resemblance to conclude that the girl was Terry's Olivia.
"Gather round, and listen close," said Ezra, squatting down to the children's level. "I've told you all that I would find a way to keep you safe and I have." As he spoke the youngest toddler tried to climb onto Ezra's arm. Ezra settled the boy on his knee and continued. "Miss Teresa, with the assistance of my friends Mr. Josiah and Mr. Nathan, will escort you all to the residence of Ms. Nettie. She will keep you safe from both the demons and their foolish allies."
"What about Egan?" asked the nine-year-old, redheaded Evan.
Ezra glanced to Egan's best friend Riley. Riley explained, "Egan's father insisted it was time he prove his loyalty to the cause and start digging in the tunnels."
Ezra hid his dismay and said, "I will try to find Egan later but right now all of you must leave. Now, I'll expect the older children to help the little ones along. I need all of you to be quieter than church mice. Go gather your things and don't forget the special slippers we made to make our feet extra quiet." Ezra handed the toddler he held to one of the older girls, then rejoined his peers. "This is a map of the tunnels I've been able to explore thus far." He unrolled the soft leather hide. "We're here now." Ezra pointed out there location. "You'll need to turn right when you leave this room, continue until a T-intersection, and then turn left, followed by another right. Teresa knows most of the route so there shouldn't be a problem. I've hidden a small wagon and a couple of horses about one hundred yards due east of the exit. From there you can follow the stream right to Nettie's."
"I really don't like the thought of leaving that Egan boy behind," said Nathan. "It don't seem right that he's gonna suffer for his parents' choices."
"Mr. Jackson, there are over fifty children scattered throughout this maze. It simply isn't possible to save them all." Ezra spoke in a business-like tone.
"So what, you're not even going to try to help any others? What gives you the right to choose who stays and who goes?" demanded Nathan. He had seen literally dozens of Riders, trained in both battle and magic, brutally slain by the Storm demons. He simply couldn't accept leaving innocent children unprotected in their path.
"Nathan," Josiah tried to think of something that would calm his friend.
"Do you think I want to leave any child here to be sacrificed to Marquay's insanity? The simple fact is that I didn't pick them. They picked me. Many of the children here have expressed doubts about The Black Church's goals. Those that haven't have at least one parent who did," said Ezra. "As for the children not here, most of them would probably raise the alarm if we were to try to rescue them." Nathan looked ready to refute him but he never got the chance.
"It's true, Sir," said the oldest boy, Riley. "My brother's out in those tunnels digging right now, digging because he wants to help the demons overrun the Empire. Both of our parents are Black Churchers. And I don't know why he grew up believing what they said when I don't. I just know that if he thought we were trying to stop the demons he'd probably try to gut us himself."
Nathan wasn't sure how to respond to that.
"You have to understand," explained Ezra. "Most of the children here believe their parents when they're told that the coming demon army is something to be celebrated. Just as I'm sure you believed the things your parents told you when you were a child."
"The children are all ready," said Terry.
Ezra handed the leather map to Josiah saying, "It is time for us to part company. I will meet you in Corners by dawn if all goes well."
"We'll be gathering at the Refuge. Be careful, Son." warned Josiah.
"Don't worry, Josiah," said Ezra, his grin causing his gold tooth to sparkle in the lamp light. "It will take more than a few Black Churchers to stop me."
Ezra kept the hood of his cloak up as he traveled through the increasingly crowded passageways. Most of the people here would take little notice of him, but discretion was still the better part of valor. He was in a section of tunnels dubbed 'the Plaza'. It was a large, natural cavern dotted with stalactites and stalagmites. Every cave and tunnel in the Black Church maze connected to the Plaza in one way or another. It was large enough that a variety of workshops had been set up. There were even a few carts bearing foodstuffs. It was also the base of operations for the 'tunnel project'. Isleen, a stout Dwarf maid, was in charge. She was the architect of the labyrinth, having plotted out the best ways to disperse the demon hordes through the tunnels and into the Empire. Some of the caves went for miles, even passing into the providence of Menal. Others opened near streams or ended in the field of some poor unsuspecting farmer. The plan was that once the demon reached the caves there would be no easy way for the Empire to stop them. Even now, Ezra could hear Isleen directing others to lengthen the tunnels towards Kasha. Her workers were a mixed lot of Humans, Elves and Dwarves with a single Reptiad in their midst. Ezra had noticed that Reptiads were much less likely to join the Black Church, perhaps because their race had spent so many more years under the yoke of Chaos. Making a mental note that at least a couple of the tunnels apparently exited near Kasha, Ezra continued through the Plaza towards the tunnel reserved for Marquay and the other magic users.
It never ceased to amaze him how many people were willing to fall for the Black Church's delusional dogma. It was a well-known fact that the demon tribes of Chaos were in a constant state of war. Yet, just moments ago Ezra overheard two dwarves discussing how nice it would be to share their land with their demon brethren. Did they truly expect the demons would take one look at the bounty of the Empire, drop their swords and take up farming? A couple of days ago an Elf had talked of hunting game with a Storm demon as he would with a hound. As if any demon would play the part of a docile pet. Ezra was quite certain the demons would continue to do the same things they had spent the last 500 years in Chaos doing. They would take what they wanted, destroy what they couldn't take and kill anything that got in their way. Ezra hadn't realized how hard it would be to hear such drivel yet not scoff, laugh or outright declare the speaker a moron.
It was true that the Black Church did have a few valid, though minor complaints. The ranking system was very rigid. There were also a few at the level of Master that abused the power their rank provided. But most Masters were reasonable people, and those who misused their rank often found themselves stripped of it. For the most part ranking rewarded those who were willing to put forth a good effort. It encouraged a strong work ethic and concrete results. Ezra was willing to admit that it got tiresome, having people judge him after a single glance at the badges on his sash. But the alternative the Black Church wanted to provide was anarchy, and that was unacceptable.
Taking the second tunnel on the northeast side of the Plaza, Ezra noticed the almost immediate absence of sound. It reminded him of the City of Sorcerers. Because so much of magic use required focus and concentration, the sparkling spires that housed the magic students were unnaturally quiet. No doubt some spell had been employed to block the clamor of the Plaza and let the mages work in peace. There weren't many doors in this hallway, only two on each side and one at the end. It was the room at the end that Ezra knew was Marquay's inner sanctum. Ezra examined the door looking for any obvious traps. Most people would be surprised by how many mages relied on mundane methods to protect their belongings. Seeing only an ordinary lock, and knowing there was nothing he could do if it was protected by magic, Ezra slowly opened the door.
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Josiah and Nathan both traveled at a quick jog to keep up with the horses and wagon that Terry was driving. There was no way to tell where their own mounts were. Marquay could have turned them over to someone else or just left them loose in the valley. Either way, they were on foot for the time being. The children were piled into the back of the wagon while Olivia and Riley rode the bench next to Terry. They had been traveling for almost an hour following the river just as Ezra instructed. Seeing part of a farmhouse through the trees, they came to a halt.
"If you'll wait here, I'll make sure this is Nettie's place," said Josiah. Nathan nodded, while Terry shushed the children who had begun to chatter excitedly. Josiah walked up to group of structures noting the wear on the buildings that indicated a working farm. The windows were all dark, not surprising considering the time of night. Knowing that few people would be tolerant of unannounced visitors after dark, Josiah decided to make his presence known. "Hello to the house. May a traveler approach?" He waited several minutes as a dim light appeared in one of the windows. A bit of mumbling could be heard and then the door opened. A figure moved through the entrance, stepping to the side so as not to be backlit. But Josiah had enough time to discern a small frame, white hair and a loaded crossbow. He waited patiently for the figure to make their move. Not that he enjoyed being a target, but he was the trespasser. As the clouds moved away from the moon, Josiah was startled by a twin reflection. Chaos Fire! Suddenly Ezra's choice of protector for the children made much more sense. He hadn't selected an old woman; he'd selected an old Chaos Warrior.
"So how can we help you, Stranger?" Nettie asked with the crossbow bolt aimed at Josiah's chest. "This is a mighty long way for someone to come on foot."
"My name is Josiah, son of Sanchez, Priest of the Sunbird and I'm here as a favor to a friend. He mentioned that you would be willing to provide sanctuary to some lost lambs."
Nettie examined Josiah critically. "You look a bit long in the tooth to be considered a lamb, Father Sanchez."
The all-too-accurate assessment drew a throaty chuckle from Josiah. "That's true, Ma'am. But I'm just here as an escort to the children. If you'll allow me to fetch the wagon?" At Nettie's hesitant nod Josiah headed back to Nathan and the others. Within a few moments the children were filing into the house.
"Cassie, start serving the biscuits and gravy. We need to feed the little ones before we move them down to the cellar. It's the only place I have that's big enough to hold them all where they won't be seen. It will just be for a couple of days. Now I want everyone to visit the wash room, too," instructed Nettie. Casey started dishing out hearty bowls of food while Terry lined up the children to relieve themselves and clean up before their meal. Nettie watched the children move about her house. They were huddled together in clinging groups whispering nervous questions to each other. But they followed Nettie's instructions, relatively at ease with the gruff old warrior. Moving closer to Nathan and Josiah, Nettie asked, "Weren't their supposed to be fifteen children?"
It was Nathan who answered with a frown. "I'm afraid one of the older boys had been ordered to work in the tunnels by his father. Ezra was going to try to find the boy before he left. But I don't think it's likely."
Nettie nodded knowingly. "So Ezra's the name of that gambling peacock. I don't mind saying I was a might hesitant to trust that fellow at first. But his worry for the children convinced me. How come he's not here with you? He said he'd lead the children out right before he called the army in. Did something go wrong?"
"No," said Josiah, "At least not so far. Ezra had an opportunity to stall the Black Church plans and felt he had to take it." Josiah didn't mention that Ezra was acting as much to protect him as slow the Black Church. He still felt more than a little guilty about the risks Ezra was taking. "We have plans to meet with him and a fighting force in Corners at dawn."
"Speaking of which," added Nathan, "We should move the wagon into the barn and unhitch the horses. They'll get us to Corners a lot faster."
"I can help, Sir," offered Riley. The two headed outside.
"Perhaps I can help, too," said Terry. "I noticed that Ezra's map lacked labels and warnings. For instance," Terry unrolled the map, "These three tunnels here are set to collapse if the army attacks. I don't know the twists and turns quite as well as Ezra but I'd be happy to mark what I do know."
"Well, if you think you're up to it. It might be best if you came with Nathan and I to Corners. We'll be meeting with a group of Chaos Riders and the local law. I'm sure they'd all like to hear from you, what's down in those tunnels. I know it's asking a lot, especially since you and your daughter only just escaped the Black Church. But right now we need to use every advantage available," Josiah persuaded with his deep voice.
Terry looked at Olivia munching biscuits at the table. "I'll go with you." Turning to Nettie she asked, "Is there anything I can do to help with the children before I go?"
Nettie shook her head, "I think these young ones and I will get along fine. And you can be sure that I'll keep your little girl safe until this skirmish is over."
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If this had been some legend or a Bard's tale, the challis which Ezra sought would have been hidden behind a secret panel or placed upon a dark alter. Instead, in Ezra's rather anti-climactic reality, the challis sat in plain view on a rather ordinary table next to a wardrobe. He verified that it was the right challis, still holding Josiah and Nathan's blood. Then he moved over a small drain near the wall. He wasn't sure which of the Churchers had put the sewer system in place, but he was thankful that they had. While not nearly as complex as one found in a city, it was sufficient to give sanitation and relief to those living in the caves. Ezra lifted the grate covering the drain and poured the blood down; the small but continuous trickle of water quickly washed most of it away. Then he pulled a hefty wineskin and a flask from beneath his cloak. With the flask he poured a high strength alcohol to wash out the challis, not once, but three times. He even went so far as to lay a lit match in the challis, letting the alcohol and flame burn away the last remnants of blood.
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On the road just a mile out of Corners both Josiah and Nathan reined in their horses as they felt the slightest tingling in their bones.
Behind Nathan, Terry asked, "Is something wrong?"
"No, something is right. Ezra purified the challis. With a little more luck he should catch up to us in Corners in no more than two hours." Josiah didn't bother to stop the shine of pride on his face.
"Then let's get going," insisted Nathan. "The sooner we let others know the better I'll feel."
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When Ezra was certain the challis was clean he refilled it with red wine from the wineskin. It wouldn't fool anyone who looked at the challis too closely but it would probably pass a glance inspection. The rest of the wine went down the drain to wash away any blood still there. Ezra set the grate back over the drain and laid the challis in its spot on the table. Tucking away his flask and wineskin he examined the room to see if he'd left any sign of his presence. Satisfied with what he saw he headed to the door. Halfway there he heard voices, one of which he recognized as Marquay. Knowing he had only a few seconds to disappear he climbed into the wardrobe and hoped for the best.
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In the early pre dawn hours the only lights in Corners were at the Refuge. Pulling up to the hitching rail, Josiah swung off first, and then helped Terry down, leaving Nathan to dismount last.
"We were starting to wonder if you'd gotten lost or maybe eaten by a mountain lion," declared Buck from his pose on the boardwalk. Catching sight of Terry, both his voice and demeanor changed. "If I'd known you were going to be traveling with such a lovely young lady, I'd have gone with you. Ma'am," Buck stepped close to Terry, "my name is Buck and I want you to know that I am at your service: ready, willing and able to fulfill any desire you might have." He finished with a light kiss on her knuckles.
"Thank you, Mr. Buck. If you would just direct me to Constable JD." Terry's request caused Buck to still as just a hint of chagrin passed his face.
"Now, Ma'am, I don't know what problem you may have, but I'm quite sure that I could provide you with far more experience then that boy," Buck's tone was half exasperation, half plea. He couldn't believe that another woman was choosing JD's company over his. He was far more handsome and charming than that boy.
"I understand that Constable JD is quite young for his position. But my friend was positive that he was the one I should place my trust in," Terry was polite but insistent.
After a second of silence Buck pointed to Refuge's door. "He's the short dark-haired fellow sitting at the table with the blond haired Chaos Rider dressed in black."
Josiah and Nathan had by this time tied off the horses and loosened their girths. Taking their weapons off the saddles they followed after Terry. It wasn't until Nathan was at the door that his mirth broke through. "So Buck, are you coming in with us or is Inez still threatening to crack your skull with a whiskey bottle?" Buck spun towards Nathan with a growl, ready to show him just what he thought of Nate's comment, but Nathan was already ducking through the door.
Inside Refuge there was a surprisingly large crowd. Word had traveled fast and more than one Rider had left their home for a chance to campaign with the Valiant Lancers. A few had even come because they heard Christopher would be involved. JD was very aware that he was being granted far more respect than he usually received from the Riders, and it was because Chris had invited him to his table. JD had been accurate earlier when he said he didn't know Christopher from Fialchar. But while he'd never met either person before today, he did know both indirectly. Fialchar was the evil specter of every horror story as well as the boogeyman many frustrated parents threatened their children with. Christopher wasn't quite so infamous but JD had heard four separate tales about his journeys in Chaos. The bards especially focused on his ability to intimidate even demons into backing down. JD wondered what it would be like to be feared by demons. The Riders seemed to part and between them walked Josiah escorting a young blond.
"Ms. Teresa?" asked JD as he rose, remembering Ezra's description of the young mother skilled with locks. Chris nodded to the newcomers but didn't stand.
"Only Ezra insists on calling me that. Please, it's just Terry." Terry had to admit that despite Ezra's warning about how young the Constable was, she was still surprised by his appearance.
"Is little Olivia okay?" JD's question relaxed Terry immediately.
"Yes, for the first time in weeks she's safe. Thanks to you, Ezra and these gentlemen," Terry replied.
"All I did was vouch for Ezra to Miss Nettie. Ezra did all of the arranging," said JD.
"Where is Ezra?" asked Chris.
"He had to complete one more task before he was willing to leave but he should be here by sunrise." Josiah pulled out a chair for Terry to sit at then laid out the map that Ezra had given him.
Chris held up a hand to stop Josiah before he started talking. Turning to the proprietress of the bar he said, "Inez, I'm going to need Buck back in here."
"I have no objections as long as it's okay with Constable JD." Inez's sweet tone belied her mischievous grin.
"I've got no problems," insisted JD. Inez left the bar making her way to the door.
Chris stood up and immediately the noise level dropped a bit. Chris looked over the Riders congregated and spotted several that he knew and respected. "Fergus, Sheehan would you join us for a few minutes?" The Dwarf and Elf had just settled into chairs when Buck sauntered up.
"You wanted me, War Dog?" Buck's use of Chris's old nickname was a subtle indication of a mental change. He'd ceased to be the carefree charmer and was now a focused and deadly warrior.
"We've got a battle coming," replied Chris, "and we don't have much time to prepare."
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The door opened and Marquay motioned for his companion to precede him into the room. "I must admit, Ena, that our plan is working out better than I had hoped. With two mages to draw from, there will be more than enough power for our spell requirements." Marquay stepped into his small, sparsely furnished room. Most mages of his ability would have far more possessions. But Marquay saw little need for anything that did not help him forward his goal.
The first time he had stepped into Chaos he had recognized its cruel beauty. Yet it wasn't until he was back in the Empire that he realized its true power. Numerous mages had spent their lives building and maintaining the Ward Walls to keep Chaos out. But the truth was, there wasn't a wall that could be built that could contain Chaos. Chaos was in unplanned pregnancies and unexpected deaths, in illogical hatreds and frivolous loves. Chaos manifested itself in weather, in the roll of dice and most especially in man. Years ago, Marquay had heard a Chaos Rider refer to leaving the Empire as 'leaving the womb'. That one simple phrase made Marquay realize that the Imperial Ward Wall wasn't protecting humanity. The new races of man were waiting to be born and the Ward Wall was preventing their birth. The Empire was stifling its people by applauding conformity and praising mediocrity. At the same time it was labeling the extraordinary as freakish and evil. He knew then that the Black Church was right. It was Chaos that would push the races of humanity to evolve into something greater. Marquay's current plan was only the first step in bringing that evolution to pass. He didn't have the rosy view that some Churchers held. He knew that their actions would create a high death toll. But he viewed it as a necessary culling of chaff. People would either adapt, or be swept away for the useless creatures they were.
Marquay hung his cloak on a hook by the door, and then took Ena's to do the same. Ena was tall and slender as was the nature of her Elvin heritage. Her once dark eyes now bore the milky sparkle of Chaos Fire thanks to her many trips to Chaos via the tunnels. Her pale skin remained unchanged but her black hair had taken on several flattering red streaks. That her hair had also become as stiff as steel was something that few realized. Ena was born the eldest of twins. Her sickly younger sister had been born with a malformed arm. Ena had lost count of the number of children who called her sister a mutant, or Chaos spawn. It was the intolerance of others that started her on her path. But soon she realized there was a certain thrill to breaking the rules simply because you could. And Marquay encouraged the Churchers to experiment as long as it didn't interfere with their long-term goals.
"I'm still not sure that we'll be able to create a breach in the Ward Wall even drawing magic from the Sunbirder and the Rider," worried Ena. Capturing them was a big risk and she wanted to be sure it was worth it.
"That's because you're not aware of our other advantage. Some years ago, during one of my own forays into Chaos, I found the ruins of a sorcerer's keep. It held many useful trinkets and books, some of which I sold to finance our cause and others that I kept to expand my knowledge beyond that which the City of Sorcerers teach." Marquay passed his hand over an ordinary section of wall. A second latter an indent appeared and in it was a ruby capped wand.
"You found this in the ruins?" Marquay nodded in answer to Ena's question. "That means this is older than the Empire and Chaos," Ena whispered in awe.
"Indeed. I learned that what we now consider Chaos magic was once just as acceptable as Imperial magic. Mages simply chose the style they were more comfortable with. The sorcerer that made this wand was, well I guess you could call him magically ambidextrous. As such the wand can switch from Imperial to Chaotic magic almost instantaneously. It can even, under the right circumstances, work both types of magic simultaneously."
Thunk! Inside Marquay's wardrobe Ezra was cursing himself. Listening in on Marquay's conversation had seemed like a good idea. But what he had heard had so shocked him that he'd momentarily forgotten where he was. Now he not only had a nasty bump on his head, but he was also quite certain that Marquay had heard him. Deciding that the best defense was a good offense, Ezra launched himself out of the wardrobe. He had traveled perhaps three feet when bolts of red electricity overtook him. He curled into a fetal ball in a vain attempt to ride out the pain. Ezra was too crippled to look and see what Marquay was doing but seeing the challis thrown near his feet gave him a clue.
"Ena, check on our prisoners immediately!" Marquay ordered. Ezra heard the door hit the wall and rebound shut seconds later. Fingers threaded through Ezra's hair and his head was jerked back. "Erik, I do believe that you're going to regret your actions before you die." An increase in the intensity of the electrical current drove Ezra into a black oblivion.