March 22, Year 1308 of the Common Age
Lightning fractured the ink-black sky while a howling wind drove sheets of rain against the windows of Nellemar Atreyano’s private chamber in the summit of the Seilheth Tower. Two hours earlier he’d had one of the servants pull back the heavy velvet drapes so he could watch the storm’s approach from the east. The storm had slammed into Gedsengard Isle like a hammer a short time later, a fury of wind and rain, thunder and lightning, and raging sea. Something has angered Paérendras, he thought, slouched in a cushioned high-backed chair that faced the tall windows. It had been a long time since the sea god of Khedesh had shown such rage and wroth, and Nellemar was not one to miss such displays. So much rain struck the rattling panes of glass that he could see nothing beyond the windows but flickering, ghostly smears of illumination as lightning licked across the sky – followed, one after another, by a room-shaking crack of thunder. The smoldering, dwindling light of the fire in the room’s hearth cast a sullen red glow across the room, but he made no move to stoke the flames – he was warm enough, and more light would only make it harder to see outside.
The lightning flashes grew less frequent, and the rain lessened enough so that he could once again peer beyond the glass. If he leaned forward and strained his eyes he could just make out the rim of Barresh Harbor far below Castle Cressan, and the wavering yellow light of the Fist upon Harrow’s Rock beyond the harbor’s southern edge. There were a few lights visible within the walls of Palendrell, even dimmer than the guidelight of the Fist, but for the most part the town that encircled the harbor was completely black, its people shut safely behind the locked doors and shuttered windows of their stone houses.
Nellemar stretched and yawned. It was getting late, and it seemed the worst of the storm was passing. There would be little else for him to see, even perched as he was more than a thousand feet above the quays and piers of Palendrell, though he knew the dawn would reveal a great amount of damage to the boats and ships clinging to the rim of the harbor like barnacles on a hull. Such vicious storms left capsized boats, battered piers, broken masts, and splintered spars in their wake.
He began the long spiraling descent through the Seilheth Tower, whose foundations lay in the bedrock at the top of the cliff that frowned down upon the harbor. The castle itself was built upon three separate shelves of rock cut into the cliff face, one above the other like the tiers of a layered cake. High walls with drum towers completely enclosed the buildings on each tier, as much to protect the castle inhabitants from accidental falls as defend against invaders.
The circular wall of the stair had been lined with dark brick after being cut from the bedrock, and an iron handrail was bolted through the brick into the hard stone behind it. Nellemar carried a lantern in one hand and gripped the rail with the other. The stair was steep and long, and a fall here could easily break his neck.
He allowed his mind to wander a little as he made his way downward. He would be sailing for Almaris soon, for his niece Claressa’s wedding to Baris Toresh of Tolthean. As the younger brother of King Abran, it was Nellemar’s duty to be present at the marriage of a princess of the realm. He was also Grand Admiral of the naval fleet of Khedesh and Warden of the Seas, charged with protecting the trade routes of the Gulf of Gedsuel from pirates and corsairs.
Nellemar at last reached the door at the end of the stairs, which he unlocked with a brass key. The stairs emptied onto a narrow gallery whose arcaded front overlooked the Twilight Hall. It was the council chamber of the keep and largest room in the castle, stretching eighty feet from end to end with thirty-foot-high ceilings from which three chandeliers, hammered into the shape of sea anemones, dangled on chains. Set into the western wall were tall windows that gave a breathtaking view of the harbor and town below. On days when the skies were clear, the setting sun ignited a line of reflected fire on the waters of the gulf that pointed toward the heart of Barresh Harbor like the Harpoon of Paérendras. The eastern wall of the room was hewn from the rock of the cliff itself and had been left rough and unfinished.
He followed a curved staircase down from the gallery and crossed the hall to the windows for one last look outside. Lightning flashed and grumbled in the distance, connecting clouds and sea with jagged lances of luminance.
He’d been master of this rocky, wind-swept island for eighteen years, and in all that time he never failed to stop whatever he was doing to sit and look at the fury and majesty of Paérendras, the god of the sea and those who sailed upon it; and when the storms passed he prayed to the god and asked forgiveness for whatever offense had called his wrath upon them.
He spoke his prayer quietly in the hall, and was about to turn away from the glass when something in the distance caught his eye. There was a ship near the Fist, floundering in the sea as great waves crashed down upon its listing hull.
Nellemar placed his free hand against the cold glass, trying to make out details of the distant ship. It was enormous – far larger than any vessel in the harbor, including his flagship, the Rising Dawn. The floundering vessel was a three-master with her sails furled and two banks of oars along her hull.
His breath fogged the glass as another great wave slammed down upon the ship from the larboard side. The mainmast snapped as the ship rolled over, its deck now partially submerged. Nellemar imagined the sound of taut ropes breaking and whipping madly about as the mast and spars tumbled into the cold, churning sea.
A door opened somewhere behind him, and urgent footfalls rushed into the room. “My lord, there is a vessel–”
“Yes, I see it.” Nellemar did not turn from the glass to face Tronus Foskail, the castellan of the castle. “Do we know whose it is?”
“No, my lord. It is enormous, and of a design I do not recognize.”
Another huge wave crashed into the ship’s keel, which had risen slightly out of the water as its deck rolled into the sea. The force of the wave pushed the helpless ship closer to land, snapping another mast in the process.
The ship was near to Harrow’s Rock and the light tower of the Fist that sat upon it. In calmer weather the light of the Fist guided vessels to the harbor at night and warned them away from the sheer-sided spire of black rock upon which it sat, but the partially-capsized ship could no longer maneuver and would soon be driven to its destruction.
Nellemar turned from the window and faced Tronus. The old castellan clutched the open neck of his sleeping robe with his free hand and waited for the lord of the castle to issue his command.
“Assemble a company of soldiers,” said Nellemar as he crossed the floor of the hall. “I’m going down to Palendrell to see if there are any survivors.”
* * *
Nellemar and twenty-five guards were soon descending the cobblestone road that wound its way from the lowest level of the castle to the narrow strip of land that separated the base of the cliff from the wall that enclosed Palendrell. When they were about halfway down the road, one of the men stopped and pointed toward the sea. “My lord, look.”
Nellemar glanced up — you did not descend this road in the dead of night after a fierce storm without watching where you put your feet — just as another wave crashed into the keel, driving the ship across the submerged boulders that ringed Harrow’s Rock like a skirt. The wind had subsided and the rain had stopped, which allowed Nellemar to hear the distant retorts of the hull splintering. Two more waves converged on the vessel; the thudding impacts sent sprays of water high into the air.
The ship, now resting uneasily on the rocky shoals, capsized completely — its deck vanished beneath dark foamy water and was lost from view. Its last two masts snapped off and were smashed to bits beneath the crushing weight. Another wave struck it, then another; the ship surged forward and collided with the sheer-sided base of Harrow’s Rock, making a roar as deep as a thunderclap. The side of the hull cracked further, pressed against the granite firmness of the spike of rock with no way to relieve the stresses placed upon it. The inexorable push of the storm-swollen waves continued to pound the ship until the hull collapsed with a sudden, gut-felt boom.
The keel snapped, and the ship broke into two parts. The stern and bow, now forcibly separated by the intervening bulk of Harrow’s Rock, rolled across the shoals and disintegrated. Whatever cargo it had carried, and whatever crew manned it, were lost.
Nellemar clenched his jaw. “We’ll still head down to see if any survivors make it ashore.”
“My lord,” said the ranking lieutenant, Olander Soron, “I think I see a longboat there, heading toward the beach.”
The guard pointed toward a black smudge against the dark water. It was difficult to see, and without the dim light provided by the Fist it would have been impossible to make out at all. But the man was right – there was something in the water that looked like a boat, moving toward the beach to the south of the harbor.
The men reached the base of the cliff, where the road joined a causeway that crossed over the stretch of treacherous scree-covered land between the cliff and the town’s wall. The causeway ended at the Salmon Gate, with a relief of its namesake fish set in the keystone above the arch.
The lieutenant thumped the heel of his hand against the closed gate. “Open in the name of the duke!” he bellowed.
An eye-slit in the postern door slid open, then quickly closed. Nellemar heard the distinctive sound of metal bolts grinding back from their mortises as the door was unlocked. The postern swung open a moment later to reveal two men in hooded cloaks holding aloft lanterns. They stepped aside as Nellemar’s men pushed their way past.
“My lord, I take it you are here about the ship,” said one of the door wardens, a sallow-faced man with a mangy, sodden beard. “Yes. We saw a longboat headed for the beach. Alert the Harbor Watch and have them look out for any other survivors that may find their way here.”
“I believe Harbormaster Pallan has already done that, but I’ll relay your command to him, my lord.”
Nellemar and his men set off through the rain-soaked streets toward the gate in the southern wall. The houses and buildings they passed were built of stone, three or four stories high with narrow alleys between them that led to small enclosed courtyards. The roofs were sharply-peaked and made mostly from red tile, though other colors were scattered about like patches sewn onto a vast red blanket. There was little timber on Gedsengard – its main exports were wool from the sheep that grazed on the highlands in the center of the isle, and a particularly fine white marble drawn from the mines and quarries along the island’s eastern and southern reaches. What wood they had, both native to the island and what was brought in from the mainland, was used mostly for shipbuilding and repair.
They made a turn to the left that opened up a wide view of the harbor front. Nellemar could see ships bobbing against their moorings as the storm swells washed through. The Rising Dawn was a dark silhouette on the far edge of the harbor, and he wondered what damage they would find when his men inspected her in the morning.
Men of the Harbor Watch were moving along the piers, carrying lanterns and calling out to one another as they scrutinized the choppy waters for signs of survivors. Harbormaster Pallan was a capable man; Nellemar did not worry that the waterfront would not be adequately safeguarded. He had no idea if the ship had been friend or foe, though he felt a foreboding in his heart that its intentions were hostile to Khedesh. He had no reason to feel that way — there had been no indication on the ship itself of any ill-intent, no corsair flags or other obvious signs of piracy – but that did not make the feeling go away.
They turned down another, wider road that ended a hundred feet ahead at the Gate of the Fisher King, a creature of legend said to dwell in the underwater caves that dotted the island’s shores. A bas relief image of the king – part man and part fish, with squid-like tentacles for arms and a flowing beard of seaweed – stared down from the face of the gate.
Two more door wardens opened the postern so Nellemar and his men could leave. “Keep a close watch,” Nellemar admonished the wardens. “We know nothing about the men coming ashore. Be ready to sound the alarm if they are our enemies.”
“Yes, my lord.”
Beyond the postern, the road made a gradual ramp-like descent into the coarse sands of the beach, which lay beyond the rocky foundations upon which the walls had been built. The cliffs that girded the town curved in a half-moon shape that, toward the south, blocked the beach entirely where the stone intersected the sea.
Nellemar and his men trudged over cold wet sand. They could faintly see the boat – which was rocking in the surf as several dark shapes dragged it from the water – by the light of the Fist. The stone tower rose a hundred and fifty feet above the flattened top of Harrow’s Rock, which itself spiked upward more than two hundred feet from the pounding surf. The summit of the Fist had been carved in the shape of a clenched hand; the light-housing in which the fire burned was a glass-walled chamber shaped like a ring upon the Fist’s giant forefinger.
“Be ready,” admonished Nellemar as they neared the boat. His legs, already tired from the long descent from the Seilheth Tower and the march through the town, began to positively burn with fatigue as his boots pushed through the soggy, heavy sand.
“Hail!” he called out. “We saw your ship flounder. We’ve come to escort you back to the town. Are any of you injured?”
A few paces further, one of the guards ahead of Nellemar hissed and drew his sword from its scabbard. Nellemar raised his head to get a clearer view of the longboat.
Surrounding the boat were monsters.
“What in the name of the deep are they?” asked Lieutenant Soron.
“I have no idea,” said Nellemar. “Weapons.” He drew his sword, Meilerikon; his guards readied their own weapons. None of his men had bows, however; an oversight he now regretted deeply.
Two men clambered out of the boat. One was obviously injured, and would have collapsed without the support of his companion. There was a steady wind blowing across the beach that tore a ragged hole in the dark clouds, through which the cold light of the moon shone, frosting the beach with silvery light.
They now could get a much better look at the things that had come out of the longboat. They were tall and thin, with lean ropy muscles pulled taut over long limbs. Their legs had two knees. The upper bent back like a man’s, while the lower bent forward and tapered to an ankle just above widely-splayed toes. This gave them a strange, bobbing gait – somewhat like a bird’s – as they moved toward Nellemar and his men. With each step they took, their heads thrust forward on long, sinuous necks. Their eyes were black pools set beneath bony ridges. Their chins tapered down to a sharp point, as did the tops of their heads, which curved back over their long skulls to end in a bony peak like a scimitar blade or the tip of a crescent moon. Thin, quill-like spikes flared backward from the hinge of their jaws; Nellemar wondered if the tips were poisoned, like the spines of certain fish.
One turned, and he saw a short, thick tail protruding from the base of its back. The tail did not look flexible enough to be used as a whip-like weapon, and had no barb or spike on its tip. Probably helps them balance better, he thought, gauging them with a soldier’s eye. The creatures wore hauberks of mail with bits of plate at the chest and shoulders, and carried swords and pikes as weapons.
“Come no closer!” shouted Nellemar. “Lay down your weapons! You have invaded the sovereignty of Khedesh and will be shown no mercy if you do not immediately disarm and submit to my authority!”
The uninjured man lowered his companion to the sand, then straightened. He wore billowing pants of silk or some similar material tucked into calf-high boots. Instead of a cloak, he wore a knee-length coat of heavy brocaded wool with a high, stiff collar. His hair was black and curly and fell to his shoulders. He did not carry a sword, only a short knife with a curved blade that dangled from his belt. The whiskers of his beard tapered to twin points below his chin like the prongs of a fork. A palm-sized medallion hung from a chain around his neck, and he wore several jeweled gold rings upon each hand.
“Your threats mean nothing to me,” called out the man. He spoke with a heavy accent that Nellemar did not recognize.
“Fail to heed me and you’ll soon find your head spiked upon my walls.”
The man snarled. “Dothraq tan’shour luhj!”
The creatures threw back their heads and emitted a throaty, cawing sound, then propelled themselves toward the Khedeshians, kicking up plumes of sand from their long-nailed toes. They crouched so low as they ran that their torsos were almost parallel with the beach.
Nellemar’s men spread out as the creatures neared. Five of the guards arrayed themselves in front of their prince and duke, standing shoulder to shoulder, their weapons held ready. Once again, Nellemar wished that at least one of his men had a bow.
One of his men hurled a dagger at the creature bearing down on him. The throw was deliberately low, aimed at the thing’s exposed leg below the hauberk. Its crouched gait and the length of the hauberk made for a small target area, but the guard had aimed true and thrown well. The dagger’s blade sank into the tough reddish skin just above the forward-bending knee, slipping between the bones. Blood sprayed out of the back of the leg where the tip of the dagger burst through. The thing shrieked and dropped its pike as its injured leg reflexively folded up toward its body. It lost its balance and slammed hard into the beach. The pike flew from its hands and stuck point-first into the sand like a bannerless flagpole.
As the creature writhed on the ground, clawing at its leg to pull out the knife, the soldier stepped forward and severed its head.
Then the rest of the creatures were upon them. One of his men went down instantly with a pike through his chest and out his back. A second later another guard lost his sword-arm below the elbow. As the man screamed and clutched at his severed limb, the creature brought its weapon about in a vicious swing and decapitated him.
Though they outnumbered their enemy more than two to one, the creatures’ speed and longer reach was proving difficult for the Khedeshians to overcome. One of Nellemar’s guards hacked through the leg of a creature from behind while it was engaged with another man. The second soldier then drove his sword up through its jaw and out the top of its head as it staggered from the first blow. But other men were not faring so well, and Nellemar feared that despite their greater numbers the fight could easily go against them.
“With me!” he said to the men protecting him as he dashed off.
Nellemar kept his gaze fixed on the boat and the two men near it. Once he had skirted past the area of fighting, he charged in a straight line toward the longboat with all the strength he had left in his legs. They felt dead and leaden as they churned in the wet sand, slowing his pace to what seemed a crawl – but he pressed on, forcing himself to move for the sake of his men.
The uninjured man at the longboat saw Nellemar approaching and shouted a command toward the creatures. Several of them turned; two of them paid for the distraction with Khedeshian swords in their necks. Another backed away from the man it was fighting, spun about, and dashed off to intercept Nellemar before he could reach the boat.
One of the Khedeshians picked up a pike dropped by one of the creatures and hurled it at the back of the thing racing toward the longboat. The pike was too heavy and unwieldy to make an effective spear, but it managed to land at an angle between the legs of the creature, which tripped over it and went down hard in the sand. The soldier ran at the thing and drove his sword down through its back before it could get up. It shuddered and twitched, then let out a ghastly shriek before it died.
Nellemar was nearing the longboat when the foreigner whipped the knife from his belt with a quick, fluid motion and hurled it toward them. The soldier running in front of Nellemar – his name, Rullo Astis, flashed through Nellemar’s mind – could not react quickly enough, and the knife caught him in the throat. Nellemar saw the point break through the back of his neck like the nose of an animal peeking out of its burrow. The soldier went suddenly rigid, then toppled forward and lay still.
The man at the longboat closed his eyes and held a clenched fist to his temple, while his other hand gripped the medallion hanging from his neck.
The next instant Nellemar felt his blood chill, as if he’d been dropped into the frigid waters of the sea. The sensation took his breath away. His run faltered; his legs buckled beneath him. The men with him were affected as well, stumbling and clutching their hearts.
Nellemar forced himself to draw a deep breath when the corpse of Rullo Astis twitched and pushed itself up on its hands. The sight so shocked him that he could only stare, gape-mouthed, as the dead man rose to his feet.
His men shouted in dismay. Nellemar turned and saw that the other dead Khedeshians were also rising. One corpse had no head, which lay on the sand at its feet while it grasped awkwardly for a knife in its belt. Another corpse whose left leg had been chopped off below the knee dragged itself across the beach toward one of the living men. The corpse’s face was devoid of any expression, its mouth hanging open stupidly like the maw of a fish.
The sight stirred something in Nellemar, who snapped his own mouth shut and raised his sword. Some of his men, clearly unnerved, thrust their hands toward the corpses and made the sign to ward off evil.
Astis had turned to face him. Nellemar could see a dim green glow in the corpse’s eyes, like moonlight shining through a film of sickness and disease. The knife hilt still protruded from his throat.
Behind him, one of the Khedeshian soldiers shrieked as a corpse drove its sword down through the top of his skull.
“Destroy the bodies!” shouted Nellemar. “Our brothers are dead! Their corpses are being used as weapons against us!”
He swung his blade two-handed and took off Astis’s head, cutting through the neck just below the knife that had killed him. The head flew through the air and rolled across the sand. Nellemar was horrified to see that its eyes were still blinking and looking about.
Astis’s body did not fall. Its hands groped blindly for Nellemar’s throat. He kicked it in the chest and sent it sprawling.
His men were fighting back. Several of the corpses had been hacked to pieces, which nevertheless continued to twitch with whatever foul power coursed through them. He noticed that the bodies of the dead monsters had not risen and wondered why that was so.
He charged toward the foreigner who was working this foul magic. He did not take note of Nellemar or try to flee; he seemed in a trance, his eyes rolled upward behind slit lids that revealed only bloodshot whites.
Nellemar raised his arms and smashed the pommel of his sword into the man’s head just below his left ear. He collapsed in a heap.
The corpses dropped like marionettes whose strings had been cut. The sepulchral light fled their eyes; the severed limbs ceased their twitching.
Three of the monsters, though wounded, were still alive. The soldiers, enraged by what they’d been forced to do to their dead friends, surrounded the things and quickly killed them, swarming over the bodies in their rage and hacking them to bits.
Nellemar faced Lieutenant Soron. “Bind him and see if his companion still lives. We’re taking them back to the castle.”
* * *
It was a long, grueling trudge back to the castle. Harbormaster Pallan met them inside the Gate of the Fisher King and told them that no other survivors from the ship had been seen, though drowned bodies of men and ghastly creatures had begun to wash ashore. “I’ve never seen their like, my lord,” said Pallan with a shake of his balding head.
“Nor have I, but be glad the ones you found were all drowned.”
The injured foreigner died before they reached the castle. There was a grievous wound on his head – something heavy had crushed the back of his skull.
The sorcerer did not regain consciousness. Nellemar ordered him to be take to the dungeons and kept in an isolated cell, then commanded that his Master, Tomares Rill, meet him in his salon.
His wife Omara appeared in the corridor outside his salon in her nightdress and slippers, with a heavy robe pulled tightly around her.
“I heard about the ship,” she said. “Is it true that there were monsters aboard it? And that one of the men somehow raised the dead?”
He nodded, almost too tired to speak. It was an effort just to keep standing. She has a network of ears and eyes that rivals the spymaster of the realm, he thought, amazed – though after all this time he really should not have been – at how quickly information found it way to her, even in the dead of night.
Omara was the daughter of Sedifren Houday, baron of Claitovel and the most powerful noble of Lormenien, who fancied himself nearly a king in his own right and lorded over his vassals as if he were indeed their sovereign ruler. His arrogance was surpassed only by his ambition. Baron Houday had an enviable network of spies throughout the kingdom that he allowed his daughter to use. Nellemar was not supposed to be aware of this, but he had his own sources of information that his wife knew nothing about, some of whom kept watch on her and those she communicated with. And over the years she had cultivated spies of her own in addition to her father’s, here on Gedsengard and elsewhere, who whispered to her in secret all that they saw or heard or read.
“I must see to this matter. Go back to bed, Omara.” He moved past her, toward the door to the salon, but she put her hand on his arm to stop him.
Her face twisted into an expression of loathing, a startling — and disturbing — transformation. It lasted only an instant before it vanished, like detritus swallowed by the sea. “Magic of some kind. Only something as vile as magic could –”
He pushed past her and opened the door. “I will speak to you in the morning. Good night.”
He half expected her to barge into the salon and rant about magic’s corruptive influence and how Prince Gerin, Nellemar’s nephew and heir to the throne, should have been censured in the harshest terms possible after the Neddari War, in which a spirit unwittingly released by Gerin had goaded the Neddari into a conflict with Khedesh that had killed thousands.
Omara could no longer speak about Gerin without erupting into a profound, violent rage. “He should never be allowed to sit upon the throne. No wizard should ever be king.” She spat the words as if they were the harshest kind of curse. “And if your father will not willingly do what is best for the kingdom and name Therain as his heir, then he should be forced to by the Assembly of Lords.”
He did not argue with her when she was like that. There was no point. He knew his brothers Abran and Bennjan thought him weak for it, but that was not it at all. Nellemar simply did not bother wasting his breath on matters of no consequence. Omara despised her nephew’s wizardry for reasons not entirely clear to him. Certainly the fact that Gerin would rule for hundreds of years was part of it, leaving no hope that any of her children might, through some twist of fortune, rise to the Sapphire Throne – for that was her heart’s desire, and the desire of her father, to found a new Atreyano dynasty from their line. It seemed to Nellemar that Gerin’s wizardry did not alter the chances that one of his sons would come to the throne one bit, but he knew Omara did not see it that way. But that in and of itself did not explain the depth of her hatred for his powers. Maybe she herself did not know the true reason; maybe it just was, the way Nellemar hated cats and celery. Trying to convince him otherwise was pointless – he was not going to change his mind, and anyone who tried to do so would just be wasting time in a useless endeavor. Which was why he did not argue with Omara over things of little consequence – for what did it really matter to him if she hated Gerin’s wizardry? – especially when there was no hope of convincing her to change her views. The same reasoning kept him from trying to alter his brothers’ opinions of him. They believed what they believed, and trying to change that was as futile as trying to talk the sun into not rising.
He sat wearily into the chair behind his desk, folded his hands across his chest, closed his eyes, and lowered his head. He would just rest a little until Master Rill arrived….
He startled and came awake at a sharp rap on the door. He had no idea how long he had been asleep. Even if it had been hours, it was not nearly long enough. For a few seconds after he heard the knock his body refused to move, ignoring his mind’s command to lift his head and open his eyes. He tried again, willing his fingers to unlock and his hands to separate. They did not obey immediately, but after a second knock at the door and the muffled sound of, “My lord, are you in there?” coming through the heavy wood, he was able to stir and flutter his eyes partly open. He straightened in the chair and called out, “Come in!”
He propped his elbows on his writing table and rubbed his bleary eyes as Tomares Rill crossed the darkened room and bowed to him. Rill was a short, gaunt man with a hawk-like nose and pock-marked cheeks who had a predilection for wearing high-necked white shirts beneath the large-sleeved robes of blue-and-gold that signified his membership in the Guild of Grael Physicians. The Graels were one of the orders located in the capital city of Almaris whose members were, among other things, sent to the noble houses who could afford their services — paid in the form of a stipend to the member and a fellowship fee to the order itself — and who used them as teachers, counselors, healers, spymasters, and anything else their unique training and talents could provide.
Nellemar pushed back his chair and stood. He felt just as tired as before, if not more so. But he could not rest just yet. “You will accompany me to the dungeons and assist in the interrogation of the prisoner.”
They reached a long spiral stairway that descended to the lower levels of the castle. Nellemar handed Tomares the medallion and several other items that had been found on the prisoner. One was a small statue carved from some dark, finely-grained wood. It was no larger than a forefinger and had been sanded smooth and lacquered. It depicted a robed and hooded man holding a staff close by his side. Within the hood’s cowl, the lower half of his face was covered by a veil.
The other items were the rings from his fingers – bands of gold inlaid with emeralds and rubies – some silver coins stamped with an unknown woman’s face in profile, and a small leather-bound book written in a foreign tongue. An image of a hooded and veiled man similar to the small wooden statue had been embossed onto the book’s cover.
“I do not know what to make of these,” said Tomares as he paged through the book, shaking his head. “I don’t recognize these characters. The language is utterly strange.” He held up the silver. “These are obviously currency, yet of no kingdom in Osseria.”
“What about the medallion? He was touching it very deliberately when he raised the bodies of the dead. Is it a device of magic?”
Tomares turned the medallion over several times, peering at it closely. He ran his finger around the decorative edge in which runic characters had been inscribed. On one side was a raised image of a mountain with rays shining from its summit; on the other was again the image of the hooded and veiled man holding his staff.
“I cannot say, my lord. It may have magical properties, but I have no means of detecting them. It may contain power of its own that this man draws upon, or it may act as a doorway for him to obtain magic from some other source. Or it may have no magical use at all, and is merely an affectation he is attached to. A charm from his wife or king, perhaps. This is a question better suited to your nephew or the wizard training him. I’m sorry I cannot be more enlightening.”
They reached the bottom of the spiral stair and followed a narrow corridor to a heavy iron door flanked by two armed guards. On the other side of the door was a short passage that ended in a low-ceilinged staircase that descended to the dungeons themselves. Doors of black iron lined both sides of the corridor that stretched ahead of them for forty feet before ending abruptly in the raw bedrock of the cliff.
The gloom of the cells seemed to swallow the light of Nellemar’s lamp as he and Tomares walked the length of the passage to four guards waiting at its end. Torches flickered and danced upon the wall.
“My lord,” said Lieutenant Soron with a bow of his head.
“Is the prisoner awake?”
“He is, my lord.”
The prisoner sat upon a narrow wooden bench bolted to the wall opposite the cell door. The bench also served as a bed, and was the only furnishing in the room other than a chamber pot. The man’s long wool coat had been removed, exposing a scarlet shirt beneath with intricate gold embroidery rising up the forearms like stylized flames. His hands were manacled together by a six-inch iron bar, which in turn was connected to the wall by a heavy chain.
Despite his predicament, the man stared at Nellemar with a mingled expression of haughty arrogance and contempt. There was no fear or worry in his eyes, only smugness.
He grinned at Nellemar, a savage look exposing white teeth within the dark cloud of his beard. His skin was sun-darkened and weather-beaten, leathery like an old hide.
There was something about the shape of his face that was utterly foreign to Nellemar. He’d seen many peoples from all across Osseria: the Threndish with their narrow faces and heavy-lidded eyes; the thick, blunt-featured folk of Armenos and Tagerea; the dark-haired, pale-skinned people of Colanos and Harlad and Kerya, whose eyes had a peculiar almond shape that gave them an ethereal, otherworldly air; the thin-lipped, delicate features of the proud Helcareans; and others.
But this man looked like no one he’d ever before seen. There was nothing obviously dissimilar about him – the differences were subtle, almost below the threshold of Nellemar’s awareness. The low hairline, thick bushy eyebrows, hooked nose, enormous dark eyes, high prominent cheekbones…none of them by themselves were out of the ordinary. But it was the unique combination of these features that was so strange, a mingling of various traits that Nellemar, to his shock and dismay, recognized for what they were.
Signs that this man had not come from Osseria.
“If he tries to make a spell, cut off one of his hands,” Nellemar said to Soron. The lieutenant nodded, his hand tightening on his sword.
“I saw you raise and animate the bodies of my dead soldiers. Tell me how you did it.”
The man leaned back against the bare stone wall and let his hands drop to his lap with a clanking of chains. “I defended myself using the Mysteries of Bariq the Wise.”
Nellemar took the medallion from Tomares and held it up. “What is this? Is this how you use these Mysteries of yours? Is it magic?”
“I do not know the word magic, so I cannot answer you. What you are defiling in your heathen hand is the Mark of Bariq the Wise, the Veiled Power whose servant I am. You took his statue from me as well, and his holy book. The Mark is a symbol of my station, nothing more.”
“How did you animate the bodies of my men? And why didn’t your monsters rise as well?”
The man let out a snort of derision. “Your ignorance is deeper than I would have thought possible. A child of the Harridan knows more than you about the Mysteries of Bariq. I am surprised you know enough to put your boots on the proper feet. Perhaps your servants do that for you, yes?” He laughed contemptuously. “One of the powers granted to me as an Adept and Loremaster is that of tar-fet, new life that can be granted to the recent dead. I send a piece of my spirit into the dead flesh so that it will do my bidding. But tar-fet is reserved for human flesh alone – it cannot be sullied in the body of a murdrendi, which has no soul.”
“Who are you?” said Nellemar. “Where are you from, and why are you here?”
“My name is Vethiq aril Tolsadri, Voice of the Exalted, Adept of Bariq the Wise, Loremaster of the Mysteries, and First of the Kaashal. The country of my fathers is Aleith’aqtar, which in your tongue means Land of the Obedient. It lies far across the Great Sea, which my ship the Kaashal crossed before being dashed to bits in that accursed, Harridan-sent storm.”
I was right! thought Nellemar. He is not from Osseria. His face does not lie.
“My lord, that is not possible,” said Lieutenant Soron. “No ship has ever sailed across the Maurelian Sea. It is endless.”
“You are as wrong as you are uncouth. Ships from your lands have indeed reached our shores without sinking in the perils of the crossing. They were taken, their crews assigned to the appropriate Power. It is a long, difficult voyage, but the sea is not endless. I have crossed it, as have others before me. How do you think I learned your heathen tongue? Our coming here has long been prepared. We know you do not worship the Powers, or even know of their existence, though that will change.”
“Is that why you’re here?” asked Nellemar. “To teach us to worship these Powers of yours?”
“No, that is not why we have come. But the Havalqa — for that is the name of my people, the Steadfast — bring the light of the Powers wherever they go, so that all people may find their proper place in the order of the world.”
“I ask again, why have you come?”
“Answer the duke, or you will know pain such as you have never felt,” said Lieutenant Soron.
“I do not fear your torture; you have less power over me than you believe, young whelp. But I will answer your questions. There is no harm in you knowing because there is nothing you can do to stop what is to come.” Tolsadri shifted on the bench and straightened a little. Soron tensed at being called young whelp, but kept his anger in check.
“We come because our sacred Dreamers have said the Great Enemy of the Powers will arise here, one who will threaten all of the world with his dark might. They have told the Exalted that the means to defeat him also lies in these heathen lands. My ship was but the first of a great fleet that will conquer your kingdoms in the name of the Powers. Make peace with whatever false gods you worship. Once the fleet reaches these shores, your way of life will end.”