Traitor’s Hilt – Chapter 05

The old soldier woke before sunrise, as usual.  The sky was streaked with red and pink, heralding the coming sunrise.  He shuffled slowly from his bedroom to the sitting room, past the fireplace, still nursing the coals from last night’s fire.  He’d had guests last night, later than he should at his age; but they had been old friends, merchants in town for the week.  The harvested goods for miles around were converging on his little village.  He anticipated this event with a mixture of satisfaction and weariness.  So many people entering the village meant good business for local taverns, and everyone who came to market tended to do well, whether buying what they needed or selling their surplus.  It was a prosperous place to be.  Inevitably there would be arguments, fights, disturbances, and occasional crimes greater than pilfering… and he was getting too old to chase down cutpurses.  But all in all, it would be a good time.  The villagers were excited, the farmers had brought a great amount of produce, the herders had fat animals to display, and the traveling merchants had brought plenty of gold to spread around while they were here.

He dressed himself in his old uniform, from the days when he’d been a soldier in the long wars.  He’d left this village when he was 18 years old, gone to join the other young soldiers defending their king.  He’d returned a hero, and after some time spent in the kingdom’s capital, Njannotta, he came back here to answer the request of the village. They needed a village marshal, and everyone in town knew him and respected him.  He’d earned his keep within the first week; when a local band of thieves decided to test the new peacekeeper, he’d allowed the blacksmith – whose shop they’d invaded – to perform the hanging.  No one had tested him since.

He stepped out onto the wooden porch in front of his house, blinking away the last complaints from his eyes into the morning sunlight. Even that simple act was taking longer these days.  His legs felt surprisingly good, though, and he descended the steps with a bit of a spring in his step. He took a deep breath, letting the last morning chill sit in his lungs for just a few moments before exhaling.

On the flagstone walk that circled his house, he paused for a moment, looking out over the field to the east.  It was nearly empty, with a few wisps of fog still fighting off the morning sun.  Two tents that had been set up the previous afternoon waited alone, near the center of the open space, multi-colored banners flying from the tall posts.

The marshal began moving again, seeing a handful of his neighbors as they came outside or moved between homes, shops and businesses.  There was a natural sound to every village, but this morning it was different.  The smiths weren’t at work at the forges, and instead the loudest sounds were the creaking of wagon wheels, the heavy footfalls of draft horses, the sound of large sacks being set down rather less gently than intended.  And among them was a different sort of chatter – without hearing any particular conversation, the marshal could hear and feel the excitement and anticipation.

At the stables, he had an unexpected surprise – his grey spotted mare, Clover, was saddled up and ready for their morning ride.  Soren, the stable-master’s youngest son, was brushing out her tail, smiling proudly as he saw the marshal enter.

The older man nodded.  “Saddled up and brushed this early?” he asked, returning the smile.  “Tell your father I’m grateful.”

“He doesn’t know,” Soren replied.  “We’re trying to let him sleep in this morning.  It was Mother’s idea, but I knew you’d want Clover early today.”  He stopped brushing, patting Clover’s flank and moving back up to her head.  “We’ll be plenty busy by noon, and Father will need his sleep.  You remember what happened last fall, don’tcha, Marshal?”

“Indeed I do,” the old man replied, his smile fading just a little.  A handful of the merchants had gotten more drunk than they thought they were, and kept Soren’s father awake in the stables until well after midnight trying to arrange a race.  While that was unlikely to happen again, the marshal was sure something or other would come up.  If only he’d known how right he was.

Clover always enjoyed their morning ride about the village, but today she had a little more energy, too.  The growing excitement seemed to have infected the animals in the village as well as the people.  The two of them circled the village, staying near the timber walls, then stopped at the gate to the large festival grounds just outside.  There they sat, and watched the sun rise over the hills.  Clover bent her head down to nibble at the long grass, and the marshal watched as a handful of the village councilors moved onto the field, marking the places for merchant tents and the lanes between them.  Soon more of their neighbors joined them, pulling wagons or pushing carts loaded with tents and displays.  One team began assembling the wooden stage at the very center of the field, grunting under the weight of wood posts and planks as they struggled to assemble each platform.  Gold light finally spilled onto the field, and while tent posts rose and canvas stretched, the roads from the North and East began to carry approaching merchants from nearby villages over the low hills.

*****

By mid-morning, the field had become a bustling market, a small city of its own right.  As more and more farmers from the surrounding area brought in wagons and carts filled with surplus crops, available space in the field slowly disappeared until only the lanes between tents were passable.  The farmers were joined by livestock pens and cages, the sounds of cattle and chickens joining the voices of merchants.  By noon, it seemed like a metropolis.  Children from the village ran between the stands and makeshift stables, and many of the local crafters had set up work areas amongst the bushels of apples and carts of beans and grains.

Even the village blacksmith, who ordinarily didn’t like to be watched while he worked, had set up a small forge and anvil at one end of the market.  Taking a short break for a bite of bread his wife had brought him, he was the first to notice the new train of wagons and riders approaching from the forest road to the North.  He figured them for more merchants, late arriving at the village, but it soon became clear how wrong he was.  He spun to look at one of the young boys playing nearby, and called, “Derrinick!  Go fetch the marshal, boy.”  The youngster stood, looked down the road, then ran off to obey.

The marshal had needed no warning.  He had returned to his home to retrieve his sword and helmet.  He whispered a prayer to the gods of justice that he wouldn’t need them, but strapped the sword to his side all the same.  He mounted his horse, and set his helmet on the saddle before him, then returned to the market.

There were sixteen covered wagons, each with a team of four horses, and walking alongside were at least a hundred armed soldiers, with long spears and swords at their sides.  They each wore a solid chest-plate and helms that caught the sunlight.  Amongst the caravan were maybe a dozen mounted soldiers, wearing additional armor on their arms and legs.  Each of them bore the symbol of the kingdom of Asharida on their chest.

As the wagons drew closer, several of the mounted knights swept forward into the market, moving toward its center.  The wagons began to encircle the field.  The village’s militia soldiers were looking back to the marshal for guidance, but he shook his head pointedly at each of them; they were under-equipped and outnumbered at least three to one.  One of the knights spurred his horse up onto the wooden platform at the center, and addressed the confused crowds.  The chatter and whispers died down immediately.

“Peaceful citizens, we don’t mean any harm to come to you.  Our orders are to prevent any deaths from happening here.  We are here to take portions of your harvest.  You all have come here with surplus crops and more livestock than you will possibly need, so none of you will starve or even miss a meal.  We will be taking one half of the merchandise from each of you -“ at this, the chatter returned in the form of shock and protests – “and then we will be on our way.  We’re taking it to feed people who will starve without it.  We have no need of your craft-work, nor of your wine- these things will be untouched.  I give you my word, we are taking only what we need.  You will still have plenty to sell and trade when we’re finished.  Stand aside from us, and this will be over that much more quickly.”

He spurred his horse, which climbed down from the stage.  The crowds had been murmuring again, some voices shouting open resistance, but overall the people were just stunned.  The marshal spurred his horse forward, toward the speaker as he returned to the wagons his men had placed encircling the market.  The villagers made way for him.  The Asharidan soldiers began opening the backs of their wagons, and some had begun moving bags of grain from the nearest carts.

“By what right do you claim our goods?” the marshal shouted.  “This is the property of the people of Tradsina, and to come here armed, and take it by force, is an act of war!”

The captain of the Asharidans turned his horse.  He, too, was a veteran of the old wars, and recognized the uniform of his adversary immediately.  The two faced each other for a moment, then the Asharidan captain nudged his horse forward to stand beside the marshal.

“We’re not here to discuss legalities, sir,” the captain said.  “We’re here for the food, so help us out and instruct your people to stand aside peacefully.  Your militia here won’t have any hope of stopping us, and if people are hurt or killed here, it’ll just make your lives that much harder.”

“The king shall hear of this,” the marshal growled.  “If you do this without official sanction, you’ll be hunted down and hanged, and I’ll see to it that these people you are stealing from will be the ones who pull the cord.”

The captain merely smiled.  A moment later, he back-handed the marshal on the side of his head, knocking him from his horse.  The armored fist drew just enough blood to make his resolve clear.  A few of the villagers gasped.  The smith and one of the militia-men knelt beside him, helping him sit up.  The Asharidan soldiers went about their business, herding many of the animals up ramps, taking many of the caged chickens and hanging game-birds, stacking sacks of grain and baskets of fruit.  After almost two hours, they had filled their wagons and trundled back down the road where they’d come from.

As soon as he was on his feet again, the marshal had gathered the village council at the platform at the center of town.  The remainder of the market stood in a thick crowd around the stage, still chattering amongst themselves.

One of the councilors patted the marshal on the shoulder.  “It was good that you didn’t order a fight, marshal; they were right, we wouldn’t have stood a chance,” he said.  The others nodded.

One of the merchant leaders spoke up next.  “Are we going to be able to get any of it back?  Will the king send an army to reclaim it?”

The marshal shook his head.  “That was all food-stocks, sir.  It’d take days to get word back to Njannotta, and several days more to assemble, and by the time our army got across the border, it’ll have gone bad if it hasn’t been eaten.” He sighed, deeply.  “No, it’s best to just write it off now.”

Several people groaned, but they all knew he was right.  There was little hope in reclaiming the lost goods.

“So what can we do?” another asked, desperate for some good news.

“I’m leaving in the morning for Njannotta.” the marshal took a deep breath.  “I’ll take Elyani and Dressaius with me.  We’ll appeal to the king for help and justice.”  The two members of the militia heard him, nodding their heads.  The elf woman in particular looked furious over what had happened, both that the market had been robbed and that her marshal had been struck.  The marshal turned to them, nodded a silent command, and they turned to make ready for the journey.

What no one in the village could know was that along the border between Asharida and Tradsina, 6 other villages had been forced to give up food and animals in an identical fashion, all on the same day.  Every one of them sent a messenger to Njannotta to appeal to the king.

*****

The group moved slowly, cautiously, through the mist on the outskirts of Iron City.  The small graveyard loomed before them, silent and still in the morning mist.  There had been great debate, upon their arrival the night before, about whether they should enter the place immediately, or find a room at a local inn and return in the morning.  The captain had chided them all for being lazy, but it was the young wizard who had finished the conversation;

“Gentlemen, we’re not just investigating a graveyard.  We’re investigating a graveyard where 50 of the king’s soldiers disappeared in one day.  There are only six of us.  Perhaps we should not press our luck.”

With that, the captain had relented.  Now, mid-morning, they dismounted and tethered their horses to trees outside the wrought iron fence.  There was no gate or door, just a decorative arch with flowers and vines depicted in black iron.  Three large buildings stood just inside the archway; a small church with stained-glass windows along the outer face and large doors sagging on their hinges, a small residence- presumably for the priest or undertaker, and a storage shed and stable.  All were paneled wood, old and faded, succumbing to time just as the inhabitants of the graveyard had.  All three buildings were quite obviously deserted, apart from visits from local youth who spent the night here on a bet or a dare.  The graves themselves stood silent, like mismatched chess pieces all waiting for an opponent’s next move.

With a chill, the wizard reminded himself that the last move had been disastrous.

The captain entered the arch first, looking around as graves stretched on, seemingly forever, into the mist.  They knew that the graveyard wasn’t the biggest they’d seen, but being unable to see the far side made them nervous.  The other soldiers spread out, and the wizard stood under the arch, not even watching so much as listening, smelling, feeling for something out of the ordinary.  The moment he attuned his senses to it, he picked it up instantly, and was unable to ignore it.

Power.  Rippling waves of magical energy swept over him, flowing like a spring atop a hill, tingling in his fingers and in his mind.  It was the kind of energy he could tap if he felt the need to, but even if he wasn’t being near-blinded by the mist, there wasn’t much for him to focus the excess energy upon.  The grave nearest him, a large block of grey marble, stared back at him patiently.  He read the name, absently, trying to locate the source of all the energy he felt.  Whenever he had felt energy even a fraction of this strength, he had been able to find something at its core; an object, a person, a place with spells cast in the area that had lingered, some of their energy radiating outward.  But the power of this place wasn’t coming from any one point; it was everywhere, all around them.  He stepped back outside the archway, as an experiment, and could feel the effect of the energy recede.  He was standing on the shore of an ocean, his feet being tickled by the waves that just touched him, but went no farther.  He stepped forward again, into the flood that the soldiers could not see, and certainly could not feel.

“You okay there, caster?” the captain called back over his shoulder.

“Oh, yes… this place has more power in it than our academy of magic has in the main hall.”  He looked around again, and realized that the source of the power was the ground, the graves themselves.  It wasn’t a spotlight of energy, radiating from a single point; it was as if a thousand candles all burned around him, each adding its small light and heat to the blinding strength of the whole.  The energy came right up out of the ground.  He walked around the nearest gravestone, then down a row of graves to his left.

“Captain, I found one,” one of the sergeants called from farther in the graveyard.  Both captain and wizard turned, then moved into the mist toward the voice.  They found him quickly, as had the other men, standing over what remained of a man in the uniform of the Trislanys military.  There wasn’t much left of him.

“What could have done this to him?” the wizard asked, his mouth agape.

The captain looked up at his soldier.  “What do you see here, sergeant?”

“Torn apart by hand, sir.  Look here and here, at the shoulder and leg joints,” the soldier pointed, “There’s no sign of cutting, no sign of weapons at all.  On the arm that’s left, look here sir,” he pointed again, “something had a good tight grip on him.  These men were armored with chest-plate and helmet only, but the padded arming coat is torn pretty badly at the wrist.  Underneath is bruising from something holding on, and these look almost like fingernail cuts, see the patterns?”  The sergeant stood up straight.  “I’m guessing you’ll find similar marks on his leg, sir.  My first thought on what happened to this man is that he had three, maybe four people pulling on him, and they pulled him apart.”

“Three or four people?” the wizard repeated.  “Think these soldiers were just outnumbered by an unarmed mob?”

The captain shook his head.  “There’s more to it than that.  If you were to knock the sergeant down, put one foot on him and pull on his arm with all your might, do you think you’d be able to get his arm out of it’s socket?”

The wizard smirked, seeing the point, then shook his head.

“If there were only a couple people pulling on him, they’d have to be awfully strong to actually separate limbs.  We tie people to teams of horses when we want that effect on a body.”  He took a deep breath.  “Fan out, see if we can find the rest of them.”

The soldiers nodded, then scattered, moving deeper into the graveyard.  The wizard looked around nearby the body, then moved toward one of the nearby graves.

“Captain, look at this,” he called.  “This one is marked as being dead for nearly four years, but the dirt here’s fresh.  Grave robbers, you think?”

The captain raised an eyebrow.  “A group of grave robbers big enough to overwhelm 50 of the king’s soldiers?  Strong enough that three of them could tear a man apart?  A group like that wouldn’t waste it’s time robbing graves, believe me.”

“Sorry, just thinking aloud,” the wizard replied.  He felt oddly foolish; his knowledge of magical arts far outstripped his experience in matters like this, and he couldn’t help being a bit embarrassed.

“Another one over here,” one of the other soldiers called.  “This one’s worse.  Looks like they took both arms and legs.”

As the captain and wizard converged on the second corpse, they could hear two of the soldiers disagreeing.

“This one was cut, though, see that?  That isn’t tearing,” one said.

The captain reached them first, his face wrinkling up in disgust.  The soldier who had found the body was shaking his head.

“No, not cut, I don’t think.  Those are pretty ragged marks on him.  And look over there, where the bone is exposed.”  At that, the wizard stopped.  He didn’t think he could handle seeing it any closer, and decided not to take the chance.

The captain nodded his head, grimly.  “Yeah, I see it.  Those aren’t marks from a weapon.  That’s from teeth.”

“Captain,” called another soldier, farther off in the mist.  “I think I found the rest of them.”

“How many?” the captain replied, looking up.

After a pause, the answer came back on a wavering voice.  “I can’t tell.”

*****

The wizard concentrated hard, focusing all his attention and energy on the glowing blue sphere that he held in front of him.  It wasn’t a difficult piece of magic, but his concentration had been badly rattled by what his group had found. The other soldiers were in a half-circle before him, the captain standing directly in front of him, speaking into the orb.  On the other side was the face of the king, who was speaking into a similar orb held by another wizard of the court.  His mind kept trying to return to the graveyard, and he had to fight to keep his mind focused.

“Yes, my king.  About a dozen or so were scattered out in a rough circle, the rest were all in one…” the captain paused, searching for the right word, “… pile.  I work the signs out as being this; they posted a guard around the perimeter, and those were attacked first.  The rest of them crowded together, trying to hold a defensive formation, but were overwhelmed.  The outer guard was left where they fell, while the main body of the unit was in the one heap.”

The voice of King Adnesar came out of the sphere; it sounded far too close to everyone, as if he was speaking right over their shoulder.  It sounded nasal, also; the magic that connected the two places carried the sound the way an iron pipe would, and sounded like it.

“And you think they were attacked by people?”

“No, my king.  The size of the bruises and… teeth marks,” again the captain paused, “are about human-size, but I don’t believe that humans could do what we saw there, even if they outnumbered the soldiers ten-to-one.  It may have been staged, just to spook us all… it would take time to do it like this, but making those bruises after having the men drawn and quartered would have been possible.  If they had large dogs involved in the attack, that would explain the chewing marks.  Whoever did this wanted to terrify us when we came looking for our men.”

The wizard cleared his throat.  “Pardon me, Captain,” he said, then looked down into the orb as the face of the king swiveled around to see him.

“You have something to add, wizard?” he asked, patiently.  He was clearly rattled by the news.

“Yes, my king.”  He was nervous- he’d never addressed the king directly, not even been in court with him before.  The captain had brought him along by recommendation of the academy of magic.  He was about to take a large gamble, and it could mean his reputation if he was mistaken.

“Who are you?  I don’t recognize you,” the face of the king said, inspecting him from thru the portal.

“My king, we’ve never met.  My name is Senjial, and I was sent by the academy on this trip to advise the captain.  This mission was meant to be my exploratory travel.”  He had decided the truth would serve him better than telling the king that he’d already graduated, even if that made them discard his opinion.

“So what do you think happened?”

“Well, my king, they’ve summarized the scene very well.  I agree that it is possible this was staged, as the captain suggested, but I believe it would take a great number of men to do it this well, and relatively quickly.  It’s only been a month since you dispatched these soldiers here, and it took us just under a week to travel here.  Those soldiers came on foot- I’d guess it took them almost two weeks.  The other thing is that all of the people who did this, and I mean ALL of them, would have to be unspeakably cruel, to inflict this kind of torture on our men.  From looking at the bruises, from the effects on…” he trailed off, unable to voice his thoughts without his voice shaking.  “I believe they were alive while all this was done to them, my king.  Not only would those people have to be heartlessly cruel and cold, but they’d have to have extremely strong stomachs.  I had difficulty looking at most of them.”

With a hint of impatience, the king repeated his question.  “So what do you think happened?”

Here, the wizard hesitated.  It all fit, didn’t it? he asked himself. If I explained it right, wouldn’t it have made sense?  “My king… I believe this was an attack by the dead in the graveyard.”

The soldiers gaped.  The captain’s face twisted up in disgust.  “What did you say?”

The king merely looked thoughtful, still concerned, as if trying to solve a puzzle with limited time.  “Go on.”

“Well, if someone had animated the buried bodies and sent them to attack our soldiers, this is precisely what we would have found.”  The wizard gained confidence now, partly because his opening sentence had committed him to this explanation.  “Several of the graves looked as if they’d been dug up and re-buried recently, even though the gravestones were marked from years ago.  They wouldn’t have used weapons, probably not even if they’d been buried with them.  Some of them would attack with bites, strong enough to sever limbs, but mostly they would just grab hold of our soldiers and… well… pull.”

The king nodded.  “What would it take to accomplish that?  Who could have done it?”

“Animating corpses is something that almost every magical academy known will expel its students for.  It’s considered unforgivable to disrupt the sleep of the dead.  But there are rumors and myths about two academies in particular that study the magic of death, that teach its students to animate the dead to fight for them.  Those are the Shadowknights, and the Necromancers that live beneath Zhan’tiol.”

The soldiers looked disbelieving, but the captain’s face was beginning to show understanding.  He remembered being in combat against Shadowknights, and remembered that some of them cast very powerful magic… and he clearly remembered one battle when the commanding shadowknight had forced the body of the captain’s own officer to stand and fight against his own men.

“Do you believe the myths about the Necromancers?”

“Honestly, my king, I do not, but this is strong evidence that they exist.”  The wizard thought for a moment, organizing his next statement in his mind.  “The shadowknights are capable of this kind of magic, yes, but it is only their most gifted that achieve this kind of power.  On one hand, it would take far more for the Shadowknights to arrange this, but we are certain of their existence.  The necromancers, on the other hand, have allowed for no solid proof that that they even exist.  No one who has gone to look for them has returned… at least not knowingly.”

The captain asked, “Do you think they’d come out changed?  With their memory crippled by what they saw, or something?”

“No, not exactly.  I think that some people go there to try to find some evidence that the necromancers exist, to prove it to the world, and they are killed.  Others go there to join with the necromancers, and obviously those people won’t divulge the secrets they find.  Either way, my king, if that is truly what happened, and I believe it is, then this has been an overt act of war.”

The king’s eyebrows rose.  “Explain.”

“Animating a corpse is very difficult.  It’s along the lines of animating other things that I’ve done in the academy, and it requires concentration.  You have to will the thing you are animating to make it’s every move- because of that, it would take one wizard for each corpse that was animated.  There must have been almost a hundred spellcasters out there, whether they were Shadowknights or Necromancers wouldn’t matter as far as that goes.”  He paused again.  “This was a co-ordinated attack on Trislanys soldiers, and within your own borders, my king.”

Everyone was silent for a few moments, then the king spoke again.  “Thank you, men.  You’ve done very well.  Especially you.. um… Sanjial.  Your insight has proven valuable, and I’ll be writing a commendation to your headmaster regarding your work. But you must not speak of this to anyone outside your group, by my order.  If you men have finished your report, I must return to other matters.”

“Yes, my king, that is all.”  The captain bowed to the sphere, as did the wizard.  The king’s face disappeared from view, and the wizard allowed his spell to evaporate into the air.

The captain looked around at his men, then at the wizard.  “I think we all need a drink.  First round is on me.”

*****

Back in Trislanys City, the king had called three of his advisors together into the meeting hall, and had clustered them around him at the smaller of the two tables.  Normally, there would be a dozen or more people seated around the larger, more formal table behind him, and food and drink would be spread on top of the table they currently faced, but for smaller meetings like this, he wanted his people close.

“You all heard them,” he said, stony-faced.  “All dead, killed by an organized attack, and probably by necromancers.”

The advisor of magic happened to be the headmaster of the academy of magic.  He was dressed in his electric blue robes, his hands before him on the table, folded before his face.  His face seemed sharpened by the message from Iron City, his eyes narrowed in thought.  He agreed with his pupil’s assessment.  “My lord, if it was the necromancers, then it would appear that they, also, are aware of what lies beneath that graveyard.  It is likely that they have what you sent those soldiers to retrieve.”

The military advisor, head of the Trislanys army, shook his head slowly.  He was wearing his lighter, dress armor-uniform; a coat of scales, with reinforced arm canons.  He also wore a grim look of puzzlement.  “The chances are slim that their expedition arrived near the same time as ours.  I don’t think they’d have left a force to wait for us, but it seems the only logical answer.”

“How and why isn’t so much my concern right now.”  The king looked over at his military advisor.  “While I regret the deaths of our men, we need to look forward from this point and proceed.  I don’t believe it was the Shadowknights that did this; especially not in light of our negotiations with them.”  His military advisor nodded.  The king turned to his political advisor, who had the expression of a man burdened with an impossible task.

“Our relationship with Asharida is tenuous enough, my king, without sending an expedition into Zhan’tiol,” he said.  They’d discussed the possibility before, and the advisor could tell the topic would come up again after such a report.  “It would be impossible to hide any great number of soldiers on a march such as that.  And if we were to appeal to King Tyalon for justice, he would laugh at us for blaming a legendary cult for the deaths of our soldiers.  It would turn into an embarrassment.”

The king nodded, slowly.  “So if we were to send a force there, we’d need to make arrangements first.”

His political advisor nodded.  “Whether King Tyalon need be involved there or not, I leave to your discretion, my king.  I believe we can accomplish what we need to without him being notified.”

The other advisors kept their confused and intrigued feelings from sight. Not one of them asked questions.  They all knew that they only saw a piece of the puzzle, and had secrets from each other.  Their king was the only one who had all the answers.

“All right.  Let’s prepare the expedition in the meantime.”  The king turned to his military advisor.  “Assemble an estimate on the force required to take and occupy Zhan’tiol for the period of two weeks; that should be enough time to find what we’re looking for.  Send an emissary to the Shadowknights to enlist their help; we may need it if these legends turn out to be true.”  He turned to the headmaster of the academy of magic next.  “I’ll want a contingent of wizards to go, to support the main force.  You’ll get the estimate on how many we’ll need to send soon.  Pick advanced students and recent graduates that excel in combat wizardry.  Put together a list for us to select from.”  Last, he turned to his advisor of state.  “Send a message to Ashari,  to your contact there, and see if they can suggest an arrangement that will let us put an expeditionary force outside of Zhan’tiol.  We’ll need a window of about two months.  If they have any suggestions, I’m open to them.  The same goes for all of you.”

All his advisors nodded.  The king rose, silently dismissing them, then strode over to the windows.  He looked at the setting sun, lost in memory of the underground library he’d stumbled onto as a boy, and the impossible treasure he had brought home with him.

If the necromancers exist, they’ll certainly want what is down there, he thought.  And they may already have it.  We will soon know.

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