Traitor’s Hilt – Chapter 08

Karialis walked along the corridor, slowly, and alone this time.  The young acolyte sent to deliver the message from Kadax had nervously informed her that she should not bring her “pet” along.  This wasn’t a problem for her, really; the acolytes all feared her, and the officers and instructors knew that she still held great value to Kadax and the other high-ranking officers.  No one would bother her, much as some of them would like to.   No one in the entire mountain really knew what she was capable of.  She preferred it that way.  If these fools truly believe that fear was one of their greatest weapons, she thought, then they deserved to fear me.

Besides, not all of the risen dead that she could command were visible.

It was the smell in the air that struck Karialis most about this part of the mountain.  Most of the underground fortress was dedicated to the training and housing of young acolytes.  While hygiene was strictly enforced, the smell of sweat – and sometimes blood – lingered in the air throughout the lower halls.  She would combat this in her own rooms with incense – expensive incense that would make the officers grumble every time she asked them to purchase more for her.  It was one of the little things she enjoyed pestering them with – a price of her service.  The air here, in the area tunneled out behind and above the dormitories and training halls, smelled strongly of metal.  The armory was isolated enough to keep iron dust from spreading throughout the fortress, but the smell seemed to infiltrate the senior officer’s halls.

She approached the door to the meeting room she had been summoned to, but stopped ten paces before reaching the opening.  Even with the door closed, she could tell the meeting inside was worth overhearing before she merely burst in.  She closed her eyes in concentration, just for a moment, whispering the mental commands that would expand her senses to enter the room.  A moment later, she could hear the conversation clearly, and it interested her immediately.

“…left even before the quartermaster was at his post.  Before the guard change.  And no word since.  How long do you think it would take her to get to her posting?” This voice she didn’t recognize, but he was barely containing his concern.

It was Kadax’s voice that answered.  He sounded slightly amused.  She expected to hear sarcasm enter his voice at any moment.  “It will most likely take her two weeks, possibly three, depending on how easy her trip is.  She is moving in secret, which means slowly.  I still don’t see what you all are so worked up about.  Was anything taken that shouldn’t have been?”

Another voice, this one a female officer Karialis had helped train years ago.  “No, sir, she took only her allotment.  One horse taken from the stable, one set of rations, one bag of gold that had been assigned her, and one travelling pack.  It’s the manner of her departure, sir.”

“Did you expect her to shake everyone’s hands as she left?” Karialis could visualize Kadax’s condescending smile.  “This is exactly the kind of thing I would have expected from her – to read her posting, and just go.  You seem to have forgotten her attitude.  She’ll arrive at her post, and do her job.”

The first voice spoke again.  “I think you’re trying to brush this topic off, Kadax.  I think you’re more worried about her than you’re letting on.”

An amused grunt.  “Speaking of brushing off topics, we need to spend more time discussing our relationship with Trislanys.” Kadax’s voice had become very serious, very suddenly.

Three or four people all sighed or made dismissive sounds under their breath.  The Lord Marshal, Drelzan, spoke next.

“Kadax, we’ve been over this, and everyone else agrees that it’s a good settlement.  Why is it that you continue to harp on this?”

It was Kadax’s turn to sigh, and his voice simmered with frustration.  “King Adnesar has an agenda for inviting us.  I appreciate as much as you all do the new acolytes he has been allowing us, and placing our justicars and knights within their military training gives us a perfect place to watch for more potential recruits.  But moving our own headquarters will be extremely risky, even after the new place is constructed.  Our current strength is formidable, but if the paladins discovered this, that we are in a transition, they would take full advantage of our position.  King Tyalon would not hesitate to allow, even to assist, the paladins to destroy us, if he knew where to look for us.”  He paused.  “Adnesar is a worthy ruler; he respects strength, and he does not hesitate to project power.  I just believe he wants us to be his lap-dogs, as the paladins are to King Jriemas.”

From the silence, Karialis guessed this had gotten the other marshals thinking.  The last thing they wanted was to be beholden to a monarch outside their order.  Their freedom from such a relationship was balanced by the fact that they had to remain hidden, lest the regular military attack them.  Moving to Trislanys would mean losing some of their operative freedom, and mean that they would have to honor “official requests” from the crown, but would mean returning to open operations again.  Many of them missed the days when they didn’t have to hide, when Tyalon’s father let them have free reign and relatively safe harbor in return for directing their strength outside of his nation.

Of course, Karialis knew about this transition.  As a senior instructor, their leading professor on pure magic, she was informed of their upcoming move.  Her position in Shadow Mountain, and her relationship with the dark warriors, had been strange from the start.  She had been recruited by the Lord Marshal while traveling very close to the mountain and being challenged by a patrol.  That patrol had threatened to kill her if she didn’t return to the mountain with her – and had been given a small glimpse of her power.  The Lord Marshal had offered her an instructor position among them by the end of the day.  They believed her story, that she’d been expelled from the magical academy in Ashari for practicing Necromancy.  In return for sharing her knowledge of combat and destructive magic, they kept her comfortable, well-supplied, and let her study and practice necromancy to her heart’s delight.

What they didn’t realize was that she’d been chosen to teach at Shadow Mountain.  She’d volunteered, of course, to keep an eye on the Shadowknights.  When an acolyte of Tsaria’s caliber came along – which was rare – she could do even more.

After a heavy silence, Lord Marshal spoke again.  “Kadax, it is a decided issue, and will commence soon.  Construction on the new headquarters is nearly complete, and then we will begin our move.  I believe that the gain in strength from the swell in acolytes, and the ability to operate in Trislanys openly, will outweigh any obligations we may hold to Adnesar.”  He paused again, giving the others a chance to speak if they chose to, but all remained silent.  “Allright,” he began again, “along the line of this conversation, I have received a request for action from Adnesar.”

Kadax grunted again.  “That took longer than I expected to happen.”

Lord Marshal ignored him.  “He is sending an army to occupy Zhan’tiol, and has requested that we send a team of shadowknights to act as officers and trainers for the army.”

Silence for a moment.  Karialis felt her mouth open in disbelief.  The young female officer hesitantly asked, “What does he want from Zhan’tiol?”  In her voice, Karialis heard the same thoughts that sparked in her own mind; What kind of fool would attack my home?

“He only wants our help with the combat aspect of the operation.  Our presence will help convince any defense that they will have no hope of stopping them.  He hopes that there will be very little loss of life.  Once the city’s defenses have fallen, the army will proceed into the Ruins.”

Again, silence from the entire group.  The shock Karialis felt nearly broke her concentration.  That imbecile plans to attack the Light of Xantallis!

Another new voice spoke.  “My lord marshal, if there is anything to be found in the ruins, I suspect that it will require quite a large force to overcome it.  If they are empty, then any army’s presence is a waste of time and resources, especially of ours.”

“Adnesar seems to have proof of some kind that the rumors surrounding the Ruins have truth to them, at least some.  The army he has ordered is large, I’d estimate twice what is really required to defeat the militia of Zhan’tiol.  They don’t really need us for that.  Our purpose will be as shock soldiers, and again training the soldiers on the march and acting as officers during combat.  We will announce before attacking that our objective is to enter the ruins, and if the leadership of Zhan’tiol has any sense, they may just let us pass through.”

Kadax snorted at that thought.  “Not likely,” he muttered.  Karialis had to agree with him on that.

Another new voice.  “Lord Marshal, does this have a connection to the Trislanys soldiers slain at Iron City?”

Silence for a moment, then Lord Marshal replied.  “Garda, give us a brief explanation.  I’m not sure how many of you have heard this.”

“We’ve heard news of a troop of Trislanys soldiers moving into the area of a large graveyard outside of Iron City, right at the base of the foothills.  At least 50 soldiers, perhaps more, and every single one of them was killed.  Our informants in the royal court tell me that there is no explanation for how they were killed.”

Kadax spoke next.  “I’d heard pieces of the story, but no confirmation.”  He snickered.  “Fifty soldiers, all dead.  Killed by a mob using no weapons, I heard.”

Karialis felt her eyes narrow reflexively at this news.  The only time anyone had openly attacked the home of the Light of Xantallis, she remembered, the description of the scene would have been identical – all beaten to death by the bare hands of the undead called to defend the city.  But it had taken an army of spellcasters to raise that many dead.  What had caused this event?  Seeing a ghost above ground wasn’t uncommon, and animated skeletons weren’t hard to find if you knew where to look.  A large group of them, all rising to attack the living, was more suspicious – especially in a graveyard.  Contrary to what many people thought, most of the dead that rested below the grass of a graveyard had truly found their rest.

Was there an army of necromancers living just outside Iron City, she wondered?  It wasn’t impossible, but why wouldn’t anyone know about it?  The Light of Xantallis didn’t ex-communicate its members the way other magical academies would.  All were free to follow their chosen research, wherever it led them.  Perhaps another magic academy had undergone a schism, and banished a group of wizards for practicing that form of magic.  But if that were the case, those banished would most likely seek out the Light of Xantallis in the first place.  It didn’t make sense.  The conversation inside continued, and Karialis set this line of thought aside.

“It is possible that these things are connected, but only Adnesar will know for sure.  Back to the task itself.  Does this trouble any of you?” Lord Marshal asked.  “I know your loyalties all rest with the Order, first and foremost, but if there is any lingering doubt about the idea of shadowknights participating in an attack on your home city, now is the time to voice them.”

Several people muttered “no, sir”.  Kadax was the only one with a longer opinion.

“Most of us that were born there most likely barely remember the place.  I might need a map to get from the front gates to the Ruins myself.” He chuckled.  “No, my only concern is the standing of the Order in the eyes of the dark elven people.  No offense to the humans present, but the society of Zhan’tiol is still the perfect place to find potential acolytes with the mindset we require.  While they may have changed their ways outwardly, many of the people of the city still hold the same beliefs that gave rise to our order.  We take a great risk by alienating them, and it may offset our gain in new acolytes coming from Trislanys.”

“It is a concern I share, too, Kadax,” Lord Marshal said.  “But those with the mindset of a Shadowknight will continue to seek us out, no matter where they are from.”

“Doesn’t this strike you as odd, though?” Kadax’s voice was becoming more and more insubordinate.  Few members of this order, even at the higher levels, could speak this way without fear for their life.  “He offers us a new location inside his borders, then sends us on a mission that will jeopardize our primary recruiting source from outside his country?  It seems too co-ordinated.”

It was Lord Marshal’s turn to be sarcastic.  “Would you rather he waited for a year or two, after we were comfortably settled in?  Give us a chance to put our guard down?  I myself am a little relieved that he’s tipped his hand like this.  If he was trying to trick us more treacherously, he wouldn’t let us see anything like this happen.  In the meantime, anyone in particular volunteer to lead this team?”

The young officer piped up instantly, her voice confident.  “I’ll go, sir.  Sending me brings the least risk of retaliation from the elven race against us, and seeing someone who was born in that city leading the army may convince them not to resist.”

“Excellent,” Lord Marshal replied.  “Assemble a team of 20 knights, and if you feel they are up to it, 3 or 4 Justicars as well.  Give me a list by tomorrow night.  You’ll be leaving within 3 days, and meet the force from Trislanys on their march.  This will most likely turn out to be a soft assignment, but it will be a good experience for them.”

Kadax cleared his throat.  “Out of curiosity, how does Adnesar plan to move an army right through Asharida?  Hasn’t he planned for the resistance he’ll meet from the regular soldiers along the way?”

Lord Marshal chuckled.  “His assets within the Asharidan court have maneuvered the local army and militias into an interesting position.  Under the guise of training exercises and resupplying, most of the road from the border to Zhan’tiol is wide open for the march.  There won’t be more than 100 soldiers able to get anywhere close to them, or to Zhan’tiol, in time to put up real resistance.  If Tyalon does order them to stand and fight, which I doubt he will, those soldiers will be slaughtered.  No, the better course of action, from Tyalon’s perspective, will be to organize a force to go to Zhan’tiol’s aid as soon as they can.  By that time, Adnesar is confident that he will have what he wants out of the Ruins.”

“Which is what?”

“That he did not share with me.  That’s all for now.  Kadax, had you sent for Karialis?”

“I did, and I believe she’s outside waiting for us.”  The officers began filing out of the room, the clicking of their black armor plates echoing along the hallway as they went their separate ways.  Kadax followed them out, as always dressed in full armor, as if he expected a fight to start right there in the heart of the mountain. He came to stand in front of Karialis.

“You asked my presence at a meeting, Kadax,” she said, with the bland, emotionless voice she always used in his presence.

“I did,” he replied, his voice taking on the same tone.  The two of them showed so little emotion toward each other, it was almost laughable.  She held so much disdain for the knight that she had to force herself to speak so neutrally.  She guessed that he did the same for her. “The Lord Marshal and I would like you to give us a summary of what you’ve taught Tsaria.”  He turned, and led her back into the office.

 

*****

Tsaria rested with her back to a tree, her sword across her lap.  They were just outside the city of Trenridor now, and would arrive at the gates before noon of the next day.  There, she would collect her pay and turn to Zhan’tiol, another two days away.

She had decided to visit her instructor’s old home sooner, rather than later.  The decision hadn’t happened at a particular time.  Her journey with Sannart, and the caravan they protected, had been planning to move that direction for months.  The closer they got to Zhan’tiol, the more natural it seemed for her to take this opportunity to go.

She found herself growing nervous as she approached.  It had occurred to her that the city of the dark elves might be her own birthplace.  She had always thought of the old circus as her family and home, even if they never stayed in one place for longer than a week.  Her sleeping was light, and her eyes opened a few times in the night when something moved through the brush on the roadside nearby.  The caravan had moved off the road itself, but was close enough to mount-up and move within a half hour if an emergency arose.  Tsaria sat off by herself, away from the campfires that were limiting everyone else’s night vision.  Hers would be superb, even right before the fires, but the human eye was different.  She thought it foolish for anyone still awake to want to be near a fire, but then again, they didn’t expect to have a fight on their hands.  That was what they’d hired an escort for.

The families had spread out on the ground around their wagons, covered in blankets and large animal pelts.  One of the families, hunters whose livelihood was selling pelts from their kills, were all beneath a huge bear pelt – all seven of them.

Taleyna was on the first watch, circling the camp area and keeping her eyes away from the fire, for the same reason Tsaria did.  Her human eyes wouldn’t adjust to the darkness as quickly as Tsaria’s.  For a human, she moved quietly.  Her choice of armor was almost entirely leather, and her footsteps were cautious.  Her dark hair was so short that Tsaria guessed it had recently been shaved completely off.  She usually passed Tsaria’s place in silence, but this last time she passed, she whispered just loud enough for Tsaria to hear.

“Even you will need sleep, sister.  You’ll be the first I awaken if something happens, you have my word.””Not Sannart?”

She chuckled, walking away and speaking over her shoulder.  “He sleeps like a rock.  When it’s your turn to patrol, remember- if something happens, ignore his order to wake him first.”  She returned to her patrol.

Tsaria smiled inwardly.  She turned her head upward, looking at the clear, night sky.  The stars mesmerized her – she’d never spent so much time looking up at them as she had since leaving the mountain.  She remembered stargazing when she was young, but the memory was hazy.

She heard the flapping sound approaching, coming from a long way off.  She turned her head.  It was above her head, at the level of the lowest tree branches, just ahead of her and outside the camp.

I believe you have a message, Traitor whispered.

Tsaria saw the source of the sound a moment later.  It was a tiny brown bat, and as it approached her, it flitted around in a circle at a safe distance from her, then it landed on the tree above her head.  It hung upside down, comfortably, worked its wings and looked around for a moment or two.  Then it began to speak.  What Tsaria heard was a tinny echo of Karialis’ voice.

“Hello, girl.  I hope your travels have been pleasant.”

“It’s nice to see the stars at night again,” she replied, smiling.

“Good.  I have news that you should be aware of, and I need you to take a message with you to the Ruins.”

“Of course.  I’m not far from there now,” she said, not knowing if her old professor could see her nod her head.  “They’re disturbed by my departure?”

“Some are, but Kadax is concealing it well.  It is, after all, precisely how you would have left, even if you had intended to take your post.  Nothing taken that shouldn’t have been.  But then, as I said before you left, there are a lot of officers who feel more threatened by you than they are comfortable with.”

Tsaria almost laughed outright at this.  “Everyone there is threatened by everyone else.  That’s the way the shadowknights are.”

“Very true.  But on to more important things.  I’ve learned that there is an army moving from Trislanys to take control of Zhan’tiol, and King Adnesar has instructed the Shadowknights to send a team to act as officers.”

Tsaria thought for a moment, then replied with what had been her first reaction; “That’s awfully foolish.  Invade another country to seize that city?  What for?”

“The orders to the Shadowknights were to assist with the siege itself, but apparently Adnesar wants his army to move into the Ruins.”

That thought stopped Tsaria cold.  “They’re going to the same place I am.”

“Yes.  Some of the shadowknight officers think that it’s connected to a group of Adnesar’s soldiers that were killed in a graveyard outside of Iron City, but I don’t know why.  Perhaps someone at Xantallis will know.”

Tsaria nodded, despite herself.  “Your message is to warn them?”

“Yes.  The militia protecting Zhan’tiol won’t stand a chance against the army that Adnesar has sent, especially with Shadowknights leading them.  But the Light of Xantallis will have no trouble stopping them if they have adequate warning.”

“Where is the Trislanys army?  How long will your people have after my warning to prepare?”

“I don’t know, child.  But their spies will be able to find out once they’re warned.  Have you been practicing your lessons?”

“I have.  I can raise a corpse, I believe, but I won’t be able to fight while it fights- I’d have to concentrate too much.”

“Keep practicing with it, and soon it will be second nature.  By the time that army gets to Zhan’tiol, you’ll be needing that power.  Good luck, child.”

“Thank you, professor.”  The bat detached from the tree, and flapped away into the night.  Tsaria looked around to make sure no one had heard her, then closed her eyes again.

“Invading Zhan’tiol?” she whispered to herself.  “What would the Ruins hold that Adnesar would be interested in?”

I suspect we’ll have a better answer when we arrive there.

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