Traitor’s Hilt – Chapter 10

“I believe I am prepared.”

Riganzia sat in Gandara’s study, in one of the leather chairs.  Gandara sat facing him, and the third chair was occupied by one of the council members, Loradaan, whom Riganzia had only met once before.  He was human, like Riganzia, but nearly as old as Gandara.  His age showed much more prominently in the lines on his face and hands, but his hair was as long, thick, and black as it would have been when he was a young man.  His presence there was interesting to Riganzia, and it conveyed some of the importance of his recent studies and upcoming mission.

“How find you the latest writings shared with you?” Loradaan asked, his sharp eyes seeking the answer in Riganzia’s face before the words came.

“Fragmented.  It takes a lot of cross-referencing.  I’ve finished the assigned copying of the text, but I am making another copy that I will use to try to re-assemble the pieces that fit together logically.” He paused, wondering if he should speak his mind completely in this case.  “It seems to me that they were left in the order that they had been written, as a test to those who achieve this level of study; if you are smart enough to understand it, you would be smart enough to sort it all out and re-organize it.  The greater your understanding, the more connections you would make.”  Gandara smiled, and her eyes told him that he was correct.  Loradaan nodded.

“They also give a bit more insight into Jarladissa as a person,” Riganzia went on.  “She was extremely gifted, obviously, but she was also organized throughout most of her life.  You can see, in these writings, places where she has struggled to keep them organized, and how it vexed her.  The content itself made it difficult for her to present it in an orderly manner, so there are times when she tries to force it to make sense, and others where she just let the writing flow from her, as it were.”

“Most distressing about it, though…” he paused again.  Loradaan’s eyes told him to continue.  “She was scared.  This is a woman who spent most of her time studying and practicing bringing dead bodies back to life, who ventured out into the outer ruins alone for experiments, and who knows where else?  Throughout the first eleven scrolls, there are asides regarding her studies and experiments that would make anyone’s skin crawl.  But this,” he pointed toward the white scroll case, sitting on the table in the center of the room, “this scared her- what she was writing, not what was happening to her.  She was familiar enough with death, and she knew what was waiting for her as well as anyone else here.  That didn’t affect her the way that this prophetic vision did.  She was scared for us, I think, not for herself.  She was afraid that what she had been shown, what she had started, would not be stopped.”

Loradaan nodded again.  “Very good.  Now, I believe Gandara has outlined the task we’ve requested of you?”

“Yes, she has.”

“And you have an idea of where you are going to start?”

Riganzia took a deep breath, then let it out quickly.  “Well, I believe my first trip will be to Iron City, to investigate the recent rumors from the graveyard near there.”  He was sure Loradaan had heard of this, and was as curious about it as everyone else was.  But would they allow Riganzia to include it in his larger mission?

Loradaan chuckled.  “An amusing story, if it’s true, and a good lesson for King Adnesar not to meddle with the resting dead.”

Riganzia shared his smile, then said, “Yes, but again, if it’s true, it would require a great amount of magical skill and energy.  There is something else about that place, though, that makes me think it is worth visiting.”

Loradaan’s eyebrows rose slightly.

“When I first arrived here,” Riganzia went on, “I made the acquaintance of another young student who had come here from Iron City.  We talked, as new students often do, and one of our exchanges was about childhood frights.  Fitting enough, since many come here to study things that terrify other people.  He told me a story about himself and four or five friends and a graveyard just outside his home city.  He said they found something underneath the graveyard by opening up one of the crypts, an entrance to something hidden below.  Only two of the children went in, and this student I spoke to stayed above-ground, but soon after entering, the two came back out, screaming at the others to run… and something caught one of them.  One of the two who had gone into the crypt was tripped by something my friend couldn’t see.  He just remembers watching it drag the boy back into the graveyard.  Now, obviously this wasn’t all that long ago, but whatever is under that graveyard is certainly worth a look.  I mean, who else but a necromancer would make their place there?  And who else but a group of very powerful necromancers could raise enough undead to overpower 50 soldiers?”

Gandara nodded her approval.  Loradaan tilted his head, saying, “It’s as good a reason as I could give you for going anywhere else.”  He rose, and the others rose with him.  “Good luck, and please take excellent notes for us.  We’ll be needing as much information as we can get.”  He left the study, and Riganzia and his instructor turned and began to walk toward the library.  Beyond the library was the gate to the outer Ruins, and Zhan’tiol, and the outside world, where his quest awaited him.

The library was an incredible sight from any angle; seven circular atriums surrounded one larger atrium, each 8 floors high.  Staircases stood between each outer atrium, carved from solid black granite.  There were magical lights floating just over head high, spaced evenly on every floor, together providing as much illumination as the noon sun would give an open field.  The books here were divided amongst seven main disciplines of magic, and there were hundreds of wizards and students here, searching the shelves for an ancient tome or sitting on one of the numerous leather chairs that were scattered throughout each floor of the library.  Each of them was a student, even the oldest and most learned of them.  That was what bonded Riganzia to the community the most; no one here thought they were smart enough to stop their studies.  No one here believed they had learned enough.

“Your travel will take you through Nomad’s Gate, if I’m not mistaken,” Gandara said as they moved across the center atrium, heading toward the doors leading toward the outer gate.

“Yes.  I don’t know if I will be calling upon them or not,” he said, answering the unasked question.  His reply was devoid of emotion.

“Your mother would be very happy to see you.” Gandara was guessing with that statement, but Riganzia agreed.

“Yes,” he sighed.  “Perhaps it has been long enough.  It’d be nice just to see if they are still alive, still there.  I can think of no reason they’d have moved.”  He had long since lost the ability to picture the family farm as a whole.  Only details remained to him now – his bedroom, the inside of the old barn, the faces of his family as they were, more than 20 years earlier.

“Well, it wouldn’t be too great a diversion from your quest, and as I recall, you went out of your way to avoid your home city last time you were out in the rest of the world.”

He nodded.  “I wasn’t ready.  Perhaps I will be, this time.”

“As always, follow your instincts,” she said.

They both froze in place at the same time.  They were nearing the outer gate, where they would gather up the prepared equipment and supplies waiting for him, but something was different.  It took Riganzia a moment to see what it was, and by that time Gandara was already moving swiftly toward the outer door.

It was the eternally silent and motionless Guardians, the skeletal protectors.  They were moving.  Their eye-sockets had small glowing lights in them, which made them all the more menacing. Their shields were up, and their swords swung at their sides as they walked.  There were four posted at each of the main doors into the library, but the two that Riganzia and Gandara had been approaching had turned, and moved through the door toward the outer Ruins.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen them move,” Riganzia told her as they passed into the wide, low corridor that led past the supply room and toward the main gates.

“It’s been a long time since I have,” she replied, evenly.

The giant iron doors were always open, but at least 10 guardians were slowly moving toward the large stone steps that led down to the floor of the Ruins.  A small square was built into the ‘streets’ of the Ruins, with the buildings ringing it mostly burned or broken nearly down to the stone floor.  Beyond were the destroyed buildings and scattered stairs that led up and down the many uneven levels.  Here and there, the wandering dead could be spotted as they meandered aimlessly, lifelessly, between the buildings.

But what drew Riganzia’s attention was a young dark-elf woman in black armor, in the center of the square, with her sword drawn.  Her head was without helmet, and her white hair danced in the air as she spun, swinging her blade at and through the bodies that surrounded her.  The guardians were slowly approaching, but had yet to get close to her- it was the lesser undead that had mindlessly attacked her, and were being destroyed.  More and more they surrounded her, but she kept them all at bay, throwing them back as she cut them down.  Just about the time Riganzia had started to ask himself where someone would learn this much skill with a blade, she answered him with her actions; as one body nearly reached her, she drew back her left hand, then threw it into the corpse’s chest.  The contact was marked by blue sparks, and the body was knocked through its companions, clearing a narrow path right to the foot of the stairs leading up to where he stood.

“Interesting,” he heard Gandara say, but he didn’t take his eyes off the fight.  Seeing anyone in combat with the dead was a learning experience, he had been told over and over again.  Since he had almost no experience fighting with his hands, he paid close attention.  After cleaving another corpse that had come too close, apparently the young knight decided that she was done playing with these creatures.  He saw her mouth move, then her hands clap together around the hilt of her sword.  As if a shockwave issued from her clasped hands, the bodies around her fell away from her like matchsticks, lying on the ground spread out from the point of her spell.  She looked up the stairs toward them with the look of someone finally seeing their destination, then began climbing the stairs.

By this point, several of the guardians had nearly reached her, and several more members of the Light of Xantallis had gathered at the top of the stairs.  The other members whispered and muttered to each other, but Riganzia hardly heard them.

The nearest pair of guardians stomped down two more steps, coming within fighting range of the intruder.  The skeletal warriors pulled their shields up to shoulder height at the same time, as if choreographed, and raised their swords behind them.

The woman’s response was to sheathe her sword, and take a step backward.

“How will she deal with them, I wonder,” Riganzia heard someone else say nearby.

Gandara answered, “I’m not sure she’ll have to.”  Her lips curled into a smile.

Riganzia looked at her for just a moment, slightly confused, but had his answer as his gaze returned to the scene.  The woman had pulled a pendant out from under her arming clothes, and was holding it up for the Guardians to see.

*****

“Oh, please, let them recognize this thing,” Tsaria whispered under her breath.

Come now, girl, don’t you think we could handle a few hundred more of these things? Traitor whispered, taunting her.

“Not the time for that,” she muttered.

Not to worry.  It appears their demeanor has changed.

Traitor was right- their swords were lowering, and they stood still.  She took a step closer to them, still holding the pendant in front of her lips. The glowing red lights in their eyes seemed to bore into her, silently probing her mind for any threat.  Traitor’s suggestion for her to put the blade back into its sheath was a good one.  It was clear she had no intention to attack.  The question was, could a skeleton see that?

Suddenly, soundlessly, their swords and shields lowered, they began to turn, and slowly stomped their way back up the steps to their positions.  There were still several guardians at the top of the stairs, moving through the watching crowd of the living until they had stopped.  Now these moved between the onlookers as they went back through the giant iron doors behind them.  Tsaria let them get a few steps ahead of her, then began climbing the stairs at their pace.  She was still several steps down when one of the crowd stepped forward and spoke to her; a dark elven woman, beautiful but old, and showing her age just slightly.  She was dressed as all of them were- scarlet clothes under dark purple robes.

“What business have you here, Shadowknight?” she called.  Her voice was a gentle challenge, very subtly tuned for the exact effect it had.  She didn’t want to seem threatening, but she was concerned with Tsaria’s presence.  So much was conveyed with a look and tone of voice.

“I come at the bidding of my instructor from Shadow Mountain.  Karialis was originally one of your order.  She gave me this.”

Again, she held up the small pendant.  The etched image had first appeared as she neared the outer gates of the Ruins, the huge iron doors separating the city of Zhan’tiol from the dead city just below it.  It had taken most of a day of watching and waiting for an opportunity to slip past the posted guard.  While wandering through the Ruins themselves, the etching had grown steadily clearer, guiding her to the destroyed square with the stone staircase leading up towards the cavern wall.

She was still forcing control on her breathing, but it was getting easier.  The first of the wandering dead that had approached her was easily avoided.  When there had been three of them, lurching along to chase her between the large fragments of shattered stone carvings, she had stopped to destroy them.  When six more had caught up to her, she had run again.  By the time she’d reached the square, there had been a dozen, and many more shambling out of the remains of doorways and dragging themselves out from under collapsed roofs.

“Karialis,” the woman repeated.  Her expression warmed, though she did not smile.  “We have been without word from her for a very long time.  How is she?”

“Well enough, I believe.”  Best to deliver the news outright, she thought.  “She asked me to bring news of an army, approaching from Trislanys, whose goal is to occupy Zhan’tiol and enter the Ruins.  She believes Adnesar means them to come here.”

The wizards before her began to exchange glances, but they remained silent. Only the dark elf woman spoke.  “I see,” she said quietly, her gaze hardening again at the news.  Tsaria took one more step, now on the same platform as the crowd, on the threshold of the great doors.  They all radiated energy from their eyes, and Tsaria felt it pass over her.  It was a low hum that her brain could detect without the help of her ears.

The woman nodded.  “Thank you for your warning.  We’ll do what we must to prepare.”  She softened slightly again, and held up a hand to invite her inside.  “It appears we have much to talk about.  Come, and we’ll find food and drink for you.”

*****

The room they sat in was a small council chamber.  The walls were paneled with wood, and the low ceiling absorbed much of the sound, making the room seem quieter than normal.  The chair she was in was comfortable, especially after all her travelling, and the tray of bread set before her had been very good.  She had drained a glass of water, but thought it impolite to drink another so fast.

It was the arrangement of the chairs around her that made her feel like she was on display.  A dozen men and women sat in a semi-circle, with Tsaria in its center, and they listened to her as she told them of her studies with Karialis and her journey to Zhan’tiol.  They had offered her a chance to change out of her armor, but she didn’t feel quite that welcome.  After six years of fighting and constant threat of violence, the armor was almost like her own skin.

“I am glad to hear of Karialis again,” one of the younger men said.  Younger was relative, of course – he was a human, and showing some age, but his hair was still dark, and his face unlined.  “We have missed our sister greatly.”

“So she did not learn from the Shadowknights the reason for Adnesar’s attack on us?” An older, white-skinned elf woman asked.  Her face showed all the signs of the High Elven blood, but her eyes were dark and wide, almost entirely black.  “He didn’t share that with them?”

Tsaria shook her head.  “No.  Apparently, the Shadowknights weren’t necessary for anything but the initial siege of the upper city.  The officers Karialis overheard considered it to be a bit of a joke – or a waste of time.”  They were certainly wrong about that, she thought silently.

“Our presence here is a rumor and myth to the outside world, but little more,” said Gandara.  “I wonder what it is that Adnesar thinks he could gain by invading us.”

“One of the officers Karialis overheard guessed that it was connected, somehow, to the soldiers he lost in a graveyard outside Iron City.” Tsaria said.  “They didn’t have any real reason for thinking it, just speculation.  That was at a graveyard, now he comes looking for necromancers.  Not too great a leap from one to another.”

Gandara nodded.  “Well, now we come to a rather uncomfortable part of this discussion, Tsaria.  We don’t expect you to fight against your fellow shadowknights- we know of the loyalty they demand- but our laws state that no one can leave unless they become a part of our order.”

Tsaria felt her lips form a small smirk.  She couldn’t help it.  She’d known something like this would happen, but how to answer the implied question?

“Karialis asked me to come here to learn from you.  She had often told me that I would be a much better student to you here than I had been at Shadow Mountain.  I don’t know if I agree or not.  But I know this; I was taken to Shadow Mountain against my will when I was a child.  I did what I needed to do to survive.  My loyalty to them is an illusion, and now that I have left the mountain, I feel no need to continue with that illusion.”  She paused.  “I doubt you would just accept me into your order on my word alone.  How is it that you test those who come here to join you?  There must be some trial.”

Gandara nodded.  “How much did Karialis teach you?”

“She told me it was more than she’d taught any other shadowknight, but I don’t know how that compares to your own powers.  My skills could be trivial to you, for all I know.”

“Your ability to banish the undead surrounding you out in the outer Ruins is not trivial,” said another man.  He had been studying her, silently, since she’d arrived.  Almost analyzing her, she thought.  The others nodded at his words.

“That skill is not too advanced, but it’s certainly not in our first rank of teachings,” Gandara agreed.  “I share Karialis’ opinion that you were raised in the wrong place.”

Tsaria lowered her gaze, wishing they were correct.  For a moment she saw the face again, the first time her Kill Touch had happened, acting on its own, as if a shadowknight had lived within her, waiting for the chance to show itself.  Perhaps the two disciplines could co-exist, as Karialis had once guessed.

“You disagree?” Gandara prodded, gently.  She could see something in particular was bothering Tsaria about that question.

“Yes, my lady.  When I was young, I un-knowingly Kill Touched someone who was trying to hurt me.  That’s how I came to the attention of the Shadowknights.”

This seemed to be of great interest to the entire group, but they expressed it silently.

“You have the ability to kill with a touch, but yet you’ve learned so much of our ways,” Gandara said thoughtfully.  “It is rare for anyone of any race to show natural skill in both our disciplines.  Did Karialis teach you to animate the dead?”

Tsaria nodded.  “Not during my time with her, but she gave me some of her old notes and exercises to practice while I travelled here.  I’ve only succeeded once, and I haven’t made any practical use of it.  I can fight far better when I’m not concentrating on a puppet.”

The younger man nodded.  “It takes some practice before you can call up a dead fighter that can act independently, but we may be able to teach you that.”

A soft glow appeared to Tsaria’s right, and caught the attention of the wizards facing her.  It gained in strength, then a face appeared in it, speaking to the council.

“Masters, I have my report,” the voice said.  Gandara nodded to the face, and it continued.

“The army from Trislanys has just crossed over the border.  My guess is that there are 7,000 soldiers all outfitted for heavy combat.  There is one small unit of mounted cavalry, but I believe they are intended for scouting rather than open fighting.  They’re not equipped to attack a city that is above-ground – no siege engines of any sort – but against Zhan’tiol they’d be very effective.  They’ve only passed by one village so far, and have only sent an emissary to notify the villagers that they are not to interfere with the movement of the army.  I haven’t seen any evidence of Shadowknights, but I don’t believe they will meet up with them until they are much closer to us.  The Shadowknights will minimize their own travel.”

“How long will it take them to reach the city?”

“Ten days, perhaps nine.  That is all I have, masters.”

“Thank you,” Gandara replied.  The glow faded and disappeared, and the council’s eyes returned to Tsaria.

“I believe we can hold them at bay, once the militia protecting Zhan’tiol has had its chance to defend the city, but I cannot guarantee your safety here.” Gandara’s eyes held a silent question, and Tsaria answered it at once.

“If I can help you, I will.  Your undead creations may or may not be strong enough to defeat a Shadowknight, but they won’t be expecting me.  How much can you teach me in nine days?”

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