4th Tanser, 994AI Ta-hwa Valley, 70 miles northeast of Jhondaja
They said it never rains here, Magi Kezia thought to herself. Quite to the contrary, it had been raining for near a week straight now. When the battalion had pitched their tents, the land was cracked and sandy. Three days ago they had been forced to move camp up the valley wall to a rock overhang to keep it from sailing away with the mudslide.
Beyond the rock ceiling that kept the camp … well, dry wasn’t the right word, the valley was a churning red deluge of mud, the bright ocher colors visible through the thick wall of downpour. The sound of the downpour on the rock was a constant, deafening racket. Kezia was attached to the 8th Partisans, 21st Battalion on dispatch to the Red Desert. Red river more like it, she muttered in her thoughts.
Magi were in short demand here on the front. Still, as valued a commodity as they were in battle they were never trusted and as Kezia walked the camp, the soldier shifted and watched her go. Except Backar. Partisan Backar, she reminded herself. We must address him properly, must we? She smiled at the thought of the charade they had going.
Sure it was unseemly in the Order, and the credibility Backar would lose with his men if they ever found out could ruin his career, but she loved him. Shaladria help me, I love him.
She found him in the commander’s tent looking over maps with some of the other Partisans. As the elite spearmen of the Imperial Army, the leadership of the 21st looked to them for guidance. Here, though, was a dilemma no man in camp was trained for.
“Simply put,” Backar was saying, “We just don’t know where the path will be when the rain lets up.” “Surely the ‘hoods will just follow the old paths?” That was lieutenant Farn. “We don’t know that. It’s possible they are moving even in this rain. We don’t know where or when they will appear. They could be in the valley now.” “They aren’t traveling,” Kezia chimed in.
The others turned, seeing her for the first time. “I’ve wards set throughout the valley. It wouldn’t stop them from moving the rain around their path, but to do that they’d have to use magic, and I’d know as soon as they did.”
Backar smiled, unwittingly. Farn ran his fingers down his big moustache and onto his chin taking in the Magi before speaking. “What if they don’t use magic?”
“If they don’t use magic,” Kezia said, “How would they get across the mudslide?”
Backar rose, “We’re done here. We wait until Kezia’s alarms tell us different.” The men left the room. “Magi Kezia, remain. I have words for you.”
When the others left she practically ran to him. Their kiss was deep, and she could taste the spicy tea still on his breath from that morning. “I’ve missed you.”
“We were together last night, little Magi. Or was it so forgettable?”
“Far from it. But I want your words as well as your body. Let’s just talk now, can’t we?”
“Of course. But first I actually do have business with you – were you able to discern anything useful from the book that courier brought?”
She had not forgotten her duties, even with her new found love. Backar and the rest of the 8th and 21st were supposed to be tracking a group of greenhoods on the run following the seige of Hyndatha. Just before the rain started, a courier had come up from Brae Halak, where an Imperial force had taken a Zhûrascan camp. There, the Magi had found documents they believed contained information regarding these same fleeing ‘hoods movements. All signs pointed north of the valley, to Fort Kardashan. It was Backar’s mission to find said fort he had been most anxious to know what the books said.
Unfortunately only Kezia could read Zhûrascan well enough to interpret the coded order. It had taken her six days to decipher the script and she had used the time to be as close to Backar as often as possible. “I’ve just finished. I think we can say with certainty that the greenhoods are moving to the Fort. Moreover, the fort has been abandoned – they aren’t meeting with reinforcements there.” She handed him her translated maps and papers and turned to pour herself some wine. “It sounds more like an expedition than a retreat. I read somewhere than Kardashan hasn’t been used in almost 300 years! Anyway, when can I have you next? I want you inside-“
Her voice was cut short as she turned. Backar was in her, alright. Or at least, his dagger was – hilt deep. She gurgled as blood rose to her mouth. He twisted the blade and cruelly split her stomach wide. She fell to the floor, growing lightheaded.
Backar walked to the tent flap and opened it. Outside, the men who were not yet killed were being tied up. Strange dark figures moved through the camp shouting orders at each other but she could only see their mouths moving. Why can’t I hear anything? Kezia’s mind was filling with a gentle numbness. It wasn’t supposed to rain here …
Backar strode out of the tent, sliding his knife into its sheath. A lean cloaked figure looked over the muddy valley. “Can’t we cut it out with the rain now?” Backar asked. The figure turned and he his heart leapt, though he showed no emotion. He always forgot how stunning she was.
“I rather like the rain.”
“Well, you don’t have to get wet when you walk around in it,” Backar shot back with a smile.
“So be it.” She turned and waved her hand. Slowly the clouds began to spread. In a few minutes, the rain would stop altogether. “Do you have what we need?”
“Yes,” Backar said, handing her the papers. “Little Kezia surely did know Zhûrascan as well as our spies indicated. She decoded and translated the documents with no trouble.”
“I sensed you killing her. Let’s hope for your sake, she did it right the first time.”
As she strode away, Backar watched her body moving. Even under a wet cloak her shape was stirring to a man. No wonder they named her Belladonna. But no time for idle thoughts. Backar had, after all, already had one Magi to bed this week.
He turned and walked over to inspect his Partisans. As he approached they locked into a tight line. Of the six that were attached to him (and by extension the 21st), five had gone along with the plan. The sixth had been deemed “too rigid” to be let in. Backar stepped over his body and repeated the Imperial mantra Glory and Honor as he did.
Now, these five: these men knew Glory. The 8th was a bulwark, the most hardened battle-ready unit any general ever saw. Unlike falchioneers who were chosen for their heads – skill with a blade and a horse, the ability to command – Partisans were chosen for their hearts. They were given long ashen spears; peasant weapons, really. They each had a large square shield and a short sword but it rarely came to that. Shoulder-to-shoulder no force could break the Imperial Partisans.
Galrey was a stoic man with a short-beard. Backar had never seen the man clean shaven, nor had he seen him flinch while killing. Next to him stood Short Thom, aptly named as he stood a full head beneath the next shortest man in the unit. He was wide as a house and all of it muscle – with his knees locked and his spear braced, not even Backar charging at full speed could topple Thom. Like a rising mountain, Two-spear Ägar was next. Ägar was a left-hander who had to be trained against that handicap: Partisans were expected to lock shields with perfect uniformit. At the Sack of the Blue Coast, Ägar’s shield had broken and he picked up another spear, wielding both above and around his body like a bladed windmill.
“Clean the blood from your boots,” Backar said as he walked past Eliroy. The man was a boon, to be sure, but had a kind of madness that sometimes took him. He was always the first one into the melee when the formation separated. Finally there was Fel-Corgan, the Farmer. He was s simpleton who rose through the ranks to become a partisan. Rumor around the barracks was he was better with a bow than with a spear. Fel-Corgan, Backar remembered, once fought against a score of men by himself with only a spear and came out nearly unbloodied. The dead Partisan did not warrant thinking of.
Backar gave one last look around the camp before proceeding. Belladonna had snuck up ten of her High Hand friends – greenhoods, colloquially. Though they, like Backar’s men, had broken their allegiances. A year ago, Backar and Belladonna had been on opposite sides of this cursed war, but now they worked together underneath the nose of their respective political sovereigns. Well, thought Backar, we were under their noses. Now that we’ve wiped out a whole regiment I imagine we’ll be straight up their nostrils. He hoped Belladonna’s magic was as powerful as she claimed. He spun on his heels to face his men.
“Spirits, men. I think we’re traitors to the Throne.” A hearty laugh went up. Backar liked that his men were friends as well as subordinates. As long as they didn’t question his orders, he had no problem with cutting up now and then. Rules never suited him or his regiment. “We did good here. Our contract with Belladonna has been signed in blood. With the information Kezia was able to give us, we’ll be at the Fort in a two days. We’ll have the gold and be moving out in four. By week’s end we’ll be in sight of a port and this time next month, you’ll be so deep in whores and wine, you’ll think you were swimming in them.” The men smiled. “FIRST TO CALL!”
“LAST TO FALL,” they shouted in sync. They packed their few possessions and joined Backar and Belladonna’s men on the march.
The 8th were on the move again. But this time, it would be for the “honor” of no emperor or lordling. This time it was for Glory.
They walked in a long line through the desert. The greenhoods kept to themselves mostly. Belladonna and Backar spoke infrequently but other than that, the units were as two camps. There were two dozen greenhoods in all, a rag-tag group of survivors that followed Belladonna only because she gave them hope. Since Lak A’hagaal signed his treaty with the Empire, they had made considerable gains against the Usurper and the High Hand. At this point, it was only a matter of time before the war was over. Superior numbers and the mostly united Order of the Magi would purge the world of these rebel greenhoods forever.
After a particularly devastating battle wherein the greenhoods lost their leader, Rthu Teyr, much of the Hand had fractured, looking for new leadership in an ever-more-difficult war. It was at that self-same battle where Belladonna and her now-followers were caught. Backar and his men were to watch over them but she had told Backar her plan – to travel to the ancient Fort Kardashan and there find a cache of ancient Magi writings. There was also the matter of the vast treasure store. The ‘hoods wanted the writings, the Partisans could have the gold. They could go their separate ways as rich as the kings they once fought for. We don’t all have to go down different paths, Backar thought as he watched Belladonna marching up the path ahead of him.
Having heard her plan, he and the others in his unit had let them out one night with the promise to get the documents she required from Brae Halak and translate them. They set a meeting place and the rest was easy. Except for that one Partisan, who couldn’t be trusted, anyway. Too many questions. But he was dead now and no reason to worry.
That night at camp, the ‘hoods made their strange tea which they shared with the Partisans. It was spicy and bitter but oddly refreshing. The day’s march seemed to melt away and soon the Partisans were drifting off. Backar went looking for Belladonna and found her alone, looking up at the stars.
“Branbowyn is in full view tonight, I see,” he said. “The flame is an appropriate image for such a blasted land.”
“The weather will not be so bad tomorrow.”
“Hardly. Bending the weather is no small task. No, I’ve read the wind and it says clouds. The shade should be a nice change.”
“Although, we’ll be inside tomorrow.”
“Your men will, yes.”
He had almost forgotten. The Fortress was warded somehow to prevent Magi from entering. Their powers would be no use to them there and, if they crossed the threshold they would be struck dead – so the legends went. Backar had seen much of the Magi in the five years of the war, but never anything so powerful as a gateway that killed Magi. Still, if Belladonna would pay the 8th to traverse the ruins in exchange for gold, so be it.
“I see you’ve been reading the translated notes,” he indicated the papers next to her. “Anything my men can use once we’re inside?”
“No. None have stepped foot in Kardashan for three centuries so there are few surviving eye-witness accounts. Those there are, speak of supernatural garudians, spirits and the like.”
Backar chuckled. He believed in ghosts less than he believed in magical mage-killing doors. “We’ll see to those, m’lady, don’t you worry.”
There was a silence as Backar struggled to find someway to impress the lady with his words. “I wonder …”
He found himself walking back to the camp before he realized he had even turned. Spirits, was he so smitten? His cheeks flushed and he bowed his head as he came into camp to keep the others from seeing.
The Fortress was carved out of a rockwall at the end of an old riverbed that split a narrow chasm in the land. The hewn façade was replete, not with the demons and demi-gods so common in Zhûrascan buildings, but with the simple vines and nature symbols of the Order of Magi. This, then, was truly a special place: a Fortress built by Magi coinciding with their arrival from their homeland centuries ago.
Belladonna striped down to a simple tunic and pants, now that they were in the shade of the high rock walls. The other greenhoods followed suit and began making camp. Lightly sweaty, Belladonna crossed the riverbed to where Backar and his men stood.
“M’lady,” Backar said. Spirits, that bosom.
“Alright, Partisan, time for your part. Go inside, find the tomes and bring it to me. You and your men may have the rest.” She leaned up and kissed him. There was the same spicy-bitter taste as the tea. And then he was walking. His men took only their arms and armor, torches, waterskins and a few maps Belladonna had indicated might help them. They paused at the threshold and Fel-Corgan looked up and around the large archway leading in.
“Looks clear,” he said. Backar gave a gesture and Short Thom and Galrey marched in side-by-side. The others locked shoulders and marched into the gaping shadow of the entry way, two at a time.
Inside it was pitch black, save for a shaft of light pouring in from the open entry way behind them. The floor immediately gave way to stairs and they descended down dozens of wide steps into a vestibule. A great seal stretched across the floor. It was carved of stone and heavy with dust. Galrey silently swept it aside and stood up.
“I’m no scholar, but those are Runes,” he said as he indicated the Actae writing. “Is it trapped?”
“I know how to tell,” said Eliroy and shoved Short Thom onto the seal with a shove.
Hating to be caught unaware, Thom reeled to throw a punch at Eliroy before Backar barked and the two men stopped. Thom was unhurt and the seal did not stir. He order them cross it and proceed. And then it happened.
As soon as his boots touched the far side of the seal, it all came flooding back to him. The night in the cell with Belladonna – the runestone she had shoved in his mouth and eyes, her twisted foreign words that bent his mind. He had killed the guard that night and let her out. When his men were sent to find her and the others, they drugged them all. They were conditioned to lead the 21st out to the valley, to hire Kezia – gods how long had he been with her? A year? Two? And now she was dead by his knife. And Wot, the youngest of the unit, had resisted and said they shouldn’t and he could fight the stone but the others couldn’t and so they killed him. And he had so loved Wot and Kezia and now …
Belladonna. With her tea and her kisses that kept them all drugged; they were on a treasure hunt for the woman who had forced them to betray the Throne.
It was a strange sight, had anyone been there. The six men looked at one another and knew what the other was thinking. The spell, broken, each man fell to tears and soon there arms were around each other muttering “Poor Wot,” and “How could we?” again and again.
No one could say how long they stayed like that, but as their senses returned they began to speak of what to do.
“I say we go back outside and we kill them all. To the hells with them,” Eliroy said.
“I agree, but we should wait – they’ll sleep at night, same as anyone else” Galrey added, always thinking things through.
“There’s no sense in it,” said Fel-Corgan. “If we cross back over the seal, the spell may come right back upon us. Whatever this place is, magic has no hold. By leaving it, we may fall right back into her trap.”
The others nodded, their anger seething. Each wanted the blood of the High Hand more than ever now, each just as powerless to get it. It was then that Two-Spear spoke up.
“I say we go and get it – I mean, we go into the Fort.” The others turned. “We are here and the greenhoods, well, they are there and unless we leave, they will think we still work for them. We can use that.”
“We can’t bargain with them, they’ll just kill us!,” Short Thom said.
“No,” said Galrey, “That’s not what he’s saying, is it Ägar?”
“Yes. I mean, no. I mean, no sir.” Ägar had a good head but a slow tongue, preferring to do his talking with a spear. “What I mean is, if we go deeper into the Fort here, we can find a way out without them suspecting anything.”
“I say we find the books,” said Eliroy, “and burn them. Then we take the gold – thought i seriously doubt there is any, hightail it out of here and meet up with the closest regiment.”
“And tell them what?” Backar spoke and the others were silent. “We have no way of proving we were drugged with Stone, no way of clearing our names. The 8th is finished. We are traitors now, regardless of what we say. Or have your memories not fully returned? We released prisoners of war and then conspired with them to butcher the entire 21st.”
“We weren’t ourselves! The Magi will know!” said Short Thom.
“We carry the taint of the High Hand. Spirits only know what they will do to us.” Backar slumped down. He half considered crossing back over the seal, hoping it would restore the spell. At least then he would have a purpose and a goal. At least then he wouldn’t feel the guilt.
Silence permeated the room. Then, unspoken, the men rose one at a time and began to pick up their things. First, Backar began adjusting his breastplate, and then Galrey stood and began to stretch. Fel-Corgan tested the pull of his shortbow and then slung it and picked up his spear. By the time they were all equipped, each knew the plan. It was an unspoken agreement each had wordlessly reached in their minds – follow Backar, no matter what. They looked at him and his voice came out of the shadows to them.
“We find these tomes and we destroy them. Then we find a way out of here. Then we will kill them to the last man.”
3rd Danwil, 1000 AI. Igrat, Dweller’s Alley
“_Jhana a’habé_,” the portly man said as he fell onto the cushion roughly. Some tea was set on in front of him and he thanked the young lady who placed it there. Another cup was set on the other side of the table, before a figure veiled in shadow. “Pardon my Imperial, the accent is difficult for me. I am called Allre Hallar.”
“I know who you are and whom you represent. What would your lord have of me?”
“Ahh, yes. There is a man, a powerful man, who would seek to bring down my lord and take his holdings for himself. We’re understanding?”
The other nodded.
“After some consideration, my lord has agreed to your rather … expensive fees. There is only one other matter which I must bring to your attention before we are finished here. I hope it’s no issue, but the man we would have you, er, dispose of … the man is Magi.”
The other leaned forward, picked up his tea and brought it to his lips. When he placed the glass down, he gave Allre a look and a smile that made the fat man shudder.
“Killing Magi is our specialty,” said Backar.