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Hemlock and the Dread Sorceress


  Hemlock and the Dread Sorceress

  The Maker’s Fire – Volume III

  1st edition

  By B Throwsnaill

  Published by Bill Ainsworth at Amazon.com

  Copyright 2013 by Bill Ainsworth writing as B Throwsnaill

  For more information about B Throwsnaill's writing please visit https://www.wiztower.com .

  This book is dedicated to my family.

  I’d also like to extend a special thank you to my beta readers: Chandler, Scott and Jeff.

  All characters and events portrayed in this work are fictitious.

  Table of Contents

  Map of the City of San Cyra and surrounding regions

  What has gone before

  Prologue

  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Afterward

  What Has Gone Before (in Book II -- Hemlock and the Dead God’s Legacy)

  Hemlock realized the role of leader of the wizards was more complex and tiresome than she anticipated. Feeling burdened by her many new responsibilities, she yearned for the freedom of adventure. When Tored arrived from the Witch Crags with information about the likely location of another powerful Wand, she seized the opportunity to embark on a new quest. The goal of the quest was to retrieve and destroy the Wand, and it was believed that doing so would unbind the Witch Crags region from the City.

  Before she left, she entrusted the newly discovered diary of Julius--the man who built the Wizard Tower--into the possession of Merit, who was rapidly developing an affinity for history and lore. Merit began to uncover an ancient narrative in those dusty pages, and soon realized it was the tale of the origins of the wizard guild.

  Hemlock left the City with Tored, a small group of wizards, and a band of Tanna Varran warriors; and it soon became apparent there was a rift between the two Tanna Varran factions in the group. The recent death of Pan Taros, former King of the Tanna Varrans, had left the noble families vying for succession to the throne. Tored's own Taros clan was led by an adolescent named Taros Sundar, while the competing Vyle clan was led by a young, but proven warrior named Umra Vyle. Both young men were in the group. Umra Vyle regarded Taros Sundar as a serious rival to the throne while Taros Sundar viewed Umra Vyle as an arrogant oaf and an adherent to a warrior tradition that was doomed to irrelevance in a post-witch world. Tored understood the threat that Umra Vyle represented, but neither he nor Hemlock were able to convince the headstrong Taros Sundar to take it seriously.

  When the group reached a wide region of plateaus, they were forced to split up and navigate a complex of tight passageways between the rock. During this crossing, they were attacked by a strange rainbow cat which Hemlock managed to drive off after it inflicted casualties. Hemlock felt sure she had seen Umra Vyle flee his comrades during the battle and held him in contempt from that point on.

  Tored seemed unusually affected by the loss of life and withdrew from what had been a strengthening friendship with Hemlock. When the group reached the outskirts of Tor Varnos, the Tanna Varran capital, Taros Sundar attempted to humiliate Umra Vyle. Umra Vyle reacted by challenging the younger man to a duel, but Tored intervened, wounding Taros Sundar so he would not be able to participate. Umra Vyle then challenged Tored to a duel, seeking to cunningly take the throne because Tored had been acting regent since the death of Pan Taros. But Tored outmaneuvered the young warrior by relinquishing his membership in the tribe before the duel. Umra Vyle would not be King if he killed Tored in the duel, but the younger man still thirsted for revenge. They met in battle in the old dueling arena beneath the town. Tored managed to kill Umra Vyle, though he was gravely wounded in the process. Hemlock became enraged when she learned Tored could not live unless he was able to leave the arena under his own power. Defying tradition, she descended into the arena and rescued him herself.

  The wizards in the group healed Tored, and they soon left Tor Varnos. The Tanna Varrans wanted representation on the trip that would determine the fate of their relationship with the City, so they sent a group on the trip despite the tension over Tored disowning his heritage and Hemlock's violation of Tanna Varran law. Together, the group proceeded to the mysterious vale at the western edge of Tanna Varra.

  As they camped below the vale, an apparition appeared to Hemlock and Tored. It proclaimed itself to be an ancient peer of the Imperator--a personage named DuLoc. It stated that it was returning soon to take control of the City. It taunted Hemlock, saying that she would never defeat the guardian that had been placed with the Wand.

  The next morning, the group climbed through the mists that hung over the mountains surrounding the vale, and faced a massive, vile, gluttonous creature that had covered much of the mountain with excrement. After a difficult battle, they destroyed the creature and proceeded into the vale. They discovered an unexpected paradise --and the tribe of witches they found there was even more unexpected. The Tanna Varrans were immediately hostile, but it was clear these witches were different than their now deceased sisters. Where the other witches had thrived on malice, these thrived on comfort and pleasure. Hemlock didn't see them as threatening, so she instructed most of the wizards in the group to escort the witch Cassandra and her human followers back to the City where they would be granted asylum.

  Hemlock, Tored, and two wizards named Renevos and Otticus proceeded into the tunnels beneath the vale where the Wand they sought was reputed to be. As they descended, they came under attack by an Earth Spirit which marshaled denizens of the deep to confront the group in several battles. But the group tenaciously pressed on even after they realized this Earth Spirit was the one DuLoc had warned them about.

  They finally came to a deep cavern suspended over lava and found the Wand. The Earth Spirit reappeared, though it was greatly weakened by the prior battles. A strange infant was also resting there, and the infant gave Hemlock a surprising message. It said it was the offspring of Amarank, the Earth Spirit, and Julius, founder of the wizard guild. Though it was physically weak, it had developed great powers of prescience and extra sensory awareness and had been anticipating Hemlock's arrival. It told Hemlock that she needed the bloodlines of both the Imperator and the First Wizard in order to defeat her next foe. Hemlock realized the child meant DuLoc.

  Amarank begged Hemlock to spare her child, who was being kept alive by the Wand, but the child pleaded that it wished to die. Hemlock removed the Wand, causing the child to disintegrate as Amarank fell into the lava. The group teleported out as the deep cavern collapsed and the Witch Crags disconnected from the City.

  Once back in the City, Hemlock searched for the place the strange child had told her about. She located a huge amphitheater that had been hidden since the time of the Wizard Tower's construction. It allowed her to directly see the worlds surrounding the City. She brought Gwineval and her other friends to see the display, and they had their first direct experience of some of the content of Hemlock's visions.

  Hemlock assembled Gwineval, Miara, Tored, Mercuria, Samberlin and Merit in the chamber beneath the Wizard Tower where she had destroyed the first Wand by dropping it into the Maker's Fire. She intended to destroy the recently found Wand, but there was sharp disagreement from Samberlin and Gwineval, though Hemlock warned them keeping the Wand would only play into DuLoc's hands. Hemlock suddenly gave the Wand to Gwineval and let him make the decision. Gwineval reluctantly followed Hemlock's advice and destroyed the Wand.

  Hemlock then abdicated her leadership of the wizards, and asked Tored to join her and Mercuria in their apartment in the Warrens. The former Tanna Varran was still acting sullen, but he agreed to join Hemlock and her sister. Hemlock hoped for some respite from the looming threat of DuLoc and his ambitions to return to take the City for himself, but she expected that any peace she had would be short-lived.

  Prologue

  Gorf Cobble stirred his stew, looking over his well-stocked dinner table at the plump faces of his family seated around it. His home was ample. He had personally laid every brick and beam that composed it. He was a proud man, prominent in his mining village which was nestled deep in the mountains to the east of the city of San Cyra. His seated frame was massive and muscled—his strength forged by many years of labor underground. Half of his round head was covered by layers of brown locks, but the other was marred by a hairless patch, pink and scarred in the aftermath of an old mining accident.

  Life is good, he thought to himself, coercively. But the simmering uneasiness in his gut reminded him that he felt otherwise.

  "What are you worrying about?" asked Hilda, his wife of two score years. She wore her blonde locks in a braided ponytail that hung down her back. Her brown eyes still made Gorf feel like he did when he discovered a rare gem in the depths of his mine. Of course, she meant more to him than any gem or precious metal, but he had spent so much time surrounded by rock that he almost always thought in terms of it.

  Gorf put his spoon down and turned to Hilda. "We're lucky, you know."

  Hilda chuckled over the slurping sounds their four children made as they ate. "It isn't luck, Gorf," she began as she tore pieces of bread and distributed them to the children. "You're a hardworking man. You built this house with your bare hands. And how many tons of ore have you hauled out of that mine? Your mine!"

  Gorf smiled and shook his head. Hilda could always tell when he needed a pep talk. It was like some sixth sense she had.

  He felt stabilized by her encouragement, and his mind returned to his stew. But then his hand slowly balled into a fist, and before he knew what he was doing, he had struck the table. "It's Jalis and these damn wizards, Hilda! They're changing everything. Those fools that signed that agreement with them signed away our rights. Now, we answer to the wizards. They took Murphy’s mine from him the other day just because he’d been speaking out against them!"

  Hilda frowned at his outburst. The kids paused with uncertain looks in their eyes. Gorf felt ashamed of his sudden loss of control. The force of his blow had spilled his stew.

  He cleared his throat as Hilda rose to get a cloth to clean up his mess.

  “I’m sorry, kids. I’m just upset about business in the mine. Eat your suppers,” he managed.

  He felt Hilda’s soft hand on his shoulder as she stood behind him cleaning the table. She massaged him reassuringly. He suddenly wanted to do something for her—something to express how grateful he was to have a loyal and supportive wife like her. He remembered the fine gowns he had seen in the City some years ago.

  Yes, he thought, I will get her one of those this year. I’ll make the trip in a few weeks.

  As she sat down, she spoke to him in a hushed tone. “Gorf, you have to relax a bit. This…thing…with the wizards—it’s bigger than you. What can you do about it?”

  “Don’t get me started about what to do about it. And what do wizards need with gold, you wonder? Well, we figured it out. Turns out they’ve been hiring mercenaries from the south. They’re employing them to help erect these magic obelisks in the valley. But this lot they’ve brought in aren’t just for construction. They have the look of thugs. We’re headed for trouble! One way or another.”

  Gorf despaired as a look of horrified recognition emerged on Hilda’s face. She understood there would be violence. They both sat silently for several minutes as the children continued to eat and banter amongst themselves.

  Hilda finally broke the silence. “More ale?” she asked, unable to conceal a slight quiver in her voice.

  Gorf nodded and placed his hand on hers as she poured.

  …

  He rose early the next morning, as was his custom. He was wealthy enough to not have to use an overnight shift in his mine. He was always there when the mine was operating.

  He was grateful that Hilda hadn’t pressed him for more details about the situation with the wizards. Though nothing more was said about it, it had clearly been on both of their minds. Few words were exchanged between them as he prepared to leave for the day.

  As he laced up his work boots, he felt her behind him. She hugged him, reaching her arms around his barrel chest. He grasped her arm and caressed it.

  “Be sure to kiss the kids this morning,” she said.

  “Of course,” he replied, not questioning why she would make this request. He kissed the children every morning before he left.

  …

  The heavy iron links of the massive chain clanked and groaned from the weight of fully laden mining cars. The azurite crystal within the cars sparkled in the flickering torchlight of the mineshaft. They struck a rich vein of the valuable crystal that morning and the haul had been prodigious. But Gorf was still uneasy.

  Biting down on his cigar, he thought about the imposing stone golem at the top of the mine that tirelessly hauled the cars to the surface. The golem was one of the benefits of the agreement with the wizards. He glanced at his idle work crew, loitering in a side shaft as the mindless stone beast did their work for them. Gorf's extremely muscular arms tensed in anger.

  His strength had developed through many years of pulling mine cars to the surface. But the golems did it faster and safer than the men of his day. Still, Gorf didn’t like the new development, even though it had improved his mining output. His men grew soft. And soft men got killed in the mines. It was only a matter of time.

  Gorf shook his head as his men chuckled at some private joke. He spat out his cigar and roughly stamped its dying ember on the rock floor. The remote incantations of some reclusive wizard were not his reality. He was a creature of the cold, dank darkness—gruff and taciturn. The idea that magic could replace the clenched agony of raw sinew hauling rock from the mine was distasteful to him.

  The steady groan from the iron wheels of the mine cars stopped, and the great chain went slack, clanking onto the rock floor.

  Gorf cursed. “The golem cut out again!” he cried as his crew climbed to their feet in the flickering darkness. The air in the shaft, which was kept circulating by great fans the golem operated at the surface, also went still.

  The crew chief approached Gorf apprehensively. “What do we do, boss? Should we wait?”

  “We’ll wait for a few minutes to see if the golem restarts. Maybe old Smitty forgot to use the potion on it this morning. If it doesn’t come back on, we’ll pull the load up ourselves.”

  There was an audible groan from the crew as Gorf finished speaking. He felt rage boiling up inside and turned away from the crew chief.

  I can’t take out my anger on the men, he thought, trying to control his temper.

  The crew chief retreated. The profound silence of the underground filled the void left by his receding footsteps and consumed every crevice of the mineshaft.

  The quiet darkness allowed Gorf to refocus his thoughts. He wondered what the day would bring, and thought of his war hammer that was packed amongst his belongings on the surface. Today, he would bring his ores and crystals to the marketplace in the valley. The wizards would be there, their new thugs in tow, presiding over and taxing every transaction.

  He experienced a strange and welcome sense of calm while he thought of Hilda and the children.

  “Everything will be alright,” he mused, surprising himself.

  Then, his calm gave way to startled panic. At the edge of his vision, he could see a twinkling mist rising from an adjoining mine shaft. The mist was deep blue, revealed by small pinpoints of dim light that played within it. An accompanying tinkling sound, like impossibly small wind chimes, confirmed his worst fear. It was called the blue damp—a deadly gas frequently disturbed during the course of mining. Small traces of the gas made a man feel warm and secure—like Gorf had been feeling. In greater concentrations, like the cloud Gorf was looking at, the gas produced euphoria and apathy. But its most dangerous quality was its explosive volatility. Any percussive sound could set it off. When detonated, its force could penetrate two feet of solid rock.

  Gorf hissed to his crew and pointed. They rose in horror but remained silent. The cloud of gas was immense. Without the ventilation fans drawing air to the surface, it was spreading out in all directions. Gorf knew his only hope was to get to the surface with his men. But they would have to pass through the thick gas without making a sound.

  He hissed again to his crew and gestured for them to come toward him. He realized that if the golem restarted, they would all be killed by the screeching of the car’s wheels. He swallowed down his panic as he surveyed the expectant and fearful eyes of his crew.

  He nodded to them with what he hoped was an air of confidence. Then, he began to creep slowly toward the expanding cloud of blue damp.

  As he entered the cloud, feelings of euphoria began to assail him. The intense fear of threat gave way, first to confidence then to whimsy. He tried to keep his wits about him as he continued to walk slowly, holding his hands over the tools on his belt. One of the men behind him made a careless noise, but Gorf found himself beyond worry. It was all he could do to keep moving as the beguiling, blue sparkles of light moved around him.

  The air in front of him began to swirl. The sparkles spun wildly and were displaced as something shimmering appeared. Gorf halted as a magnificent gilded hourglass materialized before him. Sand falling softly from the top half of the hourglass to the bottom engulfed his awareness. He didn’t know how long he stood there watching that hourglass—but suddenly it began to shimmer again. All at once, it was gone within the sparkling particles of light. He remembered a distant sense of purpose—just enough to start moving forward again.

  He slowly regained his wits as the group began to emerge from the depths of the vast cloud. His first impulse was to break into a run, but he knew some of the men behind him were still too close to the gas. He waited until they were all several score yards from the edge of the cloud then urged them into a fast jog.

  As he ran, his thoughts returned to the hourglass he had seen inside the blue damp. Its appearance seemed to mirror his concerns about running out of time on the issue of the wizards. He dismissed it as a hallucination.

  After many long and tiring minutes of running, the glaring light of day smashed the cocoon of underground darkness that enclosed Gorf and his crew. Even after his many years of mining, the sensation of emerging from the dark mine was still jarring.

  “Smitty!” he cried, directing the old miner to tend to the golem. “Start up the fans first and wait two hours before hauling up the cars. We hit blue damp down there—a lot of it!”

  Gorf cursed again under his breath. He expected danger in the market today, not in his mine. But danger was never far away in the mine.

  His crew chief approached him as the grumbling crew gathered around the waiting cars.

  “The lads aren’t happy about having to lug the shipment to the market themselves,” said the chief.

  “Well, isn’t that a shame,” said Gorf unsympathetically. “That’s how we did it for thirty years. It will be good for them—toughen them up.”

  Within the hour, the burly miners struggled to push the mining cars across a long, flat section of track. The wood and iron track extended between two adjacent mountain peaks held aloft by a long bridge span. The track led into the valley that lay at the edge of the mountain to the west of Gorf’s mine.

  A long line of miners and mining cars were queued ahead of Gorf. He cast dark looks at the miners ahead of him, who mostly tended to a single car themselves. He then glanced downward and to his left. Another track twisted around a nearby mountain on top of a comparatively flimsy-looking series of adhoc supports.

  Gorf shook his head. Despite the known dangers of the lower track, he wondered if he might have to start using it.

  "Don't even think about it, Gorf," said a booming voice from his right. It was a heavyset man who wore fine, white linens which contrasted the dark, functional clothing of the miners around him.

  "Lampeer, well met. But what of this delay?"

  The heavyset man smiled. "Every rube with a mine car wants to use my line now. The downhill brakes in the tunnel take time to navigate. Those fool wizards made me lower my price, and I thought it would ruin me. Little did I know, it would do quite the opposite!"

  "But, Lampeer, this delay will ruin me. I still have another load for today's market waiting in my mine. Can I pay you more to get to the front of the line?"

  Lampeer's smile faded, and he leaned in closer to Gorf. "I make fun of the wizards, but this Jalis and his laws are no joke." A pudgy arm emerged from under Lampeer's robe and pointed across the span to a broad ledge that met the track at the end of the bridge. Upon the ledge stood a large, black, rune-covered obelisk.

  "You see that?" continued Lampeer in a hushed voice. "I saw that thing burn a man alive yesterday. Afterward, a strange voice came from it and said the man had stolen. I'll be danged if anyone saw a thing, but there you go. I'm not breaking the law, though. No, sir."

  "This is madness. It all sounded good when these rebel wizards came in and said they would make us safer then gave us the golems to help us mine. But these laws! They keep adding more, and the more they add, the more things get fouled up!" cried Gorf.

  Lampeer looked around him nervously before responding.

  "I know, friend. But what can we do? Their obelisks are all over the range now. We agreed to be bound by their laws. And we've tried to talk to them about things. But they are wizards. They don't listen."

  Gorf’s features darkened as he replied, “I have something in mind that they’ll pay attention to.”

  Lampeer paled to a shade even whiter than his already pasty skin tone.

  “I must take my leave of you, Gorf,” he said with some gravity.

  Gorf suddenly feared that the man could be a wizard informant. He’d known Lampeer for decades, but something in the man’s cadence concerned Gorf.

  Somewhat rattled, he called the crew chief to his side.

  “Look, I’ve got the men’s axes stowed here along with my war hammer.”

  The chief looked on expectantly, not appearing to recognize the implications of Gorf’s statement.

  “If anything happens today,” Gorf continued, “I need you and your men behind me. Do you understand?”

  Recognition dawned in the chief’s eyes. “What are you expecting to happen?” he asked.

  “Don’t concern yourself with it. Tell the men that if anything unusual happens today, there’s ten gold in it for each one that stands with me. Tell them, but be discreet. Don’t let anyone sound off about it or spread rumors. I’m gonna walk up the line here and talk to some folks. You let me know how it went when I get back.”

  “Okay, boss,” said the chief.

  Gorf spent the next half hour talking with the other miners in the line. Many were his friends, most knew him, and everyone treated him with the respect his reputation afforded him. When he returned to his cars, his men looked edgy.

  The chief came forward.

  “I think the men are behind you. Nobody here likes what happened to Murphy. We know what needs to be done.”

  “Good,” said Gorf. Every miner he’d spoken to had a similar reaction. The stage was set for his unlikely rebellion. Runners left from many groups to retrieve weapons and armor. He would give the signal in the market.

  After an hour of anxiously waiting, during which the miners armed themselves, Gorf and his cars paid their passage and wound down the twisting tunnel. They emerged into a typically busy day in the market. Many merchants from the City gathered around a large stage where commodity certificates were being auctioned off. Miners, merchants, and the henchmen of both mingled in a crowd while the wizards and their hired hands glared at them from the stage as they collected their tax.

  Gorf was pleased to see Jalis himself standing prominently on the stage. The short, fat leader of the wizards was arrogant and annoying. Gorf put his cars into a stall and led his men toward the assembly.

  “Two gold, fifty silver per hundred weight!” cried the auctioneer. But Gorf’s baritone voice rose above the clamor.

  “Jalis!” he cried, pointing and approaching the front of the stage.

  The auctioneer looked puzzled. All eyes were on Gorf and his war hammer. He reached the steps that led to the stage and climbed them solemnly. One of Jalis’ thugs tried to restrain him, but Gorf simply hurled the man off the stage with little effort.

  With his jowls coiled in anger, Jalis stepped forward, brandishing his wizard staff, which glowed menacingly.

  “What is the meaning of this?” cried Jalis.

  “We’ve had enough of you wizards and your rules! You are to leave this valley at once and never return.”

  “Is that right?” replied Jalis, looking behind him at his assembled men. There were eight of his hired thugs and one other wizard with him.

  The short wizard placed his hand to his mouth and produced a shrill whistle that called reinforcements from behind the stage curtain. Another wizard emerged with twenty more men armed with swords and shields.

  Gorf remained still. He hoped for a peaceful resolution, but his hopes were diminishing. By his calculation, at least sixty armed men were in the crowd waiting for his signal. But he wasn’t sure it would be enough against the three wizards.

  A plan formed in his head to eliminate the wizards himself. This would encourage his men. The only problem with the plan would be escaping the twenty eight hostile fighters around him. But he had a plan for that, as well.

  Jalis provided the opening Gorf was looking for. He watched the wizard surveying the crowd and noticing the axes and hammers carried by many of the miners. The wizard reacted by trying to negotiate with him.

  “You seem like a reasonable man. If you have grievances, come backstage and discuss them with me,” said Jalis in a condescending voice.

  Gorf feigned uncertainty, but found the eyes of his chief in the crowd. He nodded to the chief and lowered his hammer. He walked toward Jalis, appearing repentant. The hostile men around Gorf moved to restrain him, but Jalis conceitedly waved them off.

  As Gorf reached the vicinity of the wizard leader, the two other wizards, who were shaved bald and covered in tattoos, approached.

  In a sudden movement, Gorf slammed one wizard in the abdomen with the top of his war hammer and absorbed a punch from the one whose tattoos glowed fiercely with magic. It was the hardest blow he had ever felt from a man. But Gorf had been hit in the head by many boulders over the years and was able to shrug it off. The wizard let his guard down, expecting his powerful punch to have felled the larger man. Quickly regaining his balance, Gorf brought the haft of his hammer forward and caught the tattooed wizard in the jaw, knocking him out cold. The other tattooed wizard groaned on the stage, while the enemy thugs closed ranks around a retreating Jalis.

  A great cry rose from the crowd as angry miners surged up the stairs to defend their de facto leader.

  Gorf dodged a sword thrust and kicked the prone wizard hard in the head as a melee broke out on stage.

  Thugs surrounded him, but Gorf swung his hammer with a ferocity and strength that caused many of the thugs to take a defensive posture.

  He heard the cries of the wounded and dying men around him as the fight continued.

  A bold thug engaged Gorf at close range with a short sword and opened up a large cut on his chest. The thug paid for his boldness. Gorf shouldered into the man and knocked him off balance. Unable to defend himself from the next crushing blow, the thug’s head burst into a bloody mess as Gorf leveled him with his hammer.

  The tide of the battle seemed to be with Gorf and the miners. Many of the thugs had fallen or run behind the curtain, hiding from relentless attacks.

  But then Gorf noticed something unusual happening at the edges of the stage. First, he thought the wood itself was undulating with some strange magic. To his horror, he saw malformed shapes in dark, beguiling cloaks rising to their feet around the perimeter of the stage.

  The miners halted and the thugs ran as the visages of the newcomers fully formed. These were not men, but animated remnants of men—collections of bones and decayed flesh summoned into motion by evil.

  Jalis strutted from behind the curtain and stood with two of the monsters that advanced to protect him.

  “You fools! Did you think your physical prowess could defy our magic? Behold the Seekers—ancient wizards now reunited with a common cause behind our master. Care to test yourselves against them?”

  The miners waited, and many a fearful glance was made toward Gorf.

  Gorf suddenly thought of Hilda, his children and his mine. A great sorrow threatened to quench his fiery resolve, but his unwavering honor sustained him at the last moment. His jaw stiffened and he stepped forward.

  “Aye,” he cried wildly, “that we do, wizard scum!”

  The miners rallied at his words, and their hearts filled with determination.

  Jalis laughed as Gorf charged the abominations that stood between him and the wizard.

  Gorf burst through the shadowy guards. Astonished, Jalis jumped sideways to avoid him. The creatures weren’t solid like a normal man—though they did have mass. Where he collided with their forms, Gorf felt an icy cold sensation on his skin as weakness crept into his arms and shoulders. The two monsters moved on him with flashing ghostly blades. Gorf was forced to give ground under their assault, receiving two wounds to his arms which further weakened him.

  Gathering his courage, he tried to strike one of the creatures. To his surprise, he found that his war hammer now felt impossibly heavy in his hands. He was unable to wield it effectively.

  His heart sank as he heard the dying cries of the other miners on the stage. Dropping his hammer, he leapt at one of the skeletons in front of him, careless of the cutting strike of the other as he passed it. A sword bit into his side as he grasped the skull of the dark creature and pulled it to his chest. The skull had a strange, insubstantial feeling. Gorf’s arms were weakened, but his strength had not completely left him. He clenched his muscles with a desperate bear hug as he heard more men dying.

  The skull gave way and shattered in his grasp. The slain creature dissolved before his eyes, but his triumph was short lived. In the next moment, a shimmering blade burst through his back and emerged from his stomach.

  The blade was withdrawn as Gorf screamed in anguish. He fell to his knees and a terrible chill overcame his entire body. He knelt for several minutes, unmoving, as he witnessed the horrifying deaths of his remaining comrades. Even those who fled the stage were pursued and slain in short order.

  Suddenly, he received a solid kick to his back and he hit the wooden floor hard.

  “It’s fitting that you witnessed it all,” said Jalis from behind him. “This is your fault. The lives of all those men are your responsibility. It didn’t have to be like this, you fool. You should have followed orders like the other camps.”

  Gorf was unable to answer. His body was under terrible distress, but the fuzziness of shock had mercifully taken hold, and he was becoming increasingly numb. He hoped Hilda would leave for her mother’s home.

  Word must reach her, he thought with a sudden desperation.

  “Jalis, listen to you. You are quite the sentimentalist, mmmmm?” said a different voice from the direction of the short wizard. Fear for his family had overtaken the numbness Gorf had been feeling, and he was more aware in the ensuing moments. He felt the terrible corpses assembling around him.

  “Sir, I… I didn’t realize you had arrived. I was… It’s just unfortunate. The loss of life was unnecessary and caused by this headstrong fool, here,” said Jalis.

  “On the contrary,” said the unidentified voice. “I consider this a great boon. Moments like this are how we establish our new order. Lift him up so I can see him.”

  Impossibly cold hands reached under Gorf’s arms and lifted him roughly to his knees.

  A strange apparition appeared before Gorf. It wasn’t horrifying like the other skeletal forms, but its beautiful features were gripped by a cruel expression. It was a man dressed in curiously old-fashioned finery and appearing to be in the prime of his adulthood. He had curly, light hair that hung down from under a tricorne hat and surrounded his pale face.

  “I am Sub-Imperator DuLoc, vermin—soon to be the new Emperor of the City and harbinger of a new golden age of law. Your foolish resistance to the rule of law will serve as a lesson to your comrades. Jalis, send the Seekers out to every home and settlement in this valley. Kill everything that is living. Men, women, children, pets—leave nothing alive. This will teach the others to be obedient.”

  Gorf raged at these words, but his body was broken and didn’t respond to his will.

  “But, but… even the children, sir?” stuttered Jalis.

  “Absolutely! Jalis, you really must work on this empathy you seem to suffer from. The business of governance doesn’t countenance weakness!”

  “Of course, sir. But what about the implications of this attack? Many merchants witnessed the fight. Should we track them down as they flee back to the City?”

  “No, let them return.”

  “To...Hemlock?”

  “To Hemlock. It matters not. My return to the City is now imminent, and we’ve built enough obelisks to resist any attack she and her friends might mount. They might learn how to use magic to fight the obelisks in time, but by then, I will have returned. And then the law will sweep her aside like a fly.”

  “It will be glorious, sir!”

  Tears streamed down Gorf’s face as he lay dying. RUN! he screamed over and over in his mind, wishing against hope that somehow Hilda would hear him.

 
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