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Chapter 31

Belker strode down the tunnel without his usual swagger as he headed for his afternoon meeting with The Leader. The old mine was a maze, a rat’s warren of crisscrossing tunnels and drops. He came to a connecting passage which led to the surface and a shaft of almost forgotten sunlight caressed his face. He wanted to stop for a moment to bask in its rays, to linger just for an instant. But even that was denied him. No matter how much he might will his muscles to obey him it was hopeless. He was in thrall to the fiendish bloodstone The Leader wore. It called him on relentlessly, overriding even so tiny an impulse as that.

His body marched on, heedless of his commands.

Once he had been a respected Captain in the Ingoldian Royal Army. Dozens of men had jumped to obey his every command, he had been one of the King’s trusted advisers, the noble ladies of Robling vied for his attentions and it had been said he was headed for a generalship or higher.

Once, but no more.

All of that was over now, he reflected sadly. All he had been, everything he had wanted or hoped for was gone like the lost memory of a dream upon awakening. Even the privacy of his own thoughts wasn’t private anymore. He had nothing left he could call his own.

He belonged to The Leader now – mind, body, and soul.

All of them did.

How could he have been so blind, so easily duped? He’d been returning from a routine inspection of Post Four with four soldiers when they came upon a lone swordsman camped by the road. When they hailed him, he’d waved lazily in return and invited them to share his fire and perhaps some tea. Belker hadn’t even thought twice about danger; Thurman Meadows was well within the borders of the kingdom, dozens of people rode past it every day.

The slender athletic man had introduced himself as Niran, a renowned sword master from T’thalia. After chatting a bit, Belker had noticed a large bloodstone gem Niran wore around his neck and inquired about it. Niran told them it was a stone of prophecy, then went on to explain it worked by tasting a drop of the petitioner’s blood, who could then see his future in the gem’s crystalline depths. Fascinated by the possibility of seeing what lay before him, Belker had eagerly pricked his finger to smear some blood on the gem.

The bloodstone glowed briefly like the setting sun then absorbed his offering. In an instant, he was trapped forever. Niran’s voice boomed within his soul, wordlessly commanding him to obey. In stunned disbelief, he’d heard himself spinning an intricate lie to his men about the supposed future he’d seen in the stone. He tried to stop himself. He fought, battling against the alien invasion inside him until he thought his heart would burst. He tried to scream to his men to warn them.

But to no avail.

His treacherous body continued spinning a web of deceit, drawing his loyal soldiers to their doom. One by one they pricked their own fingers for a chance to see the future only to be caught in unbreakable chains of slavery.

That was three years ago.

Since then Belker had found himself committing unspeakable crimes without a moment’s hesitation; torturing, killing, raping, and destroying innocent citizens he had once sworn to defend with his life. He had tried every conceivable mental charade to outwit the bloodstone’s abominable commands. He prayed. He meditated. He tried to hypnotize himself. He’d even tried to commit suicide.

Nothing worked. The bloodstone ruled him completely.

Against his will he’d been forced to continue with his crimes, stacking up bodies like cord wood until he knew without doubt he was damned beyond any hope of redemption. There was no longer any hope for him. His actions had placed him beyond the pale of civilized man, beyond the mercy of any true god. Even death couldn’t afford him any surcease; he was certain to be dragged down into the deepest, darkest levels of the Abyss when his time came, to suffer an eternity of hideous damnation.

As if he weren’t already suffering the tortures of the damned.

But at least he wasn’t the only one caught by Niran’s lies, he reflected bitterly.

He and his men had been the first to be captured but they were by no means the last. Niran had plied his prophecy story up and down the length of Ingold, gradually amassing a small army of unwilling recruits. It quickly became obvious his goal was the complete and total conquest of Ingold. He picked only veteran soldiers or hardened mercenaries with an occasional wizard thrown in for good measure.

He reached the stairs hacked out of solid rock and slowly trudged up them into the darkened building above.

Once their numbers had grown sufficiently large he began sending them out to capture and bring back people with the particular skills needed to forge weapons and armor, build war-wagons and catapults, train war horses, build quarters for the growing ranks, make clothes for them and feed them. Those unfortunate enough to be captured were forcibly enslaved, dashing Belker’s hopes only the willing could fall prey to the cursed bloodstone.

As Niran’s evil plan began to take shape, Belker realized he’d been a fool to think he would stop at Ingold. Niran wanted all of Gaia under his boot. He was planning to embark on a crusade of worldwide conquest with Ingold as the redoubt from which to launch his war.

Reaching the third floor he strode into Niran’s throne room, pausing long enough to bow deeply before approaching his master. He fought against that obscene gesture every time he was forced to make it, and every time he failed. “This one awaits your pleasure, Sire,” he muttered tonelessly.

Niran looked up from a table strewn with maps. “Belker, thank you for coming so quickly,” he smirked, knowing full well the erstwhile Captain had struggled against his command every step of the way. He waved at a chair. “Please, sit down.”

Belker gritted his teeth. The “please” made it a request rather than a command through the bloodstone, but he knew full well if he refused, it would become a command, followed later by unspeakable punishments. The bloodstone could do far more than simply compel obedience. He sat mutely, refusing to start any conversation with the monster across the table.

Niran watched him, smiling thinly at his tiny rebellion. “Have it your way then,” he said after a moment. “I have a problem, which means you have a problem.” He turned back to the maps. Holding down one corner of one of them was a small box. He picked it up lovingly. “This is the key to my future, Captain. It will allow me to accelerate my plans far quicker than I’d originally hoped. It will be several months before the planets are aligned correctly for its use though. Until then, I dare not take any chances with its safety. Any danger, anything threatening it, must be eliminated. Do you understand?”

Belker shook his head mutely. If he spoke he would be required to address him as “sire.” He refused to do that of his own volition. It was bad enough when the fiendish stone compelled him to do it, but he’d rather be dead than do it of his own free will.

Niran’s hard gray eyes, flat and dead, watched him coldly, missing nothing. His renown as a sword master had been based, in part, on his icy reserve, his total self-control, his refusal to be led into error by anger. His whole appearance, understated to the point of being boringly nondescript, reinforced his attitude of restraint; short brown hair and beard neatly clipped, bland ordinary clothes cleaned and pressed, nothing out of place but nothing which drew the eye either; in a crowd, he blended in so well he practically wasn’t there.

“No,” he mused, “I see you don’t. I shall explain.” He sat down, caressing the box absently. “In here is the soul of a still-living girl. He body lies death-like in a coffin some seventy leagues to the east. Separating her soul from her body halted the progress of a fatal disease which was nearing its end. She was being taken to Robling for healing at the hands of, well, someone who could do the job. With the help of a somewhat, untrustworthy ally, I managed to obtain it from the small band charged with taking her there.”

Belker shifted uneasily in his chair. He’d seen some of Niran’s “allies”. Where was this all going, he wondered?

“This band of mercenaries is being led by a barbarian swordsman named Storm,” Niran continued in a cool, unemotional voice. “One of them is a wizard of unknown capabilities.”

Belker felt a jolt of surprise. Storm? He hadn’t known the man was a barbarian but he was definitely a minor legend among the caravan masters who traveled through Ingold. He’d never actually met him himself, but the stories of his exploits were well known. If even half of them were true, he was an exceedingly dangerous enemy.

Niran examined him closely. “You’ve heard of him, I see. Good. Then you have some idea of the problem we are facing.”

Belker wanted to sneer. Now it’s “we”, huh? Storm put a little kink in your plans, did he? Well good for him. His estimation of the man went up several notches even as his stomach tried to screw itself back into his spine. It was obvious now what Niran had in mind for him.

Niran saw the dawning light in Belker’s face. “Ah, yes. You see it now don’t you? That’s why I like you, Captain. You’re so much more clever and quick-witted than the rest of them.” He waved a hand to indicate the other slaves in the complex around them. “Yes,” he nodded, “you’re going to stop him before he gets here. In fact, you’re going to kill him. I know him you see, know him quite well. I trained him, put the finishing touches on his sword skills, made him nearly as good as I am. He’s very dangerous; dangerous and stubborn. He’ll be coming here as sure as the sun rises in the east.”

Belker’s heart sank like a stone as he felt Niran’s command touch his soul. More blood on my hands, he thought brokenly.

“I don’t know how many of his little band survived my attack,” Niran continued. “There was an axe-wielding dwarf with him who almost certainly survived, and maybe a few others. I couldn’t see much in the darkness. The wizard is definitely alive though. You are to assume the worst and plan accordingly. Figure out how many men you need to take then double it. You will also take one of my pet wizards with you, Tulish perhaps, or Derleth.”

“Yes, Sire,” Belker responded, prompted by the bloodstone around Niran’s neck. Take double the number of men? “Will there be anything else, Sire?”

“Yes. I want proof all of them are dead. Bring me their heads. And do not come back until you have succeeded. Now, go.” Niran waved him away coldly.

“Yes, Sire.” Belker bowed deeply then walked out. Inside he was screaming.

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