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Chapter 46

For nearly an hour they sat waiting while Storm raged outside. The wild bellows gradually became hoarse and ragged, but their volume never faltered. Twilight waned, darkness fell and the stars came out, shining hard and brilliant in the night sky – but still his madness continued unchecked. Ralt and Lorelei jumped every time a timber snapped explosively. Only Durin seemed unconcerned. He puffed calmly on his pipe with his feet up on the table.

“Are all warriors like this?” Ralt whispered anxiously as the sounds outside finally began to dwindle.

Durin knocked out his pipe with a sour chuckle. “Nay, lad, only the best ones. In the state he’s in, ye could stick a dozen spears in him and he wouldn’t feel a thing. He’ll pay for it tomorrow mind ye, but right now nothing can touch him.”

Eventually, silence fell outside. All of them cocked their heads, listening.

A long time passed then they heard footsteps crunching in the snow. A moment later the door nearly fell as Storm opened it and staggered inside. Lorelei let out a sigh of relief when she saw his face. He was human again. She sprang to her feet to help him to a chair as Durin tugged the door shut again, wedging it in place.

Lorelei signaled quietly to Ralt to get him a cup of brandy. He nodded, fetching it quickly. Storm took it wordlessly and threw it back with a gulp. “More,” he grunted. Ralt silently complied. Storm downed two more cups of brandy before he held up his hand to stop the wizard from refilling it. His knuckles were bruised and bloodied.

“Who is Niran?” Durin asked, sitting down across the table from him.

Ralt sucked in his breath with alarm but Storm only laughed harshly. “I thought he was a friend,” he rasped in a hoarse voice. He lifted reddened eyes to them. “I spent the better part of a year in T’thalia before coming to Zered. I even fought alongside their army for a while. They offered me a position as an officer.” He stared moodily into the bottom of his cup, swirling the brandy around absently. “Niran was the Imperial Sword Master there. He trained all their best warriors and officers. Fighting with two swords can be awkward sometimes; he was helping me, showing me what I was doing wrong. He fights with two swords too.” He shook his head at the memory. “It was Niran who recommended they promote me to Captain, give me a command.”

Lorelei sat down next to him, an arm around his waist. “Is he any good?”

Storm nodded heavily. “Fast too. Once he straightened me out on the double thrust, we fought to a draw every time.” He looked around the room. “Where’s that will?” Ralt handed him the crumpled paper. He ran a finger down the page until he found what he was looking for. “Look here, where Belker is apologizing for all the things he’s done in the three years he’s been under Niran’s control – three years! The whole time he was pretending to be my friend, recommending me for promotion, he was secretly using some kind of evil magic to turn good men into slaves!” He finished on a roar then bent over double in a fit of coughing as his strained vocal cords protested the effort. He glared around the room at them. “Give me the bottle,” he wheezed.

Durin passed it to him with a grin. “Yer gonna pay fer this in the morning.”

“It won’t be the first time,” he grunted.


Ralt’s quiet voice had unaccustomed iron in it that caught their attention.

Storm paused with the bottle halfway to his lips. “What?”

The slender wizard was standing tall, his hands clenched into fists by his side. “After that berserk rage I just saw, if you ever again tell me how fearsome evil wizards are, I’ll personally tear your head off and kick it straight to the moon! You scared the DAYLIGHTS OUTTA ME!”

Storm was stunned at Ralt’s vehemence. For a second no one moved.

Then he doubled up with laughter. “Well said, Giant Killer! Your warning is one I’ll heed.” Lorelei fought desperately to restrain herself but it was a lost cause. The expression on Ralt’s face got the best of her and she dissolved into helpless giggles. Durin didn’t bother trying to hold in his mirth. He roared with laughter.

Ralt’s features twisted like rubber as he made a heroic effort to stay serious. Finally, he gave up and joined them. He dropped into a chair with a chuckle. “Alright, alright. But enough with that evil wizard stuff. It’s getting old.”

Storm clapped him on the back, half knocking him out of his seat. “Done and done,” he laughed. He splashed brandy into two cups and shoved one at him. “Drink up, brother!”

They wound their arms around each other and tossed down the brandy. “Brothers,” Ralt grinned.

* * * * *

Lorelei stirred sleepily as she felt Storm get out of bed. He was flexing his hands, observing them with interest. She raised her head to see what he was looking at. The bruises were gone. For a moment she couldn’t figure out how he’d done that then she remembered.

“The healing power?”

He nodded. “Go back to sleep,” he whispered. “We’re going to stay here another day before we leave. We could all use the rest.” He pushed her down gently.

She let him do it. “Where are you going?”

“I couldn’t sleep. That will keeps bothering me. I want to talk to Ralt about it.”

She burrowed back under the covers as she watched him dress and leave. After eating two huge bowls of stew the night before he’d bundled her into the back room without so much as a by your leave. He’d stripped both of them, rolled her into his arms then fallen asleep as if it was the most natural thing in the world. She’d been so startled she hadn’t thought to protest until he was already snoring. Not that she minded – he was her husband after all – but it would have been nice if he’d asked. She’d heard somewhere that it was women who kept men civilized. If so, she’d have to start civilizing her half-wild husband right away – first thing in the morning. She yawned and turned over.

Storm eased his way across the outer room to the stove. Once the tea kettle was whistling he poured two cups. Crouching down beside Ralt’s cot he shook him gently. The wizard woke up fast, reaching for his staff before he saw who it was. He relaxed. “What?”

“Get up,” Storm whispered, not wanting to disturb Durin’s rest. “I need to ask you about something.” He shoved a cup of tea into Ralt’s hands.

Ralt sipped it cautiously, eyeing the sky outside that was just beginning to show the first, faint blush of dawn. “At this hour? How’d you like to spend the rest of your life as a toad?” he grumbled.

A couple of months ago his words would have sent Storm into a blind rage, but now he simply ignored them. He knew it was an empty threat anyway. “Come on. It’s important.”

Ralt sighed and heaved himself out of bed. He slid his feet into his boots then paused. “Are we going outside?”

Storm shook his head. “We’ll just keep our voices down so we don’t wake Durin.”

“Lucky him,” the wizard snorted. He made his way over to the cutting board and sliced off a huge piece of bread. He sat down at the table, dunking his bread in his tea. “Alright, what’s so important you have to wake me up at the crack of dawn to talk about it?”

Storm sat down across from him, noticing with approval he’d brought his staff with him without even thinking about it. The same way I take my swords with me everywhere I go, he noted. Ralt was definitely starting to get into the swing of things. He lit a candle. “It’s about Belker’s will,” he said, tapping it with his forefinger. “Read it again and see if the same things bother you about it that bother me.”

Ralt gave him a sharp glance then obediently bent to read it aloud.

Last Will and Testament of Captain Ian Belker
Ingoldian Royal Army

Since I am not currently engaged in following any orders, and believe that I will soon die, I wish to leave this last will and testament for whoever may find it. I ask you, whoever you are, to please follow my last instructions.

I wish to apologize for the terrible things I have done in the three years since I touched my blood to Niran’s bloodstone gem and became enslaved in his growing army of conquest. I have slaughtered those I was once bound to protect and taken many of them back to his stronghold at Mount Coldfire to become his slaves like me. Against my will, I have used every bit of my skill and cunning to further his dark ends. Although I struggled against his commands, it was not enough. Please forgive me for the evil I’ve done at his order.

My unwilling service to The Leader, as he calls himself, may soon come to an end. Niran has sent me to ambush a barbarian named Storm and his companions. I’ve heard of Storm, and Niran says he trained him, but how he knows for sure he’s coming is a mystery, unless it’s through one of his demonic allies he controls through the blo gem. He has given me an unusually large force of slaves in order to carry out this mission, including a wizard and four giants. Perhaps Storm and his companions are so powerful they will win through even my defenses, which cover all the approaches, and are of course, flawless. I had no choice but to do my best.

Therefore, since death may be coming for me, please make sure my sword and armor are returned to my family in Robling. I can’t bear the thought of Niran using my blade in his two-handed fighting style. It’s too good a sword to be stained by his touch. Give what money you find on my person to Sergeant Eckhardt, who is a willing convert and thus no longer enslaved, at the rear entrance to Coldfire. He will know what to do with it. He eats too much though, and you may have to shout to wake him up during his night watch.

Ralt finished his reading and looked up. “There’s a lot that bothers me about it. Did you have something specific in mind?”

“Start with that bloodstone gem Belker talks about and we’ll go from there,” Storm answered grimly.

Ralt stared at the will pensively for a moment, gathering his thoughts. “Bloodstone, also called Heliotrope, is an odd choice for this kind of enslaving magic,” he began in the pedantic tone of a school teacher. “It’s not one of the more commonly used gemstones in magic. Other than being ground up into small crystals as part of a knowledge, or information-gathering spell, its only other use is in minor healing spells. Some wizards use it, some don’t. It’s very strange to find it being used in any other type of magic, especially something as strong as this must be. This lends some credence to the idea of it being created from a scroll from the First Age. Who knows what kind of strange magic they had back then? There are several possibilities actually.” He paused to make sure he had Storm’s attention then continued, “The spell itself is obviously strange too. I’ve never heard of any kind of enslaving magic that left the victim free to entertain his own thoughts.”

Storm held up a hand to stop him. “What do you mean?”

Ralt shrugged. “When you use magic to enslave someone, it’s basically a charm spell that works on the mind. The victim becomes convinced the person who put the spell on them is their friend, their lawful commander, or liege; things like that. The closest thing I can think of to what Niran has done is a geas, but a person under a geas is free to carry out the mission any way they want. The doom only falls on them if they totally refuse to obey. Belker says here that he’s used every bit of his skill and cunning to help Niran – against his will. He says he struggled against Niran’s commands. Further down he says he had no choice but to do his best. When he was fighting you, did he give any indication of holding back?”

Storm shook his head emphatically. “Not a chance. He was a great swordsman. He was giving it his all. He just kept saying that he had to kill me.”

“So whatever spell Niran is using, it’s very different from anything I’m familiar with,” Ralt nodded. “Again, that lends credence to the idea of this being a relic from the First Age. Doesn’t prove it of course.” He glanced back at the will. “The method of enslavement is fairly straightforward at least. Using the victim’s blood to entrap them is pretty normal. But Belker says he was part of an army of conquest, that he took many others back to Mount Coldfire – which confirms our destination by the way – to become slaves like him. I’ve never heard of anything which could control more than a couple dozen people at a time though. We killed more than that right here. So that proves what I said a minute ago, the magic Niran is using is very powerful.”

Storm nodded sourly, ignoring the comment about Mount Coldfire. He’d already seen that much for himself. “That’s the part that bothered me. How many slaves can he have? I’d like to know what we’re facing when we get there.”

“He called it an army of conquest,” Ralt shrugged. “You tell me. How many men would you need to conquer a country like Ingold?”

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