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Chapter 47

“Enough to make anything like what we tried here suicidal.”

Startled, they glanced up to see Durin standing at the end of the table, a mug of tea in his hand. Beside him was Lorelei.

Ralt glared at them. “Don’t sneak up on me like that!”

“We didn’t,” Lorelei retorted. “We just walked right up. But you two were so busy you didn’t even see us.”

Storm laughed shortly. “Alright, drag up a chair and join in. It’s almost morning anyway.” Wooden chair legs scraped across the floor as they settled in, Ralt read the will out loud for them then briefly recounted the conversation to the point where Durin had interrupted. “Durin is right,” Storm added at the end. “Against a whole army, we don’t have a snowballs chance of pulling off what we did here. But Belker calls it a growing army. So Niran’s not there yet. He’s still vulnerable.”

“Aye,” Durin grunted, “and worried enough about it to send out a patrol to ambush us.”

Storm finished the last of his tea and rose to refill his cup. “But he’s large enough he can spare some forty men, four giants, and a wizard to do it.” He sat back down sipping at his tea. “That’s a bad sign.” He started to go on but Ralt interrupted him.

“Hold on a minute. You asked me to tell you what bothered me and wanted me to start with the bloodstone gem. I’m not done yet.”

“Oh. Sorry, Ralt. Go on,” he inclined his head at him.

“Thanks. Belker also says Niran controls his demonic allies through his gem. He starts to say ‘bloodstone gem’ a second time then scratches it out and just says, ‘the gem’. At the beginning, he says since he’s not currently engaged in following orders he’s going to write out his will. Taken together, I’m interpreting those two things to mean he’s got some freedom when he’s not actually following Niran’s commands, but only to a point. I mean, let’s face it, this whole will is a charade from start to finish, except perhaps for the part about his sword and armor, and even there he uses it to tell us about Niran’s fighting style. Anyone with half a brain would know that wizards don’t fight with a sword, let alone two of them. So he’s just told us Niran isn’t a wizard despite having the gem. But the point I’m making is, he’s writing this whole thing in a convoluted manner so he can get around the restrictions the bloodstone puts on him.”

Lorelei plucked will out of Ralt’s fingers so she could read it herself.

“I knew Niran wasn’t a wizard,” Storm growled.

Ralt waved it off. “Anyway, he was trying to cram as much information into one page as he could under the guise of writing a will. He knew you and Niran knew each other so he was trying to give you as much as he could.”

“His sorrow over the things he’s done seems genuine,” Lorelei interjected softly.

Ralt nodded earnestly. “I’m sure it was. But there again, he uses it to tell us he fought against it. He’s giving us tons of information in this thing.” He retrieved the paper from her. “He wrote this as a warning to us.”

“And the only way he could hope we’d find it is if we killed him,” she sighed. “That poor man.” Storm patted her on the shoulder. They both understood the desperation that could drive a person to seek comfort in their own death. They’d heard of soldiers who vowed to defend a bridge against overwhelming odds, or a mother whose last act was to throw her baby out of a burning building; it was never easy to confront such things.

“Anything more about the gem?” Durin rumbled.

“Two more things,” Ralt said absently, scanning it. “I’m saving the worst for last though.” His companions exchanged silent stares. ‘Saving the worst for last’? That didn’t sound good. “Okay, here it is.” He looked up. “This one is kind of minor, but it’s good to know anyway. Death isn’t the only way people can be freed from the bloodstone. He says this Sergeant Eckhardt is a ‘willing convert and thus no longer enslaved’. If we figured out how that’s done, we’d have a lot of people fighting with us instead of against us.”

“How would you do that?” Storm wondered. He wanted to ask about the ‘worst one’ but this was Ralt’s show. He was determined to let the wizard set his own pace. Brothers had to trust each other and he might as well start now.

“It might be something as simple as taking the gem away from him,” Ralt shrugged. “Belker refers to it twice in here,” he rustled the paper, “but he never calls it a ring. It might be hanging around Niran’s neck on a chain. Yank it off and see what happens.”

Storm smiled savagely. “If I get close enough for that I’ll do a lot more than just yank it off him.”

Ralt shifted uncomfortably. “Uh, yeah.” Storm’s expression vividly reminded him of his berserk rage last night. He hurried on to keep from dwelling on it. “Now we get to the last thing that’s bothering me about it.” The tension in the room instantly went up several notches. He could see them bracing for the worst. The problem was, he wasn’t sure he wanted to say it. If he put his fears into words he’d be admitting that they were real.

Durin read his expression with a sinking feeling in his heart. He thought he knew what was bothering Ralt, and he didn’t like the idea either, but Storm and Lorelei deserved to know. “Go on, lad. I think we’re fearing the same thing. May as well get it out in the open.”

Ralt met his eyes gravely, ignoring the others. “You see it too?”

“I’m hoping I’m wrong, lad. I’m hoping I’m wrong.”

Storm’s head swiveled back and forth between them. “Wrong about what?” he growled.

If Ralt heard him he didn’t give any indication. “I’ve never faced anything like this before. I’ve only read about them in ancient texts.”

Durin knew then he and Ralt were indeed thinking the same thing. His heart stumbled within him. “Actually, ye have,” he sighed. He gave Fenris Fang a quick twirl, its blades flashing in the early morning sun streaming in through the windows.

Ralt gasped in shock. “Fenris Fang is a . . . is . . .” He couldn’t finish it.

“Aye. How else do ye account for it talkin’ and haven’ a mind of its own?”

Lorelei’s eyes widened in sudden comprehension. “By all the gods! Fenris Fang is an artifact?” Her mind reeled under the impact of it.

Durin nodded slowly.

“And you think the bloodstone is too?”

Ralt blanched, but he nodded firmly. “I’m afraid so.”

Before he could go on, Storm exploded to his feet. Like most people on Gaia, he had little or no knowledge of the more esoteric terms of magic and its associated items. “Somebody better tell me what’s going on right now! What’s an artifact and what’s it got to do with the bloodstone?” he thundered, banging his fist on the table with such force that it leapt off the floor, then crashed back down. Tea spilled everywhere.

Ralt stared at him coldly. “Be still!” His voice cracked like a whip. “I will answer your question, but I will NOT be threatened. Sit. Down.”

Storm rocked back on his heels. For a moment, sitting with his face hidden in the shadows, Ralt looked as fey and terrible as any wizard he’d ever imagined in his youth, his eyes burning with a mysterious, inner light. Storm’s knees gave out. He collapsed into his chair, stunned at the sudden transformation in his friend. Durin and Lorelei shrank away from him as well.

Ralt regarded him for a moment longer, his face impassive. Behind the mask, his thoughts were whirling. It was the first time he’d ever used that spell, one which was every wizard’s most closely guarded secret. Its effects were brief, lasting no more than a moment or two, but very profound, giving anyone who saw it the impression the wizard was far more than he normally appeared. Gerald had cautioned him to use it sparingly. Now he knew why.

His thoughts were a confused morass for other reasons too. Now that Lorelei had come out and said the word – artifact – it forced him to confront his worst fears about the gem. It meant going up against more power than anything he’d ever imagined in his worst nightmares. The very thought was enough to paralyze him with fear. He shook himself mentally. He’d better get started before he lost his nerve.

“Belker says that Niran uses the gem to control his demonic allies,” he began haltingly, his voice growing stronger and more certain as he continued. “That means it has at least two, major magical powers; enslaving mortals and controlling demons. It’d be like having a sword that could double as a sailing ship,” he explained for Storm’s benefit. “No ordinary magical item, no matter how powerful, could ever do something like that. My staff, for instance, can do many different things, but all of them fall under the category of magical attacks so it’s still just one power despite any appearances to the contrary. You might think the same thing applies to Niran’s gem, but in order to control a demon, you first have to summon it. Believe me, that’s very different from controlling people.”

Storm could see what Ralt was talking about, but as his trepidation at Ralt’s brief transformation faded he still had a question. “That’s all well and good, but so what? We’ve known for nearly two weeks the Leader, Niran, had demons working for him, and we’ve known for even longer he was enslaving people somehow. What difference does it make if he uses two magic toys to do it, or one?”

“If you don’t know anything about artifacts, or magic in general, that’s a fair question,” Ralt admitted. “I’ll tell you one difference right away though; artifacts can only be created by a large group of powerful wizards working together, or by the gods.”

Storm sucked in his breath sharply, eyes wide.

Ralt gave him a bitter smile. “Yeah. My reaction exactly. But it gets worse,” he sighed. “When the gods or a group of wizards create an artifact they have a specific purpose in mind for it, and a specific individual to wield it. Artifacts carry their own doom with them. If anyone but the true owner tries to use them, the doom falls on them sooner or later. If the possessor deliberately loans the artifact to someone, like Durin did with Fenris Fang to you, the other person can safely use it for a short time, but only for a short time. What that means in this case, is one of the gods may have created the bloodstone gem specifically for Niran to use in his conquest. That, in turn, argues his plans are a lot bigger than just Ingold.”

“Like what?” Lorelei asked timidly.

“The gods see all of Gaia as a battleground and a prize,” Durin rumbled. “Figure it out.” She turned pale.

Oddly enough, Storm felt comforted by this news. An army of conquest was still an army, no matter what powers might be behind it or what its ultimate goal was. And armies could be fought. He felt himself starting to calm down. “Anything else?”

Ralt was amused by Storm’s sudden change in attitude. “Artifacts usually have several minor powers in addition to their major ones. It could be anything you want to imagine, or more accurately, anything the creating god wants to imagine. We haven’t seen the limits of Niran’s gem. Whatever we already know it can do, you can be certain there are other things it’s capable of we don’t know about. Many artifacts are also intelligent, like Fenris Fang, and sometimes have their own agendas. Last but not least, artifacts are impossible to destroy by ordinary means.”

“Ordinary means?” Storm frowned.

“Like bashing ’em ta pieces with a hammer,” Durin amplified. “It won’t work. Ye’ll just bust the hammer.”

“Right,” the wizard agreed. “They have to be destroyed in special ways, and all artifacts are different. For instance, you might have to drop them in the Well of Time, or destroy them in the mystical fires where they were forged, or grind them to pieces under the Wheel of Fate, or whatever. You could spend your whole life trying to destroy an artifact and never succeed.”

“So even if we get the gem away from Niran and free everyone, we’ll still be stuck trying to figure out what to do with it?” Storm mused thoughtfully. That was an unforeseen problem.

“Exactly. And since this is probably a new artifact, recently created, it’s all but certain whichever god made it will be watching,” Ralt warned. “We could wind up making some very powerful enemies.”

“Wait a minute,” Lorelei objected. “That bandit in the cave said it was created by a scroll from the First Age. Couldn’t that still be true? You’re supposing an awful lot from one page.”

Ralt shrugged. “Anything is possible I guess, but Niran could have put that story out to fool people. Or it could have just been a rumor. You know how those things are. But what Belker says in here,” he tapped the page, “is simply the bare bones of what the gem can do, without any guessing at its origins. Based on that, I think it’s an artifact. All the evidence we’ve seen so far supports it.

“I agree with him, lass,” Durin chimed in. “I suspected it from the first moment I read it. But I hoped I was wrong,” he added.

Storm’s chair scraped the floor as he pushed back from the table. He began pacing the room. “Facing an artifact that can enslave countless people and summon demons is bad,” he conceded to his friends without preamble, “but we’ve already beaten one demon and we’ve got an artifact of our own on our side – Fenris Fang. None of us is exactly ordinary and we’ve all been drawn together, whether by accident or design, so let’s make the most of it. Yeah, maybe we’re facing more than we bargained for, but then again, so is Niran.” He gave them a feral smile. He was gratified to get an answering chuckle from Durin. “We know there’s a back way into Mount Coldfire, guarded by a soldier who falls asleep at night on duty. Belker told us as much in his will, letter, report, whatever you want to call it. As long as Niran doesn’t know we know that, we’ve got an edge.”

“What are you thinking about, some kind of sneak attack?” Lorelei asked with a smile. She was glad to see him taking charge again, rising to dispel the gloom engendered by Ralt’s appraisal of the gem’s powers.

“Not an attack so much, as a theft. If we can get in without being seen or raising an alarm, we might be able to find Niran and get the gem away from him before anyone knows we’re there. If Ralt is right about that breaking the spell, he’s going to suddenly find himself in a world of hurt when his slaves turn on him.” Storm smiled at the thought. It wasn’t a nice smile.

“What if I’m wrong about it?” Ralt questioned him.

Storm merely looked at him without speaking.

It took Ralt a moment to catch on. “Oh.”

He nodded. “We’re dead, or worse. No questions asked. If Niran can spare forty men to ambush us, he’s got enough to stop us in our tracks in the middle of his camp. The four of us are good, but we’re not that good.”

“No one is,” Durin grunted.

Storm and Lorelei nodded their agreement together. “The good part is, whichever way it goes, we don’t have to worry about planning an escape,” he continued with a twisted grin. “One less thing to worry about.”

“If that was supposed to cheer me up, it didn’t work,” Ralt snorted.

Storm chuckled. “Maybe you can cheer me up then. Do you think Niran knows we killed his men here?”

“Based on what Belker says in here,” he waved the will, “count on it,” Ralt answered promptly. “He probably knew the moment each of them died.”

“So he knows we’re still coming,” Lorelei sighed. “That’s going to make it harder.”

“Then we’ll make it harder on him,” Storm rejoined curtly, hiding his disappointment at Ralt’s ready reply. “Before we leave we’ll burn this place to the ground. If he flies in here to investigate, he won’t find anything left.”

He stopped, stunned at his own words. He’d forgotten until he said it that Niran did have some kind of flying mount, one that sounded like a horse, and one of his cardinal rules was to always investigate a battle so you could learn from it. He could be on his way right now with who knew how many troops to trap them in the fortress and overwhelm them.

“Idiot!” he cursed at himself. “He could be on his way already. Saddle up, people! We’re out of here! Now!”

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