The four of them sprang into action, running quickly through the building collecting their things, stuffing their packs with new supplies. They ate a hurried breakfast of stew, washed down with the last of the tea. Storm cursed his own foolishness as he rammed blankets into his pack; we should have been gone yesterday as soon as we woke up, he thought angrily. How could I have been so careless?
He tied his pack closed with savage jerks. “Durin! Get in here! Help me splash this oil around!” he bellowed. He ripped open crates of lantern oil and began flinging the bottles around the room. They broke easily, spilling their contents over the piled supplies. Durin came trotting in. “Here, take this crate outside,” he ordered, handing him one. “Soak everything you can.” The dwarf turned away without comment.
He broke open another crate, roaring for Ralt and Lorelei to join him. As soon as they appeared he gave them each an armload of bottles with instructions to throw them on everything, inside and out. Hefting another crate he strode outside to join Durin. He ripped it open and began hurling bottles at the palisade walls. The sound of breaking glass filled the air as he and Durin worked. They emptied their respective crates then went back for more. The bitter smell of oil assaulted his nostrils as he hurried through the barracks.
They gathered outside the main gate to the fortress when they were done. He nodded at Ralt. “Do it.”
Ralt turned without a word and fired a fireball from his staff. A spectacular explosion rocked the ground beneath their feet as the oil caught fire. Flames whooshed out at them, blistering their faces. They backpedaled furiously.
“Wow!” Lorelei exclaimed as they watched the fort burn. “It’s like the whole world is on fire.” Snow was melting for dozens of yards in every direction around the burning structure.
Storm watched it with grim satisfaction. “Let’s just hope we didn’t wait too long. The fewer clues we leave for Niran from here on out, the better. He’s a traitor, but he’s a smart traitor. I don’t think he knows Belker betrayed him, but I wouldn’t put it past him to figure it out. Let’s get out of here.”
The trail leading to Mount Coldfire was easy to find. A black column of smoke rose into the early morning air behind them as they plunged down the mountain. Storm led the way, setting a punishing pace. He was desperate to get to a lower altitude. This high in the mountains there was very little in the way of cover to hide behind if Niran flew by overhead. They needed to get below the timberline as fast as possible. He and Ralt both had their magical sight activated, scanning the skies for any trace of magic that might herald Niran’s approach.
Despite his reckless speed, Storm felt clear-headed and alert. Niran was one of the best strategists he’d ever met. The T’thalian navy had been desperate to have him. They’d offered to make him an Admiral several times, but he kept turning them down, content to remain in his post as the Imperial Sword Master. At the time Storm had assumed it was because he had no taste for command. In light of what he knew now though, he had to radically alter his thinking.
What if Niran had slaves in T’thalia as well as Ingold? As the Imperial Sword Master responsible for training all the T’thalian officers he would have had ample opportunity to wound them slightly during their training, releasing their blood so he could enslave them with his gem. A training scar from the Sword Master was a mark of honor among the officers. It would have been easy for him to accomplish. With key officers under his control, it would be a small step to arraigning a palace coup while the bulk of the military was out at sea fighting the Carrzulmans. After that, he could meet the returning ships one at a time to take over their men. Properly done, most of the Empire wouldn’t even know what happened until it was too late. It would take some patience to get it done, but Niran was nothing if not patient.
Once Ingold and T’thalia were in his grasp, he’d effectively control two-thirds of the trade routes in southeastern Gaia. He’d also have a land route open to attack Carrzulm itself, the largest country in the world. Belker said that Niran’s army had been growing for three years. Who knew how far his plot had progressed? Assuming that was his plan.
Storm chewed his lower lip as he ran down the mountain, ignoring the pain in his lungs and the harsh panting of his friends. Were there other possibilities? Other opportunities Niran could use that he’d missed? He knew there were. With someone as fiendishly clever as Niran, there were probably hundreds of possibilities he hadn’t thought of. For the first time in his life, he found himself wishing he knew more about Gaian politics.
For years he’d held himself aloof from the concerns of this world, content to merely guard their caravans in exchange for gold. Who was fighting who, and for what reasons were things he disdained. Who cared if this alliance or that one crumbled or held? It was none of his business he’d thought.
But recent events had conspired to change his mind. His friends lived in this world and frankly – although he’d tried to ignore it as much as he could – so did he. Earth was a distant memory and barring a miracle that’s all it would ever be. Even if he could go back, would he? Did he really want to go back? If not, then Gaia was his home for the rest of his life. It was time he started acting like it. That thought brought him full circle.
If Niran’s schemes were successful, it would only be a matter of time before he started expanding, using existing treaties to pull other countries and city-states into his growing empire. With enough conquests under his belt, he wouldn’t even have to use his gem to gain converts. Men would flock to his banner of their own accord. It had happened often enough on Earth; two world wars were proof of that. People on Gaia were no different. They would be attracted to Niran’s strength, they’d want to be on the winning side.
But could Niran run a plot of such magnitude in two distant places, T’thalia and Ingold? He scanned the sky quickly. It all depended on how fast his flying mount, whatever it was, could get him back and forth. He’d also once heard there were portals, magical doorways, that could let a man step through and be transported hundreds of leagues away in an instant. During the short months he’d known Niran, the Sword Master had disappeared on a regular basis for two or three days at a time. Storm was willing to bet his last coin he’d been coming here to the mountains in Ingold to check on his army’s progress. If that was true, then he could definitely be advancing on two fronts.
He felt a touch of desperation. Even if we drive him out of Ingold, he still has T’thalia to fall back on. The only way to stop him for sure is to kill him.
Storm grunted sourly. That was easier said than done. He was one of the few men Niran had never been able to wound on the training ground. But he’d never been able to draw Niran’s blood either. It had always come down to the Sword Master’s superior speed against Storm’s greater strength. Once Niran had shown him, in slow motion, what he was doing wrong on the double thrust, every encounter had ended in a stalemate. He didn’t like to think how that would play out in the midst of a general fight, with time and numbers against them.
Getting the gem away from Niran had to be the first priority, he decided, even if it meant letting him escape. Their only hope of freeing the slaves, and avoiding being slaughtered by them, was to steal that gem. If they couldn’t do it, or it didn’t work, it wouldn’t matter who was better with the sword.
We’re going to have to use magic, he realized. Despite his earlier boasting he knew getting past Niran’s swords to steal the gem was hopeless. He’d be fighting and screaming for his slaves the moment he saw them. Which meant they needed more of Ralt’s invisibility magic, or perhaps that new staff he was so proud of. A fireball in the face from that thing would change anyone’s tune in a hurry. He nodded to himself in satisfaction. Once they got low enough to find some cover, he’d stop and talk to Ralt about it.
Scanning the horizon once more, he continued his run down the mountain, his friends close on his heels.
Niran frowned at the burning hulk before him. The flames were still licking hungrily at the sky. It couldn’t have been set more than an hour ago. He’d assumed Storm would follow standard procedure, lingering at the fort for several days to replenish his supplies and rest his people. He’d intended to stumble into the fort in disguise, claiming to have escaped from Mount Coldfire then gradually take them over one at a time with his gem. But instead, he’d arrived to find that Storm had left early.
He didn’t bother glancing down the trail. There was only one way off this mountain for nearly ten leagues in any direction. He knew they had to be down there somewhere. He’d send out some patrols to harass them as soon as he got back, but first, he had to know why the barbarian had changed tactics so suddenly. He didn’t harbor any hopes a simple patrol or two could stop them, not after this disaster, so it was imperative to understand what, and how, Storm was thinking.
The prints in the snow told him there were four of them. Storm’s tracks were easy to identify, as were those of the dwarf. The other two were harder to read. One of them had to be the wizard, but who was the fourth person?
He crouched down, studying them closely, moving from side to side to examine them from different angles. The heavy winter boots they wore made it hard to tell much about them, but once they stopped and put on snowshoes it became hopeless. He took his time though, his hard gray eyes missing nothing. He went over and over the short set of tracks, from the edge of the fire-melted snow to the point where they stopped to don their snowshoes. Oddly enough, the person with the longer stride had smaller feet than the other. An unusually tall elf might make tracks like that, but his spies in Breckinridge had said nothing about an elf. They had mentioned a tall woman, a Biqah archer though. Could it be her?
He stood up, absently brushing the snow off him. He strode into the burning fortress, unmindful of the raging fires all around him as his bloodstone gem protected him from the heat. He stood for a moment taking it in, examining what was still left. His gaze lit on a pile of tangled bones, blackened and burning down to cinders. He crossed over and jammed his bare hand into the flaming debris, yanking the bodies apart to examine them. There wasn’t much left. The bodies had been burned once then set on fire a second time when Storm and his companions torched the fort. He dropped the remains and focused on their armor. A chest plate with a hole in it commanded his attention. Picking up the red-hot metal he ran a finger over the hole.
An arrow hole.
He nodded to himself. One mystery solved. The fourth person was the Biqah archer. He made a mental note to send his spies back to Breckinridge to find out the names of Storm’s companions. It probably wasn’t important but small details often made the difference between success and failure. It was better to know as much as possible about them.
An archer, plus the churned up snow around the outside of the fort, explained how Storm had managed to take it with only four people. It was obvious what had happened. The wizard had somehow managed to set off all the traps and magical wards at once. The men had run to the gate to see what was going on and Storm’s band slipped over the back wall to attack them from behind. The Biqah archer had provided cover while the other three rushed his men. Very neat. Niran allowed himself a faint smile of grudging approval. He’d known Storm was a good tactician, but this was a notch or two above what he’d expected. He’d have to remember that.
His smile changed to a frown. Then why his sudden departure?
He watched solemnly as the barracks caved on itself, new flames roaring up into the sky. If Storm was as good as this, he wouldn’t have left without a reason, not this quickly. He walked slowly out of the burning fort, deep in thought.
There were only two reasons someone would leave the site of a victory so soon after winning the battle; either they were in a hurry, or they believed their position was untenable. It was possible Storm was in a hurry, but that didn’t feel right. True, Storm knew someone had the box containing the girl’s soul; and true, he didn’t know how long they would keep it before using it, so he might feel compelled to move as fast as he could. But Storm was also smart enough to know exhausted troops were no good if they couldn’t fight when they reached their destination. He’d said something to that effect one time in T’thalia.
Niran shook his head slowly. No, Storm wasn’t in a hurry. Which meant he thought he was in an exposed or unsafe position. Now, why would he think that?
He stopped and surveyed the burning fort as if it would suddenly divulge the answers he was looking for. He followed the column of smoke up into the air where it was slowly dispersing. If he’d ridden Xyphren, the demon would have had a fine time playing in the fumes that were so reminiscent of what his hellish home was supposed to be like. He started to turn away, then froze.
That was it!
Storm was afraid of being seen from the air. That’s why he left so early. And right this minute he’s running down the mountain hoping to get to the trees before I start searching for him from the air. He doesn’t want to be caught out in the open.
But why would Storm assume an early search effort?
Niran’s triumphant smile faded before it was fully formed. There was still something missing here, some piece he hadn’t uncovered yet. What was it? He began pacing back and forth in the snow. You couldn’t make assumptions about what an enemy would do unless you knew something about him. Which meant he had to discover why Storm had . . . he stopped.
Knew something about the enemy?
That worked two ways, didn’t it?
His fist smacked into his hand. Storm knows it’s me! He heard my voice the night I captured the box with the girl’s soul, and he recognized it. He knows I’m the one he’s fighting. No wonder he left so fast; he knew I’d be coming.
Niran grabbed for the bloodstone gem hanging at his throat. Light flashed and an instant later he was back at Mount Coldfire, spitting orders to his men. He was in a cold rage as they rushed out of his throne room to summon his generals. His teeth clenched as he waited for them to return. Storm was the first person outside his army to discover his identity. If he got that information to the royal court in Ingold or T’thalia before he was ready to move, all his careful work would be ruined. He couldn’t allow that, not when he was this close. His eyes narrowed as his generals began filing in.
Killing Storm had just become his number one, top priority – no matter the cost.