CHAPTER 1 The Guest of Opalis
Fires burned on the watchtowers flanking the ruined gate into the once proud city of Opalis. Normally such a great city would have cast a glow into the night sky, radiating its light into the darkness beyond. Now the twin fires on either side of the yawning opening were the only evidence the city was inhabited. They shone in the blackness like the reflected eyes of a cat, but weren’t even bright enough to illuminate the churned and broken ground that had once been Opalis’s grand thoroughfare.
Evard Dirae, craftmaster of the Obsidian Order, pulled up the hood of his heavy traveling cloak, lest any vestige of the watch fires illuminate his mostly white hair. It had been almost a month since the fall of Opalis and events had gone decidedly against him. The amount of magic he’d been forced to expend in an effort to simply learn what actually happened had been appalling, and still he did not know it all.
At least the guards aren’t attentive, he thought as he passed the broken gate, well beyond the reach of the ineffective watch fires. Of course the guards had little need to be wary. Word of the fall of Opalis had gotten out and how it was now a ruined shell, a plundered corpse left to rot in the South Paladis sun.
Evard drew his cloak about his shoulders as a melancholy drizzle began to fall. The heat of the summer campaign season had given way to the first stirrings of autumn, and the air of the plains had turned chill. He cast a baleful glance into the sky as if the rain and the cold were some kind of personal affront and got a fat drop in one of his eyes for his trouble.
Cursing quietly, he turned left from the gate, passing between two buildings that had the look of warehouses, and found an alley that ran more or less west. The last time he’d been in Opalis, it had been teeming with life, with people moving here and there on purposes of their own. In such an environment it was easy to pass unnoticed. People bent on their own purposes had little time for strangers. Now, however, he would stand out like a candle in a dark room if anyone saw him, so he resolved to keep off the main streets.
As if to punctuate his reasoning, the ruddy light of a lantern sprang up at the far end of the alley where it met a main street. With nowhere to go, Evard pressed up against the side of the alley and held still. He watched as five legionnaires of the Norgard Empire passed by. They were relaxed, men with no fear of ambush or attack, yet one looked down the alley just the same.
Evard closed his eyes and focused his mind. He had enough magic left to deal with these soldiers if it came to that, but he’d rather it didn’t. His reserves were perilously low and he was physically exhausted. The fewer problems he encountered, the better.
The legionnaire at the end of the alley paused and Evard’s heart skipped a beat. He could clearly see the man’s face in the torchlight. A ragged scar ran down the legionnaire’s cheek splitting the stubble of a short beard as it disappeared under his jaw. The guard’s eyes swept back and forth, passing over Evard’s still form twice, then he turned away.
Evard waited a full minute after the light of the torch disappeared before he moved. When he reached the main thoroughfare there was no sign of the patrol. Breathing a sigh of relief, he pressed on.
Against the western wall of the city were the barracks of the city’s former defenders, the Opalis Legion. Lights burned in the windows and Evard could see guardsmen leaning wearily on their spears as they stood watch by the gate and on the roof. Evard’s attention lingered on the barracks and its dozing guards for a long moment, then he turned south, past the occupied buildings, to a squat, dark structure beyond, which housed the city jail. Under normal circumstances, it would house pickpockets, brawlers, drunks, and the odd malcontent. Today, it stood all but empty. There weren’t even guards posted at the doors. If Evard’s information was correct, however, the jail’s sole occupant was the one man in the world that could tell him what he most wanted to know.
The whereabouts of Aren Bennis.
* * *
Evard pushed open the outer door of the jail and passed inside. The door creaked loudly as he pulled it closed behind him, but it wouldn’t matter. He’d spent the last two hours watching the building and in all that time no one had come to check on the prisoner. He doubted anyone cared.
The inside of the jail was simple and utilitarian, much like the rest of the city. A guard area occupied the front with a hallway behind that had cells on either side. Evard summoned a sliver of his magic and raised his hand. A pulsating sphere of dim, silver light appeared over his open palm and he waited as his eyes adjusted to it before proceeding.
“Who’s there,” a raspy voice echoed from a cell in the very back.
Evard took great satisfaction at the miserable sound of it.
“Why General,” he said, moving down the aisle, “I’m hurt you don’t remember me. Has it been so long?”
As Evard reached the last cell, the faint light spilled over the man in the cell. General Milos Karpasic was huddled in a pile of straw for a bed and had a ragged blanket pulled about his shoulders to ward off the chill of the autumn night. This was a far cry from the haughty figure who had defied him and attacked Opalis before Evard’s plans had been set in motion. It could be argued that all of Evard’s current problems, the disappearance of Aren and the loss of the Avatar sword were directly attributable to that one act of defiance.
Karpasic’s eyes narrowed as he recognized his visitor. Evard had expected the general would react with fear, but instead he seemed almost bored.
“Oh,” he grunted, pulling his blanket around him more tightly. “It’s just you. Come to gloat, or was this your plan all along?”
“My…?” Evard stammered, dumbstruck. “How dare you lay this debacle at my feet,” he growled, resisting the urge to shout. “Where is your army, General Karpasic? Where is the Avatar sword? Where is Aren Bennis?”
As Evard spoke, the silver light from his sphere grew brighter with his anger and he had to will it to dim again. Karpasic chuckled. It wasn’t a mirthful sound, but rather one of mockery.
“So, he stuck the same knife in your back that he used on me, eh Sorcerer?”
Evard resisted the urge to summon enough magic to burn Karpasic to a cinder. Plenty of time for that later. Right now the man wasn’t making sense, which meant Evard was still missing something—either that or the general’s defeat had unhinged him.
“Who stuck a knife in my back?” he asked, forcing himself to be patient.
“Bennis!” Karpasic roared, surging to his feet. The blanket fell away, unnoticed, and Evard got his first good look at the man. He was noticeably thinner. It looked as if he’d lost near fifty pounds. Evard wondered if the Norgard soldiers were feeding him at all.
“What about Captain Bennis?”
Karpasic laughed again, but this time it was the sound of mirth.
“You don’t get it,” he said, slumping against the bars of his cell. “It was Bennis.”
“He didn’t deliver this city to you as we agreed?”
Karpasic stared through the bars, his wild eyes boring into Evard’s.
“Of course he did,” Karpasic giggled. “He marched out of here with his train of peasants and left the gate wide open.”
“Then make yourself clear, General,” Evard said, steel creeping back into his voice. “If you can.”
“We took possession of the city without even drawing our weapons,” Karpasic said. “But what did we find when we got here? What of the famed treasure of Opalis?”
The general seemed to be waiting for a response, so Evard shrugged.
“I give up, what did you find?”
Evard raised an eyebrow at that. Everyone knew of the vast wealth of Opalis, even in faraway Desolis.
“Are you suggesting that Captain Bennis smuggled the treasure out of the city under your very nose?” Even as he said it, Evard knew that wasn’t possible. A man possessed of as much greed as Karpasic wouldn’t have allowed a copper penny out of the city.
“I don’t know how he did it,” Karpasic growled. “I only know that when we broke into their tower, there was nothing there.” He took hold of the bars and pressed his face against them. His skin was loose because of the weight loss, and as he pushed against the bars, it stretched tight across his cheeks, leaving him with a feral grin. “And do you know what happened then, Sorcerer?”
Evard was firmly convinced that he didn’t.
“The legions of Norgard surrounded the city,” Karpasic went on. “Pinned us in here like rats in a trap.”
Evard opened his mouth to scoff at that, but shut it almost immediately. He could see where Karpasic was going with this story.
“You think Captain Bennis tipped them off,” he said. “You think he planned to betray the Empire.”
Karpasic backed slowly away from the bars, but the manic smile on his face didn’t move.
“Either that or the legionnaires of Norgard are the luckiest troops in all Paladis, coming upon us in exactly the right moment. That would be quite the coincidence, don’t you think?”
Evard was young as sorcerers went, but he’d seen enough of life not to believe in coincidence. There were only three people who knew where and when Aren would surrender the city, and two of them were here in this jail.
“Ha!” Karpasic roared. He must have seen the realization in Evard’s face. “He fooled you too, Craftmaster Dirae!”
“Lower your voice,” Evard hissed, casting a nervous glance back up the aisle toward the front of the jail.
“That arrogant bastard fooled you,” Karpasic said in a softer tone. “But you know who he didn’t fool? Me. I knew he was an uppity little backstabber, always parading around like my victories were his, like I couldn’t be trusted to put on my armor without his direction. I saw through all that. I put him in his place … until you intervened.”
Karpasic threw back his head and laughed.
“That’s right,” he said, his flabby sides shaking with mirth. “You wanted him alive. If you’d just let me kill him like I wanted to, none of this would have happened. Look around, Sorcerer, this is all your fault.”
“That’s why you marched on Opalis,” Evard snapped, putting the pieces together. “You wanted to make sure Aren was dead before I could find out how he came to be captured by the Council of Might.”
“Of course I did,” Karpasic said, his laughter subsiding. “And everything would have worked if you hadn’t stepped in.”
“You defied your orders,” Evard pointed out. “You’d have had to answer for that in any case.”
“Orders to march an entire army to the place where the Sanctus and Fortus Rivers cross?” Karpasic scoffed. “There’s nothing there. It was a staging area, no one would care if we arrived a week or two late. And we would have, rich as kings to boot—if that traitor Bennis hadn’t sold us all to the Norgards.”
Evard ground his teeth. Karpasic was making sense, and worse, he didn’t appear to be lying, which was the last thing the sorcerer had expected.
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