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The Red Citadel

and the

Sorcerer’s Power


By Craig Halloran



Craig Halloran is a #1 Bestselling fantasy author with over 70 books in print.



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The Red Citadel

and the Sorcerer’s Power


By Craig Halloran


Copyright © 2018 by Craig Halloran

Smashwords Edition

TWO-TEN BOOK PRESS

P.O. Box 4215, Charleston, WV 25364


ISBN eBook: 978-1-946218-49-0

ISBN Paperback: 978-1-720503-81-1

ISBN Hardback: 978-1-946218-50-6


www.craighalloran.com


All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted, in any form, or by any means, electronic, mechanical, recorded, photocopied, or otherwise, without the prior permission of the copyright owner, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.

Publisher's Note

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.


Table of Contents

MAP OF THE SEVEN KINGDOMS

THE SORCERER’S CURSE – PART 1

CHAPTER 1

CHAPTER 2

CHAPTER 3

CHAPTER 4

CHAPTER 5

CHAPTER 6

CHAPTER 7

CHAPTER 8

CHAPTER 9

CHAPTER 10

CHAPTER 11

CHAPTER 12

CHAPTER 13

CHAPTER 14

CHAPTER 15

CHAPTER 16

CHAPTER 17

CHAPTER 18

CHAPTER 19

CHAPTER 20

THE SORCERER’S POWER – PART 2

CHAPTER 21

CHAPTER 22

CHAPTER 23

CHAPTER 24

CHAPTER 25

CHAPTER 26

CHAPTER 27

CHAPTER 28

CHAPTER 29

CHAPTER 30

CHAPTER 31

CHAPTER 32

CHAPTER 33

CHAPTER 34

CHAPTER 35

CHAPTER 36

CHAPTER 37

CHAPTER 38

CHAPTER 39

CHAPTER 40

THE SORCERER’S COMMAND - PART 3

CHAPTER 41

CHAPTER 42

CHAPTER 43

CHAPTER 44

CHAPTER 45

CHAPTER 46

CHAPTER 47

CHAPTER 48

CHAPTER 49

CHAPTER 50

CHAPTER 51

CHAPTER 52

CHAPTER 53

CHAPTER 54

CHAPTER 55

CHAPTER 56

CHAPTER 57

CHAPTER 58

CHAPTER 59

THE SORCERER’S TRICK – PART 4

CHAPTER 60

CHAPTER 61

CHAPTER 62

CHAPTER 63

CHAPTER 64

CHAPTER 65

CHAPTER 66

CHAPTER 67

CHAPTER 68

CHAPTER 69

CHAPTER 70

CHAPTER 71

CHAPTER 72

CHAPTER 73

CHAPTER 74

CHAPTER 75

CHAPTER 76

CHAPTER 77

CHAPTER 78

THE SORCERER’S WAR – PART 5

CHAPTER 79

CHAPTER 80

CHAPTER 81

CHAPTER 82

CHAPTER 83

CHAPTER 84

CHAPTER 85

CHAPTER 86

CHAPTER 87

CHAPTER 88

CHAPTER 89

CHAPTER 90

CHAPTER 91

CHAPTER 92

CHAPTER 93

CHAPTER 94

CHAPTER 95

CHAPTER 96

CHAPTER 97

CHAPTER 98

CHAPTER 99

CHAPTER 100

CHAPTER 101

CHAPTER 102 (Epilogue)

FROM THE AUTHOR

BONUS STORY 1: THE DARKSLAYER

CHAPTER 1

CHAPTER 2

CHAPTER 3

CHAPTER 4

CHAPTER 5

CHAPTER 6

CHAPTER 7

CHAPTER 8

CHAPTER 9

HOW TO ORDER

BONUS STORY 2: Quest for the Thunderstone

CHAPTER 1

CHAPTER 2

CHAPTER 3

CHAPTER 4

CHAPTER 5

CHAPTER 6

CHAPTER 7

CHAPTER 8

CHAPTER 9

HOW TO ORDER

COMPLETE BOOK LIST AND AUTHOR INFO





MAP OF THE SEVEN KINGDOMS





THE SORCERER’S CURSE – PART 1


CHAPTER 1



Tarley’s Tavern sat high on the hill, up and away from the small town of Marcen. The rickety building had stood, braced against the highland winds, for hundreds of years. Over the course of history, some of the realm’s greatest heroes had passed through Tarley’s. Some guzzled ale, many told tall tales, and others sat quietly, wanting nothing more than to be left alone. More recently, the life within the tavern was of a more common sort. Rough-skinned farmers, ornery tradesmen, merchants, and restless men and women went there seeking a little excitement to alleviate the quiet of the farm town.

The builders of the durable and weathered establishment were long gone, and new faces had taken their place over the years. Now, within the walls, the tavern’s current owner, Tuberlous, threw another log on the fire. The embers crackled, and a warm glow permeated the room. Nobody noticed. Instead, the dwellers drank, gambled, and cursed. The barmaids posed on the laps of lavishly clad merchants. Pipe smoke and the smell of cherry tobacco made for a dreamy atmosphere. Within the haze, the discreet sulked in the corners while others went on without an ounce of shame about their business. Every once in a while, joking, jesting, and wild, victorious cheers rang out.

In the rear of the tavern, a lone spiral staircase led up to a balcony that overlooked the tavern floor. Stiff winds made the wooden rafters in the vaulted ceiling groan. The candlelit iron chandeliers quavered time and again. On that balcony, a man sat behind a small desk, pouring wine out of a clay carafe. He wore garish robes, with a large collar, that were long overdue for cleaning. The unique garb was laced with intricate patterns and lavish colors. His head was bald, face slender, gray-black eyebrows peaked. Every move he made was purposeful and fluid. His name was Finster. Long ago, he had been a magus of the highest order. Now, he drank. He drank a lot.

A farmer entered the tavern with his cloth hat clutched in his hand. A cold breeze followed him, causing some unpleasant mutterings from the dwellers. With effort, he pushed the door shut, turned, and looked up. He caught Finster’s penetrating stare. Rolling his long fingers, Finster beckoned the man upward. Head down, the farmer shuffled through the crowd and slowly climbed up the stairs.

“Oh, hurry up, will you?” Finster said in the voice of an impatient schoolmaster. “I haven’t got all night, commoner.” He looked over the rail. “No, wait a moment.”

The farmer stopped.

“Tuberlous!” Finster shouted down at the barkeeper. “Are you blind? I have a customer!”

Tuberlous slid out from behind the bar with his belly bouncing underneath his greasy smock. He faced the farmer with his hand out. “That’ll be a copper, Varney.”

The farmer handed the barkeep the coin and headed upstairs.

“My rent is paid today!” Finster shouted to the barkeep. “Let that take the grief from your puffy lips.” The farmer walked along the balcony, glancing over the rail once before taking a seat on the wooden stool in front of Finster’s desk. Finster leaned forward. “Varney, is it?”

The man nodded. His eyes attached to the bookshelf filled with many leather tomes, potions, vials, and other trinkets. His grubby hands wiped the sweat on his lip. “Hello.”

“Aren’t you the chatty one? Hmmm, let me try to figure out what it is you need.” Closing his bright eyes, Finster touched the side of his oblong head. “Let’s see. You need a special seed for your crops—ah, no, that’s not it. Oh, wait, I see it now—you need a special seed for your wife.” He opened his eyes. “Yes, your wife’s crops need fertilization. You have no sons to help you with labor. Lucky for you, I have just the thing for that.” He reached for his shelf.

“No, that’s not it. I have sons. Many.” The farmer’s eyes slid to the people below them.

Finster slapped the table. “No one is listening to you! Out with it, then. What do you need? Your secrets are safe with me. What we speak of is fully anonymous.” He hiccupped. “Excuse me. I have a strange illness.” He took a swig of wine. “Ah, I’m cured. Now, where were we?”

“I need something to help me and, er, the wife, say, find the passion again?”

“So I was on course.” Finster leaned forward with his elbow on the table. “Tell me, Varney, about this wife of yours. Is she ample?” He winked at the farmer. “You know, bosomy?”

“I don’t see how that is helpful.”

“It makes all the difference, farmer. Don’t you come up here and insult me about how to go about my business. Is she ample or not? Come now. I need details.”

“She’s rather full chested.”

Leaning back in his chair and toying with the hairs on his chin, Finster said, “Interesting. Very interesting, Varney, seeing how I know that your wife is as flat chested as a twelve-year-old boy. So you desire to fool around, eh? Well, it’s not my business.”

“You said you’d be discreet.”

“And I will be. If anyone inquires, just say you wanted my advice about the harvest. That’s what everyone says.” He reached into his shelves and grabbed a glass vial. “Ground mandrake, but remember, ‘Lust is blind but not your neighbors.’”

“What?”

“Nothing.” He slid the small bottle over the table. “This is what you want. It’ll be three silvers.”

Varney’s dirty fingers picked at the inside of a small pouch. He slid over three coins.

With his finger, Finster touched two of the three coins. They rose from the table. He stacked one coin on top of the other. “See? A little trick, for free, in case you doubted my powers as a wizard.”

Varney tucked the vial in his sheepskin vest. “You’ll be discreet, right?”

“And dare draw the wrath of a farmer like you? Of course I will.”

Giving Finster a funny look, Varney got up and started to walk away.

“Do you see that strapping young fellow down there at the bar? Brawny, with sandy locks.”

“Yes, why?”

“That’s Plowboy Roy, just so you know. So don’t be ashamed about your secret nuptials.”

Varney shook his head. “What are you talking about?”

“Young Roy has been plowing your wife’s fields for quite some time.”

“You lie!”

“No, she’s paid a visit to me as well. Perhaps it’s time that the two of you have a long, open, honest, and pathetic conversation.”

Clutching his cap and with anguish building in his voice, Varney said, “Why did you have to tell me that? I thought you were discreet.”

“Oh, yes. I forgot to mention—that costs extra.” He flicked a silver down toward the bar. It landed inside a glass with a clink. “Tuberlous! More wine! Lots of it.”

Without warning, the front door of the tavern burst open. Many soldiers, well armed and dressed head to toe in leather armor, filed through the startled crowd. The hard eyes of the men scoured the room. One of them pointed up at Finster. He was a tall man in a dark leather tunic who stood out among the rest. Something sinister lurked in his dark eyes. He called up to Finster in a gravelly, authoritative voice, “You, sir, are a wanted man.”




CHAPTER 2



Hands on the rail, serene in expression, Finster replied, “I beg your pardon, Commander, but I believe you are mistaken. I’m not guilty of any crime that I am aware of. I’m a lone sage, a mere novice of elixirs working toward the betterment of the community and myself. Eh, perhaps you are searching for those grave robbers that have been trolling about. We’ve seen strange folk heading west, two days gone by now.”

“Is that so?” The commander nodded to a pair of soldiers, who moved to the bottom of the spiral stairwell. He took off his chainmail gauntlets, dropped them on the table, and unrolled a scroll. He tilted his head, eyes squinting. “I have a drawing that fits your description. I’m certain it is you.”

“I have very keen eyes,” Finster said, craning his neck. “May I see it?” The commander showed the picture. Finster’s brow lifted. It was an exact image of himself, take away a decade or two. “I don’t see the resemblance in the slightest. You’ve mistaken my identity.”

“Is that so?” The commander showed the image to the barkeep. “What do you think, man?”

Tuberlous’s crinkled brow burst into beads of sweat. His eyes flitted to Finster for a moment then back at the picture. He swallowed. “I can’t say for certain.”

“See, you’re mistaken—common soldier—eh, what do you call yourself?”

“Crawley. Commander Crawley of Mendes, the ruling kingdom. Pursuer of villains, liars, murderers, and the like.”

“It’s so hard to tell one from another these days. As a matter of fact, many I’ve come across have borne a remarkable resemblance to you. Scruffy, rough-handed men that tend to spit a little too much when they talk.” He rubbed his throat. “No offense. Tuberlous! I’m getting dry again. Tell you what, Crawley. Will you let me buy you a drink?”

Tuberlous poured a mug of ale from a keg tap. Crawley glared at him. The barkeep set the mug down, wiped his hands on the rag and said, “I think I smell something burning in the back.” He vanished through a small door behind the bar.

“See what you’ve done, Crawfish, you’ve frightened the only bartender for leagues.” Finster slammed his hands on the rails. “Outrageous. Don’t you know how hard it is to train a man to pull a cork out of a bottle and not ruin the bouquet? But, I’ll forgive, and believe me when I say, I am not who you think I am. You’re mistaken.”

“Lying is a crime,” Crawley said. “Resisting arrest is an offence. Bribery, well, that makes me really nasty.”

“A man of passion. Good for you. Crawfish, can you tell me the name of the man you are looking for? Perhaps I can offer some assistance.” He tapped his chest and belched. “Pardon me. I see many new faces. I’ve a bit of a reputation. The other day, for example—”

“Shut up, you old doddering crone!”

One of the tavern dwellers tried to slip out. A soldier stuffed him back in his seat. Crawley unrolled another scroll with his meaty fingers. “You want a name? How does this sound? The Whistling Cauldron, Pine Bender, Master of the Inanimate, the Silver Snake, Guardian of the Mystic Forge, Iron Keeper, the Secret Slayer, Rodent of Whispers…”

He lists many I’ve forgotten about. Those were the days. Young, powerful, deadly, and delightful. So amazing.

“… the Metal Scourge, and finally, Finster the Magus of the Ninth Order.” Crawley rolled up the scroll. “Do you still deny that is you?”

“Those are just legends. Old stories and tall tales that women tell their whiny children to get them to sleep after a meal.” He drummed his fingers on the railing. “Besides, I can’t imagine a man such as yourself trifling with the man whose legend you just described. It extends beyond the borders of reason.” Finster’s brows knitted ever so slightly. “That would be suicide.”

The soldiers eyed their commander. Sharp steel scraped out of sheaths. Men cranked the lines back on their light crossbows and took aim at Finster.

Without a blink, Crawley said, “Don’t underestimate a man you know little to nothing about, old magus. It could be fatal.”

Finster saw the iron resolve in the commander’s eyes. Crawley wasn’t a foolish youth, but a veteran, with marks to show for it—a true fighter skilled at slaying, judging by the heavy steel on his hips and rank on his arms.

Toying with his lips, the magus said, “I haven’t been to Mendes in decades. Do you care to tell me what I’m allegedly charged with?”

“As of now, just treason.”

“Treason? I stand accused in the low kingdom. Seems really thin. Treason can be fatal.”

“There will be a trial.”

“I’m well aware of how those trials go. They are death sentences ofttimes. I don’t have any intention of turning myself in. I’d be better off committing suicide.”

“I don’t want you to do that. You’re wanted alive. Come on down, Finster. Make it easy. You never know what will happen. After all, you might be innocent, heh-heh.” Crawley stepped right beneath him. “I’ve been doing this a long time. Never failed to get the man, woman, or wizard I pursued. Don’t test me.”

Impudent, curly-headed brute! How dare he? I’m a master—well, former master—of the ninth order! Finster gave the men in the room further study. Greasy and durable, this entourage from Mendes, if that was where they were really from, wasn’t your ordinary ilk. They were hunters, true killers who struck in the dark of the night. Cutthroats. Oh, how I hate men that can only use brawn rather than brains to negotiate. Weak-minded fools. I’ll turn their brains into pig food. “Crawley, I’m sorry to say that you’ve given me no choice other than to defend myself and my place of business.”

Tuberlous returned. He dabbed his forehead with a rag and started rubbing the bar.

“Look around, Finster. I’ve brought in my lot of wizards, lost some good men—well, some good, bad men—and trust me when I say I won’t have any problem with you. You’re washed up. Weak. Pathetic. Not even a reflection of the days of old. Don’t be a fool. Come to Mendes, and see what the judge has to say.”

He’s lying. Why would Mendes want me? Crossing his arms over his chest, he looked at Crawley. “I can’t abandon my arcane abode. I like it here.”

“It was hard enough to find your little alchemy stand. I’m not going back empty-handed.” Without taking his eyes off of Finster, he backed into the bar. With a tap of his hand, the barkeeper poured him an ale. He drank it then said, “You’d better come down here before I finish this.”

“I suppose I can’t bring any belongings.”

“No, you’ll be shackled, and we aren’t carrying it.” Crawley drank half the mug. He sneered at the contents. “I won’t take any chances, but I’ll take you to Mendes fed and safe. That’s a generous offer.”

Crawley couldn’t have come at a better time. Finster was drunk. Not only that, but he was far from the top of his game. For years, he’d hidden from those who’d sought him out. He’d just wanted to fade away. Now, his past had caught up with him. His judgment day had come. “Crawley, there’s an old saying in Winkley. Perhaps you’ve heard it before.”

“I’ve heard a lot of things, but nothing worth remembering from Winkley. Indulge me.”

Finster cleared his throat. “Never wake Finster from his slumber.”





CHAPTER 3



The crossbows took on a life of their own as, with a single thought, Finster reshaped the wood of the crossbow bolts. The tips pointed toward the gabled ceiling. The soldiers pulled the triggers, and the bolts shot out in loop de loops, sailed short of the mark, and clattered into the stairwell.

“Get up there!” Crawley ordered two soldiers who stood at the base of the spiral staircase. “His parlor tricks won’t last forever.”

The husky soldiers rushed up the steps with wary eyes.

Summoning more power from the mystic well that fed his blood, Finster focused on the stairwell. With his hand in an open grip, he twisted it in the air.

The stairwell groaned. The iron railing bent. The wooden steps cracked and popped. The heavy staircase livened like a snake, and the metal coiled around the soldiers, constricted, and crushed. The soldiers screamed.

Looking up at Finster, Crawley started for his sword, but his hand pulled back.

Finster winked at him. “Having second thoughts, Commander Crawley?”

“No, just changing strategy.” He shouted out, “A dozen gold to the man who brings him down!”

The soldiers, just shy of a dozen, moved in an organized scramble. Oh, dear. There are so many of them. The Master of the Inanimate got to work. He reached deeper than he had in years. With a thrust of calculated thought, the chairs, stools, and tables on the floor took on a life of their own. The patrons, still in their chairs, screamed in horror as the wooden objects carried them and charged into the hard-eyed soldiers, bowling one of them over. Another soldier was knocked to the ground by a table. In a small world gone mad, a soldier with a large eye patch stabbed a patron through the chest.

“Easy on the people, Arly! It’s only sticks you’re fighting!” Crawley snatched up a walking stool and smashed it against the bar. “It’s just firewood!”

A large rectangular table blindsided two more soldiers. They went down howling and chopping with their blades. The table legs jabbed into the men’s bodies and limbs.

Seeing his ragtag army of furnishings getting chopped and smashed to bits, Finster executed another command. He caught Crawley looking away and made a twitch of his fingers. The floorboards beneath the commander curled back one by one and swallowed him whole. Dusting off his hands, Finster said, “Ah, that should buy me enough time.” He went to his bookshelf, gathered a few choice items, and tucked them into a rustic leather travel bag. He slid one bookshelf over, slipped through the crack, and snuck down into the kitchen. A back door awaited him, half open, with green fields beyond it as far as the eye could see.

Eyeing the pots bubbling on the flames, he considered burning the entire place down. It will be such a time-consuming pursuit if I don’t. Besides, it would be the soldiers’ fault, not mine. They started this. Then again, what about my supplies? Perhaps I can send for them. The clatter and angry hollering in the tavern grew louder. I hope I don’t regret this.

Without looking back, he walked right out the door. The fields of green were darkened on the left side and right with over fifty heavily armored soldiers. Finster froze. There was no way out of this. Even in his prime, he’d have had trouble with it. I hate soldiers. They don’t have enough brainpower, so they must rely on manpower. Every brute thinks he can fight, and they breed like rabbits. Abominable!

He puffed, and his knees wobbled. He hadn’t exerted himself like that in years. He was drained.

Crawley appeared from around the corner of the building. He dusted the dirt off and walked up to Finster. Looking down at him, he said, “That was a nice trick, Finster. You dropped me right into the cellar.” He showed a bottle of wine held in his grip. “I found this down there. A good year.”

“Consider it a gift. I’ll put it on my tab.”

“Why, thank you.” Crawley swung the bottle into the side of Finster’s head. The magus dropped to the ground. “Huh, look at that. The bottle didn’t break. Seems it’s more sturdy than you.” With a scowl, he kicked Finster in the gut a few times. “How about a drink, Finster?”

Wheezing, he replied, “Sorry. I only drink with friends. You aren’t a friend, but you had your chance.”

“You should have come peacefully, Finster. I told you there was no way out.” Crawley uncorked the bottle and drank. “Not bad for this pig pit.” He tossed the bottle inside the kitchen door. “Sergeant. Make sure all of my men are out, kill anyone that’s not one of us if they haven’t had the sense to fall, then burn it to the ground. When the villagers wail, make sure they know that Finster did it. That’s the price you pay when you resist men of authority.”

Finster spat blood. “I knew you were bad. Anybody with a face like that has to be bad.”

Crawley let out an evil chuckle. He gave a nod to his men. They dragged Finster away. Crawley took Finster’s travel bag and threw it inside the door. Within a minute, the tavern caught fire. It burned like a huge pyre. Innocent men were put to the sword, including Tuberlous.

“There’s a price for slaughtering the innocent,” Finster managed to say.

“You should know,” Crawley replied. “Strip him down, sergeant.” The sergeant was a greasy brute with more beard than face. His fingers were like sausages. “We need to make sure he doesn’t have any tricks up his sleeve. Search him. Search him good. Everything from his ears to his, well, you know.”

After the search was over, the sergeant brought Finster to Crawley. The magus wore nothing, but held his robes in his hands. “Well done, sergeant. Now, time for step two.” Crawley held up a black pouch and emptied it into his hand. A jade, beetle-shaped object filled half of his big hand.

Finster recoiled. The blood in his face drained.

“You know what this is, don’t you, Silver Snake?”

Finster replied, “I swear, you’ll get no trouble from me. Not that scarab. Please, don’t put that thing on me!”

“I have orders. Besides, I’m curious to see what this little jewel does. I think you know. Perhaps you can tell me?”

“It will deprive me of my talent.”

“Really? So it will make your tongue shrivel. No more smart-alecky comments. I like it. Perhaps I should get one for my wife. Heh-heh-heh.” Crawley dangled the object in front of Finster’s eyes. Its small insect legs popped out. Barbed feet spread out and wriggled.

“You’re sweating again, Finster, and it hasn’t even pricked your skin yet.” He nodded at the sergeant. “Arly, spin him around.”

With strong hands, Sergeant Arly whipped Finster around.

“Crawley, please, don’t do this! I’m not worth it! That is a rare item. Not the scarab! Please, not that cursed scarab. Use it on one more worthy than me. I’m harmless.”

“No, I’ve got orders. I follow them.” Crawley slapped the hungry beetle between Finster’s scrawny shoulder blades. “It’s done.”

The claws of the scarab bored into his flesh. Finster let out a bloodcurdling scream.




CHAPTER 4



Writhing on the ground with Crawley’s and Arly’s boots in his back, Finster shouted out every slur he knew. The jade beetle’s barbed feet pierced his skin. They bored into his muscles. Burning needles, like hellfire, spread through his back. Arly giggled. Finster’s eyes rolled up in his head. He arched, convulsed, and squirmed. His slender fingers clutched back and forth in knots. His blue veins, bursting under his skin, turned green.

“Let him be,” Crawley said, removing his foot. Sergeant Arly stomped on Finster again. “Boy, that looks painful, but he’s harmless now—trust me. Huh, this is like watching a worm caught between the cobblestones and sunrise. See, he shrivels up.”

Finster heard the sting in the words. Crawley’s condescending tone gave him a little fire. He stopped screaming even though the beetle’s legs were still boring into him. On his hands and knees, trembling, he let the jade beetle do its excruciating work. Things were growing inside him. Sharp worms squirmed inside. The blinding pain came to an end, but the nagging had just begun. He opened his eyes. His sweat dripped to the ground in steady drops. His lip ached. He’d bitten through it. He found Crawley’s face. “Now that you’ve ruined me, I don’t suppose I could have a drink. After all, there’s little else to live for.”

“Maybe later.”

With rope, Crawley’s men bound Finster by the wrists. They tethered him to Arly’s horse, and the long march to Mendes began. Finster only wore his sandals and robes. A few hours into the trek, his soft feet had blisters on them. The group camped that night, but he ate nothing and slept shivering in his robes. The wind biting his extremities was one thing, and the chronic nagging in his back was another. He ached. He survived, unwillingly.

“How about that drink?” he said to Crawley the next morning. Finster smacked his parched lips and rubbed his eyes. “Please.”

“Give him some of my share, Arly, but don’t overdo it. That booze is the only thing that will probably keep him going.”

Drinking from a wine flask, Finster said, “As unlikely as it seems, I appreciate the mercy.”

“If it were up to me, I’d just skin your hide and leave you in the cold.” Crawley mounted his horse. “Lucky for you, that’s not what I’m paid for… this time. But my patience has limits.”

Finster focused on whatever he could learn. He counted soldiers and captured names. Any little bit of information could give him an avenue for escape. Parched, he lumbered along, tripping and stumbling in wagon ruts only to be dragged until Arly felt compelled to stop. Crawley was right: only those drinks throughout the day kept Finster going.

Three days into the journey, he and Crawley struck up another conversation along the muddy road.

“I have to say, I’m flattered that so many were sent on my account. Near three score soldiers coming after a washed-up magus. Why so many?”

High in the saddle, Crawley said, “Your reputation precedes you. I think you know that. When I was a buck, not even eighteen summers, I was at Caterwaul—what was that, thirty years ago? I saw what the likes of you did not to hundreds but to thousands.”

Finster shrank in his robes. “I was rather young myself.”

“Yes, but I was there. I saw you and many others gloating over the dead. Women and children. The wailing was indescribable. Did you know that nothing has thrived there ever since? They say the trees bleed red on wet days like this. The wind is filled with haunting moans and cries. The women can bear no children.”

“A pity. I was following orders.” Finster moved closer to the man riding in the saddle. “Many of my works, I must admit, were a travesty. But there are only two kinds of people in this world: conquerors and the conquered.”

“Yes, I learned my lesson that day. Almost everyone I knew was wiped out.” Crawley made his little laugh. “I was determined to fight for the winning side after that. Now, I command these men and many others.”

“Tragedy shapes us all for good and bad. You seem to fit in quite well with the bad. Your destiny suits you.” He cleared his throat. “Like a glove. There’s nothing worse than seeing a man trying to be something that he is not. How about another sip?”

Crawley tossed over the wine skin. “Finster, you’re almost likeable. Direct honesty gives a man a certain appeal. So many are scared to say the truth anymore. Even among my own men. I find your candor refreshing.”

“I wish I could say the same, but I’d be lying.” He sucked down the last gulp. “At least your men fear you enough not to share the truth. You’d probably kill them.”

“It’s happened.”

Scanning the horizon, eyes squinted in slits, Finster said, “I’ve done my fair share of traveling, and this isn’t the way to Mendes. We move east of it. So if we aren’t going there, then where are we going?”

“Can’t you tell? We’re almost there.”

With nothing but riders in front of him, Finster moved parallel to Arly, stretching out the rope as far as he could. The gentle plains made a straight line against the jagged hills. Tucked between bumps in the rocky terrain was a huge fortress made from red stones. Black banners, the size of specks, waved on the top of the citadel. Finster’s heart sank. He knew the ominous facility. Carved from rocks and built up with the same stone, the castle city was the stronghold of a peculiar high-ranking official.

“You’re taking me to the home of the Magus Supremeus?” He gaped. “What on earth would he want with me?”

“I don’t ask questions. I just execute the orders. I’ll tell you this, Finster: you aren’t the first to make the visit.”

Finster wandered back in line. He tracked through his past. For over a decade, he’d lain low, moving from town to town, not drawing any attention to himself. He’d made plenty of enemies all over the world, but there was none worse than a rival wizard. He’d abandoned the order. He had that right, sort of. There was a price to pay for leaving, but never one so grievous as having a jade beetle stuck to his back. As for the Magus Supremeus, he didn’t even know for certain who it was, only who it used to be. He stared at Crawley. Chin up and eyes forward, the stone-faced man’s expression offered no answers.

Finster’s shoulders ached all the more. The worst has worsened.








CHAPTER 5



The Wizard Haven—also known as the Scarlet Citadel, home of the Magus Supremeus—was an imposing slab of stone squeezed between nature. There were no windows, only parapets on the high walls of the tall, rectangular building. It was always stark, day or night. Commander Crawley led them inside the dark mouth of the mountain home. There wasn’t a courtyard or people within, only granite walls inside an unnaturally deep facility.

“I see they’re still using the same decorator,” Finster said to the sergeant. The water spilled over the inner walls in clear sheets, which made them shimmer, then emptied into a channel where huge goldfish swam. “Yes, nothing has changed in a thousand years, the way I understand it. Quite boorish for men and women renowned for their imaginations.”

Arly dismounted. The rest of the soldiers moved on, disappearing through archways into the strange facilities beyond. He handed Crawley the rope binding Finster. With a nod, Arly led his own horse and Crawley’s into the hallways beyond. The clomping of horse hooves echoed then faded the moment Arly disappeared behind the stone archway.

Looking around, Crawley said, “Is it good to be back, Finster? Home of the wizards. The training ground. It all seems so impersonal to me. Not a potted plant in the entire place.”

“We aren’t known for our gardening. We have common folk, like you, to do those menial chores for us.” He wiped his nose. “A splash of color wouldn’t hurt, I suppose.”

“It’s your homecoming. Let’s go. The Magus will be expecting you.” Crawley gave Finster a shove.

Shuffling along, Finster said, “I hardly think I’m presentable for the high magus. There is a matter of decorum in his forum.”

“No, the Magus was very specific. Besides, you aren’t the first. I’ve brought in many others in far worse shape. Some of them dead. Others just disabled.”

Finster didn’t hide his sneer from Crawley. If he could, he’d have turned the man’s skin inside out. He hated lugs like Crawley. His kind were entirely too cocky. Buffoon! Ten years ago, I’d have made you eat that sword of yours whole. He turned his attention ahead. His sandals flopped on the bottoms of his heels, making an uncomfortable echo in the grand chamber.

Above him, the vaulted ceilings were crisscrossed with beautiful archways. Gaudy murals were painted between the bricks. The images were depressing scenes that seemed to move the longer he stared at them. A chill hung in the stuffy air. Right and left, between the support columns, were statues carved from obsidian. Each was the image of a magus in his prime. Some carried staves and wands. Others wore strange hats and exquisite robes. The magi depicted were all dead, but each statue seemed alive in a special sort of way.

“I hear it’s the highest honor for a magus,” Crawley said. “I bet you hoped for that—an image of you for all eternity.”

“Nothing lasts forever. But I’d be lying if I said it didn’t matter to me once.” He eyeballed the statue of a wizard with a horned toad on his shoulder. “That’s Ellister the Marvel. He had his choice of familiars, from great cats to lizards, but preferred that toad. We had to learn all about each and every one of them. We studied the spells they created. I always had trouble with Ellister’s intricacies. I just didn’t care for animals, insects—particularly beetles—or anything that lived with a wee little mind in general. Like you, Crawley.”

“You just can’t control your sharp tongue, can you?”

“It’s the only weapon I have left.”

Crawley gave him a hard slap on the shoulder. “At the moment.”

At the end of the corridor was a single door made from a solid slab of granite. Two stone cauldrons, with dragons carved into them, burned with a bright-orange fire on either side of the entrance. A stone staircase, wide as the hall, led up a full flight of stairs. Finster stood at the bottom. Another statue caught his eye. He gaped. “Magus Supremeus! Zuulan the Arcane! He was the last I knew. What treachery is this?” He looked at Crawley. “He cannot be dead. Stepped down, yes, but dead… no.”

“Like you said, nothing—or in this case, no one—lasts forever.” Crawley headed up the stairs, tugging Finster along by the rope.

The slab doorway had mystic images, ancient as the sea, carved all over the stone. There weren’t any handholds or handles. No tremendous men or beasts were present to lift the door by way of chains or pulleys.

Crinkling his nose, he said to Crawley, “Are you going to knock?”

“Don’t play games, Finster.”

Finster rolled his shoulders. He took another glance back at Zuulan the Arcane. He’d liked Zuulan. The man was an ass, but oh, so powerful. Armies could not defeat him. He turned the Genesis Magi Guild into bloody goop. He gave the door a long look. Whoever was on the other side was formidable, but Finster couldn’t imagine who that might be. Perhaps the Wizard’s Citadel had fallen to some otherworldly power. He scratched his eyebrow, gave Crawley a glance, and stepped forward.

“At least your knees aren’t quaking like the others’. I’m impressed. The statue of Zuulan seems to get to them.” Crawley looked up.

A ball of dark-blue light snaked through the channels of the massive door. Winding its way down, it came to a stop a few feet above their heads, looking like a round spot of light. It slid open to show what looked like a great eye. The eyeball moved just like a real, flesh one. The creepy gaze made Finster’s skin crawl. The eye was a vile monster, a guardian of the Magus Supremeus. Its lone stare froze men and women like ice.

Finster glared at it. He hated the eye. The eye did more than watch the door. It wandered everywhere, prying into everyone’s business. “Oh, get on with it, you filthy little shade. I’m ready to meet my captor.”

The eye narrowed on Finster for a long moment then closed, and the ball of light vanished. Slowly, the door began to rise. The majestic throne room of the Magus Supremeus was revealed. The throne was made of pure silver and iron. The metal was studded with jewels. The arms were made of curled dragon horn. The crimson cushion was empty, but the seat was guarded by dozens of soldiers—the citadel guardians. Each was a stalwart man wearing a burnished mask of hammered steel with rectangular eyelets. Their robes were brown, their sinewy arms bare, and each wore a sword belt and scabbard at the waist and held a spear with an iron tip pointing upward, its butt end on the floor.

“Welcome, Finster,” a familiar voice said from the corner of the room.

He turned toward the source. It can’t be.




CHAPTER 6



“The Sly Swan returns,” Finster said under his breath. He felt Crawley’s eyes boring a hole in his back. Crawley didn’t faze him, but she did. He watched her glide from behind her soldiers, an amazing specimen of a woman with the dark robes of the high magus clinging to her modest curves. She was much younger than he, a platinum-haired lioness with ice-blue eyes. The loose sleeves of her robes draped over the arms of the chair when she sat. An easy smile formed on her lips. His knee began to bend toward the floor. What am I doing? He straightened. “Ingrid the Inverted. I thought you were gone… forever.”

“Is that any way to greet your former prodigy, Gray Cat?” Her icy stare danced with the flickering power of a coming storm. She rested her gentle hands on the arms of the throne. She wore eight rings, one on each finger, each made from a unique precious metal and stone. They all sparkled with secrets and power. “You seem so very, very surprised. And you look like, well”—she crinkled her nose—“something that crawled out of a pig pit.”

“You can thank your errand boy for that. He was quite merciless in his acquisition of me, but also very unrevealing as to the true nature of my kidnapping. I tried to dislodge it from his simple brain, but his stubborn nature failed to let me loose it from his crooked lips. Care to explain, Ingrid?” He pointed at his back. “Also, the jade beetle is quite… extreme.”

“A precaution, old mentor. Consider it mercy. You’ve fared much better than several other members of the order.”

“I’d be very interested to learn more about their demise and the purpose behind it. Perhaps we could talk over a drink.” He licked his lips. “Much like old times?”

“What makes you think I brought you here for conversation?”

“Please…” Finster gave the soldiers and Crawley the once-over. “The citadel is all but abandoned. You must be starved for real conversation. These men are capable of little more than fighting and farting. I’d hate to imagine an actual conversation. Unless you are keeping them to satisfy your neurotic passions.”

Ingrid waved a finger. “Be careful what you say to the Magus Supremeus, Finster. I’m not your protégé anymore, nor your friend.”

“No, of course not. Friends don’t treat friends like this—or threaten or kill them, for that matter.”

A female servant dressed in thin layers of silk appeared from behind the soldiers. She approached the throne with a tray loaded with a bottle of wine and a single goblet. Ingrid took the cup in hand. “I’ll be drinking alone today, as I often do.”

Eyeing the goblet, Finster licked his lips. Stifle your tongue, Finster. It’s the best way out of this. Seek her mercy. With a long shrug of his narrow shoulders, he said, “Please, Ingrid. Look at where you are. I played a part in this, didn’t I? Was I not good to you?”

Her eyes smoldered for just a moment. “You have become a sot, Finster. I’d heard such things, but I had trouble believing it. You, of all the magi, took the greatest care of yourself. You were impeccable. Now you are soft and scrawny, and the natural charm that danced the skirts off many ladies is gone.”

“Did I not tell you that magic takes a toll on you? Finally, I admit, it got the best of me.” He made a feeble and helpless smile. “I’m master of little more than the bottle now.”

“Is this true, Crawley?” She leaned back in her seat. “Was it a simple task to track down and capture this drunkard?”

“He posed as big a challenge as any. He made the tables, chairs, and stairwells dance,” Crawley said. “He’s got power—plenty of it.”

Had power,” Finster corrected. “Ingrid, why this cursed scarab of all things? Why me? I’m not even part of the order now. I’m just one that wants to be left on his own.” He held out the grubby palms of his hands. “I’m harmless.”

“I know better, Finster. I’m certain that you remember telling me that a time comes in every wizard’s life when he must make the choice. You told me you’d answer the call to good if pressed. Despite your own misgivings, you are still sworn to defend the order.”

“What order? It appears you destroyed it. And those words? Why, those were that of a mentor trying to impress a pretty girl. I don’t even recall it. Besides, you weren’t so naïve. You knew what was going on. Every wizard in the citadel wanted you.”

Her eyes smiled. Her crossed leg kicked.

Finster went on. “Did I not save you—an innocent girl—from a life in the brothels? That’s why I took you from the place that you were born in. You had wisdom. A talent. I found it.”

“Yes, you, oh so noble, found me in a brothel.” She sipped her red wine. “It makes me angry.”

“You’ve always been angry. That was your weakness. I thought you might have cooled off by now. As for the brothel, that was a mere coincidence. I was weak and had needs. I think it was destiny.”

“Yet you sent me away.”

“What are you talking about?”

“The missions. Those boorish trips between where the sun rises and falls, to help, grow, and learn. All it did was incite me!”

He wagged his finger at her. “You and I parted ways long before that happened, Ingrid the Unpleasant. I, on the other hand, moved on to face my own failures. Don’t throw your problems on me. Look where you are now.” He gazed at the splendor of the throne room. “You are the Magus Supremeus, and you complain?”

Her eyes narrowed.

Finster’s finger popped out of joint. “Gah!” He dropped on his knees. Eyes watering, he said, “Why did you do that? Can’t you see I’m impaired enough? Spare me a finger, please!”

Ingrid stood. “Don’t talk to me like I’m your adept. I’m the Magus Supremeus.”

“No, you are Ingrid the Inept!” he said, huddled over his finger. “Tell me, how did you steal this throne?” He leered at her sensuous legs. “Though I’m pretty sure I could guess.”

In a gloating fashion, Ingrid held up her fingers. “These trinkets that you know so well, I earned in the battle of orders. In my fight to attain the tenth order, I bested many. The rings, among other things, are trophies. You’ve had your share. You boasted to me about that. I reached the level of the ninth order. My skills garnered the attention of Zuulan the Arcane. He was so fond of me that we married.”

Finster rolled his eyes. Zuulan, you fool. Why would you marry a fellow magus? And Ingrid of all people. She was too talented and dangerous. She brought nothing but chaos to the order. Guilt stirred in his belly. Finster had been the one to discover Ingrid. He’d had high hopes, but she had a dark fire that couldn’t be quenched.

“You are partially right, Finster.” She crossed her legs. Running her fingers from her bare thighs to her knee, she said, “I used my ways on old Zuulan. As it turns out, the only thing he loved more than magic was flesh.”

I could have told you that. Oh, his birthday celebrations. They made brothels look like cathedrals.

She continued. “It was easy to pull the wool over Zuulan’s hungry eyes. I liked him and respected him. I kept him distracted with many things. At the same time, in the background, I began my own secret war on the members of the order. With the help of Crawley, I killed them all.” She toyed with the rings on her fingers. “One by one.” She touched one of the masked soldiers. The citadel guardian turned to water and spilled over the floor. She touched another man. The guardian’s skin shriveled up into a husk. He hit the floor and collapsed to dust.

Finster saw the whites of the rest of the guardians’ eyes behind the masks. Many Adam’s apples rolled. Crawley’s own finger moved over the pommel of his sword.

Invisible spiders crawled up Finster’s spine. This is bad. Oh, so bad.




CHAPTER 7



“Impressive,” Finster said, wiping his sweating palms on his robes. He popped his finger back into joint with a grunt. He’d seen the power of the Magus Supremeus before, but this display was different. Ingrid took the lives of the guardians as nonchalantly as a child stomping a worm underfoot. The guardians of the citadel were devotees of the order, the high magus’s personal soldiers. They pledged their lives in the order’s defense, but they weren’t livestock. Warriors—so brainless in their bravery. Always trying to prove something. Glorified farmers. Eventually, they have it coming. “So I suppose you murdered Zuulan, then. I seem to recall rumors of Ingrid the Assassin.”

“No.” Ingrid drank from her goblet. She took a deep breath, expanding her enticing chest. Her eyes drifted for a moment. “I didn’t need to murder him. Instead, I challenged him before he discovered what I was doing. You should have seen the shock in his face. His jowls hung to the floor. The betrayal. Hah, it weakened him. I think he held back. Actually, I was counting on that. You see, I’d learned enough to advance to the tenth order. But I’d learned something else he didn’t know—how to use the power of all these rings as one. It gave me the edge I needed.”

Finster’s eyes watched the treasury on her fingers with hungry fascination.

“Yes, Finster, it is exhilarating. The amplification of power I hold in my hands, I must say, is intoxicating.”

“All power is, and only a few can handle it.”

She gently shook her head. “Poor Zuulan—he didn’t have the fight in him. Pitiful. Whimpering, his eyes sank back into his head right before his bones turned to water. He was nothing more than a sack of sand made from flesh. I cremated him, literally. No sense in having a coffin funeral for a bag of flesh.”

Finster held her eyes. “Now that you have the high seat, what do you intend to do with it?”

“The only thing that must be done: take over the kingdom. I grew so tired of all the folly I saw when I walked the world on the missions.” She fought off a sneer. “These kings and queens are fools. The people would be better off without them. I’d be better off without them. I’ll have vengeance on all of them.”

“What would life be without vengeance? Ah, yes—peaceful.” Sniffing, he rubbed his nose. “The order is about protecting the kingdoms, not running them. The magi are guides, the higher minds of reason. We offer advice and direction.”

Ingrid’s voice rose. “The magi have been pawns! They are the dirty fighters behind these endless wars and skirmishes. You know that as well as anyone, Secret Slayer.”

“You are mad, Ingrid. The people like their kings and queens. So be it! You might take Mendes, but you’ll never rule.”

“Oh, but I will. You see, the King of Mendes, Rolem the Grand, is due another suitable queen as her ladyship recently died.”

“Let me guess—her heart gave out.”

“Exploded actually.”

“I see… and you’ve sunk your claws into him. Relationships between the order and the royal lines are forbidden.”

“King Rolem is an innovator. Open-minded. He believes in change.”

Oh, not this again. Change my arse! It’s just another word for control. “And pray tell, what is my role in all of this?”

“You don’t have a role, Finster.” She stepped away from the throne, came down the steps, and faced him. “I certainly have a fondness for the once-handsome magus that saved this young girl from living among the sordid people in the taverns, but I only need one thing from you.”

“Obviously, it’s not my advice.”

“No, something more useful.” Her lips brushed against his ear. “I want you to tell me the location of the stone.”

“What stone?”

“The stone. Don’t play games with me, Finster. I want it. I’ll have it.”

“Ingrid, the stone is a myth. At least I’m convinced of that. I merely told you about it to impress you.”

“I know better, Guardian of the Mystic Forge.”

“Are you daffy?” He started to tremble. “I’m a drunk. Always have been. I abandoned those dreams and delusions.” From his knees, he begged her. “Please, let me be your servant. A simple servant. I’ll do it for wine. I’ll sleep in the stables. Ingrid, please!”

Teeth clenched, she hauled back to smack him.

Finster flinched.

“All I have to do is touch you, Finster!” She stuck her fist in his face. “You would be at an end. It’s sickening what you’ve become. You were destined to be a tenth. A tenth! Maybe the high magus. But I promise you this: if you know the whereabouts of the stone, I will extract it from you. I know there is still a man in there. A man with secrets. I will have them!” She marched toward the throne. On her way, she touched another guardian. The man’s neck snapped. “Crawley, you know where to take him.”

“Please, Ingrid! Take this beetle from my back! Please!”

“Why, Finster, I thought you’d relish being attached to the mystic pet that you created. Aren’t you enjoying my precious gift? The jade beetle has been a very effective tool in my conquests.”

“Ingrid, please, I beg you. Let’s have a drink. The trip has been long. Perhaps some concoctions will revive my addled mind. I’ll tell you what I can remember.”

Crawley grabbed hold of him by the nape of the neck.

Finster clawed the air. He showed Ingrid a gaping smile. “I’ll be a wonderful servant! I learned to make excellent soups.”

She shooed them away.

Crawley popped him in the back of the head. Finster’s knees buckled. He climbed back to his feet with the help of Crawley, begging for mercy. Crawley shoved him out the door and down the steps. He led Finster on a long walk through the citadel’s catacomb-like halls. They took steps that wound down into the subterranean level. The stones were slimy under Finster’s feet. It stank and left a rancid taste in his mouth. A wet chill hung in the air. He buried his nose in his sleeve.

Two sentries opened the door to the main dungeon, a place Finster had been to several times before. The circumstances had been far more favorable then. They stopped in front of a cell.

Crawley shoved Finster’s face between the metal bars of a cell. Inside, a brute of a man the likes of which Finster had never seen lay balled up and half naked. He didn’t stir.

“A relative of yours, Crawley?”

“No… your cellmate.”





CHAPTER 8



“Is this really necessary?” Finster was inside the cell, sitting with his back against the wall. With help from the guards, Crawley shackled Finster’s ankle to the barbarian’s ankle with a fair length of chain. “I’m inside a cell. I’m not some pickpocket that can break out. Please, Crawley. I deserve better than this. You know I don’t get along with inbreeds, aside from yourself of course.”

Crawley squatted down—eye to eye with Finster. “Funny, but I know better. Never trust a wizard. Besides, maybe your cozy new relationship will jar your memory. He’s one of those northern barbarians. The hairless tribe. Odd for a northerner. Their skins are so thick that their bare feet don’t freeze in the snow. They call them the Blue Toes. Heh-heh. They like to snuggle with each other on cold, damp nights.” He tested the chain and stood up. “When he wakes up, there’s no telling what he might do with the likes of you. But if he kills you, oh well. Nothing lost, nothing gained.”

Finster eyeballed the brute form huddled on the floor like a passed-out drunkard. The savage knots of muscle in his back rippled with every breath. The barbarian was skinned up and scarred from head to toe. He looked like he’d run naked through a patch of heavy black thorns a dozen times. The only thing covering the bestial man up was a pair of goatskin trousers.

Crawley stepped outside of the cell and closed the door. “I wouldn’t resist if he wants to curl up with you. You might be a warm little pig to him. A pet.” He held his hands up. “But don’t agitate him. We came across him by accident. He took offense to us crossing a stream where he was fishing. He killed five of my best men before their steel could snake out of their skins. Huh.” He gave the barbarian a look of admiration. “Those barbarians are outstanding woodsmen. They just aren’t so wise in the ways of warcraft.”

“I’m surprised, Crawley. The barbarians are deft at evading capture. How ever did a man of your common education pull off such a feat?”

“Just so happened we had a really big net with us that day. And he’s a young one, alone. We cornered him and took him down like a wild gazelle. I’ve never missed a mark.”

“So why not kill him?”

Leaning his shoulder on the metal bars, Crawley said, “As it turns out, Ingrid took an interest. Given the marvelous constitution of these wild men, she thought we could breed a fantastic army of soldiers.” Crawley let out his wicked chuckle. “A silly idea. An army of civilized barbarians wouldn’t be very frightening, would it?”

“You’re asking me? You’re their descendant. That strong protruding jawline is a dead giveaway.”

“Whenever you’re ready to talk about that artifact, Finster, just give the guards a shout. In the meantime, enjoy your new tavern.” Crawley and the guards departed. Their footsteps faded down the halls.

Finster raised his arms over his head, stretching his burning back. For the most part, he’d led a charmed life of mystic gifts and intelligence. Other than facing the wizard’s trials, he never allowed himself to be in a situation that made him uncomfortable. He liked comfort. That had always been a benefit of the order. The intelligent were drawn to it. Now, for the first time, he was truly destitute.

He covered his nose and shuddered. The stink alone should kill me. His frail chest heaved in and out. His eyes drifted to the barbarian. Please don’t wake up. Ever. He pulled his knees to his chest. The length of chain scraped over the stone floor. The barbarian stirred. Easy, Finster. Easy.


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