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Blood of the Redd Guard - Chapters 1 - 14

Text Copyright © 2015 Dan Decker

Cover Image © Can Stock Photo Inc./prometeus

All rights reserved

Published by Xander Revolutions LC

This 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.

For my wife, son, and family.

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Contents

Contents

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

Read the Rest of the Novel

Author’s Note

About the Author

Chapter 1

1,169 Years Since the Severing

Adar Rahid squinted through the early evening light as the wind blew dust into his face that had been kicked up by his horse. He stared at the remains of the ship while a hundred questions ran through his mind. The metal behemoth was rust covered and half buried in the ground. It was too large to move and too large to ignore.

How did they get those things up in the air? It wasn’t his first time seeing the ship and it wouldn’t be the last time unanswerable questions assailed him.

A scream broke his concentration and he looked at the road ahead and was surprised to see a caravan of merchants. He’d been so engrossed in studying the ship that he’d forgotten to pay attention to the road. Sweat dripped into his eyes while he tried to make out the commotion and he blinked through the stinging sensation.

A grunt from behind caught his attention as another rider came to a stop beside him.

“A robbery in progress?” Maual asked. There was a hint of a challenge in the older man’s tone that Adar had become accustomed to in the last couple of weeks. Adar still wasn’t certain if this was on purpose, or if it was just how the man was. That, combined with the way Maual kept his graying hair tied back in a ponytail, and the woman’s silver ruby necklace he wore about his neck, made him a bit of a puzzle. He wasn’t the only oddity in the army of men Adar had been commissioned to lead, but he was among the most intriguing.

There was a story about the necklace, Adar was certain, but he hadn’t yet tried to learn it. The lengthy hair would have been a bigger problem if Maual were a new draftee just filling his term, but he had taken the oaths and it had been customary to give the oath takers a bit more leeway.

“Probably,” Adar said. When Maual nodded in agreement, Adar picked up a hint of something that he couldn’t place. Had Maual been testing his read of the situation?

Pushing his concerns about the man away, Adar turned his attention back to the scene ahead where there was a flurry of activity inside a grove of trees that he couldn’t quite make out. Several wagons were pulled off the road and one had tipped over. He focused on the overturned wagon, trying to determine the cause. The horse team stood nearby in the brush. Had it been run off the road? Broken a wheel?

He frowned when what sounded like screaming and yelling made it to his ears. In between the trees he could make out flashes of running men. It was a bit closer to Rarbon than the other reported attacks had been. The thieves were becoming far more brazen. Even though the Rarbon city walls were still more than a couple of miles away, they loomed high enough in the dusky skyline that it was a formidable sight. That alone should have struck fear in the heart of anybody daring to make the roads a dangerous place.

It wasn’t too long ago when the thought of highway robbery this close to Rarbon would have been unthinkable, but times had changed. The Radim armies weren’t as respected as they once had been.

A sudden piercing scream removed any remaining doubt from his mind. He made a swirling motion with two fingers in the air that the men closest to him mimicked so that the others would see. With that sign, he communicated to his men that the first and second squads would go ahead while the third would follow behind after a few minutes. Normally, he would have sent a squad around the side to come from the other direction but this close to the wall there wasn’t a need. Whoever was doing this would know that the guards at the gate would never let them through with a Radim patrol hot on their tail.

It had been a long several days of travel and even though Adar had been moving his men fast to ensure their arrival at Rarbon before evening, they looked ready and alert. Tomorrow was the first day that the Rarbon Council would meet since Adar had made his claim to become Ghar. The first task could be assigned at that time. There was also the matter of the ball as well. Adar hated social gatherings, but he didn’t have many opportunities for socializing and it would be a good thing for him to make an appearance at his father’s party. Perhaps he might even hear a rumor about what the Council would have him do.

It galled him to be beholden to the Council for the challenges he would have to face to assert his birthright. Growling to himself, he tried to push the thought away but was unable to do so.

While it was unlikely that the assignment would be made the next day, he didn’t want to waste a moment’s time in fulfilling it. Rarbon had been too long without a Ghar and he was determined to be the first Rahid set apart as Ghar in living memory.

The world was about to change—Adar could feel it coming every time he looked up into the sky—and he would need to be Ghar if they were going to have half a chance. If Semal was to be believed, the time of the Hunwei’s foretold return was at hand and they weren’t prepared. The best shot they had at defeating their enemy was getting into the Rarbon Portal, which was something he could do once he was made Ghar.

“Bandits or more fake Radim, General?” asked a low voice from beside him on the left.

Adar looked over as Tere Heul rode up on his black and white horse; he was the default leader of the first squad. While Tere was shorter than Adar, he was still of about average height. The muscular man had been at Adar’s side since they’d both enlisted in the Radim at age fifteen. The dirty blonde hair that had framed his face as a boy was now kept short and wasn’t much longer than the few days growth of stubble on his face. Tere’s dull green uniform was older but still managed to look as crisp as the new one that Adar had donned before setting out on the patrol. The patch with a red horned toad on Tere’s shoulder that signified Napael Army was a match for the red cord he had wrapped around the hilt of his Radim sword that peeked over his shoulder.

In answer to Tere’s question, Adar shook his head while bringing up his hand forming a fist. Adar hadn’t witnessed the Radim imposters first hand but he didn’t doubt that the stories were true. He clenched his hand tighter at the thought of the deception. In order to restore the Radim to the glory of old, his first order of business would be to eradicate these men claiming to be Radim. No one doing such damage could be allowed to remain unchecked.

These attacks had been going on for the last month, starting right after Adar had been made General. The first one had been a grisly affair, with a merchant family of six dead, their goods pilfered and their wagons burned. Since that time, there had been half a dozen more. While some of the marauders had clashed with the Radim, none of the bands had been eradicated though the altercations had left men dead on either side. The captured bandits hadn’t survived for longer than a day in Rarbon. So far there had been three captives and each had died before they could be brought before the Rarbon Council. The first had been found poisoned in his cell, the second had died from a wound he’d taken during his capture, and the third had taken an arrow through the neck as he was being transported before the Council.

The fact that the attacks coincided with Adar’s assent and that the captives were ending up dead made him suspicious that this was somehow related to his commission.

He frowned as he watched his men prepare to attack the bandits. His original plan had been to return tomorrow, but he’d had an uneasy feeling for the last couple of weeks that there was a spy close to him. So he’d decided to return today, curious to see if anything interesting would turn up. It was an added bonus that he was back in time for the ball tonight and would be on hand if the Council reached a decision. Perhaps the spy would be surprised to see Adar back so soon and make a mistake that would give him away. 

If the attack they were about to interfere with was by the same men pretending to be Radim, this would be the second attack this week. The first group of bandits had escaped unscathed, even though General Smeth of Korew army had sent her best after them.

That wouldn’t be the case today, even if Adar and his men had to spend the next week chasing after them. Tere brought his hand forward to a fist as he kicked his horse into a gallop. The other men in the first and second squads formed a column of four abreast behind Tere as they bore down on the grove of trees.

The men from the remaining groups spread out. After a moment’s hesitation, Adar spoke to Colonel Lucas Brandesutter who waited several feet away. The tall lanky balding man didn’t speak much. He was the sort that preferred his actions to do the talking for him. Adar wondered if the Redd Guard had ever tried to recruit him. He’d fit into their ranks perfectly. The Redd Guard were known for their silence and the sense of intrigue they went to great lengths to cultivate. In many ways, Lucas reminded him of the aloof organization and Adar was afraid that the man would be recruited while Adar wasn’t watching.

“I’m going ahead with the others,” Adar said to Lucas, “if they make a break for it, capture as many as you can but kill them rather than let them escape.” Lucas raised an eyebrow at the last part of the command but didn’t open his mouth as he nodded.

Adar kicked his stallion—Slasher—into a gallop. Like Tere’s animal, Slasher was black covered in white spots. Several of the spots along Slasher’s side had reminded Adar of long crooked daggers when he’d chosen the name.

Slasher quickly covered the distance and closed the gap between Adar and the men he’d sent ahead. As he neared the grove of trees he had a better view of where the merchant’s wagons had left the road, tossing their contents when they’d done so.

There were several bodies in the grass to the side that hadn’t been visible before, a man and a woman. By the look of their dress they were more likely to be merchants than thieves. Gripping Slasher’s reins, he kicked the horse ahead and didn’t look down as he passed the bodies.

In a short amount of time Adar’s men had managed to take control of the scene. Several of the thieves were trying to put up a fight, but Adar could tell that they weren’t used to dealing with people that fought back.

Maual was fighting a tall broad shouldered man that had almost a foot on him. Adar gritted his teeth when he noticed that the big man was wearing a Radim uniform. He’d already known that the rumors were true, but it was one thing to have heard about it and quite another to witness it firsthand. Did these men know that the penalty for this crime was death? Adar doubted they did. That, combined with the bodies they’d left on the road would leave Adar with few options. He hoped that others would learn from the example he’d make of these men.

The big man dueling with Maual had a shaved head and even from this distance, Adar could make out an earring that looked like a fish hook that was skewering a small dead bird. The hook went in at the tail feathers and out the mouth. The entire piece looked to be made from copper. He’d seen it’s like before in a coastal city that he couldn’t remember the name of. If his memory was correct it was a symbol of a gang known for its fondness of initiation rituals that left two out of three dead. He spent several seconds, trying to remember their name, but it wouldn’t come to him.

Judging by the big guy’s unique fighting style, Adar figured he’d stolen the earring. Whoever he was, he wasn’t a Radim and he probably didn’t belong to the coastal gang. If Rarbon had been closer to the coast the man would have been too afraid to wear the earring.

Anybody who had ever been to Rarbon would have known that the Radim weren’t allowed jewelry, not even the female soldiers were allowed such things. At that moment, Maual’s necklace glinted in a ray of sunlight that made its way through the trees. Well, nobody that hadn’t taken the oaths.

Maual looked like he had the situation in hand, so Adar left him to it and instead focused on several merchants that were beginning to get their bearings. Two men and one woman. One of the men looked like a guard and he was bleeding from the side of his head. The others looked like the merchant and his wife. The merchant was pudgy and his wife was more than a head shorter than him. Both were tan and their black hair looked as though the sun had bleached it on top. Their wagon had tipped over and the contents were spilled out into the long patchy grass. Adar could make out small red peppers among the produce and stifled a groan. The traders were from Karchack. Even if his men had arrived in time to prevent the attack, this would still have been a delicate situation.

As it was, it looked like they’d arrived on the tail end of the bandit’s efforts. The contents of the other wagon had been tossed to the ground where more produce and bolts of cloth littered the sparse grass. Adar doubted the thieves had been happy when they discovered they’d hijacked a bunch of fabric, peppers, potatoes and cabbages.

Tere was already off his horse and had several of the bandits standing to one side while the other men were continuing to secure the scene. Some of the thieves were lying face down with arrows sticking out their backs but, most were alive. 

“Attacked by Radim and then saved by Radim,” said the short merchant’s wife. Her husband and their guard were examining the overturned wagon to see if they could right it. She was crouched down doing her best to gather up the peppers. Now that he was closer he could make out slashes of gray in her black hair, but she still had a youthful appearance. As a younger woman, she would have turned heads. Even now she still did, Adar noticed that several of his men were glancing her way a bit too often. She looked up at Adar. “Your hospitality leaves much to be desired.”

It was strange that neither she nor her husband were grieving over their dead traveling companions, perhaps they were still stunned by what had happened. If she was looking for an apology, she’d been saved by the wrong man. Adar wasn’t about to apologize for something done by others.

“Your assailants stole our uniforms,” Adar said while getting off Slasher, doing his best to keep the heat out of his voice. Upon a moment’s reflection, he decided that his tone had sounded too much like a sneer. It wasn’t her fault that she’d been attacked, but he suspected she’d been to Rarbon enough to know these men weren’t soldiers. He turned to his nearest men, Petor and Regory. “Get that wagon up and help them with their wares.”

The woman muttered a thank you that was barely audible and the merchant nodded his head as Adar walked over to Tere, leaving Slasher to graze on the dry grass.

A woman shrieked, drawing Adar’s attention. The merchant’s wife was pointing down the road. Her husband encircled her in his arms as she buried her head into his chest. Adar’s lips became taut as her cry pierced him.

By that time, Maual had managed to disarm the big fellow. The others had been subdued as well and brought to stand before Tere.

Adar walked up to the big man and pointed at the spot where the patch would have been signifying his army.

“What army?” When the man didn’t respond, Adar unsheathed his sword and brought it to the neck of the man. “The penalty for impersonating a Radim is death.”

“Korew.” It came out as grunt; the man was still trying to catch his breath.

A round of grim laughter broke out among Adar’s men, but Adar didn’t smile. The man had sealed his own death sentence. “The only people allowed into Korew army wear dresses off duty.”

The man panicked, his eyes growing wide. If he didn’t know enough about the Radim to know which armies enlisted women, there was no need to carry on the interview to determine his guilt. Adar did want to know more about who was behind all this, but that could wait until he’d dealt with the situation.

“Should we bind them?” Tere asked. The normal custom would have been to bring these men before the Rarbon Council where they would be put on trial.

Adar hesitated and surveyed the ragged bunch of men. There had been eleven total, three of whom lay dead on the ground. Of the other eight, one was wounded and would die if he didn’t receive medical attention soon. If he took these men back to Rarbon, they would be under the Council’s jurisdiction and it would be a lengthy process of trials before they were hung. The outcome was certain with this many witnesses.

But, during that time, the problem would continue and Adar and the other generals would have to fight off these imposters. On top of everything else, the Council had been on the cusp of finishing a treaty negotiation with Karchack, it wouldn’t do if that was delayed because of what these merchants had been through today.

Technically speaking, this matter was his jurisdiction even though it was against custom for him to handle something like this so close to Rarbon.

The law was in line with what he wanted to do.

Looking back at the merchants, Adar shook his head. “Bring some rope. We’ll hang them here, all except that one.” He pointed at the man with the earring who’d claimed Korew army. “Once we’ve had a chance to talk with him, we’ll turn him over to the Council. Search him for poison or any other weapons, see that he has an armed escort of ten men at all times. When we get back to Rarbon, anytime he is transferred, he better be covered in armor from head to toe, and twenty men go before him to clear the rooftops. This one is going to make it before the Council alive.”

There were murmurs among Adar’s men and panicked sounds from the captives. Tere looked surprised and stepped closer, lowering his voice. “Are you sure this is a good idea?”

Before Adar could respond, Lucas rode up with a prisoner laid across the horse before him. The rest of Adar’s men were behind him.

“Good work,” Adar said to Lucas as the man nodded while handing off his captive to several soldiers.

Tere took Adar by the arm and pulled him to the side. “This just isn’t done, especially this close to Rarbon.”

“It’s within my authority. I don’t like the thought of it any better than you, but there needs to be swift retribution for those that steal Radim uniforms and harass merchants.”

“There is more to it than that.” Tere gave Adar a knowing look.

Melyah. Adar thought. The man knew him too well. Adar had never spoken of his distrust for the Council, but Tere had picked up on it still the same. It also wasn’t common knowledge that there was a fracture between Adar and his father Abel, but somehow Tere had managed to ferret that out as well.

But this wasn’t about Adar thumbing his nose at the Council or trying to find a way to mend fences with his father, there was far more at stake than that. It was time that the Radim began to act in a fashion that demanded respect.

He knew full well that this would mean that the Council would give him as challenging of a task as the law would allow, but that was fine by him. When he was made Ghar he didn’t want it to be said that he’d walked through the trials with ease. No, he wanted people to know that he’d earned the right.

Adar grunted. “Two birds with a stone. Maybe three if I can manage it.” Maual approached carrying a rope and was tying the noose as he walked.

“Whatever trial the Council was going to give to you, when they learn about this you can expect them to scrap it and come back with something impossible.”

“I expect nothing less.”

Tere spat. “And what about me? I always end up bailing you out.”

Despite the grim situation and what they were about to do, Adar cracked a grin. “I’m more than sure you’re up for the job. Besides I take issue with your use of the word always. It’s been less than a handful of times.”

“More than it should have been to be sure. If you’d be patient a little more often, you wouldn’t need me.”

Stingeel! Adar thought, that’s the name of the gang. He studied the man with the Stingeel earring who had a distant look on his face that contrasted with those of the others who knew their deaths were imminent. 

Steeling himself for what lay ahead, Adar didn’t respond to Tere as he took the rope from Maual. He wouldn’t let it be said of him that he was afraid to get his hands dirty. As distasteful as the task that lay before him was, he refused to make others do something that he wasn’t willing to do.

Chapter 2

It was almost sunset by the time they approached Rarbon and the burst of energy Adar had experienced right before they had dealt with the bandits had long since been spent.

His head hurt and he was covered with the remains of sweat from the heat and actions of the day. If he sniffed right, he could smell his own body odor. Perhaps a hot bath would be what he needed to take his mind off things. That was still a ways out though; there was much he needed to get done tonight. A question had struck him earlier; originally, he’d dismissed the timing of the attack as coincidence, but the thought kept coming back.

Why had the attack on the merchants happened in Napael territory today when he was out of town?

His decision to go on patrol had been made on the spur of the moment several days ago in the middle of the night. As he’d left, he’d given specific orders to anybody that had known about it that this trip was supposed to be kept confidential.

If somebody within Rarbon was behind the attacks, the best time to do something like this in the Napael territory was when he was gone.

“Bloody business, that,” Tere said, breaking into his thoughts. Tere was riding to the left of Adar and they were bringing up the rear of the patrol. “You gonna to tell the Council?”

“I’ll send a report when I turn him over.” Adar motioned to their captive who walked near the front of the group. His hands were bound and a noose was tied around his neck; the other end was held by Lucas.

After the first execution, Adar hadn’t said a word to the man, but he’d given him a look that had made the man swallow. Hopefully, the man was thinking that those who’d been executed were the lucky ones. After all the executions had been carried out, Adar had the man stripped and searched to ensure that he didn’t have any hidden weapons or vials of poison. Adar didn’t want the man committing suicide before he had a chance to interrogate him.

The prisoner’s head was bowed, he’d stumbled several times, and tears had streaked his face earlier; for the deaths of his friends or his own circumstances, Adar hadn’t been able to tell. It wouldn’t be long before Adar would pry out all the information they could before handing him over to the Rarbon Council guards. But first Adar had to get the man into the right state of mind. He had found that sleep and food deprivation along with keeping a man on his feet all night did wonders for loosening lips.

“You need to be careful,” Tere said. “You’re going to get a reputation of disregarding custom that will be hard to change. We need the council to work with you and you’re pushing them away. I don’t know the last time a general carried out his own orders, particularly executions, but they’re going to think you’re losing it.”

After leading the first several, Adar had handed the task off to other men. He didn’t regret the choice, no matter what Tere said, he would not give an order that he wasn’t willing to do himself. “Some will no doubt see it that way, but that won’t be everybody. These men know the truth.”

“It won’t be enough that the men support you. You won’t get anywhere without the Council.”

Adar sighed, there was truth in what Tere said, but it seemed such a small thing compared to the events of the day. How could the political wrangling of the Council even compare to this?

Some of the condemned had cried out, speaking of their wives and children or lovers or what could have been. One thin man with a frown broken by missing teeth had whimpered for his mother.

Others had maintained their composure right up until the end. The final man had spat on Maual as he hung the noose around the man’s neck. While Adar might have expected Maual to retaliate for the spittle, he had instead wiped it off with the back of his hand and continued the task without anger, treating the man with respect and dignity.

Afterward, when Adar’s eyes had made contact with Maual’s, they hadn’t spoken but had exchanged silent nods. The challenging look that Maual had so often worn wasn’t there and Adar was left to wonder whether something had changed or if the event had left Maual tired as well.

After the execution of all but the man with the Stingeel earring, Adar had left several soldiers behind to bury the bodies and erect a post describing the crimes and punishment of the dead. Before each man had died, they’d taken down his name if he’d been willing to give it, which would also be carved into the post.

Adar repressed a shudder when he thought of the man that he had hung first. After sliding the noose onto the man’s neck, Adar had asked him if he had any last words. The man had remained silent, his eyes never betraying a hint of guilt or remorse. He’d rarely encountered such a hardened criminal.

“I appreciate the reminder,” Adar said at length. “You are correct, this might bother some of the Council. I’ll think it over, but I don’t intend to change my plans.” The wind rustled through the forest and it felt good against his face. The twin light of the moons lit the walls of Rarbon and cast the pine trees on either side of the road in shadow.

A sense of loss had filled Adar during the execution. In addition to the lost lives of the executed men, there were also the innocent that would be affected by the justice he’d handed out. Surely some of those men had families who had fallen on hard times; they had been doing what they thought they needed to do to survive.

Even so, Adar couldn’t tolerate it. And while it was important that there be a warning for any that would murder or claim to be a Radim in Adar’s territory again, he still couldn’t help but feel regret for those lives that had ended today.

Tere shook his head and lowered his voice. “I know that you want to change things. Melyah! I even agree with you on the need. Anybody can see the nine Radim armies are becoming complacent, but executions this close to Rarbon? You’re not just playing with fire; you’re dancing over a pit of molten rock with nothing between you and the lava but a bit of rope that’s already burning from both ends. As it was, you were lucky to get your commission as General with your own father working against you. Can’t you be more careful?”

“Do we have the time for care?” Adar asked, his voice quiet but his tone sharp. “Semal has been telling us for three years that the Hunwei should be here within eight. Need I remind you that we don’t have ships, metalmen, or any of the weapons of our fathers? What chance will we have at winning a war that we almost lost once, when our weapons aren’t even half as good as those of our fathers? At a time when the Radim armies have lost their edge and need to be sharpened? No, we must be bold. It is time to do all we can to get everybody ready.”

“They might strip you of your rank. What will you do then?” 

Adar didn’t answer. That was a real possibility, but there had to be some on the Council that recognized he was trying to instill a change in the way the Radim armies operated. He hoped that they would welcome the progress.

Up ahead, he could just make out the firebreak. It was now one of the cleanest stretches of ground maintained by any of the nine Radim armies. That had been the first thing he’d done upon his promotion to General. Before he and his men had done the work, there had been saplings that were more than a decade old in some places. There wasn’t a blade of grass growing anywhere now on the several hundred foot expanse between the wall and the tree line.

When Adar had given the order and required several thousand of his Radim soldiers from Napael army to help, there had been no small amount of grumbling among his assigned subordinates. Rather than call out the murmurs and complaints, Adar had surrounded himself with Tere and several others and they’d begun to work. He’d never been more grateful for Tere who had walked among his men pointing out that Adar was working with them.

Tere was correct, carrying out their own orders wasn’t something Radim generals did, but it was time that changed.

“I agree that your efforts are helping you to bond with the men. It just shouldn’t come at the expense of relationships with the Council.”

“Point taken.” Over the course of the last several weeks, Adar had made time to train the new recruits and practice with the veterans. It wasn’t enough for them to have heard how hard he worked, he wanted as many as possible to witness it firsthand. Granted, Napael army was over twenty thousand strong, with more than half at the outposts, so the number of individuals he could interact with in person was limited. “I’ll give what you said some thought. Perhaps I can tone down my methods, at least until I see how the Council responds to what I’ve done so far.”

“That won’t take long.” Tere sighed. “You can bet they’ll hear about today long before you turn over the prisoner.”

Adar nodded as they left the woods and walked out into the firebreak; it still smelled of burned wood, leaves, and grass. The stench brought a smile to Adar’s face. At the end of that day, the grumbling had disappeared and since that time he’d even heard his men bragging to others that their firebreak was the cleanest of the city. Not only had the discontent about his promotion among those of Napael Army dissipated, other generals had followed suit. Jakop Marel, the General of Arelo Army, had ordered his men to do the same thing.

Arelo’s firebreak hadn’t been as overgrown an Napael’s had been, in fact, it had been one of the better maintained, but now, just like Napael’s, almost every leaf or blade of green had been removed or burned to ash. Marel hadn’t worked in the field as Adar had, but the man had held his position for over thirty years and had long since cemented his authority with his men.

The fact that one of the oldest Radim generals had not wanted to be outdone had been a victory for Adar; a small one, but a triumph nonetheless. It was only the beginning of the influence Adar intended to have before this was all over and done with, but it was a start.

Adar growled at Tere. “How will the sword get sharpened if there isn’t a stone to draw it against? How will the armies reclaim their power if there isn’t one to lead the way? Even if the Council does their worst, I haven’t given them grounds to dismiss me. Not yet anyway.”

“Your arrogance is the biggest threat to our cause. And they’ve done more to other generals for less.”

“But never to a Rahid. I have a unique opportunity others don’t have. I won’t squander it.” Adar nodded ahead to the walls. “Our biggest threat—aside from a Hunwei invasion—comes from within. Too many are complacent, they need to be awoken.” What Tere considered arrogance, Adar thought of as ignoring tact because of time constraints. “Not to mention those that work against us.”

Adar refrained from glancing ahead to the captive and wondered what stories he would hear once they got the man to talk. Was it possible one of the other Radim generals was behind the attack? How else could Adar explain the Radim uniforms that the bandits had been wearing?

He reined his horse to a halt and motioned for Tere to do the same. He spoke once the others were out of earshot. “The timing of today’s attack is not a coincidence.”

Tere nodded. “The thought has crossed my mind too. There may be something to your theory about Gardison.”

“You think the two are connected.” Much as Adar had appreciated the commission, he had wondered if someone had something to do with the untimely demise of Adar’s predecessor, General Gardison.

The general had been found dead at breakfast while eating in his barrack rooms. There had been an investigation by the city guard who had determined his death had been natural.

As time had gone on and Adar had settled into his new role, he had wondered about Gardison’s death because he’d learned that Gardison had been a fanatic about taking care of himself and keeping in shape. Gardison had participated with the new recruits in some of the more grueling aspects of their training. He had frequently lead the morning and evening runs that went up the Inner Wall steps, across the connecting wall, and came down the Outer Wall steps. Many new recruits had emptied their stomachs on the way up while trying to keep pace with Gardison. Why would a man in that kind of shape keel over and die while eating a bowl of oats and berries? It didn’t make sense.

“I don’t buy your theory that it’s General Morgol,” Tere said. “I doubt it’s any of the generals. My money would be on one of the Council.”

Adar’s name had been considered by the Rarbon Council along with that of Molach Morgol, General Helam Morgol’s son.

There had been contention among the council about Adar’s appointment and it had come down to one vote at the end. Before the announcement, Adar had noticed a peculiar look on Molach’s face; he had looked as though he had been reviewing the speech he’d been expecting to give. Even Abel, who had devoted much of his time behind doors to campaigning against Adar, had seemed assured that Molach would be the council’s pick.

The shock on the faces of those in the room when Adar’s name had been announced was nothing compared to that of Helam. During the announcement, Adar’s eyes had sought out Helam to gauge his reaction, and he hadn’t taken it well. His face had been made of stone, but his eyes had been heated enough to burn somebody. After the meeting was over, he’d stormed out of the Rarbon council meeting hall without talking to anybody. Most hadn’t noticed him because he’d been standing near the back.

“I admit I’m prone to think of Helam.” Adar’s chest itched and he reached for it, stopping his hand just before it got there. It was a habit that he was trying to break. The wound was five years old and should have stopped itching long ago, but it continued to bother him. It brought with it the pride he’d felt for his victory when he’d beat Helam in the tournament and the betrayal that haunted him from later that night when Helam had caught Adar drunk and taken advantage of the moment to give him the scar. The wound had become infected and he’d almost died. “But don’t be so quick to discount him. Helam is ambitious and a planner.” At times, Adar had wondered if Helam had lost the tournament on purpose. If that had been the case, what was Helam’s angle? Adar had rolled all sorts of different possibilities around his mind but had never been able to settle on a satisfying explanation.

The Rarbon city guard had asked him many questions about the attack after Abel had reported it, but Adar had maintained that he didn’t remember much of it. He’d known that his drunken accusation against Helam wouldn’t have done him any good. Most of the citizens would have believed that he’d been imagining things.

But that wasn’t the thing that brought Helam to Adar’s mind.

“If Helam was capable of killing General Gardison, it isn’t much beyond that to hire mercenaries to harass and kill merchants.”

“I get that you hate the man, but he isn’t a bad guy. He’s as worried about the Hunwei as you are. You don’t want to tell me what happened that night, fine. He’d be a better ally than a foe.” Tere hesitated. “The two of you have more in common than you think.”

Adar snorted. “Don’t make the mistake of assuming that because our passions align that our methods do as well.” He growled under his breath, he hated the distraction this all posed. Wasn’t it bad enough that they had the coming return of the Hunwei to deal with? Why did he have to get involved in political battles and turf wars with the likes of Helam as well? “Helam isn’t guided by principle.”

“Sometimes you aren’t either.”

“Yes, but his are intentional. Mine are mistakes, which I take great pains to rectify when I recognize them.”

If there was anybody else that could have prepared Rarbon for the return of the Hunwei, Adar would have gladly stepped aside. His father was the man that should have been leading them, but instead he was wrapping himself in political struggles that were as frivolous as they were petty. Helam’s methods were brutal and Adar couldn’t be certain of the man’s intentions.

Tere stared ahead at the walls and Adar couldn’t decide if he was either giving up on the argument or working on attacking it from a different way.

Adar sighed, and let the silence remain unbroken as he stared at the city as well. The walls of Rarbon were the tallest that Adar had seen during his travels, the next closest being the shining walls of Parout which didn’t even reach half the height of Rarbon’s Outer Wall. From a distance, it was easy to mistake Rarbon for a small mountain with the tiered steps of the Outer Wall, the taller Inner Wall, and the even taller Rarbon Palace which itself had the look of a mountain range with five towering peaks. The middle palace tower, at more than one hundred and fifty stories high, made it hard for many newcomers to pay attention to where they were going when traversing through the city.

For Adar, seeing the palace towers filled him with a bittersweet feeling. As a youth, he’d run around those halls, exploring as high into the towers and as low into the city catacombs as he’d dared. There were hidden rooms that had yet to be discovered and as many tales about the Palace as people in the city.

A few years ago, in one of those rooms, he and his father had witnessed the slow agonizing death of his mother, while an illness had ravaged her body for eleven months. By the end, the tension between his father and Adar that had always been there when he was growing up had escalated to something a few steps below a fully fledged war.

To Adar’s knowledge, Abel hadn’t yet tried to take his life, but his father had done almost everything else. When Adar’s mother had passed away, the last remaining line of civility between him and his father had gone with her. Tere had been through it all with Adar, providing him someone to talk to and spar with, both of which did wonders for working out his tensions. It was Tere that always reminded Adar that the world wasn’t as cut and dry as he sometimes viewed it.

“We need to get back, Tere. Give it some thought. You may be right about Helam not being our guy and we should consider other candidates.”

“Agreed.”

As they crossed the firebreak and approached the south Rarbon gate, the guard door to the side of the gate had already opened to meet the patrol and a dozen guards had filed out. The gate had closed at sunset and now the only people allowed in or out would have to be a Radim soldier on duty or have a compelling reason to gain admittance.

On a normal day, Adar liked to admire the gates and try to puzzle out what they were made of, but he wasn’t in the mood. Unlike other city’s gates which were made from reinforced wood, all of the Rarbon gates were made from a material that appeared to be a mixture between metal and ceramic. The present day city architects were at a loss on how to replicate it.

During the day, the gate was left open and most could come and go once the guards had made a record of their name and purpose, the exception to that being if somebody on the wanted posters turned up. Most of the guard kept the posters committed to memory to keep people moving through the gate.

Adar jumped off Slasher. Even though the side door was tall and wide enough to allow a man on a horse, the portcullis at the top of the inside ramp was left half down to keep people from riding through the wall to the other side.

When he noticed that Keen Carlsen was the captain on duty, he grimaced. Keen was another lifer like Maual, but his dark hair was cut short and he wasn’t breaking out of uniform by wearing jewelry.

Waving Keen over, Adar pointed at the man with the Stingeel earring. “Recognize him?” Keen was known for his ability to commit to memory the wanted posters. In the short time that Adar had known the man, he’d been impressed by his mental acuity and dedication to duty but little else.

Keen looked the man up and down, muttering under his breath, a habit that Adar had picked up on the first time he’d met Keen. It was said that Keen had been a thief and had been caught carrying away gold from the Napael army treasury. As the story went, it was his muttering that had given him away. 

General Gardison had given the man the normal options of either going to the city dungeons or taking the oath for life. If the rumor about him was true, it made Adar wonder how he’d ever been entrusted with guard duty, let alone made the captain of the guard. While it was true that men could change, in Adar’s experience it was a rare occurrence, especially when forced into a decision with a choice like that.

He searched Keen’s face as he approached; wondering if this was his spy. Keen had a half smile on his face and looked a little distracted but did not appear to be anxious. If Adar was hoping to pick up on a reason to suspect the man further, he was disappointed.

Whatever Keen’s story was, he had a good memory and Adar did trust him to know who was on the wanted posters. If Adar’s captive was wanted by somebody else, they might have first claim and Adar would have to turn him over to the other party. Adar would have one day before he had to give notice. He wouldn’t be able to afford the luxury to take his time with the interrogation and it would have to start right away. He grunted, that wasn’t how he preferred to handle these things.

Keen stopped before the captive and took him in from head to toe, Keen’s eyes hovered on the Stingeel earring, but he had a look of curiosity not recognition.

“If he’s wanted,” Keen said, “he’s not on any of the posters I’ve seen.”

Adar nodded. “Lucas, take him back to the dungeon. No food, but give him a little water, enough to keep his tongue wet. Keep him on his feet and walking around. Switch out fresh guards every couple of hours. I’ll be by in the morning for a conversation with him.”

Lucas nodded, handed his horse off to another and called for several to accompany him before heading off.

“What news has there been in our absence?” Tere asked of Keen. Adar paid attention long enough to learn that nothing noteworthy had happened and strolled into the Outer Wall door, leading Slasher behind him.

Chapter 3

General Helam Morgol looked through the tall Rarbon Palace windows of the central tower as the sun made its way down the western sky and kept his hands behind his back so that he wouldn’t wring the neck of the man standing beside him. Helam could have done without the interruption and he could have done without the extra attention Lieutenant Vaen Briggs had drawn to him when he had burst into the room. It was no longer a good idea for Helam to remain here in the Palace archives hoping for a conversation with Janathan Charr, the master archivist.

It was supposed to have been an innocuous meeting, but the disturbance now removed that as a possibility because of all the people that had now taken notice of Helam’s presence here.

He grasped his hands as he imagined throttling Briggs; he would now have to find another way to get a report on who his wife Elaire had been meeting with while browsing the shelves of the archives. She never met with the same person and Helam had been able to develop quite the list over the last several years.

He should have been more cautious and not told Briggs where to find him. He had felt a sense of impending doom throughout the day. That feeling had been at odds with the clear blue sky of the morning and afternoon but was now coming more into harmony as the sunset turned it a bloody red.

Expelling a breath, he took another, all the while not bothering to look at Briggs who stood to the side and was doing his best to cover up his anxiety. Sweat covered Briggs’ angular face and Helam was certain the man had run through the palace corridors to get to him. How many people had noticed? Was there anybody in the Palace that didn’t know where Helam was at the moment?

He clenched his fists. Elaire had been on her way out of the Palace earlier; hopefully she hadn’t seen Briggs running like a Hunwei was chasing after him. If she had, she was bound to ask Helam some uncomfortable questions when he saw her later in the evening.

The last thing Helam needed right now was for her to have another reason to suspect that he was keeping tabs on who she was talking to. It would have been far better if Briggs had taken his time, or better yet not come at all and handled the situation himself. Helam would talk with him about his mistake, but it would have to wait.

“How long ago did this happen?” Helam asked, focusing on the news that Briggs had brought with him.

“No more than an hour, they had just finished when I left.” Briggs swallowed. “Adar did the first one himself.” 

Helam repressed a sigh. Not only had the man rushed through the palace, he had to have killed a horse to get here in so little time. 

It was the little things like this that made Helam wish that he had somebody more unflappable than Briggs to depend on. The man was loyal, but he didn’t take the time to think through his actions.

Briggs was also too impressed by Adar and there was an element of respect for Adar in his tone that wasn’t healthy, but Helam didn’t know what he could do about it. He found that a lot of his trusted men held Adar in similar regard.

“It’s customary for the one in charge to handle the first execution,” Helam said, Briggs didn’t know enough to challenge his assertion. When Briggs nodded, Helam stifled another sigh. All of Helam’s other Lieutenant Generals would have taken issue with the statement but not Briggs. Why was it that the only man Helam could trust couldn’t think for himself?

If Helam had been able to trust Weker Stonne with this plan, that would have been useful indeed. Stonne wouldn’t have even bothered to bring this issue to Helam and would have handled the clean up required and sought out Helam once everything had been taken care of.

Helam glanced at Briggs and narrowed his eyes. It was a shame that Helam couldn’t be certain about trusting his own son Molach with this, anybody would have been better than the uncertain pudgy man that stood before him.

Briggs had caught up to him and his four guards while he had been waiting for the master archivist. When Briggs had burst into the room and seen Helam, he had started to talk without regard to the other occupants. Helam had looked up from the book that he’d been pretending to read while he was reviewing his list of suspected Kopal members. He had cut Briggs off, motioning to where Semal Bray sat several tables away with a faraway look on his face. The old professor hadn’t noticed the intrusion, but his scribe who was walking among the bookshelves had looked up when Briggs had entered.

She’d stared at them while Helam had led Briggs over behind a bookcase on the other side of the large room so they would be out of earshot. The scribe had the look about her of a woman that would pester you with questions until she got the answers she wanted to know. Briggs sudden appearance and outburst had no doubt sowed a question in her mind; Helam didn’t need her overhearing something that would cause that seed to sprout and take hold.

He made a mental note to keep an eye on her. An inquisitive person like that would be a good addition to his own group of scribes and he’d be able to pay her more than Semal could afford. With the future of their world at stake, it made sense to recruit the best and pay them well.

“You’re certain you weren’t seen?” [_Except for those who witnessed your mad dash here, _]he thought but didn’t say.

Briggs nodded. “Positive. I watched it all unfold through a telescope.”

“There is that to be grateful for I suppose.” The report that Briggs had whispered to Helam had been disconcerting. It was almost as if Adar knew what Helam was planning and had taken steps to interfere. Could it be possible that Adar had a spy planted close to him?

His first inclination was to dismiss the thought because Adar had just come back from an assignment that had kept him away from Rarbon for the better part of a year. Shortly after that Adar had been made the general of Napael army. He had quite enough to do that it seemed unlikely he would have been able to recruit a spy at the same time. It was possible that someone had been turned before Adar had left. Helam would have to give that further thought; he resolved to be more careful and create tests for his closest confidantes.

“What are your orders?” Briggs asked. “Do we need Birgemat back or can we just kill him?”

Helam didn’t answer as he stared down at the gardens many flights below and frowned. Once again Adar was forcing him to react.

Adar’s first task after he’d been made general had been to clean up Napael’s base and the firebreak. His actions had motivated the other generals to do the same.

Even Helam had been forced to relent and give orders to his men to clear out the worst of the overgrown foliage in Paroke’s firebreak. It galled him, not because it was cleaner, but because he’d felt like Adar had manipulated him into doing something he hadn’t been inclined to do.

There was talk among some of the other generals that Adar would be the first Rahid in five hundred years to pass the test and become Ghar. They’d been excited at the prospect and Helam had played his part of a dutiful anxious supporter because it was best to avoid suspicion. 

Several new beads of sweat were rolling down Brigg’s pale face when Helam glanced over at him. Melyah. If Adar was having this effect on men sworn to Helam; before too long, people would start thinking of Adar as a great hero. If Helam didn’t act swiftly, he was going to lose his window of opportunity.

“How many men were captured?”

“I don’t remember for sure, fourteen or fifteen, no more than that. We have enough to continue.”

“You speak of the dead as if they’re easy to replace. We have too few that I trust and even fewer that are competent.” It was all enough to make a man grind his teeth and Helam locked his jaw to keep from doing it.

A man in haste made mistakes but there was little else for him to do as he watched the setting sun and pushed aside his growing frustration at yet another day passing without him being one step closer to obtaining entrance into the Rarbon Portal or learning what his traitorous wife was up to.

Helam could feel the Portal calling to him from its location in the catacombs below the Rarbon Palace central tower. It was a temptation for him to go down to have a look at the guarded doors, but he knew the Redd Guard took note of people that made frequent visits.

His last visit had been a year and a half ago. The double metal doors that stood behind the row of ten guards had taunted him and he’d thought about what it would take to force his way in. Even ten of the famous Redd Guard would fall if they had too many soldiers to fight.

Ten men. That was all that had stood between him and the weapons his people needed to fight the Hunwei when they returned. Once he’d cut down those men, he could hold the Portal and deal with the other Redd Guard as they came at him.

He’d have to ramp up his recruiting. There were less than fifty men that Helam would trust to that particular task today. He’d want at least two hundred. As near as he could figure there were about one hundred in the Redd Guard. Two hundred would give him the ability to swarm them.

Recruiting that many men was a tall order. Each man had to be vetted and tried. He had considered more than four hundred men to get to the ones he’d already recruited and sworn to his cause. If he waited for Adar Rahid to pass the Rarbon Council’s ridiculous tests in order to become Ghar and finally gain access, it would be too late.

“Sir, there’s something else. I had to lock up a guard.”

This caught Helam’s attention. “Why?”

Briggs looked away. “Your wife. The guard overheard her…” He trailed off and Helam didn’t need to hear the rest. Elaire seemed to think it was funny sometimes to talk about the Kopal as if they weren’t a hidden conspiracy. “You must do something about her. If word of who she is gets around… Bloody Melyah! I don’t like to think about it.”

“I manage my personal affairs. I don’t need help.” If the brash actions of Helam’s wife were any indication, the Kopal believed that the Hunwei were close to returning. His wife wasn’t alone in the uptick of her activity; other people for whom Helam knew with a certainty were Kopal had become far more active in the last year. Sometimes at night, Helam would lay awake, fear keeping him from sleeping. What if he didn’t get into the Rarbon Portal in time? What if his wife killed him in his sleep because an order had come down from one of her superiors? It had been years since they’d shared a room but Elaire refused to allow any of his personal guards into the house and Helam had been reluctant to argue the point.

As much as he hated to admit it, there was a certain benefit to having discovered that his wife was a member of the Kopal. He would never know what it was that had caused her to join a group that believed the Hunwei would bring with them salvation. She hadn’t revealed much about them and was becoming bolder in her threats. Several months back he had considered having his wife followed, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. He had focused on the master archivist instead, but was beginning to rethink that decision. 

While things had never been worse between him and his wife, the high level of tension in their marriage combined with her increasing unexplained disappearances made him see something in the shadows wherever he turned. He had wondered on multiple occasions if the Kopal had some way of knowing that the Hunwei were about to return.

If the Hunwei were close, then he might have to move sooner than he’d planned. The Rarbon Portal, even though Helam and his scribes hadn’t been able to pinpoint what was inside, was the best hope they had of being able to defend themselves against the Hunwei and their formidable technology when they came.

It was the utter height of insanity that the council hadn’t already let a Rahid open the portal, but since they hadn’t and it didn’t look like it would happen soon—the challenges Adar was up against would take years for him to pass—Helam had long ago made plans to go around the system. 

Most of his plans were still in motion, but their outcomes were becoming less certain with every meddlesome act of Adar. Helam was confident that if his original master plan had played out that he would have been on track to rid Rarbon of Abel Rahid and his son Adar, along with the hegemony associated with them. With them out of the way, Helam’s own path into the Portal would have been all but assured.

But things were changing far faster than he’d anticipated.

Adar shouldn’t have been made a general so soon. It bothered Helam that the Rarbon Council had chosen Adar over his son Molach who was the better-qualified candidate, of a more senior rank than Adar, and had proven himself time after time. Adar’s selection for the open position had taken everybody else by surprise as well.

Even Adar had worn a shocked look on his face for a partial moment before covering it up.

Helam’s spies on the council hadn’t been able or were refusing to yield any useful explanations. His best guess was that Abel had done something to get Adar the position, which didn’t make sense given that Abel had scorned his son in public on several occasions; Helam believed Abel to have been behind countless incidents of sabotage that had undermined Adar’s advancement.

Why would Abel all of the sudden be supporting the efforts of his son to become Ghar when by all accounts he was jealous of Adar’s successes? Helam would have to give that some thought. Perhaps there was an angle here that he was somehow missing.

When Helam had learned that Adar was out on patrol and wasn’t due back until tomorrow, he’d sent Birgemat and his mercenaries to lie in wait for merchant trains approaching from the south hoping to show that the venerable Adar Rahid wasn’t immune to such attacks.

That was just the beginning of the trap, Helam planned to make it look like Adar was behind the attacks and had his own territory attacked while he was away to cast blame somewhere else.

Lieutenant Briggs cleared his throat, but Helam didn’t look his way.

The news that Briggs had hurried back with was disturbing yet foreseeable. This was why Helam had sent Briggs to spy on Birgemat and his brigands in the first place. Adar had a tendency to break from the script and today was no exception because he’d come back earlier than planned. There had to be a way for Helam to turn Adar’s sudden changes in the plan against him; yet another thing for Helam to mull over.

“You’re sure that Birgemat is the one Adar took captive?” Helam asked.

Briggs nodded. “That stupid earring of his makes him unmistakable.” 

Helam thought it over and grimaced. “How fast can you get a warrant to Jarren?”

“Within the hour, well before they return.”

Perhaps Briggs’ fear of Adar would give Helam a way out of this mess. It was a blow to Helam’s designs that Adar had not only captured his brigands but executed them there on the spot.

It was a move of questionable legality, but chances were high that the other generals would be sympathetic to Adar and follow his example. This bold action would further expand the tension between the Radim armies and the Rarbon Council. It would also mean that the Rarbon Council would give Adar a harder first task on his path to becoming Ghar. Adar had known that when he’d decided to hold the execution in the field and probably hadn’t given it a second thought.

If Helam had been in Adar’s position, he wouldn’t have done anything to make the council assign more difficult tasks. If Helam was reading things correctly, they were running out of time.

But what’s done was done and it was further evidence of why Rarbon’s fate couldn’t be left in the hands of the Rahids.

In fact, Helam decided he would exacerbate the schism by being one of the first to follow suit and execute some brigands in his own territory. Not only would it further his overall goal of strengthening the position of the Radim generals, it would serve to make the Council even more wary of Adar and the effect he was having in Rarbon. That would guarantee Adar an almost impossible task if Helam acted within the next few days.

If Adar were to fail on his own before Helam’s machinations were complete, then it would be a matter of ending the Rahids altogether to ensure the hegemony was abolished.

Biting his lip in thought, Helam made a mental note to set up the execution and returned his focus to the problem at hand. Somehow Adar had decided to take Birgemat as his captive; he was the sole man on the team that could tie the brigands back to Helam. A coincidence to be sure, but still a concerning one in light of Helam’s concerns about having a spy in his ranks.

If Adar had any actionable information on Helam, he would have long ago done something about it. He wasn’t much for patience. Another thing that Helam should be able to turn against him given the proper preparation.

“Who will be the one issuing the warrant?” Helam asked.

“I will.”

Helam looked at Briggs appraisingly. “You sure you’re up for that?” Adar’s full attention would be turned to Briggs once the warrant came to light and by association, Helam as well. Given more time, Helam and Briggs would have been able to lay the groundwork for something more elaborate that would lead back to somebody who didn’t report to Helam, but that wasn’t an option.

There wasn’t much Helam could do to keep Adar from being suspicious of him anyway, that ship had sailed when Helam had taken advantage of Adar while he’d been drunk after his victory.

What a stupid mistake that had been. Not only did it mean that Adar was keeping an eye on him, Helam had it on good authority that Adar hadn’t touched alcohol since. Helam would have been able to do a lot more damage if Adar still had an over-fondness for wine. The information Helam had learned from Adar that night had come with a high cost and he wasn’t certain that it had been worth it.

Birgemat would talk eventually, if he didn’t spit out what he knew right away to save his own skin; either way it would be a matter of time. If Birgemat wasn’t dealt with, Helam would have to move his own plans up, perhaps even resorting to his final fallback plan.

If they moved fast though, they could plant a warrant for Birgemat’s arrest. That would connect Birgemat to one of Helam’s men but avoid giving Adar actual evidence.

“Do it. If our guy isn’t able to plant it in time, give him orders to kill Birgemat.” Helam looked at Briggs. “In that eventuality make Jarren’s death look like the work of thieves.”

“Sir?”

“How many times have I told you? You have an opinion? Spit it out.”

“We could skip the warrant altogether,” Briggs said with a stutter, he was still unused to the way that Helam did things, but he’d get over his hesitation with time. Many people in authority didn’t like their subordinates to speak their minds, but Helam had found that to be a terrible waste. He even let his men go so far to call his own ideas stupid as long as their tone and manner didn’t undermine his authority. “There would be less risk with that.”

The thought had also occurred to Helam, but he’d discarded it. His spy was too well placed to throw him away for something like this; it would be a shame to lose his inside source of information on Adar.

No, Briggs could handle the questions that would come with the warrant and so could Helam if it came to that. Helam would be taken by Melyah before he’d trust their fate to the hands of a Rahid.

“A good thought, but too dire. You have your orders.”

Chapter 4

The warm breeze blew in through the open Rarbon Palace doors that were double the height and twice the width of a normal door, it caressed the face of Nelion Torez as it passed by and she sighed when she felt the warm breath of air.

Spending all day inside perusing ancient scrolls and books wasn’t how she preferred to spend her time, but it was what she had signed up for. She’d been hoping to find definitive proof that the Hunwei had existed and were going to return, but she seemed destined to spend her time working through old dusty tomes that provided anything but certainty because the authors all worked from the assumption that the Hunwei were real. 

Neither of the guards standing to either side of the open doors took notice of her as she stepped past them and out into the courtyard. As soon as she stepped outside, she realized that she’d left her bag back in the Palace Archives and turned to go back the way she’d left, only to find two spears blocking her path.

The guards stared at her with cold expressions. She blushed. How could she have forgotten so quickly? She’d done the same thing just last week. Lucky for her, it had been a different set of guards on duty. Twice was just embarrassing.

“This is not the entrance,” said the guard to her right. Their uniforms were dark blue and their armor gleamed with the light of the falling sun. “If you need to go back in, you must use the north or south entrance. The hour is late and unless you have an invite to the ball you’ll have to run to make it in time.”

She muttered her apologies and left, cursing under her breath. The last time she’d almost taken a spear in the gut; the guard at the other end had been wearing a hopeful look on his face and she’d been curt rather than apologetic.

Ever since she’d taken this job as a scribe working for Professor Semal, she’d become more prone to getting lost in her thoughts. What would her mother say if she’d been here to witness this little forgetful episode? Nelion didn’t want to know. What were the chances that the story would get around?

Melyah, she thought, it’s almost guaranteed since I’ve done it twice now. She hoped it didn’t, but there wasn’t much she could do about it.

The guard was right about the lateness of the hour, she’d have to wait until tomorrow to retrieve her bag. She sighed again when the fact that it was almost sunset registered with her. She’d noticed it earlier, but the fact hadn’t set in until now.

As much as she enjoyed helping Professor Semal probe the secrets of the past, at times she found herself missing Korew army. It had been weeks since she’d last made the trip up to the civilian lookout atop the Inner Wall to see the sunset. When she’d been a soldier, she’d volunteered for guard duty at night on the walls as often as she could, just so she could observe the sun’s slow descent until it disappeared.

There was a moment every clear evening when the sun would illuminate the walls and Rarbon Palace in such a way that the whole city seemed to glow. When it happened, she would savor it until it disappeared.

Her rotation had been on the Outer Wall, which gave her quite a view of the surrounding countryside and the mountains in the distance. Now, the only time she could find anything approaching it was on the Inner Wall at the place civilians were allowed up. The view wasn’t quite as fantastic from there, but it was better than not experiencing it at all. 

What she would have given to be up on the Outer Wall right now. There had been a time or two over the last month when she’d been tempted to enlist again, but she’d decided that it had been a passing fancy because she still wasn’t used to all the time indoors. Besides, she wasn’t ready to enlist until she’d sorted out this whole business about the Hunwei returning.

Much of what the Radim armies did was geared towards protecting against that event. When she’d signed up for Korew army, she’d known that the belief in the Hunwei’s return guided what the armies did, but she’d had no idea the extent to which the beliefs had been ingrained into every last action.

Once she’d realized the truth, the customs of Rarbon and its citizens began to take on a different perspective. From the way that homes and apartment buildings had gardens instead of roofs, to the fact that there was little in the way landscaping within the city that didn’t focus on fruit or vegetable bearing plants, to the full integration of the military into the political structure of Rarbon, almost everything was done because of a belief that the Hunwei would return from the stars and that the people of Rarbon would need to protect themselves when they did. 

Nelion wasn’t the only person that had doubts about the impending doom of a Hunwei strike. Evidence of the growing disbelief was all around. The Hunwei had become a joke to a lot of the civilians. Many of the rooftop gardens were overgrown with weeds and the Rarbon Council was always looking for ways to limit the power of the Radim armies. While she’d seen little evidence of doubts while on duty during her time in Korew army, she’d witnessed it firsthand in many private conversations.

She couldn’t swear to the Radim Oaths if everything they were based on was a lie.

While she couldn’t say for certain that her decision to not take the Radim Oaths had been wrong, she did miss that natural tan color her skin had taken on from all her exposure to the sun, and it had been a long time since her last breath of fresh air unencumbered by the smells of the city.

Instead, as her skin returned to its normal pale color, she’d been cooped up in a large room all day that was beginning to feel small because of the ever increasing number of books that Semal kept bringing in to add to her research projects.

At first the assignments had been fun, even exciting, and they’d been a welcome break to the hard labor of a soldier’s life. But as time wore on, she began to recognize that while Semal was intelligent, and the smartest person she knew, the research he was giving her to do lacked any focus on the area she was interested in studying.

Semal took the existence of the Hunwei for granted and spent his time researching any scrap of document that could provide insight as to their plans and how to fight them.

One hour Semal would ask her to look up all known translations for an ancient word, focusing on various idiomatic uses. Then the next, he’d be asking her to see if she could find historical records detailing the strategies the Hunwei had used at the end of the Hunwei War just before the Severing. It was exhausting and by the end of the day, she found that working on answering her own questions could wait.

Nelion stopped when she spotted her mother sitting at one of the stone tables that dotted the courtyard of the palace. Without realizing what she was doing, she started to reach for where she kept a dagger on her belt and stopped before her hand had reached it. Her mother had never threatened her or given her a cause to suspect violent intent, but being around her mother made her hackles go up. It wasn’t the first time she’d had to stop herself from reaching for a weapon when her mother had surprised her.

Stifling a sigh of resignation, she made eye contact with her mother who gave her a thin smile and beckoned her over. As she approached, she stiffened when she thought of her mistake moments before at the Palace doors and hoped that her mother hadn’t witnessed her trying to enter through the wrong doors and getting turned back at the point of a spear. In many ways, Nelion was a disappointment to her mother, and she was fine with that, but she didn’t want her mother to think of her as stupid as well.

There were flower gardens between where her mother sat and the east entrance Nelion had come from and she resisted the urge to look over her shoulder to determine if her mother had been able to see anything. If her mother had, she wouldn’t bring it up directly, not at first. 

Nelion hoped she could navigate the coming conversation without letting her mother feel like she was in a hurry. She had agreed to meet up with Semal and Kyson—another scribe—at the Paroke Army archives to help them look for several old ledgers. She didn’t have time to get drawn into another long discussion with her mother about her future and the plans that she needed to be making.

The thought of looking for the ledgers made her quicken her step; she was anxious to be done with her mother. The secretive group known as the Kopal had communicated via ledgers and other innocuous documents. Even though the Kopal had been exterminated years ago, she felt a thrill at the thought of tracking down dangerous secrets from the recent past. Semal had noticed her excitement and told her that they most likely wouldn’t find anything interesting, just bits of hidden code buried in ledgers that were decades old.

Taking a deep breath and doing her best to relax, Nelion sat beside her mother, shifting her dagger as she did. The movement wasn’t lost on her mother and Nelion could see her mother was satisfied that she didn’t go around unarmed. The look disappeared when her mother took in her dress. The only time she’d seen her mother wear a dress had been at her father’s funeral and that had lasted until the funeral was over. While it galled Nelion to do anything that satisfied her mother, she felt naked without the dagger on her side and the other two thin ones she kept secreted away in her boots.

Nelion wasn’t surprised to see that her mother still wore her sword. The worn black hilt peeked up over her back. Nelion had been hoping that her mother wouldn’t follow after that particular fashion of retired generals and other high-ranking officers. When she had brought up the matter up with her mother, she’d become indignant and said that a certain amount of dignity was now attached to the name Mien Torez and she wouldn’t do anything different than the other retired military officers. It worried Nelion to see her mother still so entrenched in that world. It had been six months since her retirement, it was time for her to enjoy the quiet days of her life.

“I wasn’t expecting you,” Nelion said, her smile wide enough it felt like her lips might crack from the effort. “You should have let me know. I could have left the Archives sooner.”

Her mother smiled. It was small and cold; a hint of it touching the rest of her face. “Can’t a mother drop in to see her daughter? I have some time before the ball starts and I wanted to see how your work with Semal was going.” There was a slight hint of distaste around Semal’s name, and Nelion believed that nobody else would have noticed it. Her mother hadn’t been happy when Nelion had refused to take the oaths that would have bound her to Korew army for the rest of her functional adult life.

My how time changes things, Nelion thought, she was mad when I enlisted with Korew and now she’s just as mad I didn’t become a lifer like her.

Nelion had expected that this is what the conversation would be about. Because she was a woman, Nelion hadn’t been required by law to enlist in the Radim armies when she was of age, but that had meant little to her mother who had at the time of her birth had been a lieutenant in Verag Army. When Nelion had been old enough to understand such things, her mother had made it clear, that legal requirement or not, Nelion would be joining.

It had turned out that when Nelion’s seventeenth birthday approached, she wanted to enlist. It hadn’t been because of her mother though and she’d spent days agonizing over how to sign up without letting her mother think that she was getting her way.

With a woman like her mother, if she thought she’d won her point, it just encouraged her and she increased her effort to have her way in the future. On the morning of her birthday, Nelion had awoken early and made her way down to the Korew army base and signed all the paperwork. When she’d come home, her mother had worn a triumphant smile as Nelion had described what she’d done, up until the point where Nelion had mentioned she’d joined Korew army.

In less than half a heartbeat, the smile had been wiped off her mother’s face and a cold grim line that was covering a burning inferno of anger replaced it. Joining Korew instead of Verag was almost the same as not enlisting at all to her mother, maybe a little bit worse. Her mother had come to accept the choice and had tried to convince Nelion to take the oaths once her time was up. 

“Not everybody wants to make general,” Nelion said, trying to force the transition into the inevitable conversation.

“What does Semal have you researching?” Her mother smiled, not taking the bait. The bird of prey was beginning its slow, winding descent; her eyes on a target that had nowhere to run. Her mother had a way of spending a laborious amount of time laying the groundwork for a specific point that she wanted to make. It was altogether tedious and methodical. By the end of any such conversations, Nelion found she had to resist the temptation to give into her mother just to end the discussion. She didn’t want to keep the others waiting, but she wasn’t about to let her mother know she was planning to spend much of the evening working on a side research project for Semal. So if it came down to it, she would have to endure another of her mother’s painstaking conversations.

Nelion answered while doing her best to relax on the stone bench and let the conversation unfold. It wasn’t until more than half an hour later that her mother came around to her point. By that time Nelion was trying to avoid looking at the sun while it disappeared below the Inner Wall. If she were to leave now, she might still be able to make her appointment on time if she ran. Running was something she wouldn’t do while still in the sight of her mother, of course. 

“A career in the army,” her mother finally said, “even if it is Korew, isn’t something to be set so easily aside. You can go far with your archery talents.”

“The archives may or may not be for me,” Nelion said, trying to keep the annoyance out of her voice, “but that doesn’t matter. I’ll look for something that suits me until I find it.”

“I’ve spoken with General Loepel and she offered to give you a promotion to Captain if you come back.” The smile on her mother’s face was now more genuine and real than the one she’d given Nelion when she’d first sat down. At last they’d come to the reason for the visit from her mother. 

Nelion didn’t know how to respond. General Loepel had never been fond of her mother and the two had often spent time undercutting one another in whatever venue they found themselves. It must have been galling to her mother when Loepel had been promoted to General of Korew army while somebody younger and more junior had been promoted to General of Verag army over her mother.

If her mother had been willing to speak to Loepel, that would have involved the significant swallowing of her pride, a skill that her mother had never been good at. The fact that she was willing to do that meant something, and Nelion couldn’t set aside her mother’s sacrifice of pride. At the same time, she couldn’t let her mother manipulate her into something that she wasn’t certain she wanted. Maybe if she knew that the Hunwei were real and a threat, she’d feel different about things.

“If I had asked you to do that,” Nelion said knowing that she was walking on dangerous ground but pushing forward anyway. “I would appreciate the effort, but I have no plans to enlist again.”

Her mother’s smile disappeared as she stood and her tone became much sharper. “Loepel will need a decision within a week, after that, she’ll have to fill the position. Give it some thought.”

Nelion stared at her mother, trying to keep the wonder off her face even as she could feel frustration welling up in her chest. She’d known that her mother had been disappointed when she’d decided not to take the oaths, but this was something altogether different and Nelion didn’t know what to make of it, much less how to navigate it.

Once her mother had gone, she sat lost in thought, her mother’s gesture warring against the feeling of manipulation that was growing larger by the minute. It was true that the archival work wasn’t stimulating in the way that she’d hoped.

While she enjoyed doing research, there was a limit to the amount she wanted to do on any given day. But she also wasn’t ready to enlist again and take the oaths. This wouldn’t be a mere three-year commitment, no this would be for at least twenty years, maybe longer if there was an active war when her retirement came up. Her mother’s sacrifice was a significant gesture, but could Nelion give up twenty years of her life because of it? Because of a manipulative mother that knew the right buttons to push to get Nelion to bend to her will? If she chose to become an officer, there would be no looking back.

Nelion stood, resolving not to make a decision on the offer right away, even though she’d rebuked her mother for procuring it. When she’d taken the job with Semal, in addition to satisfying her own curiosity, she’d also been thinking of attending the university. Her best chance at getting in was to impress Semal enough that he’d write her a letter of recommendation. Now that she was getting bored researching all day, she wasn’t so sure about that path either. She pushed the decision to the back of her mind as she hurried off. Kyson and Semal would be wondering where she was.

Chapter 5

As Adar walked Slasher up the narrow stone ramp inside the Outer Wall, he noticed that the stone floor was clean. He was glad that the guards weren’t neglecting their duties to sweep, he had given orders that it be done at least twice a day but had half expected to find that it hadn’t been done in his absence.

He adjusted his collar as he walked; the temperature was warmer in here than outside. Several beads of sweat dripped down his face that he wiped away with the back of his hand. He felt a draft from the arrow slits that lined the walls and the murder holes in the ceiling, but it wasn’t enough to provide relief from the temperature.

He had never been able to decide if the slits and holes had been part of the original design or were added after the fact. Everything he’d learned about those who had come before indicated that they would have considered such defenses primitive and out of date.

Rarbon’s architecture and design were from a different era; if Semal was to be believed, a time from before the Hunwei’s first attack.

The Outer and Inner Walls, combined with the Rarbon Palace, were as impregnable of a fortress as Adar had ever encountered. Over the years, as some of the ancient technologies of their fathers had faltered and been lost, the city architects had done their best to replace what they could.

He couldn’t help but wonder if the arrow slits and murder holes were one of these additions, what had been here originally? Once he got into the Rarbon Portal would he have access to those same weapons?

Don’t get your hopes up, Adar told himself. Semal had been able to find no mention as to what was behind the Rarbon Portal doors and had cautioned Adar that he should expect to find a library. This was why it was critical that he find his way in there sooner rather than later. If all that was there were ancient records on how to build the weapons of their fathers, they would need as much time as they could get to rebuild.

He noted that the smell of rot and body odor that had infected the inner corridor was starting to fade now with the regular cleaning. He doubted the stench would ever go away completely, but keeping the ramp and the connecting hallways free from debris and trash were a start.

He nodded at several of the guard passing the other way and received salutes in return. When he recognized that these were some of the same men that had been on duty the night that he and the others had started patrol, he frowned. Perhaps he’d been too hasty to think that his actions had been noticed and reported to others by a spy. It was common for men such as these to slip up, perhaps over a drink when off duty or to a lover in bed. That wouldn’t make it treason.

Melyah! he thought. Growing up with Abel as his father had made him too suspicious. Not everyone was out to get him.

At the top of the ramp there was a portcullis. On the other side, off to the left, was a room for the guards. Their chamber was long and right up against the outside of the Outer Wall with arrow slits that looked out onto the firebreak; this was how the guards knew when Adar and his men were approaching. There were guards posted on top of the wall as well and they had access to telescopes that gave them a more expansive view of the surrounding area.

The portcullis was in its normal half-up position so Adar had to help Slasher duck his head to go through. Adar was certain that this portcullis and all the others that had been installed throughout the city had not been included by the original builders because they broke from the general look and feel of the overall design. In some places, they appeared as though they could be pulled down with little effort. The one before him looked sturdy enough, but he didn’t put much faith in it holding off a determined foe for long.

The hallway at the top of the ramp was wider and lit with lamps every ten feet. There were also arrow slits and murder holes here as well. Adar hadn’t had time yet, but he planned to have his men keep large barrels of oil at the top of the ramp. He’d also have smaller barrels kept on the floor above by the murder holes. He’d been surprised to learn that it hadn’t already been done.

Halfway down, the hall intersected with another hallway that circled the entire Outer Wall. This hall was double the width and had a portcullis on either side as well. On the left side was a staircase that went up to the top of the Outer Wall and on the right was a staircase that went down to the catacombs below the city.

The stairs to either side were wide enough that the Radim armies would run them in columns of four. Before any recruit could complete their training, they had to be able to make a run that took them to the top of the Inner Wall which was forty-five stories high, across a connecting wall to the Outer Wall, which was thirty-five stories, around the circumference of the Outer Wall and down again. They did this all while carrying a pack loaded with fifty pounds of gear and supplies. A recruit could not become a soldier until he could complete a lap.

When Adar came to the guard room on the other side he was glad to see that this station was now manned as well, but with fewer guards. Several nodded to Adar from the room as he passed but didn’t try to speak with him. This room had arrow slits looking out into the courtyard. Slasher tossed his head and snorted, drawing the admiring eye of one of the men. A moment after that, Adar was past the portcullis here and down the ramp that led out into the yard.

When Adar had taken over the training grounds had reminded him of a farmyard both in smell and appearance. There had been several large piles of manure with many years of horse poop and it had been a long time since anybody had done anything about the stray cats, dogs, and chickens running around the place.

Rats had been a frequent site as well and Adar was surprised that his predecessor hadn’t tried to do anything about them. It was a wonder that disease hadn’t been rampant among the Napael army.

Today was a different story, there wasn’t a clod of manure to be seen anywhere on the extensive grounds. The dogs had all been rounded up and either put down or into training, and Adar had put a bounty on rats that had eradicated all but a few. The cats he’d left alone to help deal with the vermin.

He walked up to a group of new recruits and their training officer, Sergeant Stamer, called them to attention. Stamer stood before them as Adar walked around and inspected the uniforms, to ensure that everything was improving. Three weeks ago, when he’d inspected the clothing of this same group of men, he’d found them misshapen and disheveled.

Today, however, things were more organized though they still had a long way to go. He stopped before one soldier with a large bulbous nose and an even larger head. The recruit was a head taller than Adar and almost double in width. It took a second, but Adar remembered his name.

“Landal,” he said with an approving nod, “I see you’ve learned to wash your clothes.” The last time he’d seen the man, Landal had food stains on his shirt that had looked like the remnants of more than several days of meals and there had been a smell that was making others keep their distance.

“Yes, sir!”

Landal’s sword was at the wrong angle on his back, he was missing a dagger, and a part of his shirt had come loose, but it was a start. At least the smell was gone. Adar didn’t enjoy being a disciplinarian, but with an organization this big the only way anything would ever get done was if order and process were in place. Making a mental note to meet with Sergeant Stamer to discuss the lapses further, he gave everybody else an approving nod and continued on.

At the stable, Adar was met by a boy that took his horse. When he smiled at the lad, the boy ducked his head and took the reins. In his attempts to learn the kid’s name, the boy had thwarted his efforts by pretending not to hear. Apparently some of the rumors that had gone around about Adar had made it to the children.

It was an effort to keep the grimace off his face when Adar thought of the lies that were being spread about him. Deep within his chest the silent fury that reminded him that it shouldn’t have been this way tried to rear its head and he squashed it down. Abel was behind many of those stories and had even generated incidents and evidence that seemed to back up the wild claims. What kind of father would do that to his son?

Adar couldn’t blame the boy and the others like him that believed the worst stories, but Adar hoped to overcome the boy’s fear.

With a few words to Slasher and instructions to the boy, he gave his horse a final pat and turned to leave when the boy started to say something. Adar looked back and the words died on the boy’s lips, his eyes frozen with terror. His face was still chubby, but that wouldn’t last for long because he’d been gaining height, even in the short time that Adar had known him.

“Less than half the rumors you hear have a grain of truth.” Adar snorted. “Those that do are so far beyond the mark they might as well be about somebody else.”

“My ma says you believe the Hunwei will come back,” the boy blurted out. “That true?”

“Our fathers planned on it. Why do you think we have so many armies? Spend so much time training and keeping at the ready? They knew something and did their best to pass it on to us though many—too many—have forgotten.” Adar had even heard that there were still some that were hoping for the Hunwei to return because they believed the Hunwei would come to help them. When he’d first heard of such foolishness, he’d dismissed it out of hand, but the stories still turned up. Semal had wondered if those that believed them were still around.

The Kopal—a hidden organization that had been eradicated more than a decade ago—were believed to have that as a central belief. It had never been confirmed because none of their members had ever been brought in alive for questioning because they’d managed to commit suicide before capture. Adar had seen the masks that they’d worn in the Rarbon Palace archives, where they were on prominent display. He’d also reviewed a record that documented what little was known of them.

The boy shook his head. “What do we do?”

It was a good question and for once Adar didn’t have a ready answer. If the boy would have been older, he would have encouraged him to get his parents to let him enlist ahead of his requirement.

The question also brought with it the reminder that only Adar could gain access to the Rarbon Portal because Abel had failed to pass the trials. Perhaps his father’s failure was a partial explanation for his feelings towards Adar, but it wasn’t enough to explain the pure vitriol and hatred that Adar had to put up with from his father.

Adar was thinking of another response to the kid when someone behind him cleared his throat. When he turned, Adar didn’t know the soldier’s name but he recognized him as one of the soldiers that had been on guard at the gate earlier. The guard was tall and had a face scarred by burns.

“What’s your name?” Adar asked, he’d been making a point of learning as many as he could. For the people that he saw regularly, he intended to call them all by name.

“Jarren Alfaro. We made a mistake. There’s a warrant for your prisoner. Keen missed a new poster that just came in.”

Adar frowned. It wasn’t like Keen to forget or miss a warrant. “Doesn’t sound like him.” Unless Keen was the spy. It wasn’t hard for Adar to imagine him selling information for money. It had been a mistake for Gardison to allow the lad to enlist.

Jarren shrugged. “All I know is that there is a warrant for your man from Lieutenant Briggs.”

“Haven’t heard of him. What army?”

“Paroke.”

Adar’s frown deepened at the mention of Paroke Army and he had to keep from reaching for his sword hilt where it rose above his back. General Helam Morgol’s army.

The soldier didn’t appear to have noticed, Adar didn’t need his suspicions about Helam getting around. Helam was well respected and took care to keep it that way.

Adar also didn’t like the way the soldier had referred to the captive as Adar’s man. It should have been our captive or something else that didn’t set Adar apart. There was something in Jarren’s tone as well, perhaps that was the reason why Adar had picked up on it in the first place.

He growled. He was allowing his paranoia to take control again. “We have a day before I have to tell Briggs.”

Adar watched Jarren’s response for signs of discomfort or worry, but the man gave a nod as he left.

The fact that Keen had missed the warrant made Adar uncomfortable. As he watched Jarren leave, he couldn’t help but wonder if this was the work of the spy he’d been hoping to ferret out.

The fact that it was Helam’s man who had a warrant out for the prisoner raised Adar’s suspicions even further, but it seemed like a mistake on Helam’s part, he had enough connections to have the warrant come from a different source. Perhaps Adar had been wrong about Helam.

If the false Radim were working for Helam, why would he do anything that would tie them back to him? Or maybe Helam was desperate enough to keep the captive man from speaking that he was willing to take the risk.

Adar would need to check to see if there had been warrants out for any of the other men that had been posing as Radim. He had the list of names he got today and he could track down the other captives who had been killed as well. If any of those led back to Helam, than Adar would have something more to go on than wild speculation.

Perhaps Helam was using the arrest warrants as an alert system so he could have his spy kill them discretely. If that was the case his captive might be in more immediate danger than he’d supposed.

Knowing that he was giving into paranoia, Adar nodded to the stable boy as he left and went to find Lucas so he could start the interrogation. It would have been better to wait until the man had been deprived of sleep and was exhausted from being on his feet all night, but Adar had the feeling that time wasn’t on his side.

After Adar had bested Helam in the competition, there had been a look on Helam’s face that Adar had ignored; it had seemed to be a promise. When Helam had found him drunk and without a sword, Adar had thought back to that look and realized he should have trusted his instincts.

It was a mistake that he hoped to never repeat.

Chapter 6

As Nelion hurried through the street on the Paroke army base, she wondered how long it had taken for her to get here and noticed that she’d been chewing on her lip. It was a nervous tic of hers. She released it and was glad that she didn’t taste blood. It wouldn’t have been the first time that she’d bitten herself. She was following the instructions she’d received from the Paroke guards at the Inner Wall and had taken a left before the large trash pile as instructed.

It had been a few moments since she had passed it and the smell was beginning to fade. She gulped for a breath of cleaner air, amazed that the trash was so close to their quarters in the Inner Wall. She’d heard that the army trash pile hadn’t always been right by the gate and wondered why it had been moved there. She didn’t know much about General Helam Morgol, but she figured he’d done it on purpose. Perhaps it was easier for the soldiers to remove their trash from the barracks if it was closer to where they lived. It was a pungent reminder for them to keep their quarters clean.

Korew army had no such trash pile. All refuse was either burned or disposed of outside of the city in Korew’s firebreak where it was buried. It made sense that the men were too lazy to do that and had to have it moved closer to where they lived.

Taking another deep breath, which smelled worse than the last, she guessed that it hadn’t been more than half an hour since the conversation with her mother, but even without seeing a clock, she knew that she was late for her appointment. She’d done her best to avoid running since she’d left the Palace courtyard, but she’d still moved at a quick enough pace that her breathing had become labored and she could feel sweat dripping down her back. If she’d taken the oaths and still been training, the brisk walk wouldn’t have bothered her in the slightest.

Every Radim army base had a section where buildings had been erected to supplement the barracks that were built into the Inner Wall. On most of the other Radim bases, the structures were stark affairs and had all the appeal of a darkly lit alley at night but that wasn’t the case here. This portion of the Paroke army base was more like a civilian street than she was used to seeing.

Children played in the failing light of the day while women dressed in fine clothes were finishing up their shopping. The Paroke grounds were nothing like what she was familiar with from her time with Korew army. She’d heard that some of the Radim army bases had allowed in civilian services, but she hadn’t seen it firsthand until now.

As Nelion passed a tailor shop, a well-dressed woman stepped out and Nelion wondered what the woman could have been shopping for until she looked at the display window and noticed that there were dresses for sale.

Doing her best to hide her shock, she’d continued on. Dresses hadn’t been available on the Korew army base and had been all but banned. If a woman on the Korew grounds ever wore a dress, at best she could expect dirty looks from anybody she saw; at worst, she could expect hazing. Nelion had heard of women waking up with their heads shaven. She hadn’t believed it because who would be stupid enough to wear a dress on the Korew base?

Shaking her head, she sped up her pace. Things were far stranger over here than she would have thought.

When she came to the Paroke archives, she was surprised to find that it was a three story building with a prominent place on the street. She’d been expecting a small one-room building where she could have browsed all the contents within an hour. No wonder why Semal had asked Kyson and her to help him out.

The final light of the day gave the building a deserted look and it was dark except for some light coming through a window up on the second floor.

Nelion tried the door, found it was locked, and knocked. After a few minutes passed without anybody answering, she tried knocking again; this time pounding with her fist so that those on the second floor would hear her. More time passed without anything happening and she was beginning to think about returning to the guards at the gate in the Inner Wall for help when she heard the lock turn. The door creaked open.

Kyson stood on the other side holding a lantern, he gave her a huge smile, his blonde hair was cropped short to his head and he wore the clothes of a scribe well. “We figured you wouldn’t show and gave up waiting an hour ago.” He was a tall man that had somehow managed to keep his former soldier physique even though he’d worked for Semal for a number of years since refusing the oaths. Nelion had tried to get him to talk about why he hadn’t taken the oaths but he wasn’t inclined to speak about his time in the army. She didn’t even know which army he’d served in.

“I’ve been banging on the door long enough that I was afraid it was going to come off its hinges.” Nelion’s annoyance disappeared in the face of his smile so she took off the edge in her tone with a smile of her own.

“I’d apologize,” Kyson said, his lips spread wider on his face as his smile grew, “but you’re late.”

“Sorry about that,” Nelion said, glancing at her feet. “My mother was waiting for me and wouldn’t let me pass without a long drawn out conversation.”

“No worries,” Kyson said, giving her a knowing look. Nelion had mentioned to him that her mother was disappointed that she’d left Korew army. There was something about that smile of his that had made her open up to him, not many people could get her to do that. “You won’t believe how boring this is, it’s much worse than normal.” He smiled at her again. “I’m glad you showed up, I could use the company.”

“What exactly are we doing?” Nelion repressed a sigh as she followed Kyson into the building and found herself in a small room; she looked around while he locked the door. His lantern cast everything in shadow. Something scuffled somewhere ahead in the dark; it sounded like a rat and made her glad she wasn’t alone. The room was lined with bookshelves that went to the ceiling. The musty smell of old books and leather along with something else she wasn’t able to identify hung heavy in the air. The bookshelf across from the door was full, top to bottom with books. The one to the left had books as well, but interspersed throughout were also a number of small figurines, pottery, and other small curiosities. There were books, scrolls and other items in the one on the right.

“Just sifting through ledgers like Semal told us about, looking for irregularities.”

“Irregularities? Of what?”

“Anything that looks odd or doesn’t add up.” Kyson locked the door. “Semal is convinced that there are codes hidden within the transactions.” He shook his head. “I’m afraid that he’s losing it, so far the only thing I’ve found is a couple of piglets that were purchased and then sold again. The dates don’t match up. The chronological order looked to be correct, but the date when the pigs were sold again is off.” Kyson shrugged. “Semal was excited. It just looked like a mistake to me.”

“He’s not crazy, but the whole thing does sound odd.” Her eyes focused on the center of the room where there was a round table that had been carved with flowers and leaves. The base of which looked like the paws of a large feline animal and the tabletop rotated between slats of dark and lighter colored wood. There were three leather chairs around it with a fourth pulled over to the wall.

It looked as though somebody had been standing on the chair to reach a book, a dubious use of the antique chair that looked as if it would fall apart if somebody too heavy were to sit on it. “I love this table!” She studied it as best she could in the shadows, she’d have to come back sometime in the day to get a better look.

Kyson looked at where she was pointing and shook his head. “Come on, sooner started is sooner done. I’d like to get a few hours of sleep tonight.”

Mold! she thought as she followed him out of the room. That was the smell she hadn’t been able to identify. The archives smelled moldy. She looked at the ceiling, expecting to see growths of mold on the wood but wasn’t able to make out anything because she’d let Kyson get too far ahead. It could be the books. Spending the next several hours in the archives began to be less appealing and she considered making up an excuse to get out of it but realized it was already too late for that. If she would have had a valid excuse, it would have been the first thing she’d said to Kyson when he opened the door.

Taking a shallow breath through her mouth to avoid the smell, Nelion sped up her pace and found that they were now in a much larger chamber with rows of shelves on either side, leaving a tight walkway. She caught glimpses of the contents of these shelves as they passed, but noticed that most of them didn’t contain books or scrolls. She saw a number of swords, helmets, and other body armor when she took a moment to examine one shelf before hurrying after Kyson. The weaponry and armor were quite old but looked well taken care of.

She would have to come back here in daylight to peruse the items of interest. They must have some significance to be put on display like this. She wondered if hidden among the ancient antiquities she might find proof of the Hunwei’s existence.

They came to a stairway and with a final look around the room, trying to pierce in a glance the secrets that were centuries old, she followed Kyson up to the second floor. This floor was closer to what she’d been expecting and she was happy to note that the moldy smell stayed downstairs.

As with the first floor, it was covered with bookshelves, but instead of interesting items, there were only books. They found Semal in a far corner of the room among a row of the bookshelves sitting on a chair. Nelion had noticed several other such chairs surrounding a table at the center of the room and she assumed that he had grabbed it from there.

A pile of books had been stacked high enough to support a bright lantern and Semal sat beside it with an open ledger on his lap and several books littered around his feet. He scanned the pages, running his finger down one of the columns, before skipping on to the next page. He didn’t see them approach and Kyson had to clear his throat a couple of times to get his attention. 

When Semal looked up, Nelion noticed that his eyes were red. He blinked several times as he focused on them.

“Ah, here you are at last.” Semal smiled. “Kyson was about to start bashing my head in with the ledgers, I’m glad somebody is here to keep him sane.” That was one thing that could be said about the man, even though he didn’t have a problem giving Nelion more work to do in a day than a normal person could do in a week, he was kind and had good humor about it. It was his unassuming gentle manner combined with his high expectations that made her stay on task while she worked for him, even when plowing through boring documents. “I thought he must have been imagining something when he said that he could hear knocking. I fear my hearing is going quicker than I thought.” Despite his haggard appearance and self-deprecation, Semal couldn’t have been older than sixty and still moved with ease.

“If you weren’t so old,” Kyson said, “we wouldn’t be able to benefit from your ancient wisdom.”

“A life unplanned will go nowhere.” Semal smiled again. “All joking aside, old age hasn’t brought half as much as I expected, though my stiff joints are worse than I’d planned on. Are you ready to work?” When Nelion nodded, he continued. “We’re going through these looking for irregularities.” He stopped as if that was all the explanation that was needed and didn’t say anything more as he handed Nelion a ledger.

“Um,” Nelion said as she noticed a smile on Kyson’s face as he shrugged as if to say that he had told her so. “Irregularities? I thought we had more to go on than that.” She’d thought that Kyson had given her the highlights of what they were doing, not the whole of it.

Earlier in the day, when Semal had asked her to help with the research, he’d mentioned that the project was based on a theory and explained that some time ago he’d stumbled across a reference to the ledgers of the Kopal. After giving it thought and considerable research, he’d wondered if it meant the ledgers in everyday use within the armies. He was starting with the Paroke archives because they were the most extensive and the best kept.

“That’s all I can tell you,” Semal said. “Look for things that seem odd. A price that is too much or too little when compared with the items being bought or sold. It could be some sort of code in the way items are ordered on the page. I don’t know.” He shrugged. “Like I said, irregularities.” 

Nelion took the ledger that Semal still held out to her. It was from five years ago and was as thick as her leg. She’d been expecting to look at something decades old, not a book that was from so recent a time period. Did Semal believe that the Kopal had been active as recently as that?

“This isn’t that old,” she said. “The Kopal were extinguished long before this.”

Semal didn’t look up. “A dangerous assumption that seems to be on everybody’s lips. Makes me wonder how the rumor got started.”

A chill went down Nelion’s back and the darkness surrounding them outside the glow of the lantern seemed to close in. She thought of the sound she’d heard earlier and dismissed as a rat. If the Kopal were still around… She pushed the thought away and tried to think of a response to Semal but came up with nothing, so instead she pulled over a stack of ledgers and was about to sit when Kyson spoke.

“I was back at the table. You’re welcome to join me. That would be a bit more comfortable.” He motioned at the stack she was about to sit on.

She took her ledger and followed him to the table. As they walked, the lantern that he held made the shadows in the room move. Stifling a gasp, she turned, positive that she’d seen somebody in the darkness but when she stared at the place, the moving light made it impossible to tell. 

Shuddering, she dismissed it as her imagination as she continued forward. She had thought it odd that Semal had wanted to do this research at night and had assumed that it was the only time he could get access to the archives. If he believed that the Kopal were still active, there was a different reason altogether that they were here once everybody else had gone home.

She could feel her dagger brushing against her side and took some measure in the comfort it provided but not much. A sword would have been better. The shadows were dancing too much. The moving light hit what appeared to be a person covered in a cowl in a row to her right, but when Nelion focused on it, Kyson had already moved on and she wasn’t able to make anything out for certain.

She got a bad feeling and almost called out to Kyson but stopped before she did so. All this talk about the Kopal had worked up her fears.

As she passed the bookshelf where she’d seen the shadow, she couldn’t help but look from the corner of her eye but saw nothing. Once they were beyond the place in question, she found herself reaching for her dagger even while she told herself that she’d been seeing illusions. She pulled it out from the sheath on her belt and held it flat against her side. She was certain she was being paranoid, but after hesitating she decided that it was better to have the dagger in hand in case she hadn’t imagined the hooded person.

She squatted on instinct when a scraping sound came from behind.

Kyson set the lantern on the table and looked back; he frowned when he noticed she was crouching. He opened his mouth to speak as an arrow plunged into his chest. Whatever he’d been about to say turned into a scream while Nelion dove between the bookcases and went to all fours. Had the arrow been meant for her? She’d felt it pass by over her head.

The chair she had been crouching beside moments before shuddered as an arrow penetrated the back and stuck, quivering in the lantern light. Another followed it a moment later and this one ricocheted off the table before sliding into the darkness.

Kyson fell to the floor with a thud and moaned. It was followed by a raspy gasp of breath and a soft growl. She could just make out his face in the light of the lantern and had to suppress an urge to go to him. She wouldn’t do him any good if she got herself killed in the process of helping. She couldn’t see where he’d been hit in the chest, but if he was to have any chance at all, she would need to get him help immediately.

A shuffling sound from several rows back caught her attention; it was coming from the spot where she’d seen the hooded person. She crawled down the row of bookshelves to the other side where there was a small aisle between the shelves and the wall. The nearest window was several rows away and gave her a little light with which to see. Grateful that the bookshelf hadn’t connected up with the wall, she scrambled down the aisle to where she’d seen the hooded person and peeked around the corner. The person was still there, peering in the direction of the table.

Nelion was considering her options when the figure turned and walked towards her. By the outline of his shape and the broad shoulders, she could tell it was a man. He had a sword that he held out in front. Glad that she’d kept a low profile, she retreated and crawled into the next row.

She hadn’t seen a bow or a quiver of arrows on the man coming her way, so there was at least one other assailant.

She heard the man stop and imagined him looking down the aisle in the direction she’d just come from. A few moments later he passed by heading that way. She swallowed when she realized how close she’d come to getting caught.

If she hadn’t moved when she had, he would have got her. She gripped the hilt of her dagger and realized that her hand was sweaty. She placed the dagger on the floor without making a sound and wiped her hand on her dress before picking it up again. What she would have given to have a sword with her right now. She hadn’t been as good with that as she had a bow and arrow, but she could hold her own well enough. Her cheeks flushed when she thought about how she’d judged her mother for carrying her sword with her even though she was now retired.

Summoning her courage, she moved forward until she could peek out into the aisle. The man stood in front of the row she’d ducked into right after Kyson had been hit. He started to turn his head back towards her, so she slid behind the bookshelf. What would he do next? Would he meet up with his counterpart and leave or would they try to find her?

Did they know that Semal was here too?

She had to assume they knew about Semal and would go for him next if something hadn’t happened to him already. There hadn’t been any indication what Semal had done when Kyson had screamed, but she remembered how they’d been on top of him with a lantern and he still hadn’t noticed their approach. It was likely that he was still doing his research, oblivious to what was going on. She hoped the old man had gone for cover, but wouldn’t have bet on it. 

There was the sound of swishing fabric as the man moved back down the aisle towards her, his pant legs rubbing against each other. She lay prone against the side of the bookshelf and prayed that he wouldn’t notice her as he passed. When he continued by without even a glance in her direction, her breath caught in her chest. He did know about Semal and was headed towards him now.

Kyson moaned, the sound of it twisted her insides with terror and she took several steps back towards him before stopping. Moving out into the open now would be a mistake. The archer was still out there, waiting for her to show up. Going to Kyson would be as good as committing suicide.

Bloody Melyah! she thought, even though she knew it was the right decision, that didn’t keep her from feeling horrible. She wasn’t about to abandon Semal when there was a chance that she still might be able to save him. 

Nelion noticed that her hands were sweaty again and wiped them on her dress before moving out into the aisle and following after the man. Afraid that Semal would be caught unaware, she increased her speed. She was less than ten feet away when her quarry turned into Semal’s row.

Cursing under her breath, she refrained from breaking into a full run because she wanted to keep her presence hid until the last possible moment. He couldn’t know she was coming or that would be the end.

Taking a deep breath, she locked her eyes on the bookshelf where he’d turned in. She was almost there.

When she got to the row the man was blocking the chair where Semal had been sitting.

She brought up her dagger and covered the last few steps in a blur of motion. When she stabbed the man in the back, he screamed out. By that time she had already grabbed his neck and wrenched her dagger free before using her weight to pull the man to the ground by stepping backward.

She went down on top of him, the full force of her fall positioning her dagger so that it tore into his chest. He grabbed for her blouse and she heard it rip. She twisted the dagger out and stabbed him, again eliciting a scream that froze her blood. The other intruder would come to see what had happened, she hadn’t thought of a plan to handle him. She needed to disappear into the shadows.

It was strange how things worked out. In all her time in Korew army, she’d never harmed a person. Now as a scribe, she was taking a life. She pulled her dagger out and was about to stand when somebody put a hand over her mouth.

She twisted and the dagger was halfway towards Semal before she recognized him.

“Melyah!” she hissed, stopping the dagger short. “Are you trying to get killed?” 

Semal’s eyes took in the dagger. “Apparently so. By the gods, I’m out of practice. Come on, we have to get out of here.”

“Kyson is still alive.”

“We don’t know how many there are—” He was interrupted by shouting and footsteps spilling into the hall.

“Semal!” somebody called out. “Where are you? You know you’re not supposed to be in here.” There was a rush of feet that sounded like men spreading out. 

“Bloody marching Melyah,” Semal said. “As if we don’t already have enough problems.”

“You didn’t get permission?” Nelion asked, remembering how she’d asked the guards at the Inner Wall gate for directions earlier. That was what had tipped them off. She would have felt foolish for the error except for her mistake had saved their lives. Far better to be charged with trespassing than to get murdered.

Semal rolled his eyes. “We would have been turned away if I’d asked.”

“How’d you get a key?”

“That’s hardly the thing you should be worrying about just now.”

Nelion resisted the urge to hit him. How much trouble were they going to be in for sneaking into the archives? She searched her memory for what the punishment would be and could only come up with the five lashes caught for trespassing on a Radim army base. 

“What have you gotten me into?” Stifling a yelp, she remembered that Kyson was bleeding to death on the floor while she was trying to figure out how much trouble she was in. “Kyson was shot—”

“Captain!” another voice cried, “I have a wounded man here.” A pause. “Strike that. He’s dead.”

When Nelion heard the words, she froze and found that she couldn’t breathe. She should’ve gone back to Kyson, instead of running away. Perhaps if she’d removed the arrow and stopped the flow of blood he would have survived.

She shook her head, her inexperienced hands would have killed him all the faster. She had done the right thing by hiding.

“By the gods!” Semal said, breaking into her thoughts. He bent forward and pushed back the cowl of the man she had killed. He was wearing a black mask with a row of small horns across the top. “This couldn’t get more complicated.” He took Nelion by the arm. “You have to go find General Adar Rahid. Bring him back. He must see this.”

What does Adar Rahid have to do with all this? Nelion thought, trying to get a hold of her emotions. She had never met him but from what she’d heard, the man was arrogant, brash, and rude. Some of the stories she’d heard made her glad that Adar would be hard pressed to pass his trials to become Ghar. She hoped he wouldn’t even pass the trials to become Rahar. She didn’t want a man like that at the head of their government.

Kyson had liked Adar well enough and had said that her impression of him was wrong. “He’s not like they say,” Kyson had said. “He’s direct, sure, and determined, but you’d have a hard time believing rumors if you met him in person.”

According to Kyson, Adar visited Semal quite often but she hadn’t seen that happen. During the last several months since Nelion had taken this job, she’d never seen the two of them together.

Semal shook her. “You listening? Slip out past the guards, I’ll draw their attention.” He stepped out of the bookshelves and shouted. “I’m over here!” He looked back at Nelion and whispered. “Go, now!”

Chapter 7

Adar smelled perfume and looked over his shoulder when he heard quick footsteps shifting on the gravel. It wasn’t often that he noticed a feminine scent on the Napael army base. A flash of surprise danced across the woman’s face when she saw him turn to meet her, but it was gone as quick as it came.

He hadn’t made it ten steps from the stables and was annoyed at the interruption. It was also a bit disconcerting to be so easily found, but now that he was a general, people would take note of him wherever he went in Rarbon. This was especially true while he was on his own base. It was going to take some getting used to.

The moons highlighted the woman’s damp angular face as she let out a gasp of breath. Her knee-length brown dress made him think of a scribe until he saw her silk blouse and the gold necklace that hung askew from her neck. She also wore a dagger on her belt. Scribes wouldn’t wear such expensive garb. Without intending to, his hackles went up. He’d learned the hard way to be wary around well-dressed women.

“General Rahid,” she heaved. There’s been…” she trailed off and took a deep breath. When she exhaled, it came out as a soft groan.

Her blouse had a tear along the side and blood trailed down one arm. Were those tears intermingling with the sweat on her face? The nearest light source was a lantern hanging from a wall of the stables but it wasn’t close enough to determine if her eyes were red from crying.

“Kyson’s dead.” Gasp. “Murdered.” The last part of murdered was cut off because she expelled a breath and struggled to keep from choking up. She paused and looked at him as if expecting him to make a connection. Adar bit his lip as he tried to put a face to the name. Nothing came. While it was true that he’d met many new people in the last few weeks, most of them had belonged to Napael army.

“Did this happen here? To one of my men? Or in Napael territory?” When she shook her head, he continued. “I don’t know a Kyson and this is outside my jurisdiction. There isn’t much I can do other than point you to the proper authority.”

“Semal sent me to fetch you to the Paroke army archives. Kyson is his scribe.”

Paroke. Helam’s army.

A chill filled Adar as Helam came up again so soon. Was this a trap? Had Helam been pushed over the edge? Sending a young woman to lure Adar to his demise?

No, if Helam ever did decide to kill Adar, he wouldn’t let it happen anywhere that could be tied back to him. He wasn’t that desperate. 

Who was Kyson? Was she referring to the tall man he’d met last time he visited Semal Bray? The name sounded like it was right for the fellow but Adar couldn’t remember.

He frowned. Things would make a little more sense if Semal was involved as she claimed. The longer Adar had to mull it over he did seem to remember that the tall fellow’s name was Kyson. It would appear that he hadn’t been far off when he’d noticed her dress, she was a scribe, though most of them didn’t dress as nicely. The necklace she wore had to be worth twice her monthly salary.

Semal did have a penchant for secrecy. The last time Adar had seen Semal had been more than a month ago, just after Adar’s return to Rarbon. He should have made an effort to see the professor sooner but much had happened in the intervening time. After their last meeting, Adar had left with a fierce determination to make his way into the Rarbon Portal as fast as he could. Despite all of Semal’s efforts over the years, he still hadn’t turned up anything else that would be of use in fighting the Hunwei when they came. The portal was still their only option. 

The scribe opened her mouth to continue but he spoke over the top of her. “Are you sure Semal meant me? If it happened in the Paroke army archives, you should be looking for General Morgol.”

She shook her head. “Professor Semal said your name specifically. There’s something he wants you to see firsthand.” She gave him an annoyed look. “Don’t bother to ask what, he didn’t have time to tell me, though I assume it has something to do with the mask that man wore.”

The mention of a mask made him think of the Kopal, he studied her face, looking for any traces of deception. In addition to the sweat, her voice was a little unsteady. He wondered how well she’d known Kyson. He wouldn’t usually have questioned a summons from Semal, but being summoned to the Paroke base wasn’t something to obey without question.

Protocol dictated that before entering the base, Adar had to notify Helam of his presence. He doubted that Semal had thought of that before summoning him and wondered if Semal would be happy to have Helam showing up as well. If there had been a murder as the woman claimed, news of it would get to Helam with time, but if Adar showed up, Helam would come to investigate. Adar would do the same thing if Helam showed up on his base.

Should he try to go in disguise? Perhaps change into civilian clothes? Adar discarded the thought as quick as it came. No, even before he was made general, Adar had been well enough known that many soldiers recognized him on sight. He was after all the son of Rahar Abel and would be noticed for that alone. If the Paroke guards recognized him, word of his presence would get back to Helam and then Adar would have a worse problem on his hands.

If Helam did come to the Paroke Archives, Adar could take this as an opportunity to catch Helam off guard with a few pointed questions about the captive. Adar discarded that thought as well, because if he did that he would have to turn the captive over sooner than he was planning.

“Lead on scribe.” Adar motioned for the woman to head towards the Inner Wall gate since she knew her way around the Napael army grounds well enough to go about unescorted. She had probably been in one of the Radim armies, either Korew or Verag, the only armies to accept female recruits. From what little Adar had been able to observe of the two organizations, both maintained a higher level of discipline than most of the others, which wasn’t saying much. The woman was young enough that she must have recently finished her enlistment and then found employment as a scribe working for Semal. Her service in the army might also explain the expensive necklace. Some Radim soldiers weren’t above looting.

The woman frowned. “Call me Nelion.”

“Sure thing.”

Nelion didn’t slow when they arrived at the Inner Wall and the guards didn’t challenge her as she forced her way through. Adar gave the men a small frown as he came to a stop before them but decided not to mention it. He supposed that they were more used to keeping people out than in. He would instead say something to the officer in charge of the guard. All civilian traffic should be recorded, it didn’t matter whether it was coming or going.

Adar didn’t know either of the guards, so he addressed the one that looked older.

“Soldier, find Lieutenant General Tere Huel and tell him to triple the watch on the prisoner—he’ll know who I mean—and begin the interrogation. Inform him that a warrant for the prisoner has been found.”

“Yes, Sir. Will that be all?”

Adar thought about it. “Tell him to not allow a transfer of the prisoner until I come back.”

With a nod of his head, the guard took off at a run. It was nice to see that the man had noticed the urgent tone in Adar’s voice. In theory, Adar shouldn’t have needed to include the last instruction, but it was best not to take chances. 

Like the Outer Wall, the Inner Wall was a warren of passageways, stairs, and rooms. Adar’s own quarters and council chambers were located several flights up. When they came to the intersecting hallway that circled the entire circumference of the Inner Wall connecting all the Radim armies together, Nelion didn’t take the turn and instead pushed on through to the other gate and out past the guards on the city side of the wall.

That gave Adar pause. He’d been expecting her to take the path around the inside of the wall. While it wasn’t as direct, the path was kept clear so messengers could run. Perhaps she didn’t want to mess with the various guard stations at every section of the wall when they entered into a new army’s territory. She would be stopped because she didn’t wear a uniform and Adar would have to vouch for her.

Or did she want to avoid guards that might notice her leading him along?

He studied her back as he wondered if perhaps he should call for several of his men to join him. While she alone didn’t pose much of a threat to him, she could lead him into a dangerous situation. The only thing that stopped him was that Semal liked to keep a low profile, and if Adar showed up with a squad of men in tow, he would be anything but pleased. Adar resolved to be vigilant as he followed her, wondering how many men had been led to their doom by a pretty face.

Paroke army manned the northeast section of the city wall and it was not a quick trip from where Napael army was located on the south side of the city. Nelion sometimes made as if to run, but Adar refused to follow her lead. It wouldn’t do for others to witness him hurrying unless there was a dire need. Nelion looked back several times in frustration and urged him to move faster. Each time, Adar gave her a mirthless tight grin and continued at his steady pace.

It wasn’t that he wasn’t sympathetic for the situation or her desire to hurry; he was just more interested in maintaining his decorum as he traveled through the city. While Adar didn’t consider himself image conscious, he recognized that there were certain limitations to what he would be able to accomplish if he didn’t take care to cultivate an image of authority and respect. He didn’t know why it was so important that Semal had sent for him but he couldn’t afford to make many mistakes where the people of Rarbon were concerned.

Adar did a double take when he saw a squad of marching Redd Guard ahead. Their red leather uniforms made them stand out wherever they went. The dark skinned man at the front was big and bald. Adar was familiar with the man and because he didn’t know the large man’s name had always thought of the man as Boulder.

Boulder had scars running down the side of his face and neck. His muscled bulk looked as though it had stretched his leather uniform to the point that it would break if he were to flex. He looked at Adar but his face didn’t show any recognition. Adar hid a smirk as Boulder looked away, not doubting for a moment that Boulder had recognized him.

Their sole job was to keep Adar out of the Rarbon Portal until he passed the tests to become Ghar. In the past, Adar had tried to make conversation with some of the Redd Guard but they’d rebuffed his attempts. As a kid, he’d been able to procure a few smiles but that had stopped as he aged.

Once the Redd Guard had passed, Adar tried to remember what he knew about the intricacies of Paroke army. He had never been on the Paroke army grounds and wished that he hadn’t spent the better part of the year outside of Rarbon. Too much had changed in the intervening time. He didn’t know half of the new Council members and if the rumors were to be believed, Helam had become more daring in his insubordination towards Abel.

Of course, Adar might not have been promoted as fast if he hadn’t come back with one of Derren’s tablets, even if it was broken and useless.

Still, it was annoying to be out of touch.

As they walked, Adar tried pumping Nelion for additional information but other than terse one-word answers he didn’t get much out of her. 

When they at last arrived at the Paroke army gate, the guards recognized Nelion and waved them through. Stifling his surprise, Adar had to suppress his desire to chastise them for their lack of attention to procedure. Her visit to the base should have been logged. While it was true they would have seen her leave not more than an hour before, it still was a breach of protocol not to record the return visit.

Adar addressed one of the guards, a blonde haired man who was having trouble keeping his eyes open and had been leaning against the stone doorway when they approached. His hair was a little too long and there were a couple of days of scruff on his face.

When Adar asked the man to inform General Helam that he would be visiting the archives, the guard stared at him until his companion elbowed him in the ribs and pointed at Adar’s triple sword pin on his collar that signified his rank as a general. It rankled Adar to let Helam know of his presence, but there was no way around it.

The guard coughed out a “Yes, Sir,” before breaking into a run. The other guard shrugged and mumbled something about the first being a new recruit.

Giving the man a look that he hoped conveyed his disapproval of how they were handling things, Adar continued through the Inner Wall and out into the Paroke courtyard where he found Nelion waiting with an impatient look on her face.

The smell of manure and rotting garbage hung heavy in the air, drawing Adar’s eyes towards a pile of refuse that wasn’t more than fifty feet away. It was over two stories tall and he could see feral cats, rats, and dogs scavenging through the pile. He even spotted a goat near the top, pawing through the trash.

There had been a similar pile when Adar had taken over Napael army and it had been cleaned up during his first week. Trash was now either burned, placed into a compost pile, salvaged for metal or glass that could be melted down, or buried daily. The fact that this trash pile sat so close to the entrance of the Paroke army grounds filled him with a resolve that in the near future such things would be cleaned up on all the Radim army grounds. Even Helam would have to follow an order if it came from a Ghar.

Clenching his fist, he focused on Nelion. She was well lit by a lamp that hung off a nearby pole and it was the first good look that he’d gotten of her. He’d been so focused on the riddle she posed, that he hadn’t noticed the way her straight blonde hair complimented her face. 

He gave her a smile that she didn’t acknowledge before she led him down an alley that ran behind a row of buildings that were parallel to the Inner Wall. These buildings varied in height and layout from those that had been built in similar fashion on the Napael grounds. He was disoriented by the different layout because there was a three-story building where he’d been expecting open ground. If Adar’s commission had been Paroke army instead of Napael, he would have had this building torn down. It was excessively close to the gate.

As he followed Nelion into the shadows of the alley, he noticed a tavern on the bottom floor of the building. The sign out front identified it as the Graceful Gal. The sound of laughter, both from men and women, came out of an open window. If the stench from the refuse pile wouldn’t have been so overpowering, he imagined the smell of the tavern would have been laden with sweat, perfume, tobacco, and beer. It was a given that most soldiers would frequent such an establishment, but bringing it onto the army grounds? That was several notches below wise and invited all sorts of trouble.

Nelion increased her speed without looking back to see if Adar was following. Was it just his imagination or was her back straighter? Cursing, Adar increased his stride, hoping that nobody would notice him. He wouldn’t know where to find the archives without the woman and he didn’t like the idea of going back to the tavern or the guards for directions.

When she turned a corner without so much as a glance over her shoulder, he restrained from breaking into a run. It was bad enough that she’d got him to hurry as much as he had.

Would the building have a sign? The Paroke archives were the largest of any of the armies and it was said to rival that of the Rarbon Palace archives. He sped up, it was best not to chance it.

Adar went around the corner in time to see two shadowed figures jump off the roof of a one-story building. Both were hooded and had Radim swords on their back. When they landed, they turned their drop into a roll and came up on their feet without any audible sound. It was a move he’d practiced hundreds of times, same as any other Radim soldier.

The first was ten feet from Nelion and charged towards her as soon as he was up, drawing his sword from his sheath as he did.

Adar broke into a run while unsheathing his own sword, his boots clattering on the cobblestones of the road as he closed the gap between the closest figure and himself. The other man must have heard Adar’s approach because he drew his sword and flipped around, but it was already too late.

Adar ran his sword through the man’s stomach, swept his foe’s feet out from underneath him, and pulled out his sword all without stopping. It was only as the figure cried out, that Adar realized he had just put his sword through a woman. As she fell, her hood fell open and blonde hair spilled out from underneath. She wore a black mask that covered most of her face, leaving a place for her eyes and mouth. She screamed again, piercing the quiet of the evening.

Adar had never harmed a woman and even though the realization filled him with regret, he didn’t have time to dwell on it because her companion had turned on him.

Behind the cloaked figure, Nelion held a dagger in each hand, her beautiful face marred by a snarl. The second dagger was a surprise but Adar supposed he shouldn’t have been taken off guard; she had after all served as a Radim. Seeing her with the blades flashing in the night made him pause. His hesitation was almost too long, by the time he tore his eyes away from her the other man was to him.

Adar parried an attack and met it with his own, only to have the man—there could be no doubt this time, based on the low tone of his growl and his large shoulders—block the blow with his sword and return it.

The blows they exchanged rang through the still evening air. As the next attack came, the arc of the man’s blade, the way he leapt off the ground, and the glint of his eyes behind the mask all seemed to slow. Adar took a breath, brought up his own sword, took a step forward and took advantage of the fact the man was in the air to push him to the ground when their swords met.

The man rolled to his feet but remained squatting as he blocked Adar’s next attack. Somewhere in the back of his mind, Adar was surprised that he hadn’t taken the man down by now. There weren’t many in the Radim armies at Adar’s skill level, and he could count them all on one hand. Whoever was behind this mask, Adar knew and had fought before. He began to list them off but stopped so he could turn his full concentration to the fight.

Crouching, Adar dodged a strike and brought his sword up into his attacker, who twisted in time to take the blow on his ribs and lower arm, instead of through the chest. The man made a low howling sound but continued through with his own blow. Adar dove in time to keep the man from taking him in the neck.

Nelion charged with a cry, wielding the sword of the fallen female assailant. The man met the new attack, giving Adar a chance to get to his feet.

Adar expected the man to cut Nelion down, but she parried the blows rather well, even though she struggled to bring her own attack. Adar charged without hesitation. Some believed a fight should be one on one, but Adar never felt bound to such restrictions. Dead was dead, and he wasn’t about to let Nelion be cut down by some shadow in the night.

The man shifted his attention to Adar and blocked the attack, resulting in a surprised but relieved look from Nelion. In another situation, the look on her face would have brought a smile to Adar’s lips. Instead, he was just glad she was skilled enough with the sword that she was still alive.

After meeting Adar’s attack, the man fumbled with something up his sleeve that slipped out and fell to the road. Breaking glass accompanied a blinding flash of light. Adar slashed at the place where the man had last been, but his sword found nothing but air. Blinking his eyes, he tried to see through the afterimages and could make out the man hopping onto a barrel before scaling the wall of the building he’d jumped off earlier.

On instinct, Adar pulled a dagger and flung it. The blade made a dull sound when it sunk into the wood, missing the man by a few feet.

Cursing, Adar was already reaching for another dagger, but the man had disappeared onto the roof.

Adar weighed his options and tried to decide if it would be better to chase after the man or see to the woman he’d attacked earlier. The building that their attacker had climbed wouldn’t be the man’s final destination. The next several buildings were close enough that he’d be able to travel from roof to roof. If he made it over to the tavern, it wouldn’t take much effort to disappear into the crowd.

With a glance at the roof, Adar examined the woman he’d run through with his blade. Her breathing was labored and shallow; blood formed in a pool underneath her and she had her hand to her mouth. In the scant moonlight, Adar could just make out foam as it oozed past her lips.

Sycanon root extract. The woman had seconds to live. Cursing, he bent down even though it was futile and removed her hand. Her head slumped to the side as she stopped breathing.

Nelion approached. “She’s dressed like the others.”

Adar didn’t answer as he used a dagger to cut the string that secured the mask to the woman’s head and lifted it from her face. Shifting so the moonlight would hit her, he looked down on the woman, her face burning into his memory. From the dark eyes to her trimmed eyebrows to her pointed chin, he knew he’d never forget her. She wasn’t as attractive as Nelion but had probably turned a head now and then.

Sighing, he knew he shouldn’t have looked because he would be seeing her in his dreams. Each time the scene would play out and he’d try to take a different path, but it would always end the same, like so many of the others he’d killed before. The thought brought tears to his eyes, but he blinked them back. While he was awake, it wasn’t a problem. He’d made the right decision and it wouldn’t hold him back while he was conscious.

Standing, he looked at Nelion and held out the mask. “The others wore this?” The last time he’d seen its like had been in the Rarbon Palace archives. There were little spikes at the top Adar hadn’t noticed until now. He’d supposed that they were there to mimic the horns that sat on top of the Hunwei heads. He’d never seen a live Hunwei but had run into a fossil a few times before.

She gave a quick nod of her head and Adar sighed. It had been a long time since the Kopal had dared to show themselves in Rarbon. In light of everything else he had going on, it was something that he could have done without.

He shouldn’t have been surprised. With all the evangelizing that Semal was doing about the return of the Hunwei, the Kopal were bound to become more active. How could they not? It took effort to not crumple the mask as he held it in his hand.

Chapter 8

The temperature in his office was warmer than Helam would have preferred so he opened the window to let in the cool evening air. Children played on the street below and Helam was reminded of when Molach had been that young. The image of his son holding a wooden sword and out of breath from running with his friends brought a smile to Helam’s lips.

It didn’t last long though. Briggs hadn’t returned with a report yet and Helam was having a hard time concentrating on anything else. As the evening had progressed, he was becoming concerned that he’d made the wrong decision. Killing Birgemat while in Adar’s custody would have been less risky; he should have just done it and found a way to get another spy close to Adar. Helam had already underestimated Adar, the risk wasn’t worth it.

He realized he had something in his hand and looked down at the small bottle he’d been rolling around with his fingers. It contained powdered laely flower; he was never without it. All his bodyguards carried the stuff as well. He couldn’t count the number of times it had turned out to be useful to sprinkle a little bit of the stuff in someone’s drink or on top of their food. Once consumed, the person would be unconscious within a few minutes and when they woke up half a day later, they’d be hard pressed to remember their last waking hour. It was a nervous habit of his to play with the bottle.

He looked at the cork to make sure that it was still in place before replacing it in his pocket. He’d accidently taken some himself one time and fortunately hadn’t forgotten anything important. Ever since then he found himself checking multiple times a day to make sure that the cork hadn’t moved.

Several times during the last hour, he had almost sent one of his personal guards after Briggs, but each time he stopped himself and renewed his determination to be patient. Before too much longer he hoped to receive word that the ruse had worked and that Birgemat was on his way to the Paroke army base.

Helam had already signed the man’s execution order. Once Birgemat was in Briggs custody, it would just be a matter of time before the problem was behind him. With Birgemat dead, executed because he’d been found guilty by the Paroke army tribunal in absentia for stealing gold from the Paroke army treasury, Helam would breathe a lot easier. Because the made up crime had happened on his base, it was within Helam’s authority. Everything was in place; all that was needed was for Briggs to come back with Birgemat.

He went back to his desk and stood behind the chair as he surveyed his office; it was another reminder of the compromises he’d made since he’d discovered his wife Elaire’s secret. If it had been up to him, he never would have traded his austere quarters located within the Inner Wall for this more comfortable home on the Paroke grounds. But Elaire had a way of getting from him the things that she wanted, even before she had the full threat and force of the Kopal behind her. She’d given him an ultimatum and left him with few options other than killing her or going along with it.

He still loved her too much for the former and so he’d been stuck with the latter. He’d considered mounting a campaign against her that would have allowed him to move back into the official Paroke general headquarters, but the thought never made it far because he couldn’t allow himself to think of his wife as the enemy she was. With love, some matters didn’t make sense and that was just the way it was.

He could have moved back without her, but the rumors that went around about his marital troubles were bad enough without adding fuel to the fire. He didn’t know whether it was Elaire, Molach or one of their servants spreading around the troublesome stories and he didn’t much care to find out because he was afraid of what he would learn.

Sometimes it was better not to know. At least, that is what he told himself. Since there appeared to be no chance of repairing the relationship between him and his wife, they’d at least managed to arrive at some semblance of civility they each could live with. For now. While he knew that he’d never convince her to see his way on things that still didn’t stop him from hoping that at some point she’d give in and they’d reconcile.

But was he taking too much of a chance by not proactively monitoring her activities? He’d never arranged to have a spy follow her and he was beginning to wonder if that was a mistake. When he’d learned the truth, he had initially considered the idea but had delayed implementing it. Somehow, it had just felt wrong to have his wife followed. But as his hopes for reconciliation had all but disappeared, he had to be more practical, especially considering her increasing unexplained absences.

A knock on the door broke him from his thoughts and he gave the instruction to come in. When it opened, a Paroke soldier was shown in by his servant Kiral, who gave a slight bow before she left. Helam didn’t know the man by name, but recognized that he was one of the Inner Wall guards. The man was sweaty and breathing a little hard. His uniform didn’t look worn and his face still had a boyish cast to it.

“General Rahid sent you a message that he is here visiting the archives.” The guard scratched under his lip.

Helam felt his pulse quicken and stifled a frown. “Did he say what he is looking for?” As far as Helam knew, there wasn’t anything damaging in the Paroke archives, but his wife had made it clear to him that the archives had to be protected. He didn’t know more than that because she wouldn’t say. He’d been tempted more than once to have his scribes start poking around, but so far hadn’t been willing to take the risk.

A startled look crossed the guard’s face. “Semal and several of his scribes were attacked earlier, several people are dead. I guess Adar was coming to help out.”

Helam put his hands behind his back, clenched his fists, and bit off a curse. If he had known that Semal was on base, he would have done something about it. Letting that man into the archives was as good as putting a candle next to a haystack. He’d given his wife too much free rein if she thought she could get away with something like murder on his base. He thanked the guard and called for Kiral to show the man out.

Helam remained standing behind his desk once the man was gone, breathing until his lungs were full, trying to get control of his anger. He’d long ago given up the habit of throwing things or punching whatever was closest but that didn’t make dealing with his rage any easier.

Helam had given to his guards a list of people that had to be watched, but it was beyond his power to forbid them entry to his base without cause. Several of those on the list had a notation by their name requiring that Helam be notified when they entered. Semal and Adar both had such a notation.

The fact that Semal had gotten through without Helam knowing about it was bothersome but would have been recoverable if Semal hadn’t gone to the archives and gotten himself in trouble. The last thing that Helam needed right now was for the Kopal to feel that they had been forced into action. He couldn’t afford for the tension to escalate between him and his wife.

Helam was walking towards the door of his office when Elaire entered and pulled the dark mahogany door shut behind her. His wife was a beautiful woman and while that had been what attracted him to her, it wasn’t what had kept him courting her. It was her snappy wit, uncanny ability to remember trivial facts, and the way she could understand complicated things easier than most. She’d never enlisted, but she had a grasp for the way the Radim armies worked that most generals didn’t have.

He looked across the room at her and tried to force a smile, it wouldn’t come. There had been a time when he didn’t do anything except he consulted her first. He had sometimes changed his plans based on her recommendations but it hadn’t been that way for half a decade. It had also been that long since he’d last held her in his arms or kissed her.

“Semal and his scribes cannot be allowed to leave the base.” Elaire folded her arms and stared him in the eye. It wasn’t the first such occasion she’d approached him with a request, but this was the first one that crossed the line.

“Coming to me to clean up your mess? What are you hiding?”

“That doesn’t concern you,” she snapped.

Helam made a fist and brought it down on the table, hard. “Our agreement is noninterference. Explain to me how attacking Semal doesn’t violate that.” He was angry enough that he didn’t regret the physical outburst, but he knew he would once he calmed down.

“Noninterference with Paroke army. Semal doesn’t report to you and wasn’t here at your request. He snuck in and stole a key to the Paroke archives.” His wife glared at him. “If anything, you should be thanking us for trying to apprehend a thief and a trespasser.”

“That’s part of the issue, isn’t it? Your people failed.”

“My people had to depart when your guards showed up.”

“And now you want me to finish the job.”

Elaire snarled as she opened the door. “We’ll clean up our own mess. Don’t let them leave the base.”

No matter how she wanted to look at it, this was crossing their boundaries. Helam had never agreed to do anything to help further her ridiculous cause. For the sake of Molach, their agreement had been to leave one another alone. If Helam wasn’t careful, that woman either would be the death of him or would bring down everything that he’d spent years building.

His wife had never said as much, but Helam had assumed that if Elaire were to die under suspicious circumstances, she had something in place that would ensure he wouldn’t be far behind.

Even the thought of planning her demise galled him but if she was going to start breaking their agreement, there was only so far he could let her go. While he loved his wife, he couldn’t stand by and let her undermine his plans and the safety of Rarbon when her ultimate goal was to serve the cause of the Kopal.

If it hadn’t been for Elaire, Helam would have begun rooting out their infestation as soon as he’d discovered it. If his wife was serious about taking action while thumbing her nose at him, he’d have little choice in the matter. He’d put up with the Kopal for too long as it was.

It was time to have her followed.

How could I have married a woman who believes that the Hunwei will bring her salvation? He wondered. The notion that the Hunwei hadn’t come to destroy them all those years ago was laughable. All accounts, from all peoples, had agreed on one thing. The Hunwei had come to ravage and enslave. Nothing more. They’d even rebuffed any attempts at negotiation and had refused to enter a dialogue.

Helam was startled into action again when he heard the front door shut. He assumed that meant his wife had left. Elaire was going to kill Semal unless Helam interceded. While the old man could be annoying, he had dedicated his life to studying the Hunwei.

When they returned, Semal would be a handy person to have around.

Helam left his office and was on his way to the door when he ran into Molach, limping along while leaning on Tymy—one of Helam’s personal bodyguards—for support. Molach was pale and held his hand to his side.

“He just showed up,” Tymy said, “I’ve already sent for the doctor.” The doctor lived a block away, a fact that Helam had never appreciated until now.

“I’m sorry—” Molach started to say, but Helam cut him off.

“Quick. This way.”

Molach stumbled and Tymy swept him up into his large bulky arms. Molach, a tall and strong man in his own right, looked small when compared with Tymy.

Helam led Tymy to the guest bedroom. It was rarely occupied and hadn’t ever been used by any of Helam’s guests. He tossed decorative pillows to the floor.

“Put him here and find a candle.”

Tymy stepped back when he was done, wiping blood from his face with the sleeve of his shirt.

“Light! I need light.” Using his hands to feel in the darkness, Helam pulled out a dagger and cut away Molach’s coat and shirt. By that time Tymy had returned with a candle and the light revealed a long bloody wound on the side of Molach’s chest and another smaller cut on his arm. Neither looked life threatening.

Helam opened his mouth to give Tymy an order but the guard had disappeared. Bloody Melyah! Helam thought, hoping that the man had gone to fetch Elaire. She had a little bit of medical training and would be better than nothing until the doctor got here. Helam’s guards were aware of the tension between Helam and his wife, but none of them were aware of the actual issues. He’d gone to great lengths to keep it that way.

Having his wife followed would change that. How faithful would his men be to him when they learned she was a member of the Kopal?

Shaking his head, he focused on his son. He needed to stop the flow of blood.

Casting his eyes about the room, he looked for anything that would do. His first thought had been the clothes he’d just cut off Molach, but they were dirty, scuffed up with what looked like soot. They also stunk of sweat. Helam’s eyes settled on the pillows he’d tossed to the floor. Picking up a white one, he dusted it off and pressed it against the wound.

“Melyah!” Elaire gasped from the doorway, Tymy was standing behind her. “What happened?”

Helam had been so busy focusing on his wounded son that he hadn’t thought to ask how his son had come by the injury.

Molach went from looking at his mother to Helam and back to his mother again. He swallowed and looked like he was trying to formulate an answer when the doctor walked in. He was escorted by Gregary, another of Helam’s guards. When the doctor ordered Helam back, a look of relief crossed Molach’s face. A suspicion formed in the back of Helam’s mind and he avoided looking for a reaction on Elaire’s face.

Would he have seen relief there as well? Or perhaps evidence of guilt? 

Pushing it all away, Helam went to stand beside Elaire while the doctor worked. After a moment’s hesitation, he placed his hand on her shoulder. She tensed at his touch but relaxed a moment later. The doctor did his work with skilled hands, cleaning the wound, numbing up the skin, stitching it up, and then wrapping it in a bandage. Throughout the whole ordeal, Molach remained lucid and avoided looking at either Elaire or Helam.

After the doctor had given them instructions and left, Helam realized that the doctor hadn’t asked Molach about what had happened. When had Helam ever been treated by a healer and not had to answer questions? It was as if the doctor knew he wouldn’t like the answers. Or that the answers would reveal secrets he knew needed to be kept.

Elaire shifted, pulling his hand from her shoulder. He anticipated what she was going to say next and frowned.

“I will talk with Molach alone,” she said.

Helam locked his eyes onto his son and measured his reaction of fear and determination. When Helam turned to Elaire, she met his gaze without looking away. His worst fears had been confirmed.

“Molach was off limits,” Helam whispered, “what have you done?”

“Alone.” Elaire motioned to the door.

As he passed through the doorway, Helam nodded to Tymy who followed behind Helam as the door shut.

Helam’s other personal guards were waiting at the front of his home. Elaire had refused to allow them quarters and Helam had been forced to build a shelter for them at both the front and the back of his home to keep them out of the elements while on duty. Helam wasn’t the only general who kept a retinue of personal guards, but he had to be the only one that kept them for the express purpose of keeping his wife or any of her friends from taking him out. In the house, with her, he was in little danger. But out here, were it would be harder to trace back to her, it was different.

He’d told himself over the years that the deal he’d made with Elaire had been for the best but now he realized that he’d been played for a fool. She had come out into the open and declared war; by stealing the heart of Molach and pointing him to a false belief, she had spurned their agreement long ago.

The other guards fell in behind Helam as he walked out into the street. He told them to hang back while he spoke with Hanri, the captain of the guard. In short, clipped sentences, he explained to Hanri that he wanted Elaire followed and every move recorded. She was to be treated as an enemy and should be shown no quarter if she attacked any of their men. Without questions or emotions, Hanri took in the order and then broke off to put it into effect.

Several minutes later, when Helam arrived at the Paroke archives, he told two of his guards—Gregary and Alkott—to stand watch while he and the others went inside. If Adar showed up in the meantime, he instructed his men to tell Adar that things were under control.

Helam hadn’t formed a plan yet, but he was certain about one thing. He would keep Semal out of the Kopal’s hands if he had to kill his wife to do it. 

Chapter 9

After making sure that Nelion was all right, Adar had followed their escaped assailant onto the roof. The twin moons were both well into the night sky and gave more than enough light to see. 

He spun when he heard a scraping sound and found Nelion climbing up onto the roof behind him. Her hair was a bit disheveled and her blouse was smudged with dirt. He hadn’t thought of asking her to join him because she was wearing a dress and had assumed she wouldn’t want to go gallivanting around on the rooftops. In retrospect, that had been a mistake. Female Radim tended to be sticklers when issues like pride were on the line, they needed to prove they were as good as any man. That went for the retired ones as well.

“Wouldn’t you prefer to fetch the guards?” Adar asked, looking pointedly at her dress.

“We’d better hurry. We’re losing him.”

There wasn’t a hint of challenge in Nelion’s voice and rather than argue the point, he shook his head and began the tenuous job of traversing the slate soot covered roof. If she wanted to climb up walls and walk on roofs in those clothes, he supposed that was her business. He couldn’t order her to go back because she was no longer a Radim soldier and even if she had been, it wouldn’t have done much good anyway. Female Radim were notorious for insolence when a male officer ordered them around. 

He was initially annoyed at having to keep an eye on her because he believed that she would slow him down, but she was more nimble than he expected and in many places handled the slick roofs better than he did. It was a good reminder of how easy it was to underestimate somebody, something he needed considering that he was on Helam’s base.

They followed the adjoining roofs until they returned to the Graceful Gal, the last building in the row. There had been several places where the man might have climbed down, but they all would have been difficult for their wounded quarry which was why when they’d come to those spots, Adar had taken a quick look at each before continuing on. 

By the sound of it, the crowd at the Graceful Gal was even larger than it had been when they passed before. The wounded man would have had his pick of ways to escape as the roof of the adjoining building was flush with the wall of the tavern. The tavern’s windows were only several feet above the connecting roof.

Adar approached each window, but they all appeared to be occupied and he didn’t have a way in without creating a large disruption. He imagined the story getting around of a Radim general sneaking into an occupied room at an inn. That wouldn’t help his image. The crowded tavern was the perfect place for their assailant to disappear and there was little more that Adar could do about it at the moment. 

When Adar and Nelion returned to the scene of the attack, the body of the woman was where they’d left it. He stared down at the corpse, in case he missed something before and once again took the time to memorize her face.

It wasn’t likely that Helam would share with Adar any information he uncovered about the woman. The body would disappear and all Adar would have to go on would be his memory of her.

When they followed the alley to the street, Adar found that he had a hard time distinguishing it from any other street back in the city. He’d heard that the Paroke grounds had been growing a little civilian neighborhood of its own but had thought it was an exaggeration. The tavern had been bad enough, but as he looked around, he noticed a bakery, tailor shop, and a barbershop that all had a civilian look to them.

It was common enough to have access to some of these things on the other army bases, but they were mundane enterprises, focused on providing the things the army needed or commissioned. Adar shook his head as he stared at the dresses hanging in the display window of the tailor shop. Not even the Korew or Verag armies had such a thing. They went to great lengths to keep that type of stuff off their grounds. If Nelion had any thoughts on the civilian look of the street, none of it registered on her face.

If Adar had been given Paroke as his commission, the civilians would have been evicted and the buildings would have been turned to military use or torn down. This street was just one of many things that would need to change about the Radim armies before the Hunwei showed up. He hoped that he would have enough time.

As they approached the Paroke Army archives, Adar was surprised to see how close they’d been to their destination when the attack had occurred. The archives were just a couple of buildings down from where the alley connected to the street. It was a three story stone and mortar building that did have the cold design that Adar was used to in military buildings. Light came from a window on the second floor and there were several fierce looking guards posted at the door.

These guards held their position with a degree of strength and grace that the guards they had encountered earlier at the Inner Wall lacked. It was the difference between boys playing with wooden swords and a man charging.

At least there was some semblance of order and discipline on the base, Adar had been starting to wonder if Helam was letting his army fall to complete disarray. What he was seeing over here wasn’t encouraging and he hoped that most of the other armies hadn’t gone this way as well.

It was too bad that when Adar had been a soldier in Laor army, he didn’t have much opportunity to visit other bases to get a feel for how they were run. That was something he would have to do now.

General Teagan did a good job with Laor army and kept the base in good enough shape. Adar had expected the other Radim armies to be the same way, but now he realized that he would need to visit the other bases to see them firsthand. He needed to know how much work needed to be done.

He guessed that these guards belonged to General Helam and that he had posted them before going inside himself. It wasn’t surprising to see that even here on his own turf, Helam felt the need to surround himself with guards. Whenever Adar encountered Helam these days, he was attended by at least four men.

Helam’s habit of keeping guards had started five years ago, right after the tournament in which Adar had bested the man. Helam had only kept two guards back then. Adar wondered what had happened to make him want to keep more. Perhaps Helam’s strength was beginning to fail him and he needed the additional support.

It was disappointing to Adar that he had been delayed and unable to meet up with Semal before Helam arrived. Semal wasn’t going to be pleased with Adar for bringing Helam to breathe down their necks and it was unlikely that Adar would even make it into the archives now.

Nelion went to push her way into the building, but one of the guards moved into her path and held out his hand. The man was taller than her and even had a few inches on Adar. The sneer on his face deepened when he looked at Adar. It was replaced with a failed attempt at an ingratiating smile when he noticed the triple swords on Adar’s collar.

“Turn back,” the guard said to Nelion. “You’re not allowed in.” He faced Adar. “General Adar, I presume. We’ve been notified of your presence and General Morgol wanted me to inform you that we have the situation under control.” There was a pause where the man should have inserted a “sir” but it passed while the guard gave Adar a condescending look. Adar wasn’t able to keep the scowl off his face.

“If it’s under control, why did we get attacked?” Adar motioned back to the alleyway. “There’s a female body back there. Send some men to fetch it. We need to get her identified.”

“A girl gave you that cut?” The guard was sneering again, looking at scratch on Adar’s arm. Melyah! Adar had been so preoccupied he hadn’t even noticed it. 

“That’s an order, soldier.” Adar folded his arms and stared the man down. The woman hadn’t even come close to touching Adar because she’d never had the chance, but he didn’t feel the need to explain that to this idiot. “Do you use that insolent tone with all your superior officers?”

The guard grimaced, leaving Adar’s question unanswered, and after a few tense seconds motioned to the other guard who took off at a run.

“Could you let the general know I’m here?” Adar asked, trying to keep the anger from showing in his voice. He only half succeeded and came off more gruff and clipped than he intended.

“He asked to not be disturbed.”

“That was an order,” Adar snapped and wished that he didn’t. A Radim soldier from any army was duty bound to honor the order of a superior officer, but like so many things in Rarbon, it wasn’t what it once was.

The man before him had the look of someone that Adar would rather hang than give orders too. It was a risky thing to give an order if he didn’t think it was going to be followed. He was faced with enforcing it, punishing the offender, or letting it go. None of those were good options when the soldier didn’t report to him. He was spared the trouble of deciding how to respond to the disobedience when the door of the archives opened and Semal stepped out, followed by Helam and several more guards.

When they’d first met several years ago, Adar had been surprised to learn that Semal was in his early fifties. On appearance alone, Adar would have pegged him as being on the upward side of sixty. All the time he spent indoors with his nose in a book or scrunched over a scroll hadn’t been good for him. Semal’s grey hair was lit by the moonlight and it gave him a surreal glow. His wrinkled face was normally pale but now, it was red and he was breathing in huge gulps.

“If you hide what happened,” Semal said, “there will be consequences when it comes out that the Kopal are back and you had advance warning. The people have a right to know. Bakker’s death won’t have been for nothing if it means the truth comes out.” When Semal mentioned the duty of providing warning, a brief look of anger and contempt crossed Helam’s face. It appeared that Semal had touched a nerve with that one.

“Tell your stories to whoever you want,” Helam said, “but you’re making many assumptions merely because I’ve dismissed your wild notions.” Helam was about the same height as Adar and was just past fifty. The sides of his hair were tipped with grey, but for the most part it still held its original black, the top of this head didn’t appear to have a hair out of place. “Because of your ordeal tonight, I’ll ignore you’re accusation that I am somehow involved with the Kopal. We’re dealing with a bunch of thieves, nothing more. I’m also going to overlook the fact that you were caught breaking into the archives.”

“I have a right to be in there. The archives are open to the public.”

“True,” Helam said dryly, “but most come during the daytime, when it’s open.” Semal didn’t have an answer for that, or at least not one that he was willing to say aloud, Adar had never known the man to be at a loss for words.

“Gregary,” Helam said, speaking to the guard Adar had been talking to before Semal and Helam had shown up. “Escort Semal to the gate and see that he has a guard to see him back home. We wouldn’t…” He trailed off as his eyes settled onto Adar.

One of the personal bodyguards accompanying Helam approached Adar and stopped several feet away. The man’s arms were about as thick as Adar’s legs and his neck looked like it should have been on an ox or a bull. He was more than a head taller than Adar and had skin dark as the night. His shaven head glistened in the moonlight.

Helam snorted from behind the large man and his words had a sharp sarcastic edge. “Tymy, this isn’t any way to treat an honored and distinguished guest such as General Rahid.” The big man gave Adar a toothy grin that didn’t touch his eyes and a slight bow that was as stiff as it was proud.

Helam walked out in front of Tymy and smiled. When he had first noticed Adar, his eyes had narrowed and his face had been covered with rage, but by the time he’d come forward, he’d taken on a different look altogether. He looked like he was trying for serene and in control but his eyes betrayed the lie.

The scar on the side of Adar’s chest flared with pain and he had to keep his hand from subconsciously touching it. He’d made that mistake in the past and had hated seeing the small gloating look that had danced across Helam’s face.

Although it had been years since the incident, Adar found that it acted up with pain whenever he was around Helam, almost as if it was calling out for the injustice to be righted.

When Adar had bested Helam in the competitive duel, there had been thunderous applause. Later that night when Helam had caught Adar unaware and half drunk, Adar had barely been able to escape with his life.

He had learned several painful lessons that day, the most important of which had been that Helam was a man that would even the score, whatever the price. Another was the cost of being drunk when confronted by an enemy; consequently, Adar had never touched alcohol again.

Now, with Helam standing before him, Adar found that his heart beat faster and he was beginning to growl, it was low and quiet enough that nobody seemed to notice. He took a slow breath as he regarded the man.

His first instinct was to try to goad Helam to anger, but that would have been a mistake, even if he hadn’t been surrounded by Helam’s men on the Paroke army grounds. The Radim armies were Adar’s first focus and he would have to be careful in how he interacted with Helam until Adar had figured out what to do with him. Adar imagined how it must gall Helam that Adar alone could move to the next rank of Rahar while Helam would forever be stuck as a general.

“What are you here for Adar?” Helam asked. “Don’t you trust our investigation skills? I’ll make sure to send you a full report of the incident.” Adar didn’t doubt Helam would, but he was certain that it wouldn’t contain anything of use about what had happened.

“Why would somebody attack Semal?” Adar wondered aloud. “I imagine that it’s the same reason Semal felt like he had to hide what he was doing from you.” Leaving the accusation that Helam was involved with the Kopal all but spoken. Helam didn’t blink at the implication nor did he miss a step.

“This is the work of thieves. Not the Kopal. We have vaults with ancient and valuable treasures. It isn’t the first time that someone has tried to break in.”

Adar nodded his head as if in agreement, but removed the mask he’d taken off the dead Kopal woman from his pocket and held it up for the others to see. “That doesn’t explain why I just killed a woman trying to attack her.” He nodded his head to Nelion. “This mask hasn’t been seen in Rarbon for sixteen years. There was a man that escaped, though I managed to wound him before he ran.”

“We’ll find him.” Helam frowned. “Where did you wound him?” Was it just his imagination or had there been a slight waver in Helam’s voice as he asked the question?

A thought occurred to Adar about the wounded man. During the heat of the chase, he’d forgotten that the man had been well trained. He was certain he’d faced the man before in tournaments and practice. Was there something distinctive about the way the man fought? Nothing came to mind, but Adar would give it some thought.

That didn’t change the fact that there were only three or four men as skilled as their assailant had been and one of those men was Molach, Helam son.

Had there been enough time for Molach to report to Helam? Adar tried to think how long it had been since he and Nelion had been attacked. Half an hour?

They’d been on the roofs for quite some time. Possibly an hour?

Either way, there had been plenty of time for Molach to meet up with his father.

Adar watched Helam as he spoke. “I cut his side and arm.” A flicker of recognition on Helam’s face was followed by a surge of anger. Both emotions disappeared as his face became a mask of calm that didn’t reach his eyes. It took effort for Adar to keep from reaching for his sword or one of the daggers he kept hidden. He wondered if he should have been looking for the father instead of the son, but Helam wasn’t favoring his arm or side. While the wound Adar had inflicted on the assailant hadn’t been mortal, it had been enough to make it awkward for a man to move. Helam wasn’t having a problem getting around.

“Gregary,” Helam said, “have the guards search for a man with those wounds. In the meantime, until we know more, a mask isn’t enough evidence to start the witch-hunts again. I don’t need to remind you of the damage those caused.” He looked at his guards and motioned towards Semal.

“You’re forgetting about the corpse,” Adar said. “I tried to take the Kopal woman alive, but she swallowed sycanon root before I could stop her. Sound familiar?”

“You are free to make—” Helam was cut off by the sound of an arrow thunking into Gregary’s chest, piercing the guards light armor and causing him to cry out. Prior to being hit by the arrow, he’d still been standing in front of the door. When Helam had pointed at Semal, Gregary had stepped over and right into the arrow’s path.

Adar looked back in the direction the arrow had come from and saw a hooded figure on the roof of a building across the street from the archives. When the figure saw that he’d been spotted, he ducked down.

“Evidence enough for you?” Adar growled, his eyes locking onto Helam who had followed the arrow back to its source.

“Bloody Melyah!” Helam said muttering something else under his breath that Adar didn’t pick up. Adar thought he had heard the words boundaries in all that but couldn’t have been certain. Helam started barking orders.

Even though the street had been empty moments before, Gregary’s scream had drawn a few people. Some came out into the open while others looked through windows. After a glance to ensure that none of them were hooded like the Kopal, Adar turned his attention to the downed guard.

Helam was ordering his remaining men to pull Semal to safety when Tymy picked Helam up and sprinted back into the archives. The last remaining guard pulled Semal in after him.

Gregary was still breathing and Adar judged that the arrow had missed his heart, but he didn’t know enough about it to say for sure. Gregary could live if they hurried. Nelion had just disappeared into the archives when Adar called out to her for help.

She poked her head back out and regarded him as if he were crazy. When she didn’t move any further, he asked for help with Gregary again and this time got her to come out after she scanned the nearby rooftops. Adar grabbed Gregary by the shoulders while she picked up his feet and together they pulled the guard inside.

The building was dark when they entered, but Tymy had out a flint and was lighting a lantern. The sparks lit his face and gave him a surreal appearance in the dark of the room.

“Send for the doctor,” Nelion said, cutting Adar off as he was about to say the same thing. “Your man isn’t dead.”

The lantern lit with a flare of light and the glow cast the rooms into shadow. Helam stood beside a round table, Semal and the other guard were on the other side.

The guard still had Semal by the arm and Adar couldn’t decide if it was a protective action or if he was trying to keep Semal from escaping. Motioning to Nelion with his head, they moved Gregary to the table and set him down.

Helam felt for Gregary’s pulse and nodded. “It’s strong. Tymy, fetch the doctor and more men.” There was a hesitant pause before he continued. “Find Hanri and tell him I want to be updated immediately with any developments. He’ll know what I mean.”

Tymy had just stood up and put his flint back into a bag that hung from his shoulder. He looked from Helam to Adar and back, as if questioning the order. Helam must have understood what the big man had been about to say because he cut Tymy off as he opened his mouth.

“Run, I’ll be fine until you return.”

As Tymy left, Adar made a mental note to learn who Hanri was and how he fit into the structure of Paroke army. The order to find Hanri might be a coincidence but it was probably related to what had just happened. What did Helam want to be updated about? If he wasn’t connected to the Kopal, maybe he’d known of their involvement and for some reason wanted to keep it quiet. Either way, knowing who Hanri was would provide insight into why Helam had thought of him right after Gregary had been shot.

Tymy’s departure left the room in silence while they endured the sounds of Gregary’s gasps for breath.

Helam turned to his other guard. “Secure this building. Make sure we’re the only ones here.” The guard lit another lantern and left to sweep the rooms.

“Still thinking this is the work of thieves?” Semal asked Helam.

“Kopal or thieves,” Helam said. “Doesn’t matter. They’re fools for killing one of my guards.”

Adar hid a frown. Was this a setup to try to allay Adar’s suspicions about Helam’s involvement with the Kopal? If that was the case, it had been put into place and executed quickly. Helam was capable of many things, but did he have the forethought to plan something like this? He would have known that Adar was on base because he’d received the messenger, but it was unlikely he’d have known what Semal was up to, given the way they’d been talking earlier.

Much as Adar hated to admit it, he couldn’t make a logical connection between the attack that had just happened and Helam. This might mean that Helam wasn’t connected to the Kopal after all. Helam could be vindictive and was always putting together political schemes, but that didn’t mean that he was one of those idiots that believed the Hunwei were bringing salvation.

“Deny it all you want—” Adar began only to have Helam cut him off.

“Melyah!” Helam said. “My guard was just shot and I have several bodies to deal with on top of the panic this will cause, stop trying to force your political—”

“If you can’t open your eyes, Helam,” Adar said, “or won’t, it will be a small matter for me to convince others of the truth and you’ll be taken for a fool. They will know what that mask signifies.”

“If I wanted your advice, I’d ask for it. Do you hear me asking? You don’t know the half of what goes on in this city and if you think that you’re going to get yourself made Ghar so you can rule, think again. Your ascension would be the worst thing that could happen short of the Hunwei invading. I don’t need an idiot like you to tell me how to run my army.” 

Adar processed the stream of words as Helam hurled them his way and was surprised at the loss of composure. There wasn’t anything said that Adar didn’t already suspect Helam of believing but having him lose his temper and confirm to the others in the room that he didn’t support Adar was something else. Somewhere in the back of his mind, Adar realized that he should be angry, but he was too shocked. The man that was almost always in control, who had plans and backup plans for those plans had lost his temper again.

While Adar wouldn’t mind taking credit for the break in demeanor, he couldn’t claim any for the raw edge to Helam’s tone. Something else was going on here.

“If I’d thought you’d make a better Ghar than me, I’d happily stand aside and support a new law that would allow you to ascend. I’d even forgive you for what you’ve done if I thought you were worthy of it, but you’re not. You lack the honor and trust required. I will stand in your way every bit as much as you intend to block my own.”

It was the first time that Helam and Adar had traded barbs publicly. In private, on the tournament grounds when nobody was close enough to hear, insults were the way that they talked. That conversation was usually left on the tournament grounds. Helam’s dislike for Adar had been apparent, but he appeared supportive. Until now.

The silence in the room was punctuated by Gregary’s grasping hold on life. Several minutes later, when Tymy returned with the doctor and additional men, Helam renewed his order to show Semal and Nelion to the gate and invited Adar to go with them. The order no longer included protection for Semal and Adar couldn’t decide if that was intentional or if Helam had forgotten about it in light of everything else.

Adar took one last look at Helam before he left, Helam’s anger still bubbled at the surface but there was more to it than that. Helam looked like he was in pain, but it hadn’t been caused by Adar or by what had transpired between them today. Something else was indeed going on, but as to what it was, Adar didn’t have the foggiest notion.

Once they were back in the city with the Paroke Inner Wall gate several blocks behind them, Semal broke the silence. “Helam was a lieutenant for General Marel the last time the Kopal raised their head.”

“I’m familiar with the story,” Adar said. The Kopal had been active when Adar was a young boy. He remembered a time when he’d overheard his mother expressing concern to his father that the Kopal might target him. Abel had laughed it off and said he wasn’t afraid of hidden shadows. At the time, Abel had been undergoing his trials to become Ghar and had already been successful in obtaining the rank of Rahar.

The talk of the Kopal subsided a few months later when General Jakop Marel discovered and destroyed a pocket of Kopal that had been operating in the north side of the city. Helam had been among the group of men that Marel had trusted and used to bring down the operation.

There had been rumors that Helam had acted the part of a double agent, but Adar had never been able to substantiate them. He had tried to befriend General Marel, but Marel was a difficult man to talk to, let alone build a relationship with.

Adar hadn’t thought about that period for years. As an adult, he’d intentionally never thought about it. Back then, Abel had been a father to Adar. He could remember how his father had played with him, laughed with him, and had done the things a father should do. The change had happened when Abel had failed at his last trial. That had been the day when Abel had begun to distance himself from Adar.

“You believe the rumors then?” Adar pushed away the thought of a much happier time. There was no going back.

Nelion started at the question, as if she hadn’t heard them. He didn’t bother to clarify and Semal was too lost in thought to notice her confusion.

“I have never known what to believe,” Semal said, “at least about that. Helam has always been an enigma to me. He has as many scribes working for him as I do. From what I can tell, they spend all their time researching the Rarbon Portal and the Hunwei as well. I’ve approached him several times about combining our efforts, but each time he has pretended not to know what I was talking about. You saw the way he treated me.” Semal stopped and met Adar’s eye. “I’m sorry for bringing you into this, if I’d have remembered where I was, I wouldn’t have sent for you.”

Nelion snorted. “It’s not entirely your fault. Helam came because Adar sent for him.” 

“Bloody Melyah, man!” Semal said. “Why would you do a thing like that? If I’d have wanted him, I’d have sent for him.”

“I’m sorry for the inconvenience,” Adar said, “but I didn’t have a choice, it’s the law. I can’t afford to give Helam a weapon to use against me. You saw his opposition to me becoming Ghar. He’s going to do whatever he can to stop me. He’ll take advantage of any little technicality to trip me up.”

“You’re a tough man to understand. Sometimes you get hung up on obeying technicalities but then do the complete opposite and disregard the larger rules.”

“When I disregard something larger, it’s because I’m making a statement that I’m prepared to back. I’m not willing to make a statement that one general should be able to move freely around the base of another.” 

Semal walked faster. “In your absence, I forgot how infuriating you can be.”

Adar smiled. It was the first real smile he’d had all day. He didn’t have a retort for that, nor did he want to think of one.

Chapter 10

It was a couple of hours after the incident at the archives before Helam was able to return home. It had taken that long to arrange for the dead, both the Kopal bodies and Gregary. Helam had also made a visit to Gregary’s wife and informed her of the news. The sound of her sobbing still echoed in his ears. The tears had been punctuated by questions of why.

Because I made a deal with my wife, Helam thought, I should have eradicated the Kopal years ago.

Helam hadn’t recognized either of the dead Kopal and had asked the men with him if they could identify the bodies. None of them had spoken up, but he wasn’t convinced that they were all being truthful. There were Kopal hidden in his ranks. He knew of some, but it was those he didn’t know about that kept him up at night.

There was an investigator from the city that he’d bring in to handle the case. If either of the dead Kopal were connected to any of his men, the investigator would discover the deception so that Helam could remove the corruption when the time was right.

He’d also sent soldiers scouring the roofs looking for the assassin, but so far, the search had come up empty. He sighed at the doorstep of his home.

Going through his own front door might reveal more answers than his men could find on the roofs. He wasn’t surprised to see that Hanri had left several guards to keep an eye on things even though Elaire was no longer in the house. In his haste to leave earlier, Helam hadn’t thought about the potential danger to Molach. The Kopal weren’t known for their loyalty to a single individual and their members swallowed sycanon root rather than be taken captive.

Now that he’d had a chance to cool down, he realized that his actions had been rash and left his son in danger.

It has become clear that the woman I love no longer exists—something I should have come to terms with long ago—I was a fool to put our—

No. He corrected himself. There is no longer a we or an us or an our. His wife had put an end to any reconciliation of their relationship when she’d recruited their son to join the Kopal.

_I was a fool and put my son in danger. _

While it was too late for his wife, it wasn’t too late for Molach. Whatever had been done could be undone. He’d turn his son on the Kopal and bring them down.

He hesitated when he got to the door of the guest bedroom. He had to be practical. A brief conversation wasn’t going to be enough to convince Molach. It might be months before Molach could be brought around. What if his son was so far entrenched into the Kopal that he wouldn’t want to give it up?

Helam would deal with that when he came to it.

Things had been different with Elaire. It had been beneficial for her to be married to a General for as long as their agreement had held. And like the fool that he was, Helam had believed that with time he could convince his wife of the error of her ways. In the meantime, he had assumed that he was keeping her boxed in with their agreement. He’d thought it adequate to keep the archivist on his payroll.

He shouldn’t have waited for so long to have her followed.

Helam wouldn’t have the same leverage with his son. After looking for any other alternatives and coming up with nothing, he returned to where he’d left his guards at the door and asked them to come in with him.

Tymy raised an eyebrow at the request, but followed behind the other guards. He had once received a tongue-lashing from Elaire when she’d discovered him standing guard inside their home at Helam’s request. When they arrived at the door of the bedroom, Helam motioned for them to wait outside.

He gave a quick quiet knock on the door before he opened it and poked his head in. The candle gave the room enough light to cast it in shadow and the ambience fit Helam’s mood.

Molach was pale and the room smelled of sweat and blood. Helam entered, doing his best to slide in with the door half closed so that Molach wouldn’t notice the guards standing outside. He didn’t want his son to feel like he was in danger or the responses Helam would get to the questions he was about ask might change. He also didn’t want his son swallowing any of that cursed sycanon root. 

As he approached, he saw fear dancing across Molach’s face and stifled a sigh. He hadn’t realized it, but there had been a part of him holding out hope that his son hadn’t joined the Kopal. As he pulled over a chair and sat at his son’s bedside, he let the hope slip away.

His son was still recoverable. It would take time and patience. And prove to be the hardest battle that Helam had ever fought.

“How long?” Helam asked, gruffer than he intended.

“What?” The question took Molach by surprise.

“How long have you been Kopal?” Molach looked away. “Don’t deny it. I’ve known about your mother for half a decade. When did she recruit you?”

Molach’s answer was quiet and Helam had to strain his ears to hear it. “Four years ago.”

“Just after you took the oaths,” Helam said. Molach taking the oaths and following in Helam’s footsteps had been a proud moment for Helam. The memory took on an ugly hue. 

Molach nodded. “We have everything backwards about the Hunwei. They’ll be coming to help us.”

“You have evidence of this?”

“Not exactly. There is a book…” He trailed off but then started anew with greater force. “Not all of the Hunwei left. Some stayed in hiding and were befriended by people. They told a story of how the Hunwei are the guardians of the stars.”

“If they’re guardians,” Helam said, struggling to keep his voice calm. “Why did they destroy almost every living thing on this planet? We don’t even have one fifth of the technology of our fathers!” The last few words came out as more of a shout. Helam took a breath and forced it out at an even rate.

“A misunderstanding. If we don’t fight when they return, they’ll accept us into their service.”

“You mean we’ll become their slaves.”

“No, no. We’ll help them protect the stars.” His son’s voice had a faraway sound to it. “They’ll take us into their ships and give us their weapons.”

Helam sighed. “So because of some crazy book your mother gave to you, you’re running around on rooftops, assaulting generals and assassinating scribes.”

Molach didn’t answer.

“Son, you’re wrong. The Hunwei will not bring salvation. We have to fight them, to our dying breath. Look around you at this once great city! We used to have ships that flew in the sky, running water and privies inside our homes. All of that is gone because of where they left us. This fanciful book of yours is nothing more than a lie.”

“It’s true dad. The Hunwei that remained are still alive.”

“You’ve seen them then?”

“Well, no. But I’ve talked to people that have.”

“Your mother’s seen them?”

“No, of course not, she doesn’t have the free time to travel to—” Molach didn’t finish the thought and looked at his dad. “The Kopal have killed people for knowing less than I just told you.”

“Is that a threat?” Helam asked.

“No.”

“You’re going to tell them you told me?”

“Of course not, but mom will guess. She seems to have an ability—”

Helam cut him off with a raised hand. “You will not tell your mother anything about this conversation, understand?”

Molach gulped and nodded. It broke his heart to hear his son spouting Kopal lies more than it did to see his son lying wounded in bed from a cut that Adar had given him. He attempted to summon anger towards Adar but found that he couldn’t. If Helam had been in Adar’s position, he would have done the same thing, if not worse.

“The woman that was with you when you attacked Adar. Who was she?”

Molach went white. “She’s dead?”

Helam nodded. “Sycanon root. Are you expected to take the root now too?”

“Are you going to turn me in?”

“Not yet.”

“As long as I’m not in custody, my oath doesn’t come in to play.”

Helam resisted slamming his fist into the wall. “You took an oath of death?” When Molach nodded, Helam growled. “What did your mother get you into, son?”

“This isn’t her fault.”

Helam didn’t answer as he stared off into the dark corner of the room. All this time, his son had been walking around with a death oath hanging around his head. What a fool Helam had been. He should have never trusted Elaire. When it was clear that she hadn’t reciprocated the love that he’d continued to feel for her, he should have taken a long look at their situation.

Helam kept his voice quiet. “The Kopal have been more active. The Hunwei are close?”

“A couple of months away, by our best reckoning.”

Helam didn’t know how to respond to the claim. The best estimates from his scribes put the return five years away, but they’d given him a twenty-year range of time from that date. His chief scribe had been emphatic that these were guesses based on more than twenty different records that conflicted with each other more often than they agreed. If by some outside chance the Kopal were right, than Helam would need to get into the Rarbon Portal immediately.

There were a hundred different accounts on what had been hidden behind the Rarbon Portal and while there were many records that hinted that the Portal contained weapons that could be used to fight the Hunwei, none of them outright said it. Helam had long been of the belief that the Portal contained information that they would be able to use to manufacture the weapons of their fathers. 

If Helam could bring his plan to fruition, than he’d have rid Rarbon of the Rahids within a year and be Ghar within two. He’d been relying on the fact that his scholars couldn’t agree on the timing and that he’d have plenty of time to rebuild their weapons and ships of old.

The thought of it being a couple of months away put him into a cold sweat but there was only so much he could do unless he was willing to enact his final most desperate plan. That involved taking Rarbon Palace and the Portal by force, a risky plan at best. A disastrous plan at worst. 

“Adar’s smart enough to know that there’s a handful of people in Rarbon at your skill level. The fact that you walked away from a fight with him today means that he’s going to start looking at those men for signs of wounds.” Molach groaned but Helam continued. “I’ll buy you tonight and maybe tomorrow morning, but you’re going to have to be up and moving about by tomorrow evening. I don’t care if it hurts and you make the wound worse, you’re going to have to act as if nothing is the matter. Can you do that?”

Molach nodded and Helam wondered if there was a way to say what he wanted to say next. Telling Molach that he was insane and had been deceived wouldn’t work. Helam needed to provide his son with no other option.

“Another thing,” Helam said instead, “hand over your vials.”

Molach stared at him without responding.

“Don’t play games with me. I know that you have them. I’ll bring in Tymy to hold you down if I have to, but I’m not leaving this room without them.”

After an awkward silence, Helam moved as if to go to the door but Molach spoke. “Stop. That won’t be necessary.”

Molach held out his hand. There were three vials.

“Which one is the poison?” Helam took them and held them up to the light. They looked identical to him.

Before Molach could answer there was a knock on the door.

“Quiet.” Helam went to the door and opened it a crack. When he saw that it was Lieutenant Briggs, he told Molach he had to see to something and would be back in a few minutes. Before leaving, he put the vials into his pocket and hoped that they wouldn’t break. They looked fragile enough that he was afraid they’d jostle one another and crack open. He didn’t know much about sycanon root and he couldn’t remember if it was toxic to the touch as well.

“What took so long?” Helam asked once he and Briggs were in his office with the door shut. “You should have been back hours ago.”

“Birgemat is dead—”

“You already executed him?” Helam wasn’t about to criticize the lack of updates if the problem had been resolved.

Briggs shook his head. “No. Jarren got jumpy and administered him sycanon root when no one was looking.”

“He what?” Helam demanded through clenched teeth. Adar was going to jump to conclusions when he found out about this. He already suspected Helam of being Kopal and had witnessed a Kopal commit suicide tonight. From Adar’s perspective, one of Helam’s men had a warrant for Birgemat who had just died of the same cause. “A slit throat would have been better. You killed Jarren?”

“He disappeared. I didn’t know what he was doing until it was too late.”

“So there is a witness who Adar knows by name that can tie us back to Birgemat.”

When Briggs didn’t respond, Helam cursed and pounded his desk. A knock on the door broke the silence and Helam called for them to go away. When the knocking persisted, Helam yanked it open, intending to berate whoever was on the other side. When he saw that it was a pale Kiral with a nervous looking but better composed Hanri, he took control of his temper.

“Sorry to keep knocking,” Hanri said. “I have news that won’t wait.”

Helam nodded his head for Hanri to come in and shut the door on Kiral. He realized when she was gone that he should have said something to let her know she’d done the right thing by bringing Hanri to him, but it was too late now. He’d have to make it up to her later.

He looked at Briggs but didn’t say a word as he sat down behind his desk. One of the first things he would do once he was done dealing with the current mess would be to move his headquarters back to the Inner Wall. This comfortable room was just another reminder of how his wife had betrayed him.

“What do you have for me?” Helam asked.

Hanri hesitated and looked at Briggs. “Speak. He’ll know the details of what we’re doing soon enough.”

“Your wife met up with several men and went off base. My men followed them through the city to a house where they met up with several more.” Hanri licked his lips and looked at Briggs who was doing his best to cover his shocked expression. No doubt, he was surprised that Helam was finally having his wife followed. “Are you sure you want him here? What I have to say next isn’t pretty.”

Helam nodded and after a lengthy pause, Hanri continued. “One of my men snuck into the house. For whatever reason, the Kopal didn’t post a guard. He found them…” He trailed off and looked at Briggs. “My man found them with a captive young woman.”

“Were they torturing her?” Helam asked. There had been a woman with Adar at the archives. Helam hadn’t learned her name but remembered that she was Semal’s scribe. It still irked him that Briggs had burst into the Palace archives and caused a scene. She had taken it all in with a considering look. Could this be the same woman that Elaire now had captive?

“He didn’t stay long enough to find out.”

Helam hadn’t sent guards with Semal because he assumed that Adar would have seen to the old professor’s protection. If the Kopal were torturing this girl, it meant that Semal was well guarded and they had decided to go for an easier target.

It could also mean that cooler heads had prevailed and they’d decided to see what Semal had been able to learn before deciding whether they needed to murder such a high profile figure.

Helam needed to strike a blow to the Kopal and push them back into hiding to have a chance at providing Molach with a fresh start. If Helam could bring these traitors to justice in front of Semal’s scribe, she’d be able to tell a convincing story about how Helam wasn’t involved. It wouldn’t be enough to convince Adar, because he’d never be convinced, but it might be enough to convince the other generals and the Rarbon Council members. That would keep Adar at bay for a little longer.

“How far to the house?” Helam asked.

“Less than ten minutes. Five if we run.”

“Will thirty men be enough?”

“There were about twenty but as I said, they don’t have a guard posted. We can take them by surprise.”

“Better make it fifty. Briggs, you have five minutes to gather the men and have them meet us at the gate, will that be a problem?”

“No, sir.”

“Good. After that, I want you to begin marshaling our forces. Do not sound the alarm. Once that is done, take this list of people.” Helam removed the paper from his pocket. “Round them up and execute them. Use Hargash and Mondel for the dirty work. They won’t talk and they’ll obey your orders. I’ll see to the proper paperwork later. I want them all dead by the time I get back. Understand?”

Briggs took the list. “Sir?”

“What is it?

“There are prominent Paroke officers on this list. I’ll have to go into Rarbon city for a couple of these.” Briggs froze when he saw the last name. “Councilman Barrow Hobson?”

“All Kopal. Kill them by the time I get back. Can you do it?”

Briggs swallowed and looked at the list again. “Yes, sir.” 

Chapter 11

Adar wasn’t sure what time it was when he walked onto the Napael grounds, but he wasn’t tired despite the late hour. He was surprised that he wasn’t more fatigued given that he’d spent the last couple of days traveling. Perhaps it was all that had happened at the Paroke base or maybe it was a combination of that and the possibility that the Rarbon Council may assign his first task in the morning. Whatever the cause, he was glad for the energy boost because he still had a full night ahead of him.

Before returning to the Napael base, Adar had escorted both Nelion and Semal to their respective homes.

On the way, Adar had insisted that they stop at a Rarbon City guard station where he requested guards for both Nelion and Semal. The local captain had been hesitant to give Adar the ten men he’d asked for but Adar had promised to relieve the men within a couple of hours with some of his own. Figuring that Nelion was in the least amount of danger of the two—the assassin had targeted Semal—he’d left three guards with Nelion at her apartment and the rest had been assigned to protect Semal and his home.

When Adar had arrived back at the Napael Inner Wall gate, the first thing he had done was to send ten men over to replace the three city guards he’s assigned to Nelion and twenty over to guard Semal. If the Kopal were going to make a move on either one of them tonight, Adar wanted them both to have more protection than they needed.

The Kopal had proved to be slippery and devious in the past. It was best not to take chances.

While it wasn’t likely to turn anything up, Adar had also summoned Maual and instructed him to take several men and keep watch at the Paroke Inner Wall gate for General Helam and follow him if he left the Paroke base. Maual had looked surprised when he had heard the instruction, but hadn’t said anything about the order. It was likely a waste of time, but given everything that had happened tonight it seemed the prudent thing to do.

Adar had promised Maual that he’d find some men to relieve them in twelve hours but Maual had said that wouldn’t be necessary. Maual had a group in mind for the task that had done this sort of thing before, and they had a system worked out. Adar had been so distracted that he hadn’t even thought to ask Maual what that had meant until after he’d departed. Adar made a mental note to find out more the next time he saw Maual.

As Adar crossed the Napael base, he couldn’t help but compare it with Paroke. In place of what used to be a mountainous refuse pile, several large bins for trash were now emptied every hour. The base was far quieter and lacked the tumult of the tavern.

When he passed the training grounds, he noticed the recruits he’d seen earlier in the evening standing at attention while their sergeant yelled at them. He spotted Landal among the men and noticed that his sword was in the correct position. In the dark and standing at attention, Landal almost looked like a soldier. Give it a few more months and the kid would be able to fight as well.

Several smaller groups of men also sparred a little further out from the recruits. Adar longed to join them because he hadn’t had a good practice session in a couple of days, but he needed to see how much progress Tere had made with the prisoner.

Calling it the dungeon was a bit of a misnomer as it was just a small shack on the far side of the training grounds that didn’t even have a basement. Adar might one day name it something more appropriate, but there were enough other things to do that changing names was at the bottom of his list for now.

There was a crowd of soldiers around the shack and they grew silent when they noticed Adar approaching. One of the soldiers nudged another and he disappeared into the structure. Both Tere and Lucas had come out to meet Adar by the time he had reached them. The looks on their face told him everything he needed to know.

“How?” Adar asked when he met up with them.

“There was foam around his mouth,” Tere said. “Sycanon root.” 

“We searched him.” Adar had ordered the man stripped and had all his clothes examined for this very reason. “Did he have a vial hidden under his skin or in a crevice somewhere?”

“I don’t think so.” Tere shook his head and motioned for Adar to move out of earshot of Lucas and the others. “A Lieutenant Briggs from Paroke Army was here earlier, trying to pick him up. He had a warrant. Something about the whole thing was unsettling. What are the chances of both Keen forgetting a poster and then this Briggs fellow showing up the same night we came in with the captive? So I began to dig into it, even before our guy here swallowed the root.”

“You think that the warrant was a plant?” Adar growled, he’d been bothered that Keen hadn’t known about the warrant but he’d written it off to an oversight on the part of Keen. He should have known better. Keen’s memory was well known throughout the officers, which was part of the reason he’d been promoted despite his past.

Tere nodded. “I sent somebody I can trust over to Laor army with a copy of the warrant. If he finds a duplicate, I wasted time and proved I may be paranoid. If he doesn’t, I told him to go to Korew as well just to double check. But that’s not all. Jarren Alfaro has disappeared. His shift doesn’t end until morning. When I asked him a few questions about the warrant he seemed nervous but answered everything to my satisfaction. Within the hour, our prisoner was foaming at the mouth and Jarren wasn’t anywhere to be found.”

“How long ago did you send your man over to Laor?”

“Maybe half an hour.”

“Were you able to start the interrogation?”

“I didn’t get too far with it before I received a messenger that Briggs had showed up.”

“Did Briggs have a chance to talk with—?”

Tere cut him off. “Nope, I made sure that he was kept waiting at the Inner Wall gate. We didn’t even let him onto the base. I had the guards set out a few chairs and he sat there with his men while I started poking around. He left pretty quickly when I told him what had happened.” Tere paused. “Briggs was calm during my interactions with him, but I’m telling you now, he was hiding something.”

“I just got back from the Paroke base,” Adar said, “you’re more right than you know.” He relayed to Tere the events of the night and the precautions he’d taken to keep both Semal and Nelion safe.

Tere was shaking his head by the end of it. “How many times have I said that you should have reported that incident outside the bar with Helam? We wouldn’t be in this mess now if he’d been court-martialed.”

“You already know why.” Adar wished that he’d never told Tere about it. He didn’t regret his decision not to report Helam. It would have been dangerous for Adar to look like a complainer or even worse, a weakling. Even though Adar had been drunk, he didn’t need everybody in Rarbon knowing that Helam had taken advantage of him and given him a scar that covered half his chest.

“I need irrefutable evidence,” Adar said. “Or we’re going to have to handle him ourselves.”

“Hold on.” Tere waved his hands, as if to get Adar’s attention. “I recognize that look in your eyes. Slow down. You’ve already pushed your luck once today by executing those men. If you start thinking about solving this problem with Helam in your usual way, it’s going to end badly. For everybody involved.”

“He made it clear that he will do whatever he can to keep me from becoming Ghar. He said those words to me where others could hear them. That’s something that he’s never done before; it was almost as if I’d pushed him over the edge. But that can’t be right though, I’d just showed up. There is something else going on with him. Perhaps Maual will come back with something useful.”

“Maual?” Tere asked.

Adar kept from frowning as he explained to Tere the assignment he’d given to Maual, he hadn’t intended to tell Tere about that quite yet but he didn’t want Tere to know that he’d been planning to keep it a secret. Adar was too agitated and starting to slip up. He needed to take control of himself.

“Are you serious? You sent Maual to spy on a general. I’m not saying that spying on Helam isn’t a good idea, but to do it so brazenly with a large group of men is asking for trouble.”

Adar didn’t have a response and wasn’t going to waste words defending his actions to Tere, who was right, of course. It was risky but something about the whole situation spelled out the need for urgency. He couldn’t explain it. Maybe it was the way Helam had been acting earlier. Perhaps it was the fact that the Kopal had raised their heads again. He didn’t know.

Tere and Adar both looked over at the sound of boots, two men were heading their way. Before the men reached them, Adar recognized that they were two of the soldiers he’d sent to relieve the guards keeping an eye on Nelion.

“She’s been taken,” said the first as he came to a stop, despite the hard run, his breathing was normal. Adar couldn’t say the same about the other who gasped for breath. “We found two of her guards dead and the other unconscious.”

“Walk with me,” Adar said, motioning for Tere to join him as well. “Where are the others I sent with you?”

“I had two take the wounded man to the healers, two I left at her place, one I sent over to Professor Bray’s, and the others are canvassing her apartment building and the street to see if they could find any witnesses to the event.”

There was little hope that they’d turn up anything useful because of the lateness of the hour.

Adar didn’t respond as he increased his pace and refrained from giving into his urge to run. By the time they reached the Inner Wall gate, Adar had decided what he was going to do.

“I need you to take twenty men…” Adar trailed off as he spoke to the soldier who was in better shape. “No, take double that number. Go to Semal and keep him safe.” He looked at Tere. “Rouse all the men you can without raising the alarm. Have them ready to fight.”

Adar cursed under his breath. They only had five thousand soldiers on base and he wondered if perhaps he should transfer more in from the outposts. It wouldn’t do him much good tonight, but the words he’d spoken to Tere earlier in the evening about the biggest challenges coming from within Rarbon were proving to be true.

He discarded the thought because the outpost encampments were already stretched thin as it was. He should work on recruiting more from within the Rarbon territories. Most of the armies relied on Rarbon and the general recruitment efforts but it wasn’t unheard of for an army to do its own recruiting to bolster its numbers. 

Adar glanced over at Tere and realized that he was thinking something that he wasn’t saying because the other soldiers were nearby. Tere was careful to avoid criticism or unasked for advice when others were within earshot. There wasn’t time for such niceties.

“Out with it.”

“You can’t take Helam on alone.” Tere earned a hard glance from one of the soldiers; the other was too busy breathing to notice anything unusual. “If it comes to that. His outposts are undermanned because he keeps more of his soldiers here. He may have close to fifteen thousand soldiers on base.” 

“It shouldn’t come to that,” Adar said, hoping that he was right, but knowing it was best to take precautions if he could. The question was how to go about doing that when he still didn’t have any evidence that Helam was behind any of this.

As they approached the gate at the Inner Wall a man passed through at a dead run. When he saw Adar, he headed in their direction. Adar wondered if something had happened to Semal as well, but he didn’t recognize the soldier as one of the men he’d sent to Semal earlier.

“Maual sent me.” The words were out of the soldier’s mouth before he’d even come to a stop. “Helam just left the base with a host of fifty men and we followed them into the city.”

Adar turned to Tere. “How long will it take for you to round me up two hundred soldiers?”

“You still want to avoid raising the alarm?”

Adar frowned. “Yes, for now.”

“I’ll have two hundred of our best ready to go in seven minutes.” Tere took off at a run.

Chapter 12

Nelion sat tied to a chair with a hood over her head and was unable to make out anything her captors said because they had moved out of earshot. Their indistinguishable voices made her imagine all sorts of terrible things they were planning to do to get her to talk. She stifled a snort because she didn’t know much that would be of use to them. Once they figured that out, she’d be out of time.

Sweat trickled down her forehead and into her eyes. She blinked in an effort to ease the stinging, but it didn’t go away. She tried reaching for her head to wipe around her eyes, but the rope keeping her to the chair held her hands fast as well. The side of her head throbbed and her shoulders were sore from where they had tried to rip her arms out of her sockets while tying her down.

She took a breath, held it, and then released it. Panicking was the surest path to death. She needed to think.

The evening had ended and Nelion was thinking of sleep when it had happened. One moment her apartment was serene and peaceful, the next it was overrun with hooded people. If she wouldn’t have let her guard down, she and the city guards might have done better, but it had been a long day that she’d thought was over.

She had grabbed her sword from where it hung on the wall and attacked the closest man, scoring a slice across his chest. Her next swing would have taken him in the gut but a blow to her head from the side stopped her short and her sword was ripped from her hands. The next thing she knew, she was on the floor and the man she’d wounded was kicking her in the head.

The invaders ripped her up from the floor, shoved a strip of cloth into her mouth, and tied it behind her head. Before the dense woven hood was pulled over her eyes, she saw that at least one of her guards was dead and the other two had serious wounds. Three against six were bad odds. One against that many was even worse.

She had been grateful that General Adar Rahid had requisitioned guards to protect both her and Semal but she couldn’t help but feel responsible for what had happened to them. Either way, she would have been kidnapped. She could have done without the additional weight of guilt that came with them being hurt and killed.

As they dragged her from her home, she remembered that General Rahid had been planning to send his own soldiers to relieve the city guards. She’d hoped that they were close, but it galled her to think that she needed to be rescued. It was better than the alternative, however.

At one point, her captors discussed what to do about a city guard patrol that had turned onto the road. A blade was pressed to her side and she was told to be silent. As if she could have said anything anyway with the filthy tasting rag in her mouth. A moment later there was a laugh and one of her captors sounded relieved when he spoke with the guardsmen.

More Kopal, she had thought and fought the sinking feeling she had in her chest. Any hope she had of rescue had evaporated by the time they stopped moving and tied her to the chair.

Nelion wasn’t aware of how much time had passed since her capture, but she guessed it had been at least an hour. The events of the evening had helped her keep from thinking about Kyson or the man she killed, but now, her fear for her own safety wasn’t enough to keep her thoughts from turning to them. She pushed aside thoughts of the Kopal man she had stabbed in the back. She’d do it again if she had to, but she wasn’t ready to process that yet.

She tried to avoid thinking about Kyson, but was unable. It wasn’t the first time that someone Nelion had known had died. She’d lost her father at a young age and she’d lost friends while in Korew army. Unlike so many things in life where the more you did something the better you became; dealing with grief never seemed to get any easier.

Kyson had been a good man that she hadn’t known as well as she would have liked. She had noticed and appreciated his quiet unassuming manner, but she couldn’t go so far as to say she was interested. This wasn’t saying much because she didn’t find many men attractive. While some might have preferred a handsome face or a broad set of shoulders, she wanted a man like her father.

He had had a quality of inner strength and control that her mother was fond of talking about, still years later after his death. It wasn’t that he was physically talented or charismatic; instead, his pride hadn’t usually got the best of him.

In Nelion’s experience it wasn’t just a rare characteristic in men; it was rare in everybody and perhaps why her mother had never remarried. Her father had always given Nelion his full attention and talked to her as if she was an adult, even when she was a small child.

While she hadn’t known Kyson well enough to be interested, in some ways Kyson had reminded her of her father. He’d never tired of answering questions and had kept her needs in mind. One time, after they’d both stayed late at the archives, he’d insisted on walking her home.

Nelion had been both amused and curious at the offer. As a former soldier, she was more than capable of handling any trouble she might run into and between the two of them, Nelion was the one that went around armed. If Kyson kept any weapons on him, she had never been able to detect them.

The closer they had gotten to her place, the more she’d wondered about his intentions. Would he try to steal a kiss? Perhaps invite her to do something? At the door to her apartment, he’d given her a smile and disappeared into the night. She’d been surprised at the disappointment she’d felt when she realized his intention was to only see her home.

The images of the arrow skewering him came to mind and she fought back tears and anger. Her wrists hurt. She realized that she’d formed her hands into fists and her bonds were cutting into them. It was bad enough that she’d made a fool of herself before General Rahid; she didn’t need to do the same before her captors. She took a breath and relaxed her hands.

Panic, tears, and anger were her real enemies. She continued to breathe at a slow rate, emptying her mind.

She had to keep her wits about her.

When the scratchy hood was removed from her head, Nelion recognized it as a bad sign that some of her captors hadn’t bothered to hide their identities. She refused to let the concern touch her.

Altogether, it looked like she was surrounded by a group of about twenty people, five of whom had their faces uncovered and were conversing several feet away from her. The rest wore cowls and masks; similar to the man she’d killed earlier at the Paroke Army archives.

They had dragged her up some stairs and she’d been tied down. While she hadn’t thought to count each step, she believed they were on the second floor.

The room was spacious and musty. A lantern had been set on a table nearby, giving light to the tables scattered throughout, most of which had chairs set upside down on top of them. She was in either a tavern or a meeting hall; it was hard to decide in the poor light.

She could see that it was still dark outside through a couple of windows along the far side of a wall. She didn’t recognize any of the dark buildings on the outside but that wasn’t a surprise. Rarbon was a big enough city that she didn’t have to go far to venture into unfamiliar territory. She was far enough away from the windows that it wasn’t likely that anybody would notice them from the outside. She wondered if anybody would be able to hear her if she screamed.

That would be a last resort, but when the time came, if it indeed came to that, she’d scream herself silly or until they knocked her unconscious.

Or worse.

It was ironic that the most dangerous situation she’d ever encountered hadn’t happened during her time in Korew army, but when she was working as a scribe. She remembered thinking when she took the job that it would be a great deal safer than the life of a soldier. She repressed a snort of dark laughter.

Once her utility to them had passed, her body would be found in an alley or floating face down in one of Rarbon’s canals. Or even worse, perhaps she wouldn’t be found at all. The thought of her disappearing without her mother knowing what had happened caused her to tighten her mouth and push down the panic.

She had to keep them thinking they needed her. She’d hold out through the interrogation as long as possible until she figured out something she could tell them that would make them want her alive.

As the group of un-hooded people talked just out of earshot, she twisted her arms, looking for any give or weakness in the knots keeping her secured to the chair. None were apparent.

Not wanting them to see her looking, she instead shifted in her seat to see if they might have missed one of her daggers. A shift to either side showed that they’d gotten the dagger she’d carried on her waist, but that wasn’t much of a surprise as it had been fastened to her belt. She then lifted her feet off the ground with small movements and was sad to see that they’d located the daggers in her boots as well.

She fought to keep from panicking as she tried to come up with something to do next. It wouldn’t be much longer before they started asking questions. She focused again on steady breathing.

There was a break in the group’s conversation; one of the women approached with a man who held a knife. He was tall and looked familiar, but Nelion was unable to place him. The woman wore a grim but determined smile. She was shorter than the man and had blonde hair. Nelion knew that she’d seen her before. It was there, just out of reach in much the same way a word might feel on the tip of her tongue.

“You’ve killed one of my men tonight.” The woman slapped Nelion. “Stabbing a man in the back. What would your mother say?”

Her stinging face hardened Nelion’s resolve. It was a ploy, to get her to give up something. Her mother wasn’t well enough known that anybody would have taken note of Nelion. This woman didn’t know who she was.

Nelion saw the next slap coming and twisted her head with it, to ease the blow. The woman noticed what she’d done and followed it with a solid fist. Nelion saw stars, the hit had landed on the same place where she’d taken a blow when they’d captured her.

“Where is your honor?” The woman asked, following it up with another blow. “Radim don’t kill from behind.” Her eyes reddened and her face was becoming heated. Her ragged expression was in contrast to her fine clothes and expensive jewelry. If Nelion hadn’t been in so much pain, perhaps she would have figured out who this was. Nelion had killed somebody important to the woman. She could use this. Nelion could make the woman mad to see if she’d give up useful information.

Nelion shrugged, preparing for the beating. “No honor is required when slaughtering swine.” The woman’s face twisted as a shriek escaped from her mouth. Nelion smirked. “He squealed like that too.” 

The woman howled as she slapped Nelion repeatedly. Each blow was painful, but Nelion was beginning to feel numb. She embraced that feeling and focused on sucking in air. The woman pulled out a dagger from somewhere that Nelion didn’t see. Nelion braced for the blade. She would give up something Nelion could use; it was just a matter of time.

“Enough,” said the man, grabbing the woman by the arm and yanking her off Nelion. He twisted her arm until the dagger clattered to the floor. “We can’t question a corpse.”

The woman hissed. “Unhand me.” The man refused and pushed her further back from Nelion. Several hooded figures came forward at his beckoning and took hold of her before he let go. She struggled against their grasp, her face a picture of rage and pain.

The man returned as he held up his knife and twisted it so that it reflected the light of the lantern. The others, both from the group and those that wore masks had ceased all conversation and were looking at Nelion.

Beads of sweat trickled down Nelion’s back, the room felt stuffy. The man had foiled her plan to learn something of use. She wished for some of that sycanon root that General Rahid had talked about earlier. She wasn’t in enough pain yet to use it, but it would have been nice to know it was an option.

NO! she thought. There was a way out of this, until she found it, she would endure the pain.

The man frowned. “Let’s begin. Who are you?”

So, Nelion’s hunch had been correct. The woman had been bluffing. It was a small victory, but she took it and let it buoy her up. It was time to wait until another opportunity presented itself. When Nelion didn’t answer, he struck her with a fist. “That’s a warning.”

Nelion blinked back the tears and shook her head, trying not to think of the bruises that were developing. By the time this was all over, she wouldn’t recognize herself in the mirror. She repressed another snort of black amusement; if she ever saw a mirror again.

The man repeated the question, but Nelion refused to answer. The next blow had more force and pushed her to the floor, taking the chair with her. As he lifted her and the chair back upright, she noticed one of the masked people talking to another in the group, but she was unable to make out what they were saying.

“You try my patience,” the man said.

The hooded figure that had been talking approached her tormentor and whispered something into her ear. A surprised look crossed his face. “Are you Nelion? The daughter of Lieutenant General Mien Torez?”

Clenching her teeth, Nelion didn’t respond.

“Looks like we got ourselves a high profile kidnapping here,” the man said, backhanding Nelion this time. “That’s my last warning.” He looked back at the group. “Perhaps we could use her for ransom instead of dumping her body.” The woman growled at that, but one of the people holding her elbowed her in the stomach.

Nelion felt dizzy and one of her eyes was beginning to swell shut. She was surprised that she wasn’t bleeding yet, but the way the man held the knife told her that wouldn’t last long.

“No more games,” Nelion said, surprised at how tranquil and distant her voice sounded. “I’ve seen your faces. Why leave me alive?”

The man smiled. “You act like the daughter of Mien. You are correct, we will kill you, but you can keep your mother from coming to harm. All you have to do is answer some questions about Semal, and we won’t touch her.” If they came after her mother, they’d have a few surprises of their own. Her mother still practiced with that sword of hers every morning. Sometimes in the evening too.

If Nelion hadn’t quit Korew army, her skill wouldn’t be rusty and she might have avoided this mess. The thought made her mouth tighten. It always came back to the Hunwei. She’d left because she didn’t want to die for something that she didn’t believe in and now she was minutes away from that happening anyway.

Was it possible everybody was deceived, or perhaps was the evidence she was looking for all around her in the first place? Could it not be argued that their way of life was so ingrained towards preparing against the Hunwei’s return, that there was no way this could all have happened if it was based on a lie?

The man let his words sink in before continuing. “What was Semal looking for in the Paroke archives?”

When Nelion didn’t answer, the man took the knife and touched the tip to the outside of her forearm. He pressed the blade until it punctured her skin and looked up at her with a smile. His precision reminded Nelion of a surgeon as he sliced down her arm with a slow and steady hand.

The pain wasn’t as bad as watching the blood drip down her arm. She started to shake. After several deep breaths that cleared her mind, she could hold still again. It wasn’t a deep cut, she wondered how many it would take before the loss of blood would become an issue.

“Are you ready to talk?”

Nelion didn’t answer.

The man sighed, punctured her arm, and made another cut parallel to the first. The man was on the third when there was a commotion at the door.

Nelion looked up in time to see soldiers rush into the room. A handful of the masked people by the door were cut down. Several of the unmasked figures brought up their hoods and tried to put on their masks. One took a sword in the chest while another lost his head, his mask clattering to the floor.

Nelion kicked the man that was torturing her in the groin and felt a swell of satisfaction when he cried out, even though the sound was lost amid the confusion of the room. She kicked him again, harder with as much leverage as she could manage and almost toppled over. He hunched over in pain just as a soldier rammed a sword into his gut.

Relief flooded into Nelion, as she witnessed the situation change within a matter of minutes. Adar’s soldiers had found her.

It wasn’t until the action had died down in the room that Nelion realized the soldiers belonged to Paroke army, not Napael. When General Helam Morgol entered the room a few moments later, he only had eyes for the woman that had been beating Nelion.

“At last, we come to this Elaire,” the General said. “Our agreement protects you no longer.”

Chapter 13

The calm demeanor General Helam had worn when dealing with Adar earlier in the evening was gone. Nelion had only met Helam for the first time tonight, but everything she knew about him said he was a man that guarded his emotions. She’d overheard that some of his men referred to him as Stoneface.

If she hadn’t been aware of Helam’s reputation before tonight and hadn’t witnessed Helam’s lack of emotion while dealing with Adar, somebody for whom he had obvious contempt, perhaps his visible anger wouldn’t have been so surprising. His face was contorted with rage, his lips pulled back and teeth bared like a wild animal about to take a bite of the beast it had just brought down.

Seeing Helam in the same room with the woman who had been torturing her—Helam had called her Elaire—Nelion could finally make the connection that she hadn’t been able to make earlier.

Elaire was Helam’s wife. Adar’s suspicions about Helam were beginning to look misplaced. Helam had mentioned that his agreement with Elaire was over. Was he talking about their marriage?

No, people didn’t talk about it in that way.

Both Adar and Semal had been convinced Helam was involved with the Kopal, yet here he was killing and capturing them.

Nelion didn’t quite know what to make of the situation. All the Kopal were either dead or captive. Had Helam discovered Elaire’s treachery and agreed to keep it hidden? If so, that was a dumb thing for him to have done.

Elaire, although she was now held by Helam’s men, looked Helam in the eye, holding her head high as he approached. Blood ran down the side of her face and dripped onto her blouse. Her grief at the death of her friend had been wiped away and between the two of them, she looked like she had a better handle on things. 

“You are making a foolish move,” Elaire said. “I long ago put in place precautions that would ensure you never survived my death. I am giving you one chance to leave with your life. If you do not take this opportunity, you will die.”

Several of the nearby soldiers exchanged glances and murmured something that Nelion wasn’t able to make out. Helam made a sound that could have been classified as a laugh, except that it sounded like a wounded creature dying. Nelion was surprised by the pity she felt for him.

“So this is what our marriage has come to. Threats of death.” Helam shook his head. “When you promised me your love, I never thought it would end like this. My love for you ran cold today. I had hoped you would return to me as my wife but that didn’t mean I sat idly by all these years. I’ve compiled a list of individuals with whom you have had dealings or who have provided me other reasons for suspecting they are Kopal. I gave that list to my men and ordered that these people be executed. Whatever support system you think you have, it will be wasted, your plans to kill me from the grave won’t happen.”

The temperature in the room went from warm to frigid. Helam was executing people without a trial? Nelion glanced around at the Paroke soldiers, wondering what they thought of this. None of them looked surprised and few were concerned.

They’d already known and were choosing to follow him anyway. She suddenly felt naked and exposed, without even a dagger in her boots for comfort.

What would an angry wounded man do with a woman that had just witnessed his confession of mass murder? She didn’t like any of the answers she came up with.

“My. Dearest. Husband.” The venom in Elaire’s voice made the words sound like a curse. “Did you think that I trusted you? Anybody you saw me with was somebody I wanted you to suspect. You might get lucky with some of the people you murder, but most will be innocent. And while I don’t doubt your ability to live with their blood on your hands, do you realize what this will do to you politically? Any hope that you ever had of getting the Rarbon Council to allow you into the Rarbon Portal will be gone once your actions become public knowledge. Oh yes, I know about that plan of yours.”

Helam approached his wife while withdrawing his sword from the sheath strapped to his back. Elaire’s eyes filled with fear, but Helam kept it at his side. “What makes your people think that the Hunwei are so close to returning?”

The question took Nelion by surprise. Why would Helam think that Elaire would answer a question like that?

Elaire broke into laughter. “You’re hardly in a position to be asking for favors, now are you? Unless you want to make another deal. But I’ll tell you this, the Hunwei are coming. And they are coming soon. If you fight them, you will die. Mankind’s only option is to submit.”

Helam brought up his sword and held it to the neck of his wife. “You dare speak to me of positions? Years of planning are laid to waste because of your actions. All that I hold dear, you’ve stolen from me. Worse, turned against me.” Helam’s face was red. Had he been betrayed by one of his officers?

“Do you want to live?” Helam asked. “Answer my questions and I’ll consider it.”

Elaire was breathing in huge gulps and her eyes were big. “Do it.”

Her words caused him to growl and Nelion could see his pain. He might claim to no longer love Elaire but Nelion didn’t believe it. Helam’s mouth worked, looking for words. He had probably wanted Elaire to beg for her life. His hand pulled back the sword, preparing to swing.

The well-maintained blade hung in the air while Helam and Elaire stared into each other’s eyes. Her calmness at war with his rage.

At last, he lowered the sword and looked around at his soldiers, making eye contact wherever possible. “Today we have discovered an infection. We have fought this sickness before but it continues to come back. With the Hunwei so close we have no choice. There is no place for mercy. The Kopal die today.” His order was met with silence. Several of his men exchanged looks, but most of them stiffened their faces. “Start with that one.”

He pointed at a man. The figure was brought forward, pushed to his knees and his hood was lowered. After asking if the man had any last words, Helam performed the first execution himself. 

Several of the soldiers covered their mouths but all looked on. Nelion had witnessed executions before while out on patrol. It had been a point of responsibility for all Radim soldiers to not avert their eyes. As a matter of habit, Nelion watched as well. On the one hand, she was glad to see the Kopal receiving their due and while the smell of blood filling the room sickened her, she could see Helam’s perspective. The Kopal were dangerous, as she’d experienced firsthand tonight. They were a rot that needed to be removed.

But Nelion also recognized that Helam’s actions were illegal unless the building the Kopal had taken her to was on the Paroke base, something she very much doubted. The way his men had been exchanging looks was enough to settle that question. Even if they’d been on base, the custom was to turn issues over to the Rarbon Council if the people in question weren’t soldiers.

As far as Nelion knew, Helam’s actions were unprecedented. The Rarbon Council might give him an award or he could be court-martialed and hung. She didn’t follow politics enough to know which way it would go.

Towards the end of the executions, several of the soldiers approached Nelion and cut the ropes with which she was bound to the chair and helped her to stand up. One covered the cuts on her arm with a handkerchief. They avoided making eye contact as they rescued her. It appeared that some weren’t on board with what Helam was doing here, even if they weren’t voicing dissent.

There were a few more scuffles as some of the Kopal tried to escape, but their attempts were stamped down. The only people left alive after several minutes had passed were Elaire, Nelion, Helam, and the Paroke soldiers.

At first, Helam didn’t take notice of Nelion, and they were about to leave when one of his soldiers asked what they should do with her. She could have skinned the man. She’d been planning to slip away in the commotion of their exit. The last thing she wanted to do was to try to convince a wounded angry general to leave her alive.

Helam regarded her with a slight frown, he’d calmed down but there was still murder in his eyes. She could see forming on his face the order to kill her as well. Her pulse raced as she tried to think of something to say to convince Helam to let her go. She could promise to not tell about the executions.

No, that would be coming from a position of weakness. That wouldn’t work. As he opened his mouth, Nelion spoke up.

“General. Thank you for rescuing me.” Nelion inwardly cringed at her choice of words. It ate at her that she’d needed to be rescued in the first place, but gratitude could be a powerful asset and she didn’t regret her word choice, just the fact that she was in a position where she had to say them. She needed to frame the conversation correctly to have a chance of surviving. “The Kopal must be eradicated and you should be commended for taking quick and decisive action.”

Helam looked through Nelion, lost somewhere she couldn’t see. He absently wiped his hand across his face, leaving behind a smudge of blood. Nelion repressed a shudder when several droplets fell on his shirt. The impassive face for which he was known once again kept his emotions hidden beneath the surface. She couldn’t tell if she was getting through to him or not.

“Bring her with us. We’ll release her when this is all over.”

Nelion heaved a quiet sigh of relief as Helam turned his back to her and left the room without looking again at his wife.

Chapter 14

The Kopal were traitors, but their execution was illegal. Most of the carnage had happened in the spacious entryway of the second floor room and Adar had to watch where he walked to avoid stepping in blood or on a hand or foot.

The Kopal masks had been stomped to pieces and lay beside the bodies of their owners. A few, who appeared to have died fighting, still had hoods covering their heads, but their masks were broken as well. Thirteen were dead from the execution and it looked like the others had died when Helam and his men had first taken the room.

The smell of blood tickled Adar’s nose, he noticed that several of his soldiers looked like they were trying to keep down their dinner; though, considering the time, it had been hours since any of them had eaten.

Adar wasn’t a stranger to blood, but it never got any easier, particularly when there were women among the dead. If the bandits he’d apprehended earlier had been made up of women, he would have had a more difficult time putting them to death. If he would have known the gender of the Kopal woman he’d killed, he wouldn’t have acted so quickly.

It didn’t matter who he killed, he would afterward stew about the events leading up to the death, wondering what he could have done to get a different outcome. Life was a fragile thing and he hated that he had been responsible for taking it away so often, but sometimes, it was the right option.

Adar and his men had been leaving the Napael base when Maual had sent another runner to bring them here. The soldier hadn’t known what Helam and his men were up to and if the runner would have come with news of this, Adar would have left sooner and pushed harder.

It was for the best that Adar had come to this after the fact. A fight between Napael and Paroke soldiers was becoming a real possibility, now that he knew that Helam’s current state of mind was in a place where he could do something like this. If Adar had shown up in the middle of the executions, Helam would have attacked without preamble. 

The last thing Adar needed right now was for the Radim armies to have further reason to distrust one another, fighting between the armies would be a major step backwards. He needed to restore their sense of purpose and discipline. 

The thought of Radim soldiers fighting one another in the streets of Rarbon made him shudder.

If it came to that, Adar would make certain that Helam didn’t live through the experience. 

Adar wanted to avoid a fight, but he doubted now that he could. A confrontation was coming, he could feel it. With the way Helam had acted earlier this evening and the execution of the Kopal, it was just a matter of time. The best thing to do would be to choose it on his own terms.

He looked around as he mulled over this last thought. The Kopal had picked a strange room to interrogate Nelion. It was large, with more than thirty tables that could sit ten people apiece. Adar wasn’t certain what the room was used for, but it reminded him of a small ballroom, only without a high ceiling and not as well furnished. He supposed it could be a general meeting room of some sort, but it was unusual to find such a place outside of an army base, the Council chambers, or the Palace.

While most of the chairs rested upside down on the tables, one had been set upright on the floor. That chair had pieces of rope around it as if somebody had been held captive and then cut loose.

Adar growled under his breath when he spotted blood underneath the rope. An image of Nelion tied to the chair came to mind, her face scrunched up in pain.

“Tell me again what you saw,” Adar said to Maual who had come to give a report of what he had observed. He’d left his other men to keep an eye on what Helam is doing.

Tere frowned and stood beside Maual, taking in the scene without comment. He was probably thinking that none of this would have happened if Adar had reported Helam’s behavior years ago. Tere didn’t see the whole picture. If Adar had done that, things wouldn’t have happened how Tere thought. 

“Well, Sir,” Maual said, the disrespect in his tone hadn’t returned, something that Adar would have given more thought to if he wouldn’t have been in a room surrounded by a bunch of corpses whose bodies were still warm. “We followed Helam and his men here. They didn’t hesitate before they entered the building. They knew what they were doing.”

Maual went on to give him a description of what had overheard. At one point, Helam had been yelling, but Maual hadn’t gotten close enough to make out any of the words. After that, there had been silence punctuated by the sounds of the executions. By the time Maual had figured out what was happening, it was over.

“When they left,” Maual said. “Several of Helam’s soldiers looked ashamed but they were the minority.”

Tere folded his arms. “You’re certain Helam had his wife and another woman captive?”

“Yes, Sir. It’s hard to say if the other was under arrest. She wasn’t tied up the way Helam’s wife was, but I don’t think she had the option to leave. She was followed by several men who were keeping an eye on her.”

As Adar surveyed the room, dozens of questions about the scene, Helam, Elaire, and Nelion danced around his head. He didn’t have any doubt about what had happened here—there had been a fight and the losers had been executed—but that didn’t explain why it had happened. Part of him wanted to assume that Helam was a member of the Kopal, but that didn’t line up with what he saw here. Everything pointed to Elaire being a member of that organization instead. 

“Why would Helam rescue the scribe only to take her captive himself?” Tere asked. “She’s gotta be Kopal as well.”

Adar shook his head. “A possibility, but it’s remote. Nelion killed one of the Kopal earlier.” It wasn’t from Nelion that he had learned that little tidbit. Semal had mentioned it as if Adar had already known.

“So did Helam,” Tere said.

“Helam will kill for his own purposes,” Adar said. “She seemed like a straight forward woman.”

Tere stepped closer to Adar and whispered so that Maual couldn’t hear. “Women can be hard to read, especially if they’re attractive.”

Adar felt the blood rush to his ears and hoped that nobody noticed. He wouldn’t deny that Nelion was pretty. “She didn’t seem the type.” Adar didn’t bother to whisper back. Tere shook his head but kept silent.

Nelion hadn’t spoken much during Adar’s confrontation with Helam. Helam had looked at her a couple of times, but never addressed her. That was far too little to read into. Until he had something more to go on, Adar would believe that Nelion had been kidnapped by the Kopal and then taken captive by Helam.

“Elaire’s capture is the critical piece of information,” Adar said. “Right after Helam’s personal guard had been hit by an arrow, he muttered something that I couldn’t make out. I did catch the word boundaries.”

Helam had subsequently given an order that seemed to be related to the situation. Why had Tymy been ordered to get an update from Hanri right after the incident? Adar had asked around his men and learned that there was a man named Hanri Tecomsa who was the captain of Helam’s personal guard.

It could have been another coincidence. Or the arrow and order could be connected in some way. 

“If Elaire was Kopal,” Maual said, breaking into Adar’s thoughts, “and Helam had known about it, he could have been protecting her.

Adar shook his head.

“The boundaries comment implies something more than just knowing about it,” Tere said. “They had an agreement. We need to know now if the pact was between Helam and the Kopal or just his wife.”

“Helam could be protecting them in exchange for their help in causing a shift in the government,” Adar said.

Tere snorted. “It hasn’t been much of a secret that Helam would be happy change things, especially when it comes to selecting the next Ghar.”

“This could also explain Helam’s connection to the bandits,” Adar said. “He’s orchestrating the attacks to sow chaos and doubt about the current government and then when things get dire, he’ll sweep in to defeat the bandits and become a prime candidate for becoming Ghar. Something that would be possible with both Abel and me out of the way.”

Maual made a face when Adar had mentioned Abel’s name. At first, Adar thought it was because Maual didn’t like Abel either, but then he realized it must have been because Adar had left off the honorific Rahar. He would have to be more careful, few people knew how Adar felt about his father and he wished to keep it that way. He wouldn’t have made such a mistake on a normal day, but the fatigue must have been getting to him.

“Helam is over the edge,” Adar said. “If Molach is mixed up in all this too, that could explain why.” Adar would get somebody close to Molach to determine if the man was wounded or not. As a precaution, he’d make sure to investigate the other men he suspected as well.

“Sir,” Maual said, “I best be going. I need to catch up to my men.”

Adar nodded, as Maual left he wondered how Maual would be able to find his men if he hadn’t known where Helam was going. Perhaps Maual was assuming that Helam would return to the Paroke base. Adar wasn’t so sure. 

“If there had been a compromise between Elaire and Helam,” Tere said. “It could have been an agreement of tolerance, not protection.”

“That could explain some things.” Adar had thought that Helam had started keeping guards because of the tension between Helam and himself, but maybe the timing coincided instead with the discovery of his wife’s affiliation with the Kopal. “It could also be that she was breaking from the script. My guess is that Molach was sent by Helam to take care of Nelion. That would also explain why Helam took her captive, but all this supposition doesn’t matter until we know more. I’m more concerned about what to do now. If he’s illegally executing people in the city, we’re in a dangerous position.”

Tere lowered his voice. “I’d be careful with that line of reasoning. This is the second execution within the last twelve hours.” Tere held up his hands when Adar shot him a glare. “I’m not saying that there aren’t some differences, but I won’t be the only one to draw the same comparison. You know it. The Rahar will use this to discredit you. Not openly, of course, but privately he’ll say that you’ve become dangerous and gone rogue. He’ll point to Helam as evidence of that.”

Adar stared into the face of his friend, trying to discern Tere’s thoughts. There were several big distinctions between the two executions. Adar had gone up against custom, not the law, and the people he’d executed had been murderers, not kidnappers. Regardless of custom, it was Adar’s responsibility to ensure peace and order in the Napael territory. But Tere did have a point. In light of what Helam had done, Abel would use this to discredit him.

Adar couldn’t afford to dwell on that now. Politics would have to be dealt with later.

Helam was taking risks where he was normally cautious, something that he didn’t do often, but the scar on Adar’s chest was evidence of what happened when Helam’s passion got the better of him. If Helam had felt it necessary to execute people in the middle of the city, was there anything that he wouldn’t do? 

Adar picked a man—another young soldier whose name he didn’t know, he’d have to learn it later—who looked like he could move fast. “Run to the palace and inform Abel’s guard that I have reason to believe there may be an attempt on the Rahar’s life tonight. Tell them to increase their forces.” The lad nodded his head and took off without a word. 

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Here is the description for War of the Fathers:

Adar Rahid and his son Jorad have been on the run for fifteen years, chased by servants of Adar’s father who are intent on finding and killing Adar. Even while a fugitive, Adar continues to search for the secrets of their forefathers because he fervently believes that an ancient alien race known as the Hunwei are about to attack. 

When Adar stumbles upon large cloaked creatures in the woods, he determines that the Hunwei have returned and that drastic action needs to be taken. 

Just as Adar and Jorad are leaving town to seek out an ancient weapon, men sent from Adar’s father show up to kill him. 

Readers are taken on an adventure as the Hunwei attack and a father and son struggle to find a way to fight back in this tale of epic fantasy and science fiction. This action packed story is the first volume in the War of the Fathers series. Buy your copy today!

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Jake Ramsey watched his parents get murdered when he was a boy. Shortly afterward he was recruited to work for Black Brick, a covert government organization.

After Jake survives a shootout while protecting the corrupt executive of a powerful and well connected government contractor, his suspicions grow that the covert government organization he works for has been subverted by somebody who doesn’t have the country’s best interest at heart.

The deeper he digs the more he fears he has been lied to about everything, including the details around the deaths of his parents.

Jake doesn’t know who to believe as he searches for answers, dodges bullets, and is framed for a train bombing. He soon finds himself fighting against the very organization he believed to be on the right side of the law. If you enjoy thrillers with twists and turns, this book is for you. Pick up your copy today!

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About the Author

Dan Decker lives in Utah with his family. He has a law degree and spends as much time as he can outdoors. You can learn more about upcoming novels at dandeckerbooks.com.

Did you love Blood of the Redd Guards – Chapters 1 – 14? Then you should read Blood of the Redd Guard by Dan Decker!

Adar Rahid has only been a general for two months, but his problems are already multiplying. He has his hands full with a father who wants to kill him and Helam Morgol, another general who is secretly laying plans to take over the Rarbon city government.

When Adar encounters a gang of bandits brazenly robbing and murdering merchants in his territory he suspects that there is more going on than just a simple robbery. His fears are quickly confirmed when a murder perpetrated by a hidden organization known as the Kopal pulls him into a conflict with Helam where the future of the city is at stake.

While events unfold Adar Rahid struggles to find a distinction between his methods and those employed by Helam Morgol as both take drastic actions to gain the upper hand.

Readers are taken on an adventure between dueling generals in this tale of epic fantasy and science fiction. This action packed story is based in the War of the Fathers universe and happens twenty three years before the events in War of the Fathers. Pick up your copy today!

Also by Dan Decker

War of the Fathers

Blood of the Redd Guard

War of the Fathers

Lord of the Inferno

Standalone

Black Brick

The Field Test

Black Brick – Chapters 1-16

The Containment Team

The Containment Team – Chapters 1-17

War of the Fathers – Chapters 1-18

Blood of the Redd Guards – Chapters 1 – 14


Blood of the Redd Guard - Chapters 1 - 14

Adar Rahid has only been a general for two months, but his problems are already multiplying. He has his hands full with a father who wants to kill him and Helam Morgol, another general who is secretly laying plans to take over the Rarbon city government. When Adar encounters a gang of bandits brazenly robbing and murdering merchants in his territory he suspects that there is more going on than just a simple robbery. His fears are quickly confirmed when a murder perpetrated by a hidden organization known as the Kopal pulls him into a conflict with Helam where the future of the city is at stake. While events unfold Adar Rahid struggles to find a distinction between his methods and those employed by Helam Morgol as both take drastic actions to gain the upper hand. Readers are taken on an adventure between dueling generals in this tale of epic fantasy and science fiction. This action packed story is based in the War of the Fathers universe and happens twenty three years before the events in War of the Fathers. This book includes Chapters 1 - 14. Pick up your copy today!

  • ISBN: 9781370361496
  • Author: Dan Decker
  • Published: 2017-01-16 23:50:15
  • Words: 47888
Blood of the Redd Guard - Chapters 1 - 14 Blood of the Redd Guard - Chapters 1 - 14