The Seekers

a novella by John Stryker

Chapter One

THE CHASE HAD been a long one. Ahead the sky was a deep, rich blue, and the distant line of the horizon contrasted sharply with the clay red of the barren earth. Absent were the usual brooding storm clouds that characterized the great red flats of the southlands. Behind; a broiling storm of dust that told the bloodied man that his pursuers were not far distant.
He wore only a light, tattered gown that had once been white, with a bow slung over his shoulder. The arms of his garment were gone, and his soft shoes were beginning to come apart. He had adopted a rhythm to his running, two steps then a trotting hop as the pain from some unchecked injury became too much to bear.
He could taste the metallic tang of blood mixing with the grit on his dry tongue, and his long night-dark hair was plastered to his head with sweat and grime. His thighs burned, and he knew that even with the speed and grace that years of honing his limbs had granted him, he could not outrun his pursuers, who rode fresh horses and had skins of clean water.
Risking a moment to catch his breath the man took stock of his wounds, they were minor scrapes, but he had lost a good deal of blood, and the torn edges of his linen gown were trimmed visceral red-brown.
He felt dizzy.
Pushing the sensation from his mind he glanced back again. Sharp eyes perceived mounted shapes in the dust. Bows slung casually over shoulders, spears held loosely. His pursuers clearly did not think that the chase would last much longer.
Five men, and he had only two arrows left.
Resting heavily on his bow he tightened the bindings around his head, it wouldn’t do to have blood in his eyes. Not now.
Casting around he saw a dry stream bed. It would have to do.
It would all have to do.
He turned and ran, falteringly, with a new burst of desperate energy.
The man had been running for miles since the ambush, stopping only twice to lie in wait and pick off one of his pursuers as the opportunity presented itself. The last time he hadn’t fled fast enough, or with enough stealth afterwards.
Ducking into the stream bed, he cast around for a hiding place, but found little. He was sure that they hadn’t seen him take cover, but there were few other places that the men would conclude he must be.
Still panting hard, he stooped, notched an arrow, and waited. Ears used to the hunt straining for the distant thunder of hooves.
The mid afternoon sun was hot now that he was out of the breeze. His breath rasped through a parched throat. The brush at the lip of the streambed rustled with the passage of some unseen animal. A far off bird of prey cried as it circled high above, scanning the ground below for its quarry. And then there it was, the growing rumble of pursuit.
A grim, determined light danced in eyes under-rimmed thickly in blue-grey.

NAIS HAD BEEN with Eckhardt’s band for three years now. The jobs had often been hard, but the work paid well, and Eckhardt’s reputation meant that patrons never had second thoughts about the price.
Nais was in good spirits. The man had picked off the new blood - Dar - and wounded Sturn, but they’d bloodied him for the effort, and the chase had been a good one. It was a challenge to hunt a quarry so adept at going unseen. Eckhardt, the scarred veteran, had fought their mark’s kind before outside Boraka, and assured his men that the open, flat terrain meant that they could run him to exhaustion, then finish the job without much danger.
They had all laughed when the lad Dar ran forward and took an arrow through the throat. That was the price for being too hungry for your first kill. He simply wasn't destined for manhood. Nais had taken the lad's horse while his life gurgled away onto the dusty ground.
Eckhardt pulled his mount to a halt and raised a hand. The mercenaries fell silent. Eckhardt scanned the horizon with one good eye intently, the other milky orb lolled impatiently as if in impotent frustration. Then, without even glancing away from his objective, he silently waved Nais to him.
"Over there."
He signalled using the gauntlets he clutched in his fist.
"Do you see that gully?"
Nais nodded, squinting in the bright sun.
"Aye sir."
"He's in there."
Nais nodded again, mutely, unsure of how Eckhardt knew, but faithful that the veteran must be right.
"I'll circle to the left -" he indicated to the other mercenaries "- and the rest to the right, all on foot. You will take the horses and lead them straight towards the lip of the gully."
"Yes Nais-" Eckhardt turned and looked him in the eyes with a steely, mirthless, half-dead gaze "-he'll be listening for the horses."

ALDER COULD HEAR the horses drawing closer. He was so tired. His lids were heavy and hot, exhausted tears stung his eyes.
The air in the stream bed was stale. It fogged his thoughts with still heat.
There were five of them, six horses, one belonging to the boy he'd killed. The man he wounded must have gone for help.
A deep gash in his calf throbbed dully. He could feel stickiness in the remains of his shoe. His head pulsed in time with the pain of his leg, vision blurring at the edges.
One of the horses sounded different. Must be the one without the rider.
He wanted so much to lie down. To close his eyes. To go home to that cool, green land over the mountains. He remembered his home less and less vividly every month, he had been in this land of browns and greys so long.
The horses were just a few yards away from the lip of the stream bed now.
This land that was just a shadow, a pale ghost of what Alder knew the world to really be.
Suddenly razor shards of realization pierced his delirium. Alder grasped instantly that something was wrong. The horse that sounded different was treading heavier, not lighter. There was but a single horse with a rider, not just one without.
Whirling to his right Alder saw a scarred face peer around the edge of the gully through the thicket grass. The tip of a spear glinted.
In an instant he raised his bow and fired. The arrow pierced Eckhardt's steely eye like a knife through a grape, and the mercenary reeled backward into the open and fell - twisting - with a wretched shriek.
Not dead yet, but never to rise again.

THE HORSES STOMPED nervously, pinning back their ears, unhappy at a single rider leading them all so close together. Nais did his best to keep them moving forward. Eckhardt had slipped silently around the side of the gully, spear in hand, and the rest of the band were moving up the opposite bank. He had just allowed himself a cruel smile when he heard a shriek, more like a beast in a trap than a man, come from Eckhardt's approach.
For an instant Nais exalted that their quarry had been felled by the veteran's clever ruse, but then Eckhardt staggered into view again, the shaft of an arrow protruding at a rude angle from a face now wholly blinded.
With another scream Nais' leader pitched back, twirling in mid air like some macabre marionette, and landed face-down. A moist tearing sound suggested the unpleasant avenues the arrow was carving through his still-thinking mind.
The abruptness and appalling nature of the violence brought bile up into Nais' mouth, and he choked for a moment, but struggled it back down. Then a rich voice, cracking with weariness and thirst, spoke in heavily accented Kelorn from inside the gully.
"I have one arrow left, and there are four of you. I cannot outrun you, but I won't give up. If you want me, then one more of you will die this day before you are upon me. Is the amount on my head worth that risk? Or will you ride away, and sell those two horses at market instead?"
Nais glanced at his comrades, but found three pairs of eyes fixed on him.
Sweat beaded fatly on his brow. Nais was a sword arm, not a thinker. Numbers were moving about in his head. If one more did die then the chance it would be him was only growing as the pursuit went on. But on the other hand the fewer of their number that survived, the greater each survivor's share of the bounty would be.
Absently Nais slipped a handful of tabac leaves into his mouth and began to chew.
Eckhardt did have a particularly fine horse…

ONCE HE COULD no longer hear the hooves of the retreating bounty-hunters Alder slumped against the bank to catch his breath.
He spat a mouthful of stale saliva and dry blood into the caked earth.
"I just want to go home."

Chapter Two

VONTAN HALE WAS a long, narrow man. His features were hard, angular, his face profoundly muscular and his eyes dark and keen beneath heavy brows. His mouth was a flat horizon bisecting a grim jaw. A visage that spoke of both the rule of law, and the unashamed threat of violent recrimination.
Steady, soft drizzle drummed on Vontan’s hood and cloak. He ignored it as it ran in a steady stream through a gaze that seemed apt to outlast the mountains. He stooped on the back of his heavy country horse, like a man unaccustomed to riding, and suffering its effects.
He was lost in thought.
Ahead the rain wreathed Polwa’s blocky watchtowers with a torchlight haze. The grey stones of the walls were black with wet, and the pitted battlements and ornate buttresses of the guardhouses looked slick and glossy.
The northwestern gates were shut, but a cadre of watchmen wrapped in heavy cloaks against the damp, and bearing oil-lanterns stood guard.
With an imperious air but still maintaining a respectful quiet Vontan rode up to the men, who eyed him with tired eyes and rose on aching joints. He had drawn close to the barred trap that allowed him to entreat entrance before anyone spoke.
“Who goes there?” the captain hissed in a heavy whisper from under his heavy moustaches.
“I am Vontan Hale, Lictor of the Almighty Divh-Imperator.”
While in a smaller village such a revelation would have drawn a hiss of shock, or even outright terror from the guard, in a cosmopolitan hub like Polwa the captain merely inclined his head in a respectful gesture.
“And yer business?”
“I am returning home, to my bed. Open the gate.”
There was no malice in Vontan’s tone, but he made certain that his last words were an instruction, not a request.
The captain nodded, and signalled to his men and with a shuddering grinding sound one of the great gates swung open just enough to admit Hale and his mount. He rode through, offering the guard a tilt of his head in thanks, then carried on out of the warm orange of the lantern light and into the city.
The streets were dark, even for the early hours of morning, and the city stiller than Hale had seen it in years. A combination of the hour and the weather had driven all those who had a choice indoors, and only a smattering of windows had light in them. Glowing like the eyes of some night-time predator, yet also making faint promises of a warm hearth and soft bed.
Hale carried no light of his own, because these streets and alleyways were well known to him. He could have navigated by the scent of the tannery by the river alone, and knew when the sharp crack of his horse’s hooves on the cobbles would become the dull thud of packed earth and crunch of gravel as he turned off the main street.
For a moment the screech of a rat, disturbed by his passing, pierced the quiet of the night, but then all was still again as the lone rider wound his way through side streets and back alleys heading towards his home.
Over the buildings ahead there was a faint umber-gold glow. Dawn must be coming, Hale thought absently, then thought again and realized that he faced south, not east. He looked up at the three moons, the blue nearly full, to be sure he was not merely disoriented, but their passage only confirmed his estimation.
Hale pulled the hood of his weatherproof travelling cloak down over his face, shaking the fine beading of water off it as he did so. Despite the rain the night had been a warm one, and he was growing uncomfortable in his stiff wet leathers.
Hale rode on.
Rounding familiar corners and crossing well-remembered squares the mage-finder - as those of his order were colloquially known, when they were out of earshot - passed finally into the last leg of his journey; the road that led to his own home, with thought of a down mattress and the warmth of his wife's embrace in his mind.
There was a crowd in the street.
For a moment the gaunt lictor looked placidly at the flames that licked out of the windows of the squat building before him that was his home. The smell of ash and charred timbers, and the crackling of a fire in its last defiance.
Hale caught the familiar sickly-sweet scent of charred flesh.
He rode through the crowd, people parting for the mounted man.
The house was a ruin, it’s timbers now a jagged black skeleton jutting strangely from the manmade landscape. The roof was gone, and the second storey - exposed to the stars and the misty rain - was gutted and pitchy black. The glass of the windows had burst outwards onto the street in the extreme heat, and now lay glittering in bleak challenge to the night sky above.
Hale stopped by a chain of soot-covered men with buckets. The first man was tall but plump, and after a moment Hale recognized the slack-jowled face of his neighbour, a great house merchant of some wealth whose name the impassive priest could not recall. He looked down evenly at the man.
“You’re nightshirt’s ruined.”
It was all he could think to say. The merchant looked up, clearly exhausted after being wrenched from a heavy sleep, but recognition rose in his eyes like the dawn.
“Hale-” he rasped with a smoke-ravaged throat “by Haederas I am sorry.”
Vontan nodded.
The merchant stared at him for a moment, and then became uncomfortable under the other man’s gaze. In an effort to break the silence he grasped for words, but found none.
“I don’t suppose you know of an establishment where I might rent lodgings close by?”
Taken aback the merchant stuttered.
“I – I – well, that is, you shall stay with me of course.”
“Ah. So your house is undamaged then?”
“Good.” Hale nodded politely but without much real concern.
“My horse?”
“I’ll have a footman see to it.”
The merchant signalled to another scorched man, who dropped his bucket and immediately came forward to take the reigns, helping the magefinder dismount stiffly.
“Thank you.” Hale pause for a moment. “I hope you won’t think me ill mannered good sir, but I seem to be unable to summon your name to memory just now.”
“Oh – er – Afer my lord, Nolus Afer.”
“Thank you Nolus Afer, you are most kind.”
“My lord, you should know, you’re wife and son - ”
“Are dead, yes” his voice was cold, and totally emotionless “My profession renders me uniquely attuned to the scent of burned flesh.”
Afer involuntarily took a step back. The lictor’s nonchalant reference to the well-known practice of mage-burning made him deeply uncomfortable, and he found the man’s unnatural clam profoundly disturbing.
With a mixture of sympathy and trepidation he reached a thick hand out, laying it on Hale’s shoulder.
“Come with me my lord.”
The dark-skinned priest turned to him, his steely eyes finally brimming with tears, but his jaw set like stone, knotted muscles showing through sunken cheeks.
“My son is dead.”

Chapter Three

HIGH ABOVE THE city of Polwa, casting rheumy eyes down upon even the Tyrant's Palace, from the pinnacle of a willowy tower that was the heart of the Imperatry University, the master shook his snowy locks. He turned his eyes to the heavens, and then to his student. With quivering gaze he stared at the younger man, and in turn his student cast down his own eyes in shame.
"I am sorry master Murudius." he mumbled simply.
Murudius regarded the man for long, silent moments, stroking his drooping moustaches with thought. He looked at the defiance in the jaw. Noted the clenched fists, nails biting deep into the flesh of the palms. He saw the neck muscles bunch tightly under the ceremonial yellow robe.
"You have no aptitude for this boy."
"As you say master."
"And you are not devoted to your divhi, or your craft."
"Ah -"
The student considered his words carefully for a moment.
"If I had wanted glibness I should have found one of those dens of drink in the city!" the elder snapped. "I asked for neither retort nor opinion. It is fact that you neither apply yourself nor possess talent."
"Yes. Master."
"And so I ask myself why I continue to try to teach you."
Jonus gathered the folds of his robes into his knotted fists and waited for the older man to continue.
"Well? I asked you a question and now you choose to stand here dumbly? Hrm? Look at where you are! This university stands over even the palace of the Tyrant, we stand above the filth and the squalor of this city with nothing between the heavens and ourselves but vast space. We reach out to the very divh! Do you have no respect for this institution? For the learned scholars who have come before you? For those countless many who were not accepted into our hallowed halls? Those who might well deserve to be here in your place! Hrm? Answer!"
"I respect this place master, I do."
"You do not!" Murudius reached out a skeletal hand, grabbing his pupil's mustard robe in his gnarled fist.
"You are an affront to the vestments of our college!"
Jonus knew what was expected of him.
"I swear I will do better my master."
"You swear? What do you swear by? Hrm? What holds you to such a bold vow?"
"I swear in Haedrian's name -" Jonus invoked the name of the imperator of all Haedrasia "- and by the ancestral Haedar themselves that I will better myself in my studies and in my devotion to our craft henceforth."
Murudius regarded him with a guarded glare for a moment longer.
"And may you be struck down if you do not." he muttered darkly.
Murudius waved a withered hand dismissively.
"Bah! I have no more time to devote to curing your foolishness this night. Go. I must scrutinize the heavens for a purposes greater than elevating your pathetic talents to the heights of mediocrity."
Swallowing this bitter insult with all the humility he could muster, Jonus turned and swept away from the master's chamber.
There were countless steps that the apprentice would have to pass to descend the third tower of the College of Polwa, and more still before he would reach the apartments where he was quartered. It would be well after midnight before Jonus would arrive home. Silently cursing the old man under his breath he hurried as fast as he dared out onto the spiralling stair that ringed the outer wall of the hollow tower. To Jonus' right there was but bare stone, and to his left a sheer drop hundreds of feet to the flags below.
He took a moment to look back up towards the massive crystal dome above, with its ceiling-height shelves groaning with tomes and scrolls, bigger than two men, around its circumference. Then with sickening inevitability his eyes turned down again to the dead-fall below. Clutching the narrow railing with now slick hands Jonus hurried downwards.
The college below was quiet, and after passing out of the gates he found the city beyond the same, with a fine misty rain moistening the air more than falling.
Pulling his robes about himself against the uncomfortable warmth of the steam, rising off the sun-warm cobbles, Jonus tore off his ceremonial skullcap and stuffed it into a hidden pocket. His fingers found his talisman and grazed it, and he smiled.
Looking back at the towers behind him, with eyes that only his mage-sight allowed, Jonus' scowl turned to a smile. A shadow that no mortal eye could see lay over the place. He turned away and glared again. How dare that old man accuse him of neglecting his studies when the menial histories he was expecting Jonus to master were things taught to the very lowliest of scholars?
He knew Murudius Tahm had again been denied candidacy for the post of Grand Master of the College of Polwa by its patrons in the Green House. He was an old man, in his twilight, he had reached a plateau he hadn’t time to escape as an academic. Perhaps he wished he had entered the priesthood. Jonus knew that his master envied not his youth, not his intelligence – which he admitted in his most solitary moments, was only middling – but the old man envied his future, not where he would go, but how much time he had before him, and Tahm was bitter.
And he, Jonus Ontus, scholar, scribe and student, bore the brunt of the old man’s fading ambition and disappointed dreams. And he bore it with respect and humility, at least to his elder’s face. But his patience was wearing thinner and thinner. Consoling himself with thoughts of Tahm's impending death, bitter, lonely and unmourned, Jonus hurried to the squat house above which he had a humble apartment.
Once inside he shed his robe, hanging it near the hearth, and set about lighting a fire. The charred ruins of what may have once been a doll house sat by the fireside, and he smiled to himself, and struck the charred structure a savage blow with a log, that sent it crumbling to ash.
Jonus passed his hand over the grate, and a fire sprung up instantly amongst the stacked logs. A fire that burned at first blue, then golden, then purple, and then a colour that Jonus could not even name. The fire burned warm 'til the room was quickly stifling, and then for a moment burned glacially cold, and Jonus marvelled at it's constant flux before struggling into a woollen tunic and soft leather vest.
He pulled his talisman to the outside of his rough attire and admired it for a moment, it's gleaming surface caught none of the firelight, but shed a light from a room that existed only in it's reflective surface. Like this one, but not the same.
The others would arrive soon.

BAROLO'S HOOD WAS sodden from the rain by the time he reached the warped gateway, partially concealed behind a ruinous stone wall. He rapped the secret knock on the rough surface, spoke the word "Nosoth", and was stealthily admitted to the hidden courtyard beyond by a similarly hooded and masked figure.
Making his way down what had once been merely an alleyway, before some enterprising owner had claimed it by putting a stout timber gate at it's mouth, he cast nervously from side to side, peering at the windows that overlooked the path, but they were heavily boarded up, and the rooms beyond were dark. After a dozen steps or so the alley turned, and passed under a fallen wall that created a sort of haphazard arch, before turning again.
Barolo could truly imagine that he was now traversing the secret paths of the city, moving through the guts, the viscera, of some gargantuan beast of brick and mortar. When the alley finally opened into a small, overgrown courtyard, he marvelled at the feats of chance that had to convene for such a space to even exist in so vast a jumble of buildings, let alone that it should have but a single entrance.
This cavernous, open-air temple to crumbling brick, sitting water and profane ambition had been the meeting place for he and his masked associates for the best part of a year. No windows overlooked them here, and buildings loomed at least three storeys of sheer masonry on all sides. Better still, their voices barely carried through the densely packed houses surrounding, and they were free to go through their rites, albeit in hushed tones, with no fear of even the sharpest ears overhearing them.
These austere walls had borne witness to wonders and horrors to which few privileged men indeed were privy, and if they could speak they would whisper such secrets as would make the blood boil and drive a sane man mad and, worse still, a mad man sane. When all was still Barolo fancied that the breeze through the jumbled alleys of the city was the very stone of the place whispering their secrets, and trepidation that they might be found out, mixed with mirth that those who would hunt them down were free to hear their secrets, if only they knew how to listen.
Brother Hand ushered him into the place of meeting.
"Welcome Brother Tooth."
"In His perilous gaze Brother Hand."
The two clasped both hands in a complex know, as ceremony demanded, and Barolo took his place amongst the half dozen robed, masked men. Barolo thought, once again, how strange it was that, were he to meet one of these men on the street outside of their place of meeting, perhaps at his grocer's stall, they would not know one another. So close that they had shared things not meant for mortal eyes, they were essentially strangers. Only Brother Eye knew who they truly were, and Barolo did not know if any man knew the identity of Brother Eye.
As Barolo mused upon this Brother Eye raised his hands for silence, and opened the ancient book that only he was allowed to read from, signalling the beginning of the ceremony. Excited at the prospect of what wonders they might see tonight, and what greater plateaus of command over the world around them, or prosperity, or vengeance against their foes their gathering might bring them.

JONUS SMILED UNDER his mask. He had performed the ceremonial welcome for all eight of the brothers who were expected. These poor fools. They had no idea what they were dabbling in. Middling merchants, seeking elevation and fortune, he had systematically followed each man home over the past months, and knew who each and every one was. And the poor fools never knew it when he walked straight past them, as they entered their homes, bidding them a good evening as he passed.
He allowed himself a chuckle, his mood already much improved.
How would these fools feel if they knew that one of their number knew all that there was to know about them? How would they feel if they knew that the mighty Brother Eye was nothing more than a high street cobbler? And how would they feel if they knew that their number was eight, and not nine tonight because of one of their own brethren?

Chapter Four

THE DAWN WAS a chill one, despite the close warmth of the night. On a hastily dressed cot in the home of the merchant Afer, Vontan Hale lay still, sleepless, staring at the whitewashed beams above him with a gaze that might bore a hole to the sky above. He had grieved for his wife and only son through the dark hours, and now with the rising of the sun he was exhausted, numb, not sure what to do.
Of course a pilgrimage to the Unchallenged City would do much to heal his soul, but a lictor does not think upon reparation until after he has exacted retribution. It was not merely Vontan's duty as husband and father to avenge his family, nor was it something to be done for his own satisfaction, though both of these things were equally true, but it was his job as a member of the immortal divh-imperator's not-so-secret police, the lictors, to hunt out whatever malefactors had taken his life from him and visit Haederas' divine retribution upon them, through the imperfect medium of his hand, and a selection of metal instruments of his choice.
The problem was that he did not know where to start. Or when his determination might be subverted by another attack of bleak grief, and self-recrimination.
"I should have been home a tenday ago. I would have been there." he repeated, though he had lost count of how many times he'd said it already. The phrase felt like a sort of confession, an admission of guilt, even though his being in that house would likely have meant just one more charred body in the ruin.
And because he had repeated the phrase so many times, Hale was surprised to receive a reply.
"It would have done no good lord."
Hale sat up with a start, only to see his host standing in the doorway with a tray.
"I don't suppose you'll be eager to break your fast?"
Hale looked at the modest fare of greasy quail and boiled potatoes. His stomach growled.
"The meal will give me no pleasure, but I can't very well do what I must hungry." he consented, with a cold practicality.

Waking in the house of his neighbour, the merchant Afer, Vontan Hale's first reaction is one of grief, then panic. Racing to the ruins of his burned home and digging for his son, somehow believing that the child long since taken away might still be alive under the ash. However when he finds signs of foul magic his finely honed mind turns to retribution, and he begins to follow the trail of the foul magicians who cruelly stole his legacy.

Chapter Five

Again at the university, Ontus is sent on a menial mission into town to obtain goods from a local merchant for his master. While at the merchants establishment he is recognized by one of the men who he met with in chapter three. Incensed and suddenly taken by a savagery even he finds surprising, Jonus murders the man brutally, and then must hurry to conceal his crime.

Chapter Six

Hale is summoned by the Arch-Primate, Marco Katelego, to report on the mission he was away on. He does so, outlining the activities of a sect known as the Brotherhood of the Celestial Island. He suspects that adherents may have murdered his family in retribution for his purging of a large cell in the Bair, but even more disturbing he believes that their leader is within the walls of Polwa.

Chapter Seven

Pressing onward through the Three Cities region, Alder arrives at the city of Polwa, and makes his way towards the local Irino. Once there he begins to make enquiries about a certain sacred relic stolen boldly from his masters in Mierellia by a traitor, revealed to be his brother Mard. However it seems that Mard met his end in Polwa, and the relic was not recovered with his body.

Chapter Eight

Hale searches for a lead, convinced now that the Brotherhood of the Celestial Island is behind the murder of his family, he begins seeking them out, all the while recalling his time hunting them mere months ago, and the escape of their leader. They don't sound too threatening, in fact they sound a little crackpot. Even Hale had not considered them a threat beyond their obvious (if incautious) heresy.

Chapter Nine

Still in something of a state of shock, Ontus is back at the university being berated by Murudius again. As if taken by a strange force he snaps and murders the old man, then knows that he has to get out of the city. In desperation, he goes to visit Brother Eye, who is shocked at Onrus' confessions, and tries to turn him in to the authorities. Judging Eye's faith to be "superficial" and lacking Ontus kills him too, and takes control of his modest home.

Chapter Ten

Hale hears about the murder of Murudius, but he also hears about a strange and mysterious newcomer to Polwa, and it is the later that interests him. He travels to the city's small Irino, but they close ranks on him, and cite ancient treaties protecting them. Frustrated, Hale reasons that this newcomer won't be hard to find.

Chapter Eleven

Alder is moving around Polwa, trying to ascertain who his brother was associating with. He learns from a chatty Kelorn street vendor that Mard spent a good deal of time with a local cloth merchant of some wealth and influence. Going to the cloth merchant's home however he meets with the man's son (actually Ontus) and is rudely rebuffed. Alder find this instantly suspicious, but finds himself unable to press his enquiries. He disappears to watch the house until nightfall.

Chapter Twelve

Hale arrives at the university and speaks with the legate in charge. Because the university is a Great Houses institution his help is welcome, as local temple authority doesn't entirely have the power to run rough-shod over a greathouse property. The lictor, however, can, and he barges into the scene of the murder and investigates. He is told about the apprentice who assists the deceased, and as evening sets in he, with a contingent of legionaries, makes his way to the man's home.

Chapter Thirteen

Alder meanwhile, waiting outside the merchant's home, notes some strange activity. Eventually, when the son leaves on some strange errand, he breaks stealthily in to the house. Finding signs of the murder, he determines that this son must be implicated in the merchant's fate, and quite possibly in that of his brother. He also finds several minor things taken by his brother, but not the relic he is looking for. He sets out to track the son, but following a cold trail will be hard.

Chapter Fourteen

Convinced that the murder is nothing more than a case of revenge against a harsh and arrogant tutor, Hale returns to his own investigation, but is surprised to find that his own channels point to Ontus too. Hale arrives at Ontus' home, but does not find the man there. More suspicious he turns the place over, and finds a number of forbidden texts, detailing the beliefs of the Celestial Island, and the burned effigy of his home.

Chapter Fifteen

Ontus returns home to find the house watched by soldiers. Cursing he makes his way back to the merchant's house, but finds signs of a break in there too. Duly paranoid, he builds an effigy of his old home, and then performs a ritual using the amulet, then sets the effigy alight, as well as the house he is in. Then, he makes off into the night, and out of the city with only as much as he can carry.

Chapter Sixteen

Hale spends time using a few other means of interrogation, setting up both the savagery of his grief and the unpleasant nature of his profession as he uncovers Ontus' remaining allies. Eventually, turning to the Imperator's tarot, he is given some key information that suggests Ontus' plan, and foreshadows Alder.

Chapter Seventeen

Alder discovers that Ontus has left the city. Led by a meditative state, he returns to the Irino, and finds the hidden, sacred place where Mard had dwelt. Taking up his brother's sword and armour he makes ready to leave the city and track Ontus.

Chapter Eighteen

Hale, alerted to the presence of something magical, and important, happening right now in the city, races back to the Irino, and manages to trace Alder's steps down into the hidden shrine. Finding Alder there he makes ready to slay the evil magician, but the armed and armoured warrior overcomes him, and escapes, sparing his life.

Chapter Nineteen

Alder makes ready to leave the city, but finds he cannot get out through the gates as the city has been locked down by Hale's order. In desperation he makes his way to an abandoned Kelorn temple, where he has been told of a hidden way out of Polwa. He makes his way through a series of ancient tunnels, making his way under and through the old city walls, and finally into freedom.

Chapter Twenty

Alder emerges to find Hale waiting for him. They knew about the tunnel. Alder is in a hurry, and Hale is willing to hear him out before killing him since Alder spared his life. The two find that they are following surprisingly similar trails. Hale decides to take Alder into his custody until he can find Ontus - clearly his quest for revenge has overridden his duty to kill the sorcerer.

Chapter Twenty-One

Ontus wanders, lost and starving across the Haedrasian plains. Convinced that the elements will claim him, he is supernaturally directed to salvation. And then the talisman he wears speaks to him.

Chapter Twenty-Two

Hale and Alder make their way through the lands where Ontus has passed. As the two begin to respect each other they also begin to see the powers of the talisman turned on a township on the other side of the lands where Ontus stopped. The talisman drives people mad, and makes them violent savages, and the town has literally torn itself apart in an orgy of blood and savagery.

Chapter Twenty-Three

Ontus wipes out another small settlement, he is still a bit horrified by this, we get a sense of where he's going and why from conversation with the talisman

Chapter Twenty Four

Hale and Alder track Ontus. Alder is very much the prisoner

Chapter Twenty-Five

Alder has the opportunity to escape

Chapter Twenty-Six

Hale finds Alder gone, but Alder returns and asks for his help. The two are a unit now.

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Ontus is growing fond of the violence, and losing sight of his final goal, and seemingly going a bit mad.

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Hale agrees to let Alder go ahead while he tries to work out where Ontus is going

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Ontus reasserts himself, and gets back on track

Chapter Thirty

Hale researches the brotherhood's beliefs

Chapter Thirty-One

Alder is hot on Ontus' trail

Chapter Thirty-Two

Ontus becomes aware of, and tries to stop Alder

Chapter Thirty-Three

Alder avoids Ontus' roadblock

Chapter Thirty-Four

Ontus comes to his goal and realizes his hunt was hopeless, the talisman taunts him, he and Alder face off, Ontus kills Alder, but his talisman is depleted/destroyed.

Chapter Thirty-Five

Hale arrives and kills a forlorn Ontus

Chapter Thirty-Six

The story ends several months later with Hale boarding an trading ship in the Bair with the bodies of Alder and Mard, bound for eastern Ahlonia. His time as a lictor seemingly finished.