The Gem Lords

     Thomas Gown’s connection to a group of powerful wizards who lived thousands of years ago is finally revealed, and he learns that he may be able to save his world and his civilisation, along with others beyond number, from a threat that will manifest itself in the far distant future, but that the only way he can do this is by accepting a destiny that has been chosen for him by ancient, implacable powers centuries ago. If he does this, though, it would mean sacrificing any hope for a normal life and leaving his home, his wife and his child forever...

Extract from The Gem Lords.

     They spent the rest of the day getting the base camp properly set up and operational. The apprentices were put to work erecting the mess tent and assembling the tables and chairs that would go inside it, while a team of wizards constructed a perimeter fence around the entire camp, which was now beginning to look like a small village. The rangers headed out into the surrounding countryside to make sure they didn't have company, such as a passing tribe of goblins or a family of trolls, and the clerics prayed over their portable altars, sanctifying them and the pavilion that would hold them and that would serve as their makeshift temple. The wizards, meanwhile, gathered in the Hummingbird's chart room, using the scout ship's scrying mirror to study the enigmatic structure that stood at the far end of the next valley, a castle that appeared to have been carved out of a single gigantic ruby. They stared at it and scratched their heads, declaring to each other that they'd never seen anything like it.

     An hour before sunset, one of the rangers returned with a farmer who'd been grazing a herd of sheep in a nearby meadow. The poor man was shaking with terror and Saturn had to put him at ease before he was in a fit state to answer any questions. He was finally able to tell them that he'd never seen anything unusual in this part of the world, and had never seen anyone going to or from the narrow valley they pointed out to him. When they asked him what he knew about the castle, he declared firmly that there was no castle there, that he'd been in and out of that valley with his sheep many times over the years and that it definitely contained no sign of human habitation of any kind. When they showed him the Ruby Keep in the scrying mirror, he grew pale with terror and cried out that he had no idea what it was or where it had come from. Eventually, Saturn let him go, and the poor man fled as though all the demons of Hell were after him.

     "So the Keep wasn't there until recently," he mused to another wizard by the name of Albad, the two of them still staring at the castle in the scrying mirror after everyone else had drifted away. "Gown said the Keep comes and goes. Resalintas came here during the war, looking for the Scrolls of Skava, and found nothing, but now there it is, large as life."

     "They know we're here," said Albad, nodding his bearded head. "They're inviting us to enter."

     "They're inviting Gown to enter," corrected Saturn. "They couldn't care less about the rest of us. I wonder how they'd react if they thought he was in danger? Would they rush out to rescue him?"

     "You're not suggesting..."

     Saturn made himself laugh, working hard to make it sound as natural as possible while cursing himself for not keeping his thoughts to himself. "Don't worry, I wasn't suggesting we stake him out on the ground like lion bait." Inside, though, he was wondering whether he could contrive a situation. Something that would look like an accident...

     "Has there been any response to the release of the two raks?" asked Albad.

     Saturn shook his head. "They just walked in and disappeared from sight. No doubt they're telling the Gem Lords all about us right now. It might predispose them well towards us, but that's about all we can hope for..." His voice trailed off into a hiss of indrawn breath, his single eye widening, as he stared at the image of the Ruby Keep. A figure had appeared on the battlements, a tall, imposing figure dressed all in red, with a cape billowing out behind him in the wind. He was standing beside a flight of stairs leading up to one of the towers, staring out across the empty, darkening valley, and as the two wizards watched they saw a glimmer of twinkling red from his wrist as he placed his hand on the glassy red wall. His head turned this way and that, his curly ginger hair fluttering across his forehead in a way that suggested that he knew exactly how he looked, like a hero out of an old fable. He was posing there for their benefit, Saturn knew. Taunting them, inviting them to enter like flies into a spider's web. "Get Gown!" he hissed. "Get him now!" Albad nodded and ran.

     The figure was still there when he returned with the younger wizard, and Thomas's heart beat faster when he saw him. "It's Barl," he said. "Barl Hobson, Lord Ruby. He wants me to go to him."

     "He can go on wanting," said Saturn through gritted teeth. He gave a command to the scrying mirror and the image zoomed in on his face. It was definitely Barl, just as Tak had known him during their rule over Domandropolis. Handsome, full of strength and character, but with eyes as red as the glowing embers of a dying fire, and when he raised a hand to smooth down his hair they saw the soul gem strapped to his wrist, a ruby that glowed from within with a steady red light. He remained there for a few more minutes, then turned and walked away, disappearing from sight through a doorway that closed behind him as if moved by an invisible servant. A deliberate, well thought out move, thought Saturn, scowling. It left them wondering where he was going, what secrets lay within those crystalline walls, but it would take more than clever psychology to make them walk into that trap. "That will be all," he told Thomas, therefore, and the younger wizard nodded, but before he left he paused at the door, glancing back for one last look at the fabulous ruby castle, wishing he could go to it straight away and get the answers he so desperately craved.