The Sword of Retribution.

Volume Three of The Fourth Shadowwar.

     Once again the armies of darkness are sweeping across the world and this time there may be no stopping them. Only by standing together can the heroes of civilization hope to prevail, but at this hour of their greatest trial the mightiest of their number is absent, fighting a less important war in the World Below, unaware of the deadly peril facing all mankind. He must be recalled to stand beside his brothers in arms, but to reach him a small group of volunteers must cross some of the deadliest terrain on or under the world, facing dangers beyond their ability to imagine…

 

Extract from The Sword of Retribution.

     They walked in silence for a while, the elder wizard deep in thought and his younger companion too much in awe of his superior to disturb him. Questions buzzed inside Franklos’s head, however, and he knew that if he didn’t take this opportunity to ask them, it might be a very long time before another equally good chance arose. Summoning all his courage, therefore, he cleared his throat and said “What did you mean when you said we might be able to send a spy into the Shadow? Who did you have in mind?”

     Tragius looked at the younger wizard thoughtfully. He’d been waiting for him to broach the subject, and when he’d selected the younger wizard to accompany him to Pargonn he’d had every intention of answering his question. After Bloezak’s ‘accident’, he needed another wizard to replace him as his assistant, someone able to see the realities of the situation, who wasn’t too fanatical about following the University’s rules to the letter and who knew how to keep his mouth shut, but now that it came right down to it he found himself very reluctant to speak. By sharing this knowledge with him, he’d be placing himself at the younger wizard’s mercy, and if he’d misjudged him he could find himself facing an immediate impeachment with who knows what consequences for the rest of the world. Most of the University’s senior wizards were rigidly set in their ways and followed the rules as though they were natural laws. If they found out what he was up to, it would be the end of his career as a wizard, and possibly the end of his life.

     Do I dare take that chance? he wondered anxiously. Do I dare not? The fact was that he needed a new assistant, and that person would need to know what he was doing. He’d chosen Franklos from all the younger wizards in the University, studied every tiniest aspect of his habits and personality until he thought he knew him better than he knew himself, and the one thing more than anything else that had brought the shifty eyed young man to his attention was his ambition. Tragius was hoping that the prospect of advancement would tempt him to enlist in his conspiracy, but what if he thought he could advance faster by betraying him to the Director? That, more than anything else, was the thought that was gnawing away at the senior wizard now, but the fact was that he trusted everyone else even less! If Franklos wouldn’t do, there was no-one else who would do better. Either I tell him, he said to himself, or we abandon the whole idea and leave it all to Darry’s vampire. He took a deep breath, therefore, and took the plunge. “I think I can persuade Malefactos to be our spy,” he said. “If what I suspect is true, he’ll be perfect for the job.”

     “Malefactos?” exclaimed Franklos in astonishment. “But he’s dead!”

     “Is he?” asked Tragius.

     “We buried him weeks ago, and put a huge slab of granite over his grave!”

     “We buried something, certainly.”

     “What are you saying?” asked the younger wizard in perplexity. “That he faked his own death and is still alive in his sealed up castle?”

     “I doubt very much that he’s still alive,” said Tragius solemnly. “When Gallern came back last week after his weekly ministration, he said he had only days to live. A couple of weeks at most, despite everything he could do for him. His frail old body just couldn’t keep going much longer, not even if every cleric in the world prayed over him to the point of exhaustion. When the Gods decide that a man’s lived long enough, there’s nothing that the servants of the Gods can do to prolong his life any longer. I suppose there's the barest chance that he might still be alive, but if so it won’t be for long.”

     “But you just said he wasn’t dead!” said Franklos in confusion. “If he’s not alive and he’s not dead, then what...” His voice broke off suddenly and he froze in mid step, a look of utter horror on his face. “You mean...” he stuttered in alarm. “You mean he’s...”

     “I am quite certain that he has transformed himself into an ark rak,” said Tragius calmly, walking on and forcing Franklos to run to catch up with him or be left behind. “Either that or he is preparing to do so, and who better than an ark rak to enter the Shadow and steal all their secrets, eh?”

     “But rak transformation is forbidden!”

     “Normally, yes. Normally, we would have blown his castle and half the damned mountain into orbit if we even half suspected he was going to attempt any such thing, but these are desperate times and desperate measures must be taken if we are to survive. We need an ark rak, so we decided to allow him to become one.” He stopped walking, grabbed Franklos by the elbows and stared him right in the eyes. “You will not, of course, repeat any of this to anyone, will you?”

     “No, no of course not,” said Franklos in even greater alarm. Fool! he told himself. You had to open your big mouth, and now you know more than is good for you! Now he’ll never let me out of his sight, and if he gets the idea that he can't trust me, if I say a single wrong word, he'll snuff me out like a candle! On the other hand, though, my prospects for promotion have just improved considerably. He imagined himself in a year or two, becoming Tragius’s chief assistant, and when the old wizard eventually retired, perhaps replacing him as head of the school of conjuration. An ambitious smile appeared on his lips. Anything worthwhile is worth a little sacrifice.

     They continued walking, and after another couple of minutes came to the edge of the forest and saw the University buildings half a mile ahead of them, across a wide field of wild, waving, waist high grass. A kestrel fluttered overhead, occasionally diving down to within a few feet of the grass in pursuit of prey before returning to position, and a small herd of unicorns grazed off to their right, the older stallions having only stumps where their horns had been, the intensely magical appendages having been carefully sawn off by the wizards for use as an ingredient in their spells and potions.

     “How did you find out what Malefactos was planning?” Franklos asked when he’d recovered from the shock of the first revelation. “Did you have a spy among his staff?”

     “Everyone had a spy in his staff. Almost everyone in that castle was a spy for someone or other, even the clerics who went in to treat him, but Malefactos knew it and knew how to stop them learning anything important."

     “Then how?”

     “Do you know what Adantus has been doing up on Barkol Crag?” He was referring to a mountain on the other side of the valley from Malefactos Ridge, a mountain that overlooked the University’s research buildings. Adantus was one of the University’s best research wizards, and had recently moved into a series of tunnels and chambers dug into the mountain near its summit by another research wizard who’d lived several centuries before.

     “No,” said Franklos.”What?”

     “He’s heading a team that’s working on a new kind of magic detector, one that can detect the casting of spells and the using of magical artifacts from miles away. It’s for use in cities, so that the city rulers can monitor all use of magic within their jurisdiction, as part of our ultimate objective of institutionalising all magic use on the planet and putting an end to the dangerous dabblings of amateurs. That’s why he’s testing the thing in the heart of a mountain, so that the solid rock’ll screen out all the background magic generated in the University.

     “He was testing the prototype a few weeks ago, and it was going quite well, until he began picking up some stray signals from no identifiable source. He eventually determined that they were coming from outside the mountain, which meant they had to be immensely powerful to penetrate that much solid rock, and when he moved his detector out onto the open air, he traced them to Malefactos’s castle. The stray magic coming from his castle was so powerful that they outshone the University’s entire output, despite being nearly twice as far away, and after a bit more investigation, he determined that some of it at least was rak transformation magic.”

     “He must have been horrified!” said Franklos earnestly.

     “He was delighted. His magic detector had passed an unexpected acid test with flying colours and he wanted to tell everyone about it. Fortunately, I was the first person he found and, with a little difficulty, I was able to persuade him to keep it to himself.” He gave a harsh, barking laugh. “A little difficulty! You’ve no idea how hard it was to make him keep his mouth shut!”

     “So Adantus is one of us?” asked Franklos, and was immediately shocked and surprised by what he’d just said. One of us, one of those who know about Malefactos. How easily the phrase had come to him, springing out of his mouth before he’d had a chance to think about it. I guess I’m well and truly in it up to my neck now, he thought. The same comment caused a great weight of worry to slip from Tragius's mind. My gamble paid off! he thought jubilantly. I judged his ambition correctly! He kept his voice level as he replied, however. “Yes, one of just half a dozen wizards who know. So all we’ve got to do now is persuade Malefactos to co-operate with us, persuade him to be our spy.”

     “And if you fail?”

     Tragius sighed. “Then I’ll tell Adantus that it’s all right for him to break the news about his unexpected discovery. Apparently, it’s taken him this long to make sure the signals he’s been picking up are genuine, and not the result of his detector acting up.” He sighed. “It should be quite a spectacle when the combined might of the entire University is turned against Malefactos Ridge.” He fell silent, and neither of them spoke again until they reached the University buildings.