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Alutar: the Great Demon [Demonstone Chronicles Book 7] [MultiFormat]
eBook by Richard S. Tuttle

eBook Category: Fantasy/Young Adult
eBook Description: Using the enemy's own portals, King Arik sends the elite forces of Alcea to Zara to crush the Federation. Woefully outnumbered, the Alceans join forces with the indigenous rebels to battle the massive armies of Emperor Jaar while the Knights of Alcea scheme from within the enemy's leadership to foil the Federation's ability to respond. While the world focuses on the battle between King Arik and the Federation, Fakir Aziz gathers the most powerful mages in Zara to carry his own battle directly to Alutar, the Great Demon. Should the Mage fail, all is lost. Alutar: the Great Demon is the seventh and final volume of the Demonstone Chronicles.

eBook Publisher: KBS Publishing/KBS Publishing, Published: 2009, 2009
Fictionwise Release Date: September 2009

10 Reader Ratings:
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* * * *
Chapter 1
Council of War

Herinak Castle was a massive stone structure rising high over the Koroccan coastal city. On any given day, thousands of people scurried about both in the castle and in the city around it, but in the dead of night, all was quiet, all but one restricted level known as the Lair. The Lair was restricted to hide the presence of the heirs of the Federation thrones. It was the perfect place to hold a meeting of the Council of War.

One room of the Lair was a large meeting room. That room hosted a large table and dozens of chairs. On a dark and foreboding spring night, people silently filed into the room and sat around the table. It was an unusual mixture of races for the Occan lands, but many a nod of recognition was shared as the people entered and sat down. There was no talk as the dignitaries sat and waited for the final member of the council to appear. When Garth Shado finally entered the chamber, he escorted a young woman who was unknown to most of the attendees. Many an eyebrow rose at the unannounced inclusion, but no one verbally complained. Garth closed the door and ushered the woman to a seat at the table and then sat next to her.

"If I might add something to the agenda for this meeting?" Garth asked King Wendal of Korocca. With a nod from the king, Garth continued. "This woman is Sheri. She is a Knight of Alcea. I brought her with me tonight with a particular mission in mind. Before I brief you all on the results of the war in Alcea, I would like to explain her presence. The time is fast approaching for the demise of the Federation. The young heirs that reside on this restricted level will soon ascend to thrones of the Federation, and we need to be certain of their fitness for those lofty positions. While the fairies have monitored the conversations of the heirs, those conversations have not focused on politics, yet they must for us to be assured that our path is true. I wish for Sheri to be given a suite in the Lair. Absolutely nothing will be mentioned regarding who she is, but she will be allowed to mix with the others. Her task will be to turn those conversations to topics we need to evaluate."

"Done," Baron Stikman stated gruffly, impatience evident in his voice. "What about the war in Alcea? Would it hurt to give even a hint as to what has transpired over there?"

Garth smiled. "We won," he announced. "We have 175,000 prisoners. The rest are dead."

Gasps rippled through the assembled group.

"How is this possible?" asked one of the Koroccan barons. "We were led to believe that Alcea's armies were small."

"Our armies are small," answered Garth, "but the Federation troops were facing more than just our armies. The people of Alcea have tasted freedom, and they are not anxious to give it up. I am hoping that by the end of our campaign here in Zara that the same will become true of those now living under the boot of the Federation. But enough about the war in Alcea. We are assembled here to initiate the war in Zara. Many of you gathered here tonight have little time for talk before returning to your own people. If anyone wants specifics on the war in Alcea, I would be happy to remain after the meeting to discuss it."

When no one objected, Garth continued, "Boric, Karamin will be the first country to fall. How are your plans coming?"

"We have made great strides," Boric replied hesitantly, "But I do not think we are ready." He looked at Yortana beside him and smiled as he continued, "The addition of the Rhodans in our fight has been a blessing. We have managed to get over one hundred of them employed in the castle. When the time comes to attack, we will already have a friendly force inside the walls."

"How have you managed that?" asked Karl Gree. "We have been unsuccessful in getting anyone into the keep in Ur."

"Max Caber is handling that task," answered Yortana. "He is finding women who work in the castle and persuading them to leave the city. He pays some of them and merely talks to others, but once the position is open, he manages to get my people employed."

"What is causing your lack of confidence?" Garth asked Boric.

"Just the numbers," Boric replied. "Even with the addition of the Rhodans, we number only two thousand. The Federation has over ten thousand men and they hold the fortified positions. We need outside help."

Garth nodded. "We will discuss Karamin after the meeting," he declared. "For now we will presume that all will go as planned. Queen Romani, what about Vinafor?"

"We are ready," declared the queen. "Crusher tells me that it will be a bloody affair on both sides, but we can do it. That is, of course, counting on Karamin falling as planned. If Karamin does not fall, we will be facing overwhelming odds. We are anticipating that Emperor Jaar will demand that General Nazzaro send a large force into Karamin to quell their revolt."

"Will Emperor Jaar really do that?" asked Baron Ohmson of Zarocca. "That would leave Vinafor vulnerable. Surely, he must realize the danger in doing that."

"Grand General Kyrga will give that order," interjected Clint. The Alcean Ranger was known in Zara as General Forshire, Commanding General of the A Corps. His Federation uniform gave credence to his words. "Kyrga will order a sizeable portion of the 31st Corps towards Calusa. He will immediately reinforce the Vinafor garrison with General Tauman's 1st Corps."

"And leave Camp Destiny unguarded?" asked King Myer of Tyronia. "What of the portals there?"

"The Federation has already learned that all of the Alcean portals have been sunk in the sea," answered Clint. "Camp Destiny is no longer worth guarding. The 1st Corps remains in the hidden valley because it is not needed elsewhere. He is perfectly placed to react to problems on either side of the Barrier."

"Is A Corps in position to attack the 1st Corps?" asked Garth.

"We are at full strength in the Dark Forest near Camp Destiny," Clint replied with a nod. "I have two thousand men ready to seal the exit from the hidden valley. It will take them a long time to overwhelm us."

"What of Olansk?" frowned Garth. "I thought you were to leave a sizeable force there to block any undesirable Federation movements."

"I have three thousand men in Olansk," smiled Clint. "Granted, most of them are recently released prisoners, and they have no mobility because we have no horses for them, but they can block the roads through Olansk. I saw no need to leave my trained men just to guard a road. Their blood is needed to block Tauman's exit from Camp Destiny."

Garth nodded, but it was evident that he was growing uneasy about the readiness of the Zaran groups so far.

"There is one concern that I do have," Clint offered. "There are dozens of black-cloaks in Camp Destiny. While I am confident that I can contain Tauman's army in the valley for weeks if need be, I do not understand enough about magic to determine if those black-cloaks can cause me a problem."

"They most certainly can," offered Sigfrid, the Royal Sorcerer of Korocca. "While your men might be able to block the exit from the tunnel, black-cloaks can easily fly over the peaks and attack your men. Your force would be destroyed in minutes."

"Those black-cloaks would also be extremely vulnerable while in flight," Garth retorted, "but your concerns are well stated. Perhaps the A Corps is not the right group to attack Tauman."

Garth sighed as he turned and looked around the room at the various groups assembled. He mentally berated himself for not taking a more active role in the planning of the war in Zara, but he had been consumed with the war in Alcea. Eventually, he sighed again and nodded to King Myer of Tyronia.

"We have the men necessary to storm the keep," frowned King Myer, "but as Queen Romani said, it will be bloody on both sides. We also have black-cloaks and a K'san to deal with, and the loss of Theos hurts in that regard."

"There are two main problems," interjected Karl Gree. "We have not been able to infiltrate the keep. That means that our losses will be high when we storm it. The second problem is the large Federation army present in Ur. Once we commit to attacking the keep, General Marashef's army will attack our rear. The truth is, there will not be many Tyronian Patriots left after we win. Even if you could come up with more troops to help us, they would never get into the city without a fight."

Garth sighed and shook his head as he saw Baron Stikman rising to his feet. He did not know why the Koroccan baron was rising, but he knew that trouble was soon coming to the Council of War.

"What is the purpose of all of this?" groused the baron. "It serves no purpose to rebel when all of the good people die in the battles. Somehow you Alceans have managed to remove 240,000 Federation soldiers from Zara. I am not sure how you accomplished that feat, but I applaud it. Let it end there. The Federation has only 80,000 men left, and they need every one of them to police the countries that they already hold. They are no longer a threat to the horse countries, and there will be no free men left alive west of the Barrier if you insist on fighting them. This Council of War no longer serves a purpose."

"So that is it?" snapped Prince Saratoma as he rose to his feet. The elven prince glared at the Koroccan prince and continued with a tone of anger, "The horse countries are no longer in danger, so the rest of us should just die or wither under the boot of the Federation? My people have already committed to this fight against the Federation. We have fled the Elfwoods. What are we supposed to do now? How are we to live in safety as those in the horse countries do?"

Garth quickly rose to his feet to halt the arguing. He glanced pleadingly at King Wendal and asked, "May I have leave for a few minutes?"

King Elengal gently placed his hand on his grandson's arm and urged him to sit. The elven prince silently complied. King Wendal nodded to Garth and then nodded to Baron Stikman in a silent command to sit down. Garth turned and left the room. As soon as the door closed, soft conversations erupted around the table. Sensing a dangerous return to the bickering, Tedi took the opportunity to distract the attendees by telling them about the war in Alcea. The interest in the war was keen, and no one seemed to notice that over an hour had passed before the door opened again. Garth and Kalina entered, but they did not close the door or move to take seats at the table. Two Red Swords entered next and flanked the doorway. Baron Stikman's eyebrow rose at the entry of foreign soldiers, but he soon understood their need. King Arik and Queen Tanya strode into the room, and Garth closed the door. All of the Alceans in the room rose and bowed low to the royal couple.

"I apologize for my tardy arrival," the Alcean king declared. "I understand that we have some problems regarding the war in Zara. I am here to pledge whatever support is necessary to see the Federation destroyed. Garth has informed me of the conversations so far, so I will not delay this meeting any further by asking that it be repeated."

The Alceans sat back down and King Arik approached the table. He turned and looked at Boric of Karamin.

"Boric, you will have the extra men that you need," declared the Alcean king. "I have already given the order to dispatch one thousand Alcean Rangers to Karamin. I consider them to be some of the world's greatest warriors. The Alcean Rangers will be in your camp when you return home this night." Turning his gaze to the rest of the assemblage, he continued, "Garth and I have also come up with a plan that will temper the problems in Vinafor and Tyronia. The details of the changes can be discussed later in smaller groups. What we need to discuss now is the attack on the countries east of the Barrier."

"With all due respect, King Arik," Baron Stikman objected without rising to his feet, "I see no need for any such attacks. The Federation armies are not large enough to threaten us any longer. There are only 80,000 of them."

King Arik smiled thinly. He was ready for the baron's objection.

"Your information is woefully inadequate, Baron Stikman," declared King Arik. "In the last month, Grand General Kyrga has increased the number of men under his command. Six new armies have already been formed. Three of those armies have been dispatched to Giza, Farmin, and Valdo. The other 30,000 men are still in Despair, and we do not know where they are meant to go, but that is irrelevant. We have in our grasp right this moment a chance to destroy the Federation once and for all. If we do not take that chance now, the Federation will reform and attack again. I will not let that happen."

"You won't let that happen?" growled Baron Stikman. "I thought this was a Council of War. Are we all now under Alcean rule to do whatever it is you wish?"

King Arik shook his head. "No, Baron Stikman. I do not presume to hold any control over the forces of Korocca, Zarocca, or anyone else outside Alcea, but I know the hearts of many in this room. I know those from the countries west of the Barrier want their countries back, and I know that the elves will die without the destruction of the Federation. I know that the dwarves of Tarashin have pledged to join us in this battle, as I thought the horse countries had, but I will not force any nation to fight against their will."

"You will not shame me into committing my men to a senseless battle," retorted the baron. "Our castles are built to defend our homeland. That is the way we Occan people fight. Let the Federation send their extra 60,000 men against us. They will not conquer Herinak."

"And what of the 175,000 prisoners that Alcea now holds?" asked King Arik. "My word has been given to them that they would be repatriated, and I always honor my word. Where do you suppose they will end up if the Federation is not entirely destroyed? No, Baron, we will destroy the Federation with or without the help of the horse countries. It is the only path to a lasting peace." King Arik turned to face King Wendal and asked, "Can I persuade the Koroccans to temporarily move the portal here? I need it placed somewhere secure on the ground level."

King Wendal looked at the Alcean king with a crease of confusion on his face. "I can see to that," he replied, "but to what purpose?"

"The attack on Giza must come from the north," King Arik explained. "Otherwise we place ourselves between the armies of Giza and Farmin. I plan to bring three thousand Red Swords and their mounts through the portal. The stairs of the castle would be a great impediment for the mounts."

"Three thousand?" blustered Baron Stikman. "Are you daft? Those men will be going up against 20,000 Federation troops which are camped in a walled city. Even my promised 20,000 Occan warriors would be hard pressed to win against a fortified city. A walled city always has the edge. Do you so easily send your men off to die? Do their lives mean so little to you?"

"I will not be sending my men off to die, Baron," retorted King Arik. "I will be leading them in the attack on Giza."

Gasps echoed through the room, and Baron Stikman stared at King Arik in disbelief. Garth seized the moment to speak.

"King Arik is called the Warrior King for a reason," Garth explained. "He was born to combat evil and bring peace to the world, and he has won the allegiance of many peoples in doing so. For whatever reason, the gods have bestowed the Warrior King with the gifts needed to conquer evil, and conquer evil he will. I pledge my life to him."

The other Knights of Alcea present also pledged their lives, and King Drakarik rose and kneeled before King Arik.

"We know you as Garala," the dwarven king said reverently. "While we were not in Alcea for the fulfillment of the Prophecy of the Dwarven Ruby, we are here now. The people of Tarashin are in your service. If you wish us before the walls of Giza, then we shall be there."

King Elengal of the Dielderal rose quickly and knelt beside the dwarf. Prince Saratoma was taken by surprise by his grandfather's quick movement, but he hastily rose and followed the elven king.

"And we call you Valon," declared King Elengal. "As with the Elderal and the Sorelderal, the Dielderal are yours to command. Be mindful of our blood, but spend it where you must. If we are needed before the walls of Giza, we will be there waiting for you."

King Arik smiled with surprise as he gazed down on the kneeling monarchs. "Your service is noted and warmly received, but there are other tasks awaiting both of your peoples."

"Our task lies far in the future," objected the dwarven king. "There will still be time for us to accomplish what needs to be done."

"There is another task that I have planned for the dwarves of Tarashin," replied Garala. "It will not be an easy one, but it is one well suited for your people. We will speak of it later."

The elves and the dwarf rose and sat back down. Baron Ohmson of Zarocca rose.

"There will be no need to move the portal," he announced. "I will provide three thousand Occan mounts for your Red Swords. It will take a few days to get them here, but the two thousand lancers that will be herding them will be joining your Red Swords on the march to Giza. I also believe that crushing the Federation now is the only true path to a lasting peace. In the spirit of the Warrior King, I will also lead my men into battle."

As if a dam had burst, shouts of agreement flooded through the room as other Occan barons pledged their support. Baron Stikman eventually sighed heavily and nodded in agreement.

"We are one," Baron Stikman declared. "Tell us about this mysterious passage through the Sands of Eternity."

Kalina asked for a map and one was quickly spread on the table. She leaned over the table and began explaining the path through the desert. As everyone focused on the map, Garth and King Arik split to speak to different groups. Garth cornered Clint and dragged him away from the commotion.

"You are going to be rather busy for the next few weeks," Garth declared softly.

"Do you think I will have to keep the 1st Corps bottled up that long?" the Ranger asked.

"You will not be going up against Tauman," answered Garth. "The 1st Corps needs to be annihilated, not tied down."

"I thought we were trying to spare lives?" frowned Clint. "What are you not telling me?"

"You can save more lives in other areas," Garth replied. "There are two groups that we cannot afford to play around with. Tauman's 1st Corps is one of them. The other is the Black Citadel. You are going to be used where cunning and deceit can save more lives than battle can."

"We are not going to use the A Corps in battle?" balked General Forshire. "Are you one of those who thinks my men are still misfits?"

"You know me better than that, Clint," Garth smiled. "The A Corps will have more than one chance to bloody their swords, but you will accomplish more through other means. Your men are going to be moving nonstop for the next few weeks so it is advisable to give them some rest while you are gone."

"Gone?" asked Clint. "Where am I going?"

"To the Cordonia that doesn't exist," answered Garth. "General Forshire is going to meet secretly with General Ross of Barouk and General Alden of Aerta. I think their help is going to be needed before all of this is done."

Across the room King Arik spoke softly with King Drakarik of Tarashin.

"What is the task you have for my people?" asked the dwarven king.

"Your people might be better suited to handle Camp Destiny," answered the Warrior King. "Do you have good archers among your people?"

"Dwarves are renowned for their throwing axes and battleaxes," the dwarf answered, "but we always use bows for hunting game. We have many a fine archer among our ranks."

"And magicians?" probed King Arik.

"Aye," frowned the dwarven king. "We have a number of good magicians, but our best has gone missing. Dorforun just disappeared one night."

"If you need more we will supply them," promised Arik. "Let me tell you what we need to accomplish."

The noise level in the room suddenly increased, and King Arik turned to see people moving away from the long table. The map was rolled up and the participants went in search of others to speak to. Baron Stikman focused on Garth Shado. He crossed the room with long strides and arrived just as Garth and Clint were finishing up.

"I want to apologize for my stubbornness earlier," the baron said to the Knight of Alcea. "I was not really opposed to your plan as much as it sounded, but I will admit to having second thoughts. You do realize that any spies in Herinak will not miss the amassing of twenty thousand lancers?"

"Since when are you concerned about spies in Korocca?" retorted Garth. "You have always behaved as if it was impossible."

"I did," the baron admitted with a sigh. "I guess I have been foolish in more ways than one. King Myer informed me that his Patriots discovered three Federation soldiers trading in their uniforms for the garb of merchants and boarding the monthly ferry from Ur. My men were waiting for them when they arrived. It took some doing, but each of them finally admitted their guilt. You are welcome to witness the execution in the morning if you wish."

Garth did not respond immediately, and when he did, it took the baron by surprise.

"I would like one of the spies," stated Garth. "Hopefully one of them whose body does not show the signs of a strong interrogation."

"You want his body?" balked the baron.

"No, Baron," Garth smiled tautly. "I want him alive, and I need a tailor if you can summon one."

"These men are spies," retorted Baron Stikman. "They must be executed."

"The man you give to me will die," Garth promised, "but I intend to make his death worthwhile to our cause." Garth turned to Clint and grabbed his arm before he could leave. "I need the badger brooch that you carry. Do you have it with you?"

Clint nodded as he reached into a pouch and carefully extracted the golden brooch. "Be careful with the pin," he warned. "The poison kills quickly."

* * * *
Chapter 2
Mutilated Coins

Lord Zachary smiled at Queen Samir and leaned back in his chair. He looked around the room casually one last time to make sure that there were no servants in the room. The queen of Spino had sent the guards away quite a while ago, leaving the two of them alone to discuss the upcoming wedding of Prince Samuel to the Vinafor nobleman's daughter. Lord Zachary knew that the minor breech in security was because of the sensitive nature of their discussions. The queen didn't want anyone to suspect that she was making Prince Samuel marry so that she could seize a large portion of the Vinaforan's wealth. Her greed pleased Lord Zachary.

"I think we have accomplished a great deal today," stated Lord Zachary as he rose. "There is more that I wanted to cover, but I must not take up all of your time. I will leave you with a listing of the assets that I will be transferring to you on the day of the wedding. Please look it over so that we can finalize everything tomorrow."

The queen's eyes grew large as Lord Zachary placed the papers on the table. The Alcean spymaster knew that the queen wanted to read the list immediately, and that is why he had saved it until it was time for him to leave. He suspected that Queen Samir would not recall her guards or call for servants until she had read the complete list and hidden it from prying eyes. Lord Zachary turned and left the small sitting room without further conversation.

Just down the hall from the queen's small sitting room was a waiting room. Its purpose was to allow visitors a place to sit comfortably while waiting for one of the many functionaries in the palace. It was seldom used, but the Alcean spymaster expected a particular sergeant to be in the room. Sergeant Batt had been instructed to stand in the waiting room and stare out the window every day at this time of day. Lord Zachary careful eased the door open and saw the back of the sergeant where he expected to find him. He looked around the small room to make sure that they were alone before entering and walking up behind the sergeant.

"Do not turn around, Sergeant Batt," Lord Zachary said softly to the sergeant.

The Spinoan sergeant stiffened at the command, but he did as he was told. He continued to stare out the window.

"The queen is alone in her small sitting room just down the hall," the spymaster instructed. "She will remain alone for the next five minutes so you do not have a lot of time, but it is more than sufficient for what you have to do. Did you remember to bring the Ertakan tunic?"

The sergeant merely nodded.

"Remain as you are," ordered Lord Zachary. "Count to one hundred when you hear the door close and then be quick about your business. The three soldiers who recruited you will meet you this evening with the rest of your gold."

Sergeant Batt trembled as he listened for the closing of the door. When he heard it close, he started counting while taking off his Spinoan military tunic and pulling on an Ertakan one. When he reached a count of one hundred, the sergeant let out a long nervous sigh and turned around. He exited the small waiting room and proceeded along the hallway until he reached the queen's small sitting room. He eased the door open and walked in.

"I am not to be disturbed until I call for you," snapped the queen without even looking up to see who it was. "Leave me."

A throwing knife slid into Sergeant Batt's trembling hand as he slowly crossed the sitting room to get closer to the queen. He did not want to miss his target. Unexpectedly, Queen Samir's head snapped up and she glared at the soldier.

"I said to leave me," she shouted.

Sergeant Batt had no choice now that she had seen him. He threw the throwing knife at the queen's chest, and the queen screamed as the knife struck. Shouts immediately rang out along the hallway outside the sitting room, and Sergeant Batt panicked. He turned and bolted out of the room, hoping that the only thing anyone remembered seeing was his Ertakan military patch. The plan called for him to kill the queen silently and retreat to the waiting room to change tunics once again, but he never made it that far. A soldier tackled the sergeant, and they both slid along the floor. Before the sergeant could get to his feet, a dozen soldiers surrounded him with their swords pointing at his chest. With bells clanging loudly and horns sounding in the distance, the soldiers dragged Sergeant Batt away. A short distance away, Lord Zachary watched it all happen, confident that Sergeant Batt would never equate the Vinaforan Lord with the Ertakan sergeant who had hired him.

When the commotion was over, Lord Zachary turned and walked towards the main doors of the palace. He was not surprised when guards at the door informed him that the palace was sealed and no one was allowed in or out without the permission of General Vladin. The Vinaforan noble was escorted to a large dining hall where dozens of other visitors were already waiting to be interrogated. An hour later, Lord Zachary was escorted to a small office where Colonel Fodor sat behind a desk. The two guards who escorted the noble left the room and stood in the hallway outside.

"What is the purpose of your presence in the palace?" asked the colonel.

"To visit with Queen Samir," answered Lord Zachary.

The colonel had appeared weary and bored when Lord Zachary entered the room, but his demeanor instantly changed with Lord Zachary's mention of visiting the queen. He sat up and stared at the Vinaforan.

"What business do you have with the queen?" asked the colonel.

"We were discussing the wedding plans for Prince Samuel," answered Lord Zachary. "Can you tell me what this is about?"

"Were discussing?" echoed the colonel. "Are you saying that you already spoke to the queen?"

"I spent an hour with her," replied Zack. "Ask her yourself."

The colonel called for the escorts outside the door, and they immediately entered the room.

"Take this man to General Vladin," instructed the colonel as he held out a hastily scribbled note to the general. "He will want to perform the interrogation personally."

Zack was escorted down the hall to a large office. General Vladin waved the Vinaforan to a chair and ordered the guards to wait outside. He read the note from Colonel Fodor and nodded before turning his gaze to Zack.

"I understand that you spent an hour with Queen Samir today," stated the general. "When did you leave her sitting room?"

"About an hour ago," replied Lord Zachary. "Will you tell me what is going on, General, or do I have to ask the queen myself?"

"You will not be asking the queen anything. You will sit and answer my questions."

"Queen Samir has authorized me to be admitted to her presence at any time," scowled the Vinaforan lord. "I will not be interrogated by a soldier without understanding why. I find it quite rude. We would never allow such behavior in Waxhaw."

The mention of Waxhaw struck a chord with the general, and he slowly nodded. "You are Lord Zachary?"

"I am," bristled the noble.

"I apologize, Lord Zachary," sighed the general. "I have only seen you from a distance before today. What is going on is that someone assassinated Queen Samir about an hour ago. We are interrogating everyone in the palace."

Lord Zachary gasped and his expression showed a practiced mixture of shock and sadness. "You have not found the assassin?"

"The assassin was captured almost immediately," answered the general, "but we are searching for any accomplices he might have had. How long had you been out of her sitting room before the alarms went off."

"Not very long at all," answered Zack. "I had not even made it to the palace doors yet. I did witness a scuffle in the hallway. Some of your men wrestled an Ertakan soldier to the floor and hauled him off. Was he the assassin?"

"He was," confirmed the general, "but he was not Ertakan. He is a Spinoan sergeant who regularly visits the palace. His face is known to the palace guards."

"Yet he was wearing an Ertakan patch," frowned Lord Zachary. "Why?"

The general ignored the question. "How many guards were present in the sitting room when you were with Queen Samir?"

"None," replied the Alcean spymaster. "She intentionally dismissed the guards as we were discussing things that were best kept in confidence."

"The planning for a wedding is hardly a sensitive matter," retorted General Vladin. "What were you discussing that would cause the queen to forgo her security?"

"If Queen Samir wanted you to know her business," Lord Zachary began angrily. Suddenly, he halted and sighed deeply. "I am sorry, General. I guess her secrets hardly matter now. Samir was afraid that her daughters would learn the true nature of the wedding arrangements before it was announced. It is to be a royal wedding."

"A royal wedding?" echoed the general. "That is impossible. Prince Samuel was removed from the line of succession years ago. Princess Anadale is to be queen."

"Not so," retorted Lord Zachary. "Queen Samir changed the line of succession last fall. She may have done it quietly, but she did so irrevocably. I have a copy of the writ on me if you would care to look at it."

The general took the offered paper, but he called for a guard before he even glanced at it. He penned a note and folded it before handing it to the guard.

"Deliver that to the archives and wait for a response," instructed the general.

As soon as the guard had left, the general read the proclamation. He sighed as he handed the paper back to Lord Zachary.

"You do realize that this proclamation does not look well in regards to the timing of Queen Samir's death, Lord Zachary," stated the general. "Some might think that you were in league with Sergeant Batt to advance the station of your daughter."

"I truly hope that you are not one of those people, General," the Vinaforan lord countered sternly. "I am sure that you would not care to look like a fool."

"A fool?" questioned the general. "How do you mean?"

"Have your men not bothered to gather the papers that Queen Samir had on her table in the sitting room?" asked Zack. The general stared blankly and Zack continued, "The fact is, General, that Samir and I were agreed on a long rule for Queen Samir. Our contract calls for delaying Samuel's ascension to the throne until Samir felt she could no longer handle the task. I will be blunt, General. Queen Samir and I had an agreement in which she traded a crown for my money. I wanted my daughter to be a princess, but we all know that Samuel is ill-suited to be a king. Oh, he would eventually take over when Samir became too old to function, but by that time, Samir would have taught my daughter all she would need to know to run the country. That way Samuel would never be able to destroy Spino with his crazy thoughts about the gods punishing us."

General Vladin nodded in understanding. Suddenly, everything about the queen's actions throughout the winter began to make sense. She had begun to move away from her daughters, and she had demanded that a search for Samuel be instituted. She had recently grown quite angry when that search had not produced results. As he opened his mouth to apologize to the Vinaforan lord, the door opened and three soldiers marched into the room and placed papers on the general's desk. The general sat silently for several minutes as he read the papers. Finally, he tossed them on his desk and glanced up at Lord Zachary.

"I apologize," the general said sincerely. "It is my nature to be suspicious, but the papers from Queen Samir's sitting room vouch for your story. The proclamation regarding the line of succession is also registered in the archives. Forgive me for my suspicions."

Lord Zachary nodded sympathetically as he tried to glance at the third set of papers that the general had tossed on his desk. He knew one set was from the archives, and he recognized the second set as being from the queen's sitting room, but he could not read the third set. He decided to take a stab at guessing what they might be.

"Being suspicious is a great trait for an investigator," Zack said. "What does your suspicious nature tell you about a Spinoan soldier who dresses as an Ertakan to assassinate his own queen?"

The general was taken aback at the sudden change in conversation, and he was tempted to have the Vinaforan escorted out of his office, but he quickly realized that Lord Zachary was soon to be the father of the queen. To start off on the wrong foot would mean the end of his career, and he had just narrowly escaped making that fatal mistake.

"I am not sure," the general admitted. "My first reaction was that someone was trying to instigate a war between Spino and Ertak."

"A likely scenario," nodded Lord Zachary, "but you indicate that you are moving away from such a thought. Why?"

"The assassin has been interrogated," answered the general. "His use of an Ertakan patch was an aid to his escape plan. He had hoped that someone would see an Ertakan solider running through the corridors before the queen's body was discovered, but his attack was clumsy. The queen cried out while he was still in the room."

"So the Ertakan patch was merely a decoy?"

"Yes," sighed the general, "but there is more. During the interrogation, he admitted that three Ertakan soldiers hired him to assassinate the queen. One of the Ertakans was a sergeant of the 15th Corps on special detail to the Royal Palace in Farmin. He did not know the sergeant's name, but he knows of other Spinoan soldiers who have met the Ertakan in the taverns of Valdo. My men verified that information. The Ertakan sergeant has been a regular visitor to Valdo for some time. It is said that he works in intelligence and makes monthly trips to Despair. One corporal even knew that the Ertakan grew up in the Bloodwood close to the Spino border."

"You did hear about the deaths of King Harowin's sons, did you not?" asked Zack. "I understand that the assassin wore a Spinoan uniform."

"But that was the doing of General Montero's men," balked the general. "Even King Harowin saw through that ruse."

"Did he?" questioned Lord Zachary. "Perhaps General Montero came up with a plausible explanation of why it couldn't have been his men. I do know that King Harowin forced Emperor Jaar to open the portals to get to his son, and I haven't heard any reports about the hanging of General Montero. It would appear that things are better between the two of them."

"Curses!" snarled the general. "We had nothing to do with the deaths of those princes. If King Harowin is behind this vile deed, I will shove the entire 16th Corps through his face."

"I would advise against that," Zack said in a quiet conspiratorial tone. "Do not take the 16th Corps out of Valdo."

"Why not?" the general asked suspiciously.

"Queen Samir had ill feelings about General Kartacus and the 35th Corps," explained Zack. "She felt as if the 35th Corps was stationed in Valdo to be used against us. If the 16th Corps leaves the city, it may not be admitted back in."

General Vladin's jaw dropped as he stared at Lord Zachary. "Jaar wouldn't dare."

"It is rumored that Emperor Jaar is no longer in control of the Federation," whispered Lord Zachary. "Grand General Kyrga is calling the shots now."

"He would dare," snarled General Vladin. "It would be just like Kyrga to elevate himself by making the armies responsible only to him. I have to get a message to Emperor Jaar before Kyrga causes more trouble."

"That cannot be done," declared the Vinaforan noble. "All messages go through Grand General Kyrga. I tried to see Emperor Jaar during the celebration, and I was told to schedule a meeting through Kyrga. It is time, general, to stop worrying about the Federation and start looking after the needs of Spino."

"The needs of Spino are to punish the people responsible for Queen Samir's death," scowled the general. "If I cannot take my army out of the city, how am I to take our revenge?"

"There are people who handle such things," suggested Lord Zachary.

"The Badgers?" gasped the general.

"Why not?" shrugged Zack. "It will exact our revenge, and it cannot possibly be traced back to us. Do you know how to contact them?"

"I have heard stories," the general nodded. "It is said that one needs to send an emissary into the seedier taverns of any major city. The emissary will make a point of paying for ale with a coin that is mutilated by boring a hole through its center. No one will pay any attention to the emissary in the taverns, but a Badger will contact the emissary during the night."

"Why an emissary?" asked Zack.

"Anyone who purchases the services of the Badgers would not want it known to anyone else," answered the general. "The use of an obscure emissary hides the identity of the purchaser, but the Badgers will not accept jobs from just anyone, so the emissary must carry a sealed envelope with another mutilated coin inside. The envelope must be sealed with an official seal or the Badgers will refuse the job."

"That does not sound difficult," stated Zack. "Are they usually successful?"

"I have never heard of a failure," shrugged the general, "but it hardly matters. There is no man that I would trust to make contact with the Badgers, and I couldn't afford it in any event. I have to imagine that they would charge a hefty sum for the assassination of a royal, and they require half up front. I only have access to the funds for my army and that would be insufficient. The king or queen would have to allot me the funds for such an expenditure, and right now, Spino has neither a king nor a queen."

"I may be able to help," Lord Zachary smiled conspiratorially. "I may be well known in the finer inns of Valdo, but no one would recognize me in the seedier taverns of the city. I could be your emissary. As for the funds, I will put up the initial deposit. It is the least I can do to help you avenge Queen Samir's murder. Besides, it would probably take a long time for them to plan a royal assassination and by then Samuel will have been found and coronated."

General Vladin sighed heavily and nodded. He looked at Lord Zachary with a hint of camaraderie in his weak smile. "It must be done," he said, "and the fewer people who know about it the better."

The two men spent the next hour in seclusion as they mutilated coins. General Vladin took one of the coins and placed it in an envelope. He sealed the envelope with his seal and handed it to Lord Zachary.

"Do not let anyone see that envelope," the general said worryingly.

"You can count on me, General Vladin," promised the Vinaforan noble. "We shall have our revenge, and only we will have the satisfaction of knowing the truth about it."

The general nodded as Lord Zachary slid a dozen mutilated coins into his purse and left the office. The Vinaforan noble headed for the taverns in the seedier part of the city and began purchasing ale. He bought only one ale in each tavern, but he spent enough time sipping it to let others see him. By the time he purchased the ale in the twelfth tavern the hour was late, and Lord Zachary made his way back to his room at the expensive Greystone Inn to wait for the contact to arrive. He knew something was wrong before he even entered his suite. The subtle trap he had left on the door to his suite had been disturbed. Someone had been in his room. A knife slid into Zack's hand as he unlocked the door and used his foot to swing the door open. The suite was dark, every lantern extinguished. Zack stared into the dark room trying to determine if anyone waited for him in the darkness.

"Come in, Lord Zachary," a soft voice commanded from deeper in the room. "You have been expecting me."

A lantern suddenly flared to life and Zack saw two men in the room. Both of them were Badgers. One sat casually on the couch, and the other stood near the lantern that had just been lit.

"Leave us," the man on the couch commanded the other man. "Lord Zachary will pose no threat to me."

The subordinate Badger nodded wordlessly and stealthily moved towards the doorway that Lord Zachary was blocking. The Alcea spymaster stepped into the room to allow the man to leave, but not before admiring the stealth of the assassin as he crossed the room. The Badger walked past Zack and closed the door behind him. Zack crossed the room and sat in a chair opposite the Badger leader, sheathing his knife as he did so. The Badger noticed the move and smiled appreciatively.

"You have courage," remarked the Badger. "That is good. I can't stand working for weak-kneed clients. How may the Badgers serve you?"

"I represent a client who desires the removal of a highly placed person in Farmin," stated Lord Zachary.

The Badger nodded knowingly, and a slight smile spread his lips. "King Harowin?"

Zack merely nodded.

"And you represent General Vladin?"

"How did you know?" asked Lord Zachary.

"The whole city knows about the death of Queen Samir at the hand of an Ertakan soldier," stated the Badger. "Every one of my men were touring the taverns this night waiting for someone to make contact. You could have stopped drinking ale after the first tavern. I have been waiting hours for you to arrive. May I have the envelope please?"

Lord Zachary extracted the envelope from his pouch and handed it to the Badger leader. The assassin examined the seal and nodded with approval. He pushed it into his own pouch and returned his gaze to Lord Zachary.

"The price will be four-hundred-thousand," stated the Badger. "Two-hundred-thousand in gold will be left in this room when you depart in the morning. The contract will not be accepted until we have that gold. Understood?"

"I understand," frowned Lord Zachary. "How long will it take?"

"You cannot just assassinate a royal easily," replied the Badger. "It will get done when it gets done."

"Speed is important to the general," countered Zack.

"Haste is dangerous," the assassin shook his head. "We are not amateurs, Lord Zachary. The task will be done efficiently, but we will not be pushed in our schedule."

"Perhaps the request could be presented to your superior?" Zack asked. "Who are you? Who do you report to?"

"That is not how this game works, Lord Zachary. I am called Wain, and I am the leader of the Badgers in all of Spino. There is no higher authority that you can appeal to. If the terms of the contract are not acceptable to you then our business is concluded."

Wain rose to leave, but Zack waved him back to the couch.

"The contract is acceptable," Lord Zachary said quickly, "but I want to make it clear that time is of the essence. Let me propose a schedule of bonuses should you complete the task earlier than expected. King Harowin must die within the next two weeks, but it is preferable for him to die sooner. What I am proposing is a bonus for each day earlier than the expected time of death."

Wain sat silently for a moment letting the client's words sink in. While he was loath to accept any type of a schedule, two weeks did not seem to be out of the question. As he was about to ask for clarification, the Vinaforan spoke.

"I am proposing a bonus of one-hundred-thousand per day for completion of the contract in under two weeks." Zachary saw the assassin's eyes grow large, and he smiled inwardly. "There will be a cap on the bonuses of one-million. This way there will be no demand for haste, but a quick conclusion to this contract will be very profitable to your organization."

Wain smiled broadly as he rose. "You have a reputation for being able to get what you want. Now I can see that that reputation is well deserved. Make sure that the deposit is left in this room when you leave tomorrow. Good night, Lord Zachary."

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