The Essence Gate War: Book 01 - Adept (7 page)

BOOK: The Essence Gate War: Book 01 - Adept
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The man had a feral, unwavering intensity to his gaze
. Amric glanced down to where Bellimar’s fingers moved faster and faster in their patterns on the table. In the old man’s rising fervor, his nails had somehow scored the hard oak and raised long, thin curls of wood behind them. Following Amric’s eyes, Bellimar took in the marred surface of the table, and the hand retreated to his lap. He cleared his throat, and it seemed an effort to pull his equanimity back about himself. When he spoke, however, his eyes still gleamed.

“What say you
, swordsman?”

CHAPTER
3

 

 

Amric stood before iron gates twice his height
and thirty feet in width, painted black and framed by the massive reddish stone wall surrounding the sprawling estate. Huge black lions, regal and forbidding and finely wrought of iron as well, glowered down from the outer bars of the gate. Light rippled across them from the torches set to either side, giving them the illusion of life, of hot breath and fluid muscle. From what Amric had heard, the man inside was as menacing as these, his chosen totems, but he shared none of their nobility of spirit. Halthak stood at his side, both hands curled tight around his knotted staff.

“This is folly,”
said Halthak. “We are sheep, come to twist the whiskers of the lion in his own den.”

Amric chuckled
. “I am no sheep.”

He
looked askance at the healer. In his distress, the Half-Ork’s face was so pinched that he looked like a toothless old crone, and his outthrust lower lip seemed in the midst of swallowing the upper half of his own head. Amric considered jesting about it to lighten his mood, but dismissed the thought. Halthak’s hold on courage was, at the moment, too tenuous for levity.

“You
need not be here, healer. It would be safer for you to remain at the inn.”

Halthak snorted
. “You tried already to dissuade me. I am going with you. You will need an extra pair of eyes watching your back in there.”

Amric nodded and clapped him on the shoulder
. He left unsaid what they both knew anyway: the inn offered scant enough protection from a stealthy blade without Amric and Valkarr present, and the healer had few options to escape the city alone if this all went poorly. His best odds of survival remained with the warriors, even in this venture. Halthak cleared his throat and changed the subject, his voice low as he glanced about him to ensure the street was empty save for them.

“I do not trust this Bellimar fellow
,” he said.

“Nor do I,” Amric replied.

“This meeting he arranged could be a ruse, and he a more devious form of assassin meaning to collect the price on our heads.”

“The thou
ght had occurred to me as well.”

Halthak turned toward him
. “Then why do we trust him to lead us under the dominion of the man who set that price?”

“There is more to Bellimar than we have yet seen, and I am convinced that he
has not been fully forthcoming as to his motives, but I do not believe he is deceiving us in this. He has been as good as his word thus far, and his contacts indicate that the trail of our Sil’ath friends leads here, to this merchant, Morland.”

“And is it coincidence,” Halthak said, “that the trail of your missing party ends at the door of the same wealthy merchant who then put a bounty on our heads?”

Amric adjusted the leather bracer on his forearm, his gaze never wavering from the gates before him. “One of many questions I intend to ask Morland. We have little choice, healer. This is our only lead, and even if it proves false, it might at least bring the merchant within reach to end this vendetta threat at its source.”

Halthak paled and fell silent.

“It may not come to that, healer,” Amric said. “Morland has guaranteed our safety for the duration of this meeting. Is that not true, Bellimar?”

“Quite true
,” the old man’s voice came from behind them, and Halthak jumped.

Bellimar drew up beside them, a merry twinkle in his eye as he grinned at Halthak
. He took in the iron gates and the black lions, and muttered, “Gaudy. We get a glimpse of the man’s titanic ego.”

“Any further word, Bellimar?” Amric asked.

Bellimar stepped forward and turned to face them. “Even piecing it together from multiple sources, there are gaps in the story. The Sil’ath warriors you seek were in the city only briefly, and during that time they met with Morland. The merchant is evidently a distant relative of Vorenius and has put a price on your heads at his behest. After their meeting, the Sil’ath were known to have departed the city through the eastern gate, according to sources that make it their business to monitor such things. From there, the trail grows uncertain. Their destination was unknown to any of my contacts, as the Sil’ath spoke to no one else after Morland, and they have not returned. They left weeks ago, by all accounts, but there is disagreement upon the exact day of departure.”

Halthak
frowned. “So they left here alive, at least, and Morland is not to blame for their disappearance.”

“Let us not rush to conclusions,” Bellimar warned
. “Morland is a serpent, and may still have sent them to their deaths. Word is that they were in Morland’s employ when they left.”

Amric shook his head
. “They did not come here to sell their blades to the highest bidder, or to run errands for the wealthy.”


Do not be so quick to dismiss the thought,” Bellimar said. “The rich grow increasingly frantic for their safety, between the spreading darkness outside the city walls and their rivals gathering personal armies within. Sil’ath reputation at arms being what it is, your friends could amass a fortune here. As could you and Valkarr.”

“That was not their purpose
,” Amric insisted.

“How can you be so certain?”

“Because the Sil’ath care little for such things, and I share that sentiment. And I know their purpose because I sent them here, to Keldrin’s Landing. No, they would not abandon their task. If their goals coincided with Morland’s, a common purpose or at least mutual benefit was responsible. As I have mentioned, the Sil’ath are pragmatic; if they struck an accord with the likes of this Morland, he represented the best path they could find toward completing their task.”

“And that task was…?”
Bellimar prodded.

“For now, suffice it to say they were to gather information to aid our
people, information we believe is only available here. More detail will have to await our leisure, but it seems their search led them to the east.”


Perhaps,” Bellimar said, tilting his head in thought. “But your thinking might be too linear on this, swordsman. If Morland had information they required but he refused to disclose, would your friends have bartered their effort in exchange?”


Aye, that is possible,” Amric admitted.

“Then they may still have departed on a task not directly related to their goal, effectively in the employ of the merchant.”

“I cannot argue the logic,” Amric said with a sigh. “Tell me of Morland.”

“From all I hear,
” Bellimar said, “he finds the truth very malleable. Be aware that he is avaricious and calculating to the core, and if he is putting aside his public need for vengeance––even for a time––it is because he is after a greater prize. When I discovered he was behind the bounty, I made conciliatory advances through third parties to see how he would respond, and to my surprise found them well received. This public show followed by quick agreement suggests to me that we might have been steered to him.”

“Or it is a trap,” Halthak put in.

“It could be a trap,” Bellimar agreed. “Though if it is, I do not know why he should bother to open his doors to us. Why not just let the bounty do its work?”

Amric gave a slow nod
. “Let us discover what he wanted of my men, and what he wants now of us.”

Bellimar inclined his head, then
moved to the gates and reached for the bronze bell affixed to them, but it proved unnecessary. Two pairs of burly guards in studded leather armor stepped in from their posts on either side, long spears in their fists.

“Your master is expecting us,” Bellimar said, exuding a haughty air of impatience.

“Names?” came the gruff query. Bellimar supplied all three.

“There were to be four,” the same guard responded
, peering past them. “Where is the other?”

Amric smiled without warmth
. “Regrettably, he is otherwise occupied, and could not accept the invitation. It will be the three of us.”

The guard gave him a long look, and finally
grunted. “Wait here.” He moved to the side of the gate, took a torch from the wall, and waved it high over his head several times before returning it to its sconce. It was long minutes later that a carriage rumbled up the estate drive and into the ring of torchlight, drawn by large draft horses and surrounded by ten mounted soldiers. The gates swung inward with a heavy groan, and the door to the carriage opened. Amric exchanged an amused look with Bellimar, and gave Halthak a squeeze on the shoulder. Even in the poor light, he could see the Half-Ork had gone almost white, but he was at Amric’s heels as the swordsman strode forward and climbed into the carriage. Bellimar followed, and the carriage was moving before the door had shut behind him.

Amric
scanned the darkness through the open windows, but could see little of the estate grounds. Members of their escort carried torches ahead of and behind the coach, but they penetrated the darkness only enough to reveal a broad tree-lined lane carved deep with wagon wheel ruts. Amric felt a touch of awe steal over him. Judging by the carriage’s rate of travel and the length of time it took to cross the estate grounds, he had seen many towns of not inconsequential size that could be contained entirely within the walls of this place.

“Because he can,” Bellimar said from the velvet seat across from him.

Amric swiveled his head to look at him. “What?”

“In answer to the question you were just
musing over, why would any man claim so much for himself, more than he could use in a thousand lifetimes? Because he can.”

Amric laughed
. “Was it so obvious? Or do you read minds, old man?”

Bellimar smiled and shook his head
. “No, but it is a rational reaction to this much excess. More importantly, I want you to understand something of this man before you meet him. He has long since shed any need for rationality; he does not question whether he has enough or whether an agreement is equitable. For him, there is only the next conquest. If he can take something, or profit from it, or if he can eliminate an obstacle with no more than acceptable risk to himself, he will do it simply because he can.”

“Is Morland the wealthiest and most powerful in the city?” Halthak asked.

“I am not certain. He is climbing the ladder, if not yet at its top rung. From our vantage as the mice in the fable, however, all the elephants are interchangeable.” Bellimar’s features creased in a wicked smile before he continued. “Of one thing I have no doubt: Morland’s plans extend beyond this city. For all its recent growth, it is still a weed at the remote edge of civilization when compared to the great cities of the east like Tar Mora and Hyaxus. There is wealth to be gained here, but wealth alone will not be enough for Morland forever. I suspect he plans to buy his way into nobility and rule.”

Amric returned to contemplating the darkness outside the carriage
. He had spent most of his life beneath the open sky, or in forests or on battlefields; Sil’ath tribes built modest structures, and tended toward nomadic behavior. He had spent time in human cities, certainly, to learn of his own kind and to supplement his education in ways the Sil’ath could not. He had thought himself prepared for a city larger than he had yet seen, but the immensity of Keldrin’s Landing had been bewildering. To discover there were still larger cities dwarfing Keldrin’s Landing was sobering indeed.

“Ah,” said Bellimar, interrupting his reverie
. “We approach the manor at last.”

Amric craned his neck
forward and beheld a veritable fortress looming ahead. Tiny flames bobbed along the high battlements and peeked through the crenellations atop the towers, marking the patrols. Torches set in sconces at ground level cast a lurid amber glow and sent long black shadows crawling up the walls, giving the appearance of a great bonfire of stone set stark against the night.

T
he carriage and its escort clattered across a bridge and under the raised portcullis, into a well-lit courtyard. They drew to a halt, and the carriage door was opened. Amric stepped out, followed by his companions. The carriage trundled away, and the ten soldiers formed around them and ushered them into the manor proper. They passed through stout outer doors and into a large marble antechamber where the elaborate engravings almost fully concealed the archer slits in the walls, and on again into a more opulent grand entry. Broad marble stairways and ornate balustrades curved up and away on either hand, but they were marched straight through to another set of brass-bound double doors.

BOOK: The Essence Gate War: Book 01 - Adept
7.7Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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