The Essence Gate War: Book 01 - Adept (8 page)

BOOK: The Essence Gate War: Book 01 - Adept
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T
he guard in the lead signaled for a halt and gave a respectful rap to the door with one studded fist. A moment’s pause, and then the doors were opened from within to reveal a new set of guards in finer garb than their current escort. Crisp and professional, the interior guards motioned them inward and shut the doors, leaving their erstwhile attendants outside the room.

They were
at one end of a majestic hall with furnishings as lavish as the other rooms they had passed through. As with the preceding rooms, Amric paid little attention to the décor, though his roving gaze lingered on the towering tapestries that brushed the floor, and he speculated at what they might conceal. An enormous table of dark wood stretched into the room; Amric did not bother to count the high-backed chairs, but he estimated that a full company of soldiers could eat at the table without fear of bumping elbows. A lone figure was seated at the far end of the table, an ornate goblet in one hand as he studied an array of papers spread before him. The guards, ten strong as the last group had been, encircled them.

“Weapons,” said one, in a tone that retained a measure of courtesy without offering the illusion of choice.

Amric glanced back at his companions, and found them watching him intently. The corner of his mouth quirked upward in a smile. He unbuckled the baldric that held the two swords across his back and placed it on the end of the table. He drew the knife from behind his belt and laid it beside the swords. After a moment’s hesitation, Halthak stepped forward and relinquished his gnarled staff as well. The guards eyed Bellimar, who spread empty palms and smiled, the peculiar intensity of his stare seeming to invite a challenge. The lead guard met that stare for a long moment, perhaps searching for deception, and then he suddenly leaned away from Bellimar and fell back half a step. Shaken, he cast about to his men as if to gauge their reactions, or to reassure himself of their presence. Then he recovered and made a curt gesture. The guards formed around them, and they moved as a group in formation through the room.

As they approached, Morland pushed the papers from him and
raised the goblet to his lips, studying them with dark, dispassionate eyes over its jeweled rim. Amric was seated in the chair nearest Morland but still well out of arm’s reach, Halthak to his immediate left, and Bellimar next. The guards took stolid stances behind their chairs, hands resting on the pommels of their swords.

A
mric took a moment to study the merchant. He was a tall man, lean and hard like a twisted piece of iron swathed in silks. His dusky complexion, aquiline features and sunken cheeks gave him a cadaverous appearance, and his dead eyes seemed to be weighing whether to eat his prey and be done with it or try to wring some utility from it first. Amric felt an immediate and abiding dislike for the man.

T
he silence hung taut in the air as they regarded each other. Finally Morland spoke in a voice like dry leaves. “Do you know why I am here, swordsman?” he rasped.

“It is your house,” Amric replied.

Morland’s eyes tightened at the corners. “Here, in Keldrin’s Landing?”

“For the scenery?” Amric hazarded
. He heard Bellimar stir in his seat, but he did not glance aside.

“You are baiting me, here, at the center of my power?” Morland demanded.

“My apologies,” Amric said. “It seems I left my manners in an alley, skewered on the point of an assassin’s dagger. Forgive me for saying it, but you and Vorenius look nothing alike.”

“Ah yes,” Morland
said. “Now is as good a time as any to put that distasteful matter behind us. The boy is an utter fool. I can scarcely believe we share a bloodline, however distant it might be. The only use I can find for him is gathering hired swords to me, and even that is largely just to keep him out from under foot.”


If he is so onerous to you,” Bellimar said, “why retaliate on his behalf, when he was prevented from committing a heinous act, and still allowed his life in the end?”

Morland waved a dismissive hand
. “Vorenius’s actions out in the wilds are his own affair, provided he does not invoke my name. Had you slain him, swordsman, I would have been well rid of him and the matter would be closed. As it is, you spared his life, and he returned to Keldrin’s Landing squawking of the assault to all who would listen. To my eternal chagrin, his relation to me is somewhat well known here, and thus propriety had to be observed.”

“Then it was a matter of etiquette?”
Amric asked, bristling.

“I am pleased you understand
. More importantly, I have devised a means by which we can clear the debt between us.”

“I owe you no debt,” Amric growled.

“Sadly,” said the merchant, “that is not, strictly speaking, the case. You have caused me a loss of face, however indirect, and I cannot be seen to brook such defiance. It would erode my business dealings.”

“What do you propose?” Bellimar interjected before Amric could retort.

“I understand you seek the Sil’ath warriors who came to me weeks ago,” Morland stated, then paused. “Speaking of which, where is your other Sil’ath companion?”

“Oh, he is about somewhere,” Amric said
. “He sends his regrets that he will not be meeting you face to face this evening.”

The implication was not lost on
Morland, who gave a tight-lipped smile. “How unfortunate. May he come to no harm in his wanderings tonight. As I was saying, you seek the Sil’ath warriors who came to me weeks ago. As circumstance would have it, they undertook a task for me but have not returned. You can absolve your debt to me, and theirs as well, by completing this task. This will be of mutual benefit to us both, since you must realize your best chance to locate them will be to follow in their steps.”

Amric bit back another angry response contesting the debt
. He needed to glean as much as he could from this man, so instead he asked, “What is this task?”

“I am coming to that, swordsman
. First I must return to my initial question: Do you know why I am here? No? It is not, as you put it, for the scenery.” Morland’s lip curled in disdain. “Geographically, this city is an inconsequential little dung heap. It is making me rich, I must admit, but I will celebrate the day I leave this place behind. Being here in Keldrin’s Landing is like living in a demon’s armpit. Strategically, however, this city enjoys a number of unique properties that warrant close consideration. Very close consideration indeed.”

He trailed off, one finger caressing the base of the goblet
. After a moment, Bellimar cleared his throat. Morland’s brow creased in irritation and he turned to the old man as if noticing him for the first time.


Your name is Bellimar, yes? How did you come by it? Surely no parent would bestow it, given its history.”

Bellimar’s smile was fixed upon his face
, and he did not return the sudden looks from his companions. “You were extolling the strategic properties of this city, Morland?”


So I was,” Morland murmured. “Of this region, more accurately. This wart of a city just happens to be the nearest speck of civilization to the phenomenon. Are you aware that the greatest scholars among the nations are observing a marked drop in the world’s magical energies, of late?”

Amric and Halthak exchanged a blank look
. Only Bellimar seemed unsurprised at the turn of the conversation.

“It is true,” Morland
said. “It was gradual at first, a year or more ago, but in recent months it has accelerated. The most powerful sorcerers in all the lands are expressing concern as they can no longer draw on the same reservoirs of power they have in the past.”

“I fail to see the problem,” Amric said
in a dry tone.

“Do not be a fool, boy,” the merchant snapped
. “Magic is power, and our civilizations are in no small way built on that power. If this trend continues at its current rate, we face chaos and upheaval on a heretofore unseen scale.”

“There are many who theorize,” Bellimar said, his voice soft, “that magic is so intrinsic to life that, were that energy to ebb too low, our world would become
a barren husk, devoid of life. Remember our discussion of auras, swordsman. Magic resonates with other magic, humming together like harmonic vibration, and we exist in accord with the energy that permeates our world. Not only will the fantastic creatures suffer from its loss. None of us would survive.”

Amric said nothing, unconvinced
. A world with less magic, or no magic at all, sounded very much like an improvement to him. Morland, however, was nodding grudging approval.


An educated man,” he said. “Furthermore, are you aware that this region is seeing an even more marked
increase
in magical energies, as they decline everywhere else? So much so that sorcerous endeavors in this area have become hazardous due to their unpredictability, their sheer instability. Imagine, if you will, lighting a candle only to have it blaze up and fill the room with flame. It is as if all the magical energies in the civilized lands are being drawn to this region.”

“Perhaps
even,” Bellimar said, “all the magic in the world.”

Amric shifted, uncomfortable
at the thought. “Why is this occurring?”

“No one knows,” Morland said, with another appraising look at Bellimar
. “But it is also behind the swell of wealth here, in Keldrin’s Landing. The area was discovered to be rich in natural resources quickly enough after Keldrin first landed here. Now, however, the gems and minerals here are imbued with essence energies at a much higher rate than anywhere and anytime in recorded history. The nations have boundless appetites for such baubles: focus jewels to enhance rituals, magic alloys that never dull or cannot be pierced, and countless more. Those with mining rights, such as myself, were until recently making money as quickly as we could pull it from the ground.”


Why no longer?” Amric asked.


Our crews have fled their work sites, and many have departed the region entirely on the first ship that would have them. Chance or not––and I tend to think not––the meteoric rise in magic has coincided with a spreading contagion of dark creatures. We lost many workers, vanished or found torn limb from limb, and now no amount of promised wages is sufficient to coax them into performing their duties.”

Morland
shook his head and sighed, and Amric ground his teeth. The merchant cared nothing for the loss of life, only his own profits.

“And
thus,” said Bellimar, his tone wry, “the wealthy elite of Keldrin’s Landing found themselves at the golden spigot, now clogged, and put out a plea for assistance to the lands. Ample reward offered to any blades that would travel here and pit themselves against these creatures. Payment terms in arrears, naturally?”

“Spare me your moral
arrogance, Bellimar,” the merchant sneered. “If you share anything with your namesake, you are on shifting sand of your own.”

Bellimar pressed on
, his grin broad and predatory. “But times of strife call out to avarice, and one’s rivals can be so wonderfully vulnerable when all attention is facing outward. So the wealthy must fortify against each other, and continually more so as the armament continues; for every coin spent on the public defense, two go to outfit the estate. Stop me when you wish to resume the narrative yourself, Morland.”

“How does all this relate to
my Sil’ath warriors?” Amric interrupted. “They would not have been diverted to serve as hired swords so that you could return to exploiting laborers.”

“You are correct, swordsman
. Irksome, but correct. Your friends refused any offer of employ, but we found a common goal nonetheless.”

Amric snorted
. “I doubt that.”

“Immaterial, as it is still true,” Morland remarked
. “You see, your reptilian friends were seeking the source of the disruption in this region, for reasons they refused to divulge. I too have been seeking its source, investing considerable resources into research on that very subject. I offered to put your friends on the right path, provided they returned to me with any information they discovered regarding the fate of a business associate of mine who has been closely studying the phenomenon. The mineral wealth in this region has become secondary to a deeper game now.”

Amric
’s jaw tightened. “Controlling the flow of magic.”

Morland gave an approving nod
. “Very good. Your brains are not all in your sword arm, then. As magic grows scarce elsewhere and bountiful here, there may be opportunity to control the flow, the supply, the very future of magic on this world. Unfortunately, your friends failed to fulfill their end of the bargain by perishing somewhere out there, and still I lack the information I require.”

Amric felt the rage that had been simmering inside him swell against his
restraint, cause a spider web of cracks, and burst through like a searing geyser. His vision swam before him, and he darted a look at his companions. He thought his expression under strict control, but they read his intent nevertheless; Bellimar’s eyes narrowed an almost imperceptible amount, and Halthak swallowed hard.

BOOK: The Essence Gate War: Book 01 - Adept
11.96Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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