A man dressed in plain grey clothing entered the bed-chamber and went to the figure sleeping peacefully in the elegant four-poster. He bent down and gently shook the slumbering figure awake. “Primus,” he said with great respect tinged with fear. “Wake up, my lord.”
The figure turned over. “I told thee I was not to be disturbed under any circumstances,” he said in a whispering voice.
“Y-Yes, Primus,” the servant stammered. “B-But–”
“ANY circumstances, Lothan. If thee cannot carry out my most trivial commands, then I must search for another man-servant.”
Lothan trembled in the darkness. He knew what the Primus meant when he said he would have to search for another man-servant. None save those who were part of The Order could know the identity of the Primus. Lothan swallowed hard. “F-Forgive me, my lord. Dra’nak Valthorn has returned.”
At the mention of Valthorn, the Primus sat upright in bed and fixed Lothan with a piercing stare, even though the room was in near-total darkness. “If this is a contrivance to save thyself, thee art a dead man, Lothan,” he said without emotion.
“No, Primus! I swear it! The Dra’nak stepped through the portal only ten minutes ago!” For long seconds, Lothan could feel the unseen gaze of his master upon him.
“Inform the Dra’nak that I will see him in my study in one quarter of an hour,” the Primus said to his terrified servant.
“Y-Yes, Primus,” Lothan said, the relief plain in his voice. He bowed once and fled the room.
Dressed in velvet-soft black robes, the Primus of The Order entered his private study accompanied by his ever-present guards, also members of The Order. Waiting for him was Dra’nak Valthorn, one of The Order’s enforcers, the most feared men, next to the Primus, in The Order. Of the four Dra’naks, Valthorn was the most powerful, second in ability only to the Primus himself.
The study was large, almost a laboratory. There were books everywhere, as well as three large tables for conducting experiments. The portion of the library closest the entrance was devoted to leisure. A small table surrounded by six chairs sat in a corner. Behind the table were book shelves containing hundreds of midnight-black bound tomes of magic. One could almost feel the magic emanating from them.
Seated at the table was a man wearing the same clothes as the Primus and his guards wore. In fact, all two hundred members of The Order wore black robes. Their servants, those that had servants, wore grey.
Valthorn rose and bowed to the Primus from the waist. His robes’ cowl was pushed back, revealing the face of a man in his late thirties. “Cho dakh, Primus,” he said in a deep voice.
“Cho dakh, Valthorn,” the Primus replied. “What news?”
“I hath succeeded in tracking down one of the cabal’s members, Primus. I was not able to determine the identity of his confederates. However, I was able to extract some information as to their purpose.”
“And it is?”
“They intend treason, Primus. I am not certain whether they wish to secede, or whether they wish to take our Master’s throne.”
“Hath thee uncovered any mention of Baron Myros?” the Primus asked intently.
“Nay, Primus,” Valthorn replied. “Hath some event occurred that would suggest otherwise?”
“Myros hath journeyed to Magnus.”
“Baranur?” Valthorn said incredulously.
“Yes. Baranur. Celeste hath reported to me that Myros doth undertake this journey to visit an ‘old friend’. She suspects Myros of having ulterior motives. Our Master decided to make Myros Ambassador to Baranur, in order that we may more readily observe him. I hath given Celeste the task.”
“Celeste? Dost thou trust her?”
“Trust, Valthorn? Nay, I do not trust her. But she knows what will happen to her if she betrays me,” he said with the faintest trace of a smile.
“What dost thou wish me to do regarding the cabal, Primus?”
“Summon the Conclave,” the Primus said after a moment’s consideration. “This decision must not be taken lightly.”
“At once, Primus.”
The chamber where the Conclave met was hundreds of miles underground. It was a circular chamber, sixty feet in diameter. It was unlit except for an area in the center of the chamber twenty feet across. Illumination was provided by a brilliant globe of light suspended thirty feet above the floor.
Contrasting sharply with the polished white marble from which the chamber was hollowed out, seven large, black stone chairs were spaced evenly about the periphery of the lighted area, facing inwards. Seated in one of these was the Primus. He was dressed, as was custom when the Conclave was in session, in his formal robes of office. Midnight black, they were inscribed with runes that glowed a silvery radiance.
The cowl, normally drawn over his head so as to hide most of his features, rested on his shoulders, revealing a man whose face was marked by the passage of countless years. He kept his snowy-white hair shoulder length, for longer hair was difficult to conceal under his robes’ cowl. He had been Primus for so long that his given name was but a dim memory. The Primus sat back in his chair, waiting for the other six members of the Conclave to arrive. His thoughts were on days long since fled. Days when Galicia was young.
Five hundred years ago, the final victor emerged from the Consolidation Wars and proclaimed himself Emperor of Galicia. Two hundred years of bloody warfare had finally resulted in a lasting, if forced, confederation between the Galician city-states. The new Emperor, realizing that not all of his new subjects were overjoyed with their new ruler, called together all the mages that he knew were absolutely loyal to him, and created The Order of Galicia, now known as The Order.
No one but the Emperor and his most trusted advisors even knew The Order existed. To head The Order he chose the one man he trusted completely, his personal magist. This mage, known as the Primus, was tasked with protecting the Emperor’s person and with gathering intelligence concerning the Emperor’s enemies. To accomplish this, the Primus could call on the resources of two hundred of Galicia’s best mages.
A fortress was constructed to house The Order, a fortress whose location was kept from the Emperor. Only those of The Order knew where it was. The fortress was warded by powerful spells; the only way in or out was by way of a teleport chamber. Other spells prevented anyone on the outside from using their art to view the happenings inside. Still other spells existed that would activate only under certain circumstances, such as combat.
The Primus at the time, the very same man who was Primus at present, formed a council to help him run The Order, a council he called the Conclave. Realizing the need for a secure meeting place, both from physical and magical attack, he began to work on a chamber deep underground.
It took him two months to hollow out space for the chamber. Another month was spent on applying various spells to the chamber to proof it against magic. Among those spells was a spell that formed a column of force that trapped the light emanating from the light sphere in the central area. The column also prevented individuals inside the lighted area from seeing out, and those outside from seeing in. Within the column itself, a permanent dispel magic spell was in effect, so that none of the Conclave members could use magic on each other. The only way to reach the chamber was by teleportation, and then only if the mage in question was a powerful one; not every mage could teleport himself the distance required to reach the chamber.
The Primus was brought out of his reverie by the arrival of the first member of the Conclave. Valthorn stepped through the force-wall, turned to face the Primus, and bowed from the waist. “Cho dakh, Primus.”
“Cho dakh, Valthorn.”
Valthorn took his seat, the second from the Primus’ left, and waited. He did not wait long. Within the space of the next three minutes, the other five members of the Conclave stepped into the lighted area, greeted the Primus, and took their seats.
“Thee art aware,” the Primus began, “of the recent happenings regarding the discovery of a cabal working against our Master. What thee art unaware of, with the exception of the Sehrvat Primus, is that Dra’nak Valthorn hath discovered the identity of, and interrogated, a member of this cabal. Unfortunately, this individual did not see fit to impart to the Dra’nak a great deal of information. He did reveal the cabal’s intentions, however. They intend to commit treason. We do not know whether they wish to secede, or whether they wish to try to oust our Master.”
“Therefore, this assembly hath two decisions to arrive at: whether or not our Master should be informed at this early juncture, and we must decide what action we shall take with regards to the cabal. What say thee, Xavier?”
Xavier, Lokhmahst of The Order, turned in his seat to face the Primus. “We must inform our Master of this at once, Primus,” the sixty year-old mage said. The Primus had been afraid of this. The Lokhmahst, or loremaster, commanded great respect within The Order.
“Were circumstances different, Xavier, I would say aye to thy suggestion. However, the information gathered thus far is not worthy of our Master’s attention.”
“How so? We hath uncovered a plot to commit treason against our Master. Whether this treason is against his person, or against the state, he must be informed.”
“What of the rest of thee?” the Primus asked. “What art thy opinions?”
“What Lokhmahst Xavier hath said hath value, Primus,” Valthorn said. “However, I agree with you. There is not enough hard evidence against the cabal. If we were to inform our Master, the members of the cabal might get wind of our discoveries and conceal themselves even better than they now are.”
“I side with you also, Primus,” said Derek, the Sehrvat Primus. The position of First Servant originally entailed being head of the Primus’ household and in charge of acquiring servants for those members of The Order that wished to have servants. Over the years, the duties and responsibilities of First Servant evolved to include overseeing the hiring of mercenaries for tasks that were unworthy of a member’s participation, or tasks in which The Order could not risk direct involvement.
“What of thee?” the Primus asked the three remaining Dra’naks who had not voiced an opinion.
“I support you, Primus,” Dra’nak Anton replied.
“Xavier,” Teng answered.
“You, Primus,” Lenore stated.
“It is decided,” the Primus said. “Rest assured, Xavier, that I shall impart knowledge of the cabal to our Master the instant we hath better information.”
Xavier nodded slightly, acknowledging defeat gracefully. “What then, is to be our course of action?”
The Primus considered for a moment. “This matter is too delicate for direct involvement.” He turned slightly to face Derek. “Dost thou hath someone that could be relied upon?”
Derek thought for a moment. “I believe,” said the Sehrvat Primus, “I know of three that could be useful.”
“Excellent. Thou shalt seek these three out and hire them forthwith.”
“Our business is concluded. The Conclave is disbanded. Cha loth, Ull.”
One by one, the Conclave bowed to the Primus, bidding him farewell in the ancient Galician all members of The Order were required to learn. Valthorn was the last to depart. “Cha loth, Primus,” he said. The chamber echoed with the sound of chanting as the members of the Conclave teleported to the fortress.
“This is all your fault, Tarn!” Justin said as he parried a thrust from his grey-clad attacker.
“Me? What did I do?” the little thief asked plaintively as he knocked another arrow.
Justin caught his attacker’s slash on his shield and delivered a vicious kick to his opponent’s knee, sending the luckless man crashing down the hill. He whirled on Tarn. “You just couldn’t resist, could you? You simply had to let your natural tendencies run away with you, didn’t you? Didn’t you!?”
“I didn’t steal anything! Honest! I wanted to, but I didn’t!”
“thEN WHY ARE thEY trYING TO KILL US, YOU LITTLE–” Justin stopped short at the sight of Tarn aiming his bow in Justin’s direction. “Now wait a minute, Tarn. There’s no need–” Before Justin could finish, Tarn let his arrow fly. Justin cringed as Tarn’s arrow whizzed past his ear and struck something behind him. Justin turned around to see one of their assailants staring blankly up at the sky, an arrow embedded in his chest.
“Would you two..(parry)..mind..(parry)..rejoining..(parry-riposte)..this debacle?” Julia asked somewhat heatedly.
Just as Justin was about to re-enter the fray, the enemy retreated, leaving six of their comrades behind. “Now it’s only fourteen-to-three,” Justin commented.
“You’re just full of cheery pronouncements today, aren’t you?” Julia asked.
“Look,” Justin said, turning to face Julia, “this wasn’t MY idea!”
“You’re the one who suggested we take the southern route in the first place!”
“I’m not the one that got the town guards upset!”
“This isn’t the time or place!”
“I hate to interrupt,” Tarn said, “but we seem to have a visitor.”
Justin and Julia forgot their argument and looked in the direction Tarn was pointing. A man dressed in black robes was walking calmly up the hill. “Damn,” Julia said. “They’ve brought up a wizard.”
Tarn aimed his bow at the approaching mage. “Wait, Tarn,” Justin said. “If he wanted to, he probably could have killed us without showing himself. Let’s see what he wants.” Reluctantly, Tarn lowered his bow.
The mage stopped twenty feet from the crest. “I wish to speak with thee,” he called out. “May I approach?”
Justin looked to Julia for confirmation. “Not much else we can do,” she said.
The mage travelled the remaining distance between himself and the group on the hill-crest unhurriedly. He coldly regarded the corpses of the six slain attackers. “Fools,” he said. “I must apologize for the actions of my retainers,” he said to the three companions. “They were over-zealous in their pursuit of my wishes.”
“And just what are your wishes?” Justin asked suspiciously.
“I hath a task I wish thee to perform for my Master.”
“And just who is your master?” Julia asked.
The mage reached inside his robes and pulled out a chain with an amulet on it. He handed it to Justin without saying a word.
“She asked you who your master is,” Justin said, trying to control his mounting anger. “What sort of answer is this?” he demanded.
“Look at the amulet.”
Justin looked down at the amulet in his hand. “By the gods,” he said softly.
“You’re as white as a ghost, Justin,” Julia said, the concern plain in her voice. “What is it?”
Justin held up the amulet for her and Tarn to see. It bore the relief of an eagle with a crown upon its head. “The Emperor’s crest!” Julia breathed.
“Here’s where the fun begins,” Tarn said.