Hemlock And The Dread Sorceress (Book 3)

BOOK: Hemlock And The Dread Sorceress (Book 3)
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Hemlock and the Dread Sorceress

The Maker’s Fire – Volume III

1st edition

 

By B Throwsnaill

 

 

Published by Bill Ainsworth at Amazon.com

 

Copyright 2013 by Bill Ainsworth writing as B Throwsnaill

 

For more information about B Throwsnaill's writing please visit
http://www.wiztower.com
.

 

This book is dedicated to my family. 

I’d also like to extend a special thank you to my beta readers: Chandler, Scott and Jeff.

 

What Has Gone Before (in Book II -- Hemlock and the Dead God’s Legacy)

Hemlock realized the role of leader of the wizards was more complex and tiresome than she anticipated. Feeling burdened by her many new responsibilities, she yearned for the freedom of adventure. When Tored arrived from the Witch Crags with information about the likely location of another powerful Wand, she seized the opportunity to embark on a new quest.  The goal of the quest was to retrieve and destroy the Wand, and it was believed that doing so would unbind the Witch Crags region from the City.

Before she left, she entrusted the newly discovered diary of Julius--the man who built the Wizard Tower--into the possession of Merit, who was rapidly developing an affinity for history and lore. Merit began to uncover an ancient narrative in those dusty pages, and soon realized it was the tale of the origins of the wizard guild.

Hemlock left the City with Tored, a small group of wizards, and a band of Tanna Varran warriors; and it soon became
apparent there was a rift between the two Tanna Varran factions in the group.  The recent death of Pan Taros, former King of the Tanna Varrans, had left the noble families vying for succession to the throne.  Tored's own Taros clan was led by an adolescent named Taros Sundar, while the competing Vyle clan was led by a young, but proven warrior named Umra Vyle.  Both young men were in the group.  Umra Vyle regarded Taros Sundar as a serious rival to the throne while Taros Sundar viewed Umra Vyle as an arrogant oaf and an adherent to a warrior tradition that was doomed to irrelevance in a post-witch world.  Tored understood the threat that Umra Vyle represented, but neither he nor Hemlock were able to convince the headstrong Taros Sundar to take it seriously.

When the group reached a wide region of plateaus, they were forced to split up and navigate a complex of tight passageways between the rock.  During this crossing
, they were attacked by a strange rainbow cat which Hemlock managed to drive off after it inflicted casualties.  Hemlock felt sure she had seen Umra Vyle flee his comrades during the battle and held him in contempt from that point on.

Tored seemed unusually affected by the loss of life and withdrew from what had been a strengthening friendship with Hemlock.  When the group reached the outskirts of Tor Varnos, the Tanna Varran capital, Taros Sundar attempted to humiliate Umra Vyle.  Umra Vyle reacted by challenging the younger man to a duel, but Tored intervened, wounding Taros Sundar so he would not be able to participate.  Umra Vyle then challenged Tored to a duel,
seeking to cunningly take the throne because Tored had been acting regent since the death of Pan Taros.  But Tored outmaneuvered the young warrior by relinquishing his membership in the tribe before the duel.  Umra Vyle would not be King if he killed Tored in the duel, but the younger man still thirsted for revenge.  They met in battle in the old dueling arena beneath the town.  Tored managed to kill Umra Vyle, though he was gravely wounded in the process.  Hemlock became enraged when she learned Tored could not live unless he was able to leave the arena under his own power.  Defying tradition, she descended into the arena and rescued him herself.

The wizards in the group healed Tored, and they soon left Tor Varnos.  The Tanna Varrans wanted representation on the trip that would determine the fate of their relationship with the City, so they sent
a group on the trip despite the tension over Tored disowning his heritage and Hemlock's violation of Tanna Varran law.  Together, the group proceeded to the mysterious vale at the western edge of Tanna Varra. 

As they camped below the vale, an apparition appeared to Hemlock and Tored.  It proclaimed itself to be an ancient peer of the Imperator--a personage named DuLoc. 
It stated that it was returning soon to take control of the City.  It taunted Hemlock, saying that she would never defeat the guardian that had been placed with the Wand.

The next morning
, the group climbed through the mists that hung over the mountains surrounding the vale, and faced a massive, vile, gluttonous creature that had covered much of the mountain with excrement.  After a difficult battle, they destroyed the creature and proceeded into the vale.  They discovered an unexpected paradise --and the tribe of witches they found there was even more unexpected.  The Tanna Varrans were immediately hostile, but it was clear these witches were different than their now deceased sisters.  Where the other witches had thrived on malice, these thrived on comfort and pleasure.  Hemlock didn't see them as threatening, so she instructed most of the wizards in the group to escort the witch Cassandra and her human followers back to the City where they would be granted asylum.

Hemlock, Tored, and two wizards named Renevos and Otticus proceeded into the tunnels beneath the vale where the Wand they sought was reputed to be.  As they descended, they came under attack by an Earth Spirit which marshaled denizens of the deep to confront the group in several battles.  But the group tenaciously pressed on even after they realized this
Earth Spirit was the one DuLoc had warned them about.

They finally came to a deep cavern suspended over lava and found the Wand.  The
Earth Spirit reappeared, though it was greatly weakened by the prior battles.  A strange infant was also resting there, and the infant gave Hemlock a surprising message.  It said it was the offspring of Amarank, the Earth Spirit, and Julius, founder of the wizard guild.  Though it was physically weak, it had developed great powers of prescience and extra sensory awareness and had been anticipating Hemlock's arrival.  It told Hemlock that she needed the bloodlines of both the Imperator and the First Wizard in order to defeat her next foe.  Hemlock realized the child meant DuLoc.

Amarank begged Hemlock to spare her child, who was being kept alive by the Wand, but the child pleaded that it wished to die.  Hemlock removed the Wand, causing the child to disintegrate as Amarank fell into the lava.  The group teleported out as the deep cavern collapsed and the Witch Crags disconnected from the City.

Once back in the City, Hemlock searched for the place the strange child had told her about.  She located a huge amphitheater that had been hidden since the time of the Wizard Tower's construction.  It allowed her to directly see the worlds surrounding the City.  She brought Gwineval and her other friends to see the display, and they had their first direct experience of some of the content of Hemlock's visions.

Hemlock assembled Gwineval, Miara, Tored, Mercuria, Samberlin and Merit in the chamber beneath the Wizard Tower where she had destroyed the first Wand by dropping it into the Maker's Fire.  She intended to destroy the recently found Wand, but there was sharp disagreement from Samberlin and Gwineval, though Hemlock warned them keeping the Wand would only play into DuLoc's hands.  Hemlock suddenly gave the Wand to Gwineval and let him make the decision.  Gwineval reluctantly followed Hemlock's advice and destroyed the Wand.

Hemlock then abdicated her leadership of the wizards, and asked Tored to join her and Mercuria in their apartment in the Warrens.  The former Tanna Varran was still acting sullen, but he agreed to join Hemlock and her sister.  Hemlock hoped for some respite from the looming threat of DuLoc and his ambitions to return to take the City for himself, but she expected that any peace she had would be short-lived.

 

Prologue

Gorf Cobble stirred his stew, looking over his well-stocked dinner table at the plump faces of his family seated around it.  His home was ample. He had personally laid every brick and beam that composed it.  He was a proud man, prominent in his mining village which was nestled deep in the mountains to the east of the city of San Cyra.  His seated frame was massive and muscled—his strength forged by many years of labor underground.  Half of his round head was covered by layers of brown locks, but the other was marred by a hairless patch, pink and scarred in the aftermath of an old mining accident.

Life is good
, he thought to himself, coercively.  But the simmering uneasiness in his gut reminded him that he felt otherwise.

"What are you worrying
about?" asked Hilda, his wife of two score years.  She wore her blonde locks in a braided ponytail that hung down her back.  Her brown eyes still made Gorf feel like he did when he discovered a rare gem in the depths of his mine.  Of course, she meant more to him than any gem or precious metal, but he had spent so much time surrounded by rock that he almost always thought in terms of it.

Gorf put his spoon down and turned to Hilda.  "We're lucky, you know."

Hilda chuckled over the slurping sounds their four children made as they ate. "It isn't luck, Gorf," she began as she tore pieces of bread and distributed them to the children.  "You're a hardworking man.  You built this house with your bare hands.  And how many tons of ore have you hauled out of that mine?  Your mine!"

Gorf smiled and shook his head.  Hilda could always tell when he needed a pep talk.  It was like some sixth sense she had.

He felt stabilized by her encouragement, and his mind returned to his stew.  But then his hand slowly balled into a fist, and before he knew what he was doing, he had struck the table.  "It's Jalis and these damn wizards, Hilda!  They're changing everything.  Those fools that signed that agreement with them signed away our rights.  Now, we answer to the wizards.  They took Murphy’s mine from him the other day just because he’d been speaking out against them!"

Hilda frowned at his outburst
. The kids paused with uncertain looks in their eyes.  Gorf felt ashamed of his sudden loss of control.  The force of his blow had spilled his stew.

He cleared his throat as Hilda rose to get a cloth to clean up his mess.

“I’m sorry, kids. I’m just upset about business in the mine.  Eat your suppers,” he managed.

He felt Hilda’s soft hand on his shoulder as she stood behind him cleaning the table.  She massaged him reassuringly.  He suddenly wanted to do something for her—something to express how grateful he was to have a loyal and supportive wife like her.  He remembered the fine
gowns he had seen in the City some years ago.

Yes
, he thought,
I will get her one of those this year.  I’ll make the trip in a few weeks.

As she sat down, she spoke to him in a hushed tone
. “Gorf, you have to relax a bit.  This…thing…with the wizards—it’s bigger than you.  What can you do about it?”

“Don’t get me started about what to do about it.  And what do
wizards need with gold, you wonder?   Well, we figured it out.  Turns out they’ve been hiring mercenaries from the south.  They’re employing them to help erect these magic obelisks in the valley.  But this lot they’ve brought in aren’t just for construction.  They have the look of thugs.  We’re headed for trouble!  One way or another.”

Gorf despaired as a look of horrified recognition emerge
d on Hilda’s face.  She understood there would be violence.  They both sat silently for several minutes as the children continued to eat and banter amongst themselves.

Hilda finally broke the silence.  “More ale?” she asked, unable to conceal a slight quiver in her voice.

Gorf nodded and placed his hand on hers as she poured.


He rose early the next morning, as was his custom.  He was wealthy enough to not have to use an overnight shift in his mine.  He was always there when the mine was operating.

He was grateful that Hilda hadn’t pressed him for more detail
s about the situation with the wizards.  Though nothing more was said about it, it had clearly been on both of their minds.  Few words were exchanged between them as he prepared to leave for the day.

As he laced up his work boots
, he felt her behind him.  She hugged him, reaching her arms around his barrel chest.  He grasped her arm and caressed it.

“Be sure to kiss the kids this morning,” she said.

“Of course,” he replied, not questioning why she would make this request.  He kissed the children every morning before he left.


The heavy iron links of the massive chain clanked and groaned from the weight of fully laden mining cars.  The azurite crystal within the cars sparkled in the flickering torchlight of the mineshaft.  They struck a rich vein of the valuable crystal that morning and the haul had been prodigious.  But Gorf was still uneasy.

Biting down on
his cigar, he thought about the imposing stone golem at the top of the mine that tirelessly hauled the cars to the surface. The golem was one of the benefits of the agreement with the wizards.  He glanced at his idle work crew, loitering in a side shaft as the mindless stone beast did their work for them.  Gorf's extremely muscular arms tensed in anger. 

His
strength had developed through many years of pulling mine cars to the surface.  But the golems did it faster and safer than the men of his day.  Still, Gorf didn’t like the new development, even though it had improved his mining output.  His men grew soft.  And soft men got killed in the mines.  It was only a matter of time. 

Gorf
shook his head as his men chuckled at some private joke.  He spat out his cigar and roughly stamped its dying ember on the rock floor.  The remote incantations of some reclusive wizard were not his reality.  He was a creature of the cold, dank darkness—gruff and taciturn.  The idea that magic could replace the clenched agony of raw sinew hauling rock from the mine was distasteful to him.

The steady groan
from the iron wheels of the mine cars stopped, and the great chain went slack, clanking onto the rock floor.

Gorf cursed.  “The golem cut out again!” he cried as his crew climbed to their feet in the flickering darkness.
  The air in the shaft, which was kept circulating by great fans the golem operated at the surface, also went still.

The crew chief approached Gorf apprehensively
. “What do we do, boss?  Should we wait?”

“We’ll wait for a few minutes to see if
the golem restarts.  Maybe old Smitty forgot to use the potion on it this morning.  If it doesn’t come back on, we’ll pull the load up ourselves.”

There was an audible groan from the crew as Gorf finished speaking.  He felt rage boiling up in
side and turned away from the crew chief.

I can’t take out my anger on the men
, he thought, trying to control his temper.

The crew chief retreated
. The profound silence of the underground filled the void left by his receding footsteps and consumed every crevice of the mineshaft.

The quiet darkness allowed Gorf to refocus his thoughts.  He wondered what the day would bring, and thought of his war hammer that
was packed amongst his belongings on the surface.  Today, he would bring his ores and crystals to the marketplace in the valley.  The wizards would be there, their new thugs in tow, presiding over and taxing every transaction.

He experienced a strange and welcome sense of calm
while he thought of Hilda and the children.

“Everything will be alright,” he
mused, surprising himself.

T
hen, his calm gave way to startled panic.  At the edge of his vision, he could see a twinkling mist rising from an adjoining mine shaft.  The mist was deep blue, revealed by small pinpoints of dim light that played within it.  An accompanying tinkling sound, like impossibly small wind chimes, confirmed his worst fear.  It was called the blue damp—a deadly gas frequently disturbed during the course of mining.  Small traces of the gas made a man feel warm and secure—like Gorf had been feeling.  In greater concentrations, like the cloud Gorf was looking at, the gas produced euphoria and apathy.  But its most dangerous quality was its explosive volatility.  Any percussive sound could set it off. When detonated, its force could penetrate two feet of solid rock.

Gorf hissed to his crew and pointed.  They rose in horror
but remained silent.  The cloud of gas was immense. Without the ventilation fans drawing air to the surface, it was spreading out in all directions.  Gorf knew his only hope was to get to the surface with his men.  But they would have to pass through the thick gas without making a sound.

He hissed again to his crew and gestured for them to come to
ward him.  He realized that if the golem restarted, they would all be killed by the screeching of the car’s wheels.  He swallowed down his panic as he surveyed the expectant and fearful eyes of his crew.

He nodded to them with what he hoped was an air of confidence
. Then, he began to creep slowly toward the expanding cloud of blue damp.

As he entered the cloud, feelings of euphoria began to assail him.  The intense
fear of threat gave way, first to confidence then to whimsy.  He tried to keep his wits about him as he continued to walk slowly, holding his hands over the tools on his belt.  One of the men behind him made a careless noise, but Gorf found himself beyond worry.  It was all he could do to keep moving as the beguiling, blue sparkles of light moved around him.

The air in front of him began to swirl
. The sparkles spun wildly and were displaced as something shimmering appeared.  Gorf halted as a magnificent gilded hourglass materialized before him.  Sand falling softly from the top half of the hourglass to the bottom engulfed his awareness.  He didn’t know how long he stood there watching that hourglass—but suddenly it began to shimmer again. All at once, it was gone within the sparkling particles of light.  He remembered a distant sense of purpose—just enough to start moving forward again.

He slowly
regained his wits as the group began to emerge from the depths of the vast cloud.  His first impulse was to break into a run, but he knew some of the men behind him were still too close to the gas.  He waited until they were all several score yards from the edge of the cloud then urged them into a fast jog.

As he ran, his
thoughts returned to the hourglass he had seen inside the blue damp.  Its appearance seemed to mirror his concerns about running out of time on the issue of the wizards.  He dismissed it as a hallucination.

After many long and tiring minutes of running, the glaring light of day smashed the cocoon of underground darkness that enclosed Gorf and his crew.  Even after his many years of mining, the sensation of emerging from the
dark mine was still jarring.

“Smitty!” he cried, directing the old miner to tend to the golem.  “Start up the fans first and wait
two hours before hauling up the cars. We hit blue damp down there—a lot of it!”

Gorf cursed again under his breath.  He expected dang
er in the market today, not in his mine.  But danger was never far away in the mine.

His crew chief approached him as the
grumbling crew gathered around the waiting cars.

“The lads aren’t happy about having to l
ug the shipment to the market themselves,” said the chief.

“Well, isn’t that a shame,” said Gorf unsympathetically.  “That’s how we did it for thirty years.  It
will be good for them—toughen them up.”

Within the hour
, the burly miners struggled to push the mining cars across a long, flat section of track.  The wood and iron track extended between two adjacent mountain peaks held aloft by a long bridge span.  The track led into the valley that lay at the edge of the mountain to the west of Gorf’s mine. 

A long line of miners and mining cars were queued ahead of Gorf.  He cast dark looks at the miners ahead of him, who mostly tended to a single car themselves.  He then glanced downward and to his left
. Another track twisted around a nearby mountain on top of a comparatively flimsy-looking series of adhoc supports.

Gorf shook his head.  Despite the known dangers of the lower track
, he wondered if he might have to start using it.

"Don't even think about it, Gorf," said a booming voice from his right.  It was a heavyset man who wore
fine, white linens which contrasted the dark, functional clothing of the miners around him.

"Lampeer, well met.  But what of this delay?"

The heavyset man smiled.  "Every rube with a mine car wants to use my line now. The downhill brakes in the tunnel take time to navigate.  Those fool wizards made me lower my price, and I thought it would ruin me.  Little did I know, it would do quite the opposite!"

"But
, Lampeer, this delay will ruin me.  I still have another load for today's market waiting in my mine.  Can I pay you more to get to the front of the line?"

BOOK: Hemlock And The Dread Sorceress (Book 3)
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