Hemlock And The Dread Sorceress (Book 3) (3 page)

BOOK: Hemlock And The Dread Sorceress (Book 3)
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“But, but… even the children, sir?” stuttered Jalis.

“Absolutely
!  Jalis, you really must work on this empathy you seem to suffer from.  The business of governance doesn’t countenance weakness!”

“Of course, sir.  But what
about the implications of this attack?  Many merchants witnessed the fight.  Should we track them down as they flee back to the City?”

“No, let them return.”

“To...Hemlock?”

“To Hemlock.  It matters not.  My return to the City is now imminent
, and we’ve built enough obelisks to resist any attack she and her friends might mount.  They might learn how to use magic to fight the obelisks in time, but by then, I will have returned.  And then the law will sweep her aside like a fly.”

“It will be glorious, sir!”

Tears streamed down Gorf’s face as he lay dying. 
RUN!
he screamed over and over in his mind, wishing against hope that somehow Hilda would hear him.

 

Chapte
r One

Hemlock
stood atop the Wizard Tower and watched the sunrise.  In her mind’s eye, she envisioned the distant sphere of Maker's Fire that people knew as their sun soaring silently through the void around the City.  She took a moment to marvel at the daily traversal of that ball of fire.  Every morning, some force of creation caused it to coalesce and separate from the huge mass of Maker's Fire that the City sailed upon.  She looked down over the people that had already taken to the streets of the City on early business.  How many of them appreciated the miracle of their sun? 

It’s too easy for them to be swept away in the day's illusion and ignore the mundane miracles around them. 
But I guess it’s a question of perspective. 

Hemlock was the only person she knew that could
see
directly into the vast and strange void that existed beyond the sky. 

What would the world be like if everyone could see what I see?

She heard a whooshing sound as the heavy glass door to the atrium opened behind her.  The door closed as soft footsteps approached her.

“How are you this morning, Gwineval?” she asked without looking at him.  The early morning activity of the City still held her attention.

“I am well but somewhat troubled. First, these reports from the mountains arrive, and now this visit by the Griffin.  I fear our old comrade, Jalis, has finally played his cards.”

“He’s a fool, then.  We’ll deal with him.
  Penelope has sought us out before.  Perhaps she has news for us.  Or, perhaps, she’s slain the fool wizard herself.”

Even as the words left he
r mouth, Hemlock knew they wouldn’t turn out to be true.  The adversary she’d hoped to avoid for a while longer again dominated her thoughts. 

Can’t I have a few more months of peace?

“But Jalis understands the forces arrayed against him, Hemlock.  He’s cowardly but not stupid.  He must have a plan to deal with us if he’s openly moving against us.  That’s what concerns me.”

She considered confessing her fears to Gwineval, but suspected that DuLoc was on his mind as well.  They hadn’t spoken of the threatening apparition since Gwineval decided to destroy the Wand of the Imperator that she found in the Witch Crags.

“How is Tored?” Gwineval finally asked, breaking an apprehensive silence.

Hemlock smiled
. “He is well.  I think the repetition of his duties reassures him.  It was wise of you to have him deputized as a City guard.”

Gwineval’s mouth loos
ened into a toothy smile. “I’m glad.  But has he found peace?”

Hemlock frowned
. “No, I don’t think so.  He’s found comfort but not peace.  I talk to him every day and try to learn more about what torments him.  So far, I’ve had no luck.  It’s like he’s carrying some burden inside of him.”

“I’ve tried to talk to him
, too.  But it’s really no use since I’m not friends with him like you are.  He’s very difficult to get to know.”

A wry smile came to Hemlock’s face as she thought of her reply
. “You know who might know him the best, now?  Mercuria.  You can’t imagine it unless you see it, but she plays jokes on him almost every day.  It’s the only time I see him smile.  Her company has been good for him, even if nobody else’s has.”

Hemlock felt a pang
of sadness at her last statement.

I want to be close to Tored, but whatever he is carrying around inside of him seems to separate us.

An aerial speck on the horizon rescued Hemlock from further thought.   The griffin approached rapidly with powerful beats of her wings.  Hemlock noticed that beneath the deep yellows and browns of her plumage and fur, the beast clutched dragon eggs in her talons.

Hemlock and
Gwineval retreated from the baluster as the griffin reached the top of the tower. She drew up with great exertion of her twenty foot wing span and slowly descended, placing the eggs on the floor before thrusting upwards and landing beside them.

Hemlock noticed missing feathers on the beast’s wings and several bloody wounds on her lower torso.

“Penelope,” Hemlock cried, “you’re hurt!  What happened?”

The See
kers invaded my aerie.  The rogue wizards aided them.  I did not detect them until it was almost too late.

Hemlock walked slowly around the bulk of the Griffin and placed a gentle hand on
her matted, bloody fur.

“I’m sorry, Penelope.  I didn’t think Jalis would dare defy me,” said Hemlock.

As I flew out, I spotted homes burning and there were bodies piled in a village market.

“He’s moving to control the ea
st!  We must raise a force and confront them,” growled Gwineval.  “I regret not killing them when we had the chance.”

Hemlock started to sneer but
caught herself.  “Sometimes wisdom is clearer in hindsight,” she said.

“Truly.  You weren’t there when we fought for control of the Tower.  Samberlin meant to betray us when it looked like we’d be overmatched by the Seekers. 
When my spell of warding was revealed, many loyalties were in question in those tense moments.  I thought it best to take the high road and let those opposed to us leave in peace.”

“No need to explain again.  I understand.  It’s just
maddening to think that we gave Jalis this final chance and he’s betrayed us again.”

“It’s not like I expected anything else from him, but I’d hoped we’d be more prepared for it when he moved against us.  Hemlock, what have you been doing
all these months?  We’ve missed your presence in the Tower.”

“Really?  I’m shocked.  You all seemed qu
ite tired of me bossing you around.”

“But that doesn’t mean we wanted you gone altogether.  Yours is a valued
and absent voice in our affairs.  All of the wizards have said as much.  We’d like you to sit on our council as an honorary member.”

Hemlock bowed
her head and kicked some debris off the edge of the Tower.  She sighed and replied, “Alright.  I suppose Jalis’ actions will force us to act in response.  I need to be a part of it.”

“Yes.”

There is more news from the mountains.

“Yes?  Please tell us,” said Gwineval.

I’ve seen DuLoc with the wizards.  I sense his hand directing their efforts,  and I feel a great power gathering.  He will return soon.  The wizards have built dark rocks throughout the valleys.  Their magical law projects through these.  It is all part of DuLoc’s plan.  He appeared and asked me to join him.  He believes he will become a great emperor and can create perfect laws.  He intends to enslave us all.

“Those sound like the obelisks that Merit read about in Julius’ journal.  DuLoc must have taught Jalis how to make them.  And the minerals in the
mountains afforded him the perfect opportunity to build them.  Curse Jalis and his machinations!” said Gwineval.

Hemlock tried to give Gwineval a reassuring look, but
the wizard’s eyes were downcast.  Hemlock knew him well enough to recognize the outward signs of an internal process of self-flagellation.  She figured it would be best to redirect the stubborn wizard’s thoughts before he sank into melancholy.

“How do we fight
DuLoc?” asked Hemlock, directing the question loudly toward the Griffin.

I don’t know.  He wove
with the Red Mage at the dawn of time.  He will be a terrible foe.  And he can’t be reasoned with.  But if anyone can resist him, it will be you.

“Not very reassuring.  My father must have had a plan for me
but it’s all so confusing.  That’s why I needed more time to think it through.  But now there’s no more time.”

Gwineval seemed to refocus on the conversation
.  “Time is running short, but DuLoc hasn’t returned yet.   There is still time to consider our options.  Come to the council meeting tomorrow and let’s talk it over.”

“I will, but I want to see what they’re up to
.  Penelope could take me there now.  Just to fly over and see it for myself,” Hemlock replied.

“No, it’s too dangerous.”

“Flying over?”

“Yes.  You don’t know what Jalis and DuLoc have prepared for.  And it’s just what I’d expect you to do if I were Jalis.”

The final point made sense to Hemlock.  She exhaled forcefully.

“Fine.  I’ll wait and join your council meeting tomorrow.
  But let’s figure out a plan that involves some action and not just wizardly debates.”

Gwineval didn’t acknowledge her critical comment.

She thought about returning to the Warrens, but the labored breath of the Griffin beside her reminded her of the unresolved issue at hand.  They needed to determine Penelope’s fate now that she had been driven out of the mountains.

“And what of Penelope?” she asked
Gwineval.

The small scales on Gwineval’s brow furrowed.  “Well…” he stammered, clearly
not anticipating the question.

“She has to stay here for a while, right?  It’s kind of
like a mountain top up here on the Tower.  Penelope, would you like to stay here?”

Yes.

Gwineval shot Hemlock a strong look, but his features softened.  “Yes, it makes sense.  And, Penelope, lest you think it’s charity, we’ll surely call upon you in the upcoming struggle.”

I thought my role w
ould be otherwise.  But I will help protect your Tower.

“Thank you,” said Gwineval, bowing.  He turned to Hemlock.  “Until tomorrow, then?”


Hemlock carefully navigated the morning market throng as she made for the apartment where
she, Mercuria and Tored resided. 

An
unlikely quartet walked erratically in front of her.  A young man, dressed in the plain, durable robe common in the Warrens, had his arm around a young woman wearing a soiled white robe of the Elite district.  Beside them was a similarly attired couple but reversed in role and gender—an Elite man with a young woman from the Warrens.  Both men wore beards and long hair that were uncharacteristic of the City just a few months prior.  Neither of the women wore the facial makeup that was customary in both neighborhoods.  Collectively, they bore the hallmarks of the burgeoning “Cult of Cassandra,” the pleasure witch that Hemlock had given refuge to in the center of the City. 

The youths laughed despite the deep
bags under their eyes—they were exhausted but jubilant.  Hemlock admired them in a certain sense.  Though she doubted the wisdom of their lifestyle, their air of freedom made her feel shackled by comparison. 

As Hemlock watched the four youths,
who were little older than her but seeming like children living in a bubble of naiveté, they reminded her of the fate of Cassandra.  The Senate—Samberlin in particular—were furious over the changes caused by the witch, and continually passed resolutions demanding the ouster of the controversial cult.  But Hemlock had deferred any decision on the issue for six months.  That milestone was rapidly approaching, but she anticipated deferring a decision again in light of the renewed threat of DuLoc.  Whether the Senate would listen to her, in her new, diminished and poorly defined role, was not a certainty, however.

The sight of a local
ruffian pushing his way through the crowd distracted her attention from the issue of Cassandra.  The young thug was known as Jasper, an ill-tempered sort who seemed to alternate between two states of being—criminal intent and incoherent intoxication, with success at the former typically followed by the latter.

Hemlock was surprised to see a small
vial of liquid in the cutpurse’s right hand.  The liquid glowed in a way that was obviously magical.

She approached Jasper to inquire about his unusual possession.  As she neared him
, he greeted her with a wide grin.

“Hold up.  What do you have there, Jasper?”

“Just me morning draught,” the young man replied evasively. He quickly popped the cork on the vial and raised his hand in a mock toast.

Hemlock considered knocking the vial from his
grip, but the fact that no crime had been committed stayed her.

A whistle sounded in the distance, and the youth guzzled the glowing tincture.  Hemlock immediately sensed a magical radiance emanating from his body.

She used her power of magical affinity to ascertain the effects of the small potion.  It seemed to create concentric waves of energy that spread out over the market.  No other effect was evident.  But soon, Hemlock perceived other, similar waves of energy flowing into and meeting the waves emanating from Jasper.  Using her sense, she followed these waves to their source as other wave sources intersected.   Suddenly, she was in the midst of a cacophony of magical emanations with no apparent purpose.

She looked to her right and noticed another known criminal several
yards away. A glass vial, similar to Jaspar’s, dropped from his hand.  Her eyes darted to her left and saw yet another participant in what she now feared was some sort of planned action.

BOOK: Hemlock And The Dread Sorceress (Book 3)
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