Lord Kwan stayed in his small tent staring at the warding crystal for the whole night and the next day. The Atrophane soldiers waited nervously for some word from their commander and they watched the skies for the bizarre bird beast.

Kwan had no desire beyond watching the swirl of blue light within the smooth orb. When Sandin tried to intrude, he ordered away his lieutenant with all the force of a Hordemaster.

The blue glow absorbed Kwan’s thoughts until they were not his own. He began to see images. He saw great blocks of stone standing on the plains. He saw his men dying, crumpling in hopeless agony, being torn apart by the ethereal hands of fearsome wraiths. Then he was in the mountains. Snowy peaks lorded over an alpine forest. He began to hear the dream voice of the Queen and was told her name was Onja.

Kwan began to understand. Onja began to make things very clear. She summoned him and his soldiers west into the mountains, and if he did not comply, she would release her army of ghosts to kill them. There was no defense from the Deamedron, as she called them. She showed him over and over her tormented spirit slaves killing the Atrophane like a scythe against grass. She showed him the horror until Kwan regained the mental faculty to beg her to stop.

Onja commanded Kwan to let the warding crystal guide him west.

Two voices started calling his name and Kwan opened his eyes. Sandin and Jesse were leaning over him. Kwan sat up, surprised that he had been asleep. It was dark except for the light from the lantern in Jesse’s hand and the glow of the warding crystal lying next to him on his sleeping mat.

Rubbing his head, Kwan said, “I must have dropped off for a couple hours. It should be morning soon.”

“My Lord, the sun has only just gone down,” Sandin said.

“What do you mean?” Kwan demanded.

“You came in here last night, and you have been in here all day. Don’t you remember me trying to talk to you?” Sandin said. Pointing at the warding crystal, he explained, “That thing put you in a trance. It is an evil charm. My Lord, you must get rid of it.”

Kwan turned to Jesse and ordered his squire to leave.

Now in private, he tried to explain things to Sandin. “Someone lives in the mountains to the west. She communicated with me somehow through this crystal.”

“My Lord, you are talking like a priest,” Sandin complained boldly.

“I know it is strange,” Kwan whispered. “But it is true. She wants to see us.”

“She?” Sandin asked.

“Her name is…Onja.” Kwan’s mouth shaped her name slowly, trying to match the sound to the abstraction in his head.

Sandin stared at his Lord General, and Kwan realized his lieutenant thought he was crazy.  He had never seen such doubt on Sandin’s face, and he had to reassure his officer.

“I will try to explain later. Now I must rest. Prepare to move west in the morning. If we find what I think we will find, I will explain everything,” Kwan said.

“My Lord, what will we find in the west?” Sandin said.

“Nothing, I hope,” Kwan whispered and lay back down, exhausted.

“Are you sick, my Lord?” Sandin asked quietly.

“Just tired, Lieutenant.”

Sandin’s gray eyes looked from the warding crystal to the weary face of his commander. In his fifteen years of service, he could not recall speaking to his Lord General while he was prone.

“It really is magic. I never would have expected such things. But the beast picked you out as our leader and gave you that charm.” Sandin was half talking to himself, trying to organize the information, trying to believe it. “This Onja must be a sorceress, like from a myth. My Lord, we should not go to her.”

“You are not Lord General yet, and I will decide what we should do,” Kwan said sternly.

Sandin dipped his head to show his respect. His must keep his faith in his Lord General. It was Kwan’s duty to lead well and it was Sandin’s duty to serve well.

The Atrophane headed northwest and a week later they reached the standing stones. When the monoliths were still just dots in the distance, Kwan halted his force. He stared at the stones covering a broad swath of prairie from the northeast to the southwest, and they looked just like the images that had been put in his mind.

Sick inside but trying to hide it, Kwan ordered his soldiers to make camp, and he added the strict order that no one was to approach the monoliths. In the light of day the Atrophane were curious about the place and they quietly wondered why their commander wanted them to stay away. It was only stones on the land and they had combed the ruins of the city, but when night came, the soldiers stopped grumbling.

A fog rose among the stones and damp tendrils drifted up the hills to the edge of the camp. Then points of light began to flare over the stones and they intensified until a pulsing glow filled the forbidden field. 

Kwan stood on the edge of camp, facing the glow. He did not want to believe that the standing stones really contained the ghost soldiers of Onja, but his denial would require proof and he had to go look. He opened his hand and looked at the warding crystal in his palm. It shone with a fierce light tonight and he could feel heat coming through his gauntlet.

He shut his hand against the magic light and he set his other hand on the hilt of his sword. Alone he approached the fog-shrouded stones. Every step that brought him closer became more difficult than the last. Instinctive fear clutched his heart, but he forced himself onward.

Once the mist surrounded him, the choking cold of the damp filled his lungs. He passed some small stones and stopped in front of an imposing monolith. Spheres of light beyond the monolith started to move toward him, and a bright spectral shape emerged from the stone in front of him. Kwan beheld a skeleton draped in a translucent cloak and shimmering armor. Points of bloody red light burned in the eye sockets, and the spirit swiped at him hungrily with a wispy sword. Kwan drew his sword, but the thing did not advance. More spirits swarmed the area, until he was completely surrounded. Sensing their malice, Kwan whirled to face the ring of spirits with his weapon, but an unseen force seemed to hold them back.

Before Kwan even knew it, his feet were retreating. He looked over his shoulder as he walked backwards and saw the watch fires of his expeditionary force on the high ground. He turned and ran until he was free of the clinging mist. Gasping for breath, Kwan checked to see if any of the spirits pursued him, but they had remained in their place.

He paused before returning to the camp to gather his nerves. Tonight, Kwan, the conqueror of the east, had learned of terror. It left him exposed and changed. He could not risk his men against these wretched spirits. The images of his soldiers being slaughtered by them had been branded deeply on his mind. If Onja was bluffing about their violent potential, he would just have to find out later. He would have to go before this Queen Onja if he was to learn anything. This realization hit him like a bear trap sinking into his leg.

Two torches left the perimeter of camp, and Sandin arrived with two soldiers.

“We must definitely go around this place,” Kwan announced.

“Yes, my Lord,” Sandin readily concurred. “But why have you drawn your sword?”

Casually Kwan sheathed his weapon but gave no answer. He signaled to the soldiers to go back to camp.

When they were out of earshot, Sandin asked, “My Lord, is this what you thought we would find in the west?”

“Yes. I was told of this place while I was in the trance with the crystal,” Kwan said.

“What did you see in there?” Sandin asked, glancing at the disturbed mist.

“The very face of damnation,” Kwan replied. “Onja claims that these ghosts are her slaves and she will send them to kill us if we do not go to meet her.”

“Do you believe this?” Sandin asked in shock.

“I don’t know,” the Lord General confessed in a rare candid moment. “But for now, I believe we must continue west. If we turn back and her threat is real, these ghosts will hunt us down. What can the living do against the dead?” Kwan shook his head.

“But you were not harmed by them,” Sandin observed hopefully.

“This crystal must have protected me,” Kwan said.

“Curse that thing, my Lord. This magic could just be filling your head with nonsense,” Sandin argued.

“That is real,” Kwan cried, pointing to the haunted stones.

Sandin could not deny that. His skin tingled with preternatural warning just being close to the stones, but that gave him more reason to think his commander was possessed.

After so many years together, Kwan guessed the strain his lieutenant was under.

What would I think of Sandin if a crystal put him in a trance? he thought.

“Lieutenant, we have entered the Wilderness, and it seems the rules are different here. I cannot fully judge the situation until I learn more about this Onja. With no knowledge, how can I oppose her? And we came to explore. It would not make sense to run away from the first thing we encounter. This journey will not be what we are used to, but we must maintain the courage and discipline that has made the Atrophane supreme. We must present a united command as we have always done,” Kwan said.

Sandin understood what his Lord General alluded to. The lieutenant knew he had been especially argumentative and doubtful of every decision from his commander.

But I have good reasons to question him, Sandin thought stubbornly.

He was not some junior officer. He was first lieutenant to the Lord General, and it was his duty to speak his mind.

Never imagining that he could speak such faithless words to his commander, Sandin confessed, “Lord Kwan, you are possessed. How can I trust you?”

The words did not upset Kwan, and he actually respected Sandin for having the nerve to ask the awful question.

Kwan said, “Yes, this sorceress has communicated with me with her magic. But I am not possessed by her. I am Lord General Kwan of Clan Chenomet, Hordemaster to the Darmar Zemthute II. I serve only the side of Atrophane! You know I hold the life of every soldier, and officer, in the highest esteem, and I consider them in every decision.”

Hearing these words did reassure Sandin. Lord Kwan was Atrophane’s greatest military leader, a legend in his own lifetime, and his integrity was well established.

Sandin cast his eyes down and said, “My Lord, forgive my disloyal thoughts and words.”

Kwan readily accepted the apology. “Lieutenant Sandin, do not regret your actions. You were doing your job as an officer when it appeared your commander was under a foreign influence. You thought first of the men under your command, and that is never wrong. Responsible leadership has ever been the source of our glory. I do not know what is going to happen. If this Onja truly enthralls me and I betray my duties to you and Atrophane, then by all means take command and get home—if you can.”

“I pray such a thing does not happen, my Lord,” Sandin said quickly. “I wish to be Lord General someday, but not by your misfortune. You have all my faith as always, my Lord.”

Kwan laid a firm hand on Sandin’s shoulder. “I know Sandin. You have always been the most reliable,” he praised. Kwan then thought of another officer who had not kept his faith.

After allaying Sandin’s fears and reinforcing his loyalty, Kwan addressed the men, explaining that they would travel west to meet a Queen who claimed to control the land they had entered. He perceived that the news unsettled the soldiers, but in the vast solitude of the Wilderness and in sight of the Deamedron, each man realized that they depended on the cleverness of their Lord General.

The Atrophane force traveled around the haunted standing stones. When they left the Deamedron behind, Kwan felt a measure of relief to have them out of his sight even if they were uncomfortably between him and Atrophane.

Here is the adventure you wanted, old man, Kwan thought as he led his force into the Rysamand.

Two days later, as the Atrophane ascended the eastern slopes of the towering mountains, riders appeared on the top of the next ridge. Kwan halted his men and sensed the familiar ripple of anticipation run through his soldiers.

“I see about one hundred of them,” Sandin judged, after quickly scanning their silhouetted forms.

“There could be more that we cannot see,” Kwan reminded. “They have a good position on us too. We will let them make the first move, but reinforce our flanks. Those on the ridge may just be a distraction.”

Sandin galloped down the front of the force, giving orders and positioning soldiers. Kwan patiently waited front and center. The riders on the ridge made no moves while the Atrophane rearranged their forces defensively.

After the Atrophane stewed for a while, three riders began to descend the slope. The heavy white horses managed the incline with surprising ease. No longer in silhouette, the characteristics of the riders became clear to the Atrophane. Cries of surprise and shock rose from the ranks as everyone saw that these riders were not human.

The blue riders halted a short distance in front of Kwan. The highland wind moaned against the ridge and the Atrophane fell silent. Signaling for Sandin to keep his place, Kwan eased his horse forward and marveled at their strange beauty. Their blue skin and fine features were quite attractive, but Kwan found their black eyes disturbing and mysterious, although not nearly as disturbing as the Tatatook.

The blue rider in the middle of the trio had mostly white hair with only a few remaining streams of black. All of them wore beautiful green suede uniforms, but a white cloak flowed around the shoulders of the middle rider and it looked like a stubborn snowdrift in a spring meadow.

The white-cloaked rider spoke, “You are the Lord Kwan.”

Although Kwan did not understand the language, he heard his name and nodded.

“Taf Ila,” the blue rider said, pointing at himself.

Despite the language barrier, Taf Ila was good at his job and he peaceably convinced the Atrophane commander to follow him. The main force of rys kept ahead of the Atrophane, but Taf Ila rode beside Kwan in a gesture of good faith.

At night the two races camped separately, but Taf Ila and his two aides shared a fire with Kwan, making rudimentary attempts at conversation. Kwan managed to learn that they were called rys and Queen Onja was their ruler. Kwan wondered if these rys possessed magical powers like their Queen. Because Taf Ila and the others behaved very self-assured and were only lightly armed, Kwan assumed they must have some reason for their confidence.

In the morning the Atrophane entered the Jingten Valley. The lovely city beside Lake Nin excited the humans. Lord Kwan had led them across the Wilderness and the discoveries were going to be greater than hoped. To the eyes of men accustomed to conquest, the city looked wealthy and vulnerable, and for an instant, Kwan even had to check his ambition. He remembered feeling the power of Onja, and his instinct warned him that this place was not without defense. Tact and diplomacy would be his tools for now, especially when he had no idea how large the rys army might be.

The rys stopped the Atrophane force outside the city, and Taf Ila indicated that Kwan could continue with only a few companions. Kwan selected five soldiers of excellent wit and skill, but he did not choose Sandin.

“Lieutenant, you have command. If I do not return by morning, take what actions you deem appropriate,” Kwan said.

Sandin saluted but he clearly did not relish being left behind. He burned to enter the foreign city.

With understanding Kwan added, “Your duty is here, Lieutenant. I would keep you insulated from this Queen who has summoned us. Be patient, I believe you will see the city soon enough.”

Sandin nodded, seeing the wisdom in Kwan’s decision. The lieutenant watched his Lord General ride away with his small honor guard and he sincerely hoped he would return before morning.

“Jingten,” Taf Ila proudly named his city as he escorted the humans.

Kwan admired the exotic place that seemed to be a well kept place of luxury. All the buildings were large and of thoughtful design. Trimmed hedges enclosed the properties, which were surrounded by flowering gardens and ornamental trees. Crystal streetlights lined the perfect roads, where every stone of the pavement was smooth and in place. Kwan saw no lesser dwellings for servants or workers, and he guessed that Jingten might be a ceremonial city kept apart from the disparities of the rest of the world. In all of his fantasies about exploring the Wilderness, he had never envisioned such an incredible place or the rys, who seemed a race taken from some forgotten myth.

The tiered Keep rose above the city, and when the tall iron bird gates swung open on their own, Kwan knew he entered the stronghold of the magic Queen. He could almost feel her looking at him now and he could not forget the way Onja had invaded his mind from so far away.

When the door wardens opened the throne room, the glow of Onja’s inner sanctum reflected on the silver studs on their jackets. The light from the four large spheres and the dazzle of the crystal encrusted walls made Kwan squint as he left the cool shade of the corridor. The white marble floor rose into the gleaming steps of the dais and a broad throne plated in gold commanded the room.

Bowing deeply, Taf Ila presented the humans to his Queen, but Kwan could not hear the rys speak. He had no perception beyond seeing Onja. She was easily the most incredible being the Lord General had ever seen. A simple black gown trimmed with sable fur covered the Queen. A netlike headdress of diamonds covered her pure white hair, surrounding her blue face in the light of a thousand rainbow facets. Kwan almost gaped at the sight of her jewels. Her headdress alone rivaled most fortunes, making him realize that Onja was unbelievably wealthy.

Onja allowed Kwan to study her, enjoying his awe. She had specifically worn her most spectacular diamond ensemble to impress upon him the magnitude of her rule.

“Queen Onja is pleased that you have come.”

The words roused Kwan from his viewing of the rys monarch and he looked to see who had spoken. The language had not been Atrophaney, but was somewhat familiar. It sounded like a dialect of the language used in the recently conquered lands bordering the Wilderness. His eyes found the figure of a small human girl seated two steps below the Queen. Her dark eyes regarded him calmly.

Kwan asked the men with him if any of them had understood the girl. One told him what the girl had said, adding that he had a fairly competent grasp of that language.

Probably just enough to pick up a wench, Kwan thought sourly, knowing that this was the moment when Dreibrand Veta would have served him best.

“Say that I am Lord Kwan and I have come as the Queen has asked,” Kwan instructed.

Hesitantly the soldier interpreted. The little girl translated for the Queen, and Kwan began to wonder where the rys had obtained the human child. He disliked communicating in a language foreign to both parties.

Onja spoke to the girl, who said, “Does Lord Kwan know that he intruded lands forbidden to all?”

When Kwan heard the question, he responded, “We are exploring. The Wilderness is an empty land without marker or warning.”

The Queen spoke again through the child’s voice. “Death is the punishment for all who enter the Wilderness.”

Kwan protested, “We did not know we intruded on land claimed by another.”

The soldier interpreted the response quickly this time.

Again in the rys tongue Onja spoke to the girl. She had carefully rehearsed each question and response with Elendra and the girl’s performance was pleasing her.

Elendra said, “If you believed the land did not belong to anyone, why do you bring an army?”

Kwan answered, “We did not know what we would encounter on our exploration. It is only a small force, meant for protection.”

As soon as the soldier managed an interpretation of the explanation, Onja spoke in the language used by the girl.

“You would make trouble where you found none!” the Queen accused, her voice ringing with power.

It was a sly accusation and inwardly Kwan smiled. Onja had faked her ignorance of the language and then revealed her feint, allowing him to see her devious nature. Now he would always have to wonder how much she knew.

“We have made no trouble,” Kwan said with diplomatic innocence.

Onja did not need the interpretation to catch the meaning of his words. Relaxing into her throne, Onja judged the human to be cunning and proud but willing to the pay the prices necessary for survival.

“Elendra,” Onja said sweetly. “You may go now. You have served me well.”

Elendra stood and bowed to her Queen. Scampering down the steps, she flashed a curious look at Kwan. Onja watched the girl leave, letting her adoration of the child distract her.

When her attention returned to Kwan, she stated coldly, “Entering my Wilderness results in death.”

“Then why have you not killed us?” Kwan asked boldly. The soldier disliked passing along the question.

Onja explained, “The death sentence has been delayed because I require a service of you. Serving me shall be the price for your lives.”

The scar on Kwan’s face rippled with restrained anger. Atrophane did not serve others. Atrophane served Atrophane.

Maintaining his pride, Kwan said, “Do we appear to you as mercenaries?”

Onja scowled at the impudent question. The day you learn not to be argumentative will soon come…but not today, she thought.

“I have mercenaries at my disposal. You are volunteers. I spared your lives from the Deamedron because I may have a use for an extra army. Jingten may require a defense in the spring, and defending the city will be the payment for my mercy. Until then, you and your men will be sheltered and provided for. I believe my proposal is more than fair,” Onja said.

Listening to the interpretation, Kwan wrinkled his brow thoughtfully. He had not expected her to ask them to defend the city, but it did mean something actually threatened this sorceress. This would be worth learning about.

Kwan said, “Queen Onja, you said Jingten may require a defense. You are not sure?”

Onja shifted her eyes uncomfortably, hating that she had not come across as omnipotent. Her words had been too precise and miraculously not lost in the translation.

“The threat to Jingten is being dealt with as we speak. Your army is a back up defense,” she answered.

“If Jingten is never attacked, will we be held here indefinitely?” Kwan asked.

These easterners! How I shall enjoy teaching them unquestioning obedience, Onja thought.

To Kwan’s tentative relief, she replied, “If I do not require the help of your soldiers, I will send you home. You shall escort an ambassador of the rys to your capital. I wish to establish relations with your leader and learn about the east.”

Although encouraged that she actually said they could leave, Kwan doubted her friendliness toward Atrophane. He worried that his expedition had opened an accursed tomb.

With no options at the moment but much to think about, Lord Kwan politely bowed to his demanding hostess and said, “We shall do as you ask, Queen Onja.”

Fully aware that his agreement lacked sincerity, Onja decided to devise a fitting demonstration of her authority to reinforce his commitment when he required it.

“Excellent,” Onja proclaimed. “You and your force shall camp in the forest for now. Shelter will be arranged before the snows come. Barracks for your men, and proper lodgings for you and your officers.”

Onja waved a hand imperiously, indicating that the meeting was concluded. Taf Ila promptly escorted the Atrophane from her presence. While leaving the Keep, one thought crowded out all others in Kwan’s mind. Who or what was the enemy of Queen Onja?

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