Nufal was broken and dying but Dacian did not revel in his victory. A madness struck the King of Jingten and he cursed his own genius that won the war. He commanded our agents to put their weapons in the water, and when they did not want to, he made them obey with his magic—Urlen, Kezanada chronicler, year six of Amar’s Overlordship.

When the Atrophane heard that the rys Queen commanded them to stay in Jingten until spring, their impulse was to rush into the open city and conquer it. Kwan longed to do the same, but he would not allow it. More needed to be known about rys powers before attempting aggression. The Lord General ordered his men to be patient and observe the enemy.

Life remained pleasant for the humans, and the Jingten Valley grew more beautiful every day as the golden hues of autumn mingled with the deep green conifers. Although the Atrophane still camped in the forest, the rys supplied them well and were gradually outfitting some unused buildings for their housing.

Even a month after meeting the intimidating Queen Onja, Kwan still found the gathering of information about the rys to be painfully slow. His greatest obstacle was the language and he prioritized learning it and bade all of his men to pursue this interest. Unfortunately, the rys appeared to take little outward interest in the humans and they were openly snobby, rarely attempting to speak with them.

However, Taf Ila visited the camp daily and Kwan sought to learn from him. The rys captain showed little desire to oblige Kwan, but the Lord General wore him down with persistence, following the captain and asking incessant questions.

Because Onja had not forbidden it, Taf Ila finally began teaching Kwan in brief daily lessons. Giving the human some time each day was far better than suffering his constant badgering in a foreign language.

At first, progress was slow for Kwan. For a lifetime he had spoken only his native language. The conquered could learn to speak Atrophaney as far as he had been concerned, but now necessity motivated Kwan and he practiced diligently.

Learning the rys language from Taf Ila’s uninspired tutoring might have proved impossible for Kwan, but then the rys began to enjoy his daily sessions with Kwan and they became longer and more detailed. In all his centuries of life, Taf Ila had dealt with many humans on an official basis but he had never interacted with one on such a personal level before. His time with the human increasingly pleased him and Taf Ila grew to appreciate the other race, enjoying the differences and being surprised by the similarities.

Yet, Taf Ila disliked the presence of the humans because they reminded him of the changing times. He knew Queen Onja plotted to dominate Kwan’s homeland and in the mean time use his army in the coming war with Shan.

This war with Shan troubled Taf Ila most of all. The news from the lowlands was never good these days and getting worse.

Keeping his worries to himself, Taf Ila continued teaching Kwan. One afternoon during a lesson, they sat on a hillside overlooking Jingten. The humans would be moved into the city that night, but until then Taf Ila wished to enjoy the fine day out of the city. Pointing to the surrounding peaks, the rys told Kwan their names, obviously pleased to describe his homeland. Attentively Kwan listened. All knowledge of this strange land was good.

Abruptly Taf Ila halted his lecture and turned toward the trail that zigzagged up the hill. His relaxed and happy demeanor faded as he sensed his daughter approaching. He jumped up and marched down the trail.

Wondering what had disturbed his teacher, Kwan followed and saw a rys female scrambling up the slope.

“Hello Father!”

Kwan understood the greeting, but Taf Ila had never mentioned he had a family. Although rys did not show their age much, Kwan judged the female to be youthful. He thought she was lovely with fine sharp features and pure black hair, glistening like spun onyx. The tone Taf Ila used with the fair child surprised Kwan.

“Why are you here?” Taf Ila barked. “I told you not to come near the humans, and now you have just crossed their encampment.”

Quylan started to explain herself but her father interrupted.

“You have directly disobeyed me,” Taf Ila accused. I was having such a good day, he lamented.

“But I have a reason!” she blurted. “The Kezanada Overlord approaches.”

Looking at the west road in the valley below, Taf Ila said, “How do you know this?”

Quylan straightened her shoulders proudly and replied, “I perceived them. They are still many hasas away but I can see farther than most rys. No one else in the city has noticed their approach—”

“Stop bragging,” Taf Ila cut her off although her rapidly maturing powers impressed him. He knew his daughter could see even outside the Rysamand. “I assure you Queen Onja took note of them long before you did.”

Quylan frowned at the reminder but continued, “Father, I had to find you. Please let me come with you to the Keep when the Kezanada arrive. I must hear their news. Too many warding crystals protect the throne room and I will not be able to listen to the Overlord’s meeting with the Queen.”

Taf Ila gasped at his daughter’s words. He wanted to grab her and shake her, but he would never treat her roughly. His voice shook with emotion when he ordered, “Do not ever spy on Onja! Where do you even get such ideas? Quylan, do you think your silly young mind could elude the Queen? Onja would perceive you in a second.”

“Then take me with you, Father. Then I will have no need to spy,” she pleaded.

Sorry for his anger, Taf Ila said softly, “Do not concern yourself with such things. It is only the Kezanada tribute caravan.”

“But they are early!” Quylan insisted. Tribute caravans were never early.

Taf Ila shrugged. “The Kezanada are wealthy. They do not care when they pay.”

“But they must have news of Shan. Something must have happened,” Quylan said, revealing her true concern.

“Who are Kezanada?” Kwan interjected. Although he had not gathered why Taf Ila was upset with his daughter, Kwan did understand that a group called Kezanada approached the city.

Taf Ila had almost forgotten that Kwan waited nearby. He tried to explain, “They are…mercenaries. A society who sell their services.”

“They Onja’s enemy? Attack Jingten?” Kwan asked, almost hoping to see some action and maybe free himself of Onja before winter.

“No. They are no threat. They are paying their taxes,” Taf Ila said.

Disappointed, Kwan wondered what this society of mercenaries was like and why they paid taxes.

“Are Kezanada rys?” he asked.

Such a notion offended Taf Ila but he reminded himself that Kwan asked only out of genuine ignorance. “Humans,” he answered bluntly.

Since Kwan had spoken, Quylan had been staring at the human from the east.

“He does not look like the other humans,” she whispered.

“The humans from the east look different, but they are still humans,” Taf Ila explained quietly.

Kwan decided to introduce himself because they were talking about him. “Lord Kwan of Atrophane. Hello, daughter of Taf Ila.” He bowed politely.

His manners impressed Quylan. A human had never addressed her before and the encounter fascinated her. Taf Ila put a protective arm around his daughter and pulled her close. Normally he would not have introduced her to a human, but he felt the impulse to extend Kwan this courtesy.

“This is Quylan,” he said.

Kwan made an effort to recall some new vocabulary and managed to compliment, “She make you proud.”

With an exasperated smile Taf Ila admitted, “She makes me lose sleep.”

“Daughters,” Kwan laughed. “I have two girls.” He realized he had not thought about them for a long time.

“Then you will understand that you must excuse me. I have to take this daughter home,” Taf Ila said.

“Father, I want to go to the Keep,” she protested.

Taf Ila gently insisted, “I shall take you home, but I will tell you any news as soon as I can.”

Quylan had to accept her father’s decision but she pouted with disappointment.

“I hope Shan still lives,” she said.

Taf Ila winced. “Stop talking about Shan,” he ordered. “Lord Kwan, I will send rys to see you and your men to your new quarters tonight. I may not be available, but if you have any problems, send word to me at the Keep.”

Kwan nodded and thanked him. He wanted to ask more questions, but Taf Ila hurried away with his stunning daughter.

Now who is this Shan? Kwan thought.

~

Onja settled into her throne, excited to receive the Kezanada Overlord. Since the rysmavda executions in Dengar Nor, she had not observed the lowlands and she was looking forward to good news from the Overlord. The audacity of Shan’s tactics had angered her so terribly that she had stopped watching. His strategy would lose its effectiveness on her if she ignored it. If she did not see what was meant to frustrate her and advertise her reduced range of power, she would not suffer from the mental toll Shan wished to take from her mind.

The lives of a few priests were insignificant, and Onja had placed her hope in the Kezanada. She knew they had been massing for a strike against Shan and today Onja dared to think that they had been successful.

So pleased by the thought that the Kezanada had completed their assignment, Onja did not probe the mind of the approaching Overlord for confirmation. If Shan was dead, she wanted to experience the moment of delight without forewarning. Onja had even devised a special spell of preservation for Shan’s head to keep the trophy fresh and glorious.

The great doors opposite the Queen parted, admitting the Overlord and his entourage. The Overlord strode across the cool marble with the confidence of a very powerful man. He was a man of large build with a hefty girth and huge arms bulging with muscle. One long braid hung down his back, ending in a clasp set with a large ruby. A gold trimmed black mask covered half of his face because it was traditional for Kezanada to conceal their identities from people outside their society. His dark eyes peered through the mask with a cunning gleam. He possessed a creative and cruel intelligence that was sometimes subdued by the various things he put in his pipe. But today his mind was sharp and clear, as it always was when he met with Onja.

A jeweled belt held a scimitar to his waist and his mighty frame was clothed in richly embroidered robes that were trimmed with brightly dyed furs. His apparel conveyed a sense of excessive wealth more than taste, but the Overlord did not care if Onja saw how rich the Kezanada were. Most of the wealthy and powerful segments of society hired the Kezanada occasionally, and Onja often employed the Kezanada as agents of her malice. This gave the Kezanada the distinction of actually earning more from Onja than they paid in tribute. As the Overlord often liked to note, the rys so hated getting their hands dirty.

Onja clawed the armrests of her throne as she anticipated the news she wanted to hear. The Overlord stopped before her dais and kneeled, as did the rows of Kezanada behind him, who all looked the same in their horsetailed helmets with their visors down. Unmasked servants with shaved heads carried a large chest to the front of the throne room, stopping beside the Overlord.

Normally Onja would speak first, but she remained strangely silent. With his knees beginning to ache under his weight, the Overlord decided to proceed. Rising, he stepped over to the chest, and with a flourish, he flung it open. Gold, silver, jewels, curious rare crystals, chunks of uncut jade, and lovely figurines carved from alabaster and studded with lapis lazuli filled the chest.

The Overlord was fluent in the rys language, which was rare for humans, and he began his speech. “The Kezanada respectfully present their Goddess Queen, fair mistress of Jingten, with the finest prizes we have to offer from a year’s labor. Along with this magnificent chest of treasure, the Kezanada have brought cattle, grain, fine furs, and many items that will please the citizens of Jingten.”

With a sick expression Onja stared at the chest, curling her lips with displeasure. It was just the Kezanada’s usual tribute and the Overlord was giving his same old boring speech. The twinkle of treasure had never looked so dull to Onja. Somehow, Shan had robbed her of even this pleasure.

“Stop!” she thundered.

The Overlord obeyed and crossed his arms patiently. He had been waiting for the outburst.

“You were to bring me Shan’s head. I said you were excused this year’s tribute as downpayment for your service. Why are you here with your junk? Why do you not hunt Shan?” Onja demanded ominously.

The Overlord withstood her angry glare and explained, “The Kezanada have lost a hundred good men pursuing Shan. Great Queen Onja, we are only humans, and we cannot get near the powerful rys, who has so offended you. Shan knows where we are before we know where he is.”

Scowling, Onja said, “How could you have lost one hundred Kezanada?”

The Overlord felt his blood pressure surge. The news of the massacre in the Nolesh was still fresh and upsetting. Outwardly he maintained his trademark calm, answering, “I had massed a force in the Temu Domain to fall upon Shan when he left Dengar Nor. Then my people found this force all dead without any sign of battle, without so much as a wound. I can only conclude that Shan killed them with his magic.”

Onja frowned, scolding herself for not monitoring Shan, but she had hoped to avoid the exertion. And she had not expected Shan to do such things.

So, Shan finally used his superior powers to kill his precious humans, Onja thought with wicked satisfaction.

Despite the pleasure Onja gained from knowing how Shan must have been morally tormented by this action, she acknowledged his advanced use of power. Now more than ever, Onja knew she could not allow Shan to return to Jingten.

“So the Kezanada have given up,” Onja criticized.

The Overlord tolerated the sting in her words, but he had a purpose to his patience. “The Kezanada have already suffered their worst defeat in many generations and did not even engage the target. With such losses, we do not profit. The Kezanada have decided it would be worth it just to pay the tribute.”

“Since when can the Kezanada not be bought? Do you not want your revenge?” Onja stormed. She could not imagine that Shan had subdued the notorious Kezanada.

At the mention of revenge a subtle smile curved under the fringe of the Overlord’s mask. “Oh, the Kezanada desire Shan’s head,” he hissed.

“Then why are you here?” the Queen demanded again.

“We require your assistance, Great Queen,” he replied.

Onja glanced uncomfortably toward the attending Taf Ila, remembering his opinion of the bounty on Shan. She knew many rys would disapprove of her increased participation in the hunt for Shan. Onja had no fear of her subjects’ disfavor, but she did not want the distraction of a disgruntled citizenry either.

“Taf Ila, take your squad and leave,” she ordered.

For an instant Taf Ila almost protested the breach of security, but he caught his tongue. Onja and her mercenaries were discussing Shan, and he did not want to be involved. Without a word, he marched out with the guards.

This privacy made the Overlord wonder if he should be worried or impressed. Either way Onja certainly meant to talk seriously.

“What assistance do you have in mind?” Onja asked.

Containing his excitement, the Overlord said, “Give us some magic charm that will protect us from Shan so that we can approach him. Surely you must have such a thing.”

Onja did not answer. Although her face appeared inscrutable, the Overlord could guess that she had something on her mind, something important, something she did not want to tell him about.

Slowly the Queen made her reluctant decision and nodded. “I believe I have some items that will help you. Overlord of the Kezanada, meet me again tomorrow and I will give you that which you ask for.”

The Overlord bowed graciously to Onja and kept his thoughts buried.

Late that night, Hefshul ferried his Queen across the blackened lake. A cold wind howled down from the peaks and the old mute rys had to strain against the waves. Hefshul had long ago given up any concern for Onja’s activities, but his silent thoughts guessed the nature of her errand.

With the skiff rocking against the gravel shore in front of the Tomb of Dacian, Hefshul hunkered down into his fleece coat and watched Onja go ashore. The darkness was briefly broken by the blue sparkle of the Queen opening the magically sealed tower.

Places in the tower had not been entered since the days of warring with Nufal. On the day when Dacian had made his Last Law, the rys had thrown their enchanted weapons into Lake Nin, but Onja had stowed a few arms in the tower and she went to her ancient armory.

Onja removed the seal that she had placed on the armory door twenty-two centuries ago, and the air hissed out, delighting in its escape. Now secrets locked in forgotten silence could get out. A crystal mounted in the wall glowed in her powerful presence, revealing the few weapons that remained on the racks.

Onja remembered when the tower had bustled with activity and the armory had almost been cluttered with fine tools of war. Then she recalled the sickening day when the rys and humans had followed Dacian’s folly and hurled their weapons into the water.  Incredible masterworks of enchanted weapons had sunk into the lake that day, returning their magic to the deep secret waters of the Rysamand. No artisans today possessed the knowledge to remake that which had been thrown away.

But Onja had not let the fools get them all.

She hated to risk her precious collection out in the world in such uneducated hands, and she would not loan out every piece. Humans had not had such weapons to use since the defeat of Nufal, and Shan would not be prepared for this threat that he did not know existed. The enchanted weapons had been crafted specifically for the humans who had served their rys masters on the battlefield.

Delicately Onja plucked a quarrel from the shelf and she stared at the crystal tip of the arrow. Holding the sparkling point near her face, she shuddered as she felt the terrible power within. If this quarrel pierced rys flesh, the crystal tip would deliver a painful and lethal spell.

Only a small stock of the potent quarrels remained and she took these along with two crossbows. Onja gathered six swords with twinkling crystals set in the hilt. She removed her flowing cape and wrapped the weapons into an awkward bundle. When she returned to the skiff with her heavy burden, Hefshul eyed her package. From his vague emotion she sensed his disapproval.

“Row!” she snarled and Hefshul obeyed lazily.

Clutching her dark bundle, Onja wondered why her rys did not appreciate her efforts. She had made the rys of Jingten wealthy, respected, and the supreme race in the entire world, yet they balked when she had to put down one renegade.

The Kezanada Overlord received his summons early the next morning and he hurried to the throne room. Onja was alone and when he kneeled before her, he saw the bundle at the base of the dais.

“Rise and look inside,” Onja bade him.

Eagerly, despite fearing a trick, the Overlord unwrapped the cape and beheld the fine sharp weapons engraved with rys script and embedded with crystals. Reverently he grasped a sword and raised the perfect blade before his masked face. No agent of time could mar the enchanted blade that made the light quiver painfully on its sharp edges.

The history of the Kezanada stretched back even to the Age of Dacian and the fragile lore books had hinted at the existence of the enchanted weapons. When the rys had warred with Nufal, they had crafted arms that would protect them and their human allies from killing spells on the battlefield. The Overlord had hoped that Onja still possessed such things and he could barely suppress his triumphant joy to have the charmed sword in his hand. Onja had to be desperate to let him use this treasure, but he banished that line of reasoning. Even a thought was perilous in the court of Jingten.

“Shan will not be able to sense the warriors who carry these weapons. The enchantments on them will hide their bearers from Shan’s powers of perception and his spells. With these you should be able to arrange an ambush,” Onja explained. “Consider these weapons a loan. Do NOT lose them, and do not fail this time.”

“The Kezanada are honored to use your great treasures, Queen Onja,” the Overlord said solemnly.

Onja continued, “Leave your tribute as a deposit on the weapons. Bring me Shan’s head and my original offer stands. Begone from Jingten, Overlord. Every day Shan lives offends me.”

“He offends the Kezanada as well,” the Overlord agreed while wrapping the weapons.

Bowing deeply, he hoisted the enchanted bundle in his mighty arms. He would lead this mission himself and he needed his seven finest Kezanada to raise these magic weapons at his side. As he departed, his mind was already going over a list of candidates.

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