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1] Tarrant Struggled
2] Serpent Orb
3] The Founding of a Clan
4] Dragon Law
5] The Coming of the Wolf
6] Yukio's Time
7] Strangers Visit
8] Meeting of Clans
9] Blackbone's Trust
10] Lord Hideo's War
11] Whispers of War
12] A Hero Returns
Chapter 11: Whispers of War

After the funeral rites had been completed, Oja went for a long ride and mentally reviewed his situation. At the time of his father’s death, Lord Oja came of age in a complex world his predecessors had never had to face. In theory he was the most powerful man in the realm, with Lord Zymeth of the Lotus Clan as his advisor. The Wolf Clan was enslaved, and as far as he knew, had no chief at all. However, to his credit Oja understood that the situation was more complex than this. The Lotus Clan leader was too clever by half, and obviously more ambitious than he would like to admit. Likewise, the Wolf Clan was far from subdued the small riots and uprisings that broke out every few months testified to this.

As Oja grew up he had been trained in the arts of statecraft and war, both personal combat and the command of armies, and he suspected that one day he would need all his abilities. He was not wrong the other two clan leaders were not idle on that day.

Far to the northwest, Lord Zymeth stood on the lip of the High Plateau, gazing south over the patchwork of fields and forests that covered the fertile land, as the wind blew through his long, white hair. For three generations he had served the Serpent Clan chiefs as friend and advisor. To all the world he appeared to be their subordinate, the faithful adviser first to Yukio, then Hideo, now to this young Lord Oja. So he played a double game, pretending to serve lesser men, while he maintained his own status as leader of his own clan, the Lotus.

Leading the Lotus required mastery of their Byzantine hierarchy and endless maneuvering, playing the other master warlocks against each other, edging out the heads of the different colleges, repeatedly asserting and proving that his was the highest mastery and the strongest will. The Lotus Clan had many master sorcerers to contend with, some of them older than himself Koril of the College of Space had centuries, as did Issyl of the College of Time (though currently he appeared to be a nasty child of eleven).

Zymeth knew as he stood there that he could not continue this way indefinitely. Now that the Wolf Clan was under control it was time to make a forceful move, to take advantage of the Serpent Clan's trust he had so carefully built up.

(But even Lord Zymeth did not know everything that was happening in the land. There was a third man who was also watching, waiting, and planning. Far to the Northwest, the man who would one day lead the Wolf Clan labored in the shale mines, swallowing his anger as he waited for some moment of weakness or confusion in his enemies. As he waited he trained his clan, letting the daily work digging tunnels and breaking stone make them stronger and more skillful. But it was not yet time for the Wolf Clan to rise again...)

Only eight days after Lord Hideo’s death, Lord Zymeth made his proposal to Lord Oja, he began by playing on Oja's youth and ambition. He flattered him, assuring him that the Serpent Clan was larger and stronger than the Dragon Clan had ever been. Surely, a capable young man like Lord Oja would want to make his name immortal, become a greater Lord even than Tarrant the Elder who had saved them all from destruction. Then Zymeth revealed his idea: the master warlocks of the Lotus Clan had drawn up plans for a fleet of magical ships, which could bear them safely over the lethal currents and eddies of the Channel. Once on the other side, Serpent Clan soldiers could finally engage and destroy the Horde, if it even still existed. Under Lord Oja's generalship, the menace that had driven them from their ancient home would finally be defeated.

It was too much for such a young leader to resist. Lord Oja gave the orders, and construction began. Wolf Clan laborers were immediately set to work cutting timber and building a shipyard on the northeastern coast, under Lotus supervision. The Wolf Clan were the only Clan to have a real tradition of shipbuilding although the Lotus Clan had also arrived by ship, those were little more than desperately improvised platforms, two-thirds magic, constructed at great cost. In any case the Lotus were too scholarly and dignified to cut wood and warp planks that could be left to the brute laborers.

The ships were not ordinary ships, however, and the plans provided by the Lotus warlocks were unlike any the Wolf Clan laborers had seen before. The ships they were building were obviously seaworthy, but they sported certain...modifications no one fully understood, and which the Lotus Clan did not explain.

Most obvious was the lack of either sails or oars. As the Lotus men explained, the ships would be propelled by magical means alone, a spell laid into each of the ships as soon as it was near completion. The second feature was that each of the ships was built to contain, at its center, a large object roughly the size of a barrel, which would be enormously heavy, to judge by the reinforcing timbers called for in the plans.

Construction continued for two years, while uneasy relations between the three Clans continued, and skeletal ships began to take place in the coastal shipyards. Strange ships built in an alien style, with elongated hulls and delicate woodwork compared to the stout Wolf Clan traditions. Only then did Lotus warlocks arrive and begin to take charge of certain aspects of the shipbuilding.

Runes were laid into the keels and main timbers of each craft, first carved into the wood and then inlaid with a silvery metal brought down in carts from the High Plateau. At night the warlocks would return and carry out some further inscription or treatment, which outsiders were not allowed to see.

A month after the spellcasting began, more wagons arrived from the plateau, bearing a dozen sealed trunks that the men handled with the utmost delicacy. The following day, one of these was carried to the ship farthest along in construction, and opened to reveal for the first time the heart of the warships of the Great Fleet. It appeared to be a violet gem of monstrous size, carved in many facets. Some who looked too long into it spoke of a darkness glimpsed in the translucent depths of the thing, even under the bright sun at noon. None were allowed to touch the thing they lowered it with chains and straps to fit into the hollow at the center of the craft, a space now lined with ornate runes, and padded clamps of the same silvery metal, into which the monstrous gem fit precisely. Over the next week, each of the twelve ships was fitted with its own gem in the same manner.

Warlocks and master warlocks now came and went throughout the shipyard, and labor intensified. Each day, some magical ritual would take place or some inscription would be added to a ship in progress, a complex binding focused on both the gem and on a small platform affixed to the stern of each ship where the captain would stand. Lean, white-haired men in robes would stand chanting or debating with one another about the occult nuances involved.

At the same time, however, something began to go wrong in the worker camps. There was some kind of plague or problem among the Wolf Clan laborers. It began with a general weakness, and a complaint that everything seemed to “smell wrong.” Disturbingly, it would surface among groups of workers who had done work on the same ship on a given day. In a few cases it would pass off, but most of the time it would grow progressively worse, until the afflicted would be unable to work or even stand. The worst cases were among those who had dealt closely with the gems themselves. There was a story going around that a worker had actually slipped and touched the surface of one of the great gems, and died instantly. In seconds his body become dust and simply dispersed.

At this stage, the Lotus overseers would transfer them to special camps set up at a distance from the main shipyards, and new workers would be brought in from the mines to replace them. There were complaints, of course. An emissary from the Wolf Clan even reached Lord Oja himself, to beg for help, some investigation, a cleansing of the camps. But he met with no sympathy. Such outbreaks were common, especially among groups of workers living in close quarters. Construction continued apace.

Three months after the first sickness was reported, however, one of the diseased workers returned from the camp. He had escaped and staggered the two miles back to the main worker barracks. He had been a tall man of legendary strength, but not even his close friends recognized him at first. He told a horrifying tale of what was happening. The workers who had been transferred away, he said, were not getting better, nor did the guards there even seek to treat them. The diseased men simply wasted away in their beds, without ever developing more specific symptoms. On death, their bodies were simply mummified husks.

"They bring us there to die. It is not a disease at all, my friends, it is Lotus magic. It is these black sorcerous ships themselves. Somehow they are killing us. Look at them!” He pointed back towards the shipyards, and even at this distance they could all see the faint purple glow emitted by the gems at night.

Panic spread. The men of the Wolf Clan had never been slow to action, and panic swiftly became rage. Workers seized axes, hammers, even slabs of wood, and stormed the guard barracks in a confused, chaotic mass. The response from the Serpent and Lotus Clan guards was quick and lethal, as they had been prepared for just this kind of undisciplined mob. However, ultimately the confusion served the rioting workers well. A fire broke out, and men were diverted to keep it from reaching the ships.

Amid all this, a few Wolf Clansmen escaped into the mountains, and ultimately were able to carry word to their brothers in the mines, that the Lotus policy of enslavement had become one of genocide. Four days later, listening to the panting messenger telling the story in whispers in the back of a squalid barracks, Grayback nodded in comprehension. If they wished to free themselves, they would have to do it, not years from now, but in the next few months.

Grayback was not the only one with informants in the shipyards. There were many ears present there, some of them loyal to the Serpent as well as the Wolf. Lord Oja heard the story as well, and understood something of what had happened.

He had never trusted the Lotus as his father once had. The terrible life-draining effect the Wolf Clansman had described was one of the hallmarks of Lotus magic. He saw a frightening possibility opening up before him. Lord Oja had planned to put his whole military strength aboard that fleet to sail north, all the Serpent Clan's armies, where they would inevitably have been claimed by the ship's horrible cargo. With those lost, and the Lotus Clan free of the corruption they had sent out to sea, nothing would stop Lord Zymeth from dominating the entire continent. Only a day later a Lotus Clan messenger brought word of minor setbacks in construction, but made no mention of the true nature of the disaster. Lord Oja pondered, and the more he thought, the less happy he became.

Neither the Serpent nor the Lotus Clans were prepared for war. In the long peacetime, borders had been left unwatched and undefended. Over the next few days, moving swiftly Lord Oja contacted the lesser lords and had them put men in place at the borders, repair their walls and guard towers, and prepare themselves for what could be a prolonged, desperate conflict. He didn't want a war, but he had to be ready to defend against a more direct assault.

Chapter 12: A Hero Returns