Witness the mighty and terrible face of war in a world of magic!

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The Military Threat
An entire army marches for Gate Pass, and
the people of the city fear that they will not be
able to resist the might of the Ragesian military.
The city leaders are bowing under pressure
and have barred exit from the city, intending
to welcome the Inquisitors that come with the
army in the foolish hope that the Ragesians
will reward their cooperation with mercy.
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The Scourge
By now, every magic-user in Gate Pass
knows of the Scourge. The Emperor of
Ragesia died barely a month ago, and a witch
named Leska has moved to cement herself as
the next emperor of Ragesia. Leska, leader
of the Ragesian Inquisitors, has decreed that
all disloyal users of arcane magic are to be
tracked down and killed to prevent future
threats to the empire. The Inquisitors, clerics
specialized in countermagic, travel with
military escorts to the borders of Ragesia.
Their first target is Gate Pass, its neutrality
long viewed as an insult to the nation’s honor.
Those who resist them will have to face the
searing power of the Ragesian Empire.
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December
Snowflakes fell fast that New Year’s Eve,
too fast, racing at the earth like falling stars.
Watching it come down like that, it was easy
to believe what they were saying in the east,
that such a punishing winter had to be the
retribution of an angry god.
Washing a glass, Viv Finner looked out the
window of her closed-down, boarded-up pub
and saw the snow still piling in the streets. It
would be a long walk to her brother’s house
tonight, she decided, so she had better hurry.
The Poison Apple Pub was a dive, but a
popular one. A shabby, low-class establishment
in one of the poorer districts a mile from the
West Gate, it had a coterie of devoted regulars
and reputation for not watering down the
drinks.
Everyone knew the man who owned the
place, Trehan Finner, was a magus. They knew
it as much from the twinkle in his eye and his
perpetual smirk as they did from the fact that
he could put a rowdy customer to sleep with
a handful of dust. But no one seemed to mind.
Most Gate Passers didn’t trust magi as a group,
but just about everybody who knew Trehan
Finner liked him.
When the City Council announced they
hoped to appease the approaching army
by handing all of the town’s users of magic
over to the Ragesian Inquisitors — the
ruthless magus hunters known locally as
the Scourge — in order to spare the town
conquest by the Ragesian army, few people
complained. But when the city guard came
for Finner, the pub’s regulars were in an
uproar. All over the district, everyone who
knew the man could be heard loudly decrying
the unfairness of it all.
Everyone, that is, except Trehan’s wife.
Viv Finner did not cry when she found out
her husband had been taken, nor did she panic.
Instead, she quietly bundled up her children
and took them to her sister-in-law. She told
her eldest to be brave, and to take care of his
brother, and told both her sons she might
not see them for a little while. That done, the
suddenly husbandless mother of two headed
down the Emelk Way to the Chapel of the
Aquiline Cross. She walked right up to the
curate, announced she knew the Chapel was
a Resistance safe-house, and asked how she
could go about joining.
After hours of Viv’s refusals to leave or
take no for an answer, the curate, a Knight of
the Aquiline Cross named Buron Watcher,
finally said that if she really wanted to help the
Resistance, they did need a private place to
meet a contact. Viv already knew Torrent, who
was an occasional patron of the Poison Apple,
and she volunteered her pub for the meeting.
But if the priest had hoped that contributing her
family’s place of business for the night would
be enough to satisfy Viv, he was disappointed.
On the way out of the temple, she stopped and
said, “After the meeting, I’ll be back for another
mission.”
Though her pub was closed, she had taken
the meeting so seriously that she’d gone back
and cleaned it up until it was as nice as it had
been the day she and her husband bought it.
Every glass was polished, every corner swept,
even the rags were washed and bleached. Viv
imagined brave fighters of the Resistance
coming here, making plans to fight back against
the monsters who had taken her husband away.
Such champions, she had determined, would
get the best of everything if she could help it.
Finishing the glasses, Viv stole a glance at the
melting candle she had lit when she’d started
and realized how late it was. Time for her to
get going. She planned to be long gone before
Torrent arrived. She bundled herself up against
the cold, lit a lantern, blew out her candle, and
let herself out the back door.
On the way out, she paused and looked
around the lantern-lit interior of the pub. Had
she done everything? Was it all be suitable?
Then she remembered what kind of place it
was. It was local watering hole; not much to look
at, but tended with love by its owners and loved
equally by its regulars. People came here to
laugh, to cry, to recollect, to tell ludicrous stories
to old friends and hear their approbations or
derision. They didn’t come because the wood
was polished, they came to drink with people
they liked and trusted and share with them the
joys and woes of being alive.
It was, she decided — as she locked the
door and vanished into the snow — a perfect
meeting-place for heroes.
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November (Part 5)
Magdus couldn’t sleep. It wasn’t just the
turmoil in the heavens, he knew. He was a lifelong
soldier, hardened by decades of warring,
yet he often found himself sleepless the night
after a battle. The images of slaughter in his
memory needed time to fade, and until then
they haunted his mind’s eye like fever-dreams.
He had not attempted to purge himself of this
frailty. He thought, perhaps, it made him better
at his job.
He threw on a tunic and his boots, and
grabbed his cloak on the way out of his tent. His
walk through the camp was punctuated with
crisp salutes and the occasional “Sir.” Troubled
as his mind was, he tried to return them all.
The general jogged up a pebble-strewn path
up the side of the canyon to a look-out point.
No bodyguards accompanied him, though the
men stationed outside his tent had reported his
sudden departure to their officers, who noted it
but bade them only to sit out the remainder of
their watches. Their general was a private man,
and they’d grown accustomed to his frequent
need for solitude. They did not worry for his
safety. After all, Sindaire had been conquered.
At the top of the rise, Magdus met the
watchmen he had posted here and gave them
permission to stand down and start a fire. The
wind had teeth at this high above the camp,
and he wished he’d brought furs instead of just
a cloak.
The sky looked just as angry as before. The
clouds were no longer in motion, but perched
threateningly above the towers of Korstull, the
obscured moon barely silvering their edges.
There was neither lightning nor rain, but the
thunderheads seemed to pulse like black hearts
beating in the firmament.
Perhaps he had overreacted to this suspected
omen. The night, it seemed, was passing quietly.
There were few lights from the castle windows.
In his life, he had heard many tales of signs
before catastrophe, most unheeded until after
the event. Here in Sindaire, just before the first
time Ragesian armies had crossed its borders,
prize royal horses had fought each other like
baited dogs, with the winners eating those
they killed. They said a lioness had whelped in
the streets of Kistan the night the first Khagan
of Ostalin had passed away. Fifty years before,
the day before the First Dasseni Civil War had
begun, there had been an eclipse of the sun.
Certainly, a strange formation of clouds was
not so dramatic as these.
Then, Magdus realized what each one of
those strange portents had in common, and
all at once his blood ran cold. Each one had
heralded the death of a king.
As if in answer to his realization, lanterns
began to flare in the distant windows of Castle
Korstull. From this far he could not hear cries
of alarm, but the general knew at once that
his instincts were far more than paranoid
superstition.
He shouted to the nearby watchmen, “Sound
an alarm! Run down to the camp, now, and tell
your Captain to take a detachment to the castle
at once!”
The men blew their horns, then rushed
down into the canyon. Magdus remained,
watching the castle. In close succession, three
flaming arrows were fired from the battlements,
a signal. His fears had been confirmed. There
were attackers in Korstull.
The lights in the stronghold’s windows were
being answered by torches being lit in the camp
below. If it were an assassination attempt, there
was little he could do from here, but he would
mobilize his forces and be prepared to hunt the
would-be murderers to the ends of creation.
Hoofbeats on gravel echoed across the
canyon, and Magdus saw a clutch of his officers
riding up to meet. Adjutants brought his horse
and armor, and — he was grateful — heavier
garments.
The general hurried to dress and mount his
horse. The armor could wait. All of his captains,
just jolted out of bed, began to ask questions
at once. He quieted them quickly and began to
dispense orders.
A yellow-orange light suddenly shone across
the assembled faces. Magdus turned to see that
the roof of the castle had erupted into a rising
column of flame.
The officers stood in silence, mouths
agape. The general clenched his jaw, enraged,
calculating.
“Prepare for a siege,” he called out, not
taking his eyes from the fiery pillar atop Castle
Korstull. “We have taken this castle once
today. We may have to do so again. Tell your
cavalrymen…”
Magdus never finished his order. The
ominous heavens, already roiled with rage,
opened up and gave the general a sign no man
could disbelieve.
Above Castle Korstull, the sky began to rain
fire.
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November (Part 4)
It was instinct that awoke him. There was
someone in his room.
The Emperor’s reflex was to spring from his
bed and find a weapon, but as soon as he had
opened his eyes, his torso exploded in pain. He
went to move and found himself pinned to the
bed. He looked down at his chest.
Someone had driven a stake through his
heart.
Another man would have panicked. But
Coaltongue had faced death many times before,
and while he was alarmed, he could not help
being curious. He looked around the room,
but saw no sign of his attacker. None of his
generals would’ve pulled this off, not with dogloyal
Magdus, the best of them all, camped so
close. Shaaladel would’ve planned something
more intricate, more unnecessarily complex,
something he would’ve seen coming. Leska?
His hands had found the stake — everything
was harder now, it seemed, with his heart not
pumping blood — and tried to summon up
the strength to pull it out at once.
Then, from the shadows, an aged face, dyed
with ashes. A black scimitar, edged with smoky
diamonds, arcing at his throat.
Him? Coaltongue thought. Of all the enemies
I have in this world? Him?
The blade fell. Staked to the bed, the emperor
could not roll out of the way, and his arms were
too weak to pull it out or block the blow.
The pain of the beheading was not much,
he found. Far less than that of being stabbed
in the heart. He was less conscious of the
blow itself than of the cold air on the insides
of his neck. Completely severed from his body,
Coaltongue’s head rolled over to the left side of
his pillow.
His head was still alive, still conscious and
bewildered. From the angle at which his head
had fallen, he could see a second assailant, her
hands lifting the Torch of the Burning Sky
from the wall-mount where he’d left it. They
were thieves as well as assassins.
The Emperor heard sounds of swordplay
from the room outside. There were at least
three of them, then. It was all starting to make
sense. He even knew how they would make
their escape. Suddenly, he became very tired.
It seemed to happen all at once. He tried to
rub his eyes, but obviously could not, and
this simple fact provoked in him a very acute
distress.
He was falling asleep. There was no
preventing it. The Emperor of Ragesia had
gone down without a fight, without even a
sword in his hand. In other circumstances, he
might have laughed.
As oblivion claimed him, he thought, I
have to hand to it to the Fates. This, I did not see
coming.
Then there was a sudden pang of regret;
disappointment that he would not be there
to see the cataclysmic change his death would
wreak, the conflict. This, he thought, would’ve
been a world worthy of me.
Then, blackness.
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