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Thomas M. Reid

The Ruby Guardian

PROLOGUE

1 Tarsakh, 1373 DR

Marcon Hastori flinched and stifled a gasp as his surroundings shifted, changing in a single, startled breath to a moonlit ring of towering stones atop a low hillock. A heartbeat before, he had been standing in one of the rigid stone corridors deep inside the Palace of the Seven, listening to Senator Dwonlar Aphorio explain to him how he was needed for 'a matter of utmost urgency and secrecy.' Upon Marcon's reluctant nod of acquiescence, the senator had made an odd and complex gesture in the air between the two of them and the hallway had rapidly and completely faded away in a single, startled breath.

Marcon really hated magic. The smoky, stifling air of the castle had been replaced by a humid, earthy breeze that wafted lazily over the uneasy guard. The zephyr was hardly cool, but Marcon shivered anyway, clenching his halfspear warily as he peered about. His gaze scanned past the circle of standing stones to the landscape beyond, wondering what need the senator had of him in the middle of nowhere and in the darkness of night.

The light of Selune set the area beyond the hillock aglow in an eerie way, illuminating a broad expanse of open ground that was covered in low-lying mist. Near the wide, flat mound supporting the standing stones, a river flowed, though Marcon could really only make out the near edge as a darker shadow, running in a more or less straight line. Full moonlight glimmered off ripples in the water, and judging from Selune's position in the sky, the river sat to the north of the hillock.

Marcon had no idea where the senator had brought him.

Wishing that Aphorio had chosen someone else to serve as assistant, Marcon followed the tall, muscular man down from the top of the hill, noticing for the first time that the senator led him in the direction of a second, steeper hill stretching off into the darkness. Then flickering torchlight caught the guard's eye from the distance, near the base of that mound. For a moment, Marcon hesitated, his heart racing and his palms sweating. But Aphorio didn't slow, either unaware of or unconcerned about the presence of others, so the guard steeled his resolve and kept pace.

Serving at the pleasure of the Seven Senators of Reth meant it was Marcon's duty to aid them in whatever capacity they deemed necessary. If that included being magically whisked away from the Palace of the Seven and traipsing through a mist-filled field in the middle of the night, so be it. It was not Marcon's place to question such strange doings, and he would abide.

But that didn't mean he had to like it.

Among the Seven, Dwonlar Aphorio was responsible for the city's defenses and was considered the most eccentric of the ruling members of the city. Though he was judged as handsome by most with his lustrous, wavy black hair and prominent, chiseled jaw, the gods had apparently wasted their gift on the man. He sometimes spent days at a time in his personal quarters, alone or with apprentices, supposedly using divination magic to ferret out potential threats to the city or developing new arcane defenses to stave off such attacks. It was whispered that he never slept and could go for days without eating. Such tales unnerved Marcon, despite the fact that he knew them for nothing more than speculation. Few in the palace interacted directly with the reclusive man and could thus neither refute nor substantiate the fanciful stories. Marcon, it seemed, had become an exception that night.

He didn't have to like it at all.

Together, Marcon and Senator Aphorio crossed the open space between the two hills, heading directly toward the flickering light of the torch. The breeze from before, atop the hill, did not reach down there, did not disturb the mists. Only two men's slow, careful paces caused the vapors to swirl and flow around them, thick enough to obscure even the grass that grew near to knee high. The fog smelled both sickly sweet and foul to the guard's nostrils, adding to his sense of unease. He wanted to be away from there, and could sense that something dark and menacing lurked in the ground beneath their feet, waiting. It did not welcome them.

Soon enough, Marcon and the senator drew close enough to the light of the torch to make out several figures huddled together in a circle, gathered around something on the ground, something the guard could not see at first. Then the figures parted respectfully, allowing Aphorio to pass, and Marcon realized that they were the senator's apprentices, seven of them, all dressed in the same black and crimson that the senator himself always wore. They bowed their heads as Aphorio approached, making room in their midst next to a gaping hole in the ground.

Marcon saw the turned earth along the hole's perimeter, evidence that it had been freshly dug. It was deep and long, and it almost seemed to tunnel into the side of the hillock. The guard's foreboding continued to grow, and he held back, truly afraid. Aphorio moved forward confidently, peering into the depths of the scarred soil eagerly.

'Excellent,' the senator said, turning and smiling at his underlings. 'Well done,' he added. Then Aphorio turned to Marcon and motioned for him to step forward. 'Come and look,' he encouraged the guard, holding one arm up invitingly.

Marcon hesitated, feeling death radiating from the slash in the ground. He wanted to turn and run. 'What is it?' he asked, his voice wavering uncertainly.

'An incredible find,' Aphorio crooned, turning back and peering down again, leaning forward so that his hands rested on his knees and he could crane his neck for a better look. 'It's history. Come. Have a look.'

With dread making his legs weak, Marcon took one cautious step closer, then another. Finally, when he was able to see past the edge of the cut earth, he leaned forward and gazed where Aphorio pointed. The glow of dull yellow-white caught his eye.

Bones.

'W-what is this place?' Marcon said, trying to take a step back, away from the hole. He peered at the mound, which he could see stretched away as far as the faint light of Selune would show him, though it was not round, as he had suspected before. It was a great long thing, straight and steep.

A barrow.

'A battlefield!' Marcon wailed, stumbling back another step. 'You've unearthed the slain! No!'

Suddenly, with dreadful realization, Marcon knew well the place upon which he stood. He had never seen it before that very night, but he had heard it described often enough. The Fields of Nun, it was called, the site of the final, decisive battle of the Rotting War, where fell magic had brought the plague to all of Chondath. It was said that just as many warriors died of horrible wasting diseases as by sword and bow. The description of a great stone circle watching over the battlefield and the barrow tombs was unmistakable. As his eyes swept up and along the steep- sided, elongated hill before him, Marcon recalled in an instant the horrible stories of how it came to be.

The dead had lain thick upon the field of battle that day, many of them with festering sores and rotting flesh. The slain could not be buried by hand for fear of the plague spreading. Instead, great spells had been employed to furrow the earth into huge channels, like mountain giants tilling the soil with their own massive plows. The warriors who had died in the fighting were scooped into the furrows with more magic, buried as one.

Since that time, the field had lain fallow, for no farmer would come near. Visitors fell sick and died from crossing the ground. It was a place of death, a grim reminder of the terrible magic of the Rotting War. And Senator Aphorio and his brood of apprentices had dug into the very heart of its malicious remains.

Panic gripped Marcon. The sickly sweet smell of the mist assaulted his nose, making him gag. He turned, staggering, ready to sprint back to the standing stones, to find a way home to Reth, away from the death.

'Take him,' Aphorio commanded, his voice casual and unconcerned.

Marcon shrieked in misery as hands grabbed at him, snatching at his tunic, his wrists, and his shoulders. Marcon felt his halfspear, forgotten in his panic, wrenched free of his grasp. He twisted away, savage, primal, and terrified. The hands were too strong, their grips like steel vises in the carpenter's workroom or tongs the smith employed. They halted his retreat, pulled him backward, off balance, dragging him down to the ground, kicking and thrashing. The guard was pushed to his knees, forced to face the hole in the ground.

Senator Aphorio turned away, back to the rent soil, and began to chant, gesturing, as he had done before, in

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