Chapter 16
Wheels Within Wheels

Castle Darkwall, Gladius

"Above all else, beware the person who is like a spider. The spider carefully spins its web, meticulously crafting it into a veritable work of art. When its prey gets caught the web, it does not spring upon its victim at once. No, it is more patient than that. It lets the prey struggle, hopelessly entangleing itself in the threads until escape is impossible. Then and only does the spider descend to claim its prize. Beware the person who sets plots like a spider weaves its web lest you become like a hapless fly, trapped without hope of rescue."
--Excerpt from the assorted writings of Mark the Guardian

The castle was abuzz with the fierce storm that had come so suddenly with its bolts of lightning scouring the earth so closeby and the great wall of fire that rose up in the distance. Many ignorant, superstitious fools were crying about signs and portents, but not the grim-faced wife of Captain Terentius. Edytha knew exactly what was going on.
The Guard's attempts to capture the son of Luther after the incident in Corinth had failed and now he had succeeded his father as the new Guardian. The storm was proof of that. Then there was the wall of fire, but who could it be? The Sleeping Lion was supposed to have been dealt with already. Yet another failure for the Guard.
The tumult at the castle had its uses. While all eyes were turned to the Crimson Field, she did not have to take much effort to hide her appointed meeting. The backside of one of the barracks was more than adequate under the circumstances. Her contact was already waiting for her, disguised as a groundskeeper. He was ever so fond of disguises, but that was what he was famous for. The King's top spy, the master of disguise, member of the elite Five Stalkers. He bowed to her as she approached.
"Greetings, milady," he said. "Fine weather we're having today."
Edytha was not amused. "Humor is not among your many talents," she said.
"Nor is the appreciation of it one of milady's," he countered.
"Enough idle chatter. What is the news from the field?"
"A total loss, milady. Four against forty and it might as well have been cats against mice."
"Four? Were there not six in all?"
The spy stroked his chin thoughtfully. "Ah, yes. Well, only the two Elemental Knights, the Drunken Prince and the Rowanite girl fought the Guardsmen. They must have left the nun and the Singing Bandit behind."
"Letting the thief protect their healer, it seems."
"An interesting choice, is it not?"
The spy had a habit of straying from the topic at hand by focusing on trifles. It was his way of hoarding all the precious information he had collected. It made it easy for him to deny any deliberate misdirection while telling people as little as possible. Presumably the King did not have to play such games with him, but Edytha had to keep him on target.
"Is it true that one of the beasts from the pit was loosed?" she asked.
"Yes. Much to my surprise. Still, the son of Luther made short work of it."
Edytha frowned. She had seen what one of those monsters could do to a man. Killing one of them was no mean feat.
"He seems to be everything the King fears," she mumbled. It was, perhaps, imprudent of her to have said that out loud, so she quickly asked, "Who released the creature? It does not seem like the work of the warlock."
"I would imagine my fellow Stalker is behind it."
"The apprentice?"
"Yes, milady. I wonder how his master will punish him for losing one of his precious creations."
The warlock's apprentices were not supposed to be individuals. They were supposed to be nameless drones that did all the menial work behind the warlock's magical experiments. They dressed alike, never spoke and never interacted with anyone else in the castle. All except for one.
This one particular apprentice stood out from the others. His mind was still his own and he gleefully flaunted it. There was no doubt that he was the most gifted of the apprentices. His abilities earned him a place in the Five Stalkers, but beyond his considerable and growing talent, he was willful, capricious and dangerously unstable. It was a wonder both the King and the warlock suffered his continued survival.
"That man is trouble," Edytha said.
The spy nodded. "There's no doubting that. Still, if not for him, I wouldn't be able to report to you like this."
"I know you are here on other duties than waiting on my pleasure."
"That would be a long wait, milady." The spy did not quite suppress his smile.
Edytha slapped the spy for his impertinence. She should have practiced a little more self-restraint, though. There was no doubt that the spy could have intercepted the blow if he had wished to do so, and it would have made it all too clear how fragile the balance of power between them really was. He had let her slap him to maintain her sense of dominance. She was all too aware of this and it unnerved her to no end, but she dared not let it show.
"My apologies, milady," the spy said slickly. "I forgot how humorless you are."
The Captain's wife tenuously held her anger in check. "You did nothing of the sort," she said with the faintest hint of an ursine growl, "but I will not bandy words with you. The display out on the field is meant to cover the son of Luther's retreat. I know Captain Terentius left not long ago with reinforcements. Go to the Captain and tell him to break off his pursuit."
The spy was clearly taken by surprise. "You mean to let them go?" he asked.
"For now, yes. Even if the Captain catches up to them, he will only get himself killed. I have a better plan."
"I thought that was only meant for backup."
"That was before the son of Luther demonstrated his power. No, we need a more subtle approach. Once you tell Captain Terentius to come back to the castle, head for Stormtree."
The spy bowed slightly. "Of course."
"Do not forget to bring the Nightstalker."
"She is already there. She will do her part."
"Good. I will see to it that the rest of the gears are put in motion."
"You are a formidable woman, milady. The King is lucky to have you on his side."
"Go now," Edytha commanded.
The spy bowed again, bending lower this time. "As you wish, milady."
Once the spy was gone, Edytha returned to her quarters. She could not deny that she had made several critical miscalculations. She had hoped to take advantage of Lieutenant Svenson's greed and zeal, but she should never have relied on that blundering blowhard, now nothing more than a raving lunatic. Sadly, the alternatives were none too appealing. The most competent of the King's men were preoccupied with the campaign in the East.
Their best chance to stop the son of Luther had been slipped through their fingers, but all was not yet lost. True, he had had his victories, but the game only just begun. Now it was Edytha's turn. The pieces were moving into place. He would not easily escape the snare she had set for him.