Rievers were few these days. River piracy didn’t hold enough prospect for most, but Drynoc wasn’t like most. He had come from a long line of smugglers and rievers. Where there was a profit, illegal or not, he was to be found. As a result, he was the richest on the river.
He smuggled in the contraband. Barbarians seeking entrance into the Orders, black market drugs, black market minerals and lumber—whatever was needed. Whatever was paid for. And it made him rich.
He had a store of unrefined gold that would make most sea pirates envious, not to mention a store of gems and silver. But he was a quiet man, never given to bragging or showing off what he had. He still wore tattered clothing that was indicative of one who worked on the river even though he could easily afford the most decadent clothing a merchant could imagine. His boots, though, were new. Not that they would stay as nice as they were now.
But rievers weren’t always pirates. They had been the river folk who’d fished the Big Muddy and the Great Muddy for centuries and who had ferried goods and peoples across the rivers. They had lived in peace for millennia before the rise of the first aristocracy. After that, they were pushed out and their ancestral homes ripped from them.
Taking to the rivers and resettling across from where they had originally lived, they began their lives of raiding the empire’s commerce barges and diplomatic flotilla. Becoming outlaws in the eyes of the aristocracy, they were avoided unless summoned in the dead of night to a clandestine meeting heralding an illegal activity. Beyond that, any riever caught in the Renge were executed as common thieves.
But they had been a noble people once. Only the barbarians had treated them as equals for they had been cut from the same cloth. Wild and free, untamable. Dominant, yet simple.
But now, rievers were a dying people. Their bloodlines had been mingled with others, making them no more unique as those who peopled the Renge. Except, maybe, the Assassanidii who had not intermarried with any invading peoples.
The Assassinidii. Drynoc snorted. Did that ancient people still exist? The Assassinidii and the rievers had once been friendly to one another, but that had been long ago. Would they be allies now? He didn’t know. It had been too long.
Besides. The Assassanidii had been rumored to be no more. Well, not quite no more…just vanished or a myth. But they were no myth, and they showed themselves to none unless they considered them allies. Otherwise, they remained invisible to the majority.
Drynoc had to find them. He had to ask them to be his allies one last time. Something bad was going to happen soon, and his people would need the help of their old allies. He could feel it in his ancient bones.
At the moment, though, he was about to smuggle a tribe of Cyrtian Mages across the Big Muddy after dark. His barge, larger than any the Renglanders used in shipping, could hold two or three tribes and still have enough room for food stuffs and barrels of water or casks of exotic western wines. Of course he had been the builder of his barge, overseeing every detail such as the false bottoms that kept it afloat even after striking rocks or submerged stumps.
Just as he had overseen the construction of his haven near the birthplace of the river and many others along the west bank of the Big Muddy. He smiled. He had escaped Rengeland justice because of his havens, not that he had broken any unwritten Rengeland law—but simply because he was riever. And rievers were hated.
Zarange looked out upon her wondrous city. For over five hundred years, she had been Master of her Order. She was young, as her people were concerned, for a leader. Most never made it to Master until they had reached at least eight hundred. But her successor had fallen from grace, both in the eyes of the Order and with the Master of the Ring, for her part in the rebellion of the Master’s son Golmagug. The Order had never trusted or agreed with Gol’s fanatical ideas and had sided with the Master, even though they tended to remain neutral in almost all other battles.
The Dolminian Order had, like all the Orders, been a barbarian tribe in its infancy and still had kindred in the barbarian wastes. Much like the Cyrtian Order, they tended to smuggle in members of their barbaric sisters to fill the need for fresh mages. Being the northern most Order, it was easy to bring theirs through the Lands of Mist and the Ice Kingdom. The Lord of the Mists was a close ally to the Dolminians of the wastes, and the Ice Queen favored those within the Renge. But neither loved the Master of the Ring.
Zarange shared their view of the Master. To her, he was weak and senile. His paranoia and vindictive manner had begun to chafe her ego even though she was usually rather humble. The Master tended to ignore the Dolminian Order due to this and the fact that he felt the Great Sisterhood, the half of the Ring that was female, were all inferior. This offended them all and caused them to oppose his decrees, many of them openly.
She had seen much in her five hundred years. Her Order had ruled, it was true, but she had not been born then. She had been born in the years just before the founding of the Ring and just after the defeat of the gods. Her first memory was of the end to the Black Ring, her second of the resurrection of the Order and the fall of their position as nobles. She had been picked for ascension at the age of four and trained in the ways.
For four hundred and eighty-five years, she had trained. Then, the old Master threw in with that demi-mage that the Master of the Ring called a son. Foolhardy, it had been. Lost the respect of the Council and the Order. But their old Master had not been the only former Master. But Masters had not been all that fell that day. Several apprentices, and even the Council Inquisitor, had fallen. Seemed every Order lost at least three members. The Dolminions only lost one.
Zarange sensed harsh times on the horizon. The Master had been scheming again and there was an ill wind blowing. It was almost as if the Master had made a deal with the devils of the nether realm. Whatever he had done, she knew that she wasn’t going to like it.
Beyond this, she knew that there was little she could do on her own. Her new members were easy enough to hide, but divining what plans the Master had set into motion was impossible. He had been growing more and more unstable since the fall of his line, becoming more and more paranoid. His paranoia had caused a schism between him and the Ring, making his less in control than he had been in the past.
Zarange shook her head. She could remember the Master when he was younger. So humble. So wise. So much a breath of fresh air to the Ring.
He’d had unlimited potential when he assumed the role of Master. It almost seemed as if he would reform the Rules of the Ring so that they were less restrictive. But that ended when Golmagug rebelled. After the rebellion, Olgath changed. The ending of his family lines had destroyed him.
He had been forced to face the fact that he was the last of his house. That had hit him hard. He had no heir. He would be the last Master from the House of Ugollo.
His son would never become the Master or sire any Masters. That had been made impossible with Gol’s rebellion. A Master could only ascend to Mastership through the prescribed ways. Rebellion, unless it was provoked, automatically barred an inheritor from the seat of power. Gol had wagered that his rebellion would be seen as needed, but the majority had seen his rebellion as unneeded and unwarranted. Unprovoked.
Impatience was never seen as provocation. It was seen as weakness. It was weakness. It was a sign of the inexperience of youth. Inexperience that told of incomplete training.
What had scared Zarange about Golmagug was his fanaticism and his obsession with finding the tomes of the necromancers of the Black Ring. Evil could only be evil, no matter what the reason behind its use. The Demon-King and his horde had been banished from the Renge by the gods for a reason and the Black Ring punished for their unholy experiments and use of demons as servants. Those tomes remained lost for a reason.
Whoever would find those tomes would unleash an evil so great that the Renge would possibly be destroyed. It didn’t matter if they desired to use the tomes for a force of good. Evil could never do good. Evil was always evil.
She sighed. The Ring was in peril. They needed a champion, a Sorcerer Supreme, to rise from their ranks. And soon.