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The castle’s War Room was just as Hadakura left it. Maps scattered across a table were gathering dust. The candles had burned down to nubs. Ura tapped a finger to each of them in turn and they shone with the pastel iridescence of magical flame.

He walked to the great table in the center of the room and dragged a hand across one of the larger maps. He studied it for a moment and recalled the campaign: the White Sea’s armies had surrounded the city of Septentrion, once a part of the Meridian Empire. They had cut off supply wagons from the south, where the greater empire lay, and dammed up the rivers that lay beneath and around the city. Hadakura had sent a force to break the dams, and the power of the rushing water washed nearly a third of the sieging army out to sea. Even this, though, had not been enough to break through the lines of the enemy, and the city had surrendered within weeks. It never rejoined the Meridian Empire, though sympathizers still were rumored to exist.

Ura clicked his tongue and called out to his guards in the hallway. “Send for Igsbean.”

***

The commander shuffled a stack of parchment and moved his fingers across the map.

“Two battalions from here,” he said, and small blue outlines of hundreds of tiny soldiers appeared from thin air and began marching across the landscape. “From the south is the only reasonable vector for the large-scale attack. The army will need support,” he said, “cavalry on either side,” and they appeared.

“The Mage’s College has more power in five men than in your battalions,” said Ura.

“Aye, and the mages between the battalions.” Thirty robed men appeared in the center, anchor that tied the whole of the army together. Ura nodded his approval.

“Will it work?”

“Unlikely, the armies that took the city had a hundred times this many soldiers.”

The Matron offered, “Instead of a marching army, a smaller force could infiltrate the city unnoticed.”

“I suppose you have such a force in mind?” Ura asked.

“For our most critical tasks, I have a team of four of the best that I trust.”

***

Ura uttered a few syllables under his breath and the odor disappeared. “Adventurers,” he thought, “no good to have around until you need them.” He realized almost immediately why his father had relegated their presence to Tidebreak, well outside the city’s walls. But he did need them.

Ura had watched the Matron’s assembled adventurers argue amongst themselves for nearly a half hour when he finally entered the room. “I’m sure you’ll find the task to be simple enough and the pay more than adequate. Shall we discuss who among you is afraid to get their hands dirty?”

One of them, a lizard-looking fellow that Ura recognized as a frail figure long-since removed from its once-mighty dragon ancestors, began to speak. “My first lesson in cruelty came moments after I hatched. My mother was slain mere days before I hatched by an unknown force, her poisoned body rotting just outside my home. My brothers and sisters soon hatched after me, each just as hungry. It was not long before we began devouring the only source of food, our own mother.”

He continued, “Her body was devoured within days. It didn’t take long before we turned on each other, the strongest engulfing the weaker. It wasn’t just a battle of strength, it wasn’t just a lesson in cruelty, it was survival, and I survived, and survive I will continue to do…”

Ura had more important things to do. “That’s enough. Yes, you sound absolutely terrifying. I look forward to seeing your work.” He handed them a slip of parchment and retired back to his office just in time for his spell to wear off.