The Three Suns of Prysmos beat down on Gawalar as he followed the wizard who had taken his son.
He had seen the wizard and his robed gang two days earlier but had not given them a second thought - not until he returned home to Mecron to find his house ransacked and Dagan nowhere to be found.
The people of Mecron had witnessed the events of the previous day, but could tell Gawalar nothing apart from the fact that the youth had been taken by the wizard Bogavas, who wandered the land looking for young people to enslave. Although he knew he was unlikely ever to succeed in his aims, Gawalar had sworn not to rest until his son was found and Bogavas was made to pay for what he had done.
Bogavas was rapidly losing patience. He stood in the disused warehouse, ever vigilant for the arrival of Brother Turel and the slaves. In the months since his escape from the Wizards' Jail, he had completely corrupted many of the monks who had given him sanctuary at their monastery in the notorious Anarchy Zone. The next step had been to volunteer their services to Sanofainus, supplying slaves to work in the latter's underground kingdom.
But, right now, there was a obstacle in his path - an obstacle called New Valarak.
Brother Turel arrived, leading fourteen young Prysmosians by the end of a long chain to which they were securely fastened by their wrists. He wrapped the end of the chain round the fork on a forklift truck and padlocked it into position. The slaves - who included both males and females - slumped down exhausted, ignoring the hard floor and grateful to be brought indoors for once.
The youngest of the captives, a small dark-haired girl about seven years old, moaned pitifully. "Water," she gasped, struggling to sit up.
As Turel strode across with his strap ready to strike, the girl cowered in terror. "I'll water you, you little pest!" Turel swore. "How's about a good hiding, eh?"
But, before the slaver-monk could swing his strap, Bogavas waved his hand and caused the strap to fly out of Turel's hand and hover in mid-air - just out of reach. "You idiot!" Bogavas said, turning on his second-in-command. "Turel, do you want to end up with a load of useless corpses? If not, you'd better give the brat a drink - come to think of it, they all look like they need some refreshment. Brother Gudd, take care of the slaves." To Brother Turel he demanded: "Are they all here?"
"Yes - except a couple who were too weak to continue," replied Brother Turel. "I just . . ." He drew his finger across his throat with a sharp jerk.
"I only hope you weren't spotted," said Bogavas, after briefly considering giving Turel a tongue-lashing for slaying good slaves. But a slave who was too exhausted to keep going was no use to anyone, so it was better to end their lives quickly rather than let them go and risk them going for help. "News travels fast on Prysmos, and we're very close to New Valarak. Believe me, those Spectral Knights wouldn't let us get within a mile of the place if they knew what we're going to do?"
"What do they have to do with anything?" demanded Brother Gawonde, whose favourite pastime was looking for an excuse to lash out with his strap.
Bogavas stroked his beard, remembering the encounter he had had with Leoric and his followers and how easy it had been to win them over, to make almost like him. Bogavas cared little for any mortal - even his slaver-monks were there simply to guard the slaves. "Let me explain," he said grimly. "They are the seven knights who lead the people of New Valarak. Fine job they do of it too, but they're all noble and only bar known enemies from the city. And I've been planning to deal with them ever since I used my powers to hoodwink their mentor, Merklynn."
"What are you going to do, Bogavas?" asked Brother Gudd, his curiousity instantly aroused.
"Remember to keep an eye on the three youngest Spectral Knights while you're there," Bogavas explained. "Two young men and a woman slightly older than them. Got that?" The slaver-monks nodded. "Right," Bogavas continued. "Their names are Galadria, Arzon and Feryl and they are the ones I'm after. Them and any other young people we can grab before the people of New Valarak wake up.
"Wake up?" echoed Turel, keen to know what fiendish scheme Bogavas had come up with now. In all the months they had been capturing slaves, they had never targetted specific individuals; usually, they simply seized any young Prysmosian unlucky enough to stray across their path.
Bogavas began pacing up and down. "Aye! Did you think I'd want witnesses to what I plan to do? Why do you think I waited until now? We are going to go along to that tournament they'll be holding tomorrow and use enough sleeping powder to knock everyone out. So don't touch the refreshments while you're there and don't let anyone, especially not Leoric, suspect anything. If any of you ruin this plan, we'll all be out of there so fast our feet won't touch. Vurus," he added, addressing a hefty slaver-monk standing nearby, "you'll leave this warehouse last. Remember to lock the slaves up - I don't want any escapes and, if just one is missing when we get back, I'll hold you responsible."
The slaves slept fitfully, none of them aware of the conversation that had taken place among their captors. Bogavas gloated at them, telling himself that, if all went according to plan the next day, there would soon be at least three more. Sanofainus would be pleased.
"I'm telling you, Leoric, I don't like it. It'd be just like Darkstorm to try something while our guard's down," Ectar was saying as he and Leoric set up the archery equipment on the field outside New Valarak.
"Well, Galadria and Feryl should be back shortly. Besides, most of the guards are owed leave," Leoric replied. "And there really hasn't been much happening these last few days." As he spoke, the dark-haired leader of the Spectral Knights reflected on his friend's words, recalling that Ectar's instincts were usually pretty reliable when it came to Darkling Lords.
Ectar seemed to sense what Leoric was thinking. "Darkstorm has caught us off guard before," he reminded him. "Anyway . . ."
"Even Darkling Lords have their uses," filled in a young woman, coming to join the two knights. "In fact, you might say they brought us together," she said to Leoric.
Fletchen, for that was the woman's name, was roughly the same age as Arzon and Feryl and her gentle nature had been what persuaded Leoric to come to her village to fight what turned out to be a non-existent monster. She had grieved for him on being told he was dead, but later learned that he was merely stuck in his Totem form, the victim of a trap set by Darkstorm. But persuading the rest of her people had been difficult, especially since Darkstorm had played on their dislike of magic to stir up hatred against the Spectral Knights.
But, if Darkstorm hadn't set that trap in the first place, she reflected, she and Leoric would never have met and she would never have learned the difference between good and evil magic.
Just then, the hum of a motor interrupted her thoughts as Feryl and Galadria drew up in the Capture Chariot, returning from a morning spent scouting the surrounding countryside in search of any untoward activity. With the threat of invasion from Castle Darkstorm ever present - not to mention the various lawless elements that had thrived on Prysmos since the Alignment - Leoric had always made a point of sending his followers out on regular patrols.
"Anything to report?" Leoric asked as he and Ectar hurried over to hear what Feryl had to say.
"Nothing that involves Darkstorm and his knights," Feryl replied, climbing out of the cockpit. "We did run into a band of thieves near Jidara, but I gave them something to remember us by. So did Galadria," he added, nodding towards the golden-haired female Knight seated in one of the hover-pods.
Leoric had no doubt of that. Feryl, for all his boyish looks and youthful impulsiveness, was very tough - and Galadria wasn't much different. And, when you added the Capture Chariot's firepower to the equation, the young knight was more than capable of giving a band of thieves a run for their money. Aside from a rather unfortunate mishap in a fight with some pirates a while back, an incident which had made him question his worth as a Spectral Knight, Feryl had never let Leoric down in battle yet.
"That's good to hear," Leoric told Feryl, relieved that there appeared to be no signs of activity at Castle Darkstorm. "I was just telling Ectar it was time we could relax for a while without having to worry about guarding the city."
Little did he suspect that, less than a mile away, Bogavas was finalising his fiendish plot.
"Now, do all of you know what to do?" he asked his slavers as they gathered around him in the warehouse.
"Go to the tournament, drug everyone and snatch us some slaves," replied Brother Gawonde.
Bogavas nodded with satisfaction and pointed to the nearby wall. The wizard's hand glowed for a moment and, as if it was still the Age of Science and he was a projectionist, he made faint but recognisible images of Galadria, Arzon and Feryl appear on the decaying concrete. "These knights are the ones I want - I don't care who else we take, so long as we get these three," he reminded his slavers.
"Um? Bogavas?" It was Brother Vurus who had raised his hand, boldly determined to ask the question all the slaver-monks longed to ask.
"Yes. What is it, Vurus?" Bogavas snapped impatiently.
"I was just wondering why we need to go to so much trouble just to get a few slaves, even if they are knights," Vurus explained. "Wouldn't it be better to . . . well . . . grab 'em and run?"
Bogavas raised his hand to cast a spell on Vurus, but thought better of it. "Because these are not ordinary knights. They are users of magic and I've seen how well they work together; that's why I have to do this. And, with his young friends as my prisoners, I'll be able to lure Leoric to his doom." He smirked to himself; do-gooders like the Spectral Knights, their leader in particular, were so predictable.
Late that afternoon, the tournament was in full swing, with the entire population of New Valarak gathered on the meadow outside the city. Two pedestals had been set up in the main arena and young men competed to knock each other off using wooden paddles.
Belizar, a dark-haired young man who originally came from the lost city of Khemir and aspired to become a knight, had already gone six rounds undefeated and was now facing Arzon. The Spectral Knights were allowed to compete on one condition - no shapeshifting was allowed. So Arzon concentrated on deposing his opponent, spurred on by the shouts of the assembled crowd.
"Keep it up, Arzon! You've lasted longer than the others!"
"Careful! He's coming at you again!"
Arzon moved to dodge Belizar's paddle and made a swipe with his own. Unfortunately, he was too near the edge of the pedestal and, losing his balance, fell onto a pile of hay placed round the base to break each fighter's fall as he was deposed. The crowd applauded his efforts as Belizar leapt off the other pedestal and called out the challenge.
"Does anyone else think he can take me on?"
"Good try, Arzon," Feryl said, joining his friend. "You nearly had him once or twice."
Arzon, who was a natural optimist, smiled. "Remind me never to play that game against Belizar again," he commented light-heartedly.
"Well, you know how proud Khemirites are," said Feryl, recalling how, until they got to know the Spectral Knights, most of Khemir's inhabitants had been stubbornly trying to cling to their Age of Technology lifestyle. They had even allowed themselves to be used by Darkstorm in a plot to conquer and enslave the Spectral Knights. But Feryl dismissed that thought. "I'm going to have a look round some of the stalls - you coming?"
The arena was surrounded by a collection of stalls, some serving refreshments but most featuring games of chance. Near one which required players to guess which hand of cards contained an ace of hearts, old Gleering, Fletchen's father, was regaling a group of wide-eyed children with tales of the Spectral Knights' exploits. Feryl happened to be passing just as his name was mentioned and waved to Gleering in greeting.
But the relaxed atmosphere was soon to be shattered.
Marna, one of Belizar's fellow Khemirites, had seen Bogavas and his gang approaching. She hurriedly sought out Leoric and told him. "They're coming from the west. Can't say I've ever seen them before."
"Who?" Leoric was instantly on the alert. All thoughts of relaxation were forgotten as his instinctive desire to protect his people from invasion kicked in.
"There must be at least twenty-five. It's a group of travellers, all men. Their leader seems to be a wizard."
Leoric glanced round at Cryotek, Witterquick and Ectar, who were standing nearby, before his gaze finally settled on the latter. "Ectar, go find Galadria," he instructed. "I want you both to find out what they want. Hopefully, it won't be anything too serious."
Both Ectar and Galadria knew they had seen the wizard somewhere before, although neither could recall exactly where. Ectar, never one to take his suspicions lightly, was all for sending the travellers on their way, but Galadria chided him. "Ectar, don't be so ill-mannered," she said. "We can at least be civilised to passing travellers. Welcome to New Valarak, sir," she said to Bogavas. "Who might you be and what brings you here?"
Bogavas laughed and took the young woman's hand. "Charmed, my dear Galadria," he said, his voice dripping courtesy. "As to what I'm doing here, my followers and I heard of the hospitality offered in New Valarak, so we . . ."
"How does he know who you are?" demanded Ectar, a note of suspicion in his voice as he cut Bogavas off in mid-sentence.
"He's a wizard, remember?" whispered Galadria. Sometimes, she thought to herself, Ectar was too suspicious for his own good.
Bogavas and his gang mingled freely with the people of New Valarak, many of whom were overawed at having a wizard in their midst; Prysmosian wizards tended to keep themselves to themselves. All the while, they eyed the young adults and older children, paying particular attention to Galadria, Arzon and Feryl, ready to grab their victims when the right moment came. No-one saw Gudd sprinkling powder on the refreshments, but its effects were soon felt.
The first sign that something was wrong came when Galadria came across Cryotek sitting with his head in his hands and complaining of a raging headache. "Cryotek, are you all right?" she asked as she drew level with him.
"I - I don't know," Cryotek said groggily. "I just feel . . ." Before he could get any further, he keeled over and no amount of shaking could rouse him. Galadria glanced round and noticed to her horror that it wasn't just Cryotek; everyone seemed to be in some kind of stupor. But they had all been fine only a few minutes ago. What was going on here? Surely it couldn't be the Magical Plague which had once come close to wiping out both factions of the Visionaries. No, Leoric had said it only affected magic-users and most of those who had collapsed now were ordinary citizens of New Valarak.
Galadria tried to stagger to her feet; she had find Leoric and tell him what was happening. But, before she could move, she too was overwhelmed by dizziness and collapsed, sprawling across Cryotek's chest.
Before long, the meadow outside New Valarak resembled a battlefield, with nearly the entire population lying unconscious or barely awake. Leoric leaned against the barrier around the arena, his head spinning, too tired to even think about trying to find out what was happening. The last thing he saw before blacking out was Bogavas and Brother Turel walking round, conversing in low tones.