Alastair Archibald: Dragonblaster

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Alastair Archibald Dragonblaster
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Alastair J. Archibald


Chapter 1: Preparations for Attack

Prioress Lizaveta sat at ease in her most private sanctum, deep within the bowels of Rendale Priory, scanning the grey-garbed figures assembled around her.

The room was sealed: the Prioress had placed a potent spell of warding upon it, since she did not want uninvited ears to overhear the night's proceedings. Candles lit the scene in flickering, orange light, sending shadows flitting mothlike across the flagstone floor. Twenty nuns sat, cross-legged, in a semicircle around Lizaveta's marble throne.

Lizaveta smiled at the Anointed Score, assembled in their entirety for the first time in over a generation.

She knew that, high above her, innocent Sisters bustled through their allotted tasks, blissfully unaware of her machinations and political games, and this gave her considerable pleasure. Despite the sense of fear the Prioress instilled in even the most insignificant Novice, she knew she was regarded as the well-spring of rectitude and holiness within her Order.

Hundreds of righteous, religious women waited for her least command, quite ignorant of the complete disregard in which she and the Score held the sworn vows of the lesser nuns. Fifty years before, Lizaveta had attained the high rank of Prioress’ Handmaiden, and she had wasted little time in despatching her foolish, benign predecessor and taking her place.

Before long, Lizaveta had identified the Geomantically-skilled members of her flock, and a long series of illnesses and tragic “accidents” served to allow her to fill the ranks of the blessed Score with powerful witches whose views coincided with her own. She knew that every one of these nuns was ambitious and egotistical, prepared to kill her as soon as the chance presented itself; however, Lizaveta was always on her guard. Each member of her inner coterie knew she was shadowed by at least one eager acolyte, waiting to take her place at the least open sign of treachery. These hand-picked, ambitious girls, numbering thirty-five, formed Lizaveta's second line of defence.

Each woman before her had been selected, not only for her ruthlessness, but also for the least sign of Geomantic power. Each had been trained in the use of her inner magic, but always at a lower level than that of her Prioress. Lizaveta had no intention of raising a witch capable of mounting any serious challenge to her.

"Sisters,” she intoned, leaning back in her gold-and-mahogany throne and scanning the eager eyes arrayed before her. “A great threat lies before us."

As ever, the women stood in silence, none daring to interrupt her. Each knew the depth of her wrath only too well, and was unwilling to risk angering her.

"The younger Afelnor has come into his full power, and he is coming to avenge his grandfather. I am to be his target, but I know he will be catholic in his rage; harbour no dreams that he will spare any of you. Should he be allowed to vent his anger upon us, this Priory may well lie in ruins by the time he is finished. At this time, he is leaving Yoren, having destroyed the Mansion House there, and he will be making his way here as I speak.

"I had hoped that the Mansion would have posed more of an obstacle for the boy, but it was not to be."

A hard-faced woman of riper years raised a hand.

"Sister Arissa, you may speak."

"Reverend Mother, he is just a boy, and he must contend with Brianston and Merrydeath Road long before he reaches us. Is he really such a threat?"

Lizaveta laughed; a dry, hacking sound. “You are right, Sister. He is only a male, and a young one at that; nonetheless, I have taken a particular fancy to this immature youth, and I would like to have him under my control. He and his party may be too wary to take the direct route and, even if they do, the trials of Brianston and Merrydeath Road may not stop them. If Afelnor survives, and I almost hope he does, I wish to be sure that we have the proper reception for him when he arrives here."

Lizaveta noted a quizzical expression on the nun's face. “Sister Arissa,” she said, “do you have something to add to the discussion?"

"Yes, Reverend Mother. This… creature is a Guild Mage. If he survives and you keep him here, the Guild will surely take an undesirable interest in our activities. That might pose a greater threat to us than this Afelnor ever could. You controlled his grandfather, Loras, easily enough; why not ensorcel his pup in the same manner, before he ever reaches us?"

Lizaveta considered her reply for a few moments. She felt angered by Arissa's impertinence, but she did not want to admit to weakness even to an inferior. She knew she had only been able to control Loras Afelnor's actions with the aid of a mighty enchantment, and only then by turning an existing emotion: Loras’ pity for the dying Prelate of his House. His grandson seemed to be forewarned, and he was unlikely to be swayed from his righteous vengeance. She had only managed to defeat Afelnor's unsuspecting friend, Dalquist, through the timely intervention of the dead Sister Madeleine. She had met both mages, and she knew Grimm was already far more powerful than the older Questor would ever be.

She locked Arissa's grey eyes with a fierce stare. “I just wish to see Afelnor's expression when he falls to his knees, defeated, and acknowledges me as his mistress,” she growled, her gaze challenging the nun to call her a liar. “I have no need to justify my actions to you, Sister; remember that."

"Your pardon, Reverend Mother!” Arissa dropped her eyes in the modest manner expected of every nun in the Order; even a member of the Score. “My first concern was for our beloved Order."

"I understand that, dear Sister. I understood your motives only too well."

Lizaveta turned to the expectant nuns, whose eyes were all lowered. “Does anybody else seek to question me? No? Good; we will begin.

"I have called you here tonight because I wish to cast a Great Spell; not on Grimm Afelnor, but on one close to him. In a flagrant breach of Guild protocol, he has taken a lover, some bedraggled beggar from the town of Griven. I understand that she has the makings of a witch, and I feel she belongs more properly here in Rendale, with her true sisters, rather than in some distant tower."

The Prioress felt an emotional upsurge from her audience; the Sisters now understood her intent well.

Lizaveta smiled. “She may not concur with our aims, at first, of course, but she will learn the errors of her ways, long before her paramour reaches our gates. She will be here, waiting to greet him when he does. I wish to cast a Great Spell of Summoning, so that this girl may begin to learn the bounteous… advantages of religious discipline, long before that time.

"Judan, most favoured one.” She turned to a pleasant-faced, middle-aged woman. “I choose you to research the spell, to allocate our various roles, and to ascertain the most propitious time for its casting. I would ask you to tell us any preconditions of which you are aware."

"I thank you for your favour, Reverend Mother, from the bottom of my heart,” Judan breathed, maintaining her modest, lowered gaze.

But for the nun's severe habit and wimple, she might have been taken for a docile schoolmistress or archivist, but Lizaveta knew Judan as a competent and diligent researcher who would leave no stone unturned in her quest for perfection. The austere woman was also a ruthless and efficient killer when necessary, but quite devoid of ambition. This made her an ideal member of the Score; the Prioress wished she had access to more witches of this calibre.

In a sing-song contralto, Judan began to recite a series of factors which might affect the intended spell, consulting a battered, well-thumbed almanac as she did so.

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