Villnore, as always, was preparing for war. The petty details, like the enemy they were preparing to fight against and the reasons for wanting to go to war with them, changed almost constantly. They were really pointless; why should it matter which country fell first?
High Sorcerer Doragnoss, one of the mightiest necromancers and conjurers of Villnore's Council of Sorcery, stood at his window and watched the building grounds. Peasants and craftsmen swarmed over the grounds like so many ants, hammering on plates of steel. They were crafting another attempt at the invincible war-machines the Council had promised they would give them; soon enough it would be time to test it again. All of the tests up until then had failed, but someday they would succeed.
Yes, all of the other nations would fall soon enough. And he was determined to be the one to brought an end to the stalemate. True, Artolia had all but fallen, thanks to the efforts of Sorcerer Lombert, but Artolia was a backwater; the nations of Crell Monferaigne and Gerabellum were their real enemies. He would not waste his time with backwaters.
He smiled and turned away from the window. There were things that needed his attention. A moment of doubt flickered through his mind - he'd failed at it for a long time, and he was not used to such persistent failures. His master wouldn't be pleased. But... no, he would succeed that time.
He rang a bell, and one of his servants rushed to attend him. All of his servants were black-haired, almond-eyed women, full- or half-blooded Yamato maidens. Or, at least, they had been when he'd procured him. His father had given him the opportunity to indulge himself, so he saw no reason to hold back.
"I'm going to my secret chamber. I'll be down there for some time," he said, sneering as he spoke and feeling a sort of pleasure at the fear in her eyes. All of his servants feared him, of course; they were well acquainted with the pain that he could inflict upon them if he so desired. It was the natural order of things, he thought. The weak fear the strong. "No one is to disturb me. Even if the King himself comes to me, tell him that I am busy with issues vital to the future of Villnore. Do you understand, wench?"
"Yes, Lord Doragnoss," she said, cringing away from him.
"Good." He turned with a flourish, cape billowing out behind him, and opened the stairwell door to his own personal chamber of rituals. She would listen to him, of course. He did not tolerate disobedience, whether in the care of his mansion or in the care of his... personal needs. Some of them had been openly disgusted by him, he thought with open disbelief. Imagine! They should be honored - he was no aged, twisted shell of a man. He commanded respect and admiration; all who saw him kept their distance, obviously in open deference to a superior.
He shook his head. He'd meditate on the problems of ungrateful servants later; it was a thing that had haunted him for years. He'd have to come up with some sort of charm for them.
The secret chamber was dark and musty, and smelled of old ashes and dry rot. Every Sorcerer worth his pay had such a chamber. Doragnoss had converted a torture chamber for his; it even retained some of the old equipment, tucked into the corner. His strength largely lay in Necromancy, after all, and having proof that men had suffered and died in his seat of power helped to keep him focused.
Doragnoss took off his cape, hung it on a spike embedded in the wall near the doorway, and drew a pouch from his belt. He walked over to his altar, a slab of stone covered with candles; a small brazier rested near the front. With a word he ignited them all; thirteen steady orange flames flickered into life in unison, and a flickering red flame erupted in the center of the brazier.
He'd never admit it, but he was nervous. Not for his own welfare - there was no real danger to him in the spell - but he'd be devastated if it should fail yet again, after so many tries. Summoning the shades of the dead was one of the most difficult magical tasks in Midgard; one never knew when the Aesir were watching, or if they might or might not notice an expenditure of energy that displeased them. It would have been impossible without fail, if Hel hadn't often intervened and saved the Sorcerers from detection. But even Hel's powers couldn't compare to the combined might of the Aesir, and woe betide those who fell under their unforgiving gaze.
Necromancy was generally an irritating art to practice, as dependent as it was upon the summoning of lost shades. Doragnoss wondered once again why he hadn't chosen something a bit simpler. If he'd just wanted power, he could've been a Thaumaturgist or something.
He forced the thought out of his mind and stood in front of the candles, waving his arms of them; they didn't even flicker. Then he took a pinch of gray powder from another pouch and tossed it over the brazier. The fire grew hotter and burned higher, glowing with a strange violet light and illuminating the room with strange shadows as he began to speak, slowly and in a strange language. He invoked the rites of summoning and binding, the secret prayers to Hel and her minions that would ensure his own safety.
Doragnoss had done this before, but he'd never tried to find a specific person; he'd only sought anyone who could help him attain the power that was his birthright. This time would be different, and with any luck Doragnoss would soon be speaking to his old master - the man who had found the secret location of the Dragon Orb. He had led men out to retrieve it, never to return; they had found his body later, lying on the shattered steps of the strange palace's throne room, but none of the soldiers that he'd bought with him were anywhere to be found. It was a great mystery - what, or who, could kill a sorcerer as powerful as he? - and one that hadn't yet been solved; he'd heard that he was not the only sorcerer who'd been trying to contact him, and all had failed.
That only made him more determined to succeed. And now the rites were complete; only the invocation remained. "Master Gandar," he whispered, throwing another powder onto the fire - dried blood, this time, to tempt the spirits to come closer. "O, ye separated from this plain by the veil of life and death, come now before me and speak!"
He'd tried this before, every night for the past two weeks, ever since his master's body had been found. Each time, he'd ended up with a cloud of foul-smelling smoke and a splitting headache, but no spirit. A great part of him fully expected that he'd fail again that night, as well; perhaps Gandar's spirit was simply too far beyond the veil to be called out-
The flame flickered, then vanished, as if smothered by an invisible blanket. Doragnoss, busy with his own speculations, had barely noticed it. When he realized what he'd seen, though, his apparatus and the like suddenly had his full attention.
Slowly, slowly, a shadow of a profile appeared out of the smoke, frowning crossly at him, or so it seemed. "Who is it?" it said, the voice hoarse and faint. "Who has the audacity to summon me?"
The younger mage quickly bowed low before his former teacher. "Master Gandar," he acknowledged. "It is I, your humble servant."
He felt the shade's eyes appraising him, searching him. Suddenly he was very self-conscious, in his long robe and rich clothes, the sort that his master had always favored. Yes, he knew that he was the only one who would someday follow him, but perhaps it was a bit ostentatious of him...
"Hmph. I suppose you'll do," the shade finally grunted. "Get up! If you're going to supplant me, at least act like you have some trace of a spine."
"Yes, Master Gandar," Doragnoss answered hurriedly, quickly straightening up and smoothing back his short black hair.
"You've kept me waiting for too damn long, Doragnoss," the shade continued. His eyes were dark and full of the torments of Hel. "If you'd had any real skill at all you would've summoned me the moment you knew of my death."
"My apologies, Master," Doragnoss began before the shade could begin more recriminations. "The black moon... conditions were horrible, and-"
"Bah! Must you bother me with excuses even now?" But Gandar seemed to calm down, and the smoky figure seemed to deepen, grow more solid. "It makes no difference. You have the potential necessary, fool though you are, and it is only by Hel's intervention that I may speak of the forbidden knowledge. I must hope that you will not squander it."
"Y... yes, Master Gandar," Doragnoss managed to stammer. Forbidden knowledge! Was his Master finally going to share the secrets of his power? Or was this something even deeper?
"Listen well, young fool. I am sure that you already know of my fate. How my torn body was found in the Palace of the Dragon, with many others rendered into nothing but a stain upon the palace floor." His voice grew hard, fierce - and in a sense, triumphant. "I was slain, 'tis true, but my spirit was taken by the single-minded goddess that the warriors of Midgard call the Battle-Maiden."
"The Valkyrie?" Doragnoss repeated, shocked. He'd heard the legends, of course. Every man had. But... "What did she want with-"
"Silence, fool! I will not tolerate another interruption!"
"Of - of course, Master. I am truly sorry." He bowed again.
"Hmph. At any rate, I was Claimed by her, although not Chosen to dwell in Valhalla. It was Freya's intervention - apparently such a powerful mage as I was too useful to toss aside." There was a grim note of smugness in his voice, but it quickly soured. "I helped her slay the Lord of the Giants himself - it was my arts that brought him down. And what was my reward? To be tormented as a blasphemer in the pits of Helheim!"
Doragnoss shook his head slightly, afraid to speak again. His mind reeled - his master chosen by the servant of the gods that he despised? It simply could not be!
"But they underestimated my ability - nay, my very strength of will. They thought that they could control me, summon me at will and put me aside when I was no longer useful. If they had known the secrets I had found while the Valkyrie held me in thrall, I would have been obliterated." Gandar's shade laughed long and hard, and Doragnoss had to fight down the urge to ask more questions. What secrets was his master referring to? What horrible knowledge was he to be entrusted with? "Listen well," he continued after the unholy laughter faded. "When the Valkyrie liberated the Palace of the Dragon, she discovered a certain secret in the labyrinth. She read this secret to gauge its worth, and chose to send it to Odin for him to conceal. But I was awake - she thought that she could shut my eyes, but I saw the writing on the scroll through hers. And I thought on those words, used incantations that she could not feel to engrave them upon my soul, with the hope that I would someday use them to bring the gods themselves low. Do you know what that secret was, Doragnoss?"
"M... master, I couldn't even begin to-"
"Pah!" the shade raged. "Foolish boy. You are not worthy of the secrets of the ancient Golems!"
"Golems!" The young sorcerer stared at his old teacher, hardly even breathing in his shock. The ancient lost war machines of ages past - there were legends of a single Mythril Golem that had leveled an entire castle, slain every man within, and had rendered the land unusable for the rest of its existence. But these were back in the lost times before Odin had ascended, and no one had managed to recreate them... there had always been something missing. But... "You know? You know the secret that we've sought for centuries?"
"I do," the shade answered smugly. "But time grows short, my churlish student. There is no more time for idle talk. Reach out your left hand and touch my forehead, and I will pass the knowledge on to you."
Doragnoss reached out, and although his mind was eager, he found that his hand was shaking far too much. He did not want to admit that he was afraid - him, afraid of power! Ha! - but that was exactly what it was. He was terrified of what would happen. And besides that, he'd never heard of such a transfer of power before...
"Coward!" the shade snarled, flickering. "Do you want the Aesir to see? Hurry, or the knowledge is lost!"
Gritting his teeth, Doragnoss thrust his hand towards the smoky outline of his former master's forehead. He became aware faintly of a dim chanting, then of a sort of tingling sensation whispered within his skull - then a sudden, discordant sound that seemed to come from within him. The full complexity of the knowledge became crystal clear for one brief moment, before he began to convulse. He fell - dimly he felt his arm burning against the hot brazier, but not strongly enough to care - as facts and minutiae rushed into his mind. There was so much of it; surely it would blast his mind to nothing -
He heard his master's voice, one last time. "Ha, it is done! Hear me, goddess of fools! I will not be made a slave again!" But it faded quickly, and Doragnoss lapsed into unconsciousness, stretched out across the floor.
When Doragnoss awoke, there was no indication that any summoning had taken place. The candles and brazier were burning peacefully with steady orange flames. Nothing in the room had been disturbed. In fact he'd been almost convinced that he'd somehow passed out before performing the Ritual of Summoning, that he'd dreamed the whole thing.
But his arm ached, and when he looked at it he saw a long, red burn that was just starting to blister. And his head... he clutched at his temples as the pain struck. It was as though someone had driven massive spikes into his skull... it made the burn on his arm feel like a simple itch.
He staggered out of the room, forgetting his staff as he forced himself up the stairs. A pair of nervous, black-haired servants stared at him as he slammed the stairwell door open. "M'lord Doragnoss," one managed. "What...?"
"Silence!" he snapped testily. "I need... a glass of wine, mixed with a pinch of powdered Hels-bane. Now!" The servants hurriedly scurried away, and Doragnoss barely remembered to call back after them. "Red wine, fools! And bring it to my study, or I will... I'll..." But his head was hurting too much to come up with a creative sort of doom, so he let it be. They were most likely out of earshot by then anyway, if they were good servants.
He made his way to his personal study, a small room decorated in black and silver and red, and managed to collapse into an overstuffed chair. He stayed there, unmoving, even as the servants brought back his glass of wine - he only opened his eyes long enough to see that it was red wine, thankfully. As soon as they left, and he recovered enough to move, he drank the wine in one gulp - it burned his throat, but what was that to him?
After a short time, however, the pain began to fade, although it did not vanish entirely. The feeling of discomfort - of feeling almost bloated with knowledge - lingered, something that Hels-Bane could not diminish. But now, at least, he could try to absorb it in relative comfort.
He concentrated, drawing forth the knowledge that Gandar had given him... and again it rose and engulfed his mind. But he was ready for it, that time. He sat there, oblivious to the stealthy comings and goings of servants, as a thousand small details rushed over him. His mind became an endless rush of fulcrums and steel plating and lodestones, and as soon as he thought about even the most arcane details he knew exactly how they must be used to create the perfect weapon of destruction. He knew how to coat a massive plate of armor steel with a very thin plating of Mythril, to render it proof to weapons and magical energy alike. He knew... he knew so many things.
By the time he opened his eyes, the crowded feeling was gone; the knowledge had taken its proper place in his mind. And he was smiling. The possibilities were endless! Golems that walked like men, or that could swim as well as any fish... and yes, even golems that flew higher than the birds themselves. Devices that could cross Ymir's Spine and strike at the heart of the empire of Crell Monferaigne, invulnerable to all that the fools could bring to bear against them. Perhaps, he pondered, even Freya herself could not destroy these weapons.
A servant walked into the room, glanced in, and tried to flee - but Doragnoss caught her before she could. "You! woman!" he sneered, and smiled as he watched her walk back into the room. She was cringing; she feared him, but she was right to fear him. "What is the hour?"
"M'lord... the night has fallen," she said thickly, stumbling over the simple words. "The moon is high in our sky."
"Blast it," he muttered. He'd spent most of the day pondering over the knowledge... well, no matter, he told himself. "Very well," he said, staring at her. "Send word to my scribe, wench. Have him compose urgent messages to the Chief Engineer of Villnore, First Royal Advisor Heinholt, and the Lord High Sorcerer Mikaztor. Have them come to meet with me tomorrow morning... no, tomorrow afternoon, just after the third bells sound. Tell them that I have urgent business to discuss with them."
The girl had been growing very pale as he spoke. Those names... well, the Chief Engineer was no worry; he was a commoner by birth. But summoning the highest advisor of King Sigfried the Fifth, and the leader of his Counsel of Sorcerers, and to speak as if it were nothing at all... it was no wonder that she was shocked. "Y-yes, M'lord," she stammered.
"Good girl." He smiled cruelly. "And I expect good food, strong drink, and, ah, entertainment to be prepared for them as well. If they are displeased, I will hold you personally responsible, is that clear?"
He barely heard her reply, or the sounds of her awkward stumbling run as soon as she thought he couldn't see him. His mind was busy swimming with the knowledge, with the image of dozens and dozens of golems - under his command, of course, they could be no one else's - stomping over the world, leveling villages, trampling all who stood in its way. Rich or poor, strong or weak, mage or fighter... none would resist. None. He tried his best to laugh, but the best that he managed was a sort of weak cackle, and even that made his headache begin to flare up again. He pressed his hands against his temples again and decided that it was best to save his laughter for a more opportune moment.
It would come soon enough, he told himself. There wasn't a force in any of the nine worlds that could stop him now.