The fire snapped and hissed in the hearth, flames dancing along the dried wood. Orange and gold light spilled from the fireplace providing the only illumination, creating a host of shadows that huddled in corners, fearful to disturb the rooms' only occupant. The liquid that swirled in the crystal glass dangling from the man's hand reflected the flickering flame giving it an almost copper-gold tinge. He lifted the glass to his mouth and took a hearty mouthful before letting his arm rest on the edge of the lavish chair he was sitting in, facing the crackling fire.

His other hand continued to hold what looked like a fist sized ruby. The transparent stone was egg shaped and blood red in colour, with the exception of a crescent shaped streak of black that cut through the middle giving the gem an almost cat eye appearance. He turned the stone over in his hands, marvelling for the thousandth time since he acquired the object how it seemed to bask in the fire light. It danced with an inner vibrancy that made it seem almost alive, except for the black mark. Completely opaque it seemed to drink the light, a darkness so fathomless it made the depths of night seem like a midsummer day.

He sighed as his tall, lean frame settled back into the plush cushion. That stone held the answers to all of his ambitions. He'd begun setting plans in motion weeks ago, as soon as the rebellion had been quelled. He still seethed over that night. Although it had brought him the stone and given him an avenue to realize his aspirations it had come at the cost of missing his opportunity for revenge.

The murderous Faux Falaran had finally returned to Estermont, just as he suspected he would, but had once again slipped away. As had the party of fools who'd been traveling with him. To make matters worse the apothecary bitch who'd helped his son's murderer had also escaped, only Balan's cold corpse was left in the empty cells below Irbella's courthouse. His hand tightened around the glass, threatening to crush the delicate crystal.

The peasant revolt to his unabashed tyranny had been an unforeseen inconvenience that had allowed his quarry to escape in the chaos. He'd had it crushed mercilessly. It had cost him close to a hundred of his own personal soldiers but when the fires had finally been doused and the last resistance put down over five thousand of the filthy commoners had been slain. He refused to allow any of them to be returned to their families. Instead a large mass grave had been dug outside the city walls where the bodies were dumped unceremoniously. He'd left it open to the vultures and other scavengers to pick at for days as the stench hung over the pacified city like a rotten perfume.

The midden carts were instructed to dump their refuse on top of the bodies until they'd all been covered in a layer of shit and filth. Finally he'd given the order to fill in the pit, his message delivered to the rest of the citizens. The gates had been sealed and no one permitted to leave without a personal writ signed by himself.

He declared the city of Estermont an independent nation on the continent on Ayuan, and himself as King. Daring King Odouart to do something about it. Blacksmiths were working furiously under his orders to produce weapons and armour for the army he was growing. He didn't need the Shield of Kymdos to be named the heir to the Ayuan throne, with the fire Elemental Stone he could seize the crown for himself. King Keswick sounded so much better than merely being an heir, it was also much more immediate.

A commotion outside the heavy wooden door on the other side of the room broke his reverie. He fought the urge to walk across the rug covered floor and confront whoever was making the racket himself. Using the stone to channel something nasty and incinerate who dared disturb his musings. Instead he lifted his glass and drained the remnants of his drink, forcing himself to be calm. He'd told the guard outside his door that he wasn't to be disturbed, he'd trust the man to do his job.

A putrid odour reached his nose, making him gag and want to retch, seconds before a loud howl split the night. It sounded as though it was coming from right outside his door and was accompanied by a sickening thud that he seemed to feel more than hear. It made the wall shake, knocking an antique sword lose from its bracket on the wall to clatter nosily against the floor.

This time he did rise from the chair, one hand wrapped around the elemental stone while the other was held in front of him facing the door, fingers splayed. The crystal glass shattered as it hit the floor, forgotten as savage growls and low moans emanated from the hallway. The smell permeated the room, an invisible smoke that threatened to tear apart his nostrils.

The door was suddenly thrown violently open to smash into the wall behind it, the heavy wooden boards cracking from the force of the blow. Keswick took an involuntary step backwards, his heart thumping and mind reeling. Who'd dare to assault him in his own home?

Answering his thoughts, a man emerged from the darkened hallway striding calmly into the rich firelight. He paused just past the threshold, his cold, black eyes staring at Keswick the way a bird would size up a particularly appealing insect. A large hulking shadow lingered back in the hallway, a deeper part of the darkness. He stared back, his tongue frozen, the spell that would vaporize the intruder trapped inside him. The seconds passed like eons before the visitor finally lifted his gaze to peer around the study.

Firelight danced along the row of book shelves that lined the back wall of the study and glinted from the polished metal of the suits of armour that stood vigil to the intrusion. A large heavy table that could have seated a dozen lay covered in maps and open books, several unlit candles sprinkled across its surface.

"Well, aren't you going to invite me in?" The man's voice sounded like dried leaves being crushed.

Keswick snapped out of his frozen state and quickly chanted the spell that would blow the unwelcome intruder apart. His body coursed with the magic as the power flowed through the elemental stone and into him, coalescing at his fingertips, a charged ball of flame ready to be launched.

The intruder calmly reached out one hand and snapped a finger. The power coming from the stone instantly stopped as if someone had blown out a candle, plunging a room into darkness. Keswick's mouth dropped as the ball of flame winked out in a small puff of smoke. He stared first at his empty hand before turning to look at the elemental stone, confusion etched onto his features.

"What the…" he began.

"Now that's not a very polite way to introduce yourself to your new master," the uninvited guest said casually as he walked further into the room. His robes, a blue so dark they bordered on black, swished softly as he walked into the room, making his way towards a slab of a desk set in the back corner of the study.

"Who the hell are you?" Keswick demanded as he struggled to regain some composure while making sense of what had just happened.

"In Hell they call me Uhdros," he said simply, flopping into the oversized chair that sat behind the desk.

"Impossible," Keswick said behind a hollow laugh. "Uhdros has been dead for millennia."

Now it was the snowy haired intruders turn to look surprised, although only mildly. "Not many these days recognize the name," he said curiously. "I didn't expect to find a disciple of Kylaldir in you."

"I'm no worshipper of the Fallen One," Keswick spat, "but I am a historian, particularly in reference to religious history."

"Ah," Uhdros sighed, "of course. History."

"The same histories that say Kymdos ventured into the ancient city of Mitrora in search of an ancient artifact of great power but never left. Some exceedingly rare sources say he encountered the necromancer Uhdros and they were both slain."

"Both slain yes, both killed…" He spread his arms widely, "I'm afraid your sources may have gotten that one wrong."


"Faithful service to the Master is never unrewarded. A lesson you may wish to take to heart." Uhdros began picking at the assortment of books and papers that lay scattered across the top of the huge desk. He made a subtle gesture with one finger and the candles perched on the candelabra that sat at the head of the desk burst into flame.

There was a shuffling from outside the doorway and a slurping sound as if one of his hounds was gorging on a fresh killed boar. He shuddered to think of the guard who was posted outside and the hulking shadow he'd seen behind Uhdros.

Keswick walked over to the table and poured a healthy dose of an amber liquid into another glass. He fought to keep his hands steady and not let any of the liquid splash onto his precious scrolls and papers. Uhdros didn't seem ready to kill him which meant he was here for another reason. He downed the glass in one mouthful and quickly poured another.

"To what do I owe the pleasure of a visit from the world's most powerful necromancer who's been dead for thousands of years?"

"You have something of mine," he said simply without looking up from the parchment he was reading.

"I highly doubt that," Keswick scoffed. "I have several artifacts from throughout history but I am fairly certain that none of them would have belonged to you."

"On the contrary," Uhdros raised his head to look Keswick in the eyes, "I beg to differ." His dead, black stare sent terror along the self-proclaimed king's spine. Keswick began to shiver involuntarily before Uhdros dropped his gaze so that he was staring at the elemental stone clutched in the nobleman's hand.

"This?" Keswick said incredulously.

"The same."

"You're claiming that an elemental stone belongs to you." He almost laughed at the pretentiousness of the man's gumption.

"Let me guess," Uhdros began slowly, folding his arms in front of him and resting them on the desk. "You're going to claim that the stone is yours because it is in your possession? Or will you give me some grand spiel about how Jahlenea gifted the stones to all of mankind, and a claim from any one man that the stone belongs to him is absurd?" He waited as if expecting and answer his eyes once again boring into the self-proclaimed king.

"No, I thought not. The stone belongs to me and I have come to claim it."

"And if I refuse to give it up?"

A small smile lit at the corners of Uhdros mouth but didn't come close to reaching his fathomless eyes.

"Why? Because you are a mighty Enchanter of Flame and with this stone you are almost unstoppable?" Uhdros laughed a mirthless laugh. "You are nothing! What did your precious stone do to save you when I walked in here? Would it save you if I offered you to my dragur? Not if I willed it otherwise."

Keswick's blood chilled as he remembered the fireball he had prepared, ready to blast this intruder into millions of flaming pieces. With a snap of a finger he'd dissipated the fireball and somehow blocked Keswick from drawing the power through the stone. Could he really have sway over the Elemental Stone?

"I don't believe you are a stupid man," Uhdros continued, speaking slowly as if he were talking to a dullard. "Despite your efforts to prove me otherwise. If you are a historical scholar as you claim, think back to everything you've ever learned of the stones."

The truth was he didn't have to think hard about the stone at all. There'd been a question burning through his mind ever since he'd taken the stone from that sorceress bitch. All counts of the stone described it exactly as it was with one exception, the black streak that pierced it like a knife in the heart.

"The streak," he whispered.

"Ho, ho. You may just be useful yet," Uhdros clapped his hands together, looking very much like a proud professor who'd just seen his prized student solve a particularly challenging puzzle. "Yes, the streak."

He rose from behind the desk and came around to face the stupefied King of Estermont. He grasped the stone from Keswick's hand without resistance.

"I prefer to call it a taint," he said slyly, "but regardless of what you call it, it is my mark, making the stone mine."

"Why?" Keswick said breathlessly.

"Why? To free my master of course." Uhdros caressed the stone lovingly like a soldier returning to a lover after years abroad.

Keswick fell back into the chair he'd been sitting in earlier. "I don't understand."

"Honestly, I'd be shocked if you did." Uhdros replied testily. "Kylaldir was banished to this world by the All God for trying to kill that tart bitch Jahlenea and claim these stones for himself. This world was created from the magic that is contained within these stones. If the stones can be gathered I can reverse the banishment and free Kylaldir to roam this world freely. A god among men."

Uhdros poured himself a drink from the same pitcher Keswick had used and took a long swallow before returning to the desk, the Elemental Stone in tow.

"Of course to reverse the banishment the stones must be tainted with the Fallen One's own touch." He raised the Stone of Fire, showing off the cat eye like black mark, "As this one has been."

"But how did you interrupt my magic?" Keswick demanded.

"An unforeseen, albeit fortuitous, side effect," he replied, settling back into the chair behind the desk. "The taint can block the stone's power. If you know how to tap into it, which since I created it I most certainly do."

He went back to reading the parchment he'd been looking at earlier, idly sipping the amber spirit. A log cracked in the fireplace with a loud snap making Keswick jump as a spray of flankers scattered across the hearth. He could hear the dragur shuffling outside the door as if it was getting restless. He opened his mouth to speak but a sharply raised finger from Uhdros cut him off without him ever looking up from the parchment. Another uncomfortable moment of silence passed between the two men before Uhdros finally regarded him, his face contorted into a broad, lifeless smile.

"Excellent," he cooed, "Just excellent. Here," he tossed the Elemental Stone to the startled Keswick. "You'll need this."

"Need it? For what?"

"Your journey. You will recover the next Elemental Stone for me."

"The next stone?"
"I'm starting to wonder if you're really this dense and it's not an act." Uhdros frowned across the desk. "Yes, the next stone. I need all four, tainted, and in my possession to free Kylaldir. That," he pointed to the one in Keswick's hand, "is one."

Evanson Keswick just stared at the man seated behind his own desk, his mind reeling as his plans began crumbling to ash before his eyes. "And if I refuse?"

"Service to my master has many rewards," Uhdros said coldly. "Refusal or disobedience also carries many consequences." He let the unspoken threat hang between them.

"Now that business has been concluded there is one other matter I'd like to speak to you about." He leaned forward on the desk, steepling his fingers in front of him. "I hear you have been searching for a half-elf who murdered your son."

"That is correct," Keswick replied, a sudden flash of anger burning through his fear of the undead necromancer. "He invaded my home and killed my only son in cold blood, without provocation."

"I see," Uhdros said, one eyebrow slightly raised. "A tragedy. This half-elf was recently here in the company of a red haired sorceress, an Enchantress of Flame? The woman whom you reclaimed my stone from?"

"Yes," Keswick said in a clipped tone, upset that his son's death was passed over so easily. "Although they managed to flee with the rest of their group before I could have them all killed."

"A trivial matter," Uhdros replied calmly, picking up his drink and settling back into the chair again. "Tell me everything you know of them."