/ Language: English / Genre:sf_fantasy / Series: Legends of the Raven

Demonstorm

James Barclay


James Barclay

Demonstorm

THE RAVEN

Hirad Coldheart barbarian warrior

The Unknown Warrior/Sol warrior

Throun shapechanger

Ry Darrick cavalry swordsman

Denser xeteskian mage

Erienne dordovan mage

THE COLLEGES

Dystran lord of the mount, xetesk

Ranyl circle seven master mage, xetesk

Myx a protector

Suamv captain, xeteskian college guard

Chandyr commander, xeteskian armies

Nyam senior mage, xetesk

Vuldaroq arch mage, dordover

Heryst lord elder mage, lystern

Izack commander, lysternan cavalry

Pheone high mage designate, julatsa

THE ELVES

Myriell al-drechar

Cleress al-drechar

Rebraal leader of the al-arynaar

Auum leader of the taigethen

Evunn tai cell of auum

Duele tai cell of auum

Dila'heth elven mage The ClawBound

BALAIANS, WESMEN, DRAGONS AND DEMONS

Blackthorne a baron

Ark an ex-protector

Devun leader of the black wings

Diem wife of the unknown warrior

Tessaya lord of the paleon tribes

Riasu lord keeper of understone pass

Sha-Kaan great kaan

Yasal-Naik great naik

Ferouc master strain

Drenoul master strain

Chapter 1

'Again!' Tessaya swept his arm down. 'Again!'

The Wesmen charged the walls of Xetesk once more, tribal banners snapping in the breeze, voices mingling to a roar. The ladders drove into position, his warriors stormed up their rough rungs. Below them, archers tried to keep the defenders back from the wall. A difficult task over such a distance.

In the deep night-shadows of Xetesk's walls, tribesmen pivoted more ladders. Along a four-hundred-yard stretch of wall tlrey arced up. The best of them just rough-cut and bound, the worst little more than shaved trunks of the tallest trees they could find. In earlier attacks, some had not been tall enough. He saw the ladders catching the light of the torches on the battlements before they thudded into place, warriors already swarming up them two abreast.

This time he had his enemy. This time, the Wesmen would break through the defences. He could feel it. In the daylight, many had died. Spells and arrows had ripped into wood and flesh. Burning warriors had tumbled to the ground screaming. Ladders, charred or frozen, had cracked and collapsed in heartbeats.

Yet the tribes had not faltered. Urged on by their lords who could see victory so close they had continued to press. And while hundreds scoured the land for the wood to build more ladders, hundreds more died at the Walls doing exactly what had to be done. They exhausted the spell casters.

Tessaya saw the outlines of men running along the battlements to prepare their defence. Below them, holding shields above their heads, came his warriors. It was the fourth attack of the day. The night was just passing its zenith, and the spells no longer deluged them.

In desultory fashion, the odd casting blew away the top of a ladder and the men that scaled it. But that was all. Tessaya had foreseen this moment and had kept back his greatest force. Xetesk no longer had the magical power to stop them. Now it came down to who was the stronger with sword, axe and spear. And that was a battle he knew the Wesmen would win.

He watched for a moment longer. Arrows still peppered the warriors streaming up the ladders. His people still fell in their dozens. He breathed the night air deeply. The smells of ash and fear mingled with the freshness of grass in the breeze. He heard the voices of the Wesmen, their tribal songs echoing from the walls of Xetesk. They were the anthems of strength and victory, swelling in volume with every heartbeat.

He turned to Lord Riasu. The man's small eyes sparkled in the darkness and his heavy-set features had reddened with excitement.

'You can feel it too.'

'I can, Lord Tessaya,' said Riasu. 'We are so close.'

'And what is your desire now?'

Riasu nodded in the direction of the walls. More and more Wesmen were higher and higher up the ladders. Arrows alone were not enough and the spells had all but stopped falling. One deep blue flash to their left served as a reminder of the diminished threat.

'My men are on those ladders,' he said. T would join them. Lead them onto the walls.'

Tessaya smiled and slapped Riasu hard on the back. 'It is a wish I share.'

He looked quickly about him. Six other tribal lords stood with them, their warriors, a thousand and more, ready to charge forwards. Their shouts of encouragement to those already engaged sounded across the open ground. Beyond them, the fires of the camp burned and the Paleon guard stood watch over the Shamen while they prayed for guidance and strength from the Spirits. Prayers that had surely been answered.

The group of lords was close to him. All wanted just one thing but waited for Tessaya's word. Ten tribes and their lords had been unleashed already. The glory of being the first to make the walls outweighing the risk of death. Three of those lords had joined the Spirits as heroes. Four more would join them shortly. The remaining three were at the walls now.

'It is time,' said Tessaya. He unhitched his axe and held it in one hand. 'My Lords, let us deal the greatest blow.'

He raised his axe high above his head, roared a Paleon war cry and led the charge to the walls. Behind him, the lords invoked their tribal Spirits and came after him, a thousand warriors with them, voices raised to a deafening crescendo.

Tessaya ran. His braided silver-grey hair bounced on his shoulders; his arms and legs pumped hard, the breeze was on his face. He couldn't remember ever feeling more alive. Not even leading the Wesmen out of the shadow of Understone Pass matched this. Then, they had so much still to accomplish and had failed. Now, their goal was within his grasp.

His forgotten youth surged back into his middle-aged veins. His heart thumped life through his body. His mind was clear, his eyes sharp. The Spirits were with him and within him. Nothing could stop him. He laughed aloud and upped his pace.

The darkness deepened in the lee of Xetesk's walls. Seventy feet high, with a slight outward slope. Imposing, menacing and never before breached. Here, the noise of the fight intensified. Tessaya could hear tlie thud of bow strings, the creaking of the wood against its bindings and the calls of the Wesmen above him, silhouetted against the flare of torches.

As they had been ordered, the Wesmen, barring those bracing and those about to climb, did not cluster around the ladder bases. They were scattered across the field, waiting the shout to approach. No dense targets for the mages, no easy masses for the archers.

Tessaya ran past the waiting warriors, his name being taken up and spreading across the field quicker than a scrub fire. And by the time he had run through the waiting warriors and had his path cleared to the base of the ladder, all he could hear was the chanting of his name.

He thumped onto the bottom rung, exhorting those around and above him to push harder. Riasu was right behind him, yelling in a tribal dialect Tessaya could barely understand. Not that he had to. The message was clear enough.

Tessaya climbed fast, feeling the timber give beneath his feet and the ladder shake and bow. But the bindings were firm and would hold. Left and right, Wesmen hurried up their ladders. Energy was

pouring into the assault now Tessaya had joined. Those in the fight knew they would not fail.

'Keep close to the rungs,' ordered Tessaya. 'Don't give them a target.'

A shame not all of his men heeded that advice. Arrows were still streaming by. One thudded home into the exposed neck of a warrior who risked looking up to see how far he had to go. Screaming, he plunged past Tessaya and bounced dead on the ground below.

'Keep moving!' he shouted.

There was a man right above him. Tessaya unashamedly used him as a shield. He noted how far he had climbed by the closeness of the wall behind the ladder. Not far now.

Another spell flashed across the night sky. To his left, ice howled into flesh and wood, expanding into cracks and splitting bindings and rungs. The ladder shattered, spilling survivors onto the long drop to death. Tessaya cursed. But the roar was intensifying above him and he heard the first glorious sounds of metal on metal, his warriors finally face to face with the Xeteskian defenders. A smile cracked across his face.

'Still with me, Riasu?' he called.

'I am, my Lord,' came the slightly breathless reply. 'I can smell their fear.'

'Then let's not delay you seeing it in their eyes,' said Tessaya. 'Push!'

Now Tessaya looked up. He was only ten or so feet from the battlements. The arrows had stopped now. His men were climbing faster and he along with them, desperate to reach the walls before the small bridgehead was closed. One body fell to his right. Sparks flew as weapons collided and the songs of the Wesmen grew still louder, instilling in them all the desire to fight harder. For the tribes, for themselves, and for all those who had died to bring them to this place.

Those above him were still moving too slowly for his liking. Holding his axe outside the right-hand edge of the ladder, he shifted as far as he dared to that side and began to shout warriors from his path.

'Left, go left. Let me through. Go, go!'

He could sense Riasu right in his tracks. Using his left hand to steady himself, Tessaya surged up the rungs, using the ladder's angle against the wall to give him momentum. The breach was still

holding. His men were breasting the walls scant feet from him. He could smell the stone, cold and ancient.

The sounds of the fighting came slightly muted to him. The individual batdes. Grunts of exertion, cries of pain and shock. The thud and clash of weapon on leather and chain. The squeal of blades thrust together. The drop of bodies on stone and the scrabbling of feet desperate for purchase and balance.

Right at the head of the ladder, the reason for the slow progress above became clear. One warrior clung fast to the top rung. He had been sick over his hands and his weapon was still sheathed. Tessaya paused by him, swallowing his disgust at the cowardice when he saw the warrior's age.

'Stand with me, boy,' he said. 'Live or die you will know glory.'

The boy gave him a terrified look but nodded minutely.

'Good lad.'

Tessaya grabbed his collar and hauled him up the final step. In the next pace, they were on the walls and surrounding them was bedlam. Even Tessaya found the surge in volume of noise and the closeness of the action hard to take in. His charge wobbled at the knees. Urine poured down the boy's leggings and he vomited again. But in the midst of it all, he drew his blade, a short stabbing sword.

In die light cast by torches and braziers, the small breach was under concerted attack. Three other breaches could be seen left and right. Xeteskians were running in from the right and were packed left but coming under pressure from Wesmen on bodi sides. The parapet was no more than five feet wide, was unfenced and had never been built to defend in this fashion. Tessaya saw the game at once.

'Push out!' he yelled and jumped from the wall onto the bodies of the dead and into the backs of the living, shoving hard.

The Wesmen in Tessaya's way were forced off balance, able only to try and brace themselves against their, enemies. In front of them, the reflex backward pace was fatal. With nowhere to go, the three Xeteskians nearest the edge stepped out into nowhere, grabbed at those nearest and at least half a dozen fell into the city far below. One of his warriors went with them. Two others saved themselves.

'Keep the breach open,' he ordered. 'Fight, my tribes, fight. Hold

right, push left. Let's isolate those bastards. Someone get these bodies over the edges.'

They obeyed. Tessaya was with them and they would do anything he asked of them. He looked back to see where the boy was and saw him fighting and killing; terror replaced by the desire to live. He would not.

Riasu breasted the battlement and howled a battle cry, circling his axe above his head.

'Riasu, pass the message back down the ladders. I want clear wall between the two nearest gatehouses. Do it!'

Without waiting, Tessaya plunged into the fight. His axe carved down between two of his warriors, splitting the skull of an enemy. Blood fountained into the torchlit night. The first Xeteskian blood he had spilt in years. He drew back his axe to move into the space his warriors left him.

Before he focused on his next victim, he stared out over the city of Xetesk. The towers of the college stood stark against the sky, light blazing from every window and wall.

'I am coming,' he growled. T will cast you down.'

'Get back to the walls!' ordered Dystran, Lord of the Mount of Xetesk. 'Wesmen are standing on them. I look at my senior commander and do I really have to wonder why?'

Dystran had intercepted Commander Chandyr in the dome of the college tower complex having seen his most decorated soldier thundering through the streets on his horse. The otherwise empty dome echoed to raised voices. Chandyr's battle-scarred face was pale and angry. Dystran knew exactly how he felt.

'No, my Lord,' said Chandyr. 'You have withdrawn too many mages to the college. Give them back.'

'I will not exhaust every mage I have.'

'Then do not expect me to hold the walls much longer.'

'Ever the poor soldier blames lack of resource and support.'

Chandyr's eyes narrowed. 'Three thousand men against a few hundred, and many of those only just returned exhausted by forced march from Julatsa. What would you have me do, Lord Dystran?'

'I would have you do your job.'

'I am doing it,' said Chandyr quietly. 'I am before you trying to prevent a massacre.'

'Then how is it Wesmen have scaled my walls?'

Chandyr snapped. Dystran saw the shadow cross his eyes and felt the sharp prod of the commander's gauntleted finger in his ribs.

'Xetesk's walls, not yours,' he said, menace in his tone. 'And they are there because the defence to keep them away was taken from me by you at dusk. You have a responsibility "to this city which you are shirking. What use is the college if the city is burning around it, eh?'

Dystran did not speak for a moment, allowing Chandyr to lower his hand.

'The college is the city,' he said. 'And as ruler of the college, all the walls are mine. I shirk nothing, Chandyr. Indeed I should be applauded for taking mages from the slaughter over which you are presiding. They at least will be able to strike back.'

'Another of your indiscriminate dimensional spells, Dystran?' Chandyr scoffed. 'You will kill more innocents than enemies.'

T will stop the Wesmen,' said Dystran, feeling his patience expire. 'And you, Commander Chandyr, will remember to whom you are speaking and, if you take my advice, will choose your next words very, very carefully.'

A half-smile flickered across Chandyr's mouth. It didn't touch his eyes. He nodded and took a pace forwards, coming so close Dystran could barely focus on him.

'Never accuse me of being a poor soldier again.'

'Men are judged by their actions,' replied Dystran mildly, though his heart was beating faster.

'You only get one warning,' said Chandyr.

The commander spun on his heel and strode from the dome, shouting for his horse. Dystran watched him go, letting his anger build. He had no wish to suppress it and enjoyed the heat it generated in his mind and body.

Chandyr did not understand, he reflected, hurrying out of the dome towards the base of his tower. His guards saluted him on his approach. Something else Chandyr had failed to do. A typical soldier. Blind to the bigger picture. Fit only to accomplish the task set before him and sometimes not even that.

'I want Sharyr in my reception chamber right now,' he ordered. 'He'll be in my hub rooms.'

'Yes, my Lord,' said both men.

Dystran began to climb his stairs. He replayed Chandyr's words, the tiny claws of doubt scratching at his self-confidence. That they had underestimated the Wesmen was not in question. This had been no disordered attack. There were brains and tactics behind it along with brimming determination and a willingness for self-sacrifice that had been breathtaking. Tessaya was out there somewhere.

What taxed Dystran most was not that the Wesmen lord had managed to marshal his warriors into very effective decoy and draw units. The issue here was that he plainly knew Xetesk was poorly defended by mage and soldier and had deliberately kept up his attack waves to force stamina exhaustion. Where had he got his intelligence?

Tessaya's aim had been obvious earlier in the day. It was why Dystran had withdrawn a core of mages to join the dimensional team and prepare for the next casting window. A window that had better be open.

Chandyr had been unable to hold the Wesmen back, though. He was surprised and disappointed by that. Xeteskian soldiers and archers should have been able to deal with a few ladders. How was it then that Wesmen had done that which no one should have been able to do?

Perhaps he should have probed further.

By the time he reached his reception chamber on the third landing, he could hear running footsteps behind him. He threw open the balcony shutters of the dimly lit room to reveal an uncomfortable picture of the threat to his city. He augmented his sight with a quick casting to sharpen the fine detail.

Lights blazed in a wide ring around an area over two hundred yards in length. It was bustling with Wesmen but not thronged. They were attacking left and right towards the nearest turrets and had built a shield wall, fresh-cut wood for the most part, towards the city. Archers were having some success but it was not affecting the advance along the battlements.

Chandyr had defended the turrets heavily. The Wesmen were suffering significant casualties but without a solitary spell to force them back to their ladders their weight of numbers would ultimately tell. How soon was hard to say. Before dawn in all probability.

'Dammit,' he breathed. 'Where did I go wrong?'

'My Lord?' queried a voice behind him.

'Sharyr,' said Dystran, not turning to face his new head of dimensional magics. Barely more than a student but the best he had left. 'Come here. Tell me what you see.'

He heard a nervous shuffle then slightly laboured breathing mixing with snatches of noise from the walls. Dystran looked across to Sharyr and watched the balding young man scanning the night, anxious to pick up whatever he was supposed to see. He shifted uncomfortably and gave a half shrug.

'Wesmen on the walls?' he ventured, voice tremulous.

'Excellent,' said Dystran. 'Does that scare you?'

'Yes, my Lord,' said Sharyr. T have family in the city.'

'Then they are fortunate because you will personally be keeping them safe, won't you?'

'Me? I-'

Dystran turned to face his nervous student.

'The distance between the walls of the city and those of this college is slight for a rampaging Wesmen army. Less than a mile, wouldn't you say?'

'My Lord.'

'This is not a big city,' said Dystran. 'When do you think the Wesmen will take either of those turrets?'

Sharyr stared at him blankly.

'You see,' continued Dystran. 'When they do, they will have access to our streets and more importantly, the south gatehouse. And there are thousands of them just itching to get in.'

'Yes, my Lord.'

'The point is that this undefined but quite possibly short length of time is how long you have to be ready to cast the spell of your choosing.'

'I-' Sharyr backed up a pace into the room.

Dystran turned to follow him. 'You do understand that none of those men will reach the college, don't you? If Chandyr can't stop them, you will. Won't you?'

'The — the alignment isn't going to be complete until this time tomorrow night,' managed Sharyr.

'Oh dear,' said Dystran, putting a hand to his mouth. 'Whatever will you do?'

'Well, I don't know, my Lord,' replied Sharyr, missing Dystran's sarcasm completely.

Dystran bore down on Sharyr, forcing the younger man to back away across the room.

'Then let me enlighten you.' His voice barely above a whisper. carried all the menace of long practice. 'You will be ready to cast because you and I both know that the alignment can be forced for the purposes of the casting. I have written at great length on the subject. The spell will be difficult to control and you will instruct your charges how to handle the forces and inform them of the personal consequences of failure. Backfire from a dimensional casting is very, very messy.'

Sharyr fetched up against the mantle of the fire. Fortunately for him, diere was no heat from the embers.

'The risks to our city. .' he began.

Dystran leant in further. 'The Wesmen will take this college if they are not stopped. That is the risk to our city. You will stop them or you will die in the attempt. Any of your team who feel they are not up to the task can report to me to discuss it.'

'I-'

'Do not fail, Sharyr.' Dystran straightened and stepped back a pace, seeing the terror in the student's expression, the sweat beading on his brow and the darting of his eyes. He chose to smile. 'You have heard the shout, "Death or glory"? Bet you thought it only applied to soldiers, didn't you? Think again, get down to the catacombs and be ready. When the time comes, I will call you personally to the walls of the city. Go.'

Sharyr had the presence of mind at least to bow his head and mutter, 'My Lord.'

But the door to the reception chamber opened before he reached it and an old man with tears on his face stood in the brazier light from the stairway. It was Brannon, Ranyl's manservant of decades.

'Please, my Lord,' he said. 'You must come quickly.'

Dystran felt his world dropping around him and fear shiver though his body.

'Oh no,' he breathed, already starting to run. 'Not now. Not now.'

Chapter 2

Hirad Coldheart sat on the steps of Julatsa's refectory. The night was warm and peaceful. From outside the college, he could hear the odd snatch of life. A cart rattling over cobbles; horse hoofs echoing against buildings; a voice raised in greeting. He breathed in deeply, feeling his chest wound pull under its bandages. It was a stubborn one. Magic had knitted the muscle but his skin was still sore and tight. A mark of age, he supposed. A little like the grey flecks he'd found in his long braids.

He knew he shouldn't but he felt released. All the problems that Balaia still faced and for the first time in so long he and The Raven were not bound by honour or contract to do anything about them. He knew he should still care but he found he couldn't. Not at the moment. Not ever, probably.

There was tension in Julatsa as those who had fled began to return. The city's rulers still hadn't had the guts to come to the college. There would be trouble, he was sure of it. And beyond this city, Dordover, Xetesk and Lystern presumably still fought. They'd battle themselves to a standstill. All too proud to sue for peace before the maximum blood was spilt.

He knew he should worry about where the country he loved was going but something was missing. Looking over at the Heart of Julatsa, around which would soon be constructed a new tower, he knew exactly what it was. It wasn't the country itself that was great and worth saving. It was the people he loved that wanted to live there. And they were dead or leaving. All of them.

Ilkar might have been the final straw for him but there were Sirendor, Ras, Richmond, Will and Jandyr too. All dead despite everything he had tried to do to save them. And The Unknown, Denser and Erienne were all thinking of their families across the

ocean, alive or dead. Thraun would go with them because The Raven were his family. Either that or return to the pack. He would not be drawn on the subject. That left Darrick. Hirad chuckled. If there was one man more wanted than the rest of The Raven, it was Darrick. He really had little choice.

So they would all be travelling back to take ship near Blackthorne with those very few elves that could be spared from the effort to shore up the college now the Heart was risen. Rebraal had to go. The Al-Arynaar needed their leader on Calaius. The same was true of Auum and the TaiGethen and of course, where he went, so did his Tai. Finally, Hirad would have bet everything he owned on the single ClawBound pair returning to the rainforests. They had been mourning for those of their kind lost since the end of the siege. That they missed their homeland and dieir kin was somediing he could read even in the eyes of the panther. They were outside now, staring up at the stars and knowing dieir positions were all wrong.

Hirad drained his goblet of wine and looked down at his plate. It was empty of the bread and meat he'd taken. Thinking it was probably time to turn in, he picked up the plate and turned to rise. Denser and The Unknown were just coming out of die refectory, a wineskin and goblets in hand. He smiled at diem both, the sharp-featured mage and the shaven-headed warrior.

'Where do you think you're going, Coldheart?' said The Unknown.

'For a refill?' ventured Hirad.

'Correct answer,' said Denser.

The two men sat either side of him. Denser filled his goblet.

'What's this, some sort of deputation?'

'No,' said The Unknown. 'We just thought it's a long time since we'd sat and drunk wine together. The others'll be out soon.'

'Time to toast the dead and move on, eh?' Hirad nodded at the Heart.

'Something like that,' replied Denser.

'Well, no sense in hanging about.' Hirad raised his glass. Tlkar. An elf without peer and a friend I will miss for ever.'

The goblets clacked together. Hirad drained his in one and nudged Denser for more.

'He'll be proud of us, you know,' said Denser, rubbing a hand across his neatly trimmed and still jet-black beard.

'He'd bloody better be. Almost saw the end of the lot of us, dragging that piece of rubble from its hole.'

Denser laughed loud. Out in the courtyard, the panther turned her head lazily. 'Ah, Hirad, ever able to bring everything down to its most basic level.'

'Best thing is, though, whatever happens to us, this is a memorial to him, isn't it?' said Hirad. 'I mean, it's only raised because of what he started us doing.' He sighed, heart heavy for a moment. 'Should have been here to see it though, shouldn't he?'

There was a silence, each man lost in memories.

'You ready to go?' asked The Unknown.

Hirad shrugged and looked up into The Unknown's flint-grey eyes. 'Well, it's not as if I've got much to pack.'

'That isn't what I meant.'

'I know.'

The Unknown punched him on the arm. 'So tell me.'

'That hurt.'

'Not as much as the next one will.'

Hirad eyed the bunched muscles beneath the smile. 'Actually, I was thinking about it before you two interrupted me. There's nothing keeping me here now. And I'm tired of fighting. Really. Look at all we've done. And the only monuments are those we have built for our dead friends. Nearly everyone else wants us dead too. Ungrateful bastards.'

'We thought we'd go tomorrow. First light,' said The Unknown.

Hirad raised his eyebrows. 'Are we fit for that? I'm talking about Erienne, of course.'

'She's fine,' said Denser. 'Physically at any rate. I think she just can't make up her mind which part of arriving back on Herendeneth she is looking forward to least. Seeing Lyanna's grave or getting taught about the One by Cleress.'

'We'll get south all right, will we?' asked Hirad. 'There's still a war on, you know.'

'Nothing escapes you, does it?' said Denser.

'Darrick picked a route. I agree with it,' said The Unknown. 'It'll

see us back to Blackthorne without much problem. Then all we have to do is wait for the Calaian Sun to put into the Bay of Gyernath.'

'So long as you're happy,' said Hirad.

'I am,' said The Unknown. 'But you know how it is. We don't move until you say.'

Hirad felt that familiar surge. Even on their way out of the country they'd fought to save from itself for so long, even on their way to retirement, The Raven was still working. He nodded.

'There's no reason to stay if we're all fit to travel.' He smiled and looked across at The Unknown. 'Thanks for asking.'

'You know how it is.'

'Yeah.' Hirad stood up and looked down into his goblet, seeing the ripples in the dark liquid. 'Where are the others? I feel the need for another toast to someone or other.'

Sha-Kaan turned a lazy roll in the air. Below him, the mists enveloped the valley of the Kaan Broodlands. Ahead of him, the plains of Domar and the dense steaming forests of Teras fled away beyond the encircling mountains of Beshara from which the dragon dimension took its name. The mountains that made his valley so rich and humid, trapping the moisture and heat.

He could hear the calls of his brood-in-flight, operating the patterns that kept intruders from entering the Broodlands. Now more than ever, they must not fail. Now more than ever, they were prone to attack.

Sha-Kaan blessed the strength of Hirad Coldheart and The Raven. He blessed their belief and determination, their energy and their courage. Without them, he would not have been here to lead his brood at this most critical time and their own belief would surely have faltered. And without Hirad in particular, he would not have been able to spend these last days in the healing streams of inter-dimensional space. To relax in the Klene, the melde corridor that was anchored at one end by the brood consciousness and at die other by the remarkable barbarian's, and there be tended by the Vestare. His servant race. Faithful, steeped in awe of their masters and living to serve under their protection. It was a pleasure he had thought denied him for ever.

Sha-Kaan felt the frightened excitement of a dozen brood-at-

spawn. Their time was upon them. The next cycle of light and dark would see new births for the Kaan to celebrate and protect. The energy of a birth could be felt far beyond the Broodlands, in the minds of their enemies. Such was the danger linked to the joy of every birth. It was the reason the brood flew now, securing their borders, and would fly in even greater numbers very soon. The Kaan were ageing. They could not afford to lose any of their young.

Sha-Kaan pulsed out with his mind to his brood. His return had been like a birth to them and now of course they looked to their Great Kaan for guidance as they had done for so many cycles. He pulsed orders to be wary, to ensure the flight patterns were kept tight, and to keep the Kaan-in-flight changing and so keep them all fresh. And he pulsed harmony, calm and his confidence in living births to the brood-at-spawn.

Driving his wings hard for a dozen beats, he swept upwards, meaning to look down on his lands from the outer markers where his patrols circled, eyes and minds alert for early signs of enemies. He greeted them with barks and a pulse that warned against complacency.

Reaching his desired height, he turned into a gentle downward-spiralling glide, feeling the rush of the wind over his scales and fully extended wings. His eyes searched below, looking for anything he had missed, any gap that should be closed. He counted just on a hundred Kaan above the mist layer. There would be an equal number below it and twice that many at rest in chouls across the Broodlands.

It looked an impressive defence but it represented the immature and the very old in addition to those of fighting age. The Naik were strong. They knew Kaan birthings were close. He wondered whether they believed an attack worth the probable losses. They had so often proved an impossible brood to gauge. At once utterly, dismissive of rival broods' rights to land in Beshara and surprisingly concessionary and honest in alliance.

The Kaan had not experienced alliance with the Naik themselves but knew their ways from the Veret, a dying brood threatened and now defended by the Naik in a bizarre turn of attitude.

An attack depended on the Naik ability to defend their own homelands while trying to take the Kaan's. That meant new alliances

would have to be made. Sha-Kaan wished he had the time to visit the Veret to get some indication of likely force but they were too far distant.

Satisfied his flight organisation left no unseen access for their enemies, he sailed down faster. A rest in a choul was what he needed now to further ease his ageing muscles, not yet healed by his rest in inter-dimensional space; its coolness, darkness and companionship would be very welcome. But before that, he probed Hirad Cold-heart's mind. Across the uncertainties of inter-dimensional space and into Balaia, he let his consciousness wander.

He could sense the enemies that probed its enclosing membrane, looking for a way in. The Arakhe. Demons, the Balaians called them. An ever-present danger to every creature that inhabited the countless dimensions; and besides enemy broods, the only threat to the Kaan. Balaia was calm. The dimensional magic that had alerted the Arakhe had caused no lasting damage. The tears in space had been small and short-lived. And Hirad Coldheart was sleeping, his mind free though he did not know it.

Sha-Kaan withdrew, satisfied. Yet the density of the Arakhe surrounding Balaian space bothered him. Like they anticipated something. He could feel their minds like thorns in flamegrass. Unpleasant, unwelcome and unnatural.

He would keep close watch on them. Once the birthings were complete and the disruption to the brood psyche settled, he would have more time. Perhaps then he might build alliances of his own, do something about the Arakhe. Something terminal.

Barking his approach, he flew to a choul.

Dystran tried to calm himself before he entered Ranyl's private chamber. He took a moment to readjust his shirt and be sure his hair was smooth against his head. He slowed his breathing and hoped his face wasn't too red from his run. He nodded at the guard on the door who opened it for him. A wave of heat washed out from the dimly lit interior. He walked in.

To the left, the fireplace glowed hot, yellow and orange flames spreading beguiling shadows over walls and drapes. To the right, the light from a hooded lantern revealed Ranyl's bed and the woman

sitting beside it. She had one arm resting on the bed, her hand gripped by Ranyl's. At her side on a low table, a bowl and cloth.

Dystran had expected to hear the rasping of a man near his end but the room was quiet. Yet the atmosphere was thick with expectation, smelled sweet from bowls of infused herbs and petals and was hardly supportive of Ranyl's longevity. He moved quietly towards the bed.

'Thank you, my lady,' he said. 'Your tending has been most welcome these last days.'

After a moment's hesitation, the woman stood. She moved Ranyl's hand from hers, squeezed it briefly and leant in to murmur a few words before kissing him on the forehead. With head bowed, she hurried past Dystran, who did not miss the tracks of tears on her cheeks reflecting the firelight.

As he sat, Dystran had the overwhelming urge to run. Not to face what he knew he must. The sounds of fighting echoed across the dark city. Everything he knew and treasured was under threat. And here, breathing so quiedy he could hardly be heard, the man he needed most was slipping away from him.

He took Ranyl's hand in his and felt the fingers move weakly in his palm.

'Feeling tired, old dog?' asked Dystran quietly, concentrating on keeping his voice steady. So few days had passed since Ranyl had seemed strong, able to walk, sit up, eat. The suddenness of the change was brutal to see.

In the gloom, Ranyl's eyelids flickered and opened. His eyes, so recendy bright and full of determination, were dull and sunken. His mouth moved, breath a sibilant hiss over which his words were barely audible.

'. . can't bear to see Xetesk attacked. Keep diem from us.'

'The Wesmen won't make it off die walls,' said Dystran gently. 'Rest easy. Hold on. See us victorious.'

'No, young pup. I'm tired.' He managed a brief smile. T will leave it to younger men. I was … I was really only waiting until you came to say goodbye.'

Ranyl's voice was fading such that Dystran had to lean closer and closer. His words chilled the Lord of the Mount. He gripped the old man's hand, shaking it.

'No, Master Ranyl,' said Dystran. 'I need you to guide me. There is no one else I can trust.'

'You have been such a friend,' said Ranyl. 'And you are a great leader. You need no one.'

'No, Ranyl. Hold on. This pain will pass. You'll soon feel stronger.' '.

But the words weren't true, he knew that. He could see it in the pallor of Ranyl's complexion, ghostly in the gloom. And he could smell it in the air.

Ranyl coughed weakly. 'Mourn me, but don't miss me.'

Dystran nodded, accepting. He smiled and placed a hand on Ranyl's cold forehead. 'Everything I have achieved is because of you. I will be in your debt for eternity.'

Ranyl chuckled. 'A fitting epitaph,' he said, his eyes brightening just briefly.

And then he was gone.

Dystran walked to the balcony shutters and opened them, admitting the cool' air of night. He saw fires towards the walls and could hear the sounds of battle and of panic beginning to grip the streets. He even fancied he could taste blood in the air.

Mostly, he felt isolation. Only one man could save Xetesk now. Unfortunately, it was him. For a time he let the tears fall, his mind focusing on the tortured screams of Ranyl's familiar as it faded to death after its master.

The prize was so close Tessaya could almost touch it. Men were bred tough in the Heartlands and he felt proud to fight next to them. The Xeteskians were falling back before him and his heart sang victory.

He had led his warriors in a hard drive right along the battlements. His axe ran red and his arms and chest were cut by his enemies. But now the turret was theirs. In front of him a warrior fell, skull crushed by a mace. Tessaya grabbed his collar as he went down, dragging him back. He strode into the space, axe carving through an upward arc left to right across his body. Its blade caught his enemy under the chin. His helmet flew off, his jaw shattered and his head snapped back, taking his body with it and striking those behind him.

Warriors surged forward, the noise intensifying in the enclosed space.

'Hold the far door,' ordered Tessaya, pushing men at it. 'The rest of you, let's take these stairs.'

Handicapped by the direction of the spiral, the Xeteskians were forced back quickly. Tessaya led his warriors down, taking the inside himself. His axe was in his right hand, sweeping in front of him.

As Tessaya knew it would, the Xeteskian retreat stopped at a landing. Orders were shouted up the stairs. In front of him, the terrified boys, for that was all they were, squared up. Outside, he heard the rare impact of a spell. He snarled and stepped away from the centre of the thread and gripped his axe in both hands. A warrior stood to his right, the pair of them filling the stairwell. Behind and above, the fighting continued on the battlements. He heard his warriors chanting as they drove onwards, their voices echoing down to lift his spirits even as they crushed those of whom he faced.

'You will die, boy, if you lift that blade against me,' said Tessaya into the impasse. He pitched his voice to carry further than the whelp he addressed; a quivering youth whose helm sat too large on his dirt-streaked face. 'But at least you will know more courage in death than those who command you. Where do they stand, eh?'

'Who. .?' The Xeteskian didn't know whether to ask or not, caught between fear and awe.

T am Tessaya, Lord of the Paleon tribes and ruler of the Wes-men,' he replied. 'And what a prize should you beat me. The time has come. Lay down your blade and be spared. Or die dreaming of being a hero.'

Tessaya didn't think the boy even had the courage to lift his sword in attack and in that at least he was mistaken. But in everything else, he was not. Deflecting the ill-learned strike and chopping downwards through the poorly armoured shoulder, he muttered a prayer that the boy be respected by the Spirits.

He stepped across the body, a chant erupting from his lips and taken up by the men around him. Invoking the Spirits of strength, of true aim and keen edge, it was a guttural sound, its rhythm in time with the strokes of his axe.

Tessaya paced forward, chopping up through the defence of one Xeteskian, sweeping left to eviscerate a second and back right and down to hack into the arm of a third. The warrior next to him, voice booming in song, moved in closer, forcing his enemy's guard down and butting him on the bridge of the nose. The Xeteskian sprawled backwards, flailing his arms, more of a danger to his comrades than the Wesmen.

Tessaya saw the fear in their eyes and the tremble of their limbs. Blood slicked the walls, the floor was covered in gore and the bodies of fallen Xeteskians and the air stank and steamed. The Lord of the Wesmen licked his lips and drove on, breaking them further with every step.

Chapter 3

None of Chandyr's experience had prepared him for this. He had fought Wesmen before but of course there had been the backing of mages able to break lines and obliterate enemies at will. And in combat with enemy colleges, the balance of spell power gave the warfare a symmetry that he could understand.

But here tonight, hand-to-hand and face-to-face, he was seeing ferocity that was simply awesome. The Wesmen were indefatigable. They were skilful. And they were cutting through his men like paper.

On his horse outside the lost turret, he saw men spill outwards, regroup and push in again. He heard the turret captain yelling for order and getting precious litde. The faces of those few around him were lined with fear. Either side, high up on the battlements, the Wesmen taunted his toothless forces. He had so few mages and the spells cast recently had been wasted. Now tfie chastened casters awaited his order in an arc around the turret. They wouldn't be kept long.

Chandyr had thought about riding back to the college again. But the mood was fragile and he couldn't afford to be seen leaving the batdefront. Instead he dismounted and turned the reins of his horse over to the nearest messenger.

Before he spoke, he took in the fires burning on the walls and those buildings onto which the Wesmen had managed to cast torches. He saw more and more join those already behind their makeshift wooden barricade on the batdements. And he didn't have to imagine the number who waited outside for the gate to be taken.

In the streets around him, the confidence of many city folk had given way to panic. People thronged the main roads, heading for the north gate and the college, no doubt to demand escape or

sanctuary. Dystran would not give them the latter. But by the Gods burning, he could buy them time to achieve the former.

His messenger waited expectantly, wincing as roars of triumph sounded from the Wesmen advancing towards the south gate tower along the battlements.

'Ride back to the college,' said Chandyr, handing the messenger his badge of command. 'Use my authority and speak only to Dystran himself. Tell him this:

'If he is to cast his spells it must be now. We are losing the battle for control of the south gate. He must give us more mage support or they'll be at the college before dawn. Got all that?'

'Yes, sir.'

Chandyr grabbed the messenger's arm. 'One more tiling. Tell him he does not need to cast his dimensional spells. We can hold on without them, at least. Go.'

Chandyr watched him mount up and ride away before turning to add his strength to die fight for Xetesk.

Spring nights could be chill and the hours before dawn were the coldest. But Sharyr hadn't known how lonely they could be until now, particularly not in the company of so many friends and enemies.

Of course it wasn't just this that set him alone. It was the awesome expectation placed upon him to succeed and the enormity of the risk he was being forced to take to achieve that success.

He and the dimensional team of twenty — hardly enough anyway — had rested in shifts while they made their calculations. They were looking for any edge they could give themselves. Something to provide focus yet minimise exposure to the power with which they toyed. By the time Dystran ordered them to the walls, they had found precious little. Hardly surprising. So little time had passed.

The urgency of the orders had frightened him and he'd led the team at a run from the catacombs. Much of the rest had been a blur of impressions. Voices clamouring. Armour clanking and grinding as soldiers ran beside them. The glare of fires against dark buildings. People running towards them, pushed aside to speed their progress. The smell of wood smoke. The cobbles beneath his feet. The

extraordinary din of battle that grew with every pace they took nearer the walls.

The college guard brought them to the roof of a building with clear line of sight up to the embattled walls. Commander Chandyr had joined them almost immediately. Sharyr missed his first words, transfixed by what he saw in front of him. A mass of warriors on the battlements, bodies choking the street below. Fires in two guard turrets. And desperate defence on the ground. Xetesk under threat.

'. . are not who I wanted here. Why are you here?'

'My Lord Dystran ordered us here in response to your messenger.'

T don't want your dimensional spells, Sharyr. You know my feelings.'

'Commander, Ranyl has died. Dystran wants to make a statement. We're all you have and we have instructions about which spells we will use.'

Chandyr nodded. 'Fine. Then do so carefully. Take out that turret. Destroy the stairway.'

'Commander, that kind of focus is not possible. The minimum strike area will cover left and right for twenty yards. And that assumes we can keep it tight. The dimensional alignment is not right.'

Chandyr regarded him blankly. 'You're talking to me as if I should care or understand. Fifty yards either side is Wesmen. Take them down too.' He shrugged. T asked for mage support and here you are so do what you have to do. But don't hurt a single Xeteskian.'

'Have your mages shield our forces,' said Sharyr. 'It's the only way to keep them safe.'

Chandyr spun round at a renewed roar from the turret. Xeteskians spilled into the street once again but this time could not drive back in. The first Wesmen set foot on Xetesk's soil.

'And you'd better do it quickly,' said Chandyr. 'Or they'll be up here too. Don't let me down.'

Sharyr watched Chandyr stride from the rooftop then turned to his team.

'You can see the target. You know the risks. Shut out everything.

We cannot afford to slip. Are you ready?' The chorus of assent was loud but anxious. 'Then we will begin.'

Sharyr felt a charge race through his body and lodge in his gut. The mage team gathered about him. He tuned to the mana spectrum and could see through the chaotic streams the dark outline of the walls. He began to focus, constructing the shape to pierce the fabric of the Balaian dimension to access the raw energy beyond.

One by one his mage team joined him. In the stark colour contrasts that made up the Xeteskian mana spectrum the deep blue mana stream gained intensity. Power surged through every strand.

Like all base magical constructions, this one was essentially simple. The shape was a shifting octagonal column no more than ten feet wide. At its head, gossamer threads wove a complex pattern that mimicked the flows of inter-dimensional space, allowing them to lock onto the chaos outside the Balaian dimension.

The column itself acted as direction for the power they were tapping and as a seal against that power spilling out uncontrolled. Where the column attached to the dimensional fabric was entirely at Sharyr's discretion. And because this spell was statement as well as destruction, he drove it high into the night sky, issuing the command that activated the threads just beyond a layer of thin cloud.

They felt the backward surge along the column, saw the shivers in the mana light. And that was just the start. With the threads fast on the fabric, Sharyr began to feed energy into the column. Half the team followed his lead.

'Brace,' he warned, his words carrying to them across the spectrum in sound and light. 'And expand.'

They pulled. And in the fabric of Balaia was torn a hole. Immediately, they felt the rush of the forces of inter-dimensional space, apparently grabbing at the hole, trying to force it wider. It was purely a reaction as chaos and order clashed. The mages were ready for it and used it. They allowed the tear to grow to optimum size and only then stiffened the borders, feeding in mana energy and locking it tight.

'That was the easy part,' said Sharyr. 'Column team, prepare. You know this isn't going to be easy to handle. Alignment team with me, keep your concentration if you keep nothing else. Let's go looking.'

The information given Xetesk by the Al-Drechar and Sha-Kaan

had allowed mages to draw a new dimensional map. They could predict with some accuracy the movement of those dimensions closest to Balaia. They also had some perception of the enormous number of dimensions crowding space. The old notion that all dimensions were somehow occupying the same small area of space had been disproved beyond reasonable doubt. Now it was about alignment. And the more dimensions aligned with Balaia at any one time, the more powerful the spell effect.

Sharyr's problem was that there was no alignment. Almost, but not quite. And while it was still possible to cast, the streams of energy would not be as focused and would be difficult to control.

Sharyr, using the combined energies of his team of nine, pushed the seeker pulse into the void, already knowing roughly what he would find. They were awaiting a four-dimension alignment. It was expected to begin the next midday. What Sharyr was presented with was a confusion of power streams, still in partial conflict though with a common broad direction given them by the partial alignment in which they were caught.

He could feel the pull of the distant dimensional shells and imagine their ponderous movement. Every heartbeat that passed brought the alignment closer but at this moment there was a problem.

The first and third shells were about in line, the latter moving slightly faster than the former. But the second shell was still way out of place though travelling quickly in relation to its peers. Currently, he couldn't sense the fourth shell at all.

'This is going to hurt,' he said. 'Brace yourselves.'

Lacking the natural focus alignment would bring, the mages would have to channel the power themselves while holding the sheath spell construct in place to avoid a casting without control. Without a certain end.

On Sharyr's command, the alignment team poured mana energy into the seeker pulse, changing its polarisation from repulsor to attractor. At once, the part-aligned streams fed into the seeker pulse. Sharyr felt the force thunder through his mind, a sudden and prolonged deluge of crudely directed energy. The seeker pulse bulged under the strain.

'Hang on!' Sharyr gasped, sensing the tension in those around

him. There was a roaring in his ears, reminiscent of a distant waterfall. 'Right, let's use it.'

The alignment team shortened the seeker pulse, dragging the inter-dimensional power with it. Sharyr knew that there was too much to control safely. It raged through his mind while he struggled to hold his concentration.

With the sound of air rushing to fill a void, the inter-dimensional force met Balaian space. It coalesced into thin discs, trailing smoke in their wake. Shaped by the minds of the mages and set spinning by nature. Tens, hundreds of them, cobalt blue and travelling at extreme speed, fled down the octagonal mana corridor. They bounced hard against its surface, the collisions increasing die stress on the structure further, to emerge from its protection to slam into ground, walls and men.

The Wesmen could see the spell approaching. Those at the base of the tower had some route of escape but they were the only ones.

The discs sheared into the tower, the ground surrounding it, and any flesh in their way over a sixty-foot spread. With a sound like a thousand metal spikes hammered into rock, they bit into the stone. Sparks flew, lighting up the night in garish relief. Dust was projected into the air, sections of the stonework cracked and crumbled. The tower shook under the impact.

On the ground, those Wesmen who hadn't reacted instantly were cut to pieces in moments. In front of them, the Xeteskian shield over the defenders bucked and twisted, its mages driven to their knees by the effort to keep it together.

Sharyr exhorted his mages to maintain their focus. Below them, their casting was scything the tower apart, shredding its stone, sending lethal fragments to every point of the compass. He fought the forces channelling through his mind, kept the polarity of the seeker pulse firm. It was he and his team who were responsible for reversing the flow when the time came.

But the drain on the alignment team was greater than any of them had imagined. The discs were further out of control with every heartbeat, crashing into one another and increasing their impacts on the column, which bulged under the pressure. And though the tower wasn't down, Sharyr felt he had no choice but to order the disconnection of the spell. He was the blink of an eye too late.

At the base of the column, multiple discs collided and scattered into its sides, threshing it with enough force to break the shape. Tattered in an instant, the base of the column was flayed apart. Wisps of mana clung to order for a few moments and were engulfed again in the mass. The sides of the column rippled and ripped upwards, chasing back towards the hole into space.

And spewing out unconflned, came the discs. Along a front hundreds of feet wide, they gouged into Xetesk's walls and buildings or collided in mid-air to scream away back into the city.

One plunged into his mage team, chopping two men down. The other mages lost their concentration. The column vanished completely and Sharyr clung desperately to the seeker pulse, feeling its power weaken.

'Reverse!' he shouted. 'Reverse!'

He tried to ignore everything around him. The wails of dying men on the walls and right by his side. The clouds of dust billowing into the night sky. The unfettered discs of pure cobalt brutality destroying the walls.

Dragging in everything he had left, Sharyr forced his will on the seeker pulse, switching its polarity. 'Push,' he gasped. 'Damn you, push.'

The building shook. Dimly, he heard a deep rumbling. The dust was in his nose and mouth and had forced itself into his eyes. He could feel the irritation and the tears but had to ignore them. He pushed against the tide of inter-dimensional energy, those that remained with him taking his lead. Around them, the storm continued. Next to the tower, the parapet collapsed, spilling Wesmen seventy feet to the streets. A series of detonations sounded. The discs had bulged into huge, harsh teardrops and they poured into the walls, the street, the tower and buildings all around. Only luck was keeping Sharyr and his team alive.

Sharyr gathered himself again, feeling the seeker pulse finally move under his control. 'Got you.'

Quickly, the movement gained momentum. Sharyr and the remains of his team pressed. The pulse whipped up into the night sky. Ahead of it, the teardrops lost their strength, unable to fight against the opposing force. Up to and through the hole went the pulse. And

the tear itself, without the energy flowing through it and with no spell keeping it open, shut hard.

Sharyr had no strength in his legs. He sagged to his knees, staring at the point in the night sky where the tear had been. It glittered blue. He frowned.

'Someone check that,' he said, gesturing upwards. 'That isn't right.'

He became aware that the silence following the end of the spell had given way to a growing tumult of voices and action. He dragged himself back to his feet and walked unsteadily towards the edge of the building to see what he had wrought in the name of Xetesk and its Lord of the Mount.

His heart chilled at what he saw through the clouds of dust and smoke blowing all around him. Bodies lay everywhere, few moving and many burning. Around them, Xeteskian soldiers hurried to fulfil Chandyr's barked orders. In front of him, the target tower was gone, rubble was all that remained. It had taken with it the parapets to either side. Stone had fallen clear across the street to destroy other buildings.

But there was far, far worse and the reason for Chandyr's urgent shouts became all too clear. And all Sharyr could do now was watch.

Truly the Spirits kept Tessaya alive for a greater purpose. The great purpose. That much was evident now. He had been blown from his feet when the first screaming lights from the sky had struck. Catapulted out of the tower doorway to sprawl in shadow under the parapet.

He had watched the Xeteskians' spell break their own walls and kill their own men even as it took brave warriors to the glory of death in batde. But he had once again been spared.

He had heard the crack of the failing walkway above him and scrambled to safety in a doorway while chaos descended. Mute, he had seen it collapse with the deaths of so many. He had seen the tower shiver and slide to the ground. He knew he shouldn't smile as the smoke and dust cleared in front of him. Indeed Riasu was surely among those dead. But in their attempts to break the Wesmen spirit, they had sealed their own dooms.

The walls of Xetesk were breached.

Chapter 4

His head fuzzy with the after-effects of too much red wine, Hirad led The Eaven from the college and city of Julatsa with the sun climbing high into a beautiful, clear spring sky.

He had made his peace with Ilkar. His anger at his friend's death was much diminished. It was time to move on and, despite the knowledge of their immediate destination, he wasn't sure where he wanted to move on to.

One thing he felt well able to do, though, was put as much distance between himself and the war as was physically possible. The Raven felt the same way, a feeling shared by many in Julatsa. But not all had their choice. Almost all of the elves were staying on for the time being. The threat from outside, though not as potent, was still present. And with the mage strength that much greater and the Heart beating strong once more, there was much restorative work that could now be done.

Some, though, had to return to Calaius. It was as he had surmised sitting on the steps of the college refectory the night before. Rebraal to gather together the remnants of the Al-Arynaar; and Auum to tackle the enormous task of rebuilding the TaiGethen order. With him went Duele and Evunn, ever his shadows. To complete the odd assortment came the one ClawBound pair to survive Balaia. They yearned for the touch of the rainforest and the calls of their kind. No one invited them to travel south. No one questioned them either. Hirad was just glad to have them nearby.

Their route to Blackthorne and thence to the Bay of Gyernath to await the Calaian Sun was of necessity going to be, initially at least, circuitous. They had decided to travel due east for a day and a half before turning south. Even then, they would have to travel carefully through the forests, what was left of them, and low hills that made

tip the eastern border of the mage lands. Darrick considered that ‹t‹n though the focus of aggression would once again fall on Xi'U'sk, Dordovan patrols would be looking for The Raven, and Erlenne in particular. And they might well be backed by Lysternan forces. Once beyond the mage lands south, they would be able to breathe more easily but that was days away.

Hirad shook his head. The Raven, hunted by those they had fought so long to save. At least ordinary Balaians would still hold them in high regard, those that even knew who they were. He let a smile cross his face. Their fame was countrywide and no doubt embellished in story and verse in places they had never even been. But he wondered how many actually knew what they looked like.

It was a question that would be put to the test later in the day. Darrick knew of a hamlet that they should reach by late afternoon or early evening. A comfortable place to sleep and the chance to buy supplies before ten days in the open was an attractive prospect. They had taken very little from Julatsa. The Gods knew the city was struggling even to feed its own people let alone groups of ex-mercenaries.

With the ClawBound pair of tall, black-and-white-painted elf and sleek black panther ranging ahead and south-east, The Raven felt able to ride in the open, making good time over easy ground. Beside them ran the elven quartet, their regular long strides conserving energy and making the pace for the horses.

The first hours of their journey were peculiar for the almost complete silence in which they were conducted. There was none of the banter Hirad associated with The Raven riding to their next job, running from enemies or returning home from a fight. In every face he saw reflection, and felt a sense of loss himself.

Erienne was deep within herself-as she had been for much of the time after the battle to lift the Heart. The fact of Cleress's continued survival had been a source of great comfort but scared her more than she would admit. The elven Al-Drechar mage was instructing her even now in points of the One magic. It would mean exposing herself to more danger and Denser wasn't sure his wife was ready for it.

Erienne's introspection led Denser to the same state. He barely left her side when she was awake. And Thraun, who could sense so

much more than he could say, also rode close. Hirad had joked that he'd have shared Erienne and Denser's bed if he'd been allowed. No one had laughed.

Darrick, when left alone, descended to an anger he refused to let loose in word or action. But Hirad could see it in his eyes. He felt betrayed by those he had served so faithfully. He had placed the security of his college, city and country above his own for years and they had expressed their gratitude by giving him a death sentence. Hirad knew how he felt.

Only The Unknown carried anything approaching a good mood and the big man was riding by Hirad with a half-smile on his face.

'Not long now, eh, Unknown?'

'I hope not,' said The Unknown. 'You know when we left Heren-deneth and I waved them goodbye, I didn't think I'd see them again. It seems so long ago but so little time has passed.'

'Cleress has told them we're coming?'

The Unknown shook his head. 'No. And not because I want it to be a surprise. It's just that until we're on board ship, I won't let them believe we'll actually make it.' He turned to face Hirad. 'How hard it would be to know something was so close but then have it snatched from you.'

Hirad nodded. 'It's your choice.'

'And what about you, Coldheart? You're quiet. We've learned to worry about that. And this group could do with some more of your ill-chosen comments, I think. Not a great mood, is it?'

'That's because you don't know why, Unknown. You're heading for something. You have a target.' Hirad paused. 'You know how it was when we had retired at Taranspike Castle before Denser and Dawnthief buggered things up? Well, for me it's like that except I have no desire to fight. It's odd. I've got no clear idea what I want to do bar travel with you to Herendeneth but I know it's the right thing to do this time.'

'So it isn't like Taranspike at all, then, is it?'

Hirad chuckled. T don't think I said it right. I mean it's the end of The Raven, isn't it?'

'And you never thought you'd live to see the day.'

'No, Unknown, I always thought I'd live to see the day, I just didn't ever know when the day would be. Funny thing, even when

we were apart for those five years after we closed the noonshade rip, I somehow didn't think that was the end.'

The Unknown smiled. 'And now there's no prospect of anyone wanting us, is there?'

'That's it exactly,' said Hirad. 'I'm just not sure how I should feel.'

'Let me ask you something. Was it the prospect of fame and fortune that kept you fighting?'

'At the start, of course it was. But not lately. Now it's all about being with The Raven and fighting for the people I love, dead or alive.'

'And had you wanted to fade into gentle retirement or did you want to be feted everywhere you went?'

Hirad shrugged. 'A bit of both, if I'm honest. Not much chance of being feted now though, is there?'

'Not here,' agreed The Unknown. 'But on Calaius they respect us for what we did. And elves have longer and better memories than Balaians, it seems.'

'Think I should go and live there?'

'It's a thought. Put it this way. Our time, The Raven's time, is over. We have to face the fact that we're a little creaky, not as fast as we were. More than that, we're unpopular with Balaia's power brokers. But we've never reneged on a contract and we've never been beaten. We've preserved all that we can both here and on Calaius. We've made a difference. No one can take that from us. So I'm saying go and live somewhere you can have peace but keep in touch with your memories. The elves will provide that for you. Besides, I think Herendeneth would bore you rigid. You and Darrick both.'

Hirad laughed. 'Yeah, can't see us tending the gardens till we die.'

'Exactly. You aren't cut out for a quiet life. Something will find you, mark my words.'

'So long as it isn't sharp.'

Dystran's head ached with lack of sleep. That and the sound of EarthHammers destroying every building surrounding the college for forty yards beyond the cobblestones. His familiars, those that were left, were harrying the Wesmen who had no defence against them. But they were so few and could do little more than irritate. They seemed to have lost their capacity to terrify and Tessaya — he had seen the Wesmen Lord prowling the shadows at dawn — had quickly worked out that what could not be killed could at least be caught and trapped. Already the stones and timbers of Xeteskian houses were pinning two of the thralled demons to the ground.

With the sun halfway to noon, Dystran stood on the walls of the college above the gatehouse, having just completed another circuit. Wesmen surrounded his college. Unbelievable. The spells and arrows kept them at a safe distance for now; and the CobaltFury had made them wary, but Tessaya would wait until he deemed them weak enough and attack again.

When the tower had collapsed, tearing holes in the walls, the city defence had quickly folded and terror had gripped the streets. Every soldier and mage had fled back to the college, Wesmen chasing them down. The south gates stood open, under the control of the enemy. The other gates to the city were also in Wesmen hands though they remained closed.

The city populace had nowhere to run. The Wesmen had herded them away from the gates, the spell barrage had kept them from the college and so they cowered in their homes, not knowing whether they would live or die. Dystran knew the answer. The attitude of the Wesmen had changed. The only people Tessaya wanted dead were inside the college.

Dystran turned to the duty officer standing by him.

'Marshal your spell reserves well. When he attacks, I don't want to find all my mages having to rest.'

'My Lord.'

The Lord of the Mount hurried down the steps from the gate tower and across the courtyard to the tower complex. Those he had ordered to provide him with their current situation awaited him in the cavernous banqueting hall. Three men, two exhausted, one in old age, awaiting his pleasure in the chill room. They sat at one end of the high table near a fire hours dead. Light streamed through the dark stained windows but provided precious little in the way of warmth. Dystran's footsteps echoed hollow as he approached them. They stood on seeing him but he waved them down impatiently, taking the steps to the platform two at a time.

'I seem to be holding such meetings with monotonous regularity,' he said. He sat in his chair and laid a hand on the arm of the one adjacent, squeezing its upholstery. Ranyl's absence made the room truly cavernous.

'May I add my condolences to those of the mage community for the passing of Ranyl. He was a great man,' said Chandyr, his head bandaged, an oozing cut on his left cheek.

'And I would consign him to the next life in peace!' Dystran thumped the arm of his chair.

'We will prevail,' assured Chandyr.

'Will we?' Dystran snapped. 'And what leads you to that happy conclusion? Our astonishing defence of our city walls or our ability to demolish our own warehouses and civic offices? Commander Chandyr, we have exchanged one siege for another and I must say that I found the former far more agreeable. More spacious. I fear that our chances for victory lie not in arms but in spells. Prexys, what of our casting strength?'

The old Circle Seven mage scratched his head and allowed a small smile to cross his face. 'As Ranyl would undoubtedly have said, we have had easier times for our stamina reserves and for the security of our dimensional gateway for their replenishment.'

Dystran nodded. 'But he is not here, though your thoughts are welcome. How long do we have before Tessaya knows we are spent enough for him to attack?'

Prexys sighed. 'He is a clever man. He probes close enough to force casting almost continually but he is not losing men at the rate we need. You know how depleted our mage strength is. We can cast at our current expenditure for another day at the most before it becomes apparent we are struggling. And with the dimensional team out of the picture temporarily, we have nothing else to throw at them except our few remaining soldiers.'

'I see.' Dystran sucked his lip and turned to face Sharyr. He and fifteen of the team had made it back to the college. All were resting bar him and he was fit to drop, his face not washed clean of the dust of the walls. 'And why are you out of the picture, Sharyr? I would have thought a day plenty enough to ready yourselves for a decisive casting.'

Sharyr's eyes widened. He shivered. 'You can't ask us to do that

again. You saw what happened. The alignment isn't there. We cannot contain the energy.'

'They are already through the walls, Sharyr,' said Dystran. 'Scatter the power wherever you choose. Destruction of buildings is a small price to pay for all of our lives, surely?'

'With respect, my Lord, you don't understand.'

'I understand that alignment closes with every passing heartbeat. I understand that fifteen rested men can and will cast on my command if it becomes necessary. I understand that there is no price I am not willing to pay for the survival of this college.'

'Even its destruction?' Sharyr raised his voice.

'Well now, Sharyr, if it were destroyed, it would hardly survive, now would it?'

'Damn you, don't patronise me!' shouted Sharyr, shooting to his feet. 'We were not enough before and we are not enough now.'

'You will not-'

'There is residue where the connection with inter-dimensional space was made. Something of the tear remains, I'm sure of it.'

Dystran paused and frowned. 'What are you trying to tell me?'

'That we may have caused permanent damage, my Lord,' said Sharyr, calming a littie and sinking back into his chair. 'And that casting again might cause us serious problems. You see, my Lord, if there is still the residue of a tear, I have no idea how to close it.'

'We had a tear in our skies once before, as you will recall. It could have led to an invasion of dragons. Please tell me this is different.'

'Oh, quite different, my Lord,' said Sharyr. 'There is no hint of a link to any other dimension at this stage. I'm just currently at a loss how to deal with it.'

'Then I suggest that you rest now, Sharyr. And when you are rested, see that you investigate what you have left in my sky. I will have my spell ready, with you or without you. Because when I pay my last respects to my dear friend Ranyl tomorrow night, I will have peace and not a horde of Wesmen vermin battering at my door.' Dystran smiled thinly and saw the fear in Sharyr's eyes. T trust I make myself clear.'

The village of Cuff was a setdement of probably fifty houses and farms nestled in a shallow and sheltered, tree-lined valley. Grazing

animals ranged free up and down its length, crops were sprouting through fertile earth. To look at Cuff, it was clear the Nightchild storms had hardly touched it. The scene before them was at odds with much of the rest of Balaia given war and so many displaced people.

While farmers worked their land and the odd fisherman netted the free-flowing river on which the village stood, others on horseback patrolled its borders and guarded the crests of the valley east and west. Two rough watchtowers had been built, visible at either end of the village, looking out north and south along its single track.

The Raven approached at an easy trot, the elves running beside them in the late afternoon sun. The ClawBound had disappeared. Hirad's guess was they were already downwind of all the livestock and horses. In the trees to the south, hunting.

'Times are hard and people are desperate,' said The Unknown. 'We'd be the same. Let's tread carefully, Raven.'

'What do you think about the guards? Mercenary or local?' asked Hirad.

'Soldiers,' said Rebraal. 'Well armed. Used to armour.'

'We probably know them,' said Hirad.

'That's not necessarily a good thing,' said The Unknown. 'Let's be prepared. Just don't look like you are.'

There was a price on The Raven's capture and return to Lystern or Dordover. Probably a very high price at that.

'I'll keep my hand just far enough from my sword to be of no use if there's trouble,' said Hirad.

'You know what I mean.'

Hirad smiled. He glanced meaningfully at the TaiGethen moving fluidly by him. Even without their faces painted, he found it hard to imagine them anything less than fully prepared. Readiness oozed from every pore.

They watched the mercenaries gather at the head of the village to meet them. It wasn't an overtly threatening gesture but a statement of intent nonetheless.

'There are seven. Four swordsmen split two and two on horses. Three behind. Two mages, one archer,' said Rebraal.

'Hirad, watch the right-hand side. Rebraal, Auum, look for others

joining. I'll watch left. Thraun, back me up, Darrick to Hirad. Denser, prepare HardShield, Erienne, SpellShield.'

The Unknown's words calmed them to focus. No one moved a muscle in response. No hand strayed towards a weapon yet they all had their targets. It was enough.

At twenty yards distance, a strong voice sounded out at them. In the fields and on the river, all action had ceased.

'Dismount and walk, strangers.'

A moment's hesitation.

'As he says,' said The Unknown. The Raven dismounted. His voice lowered to a mutter. 'Mark the far left, hand to his sword. Archer is loaded and tensed. No reaction, Raven. These are not our enemies. Yet.'

They slowed, the elves falling naturally into narrow order with them, sensing the threat they might otherwise pose. The Unknown brought them to a halt five yards from the first mercenary, who they took to be the leader.

'What would you have us do?' asked The Unknown.

'State your business.'

'Rooming and food for the night. Stabling for our horses and supplies for the journey in the morning. We have coin for all we need.'

The man in front looked them over slowly, appraising. He lingered over the elves. Hirad took the opportunity to weigh up the mercenaries. They appeared capable enough. Confident, at ease. Hirad raised his eyebrows. One of the mages was an elf. Echoes of the past.

'Food is short, costs are high,' said the mercenary leader. He was a large man, carrying a two-handed sword across his back.

The Unknown shrugged. 'We can cover your costs.'

The leader nodded. 'We'll see. Enter. Find rooms where you can though I would suggest Ferran's barns and house over there is your best bet. You'll pay in advance for everything. We don't appreciate late-night chases, if you understand me.'

'Perfectly,' said The Unknown. He relaxed his face. 'We're no threat to you. We are just passing.'

'See it stays that way. One more thing. You will not unsheathe swords in this village. We are a peaceful community.'

'But it hasn't always been that way, I take it?'

The leader shook his head, indicating his men move aside to let them through before he replied.

'A lot of refugees have passed this way from the mage lands, and before them we had them from as far east as Korina and as far south as Arlen.' He paused. 'Not all of them would take "no" for an answer. That's why we're here now.'

The Raven led their horses into the village, angling for the indicated farm on its eastern edge. The elves followed them, their suspicion plain.

'What do you make of it?' asked Hirad.

'Well, they aren't faces I recognise,' said The Unknown. 'And they clearly don't know us, which is a blessing. I think we shouldn't get involved.'

'I don't know,' said Hirad. 'I don't like the set-up. Think about it. Mercenary teams are being paid very good money to fight for the colleges or side with baronial defence. This lot? How can they possibly earn enough from a place this size to make it worthwhile?'

'Ask the farmer, why don't you?' said Denser.

'I will. Let's get sorted out first though.'

There was precious little space but it served them well enough. Denser and Erienne had the one empty room in the farmhouse. Ferran spread it with straw and blankets. The rest of them were given shelter in the two barns, one for grain storage, the other part stables, part hayloft. It was serviceable though the price was ruinous.

The Raven plus Rebraal gathered around Ferran's prodigious kitchen table once the horses were unsaddled and Auum and his Tai had taken their leave. Not all of them had seats but there were enough places to rest and enjoy the thick vegetable stew and tough rye bread served by Ferran's daughter, a girl barely into her teenage years but with eyes that had already seen a long hard life.

Ferran was a humourless middle-aged man. His hands were cal-lused and split from many years working hard cold earth. His chest was a barrel and his eyes were deep set in a weathered face.

'Long journey, is it?' he ventured of his guests.

'Long enough,' conceded Darrick. The ex-General still managed to look neat despite their time on the road, his young face already clean of grime and his brown curls shaken free of dust.

Ferran nodded, apparently gleaning everything he needed from the General's brace of words. 'Well, it'll be a comfortable night. No trouble.' His eyes glinted. 'We're protected.'

'So we see,' said Hirad. He leaned forwards, arms resting on the table, hands clasped together in front of his bowl. 'Treat you well do they?'

'I'm begging your pardon?'

'You've bought their services,' Hirad explained. 'Are you getting what you expect?'

Ferran thought on the question, aware all eyes were upon him.

'They keep us alive,' he said. 'We'd been raided. Three times. They offered us protection for a consideration.'

'Which is?' asked The Unknown.

'Well now that's a deal between-'

'Which is?'

Recognise him or not, no one refused The Unknown Warrior.

'They keep us alive,' he repeated. 'And safe. We carry on, they take the rest. It's right.'

'They take all your profit?' Denser blew out his cheeks. 'There's your answer, barbarian.'

Ferran nodded.

'And no doubt food and lodging is part of the deal,' said Hirad. 'This is some easy deal.'

'It goes without saying.' -

'But the war is as good as over,' said Hirad. 'When were you last threatened or attacked?'

'They say there is still danger,' said Ferran. 'They keep us alive,' That sparkle was in his eyes again. 'And you don't question the best.'

'And that's what they are, is it?' Hirad couldn't help but smile.

'Well yes,' said Ferran. He looked at them all, imploring them to understand. 'Don't you recognise them?'

'Should we?'

'Of course.' He stood tall. 'They are The Raven.'

'Oh,' said Hirad, feeling his skin crawl. 'Are they indeed?'

Chapter 5

'Hirad, sit down,' barked The Unknown Warrior. 'Let's decide how to deal with this.'

'I'll tell you how we deal with it,' said Hirad. 'We go outside, call them out and take them down.'

'Calm down, Hirad,' said Darrick. 'We can't just run out, swords waving. It's an unnecessary risk.'

'It might not mean much to you, General, but these bastards are trading on our name to bleed this village dry. I will not see our reputation ruined by bandits.'

Hirad's head was thumping, his body tense with the frustration boiling within him. Outside, people who believed in The Raven were being taken for everything they had when, more than ever, they needed every scrap of fortune they could lay their hands on. Perhaps their fortune was about to change. But what really made Hirad seethe was the bad taste that would be left in the mouths of these people whenever The Raven was mentioned again.

'We can't just walk out there and kill them,' said Denser.

'Why not?' Hirad jabbed a finger at Ferran. The farmer and his daughter had frozen at the exchange, their mouths slack and eyes widening. Their disbelief at what they were witnessing grew with every heartbeat. 'These people have been made to think that it's right that The Raven should take from them anything they want because of who they are. That's never been our way. It's a betrayal of all that we stand for. Someone needs to be taught a lesson.'

'We were mercenaries too,' said Denser.

'Yeah, and we were paid a fair price to fight. A good price because we were the best. People who hired us understood the rules. But this. . this is robbery and I'm not having it.'

He moved towards the door.

'Hirad, where do you tliink you're going?'

'I'm going to demonstrate who The Raven really are. Back me up, why don't you?'

T know the hurt you feel,' said The Unknown. 'I feel it too. We all do. But we do things a certain way. That, as you are so fond of telling us, is why we're still alive. And now it's your turn to play by the rules. Sit down and listen. Whatever we do, we do as The Raven.'

The Unknown didn't have to raise his voice to command complete authority. Hirad paused, nodded and returned to his seat.

They did not emerge until dusk. The last vestiges of the day's light clung to the tops of the valley but the village was cast largely in shadow. The Raven had talked while the afternoon waned, not letting Ferran light lanterns or a fire in his kitchen. They had seen the impostors patrolling the streets, still on horseback. And from the rear windows of the house had watched them trot past regularly. While not exactly prisoners, it was clear The Raven were not to be given licence to roam Cuff at will.

The leader had visited them once, to check they were settled in and to ask after the whereabouts of the elves. The Unknown had simply shrugged and intimated they had continued on southwards. Without evidence to the contrary, the man had withdrawn.

Ferran had confirmed that there were indeed seven of them, the number popularly associated with The Raven. Hirad wasn't sure they had convinced him that they were the genuine article. What he did know was that the moment they left the house, Ferran was running for his neighbours to set the rumour spreading, his daughter heading in the opposite direction. They were fulfilling expectations perfectly.

The Unknown led them, Hirad to his right, Darrick and Thraun left. Erienne and Denser were behind them. The track through the village was quiet but the four men who had been paying particular attention to the farmhouse now rode in from front and back, intercepting them as they reached the street. Thraun dropped back to cover any threat from the rear.

Neither pair of riders had any presence. They were uncertain, nervous and looking to each other to make the first move. The Raven made it for them.

'Better call your leader down here,' said The Unknown. 'You've got a problem.'

The Raven had weapons sheathed but both Erienne and Denser were ready with shield spells should the need arise. In front of them, a heavy-set man with both hands on the pommel of his saddle spoke.

'He'll be along presently, I have no doubt. Now, what is this problem we have?'

'You all need to hear what we have to say. All seven,' said The Unknown.

Hirad smiled unpleasantly. 'Yeah, six men and an elf. You're a little behind the times.'

'Listen, you don't need to test yourselves against us,' said the heavy-set man, frowning in Hirad's direction. 'It isn't worth your while and we have no wish to spill your blood.'

'Well, that's comforting,' muttered Denser.

The second pair of riders rode around to the front of the standoff. Hirad could hear more hoof beats coming up the village. To his left, a door opened and a man ran across the street, not pausing to knock on the door of the house opposite before barging in.

'Which one are you, then?' asked Hirad of the heavy-set man.

T am Hirad Coldheart,' he said without hesitation.

'I'd heard he was better-looking,' replied Hirad, no humour in his voice.

'Stop it, now,' said The Unknown, turning to him.

The remaining impostors rode up along the street, doors opening with regularity behind them now. The archer unslung his bow as soon as he reined in, the leader trotting calmly to the front of the group.

Looking at him again, Hirad could see immediately who he had modelled himself upon. In fact, he was surprised he hadn't already noticed, the likeness was that obvious. He supposed he just hadn't been looking. Shaven-headed, broad-shouldered and strong-faced. The two-handed blade on his back was something else that should have pricked his memories.

'Don't fancy yours much, either,' he said.

The Unknown glared at him.

'What is it I can do for you?' asked his double in a passable impersonation.

'Several things,' said The Unknown. He glanced around him, looked past the impostors and along the street. 'Seems we've drawn quite a crowd. Good. Here begins the lesson.'

'Get back to the farmhouse,' said the leader.

'Be quiet,' said The Unknown. 'And listen. It might just save you.'

The sounds of swords being pulled from scabbards echoed across the instant's silence. The Raven followed suit instantly, forming up into their trademark chevron.

'Shield up,' said Denser and Erienne together.

'I suggest you lower those weapons,' said the bandit leader, the only man among them whose sword was not drawn. 'You will prove nothing by taking us on.'

'On the contrary,' said The Unknown. 'We will prove what we must.'

'Which is what? That you can beat The Raven?'

'No, my apparently blind double. That we are The Raven.'

A ripple ran around the villagers close enough to hear and spread quickly to those who could not. The crowd, now more than forty, bunched and moved forward a pace. But the men, women and children still kept a respectful distance.

Hirad watched the impostors stare at them, trying to gauge if The Unknown could be telling the truth.

'Look hard,' growled Hirad. 'Believe.'

The leader snorted, straightened in his saddle. 'Look at you,' he said. 'Just six. One a woman. No elf. And you,' he pointed at The Unknown Warrior. 'A little old aren't you? And if you had heard the stories, you would have a two-handed blade. A pale imitation. It's been fun. Now it's time you left before we run you down.'

'But that's the trouble with stories, isn't it?' said The Unknown, his face a mask, while Hirad felt his own burning with renewed anger. 'They don't take account of the passage of time. We have not fought in line for six years and in the troubles that have followed, even we have lost friends.'

'There is no elf because Ilkar is dead,' said Hirad, staring down the elven mage. 'No one lives on his name. No one.'

'All right, Hirad,' said The Unknown. 'So you see the problem we have. We cannot let you simply walk away. You have taken our name

and used it for profit. And that is not the worst of it. You have betrayed what The Raven stand for and believe in. We were mercenaries, not parasites.'

'And you expect these people to believe that you, not we, are The Raven?'

'I don't much care who they think we are,' said The Unknown. 'All they need to know is that you are not The Raven.'

His voice was pitched to carry to the villagers. Hirad heard the mutterings of conversation. The impostors' heads all turned, their anxiety rising.

'You surely don't believe them, do you?' demanded the leader.

Unexpectedly, Ferran stepped from the small crowd.

'We pay you to keep our village free of undesirables,' he said. 'If they are such, do your jobs. Get rid of them.'

His words were greeted with assent from those around him.

Hirad grinned. 'Yeah, Hirad,' he said. 'Take me on. Run me out of the village.' He spat on the ground in front of him, enjoying the tension that grew in the space between them.

'I'll tell you what's going to happen,' said The Unknown. 'You're going to give back every coin you have taken from this village. You'll also leave them your horses because you are walking away from here. Your return will be to your graves.'

'Not a chance,' said the leader, tone dismissive but fear edging into his expression. He was eyeing The Unknown ever more closely, the doubt eating at him.

'Your alternative,' said The Unknown, 'is not to leave here at all. Mind you, since you're The Raven, that threat won't impress you much, will it?'

Hirad saw the band wavering. He knew why. In front of them was unshakeable belief born of fifteen years of winning. The Raven, standing quite still, did not and would not flinch. Their adversaries, even with the advantage of being mounted, were losing the battle of wills. It was what separated The Raven from everybody else. Always had.

'There is only one Raven, and you aren't it,' said Hirad.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

The Unknown's blade struck the ground in front of him.

'No time to debate,' he said. 'Get off your horses now.'

'Boss?'

There it was, the firstvocal crack in the facade. The impostors' leader scowled. Then he swallowed and looked back at The Unknown, hesitant.

'You're out of time,' said The Unknown. 'Dismount.'

Tap. Tap. Tap.

'Go,' snapped the leader.

He kicked the flanks of his horse. Startled, the animal sprang forward. The Unknown reacted instantly, diving forward and left. Hirad mirrored him right, both men rolling to their haunches. The Unknown was confronted by a wall of horseflesh on the move. Two others had followed their boss and were right on top of Thraun and Darrick. Hirad surged to his feet and grabbed at the arm of the mounted man in front of him. He pulled hard.

'Mage casting,' warned Darrick.

'Shield down,' said Denser. And in the next instant, 'Got him.'

Men tugged hard on reins, horses reared and whinnied, dust was kicked into the air. Swords flashed in the dying light. Thraun roared. Metal clashed. A single arrow flew. There was a shout of pain.

Hirad kept on pulling, unsaddling the man. His horse turned sharply, its head butting Hirad, sending him stumbling. The man scrambled to his feet to face his smiling double.

'So, Hirad,' he said, beckoning him on. 'Let's see if you measure up to the real thing.'

The man lunged forwards, thrusting to Hirad's open side. The barbarian switched his blade between his hands, blocked the attack aside and drove an uppercut into his enemy's exposed chest.

'Didn't think so.'

Hirad left him to bleed to death and turned back to The Raven, slapping the riderless horse away. From the back of the group, the elf had detached and was spurring his horse towards the gathered villagers.

'Oh no you don't,' breathed Hirad and set off after him.

The mage cast, his ForceCone meeting Erienne's implacable shield. Denser's focused Orb drove him from his horse to die screaming in flame on the dry earth. Thraun and Darrick had stopped the fledgling charge of two of the group, and, like The

Unknown, had hands on reins or bridles, keeping themselves out of strike range in front of their enemies' horses.

The last rider broke and galloped away to the north of the village and open ground, abandoning his comrades to their fates. The Unknown beckoned the leader down and waited while he drew his sword. Beside him, Darrick and Thraun killed effordessly.

'Are you who you say you are?' asked the leader.

The Unknown nodded, his sword tapping again. 'At least you will have faced me.'

The leader brought his sword to ready. The Unknown ceased his tapping, made nonsense of his double's ponderous defence and skewered his heart. 'But not for long.'

Hirad sprinted through the crowd and after the elf. 'Get back here, you bastard. Face me! Face Ilkar!'

He would never catch him but he ran on anyway, hoping for a slip, anything. A shadow moved against the buildings at the end of the village and leapt unerringly. The riderless horse galloped on a little way before losing momentum. On the ground behind it, Hirad saw Auum's single thrust. He stopped running, smiled and walked back to The Raven.

'What about the other one?' asked Hirad.

'Leaving one to tell the tale can't hurt.'

He stooped and cleaned his blade on an impostor's clothing, sheathing it and walking towards the villagers. Hirad glanced around. So easy. So effortless.

'Not much of a security force, I wouldn't have thought,' he said to Darrick.

The General, one hand pressed against his opposite shoulder, tried to smile.

'No. Can you help me with this?'

He lifted his hand. The arrow had struck him just under the collarbone. Darrick had snapped off the shaft to leave a couple of inches remaining.

'That was careless,' said Hirad.

'Denser let his shield down,' said Darrick. 'No blame intended.'

'Indeed I did,' said Denser, coming to his side. 'The least I can do is sort you out. Hirad, why don't you talk to our new friends or something?'

Hirad shrugged and wandered off after The Unknown. Some of the villagers were walking into the combat area, staring dumbly at the bodies and blood.

'Looks like you've got yourselves some new horses anyway,' said Hirad. 'Hope you don't mind clearing up. Think of it as payment.'

He saw the odd nod and smile but there was wariness amongst the villagers.

'Hey,' he said. 'You didn't need them. And they weren't who they said they were. They deserved it. They were damaging the reputations of friends I have lost.'

The Unknown was standing with Ferran. The farmer was frowning.

'And what will you do now, take their place?'

The Unknown shook his head, smiling. 'We'll move on in the morning, like we said.'

'Are you The Raven?'

'Does it matter?'

'We have tales to tell,' said Ferran.

'Fair enough.' The Unknown looked across at Hirad, who shrugged. 'Yes, we are The Raven. Very different from the tales you've been told, I expect. We're tired, we're wanted by both sides in the war and all we want to do is leave Balaia and hang up our swords.'

'Leave?' Ferran's eyebrows raised.

'We've done all we can,' said Hirad. 'And there are too many out there who will thank us by having us locked up or executed. Draw your own conclusions.'

Around them, the crowd stood mute. Not quite believing what they were seeing, what they had heard, or what they were hearing right now. Hirad couldn't help but chuckle.

'None too impressive-looking, are we?' he said. There was a little laughter in the crowd. On an impulse, he continued. 'But we couldn't let them go. We couldn't. So many of those they were mimicking are dead friends. And I will not stand by while their memories are sullied by this sort of filth, and while the deeds of those with us now are ignored.' He gestured at the corpses. One, his double, still breathed. Hirad hoped he was being heard. He continued.

'We lost Ras at Taranspike Castle, Sirendor Larn was poisoned by a Xeteskian assassin and Richmond died in Black Wings' castle. All more than six years ago now but they are the names you have been told, are they not?'

There was a murmur in the crowd. Heads were inclined. They hung on his every word.

'Yet there were so many more. Jandyr, who died on the fields of Parve; poor Will Begman, terrified from his life by the touch of a demon. Aeb, the Protector who sacrificed his soul to The Raven. And Ilkar. Ilkar who even in the act of his death, saved the rest of us. That is what The Raven is. That is who we are and what those of us who remain represent.' He indicated them one by one. 'Erienne; Denser; Thraun; Darrick; The Unknown Warrior. And me, Hirad Coldheart, lucky enough to have stood with them all.'

He stopped, aware that he was welling up and that his voice was in danger of breaking.

'So,' he said and clapped his hands together, smiling as he swallowed at the lump in his throat. 'Do you have ale and wine here?'

'That we do,' came a voice from die crowd.

'Good. Then anyone who wishes, join me in raising a tankard to The Raven, all of us. I'm buying.'

The Unknown turned to Ferran as the crowd broke into excited conversation and set off as one to the tavern. 'Is that a good enough tale for you to tell?'

Ferran nodded. 'His heart speaks, doesn't it?'

'Always,' said The Unknown. 'Hey, Coldheart, get over here.'

Hirad strode towards him and found himself enveloped in The Unknown's arms.

'Well said, Hirad. Well said.'

Chapter 6

Tessaya ducked as another FlameOrb smashed into the rubble of a building behind him, its deep blue flame gorging on whatever wood it could find. The garish light it cast threw harsh shadows on the walls and ground around him. He ordered another attack on the gates.

Conservatively, he reckoned he had lost a third of his men to Xeteskian sword and spell; most of them when the tower and parapet had collapsed the previous night. Riasu was dead, so were at least two other tribal lords. Tessaya himself was bandaged along one arm, cut and burned in four places he could feel and probably others he couldn't.

But the belief of the Wesmen was unwavering. Here they stood, in front of Xetesk's college gates, night full around them and the defenders increasingly desperate as their strength ebbed away.

Tessaya concentrated much of his efforts on the gates though he had tribesmen all round the walls under command of their tribal lords. The tactic was simple. Hit and run. Force them to use spell and arrow. Keep them from consolidating in one place. Fear nothing. Not even the winged demons, impervious to the kiss of metal. Even they could be dealt with if the will prevailed.

Tessaya glanced right. One of the creatures was pinioned beneath the rubble its masters had created. It cursed and spat, struggled and shifted. But the four warriors guarding it simply piled on more stone. It would not escape and its humiliation undermined it. Without fear as a weapon, it was diminished.

His warriors charged the gates with the battering ram they had built outside the walls of the city. An oak trunk with branches thick as a man's leg. Beside the twenty who carried the ram ran twenty more carrying thick bark shields above their heads. And beside

them, archers fanned out, four on either side. And all around the walls, more teams with trunks and ladders, roared on by their tribes.

The noise of song and shout sent a thrill through Tessaya every time he heard it. It was the call of the Wesmen to victory and it filled him with joy. On the walls, the defenders responded. But as it had been with every attack through the night, they were holding back because they didn't have the spells or arrows to do anything else.

The ram clattered into the centre of the doors, his tribesmen flailing at the familiars who flew in amongst the arrows. Splinters flew, timbers groaned and the spells that strengthened the doors sparked. Arrows and rocks poured down. Three men fell. The ram reversed and simultaneously the familiars withdrew. FlameOrbs and IceWind drove into the bark shields. Warriors screamed and toppled among the fallen of earlier raids. There was no quarter here. The dead would lie uncollected.

The ram went in again and this time Wesmen archers were close enough to fire. Shafts skipped off the walls, chipped shards from the crenellations. Some found their targets. Since the zenith of the night, the defenders had not had the capacity to shield their own men with magic. It was one more indication of their weakening. And every blow of the ram, every spell they were forced into using and every arrow fired from the walls weakened them further.

Tessaya nodded, satisfied. He flexed the muscles of his thigh and felt the pull where a Xeteskian arrow had punctured it. Never send your men where you were not prepared to go yourself. But by the time he was called upon to carry the ram again, he thought the gates would already be down. Soon it would be dawn. It was fitting that the new day should see the fall of Xetesk.

He took another look at the college's seven towers, soon to be toppled. Men were gathering high up on the tallest of them. Tessaya sniffed. The air tasted suddenly sour. Xetesk's evil was about to be unleashed once more.

Dystran stood with his dimensional team. Dawn was just below the horizon. He and they had spoken at some length and watched the Wesmen cycle their forces, never giving the defenders a break. Dystran's mages were close to exhaustion, his archers were almost spent and his commander was at the end of his tether, desperate to

get out and fight in the streets. Swordsmen were idle, Chandyr had said, while Wesmen went unchallenged. Dystran wanted them fresh. If this last gambit failed then every sword would be required to defend the tower complex. There was still scope for victory, but timely deployment was crucial. Dystran felt Chandyr was running on emotion, not logic.

He had argued long with Sharyr about the risk. He knew the alignment was incomplete. But the Wesmen had to be knocked back. The moment couldn't be delayed.

'Make me proud,' he said to the team as Sharyr readied them for the casting.

'Either that or I'll make you dead,' said Sharyr sharply.

Dystran respected his strength of belief. It made him a man with whom he could identify; and perhaps one to bring onto the Circle Seven where he could be kept more firmly in control.

'Just get started,' said Dystran. 'You'll be fine.'

He heard the thud of the Wesmen ram on the gates once more and felt the sharp spike in the mana spectrum indicating stress on the binding spells. All around the college, spells flew out, carving lines of dark blue in the pre-dawn sky. Fires burned in a ring and everywhere he looked Dystran could see Wesmen.

'Sharyr, if this spell only stops one thing, make it stop that damn chanting. It is as distracting as it is tuneless.'

Sharyr almost smiled at that. He turned to those he could see of the fifteen that encircled the Tower and the casting began. Dystran sent a short prayer to whatever God might be listening. StormFront was a dangerous casting, barely developed and never live-tested. But it was the only one that would break the Wesmen in time. It required accurate construction, visualisation and placement. It needed the power of inter-dimensional space to drive it. And it needed huge mental strength to hold it while the storm coalesced. Everything went into the formation. After release, they could all stand and admire whileit washed out to every point of the compass.

Dystran smiled. The situation to test the casting was ideal; the desired formation circumference was just within the boundaries of the theoretically possible; and they were surrounded by enemies. StormFront was designed for exactly this scenario. Its successful casting would complete the suite of inter-dimensionally powered

spells and defeat the Wesmen at the same stroke. It would be a most satisfying outcome.

Sharyr was an efficient mage. No fuss. He managed his team closely. Dystran felt the pull of the mana and the order of a focused casting. He almost wished he had joined them. Almost.

The first indication of the casting was an impressive slit in the sky. Blue-edged, it appeared directly above his head and moved out to the periphery of the college where it stabilised. To begin with it was a slice of silk only a few feet long, alluring and delicate. It hardened then, taking on the shape of the spell: an arc, glimmering deep blue and ragged at its height. Abruptly, the arc lengthened. It ran away left and right, faster than the eye could follow, tracing the circumference of the college.

The circle completed. White flashed briefly in the blue mana light. The air hummed. Up on the walls, archers straightened and mages moved to standby, letting their casting constructs disperse. The Wesmen were withdrawing. Dystran didn't blame them.

The slit opened downwards slowly as the StormFront coalesced. To Dystran's left and right, mages gripped the balcony rail, steadying quivering legs while the energy washed through them and they fought to first contain it and next, feed it into the casting. He heard Sharyr's suddenly ragged breathing.

'Hold on,' he was urging his team. 'Hold on. Breathe easy.'

Inside the widening front, forks of bright blue light flashed. There was the roaring of a hurricane punctuated by the bass rumble of rolling thunder. On its lower edge, descending fast now and almost out of sight, the front boiled and bubbled in the Balaian air, hungrily grabbing at the elements to blend with the raw power of inter-dimensional space.

'Holding steady,' muttered Sharyr. 'Focus. Focus.'

The nature of the front changed slowly. It thickened. Its colour turned a deepening grey, muting the flashes within it. A wind whipped up around it. Even at this distance, it picked at Dystran's cloak. Down on the walls, soldiers hunched behind the battlements. Outside the college, Wesmen ran to the edge of the cobbles by the first rubbled buildings where their fires burned. They thought the spell was a shield but they were gravely mistaken. They had not retreated far enough.

Dystran sampled the construct. Felt its solidity and the effort of the mages keeping it secure while the forces poured in. It was the textbook shape. The casting would be a triumph. All he could do now was wait. The field strengthened further, discordant noise filling the air. The Wesmen had stopped singing.

Next to him, Sharyr stood with every muscle tensed. His forehead was damp with sweat that trickled over his closed eyes and down his cheeks. Dystran became aware of the murmuring of the casting team. Their words were barely distinguishable as they spoke to each other across the construct and used command words that opened up new pathways in the shape, closed off others or bled away excess power.

A frown passed across Sharyr's face.

'Instability. Base level. Lock it down.'

To Dystran's right, a mage gasped with the effort, his teeth grinding. He swayed. Across the surface of the front, chaotic blue light surged and flashed.

'Spreading,' said Sharyr. 'Something's wrong. The alignment isn't firming, it's failing. How can that be. . Prepare to release.'

'No,' said Dystran. 'Believe. Hold on for full term.'

The top edge of the front rippled violently. Dystran was buffeted by a sudden howl of wind. From the opposite side of the tower, he heard a cry of pain.

'One out, one out!' called Sharyr. 'Release on my mark.'

Dystran pursed his lips. Before him, the StormFront bucked and twisted. Its grey colouring was shot with dark lines. Bolts of pure energy seethed across its surface or grabbed at the ground. The intensity of noise grew sharply, battering at the ears. It was the sound of a thousand dragons breathing fire.

'Release!'

A moment's pause and the StormFront surged outwards, precisely as designed. An expanding wall of Balaian elemental destruction, focused and powered by the energy of inter-dimensional space. It would dissipate in no more than seventy to a hundred yards, minimising the risk to ordinary Xeteskians. But before it became little more than a puff of air, it would obliterate everything in its path.

Scant feet from the walls, the StormFront guttered and halted.

Dystran staggered under the weight of the backwash through the mana spectrum.

'What-' he began.

It guttered again, rippled across its surface then the whole front delivered a blistering white light that scoured the night from the city in an instant. Through the patterns across his tortured eyes, Dystran saw the StormFront blink and suck back towards its starting point, the constant light casting harsh day over Xetesk. At dreadful speed, the circle wound back. The entire construct reversed until just a twinkle of blue mana light remained in the air just above and outside the college gates.

Blackness flooded the void left by the light. Dystran blinked hard, trying to shift the shapes that flowed across his vision. In monochrome, he could just pick out the sparkle of light over the gates, the fires indicating the Wesmen and, too bright to be anything other than a problem, the glimmer from the previous night's CobaltFury that had never dissipated.

Hypnotised, he watched a strand of blue emanate from the glimmer above the city walls and trace across the sky towards the college. It was pencil-thin and quite steady but Dystran sensed such menace inside it that it made him shudder.

There was no sound he could hear above his own breathing and the crackle of fires and hiss of lanterns and torches. Every waking eye would be transfixed by the line being drawn above the city. Every voice was mute.

'Sharyr?' hissed Dystran. 'Answers. Quickly.'

T have none,' said Sharyr, his voice weary.

Dystran would have looked at him but he was reluctant to leave the spectacle. The points of light were almost joined now and the sense of foreboding growing.

'It's going to be a gateway,' said Dystran. 'But to where?'

'You can't be sure,' said Sharyr. 'It's probably just something caused by the meeting of our elements and inter-dimensional space.' Sharyr's tone suggested he didn't believe what he was saying.

The line of light reached the walls of the college. Alien sound abruptly split the nervous quiet. From the windows of towers, open doors and shadowed recesses, familiars flew. Two dozen and more, all that remained in the college. Gone was the mischievous laughter

and the chittering contempt to be replaced by hollow keening and long, high-pitched and querulous wails.

Shivering, Dystran watched their flight pattern. It was tightly formed, one leading all the others in a helical pattern around the beam of light. They dispersed back into the sky after a few turns, rising in graceful arcs before plunging back towards the college, voices changed, sounding warning and alarm.

One by one, they disappeared back where they had come but the last diverted and flew to the balcony where Dystran stood. It hovered in front of him. Dystran considered he had never seen a familiar display fear before.

'Prepare,' it hissed. 'Save the masters. They are come.' And it dropped from sight.

Dystran's eyes snapped back to the beam.

'Oh dear Gods, what have we done?' he breathed.

Already, the first signs of panic were evident in the grounds of the college. People were running and shouting to no discernible purpose. Dystran fancied he could hear doors slam and lock. As if that would make any difference. Around him, the alignment team were pressing towards the balcony doors, eager for an escape.

T tried to warn you,' said Sharyr. 'The alignment was never favourable enough for the power we had to use. A breach was surely inevitable.'

'They must have been waiting,' whispered Dystran.

'Ever since we first cast BlueStorm, I expect,' said Sharyr. 'Congratulations, my Lord Dystran. You have killed us all.'

Fierce cold washed out from the beam. Teeth ached in chilled gums, hair frosted and eyes dried out and stung. Through the frozen mist filling the air, Dystran could see the beam move. Edges appeared along its length and blue light spilled out. Not the deep blue of Xetesk but the livid colour of the demon dimension.

And out they spilled in their tens, hundreds and thousands. Multiple shapes and innumerable sizes and colours. Dystran saw demons the size of small birds flit off on buzzing wings. He saw others that would tower over houses, floating. He saw tails and tentacles. He saw necks like those of dragons, the heads of disfigured men, animals and other forms totally alien. Snakelike demons

shimmered in the sky, bulbous-skulled demons roared across the firmament.

Still they poured out on a wave of blue demon-light. And when they had finished their cavorting, they grouped together. Four main groups and dozens of smaller ones fizzing and diving, setting off to every point of the compass, or so it seemed.

Dystran couldn't move. His mouth was dry and his body shook.

'Do something!' yelled Sharyr.

'Nothing,' mumbled Dystran, gesturing uselessly. 'There's nothing to do.'

'Organise, damn you!' Sharyr grabbed his lapels and shook some sense back into his mind. 'We have to work together or we'll all die, do you understand?'

'Yes,' said Dystran. 'Yes. ColdRooms. Make ColdRooms. And work. Research. We must fight. Muster in the mana bowl.'

Thousands of demons descended on Xetesk. Their approach was soundless and awesome, on a wave of freezing air. Others were surely on their way to Dordover, Lystern and Julatsa. They were the centres of mana energy and life force. The jewels the demons had craved for so long.

'Go,' said Dystran. 'Let me face them. They will want to talk.'

'Talk?'

'Yes, Sharyr. Demons always want to talk.'

At the head of the advance, three detached themselves and floated towards the tower. Sharyr took the remnants of his team and fled. Dystran, his heart thrashing in his chest, his consciousness threatening to desert him, faced the new enemy. The three were monstrous. Better than thirty feet tall, they had roughly human torsos but beneath their trunks tentacles writhed. Colours flashed across their sexless bodies, rainbows chasing each other to nowhere.

'You are not welcome here,' managed Dystran. 'Respect the ancient laws and treaties. Return to your dimension and seal the rift you have made.'

'The time of humans has passed,' said one, chest rippling and writhing. The voice was deep and carried far and wide. 'We rule here now.'

Chapter 7

Hirad awoke with the sense of unease he had learned to trust. He lay where he was for a time, breathing in the rich scent of hay around him in the barn loft, seeing the rays of the dawn sun through the gaps in the planked walls and hearing the sounds of horses. Quite a number of horses.

He hurried to his feet and looked around for The Unknown. The big warrior was already standing at a small window, Thraun and Darrick by his side, looking down onto the village's single street.

'Trouble?' asked Hirad.

'See for yourself,' said The Unknown. 'Dordover has arrived.'

Through the window, Hirad could see at least twenty horsemen in college livery. Next to them was the one impostor that had escaped the previous evening along with several villagers. They were grouped at the bottom of the path that led up to Ferran's farm and there was no doubt at all where their attention lay. While he watched, Hirad saw small bags being tossed to the impostor and each of the villagers, who were then waved away.

'They're paying our ransom,' he said.

'Yeah,' said The Unknown. 'A little premature, don't you think?'

Hirad heard the sound of a sword belt being buckled on.

'Damn right,' said Hirad. 'Ideas?'

The Unknown looked out of the window once more. Hirad broke away to pull on his boots, and belt on his own sword. 'Ferran isn't with them, I see. We can presume he's innocent. That means that while they know we're in his buildings they won't know who's where necessarily. But we aren't going to get to the farmhouse without being seen and I think a little surprise is what we need.'

'I wonder if Denser and Erienne know what's happening.'

'I don't doubt it,' said Darrick. 'What we have to worry about is

that we're unshielded. And I disagree with you, Unknown. Surprise is not what we need. After all, we've got a little help coming.'

He pointed to the left towards the southern edge of the village. Figures were racing in from the forest just beyond the last houses, disappearing into shadow to reappear far closer than they had any right to. And very much adjacent, a panther roared. The predatory sound scared the horses. A couple reared, the rest shifted, backing away. Riders began to dismount.

'Well, even if our loving couple were asleep, they aren't now,' said Hirad. 'Let's go, Raven, there's work to do.'

Thraun hung back. T will run with the panther one last time on Balaia,' he said.

'You sure?'

The blond warrior nodded, his yellow-tinged eyes bright. Hirad didn't wait for him but led the way down the ladder to the empty horse stalls. At the barn's double doors, The Unknown halted them briefly.

'Remember, if they want to arrest us, we can talk. Buy time. Just like last night.'

T doubt they'll be as incompetent as last night,' said Darrick.

'Take my lead,' said The Unknown.

He pulled open the doors and strode out into the cool air of early morning. Darrick and Hirad were at either shoulder. Thraun was still inside. Not two paces into the sunlight and FlameOrbs arced towards them.

'Run!'

The Raven trio scrambled back inside, the Orbs crashing into the barn and the ground where they had been standing. Loose hay ignited, timbers flared and the ageing structure groaned and protested the impact. Fire took swift hold of the village side of the barn. It raced up the lintel where tongues licked down, daring them to attempt escape. It ate across the floor, finding ample fuel. Darrick, joined by the others, kicked a makeshift firebreak while behind them Thraun prowled, growling nervously.

'How strong are the walls d'you reckon?' asked Hirad. 'You know, just in case.'

'Not strong enough,' said The Unknown.

Smoke fled across the underside of the roof, choking the timbers

and carrying sparks to the hayloft. Already, flames threatened the thatch high above them.

'We don't have a lot of time,' said Darrick.

'Patience,' said The Unknown, coughing.

'Raven!' came a voice. 'Surrender immediately or we'll burn you where you hide. You have-' He made a choking sound. Hirad fancied he heard a dry thud.

'Auum,' said Hirad. The panther roared into the teeth of another spell detonation. Men shouted. There were running feet.

'Hirad, shoulder at the edge of the flame, we'll break through there. Roll and split outside. Don't give them a target.' The Unknown sheathed his sword. 'Raven with me!'

Hirad and The Unknown sprinted for the fire's edge which was advancing along the wall at frightening speed, its heat drawing sweat from their brows. The warriors launched themselves on the last pace, shoulders connecting with scorching timbers. The impact of their combined weight on weakened wood was predictable and they punched through to fresh air in a shower of sparks and splinters.

Both men rolled on the packed earth, drawing swords as they regained their feet and running at angles towards the enemy. Thraun howled and charged. Darrick moved up in their wake. From the left, the TaiGethen and Rebraal advanced carefully behind accurate bowfire that skipped off a HardShield but kept its caster concentrating hard. The ClawBound were sprinting in a wide arc to reach the back of the Dordovans, their horses beginning to panic and split.

Already, one of their number lay with a shaft through his throat. Others circled and ran to defensive positions. Mages, one still on horseback, were either casting or held shields in place. The Raven's betrayers were backing off north. Hirad noted them and was just wondering if Denser and Erienne were with The Raven when the Xeteskian announced that he was.

Two focused columns of HellFire speared down from the clear sky. Rich blue and targeted at two standing mages, they struck with unstoppable power. A shield flared briefly orange and collapsed. Beneath it the two victims vaporised, not even having the time to scream.

'Let's take them, Raven!' yelled Hirad, changing the angle of his

run to strike the centre of the demoralised and confused Dordovan force.

Thraun was past him on the next heartbeat, leaping to take the remaining mage from his horse. Blood fountained into the air and his horse bolted.

'They're open!' shouted The Unknown. 'Keep firing!'

Arrows flew. Two men were struck. From behind, the Claw-Bound elf strode in and buried his fingers deep into the face of a terrified conscript. His panther was by his side.

Half the remaining Dordovans turned to run and found themselves facing The Raven. Hirad was in no mood for games. The man in front of him recognised him and had all but resigned himself to death before Hirad struck. He raised a guard. Hirad stepped inside it, blocked away the sword arm with his left and buried his blade deep into the Dordovan's gut, driving up under the rib cage. Blood exploded from his mouth, spattering Hirad's face. The barbarian dragged the blade clear, turned to find his next opponent and crashed a fist into his face above his sword guard. The soldier staggered back. Hirad paced after him, punched him again, square on the chin. The soldier's sword dropped from nerveless fingers. Hirad growled and sliced out his throat.

Darrick had already downed two men who mistakenly thought him the easier target, while beside them one hapless soldier had met the full force of The Unknown's sword and had been all but divided in two at the midriff. The sword had caught in his splintered ribs. The Unknown struggled to drag it clear, another soldier closing on him, looking to carve himself a piece of history.

'Your right, Unknown,' called Hirad, blocking away a quick attack from one of a duo he faced.

The Unknown swung round, straight-punched the soldier on the nose with his right fist, paced in and butted him hard. The man stumbled backwards and The Unknown finished him, driving his blade deep into his gut.

Hirad pushed away his closest attacker and backed off a pace, smiling.

'Shame for you,' he said. 'Because you'll never know what hit you.'

In front of him, the soldiers hesitated. And Auum's Tai hit them

with a speed that made Hirad gasp. Duele kicked head-high, snapping the neck of one man, Auum and Evunn scything into the legs and chest of the other. Hirad looked about him. It was over. The one remaining impostor leaped onto the back of a horse and kicked it into frenzied action. His limbs flailed as he urged it desperately towards a gallop.

'Not this time,' said Hirad. 'Thraun!'

The wolf looked up from the throat of a victim, blood covering his muzzle.

'The rider!' Hirad pointed. 'Quickly. Betrayer!'

Thraun barked once and set off, die panther quickly at his side. The impostor looked over his shoulder and screamed at his terrified mount for more speed. But instead of that, all he got was a stutter and a half-turn on the gallop. Thraun closed the distance quickly, nipping at die animal's heels. It kicked out and bucked and in the same instant the panther leaped high and bore the impostor from his saddle. Fangs ripped and tore.

Hirad looked away. Straight into the eyes of one of the village betrayers. '

'You,' he breathed and began to advance.

All five of them were in a group twenty yards from the fighting, all set to run.

'Reckon you can outrun the wolf or the panther, boy?' snarled Hirad at one, a youth of no more than sixteen, freckled and ginger-haired. Urine coursed down his legs. 'Don't you move a fucking muscle.'

The villagers froze, caught between the advancing barbarian and the knowledge of the two wild animals behind them.

'Hirad,' warned The Unknown. 'Don't you do it.'

'Do what?' asked Hirad, not breaking stride.

'You know what I'm talking about.'

'Damn you, Unknown, you know me better than that.' He dropped his sword to the ground, unbuckled his sword belt and dropped that too, complete with its sheathed daggers. He stopped and turned, arms outstretched. 'All right now?'

'Still hardly a fair contest,' said The Unknown.

'There isn't going to be a contest.'

Hirad marched up to the five men. They all looked so small

though at least two were bigger than he was. Strong farmers and farmers' sons. But where it mattered, they had no strength at all.

T don't know,' said Hirad. 'I really don't.'

He stood close to them, looking from one to another in turn, seeing scared eyes beneath shamed brows. He could barely control the fury coursing through his body. The Unknown had been right to make sure he was disarmed.

T would cut you all down and piss on your rotting corpses but it would be a waste of my edge and my water.'

He saw them cower and it gave him no pleasure. He struggled to understand what they had been prepared to do. These were ordinary Balaians. His people. The people he had been fighting for ever since the discovery of Dawn thief more than six years ago.

Hirad pointed at one, a broad-shouldered man with a thick thatch of unruly brown hair and a long nose.

'I drank with you last night. We bought each other ale. Exchanged names. And you.' He jabbed the freckled youth's chest, forcing him to back up a pace. 'You pestered me all night for stories.'

He shook his head sadly.

'And I told you everything you wanted to hear and every bit of it was true. And did you count the number of times The Raven stood against the enemy and saved your lives? We'd never met you and still we wanted you to live.

'That's honour. That's wanting what's best for the people of your country. We spent six years fighting battles we didn't start to give you the chance to grow your crops and tend your cattle.

'Yet you meet us for one night and decide to help another man betray us.'

His voice, carrying strongly, rose to a shout as his control finally broke.

'My friends died for you!' he stormed. 'Saving you so you could turn round and sell us for a few pieces of fucking coin.'

Hirad bit back bitter tears.

'If you ever had an elven friend and he's alive today, that's down to The Raven. You are not a pile of dragon-fired ash because of The Raven. Because the Wytch Lords don't own your souls, you should be thanking The Raven. And my friends died in that time. Ilkar the

last of them. A sacrifice to stop those who would dictate how you thought about magic.

'You are free because of us. Yet you would sell us. For how much, eh? What's in those purses of yours? What are The Raven worth?'

They fidgeted, looked to one another. Like last night, the village had assembled to see the spectacle. Hirad held out his hand.

'Show me. Now.'

The youth fished in his pocket and dropped a small purse in Hirad's palm. The barbarian eyed him meaningfully and poured the contents into his other hand. A few gold coins. Little real value in today's market where produce was king. He emptied them onto the ground.

'I could multiply that by five and still it would come to bugger all, wouldn't it? That's the price you put on everything The Raven have done for you is it? The price you put on Ilkar's death?'

The youth didn't see the left hook that laid him flat. Hirad rounded on the four still standing.

'Purses. Now. On the ground.'

They hesitated.

'You were paid a reward. But unless you are planning on arresting me yourselves, I suggest you hand it over. You have not completed your contract.'

A second hesitation was ended by a significant growl from Thraun who had padded up silently behind them. With great reluctance, hands reached into pockets. Four purses clinked to the ground. Hirad kicked them away and turned at last to face the villagers. To the left, Ferran's barn, wrapped in flame, began to collapse. Smoke boiled into the air.

'We didn't ever demand much. Payment for our services. Sometimes not even that. Mostly we just wanted a country where we could all live in peace.

'What you do with these behind me is up to you but personally I wouldn't be happy if they were part of my village. They are barely part of the human race. The money we'll take, barring what Ferran will need to rebuild his barn.'

He turned to walk back to The Raven but a final thought struck him.

'You know the thing that really makes me sick to my stomach? It's

the fact that next time Balaia is threatened, the same people who betray us today will call for us to help them. Well, we won't be hearing you. Perhaps you'll think on why that is before the enemy kills your children in front of you. Find yourselves some new heroes. Because we're leaving and we won't be coming back. 'The Raven will not ride again.'

Dawn's light had brought little real respite in Lystern. The demons had flooded through the city and into the college two hours before. Heryst had lost a third of his mage strength then and there, their life energy and souls feeding their attackers; their deaths mere prelude to lingering purgatory if the myths were true.

Heryst and the council had reacted smartly and enough mages were holed up in the great council chamber to keep a ColdRoom casting going almost indefinitely. The spell, which banished mana from within it, was their only effective defence against the mana-based demons which quickly suffocated without it. Any that tried to attack within the ColdRoom were easily dispatched because swords were also affected by the spell and carried no mana in their steel.

Heryst, Lystern's Lord Elder Mage, prayed for the souls of any not within similar sanctuary. He could not Commune from within the ColdRoom. Mana would not coalesce. Indeed the only strands of mana were those that led from the five casting mages that fed the spell construct.

Latterly, the demons had seemed content to walk or float just outside the transparent spell. It was enough to keep the one hundred and sixty-three mages, soldiers and assorted college staff on edge. Heryst knew he couldn't let the situation stagnate. He could feel the anxiety in the chamber and sense all of them begin to add up the practical problems they faced.

He squeezed the arm of his most trusted aide and friend. A man who he was so pleased to have with him now.

'Kayvel, it's time to get organised. Check on the casting team will you?'

Kayvel smiled through his own fear and climbed onto the council table. The casting team, surrounded by swordsmen, were in its centre, as far from accident as was possible. Heryst watched Kayvel

walk rather awkwardly across the intricately designed wood and kneel by the team to exchange soft words.

'People,' said Heryst, clapping his hands and stilling the quiet hum of conversation. 'Let's gather ourselves. Over here, please. We've got work to do.'

He could see it so clearly in all their faces. From the most senior mage to the youngest serving girl or kitchen lad. Incomprehension edged by terror. Loss. The war had been hard enough though it had never touched them. But this. Most of these people had gone from knowing about demons only from text and story, to the staggering certainty that nothing would be the same again. And that everything they had known and taken for granted was gone. Heryst had worse news for them.

He waited while they assembled. Every eye was on him, needing him to help them find a way back. If they could only but sample the desperation he felt. Too much knowledge could sometimes be considered dangerous. But he felt that he had to tell them what they were up against. But first, a little balm.

'We are safe here,' he said. T know you don't all understand what we have created but, as you have seen, it keeps the demons at bay and those who try to breach it are easy targets. Remember that because it is as good as our position gets.'

A murmur went round the crowd in front of him.

'There are things you have to know. And because I need you all if we are to survive, I will not hide anything from you. Outside this spell, we cannot fight them for any length of time. Though they are vulnerable to spells, they will barely be harmed by swords because of the mana in the air and over everything.'

A hand went up. It was a young girl that Heryst recognised. She was attached to the staff of the tower kitchens. In her early twenties, dark-haired and slim-built.

'Please my Lord, I don't understand. What are these things?'

Heryst smiled. 'I'm sorry, yes, let's start at the beginning. I'll be brief though so anything you don't quite get, ask a mage later. Mages, you will answer all these questions. This is no time to feel you are somehow above helping ordinary Lysternans.

'These demons are from a dimension other than our own. We have had contact with them for many hundreds of years. Enough to

know that they covet our land because of its richness and the vitality of life here. Demons need mana in the atmosphere in order to breathe and maintain their natural armour and that is why we are cocooned in the ColdRoom spell. But they live on the life force of other creatures. You'd call that their souls, I guess, and it is as good a word as any. They can drain your soul in an instant or feed off it over the course of years. They can choose to keep you alive while they drain you. It would be a drawn-out death. And we understand that the souls of those they take can be kept in existence in their own dimension, stimulated by pain to pulse out life for years.'

He paused and looked around the room. Tears were running down the cheeks of men and women alike. He saw others shivering. And yet more looking to the edges of the casting, into the corridors beyond the council chamber where demons hovered. A hand was raised. Heryst nodded for the soldier to speak.

'Can we beat them back?'

Heryst shrugged. T don't know. I have to say I have my doubts. We can only guess at the numbers they have in the city and beyond. Fighting them one to one is probably not worth it. What we have to do ultimately is find out where they are coming from and literally close the door.'

'How are we going to do that stuck in here?' shouted someone.

Heryst held up his hands. 'Calm, please. That is why we are talking now. Here is what I want us to consider. First, the practical. We have no food, water or latrine facilities and we have to work out ways to get them.'

'My Lord Heryst,' said Kayvel. T can partially solve the latter.'

Kayvel's voice was like a cool breeze over hot skin. Heryst smiled. 'Then let us hear you. I have managed only to depress people so far.'

A fractional easing of the tension was evidenced by the odd chuckle.

'The spell's coverage is a little wider than we thought. It does cover the latrines beyond the north doors. Only just, but it does nonetheless.'

'Thank you,' said Heryst. 'But it isn't enough for a long-term siege in here. They will fill and we have no way of clearing them. But for now, it is a piece of genuinely good news. As soon as I've finished speaking, Kayvel, who I am putting in charge of soldiers

and non-mages, will organise a rota. No one is to visit the latrines without an armed guard. Remember, the demons will watch our every move and try to counter it.

'Right, food and water. We all know where our stores and wells are. The question is, how do we reach them without being taken by the demons? Mages, I need you to work out if it is possible to effect a moving ColdRoom. Kitchen and cleaning staff, identify every place where there is a bucket, a basin, a barrel…anything we can use to carry food, water, clothes, bedding up here. Assume we are going to be here for some time while we decide how to strike back. When Kayvel is ready, he will hear what you know.

'Any questions?'

'My Lord?'

'Yes, Oded, speak up,' said Heryst to the young council mage.

'Thank you, my Lord,' he said. 'Do you think we can expect any help from the outside?'

Heryst noted the concentrated gaze of all present on him. It was a hope to which all had been clinging.

'No, I don't think we can,' he said quietly. 'I'm sorry. I'll come back to why in a moment but before I forget, Oded, I want you to take a team of three and think hard about how we can communicate. I know there is no Communion from within the ColdRoom but consider this. There are strands of mana feeding the ColdRoom construct. Is there any way you can piggyback those to reach the mana spectrum? And if so, what can you do when you get there?

'Now, back to your question. We don't yet know where the demons are getting into the Balaian dimension but we were attacked from the north. I suspect Xetesk was the focus. But we have to assume that the demons have attacked all colleges, and other centres of population will no doubt follow in due course. If we're lucky, mages in all the colleges have gathered together like we have. Elsewhere on Balaia, I fear for our people, I really do.

'I expect that at some stage the demons will make their plans known. Whoever is leading them in Lystern will come here and want to talk to me. That is when we will perhaps know the extent of what we face. But we have to face facts.

'The demons control Balaia.'

With a growing sense of incomprehension, Tessaya and the Wesmen had watched the events taking place in the air above Xetesk. They had watched the line being drawn in the sky and had seen the extraordinary creatures spill out of it like entrails from a slit gut. With a collective furrowed brow they witnessed them group up and fly off to all parts of Balaia. None, he noticed, directly towards the Blackthorne Mountains. Tessaya had gathered his men as it became obvious that the threat from Xetesk's defence had gone in the face of whatever it was that attacked them. He didn't want any of his people anywhere hear it.

Initially, the Wesmen had cheered and sung as the creatures in every possible hue, and on a tide of purest blue light and cold, attacked within the walls. Spells had flashed and flared into the predawn sky. But so quickly, it had quietened. The songs had died in their throats and all they could hear were the occasional shouts of men, the swish of a thousand bodies swooping in the air, and the shuddering sound of Xeteskians screaming and wailing. It was a sound that would live with him for ever. He had heard frightened men before but this was something so much worse. Like the opening of a gulf into unending despair.

He was at a loss. To all intents and purposes, Xetesk's new enemy had done their work for them. That should have made them an ally. But Tessaya was not about to offer his hand to any of those that he saw and that still emerged from the slit in the sky, scattering through the city and the lands beyond.

Not one of them had shown the slightest bit of interest in the Wesmen gathered outside Xetesk's college gates. And for that he was glad. Because something was badly astray with what he was seeing. This wasn't the work of mages. The cold in the air was unnatural and it smelled bad. And there was an evil in the way the creatures moved and attacked, in the way they sounded and in the cries of the Xeteskians as they died, if die they did.

Part of him wanted to remove his men from the area, return to the Heartlands. But in all truth he could not. He refused to turn and run from the new invaders; and indeed felt that would be futile, so fast did they travel. Far more than that though, he was in sight of realising the dream of the Wesmen. To throw down the Towers of

Xetesk. Their defiance had been comprehensively broken but what had replaced it was clearly a power of considerable strength.

For the first time in many years, he did not know what he should do. So he waited. Waited while the noise died to a whisper within the walls and the screams that had echoed through the city had ceased. And while the chill in the air deepened, the glow of blue light from the slit in the sky spread and the sense of evil pervaded the walls behind him and the mind of every warrior standing with him.

They spoke in low tones, sang tribal songs and stared at him and the college. He knew they were scared but not one would run, not even in the face of an enemy they had no idea how to fight.

'My Lord, look!' shouted a warrior.

A renewed hush fell over the two thousand. From behind the college walls arose six of the creatures. One, huge, half as tall as the walls and truly awesome, was at their head. It had the body and head of a man but was tentacled from the waist down. The tentacles wavered like an anemone, propelling the creature through the air. Those grouped around it all had wings, tails and flat features in cold dead faces. All of them were hairless and had adopted blue colouring though flashes of reds and greens rippled across their flesh.

Tessaya drew his blade and gripped it hard.

'Don't flinch,' he shouted. 'We are the Wesmen. We fear nothing.'

He heard his words shouted back at him and he nodded, a fierce smile cracking his features. He watched the creatures which approached fast, on a wave of cold. The giant one settled onto its tentacles in front of him. It was completely odourless.

'We are the new masters here,' said the creature. 'You will submit to our rule. You will not bear arms and you will offer all your subjects for sacrifice. We will take as we please. It is the way.'

'No one rules the Wesmen. We will fight you and we will prevail.'

Tessaya struck out with his blade. He saw die sword cut deep, he felt the resistance of die creature's flesh, but when he ripped the blade clear the wound healed while he watched. Pain flickered momentarily across its face.

'You cannot fight us,' said the creature. 'You will be the first. Your people will learn to respect us. There is no other way.'

The creature reached out and touched Tessaya above the heart,

gripping. A frown creased its face. It pushed harder. Tessaya stumbled a pace and was pushed back upright by the men behind him.

'What is this?' hissed the creature. 'Your soul is mine. All your souls are mine.'

Tessaya laughed loud and in its face.

'Demons.' He spat on the ground, recollecting the Easterner word from the stories and rumours. 'Do you really know so little? You cannot touch the Wesmen. The Spirits protect our souls.'

'Then we will break the Spirits before we break you.'

'It is a battle you cannot win.'

The demon stared at him for a moment, turned and floated away back to the college. An uneasy calm fell over the Wesmen. Tessaya looked back to the towers of Xetesk.

They were clever, these Xeteskians. The demons were susceptible to magic but stamina for offence was finite and the enemy had overwhelming strength. But they had worked out quickly what it was the demons feared and had set it in front of them as a barrier. And for all their force of numbers, the demons respected it and had backed off.

Whatever the casting was, demons died within it and so remained outside of it. There had been very few times in his life when Tessaya had wished he understood magic but this was one such. He envied the potential it gave them and he was filled with a curious impotence. The fact was that these Easterners could kill the demons, or damage them at the very least, while he with all his passion and strength could not.

The sun was dipping behind the towers before he had seen enough. There came a moment when the barrier had sapped the wills of the demons for the time being and they had turned their minds to the recently enslaved populace. Tessaya had no desire to join them.

'The mages will not die easily or quickly,' he said to his nearest lieutenant. 'Our opportunity for today has passed.'

'And perhaps for ever,' said the warrior.

'There will be other days and the demons fear us,' replied Tessaya. 'But for today, we are finished. Call the tribes. We will withdraw. The city belongs to the demons.'

'Camp at Understone?'

Tessaya nodded. 'But with a forward camp within sight of the

walls. We must not lose touch. Something extraordinary is happen ing. Sound the fall-back.'

Dystran watched the Wesmen go and felt deserted. The ColdRooms deterred the demons for now but he needed his every ally and his erstwhile enemy had surely become one.

They had something, they must have. Because the demons didn't, or more likely couldn't, take their souls. Dystran was damned if he knew what it was. But their departure marked the passing of the last vestige of what could laughingly be described as normality on Balaia.

He wondered what they would do. How far they would go. However far, it would not be enough. Strange. He almost felt sorry for Tessaya. Know it or not, the Wesmen lord's fate and that of all his tribes depended on whether magic survived. Another day, he would have laughed at the paradox. Today, though, he had lost his city and most of his college. His mages and soldiers had died and those that remained were few and scared.

Never mind Tessaya, he had to get his devastated people through just one more day. And then the next.

'Gods, Ranyl, how I need you now.'

But Ranyl, like so many, could not hear him.

Chapter 8

'Ilkar!'

Hirad sat bolt upright in his bed, die sweat pouring from him. He was soaked in it. Just like in the early days of his life on Calaius. But this was nothing to do with acclimatisation. His heart was pounding so hard his throat hurt and he was quivering all over. He rubbed his hands over his face and into his hair. He closed his eyes briefly but the images replayed and he couldn't control his breathing.

With a shiver playing down his back, he swung his legs from the bed and stood on the matting. He heard voices elsewhere in the house and craved their company. In two years he had learned enough elvish to get by. In fact it was a language he enjoyed and these days when Rebraal visited the village, the two of them spoke more in the elf s tongue than Hirad's.

He pulled on a shirt and loose trousers and walked out of what had once been Ilkar's room in his parents' house, heading for the veranda and what he hoped would be friendly faces. Outside in the cool but still humid air deep in the Calaian rainforest, Rebraal and Kild'aar, a distant aunt by some means Hirad couldn't quite understand, were sitting and talking. Drinks steamed gently on a table between them. A fire burned in the pit in front of the house, smoke spiralling into sky that was clouding for more rain.

It was the middle of the night. Out in the rainforest, the noise of life and death went on as it always did. The air smelled of rain and fresh vegetation. Hirad sat on one of the three other swept-back chairs on the veranda, feeling the weave shift to accommodate his broad shoulders.

'I'll get you some tea,' said Kild'aar, levering herself out of her chair and walking slightly stiffly down the steps to the fire pit.

'Your shouting eventually woke you up too, did it?' said Rebraal, a smile touching his lips.

'I'm sorry,' said Hirad.

Rebraal shook his head. 'Tell me. If you want to.'

'I've felt the same thing a few nights but not with this — uh — sorry Rebraal, I don't have the words.' He switched into Balaian. 'This intensity. It's like someone's been battering on the door and now finally they've broken it down.'

Tlkar?' asked Rebraal.

Hirad shrugged. 'Well, yes. Daft I know. I still miss him, you know.'

'What have you seen?'

'Oh, that's hard to say.' Hirad pushed his hand through his hair, feeling the lank braids and the moisture left on his hands. 'I know it's him but I can't quite make him out. His essence, I can feel that so clearly. Everything that made him. And I fill in the smile and those damned ears myself. But he's in trouble. That's why the dream is so bad. I got the feeling he was running but I don't know where. That something was close that scared him. And though I reached out, I couldn't help him. He was always just beyond my grasp and my vision.

'Huh, speaking it makes it sound lame. Not scary at all.'

Kild'aar came back up the steps and handed him a mug of the herb tea that Ilkar had been so fond of. Deprived of coffee for more than a year now since his supply had run out, Hirad had developed a taste for the sweet aromatic teas of the elves. He'd had no choice really. The trade to Balaia had gone. No ships had come from the northern continent for three seasons now. Part of him worried about what that might mean. Most of him was glad they didn't trouble to make the journey. There was only one man on Balaia that Hirad missed and Blackthorne had never relied on trade with the elves so he would be unaffected. And Jevin, the last time he'd seen the elven skipper, had said he preferred not to sail north any more. He didn't say why.

'Thank you,' he said, once again speaking elvish. 'I'm sorry I woke you.'

Kild'aar waved away his apology and sat down, her eyes on Rebraal. 'You haven't told him yet?'

'We hadn't got round to it,' said Rebraal.

'Hadn't got round to what?' asked Hirad.

'You didn't wake us,' said Rebraal. 'Or at least, not me.'

'So you were having a late night, so what?'

'So I've had the selfsame dream,' said Rebraal.

'I beg your pardon?' Hirad felt cold despite the humidity of the night and clutched his mug tight between his hands.

'I have felt him too. He was your good friend. He was my brother.'

'Yeah, I know, Rebraal, and we've laughed and cried about him a good few times these last couple of years but, you know. . He's dead, and there's nothing we can do about that.'

'No, we can't. But that doesn't mean we can't help him.'

Hirad felt a growing unease. Rebraal and Kild'aar were both staring at him too earnestly. He frowned.

'You've lost me completely.' He knew his tone was a little sharp but he was tired and this was just riddles. 'That's the trouble with dead people. It's too late to help them ever again.'

'Hirad,' said Kild'aar softly and leaned forward to cover his hands with hers where they were locked around his mug. 'I know it hasn't always been easy for you here and that we, at least in the beginning, did not make it easy for you at all. But we have always respected why you wanted to come here. We know of your love for Ilkar and your desire to learn the ways that made him what he was.

'And you and your Raven will always be friends of the elves because of your actions in stopping the Elfsorrow. Rebraal calls you a brother and Auum, well, Auum let you run with the TaiGethen for a season, didn't he? And that is respect no human has ever had before.'

'He still said I was slow and deaf and blind, though,' said Hirad, smiling in spite of himself and the increasing feeling he was going to hear something he didn't want to.

'You will always be human,' said Rebraal. 'Some things not even Auum can teach you.'

'Tell me about it,' grumbled Hirad. 'Never give me a jaqrui again. I think I scarred Duele for life.'

'The point is this,' said Kild'aar, stilling Rebraal's next retort with a sharp glance. 'Though we trust you, there are those facts about us that you as a human should never know. Secrets that could be used

against us. We have already seen what humans do with such knowledge.'

'Not me, Kild'aar. Never me.'

'I know, Hirad,' said Kild'aar, releasing his hands so he could drink. 'Even so, we are only telling you this because you have had the dream and that makes you closer to us than we could ever have thought possible. It makes you family.'

'Telling me what?' Hirad took a long sip of the tea.

'The dead of an elven family are never truly lost,' said Rebraal. 'We can always hear them if they need us.'

Hirad felt a thrill through his heart. 'And can you talk to them?'

Kild'aar's smile extinguished his hope. 'It isn't communication as you would understand it because the dead do not exist in any way you can conceive. But messages can still be passed. It is one of the purposes of the temple at Aryndeneth.'

'The Al-Arynaar have been the keepers of this secret too,' said Rebraal. 'No other order can hear the dead. We learn it over years, decades. And even then it is difficult and uncertain.'

'What do they ask you? Why would they need you?'

'That is a difficult question to answer,' said Kild'aar. 'Elves make life bonds of incredible depth and often the transition to death is difficult. The dead seem to have moments of clarity amongst so much else we cannot guess at. They seek support if they feel lost. News of loved ones. They impart knowledge they had no time to speak when they were alive. You must understand that any communication that comes through is broken and sometimes all but incoherent. The dead no longer have the rules that guide us.'

'All right,' said Hirad carefully, trying to take it all in. 'But that doesn't explain one thing. How come I heard him tonight, if indeed I did?'

'Oh you heard him, all right,' said Rebraal. 'But you shouldn't have been able to and that is what is worrying us. I shouldn't have been able to do any more than sense him outside of Aryndeneth.'

'So didn't you ask him what's going on?'

T couldn't. It was like he was shouting for anyone to hear him, to help him. Anyone with a connection as strong as family. Hirad, other Al-Arynaar have had this same dream in the past days. . this same contact I should say. But no one can communicate at the

temple. Something is wrong in the world of the dead. Something is threatening them.'

Hirad made to speak and then stopped, at a loss. He sat back in his chair. 'What can threaten someone who is already dead?'

'We don't know,' said Kild'aar, sharing a guilty glance with Rebraal. 'Or at least, we aren't sure.'

'Well we'd better find out and fast,' said Hirad. 'We've got to help him.'

Hirad was half out of his chair before Rebraal's hand on his shoulder pushed him back down.

'That's why we're talking to you now. It might have been better in the light of day but since you are awake, now is the right time.' Rebraal levered himself out of his chair, took all three mugs and jumped lightiy down to the fire pit around which insects buzzed and died. 'There are other elements to this which are too convenient to be coincidence.'

'Like what?'

'The lack of trade from Balaia. I don't think you've thought why it's happened. Despite the war, it was beginning to pick up before we left to come back here two years ago. But it stopped abrupdy. Merchants who travelled north didn't return. Elven vessels have reported seeing lights in the sky and felt a sense of wrong that no sailor will ignore. Ship's mages think they have felt the edges of Communion, but faint and desperate. That's why they won't land.'

'Don't expect me to cry if they've managed to destroy Balaia. We did what we could. Everything they suffer they have brought on themselves.'

'The Al-Arynaar who stayed to help Julatsa have not returned. We sent others north a year ago to find out why and they are gone too but we can't sense any of them among Shorth's children.'

'Who?'

'Shorth's children is the name we give to the dead. He looks over them.'

'I thought he was a figure of fear,' said Hirad.

'Only to those who are our enemies,' said Kild'aar. 'A god of the dead is not necessarily vengeful on his own people. Ours is benevolent to those who serve our people well in life.'

'I'm sorry for those you may have lost in Julatsa,' said Hirad. 'But

it sounds to me like the college has fallen. Either to Dordover or Xetesk, it makes little difference.'

But both Rebraal and Kild'aar were shaking their heads.

'Something else you're not telling me?'

The two elves exchanged glances. Rebraal motioned the elder to speak.

'In our mythology there is the belief that the dead face an enemy from whom they were sheltered in life. That death is a constant battle to achieve peace and sanctity of the soul. It is a belief shared with those on your continent Rebraal tells me, you call the Wesmen.'

T wouldn't put yourselves in the same arena as them. Hardly worthy,' said Hirad.

'Do not scoff at what you do not understand,' said Kild'aar sharply. 'They have a link to Shorth's children, this is certain.'

'Oh, come off it. That's all just primitive beliefs.'

'At least they have beliefs!' snapped Kild'aar. 'That is the problem with humans. You have denied the teachings of generations and lost your religion and now it is coming back to haunt you. But like with everything you people do, you don't think. And once again, you bring us trouble. This time to our dead.'

'Gods burning, Kild'aar, calm down,' said Hirad. 'You're blaming me for things I have no control over. Just tell me how I can help, that's all I need to know.'

'You need to know what all tiiis is based on,' said Kild'aar.

'No I don't,' said Hirad. 'Learning and me never went well together. Ilkar would tell you just to point me at the problem and tell me how to deal with it.'

Rebraal chuckled. 'He's right of course. But so is Kild'aar, Hirad. Look, this is what you need to know. You understand dimensions, you know the dragons have one and we have one. So do the dead, that is our belief, or else where do they go? No, don't answer that. I'm not suggesting we could ever go there, it is hidden. But there are creatures who travel space and feed off the very thing that all creatures alive and dead hold. Life force, soul, call it whatever you want. Such is our belief

'You're talking about the demons,' whispered Hirad, a chill stealing across him.

'If that is what you call them,' said Kild'aar.

'We need Denser and Erienne,' said Hirad. 'They would know what to do.'

T think we will need the whole of The Raven. I have already taken the liberty of calling Thraun from the ClawBound patrols and messengers have been sent to Ysundeneth to find Darrick,' said Rebraal. 'I'm sorry, Hirad, but for such as yourself, there doesn't seem to be any peace. Not for ever.'

Hirad shrugged. 'But can even we do anything? I don't understand, how can we help Ilkar?'

'We aren't sure,' said Kild'aar. 'And it will involve all of us. Humans, Wesmen and elves. But there is something about The Raven that burns brighter than life. Together, you can achieve that which as individuals you cannot. That none of us can. I can't explain it. But Rebraal and Auum have seen it and all who meet you can feel it. If we are right the task is immense, perhaps impossible, but we must attempt it.'

'You aren't telling me anything I don't know already. What I don't know is what The Raven can do. Besides killing ourselves and standing by Ilkar, that is. So I'll tell you what I'll do. I'll travel to Herendeneth with Thraun and Darrick if they want to go. The Raven will talk and we will decide. That's our way.'

'It is all we ask,' said Kild'aar.

Hirad nodded. 'You know, I've understood almost nothing of what you have said and I'm finding it hard to believe the rest. But I do know what I dreamed and if you say that means Ilkar is in trouble somehow, I will not rest until he is saved, whatever it takes. But first, I'm going to return to my bed, talk to Sha-Kaan. Perhaps he can explain it to me.'

'The dragons would be a useful ally,' said Rebraal.

'They call the demons "Arakhe", you know,' said Hirad, getting up and placing his mug on the table between them. 'What do you call them?'

' "Cursyrd",' said Kild'aar. 'The robbers of fife.'

'We should start first thing in the morning. Will Thraun be here?'

'Yes,' said Rebraal. 'Hirad. Thank you.'

'I'm not doing this for any of us. Not for Balaia or Calaius. I'm doing it for Ilkar because he is Raven and he needs us.' He laughed, surprising even himself. 'You know it's incredible. What is it about that elf? Even dead, he can't keep out of bloody trouble.'

Chapter 9

Thraun had heard the ClawBound communication and knew it concerned him. He had spent the last days running as a panther's shadow while she worked. Her partner had welcomed the wolf and together they had shown him so much of the ways of the forest and he had learned to love it again.

Two years and the only other man he had seen in that time had been Hirad. He missed the barbarian sometimes but in the rainforest, away from all the prejudices of man and the memories of the pack, he had learned to understand himself just as he slowly understood the ways of die ClawBound.

Nothing was quite as alive as the Calaian rainforest. Its sights, smells, joys and dangers. He had thrilled to hunt as a wolf and delighted in tracking as a man. He spoke the language of the panther, knew the signs of the ClawBound elves and spoke easily with Al-Arynaar and TaiGethen. He had never felt more at peace with himself in either form.

He knew why he had been accepted so easily where Hirad, for all his strengths, had struggled for three seasons at least. It was because he was not pure human and because he was looking for a new way to live and had an innate understanding of the ways of the forest. Hirad tried hard, but in the end he would always be making the best of what he had and yearning for the life he did not.

Still, Hirad had become an accomplished hunter and tracker and the elves respected him.

The communication had the overtones of sorrow laid on it because there were some of Tual's creatures who would be leaving the rainforest and none knew when they would return. He could not grasp the nuances but he was undoubtedly one of the subjects.

There had just been a prolonged downpour and the forest at

night smelled fresh, clean and vibrant. Thraun stood and brushed water from his clothes. The panther lay beside him, her head resting on her front paws, her eyes fixed on him. The ClawBound elf was crouched a little further distant, but at the sound of the communication he had taken up the calls and had walked back to stand by his partner.

'It is me, isn't it?' said Thraun.

The elf nodded, his white-and-black-halved face impassive. He pointed away down the trails that led to Taanepol, where Hirad lived.

'Others too,'he said, voice gruff and forced.

'Lead on,' said Thraun.

He bent down and kissed the panther on her forehead. She growled, pleased. 'We will run as brother and sister again another day.'

The panther's ears pricked and she shot to her feet, looking north into the rainforest. Thraun heard a low call and the ClawBound relaxed. He became aware of sounds that he would not have picked up two years before, not as a man at any rate.

Auum, Duele and Evunn emerged from the vegetation. He greeted them each with the bear-hug that had become his trademark.

'What's happening?' he asked.

'Shorth's children need us,' said Auum. 'And they need you too.'

'Why?'

'Because Ilkar is among them and Hirad needs The Raven.'

Thraun stopped in his tracks. The rain began again, pounding on the canopy above and searching towards the ground, spattering leaves and trunks, quietening the wildlife. Duele touched his arm. Thraun looked into the TaiGethen's face, saw the fading scar there from Hirad's accident with the jaqrui.

'You will understand,' he said. 'We will explain on the way. But now we must go.'

'Tai,' said Auum. 'We move.'

'Now release the power gently into your mind and channel it through your construct,' said Cleress. 'Feel how the elements stay

around you, nipping at your fingers, but they can't release their energies because you have the control.'

'It hurts,' grated Erienne. 'Gods, woman, it hurts.'

'Hang on to it for a moment longer. Feel the pressure points and know you can eliminate any part of the elemental structure at any time for the effect you desire.'

'The effect I want is not to have every muscle screaming at me.'

'I think you might be exaggerating slightly but still, time to relax. Let it go but in control. See the power release harmlessly. Now stop. The shape you have, what will it do if you release hard and close off earth and stone as you do?'

'It'll rain won't it?'

'Find out. And don't worry, you won't do any harm.'

Erienne drew a breath, looked across at the ancient, stooped elf bathed in beautiful warm sunlight under a cloudless sky and scowled.

'I wish you wouldn't make me do this,' she said.

'Go on. I'll keep them off you.' She picked up one of the sticks she'd been leaning on and waved it minutely.

T feel safer already,' said Erienne. She released the construct.

Elemental energy surged out of her mind and into the air. Broken from its shell, it fed on that around it, seeking equilibrium. As instructed, Erienne had shut off the energy from earth and stone, keeping it within her to bleed harmlessly back to its natural state.

What was left reacted immediately in the air above Herendeneth. Cloud boiled from nowhere, forming a dense black covering in moments. Mana light flashed within it, setting off the anticipated reaction. The deluge was brief but intense, drops the size of her thumb thundering into the ground, driving up spats of dirt and flattening leaves and grass to the earth.

Erienne laughed at the result and the relief in her body and clapped her hands. She looked down at the beautiful bed of flowers at her feet, soaking up the moisture.

'See that, Lyanna, see what Mummy can do!'

She knelt as she always did after they had finished a session and spoke words only Lyanna could hear.

'So much we owe to you, my darling,' she said, moving specks of wet earth from yellow and blue petals. 'So much we still have to

learn. Remember I always love you and so does your father though I can hear him shouting even now. It's not at you. It's at me. Lie and rest.' She trailed her fingers through the blooms covering the grave. 'See what your beauty makes grow?'

She stood up. Cleress, bedraggled but smiling, was watching her, leaning heavily on her sticks. Behind her, Erienne could see Denser marching towards them, shaking his head.

'Here comes the complaint,' said Erienne, wiping rain and a tear from her face and smoothing down her soaking hair.

Above her, the clouds dispersed as quickly as they had come and the sun got to work drying out the ground.

'Was that really necessary?' called Denser. 'I had been reading. A little warning would have been nice.'

'The pages will dry out quickly enough,' said Cleress. 'And we are done for the day. I need a rest before dinner.'

'Wait a moment and I'll help you in,' said Denser. He walked to Erienne and gave her a kiss. 'Feel better for doing that?'

'Actually, yes,' said Erienne. 'Today was a breakthrough day.'

T can see where that would be useful. Deserts and such.'

'As ever you miss the point,' said Cleress, swapping a conspiratorial glance with Erienne. 'You see, the secret of the One lies not in learning individual castings for individual effect but understanding the nature of the elements and the nature of your problem. Then, all you have to do is bring the two together. Erienne has all but grasped it, but for a few control exercises that need more work.'

'Then what?' asked Denser.

'Then I can at last die and join my sisters,' said Cleress. Her smile was brief and Erienne didn't like what was behind it. T worry about them, you know. It is so long since I heard them. All there is now is a wailing. I do worry so.'

'I'm not with you,' said Erienne.

'No, dear, of course not.' Cleress turned to begin the slow walk to the house. 'Denser, if you would be so kind.'

Erienne stood and watched them go, frowning. She wondered if Denser had been listening to the Al-Drechar. She knew he didn't always. He felt her to be edging into senility and it was true she rambled from time to time. What it was she dreamed she heard from her sisters probably fell into that category.

'But you don't really believe that, do you Erienne?' she said to herself.

Shaking her head, she knelt to tidy Lyanna's gave.

The Unknown pushed Diera's sodden hair from her face and kissed her lips. Caught in Erienne's downpour, they could do nothing else but laugh under the warm rain and try to hide the bread and cheese. Unsuccessfully. Some of it washed over the rock on which they were sitting and into the ocean. The Unknown had pushed the rest after it.

'I hope Jonas wasn't caught in that,' said Diera.

T doubt it,' said The Unknown. 'Anyway, he'll be as wet as us but by choice. He's still over at Sand Island swimming with Ark.'

Ever the doubt was in Diera's eyes when she knew her little boy was with any of the ex-Protectors. Nothing The Unknown could do would completely convince her they were safe. She had seen them under the control of Xetesk and knew what they could do. Even now, two years on and with their masked, thralled lives and painful memories, she was unsure.

'Will he be safe?' she said.

'Ark's the best swimmer amongst them,' said The Unknown.

'You know what I mean, Sol,' she replied.

'Yes, which was why I answered a different question. You already know the answer to the other one. You ask it every time.'

'He's my son,' she said.

'Hey, I'm not criticising,' said The Unknown.

'Come on, let's go down to the landing. Wait for them.'

'You go.' The Unknown helped Diera to her feet and crushed her to him. 'Think I'll walk the estate. Have a think to myself.'

Diera looked into his eyes. He held her gaze and tried to smile but it didn't convince her.

'You still miss it all, don't you?' she said.

'It's in my blood,' he replied. 'Balaia is my home. I'd so love to take you back one day, you and Jonas. Do what we set out to do.'

He looked past her at the house and the lands surrounding it on the small southern island of Herendeneth. They had worked miracles in their time here the last two years. He and the five remaining ex-Protectors had rebuilt the house, turned some of the land into

fertile crop land and brought more animals to farm from Calaius. But it wasn't his and he wanted that so badly. Something he could build and pass onto his family.

And of course, he wasn't the only one itching for change. The Protectors needed their own lives. Gods, Hirad and Darrick had only lasted a season here before getting bored to the point of madness. Only Denser and Erienne seemed content. But then, they had everything they wanted.

'And yes, I miss the loudmouth and I wonder what's happened to Tomas, Maris and Rhob in Korina. We didn't get the chance to say goodbye to them. But I know how much you love it here. It is so peaceful. And Jonas … he is the most beautiful child and I wouldn't sully his innocence for anything. But one day he'll be curious. He'll know this isn't it.'

'So we'll go back. But only when it's safe,' said Diera.

'And when will we know that, I wonder?'

'One day, Jevin and the Calaian Sun will sail into the channel and what you hear will tell you all you need to know. Perhaps we'll all go back then. What do you say?'

'I say I love the images you paint.' He planted another kiss on her mouth and shoved her gently towards the path to the landing. 'So you'll always know where to find me, won't you? Right here, looking for sails on the horizon.'

Diera turned. 'Never leave me again. Promise.'

'Never. I promise.'

By Darrick put his head in his hands and sighed long. 'Gods, this is like pulling teeth,' he muttered.

It was another ridiculously humid day though he'd been assured of fresher air on die coast. And last time he looked, Ysundeneth was still on the coast. It had been like this ten days straight now. He couldn't sleep, he had no appetite and it was grating on his nerves. And in the paddock in front of him, his apprentice was deliberately misunderstanding everything he was saying.

The young elf stood up and brushed himself down, turned to see the stallion standing irritably on the opposite side of the ring, its tail swishing. It snorted.

'What did I tell you just now?'

'Don't approach from the back?' he ventured.

'Right. So could you confirm by pointing which end is the front?'

The boy pointed. That was something else. No sense of irony. Clearly Ilkar had learned his over long years of exposure to Hirad.

'Correct, the end with the teeth and the rolling eyes. Now, I'll tell you once more, and go carefully this time. Approach steadily and calmly from the front and let him see you all the way. If you surprise him you'll end up flat on your back again if you try and mount him.

'Let him get used to you before you get a hold of the bridle and then move down his flank slowly. Make sure you keep in physical contact. Only then put your foot in the stirrup. Do it slowly and calmly and should be skitter, back off and try again. I'll tell you when to be more forceful, all right?'

'Yes, General,' said the boy.

'Go on then, he won't bite.' Actually, he might, thought Darrick.

Dear Gods drowning, would he ever be able to let the boy loose on a horse not already broken in? Stupid thing was, when he was up in the saddle, the boy was a natural, which wasn't something you could say for many elves.

And it had seemed like such a good idea at the time. He had brought half a dozen horses with him from Balaia when The Raven had left the continent, all courtesy of a very generous Baron Blackthorne. His idea had always been to breed them and introduce them to the elves after a short stop on Herendeneth. The elves knew precious little about horses and, if nothing else, learning to ride could be an expensive gift for rich children.

From a business point of view, it worked very well. Blackthorne's horses were good stock and he was anticipating a third generation. They should be the calmest yet, now he didn't have to rely on the old stallion. Great horse to ride. A bugger for passing on his bad temper, though.

He watched the boy approaching the horse. It eyed him warily but made no move away. Better. The lad held out his hands and the horse obliged, nuzzling them before giving him a playful butt in the chest. The boy hesitated.

'Keep going, lad,' said Darrick. 'You're doing fine.'

He turned away at the sound of a cart rattling along the street behind him, pulled by mules. He waved at the owner, who nodded

back. And that was all it took for it all to go wrong again. When he returned his attention to the paddock, the boy had his foot half in the stirrup and his hand clutched the loose rein tight.

'No,' shouted Darrick. 'You're dragging his head round. He won't. .'

The lad tried to mount. The rest was inevitable. He gave a sharp tug on the rein, forgetting he was holding it, so much was he concentrating on the stirrup, his footing and the pommel where his other hand was planted. The stallion nickered and pulled back sharply. The boy didn't know which to let go of and in the end released the pommel not the rein and still tried to get up in the saddle.

The horse trotted a pace and unbalanced bis would-be rider who fell flat on his back in the dirt with a shout of frustration.

'Give me strength,' muttered Darrick.

'You look like a man who needs a change of career,' said a voice he recognised very well indeed.

He swung round. Hirad was standing a couple of paces away. Darrick gave a shout of surprise and embraced him hard. 'Gods, Hirad, it's good to see you,' he said.

'Steady,' said Hirad, pushing him back. 'People will talk. All going well is it?'

'That depends on what you're really asking. I'm making money. I'm working with horses and other dumb animals.' He spared the boy a glance. 'Again! Bruising is good for the character. And don't think that about me. You'll thank me later.'

Hirad was laughing. 'Glad to see you've kept your cool.'

'Hirad, I have to tell you something. I am so bored.''

The barbarian's smile broadened. 'So if I was to suggest something with rather more potential for excitement what would you think?'

'I'd think you were a blessing from the Gods,' said Darrick. 'So what is it?'

He'd been ignoring the other figures spread around the paddock fence while he spoke to Hirad but now he looked more closely.

'Isn't that-?'

'Rebraal, yes. And Auum. And Thraun's around here somewhere too.'

'What's going on?' Darrick chewed his lip. Auum had sworn never to leave the forest again and his presence with his Tai was drawing attention. Hirad's smile had disappeared.

'We've got a problem. I'll explain on the way.'

'The way where?'

'Herendeneth. Listen, Darrick, do what you need to do here and I'll see you on the docks at nightfall. There's a tide and Jevin is going to be on it.'

Darrick stiffened. 'Tell me what is going on before I get more irritable.'

'You know how I said The Raven would never ride again? Seems I was lying.'

Chapter 10

Dystran, Lord of the Mount of Xetesk, though the tide rang hollow now, stared out at another dawn and shed a tear as he had almost every day for the past two years. It was going to be another beautiful day. That was one of the things the demons had not taken from them though they had done their best. The air was perpetually cold and the quiet made late spring a sham. No birds sang, dogs barked or children played. There was no sound outside at all but the keening of despair on the breeze.

Like every day, he wondered at the conditions on the outside where the demons ruled practically unopposed. How much worse it must be for those kept alive out there; though much of the time he wallowed so far down in his own desperation that the possibility others could be in a deeper plight was inconceivable.

So little news came in from the outside. Less and less as the seasons turned and resistance inexorably weakened. At first it had been relatively straightforward. They had unsealed the catacomb vents and been able to get people into the countryside. In the early days, the demons had only attacked a few population centres. Food and water in the wilds had been plentiful and survivors had been brought into the security of Xetesk's ColdRoom network. They'd even driven the demons back from the walls of the college at one stage and taken back some of the city.

But the situation hadn't been sustainable. The use of magic was like a beacon to any demon and he had lost mages in sudden overwhelming attacks across the mage lands. Mages he could ill afford to lose.

Slowly, they had retreated as numbers dwindled as a result of demon attack and, ever increasingly, illness and a breaking of the spirit that left no room for life. There was only so much a healing

spell could do and regaining mana stamina was fraught with danger. Xetesk had had just three small areas of the catacombs the demons had still not found where a mage could sleep outside a ColdRoom, replenish and cast. And always under the eyes of guards ready to pull them the few inches back to relative sanctuary should they be discovered.

Now, the Xeteskian sphere of influence covered just the tower complex and the catacombs north. Everything else belonged to the demons. Scouting parties still searched for food and fuel but their sorties were the stuff of nightmare. Only the knowledge of starvation kept men venturing out under the rolling ColdRooms they had perfected when all they had in plentiful supply was time. But nothing could guarantee their safety. It was genuinely incredible what men and women could achieve when there really was no other option.

At least they had water. Wells had been dug in the catacombs. And that meant they could eke out what little food they had into thin stews as well as drink their fill. They could heat their food too. Stones fired with focused Orbs or FlamePalm were more than adequate but another drain on stretched mana reserves.

Dystran looked out for as long as he could at the flitting shapes of the demons about their business in Xetesk and beyond; and at the slash in the sky that was the most hated symbol of Balaia's almost total subjugation. From irritants the size of kittens to the tentacled monstrosities they had dubbed 'enforcers', all had their purpose, all had their place. That fact of their organisation maddened him because it had become so clear that in their thousand-year association with demons, they had learned nothing about them. If only the reverse had also been true. If only.

But it was the people that he saw that depressed him. And it dragged at his soul when he caught one of them gazing up at the tower. Without spirit, without hope. Abandoned but still walking. And still building, growing, eating and sleeping. Still, he was convinced, breeding. They had to of course. There was that part of the human that denied even the most cataclysmic situation. And above that, there were the demons, seeing to it that all was done to their design.

It was the reason he came up here and shed tears every day and why all who survived looked out every day too. He had to remind himself why he still fought because in the base of the complex hope

fled so easily. He knew what he was looking at down there. It was a farm.

Dystran turned from the window, weary despite the early hour. He caught sight of himself in a mirror and shuddered. Gaunt. Sunken eyes and cheeks. Skin flaking and blotched. Patchy beard and hair hacked short as pitiful defence against the lice. A quivering line for a mouth, lips pale and split. And he was one of the fitter ones. He had no choice. Soldiers and mages got the greater shares of food.

He signalled to the two soldiers who went everywhere with him.

'Let's go,' he said. He spared a glance across at Ranyl's tower, shuttered and abandoned. 'Gods be thanked that you didn't live to see this, old dog.'

'My Lord?'

'Nothing.'

They began the descent to the dome. Below them, teams of mages kept ColdRooms linked to provide best coverage of as wide an area as they could. He had seventy-eight mages, a hundred-plus soldiers and another two hundred-odd souls to protect. Pitiful.

Not far down, the sour smells of the last resistance of Xetesk hit him. Ventilation was not enough alone. They could not clean or scrub adequately, they had to bury their waste in catacomb tunnels but they could not lime it. Around four hundred people living and breathing for the most part in tight conditions because they felt there was safety in numbers. Gods burning, it was one of the few things they could cling on to.

There had to be something they'd all overlooked. Something that would give them the spark they needed to strike with purpose, not merely seek to exist another day. After two years it seemed faint hope.

A thought struck Dystran then. There had to be a reason why the demons seemed content to let them live like this. How long had it been since a concerted attack, a season or more, surely? It didn't make sense and it irked Dystran that it had never occurred to him to wonder why before now. The life force of a mage was so prized by demons. Their connection with mana made them burn bright. For a demon, comparing a mage to a non-mage was a fine Blackthorne red wine as compared with vinegar.

Yet every day, they must know they risked mages dying. It could

be that they were not as numerous as he assumed but he wasn't sure that would make enough of a difference. Gods drowning, but they no longer even sacrificed city people in front of them to make them surrender.

Something in the demons' plans meant that keeping all the college cores where they were, helpless but alive, was the right way to go. It was a change in strategy from the constant attacks of seasons gone by. Now it was like they were waiting. But for what?

There had to be information and knowledge buried somewhere.

'Where are Suarav and Chandyr? Where's Sharyr?'

'All in the banqueting hall, my Lord.' A sad irony at breakfast time.

'Good. Take me there.'

It was time for another raid on the library.

Pheone took her shift like they all did. And every moment outside the college grounds was terrifying. It tore at her gut and tripped up her heartbeat. It gnawed at her belief and concentration. The knowledge of what she was doing was what kept her focused. It was the only thing that could.

She slipped out of the tunnel entrance and into the heart of the city. It was a tunnel they had dug without the aid of magic and because they would otherwise starve, so tight was the ring of demons around them. She had ordered another dug too. One day, the demons would find this one. They found everything eventually.

And to think that Julatsa should consider itself fortunate. When the demons had flooded Balaia, they had been given warning. A panicked Communion from a Dordovan mage had been picked up by Pheone's spectrum analysts. It had been cut off abruptly but had brought them precious hours to prepare. Mages had been called back into the college grounds. The grain store was cleared and the contents moved. City guardsmen were invited to leave their perimeters and beats. Livestock had been driven into the courtyard.

It was a time when Pheone had found her heart to be unyielding. They had assessed quickly how many souls they could shelter and had taken them from the streets. Whole families where they could. Smiths, builders and healers too. No sentimentality. It was only about survival.

They had plotted the ColdRoom coverage, ensuring wells and stores were well protected, and had withdrawn everyone they wanted behind the repaired college gates. The council had pleaded with her to let them in as panic had gripped the city riding on rumour and hearsay. The mayor had promised them the wealth of Julatsa for personal salvation. They had threatened to storm the gates but they didn't have the strength. Julatsa's mages were backed by Al-Arynaar swords, bows and magic.

She would for ever recall the last words she spoke to the mayor before the gates were sealed with WardLocks.

'Your money means nothing as does your word. Much as the life of every elf and mage in this college meant nothing to you when Xetesk invaded. Where was your loyalty then? We asked for your help. You refused. Reap what you sow.'

And thus she had condemned him to a life of servitude or, if he was lucky, a quick death. She felt no pity for him or his council of cowards. But for those innocents they could not take, she had wept hard. For them, the curse of magic had surely struck its final and most devastating blow and unleashed on them an enemy they could not combat.

Mages were their only hope but mages across Balaia were struggling merely to survive; those that were left. It was a cruel irony that Julatsa, once just hours from extinction was, a few days later given the information she had gleaned, surely the most powerful college.

Julatsa boasted almost one hundred and eighty mages, Al-Arynaar and current Julatsans, and almost two hundred of the elven warriors had also still been in the college when the demons attacked. They were still so strong in mind and body. Truly amazing people. So determined, so resolute. They kept the college going through the earliest and darkest days. They hunted, they fought and they survived. It simply did not occur to them that they might be beaten.

The demons were wary of them too, which was the one ray of real hope they could work on. Elven souls couldn't be taken by mere touch. Dila'heth said their god of the dead, Shorth, protected them.

Whatever it was, it meant that the elves chose to travel without ColdRoom spells when they foraged. And humans like Pheone simply had to trust them when it was their turn to provide mage

back-up. She knew how effective they were but their tactics still couldn't assuage her base fear.

There were six elves with her. Five warriors and one mage, all whispering through the silent street towards the immaculate and high-yielding farm land that had been created on the city's borders. At one time they had developed a conscience about stealing this food. But when the reprisals for doing so had ceased and it became clear that they were as good as being catered for, that guilt ebbed quickly away.

The paradox of course was that demons still guarded the farm land. They were happy to exact revenge for attempted theft if they could while apparently conceding the necessity for over-supply because theft was often successful. And for their part, fhe elves were happy to take them on if the need arose.

'We all have our demons,' Dila'heth had said. 'But you have named yours and they are real as well as being that dark part of the psyche we all harbour. Of course they have power over you. They are your nemesis. It is not so with the elves. Our association was never so close. Never myth made real.

'For you they are the descent. Everything your mothers and your priests warned you about. For us they are a powerful adversary but in the end just an alternate race. They have a place in our legends but that is because they threaten Shorth's children, not the living.'

'You're saying the reason we're vulnerable is a difference in perspective?' she'd asked.

'State of mind and belief are powerful. The touch of a demon can kill you. It cannot kill us unless our will is broken. Shorth protects us but our souls are bonded into our faith and our race. It makes us strong. You are individuals so you are vulnerable.

'Humans have never really understood what binds a people. It is a shame for you that the demons do.'

Creeping through gently waving stalks of spring crops, it was hard to disagree with her. The elves had an intuitive understanding of each other. They barely needed to speak or gesture. But she remained ultimately unconvinced of Dila's reasoning. She, like all elves, held her faith up as the reason for every circumstance. Pheone considered their greater resistance to a demon's touch was their innate link to mana.

Ahead of her, the elves had stopped moving. Lost in her thoughts, Pheone almost stumbled into the warrior in front of her. He turned and placed a finger on his lips, then pointed to his eyes and out across the fields to the livestock barns. Darkened for camouflage, shapes moved against the walls. Demons. Dila'heth had made it seem such a dramatic name but it was what they were. To humans at least.

The raiding party crouched low in the field, out of sight unless they were overflown.

'They are few,' said Kineen, the leader of the group. 'It is a chance.'

'A chance for what?' whispered Pheone.

'To take breeding pairs,' said Kineen. 'We need more livestock.'

Pheone paused, hearing the leaves wave about her head. Ahead, a cow lowed.

'Couldn't we have had this discussion before we left?' she asked.

'To what purpose? There could be no decision until now. We know you will support us.'

'You want to steal livestock?' A nod. 'And drive them back down the tunnel without killing them and without the demons finding the entrance?'

Kineen managed a brief smile. 'The animals will not be conscious for the way back. We will deal with that. Four demons are circling the barn. We need to take them all together but we won't have much time between casting and more arriving. You will have to be quick.'

Pheone blew out her cheeks. Her heart was crashing in her chest and sweat was beading at her hairline. She felt a shiver in her limbs. She only hoped that when the time came, she could muster up the concentration to cast.

'Just tell me what you want me to cast.'

Another smile from Kineen. 'Good. And Pheone. Run when we tell you and don't look back.'

The five warriors fanned out into the field, keeping below the line of the crop. Pheone and the other mage, Afen'erei, moved in behind them. Neither prepared yet. The mana spectrum had to be kept quiet until the last possible moment. After a few yards, the two

archers split off left, increasing their pace, hurrying for one end of the barn.

Pheone could just about make out the demons now. Four of them, a little smaller than man-size with wings and tails. Their vein-run skin writhed. Every inch the archetypal figures of nightmare. It was the shape most had adopted on arrival in Julatsa. She presumed they found it easier to control their human flock that way.

'Hit them when they clear the barn to your right,' said Afen'erei.

'Got you.'

'IceWind and DeathHail are best. Something quick to cast.'

Pheone nodded. She'd have preferred to crush them with a ForceCone but they couldn't risk the barn collapsing under the pressure.

The three sword elves were running now, feet silent over the ground. They broke cover at the instant the first arrows struck the demons, deflecting their attention. The fact that the shafts couldn't kill didn't stop wounds hurting and the demons wailed in pain, shaft after shaft thudding home. They had not gathered themselves to attack before the warriors were on them.

Swords swept from scabbards and the blows rained in. Pheone saw it all in a kind of detached awe. The relentless motion, the speed of the strike. All to a purpose. Swords bit into heads and arms, sliced through wing membrane. Feet thudded into gut, groin and temple. Disorientating, temporarily disabling. The demons had practically no reply. They lashed out with claws and tails or tried to bite. But the ferocity of the elves made mockery of their slight numerical advantage.

Only one made it into the air at all, to be brought down with arrows crippling critical wing muscle. The onslaught was quick but could it possibly be quick enough? Already, Pheone could hear the hoots of alarm that meant the cries of the attacked had been heard.

'Prepare now,' said Afen. 'No sense in delay. They are coming.'

Pheone dragged herself into the mana spectrum. It was unadorned by any casting barring the mass of activity that signified the ColdRoom lattice. She brought together the shape for IceWind, a flowing sheet of interlaced mana strands, glowing yellow with captured energy, just waiting for release when it would tatter in the face of its targets.

Almost at once, the hoots became howls and the hunt was on for those casting magic. The warriors responded, driving demons out of the shadow of the barn and into a pool of moonlight.

'Break!' called Kineen. 'Cast.'

IceWind tore away from Pheone's fingers, mingling with the slivers of DeathHail cast by Afen'erei. The effect was at once hideous and incredibly satisfying. Where Afen's spell gouged strips of flesh from the demons, Pheone's IceWind ignited the loose mana so freed, feeding on it as a FlameOrb did on human flesh, gorging, consuming.

The demons screamed, their voices like those of infants in agony, tearing at Pheone's heart and dashing her concentration. The IceWind ceased but the damage had been done. Again, a solitary demon took to the air but it was little more than a mass of pure blue flame, bubbling a few feet up and crashing back to earth, wing beating feebly at the ground.

'Go!' shouted Kineen. His warriors and archers ran for the barn doors. 'Pheone, retreat.'

'No.' She felt alive, vindicated. In two years, these were her first victims among the thousands that occupied her city and she found herself hungry for more. 'I'll defend you.'

'They can outrun you,' said Afen. 'But not us.'

Pheone looked to her left. Shadows climbed thick into the sky. Far right, she heard the pounding of feet in scrub. It was no time for heroics.

'Don't get caught,' she said, turning and running back into the field of spring crop, retracing her steps back into the city.

Behind her the yellow bloom of a spell lit the sky and a flat crack spoke of a FlameOrb detonating. More screams of dying children, this time further out of the city, away from the barn. Pheone smiled. A diversion.

The part-focused mana from the castings brought the demons to it, searching for the prized life force that only a mage possessed. Pheone ran harder, her ears playing games with her mind. She fancied she could hear a gravel-laden voice calling her name but it could have been the breeze through the crops. Wings beat close to her head though it could have been wind-echo.

She was alone and unguarded in this demon-run city of the

walking dead. She broke through the crops and into the streets, trying to keep her footfalls quiet and maintain her speed. But all she produced was a dry slapping that sounded like a herald of her passage.

Pheone slowed, ducked into heavy shadow and stopped, breathing hard. She heard no sounds of pursuit. The howling of enraged demons was distant but she knew she couldn't relax. She studied the silent buildings while she caught her breath. No one lived here any more. The demons had herded everyone they'd kept alive into the centre of the city, where they were penned and housed like animals.

A hand clamped across her mouth. She felt breath on her neck. She tried to struggle and scream but she was held tight. She let herself relax, made herself think. Kineen's face came into view and she all but wept. He released her.

'Bad place to stop,' he said. 'They are closer than you think.'

'Gods burning, you almost frightened me to death,' she managed, relieved and angry.

'Sorry,' he said and set off towards the tunnel entrance and safety. 'I couldn't risk you screaming.'

She followed him, nodding. 'What about the others?'

'They have taken other routes to split the pursuit. We have four lambs, four piglets. A good raid.'

Pheone smiled, feeling safe though she ought not to. Only she was safe enough here, wasn't she? Here in a quiet empty back street the demons never travelled; as much as inside the college where they never attacked but just watched. No. Waited.

She caught up with Kineen. 'Why don't they attack the college anymore?'

'They fear us.'

'Yes but that's not all of it, is it?'

Kineen glanced across at her. A few more turns and they were home. 'It is why we fight them out here.'

'What do you mean?'

'To keep that for which they wait as distant as we can.'

Deep inside the crypts of Dordover, the last remaining bastion of college resistance huddled. Barely two dozen were left now. The onslaught had been relendess. They hadn't been able to replenish

stamina outside the ColdRooms when the demons had found all their borders and they had too little strength to cure all the afflicted when disease had struck. Dysentery had stolen their best mages once it had taken their ability to heal themselves and now the demons were coming after what was left. They could sense the weakening. The ColdRooms were not secure, the casters were weak and the swordsmen barely had the muscle to raise their blades.

Vuldaroq, a shadow of the obese bulk he had been two years before, listened to the battering on the doors of the outer crypts. They had fled here the night before and had nothing with them. The Heart of the college was below them and they could no longer reach it.

He dragged himself to his feet and looked around the chill, lantern-lit chamber.

'They will be here soon,' he said. 'They must not take any of our souls.'

A swordsman, Marn, turned to him. 'The college must survive,' he said. 'Even if none live here until the demons are defeated. We cannot let our light fail.'

Vuldaroq managed a smile. 'That you still have hope makes you the strongest among us, my friend.'

'Not for myself, my Lord Vuldaroq, but for you and the mages we still have.' He gestured about him. 'We have been talking, the non-mages I mean. If you all have the stamina left for one more casting, there is a chance you can escape.'

Vuldaroq shook his head. He was tired. The bluster and arrogance he had carried were long since gone and he had developed an unflinching loyalty to those who had fought the demons so bravely though their efforts were ultimately to end in failure.

'We will take our lives here, leave them nothing to leech from us,' he said. 'It is as we agreed, Marn. We will die together.'

'No,' said Marn. 'It is you they want, you they prize. We can get you out.'

'How? We are trapped.'

'Yes, my Lord, but not yet quite helpless.'

Vuldaroq listened on and the spark of chance warmed his heart once more.

Chapter 11

'Unknown!'

Hirad's shout shattered the peace of Herendeneth, setting birds to flight and scattering the cattle in the yard behind the house. He pounded up the track from the landing, not even noticing the swaying trees to either side that flanked the path with such grace. All he could see was the man he hadn't laid eyes on for well over a year. It was a great sight.

The big man was dressed in light linens, his shaven head hidden from the sun under a tied-back cloth. The smile on his face was broad and his bulk almost blocked out his wife and child standing a little way behind him.

Hirad hurtled into his embrace, rocking him back a step. The two old friends spun each other around, the barbarian kissing him on the cheek before stepping back.

'Surprised?'

'I thought you'd gone elven native,' said The Unknown. 'It's wonderful to see you looking so well. Still off the wine?'

Hirad wrinkled his nose. 'They have something almost as good. Made from some tree sap or other.' He blew. 'Very sweet, very powerful.'

'So not wine at all then. Got some young stuff you should try.'

'When on Calaius, Unknown. .'

The Unknown shook his head. 'Very funny. Seriously though, how have you been? There's a lightness about you, I'll say that.'

'Life with Auum teaches you a few things.'

'Hasn't quietened your voice though, I see,' said Diera.

Hirad stepped around The Unknown, kissed Diera and ruffled Jonas's blond hair. The boy hid behind his mother's skirts.

'And a good morning to you, Lady Unknown,' he said.

'It's good to see you, Hirad. It's been too long.'

'Yeah,' said Hirad, stepping back and taking them all in, feeling the guilt begin to nag at him like it always did when he saw them standing together, the perfect family. 'Yeah it has.'

'Come on up to the house, it's almost time for lunch anyway. Denser and Erienne are going to get a real surprise,' said Diera.

'Yes, they are,' said Hirad, unable to keep the light in his expression.

'So,' said The Unknown, slapping him on the back. 'You've got a year or more to fill me in on, man-elf. How long is Jevin staying for or is the Catalan Sun coming back to pick you up another time?'

'He'll be here a few days. As long as necessary, really,' said Hirad. 'Look, Unknown-'

But The Unknown wasn't listening to him. There were voices coming from around the corner in the path, still just out of sight.

'Who's that man, Mummy?' asked a small voice.

'That's Hirad, sweetheart, one of your father's. .'

She trailed off, sensing the tension that had stolen through every muscle of The Unknown's body. Hirad looked briefly at her, saw the colour drain from her face and the tears already beginning to well up behind her eyes.

'Brought some friends with me, Unknown,' he said, voice close to cracking. 'I'm sorry, Diera, I'm so sorry.'

And round the corner they came, their smiles and greetings dying on their lips as the scene unfolded before them. The Unknown spared Hirad a dangerous look and turned back to watch them approach, most of them people he hadn't ever thought to see again. Darrick, Thraun, Rebraal, Auum, Duele, Evunn.

'Hirad, what is going on?' he hissed.

'Think we'll be all needing that drink,' said Hirad.

Whatever it was The Unknown said next, Hirad lost in the sound of Jonas beginning to cry and Diera shouting 'no' over and over.

'There, see it?' Kayvel was pointing out over the south-west of Lystern.

Heryst was one of a dozen faces pressed against the highest window in the tower. The day was dull and drizzling, adding to the misery of the population of the enslaved city. He could barely

concentrate on what he was supposed to be trying to see, his eyes as always drawn to the perpetual terrified drudgery that unfolded daily beneath him.

The demons had assembled the people they wanted to keep alive into buildings ringing the college and had cleared areas of the city in full view of the rebellious mages for crops and livestock. It was a reminder every heartbeat if one were needed of the Lysternans' failure to do any more than survive.

In two years, while they had expanded their domain within the college, nothing outside of it belonged to them. They had wells under their control but had to raid farms for food or fly high and fast to hunt or forage in distant areas still apparently ignored by the invaders. Those making the flights had at least brought back information about the wider state of Balaia and it made grim listening.

Those still living outside the control of demons lived in constant fear of being the next into the inexorably expanding net. In addition to the college cities, all major population centres bar one were in thrall. Korina, Gyernath and all the northern and eastern baronies were captured, leaving only Blackthorne as a bastion in the south. It was a testament to Baron Blackthorne's skill and farsightedness that he still remained free, if that term could really be applied to any of them. Only Blackthorne outside of the colleges had refused to victimise and drive away the mages in his town or employ when the Black Wings were at their height of influence. He was alive now because of that decision.

In the scattered villages, isolated farmsteads and hamlets, a subsistence life went on but there was precious little travel or trade. After all, the demons controlled every marketplace and port and had thrown an impenetrable ring around Blackthorne. Those living in these small communities would all have fled but there were no ships to anywhere. Some had tried to make it to Understone Pass but no news of their fate ever came back.

And everywhere the stories about what the demons were doing were the same. No one unable to father or bear children was left alive. The old, infirm and barren had been taken for their souls in the early seasons of the occupation. Those that were left were drilled into a workforce designed purely to keep them alive, let them breed

and so perpetuate the supply of souls. And while the new generation were born and grew, the demons satiated themselves by draining life force slowly, using a horrifyingly exquisite touch to draw off only that which they needed.

Heryst had seen it from the windows of the college. He wondered why the enslaved hadn't given up, taken their own lives or their children's. He had witnessed in their faces the enduring shock and incomprehension. The eyes not dead but not alive either. The look of hope extinguished.

But somewhere inside them, most of them, the will to survive still lurked. It drove them to exist through the nights of terror, the knowledge of why they were being kept alive. The human spirit, never truly broken.

Heryst knew why that inner light still burned. It was because every day they could see the college. Still holding out. A torch to guide them through their bleakest moments, something to cling on to though they were helpless themselves. It meant an expectation was laid on Heryst and those few who worked to find an answer. It was why Heryst looked out every day to remind himself. They had to strike back. They had to. If only they had the means.

'My Lord?'

'Kayvel,' said Heryst. 'I'm sorry, miles away.'

'Please, just for a moment, look away from the city.' Kayvel placed a hand on his shoulder, all it did was remind him how thin he had become.

'Show me again.'

'Look towards Xetesk, tell me what you see.'

Heryst looked. Beneath the shale-grey cloud, there was a lightness in the south-west. It was faint but it was there. Sometimes stronger, sometimes fading. There seemed to be a pale blue hue to it but that could have been a trick of the distance.

'What is that?' he asked.

'You know how you've been asking why it is the demons don't try and attack us any more?' said Kayvel.

'Yes.' Heryst shrugged and drew back from the window. 'So what?'

Kayvel pointed. 'Well, I think that's why.'

Heryst regarded him coolly. 'You're going to have to explain that.'

'Naturally.' Kayvel chuckled and scratched at his beard. They all had them these days. There were other things more important than putting the edge of a dagger to your chin every day. Until the lice struck. Then they shaved. 'We know that what we possess as mages makes our souls prized by demons. That's surely why they targeted the colleges from the outset.'

Heryst nodded, about to tell him to stop repeating the obvious when he realised Kayvel was speaking for the benefit of the whole room, which had fallen silent.

'But we saw them back off quite quickly when they knew they couldn't take us without great loss of life on their side. We know this has happened in Xetesk and Julatsa too but we don't know about Dordover. Worryingly quiet over there, if you ask me.'

A murmur ran around the room. Heryst looked round. On the council table, the ColdRoom mages were lost in their casting. Two others sat next to them, monitoring the mana spectrum as best they could for any communication through the strands of mana that linked to the spell that kept them safe. How strong they had all been against all the odds. What character had been shown by so many. Heryst didn't know about anyone else but he knew he'd have gone under a long time ago without the spirit they had engendered here.

Kayvel continued. 'So it seems clear they are waiting for something to happen before they can attack us with hope of success and without huge losses, right?'

'It's logical,' said Heryst.

'They have been completely systematic in their approach to taking Balaia. It has been a textbook conquest.'

'You sound as if you respect them for it.'

'I think we must,' said Kayvel. 'Because the chaotic creatures we read about in our myths bear no relation to the organised race we witness every day. It's time to stop thinking about them as the evil in our mythology and start thinking about them as a capable, intelligent enemy playing perfectly to their strengths.'

'Haven't we always done that?' asked a voice from the crowd that had closed in to listen.

'No, Renarn, I don't think we have,' said Kayvel to the gaunt

youth who had spoken. 'It's so difficult to change the teachings of thousands of years. Don't forget that, with the exception of Xetesk and to a certain extent Julatsa, we have never viewed demons as anything other than a nightmare symbol. They really were the story told to keep children quiet at night. Trouble is, they are far more dangerous than that. They are a dimension-travelling race seeking domination of this dimension. And they are ninety per cent there already. Once Balaia falls completely, who will stand in their way?'

'Wesmen and elves, presumably,' said Renarn.

'For how long?' asked Kayvel. 'They have come to the colleges to take out the biggest single threat to them, that of magic. The other races they can defeat at their leisure because weapons can't kill them.'

'The elves have magic,' said Renarn.

Heryst went cold. 'Not when the tower of Julatsa is destroyed.'

'Right.' Kayvel's smile was grim.

'All right.' Heryst gestured for calm as consternation swept the room. 'Come on, let's keep our focus. We're already deflected from the question, which is, what does that mist signify?' He pointed out of the window.

'It's mana,' said Kayvel.

Heryst started. T beg your pardon?'

'Think about it. What is the one thing stopping them from attacking us inside our ColdRoom constructs?'

'Mana of course.'

'Yes. It is an integral part of their being. It's armour on one level but actually it's far more than that. Without it, they die. It's clear that there's enough mana in the atmosphere of Balaia to keep them alive, but not enough to overwhelm our castings and flood the ColdRooms.' He indicated the window to the south-west. 'That, I am certain, is the demons introducing mana to the air above Xetesk for just that purpose.'

'But surely we'd feel it,' said Renarn.

'No,' said Heryst. 'Not at all. We're inside a ColdRoom here, we won't feel anything. What about those that have flown outside?'

'Well, the spectrum is turbulent, or so I'm told. But that in itself isn't proof though I challenge you to tell me another reason why it should be so. There's something more. The temperature is

dropping like it always does when mana is too concentrated. This is supposed to be late spring. It is unseasonably chilly.'

Heryst sighed and walked back to the window. He looked out on the mist with greater suspicion. 'Can it really be mana? I don't know. Don't we need to know more than anything exactly what it is the demons have planned for us? Mages and wider Balaia, I mean. Because extermination doesn't seem to be on the agenda, does it?'

'It would be incredibly useful to know,', agreed Kayvel.

'Right,' said Heryst, nodding. 'Let's go and catch ourselves a demon and ask it, then.'

It had taken The Unknown quite some time to calm Diera enough for her to take Jonas and walk the island. He didn't know how to feel. On one level he was furious with Hirad for threatening his idyll and the life he loved; just being with his family. But he knew that Hirad would not have come to Herendeneth this way unless he felt he had no choice. And indeed had he not been approached and whatever it was turned out to be Raven business, he would have been just as angry.

But he felt retired. Although he kept himself fit and sparred with Ark every day, the desire to fight had gone. He'd fought and won his battles and he'd earned the right to be here on this beautiful island, watching his son grow while his wife lay in his arms. It was almost everything he'd dreamed of though he would have preferred to have been on Balaia, and be iandlord of The Rookery too.

So he'd kept a silence to let his emotions settle while he walked ahead of the party from the Calaian Sun. He took them to the kitchen of the house, away from the sights and sun of the island. Into a place where they could focus and talk. The only time he opened his mouth was to call Denser and Erienne to join them.

And now here they sat with drinks and food in front of them, waiting for Hirad to speak. At least he had the decency to look deeply apologetic.

'So, Hirad, perhaps you can explain why you've come here bringing who you have brought with you,' said The Unknown. 'And it had better be very bloody important.'

'It's as important as it can get,' said Hirad. 'This is bigger than Dawn thief, believe me.'

The Unknown raised his eyebrows. He looked for some hint of exaggeration in Hirad's tone and found none. He felt his heart beat a little faster.

'So you have our attention.' The Unknown gestured to his left. Both Denser and Erienne were impassive but their hands gripped a little tighter together.

'Look, we don't know everything at this stage but we believe that the demons have invaded Balaia and are threatening the spirit dimension and if they can beat Balaia they can take out the dragons too.'

'Whoa, whoa!' said Denser, half laughing, his face a picture of scepticism. 'Gods burning, Hirad, that's a statement and a half. Bloody hell, I don't believe there even is a spirit dimension.'

'Then that is your weakness,' said Auum.

Denser ignored him. 'And what is this about demons? Come on, one thing at a time.'

'You wanted to know if it was important. Why it was I came here with everyone. Now you know.' Hirad sat back, his face set. The Unknown recognised it so well. That was why it worried him. Hirad wasn't given to over-egging anything.

'It's all right, Hirad,' he said. 'One thing at a time. Demons in Balaia. Let's hear that first.'

'I can't do it like that, Unknown. It's all linked together.' He stopped and chewed his lip, taking a deep breath. 'And I don't understand it all. What I do know is that if the elves think it's worth leaving Calaius for and worth coming to The Raven for then diat's all I need to know. And I know that one of The Raven is in trouble and we never leave our people that way. Never.'

'All right then, tell us whichever way you can,' said Erienne. 'Just know that this is so unexpected. We're happy here.'

'And I was happy in Taanepol. Thraun was born again in the rainforest. Some things are bigger than our happiness.'

'Gods, hasn't it always been die way?' breathed Denser.

'Yes it has,' said Hirad and The Unknown felt his regret like a wave over the beach. 'You have to understand this is the last thing I wanted.'

'What's going on, Hirad?' asked The Unknown. 'Just tell us the way you know.'

Hirad relaxed and looked to Rebraal and Auum. Both nodded for him to speak. He took a drink and was silent for a little while, gathering his thoughts.

'This all sounds so ridiculous. A few days ago, I heard Ilkar. I was asleep but it wasn't just a dream. Wherever he is now, he's in trouble. All the dead are. Rebraal will tell you. It's because the demons are attacking them on a new front. They need to break down the resistance of the Spirits because if they do it makes all of Balaia and Calaius vulnerable to them. And if that happens, the dragons are under threat too. Don't ask me to explain it because I can't. But we can stop this, if we have help and if we do it now.'

'Trouble is,' said Denser. 'Coming from you, it isn't ridiculous at all. Far-fetched, yes. Ridiculous, no.'

Hirad managed a smile. 'Thanks, Denser.'

'It doesn't mean we understand it, though,' said Erienne. 'Why does it mean Balaia's been invaded?'

'And how the hell have you heard Ilkar?' demanded The Unknown. 'He's been dead more than two years.'

'I just did, Unknown. And Rebraal has heard him too. It's too real to be just nightmares.'

'Rebraal?' asked The Unknown.

The leader of the Al-Arynaar inclined his head. 'Hirad speaks the truth as you know he does. There is so much humans don't understand about what exists outside their vision.'

'We don't need patronising,' said Denser. 'Just the facts.'

'There is a place that all the dead go, all the souls as you would call them,' said Rebraal. 'You deny it because it doesn't fit with your understanding of life and death but it exists nonetheless. It is a dimension as you understand them but the journey there is something only the soul can make, not the body. It is not a place you can ever visit though you can connect to it. Belief is everything. We know it. So do the Wesmen. It is time you knew it too.

'All the souls of the dead go there but most are silent because they don't know they can still communicate with the living. Ilkar knows as do all the elves who pass there. But right now, he shouts with a voice full of fear. The cursyrd are pressing the fabric of their realm.'

'Why?' asked Denser.

Rebraal regarded him as if he was simple. 'Because it contains

countless millions of souls. It is everything the cursyrd want if only they could force a breach.'

'Are you with this?' The Unknown asked of Darrick and Thraun.

The shapechanger nodded.

'We've been on board ship with them for three days,' said Darrick. He shrugged. T believe them.'

'Which is fine,' said Erienne. 'But I don't get the connection with Balaia and I don't see that we can do anything to help. And I don't understand why Auum and the TaiGethen are here.'

'Contact with our dead is a gift granted to us by Shorth,' said Rebraal. 'The Al-Arynaar and TaiGethen come to Aryndeneth to speak, to gain strength and to seek advice. It is written that they will defend us in death as we defend ourselves in life. We will not suffer the cursyrd to break that cycle.'

Erienne smiled, disbelieving. 'How will you stop them? This is a place you can't go to until you die. And then you will be in the same position as your dead. Helpless.'

'They are not helpless,' said Rebraal. 'They fight. Every moment. To keep the enemy away from their borders.'

'But you can't help them,' said Erienne, frustration edging her voice.

'They aren't talking about joining the battle in the spirit dimension. We have to remove the threat further back along the chain,' said Darrick.

'Great.' The Unknown stood up and paced around the table. 'This makes about as much sense as one of Hirad's battle plans. Look, I know you've all been on ship talking about this for days but it's coming across as gibberish, it really is. Ilkar's in trouble but he's dead. In fact everyone dead is in trouble and it's got something to do with a demon invasion of Balaia but the elves think they can sort it out by stopping some so far unnamed target in an unnamed place.' The Unknown felt his patience thinning to breaking point.

'My wife is scared that I'm going to leave her and go off again with The Raven. I've told her it must be something critical or you wouldn't be here. What the hell am I going to tell her? "My dead friend is sending dreams to my living friend and I need to sort it out?"' He thumped the table. 'Someone start making sense or the

lot of you can sod off back to whatever it was you were drinking on Calaius.'

Rebraal gestured for him to sit down and waited until he had done so.

'Unknown, I'm sorry,' he said. 'But the fate of three dimensions hangs in the balance. One of them is ours, another is that of the dead and the other is the home of dragons. You can't stay here and hope it goes away because if you do, — the cursyrd will eventually come here and you won't be able to stop them.'

'So what can we do?'

'It's simple,' said Hirad. 'We have to kill the demons controlling it all.'

'That's simple, is it?' said Denser.

'The way Sha-Kaan described it, yes. In theory.' Hirad stopped and a slow smile spread across his face. 'Do you want to come and talk to Sha-Kaan?'

Chapter 12

They all went in the end. Something about Hirad's manner meant that though the case had been introduced poorly, the notion that events worlds away would impact on them was never in doubt.

Darrick supported Cleress on her right side with the former Protector, Ark, on her left. She said little but there was a knowing look in her eyes. Like she had expected it all along.

Darrick left her to her thoughts. Walking apart from the rest of The Raven, he had the opportunity to assess them as he would have done his cavalry before a battie; searching for a weak spot. He knew he wouldn't find one but The Raven's demeanour was a constant source of fascination. They drew strength from each other. There was a power about them. You felt it on the inside and could see it from the outside. Like an aura. They moved so naturally around one another. The Unknown at their centre, Hirad next to him like always and the others grouped in close attendance. Darrick felt a surge of pride at being one of them.

The image was punctured by Jonas, who trotted along next to The Unknown, his tiny hand engulfed by his father's huge fist. And by Diera, who had forgiven Hirad to the extent that the pair strolled arm in arm. It was at Hirad's behest that so many would meet the dragon. And including Diera and Jonas in the group was a masterstroke. The pair had spent much time in the company of Sha-Kaan when he was marooned in Balaia and rested on Herendeneth. Diera would listen to him.

They were heading for the stone needle that dominated the island from its highest point. It was for no other reason than that Sha-Kaan had expressed a desire to see the island from the top.

They gathered in quiet anticipation, Hirad to the fore. He had told them what to expect but they all still took an unconscious pace

back. A tall rectangle traced in the air in front of them. It drew itself slowly on three sides with the ground making up the fourth, and brightened from black to a blazing white. The doorway, half the size of a barn's, filled with swirling colours that moved sluggishly, like oil poured onto still water.

'Behind here would normally be a robing room and an antechamber before the main hall but I think the design has been changed,' said Hirad.

The doorway dissolved, the intense edge light reducing to a warm orange glow and the slow-moving colours dimming to reveal a dimly lit interior. The scents of wood and oil carried on the breeze, sharp and pungent, but there was little sound from inside barring the crackle of fires. Heat flooded out, its humidity swamping the dry warmth of Herendeneth.

'Just like old times, eh, Unknown?' said Hirad.

'One old time only, Hirad,' said The Unknown. 'And the familiarity ends with my sense of impending doom.'

'Better not keep him waiting.'

'Hell, no,' muttered Denser.

They moved inside, the relative gloom resolving itself into a short arched hallway, painted in dark green silhouettes of landscapes and dragons. Beautiful in their simplicity, sombre in their depiction.

At the end of the hallway, huge double doors stood ajar letting onto a vast space. Hirad led them in. The chamber was vaulted and stone-clad, its sides scored and fluted horizontally. It reminded Darrick of a healer's sketch of a muscle. The walls were otherwise unadorned but fires burned in grates at ten-yard intervals in the one-hundred-yard-square space, filling it with an oppressive, moist heat. Sha-Kaan sat in the middle of the chamber, his head and neck resting on the ground, his body a mound behind him and his tail flipping idly about his hind legs.

Little Jonas broke free of The Unknown's grip and ran forwards. He displayed no fear, toddling towards a creature that could swallow him whole. He stopped in front of the great dragon's jaws and half-turned towards his mother as he pointed.

'Kaan!' he said.

'Yes, darling,' said Diera, walking forwards to join him.

The Raven hung back, watching the reunion from a respectful distance. Sha-Kaan moved his head slowly off the ground, speaking softly just above the boy's head.

'Hello, little man,' he said, voice so tender in a beast so large. 'You have grown. I had not expected to see you again. And I am sad that I must at this time.'

Jonas didn't respond verbally, instead reaching up to rub the horned scales at the front of Sha-Kaan's muzzle. The dragon turned his attention to Diera.

'Your son is beautiful,' he said, voice a bass rumble, his eyes a brilliant blue, shining with affection.

'Thank you,' she said. 'It is good to see you.'

'But the reason why breaks your heart.'

She nodded. Darrick saw her hands clench together.

'I don't understand why anything that happens on Balaia should affect my husband. He has earned the right to peace.'

Sha-Kaan sighed. 'I cannot argue against what you say. You married an exceptional man who is part of an exceptional group. And when the world is in trouble, it calls on such people and expects them to respond. It is the mark of their greatness that they choose to do so, though it is also your misfortune, is it not?'

'There must be someone else now.'

'You must listen to what I have to say. I think you will agree that there is not.'

Darrick saw her shoulders sag as she nodded her head and pulled Jonas to her. Sha-Kaan raised his head a little.

'Approach, all of you,' he said. T have no desire to shout.'

Hirad chuckled and led them forwards. 'Your whisper would carry clear across the Southern Ocean, Great Kaan.'

'It gladdens my heart to see you, Hirad Coldheart.'

'And you, Sha. You're looking well.'

'The air of Beshara and the streams of inter-dimensional space are kind to me.' Sha-Kaan shifted. 'How do you like my Klene?'

Hirad gave the chamber, where dragons came to rest and heal in inter-dimensional space, an appraising glance.

'It's a little plainer than your old one. Decorating not finished yet, or something?'

Darrick had to smile. Never in his most vivid dreams had he ever thought to witness a man debating wall coverings with a

120-foot-long dragon. Next to him, The Unknown had also seen the humour in the moment.

'Effectiveness over aesthetics. The shape of the chamber and those grooves in the walls are efficient channels for the healing streams.'

'Oh, right.'

Sha-Kaan rattled phlegm in his throat, the sound echoing in the chamber and startling Jonas who clutched his mother tight.

'But in the fullness of time, we will hang-the walls with tapestries, if it bothers you that much.'

'Not for me to say, Sha-Kaan,' said Hirad. 'I just have to be at one end so you can use this thing, I don't necessarily have to look at it.'

'I fear we are straying from the point,' said Sha-Kaan, a hint of irritation in his voice. He looked beyond Hirad to those grouped in front of him. 'I remember the days when I considered all humans except the Dragonene mages to be unworthy of the attention of dragons. Hirad Coldheart changed that assumption and you before me are examples of my folly.

'It makes it all the harder then to ask one more task of you. I am not surprised to see the elves represented by their best. You understand in a way humans do not the link between the living and the dead. Cleress, your presence honours me. Those who were Protectors, I am the happier to be able to gaze upon your faces. And The Raven. My friends. The fears that Hirad expressed to me are well founded. Our position is already desperate. Many will be involved in defence and attack; you will be the spearhead. And for that necessity, my heart is heavy with fear for you.'

'You're selling it well so far,' said Denser.

Sha-Kaan's head snapped round to regard the mage with slitted pupil narrowed.

'Would you rather I lied about the challenge ahead, frail human?' he asked. 'Would you rather begin your journey one-eyed?'

'Not at all,' said Denser. 'But you have to understand that for most of us we had no inkling of any problem until Hirad put to shore. I'm still getting round the shock of it.'

'Then let me explain what has happened.' Sha-Kaan breathed heavily, the air rushing over their heads, sour and sharp. 'Kaan birthings began a little more than two cycles ago, a little less than two years for you. It is a time when our efforts are focused solely on

our brood and when the paths of inter-dimensional space are closed to us because the resonance set up by the brood at birth upsets our directional sense. It is the time when the Vestare repair and improve the Klenes.

'But you will understand that it is a time when we are most at risk from attack. The brood has fought in the skies every day of the birthings and the damage we sustain can only be salved by the ministrations of the Vestare. The fight has left us weak but the enemy broods of the Naik and the Skoor have not been able to break us and for that we give thanks. Now we are building our strength again. Our young are strong and, like Jonas, they grow fast and are confident, unafraid.'

He paused, reflective. Darrick searched his face for expression but the mass of scales obscured anything but a tightening of the muscles around his eyes.

'Our joy has been tempered, though, by what we found when the Klenes were opened again and we tried to communicate with our Dragonene partners here on Balaia. Many were simply not there. And those that were, were in a state of such panic their minds were barely coherent. Worse, the Kaan have been attacked in their Klenes by the Arakhe, who are marauding in inter-dimensional space. They are strong and getting stronger and that only happens when they find a new home. That home is here.'

Sha-Kaan's last words hung in the air, resonant and laden with ruin. Darrick felt a chill in his body despite the heat of the chamber. He'd heard all this once already but first-hand from Sha-Kaan made it so appallingly close.

'So the demons have invaded Balaia?' said Denser.

'Yes,' replied Sha-Kaan. 'And they will enslave every man, woman and child in this dimension. Then they will bleed them dry of their souls and when the land is spent, they will move on. They must be stopped.'

'I still don't understand why this affects the dead,' said The Unknown.

'Balaia is a key dimension for the demons and you must understand their nature. They are nomadic. They exist outside the boundaries we understand, taking dimensions where they can to

increase their strength and, like I said, moving on when they are spent.

'But Balaia is different. They need it for the long term and that is why they have chosen enslavement rather than massacre. It marks a departure in their nature. A mode of organisation that is worrying to us all. Another reason they need Balaia is the links that both elves and Wesmen have with the spirit dimension. If they can break the will of either race, they believe they will have free access to the dead and all their myriad souls. I believe them to be right. As, I am sure, does Cleress. And the dead are under greater pressure than at any time in their fight against the Arakhe. From what the elves tell us, that much is clear. What do you say, Cleress?'

'It is a future I have seen, though it is uncertain,' said Cleress. 'There is still hope, therefore.'

'So why didn't they attack Calaius or the Wesmen directly?' asked Erienne.

'For two reasons,' said Sha-Kaan. 'They have been waiting for a way in for millennia. Xetesk finally gave them that way in by meddling with powers they did not understand and causing a breach in the fabric of the Balaian dimensional shell. The souls of mages are prized and will give them great strength for battles to come. Second, they are attacking the colleges and the wider east of your country first because if they can remove magic, then none in this dimension have a weapon against them.

'The Brood Kaan, and through us every brood on Beshara, is at risk. The Arakhe are our enemy of eons. We cannot afford to grant them access to our home or they would overwhelm us as they will Balaia.'

'They are that strong?' questioned The Unknown.

Sha-Kaan said nothing. Darrick watched him see everyone digesting the situation as best they could. Darrick couldn't see all their faces but those he could told him they believed. Gods, they had to.

'Xetesk has a great deal to answer for.'

It was a heartbeat before Darrick realised who had said that.

'But no one blames you, Denser,' said Hirad.

'Every Xeteskian mage is to blame, and I am one,' he said. 'We all swore the oath that brought us to Xeteskian magic, we all wanted to

see the development of dimensional spells and we all gladly accepted the deal with the demons that brought us the increased mana flow.'

'There will be a reckoning if there still is a Xetesk when the Arakhe are beaten,' rumbled Sha-Kaan. 'Your guilt is natural but Hirad is right. You cannot be to blame for that over which you have no control.'

'It doesn't make me feel any better.'

'Then use your anger,' said Sha-Kaan. 'Fight.'

'But how?' Denser threw up his arms. 'It sounds as if we are already too late.'

'Not yet.' Sha-Kaan shifted again, his claws grinding against the stone floor. Diera shushed Jonas who had become restless.

'Perhaps you should take him back outside,' said The Unknown.

T need to hear this,' said Diera. 'For me and for him. I have to be able to tell him what happened if you don't ever come back.'

The Unknown looked pained. He drew a hand down her cheek. T always come back. I promise you this will be no exception.'

'You promised you would never leave again unless I was with you,' said Diera though there was no accusation in her tone. 'Why did I marry a Raven warrior, eh?'

'We cannot choose who we love,' said Sha-Kaan. 'In that if nothing else, we and you are the same.'

Diera knelt by her boy. 'Will you be good for me and your father? We need you to be quiet just a little longer while Sha-Kaan speaks.'

'Then will he fly away again?' asked Jonas, his bright eyes on his mother. She shrugged.

T expect so, darling. He can't stay in here all die time.'

'How will he get out?'

'Well,' said Diera. 'He'll probably use the doors like we will.'

Jonas's face held such an expression of doubt that Darrick had to fight back a laugh. In a voice that was meant to be a whisper, the boy said, T don't think they're big enough, Mummy.'

It broke the tension at least. All of diem laughed hard, Hirad almost doubled over, leaning on The Unknown for support the big man was in no position to give. Sha-Kaan rumbled loud, the sound booming in the chamber, and Cleress had to wipe the tears from her eyes.

'Perceptive for such a nipper, isn't he?' said Hirad.

'You'd better believe it,' said The Unknown. 'Like father like son.'

'He'll get stuck!' shouted Jonas, revelling in his new-found confidence and all the attention. 'But we could pull him out.'

'Calm down now, sweetheart,' said Diera. 'There's a good boy.'

'But he will!' insisted Jonas. 'He will.'

He found himself confronted by Sha-Kaan's muzzle, canted to one side so he could be seen by one enormous eye.

'I do not have to use doors,' the dragon said. 'I will use the pathways of. .' He paused. 'I will use magic. One day I will show you. But not today.'

Jonas sat down hard on his behind under the force of Sha-Kaan's breath. He was still smiling.

'All right now?' asked Diera. The boy nodded.

'Let us discuss what must be done,' said Sha-Kaan. 'Because the fight for Balaia will be difficult and, like the fight for the spirit dimension, will not be fought here, not by The Raven at least. And then I will prove to you all that Jonas was right. But while I cannot fit through the doors, I can poke out my head and look again on this beautiful island.'

They ate outside that night. A breeze kept the air fresh and the tide was sending waves onto the southern coast, the sound comforting, bringing them all back to reality, at least for the time being.

They set up tables along the southern cliff edge so that they could see out across the expanse of ocean while the sun dipped down in the west, sending spectacular reds across the water. With a lamb gendy turning on the spit and the young wine flowing, The Raven talked about everything but that which was to come. Around them, the elves and the former Protectors were relatively quiet but they listened intently, interjecting when they could.

When Jonas complained once too often, Diera took him to his bed. Hirad turned to The Unknown as soon as she was out of earshot.

'You could stay, Unknown,' he said. 'Look at her. Her heart is broken but she can still smile and laugh. But we're going to have to go and what then?'

The Unknown's eyes shined in the moonlight as he watched his wife walk away up to the house.

'You know I can't stay,' he said. 'But thank you for the offer, even though you didn't really mean it. I always said I would fight for the world in which my family could grow up in peace. I thought that here, and eventually back on Balaia, I had achieved that. But now it is clear that there is still one more enemy to be beaten and I will be there to do my part for Diera, for Jonas and for The Raven. This isn't going to be anything but personal for me and I think we'll all work better if we feel the same way.'

'The Raven never work apart,' added Thraun. 'And what good would any of us feel if we didn't join the fight and that fight failed? We would die just as surely.'

'Myriell once spoke to you, didn't she?' said Cleress. 'About the One magic and why it must survive?'

Hirad turned his head to see the Al-Drechar looking at him and The Unknown, her eyes as strong as ever, burning with the barely suppressed energy of the One.

'She did,' said Hirad. 'After we'd beaten off the Dordovans from Herendeneth, if I recall correctly.'

'You do,' said The Unknown.

'But you probably don't remember what she said. She knew even then as we all did that there was a threat coming to Balaia and, we feared, to other dimensions. She told you that the One had to survive because it would be a potent weapon in the fight to come, whatever form it took. That time has arrived. The world will be grateful you kept your side of the bargain and that Erienne still lives.'

'Thanks for keeping the pressure off me, Cleress,' said Erienne.

'Ah, but you must understand what you can bring that no one else can,' she said. 'Yours is a magic that doesn't rely solely on mana for creation. It is one of the reasons the demons will want you gone. They will fear you as they will fear all The Raven because your belief, not just your power, makes you dangerous. Sha-Kaan sees it or he would not have involved you.'

'But it's not as if I can create extra devastation at will and forever,' protested Erienne. 'I get tired too and if Sha-Kaan is right, there's one hell of a lot of demons out there.'

'Think, child,' said Cleress. 'Remember what we learned so recently? How easy it is to strip one element from the target area? Mana is one element.'

The silence around the table grew ever more knowing and, slowly, a smile spread across Erienne's face.

'We have a couple of days before the tides will be right,' said Cleress. 'You and I have a lot of work to do.'

'Better pass me the meat and wine, then,' said Erienne. 'Looks like I'm going to need all the strength I can get.'

Chapter 13

It was dawn when it happened. Damp and chilly with low, brooding cloud. An altogether fitting atmosphere for the state of Xetesk. Later, Dystran would see the fortune of the weather front but first sight had simply depressed him.

It was the day they had identified for the raid on the library. Dystran was contemplating the task ahead when shapes began dropping out of the cloud. At first he assumed them to be more demons. But the clarion calls, gale of noise and thrash of action from the streets told him instantly that they were anything but.

They were a way distant, probably a couple of miles and maybe more, and the demons were clamouring to get at them, whoever they were. Dystran took a quick look down into the occupied parts of the college. It was all but deserted. He took a deep breath and stepped out of the ColdRoom construct and onto his balcony, signalling his guards to flank him, ready to haul him back if any threat appeared.

Immediately, the feel of mana energised his body, a tonic for the weary like the sun on cold skin. He wasted no time in casting to augment his vision and reaching out to see what was approaching.

Men, flying. Mages. Pursued by demons who were bursting through the clouds around them and faced by more rising up from Xetesk. They flew hard, pushing the limits of ShadowWings, dodging, splitting, reforming. A battle where a single touch would be fatal. Where one side could not strike at all.

He concentrated harder, searching their faces, and his jaw dropped. At their head, a man who despite the weight that had fallen from him was immediately recognisable.

Dystran turned and ran from the tower, shouting for his mages,

shouting for his library raiders. It was the diversion of his prayers and he was going to grab the opportunity with both hands.

Vuldaroq had no idea how any of them had maintained their concentration in the freezing air high above the clouds. They had started out exhausted, they had trimmed their wings for speed and they had pushed the limits from the word go.

But that was not all. The escape had been a nightmare scene of pulsing demon bodies; brave men facing them down, sacrificing themselves for their mages. It had been dark, dark corridors, shadowed halls and the stench of rotting flesh. It had been the pleading cries of the enslaved; the squeals of the newborn into horror and the briefest graze of a demon's finger that had chilled his soul. And ultimately, it had been the flight through the glass domes that roofed the chamber of light with the shrieking of demons just far enough adrift.

All leading to a day of pure torment. As quickly as they outpaced a demon pack, another would rise to block their path south and west. They could smell the mana from so far away. It meant they could not rest in each other's arms as they had planned and so cycle their effort.

How many times had they cowered behind clouds, dived at suicidal pace or spun dangerously close to each other risking collision? It was something of a miracle that they had lost only one of their scarce number. There was no time for reflection. There had not been time to mourn the fading scream.

And so they faced the final run. They'd dived from the clouds a little early but that didn't bother him. What did was whether Xetesk had seen them or not. It took only a few heartbeats to realise the demons had. Like a multi-hued cloud in the morning gloom, they lifted off, their alien calls taken up by their current pursuers who drove a little harder.

'Come on!' called Vuldaroq though he knew his words were lost in the battering wind on their faces.

He led the four remaining mages down sharply, off-balancing the pursuers who lost a little ground. Any chance was worth taking. Vuldaroq was surprised to feel a thrill pass through him. So close to

death for so long but with relative sanctuary almost within reach, he had never felt more alive.

He breathed the feeling in deep, felt the energy revitalise his aching body and pushed more speed from his ShadowWings.

'Come on, Dystran, you bastard, now's the time.'

Vuldaroq glanced back through his gossamer-thin wings, the protective film over his eyes adding to the slightly unfocused outlook. They were all still with him. The demons flitted in and out of his vision, blurred reds and blues, trying to steal a few feet to pressure the mistake. It was hard to tell how many there were. Ten or twelve at least.

But he considered them too far adrift if he and his could maintain their punishing pace just a little longer. To maximise their speed, the mages were all flying head first, arms pressed to their sides, legs straight and feet pointed backwards. It left little room for communication but they had organised a few signals in quieter moments of the flight and Vuldaroq knew they would all be looking at him for their cues.

In front of them, the seven towers of Xetesk stood grim and gaunt against the dull sky. A few lights burned in Dystran's but the others appeared closed and dead. Much like the city. It was wreathed in an undulating dawn mist trapped within its walls and punctured only by the glimmer of a handful of fires.

The demons rising from the city had fanned into a wide net. Some were streaming towards them, others hanging back. There had to be two hundred at least, thronging the air above the silent buildings, flashing greens and deep blues.

Vuldaroq went hard at the line approaching them, saw it straighten to counter their expected direction. It was a surprisingly naive move, but then the leader caste was not among this vanguard and without them there was little spatial awareness.

Dordover's Arch Mage flickered his fingers to draw his mages' attention. Then, he pointed up with his index fingers before splaying his hands. All he could do now was hope they had seen him and trust they would react when he did. Delay carried the severest of consequences.

Vuldaroq clung to his courage. He closed with the demons at

high speed and sensed his few mages come onto his shoulders in a tight group. The demons mimicked them instantly, a good sign.

'Keep coming,' he breathed. 'That's it.'

He was so close he could hear their calls when he angled upwards at practically ninety degrees. The mana shape controlling the wings strained. Physical wings would surely have snapped. Vuldaroq felt the braking force across his whole body like he was going into reverse. If not for the demons racing beneath him and the undeniable forward motion driving him on, he would have believed it.

One quick look told him they'd all made it this far. Below him, the demons were braking and turning from all directions. Vuldaroq spread his arms, his body adopting a cruciform shape, falling forwards in the air to arrow vertically down.

They all knew the sign. It was the last run and, of necessity, it was every man for himself. Mouthing good luck to any that were watching, he plunged groundwards. He had about a mile of distance and a thousand feet of height to lose. No distance at all but surely the longest flight of his life.

'We're moving!' shouted Dystran. 'Now!'

He pounded along the corridors from his tower and into the dome complex, seeing the torpid surprise register on dozens of faces.

'Up. Warriors to the doors. Mages, let's be thinking about focused Orbs. We're going outside. Library team, make ready.'

His orders were carried on down into the catacombs. Puzzled expressions faced him. He paused.

'I do not have time to explain,' he said. 'Time to trust me. Allies are flying in from die north-east.'

'Allies?' a warrior, standing, questioned.

Dystran grabbed the filthy blue kerchief tied at his neck and pulled. 'Yes, allies. Anyone who isn't a demon is an ally now. Clear?'

'Yes, my Lord.'

The sound of running feet came from all quarters and he waited for the gaunt, sick-looking figure of Commander Chandyr to appear before issuing orders.

'No time for whys. Dordovans in the sky heading this way. The demons have all but cleared the college to hunt them. I want eight

mages out there giving covering fire as they come in. Another four will defend the flanks from demons still hidden inside the grounds. Twenty warriors as spotters, in and outside the doors. And the library team is going in now. We'll not get a better chance. Move.'

'All right, you heard him!' Chandyr clapped his hands together. 'Mage teams one and two, cover duty. Swords two and three, spotters. Sword four, you're on the doors as back-up. Library raiders, to me. Gentlemen, it is time for some fun.'

Dystran had to admit Chandyr was good. They moved for him, respected him. The Lord of the Mount himself, they just feared. He liked it that way.

Noise battered around the dome. Men shouting, weapons and armour clashing. Metal-shod boots ringing on stone and marble. Dystran swallowed on a dry throat. The great doors swung open onto the cool, misty dawn.

'Go!' shouted Chandyr. 'Forming up flanks quickly. Focused Orbs for attack, I want an IceWind cover for area attack, Force-Cones on defence. Ready for changes any time on Lord Dystran's word.' His voice cleared the din easily. A commander's voice brought back to life by the promise of action. 'Spotters, I only want to hear numbers and direction.'

Soldiers and mages ran through the doors, across the marble apron and down the stairs in front of the tower complex. Out of the protection of the ColdRoom lattice.

Dystran followed them, buoyed by the flow of mana that coursed through him and the beautiful fresh air in his lungs. He pulled in the shape for a focused Orb, following three mages taking up a central position. A quick glance showed him the defence and spotters deploying. Behind him, Captain Suarav led the library raiding party left and out of sight. His last three archivists were with the scarred garrison commander under the eye of Sharyr. It was a gamble that couldn't afford to fail.

In the grey sky north of Xetesk, the desperate flight neared its conclusion. Tens, hundreds of demons thronged the sky, a net for the five shapes that darted, twisted, ducked and soared trying to dodge them. It was hard to see how any of them would get through.

'A path,' muttered Dystran, then raised his voice. 'Let's make them a path. Concentrate on the area dead ahead, where the lead

flyer is coming in. Time it, my mages. The gaps we make will fill quickly.'

Spells flew and the first demons perished in fire and ice, blasted aside to give Xetesk's erstwhile enemies a chance of life.

Blessed emptiness on the approach. The raiding team slipped left, passed the dome defence and trotted quickly and quietly around the base of the complex. The library doors stood open, hanging from their hinges. The timelock ward was no use now, broken when the timbers had been battered apart in the early days of the occupation.

In the bloom of spells across the spectrum, the augmentation they gave their sight to counteract the gloom inside the library went unnoticed. Sharyr led three archivists, Captain Suarav and a spotter soldier up the edge of the broad steps where the shadows remained deep enough and the mist clung to the stone.

Inside, he could make out the shapes of bookshelves and tables. Little seemed to have been seriously disturbed though the wind picked at the pages of a few volumes scattered on the carpeted floor.

There would be demons in here somewhere. An earlier abortive raid had reported what appeared to be a systematic search through every piece of work. They'd had two years to find what they wanted but still the searching went on. Sharyr wondered briefly what it was.

He checked the team. They nodded their readiness and he moved in, every footstep fraught with the potential of a protesting floorboard. He felt naked outside the protection of the ColdRoom yet energised by the connection with the mana spectrum. The crack of the first spell behind him told him he was not alone.

It was a curious mix of feelings. He'd grown accustomed to the aura of security the ColdRooms provided but always lurking was the pain of being shut off from the spectrum. This way round, he had the comfort of mana at his command. All he had to cope with was the dread that accompanied it. Death a mere touch away.

Suarav came to his right shoulder as they entered the library. Sharyr's augmented eyes picked out objects and edges in sharp, monochromatic relief. It showed him Suarav's face, lined with concentration, beaded in sweat despite the chill of the air. He felt a surge of respect for the man. Nominally, he and the other soldier

were spotters. In reality, they were there to sacrifice themselves to save the mages should the need arise.

The grand three-floored building was silent but for the ruffling of loose pages. Light was edging through the stained-glass windows leaving deep shadow untouched under stairwells and recesses.

Sharyr kept to the centre of the carpeted path, the team bunched behind him. Their eyes would be everywhere. Left and right past every aisle of shelves, up into the arches and upper floors, ahead into the heart of the library and down lest they kick a stray book or put boot to bare wood.

He could feel the tension soaring. Suarav repeatedly tightened and relaxed his sword grip. Sharyr had to fight hard to keep the ForceCone construct steady. The breeze outside threw unsettling eddies into the library, like the downwash of wings. Sharyr drew in a deep breath and moved further in.

The signs of die demons' search were everywhere. Bookcases had been moved, glass fronts smashed. Parchments, volumes and tied scrolls were heaped in piles on shelves, stacked on the floor or scattered into corners. The damage was worse than at first sight. Ripped pages sat in drifts on lower shelves. Ancient texts were torn, spines broken. The knowledge of ages discarded. Whatever it was they were looking for, the demons had gone about their work methodically.

Sharyr felt his heart fall. This organised demolition was going to make their job all the harder and they couldn't afford to be in here a moment longer than absolutely necessary. Looking about him, he wondered if they'd find anything useful at all.

At the base of the grand staircase that swept left up to the next floor, he took them from the central path and underneath the marble steps. The demonology section was just ahead. It was the first of three they'd identified. Sharyr checked them all again, saw the strained but determined faces. Outside, spells cracked and echoed in the quiet of early morning. Distantly, a demon screamed.

He turned back and there they were. Floating gently down from the upper floors. He wasn't sure how many. Ten at a quick count. He backed up under the stairwell. Suarav just in front of him, the others behind, all wanting to feel a wall at their backs. The demons were stark grey against the deeper background, shining slighdy.

They were all of one strain. Long faces containing huge oval eyes. Tiny mouths but rimmed with fangs. Distended skulls. Delicate feathery wings and long slender arms at the end of which spidery fingers writhed.

'Keep calm,' said Sharyr. 'Keep your concentration.' He had lost his ForceCone construct and was desperately trying to reform the shape. 'Don't show them fear. We can take them.'

'You heard him,' growled Suarav. 'They've got to get past me first.'

He stepped square in front of the mage team, indicating the conscript do the same. The man didn't move but for the quaking of his body. A whimper escaped his mouth.

'Stand aside, Captain,' said Sharyr.

'They will not take you before me.'

'You're standing in the line of our spells.'

'Just tell me when to duck.'

The demons watched the exchange intently. Sharyr, who hadn't taken his eyes from them, felt as if he were being examined. Studied. He became aware that he could hear the whirring of their wings at the edge of his consciousness.

'We don't want to have to cast,' he said.

'The damage to the library would be considerable,' replied one of the demons immediately, voice soft and seductive.

The conscript muttered again.

'Strength,' snapped Suarav. 'They don't know what to do.'

The demons spread slightly, moving to cut off any escape back towards the main doors. There was a gap to the back of the library. It had been left quite deliberately. No escape there.

'They're going to get us,' said the conscript.

'No they aren't, not if we stick together,' said Suarav. 'Keep your blade out front.'

'Won't do any good. Just one touch.'

Sharyr felt the soldier tense to run. They had little time. 'Mages, what do you have? Speak quickly.'

'Orbs.'

'Orbs.'

'Ice.'

In concert, the demons opened their arms and glided in. 'Your souls will replenish us.'

'No!' The young soldier broke left and ran, colliding with one of the archivists and sprinting away into the shadows.

'Structure down.'

'Reform!' snapped Sharyr.

'Get back here!' roared Suarav.

'Forget him and duck,' said Sharyr. Suarav dropped to his haunches. 'Orbs now.'

It was a single focused FlameOrb and it struck the centre of the pack. The glare was painful, the effect brutal and instant.. The tight globe of flame singed wings and burned coarse hair. It ate demon flesh. Smoke roiled. The scream was terrible. Sharyr followed it with his ForceCone. He directed it at the left side of the group. Unprepared, the demons were flicked away, twigs in the gale. He drove them up and back, flattening their bodies against the marble balustrade opposite. He wouldn't kill them but it represented space and time.

'Ice, right!'

Hardly had he uttered the command than the spell washed out, sucking and tearing at demon bodies, driving freezing air through their mana protection. Gouging, flaying.

'Now run, left. Find that idiot and get searching. We've still got a job to do. I'll hold these here.'

His men obeyed without question, scattering into the back of the library. 'And be careful of what's down there!'

Sharyr took stock. He held four struggling demons in check. The others were dead or dying. The IceWind blast had covered shelves, texts and tables over a ten-yard area with a thick coating of frost. That wasn't what worried him. It was the fire taking hold where the Orbed demon lay. And as the first scream of pure terror rang out from the back of the library, he turned to warn them that time was running out even faster than they had first thought.

The four surviving mages flew in at a frightening pace. Left and right, spotter soldiers called out the locations of demons now turning their attentions to the Xeteskians in front of the tower complex. Focused Orbs scattered out in a wide arc. In the thinning mist,

demons howled and the noise grew as more and more ignored their airborne quarry. And in the centre of the mage defence, deep blue ForceCones and IceWind kept open the slimmest corridor.

'Let's be moving back slowly!'

Chandyr's voice towered over the slowly rising panic. They had to get this just right or they'd lose more mages saving Dordovans than if they'd all stayed inside and let their erstwhile enemies die. Dystran eyed the sky again. Vuldaroq was at their head, the other three now in close attendance. They had abandoned any thoughts of evading the mass of demons closing around them and were flying headlong and head-first straight at the doors of the complex. The timing was going to be tight.

'FlameWall preparation now,' he barked to the mage at his side.

Both men formulated the rigid, single-sided structure into which was built the mechanism that caused the flames to decay slowly, lt was a static spell. They could cast and forget. Right now that was more than merely a blessing.

From his left, Dystran heard a sudden surge in shouting. Demons were attacking hard on the flank, threatening to overwhelm the flimsy mage defence.

Chandyr's voice sounded softly in his ear. 'It has to be now, my Lord.'

Dystran nodded his understanding. 'Ready,' he said.

'Last spells and retreat!' shouted Chandyr. 'Don't look back, get inside the ColdRooms. I want men ready if any of those bastards follow our friends in. Go!'

Heartbeats later, a volley of spells clattered into the mass of demons still a hundred yards distant but closing hard. To the left, the distance was not so great. Mist burned away, screams filled the sky and cold washed out over the college, IceWind finding its targets and flaying the skin from its victims. But there were so very many of them. They choked the sky and now the ground in front of the college. All the spells had done was buy them a few moments.

'Run!' Chandyr led the charge back to the doors, stopping by Dystran who had backed right to the edge of the ColdRoom.

Soldiers and mages rushed past. Demons closed in from left, right and above. The corridor down which the Dordovans flew narrowed, the quartet dropping to line astern to keep the demons crucial feet

from them. The last mage didn't want to look back. A huge winged creature was slashing at his feet, missing them by hairs alone.

'Wait just a moment,' said Dystran, feeling the anxiety of the mage next to him. Vuldaroq was fifty yards away. 'Right, let's give them something to aim at.'

The two mages cast, FlameWalls, parallel, forty feet high and a hundred long sprang up either side of the doors. Demons coming in from the flanks were forced to stop, those above veered away. Vuldaroq charged headlong.

'Oh Gods,' muttered Dystran and stumbled back inside the complex, dragging Chandyr and the other mage with him. 'We're going to have to break their fall. Get in front of the tower pillar. This is going to hurt.'

He'd only got a few yards inside and turned before Vuldaroq flew into the doorway. The ColdRoom snapped off the flow of mana. His ShadowWings disappeared and he plunged the dozen or so feet to the ground and rolled out of control towards the uncompromising stone of Dystran's tower. Fortunately for him, he hit Dystran first and the two men sprawled to a stop.

Immediately after him, the surviving three flashed in, dropped and bounced, mages rushing to their aid. Behind them, those demons too enraged to pull away followed them in. Three of them, one huge, the size of a wagon, two smaller, man-size, and all three keening in pain inside the ColdRoom that stripped them of the mana that gave them life.

The battle was brief but loud. Swords flashed in the torchlight. Chandyr shouted for concentration and caution. The demons flew raggedly, dropping quickly as their strength ebbed but determined to take any with them that they could. Right in Dystran's eyeline, one of his men moved too slowly. His blade missed the claw that dragged at him and he was helpless, his soul snagged and taken. He crumpled.

Chandyr's blade thudded into the back of the same creature, others joining him. They drove it to the ground, hacking and slashing. One blow took its head from its body and the whole of it shuddered and lay still.

Silence but for heavy breathing and quiet reassuring voices. The other two demons had fled through the open complex doors which

were shut on the decaying FlameWalls. Dystran looked about him at the white-faced men sitting or leaning against walls. Many had their heads in their hands. He could see tears, though whether through relief or terror he couldn't say. The close friends of the man who had died surrounded him. There was the sound of a blade dropping from a tired grip.

'Well done, everyone,' said Chandyr. 'Well done.'

Dystran turned his attention to the man lying in his arms. Vuldaroq. The last time he had seen Dordover's Arch Mage, he had been belligerent, obese and arrogant. The man he looked at now was a shadow. Gaunt and pale, the skin of his face and neck hanging loose as it must do over his entire body. Dystran felt the shake in Vuldaroq's muscles and saw the tears squeezing from his tight-shut eyes. He drew breath in ragged gasps. Blood ran from cuts on his face and hands, and already skin was discolouring where he had struck the ground hard.

Dystran knew he should hate the man but two years changed so much. The war had been over ever since the demons first appeared and the Wesmen had left the city. Since then, the scant communication between the colleges had been like finding long-lost friends. There had been no time for recrimination.

The Lord of the Mount of Xetesk sat up and dragged Vuldaroq to a seated position. The Dordovan was spent. He surely could not have flown for much longer. A quick glance told him that the others were in no better condition.

'Get me hot drink, food and blankets. I want beds made for these men to rest on,' said Dystran. 'We've saved them from the demons. Let's not lose them to exhaustion.'

Vuldaroq's eyes flickered open. They were red and brimmed with tears.

'Thank you,' he croaked, voice dry and cracked.

'That was quite some entrance,' said Dystran. 'What the hell happened?'

'Dordover is gone,' said Vuldaroq, voice suddenly loud in the silence that fell in the dome as he spoke. 'We're all that is left.'

Dystran felt cold. The second great college of Balaia. Reduced to four mages.

'How?'

'We were never strong enough and they grew stronger every day. It was sudden in the last few days. Like they'd gained power from somewhere.' He coughed. It wracked his entire body and he shivered.

'Later,' said Dystran. 'Food and rest now. You're safe here for the time being.'

But the words Vuldaroq had spoken backed up everything Dystran feared. He searched for Chandyr. The commander met his gaze levelly from across the dome.

'I need some good news,' said Dystran. 'Where's my library team?'

'They aren't back yet,' said Chandyr. 'Patience, my Lord.'

'It's happening now,' said Dystran. 'We don't have time for patience.'

The shadows of demons flitted in and out of Sharyr's peripheral vision. The whir of their wings was the only sound they made. He had to keep out of his mind the thought of their spindly fingers reaching for his soul while he searched feverishly among the shelves for anything that might give them a clue to the demons' tactics.

Smoke was filling the library from the fire that was fast consuming the accumulated knowledge of Xetesk. Whatever he and his team collected now could well be all that was ever salvaged.

Sharyr knew the demons had lost him temporarily after he'd pushed them through a skylight and dropped the ForceCone. But they hadn't lost Suarav. What a spirit the man had. He could hear the captain's taunts and shouts, trying to draw the soul stealers away from the two surviving archivists looking for Dystran's prayed-for panacea.

The conscript was gone. The sound of the man's cut-off scream would live with him forever. He smiled grimly at the thought that forever for him could be a very short time indeed.

Sharyr grabbed a demonology scroll and with a surge of excitement having seen the author's name, stuffed it into his cloak. Behind him, new flame flared high into the library and sent a billow of choking smoke across the lower hall. The shadow of a grasping demon was cast huge against a wall. He heard one of his archivists call a warning.

'Time's up!' roared Suarav. There was the sound of a sword thudding dully. A demon yelped and screeched. 'Meeting point, now!'

Sharyr turned right, heading back towards the seat of the fire. Back towards the library doors. He heard the whir and saw a demon round the corner and float gently towards him along the aisle. He backed away.

'No escape,' said the demon, advancing with hands outstretched. 'We seek what you seek.'

'It'll burn before you set eyes on it,' said Sharyr. He backed off further and felt a chill, heard the whirring again, this time behind him. He was trapped.

'No escape,' repeated the demon. It came on, fingers rippling.

Right was wall, left, bookcases. Sharyr's mind was made up. The rest went by in a blur.

'You will not have me,' he whispered.

He could not cast, there was no time. Flames crackled menacingly in the centre of the library. Smoke irritated his eyes. The demons closed lazily. Sharyr had only one chance at what he intended to do. He threw himself shoulder-first into the freestanding bookcases that were the left-hand border of the aisle. It was a long, solid structure with more shelves racked beyond it. About ten feet high and heavy with books. Mercifully, it was not bolted to the floor.

Sharyr felt it move and he started to climb, scrambling up the shelves, arms and legs scrabbling for purchase. His momentum carried him up while the bookcase tipped away from him. With his feet on the top shelf, the bookcase passed the point of no return. The thundering sound of books falling mixed with that of his breathing, his heartbeat, Suarav's shouts and the flames. The shelving creaked. He stood, riding the case. It gathered momentum and cannoned into the one across the next aisle.

'Oh shit,' he muttered. There were six aisles before the wide gap of the centre aisle of the library.

He began to move again, running at an angle across the cases, jumping to the next, almost stumbling. He could feel the quickening movement beneath his feet. He kept himself going, his paces light. The clattering of the cases and the slipping of books reached a crescendo. Suarav was barking orders. He could see the heads of his

friends bobbing as they sprinted down the centre aisle, demons in pursuit. He daren't guess how close his own pursuers were.

Sharyr took one last leap, caught the falling edge of a case and tumbled hard to the ground. He turned a diving forward roll, feeling a sharp crack in his collar-bone. He sprawled and cried out, clutching at his clothing, desperate to keep the texts with him.

A strong hand gripped him under his good arm and hauled.

'By all the Gods burning, that was quite a performance,' growled Suarav. 'Now go, run hard left at the main doors as we'd planned. You know the way in.'

Sharyr could feel the heat of the fire on his face. It was eating up at the walls. The pain in his right shoulder was terrible, nauseating.

'What about you?'

'I'll keep them back.' Suarav leaned in. 'Don't argue with me, boy. We always knew this could happen.'

Sharyr nodded, turned and ran; the last thing he heard behind him was Suarav daring them to try and pass him.

Chapter 14

The Unknown made them all wait. The longboat was ready to take him and The Raven to join the others already aboard the Calaian Sun but he wasn't ready yet. There was never enough time for goodbye. Particularly when he had no desire to leave.

'I can't believe I'm doing this,' he said, walking arm in arm with Diera through the woods to the left of the path that led to the landing beach. Jqnas trotted along next to them, oblivious to the mood for the moment, lost in a nonsense game of his own devising.

'It's the price we have to pay because of who you are,' said Diera, her words carrying no conviction.

A stiff warm breeze swayed the narrow trunks surrounding them. A few dead leaves fell.

'We've paid enough,' he said.

'Apparently not.'

The Unknown stopped and faced her, looking into her lovely face, the fear in her eyes clear behind her forced smile.

'One word and I'll stay,' he said.

'What, and wonder how they are coping without you? We've been through this, Sol. There isn't a choice.' She looked down at Jonas who had stopped his play to stare at them, a frown across his innocence. 'There never is.'

'I'm sorry.' Every word was clumsy. None of it helped. He was trapped between his desire and his calling. Gods, he'd shunned the soldier's life to avoid exactly that. At least now he knew why. It hurt.

'What for?' She placed her hands on his chest, smoothed his shirt to either side. T heard Sha-Kaan. I do trust him. This is the only way.'

He was unsure who she was trying to convince.

'Come on,' she said. 'Or you'll miss the tide and we'll have to go through all this again.'

He crushed her to him and felt her strength give and the sobs coming. Jonas clung onto his mother's leg, his expression collapsed into anxiety.

'Mummy?'

The Unknown swept him up and the three embraced long and hard.

'You're not coming back, are you?' said Diera, voice thick and half muffled by his chest. 'Not this time.'

The Unknown released her, keeping hold of Jonas. 'I-'

'No time for dreams or lies,' said Diera, stroking his face.

T want to believe it,' said The Unknown. 'The Gods know it'll be the one thing that keeps me going.'

'But your head says what?'

'That we're going against an enemy so powerful it has all but overrun the four colleges and controls Balaia. That in all probability, we will all die attempting to liberate our country. That what sort of husband and father would I be if I didn't at least try?'

Unexpectedly, Diera smiled, this time with warmth and humour. The Unknown smoothed away her tears.

'You know, when I was growing up, I dreamed I'd have a husband who was a true hero. Someone who I'd wave off to fight for me and welcome back time and again. I got my wish, didn't I? Almost.'

'Looks like it,' he said. 'You should have chosen better.'

'And be a demon-slave or dead,' she said. 'I'll take the heartache.'

'There is that.'

T can't wave you off. Not again.'

The Unknown nodded. He unhooked Jonas's grip from his shoulder and brought the boy in front of him. Jonas regarded him quizzically.

'You look after your mother, won't you?'

Jonas's sombre nod dragged a chuckle from The Unknown's dry, sore throat where he'd been swallowing hard. He kissed the boy on his cheeks and handed him back to Diera.

'Goodbye, Sol,' she said, tears falling anew. T love you.'

'And I love you. With every beat of my heart,' he said. 'Keep believing.'

'I'll try.'

He leaned in and kissed her on the mouth, a tender, lingering touch. Their tongues met briefly, firing passion, and pulled away. He stepped back, let his hand brush her cheek and then forced his legs to turn and carry him to the waiting longboat.

Sha-Kaan had stayed in the Klene a very long time. He had cursed the conspiracy of circumstances that had taken the eyes of the Kaan from the Balaian dimension. But he knew also that there was little the brood could realistically have done. The Xeteskians had dabbled once too often with the power of dimensional space and now they were all paying the penalty. Contact with Dragonene mages was sparse and difficult. Soon it would cease altogether. The demons grew stronger every day.

He was unused to the fear he felt at what he had to do. His brood urged him not to travel alone but he really had no choice. A flight of Kaan dragons would be seen as a threat and destroyed. Further, he still could not afford to take able dragons from the defence of his Broodlands while the newborn were so weak.

So it was that he flew high and alone for the Broodlands of the Naik, his fiercest enemies. He already knew he could rely on the Veret to support him. Long-time allies, they had foresight that the Naik had never displayed. His greatest fear was that the Naik would see diis as an opportunity to destroy the Kaan, as indeed it was. But if they did, it would consign them to death also. The question was, could he persuade them of that fact?

One factor was of some comfort. Should he fail, the enemy would not be long following him to the dead lands.

No Kaan knew the exact location of the Naik Broodlands but they all knew in which part of Beshara they would encounter attack. Sha-Kaan prepared himself for the inevitable challenge. His flame ducts were full and lubricated should he need them. The Vestare had spent days massaging balms and oils into his scales and the old muscles at his wing roots to give him increased flexibility; and he practised in his mind what he would say to buy him life enough to at least face Yasal-Naik, their brood leader.

And once he was prepared, he pulsed a message to Hirad Coldheart that he was among enemies and dived through the high cloud, barking loud to announce his presence.

For a while, he saw nothing in the skies. Below him, a vast desert fled away to distant iron-grey mountains. The great ocean was far away to his right and behind him the lush plains of Teras were a distant memory. He saw them first as a cloud like a sandstorm brewing ahead and close to the ground. The cloud boiled upwards, spiralling fast towards him, resolving itself into six rust-brown Naik dragons. All were young to his eyes, all desperate to reach him first, all charged with aggression and hate.

Sha-Kaan watched them come. He made sure he displayed no aggression himself. He circled slowly, his belly scales fully displayed, his neck straight and his wings deployed. Their formation worried him. It was by no means a holding pattern. It was an attack chevron.

He barked again, a sound of submission, but they still drove on unchanged, their calls a challenge to him and his brood. He held station a moment longer until it became plain their pace was going to take them straight through him. Barking his irritation, he beat his wings hard, propelling himself up and north of them, forcing them to break formation to intercept. One was ahead of the others. Sha-Kaan saw its mouth open.

He had not survived so many cycles without being a master of timing his dives. The Naik drove onwards, sure of his quarry. Sha-Kaan saw the breath draw in and the neck swell around its flame ducts. Orange fire washed the space where he should have been but he had furled his wings and dropped like a stone, bringing his head round to pour flame over the young dragon's flank.

In the next instant, he spread his wings wide, braking his fall dramatically. He roared loud. The remaining dragons faltered in flight, watching their brother plummet groundwards. Perhaps for the first time, they realised who it was they faced. This was no ordinary enemy. This was Sha-Kaan.

The five remaining fanned out around him where he hovered, again beating his wings gently, displaying his scales, hanging perpendicular to the ground thousands of feet below.

'Do you know nothing, or are you so full of anger you cannot read the signs of your visitors?' Sha's voice carried across the winds

of heights. He saw them hesitating, caught between their awe of him and their knowledge that together they might just take him down and strike a decisive victory.

'You are alone, Old Kaan,' taunted one. 'Vulnerable.'

'That I am,' said Sha-Kaan. 'And perhaps your minds should turn to wonder why that is? Had I come to challenge you, I would not have come alone.'

'We are unsure that you are alone,' said another.

Sha-Kaan looked long and slow at the skies all around them. The clouds he had come through were ten thousand feet above their heads. There was nowhere to hide.

'Then you should open your eyes, whelp. Now take me to Yasal-Naik, I must speak with him.'

'We will not. It is a trick to gain access to our Broodlands.'

Sha-Kaan sighed. 'Then bring him to me.'

'We do not take orders from the Kaan.'

Sha-Kaan rumbled in his throat. 'It is a request.'

'State the reason.'

'Because if he doesn't come and he doesn't listen to me, the Arakhe will soon destroy us all.'

There was a pause while they digested his statement and no doubt spoke among themselves, pulsing thoughts and ideas.

'There is no evidence to support this. Yasal will not thank us for disturbing him but he will thank us for bringing back your carcass.'

'And you will condemn your brood to extinction.' Sha-Kaan beat his wings once and extended his neck before bringing it back to a respectful 'S' shape. T ask you to believe me. I am Sha-Kaan and I have travelled alone to speak to Yasal. Let him decide my fate. I will abide by whatever he decrees.

'The choice, my young Naik, is yours.'

The Unknown didn't say much for a day. Hirad left him to it. The big warrior, limping a little more heavily, spent most of the time leaning on the aft rail, gazing back across the open water. He watched the Ornouth Archipelago diminishing towards the horizon. It was a beautiful sight with the sun still catching white sand or the azure shallow waters and throwing vibrant patterns onto the haze in the sky.

But Hirad knew he wasn't seeing that. All he could see were his wife and child disappearing beyond his reach and he had no real expectation of ever seeing them again.

It was dawn on the second day of their voyage back to Balaia. Hirad was on the wheel deck looking down on The Unknown's shaven head. Behind him, Jevin was guiding his novice helmsman. The elf s gentle voice little more than a murmur as he described the nuances of steering his sleek vessel.

Hirad felt a hand on his shoulder. Denser.

'Hey, big fella. Thinking too hard?'

Hirad turned briefly. 'Look what I've done.'

'He knows he's in the right place,' said Denser. 'Just give him time.'

'I've torn him from his family. It's unforgivable.'

'True but you can't think of it that way. Take it back as far as you like. Like I say, I'm more to blame. I'm a Xeteskian.'

'No you aren't. You're Raven.'

T believed them for long enough.'

The Unknown turned and stared up at them, his face stone.

'Neither of you are helping me with your feeble angst,' he said. T have my own mind. I exercised it. Now let it drop.' He returned his gaze to the ocean.

'Where's Erienne?' asked Hirad after an uncomfortable pause.

'Resting. She and Cleress are still working on that casting.'

'Will it work?'

'We'd better hope so,' said Denser. 'Or this is going to be a very short attempt to save the world.'

Hirad chuckled but he didn't feel the humour, more Denser's unconscious adoption of Ilkar's turn of phrase. 'It could be that anyway.'

'How so?'

'Sha-Kaan pulsed me before dawn. He's trying to speak to the Naik.'

'Ah,' said Denser. He scratched at his neatly trimmed beard. 'Tricky.'

'Yeah. And if I don't hear from him again before we sight Balaia, we can assume he's dead.' Hirad didn't believe the words as he spoke them.

'Do you think he was serious when he talked about how he felt the dragons had to help us?'

'Denser, he is not given to talking bollocks, unlike your good self

'Just asking.'

'Tell me something, Denser.' It was The Unknown again. 'How long can Erienne keep this casting going?'

'I've no idea. It'll be draining. All the One castings are.'

'You two want to join me amidships? We need to think about tactics.'

Hirad smiled and gestured Denser to precede him. This was The Unknown he wanted. Reluctant, maybe, but thinking. The three men sat on netted crates under the mainmast.

'You understand what I'm getting at,' continued The Unknown. 'It's all very well when we've evened the odds under Erienne's casting. What if she is unable to cast for any reason?'

'Well, we won't be able to take down a single demon,' said Hirad.

'That's not strictly speaking true,' said The Unknown. 'What it will be is a question of keeping them distant enough for Denser to destroy with spells, right?'

'That's not something we can keep up indefinitely either,' said Hirad.

'Correct, but we have to work on the premise that we won't have to. It's a contingency until we can find shelter or Erienne can cast herself.' The Unknown must have seen the cynicism in Hirad's expression. 'Put it this way, if we are in a situation where Denser is our only effective weapon, we're already dead.'

'Thanks a heap,' said Denser.

'You know what I mean,' growled The Unknown. 'We'll be working to buy time and space, right? I've had an idea we should work on.'

'And there was I thinking you were back there mooning over your family,' said Hirad.

The Unknown almost smiled. 'Only ninety-nine per cent of the time. Go and get the others except Erienne. Auum and Rebraal too, we need them to act as demons.'

Hirad pushed himself off the crates. 'I hope this master tactic of yours protects us from a demon's touch. It only takes the one.'

'Been thinking about that too,' said The Unknown.

'Busy, this one per cent of your mind, isn't it?'

'Yes, Hirad, you should try it some time. Think about it. Rebraal says they are impervious because their religion gives them a single focus, a group belief. The Wesmen are apparently protected by the Spirits whom they worship and revere. The two are similar to my mind. It's about having something greater than yourself surrounding you. Something that binds you to the mass, gives you the strength of everyone who is like you.'

'Fantastic. I'll convert to elvish immediately,' said Hirad.

The Unknown's hand slapped him hard on the forearm. 'No! Bloody hell, Hirad, you can be truly stupid sometimes. This should have occurred to you already. Remember when the demons got at Will in Sha-Kaan's Klene that time?'

'Yeah. I remember he died. So what?'

'Couldn't steal his soul though, could they? Will died because they chilled his life and he wasn't strong enough to resist. Why don't you think his soul went to the pit, eh?'

Hirad shrugged and looked at Denser who was smiling at him. 'Something funny?'

'Only that I'm about to quote to you something you've quoted at me so many times I'm thinking of having it tattooed on my forehead.'

'What? That he was Raven and that makes a difference?'

'Stole my thunder.'

And even as he opened his mouth to object, Hirad could see The Unknown was right. He had felt it the moment they had sat together as The Raven in the Al-Drechar's house a few days before. You couldn't bottle it, it was just there. He could feel it now. Strength. Belief. Spirit.

'You know it,' said Hirad.

The Unknown stood and stared him in the eye. 'And I'll tell you something, Coldheart. I've already had my soul taken from me once. And nothing and nobody is going to part me from it again.'

'We can do this, can't we?' said Hirad, believing for the first time.

'Course we can,' said Denser, his face splitting into a grin. 'We're The Raven!'

Their laughter echoed out across the open sea.

Chapter 15

Yasal-Naik circled Sha-Kaan very slowly, eyes following the Great Kaan as he spun on his tail, displaying his belly scales at all times. A gesture of respect, of peace and of submission. Sha-Kaan bit down hard on his pride, knowing that to gain audience with this most aggressive of brood fathers was more than he had genuinely believed he would achieve. To jeopardise that with a petulant display of superiority now would be truly calamitous folly. They both knew Sha-Kaan was the stronger dragon. This was not the time to demonstrate it.

The five young Naik circled nearby, keeping watch on the open skies, searching for the Kaan attack that would never come.

'You have killed one of my brood,' said Yasal-Naik. 'That alone is enough to see you taken from the skies with flames as your final companion.'

'The whelp attacked me despite my attitude and bearing. I had no choice but to defend myself.'

'And your intrusion into my skies is punishable equally severely.'

'Then carry out your sentence, Yasal. My only regret is that I would not live to see you confront your blindness.'

The Naik brood father continued to circle, aware of Sha-Kaan's discomfort.

'It is an action I can take at will, is it not?'

Sha-Kaan rumbled deep in his huge chest. 'Then hear me, since you have nothing to lose. Know why it is I have come here alone to speak with you.'

Yasal ceased his circling finally, clicking the back of his tongue. The rattling echoed in his cheeks. Sha-Kaan flicked his wings in acknowledgement, returning to horizontal flight.

'Let us fly, Great Kaan,' said Yasal. 'You have my attention.'

T am grateful to you.' Sha-Kaan took up station beside Yasal and followed him in a lazy glide. 'Your decision demonstrates maturity.'

'From you that is a compliment,' said Yasal. 'But don't mistake maturity for conciliation. There is none.'

'Just listen to me,' said Sha-Kaan. T am tired of your threats.'

The two dragons' eyes met across the narrow gulf between them. Yasal's burned with an anger Sha-Kaan recognised in himself as a younger dragon.

'Speak.'

'Yasal, I am not here to surrender, I am not here to challenge you. I have travelled alone as a demonstration of my veracity. You may always have hated the Kaan and despised me in particular. That is natural. All broods desire dominion and one day we will assuredly return to that state.'

' "One day"? What is wrong with today?'

'Because today that battle is rendered pointless.'

'One of my escort mentioned something similar. Explain.'

'The Arakhe have taken Balaia,' said Sha-Kaan.

'Surely a cause for celebration.'

'You know what that means.'

'Yes, Sha-Kaan. That your melde will soon be shattered, that the Kaan will dwindle. That I need not spill one more drop of Naik blood to beat you. Merely bide my time.'

Sha-Kaan feathered his tongue in humour. 'All these things are true. But can you fly a little further?'

'Where else do I need to travel? I will have achieved the Naik's destiny. I will rule Beshara unopposed.'

'Idiot youngster,' snapped Sha-Kaan. 'Think.'

'About what? You have promised me victory.'

Sha-Kaan sampled Yasal-Naik's tone, smelled the odours of his body, faint in the wind. He was sure he was being toyed with but the Naik's bearing suggested interested neutrality.

'Should the Balaian dimension fall, the Arakhe will have everything they want. Doorways to this dimension, the dead, and thence to everywhere. Your melde, every brood's melde. You have heard the prophecies and the warnings. They are as much Naik lore as they are Kaan or Gost or Veret. They have to be stopped now.'

'You have controlled your melde dimension poorly,' said Yasal.

Sha-Kaan spat fire in sudden anger.

'Skies curse you, Yasal, I wonder why I haven't stayed at home to watch you die.'

'Because, old Kaan, you need the strength of my brood; or at least to know that your lands are safe while you sort out the problems you say have afflicted your melde. You deny your lack of attention caused what you say we now face?'

'You know the birthing cycle of the Kaan. Your attacks over my skies were not random events, after all. You know what happens around the time of our birthings. So, it appears, do the Arakhe. What they did, to use a human phrase, was give mages enough rope to hang themselves with, then sit and wait until we were not guarding Balaia's fabric. Mages ripped the fabric and we were not there. The Arakhe were.'

'You should have controlled your subjects more effectively.'

Sha-Kaan let the comment ride for a while. He wasn't being goaded now. There was a gulf in the understanding between the two broods. It was as fundamental as their hatred for one another. After a long pause, he responded.

'That is why you will never be the dominant brood.'

'How so?'

'Because you do not understand the relationship between your vitality and the independence of the minds in your melde dimension.'

'You've lost me.'

'I expect so.'

'Dragons rule dimensional space. We take what we need,' said Yasal.

'I agree with the latter statement. I take issue with the former purely because if you don't help me now, it will soon no longer be true.'

'So you say.'

'Kill me and find out for yourself,' said Sha-Kaan.

It was a challenge but he knew Yasal could not afford to take him up on it. The Naik gave something approximating a laugh.

'You intrigue me, Great Kaan. And I respect the risk you have taken travelling here alone. Foolhardy but still. . Tell me exactly what it is you want the Naik to do. Agree a truce perhaps.'

'You and every brood,' said Sha-Kaan. 'And I am afraid a truce on its own will not be enough. The invasion of Balaia is far more advanced than you realise.'

'Accepted. State your plea.'

Sha-Kaan told him and watched all that arrogance and humour fall from his scent, his eyes and his attitude on the glide. He saw genuine uncertainty and abrupt realisation. When he had finished speaking, Sha-Kaan waited as he knew he must. Yasal's wings were twitching slightly, the skin around his eyes pinched.

'Land with me,' he said eventually. T would take food and water. And so should you.'

Hirad landed hard on his backside and laughter rang out across the deck again. He propped himself up on his elbows and looked round at Denser.

'Fancy a swim, Xetesk-man?'

'Sorry, Hirad,' said Denser, plainly nothing of the kind.

'You should try having him as your practice demon,' said the barbarian. 'See how far you get.'

In front of him, Auum reached out a hand. Hirad pulled himself to his feet.

'You saw my move,' said Auum.

It was as close to a compliment as the TaiGethen leader ever came.

'Seeing is one thing, reacting is another,' said Hirad, the elvish easy on his tongue.

'You are faster than the rest.'

'That is small comfort.'

'What's he saying?' asked Denser.

'That you should take a turn and he'd wipe that smile off your face,' said Hirad.

'All right, enough,' said The Unknown. 'It doesn't matter that Auum is faster than any demon, he's found a flaw in the tactics. We've left a gap in the defence and it means we can't make the space between us big enough for Denser to cast.'

'How much does that matter?' asked Hirad. 'Assuming our souls really are safe.'

'Just because a demon can't take your soul doesn't mean it can't rip your arms off while I'm helpless to cast,' said Denser.

'Good point. So what do we do?' asked Hirad.

The Unknown looked at Darrick. 'Any ideas?'

'I have,' said Rebraal.

He along with Auum's Tai and four former Protectors had been playing the part of demons, unarmed but carrying thick wooden crate lids to deflect The Raven's blades — scabbarded though they were.

'And?'

'It has nothing to do with your tactics. The pushing roll is fine. The line defence is effective enough and tricky to pierce. The problem is there aren't enough of you to repel eight of us.'

'There is more, though,' said Darrick. 'The nature of what you are trying to have us achieve leaves us vulnerable. We aren't going for killing thrusts, we're going for weighted blows to drive them back. Swords aren't balanced for that and our follow-throughs leave us exposed as Auum is so good at demonstrating.'

The Unknown nodded. 'Agreed, I was wondering about our weapons. Should be relatively easy to accommodate. Blackthorne should have maces enough for us. Rebraal's point, though, is more difficult, I fear.'

'No it isn't,' said Rebraal. 'Some of us will have to come with you.'

'That won't work,' said Hirad. 'We've already agreed we need you in Julatsa and Ark and his people in Xetesk. We have to have people in place to motivate and who know what is going on.'

'And what is the point of that if you are overwhelmed by demons before you can achieve what you must?' Rebraal shrugged.

'You are only six,' said Auum in halting, heavily accented Balaian. 'Two mages, four warriors. It is too few.'

The Raven looked at each other. Thraun inscrutable as always, The Unknown calmly weighing up all he was hearing, and Darrick nodding. Hirad knew the elves were right. And it wasn't as if The Raven hadn't fought with others countless times before. Gods burning, they'd spent ten years fighting in mercenary lines. But this felt different. It was admitting before they really began that they weren't up to the task. It left an unpleasant taste.

'We can't afford to be taken out,' said Darrick.

'Thanks, General, I had worked that part out,' said Hirad.

T mean we have to be as prepared as we can be. Part of that is going in with the right numbers.'

'Well let's take an army,' said Hirad. 'Do the job right.'

'What's got into you all of a sudden?' The Unknown was frowning.

'Nothing.' Hirad spat over the side of the ship.

'The problem is,' continued Darrick carefully, 'that we haven't sat and really thought this all through. The Unknown's tactics play here has demonstrated that we can't realistically hope to beat significant numbers of demons without Erienne to strip their protection from them. And we don't have the time to raise an army. And if we did, their souls would have no protection.'

'We could ask the demons only to come at us in groups of eight or less,' said Denser.

The Unknown spared Denser a brief bleak look before turning to Hirad.

'Well?'

'You are our heart,' added Thraun.

'But none of you think we can do this alone, do you?' said Hirad.

'That's about the size of it,' said Darrick. 'But ultimately, if you believe otherwise, we'll be with you.'

'So, no pressure then,' said Denser.

Hirad smiled thinly at him. 'Funny.' But bad taste or not, he couldn't blind himself to reality. He looked over at Rebraal. 'What do you have in mind?'

'My heart says we should all go with you. I would consider it an honour to fight with you to save my brother's soul. But my people are in Julatsa. I lead the Al-Arynaar. What other choice do I have but to be with them?'

'Fine. So you're going to do exactly what we agreed all along.'

'Hirad, what is wrong with you?' asked The Unknown. 'This is impatient even for you. Just listen.'

Hirad closed his mouth. He hadn't meant it to sound like it did. His mind felt unsettled. Like he was about to lose control. He nodded an apology. Rebraal acknowledged it.

'The same is true to a certain extent of Ark and his men. Some of them have to remain in Xetesk to organise what must be done. But you need more blades. Auum's Tai will come with you and, if they are agreeable, a pair of the Protectors.'

'You're practically doubling our numbers,' said Hirad.

'It isn't meant to be a slur on The Raven,' said Rebraal. 'But the fact is, not all who go will come back. We have to give ourselves the best chance. You're at the centre of this. The Raven, I mean. But even you need support and dragons can't give you that on the ground hand to hand. Without it, one mistake and the demons win. We can't take an army, as Darrick has said, or we leave Balaia defenceless. But we do have us.'

'Spoken like Ilkar,' said Hirad. T know you're right. It's just hard to admit.'

'None here would do The Raven disservice and yon are still its core. While you burn, we can win. Don't let pride extinguish you.'

Hirad breathed deep. He didn't have to look back at his friends to know what they were thinking.

'Right,' he said. 'We'll do it your way. Now I'm going to rest. I don't feel quite right.'

Hirad walked as quickly as he was able to his cabin, his mind aflame. It made him nauseous and unsteady. For a moment he wondered if he was seasick but the ship was making serene progress and it was not an affliction to which he was prone. Entering his cabin, he splashed water on his face and towelled it dry before lying on his bunk and closing his eyes.

He felt detached from his body though he could still feel it; as if touching it from a distance. His mouth was dry and his forehead lined with sweat. He swallowed hard, his heart racing in his chest. He'd have cried out but he wasn't sure anyone would hear him.

The cabin was dim but behind his eyelids stark lights danced. Hirad felt himself slipping away from the creaking of ship's timbers, the call of orders across the deck and the screech of gulls far from shore. He didn't fight it, he had no defence. The last coherent thought he had was one of relief that he hadn't collapsed on deck. He didn't want anyone to worry.

There was a battering sound. It accompanied the lights that were so bright that Hirad couldn't see beyond them though he was aware something was out there. The battering was frenzied and constant,

the work of countless rams and cudgels desperate to break in. He didn't pause to consider where. The tumult was accompanied by screaming. Faint at first but gaining in volume, getting closer.

He had heard the like before. It was the sound of a routed population driving headlong away from danger. It was disordered, panicked and terrified. He fancied he could see shadows behind the lights but it might just as easily have been a trick of his mind.

Pressure built behind his eyes. It grew quickly, in harmony with the screaming which dragged painfully in his head and the battering which dulled to a background clamour by comparison. Like the incoming tide it was inexorable and like rising flood waters it threatened to engulf him, drag him under.

Pain grew, blossomed across his consciousness. He thought he might have screamed but he couldn't hear the sound over those of the masses behind the light. But with the pain was the warmth of recognition. A touching of minds like the meeting of old friends.

Could it be Sha-Kaan? Hirad opened his mouth to bid him welcome but then the spirit passed through him on the crest of a scream and he was shovelled to wakefulness. He blinked at the half-light of the cabin, unsure whether to laugh or cry. He carried with him the tender feelings of the encounter; all the energy, life and love of his oldest friend. Yet beneath it, the fear of oblivion. Real, almost tangible, shouting from each of his muscles and the dulling thud in his head like a warning siren.

He sat up quickly, felt darkness threaten to close on him and a hand on his shoulder.

'Hey, not so fast,' said Eriehne. 'Take your time.'

Hirad focused on her slowly. 'How long have you been here?'

'Ever since you shouted Ilkar's name the first time.'

'I knew it!'

Hirad swung his feet out of the bunk and stood up, letting Erienne guide him.

'Where are you going?'

'On deck. Rebraal must have felt this.'

'Felt what?'

Hirad moved past her and yanked open the door. Tlkar. He moved straight through me. He was running. He was frightened.'

'That's not. .'

Hirad didn't stop to ease Erienne's confusion. He trotted along the short corridor to the aft steps and up out into the fresh smells and bright light of the deck. The sun washed over the timbers, the sails flapped idly in the light breeze and the scent of the sea filled his nostrils.

Rebraal was in a seated position, leaning against a crate and surrounded by The Raven and TaiGethen. The Unknown passed a cup to him and he drank. His face was pale in the light and his eyes darted here and there, settling on Hirad.

'You felt it too,' said Hirad.

Rebraal nodded. 'Through every fibre.'

'What does it mean?'

'It means he is chased. It means the demons are breaking down the doors. It means they think they have found a way in.' Rebraal paused and sighed. 'It means we need the wind. I think the dead are running out of time.'

Chapter 16

Dystran made sure the survivors had space, warm food and blankets. He had taken them into his tower and sat the three of them in his chambers. They were chilly like the day outside but the chairs were deeply upholstered and comfortable. Dystran had often sunk into one of them himself to try and imagine what life had been like before the demons came.

Already he had people looking at the texts they had brought back with them but he was more concerned with the condition of the raiders right now. They had lost one swordsman in the library, which still burned though it was clear the demons were trying to extinguish the blaze. Slaves had formed a bucket chain that snaked and split to six wells in and around the college.

One of his archivists had also perished, right at the moment he must have thought he was safe. It was ironic that the raiders' escape route back into the dome should be that first trodden by The Raven when they broke in. A time of life that seemed so distant now.

Suarav had survived by sheer force of will, holding off demons to give his mages enough time to get through the window and away into the ColdRoom lattice. But he was suffering for it now. He sat hunched in a blanket, staring down at his quivering hands. His fingers were blue and the twitching of his muscles meant he could barely hold his mug. Dystran pressed his hands around it and helped it to his lips.

Suarav's hands were so cold. Unnaturally so. His face bore the scars of a dozen demon's claws, his lips were cracked and pallid. The soldier had trouble taking the drink. Much of it dripped down his chin.

'Take your time,' said Dystran. 'You can relax now, you're safe.'

'They couldn't take my soul,' said Suarav. 'They couldn't take it.'

'No indeed.' Dystran had been genuinely surprised by the fact.

'And do you know why?' Suarav's face cracked into a pained smile. The cuts on his face crinkled, spilling fresh blood. 'Because not all of them can do it.'

'What?' Dystran started and had to remind himself not to take his hands away from Suarav's.

'Some of the lesser castes clearly don't have the ability or I would not be here.'

Suarav took another sip of his drink and coughed. A shudder ran the length of his body and he sighed, collapsing in a little on himself.

'All right, enough now,' said Dystran. 'Build your strength. Rest easy. We will guard you here.'

'It's cold,' said Suarav.

'Yes it is,' said Dystran, though not cold enough to account for the captain's condition. 'I'll get you another blanket. Maybe some gloves.' He snapped his fingers at one of the guards. 'See to it.'

He pressed Suarav's hands to his mug once more and turned to Sharyr who sat on a small sofa with the other archivist, Brynel. Both men were lapsing into shock. Bodies trembling, eyes staring. Brynel swallowed repeatedly. He was going to need attention quickly. Sharyr was only marginally better. At least he raised a smile and was able to drink.

'You've done a marvellous thing,' said Dystran.

'If the texts we took reveal anything.' He tried to laugh but it came out a splutter.

'Even if they don't, it shows we are still fighting. That we still believe we can beat these bastards.'

'Without him we'd all be gone.' Sharyr nodded at Suarav. A glance told Dystran he'd closed his eyes, his breathing was laboured but at least it was even. 'He was immense. He saved us all so many times.' Abruptly, tears streamed down Sharyr's face and a heaving sob shook his body. 'Sorry, sorry.' Tea slopped over his hands and he dropped the mug which shattered in the empty fireplace, making him flinch violently.

'Shh,' said Dystran. He placed a calming hand on his shoulder and stroked his upper arm. 'Let it out. It's all right, you're safe now.'

Sharyr clutched Dystran's robes. 'They kept on coming and we were too frightened to cast. They clicked their jaws, they reached for us with those hands. They got so close. We just ran and he kept them away though they bit him and scratched his face. They wanted his

soul but he was so strong and they couldn't get round him to get to us. But they taunted us, they taunted us and they reached out for our souls.' He gripped harder. 'I looked deep in their eyes and there was nothing there. Nothing. It's what we face if they take us. Emptiness.'

Dystran gripped Sharyr's wrists and gently eased his hands away. 'But they won't take us, will they? Because in this room, three men of incredible covxrage have given us a chance. You Sharyr, and Suarav and Brynel.'

'They were so close,' moaned Sharyr.

'And that is as close as they'll ever get. Think on it, Sharyr, and remember you're safe now. They can't get you in here. I promise.'

At last, another smile from Sharyr. 'Thank you, my Lord.'

'No, my friend. It is Xetesk who should be thanking you. Rest. Rest, all of you.'

Dystran stood up and spread his arms, embracing them all with the gesture. 'Anything that you want that is within my current power, you may have. And consider yourselves stood down from any duties until further notice.'

None of them were looking at him. He wasn't even sure any of them even heard him. He snapped his fingers at Chandyr and strode out to the first landing.

'Laid that on a bit thick, didn't you?' said the commander as soon as the door had shut behind them.

'What would you rather I do? Rush them back to the front?' Dystran moved away to the top of the stairs. 'Did you stop to look at them?'

'Yeah, they look in some trouble.'

''Some trouble? Bloody hell, Chandyr, I'm no healer but I'd say they were all dying, wouldn't you? Suarav is in desperate straits. Now you're out here to take orders, not discuss whether I'm patronising our survivors or not. I don't know what to do with any of them. Get our best up here and get me an answer. If that means getting them into the control zone in the catacombs so we can cast, then do it. Your men love Suarav and I need Sharyr able to help examine our new texts.'

'And Brynel?'

'We need every mage, Commander.' He indicated Chandyr go ahead of him. 'I'm not prepared to lose any of those men in there. And that means you need to run faster than I do.'

Dystran paused at the top of the spiral stair and watched his commander go. Halfway down he heard a hurried 'Sir!' and then a second set of footsteps came closer as Chandyr's diminished. Dystran waited for the man to climb the stairs. It was a mage, Feiyn.

'My Lord,' he said, breathing hard. He was weak from poor food and confinement and, like them all, dying by degrees.

'I'm presuming you aren't running up here merely to tone your legs.'

'No, my Lord.'

'Well, I'm on my way down. If you have breath, walk with me and tell me what it is that couldn't wait.'

Dystran led the way down the stairs at a gentle pace.

'Vuldaroq has read one of the texts.'

Dystran had to check himself before he spoke. 'He could read our lore, could he?' he said instead.

'This is a general research paper. A theory based on a mapping of energies in inter-dimensional space.'

'Ah. Sounds like the work of dear old Bynaar to me. He was the first man to postulate that mana flow could be ordered and driven without. .' Dystran trailed off even as he heard the sharply indrawn breath behind him. 'I don't recall asking for texts on that subject.'

'It was inside another on demonology,' explained Feiyn.

Dystran stopped. 'What does it say?'

'Vuldaroq can explain it better. He asked if I'd come and get you.'

'Right, let's hear what he has to say.'

They found Vuldaroq sitting in the dome complex, his back to Dystran's tower, much as he had been since his dramatic arrival. There was still no colour in his face but his eyes had regained a little sparkle. He managed a smile as he looked up from his study to see Dystran approach.

'My Lord Vuldaroq, I understand you've been busy.'

'Best that way,' he said. Like those in Dystran's chambers, exertion and fear had left a tremble in his body and voice. But at least the shock hadn't set in. Not yet anyway.

'Care to enlighten me?'

'Your man Bynaar was an astute researcher. Arteche speaks highly of him in works we treasure. . well, treasured.'

Vuldaroq flourished the paper. It was a small but heavy-looking

set of parchments, torn about its edges. Dystran estimated a dozen pages, no more.

'Go on.'

'He was tracing shifts in mana density centuries ago. And in this paper he links it to the movement of demons from one space to another. I'm presuming the knowledge we have concerning your links with the demon dimension is sound.'

Dystran coughed. 'If our spies' assessments are accurate then, yes, you've done rather well.'

'Normally, I'd be flattered,' said Vuldaroq. 'Now it all seems just a waste of effort.' He cleared his throat. 'Bynaar was the first to theorise that demons were a nomadic race, using up one home, then moving on by conquest.'

'I am a scholar on the subject,' said Dystran before he could stop himself.

'Then you will know that Bynaar has tracked demon progress across inter-dimensional space by measuring mana density and movement. Particularly noting the disappearance of mana clouds which he concludes is caused by those clouds entering the fabric of another dimension.'

Dystran's smile was thin. 'One cannot hope to assimilate every piece of knowledge.'

'Assimilate this now. It's not a solution but it does answer the question of what the demons are doing.'

'Which is?'

'Well, according to Bynaar, for demons, mana is an eminentiy movable element, one which they can attract to themselves. Which is how they move it of course. Establish demons at both ends of a path, so to speak, and send the mana along it — and the more they have, the stronger they get. It's almost a commodity to them, hence their obsession with getting into Balaia. We are mana-rich.

'Now I've cross-referenced that with your young mage, Feiyn here, who was kind enough to read a passage from the demonology text into which Bynaar's work was inserted. Would you be so kind as to repeat it, young man?'

Feiyn glanced at Dystran who nodded and shrugged simultaneously.

'It said that demons are forced into their nomadic existence because they consume the dimensions they inhabit. It says that

when they have access to another dimension, that is when they destroy the last of what they have and move on. All of them.'

'And they send the mana they have accumulated on ahead, to their vanguard,' added Vuldaroq.

'So they aren't just passing through,' said Dystran. 'We aren't a territory.'

He'd known it all along when it came to it.

'No. I'm afraid we're home for them now,' confirmed Vuldaroq.

'And the mana build-up?'

'You'll have to take readings,' said Vuldaroq. 'But for what it's worth, I'd bet the little I have that when it is complete, they will be strong enough to breach the ColdRooms. Or else why be so happy to leave us as we are — the stronger colleges, I mean. We can all feel the cold that the mana seems to bring — this chill is unseasonal and it's getting worse.'

Dystran thought for a moment. Emotions clouded bis mind. His immediate reaction was to dismiss the Dordovan's inferences simply because of who he was. But that attitude had to be consigned to history now if they weren't all to go before it. Vuldaroq had put a time limit on their future but the deadline was unknown. The course, difficult though it might be, was clear.

'Two things,' he said. 'One, we need to know when the density of mana in this dimension will give the demons the strength to overwhelm our defences. Second, we need a four-college strategy to see they never get there. And we need it fast.'

Arabelle ducked a killing blow and backhanded her sword across the demon's chest. It howled and tumbled back. Four of her men closed in.

'Hold it, this time, hold it!'

Two were already dead, victims of the demon's soul-touch. Two others stood with her, one a mage, ready to cast if capture became an impossibility. They'd cornered the beast after days of surveillance from the upper windows of the tower, had identified a pattern in its behaviour. They knew what it was doing: searching for their tunnel entrances, but it had become obsessed with a blind alley close to the northern wall of the college. This night, they were waiting for it.

The plan had been simple but they'd miscalculated its strength. Their first volley of blows hadn't weakened it enough and it had snatched its two victims too easily. Arabelle wasn't going to make the same mistake twice.

'Makkan, Terol, club it!'

The blows rained in on its body and head. The other two pounced on its arms, pinning them to the ground. The demon's fingers grasped and clutched, looking for a death touch, but it couldn't angle its wrist enough. It was a tall demon, better than six feet in height. Its hairless body was a livid sky blue and the veins and muscles writhed below its skin. Underneath its back, its gossamer, mana-based wings beat uselessly at the ground. It howled and screamed, its toothless mouth snapping. They would not be alone for long. -

Arabelle and her remaining two men closed in. They pinioned its legs, she moved to its head.

'Struggle all you like, you are coming with us. Now I can have my mage cast to subdue you or you can do it yourself.'

The demon's small black eyes regarded her from a heavy brow, tongue licked the edges of its lipless mouth. It relaxed and quietened, holding her gaze.

'Don't ease your grip even one degree,' she warned, not flinching from its stare. 'That is exactly what it's waiting for.'

The demon snarled. A sibilant hiss escaped its mouth. 'You will still all be ours,' it said.

'Maybe, but not yours, eh?' She turned to her team. 'Right, on the double. Let's get inside.'

The demon started to struggle again when they lifted it from the ground, contorting its body, shaking its limbs and arching its neck. But these were strong and determined men Arabelle had selected and they moved with purpose.

Pounding through the streets back towards the northern tunnel entrance they could hear the calls of demons to which their captive responded with a series of hoots and screeches. In the quiet of the night in Lystern, when the cries died to echoes, they were replaced by the swoosh of hundreds of wings. Arabelle was washed with a brief sense of futility. Here, they had captured one. Elsewhere in the city, there were thousands, and more arrived every day. She had to remind herself why it was she was out here.

Inside the tunnel, the passage was wide. Mages at its end laid trap wards before running after the kidnappers. They had to assume the

demons would find this tunnel now. It had served its purpose. At least the wards would take some more of the beasts down with them.

In the centre of the ColdRoom constructs was a clear area measuring around fifty feet on a side. It was where the mages came to rest and replenish their mana stamina. The demon gasped as it was dragged into the ColdRoom lattice, exhaling only when they reached the centre of the great hall where the mana coursed freely. Arabelle ordered her team to set the demon down. Others ran from all parts of the hall, relieving the kidnap party and pinning the creature to the ground so tight it could barely move.

There was a pause for breath. The demon rotated its head, trying to take in whatever it could. Arabelle looked down on it, a smile creeping across her face.

'Got you,' she said.

The demon hissed, its pointed tongue flicking out of its mouth. Abruptly, it settled, looking over her shoulder. Arabelle could hear footsteps. She turned round, her smile widening.

'Well done,' said Heryst. 'Well done indeed.'

'We lost two,' she said, deflating a little.

T know, I know.' Heryst squeezed her shoulder. 'It was always a risk.'

He turned his attention to the creature and knelt by its head. It tried to back away, sensing his aura, but only succeeded in writhing feebly under the weight of those pressing it down.

'You are aware who I am.'

'Heryst,' it said, almost spitting the name out.

'Good. Then you understand that whatever I say carries complete truth. You are caught and will answer our questions.'

'No answers,' it hissed.

'You will notice that at the moment, we are being very generous,' continued Heryst, ignoring the creature. 'You are lying in a place where the mana still flows. Do not mistake this as a sign of weakness. Where mana still flows, we can still cast and so we can hurt you very badly. Or, if we choose, we can take you into our ColdRooms to watch you die slowly. Do you believe me?'

The demon regarded him silently, breath rasping through its taut jaws. It nodded fractionally. 'Then also believe that if you answer our questions and we judge you to be truthful, we will let yon go.'

The demon sputtered its contempt at the statement. Heryst cocked his head.

'It remains the truth. To take your life would be pointless. How many thousands of others are there to take your place? Nevertheless, it is your choice. But you will answer us.'

'Nothing I tell you will help you, mage.'

'Then there can be no harm in telling us the truth, can there?'

The demon smiled, bone ridges inside its mouth shining with saliva. 'You will not know.'

Heryst leaned in further and his tone surprised even Arabelle. 'Oh yes, we will. Believe that also.'

A hush fell in the great hall. Around the edges of the clear area, people crowded, not wishing to come too close to one of those that had caused such devastation and pain. Nearer, swordsmen kept watch for any incursion and mages stood ready to cast, should they be needed. Heryst circled the captured demon, Kayvel by his side.

'Now,' he said. 'This is where it begins. I will give you a choice. You can either answer my first question truthfully or I can ask my colleague here to demonstrate the pain that a tiny spell can wreak upon your body. Which is it to be?'

The demon hesitated a moment. 'Ask.'

'We know why you are here, we want to know why you have left the colleges alone.'

'Not all colleges. Dordover is ours.'

If Heryst was shaken, he didn't show it. 'But we are still here. As are Julatsa and Xetesk. Why do you not press us?'

'We have no need. You are no threat.'

'But surely one day you must move to attack us.'

'When we are strong and you cannot repel us. We have time, you do not.'

'Ah but do you, I wonder?' Heryst walked a slow circle around the demon which watched him every step of the way, face betraying its suspicion. 'We have had some interesting intelligence from friends and it is backed up by knowledge we have uncovered here. We think you have miscalculated. We think your home is dying and you are forced here. We think you will never be able to overwhelm us because you cannot force enough mana here before your home is lost to you. We think you are fearful.'

'Lies. We fear no one. Balaia will be ours.'

'Will it, my enemy?' Heryst stood tall over the demon. 'Is it not true that to complete your conquest you should have controlled our Hearts by now and you are not strong enough?'

'I have answered enough questions.'

'Oh, I don't think so,' said Heryst. 'Tell me, it is true that you can never hope to beat Balaia's mages, isn't it?'

The demon was silent, as were all the occupants of the great hall. Arabelle considered Heryst's approach. His considerable embellishment of Xetesk's message, received just before she had gone to catch the demon, had taken the creature unawares.

'Answer me. You need to consume the Hearts but you will never have trie strength?'

'No more questions,' spat the demon.

'Kayvel, explain to our captive that he doesn't have the option.'

Kayvel's casting was quick and sure. FlamePalm. The middle-aged mage breathed in deep, a frown on his face, and brought his palm towards the demon's stomach. The creature tried to writhe away but was held too firmly. From the centre of Kayvel's hand, a green flame sprouted, firm and hot. He played it over the light blue skin. Immediately, smoke curled up, the flesh charred and a rank odour bit at the atmosphere. The demon screamed. Heryst raised a hand and Kayvel withdrew.

'If you keep quiet you make me do that again,' said Heryst. 'Answer my questions.'

'You will be taken, mage,' snarled the demon. 'Nothing can stop that.'

'Tell me why you wait, then? The real reason.'

'I told you.'

'Can you stop the mana flow?' Silence. 'Kayvel, again.'

More smoke, more stench and a murmur through the hall. More screams.

'Answer.'

'No.'

'No you won't or no the flow can't be stopped?'

'Please.' The edges of the demon's wound might have been cauterised but it was deep and blood pulsed out over its belly.

Kayvel withdrew again.

'Well?' demanded Heryst.

'It cannot be stopped. Why should it? We are come and you will be taken as we please.'

'Easy, eh?' said Heryst. 'Now, when will you be strong enough to attack us? When have your masters said you will take us?'

'We have no orders.'

'Liar.'

The demon's eyes widened. Kayvel closed in.

'We attack when they say. No warning, we obey. Please.'

'Liar,' repeated Heryst. He nodded.

This time, Kayvel's hand played over the demon's chest and neck. Slowly, deliberately. Skin crisped, flesh bubbled. The creature whimpered, barely moving. Its eyes remained fixed on Heryst, the hatred almost tangible. The Lord Elder Mage did not flinch.

'Speak. My colleague can keep this up longer than you can live.'

The acrid smell of burning demon flesh stung Arabelle's nostrils. She looked on at the torture, feeling nothing for the demon. Nothing at all.

'Truth. Please!'

'When you take the Hearts, will you destroy them?'

'No!' The demon quivered through its body. 'Too valuable, too potent a source.'

Heryst snapped his fingers. Kayvel withdrew his hand.

'Well, well,' he said, catching Heryst's eye.

'Yes,' agreed Heryst. 'And so presumably you'll be keeping every mage alive too.'

A gasping chuckle. 'Your souls are most prized. We will enjoy you.'

'A shame, then, that your masters are ignorant of reality.'

There was a sheen of oily sweat covering the demon's body now. It was weakening quickly. The burns covering most of its torso were still bubbling and oozing. It regarded Heryst anew, forehead creasing slightly. A most human expression.

'Mages keep the Hearts beating,' said Heryst. 'No mages. No Hearts.'

'Liar.'

Arabelle wasn't sure but she thought the ghost of a smile crossed the creature's face.

'I cannot prove it, of course, but I have spoken nothing but truth to you so far. Perhaps you should have studied Julatsa's problems more closely.'

'Your lies will not buy your life.'

'Nor will yours save you, my enemy. Now. One last time. How long before you attack the colleges?'

'I do not know.'

Heryst straightened. 'A shame.' He nodded at Kayvel. 'And this time, only stop when it ceases breathing.'

'No! No!' The demon's anguish echoed through the chamber, its eyes sought allies.

'Then answer me,' snapped Heryst, raising his voice.

'Soon. It will be soon.'

'Not good enough.'

'All I know. Please.'

Kayvel's palm rested flat on the creature's chest. It jerked violently, a gurgle dragging from its mouth.

'Tell me.'

'You said you would let me go. Please.'

'After you answered my questions. After. Speak. While you are still able.'

The demon juddered, tried to speak but only succeeded in gargling deep in its throat. It mouthed the word 'please' once more and tried to frame other words while its body melted away and Kayvel's hand sank lower. Smoke poured from its wounds, the stench worsened. The demon convulsed, spat black gore from its mouth and lay still, eyes milking over.

'Keep a hold,' said Heryst to those pinning it down. 'Don't relax.'

Kayvel dismissed his spell. There was a muttering around the hall and an air of shock pervaded the chamber.

'Brutal, wasn't it?' said Heryst, addressing them all. 'Cruel even. Speak if you feel the need.'

There was a pause and a shuffling of feet.

'You didn't have to kill it,' said one.

'Maybe it was telling the truth,' said another.

A louder murmur accompanied this last utterance and heads nodded around the hall.

Heryst sucked his lip. He took a long slow stroll around the periphery of the clear area, taking in all those standing inside the ColdRooms.

'And is that what you think?' he asked, pointing at one. 'And you? You?Hmm.'

Heryst swung by Arabelle and she could see the set of his face and the disappointment in his eyes.

'Been comfortable in here, hasn't it?' he said. There was a ripple of laughter. 'Funny, is it? In here where the demons can't pluck you like ripe fruit and you don't even have to admit what is happening outside. Any here think they are unfortunate? You have my permission to go and join those beyond these walls. You have become distanced, soft. Complacent. Weak.

'Perhaps I should send a few of you outside who haven't been, eh? Outside where there is nothing but fear and the certainty that one day they will come for you. Where you exist only to serve the invaders. Where every day you would gaze at the college and curse your misfortune while you wonder why we sit here and do nothing to help you. Where creatures like this wretch at my feet have your life or death literally in their hands.

'And you want me to show mercy? Damn you for your weakness. We cannot afford it. The day is coming when they will try and destroy us and I will do anything, anything to give us a chance.

'Never show these bastards mercy because believe me they will show us none.'

He took them all in again.

'We are the lucky ones. But with that fortune comes the responsibility for the survival of our entire dimension. We have worked hard to earn what little we have today but it is clear we have been too slow. Soon we will have to fight and any of you who shirk from what you must do I will feed to the demons myself. You heard him. They want the Hearts. So we have to defend with all we have to stop them and give those with the strength the time to beat them.

'I hope you are scared. You should be. The fate of Balaia rests with each one of us. Now harden your hearts. Because if you do not, we are already lost.'

Chapter 17

There was little hint of what had befallen Balaia when the Catalan Sun sailed easily into coastal waters and headed slowly up the Bay of Gyernath. It had been a voyage free of troubled waters, but approaching the southern coast of their homeland, The Raven had gathered often to see it growing on the horizon and wonder what they would find there.

Now, with the sun climbing high into a clear sky and a cool breeze speeding them up the bay, they assembled on the deck once more.

'You know, I've assumed Blackthorne has survived but we have no hard evidence,' said The Unknown.

'We'll get some soon enough,' said Hirad.

Each of them was scouring the shoreline at a mile distance, searching for any sign of demons. They shouldn't find any. Everything they knew about the race told them that they would stay close to centres of population. Much as any predator likes to stay close to its prey.

'Jevin's information states that Blackthorne is still alive and kicking,' said Darrick.

'Yes, but it's old news. A season and more since he's been this way.' The Unknown shook his head. 'It worries me. Gods burning, he's not a college, his mage strength will be minimal. It's a miracle he survived at all but it's a situation with only one outcome, surely.'

'That's why we're here, isn't it?' said Hirad. 'To make sure there's another option.'

'He will be useful to us if he is still alive. And not just because of the weapons he can provide us. Two years fighting demons on a knife-edge. There will be things he knows. Weak points,' said Rebraal.

'I'm not sure demons really have weak points, magic excepted,' said Denser.

'Everything has a weak point,' said Auum quietly. 'And I will find theirs.'

'Fair enough,' said Denser.

'Beautiful, isn't it?' said Erienne. 'I've dreamed about this so often and here it is, just as I remembered.'

'Apart from the occupation by demons,' said Hirad.

'I don't mean that,' said Erienne. 'Can't you see it and feel it?' She shook her head seeing Hirad's blank expression. 'You've no soul.'

'That'll help,' said Hirad. 'Won't give the demons much to aim at.'

'Gods, Hirad, you are an infuriating man.' Erienne tried hard to keep the smile from her face. 'This is our home. This is where we belong. Not on some island, no matter how warm it is and the memories it holds for us.' She looked at Denser. 'We can't let Balaia die. It's too beautiful and it's ours.'

'Home,' agreed Thraun. 'Where the pack runs.'

Hirad gazed across at the coastline. The gende green rolling hills bordering the pebble-strewn shore. The dark mass of the Black-thorne Mountains rising up from the head of the bay. The call of seabirds. The smells of land and sea mixing in his nostrils.

'That's why I love you, Erienne,' he said. 'You make it real.'

Erienne kissed his cheek and scratched the back of his neck. 'Just as long as you're looking out for me, big man.'

'Do you mind?' asked Denser. 'You're making me seasick.'

'All right,' said The Unknown. 'Nauseating it may be, correct it also is. We've been on board ship almost seven days. We've been through our drills, we've sharpened ourselves up as much as we can. The Gods know we aren't what we were ten or even two years ago but we're still more than a match for anyone we meet. Here is where it starts. We've come to get our country back and we don't know exactly what we will face, how strong they are and whether or not we can win. But we know who we are. Whatever we face, we have to believe, all right? Sorry, Hirad, I feel I've stolen your lines.'

Hirad chuckled. 'Delivery needs work but apart from that, not bad. So, how close are we going in?'

'Near as Jevin can get. They can't take the crew but they can bother us. Best we aren't in longboats for longer than necessary,' said Darrick. 'We've got extra mage support but we're hoping not to have to cast until we're very close for the run into the town.'

'Gods burning, but it would help if he knew we were coming,' said Hirad.

'He can,' said Thraun.

'How? We've established we're not sending a mage in the air. It's too risky.'

'They will be looking only for men, Hirad,' said Thraun. 'Not a lone wolf.'

Ferouc flew lazily around the object of his orders feeling, as ever, peripheral to the organisation and deeply hurt by his exclusion. Below him, fires burned and humans moved in defiance of their rule. Free for a moment beneath their protection.

It confused him how they resisted still. He had done so much to weaken their resolve. Taking their food-production areas; enslaving or draining those that supported the population centre; probing ceaselessly at the barrier; keeping up a cacophony of noise during their resting hours; sacrificing slaves in front of them.

It hurt them but did not break them. Ferouc would admit privately to a certain frustration but he took solace in the knowledge that he was not alone. In every large gathering of humans barring the fallen college of Dordover, resistance remained, based around the barriers their mages could cast.

They were all that his cohorts feared. A casting that stripped the strength from their bodies and left them gasping and vulnerable should they breach it. And always, their warriors waited, cold metal sharpened to kill.

Ferouc had watched the humans around their dwelling for a long time now. He knew how they moved, where they went, why they performed any action and who it was they looked to for courage.

Their strength was based in the settlement's largest structure, over which their arrogant flags still flew. They also controlled a ring around it that accounted for perhaps a third of the area. The rest of the settlement, and the souls that dwelt there, belonged to Ferouc.

He had used these as he must, to drain the morale of his quarry

and keep that of his cohorts high, bodies satiated. He had to work to weaken his enemies a little more every day even if he couldn't beat them yet. What irritated him most was that all the effects had been at best short-term. And the reason was clear enough.

One human was the difference. Tall, dark-haired and bearded. Eyes like crystal. His aura burned more brightly than any mage within. Blackthorne. He led with empathy linked to iron discipline and control. The latter Ferouc could respect and understand. The former was completely alien to him. Nevertheless, it gave them belief.

Ferouc flapped his wings lazily and fell into a glide above the settlement. The free below him paid him no heed. That had irked him but he understood it better now. Besides, he knew something Blackthorne didn't. Long-lived as their resistance had been, their time was finite. Their thrall and eventual destruction was an inevitability.

It had made him wonder why they didn't just wait. Use the souls they had and enjoy their new world. But he had been made to understand and it was why he had not been moved from this place. There had always been a contingency for dangerous resistance in the colleges. And that had been put into place. A no-risk approach to wearing them down. In the outlying settiements, the capital city, the major ports and regional capitals, there was no such allowance. The masters wanted these places under control before the final batde. There was just the chance that their strength would not be sufficient if they could not move forces from the regions to the college centres when they wanted to.

And one thing they could not afford was for there to be damage done to them in places that should be theirs by right. They had a dominant position now but when the time came that position would be at risk if they had not exerted the control they needed over all but the three remaining colleges.

The demon canted a wing and soared upwards on a cool current of air. He breathed deeply, enjoying the sensation through his body. So much like home now. As it should be. He barely remembered the taste when he had first arrived, though he could recall the feelings of repulsion he had been forced to overcome.

A new scent caught in his receptors. Powerful. Desirable. He

recognised it instantly as they all would. One of the true prizes in this dimension. Every thought he had harboured about his expulsion to the provincial settlement was washed away on a tide of pleasure and anticipation.

He soared higher, searching, calling to his cohorts. He felt an unconfined joy, his receptors ablaze with this most precious of auras. It was them. It was The Raven.

'Are you sure you want to do this?' asked Hirad the moment they hit the beach.

Auum's Tai, Rebraal and from the ship's company two elven mages, Vituul and Eilaan, had run to the first rise to scout the immediate terrain beyond the temporary wooden dock to which they had tied. The Raven had grouped around Thraun.

'It gives us a better chance,' said Thraun, unbuttoning his shirt and handing it to Hirad.

The barbarian stuffed it into a pack along with his boots. Thraun's weapons were already strapped to The Unknown's back.

"I know. But I can't let you go without reminding you what happened last time.'

Thraun met his gaze levelly, remembered pain flaring in his eyes.

"I will never forget why Will died. This is different. This is for speed, not stealth. You know that.'

'You're sure?'

Thraun gripped Hirad's shoulders. 'I'll be fine. Just bring my stuff and be there to call me back.' He stripped off his breeches and handed them over. 'Now get going and don't look back.'

'Come on, Hirad,' said The Unknown. 'Let's get on with it.'

Hirad nodded and The Raven formed up into a combat line adapted for the shapechanger's absence. The elves were to provide forward protection and warning, the Protectors remained on board ship, their souls being saved for the battles to come. Erienne and Denser were to prepare nothing unless they were attacked. It was two hours on foot to Blackthorne. A long time in a country occupied by demons.

It was a land Hirad had travelled so often but a land he hardly recognised now. The grass still grew in its multiple hues of green and yellow. The budding new trees swayed in the breeze and wild

flowers decked the gently rolling land in glorious colours. But under his feet and to his senses it was alien. For a moment he couldn't place why, but slowly he began to understand.

None of the ambience of life was present. Where he had heard gulls on the open water, here the birds were silent. Only the breeze ruffled the undergrowth, while rodents kept themselves hidden. The distant echo of bleating or lowing was absent. And it was chill. Not right for the time of year and somehow malevolent. It was as if the seasons had become confused and let the vegetation burst into spring verdancy while the wildlife struggled to awaken from hibernation.

The answer came to him then and it fired his determination afresh. Balaia's soul was failing.

The Raven kept up a fast walk behind the all-seeing shield of the elves jogging ahead. Concealment was poindess, it wouldn't necessarily get them there safe since the demons didn't work just by sight. Speed just might.

Ahead of them, the land rolled up a slow incline bereft of anything but gorse, coarse shrub and loose shale. Blackthorne lay on the extremities of a flood plain that ran south to the southern ocean, dry itself because beneath the soil the foundation rock was porous, drawing water far underground. The town would be hidden until the last mile of travel but, even so, distant smoke smudged the otherwise perfect sky. The tiny circling black dots had to be demons.

Hirad shuddered. Behind him, something moved quickly through the undergrowth. Not breaking his stride, Hirad looked round. The dark, lithe shape of Thraun approached, loping easily in the bracken. His face was alert, his muzzle light-striped and long, he sampled the air, tongue hanging between powerful jaws.

The wolf paced by Hirad, looking up into his eyes.

'I'll be there for you, Thraun,' he said. 'Just be careful.'

Satisfied, Thraun ran away into the brush.

Thraun could taste the dying of the land. It pervaded his every sense, growing stronger with every pace that he left The Raven behind. The rotting assaulted his nose, the crushing of life he could feel on his tongue and see through his eyes. The prey wasn't there. No spoor, no trail. Gone into hiding or disappeared for ever.

Thraun ran on, sampling what was left. The vegetation, unburdened by demon conquest, was alive and growing strong. Towards Blackthorne, the scent of wood smoke and human was on the air. It was gentle compared with the sick odour of the demons. They were the life after decay, the feeling after death and the dark that shattered the pack.

It was passed down through the generations. The fear. Thraun tried to shut it from his mind. He padded swiftly across the land, his wolven senses alert, that part of his brain that retained his humanity driving him towards his goal. His memories would dim quickly but the image of the human he needed was clear in his mind. Tall, strong. A leader with the scent of courage on him. Thraun would not mistake him.

At the periphery of his hearing, Thraun caught calls high in the morning sky. He hunkered down beneath a stand of gorse and scanned above. Demons. Flying west towards The Raven. He growled. They had smelled prey. Thraun felt an urge to protect The Raven, the pack. But his mind still retained the reason why he now lay so close to the human dwellings and it spurred him on more strongly.

He broke cover at a dead run, howling at the sky.

A mile from Blackthorne and the elves saw the demons' circling pattern change and come at them. Initially thirty, cascading from the heights and flying low to the ground. Rebraal barked out a warning.

'Time to put all those theories to the test,' said Hirad. 'You up for this, Erienne?'

'I guess we'll find out, won't we?' she replied, tension edging her voice.

'We'll protect you,' said Hirad. 'Just relax, you know you can do it.'

'Easy for you to say,' she replied through a half-smile.

'Remember we have to keep moving forwards,' said The Unknown. 'We can't afford to get bogged down here, not when we're so close.'

The elves moved back into the pre-arranged fighting line. Auum and Duele flanked The Raven's left, Evunn and Rebraal right. They had dispensed with their classic uneven chevron formation this time. The line that approached the enemy was a shallow concave curve with The Unknown at its focal point. Behind the curve, the four mages ranged, elves flanking their Raven colleagues.

Erienne could barely control her heart rate. They were relying on her like never before. Without her, only mages could kill. It wouldn't be enough. The demons were coming in low and fast. She could hear the beat of wings and their harsh calls.

Fighting to concentrate on the move, she unstoppered the power of the One and felt it surge through her body and into her mind. The sensation was terrifying. In two years of Cleress's tutelage she had learned to control the well of power that surged around her body, but barely. And even now, the level of control her mind could exert when she released the energy to cast was minimal in the scale of One magic understanding.

Her sense of that which she contained was highly tuned. She understood very well the consequences of her failure to fully control it. What had been done could not be undone. The One was within her. She had no choice but to accept it.

She still considered the entity an enemy to be suppressed lest it should overwhelm her. Cleress had done little to disabuse her of that notion. Merely saying she would learn over time to work with what she had, not fight it for control.

But time had run out. And now the dam that Erienne had built in her mind to contain the power in her body was breached. She couldn't afford to fail.

The One flooded her senses, dimming her sight and hearing. The Unknown said something about being encircled but she didn't catch it before the full majesty of Balaia's energies was laid out before her. She staggered and almost fell, her feet and legs numb, but she was held up.

She saw the raw strong energy of the bedrock pulsing through the ground; the fluxing, capricious trails of the air thickened by wind and sun; the wisps from coarse grass; the complex auras of The Raven and elves around her; and everywhere, the scattered motes that were mana. Searching the sky, she found the demons. They resolved from a cloud of muddled elements into individual powerful forms. Lattices of life with none of the gentle modulation of man or elf, and meshed firm by hard mana.

It was just as Cleress had described and the theory of the spell, like

any One casting, was simplicity itself. In the myriad streams of energy she could sense about her, natural linkages were everywhere, binding the elements together. She could see the arrays that gathered mana to the demons in the natural shield that made them invulnerable to anything but magic. All she had to do was disrupt the process and scatter the mana back to its natural random state.

Erienne paused for a beat, feeling the swell of the One through her body. She drew it to her, holding it tight inside while she built the construct. In her mind's eye, it formed. As with her Dordovan magic, she drew mana strands into the order she required, a fine-meshed net of pulsing deep brown magical energy. That was the easy part. Now she had to feed in exactly the right amount of One power to let the spell live. Cleress's words came back to her then and she fancied she could feel the presence of the ancient Al-Drechar in her mind once more though distance surely precluded that now as the frail elf s powers weakened.

Tou cannot calculate this. It is not a mana casting, just a mana construct. Mana alone will not power it, the One makes it live. Tou must believe, you must trust and you must feel. Be one with it, let it take you as far as you can. Always up to the point of no return but never further. Tour mind will tell you. Trust your mind. Always trust your mind.

With the words running round her head, Erienne allowed the One power into the construct and held it there while it grew, clinging on with her mind. And all the time, the entity was whispering in her ear that she should feed in more, that to let go would be to win. This was her demon and she could not allow it free rein.

She could see the lines of elemental force all around her bend and reach towards her. The One sucked it in voraciously, using her body as a conduit while she kept iron control of her mind to stop from being washed away. The construct pulsed bright under the power flowing through her. A moan escaped her lips. The mesh glowed and then burst into a fine mist, every minuscule droplet still bound to every other.

She released the spell and it flooded out from her, covering everything around her, floating into the sky and across the ground, behind and in front. It washed past The Raven and it engulfed the demons moving to attack. She saw its result and knew they would not even know what had happened until the first blow was struck.

The mist soaked into them, penetrating deep into their skins where it simply dissolved the linkage that bound the mana to them. Immediately, Erienne could see the mana sloughing from the demons. Tiny particles glimmering in the mass of energy trails. Undetectable to everyone except her but, if she was right, absolutely deadly.

Dimly, she heard the thump of a sword point on the ground, rhythmic and sure.

Thraun was desperate to run faster. Demons were after him. Swooping low, raking at his back with claws and talons. Biting down on his body, slashing at him with sharpened tails. He wove this way and that, ran through thick vegetation, slewed through streams and leaped hedge and fence to enter the farm lands of Blackthorne.

His howling had brought them on as he had desired but their stench had gripped him and he was afraid. His heart was pounding and there was a shudder along his flanks that threatened the rhythm of his legs.

He dared not look around or up, instead he ploughed on. Men and women, their expressions cold, stared at him. Children with dark eyes pointed or ran. A few animals scattered but they need not have feared him. He was not hunting. He was hunted.

A demon's jaws snapped shut just above his head. He felt a deep chill and sudden pain flared in his ear. The beast climbed high into the sky. In front of him, another dived, arms outstretched, taloned hands grasping. He did not flinch but veered at the last instant as he would from a man holding a weapon. Behind him, the demon screeched its anger.

He was past the last people now and the dwellings he ran by were silent and empty. The streets were deserted and the smell of life was gone from the ground and weak in the air. But ahead he could hear shouting, rising in volume. The sound of weapons clashing and the vibration of feet on packed earth came to him too. He pushed harder and the demons behind him did the same.

Thraun felt a tap at his hind leg and almost lost his balance. He half sprawled but maintained his momentum while the reek of demon filed his head and dragged desperate barks from his throat. From either side

of the road he ran, demons closed in. So many of them, crowding his way. He howled again and ran at them, eyes open, terror pulsing in his neck.

He darted this way and that, slewed almost to a standstill, jumped away, ran headlong. And ever more, those claws and teeth grabbed at him, looking to bring him down.

At the very last, one of the beasts clamped jaws on his back. Thraun tumbled, rolling in the dirt with the demon. The cold fired through his body. He convulsed but his speed carried him on. His vision clouded and he barked again, weaker this time.

The shouts were around him then, the ring of steel harsh and loud. He heard a squeal and the pressure on his back was lifted. He shivered and lay in the dirt while men ran past him to hold a position at the edge of a row of dwellings. One man shouted louder than the rest. His voice was close.

Thraun picked his head up to look round. He could feel the breath ragged in his throat and the cold of the bite ate at his flesh. A human squatted in front of him. Dark-haired, strong, and with the scent of a leader just as he had remembered.

The man looked at him, his frown turning to comprehension. He said something to Thraun but the wolf had no ear for what men said. The man stood, shouted. Other men ran. And then he knelt once again and rubbed warm hands across Thraun's heaving flanks.

He spoke once more but Thraun did not hear him. And deep, deep inside, his humanity prayed that he had done enough.

Chapter 18

The Raven lengthened their stride with the demons screaming in. The Unknown's sword thumped onto the ground, keeping time with their footfalls, chinking on shale. Beside him, Hirad readied himself, circling his arms, sword in his right hand, its weight feeling good for the fight. It had been too long.

'On my mark, Raven!' he shouted. 'Denser, you have Erienne.'

Fifty yards distant and the demons dispersed, scattering into the sky and making flanking moves. A core of eight came straight on. Immediately the elves responded, falling back to protect the mages.

'Looking, Raven. Mages, targets and hold.'

Hirad's voice sounded above the calls of the demons and the rush of wings. He could see three coming directly for him, another trio just to the left moving hard at The Unknown.

Twenty-five yards and closing.

'Brace and hold. Let's take these bastards down.'

Elven arrows streaked out. Hirad didn't see them strike but he heard the squeals of pain and surprise. He smiled. Deep blue and bright yellow flashes lit the sky. FlameOrb and Ice Wind scoured the air. Demons screeched. Hirad focused ahead. The Unknown's blade struck the ground twice more and the demons were on them.

Hirad knew the impact would be hard. He half-crouched. Watching the trio closing. Their speed had tempered after they watched others pierced by arrows that should have had no effect. But still they were confident. Mottled green and with vein-etched wings they attacked, claws outstretched and jaws agape, calling their fury.

Left side was on him too early. Hirad ducked and struck, feeling his blade bite deep. Dark fluid gushed from the wound and the demon yelped and spiralled away. Centre and right were in concert and he was barely ready for them. One came in, reversing its body to

aim its feet at his chest. The other cocked its hands to slash on impact. Hirad ignored it for the moment, concentrating on the other. He squatted and rolled, feeling the creature part his braids, and was up in the same movement, swiping at empty air. The other demon lashed out a claw, snagging his armour and half turning him round.

Both beasts climbed to turn back to the attack and it gave Hirad a moment to orient himself. He was facing The Raven now. The air seemed full of the deep-coloured shapes of demons. His ears rang from their calls. To his left, Auum and Duele wove death at great speed, their backs to Erienne and Denser. Auum faced two. He lashed a roundhouse kick into the first's chest, sending it sprawling. He continued his spin, short blade flashing in the sunlight and carving into the second's neck. It howled and dropped, fluid sluicing into the dry earth.

Right by Hirad, Darrick and The Unknown fared well. The General fenced with a single assailant who was already bleeding from several cuts and weakening fast. The Unknown had one by the throat at arm's length and, with Hirad watching, drew back his blade and plunged it into the creature's stomach, casting the corpse aside.

Hirad's two demons rushed back to the attack, one from either side. He took a two-handed grip on his sword and waited, seeing both close from steep angles. They had reached the point of no return when he spun on his right leg and carved the air above his head, turning two revolutions. His blade cut into the face of one and took the arm from the other at the elbow. Both thundered into him, bowling him from his feet.

Half-dazed, he struggled to strike again. One of the demons was on top of him. He could taste the rank stench and feel its blood running across his armour. He scrabbled backwards, keeping hold of his sword, and tried to shovel the beast from his legs. From nowhere, a claw whipped into his face. He reacted fast but the nails dragged at his cheek. Cold pain fired into his head and he was knocked back against the ground. He felt faint for a moment, his vision dimming for a heartbeat. Fear flashed through his body and he grabbed at his chest as if that alone would keep his soul in place if the demons could really touch it.

He saw more spells detonate and heard the heavy thud of steel against flesh. A hand gripped his shoulder. The Unknown hauled him upright. At his feet, the bodies of two demons. One moved feebly, the other had been decapitated. Dark gore ran down The Unknown's sword. He shrugged.

'I think we frightened them off,' he said.

Hirad breathed deep, feeling blood on his face. He wiped at it gingerly with a gloved hand. The demons were retreating, those that could. The ground was littered with their bodies. Twenty, perhaps more.

'We'd better get moving. Anyone else hurt?' he asked.

Shakes of heads greeted his question. He nodded. Erienne smiled at him, looking a little tired but satisfied.

'I'd call that a successful test,' said Denser, hugging her to him.

'Just about,' said The Unknown, leading them on towards Black-thorne. 'What was that pirouette?'

'Something Auum taught me.'

'I'd have preferred it if you'd just ducked and rolled.'

Hirad smiled. 'I'm still learning.'

'Hmm.' The Unknown pointed at his cheek. 'You were lucky. If you hadn't turned your head, it would have had your eye. You feeling all right?'

'A little cold around the wound but otherwise fine.' He chuckled, though his body trembled along its length. 'Can't just grab our souls, can they?'

'Fortunately not.'

They crested a rise and looked down the last mile to Blackthorne. The town was teeming with activity. Demons on the ground and in the sky hurried about tasks. Many were headed towards the castle where Blackthorne's flag still flew proudly. There was a gathering of people, clearly none were demon captives. They held weapons and the bark of orders carried across the quiet space to The Raven.

'Welcoming committee?' said Darrick.

'Reckon Thraun must have got through safely,' said Hirad. 'What next?'

The Unknown began trotting down the slope, the others following him. Left and right, the elves moved further ahead. 'Let's not

keep them waiting. I hardly think the demons are going to usher us in. Can you hang onto that wound until we're inside?'

'It's not so bad,' said Hirad.

'Good. Erienne, ready for a repeat dose?'

'No problem.'

'Let's go, Raven.'

Wary now, demons flew high, tracking them all the way. Dead ahead, a formation was building above Blackthorne. It was large, over a hundred, and spread like a net over the town, covering their route in. The Raven were committed now but Hirad shared an anxious glance with The Unknown at the scale of the force laid out before them. Whatever it was that Blackthorne had planned, it needed to be effective.

The Raven ran on, having no option but to trust themselves and their friend on the other side of his ColdRoom protection. Hirad found himself trying to look everywhere at once. Left and right to check the elves, about and behind him to make sure The Raven were one, and ahead and above him to try and second-guess the next action of the demons.

But it was quickly clear that the demons were unsure. The slaughter of twenty-plus of their number by The Raven had undermined their sense of automatic domination and inside Blackthorne the Baron was making no secret of the fact that he was ready to strike out. It bought The Raven the time to make over half the distance to relative safety. It was a hiatus that couldn't last and duly, with The Raven and elves passing the outlying farm land, the demons moved.

'Watching, Raven,' warned The Unknown. 'Let's try and keep moving. Erienne, you're up.'

The hoots and croaking cries of demons choked the air, echoing across the open space. Hirad felt a chill down his body and gripped his sword tighter. His cheek burned where he had been caught, a numbness spreading to his jaw. Moving in towards the outskirts of the town, the Raven line tightened appreciably. Auum and Duele fell in behind the mages, leaving Rebraal and Evunn scouting ahead, bows in hand.

'We're moving too fast,' said Denser. 'Erienne can't hold this pace and cast.'

They slowed. Darrick dropped back to the other side of her, Hirad and The Unknown directly in front. From above, the cries of the demons intensified to a stunning crescendo. They packed and attacked.

'Dear Gods.' Hirad almost froze. 'We're in trouble.'

'Holding positions, Raven. Spells at full spread!' shouted Darrick. 'Let's give ourselves a chance.'

They stopped again, needing the cohesion of a static formation to give them any chance at all. Hirad could hear Denser murmuring words of encouragement to Erienne.

'We can't afford that, Denser. Cast. They're on us.'

'Can't afford for Erienne to fail either.'

'We can't afford that for any of us. Please, Denser, not now.'

'Got it,' said the mage, an edge to his voice.

'Come on, Baron,' whispered Hirad. 'We need you.'

He couldn't count how many demons were coming at them this time. It had to be twice the number of the first probing attack. Enough to overwhelm them if they weren't all right on their game.

From the direction of the castle came simultaneous deep orange and blue flares. The sound of a detonation and the cries of hundreds of men followed it. More spells struck out, tearing at the demons still hovering over Blackthorne. They were joined by those of the elves. DeathHail flayed across the clear blue sky, more IceWind surged behind it, catching the leading edge of the demon attack. But still they came on and Blackthorne's intervention was too late.

Sudden calm fell in the air, pressing on Hirad's ears. Behind him, Denser swore.

'Cover your eyes,' he shouted. 'Now!'

'Do it, Raven!' ordered Hirad.

He closed his eyes and put an arm across them. An instant later there was a flat crack. Searing light ripped across the sky. Hirad could see the glow through his squeezed-shut eyes as it flared through the flesh of his arm. Screams filled the air all around him.

'Safe!' called Denser.

Hirad looked up. The sky was a confusion of blinded demons. They crashed into one another, flew very high to escape the chaos or tried to land, tumbling. Some hovered where they were, their fists wiping at their faces. But most blundered on, trying to use other

senses to reach their prey but distracted by the pain that would be pounding in their skulls.

Hirad and The Unknown glanced at each other, The Unknown nodded.

'Raven!' roared Hirad. 'Raven with me!'

And they ran hard, all pretence at an organised fighting line gone. SunBurst was a spell rarely used and easily combated by area reverse castings. But when it worked, its effects were spectacular but, as they all knew, short-lived. The demons' sight would return and soon.

Auum's Tai and Rebraal took the lead, racing through Blackthorne's all but empty streets. In places, demons and humans alike clung to walls or sat with heads in hands, briefly united in their distress. Where they filled the road, the enemy were unceremoniously beaten aside.

Closing on the area of the town still under Blackthorne's control, Hirad had an idea. He sheadied his sword.

'Unknown!' He grabbed at the big man's arm as they ran. 'We can save some. One each.'

The Unknown nodded. 'The others will follow the lead. Take the young, we can carry them.'

Ahead, Blackthorne's men were beating a path clear for them among the disoriented demons who nonetheless tried to fight back. Spells roared out, engulfing hapless victims, and cudgels and clubs knocked sense from any who got too close. Hirad shot past an opening and saw a small boy, perhaps ten years old, yelling for his mother, his fists buried in his eyes. The barbarian slithered to a stop, darted back down the passage and grabbed him, throwing him over one shoulder, heedless of the knocks he'd take.

'Safer with me, boy,' he said.

Panicked, the child began to beat on Hirad's back, his frenzied screaming reaching new volume. Hirad didn't have time to pause. He glanced right at the end of the opening and saw the demons regrouping and charging through the air.

'Time to go.' He sprinted for safety. 'Come on, Raven!'

Erienne and Denser had picked up a mother and baby between them and were chairing her to the line. The Unknown, typically, had one infant over either shoulder. In the midst of the crowd of demons milling in their path, Auum and the elves got to work.

They were a blur, kicks, punches and pulls driving the demons back and away. The mages killed with FlamePalm and close-focused IceWind. Ahead, the humans had retreated to the safety of the ColdRooms, edges marked by stones in the earth, and were beckoning them on. Darrick was furthest ahead, carrying something in his arms. The Unknown was behind him. Hirad dropped his pace to see Erienne and Denser to safety.

With the enraged screeches of the demons closing in on them at frightening speed, The Raven reached the relative sanctuary of Blackthorne's domain. Hirad carried on running for thirty paces until a familiar voice yelled at him to stop.

Lungs labouring, chest heaving and sweat running down his face and mixing uncomfortably in his cuts, he pulled up and turned round. Blackthome was striding towards him, a broad smile on a face that couldn't quite believe what it was seeing. Hirad released the hysterical child into the arms of others and greeted the Baron with a long hug.

'Couldn't you have sent a note?' asked the Baron, stepping back. 'I'd have cleaned up a bit.'

'Well, we sent Thraun,' said Hirad. 'Clearly he got here.'

Hirad looked around for the wolf, a little worried he wasn't immediately apparent.

'He did but he was hurt,' said Blackthorne. 'Don't worry, we're looking after him, but it was a demon bite. He should be dead.'

Hirad chuckled. 'Like me, eh?' He pointed at his cheek. 'The Raven aren't that easy to kill.'

'So I've noticed.'

'Is he still a wolf?' asked Hirad.

Blackthorne nodded. 'But he's calm enough. I'll take you to him.'

'And at the same time you can tell me how you worked out from one wolf that we were coming. He's not exactly talkative like that.'

Blackthorne put an arm around his shoulder and began to lead him back to the rest of The Raven who were standing or sitting in a group, drinks in hands, looking back at the demons clustered outside the ColdRooms.

'Later, Hirad. First of all, you should rest. We'll talk later over food and wine and you can tell me what by all the Gods falling you are doing here. But let me tell you this one thing. However much a

wolf Thraun is, his eyes are still human. I recognised him straight away and where he goes, The Raven go.'

'My Lord!' A young man ran towards them from the periphery.

'Luke,' said Blackthorne. 'Meet The Raven.'

Luke stood confused for a moment before nodding at them all. 'I'm glad you're here. Please excuse me, though.' He paused and Hirad could see the conflict in his face. He was trying not to be overawed and mixed with it was the reason he stood in front of the Baron in the first place.

'Tell you what, Luke, join us at dinner. Now, what is it, you look flushed.'

'It's him, my Lord. He wants to speak with you.'

Baron Blackthorne nodded. 'As expected but perhaps rather sooner than ideal.' He took in The Raven. 'You should come with me.'

'To see who?'

'Head demon of hereabouts. We call him Fidget.' He smiled enigmatically.

Erienne spoke for them all. 'Why, and what is his real name?'

'Come and see.'

Blackthorne strolled across the open space towards the periphery for all the world as if it was a lazy afternoon and he had not a care in the world. The Raven followed him, the elves in close attendance.

'I had this area cleared of buildings to give us a sight zone all around the casde. The demons own everything beyond it and they know where our ColdRooms start. We understand each other. We're still thinking of building a stockade, a physical barrier would be good for morale, but raw materials are hard to come by.'

'It would make the place almost comfortable,' said Hirad.

Blackthorne shot him a dark glance. 'Never that, Hirad.'

Mages and soldiers were grouped near an area of the perimeter, facing several dozen demons. They moved aside as Blackthorne and his retinue approached. Standing with wings furled in front of them was a demon of better than eight feet in height and jet black in colour but with veins pulsing blue across his skin. His face was human-shaped but his features were anything but. He had a flat lipless slit that was his mouth, above which a single dark oval was presumably his nose. He appeared to have no ears at all and his eyes

were huge, yellow orbs covering much of his forehead. His hands ended in long-boned fingers which clicked incessantly.

'Ugly bastard, isn't he?' said Hirad.

'I'm sure he feels the same way about you,' said Denser.

'Does he really do that all the time?' asked Erienne.

'Hence the name,' said Blackthorne. He strode up to the perimeter, standing only two paces from his enemy. 'What do you want, Fidget?'

'I am Ferouc,' stated the demon looking square at The Raven, fingers increasing their speed temporarily.

'Of course, how forgetful of me,' said Blackthorne. 'What do you want, Fidget?'

'You harbour that which we want and that which we own,' said Ferouc, his voice whining, sibilant through lips unused to framing human words.

'You own nothing in this world. Theft does not denote ownership.'

'Those behind you took six who are ours,' said Ferouc. 'They will be returned or others will suffer.'

'Come in and get them,' said Hirad.

'Quiet,' snapped The Unknown.

'Brave out there, aren't you?' said Hirad, feeling his anger rising. He took a pace forward and began to unsheathe his sword. 'Come on in, let's see how big you are.'

Blackthorne waved him back. 'As you will gather, we will do no such thing.'

Ferouc looked past Blackthorne. 'Raven,' he hissed. 'In my trap now.'

'Is that how you see it?' Blackthorne raised his eyebrows and idly scratched at an ear. 'We rather think that this is a place you are unable to breach. A place that strengthens every day.'

Ferouc's laugh, if such it was, resembled the rumbling of phlegm. 'We wait. We grow. You weaken. Your soul will be mine, Blackthorne.'

'Is there anything more you wish to say?' asked Blackthorne. 'I'm a busy man.'

'Return the six to me. Give me The Raven. You will lose six of your fellows for each of those who stays in your shell.'

Blackthorne shook his head. 'The Raven do what they will and are not under my control. Something you would do well to remember. And of those in your thrall, to me they are already dead. Nothing you can do to them affects my heart.'

Blackthorne turned smartly away and it wasn't until Ferouc couldn't see his eyes that they filled with tears.

Chapter 19

Tessaya had had a great deal of time to think since his retreat from Xetesk two years before. In rotation, he had released his warriors to return to the Heartlands on leave and he had allowed himself similar time. He had returned to a land where old tribal tensions had resurfaced in those that had been left behind. And his lack of a victory had done nothing to reaffirm his influence and standing.

Tribal conflict had robbed him of warriors and more than one attempt had been made on his life during his times away from the East. That these attempts had failed reminded him whom the Spirits had chosen to lead the Wesmen to dominion over Balaia.

And so he had been able to keep his counsel during the upheaval and wait for the blood to cool and the tempers of the enraged to ebb. It had not always been easy for his people to be branded cowards in the face of provocation. But he had their unflinching loyalty after so many years of provident rule and he rewarded it again. Once the tribal struggles had burned themselves to mere sparking embers, the Paleon remained the strongest tribe in the Heartlands.

Once again the tribal lords had been driven to kneel to him. Those who had backed the opposition to him had been banished to that place where the spirit would never find rest.

With the Heartlands at relative peace and with those he trusted most ruling the tribes he most feared, he could turn his mind once again to conquest of the East. And for the first time he wondered if it would be truly possible. Mages he could wear down. Mere men he could defeat by force of arms and courage. But he had no weapon against the demons.

Worse, if they defeated the eastern mages, they could eventually threaten him and his people. It was a curious paradox. On the one

side, he had travelled back from the mage lands knowing that the rule of magic on Balaia was finally at an end. Yet on trie other, he had confronted an adversary of which die Spirits themselves were scared. He had no reason to suspect that they would attempt to invade the Heartlands but there was trouble among the dead and he had no way to calm it.

Tessaya was sitting outside his farmhouse under a porch of woven thatch that kept away the heat of the sun* as it climbed into early afternoon. It had been hot this late spring and they had been concerned about the survival of their main crop. It had been fortunate that hostilities among the tribes had concluded with enough time to see irrigation organised, the crops saved and starvation averted.

Around him, his small village was alive. A hundred farmsteads grouped in concentric circles with his at their hub. Young animals ran free in their paddocks, wheat, corn and potato crops burgeoned and swayed in the cooling breeze. Children laughed, men and women put their backs to their work.

From the small stone temple that was the spiritual centre of every Wesmen settlement, Tessaya watched his ancient Shaman, Arnoan, bustle towards him. Across the dirt road that separated their buildings he came. Tessaya called his wife and asked for more pressed fruit and spice juice. The old man would be out of breath at the rate he approached.

Arnoan was red in the face by the time he had crossed the short distance. Tessaya pulled up a chair for him and helped him up the few steps onto his porch.

'Sit, sit before you fall,' he said.

Arnoan, dressed in the heavy cream robes of his office despite the weather, waved him back to his own seat.

'It is not me you have to be concerned about, Tessaya.'

He was the only man whom Tessaya allowed to use his name without prefix, and then only in private.

'You have received wisdom, my Shaman?' He handed Arnoan the cup of juice his wife had poured. The Shaman gulped at it gratefully. The remaining wisps of his pure white hair blew about his head and the spotted skin on his face lightened visibly as he cooled. He

regarded Tessaya with those sunken grey eyes that the Wesmen lord had long thought were years past death.

'How long ago was it? That the dragons came from the stain in the sky and you told me you had no need of spirits?'

Tessaya chuckled. 'You have a long memory, old man.'

'And I know how the world turns, Tessaya. And the problems you face are far more severe than any you have faced thus far.'

Tessaya raised his eyebrows. 'Really? How so?'

'Tell me. Do you truly believe in the strength of the Spirits?'

'They have influence over the hearts and minds of the Wesmen,' he conceded. 'They are wise and have helped us in difficult times past.'

'And if they were no longer there, my Lord, what then?'

'Then we would have to seek our path in this world without the guidance of our dead,' said Tessaya after a pause.

'No, Tessaya. Because there would be no path for us. The demons would take it from us.'

Tessaya laughed but he felt a moment's anxiety. 'They cannot touch us. The Easterners are weak and their souls are taken easily. Ours not so.'

Arnoan leaned forward and gripped Tessaya's arm hard. 'We only resist because the Spirits protect us, you know that.'

'And they always will.' Tessaya looked down at Arnoan's hand. The Shaman did not relax his hold.

'Should the demons defeat the East, they can strike west or south without opposition. They desire passage to the Spirit world from this one.'

'How?'

'That I don't know but the Spirits believe they will find it here. And should they succeed we are all forfeit to them on a whim.'

Tessaya shook his head. 'This is madness. How can the demons threaten the dead? The heat has upset your reason.'

'Perhaps it has, Tessaya.' Arnoan let go his grip and fell back into his chair. The weave creaked. 'After all, I am just an old man overdue to join them, am I not?'

'Maybe you are. I would not be tempted to think so if you made sense.'

T can do no more than issue the warning that I have been given. The contact is never transparent, Tessaya, you know that.'

Tessaya threw up his hands. 'But isn't it part of the Shaman's art to decipher the jumble they receive?'

'And it is a miracle we understand as much as we do.'

'Tell me what it is you must.'

'You must prepare, Lord Tessaya. A battle is coming and help will appear from an unbidden angle.'

'Is that it?' Tessaya pushed a hand through his hair.

'The Spirits are in ferment, Tessaya. They fear the invaders and so should you. They have to be repelled. All I know is that you will not be alone in your struggle.'

During the night that followed, Tessaya slept little. His mind was plagued by visions he could not begin to understand. He did not know whether it was the Spirits who talked to him or if it was his own mind churning over Arnoan's words. When morning came, he could not deny that the Shaman had shaken him, but he had no answers.

He went to the temple to pray before returning to the East and Xetesk.

It was a sight that no dragon had ever thought to see. Not Skoor, Veret, Gost, or Stara. And least of all Kaan or Naik. A sight that would have fired the breath of the ancients. But so it happened and word of mouth did so much more than their entreaties ever could.

Sha-Kaan and Yasal-Naik, flying wing to wing. Allied if not friends. Carrying a simple message. A plea.

The Great Kaan's feelings were mixed. The cessation of hostilities between the two mightiest broods of Beshara was a triumph but left him deeply dissatisfied in spirit. He knew Yasal would be feeling the same. Both would have preferred the other's capitulation and extinction. So it was with warring broods.

Yet linked to his deep-seated unease, Sha-Kaan could not shift the feeling that he had embarked on a task of soaring magnitude. A task that would secure, if it was successful, the survival of dragons. Which broods would prosper beyond that survival, he could not begin to guess.

'Does it not concern you, Sha-Kaan, that broods might pledge

their support then not deliver it when the time came? It would leave such broods with an overwhelming advantage in Beshara.'

Sha-Kaan regarded Yasal with his left eye. The pair were flying south across the great ocean, the aquatic Brood Veret their destination. For this meeting they had no need of escort and flew unaccompanied in the upper thermals.

'It is something I had assumed you would consider, Yasal,' he said, not unkindly. 'Indeed I would have been disappointed if you had not. But it is exactly that which we must counter in the minds of the brood leaders.'

'Might they not also consider this an elaborate ruse on our part to gain dominion?'

'Yasal, if you still harbour such issues yourself, then speak them openly, not from behind another's mouth.'

Yasal grumbled in his throat. 'Not all of my brood believe you. None of them trust you even as far as I have chosen to do for now. How will you. .we, answer them?'

Sha-Kaan sighed. 'It is simple. I will lead by example and so will you. All but those who must remain in my Broodlands will fly with me. There will be no defence because there is no point. My brood will go first to the battle. If others choose not to follow but remain to destroy my home then they will be killing themselves for the briefest satisfaction. That is my belief and I back it with the lives of all those I rule. This is not a gamble. If we are not together, we will all perish.'

Yasal-Naik said nothing but Sha-Kaan caught die change of scent on the breeze and saw the deferential tip of his wings.

'I need you by me, Yasal-Naik.'

'I will be there, Great Kaan.'

Below them, the bass-throated calls of the Veret floated up to them and they began their descent towards the ocean.

By the time The Raven were called to dinner, Blackthorne had regained his composure. They sat around one end of the grand banqueting table in the central hall of the castle to eat. The tapestries still depicted glorious deeds past; the arches still flew to balconied heights and the fires roared in nearby grates to ease the chill of

evening. But in every other way, this was most unlike the celebration of a meeting of old friends.

They could not spare the candles for anything more than light by which to eat. The kitchen duty staff brought through the meagre platters themselves-, and the quiet of the castle told them everything about the paucity of people Blackthorne had at his disposal.

In front of him, Hirad saw green vegetables, a sprinkling of chicken, and potatoes. Not exactly a Blackthorne feast of old but a step up from the broth he was assured they ate most other times. Still, they all had enough to satisfy them. And while they ate, they talked.

Blackthorne's eyes gleamed dark in the candlelight and his expression was set with a grim smile.

'This feast you enjoy is in honour of the return of The Raven,' he said. 'And the elves we are humbled to count among our friends. But for the life of me, I have absolutely no idea why it is you are here.'

'News, advice and weapons,' said Darrick.

'Yes, but really,' replied Blackthorne. 'Plenty of stories have surfaced as you might expect. We are led to believe you slaves to the demons; mastering the resistance; living with dragons; and hiding on Calaius. It is clearly none of these.'

Hirad took a long sip of his vintage and quite exquisite Blackthorne red.

'Until recently, Baron, the latter was the most accurate,' he said. 'But I would like to correct the man who claimed we were hiding.'

T feel he would be in need of some of The Unknown's famous administrative guidance,' said Denser.

A chuckle ran round the table. Even Blackthorne allowed a smile.

'Oh, I have no doubt that hiding was the very last thing you were doing.' His face sobered. 'What concerns me is why you are here now. Don't misunderstand me, your arrival has brought new hope to everyone here but, well, this was already a desperate situation you were well away from. Why put yourselves in it? Have events turned further for the worse?'

The Unknown told him everything they knew. For Hirad, every time he heard it, he doubted that little bit more that Balaia would survive. Blackthorne listened without interrupting a single time. But

as the enormity of the crisis was revealed to him, he sagged visibly, scratched at his grey-flecked beard and chewed his lip.

A silence broken only by the unnaturally loud sounds of cutlery on crockery followed The Unknown's summary. When at last Blackthorne spoke, there was a weariness in his voice. It described so eloquently the slow crushing of his spirit since the demons had invaded.

'I'd always believed we were doing more than simply existing. For two seasons we even made ground. Tortuously slowly, but we made it. Took back some of those the demons had taken from us. Some even got to sleep in their own beds again.' He paused, memories replaying. 'But we paid every time. They killed our friends in revenge for everyone we took. Just as they will do tonight. And every time, we all die a little more but we can't let them see it.

'Strange, but we actually felt we were winning the fight. We wouldn't let ourselves see it, I suppose. How could we afford to? Not even when we reached the limits of our ColdRoom capability. Even when it became obvious that we couldn't help anyone still outside without losing as many as we saved.

'Still we waited, though. And worked and planned and thought. And hoped. Just that others were resisting. It had to be true or we'd have been overwhelmed. But after another season or more we heard nothing. We sent out brave souls who never returned. We risked our mages in linked Communion. But we had to carry on hoping. What other choice was there? For us, for our friends outside, slaves and prey to demons.

'Do you know how hard it is to lift the spirit of everyone you meet on the days that your own is beaten to nothing?'

Blackthorne stopped. He took a long, measured drain of his wine. His guests did not twitch a muscle. Barely even blinked. Beside him, Luke gazed at him transfixed with pure adoration. Blackthorne looked across at him and reached out to squeeze his shoulder. Luke dropped his gaze to the table.

'We have known such despair. Looking out at misery from our own prison. Waiting for the end in whatever guise it came. We go hungry. We are sick so often. The weakest we buried a long time ago. Women are barren, their men impotent. Eggs are laid sour. Livestock is diseased. Milk yield is almost nothing. We are dwindling

slowly, though we try to pretend it isn't happening. All those bastards really have to do is wait for us to die but of course we're no good to them dead, are we?

'And then you come from a blue morning and for a moment, we are reborn. Feel the energy from our victory if you will! But the reality is that we lost four mages and seven soldiers bringing you in and now I've heard you I'm not sure whether you are here as our saviours or to read us our last letters before death.'

His eyes glittered as they welled up.

'I want so much to believe you can save us. Can you really?' It ended as a hoarse whisper.

Hirad looked around the table. At Auum who would have understood only snatches but who reflected the mood in his eyes. At Thraun who took it all in without a flicker of emotion but who he knew would be replaying the run in here as a wolf and living the nightmare afresh. At Denser on whose shoulder Erienne rested her head, the two of them reflecting Blackthorne's pain as if it were their own. At Darrick whose eyes displayed fierce determination and the indomitable spirit that made him such a leader of men. The spirit that Blackthorne would never let fail while he was with his own people. And finally at The Unknown who understood the Baron perhaps better than any of them. He nodded at Hirad.

'Tell him,' he said and the ghost of a smile touched his lips. 'You know. In your own words.'

Hirad knew exactly what he wanted to say. He wasn't exacdy sure how it would come out but he was certain he'd get his meaning across.

'The only reason we are here is because men like you never give up on what you believe. You remind us of us. And that means we can win, but only because you're behind us, fighting all the way.

'Baron, outside of The Raven, you are the bravest man I know and we need you to help us. Every demon you kill makes our job more possible. Every demon you occupy here is one less that can strike north, and so you help the colleges to survive, and survive they must.

'Everything you have done has been right. You've got people who love you and will die for you. You and I know how valuable that is. And there will be others like you. There must be resistance in Korina

and the Baronies. Baron Gresse is surely still alive — he'll be taking this as a personal insult. But everyone has to believe like The Raven do that these bastards can be destroyed. If you let go that hope for a moment, we are all lost.

'Look around this table, Baron. Do you see anyone who doubts that we will eventually triumph? This is our land. And no one is going to take it from us.'

Blackthorne did look around. He searched all of their faces carefully. Hirad could see it in Blackthorne's face. This wasn't any sort of bravado. He absolutely had to know.

'When you say it, it all sounds so simple,' he said.

'He does simple very well,' said Denser.

There was a burst of laughter. Hirad pointed a finger at the Xeteskian.

'Now that was almost worthy of Ilkar.'

'I'm honoured you think so.'

'You should be.'

The Unknown held up a hand for peace.

'All right,' he said. 'Down to business. Baron, we wouldn't be here if we didn't think we could turn this around. I've left my family behind and I will see them again.'

'Of course,' said Blackthorne. 'Now, what is it you need from me?'

'Later, Darrick will need to visit the armoury for weaponry but right now, there are two things. First, you've fought and studied the demons for two years now. Anything you can tell us, no matter how insignificant, could help. Not necessarily now and not necessarily you. Throw it open to your warriors, mages, everyone. Anyone can approach any of us with information.'

'No problem,' said Blackthorne. 'Luke, handle that for me, will you?'

Luke nodded. 'Now?'

'Time is short,' said The Unknown.

Blackthorne smiled at Luke's retreating figure. The young man was upright, confident and full of energy despite everything.

'I don't know what I'd do without him to run the place.'

'He's why you can't ever give up,' said Hirad.

'I know. Now, you said there were two things?'

'Yes. Well, clearly the demons feel they have us trapped. So we need a way out.' The Unknown had the decency to look apologetic.

'Now there I can help you. As you know, our cellars are particularly extensive and we've extended them further.' He allowed a smile. 'Actually, we've built quite a network of tunnels to exit points beyond our ColdRooms, like I'm sure anyone else still holding out must have done. We rotate their use and close sections from time to time and as it happens have just completed another. You could be its first users. When do you want to leave?'

'Good question,' said The Unknown. 'Short answer is, soon. More helpfully, I think it rather depends on how we all feel tomorrow, Thraun in particular.'

T can run,' said Thraun.

'We may need more than that, old son,' said Hirad.

'Ideally, we'd like to leave tomorrow night. There's a favourable tide early the next morning and we should be on it,' said The Unknown.

'It'll give us time to sort out a few things for you,' said Darrick. 'We've been working on some tactics I can adapt for you.'

'Well, it'll give our warriors something to tell their grandchildren, won't it? Taught batde tactics by General Darrick of The Raven,' said Blackthorne.

'And the more they listen, the more likely it is they'll actually be able to relate it,' said Darrick. 'I'll need them in squads of twenty or thirty or it'll get too ungainly.'

'I'll see it's organised for you. Or rather, Luke will.'

'There is one more thing,' said The Unknown.

'Really. That makes three, doesn't it?' Blackthorne was smiling a litde more easily now.

'He never was too good with numbers,' explained Hirad.

'Gods drowning, hark at that,' said Erienne, stirring herself from Denser's shoulder. She looked very tired. Her eyes were a little sunken but they still held their mischievous spark. 'The barbarian looking down on another's numeracy.'

'Isn't it time you turned in?' said Hirad. 'I'm sure you and Cleress have much to talk about.'

'I don't think she can hear me, Hirad,' said Erienne, sobering. 'I can't feel her in my mind.'

Hirad frowned. 'But I thought. .?'

'I was on Herendeneth for two years, Hirad. I wasn't tending the garden all that time. I learned things.' Erienne's tone was testy, impatient. 'I can hold it back without her now. It's hard but I can do it.'

'What else?' he asked.

'The rest we'll just have to wait and see, won't we? You'll know if I do it wrong, that's for sure.'

Hirad shook his head. T don't understand.'

'No, Hirad, you don't.' Erienne rose and moved towards the doors of the hall, all eyes on her. 'You don't know what it's like to go to sleep at night and wonder what state your mind will be in when you wake. You'll never have to experience the dread of using a magic you barely comprehend and that has the capacity to destroy you utterly. And you'll never once wonder, when you uncap the power, if the casting you make will help the people you love the most or instead kill them in an instant. That's me, Hirad. Me.'

Hirad listened to her footsteps echoing away towards the stairs to their two small rooms; all that Blackthorne could spare.

'Sorry, Denser. I didn't mean. .'

'It's all right,' said the Xeteskian. 'She's finding it difficult right now. When she gets used to Cleress not being there, I'm sure she'll be less moody.'

'Sure?'

Denser looked squarely at him and sighed. 'Actually, Hirad, I haven't got a clue. That's the most she's said about the One for ten days. I think you might even have done me a favour.'

'We're all here for her, you know,' said Hirad, feeling guilt grip his heart.

'She knows that. But sometimes I think she's so alone in her mind that not even we can be of any real use. That's hard.'

'Here,' said Blackthorne, pushing the decanter across the table. 'Fill your glasses. I don't pretend to understand any of what I've just heard so I'm going to change the subject in as obvious a fashion as I can muster.'

He waited for all their glasses to be charged then lifted his. The crystal caught the candlelight and the smooth red liquid within danced and sparkled.

'I'd rather Erienne were here but still, there's always tomorrow. To The Raven. To mankind across Balaia and to the endless support of the elven nation. May we all live to look back on this when we're old and infirm.'

They drank. It didn't ease Hirad's sense of guilt about Erienne and what he had forced her to reveal but it did lighten the mood.

'So,' said Blackthorne. 'What was this third thing?'

'It's a difficult one,' said The Unknown. 'There's something we're going to need you to consider very carefully. It may never come to this but if it does, you'll receive a message, I promise you that.'

'Go on.'

'It's something you must do. You must make contingency for abandoning Blackthorne and for travelling north to Xetesk with everyone you can save.'

Blackthorne's glass had paused midway to his lips. 'Gods drowned, Unknown, why?'

'Because if we don't make it, it could be the only chance the rest of you have to give the demons one final bloody nose. Now, I know you say you've heard nothing from any other pockets of resistance. But not all of your scouts have failed to return, surely?'

Blackthorne smiled. 'There are always methods of getting information. I'll tell you what I know.'

Chapter 20

The Unknown Warrior watched the three Protectors jog away up the western side of the Bay of Gyernath, the elven mage Vituul with them. Ahead of the group was a journey nominally the lesser of two evils. They would have to avoid contact with Wesmen and take one of the mountain passes to the north of Understone Pass to bring them within a few hours of die walls of Xetesk.

Ule, Ryn and Qex had made dieir goodbyes to their brothers Ark and Kas, and to Sol the one to whom they all looked now they were free. For his part, The Unknown felt as they did, that it was unlikely that they would all stand together again. By the time The Raven reached Xetesk, he couldn't conceive that they would all have survived.

'We can't afford one error,' said The Unknown when the longboat had put in to the bay to head back to the Caiman Sun. 'If Blackthorne's information is anywhere near accurate, Balaia is in a far more desperate position than we feared.'

'They will not fail us,' said Ark.

'Dammit but we're so thin on the ground.' The Unknown scratched his shaven head. T wish there was some other way.'

'Don't think that way,' said Darrick, who had accompanied them to issue final orders and check they understood exactly what they were to relay to Dystran, assuming the Lord of the Mount still lived. 'We've passed the point of no return. We can't afford to worry at the corners of what has been decided. A change now could be catastrophic. And even if they don't make it to Xetesk, we have to be confident we'll make it, though vital preparation time will have been lost.'

'You're right, I know,' said The Unknown. 'But there's no contingency. No back-up.'

'Like there was when you went to cast Dawnthief, you mean, or when the Noonshade rip was closed?' Darrick's tight brown curls blew about his head in the offshore breeze.

The Unknown raised an eyebrow. 'Funny, but it seemed different then. For all the risk we faced, I didn't give any serious thought to failure.'

'And you do now?'

'Yes,' he confessed. 'For some reason, the stakes seem higher for Balaia. Stupid, I know, but they do. After all, destruction or domination have always been the cost of failure.'

'But not for the scattered dimensions too,' said Darrick. 'Not for the dead, not even for the dragons. And it's more personal to you, Unknown. You have a family beyond The Raven and that changes everything.'

The Unknown shook his head. 'There's more to it than that. Look, I'm worrying about elves and Protectors when it's us that concerns me most. When push comes to shove, it's us that has to win this for everyone. I know we'll be helped but we're in the centre of it again. I don't know if you were watching our skirmish with the demons but we were rusty. The fact is, General, we're getting too old for this. One fight and a sprint and we're all nursing pulls and aches except Hirad. And he almost got himself killed trying something he shouldn't.'

Darrick was nodding. 'I noticed. Well, we can do some fitness work on board ship as well as practice with those maces Blackthorne gave us.'

'It won't be enough.'

'Every little helps. And believe me, we'll get fit quickly once we're in action.'

'That assumes we live long enough,' said The Unknown.

Darrick opened his mouth to reply but paused and frowned. 'Don't take this the wrong way, but this does not sound like you.'

'No, I don't suppose it does. But then I've never been about to take on an enemy I'd be worried about losing to if I was accompanied by an army. Gods drowning, Darrick, there are about ten of us. What chance do we really have?'

'On our own, none. That's why we're calling on dragons to help

us and the rest of Balaia to fight. It's why Erienne is training so hard. Unknown, you can't afford to think like this.'

'Why do you think I'm airing this when only you, the Protectors and our oarsmen can hear me? And they can't understand a word I'm saying.'

'You're worried what Hirad will think if he knows you're like this?'

'Course I am,' snapped The Unknown. 'Look. This is going to be really difficult. Like nothing we've ever done before. And I felt lethargic fighting those demons. Really slow.' The Unknown shook his head again. 'I've done nothing but half-hearted sparring with Ark for two years, what else do I expect? The point is, I want you to watch us, all of us. You have the eye of the professional soldier still, it's not something you ever lose. I want you to tell me anything that is awry with how we do things. Hirad will take it from me better than you and we can't afford to fall out. Watch Erienne especially. I don't like the way she reacted last night. She's not handling the pressure so well and we've barely begun.' He sighed and looked at Darrick, saw the understanding in the General's eyes. 'If she falls apart. .'

'She has The Raven behind her,' said Darrick.

'One day, even that isn't going to be enough.'

'Hey, well let's make sure it isn't this time, eh?'

The Unknown relaxed a little. 'Yeah, let's do that.'

Baron Blackthorne strolled up to the periphery of the ColdRoom shielding and barked for Ferouc. He was used to delay and this time was no exception. He stood calm and quiet until the demon master was in front of him.

The dawn had been chill and the early morning sun was doing little to warm the land. It left Blackthorne almost glad he had no vines in the ground. In these conditions, they would have withered anyway. He lamented the loss of the vineyards and the object of his blame floated before him, his membranous wings rippling to keep him airborne. He was a comfortable shade of deep blue, his skin still. Not for long.

Blackthorne had gathered all his commanders with him to gauge Ferouc's reaction. It was a gamble but, as Hirad had said on more than one occasion, this was a time for gambles.

'It's a fine morning isn't it?' said Blackthorne, adjusting his coat against the cold breeze.

'Every day the air you breathe makes us stronger,' replied Ferouc. 'Your time to strut about your meagre kingdom is short.'

'Ah, but is it? You've not tasted real frustration barring your abject failure to take my town, have you? How does it feel to know a damaging reverse?'

Ferouc looked nonplussed. 'I am not aware that I had experienced one.'

Blackthorne made an extravagance of turning round to smile at those gathered behind him, taking in the protective steel of those closest to him.

'Well, well, well.' He couldn't suppress a heartfelt chuckle of genuine surprise and pleasure. 'This is better than I could possibly have hoped.'

Consternation flickered briefly across Ferouc's features, characterised by a shifting of veins and a modulating of his pigment. T fail to see any cause for amusement in your position.'

'Our position? No, my jailer, you misunderstand as so often. We are laughing at you.' Blackthorne cleared his throat. T would have thought you could sense their absence much as you sensed their arrival. But what's really amusing is that you clearly never had any inkling at all that they'd left. You haven't even mounted a pursuit, have you, Fidget?'

Ferouc snarled, his colour paling dramatically. Veins writhed under his skin and the muscles across his chest rippled violently. His fingers clacked together.

'You are lying.'

'No, I am not. The Raven have gone. Spirited away from beneath your noses, Fidget. That's why you can't sense them. And you can't, can you?' Blackthorne paused. 'But if you don't believe me, search for yourself. I'll guarantee you safe passage around my town. It'll be uncomfortable for you but I expect you'll live. Long enough to report back to your masters that you have lost something you so very badly wanted.'

Ferouc opened his mouth and emitted a high-pitched shriek. He

tore into the air. Blackthorne followed his path which criss-crossed the town. He would pause occasionally, dart to the edges of the lattice, sniff and back away. But largely it was a frenzied movement, desperate. When he landed again, his rage was almost too intense for him to speak. His skin was a pulsing, roiling bright blue.

'Where have you hidden them?' he managed.

'My dear Fidget,' said Blackthorne calmly and quietly. 'I assure you they are gone from here. My, it's as if you were scared of diem being outside your control.'

And there it was. Just what Blackthorne had been hoping to see. A flicker across Ferouc's eyes and a trembling through his body. Fear. The first time any of them had seen it but unmistakable nevertheless.

'You will pay dearly for this.'

'Really? Going to kill more of the already-dead, are you? Please. There is nothing you can do to hurt us further. But we have released The Raven and there is much they can do to hurt you. The world is turning, Fidget, and you have been found wanting.'

With a second shriek, Ferouc was gone, high into the sky, calling his cohorts to him.

'See that?' Blackthorne pointed at the fast-receding figure. 'That is why we must fight on. Fidget knows as well as we do what The Raven represent. We've been divided and kept weak. The Raven can unite us and they fear that more than anything.

'Now, I think you should prepare those under your command. I imagine things might get a little warm around here.'

For fifteen days, the Calaian Sun sailed the southern, eastern and finally northern coasts of Balaia. The view from the starboard rail was endlessly striking and beguiling. Untamed landscapes, stark cliffs and glorious expanses of white sand studded the coastline with the promise of much more beyond.

Not that The Raven saw a great deal of it between dawn and dusk. Darrick put them through a punishing regime of exercise as tough as that to which Lysternan cavalry recruits had been exposed in years gone by.

He had them spar for hours with their new maces; relay-race with weighted barrels; and climb the mainmast rigging using just their

hands. He had them swim laps around the ship when the wind was light; he cut lengths of rope for skipping and pressed longboat oars into service as group exercise poles. It wasn't with a view to bringing great gains in their speed and endurance but for them to test themselves, feel the state of their bodies and give them just a little more sharpness.

And unlike in years gone by, he participated in every exercise, putting himself through extra rounds if he felt he was below standard. And while he drove them as hard as he could, he watched them, fascinated. They grumbled as he knew they had to but every task was undertaken with enormous energy, spirit and determination. They fed off each other. If the battles to come could be won by sheer will alone, they would be unstoppable.

Individually, though, he had his concerns about them. Besides himself, Hirad had remained very fit. His time with Auum and Rebraal had dictated that. But that couldn't hide the fact that he was not a long way from forty years old and just not as fast as he used to be.

The Unknown Warrior's problem wasn't so much his forty-two years but the long-term degradation of his left hip following his hideous injury on the docks at Arlen over three years before. It stiffened quickly in the chill water and relay-running had him limping from early on. That and the inevitable softening gained from two years' easy living on Herendeneth. It was the difference between farming fit and fighting fit and it could prove fatal.

Thraun looked and acted no different. Quiet, withdrawn at times and without an ounce of excess bodyweight. Life on Calaius had clearly suited him.

But Denser and Erienne worried him the most. Their contentment at being back where they truly belonged, in the bosom of The Raven, was undermined by their awareness of the situation. It wasn't that they were unwilling; they would quickly become as fit and capable as ever if allowed the time. It was that he could see in their eyes that they simply weren't ready. Not for the task ahead, not to put their lives at risk as a daily habit and not to accept the responsibility that had been thrust upon them.

And Erienne was clearly struggling to make sense of what she was required to do. It drew her attention away, took her edge.

Darrick knew he could rely utterly on the elves. And the Protectors still maintained their aura of confidence, inscrutable even without their masks. No, the problems all lay at the heart of the operation, with The Raven themselves.

He spoke to The Unknown Warrior every evening and the big man listened. He spoke candidly about his hip, but like all of The Raven was far more concerned about his friends than himself.

'Everyone needs to understand the reality of their situation and limitations,' Darrick had said one evening. 'And that includes you just as it includes me.'

'I'll be all right.'

'That's exactly the problem, Unknown. Until you accept that you're not twenty-one any more, you'll be taking too much risk.'

'You think I don't know that?' said The Unknown Warrior.

'Judging by what I see out there under exercise, no,' replied Darrick. 'Don't get me wrong. We're an extraordinary team. The weapon skills are still there, the belief is undimmed and the will is staggering. But it's been two years since Julatsa and our stamina is not what it was. That's why we struggled after the short fight the other day. We aren't used to that exertion and it showed. The trouble is, you all still act like you fight every day. You don't conserve because you've never had to.

'You asked me to do this, Unknown. Now listen to what I'm saying. You're the one who has to relate this to the rest of The Raven. And you-know-who isn't going to like it.'

'Thanks for reminding me.'

'We haven't got time for tact,' said Darrick.

'Hirad's never thought so.'

'Then he should respect what you tell him.'

'You know, Darrick, that is no help whatsoever.'

The Catalan Sun dropped anchor in the quiet waters of Triverne Inlet on a chill but sunlit morning. All eyes scanned the eastern shore, searching for signs of demon activity. They found none, keen elven sight revealing only late spring growth in a peaceful landscape. From the shore, Hirad watched the ship take sail and turn for the open sea once more. Jevin took vital messages home with him for the TaiGethen and Al-Arynaar. Should The Raven fail and Balaia's colleges fall to the demons, the elves would have to prepare for invasion.

Hirad turned to them, assembled on the sandy beach.

'This is it, then,' he said. T still think we should be coming with you to Julatsa.'

Rebraal shook his head. 'You know what was discussed. The cursyrd want you. You'll endanger us all in there.' He smiled. 'Besides, we're quicker without you. See you at the lake.'

'Don't be late.' Hirad hugged Ilkar's brother and clasped hands with each of the TaiGethen then finally, Eilaan. 'Remember why we're doing this.'

The elves ran away towards Julatsa and were soon lost to sight. Hirad felt exposed without them.

'Come on, Raven,' he said. 'We can make the lake by tomorrow nightfall if we sail through the night.'

The Raven returned to the longboat which had been fitted with a single mast for their journey along the River Tri. With packs already stowed under the gunwales and benches, they were under way quickly. The atmosphere, as it had been outside Blackthorne, was oppressive. Only the sound of the breeze rusding reeds and grass came over the gende burble of the water against the timbers of the hull. Balaia was dying meekly.

Despite being unlikely to encounter any demons in countryside bare of all but scattered farms and hamlets, they kept very quiet throughout the trip, resting as much as possible. Thraun in wolven form scouted ahead periodically, giving them extra security.

The Unknown took his time to watch The Raven during this curiously peaceful interlude. Despite his own concerns and those raised more recendy by Darrick, he felt happier with the tightness he saw around him now. Two years apart had dulled them without question but their time aboard ship had rekindled their spirit of togetherness. But what they had to guard against was over-confidence in the fight. Looking across at Hirad, it was not a conversation he was looking forward to having. He'd save it for Triverne Lake. Now was not the time.

'We all feeling all right?' he asked.

Darrick raised a thumb from his position on the tiller. Erienne and Denser, sitting together and talking in whispers, both nodded.

Thraun's eyes were sparkling after a recent run in the undergrowth and Hirad grunted assent.

'Hard to believe we're headed for the toughest days of our lives, isn't it?' said the barbarian. 'This is all very pleasant.'

'Don't lose focus,' said The Unknown.

'Hardly.'

'Denser, Erienne, a question for you.' The Unknown waited for them to look back to him. 'This information that Blackthorne got from Lystern about the sanctity of the Hearts. What do you think? We're relying on it, after all.'

Erienne shook her head. 'Not really my area,' she said, a smile on her lips. 'Demons are more Denser's thing. He used to own one after all.'

Denser jabbed a finger into her side. 'Technically correct. I suppose whether it's likely or not, I trust information from Heryst and Lystern. Actually, despite my wife's denial, we've been talking about this a fair bit and it makes good sense. Look at it this way.

'Best intelligence suggests that the demons are here to stay, to milk the life force of this dimension for as long as they can, not just rape it and move on. That means they need to keep people alive and mages particularly. Not just because of their souls but because they hold the key to mana. Demons are mana creatures, why would they destroy that which they need to live? The answer is, they wouldn't. Not if they plan to stay. We know they're flooding mana into Balaia, that's why it's getting so cold. And in future years, the Hearts will keep it from dissipating, give them a base from which to rule.'

'But we know something they don't, don't we?' said Darrick.

'You're talking about the Julatsa experience, I presume,' said Denser.

'Absolutely. Which raises an interesting question. Should we not be considering burying all the Hearts if colleges have to be deserted?'

'No no no no no,' said Erienne quickly. 'For one, we can't assume the mages are there that know how to bury the Hearts. But much more than that, burying the Heart takes what little strength we have for a long battle. The Hearts are useful to the demons but hardly critical to their success, I'd say. But the other part of your point the survivors will be forced to employ if the demons break us finally. We do know that Hearts die without mages to sustain the mana flow but will the demons believe us?'

'Well, we'll never have to find out, will we?' said Hirad. 'Because either we'll have beaten them or we'll all be dead.'

The Raven reached the stunning setting of Triverne Lake deep into evening. The fading light reflected off the lake's surface, picking out the extraordinary beauty of the landscape. Triverne Lake lay at the base of the Blackthorne Mountains. The lake waters, touched by magic, were sheltered, giving perfect conditions for the vibrant green vegetation that bordered them on three sides. Only the eastern shore was open. In the half-light, little of the colour of the vegetation that burgeoned among the trees was visible. But the sense was there of a spectacular matting that clung far up into the foothills before the cooler air running off the mountains let only hardier scrub, moss and heather grow plentiful. Last time he was here, Hirad remembered the calls of thousands of birds. This lime it was quiet and as the longboat nudged the shore, it was clear that the beauty was tarnished.

Thraun trotted over the open ground towards them as they climbed out of the boat. Hirad brought his clothes and left them in a pile on the shore. The wolf trotted up to them and sniffed them closely, a contented growling in his throat. The rest of The Raven walked away up the short beach to give him a little privacy.

'There's been fighting here,' said Darrick.

The Unknown nodded. 'Indeed there has.'

The ground underfoot was broken and scuffed deeply. Grass lay flattened and dead, the earth was cut and scored, scattered with loose clods. Far to the right, haphazard stones thrust twenty feet into the air, remnants of an EarthHammer casting. And everywhere were the dark stains of blood and the blackened scorches of spell impact.

'Strange, eh?' said Hirad.

Darrick agreed. 'You'd have expected some scraps at least but this place has been cleaned.'

'Thorough, these demons, aren't they?'

'So sure it was them?' said The Unknown.

'Spell battle at the birthplace of magic,' said Darrick. 'And re-cendy, too. Hirad's right, I'd say.'

'How recent do you think?' asked The Unknown.

Darrick shrugged. 'Hard to say. Looks fresh. Forty days maximum? I'm guessing though.'

'Where's an elf tracker when you need one, eh?' said Hirad. 'Hey Thraun, what do you think?'

The shapechanger was pulling on his shirt as he trotted over from the longboat. Hirad watched him kneel and touch the ground. He crumbled earth in his palm and rubbed grass between his fingers. He breathed deeply over the bloodstains and scorch marks. And finally he sat back on his haunches and gazed all around him.

'The air is still bad,' he said. 'And the blood is human. Less than twenty days since a man walked here.' He turned towards them. 'But who?'

'Now that is an extremely good question,' said Denser, coming to the shoulders of the warriors. 'After all, Blackthorne is sure every free mage is in one or other of the colleges.'

'Looks like he was wrong,' said Hirad.

'How many involved in the fight, do you think, General?' asked The Unknown.

'Given the combat area, upwards of fifty swords and magic,' he replied. 'The Gods only know how many demons.'

'Hmm,' The Unknown sighed. 'This isn't good. I think we can forget any ideas of a fire tonight. We should take the longboat across the lake and sleep under tree cover. Tomorrow, let's see if we can't piece together what happened in the light of day. Any objections? Good, then let's get to it and remember, there have been demons here. They'll know this place now and the mana flow around here. We're not safe.'

Hirad found himself quite happy at the prospect of sleeping under the trees. He hoped it would remind him of the rainforest, a place he would very much rather have been.

Chapter 21

'South-east quadrant!' yelled Blackthorne. 'New attack. Luke, commit the reserve.'

Blackthorne was already running to the northern incursion. Flags in the castle towers signalled Luke's shouted order, flashing green and white in Blackthorne's periphery. He ran down the central Stair way and through the arched hallway, leaping down the wide castle steps and on through the courtyard gates. Shouts came from all around him. Men, women, children. Running, screaming, calling out alarms or orders.

Above him the ColdRoom lattice held firm, but circling around it incessandy were demons. Soul stealers all, with their leathered or gossamer wings, their long taloned fingers and bald skulls on which the skin writhed in tune with their excitement. They were every hue he had ever seen, from the deepest blue to the most vivid of red or yellow. Their shrieks echoed around the buildings and their threats chilled his heart.

Beneath the lattice, spotters stood on every vantage point, watching the skies. They could come in anywhere. Usually it was in groups but occasionally they had taken to trying to snatch a vulnerable individual alone. It was a nervous time but they were holding.

Blackthorne called a guard to him and barrelled through the tight streets in front of the castle. He could hear the sounds of the battle on the northern periphery of the ColdRooms where he had stood six days before with The Raven. He had thought at the time that Ferouc would not take kindly to their escape. He had been right.

Entering the cleared ground, Blackthorne assessed the situation. Not thirty yards from him, thirty of his men had formed a tight square, shields and maces a barrier against a concerted attack by a greater number of demons. Circling just above and outside the

lattice other enemies waited, and on the ground more squads of swordsmen darted into the backs of the demons, striking hard and running away before they could be overwhelmed.

It was exactly as Darrick had taught them and Blackthorne grinned fiercely. The demons were attracted to the largest spread of life energy and had left themselves open to the counter. Satisfied though he was with their defence, these attacks marked a change in Ferouc's attitude. But more than that, they told of the swiftly increasing strength of the invaders. While still vulnerable within the ColdRoom lattice, they were no longer merely sitting targets. Their power lasted long enough for them to make meaningful incursions and the length of time they could fight within the mana-free environment was growing.

Next to Blackthorne, his mage looked on in concern. The young woman's face was thin from lack of food and the worry lines etched deep on her pale features.

'What it is, Kayla?'

'They're different somehow,' she said. I can see a mana signature encasing them. It's like they're coming in on bubbles of mana energy which isn't dissipating like it should.'

'That explains a lot.' It was as Ferouc had said in earlier conversations. Mana density was growing. He didn't really need Kayla's confirmation. It was getting very cold now.

A burst of noise from the south-east told of the reserve engaging the demon attack there. Blackthorne wiped a gauntleted hand across his mouth and tightened grip on shield and sword.

'Kayla, back to cover. Three of you go with her. The rest, with me. Time for some fun.'

Blackthorne ran in, feeling the cold air fill his lungs, blowing away the cobwebs from his mind and body. Ahead of him, the demons were upping their frenzy. More fell from the sky to join those attacking the square. Beyond the thrashing limbs and beating wings of the blue, black and green soul stealers he could see the faces of his men. Scared for their lives but determined. They focused on what Darrick had taught them. Heavy body blows to weaken. Drive them back, don't break ranks. Shields up and to the fore. Don't blink, don't flinch.

A tall, wiry demon staggered backwards from a mace blow to the

chest, its flailing hand missing its target by a hair's breadth. Black-thorne scythed his sword through its back, slicing its left wing from its body. Dark blood sprayed and the creature screeched and tried to turn. Blackthorne backed up one pace. The demon's skin writhed. Veins pulsed and its colour snapped to a startling blue. Unbalanced by the loss of its wing, it couldn't face up to attack and Blackthorne drove his sword deep into its gut and heaved it up and out. It dropped.

'Back!' he yelled to his guard. 'Looking up!'

Four of them dropped from above. Claws in front, wings swept back and tails streaking behind them. As he had been taught, Blackthorne held his shield above his head and peered round it, waiting for the beasts to strike. He and his men bunched close.

'Steady,' he said. 'Waiting.' The demons were on them. 'Crouch!'

They dropped to their haunches, feeling the clatter of demons on their shields and the swish of claws. Next to him, one of his guard crumpled, talon marks deep in his face, his soul taken. Blackthorne bellowed fury and surged upright, bringing his other four men with him. The demons flittered away but the killer not far enough. Blackthorne smashed his shield into its face and whipped his sword through its chest, practically dividing it in two. Like its victim, it didn't have time to scream.

Around him, his guards beat back the others, leaving Blackthorne a run back towards the square which was holding firm. Sword squads ran in from three sides and he joined them. Demons were cut down, blades opening up their backs, the cuts as easy as scything corn.

'Hold, they're weakening,' he called. 'Let's hear you!'

A roar greeted his shout and he punched the air with his sword, backing off a pace again, collecting his guards and looking up. Around the periphery, the activity was lessening. Ferouc was up there, flitting from side to side, his pigment close to white in his unfettered rage.

'Got you this time you bastard!' Blackthorne laughed upwards.

And it was true. The sword squads came in again. More demons perished, more alien blood spattered his ground. With one ear-splitting shriek, Ferouc called the attack off. Blackthorne saw

winged figures climbing back into the sky from three locations and heard cheers sound around his town.

He nodded and breathed out heavily. A quick count around him told him he'd lost eight men, but the price for the demons had been much heavier. Even so, it was an attrition rate with only one outcome. He turned to a guardsman.

'Find me Luke. They'll be back and they won't be so easy next time.'

Blackthorne strode back towards the casste. He could see Ferouc's game plan. It was as obvious as day followed night. Weaken them enough, then go after the lattice mages. He wasn't sure if the demons really knew where they were but he would have to increase the guard on them. Either that or pull them further underground. It was an option but doing so reduced the ceiling above the town.

He and Luke had much to discuss.

Dystran and Vuldaroq stood side by side and watched the demons drift slowly across the ColdRoom shield above Xetesk. There were hundreds of diem, if not thousands, like a carpet across the sky. So many that the light of day was dimmed and lanterns were lit inside. It was a new departure for them and a new class of demon. Unlike the classic terror shapes of myth, legend and now hideous reality, these had already been dubbed 'gliders' when they first appeared in the sky two days before. Since then, their number had multiplied dramatically and he had received reports of flights of gliders heading north towards Julatsa and north-east to Lystern.

They were a strange-looking demon and that was among a race of unusual creatures. Flat, coloured and textured not unlike a beaten and tenderised steak. Thousands of fine hairs covered their undersides, which also housed eyes and mouth. These hairs rippled and swayed as the creatures moved, undulating their bodies gently. They had little in the way of limbs. Vestigial arms either side of their head section and no legs at all.

That they weren't soul stealers had become apparent very early on, not to mention a huge relief. The gliders were present in numbers enough to really threaten them but instead they had crawled over the lattice, directed by the tentacled masters who hovered nearby, eyes on everything.

'You know what they're doing, don't you?' said Vuldaroq.

Dystran looked across at the man at his side. He had discovered a respect for his former enemy during the few days of their enforced close contact. The Dordovan Arch Mage had worked tirelessly with Suarav and Sharyr, helping them in the aftermath of their ordeal in the library and bringing them, if not out of their shock, then at least to a place where they could begin to deal with it. Neither had taken up his duties to the full and the other survivor, Brynel, was still in the makeshift infirmary, the chill deep in his body.

'Enlighten me,' he said.

'Watch the way they move across the shield. It looks random when you first look but there is an order to it. I've counted greater densities in some areas that then disperse and allow other even more concentrated groups to form in the same place. Like they're confirming what they think they've discovered. It's actually very logical.'

'You haven't done a lot else but stare at them, I take it.'

Vuldaroq shrugged. 'There is so much time for your mind to play tricks on you and undermine you. Best to keep busy.'

'What are they tracking?'

'The mana trails feeding the ColdRooms, I think.'

Dystran pulled his cloak tight around him, a chill gust whisding through the open doors of the tower complex in whose shadow they stood.

'That's a worrying thought.'

T suppose it rather depends why they're doing it,' said Vuldaroq.

'Much as I'd like to, I can't believe it would be out of curiosity,' said Dystran.

'No, but there is more than one possibility.' Vuldaroq had never had much of a sense of humour but these last two years had removed whatever vestiges remained.

'They shouldn't be able to detect the trails, you know,' said Dystran as the thought occurred. 'They would dissipate instantly on contact with the edge of the construct.'

'Well, I think they can and you only have to see where it is they're hovering for longer periods and where their density increases. It's always above the mana-feed trails.' He shook his head. 'They're getting stronger.'

'Agreed,' said Dystran. 'Mana density is rising fast out there now. So, you dunk they're coming in?'

'Yes, and it won't be too long. The most likely reason for tracking the feed trails is to target the casting mages. But they could be doing something as simple as probing the linkages. After all, where the overlap is less, we are more vulnerable.'

'But you don't think so.'

'No. If I was them, I'd be wanting to fly straight down the trails as far as I could and take out our only real defensive weapon. It's blindingly obvious.'

Dystran blew out his cheeks. 'And now they think they're strong enough to do it.'

'We're moving into another phase, young Lord. Best we're prepared.'

They assembled on the plains of Teras over the course of three days. The burnished red Naik; aquamarine Veret; golden-scaled Kaan; dark green Gost; bronze Skoor and pale brown Stara. And these representatives of the largest broods were joined by those of another seventeen. All the colours of the brood spectrum were represented in the largest single gathering of dragons ever seen.

It was a scene that would never be repeated. Sha-Kaan and Yasal-Naik sat on a small rise in front of the mass of scale and furled wing. Both chose upright, respectful stances, their necks in 'S' shapes and belly scales revealed. Both dragons wore the scars of their recent work. The Skoor had attacked them. Yasal bore a long burn along the top of his head and down the first third of his neck. Sha-Kaan's displayed belly was scorched black and painful. Six Skoor had died before the reluctant emissaries had forced their leader to hear them. Six diey could ill afford to lose.

Immediately before Sha and Yasal, the brood fathers were gathered. It was an uncomfortable grouping. Old animosities were barely hidden, postures were hostile. Some would not rest within scent of others. But these dragons had at least agreed to carry the message to their broods gathered behind them. They would relay by thought pulse what could not be heard across the crowded plain.

Sha-Kaan gazed out over Teras and felt enormous pride in his achievement mixed with a deep anxiety. Here lay the greatest risk.

Here they had to prove to all assembled that what they proposed was the only way to save them all. The only way to preserve their right to hate, attack and attempt to eradicate each other. To preserve the dragon's way of life.

Spread out before him, at the edges of his vision in every direction, some two thousand dragons weighed each other up. So far, minor flaring and disagreement had been easily calmed. Kaan, Naik and Veret diplomats moved among the gathering.

But this would decide it. If they couldn't mass and debate in relative peace on the plains, what hope of constructing a robust attack on the Arakhe to give The Raven the time and backing they needed?

Sha-Kaan scanned the extraordinary assembly. Far away to his right, dragons were squaring up. Wings were deployed, bellies clashing. He pulsed to his brood to quell the disturbance. Else where, the rasp of breath and the rustle of wings furling set the ambience. From the north, another flight of Gost approached. He waited for them to land, drinking in the veneration that dominated most of those present.

Not ail of them knew why they were here but every dragon knew it was momentous. It couldn't be otherwise.

'It is time,' said Yasal-Naik. 'We cannot hold the peace any longer without giving them something.'

'I will speak for us both if you will allow it.'

Yasal turned an eye to him that spoke everything about the respect in which he was held and about the Naik dragon's aspiration to his position.

'They will listen to you,' he said.

Sha-Kaan rose up on his hind legs. He unfurled his wings and beat them three times. His tail flashed as it made the whip shape for attention and he barked long and loud, a huge gout of flame scorching the air above him. Across the plains, the gathering calmed and quietened. In front of him, the brood fathers prepared to relay his words. Sha-Kaan felt a wash of reverence cross him and he all but choked on his first words. We may hate you, it said, but we are here for you, Great Kaan.

'You know me,' he began, voice booming across the hush. 'I am Sha-Kaan. I stand here wing furled with my sworn enemy,

Yasal-Naik. Always we have shared hatred but always we have had respect. And today we stand before you as one. Allied as you all must be.'

There was a rustle through the assembly, spreading out to the periphery as the pulsed thoughts reached every dragon and the reaction came back.

'Today we face the greatest ever threat to our home dimension. To counter that threat, we must become one brood with one mind. There are those of you who do not know your role, why you are here. I will tell you why. The Arakhe have invaded the melde dimension of the Kaan.'

Noise erupted across the plain. Hoots and barks shattered the calm. Flame gouted into the sky on a battering tide of sound. Sha-Kaan drew breath at the scale of the tumult but kept his bearing proud while he waited for it to subside. He had to wait some time for the last echoes to fade.

'Indeed a cause for celebration.' He felt the wave of mirth. 'Normally. But they will not stop there. We all know their nature. Total conquest of Balaia will grant them access to the dead through the races of the elves and Wesmen. And to Beshara through the surviving Dragonene.'

Sha-Kaan paused to sample the rapt attention. He and Yasal shared a glance and the younger Naik indicated he continue.

'Our task is simple. There are those who seek travel to the dimension of the Arakhe to stop the invasion. They cannot fail. One of them is my Dragonene. When he arrives, we will have our beacon. We will attack in support of these Balaians. We must keep them alive because they can go where we cannot.'

Sha-Kaan spoke through the roars of disapproval.

'You are here because your brood fathers believe that this threat is genuine. But there will be those of you who do not. To you I say, fly to my Broodlands. Destroy them. I shall not raise a wing to stop you. But neither will I lead you to the Arakhe. And when they come here, as surely they will do, I will be deaf to your pleas and entreaties.

'This threat is real. Dragons will perish in repulsing it. Fight together to save us or fight each other to a swift oblivion for us all. The choice is yours.'

Chapter 22

Auum looked across at the borders of Julatsa from the deep cover of dense heather and the dark of night. So much for the complete overrunning of Balaia by the demons. They had seen very little activity in the outlands and though the air was cold with the flood of mana, the demons were certainly content to concentrate on the major population centres. And this was after two years of invasion.

Of course, it could be that they had swept up any outlying villages and towns and driven the people into the cities. It was no concern of Auum's. All he knew was that he had to get the five of them into the college unseen. He had to nudge from his mind the disbelief that he was here and trying to get into the college for a second time. On his return to the rainforests of Calaius, he had sworn never to leave his shores again. And again it was humans who had caused him to travel north. Enough.

'Thoughts,' he said.

'Baron Blackthorne is certain all the colleges operate tunnel systems to keep their supply lines open, such as they are,' said Rebraal. 'One thing we do know is that they won't be hidden magically.'

Auum nodded. 'Then we can search using the old ways. An unexpected pleasure. Eilaan. Prepare nothing. Just follow. Rebraal, be with him. Tai, we move.'

Julatsa was a quiet city. Barring the circle of light and life that signified the college itself, precious little illumination punctured the darkness. Away to the south of the city, some lights burned from windows in what looked like long, low warehouse structures, and ahead of them lanterns bobbed on poles, lighting a group of people on their journey back into the city. Above them, demons hovered, watching. None of the slaves made any noise whatever.

They were returning to the city from the farmed fields that stretched left and right in a ring that disappeared around the city and presumably encircled it.

'Look for the signs of passage. Elven not human,' whispered Auum. 'Spread five paces and sweep.'

The TaiGethen leader brought his people quickly to the edge of the fields. The crops were whole and hearty, apparently untroubled by the air temperature. Thick stalks of corn jostled in the breeze. Root crops grew well in ordered banked rows, their leaves strong and broad.

Auum paused, listening to the ebb and flow of the wind. He could hear the diminishing echoes of demon calls and sporadic cries from young, scared mouths. Dying away slowly. Like Balaia.

He waved his Tai on towards a low barn set between two corn fields, aiming to skirt it to its far side and approach the college from the north. To his right, he could just make out Duele's progress through the stalks. Behind him, Rebraal and Eilaan kept as quiet as they were able. Left, Evunn had paused. Signalling stop, Auum joined him in the deep shadow cast by the barn.

Evunn pointed at three tiny holes in one of the timbers. They sat below a timber split and splintered by arrow strikes. Only a rainforest elf would have understood their significance.

'Hope or expectation?' whispered Evunn.

'Good habits,' replied Auum. 'And Yniss brought you here to find them.' He touched Evunn's shoulder. 'We have direction.'

A sharp wave of the hand and the elves moved off again, a little faster now. Entering the first streets of Julatsa, silence fell abruptly, the wind broken by a high stone courtyard wall. Auum paused briefly, cupped a hand to his ear and put a finger across his mouth for the benefit of the Al-Arynaar. Here, the merest sound could be heard streets away.

Twenty yards ahead, Evunn had found another marker, this time mere grazes on the wooden wall of a dark empty house. Further into the city, the lights of the college burned unnaturally bright, casting a halo over the surrounding buildings.

Auum indicated he turn into a side alley away from the wan wash of light. They continued on, veering right, further north of the college. Elves had been busy everywhere. The tiny marks were visible on buildings and brazier stands, on windows and the bark of trees.

They were taken in a lazy curve that would end near the college and, Auum presumed, a tunnel entrance. He resisted the temptation to run, hard though it was. Not just the muted stench of human civilisation insulted his senses but the insidious evil of the cursyrd that pervaded everything, even the air he breathed.

Leading them through a network of tight-packed houses, Auum picked up a faint scratching sound ahead and left. He held up his hand. Behind him movement ceased and the silence closed around him. Even he could not discern without looking that any others stood behind him. He angled his palm left and held out his index finger. Moments later, he felt Duele's breath on his neck.

The scratching echoed faintly in the cramped space. The passages they travelled were narrow enough in places that their shoulders all but grazed the damp, moss-covered stone and timber either side. In hunter's stance, Auum paced deliberately towards the opening in the left. His weight was slightly forward, short blade in hand, his feet probing the ground ahead each pace.

In this city of shadows and silence, it might have been a rat but his instincts told him otherwise. The sound was too ordered. He edged his head slowly around the opening. Crouched facing die right-hand wall, the cursyrd was dragging a piece of flint repeatedly over the same foot-long section of stone wall. It was completely rapt in its task, oblivious to the world around it.

Auum frowned. One reason for its action came immediately to mind. It would have to be stopped. Auum reached back and touched Duele, never taking his eyes from the slim, wingless creature he guessed would be about his height if it stood up straight. It had a small head on wiry shoulders and a covering of fine hair. Little apparent muscle and a solid dark hue were strange make-up for the cursyrd; surely a lesser creature in their hierarchy.

Duele could see the cursyrd now. Auum pointed to himself then at the target. He tapped his leg, indicated the target again and finally Duele. The Tai nodded his understanding.

In the next instant, Auum had sprung, landing square on the cursyrd, driving it flat to the ground face down, one of his hands clamped across its mouth. A beat later and Duele had pinned its legs

down. It tried to bite, shout and scratch. Its body rippled strength despite its slender frame and a kaleidoscope of colour chased across its writhing skin. Auum held it until he felt the thrashing pass its peak. He put his lips by one of the flat slits it had for ears and spoke pure elven.

'You know my race. You know my calling. You cannot take me,' he whispered. The cursyrd subsided immediately. 'Struggle is pain.' All that heaved now were its lungs. 'Good. Do not test me.' Auum half turned his head. 'Duele, release and watch.'

The creature was pulled upright, Auum's hand still over its mouth, his short sword at its eye. They both knew die weapon wouldn't kill it. But the pain would bite so deep.

'Move.'

Auum drove the restrained cursyrd forwards, following the arc marked out for them. They turned again and again, deep into the heart of Julatsa's slums where the stench was unquenched by time. Duele had taken the lead and when he stopped to read a more detailed mark, Auum knew they were close.

The TaiGethen paced away and round a right turn into a dank dead end. It was bare but for weeds, grass and the detritus of humans long gone. The opening was marked by a delicate pattern in cracked mud that was obscured by grass about halfway down the passage. He knelt and plucked it open, speaking softly into the hole he uncovered.

It was man-width but made by elves. The demons would never find it unless led straight to it. Auum nodded for Duele to continue and the five elves and their demon captive entered the college of Julatsa.

The warrior and mage guard in the tunnel clearly couldn't quite believe what they were seeing. The leaders of the TaiGethen and Al-Arynaar dropping unannounced into their laps and accompanied by a captive demon. Auum had no time for explanations.

'We need a large open room. Defensible. Now.'

One of the warrior guard led them down the tunnel into the college proper. They brushed aside elven questions and the fears of men. The demon, cowed and scared but very alert, was held now by just its arms.

The tunnel ended inside a cellar beneath the library. Their guide

took them through the sparse bookshelves and across the short distance to the single lecture theatre. Already, word was spreading and elf and human alike were being drawn in.

Auum spared one glance up into the sky at the cursyrd circling there and pushed his captive inside. He hurried it to the centre of the stage.

'Rebraal, guard the door,' he said. 'Evunn, stand ready and watch.' He released the cursyrd which backed away confused, deep reds and blues chasing each other across its skin. Auum's smile was bleak. He turned to Duele.

'Fight it.'

Ule backed a little further into the cave. He looked down at Vituul, spent and shivering; and across to his brothers, bloodied, frozen, but unbowed. Both stood to his left, mace and axe in hands, waiting.

'They are coming back.'

Minute nods greeted his words, a tightening of grips on weapons, a shifting of stance.

'When the time comes, you know what to do.'

The three former Protectors stepped forwards to the cave entrance where the gap was at its narrowest. They looked out over the last foothills of the Blackthornes. To their right, Understone, the Pass and a sizeable encampment of Wesmen. To their left, the forward Wesmen positions and the city of Xetesk. Their destination. A day's walk but impossibly distant.

Ule wasn't sure how the demons had detected them as they descended from the peaks into the deep grey and black mass of the range. Perhaps a lone scout. Perhaps the elf mage's aura was too bright. It hardly mattered now.

Upwards of fifty demons were flying at them. Most were soul stealers and all were of the warrior strain popularly termed 'reavers'. They were tall and well muscled with powerful wings, trademark hairless bodies and writiling veins. The band had repulsed three attacks on their descent, with spells accounting for dozens of the enemy, but still the demons came and Vituul had no more to give. His face bore the terror of the fight and the wounds that iced his

blood and sapped his will to a point where he could no longer protect his soul.

Ule had time to appreciate the irony of the position in which he and his brothers found themselves. So long in thrall and so relatively short a time released. Had they never been freed they would be in the halls of Xetesk even now. He breathed in the air, felt it over his face. He experienced a moment of pure release, almost joy. He smiled.

The demons flooded the cave mouth but paused just out of weapon range.

'Ule,' said one, a pulsing deep green creature with huge eyes in an otherwise largely featureless face. 'Return your soul. It belongs to us.'

Ule stared at the demon. He felt calm, at peace. As did his brothers.

'There is no hope,' said the demon. 'You cannot resist us.'

'You will not taste our souls again,' Ule said. 'While we live, we will fight you. And in death, we will escape you.'

'You cannot harm us.'

'Wrong. We cannot kill you. Know pain.'

The Protectors' speed was startling. Ule's mace came from his right side and blurred upwards catching the demon on its chin. The force of the blow echoed in the confined space and catapulted the squealing creature end over end into those massed behind it, wings flapping uselessly.

Ryn and Qex drove into the enemy simultaneously. Ryn flat-bladed his axe into the side of one's head, sending it tumbling sideways, scattering others back and forwards. Qex slammed his mace into the midriff of his target and scythed left to right with his axe, biting deep into the demon's forehead. It fell back, screeching.

The wound did not bleed but instead healed over almost immediately, leaving a livid blue line where it had scored most deeply. And then the demons bunched and charged. Ule faced a blistering assault of claw, tooth and tail. He worked feverishly to keep them at bay. The mace was a potent weapon thudding time and again into head, chest and gut. And with it came the axe; flat-bladed to block strikes, edge-on to inflict pain.

But inexorably, the press grew and deepened. Claws raked his

face. Tails threatened to trip him and fangs bore ever closer. He could feel the desperation beginning to creep into his brothers as he could the chill of the demons' touch through his body. Every time they struck, he felt himself weaken. But he would not let it show.

He dragged the spikes of his mace across the throat of his nearest enemy, deriving strengdi from its strangled yowl. He followed it up with a carving swing into its waist. It was a blow that would have severed a human. But here it cut just so deep, forcing the creature back.

To his left, his brothers suffered. Qex had been on his knees more than once and Ryn's face was a lattice of cuts, bleeding and blue from the cold. They didn't have very long.

'Once more my brothers!' he shouted, his voice bouncing off the cave walls.

He launched a ferocious attack, summoning everything he had left. He battered at the press of demons, seeing his mace buried in face and arm, his axe chop claw from hand, only for it to regrow. He took what pleasure he could from the cries of pain and the anger of his enemies that they had not cowed their prey. And nor would they.

'Duck.'

It was a moment before he realised it was Vituul who had spoken, so unlike him was the voice. But there was no mistaking the intent in the word.

'Brothers, drop!'

And they did, together as always.

The IceWind scoured over their heads and swept into the defenceless demons. And now the screams were of agony and death. Flesh boiled away, wings froze and shattered and eyes glazed. Veins stood out proud and still, the supercooled mana penetrating skin and stopping flow in an instant. The entire front rank of the demons died before Ule could blink and the rest scattered back into the air, howling their anger and fear.

Ule turned to look at Vituul. The elf slumped back onto his side, his breath laboured and his eyes sunken deep into his skull.

'You were spent,' he said.

T am now,' said Vituul between gasps. He managed a smile. 'That really was the last.'

T didn't think you had it in you.'

'Neither did I.' Elf and Protector eyes locked. 'We cannot take another round.'

Ule nodded. T know.'

He swung back to his brothers. Both were leaning on their weapons, exhausted, all but finished. Out in the light, the demons had gathered once more and were approaching cautiously.

'Ule,' said Vituul, dragging his attention around. 'Just make it quick.'

'It is something I am very good at,' he replied.

Vituul chuckled. 'Glad to hear it.'

'My brothers,' said Ule. 'Prepare. They shall not take our souls.'

Each man drew a dagger from his belt, letting his other weapons clatter to the floor of the cave.

'Vituul,' said Ule. 'You understand we will die as one. Your journey must begin sooner.' He knelt by the elf and wiped the tear from the mage's eye. 'Your courage will be remembered among the Protectors. Even in death, we will not forget you.'

The strike was quick and sure.

Ule stood and embraced his brothers. Daggers rested against throats. 'Release is ours, my brothers. We are one.'

'We are one.'

The crowd watching the fight grew steadily. Auum could sense them and at times even hear low words but he didn't ever take his eyes from the scene being played out in front of him.

At first, the cursyrd had been reluctant. It had felt the weakening effects of the ColdRoom construct but slowly had come to terms with it. What it had found more difficult were the probings and lightning strikes of Duele.

The elf tried to goad the cursyrd into retaliation and aggression but for an irritating length of time it merely squealed and backed off, rolling itself into a ball or standing with its hands covering its face. But when Duele jabbed a straight-fingered blow in its throat, its temper snapped and it struck back.

Duele stood his ground while the creature attempted to land blows with its clawed hands, whiplike tail and long fangs. The fluid movements of the TaiGethen left no room for the cursyrd which found its best efforts countered easily. Duele blocked, ducked,

jumped and counterstruck with the speed that had made him so formidable even among the elven elite. Time and again, the cursyrd would lash in left and right with its claws and attempt a bite only to find itself dumped on its backside by foot sweep or the heel of a palm in its chest.

As the weight of Duele's blows and the cumulative effects of the ColdRoom casting took their toll, the cursyrd became at once weaker and further enraged. It knew it would not get out of the college alive and became ever more desperate to inflict damage where it could.

Three times it tried to break away to attack those watching it but Duele was too fast and its screeches of frustration grew louder. But well before it became too weak to defend itself, Auum had seen what he wanted to. The cursyrd didn't once raise its arms over its head to strike, only ever to defend blows to the head, and even then it preferred to duck and move or use its tail.

He moved into its compass.

'Duele, rest now.'

Auum paced forwards, assessing the cursyrd's attention. It switched to him right away, a frown on its face. Its skin modulated from a livid green to a deep, menacing blue. It was breathing hard.

The TaiGethen circled it for a moment, seeing the track of its eyes and the movement of its feet unchanged from its combat with Duele. It was disciplined at least. But it was lagging slighdy, tired and bruised. Auum struck.

He ducked inside a flailing right arm, grabbing its wrist with his left hand and holding the arm high and away from its body. He continued his movement forward, raised his right elbow and smashed it into the cursyrd's exposed armpit. The creature jerked once and collapsed.

Auum stepped back and nodded. 'Everything has its weakness,' he said. 'Everything. Tai, we pray.'

Chapter 23

Pheone kept her distance while the TaiGethen prayed. Around her, all the elves had heads bowed, listening to the words Auum spoke and murmuring in response. By Auum's feet, the demon lay un-moving. Pheone couldn't tell whether it was dead or just stunned. But like all present she had been beguiled by the dance Duele had led the demon and shocked by the sudden violence meted out by Auum.

The import of what she was seeing trickled slowly into her mind. Not the fight with the demon or the fact that Auum had rendered it unconscious or even killed it with a single blow that hadn't broken its skin. The fact he was here at all, with his Tai and Rebraal. Why now? Why ever, come to that. It didn't take a seer to tell her that it wouldn't be good news.

The Tai cell finished their prayers and rose to their feet. Auum gave the demon a cursory glance and said something in elvish. Two Al-Arynaar warriors picked up the body and carried it out of the lecture theatre. Auum watched them go before walking to Pheone. Julatsa's High Mage found herself more titan a little nervous. Auum had an air about him that combined total authority with a controlled menace. A heady blend.

He and Rebraal held a brief conversation and the latter, at last, gave her his attention.

'We apologise for the abrupt entrance and this little display,' he said, gesturing at the stage. 'Auum had to work while the cursyrd was strong.'

'Did he kill it?' Pheone heard herself say despite the dozens of more pressing questions she had.

'Not quite. Warriors will complete the job. The body must be pierced.'

'So what did he prove?'

'That they have a vulnerable spot we can exploit.'

Pheone half-smiled. 'Come on, let's go somewhere more convivial. I think there's some soup on the go.'

She led them out of the lecture theatre and across the dark courtyard to the refectory, trying to marshal her thoughts. The shapes of demons flitted around the periphery of her vision, watching everything. Once seated opposite the two elves, soup and herb tea at hand, she felt a little more in control.

'I do admire your confidence, Rebraal, but don't you feel that it was already weak and Auum caught it with a lucky blow?'

Auum regarded her through the steam from his tea, his expression unreadable.

'The TaiGethen examine every move a prey makes. They chart their strengths, learn their failings. We strike only when prepared. Only humans have a god of fortune; and he has turned against you.'

Pheone felt she should apologise but stopped herself. Instead, she drained a spoonful of soup before speaking.

'It's been two years and it seems like ten,' she said. 'What are you doing here? I'm pleased to see you but I don't think five are going to make a whole lot of difference. Not even if two of them are you two.'

'Nevertheless, we are here to organise the last chance for humans,' said Rebraal. 'The last chance for all of us.'

Pheone almost laughed but the fear in Rebraal's eyes stopped her. She didn't think she'd ever seen an elf afraid before; not like this.

'It's really that bad?'

'What do your reports tell you?'

'That we've reached an impasse,' she said. 'The demons barely press us. They know they can't force a way in with the numbers they have. We think the balance will shift.'

She saw Rebraal's eyes widen.

'Do you have no contact with other colleges?'

'Precious little,' she said. 'Why? Surely when the demons know they can get no further they'll withdraw. Or we'll force them back.'

'Pheone, the cursyrd are home,' he said. 'You haven't heard from Xetesk in the last days, you're sure?'

'Certain,' she replied.

Rebraal and Auum exchanged a look. 'That explains your confusion and the lack of any preparation,' said Rebraal. 'Vituul and the Protectors must have fallen.'

'What is this all about?'

'You will be aware of the increase in mana density, yes?'

'Of course.' She shrugged. 'Comfort for demons.'

Rebraal shook his head. 'You misunderstand. The cursyrd are flooding Balaia with mana from their dimension because they are abandoning it. Soon the density will be enough to overwhelm your castings and the demons will truly rule Balaia. Then they will strike west and south and neither we, and certainly not the Wesmen, have the ability to resist them for long.'

'Unless we stop them, right?'

'Pheone, before I tell you what we must do, you must understand this. We believe Xetesk remains the focal point of their attack, Lystern to be under increasing pressure, and that Dordover has fallen.'

'What?' Pheone felt her heart race and a sick feeling cross her gut. 'Dordover?'

'We can't be certain but Baron Blackthorne, who still resists, reports that his last spies saw no light in the tower. But the Heart still beats because it feeds the demons mana strength. But what has happened to Dordover will happen everywhere unless there is unification. The colleges are the last free outposts of any real substance. If they are picked off one by one we are all lost. Elves, men, Wesmen, dragons and the dead.'

'The what?' Pheone's nervousness allowed a smile to creep onto her face.

'Don't mock what you cannot understand,' snapped Rebraal.

'I'm sorry,' said Pheone quickly. 'It just all sounds so far-fetched.'

'Have you not talked to the Al-Arynaar?' asked Auum. 'Humans are so blind. You do not even know when you are dying.'

'The cursyrd are on the verge of dominating this, and through it, every dimension we hold dear. We must unite to defeat them and it must be now. The fight will not take place here, it will take place in Xetesk. That is why we are here and that is why you must prepare to leave Julatsa.'

Pheone was so surprised that she replayed Rebraal's words to make sure she'd heard him correctly. 'You want us to do what?'

He had known constant fear. And beside that fear there was a pulse that he could sense and it was growing stronger. Malevolent in intent. He distanced himself from it like they all did. It confused his senses, threatened to overwhelm them.

And he experienced utter clarity too. Clarity of thought and memory brought him joy, comfort and a pure sense of belonging. These times were as common as they were craved.

He was aware of meeting others, of their presence and support. Whoever they had been they were immense in character and clear of purpose. And like him, they retained the link to those they had left, though he wasn't sure, like them, if his communication was truly understood.

All his senses were changed, were more complex than mere sight, touch or smell. He had no words to describe them but he understood and used them as if he had been born with them. He could describe without seeing, listen without hearing and speak, if speak it was.

He believed he communicated on his new sensory level without the need for words though he still considered it speech. It produced images, soundless yet they contained the meaning he needed.

When he had arrived here, with its warmth and comfort, with its beauty and calm, and with its threatened borders and fear, it hadn't been the way it was now. How long ago that was, he couldn't say. There was no conception of time passing, though surely the knowledge of change indicated such.

Now, though the link provided his most clear sense of the life he had left, it was no longer the only way. He had become aware that he could sense those for whom he felt enduring love without the need for the link buried in his ancestral homeland. But he couldn't always feel them and he didn't know if he was felt by them.

He felt a growing worry. The sense of threat to their existence was building and he, like all of them, had travelled away from the developing pulse to minimise its effect. But in travelling, he had lost the link and his ability to feel his loved ones. He was certain that distance dulled feeling. Others felt it too and it worried them. The threat was forcing them from the link quite deliberately and it was weakening them, denying them joy and comfort.

He craved the sense of touch and he knew what he must do to try and regain it. Others would follow if they understood his reasoning. He had to approach the pulse, approach the burgeoning fear. He wanted to know if those he loved felt it too and if they could remove it and leave him with the peace and calm that was his by right.

He began to seek the direction of travel, a curious reminiscence flowing over him. The familiarity of purpose and of knowing he would soon be where he knew he truly belonged. He brought the words to his mind and the images washed through him. Had he lips he would have spoken the words. As it was, he felt exhilaration power his soul.

He reached out to them, sought them and pushed away the fear.

Them. The Raven. And within them, one mind and soul was for him so much brighter than the rest.

Hirad's head felt full and it kept him from his sleep. It had been coming on through the evening and he'd bitten his lip several times during the talking they'd done to avoid sparking a dispute. He knew it was something the others couldn't feel or understand. So he'd taken himself to sleep away from them, volunteering to take the last watch before dawn.

He tried to examine the way he felt. It was nothing like the touch of Sha-Kaan, which was warm; a gentle probing that sought permission to enter his mind. What he was experiencing now was more akin to an attack. Like someone was hammering on a door, demanding entrance. Everything was muffled but the pressure grew until he developed a thumping pain in his head.

Denser had offered a casting to give him relief from the pain but he didn't want that because he thought he knew what was causing it. Because as he lay and studied the weight inside his skull, he filtered feelings from the morass. He felt love, strength and the longing for contact, lost in time. And he felt fear too and that was reminiscent of that night in Taanepol.

But unlike that awakening, which had a dreamlike quality to it full of half-remembered images and snatches of sound, this was a solid

block of emotional force. And closer than the dream. Hirad closed his eyes and tried to probe the block but he had no real idea how to. All he knew was that the more he relaxed, the more certain he became that his first impressions had been right.

'Ilkar?' he spoke out loud but softly. 'It is you isn't it? Gods burning, I don't know how but it is. I can feel you, Ilks, but I can't understand you. I don't know how to respond. I'm not a mage, my mind isn't trained. But if you're sending a message keep on.' He chuckled. 'But perhaps you could speak a little quieter, I'm not enjoying the hammering.'

He paused. His words had had no effect. He took a deep breath and tried to concentrate on the seat of the pain in the back of his skull.

'Ilkar, please. If you can hear this, back off a little. I can't under stand you, it's just coming over as pain and noise in my mind. Ilkar?'

And abruptly, the feelings were gone. Hirad sat bolt upright and closed his eyes against the yawing of his mind and the blackening of his vision as the blood rushed away. There were tears standing in his eyes.

There was something else too. Just like Rebraal had said he'd understood back in Taanepol.

It was a desperate cry for help.

T have to put this to the council,' said Pheone.

'We have no time,' snapped Rebraal, his palm smacking on the table top. 'You have a hundred and eighty mages here, almost two hundred Al-Arynaar warriors. You represent the strongest force on Balaia, don't you understand? Without you, the pressure on Xetesk will become intolerable. And we can't afford that to happen.'

'Well why the bloody hell aren't they coming here then if we're so damned great?' shouted Pheone, losing her cool. She was already tired and hungry and now these elves were putting her under enormous pressure. Damn, why was she the only one of the council awake?

'Because they won't make it and we need the information we know they hold. We have to make preparations now and leave in a day. Every moment is critical.'

'Hold it again,' she said, drawing breath and waving a palm at Rebraal. 'What information?'

Rebraal smiled. 'I haven't been able to tell you everything yet. You're quite a forceful character, you know. Probably what my brother loved about you.'

'Among other things,' said Pheone, relaxing a little. 'Go on.'

'We can't beat diem simply by fighting them here. Our job on Balaia, and more critically, in Xetesk, is to drain them of resource, force them to bring more demons here than they want to. Keep them at bay to give the time to strike them in their own dimension; cut off the mana flood and stop the invasion at a stroke.'

'And you think Xetesk has the knowledge to get people there?'

'We know they do,' said Rebraal. 'Sha-Kaan is certain that the development of their dimensional spells, together with the link they've always had with demons for mana channelling, means they will be able to open a gateway to the demon dimension that we can use.'

'And who're the lucky ones getting the job of going through it?'

Rebraal gestured to his left. 'Auum, his Tai, some Protectors, a litde mage support and The Raven.'

Pheone shook her head, she'd heard it all now and wasn't the least bit surprised to find The Raven cropping up. 'Even after all their time away, why did I half expect you to say it would be them?'

'Perhaps because Ilkar is one of those under threat.'

'Ilkar?'

'I told you, the dead are vulnerable. The demons crave their souls and they are helpless.'

'Gods drowning, this is all too much to take in,' she said. She rubbed a hand across her forehead. 'Look, it'll be dawn in a few hours and I'm exhausted. Let's go through it again with the council, discuss it with the Al-Arynaar and we'll go if everyone agrees it is the right thing.'

Rebraal shook his head.

'What?' demanded Pheone. 'Look, I'm not saying I don't believe everything you have told me and I want to do everything I can to save Ilkar's soul if he is in danger as you say. And I want Balaia to be free. I just won't get driven at one solution when there may be others to consider.'

'The decision is made,' said Rebraal.

'Not yet it isn't.'

'Listen to him,' said Auum in a voice barely above a whisper but that sent a chill down her back. He leant forwards. 'You do not see what is before your face. Rebraal commands the Al-Arynaar. He will issue orders at dawn. They will accompany him. You can stay if you so choose.'

Rebraal held up his hands both to stop Auum saying any more and Pheone retorting.

'I didn't want to fall back on that but Auum is right. But we do need your help. Your college is the one allied most closely to elves. We would not be suggesting this if we thought there was any other way to save it long-term. I want you to agree to this willingly. But if you won't, I will take my warriors and mages anyway and you will be taken.'

'I'll be deserting all those people out there beyond the Cold-Rooms. Abandoning them.' Her voice was quiet now, defeated. They had left her no alternative.

'Sleep on it.'

'Sleep? Fat chance.'

'And then talk to your council, tell them what must be done. We will be leaving at first light the day after tomorrow.' Rebraal covered her hands with his. 'I believe you will be saving more lives this way than if you hold out here for another decade. The Raven believe it too.'

'Oh, Rebraal, I wish I could, I really do.'

Chapter 24

Sha-Kaan had dispersed the broods across the plains of Teras in the hopes of maintaining peace while keeping the gathering close enough to react when the time came. Now, with Hirad and The Raven hidden above Triverne Lake and less than two days from Xetesk, he had called them together once more.

It would not be enough, he had reasoned, to simply shift to the home of the Arakhe and fight independently of one another. For this time only, they had to fight together; a single force with a solitary purpose to give The Raven support while they fought those who controlled the gateway and mana flow into Balaia.

He was reminded of the days of the uncontained rip in the skies that had joined Balaia and his home, Beshara. How different the conditions were this time. Then, warring broods had threatened the Kaan defence of the rip as it widened uncontrolled. The Raven had developed a way to close it before it became of a scale that would invite invasion of Balaia from enemy broods.

This time the gateway was managed and controlled by the Arakhe. Its origin somewhere in their dying dimension and its outlet, by all calculation, somewhere in the sky above Xetesk. And all brought about by Xeteskian foolhardiness. This time, the dragons could not afford to do battle over it because it could be the end of them all. And again, The Raven would have to succeed. As Hirad Coldheart would put it, be there at the sharp end.

As much as the sprawl of thousands of dragons on the plain had been impressive, the sight that he could see all around him now was simply awe-inspiring. Skoor, Naik, Veret, Kaan, Stara, Gost and the lesser broods, flying in their familial formations, providing honour guard for those gliding lazily at the centre of them all. Sha-Kaan had called the leaders of all the broods to this summit in the skies but even he was distracted by the sight of light dancing on a rainbow of

scale colours. He basked in the sounds that echoed across the clear blue sky and delighted in the complexities as each brood tried to outdo its rivals.

'None have been idle during our short isolation,' rumbled Sha-Kaan.

'We all tired of waiting for your call,' said Caval-Skoor.

'I trust you have news of our ultimate destination,' said Koln-Stara. T am not alone in having those within my brood for whom this delay has bred suspicion.'

'And have any of you experienced attacks on your Broodlands?' Sha-Kaan waited. 'Perhaps that is because you and your broods have all had time to reflect on what I and Yasal had to say. Don't forget that was a principal reason for you to scatter across the plains.'

'Some of us are waiting for our scouts to return from our lands,' said Caval. T for one do not know if my Broodlands are safe. I am too distant from them to hear the calls of the attacked if such there are.'

'But do you really believe your lands are under threat?' asked Yasal-Naik. 'Surely the presence of every brood here is evidence enough that we are, for now at least, of one mind and purpose.'

'I have not counted the head of every dragon,' said Koln. 'None of us knows if members of any other brood are absent from here.'

'You are accusing us of something, Great Stara?' Eram-Gost's voice was sharp.

'I accuse no one of anything. My knowledge is incomplete.'

Sha-Kaan felt the tension rise among the circling dragons, instantly transmitted to the cohorts surrounding them. The displays of skill ceased. Ranks closed and distance was sought. All around them, broods massed and waited. How easy it was. How fragile the peace. High above them, Kaan and Naik dragons maintained their mixed flight and kept a watching brief.

'My broods, please,' said Sha-Kaan. 'We have no cause for mistrust.' He let his words filter through the tension. 'Almost two thousand dragons are circling in this small area of Beshara. There are two ways this can go. It is either the greatest opportunity in our long and bloody history, or it is the greatest disaster to afflict us and all our melde dimensions. Remember: if the Arakhe reach us, all those on whom you depend will be vulnerable to them. I say again, we cannot afford to fail.'

He flew into the centre of the ring of Beshara's most powerful dragons and altered his attitude, hanging vertically in the air and rotating slowly, displaying his belly scales to them all.

'Which is it to be?'

There was a long moment when Sha-Kaan wondered for the first time whether he had constructed a monumental folly. But with increasing pace, one by one, each of the brood leaders mirrored his attitude. He let feelings of warmth and comradeship pulse away from him and he barked a huge gout of flame into the air.

'Then let us get to work.'

Auum considered this the time of greatest risk. The moment they had detected the change in activity within the college, the cursyrd had swarmed the periphery of the ColdRoom shell. A strain had appeared that he hadn't seen before. Flat and largely featureless but for a coating of fine hairs on their underside. At one stage they had covered the shell, blocking out the dawn light. He had watched them while they crawled and had summoned an Al-Arynaar mage to him. An elven female he knew and respected.

'They are seekers,' Dila'heth had said in answer to his question. 'At least that's what we call them. We have seen a few but nothing like this density. They are searching for the trails in the mana.'

'Good,' Auum had said. 'So they waste their time. Tomorrow, the location of our casters will be obvious even to the blind.'

'Well, I will give thanks to Yniss for anything that stops them trying to disrupt us.'

'Nevertheless, we must be prepared.'

And so while Rebraal, with his greater command of Balaian and his god-given patience, had die unenviable task of placating reluctant humans, Auum marshalled the defence. Guard on casting mages was trebled. Watchers studded the college walls and the roofs of all buildings. Mages waited undercover in groups with Al-Arynaar warriors, ready to react to incursion. And everyone in the college carried arms, tasked to move as ordered.

From his vantage point Auum scanned the shell for indications that an attack was imminent. He could see groupings of the quick, powerful soul-stealing reavers cruising the shell. He presumed they were looking for weak points. It was a futile exercise. What worried him more were the occasional overflights of the senior strain; the

huge Arakhe which floated on beds of tentacles but had the bodies of grotesque men. These were the masters over Julatsa. Their decisions would bring attack or maintain the examinations.

Down in the tower courtyard, Rebraal had emerged from the lecture theatre and was heading for the main gates, surrounded by humans. Auum couldn't hear them but their body language suggested anger and a heated exchange. He turned to Duele and Evunn.

'The humans are being difficult,' he said. T will see what I can do. You know what needs to be done here.' He sighed and felt a surge of irritation. 'Yniss preserve us, but these people would argue themselves to guilt if pronounced innocent.'

Auum ran quickly down the stairs by the main gatehouse, leaping the last few steps and landing on the cobbles right in front of Rebraal and the group of six unhappy humans. Pheone was not among them. Auum had their attention.

'We have problems?' he asked Rebraal in elvish.

'They do not agree with us,' said Rebraal. 'They haven't seen and heard what we have. They do not believe in a threat to other dimensions.'

'It makes no difference to what must be done.'

'It makes a difference to us,' said one of die humans in passable elvish. Auum nodded minute respect. 'We have had two years with your people,' he explained. 'And much time on our hands.'

'Name?'

'Geren.'

'Geren, your efforts are appreciated but your objections are damaging.'

'We feel there are other ways.'

'There are no other ways. You will leave Julatsa tomorrow or become a slave of the cursyrd.' Auum turned for the stairs once more but Geren's raised voice stopped him.

'How dare you come in here and lay down what will or will not be done? This is our college and only we, the council, will decide when or if we leave it. Do you understand?'

'Rebraal?' Auum dropped into an older dialect. He didn't turn back.

'I have been hearing this for an hour and more,' said Rebraal, taking his lead. 'They are belligerent and their ears are closed to my explanations.'

'Then it is time to stop being polite. You have done all you can.'

'Auum, we need the human mages' help. Their expertise in the castings that shield us is much greater than ours.'

'And you will get it.' Now he swung back to Geren, his expression bleak and his mind cleared. He saw the man step back a pace as he should.

'Your threats will mean nothing,' he said, his voice holding a slight quaver.

T threaten nothing,' said Auum. 'This college stands only because the Al-Arynaar, ClawBound and TaiGethen died to preserve it. It maintains its independence because the Al-Arynaar have supported you for the last two years. Rebraal, the leader of the Al-Arynaar, has explained to you why we must all leave and travel to Xetesk. And this is the respect you show those who have saved your lives?'

'Your sacrifices for the college will never be forgotten and our respect for you all is undimmed. But what you ask is not in the best interests of Julatsa and the wider city, I'm sorry,' said Geren.

Auum's hand clamped around Geren's throat and he drove the man backwards into his companions, all of whom appeared too scared to speak up in his support.

'Do you think for one moment we wish to be here? We have no choice because humans have let the cursyrd into our dimension. We are here because we too will die from your folly if we do not put a stop to the threat. Do not make the mistake of thinking that I care if you live or die, human. We will take our people and what we want and we will travel to Xetesk where your race and ours has its best chance of survival. Rebraal says we need your help, so help us. Make the choice to live.'

He thrust Geren away. The mage looked at him with undisguised hatred.

'All of you, go and do what I ask, please,' said Rebraal. 'I'm sorry it had to come to that.'

Auum took his arm and led him away from them. 'Enough. Forget them. We have the strength without them should they refuse to come.'

'We have a responsibility to save them too.'

'You have spent too much time listening to Hirad and your brother's spirit.' Auum allowed himself a small smile. 'Now. Carts and horses. Do we have enough?'

'Barely,' said Rebraal. 'We're fortunate that Pheone demanded Julatsa keep its breeding pairs alive. Consequently, we have some young and strong animals capable of pulling carts though fertility is as bad here as it was in Blackthorne. How they would fare under attack, we won't know until we try. Carts are a more pressing problem.'

'Firewood?'

'Enough have gone that way but even those that remain are in disrepair. There isn't a wheelwright in the college. Carpenters are doing what they can and we're searching the stables and college buildings for traces and tack. We should have enough workable gear to carry casting mages and the bulk of provisions but any other mages might have to travel unprotected.'

Auum nodded. T will instruct the warriors to that end.'

'Will they attack, do you think?' Rebraal gestured above his head at the demons circling and watching there.

'Unlikely,' he said. 'They know we are planning something but they also know the price they pay for attacking this college. What would you do?'

'I would wait until I was certain what was happening. When we drive through the gates, that would be the time.'

'Yes, my friend, it would. We will be at our most restricted and vulnerable. Our warriors will have to fight hard.'

'Tual will guide our hands.'

'And Shorth will see our enemies to torment.' The two elves clasped arms. 'We will do this.'

'Yniss will watch over us all.'

With night full, Auum had been proved right and the demons hadn't attacked. But there were signs that they were massing, expecting a break-out. Roadblocks were plainly visible on all approach roads to the college. Demons flew a grid over the area immediately surrounding the college walls. Others hovered above the college, looking, watching. Waiting.

Auum and Rebraal had conducted a series of briefings with the Al-Arynaar mages and warriors in the lecture theatre, discussing tactics for the first move out of the gates and what was expected of them on the anticipated three-day journey south to Xetesk. For some of that

time, the TaiGethen cell would be absent, heading for Triverne Lake to collect The Raven.

Finally, Rebraal was standing with Pheone before the college council and the surviving humans in the college. There were one hundred and seven of them all told. Thirty-four mages and the rest college guard and those who had been invited inside the walls before the demons attacked. All were scared, all resentful. But all resigned to what was going to happen.

'Much has been demanded of you all in the last day and there has been little time for politeness. Much more will be demanded of you in the days to come. Most of you have questioned the decision that was taken without your consent. There is no debate. Now is the time to trust me. Trust Auum.'

He waited for a murmur of conversation to settle.

'You have heard all you need to about the conditions outside this college and the plight in which we find ourselves. Now is the time to believe that you can make a difference. That by this journey and the subsequent defence at Xetesk you can play your part in the salvation of man- and elvenkind.'

He held up his hands at the ripple of comment.

'You think that overdramatic? How quickly you have become accustomed to the way you now live, if that is the case. When was the last time you made significant advance or saved a soul from beyond the shell of the ColdRooms? Do not doubt that the cursyrd, the demons, are in control of your country. They mean to stay here and consume you. You have become prey, and like all other natural predators they pluck you as they need you. Do you truly believe that by staying in this cocoon you will defeat them?'

Again he waited, this time greeted with an uncomfortable shifting. He nodded.

'Those of you who know me and who have got to know the Al-Arynaar during your confinement here will no doubt have gathered that elves do not necessarily hold humans in high regard.'

A chuckle ran around the chamber.

'But neither are we frivolous with your lives. Many of us have lifelong friends among you and we appreciate your strengths as well as lamenting your weaknesses. My own brother chose to live and die among humans. For me, there is no greater measure of the potential of your race. And for that reason alone, I would see you thrive, and

us with you. That is why you must accept that the course we now take is all that remains open to us. The evidence you will see with your own eyes beyond these walls.

'The journey we will undertake at dawn tomorrow will be dangerous. But I want to give you this assurance. Elves know your vulnerability to the demons' touch. We do not expect of you heroics and sacrifice. That is to come in Xetesk and all of you need to live to see the walls of the dark college. We will take on the burden of defending the caravan while you rest as you can and watch as you need. For the mages, we need you to be the bedrock of our moving ColdRoom construct and so you will travel for much of the time in the wagons we have repaired.

'For the rest of you, we need those who can drive wagons and who know horses to volunteer for that duty. We are not knowledge able about these animals.' He smiled. 'It seems even we have weak nesses.'

More laughter, a little easier this time. He held up his hands.

'I won't keep you from your rest much longer and I urge you to sleep for as long as you can because this caravan will only stop to rest horses, not humans. Two final things. You will naturally feel that the caravan leaves you more vulnerable than the college. It does not. Only the ColdRooms keep you from being taken by the demons at will. This structure will still be around you. Walls are no certain defence against demons, only spells.

'And last, wherever you stand, walk, cast or rest, there will be an elf watching over you. An elf who will stand against the demon that comes for you and who will protect you. In this we are stronger and you need not fear otherwise. We will never desert you.

'We leave at first light tomorrow. Be ready.'

Rebraal started at the unexpected sound he heard. They were clapping him.

Hirad had his back to a tree, knees pulled up to his chest and his arms around them, hands locked in front. His sword leant sheathed against the trunk. Around him, an early leaf-fall was testament to the cold that die demons had brought to Balaia. They had risked a fire to cook by when the night closed in but it was long dead now and in these hours before dawn the world was frosty and quiet. Hirad felt

exhausted. His sleep had been broken first by Sha-Kaan and subsequently by the force he assumed was Ilkar, still trying without success to contact him.

And now he was awake on the dawn watch and looking over his sleeping friends, the two Protectors, Kas and Ark, and the quiet but determined elf, Eilaan. None of them slept undisturbed. Thraun chased the demons of his past, his body twitching and his mouth moving, murmuring. And Erienne, he knew, was occasionally found by Cleress despite the huge distance and the ageing elf s condition. Right now, she was somewhere to the left, having woken suddenly.

He had asked her to call his name regularly but she hadn't. In the end, she wasn't gone long and he felt her hand on his shoulder as she eased herself down to sit beside him.

'So I'm not the only one hearing voices tonight, eh?' said Hirad softly.

Erienne linked her arm through his and laid her head on his shoulder.

'She didn't say much. She doesn't have the strength, poor woman.'

'Does she help you?'

'What can she really do? She speaks the right words when I can hear them but I'm not skilled enough to reply over this distance so it's all rather one-way.' She picked her head up. 'Look, Hirad, sorry about Blackthorne, the way I behaved I mean.'

'Erienne, you never have anything to apologise to me or to any of us for. All I care about is that you're feeling more comfortable now.'

'I'm not sure I am, that's the trouble. It isn't the One magic itself, because in theory I can perform the castings. But this isn't like casting an Ice Wind or putting up a HardShield. Failing in those is one thing, failing to strip the mana shell from demons would be fatal for all of us. It weighs on me.'

Hirad thought to reply immediately but some words from The Unknown replayed in his mind and he paused before saying something different.

'We can't help you with your power, I know that and I won't pretend to understand die pressures it places you under. But remember how hard we've worked on fighting assuming your casting isn't there to aid us. Keep that with you because it means we can

survive if you're having a problem. You are the most potent weapon we possess but you aren't the only one. We're all still here.'

Erienne chuckled. 'How do you do that?'

'Do what?'

'Say something patronising and belittling and make it sound like comfort and support.'

'Because that's what it is supposed to be.'

'And there's my answer.' She pulled at his arm with hers. 'Tell me about your voices. Are you really sure it's Ilkar? I mean, that's farfetched even for you.'

Hirad shrugged. 'Oh, I don't know. I've sat here tonight wondering if it's all because I so want to believe he's still here in some way that I've created the whole thing.'

'And what did you conclude?'

'That it's all too coincidental. This has happened only since the demons began to flood mana into Balaia, if Blackthornc's timings are right. But more than all that, it just feels like him. I can't explain it. I've heard no words. It's all just fuzz and mist. But you know when you can smell someone on the clothes they've worn? It's like that, only inside my head. I just wish I could make it clearer.'

Erienne moved so that she faced him and laid her forearms on his knees.

'Go with it,' she said. 'Try not to fight it or force it. Let it drive you on. If that's what means you fight harder, then use it.'

'I'll try.'

'But it's hard, isn't it? Having something inside you that you want but can't use. I know a little about that.'

'I guess you do.' Hirad smiled. 'Now if you'll take my advice, you'll get your head down. Auum could be back any time from tomorrow and then this little oasis of calm is gone for ever and it's fight and fear all the way.'

'But just one more time. Then we can go back to being bored.'

'Do you really believe that?'

'What do you think?' Erienne leant in and kissed his cheek. 'Goodnight, Hirad.'

Chapter 25

The cursyrd were waiting for them before the first wagon was hitched to its nervous horse. Since they'd begun loading the fifteen wagons, some little more than makeshift covered trailers, in the dead of night the enemy had been preparing. Auum knew they would. For him, it had always been a question of superior tactics come first light.

But for the humans and those Al-Arynaar who hadn't listened to everything said at the briefing, the sight had to be truly terrifying. Reavers swarmed the shell, anticipating the moment it was dispersed. They thronged the area in front of the main gate, emitting a staggering kaleidoscope of colours. They hovered above every roadblock, herding slaves into the road as human barricades. And from their mouths came a cacophony of sound that echoed against the buildings of the college and high into the air, sending shivers through the bravest soul.

'I want runners either side of each horse!' shouted Rebraal. 'Drivers let's mount up and assemble in the courtyard. Free mages, to your wagons. And watch those borders. Move!'

Auum's breath clouded in the cold air, mixing with that of around one hundred and eighty mages and two hundred and twenty Al-Arynaar warriors, college guard and the free Julatsans. He turned a full circle. Blinkered horses were goaded from the stables and out into the arena. Two to a wagon, they were skittish and either side of their heads elves stood and whispered soothing words, stroking cheeks and necks.

In front of the first clutch of five wagons, thirty Al-Arynaar mages gathered with fifty warriors. They were the vanguard, tasked to clear the path for the first wagons and if they could, blast a hole through the mass of cursyrd gathered beyond the gates. In each of the

wagons, which would go through the gates two abreast, six human mages and six warriors, human and elven. For them, the task was to set up the forward ColdRoom shell immediately they left the protection of the college. The wagons would be flanked by elven warriors and mages, some of whom were already perched atop the wagons themselves against attack from the sky.

Behind this first wave would come two others made up almost identically. The few spare horses were tethered to wagons in the second wave. Again they were blinkered and near them would run elves ready to cut them free should they threaten to bolt.

They had done everything they could. Auum was as satisfied as he could be. He and the Tai would bring up the rear because there they perceived lay the greatest immediate risk of losing mages. Right now, heavily guarded in cellars in the college, the ColdRoom casters still held the barrier strong. They would have to be moved.

He understood it was the nature of the casting that three mages were needed for each one to maintain its core strength. Under normal circumstances, if any of this could be considered normal, mages coming to take over the casting would feed into the same construct, thereby maintaining a seamless shell. Moving all three would inevitably lead to the spell collapsing.

They approached the moment of greatest danger. In five locations around the college, ColdRoom trios were waiting to move. In order, they would disperse their spells and run to their designated wagon, flanked by Al-Arynaar. For three of the trios, the problem wasn't too great. Their exits were clean, the wagons parked close and they could disperse their castings without risk to any but themselves. When those parts of the college were cleared, they could be moved and the cursyrd could take the territory.

For the remaining two, the situation was entirely different. Their castings covered the courtyard and main gates. And because those mages in wagons inside the courtyard were unable to cast until they could touch the mana and form new constructs, there would be a time, short but telling, when there was no cover. Everyone was aware of it and so were the cursyrd. It was what they were waiting for.

Auum waited. Three times he was given the signal that areas of the college were clear and three times ColdRooms were dispersed

and their casters ran hard to wagons beneath the remaining shell. First went the refectory and lecture theatre area; second, the Heart and library; third, the personal chambers, rooms and offices. The cursyrd didn't attempt to chase the casters. They didn't have to. A better chance was coming.

Three wagons lined up, making their part of the third wave. Two remained empty, surrounded by Al-Arynaar. They were placed centrally in the courtyard away from obvious casting points. Dila'heth was of the opinion that the cursyrd knew where the casters were located but anything that threw them off the scent for any time at all was crucial.

Cursyrd flowed into the parts of the college so recently vacated. The ColdRoom constructs now grounded right at the edges of the courtyard itself and they clustered around, taunting, promising death. The reavers strutted around their new domain, displaying colours from deep green through purples and blues to jet black. Hundreds of a tiny dark grey strain flittered overhead, cluttering. These were no real danger alone but their claws would be sharp and their touch cold. Enough could overwhelm man or elf. And way overhead, the master strain hovered on their tentacles, directing their minions. In all, the Julatsan escapees had to be outnumbered at least ten to one right here.

'Rebraal!' called Auum. 'Prepare them!'

The cacophony from the demons rose to a deafening level. Al-Arynaar and TaiGethen switched to sign language to make themselves understood. Words were whispered into the ears of wagon drivers, horses and the few human swordsmen who refused to be placed in wagons for the escape.

Auum heard a demon calling Rebraal's name. He swung round and strode to the border of the shell. There it stood, taller than he, wings furled at its back, long face glaring in, a smile on its lipless mouth, its colour shifting grey to green.

'Rebraal,' it cried in a poor impersonation of Auum's pronunciation. 'You will be first. Your soul will be mine. Step to me, come closer.'

It beckoned at Rebraal who surely could not hear it, its arms piercing the ColdRoom shell as it did so. Auum faced it until it focused on him.

'And you, elf, will not stop us,' it hissed. 'Come, surrender to me. Let us touch and you will know-'

Auum's hands flashed out and he caught the demon's wrists, dragging it inside the shell. It squealed and broke free but stumbled. Auum pounced on its chest, swept a short sword from its scabbard and pinioned one arm to the dirt. It screamed.

'Be careful what you wish for,' he said.

The dagger in his other hand stabbed deep into the pit of its arm. Its eyes widened in fear. It spasmed and lay still. Auum retrieved both his weapons and swung back to the shell's edge, moving fluidly to his feet.

'Shorth will take you all.'

He backed away a few paces, Duele and Evunn at his shoulders.

'We are prepared,' said Duele.

'Then we will pray.'

The Tai dropped to its knees. Auum led the short prayer that was taken up by every elf in the courtyard. With one voice they spoke, their ancient words stilling even the calls and shrill of the cursyrd.

'With our breath, Yniss, we are yours. With our bodies, Tual, we are yours. With our souls, Shorth, we are yours. Guide us, keep us and bless us as we do your work. Let it be so.'

Auum brought the Tai to its feet.

'Tai, we move.'

The TaiGethen cell jogged back to the centre of the courtyard in between the two wagons waiting for their casting trios. The cursyrd found their voices once more. Howls, shrieks, calls and cries battering on the ears, etching on the mind, scratching at courage and fortitude. Auum commended his life to Yniss a final time and nodded at Rebraal.

The gates of Julatsa were hauled open. The vanguard of Al-Arynaar warriors, led by Rebraal, drove out of the gates. Behind them, Pheone led the mages beginning to prepare the moment they were beyond the shell. The first wagons started to roll. Horses stamped and snorted, moved forwards under protest. In the stables and in the gatehouse guard room, mages cut off the last of the ColdRooms and hell descended on the college.

Cursyrd poured down from the sky and rushed in from the periphery. In the centre of the courtyard, mages inside the second-

and third-wave wagons began to cast, as did their colleagues in the rolling first wave. ColdRooms took care and time to prepare, so outside, Al-Arynaar mages and warriors had to buy them the space they needed.

Auum signed and shouted as he moved to the second-wave wagons. 'Hold the horses! Mages, casting at will. Warriors, drive space, protect your mage groups.'

IceWind and ForceCones drove into the air, battering cursyrd aside or melting the flesh from their bodies. In front of the mage groups, warriors hacked, slashed and bludgeoned, forcing a ground perimeter. The tiny strike demons dropped like rain from the sky, digging their claws into skull, shoulder and back. As fast as one was torn away and thrown into space, another two struck down, scratching and biting, weakening their targets with the frost in their touch.

'Strike the weak point!' roared Auum. 'Send them to Shorth!'

He rocked back on his left leg and lashed in a kick to the head of a soul stealer racing hard at one of the wagons. The creature fell flat on its back, bounced back to its feet and advanced on the TaiGethen leader, spitting bile and hatred. Auum moved fast, dagger in his right hand, left hand free. He delivered a blistering multiple strike, thundering blows into the creature's midriff and chest, stabbing high into its throat and upper body, looking for the killing stab.

But the creature was quick enough to keep its vulnerable area clear though it couldn't land a single blow. Others joined it, flanking Auum. He backed up a step. Took in the five that faced him, the dozens of the strike-strain flying at him, and smiled. Around him, he could hear the desperate cries of Al-Arynaar being overwhelmed. He heard the shriek of cursyrd caught in the howl of IceWind; the sickening crunches of the creatures crushed beneath ForceCones. And above it all, the whine and buzz of the winged enemy as they attacked in storms.

Quite deliberately, he shut out everything else but his targets. He took a pace forwards, feel